Saturday, August 22, 2009

It's Just Wanderlust

A few months back, I had a conversation with another Fulbright wife about the great time I was having in China and how I did not want the feeling of adventure I was experiencing to end. "That's just wanderlust," she said.


I guess I had heard this word before, but never really gave it a second thought. That has all changes now, as I realize my "affliction."

Wanderlust, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is a noun that means "a strong, innate desire to rove or travel about; a very strong or irresistible impulse to travel."

That's it!

So while it may seem like a year abroad should have subdued this desire for a while, that couldn't be further from what is actually happening. In some ways, right now I feel like a hot air balloon that has been tethered to the ground. I know that it will be a while before I can fly again (responsibility calls!), yet my mind is constantly en route to far away and even some not so far away places. This second it's New Mexico. Later it will be back to Manzhouli. Tomorrow, a journey to Iceland will be on tap.

While our past cross-country trips seemed to have kept a cap on my views of travel, by providing the comfort that comes with remaining within the borders of the US, our year in China has definitely opened Pandora's Box, by providing me with a more worldly view.

For example, the other day, Marillion (one of our favorite bands) announced tour dates for an acoustic tour in the fall. Steve noticed that I was on the computer and about to check out the venues, when he informed me that there won't be any shows in the US. "So?" I said. He laughed as I told him that I am no longer limited by US borders...Only by airfare!

So, as Bilbo Baggins said, "I think I am quite ready for another adventure," for there is really only one cure for wanderlust...Fortunately, Steve, Julie, and Z share my affliction!


Bringing Our Chinese Lifestyle Back To America...

...Is turning out to be anything but an easy thing to pull off!

There is no doubt that, in certain respects, our lives in China were less healthier than our lives in the United States. I was out for a run the other evening, and three things struck me from a sensory perspective.

What did I see as I kept my eyes on the sidewalk in front of me? Actually, the question to ask is what I didn't see. There were no gobs of spit to dodge. There were no puddles of vomit. There were no piles of dog you-know-what. Just clean pieces of concrete.

What did I smell as I ran along? Well, I didn't catch a whiff of exhaust from a bus as it rumbled by. I didn't pass stinky trash heaps full of the remains from last night's dinner. No, it was just the sweet smell of freshly cut grass that greeted me as I passed by.

What sounds did I hear emanating from the neighborhood around me? Other than the chorus of cicadas in the trees, there was nothing. No horn beeping. No announcements from street merchants blaring through bullhorns. Wan bao! Wan bao! Wan bao! Wan bao!

Then there is the other side of the story. We have certainly fallen right back into habits that are less healthy than the routines that characterized our everyday lives in Beijing.

To go pretty much anywhere, we essentially have no choice but to walk out our front door and hop into one of the minivans. There are no six flights of stairs to walk down. There is no neighborhood to walk through on our way to the nearest restaurant or bus stop.

From a personal perspective, I get my walking in every day, from home to the Glenmont metro stop, and then from Farragut North to campus. But, for the family as a whole, there is a lot more sitting and a lot less standing.

And so, the other night, we decided to walk up to the Aspen Hill shopping center. Although it's only a mile and a half away, this probably was the first time we, as a family, made the trip this way. What was normal to us in China actually felt a little weird to us here in the US. What will the neighbors think?

And then there are the dietary changes that have inevitably happened. How does one transition from the land of fresh vegetables and tiny slivers of meat to the land of carbohydrates and big patties of meat? Sure, we can take more control over our diets, by shopping with purpose and preparing our own fresh and healthy dishes. It is just that it requires much more time and effort here to eat in the ways in which we have become accustomed to over the past year.

And that's kind of the lesson we have learned at this point in our reentry process. Yes, we can restructure our days to bring back changes in lifestyle we acquired by spending time in a different society. But implementing these changes requires a lot of effort that will in all likelihood be very difficult to sustain over the long haul.

How will we know if we are succeeding? Will we still be walking to Aspen Hill when it is cold and dark in the dead of winter? Will we still have a refrigerator full of fruits and vegetables when school starts and the pressures of society really kick in?


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Julie Goes To High School

From Beijing BISS International School to the Seton Home Study School back to Catholic school in the Washington, DC suburbs...That's a pretty eventful year of learning! Go get 'em, Jules!


Sunday, August 16, 2009

What Do You Do With All Of That Stuff?

Put it on display, of course!

As you either know or can guess, we normally are pretty finicky as a family when it comes to hanging things on our walls and displaying things on our shelves. Things have to match. Things can't be overloaded. Things have to be symmetric...Right girls!?

But there they are, right in front of you, bags full of gifts and purchases. Bags full of things big and small, cheap and expensive...You name it.

There is a real danger, in the name of keeping the unpacking process quick and simple. This danger is to simply zip up the suitcases carrying all of the possessions from our Chinese lives. Zip them up and put them in the attic. This would be the literal way to take the past year and "put it in a box." This would be the "out of sight" part. "Out of mind" would then surely follow.

But we, of course, don't want to do that. Life has become messy in a figurative sense. We're now not quite sure what we want to be when we grow up. We're not quite sure what the future holds.

So let's abandon all of those rules we've established, and throw all of that Chinese stuff into the mix. That painting from Director Lu? Hang it on the wall! That terra cotta warrior? Put it on the dining room table! All of those little trinkets and treasures? Place them on any shelf where there is room!

Over time, we'll figure out what stays and what goes. And over time, we'll figure out when we should stay and when we should go. For now, though, it's one big, beautiful mosh pit of East and West...


We Have A Banana Hanger

There we were, less than twenty-four hours removed from the Summer Palace and Saoziying, back on the east coast of the United States. Everybody tells you coming back is much harder on the psyche then going. So we were ready, waiting for that big wave of reentry shock to roll all over us.

Back behind the wheel of a minivan, winging down a highway surrounded by single-family homes, lush lawns, and all the trappings of suburban America, the realization hit both Desi and me...We can do this! We are having no problem whatsoever moving between these two distant and very different cultures. We still feel right at home here in the United States. And we also feel right at home over there in the Middle Kingdom.

This seamlessness is, at the same time, both comforting and potentially very dangerous. Dangerous in that our minds have quite naturally turned to thoughts of how we might construct lives that, as a matter of course, flow freely and somewhat regularly back and forth across the Pacific. Sure, our future is right here in Silver Spring. But our future also seems to include time spent over there as well.

In the meantime, our return to America has filled us with all kinds of little observations, things we just didn't notice before. Sure, there is the "America is fat" realization. We knew that one was coming. Everybody warns you about it. And it is, sad to say, all too true.

Personally, my favorite moment came when Julie announced, somewhat befuddled upon returning from our first trip to the grocery store, "We have a banana hanger. Can you believe that we actually own a banana hanger!?"

Considering that, just days before, we had been sitting in Wei Ziqi's rural, mountainside courtyard, this statement was an expression of culture shock of sorts. Considering that, just weeks before, we had shared an open air toilet with Mongolian cows, using a hanger to keep our bananas understandably seemed a bit excessive to Julie.

It sure does come in handy, though...


One Last Series Of Adventures

Eventually, the day had to arrive when it was time to jump on an airplane, fly over the North Pole, and say goodbye to our home for the past year. (This wasn't a mere "trip" that was ending. No, this was a stage of our lives, no different from what we experienced in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Maryland. We worked. We went to school. We washed dishes and clothes. Yes, it was "life.")

But first, there was one final stroll out to Yiheyuan. Yes, we were leaving in a matter of hours, but we just couldn't resist the call of Seventeen-Arch Bridge, the Long Corridor, the Marble Boat, and, of course, one million of our closest Chinese friends.

As we walked and had our photos taken by squealing and jumping young girls, I worked my cell phone, as, in true Chinese fashion, we had not yet arranged a way to get all of our bags out to the airport. Into the void stepped Yanke, who himself had just moved apartments back in July. Before long, I had the number of a moving company that would carry our stuff out of Yan Bei Yuan for a better price than what it had cost going the other way a year ago, even though we had, as you know by now, way more bags.

Milking every last minute, we stopped in to see Hui Min and fill up our bellies before hitting the road. It was at that point that our goodbyes turned from quiet to chaotic.

My cell phone rang. It was Yang Laoshi, our take-charge landlady. "Where are you?" came the question. Upon hearing our location, Yang Laoshi quickly jumped into her car to carry us back to our apartment. An unexpected party of sorts had begun.

Back at Yan Bei Yuan, it wasn't just Yang Laoshi joining us, but also a nice young guy who was doing something (we didn't know exactly what) with the place's Internet connection. Within minutes, the movers had arrived. These wiry, well tanned workers seemed to have a superhuman ability to move big, heavy suitcases. One of the duo used a strap to lash three huge bags onto his back, and then proceeded to quickly move down six flights of steps with his waist bent at practically ninety degrees.

It would have been amazing to watch, but there were tears flowing, especially from Desi, who, like all of us, was having a hard time saying goodbye to our little home and community. Somehow, we all made it downstairs and jumped into a taxi cab. Happily, it was our favorite driver, a local resident with whom we had ridden a number of times over the year. He knew what was going on, so we didn't have to answer any questions about why we were so emotional.

The taxi and moving truck were instructed to stay together and head to Terminal 2. I can only imagine what the scene must have looked like, half an hour later, when four waiguoren jumped out at the curb and proceeded to load enormous amounts of stuff from a moving truck onto a series of push carts.

Moving into the terminal, my cell phone rang again. It was our dear friend Sister Pam, who had come to the airport to see us off. What an incredible gift that was!

And it turned out to be the gift that kept on giving, as it wasn't but a few minutes later that I discovered, much to my horror, that Continental Airlines had, just days before, moving its Beijing operations over to Terminal 3. "Uh, Des...We have a problem..."

Make no mistake...This was no trivial miscalculation. Terminal 3, famously shaped like a flying dragon, is absolutely immense, to put it mildly. In fact, Terminal 3 by itself is bigger than Heathrow Airport in its entirety. Because of its enormity, Terminal 3 is located something like a twenty minute shuttle ride away from the rest of the airport. It has its own exit on the airport expressway.

With timely and much needed help from Sister Pam, we loaded our bags onto a waiting bus and then...Waited...

For some reason, traffic on the expressway was at a near stand still. And the clock continued to tick. Good thing we had gotten to the airport so ridiculously early.

With Sister Pam working on calming us down, we eventually found out the reason for the big delay...A mini-bus had caught on fire, and now the burned out skeleton was sitting there at the side of the road, surrounded by passengers and emergency vehicles and clogging up traffic as everyone nosed together, Chinese style, in an effort to get by in the two left lanes. There it was...One last du che for the Beijing Ballas.

When we finally made it to the dragon, our next battle had to do with how much we would be paying in extra baggage fees. We had too many bags. Some of our bags were overweight. Maybe one of our bags was oversize. This could get expensive. Desi and I braced ourselves for the worst.

As the staff worked their way through our bags, one-by-one, they kept commenting to me how we were in violation of what is allowed. "Yes, I know. You see, we've been living here in China for a year. Chinese people are so welcoming to foreign friends. We've just accumulated so many gifts along the way."

In the end, all we were charged for were two extra bags, for a total of $260. As for the rest of the violations, the staff kindly let them slide..."This time..." Whew!

Heading into the passengers-only area of the terminal, we turned around and saw Sister Pam standing there, waving to the four of us. With lumps in our throats and our stomachs, we waved back. And then, just like that, it was just the four of us...


From Two Hours To Two Days

I had been thinking about packing for weeks. Sometimes I would lay in bed at night and look at the shelving units, trying to figure out how many suitcases I'd need to jam all the stuff in. Then I'd think about all the souvenirs I've bought (which are hidden behind the cabinet doors) and how they'd fit into our luggage.

We came to China with fourteen moderately sized bags, and so my guess was that we'd be well-equipped to pack everything (if we all worked together) into just the bags we had, and that it would take around two hours, tops, to do so. After all, we really only had three rooms to pack up, since the kitchen supplies were not coming back with us and all the bathroom toiletries were to be discarded.

It sounded good, anyway!

Bottom line is that somehow we acquired a bit more dongxi than I had expected. Two days, and two trips to Metro (the Chinese equivalent of Costco) later, we had three new gigantic suitcases and a total of seventeen not-so-moderately sized bags, a framed wall hanging, four bike helmets, and four authentic Chinese hats that we acquired in the rice paddies at Ping An.

This was the case even after giving a ton of things away (especially all those clothes that no longer fit Julie and Z because of their recent growth spurts), not to mention all the items we tossed out. Steve made his way up and down those eighty-five steps over and over again, like he was running the Great Wall marathon, trying to fins empty trash cans to fill with all the items that didn't make our cut. Happily, a lot of our excess did find its way into the homes (and onto the feet) of our Yan Bei Yuan neighbors, who enjoyed a priceless garage sale (without the garage!). Recyclables were also carted off to Julie and Z's recycling buddies. As we witnessed so many times here, the idea of "waste not, want not" prevailed.

Up to the last second, I found myself trying to stuff items into this case or that, trying to keep the weight as close to that twenty-three kilogram mark as I could, but knowing we might be in a bit of trouble at check-in time...