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JISHOU, HUNAN — It’s been a while since I posted anything here, since I’ve been basically living out of a suitcase for the last five weeks. Now it’s time to relate the story of my journeys.

There were three stages: USA for family reunioning, Changsha/Jishou for Chinese New Year, and Sanya for sunny (actually partly cloudy) beaches.

Universities in China typically knock off for at least four weeks for the Winter Holiday, I suspect to encompass the times when Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) falls in the Western calendar. Traditional holidays follow the lunar calendar, while civil holidays and university skeds follow the Western calendar. I still get confused which calendar to use when people refer to their birthdays.

I was looking forward to my holiday for a variety of reasons. The main one was getting back to the US after 17 months’ absence to see my kids and relations. The other was to enjoy a week in a tropical climate during the winter for the first time in my life. (Yeah, I lived a deprived life.) It may surprise you to learn that I wasn’t all that excited about being in the USA. Since I’m essentially rootless, coming back was more like visiting a foreign country, but one where people spoke English.

Here’s a not-so-original observation. Life in a place where everyone speaks your language is a lot easier than in a place where they mostly don’t speak English and you mostly don’t speak theirs. I didn’t need to think hard about what to say to shop people, or taxi drivers. That aspect of the trip was relaxing, but I still found myself looking at the US as a visitor, not as a native.

[Cue the age-old line about “you can never go home again.”]

Getting to the USA required four legs: a 4.5 hour coach ride to Changsha, where I stayed overnight, a 3-hour flight from Changsha to Shanghai-Hongqiao Airport, a 45-minute shuttle bus ride to Shanghai-Pudong Airport, and finally a 13-hour non-stop to O’Hare Airport. My Shanghai connections were pretty close, just a few hours’ wait, so my outbound trip was not so bad.

United flight 836 disgorged me at O’Hare in the late afternoon local time. Surprisingly I didn’t feel too jetlagged. My son and his girlfriend picked me up and took me to their alma mater, Purdue, where I chilled for the Martin Luther King Jr holiday. He has a single room in his fraternity house (Phi Kappa Theta, if you must know), which was pretty comfortable considering the circumstances. (I mean, a frat house is kinda noisy and busy late at night. But on the bright side, there’s always lots of beer.)

Purdue’s dining halls are palatial compared to the ones at Jishou U. And the food is pretty good. On the other hand, when we went out to Panda Express for “Chinese” food, I realized that what I normally get at the Jishou U dining hall is far better than what Panda Express serves its customers.

Fortunately, 7 Irish Brothers redeemed West Lafayette’s restaurants. It serves a terrific shepherd’s pie with brown bread. And my son and his GF made some really fine pizza, which we ate while we watched Pi in her apartment. I had never seen Pi before. Now I wish I hadn’t. It was actually pretty disturbing.

My weekend at Purdue also marked the start of my shopping for gifts to take back to China. We visited Von’s, a second-hand bookstore that also sells what-nots. A couple of students had requested books from the USA, since foreign books are hideously expensive in China. So I took care of those requests pretty easily. Von’s also has Native American crafts, which I considered buying, but didn’t for largely stupid reasons. I didn’t find similar crafts at such a good price for the rest of my American sojourn.

Here was my gift-shopping challenge: to give people on either side of the Pacific Ocean gifts that they could not normally get in their local shops. The Americans got crafts and other things made in Jishou or western Hunan (Xiangxi) — a bottle of jiugui, for example. The Chinese-bound gifts presented a greater challenge. Nearly every gift-y type thing in the USA (that I can afford!) is made in China, or Taiwan (which mainlanders call “Taiwan province”). Books are a great intercontinental gift, but are heavy and bulky. So I only bought a few books and concentrated on picking up small and light objects. Quite a challenge, believe me.

On MLK Jr Monday, my junior stepson picked me to take me back to his house in Louisville, where I stayed the rest of January. Since he had to work practically every day I was there, I was pretty much housebound, except for outings with him and my other stepson, and my birthday dinner at a Mexican place in Elizabethtown (otherwise known as E-town).

With a lot of time on my hands, I got to read three books, studied Chinese, chatted with my Chinese friends on QQ, shopped online, and created a web page on Jishou’s local website. This last activity had an interesting result — no one could believe a foreigner was on the site. Apparently, I was the first ever. Some people thought it was a hoax. Others suggested I was there to capture a Chinese girl as a girlfriend or wife (not too farfetched actually), or that I was Mr Moneybags (that part is farfetched, my friend Xiao Pan’s accusations notwithstanding). Then people who know me better came to my defense. Since the dust has settled, I’ve made a few new friends in town, who are quite excited to find a native English speaker to hang out with.

I bought a few more books at Half Price Books, and I took some photos of the store for a bookstore manager in Jishou. [Note: Half Price Books off Westport Road allowed me to take photos. Barnes & Noble in Cedar Rapids did not. Use this information as you wish.]

By this time, more two weeks had passed and 20+ years of conditioning kicked in. My finely honed schoolteacher instincts said school would resume in a few days, but my cerebral cortex said, no, reptile brain, you’ve still three weeks to go. I also started to miss my Chinese friends and especially Hunan food. I’ve become so accustomed to la jiao 辣椒 (hot pepper) that food without it tastes too bland. Or maybe the chilis have burned off some of my taste buds.

But I got over my unease. After all, I could have pizza, American junk food and cold cereal (a real letdown there, except for Cheez-Its), and beer that isn’t bland and watery. (Yay for Samuel Adams!) For my 54th birthday we went to a Mexican restaurant in E-town, where I had la jiao again, a huge mug of Dos Equis and (while I wore a huge sombrero) a birthday shot of tequila, the Mexican equivalent of baijiu.

While in Louisville, I saw two movies at Tinseltown, Avatar (pretty good, but pretty overrated, too) and The Spy Next Door,a simply horrible Jackie Chan (Cheng Long 成龙) vehicle. Seriously, even if you love Jackie Chan, skip this one. It’s supposed to be a comedy, but it’s not remotely funny. It co-stars Billy Ray Cyrus, which should have tipped us off to its overall suckiness. I could go on with more details, but I need some mental floss now to forget I ever saw it.

Next stop was Cedar Rapids, where my daughter now lives. I opted to fly there, since renting a car is almost as expensive as flying and since I had not driven a car for a year and a half. She had almost a week off work and her BF had a few days off, too, so we could hang out for a while together. We went shopping and bowling, played Dance Dance Revolution on the Wii, played with Billy the (killer) cat, and ate some great food, some even made by ourselves.

I nearly finished my shopping for China-bound gifts. I added two bottles of Jack D and Makers Mark to my baggage, among many smaller items that (I hope) were not made in China. Since I was trying to manage with one carry-on and one checked bag, packing was pretty tricky. Not only did I have the books and other gifts, and my traveling clothes, but I was also toting stuff back I had left behind way back in August 2008.

So I had to prioritize. Non-urgent items went into USPS flat-rate boxes (about $43 to China for a medium box) and the rest into my perilously overpacked bags. (The Li-Ning backpack is fine, but the supermarket rolling suitcase is now toast. Its pull handle didn’t survive United’s baggage handling, and the locking zippers did not survive TSA inspection — I forgot TSA regs and locked the bag in Changsha.)

Since the weather across the US was dodgy, I booked an early morning flight to O’Hare in case of weather delays. I didn’t want to miss my international flight which left at 10 am. Of course, there were no snow delays; I could have taken a later flight and my daughter and I could have gotten more sleep. (And the IROC-Z might have started, saving us both costly early morning taxi rides.) So, I, Mr Worry Wart, had the dubious luxury of spending four hours half awake in the terminal. But that was nothing compared to my later ordeals in Shanghai and Changsha, which I will relate in the next post.

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