Late August of '06, I flew from San Francisco to Shanghai all alone, a wannabe-English teacher with only an Associates and no formal teacher training to boot, sent by a fledgling Idaho-based outfit called China Horizons--years later, the founder Jacob Harlan even apologized for flying me over all by my lonesome self; the company has since vastly expanded, and now does a much more admirable job of sending whole groups over together, such that their various teachers travel with a mutual support system already in place. In those early days, however, I was quite solitary. Not only was I flying solo into one of the largest cities on earth, but from Shanghai I had to figure out how to take a 12-hour train-ride west to AnHui Province, to teach at a private middle-school in the "small" town of AnQing (pop. 600,000). If ever anything was the opposite of insular, barely-populated, middle-of-nowhere Rexburg, it was The Middle Kingdom: China.
But of course my Chinese adventure was about more than just escaping the oppressive smallness of Rexburg. At the time I had been home from my mission to Puerto Rico for 2 solid years--and at that halcyon age, being home from your mission for as long as you were out is a sobering moment, a realization that every missionary you could have possibly known is home now, that the institutional memory of your very existence there has already been erased, that you either live on in the hearts of a few scattered Puerto Ricans or nowhere at all. In short, the mission was no longer a thing I had recently done, had "just gotten home from".
In short, I needed a new adventure, something to reassure myself that my life hadn't already peaked at 21, that I wouldn't remain mired in memory, re-hashing half-remembered "glory days" forever, that there was still so much to look forward to. What's more, I had to know that I was capable of doing such things--which was by no means a given for me at the time. I was kinda shy and awkward growing up (in other words, I was a teenager), and frankly a bit of an unambitious home-body, yearning for something more yet still too trepidous to take any real risks. Yes, I had risen to the challenge of a Caribbean mission at the tender age of 19--and grateful that I had--but that whole experience was still mostly financed and encouraged by family and Church, it was an expected thing that I should do.
My sudden decision to go to China, then, was perhaps the first adult decision I made entirely on my own, took the initiative on my own, paid for on my own, accepted the risks of on my own. And the risks were real--I even had a mini-panic attack on the flight over the Pacific, as I realized that I didn't know Chinese, I knew one in China, that I scarcely had cash in my bank account. "Turn this plane around!" I wanted to scream, "I'm going to die out there!"
Fortunately I was sitting next to a retired newspaper reporter who was returning to China for the 6th time to teach English himself, and he quickly reassured me of how kind and friendly and hospitable the Chinese are (which proved to be true), gave me some advice, some pointers, some encouragement, even complimented me for being so daring at such a young age. I don't remember his name and I doubt he remembers me (if he's still alive...), but I would love to thank him again--he sure did help me get off to China on the right foot.
In the years since my semester in China, I've roamed fairly widely, enough to consider myself a reasonably confident, seasoned traveler (if I do say so myself), one who is no longer intimidated by foreign customs and unknown tongues. (I'm also a much more experienced and confident teacher, while we're at it). International travel now feels familiar to me.
But then, everything feels familiar after China--when you are an American abroad, you can't get much more jumping-in-the-deep-end than the People's Republic. The scorpions on a stick, pig-feet, steamed-lilies, and fish and foul with their heads still attached for dinner; the family-names first and given-names last; the baffled way you and they regard each other because they prefer their water hot while you prefer it cold; the opinions kept private and the Tai Chi practiced openly; the collective refusal to remember the '60s; the capitalist communism; the oxen plowing in the shadows of sky-scrapers; the swastika as Buddhist instead of Nazi; the stiff-as-a-board beds; the hole-in-the-floor toilets; the every-which-way they are blunt where you are delicate and delicate where you are blunt; the way even the local Police Chief calls you handsome, and random teenagers want their picture with you; how you will never be quite sure if they are actually inviting you over for dinner or just being polite; their utter lack of personal space yet profound discomfort with actual physical touch; the chaotic order of their every traffic stop, how the mass of pedestrians weave through the oncoming traffic in perfect safety; the language with zero correspondence to the Latin alphabet, that grammatically formalizes the vocal-tones we refuse to admit exist in English too--take every last thing you are used to in America and reverse it. I had to sink or swim, and with a little help from my new friends there--Chinese and American alike--I learned to swim.
Over all, China was an important turning-point and confidence-booster in my life (and hopefully my students actually learned a thing or two from me also, as I faked my way through teaching them how to pronounce the letters V and L--and I do declare that you haven't lived till you've led a chorus of Chinese 7th graders in belting out "Yellow Submarine" and John Denver's "Country Roads"). And when I finally stood upon the Great Wall one brisk, bright mid-Autumn morning, it dawned on me: I might actually be able to do this whole see-the-world, seize-the-day, live-you-life-while-you're-still-young thing after all (it's probably no accident I married someone who chose to become a flight attendant). While it is sobering to realize a full decade has now passed, it is supremely gratifying--even a relief--to note how full that decade has been.
But though I am now more sure than ever that there is still so much more to come, my wife in Shanghai today has nonetheless got me feeling nostalgic, so indulge me as I post the barest sampling of decade-old photographs:
The Jade Buddhist Temple in downtown Shanghai.
The very modern view from this very ancient temple.
The Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai.
The Great Wall of China in Beijing
At the Great Wall with my American roommate/co-worker/friend Ken Carlston.
I had, and continue to have, no idea who any of these people were.
Entrance to the Forbidden City.
Mishaps at a Chinese masseuse parlor.
At Guniu national forest.
This pic is one inspirational quote away from a Dental Office.
Hiking Tianzhu Shan.
That chicken had been alive only an hour earlier.
A mere sliver of the view from atop Yellow Mountain.
Me taking in said overwhelming-view that no camera will ever be able to capture.
That bridge, for scale.
The sacred Buddhist mountain Jiuhua Shan.