‘Anyway, ‘home’ is a problem. There are the bills and there are the mice plus there is that feeling you get when you catch up with yourself’
– Yrsa Daley-Ward, Bone
I landed in Beijing in the middle of the most insufferable, humidity I’ve ever experienced in my adult life.
32KG worth of belongings to last me for the year, a ‘basher’ phone for my new Chinese sim card, petty cash and coco-butter cream.
But nothing could fully prepare me for this.
What I did know is I could no longer house the feeling of failure compounded by job rejection after job rejection, a bachelor’s degree that seem to reaffirm its inadequacy and a future met with uncertainty.
But this was different, and for a few fleeting moments the thought of life back home felt so sweet. So safe. So tangible.
Here there were eyes bore into me. A sweet little girl sat with her dad jolted to attention after spotting me. Her hysterical reaction to my brown skin validated my growing discomfort: ‘外国人!/ wàiguórén!’ Foreigner!
After clearing security, I scanned the crowded airport hall until my eyes rested on a group of westerners. Presumptuous, but I approached them with full confidence knowing these, too, were English Language Assistants.
‘You with the British Council?’ I offered.
‘Hi! Elisia? Lovely! Nice to meet you! We’re waiting on a few more, and then we’ll head off to the hotel to get you all settled in.’
The 2-week teachers’ induction came and went. I passed the necessary exams (not difficult when you’re missing out on most club nights to study and Skype your ex), and I would subsequently begin my 5-hour journey through unknown cities to my new home for the next 12 months: Wúxī.
I sat with three other language assistants assigned to this elusive city that didn’t even get so much as a mention in the Lonely Planet guide, and although we chatted excitedly through the entire journey, we all carried nerves that only we could unpack in our own individual ways.
I was only 23 and I’d be alone for a year. I would meet friends, but ultimately I’d be alone. My friends back home would ultimately forget about me. I’d be alone.
A voice announced the approaching station and instructions for safely exiting the carriage – first in Chinese, and then in English – and then we had a few moments to gather our thoughts and a year’s worth of belongings.
“Wŏmen dào le!”
I met the head of the English department on the platform at Wúxī train station – a short and cheery man with thinning hair, a slight outline of a potbelly through a crisp white shirt and a keen smile. We exchanged pleasantries after a firm handshake and a series of greetings.
After swapping numbers with the other three language assistants with promises to keep in touch, I followed my colleague to a black estate car. The journey was a bit of a blur – a mixture of traveller’s delirium and anxiety – but I recall making out tall buildings and long stretches of road in a seemingly small city. Wúxī seemed unassuming, tentative and kind; it put me at ease. Lucid signs flitted erratically. Dawn light settled on bodies of buildings and busy commuters. There were superstores and modest restaurants. Street signs and tongue twisting consonant clusters.
Wúxī: a tidy little city located in Jiāngsū province and a 40-minute train ride away from Shànghăi. Wúxī felt like it could have remained in old China had she committed, but instead decided to go the cosmopolitan route like her more boisterous neighbours. Eventually, she grew weary, practised some affirmations and embraced her idiosyncrasies. And the further we went into our journey the fonder I grew of this little hub of indecision. That it was underrated and snubbed by popular travel guides meant I could explore it with little preconceptions.
The cluster of buildings started spreading out and steadily shrinking, and we passed over a wide bridge revealing a scope of the ebbing downtown area. It became obvious that I wouldn’t be living in the centre of the city, and I was cool with that.
After a few minutes the car started slowing to a halt. We were in front of school gates, and the security guards studied the car briefly before letting us in. 青山高级中学 ‘Qingshan senior high school’ – a sprawling campus with a 2-storey canteen, an auditorium, a sizeable track field and mere walking distance from an ancient canal and mountain.
We pulled up at a 3-storey apartment building at the rear of the campus. 2 flights of stairs later, and we were stood in the middle of an empty apartment. After pointing out my fully stocked fridge with cold sandwich meats, eggs, sweet bread and juices labelled with an indecipherable script, a wide-screen TV in my bedroom and a walk-in shower in my bathroom, the head of the English department placed a house key in my hand and told me to rest up as I had two weeks to settle in before the real work began – I would teach 14–16 classes per week for a class average of 50.
And then he left. And then I was alone.