It used to really bother me that I only had one
life. But now I realize that in a way, living in foreign countries is
pretty close to having different lives. Our life in Namibia was totally
different from our previous life as students in the U.S.A. Our life here
in China has been the complete opposite of our life in Namibia. In each
life, we start as children, learning how to do even the most basic things
again. We adopt new habits and follow different patterns. We take on new
identities and form new friendships. And when it’s time to leave, it is,
in a sense, like dying.
So here we are, once again preparing for the end of
life as we know it. I remember that a few months into our Dalian life, I
declared to Zac, “I don’t think I’ll cry when I leave Dalian.” I based the
statement on the fact that compared to Namibia, life in Dalian was just
too easy. And without surmounting great challenges and cultural barriers,
I couldn’t possible be as emotionally involved with China as I was with
Namibia. In the coming days as we have goodbye parties and prepare to
leave Dalian, the veracity of that statement will be tested I’m inclined
to think that I might shed a tear or two after all, because leaving Dalian
is more than leaving a city. It’s leaving a whole life.
So what will I miss? I’ll miss the weekly Monday
night gatherings at my house, where 8 or so of my Chinese friends would
come over to visit. The informal parties originally resembled a
discussion group, with specific topics to debate. Then we branched out
into dumpling making, Christmas parties, sweet dumplings and fireworks.
Our parties became more than English or cultural lessons, as we discussed
jobs, our futures, relationships, and delved into the nitty-gritty details
We’ll miss going to restaurants with Charlie late
every Monday night after everyone else had left. Charlie has been our
best friend here in Dalian and we could always count on him to go out to
eat or help us with anything we needed. Charlie is the master of spin,
and he had a way of rationalizing things that always brought out the
positive. For example, after Zac managed to open a tricky bottle cap,
Charlie said, “Oh, you are so clever! I know you will really have a
successful future!” Although this sounds obsequious, Charlie is actually
serious. Charlie spent the most recent weeks of our friendship trying to
convince Zac to start his own business in China after grad school.
Charlie volunteered himself to be our translator, driver, house cleaner
and babysitter. Every Monday night, our conversations wandered around
computer games, Chinese politics, our respective futures, Charlie’s
perpetual bachelorhood, his experiences living in Japan for three years,
and the intricacies of the English language. We’d often be the last ones
to leave the spring roll restaurant.
I’ll also miss the way that although Dalian is a big
city, it has all the personal touches of a small town. The Banana Man
always smiles and waves when we pass, as if we are good friends. The
truth is, we never had much of a conversation beyond the cold weather and
which oranges were too sour, but just the pattern of seeing him and
recognizing him gave nearly the same feeling as if we were old friends.
Our only regret is that we never learned Chinese well enough to really
communicate with the people here who don’t speak English. But the lack of
linguistic communication didn’t seem to hinder our benevolent relationship
with the owners of the restaurants and produce markets we frequented most.
And of course I’ll miss rumbling across town on the
bus to tutor Marin. Spending two hours secluded in the comforts of the
Shangri-la with Marin usually left me with a desire to improve my mind.
Her unending stream of questions made me realize how complacent I was. I
usually just wait for the New York Times to tell me something interesting,
but Marin is always asking questions and trying to understand everything.
When tutoring her, I have to reach into the depths of my brains and try to
conjure up some rusty old knowledge for her benefit. One night she asked
when I was leaving. I said March 31. She asked how. I said we were
flying to Shanghai. “Do you have the ticket already?” she asked. “Yes,” I
replied. “How did you get it?” I told her, “My friend called the airport
and got it for me.” Here she interrupts, “If she was really your friend,
she wouldn’t buy you a ticket to leave.” Then, with just a little bit of
a whine, “I don’t want you to leave.”
I’ll be honest, I’m a little nervous about our next
life. Although we are returning to our native country, it will in some
ways seem like another foreign country. Consider this: since Zac and I
graduated from university and got married nearly 4 years ago, we haven’t
lived in America as fully-fledged adults. Let me be more specific: we
haven’t chosen our own house or had to pay for it, we haven’t owned a car
or paid insurance, we don’t pay bills or worry about money management (in
Namibia we were so poor that saving money was impossible and in China we
are so rich that NOT saving money is impossible). Furthermore, we exist
in this little utopia where our western friends are all open-minded
travelers like ourselves and our friendships with the locals are based on
the very fact that we’re different.
After we had returned from Hong Kong, our friend
Charlie asked us if the trip had strengthened our relationship (as the
stress of having to make constant decisions is said to be a good test of a
functional relationship). I laughed and said that that was all Zac and I
had done together and we were expert travel companions. What we should
worry about is a life that we can’t just abandon after a year or two when
our contract is up.
After we end our life here in Dalian but before we
start our life in America and settle down, we will spend a couple of
months as ghosts. Homeless and carefree, we’ll travel through southeast
Asia, visiting southern China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia.
We have a loose itinerary and plan to return to the U.S. sometime in June.
This transition period is a gradual distancing from our old life and
preparation for the great commitment of the next life. A metaphorical
See you on the other side…
Here is a photo from our last moments in Dalian, at
the airport, with some friends who came to see us off.