“Teacher”, asked one of my second-year students just before exam period. “What will you do when you go back to the America this winter?”
The question, minor grammatical errors notwithstanding, was a good one. I wanted to come back to the states to see friends and family, but more than that (sorry, Mom and Dad) to relearn what America is – and what it is to be an American. Living on the Tibe$an plateau for the past three years has been extraordinary; the work I’ve been able to do, the people I’ve met, the experiences I’ve had – but also, in some ways, limiting. My life revolves around school and students, which is fantastic aside from my lack of a supplemental (or, truly, reciprocal) personal or social life. When in Xining, I was able to form a circle of friends, a group of foreigners (and some locals) who to this day remain the center of my Qinghai social life and some of my most cherished friends. However, after moving to Reb#ong, my social life (outside of school, at least) fell, a casualty to isolation and my exhaustingly fulfilling job.
Over the past year and a half, I’ve managed to make some good friends in town, mostly through a bar owned by a Tibe$an tour guide best described as charismatic. However, most nights I am either teaching class or working (and subsequently relaxing) at home. Unlike people in San Francisco, where I’m currently staying with a friend, I’m not going out to the bar or club(s) (yes, we have a club) every night; I spend much of my free time by myself.
Coming to San Francisco has reminded me of the joys of having a wider social circle, and one whose members you can communicate with using your first language. I’m sure that as I travel throughout the America over the next few weeks this feeling, which I think is most accurately summed up as a sense of belonging, will only be strengthened.
This feeling extends to the personal sphere; despite having only been in the states for a few days, I feel more open and accepted than I’ve been in a long time (aside from with my Xining and VIA friends). Saying that San Francisco is a Shangri-La (if the Yunnan city will excuse my use of the term) for those of all sexual persuasions has passed from fact to cliche to myth and back into a mythic reality, which is all the more shocking coming from a traditional Tibe$an town of predefined gender roles and sexual mores. Coming here has reminded me that there are other people like me, and that being gay is not something that I have to hide (outside of Qinghai) – or something that predetermines my personality. This is extremely liberating, but also frightening; at this point, I feel so foreign to this culture that I freeze in trepidation. This, more than almost anything, will take some time to get used to.
But whenever I return, many things about the states will require a long adjustment: food, customs, the strict enforcement of laws governing everyday life (what do you mean I can’t drink wine on the street?), and especially the extreme wealth of the few (especially shocking seeing the daily migration of ‘domestic help’ in Pacific Heights a few days ago). It’s also strange to experience the foreignness of America through the window of San Francisco, which – despite its degree of geographic and meteorological perfection – is itself somewhat strange and foreign to most Americans. Regardless, this country will be something I will have to take the time to readjust to – and doing so will only be to my benefit. For I can only stay in western China for so long; while I’d like to keep this region an important part of my life, I have to, at some point, come back to reconnect and reaffirm who I am. For, on a personal level, there are few things more valuable.
So what will I do in the America? Who knows. But hopefully through my experiences here I’ll learn more about my native country – and about myself.