It’s always hard to say goodbye

(It’s even harder when you have to say it in Chinese)

July 25, 2002 — Well, I don’t have the plague.

Not yellow fever, psychosis or leprosy, either.

How do I know this, you ask? Did I feel a case of the plague coming on and run off to the doctor?

“Hey, Doc. I think I’m coming down with some of that, uh, plague that’s going around. Got any Robitussin?”

No, nothing like that. It’s just that there are certain diseases — plague among them — that you must be tested for before moving to China. And I’m moving to China.

Seriously. Cross my heart. Pinky shake. Booga booga. This is for real.

My year-long gig as an English professor at Shanghai University starts Sept. 1. My flight leaves in 35 days.

Thirty-five days! I better write quickly. I’ve got a lot of packing to do.

My last day at The Times is Saturday. This is the last Sporting Life column I will write for a while.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Dan, you’re crazy. But, c’mon. Admit it. You’ve thought that before.

You’ve likely got two questions for me. Everybody else has.

1. Do you speak Chinese?

My answer is always a quick, “Yes.” But then I laugh and admit that I’m lying. Seems my future employers were interested in my grasp of my own language, not theirs.

Native English speakers are a hot commodity over there. Shanghai is a city of more than 15 million — and less than 1 percent of the population speaks English. Yikes!

But that’s nothing new for me. I didn’t understand half of what y’all said when I moved down here almost four years ago.

Just kidding.

Kind of.

2. Dan, are you a spy?

Well, duh. Obviously. Why else would I spend one-seventh of my life in the Chicken City. Poultry world, you have a new capital. Its name is Shanghai.

But seriously, I do plan on doing some spying while in China. However, I will spy on no one important, no one in particular. I will choose people at random and follow them. I will jot down notes on a yellow legal pad and take photos with my new digital camera.

I will send my findings via carrier pigeon to Back Porch columnist Jim Chapman, who seems like he’d be into such nonsensical espionage.

(Mental note: Try to keep fake talk of spying to a minimum before moving to communist country.)

Perhaps the most difficult question is also the most simple. Why?

“Why not?” is what I usually say to that. It’s purposefully vague and has a certain gung-ho-I’ll-try-anything-as-long-as-it’s-not-bull-riding-again spirit that fits perfectly with the concept of this column.

Truth is, I’m not sure why I’m moving to China. Truth is, if three months ago you had told me that I was going to be moving to China, I would have looked at you as if you were dying of the plague.

I wish I could cite some higher calling, some deep and burning desire to teach the people of the world the joys of the English language, or even a longstanding longing to learn about everything and anything non-Western.

Nope. I was just trying to figure out how I could get my summers off. Really.

This plan — both silly and shallow, I know — was hatched innocently in Honolulu in late May. I was there for my brother’s wedding, lying on the beach during the last day of my 10-day vacation. And I didn’t want to leave.

I daydreamed about Natalie Portman and more days off. I determined that Natalie Portman was probably unattainable, so I concentrated on the days off.

“That’s it!,” I thought, “I’ll become a teacher.”

(Now, teachers, please don’t get mad and send hate mail. I know that teaching is really a year-round job. I know that most teachers need to get a second job during the summer, anyway. I know that 35 days from now, I will likely be in way over my head. Please understand that this was just a daydream … and that I was likely still feeling the ill effects of a poorly-prepared batch of poi.)

I thought about going back to school. But then I stopped thinking about that, because I never much cared for going to school — the actual schoolwork part of it, anyway.

Then I remembered hearing that some teaching jobs abroad require nothing more than a bachelor’s degree and a willingness to travel. I was qualified.

I mentioned the daydream to my dad, a college professor. He mentioned that he had some connections in Shanghai. Ba-da-bing-ba-da-boom, I’m headed to China.

Of course, I’m now realizing, it’s not that simple. I need to sell off most of my possessions (if you’re interested in any furniture or appliances, drop me a line). And I need to get stuck with so many needles even Scott Weiland would cringe. Gotta stave off that nasty Japanese Encephalitis bug, you know.

But with every unexpected step in the moving process, with every goodbye that crosses my lips, I realize — more each day — that there is much I will miss about this town I’ve called home since the fall of 1998. (I was never able to refer to Gainesville as a “city.”)

I suppose I always figured I was just passing through, though. I kept the Pennsylvania plates on my car. But one year quickly turned into two … then three … now four.

Other than the town I grew up in, I’ve never lived anywhere longer than Gainesville. And it’s grown on me. I’m a small-town boy at heart. I like the fact that I can walk into a grocery store, a bar, a barbecue joint and be referred to by name.

So, naturally, I now choose to live in the most populous city in the world’s most populous country — where most people won’t be able to pronounce my name, let alone remember it.

This column was originally going to be a list of things I would miss about Gainesville, but the list got too long. And I got hungry.

I jotted down items like “seeing the mountains while driving north on Pearl Nix Parkway on a clear day.” But then it turned into a roll call of my favorite local foods (Monkey Barrel pizza, Hickory Pig barbecue, Los Rayos quesadillas, etc.). I had to break for lunch and get some Brunswick stew.

I did more than eat here, of course. I tried to do a little living, as well. Items not on my resume before I moved here: bull riding, lawnmower racing and handgrabbing for giant catfish in Mississippi, to name a few.

I found it fitting, in an odd way, that my swan song was a swan dive into a pit of mud at the Redneck Games. Quite a Southern sendoff.

So now it’s on to the next column, er, chapter of my life. It comes with subtitles, and I have no idea how it ends.

Just the way I like it.

(By the way, I’m off next summer. Anyone want to backpack to Tibet?)

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