I See No Changes, and That's the Way It Is

James has been making muffins all this week. Each day, I help him take an armload full of raw materials—eggs, flour, bananas, baking powder, and water—to the main teaching building and set them up in his classroom. As I go across the hall to start my own class, he leads a couple of students back home for a second trip to bring over a collapsible round table (for cooking purposes) and a small toaster oven containing a flat baking tin and a muffin tray. For the lesson, James goes over the requisite cooking vocabulary on the board and proceeds to demonstrate the cooking words involved with making muffins in class—cutting, pouring, mixing, stirring, baking, etc. Most of the time, he leaves enough time at the end of class to actually bake the muffins, cut them up, and then give them to his students to try. But occasionally, he ends up having to haul the whole eggy, doughy batch back home before popping the muffin tin into our little toaster oven here.

Paired with homemade chai masala, these scones were lovingly made by Anne and Kelly using the toaster oven last May.

For a miniscule red box, it's certainly had its work cut out for it. In the last two years alone, it has been used to make bagels, pizza, chocolate cake, cookies, scones, apple pie, bread, and increasingly, banana muffins. Though it isn't quite ideal for the job, and indeed, the end product sometimes ends up being just as surprising as the sum of its parts, it does the work, and has the desired result of putting us closer to our American culinary roots than anything else we can buy here. As it slowly percolates in the living room, the house begins to fill with the smell of bananas, its scent feeling both close and far away—from the dust-covered fruit stalls that line North Yard to the thick bunches that hang down along the lush forests of Laos and Thailand—eventually forming into plump, lightly-browned morsels of fluffy goodness. Like every other baked good in Taigu that has come before it, it is met with equal parts greedy fanaticism and wonderment.


My lesson this week is considerably less interesting. I'm starting a new topic on travel and am soliciting “most interesting” stories from my students' winter vacations. In the process, I told them about my own journey, which came with a fair degree of guilt, both with respect to my disposable income as a teacher and the relative ease of mobility afforded by my passport. Still, they all got a kick out of the 50 or so photos that I printed out and the stack of bills and coins that I brought in to show them from all of the various countries. As having taught for close to two years now, I should know better than to ask these things of my students. I started every Monday class last year by asking my students what they did over the weekend. Their responses ranged from “played with friends” to “ate a big meal” to “washed clothes.” To be fair, it's not too far from the activities that typify my own life here, but it still didn't do much to inspire confidence in the kinds of anecdotes they would come up with following nearly two months without class.

For more than 90% of my students, their responses fell into a handful of general categories—spent time with their family, attended their high school reunion, watched TV, attended a friend's wedding, played computer games, got drunk and did karaoke, helped with chores around the house, cooked meals for the parents (some, for the first time ever), or looked after aging grandparents or new nieces and nephews. One of my first-year English majors excitedly related a story about playing mahjong with some of her friends. At the end of the game, she said, the loser had a punishment. She paused and scanned the room, suppressing a laugh with her hands. They had to drink cold water! Very few of them left their hometown at all and even less explicitly traveled during the break. It doesn't help that China does a uniquely bad job during spring festival (Chinese New Year) of fostering travel. In a country where tens of millions of people are all leaving where they live to take trains, buses, and planes sometimes over hundreds of miles to make it back to their ancestral hometown is an immensely frustrating feat that leaves little desire or opportunity in the way of actually traveling for fun.

Along with the “most interesting” stories, I paired this lesson with a general discussion on travel, including the question, “if you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be?” Again, it didn't make for the most stimulating conversation. Our students all seem to have preconceived notions on which places are worth visiting and why. There was “romantic Paris,” “mysterious Egypt,” “snowy Vancouver,” and “lavender Provence.” Hawaii, Tibet, and interestingly, the Sahara Desert were also strong contenders. It was as if they had all seen the same travel documentary explicitly stating where people go when they travel—as if this handful of places constitutes all the world's tourism traffic. Frustrated with the seeming lack of creativity, Gerald recently took up an experiment in his classes in which he asked each of his students to come up with an “original thought,” which he defined as something no one has ever thought of before. I did my own creative writing exercise too, having students use the photos from my travel to write their own short stories. In both cases, about a quarter did the assignment well— not basing their thought or story on a movie, a novel, or an event in Chinese history.

This lesson, along with James's impromptu baking, make up a couple of lessons I have come to coin as “greatest hits.” At the beginning of the year, there are mock restaurant lessons centered around ordering food. Around Halloween, there is pumpkin carving in class. For a clothing lesson, we come in wearing four or five layers of tops, bottoms, and accessories and manually strip each one of them off to the delight of our students; later they describe their own clothing as they act as fashion models in a runway show. A topic on marriage and dating yields both a speed dating exercise as well as a marriage counseling skit in which pairs of couples give the fictitious reasons for why they want a divorce. And just in the last year, James and I created a New York City lesson utilizing photos of places of interest that students then locate using subway maps. By their nature, these are the kinds of lessons that have been passed down for years among each generation of foreign teachers. Like a gigantic game of telephone, the best lessons are those that survive through oral history with minor changes made along the way, resulting in a kind of institutional memory. A similar thing can be said about our day-to-day lives.

Pumpkin carving in my Group C class for Halloween last year.


Each of us here in Taigu essentially has the same life—we all teach the same number of hours at about the same times, live in the same kinds of houses, and take the same vacations. We have meals together, share the same friends, and participate in the same group activities. The difference comes in the details. Though some of us spend more time exercising and others watching movies, some playing computer games and others writing, it is rare when any one of breaks significantly from that mold. Even for Fellows in years past, I hazard to guess that only minor tweaks have been made to the same general formula. An old favorite restaurant goes out of business and is replaced with a new one. Some exciting new fad enchants the group for a week before falling out of favor. New Chinese friends are made to account for those who have come before and graduated. Every winter, snow falls, and every fall, dust storms blow in from the north. There isn't that much flexibility to work outside of the box. New Fellows come and go, but Taigu, and, indeed, Shanxi Agricultural University, more or less remain unchanged.

When I arrived last fall to start my second year, I was surprised when Alexandra lamented that she had “stolen Anne's life.” It was true that she had inherited Anne's room, her job, her friends, her two cats, and even some of her old belongings—there greeting her near the door were Anne's old slippers. Though I never really considered it as such, I stole Ben's life in Taigu the same way that James stole Beth's and Ray stole Nick's. In not too long from now, either Skylar or Claire (the two new Fellows selected for next year) will be stealing my life and everything that comes with it. Two weeks ago, we went to the Pingyao restaurant in town, Nick's old favorite, and had a big meal there with a bunch of Chinese friends. It was like old times—we all got drunk and had a blast—and yet, it still felt different. There were no indulgent speeches, no discussions on obscure video games, and no over-the-top singing of “Just a Friend” by meal's end. Now more than ever, I'm remembering that it's the people who make Taigu what it is, and every shift in rank yields new changes regardless if everything else stays the same.

All six Americans and a bunch of Chinese friends and former students celebrating at the Pingyao restaurant in town.

Probably the most challenging and frustrating part of this Fellowship is the fact that no one is here to tell us if we're doing a good job or not or what makes a meaningful experience and what doesn't. Like our lesson plans, the best tidbits about what past Fellows have done get filtered down, but it's our job to interpret and make sense of those stories. Ultimately, it is up to each of us to decide our Fellowship for ourselves, and that is something that can't be passed down or replicated. In the same way that life has gone on without Nick, Anne, David, and Matthias from last year, I know too that life will go on even after I leave Taigu. The sadness gets tempered by catharsis—knowing that someone will be here to pick up my life where I left it and leave his or her own mark on this place. Next year will see the first time in the 100-year history of the Taigu site where the female Fellows will actually outnumber the males. The female majority will certainly make for some interesting differences in the foreigner dynamic. And so even if I see no changes, it doesn't mean that they still won't take place well after I have gone.