Spots of Time

June 24, 2004

Last Date

My last night in Sydney, Australia, I left my flatmates in the apartment and went for a solo wander in my neighborhood, the Central Business District (CBD), near Hyde Park. It was my "last date" with the city. The next morning, I would be off to Singapore, and then Thailand, on what was to be the start of almost an entire year spent traveling and working in Asia.

Even though I had lived in Sydney for almost 3 months, I had never just wandered around the city at night. I was always going somewhere, with someone, to see or do something. This time, I had no agenda. I simply had my camera and the need to say goodbye.

Since this "last date" I have had many, many others. Sometimes, the goodbyes are brief - a quick look out the window of the airplane, or a final look around before jumping on a bus. Other times, the last date is lengthy, over a process of several days. This was my experience in Luang Prabang, Laos, where each of my last few evenings were "last dates" - the last time I would see a film at L'Strange, the last time I would eat at my favorite restaurant, the last time I would walk by the winding river.

Tomorrow I will leave Cangzhou, the city in China that has been my home for the past 6 weeks. And, though I admit to being ready to move on, I am also sad to be leaving. This little corner of the earth, far from earth-shattering or exciting, has nonetheless found its way into my heart.

Most people who live in Cangzhou will say there is nothing to do. And perhaps they are right. But, I guess I was not looking for sightseeing. I was looking for a temporary home. And, I found it. For me, the definition of a home is a place that you feel comfortable. Where you can walk around without a map. Where you see the same sights over and over again. Where your life has some routine. To some routine may be boring and dull - but to me, currently always on the move, the idea of routine is actually rather comforting.

Cangzhou offered me these things. My "comfort zone" was small - just a few square blocks - but in that space all my needs were attended to.

Every day I left the apartment, walked down four flights of stairs, pushed the buzzer and was outside, in a modern apartment building that would not look out of place in the US or Europe. I walked out the guarded gate, said "Ni Hao" to the security guard, turned left and walked about two blocks to the school, located across the street.

When my blood sugar would drop, or I had a particularly bad day, I stopped at one of the four local convenience stores to pick up a treat. Most often it was an ice cream bar, though occasionally it was a package of cookies or a bag of gummy candies. I had a certain store for each treat. The closest shop for my gummies, the one down the street for my cookies. My favorite was the shop with the ice cream, not because they had four large coolers filled with an amazing assortment, but because several evenings per week, three gentlemen would be playing music. Lit up from the street in the huge front windows, the men would be practicing playing a small Chinese stringed instrument, the name of which I still do not know. Played with a bow, like a cello, the little wooden and stringed instrument looked a bit like a banjo and would sit upright on the players knee. I loved walking past the window, ice cream in hand, listening to the faint strains of music as I made my way home.

Then there was the local video store, which had a collection of DVD movies in English. The bulk of the movies were animated or action flicks, with a few horror films for good measure. I caught up on some of the children's films I had not seen, like "Ants," "Shrek," and "Harry Potter" - telling myself it was "for school" when in truth, I really enjoyed all of them. I never got past "Hello" and "Thank you" with the video store owners, but we smiled a lot at each other. If I was lucky, their neighbors would have the tiny puppies played out front on the sidewalk, so I would laugh with them while the puppies attacked someone's foot or the pedal of a nearby bicycle.

The quiet street I live on, with its extra wide sidewalks, is always full of activity. In the early mornings, I see business people on their way to work, children at the local day care center outside playing, and mothers or grandmothers with strollers in hand. In the early evening, as I make my way to school, the older people come out for walks in the cooler night air, chatting with shop keepers and passerbys, getting updated on the new local gossip. The biggest traffic jam of the day occurs at 9 p.m., when the students finish class and a crowd of parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents wait for them, filling the courtyard with themselves and their bicycles, and blocking the street with their motorbikes and cars.

Despite my comfort in my surroundings, I was always aware that I was a stranger. Its true that after a few weeks the locals didn't stare quite as much (or maybe I didn't notice as much!), but there were always new people on the street, and I frequently worried someone would crash their bicycle or walk into a street lamp in an effort to get a better look at me. Funny enough, one day, the gawker was me! You see, I had always believed I was the only foreigner in Cangzhou. Then, one day, staring out of an upstairs window in the school building, I saw a young black man walking down the street with two Chinese students. Needless to say, I was as shocked as the people on the street (but much more discreet in my observation!)

During my time in Cangzhou, I was almost never alone. If I needed to post a letter, go shopping or visit the hospital, a teacher was almost always sent with me. And, thank goodness! Everything in Cangzhou took a long time, even mailing a letter, and without my guide/interpreter, it would have taken exponentially longer. For example, one day, it took me 30 minutes to mail 3 letters and 5 postcards - and that was with TWO fluent Chinese speakers at my side. When we left, the teachers told me it took so long because my letters were the first mailed to outside China! In fact, they weren't sure if they had enough stamps to cover all the letters!

On Friday, when I leave Cangzhou for Beijing, routine will be a thing of the past. Each day will be new again. A new city to negotiate, new food to eat, a new bed in which to sleep. And, suddenly, I will be without assistance. The realization that I should have studied Chinese more has hit me hard. Despite the popularity of English language schools in China, most people do not speak any English. Soon I will be forced to learn more than my standard "Hello!" "Thank you" "The food is delicious!" and "No thanks, I'm full!" The adventure begins, anew.

Still, I'm not too worried. I've gotten quite good at orienting myself quickly, geographically, culturally and linguistically. Language always takes the longest, but when you are forced to learn, somehow the brain seems to kick into high gear. And, when it doubt, point to the phrase book!

A few days before I left, Miss Zhao and Mr.. Cui (my hosts) had a little dumpling making party. Relatives of Mr. Cui came to the house and we all joined together to make the dumplings. Afterwards, 9 of us sat around a small, round cafe-style table, overflowing with food and drink, and gorged ourselves. Everyone was impressed with my ability to handle chopsticks - and politely averted their eyes the multiple times I dropped something on the way to my mouth. Looking around the table, totally clueless to what everyone was saying, I was nonetheless happy at my surroundings and the experience I was being provided. Mentally, I took a picture of the scene - another memory to add to my "last date" file.