Guest Post: Greetings from (Almost) ChinaBy
First, a simple one-question quiz. You have 30 seconds. Begin.
MINNESOTA : CHINA ::
A) snow : humidity
B) “hello” : “ni hao”
C) flannel : silk
D) hot dish : hot pot
Don’t know the correct answer? To be frank with you, neither do I. But I have spent the last several months reading books, watching movies, and asking every schmuck with the faintest connection to the People’s Republic to draw me a parallel between the place where I live now and the place where I will live soon. And although I have the works of Lao Tzu, Sun Zhou and Peter Hessler to guide me, I am still unable to wrap my head around the realities of Chinese life.
This, of course, is a temporary scenario until I actually make the great flight over the North Pole and land in Chongqing, at which point I will become a “foreign expert,” a teacher of spoken English and of all things Meiguo (America) to students at Southwest University.
Life in limbo, however, is somewhat akin to being suspended on a roller coaster’s first big drop-off, from the front car, while the ride operator frantically shouts to you that the thing has stalled and he’s going to get his manager for help. Is this going to work, you’re wondering? Is this all a big mistake? Am I about to die? Just drop the damn thing already!
And so, since waiting for an adventure to begin is never easy, I have spent this summer pretending that it already has. I bought a Chinese language study book for the evenings (“Learn Mandarin in Four Simple Steps!”) and I spent my mornings at the Bravo Bakery. Bravo — a coffee shop/bakery/Chinese restaurant in St. Paul’s Grand Avenue neighborhood — is run by a wonderfully friendly and talented Chinese family, the patriarch of which is a young man called Calvin. Calvin’s family is from Taiwan, and although he grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma, he speaks perfect Mandarin and makes delicious dumplings. The place became my training ground as I tried to preemptively accustom myself to China.
It became a tradition for, Sean, my boyfriend/fellow traveler and I to sit in one of Bravo’s booths and chat with Calvin while taking advantage of his free WiFi. Calvin advised us of the best airline to use (Cathay Pacific) and introduced us to Doraemon, a cartoon robotic cat that is all the rage in Japan. Most importantly, he was the provider of a place for me to privately fumble around with chopsticks until I learned to eat my sesame chicken with relative ease. His customers also offered a few stepping stones on the path to departure. Sean met a businessman from Uzbekistan with whom he swapped contact information and promised to provide updates. We introduced ourselves to two middle-aged American women whose sons had lived in China and who were learning Mandarin. We also met their Taiwanese teacher, Michelle, who warned me of the heat in Shanghai and the xiaojie (young women) who would take one look at Sean’s blonde hair and blue eyes and see those two colors melt together to form a green card in front of their eyes.
And so it went that, with much dumpling and mango cake eating, the time came to leave Bravo and Minnesota behind to sit in my parents’ house in Kansas City, waiting the remaining two weeks until my adventure really does begin. So, until my plane’s wheels leave the tarmac, I will sit quietly with my Mandarin flash cards and the disposable chopsticks that come with cheap Chinese take-out, and I will conjure up the world of hot pot and silk and humidity and “ni hao” until it finally does become reality.