I’ve been gone from Rebgong for nearly two months. After leaving immediately before the Western new year, I’ve traveled through Sichuan, spent quality time in the capital (twice), wandered around the US and Canada, and relaxed in Xining. And after all this time living out of an admittedly large backpack, it was undeniably feelings of relief and homecoming that greeted me as I pulled into Rebgong this afternoon.
I still haven’t the faintest idea why a place where I can barely speak the native language of the majority feels so homelike after only six months. Maybe it has to do with my apartment, which – despite lacking in reliable heat, electricity and water – is an amazing place to live (the views over the monastery and mountains don’t hurt, either). Maybe it has to do with the simple friendliness of the people here, who smile and acknowledge you (sometimes to embarrassing excess) as you walk down the street. Maybe it’s because I have fallen for the place’s utter lack of pretension, not to mention the seeming lack of structure and order. Or the lack of perfection, the lack of attempts at perfection, and then the sudden appearance of something amazing, unlikely, precious, all amidst the squalor and chaos – a stunningly painted temple building, a storybook snowcapped mountain, a dish of roasted potatoes at dinner, an additional Tib. cliche or two – moments of surprise and utter awe which, despite the intense abovementioned cliches, nevertheless continue on a daily basis to rock me to my core and make me stumble and stare and gape in fascinated wonder at this world in which we live. Cliches, after all, are only cliches because of our lack of wonder, our jadedness – itself a sort of apathy of the mind and the imagination. Think about what you’re saying next time you utter an idiom or cliche, and chances are – if your mind is actually operating full-bore and you are processing (rather than skimming) the information, you’ll find some new strange variety of truth or meaning within.
Yet I often become mentally apathetic and I’m constantly tired of cliches, which are seemingly always used without thought (which in turn is how they are watered down). But life in Rebgong truly lends itself to their use. I live in a place so stereotypically different from America that, when writing, it’s hard not to pull them out of their metaphorical graveyard for another incarnation or two. The landscape of Rebgong may be similar to that of parts of the American west, but everything else lends itself to the “contrasts” genre of travel writing. Is something still a cliche if it is profoundly true?
Regardless, things here in Rebgong don’t seem to have changed too much. The tall buildings are still under construction at the other end of town, the new mini-IV clinic has opened across the street and “Tibet – The Restaurant” has a new sign proclaiming a name change (to The Tibetan Restearnt”), but the essentials remain the same. The streets are a filthy chaotic mess, yak and sheep carcasses litter the sidewalks, officials sit in upstairs teahouses whiling away the afternoon with smokes and drink, fruit vendors shout out their wares in raucous chorus, pilgrims swarm the monastery, spinning prayer wheels, fingering beads, circling, chanting, endlessly. And the sacred mountain Amnye Taklung looms above, snowcovered, impassive, eternal.
To use yet another cliche, things do change despite staying the same. What appears and disappears is nothing more or less than what is already here to begin with. And the cycle begins again.
So what, now, is missing? My students, so large a part of my life here in Rebgong, have not yet arrived. I learned yesterday that school will not start until the 15th of March, so I have a surprise extra two weeks to get work done. While this will allow us to really get ahead on writing the textbooks and codifying the curriculum (and doing everything else that needed doing all last semester), I’m actually sort of upset that the students won’t be back for awhile – as I do miss them. But things will start up again soon, and by July I’m sure I’ll be ready for another long holiday.