And just like that, it’s over.
The four months that seemed to stretch out into infinity have passed — in fact, gone flying by ever since the midterm break. A few weeks ago, groups of students wearing black gowns with bright yellow stripes over their jeans and sneakers were lined up on risers in front of the Eighth Teaching Building. “That’s funny,” I thought, “it’s only the 15th week. Why is graduation so early?” Then I understood about the risers: it wasn’t commencement, but the photo shoot. Right on cue, the soon-to-be graduates tossed their mortarboards into the air and shouted as the shutter snapped. Then they descended, making room for the next class.
“That was graduation,” Pam explained. There’s a ceremony, but “their parents don’t come” – and the picture is all those parents will see of four years of work, until the education pays off and the kids start supporting them. Even so, they must be incredibly proud; most of these graduates are probably the first in their families, some the first to get any education to speak of. But to me it seemed rather sad. If any occasion would bring parents to campus from far-flung provinces, I thought, surely it would be graduation. OK, so my parents didn’t attend my college graduation, but then, neither did I: it was off-season, and I was already working several states away. In any case, I had none of the class identification the Chinese do.
Soon they’ll start packing to leave campus. I did mine a few days ago. (As I write, I’m in Beijing, the Forbidden City just about a mile behind me and visible from my window when the smog lifts.) After four months, packing meant divesting. Big Blue and Little Red are as overstuffed as ever – I guess I bought more than I thought — and I cringe to think what I’ll pay in overweight fees for three flights in the next two weeks.
I arrived with clothes for two seasons, and many of those are not going home – not two good pairs of walking shoes, now worn and mud-encrusted beyond repair, nor a pair of rain boots I don’t like; not the heavy tights I wore under leggings during those cold, rainy early weeks; not my beloved Icelandic wool jacket, frayed beyond redemption. (I must go back to Iceland for another one.) I’ve used up six of the seven boxes of bedtime tea I brought with me, and most of the vitamins, and the big bottles of Flex shampoo and conditioner I didn’t know I could buy here. I’ve left Pam one textbook I suspect I wouldn’t use again, and the deck chair in which I spent so much time perched above the magnolia trees, reading and occasionally napping. The little sweeper is coming home with me and, with luck, will work there with the electrical converter my German friends leave at my place. My everyday umbrella went to Mimi; I later bought two that make better souvenirs.
More problematic were the little New York gifts I brought with me. I gave out a number of New York Times lapel pins to various students, but I still have a dozen or so. Perhaps most pressing were the remaining decks of cards decorated with fireworks over the Manhattan skyline, which are relatively heavy. I had given out a few during the semester – to Emma, who arranged my Expo tickets, and to the three girls who saw me safely home from Shaoshan — leaving me with eight or nine to dispose of.
One, with a postcard showing United Nations headquarters, went to Christy, who has cleaned my apartment weekly; she recently confessed that she dreams of living in New York someday, which would explain why, of all the discarded magazines I’ve offered her, she mostly chose The New Yorker. A deck of cards seems like far too little to thank Stevie Nicks and Kenny, who have helped me so much this semester, but they seemed thrilled. “For me? Really?” said Stevie Nicks. “I love it,” Kenny responded with his shy smile. Mimi got one, too, though again, it doesn’t seem like enough. One went to Annie, who let me sit in on her “Pride and Prejudice” class — the only Chinese teacher this semester who’s expressed any interest in getting to know the foreign teachers – and invited Pam and me to a fabulous lunch with her family on my last day in town.
I gave one to the couple at the fruit stand when I stopped to make my last purchase, and they seemed genuinely touched. The kid at the Chinese burrito stand also got one, and lit up as he usually does when he waves as I pass. I tried to give one to the water man, who has carried two giant jugs at a time up the four flights to my apartment many times this semester, but he declined; maybe he looked at the shape of the package and thought it was cigarettes. I meant to give one to Stephen, my Friday night date, but he drifted away, so I left it with Pam. I’d give one to the fried rice master, but he’s too intimidating (although I did get a little half-smile and nod the other day when I walked down Restaurant Row). Maybe I should have had a student take me there and tell him, “You’re the best cook in Xiangtan.”
I missed my chance to say goodbye to other people I’ve met along the way: Maisie, the waitress at Will Long, a former English major who wants to be a tour guide, who was once too shy to speak to me but offered me discounts once she discovered I wouldn’t bite; and the lady at the backstreet fried rice place where a student first introduced me, who shouts an order for beef fried rice to the kitchen as soon as she sees me and lets me linger at lunchtime to watch Chinese soaps or sitcoms. Even the old lady downstairs became friendlier with time, greeting me with a ni hao. When she would see me heading out with luggage, she’d ask something that I instinctively knew meant “Where are you going?” “ Shanghai,” I said at spring break. “Ah! Shanghai!” she replied brightly, and I knew I had answered correctly. Later it was Guangzhou, which she followed with what I interpreted to be “Have a good trip.” I did not see her on the morning I left for good; if I had, I probably wouldn’t have answered “Beijing” or “Yangtze cruise,” but “Home.” In any case, it’s the end of the semester; she knows.
The truth is, by my last day in Xiangtan I was almost as nervous about leaving there as I was about coming in the first place. Weeks ago, I was listening to William Finn’s “Elegies,” a song cycle about death and dying. As usual, Betty Buckley brought tears to my eyes with “Only One,” a song about a prickly English teacher who has been told she is dying and plans to do so without sentimentality or regrets:
If just one student learns the beauty of aesthetics,
Then that’s fine. I need only one.
Or if one student learns the wonders of poetics,
Then he’s mine, And my work here will be done.
And if one student values structure,
Learns that words can be valuable and fun.
Show me twenty students who despise the poems they have to memorize
All right, I need only one.
My work here is done. In China I haven’t attempted anything like aesthetics or poetics – barely even lyrics from a Broadway musical. I’ve had more than 200 students, some of whom whiled away their class time talking and texting in the back of the room. But “only one”? In just one semester I’ve had far more than one: Stevie Nicks, whose confidence in speaking English grew exponentially in our time together; Mimi, who already has prospects for continuing to learn French; Andrea, who I suspect has all the right instincts to become a journalist, if that’s what she decides she wants; Kang, who loyally came to my classes in a course he had already passed, just to keep up his English; and on and on. And in Poland I already have Ania and Rafal and Ula and who knows how many more in the future, even though I won’t be there this summer.
In my past, there’s a long line of fine, dedicated teachers who, I think, would be astonished but pleased to see me standing at the head of a class of 30 or 40 out in Hunan, and making some headway. But today it’s time to put my feet up for a bit. They could use a rest, for I’ve spent much of my first two days in Beijing being shown the town by Longjun and his friends. Two summers ago, Longjun was the best student in my first paid ESL teaching gig at Columbia University, and this week he is graduating from Beijing Forestry University with a business degree. His parents won’t be coming from Anhui province, but by sheer chance his English teacher from Columbia is in town. So yesterday I was up at the crack of dawn to go to his graduation photo shoot, where I stood on the margins with the few proud parents and grandparents who could make it, snapping pictures — of the hundreds of graduates lined up in a broad arc on the risers, and of our own particular kids. Not for the first time, I was the only foreigner anywhere in sight. And probably not for the last time, I heard those words: “Ex-cuse me! Can I take a photo with you?” “Of course,” I replied. The photographer counted down: “Yi! Er! San!” I smiled into the camera and, with my fingers, made that V sign that is ubiquitous in Chinese photos: happy.