Familiarity and foreignness

Simon enjoying a respite from the endless urbanity of Guangzhou

Sometimes I forget how lucky I am to live where I do. I forget that Qinghai, for most Americans, is not ‘normal’; I forget what I have learned about this place and how it has changed me. Having friends come to visit reminds me of these things.

This weekend, I was fortunate to receive a visit from Simon Ou, a good college friend, and his study-abroad friend Frank. Simon is currently a Princeton in Asia fellow in Guangzhou, where he’s working for Institute for Sustainable Communities, an international environmental NGO. Frank came to visit Simon before he enters architecture school later in Milwaukee later this summer. For me, it was a reminder of the worlds beyond my own Qinghai-centric viewpoint – and a great chance to catch up and hang out with awesome people.

We decided to travel to Xiahe 夏河 (Labrang) via Rebgong. And though I’ve been to these places many times, visiting them with friends helps me see them in a different light. It wasn’t just Saturday’s rain, or the resulting brilliant greens of the grasslands on Sunday, that was different; traveling with these friends, neither of whom had visited western China, let me see these places as not simply changed by the shifting seasons and continuing development, but rather as places completely new. Going to Labrang and Rebgong with friends took me to places which became comfortably familiarly foreign; the experience allowed me to be slightly more distant from these places than I otherwise would be, and thus helped me to understand my ‘normal’ experiences in these places – which, by now, are in their own way just that – to a greater depth. And in doing so, I can more fully understand how I’ve changed during this year in Qinghai – something I’ve been thinking about as I prepare to leave for the United States next week.

These changes are not necessarily visible physically; it’s not just that I grow my beard out faster and more fully than I once did or have a developing taste for Chinglish clothing (recent finds: “It takes two to stupid” “Best party ever! [small font at bottom] BUT YOU WERE NOT THERE”). It’s what I’ve learned and experienced and internalized that has changed me. From traveling to teaching to simply living here, I’ve learned more than I ever imagined. My constant bitching and moaning about my admittedly awful students belies the immense amount I have learned from teaching them. Studying education or language or philosophical concepts of human nature in college is all fine and good, but you don’t really start this process of learning until you are put in front of a classroom of sixty spoiled, rambunctious 17-year-olds for four hours a day.

Similarly, living here has given me a new type of quotidian life, one where I am awoken to my students marching to patriotic anthems played over loudspeakers, where cheese and hummus are unobtainable but tofu and fresh noodles and yak meat are sold everywhere, where streets are bustling with strollers and street-food-vendors and old men playing chess and cackling hunched-over withery-faced crones and lovers hiding behind a telephone pole for a quick and surreptitious kiss. A life where I am constantly the center of attention wherever I am, whatever I am doing; where nearly everything I do is ridiculous or stupid, and where any such stupidity or blunder can be laughed off and forgiven because of the simple fact that I am a foreigner.

And traveling has given me yet another perspective on my home here in Qinghai, most notably the vast gaps in material wealth that separate rural from urban (not to mention China from America), gaps that nevertheless seem to be material only, and not necessarily translated into the realm of overall well-being and (to use a current CPC buzzword) happiness. Who is leading the better, more fulfilling life: the Xining oil executive or the Golog yak herder? Or is our definition of better so dependent on what we knowas individuals that we can’t make comparisons at all? And what do we truly know anyway, except for what we experience on a daily basis?

Classic yak-filled grasslands. My Qinghai 'normal'

So, to conclude, I don’t really know anything at all (congratulations, relativism: you have triumphed). But I have learned a lot of somethings this year, somethings which – through a visit from friends – became that much more evident.

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