Sugar Grove, Illinois, is a not-even-10,000-person-strong briefcase town on the out-out-outskirts of Chicago where my aunt and uncle live. When I tell people I’m from Chicago, it’s pretty much entirely a lie. There’s no real downtown, tons of white people, and a hell of a lot of suburban living. The number of old folks’ homes is staggering, mind-numbing even.
Since the summer before college, I have lived and worked in Sugar Grove when not at school or doing an internship. The highlights of the town, without exaggerating, are: the “Chinese” restaurant with a killer General Tso’s Chicken, cops who’ll pull over their own wives for speeding, Culver’s cheese curds for when you’re hungover, the corner plaza that’s home to both a pizza place AND a liquor store, and the highway exit that takes you through Aurora and into Chicago.
This time, however, I had my whole life in tow. I’d just graduated from college. Most of my earthly belongings were packed into the back of my Cadillac, including my diploma and awards, which were strewn across the front seat in a not-particularly-safe fashion. As I pulled into town, the only thing that I could tell was different was the addition of a new gym—AnyHour Fitness—which would undoubtedly give the overabundance of local middle-aged women another way to pass the time before their next trip to Jewel Osco.
This time, when I returned in May of 2019, I was set to kill about four months before I went off to China for a year of teaching. I was pulling together an application for a work permit and saving cash to supplement the monthly allowance paid by the program. Lots of country music, only the cheapest beer, and rolling around in a diesel-burning truck working on firetrucks and ambulances was going to fund my cultural excursion. I’d be damned if it didn’t.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my aunt, uncle, their pup Marlo, and especially, my nine-year-old cousin. But the irony of my existence among cornfields can’t be missed by even the least observant eye. Picture this: fannypack and suede loafers; books about Chinese culture and philosophy degree; coffee “snob”. My stack of The New Yorker magazines that permanently sit in our office, alongside gun and ammo catalogues, stand out. Their placement there is no accident.
As I pulled into the drive, it was about as quintessential Midwestern summer as it gets: my cousin roaring around the cul-de-sac on his dirt bike while being pursued by the neighbor’s kid on his, garage doors open all around, and people doing their “weekend warrior” lawn care routines before the good weather disappeared. I hopped out of the driver’s seat and headed inside. I was, as always, greeted by Marlo. The brown labradoodle is a pain in everyone’s ass but cute enough to get away with it. As I stood and petted an aggressively waving tail, the familiarity of the kitchen washed over me, and I felt at home. Sam yelled for me.
As I write this, my family lives in three distinct parts of the world: the US, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Although I spent the first ten years of my life down the road from where I stood in the kitchen—passed the Pizza Hut, and before the Mexican grocery store—that large blue house in Aurora no longer feels like home. Yet, somehow, despite all my jests and the fact that they eat smooth peanut butter out here, this picket-fenced, cornfield-surrounded house in rural Illinois has become home. No amount of travel can change that. When I stand in the garage, listen to the fan spin, and gossip with my aunt. When my uncle picks up the phone on the first ring to help with a flat tire. When I play catch with my cousin.
But, it’s time to leave again.
* * *
I’m sitting in the lobby of Charms Hotel, Shanghai. It’s 5:07am. Back home that’s mid-afternoon, leaving me no chance of falling back asleep. My cousin will be asleep for another hour. Last night, I grabbed snacks from a convenience store and called it a night (earlier than my 9-year-old cousin does) after I watched a few minutes of English news. Then I succumbed to the jetlag.
This morning, the WiFi isn’t working and the lobby is quiet as I write. Outside, Monday morning traffic is still light, the sun not yet up on the Eastern seaboard of China.
After 45 minutes of aimlessly wandering, surely, I’d find the Bund River. I was wrong. Unable to find it, or a dry place to sit and write, I call off the search – both inexplicably starving and sweaty. The smell of food begins to emerge from side streets as I walk along the main road outside our hotel, an indication of the real start to the week despite an otherwise dark morning. It’s rained since we arrived, but any amount of rain is better than staring at the ceiling while my roommate sleeps. Finding only a convenience store open – and no hot coffee – I resigned myself to sitting with the hotel security guards while they smoked, and I waited for breakfast to open. I didn’t see any old age homes. Didn’t see any minivans either.
Shanghai is home to 26 million people, a few more than Hinckley, Illinois. In all honesty, there may be nowhere as different. Yet after several days of both exploring and studying for the Teach English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) exam at the end of the week, it’s starting to feel more normal to be here. The usual differences exist – food, language, cultural differences, etc. – but it seems to matter most how you approach them. Staying in the hotel room, we decided in room 242, is not an option. By the third day I was tired of seeing the same three city blocks around the hotel, so my roommate and I started walking. And walking. And walking.
The exciting atmosphere and Western influence – they say Shanghai is the most Western city in China – began dissipating as we walked further from our hotel, giving way to something common to all countries: normal life. It was almost a relief to experience. Babies, shops, homes, police officers trying to parallel park, and the people that occupy the normal roles of society emerged from the shadows of Shanghai nighttime as we walked further into their territory, and out of our comfort zones.
More than that, though, Shanghai has offered a chance to make friends before everyone heads out to more secluded or distant parts of Eastern China. The nearest person in my program is more than an hour away, but it’s comforting to at least know they’re around. There’s a sense of comradery that would be missed without them. Still, by the end of the week it’s definitely time to get moving. Shanghai isn’t why we were in China.
We walked back to the hotel and before I knew it, I was on a high-speed train to Qingtian, Zhejiang, a small county an hour towards the coast from Lishui. Although it looks a little different than Sugar Grove, it seems on either continent I’m destined for small town life. I never thought I would be, never thinking of myself as a small-town person, but I’m okay with it. I’m excited to get away from the Western capital of the Eastern world and move onto somewhere that can become home. Even without my people.
It’s time to get to work.
My personal blog is www.movingstill.org