With Great Power Comes Greater Chance of Embarrassment

Taigu in the fall was like homecoming.  I had nary seen this place half as beautiful—hot, but not nearly as humid and muggy as my summer of travel had been, still warm enough for shorts in the daytime, clear with a crisp chill in the air at night.  It was coming home in the literal sense, of returning to China after a long, nearly one month bid in the Southeast Asian peninsula.  But it was also a very visceral homecoming, in the degree to which I care and feel connected to Tagiu with this past year—replete with struggle, challenge, and triumph of all stripes—now safely under my belt. 

Starting my second year, I feel like I'm looking at this place through a fresh set of eyes.  All the familiar sights and people seem newly animated.  Old students have been re-imagined—some as more distant acquaintances following the long break, and others, as full-blown friends without the “student” signifier.  Almost all of our favorite restaurants are still operational, but with such a long hiatus, they may as well be serving up dishes that we're trying for the first time.  With two new Fellows in tow, showing off this school has made me re-think and chronicle everything that I have learned over the past year.  It's as if I'm downloading all of my experiences onto a memory chip that can then be uploaded à la The Matrix into the minds of my contemporaries for faster processing.

But then there are those things that actually are different.  The man-made lake project that had just barely gotten off the ground last semester is now in full swing—though in a way I didn't expect.  It turns out that the lake project was scrapped in favor of what I can only describe as a “scenic area.”  The final design hints at a small, crescent moon-shaped stage in front of a plot of cement tiles, surely to be used for class photographs.  Behind it, the vice-president's house is obscured through the outstretched branches of tan oak trees and flora sprouting from a make-shift garden.  As my Chinese tutor Francis put it during one of our walking lessons, it looks like it could have been modeled after the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, save for the giant tombstones listing off the names of the deceased.

The proposed site of the man-made lake project.  In typical Chinese fashion, plans tend to change at the last minute.

Construction crews now arrive daily to cart away wagon-loads of discarded earth and rubble, and are laying the concrete foundation for the base.  As such, the cafeteria where we used to take our lunches was finally demolished in the process, as was the filthy, but endearing AV room, where we had our last party of the year and, according to Taigu lore, had once been the site of actual classroom learning.  Nearby, another colony of shabbily-built row-houses has been wiped away to make room for a new parking lot, a testament to the rapidly-growing income rate of SAU faculty and students.  Still more, North Yard has seen a slight cosmetic makeover.  The streets have been widened to allow for greater ease of access, but don't try squeezing through there during the peak lunch and dinner hours—it's still as tight as a cattle car. 

In the cafeteria's place, we are now eating in the connected eave to Gerald's new house—a spiffy-looking kitchen and dining room ensemble that ironically looks like it came out of an Ikea catalog under the entry: “American diner.”  It's got a potted plant on the windowsill, off-white checker-print blinds on the windows, and a generally cheery interior, if you allow for the faux-wood veneering that lines the floor.  What's more, outside of prescribed lunches during the work-week, the spacious new kitchen gives us plenty of room to cook those larger, family-style meals on the weekends that we came to enjoy so much as a substitute for going out to eat.  Even my own modest living quarters got an upgrade this summer.  Unbeknownst to me, the Foreign Affairs Office replaced the outside screen door, gave my walls a fresh new layer of white-wash, and re-fastened the ceiling tiles so it doesn't feel like the roof is going to collapse at any moment.

Alexandra, one of the two new Fellows, posing with one of our daily lunches, prepared by the Office's do-it-all chef Rui Ping.

In the midst of all these changes, James and I have found ourselves in a new position of leadership—no longer wayward sheep herded indiscriminately by our own Senior Fellows, but this time the very shepherds ourselves, with a small flock at our beck-and-call.  It's been strangely empowering—this feeling of being the authority on a place.  Whereas one year ago, I knew close to nothing about Taigu and had to rely almost entirely on Nick and Anne to get around, I have been amazed at how fast I've been able to accrue information.  It feels like any new experience—“growing up” being the most obvious metaphor here—where within a few years time, you've outgrown crawling, blabbering incoherently, and spilling food all over yourself, to being able to walk, piece together strings of words into sentences, and, generally, limiting the amount of food that adorns your body.

I venture to contend that my growth and development in Taigu has been similarly profound.  I'm stealing a page out of Brittany's playbook here when I say this, but my authoritative knowledge on Taigu includes but is not limited to: singing Chinese karaoke songs at KTV, hosting amazing dance parties, buying train tickets to Beijing, locating the best public squat toilet when in a pinch, toasting everyone at a banquet without getting wasted, and refusing first-year students who want me to teach them English for free.  Not too shabby.  But I still can't take solace from the inscrutable musical fountain, escape being victim to the spontaneous whims of the Foreign Affairs Office, and outsmart the rats that insist on keeping me company on winter nights.  It's true what Brittany wrote, that, “once we reach a certain level of proficiency, it’s easier to see how far we are from the top instead of how far we have already come. But to those around us just starting off, we ARE the authority, just by having more tallied experience than the newcomer.”

So, what's it really like being the Senior Fellow?  Being in charge of going to dinner.  That, and generally making the decisions that effect what we as a group choose to do on a daily basis.  That's been no small adjustment especially when you consider my largely indecisive nature, but one that gets easier everyday.  Oh, and somewhere along the way, getting to the point where you understand things.  Like, for instance, about the way Taigu works—how to cope with the little surprises and disappointments that occupy each day, how everything seems to go wrong at the last minute, letting go of any claim to even the slightest shred of privacy or personal space, and how to interact with the people who populate this tiny town at the edge of the world.  Most exciting of all, I feel like my Chinese is finally reaching a pleasant state of proficiency.  Coming back to a place where I can communicate with people to a reasonable degree and feel like I can be a valuable and knowledgeable resource to the new Fellows has been a great blessing. 

But sometimes all the experience in the world isn't enough.  There have been countless occasions already where my perceived “expertise” has been put to the test and failed, leaving us at best, needing to change restaurants for lunch, and at worst, stranded in the capital city of Taiyuan for the night with no transportation to return home.  Aside from filling you with a bloated sense of assurance, being the “authority” makes you all the more acutely aware of the things you cannot do.  Sure, it's great that I can put money on my phone, but what good does it do to the new Fellows that I can't negotiate the terms of a new service plan without the help of a Chinese friend?  It's just like Uncle Ben said: “with greater power comes great responsibility.”  But little did he account for the grief and shame that his nephew faced when he wasn't always able save the world from evil—or in my case, from embarrassment.

It's been an interesting role-reversal.  When I talked with Anne last year about my lack of excitement regarding my second year and the new Fellows, she told me that one year prior she had felt the same way—that coming back to Taigu from a long summer holiday filled her with equal parts dread and anxiety, fear of what was to come, and disappointment at potentially not meeting her first year's expectations.  I was also nervous about retuning to Taigu, but for different reasons.  I was entirely ready to settle down into a routine again in the closest place to a single “home” I've had in over four years.  But I was anxious about how different that home would feel.  In Taigu, it's the people that make the place, and without Nick, Anne, and Dave, three friends who had been as close as siblings this past year, I had no idea how I would reconcile the weight of their absence.

When I first came to Taigu, I was panic-stricken by the thought that my core group of friends had shrunk from two or three dozen to as many strangers as I could count on a single hand.  No longer did I have the luxury of meeting up with friends who occupied more niche roles in my life—the friend I see movies with, or the friend I go running with, for example.  Now I would have to rely on every one new friend in Taigu to fulfill the role of three or four friends back home.  But I can safely say that with a year of experience under my belt, it's been working out shockingly well.  Aside from the usual drama that comes with our Big Brother-style living arrangements, and that fact that we may as well be six strangers marooned on a desert island with a film crew and a captivated international audience scrutinizing over our every move, things have been good. 

It also doesn't hurt that two of the six foreigners from last year are still with me in Taigu now.  Living with James and Gerald has been an enormous comfort, and one that I am not taking for granted.  The new Fellows have delighted in comparing my relationship with James to that of The Odd Couple's Oscar and Felix (I'll let you guess which is which).  Our every-day interactions take on something close to that of a married couple—James will insist on buying new things for the house that I deem as costly and unnecessary, and I'll ask him to clear out his books and papers from the living room every time we have guests over.  Our new regime is a decidedly benevolent one, and compared to last year's world order, we've certainly cut down on the drinking and partying culture, which, banquets aside, has probably shrunk to about a tenth of where it was this time last October.  What's more, I am lucky that the new Fellows have been so great and interesting thus far and I'm excited to continue to get to know them better.

Life in Taigu sort of feels like freshmen year at Oberlin.  You travel in a pack, take your meals together with the rest of your hall, and feel like you are constantly inundated with people.  It's as if you have been sucked into a bubble without any control over your own life, the decisions that you make, or the choice to individual freedoms.  It can be alarming to those on the outside, but like with any new community, it is critical to build a strong foundation in order to ensure group harmony in the long run when everyone eventually branches out on their own.  And that harmony starts at home.  Whereas last year, I found myself spending a great deal of my free time at Nick and Anne's house, I'm finding that my house is now becoming the central congregating space for the usual slew of social activities that keep Taigu bearable.  As might be expected, we can't help talking about last year—the stories and the memories that comprise our shared friendship.  But more even than the past, we're all looking forward to the hope for many more new stories in the year to come.

Perhaps the biggest change of all this year is that this time around, I have an idea of what to expect.  Though part of me knows that everything will be different, at least I can say that I have experienced a winter in Taigu, caught a student cheating on his homework, or gone without water and electricity during a blackout.  Teaching is easier in general because I have already accrued an inventory of successful lesson plans with which I can mine for my new classes.  Now, it's just a matter of believing in my abilities to make it through the year.  I'll end with this metaphor.  Walking alone at night, I no longer feel trepidation or anxiety over the darkness of Taigu's rural countryside.  Even if I can't see anything, I can still tell where I'm going because the surfaces feel different—smooth tar roads converge with narrow pebble tracks, and diamond-shaped stencils line safe markers in the grass.  I let my feet guide me—putting my mind to rest—and trust my instincts and my confidence to navigate those uncertain paths back to safety.