Where is There (?)

Lives intersect: SF students on the plateau

My lives intersect: SF students on the plateau

Random as always.

Let me preface this post by stating that I’m somewhere between embarrassed and ashamed to discover that I haven’t posted in twenty days. I promise to rectify this in the coming months.

I’ve been back from my most recent trip to western China for a month, and, as such, am preparing to scrounge together some of my belongings and head east in the immediate future. In my current position, it’s not that I’m never in the United States; it’s simply that I’m often in China – and, as such, I feel more than ever tugged between the two places: my homeland and the place where, in many ways, I feel most at home.

I’m not attempting to suggest the Bay Area (or, by extension, America) is a wasteland devoid of cultural, spiritual, or human value. I’m not stating flatly that I do not enjoy my life here; there are many aspects of life, most notably the personal, in which I am far more satisfied and deeply happy than I was in China. But though I enjoy certain aspects of my American life, I still feel a deep longing for the way of life I had on the plateau. I have had the privilege to return several times this year; each time I return, I am sleepless with excitement for a week before departing; each time, returning has carried with it an inexplicable feeling of deeply tragic loss. When I think about my life here in the United States, I really have no reason to complain: I have a job which is at least moderately in line with my personal and professional interests and values – and which allows me to live in relative comfort, I have friends (and soon, a sister!) scattered around the area, I have easy access to beautiful natural environments and a wide range of activities I enjoy, and – definitely not to be diminished – I have found deep fulfillment and happiness in my personal life.

And yet, despite all this, I long for life on the plateau, a place where – though water and utilities may be less than fully consistent (they seem to be employed on an hourly part-time basis) – life is, in the words of a friend who knows the area well, “just better.”

Why do I long for a place so ostensibly foreign? What about the cultures and people and environment and values there make it (at least in my mind) such an amazing place to live? Yesterday afternoon, I briefly brainstormed on this subject with a friend, but we were unable to arrive at any articulable conclusion. Was it something about the strength of local communities or families, the way that everyone always looks out for and helps each other? Was it something about the way of life within a close community – the small, personal interactions with others (buying bread and tomatoes, shopping at the store, chatting with other teachers, meeting a friend on the street) that peppered the day with moments of genuine connection and fascination? Was it the permanent mental stimulation of having your idea of the good and the real and most importantly the possible continuously, unceasingly expanded? What about the ability to live your life by the minute, no planning required, to make decisions as situations demand and not based on predetermined ideas of what might be good or appropriate or correct – to do all this and, as a result, live in a state of constant surprise and excitement and aliveness? Or what about the opportunity to not only teach but really immerse yourself in the lives of some unimaginably smart, generous, caring, genuine, and (the proverbial icing) snarkily, sarcastically funny high school students?

I could go on, as you can most likely imagine, waxing rhapsodically at length about the things I appreciate about living on the plateau. Sometimes I feel that this blog is an endless encomium to my former life, a eulogy for a time and place in which I felt most fully alive and engaged – and most fully myself. I can only hope, however, that I’m not writing this simplistically; while in many ways I feel most at home there, for logistical and political reasons, I know that it is not necessarily where I will end up. I also know that no matter how much I feel at home there, it will never be my true home; no matter how many adoring students crowd by my side and support me through difficult times, I will always be an outsider. However, I feel that I can truly say that if I returned to the plateau for good, I would really miss very little about American culture or the American way of life. The one thing I would really miss – and the ultimate reason I decided last year to return to the states – is the people.

With but a few notable exceptions, friends, family, and relationships are all in the United States. This is no accident of geography, but it adds difficulty to maintaining a life in which I feel different kinds of needs to be in both places, different and not completely opposed pulls of the proverbial rope dragging me from one end of the Pacific to the other. I’m not sure where I’ll end up – or when I’ll end up there (wherever this There is), but I’m not expecting to be settled – in body or in mind – anytime soon. For (to take a page from Gertrude Stein) my There might ultimately end up being wherever I happen to be at any given moment, or whichever place has managed to capture my frequently hyperactive imagination, or wherever the people for whom I care most end up being. As such, for me, there are multiple Theres there, and it will take time and thought and change to figure out how to manage it all.

These are the unfinished and randomly associated thoughts in my mind as I prepare to take off for Beijing later this week with twenty-nine seventh grade students, brought to the front of my mind by this spring’s constant transpacific shuttling. We’ll see what my next post – likely from Beijing – looks like in terms of mood and thoughts (likely dependent on pollution!). If filled with florid adjectives and puffily self-important writing, I wonder what that says about my attitude towards life in two entirely different and differentially fulfilling places – for now, my two Theres.

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One Response to Where is There (?)

  1. charlotte Jefferay says:

    Have a good journey Jonas. I know the Theres you talk about so well (always).

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