Community makes any place home
It’s no secret that I love California.
I have lived in other states, visited other states and can’t imagine calling anywhere else in America home.
The key is “in America.”
There are days when I long to return to life overseas. A simple life. A life full of adventure, brimming with culture and overflowing with community.
Outside of Henan, China, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who’s even heard of the “village,” XinZheng. This hamlet of nearly one million people was my home for five years (2006-11) as I taught at Sias International University. Our university – lovingly called “the softest landing in China” – was pretty much a little America. It was designed by an American architect, housed the largest American staff in Henan – possibly China – and flew U.S. and Chinese flags on campus.
My students would often tell me that our city was so small. They were shocked to learn it was twice as large as Sacramento, the capitol of California. (I think they were also shocked to learn Sacramento was the capitol.) I saw first-hand what my student’s meant when I traveled 30 minutes to Henan’s capital, ZhengZhou. The metropolis has a population of nine million, greater than any U.S. city.
I came to appreciate the smallness of XinZheng and limited the number of trips to ZhengZhou. My first year, armed with a few Mandarin phrases and a business card that read “I’m a foreign teacher at Sias International University, please help me contact…,” I’d head off to explore. (Note: I never had to use the card.)
For one kuai – or 15 cents – I’d rent a bicycle and pedal off in search of adventure. The bike was in horrible shape. The basket rattled, the fenders shook and the brakes faltered. (I quickly resigned myself to the idea that just about anything in China could kill or maim me at any time and, as a result, life became much more enjoyable.)
I followed the pot-hole infested paved road until it turned into a crater-packed dirt road. It lead to what most in America would agree was a real village of maybe 20 homes. A gaggle of geese charged me, while a couple of nearby dogs couldn’t be bothered to lift their heads. I pedaled faster. I noticed two older women sitting outside their home’s gates.
They saw me at about the same time and their faces lit up as they smiled. I pulled my bike over and did my best to have a conversation. There wasn’t a lot of understanding but there was loads of laughter, which I liked even better. They offered me food, which I politely declined. (I’d only been in China a few weeks and wasn’t sure if I could tackle home-made cuisine.)
I returned my bike and did my best to tell the business lady about my adventure. She smiled and nodded politely, which translated into “I hear you but I don’t understand you but you’re so brave to try to speak Chinese that I will appear to understand.” (I got this look a lot.)
While there were numerous places to rent bikes outside the university, I went to the same lady each time. And even when I decided to move up to electric scooters, we’d exchange hellos. She had a baby my second year and it was fun to watch him grow. I had the perfect vocabulary for babies. I could compliment them on how cute they were and ask how old they were like a local.
There were other vendors and shop keepers in town for whom I became a regular. It was a great feeling to walk into a place and catch up on how their kids were doing and holiday plans. Some store owners specialized in finding the perfect thing for foreigners – and I happily spent my money there. One store owner eventually morphed into a taxi business for foreign teachers, making those sometimes necessary trips to the big city less painful.
One of the things I miss the most is the food. The flavor, the availability, the price. The street food vendors were my favorite and again, I was a regular with a few. A standout with most teachers was the lady who made chicken wraps. We learned it took three days of marinating for her to get that awesome flavor we all craved. Once a year, the local police enforced the no street food law and all of us suffered. A few of my friends found the Chicken Wrap Lady at a sewing booth. They explained how they missed the wraps. She took them to her house, fired up the magic machine and made them each a wrap. No charge! Now that is customer service.
During my five years in China, I grew to love the Chinese people, their culture, their sense of community. The generosity of people who, by Western standards, have nothing to give.
The Chinese have a compulsion for connectivity, to find that common bond. I sat through numerous meetings where the first order of business was finding out where everyone was from and their family history.
This continued until a link was found between the various parties involved. The first time, it really bugged me. This is not how we do it in America. But I came to admire the need to feel connected, to bond over something more than a contract, to know something deeper.
Living in Los Angeles, I have access to some pretty amazing Chinese food. I’ve even found lost Chinese tourists (I know “Where is it?” and the less helpful, “I don’t know”) and helped them find their way. But mostly, I have found what really matters – community.
Yes, my city is large, my section of it is walkable and full of places to explore. I’m slightly ahead of the curve with English being the primary language of L.A., but I enjoy the exercises in Chinese or Spanish. (Sadly, my Mandarin is way better than my Spanish and my Mandarin is horrible.)
So, for now, even though I miss my “small town” of one million in Xinzheng, China, I’m extremely happy and content to live in the Golden State. I’m enjoying the adventure, tasting the culture and immersing in community. I figure since I lived five years overseas, I should at least give California five years. I plan on making the most of this next year and a half at “home.”