I will leave Chenxi tomorrow.
I’ve always known that my life and work in this relatively small Chinese town has had a finite quality to it—no matter how much of an affect I perceive myself making on the students, the residents, and the authorities of this cog in the Great Red Machine, I am often forced to remind myself that life in Chenxi will continue to move at a fairly undisturbed pace when I leave. When my inner waijiao gets the better of me though, I picture my absence from this western Hunan community to be a noticeable one: “Where did that strangely-dressed laowai go?”; “Did the foreigner finally get that we were ripping him off?”; “Who is going to entertain my two year-old now that the foreign teacher is gone?” Within a few months, it is likely that the majority of Chenxiren will regard me as just another in a line of similarly-strange presences from the Western world. But, then there are a few who I know will miss me as much as I do them.
“Okay, you’re buying tomatoes, cucumbers, scallions, and garlic. That’ll be ¥8 kuai, all together.”
To appear more confident, the vendor at my more regular wet market straightens his shoulders whenever he talks to me. When he gets his haircut every other month, it’s hard to imagine such a handsome man selling eggplants all day. But, he seems happy with his job and it’s no wonder—he practically has a monopoly on good produce.
“You don’t want eggs today?” he asked as he motioned to the crates of chicken eggs near his table. “You usually buy eggs.”
“No, I don’t need them today,” I responded. “Did you know that I will return home on Friday?”
“Oh, to see your family?”
“Yes. I will live there for about three months.”
“And then you will return to Chenxi to start a new semester?”
My stomach twisted upwards. Our goodbye suddenly had the potential to become very awkward.
“No,” I said. “I will return to China, but I will go to Jiangsu University to teach English.”
“Mm,” the vendor nodded. “Jiangsu is very rich. It’s not like Chenxi. You’ll be happier there.”
“Because Jiangsu has many foreigners. Many Chenxi people are very rude.”
“But you’re not rude,” I reassured him. “You’re my good friend.”
The vendor laughed, his tense upper-shoulders melted into their proper place. He handed me my many-colored variety of vegetable bags.
“A gift,” he said. “Have a good journey.”
“You’re leaving the day after tomorrow, right?”
The barbell was tickling my chest as I lowered it for my final repetition. The owner of Chenxi’s small fitness club recently appointed himself as my personal trainer, on top of giving me a free membership. His biceps are comically bloated, most likely due to the pharmacy of supplements he dips into after each daily, three-hour workout.
“Right,” I said I rested the bar on the weight bench. “I’ll go to Changsha first and then I’ll fly to America.”
“Which state will you go to?” the trainer asked as he began to add more weight to the barbell.
“My mother and father live in Minnesota,” I replied as I wiped away the sweat from my forehead. “So, I’ll also live in Minnesota.”
The trainer nodded and secured the final 5kg weight into place. “Do you have a job in America?”
“No,” I said. “I will come back to China for work.”
“If you come back to Chenxi, you can work here,” he explained.
“Right, I could work at Number Two Middle School.”
“No. I mean you could work at this gym. You could teach people how to exercise.”
“Seriously,” he said. “I can pay you a lot of money and you can live in my apartment.”
“This class is our last class,” I said in Chinese as the bell rang. “So, I just want to say ‘Thank you’ and ‘Bye-bye!’”
My students stirred in their seats, confused and awkward as early-adolescents should be. But then an unexpected, emphatic chant rose over the class: “No bye-bye! No bye-bye! No bye-bye!”