Connections and Absences

Written in one sitting in the morning…slightly blurry and strange. Enjoy…?

Last night, the last dream I remember having was about one of my students. I was in the school gym after an event of some kind. Perhaps a basketball game, perhaps the seniors presenting their portfolios projects; the specifics are fuzzy, like many of my dreams, though I remember that it was late afternoon. A number of teachers and students were still in the bleachers or wandering around the floor, hanging out together, talking with each other; the calmingly bubbling sounds of relaxed conversation filled the room. And then my phone rang. Unknown number. I picked up.

“Mister,” I heard on the other side of the line. “It’s me, C.”

Everything momentarily paused. I stopped where I was, standing still, my breath held in my chest. I could not hear or see anything that was going on around me. Time, halted briefly. Then, exhale. Everything came back in a sudden blurry whoosh.

“C, are you OK?” I asked. “Where have you been?”

“I’m in Mexico,” she said. “Everything is OK right now.”

I let out a sigh of relief. “What happened?” I asked. “What has been going on?”

On the other end of the line, silence.

*****************

Early last fall, C arrived in the U.S., reunited with her brother and family in San Francisco, and entered my class. She quickly showed herself to be an eager learner, a strong collaborator, and an empathetic leader. She led her groups by example, always trying her best to understand the work and, despite her recent arrival and low English level, generously helping her classmates whenever she saw they were struggling or needed support. She  helped her classmates stay on-task when they were distracted, but instead of yelling at them like some other students (“Work! What are you doing? Stupid!”) she would bring students back into the work by asking questions: she would engage them by asking about content or disarm them by asking “What’s going on? How are you feeling?”

In short, C was empathetic, thoughtful, smart, hardworking, generous, and dedicated. All adjectives which I could use about nearly all of my students, but which seemed to apply especially strongly to her. She had challenges, as does any of my newcomer students, and was working through them with the support of people at school. But overall, it seemed to me that all was mostly well for her. She played a starring role in a classroom video that I later used in my portfolio for National Boards certification. She seemed a budding academic star, heading for success.

And then, after months of nearly perfect attendance, she was gone. Her family didn’t know where. The police were notified. Everyone worried.

Three weeks later, she came back. She seemed to crave normalcy, routine; she jumped back into her group, supporting others as best she could, despite missing most of a unit. She immediately asked about missing work and rushed to complete a project. She checked in with all of her teachers to make sure she was up to speed. She brushed off conversations about what had happened, saying she wasn’t ready to talk and was busy; she would talk about things later and wanted to focus on making up work. She was back again. Until she wasn’t.

One week missing became two, then three, then five. By the time school was dismissed because of COVID-19, she still hadn’t turned up.

Last night, I was standing in the gym, stunned, C silent on the other end of the phone. I tried my best to restart the conversation. We talked about school, about life, about COVID. Whenever I asked questions about her current situation or tried to get information about what had happened, she would go silent. Our conversation continued for about ten minutes before she said she had to go.

“How can we contact you?” I asked.

“I have all of the teachers numbers,” she said. “I will contact you.”

I heard a click; she had hung up. I started running towards another teacher to tell her what had happened.

Suddenly, I awoke. Birdsong and diffuse, fog-filtered light filtered into my room from outside.

I immediately thought of my dream, and of C. I suddenly realized that the story in the dream is not over; the questions I tried to ask are not resolved. Guilt, sadness, and frustration flooded me. Today, I still have no idea where she is.

*****************

While living in China, I knew some people who went missing. This was not because they wanted to go missing; rather, they were quietly picked up and taken away. They were missing because they were not present, but everyone knew where they had been taken. Nobody knew when they might return.

These people were missing because of the arbitrary use of power. For me, the lesson was that power was often exercised without concern for human emotion or suffering – and, more often than not, left its victims completely hopeless, powerless, and without recourse. This was a terrifying lesson for me, reinforced and brought closer to home by news of police brutality in my hometown and then, when I returned to the U.S., a series of repeated shootings of unarmed young black men, followed by protests that grew into the Black Lives Matter movement.

The idea of a ‘missing person’ like C is, in some ways and on a much smaller scale, just as terrifying to me. I still, perhaps naively, have hope that the systems and structures of power that propagate injustice and inequality in our society can be changed and made less oppressive. But on a smaller, human scale, when a person goes missing, there is not necessarily anyone to blame, anyone to protest against. The uncertainty is crushing, the questions endless. How can someone disappear? What happens? Where do they go? How can nobody else know about them? They can’t be totally missing; someone has to know about them. But why not us? What terrible things might have happened? Or are they living normally, peacefully, somewhere else? Are they alone? Are they alive? I remember listening to an interview with an emergency room doctor who said that the worst way to die is to die alone. Are they with anyone else who can help them? Maybe everything is fine; or maybe not.

Yet in other ways, we also make people in our lives ‘missing’ all the time. We move between groups of friends, we pass in and out of touch with people from different parts of our lives; we may even have inconsistent contact with parts of our family. We migrate, change, and grow; we choose to interact with others (or not) and to build or break connections based on our momentary needs and our emotional headspace. There are people I consider good friends who I haven’t talked to in years – not for any particular reason, but because I haven’t reached out. There are other people who I sometimes want to talk to and sometimes don’t; there are others I feel like I want to call but feel shy. There are days when I urgently want to talk to a specific friend, someone close or far away, because I know they can support me with something I’m feeling or needing at that specific moment. I reach out and connect with many people, but also, whether intentionally or unintentionally, I distance myself from others. I forget to contact people for months or years, unintentionally making them ‘missing’ from my life – sometimes to the point where I get nervous at the thought of reaching back out. Has it been too long? Are they still there? Has the distance become too great?

But at least I am able to contact them. For C, that’s not an option: I can’t reach out and figure out how she’s doing. I don’t know if she’s OK. When I woke up this morning, I felt shame for not building a stronger connection; I felt grief and guilt for not knowing what had happened and not trying harder. I needed resolution: to know that the uncertainty had ended, that the story was coming to some kind of conclusion. When someone is missing, I can’t reach out based on my feelings and needs; I can’t force them to respond and help close these gaps in the narrative. Instead, I sit with the uncertainty. I rely on those who are present to find emotional solace.

Today, C is (as far as I know) still missing. I feel troubled but also grateful that she showed up, however fleetingly, in my dreams. All that remains for me are my own emotions.

So what does being present mean? Not only in the context of COVID or for our friends, but for all of the people around us. How can our presence support the health and wellbeing of others, whether or not we realize it? How can we be present enough to ensure no one goes truly ‘missing’?

I don’t know how to contact C – or even how to begin to try. I want to do something about it, but am not sure how. I know, however, that last night’s dream is going to haunt me for awhile.

A few weeks after I last saw C, I was going through her class’ work folders. Students had written their names on the outside of their folders and decorated them to their taste. When I came to C’s, I froze. C had not written her name: instead, she had written ‘Any.”

Let’s make sure nobody ever feels like they are ‘Any.’ Even as just one of many students for me, C is a ‘somebody,’ someone important, someone special.

Be present.

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Togetherness In Times of Isolation

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A little nature in a time of distancing.

Random and wandering, as usual.

For those of you who have read through some of this blog, I have a history of having my movements limited by government mandate. While I was living in China, there were long periods of time when I was only allowed to leave my apartment to go to work at my school, which was located immediately next door. I called these “fun times.”

“Fun times” always started with a surprise meeting with our school headmaster. We would be ushered into his office, and he would rise from behind his desk, a hulking, dark, impressively shiny mass which took up so much space the center of the room that getting around it was awkward. This desk, copies of which I’ve seen in nearly every Chinese official’s office I’ve ever visited, always communicates the same message about its owner’s importance – but invariably, the desk is so massive and unwieldy that the human comes out from behind it, wiggling awkwardly around its edge, to end up closer to you for a conversation unimpeded by awkward symbols of power.

The headmaster was an aging Tibe$an man, his drooping eyes and heavy jowls always giving an impression of impassivity and aloofness. He had a reputation for being slow to respond and not always on top of the crisis of the moment. Yet he always demonstrated nothing but kindness and empathy towards me, even when we were negotiating over class sizes and proposed curriculum. I still believe that he was caught in a difficult position in his work: between the requests of a needy foreigner and the the strictures of unforgiving an unforgiving political and educational system. And now, as a wave of political unrest began to sweep through our town, he had called us to his office.

“We’ve had a visit from the public security bureau,” said the headmaster. This was never a good start: these visits would always portend some change for the worse, a tightening of rules or some kind of new hoop that he (or we) might have to jump through. “They are worried about your safety.”

“We are doing fine,” I said. “We are safe and doing our best for the students.”

The headmaster smiled wearily. “The bureau has asked that you stay in your apartments for now. You will come to school and teach classes, of course. But you should not go to town, or go to restaurants, or visit the monastery. Please stay at home for your own safety.”

And that was that. Fun Times had begun. My life was now circumscribed – for my own safety. My frame of reference shrank from the vast grandeur of the surrounding countryside – really, the whole spectacular natural world – to two immediately neighboring addresses. The terraced valleys, wooded hillsides and rockstrewn grassy peaks rising high above my building still drew my eyes and imagination in all directions, but I was not permitted to walk a hundred feet away from my building to buy garlic and tofu from the nearby vegetable shop. Ever-present eyes ensured that I stayed within my prescribed daily routine.

During these times there would be a large platoon of  young men in army uniforms, all nervously clutching rifles and police shields, stationed outside my small apartment building. Any sign of deviation from the routine and I would hear about it from the headmaster or a neighbor. I had no clue what was going on in the world, or even in my town, but it was better that I stay put. It was better that I didn’t see what was happening. For my safety.

And now, I find myself once again in a type of lockdown. This week’s “shelter in place” order in response to the coronavirus has halted many parts of life for Bay Area residents. While this order has changed my daily life in ways that bring back memories of my time in China, this time has been much more relaxed. We are allowed to go outside for essential errands such as groceries, meaning I won’t have to eat instant noodles for weeks on end. We can go out to exercise and enjoy the natural world (as long as we stay at least six feet away from everyone else). We have access to internet and all sorts of telecommunication dongles that connect us to others around the world. This time around feels less like a house arrest and more like a home vacation. 

The difference this time, however, is in scope. Everyone is at home, not just the two obvious foreigners. The problem is not local unrest, but rather a global pandemic. And this time, I’m worried about how our already hyperindividualistic, hypersegregated society will manage the challenges of further isolation and social disconnection.

I’m worried about my students and their families, all recent immigrants, who are already living on the margins of this city of incredible wealth. Many are losing their minimum-wage service industry jobs and, soon, will have trouble making rent and paying bills. With this increased financial pressure, will my students be able to stay in school? Will they be able to find jobs? Will they lose their apartments? Will they simply have to move away, yet another migration in search of some semblance of stability?

I’m worried about the effects of the decisions and actions of the wealthy on the poor. In times of isolation, it seems the “me-first” ideal, always so central to American life, intensifies even further. When the people who have everything they could ever need, the people who know that they’ll be fine in the end, are buying up everything in the grocery store, preventing those who lack the ability or flexibility to get basic food or supplies, what does that say about us? What does that say about our society?

In China, my lockdown was severe: I was effectively not allowed outside. But at the same time, I felt cared for. People in my building would bring by food and check in on me. Other teachers at school would offer support. Though the situation was different, there was, in many ways, a real sense of community. I can only hope, in this time of division and enforced separation, that we can find some way to build community. I hope that we can realize that we’re all in this together; that we can act with a little more empathy and care for others around us.

End of rant. I assume I’ll be posting more frequently given the current state of affairs. See y’all soon!

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你是我的菜

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Wedding + Striptease

It’s been almost 2 years since I’ve written a post here, so I figured it was time for a bit of an update. Or a summary, or at the least a few salient points. Or not: every time I’ve attempted to sit down to write, I’ve learned (and relearned) the impossibility of summarizing years of one’s life in a few short blurbs.

So I won’t even try. Suffice to say that I’m still in San Francisco, I’m still teaching (now at a really awesome school for recent immigrants – check it out at sfihs.com), and I recently got married to a pretty special guy (my abovementioned 菜).

However, I was inspired to write because I’m heading back to China for over a month this summer. In the past year, I’ve felt especially disconnected from the country; it’s been nearly two years since I last visited, and, with my slowly improving Spanish and the mysterious lack of Chinese newcomers at my school, I find myself speaking less Chinese and more Spanish in the classroom. This is good for my multilingualism but less good for my Chinese. It’s been hard to feel like my Chinese is slipping away, all while watching China continue to change and move (from my perspective, in both forwards and backwards directions).

And thus, once again, onwards to China, a land of appropriately chaotic excitement and motion, of ever-changing lights and sounds and tastes, of instability and upheaval strangely rooted in profound continuity. I’m hoping to get a better sense of what’s been happening while I’ve been gone, and hopefully some insight into what might happen in the next few years. I’m looking forward to reconnecting with old friends and students, and re-immersing myself in Chinese and Ti$etan languages and cultures. And I’m sad to leave my 菜 behind as I do.

I’ve always been afraid of stability. While I’ve always cherished having a home base, I’ve worried that being overly committed to one specific life – in one specific place, with one specific job, surrounded by a specific group of people – would be confining, restricting, suffocating; that settling down would limit my ability to take advantages of opportunities that came my way, would limit my freedom to make unusual or unpopular or unexpected choices – and thus make me feel normalized, mundane, uninspired – the Average American.

And so I got married. And both before and after our marriage, I’ve found that “stability” does not necessarily require stasis; that there is much beauty in commitment and connection; that there are many ways to nurture strong relationships and build community while still making the crazy choices that enable us to live our lives completely. I still don’t think I’ll ever find myself one hundred percent “settled” in one place, tethered to one small life, when there are so many experiences and people and places and communities in this surprisingly vast world. But I never wanted to go through this life of exploration and curiosity alone.

And thus, commitment. I could not ask to be surrounded by more loving families and communities of friends to support me through the coming years. But most of all, I’m grateful to my 菜 for committing to me – and to being willing to join me as we explore a beautiful, strange, and inspiring life together.

 

 

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The more things change…

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I’ve been somewhat remiss from posting for…a year. My bad! Things are going very well (in short). This is from a recent trip to the plateau.

As soon as I arrived in Xining this June, I started a list of things I saw as “Major Changes” since my last visit:

  • New ring road highway around the city
  • New greenway and bikeshare along the river
  • University is moving
  • Public bathrooms are free!!

I did the same when I arrived in RG several days later:

  • Highway!?
  • School is moving
  • New ugly apartment buildings
  • Less poop on the wall outside of the apartment building

Over the next few days, I continued my list, noting changes and adjustments from the obvious to the minute. I found myself getting worked up, upset, mourning the changes that had arrived in a town I considered a second home and afraid of the as of yet unknown changes that might come in the future. The march of progress is inevitable, I felt; I can do nothing to stop, slow, or balance any of these changes. I have no agency here; I am helpless to enact my will as the place I love appears to be slowly, painstakingly, deliberately erased from the earth.

Gradually, though, I found myself falling into old, familiar routines. Waking up to the blaring trumpets of the early morning exercise routine. The old man scouring his esophagus, muscles of the throat fully engaged, then propelling gobs of spit deep into the courtyard shrubbery. Drums, horns, cymbals, chanting; sounds wafting from the monastery next door. The smells of yak butter (pungent) and slow-burning juniper (still pungent, but aromatically so) floating upwards on the breeze past my window. The friendly lady at the store across the street, selling me snacks and drinks filled with cocktails of natural and chemical ingredients; future effects unknown, immediate enjoyment likely. The constant sensation of faces swiveling towards you, pairs of eyes, excitement-rounded, fixed on your back, waiting with expectant curiosity and possibly a dose of fear. Buying tomatoes from a vendor who recognizes you after three years absence, hugging you, asking about your wife and kids, for you are getting a little old now, what are you doing without a family, your own family must be wondering! The familiar slow stroll up the main street, weaving around cars and motorcycles and vans and trucks, parked and moving and stalled, an ebb and flow of humanity, an endlessly continuous choreography of unceasing movement, a dance of unconscious, unthinking perfection. A long run following an animal trail high above the valley, mountainsides warmed and yellowed by a nearer sun, animals stunned out of placid contentment by my passage. The warm embrace of students, impossibly energetic and enthusiastic at the end of a grueling twelve-hour school day, ready to dive into differentiating present perfect and simple past tenses with an almost frighteningly lovable eagerness, the kind that transforms your apathy into energy. The sun setting softly over the mountains, dinner cooksmokes rising into gauzy clouds above ridgetop villages, a soft mist in the valley floor, mountainsides deepening to blues and purples, then to richly textured blacks, the first hesitant stars beginning to dance haltingly overhead, then gaining strength and confidence and finally vividly wheeling overhead to light our path home.

I went away for a few days and returned with an old friend with whom I’d lived and worked previously. As we drove in, she also began cataloging the differences she saw: the tall buildings, the new traffic lights, a bridge. Things were changing too fast, she felt. What had happened to this place? What had the town become?

I now found myself acting as a consoler. Things hadn’t really changed, I heard myself saying; these visible changes are shocking at first, but you’ll quickly find that life goes on as normal. When I first arrived, I said,  I saw the changes immediately – they jump out and smack you in the face, demanding to be seen and acknowledged – and ignored what was the same. But after a few days, I said, you’ll find that everything is as normal, as before.

We spent several more days together, and – aside from the occasional sight of tall buildings downvalley – everything did seem more as before. But then I began questioning: why did I value so highly the familiar ritual and routine? Why was I constantly afraid of changes; why did everything have to stay the same for me? Why was I holding this place, this community, these people in amber; why couldn’t I value them for who they are while accepting (if not always liking) the way they change?

The comfort of nostalgia seems to exist in everything: it is in the bakery downstairs, the grocery shop downtown, the trail on the mountainside, the decorations in the classroom, the old woman circling the monastery, the trash fires lighting the evening street; even the shit stains on the building wall. But while these images are tied to memories and emotions, the roots of and true power of nostalgia lie in the lasting values and truths which these emotional memories represent. I love this town’s natural beauty, cultural monuments, busy market streets, diverse inhabitants, delicious food. But beyond the physical elements which trigger the nostalgia lies the core of what has made this place important to me. The bakery downstairs, the grocery shop downtown: the community in which everyone looks out for each other. The decorations in the classroom, the old woman circling the monastery: the devotion and care which people show towards each other, towards the others, towards living a good life.

The trash fires and shit stains: ingenuity? randomness? Perhaps I’m also simply romanticizing my nostalgia. But regardless of what these memories represent, I do understand why people – such as myself – have such difficulty with change. For change forces us to confront and question the values and truths which we consider central to ourselves as people, and ask: were they truly there all along? Were they, in fact, ever there at all? Do they exist? Are our experiences genuine – or were they products of our imagination? Whether or not we exist, however we think of ourselves – with or without these values and truths and experiences – who are we as human beings?

Some things change; some things stay the same. Next time I go back, I will still be bemoaning the changes I see. But I’ll make equally sure to identify – and focus on – the more permanent values and ways of being that continue to make this part of the world, no matter how it changes, a special place for me.

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An Acknowledgement of Profound Ignorance

Sorry for recent silence! This has been a very busy spring. Also, I can’t get a picture up here…

“Stop talking about this.” Ms. Zhang abruptly turned towards me, her razor-sharp whisper a dramatic contrast from her previously cordial tone. “We can’t let the others hear.”

We were in a second-floor barbershop, an upper-crust establishment whose self-aware class consciousness was reflected in its decor: walls of black glass, punctuated by ‘living walls’ of fake mosses and flowers; ironically large teddy bears amidst seemingly random assortments of decorative items fastidiously arranged into a carefully choreographed disorder; mirrors, marbled floors, and the works. I was squatting next to Ms. Zhang as I talked; nearby, two men sat at a table, seemingly here more for the conversation than to get a haircut or shave. Nobody seemed to be paying any attention to us.

“I don’t want anyone to hear about this,” Ms. Zhang said again, more sharply. “We’ll talk later.”

Pleading a need to use the bathroom as an excuse for absence, I gave Ms. Zhang five minutes of time to cool off before I asked her to talk with me in a more private place – an alcove off the black-glass-lined stairwell. Nobody was in sight.

“I’m sorry that I made you uncomfortable,” I said. “In the United States, having head lice is quite normal – and people talk about it to each other so they can cooperate on taking preventative measures.”

“That must be a difference between us,” she said. “And honestly, I’m surprised that there are lice in America. I always thought that the United States had higher standards of sanitation and hygiene than China. Now, I don’t know what to think.”

“Lice are quite common in many places of the world,” I said.

“I’ve never heard of them happening here in Beijing,” she said. “My grandparents’ and parents’ generations, sure. They had them, but they lived in more difficult times. We don’t have them now.”

We had just visited the Beijing United Family Hospital, a spotless facility in northeastern Beijing staffed with foreign doctors and graduates of top Chinese medical schools. The spotless exam rooms, pastel-colored furniture, and sterile hallways seemed straight out of an American hospital to the point that I could barely tell I was in China. Posters advertising special “Birth + 4 Days Postpartum Care” packages and “See Our New Neurosurgeon: Special Price!” lined the hallways. Doctors and nurses bustled with a smooth, unrushed confidence around the buildings.

We were here because a student had gotten head lice. Upon learning this, the student’s Chinese host parents – one being the abovementioned Ms. Zhang – became extremely worried.

“We have four generations in our house,” she said. “I need to guarantee everyone’s safety. Who’s to say this parasite won’t spread around the house and prove to be too much for the grandparents?”

“And our child – when she goes to San Francisco – can’t stay in the American child’s house,” she continued. “I’m shocked that their house would be so unsanitary as to have such a major infection.”

Our local partner organization had a similar understanding of head lice. Upon my announcement to the 37-strong group of American students I’m with here in Beijing, the faculty and staff from the partner organization were visibly confused. Their subsequent online research revealed that head lice were dangerous and frequently carried deadly, very infectious diseases. After exhaustive explanations of how lice are viewed, are spread, and are dealt with in the States, the others remained convinced that lice were a major hazard to public health and welfare (not to mention life and limb). As such, we ended up taking the student to the hospital while the other family members – armed with hundreds of yuan-worth of cleaning supplies – thoroughly disinfected their apartment from top to bottom.

And so, on a Sunday afternoon which happened to be the family’s great-grandmother’s one-hundredth birthday, we found ourselves in a hospital of near-Western levels of sterility, facing a skin doctor whose expression indicated that she was unimpressed by us and the problems with which we could provide her. After a perfunctory inspection of samples taken from our student’s hair, she came back to tell us the results of her investigation.

“This isn’t a big deal,” she said in a flat, emotionless voice. “Kids get this all the time here. Most schools, especially those in less sanitary areas, have lice outbreaks three or four times a year. You just have to be careful: disinfect all sheets and any fabrics that have come in contact with her hair, and wash her hair extensively with a special shampoo – for which I’ll give you a prescription. The description of how to use the shampoo is on the bottle. That’s it.”

“Can you get any diseases from the lice?” asked Ms. Zhang.  Minutes earlier, she had been sobbing in a nearby consulting room, worried about the safety of her family and the student she was hosting.

“This is not a big issue,” said the doctor, evidently bored. “Just follow the treatment plan and you won’t have any issues. We can bring her back and take a look in a few days if you’d like.”

After picking up some lice-killing shampoo, we headed out of the hospital to the abovementioned hair salon for a cut. Cutting the student’s hair short seemed to help Ms. Zhang feel better about the idea of lice in her family’s house. As we exited the shop, she seemed more relaxed but still somewhat flustered.

“I’m shocked at America’s sanitary condition,” she said, continuing in the same vein as before. “I thought the United States was so clean. I can’t believe you live with this!”

“In fact, this is very common in the states, especially in schools,” I said. “Most kids get lice at some point – and in most schools, lice ‘alerts’ go out three, four, or five times each year.”

“So does every household have lice?” she asked.

I explained that lice come in waves which hit large numbers of students at one time. I explained that students’ families then communicate about the issues and take immediate measures to kill off the lice – and then, that everyone is lice-free until the next outbreak.

“Wow,” she said. “I can’t believe that this parasite is so common there. You are so developed and wealthy; I wouldn’t expect it. I wouldn’t have guessed that us Beijingers would be more advanced.”

An awkward, spastic flicker of a lighbulb began to flash a dim and inconsistent light into my brain, a moment somewhat less than an “Eureka!” but a realization of sorts nonetheless.

When I’d talked to the student’s mother in America about lice, she was shocked that the host family seemed unfamiliar with them. “Lice are common many places I’ve traveled,” she said. “I thought they’d be more prevalent in China too.”

When I mentioned this to Ms. Zhang, however, she was shocked. “We haven’t had lice for years,” she said. “They used to be common in our parents’ and grandparents’ times; not anymore. The student must have brought them over herself.

Here, I bumblingly made a politically incorrect suggestion: that, as the student in question had already been in China for two weeks, and that the lice had appeared no more than twenty-four hours earlier, the lice themselves might have originated from somewhere in China.

“Bu keneng!” she said forcefully, a new energy blazing in her eyes. “Impossible! We don’t have them in Beijing. There is no way that the student got them here.”

The issue, I realized, was not simply about the lice themselves. This was about social status, both real and perceived, in the new China. This was about the old idea of ‘face’ – between nations, cultures, and individuals – writ large across the modern social landscape.

Lice, as the doctor said, are common, especially in rural areas. As such, they are seen as symbols of poor sanitation, poverty, and backwardness. For it to be known that one has lice in one’s home is tantamount to being seen as a tu baozi (literally, “dirt dumpling”), an uncultured and unwashed country bumpkin. For people who have spent their entire lives working tirelessly to improve their families’ material well-being and social status – indeed, to escape the fate of being a tu baozi, whether real or perceived – this was a serious matter indeed.

Ms. Zhang’s family had already put themselves out on a limb by welcoming a foreign student into their house for three weeks. Now, the fact that the foreign student had brought the dirt and stench and emotional baggage of poverty and of the countryside (or at least the stigma of such) into their clean, modern Beijing apartment was too much. The lice and the idea of their presence needed to be fully eradicated – hence the haircut – and whatever happened, it was crucial that nobody could know that the episode had ever occurred.

My first trip to China was a decade ago, an epically-proportioned high school choir trip that opened my eyes to another side of the world – and to the possibilities of the earth’s diversity. Since that time, and especially over the past five years, I’ve invested considerable time and effort into gaining at least a rudimentary grasp of Chinese language and culture. And yet, I lack the cultural knowledge and competence to successfully handle one American student’s case of head lice.

The more you know, the less you know; the longer I spend learning about China, the more it becomes clear how much I have to learn.

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Adventures Continue!

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Cliches about having not updated the blog for ‘too long’ aside, I simply wanted to share recent adventures and happenings rather than delve into some deep sociocultural morass of ethics and behavior. We’ll see where that gets me.

The last few months have been quite busy. To wit: I haven’t updated since Halloween. Many things have happened:

  • A delightful backpacking trip to Iva Belle Hot Springs in the John Muir Wilderness.
  • A journey to the Philadelphia homestead for Thanksgiving. It was Mike’s first time visiting the city, and came away impressed by our teeth-clenchingly bitter defensiveness of the place and all its cranky, particular glory. He also came away feeling that no matter where he travels, it will not be as nice as the Wissahickon.
  • A short ski-hut trip to the eastern Sierra that saw us driving through a massive snowstorm (and breaking a chain on the way) and past encouragingly high drifts to get to an even higher-elevation area that was mysteriously low on snow. After skinning up below Bear Creek Spire, we had an interesting run down through a boulder field.
  • Immediately subsequent to the hut trip, we traveled to Salt Lake City to visit Mike’s family (in his grandmother’s house) for the Xmas – New Year’s week. It was an immensely relaxing vacation (for me) during which we were fortunate to be liberally snowed upon. I have rarely experienced the type of powder that we found in Grizzly Gulch near Alta; excessive face shots were had by all. We also went ice climbing with friends Nick and Peter; it was nice to get back on the ice after nearly five years! I had lots of beautiful snowy runs, explored the city, hung out with family, and spent a day teaching Mike to telemark ski. Most unusually, I celebrated my first Christmas ever and received all sorts of unusual and exciting gifts.
  • From Salt Lake, I flew to Kunming (transferring through San Francisco and Chengdu) to begin my scouting trip for this year’s international programs. Over nearly three weeks, I visited Kunming, Dali, Xi’an, XN, RG, and Chengdu, the vast majority of which time I was legitimately doing work. Really: this was my only opportunity to wrangle out the details of all of my school’s new programs for this year. At the same time, I had the opportunity to have fun and see a lot of friends. Most relaxing were my final three days in RG, where I was able to stay in my old apartment! Nothing quite feels like home without the ever-present aroma of yak-butter candles and bsang
  • While I was in China, there was serious trouble on the home front, with our landlord making frequent legal threats and preventing us from adding individuals to the lease. We have also been in constant roommate-switch-mode, with one roommate moving out and another temporarily decamping to Jackson Hole – leaving us with a series of (friendly) subletters. At least my room was intact upon returning!
  • And finally, I returned back to work at school to have my mother and a good friend from China arrive on the same day.

It’s certainly been an exciting run (I even forgot Mike’s lab group retreat in Yosemite last weekend!), and things won’t let up soon: I have three trips to China in my future, along with (more immediately) a trip to Oregon and – assuming the snowpack increases – a hut trip in Yosemite.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about the future: where to go, what to do, and how to do it. For the time being, however, I’m busy enough traveling and moving around to barely have any conception of what’s next. I’ve always been told by my parents to live in the moment – in their words, to ‘be here now’ – but I am sometimes so mentally in flux that I’m not quite sure where the ‘here’ is to be. Be where now? Be there then? Be where when? I’m never certain, but at the very least I’ve been lucky to experience a plenitude of amazing moments along the way.

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Updates! Chaos!

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Random stuff. Above pics are from a late September trip to Thousand Island Lake.

There has been so much work recently that I haven’t had time to even think about updating this blog! So, for now, I’ll do a quick-and-dirty overview of things that have been happening and things I’ve been thinking about. When I have a few minutes of breathing room later next month, I’ll return to drama-filled existential postings about nothing in particular.

The past month has also been filled with a variety of new experiences, each of which merits a short mention. With an immense amount of help from colleagues, I wrote my first federal grant to create a new high school study and travel program in Kunming. While the process was as procedure-bound as I expected, it was also exciting to be able to create something of nothing, to build program ideas and possibilities out of what seemed like thin air and to make ideas a reality. I’m particularly excited for this program as it would give me the opportunity to work once again with high school students – an age group that I miss and feel drawn to teaching in the future. With this older group of students, I can be less structure-bound and more experimental in creating programming, and can involve students more in decision-making processes. I can have students build their own independent projects and courses of study, and can give a fair bit of freedom when we are traveling or on field trips.

And yet this program (and the two other new programs this year), though exciting, leads to a challenge about which I’ve recently been thinking quite a bit. As it currently appears, job responsibilities require me to be in China for nearly three months this summer. On a basic level, I love China: I love the daily pace of life, the feeling of community, the sensation of having never-ending streams of experiences both familiar and blindingly new, the feeling of being in a state of perpetual revelation – of constantly absorbing and learning and understanding and becoming impossibly puzzled at the miraculous fact and experience of life that surrounds you. I similarly love travel, new experiences, new people, and new ideas – not to mention getting away from the eerily empty ghost town that is a school in the summertime.

And simultaneously, I feel drawn back by personal connections. Previously free as the wind to pursue random adventures at the blink of an eye, I now find myself – for perhaps the first time in my adult life – in a relationship which has become so important to me that it makes me question the value of my previous ‘freedom.’ I do not feel tied down, limited, or bound in any way; I just feel a different range of conflicting motivations than I did before. How do I balance the exigencies of my job – and my desire for adventure – with the desire to maintain this strong, loving relationship? How do I simultaneously lose and keep myself; or, in better terms, how do I work with my partner to build upon each others’ strengths and transform each other into better, more fulfilled, happier people (and all that associated crap)?

I’m not having any kind of crisis of confidence, or confusion about where I’m going – I’m just learning how to recalibrate my life balance in the wake of some important additions and changes – and doing so makes me feel like a toddler who just pooped his pants: not quite ready for prime time.

Additional updates of note: I ran my first marathon a few weeks ago, a beautiful course through the towering trees of Humboldt Redwoods State Park. The first half, during which time I was running alongside half-marathon competitors, felt like a jog; the second half, in which I was completely alone – four minutes behind the leader and fifteen minutes ahead of everyone else – was quite painful and provided a reminder of how much of running success is mental. While I was moderately happy with the result (having competed in only one race since college, I didn’t really know what to expect beforehand), I’m thinking about how I can train in a more focused, purposeful manner, and how I can better prepare mentally and physically before and on race day to run a better time. I welcome any and all marathon suggestions – especially scenic, fast courses!

And on the theme of running, my kids’ cross-country season is wrapping up, with the final race next Monday. It’s been fun working with the group this year; while a lot of excellent 8th grade runners left for high school last year, we’ve managed to build the team into a great group which has achieved a lot of success!

There’s too much other news to relate – much unimportant – and so I’ll allow the two people who still read this blog (thanks, Mom and Dad!) to finish whatever more important things they were working on before they were rudely interrupted. More stuff to come as soon as I can have another half-hour break!

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