Home in Lanzhou

Some places you go, and it just feels like somewhere you’ve been before. Lanzhou is one of those places for me. San Diego has more granite, but the beauty of the brown and green mountains, the vivid sunsets, and the edge of dryness to the air is all too familiar. The buildings remind me more of Tijuana, or Taipei, the food is and isn’t like Chengdu, and the people are friendly like every city I’ve ever lived in. I know I could make a home here.

Lanzhou is like most of the cities here, under construction, filled with old and new styles jammed together, order in every moment of chaos. There is a feeling to the place that is so familiar, and all the fear just falls away as I walk through the city.

Fear is always in the background whenever I move to a new city. Fear of talking to new people, of finding new places to eat, finding places that feel comfortable and safe. I wonder if it will ever fade, or if I will always have that fear with me.

I have never lived on a college campus before, but with everyone on vacation I don’t know what the campus will be like when I go back in a couple weeks. There were basketball courts, a track and soccer field. People played badminton and ping pong in the cool breeze, and walked around the puddles left over from the rain. As dry as it is, it still rains on and off throughout the fall and into winter.

In that way, it has the feel of Guadalajara, the wet season and the dry season. The sun hits my face and I can feel the burn, but my back is cold in my shadow. I’m back in the mountains, about a mile above sea level, but that just means I need to give my body time to adapt to the thin air again. I can feel my throat begin to dry out and I remember that I have my own fridge to keep cold water in.

It’s strange having my own place, not just a room, but an entire apartment to call home. The squatty-potty in the shower leaves something to be desired, but it’s safe, it’s clean, and it’s mine. Some of the other volunteers have to clean their places, or they have old or unrenovated apartments, but my school took care of everything for me. There are some oddities, and it feels bare without any art on the walls, but it’s home.

I think the strange thing is the layers of windows and doors. The front door has two actual doors to it, like a screen and a door, but they’re both solid. The old style exterior windows are outside, but they installed a new set of sliders on the inside of the frame. I see it as an extra layer of protection from the dust storms that are supposed to come up in the summer, but the aesthetic is strange. I need to pick up a few things, but I will be there for the next couple years, so there is time to invest into making it truly mine.

The Peace Corps gives us contacts in the new city, like they did when we arrived in Chengdu. My waiban, Shine was there to pick me up at the train station after the twenty-two hour ride. She is my contact at the school for basic problems and needs. There is something they tell us before we go to site, to accept all invitations. All of them. There is no way for you to tell what is good or bad until you have some experience with the people around you, so accept all invitations.

Shine invited me to teach pronunciation to an advanced English class of post-graduate medical students. Accept all invitations. So off I go, lesson planning and making a powerpoint, neither of which I wound up using. There was some fluctuation on what I understood she wanted, and in the end it was more of a speak and repeat session practicing everything from “succumb” to “dioxyribonucleic acid.” Back and forth for two hours, speak, repeat, then practice with the people next to you.

It was more of a series of ten minute mini-lessons with some added commentary and questions. When one student asked me about my pronunciation of “larynx” I pointed out that they would be dealing with people from all over the world and that everyone would have a different pronunciation of these words. I am only here to offer my experience and accent for them to practice with, not to be the hard line of what is right or wrong.

That being said, I think my pronunciation of “larynx” has a bit of Texas twang to it. One of those remnants of where I have been, like when I tell people I lived in “neyork” years ago, the state, not the city. An accent is the mark of where we come from and where we have been. It’s personal, and tells a history to the people who can hear it. It’s not something we should strive to lose or change, any more than we should try to change our past.

I think the things that I found most interesting was their reactions to the little things. The first time a student asked me a question I went up to her and squatted down so I could see her eye to eye. As tall as I am, there can be something threatening about my presence around strangers, especially when they see me as an outsider or a superior, so I tend to stand back, to shift my shoulders so I don’t seem as focused on the person, or I squat so I don’t seem as tall. I dropped down next to her and a quiet laugh went through the room. I’m guessing that is not common for teachers here, but I always found it to be effective.

There was also a student who was surprised when I asked about pronouncing a word I’d never seen before. He was practicing pronunciation with the class when I first walked in, so I used him as the resident expert. I have basic medical experience, but some words are too specific for anyone who has no need of them. He was surprised that I would look to him as an expert, but for me it was a way to reinforce that I am not perfect, and that I am the last word when it comes to English. Simple concepts, but they are not ones that everyone has thought of before.

One of the things I found interesting about college students and college culture is the tendency to look to experts and teachers rather than trusting your own experience. I think part of that comes from not really having experience beyond the controlled world of most of our childhoods. It’s easier to assume that someone else is the expert, and then the day comes where someone is looking to you for the answers.

I always find it odd when people look to me for advice or suggestions. I think in some way I assume that everyone sees what I see, and knows what I know. Part of me sees the people around and I know that cannot be true, but I never really trust that part of me. I am a student, and I have learned a lot in my life, but I would never claim to be an expert. Jack of all trades, master of none. It’s what I aspire to be, as should any true bard.

I’m looking forward into a new city, a new world. I know there is a place for me there, and I know that I can do good and be better than I am now. One of the highest aspirations of a bard is to travel all the world and collect stories they find there. I don’t know if I will ever be able to see all of the world, but I will do my best to learn what I can and post it here. Just don’t ever believe that I am an expert.

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1 Response to Home in Lanzhou

  1. An expert? Maybe not. But you’ll be the person the experts study to become experts, my friend. This Journey of yours has become required reading for me, James. You have better insights than anyone else I know. If there is a God, may he bless you. I will agerly await your next post.


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