One in a Billion / "What's done is done"
"Ladies and gentleman, we will be landing at Nanjing Lukou International Airport soon. The temperature outside is 33 degrees and the weather is hazy. We want to thank you for your courage in flying China Eastern Airlines." So said the pilot in heavily accented English as the plane banked sharply for our final approach. "Did he really say that?" I remarked out loud as I looked at the man next to me. The man spoke no English and had no idea what I or the pilot was talking about. I then realized that for this, my final leg into Nanjing from New York, I was the only Westerner on the plane.
As we approached the airport I looked out my window. It was night and I could see a few lights from the ground. The lights were orange-red and appeared to be fires burning in fields. Nanjing was supposedly a city of 7 million people. Where were all the electric lights and buildings? For about the 10th time since I boarded the plane at JFK nearly 24 hours before I thought, "What have I done?"
As we taxied to a stop and the door of the plane opened I was hit with a blast of hot, humid air that was mixed with a pungent mixture of smoke, dust and what seemed like sewage. It certainly didn't feel like 38 degrees, but then I remembered that China, like most of the rest of the world, uses Celsius and it was really 90+ Fahrenheit on that hot August night in 2001.
The airport was a dirty institutional-greenish affair with two beat-up luggage claim belts -- only one of which was in operation. Three sweating security guards lounged on impossibly small wooden stools with their pants rolled to the knees and T-shirts rolled to the nipples, sucking on pickle jars filled with dark green water and tea leaves. The passenger next to me took out a pack of cigarettes, offered one to each of the guards, which they readily snapped up, and one to me which I politely declined. The guards lit up, snickered and mumbled a few words in my direction which I, not being able to speak Chinese at the time, assumed was a comment about my bizarre refusal of a free cigarette. One by one, people picked up their bags and filed out of the airport. I was the sole passenger left standing in the terminal as the empty baggage claim belt ground to a stop. I only had one of my two bags.
Six months prior on a cold February New England day, I had been dreaming of the coming warmth of spring when I would be standing in a cap and gown on the field of Boston College's Alumni Stadium collecting my second master's degree, and third degree in total, from that fine institution. I had been working and going to school at night but, that winter, I retired from corporate America. I left a comfortable job as an environmental consultant at an insurance company to consume my slice of the dot-com pie with a friend. We had started a computer networking company that showed some promise -- but as one of my former colleagues warned, "Never start a business with a friend, as you will probably end up with no friends and no business." He was right.
I was rapidly approaching 30 years old and realized that I had been in a constant state of preparation for my future life. My little business venture was going nowhere and I didn't know what to do, but as I sat through my final evening MBA courses I knew that I could not just jump back into corporate America. I could clearly envision the next three decades that my life would take upon that path and it depressed me to no end.
I began randomly searching the Internet for employment and started sinking into a deeper pit of despair as I realized that despite all of my education and my previous work experience, I was ill-suited to pretty much each and every one of the thousands of jobs that came flickering up on my screen. I stumbled on one posting looking for an English teacher at a business college in China. I fired off a resume saying that I had an MBA and I could teach business courses as well as English. Within a few days I got a curt e-mail saying only, "What else can you teach?" I responded in turn with a single sentence, "I can teach anything." A week later I had a phone interview, and the following week I had in hand a contract offer for 5000RMB per month, a work visa, a return plane ticket and free housing. At the time, this was only $600 a month, a knife in the heart of my MBA program's average remuneration for the Class of 2001.
It was a hard decision -- I had to leave behind my girlfriend of several years, all of my friends and family, sell pretty much everything I had accumulated and jam the remainder of my few possessions into two big suitcases. Luckily the lease on my 4-Runner ended about two days before my flight left, so I drove to the Toyota dealership, tossed the guy my keys. "Do you want to renew the lease?" he asked, "Would love to, but I am moving to China!"
On Aug. 24, 2001, I was met by Bible John and another administrator from my new school at the Nanjing airport. They held a struggle session with the guards about my lost luggage. When discussions concluded 30 minutes later we left empty-handed but with a promise of delivery as soon as they could track the my bag down. We drove down a deserted highway for about 45 minutes while Bible John and I chatted in broken English about his new-found Christianity. I looked out at the dark fields all around me. I guessed we were approaching the city center, as light pollution from the street lights and tall buildings began to reflect off the smoky haze of that hot summer night.
My future colleagues and I got out of the taxi in a little alley called Wu Tiao Xiang. There must have been more than 100 people snoring and wheezing as they slept in their underwear on the sidewalk in collapsible beach chairs. "Most people don't have air conditioners and it is just too hot to sleep inside," Bible John said to me. I was exhausted from travelling, hot, rank, and completely overwhelmed by it all. "What have I done?" was all I kept thinking. It didn't get any better as I stumbled up five filthy flights of concrete stairs in the pitch dark to my "free housing." All of the light bulbs had either burned out or been stolen in the stairwell and the metal bars of the security doors in front of each apartment made the building look like a Hollywood crack-house.
I opened the door of the apartment, flicked on the sickly grey-blue fluorescent light, and watched four massive roaches scurry across the white tile floor and under the mint-green kitchen cabinets. "What have I done?!" I thought once again as I crashed onto the hard redwood couch in the living room, completely spent.
As I sit hear writing this today, my second-to-last dispatch from China, I could never have guessed that I would call that apartment home for the next seven years of my life, and call this country my home for nine years. As I begin to liquidate my belongings once again and pack up my family for our next adventure, I am feeling that same sense of trepidation that I did in 2001. As I think of the future, I can't help but thinking, "What have I done?"
To be continued...
Fairfield native Keith Gallinelli can be reached at email@example.com.