Looking

I think what I am looking for is an adventure. The second year here feels old, and I want something new. A new place, new people, maybe a new language. A mountain to climb, a windmill to fight, something. It’s not bad here, I just have trouble finding enthusiasm for so many things I have done before.

I am still learning new things, about China, about myself. My medical students were telling me about being a doctor in China. That sometimes if a diagnosis doesn’t work out some of the older patients can get violent toward the doctor. Not because of mistakes, but because the doctor isn’t magic. That if there is a blood shortage your boss might ask for blood if they know someone who needs it. The lack of value for any psychological help the doctor might give. Everyone has access to health care here, but no system is perfect.

My students tell me that it is getting better, that the hours, the hardships, and the money are all improving. Things change slowly, especially for a country as large as China, but my student still wants his son to be a doctor when he grows up in twenty years. He has faith in the system, in what he has seen as a specialist, in how the younger patients treat the doctors. That it is just the clash between the old generation and the new, that life will get better.

One of the interesting things is that there doesn’t seem to be any one person in charge of the change. Like we have the Surgeon General to work on medical directives and protocol, but my students couldn’t identify the person in charge of the system here. They have faith that the system will improve because of everyone’s efforts, not because of one single person. That society will move in the right direction. Faith in the group above the individual.

I’m not saying everyone here follows that ideal, but it seems to be common enough. I am still used to one person to be at the head, to be named a success or failure based on what happens. Not that it is all of us. As a sociologist, it makes sense, that we do or do not together. That a society is an ocean breaking on the shore. That the individual can’t do much to change it. But I have seen too often a single person in the right place change the world. I don’t know. I guess it’s like I tell my students, every kind of society has its problems.

And some things are just strange. I was walking through a mall toward the Starbucks where my friends were hanging out, and out came a herd of clowns to a techno remix of Phantom of the Opera. Clowns, a couple of people in giant bear costumes, giant inflatable clown costumes. I think it was advertising for a music school. They have clowns painted on the doors of their school, but it is hard to know. Advertising is a bit erratic here.

That is why the two years here, I think. Everything I learned the first year isn’t exactly true. It takes time to get the door open to really look inside. I am always fascinated by the new things I see here, by what is common but would be punished back home. That philosophical questions are never really studied here, or any questions. That self-defense is still violence, and all violence is illegal.

I’ve been reading Joseph Campbell again, about the difference between the Far East and the West, as they were called in his day. All the parts of society and myth that support the individual back home simply don’t exist here. Like after death, we keep our personalities, but they do not. All of who they think they are falls away to reveal they are simply part of the universe. That the group is of value, not the individual. That every society wants a partial person, the doctor rather than a person, whole and complete.

My second year, and it’s easier to see the patterns here, but I do my best to avoid what is right or wrong. Societies function, or they don’t. They exist until replaced, for better or worse. We create them more than they create us, so it’s hard for me to imagine a better world until we become better people. Or at least less complacent and confused.

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Posted in 2018-11, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Starting Again…

It’s hard to find a reason to continue everything here. Not like I want to leave, or there is no value to it, but starting again without starting again is hard. I am here a second year, but all my students are new. I have to go through the same explanations again, the same jokes and frustrations. In a new place, I could understand how no one seems to know me, but I have been here a year, and they should have at least heard of me.

I think it’s the annoyance of their endless surprise. That I can speak Chinese, use chopsticks, that I practice Kungfu. The students who tell me how much they missed me after a week, when they have only spoken to me once or twice. Things I have heard keep running through my head. Why are movie stars so much more valuable to our hearts than the scientists that create the future? I write the same old song with a few new lines and everybody wants to hear it. Just cause I please you, you think I’m some kind of perfect man. Fragments of songs, questions, references. What I am is nothing special, but somehow changing social circles has attached me to an idea of who a foreigner is. There is prestige in having a foreign friend, something to show your value.

Then there are the moments that really interest me. When a student asks about music and I just send some possibilities. When they find Pink Floyd and are entranced the way I have always been. The time when students ask about reading practice and I send them some Calvin and Hobbes, and someone asks for more. The students who stay beyond the initial conversation, the photo with the foreign teacher.

Sometimes, I will mess with the students when they are taking the picture, blocking their face or standing in front of them. Sometimes they laugh, which is the goal, to get them to relax. Sometimes they don’t care as long as the picture exists. Like Mike in Monsters Inc., “I’m on the cover of a magazine!” That is the reason we are here for two years, I think, so we can get beyond the first conversation.

The school is done with its assessment now, so they are starting to remember I exist. No more issues with the power, and apparently my passport is ready, even if they forgot to tell me for a week or so. I really don’t blame them, the police came to everyone’s door to see who lived in all the apartments on campus, so I’m sure they went through the admin just as thoroughly. Since the assessment I have been asked to participate in a third English corner, to go to a three-day medical conference in 石家庄, which I don’t know where is, and had several requests for coteaching.

For this, the problem is me. I might become part of the school, like we are supposed to be, but I already built a life here around being without them. I have my friends, my hobbies, and I have more I want to add to it. I don’t really want to spend all my time on the other campus, a world away from all that I have been doing here. There are new options for Kungfu, a teacher practices Baji, which is too hard for my taste. There are other teachers practicing Yang family Taiji, which is not my style. There are students who just want to hang out and talk, but I am looking for something else.

I have done this before, and that is a big part of the problem. I didn’t really know what I have been looking for out here in the world, but I am starting to understand now. Joseph Campbell calls it the experience of living. To think, to feel, to do more than exist. To be part of something greater than yourself. Others talk about life really beginning on the edge, or that the only real hope for us is in discomfort. I think, in a lot of ways I am looking for a fight.

Not just for the sake of fighting, or winning, but the challenge that makes me see the value of life. Not just fighting with fists, but with ideas, words, actions. Something that will wring me out so I can see what’s left. Not just with others, with myself, with the world, culture, everything. Something that challenges how I live and how I think. The people, places, and cultures that might really make me think and feel. For me, I think that will be the second year. Actually part of the school, part of the teacher’s lives maybe. I just hope they don’t drag me into ping pong.

Posted in 2018-10, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Surprised

It’s a new year, but somehow I am still surprised. All the new students ask the same questions I have been asked the year before. For them it is still new, but for me I’ve had that conversation too many times. I didn’t think I could get bored of it, but I have. Fortunately, it is in a way that still amuses me most of the time.

There isn’t as much preparation this semester so far, just review and slight modification from last year’s lessons. I keep forgetting to change the date on the lesson plans, but that is about all of the problems I have really. Teaching is still fun, and going to class is still stressful, but I am surprised that it’s so new to them. A year of teaching at this campus, teaching their friends, and I still get vocal awe on the first day of classes. I can relate, to some extent, but their awe is just an interference with my ability to teach.

I only taught 8 classes before we had a week’s vacation, and I’m glad I didn’t go anywhere. Or do anything really. At least not on purpose. I went to breakfast with my kung fu teacher. I was surprised when we went to the mountains to hike. I was surprised again when I found out the hike was really a mushroom hunt. And that going home meant stopping at two different places to walk around before going to a friend’s house in the outskirts of the city for dinner.

On the way out, we passed through what geographically should be the middle of the city, but it was so underdeveloped it was surprising. No buildings more than a couple stories, and many of them just cinderblocks and steel roofs. There really was no road, like it had been destroyed by a giant with a hammer rather than being under construction. Nothing organized, and endless stalls rather than stores. Something I would expect on the edge of the city, not surrounded by skyscrapers on all sides. Then we were out, and back on the main streets, just to avoid the toll road I guess.

We ended up about an hour away from the house, not far considering the speed of travel in the city. Somehow, it was like another world. There were trees everywhere, and fall colors filled the skyline. The air was wet, wet enough to have mushrooms growing under the trees at least. It was a hunt, and it wasn’t until I stopped following the others and wandered off to the side that we found more than a few stragglers. Apparently, some of the mushrooms you can eat, some you can’t, but all of them were run past the experts on the way out of the city. I was glad to have avoided eating them regardless.

I thought none of the places in the city really had space to grow food. I know my kung fu teacher shares a small rooftop garden with another family, but it’s just a long old planter made of cinderblocks. They can grow a few vegetables out there, but it’s little more than a supplement to a few meals. Out at the edge, they had a decent sized patio they covered an made into an amazing garden. Melons, gourds, tomatoes, and a few other things grew all over the ground and throughout the wire mesh surrounding it. It was amazing, and we sat in the middle of it and made barbecue.

We got back early enough for me to buy some ingredients to make chili for a late lunch the next day with another local friend of mine. I was surprised that my first try at chili actually worked pretty well, but it’s really not the same without fritos, cheese, and hot dogs. It was almost healthy the way it was, and chili has always been a full trainwreck of a meal in my memory. My friends seemed to like it, but the next day was another barbecue, with a moderately abusive amount of food.

I always remember the idea of not eating before dinner so you don’t spoil your appetite. Something ingrained in the culture back in the day, but here, it is apparently impossible to do that. After about three hours of barbecued everything on sticks, they brought out bowls of noodle soup and several dishes of vegetables. I thought the barbecue was the meal, but no, that was just a rack of ribs, four or five runs of lamb kabobs, and god knows how much vegetables and mushrooms of an appetizer. But the noodles soup was the local specialty, and his wife’s signature dish, so how can I not join in. No really, I don’t know how to refuse that without being insulting, but I was getting so full I could feel the food squeezing my lungs.

I haven’t eaten like that since I was back in the States, in the days when I earned all the weight I still carry around. I got used to smaller meals here, and in Mexico, but that barbecue was so good. After that, I went home to hibernate for a few days. I found myself getting vocally irritated every time a student would text me to ask if I could speak Chinese or use chopsticks. There is a point when the extrovert goes to sleep and I just need to be somewhat isolated. I just needed to rest my mind for the next series of things to be done.

It surprised me that it turned into two days indoors without talking to anyone, but I feel so much better now. I cooked, I cleaned, I moved my furniture, and I texted with a few friends. I played games, and napped in my hammock on the sunny porch. This October isn’t as cold as last year, but there is nothing like a hammock in the sun. I start again with everything tomorrow, kung fu, the gym, English corner, and my life here in China. I’m looking forward to the next surprise.

Posted in 2018-10, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Second Year

It’s strange starting the second year here. I already have most of my plans set up for my main classes, just fixing up the ones I used last year. The students seemed good with them, or at least all I ever heard was compliments. It would be nice to have a criticism once in a while, something to give me direction in my attempts to improve my lesson plans, but that is not something that is done here.

I don’t always think that is a bad thing, but without constructive criticism and the freedom to fail, it makes it hard to improve the way I want to. I know many people have fears of failure and mistakes, but to start over again with a new class is to see all the new students going through the same shy routine. The fear of speaking to me, of speaking at all, is as tiring as it is amusing. I’m glad I still have a sense of humor about it. Without that I think it would just aggravate me.

I keep reminding myself that most of them are children, barely out of high school where they are trained to never ask questions or really think critically, but then the post graduates are the same in their mid-twenties. Same for a few of the teachers, my age or older. I keep going through these shifts in my self-awareness, where I feel like I am not that much older than my students, then something happens and I suddenly feel so much older than them. I don’t know if it is me or if it’s how I react to the world I am in here.

Maybe it’s the perspective given to me by having my mom here to visit, or maybe it’s just all the people and places I saw while she was here. More than likely, it’s a bit of everything. It would be nice to get back into something of a pattern, but my new schedule is just as chaotic as the old one was. 10 hours, then 6, then 10, then 6, back and forth until I get cotaught classes again, filling my schedule. The annoying part is that almost all of my classes are on the other campus, which will make it harder because of travel. There was a mention of moving me to the other school, but I have made a life here, and I don’t really want to shift halfway through and try to start again in a place where there really aren’t any locals to get to know.

I wouldn’t mind moving across the country, or across the world, but moving across the city just seems like an annoyance. Sometimes it’s easier to climb a mountain that it is to walk across the street. There have been times I have just thrown together whatever is in the house rather than make the trip out to get something. It’s not so much the food itself as it is all the things that come between. The people I see, the people who see me, friends, strangers, weather. It all seems like nothing, but there have been times throughout the last year that all the nothing has been exhausting.

Maybe I have just gotten to used to this place, or this life. Maybe I am just used to shedding my life and moving on by now. I don’t really want to leave yet, but there is so much more to see. Having all I have built over the last year and adding on a whole new group of students and friends is kind of stressful too. Or maybe it’s just the memory of the past year, all the stress and problems that came with it. Knowing that this year, for all the differences, won’t be that different. Maybe it’s just not knowing whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, to repeat the year I just lived.

I don’t feel any real anticipation, but I rarely do in my life. The odd thing is that there is no real anxiety either, not like I would expect. I just feel tired, and I’m sure part of that is the cold creeping in as the Mid-Autumn festival approaches. The one great thing is knowing that I am more prepared to hibernate, and am kind of looking forward to it.

Posted in 2018-09, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment