Thursday, September 23, 2010

For once I'm at a loss for a decent title

It’s hard for me to believe that I am now at the very cusp of returning to a normal life. A life with a wife and cheap long distance and no more Skype for no more than 30 minutes a day. Before all this began it seemed impossible. While it was happening it seemed interminable. And now that it’s over, it’s almost as though it never happened.
My exit from Dalian was an extended feast. It began with a touching tribute delivered by my department members, a wonderful scroll with a picture of everyone and Chinese calligraphy hoping for a visit in the near future. There were speeches and handshakes and hugs and it honestly made me quite sad. Not “I want to stay” sad, but certainly “I’m going to miss these people” sad. We’ve done so much together in what now seems like such a short time. My local staff in a coup that will go down as the finest going away present ever, presented me with a 100 pound Chinese Postman’s bicycle. Of all the possibilities, I can’t imagine a more perfect tribute.
Next stop on the memory parade was the official Intel party. Now normally I hate these things and make it my purpose to escape in the least possible amount of time. But this one was so good – food, friends and conversation – that I actually stayed for the whole time. I surprised myself with that little bit of out of character behavior.
Ben had me over the next night for a more intimate gathering with his wife and a couple of friends. Lots of wine and conversation and a truly outrageous Sichuan repast that will go down in my personal history as a meal not to be forgotten. Rabbit, fish, beef, Chengdu sausage – mouth scorching wonders prepared in my honor. Our reverie was mildly disturbed by the sounding of air raid sirens because on this night some 79 years earlier, the Japanese Army marched into Liaoning and made it home. The sound of the sirens prompted those of us old enough to remember to talk about air raid drills when we were in elementary school. The sirens would sound and we would hide under our desks, safe there from the Soviet hydrogen bombs exploding in an air burst above our cities. Looking back on that now, how did anyone think there was any point to hiding at all?
Now three days into my binge of alcohol, melancholy and goodbyes I had a fantastic dinner – Sichuan again with Jiang, his wife, her friend my standing “Chinese date” and a surprise guest, his brother. Jiang’s wife pulled a fast one on me for a while, calling for a toast each time I praised a dish. It only took me about 8 glasses of Chilean Chardonnay to figure that one out so I turned the table by watching her glass and timing mine to that when I had about one mouthful left and she was holding a full one I would call for “gang bei” – drain the glass. She ended up calling me a bad American. Jiang took me home as things wound down and reported the next day that the women were sitting in our private room drinking beer and crying when he went back to get them.
All those events added up to one long weekend. When Monday rolled around it was time to get serious about the packing and the cleaning. The movers showed up promptly at 9:30 and were done by 1:00. I spent Monday evening taking one last walk around Kai Fa Qu and the night sleeping under an IKEA quilt, staring out at the neon on the Victoria Hotel. Having worked my way past all the personal feelings, this was when it struck home that things were truly coming to an end in Dalian.
Jiang and I had a plan for Tuesday, a trip down the road to Lushun, the city at the end of the peninsula that just recently opened up to foreigners. I thought there was some appropriate closure in this choice as it was the first place I went on my first weekend in Dalian back in 2008. At that time I was only able to part way, stopping at the Guanyin statue by the sea. Beyond that I risked arrest. And so waking up on Tuesday morning and seeing the torrential downpour, I realized that the day was going to be less than I expected.
We left my apartment for the last time at 9:30 and headed out of town. There was a lot to talk about, although none of it was substantive. I thought about how many truly meaningless conversations that Jiang and I had had over the years, just trying to keep the silence at bay. This was one aspect of having a driver that I never really liked – having to make conversation constantly. So many of my colleagues simply sat in the backseat and put their earphones in, but I was blessed (cursed?) with a driver that wanted to talk. Some days it made me crazy, most of the time it was tolerable. We spent quite a bit of time discussing the finer points of aspirin. Jiang was suffering from a toothache and I gave him some to ease the pain. I told him the tale of my fever in Shanghai and the 100mg pills I bought at the government pharmacy. I took 10 in one dose just to approximate my normal dose. The box had 20 pills. He was shocked at how cheap it is in the US, so I gave him the remainder of the card of Mexican Bayer that I had in my bag.
I have a personal history with Lushun that made my presence in this part of the world just a little bit ironic. I’ve always been a history buff and the early 20th century was a time of particular fascination for me and for some reason the history of this region has always been particularly interesting to me. So many world changing events came to pass in such a short period - the fall of empires, the rise of terrorism, Communism and the emergence of the East. Lushun was originally known as Port Arthur, named for a British captain who towed his damaged gunboat into the harbor for repairs during the Boxer Rebellion. The Russian Empire eventually took over the place by running a spur of the Southern Manchurian Railroad to the city, hoping to use it as their only warm water port in the East. Russia was told to vacate by the western powers but ignored their demands and those of the Qing Dynasty Chinese who had no means to enforce their sovereignty. They held onto it simply by pretending to not hear the complaining. Japan though had the same designs and as they became more and more militaristic at the close of the 19th century, they simply sailed across the Yellow Sea and sent the Russian Eastern Fleet to the bottom of the harbor thus ending the Russian influence in the area and the start of Japanese hegemony over northern China and Korea. They marched into town and killed some 35,000 people, an event that still causes significant distrust for them in this city. They finally left only to return in 1931 and to stay until they received their due in 1945. Russia once again moved in, having entered WWII in the 11th hour and remained until their allies, the Chinese Communists dispensed with the Kuomintang and Chiang Kai-shek in 1949.
Jiang was worried that we would not be able to find anything to eat in Lushun – their restaurants are notoriously dangerous (at least in the assessment of Dalian people) so he insisted that we stop at Kentucky Fried Chicken for a take-out lunch. I told him that this was the first and only time that I had eaten KFC in China, and he was genuinely taken aback. He couldn’t understand why I would go so long without partaking of such an American option. Rather than protest, I simply considered that this was going to make this a special day and along with the Lady GaGa CD he had on repeat forever, a day to remember.
We stopped for a look at Heng Shan temple, home to the 50 foot Guanyin but the rain was coming down the valley in sheets and I decided that I didn’t want to spend my time driving around in soaked clothing. We left the temple and went on to the port, stopping at one place to have a look. The weather here was clearly the outer edges of Typhoon Fenapi which happened to be plowing into the southern coast at that very moment – big wind, sideways rain and cold temperatures. A couple of pictures and then up the hill to the “Loyalty Tower” built by the Japanese after their embarrassment of the Russians in 1904. It had a giant stone artillery shell at its apex, and the weather here on this hill was worse than that down by the port. The next several hours were spent driving around out in the middle of nowhere trying to find the overlook from which one can see the mixing of the Bohai Bay and the Yellow Sea. When we finally found it, the gal in the ticket office told us that it was not worth the walk due to the weather. An honest ticket seller at an attraction – wonder of the day! My view of the merging of the two seas would have to wait until another time.
A couple of hours of Lady GaGa and a long drive back and I was at my hotel for the night. I spent my evening dining on tapas and making conversation with my former Chinese teacher Angela before walking one last time through the windswept and unseasonably chilly streets of Dalian proper. A reminded me of the short time during which these streets were the center of my Chinese universe.
Jiang collected me promptly the next morning, a couple of hours before my scheduled departure. He was worried about the traffic, but I had a suspicion that it would not be bad. This was the morning of Mid-Autumn Festival and a national holiday. Everyone would be sleeping in anticipation of a big day of family visiting and Moon Cake eating. We made the trip to the airport quickly. As we said our goodbyes I handed Jiang an early “Hong Bao”, a bonus traditionally given at Chinese New Year’s in February. I had a speech prepared in the event that he argued with me, but he didn’t. Not even for a second. He gladly took it, shook my hand, gave me a hug and said “goodbye.” Our time together was over.
The plane left on time and I had an empty row so I moved over to the window seat. It was an uncharacteristically sunny and clear day, and as we arced up and over the mountains I could see Kai Fa Qu far off in the distance, the two smoke stacks of the local power plant were framing the area of my old neighborhood. We rose up about the coastal mountains and crossed out over the Bo Hai. As we left the land behind us, I could clearly see the brown of the Bo Hai merging with the deep blue of the Yellow Sea. Coastal cargo ships were plying their way through the white caps, casting long white wakes. I sat back, looked out the window and thought about the next phase of my life, realizing that I was a damn lucky guy.

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