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JISHOU, HUNAN — So, here I was back in China, after three weeks in the USA, and it seemed like I was stranded in Shanghai. (Or shanghaied.)

When I left China, I was pretty sure my flight to Changsha was just a few hours after my arrival in Pudong Airport. No shuttle bus trips, no worries. But I had no idea what flight I would take, since my foreign affairs officer had worked out the details.

So, as soon as I disembarked from United 835, I connected to China Mobile and sent him a message: “When is my flight?” His reply: “Bad news, it’s been canceled” Turns out I had to go to Shanghai Hongqiao Airport after all to catch a different flight. No biggie, I thought, Another 30 RMB bus fare with plenty of time to catch the domestic flight.

Puh-lenty of time.

Due to stormy weather around Changsha, my flight was delayed not one, not two, but five freaking hours! My 9 pm flight from Hongqiao Airport eventually left at 3 am!

At one point, I fell completely asleep across four chairs, only to wake scared shitless I had missed my flight. I hadn’t. There were still two hours to go.

I had booked a hotel in Changsha and told my friend F. to expect me around dinnertime. Instead, I sent her a message to say I had no idea when I would arrive. She (bless her heart) paid the hotel in advance so I would have definitely have place to sleep once I arrived.

Which I did, finally. At 5 am in the effing morning. I arrived at the hotel at the same time as a couple who may or may not have known each other previous to that night, if you catch my meaning. (They had no luggage.)

Soon I had that nice bed I had wanted to sleep on for the past 38 hours. I managed I wake up in time for lunch and shopping at Carrefour, then went to dinner that evening. With only a day left to my already short Changsha sojourn, I really didn’t want to waste time by sleeping too much.

Here was my plan. Arrive in Changsha Feb. 9, hang out with friends, go shopping, etc., then leave Feb. 12 to return to Jishou to spend New Year’s Eve with a friend’s family. Instead, I arrived in Changsha early the morning of Feb. 10, so I had only a day and half there.

Anyways, on the 11th, I had lunch with the family I was going to Sanya with. We ate at Houcaller (豪客来 Hao Ke Lai), a chain steakhouse, which is near my hotel. A few hours later, I ate there again with F. and her sister (they really wanted to go), but this time I had the chicken.

The next morning, I took the motorcoach to Jishou, to finally arrive at what I now consider my home.

As I have mentioned before, Jishou is not particularly beautiful or noteworthy. Situated midway between two tourist attractions — Zhangjiajie and Fenghuang — it’s more of a whistlestop for travelers than a destination. For a small city, it’s traffic is horrible, especially downtown, and for Westerners there is a paucity of edible Western food. For a college town, the nightlife is pretty limited to karaoke clubs and a few night clubs (which few college students frequent anyway).

So, when I tell people I like it here, they don’t believe me. If I moved to a larger city, I could make much more money teaching, have more access to Western goods and other native English speakers, have more things to do in my free time, and (as I realized this holiday) have an easier time getting to places outside China.

But, having lived in small cities and huge cities, I can tell you that folks in small cities are for the most part friendlier and more open, especially if you are a Westerner in China. I feel very welcome and appreciated here, since I am not one of the dime-a-dozen Americans strolling the streets of Beijing (for example). I am usually welcomed as an honored guest. I admit that, after 18 months, the adulation has kind of gone to my head. Besides, I’ve made many good friends here. My students are wonderful (though not all are excellent academically). I get paid on time, and my working hours are fewer than I have ever had in my life, even with my tutoring gigs on the side.

So, what’s not to love?

When I arrived at my apartment, I entered a pig sty. When I left the month before, I was pressed for time and did not leave my apartment in the best shape. Yes, I did power off everything but the fridge and shut off the LP tank, but the floor was filthy, the kitchen was a mess, and I discovered with some dismay that I had left a meat dish to fester in the fridge. A person is supposed to have a clean house for the New Year. Mine was nowhere close.

And the fridge stank.

So, I didn’t really have time to relax. I unpacked, washed clothes, cleaned house as best I could, and got some basic food items (But not fresh baked bread. The bakers at Jun Hua Supermarket had the holiday week off.) My hostess, N., was going to meet me around 12 pm on the 13th (New Year’s Eve), and take me to her family’s home near JiDa. Her dad, a businessman, lives there with his second wife, their young daughter and his parents.

[China has a growing number of blended and single-parent families, as the stigma against divorce is waning. Divorced women, however, have a hard time finding new husbands, since there is a cultural double-standard. Chinese men prefer previously unmarried women as brides.]

The lunar New Year’s Eve in China is a big, big family thing. We set off firecrackers before sitting down for a big dinner. (The firecracker’s noise scares away the Nian 年, which might otherwise steal food, livestock and children to eat.) We watched the annual New Year’s gala on CCTV, the national TV network. They taught me to play xiangqi 象棋, or Chinese chess. Three of us played against N.’s grandpa, who beat us handily three times. After we watched the city’s fireworks display at midnight, we had another meal before calling it a night at 2 am. (Some families stay up until dawn, but it’s not a universal custom.)

In the days following, I puttered around the house, visited with Jishou friends, and basically just chilled out. The last part of my holiday was approaching: a week in sunny Sanya, China’s Hawai’i.

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