© Copyright 2022 by Bobbi Ali
Photo property of the author.
Packing my bags for my “grand adventure”, as my mother called it, to China, my husband walks in. “I am deciding what to throw away, and what to keep,” I tell him, and he lowers his eyes rather than confront me with the obvious slight in the words. “So, this is it?” he asks. Yes, this is it, I think, as I finish preparing for my morning flight, and fall into bed with him one more time, this person who was a part of me for the past ten years.
Touching down in Beijing 16 hours after boarding a flight in Atlanta, I met China for the first time. A large elevator opened to take me down to the taxi stand, and many people rushed past me and filled it. This happened three or four times before I felt a push from behind propelling me into the elevator, and turned to find a middle-aged Chinese-American woman pulling my luggage into the compartment for me. She told me, “Just step in. Until you make the choice you will just keep getting pushed aside.”
The airport taxi navigated to a little place I had reserved online, which opened into a tight, dirty alley. Walking in the door, the man took my bags, and his wife handed me a banana and a cup of hot water. Tired and numb from the journey, I stood there holding these strange gifts for 20 minutes while they determined that they gave my room to someone else, and offered for me to instead sleep in their own daughter’s room. Rather than be upset, I chose to see the generosity and trust in this act, which I took with me into my new life.
The next leg of my journey began early the next morning where I flew to the city where I would train to be an English teacher, Dongying, Shandong Province. I was picked up by the agent who I had only met over Skype, and driven to another hotel opening into a little alley, although this one was a modern chain hotel, and told to expect him back in the morning to show me the school where I would be training. The other teachers were from other English-speaking countries, I think two Americans, a few British people, and several South Africans. All were pleasant enough, but much younger obviously. The two most interesting being a British failed fashion designer and South African Indian, both colorfully gay, by both definitions.
Before my arrival, I knew only two words in Chinese: “nihao” (hello) and “xiexie” (thank you), and I learned almost immediately that body language is absolutely not international. In this small oil town, very few could speak any English, and I starved for 48 hours before I learned about the KFC that was less than 50 meters from me at the corner of the alley and main road. Another three days still would pass before I learned that the heavy-duty plastic curtains across from my hotel were the entrance to a huge supermarket. This led me to quickly learn numbers so that I could conduct transactions, not to mention, eat.
After a week of training, another trainee and I were expecting to be transported to our final work location. The other trainee left that Friday. However, they told me it would be a few more days for me to move to the location I was hired for. Another week at the hotel, and the same answer was given. I was becoming alarmed, but I began to explore the local area. I had not brought a lot of money with me, and there was a local vending cart in front of my hotel that served a type of flatbread cooked with eggs and stuffed with meat, kind of like a taco. This cost me 3 rmb, approximately 50 cents, so it fit my budget and tasted good, so this was my main go-to meal for my stay.
That first week I was accosted by a pushy salesman for a nearby spa. He kept saying “free”, apparently his only English word, and pulling me down a small road and up a staircase. While on one hand I had seen the flyers he gave me, and was fairly sure I was being taken to a spa, I was terrified. Part of me said, “it’s free. Try a new experience.” Another part of me was screaming, “you’ve seen these movies. They are going to take you into this room, knock you out and steal your kidneys. Or traffic you. Or who knows what sick things?!” My ridiculously calm response to myself was, “Oh well, whatever.” I lay there for an hour, while they moisturized, steamed and massaged my face, never entirely sure that the alarming scenario wasn’t about to occur at any minute, but the thought of embarrassing myself was stronger than the possibility of losing a kidney. Fast fact: they did in essence rob me after all, telling me only half of my face was free, unless I bought a membership card. I lost about a quarter of the money I had to get through until a paycheck, but they threatened me with the police and I wasn’t really sure how to tell the police that I thought it was free.
Dongying is a city full of new money oil people, and consequently has a lot of malls that are just a toss-up of different shops thrown together to be turned into sort of department stores, mixed with more traditional Chinese brands. As I had no better way to spend my time, I shopped. This was how I learned my first whole Chinese phrase, “Duo Shao Qian?” (How much does it cost?) Probably one of the most important phrases I have learned to date. I also learned that the older Chinese shopping centers have nail salons that will give an amazing gel manicure for the equivalent of $10, so I kept getting my nails redone each week that I was there.
While I awaited the phone call to be sent to my employment contract location, I watched the community move around me. The older women who wake up early to do street dancing everywhere in the city. The shops, all of whose employee must do morning exercises and have a team building meeting every day. This also led to the daily run in the park by one employer, where I followed the crowd, whose attire ranged from athletic, to amusingly, suits and dress shoes. I had never seen people workout in suits or dresses before and it remains one of my favorite quirks about China even today. Another thing I saw in the park is all the elderly, working out with chain whips, and on public exercise equipment. And kites. People love to fly kites in the parks in China. As boredom overtook me, I also decided to learn the art.
Sometime during week two, I was walking through a large outdoor mall, and a large tile just happened to be missing. Not a tile as you might think, with a floor under it; there was nothing under it for about three feet. How do I know? Like Baby Jessica, I just walked right into it. Straight out of some kind of clown act. What I learned in that moment, was, that although Chinese people are extremely helpful in most situations, they tend to look the other way to save you from embarrassment in these situations. I stood in that hole up to my chest and nobody batted an eye toward me, to laugh or help. I wasn’t hurt, but I was stunned at both what happened and that nobody reacted. So, what did I do? I climbed out, dusted off, and went on my way as if it never happened, as I suspected that those around me expected from me.
As the second week came to an end, I suspected I was really getting a run around at the school. Since I had come through a recruiter, I looked up the company online and e-mailed them. They weren’t sufficiently alarmed, so then I found the name and information for the owner of the company, which was a large international teacher recruiting business. The man was currently in South Korea on business I was told. I still managed to contact him personally, and almost immediately the guy who had been stonewalling me came to explain what was happening and to solve the problem.
The foremost problem was my gender. Yep. Because my name is more often associated with men, the only person that had previously known I was female was the recruiter. Why is this a problem? Because the last three people who left the location where I was to work at left without notice and were female, so they determined not to employ foreign women. Now, you will think, “They can’t do that,” but remember, different countries have different employment laws. Even more, who are you going to complain to? English was quite uncommon in this province, and it was a few years still to the translator apps that all the foreigners use in China now.
Well, my outrage had brought an immediate solution. After the recruiter called around, he found three places that would take me now, and pay the costs to get me there to visit and interview with the schools. I spoke to a manager at the nearest, and agreed to try out a position in Shandong’s capital, Jinan.
Arriving in Jinan, I was led to an apartment building, where I had to climb to the seventh floor. With three large bags. I commented when I eventually got everything up the stairs that I now had to accept this job over the other two, because I sure as hell wasn’t going to take them all back down anytime soon. On this day, I also learned that I was expecting a fifth grandchild through my son, and that my daughter had had a heartbreaking and physically debilitating abortion. I felt like the world was out to prove that I had made another bad decision, this one taking me pretty much as far as possible away from my family.
This school offered such a low pay that now I can laugh about it. The advantage of this school was that they would give me an advance on my salary and a bedroom at a shared apartment, so at least now I wasn’t destitute. Jinan was a wild ride of good and bad choices, but I will never regret the lessons I learned in the nine months that I stayed there. I was constantly broke, in debt to my employer, yet they provided accommodation, so I was never destitute, like I had been so often at home. I worked with people who were willing to protect me, often from my own bad decisions. I don’t keep up with many of them anymore, but I am sure they probably still think I am absolutely insane.
Coming to China was a somewhat insane idea. I hated my life at the time, working 60-hour weeks but never making ends meet. Never finding a job equal to my education. Constant battles between my husband and my children (his stepchildren), and everyone telling me I need to do more, or be more than I felt I could possibly do. Oh, and then all of them complimenting me every time I made it through another hurricane in life, as if I had a choice.
When I left, I was working as a cook at a casual dining chain and up until my last day, no one believed I was serious about leaving. One server asking me, “But doesn’t that require you have a degree?” And for the first time, we all realized that I had never actually connected with anyone in the two years I worked there; just exchanging superficial information and stories. They were shocked that I was going, shocked that I had the education they didn’t know about, really shocked that someone would just decide they had enough and give up their whole life. But, ultimately it was about choice. My whole life had been about refusing to make the hard choices, just trudging through it, and one day I realized that not choosing IS a choice. Once you realize that, it doesn’t mean you always consider every choice carefully, but it helps.