I walk out of the elevator at Nanjing Foreign Students dormitory. My shoulders hurt from carrying the eighty-gallon backpack I have been living out of for the last month and a half as I visited my family and travelled about Southeast Asia. I am emotionally exhausted and have been looking forward to coming home to Nanjing for the past week. However, ever since I got off the train, I have been disconcerted by how foreign things seem here. There are people everywhere. They bump into me on the streets. The taxi zip between cars, ignoring street laws, and honk perpetually. I have to fight my way through the clouds of cigarette smoke that drift behind practically every male. Everyone is shouting in this strange staccato language. How did I not notice these things before? How can a little more than one month absence undo all of the homey feelings I had built up about Nanjing since I arrived in August? I try to think back; what was it about this place that made it feel like home a mere month and a half ago?
Before I left of my adventurous travels, I was going to the gym regularly and passing my free time with friends. My friends, other American, short-term, English teachers in Nanjing, and I regularly attended pub quiz night at a local bar. We spent Christmas Eve together eating delicious cheeses and caroling on the subway and at the Confucius Temple, to the delight of the Chinese who could overhear. I even convinced a male friend to dress up as Santa for the Christmas pageant the school put on. During this pageant the Junior I and Senior I class warbled English songs, performed skits in English, and presented Caroline and I with gifts. Throughout the whole pageant, Fang Laoshi told us to enjoy ourselves and the students would tap us on the should and eagerly ask, “You like? You like, yes?”
The entire pageant was put on for the enjoyment of Caroline and I. It felt so good to be so visibly appreciated by the students and the school. One of the challenges I faced at the beginning of the semester was overcoming the feeling that I was being under-utilized and under-valued. However, the Christmas pageant helped assuage my concerns about the latter, and the joy I find in being able to freely pursue my hobbies and spend time getting to know my new friends has made me realize the benefits of not being stressed due to exceeding high expectations of the organization.
Another factor that made Nanjing feel like home was that I felt comfortable with the role I was expected to fulfill. A month and a half ago, I was ending the semester. The students had three more weeks of classes left in the semester and seemed surprised when I told them it was my last day as their teacher. I had them present their final projects and we played a word game. The event itself was nothing special; however, looking back, I am surprised how comfortable I was with them. Even my unbearable class had become manageable as I adjusted my expectations and learned which English games they liked. I knew that in order to motivate Steve Crossfire I had to dole out a ridiculous amount of high-fives and coaxing smiles. I knew that to get my Junior 2 all-girls class to participate in small group discussions I had to play music softly in the background. I knew to never let Erica and Papaya sit next to each other if I wanted my Senior I class to do any work. A group of roughly three to seven students diligently attends English club and we discuss their significant others, school dramas, and family woes. Ten students grace our presence during English corner to play scrabble word games.
When I return to school, I will have new students. I will have to start over. The sense of ease I felt will be once again replaced with uncertainty as I learn how to navigate around new students’ personalities. I will need to get another teaching job to counterbalance how freely I have been spending my stipend money and help fill the free hours when I am not at Nandafuzhong. I will need to advertise and find a language assistant to help me practice my Chinese. I will need to do laundry. I will need to go shopping to buy more laundry detergent. I will need to lesson plan. I mentally tick off all of the things that await me as I walk down the hallway. I feel the stress of culture shock starting to creep in. I turn on my phone as I open the door. Twenty text messages? I read through the “I miss you,” “wish you were here,” and invitations to upcoming social gatherings as I maneuver out of my backpack. I glance up, and exhale. My room is exactly like I left it; I have friends waiting to reunite with me. The debilitating shock of trying to internalize all of the foreignness that is China disappears. I am home.