Home Again: Back in the South


When looking back at last month’s column, it becomes abundantly clear to me that I needed a break from Shanghai–I needed to get back home, clear my head, and push the “reset” button on the whole living-in-China thing.

Shanghai from up high

The week before the post went live, my mood had deteriorated from quietly annoyed to out-and-out rageful, something that I only stopped to take note of when I found myself roaring obscenities at a taxi driver who decided to drive around a semi attempting a u-turn instead of waiting and following traffic laws. I should’ve known that he or someone else would try something like that–it’s essentially what I had written about in the column. Maybe I did know it. Maybe that’s why I slowed down enough to allow me to stop in the middle of the intersection instead of being run over. But where I should’ve just shrugged my shoulders and muttered, “So it goes,” I threw a fit that did nothing but make my girlfriend (a passenger on my scooter) nervous and give the locals a little show.

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I approached going to the airport as a trip toward freedom: the day’s running around, the normal hustle and bustle, the shoving, the stench–none of these could pull me away from the thought of home. Of course, I should’ve known that there would be something else in store, some little blood left to spill. In this instance, it came in the form of United Airlines.

Arriving at the airport with an hour to spare before departure apparently wasn’t enough. They had no associates at their gate or ticket counter to assist me, so I ended up having to fork over an additional $75 to switch my flight to later in the day–a flight which ended up being delayed for 3 hours…on the tarmac.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had the pleasure of public transit inside of China. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the pleasure of flying United Airlines. But, let me make something abundantly clear–if you can choose any other option when faced with these two choices, whatever they are, choose them. Riding public transit in China is like sitting inside of an unventilated tube with 300 of your closest friends…who happened to have developed glossolalia and a fear of using deodorants. Throw in United Airlines–who were kind enough after an hour and a half of sitting at the gate to bring us each a plastic cup of lukewarm water–and you’ve got a recipe for a special kind of crazy.

By the time we took off, I’d already given up. At some point, you realize that all the politeness or rage, all the tweets to @United, and emails to their customer service–none of it is working. Nobody cares, nobody is helping, so there’s no point in graying your hair over it. You pay the fees, you roll over, and you carry on and you eat your complimentary ginger snaps. So it goes.

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It was in this mindset–resigned to fuckups and failure–that I landed at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and completed the little song and dance that comes with going through customs and being switched to another airline (due to the aforementioned 3-hour delay). But then, as I was riding the tram from one terminal to the next, I glanced across the parking lot, lit in the darkness by a myriad of amber lights, and saw the sign for the airport Hilton…in English. In that moment I felt a little rush of familiarity and hope. I may have still been 650 miles from home, but I was making fucking progress.

After that, there were other small touches of the familiar: I could ask people for help without playing charades, I could eavesdrop on conversations, I could hold open doors for people and hear, “thank you,” and have doors held open for me. And…eventually…I did make it home.arkansas-large-letter-postcard

Home. That word has shifted from place to place throughout the years, but has generally held constant within the 53,182 square miles that is Arkansas. For this return, I split my time among the three places that have held me the longest: Little Rock, Fayetteville, and my mother’s family home in Pocahontas. The first thing that hit me, just as when I arrived in Shanghai, was the smell–or in the case of Little Rock, the distinct lack of it. The air was clean, and I gulped it down in big, thirsty breaths as I looked up to take in the sky. It was a beautiful moment–cold and clean and crisp. I could see every twinkling star and even the moon. It might sound a bit silly to think of seeing the moon as a momentous occasion, but I couldn’t remember the last time I had, so to me it was.

Aside from family, friends, and food, the thing I missed most about home was nature. Living in the city, sharing what passes for a park with millions of other people, isn’t anywhere close to normal for me. Even in Little Rock, with its population of almost 200,000, nature is never more than a 20-minute drive in any direction. And I don’t mean parks–I mean mountains, rivers, fields, swamps. All of them unpopulated or only sparsely so. It was exactly what I needed. That first weekend, driving my own car again, I made my way up to Pocahontas and slept my first sleep in months without the constant blaring of car horns, screaming neighbors, or late-night fireworks. I slept in, awoke to fresh french toast that my mother had prepared, talked to my brother about his upcoming nuptials (a recent development), and then went outside to enjoy the sunshine.

The author, his mother, and brother
The author, his mother, and brother

Car horns were traded for the squawking of chickens, geese, ducks, and guineas. I watched them all scavenge around the yard and field, keeping their distance from the horses and young mule wherever they chose to graze. I smelled the smoke of the new furnace as I loaded it with wood to keep the house warm, played with the fire until it roared. I took my time with everything and watched as life slowed down around me. The days, though short, were full of whatever I chose for them. I breathed easy, and I slept well, and I questioned the wisdom of ever returning to Shanghai.

But, of course, I’m going back. As I write this last little bit and do the final proofreading, I’m camped out in O’Hare, desperately wishing it were tomorrow morning or that my connecting flight left me with a 13-hour layover instead of a 14-hour one (once you get to 14 hours, they kick your bag out onto the belt, and you have to go collect it–giving up the luxuriousness of the international gate for the “please-don’t-bother-me-I’m-just-an-idiot-at-booking-things” bench near the exits until you can check in again…in 11 or so hours).

I’ve made commitments. I’ve got a girl in Shanghai that I care deeply about. I’ve got a plan, and it doesn’t allow for quitting a quarter of the way through. So, I’m going back, and I’m preparing myself. I’ll push and shove when I have to, I’ll honk my horn when the moment calls for it, but more so than before, I’m going to try to not let Shanghai change me for the worse. Any changes for the better…well…we’ll just have to wait and see.

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James Wilson is a writer and educator from Little Rock, Arkansas. He is currently working as a literature teacher in an international high school in Shanghai. His previous international travel has taken him across Europe and parts of Asia, including Korea where he cut his teeth teaching English as a Second Language. He sometimes tweets from @TatumSmash.