Everything in Its Rightful Place

Thirteen time zones and almost 7,000 miles away, it is easy to write off my former life at Oberlin since being transported to China. But in reality, my life has not been transported so much as it has been transplanted—uprooted lock, stock, and barrel, and grafted onto another continent.

Just like at Oberlin, my life in Taigu has revolved around a few constants. In the morning, I have class for two hours. At noon sharp, we have lunch at the Foreign Affairs Office. After that, I have an hour to catch up on lesson planning, reading, Chinese studying, ice cream eating, or sleep before my afternoon class—another two-hour affair from 2:30 to 4:30. Immediately following, there’s exercise—everything from running to swimming to playing basketball. At 6:30, we have dinner—usually out at one of the local restaurants in town—and then it’s back home for more lesson planning, writing, and hanging out. Once a week, I also have a Chinese lesson with one of the teachers at the school. After a month, it seems like I’ve finally pieced together the semblance of routine.

But barring the striking similarities with regard to content and time structure, inherent in this routine is a plethora of disparities. Rather than attending classes as a student, I am the teacher—the lone person at the podium in a cramped room full of eager Chinese faces. Not only must I be punctual and present, but I must be prepared and full of energy. Gone are the days when, feeling particularly unmotivated, I could simply go through the motions. Now, the success of my class is dependent upon the strength of my curriculum, the value of my attitude, and the ability to which I can motivate my own students. No longer am I a spectator or a side-show contributor; I’m the entire three-ring circus.

Meals are also viewed very differently here. As opposed to the states, lunch is taken very seriously, and dinner is something of an afterthought. We foreign teachers are all very fortunate to have a cook hired by the Foreign Affairs Office who makes lunch every day that we sign up to eat, and merely charges us at the end of the month for the cost of her ingredients. As if going out to eat wasn’t inexpensive enough, this option is a great way to save money and affords us balanced and varied meals in the comparatively short time between morning and afternoon classes. Oftentimes, we eat dinners as a flock of foreigners with the addition of a few of our Chinese friends. It’s a nice way to have a back-and-forth dialogue—simultaneously learning from others as we ourselves are making contributions. Rarely is conversation ever in one language. Once or twice a week, we splurge and go out to bigger meals that usually encompass a wider circle of friends—oftentimes Nick or Anne’s former students—and eat leisurely, letting time sit like a stuffed guest between us at the table. These dinners have been great opportunities for me to practice Chinese and make friends here outside of the foreigners, friends who might later accompany us on outings to Taiyuan or join us for swimming after class at the pool. Additionally, most of the eating customs have already been well-ingrained—by now, I have become accustomed to eating with chopsticks at every meal, using sheets of toilet paper as napkins, and drinking boiled water with my food. Chopsticks, themselves, have been purveyors of survival of the fittest—without a degree of efficiency, one may starve in a group meal setting.

For a culture that still refutes the notion of “dessert,” there is no shortage of places to get our sweet fix after dinner. Given that the Mid-Autumn Festival is fast approaching, there are yue bing (moon cakes) everywhere (although I still miss the Southern-style mooncakes that are more common in the states). Additionally, there are pastries and bao zi stuffed with red bean paste, dan ta (egg custards), and a small selection of more Western junk food too, including Oreos and Chips Ahoy! On the whole, though, I tend to have a soft spot for Chinese snacks—usually opting for some bing and a milk-based beverage—nai cha (bubble tea), soy milk, or freshly boiled sweet milk for dessert. Recently, I had the good fortune to stumble upon a childhood favorite in the states—Chinese haw flakes (a kind of fruit) served up in a stack of thin red discs, which I used to pop like OTC meds as a kid.

Chinese haw flakes, in all of their delectable, completely non-appetizing glory (photo courtesy of Wikipedia).

Mid-day, there is also fresh soft serve ice cream—certainly more artificial-tasting than the kind served up in the states—but at one yuan (15 cents) a cone, you can’t really go wrong. There is a new flavor every day—melon, mung bean, taro, pineapple, strawberry, and the ever-elusive, chocolate—each paired with vanilla in a twist. Additionally, Taigu is famous for two delicious dessert foods—suan nai (yogurt) and its own kind of bing, simply called Taigu bing. The yogurt here is so thin that you can sip it with a straw from a paper cup, and it perfectly complements the sesame seed-covered bing—not too sweet and neither hard nor soft. And speaking of Taigu specialties, our little town is also famous for its zao (dates) that you can pick and eat right off trees, cu (vinegar), which goes perfectly with meat or vegetable jiao zi (dumplings), and finally, dao xiao mian (knife-cut noodles), which are hand-sliced and served up in a number of different styles.

Taigu bing and yogurt, two regional Taigu specialty desserts.

Luckily, there has been enough exercise to counteract the excessive amount of food I’ve been eating here. The main problem I’ve had to come to terms with is the cost of food. When food is so cheap and delicious that you can afford to buy a lot of it—not to mention the fact that it’s foreign, and one should always be trying new things!—it’s hard to convince yourself to pass up on anything edible. But I strongly believe that exercise is a great excuse to treat oneself. I’ve been running with Anne a few times a week, which has proven to be a great motivator. She drags me off-campus, past the crop fields where farmers toil past sundown, and into neighboring villages and towns. The back roads make for a nice change of pace. What they lack in air quality (even the farmland seems to bear the smell of car exhaust), they make up for in scenery—even if on one occasion I did end up stepping in a puddle of cow manure at the expense of watching it.

The swimming pool on campus has also been put to good use. I have probably swum more in the last month than I have in my entire adult life in America. It helps that all of the foreigners are so adamant about swimming, and with the cost of a yearly card less than a monthly gym membership in the states, we’ve certainly been making the most of it. The conditions may not be the most ideal, but they certainly suffice. It’s nice enough having a luxury like a swimming pool at a university of this size in China. Of all the things I’ve experienced in China so far, though, the locker rooms may perhaps have been the biggest culture shock of all. Suffice it to say that I never imagined I would enter a room literally wall-to-wall with naked Chinese men, standing four to a showerhead, alternately taking turns bending over and scrubbing each other with a loofah. But it’s strange how, after a while, nothing is shocking anymore. One month ago, I could barely go half a lap without being winded, and now, I am proud to be able to swim over half a mile at a time. It doesn’t hurt to have James living here, who has been a swim instructor for many years.

After swimming, we always hit up the mock gym set-up in the courtyard out front. For lack of a dedicated indoor weight room, we make do with the 1950s-era collection of yellowing and rust-peeling exercise equipment, including, but not limited to, monkey bars, parallel dip bars, leg presses, arm extenders, and elliptical machines that only require you to lift your own body weight. Basketball has also been a lot of fun. The flow of the game is a little different here—namely, there is a lot more coarseness in general and not a lot of defensive team strategy—but the game play is still great. Every time we go out to play, a crowd seems to gather to watch the game, with Chinese noting our every foreign move. Almost everyone in China loves basketball, and I can’t wait to get the opportunity to play with some of my students in the future.

One thing I’m still struggling with is trying to find the balance between my life as a teacher and that of a peer. My students are almost all at least my age (with some who are much older), and it’s hard to be a distanced authority figure when part of what human beings do is try to connect and make friends in unfamiliar places. There is also the question of what kinds of activities are suitable to do with students and which are better reserved for friends. The difficulties arise when those lines start to get blurred, which I think is very easy in a place like Taigu. The students are all so approachable, and in some ways, you feel so lonely and inside yourself as it is, that you can’t help but try to forge friendships. Wednesday night in Taigu is German night, which basically entails all of us going to Matthias’ house after dinner, eating lots of German snacks, talking with Chinese students, and drinking beer. As ordinary as it sounds, it’s actually a great way to break up the monotony of the week. I only have to teach one class on Thursday before the long weekend, and so it feels like quitting time at the end of the workweek. On multiple occasions now, though, I have seen students of mine there who either know Matthias or are friends with some of his students. But so far it hasn’t been an issue. We drink and talk together, and the nature of our relationship is understood as one that exists strictly outside of the classroom. And on Monday, we are back to being teacher-and-student in class as if nothing else ever happened.

Unfortunately (or perhaps, fortunately), Taigu night life has revolved principally around the presence of alcohol. Shansi wasn’t joking when they said that people from Taigu love to drink. I guess when you live in the middle of nowhere for long enough, you’ve got to find a way to occupy your time. Alcohol is ordered at almost every dinner, and when we’re not in the midst of traveling, it tends to dictate a fair bit of our weekend shindigs. But as time goes on, it’s becoming just as easy not to take part in drinking if one so chooses (though it is a little harder if you are a man). We haven’t yet had the all-too-infamous banquets with our Foreign Affairs Office superiors, but I am fairly certain that those will be an entirely different animal.

It’s not to say, too, that all of our free time is absorbed in crazed debauchery. We’ve been watching a lot of movies together, and thanks to Nick (who owns one here), playing a decent amount of Xbox. When I’m not hanging out with the other guys, Anne and I have also been doing more introspective things on our own. We did a little bit of painting early in the semester—a big deal for me, as I haven’t touched paint in close to two years—and did a little cooking using some ingredients we bought in North Yard. We’ve also spent a lot of time writing—finding time to make deadlines and workshop poetry and nonfiction pieces with each other. It's nice to have another writer here to bounce ideas and first drafts off of, sifting through stacks of papers over tall, steaming cups of peppermint tea. Generally speaking, though, lesson planning takes up the vast majority of my time during the week. The four of us frequently try to do it together—so much so that the term itself is now etched in euphemistic lore. I often find myself rifling through Ben’s old teaching binder, burying my head in textbooks from the bookshelf, and cycling through a half-dozen ESL teaching tool websites, searching for the perfect next lesson. So far, I’ve had a good amount of success—there is a certain chronology to the lessons I’ve laid out, and I am trying to scheme big picture themes instead of haphazardly picking unrelated topics out of a hat. Most important of all, the students seem to be reacting positively to what they’ve been learning.

An artistic rendering of my first work of art in almost two years. It is intended to be the first in a series of paintings dedicated to all four elements.

It’s hard, I think, for Anne being the only female presence here, and even for me, as I am much more accustomed to having female friends than male. For both of us, though, it’s been a learning experience, and it’s nice to have to adapt to a slightly different sort of lifestyle, both with respect to people and place. It’s nice, too, when that lifestyle gets a bit of a shakedown. In the past two weeks, we’ve had two guests come into town—the first was Ezra, a classmate of mine at Oberlin and a mutual friend of Nick and Anne’s, who came for a few days en route to Qinghai in Western China to do some English teaching of his own. The second was James’ cousin Nate who stayed with us for a week and earned his keep as a second English teacher in James’ classes. Nick also recently celebrated his birthday, as did a couple of Anne’s former students. Birthdays in China are often met with a combination of karaoke singing at KTV, an absurd amount of drinking, and eating cake with a near-diabetes-inducing icing-to-flour ratio (which you later use to smear all over the birthday recipient’s face).

Today is National Day in China, a celebration of 60 years of Communist rule. Flags are draped on every doorpost, buildings are decked out in colorful lights, and red is displayed prominently on everything from clothing to billboards. Hand-lit fireworks have been going off all day like gangbusters, and every TV channel has been blaring the military review—complete with tanks, fighter planes, and warheads, all parading down the streets of Beijing. For the last couple of weeks, many of the students have been practicing for speech and choral performances on campus, espousing the tenets of Chinese nationalism on auditorium stages, which are packed with spectators in the evenings. But most pertinent to all of us foreigners, it signals the start of a ten-day vacation. Many of the students have already left to go home and spend time with family and friends, and they, like all of us, are excited about the break from classes. Anne, Nick, and I are all going down to Kunming to visit Adam and Alex, two other Shansi Fellows staked out in the south of China. I’m so excited about the eight days we will spend there, and though I will be more out of contact than usual, I am sure I will have that much more to write about when I get back!

Participants practice the tradition of flag-raising at Yangren Street in Chongqing Municipality (photo courtesy of msnbc).