I had a feeling that I wouldn't be able to stick to my New Year's resolution this year of “no new resolutions.” Perhaps that's why I'm cleverly referring to these as “goals” so as to take the edge off of them a little. Goals that I will accomplish, so help me God.
If anything, my hope is that they will help to give me a renewed sense of structure and purpose. In Taigu I often have more unstructured time than I know what to do with, and without some semblance of schedule or routine, I find myself floating along aimlessly like yellowing paper in a breeze. So much of the last two weeks was spent convincing myself that I was still in “vacation mode” and thus needed time to decompress. And especially since a number of the Taigu folks had yet to return, my days were spent almost exclusively with cleaning, sporadic writing, and watching the Winter Olympics. A couple of us ventured out notably to see the Lantern Festival take place here in Taigu to commemorate the 15th day of the New Year, but besides that, I barely left campus. I can now safely say that I've seen every match of the Chinese women's curling team—including a number of the re-runs that CCTV 5 has aired since—and am finally ready to get back to work.
One of the many floats at the parade held in Taigu for the Lantern Festival. In addition to there being lanterns of various shapes and sizes hung in the streets, the holiday is traditionally coupled with performances during the day and a fireworks display at night.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, my goals for the semester largely fall under three headers: study, health, and culture, and to which I will now also add create. I'll save study for a longer post because I have a lot of thoughts on the subject, but I'll do my best to detail the other three topics here. Like most other things, I feel that writing down goals holds me more responsible for following through with them in the long run.
One of the greatest disappointments I've found in traveling is the overwhelming lack of time and energy devoted to exercise. There are almost never any accessible gym facilities, I am constantly nervous about running outside in a new place, and I can never get myself into a rhythm where I am motivated enough to do floor-work indoors. That, coupled with an enormous influx of delicious foreign food just begging to be tried makes for a ceaseless uphill battle to stay fit. Feeling myself slowly get out-of-shape certainly had its effect on my mood during my last few weeks on the road, but I can safely say that back in Taigu, diet and exercise have become less of an issue. Though we are no strangers to lavish, multi-course dinners, the potential for exercise helps to counterbalance that indulgence. Thus, my first priority with regard to health is getting back on a respectable workout routine.
This translates to working out six days a week doing weightlifting and cardio on alternating days. It also means printing out a lifting schedule for better motivation and as a better way to track progress. Strength training has been hardest here because there isn't a dedicated gym facility, but I have been better about coming up with creative uses for the ubiquitous outdoor exercise equipment on campus and the pair of 20-pound weights that Nick and Anne keep in their living room. In terms of cardio workouts, there are a lot more options now that the campus is free of snow and ice, including swimming, basketball, running, and Frisbee. Nick and Anne recently got me excited about learning to play Ultimate, a sport I had never previously taken an interest to, largely due to my insecurity at not being able to properly throw a Frisbee. Though the throwing part still needs a lot of work, athletically, I believe I am well suited to the pace of the game.
Like my brief but memorable Ultimate experience at Cornell, I lamented again the fact that I had not played at Oberlin given how much fun and how much of a work-out the sport is. There are a few tournaments not too far from us in China in the coming months and I want to get good enough to participate in them. Lately, I've also tried to renew my vain interest in breakdancing, a fitness activity that has been slowly edging its way out from behind the closed door of my bedroom and into the fray of our bi-weekly dance parties. My initial interest was due almost entirely to Niels and Kevin's S.P.A.R.K. (Street Performance and Rhythm Kollective) classes at Oberlin, and has only been fueled in China by my unabashed shamelessness at making a fool of myself. To be sure, a great deal of my stake in the art form is also concerned with learning how to dance (and looking better while doing it). In addition to countless amateur videos on YouTube, one of the best free resources I've found is here, which perhaps best describes me as a “n00b on ice” (many thanks to Ben for the link).
The irony of the Lantern Festival this year was that on the day of the holiday, celebrated 15 days after the arrival of spring (Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival), Taigu was hit by a massive snowstorm that put a halt to many of the scheduled performances.
Over the last seven months, I've learned infinitely more about China than I could ever have hoped to learn through books or movies had I still been living in the states. That being said, it has come largely at the expense of losing my connection with American culture. Not surprisingly, as a result of living in China, I've found it infinitely more difficult to keep up-to-date with news from home. It's not to say that at Oberlin I was particularly adept, but I'm especially floundering here—often having to defer to Chinese friends to inform me of the latest Hollywood blockbuster that has made its way over. But despite the hardship in staying current with events and other notable happenings, I have discovered some ways to counteract my physical distance from home with more prudent attention to reading and listening. One of my true goals in life is to be a cultured—and culturally-sensitive—person, and the first step in that process is to be knowledgeable not only in the happenings and goings-on of one's current location but also of the world at large.
The physical reading has come largely in back-issues of magazines that our Shansi bosses in America have been kind enough to send us—of which The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, and The Economist have comprised the greatest reserve. But because the relatively low frequency and antiquated timestamp of those issues still puts us out of adept watercooler-chatting range, my daily reading intake has been supplemented by blogs, most of which are offshoots of American magazines and newspapers. It's somewhat ironic that it took moving away from home to finally get invested in New York-centered publications like The New Yorker and a number of previously unread New York Times columns, but I suppose that's what homesickness will do to a person. And though I certainly miss the sensation of reading actual printed materials, at least it cuts down on paper waste. Here is a just a smattering of my most-read:
- Campus Progress: Works to empower young people to become the next generation of progressive leaders.
- Frugal Traveler: Matt Gross sees the world on a budget and makes me want to travel in his footsteps.
- GOOD: Columns on almost every topic imaginable from a community of social activists and nonprofits.
- Hyphen Magazine: Tackles issues of Asian American culture and community with substance and sass.
- Letter from China: Evan Osnos holds my dream job of writing dispatches from China for The New Yorker.
- mental_floss: For knowledge junkies who love quirky humor and meaty trivia served up in bite-sized portions.
- NY Times Magazine: Like This American Life, only in written form—one of the best magazines of its kind.
- Oberlin Alumni Magazine: Stories, interviews, and news tidbits to remind me of the best four years of my life.
- On the Ground: Nicholas Kristof explores the intersections of globalization and human rights for The Times.
- Wired: For the gadget-obsessed, video game-loving, tech-minded, pop culture-addicted person in all of us.
- YES! Magazine: Dedicated to supporting people’s active engagement in building a just and sustainable world.
Much of the same can be said of my choice of listening materials, almost all of which come in the form of podcasts. My first real introduction to podcasts came during an EXCO I took my senior year at Oberlin. The class discussed audio storytelling and documentary, journalistic responsibility, sound production, new media technology, and peer editing in preparation for producing a series of podcasts on stories from the Oberlin community. In class, we listened to a wide variety of radio programs aimed at understanding how people have employed the combined power of radio and the internet, and got a sense for the artistic medium. More so than even the written word, podcasts make me feel intimately connected to the pipeline of America, and I now have a daily tradition of listening to them in the mornings as I'm getting ready for class. As is the case for blogs, I am always open to new suggestions for good reading and listening materials. With that said, here is my current list:
- A Prairie Home Companion: Garrison Keillor delivers his signature monologue from Lake Wobegon.
- Don't Piss In My Pocket And Tell Me It's Raining: Non-aligned political thought from none other than my father.
- The Moth Podcast: Features people telling true, engaging, funny, touching, and eye-opening stories from their lives.
- On The Media: Examines the impact of media on our lives and explores the process of how media is made.
- Radiolab: Science meets culture and information sounds like music.
- Saltcast: The backstory to great radio storytelling produced for the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.
- Studio 360: NPR's smart and surprising guide to what's happening in pop culture and the arts.
- This American Life: No description needed—it's universally hailed as one of the best radio programs out there.
- Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!: NPR's oddly informative weekly current events quiz show.
In addition to reading blogs, another goal of mine is to read more books. My Goodreads page is brimming with new titles on its “to-read” list, a lot of which have to do with China. Luckily for us, many such titles are already stocked on the bookshelves in our houses, having been passed down from older Shansi Fellows. The trick is simply finding the time to read them. It's been hard to motivate myself to read without the excuse of a commute, but hopefully as the weather gets better, so will the idea of sitting out on my porch with a book.
The final piece of my “culture” plan is to be more conscious of the environment. Seeing the incredible amount of pollution and immense build-up of refuse in cities all over China has made me ever more vigilant in my environmental efforts than I was in the states. With that in mind, I have undertaken a few transformations to my lifestyle in order to lower my carbon impact. I refuse to buy plastic water bottles or use paper cups, opting instead to utilize my recycled glass water bottle for all drinking purposes. I now carry around a pair of metal chopsticks with me to all meals so as avoid contributing to the production and packaging waste associated with disposable chopsticks. I use a reusable nylon bag when I go grocery shopping so as not to waste plastic, or when I forget, always find other uses for the plastic bags. I keep leftovers in energy-efficient tiffin containers that I bought in India instead of storing them in plastic bags or saran wrap. I try not to use my overhead lights whenever possible and haven't turned on my electric heater since the winter. All of the cans, bottles, and cardboard packaging from our parties are recycled in designated containers outside of our house. And thanks to James, we are now composting all of our food scraps as well as a portion of the leaves and natural matter on campus. Next step: stop using toilet paper.
I've always been too scared to call myself an artist. I enjoy writing, photography, and occasionally making music, but I am not confident that I have what it takes to pursue any of those endeavors full-time. Luckily for me, I don't have to. What's really great about the teaching schedule here is that there is a lot of time naturally built in for personal creative endeavors. Sometimes, however, it is not so much an issue with time as it is about motivation. Writer's block aside, much of that motivation stems from the relative warmth and “inspirational quality” of one's workplace. I have long been victim to the perils of “blank wall syndrome” (BWS for short), and it took until my senior year at Oberlin to rid myself of that malady. In an effort to combat it here in Taigu, one of my goals is to redecorate my room. The infamous blue tapestry has been mounted, as have a few other sundry items, but I have bigger plans. Recently, I printed out 44 of my favorite photos from my two months of travel and plan to use them to create a wall mural in the space directly above my desk. My hope is that it will not only add some color to my room, but will also give me more appreciation for my photography, which I rarely see on paper.
Even our neighborhood Dico's, China's fast-food answer to KFC, got decked out in paper lanterns for the occasion.
Another goal in the creative department is cooking more. I recently bought two cookbooks, one in Chinese and one in Japanese, and hope to use them to make more creative dishes (and practice my reading skills at the same time). Now that I've (finally) learned how to use my electric hot plate, I want to bring my kitchen up to snuff by stocking it with all kinds of spices, sauces, and bins of dry goods to always have on hand. My vow for this semester is also to get better at keeping in touch. That means crafting more letters and postcards to send out to family and friends. Finally, creating means getting more serious about writing. I haven't written a single poem since last October and it's been eating away at me ever since. One of my writing goals is to get something published by the time my two years here is up. That can include anything from poetry to creative non-fiction to journalism, and it doesn't necessarily have to be in print. The best advice I've ever gotten about writing was from my Creative Writing professor Dan Chaon, who encouraged the class to keep writing no matter what. Like any skill, he told us, writing is a craft that needs to be continually practiced or can be lost. Practicing my craft. For what it's worth, I like to think that it is something that I do every time I sit down to update this blog.