China is a breath a fresh air…in the metaphorical sense. That is, if I walk outside without my mask and breath in deeply, I only clog my lungs with pollution from the local coal factory. But in life, one week in China has been a stream of change eroding over my senses, and leaving me shaped just a little bit differently.
The boarding school that employs us is a sprawling campus of buildings that house hundreds of kids and teenagers – eating, studying and sleeping between Sunday night and Friday afternoon. There are walkways between most buildings, so during the impossibly cold months of January we should be able to remain indoors, and narrowing down our whole world to just a dorm, classroom and cafeteria. This campus has become our safe haven, a world which we understand, know where to go, and how to behave… but it was not always so easily maneuvered. As for going off campus, it is never the same trip twice.
On our first day, we ate Chinese food (real Chinese food) on campus. It consisted of rice, eggs, soup, and vegetables, all in various combinations (Dalton ate some unknown meat as well). We quickly learned that most of our meals’ contents would remain a mystery.
At dinner, we returned to the cafeteria, now full of the pleasant hum of hundreds of chattering children. It is hard not to feel like a celebrity when you are a foreigner on campus. Wherever we go, we are wading through masses of children half our height, all of whom yell out “Hello!” as soon as they see us. Which means that Dalton and I walk down the hallways waving and saying “Hello! Hello! Hello. Hello. Hellohellohellohello…” and so on to all of the kids. The kids are all so happy and smiling and excited, it is impossible not to respond.
Even now, a week later, I still walk down the hallways saying “hellohellohellohello”.
We did not get off campus until we went to the police station to tell the government we had arrived. As we waited on a small metal cot in the office while our Chinese representative spoke to the policemen on our behalf, I saw the policemen engage in drinking tea, staring out the window with a serious face, smoking, and watching videos on their smart phones.
This was followed by a trip to a supermarket. Dalton and I have been girding our loins to go shopping in China … we assumed we would be unable to find anything we needed. When we finally were able to shop at the supermarket, even though we usually had no idea what exactly we were buying, it was incredibly satisfying, in a familiar sort of way. The stores here are bright, clean, organized, well-stocked, and pleasant to visit.
I was surprised and slightly disappointed in myself when we found that shopping made both Dalton and I feel like true Americans.
Since, we have been to several more stores, and buying food at the supermarket is very similar to eating in the school cafeteria. We usually have no idea quite what we are buying, so we purchase in small doses and gamble on the pictures. It is really fun for both of us. Who needs parties when you can just gamble-shop in China?
In short, we have spent our first week in an exhausting turmoil of experiences that have left their mark on us, and it doesn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon.