Since moving to Qinghai, I’ve been devoting many of my thoughts to the concept of time – a concept which is not nearly as static and inflexible as Americans often assume.
By all accounts, the United States is a nation on a tight schedule. Things in America happen on time if they happen at all. Punctuality is mandatory; lateness can be almost shameful, unless showing up for a large gathering or not-entirely-eagerly-anticipated family reunion (note to family: I’m sorry, it just seemed appropriate). In such a nation, life is entirely regulated by the unforgiving hands (or digitized numbers) of the clock. There is no flexibility, no time to stop and admire the surroundings, no time embark on an unanticipated adventure. Opportunities which fail to fit within the framework of the schedule are discarded or ignored; the joys of randomness, spontaneity and experiencing the unexpected are so rare as to be almost unknown. Lashed to our unflinching, unstoppable clocks, Americans have lost much of life’s random excitement. We have lost any fascination and discovery and above all wonder at the magnificently perfect wildness and randomness of existence, the (to quote Horace via Nietzsche) discordant concord of things – and for what? To avoid being ten minutes late to a meeting? Or, instead, missing the meeting altogether?
I won’t say that the absolute lack of planning and schedule here in Qinghai has caused me to attain any degree of truly transcendent insight; I have certainly not even taken the first accidental, hesitant step on the path to enlightenment (and probably won’t ever; this is a path I’ll leave to the monks currently congregating in my courtyard). But I have learned some things from this more flexible view of time, and I’ve also randomly wandered into some amazing experiences – lessons and moments that, for some reason, remain immovably lodged within my brain, unchanging, as if fixed for all time by some cerebral superglue.
Nevertheless, a complete lack of schedule can be incredibly frustrating at times. Take this week, which we knew would be full of insanity. We had heard the occasional rumor that this would be the week during which we would travel around the prefecture to recruit next year’s first-year class. Of course, we didn’t know when this would happen – a situation that isn’t usually a problem. But this week was different. During the week, we planned to host three different groups of people (including Brooke’s family). We were teaching a full schedule of classes – which, unlike most other things, actually run on some kind of quantifiable timescale. And the three-day gaokao (college entrance exam) was to start on Thursday.
As such, I made it known that I would appreciate being back in town when the gaokao started to support my students. Completely disregarding my request, the trip to Tsekog (Zeku) and Henan counties was planned for Wednesday-Thursday, a plan which was revealed on Tuesday afternoon (before which I had been told that we would leave either Tuesday, or Wednesday morning, or maybe Thursday, depending on the assistant headmaster’s schedule, who knows, maybe next week might be better, but we want to do it soon, anyway we’ll let you know).
Despite atrocious road conditions, a diet which centered on mutton and more mutton and patience-testing social situations, the trip was actually quite nice. I had not been to the two counties, which lie in a region of high-altitude nomadic grasslands, since going on the same recruiting trip the previous year. Recruiting students was interesting in that it reminded me of how far our first-year students have come since they entered our program this past September – and it peaked my curiosity about next year’s crop of kids. But what I had truly forgotten (possibly due to last year’s June snows and frigid conditions) was the stunning beauty of the entire region. Vast, yakspeckled grasslands extending to jaggedsnowy mountains, the peaks transforming the horizon into a vast sharksmouth of triangular teeth, as if the rest of the world had been swallowed and these green pastures were some kind of insular pastoral paradise inside the beast. Clouddappled plains roamed by motorcycling nomads and shaggyhaired livestock, and dotted with triangular white tents and Mongolian gers, sails seemingly adrift in the vast, heaving sea of grass. Storm clouds passing, pouring out their loads, then swiftly departing with the wind, leaving the land a spectacularly shimmering, opalescent green.
This more than made up for some of the school visits, where the administrators had not even been notified of our coming (!) and were not only shocked to see us, but completely unprepared for our visit. Nevertheless, our recruiting was successful, and though an unanticipated two-hour visit to a primary-school grassland track meet (a 400-meter track was painted onto an area of grass) in Dobden township prevented me from seeing my students as they came out of their first gaokao exam, it was all part of the experience.
The next morning, I was preparing a breakfast of scones and spectacular Henan yak yogurt when I got a call from the assistant headmaster.
“Where are you?” he said.
“I’m in my house,” I responded.
“Why aren’t you here?”
I was confused. “Where’s here?” I asked.
“You need to come to school right now,” he responded with what sounded like gruff impatience. “We’re leaving to recruit students at the schools here in town. We just learned that the students graduate today, so we need to go right now.”
It was Brooke’s turn to go recruiting, so I went to her apartment and – ten minutes and ten phone calls (telling us to hurry up) later – we were out the door. She was busy the remainder of the day, while I took the classes and went to the gaokao in my free time. My students were understandably nervous and upset, but of course – between rushing back and forth to my classes at school – there was little I could do to help.
That was Friday. Saturday was thankfully recruiting-free; my only responsibilities were hosting two friends and teaching a nearly two-hour afternoon class to the first years (note to school administrators: Saturday afternoon is not students’ favorite time to learn). But the insanity is poised to start up again on Monday with a trip to a nearby township. Hopefully that will be the end of this process, which made this past week rather hellish.
But amidst it all, there were unforgettable moments. A morning on the grasslands in Henan. A nomadic track meet. Watching my students come out of their last test on Saturday afternoon, exhausted yet elated, the ordeal thankfully finished, the culmination of years of study and work and relentless focus and early mornings and late nights and countless sacrifices and compromises – and an experience which, hopefully, none of them will ever have to go through again.
The test was terribly difficult. But, as the students have learned during countless practice tests and, finally, the real test itself, the real test is one of time. For there is nothing more impersonally awful and more ultimately terrifying than the relentless, metronomically endless ticking of a clock. Time is control; control is time. We can only hope to fall into the cracks and widen the gaps in this omnipotent regime, for it is only in these cracks and gaps and flexible places on the margins that we can lose and make and create and become – ourselves.