Zai jian, Liuyang!

Trip Start Aug 08, 2004
Trip End Aug 2005

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Sunday, June 19, 2005

That's right folks, it's time for the next long-awaited installment of "Bizarre Happenings in Hunan." Thankfully for all involved, this is also the last installment. Where do I even begin? In retrospect, the weeks seem to have passed by quickly, and yet the individual days feel interminable. In one week, I will say goodbye to Liuyang and head up to Beijing. Contrary to what I was expecting, I am experiencing few last moments of fleeting sentimentality or sadness at leaving this small town that I've called home for the last 11 months of my life. The phrase, "run for the border" keeps coming to mind. Zai jian, sayonara, adios, bye bye Liuyang. The ranks of WorldTeach employees are starting to thin out. Mirabai went home a few weeks ago with severe respiratory problems and Rachel and AJ are leaving in a few days. Rachel just endured an emergency appendectomy in a Chinese hospital and AJ is going back for a wedding. Almost everyone else is leaving right after our conference in two weeks.

I don't recall a lot about the past month here, other than dutifully crossing off days on the worn calendar taped to the wall above my desk. My little cluster of friends has expanded to include two new foreigners: an Irish guy named Darren who owns a fireworks company and an Australian guy who is starting up a boat manufacturing business. In order to pass the time, I've spent more than my fair share of weekend nights out with this crew of characters and with Olu, most of which end up with him freestyle rapping and busting some strange moves on the dance floor to the delight of an adoring Chinese crowd.

Friday and Saturday nights have lately found me at a late night sidewalk café snacking on some interesting fare: spicy shrimp, squid, various assorted meats on sticks, and even some snake. Darren picked out the snake beforehand, a big striped one huddled innocently in a cage on the sidewalk. The cook reached into the cage, pulled out the snake and disappeared into the depths of the kitchen. Ten minutes later, the waitress brought out the raw gall bladder, which was floating in a little tea cup, ready to be consumed by some lucky person. It's apparently very good for the eyes. The snake itself came out in four inch sections. Kind of chewy, lots of bones.

Last Sunday I found myself water skiing in a lake in rural Hunan, about an hour from Liuyang. I've never tried water skiing once in my life, so naturally I would have my first experience in a lake in the Chinese countryside. I tagged along with the guys for the afternoon. The Australian turned out to be a former professional water skier, so I actually received lessons from a trained instructor. The equipment was fairly new, although the boot sizes ran way on the small side and our mammoth Western-sized feet kept getting stuck in them. We had to put sunscreen on our feet to get them in and out of the boots. The boat house was surprisingly nice, and the boats seemed to be in good working order. It was sort of a surreal enclave in the middle of a bunch of rice paddies.

At some point during the afternoon, the Hunan water skiing team (I didn't even know that one existed) showed up for practice. They were doing a full dress rehearsal, so all of the women were wearing their fancy leotards. Zebra print with a hot pink fringe up the legs and arms, and hot pink headbands. The men wore neon leotards studded with sequins. They were quite an entertaining sight, forming pyramids and doing other flips and tricks out on the water.

In another realm of water sports, I had originally planned to go on a white water rafting trip with Mellisa and her school. We had a couple of days off during the week for the national high school exams. However, there was apparently massive flooding in much of western Hunan and almost two hundred people were either reported missing or killed.

Needless to say, the rafting plans got scrapped. Instead, we went into Changsha for a couple of days of "sightseeing," or basically going to some places we have never had time to visit up until now. We went to the Hunan Embroidery Institute and to the former Changsha Communist Party Headquarters (which is now a Mao museum/shrine). The building, an interesting mix of 1960's kitsch and concrete block architecture, was adorned with a massive 50 ft portrait of Mao's disembodied head floating in a yellow orb.

Also on Wednesday, I woke up with a skin rash that seemed to be spreading all over my face. One last final insult, as if China just couldn't bear to let me go without giving me one more horrible medical condition. I went to the "Hospital of Dermitosis" on Wuyi Road, where, after reading phrases from a dictionary and pantomiming that I was itchy, the doctor started writing up some massive prescriptions. Not only was I given pills and creams for this ailment, but I was also instructed to receive 5 days of IV treatments. So, I headed back to Liuyang via taxi, loaded down with two enormous bags containing all of the medicine. In glass bottles.

I have spent the past 5 days sitting in the school clinic, attached to an IV drip for 3-4 hours at a time. The first day, Gardenia accompanied me. After an hour of sitting next to me, she must have felt left out because she too, decided to get an IV drip. She seemed perfectly healthy to me, but she insisted that it would help her feel more energetic. The doctor seemed more than willing to slap a needle in her. So, we sat side by side with our matching bottles that were hanging from hooks on the wall above our heads. After this whole experience, the only explanation I can get out of anyone is that my condition is caused by the weather, and that maybe my body is "not used to China." I could have told them this. So now I have quite a display of needle marks and bruises on the tops of my hands, which complement both the rash and collection of mosquito bites I got while sitting in the clinic for 15 hours.

Actually, this isn't even the final insult...I just got the worst haircut of my entire life. After months of holding out (for fear of getting a typical Chinese haircut) I broke down. My hair was atrocious and I had to get it fixed. Thinking I would just get a trim-how difficult could that be? Apparently very difficult, especially if your hair is being cut by someone who looks like an Asian Rod Stewart. Snip, snip, snip. All of a sudden I looked up and to my horror discovered that I had bangs. And not just any bangs...they are approximately one inch long and fluffy. Yes, that's right, I look like an 8 year old Chinese girl. One final souvenir to take back with me. I shouldn't speak too soon though, since I still have a couple of weeks left. Plenty of time for other catastrophes...

On a brighter note, I just changed my plane tickets so that I could get back a little early to the States. I will be touching down in the land of the free on July 4th! How appropriate. If I'm lucky, maybe I'll be able to see some fireworks, because that would be a novel experience. I haven't seen fireworks in about 24 hours.

Farewell, Liuyang. I will miss the wafting perfume of stinky tofu and garbage that greeted me daily on the street, the 5:45am wake up sirens, the pickled turnips and fried pig stomach, the joy of showering in my open air tub, and the sight of 50 spiky haired little Chinese kids staring expectantly at me, waiting for me to impart the skill of oral English. I will miss the crowds, the excitement of elbowing old ladies out of the way in the supermarket checkout lines, the head rush that comes with breathing in massive quantities of second hand smoke, and the 2 hour bus rides with my knees tucked up under my chin. I'll miss shopping for size XL clothes and being told I'm fat. I'll miss saying "ting bu dong" (I don't understand) eighty times a day, and hearing myself being referred to as "the Korean girl."

Honestly though, the things I will actually miss: the endless amount of time to do whatever I want, the absolute chaos of life here, my Liuyang friends, the lush, foreign topography of the Chinese countryside, the sweat-inducing food, my students' antics...these are things that I think I will appreciate more later in life, after I've had some time to distance myself. Right now, I am simply grateful to have made it through this year mentally and physically intact (although a little more worn down than when I first arrived). I appreciate home more than ever. I know that all too soon I will once again be wrapped up in the petty annoyances of life in the States, and China will seem like some strange, fantastic dream.

I don't doubt for a second that this was a truly worthwhile experience, although I would never put myself through it again for 10 million RMB. One day soon, when I'm sitting in a cubicle, staring at the clock, and my eyes are crossing from looking at a computer all day, I know that I will (inevitably) start dreaming up the next great adventure. Not to worry though, Mom, no more living abroad in developing Asian countries. Maybe just a trek through the Andes...
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