Shorts, Shouts & Murmurs: The Annals of Taigu

Like any small town, Taigu is not without its share of stories. And also like any small town, the stories are what make Taigu special. They come from any number of places—the old couple at the granary where we buy rice, the punk kids on motorbikes who approach us when we walk to dinner, the kind woman we buy milk tea from in North Yard, students and friends of students who invite us out on the weekends, and even our own bosses in the Foreign Affairs Office. The people color our experiences and shape our daily lives here, and like any embittered townie, I feel like I have a responsibility to share those stories with the people back home.

When you think about it, Taigu is a lot like Anytown, U.S.A. It may not be your typical Midwestern prairie town, but you'd be surprised at how much comes to pass as “similar” when you've lived for a year trying in vain to contextualize your experience as something familiar. It still has that sleepy town feel—old women playing cards in the afternoon, tiny storefronts that double as family residences, small crowds of working folks who gather after quitting time to chat. At the main intersection, there is still the glow of the single traffic light that acts as thoroughfare for the entire town.

For the uninitiated, let's start with a little background information. Taigu lies in the heart of Shanxi province, about an hour away from the capital city of Taiyuan and seven hours south-west of Beijing in the north of China. The county is home to roughly 50,000 people, which to an outsider might sound like a lot, but by Chinese standards is remarkably small. In Chinese, its name literally translates as “Great Valley,” though I severely doubt that Littlefoot would have actually spent twelve iterations of The Land Before Time trying to get here had he known what he was getting himself into beforehand. As a city, Taigu is no cure for the uninspired. It is impoverished, underdeveloped, and quagmired in ineffectual leadership and infrastructure. It reads like a modern day The Lorax—coal mining is a staple of the economy and is presided over by ruthless barons who have sacked the area of nearly all of its natural resources. The mountains that surround this valley are covered in a thick haze from factories that release clouds of particulate matter into the atmosphere. Modern-day Shanxi is a far cry from the Shanxi of centuries past, a wealthy province well-known as much for its bankers and businessmen as for its trading post along the Silk Road.

Taigu city in the midst of some much-needed road work in the spring of this year (photo courtesy of Sarah Hochendoner).

Nor is Taigu by any means a destination. For the most part, those who live here do so because their family lived here and their family did before that, and those who did not have the opportunity or the education to get out were forced to make a life for themselves here too. As this is largely an agricultural village, most people are farmers, and much of the land is studded with large swaths of field for tilling. The land that isn't is wrapped up in crumbling old-style pagodas interspersed with hastily-built concrete high-rises, all inlaid within a dirt and gravel road system that is constantly being paved and re-paved over. There is no shortage of small storefronts that line the streets and most any household or daily needs item can be acquired in town. As far as more epicurean amenities go, there is exactly one two-star hotel within county limits, a handful of fancy hot pot and buffet restaurants that we frequent on the weekends, and a newly-built department store complex—home to a full-fledged supermarket and a Dico's, China's fast-food answer to KFC. On the whole, though, Taigu is such a small town that it has no mention in Lonely Planet, does not appear on Google Maps, and is over an hour away from the nearest McDonald's.

Most students who come here do so more out of obligation and geographical convenience than choice. Their scores on their high school entrance examinations and—to a much-lesser degree—their own preference of universities are the sole mitigating factors in determining where they will spend their college years. For them, and for us as teachers, within the walled and gated complex of Shanxi Agricultural University (SAU) is where we spend the vast majority of our time. About 2km from the railway station in the center of town, SAU is divided into two halves—North Yard and South Yard. Where North Yard is home to faculty housing, the vegetable market, an elementary school, and a host of small shops and restaurants where we take our meals, South Yard comprises the meat of the campus—replete with student dormitories, athletic fields, showers, cafeterias, administrative offices, classrooms, and our own living quarters.

North Yard, home to a smorgasbord of street vendors, restaurants, hair salons, and clothing stores (photo courtesy of Alexandra Sterman).

In spite of what must come across as overwhelmingly foreign, I'm constantly amazed by just how many similarities I can draw between this little town and the place I've called home for four of the last five years of my life. Like the city of Oberlin, Taigu is a tiny rural town, and almost half of its population is reflected in the university student body. Walking around campus on any given day, it is impossible not to bump into people that you know—in my case now, mostly current or former students—who will occasionally stop to talk with you for minutes at a time. Privacy is at a premium, and just like at Oberlin, it feels as if your every move is being recorded and people are nose-deep in your business at all times. Activities are pretty tame by state school standards, and most of the fun has to be self-made. Oberlin and Taigu lie on almost exactly the same latitude, which makes the winters here just as crushingly depressing, and the springs that much more magically invigorating. While the temperature is similar, the difference in weather seems to lie in Taigu's incredible dryness and the fact that Oberlin isn't covered in a layer of russet Gobi Desert sand during the winter months.

In fact, in 1996, Oberlin and SAU had roughly the same number of students. Where Oberlin's population stayed relatively stable, SAU's skyrocketed to its current number of 10,000 under pressure from other Chinese universities to increase enrollment. By way of social activities, Taigu has a good selection of clubs and organizations for the under-stimulated and weekly movie screenings reminiscent of OFC, going so far as to project a select few onto the big screen in front of the old library as Mudd does in the spring. Geographically, it also matches up surprisingly well. Taigu is about 40 miles from the city of Taiyuan as Oberlin is from Cleveland, and though neither capital city engenders a very positive reputation nor offers much in the way of can't-miss entertainment, they sometimes seriously necessitate a visit all the same. Similarly, Taigu is about 450 miles from Beijing, the same distance that Oberlin is from New York City. Taigu might just be the only place where the night-life is actually more nonexistent than Oberlin's—outside of campus, the only thing open late are the sketchy massage parlors that double as brothels. Of course, most relevant of all is the over 100-year history of the Shansi program in Taigu, and the remnants of that cultural history being shared in both places.

But for all of my flack, there is actually a lot of good that comes with living in Taigu. Near the center of town, there is an old section with cobbled streets and traditional architecture not found in most other parts of China. As opposed to much of the city, the SAU campus is uncommonly beautiful, with trees and flowers lining most of the main roads. Being in a rural place instead of in a bigger city like Beijing allows me to discover that much more about myself—to see what makes me tick and where my passions lie without the distraction of external forces. And then there is the cost of living—by my own self-directed, non-scientific study, I would place Taigu food high in the running for cheapest in the world. As far as community goes, there are more foreign teachers at SAU than there are at any other school or university in all of Shanxi province. And there are some perks to living in near complete obscurity, even according to other Chinese people, who are hard-pressed to find Taigu on a map. In a year's time, I have never seen a foreigner here not accounted for, and I would estimate that in my lifetime, only a couple hundred non-Chinese will ever see this place first-hand. Most of all, there are so many interesting little nuggets about living in Taigu that I haven't ever explicitly detailed before.

As such, I've decided to devote myself to a new writing project, partially inspired by Brittany's “30 Days Experiment" in Indonesia, that I like to call “The Annals of Taigu.” Tomorrow is the start of November, and it gives me the opportunity to participate in NaBloPoMo, the blogging equivalent to National Novel Writing Month. Here's how it works: I write one blog post a day for the next month (or, at least until we start making travel plans for Thanksgiving), focusing on a single word or concept very relevant to my life here in Taigu. As a guideline, I am giving myself a cap of 600 words an entry, which serves a few purposes—one, to make my posts more readable for my audience, two, to give myself a manageable goal that I feel like I can complete, and three, to force my sometimes wayward writing into a more succinct format. As many of these posts will not undergo my standard editing treatment due to time constraints, I initially worried if I would be jeopardizing the quality of my writing in my strive toward quantity. Though this theory does hold water, I find it useful, and in some ways liberating to write in a more free-form manner, like writing a stream of consciousness monologue without worrying about who else might see it.

And thus, starting tomorrow, and continuing for at least the next 20 days, Taigu will be both your oyster and mine—to hold, to balk at, to savor, to put-down, to mock, and to cherish. Hope you enjoy the ride.