It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like November

I keep my window shades closed for the majority of each day, due largely to a general lack of privacy when it comes to the foreign houses here. Chinese students routinely cross paths by my house to get to other places on campus and have even been known to stop on the front porch right outside my window to chat with friends and take photos. Oftentimes, leaving the blinds open is an invitation for peering visitors, and the occasional knock on the door from pathetic undergraduate students asking to “be their friend and practice English.” It’s the kind of attention that I am happier not receiving. And so, it came as a total shock to me when last week I opened my front door, fully dressed for class in black shoes and a light jacket, to discover that everything in my sight lines was covered in a foot-and-a-half of powdery snow.

The view of campus from outside my window.

I knew that snow was not uncommon in Taigu, thanks to the video Guy showed us during Winter Term Orientation as a brief introduction to the different Shansi sites in Asia. The old film clips of Taigu couldn’t have been less than 20 years old—grainy footage of snow falling on red-topped pagodas and gathering in clumps around the courtyard of the university. But yet, since having moved to Taigu, I realized that not much about that scene has changed. The “old” sections of Taigu still look, well, old, and the people here seem to go about life in more or less the same way. The addition of cars hasn’t done away with a significant percentage of bicycles, three-wheeled buggies, and motorcycles from the road. The majority of people still rely on agriculture to sustain their livelihood. And the winter still brings with it the stuff of schoolchildren’s dreams and commuters’ worst nightmares.

Whoever said this town didn’t get snow must never have heard of global warming. The snow this year didn’t stop with the initial 10 inches. Over the next few days, Taigu saw quite a bit more snowfall—sheets of white that covered tree boughs and blanketed narrow stone walkways. Our boss, Xiao Fan, told me that he talked to a man who had lived in Taigu his whole life—over 60 years—and had not once seen snowfall as heavy as the one we received this year. But that enigmatic old man wasn’t the only one to be flabbergasted at the sudden appearance of snow. Authorities and civilians all throughout Northern China were astonished at the swiftness and intensity of the snowfall. Cars were stranded from Beijing to Shijiazhuang in the north, and there were a number of casualties, predominantly dotting Shanxi Province. News sources corroborated the old man’s story, citing that snowstorms were the worst since 1955 in some places. And according to David’s mom, record-breaking snowfall in Taiyuan (the capital of Shanxi) even made headlines on CBS News in America.

Snowfall on my walk to class.

But thankfully, the situation wasn’t nearly as dire on SAU’s campus as it was in the real world. Like Oberlin, college in general tends to frame a bubble where all of the world’s problems become secondary to one’s own. And thus, the snowfall here was seen less as a scourge than as a godsend. Students and teachers alike, needing some kind of respite from the terribly suffocating restrictions imposed by the college thanks to H1N1, found their savior in fluffy clumps of water vapor falling from the sky. With no means to escape campus, snow provided students the chance to fill their otherwise monotonous weekends with an outdoor activity that could still be enjoyed within the safe boundaries of the university walls. And enjoy it they did. Within a few days, the campus was transformed into a winter wonderland, with snow sculptures, messages in the snow, and snowball fights turning up in every direction. The two outdoor tracks and the basketball courts, though completely unsuitable for their original purposes, became the closest things Taigu’s had to an ice show, with meticulous pieces of art lining their circumference.

A Chinese birthday cake, complete with fruit and a chocolate cookie, fashioned out of snow (photo courtesy of Rebecca).

Not surprisingly, that kind of boundless excitement and enthusiasm also turned up in the classroom. My students, hungry for the chance to get outside and play, seemed almost American in their relentless pleading to have a snow day. Only this time, I had switched roles—from the anxious student fidgeting in class to the pensive teacher debating how best to satisfy both my responsibilities and the whims of my pupils. In the end, I did what I had wished every teacher of mine from 1st through 12th grade would have done. With twenty minutes to spare at the end of class, I marched outside with an entire class of 30 graduate students, and proceeded to have a snowball fight. In the first moments, everyone was extremely hesitant, and it took the raucous young hot shot, Alva, to throw the first snowball at his teacher. But once that was done, there was no stopping my other students. The tentative air quickly turned tenacious, as I found myself greatly outnumbered, eventually getting help from some of the male students who initially turned against me. I walked home from class that day, my shoes more than a bit soppy and my blazer in dire need of a trip to the dry cleaners, but with a lightness I hadn’t had in weeks.

It wouldn’t be the last time I had a snowball fight either. With the help of the other foreign teachers, I was able to get back at some of my students. After class one day, Nick, Anne, and I organized a small outing with a few of each of our students and a couple of our Chinese friends. The snow was remarkably good for forming snowballs, and I got to make use of my Northeastern upbringing to the fullest extent. Teams rotated organically for the most part until the very end, when Nick, me, and our two Chinese friends, Duncan and Tiger, were pitted against four of my students. By the time we were finished, we had their backs up against a wall—me, Duncan, and Tiger were sporting remarkable (and uncharacteristic) long-distance aim, and Nick got himself armed with a bucketful of pre-made snowballs—enough to eventually force their surrender.

Students aside, even we as teachers couldn’t help reveling in the snowy weather. For an entire week, we played tricks on each other, ambushing each other’s classes with armfuls of snowballs aimed squarely at the front podium. In addition to eliciting much amusement on the part of my students, I came out of the surprise attacks with a half-soaked lesson plan to boot. Anne and our friend Lynn also made delicious hot chocolate one afternoon, using some of the stock chocolate available at the supermarket, paired with a generous helping of cocoa powder brought back from the states. They even constructed a snowman in front of Anne’s house, using anise stars for the eyes, twigs for the eyebrows and mouth, a sun hat and a bandana as accessories, and all topped off with a cigarette. Students from far and wide came to pose with the unconventional snowman, along with the sprinkling of others set-up around campus.

The precocious-looking snowman outside of Anne's house.

For, as I learned, Chinese students love to take pictures of themselves and their friends in any snow-related context. One needn't walk far before spotting a couple or a group of friends posing with their cell phone cameras. This was made all the more apparent when a group of students (who I adore) asked if I would join them one Saturday afternoon to take pictures in the snow. Not knowing what I was in for, I agreed, only to be led for two hours through every “scenic spot” that the university had to offer. We paused at old buildings, in front of interesting architecture-work, and by each of the university’s ornate gates. We were modeled by master photographer and previous snowball fight-instigator, Alva, who thought up many of the creative poses on display. By the end, each of my students was trying to one-up the last in their individual pose pictures with me. Finally, when all the picture-taking was said and done, I followed the students back to their dormitory and relished the chance to rest for a bit and incite some warmth back into my extremities.

One of a few dozen staged photographs concocted by my graduate students (photo courtesy of Alva).

I find it incredibly interesting that Chinese people clear snow on the roads with sheer manpower—as there are no snowplows, snow blowers, or any other similar machines at their disposal. Students and workers armed with shovels scoop away at embankments of snow meter by meter until they are gone, just as they did for leaves in the fall with rakes and brooms. They don’t even use salt to break down sheets of ice—probably hard-pressed to use it in food served in the cafeterias instead. At times, workers even go so far as to chop away at it with metal dustpans, but those efforts are often futile. Thus, ice, perhaps the most hazardous consequence of the snow cycle, is the part that perpetually remains on all of the roads and walkways after the snow is cleared.

It's no wonder then that students are getting injured all the time. One texted me recently when she couldn’t make it to class. It was shortly after we had a lesson on clothing, and I sauntered into the classroom looking like a regular Salvation Army—wearing hats, scarves, gloves, ties, and almost every conceivable type of shirt and jacket combination you can imagine. After granting her leave, her message back to me read: “Thank you very much. The weather is so cold. I suggest you to wear coat, scarf and glove.” I’m thankful that even in this festive weather, my students are still absorbing what I teach—or at the very least, trying.