Welcome to Day4 of China and Amy Anniversary Week here at the Messy Middle.
It was sometime late spring 1992 that I found out I was going to ____, _____ China. Yup, I had no idea how to say it, so when asked I’d respond, “I’m going to h-e-f-e-i and it is in a-n-h-u-i.”
I spent five glorious weeks at the Anhui Institute of Education. Glorious and HOT. Sweat ran down my back in the early morning hours as I walked across campus to the classroom. For this Colorado / Kansas girl, you just don’t sweat in the early mornings! There was only one air conditioned place that I knew of in the whole city, The Connie Café , instead most rooms had ceiling fans, if they had anything. I learned a few phrases. The expected 你好ni hao (hello) and 谢谢xie-xie (thank you). We stuffed ourselves with 西瓜xigua (watermelon) at any gathering with students and I learned my only Chinese food word as it dripped off us. But the summer was about so much more than my ability to perspire at all times of the day and turn a shade of red that was alarming to my students or embarrass myself by the amount of sweat dripping off my face. At one point my fanny pack was stolen off my bed. And I learned several key life lessons:
- Never put all of your I.D., cash, credit cards and camera in one place.
- The importance of corroboration. Teammates kept asking if I was sure I hadn’t left it somewhere or had it stolen off campus or …or …or. Until Linda, my roommate, went back to the room and found some of her money missing. The questions stopped and we moved on to solutions.
- The delicate cross-cultural dance one can find oneself in unexpectedly.
So there I was in the awful position, not of having literally not one shred of proof as to who I was or penniless, but of involving the school with the police. In 1992. Who acted as the interpreter? The man charged with my safety, the director for the Foreign Affairs Office. It was awkward, but we needed their help; I couldn’t get a new passport without a form from the police.
Thus, he and I sat in a room filled with smoke, cigarettes being the universal language for “this is a tight spot.” Inhale, exhale, sigh, suck teeth. Rinse, wash, repeat. Next, three photographers with gigantic old-fashioned cameras complete with the brightest flash bulbs documented every single angle of that small guest house room. Taking photos is easier than asking questions that are just uncomfortable for everyone. Flash, flash, flash!
I needed pictures for the passport and was taken to a local photo studio. There was a large standing mirror with a comb tied to it with a string. I was told to comb my hair and given a few moments of privacy to prepare. Later, I called my parents, yes, yes I am fine, but could you please cancel my credit card? My teammates gave me some money. And a peace that passes understanding came over me and with it the most important life lesson of all:
- You can be stripped of all money, identification, not be able to easily contact people and still be safer than you ever thought possible.
We got the paperwork we needed and the assistant to the director, a man with the English name of Daniel, and I took a 10 hour train ride from Hefei to visit the consulate in Shanghai. It took us several days to get the new passport and as I look back on those days, I have such sweet memories.
Daniel and I had nothing to do but talk as we rode the train, navigated Shanghai and paperwork, and waited for the new passport. One morning he ordered me chickens feet because “girls like them.” I gave it my best, but I accidentally pecked my lip with the claw and wondered if American girls were different. When I couldn’t really bite through the joints, I had my answer. Kindness outweighs texture, but that doesn’t mean you have to like everything you eat.
That passport was only good for one year and I know we don’t need documents to get into heaven, but if we did, that’s the passport I would use to prove who I am. The far-too young face that smiles in the black and white photo had so much to learn and experience and I don’t quite recognize her. But in her doe eyed look, she knew enough to throw herself head first into life and trust that though she wouldn’t escape bad things, she’d be sustained. And she has been by many of you. I have little else to offer you, dear sojourners. Simply, thank you. I am richer because of you.