The Secret's Out

The truth is that I'm back in Taigu, and have been for about a week. Nearly two months since I left town with a suitcase and a laptop bag in tow and it feels like just yesterday that I was singing Christmas carols in front of our students' dormitory and wading feet-deep in snow. In fact, winter vacation this year felt much longer than any vacation (winter or otherwise) that I've embarked on since at least entering high school. I attribute it largely to the construct of place. Most long vacations I've spent in the last eight years have either been in New York or at Oberlin, places that for me have felt grounded and secure. Being “home” enabled me to experience and learn new things, but all the while, derive comfort in the stability and routine of eating familiar food, seeing familiar people, and sleeping in the same bed. It was precisely this sort of routine that was lacking on these latest two months of travel. Save for the week that I was living in Sam's room in Tokyo, I was never in the same place for more than four days. And in India nearly every other night was spent on a bus or a train trying to reach our next destination. At least it was a good excuse to save on lodging expenses.

Because there wasn't a real “home” to go back to, it was hard for me to get comfortable. It always felt like something wasn't right—a tingling sort of anxiety, like sandpaper under my skin. But for what it's worth, I do feel as though I've grown a lot in the last two months. More than an exercise in spendthrift travel, it was both an experiment in self-reliance and the trial run to a potential future. The less-glamorous side to being a travel writer or foreign journalist is full of the sorts of discomforts you might expect—loneliness, desertion, disorientation, fear of the unknown. And though this had been my dream for the greater part of the last three years, I'm not sure now that I'm quite cut out for it. Sure, you get to see the world, but what fun is it when you're doing it alone—when you're constantly the outsider in a foreign land? I enjoyed being self-sufficient and having to navigate challenges on my own during my solo-journeying this vacation, but the new experiences it afforded came at the expense of not having someone to share them with. A better choice for me might be something along the lines of the foreign service, an option that I have begun researching as a potential future career after my stint in China. Seeing friends in foreign lands, however, is something I would like to continue doing my whole life, so long as I have the money for it.

Despite all of the excitement of traveling, I must say that at the end of the day, I am happiest to be back home. I think Sam said it best when he summed up his feelings at the end of a few weeks of traveling during his vacation in Japan: “My life, actually, is quite mundane, but rather than all the incredible travels around Asia and throughout Tokyo, the routine aspects of my life, have become my favorite. Hopefully that continues until the end of this year as well.” Not only do I take the most joy in my everyday activities, but I also find them much easier to write about. It's ironic, however, when you consider that almost everyone on campus last semester (teachers and students alike) was suffering from intense cabin fever. Had you talked to me in December, there was nothing that I wanted more than to leave. Taigu, home to debilitating cold, a loss of freedom, and the lifelessness that came from a dilapidated sea of closed shops. It was like the giant tsunami from that iconic Hokusai painting had steamrolled over Taigu (represented by the tiny fishing boats), leaving only soot, ice, and trash fragments in its wake.

“The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” A metaphor (photo courtesy of Wikipedia).

Since then, though, things have been looking up. The next few months promise better weather, more exercise, and generally lighter spirits. If what Nick and Anne say is true, there will be a lot to be thankful for, not the least of which include fresh watermelon, delivery milkshakes, and incredibly cheap kegs of local beer. Not to mention the opportunity to cart our sofas out onto the front porch and bask under the afternoon sun. But not all of it is fun and games. The spring semester also sees me playing catch-up to writing about my two months on the road. Sporadic internet and a general lack of free time, especially in India, has put me far behind on my goal of keeping this blog regularly updated. But besides writing more, spring in Taigu brings with it a fresh set of goals that I was really only able to realize after being away from home for a while. I realized then, as I do more everyday, that two years will evaporate in a flash, and I want to have a lot to show for having lived here for that long. The goals largely fall under three headers—study, health, and culture—and will be detailed more explicitly in a forthcoming post. 
In addition to those goals, there has been something of a shake-up to our weekly schedule. At the beginning of last semester, the bulk of our entertainment in Taigu came from going out to dinner. Hours would pass at big meals in mixed Chinese-English company with laughter and revelry lasting well into the evening. With the closing of the school due to H1N1, we were relegated to smaller, far less raucous dinners in the small cafeteria on campus reserved for the seven of us foreign teachers. Because of this, we had to find other outlets for fun. As a result, “partying” became far more common. Wednesday retained the mainstay of “German Night,” but we also began to add Thursday as “Open Mic Night,” and Saturday as “Dance Party Night,” in addition to often going out to Taiyuan on Friday. What's more, this doesn't include those weekday nights that found us bored and lonely and apt to congregate in the evenings after dinner to talk and drink. I recently tried to describe to a friend what exactly I do for fun in Taigu, and explained that it was similar to the things I do at home—hang-out with friends, play sports, have small parties—only without the 24-hour food establishments, cultural landmarks to explore, and exciting places to visit. I suppose that the same could be said of Oberlin.

Thus, it should make sense, that even though the school has thankfully reopened North Yard this semester (making it possible to have those sorts of big dinners with friends again), the lingering traces of our former lifestyle have remained impressed on our minds like an inkblot. It seems as though every night is now reserved for one activity or another, and it's a wonder we still have time to teach anymore. In a place where one has to make his own fun for want of a social life, we've spared no effort in pulling out all the stops. Though nothing is entirely etched in stone, here is what our weekly nightly schedule now looks like:

Monday: German Night (hosted by Matthias)
This Wednesday favorite has now migrated to Mondays because of a scheduling conflict. A night reserved for conversation, networking, snacks, and general debauchery, often coupled with dinner at the all-you-can-eat beefsteak restaurant on campus.

Tuesday: TV Night (hosted by Nick)
We've dedicated a night to watching all of our favorite TV shows. Most notably for me, this includes HBO's “How To Make It In America,” one of my newest obsessions, if only because it perfectly captures the pretentiousness and absurdity of twenty-somethings living in the city, all with a touch of wit, sensibility, and nostalgia for home.

Wednesday: Chinese Night (hosted by James)
Think German Night with a twist—friends and students come to drink and socialize, but everyone must speak in Chinese. It will be a great opportunity to practice Chinese in a supportive, low-stress environment, and give my students a chance to play teacher.

Thursday: Open Mic Night (hosted by Gerald)
All of the singing, dancing, guitar-playing, and freestyle rapping of Open Mic Night returns this semester to a new locale. Still paired with a home-cooked potluck dinner, this time around promises to yield a larger audience and more varied performances.

Saturday: Dance Party Night (hosted by Daniel)
This bi-monthly event is the cornerstone of the Taigu three-day weekend. Big crowds, loud music, and one jury-rigged disco ball turn my house into a beat-thumping, floorboard-shaking spectacle. Between songs I work it out as iTunes DJ and play host to spectacular dance performances by foreigners and Chinese alike.

Aside from these weekly lynchpins, a number of new developments have also come to light. The first is that a friend and former student of mine is in the process of recruiting a number of the teachers here at SAU to teach at his friend's school in the city of Chengzhi, about three hours away by train. The details have yet to be fully fleshed out, but the position seems to call for four to five hours of teaching at this new school every Saturday, with a net pay of about 1000 yuan per week. The overwhelming pro is that doing it three times a week would effectively double our monthly salary (and god knows I need the money after this past vacation), but with six hours in total travel time and a Friday spent there overnight, it would also significantly cut into our weekends. However, a potential ride to and from the city as well as paid accommodations in Chengzhi have helped to sweeten the deal, not to mention the fact that if a number of us went at once, we could go out on the town during our off-hours.

The second is that Gerald has finally purchased his oft-talked about new camera, one that he plans to use to shoot a zombie movie here in Taigu this semester. Other than the fact that Taigu scenically is perhaps the perfect place to shoot such a movie (post-apocalyptic buildings, gravel and rubble-strewn ditches, creepy old train tracks), he has a surprisingly deep and free workforce at his disposal (i.e. us and his students). With any luck, I'll be doing some acting (reminiscent of my high school days, perhaps) as well as co-screenwriting the production. He also plans to use his new camera for a host of other projects, as more ideas seem to get thrown out everyday. Even though he only had a compact camera before this, he had enough foresight to videotape us on every occasion he could and has managed to use his technical know-how to put together a compilation of some of the highlights of our fall semester into a short, entertaining recap. Despite all of my griping, watching it really reminds me of what an awesome time I've been having here. Here is the result of his labors. Enjoy!