One Month Later

Four weeks ago, I was in a Beijing hotel room. I had said my goodbyes that morning to those I love in Changsha, and was trying to put on a happy face. I went out to dinner with some other exchange students going home, and we had Korean food…a cheap replacement for the meal Sangmin still owes me, but good food none-the-less. I was trying to  focus on the present, and was surprisingly successful. Now I wish I could really say the same…

I’m here. Back in California, where I was born and raised.

I’m surrounded by an overwhelming culture, and everyone looks the same. No matter where I go, I feel surrounded by people with straight hair. It was cold today, and I wore an outfit that just seemed so out of place…it felt like everyone was staring at me. I rode a public bus after school that was completely packed.

It’s things like this that are the strangest. I’ve been here almost a month but it still feels like just a few days. So many things in this country are strange…and so many people aren’t as great as I expected them to be. The troubles I faced in China were different in specific ways from each other, but now I’m seeing that overall the same things are always coming up. I… I don’t really know what to write, other than I miss China a lot. Not China as a whole country, really, just Changsha I suppose. That city became as much of a home to me as where I live now, which is impressive, considering I’ve lived in the same house here as long as my memory. Looking at that last sentence, I’m not all together sure whether or not it’s correct. My English really has gotten a lot worse.

Anyways. From what Pauline and Moritz have told me, a lot has changed at Tongshenghu..both for the better and worse. Their schedule is different now, and they’ve got homework. Midori changed families. Sangmin gets back from Korea today, Karina got back from Yunnan (a different city in China) sometime last week. I haven’t gotten to talk to Giulia or May yet… my friends set up Skype on the library computer, but it didn’t work when they tried to call me last night. Hopefully tonight it will work. Honestly, I think I miss them much more than I missed anyone from the US when I went to China in the first place. When I went to China, I knew I would be coming back, and that things wouldn’t be too different upon my return…whereas now, who knows when I’ll return? And it’s obvious that it can never be the same way again.

But that’s the thing with life, isn’t it? It’s always growing and changing;forever moving on. You’ll never be able to relive this exact moment. Sometimes that’s a good thing, and other times bad obviously, but that emotion or opinion is completely irrelevant to the fact of it’s validity. This all sounds so cliche but it’s so true…there’s a reason cliche’s exist. Sometimes it just takes a while to know really what they mean, and not just remember what they say..

The Last Night

Well, here we are. The last night in Changsha.

It’s something I’ve always known would happen, obviously, and admittedly some days I yearned and yearned for this day to come. Compared to many, I actually didn’t get too homesick during my stay here, and sometimes actually had the opposite–California was the last place I wanted to be. Five months ago, I was on a plane headed towards Beijing..and in less than 48 hours I’ll be on a plane to San Francisco. Tomorrow morning I fly to Beijing, then the next morning I fly back to SF. Honestly it’s pretty crazy for me to believe.. yes, I’m packed now, I’ve said most of my goodbyes.. but it’s still incomprehensible. I feel so at home here. My host family has turned into as much of a real one as my parents in the US. My friends here, though I’ve only known them five months…I really feel like it’s been my whole life. And in a way, it life in China. Maybe my whole life was leading up to this, my first fifteen years were only the first chapter in the story of my life. I thought “so much” had happened to me in my life, and then I came here. And I began.

I’ve grown so much as a person through this experience. I barely recognize the girl I was when I first came here.. sure, a lot of me is the same I suppose but honestly I feel like a completely different person. I’m a person I love. I finally feel confident about myself and who I am..

Today it snowed a lot (it started yesterday) and it was so so beautiful. My mom woke me up just to see the snow falling outside my window, Sabrina’s school blanketed in white. The whole city looked really pretty..though it made transportation take longer and my feet cold, I loved it. And this is saying something, because usually I really don’t like snow at all. Ahh I don’t know if I can even put my transformation and just how I feel into words..

What I Learned in China: what love is, how to restrain myself, what I can and cannot stand, how to communicate without language, who my friends are, what Chinese culture is, how to wear two layers and never be cold, how to make instant noodles taste better, how to sprint one hundred meters, why respect is important, what America is like, what Chinese people dress like, how to haggle, when to speak, which kinds of people that will change and which kinds that won’t, how to eat really spicy food, what it feels like to move, how to survive while being illiterate, not to complain, live in the moment, how to let go, the virtue of indifference, the way in which jealousy taints relationships, how to wash my face, the plot of Gossip Girl, why I’m thankful I was born in the US, ways in which living in the US is a disadvantage, what it’s like to be around drunk people, that who I always wanted to be isn’t all that different from who I already am.

I hope I never forget the way I feel right now.

The Only Ones on the Ferris Wheel

Well I just got home. Not really, but I’ve been meaning to write this since I got home, so let’s pretend! I was driven home from Hypermart by a taxi driver who told me his eyes weren’t good so he couldn’t read my cell phone description of where I live, since he didn’t know where Sabrina’s school is. Just how such a person became a taxi driver is beyond me but hey, it’s China.
I spent the last two nights at Karina’s house. Wednesday evening she, Moritz and I went out on an adventure. Moritz left on Thursday for the AFS Yunnan trip, but he’s coming back before I leave so it wasn’t the last time I’ll see him. Anyhow, we first went to the large Ferris Wheel that we’ve seen all the time since we came here but never gotten a chance to go on–and boy, was it nice. We were the only people on the whole wheel! Now how many times has that ever happened to YOU? The wheel was enormous and went very slowly. Also, each of the boxes were heated, so we were kept plenty warm. There are (hopefully) pictures on my flickr that you can look at!
After the Ferris Wheel we went rollerskating at this place in a mall on Walking Street near No Sunset Play Game. Karina and I got let in for free because we’re girls (or so the security guard said) and Moritz had to pay thirty yuan. The rollerskates themselves were SO OLD and there were no inlines, though they were free so I can’t complain. The only rule at the rink was no pushing, which meant that there were a lot of people skating backwards and holding hands making chains of five people while smoking their cigarettes…but you know what? It worked. In American rinks I feel like we have so many rules, all of which are constantly being broken causing chaos. But here we have only one and it doesn’t get broken, and surprisingly chaos does not ensue. I like it.

Girl’s Night and a Chinese Dream

Technically it’s Monday right now, but I’m just staying up really late. On Saturday night all of the girls had a sleepover and it was really, really fun. We’re all so close now it’s just crazy to think we’ve known each other for such a short amount of time! Really, I feel like we’ve all been friends our whole lives. Though really, being here has been a life in and of itself, so I guess we have.

The theory of our sleepover was one that apparently Pauline and Giulia’s friends had done before–basically buy a bunch of junk food and stuff yourself. I know, what I’ve been doing while I’m here! But no, everyone else was going to too, but we didn’t really buy enough food. And plus at a certain level of tiredness two people kept talking about how “fat” they were…which is basically my least favorite conversation topic of all time. Because lo and behold every time that said conversation takes place in front of me, I get ‘accused’ of being skinny. Now, to anyone who has never been unhealthily or almost unhealthily skinny at some point in their lives, this is not going to sound like a bad thing. But really, often ‘skinny’ is used with negative connotations, especially in todays society. Some will still argue that it’s better to be ‘too skinny’ than ‘too fat’ but really both are equally bad and I think they’ll both get you bad looks. Anyways.

We played UNO for almost two hours. Well, one hand was almost two hours…I won in the first seven minutes of that particular hand and then was just bored for a while, eventually taking over for Karina so she could dye Midori’s hair. The hair dye wasn’t a success like it had been with me though, since she was trying to dye it lighter. Oh well, we all told her it would be more obvious in the sun, and it’ll be overcast for a while. We’re good.

Since I just remembered now, I feel like I should tell you all because it’s exciting–at the sleepover I had my first ever dream (that I remember) in Chinese! I was with all my friends at some old woman’s house and she kept trying to give us tea but we didn’t want it. And I dreamt that Sangmin was really drunk and so was Midori and she kept wanting more beer so we all went to KFC. And at KFC, I ordered in Chinese! And then the guy was trying to give me really small drumsticks so I told him I didn’t want them, I just wanted cookies, and I was expecting Subway-esque cookies but no, there were Oreos. We eat so many Oreos in China! Pauline even gave them to me for Christmas. But anyways.

Tomorrow, or today technically I suppose, all the foreign teachers and students are getting together for a going away party for me. I think that’s what it is? I think there’s going to be a surprise element of some sort because I know for sure Karina’s mom was physically hiding something in her room that I couldn’t see at the sleepover last night. I guess I’ll find out!

Comparing China and the USA

Today was my last at Tongshenghu. It was definitely bittersweet–though I hate that school, I’ve had some great memories there and I can’t imagine not going there anymore. Who knows how many years it will be till I walk those campus grounds again? I truly have met some amazing people here. I got pretty teary-eyed at the end of the day cause it’s me and I cry at everything, but I managed to hold myself together.
I’d like to tell you all about some random things I’ve seen in China, such as a traffic light on top of a car. About three feet of pole was between the car itself and the light but there it was, sticking straight up. I just saw that going across an intersection once and thought it was so strange…I couldn’t help but stare. Once a taxi driver had his cell phone wedged into the wheel and proceeded to yell into the receiver while driving. It was annoying to say the least. Usually taxi drivers talk to me here though and I’ve had some good conversations with them in Chinese. I mostly speak in Chinese to my mom and taxi drivers. When I have to talk in front of Vala or someone usually I get nervous that I’ll mess up (which isn’t typical for me) and then I won’t want to speak Chinese at all.
Speaking of Vala, today she “fought back” against our complaints about Tongshenghu by interviewing a bunch of our International Department teachers and classmates…she told us all the bad things first collectively and then afterwards had a one-on-one conversation with each of us about the positive things. During the negative part I of course put up a fight because some of it was ridiculous or just a difference of cultures so not really anyone’s fault and it was quite a heated argument…it ended with all of the foreign students being pissed and Vala being..I don’t know, Vala. She tried to be nicer to us this time though, which was a good change. During the one-on-one part I started crying too (I just made a small river in the library today haha) not really cause I was super upset or sad but because she asked me to describe the main differences between China and the US and it just all became very clear to me why I’ve been having so many issues with the Chinese system and with Vala etc. I felt sort of bad after my realizations because it’s not Vala’s fault (entirely) nor is it mine, my American values and the way I was raised is just so much the opposite of China. Really, I don’t think there are two countries more opposite.
China focuses on the group, USA on the individual. This is both apparent on a large general scale and in little things you wouldn’t notice at first–in a Chinese classroom, the teacher lectures and the students never raise their hands to ask questions, there is never time to ask questions, the teacher never asks if there are any. They just teach. In America the teachers try to make sure every person gets their questions answered and in some classes, you’re FORCED to write a question just to make sure you’re asking one if you’ve got it.
In the US, you’re graded by yourself. You’re not constantly being compared to your peers, your performance is nothing but your own. Here you’re graded compared to your classmates, and ranked publicly. If you fail a test, everyone will know about it. You have to compete to get into higher level classes, and then within those classes to be the best. It’s…it’s…it’s China.
I don’t know, there were just certain things I remembered about the US that made me…I don’t know what. Like I remember that in the US when you’re walking down the sidewalk in your neighborhood people say things like “Good Morning” and “Hello”. People only say hello to me here because I’m white. If I wasn’t, there would be no recognition.
It’s little things like that that I’ll be looking forward to in the US. Really though, I don’t know how much I want to go back or how much I want to stay here. Most of us feel like we’re in some sort of in-between–we don’t want to be here but we don’t want to go home either. Oh well, I’ve got two weeks left. We’ll see what happens.

What I’ll Be Saying

Well Happy New Year everyone!
I hope you all had a fun time ringing in 2011, I know I did! We (Karina, Pauline, Sangmin, Moritz, Giulia and I) all went clubbing and it turned out to be really fun, a night I definitely will never forget.

It’s January Sixth today, and you know what that means? Two weeks until I leave Changsha. Pretty crazy, huh? For those of you who have been reading since the very beginning, it’s been a very long road to get here. It’s hard to believe it’s all going to be over. In some ways I really don’t want to go home but in others I’m very excited…it’ll be hard to adjust once I’m back and I’m not looking forward to that at all. I’ll probably be repeating myself over and over, and everyone will think I’m crazy. Some of my to-be-most-commonly-used-phrases will include:

1. “It’s so CLEAN here!!”–I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before (though I don’t know how I could not have), but Changsha is incredibly dirty. Like I really cannot describe to you how dirty…I always want to say the ground is dirty but that seems obvious, doesn’t it? Dirt is most commonly found on the ground. But no, the ground is especially dirty, the streets and sidewalk are, the cars are covered in mud, the streetlights, the seats in taxis, peoples hands and bodies…even the plants near my school are caked in a layer of mud. Even saying all this, I don’t think you can imagine the level of dirt here. So California will seem so so clean I tell you. So so clean.

2. “Look at all the foreigners!”–even here when I went to Guangzhou over the weekend I would say this, though there weren’t many. Whenever I see a non-Asian person here I stare. It’s pretty sad, when we first came here we’d all complain about people staring at us but now I can totally understand why…I saw a blond girl whilst in Guangzhou and I seriously was like almost yelling out of excitement, “Look Michelle! It’s a blond girl! Do you see her? Look at her hair! Oh she just went behind that tree, but I swear, I just saw a girl with blond hair!”

3. “Everyone’s English is so good!”–now this may sound a bit racist but it’s true–I’m going to be utterly shocked when I speak to Asian people who don’t have thick accents. Actually, I’m just going to be shocked that anyone doesn’t have an accent and speaks perfect English..there are so few people here that have English as their first language..I can’t imagine meeting someone new who is fluent in English. I can barely remember what that’s like. I’m also going to have to refrain from speaking Midori-English, which is the extremely simplified version I use when I need to communicate something that she doesn’t know all the words for. This would be extremely embarrassing to use, let’s hope it doesn’t happen.

4. “They’re all wearing…normal clothes?”–Chinese fashion is very different from other countries, and when we all came here most of us were generally appalled by it. A outfit composed of entirely cheetah print? No thank you! But now we’ve been here so long and seen the craziest of clothing, I’ve become pretty immune to seeing people wear sheep print pajamas that appear to be made out of quilts when out and about. I honestly can barely remember what people in America wear normally..we were watching Youtube videos (on a proxy) today from each other’s home schools and Giulia was showing one and I was amazed at the students all wearing different clothing. And jeans! Did you know people wear jeans every day to school? I can’t even imagine! Ugh when I go back home I’ll have to care about what I look like again, I can’t wear ugly sweats everyday. Poor me.

5. “In China they…”–be prepared, friends. I will either talk about this experience non-stop or none at all, I’d prefer the latter but knowing me it will probably end up being the former. So get ready, because all those questions you may or may not have about China? Oh baby, I’ll answer them.

Recap of December

Damn I haven’t posted in a while. Sorry you guys! Every week something fun and/or exciting happened that I planned on blogging about but it simply didn’t get done. So here you go, I’ll write a nice (hopefully long) blog post for all of your enjoyment, seeing that I have little else to do at the moment. Sort of.
Merry Belated Christmas! and Happy Belated Hannukah! and if you had a birthday, then Happy Belated Birthday as well! (just wanted to get that all out of the way)
Let’s see what I can remember.
The night of the tenth was great, definitely one of the highlights of China for me. After school I went to Sangmin’s for dinner, wasn’t in the mood for Chinese food, and we sat around for a bit not really knowing what to do. He kept saying he wanted to go out and do something since it was a Friday night but honestly we both looked pretty crappy. I insisted we should eat spaghetti but he didn’t want to make any so before I really knew what was happening we were in a van (which is what all the black cabs are in Changsha) heading to South Bus Station. Of course after about a minute in the van Sangmin turns to me and says “oh, I’m tired..” with his eyes half-closed but on we go anyways, despite our general feel/look of tiredness.
At South Bus Station we get on the 123 bus which is packed, as always. We’re standing there next to this guy who is spitting very noisily (many, many people do this in China) and complaining about how gross it is when who do we spot getting on the bus? Moritz! He’d stayed after school to hang out with his girlfriend (oooooooh! you have to make preteen girl noises here) and was heading home. Sangmin invited him to dinner with us and he agreed. Apparently we were heading to Golden Han’s, which is a semi-German restaurant. I say semi-German because the meat and beer is German (apparently) but the buffet is an odd mix of what other countries consider Chinese food and what Chinese people consider Chinese food. Also, the deserts have neon colored frosting. But that’s besides the point.
Dinner was good. I hadn’t been to Golden Han’s before but I really enjoyed it..I didn’t drink, of course (I’m one of the only people I know here who doesn’t drink, not exaggerating) but the meat was epic. Well, maybe not quite epic but it was very foreign-tasting, which is a welcome change of pace here in Changsha. The boys enjoy their manly drinks and I enjoyed my apple soda (which I had to drink out of a teacup). Needless to say, cheers was pretty funny looking. At one point this huge group of twenty-somethings came up to us, obviously a little drunk, and this guy said “we are playing a drinking game and I lost so I have to sing to you” and he sang this Chinese kid’s song about tigers that are mutilated. After dinner the boys were really, really entertaining. They don’t drink as much as they’re used to (Sangmin because it makes him sick a lot, Moritz because he’s not allowed to) and so they got tipsy much easier. Sangmin told me about how once he couldn’t pee cause he was on a boat and Moritz started singing when we went outside “it’s raining a little!” and sort of did a mini skip-jump. Before Moritz had to go home (his host mom is super strict) he and Sangmin did the ‘man hug’ equivalents from Korea and Germany and then I taught them the American one. We all laughed, and Sangmin and I headed on our way.
I can’t remember the whole night in chronological order really, highlights just stick out in my mind–going to No Sunset Play Game, this arcade, where I got a bunch of #1 scores on this Wac-A-Mole type game and Sangmin dominated at the basketball-throwing one. Getting over four-hundred tickets from the games in said arcade, but only being able to afford a pen in the ticket-shop. Going into a fancy bar, only to order a Sprite that we shared. Watching people at a rollerskating rink act as if they were at a night club. Eating McDonald’s past midnight. Watching people wash the street. Having a banana split with watermelon in it and only strawberry ice cream. It really was just a perfect night out, and I got to see walking street deserted for the first time ever, which was odd. But yeah, a really great experience.
The day after that we all went shopping for eachother’s Christmas presents on Walking Street. I managed to get almost all the presents I needed (I did a little bit of shopping over the following weeks but got most of it done then) and scored an awesome pair of boxers for myself! They have an elastic band that says “The Amazing Spiderman” on it but then, get this–there are dragons on them! Lots and lots of dragons!
The Seventeenth we didn’t have school, got Moritz’s present from Metro with Sangmin (we bought it together). After that went out to dinner and ate hot-pot, which is something everyone should have when they go to China because as far as I know it’s a Chinese-only thing. Hot-pot is basically when there’s a hole in the center of your table and you’ve got a pot that is hot (hence the name, hurr hurr) with boiling or almost-boiling water. You get a bunch of uncooked meat/veggies and put them into the pot, cooking them at your will, and eat them straight out of it. Our hotpot was divided into two sides, one with peppers in it and one without. We had…mushrooms, beef, tofu, shrimp (Sangmin had been talking about shrimp for over a week) and something else which I cannot remember. Needless to say it was quite delicious. I got sort of emotional over dinner because I realized how little time I have left in China. Sangmin teased me cause he went to go order more food and he came back to find me teary-eyed and staring intently at my tofu.
The next day was our AFS Christmas party, which was composed of three parts. The first was climbing a mountain. Now, when advertised, this does not sound like a party, let alone a Christmas one. We all reluctantly agreed to go, despite our general negative outlook on the proposed day. We’d gotten a text from one of the AFS ‘volunteers’ reading (in caps) “HELLO,GUYS! THIS IS MACEY FROM HUNAN ASSOCIATION. WE’RE PLANNING TO CLIMB YUELU MOUNT AT 1:30PM THEN HAVE A BUFFET DINNER AND CHRISTMAS PARTY AT 7PM ON 18TH THIS MONTH. WE INVITE YOU AND YOUR HOST FAMILY TO TAKE PART IN OUR ACTIVITY. PLEASE REPLY ME BEFORE 11TH SO WE COULD PREPARE IN ADVANCE. THANKS :)”
So yes, we climbed ‘Yuelu Mount’, which was more fun than we expected. Near the top there was a Buddhist temple we went to, where Moritz’s mom (who was leading our tour for some unknown reason) told us that one of the trees was one-thousand seven-hundred and fifty years old. Now my friends I’ve stood on one of the largest tree stumps in the world and I can tell you right now this little tiny tree she pointed out was not that old at all. There’s a smaller tree next to it, and they’re both in front of a temple. When asked how old the smaller tree is, she says it’s only seventy-five because “during the second world war it was hit with a bomb and they had to plant a new one”. So… this bomb hit one tree. And didn’t damage the temple or neighboring tree, eight feet away, at all. Yup.
The party part itself was thrown by the government and wasn’t about us at all, it was mostly foreign teachers we’d never met before. It was sort of fun, I don’t know.
On Christmas Eve Eve we had the Art Festival. I spent four hours getting makeup put on my face, two hours commuting and eating, an hour and a half waiting, five minutes preforming, three minutes changing out of my clothes, twenty minutes at an after party, a half hour ride back home and then forty-five minutes taking all that lovely makeup off my face. The performance itself was okay I guess, my backup singer’s mics didn’t work though which was really a shame. I got some people to record it so hopefully I can put it up on Youku in the near-ish future.
Christmas itself was great. We took school off Christmas eve and congregated at Karina’s house. It was raining. We then went back to walking street (we’re all really sick of going there but there’s nowhere else to go!) ate at Golden Han’s for lunch and then got food to cook for Christmas dinner. Giulia ended up making pasta which was delicious of course. I had met this German guy at KFC the week before and he’d told me he was opening up a German bakery on the twenty-third so we went and checked it out, the food was great! We had a small gathering on Christmas eve, then stayed up until midnight because Moritz’s birthday is on Christmas. We sang him Happy Birthday and he opened all his presents, then we all exchanged our gifts. We all gave/recieved small items, and it was a lot of fun… the funniest thing was Sangmin getting a different colored shirt from everyone, though (Moritz’s idea). With the first shirt he was just “oh haha very funny…” but then as they went on he was like “wow did you guys all get me a different color? Wow.” A lot of the shirts were small on him, but I’m proud to say mine fit! We’re basically the same size (I borrow his clothes sometimes… as weird as that is) and so yeah, I was proud I didn’t get him an extremely tight shirt like everyone else. I got him a red South Korean soccer jersey which he says he’ll wear to work out in, cool. Sangmin and I gave Moritz a pack of his favorite German beer. May and I gave Pauline this incense-holding elephant that’s really pretty and three different incense scents. I got Giulia a heating pack, Midori pictures of her favorite singer as well as a stuffed..animal? Corn. Karina got a ton of stuff from me because she’s simply too easy to shop for!
Christmas day we were all exhausted because no one slept very well. Pauline, Giulia and I lounged around Karina’s house until like one. I got to use the ‘Magic Jac’ that Karina’s mom has to attempt to call people in the US. Didn’t get ahold of too many people, but the people I did get to talk to made me happy. Took a taxi home, lounged around, was on Subeta a lot, then went out to Karaoke. Which was, like a lot of things in this blog post, really surprisingly fun.
I had invited everyone to come (my host mom had reserved a room) but only Karina and Moritz were willing, so it ended up being my host family, a few of my aunts, uncles and cousins, some of my parents’ friends, Karina and her mom Grisell, Moritz, me, Vala and her boyfriend. Karina was an hour and a half late which made me and Moritz really worried because there’s a murderer on the loose in Changsha (no joke, he’s killed.. five? people?) but then finally she and her mom showed up. I used this as proof that she needs to get a cell phone, or Grisell at least, so that I don’t think they’re dead or kidnapped! Karaoke itself was really entertaining, watching a bunch of Chinese people get drunk off of their self-fermented-wine that I was told barely had alcohol in it. I’m not going to disclose the full details of this evening, but…well… Grisell got some really really funny pictures. Vala’s boyfriend passed out after two drinks. Vala was…well. She was out of character. Very amusing. My host family was cute and, well, overall it was an extremely strange but great Christmas.