I’ve never been much of a believer in luck.
Flashback to my first week in Beijing, when I was told that in order to receive a new sim card for my foreign phone, I’d need to pick out a new number. I was handed a book filled with them. The numbers were listed by prices: the most expensive were in the front of the book, and the least expensive were towards the back. “What’s the difference?” I asked, oblivious. Through a great deal of translation, I was told that the numbers in the front were ‘luckier.’ They contained fewer 4’s, and more of the lucky numbers: 8 and 6. The word for eight is close to the pronunciation of a Chinese word that means wealth or prosperity. And four, well, you don’t mess with the number four. The pronunciation, si, sounds like part of the word for death. Buildings are often built without a fourth, or fourteenth counted floor (actually, most don’t have a number 13 as well, which is something borrowed from the West. Many buildings go from floor 12 to floor 15, which makes taking the stairs between floors as a novice a little confusing). I took a number from the last page. To be safe, I didn’t go with the absolute last number, but it was pretty close. My phone number now ends with a four. So far, things have panned out all right.
The idea of luck is pretty pervasive here. In a recent conversation with a favorite student of mine, she felt comfortable enough to outline her family’s history. As I sat slack-jawed, she detailed how her grandmother, with bound feet, was among the first to be sent to the country-side during the Cultural Revolution. Her mother was born a few years later, during the first year of a three year country-wide famine. She survived on a spoonful of rice soaked in a cup of water. Because there weren’t any schools in her village, as a young adult she was sent to another village for “school.” During the day, she had to wade through ice-cold rice paddies. When she was on her period, she hid from the job. She was harshly criticized by her peers and adults, but she credits the decision for the reason she was able to have children later in life. Many women from the village couldn’t. My student told me that her mother calls her “the lucky one.” Her generation never had to deal with war or famine. She grew up with enough to eat, and in relative comfort.
If that’s luck, then I am a lucky girl. I live in a time in China where I can listen to stories like this with detached amazement, where a country of over a billion people are trying to learn the language that I was lucky enough to grow up knowing. And it’s with that sense of my own good fortune that I’m staying in China for another year. I don’t know that I’ll never get to live in China again, but I do know that I’ll never get to live abroad like this again. With friends that I’ve known since my pre-K class, with a network of people that I’ve met and grown close with, and with my parents in the same city, laughing and whining about the same things. (Point of interest: they whine more). Even my brother is in the same time zone. (Another point of interest: the entire country is set in the same time zone. Still, it’s impressive that I am this relatively close to my entire immediate family). America, stay put for now. I’ll be visiting this summer to fill up on cheese curds and beer and really good ice-cream, and then I’ll be back. And next New Years I’ll be eating dumplings again, because now I’m not taking any chances with this ‘luck’ thing.