all these streets
The jet-lag lingered, but I forced myself to wake up early my first AM in Nanjing and boldly step into the streets to declare it my territory. I was excited, confident, and un-wavering in my desire to be instantaneously satisfied and relieved in my last minute decision to relocate across the world. I was fatigued and remember feeling slightly blurry, but my memory of that first morning isn’t. I vividly recall thinking that this would be easy, not simple - a transition that I could control. I had fed my ego on the 18 hour flight to China to quell any hint of nerves: You spent your entire life moving and adapting, you are well-traveled, you just quit your chaotic job as an adolescent therapist, you moved here from Brooklyn. This would be easy, not simple. I confidently slammed shut the door of my new apartment, eager to make Nanjing my city.
I crossed the street from my new home and immediately, almost out of nowhere, every one of my 5 senses were overwhelmingly inundated with ‘new’, taking me aback. Motor bikes whizzing by me from every direction had me spinning for safety, honking from every vehicle rung in my ears, and the hustle and bustle of the locals in a language I knew very little of (let’s be honest, knew nothing of) temporarily short-circuited my own thinking. The savory smells of the street food immediately contradicted my belief that I had a terrible sense of smell, and my eyes watered with the thickness of the air. While ordering a foreign-to-me breakfast pastry, I quickly came to the realization that I would not be utilizing my English, but testing my abilities in charades.
I continued on my first great Nanjing adventure, winding down the streets, fully aware I would no longer be depending on Google maps to navigate me home. I memorized landmarks and quickly reminded myself of all lessons on North, East, South, West. Or should I say: Bei, Dong, Nan, Xi. My nerves were heightened, but the pure excitement of the unexpected newness found itself morphing into a smile on my face. This was not going to be simple. This was not going to be easy. This was going to be hard. Challenge accepted.
A foreshadow for the next few months, that first day was the beginning of a journey of streets- literal streets, figurative streets, metaphorical streets. I am an English Language teacher at Jiangsu Second Normal University in Nanjing, China, but I have never been more a student.
My freshman students have been my teachers. Their curiosity and diligence in learning English and Western culture has sparked self-reflection in how I may have taken for granted my own country’s culture, history, and values that paved the street the led me to China.
They taught me about pride and honor in deeply rooted traditions. They spoke about the art that was part of their study- not hobbies- growing up. In my curious questioning, they guided me to places to witness and appreciate art.
My students recommended their hometowns for me to travel to, mountains to climb, architecture to marvel at, and food to eat. For every classic English literature or film I recommended, they encouraged me to consider reading a classic Chinese novel or popular film. They debated with each other on where I could find the most picturesque cherry blossoms or find the most beautiful flowers. I often run around Xuanwu Lake to appreciate views of Purple Mountain and fresh, green nature.
The streets in Nanjing are colorful, and they are both old and new. It is has been a constant theme throughout my travels in this city and in China- the dichotomy of modernization and historical architecture. Spring Festival granted me a generous amount of time off work and afforded me the freedom to travel throughout more of China and Asia. The themes of heritage and tradition of China were consistent throughout other countries I was lucky to explore: The Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, and Myanmar. China’s streets have inspired me to explore further and deeper into all these streets, to look and listen to the history, to surrender to the idea that not everything can be seen or be known.
7 months into my journey and I haven’t come close to making Nanjing mine, as the territory is large. However… I cross the Yangze River every work day on the Golden Dragon to teach curious students, I have my favorite bars to relax at with my international and Chinese friends, I have found the best coffee in my neighborhood, and nature is quite literally- my backyard. And believe it or not, I play a little less charades and put those weekly Chinese lessons to good use.
All these streets- my past ones and my current ones here in Nanjing, have been a deeply humbling and rewarding adventure full of laughter and struggle, lessons and patience, guiding me on my future streets… wherever they are and whatever they will resemble.
I am a teacher and a student. Not simple, not easy, but completely fulfilling.