Way back in the winter of 2004 and 2005, I probably made the most significant decision of my life. I decided to move to China. I would spend the next two years living in the Middle Kingdom, teaching CEO’s, college and high school students, and even kindergartners. I got married, was absorbed into a Chinese family, and the country very much became my second home. I traveled around the nation and had many adventures.
I’ve mentioned this part of my life a bit on my site and blogs, but I never really went into depth about my experiences. Hell, some of this may even be new to my family. But I feel like taking a break from talking about my fiction writing and thought it an excellent time to put down some of my memories on the page before they fade. I just celebrated my 15th wedding anniversary, and that plays a part in this story too. As the journey was long and fruitful, this will be a multi-part series. If it goes well, who knows, maybe I’ll write a book. So, why not sit back and join me on my journey down memory lane?
You may ask, why China? And I would say, why not? As many of you know, I love history, and there is plenty of that in China, some 4,000 years. Asian history in general is not something taught in primary school (at least in the 80s and 90s), and when I entered college and saw they offered Chinese history courses, I drank it up and looked for more! I also adore food experiences, and the country’s culinary delights are like nothing else in the world. In China, they eat just about everything and leave nothing to waste. Jumping in without reservations will change your life. I also yearned to learn about new cultures and ways of living, and Chinese culture is as distant from western civilization as you can get. And lastly, after growing up in a small town, I searched for adventure, and China would not disappoint. As you will see, the excitement began before I even left the U.S. It seemed like a no-brainer!
But, the decision was not necessarily that easy. I was 24. I had only been on a plane twice, out of the country once, and never lived in a city. We’re talking about taking a massive leap into the unknown. China, and the world, for that matter, was a much different place in 2005. International communication included spotty email and even spottier telephone service, providing me with no real safety net. China is an authoritarian country (it was better then than it is now), full of censorship, political oppression, and had the highest execution rate globally. Most importantly, I only knew a handful of Chinese words (I am terrible at learning languages, and continues to be a struggle).
I wasn’t entirely unprepared for the experience. Interesting enough, the first time I had ever left the U.S. was a two-week travel course to China in 2003 (go big or go home). It was an interesting time to be in the country. Over those two weeks, the world found out about SARS (and I experienced an empty Beijing, an infrequent event not seen again until recently), and the U.S. invaded Baghdad (this led to some fascinating discussions and seeing the opinions of the war from the Chinese). I visited Shanghai, Xi’an, Beijing, and Baoding- the city where I would eventually live. I even saw the University (Hebei University) I would teach at, so I knew the living conditions and life there. This is more important than you think. In the early days of teaching English in China, I heard plenty of horror stories from people who experienced them. No heat, no water, bug-infested apartments, and virtually slave labor conditions- the works. So having an idea of the living situation was crucial.
I also had connections. One of my favorite college professors was Chinese and was an alumnus of the university where I would eventually teach. He had led the study tour, and my undergraduate university actually had an established relationship with Hebei University with a handful of former students teachings there. So I wouldn’t be alone.
As mentioned above, I also had studied Chinese history and culture extensively in my undergraduate time, earning a minor degree, specifically in Chinese history. I read anything I could get my hands on, watched documentaries and movies, and scoured the web for any first-person experiences of teaching and living in China (let me tell you, there is a whole lot more of these now than back then). I thought I had a good bead on things and people were always fascinated with my China facts (ha! I was so naive).
Lastly, I didn’t have much to cling to in the states. I lived with my parents and couldn’t get a job in my field with my newly minted degree (the Psychology job market isn’t great), so I worked nights at the US Postal Service as a temporary employee- and it drained my soul. To top it off, I had just gone through a pretty nasty break-up with my ex-fiance. It was a perfect storm, really, and I needed a change. Since the travel tour, the prospect of teaching English in China was always on my mind. One day, I looked at my life and said, let’s do it!
I sent an email to the Hebei University contact I got from my professor inquiring about the possibility of teaching English for 6-months. I didn’t hear back for weeks. I followed up—still nothing. Life moved on, and I forgot about it. It began to seem like a dead end. My six-month appointment at the Post Office was about to expire and I would soon be laid-off. I didn’t know what I would do next. Go on unemployment at 24? That just wasn’t me. Then, miraculously, I received an email back from the university with an application. So I committed. I was to make 3,000 RMB a month, roughly $450, but that was pretty good pay at that time in China, especially when they would provide housing.
The requirements to teach were interesting. They didn’t seem to care about my background, other than I was a college graduate, and they didn’t ask a single question about teaching experience (I had none). What they were interested in was my physical health. They required a comprehensive physical exam that included three pages of questions, proof of vaccinations, a complete blood screen, an EKG, and a chest X-ray (the X-ray garnered many questions on the U.S. side, they don’t typically do x-rays for the fun of it). It took some time to pull this together, but I hesitantly sent everything off. Who knows what the Chinese Communist Party did with this information. Looking back at it now, I was far too trusting.
Again, I didn’t hear anything for several more weeks. It was now January, and this was unnerving. I had just sent my complete medical history into the unknown via international snail mail, I still needed to apply for a visa, and I hadn’t yet booked my flight. Yet, they expected me to be there by February! Luckily, they got back to me with a countersigned contract and a date that they would like me to arrive in China with a little under a month to spare. I hurried to get my visa application in and booked a flight. The short turnaround meant I had to fly out of Albany, NY, a two-hour drive from my home. The closest airport to me was Stafford Springs, CT, but they didn’t have an available flight with the short turnaround, and I was quite lucky to get the Albany flight (or so I thought). It was now late January and full-on winter. I should have known my troubles had already begun.
The date comes to depart, and we get a little snow in the morning. I check the flight, and it says it is still on time and on schedule. So my parents and I drive two hours to the airport, but when we arrive, we find out they’ve delayed the flight two hours due to a snowstorm in my connecting city of Detroit. Ok, no problem, I have some wiggle room in Detroit (never fly through Detroit in the winter). Having been on a plane only twice in my life, I’m not exactly an experienced traveler at this point. I have no idea how precarious this situation is, and my parents don’t know much better (other than Canada, Bermuda for their honeymoon, and Vietnam for my dad where he fought in the war, they had not left the country either). So, I say goodbye to my parents, go through security, and get to my gate. My parents leave for the two-hour drive home.
I sit and wait (flying to China is a lot of waiting). Then, I hear an announcement that they’ve canceled my flight due to snow. Shit. I try to make arrangements for a new plane, but nothing is departing for China from Albany for the next few days (back then, flights to China were not particularly common). I plead with the ticket counter for a solution, and they happen to find a spot on a Stafford Springs plane departing the next day (really?). Please understand that I am freaking out a bit now because the Chinese University believes I will be arriving on a now-canceled flight, and they will be waiting for me at the airport the next day for the two-hour drive from Beijing to Baoding. They will likely have no idea where I am and will think I changed my mind or something. So with little recourse, I book the CT flight and hope I can work things out.
Remember, this is 2005, and my parents have a second-generation cell phone with terrible service (think maybe one generation after Saved by the Bell). They are now driving through the mountainous Berkshires of Massachusetts. I canceled my own cellphone subscription because I will be living in China for the next six months. I check my pocket and pull out two quarters. I first call my parents’ cellphone, hoping to catch them before they get too far from the airport. As a side note, this is probably the last time I have used a payphone. It’s funny how quickly the world changes. Anyway, of course, they don’t pick up. I have one quarter left. So I call home and leave a message on their answering machine.
I’m now out of change, sitting in the airport lobby with my two suitcases, not knowing if my parents will get the message. Heck, maybe they will go out to lunch or do some shopping. Hell, perhaps they’re celebrating the departure of their 24-year-old son, who is finally leaving the nest! Who knows when they’ll get the message and I now have an early flight leaving from a different airport early tomorrow morning. What have I got myself into? Things are not particularly working in my favor. Fate seems to be working against me. Maybe I made a terrible mistake.
Some four hours later, my dad arrives and is not particularly happy with the situation, I might add (thanks, Pops). They had got all the way home only to find a frantic message from their son, asking them to come all the way back to Albany. Anyway, after a virtually silent ride, we arrive back home just after dinner time. I feel terrible, but I’m focused on my next mission, calling Hebei University to let them know I will be arriving a day late.
If you want to hear about how the adventure continues (believe me, it gets much more interesting), and a very frustrating phone experience, check back for part 2!