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JISHOU, HUNAN — Well, really, I’m heading east to the West — the USA, specifically — in two days. My feelings are, strangely, mixed.

On the one hand, I will be able to see my kids and my relatives again, after 17 months’ separation. On the other, I’ll be apart from my friends here in Jishou, who themselves will scatter to the four winds after exams end on the 20th.

Then, there’s the prospect of flying, which I used to enjoy and now regard as a necessary evil to get from one place to another. (Would someone please invent transfer booths**? Soon?)

My itinerary is as follows. Leave Jishou’s Xiangxi Minzu Hotel at 9:30 am Wednesday by motorcoach to Changsha. Stay overnight in Changsha. Leave the next morning by air to Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport, then transfer by shuttle bus to Pudong Airport for an afternoon flight to Chicago. From there, I’ll go to Indiana or Kentucky, depending on which child picks me up.

I’ll be in the USA for just three weeks. It seems a bit short, after 17 months’ absence, but my travel plans after I return to China dictated a curtailed US visit. My Ukrainian neighbors (two piano teachers plus their son) invited me to join them on a trip to Hainan, China’s version of Hawai’i, during the last week of February. The Chinese New Year is Feb. 13-14 this year, and the days before and after strain China’s transportation network, as people travel home to celebrate with their families.

Imagine Thanksgiving/Christmas travel peaks in the USA, but with significantly more people moving around. Get the picture?

My travel agent advised me that flying back close to Spring Festival would jack up the ticket price by 1000 RMB or more. The cheapest return date he could find was Feb. 8, so we settled on that date. That gives me 10 days to chill out in Changsha and Jishou with my friends before I can thaw out in Hainan.

It’s not as bad as it sounds. My immediate relations now live in three states, so I can spend roughly a week in each location, about the maximum I feel is appropriate. (My uncle Herb, who frequently violated his own maxim, once said that guests are like fish; they begin to stink after three days.) As an ex-pat, I am now in a curious state of “homelessness.” I have no domicile in the USA of my own to return to. Instead, my physical address is “care of” someone else, and I am a guest of whomever I stay with. Yes, my dear children/family/friends, I know you love me, but let’s be frank. Sooner or later, I would need to move on.

I expect my days in the US will be pretty busy. Besides visiting folks and satiating myself on pizza, pasta, decent bread and drinkable beer, I need to sort through the junk I left behind, pack some books to send to myself in China, shop for gifts for my Chinese peeps, take photos and write diaries for my QQ space, and catch up on American TV shows.

At this point, I have one foot in the USA and one in China. Having lived in Jishou for 17 months straight, I’ve become fond of this grubby little city in the middle of nowhere. I have made faculty and “townie” friends, so when my students inevitably graduate I won’t feel so bereft of companionship. There are now several restaurants I like to frequent, and I have sort of figured out where to go to buy things cheaply. In short, Jishou has become my new home, and for a variety of reasons I have decided to stay here longer.

Cases in point. I will probably spend Spring Festival week with two dear friends, a piano teacher from Changsha, and another a student whose grandparents live near the university. Other friends have also invited me to visit Xiangtan (near Changsha), and Fenghuang, Zhangjiajie and other places around Jishou. My Ukrainian friends, Anya, Grisha and Nik, will also be in Changsha after they return from Fujian. So the 10 days between the USA junket and the Hainan trip will be far from boring.

Hainan was once a sleepy little island in the South China Sea. Then someone realized its tropical climate was a lot like Hawai’i’s or Phuket’s, and developed it as a vacation getaway. Now Chinese (and Russians, too, as Grisha tells me) have adopted it as their cold-weather retreat. We will stay in an apartment near the beach, at reasonably affordable rates — cheaper than hotel rates by far — for seven days. Expect lots of photos from me, assuming I can conveniently hook into the Internet there. (I’m debating whether to bring my laptop, or just use a nearby netbar. Laptop’s probably going to be easier.)

As they say, details to follow.
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* Journey to the West is a tale well-known to Chinese; in it, four characters travel from China to India to recover sacred Buddhist texts. I have seen at least five different TV versions of it since arriving here.
** Larry Niven proposed transfer booths as part of his “Known Space” universe. For a pittance, one can enter a booth, punch in a destination and immediately appear in a booth far from your original destination. In Niven’s imagination, the first booths shared the same latitude; the next generation were able to correct for different angular momenta so transfer booth users would not be slammed into a wall on arrival.

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