Tuesday, June 22, 2021

The #Midwessay: Alyssa Cokinis, From Iowa to Shanghai

What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond.  These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors


From Iowa to Shanghai,
or How Outback Steakhouse Taught Me Things

Alyssa Cokinis

Shanghai, China. August 2017. 
     1. This was my first time out of the U.S.
     2. Yes, that meant I’d never been to Canada or Mexico. 
     3. I moved to China for my first full-time job after graduating from the University of Iowa.
     I was hired as a drama teacher in Nanjing, a city about one and a half hours northwest from Shanghai via high-speed train. I’d never been on a train before, and I also never lived in a big city (Nanjing has 8.5 million people) or used a subway system either. While I wasn’t born in Iowa, I grew up and lived there long enough to consider the Des Moines suburbs as my home. 
     When I flew from Chicago to Shanghai, we flew north into Canada, over Alaska, down through Russia, bypassed North Korea, and descended into Shanghai through big masses of clouds. No… it was smog, not clouds, evident when the plane arrived at the gate and the cabin air pressure released. My chest tightened. I coughed. I hadn’t smelled anything like it before. Iowa’s air, to me, was always clean with a bright blue sky. 
     I navigated through the airport, terrified that I wouldn’t find customs, but I followed all of the other few foreigners (right, I was a foreigner now!) who had been on my flight. I had been paranoid about what I could and couldn’t bring to China (censorship), only it turned out I needn’t have worried so much. I was waved through.
     Outside of customs, I saw at least a hundred people gathered, waiting. I looked for the sign with my name on it, but there was none. Long story short, my company forgot I was arriving, even though I was to complete three days of orientation in Shanghai before moving onward to Nanjing. Yikes. Forty minutes later, Eva the intern arrived, but I didn’t even want to talk to her. In the taxi, I was staring outside at tall buildings and smog. No cornfields as far as the eye could see. My stomach lurched. 
     Eva helped me get to my hotel in Wujiaochang, a district of Shanghai. I declined her offer to get dinner together because, damn, I was exhausted and stinky. As soon as she left, I flopped down on the bed. Oh God. The hard mattress remained as stiff as a board beneath me. Then I stripped down and wobbled to the bathroom. I looked at my naked self in the mirror and burst into tears. I wanted to go home, to get back on a plane, never mind the fourteen-hour flight, and go back to the Midwest where I was now thousands upon thousands of miles away from family and friends. It took a shower and some convincing from my best friend Bryan (thank goodness he was awake) over WhatsApp, but I ventured out of the hotel. 
     I didn’t see one foreigner—anyone who was presumably not Chinese—on my walk. The goal was to find food, but I didn’t even know where to begin: every building sign was in Chinese. I knew the Chinese food I had in Iowa was not even close to the same thing as actual China, but I didn’t want to make myself sicker on my first night than I already felt. 
     My eye caught a raised highway tunnel like a UFO. In English, the words “Creativity” and “Business” lit up in different colors. When I turned around, there was a mall on the corner, the word “Outback” flashing red. 
     You can guess where this is going… Yes, my first meal in China was at Outback Steakhouse. When I look back, I can definitely say it is embarrassing. But I was alone, frightened, and starving (airplane food sucks), so I made my way into the mall, up the escalator to the second floor, and into Outback.  I never frequented it in my suburban hometown, but I passed by in the car enough growing up (and went to Barnes and Noble enough across the street) to know its location.
     The staff didn’t speak English, and my Chinese skills were nonexistent at that time. Thankfully, the menu had English translation. I perused and settled on a comfort food: chicken strips. This isn’t so bad. Then I just needed to order. 
     So I waited. 
     And waited. 
     And waited
     Why wasn’t anyone approaching me? Did the waiter forget about me? Did they not want to serve me because I didn’t speak Chinese? Sweat pooled on my forehead, and I swallowed the lump in my throat. 
Then, finally, I saw one Chinese patron after another in the restaurant wave over the waiter. Finally, I mimicked them. The waiter came over, and I pointed to what I wanted. His brow furrowed. I said, “Chicken strips, please,” and he still looked confused. He called his manager over, and his manager must have understood what I wanted because then they walked away. 
     I couldn’t use my phone because I couldn’t find a Wifi network to connect to (I didn’t have my Chinese sim card yet, having just arrived), so I sat there. I looked out the big glass windows to look at the spaceship highway thing. The throat lump returned. I was all alone. I had no one I loved in China. My loved ones were still asleep in the Midwest. 
     When I heard people speaking English, it took all I had not to whip my head in that direction: a foreigner, having dinner with a Chinese person. I wanted to get up, go say hello, tell them both hi I’m scared I have no idea why I’m here why is it the evening when it should be early morning I don’t speak Chinese, but I just sat and looked around, the knot in my stomach intensifying.
     Stop. This is going to be okay, I told myself. You can do this. 
     And, somehow, I did. I found loved ones in Nanjing, taught drama, and learned Chinese. Homesickness became easier to deal with. One year later, I flew home to the Midwest, to cornfields and friends I hadn’t seen in a while and the quiet chatter of places like Iowa City. Still, saying hello again to Iowa reminded me I couldn’t wait to say hello again to China too. 

Alyssa Cokinis is a queer writer/theatre artist from Iowa. Her written work can be seen in Stanchion Zine, Poetry Lab Shanghai, The B'K, and others. She anticipates having an MA in Intercultural Communication Studies from Shanghai Theatre Academy in July 2021, after finishing her thesis on the development of online performance during the COVID-19 pandemic. She is happy to say she can now have conversations in Chinese, unlike what she writes about in her Midwessay. She is also the founder and editor-in-chief of some scripts literary magazine (some-scripts.com). You can find more about her at alyssacokinis.com 

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