There and Back Again

Well, I’m back.

This blog post is actually a few days late, as I got back into the US on July 4th, but better late than never. This blog needs something to finish it all off.

I left Guilin last Sunday evening, catching the last bus of the day to Nanning. With all my belongings packed into two suitcases and a backpack, I was pretty nervous the whole trip, keeping an eye out for potential opportunities for theft. But everything turned out fine on that. I made it to Nanning around 4 in the morning, and sat around struggling to stay awake in the bus station’s KFC. Eventually, I got my ticket to Hanoi and boarded the bus, but not before getting one last bit of China weirdness: a woman riding a bicycle into the bathroom without anyone thinking it was unusual at all.

As I watched the trees and signs and ever-under-construction apartment buildings wrapped in bamboo scaffolding and cobweb-like green protective mesh, it was hard not to be a little emotional. I sent off a host of goodbye texts to all the friends I’d made in China, and even though I won’t use that cheap phone in America I’ll still save it just for all the responses I got.

The border crossing into Vietnam was the first non-air crossing I’ve done (well, except for the one into Hong Kong), and it was a little nerve-wracking. Lots of military in dark green uniforms patrolling the border as you slowly funnel through, and I got the sense that it was pretty serious business. But no one really looked at my bags and while it was a slow process (the entry into Vietnam was basically a crowd of people clustering around and handing their passports to a poorly-organized group of soldiers who hadn’t created an efficient queuing process). But in the end we were on the bus from the border to Hanoi.

Vietnam is beautiful. The skies seem a bit more blue, and even though it’s poorer than China even the smallest and cheapest buildings have some aesthetics to them. It’s a common habit to put a facade on the front of a house to make it look like an old French colonial building. There’s still a lot of development work to do in Vietnam for sure, but I think it helps them that they don’t have this expected weight on their shoulders about being the next big thing like China is, and thus isn’t rushing their way into development at the cost of everything else. It also helps that, while Vietnam is also technically communist and had a cult of personality with Ho Chi Minh like Mao and had collectivization of farms that led to famine like the Great Leap Forward, there wasn’t something quite like the Chinese Cultural Revolution in Vietnam, so more of the traditional culture is preserved.

Hanoi is chaotic yet wonderful. The traffic is even crazier than China because everyone is on a motorbike, and the system is so accustomed to them that everyone moves faster. You can’t do the Frogger stop-and-go to cross the street like in China; you just have to bolt across when you see a possible opening. And yet, there seems to be decent enough policing of the roads that the system works, as opposed to China where breakdowns in order happen so frequently. As with all touristy places in the area, people will come up to you and try to sell you something, but there’s not the sheer desperation that I saw in Yangshuo. There was even one young Vietnamese woman who sat down with and spoke with me to practice her English, and despite my initial wariness at the thought that it would be a scam somehow, it was completely honest and I made another contact that way.

I didn’t really do much in Vietnam, as I only had a day there. But I walked around the lake in Hanoi, picked up one of those neat Vietnamese coffee filters that Ken has, had a great lunch at a very fancy Italian restaurant, went to this cool old Daoist/Confucian temple on the lake (the cultural elements of religious activity are more prevalent here than in mainland China), and stopped by the history museum to see all the talk about the Vietnamese martyrs heroically fighting against the colonial French, fascist Japanese, and imperial US with its fascists Saigon puppet state.

The hostel I stayed at, the Hanoi Atlantic Hostel, was simply excellent and was able to help give me guidance on where I should go during that day. Actually being able to converse with them in English and receive friendly customer service was a great change from the past year. There was a free breakfast in the morning on the top floor, giving a great view of the area and a great meal of French bread (thank you colonialism!) and various local meats. And at the end they arranged some transportation to the airport for me.

I think it was only once I was in the car from Hanoi to the airport that it actually hit me that I was no longer in China. I don’t know if and when I’ll return but there was a sense of finality there that was surprising to me.

There’s not much to say about the Hanoi airport; it’s small and yet difficult to know where to go, especially since I arrived about 4 hours early and my airline hadn’t opened their ticket counter yet. But eventually I got on with no problems and had a pleasant flight to Tokyo, along the way being struck by the ritualized politeness of the Japanese flight attendants that was a sharp contrast to the more brusque “practicality” I remembered from my flight to China ten months ago.

Even though I had a nine-hour layover in Tokyo I didn’t venture beyond the airport. The one word I have for the place is “clean.” At the free Internet area, I saw one of the employees carefully erasing from a desk the rubber mark made from a shifted laptop, carefully sweeping the remnants off the table into a piece of paper to dispose of, then disinfecting the area with a spray. Just one of those contrasts.

The long flight to Los Angeles was a mind-numbing ten hours, but at least I was able to strike up a couple conversations with some people on the flight, one a mother who was visiting her son (who worked in an educational outreach program in Thailand), and another who had been working on one of those medical missions on a ship in Southeast Asia.

Finally landed, got my luggage and went through customs no problem at all. It was amazing just how familiar it all felt even though I hadn’t been at LAX or anywhere American for almost a year, and yet I got to where I needed to go without incident. And after one short flight to Salt Lake City, I arrived extremely jetlagged at the home of my grandmother on the Fourth of July.

It’s a little hard to know my future now. I already have a job lined up in about a month back in Kansas City, and after that I’d like to go to graduate school, but it feels a little strange picking up an old life after being in one so different for almost a year. It’s a little strange to me how easy it feels to go back into the old habits of life here even after being away for so long.

I hope I can keep in touch with those I met and befriended in China, yet I have my doubts. I try to keep in touch with them on QQ, but the time zone difference and language barrier are ever-present, and I’m finding so many of the conversations little more than saying hello or checking in. I don’t know how many of these connections will persist for long at all.

I look forward to talking with all my family and friends about China, though so far it’s just amazing how hard it actually is to really explain it. It’s pretty apparent that if someone hasn’t actually been there, then understanding China is just plain hard. I guess that’s why it’s an experience.

As for this blog, it’s essentially over. The “ten months in Guangxi” are finished and there’s not much more to say. I’ll keep this thing up for the time being, at the very least so potential future teachers know about the badness of Liuzhou New Standard English Training Center. Note: I have now heard that while William threatened to quit, he still is in the office every day, yet without classes. Unsure if this is some sort of bargaining tactic or what, but for those who are wary of him due to my accounts, take note that he is still present at New Standard, using the computer and blaring his trumpet. This blog isn’t particularly artful or vivid in its descriptions, but it’s the account I have and it’ll stay up for a while.

It’s going to take a while to get things figured out and to progress further and to build up my life here, but if there’s one big difference it’s that such a thing is actually possible here. In China, were I to stay there long-term like some of the other foreign teachers I had met, I know that I would continue to drift along in the same role and same life without potential for progress, due to barriers of language and culture. Perhaps home is not just a place where you feel comfortable, but also a place where you can progress.

So I guess I’ll leave you all with that thought.

再见! (Zàijiàn!, “goodbye!”)

3 thoughts on “There and Back Again

  1. Thank you so much for posting this story about Liuzhou New Standard English Training Center. I was offered and considering a job there when I did the research and found you.

    I can do better.

  2. It is so true what you said at the end of the post. China is not the place for foreign English teachers to progress, but only a place where you can hide yourself from the reality back home. Me and my husband taught at Guangxi University for 5 years, and left eventually because of this reason. But unfortunately, he thought and still thinks he will be able to “make progress” in one of the Chinese universities, so we ended up going to another one. And this new one is worse.

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