The World Outside Is Dying...

…But inside, the stovetop ramen’s frying,
Beyond the tall gates, an entire city outlying.
Clouds of coal dust in the air keep flying,
As we try to suppress our loneliness by smiling.

I’ve been doing a lot of freestyle lately. And that ain’t even lyin’.


Prior to my arrival, I received no shortage of warnings about winters in Taigu. Taigu is not only the one Shansi site to get yearly snow, but it’s also the only one that comes at a significant risk to one’s respiratory health—a number of previous Fellows have developed asthma as a result of the air quality, especially during colder months. It was one of the first indications that my two years in China wouldn’t come without its fair share of adversity. After all, there had to be something about the place that prompted Beth, former Shansi Fellow and previous occupant of my house, to write, that: “The initial adjustment to living in rural China, really the whole first year, was hard for me. I made lots of friends pretty early on, which helped, but the new environment made me sick all the time, and the poverty and idleness of Taigu was palpable. This place, though charming and very special, is a dilapidated coal-dust covered town in the middle of northern nowhere, and sometimes I feel like we're literally on the edge of the world.” Despite any degree of cynicism I had about having lived through four Ohio winters at that point, I knew that I would be in for something life-changing, and, at the same time, almost caustically different.

After the big snow that hit Taigu shortly after Halloween, there’s been a big freeze—snow has been cleared from the major streets, but all of the smaller paths are still glazed over with a thick sheet of ice built up from compacted snow and temperatures routinely below freezing. Winter is officially in full swing. The SAU campus is masked in a perpetual haze like silky gauze, veiling everything as blunted outlines and shapes. We speculate that part of it is from winter fog in general, but we attribute a lot to the coal dust that billows out of Shanxi’s famously abundant factories and goes toward powering our heat and electricity. In addition, people here routinely burn garbage, as incineration is one of the most popular forms of waste management. The smell is almost palpable at times—the scent of burning plastic, compost, and filament slowly peppering the air with black pockmarks. Without exception, every restaurant on campus has now closed its doors—a combination of the swine flu scare and the snowfall creating an insufficient amount of business. In the mornings, the smog is so thick that seeing twenty feet in front of me on my way to class is sometimes infeasible. I routinely hawk up black phlegm and now find myself drinking twice the amount of water I normally do to cope with the excessive dryness. On good days and when the sun is out, we have slightly off-color blue skies and the smell of Shanxi vinegar to dilute pollutants in the air. Temperatures tend to dip from a sultry 32° in midday down to the teens at night. Thankfully, the classrooms are moderately heated, but I still find myself wearing my coat in most indoor places.

As a result, the cold has unfortunately brought with it a pretty heady depression—indicative of most winters for most people everywhere—but here again, there are a few differences. As China doesn’t believe in daylight savings time (or time zones in general), it gets dark before 5:30pm every night, and the night air is so thick that it sometimes feels like we are wandering through a haunted graveyard. The pervasive gloominess, coupled with the fact that we still can’t really leave campus due to H1N1, has made for solitary nights in our segregated foreign homes. In those homes, we have become landlords to a sizeable population of rats. Even non-perishable food had been regulated to the fridge in an effort to deter the rodents, but they still come because of the heat. The incessant scurrying and squeaking kept me awake at nights until we began cracking down. Though snap traps have proven to be wholly ineffective, we often come home to find a new baby rat, yelping, stuck to one side of a glue trap, and do the nasty deed of disposal. On the rare occasions when we catch a live one, we leave it to Mumu or Boots (Anne and Nick’s cats) and let nature run its course. Sometimes we let the cats roam our house in the day to let the feline smell serve as a warning—just enough not to aggravate James’ allergies. I have even caught myself picking off cat dander and heaping it in spots where I have found rat excrement and sawdust filings from where the rats chewed through our walls.

Everyday seeds the same familiar mainstays. Motorcyclists pass with their hands thrust into giant arm warmers and surplus cargo tied precariously to their backs. The Chinese couples who routinely made out on park benches and in the so-called “Lover’s Forest” have now had to double their efforts because of the cold. They brush away ice and sit statuesque, girl atop boy, and carry on as no more than a rough silhouette of insulated jackets. The underground supermarket on campus has effectively become the social hub for the entire student body. Essentially no more than a heated indoor space with shops and a few tables, its main draw is that it is more spacious than the overwrought dormitories where students are crammed four to eight to a room. We have come to make almost daily trips ourselves, stocking up on yogurt and fruit for lack of more meaningful activities. The cult known as “Crazy English”—an immense group of students dedicated to learning English through a method of repetitive shouting and memorization—is still in full force, setting up shop behind the now-abandoned bus depot. It’s amazing how much their zealous yelling sounds like a student uprising not unlike the Tiananmen Square protests—except this time, in English. As native speakers, we keep a low profile when we pass, careful not to be cajoled into their unorthodox language study.

For the vast majority of the time, I am happy, content, and constantly inundated with things to do. But especially with the holiday season coming up, I have been thinking more and more about home. It’s been difficult embarking on a journey like this so fresh out of college. On the one hand, you are coping with the usual amount of loneliness at losing contact with the people you’ve spent the last four years. And on top of that, there’s the entire culture shock of being in a new place, getting used to the changing relationships you will inevitably have with everyone you’ve ever known. I imagine how easy it would have been to spend an FTL year at Oberlin or to be living rent-free (and jobless) in Brooklyn. It’s certainly not what I would truly want for myself, but in times like these, it’s an incredibly comforting thought. I brought a slew of mementos from family and friends in an attempt to stave off homesickness—a teapot from my dad, a Peru souvenir from Lauren, an Olympics-themed money pouch from Margaret, a journal from Yitka, a handful of letters from Aishe, the blue tapestry from my room in Oberlin, and a number of photos taken at Oberlin Commencement. But inevitably, every time I talk to someone, the familiar nostalgia tugs at my heart, and I am again forced to remind myself that college is over and I won’t be going back home for at least another seven months.


Thankfully, though, there have been a few respites from the winter grind. Exercise, as always, has been the first. Since the Taigu air has made it hard for my prissy, fair-weather running self to exercise outside, it is fortunate that the indoor swimming pool has finally reopened after its one-month hiatus from the H1N1 panic. We were all beginning to feel the weight (literally) of the measly indoor floor exercises and the rare outdoor sports that we managed to accomplish. But since the Chinese seem to be even more reactionary than I about physical activity in the cold, the pool has been nearly deserted. Though the pool is heated, it’s definitely not what one would call comfortable by most means. The water is downright frigid, requiring us to constantly do laps for fear of freezing. I realized that the majority of the reason why the pool felt warm in the fall was because it was packed end-to-end with students. And even then, more than half of them forewent real swimming of any kind in favor of holding conversation—like having a board meeting in a body of water. But on the plus side, it’s getting me to swim like I never have before. I’m still terribly slow, but at least I’m pulling in a half-mile a day—the silent, almost meditative quality to repetitive laps coursing over my body with each intake of breath.

The same can be said about the dance parties that we throw every other week at my house. First conceived as a way to give our students an outlet to relax and release their pent up anxieties, it’s now just as much a reason for us as teachers to let loose—seeing as how the winter has made us all slightly more crazed and short-fused than usual. At first I was extremely hesitant to invite my students, but it’s ended up working out really well. My students get to see a side of me that is reserved for friends, but back in the classroom, we’re back to being teacher and students, all without the slightest hitch. Because of the curfew instated by the school, the parties start at the ungodly hour of 8pm and end just before midnight—quite different from a traditional “night life” taken in the states. Additionally, the concept of “fashionably late” must purely be a Western notion—by 8:15 the room is already packed with students swirling to the disco ball lights and the bass from the massively-large, inherited speakers in my living room. We have had a handful of issues with drunk students getting out of hand, but by and large, it’s been tremendously fun. The playlist is a complete mix of songs from previous Fellows, Chinese friends, Korean and Japanese top-ten hits, and my iTunes collection—I still play “Love Me Down” and pretend that I’m at a dance party at my house in Oberlin.

But far and away, the greatest boon has been the incarnation of Taigu’s first ever “Open Mic Night.” Without classes to deter us from staying up late on Thursday nights, after dinner we have started a once-weekly tradition of performing spoken and musical acts reminiscent of a fifth-grade talent show. Gerald, who lives with the only other non-Obie, David, and who has been generous enough to offer up his living room for the occasion, came up with the idea because of the absurd amount of studio equipment he brought with him to Taigu, including two mics, a mic stand, an electric guitar, a preset, and an amp—not to mention a slew of expensive audio software that can play instrument samples, create beats, and utilize auto tune. This, combined with the fact that a mic is nearly irresistible to fiddle around with when left in the open, was how Open Mic Night came to be a bastion of otherwise ordinary Thursday evenings in Taigu.

Open Mic Night in Taigu! From left to right: Melody, Susan, Cathy, Lucy, David, James, Nick, and me (photo courtesy of Gerald Lee)!

We started out slow at first, keeping it limited to the six foreigners (plus our German friend Matthias) at our weekly get-togethers. We would buy a 24-pack of beer and a few snacks from the supermarket, and entertain each other for perhaps more time than we should have been able to. Eventually, we all got to be pretty creative. Matthias read his poetry in German (followed by an attempt at translation), Anne sang folk songs, David told jokes, James recited poetry, Gerald rocked out on his guitar, and Nick performed stand-up comedy. As for me, I did freestyle rap. The inspiration didn’t come from a single source. To be sure, a lot of it originated from my memories as a first-year at Oberlin, rapping in the dining hall while my friend Niels provided the beat. But I’ve also found myself listening to a lot of hip-hop lately, paying an unusual amount of attention to the lyrics (though this has had the unfortunate consequence of putting to rest my extensive collection of Ja Rule and Mystikal). Ever since watching the ground-breaking and Academy Award-worthy film Notorious, I have been inspired to try my hand at rap—not as any kind of career but, somewhat ironically, as a way to stretch my capacity as a writer. And so when Gerald, who is in the business of producing content for up-and-coming musical artists, came to me with the idea of doing a rap song, I jumped at the chance.

The song is still in the works, but Open Mic Night lives on. What’s most interesting, I think, is how much we are all beginning to stretch our comfort zones. I started to do a little stand-up for the first time since being in the “Stand-Up Comedy Club” (an actual student organization) with Scott during my senior year of high school. James has gotten into freestyle and has proven to be surprisingly adept, prompting Nick, who is also known to drop rhymes, to comment on his flow. Gerald has transitioned from playing Green Day punk ballads to performing his own songs. And even Anne has begun utilizing Gerald’s audio software, with a tradition of performing her student’s essays to a rap beat. In a place like Taigu, it helps that your audience and the people you live with are one and the same—and you know that no matter what happens, they will always be there to support you. In recent weeks, we have even begun to pair Open Mic Night with a home-cooked dinner, and the company of some of our Chinese friends. It’s the best we can do, at a time when wanting a family and the comforts of home are the most precious things we could ask for.