The more things change…


I’ve been somewhat remiss from posting for…a year. My bad! Things are going very well (in short). This is from a recent trip to the plateau.

As soon as I arrived in Xining this June, I started a list of things I saw as “Major Changes” since my last visit:

  • New ring road highway around the city
  • New greenway and bikeshare along the river
  • University is moving
  • Public bathrooms are free!!

I did the same when I arrived in RG several days later:

  • Highway!?
  • School is moving
  • New ugly apartment buildings
  • Less poop on the wall outside of the apartment building

Over the next few days, I continued my list, noting changes and adjustments from the obvious to the minute. I found myself getting worked up, upset, mourning the changes that had arrived in a town I considered a second home and afraid of the as of yet unknown changes that might come in the future. The march of progress is inevitable, I felt; I can do nothing to stop, slow, or balance any of these changes. I have no agency here; I am helpless to enact my will as the place I love appears to be slowly, painstakingly, deliberately erased from the earth.

Gradually, though, I found myself falling into old, familiar routines. Waking up to the blaring trumpets of the early morning exercise routine. The old man scouring his esophagus, muscles of the throat fully engaged, then propelling gobs of spit deep into the courtyard shrubbery. Drums, horns, cymbals, chanting; sounds wafting from the monastery next door. The smells of yak butter (pungent) and slow-burning juniper (still pungent, but aromatically so) floating upwards on the breeze past my window. The friendly lady at the store across the street, selling me snacks and drinks filled with cocktails of natural and chemical ingredients; future effects unknown, immediate enjoyment likely. The constant sensation of faces swiveling towards you, pairs of eyes, excitement-rounded, fixed on your back, waiting with expectant curiosity and possibly a dose of fear. Buying tomatoes from a vendor who recognizes you after three years absence, hugging you, asking about your wife and kids, for you are getting a little old now, what are you doing without a family, your own family must be wondering! The familiar slow stroll up the main street, weaving around cars and motorcycles and vans and trucks, parked and moving and stalled, an ebb and flow of humanity, an endlessly continuous choreography of unceasing movement, a dance of unconscious, unthinking perfection. A long run following an animal trail high above the valley, mountainsides warmed and yellowed by a nearer sun, animals stunned out of placid contentment by my passage. The warm embrace of students, impossibly energetic and enthusiastic at the end of a grueling twelve-hour school day, ready to dive into differentiating present perfect and simple past tenses with an almost frighteningly lovable eagerness, the kind that transforms your apathy into energy. The sun setting softly over the mountains, dinner cooksmokes rising into gauzy clouds above ridgetop villages, a soft mist in the valley floor, mountainsides deepening to blues and purples, then to richly textured blacks, the first hesitant stars beginning to dance haltingly overhead, then gaining strength and confidence and finally vividly wheeling overhead to light our path home.

I went away for a few days and returned with an old friend with whom I’d lived and worked previously. As we drove in, she also began cataloging the differences she saw: the tall buildings, the new traffic lights, a bridge. Things were changing too fast, she felt. What had happened to this place? What had the town become?

I now found myself acting as a consoler. Things hadn’t really changed, I heard myself saying; these visible changes are shocking at first, but you’ll quickly find that life goes on as normal. When I first arrived, I said,  I saw the changes immediately – they jump out and smack you in the face, demanding to be seen and acknowledged – and ignored what was the same. But after a few days, I said, you’ll find that everything is as normal, as before.

We spent several more days together, and – aside from the occasional sight of tall buildings downvalley – everything did seem more as before. But then I began questioning: why did I value so highly the familiar ritual and routine? Why was I constantly afraid of changes; why did everything have to stay the same for me? Why was I holding this place, this community, these people in amber; why couldn’t I value them for who they are while accepting (if not always liking) the way they change?

The comfort of nostalgia seems to exist in everything: it is in the bakery downstairs, the grocery shop downtown, the trail on the mountainside, the decorations in the classroom, the old woman circling the monastery, the trash fires lighting the evening street; even the shit stains on the building wall. But while these images are tied to memories and emotions, the roots of and true power of nostalgia lie in the lasting values and truths which these emotional memories represent. I love this town’s natural beauty, cultural monuments, busy market streets, diverse inhabitants, delicious food. But beyond the physical elements which trigger the nostalgia lies the core of what has made this place important to me. The bakery downstairs, the grocery shop downtown: the community in which everyone looks out for each other. The decorations in the classroom, the old woman circling the monastery: the devotion and care which people show towards each other, towards the others, towards living a good life.

The trash fires and shit stains: ingenuity? randomness? Perhaps I’m also simply romanticizing my nostalgia. But regardless of what these memories represent, I do understand why people – such as myself – have such difficulty with change. For change forces us to confront and question the values and truths which we consider central to ourselves as people, and ask: were they truly there all along? Were they, in fact, ever there at all? Do they exist? Are our experiences genuine – or were they products of our imagination? Whether or not we exist, however we think of ourselves – with or without these values and truths and experiences – who are we as human beings?

Some things change; some things stay the same. Next time I go back, I will still be bemoaning the changes I see. But I’ll make equally sure to identify – and focus on – the more permanent values and ways of being that continue to make this part of the world, no matter how it changes, a special place for me.

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