Comparisons

Not the least because I had to do a short review of comparisons and superlatives for my students last week, I’ve been thinking of the various farflung place I’ve lived over the past two years in comparison with each other. I’m interested in comparing what each place has to offer (or lacks), from its ability to satisfy my superficial wants and needs to the types of opportunities available to me as an (admittedly short- to medium-term) resident, my relationships with local (and visiting) people, and even the ways that these places make me think and act. Those nineteenth-century doctors and authors who recommended a “change in environment” to (respectively) restore one’s health or to get one’s creative juices flowing – a prescription that usually resulted in a prolonged sortie to the French Riviera, the Alps, or some other painfully awful place – were on to something;  I’m well aware that my thoughts and actions (not to mention writing) can be different in different physical and cultural environments, and I’ve noticed the same in others. The environment transforms the man; changing surroundings and contexts are somehow mirrored distortedly in his character.

I was surprised to return from a weekend in Xining and, upon entering Rebgong, feel like I was returning home. The minor stresses and worries of travel, of being away from home, fell away; a sense of deep relaxation and contentment surreptitiously stole over me. The feeling and idea of Rebgong as home has come surprisingly quickly. Last year, whenever I returned to Xining I felt the same feeling of approaching the center of my world; this year, Xining feels less homey, less warm, less central to my life (though don’t get me wrong – I still love the place). The city hasn’t changed too much; my favorite restaurants and parks are still there. The difference is simply that it is no longer where I live. Despite the different physical, social and cultural environments (and basic living conditions) between these two places, they both exude the same feeling of homeness, a feeling that Frank Lloyd Wright would probably term ‘hearth’. The warmth and comfort and ease and privacy of a place that is yours, a warmth generated by your feeling of ownership or of control over the place, whether it be a two-meter-long tent or a mansion stretching for hundreds of square meters. And though I’m renting and thus can’t term this feeling of homeness the same as the feeling (and Great American Value) of Propriety, I can’t deny that the two feelings are, at their roots, quite similar. Privacy, control, the idea of a place that is mine: get off my lawn.

I’ve also been comparing the beginnings of my life in Rebgong with last year in Xining as well as the experiences of other expats I’ve met in China. And I’ve come to the conclusion that my experience here in Rebgong is unlike that of few other foreigners in the country (with the exception of quite a number of the ViA vols).

When, after being asked, I tell people in America – whether tourists I’m taking on trips in Alaska or people back home – that I’m living and teaching in western China, I usually get the same response.

“Oh, that’s great! My son/daughter/grandson or daughter/sister’s niece’s husband’s brother’s aunt taught English in China/Japan/Korea/Thailand and had a great time!”

And that’s the end of the conversation. In their mind, I am living in a massive, unbearably teeming city liberally sprinkled with neon, where, in a whitewashed classroom, while sweating profusely under the subtropical heat, only disturbed by a lazily circling fan, I am teaching business English to forty suit-and-tie/skirt-and-plaid-sock-wearing, neat and orderly and respectfully hushed and intensely book-smart young men and women. When class is over, I walk through crowded streets to my apartment overlooking the city center, and later go out to a foreigner’s bar for drinks with my self-consciously multiracial, multinational group of friends.

I don’t persist in changing this mental image, which is almost visible on people’s faces. “I have placed this person in their context,” you can see them thinking, “another young man teaching those respectful young Asian students in Japan. How lovely. Now what am I going to have for dinner tonight?” I have been typecast; end of subject.

But when people start asking questions, the reality of my situation often surprises them. Despite the global power and importance of China, as well as its near-omnipresence in the news, most Americans (not to mention other Westerners) still have little to no general knowledge of the country [I was going to use the word ‘understanding’ in place of ‘knowledge’, but I realized that, as does every foreigner, I fall short on that front myself]. I often find myself filling this knowledge gap with information or ideas from my own experience. While this probably leads to confusion as people try to reconcile the China I’m describing with that they’ve seen on TV, such confusion is positive in my view; it stimulates thought, it makes peoples’ brains actually work rather than simply accept the images and ideas and thoughts they’re shown. The cow in my courtyard, the Tib. monastery next door, the whitecapped Muslims, the yaks dotting the hillside, the green grassy peaks and cloudspotted blue sky – these images are incongruous with most foreigners’ images of China, and thus through comparison and combination hopefully transform these preexisting ideas into ones more thoughtfully complex.

But how to compare any two experiences? Our minds reel from incongruity, except in the case of opposites; extremes, for some reason, attract us. But my hope is not to make comparative extremes of my experiences in Rebgong, Xining, McCarthy, Maine, and Philadelphia; I want to accept and revel in the subtleties of the differences. It’s not that Philadelphians are nasty and rude while people from Rebgong are boundlessly friendly, or that Rebgong and McCarthy are unbearably small and provincial in every way while Philadelphia or New York (to which my family will be moving) are overwhelmingly huge in all aspects. It’s about finding the smaller and larger and better and worse aspects of each place, and in so doing putting them on a kind of equal footing. Despite their comparative sizes, Rebgong continues to kick New York’s ass in Tibetan and northwestern Chinese food (not to mention monastic activity or farm animals) any day of the week.

And why do I feel the urge to compare these places, or to balance my experiences with those of others? Why the obsession with worth and value? This, like the question of the best niurou mian restaurant in Xining, I will leave to others to answer.

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