Going back to the States for a month this February was a strange experience, not simply because of the cultural and political differences but also because of certain similarities. The similarity I most often noticed was a certain ignorance and sense of confusion concerning the outside world, the sense that anything foreign is frightening and unknown. There are differences, nevertheless, in the causes and manifestations of this sentiment. On the Tibetan plateau, ignorance of the outside world is largely due to socioeconomic factors which limit travel and diversity of experience, as well as lack of contact with foreigners or others outside of their habitual cultural realm. But in the United States, a nation of immigrants from myriad societies and cultures, this ignorance and fear is more due to self-centeredness. The country is so self-obsessed that it often labels itself with the name of two continents, as if there were no other countries in these two (North and South) giant landmasses. Why learn about – or even care about – other countries when you live in the most perfect, God-blessed country on earth?
As such, when I returned home to the States this winter I got a lot of strange reactions when people asked me about my job. Most memorable, perhaps, was that of my dental hygienist, who, jumping up in surprise, nearly impaled her ‘utensil’ in my cheek as she sputtered helplessly, trying to form a sentence.
“What? Where? Why?”
Then, after settling down, she of course regaled me with stories of her connections to western China and the Plateau. I, agog (or simply helpless due to the ‘utensils’ in my mouth), sat and listened.
“My sister’s husband’s brother went to Japan last year. He said it was great.”
This was typical. Reactions usually included reference to Japan, or Thailand, or a delicious restaurant that the reactor (person reacting, not a nuclear generator) had recently visited. I was even asked about the sushi in western China, which, the inquisitive inquisitor felt, must surely be much better than that in Philadelphia due to long tradition.
But the most common reaction was a blank stare and total confusion, followed by:
“You work where? Why would you ever want to work there?”
How am I to answer such a question? Is it the amazing landscapes, the rich cultures, the fascinating and unbelievably friendly people? Is it the little pleasures – being able to drink beer in a park, or having numerous grocery shops available to me at any given moment, or the delicious yogurt, or the picnicking in yak-filled alpine meadows?
The above factors are all nice, for sure, but the real reason I stay out here is the students. When I say that I’m staying for the students, however, many people interpret this as a purely altruistic sentiment (SPOILER ALERT! Below lie the dirty secrets of volunteering). Let me clarify: I stay out here just as much for myself. The students are awesome, and I love teaching them – but they also help me learn about myself, and make me feel awesome and popular and sort of like a rock star. I stay here because I want to help them learn, but also because they helpme. They make me feel good about myself and my life. They make me feel like a better person than I am. This is why I want them in my life; this is why I feel possessive of them; this is a large part of why I continue to stay out here on the Tibetan Plateau.
And when a group of students leaves to go out into the world, when they depart and say their final goodbyes and who knows where they’re off to – you feel devastated, like thirty of your best friends left your town at the same time to unknown destinations and futures, and you alone are left in your former life. Or, to be less dramatic, you simply feel the pain of loss.
I’ve been thinking about attachment and loss a lot this week, the final week of classes for my third-year students. Last year, when teaching the demons from the bottommost pit of hell (e.g. Shida Fuzhong students), I never would have dreamed that I’d grow so attached to a group of kids. Even at the Xining ETP, attachment was limited by the fact that I only saw the students once weekly.
But in Rebgong, things are different. Even with only six weekly hours of class (compared to ten with our other grades), I grew attached to this group. Time spent in the library, random weekend conversations downtown and other activities cemented the bond. So when it came time to say goodbye, I knew it would be more difficult than my no-holds-barred flight from the middle school last year, when I fled the premises as if being chased by fifteen hungry polar bears emerging from hibernation.
Due to yet another gaokao practice test, our last class was on Tuesday. Unfortunately, many students were absent, having gone to the hospital for follow-up TB tests (more on that later). But it was still a great class, and one that made me immediately nostalgic as soon as it was over. Despite cool and cloudy weather, I decided to hold class outside. The students first presented the TV advertisements they had written for strange Japanese inventions such as the boyfriend-girlfriend pillow – which were well-thought-out and hilariously performed. Then I had the students write letters to next year’s third-year students to give them any important advice or suggestions they had for surviving the grueling final year of high school. And finally, we made a list of non-gaokao-related hopes and wishes that I later typed up to give to them once they finish the dreaded test in early June. And then that was it – my final class with my third-years, gone.
But they were still at school, and I saw them the next day for the gaokao practice test. Several students also started to pop into the library and simply wander about, as if trying to soak it up or reminisce or simply try to encompass and encapsulate their three years here in one moment. And then, suddenly, it was Friday, the day of graduation.
The students were not in the best of shape on Friday morning, having spent the previous night at KTV. But they soon rallied for the all-school graduation ceremony, at which they won an award for being the best third-year class in the school, and for the extended photography session which ensued. I had prepared several gifts for the students: ETP diplomas, DVD’s of the Bollywood movie 3 Idiots, and books (Oh, The Places You’ll Go!). Unfortunately the books, despite having been ordered several weeks before, hadn’t yet arrived, so I distributed the other gifts and we embarked on a multi-hour photography bonanza, which included a lunch of mutton and noodles at a downtown restaurant. Eventually the students went to a hotel for a nap, and I returned home for a quick run.
Upon returning from my run, I found the school’s elderly gateman gesticulating wildly in my general direction. I came up to his hut and found a package waiting for me, wrapped in tape bearing the logo of a Chinese online retailer. The books had arrived! I got the books and quickly ran them down to the students at the hotel, who I assumed (it being 6:00) would just be waking up and would soon be off to dinner.
How wrong I was. Arriving in their hotel room, I found the coffee table littered with beer and qingkejiu, and the class’ head teacher somewhere between slightly and very drunk. To be fair, I had been warned in advance that getting drunk with students is a kind of post-graduation tradition. Nevertheless, it was a little strange to crack open a beer, take a shot of firewater and start playing drinking games with the kids I’d been teaching all year.
Strange, but nevertheless great, as the kids (aided by alcohol) started to open up – about everything. Their lives, families, girlfriends, hopes, worries, dreams, interests, wishes, and a whole panoply of feelings and sentiments colored and intensified and saturated the conversations to the bursting point. By this point, their head teacher (along with one student) was passed out on the nearby bed and snoring gently. But the conversations went on until, as students started to fall asleep or collapse on the floor (only a few from drunkenness), I wandered out into the night and slowly strolled back up the street to my apartment.
The next morning, I already missed the kids. Even though I’ll see them in two weeks for the gaokao (and intermittently in between), as well as for summer schools in July and hopefully in the future, it feels like the final parting has already taken place. And such are the effects of attachment, that long and tumultuous voyage which invariably takes you through – and sometimes past – the polar yet strangely linked feelings of loss and love.