Saturday, March 8, 2014

Missing My China Life

Every now and then, there's one thought I can't quite shake. It lingers with me all day and directs my daydreams. Perhaps I can't shake it because I don't want the thought, and the warm sentiments it brings, to leave. What is it?

 I miss China. 

I lived in Beijing for three of the best years of my life, working as a "foreign teacher" at a Chinese public middle/high school. I've been back in the U.S. for about a year and a half now, and while there are many comforts that come along with life on this side of the ocean, there are so many elements I miss about my life in Beijing. This morning, my heart is heavy with a longing to return, so I thought I'd write down some of the things I miss about my China life. Maybe it will be therapeutic. Or maybe it will just make me cry. 

I miss my students.
I miss my students terribly. All of them (that's about 250 students each year). I still keep in touch via email with many of them, but I miss seeing and talking with them every day. I miss hearing about their lives, their worries, their dreams. I miss helping them practice and improve upon their English. I miss watching their eyes light up as they accomplished a task or gave a speech that they never thought they could. I miss the hilarious comments they often made or the antics that were inevitably present in certain classes. I miss hearing them insert our "Phrase of the Week" (an idiomatic expression) into their conversations...sometimes using it correctly, and sometimes finding "unique" ways to use it that just had to make a teacher smile.

I miss being a "real" teacher. 
Spending the last year and a half as a full-time grad student/part-time substitute teacher has been rewarding in many ways but it has also left a big gaping hole in my life in other ways. Oh, how I miss being a "real" teacher...seeing the same students each week...developing relationships with them...watching the progress in their language use....having my own classroom.

I miss hearing my last name shouted out classroom windows, from basketball courts, down hallways, and along pathways.
By the end of three years at our school, either my husband or I had taught basically every child in the entire middle/high school. And it was a big school. Combine that fact with our students' tendency for extreme excitement, and it often resulted in hearing our last name (only the last "Mr." or "Mrs.") shouted in glee every time we walked outside. We called the lunchtime walk to/from the cafeteria our "walk of fame," as we passed by almost every student and heard a chorus of children singing a one-word song that happened to be our name. I loved it.

I miss teaching students and colleagues how to bake cookies, decorate cupcakes, and cook American meals. 
As the "foreign teacher," everything I did was intriguing to my students. They were particularly interested in American food. So, on Saturdays when I wasn't hosting a themed English Club party in my house, I often spent the afternoon teaching students (and some colleagues) how to measure ingredients (something they don't do in Chinese cooking), use an electric mixer (oh man, what fun they had with that...), follow a recipe, and then enjoy snacking on our finished products.

I miss the look on my students' faces when I would randomly respond to something they said in Chinese. 
There is nothing quite like shocking students by eavesdropping on one of their conversations (which they had assumed you didn't understand) and then saying something about Chinese. Gleeful cries of, "Laoshi ting de dong! (Teacher understands!)" would fill the room. So. much. fun.

I miss biweekly "Office Hours," when I never knew quite what to expect but I always left with a smile on my face.  
Would we play hours of UNO or Headbanz? Would we talk about books? Would we chat for hours about life and school? Would we help students who were considering applying to universities in the U.S.? Would there be 25 students there, or just 1? We never knew what our "Office Hours" would hold...but it was always a good time.

I miss coming together with other "foreign teachers" on Sundays and swapping stories of our most recent teaching escapades.
There is something good for the soul about knowing that as you have daily crazy, hilarious, frustrating, inspiring, and sometimes unbelievable experiences, your friends are going through the same things. When you share your stories with them, they "get it." When I taught in China, there were 40-50 other teachers from my organization at other schools scattered throughout the city. On Sundays, we all got together to share a meal and have a church service. Inevitably, our meal time was spent swapping stories about our recent teaching escapades. I miss those Sundays...

I miss my daily visits to my Chinese merchant friends. 
The owner of the local fruit stand...who always gave me secret deals on my purchase and wanted me to try samples of random pieces of fruit;
The lady who served lunch at my favorite line in the school cafeteria...and always seemed to dish out slightly bigger portions for me than she did for anyone else;
The shop owner who sold us our lunchtime Coke Zero...and thought we were insane for drinking so much soda;
The worker at the checkout line at our grocery store... who always seemed intrigued by what "the American" was buying.

I miss the relationships I had with all of these people. When I first arrived in Beijing and couldn't say more than "Ni hao" in Chinese, our "conversations" were limited to smiles and gestures. As time progressed, though, our conversation expanded. In the U.S., I bring my own lunch to school and only do grocery shopping once a week. I miss those daily interactions.

I miss how much time I had with my husband. 
For three years, I had the exact same schedule as my husband. We taught the same classes at the same school and we did everything together. In fact, in our entire first year of marriage (which also happened to be my first year teaching in China), we were never apart for more than 6 hours at a time. Even that only happened once or twice. Most of the time, it was a rare day when I went more than 2-3 hours without seeing my husband. Everyone always asks if we got sick of each other or got on each other's nerves, but we didn't. We loved the borderline excessive amount of time we got to spend together. Perhaps it had something to do with dating long-distance for a year (I mean really in, the distance between China and the U.S. long). Either way, it was wonderful. We knew everything that happened in each others lives. Now that we are back in the U.S. living more "normal" lives, we just simply don't see each other as often. We still carve out time to spend with each other, and the time we do have is more precious because it is limited commodity, but sometimes I miss the days of 24/7 husband/wife bonding.

I miss those random moments that tested my flexibility. 
It's two days before the first day of a new school year and my husband asks the school officials if there is an update about which classes we'll be teaching. No? about tomorrow? Maybe? Ok...

The bell just rang and there isn't a single student in my classroom. Ten minutes later, a Chinese teacher walks into my room and informs me that, due to a schedule change, I will not be teaching this period. They forgot to inform the "foreign teachers" of the change.

My entire lesson involves the use of technology. I unlock the computer desk and press the "power" button...nothing happens.

My phone rings at 7 in the morning on a day when I normally don't teach until 10. Oh, I'm teaching a class in twenty minutes? Wonderful...

Before I taught in China, I was not a flexible person. I always had a plan and always followed it. China beat that right out of me. I still like to have a plan, but my ability to be flexible and "go with the flow" has improved dramatically.

There are so many more things I miss about my life in China. I could go on for hours, but I've already written far more than I ever intended to, so I'll leave it at that. Now, I need to go grab a tissue to wipe my eyes. 


  1. Your words brought smiles and tears to my face. Your experience teaching in China enriched not only your students...but you as well. How adventurous of you to move to a different country...not knowing the language...and find such a unique niche. I love how you listed all of the things you missed...some of them as simple as forming relationships with the local vendors...and then others with interactions with your students...and then the time you got to spend with your husband. I am so glad you have kept connected with some of your students....what a gift you have been to them...and they to you. Jackie

  2. This is wonderful! You reminded me of so many of this things that I miss from Taiwan (and it's been awhile). Flexibility is something that you learn while living overseas. I think it has carried into my life here as well.

  3. Wow, this incredible...I can't believe you went without knowing the language. I hope that you go back. It is also so wonderful that you got together and had community and church every week. My daughter is in Ecuador (missionaries)...she also missed Ecuador when they were back in the states for a time. Your students...sound so amazing. xo

  4. I can feel your love for your old life throughout this post. People who have not made such a drastic change in their lives don't understand the feeling of living "with another home in their hearts" (as the dedication page for Silas House & Neela Vasmani's Same Sun Here reads). I was fascinated to read about the unique aspects of teaching in China, and my heart swelled as you described your special moments with students and your husband. Like you, I love being with my husband all the time and really miss the amount of time we used to spend together in college. A few waking hours in the evening is just not enough!) I hope (and really, I know) that you will find just as many joyous moments here in your new life!