My nerves are shot. My energy has bottomed out. I’ve been home a week. So today I started to unpack. I’m behind in my emails. But I’m enjoying the glorious weather, so wonderful that it could make my eyes fill with tears, except that I’m too pooped to actually squeeze them out.
Before returning, I’d joked that I’d have to sleep for a couple months. It turns out to be no exaggeration. Most days I take two naps. Some days, up to five.
How could I get so worn out? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that China has changed me a lot. It’s a challenging place to live, and the attendant growth pains can suck you dry after awhile. It’s a paradox, actually, because Tianjin is just full of lovely people, whether students or pensioners, office workers or cab drivers. And yet, it’s still a challenging place to live. And so it took me a week after my arrival in California to get up the strength to even open my suitcases.
The old friends from China
The last few weeks in China had been quite busy. First of all, there were the essays from 241 students to grade, as well as setting out all of my grades in proper form on a spreadsheet for submission to my department. But there was also a lot of packing, a lot of giving things away, and a lot of old friends who wanted to see me one last time.
You know, last time, I bemoaned the fact that so many good friends had left town forever. This time, the number of friends that still lived there was brought home to me. And it was I who was leaving forever.
Here, for example, is a picture from our final movie night, with the film credits still scrolling on the screen in the background. For several years I showed such movies in my office. This year, we lost the office due to the move to the new campus, so I had to use a classroom instead.
What matters to me is not the movie so much, but the discussion afterwards. And thus, a group like this is just about the right size. Most of them are students, but several are not, such as my Australian friend Jeanette standing next to me, Mr. Guo on the other side of me, “Jack” at the far right, Han Tao behind me, and Liu Zheng and Li Wen who stand in the back row. And of course You Sihang snapped the picture.
Chinese students in large groups like this are extremely reluctant to venture any opinions about anything, no matter how trivial. So in addition to their friendship, I valued the participation of these older friends in setting an example of how to discuss things like movies, and that it’s okay to have a simple opinion. A fully-fledged polemic suitable for publication is not required.
Sunny, the (fairly) young woman at the left, is actually one of my most long-time friends in Tianjin. I met her eighteen years ago, an interval of time that hardly seems real to either of us, despite the fact that Tianjin today, like China today, is barely recognizable from what it had been back then.
The company makes bricks to insulate blast furnaces. When they started twelve years ago, Sunny was the only employee. Now the company has dozens (maybe hundreds?) of employees located at various sites around China, and it literally exports to the world. The photo shows just a few of these workers attempting to arrange themselves into a group pose.
Two years ago, the gap between this company and my university was bridged when one of the office workers’ daughters wound up in my English class!! And last month she got married, so I was invited. That’s her in the red dress below. And that’s her mother in the green shirt and brown jacket.
They decided to hold a more-or-less Western wedding. They invited too many guests to fit into any restaurant or dining hall. Tables were set up outdoors, filling a plaza in the city’s old Italian quarter. Passersby stopped and stared, perhaps because of the Western style, but perhaps because they thought that such a big to-do must feature somebody famous.
The man in the dark blue shirt at the end of the table is the company driver who gave my dad a ride from the Beijing airport five years ago. Yeah, lots of good memories. I was offered his services for my final trip, but I had already made other plans.
And my taxi ride home that night illustrated the fact that I now know just enough Chinese to get me into trouble. The way was dark, punctuated by street lights, and we were coming from an unfamiliar direction, so I started asking about the route. Well, I knew enough to ask my questions, but not enough to understand all the answers. And the driver did not take well to the fact that I was questioning his judgment. At one point his dispatcher polled him as to his activities and he answered “Yeah, I’ve got an old foreigner headed towards Tianjin University.”
In the end the ride cost considerably less than the taxi ride that I had taken out there. And in fact it cost even less than that. He refused to accept the whole fare, saying that I was his first foreigner, so here was a discount. The guy was really irritated, irritated enough to be super-polite, and I kicked myself for not trusting him, since almost every time I’ve ever wondered about a cab driver’s route, it has turned out that s/he was actually saving me money.
Here I am in a private room in a restaurant with three of my colleagues – Zhang Yue, who coordinates the foreign teachers. Xiao Zhenfeng , who coordinates student testing, and Liu Changhua, our connection to the mysterious and rarified realm of the Graduate department leadership.
I celebrated my final days with lots more friends, including those from the Jian Hua organization such as Jean, Linda, and the Boogaards. I attended the last Jian Hua Community Night of the season, at the Jian Hua office, where they sang Happy June Birthday to me and two others. But “Après moi le déluge.”
The weather had been clear on the way there, but the rains and the thunders settled in while we were distracted singing birthday songs.
I’d recently listened to Garrison Keillor, describing the “long summer rain” at Lake Wobegon. Keillor’s rain was soft, cool, and introspective. Tianjin summer rains are violent cascades that fill up the sewers in a few minutes and flood the streets. My friend Lonnie always kept a special pair of flip-flops to deal with them. I, on the other hand, had only my expensive SAS sandals that night.
I had departed before the others in order to get more packing done. Like the others, I had no umbrella. Pretty soon I was swimming through puddles, completely soaked. But the odd thing was — I wasn’t at all cold. The rain had the same warm temperature as the air. It was like wading through a giant bath tub with the shower running.
Still, I jumped (literally) at the chance to hop in a cab that happened by. “Anshan Xi Dao,” I yelled as I entered. That was one of the main streets in the city. Once we’d got there, I’d planned to tell him how to find my particular street. He was very friendly, and he asked me the standard impersonal questions, such as my age and how high my salary was.
But he seemed mystified by “Anshan Xi Dao.” I told him to just follow Weijin Lu, one of the main arteries in the city. But he still looked mystified. “Which way is that?” he said. I was taken aback. Had he just moved to town that day? Still, I didn’t want to repeat my earlier mistake, so I pointed vaguely in the right general direction and set to watching what he would do next.
“Which way now?” he asked. “This is Weijin Lu.”
But it wasn’t Weijin Lu. I knew that, even though it was raining too hard, and the night was too dark, to make out the street signs. “Look,” I said, just drive forward.” And he did. “Now turn left.” It was Tong An Dao, which led to Nankai University. I carefully instructed him on which way to go at each block until we arrived by my apartment. At every turn he got more and more quiet and subdued. As I paid him the fare which was displayed on the meter he sank into absolute silence.
Well, what do you know. I had actually found a taxi driver who’d wanted to “take me for a ride.” I suddenly didn’t feel so bad about not trusting that other guy. It was an interesting way to be relieved of guilt. And truly, petty swindlers like this guy really are few and far between among the Tianjin taxis.
Later, my former student Han Tao took me to pizza in the type of place that could only be found in China.
Its presence was anything but obvious — just off Anshan Xi Dao and down an alley. And the hallway from the front desk to the dining rooms was paved with an aquarium. It feels very strange to walk over swimming fish on the way to your seat. If you look closely in the picture you can see one of the coi swimming around. I can only imagine that a cat would go crazy in such a place.
And my journalist friends took Jeanette and me out to the ball game!! Amazingly, the league still existed, having survived the sponsor who had lost all its money to an absconding CEO three years ago. It survived the fledgling popularity of the game itself. But, like Tianjin University, it could not survive the relentless drive to move facilities out to the middle of nowhere.
The ball park used to be located right in the center of town, across the street from Nankai University. They even made lots of expensive improvements to that field for last year’s season. But now that field is closed, to be dedicated to more profitable enterprises.
The new field is located even further from the city than Tianjin University’s new campus. It’s an entire sports complex that includes three full-sized baseball fields, in addition to the normal assortment of gymnasiums, tracks and soccer fields.
Yeah, they located the stadiums where no buses or trams run. The only way to get there is by private car or a very long bike ride. And the set of rest rooms isn’t quite complete either. The nearest one was located in a large building about one kilometer away. And yes, “there’s an app for that.” We were only able to find that restroom because Li Wen had a smartphone app specifically dedicated to locating bathrooms. Here’s a panorama of the whole field. The bathrooms were located in that distant building with the white arched dome.
And like everything else in that part of the province, it’s still under construction, even as it’s being used. The scoreboard, for example, was present, but it lacked the electricity to light up. So we kept score the old fashioned way — by asking the other members of the audience, most of whom were family and friends of the players. Oh, and did I mention that the Tianjin Lions beat their opponents that day?
After the game, we walked to a different baseball field to play with You Sihang’s new quadcopter, which snapped the picture of us above at right, laying around next to the pitcher’s mound. Yes, it was good training for my post-China activities — or rather, non-activity.
And then there was my dinner with Andy Yu and his family, whom I’ve known for 17 years. Andy’s father is an avid bird photographer. Last year, he helped me donate some of my photos to the Tianjin University Museum. Andy himself is now married with a child, living in Shenzhen, but happily back in Tianjin for a visit that weekend. The picture demonstrates that his daughter, for all her youth, has already developed a healthy interest in photography. She’s perusing my latest set of snapshots.
In addition to all this, I had dinner with Scott Carlson, the closest our fellowship has to a genuine pastor (as he is actually ordained), and I spent time with Jean, with Jeanne, with Jeanette, with Lee, and with other English teachers and of course, Professor Ji, the Tianjin native whom I’ve known longer than anybody. It really was a full social schedule, a normal semester’s worth compacted into three weeks.
And the final activity took place the night before my departure, when Jeanette took a bunch of us to an authentic Xinjiang (Western China) Restaurant. I met my first Egyptian on that occasion, and he explained to us some of the intricacies about Ramadan schedules, which was currently underway, which was the reason that he was waiting until late in the evening before chowing down.
It was the consensus of the group, except for me, that this was my last opportunity to savor Xinjiang cuisine. I wasn’t so sure that I couldn’t find such food in San Francisco, but I didn’t belabor the point.
The old friends. Really old friends.
California is part of a different universe from China. Nevertheless, my return simply continued this non-stop socializing with old friends, beginning with Karen Cauble, whom I’ve known since my freshman year at Bixby Hall at the University of California in Davis. She and her husband picked me up at the airport.
And then I slept for two days.
And the next day, another friend from Davis freshman days, saxophonist Bill Barner, dropped by to play jazz, along with the legendary Carlbob, the bass violin virtuoso whom I’ve known since high school, where he simply went by the moniker “Strings.”
And the next day, the two sons of my friend and house-sitter Tim Goodman took us out to breakfast at Doug’s Omelettes. And then there was the fourth of July weekend. Our little street is famous for its summer socializing. They scheduled a block party for the Third of July (the actual date of the Declaration of Independence’s publication), when I would be here, and also Tim, who is immigrating to England in two week’s time.
The block party was well attended – perhaps fifty or sixty people in all, about half of them under the age of 15. Yeah, this street has an astounding number of little kids. And they all play well together.
And of course there were fireworks. First off, there were more sparklers than I’d seen in one place since I myself was a kid on that very same street.
But surprisingly, there were also the kind that I associate more with Spring Festival in China, the kind that ascend to about the tenth floor before they explode. Yeah, not strictly legal in California. And suddenly our old tales of childhood cherry bombs no longer seemed so impressive.
We shot off fireworks for about half an hour before Officer Friendly showed up to tell us to cut it out. It was too late to be making such a racket, anyway, and some neighbors had complained. He did not confiscate any of the remaining contraband, however. So the remains were ignited early on the subsequent evening. And the neighbors being the neat people that they are, they swept up the spent shells from the entire street .
I also rejoined my Sunday School class at First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, and then I got to take two of my Berkeley friends, Arlene and Kate, to the Alameda County Fair. It was a great adventure to a place filled with the most unhealthy food imaginable, much of it sold “on a stick.” Kate had never seen a fair before, and Arlene had not attended one in a couple decades.
We took in the animal exhibits, the crafts constructed by kids, the model trains, and had our ears blasted out by several musical groups performing at various venues scattered across the fair grounds. I declined the suggestion to try riding the mechanical bucking bull.
One acrobat tossed bowls onto his head while riding a unicycle on stilts. Other acrobats juggled clubs from one to the other from similar unicycles
To me, finding such people performing in our local county fair illustrates the continuum between peoples worldwide.
And then yesterday, I had lunch with my dentist friend Jerry. Well, I still haven’t found a Xinjiang restaurant in the Bay Area, but here, right in the little town next to mine, we found an Afghan restaurant.
And it turned out that Ramadan had finally come to an end, so relatives of the restaurant’s proprietors, dressed in traditional garb, stopped by to wish them well. And then they were off to visit more relatives.
And later this morning, I’m off to Sacramento to celebrate my dad’s birthday. It’s truly been a most social month, spread out over two hemispheres. And so many pictures this time are snapshots of people, in contrast to my usual landscapes.
It’s a time of endings and beginnings, not only for me, but for the fore-mentioned Garrison Keillor, who this week has finally ended his Prairie Home Companion career. The final News from Lake Wobegon can be viewed on Youtube at this link:
As for my future email messages, I’m not sure. Now that many Chinese people are on my list, I suppose I could write about America instead of China. And Bill pointed out things like the Dadaist festival in San Francisco, something that most people outside of Paris, New York, and California would have little familiarity with.
So, we’ll see. In the meantime, I have a mound of normal email to get caught up with. As always, I welcome any communication back from the people on this mailing list. As I told my friend Jeanne last month — no long compositions like this one are necessary. Just fifty words (or 49) would be welcome!
Bye for now,