pigeon over the train tracks, Grant Park, Chicago
My first month in Chicago, and back in my home country, has passed quickly and with no major trauma. The one negative note was being victimized by an apartment rental scam through Craigslist: while still in China, I thought I could make the transition easier if I rented a furnished apartment before arriving in the US. It was my own fault for being gullible and believing in my own wishful thinking, and I lost a couple of thousand dollars on a deposit for an apartment that didn’t exist. Another hard life lesson learned.
On the plus side, I completed a short-term job teaching Italian teenagers at a summer English course through International Study and Vacation. I’m now working on attracting some private students, and I’m boning up on my knowledge of academic writing. I continue applying for jobs, mostly through the Chicago City Colleges.
The weather here has been glorious, a sharp contrast to the oppressive heat and humidity of south China, where the students and I sweated through 90-minute classes and the climate drained every ounce of energy from me. China now seems like a distant dream; I only occasionally have cravings for steamed bao zi (meat-filled buns) for breakfast or other local culinary delights. My studio apartment is a short distance from Lake Michigan, and my dog and I enjoy walks to Belmont Harbor and through the beautiful urban greenery of the lakefront parks.
The worst of the culture shock has passed, although there are still some aspects of local life that continue to perplex me:
I was severely chastised for failing to hold a door open for someone exiting a restaurant; it simply never occurred to me. I had become used to having doors slam in my face in China, a country where it can be hard to observe social niceties in its overcrowded cities.
I can understand virtually everything people say here. In China I long ago became used to the bliss of incomprehension; it excused me from having to respond to rudeness or others’ remarks about me. Here, I comprehend every inane conversation around me, and it can be irritating.
Chicagoans seem to walk around anticipating any opportunity for being polite or accommodating. I’ve never heard “Hello, how are you?” so often when entering a store, or people excusing themselves or apologizing for passing others on the sidewalk. Strangers smile at each other here, especially when you’re walking a dog. This over-politeness gets on my nerves sometimes. I almost prefer the brusqueness of other big cities I’ve been in.
I’m still surprised when I see “no firearms” signs at the entrances to libraries, offices, or bars. It reminds me of the constant risk of violence here.
Finally, when I asked my Italian students what things surprised them about America, their first question was “Why don’t you have bidets here? Funny what things we take for granted, and then instantly miss them when they’re gone.
I’m now in my third week in Chicago. I can’t say that the transition has been easy; my dog Gougou endured almost 24 hours in a pet carrier being transported from China, and the culture shock of re-entry plus the jet lag have left me feeling drained.
We lived in a hotel for a week, while I searched for and rented an apartment in Lake View. We’re now installed in a comfy but small studio, and I’ve purchased the bare furniture essentials, and begun to outfit the kitchen. Gougou seems to have adapted better than I have, and we enjoy walks together to the nearby lakefront, Belmont harbor, and the abundant parks that stretch along Lake Michigan.
It’s strange new world that I inhabit: I can understand the language here, and the mannerisms and attitudes of Americans are very different from those of the Chinese. I’ve lost my different-ness; in China I was often the object of attention, and here I’m simply another person on the street. Coincidentally, my new apartment is just a couple of streets away from where I lived many years ago at age 22, fresh out of university and experiencing the big bad city with young eyes. I constantly compare what the neighborhood was like then with its current incarnation. There are far more yuppies now, and the gay population of Boys’ Town is much more visible than similar populations would be in China. My neighborhood seems to consist entirely of joggers, dog-walkers, and gym rats traveling to and from their workouts.
I have a two-week teaching stint in a summer English program at DePaul University, and I continue my job search as I continue to adapt to my surroundings.
I seem to have come full circle, once again.
After 11 years living and teaching in China, I’m calling it quits. My dog and I have a reservation on a flight from Hong Kong to Chicago on Friday, June 30. Yes, I’m returning to my home country – even with Trump in office, even with the unpredictable job market, even with all my misgivings about making the move. I’ve stayed on in China for an extra year, after mandatory retirement from my last teaching job, to give me time to reflect on what I really want from my life, and to research the international job market for teachers. It’s been a pleasant year, living in an isolated, semi-rural environment, making occasional weekend trips to Hong Kong, and working out religiously at a local gym. The end result: I’ve decided to re-invent myself. Again.
For a couple of months now I’ve felt stuck between two cultures. I’m in a no-man’s-land, neither fully in China nor in America. I’m returning to the USA with no job and no place to live. I’ve had second, and third, thoughts about spending my savings to start a new life rather than investing it in a retirement account. I vacillate between terror and optimism, thinking of the opportunities I will have in my native culture but then enumerating the things I will miss about China.
I have always taken risks. At age 50, I began a new career as a teacher, after 25 years of working in nonprofit arts organizations. I moved to a country about which I knew virtually nothing, and learned to teach as I went along. I managed to pick up a second masters degree in teaching academic English, taught at three universities, worked for the British Council as an IELTS examiner, and did occasional private tutoring. Now, I feel as if I’m getting ready to jump off a new cliff.
I’ve been planning how to make the landing as soft as possible. First, the dog and I will need a home. Then, I’ll need work. My plan is to create my own job as a freelance private tutor in English and academic writing. I will look for other teaching jobs, and have one possibility as an advisor for Chinese students studying in Chicago.
I plan to work on my writing and photography skills. I hope to be able to take courses in bookbinding and papermaking, things I have wanted to pursue for about 20 years. I am even open to office jobs, or working in the nonprofit arts field again. The possibilities for a new life are numerous, but it also be the first time in 20 years that I’ve been unemployed. At age 61 that’s a frightening prospect.
I will continue this blog, although my writing will take new directions. I haven’t lived in Chicago since the early 1980s, so adjusting to the city and the American culture will be a handful. Wish me luck.