Despite a lot of distaste for Chinese politics and the state of the environment, I have to point out that the people are very hospitable and friendly, even if sometimes it comes across as creepy to someone with a Western background. It's not hard to make friends if you're able to communicate at all, and you might find yourself turning down one group of people because seventy-five other people have already filled your schedule.
The first couple weeks in China were the most difficult. The first week was spent in bed, having moved forward 14 time zones (or back 10), and the jet lag was absolutely incredible. I was awake just long enough during the day to make it to the market street a couple blocks away and pick up provisions for the next 24 hours.
While exploring the city I took some time to visit various music shops, looking or an erhu. My first experience meeting people off campus was at a music shop where the shopkeepers invited me to jam with them one afternoon. I couldn't communicate with them in Chinese, so we communicated with music; I can't stress enough how useful having a background in music is while you're traveling in countries where you can't communicate. Even if you can only tell them your name, you can have a good time and make art. What could be better?
The city of Nanchang, seen from the window of one of the places I taught.
A woman named Jasmine offered to help me when I looked totally lost at the one of the ticket kiosks in the city. I had forgotten how to get home and she spoke pretty decent English, being an English lit major from an adjacent campus. She was my first friend in China, and we spent the next day shopping and eating food together, talking about everything from boba tea (which is not called boba tea in China because "boba" means big breasts) to the best karaoke songs.
She was also the one to introduce me to hot pots, and I introduced her to (McDonald's) coffee, which she regrettably became addicted to. Lol oops.
At a certain point (maybe 3 or 4 weeks after arrival) I was in desperate need of some non-Chinese friends. Culture shock can be put into the back of the mind only for so long unless some sort of outlet is available, and I'd reached my boiling point.
"Culture shock isn't just about being surprised," Julianne had told me, "it's about being horrified."
Part of what made China so difficult was the celebrity status that comes with being white and bearded in a city that doesn't see many foreigners at all. For the first week it was endearing; everyone wanted photos with me, everyone wanted my phone number, people on the street passed by and would gasp and yell, "老外！外国人!" Foreigner!
After the first week, it got old. After the fourth week, it became a nuisance. Six weeks in, it was positively torture. There was no place I could go in public without having people stare, take out their phones, and snap photos of me. On some occasions I would go to a tea shop or restaurant and sit down to eat and do lesson plans, pop my headphones in to communicate that I didn't want to be bothered, and people would still walk over to my table to take photos without speaking to me. One man blatantly stood in front of me taking photos while I was eating mashed potatoes at a KFC (don't judge!), then returned to his seat a few tables down just to continue taking pictures of me while I ate. I wrote in Chinese on a paper, "I am not a zoo animal, and it's rude to take pictures without permission," and on my way out of the KFC I slammed it down on the table in front of him. It didn't make a difference in the scheme of things, but it sure felt good to relieve some frustration.
Yes, I'm aware it's completely harmless and I shouldn't have been angry. But consider it in the context of my Western "I have a giant personal space bubble" culture, and it's difficult to feel removed from the situation when you might as well be a caged animal. And of course on the metro home, several women moved to the seats across from me to pretend to take selfies while I watched them take video of me in the reflection of the glass window behind them. I pulled my hat over my face and prayed for death.
These women were nice enough to take a picture without me knowing and send it to me shortly afterward.
About a month in, a miracle happened. Walking home on foot from the metro line I spotted two women who were clearly not Chinese across the street from me. There was a jolt of adrenaline and I called over to them, walking cautiously across the road.
"I'm sorry, are you from here?" I asked (just to be sure, you know).
"No, we're actually from Armenia," said the woman on the right.
"Oh my God, my name is Brandon, I'm from the USA. I've been here for like four weeks and I haven't seen other foreigners, I'm so sorry to bother you but--," the rate of my speech increased rapidly as I tried to reach out without scaring the absolute hell out of them. They introduced themselves as Bella and Hripsime, both international students at the University of Economics and Finance. They pointed out the building behind them, which had big golden letters labeling it a dorm for international students, and a huge red banner that read, "We welcome students from all countries." There may have been weeping, but I blacked out.
"I know this is weird," I said, finally slowing down, "but it's so good to see another foreigner here. Do you guys do anything social? Can I just give you my WeChat?" WeChat is the Chinese version of, well, Twitter and Facebook and Messenger and Uber and basically everything else. It's an app that makes it easier for the government to watch people. But really.
"Yes of course!" Bella said.
"Thank you sooo much. And I'm so sorry, I'm trying not to be creepy."
"No, don't apologize! I can't believe you've been here for so long without meeting other foreigners!" And that was it. My life was saved.
Over the next few months I spent a lot of time with them and many of the international students from that university. They even came over for Thanksgiving and Christmas!
Thanksgiving dinner <3
Complete with stuffing, rolls, mashed potatoes, cranberry... and Peking Duck
White elephant Christmas party!
Incidentally on Christmas while preparing for guests, I discovered a bat in my curtains. He wasn't moving and didn't look like he was going to hurt anything, so I left him in the curtains and hoped he wouldn't wake up while people were in my flat. Of course, he did wake up and Vlad the Christmas bat began flying frantically around our heads while we were piled in my living room watching "Love, Actually." He left shortly after through the front door.
After my first two months in China, I was working 7 days a week to try and keep my mind off how much I hated my life. In addition to picking up extra classes at the university for free (since the upperclassmen didn't have a native English speaker for their oral English class), I started working at an English institute in the city 3 or 4 days a week, picked up private lessons for two seven year-olds and a five year old, and taught Spanish 6 days a week to a 5 year-old girl who already spoke fluent Mandarin and American English.
If not for the constant work and occasional party with my foreign friends, I don't know that I would have made it through my time in China.
And as a teacher, I really have to emphasize how much I enjoyed my students, their friendliness, and their enthusiasm for learning.
Some of my students even sent me home with letters and handmade Chinese knots for good luck! <3
On the other hand, I did make a couple of really close Chinese friends. A third-year student named Bella befriended me at the "church" next to my flat and I was able to spend time with her and a couple of her friends to improve my Chinese and pass the time.
Can't forget to mention the good times at karaoke! (KTV, in Chinese)
When classes had finally ended and I had just a few days left in Nanchang, we took a trip to her hometown, Ji'an. That was honestly one of the best days I had in China. Nothing beats being with good company. Also, they took me to lunch and bought me a bottle of red wine because they knew I liked it (even though it was 11AM).
Her father was uncomfortable with a boy staying there, so he got me a really nice hotel room where there was hot water, HEATING, and a soft bed (the bed in my flat was rock hard). We walked around the whole city, went shopping, took a tuk tuk to her flat and spent time with her parents and baby brother, and then took to the streets to find good food.
We even stopped by the main square where a hundred couples were dancing in a circle to traditional music while men cracked whips to keep their tops spinning. I forced both my friends to dance with me in the circle while elderly people stared at us, confused.
"Why are they all here?" I asked Bella.
"The older people don't work anymore, so they don't have much to do. Some years ago, they made a campaign for them to get outside and do something, so every night they come here to dance." I had seen similar events in Nanchang and around my campus as well. But those were usually large groups of elderly women doing what looked like jazzercise, led by an instructor. The dance was the icing on a very large cake, and we went for coffee afterward at a really delicious cafe. After four months, it seemed I was finally getting into the nicer bits of living in China. But it was time to leave, and I was not about to complain.
Bella's dad and our mutual friend saw me off at the train station, I finished up a few lessons in Nanchang, and it was back to Iowa City. I don't think I'd ever willingly go back to China, but I appreciate the experience and am glad that I made some lasting friendships. You can find a community anywhere in the world, though it might be comparatively difficult. While discussing the difficulty I'd had adjusting to life in China with my Nigerian friend, she made it painfully obvious that a lot of what drives us mad is based on perspective.
"The thing about Nanchang is that it's not a good place in China," she began, "but I have come to terms that I'm here for several more years." She was studying to get her degree at the University of Finance and Economics at the time. "And if you go to Nigeria-- and I don't recommend it-- we have so many of the same problems as Nanchang, but it can be worse. We may not have the same level of air pollution from exaust, but we have so much sand and dirt. And it always smells bad, like you will be walking through the city and a whole area will smell like dead people. Everything and everyone is so corrupt, and it's always hot." I tried to imagine a city like Nanchang but in a place that was dry and hot year-round, with no vegetation to keep dust and sand on the ground. Phnom Penh came to mind.
"So do you miss home?" I asked.
"Sometimes, but not really. The thing you have to understand about Nigeria is that you don't want to be in Nigeria. That's the reason I'm here, and why I'm okay with it. It's not great, but it's better than home." I appreciated her honesty, and wondered if other Nigerians shared her attitude. Just a year or two prior to visiting China, I had a lot of negative things to say about my own country. Healthy skepticism keeps a democracy alive, though, and it's only now that I've been to China that I can really appreciate life back in the United States. So long, China, and thanks for all the fish!