Where is everyone rushing off to?

The holiday rush hour in 海马沟村, Huangzhong county, Qinghai

This week marked the official beginning of the American holiday season. While back home, Christmas- and snow-themed advertisements have probably been hanging on store windows since early August, only this week could we say that the season of “’tis the” fame has truly commenced.

And apparently, in the US, with vigor: after a quiet and peaceful thanksgiving, newspaper articles reported a desperate, foamy-spittle-flecked mad dash at stores and malls around the country on Friday as shoppers furiously tried to beat other would-be shoppers to the best deals on holiday gifts. Pictures showed long lines of people outside darkened stores at 2am in the morning, lines which resembled the food lines of the 1930’s except that these were made up of well-fed consumers, credit in hand, eagerly awaiting an opportunity to use the latest gadget. Inside the stores, it was a mad dash for the display cases, people stumbling over  old ladies and trampling young children so as to be the first to attack the as-yet untouched display cases of goods. “At least,” I thought to myself while looking at the pictures, “no one was killed or seriously injured.” The pictures reminded me of nothing so much as the overly-famed running of the bulls, or (to use a less worn metaphor) the stampede of pilgrims at Mecca during the Hajj. Obsessive faith, blind devotion, and unstable pinnacles of joy and fear motivated these pilgrims early Friday morning to journey to America’s places of pilgrimage: her shopping malls.

A typical mall in Huangzhong county

Here in Xining, the only thing resembling a holiday scramble on Friday was the mad dash of middle-school students at midday who clogged the sidewalks and crammed the buses as they returned home for lunch. While everyone seemed to know of the existence of Thanksgiving, nobody gave it any thought; instead of the beautiful, serene pause of daily life that marks the American thanksgiving, here in Xining life went ahead full speed. On Thursday night, we had our own brief pause as we celebrated Thanksgiving dinner in Devin and Sarah’s apartment with Kailah, Devin’s dad, Ligaya, and others. Devin and his dad had made their own pilgrimage to the import store and had returned with all manner of exotic goods; they had even been to Casa Mia and requested a pumpkin pie be baked for the occasion. As a result of their travails (and some further work in the kitchen by all of us), the final spread included mashed potatoes, butternut squash, rolls of bread, canned asparagus, cheese, and two types of pie (apple and pumpkin). The bird was the problem; turkey, though it has a Chinese name (火鸡, or ‘fire-chicken’, is pretty much unknown in China. Instead, Devin went to KFC and got gigantic buckets of fried chicken (which I, as afraid of American fast-food as I am, studiously avoided). As we sat down to dinner, we paused for a minute to recognize not only the unlikeliness of the occasion (thanksgiving in Xining? real cheese?) but our gratefulness for everything that brought us to this occasion, for every one of the amazing people we meet and who we’ve become friends with here in Qinghai, for everything about our life as it is right in this moment.

I frequently use this forum to complain about my school and my current teaching situation: my uncaring and undisciplined students, the unsupportive administration and faculty which undermines my efforts to teach by reminding students that my class ‘doesn’t matter,’ my very kind but often unresponsive waiban (who nevertheless recently proved when I broke my nose that he is effective and responsive in an emergency), my constantly changing teaching schedule, and the information void in which I seem to live (what is the special schedule today? when is the Spring holiday? who are these new students in my class?). Many of these complaints, I believe, are legitimate and warranted, especially concerning the interplay between the students, the administration-faculty (here posing as a sort of Foucauldian power structure), and my classes. My students are completely inappropriate in class. The actions and words of the administration and of many other teachers are detrimental to what I try to do in class. But at the same time, Thanksgiving helped me realize, in the middle of an especially tough week, the many positives which surround my current situation and how grateful I am to be living and working here in Xining. I realized my gratefulness for the people who I’ve met and who surround me and support me in this so-called ‘foreign’ place (again, as witnessed by the nose-incident), for the amazing places I’ve been able to travel, and for the unique (though increasingly normal-seeming) quality of life here in Xining. But in addition, Thanksgiving helped me realize a certain gratitude for my experience here at 师大附中.

At times, teaching seems an insurmountable ordeal. I can’t even get a full sentence in without the classroom erupting into chaos. Students transform handouts that I passed out three minutes before into all manner of flying paper aircraft, which get tossed randomly around the room until one hits me in the back and I send out an offending student. The classroom atmosphere is, more often than not, complete pandemonium. Students are thirty minutes late because, as they say, “my teacher was cutting my hair in the Teacher’s Office.”

But the ordeal, in many ways, has been good for me as a person. I’ve learned skills which  help me if I ever become a security guard at a music festival (discipline, crowd control), but also have gained (I think) several new and positive personality traits. Teaching these incredibly disruptive classes has helped me become more assertive, more confident, and more versatile and flexible in difficult situations. I have become better able to think on my toes, and more willing to follow these thinking toes as they run down an unknown road towards who knows what end. I have even, according to Kailah, begun to speak louder, a result of my having to constantly yell at students in class. This is a perfect example of how, from an adverse situation, I have somehow reaped a certain benefit. In the past, many people have often commented on how I mumble, frequently unintelligibly, in everyday speech. Thanks to the awful behavior of my students, this has been transformed.

But in addition to these personal transformations, Thanksgiving also helped me recognize my love (at least so far) of teaching in general, and my gratefulness for my ‘good’ students – namely Senior 2 class 12, Senior 1 classes 10 and 11, and the Ishi students – in helping this love be realized. If not for these students, I might have quit long ago. I have realized that my mood on a day-to-day basis is often closely linked to the classes I am teaching: on Thursdays I am often grumpy, as I teach all of my worst classes in a row; on Mondays, I am frequently happy and optimistic, as I teach my three best classes in a row. Thus despite the benefits I have received from teaching the ‘bad’ classes, I am grateful more than anything else for my ‘good’ students, who make my life bearable, often even enjoyable, on a day-to-day basis.

As such, it was nice to pause for a minute on Thursday to acknowledge all this before we tucked into a delicious (and frighteningly foreign-tasting) meal. And thankfully, the next morning saw no mad holiday rush for the stores, no hastily-erected Santa statues and obligatory menorahs and kwanzaa symbols, nothing out of the usual Friday morning rush of students and workers, bundled up in their thick down jackets to ward away the frosty 12-degree (F) air, women teetering on heels as high and as precarious-seeming as the famous karst formations of Guilin or the Avatar-inspiring peaks and pinnacles of Zhangjiajie, all dodging the migrant workers repairing the permanently under-construction sidewalk and the nightly thickening accumulations of guano on the inside of the sidewalk, left over from the massive flocks of black birds who fly from miles around to perch on this street’s particular electric wires, navigating the untidy sidewalk mess of organic waste and plastic trash and street-stands selling fruits and gloves and phonecards and fried pancakes with potatoes and carrots, the aroma of oil wafting into the air on the thin yet sharp breeze and stinging your face, awakening your nostrils. Nothing but the mad dash of cars, buses, trucks, rickshaws, three-wheeled scooters, tractors, potato carts, bicycles, motorcycles, all manner of wheeled vehicles, electric- or muscle-powered, contending for a spot in the flow of traffic approaching the intersection, each driver muscling his vehicle in front of the other, each vehicle competing for open pavement space, buses cutting in front of pedal-powered carts, old men on bicycles swerving in front of trucks, a complete rushing sweeping swooping chaotic ballet in which disaster seems omnipresent, ready to strike at any time, but is constantly averted thanks to the sixth (or is it seventh? eighth? fifteenth?) senses of these masters of traffic and of communications. Nothing but the bold step of the pedestrians at the intersection, pinnacle-peaked heels stepping confidently out into the swerving traffic, narrow misses at every lane, horns furiously honking, brakes squealing, a trail of more timid or squeamish pedestrians quickly trailing after the pioneer, who, by now having safely reached the other side with an effortless sense of carelessness and grace, continues her businesscasual, worldowning stride up the street, other pedestrians and vehicles be damned.

I cannot hope to even begin to describe the chaos and the ugliness and the beauty that is life in China. I do not talk simply about aesthetic ugliness and beauty; here I use expanded terms to talk about aesthetics, behaviors, personal outlooks, attitudes values. In such a country, how can there be so much astonishing ugliness and profound beauty in such extreme proximity?  What is going on  Where is everyone always rushing from; where are they rushing off to?  What kind of order, if there is such an order, underlies the seeming chaos? Short term visitors to this place, as well as many other places in China, are mostly impressed by the unbelievable speed of life in China. They are amazed by the buildings, seemingly erected overnight, which sprout weedlike from fields of barley and potatoes. They are amazed by the constantly changing rules of the game, the chaos of traffic, the crush of people, the shopping malls, the food markets, all the trappings of the past thirty years.

While I am still amazed by these things, I am more amazed by the islands of calm that exist in the middle of this chaos. The woman with the pinnacle-peaked heels strolling confidently across the street. The old men huddled around a table playing cards. The ancient, decrepit-looking cyclist, trailing a cart full of leafy greens, peacefully maneuvering her cart in front of a massive overloaded gravel truck. The middle-aged women practicing taiji outside the park in the morning. The old men circling the track outside of my house late at night, backwards. The calm of monks chanting at a tiny inner-city temple, surrounded by fluorescent thangkas and sworls of smoke rising from incense burners. The self-contented shop owner, sipping a cup of tea behind his counter of antiques, or bread, or qingkejiu, or vegetables, or whatever he feels like selling you. The old friends talking on park benches in the middle of the workday, playing hooky from their office jobs. The immensely dark night of Labrang, peaceful except for the extreme cold which bites at your face, still except for the constant creaking of prayer wheels which are turning, turning, driven by the gnarled weary incomparably joyous hands of the devout, the constant spinning slowly sending their mantras up to the silent dark star-spangled heavens. I am grateful to be here at this time.

That’s more than enough sappy gratefulness for now; as such, I should return to the normal tone of questioning and tortured moaning that defines this blog. I have only one major complaint this week: my schedule was changed (again) so that two of my classes are now on Saturday. This is against my contract, against my prior agreements with Mr. Wang and others, and overall NOT cool. As soon as I discovered this change (due, of course, to a chance visit to Mr. Wang’s office), I was furious.

“Not only is it against our agreement and my contract,” I said to Mr. Wang, “but it’s against my religion. I can’t teach on Saturdays.”

“I respect your traditions,” said Mr. Wang, “but we need you to teach on Saturdays. Another teacher had to change her schedule, so now you have to teach Saturdays.”

“Mr. Wang,” I said, “if I have Saturday classes, I simply won’t come. It’s against all of our prior agreements.”

“But what if it’s only temporary?” he said.

“How long is ‘temporary’?” I asked.

“Only five or six weeks.”

“Mr. Wang,” I said angrily, “both you and I know that ‘five or six weeks’ means the rest of the semester. I will not teach on Saturdays.”

“Can you teach this Saturday, at least?” said Mr. Wang. “It’s too late to change your schedule this week. I’ll try to get it changed by next week.”

I sighed; he was right. The very next period was a class that had been switched to Saturday. “I will teach this Saturday,” I told Mr. Wang. “But if you say the same thing next Saturday, I will not come to class. Regardless of the excuse. I am willing to teach Saturdays if the school is making up for missed weekdays, but I am not willing to teach Saturdays as part of my regular schedule.”

In a huff, I left the room. On Saturday morning, I woke up feeling profoundly sick and decided to go to class anyway; during both classes, I had to excuse myself to go to the toilet and to take aspirin. Maybe it was because many of my friends have been sick recently, or maybe it was because I didn’t observe shabbat. But only a few hours after I finished classes, I started feeling significantly better. By Sunday, I was OK. Divine retribution? You decide.

There have been no further developments on this issue, but I’ve gotten Maria involved as I want it fixed as soon as possible. Apart from that, this past week was difficult mainly because Senior 2 class 11 has become impossible – worse than class 14 ever was. It seems that all of my classes have been gradually improving over the past month, but the behavior of Senior 2 11 has declined precipitously in the past two weeks. I don’t know what is going on; I suspect a class ringleader might have a personal grudge against me and has riled up the other students, but I’m not sure enough to act on it. Regardless, I hope their attitude – and my schedule – both change dramatically in the next week.

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