What is Missed

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The pics above are from a recent trip to Golog; they are unrelated to this post.

I am leaving Qinghai. Though my home for only three years, I feel that my time here – teaching, making friends, traveling, and experiencing the wonders of the everyday – has been a lifetime unto itself. I have been inordinately lucky to have lived in such an amazing place – a place that makes me stop openmouthed in wonder and forces me to think deeply about myself and my assumptions every time I walk down the street. I’ve been privileged to have lived among a small group of dedicated and outstandingly supportive friends, and – most of all – to have met and worked with some of the most bright, passionate, and unpretentiously human students imaginable. As such, to say that I’m ambivalent about my imminent departure is a drastic understatement.

For, even before leaving, I already miss pretty much everything about my profoundly rich (if not financially, then in all other terms) life in this spectacular corner of the world. Here are some of the things that I’m not too happy to be leaving behind in Qinghai:

  • Walking down the main street of my town. Dodging the swerving paths of purring red motorcycles and blue three-wheeled trucks, black smoke erupting volcanically from their bowels, careening – as if the road were just one level of a video game in which they were confident of success – across the road and up onto the sidewalks, where massive yak carcasses, frozen from the winter chill, are lying out in front of butcher shops, skins dumped unceremoniously by their sides. A brand-new sedan descends the street at funereal pace, straddling the centerline, a line of cars behind wildly honking; the driver, a wild-haired, high-cheekboned nomad, gripping the steering wheel as a rope tossed to a drowning swimmer, eyes wide, taking in the complexities and the horrors and the joys of his first new car, and of town at the pace of five kilometers per hour. Whitecapped Muslim merchants on the sidewalk with trays of caterpillar fungus, small worms infested by a brain-controlling parasite, an organism out of a horror film that burst out of the worm’s head, transforming it into a type of grass, and also into a medicine worth far more than gold. Above the shopfronts, trilingual signs, English revisions of which (courtesy myself and my colleague) happily ignored, spreading their absurdity of gleeful confidence out into the world. The occasional student, strolling, showing themselves to the world and taking the world into themselves.  The entire magnificently symphonic chaos – snarled traffic, storefronts piled high with wares, animal carcasses, trash fires, people – attired in dress both traditional and modern, sitting, walking, arguing, driving, praying, eating, living – and above all, the magnificently blue dome of the sky, an aquamarine purity of depth seemingly reflecting all of what we and all of humanity sees and does and experiences and thinks – and, as such, forcing us to see ourselves and our surroundings for what they are, the squalor and the beauty, the emotions and physicality and wonder of it all.
  • Street food, especially 烧烤 (barbecue).
  • The donkeys who live outside of the monastery.
  • People shouting “ARRO!” into their phones.
  • Climbing mountains above my house
  • Running in the countryside
  • XiangPiaoPiao – it’s not real milk tea, but who cares?
  • Rebgong Home restaurant – and their སྐམ་ཤའུ་ཁོ་རེ་། or beef pancake
  • Evening bottles of wine on the sun porch
  • Tibetan music blasting from shops along the street
  • Wandering downtown on a weekend morning and running into students
  • Picnics
  • Talking Heads dance parties with the Xining crew
  • Rebgong brunch: hummus (thanks Mom!), pink tomatoes, Xunhua lajiang (hot sauce) and freshly baked bread from one of the three bakeries just outside my apartment building.
  • Yogurt straight from the yak (or, more correctly, straight from the dri)
  • Driving a motorcycle through the endless grasslands of Zekog county
  • The innate curiosity of the people I meet everywhere
  • Teaching my students
  • Lunchtime “office hours” in the library
  • Brilliant yellow rapeseed fields carpeting the valley floor and lower hillsides
  • Awakening to a blindingly white cover of fresh snow on the Taklung mountain
  • The views from my apartment: one side, the golden roofs of the monastery, backed by (aside from some hideous new high-rises) steepsided rusty mountains parading downvalley; the other side, the beautifully pyramidal Taklung peak haughtily presiding over the fields and forests and villages below, the protector deity of the valley seemingly watching us, looking down on our lives, approvingly or not, and keeping us safe.
  • Fresh Tibetan fry-bread
  • The vast array of xiaomaibu (small stores) available nearly everywhere
  • My tomato lady at the market
  • The family at the shop across the street
  • The children who live in the courtyard of the apartment complex – a small army of terrors who are always entertaining and, whether crying or singing or laughing or simply yelling at the top of their lungs, will always (through use of sound) be sure to get your attention.
  • 扎啤 or large bottles of draft beer.
  • The Maixiu Forest Park
  • 面包车 (mianbaoche) – the little minivans that get you everywhere
  • Public transportation
  • Street markets
  • Bottled drinks and packaged snacks of unknown, usually questionable, quality
  • Hotpot dinners
  • Hair washes (and haircuts) in rural towns
  • Rongwo monastery
  • Monk debates
  • Walking into the classroom and having all the students stand up and greet me, smiles on their faces.
  • Warm-up activities in the classroom
  • Playing Frisbee with the kids during gym periods
  • Muslim noodles
  • Xunhua lajiang, the world’s most delicious hot sauce.
  • Chocolate baozi
  • Yaks
  • The Janglung valley
  • The openness of the Amdo landscape
  • Seeing thangka painters at work in my apartment complex
  • The English on the street signs which we were asked to proofread, our subsequent edits of which were roundly ignored, resulting in delights like “Agritainment Casserole Restaurant” and “Drug Administration Hotel”.
  • Chinglish in general
  • The students. All of them. Really. Leaving my students has been the hardest aspect of leaving Qinghai. It’s not that all of them are excellent at English, or even the most academically inclined (although quite a few are); rather, these students are special for their interest and curiosity and sense of wonder about the world around them, their willingness to be open and accepting of the new, their consciousness of who they are as people and of their place in the world, their innate brightness and resourcefulness which has allowed them to overcome so many obstacles to continue their studies, their emotional openness, which, though sometimes difficult to see at first, transforms the student-teacher relationship into something much deeper and more profound; and finally, their ability to surprise and confound and amaze me, to make me think and rethink everything I’ve ever known, to inspire and confuse and make me stop whatever I’m doing and gaze in admiration.

I’ve stayed in Qinghai for three years because of these things and many more; I’ll never be able to make a full list. As I leave, I find myself unable to think about what lies ahead; instead, I find myself looking back at what I have left behind – those things that, in one sense, I’ve lost, and in another sense those things that will always stay with me. This transition will be a difficult one – it has already been quite difficult – but with any luck I’ll be back in the land of Xunhua lajiao and crazily inspiring students before long.

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3 Responses to What is Missed

  1. Pat Loeb says:

    I know you have had an irreplaceable memory from the past 3 years – how wonderful. And if you miss Tibet and make it to LA, we have several Tibetan restaurants and shops. In the meantime, safe journey home –

  2. China Nomads says:

    Lovely post. That feeling that stays with you is hard to shake 🙂 I reckon you’ll be back before you know.

  3. I am glad that i found you blog when i did. I leave for Xining, teaching at te Attached High School as well teaching the same age group, at the end of the week. Things are a little rushed and I am also going through Mr. Wang. Your blog has provided insight that i could not find anywhere else. Thank you

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