Jade has a round, golden face and two half-moon eyes, which are sometimes hiding
behind a pair of square, black plastic glasses. She is young; just graduated from high school a
year and a half ago, and she is on her way to study at a very large university in central Canada.
Jade was one of my first friends in Changzhou. She would come to visit me in the ESL teachers
office with questions about vocabulary words, the TOEFL exam, and most often, about universities in
North America. She was also curious about what kind of food I liked and where I liked to go
shopping. If there was time during the day we would go for rice noodle soup or spicy Hunan cuisine,
which is hot without the addition of the ubiquitous Sichuan 花椒.
Besides, I was rather intrigued by Jade, who, though she is nearly 7 years younger than me, was the first student who invited me to hangout in Changzhou. Something about the serious-minded Jade set her apart from the other high-school grads/university freshmen I have met in China. Jade isn't a tomboy exactly, but neither is she a girlish violet, either shrinking or magnifying. She seems simultaneously at ease within her own skin, and yet unsure, though not afraid, of how others may react to her. She is mature, and this maturity comes with a striking ease, though, at times she can erupt into ridiculously silly giggles over the most inane of matters: she has an undeniable penchant for anything and everything Garfield. She seems to be resting briefly at the precise cusp, between girlhood and adulthood; between dependence and independence.
Jade and I communicated almost solely in English, so I was surprised when she informed me after a short time into our friendship that she was not a Changzhou native. Neither did she hail from some not-too-distant part of 江苏, 浙江 or even 安徽. Jade was born in the far-flung province of 湖南, in central China. Spoken Chinese is incredibly variable, and traveling a few hundred miles effects changes of not only slang, but also pronunciation and even structure. These differences are so incredibly great that often people from two different provinces cannot understand one another's speech.
Most Chinese people speak at least two different dialects: their local 话 and 普通话. For Jade, who moved to Changzhou with her mother and father (following her father's job) upon graduating from high school, attempting to understand Changzhou 话 was nigh on impossible. Similar to Shanghai 话, which is notoriously difficult for non-Shanghainese to understand, Changzhou 话 is unintelligible to most "people from away;" foreign and Chinese alike. Because of this inability to communicate in the local dialect Jade found it exponentially difficult to make friends. Indeed, Jade and I became friends not just because we shared common interests and enjoyed similar activities (and foods), but also because we were both lingusitic outsiders in Changzhou.
Just as I imagine people in the U.S. who move from North to South, or East to West encounter their own problems of assimilation in a culture slightly distinct from their own, so too did Jade experience such difficulties. Ultimately, she did succeed at making friends in Changzhou, as did I, but it took nearly a year to cement such friendships. And while I knew that she was often discouraged and depressed by this obstacle, she used every available outlet to overcome it.
Now Jade has begun her life in Canada; she is in another province, this time even further from 湖南. I spoke with her over the phone on the day before her flight, and she sounded excitedly nervous. A few days before her departure Jade met with some old friends from 湖南 who have been living in Canada for the past two years. She had traveled from Changzhou to Shanghai just to welcome them and hopefully get some much sought after information about their Canadian culture-shock experience. Speaking about their meeting her voice wavered slightly, and she kept making uncharacteristic pauses.
I asked her why she felt so strangely after meeting with them, but the reason was difficult for her to articulate fully. She kept repeating, "they are different now, they seem to be different people from before." I probed her statement, trying to get her to put her finger on precisely that which had changed about them, but she continued to demur. She said that this was simply a feeling she had; they were different people because their ideas, interests and even opinions had changed in those two years. She said change didn't bother her, but the ways in which her friends had changed did. These changes were not the right ones apparently, and Jade didn't approve of her "new" friends. Though she would give me no information more precise than this, I knew that she herself was beginning to feel worried about the vast continent of difference that lay just before her. She knew that life in Canada was going to be a world apart, and that she too would change in her time there, as everyone changes over time, but her confidence in herself was miraculously unflagging: "I think that I will make the right decisions when the time for them comes."