Homecoming and the Construct of Home

Nearly two months—indeed, my longest time ever untethered to even the scantest conceptualization of home—and exactly zero blog posts later, I'm back in chilly Taigu, getting used to snow, air pollution, and the dry chalky feeling that I wake up with in my mouth each morning. By most accounts, the transition hasn't been easy. As it is, I'm still picking sand from the bottom of my backpack and going through intense withdrawal from condensed milk-saturated coffee and banana juice. But through it all, I came back from the end of break eager and excited to start my last semester here in Taigu—a thought that simultaneously excites and terrifies me—both because of how mentally prepared I feel to be back in America and how anxious I am at the thought of extricating myself from the little town I have called home for the last two years. More serious than that, though, is the fear that I won't have enough time to follow through with all of my goals for the next four months.

So far, things have been going to plan well. Four out of four weekdays in my first week back I had dinner with Chinese friends and have been painstakingly trying to get my Chinese back to where it was before my two month hiatus from almost all manner of speaking and reading. One of my closest Chinese friends—Crystal—who was once just another non-student who I reluctantly let sit in on my English classes, has recently left for work in Beijing. She found a teaching job, one that suits her interests perfectly—early education and tutoring in English—but even knowing how happy she will be there as opposed to being stranded in Taigu halfway between college and grad school still doesn't quiet my sadness at losing one of the friends I've known the longest here.

But not all of the news has come with a heavy heart. One of my former students told me that she is getting married in May and invited me to what will be the first wedding I have ever attended on any continent. After dinner at my favorite hot pot restaurant, I got treated to a night of mahjong and girl talk in one of the dorm rooms of some of my closest female Chinese friends. In the interest of expanding our male friend base, James and I started trying our hand at a popular collectible card game (think the Chinese version of Magic: The Gathering), and made a morning of playing it with our Chinese tutor and a couple of his male colleagues. And just this week, I finally mustered enough courage to ask my student from Shenzhen to teach me Cantonese, and in our first lesson, was struggling through new palatal placements with a difficulty not too dissimilar from my first time learning Mandarin.

Of course, traveling had its perks too. Under the pretenses of eating incredible food, seeing new places, and meeting up with old friends (though not necessarily in that order), traveling led me to places far and wide, but mostly, just away from China. Culturally, it couldn't have felt more different—listening to mosques blaring the “call to prayer” in Islamic Northern Sumatra in Indonesia, seeing churches lit up with gleaming red crosses at night in Korea, or hearing monks chanting in Buddhist wats all over Laos and Northern Thailand. Overall, the whole trip was incredibly rewarding (if more than a little exhausting), but if I had the chance to do it again, I would probably leave out one country, spend the extra 10 days scattered amongst the remaining ones, and come back to Taigu a couple days earlier. At this point, I feel like I've got a decent sense of Southeast Asia so that the next time I come back, I will have a more clear idea of what I want to see. This trip was more like an appetizer sampling plate—lots of different things to try, but only a tiny bite of each. Next time, I'm ordering the main course.

Though I haven't stopped trying to challenge myself, I can't help but feeling that since I've been back, the things I'm doing here in Taigu aren't especially new or groundbreaking. By most accounts, it's been back to the old comforts and routines of teaching, writing, exercising, and going out to big dinners with friends. As a town, Taigu has hardly budged in the two months I've been away. As one of my former students roughly put it, “the restaurants are still bright and gaudy and the road still looks like shit.” But for exactly that reason, there is a certain comfort that comes with being in a familiar place. I never realized how much I genuinely liked China until I came back this time around. I've been here long enough now that even moving around Beijing comes with a high degree of intimacy. In spite of the shoving and shouting, the poverty and the grime, the censorship and the corruption, it feels, somehow, cathartic to be in a place again where I can speak the language, interact meaningfully with the locals, and adjust to the local diet, all without having to adapt to a new environment every two or three days during travel.

Indeed, the closest thing I get to travel nowadays is on local buses through town, that, rather than being marked in big English letters with the names of famous sites and tourist attractions, adopt their Chinese stop names from those of local landmarks like “Agricultural Bank of China,” and “Shanxi Agricultural University, Student Dormitories.” On my last bus trip on my way to the supermarket, I saw a traditional farmer funeral going on in the street. It was maybe the second time I had ever seen one here—a procession led by old men and women (presumably good friends of the deceased) dressed in white head scarves and robes covering the majority of their bodies. Their heads were bowed and their hands adopted a praying position in front of their chests. Behind them, a caravan of white pick-up trucks adorned with large peacock-colored wreaths—quite like the psychedelic flashing lights you might find outlining pinball machines—systematically bore through town, obscuring the flow of traffic.

I've been contemplating starting a new blog entitled "China Big Red Balloon" as these things are literally everywhere.  Here's one in front of one of our new favorite restaurants in town.

This certainly isn't the first time that this reference has been made, but I feel like I've got one foot in one world and one in another. One need look no further than the smog that has been blanketing the school of late—when afternoon trips to the gym yield clipped footprints in the snow, long silhouetted shadows, and near desertion in the streets. James and I have gone ahead and started a new lifting program, knowing full well that we won't be here long enough to see it through to completion. Such is the feeling that consumes my everyday. Why start something that you know you can't finish? Why foster new friendships that will only be doomed to failure? Why keep studying Chinese when you will only fall behind in America? What I realized was that unlike the transience of travel, this is my life—that the seemingly trivial elements contained therein are nonetheless substantial and meaningful, and no matter what the future has in store for me, I have to live the next four months with the resolve of one facing an ever-expanding present, laid out before me like patched cobblestone streets, brick smokestacks, and fiery pink sunsets.