Last week, a reserve teacher whom I’d not seen since I came back asked me how China was, and in my least-melodramatic voice, I answered, “Um, pretty life-changing, actually.” A bold and sweeping statement, I know, but it’s also completely true. (I’m still growing out the chullet to prove it.)
Last weekend, Matt and I went to lunch at Szechuan, an unassuming strip mall restaurant that came highly recommended by my Chinese friend, Anna, and while we were perusing the extensive menu of scallion pancakes and spicy bullfrog, Bette Midler’s “The Rose” suddenly wafted down out of the speakers (which were embedded in the dropped ceiling). I couldn’t help but think it was a little gift from China herself.
Time flies. It’s hard to believe that just over one year ago, I left my man and my dog and my family and my friends and my job to live in China. One year ago this weekend, I had been in China for almost three weeks, and Trisha and I were preparing to leave for Hainan with dreams of a midwinter tropical vacation (and we all know how that turned out). Ten months ago, Matt flew to Shanghai and thirteen or fourteen hours later, asked me to marry him. Seven months ago, I came home to the most American of celebrations and to our little house in St. Paul, and I couldn’t quite believe it was over. Going to Hangzhou was, to put it lightly, among the better decisions I have made in my life.
Things have changed. I am in the midst of reevaluating the trajectory of my career, exploring new possibilities by volunteer-teaching English to adult refugees who are among my most favorite students, ever. Matt and I are planning a wedding in June and a whole new life together as Married People to go along with it. We’ve spread the news that in August, we’re packing up our home to begin a new, multi-year adventure in Rosario, Argentina (at which point I will again rename my blog!). Vilas is getting older and can now spend nights and days out of her kennel, curled up on her corner of the couch; our roles as dog-parents are getting easier.
Sometime during my China experience, I was able to articulate to myself what it was about living abroad that I loved, and it was simply this: Being in a new country forced my brain to focus on the present. Back at home, my busy mind would spend time on what was coming next, what I’d forgotten to do, what I’d done that I regretted, what I’d said that I wished I could take back. In China, I had to pay attention to the bus schedule and to squattie potties and to temple etiquette- in short, to everything around me. There was no zoning out, no space-cadet drooly face, no lasting regrets. If that sounds exhausting, it wasn’t. It was energizing and peaceful. Even during those moments where I was quasi-worried about my safety, I wasn’t worried about anything else but my safety.
Since returning home, I’ve been thinking a lot about staying present. I haven’t quite figured out how to do this consistently at work- work, in fact, has been my greatest source of return culture shock- but I am learning ways to do this in my real life.
We’ve had a significant dearth of snow this winter, due both to lack of precipitation and unseasonably warm temperatures. During the mild end of one freeze-thaw cycle about a month ago, our still-green grass grew glass casings of ice overnight.
Last weekend, we celebrated St. Paul’s Winter Carnival, a hometown festival that would make the Chinese proud. These pictures are of the Torchlight Parade at Rice Park and the Vulcan Overthrow on the step of the library.
On Friday, Matt and I made the spontaneous decision to head out of town for the weekend to visit my parents. We called my dad to make sure they weren’t busy and surprised my mom on Friday evening by ringing the doorbell unannounced. Vilas got to spend time with my parents’ new puppy, Manny (both are currently passed out, having retreated to their own corners after hours of wrestling). Yesterday we went to a chili cook-off as part of Wausau’s own Winterfest. I got to see my sister, try on my in-progress wedding dress which is being made by my talented mother (it’s true- the dress from Shanghai works only as a funny story, not an actual garment), and make venison steak. Even when I had to take a break from the fun to grade Huck Finn quizzes, I laid down on the floor with my pen and listened to Matt and my mom play Scrabble, to my dad help my sister with her taxes, to the dogs quietly knock each other over, and I was still very much present.
Manny is 13 weeks old and weighs 27 pounds. He better cherish this while he can.
Alisa with City Grill’s white chicken chili. Dad and Matt voted for this one.
Dad and Matt sampling Hiawatha’s tomatillo chili, which ended up being my and my mom’s favorite.
Mom and Alisa, ready to dig in.
The combination polka and Johnny Cash cover band at the cook-off.
The only two brave enough to dance.
Matt’s ballot. As a group, we were split between City Grill, Hiawatha, and Red Eye (which featured smoked alligator).
We’re leaving this afternoon for St. Paul- back to laundry and dishes and 5am alarms and impossible amounts of dog hair. But it’s okay. Soon we will leave for Argentina, and I know that the memories of that laundry and those alarms will be as important as the long-reaching influence of my time in China, rivaled only by what is happening in front of my eyes.