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March 14, 2004

Making New Friends

Terry and I lived a relatively quiet, private lifestyle in the United States, and that has not changed in China.

We are spending more time together, because Terry is working only about half time, because (I have to admit) she is doing most of the housework, and because I am not studying 3 hours every evening. We had several friends in China before we came, but none in Nantong. These include a couple of Americans living in China as well as Chinese people I have gotten to know well over the years through business and school. These friends live in Shanghai, Nanjing, Beijing, Wuhan, and Zhengzhou. So far, we have gone only to Shanghai and Nanjing; the other cities require long trips from Nantong. For me at least, this situation is similar to living in the U.S., where most of my closest friends live elsewhere than Kansas City and I see them only occasionally. Our family, of course, is more distant now. We look forward to seeing them all this summer, and Paul and his girlfriend are planning a visit to China.

In Nantong, we are gradually making friends. Some are casual, like Xu Jianpeng, whose wife owns a hardware store that I found between my office and our apartment. He is helping her for a couple of months, while he waits to return to sea as a merchant seaman. In his spare time on the ship, he studies English and is glad to have someone to practice with. I first meant him when I bought a new adjustable shower head, so that we could use the shower in our apartment, even with its low water pressure. Now, whenever I need anything, if he doesn’t have it, he tells me to “come back tomorrow, and I’ll have it for you.” Since I usually walk home (the 5:30 bus is overcrowded with school children), I often just stop to chat, in both English and Chinese. Terry and I are also casually friendly with the three young people who work for me in Nantong. I take them to lunch every Monday, and we had them all over to our apartment for dinner one evening. They jokingly complain that I have three Chinese teachers while they have only one English teacher. In reality, though, we have to speak English most of the time at work, or our pace would slow to a crawl.

Terry has met several other American expatriates. She started by getting to know Antonia, a young British woman and one of the other foreign English teachers at Terry’s college. Antonia provided several other introductions, including to a woman from Indiana whose husband has a job similar to mine. (Well, not entirely similar. They live in a two-story apartment with a maid and have two drivers assigned to them full time.) Their names are Angie and Bernie, and we had dinner with them one night last week at a Japanese restaurant. Terry and I also met a friendly guy named Willie Hsung on our last bus trip to Shanghai. Willie is an American who emigrated from Taiwan in the 1970s and is on a high-tech consulting assignment in Nantong. We had lunch together this past week and learned that we are both vegetarians. Willie also is living an upscale lifestyle; he drives a car (I should say dangerous, as well as upscale).

I made my two best new friends riding the bus to and from work. Gwen (Tao Hong) at work jokingly calls them my girlfriends and warns me that Terry will be jealous. Zhou Mengying is a petite, bubbly 13-year-old who was the first of what are now many school children to approach me with a cautious “hello.” When we catch the same bus, she insists that I get on first, so I won’t be left behind by the pushing crowd. Her spoken English is limited to a few words, so we mostly talk in Chinese. One day I gave her my business card, and a day or two later she shocked my colleagues by coming to my office after 5:00 for a walk together to the bus stop. Although she was obviously nervous and brought a friend along for moral support, I was impressed by the courage she displayed. It turns out that Mengying lives with her grandparents in the building next to ours. (This situation seems to be somewhat common, with parents living, and working long hours, away from the central city.) That same day, she came to our apartment, this time with her young cousin and still a little nervous. I was worried about what her family might think, so I asked whether I could meet one of her parents over the weekend. That Saturday, she brought her father and a bilingual fomer teacher for a visit. Now, Terry and I have Mengying over for dinner every Tuesday evening. After dinner, she and I study English and Chinese until we are tired of it. As the weather gets nicer and the days get longer, I am sure we can find some outdoor recreation, too. In the meantime, we still meet and chat several mornings per week at the bus stop. In fact, I often hear the clop-clop of little feet running to catch up with me as I walk several hundred meters to the bus stop. A photo of Mengying and me studying will go up on our Photo Gallery this week.

My other new “girlfriend” is Chen Xiaoqin, a dentist. I first met Chen Yisheng (Dr. Chen) at the bus stop on my way home. She lives in the same neighborhood as Mengying and I and, like Mengying’s school, her hospital is downtown and close to my office. She is my age and studied English for several years in middle school, before the Cultural Revolution. With little opportunity to practice, though, she has forgotten most of what she learned. So, as with Mengying, most of our conversation is in Chinese. Actually, this situation is a great motivator for me, but my progress is slower than I wish were the case. (For the past two months, I have been overwhelmed by some startup problems at work, which now seem to be under control. This weekend, I revised a journal article for publication. Also, I have used what spare time I had to type my theoretical vocabulary of almost 1500 characters from various sources into a single spreadsheet Now, I have no excuse not to study 1-2 hours each evening.) Last week, I invited Chen Yisheng to lunch, with Gwen coming along to interpret so we could exchange more information and Terry coming so that my motives would not be suspect. Alas, Terry had a last minute “kai hui” (meeting), so I brought a photo and a note of apology from her. Chen Yisheng is going to invite us to her apartment for dinner one evening and give Terry (and me) some pointers on Chinese cooking. One interesting thing we discovered during our lunch conversation is that she was probably the doctor who administered my EKG test when I had my medical exam in Nantong last February. (Though trained as a dentist, she was the heart doctor at the foreigners' clinic at that time.)

In sum, no need for anyone reading this weblog to worry that we are isolated and lonely (although we do miss YOU, of course). -- Norty

Posted by now at March 14, 2004 03:40 AM