Getting My Feet Wet

In my first week in Taigu, it rained nearly every day. Embankments were flooded and dirt and gravel roads bubbled over with mud. In the commercial area of campus where street vendors perennially sell food, bricks were laid in the street to form a walking path, and people clustered under the shelter of umbrellas and small awnings. The weather has been strange to say the least, as this part of China is known for its dryness—the stale dust that hangs in the air and clings to the walls of your throat. Its location high in the mountains means that rain travels from the west and often gets dumped on Western Shanxi Province before it ever reaches Taigu. On the whole, though, it’s been a nice change. Aside from the grayness that often accompanies it, rain brings a certain freshness to the day, replacing the sticky warmth with damp cool. Here, we informally judge the air quality by the clarity of those mountains way off in the distance. Partly obscured is pretty good, and if you can make out anything more than the general outline, you’re doing really well. On most days, though, it is just a slushy gray blur—an ink blot on the horizon—done up in water paint by some ancient Chinese calligrapher.

It’s been hard to characterize the last few days. Thinking about my first week in Japan and how absolutely overwhelmed I was about everything, coming to China has not been accompanied by the incredible culture shock I had expected. I can chalk this up to two main differences. The first is my Chinese upbringing, coupled with the simple fact of having grown up in New York City. However incredibly different rural China is from anything I’ve ever experienced before (and don’t get me wrong, it is), I feel an intrinsic connection to this place. The people, the places, the food, the sounds, and yes, even the smells, conjure a familiarity borne from the spiritual more than anything else. I am reminded of home-cooked dinners with my extended family, of walking through Flushing’s Chinatown in the pouring rain, of make-shift squash gardens in the front yard, and of laundry hanging from the windows of tenement apartments. The faces I see are simultaneously familiar and strange; their visages coated with stories—of grief, wonder, hope, and sadness—some of which I already know by heart.

The front gate of Shanxi Agricultural University—erected as part of the 90th anniversary of the college in 1997.

The second is the amazing job the Senior Fellows have done to indoctrinate me into living here. As mentioned in my last entry, Nick and Anne have both been here for a year and have been incalculably helpful to my general well-being. They have patiently answered every question and entertained every concern that I have lavished upon them. My co-Fellow, James, has also been great and we’ve been getting along surprisingly well in our shared apartment. In addition to the three of them, there are two others in our cast of characters. The first, David, is an ‘09 graduate from the University of Vermont who came to Taigu to teach English on his own without the help of a program. But he may as well be an Oberlin grad—aside from some inherent “bro-ness,” he meshes with our little group just fine, and has been a great addition to meals and outings. The other is named Matthias—a 36-year old Germany native who teaches German to a group of specialized (read: very wealthy) Chinese students with aspirations of passing the German college entrance exam. For most of them, though, this is a pipe dream. As Matthias explained, his students’ German is very poor on the whole and unlike in China, they can’t use their money or clout to buy a degree. Though disheartening, this fact doesn’t seem to nag him too much. He teaches much more than the rest of us and makes a hefty salary by Chinese standards. But a significant portion of his money goes to his biggest vice—alcohol—as he chooses to remain “drunken” for the majority of each day. When he does not drink, it’s like a switch has been flipped—he goes from garrulous to silent, his humor fades into discontent, and it is difficult to watch this transition. At lunch when we he is sober, he is a shell of the man we see at nights and at parties we throw together. I think he must know this weakness, but he can admit it less to himself than even we can to him.

From left to right, my three Shansi co-Fellows: Nick, Anne, and James. It was taken at Golden Hans, a German barbecue restaurant in Taiyuan. This picture is for Scott, who maintains (quite accurately), that I never have pictures of people in my blog posts.

We speculate the reasons for why he came to China to teach. He is a published author in Germany with three novels—two, under a pseudonym that he used because he was drunk, and one was his college thesis—and all three books are displayed proudly on his bookshelf. We guess that there was some falling out either with his family or his work that made him emigrate. He constantly tells us that he is a poor man by German standards, and that he can’t afford to go home, but his spending habits would suggest otherwise. He bought an expansive motorbike in China that is fixed near the doorway and is almost never used. He imports food from Germany weekly—stacks of cans of liverwurst, packages of cheese, whole sausages, bread, containers of Nutella—and has scores of other edible and potable wares that he buys from Walmart in Taiyuan. He has made friends with tons of Chinese students—filtering them through “levels” of QQ (the MSN or AIM equivalent in China)—and constantly receives calls and texts from them on his cell phone. In new places, he is treated like a king—as a teacher, his students’ parents are forced to buy him everything when he visits their hometown, putting him up in 4-star hotels, delivering beer to his door, and taking him out to McDonald’s for dinner. He can speak but a few key words in Chinese (hello, thank you, beer, etc.), despite already having lived here for a year, but he says that this academic calendar will be his last.

When he is serious and talkative (a somewhat rarer phenomenon), he speaks highly of his sisters and his homeland. More interestingly, he speaks of why he is still living in China. He hates a lot of the food here—not to mention the beer—and he gets annoyed by the same things we do—feelings of isolation, dirty surroundings, air that tastes of coal. But through it all, he is content. He smiled wryly when he explained that he was the most ignorant man in all of China—that he cannot read or communicate and has no notion of what’s going on. In Germany as an intellectual, he was miserable. There were too many problems that we was made constantly aware of. But in China, bureaucracy scarcely bothers him because he doesn’t understand it. I hazard to admit that there is some truth to his logic. Other than these foibles, though, he is a kind-hearted and gentle man—and a wonderful host—and for lack of any other foreign friends here, he does a remarkable job of putting up with all of us.

One of the many decorative gazebos on campus.

We foreigners are regarded as something of an enigma—endlessly fascinating and inscrutably mysterious. We are tall and big and ignorant and Western, but every once and a while, we can pass as Chinese. Occasionally there are no stares. Drivers don’t slow to gawk, street vendors don’t pause from cooking, young kids don’t point and giggle, and old people don’t take a second glance. Despite our small numbers, we certainly comprise a Motley crew when we go out to meals or walk around campus together. I have been spending a lot of time with the other foreigners here largely because I don’t yet know anyone else, and they have been a great source of comfort and guidance in a new place. Not to mention that they are just a really great group of friends to hang out with. I suspect that this will change soon as I meet more people and get more situated here, but thus far we have been doing a lot together.

The Pepto-Bismol-hued dormitories that house both undergraduates and grad students alike. Perhaps not the most eye-catching design, but on the plus side, check out all the built-in clotheslines!

In my first week, James had not yet arrived and classes were not to start for another two weeks. For the first time in a long time, I found myself with very little to do and a lot of time to do it in. The internet wasn’t working, and I had already arranged and re-arranged my room countless times up to that point with little else in the way of activities. I started watching some Chinese television with the hopes that comprehension would filter through my conscious mind like osmosis, and did my best to do some character studying for a couple of hours every day. Being the only newcomer to the country, as all of the other foreigners have spent over a year here prior (James and David included), I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder when it comes to my knowledge of China, as well as my Chinese ability. Coming in with only a year-and-a-half of formal study under my belt, it was hard to wrap my mind around a lot about this place—the nuances in the Shanxi dialect, how fast people spoke, and how staggeringly little I was able to understand at the outset. But in the time since, I have been faring pretty well. I can order food with little difficulty, make small talk with students or bewildered passersby, and communicate to a reasonable degree with the handful of Chinese friends that Nick and Anne have. My Chinese level is certainly not where I want it to be (which is, ideally, fluency), but I know I will have to put in a lot of work if I want to achieve that. Right now speaking English is too easy, and pretty soon I will have to really step out of my comfort zone.

In the unstructured free time that constituted the majority of those days, a lot revolved around simply talking and eating food, luxuries that I wish I had budgeted more into my life at Oberlin, as I had done during my summer at Cornell. Dinners linger long after the food is finished, and conversation makes its rounds around the table like a collection plate. Anne and Nick have already taken us to some of the best restaurants in town. Some are a little distance away, usually a long walk or a cab ride if we are in the mood for fancier or specialty foods when the occasion dictates. But many are located right on campus in an area known as bei yuan, or North Yard. The strip is right off the main crawl that leads to many of the campus buildings and dorms. At first glance, it looks just like a big open-air market. Vendors are sandwiched side-by-side along both sides of the narrow sidewalk, as cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians all share the middle roadway. Walking along, one can find almost anything as far as food goes—small hand-sized bing (pancakes) of all varieties, nai cha (bubble tea), tian dian (desserts), and shui guo (fruit). There are also slightly larger stands that make fresh food right in front of you like barbecued meat on sticks, fried rice, noodles, and tofu. Almost all of it is delicious, not to mention exceptionally cheap. Dabbling at a few such stands will only run you between 50 cents and a dollar U.S., if that.

A view of North Yard at night, where it becomes home to swarms of students looking for late-night eats, as well as a social life, due largely to the lack of any other significant night-life activities.

On either side of the vendors, there are little stationary stores, delis, hair salons, and sit-down restaurants. There are countless eateries that we have yet to try, even though we seem to frequent a new one for every meal. Each seems to have its own te se, or specialty. Some are big into noodle dishes, others for their selection of meat, and still more for gai fan, or covered rice, my personal favorite. Dishes are all served family style in the middle of the table. As soon as a dish is finished cooking, the wait staff brings it over to our table, where we promptly grab at bits and pieces of it with our chopsticks. It makes for a more interesting meal—instead of one dish, you effectively have 4 or 5, or more, depending on how many people you go out to eat with. Addressing the wait staff is very different than in the U.S. too—there is hardly any courtesy and shouting from across the room is the only way to summarily communicate. Of course, there is also no tip or tax—a great benefit to be sure—and often one person pays for the entire meal rather than everyone splitting the check. I prefer this method a whole lot more. Money seems to lose its intrinsic individual attachment and everything about going out for meals feels more relaxed. It’s presumed that eventually everything will even out—a comforting thought for someone who has spent most of his adult life guarding his money carefully and efficiently tallying debt.

One of the many fruit vendor stands in North Yard.

Aside from North Yard, the campus has a few other notable places of interest, including a post office, a few tracks for running, a swimming pool, and an underground supermarket. Almost all of the buildings have an aged quality to them—some in an antique, gilded sort-of elegance, and others simply because they are falling apart and covered in dirt. But there are exceptions. Most dazzling of all (and thus, also most physically out of place) is the library, one of the newest structures on campus. Apparently as a ploy to get more funding from the government, the school was instructed to construct a modern library, only to discover that they didn’t have nearly enough books and other resources to fill it. As legend has it, the school requested that every student donate all of his or her own personal books to the library, resulting in tens of copies of the same textbooks lining its shelves. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to check out the library, but conveniently, it is located almost adjacent to my house, and if my time at Oberlin and Cornell are any indication, I might find myself eventually spending a lot of time there after all.

The sleek, super-modern library on campus.

In short, adapting to life here has been great. Some days can drag on almost eternally, but on the whole, I have been finding a lot to keep myself busy, and my mind preoccupied on things other than homesickness. I am so thankful that I have already been exposed in some form to many of the customs and formalities here, so as to lessen the burden on my arrival. This is especially apparent when it comes to eating, as almost every gesture was branded into my skin at a young age like muscle memory. As opposed to Japan, people here seem more laid back—the equivalent to honorific keigo is unnecessary when addressing elders or superiors, and bowing and superlative thanking are often waved off completely. Furthermore, as a mixed race Chinese, there is a whole other level to my experience living here that I will certainly touch more on in later posts. Many of the eyes that greet me do not know my past. Some take my foreignness at face value. But others take the time to ponder. They wonder why my hair is black and my eyes are dark, and they start to form the same question in their minds: "why do you look like me?" When I answer them, our vast differences fall away, as though they were not bound so tightly to begin with. Curiosity quelled, they smile back at me—as if all of life could be made so simple.