Monday, March 28, 2011

I See No Changes, and That's the Way It Is

James has been making muffins all this week. Each day, I help him take an armload full of raw materials—eggs, flour, bananas, baking powder, and water—to the main teaching building and set them up in his classroom. As I go across the hall to start my own class, he leads a couple of students back home for a second trip to bring over a collapsible round table (for cooking purposes) and a small toaster oven containing a flat baking tin and a muffin tray. For the lesson, James goes over the requisite cooking vocabulary on the board and proceeds to demonstrate the cooking words involved with making muffins in class—cutting, pouring, mixing, stirring, baking, etc. Most of the time, he leaves enough time at the end of class to actually bake the muffins, cut them up, and then give them to his students to try. But occasionally, he ends up having to haul the whole eggy, doughy batch back home before popping the muffin tin into our little toaster oven here.

Paired with homemade chai masala, these scones were lovingly made by Anne and Kelly using the toaster oven last May.

For a miniscule red box, it's certainly had its work cut out for it. In the last two years alone, it has been used to make bagels, pizza, chocolate cake, cookies, scones, apple pie, bread, and increasingly, banana muffins. Though it isn't quite ideal for the job, and indeed, the end product sometimes ends up being just as surprising as the sum of its parts, it does the work, and has the desired result of putting us closer to our American culinary roots than anything else we can buy here. As it slowly percolates in the living room, the house begins to fill with the smell of bananas, its scent feeling both close and far away—from the dust-covered fruit stalls that line North Yard to the thick bunches that hang down along the lush forests of Laos and Thailand—eventually forming into plump, lightly-browned morsels of fluffy goodness. Like every other baked good in Taigu that has come before it, it is met with equal parts greedy fanaticism and wonderment.


My lesson this week is considerably less interesting. I'm starting a new topic on travel and am soliciting “most interesting” stories from my students' winter vacations. In the process, I told them about my own journey, which came with a fair degree of guilt, both with respect to my disposable income as a teacher and the relative ease of mobility afforded by my passport. Still, they all got a kick out of the 50 or so photos that I printed out and the stack of bills and coins that I brought in to show them from all of the various countries. As having taught for close to two years now, I should know better than to ask these things of my students. I started every Monday class last year by asking my students what they did over the weekend. Their responses ranged from “played with friends” to “ate a big meal” to “washed clothes.” To be fair, it's not too far from the activities that typify my own life here, but it still didn't do much to inspire confidence in the kinds of anecdotes they would come up with following nearly two months without class.

For more than 90% of my students, their responses fell into a handful of general categories—spent time with their family, attended their high school reunion, watched TV, attended a friend's wedding, played computer games, got drunk and did karaoke, helped with chores around the house, cooked meals for the parents (some, for the first time ever), or looked after aging grandparents or new nieces and nephews. One of my first-year English majors excitedly related a story about playing mahjong with some of her friends. At the end of the game, she said, the loser had a punishment. She paused and scanned the room, suppressing a laugh with her hands. They had to drink cold water! Very few of them left their hometown at all and even less explicitly traveled during the break. It doesn't help that China does a uniquely bad job during spring festival (Chinese New Year) of fostering travel. In a country where tens of millions of people are all leaving where they live to take trains, buses, and planes sometimes over hundreds of miles to make it back to their ancestral hometown is an immensely frustrating feat that leaves little desire or opportunity in the way of actually traveling for fun.

Along with the “most interesting” stories, I paired this lesson with a general discussion on travel, including the question, “if you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be?” Again, it didn't make for the most stimulating conversation. Our students all seem to have preconceived notions on which places are worth visiting and why. There was “romantic Paris,” “mysterious Egypt,” “snowy Vancouver,” and “lavender Provence.” Hawaii, Tibet, and interestingly, the Sahara Desert were also strong contenders. It was as if they had all seen the same travel documentary explicitly stating where people go when they travel—as if this handful of places constitutes all the world's tourism traffic. Frustrated with the seeming lack of creativity, Gerald recently took up an experiment in his classes in which he asked each of his students to come up with an “original thought,” which he defined as something no one has ever thought of before. I did my own creative writing exercise too, having students use the photos from my travel to write their own short stories. In both cases, about a quarter did the assignment well— not basing their thought or story on a movie, a novel, or an event in Chinese history.

This lesson, along with James's impromptu baking, make up a couple of lessons I have come to coin as “greatest hits.” At the beginning of the year, there are mock restaurant lessons centered around ordering food. Around Halloween, there is pumpkin carving in class. For a clothing lesson, we come in wearing four or five layers of tops, bottoms, and accessories and manually strip each one of them off to the delhght of our students; later they describe their own clothing as they act as fashion models in a runway show. A topic on marriage and dating yields both a speed dating exercise as well as a marriage counseling skit in which pairs of couples give the fictitious reasons for why they want a divorce. And just in the last year, James and I created a New York City lesson utilizing photos of places of interest that students then locate using subway maps. By their nature, these are the kinds of lessons that have been passed down for years among each generation of foreign teachers. Like a gigantic game of telephone, the best lessons are those that survive through oral history with minor changes made along the way, resulting in a kind of institutional memory. A similar thing can be said about our day-to-day lives.

Pumpkin carving in my Group C class for Halloween last year.


Each of us here in Taigu essentially has the same life—we all teach the same number of hours at about the same times, live in the same kinds of houses, and take the same vacations. We have meals together, share the same friends, and participate in the same group activities. The difference comes in the details. Though some of us spend more time exercising and others watching movies, some playing computer games and others writing, it is rare when any one of breaks significantly from that mold. Even for Fellows in years past, I hazard to guess that only minor tweaks have been made to the same general formula. An old favorite restaurant goes out of business and is replaced with a new one. Some exciting new fad enchants the group for a week before falling out of favor. New Chinese friends are made to account for those who have come before and graduated. Every winter, snow falls, and every fall, dust storms blow in from the north. There isn't that much flexibility to work outside of the box. New Fellows come and go, but Taigu, and, indeed, Shanxi Agricultural University, more or less remain unchanged.

When I arrived last fall to start my second year, I was surprised when Alexandra lamented that she had “stolen Anne's life.” It was true that she had inherited Anne's room, her job, her friends, her two cats, and even some of her old belongings—there greeting her near the door were Anne's old slippers. Though I never really considered it as such, I stole Ben's life in Taigu the same way that James stole Beth's and Ray stole Nick's. In not too long from now, either Skylar or Claire (the two new Fellows selected for next year) will be stealing my life and everything that comes with it. Two weeks ago, we went to the Pingyao restaurant in town, Nick's old favorite, and had a big meal there with a bunch of Chinese friends. It was like old times—we all got drunk and had a blast—and yet, it still felt different. There were no indulgent speeches, no discussions on obscure video games, and no over-the-top singing of “Just a Friend” by meal's end. Now more than ever, I'm remembering that it's the people who make Taigu what it is, and every shift in rank yields new changes regardless if everything else stays the same.

All six Americans and a bunch of Chinese friends and former students celebrating at the Pingyao restaurant in town.

Probably the most challenging and frustrating part of this Fellowship is the fact that no one is here to tell us if we're doing a good job or not or what makes a meaningful experience and what doesn't. Like our lesson plans, the best tidbits about what past Fellows have done get filtered down, but it's our job to interpret and make sense of those stories. Ultimately, it is up to each of us to decide our Fellowship for ourselves, and that is something that can't be passed down or replicated. In the same way that life has gone on without Nick, Anne, David, and Matthias from last year, I know too that life will go on even after I leave Taigu. The sadness gets tempered by catharsis—knowing that someone will be here to pick up my life where I left it and leave his or her own mark on this place. Next year will see the first time in the 100-year history of the Taigu site where the female Fellows will actually outnumber the males. The female majority will certainly make for some interesting differences in the foreigner dynamic. And so even if I see no changes, it doesn't mean that they still won't take place well after I have gone.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

To the Losers Go the Spoils

Last Friday, our bosses came to James and I for help. Simply put, there was a problem at the school. As a result of not passing the foreign teacher-taught oral English classes over the last year, just under 60 graduate and doctoral students were in danger of flunking out of Shanxi Agricultural University. This is not the first time I have written about these students, nor do I expect it to be my last. The students had all failed our classes for a variety of reasons. Some had plainly never once attended class. Others had come for one or two classes before deciding to stop altogether. Others had taken a leave of absence after finding employment in another city or county. Still others never took the final exam either of their own volition or because of our mandates prohibiting students who had missed a certain percentage of classes from doing so. Regardless, school policy states that if a student fails even one class, he or she won't be able to receive a diploma.

From a Western educational perspective, this would not be so great of a problem. After all, it was the individual choices by these students that resulted in their failing grades and not a fault of the university. But from a Chinese point of view, this is a great problem indeed. After all, if of the 380 or so students who matriculate every year in graduate school, 60 are not graduating, that's over 15% who aren't getting their degree. This reflects badly on the university and serves as a warning for prospective students that they only stand an 85% chance of graduating. Like most of the cultural conflicts we Westerners come across in China, this too is a matter of “face”—in other words, a high statistic effectively discourages new students from applying, thus bringing down the school's credibility. In a country like China where ratings for high schools and colleges are weighed even more heavily than in America, every failing student can make a difference.

In truth, America sees its own shortcomings when it comes to higher education. No college likes to have a low graduation rate, in the same way that no college wants a high freshmen transfer rate. Both are indicators of a certain dissatisfaction on the part of the student body—and dissatisfaction translates to loss of prestige. Even in my high school, there had been a rumor that everyone in jeopardy of flunking out was expelled before they reached their senior year for fear that they would bring down the school's perfect 100% graduation rate. That's where supposed grade inflation may factor in to high-end Ivy League colleges and where cheating teachers flub standardized test results at Chicago public schools (see the incredibly smart Freakonomics). Still, it was nothing compared to the proposal that our bosses in Taigu schemed for me and James.

If our bosses Zhao Hong and Xiao Fan weren't the final word on the decision, they were, at least, the masterminds behind the proposition that followed. In order for all of those students not to fail, they would have a retest. That retest—in the form of a written essay in English—would come on a Sunday following two days of classes—two on Friday and two on Saturday, each for two hours. The classes were scheduled to be taught, we soon learned, by James and I, as well as a Chinese English professor—with me and James splitting Friday classes and the other teacher taking the Saturday ones. The business of administering the final exam and the grading would also fall to the Chinese English teacher. When asked about the content of those classes, our boss Zhao Hong simply smiled and laughed. Anything, she told us in Chinese. You can even scold the class for the entire two hours if you want. James and I were flatly appalled. The administration was essentially telling us that coming to four classes and taking a makeshift final exam is all that it takes to pass oral English at Shanxi Agricultural University.

It would have been easier had the Foreign Affairs Office taken a more lenient approach to disciplinary enforcement in the past. Quite the contrary, Zhao Hong was our biggest advocate last spring when it came to ­failing the scores of students who had only in the last week started coming to our classes. Now, it seemed she was telling us the opposite: that you can be a bad student and there will be no consequences to your actions, and what's more, the system will do everything in its power to help you succeed! Zhao Hong assured us that it wasn't an easy decision. With one or two failing students, it wouldn't have been a problem, but 60 was too huge a pill for the school to swallow. Under pressure from her higher-ups, she relented, despite the fact that she recognized it wasn't fair—both to us and to the dozens of students we had taught who actually deserved the grades they received. But ultimately, as is want to be the case in China, there was nothing she could do to change it. What she was asking of us, then, was to teach those make-up classes, even if we treated them as nothing more than a favor to her.

James was very resistant at first, and for good reason. It felt like all of our conventional Western wisdom was turned on its head—that those who work hard and ultimately reach the top are rewarded, and that cheaters and low-lives are punished by society. It immediately became apparent that the very act of “failing” a student may be a totally Western concept. It would seem that other departments at the school didn't have this problem—that even students who never once showed up to class were still buoyed along to subsequent grades by the Chinese education system. That might explain, at least, how we have students in our classes who have taken over ten years of English and can barely read the alphabet. Furthermore, it made English, and more specifically, our English classes, come off as meaningless—that students should not be held back or denied their degree for failing something as petty as an oral English class. With James away for the weekend in Beijing, it was up to my guilty conscience to eventually suck up my pride and agree.


On Friday morning, I felt like I had walked into a cold, dead place. On the front door, a crude bolt-lock opened up to a room full of lethargic spirits and dull, blank stares. The classroom lent itself to the kind of place where learning goes to die—more so than my regular classroom, the lighting seemed ghostly and hollow, the arrangement of the desks felt entirely impersonal, and the drywall paneling had undergone torpor with age. Photographs of Mao paired with inspirational quotes lined each of the four walls. The teaching building directly overlooked North Yard, and all of the honking, shouting, and loud music from the street wafted its way up to my classroom even with the windows closed. I felt like I could have been entering a rehab facility for drop-outs and delinquents—it was clear that no one, myself and my boss included, had any desire to be there.

My boss was the first to address the class. Generally an incredibly mild-mannered and sweet woman, Zhao Hong never sounded more fierce. She bluntly told the class of flunkies that they were there because of school policy and not because they deserved a second chance. She herself commented on the injustice of how coming to four classes is not a substitute for an entire year's worth of English classes and talked at length about the enormous opportunity that they had wasted—the chance to take English classes with an actual American—an opportunity that other, perhaps more motivated, students would have killed for. At the end of her spiel, she took attendance—a regulation, she told me earlier, of assessing that the students are at least capable of attending any class—before gracefully exiting and handing the floor over to me.

In truth, I was much more nervous about teaching this class than usual. Based on the nature of the class, Zhao Hong originally wanted me and James to teach because we would at least have a scant degree of familiarity with the students. After all, they were students who had had Nick, Anne, Gerald, and James and I as teachers last year, so our faces would at least be recognizable to them. The unintended consequence of that, though, is that I was once again face-to-face with the dozen or so students that I had personally failed, as well as dozens more who were in a similar predicament. It was like being a judge and getting put in the slammer right alongside the criminals that you yourself were responsible for convicting. Even more, most of the students I didn't recognize were significantly older—local politicians and businesspeople who had careers and lives outside of graduate school—who were probably looking at me and wondering who this scrappy youngster was standing in front of them and why they should give a damn.

Still, I had just been listening to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s iconic 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech with all three of my classes of graduate students this week and was feeling confident. I started class by asking in Chinese who among them could speak English. Seeing as how my good students have a hard enough time participating, I wasn't surprised when no one raised their hands. So I asked them again. Still, nothing. So I decided to be a little cruel. It's no wonder none of you can speak English, I told them in Chinese. Perhaps you would have if you had come to class last year. It was then that I decided to teach the class in Chinese. I said that they had already wasted enough of my time for having me teach them on my day off, but that I was going to waste as little of theirs as possible by not requiring them to have to decipher my spoken English. I wrote a single statement on the blackboard. In all capital letters, it read: Writing Exercise: Give the reasons why you did not come to class last year. And while they wrote for thirty minutes, I sat reading Blink, and finished class by listening to each of them stand up and recite their alibis.

A part of me wanted to humiliate them, because I too had been humiliated. Last semester I rested on a moral high ground after having failed these students in good faith. I was confident in my decision—with the strength of the Foreign Affairs Office behind me, and in spite of the numerous efforts on the part of those students to win me over, using bribes, reasoning, and guilt at their disposal. And yet here I was, nine months later, with the only result of having put my foot down in the first place was in making more work for myself. I was like a puppet dictator, trying everything I could to assert my will and dominance, but knowing deep-down that I actually wielded no power. Students were there that I had explicitly failed once before, but regardless of what they did or did not do in class that day, the very fact that they were there meant that they would pass.

For my second class, I had them write on a slightly more benign topic: What makes a good student? At lunch, Alexandra talked me down from my original writing prompt: Writing Exercise #2: Why do you think you deserve to pass this class? I was clutching my chopsticks over a bowl of noodle soup, still visibly upset and shaking with anger. I told her that I was genuinely curious in their answers—in the face of every moral and ethical query, how could they possibly believe that they had the right to pass oral English? No matter the excuse, the heart of the matter was the simple fact that they had not come to class. Sensing how worked up I was getting, she reminded me not to take it personally. Irresponsible students make headaches for teachers across all disciplines—this was not a problem unique to us as English teachers. She encouraged me to give them my “nothing” as anything approaching my “all” would have been far more than they deserved.

That afternoon, I was decidedly more hands-off. No more was the gnawing emotional vexation boring its way under my skin, and no longer did I sit, fuming, at the front of the class as I tried to appear blithe and indifferent as I read my book. Instead, I was a pale drone of myself—stern, robotic, and emotionless. For that hour of my life, it felt odd to abandon everything that I've ever learned about teaching. I made no attempt whatsoever to pretend that I was enjoying myself or give them the slightest satisfaction. There was no excitement about the English language or praising them for good work. I was past the point of empathy. I was irate. These students were slackers and good-for-nothings, and there was nothing that they could possibly learn in two days that would make up for a year's worth of careful lesson planning and dedicated teaching.

The reasons they give for missing class last year were largely predictable. Most were a combination of having to do a research project or an experiment in another city, working a full-time job, taking care of aging parents, newborn children, or a sick wife, being sick themselves, or just being so bad at English that they felt simply being in class was a waste of their time. All of them spoke at some length about how sorry they were, their obligation to their own education, and how thankful they were for these make-up classes to improve their oral English. Similar, were their stock responses for the characteristics of a “good student”: a person who tries their best, helps others, is respectful of their teachers, is hard-working, does their homework, goes to class, is responsible, has a “burning desire to learn,” and “does everything possible to achieve their goals.” Most, if not all, were probably educational propaganda slogans drilled into their heads when they were young. Few, if any, seemed to pick up on the overt irony of the question being aimed as a direct attack at their own ineptitude as graduate students.

It came as a shock to me then that, all things considered, their English levels were actually better than I expected. Most enunciated their words clearly and their accents were comprehensible enough that I didn't struggle with what they were trying to say. No more was this true than for the girl sitting in the front row. Whereas all of the other students sat as close to the back wall as possible, she sat alone, dead center in the front of the classroom. She wore glasses, thigh-high rhinestone boots, and a brown sweatshirt. A thick coif of her hair swooped seductively over her right eye. When I asked her for the reasons why she missed class, she said that she had been traveling and meeting friends in other cities. After college, it was hard to keep in touch with old classmates and there was nothing going on in Taigu anyway. She told me that class was boring and that she thought she could get away with not going. Still, she wrote, it wasn't fair to James, to her other classmates, to the school, or to me. She lamented the lost time and the wasted opportunity, and when I looked hard at her, I almost thought I could see her cry.

In that exact moment, I wanted to take everything back—the anger and frustration, the slow change to sadness, the feelings of abandonment and rejection. Hearing her story, it almost made me want to forgive her right then and there. I had so internalized her narrative that I was left only with a feeling of guilt. The truth was that this was just an honest girl who made an honest mistake. And whereas few students took responsibility for their actions in their essays, she plainly did, and actually seemed to feel badly about it. There was no fabrication or rationalization. She understood that what she did was wrong and was repenting, so who was I to punish her further? I thanked her for reading and after she sat down, I fought my way through the next fourteen essays with a resolve so strong that, by the time I dismissed class, I felt like my body would crumble beneath me.

On the way back home, one of the female students approached me after class. I had intentionally left the classroom a little later to avoid bumping into anyone, but apparently she had been wise to my aversion. She was unimaginably cheery, serving as a perfect counterpoint to my dejected moodiness. Tripping over English phrases and switching intermittently into Chinese, she begun asking me some of those basic questions reserved for first-time encounters. But it was clear, at least to me, that I had no intention of making polite conversation. Rather, I wanted to lock myself in my room and never have to think about these failing students again. Finally, she stammered out, I hope that we can still be friends. I thought for a moment, letting a deep breath rise slowly in my chest and exit through my lips. I turned to her and asked in Chinese, Who was your foreign teacher last year? She paused for a minute. Actually, she told me, I can't quite remember.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Adventure of the Disheveled Desk

Here's one for the Sherlock Holmes fans out there. Imagine that you have just entered an unfamiliar place. Your surroundings are shrouded in darkness, above you is a drip that keeps licking from the ceiling, and the ground beneath you is unfurling like a great Persian rug that can be swept from under your feet at a moment's notice. You have never been more aware of your surroundings. Everything is simultaneously fascinating and terrifying and you're half-expecting some bedraggled skeleton to sneak up from behind you at any minute. A position, where the door at the end of a long hallway holds every hope and fear you have ever imagined. You move slowly forward to open it, with each heavy breath and passing moment leading you closer to the end. And you have the uncanny sensation that soon—perhaps very soon—you will uncover that thing you've been searching for, or, in the infamous words of 50 Cent, die tryin'.

This feeling, often reserved for underground caverns, dingy narrow alleyways, and only the seediest of London bars, is curiously the same sensation I have in Taigu after returning home from a long vacation. In the year-and-a-half that I've lived here, I haven't had a particularly good track record when it comes to going back home. Take my return from a summer of travel last August—entering my room only to be met with my posters and tapestry ripped savagely from my walls, my books and papers lying in unorganized heaps across my shelves, and everything on my desk either shoved aside, toppled on to the floor, or lumped on top of my bed. I soon learned that the Foreign Affairs Office had hired workers to come in and repaint and repair our houses while we were gone, though no one had bothered to tell us before we left that we should expect to return to rooms that looked as though they had been ransacked by thieves.

Exhibit A: My desk in utter ruin following my return to Taigu in late August of last year.

For anyone who knows me, I keep my living space meticulous. Books are never so much as misaligned, stacks of papers are neatly squared, and every item on every table surface retains its composure and spatial placement in harmony with those around it. It's not to say that I don't have clutter, because I do, but even the clutter seems to have an imbued sense of purpose and resolve for where it exists and why. I joke with James that if he so much as came into my room and used a tissue, I would notice, but in all honesty (and haplessness), I truly believe that I would. What's great about my relationship with James, though, is that rather than criticize each others' obsessive compulsions, we provide mutual commiseration for their breeding. Case in point: James has to check the front door three times before he leaves the house to make sure he hasn't left something undone (unplugged the space heater, turned off the stove), whereas I go into a mental flurry when I realize that someone has been in my room, borrowed something from my kitchen, or washed their hands in my sink, no matter how seemingly insignificant the infraction.

It came, then (at least to me), as little surprise that someone had once again come into my house uninvited during the time I was away during break. As far as I know, the only people who have the keys to my house are me, James, and, perhaps ironically, the Foreign Affairs Office. In the past, they have used this privilege for both good and evil—sometimes to fix leaks in our bathroom when we are out of the house, but also to ambush us on Saturday mornings with news that we have an impromptu banquet to attend or a scientific paper that needs English revision. To most people, this would come as a gross breach of privacy, and to be sure, it took me a while to put aside my American need for personal space and accept the notion that I can be walked in on or interrupted at any moment. But since there was nothing I could do to change that, I realized that I'd simply do my best to plan accordingly.

What I haven't yet been able to put aside, however, is the thought of someone entering my house without forewarning while I'm away and making a mess of my belongings without a legitimate reason to account for the intrusion. In the case of the summer, the mess was attributed to house repairs. This time, it may have been a simple matter of having a clean room to greet me when I returned. The irony, though, is that whatever “cleaning” was done in the way of dusting corners and sweeping my floor, was undone in the sheer amount of time I had to dedicate to painstakingly rearranging back all of my belongings to my liking. However, the strangest thing about all of this is that unlike the summer, when all of my possessions were somewhat understandably tousled due to the refurbishing, this time around, there was hardly rationale to explain why someone would have been as deeply entrenched in my belongings as they were. Rather than simply being stolen or indiscriminately scrapped, many of the situations in which I found my things were so utterly bizarre that I had to make a list detailing all of the oddities:
  1. Flash drive inserted into one of the ports on my USB hub, despite the fact that it wasn't attached to my computer.
  2. Cap to my flash drive found at the bottom of my laundry hamper.
  3. Two AAA batteries removed from their box in my drawer.
  4. Empty bottle of jasmine tea found on the shelf above my bathroom sink.
  5. Discontinued 10 RMB currency note missing from my collection of foreign money.
  6. Five blue binder clips separated from a box of multicolored clips in my drawer and arranged in a circle on my desk.
  7. A single match removed from my matchbox and lit.
  8. A short clip of staples removed from a box of staples in my drawer and put on my desk.
  9. External hard drive noticeably manhandled and instructional insert removed from its case.
  10. Student gift unwrapped and separated from its cardboard sheath.
  11. Peacock feather removed from my wall.
  12. Two napkins used and discarded in various parts of my room.
It helps to reiterate here that none of these acts, even in my wildest dreams, are things I could have possibly left unattended to leading up to a two-month vacation. The real mystery to me is that aside from the 10 RMB note, nothing (to my knowledge) was explicitly stolen, and it's not like there weren't other valuable things in my room—all kinds of foreign currency, books, electronics, clothing, etc. And still, there are so many other questions left unanswered, like: Why specifically blue binder clips? Why take only one bill and leave the dozens of others untouched? Why light a match? Why mess with my flash drive and external hard drive but not actually steal them? The only thing clear to me now is that whoever had come into my room was not trying to be discrete, or at least, didn't know who he was dealing with. After I showed pictures I had taken of the state of my room to the other foreigners, some joked that a similar thing could have happened to them and they wouldn't have even noticed. Is it my fault for being entirely too anal?

I'm questioning even now whether or not I should bring it up with the Foreign Affairs Office. There were no signs that my house had been forcibly entered, so they are the only people who would have been able to come and go. And although I wouldn't accuse them of foul play, I don't trust the integrity of the workers they hire to come in and do repairs. To this day, they have never mentioned a single bad thing associated with their mid-vacation check-ins, and even if they did trust that I was telling the truth, it still may be impossible to pin down exactly who was responsible for the hi-jinks. I'm upset with myself for letting this get to me, but at the same time, it is frustrating and really quite eerie knowing that someone was so clearly taking liberties with my belongings, potentially lifting information from my drives, or at the very least, being crude and disrespectful in a stranger's home.  I still can't help but feel violated. If I can't be sure that my own house won't be broken into every time I leave it, then I can't truly feel safe in Taigu. As Scooby and the gang might say: It looks like we got a real caper on our hands!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Homecoming and the Construct of Home

Nearly two months—indeed, my longest time ever untethered to even the scantest conceptualization of home—and exactly zero blog posts later, I'm back in chilly Taigu, getting used to snow, air pollution, and the dry chalky feeling that I wake up with in my mouth each morning. By most accounts, the transition hasn't been easy. As it is, I'm still picking sand from the bottom of my backpack and going through intense withdrawal from condensed milk-saturated coffee and banana juice. But through it all, I came back from the end of break eager and excited to start my last semester here in Taigu—a thought that simultaneously excites and terrifies me—both because of how mentally prepared I feel to be back in America and how anxious I am at the thought of extricating myself from the little town I have called home for the last two years. More serious than that, though, is the fear that I won't have enough time to follow through with all of my goals for the next four months.

So far, things have been going to plan well. Four out of four weekdays in my first week back I had dinner with Chinese friends and have been painstakingly trying to get my Chinese back to where it was before my two month hiatus from almost all manner of speaking and reading. One of my closest Chinese friends—Crystal—who was once just another non-student who I reluctantly let sit in on my English classes, has recently left for work in Beijing. She found a teaching job, one that suits her interests perfectly—early education and tutoring in English—but even knowing how happy she will be there as opposed to being stranded in Taigu halfway between college and grad school still doesn't quiet my sadness at losing one of the friends I've known the longest here.

But not all of the news has come with a heavy heart. One of my former students told me that she is getting married in May and invited me to what will be the first wedding I have ever attended on any continent. After dinner at my favorite hot pot restaurant, I got treated to a night of mahjong and girl talk in one of the dorm rooms of some of my closest female Chinese friends. In the interest of expanding our male friend base, James and I started trying our hand at a popular collectible card game (think the Chinese version of Magic: The Gathering), and made a morning of playing it with our Chinese tutor and a couple of his male colleagues. And just this week, I finally mustered enough courage to ask my student from Shenzhen to teach me Cantonese, and in our first lesson, was struggling through new palatal placements with a difficulty not too dissimilar from my first time learning Mandarin.

Of course, traveling had its perks too. Under the pretenses of eating incredible food, seeing new places, and meeting up with old friends (though not necessarily in that order), traveling led me to places far and wide, but mostly, just away from China. Culturally, it couldn't have felt more different—listening to mosques blaring the “call to prayer” in Islamic Northern Sumatra in Indonesia, seeing churches lit up with gleaming red crosses at night in Korea, or hearing monks chanting in Buddhist wats all over Laos and Northern Thailand. Overall, the whole trip was incredibly rewarding (if more than a little exhausting), but if I had the chance to do it again, I would probably leave out one country, spend the extra 10 days scattered amongst the remaining ones, and come back to Taigu a couple days earlier. At this point, I feel like I've got a decent sense of Southeast Asia so that the next time I come back, I will have a more clear idea of what I want to see. This trip was more like an appetizer sampling plate—lots of different things to try, but only a tiny bite of each. Next time, I'm ordering the main course.

Though I haven't stopped trying to challenge myself, I can't help but feeling that since I've been back, the things I'm doing here in Taigu aren't especially new or groundbreaking. By most accounts, it's been back to the old comforts and routines of teaching, writing, exercising, and going out to big dinners with friends. As a town, Taigu has hardly budged in the two months I've been away. As one of my former students roughly put it, “the restaurants are still bright and gaudy and the road still looks like shit.” But for exactly that reason, there is a certain comfort that comes with being in a familiar place. I never realized how much I genuinely liked China until I came back this time around. I've been here long enough now that even moving around Beijing comes with a high degree of intimacy. In spite of the shoving and shouting, the poverty and the grime, the censorship and the corruption, it feels, somehow, cathartic to be in a place again where I can speak the language, interact meaningfully with the locals, and adjust to the local diet, all without having to adapt to a new environment every two or three days during travel.

Indeed, the closest thing I get to travel nowadays is on local buses through town, that, rather than being marked in big English letters with the names of famous sites and tourist attractions, adopt their Chinese stop names from those of local landmarks like “Agricultural Bank of China,” and “Shanxi Agricultural University, Student Dormitories.” On my last bus trip on my way to the supermarket, I saw a traditional farmer funeral going on in the street. It was maybe the second time I had ever seen one here—a procession led by old men and women (presumably good friends of the deceased) dressed in white head scarves and robes covering the majority of their bodies. Their heads were bowed and their hands adopted a praying position in front of their chests. Behind them, a caravan of white pick-up trucks adorned with large peacock-colored wreaths—quite like the psychedelic flashing lights you might find outlining pinball machines—systematically bore through town, obscuring the flow of traffic.

I've been contemplating starting a new blog entitled "China Big Red Balloon" as these things are literally everywhere.  Here's one in front of one of our new favorite restaurants in town.

This certainly isn't the first time that this reference has been made, but I feel like I've got one foot in one world and one in another. One need look no further than the smog that has been blanketing the school of late—when afternoon trips to the gym yield clipped footprints in the snow, long silhouetted shadows, and near desertion in the streets. James and I have gone ahead and started a new lifting program, knowing full well that we won't be here long enough to see it through to completion. Such is the feeling that consumes my everyday. Why start something that you know you can't finish? Why foster new friendships that will only be doomed to failure? Why keep studying Chinese when you will only fall behind in America? What I realized was that unlike the transience of travel, this is my life—that the seemingly trivial elements contained therein are nonetheless substantial and meaningful, and no matter what the future has in store for me, I have to live the next four months with the resolve of one facing an ever-expanding present, laid out before me like patched cobblestone streets, brick smokestacks, and fiery pink sunsets.


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