Between Two Homes 4: Handkerchiefs


Travelling through Shanghai was a mess. People communicated less well than in Changzhou despite knowing English and the signs made less sense despite directing more folk. After searching and asking around for a train that leads straight to the airport I gave up and decided to take the metro. This was easier to manage but trying to get tickets I stalled for a bit which allowed a lady to come up and help me with the task. It turned out to be a scam for money on her end and I realized if I made a fuss she’d leave but staring at the strange hope she had clutching to ten yuan notes it all felt kind of petty. I gave the ten RMB up.

It made me remember visiting NYC for the first time. Oh right, you clump up people and they get strange. Often times they get outright terrible like heavy traffic grit’s gotta make you gritty too. I don’t like it but maybe it’s just the function of what’s made my form. Growing up with Indy’s small city politeness and then studying in DC’s company town professional aura makes the aggressiveness of real metropolises seem ugly. Maybe not always ugly but rarely pretty.

There was another foreigner looking at the subway map the same time as me. I left early but he’d catch up with me later and we talked a long time. He had the modern man kind of cut with short hair on the sides and back and the rest product-ed upward slightly. This was something I’d look to do with my hair later. He’d been in China for longer than me but hadn’t studied it as much. Most English speaking foreigners did not have a direct interest in China and more a curiosity for a teaching job. I can’t fault that at all given how crucial employment is even just for the confidence of a person. I was just lucky interests aligned with a position. More and more I am realizing that.

I think we were each agreeable and sharing a travel struggle so we hung around one another for a while. He had confirmed what I suspected all along and told me I was being underpaid at my current job. Effectively he was making double my salary and it was something I suspected at the beginning of my program. The way he put it down I think he wanted me to be madder than I was but honestly I had a feeling early and accepted the cheaper payment because I wanted a way into something interesting. It had provided that. In a conversation compromise he admitted he’d have done the same as me out of that same impulse to get moving. Don’t mistake the jostling of salaries as much – it is common practice in China and one that bled into us. I can count on both hands how many times I’ve been asked my salary. I enjoyed the company of the man kind of like me, living here at the same stage of life doing something similar.

China had invigorated him and working here made him reluctant to even visit home. I did not pry but his history intrigued me from the bits of it I snuck peaks at. He was going to be a cop but decided to go abroad first. He had been in two long term relationships that had ended. I had been in just one but the way he described the meandering and hesitant aftermath thick with frustration and distance resonated in an easy way. He was a native Floridian. Of the few Floridians I have met, none have seemed to like their home state yet. On my end I was excited to return to old home from new and have a nonsensical pride and love for an average Indiana that would probably forsake me on my weirder traits when the chips really hit the table. But that’s all unnecessarily cynical. At the end of the interaction he talked about going to Changzhou and I felt no problem opening my home to him.

We got to talking about handkerchiefs. This sprung from discussing his time in the Philippines which sprung from discussing travel. He posed the keen question of where I wanted to go or end up and I answered noncommittal because there are only two cultures that naturally called to me and now I vacillate between them. I am not that interested in seeing the world for all it is. Travel feels burdensome.

The Shanghai airport is properly looming and full of empty air. The ceilings are so high that birds could nest up there somewhere, though they could not live there. I have seen a solid number of things and my memory gets hazier when I add more. Living in a place – I’ve only done that three times. I could stand to do it a few more times.

Anyways – handkerchiefs. In the Philippines, as he told me, a lot of people use them. I wondered at the practicality of it because a tissue seems like a one use thing and after that use you’d rather not touch it much. He said that they were more useful through being washable and that most folk just kept a big store of them on endless rotation. Later on in the flight I’d watch The Intern, which felt so distinctly well made along average standards that it confused me. It felt like a thing people would examine later to determine changing mores in our day – or just a movie that would safely appease every family member. Handkerchiefs were an oddly central theme and a kind of stand in for a polite and un-intrusive masculinity the movie saw as nearly lost to modern times. It was strange enough to run into a dialogue about handkerchiefs in real life and stranger still to find it in fiction right after. In one day I had heard more arguments to carry handkerchiefs than I had in the rest of my life. The arguments to carry handkerchiefs were effective but as I am heading to back to China there are still tissues in the pockets of my fluffy red jacket.

~Austin R Ryan

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Orienting


I’ll lay it out straight. Orientations tend to suck. Orientations are often ice breaker banquets where the surface is still chilly after countless camp counselor style warmers. That’s not to say every orientation is that way, but there’s a certain art to situating someone for something. The bigger that something is the harder it is to situate someone to it. For those four year undergrad programs there’s only so much placing a program can manage and the unexpected ends are so vast that designing something that sticks past the start is hard.

Ameson Year in China (the program we had all enrolled in) located us pretty well. Maybe Ameson had it a little easier, but I think teaching ten months in a developing nation unfamiliar in custom and language still had a murkiness that would make anyone a bit uncertain. Most of us were uncertain of a lot of things. Most of us had no idea what our cities and schools looked like, let alone our apartments. Now before you go thinking I went off unprepared I’ll have you know I gave my city and my school a good google – half past cursory in quality at least!

But even with that knowledge, even with pictures of apartments and word of policies, the reality of any event does not hit until you are right there in it. Many of us felt uncertain, and rightfully so. Near none of us had taught English for this long – if at all – or been to China for such a stretch of time. We had all had learned how to teach over the internet, but that had been over a month ago and that task still felt daunting.

The first day we had all been up early. New friends and acquaintances reported having woken up early as 5 AM. I had managed to sleep in until 6 AM and for the first time I had the odd problem of waking up too early. Last night my roommate and I had both tried to tough it out until 10 PM to battle off jetlag. I turned on a movie on my laptop at eight and he turned on the TV. In less than ten minutes he fell asleep over the covers with the remote still in hand and in less than thirty I fell asleep in front of my screen and awoke only briefly enough to turn off my computer and get under the covers.

In the morning everyone admirably beat their eyes open across several dense lectures from important Chinese academics. For a while I thought this might be the pace I’d have to run the whole way, and I quickly bought myself some caffeine to keep me going. Fortunately the lectures subsided some and the teaching training began in earnest. After a few days I dropped the jetlag, too. The feeling of getting into a new timezone is akin to shedding old and heavy skin for a fresh and light new layer.
Before long everything started to pick up. People were going and sampling the night life, some even venturing into two hours away central Shanghai in small groups. English as foreign language teachers started to refresh us in old material we had learned online. More importantly, they demonstrated much of what they taught on us so we could see how the parts form into a whole. Each instructor radiated the word “teacher” in such a way that they made me envious how they owned a function so thoroughly. The mastery they had over one thing was fascinating and deeply encouraging. I had the feeling that even without owning an ounce of what they had, I could tap into it and make something come together the way I liked.

It was overwhelming, but in China so is everything. Look outside and everything is moving towards so many ends that there’s no tying it together. All that movement occurs in different dialects of a language that has no root with a western one and a culture nurtured in Confucianism and Communism. Try to capture each memorable moment in your mind and you’ll have it racing. Try to capture it all on film or paper and you’ll race your mind right off a cliff. So in a way absorbing all the knowledge of wise elders felt par for the course.

Each day we were booked solid so I hardly even noticed the time fly by. Towards the end things got a bit hectic and wild. Our organizers arranged an impromptu trip to downtown Shanghai where we all performed the Macarena in a flash mob. We had about ten minutes to prepare it and that showed somewhat but it went well enough. By the time we were done a ring of Chinese people had enclosed us with flashing cameras and the little lights of phones.

After that everyone went to an immensely crowded section of Shanghai where we all took pictures with the city skyline. A few Chinese people joined us. I was crouched across the way from two Chinese women taking pictures on their camera phones. Using the large and goofy facial features of mine I cheesed enough to get them to notice me and laugh a little. I felt proud of that. It felt like a little honest connection. I tried to give them a pleasant emotion and they received it just fine. In a way, it felt more communicative than a conversation would have. In butchering every Mandarin phrase I know over and over, sometimes it seems frustratingly like I am only read with delight at doing something right or awkwardness at missing another thing. The frustration of language is making words pack the right punch and biting down on a second tongue doubles all that up.

By the end of the night I had to turn in a photo essay for a competition and by the next morning I needed to be ready to do a teaching demo and take a test. Somehow it all fell into order. Everything came together hastily and felt like it could fall apart from a slight push, but it all held up. The demo lesson went well and the test even better. The end came fast and whacked me on my ass. Not much past an hour of taking the test, the results were in and I was sitting in a closing ceremony watching awards get doled out. Of course I was an entrant into a competition myself and eager to hear the winners. In the whole of my mind I was sure I wasn’t one of them and bracing myself for the defeat. At that moment I could see all the overwrought tendencies of my fake-deep, faux-philosophical writing coming up to shame me for trying at this thing.

These days I am more determined not to take my own abuse. This time some thoughts fought back and told me to stand by the decision. How was I supposed to grow by shutting my writings in? Embarrassing is a word you live until failures turn to successes. Red cheeks and cringes are what build up creative muscle. Screw not trying. I ought to try hard every day even if it means I die embarrassed.

It was all melodrama anyways. I was one of the winners of the contest I entered into. Hearing my name called genuinely shocked me. A tall wave of harsh self criticism crashed against the reality of winning the award. Happiness crept up on me, but it was so cautious I could hardly feel it. Much of the growth I made had been done alone, reliant on stabbing open words and tearing apart pieces to see what was worthwhile in each. The happiness of a warm reception was and still is a fair weather friend that knew it ought to walk gingerly over even unjustified self-criticisms. That happiness owed much of its existence to that self-criticism in the first place. Flitting happiness had no right to unseat the beast that bit at my heels until I got things done – the beast that, when I appease, gives me true confidence. Feeling all those negative emotions try to rebound into something positive felt really odd. Maybe I did feel good about winning, but maybe the errors I scrounged up while scared in my chair ought to haunt me some.

I gave myself a break anyways and thanked anyone who congratulated me. Who knows what all of it really means? I liked the other winners’ pieces more than my own and think they showed most of the entrants did well. The sharp and willful people that had come here to teach all seemed up to the task of beating me at writing something so maybe I should be proud, but maybe hardly anyone took the time. In the end it’s all questions that don’t need answers. I was happy enough with what I made.

The liaison at our school told us right after the ceremony that the school driver was ready to take a fellow teacher and I to our new home in Changzhou. Before I could unpack anything, I repacked everything and said sharp goodbyes to the people I met. I had not time to track down many I wanted to see off, fearing that I’d make a bad impression by having my host school wait on me any longer. Before I knew it, I was oriented. Though I still did not really know where I was headed and I still have no idea what it will mean.

~Austin R Ryan

Airport Sorrows and Solid Ground Smiles


I have made the grave mistake of promising some folks back home a travel blog as I go to Changzhou, China to teach English. If you travel abroad, this is something you should avoid doing. You might think I am just being misanthropic, but if you don’t heed my warning you’ll have the task of adequately recording the sentimental memories clinging to you all the way from one international flight to another. But I am here, and I want to bring a bit of it back home for some relatives, so this starts my second Chinese travel blog.

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Plenty of trips start with a nearly crying mother, I think. That’s where mine really begins. It is the fine point where my mind cordons off old home from roaming. While I am weighing my baggage my mind is far off. Most people look up when they think about things, and my eyes are trained on the massive swooping ceiling of O’Hare. It looms grey and full endless empty space like an international airport ought to do.

My mother’s making anxious conversation with the clerk at the desk passing me easily through the process. I am hearing the words, registering them. But it is hard to respond right.

“He’s my last one.”

She says of me, the fourth to live outside of state and the second to live out of country.

“He’s the baby.”

And that one I’ve heard so often that I can hardly be embarrassed anymore.

“Oh, this is really the hardest one.”

That one slips out, and it’s really different from what I know.

“Oh, I’ll miss you guys a lot. That’ll be the worst part about being so far away.” I say. The O’Hare ceiling curves into endless up and open. The words are token in some way, but you do your best – especially with goodbyes.

Together we haul my two massive bags off to the side to get scanned and tagged. Then I step into the security line and hug my Mother. I had gone fast enough that my Dad did not need to come in, but I hugged him earlier. When my oldest sister Britt left to live in Cyprus with her husband I remember her looking back at us. She was waving, with beautiful thin drips of cinematic tears coming from the corners of each eye. As the line moved and Mom did too, I wondered if I should cry like my sister had. I really couldn’t even if I wanted to. But seeing her standing there in Indianapolis International security is so vividly beautiful in my memory. When she stepped over that threshold I swear it was so singular and dramatic that even near a decade later my head can set the scene in detail. In recollected strokes I’d painted it out so well I can still see the whole airport materialize around her.

Sometimes stomaching forward movement is a forced process, and glancing back seems like it’ll suck you into hell with Orpheus. I respected the way she looked back, brimming up. It seemed courageous to roll up all that past and future into the present and let it wash outward in overload. I am not sure if my heart could even manage it. But I believe you are in part the strength of your family. The O’Hare airport swelters up with the hot talk of time consumed passengers. Everyone’s steamed words boils up to the top of the building and I am with it watching it shift and lurch along in line. I am looking up. Maybe I was thinking about how I wasn’t alone. Most likely it wasn’t so pretty, just something pithy about the trip in front of me.

But I’ll spare you the nitty gritty of TSA checkpoints and layovers and try to highlight what good and interesting I found in it. Chicago goes to LA and LA to Taipei. In between I am feeding myself caffeine and rough sleep to keep upward. My body’s a twisted ball of anxiety, I can tell you that for sure. No matter how bad my memory is, if it is a long trip then I am sweating it. Believe me, I have done it before in several separate forms. Far flung as Spain and close as D.C. and San Francisco I go hours early to airports for meeting eventualities that have rarely struck me.

At the LA airport I am six hours early for my flight and ask an attendant for the gate number. There’s a school group heading back to Hong Kong swimming all around me. On the flight I am packed tight to not touch a Chinese teenager on one side and a woman on the other. For some reason, I am constantly stealing glances. Is this the time to practice Mandarin? I stayed silent since the thoughts in my head sounded too loud.
At Taipei the airport is Orientalized tackily. It has a calligraphy station for anyone interested in dabbling in that during their layover and random Asian topography splattered over linoleum floors. There are people from the States, clearly from my program but I have million other things twisted up in my stomach so I can’t fill up on conversation. Intriguingly, I see early my later roommate standing a few chairs away from me.

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Then there’s Shanghai Pudong, my final destination. The halls here stretch on endlessly. If looking up at O’Hare was something then looking up here was something more. The glass arteries pour us out across at least ten of those flat escalators that carry you and your luggage across terminals. The big red camping backpack saddling me bites on the shoulders some. Normally I am shaking at the baggage claims for fear of losing something dear. This time my heart is really racing. But it can’t even beat for long before the big black bags come pounding out on the conveyor belt. Funny how things work out, someone I’d come to talk to quite a bit at orientation was across the way, speaking on his own anxious waiting.

My baggage is quite a bit. I have to stay for eight months, so there’s a lot to bring along. I have to place a smaller suitcase haphazard on another and roll both away. Hearing so much huffing and puffing, a friendly Chinese man offers to help, but I decline. It’s fine for now. I am on solid ground and I couldn’t care less how much I was carrying.

AYC coordinators meet up with us and in no time I am carrying on conversation. All of our faces are marked with the mixed feelings of eagerness and anxiety. Coming together, I think we all feel a little less alone. I know I do.

On the bus the Shanghai suburbs spin outward and I really feel back. It is a weird sensation, but in some way I feel a simultaneous sense of familiar and far, home and hotel. I had been in this place once before and for some reason it felt incredibly fitting to be back. The sun starts to settle behind rows of buildings constructed to look the exact same. Some stand half-constructed underneath the dying sun, while others sparkle with bits of light while all of them tower over small, squat housing areas with green lawns that sometimes turn to dirt fields. It is not vibrant foliage, not tiered rice paddies, not ancient terraced roofs of palaces. It is only a grey freeway that sprawls out into a suburban nowhere that has rapidly reached out to everywhere. It is a place where people live, will come to live, and will move away from.

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It is China. Lots of journeys start with crying mothers, but most don’t end that way. Most journeys don’t stay in what was given away from an old home, but live in the process of making a new one. Maybe I can manage this. Maybe I can teach like I mean it, make meaningful connections like I speak the language, and live here like I’d like to. I’d be happy to just get close to those expectations. That tight ball of anxiety and nerves in my stomach bit by bit untangles and I feel an easy smile creeping up on me.

~Austin R Ryan

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