I’ve been back at work for a week and a half, and already my schedule has been changed by the mysterious administrative powers that be at Shida Fuzhong. Go figure.
Over Chunjie, while discussing the intricate political and familial networks of the Tacheng valley, the convoluted web of relations which makes the area tick, and the consequently chaotic and unpredictable social schedule for each and every family (including the laowai family consisting of me and Kailah), Kailah’s colleague taught us a new Chinese expression: 计划不如变化快 (jihua buru bianhua kuai) – plans are not as fast as changes. Not only did it encapsulate what I was feeling at the moment, after having visited ten or fifteen houses that morning and downed a good quantity of qingkejiu by noon, after wandering around the town of Tacheng and hanging out on the bridge in the brilliant afternoon sunshine, waiting for a car that might be coming, might not be coming; after going back to Kailah’s colleague’s house and being stuck downstairs in the dark cold TV room while the family relaxed above our heads in the sunshine and then finally being invited upstairs and eating and drinking and hanging out on a terrace with a five year old kid throwing miniature firecrackers at strollers and motorcyclists and drivers and passengers passing by on the main street below our terrace; after a full whirlwind of a day where I felt like my world and worldview had been thoroughly shaken and aerated and turned upside down, as water droplets being bounced in all directions, being obliterated and reformed, off a tarp being shaken before it is to be folded; so the expression seemed to capture my mindset and emotions at the time.
As it continues to do; since arriving back in Xining, my life has been continually undergoing changes and variations, which makes it not only more unusual and unpredictable but also more fun (in that I-don’t-know-what’s-going-on-China-kind of fun). Most of these changes have been things that I’ve welcomed, but have also made me increasingly busy. Incidentally, busy enough to not have written a blog post last weekend.
The first major change that greeted me when I arrived back in Xining didn’t affect my life, but was pretty major for Sarah and Devin. They had been told off and on over the previous semester that they would have to move out of their apartment on the South campus into a brand-spanking-new-130-square-meter apartment on the South campus. As we left for vacation, the authorities were saying that they wouldn’t have to move until later in the semester, as the government still had to purchase the correct furniture for the room, and the government could not be rushed in its furniture-purchasing (no joke). And so, after nearly two months away from Xining on a journey that had taken them from the frigid grasslands of Zoige to the balmy beaches of the Philippines and Hawaii, Sarah and Devin arrived home and were just settling back into their apartment when they learned that they had to move. They were told at 10am. They had to move that day.
Needless to say, the move was accomplished and their new apartment is brand-new and beautifully furnished in a degree of faux-stylish tackiness only found in new Chinese apartments in provincial cities. A good indication of the apartment’s stylistic leanings is the fluorescent light fixture in the main room; if you press one side of the wide toggle on-off switch, the light shines at full brightness, illuminating the room with the somehow palpably static electrified buzzing glow of fluorescence; if you press the middle, the light shines a pale blue, as if to intensify the very idea of fluorescence to levels interrupting normal heart and brain functions; and finally, if you press the far side of the switch, the light dims to create instant ‘atmosphere.’ Romantic.
Anyway, while Sarah and Devin were settling into their new apartment, classes began. My mom, who was still around, came to a few intro classes at the middle school, where I found that my students (especially class 14) are every bit as lovable and caring as they were last semester. Joking aside, in fact, some of my classes seem to be better behaved then before; my senior 1’s, for instance, have been on excellent behavior since we started and I hope it stays that way.
At the end of the week, I saw my mom off in a taxi and steeled myself for a weekend of work. And fun. I was able to spend some time walking around the city, and did a track workout (on a real, surfaced track!) at the provincial sports center. Which is actually a really cool place. The center was home to the rock climbing world cup for the past few years and has a massive outdoor climbing tower complex, a misshaped asymmetrical polygonal monster looming over the nearby rows of ping-pong tables and basketball courts (I am currently finding a way to use this wall, and once my climbing shoes are set I’ll be able to go bouldering!) Next to the climbing wall is the track, its astroturf infield crowded with miniature soccer fields, themselves permanently crowded with locals playing endless rounds of pickup games. On the south side of the complex, a pleasantly landscaped park rises up a slope leading to the old city wall, which blocks the complex from the congested eight lanes of traffic on Kunlun Lu. Add a few badminton arenas, tennis courts, and a massive gym, not to mention a streetfront lined with sports and outdoor gear shops and the athletics-themed Sports Hotel and you have the picture. I spent an enjoyable afternoon at the complex working out while being stared at, occasionally encouraged, and then stared at some more and pointed at and laughed at by locals, especially the young kids who frolicked around the track while their parents watched on benevolently. It’s fun being the center of attention occasionally, but after a while it got old to be laughed at while doing abdominal routines, drills, or pretty much anything else. I’ve heard that many Chinese people believe that foreigners are physically, biologically different as human beings; if that is true, I could see the connections being made as I was running around the track: “foreigners can run too! foreigners can do exercises too! look at the foreigner! look at him go!” I felt not only a little like a baby who, somehow having gained a full consciousness of its surroundings and critical thinking skills, was being observed during its first steps. “Look at him go! Can you believe it?”
So eventually I left. I walked over to a piano shop in nearby Guojicun, for I had recently decided to buy a piano. In reality, I was only going to buy a keyboard, but I wasn’t going to joke around with this purchase: I wanted 88 weighted keys, built-in speakers, grand piano sound, the works. I had been to the shop the day before, and after scoping the internet I figured I could do worse than buy locally – a category which conveniently overlapped with cheapness.
I walked out of the store with a beautiful, brand new Casio PX-130 digital piano, which (after it was hand-delivered to my apartment by a team of friendly people from the store) I have been playing more or less constantly ever since. The piano not only came with a free damper pedal, but also came with a free (Casio-produced) book of favorite piano music. Which, to my surprise, not only included the necessary Fur Elise and Mozart piano sonatas but also Beethoven’s Pathetique, three Chopin etudes, a Brahms Rhapsody, and one of Liszt’s Liebestraume. Surprising, and also awesome – in one stroke, my Qinghai sheet music collection was increased by a third.
The next week was relatively normal, except for a mid-week schedule change and the arrival of two successive groups of couchsurfers (the first a Buddhist monk from eastern China, the second two guys who graduated from Colby in 2009), as well as my invitation to join the ETP faculty and then decision to accept the invitation and then rapid intensified course planning and then becoming a sort of university professor teaching an Introduction to Environmental Studies class to forty-four rapt and participatory students. Which has increased the amount of work in my average week from Code Red (‘manageable outside of exam periods’) to Code Bowdoin College (permanently busy). But I can’t lie; my piano purchase has exacerbated my schedule; the piano sits there, lonely, silently, in its corner of the living room, just begging to be played. As a result, I’m sure my neighbors are ready to murder Rachmaninov; that is, if only they knew who he was.
But I have gotten busier, and in a positive way. And I’m enjoying it. Four of my six middle school classes are going pretty damn well, if I say so myself. And add those to my new Environmental Studies class (gasp! a course with actual content! an actual subject!) and the majority of my class time is, for the first time, actually fun and enjoyable. Most of the time. My two troublesome senior 2 classes (13 and 14) have gotten significantly worse, and even on the best days are quite a handful. I put extra effort into thinking the semester through systematically, and have redoubled the effort I put into lesson planning on a daily basis, but in those two classes the results are yet to show (if they will show at all).
So since last time, to review: my friends moved, I started teaching college classes, I bought a piano, I’ve been continually hosting houseguests, and I discovered a new dish I really like to cook (I actually didn’t say anything about that…I’ve been making a curry-tofu-lamian dish which is awesome). And did I mention the pipe leak which greeted me when I arrived home from vacation? Mr. Wang had kindly turned off the water to the entire apartment to prevent the leak from turning my place into a swamp, though in his typical fashion he had neglected to mention anything involving water troubles.
Anyway, 计划不如变化快 has truly become my life motto here in Qinghai. As those components of life change and deform and curve and twist and turn in every imaginable way, as things reform and pop back up at you in unexpected and fluidly shifting forms, I look to what I can do, what opportunities exist, what advantages I can cull, what help I can give, and just move forward inexorably with the constantly changing and unpredictable environment. At least the execrable behavior of class 14 is a constant. As if this was something to be thankful for. Like my dad’s comments on the miniature speedos worn by the obese Russians on the Sanya beaches, “some things ought to change.” Maybe it’s only the things that we detest that seem unchanging, the good things changing seemingly at will and disfiguring themselves beyond belief? Or is it only our perspective? Needless to say, I’ll be looking for a lot of changes from class 14 this semester.