This morning, I had my closest call yet with missing a flight. I had been running on about three hours of sleep a night the last few nights (a combination of trying to get work done during the day, and late nights of majiang and karaoke), so I was just exhausted. I counted on one alarm and my natural anxiety about an early morning flight to wake me up in time – 4:30am, ideally – but neither worked. I must have solved math problems while sleeping to turn off the alarm, and I even slept through answering the phone (in Chinese) when my taxi partner called me. I randomly woke up at 5:22, about two minutes before she knocked on the door. Luckily, I was packed, and just had to stuff a few things into my bags and zip them shut. We were downstairs on time at 5:30. I don’t want to think what could have happened . . . . .
We got to the airport in plenty of time, so I took the opportunity to do a little bit of repacking. Then more repacking, because apparently China has a thing about lithium batteries in checked luggage.
I was anxious at the airport. Part of it was residual adrenaline from the morning’s near miss, but it was also about Xiamen. It seemed impossible that Xiamen could stand up under the weighty expectations I’d placed on it – I remember my year there as perhaps the best year of my life, and the picture has only grown more rosy in the last five years. Add in my excitement to see something beautiful after 8 weeks of Beijing Gray, and what paradise on earth wouldn’t disappoint? A secondary concern was: if Beijing was hot, how will I handle 130-degree heat indexes again??
The flight was slightly delayed but otherwise uneventful. When I came out of the gate after baggage claim, I saw XuLei – impossibly, she seemed smaller than I remembered. I hugged her, grabbing my own shoulders after wrapping my arms around her. I also got to meet NianYu, her boyfriend/fiance that I had heard so much about. They have a car! And XuLei drove! These were the first of many surprises for me in Xiamen, little indications of how everyone has grown up in five years . . .
I felt a little foolish, but I basically had a list ready when they asked where I wanted to eat. I was devastated to learn that Green Chairs Restaurant is closed (we never learned the real names of most of our favorite restaurants, just came to a sort of group consensus on what to call them), but our malatang place is still there. Some people in Beijing scoffed, but Xiamen’s malatang (specifically this place) is just the best. Malatang, literally “numbing-spicy soup”, is a sort of buffet of fresh ingredients that they cook in a spicy broth for you. I got meat, tomatoes, bok choy, potatoes, three kinds of eggs, and a piece of fried dough for the top. I hadn’t eaten in about 24 hours, and it was everything I wanted and needed. Plus we had 烧仙草, better known by its [Ch]English name “fubu burns the fairy grass”.
We bought fruit at a nearby market – oh Xiamen mangos, how I’ve missed you!!!! – and then went home. NianYu is a professor of materials science at Xiamen University, so they live in faculty housing on campus. It’s great for me, because campus is where I’m most familiar with :) They have a nice two-bedroom apartment that they share with a roommate. In my first taste of Chinese hospitality, NianYu slept in the living room (without an air-conditioner!) so that I could sleep in the air-conditioned bedroom with XuLei. (Interestingly, the temporary bed he’s sleeping on would pass for a folding table in America. It’s funny, we put mattresses on the floor, because the most important feature of American beds is that they’re soft, while in China the off-the-floor aspect of a bed seems to be more important.)
I took a much-needed nap before my big evening plans. Basically my entire return to Xiamen was scheduled around my need to be here for a Saturday evening – I wanted to go to Chinese Mass and then dancing. I’m so glad I insisted on that . . .
XuLei drove me to church. It was a little after 6 as we started driving, first down Huandao Road along the coast, past my old beach, before getting on one of the bridges over the ocean. The sun was just setting behind the two giant new buildings dominating the horizon, and I was just overwhelmed.
I started crying. It had been a few weeks, generously, since I saw anything that could be considered beautiful in Beijing, and going from that concrete world to a Xiamen sunset was almost too much to handle. I was immediately certain that my wonderful memories were not airbrushed and my high expectations were not too high. The dominant emotion, though, was gratitude. For this sunset, but not just for that. The phrase that kept running through my mind was, How was I so lucky to live here for a year? China can be a difficult place, and Chinese can be a nightmare, and I am continually realizing the perfect path I have been led along in both, to fall gradually in love with them without being scared away. Stronger people could perhaps fall in love with Beijing, but I needed the charm of Hunchun and the beauty of Xiamen.
XuLei let me off at the bus stop where I used to get off the bus to go to church. I navigated with my phone, because I didn’t trust my memory, but the route was so familiar. Other than the construction scaffolding I used to walk under, now a completed building, it was all just as I remembered it. I got more and more excited as I got closer, literally exclaiming out loud when I saw people rinsing fish in the street because that meant I was close!
When I walked in to the church, the first person I saw was Joseph Chen, one of the men who is always helping around the parish. He smiled at me and greeted me by name, as if no more than six days had passed since we had seen each other last. But there were changes . . . as I knelt to pray, the rhythmic sounds of Chinese chant surrounded me – they were praying the rosary in Mandarin, I quickly realized, but it was unfamiliar and strange to me. Xiamen has a local dialect, Minnanhua, which was quite common among the older parishioners. Daily Masses were offered in Minnanhua when I was here last, and it was the dominant language for personal devotions as well – to the point that I don’t think I ever heard the Hail Mary in Mandarin and still can’t recite it fluently.
Everything is in Mandarin now, though. Bishop Cai was appointed near the end of my time in Xiamen (after 20 years of the diocese without a bishop), and could see his influence all over. They recited selections from the catechism after Mass, and reception of communion was orderly and more reverent than I remembered it.
After Mass, Bishop Cai came over to greet me and “welcome me home”. Sister Mangu came as well, grabbing my arm affectionately in the way of Chinese women. As other parishioners and older friends gathered round, I took the opportunity to introduce Alba to them.
So, Alba is kind of a crazy story. I had made it to church just a few minutes before Mass started, and there weren’t that many open seats. I spotted one on the aisle and asked the woman next to it if anyone was sitting there. She responded no, and I sat down. It wasn’t until a few minutes later that I realized I had found the only other foreigner in the church. We whispered a quick introduction – her name is Alba, she’s from Mexico, and she arrived in Xiamen on Wednesday. She came by this afternoon to scope out the location of the church and, when she heard that Mass was in a few hours, just hung around. She was sweet and enthusiastic and joyful and on this day of extreme gratitude I was determined to do whatever I could to make her time in Xiamen as wonderful as mine had been.
So I introduced her to the bishop, and BinBin, and Little Brother. And when Mangu whisked us off to drink tea (it was inevitable), I made sure she came along. And when I said I was going dancing afterwards, and her face lit up, I told XuLei we were going to be joined by a friend. I felt like her fairy godmother, swooping into her life bringing only the best things.
XuLei picked us up outside the church and we drove to the Nanputuo gate of Xiamen University. This was where, on one fateful Saturday night – my first in Xiamen, actually – I got off the bus on my way back from Mass and heard music . . . The gate is under construction now, so we only found the place because we knew where to look for it. This was one of those moments where I felt very profoundly the immense consequences of the most trivial-seeming events. My time in China on this trip felt like one long chorus of “There, for the grace of God went I”, to paraphrase John Bradford. What if I had been sent to my first-choice university, Sichuan University in Chengdu, instead of Xiamen? What if I had discovered the closer bus stop a few weeks earlier, and never got off at the Nanputuo gate? Or if I had been too shy to ask what they were doing? People that know me know associate me with dancing, as if it’s this deeply ingrained personality trait, and it even feels a little bit inevitable to me, but upon closer inspection it seems a very precarious outcome indeed.
Anyway, construction be damned, it was Saturday night between 8 and 10 pm and my dancing friends were there. I often found life in China confusing and unpredictable, but this group of older men and women were a rock for me. Every single Wednesday and Saturday, with the single exception of a national day of mourning, they met to dance for two hours. Even more incredibly, they welcomed a complete beginner with childlike Chinese to join them. They taught me almost everything I know about dance – they certainly gave me intensive instruction on following without communicating verbally, which is the basis of social dance.
Tonight I walked in about 20 minutes to 10, to lots of smiles and waves and “what has it been, two years?” Try five! I got one dance in before they closed up. Luckily, I’m not leaving Xiamen until Thursday, so I told them I’ll be back on Wedesday.
We went back to XuLei’s apartment for some fruit (no one had really eaten dinner), then walked back down to the road to catch a taxi. There were no legitimate taxis, but I wowed XuLei by haggling with a black taxi driver to take us to Haiwan Park for 25元. (I didn’t think it was that impressive, because I think he started at 30元, but XuLei talked about it for days afterwards . . .)
KK, the Chinese bar next door that we always used to navigate taxi drivers, is closed now, but “our” club, The Key, is still open. They’ve rearranged the inside, and when we walked in, everyone was sitting at tables listening to the band sing “Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran. Not the atmosphere I remembered . . . but when they started the next song, I realized that it was the same band! I talked to the lead singer a few minutes later when they took a break and she said it would get more dance-y later, so we decided to hang around.
We first snuck outside to get some food – there are always street vendors that set up along this street of bars. This was the precursor to my habit of In-N-Out after late nights dancing at Saddlerack! I got a 肉夹馍 (Xian meat sandwich) and a mango smoothie while the girls got 烧烤 (barbecue). When we got back inside, the music was more upbeat and everyone was dancing. Alba is a great dancer, and a lot of fun to be around, especially when they played streaks of Spanish and Portuguese music. There were also new pop songs – Roar, Up All Night, I Don’t Care, Bulletproof, Chandelier. This band introduced me to all sorts of music – I heard Your Love is My Drug and Empire State of Mind from them first – so in the years since, I’ve occasionally wondered what it would be like to hear them play this or that song. It was neat to hear all the new stuff, but I was also thrilled to hear I Gotta Feeling. It was a new song back in 2009 and basically became my theme song for that year . . . And anyway, I did have a feeling that it was going to be a good night . . .
We left at 2:30 and taxied home. I Skyped with my parents (haha, the internet in my friends’ apartment in Xiamen is way better than the internet at the hotel in Beijing), then went to sleep! First day in Xiamen has assuaged all of my fears, only to stoke new ones that the next few days won’t be as wonderful . . .