Greetings from Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China! I am writing this from my fifth-story apartment in downtown Hangzhou. It is the end of rainy season and so afternoon showers have sent me inside since I left my umbrella in a taxi last week.
I arrived to Hangzhou nine days ago and in those nine days I feel as if I have had a lifetime of experiences.
The first few days were spent doing mandatory China things like registering at the police station as a resident of Hangzhou, getting a Chinese bank account, a Chinese cell phone, and going to the hospital for a “check-up” that consisted of a sonogram, heart test, and AIDS test. There were three other foreign teachers already living in our apartment complex when I arrived so I was never on my own to figure things out, which was the most comforting thing.
All of the foreign teachers are here now and I feel like I live in a set of “It’s a Small World.” There are nine foreign teachers total and we hail from the United States, Brazil, Canada, Chinese descent, Australia and France. These people are my life-line and instant friends because we are going through this together.
After I was deemed an acceptable citizen I was free to explore my beautiful new city. This place is gorgeous! The world’s largest canal is right outside my entrance gate. The West Lake is more beautiful than any pictures I had seen portrayed it to be. There are gorgeous sites everywhere which is kind of unusual because this city has 8 million people and is constantly bustling with life.
I bought a pink bike from a street vendor and it has opened up the city to me! I say a huge prayer every time before I cross a busy intersection because the traffic here is crazy! I have learned the trick to survival: never stop moving!
I love that I have seen fireworks every single day since moving here. The Chinese love explosions in the sky, they invented fireworks! Also, at the grocery store you have to bring your own plastic bags or pay for them. (What a great idea!)
My first day of classes was yesterday. I was mortified to begin; not even entering the class until the bell rang because I was afraid to face my students! I have eight classes each week of graduate students. Their majors are foreign trade, computer science and economics, so their English is rusty at best. They are so precious; very excited to see me standing in front of them with my red hair, colorful clothes, and high heels that make me over 6 feet tall. I am like a freak of nature to them and they love me! I had 120 students yesterday and will meet about 200 more. I feel very fortunate to get to interact with the future leaders of this country.
Most of my students do not have English names so I have about 200 names to come up with. I am naming my students after my friends and book characters. The names they come to me with are hilarious. I have students who have been named “Big Bird,” “Ailment,” “Seven” and “Sword.” In one of my classes “Candy” and “Muffin” are best friends.
My classes are an hour commute away from where I live, and I was forced to find my school and classroom without any help. I am still not sure who my boss is. It is an interesting cultural lesson to work in this country because there are never any answers. That is something I am learning: life can still function without knowing what will come next. I do not have a curriculum to follow, nor are there any computer hookups in my class for Powerpoint. All I have is chalk, a chalkboard and my brain. I can’t believe they trust me to be a professor with no help. It’s amazingly daunting and yet freeing at the same time.
I am growing in confidence in Mandarin, it is amazing how you can adapt to a new language when you have to to survive. I felt such feelings of accomplishment when on my second day here, I bought lunch from a street vendor: a warm bun for 1 yuan (about 19 cents). I realized that I could be hungry and supply myself with sustenance: what an accomplishment!
I have also begun taking the taxi by myself. Talking to the taxi drivers is one of my favorite things because they teach me so much Mandarin and are generally so nice in spirits. I am having the citizens of China teach me Chinese by going around asking everyone how to say stuff. I spent an hour in the produce market yesterday pointing to fruits and asking the workers how to say them. It is fun for everyone; they interact with a sttange foreigner, and I get to learn.
It is amazing here how I can feel the most extreme joy and courageousness and then within the same hour feel completely helpless and alone. There are many more instances of joy, however. I have been thinking a lot about how I will always be a foreigner here, that no matter how much Chinese I learn nor how wholly I adapt to Chinese culture, I will always be an outsider.
Hangzhou feels like home now after only a little over a week. The people here are receptive to me as a big, white, English-speaking mystery. There is only one thing that I know for certain: there is no place in the world I would rather be today than Hangzhou, China.