All of us face challenges. In America, our challenges are usually not as difficult as people who face civil war in South Sudan, where children walk miles each day just to find a safe place to sleep. Yet many people think life is easy for Americans. I say, not true. Which do you think was more difficult for this American (Lonna Lisa Williams) to do:
1. Leave my California home in October, 2010 for Russia to teach English because I could not find a job in my own country even though my grandfather graduated from Yale University, was a professor at UNC, and handed the torch of education to my teacher mother and to me. Endure a long winter where I wore chains on my boots to run across the ice that coated every surface. Teach English to 13-year-olds only to end up speaking and reading in Russian because no one really wanted to speak English and hated America. Even though my grandmother was Russian, I learned their alphabet and simple words as a child, and I look Russia, most people avoided me because I was the “Amerikanka.” Discover that Vodka is easier to get than good tea, Russian food is bland and full of potatoes, and everyone shares alcohol and violence in the 3rd-class wagons of the Russian train from Samara to Moscow. Endure the 17-hour journey with 50 bunks to a wagon, accidentally stepping on a sleeping Russian woman who screamed when I descended from my top bunk. Cry on the trash bin in the back of the wagon. Kiss a Russian stranger between the wagons, in that blessed cold, dark connector, as snow fields slipped past and a full moon shone on frozen rivers. We, Russian and American, kissed without words, like lovers from a war movie who will never meet again, showing how tragedy is really, really Russian and American.
2. Escape Russia in April, 2011 (when snow still brushed the train tracks and no leaves adorned black trees) to fly to Istanbul (abounding with flowers and spicy food); learn a new language; adapt to another culture; teach English again; marry a Turk; cover the 2013 Freedom Protests; get attacked by pepper-spraying police; lose a job for being a Christian (but walk around the corner to get a better one at another private language school); get threatened with death for being a Christian; teach at a Turkish university; and leave for China just before Turkish police showed up to arrest me for a photo I’d published. Later I wrote 2 journalistic-style Kindle books about Turkey which have not had much recognition.
3. Land in The People’s Republic of China in September, 2013 to teach English to elementary and high school students; find I’m unable to pick up more than a few words of Chinese; discover that beer is cheaper than tea; almost get killed by motorcyclists and car drivers on the sidewalk; experience food poisoning worse than in Turkey; and discover a GPS locater in my Chinese bank card. Teach Journalism for an American university to Communist students who couldn’t write about a lot of things. Visit Chinese churches, see some bulldozed by the government, and fly away secretly when the smoky air became unbreathable.
4. Return to America in November, 2015 after more than 5 years overseas. Try to live in Southern California (home). Have major difficulties with my young adult children who would usually not meet with me or answer my phone calls. Find no one really remembered me, invited me for dinner, or wanted to share their spare room for more than a few days. Witness and write about an unexpected tragedy that hit close to home. Buy an almost-new van with money I saved from China, drive to Houston for the 2016 New Year, have my credit card hacked on New Year’s Day, get my Mazda 5 minivan totaled by a speeding Houston driver (on my birthday week in April). Recive blamed by the Houston police for the accident that was NOT my fault. Leave Texas the end of May (owing at least $550 to traffic court and toll violation booths). Arrive in California in June, 2016 to wander aimlessly like a tourist, showing my Turkish husband Old Sacramento, the Morro Bay coast, Mid-California inland ranch country, the vast desert, and Los Angeles where we loved The Hollywood Hotel, reviewed it, and took cool videos.
5. Try to take another teaching job in China the end of August, 2016. Stay four days in China (teaching 2) with enough baggage for a ten-month stay. Start unpacking and setting up our nice, free, three-room apartment just before panicked Chinese officials made us fly off to Seoul, Korea to get new visas because ours were about to expire (and China refused to renew them from within China). Bring only our backpacks with what we could think to shove in during the one, crazy hour they gave us to prepare.
6. Arrive in Seoul, Korea on September 1, 2016. Find out that cute little Koreans are not as friendly as they seem on TV or in anime flicks. Try not to offend the grumpy Guest House owner by wearing our shoes to go down the long flight of un-railed stairs to our basement bedroom. Get used to strange-tasting coffee in tiny cups (no real tea from tea leaves). Endure food-poisoning from a nice-looking noodle restaurant across from the Chinese Embassy that REFUSED to grant my Turkish husband and me new visas to China. Try to contact my Chinese boss. Get no answer. Realize we were Stuck in Seoul and running out of money. Receive unexpected help from the “Calvary Chapel of Seoul” pastor and his cute family. Move 7 times in 3 weeks. Sleep at a crazy alcoholic’s house, save his life when he pulled furniture and shards of broken glass down on himself. Escape at 2 in the morning for a 24-hour Spa to sleep in a chair or the floor. Finally recover the luggage we had to leave in China (after paying extra tax to Korean Customs). Discover that China would not ship out our spare mobile phones; chargers; my Kindle in its pink case and all my books on it; my expensive Swiss Army knife, solar-powered flashlights, and binoculars (maybe those looked a bit incriminating); all my cosmetics, shampoo, and perfume; and–inexplainably–my Splenda, collection of teaspoons, and silk stockings.
7. Repeatedly ask the biggest church in the world–Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul–for help. Get NONE. Hitch-hike to the border between North and South Korea to discover why the people of Seoul were so worried all the time. Glimpse North Korea beyond the curved barbed wire, anti-aircraft guns, tanks, radar systems, and soldier watch posts above a bush-lined river. A hill not far away, above a small city, was in North Korean territory, a lone tower at its top. Their crazy leader had caressed the silver orb of an atomic bomb on TV before detonating it underground and causing a 5.3 earthquake that Seoul felt–while we were there. Finally receive an answer from my Chinese boss. Maybe he answered because he was finished traveling, I had worked for him a year and a half, or because I threatened to turn him in to the U.S. State Department for stranding an American citizen in Seoul. I did have to apologize for that threat (and the bit about hiring lawyers and publishing the story) to get our tickets back to Los Angeles. Take an hour-and-a-half bus ride to Incheon Airport, largest in the world. Fly with a bunch of stylish Japanese to Tokyo; dream-walk through their high-tech; super-clean airport like a 7-star hotel; and board an American Airlines flight for the long, twisting-in-our-small-seats (while overeating and drinking too much freely offered wine) trip home. Land at LAX just before my daughter’s birthday on the first day of Autumn, admire the shiny new floors that looked like stars fallen from the sky, then wait extra hours to get through U.S. Customs because it was a Training Day.
8. Ride the midnight Super Shuttle with an Egyptian driver who wove in and out of the freeway’s fast lane because he was so tired from “driving all day, every day.” Clench the van’s seat in front of us while silently praying as our driver crossed 4 freeway lines without using a blinker. Chat nervously to keep him awake and suggest we stop at Starbucks for coffee. Show him how to find our hotel and check in after 2 for the one night we could afford of accommodation back home in Redlands. End up sleeping in our newish Chevy Impala at truck stops, like we did at the beginning of 2016 and half of the time we were in Houston or California. Realize we were Homeless in America, obtaining food at churches, a little gas money from a pastor, but no invitations to someone’s spare room or a good job, though we looked every day Online and In Real Life. After all, who needs an English teacher in America where almost everyone speaks English?
Well, if you guessed #8, you are right. Congratulations. As fall slips toward its holidays, I hope your American Experience is better than mine. But don’t forget the people of Sudan for whom my saga looks easy.
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