The plane floated gradually downwards through hazy skies; below, barren patchily snowcovered hills covered in untold centuries of agricultural terracing. Above, hills rise muscularly into snowily grasscovered mountains, the higher grassy slopes fringed with occasional remnant forests of spruce and pine and rhododendron, and more frequently with plantations of spruce marching militarily uphill. The slopes rise still further upwards, seemingly endlessly so, transforming into jaggedly geologic peaks, great violent metamorphic upthrusts and igneous intrusions, seeming representations of a great outburst of anger, or joy, or vitality, or all three mixed together in terrifyingly beautiful symphonic convergence. We billow downwards over this landscape, territory at once pristine and starkly, intensively used; a landscape visibly freighted with history but nevertheless aware of its own potentialities; a land both tired and full of energy.
Lower, lower, over redrock hills giving way to a wide valley filled with tall half-constructed office blocks surrounding spidery traditional villages of courtyard homes and narrow alleyways; lower, out of the sky’s absolute purity and beauty and perfection and into the haze and dust and chaos and wonder of the earth and of life. We land with a bump on a snowy runway. I feel my nerves jostling themselves awake; adrenaline surges into my brain; we have arrived. Despite long hours of travel, I feel more alive and energized than I have in months.
I am truly trying to the best of my ability to adjust to life in the states, to build a community here, to feel fulfilled and happy and at peace with my choice to return. But landing in Qinghai on a frigid mid-December day, I felt – as much as I tried to resist the feeling, as much as I knew it was patently false, as much as I knew that I could never truly be part of such a place – despite all of this, I felt, just as I had during my Thanksgiving trip to Philadelphia, like I had come back home.
The subsequent ten days did little to diminish this impression. I awoke daily feeling almost cornily full of energy and purpose, as if I could become a motivational speaker; my brain felt more active and acute, my senses more perceiving, my emotions more powerful, my place and my goals and paths forward more clear. Over my time in Qinghai, I managed to accomplish a frightening amount of work, all while finding myself with plenty of time for excursions and events – ice-biking, hotpot dinners, long runs up into the mountains, holding my friends’ three-month-old baby, market-wandering – and, most importantly, spending quality time with students.
Clearly, this place means more to me – and leaving it was (and still is) more difficult – than I ever anticipated. Why did a barren, remote, and somewhat forbiddingly random place (which we once dubbed ‘The Idaho of China,’ not to disparage the great state of Idaho, another place I love) somehow become familiar, welcoming, comforting, energizing, and so powerful in memory, concept, and actual experience that I find myself returning again and again? What was I looking for that led me to Qinghai – and did I find it?
A friend pointed out that Qinghai was probably especially powerful to me (and to others who lived there concurrently) partially because it was the place that, in a sense, we ‘grew up.’ Not to discount the influence of Alaska, Brunswick ME, and especially Philadelphia (hi, Mom and Dad!) on my character, but Qinghai has been the place that has challenged me more than any other to become the best person that I can, to find myself and work to free myself in tired but incredibly apt metaphors from the proverbial cocoon and subsequently undergo a powerful and utterly non-Kafkaesque metamorphosis. In other words, it was in Qinghai that I became the person who (at least currently) I am.
So did I attain greater self-knowledge and awareness from my time in Qinghai? Certainly. Is this why I feel so attached to the place and people? Is it simply that I, at a personally critical juncture, found myself in a fascinatingly foreign environment brimming with wonderfully chaotic and confusing and conflicting soup of emotions and individuals and ideas and beliefs and ways of life, an environment which forced me to find and define myself in order to be able to function and actually accomplish things, to consciously be someone before I was able to produce? Perhaps. I’ll likely never be sure why I’m so attached to this place – an attachment which at present moment seems stronger than others in the past, which is leading me back twice this year, once with twenty-four students in tow, in the belief that such a place and environment can be continually transformative for me as well as for others. But who am I to enforce metamorphoses on others? I can only hope that, as a teacher, I can be an agent of change and disruption, a provocation which leads myself and others to examine and reexamine themselves and their identities and their beliefs in the broader contexts of their environments and cultures and societies. For it is only when and where we find ourselves, whether we find ourselves just once or continually find ourselves in an eternal process of becoming, that we will truly be able to call such a place and its people home.