Flights, First Impressions, and Faulty Connections

One journey, eight months in the making, is finally over, while another, not yet two days old, has only just begun. Since learning about my acceptance into the Shansi program late last November, I have finally taken the plunge to living in rural China. It was preceded by two intense, emotional, incredible, and trepidation-filled weeks at home with some of my closest friends—a great way for me to stock up on memories like rations to fuel these long two years away from the people I love most.

The trip itself went smoother than I had anticipated. Being a little too literal in my attempt to follow my first piece of advice about arriving in China—don’t come with any preconceived expectations—I didn’t bother to check my flight length, nor the time difference between Beijing and New York (it’s a wonder I got to the right airport, no?). But it was a pleasant surprise—the flight was a little over thirteen hours, four of which I spent watching movies (The Devil Wears Prada and The Matrix, both with Chinese subtitles), and barring time eating or using the bathroom, the other nine I spent asleep. In something of a miscue, at least based upon all of my previous air travel experience, I actually befriended a fellow passenger (Yitka would be so proud!). The woman next to me was the mother of a recent high school grad, and was very quick to talk about the economic climate and its affect on this year’s crop of giddy college-goers. She made an interesting point—new college-bound students are less willing than their predecessors to “follow their passions”—unless those passions just happen to be in medicine, law, or finance. Out of practicality for the possibility of finding work after graduation, many are looking toward future job placement as a motivating factor both for their choice of major and their choice of college. She insinuated that application numbers for private colleges are down, suggesting that many students are worried about not being able to pay back expensive loans after graduation and are instead looking at specialized programs in public or trade schools.

This certainly had its implications for me and my fellow graduates. Much to everyone’s surprise, the Class of 2009 found not a diploma within the fancy binding handed out at Commencement, but a bill for four years of faux-preparation for the job market. I was of a relatively few, fortunate bunch who were able to get something going after graduation. It was so disheartening to see dozens of my friends completely strapped for any semblance of employment, spending the summer cooped up in a parent’s house or an apartment that they could scarcely afford. I realized over the course of this conversation en route to Beijing that had I been entering college and not the “real world” this coming September, I would probably find myself in the same boat. There’s little chance I would have stuck with Creative Writing as a major—opting instead perhaps to follow my first passion (engineering) and if I did study language, have done so more out of utility than simple curiosity. I’m glad though that the economic downturn did hold off until it did, and that I was able to pursue the interests that have carried me to China, but that’s not to say that I still won’t inevitably have to put them on the back burner upon returning full time to the states.

In any case, the flight itself was mercifully forgiving, and customs and immigration went off without a hitch. I bid farewell to my new acquaintance and took a short shuttle bus to another section of the airport where I again went through customs and check-in for my domestic flight to Taiyuan. In the three-hour layover, I succeeded in staying awake despite a 4am timestamp. I bought myself an iced tea, curled up with a Chinese newspaper, and listened intermittently to a newscast—reveling in my utter inadequacy. As suspected, and in a complete “déjà vu moment” of my domestic flight from Tokyo to Osaka two years ago, I was unconscious for the flight’s entirety. It wasn’t until the seatbelt lights went off and the passengers next to me started getting restless that I realized we had not only left Beijing, but we had already arrived at our destination.

The front of my house. Apparently, we Shansi Fellows are experts in all things foreign.

I was greeted at the airport by Li Sen, one of the officials of the Foreign Language Program at Shanxi Agricultural University where I will be teaching. With his arrival came my first of two tests. After standing at the baggage claim for well over twenty minutes and watching scores of passengers from later flights retrieve their last suitcases, I finally conceded that my bags were not going to emerge in Moses-parting-the-Red-Sea fashion from the rubber birth canal. I proceeded to confront an airline official and successfully communicated my predicament in Chinese. She sat me down in a badly ventilated gray hull of a room to exchange pleasantries with some of the other airline officials as she went to investigate. They showed up intermittently, almost always preceded by a smile or a giggle, as if only to catch a glimpse of the delusional foreigner who claimed to be living in China’s backwaters for the next two years.

After I was sufficiently grilled by the airline's staff, she returned to tell me that my bags were located in Beijing and that they would be delivered to the post office at the school’s campus the following morning. Greatly relieved, I thanked the woman and went to join Li Sen and the driver out in the parking lot. It was raining outside, and when I asked if this was common in Taiyuan, Li Sen said simply: “only when we’re picking up foreigners.” We drove to a nearby restaurant to have dinner and kill some time before we were to pick up Nick, one of the two senior Fellows, who was to be arriving from Shanghai that evening. It was at the restaurant (or rather, just outside of it) where I faced my second test: navigating the squat toilet in an outhouse whose corrugated tin roof was only partially effective in keeping out the biblical rains. After returning inside, we ate, sharing many small dishes between the three of us—our chopsticks jabbing and poking at Kung Pao Chicken (the go-to dish for newly-arrived foreigners), wood ear mushroom, cabbage, and tofu. Conversation was directed almost solely through Li Sen, as the driver didn’t speak a word of English and I was still too nervous to try out my Chinese in any large capacity.

After we got word that Nick’s flight would be delayed for at least a few more hours, we drove the 40 minutes from Taiyuan to Taigu and before I knew it, I was handed a pair of keys and situated neatly at my house for the next two years. Anne, the other of the two senior Fellows, having arrived a day earlier, came to greet me with her friend Lynn, a former student and current friend. We spent a lot of time talking and getting caught up on each other’s lives. As fate would have it, I had actually taken classes with both Nick and Anne at Oberlin but I didn’t know either of them very well. God knows that after a year here together with scarcely any other foreigners, that situation will change very quickly. As it was, I learned a lot about her last year in Taigu, the ups, the downs, the challenges, and the triumphs. Of course, I inevitably unloaded a bunch of my own fears, excitements, and the usual slew of “what’s,” “how’s,” and “what-have-you’s,” which she fielded graciously. We took a tour of the place, with Anne stopping to “reclaim” some of the odds-and-ends along the way.

My incredibly luxurious bedroom in Taigu.

The house itself is almost shockingly nice. Before arriving, I shuttered to imagine how my living situation might be, but I have been pleasantly surprised in almost every aspect. As far as the houses in Taigu go, those on the campus of Shanxi Agricultural University rank highly, and as far as those go, the foreign teacher houses surely rank among the best. I share a house with another first-year Fellow named James, a fellow New Yorker who graduated from Oberlin two years ago. In our house we share a living room, and have our own separate bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen. The bedrooms are very spacious, with room for a queen-sized bed, two closets for hanging clothes, a dresser, a couple of night-stands, a large desk, a bookshelf, a few lamps, a telephone, and a personal heater. The bedroom alone is about the size of my room at Oberlin my senior year.

The kitchen is also quite large and is equipped with a fridge, microwave, laundry machine, hot plate, and yes, a rice cooker. Luckily for me, the cupboards are already stocked with some dry food, bowls, cups, utensils, and other supplies from previous Fellows. Unlike many other places in China, our bathrooms are outfitted with an actual toilet, in addition to a hot water heater for the shower. These small comforts I certainly took for granted both in Japan and back home, but in China, luxuries like these are hard to come by. I have heard stories about Fellows using their bathrooms before and after going just about anywhere because the public options in other places—even in school buildings and student dorm rooms—are less than ideal. As a reference point, I have heard that the student dorms on campus are much shabbier in comparison. In the span of our bedrooms, the college typically crams between three (if you are a grad student) and six (if you are an undergrad) Chinese students. It’s incredibly strange to be in a place where by virtue of our American-ness alone we are afforded so much privilege, and how spoiled we are to be foreign teachers on this campus. However, it is a small comfort to know at least that the Chinese teachers at this university have living arrangements similar to our own.

My shared living room. The disco ball and the huge speakers are remnants of Ben and Beth's (the previous two Fellows) famed dance parties that took place in the house last year.

The living room is truly the nexus of the house. There is a bookshelf stocked with teaching materials and other books left behind by the Fellows—some good and some less than enticing. The TV picks up all of the Chinese stations and even has a VCR—gasp!—as well as a bunch of old movies that we have to work with. There are also a couple of bikes that have been passed down from older generations of Shansi Fellows—some way to commute to town easily and also go adventuring in the nearby mountains. If there’s anything that worries me about the house, though, it’s the winter. It gets pretty cold up here, and sometimes it’s a while before the heat gets turned on. Especially in the winter, Anne and Nick have also talked about there being mice, which, for lack of a better solution, the Foreign Affairs Office has remedied by putting a cat in their house. Their cat is named Mumu, and actually gave birth to four kittens last year, one of which, Boots, also lives in the house. James is allergic to cats, so we won’t be getting one in ours, but hopefully we’ll find some way to deal with that when the time comes.

By the end of my first evening in Taigu, Nick had arrived from the Taiyuan airport. The three of us continued to chat and reminisce well into the night, helping both with recalibrating my body from the jetlag and discovering more about my new environment. We migrated from my house to Nick and Anne's, almost identically furnished (save for a few more lived-in items), and located just a stone's throw away. It sounded like they both had amazing summers, traveling and seeing friends (including some of the other Shansi Fellows) in the long two months off. There’s a lot more about this place that I have learned and experienced since, and thanks in no small part to Nick, I have finally been able to successfully access both the internet and this site. It took about two weeks for the internet to start working here, and combined with general Chinese censorship restrictions, simply being able to post on Blogger has been no small project. But my first impressions of China have been great so far, and I’m so excited to begin teaching and learning more about the university and the people who will populate my new life abroad.