Divisions and Decisions

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Currently in Portland OR and soon traveling to the east coast; if anyone wants to meet up please contact me via email!

It’s been nearly two weeks since I returned to the US, and I feel like I am constantly relearning how to be an American. Apparently this reintegration thing won’t be as easy as I had initially thought.

Spending time with friends has helped lend the country an aspect of familiarity, and as such has eased the process. But I strangely persist in holding on to my Chinesified behaviors. I cross the street randomly and without warning (which angers Northwesterners), I disobey traffic laws on the bike I’m borrowing (which angers them even more), I drop toilet paper into the trash can, and I use lots of oil when cooking. I am unaccountably rude to waiters and waitresses, hawk shimmering gobs of spit onto the sidewalk, and stand uncomfortably close to people using the ATM. I show my impatience on my face when in line or waiting for something, use Chinese and Tibetan exclamations, and say what I think.

But it’s not only my mannerisms that have changed; my thoughts are constantly in both places. Now I’m here, in the moment, eating Mexican food or relaxing with friends or running through mossily emerald evergreen forests, eternally damp and dark and richly fecund. But now my mind is with one or another of my students; I see them standing amidst the sterility of the winter grasslands, sweeping slopes of grey broken here by a herd of placidly cudchewing yaks, standing wrapped protectively in the warmth of a thick sheepskin robe, bracing themselves against the icy wind sweeping muscularly across the barren frigidity of the grasslands beneath a sky of aquamarine clarity. And now I’m back here, doing something I haven’t done for years, whether skiing or driving or eating cheese or seeing friends, and I don’t know what to think. I’m having a fantastic time here, but my mind is often absent.

Why have these places and people achieved such a firm hold of my consciousness? I feel like it can be hard to live here when I’m always thinking about the there, the other, a place and community of people which is impossibly difficult to communicate, describe or even share with others. My experience is my own, indivisible and unshareable, and over the past three years it has become so much a part of who I am that I feel mentally split, living fully in neither world and yet not in both. I am, with a nod to Ralph Ellison, the divisible man, one who can be cracked or split or broken into pieces but cannot be fully put back together.

I am in the middle of deciding whether or not to stay an additional year (I’ve set my absolute deadline for returning to the states in summer 2014, no excuses), and feel more lost and confused than ever. I feel like there is an immense amount that remains for me in China, and I feel drawn to remain by my second-year students – a class which, for me, will always be special. However, other parts of my life are getting ignored or left behind, and will likely continue to be left behind until I return. But if I return, what will I do for the next year as I apply for grad school (education, most likely)?

I don’t usually invite (or incite) comment on this blog, but if you are NOT my parents (I know what you think!) I welcome whatever advice or judgment you may have as I make this decision – via email or as a comment. What should I do? Let me know!

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8 Responses to Divisions and Decisions

  1. Kailah says:

    I think the right decision will come to you!! You know I agonized over my own decision, but as soon as I made it I knew it was the right one. Being back in ‘the America’ only reaffirms my decision to move back here this fall–though I’m constantly breaking the same (cross-)cultural codes that you are! Not sure what’s right for you though…. possibly would side with moving back to US.

  2. Amanda says:

    I agree with Kailah — it’ll come to you!! Obviously both choices have pros and cons.

    Though I didn’t live in China nearly as long as you, my decision to return was difficult nonetheless. I knew I wanted to attend grad school as well, and also wondered what the heck I’d do for a year while applying. Yes, I’m happy to be back and living with my boyfriend and loving New York City, HOWEVER I have felt less than enthused and uninspired career-wise since returning. I’ve been temping since September, and will continue to do temporary work until classes start in the fall. And while it hasn’t been a wasted six months, it definitely feels less productive and less focused than my previous year in China.

  3. S. T Lloyd says:

    Welcome back to the US. If you happen to stop in Cincinnati, let me know.

  4. James Dannenberg says:

    Dear Jonas,

    You know that I am a friend of your parents, but of an older generation. They, your parents, are my children’s generation. I’m telling you this to divorce myself from what I know of their wishes.

    I think you should stay here in the States. You have more than proved yourself, to yourself, your ability to handle any situation. You have also shown that you can do anything you put your mind to.

    Being a big fish in a sheltered pond and being a beloved teacher are great for the ego. So is being a foreigner in an authoritarian position. Achieving the same satisfaction at home among equals is a different kind of hard work. It is scary and almost like starting all over again. You can do it.

    From Jim Dannenberg, who knows of no better place in this unsettled world to call home than the USA.

  5. Kirsten says:

    Haha I love how you hold on to your “Chinesified” behaviors and I can definitely relate. When I got back to America I was super annoyed at how polite everybody was! It made me feel like a jerk for being impatient and cutting in line.

    As for your future… there is no right or wrong answer. Just remember, that life is the longest thing you will ever do. An extra year or two of getting lost in the mix is no big deal. China will always be there. So will the United States. Also, try and consider your life’s purpose. WIll staying another year in China help that purpose? If so, stay! If not, America is definitely the easiest place to live and there is nothing wrong with that.

    Just listen to your gut and care about YOU. What do YOU want? Screw everybody else. A little Chinesified thinking right? 😉

  6. Hi Jonas, (I am not sure if I qualify as an acceptable responder…so dont read this if you don’t want to). First, despite being related to your mother (and your dad too), here is what I personally think:
    For me, this really is YOUR decision to make. Whatever you do will have challenges and rewards. Each will lead to a different place (or maybe not). But it is yours to make, even thought it might be hard. Where you go and end up in your life will be built stone by stone on these choices, and ultimately, what is most important is that YOU are OK (enough) with it. If you choose something because you think someone else wants you to do it…well that rarely works in my experience.
    So, talk with lots of people, hear what they have to say, and then spend some introspective time to figure out what you desire (balancing what is both good an challenging about the choices).
    This really sounds like one of those life choices that is yours to decide. Both are right in some ways and also wrong in other ways…so the choice is hard but also is yours to make. (Good luck, and I trust the rightness of whatever you do)

  7. Florence Battis Mini says:

    Good Quaker practice is to continue doing what you’re doing until you’re sure you want to do something else. And there’s plenty of time yet… I didn’t start teaching till age 37, and I was a much better teacher for having spent 15 years doing other things and having a chance to think. I have a good friend who’s a practicing pediatrician but began as an undergraduate in engineering, went on to get a PhD in linguistics, taught for six or seven years, and only then decided what he really wanted to do was be a doctor. Taking the scenic route isn’t the most efficient way to get to the top of the ladder, but it can be richly rewarding.


  8. Joe Tom Easley and Peter Freiberg says:

    Hi, Jonas,
    One of us lived in Canada for three years (Peter) and the other lived in Europe for three years (Joe Tom) so we both have some experience with your decision. Why don’t you come visit us in South Beach and we will give you all kinds of gratuitous advice over a glass of wine. You should, of course, ignore our advice and do what you want to do, but why not humor us and listen to us try to influence your decision. Hint: we think you should come home. Disclaimer: your parents played no role in our advice. Speaking of your parents, late word from them is that you are indeed coming back to stay. Hope that is so. Come see us! Joe Tom and Peter

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