Disaster and Joy

This has been by all accounts a strange week. The week started with a series of disasters (some of which might have been mere ‘unfortunate events’, but I needed a new blog post title) that put me in a thorough funk: some close friends had some absolutely ridiculous and inappropriate situations in a class (and with one of their students), a close friend back home tore his ACL, Kim’s cat died (RIP), a friend has to close her (delicious) restaurant that we’ve been using as a hang out spot, another friend learned he has to leave China (with his family after living here for a good few years), a lift fell down at Sugarloaf…basically, last Monday-Tuesday was a mess for all persons involved. On top of it all, the copy shop screwed up my final exams, so I had to take some of them back to be re-copied before spending four hours on my hands and knees folding, stapling, and sorting the papers.

Other than the series of disasters which simultaneously struck everyone around me (while I, nevertheless, was miraculously spared from any), the week was actually quite normal until Friday. Classes became more and more rowdy in the days leading up to new year’s, culminating in a series of absolutely insane class periods on New Year’s Eve day, for which I am convinced my students were absolutely shit-hammered drunk. While I was teaching, I got sprayed in the face with orange-colored foam and silly string, students played finger games and cards, and spontaneously broke into song about the new year (and about totally unrelated topics). As those classes were the last content classes of the semester, I had asked the students to remain especially focused; the next week would be more devoted to fun (along with the final exam). But instead, they were absolutely crazy, and as it was impossible to teach anything at all I left class early in my two afternoon class periods.

The school day nevertheless ended on a surprisingly positive note. A student from class 14, who has been communicating with me via email, came up to me at the end of the day and handed me a package.

“This is your new year’s gift,” he said. “I made it myself. I hope you enjoy it.”

I went back home and opened the box. Inside was a beautifully carved bone fragment etched with the character 中, which means ‘central’ or ‘middle’. I’m not quite sure what message the student was trying to impart with this particular character, but the carved bone fragment – which he mounted on a necklace – is incredibly well-done. Inside was a note in the student’s halting but nevertheless extremely touching English:

“Chinese new year is coming, I’m very glad to meet you. This gift is what I do, though not very well, but it’s representing my hearts, please don’t mind. I spend a lot of time to make it actually just to prove we are good friends, I hope you can understand.

“Perhaps, in this world, between people are boundaries, Lineages between are boundaries, countries between are boundaries, but I believe, friends, civilization is no boundaries. In the new year, I wish you good luck, good health, and a happy family, and hope our friendship can endure.”

I was speechless; this incredible gesture from a student (and one in the ‘devil-spawn’ class 14) was completely out of proportion with anything I’ve experienced from my students so far. I am shocked with the student’s generosity, and remain unsure of how to repay it. So after a fairly awful week of teaching and bad news, receiving this student’s gift brought me out of a funk and – at least for a moment – allowed me to experience the joy appropriate for a new year’s celebration. Only now was I ready to bring in 2011.

That evening, I met up with a large group of people at Su Wen’s restaurant (the one that has to close soon) to celebrate the new year. It was a bittersweet gathering due to the awful news that has been circulating in our community as well as the unspoken fact that we all knew it would be our last time together at the restaurant. But it was fun to ring in the new year with lots of people, delicious food and drink, interesting conversation, singing, and (most importantly) fireworks out on the street at 12 am.

The next morning, Devin, Sarah, Brooke, Kim and I groggily got in taxis to the bus station and boarded the 7:15 to Xiahe. We arrived around midday, went to the hostel and had some lunch, after which much of our group promptly fell asleep. Kim and I wandered around the monastery, where we saw monks practicing cham dancing for the upcoming new year festivals, moving to the steady resonant beat of a drum festooned with skulls and the rhythmic clashing of silvery cymbals and the eerily echoing blasts of ten-foot-long horns which echoed over the monastery rooftops and across the wide open valley. We walked past the monastery and through the Tibetan village into the countryside where we wandered around a bit, enjoying the frozen tricklings of the river below and the quiet of the air above, before heading back to town and, after buying some qingke bread, circling around the kora back to the hostel.

Aside from walking around the monastery and simply being outside, far from the exhaust and noise of Xining, awake and alive in such a beautiful place, one of my favorite things we did this weekend was simply hanging out in the evening at the hostel and talking with the attendant (who I had met my first time here) and his friends. They are extremely kind and fun to hang out with, and (while I always feel a bit ashamed using Chinese to speak to Tibetans), it was great to use my Chinese a bit more and learn about their lives and backgrounds – as well as the Tibetan dance halls of Xiahe. Sitting around the fire, drinking beer and talking with the guys, it was strange how much the place felt like a home to me. This was my third time in Xiahe, and I ran into all of my monk friends as well as the people I’d met the previous times I’d visited. I never could have imagined that a place in which I’ve barely spent more than a week (combining all of my visits) could feel so comfortable. Chalk it all up to the amazing hospitality, curiosity, and friendliness of the people I’ve been privileged to meet; it’s certainly not due to my efforts alone that I’ve began to feel really more at home in this somewhat distant monastery town.

For the last couple of days in Xiahe, I felt a bit sick; I think something I ate affected my stomach, and while I tried to be cheery, I think I was a bit short and nasty with the others some of the time. I had also just come off a nasty week of classes (which I will not detail any further), which made me sort of selfish during the weekend – to a detriment to our trip as a whole (thanks Kim for bringing it to my attention!). I think that I have become so used to traveling on my own for these weekend trips, doing my own thing and being selfish and getting a complete break from the school week, switching from being disrespected and shat on by my students for hours every weekday to spending the entire weekend to myself, going at my own pace and being completely and utterly self-centered, that I also forgot what it’s like to travel as a group. This was a good wake-up call for me, as we’re going to be traveling overland to Chengdu in the near future and will need to cooperate a bit better than we did this past weekend. I think most of the onus is on me, due to my complete inability to sit still for any period of time whatsoever. Not for nothing is (according to Sam Smith and Winter LT 2007) the hummingbird my spirit animal. But regardless of my uncooperativeness (which particularly manifested itself yesterday as we came home: after not sleeping a wink the night before and getting a minor stomach bug, I wanted to go home while the others wanted to hang out in Rebgong – so I was a bit short with them and simply went home in a car early) and my bad humor for some of the weekend, it was a relaxing time out in the country that has refreshed me for the week ahead.

And I will need it. Tonight we have a hotpot fiesta as Ligaya is leaving for vacation. We just learned that Natalie is coming up on Thursday (!) and will come with us overland to Chengdu. There is another fiesta on Saturday. On Thursday and Friday, I will be giving all of my exams, after which I will need to work incredibly long hours to correct them all before we leave on Monday. And as we just learned that we cannot travel to the girls school in Golog next week as the county has been closed to foreigners, we are busy updating our travel plans for that period. At least it looks like the rest of break is a go, as I will be traveling with Kailah to some awesome places in Yunnan before celebrating the new year’s near Shangri-La and then going overland together to Chengdu. It’s pretty much all looking up, once I get through my final week of classes and the grueling ‘grading weekend’ that is quickly approaching.

Shorter blog today, as I am quite busy this week. It has been a week of (as suggested by the title) disaster and joy and relatively extreme emotions for me. The new year promises more of these extremes, and more of the unexpected, strange, and completely bizarre (this being China). But all things being what they are, I’m glad to be where I am right now.

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