As we rode from the train station through the new part of town, I exclaimed, “I don’t recognize any of this!” That’s what happens when you leave a Chinese city for a few years. New buildings crop up all the time in the endless process of construction and modernization. I had sent a message to Candace, one of the students I was closest with in Yangzhou, so when we got to the campus she came running to meet us. She helped us check into our hotel and then we went to see some other students. That’s when the haggling began.
There were two classes of students that I became closest with during the two years I taught them, and they both wanted time with me. “We are fighting over you,” Candace said. After a few minutes of back and forth arguments in Chinese, the other students said, “We won!” Candace agreed to meet up with us later. We stood around outside for a while as more students were summoned from their studies and joined the group. When it got too cold, the students lead us into the empty cafeteria where we sat around to talk. The students were strangely subdued, considering that in my class, they would usually get so loud and rowdy I was afraid we were disturbing the whole buildings. They hadn’t been speaking English much lately though, and perhaps they were feeling shy. On the other hand, they all told me, “You are more talkative than before!” Several of the students wanted to take us to lunch, and after various discussions and negotiations, all the others begrudgingly excused themselves. After lunch, the students headed back for their daily rest and Kevin and I collapsed in our hotel room. Even a good night’s sleep on a train doesn’t turn out to be quite adequate.
We were able to see a lot of students during the weekend, and even ran into some I wasn’t expecting. Several students from the Guang Ling campus happened to be on the main campus for a class and walked by as I was standing outside. I saw several younger students I taught as well. Some of them were very surprised to see me, but others said, “We heard you would be in town.” News travels fast when foreigners are involved.
That evening, we met Candace and her classmate Sabrina for dinner. We walked to the restaurant because it was a pleasant evening and only about thirty minutes away. In China, anything less than an hour is totally walkable. As we walked, Sabrina told us about all her recent accomplishments and all the foreigners she had been meeting. She does have the best English of any student I know. She reprimanded us for spending too much money on a hotel. “Next time, you can get me to find a hotel for you and I will find one for much less.” I was reprimanded a lot this weekend, which was a strangely good sign. In China, advice and rebukes are used to show care for another person. It takes some getting used to, since our automatic American response is “it’s none of your business!” I have been learning instead to dish it out with the best of them, and am starting to realize how much I enjoy giving unsolicited advice. I told Sabrina she needed to be more humble. I gave another student relationship advice. I told many students to wear more layers and buy some gloves. And they loved it.
The restaurant we went to was one of our favorites. Candace and Sabrina proceeded to order seven dishes for the four of us, showing us how much they valued us. Even though many of the dishes in Weinan are the same, the flavors are rather different – spicier instead of sweet. My taste-buds were happy to return to the sweet flavors they had come to love. We ate and ate and when we couldn’t eat anymore, we walked back to the school.
All the students from Candace and Sabrina’s class were waiting for us in a classroom. When we entered the room, they all clapped delightedly. They had drawn a colorful sign on the board to welcome us and prepared a song to sing for us. It was some kind of song about friendship and was really beautiful when they all joined together singing. I could tell they had spent time practicing, and it made me feel so special to see how they had worked to prepare. They gave us a “wishes” bottle filled with tiny paper stars they had folded themselves and a good wish for us. It still gets to me how deep the bond of friendship is. It takes a long time for people to enter into that level of trust, but once you become friends with people here, they would do anything for you.
The students asked Kevin and I to tell them some things about our wedding, our time in America, and our life in Weinan. They poured over the book of our wedding pictures, even though they said they had looked at most of them online “many, many times” and are probably more familiar with them than I am. They asked us questions about our wedding and honeymoon and when we came back to China and why we didn’t come back to Yangzhou and who wins when we have disagreements. One student started her question by saying, “Ruth, I know you can’t cook.” I was a little offended and asked why she would say that. “Well, last year Corrine cooked cookies for us when we came to visit and you never did that for us.”
The students told some funny stories from the internships they just completed. Most of them were working in high schools, and many of them were confused as students, sometimes even by their supervising teacher. They talked about how old they felt now that they were seniors and their worries about either getting into graduate school or finding jobs next year. I probed the students to find out who had boyfriends (they were all girls), and they were embarrassed when their classmates ratted them out. Toward the end of our time, one student said, “Ruth, I know when I look back this will be one of my most terrible memories.” All the students began to laugh and correct her. She looked confused then embarrassed. “No, no. I mean cherible. Uh, cherishable. I will cherish this memory forever.”
The next day when we saw Candace, she said, “I was so excited I couldn’t sleep last night.” She said her classmates had stayed up late talking about Kevin and I: what we had said, how Kevin looked at me and how happy I was, how tall Kevin was and how talkative I had become. Candace was bringing us to meet her boyfriend. I had just learned about him and was quite curious to check him out and make sure he was good enough to date one of my students. He is a PE major, and Candace said he was nervous to meet us because his English was not so good. “He has been practicing his English all weekend.” He turned out to be really cute and funny. He was shy because of the English, but his natural confidence kept taking over. By the end of our lunch together, he was feeling more comfortable and speaking a lot more. I teased him about Candace and told him he’d better take good care of her and realize how lucky he was to get her. He said Kevin was lucky too. He wanted to take us back to the campus so he could show Kevin some kungfu moves.
We spent the rest of the afternoon with them, and then another student, Amanda, joined up with us for some milk tea. We were taking a train from Nanjing (about an 1.5 hours from Yangzhou) and we decided to head to the bus station so we could be sure to get on a bus. It was a good thing we went a little early because the line of people waiting for a Nanjing bus wrapped all the way around the station. Fortunately, buses arrived every five or ten minutes, and within half an hour, we were at the front of the line. Candace and Amanda came to see us off and insisted on carrying some of our heavy bags. They hugged us goodbye and we settled in for the next to last leg of the journey.
Our train from Nanjing didn’t leave until 11pm, so we went to visit some teachers who live in the city. We had a good time talking to them for a while (most of us were from the South, so that’s always kinda fun :). I was pretty alert and energetic until we left them, but by the time we got to the train station, I was in a crabby, semi-stupor. I was getting tired of all the lines and people and buses and taxis and subways and trains and carrying heavy bags. We didn’t have to wait too long in the crowded train station before we were able to board the train and crawl into our bunks. We arrived back in Weinan 15 hours later, only an hour behind schedule, and rushed to get to our classes. We are quite tired and not really seeing straight anymore, but it was a good trip. It was encouraging to see how much those students liked me, and I feel warmed by their generous friendship. It reminded me how lucky I am to be here in China. It will be a “cherishable” memory for me as well.