December 19, 2013
Home again. Home again jiggity jig. Which home? The American one. The Maine one. The Farmington one.
The one where I do not see the air, and can see the stars at night, and snow falling lightly as a screen across a clear blue sky. The one where the sun comes up in the morning, and I can see it. That one. Where I use our old car, and not our second-hand truck that is only two-wheel drive, to travel through the snow to the grocery store, and wander the aisles looking for something familiar to eat. Once inside the automatic sliding doors that are not long multiple flaps of thick olive green cut plastic to push my way through, I notice a definite lack of Qing cai (green vegetable), Yuxiang qiezi (fish flavored eggplant) and Jiaqiang dofu (Home-styled tofu). I can’t seem to find Yi wan mi fan (a simple bowl of white rice) anywhere. But that is because I am not in my favorite dining hall in China, in the city of Hangzhou, on the street called “Xiao Xixi Lu,” in the compound where John and I live when we work there and eat most of our meals in the “foreign students’ and teachers’ cafeteria,” run by our long time friend, the fabulous manager, Xiao Xü.
No, I am in an American grocery store with way too many shampoos, and I need to find some things I want to eat. I need to buy them with American dollars. Then I need to push them out to my car, unlock the door, put them in, drive them home, unlock the door, carry them into the kitchen (and we have a kitchen), unpack them, put them away, and decide how to cook them. Would that be on the wood stove or the gas stove?
Oh, yes, I may be home, but I am in foreign territory here. Very foreign.
First, I have a house. Or, John and I do, on a quiet street, Court Street, in a quiet New England town. On this street, we have no taxis, no public buses, and very few women with their arms backwards in their coats to use the fabric as windbreaks as they buzz by on their scooters with children balanced on the back, or between their legs standing on the footrest reaching their tiny hands up to hold the handle bars. And no one hauls carts down the street with mechanically boxed voices calling for people to bring down their cardboard to be added to the tottering stack of sizes and shapes leaning ominously to one side or another over the constantly repaired street. We should be so lucky that they would repair this street where the pavement has collapsed over the poorly maintained sewer pipes. America’s infrastructure problem comes home to roost.
As Eliot said, “That is not it at all.”
Yesterday, as I walked from my house to the gym, so that I could swim and ground myself in my own body to help me arrive where I already am, I turned left out of my driveway, and walked downhill right in the middle of the sort-of plowed road to North Street where I turned right, and headed downhill again toward the simple stop sign on Perham Street. As I did, I spoke with a neighbor I hardly know, an old woman who takes care of her husband who is no longer capable of thinking clearly. Working outside their tiny house, she was pushing a square wooden snow plow, the old fashioned kind, the kind my Lithuanian grandfather used when I was a child growing up in Rumford, Maine, where my relatives worked in a paper mill to make a living; the paper mill that makes paper for National Geographic, and many other famous magazines. That paper mill, “our bread and butter,” as my mother loved to say, was also the source of our town’s high rate of cancer and the acrid air I breathed as a child that made the current air quality situation in China very familiar to me.
“Cold, isn’t it?” she said, stopping a moment to catch her breath in the crisp air.
“Yes, but beautiful. Very beautiful,” I answered.
She nodded, tugged her too-small sweater over her broad chest and went back to pushing the plow. Her daughter, who had just finished shoveling their flat roof (not a wise building idea in a Northern state) over their two-car garage that in warmer months they use as an extended living room to stay cool in the heat, nodded as I passed. That nod is a very New England kind of greeting.
I made it to the stop sign on Perham, crossed the street and was almost to my left turn on Quebec Street when I saw my first car on this journey to the college pool. Oh, and did I mention that the only people I saw on this walk were the two plowing snow that I pointed out a moment ago. Mostly the walk consisted of the sound of my boots compacting the snow as I took each tentative step. I say “tentative” because the land sloped, and under the fluffy snow, a crust of ice that I couldn’t clearly see required that I pay careful attention. I’m still a little off balance from jet lag and I’m approaching sixty. I don’t want to acquire a broken bone for the holidays.
The red car passed quietly, a little slush spurting from its tires as it proceeded out of town. You might be wondering how I notice all of these details. I can write about and see all of this presence and absence because I have been away. Distance may or may not make the heart grow fonder, but it does clarify the world for me. Before I lived in China the first time in 1987, I might still have believed in the idea of “normal,” though going to college in Worcester, Massachusetts, was also a way of moving to a foreign country, and, as an educational experience is supposed to do, it did broaden my vision in some expected and some unexpected ways. And then, marrying (which is foreign territory all its own) and moving to Wisconsin, where my husband taught off-and-on for over thirty years, also stretched my world view.
But China was a seismic shift, a crack in the mirror. Or maybe it was a mirror, and in it, I could see that I was a great big foreign woman with blond hair and blue eyes, and I could not escape from that. Not in the classroom, not buying bananas, not riding my bicycle wearing my “GIANT” helmet (talk about advertising!), or trying to cross the street on foot. All of the dark eyes that looked at me saw a great big foreign woman. That was the way it was every day, all the time, everywhere. And in that context I learned to teach my classes, make friends, and conduct my life. I did this with John, my husband who accompanied me on this journey that started in the fall of 1987 at Fudan University in Shanghai. Since then, our lives have shifted regularly from one world to another: Maine, Wisconsin, Shanghai, Maine, Wisconsin, Hangzhou, with a few semesters of living and teaching in London thrown in.
We have lived the lives of traveling students and educators. We moved so much that my mother often said, “Don’t tell me where you’re going. Just tell me when you get there.”
We have moved so much that we have learned to put down roots fast, to connect to the community we live in while we are there, and to contribute what we can when we can. In the process, we have become bridges between cultures, trying to explain what we know of the Chinese to our American family, friends and colleagues, and trying to explain to our Chinese family, friends, and colleges what we understand of American life, language and culture. And yes, I did say Chinese “family” not only because I have a former brother-in-law from Shanghai whose parents and grandparents grew cabbage and cotton in the Pudong District before it was a field of giant’s teeth sprouting from the gummy banks of the Huang Pu River in the form of foreign banks and high rise financial institutions.
I said “Chinese family” because in the twenty-six years we have been in contact with students, neighbors, colleagues, and friends in China some of them have become family to us. Some of them are even closer than that. It can’t be helped. When you struggle to communicate over language and cultural borders, it is often true that your heart breaks open, and what jumps in is out of your control. Love has its own rhythms and its own tender hooks. Once you step through the door and open your heart the lessons you learn and the ones you teach happen. And often they are not the ones in your lesson plans or your language and cultural textbooks.
And so, walking on the snowy streets of Farmington, Maine, trying to make my way to the swimming pool to stretch and rest my travel-weary muscles, I realize that for the past eleven weeks, the best part of this fall, I have been fully engaged in another world, a Hangzhou world, where the blare of buses and the shriek of their brakes, the throng of people pressing at intersections to risk their lives between taxis, millions of private cars, bicycles, carts, and wagons of all sorts are as common as pine needles in a Maine forest. Or as common as roof tiles on a Chinese temple where the guihua (osmanthus) trees’ sweet scent drifts through the garden walls from courtyard to courtyard.
In a few weeks’ time, the shores of these two worlds will be more separate, but for now I am in the in-between space, and so I thought I would try to write a bit about how that feels.
This afternoon, I will go to the dentist to get my teeth cleaned, a process I always hate, because I had to suffer through some dental work as a child with a dentist who did not like or understand children. The one I see now is professional, and his staff is friendly and kind. I will appreciate their professionalism, but I will still not like the process. Like many things in life, I will do it because it is good for me.
Today, I think it will help me to realize that I am home in America, where good dental care is much more common than in many parts of this troubled world. I think that sitting in the dentist chair, like swimming laps, will help me to ground myself in this December world, and realize that I am home.
Just as the two Christmas wreaths we bought from the historical society and hung on our entryway yesterday afternoon brought me one step closer to arriving right where I am, here in this Maine version of home.