Chinese Lunar New Year 2008, Part 1 of 4

In a departure from the usually polished content found on Drew’s Journal (smirk), I will be recording our adventures on the fly day-by-day.

Introduction

If you think Christmas is big, it’s got nothing on Lunar New Year. In a country of 1.3 billion people, 300 million take to the rails, roads, and skies to head home for several weeks of much needed rest with their loved ones. China’s developing economy still hasn’t found time to embrace Western standards of vacation. Most of the workers heading home for LNY are migrants – they toil a dozen hours a day or more in the pits (literally) of China’s wealthiest cities to erect skyscrapers and condominiums they could never hope to live in. For 2 weeks, starting today – February 5th – those people finally get a chance to return home and see their families in far-flung & impoverished corners of the Middle Kingdom. The most populous country in the world grinds to a halt. What are all these inscrutable Chinese up to during this brief lull in their efforts to dominate the world? Eating jiaozi (dumplings), drinking, and setting off an un-fucking-believable amount of fireworks… for two weeks.

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Life is Life

One of these days I’d like to write a book about my experiences out here, and perhaps it’s a mistake to give away the mind-blowing philosophical conclusion now, but who cares – no one’s reading this damn journal anymore anyway! Ready? Here we go:

Life is Life.

What does that mean? It’s simple really: no matter where you go, what you do, what you have, what you don’t have, who you’re with, what you want to be, life boils down to the same basic sequences, needs, and interactions. Put another way – you can change the quality of the TV, but the program will always be the same.

Sounds stupid? Perhaps, but it’s true, and it took me a year abroad and 2 countries stamped into my passport to figure it out. Moving to China has only further reinforced my suspicions.

Before I left America I had visions in my head of what the rest of the world was like. I was giddy with excitement at the idea of setting foot in Japan, or China, or anywhere else I might happen to end up. This is certainly not an uncommon line of thinking. It is human nature to attach – really without basis – some sort of mythical, magical quality to places and things unknown or not yet experienced.

The question I’m asked most frequently by those back in the States is “what’s it like, living in ____?” It’s a question that’s usually posed with heartfelt sincerity, the inquisitor leaning close with a starry look in their eyes as they try to imagine themselves smack in the middle of a picture series they saw in National Geographic or a documentary from the Discovery Channel. When confronted with such hopeful, wistful enthusiasm you cannot possibly give them the honest answer (it’s the same, dude) so you stammer out some anecdotes about funny cultural differences or mix-ups at the outdoor market and such. It’s just a smoke-screen though, a deliberate attempt to continue the romantic mythology surrounding the expat lifestyle.

Life is Life.
You can change the setting, the language, the currency, the religion, but life is still life.

This realization hit me like a lightning bolt to the brain one foggy morning last summer in good ol’ Beppu, Japan. I was in an introspective mood, preparing as I was to leave that wonderful country, and my thoughts wandered to those near and dear back in the States and what they would think if they could see me now… taking out the garbage.

The point of this ramble is not to dissuade you from pursuing a global lifestyle, or to deglamorize such things – quite the contrary. The point of this ramble is to make it clear that no matter where you go, there will always be constants to rely upon, and thus stepping forth into a new culture, a new land, a new country should not be viewed as such an impossibility as I know some of you see it.

Life is Life. There are 194 countries on this planet and in every single one you’ll still take out the garbage, but in every single one that garbage will be a little bit different. Why be satisfied with just one?

A Very Merry Expat Christmas

As you may or may not recall, I spent last Christmas in a Japanese hospital. Don’t get me wrong, it was about as rockin’ as one could hope given the circumstances, but this year I wanted more. For my first Christmas in China I was ready to rock.

Ma Li is still trying to wrap her head around this whole Christmas thing, and me being psycho Christmas spirit guy isn’t helping. She was a good sport through most of it though, and only told me a few times how embarrassing it was to walk beside me down the street when I had my Santa hat on…

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Day In, Day Out

I’ve been in China for just over three months, and my living routines have settled into predictable patterns for the most part. Let me illuminate you…

As mentioned elsewhere, I’m a teacher (not professor) at Shenyang University of Technology in Shenyang City, Liaoning Prefecture, China. Originally I signed on as an English Conversation teacher to bank some cash while I study Chinese. I’ve set aside two full years to get myself as close to fluent in Chinese as possible and then take the proficiency test.

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Japan Retrospective

It has been nearly 6 months since I left Japan, so I think the time is right for a retrospective on my time in that most unusual of countries. My time in Japan was clearly a huge formative step in my life. I earned a Master’s Degree, established an incredible amount of intercultural friendships, and met my fiancée. But what was Japan? How do I feel about a country whose electronics, automobiles, and pop culture are wildly popular in America but whose social dynamics are nigh incomprehensible? I’ve thought about it a great deal since I left, and the answer is complex, but I’ll do my best to convey it to you now…

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China: Initial Impressions…

Greetings from China!

I arrived in the Middle Kingdom on Wednesday, September 5th. Ma Li and I flew from Tampa to Chicago, Chicago to Shanghai, and then finally on to Shenyang. Some minor baggage issues aside, it was a smooth trip – no delayed or missed flights, no bad weather, no nothing.

I am now officially a faculty member – on a one year contractual basis – of the English Department within the School of Foreign Studies at Shenyang University of Technology. Furthermore, my master’s degree confers upon me not only the wonderfully pompous title of “Foreign Expert,” but also a fully furnished on-campus apartment as part of my compensation package. By American standards I’m working for slave wages – just under $500/month – but in Shenyang it’s enough for an individual to live comfortably. That last sentence may seem impossible to believe, but the comparative pricing scale for life in urban China takes some effort to wrap your head around – fertile ground for a future journal post.

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Home at Last…

And so it ends, I have finally concluded my hospital residency, almost 5 weeks to the day after it began. Things will be a little ragged here for the next few days, there’s a lot of housekeeping to be done on DJ so bear with me, but we should be running smooth again in no time flat…

I was officially discharged from the hospital at 11:30am Thursday morning the 11th. I slowly walked back into my apartment and unburdened my load just before 2pm, and boy oh boy did that feel good!

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Hospital – Headed Home

This evening marks the close of my final meaningful day here at Oita University Hospital. Tomorrow I will be released around 10 AM, with a new knee and all the promise of the coming year to go with it.

I’ve been here for five weeks, almost to the day, and the farewells began early. Masako-san, my infinitely compassionate and able nurse, stopped in just after breakfast. She had just finished the night shift and would be off tomorrow when I departed.

She brought me a small gift and a card, and I scrambled to present her with the one Ma Li had so carefully selected. I managed to remember about half of what I wanted to say to her in parting, stumbled over the rest, and then we stood there in an awkward silence for a long moment.

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Hospital – Weaklings…

Another day, another step closer to discharge. Today’s highlight was 30 rockin’ minutes on the stationary bike pedaling 15 imaginary kilometers. Starting tomorrow I’m on the bike twice a day busting my balls in an effort to build my legs back up. My flexibility is now excellent, nearly at the magic 130 degree mark, but my right leg is the very definition of “atrophied.”

Gandhi could beat me in a squatting contest right now, seriously, my poor leg is that thin. My doctors have set a tentative discharge date of next Thursday provided I make some gains in the quadriceps department.

And in the meantime I’m studying and reading until my eyes glaze over…

Hospital – Hello Nurse

Well, I’m back in the hospital again. I was due back at 4 and came 3-legging it down the hall at 4:15 so they didn’t give me too much grief. Two of the other three guys in my room were discharged in my absence, unfortunately the only guy left is a decrepit old fellow who can’t hear a damn thing so essentially I’m alone in here now – talking with him is impossible.

It feels very nice to be back in my cozy warm bed though – my apartment in Beppu doesn’t have heat and Ma Li and I spent the entire weekend wearing sweaters and jackets inside… That’s not much fun!

I’m back to my usual grind as well – twice a day bending and rehab at 2pm. No word yet on how long I’ll have to stay this time, but I’ll keep you posted!