When my blood runs warm with the warm red wine
I miss the life that I left behind
But when I hear the sound of the blackbird’s cry
I know I left in the nick of time
Well this road I’m on’s gonna turn to sand
And leave me lost in a far off land
So let me ride the wind til I don’t look back
Forget the life that I almost had
If I wander til I die
May I know who’s hand I’m in
If my home I’ll never find
And let me live again
– “The Longer I Run” by Peter Bradley Adams
Every now and then, I find a random song in my iTunes list that just happens to be there. I’m not even sure how it made it to my iTunes – maybe I bought it some time ago but didn’t listen to it much – but it just comes on with “random” and haunts me. Lately, if it’s not “The Longer I Run,” it’s Death Cab for Cutie’s “You Are a Tourist.”
As the current school year comes to a close, and I realize that one year ago I was hired to teach in China, I suddenly get hit by overwhelming nostalgia. Or seized by philosophical thoughts. Or just really need a country song playlist. Either way, there’s something about the end of the school year – my measure of “year,” at any rate – that begs for reflection.
What a year for reflecting.
A year ago, I was hired, never imagining what would happen in the meantime. I just packed up my stuff and didn’t think very hard about my decision. It was there to make, and make quickly, and I couldn’t turn away from an opportunity so clearly handed to me after months of prayer. People who know me now will confidently say, “Girl, you should be in England,” but, while I think that occasionally, it wasn’t the time for it.
My timing on things is never perfect. I’m usually late whenever I mean to be somewhere. I underestimate how much time I need for travel, leaving my apartment, standing at the street corner waiting for the little, meaningless green guy so I can cross, etc. But since I know this about myself, who am I to say that England is where I should be? Obviously not, or I’d be there. Simply put. And there are days when I’m sure my reasoning behind wanting to be there is more irrational than rational, really.
I’ve given up so much control over my life this last year that I wonder if I had any to begin with. Life used to be a neat, tidy package, and now it’s an overstuffed suitcase I can barely lift. There have been times when I have shouted at God because I was miserable and barely dragging myself out of bed for work. I have felt loneliness, isolation, and depression. I have gotten angry over not knowing the language and my inability to communicate. I felt like a middle school girl left out by others, even if I initially didn’t put myself out there for others to know me. I wanted to know why I’d chosen this for myself.
Sometimes I think that trip to Portland in November saved my sanity. I was one pumpkin spice latte away from going out of my mind.
I have since then grown past the resentment, the “why did I do this” syndrome which is part of culture shock, and have moved on to accepting the life I did choose. Life’s direction is changed in a simple “yes” or “no,” and there is power in that decision. The power to change you beyond what you recognize as possible within yourself.
I think I came to China thinking that change would be automatic, a faulty logic all its own. Because I have relocated myself to a foreign land, insinuated myself into the fabric of these people’s lives who are my colleagues, and taught new books, that I would change. Snap. Like the wave of the fairy godmother’s wand over my life. But one must remember that even Cinderella’s fairy tale first ended at midnight. Midnight came, a dark, creeping sort of night, and I realized that I was the same still, with the same personality, same hips that refuse to be smaller, same face in the mirror every morning. I hadn’t changed, and that frustrated me most of all.
Then, rather stealthily, like a fog rolling in, I started to realize that I had moved, I had done some pretty amazing things, but I still hadn’t changed the most important thing – my own attitude, especially about myself. See, moving to China hadn’t made me any different than the girl who lived in Illinois. Sure, I got to experience some amazing adventures, but at the end of the day, I still struggled with the same things. They weren’t automatically different. I didn’t leave them behind with my other stuff. In fact, they were probably the first things that traveled with me on to that plane, hanging from me like a carry-on.
Life without struggle, without change, without wrestling with doubt is really stagnant. By struggle, we lose battles but win something else instead. We learn how to fight it better next time. By change, we become hyper-aware of ourselves, like a goldfish flopping out of the bowl and suddenly realizing it can’t breathe apart from the water. It’s irreversible. You can’t go back. By wrestling with doubt, we learn what we believe, what we must question, and how we must answer.
But, having said that, I consider this year to be a year of wonders. Wonders and struggles, and sometimes wonderful struggles. And yes, there is such a thing. My bucket list has expanded and contracted as I learned more about what interests me and where I want to go. When I look back at my journal entries written from the time I graduated high school and college, none of them said anything about China. Prague. Philippines. Portland. About friends I’d make and friends I’d lose. About 3 AM taxi rides in a city glowing with neon buildings. About students who think you’re the best thing since Doritos – on days you don’t give them homework, of course.
I didn’t think I’d walk on the Great Wall and then freaking jump from it with just a rope.
Or drink green tea in a Chinese farmhouse and listen to the rain on the tin roof.
Or actually ever hold an entire conversation in Mandarin Chinese.
Or see a rainbow on a tropical island when the storm rested on the side of the mountain.
Or motorbike up an island road from town to town to explore villages and shops.
Or snorkel in reefs so colorful that Crayola doesn’t even have names for them.
Or be stung by an unhappy baby jellyfish.
Or watch a sunset on a quiet postcard beach with palm trees casting black shadows.
Or walk in the ghostly footsteps of those who marched through Terezin concentration camp.
Or have my heart sting as I see the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” above the camp entrance.
Or stumble through a dark, dank crematorium and hear the wind screaming with lost voices.
Or drink mulled wine and eat trdlo in the middle of Prague’s Old Town Easter Market.
Or watch an elderly Czech lady paint intricate designs on an egg’s shell.
Or feel the dark, cavernous eyes of the skulls at Kutna Hora staring back at me.
Or climb to the heights of a castle and hang over the wall to see the village below.
Or sit in the very spot where they would Shanghai unsuspecting guests in Portland.
Or drink coffee in every little Portland cafe to find the best pumpkin latte.
Or have drinks at the Ritz for my birthday while the Pearl Tower glowed outside.
Or wander down a quiet alley and see a snapshot of lives so unlike my own.
There is beauty in making a leap into the unknown. Once you make it past the worst stages, Shanghai unfolds itself to the curious eye. You rejoin life and move on knowing that you’re stronger. That you’ve wrestled and won.
Now, I’m settling in to my apartment instead of acting as if I’m a transitory gypsy going to move to the next camp when the rains come. I hope to paint soon. I have a concrete drill to help with putting up my artwork. I have plants, an ayi who can water them while I’m gone this summer, and fresh flowers I pick up weekly. I grade my papers so that instead of trying to block out life, I join it. I have some lost time to make up for, but it’s improving. Next year, there will be more people who are new, more people to join us on outings and various adventures.
I’ve crossed that ocean into international teaching, and it’s this dynamic world where the possibilities are limitless. I can honestly see it being my life from now on, but I won’t speculate too much. I won’t make promises of where I think I’ll go from here, in that mystical time called The Future. Those sorts of promises never work out anyway.
All I know is, I said, “Yes.”
By “yes,” I was planted.
God said, “Bloom.”
So I did.
When my blood runs warm with the warm red wine
I miss the life that I left behind
But when I hear the sound of the blackbirds cry
I know I left in the nick of time.