You’ve Got Mail

It all started with the Pony Express…

Okay, my ex-history-teacher of a husband (to clarify: “ex” being a modifier of history teacher and not husband) might take issue with that statement, as I am sure there was some type of postal delivery system long before North America was overrun with newbies, but the Pony Express is just so much more fun than whatever marathon-running postmen had to schlep mail across the hinterlands, rain or snow, sunshine or storm.

Regardless of where it started, we’ve got mail.

USPS has played varying roles in my life. I don’t remember getting much in the mail as a kid, other than maybe a yearly birthday card with a $10 bill stashed inside, from my grandma in Utah. I know I tried the pen pal thing a couple of times, but I don’t think we ever got passed the “What is your favorite color” and “Do you have any pets?” stage of correspondence before one or the other, or maybe both, gave up and moved on to chatting with friends we could see and whose names we could actually pronounce.

Mail was pretty much a non-entity in my life until I moved to college. Then, for the first time, it took on a vital role in my daily life. I lived in an on-campus apartment with five other girls (that’s right- six girls in one apartment. Who ever thought that was a good idea must have been smoking something that was definitely not allowed within the terms of the Honor Code!) and one mail key, which hung on a nail by the backdoor, awaiting its daily trek to the metal box outside the building’s entrance. Each day, the box was checked religiously by whichever roommate was home when the afternoon mail drop happened. (Okay, any roommate except for Emily, who was terrorized by a Nordic witch figurine that sat atop our stove, which she swore looked like something out of a horror movie she had seen. With this knowledge in hand, that little doll ended up anywhere Emily might look, including, but not limited to, the mailbox, her section of the medicine cabinet, her drawer of the fridge or her nightstand. (Remember, this was an apartment with six girls. *Everything* was divided up, from kitchen cabinets to shower shelf space to phone availability.) I remember getting a couple of care packages while a freshman, the first one including brownies, wrapped in tin foil, from my little brother who was a freshman in high school at the time. Who knew the kid could bake?

Then I moved to the Dominican Republic to do a semester abroad. (Tough gig, eh? We had classes four days a week and then a three-day weekend to hit the beach…I mean, study. Needless to say, this pasty-white girl from Idaho came home with the closest thing she’d ever had to a tan. Maybe I need to get Thad to bid on a Caribbean post for our next tour. It would take four months to get a working start on some color, but after two years, I might actually have a decent melatonin level!) There, mail was a different beast. Not only did it take weeks to come, but when it did come, the school often held it for a week or two before letting us know we had a letter. Care packages were expensive to send and it was probable that, if they did arrive, would arrive a little lighter than when they were shipped. Let’s just say Dominican customs inspectors always had the best housewarming and birthday gifts for any event to which they were invited.  But, while packages may have been hard to come by, I did get loads and loads of letters, all of which are still stashed away in shoe boxes, sitting in a long-term storage in Fredericksburg, Virginia, until further notice. (I hate to date myself here, but my Dominican days corresponded with the budding days of the internet. I had an email address, through Juno, but rarely used it and connections, even at the university, were nearly impossible to find. Hand-written letters were still the status quo.)

After coming home from the DR and getting married, mail suddenly took on the role of being the bearer of bills and ads. In the years pre and post- Peace Corps, I was doing well if I checked my mailbox a couple of times a week. I was just in no hurry for that college tuition statement, water bill or JC Penny’s flyer.

But then, the mail once again became key when we moved to China with the Peace Corps. Yes, we had a decent internet connection and I was in touch with family and friends via email on a regular basis, but the actual mail meant not only gifts at birthday and Christmas, but it created our on-campus English language library. With Middle Kingdom resources being scarce, nearly all 1000 of our English books and magazines came from the States, shipped by our friends and family and those of our colleagues. The Book Nook, a mini-institution in the backwaters of Gansu, would not have been possible without the USPS.

(Don’t get me started on the Chinese end of these transactions. It is an understatement to say the mail women in Chengxian hated me. Every time I got the tissue-like slip of paper saying I had a box at the local post office, I would skitter down there as soon as I had a break in my class schedule, excited for a new box of books to add to our growing collection. And every time, once I was there, I would have to go the rounds to get my box. Sometimes the women couldn’t find the package, even though I had the slip in hand. Sometimes they were taking their afternoon rest, so I was told to come back, even though technically the post office was open. Sometimes I had to get an official red stamp from some random person at the school to verify it was for me. Sometimes I had to show my Chinese ID card. And sometimes, the woman just didn’t feel like helping me and would shoo me away to come back and try another time. The only great thing about our local post office was they had glasses on a string. That’s right! Banks in America have pens on strings, but in China, our post office had these awesome, giant glasses on a string, I guess so if you needed reading lenses, you would have them available to properly complete your paperwork.)

Now that we are back in China for round two of the Zhongguo lifestyle, mail again plays a central role in our lives. Mail days are Tuesdays and Fridays, which are the afternoons when I eagerly await the email from our mail room saying “There is a little mail today.” With this pronouncement, there is a bit of a mass exodus out to the mail room for officers and families alike to collect their goods. Boxes are piled on the floor, magazines and letters are stashed in surname labeled bins and the mail room worker knows us all by name.

This last week as a particularly successful mail week for the Ross household. We received our bargained for package from the Hello Kitty queen. (Click here to read about the tough fought negotiations with a four-year old that ended up with me sending two rather large boxes of goods to her in exchange for some random items fished out of her toy box. I think I need to work on my business acumen.) This large padded envelope included the owed Hello Kitty-riding-a-dolphin picture, the Hello Kitty pencil left over from Valentine’s Day, and the McDonald’s Happy Meal giraffe. Plus, it had bonus items such as piñata  candy that may or may not have been stashed in my nephew’s shorts (whatever, I’m eating those Smarties!), a couple of friendship bracelets and a beaded necklace. Not too bad of a haul from Idaho.

And then today I got a long-coveted package- one that I’ve been talking about ordering since draft day. (Click here for my day-after-draft post.)  My Shea McClellin Chicago Bears (#99) jersey arrived in the Friday mail pile! Granted, the “small” jersey is nearly big enough for me to belt and wear as a dress, but I’ll be rocking that thing all over China in the next few months. (Stay tuned for those pictures!) While I am normally a Ravens fan, as they are the only American professional sports team to be named after a literary work, I’ve had to shift some loyalty to the Bears to support Shea, one of my former 8th grade English students from Marsing, Idaho. I will be proudly sporting that massive navy blue jersey this season, putting in a good word for him all around our Land of Pandas and doing more than a fair bit of bragging about a small-town kid working his tail off to achieve his NFL dreams. (Of course, I can’t take any credit for his football skills, but I would like to hope that he always uses “their/there/they’re” and “your/you’re” correctly!)

The internet may have created a quicker and simpler way than horse-back delivery to keep in touch with friends and family, but nothing will replace the kid-on-Christmas-morning feeling of cutting in to a box that has come half-way around the world. Whether said package is filled with Hostess chocolate pudding pies (Dad??) or a gift that always ends up back where it came from (Matt??), little is better than seeing a box on the floor of the mail room with ROSS written in big letters along its side.

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