The Shanghai Airport was crowded when I exited the arrival gate for domestic flights. So many people were standing about, holding signs for passengers or anxiously peering at faces to find loved ones.
When I usually land in Shanghai, I never have anyone waiting for me. I only fly to the city so I can leave the next day for the States on early morning flights. But this time around, I was the anxious one, scanning the crowds for a face I hadn’t seen in 21 years.
My First Years in China: Nanchang, 1992
In 1991, I arrived in China for the first time with the Amity Foundation, the Chinese NGO that I am currently affiliated with. As an Amity English teacher, I was placed in Nanchang, the capital city of Jiangxi, at the Adult Training Center located on the campus of Jiangxi Normal University. This was the first adult English language program of the Amity Foundation and was already in its second year. The students were countryside English teachers who applied for a 1-year intensive English language course to better improve their speaking, writing, listening and methodology skills in their chosen major, English education. My first year as a teacher in this special project, I had 36 Chinese teachers, ages 18 to 45, who were dependent upon me and my Amity co-teacher, Donna Brown, for their instruction. My second year, that number had grown to 46 and included a bright 20-year-old named “Nancy” Ouyang.
Unlike the other students, Nancy was not a teacher. She had joined the program as a means to improve her English to move ahead in life in some profession which would allow her to leave her small town life behind her. Her parents had pulled some strings for her acceptance as a student since she didn’t fit the criteria to study with us. This was unknown to most of us, not that we ever would have kicked her out of the program. Bettering one’s life through education, even if not an English teacher to begin with, was the most important thing.
A Student With Determination
Nancy’s English was extremely poor when she entered my classroom. She had studied it a bit in high school and tried on her own to improve her skills, but she was far behind her classmates who had worked with the language daily while teaching their own students. The fact that she was so far behind didn’t stop her, though. With great determination, she exceled in her studies with us, even passing the older, experienced teachers who’d had years of English exposure.
In 1993, Nancy finished her time with us and went on to study English in college for 2 years. After that, it was off to Shenzhen (near Hong Kong), one of the newest up-and-coming cities in southern China. There, she entered at the lowest level working for the Shangri-la Hotel chain, a 5-star International wonder with hotels located all across the Asian region.
“Hello! This is Nancy, from China!”
Her Shangrila training started her at the switchboard, answering phones for reservations, complaints, room service and a variety of other requests. Since the hotel’s clientele was 80% English language speakers, her listening and speaking skills had to be adequate enough to handle such information. I’m proud to say it was our Amity program that placed her at the top of the list to be switchboard operator and not toward the bottom, peeling potatoes with the kitchen staff.
Being in charge of telephone operations allowed her many perks, including calling me in America while I was completing my MA in TESOL. During my summer and winter holidays, Nancy would call my home for free. My parents and I always knew when Nancy was calling as the phone would ring between 1 and 4 a.m., her on-duty hours in China which due to the international time zones were in the afternoon.
My mom was always the fastest to answer any phones in our house so she’d be the first to pick up the receiver. Our little Chinese gal would say in the sweetest voice, “Hello! This is Nancy, from China! Is Connie at home?”
“Why, Nancy!” my mom would reply. “So nice to hear your voice. Just one minute. I’ll get Connie for you.”
For 3 years while I was in the States, we’d periodically receive phone calls from China’s Shangrila Hotel, always punctuated with, “This is Nancy, from China!” Those first calls were short, not too fluent and had Nancy hesitantly piecing together what she wanted to say. But by the 3rd year, she was to the point of fluency that astounded us. Chit-chat flowed easily with many stories of the day and interesting tidbits of information about her life.
After completing my MA degree, I was next off to Taiwan for 3 years but Nancy didn’t forget us. No longer working on the phones but as a top receptionist, she didn’t have quite as many opportunities to call as before but she managed as many times as possible. She’d call my mom in America from time to time to say “hello” and then she’d call me in Taipei right after hanging up with my mom. Every conversation began with, “Hello! This is Nancy, from China!”
Nancy from China Gets Married
For so many years, it seemed Nancy and I would remain happy, independent singles. She was very content to never marry or have children, despite the urgings of her parents. But 5 years ago, out of the blue, 36-year-old Nancy announced she was married!
A young man from her small town, 2 years her junior, had always been secretly enamored by her since grade school. Unbeknownst to Nancy, he had followed her career advancements after she left town. He had even tagged along after her to the city of Shenzhen while she was working for the Shangri-la Hotel. He managed to start up his own car dealership. The two met up occasionally as hometown friends, going out to eat or talking about their new-found success.
Eventually, her childhood friend revealed his feelings but Nancy had no desire to tie the knot just yet. She was perfectly happy being single. Yet his dogged determination in pressing for a union between the two finally won out. Nancy did stress there would be no children if a marriage took place. When we met up in Shanghai last month, she shared with me that he wasn’t completely satisfied with her decision but felt he could accept it, although he tends to drop baby hints every so often. At her current age of 41, and with her high staff position within the hotel, she stated her life is a wonderful one without adding a child into the mix.
Nancy from China Moves to Shanghai
In 2008, Nancy’s work with the Shangrila Hotel in Shenzhen came to a halt when she requested a full-time position as a managerial trainer of all the staff instead of working the floor as an assistant manager. The behind-the-scenes position was one she felt fulfilling, not to mention that she was good at it. But the Shenzhen hotel didn’t have any such position at that time, so she handed in her resignation and went to work for the nearby newly-opened Mission Hills Golf Resort. With her hotel management and English speaking skills, she was a catch for any such international tourist destination.
But within a year, she received a call from her former manager in the Shenzhen Shangrila who was now in Shanghai. An opening was available for a full-time staff trainer and she was at the top of his list. Would she consider moving to Shanghai, working in the prestigious Kerry Hotel, one of the chain’s branches? Nancy immediately hopped on a plane heading to Shanghai, received the position immediately and has now remained there for a little less than 2 years.
The move has meant that her husband and she are apart, with him remaining in southern Shenzhen to continue with his car dealership, but she said that they call every day. They visit one another during holidays, and are even planning a Spring Festival trip to Taiwan soon as independent tourists. This kind of marriage arrangement seems to suit both of them just fine, with the ability to have independent careers and their own busy lives yet at the same time have needed companionship when they are free.
Nancy’s Treat to Me: Girls’ Night in the Kerry Hotel
Needless to say, Nancy had been inviting me numerous times to visit her. Her promise was to put me up in her hotel at staff rates, which certainly would be needed. The Shangrila Hotel chain throughout Asia has a standard room rate of $350 per night. On my salary, my weekend splurges of $16 a night hotel stays are about all my budget can afford.
$350 a night?! Way beyond my monetary comfort zone.
When Nancy moved to Shanghai, our meeting at some point seem inevitable. Since I always fly out of Shanghai, accepting Nancy’s invitation certainly beat staying in those tiny, freezing, smelly Shanghai airport hotels for $50 a night. So I took her up on her offer this trip, arriving in Shanghai January 20th with a smiling Nancy awaiting me upon my arrival.
What a time we had! After 21 years, we “older” ladies had a lot of catching up to do.
Nancy treated me to everything, from our room together in the 5-star Kerry Hotel (at her staff rate of $75) to the hotel’s buffet ($50 per person) and then all that a 5-star establishment has to offer: sauna, whirlpool, massage, swimming, exercise center, as well as inspecting the convention hall (able to seat 2,000), VIP lounge, skating rink, basketball and tennis courts and the bar with its own distillery that produced numerous specialized in-house beers.
I was even given the grand tour of the establishment’s hidden maze where service staff and managerial employees made their way to different parts of the hotel. Nancy’s mini “dungeon” office was a highlight, where I saw her squeezed into a comfy office space with 3 of her colleagues, including Robert, a California native who taught, trained and monitored all Chinese staff’s English language skills. With 80% of the clientele being foreigners, the need for every employee to speak English was vital to the hotel’s success.
A Visit Too Short
A chipper, exuberant Nancy was up before I was on Monday morning. She was busy training a new group of recruits for the hotel, their orientation starting at 8:30 a.m. This left me on my own, able to enjoy the last of the hotel’s facilities which included a swim in the 25 meter pool and a lavish soak in the whirlpool afterwards.
As always happens, my time with Nancy came to an end all too quickly. Before I knew it, it was time for me to load into the hotel’s shuttle on my way to the airport express train’s departure station. Nancy waved me goodbye from the doorway of her hotel, and off we went – she back to her orientation seminars and I on my 20-hour journey back to the States for my Spring Festival holidays.
Back in the States
My second week in America has been packed full of dental appointments, getting my newest newsletter prepared, visits with friends, helping out around the house, walking Little Lao-lao (Old-old, our Chinese immigrant Chiahuahua) and whatever else I can squeeze in to the day.
The Shanghai visit with Nancy feels like a distant memory, but we both made promises not to wait 21 years before repeating it. Nancy hopes to visit me in Sichuan, where I can reciprocate her kindness in my area of the country. There will certainly be no 5-star hotel stays in Luzhou but she’ll definitely have a 5-star welcome in my tiny apartment along with a magnificent balcony view of the Yangtze River from my 3-room home.
A $350 a night worth? Among old friends, absolutely!
From Marshall, Illinois, here’s wishing you Ping An (peace) for your day.