Green Onion and Frozen Pizza

Each dish starts out the same. A few cloves of garlic minced into thin ovals, limbs of ginger pureed into a thick pulp, and finely chopped stalks of green onion, sliced so that the flimsy green leaves coil out from the white stalk. Each is used in equal quantity at the base of the wok, to which is added a few hearty shakes of salt and black pepper, a dash of Asian five spice, and a dollop of spicy chili peppers.

We've been trying to cook together at least once a week, me and Yao Jie, this year's Shansi Visiting Scholar from China. We improvise a little with the ingredients, substituting what we can't get in America with its closest equivalents. The contents of each individual dish don't seem to matter much—strips of eggplant and squash, scrambled eggs and sweet onion, cubed pork and diced potatoes—the preparation is amazingly, eerily, consistent.

Sunday dinner at Shansi House (photo courtesy of Yao Jie).

In a bizarre twist of fate, Yao Jie also hails from Shanxi, the province home to my beloved Taigu, and is enamored by the same iconic Northern Chinese fare. When I lived in Taigu, I never thought I would miss it. So soon had the foreigners tired of the same five or six lei (types) of food that we eagerly sought out non-Chinese dishes at almost every opportunity. But amazingly, that plaintive disdain has quickly morphed into something more like desire. Food has become a metaphor for my unbridled nostalgia for China. The smells and tastes touch my taste buds in dreams, tantalizing me with the utterly fantastic notion of their feasibility, where the closest we get is the once-a-week meals we bastardize using ingredients from Stevenson and IGA.

I am constantly awed by her fascination about Oberlin. There is a certain wide-eyed focus to her gaze, a quiet calculation and analysis of the new world surrounding her, not too dissimilar, in fact, from my own. It’s been interesting, too, hearing what kinds of questions she has, and how even the most ordinary things require a lengthy explanation: “What function do the blue boxes on street corners serve?” “How do you choose the best cell phone service provider?” “What is the meaning of the sign in the Walmart parking lot that reads ‘Reserved Parking: Horse and Buggy Only?’”

I had nearly forgotten how much these small, seemingly insignificant queries dictated my own attitudes toward my first month in rural China. How even the most ordinary things were no longer easy—crossing the street, mailing a postcard—and how it forced me to pay special attention to the little details in my every day life. But pretty soon, everyone learns to adapt. Back in America, you get used to the wide sidewalks, the lack of honking, the monolingual road signs, the orderly grocery check-out counters. By now the joy of those small accomplishments has already fallen away, replaced by preoccupation with bigger, more pressing goals. But to the outside, it’s imperceptible: no one here, perhaps save for Yao Jie herself, understands that loss in quite the same way.

Yao Jie demonstrating Chinese paper cutting at this year's Culture Festival in Tappan Square (photo courtesy of Dale Preston).

I like to think I won’t have culture shock when I eventually return to visit Taigu, but I know that that won’t be the case. My reality is entrenched in my surroundings. I may no longer be shocked or amused by America, but I still yearn futilely for pieces of my past life. In one way, I’m paying it forward, helping to indoctrinate Yao Jie with the same welcoming and patience as those friends I made in Taigu provided for me, but in another, we’re both new to America, struggling with acclimating to this strange, different culture. At our last dinner Yao Jie refused cold water, opting instead to drink the boiled noodle water customarily paired with noodle-based dishes in the north. I paused for a second before I too dipped the ladle into the scalding pot and helped myself to a bowl.

*

I rarely cooked in China because from a pragmatist's point of view there was no ostensible need—restaurant food was laughably cheap and was much more efficient than cooking at home. Cooking always required what felt like a full day's preparation—shopping at the local supermarket in town for things like meat and tofu, the little mom-and-pop granary for rice and flour, and the farmer's market for things like eggs and vegetables. There was a two-three hour stretch of time at night devoted to the actual cooking—six pairs of hands in a crowded kitchenette taking turns by the electric hot plates, sharing cutting boards, and alternately washing and plating dishes. Then, the hour or two dedicated to eating, and finally the clean-up—scraping pans, storing leftovers, and wiping down tables.

Here there is almost none of that camaraderie. Most of my meals are cooked for one, and yet still, I find solace in that solitary act—returning home at noon, turning on the electric stove, letting the chop and sizzle of the saucepan add layers to Ira Glass's inflection. Then at night, the neat simplicity of reheated leftovers for dinner. It's not the co-op at Oberlin and it certainly isn't a Thursday night banquet in Taigu, but it suffices.

Two weeks ago I received an unlikely gift. Hand-delivered by Alexandra’s sister over seven thousand miles to Oberlin—what in Taigu could almost pass as a food staple unto itself—a package of Taigu bing. These particular bing—Chinese for “cookie,” “biscuit” or almost any breaded ration—came in a red plastic bag, the words “red date” emblazoned across the bottom to indicate the flavor. They are particular to Taigu and absolutely ubiquitous—rare is it to pass a store that doesn't carry them in large plastic crates, the stylized gold characters practically dancing across the label. But to receive them here, at a fancy restaurant in Oberlin, felt like something outer-worldly—my brain just couldn't process it.

I have been holding out on eating the last one, perhaps so long that it will end up spoiling in spite of my efforts, but I can't quite seem to let it go. This, a food staple that I bought with such utter regularity as to never question whether or not I'd have enough, a breakfast item I paired with a bowl of yogurt and a sliced banana each morning. For want of the more conventional Western pastries I once craved, these fluffy, sesame seed-studded cookies were all we had. And now, a single, solitary mouthful is all that remains.

It's a feeling that I find hard to explain. It's like being the sole proprietor of a contraband food ration in the army. Or, perhaps, like a foreign teacher laying claim to the only personal pizza in a rural Chinese town of 80,000. The pie that Gerald took back with him after each trip to Pizza Hut in the nearest big city of Taiyuan, an over four-hour journey in all. At each unveiling, there stood a small group swarming hungrily around the microwave or, more accurately, Gerald holed up in his own room alone, careful not to draw attention to the prodigious gift, like an archaeologist protecting a new discovery.

I can imagine him there, and then again after having returned back to the states—frozen pizza stocked in nearly every grocery store, Domino's delivery never more than 30 minutes away. But staring into that microwave, there was that one extraordinary moment—the collective hopes and dreams of seven foreigners pinned to that gleaming vessel of tomato and cheese, a time when any one of us would have traded the world for a bite. And now, as if in some distant universe, Gerald heats up a slice of pizza in his microwave back home in America, thinking to himself: remember when this used to be valuable.

Mudd and the Towering Inferno of Flames

I hate how much I missed Mudd. How as a student I could go there after a long day of classes and meetings and be comforted by the feeling that everyone there was in it together, working for this one collective goal. In a lot of ways, I liked being there more than my own house. My favorite place was this spiritually dead room, a window-less cube full of computer monitors and desk chairs. No color, no human interaction, hardly a sound. I couldn’t conceive of a better place to study.

Now that I’m here again it’s like an addict falling off the wagon: the brilliant glow of the fluorescent lights drawing me in, the smell of charcoal and pine outside filling my lungs like the flame of a kerosene lamp. And then there are the stars, lucid and unfettered, burning up in the sky. I could go to Mudd at my absolute lowest, and still feel better knowing that someone in there knew my name. Now, the same sentiment holds true, even if it's done in obscurity.

But if Mudd itself is full of the peculiar liveliness used to comfort individuals, then leaving at night, once the study carrels have emptied and the computer screens are left glowering at vacant seats, has a certain loneliness to it. Walking out into the stark night air—jacket zipped, bag thrown over my shoulder—I am immediately reminded of that senior year. It is a sensation so vivid it shocks me to realize it’s only a memory. Every detail, from the smoke-laced outlines at the side of the ramp down to the cold rush in my hands as I stoop to unlock my bike, is the same.

*

I saw her for the first time last week. It was midday, almost lunch, and there she was sitting at a bench with friends, speaking in loud gestures, the rise and fall of her hands like she were conducting a symphony. Before that moment, I never experienced what it felt like to have to avoid someone—how it was suddenly inappropriate now to make conversation with a person who, not long ago, had occupied an enormous part of my life. We dated prior to me leaving to go to China, and in the ensuing aftermath that followed, haven't so much as exchanged a word since.

Her friends stood up to leave and, against my better social etiquette, I walked up to her, not knowing what to say but knowing that I had to say something. It was short-lived, a string of empty pleasantries, and pretty soon the conversation was over, and I was walking not towards her but away. The whole episode felt so unsettling, how the underlying force of our convictions were laid dormant. Why is it that love always feels most alive when it's past its end, fraught with the sudden, crippling onset of its nonexistence? The passion that comes with all rejection—a sudden departure, a loss of life. Like how in some cultures even mourning can't be done quietly—a funeral pyre set in a torrential blaze, fiery and vivid and raw.

I hate when things fall apart. Even worse, when they fall apart and you don't understand why. I emailed my dad about it. He told me that sooner or later, you learn to let go. Sooner or later, he wrote, you learn that there's not always closure that is satisfactory. Sometimes things kind of sour and rot and smell bad. Sometimes you just have to walk away.

*

I saw her again yesterday, this time at Mudd. She used to tolerate my time at the library, but joked that I spent more time there than I did with her. This time, I managed not to talk to her. We were now just two people in the world, our lives detached from one another's, and I realized that it didn't have to be this long, drawn-out sadness. I remembered what my dad had written: If she deigns to see you, by all means, but be aware that it may actually be re-traumatizing yourself. Try not to be attached to the outcome. Give it your best. And if it doesn't work out, then let it out talking to me, or chopping wood, or sparring. But don't go back to the well again and again to be re-wounded.

Two years ago she left a note by my bike. Tucked into the metal crux of the handlebars, a slip of notebook paper, folded and creased, that read, simply: “Saw your bike and thought of you. Don’t stay out studying too late. Miss you. Love, C.” That should have been my cue to go and see her that night, but knowing me I probably didn’t. Here’s what happened: I pocketed the note, rode my bike south and west (the opposite direction of her dorm), walked upstairs to my warm, dimly-lit room, and, with the smell of sandalwood and marijuana piping in from my roommate's screened-in balcony, I went to sleep.

Weeks and months passed, but every day since then I kept checking my bike. Edging down the library ramp, hands bristling from the cold, it was the same routine—first the handlebars, then the front wheel spokes, even the narrow slit underneath the seat. Each time I left the library—fingers clutching the bike keys—hoping in vain for some trace of her. The fruitless game I played. I still do.

*

This is a piece of creative non-fiction, part of a new experimental direction I'm taking with my blog about short semi-fictionalized vignettes from my daily life, lightly polished and greatly embellished for online consumption.

Our Need to Rebuild Is the Reason Everything Falls Apart

It's my third night at the Feve in a row. I've been here just over a week and I'm batting well over .500. Or, to put it another way: I've been to the Feve more nights than I haven't. It doesn't hurt that there's only one real bar in town, but it still doesn't bode well for my steadfast conviction that China had made me an alcoholic and not the other way around.

Every night at the Feve starts out about the same: a handful of fresh acquaintances, stools nestled around a large wooden table, and a pitcher of beer so black you couldn't run a light through it. Small talk and, if the situation required, a small order of tots to follow. Then, the inevitable parting of ways, the block-and-a-half shuffle home, and Kent State's NPR-affiliate to lull me to bed.


East meets Feve. From left to right: Gerald, David, and myself (photo courtesy of Gerald Lee).

I was talking about the situation with my friend Martha online. She asked me how in just a few days I had already connected with enough people to merit that many trips to the Feve. I told her that it wasn't a coincidence—that meeting every new contact took a great deal of effort on my part. After all, I had to practically construct my entire social life from the ground up. “I feel like I have to go to every social obligation I'm invited to,” I told her, “so I have a chance of building up a base.” “Wow,” she replied without the slightest hint of surprise, “you really network fast.”

I wanted to explain that it didn't matter if I was good or bad at networking or whether or not I even liked to do it. It just wasn't an option for me—I'm an extroverted person and when I'm not around other people for too long I start to lose it. “I can't help it,” I said, “it gets lonely up in this ivory tower.” I paused. I knew I had used the wrong analogy and was sure she would call me on it. “Well this ivory tower seems to have a lot of other towers in its neighborhood,” she quipped, not missing a beat. “It's an ivory tower colony,” I joked, “with no zoning restrictions.”

My own ivory tower is located on the southeastern fringes of campus. It's not to say that I don't feel disconnected from the concerns of non-campus life, but it's so easy to get caught up in my own tailspin—work, school, friendships to maintain. Some of the isolation is self-imposed but most is a product of circumstance. There are “young professionals” (what we call ourselves) in other departments in the college—ResEd, Athletics, Admissions, the MRC—but there's little opportunity for contact, and I certainly never had my radar out for them when I was still a student.

Being older than almost everyone doesn't help either. That, and having to strike a balance between my so-called grown-up friends and my student friends. Then again, the distinction may be a moot point. On my fourth day here I went to a karaoke cook-out event for incoming international students and the staff from the MRC was up there right alongside the new first-years singing “Bad Romance” and doing the Cha Cha Slide.

It felt like looking at Oberlin through the eyes of a stranger. All of the buildings had a foreign newness to them, and I had been exploring them slowly, so as not to embarrass my former self. The people had changed too. No longer could I simply expect to have friends based on geography and shared experience. It made me realize how lucky I had been in Taigu. Oberlin felt, for perhaps the first time in my life, like most of the rest of the world. I wouldn't be able just to fall into friendships here; I'd really have to work for them.


Peters Hall, with newly renovated $1.4 million slate-and-copper roof.

The fall from celebrity to dime-a-dozen has played out like your classic fall from grace, marred by all the telltale signs of recovery and addiction. I realized that I had invariably switched roles overnight—instead of being the person whose door everyone else was trying to knock down, I had become the archetypal “rando” who shows up unannounced and bearing gifts at four in the afternoon, appealing for nothing more than genuine friendship.

The night I went to the Feve with Jerry and Dave—two of the six foreigners I had lived with in China—a new art installation was up on the second floor. They had always been characteristically out there, even when I was a student, but this one seemed odder than most. Next to a collection of multi-colored lighters forming the outline of the African continent there hung a simple blue-and-white ceramic tile, on which, in all lower-case, was scribbled the line, our need to rebuild is the reason everything falls apart.

I wondered, if we stopped trying so hard to create anew, maybe all that should be lasting in our lives would cease to come undone? The network I had gone to great lengths to craft in my four years couldn't have felt more achingly distant. Looking around the bar that night, some faces looked familiar and others I just convinced myself were. Either way, it didn't stop me from trying to make conversation. I seem to be doing that a lot lately—giving my phone number out to almost anyone who seems interesting, hoping only that they might call me back.

Acceptance

Yesterday was freshmen move-in day. North Professor Street, which until yesterday had still been razed and largely unpaved, was now home to double-parked cars heaped along the two-way road and spilling over into Stevenson parking lot. There were parents with U-Hauls and cargo carriers lugging boxes into dorms, stacks of cardboard piled out in dumpsters for pick-up, and the dozen or so restaurants along Main Street each with a line wrapped around the block during lunchtime. Compared with only a few days ago, it felt like this great accession, a veritable explosion of people arriving all at once.

I finally understood why townies tend to spurn the college, and why students who choose to stay in Oberlin for the summer lament the start of the school year. Oberlin is so refreshingly peaceful with most of its student body away that the transition back to hectic, pedestrian calamity doesn't come without its share of misgivings. Of course, the summer state of utopia wouldn't be sustainable even if the college shut down tomorrow, but it certainly is a romantic notion—to have this sleepy little town all to yourself.

As part of my new job, I was put in charge of working the Resource Fair, a gathering of outreach groups, local businesses and campus organizations that jostle for real estate in the collective mind space of the incoming class. Shansi pulled all the stops—free pens, pencils, books, water bottles, and tote bags—and for three hours, I had my fill of people watching. It was interesting to see the first-years in action—some still stooped behind their parents, others with the leadership reigns clumsily in hand, and still more boundless and free, eager to shirk, at long last, the final remaining vestige of their pre-college lives.

That night there was a buffet dinner in Wilder Bowl for new students and their families. Naturally, I made an appearance, a large take-away Tupperware container at the ready. The green was alive—the tension so thick one could hammer it out with an icepick. Everyone seemed to be waiting, preparing for this one collective exhale, for the moment when all the goodbyes had been said, all the first introductions made, all the wild-eyed probing and propositioning underway, and when all the strange, horrible, shocking, unbelievable theories about college life could finally be put to the test.

I told myself that if I tried hard enough I could fit in here. After all, aside from a BA, what truly separated me from this sea of unknowns—a girl with a shaved head, a guy with biker shorts and a denim jacket, two girls in sun dresses and wedges, a pony-tailed boy with purple nail polish and a “Steak 'n Shake” hat? Sometimes I don't feel my own age, and at other times, it forces itself on me like a creep at a dive bar. Some people looked too old, and others, just about what you'd expect. But for all of them, it was too early to tell: in what ways Oberlin would come to mold their self-image at the end of four years.

That sea of unknowns followed me into the inaugural orientation concert at Finney Chapel. The room was packed, with overflow seating available down the street in Warner Concert Hall. Both President Krislov and Dean Stull made long, meandering speeches, and everything in me wanted to believe that they were talking to me when they spoke—of the limitless opportunities, the expectations of greatness, the proud tradition we would serve to uphold. But they weren't. Like a scorned older child I had been cast aside, neglected at the unwelcome arrival of a new sibling. Now I had only the legacies of other alumni to aspire, their influence so great as to cast a shadow over my very existence.

It was the most engrossing concert I had attended in recent memory. It's not to say that the performances weren't great, but I think it speaks more to the time I had gone without hearing live music, without the sensation of feeling it in every part of my body—back arched, spine tingling. In two hours, I hardly so much as shifted my weight. I found myself immeasurably drawn to each musician on stage—to the way their hands moved, the arch of their fingers, the gape of their mouth. Insisting on going alone, of doing this simply and irrefutably for me, I reveled in music as the great equalizer, in the feeling that we were all one collective audience in the face of its grandeur.

Pretty soon parents and their kids began filing out. On the walk back home, I remembered where I was six years ago, rounding the end of my first day as an Oberlin student. My parents dropped me off at my dorm after the concert and it would be the last time they would know me as a son, a boy on his path to adulthood. It was the first time I ever saw my dad cry, and although I didn't cry then, I felt it now, the tears welling in my eyes like storm water. Suddenly I was that parent, knowing that his time had passed, letting go of what had come before to allow for all the greatness to follow.

Before the concert, I was sitting in the Japanese garden outside of Finney Chapel, where the class of 1996 had dedicated a memorial to those Oberlin students who had given their lives during WWII. Among a long row of plaques listing names and graduation years followed by the letters USAAF and AUS, I saw one, on the far right, with the postscript “AMT '40, Navy, Japan.” And I thought to myself, if in the annals of history, Oberlin could come to accept him, then they'll find a way to accept me too. I didn't need to be someone I wasn't to fit in. Maybe being exactly who I am would have to suffice.

Uprooting, Replanting

At the front door, just before turning to leave, she handed me the keys to the house. There were two sets—one for the back door and my apartment on the third floor, and another for the company van, a light blue Toyota that we drove back from the airport. The drive from Cleveland wasn't what got to me—stretches of anonymous highway interspersed with small-talk: in-laws, grandkids, vacation, exes. No, it wasn't until we rounded Lorain Road, past Deichlers and the IGA, that things really started to coalesce—that the fuzzy picture of “Oberlin” that I had in my mind was beginning to look more and more like something real than imagined, to come into focus right before my eyes. We took a left at the art museum and slipped past the Oberlin Inn, and before I knew it, we were pulling into the parking lot outside Shansi House. No doubt about it, I was back in Oberlin.

It was an eerily similar feeling to when I first arrived in Taigu two years ago. It felt like waking up from a coma; there was this immediate shock, an overwhelming sense of both dread and astonishment for all that was yet to come. A part of me had gotten used to the way things were, and another, anxious for something different, on this, the start of yet another new life. Standing at the front door, luggage in hand, I wondered, how many more of these can I really bear? I'm not built for change, and yet, the last two years have seen little but it. It's as if change has wormed its way into the fiber of my DNA. It was never an innate trait, nor one that had lain dormant like a cancer, but one that was transplanted, grafted from a more able body onto mine, in the hopes that in time it too might sprout buds and flourish into something large and outstanding and worthwhile.

The first thing I noticed about the new house was the space. More rooms than I could thoroughly explore in a single sitting. There was a living room, dining room, kitchen, two bathrooms, foyer, two office spaces, a library—and that was just the ground level. The second floor had six bedrooms, a private residence attached to the back, two bathrooms, a shared kitchen, and a living room. And then there was my room—bathroom, kitchen, split living room/study, bedroom, big bay windows, and more closets than I could possibly fill spanning the entire third floor. Perhaps many American homes are this big, but I have never lived anywhere even approaching this size. That's what was so ironic—in Taigu I could be forgiven for experiencing culture shock at my new surroundings, but if this truly was my culture, why did everything that should be familiar feel so unimaginably foreign?


Wide, open space. My living room/study at Shansi House.

Last week I went to Target and all I could think about was the space: how there were whole sections where mobs of people weren't clambering at clothes racks and stripping shelves bare. Standing in the middle of a wide aisle, I had only the gentle push of the shopping carts and the Top 40 radio to occupy my thoughts. Coming from China where people habitually live on top of each other, and even my mom's one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn where the four of us had to temporarily co-habit, the seemingly endless stretches of open space in Ohio have been the biggest readjustment to life here. It's like going from one extreme to the other, with nothing in-between. The same can be said of my Shansi experience, with my Taigu life and my Oberlin life each comprising polar halves. Trying to bridge them together in a cohesive manner is like trying to knit a scarf by starting with each set of tassels, and hoping to eventually meet both ends in the middle.

When I went to visit Karl at the office, he told me that being the Returned Fellow is like waking up from a dream, where it's hard to reconcile which part of your life was real and which was imagined—they are so disparate that it seems impossible for them to coexist. Upon first entering my new apartment, there was a 1973 hardcover-bound Time-Life book on the desk entitled The Amazon: The World's Wild Places, that got me half-thinking about embarking on my next great “adventure,” as if my two years of it had scarcely ever happened to begin with. After so long on “the road,” it's weird to be settling down. But even now I know that this is temporary. Perhaps, when it comes down to it, that's all life really is: one never-ending standing-only ticket on “the road,” with no end in sight. Besides, even if I really wanted it, does such a thing as “settling down” even exist?


Everything in its rightful place—coconut milk pencil holder, desk lamp, book on the Amazonian wilds.

Now that I'm in Oberlin, old friends and professors greet me with a hearty “welcome back,” as if I had meant to be back all along. I don't flout their politeness at all, but even being back connotes a return to some semblance of life as I knew it before, and even that is a misnomer. This life, like others that have come before it, will be very different from any life that I have experienced—everything will be changed, from my position at the school and my daily routine to my place of residence. Even despite being the only current inhabitant, this place can scarcely be called my own. All around me are the remnants of other people's lives—people who, like me, have come for a year and gone, leaving only discarded fragments of their identities behind: scribbled reminder notes, FedEx boxes, toiletries, reading materials, stationery, souvenirs, appliances. Theirs is my life to make sense of now—the same fate I left to my own contemporaries upon leaving Taigu.

“You feel like people are saying the same things as before but wearing different faces,” Karl said, as I was leaving the office. And then, just as I turned to leave, he added: “it can sometimes make you feel like you're going crazy.” I began to see it everywhere—the guys chain smoking by the library, the couple holding hands at Gibson's, the girl biking barefoot through campus, the family squatting down in Tappan Square for a picnic—weren't they all people I had known before? There are different faces with the same voices, but there are familiar faces too. On a trip to Yesterday's, I saw Marc, an acquaintance that I made when I was still a student, who is from the town and still lives and works here. I didn't buy any ice cream from him but we exchanged numbers and promised to meet up again. It was encouraging to know: in spite of it all, some things still manage to stay the same.