Back in Qinghai

Friday on Dongguan Dajie: the Hui Muslim community at prayer

A random entry that gets a bit political; my mind is all over the place these days, what with all the changes I’ve been experiencing. Enjoy or not as you wish.

Flying over the quilt-rumpled mountains of northern Qinghai, forests and meadows brightly summergreen, then diving steeply downwards, the green slopes giving way to arid, barren red hills above the oasis-fertile valley of the Huang Shui river, snowdusted mountains rising miragelike to the south; finally, a gradual coasting descent to the valley floor, an airport runway suddenly appearing beneath the plane’s wheels from amidst the barley fields and sparse chaparral: this experience of arrival felt like nothing less than a return home. Though I’ve only lived in Qinghai one year, returning this week felt much more like coming back to a place I’d known all my life, a place strangely familiar whose very familiarity made it a kind of baseline ‘normal’ – a fixed, standard point of groundedness in my otherwise transient, migratory life.

Whatever that means. In any case, though I wasn’t quite ready to leave the calm of McCarthy, it was great to be back in Qinghai. A ride to Shida with a friendly and inquisitive taxi driver only made me more excited about being back; the intense curiosity and pure innocence with which he questioned me was incredibly refreshing – especially after dealing with jaded tourists over the past month and a half (“what is there to see here? only another glacier and ghost town? How about something unique, for once?”). These qualities – the qualities of non-jadedness, as I will label them – are essential elements of us as human beings. If we ever lose what Rachel Carson aptly labeled our “sense of wonder”, we also lose a great degree of our humanity. The fresh curiosity and wonder of many of the people here, especially the students (discounting my students from last year), gives them so much more of that inexplicable quality of humanity than the perennially bored, unmovable breed of tourists who resemble nothing so much as a herd of oblivious, mindlessly cudchewing cattle.

In addition to this ‘sense of wonder’, I am also refreshed by people’s lack of self-consciousness in public. Not that people will get nude on the street, but it would be quite a sight in America to see people ballroom dancing, doing singing exercises, slapping their butts, or doing any number of things in public that (here) I see constantly. While in Xining the other night, we walked through the city’s main sports facility to get to a restaurant and were surprised to find the track and infield packed with walkers, joggers, and dancers – at eight in the evening. At least several thousand people crowded the field, each happily doing their own exercises without care for the others or for onlookers. Why Americans care so much about what we’re seen doing, I couldn’t say, but our obsession with privacy in all things ‘deviant’ or abnormal (a type of leftover Puritan prudery?) might play a part.

These are just a couple of the reasons it’s nice to be back (not to mention, unlike McCarthy, loads of fresh veggies). The dramatic diversity in physical and social/economic/political environments I’ve experienced recently, coming from Xining to Philly to McCarthy and finally to Rebgong (where I will be teaching this year), and also the background of the current economic and political crises in the United States, have forced me to think about how each place handles its own problems: public education, political systems balancing representation and efficacy, inflation, environmental issues, social safety nets, and more. I haven’t come to any grand conclusions (I’m too young for that (or maybe us young people are better at doing that because we, of course, know everything and have supreme self-confidence)), but at least these transitions have forced me to think outside the typical range of alternatives presented within the American media or political system. I arrived in the United States expecting, after watching the country from outside, to see it in the middle of a full meltdown; I was surprised to see that life was continuing along as normal. But the self-centered shortsightedness of those in power is eternally frustrating, and I was compelled to start dreaming up alternatives to what we – or congress, perhaps – consider on a day to day basis.

We must learn to think more broadly. What elements of democracy can we not afford to give up, and what elements can we not afford not to give up? How can a society, much less a political system, balance the powerful ideal of freedom with the demands of a world whose political and economic systems (not to mention military or media) are tightly interwoven and rapidly evolving? Why do we hold the Constitution, an 18th century document written for an isolated, sparsely populated agrarian state, as sacred and inviolable in a dramatically altered and constantly changing 21st century world?

Not to get too political here. But the failure of most of our elected officials, as well as the American public, to think broadly is at its root a failure of imagination and of interest; a sense of impending boredom and disinterest; a loss of the sense of wonder. And coming back to Qinghai to start the new school year, I’ve realized that few qualities are more precious – or more tragic when lost. In America, we need to capture the spirit of my ETP students, as well as all of the wonderfully inquisitive people I meet here in Qinghai, in our broader political and economic debates. For our loss of wonder, our basic failure to examine, analyze, create, imagine, even to think, is what is tearing the country apart, what will lead eventually – if uncorrected – to our decline and fall.

For a blog post that started talking about how happy I am to be back in my Qinghai home, that certainly got dramatic. But why not exploit the full range of human emotions? And at least now, before classes start, I have time to think about other issues. Soon enough, I’ll be absorbed in my teaching life, thinking about when I have time to buy tomatoes or what I should do next class rather than the ‘big issues’. So might as well worry (like a good Jew) before I get too busy to do even that.

I’ll update in more coherent form soon – once school starts. I’ll leave with an image I took while wandering Xining’s Muslim quarter on a Friday. The streets, blocked off to traffic, were packed with worshipers; the calls of Imams resonated out of loudspeakers, and in a corner this young boy kneeled on his own prayer rug for his own (as John Stewart would say) moment of zen, occasionally looking up at me with astonishment lighting up his face.

cute: praying on Dongguan Dajie


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4 Responses to Back in Qinghai

  1. Your lovely, un-self-conscious writing reflects your observations of the Chinese. Very nice. /Steve

  2. Glad you’re back! In the blogosphere I mean. It is always great to catch up on your travels. But I hope you had a good summer in the states hiking and teaching in Alaska. Best of luck to you, I look forward to reading your posts 🙂

  3. ibuibulai says:

    Welcome back! great photos.
    Just be careful of the political posts (as you know…) now that you’re in Rebs.

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