Nearly two weeks ago, my third-year students graduated from high school. This was not an American-style graduation, or even a graduation as elaborate as the one held last year. There was a ceremony, a school assembly which included several speeches and recognition of outstanding graduates, but nevertheless focused more on the results from the previous week’s soccer tournament (which, in case you’re wondering, was won by the teachers’ team). There were photo shoots on either end of the assembly, but they were perfunctory compared to the marathon sessions held at American graduations. There was no party; class celebrations, or really festivities of any kind, were banned until after the gaokao. The students attended the assembly, shot a few photos, and then left for home. And that was it – their high school careers were finished.
For these students, this was a major transition – a transition which seemed trivialized for lack of pomp and circumstance. In American schools, where every graduate is celebrated individually, where each transition is greeted with a ceremony worthy of an imperial marriage, students are taught that each of their life transitions are significant, that no matter how small the changes – moving from a lower school to a middle school building, or graduating from a two-month summer program – they are important, memorable, epoch-making. In my school, however, these students – kids who will soon be traveling far from home for the first time, who will be leaving their families and traditions behind to enter a foreign world, who will soon truly feel themselves a minority, surrounded by the other – in short, kids who will soon be undergoing truly life-altering transitions are getting much less in the way of support or recognition of what they’re going though.
High school, for most of my students, was not the most carefree of times. The Chinese educational system, pleasingly and logically modeled off of a pressure-cooker, succeeded in cooking a number of students down to the bone, wearing them raw, forcing them to study so hard that few, in the end, wanted to study or cared about learning for its own sake. Life consisted of innumerable hours of studying arcane knowledge – information irrelevant to and disconnected from their daily lives, a separate world of books that had no true link with their reality – and, scattered widely, the occasional glimpse of joy. Students could be described as having an active social life, if such a conception of “active” can fit within the boundaries of the sixteen-hour school day. My students would constantly complain about the long hours of school, the mountainous reams of homework, the insensitive teachers. And yet, in the week leading up to graduation, these students’ primary emotion was sadness. They couldn’t stop talking about how they were upset to leave, how they would miss the school and their friends and (surprisingly) even their classes. On graduation day, I even saw tears.
With the gaokao two weeks away, I was not expecting to experience sadness in such quantity. I expected exhaustion, relief, eagerness to leave, ambivalence, anxiety. But instead, the students were saying remarkably positive things about their high school careers, painting it retrospectively as a time filled with joy and laughter (and stress, of course), a time in which they learned about themselves and their friends, a time in which they grew into themselves as human beings. In an exercise where I asked students what they had learned or how they had changed since arriving at our school, the vast majority said that they had opened up, become more confident, grown less focused on specific information or aspects of their studies but more interested in the world in a broad, liberal-artsy sense, and – most commonly – had a better idea of who they were.
As I prepare to leave Qinghai, I am thinking quite a bit about what I’ve learned, how I’ve changed, and who I’ve become. Living and working here has changed me immeasurably in all sorts of cliched ways (get ready for some self-centeredness): I’ve become more confident, more spontaneous, and more open to new things; I’ve discovered a profession I love and a broad range of interests I want to pursue; I’ve met a host (to use a Bowdoin expression) of fantastic friends who have provided me with invaluable support; I’ve found a deeper, previously unplumbed strength and flexibility and sense of judgment within myself to deal with whatever situations may arise. I’ve learned about others, too – their lives, their cultures, their values, their ideas – and how to live and work and be happy as an extreme minority in a foreign land. I’ve found clarity about my sexuality and – most importantly – I’ve learned about what I need as a person to stay happy and healthy, challenged and rewarded.
I’m not sure how best to commemorate the upcoming transitions, or how best to help myself deal with the inevitable meetings and partings. But I know that this place and its people will remain a large part of me – who I am as a person, as well as whatever I end up doing in the future. I know that my life will inevitably be one of movement – of travels and adventures, of walking and running into the mountains for the pure joy of the activity, of the movement, of the physical experience of change. But it will also be one of stasis – of connections to a single place that will draw me back again and again, of the inevitable pauses amidst the motion where I stop to think, to write, to simply be within the place to which my movement has carried me. Amidst all the constant, ongoing, perpetually implacable cycles of change, we must stop to consider, to remember, to celebrate, and to learn about ourselves and others.
As part of my final class with the third-year students, I did a short meme exercise (inspired by friend Natalie Lynch) that asked students to draw pictures about what different people wanted for their futures. The first panel was labeled “Who my family wants me to be,” the second “Who my classmates and friends want me to be”, and the subsequent ones “Who my teachers want me to be”, “Who I wanted to be when I was a child,” “Who I think I want to be,” and “Who I will really be.” The exercise was the perfect mix of triviality and depth; most students drew their pictures relatively quickly and without too much thought, but – and possibly because of the perfunctory nature of many of the pictures – they were revealing. Some students didn’t want to show their finished pictures to me or anyone else – they felt they were too personal. Others showed their memes to anyone who was willing to look. Regardless, the exercise worked. No students mistakenly left their papers in the library after class, for the exercise – for them and for me – captured a sort of essence which lies within this specific turning point in their lives, a physical and mental tug-of-war of expectations, hopes, desires, dreams – and realities. None of the students knew how they would do on the gaokao, or where they might be in the future – and, at that moment, few seemed to care. Instead, they were focused on the experience of the present, an experience strangely (but all-too-commonly) defined by desires for the future – and this focus provided a rare moment of stasis, of reflective distance. By thinking about expectations, the students were able to gain insight into their lives and their present selves, how they have developed and changed and been formed by their own expectations and the ideas of the people around them into the young adults they are today. By thinking about movement, they were able to gain a precious moment of stasis in this inexorably dynamic world.
This may be the same meditative stasis I gain from running, or something entirely different. Living in the moment is a fantastic ideal for all of us, but as humans we are constantly compelled to seek out change and difference, to explore and invent, to move. We must find moments of stasis where they exist, but to learn about ourselves and our world we must continue journeying. For how can we truly know ourselves if we stay inside, if we rest comfortably within our own horizons? How can we become true human beings if we don’t continue to change – and, occasionally, take time to stop and reflect on who we are, what we’ve been doing, and where we might be going?