Thursday, November 24, 2011

My first REAL Thanksgiving

True, from first glance, it seems as though my Thanksgiving in China is about the furthest thing from a real Thanksgiving you could imagine. I thought that, too, for most of the day. But, when it really comes down to the meaning of the holiday - being thankful for what you have - when else have I felt the full force of emotion?

Most of the time, I cart myself to two family Thanksgivings. We eat, talk, do crafts, etc. But do I really reflect on what I'm thankful for that year? No, not really. It's the same routine, every year, and it has been for pretty much my whole life. About the biggest change I've ever had is what house we're going to be at. Then, this year, I find myself in China, which is about the closest to an alternate universe I'll ever be.

But, when is a better time to reflect on what I'm thankful for at home than a time when I'm deprived of so many of the comforts of home that I took for granted in the past? That's not to say that I didn't know I lived a privileged life..but there are quite a few things that I've learned from living in China that make me realize how much we have in America that so many other people don't.

No, I didn't have turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, or pumpkin pie today. Those will come on Saturday, in Beijing, in what will probably be the most appreciated Thanksgiving meal of my life. Today, I had Chinese food at the restaurant down the street. I ate in a scarf and my winter coat, because they don't have any heat...they just have the best food on the block. I drank wine and ate dark chocolate while watching a movie with the girls that I probably wouldn't survive China without.

I've had some time today to reflect on what I'm thankful for. (In no special order).

1. My family. My family has always been a given in my life. Growing up, my closest friends and playmates were my cousins. I saw my aunts, uncles and grandparents multiple times a month. We have family dinners often, and get together for birthdays. Everyone is in Ankeny, or at least close enough to jump in my car and head their way whenever I feel like it. Everyone is within reach. I think the longest I've ever gone in my life without seeing my grandparents is maybe six weeks, and that was probably only when grandma and grandpa Lamberti were in Arizona in the winter. Even then, we almost always had a family dinner of some sort pretty soon after they got back. It's been three, almost four, months now that I haven't seen anyone in person. Both sides of my family lost someone this past year...but I think what speaks the most about our losses is that we were always there for each other. Strength comes from knowing that it's okay to share both laughter and tears, and knowing that everyone around you understands.

2. The Internet. Or, rather, the age of communication. I haven't been able to see any of my family or friends in person, but I have the internet. I have Skype and Facebook and e-mail, and many other forms of communicating with the people I care about back home. As I know from my failed attempt at mailing letters back home, it takes a month or more for mail to reach the USA from China. (Hey, remember all those jokes you've heard about American postal workers being lazy?? China takes the cake...) I can say, without a doubt, that I wouldn't make it the full semester, let alone the year, if I were doing this in the era of snail mail. I want instant results and communication. Save for the time difference, pretty much everything is at my fingertips... Well, except when the internet goes out in our building.

3. No internet blocks! Not here, of course. But realizing that I needed to jump through all these extra hoops of finding a VPN just to access the websites I used on a daily basis really hits home being here in China. It makes me realize just how much information I have access to at home, pretty much whenever and wherever I want it. Have a question? Pull up Google on your smartphone. Boom! Answered. I've gotten so used to having pretty much any information I want at my fingertips that it's really saddening to think of a government denying people something that seems so...common.

4. Water. I knew coming there that the water situation would be quite different than what I'm used to at home. There have still be a few shocks, however. I already knew that I wouldn't be able to drink the tap water here. It's pretty much a given that I can't drink tap water anywhere outside of the US and Western Europe. The water machine that I was given is great. The only problem is that I have to go through Mr. Dong to get it, and he seems to be under the impression that we drink too much water. I ask for a new water thing roughly once a week, which costs 8 kuai. That's a little more than a dollar, so it's not like I'm spending a ridiculous amount of money. Here's the deal, though. Mr. Dong used to be really terrible about actually calling and getting water delivered to us. We'd go two or three weeks having to scrape by with just buying water bottles from the bodega next door. The next meeting, we decided to ask for two of the Culligan things so we wouldn't have to bother him so much. It seemed like a good solution. Instead, he called us selfish for wanting so much water. I'm sorry, sir, for wanting access to basic drinking water that I'm paying for. He's much better about it now, but it still rubs me the wrong way that I was called selfish for wanting water. WATER! It makes me realize how good we have it back home, where I can just grab a glass and turn on the sink if I'm thirsty.. I don't have to worry about either finding purified water or boiling it first before I drink it. I'm also thankful for hot tap water, which isn't a thing here. All water from the sink is cold. Ice cold. Which doesn't really seem like a big deal during the summer, until either a) it's winter, your apartment doesn't have heat, and you need to wash your hands; or, b) you think about the fact that there are literally a billion people running around who haven't properly de-germed themselves with hot water and soap after doing things that we don't need to talk about in this blog. Hand sanitizer is your best friend. I'm probably going to spend an embarrassing amount of time in the Chicago airport bathroom, just running my hands under warm water. 'Merica.

5. Toilets. I am so, so, so thankful for American toilets. I will never turn my nose up at a gas station restroom again in my life. Okay, okay. I've used squatter toilets before. They had them in Uganda. That's not even the beginning. Squatters on a train? Who was the genius who thought of that? Moving on from squatter toilets, I'm thankful that toilets in America flush. You don't know deprivation until you can't flush toilet paper in your own home. When the news was abuzz with all the talk of the 7 billion people mark, I showed my senior class a video from National Geographic that highlighted a bunch of things about world population. One of the things it talked about was how a large percentage of the world doesn't have access to water or adequate plumbing. That's China. If I would have watched that video at home, I would have been struck by how sad of a fact that is.. but now I'm living it. Thankfully, only until June. That's something else I'm thankful for. Even when I do complain, I get to leave in June, and go back home.

6. Politics. That's a weird thing to be thankful for, right? And, I'm pretty sure no one else in America has politics on their Things I'm Thankful For list, even politicians. Everyone is sick of campaign ads and debates... except me. I'm missing out on the Iowa Caucus, and that really sucks. I'm also going to be missing the Iowa Capitol come January, and that sucks even more. Because, really, as much as everyone complained about the legislature stalling this year (me included), I love that we have the ability to do it. I love that we have two parties who have the right to disagree with each other, and stall, and offer alternatives, and fight, and whine to the press, and make stupid little pins that say things like "Stop Gronstalling" or have weird pictures of Paul McKinley that make him look a little bit like Albert Einstein. Because, what's the alternative? No voice? No dissent? No fighting? No, thanks.

7. Going hand in hand with that, I'm thankful for my rights as an American. I miss rights and feeling like I have freedom.

8. I'm thankful that, save for a few weirdos at the bar, no strangers in America take my picture or attempt to hand me their baby. Seriously, I'm a freak show in China for no reason other than the fact that I'm white. It's pretty much impossible to go anywhere without having someone take your picture, take their picture with you, hand you their child for a picture, scream hello at you, literally stop and point at you, stand behind you and repeat everything you say, etc., etc. I'm thankful that, for the most part, people in America think it's pretty rude to do these things to people just because they look different than them.

9. I'm thankful for the unexpected surprises. I was having a pretty rough morning/early afternoon, missing home and missing things like crossword puzzles and nail polish and all the stupid little comforts of home that you don't realize are a big deal until you just flat don't have them. Then, I got to my last class of the day, my Junior 1s. They remembered from last week that I told them we would be talking about Thanksgiving today, and when I walked in, they all immediately stood up and yelled, "Happy Thanksgiving, Miss Mary!!" to me. Two girls came up and gave me hand-made Thanksgiving cards with drawings of turkeys and pumpkins. Small things like that make you stop wallowing in self-pity and actually smile. Other funny things this class did: one boy was so excited over the pictures of Thanksgiving food that he started rocking himself back and forth while repeating the words, "so delicious". Also, in Chinese, 'ta' can me he/she/it, and a lot of beginners get those mixed up sometimes. Upon seeing the Thanksgiving food, many of the kids wanted to express to me how delicious they thought the food looked. Mostly, this took the form of people shouting out, "Delicious!" or, "Tasty!" until one boy attempted to form a full sentence -- "I want to eat her!!"

10. Heat. I have never known a winter without heat, until now. I spent roughly three weeks freezing in my apartment until "the government" turned the heat on, on November 15th. The heat will be shut off by "the government" on March 15th. I'm thankful that, at home, we have the decision of when we want to turn our heat on or off, and what temperature we want to set it. (Although, dad, if you're reading this, we don't live in the tundra. We could bump the heat up a few notches next year.) But, this also boils down to the fact that I'm thankful that the government kind of butts out of my everyday life. There are so many questions in China that are just met with the response, "The government says". It's maddening.

Happy Thanksgiving! Eat an extra slice of pumpkin pie for me. :)

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