Sunday, October 21, 2007

Triumphant return: Take 2

For the last few days I've been preparing for the long haul. It's going to be awhile before I leave this area, and longer until I see the faces of my family. And honestly, I'm glad for the chance to finally put down roots here.

I don't really know if, by and large, it's possible for me to communicate what my life is like. One friend (and my constant advocate with my parents) told me that she cries when she reads my blog. At times things are difficult, it's true--but I think that to see my last few days here would warm anyone's heart. I guess the best way to explain my preparations for the long winter would be to say that I've been storing up gratitude.

I apologize, because I expect that this will be long. I finished up a novel tonight, which always makes me start thinking like a novel, and writing like one besides. Bear with me--next time I'll be less verbose.

I arrived, still sick but rested, back in the city on Thursday afternoon. I'd stayed the night in the bigger city a few hours away. Trying to keep my last Japanese encephalitis vaccine refrigerated throughout the trip was a constant source of frustration and amusement.

At my hotel there, I'd tried to communicate my request in Chinese to no avail--so they told me they'd call their English-speaking friend. The conversation went like this:

Girl: Hello? What is it?
Me: I have a thing. I have something...
Girl: Okay...
Me: I have to keep it cold. I must keep it cold. It needs to be cold.
Girl: Okay...
Me: But it can't freeze.
Girl: ...
Me: It can't be like ice. The thing, the something, can't become like ice, hard like ice.
Girl: Ohhh.
Me: Do you understand?

At this point, she has been so encouraging, we have communicating so well, that my heart was absolutely brimming with warmth for all the Chinese people who have spent so many long, hard hours learning my mother tongue--these dear people who, by simply being in my path make my life a little easier. That's when she replied to my question.

"You want to make a long-distance call?"

It was too funny not to laugh, and after another good long bout of broken Chinese and wild gesticulations, I managed to get my point across. I believe that my protection against absurdly distant tropical disease has remained intact.

Getting into the city, everything seemed like home. It was admittedly a little discouraging to walk into my apartment and survey all my things still piled up in the otherwise empty concrete living room floor. But as soon as I walked into the dining room, kitchen, and bedroom, which are more as they will be, it felt like I'd lived here for ages. It's true that it's cold in my house; they don't turn the heat on here until November, and it snowed last week.

But there's something about seeing all the flies in my kitchen, flown in the large hole in the window, huddled in the top corner of the room. Walking around in wool long johns given to me by the caring, worried wife of a close friend here, with a steaming mug of a walnut/soy concoction that tastes like a mix between oatmeal and a vanilla latte (I took a chance on it at the grocery store and never looked back). Pulling on thick wool socks, and then fur-lined boots that are tough as nails but cost next-to-nothing. Wearing a fur cap, more clothes inside than outside, heaping on blankets in front of a space heater I bought that hardly makes a dent in the night's dusty chill. Something about it makes me feel like I'm in love, and gratitude is a song that my apartment thrums with.

My gatekeeper and I like each other too much to have never conversed, I have kids in my apartment building who love me for having spoken in their class, and everyone I meet on the stairwell excitedly asks if I live on the fifth floor, and tells me what floor they live on like it makes us closer than blood. It feels like a community, as does the street that I live on.

That first night back in, out walking, I bought some roasted chestnuts, just removed from a huge cauldron filled with live coals. The next day, going to my boss's house for work, I entered to the sound of Christmas music. It may be just me, but everything here has felt vaguely festive.

Two friends from a different city in China came in town, and their encouragements will help all of this last through inevitable difficult times to come. Which is to say nothing of my joy at being able to host them.

And this is also not to say that I've forgotten where I live. On Saturday on the way to work I saw a man kill a sheep on the side of the road, and you should thank me for not being more specific.

But I've just been seeing old friends, taking my time, reading a lot, getting enough rest to try and get over this illness. I've been walking a surprising amount, smiling at all the inquisitive strangers. Trying to keep space in my life to feel like I'm really living it, trying to be holy. Tonight I started feeling almost like I've been wasting time, and I spent a long walk home trying to decide whether I've been irresponsible. I'd forgotten to get money out of the ATM, though. When I took a taxi back out, a man had just busted a flat. I asked if I could help, and did most of the work changing the tire. On the way home, again I just felt... placed. Purposed. And always very, very alive.

I've had many tell me that what's most surprising living overseas is how much more you feel both the good and bad things that come your way. And eventually, apparently it levels out. Well, I think that already I've found this to be true. But it's not just leveling out that's happening. I've been learning a lot about tough moments. And right now, a lot about joy.

No comments: