One in a billion / "Independence Day"
"Do you really think you are ever going to wear that again?" I asked Li Na as we continued the process of pouring through the piles of clothing that we had accumulated.
"Well I haven't worn it in years, but I might," she answered.
"We have only two choices -- either put in the box to ship, or toss it. And look at all of these boxes we are already shipping. It is going to cost us a fortune," I said as Li Na pitched one more article of clothing onto the large and expanding "don't want" pile. Her mom stormed through the door shaking her head and for the ten-thousandth time piped in, "Why are you throwing that away? It is perfectly good."
I get around, but luckily over the years I have actually been able to call someplace home for a decade or so at a time. I started my journey with long and flowing chestnut brown locks characteristic of the 1970s in New Haven; the '80s saw my head adorned with an atrocious Wedding Singer-like mullet cascading to my shoulders in Fairfield; the '90s brought a neat and clean corporate buzz-cut to Boston; and the aughts took me to Nanjing, China, with a shaved pate courtesy of a Schick three-bladed Tracer (for which I can't seem to find replacement blades for anymore -- it seems like they only make these unwieldy eight-bladed monstrosities now).
Each time I left the place I called home, I was overcome with a mix of anticipation, anxiety and excitement for the next chapter of my life. Moving from my parents' home to my dorm in college brought with it all of the feelings of a "rite of passage" where I was leaving the nest. Going to China for the first time I was terrified of all of the challenges ahead of me especially because I was heading out on my own.
At each of the previous transition points in my life I had the energy and expectancy of youth to push me into new challenges knowing that I had my whole life ahead of me. But leaving China is a little different. My friend and colleague, who was also closing the book on the Sino-chapter of her life said to me, "I feel a little bit like I was told I have a terminal illness and I am preparing for death."
That really struck me because I realized I was going through similar emotions, but thankfully not as severe as an illness. After living in a foreign country such as China for so long I have had to say goodbye to many great people. Most are living a transient lifestyle and fall into one of three main categories: workers on a several-year contract assignment for a factory or chemical plant, students boning up on their language skills so they can find a real job, or English teachers who have come because they needed to get away from their home countries for a bit. Most people come and are gone within the first one to three years. It is hard to say goodbye but after you have had to repeat the process several times you realize that it is just part of the life of an expat.
There are those people, like myself, who have, for a myriad of reasons, decided to make a home and life away from their native country. The German doctor/photographer, the British bar keep, the American pizza restaurateur, the Canadian farm equipment manufacturer, the German triathlete/jazz aficionado along with myself -- the American TV host and high school teacher -- made up a core of people who remained through the years while all the rest jumped ship.
Sifting through my apartment for the final time was a hot, dirty and dusty affair. It is amazing that my bike, sitting untouched for over a year in my parents' Fairfield garage, has less dust and grime on it than my apartment in Nanjing does after a weekend away. I sat in the hot and humid air and picked through piles of old memorabilia -- portraits that long-forgotten students had sketched of me, clothes that I wore only once for hosting a particular Chinese TV game show and would never wear again, trinkets I had picked up in places I couldn't remember, and even notes from classes that I will never teach again all went into the massive and continually growing pile of things to discard.
My body also went into a manic state of trying to squeeze in as much physical stimuli as I could in my final two weeks. I woke every morning at 3:30 a.m. to head out for a bike ride and swim at the top of the mountain before work, went out nearly every other night to watch the World Cup soccer matches with friends, starting at 10:30 p.m. or 2:30 a.m., and leaving almost no time for sleep. Farewell dinners with various groups of friends were scattered in as well. I said my good-byes to close friends and comrades whom I know I may never see again. Most of them will also eventually depart China for lands unknown, and the chances of crossing paths again are nearly nil.
July 4 was my independence day, as we said goodbye to China. My wife Li Na, daughter Mia and I will be moving to South Korea where I will be the director of development for an international school just outside of Seoul. I have enjoyed tremendously sharing my life in the Middle Kingdom with the readers of the Fairfield Citizen and plan to continue my column from Korea.
If you have nothing better to do (or even if you do!), come on down to Fairfield Prep on North Benson Road, Arrupe Hall Room 103, Thursday, July 22, at 7 p.m., when I will be giving a talk about my life and experiences in China. I hope to see you there.
Fairfield native Keith Gallinelli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.