A metaphysical barrier was broken today. Did you hear it?

Oh, that’s right, I’m thirteen hours ahead of most of you. So, cross-checking the change in time zones against the speed of sound, it may still be on its way. If you hear a small, otherwise-inexplicable pop, it was me.

And just how did I achieve this small miracle, you ask? By going out for food alone.

It wasn’t the first time I’d gone for food without a Chinese speaker. No, we formed a mobile support group pretty quickly after camp. Left to fend for ourselves, we developed complicated systems of each ordering the part of the meal we were best prepared for. I was the Rice Man. I could get us each a bowl of rice, no matter how many of us there were—up to six. I usually forgot how to say seven or higher. After that, Dave and I would take turns trying to read from our cheat sheet. We knew we were improving when we could at least get the server to respond. We never actually ordered anything that way, but we were communicating. We loved picture menus.

Former things are passed away.

I walked into the Friendly Restaurant with a polite xie xie to the waitress who held the beads for me. Mustering my confidence, I ambled through the crowded room to the counter. I ordered fried rice. Pork fried rice. It was to go. I have no idea whether she understood when I told her I wanted it to go. Chances are, she just assumed since I had walked past the waitresses attempting to usher me to a table. She scribbled a couple characters on an order pad and handed it to another girl to take to the cook. So far, so good I reasoned, and sat down to read on my Palm while I waited for my food.

Changchun has seen its share of foreigners. I know it has. But the stares we manage to collect are beginning to lessen my confidence in that fact.

No one in the room had managed to look at anything but me since I walked in. Now they were inexorably drawn to my seat. One man even moved over to the nearest table so he could be sure to catch everything. By now, the gentleman from whose table I had borrowed a chair was ready to talk. And he did so, much to the delight of everyone in the room. It was an awkward conversation.

Perhaps conversation is too strong a word. It implies two-way communication.

I listened in with the rest of the room as the man plied me with friendly interrogatives, vainly attempting to catch a single word or gesture that could suggest an appropriate response. We were all mystified as to how I would answer his questions. My smile was apparently not the answer he was looking for. I answered the next couple of questions by very courteously informing him in his native tongue that I was unable to understand anything he was saying. He understood. And spoke more slowly to help the poor foreigner. His tones were actually appreciable. Unfortunately, the tones I picked out could only denote which of five possible unknown words he was using. I spoke some English, hoping for an apostolic moment. No translation occurred, though.

Gradually, his fervor slacked. I’ve never watched anyone die, but I have the distinct impression that if I ever do, I’ll have flashbacks to that moment. The gestures grew more and more faint, the volume trailed away, and the eyes glazed over.

It was time for Chinese first aid. I knew he was interested in my Palm since he had leaned over my shoulder to look at it when I sat down. Unfortunately, I knew absolutely nothing to say that had anything to do at all with technology. So, I took a clue from every annoying conversationalist and talked about myself. I brightly informed him I was a foreign teacher from America. He said something and I picked out the name of a college in the area, so I corrected the error and directed him to my college. He smiled, talked for a while, and waited for an answer. I smiled too.

The rice came out of the kitchen in its little bag. I extracted my wallet from my man purse and pulled out the amount of money the server had asked for. The man at the table again decided to help by repeating the amount more slowly, but I had understood—it was under seven yuan.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my friend look impressed. No, I couldn’t say anything meaningful, but I could get done what I needed to do. Disaster averted, the tension swirled out of the room, leaving nothing but a heightened sense of melodrama. The room suddenly looked a little washed out. I grabbed my bag, shot off a goodbye in the direction of my awe-struck communicant, and moved for the door. Every head followed as I strode down the aisle. I’m pretty sure things went into slow motion for a few seconds as each particle of dust reflected the hazy sunlight washing over the room. I kicked myself for not having my sunglasses with me. Perhaps my Bourne movie marathon with Jonathan was having its effect, but somewhere in the back of my mind Moby kicked in with a funky rhythm and I made for home.

Maybe I should just learn some Mandarin.

Finding Me

The bottle is proudly displayed on my bookshelf now.So this is a bottle I bought. It had orange pop in it. I bought it from a shop on the very edge of Changchun. It’s me.I found this bottle of pop after a particularly long walk with my boy Darren, another American teacher at my college. During camp, he asked if I’d be interested in accompanying him on a rather extensive walking tour of the city. The Yitong River slices Changchun longitudinally, and most of it has a nice brick walkway next to it. He was wanting to walk the river from the southernmost point in the city to the northernmost. My agreement sealed the preliminary deal.So last Thursday was the appointed day. We set out from the school in a taxi, accompanied by Dave, a last-minute acquisition. Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of the look on the taxi driver’s face when we just stopped him on a bridge and walked away.A few hours later, we stopped for coffee and lunch. Dave hadn’t anticipated the scope of our trek and had other things to do, so we sent him on his way with a stomach full of California beef noodles and continued our journey.I followed our trail on Google Earth. Over 17 km. The river continued to guide us through the city, slowly pulling us away from the economic center of the city and toward the industrial sector, which doubles as the residential area for those less economically advantaged families. We finished our walk at the extreme north end of the city, caught a bus to the train station and took the light rail home.It was great to see the city from a different viewpoint. People going about their business, picnicking in parks, playing with their friends, working in temporary ponds and threatened fields. We walked from open fields to skyscrapers to open fields again. We hobnobbed with sustenance farmers, taxi drivers, students, businessmen, newlyweds, and the uniquely Chinese class of semi-retired workers. Changchun is a beautiful city. And it’s my home.I know those of you who have portaged over from the Blurb are expecting me at this point to explain how the bottle is me. I’m not going to. I don’t have to. It accomplished its purpose. You read this. Sorry, I’m lazy and uninspired at the moment. And loving it.

Checking In

This is the notice you’ve all been waiting for. I’m in China alive and well.

My first day was spent in settling in to my new place—unpacking, meeting the team, touring campus, and, of course, the obligatory Walmart run. Concerned about jetlag (which I seem to have largely escaped, probably with the help of my out of control schedule prior to leaving the US) and wary of overwhelming us on our first day, the leadership left plenty of time for rest and most of the activities were designed to gently introduce us to our new home.

Our authentic Chinese lunch of dumplings, cold vegetables, beef, and sausage was a little taste of the future. The forks for those of us desperate enough for food to swallow our pride and drop our chopsticks and the American dishes at our potluck dinner minimized the culinary stress.

We begin our training today at 1500 hours. After a day and a half of slow advances, I’m ready to begin learning what I’m supposed to be teaching in two weeks. And, just for the record, we don’t use military time here as a rule. I just felt like it because I do things like that. As you know.

Thanks so much to each of you for your thoughts on my behalf, and for those of you who went the extra mile and reduced the financial burden of the trip. I trust I’ll be able to show on here why you did it.