In the late summer of 2004, days before I was to move to Lianyungang, China, to teach English for a year, I spoke to an acquaintance who had spent a few years in the country.
"Holidays are hard," he said. "But oddly, not so much Christmas. Christmas isn't that bad. It's Thanksgiving that's hard."
At the time, surviving the holidays was the least of my worries. I was moving to a country where I didn't speak the language, understand the culture, or know the history, in order to do a job that I had never done and didn't know how to do. And not only that, I was going to a city—Lianyungang—that I hadn't even heard of, and could find no information about online.
Other than that, I was completely prepared.
Lianyungang, 300 miles or so north of Shanghai, is a port city of around 750,000 people and is famous in China for being the birthplace of the Monkey King, a literary hero from the 16th century novel Journey to the West. But in 2004, it looked like any other city in the country: full of tall, gray skyscrapers, neon signs, and belching taxis.
Foreign residents in Lianyungang were few and far between. I was told that the first English teacher arrived in 2000 and when she—a middle-aged New Zealander with white hair—walked around, bicyclists sometimes slammed into parked cars. By the time I arrived four years later, there were about ten Western teachers in the city, but we still caused a minor frenzy when we ventured into a crowd of people.
Usually, there were the "hellos": Young Chinese people would shout the word, accompanied by peals of laughter, as I walked in the city. Other people would tail me and ask for my phone number or address. Once, when walking through a university campus, I attracted a small mob of people who, wishing to practice their English, bombarded me with questions.
"Do you like Chinese food?" "Can you use chopsticks?"
Yes, and yes—we have them at home.
"What is your favorite Chinese city?"
"Uh, Lianyungang." Except for a few hours in Beijing on the day I arrived, I hadn't been anywhere else.
Within a couple of months, the euphoria of being in China had worn off, and I found myself settling into a routine. During the day, there was work: I taught two hour-long classes of 15 and 16-year-olds, and, because I assigned no homework and rarely gave out tests, spent the afternoons either reading or making a halfhearted attempt to learn Chinese.
At night, after dinner at my school's canteen, I'd walk to a store down the street and buy a pirated DVD, which usually cost about 50 cents. The quality of the copies were variable—sometimes, they were filmed with a camcorder inside a cinema, which worked okay until someone stood up in front—but watching them kept me from having to deal with my Chinese reality. I was desperately homesick. "Just get through this year," I told myself. "Then you can leave."