Have a listen, for a change! Click the player and hear my voice in lullabye read!! It’s a 20-minute listen, and perfect for the car or while you’re cooking dinner.
Empty-nester, a runaway living in a strange(wish) city, self-employed, working almost exclusively from a home office, staff of one. Me.
Ya. I log a lot of alone time.
Staring down the barrel of “Now what?” and adjusting to life as is and not how I want, figuring out how to be alone without getting lost in the lonely, well, it demands a new tool set.
So, when China fell into my lap, what else would I do but go.
My third Friday in Zhuhai China, a ‘smallish’ city of 1.2 million across the water from Hong Kong, the few English-speaking people I knew at Beijing Normal University, where I was teaching, were on their way to destinations, elsewhere, for a week-long mid-term break.
Unfortunately, the exodus included my newfound friend Xiaofei, a fellow expat from Halifax also teaching on campus. I’d met her right about when the isolation of living in a country where I didn’t speak the language had left me overwhelming lonely.
She and I had zoomed straight to BFF status. We were the same age, each had sons, and though both of us haled from Halifax, we were Come from Aways with roots elsewhere, me, Ontario and Xiaofei, China. As if that didn’t seal the deal, we also shared similar combustive energy levels, a bloodthirsty lust for adventure, and (bonus) she spoke Mandarin, opening up silent China to the world of words.
Because at all Chinese universities, everyone always lives on campus, students and professors alike, and being Xiaofei and I had flats in the same building, we were a short trot from each other for the times when the lonely ooglies of being so far from home and loved ones plunged either of us into the depths.
The evening before she’d left, I slipped by for a sniffly and very jealous send off. She was flying home to Halifax to hang out with her hubby and son for the entire break.
“You want me to bring any food home? How about some bags of almonds or chocolate from Costco?” she’d asked, placating me with a partial solution to one of my perennial whines.
I just couldn’t seem to figure out what or how to eat.
Tired of take out Peking Duck and dumplings, I’d yet to discover how to whip up a meal with mostly unfamiliar ingredients, on a hot plate, with limited cooking utensils. I’d made do with a subsistence diet of toast and peanut butter, pomelos, mangos and the odd roasted yam, not exactly the caloric intake necessary for a high-octane engine like mine.
“Ya, food… bring food… lots of food, and puh-leeze, Xiaofei, you gotta WeChat me while you’re gone,” I said, mock sniffles between my words for extra effect. “I really don’t know how I’m gonna survive without you.”
My fear was no exaggeration. Mandarin is a language impossible to fake your way through, and in Zhuhai, hardly anyone spoke English. Until we’d met, I’d few (make that no) opportunities for conversation or friend-making, tuff stuff for a social animal like me.
Hardly days after my arrival in China, I’d quickly realized the challenges of adjusting to an empty nest and rattling about in a house too-big-for-one was nothing compared to life halfway across the world, surrounded by thousands, most of whom I couldn’t talk to.
Believe me, I’d tried to communicate.
Every time I ventured to the grocery store or for take-out, I’d first get on computer to translate English to Mandarin, and then memorize the right phrases at home to apply liberally, or miserably as it happened, during transactions. The problem was both that I couldn’t hear or repeat tones, the foundation of Mandarin, plus the recall between home computer and conversation was compromised forever by my post-menopausal brain.
So, I’d end up pointing at something and nodding yes no matter how they responded, and when they realized I couldn’t understand what they were saying, they’d pump up the volume to LOUD and the cadence of speech to slow, as if that might penetrate the Mandarin language barrier. I’d shrug, smile, hold out a fistful of money for them to take what they needed, and then rush out in a flustered fog of I-feel-even-stupider.
And yes, I’d done due diligence in preparation for China, downloading Google Translate in Mandarin and Cantonese, just in case. But here was the rub. Between China’s firewall and my antiquated Canadian 3-G phone, I couldn’t connect to China’s more advanced 5-G network, meaning no phone lifeline unless hooked to the WiFi in my flat. So, in turn, that also meant no data outside the confines of my four walls, no Google-translate, no Googlemap, no off-campus adventures.
My only reprieve was twice weekly classes, lecturing (in English) to students with varying English-speaking skills. In the classroom, at least, I was me again. I could talk and be semi communicative, while everywhere else, well, I was invisible-cloak lady.
Life on the flip side on the world. Well, it really kinda sucked.
Sure, there was a collections of expats I’d been WeChat connected to, a mix and mingle of Americans, Europeans, Australians and the odd Canadian. And one evening the first week whilst in China, I did join them for dinner at an outdoor BBQ restaurant.
I’d sat beside Viola, a young Chinese woman married to an American expat, and the only other woman at the table. She’d generously shown me restaurant etiquette, how to unwrap the cellophane from the dishes and pour hot water over each in a particular order—plate, cup, bowl, and lastly, chopsticks.
The food arrived and the night wore on, beers being consumed at an alarmingly rapid rate, chain-smokers overfilling the ashtrays that littered the table, and when the wind blew, scads of those ashes were scattered everywhere, including on my plate. And the conversation? Well, I deduced my mom-type viewpoint an ill fit for the crowd and zipped my lips, other than to chat with Viola, who was quite lovely.
So much, then, for fitting in with the expats.
By the beginning of week three, gutted by isolation and jonesing for human contact, I’d morphed into a frenetic lunatic, Facetiming family and friends constantly, in spite of the challenges of China’s frustrating firewall and the 12 hour time-zone difference, morning being Canada’s evening and vice-versa.
And that, of course, was when I’d met my salvation, Xiaofei. And then, hardly a week after meeting her, after that a brief taste of friendship and fun, and China had openedto myself up to me, she was gone.
“Okay. I can do this. I can survive. It’s only a week,” I muttered to myself in my wee flat, mostly to hear English spoken aloud.
Knowing the only way to get through the week alone was to get through the week alone, I slapped together a ‘get-through-the-week-alone’ plan that began with an 8pm lights out curfew. With Xiaofei gone and nothing to do, I thought it best to sleep away some of the evening hours. Course, that bumped wake up time to 4:00am, which was actually okay.
You see, 4am in China is 4pm in Canada, meaning FaceTime was open for business. I could eat through a couple of hours talking to sons and friends, taking me to 6am, and then I’d gear up for my morning run on the campus’s outside track. By 8am, I’d be back and sitting at my desk, toast and peanut butter in belly, ready for a full day of marking. At 4:30pm, I’d re-gear for work-out number two at the indoor teacher’s gym and hamster-wheel away another 8km on the treadmill. 6:30pm, cram in dinner (toast and peanut butter), jammy up, and tuck into bed with Netflix until lights out.
It was the perfect rinse and repeat routine, I thought, to get me through the week until my BFF returned.
Five days in, after 30 slices of toast and peanut butter, 80 kilometers of running nowhere, 130 assignments marked, with 170 to go, I congratulated myself for successfully making it through 120 alone hours, never once having a real-time conversation with a real live person on the campus.
And then, of course, came the inevitable undoing.
The video calls home meant to give me both the love and family info I needed had become technically difficult and excruciatingly painful.
FaceTime, Skype and even WhatsApp connections would only last hardly ten minutes before the call was disconnected. Ya, I’d try again, but it took a half dozen or more attempts to reconnect, and then Blammo! Five or ten minutes later, I’d be disconnected and have to do the shmozzle all over again.
Making a tough situation even worse, my mother was in hospital, my family’s dysfunctional dynamics kicked into high gear. Halfway across the world, my only tether was digital, and news from home that evening was particularly compromised by technical difficulties.
My brother’s face froze for probably the tenth time, and I tried to reconnect, watching the infernal “connecting” text flashing away, fingers and toes crossed. Try after try, I just could not get through, and finally, admitting defeat, I closed my computer.
Beaten down by the firewall, I trudged to the kitchen to face the toaster, popping in two slices of bread, my usual fare. So you know, the texture of Chinese bread is marshmallow like, and the act of spreading anything on it, no matter how delicately applied and even when you toast it, causes immediate deflation.
When I spread the peanut butter, the toast collapsed, and then it ripped into a ragged, jagged mess. Giving up, I took the knife and stuck it in the jar, pulled out a knife full of peanut butter and jammed straight into my mouth. Dinner was served.
Tongue pasted to roof of mouth by peanut butter, I yearned both for a chunky, fresh salad to crunch into and to not be in my little flat in the hollowed out campus, let alone in China.
One technology glitch, two slices of toast later, and only five days into the mid-week break, I started hemorrhaging tears.
Alone is two-faced, serving up either deliverance or desolation, depending on life circumstances.
Back when full-on 24/7mom’ing three young sons, alone was stolen from the in betweens. It was a pause whilst hidden behind a locked bathroom door—no sticky hands upon me, no demands to be met, no crying kid to be consoled. Alone was the sweet sound of quiet before a son found me, jiggled the locked door knob and began banging and hollering, “Ma, let me in. I need you.”
Alone, then, it was a Timbit. In China, alone was a massive slab cake swimming in too-sweet icing that made my teeth ache and my belly churn.
And it didn’t seem to matter that the social isolation of China’s language barrier and the frustrating technology difficulties were temporary. All I had an appetite for was a Timbit.
Timbit or cake. Not enough alone time or too much. Since when does what you want arrive on schedule or in the portion you think you might need?
The ‘have nots’ that had arrived as middle-age malaise, part and parcel of an empty nest and solo life-journey, along with all the other lonely I’d hauled along on that 16-hour plane ride to China, every bit of it shrank into irrelevance in the face of this ‘have’ of complete social isolation, and I pined to be back to my Halifax life, however lonely it was.
You see, I knew that something could be done with that variety of loneliness. In Halifax, I could talk to people and find my way around. In Halifax, a city where should a shot in the arm be in order, I could get up close and personal with the East Coast paradigm that a ‘have-not’ condition, whether real or self-imposed, does not prevent anyone there from living to the fullest stretches of life, even me. After all, hadn’t my assimilation into a ‘have-not’ state burped me into China, not once but twice? And now that I was here, what might I do with that, from a Halifax state-of-mind.
I took myself straight to bed and fell sleep, with the help of one scotch and two melatonin pilled, perplexed by the ‘have not’ conundrum.
The next day, on the way back from my 6am run, I came upon the the woman who changed out the bags in the outside garbage receptacles. It was early, those left on the campus still asleep, undisturbed by the sound of the fast train as it sped by with morning commuters.
I’d walked past her every day, in silence, too mired in my own mucky muck misery to acknowledge her.
Behind her neck, a long pole rested on her shoulders, full garbage bags tied to each of its ends. The right side held one more bag than the left, so it hung low, the bags almost touching the ground. Bending over, she reached into the garbage receptacle, and the long ballast dipped lower as lifted and then tied the bag to the less full end of the pole, raising the unevenly weighted side, rebalancing the load.
“Nǐ hǎo”, I said as I got closer, Mandarin for hello.
“Nǐ hǎo”, she replied, with a broad, toothy grin, shrugging the pole with her shoulders and looping her arms round the wood on either side.
I pointed to the blue sky, pink from where the sun had recently finished rising, hoping she’d understand what I meant was—the sun is up, no rain today and aren’t the green palm trees looking brilliant.
She nodded and said something in Mandarin, and I nodded back.
“I know. China is incredibly beautiful,” I replied in English.
Neither of us knew what the other was saying, but that morning, it didn’t seem so matter much. In the midst of too much silence, I’d found me a Timbit.
Humans are social creatures, hard-wired to seek out emotional connection. In China, living without had swallowed me whole into a darkness I could wallow in or find a way through.
It’s not that I didn’t know this. It’s just so awfully easy to forget.
Back to my flat, I WeChatted the expat group and found someone to meet up with, and that afternoon, I bumbled my way by bus downtown to the appointed meeting place and a human I could talk to. The next day, Jon, the fellow charged with taking care of our group, took me to Macau on the fast train to get my VISA stamped, including a stop at small little take-out spot for a pork chop sandwich, on a real bun.
Friday, I bumped into Viola, who came through on a promise made at the outdoor BBQ, inviting me to come along with her hubby on a Sunday hike. And on the weekend, that small expedition evolved from hike to movie to dinner into a full-on day with the two of them and her friends.
Monday arrived, along with Xiaofei and bags of almonds and pistachios and chocolate and enough stories of the China adventures I’d had in her absence to keep us going until lights out, which wasn’t at 8pm for me that night.
I want to say that I came away from China changed, but I’m cautious to speak too soon. I’ll wait and see how it goes with the China lesson in the tool box.
P.S. Yes, that is me and Xiaofei in the photo.