This is a guest post by Kelly Unger.
The day I boarded a plane for China was the day I became a common criminal.
I began the trip with good intentions, following a plan I’d had since middle school to volunteer abroad after graduating from college. I’d gotten the travel gene from my dad, who had taught in Australia after his own graduation. In high school I’d been a foreign exchange student in Germany, and I’d spent my junior year of college studying in Austria. I’d always figured I’d join the Peace Corps, but since I’d been back in the U.S. for less than a year since Austria, I wasn’t ready to commit to another two and a half years away. And the idea of living in a remote village without electricity or running water—so romantic to me as a child—was no longer thrilling. Turns out I’m more of a “daily hot shower” kind of volunteer.Then an alum came to campus to recruit volunteers for a ten-month English teaching program in China. A handful of students attended his presentation, including many who’d participated in my university’s nascent Chongqing study abroad program and couldn’t wait to get back to China. Their enthusiasm won me over.
The recruitment presentation occurred in the spring of 2001, shortly after Chinese and US military planes collided over the island of Hainan in south China. The Chinese pilot was killed, and China temporarily detained the US plane’s crewmembers. Though the incident is a mere blip in history now, at the time it severely strained US-China relations and gave several would-be volunteers pause. It might’ve given me pause, too, if I’d know enough about US-China relations to be concerned.
In fact, I knew very little about China. I hadn’t studied Chinese history or language. I’d read books by Chinese-Americans, but no native Chinese. I ate Chinese takeout once a year, tops.
So when I signed up for the teaching program, I set to work correcting these defects. I read the ten-page history section in Lonely Planet China. I read some actual full-length books. I borrowed a “Learn Mandarin!” cassette tape from the library, listened to it for three days, and gave up. And this tape didn’t even get into tones—the concept that the pitch of one’s voice affects the meaning of a word.
About a month before leaving for China, I went to an orientation session for volunteers. The session was a mix of program logistics and basic Mandarin. When I left, all I could remember of the Mandarin was the character for mountain.It seemed my brain had chosen to retain a completely useless character. Why couldn’t it have remembered “female” so that I wouldn’t walk into the men’s bathroom? How about “college,” so I could find my way back if I got lost? Hello, please, thank you, toilet, bus, train, stop staring at me. All these would’ve been better options. Then, a week later, I learned that I’d be teaching in a city called Zhongshan (literally, “middle mountain”), named for one of the founders of modern China, Sun Zhongshan (better known as Sun Yatsen). “Middle” is a simple character and is the first character in the Chinese name for China (“Middle Kingdom”). I took it upon myself to learn “middle,” too. And so I left for China able to read and write one and a half Chinese words.
Yet I boarded the plane that day—the day of my descent into the criminal class—feeling secure. Until the dinner service. We started the flight with a Western-style lunch, but after crossing some invisible culinary border over the Pacific, the flight attendants began serving Asian dishes. With chopsticks. Somehow in my extensive trip preparations, I’d failed to consider them. I’d consumed my once-a-year Chinese takeout meals with trusty forks. Those meals hadn’t even come with chopsticks, not in the Midwest.
How was I going to eat in China? Would I be able to transport enough solid food from plate to mouth on two twigs so as not to waste away within the year? Would I have to subsist entirely on soup and other things slurpable? According to Chinese table manners, how close could I put my face to the table?
I stared forlornly at my Buddha’s vegetable delight and then unfolded my napkin. Out fell a fork. A real fork—toddler-sized, but metal, not plastic. I’d have one last solid meal, at least. I ate slowly, savoring the touch of the cool metal, the way I could jab at my plate once, with almost no effort, and find a piece of broccoli waiting for me. Too soon the flight attendant started down the aisle with her cart and garbage bag. She was two rows away when my hand suddenly slid over my plate and grabbed the head of my fork, hiding the handle below my arm. My arm slowly retreated into my lap. After the flight attendant collected my leftovers, I reached under the seat in front of me and dropped the fork into my carry-on.
I went on to spend an amazing, well-fed year in the Middle Kingdom. I taught second- and third-year English majors who spoke near-perfect English, as well as business majors who barely understood a word of it. I traveled throughout the country, surviving on my meager Mandarin, though there were plenty of funny and not-so-funny misunderstandings. I learned much about this historic, contradictory, rapidly changing nation. For instance, you can buy forks there.
This is Kelly’s first guest post on this site. Stayed tuned for more from Kelly in the future!