It’s been a week of goodbyes, and I’m still not any good at them. I guess I just haven’t figured out the best way to say, “Thank you for being an integral part of this life-changing experience and thus helping me to become a better partner, daughter, sister, friend, teacher, student, human being, etc” without crying all over the place. What a problem to have.
The foreign teachers gathered last Monday to take Bao and his wife Rebecca out for a thank-you hotpot dinner. Another good problem to have? Too many people who appreciate you to fit comfortably around a table.
Looking around that night at the Americans, the Canadian, the Brits, and the Chinese gathered there, I felt so grateful for the reasons we were together, that we even knew each other. I happily slid into my last week of teaching, telling myself over and over again, “You did it!” I don’t know exactly how to articulate what “it” is, but I can tell you that it has only a little to do with teaching.
Friday morning, the start of the last day I’d spend at the HFLS campus with my students, began auspiciously with a leisurely latte and a surprise phone call from Matt. With 20 minutes to spare before my first class would begin, he passed me around to his family, gathered in Iowa at the rehearsal dinner for his brother’s wedding. I knew I was sad about missing the wedding, but hearing the voices of Matt, his grandparents, parents, brother, and soon-to-be-sister-in-law so touched me that I could barely keep it together while I was on the phone. As soon as the connection faded, I walked back into the office with that contorted face that says, “If you even think about saying something nice to me right now, I’m going to lose it.” And thankfully Trisha was there to give me a hug and let me lose it.
So it was with red eyes and lots of Kleenex that I walked into my first class, where I found this sign:
These students also had a few gifts for me- thoughtful, personal gifts based on comments I’d made in class about China. I started crying again and couldn’t thank them for a minute or two. Happily, they were performing original skits and one of them included Michael Jordan and his Basketball of Justice, so we were all laughing soon enough.
Lunch I spent with an entire class. My Thursday morning Junior 1s hadn’t realized that my last day was this week, and they insisted on having some more time together, so every single one of them met me in the student cafeteria. They ordered for me, making sure I got the eggplant dish that I talk about all the time, and then they put me in the center of a cluster of lunch tables. Because only 7 or 8 of us could fit on a table at once, they rotated twice to make sure that I had a chance to chat with every student.
I was barely done eating when they started showering me with the kind of gifts that only 12-year-olds would dream up. Like a solar-powered robot kit, for example. I use the word “showered” because that’s the kind of party it felt like; they watched intently as I opened each one, clapped when I liked them, and one girl put all of my gifts into a couple of reusable bags for me and then carried them around for the rest of the afternoon.
After lunch, it was show time. They wanted to perform their number from Drama Night again, so they took me to the pavilion. One of the girls, Lily, has a portable CD player with a built-in speaker.
This girl, Amy, carved “I love you, Jennifer!” into the pavilion post. She has a truly sweet nature. One day I had to trek through the gardens to bring her back to our class because she was literally out chasing butterflies.
We took a lot of pictures on campus as a big group. They recruited a boy from another class, Young, to follow us around and be our photographer.
I zoomed in on this one because the girl in the orange shirt behind me, Rita, is holding my hair. The girls kept touching it and saying, “It’s so soft! It’s like a baby’s hair!” Which I took to also mean, “We love your chullet!”
It was raining (again) at this point, but no one minded.
So of course I was all weepy when I had to say my final goodbye to these students (although they gave me their email addresses with adamant instructions to send pictures of our wedding), and as I walked away from them across the commons, they yelled, in unison and no fewer than 3 times, “(Yi, er, san) WE LOVE YOU FOREVER, JENNIFER!”
Friday night was reserved for special Trisha & Jenne time. We’re going our separate ways very soon- she to Beijing with her sister, me to Shanghai and Tianjin to see my sister- and because we’ve become more like sisters here than anything (although you could argue that we function quite well as a couple), we wanted to spend our last normal night together at our favorite hideaway, Eudora.
We drank good Western beer. I had the chicken sandwich with fries. We toasted to our many personal accomplishments and happy China memories and to each other. It was a beautiful night.
There is so much about the end of this trip that feels very Full Circle-y, not the least of which is the presence of students from Minnetonka here in Hangzhou. A group from the high school is touring China right now, and we shared a welcome dinner with them on Thursday night. 3 of the group are students I know very well, and while it’s surreal to see them in my China-home, it’s good to be reminded of what I’ll find when I return to my home-home.
And home-home is calling. Thanks to my creative fiance, I got to attend Kristian and Leah’s wedding via video chat on Saturday morning. It was 4am here, and I popped out of bed to quickly throw on some real clothes and brush my hair, although I (wisely) skipped the makeup and admittedly did not wear any shoes. I got to listen to Matt’s twinkling piano music, hear Deb’s poignant message, watch Kristian and Leah walk down the aisle together as married people. I cried the whole time. It was perfect.
So I anxiously await reunions with my families back home, and last night, I said goodbye to my Hangzhou family. It was wonderful, and it was hard, and it felt so complete to end my time in Hangzhou with the people who first welcomed me here: the 3 students I tutor, their parents, Bao and I had dinner at this posh restaurant overlooking the Grand Canal. As we ate, I thought back to my first night in Hangzhou. I had been traveling for more than 30 hours, but Daisy’s parents and Bao treated me with such warmth and hospitality that there was no place I would have rather been than at dinner with them. Every memory from that night is rich and colorful because it was my first impression of China, and that experience of sharing a meal and conversation with people who don’t speak your language and yet treat you like family- that night, I fell in love with China.
Last night, they ordered some of my favorite dishes and surprised me with new ones (black snake, for example), and though I lost track of how many times we toasted each other, I won’t forget their sometimes solemn, sometimes joyful gratitude as they raised their glasses over and over again and said, “Xiexie, Laoshi.” Thank you, Teacher.
After dinner, they took me for a walk along the tree-tunneled path that follows the quiet canal, they gave me beautiful gifts, they shook my hand and hugged me, and when I told them, “You have made Hangzhou home for me. I feel like I have family here because of you,” I was also saying, “I love you forever.”
Because I do.