Everything has been happening fast. Very fast. I found out about this job the last week of August and suddenly its October and I’m here. Qingdao is finally a reality. Sometimes I just look out the window and say to myself: “China? How the heck am I in China?”
We got the Visa with little problem on Wednesday after a whirlwind trip to Chicago (view video montage here), drove home, and on Thursday I was off to the airport. My fourteen hour flight from Detroit to Seoul was uneventful, though I finally got to watch the Lego Movie which I’ve been wanting to see for months. I tried to sleep on the plane, but only got in about four hours before landing. We landed in Seoul at 6:30PM Korean time, and, because my flight to Qingdao wasn’t leaving until the morning, I had to collect my suitcases. I found I couldn’t check them in again until 6:10AM which meant I couldn’t even go through security to the airport at large. So, I put the suitcases on a cart and trundled off to explore my home for the next 14 hours.
The Seoul airport is huge, with coffee shops, a 24 hour McDonald’s, and at least three Dunkin Donuts. I found a row of about 20 padded benches and settled down on one next to a charging station to spend the night in the airport. A few other people arrived around the same time I did (a German business man, a French business man, and a number of Korean men and women) and, like me, did not move for the next 10 hours. We each claimed our own bench to use as a bed and by 12:30AM, every bench in that row had someone sleeping on it.
Around 11:30PM the airport suddenly quieted down, with shops closing and crowds thinning out, until the only people left were security guards, cleaning staff, and people spending the night on benches around the airport. I alternated between napping, reading, and chatting with my parents and friends on WeChat (the Chinese version of Facebook). At 2:30AM I made a run at the Korean McDonalds because it was the only thing open. They had real cream for their coffee, not half and half, which I enjoyed. I was amazed how quickly that 10 hours slipped by as I just laid on that bench. I was oddly sad to leave it as 6AM approached, and oddly sad to see the people I had spent the night with (but never talked to), suddenly get up and disappear into the crowd.
Finally, it was time to board my 1.5 hour flight to Qingdao, and set eyes on the place that would be my home for the next nine months.
As the plane dipped over China, it was suddenly difficult to see much below. It took me a few moments to realize that the day was actually clear and sunny, with no clouds. What I was witnessing was the ever present smog that hangs over China. I had heard stories but never seen it for myself, and Qingdao is one of the clearest cities in China. When I stepped off the airplane, the first thing I noticed was the smell. I’m not exactly sure how to describe it, except that the air was heavy, almost sulfurous, though after a few minutes I hardly noticed it anymore.
As I excited into the arrivals area, I was bombarded by shouts and smiles from the large amount of teenage girls gathered around the door waving signs. I pushed my cart into a clear area and waited for Sunny, my Chinese roommate who also works at my school, to find me. When she did not greet me right away, I started to get a little nervous, but I had to remind myself that maybe she didn’t see me in this crowd. Five minutes later, a line of young police men march single file into the crowd, holding them back from the entrance. People were clamoring now, holding cameras above their heads and craning to see what was happening.
That’s when Sunny found me. As it turns out, I was on the same plane as a famous Korean drama star–Lee-Min Ho. I have seen exactly two Korean dramas in my life, and he happened to be in one of them. So that was my crazy introduction to Qingdao.
My roommate, Sunny, is 28, speaks decent English, and is very sweet. She is always talking and smiling, like me, so I believe we are going to get along well. She helped me push my cart out of the airport and to the Big Apple Preschool van, where the driver–who doesn’t speak any English–helped me load my bags.
And then I was introduced to the art of Chinese driving. It is absolutely terrifying. There are no rules. Its every man for himself, pedestrians included. If the car in front of you slows down even a little, he gets honked at by everyone around him. Pedestrians don’t have right of way. I actually saw a man on a moped go down, but he seemed to be all right, just a little bruised. We rushed through Qingdao, and I was surprised by how un-Western it was, so I am not sure what I was expecting. There were people everywhere in the streets, high rise buildings rushing hundreds of feet into the air, and everything is covered in what seems to be a layer of soot.
We stopped first at the local police station, a dingy, white office, where Sunny and the police man shouted back and forth in rapid Chinese until my registration was complete. Then we headed to our apartment. Sunny explained that they hadn’t had a lot of time to get the apartment set up yet.
Our apartment is on the 16th floor of the building directly next to the preschool where I will be working. It is large and very nice, with all wood floors. After we arrived, an army of people marched in, bringing closets, a TV, a washer, kitchen supplies, the beds, etc. A teenage boy set up my internet, and a man showed up with curtains. None of them spoke English, but one of the men setting up the beds would smile and speak to me in Chinese and point to things, and I would do the same in English.
Before I came to China, I had been warned that the beds were as hard as rocks. I honestly did not understand what was meant until I got here. Imagine plywood covered with a layer of cardboard for “comfort.” I brought a memory foam pad from the US, which I am extremely grateful for now. Sunny helped me set my bedding up, and once we put down the layer of memory foam, Sunny patted it and started cracking up, saying “it’s so soft!”
At this point, I had not slept in two days. I set my alarm for 6PM, planning to take a 3 hour nap. Either my alarm did not go off, or I didn’t hear it, because I didn’t wake up until Sunny called me saying she had made us dinner at 7:30. My first Chinese dinner was boiled muscles, steamed corn, and steamed bread. It was delicious. I stayed up another hour before falling back into bed again at 8:30. I didn’t stir again until 6AM this morning. As far as jetlag goes, I think I may have already beaten it. I applied the same method I did when I went to Germany–just don’t sleep for a long time and then sleep a lot. So we will see how well that worked.
This morning, I was skyping with my parents when suddenly we could hear drums out of my window. I rushed over and got to watch a Chinese wedding 16 floors below. They had a full drum line, set off fireworks about 20 feet in front of my window, and had men dressed as dragons dancing in front of the couple. And keep in mind, this was at 8:30 in the morning. I have come to the conclusion that we are doing it wrong in America.
This morning the smog count dropped from 193 (very unhealthy) down to 57 (moderate), which is only about 10 points above the norm for Ann Arbor. Consequently, I can see much farther from the apartment windows. We have an incredible view of the city, and can even see the ocean and the famous Qingdao bridge, which, at 16 miles long, is one of the longest bridges in the world.
As the morning has dawned I am beginning to feel more and more positive about this experience. Sunny has been very kind and welcoming. This afternoon she is taking me to the market. Joel and Jessica, other American teachers for the preschool, have invited me over for dinner tonight. I might even get to see Michael, who lives in Zhucheng, today. Next weekend both Michael and Liz are coming up from Zhucheng and staying the weekend with me. It will be wonderful to see Americans in a place when it is difficult to communicate with those around me. Even so, I am very excited to start learning the language so I can communicate.
In the next week I will finally start to see more of Qingdao and learn to start my life here. I will be observing other teachers and figuring out what my own teaching will look like. Most of all, I will be learning a new culture and a new way of life.