Why (not)

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Slightly whiny and first-world-postmodern-existentialist-spoiled, but nevertheless what I’m thinking about. Also, this is apparently my 150th post! Who would have thought.

This summer, it seems that an unusually high percentage of friends are adventuring across the globe in places that – compared to work – I’d rather currently be. From the cushioned sterility of my still near-empty school, watching these adventures – which range from motorcycling around the plateau to climbing glaciated peaks in Alaska – has made me even jumpier than usual, and driven home the embarrassingly spoiled-first-world-kid fact that this is the first summer I’ve been at ‘home’ or doing ‘traditional work’ since I was in elementary school. Since going to camp at age eleven, I’ve spent summers guiding in Alaska, working on trail crews, organizing summer schools on the plateau, interning at environmental nonprofits, and going on backpacking trips in my spare time. However, never before have I spent the summer at a near-empty office where coworkers’ continued absence only reminds me of the experiences I could, had I made different choices over the past year, now be having.

Not that I’ve been doing badly. I was able to take students to China for three weeks from late May to early June, tacking on some personal time on the end to visit the plateau. I went home to Philadelphia for more than a week. I really have no reason to complain: as both student and teacher, years on an academic schedule have left me spoiled.

Nevertheless, this restlessness and constant questioning has tapped into the deep, underlying veins of doubt and unease that, this year in San Francisco, have become a central feature of my life and thoughts. What, I constantly ask myself, am I doing here? Coming from an immensely fulfilling job in which I always felt I could be doing more and better, why leave? I live in San Francisco: have I sold out? Were the decisions I made the right ones? What have I gained, what have I lost, what have I learned; what metrics can I use to assess a year of confusion and more-than-occasional directionlessness?

And why, after all this time, am I making such a big deal of coming back to the states? Why does it feel so monumental, so upsetting and unsettling – and, in many ways, so wrong?

Certainly not everything about coming back has felt wrong. I feel privileged this year to have had a group of amazing new and old friends in the area who have helped me through the ongoing transitions. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity (for the first time in a long while) to be in a fulfilling relationship. I feel privileged to take advantage of the range of rights, freedoms, and consequent responsibilities that we have here in the United States (this was brought into especially clear light today, taking a group of Chinese students into San Francisco’s City Hall – the first time any of them had ever been into a government office building. Needless to say, they were utterly shocked that anyone could walk right in and listen to (and comment at) legislative meetings). I feel privileged to be close to family, friends, and others to whom I can go in need.

This, after all, has been the reason I moved back to the United States: the people. While I have many good friends in China, there are also many limitations to friendships (not to mention the near impossibility of dating in the region in which I lived). I certainly didn’t come back to the states for the food, the smoothly self-satisfied ease of living, or the simple desire to ‘come home:’ nearly a year out of China, I still find that there is little I miss about American life and culture when not here (some of the small things about life in China  that often unnerve many expats – not having the opportunity to eat western food, spitting or peeing (or pooping) in public, pushing in lines, dirty streets, the brusque manner that is standard in most settings, staring – do not really bother me). And in coming back to the states, I find myself much farther than I have ever been in knowing where my home truly lies.

In China, I’ve accepted that I’m always going to be an outsider, albeit one who appreciates much about the wide diversity of cultures, values, and ways of life that exist in its Europe-sized multicultural empire. In America, I’m an insider: but to what? To a culture which, though familiar, I find alternatively liberating and unconsciously stifling, self-obsessed and ignorant (and unable to even desire to try to learn from others),  creative and arrogant, capitalistic and conformist, obsessively private and lazy and convenience-focused and interesting in its own right(s), perhaps as a subject of academic study – but perhaps not as the Final Word in how societies and individuals and the world as a whole should be organized (as so many of us assume). Why, exactly, do people go abroad – and why do they then either stay or come home? What questions go into making these decisions? What does it say about a person if they feel more comfortable, alive, excited, and ultimately 幸福 – the deepest, most fulfilled version of ‘happy’ – in a place other than that which is, by birth, their own?

So, ultimately, what am I doing here? And why, as such, do I keep writing?

I have no idea. At the very least, this continuing bodily excretion of words (hopefully in a somewhat legible and comprehensible format) helps me process what goes on in my life, if not fully understand what I am doing and why and the greater, often invisible meanings behind all of this. For as long as I do not understand the world or myself, I will continue to write – in the hopes of gaining the climber’s smallest crimping fingerhold of a grasp on what, for others and for me, is going on.

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In other lives

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I’ve been missing the plateau a lot recently. I thought this feeling would slowly dissipate after spending more time in the states; on the contrary, I can’t help but feel it has grown stronger. I don’t say this as an insult to my friends and family here, or as a disservice to those who have helped me reacclimatize to American life – you were the reason I moved back! However, I am oddly still unable to detach. Read the following nostalgia- and regret-laden paragraphs at your own peril.

I stand atop a ridgecrest, geologically muscular buttressing cascading down to rivulets and streams and rivers far below, through shrubland and forest and, angle lessening, terraced fields of hydrovoracious crops. Iridescently impressionistic color-dots – wildflowers, birds, droplets of dayold frost, distant neon farmers’ jackets – spackle three hundred and sixty degrees of landscape, transforming the uncountable multiplicity of life into a single breathing entity whose entire purpose is simply in the every joy of existing. From below, a raucous wild scream of a voice, slowly pitching and vibratoing into a tone, a song, a herding ballad offered to whichever eligible daughter of whichever eligible family might be interested in switching tents this night. White, awkward lumps amble haltingly over a rise; the herd comes ever closer, finally surrounding and engulfing me within munching stumblingness. They slowly pass, toddling over ridgetop and down the barren southfacing slopes below, medial-laterally wobbling canoes on a vast grass sea. I sit, transfixedly staring at nothing and everything in particular, only eventually jolted into movement by the overripenly reddened rays of a fast-descending sun.

Exhausted, I sit at a low table in the office, trying to tap out another sentence on tomorrow’s worksheet. The door suddenly opens; students enter, only remembering to ask ‘can I come in?’ after having taken several steps past the door. The same questions are asked, again; I answer with as much positive energy as I can muster. I have already seen these students two periods today; I will see them for another ninety minutes during the upcoming night class – and, no matter how much they induce worry or distress, I will not tire of them. We have a conversation, nothing unusual: English, life in America, families, significant others, Ti$e$an customs – except for being beautiful in its profound simplicity and Nietzschean (if almost daily) recurrence. Somehow, for all their lack of apparent depth, these conversations – in their herculean stretch to encompass peoples, cultures, and ideas infinite worlds apart, in their mutual innocently infantile (in the most positive way) curiosity, in their spirit of (mostly) pure and utter goodwill, tinged with healthy doses of humor and sarcasm and quirk – carry surprising meaning, some uncharted variety of Yogic third-language simple profundity that forms strong bonds of intimacy and inspiration and trust. And then, still tired but inwardly energized, I glance up at an introductions poster hanging on the wall, a map of the region with students’ pictures and self-introductions pasted onto the locations of their hometowns. Writing quality is first-year, meaning therein is genuine. I unaccountably, inadvertently, unavoidably break into a wide grin, now full of energy and life and a more-than-British-sense-of-vigor-and-vim, blood pumping through vessels at top speed and adrenalized and ready for class and for life and for anything that could possibly come my way.

I straddle a motorcycle, the beast fretfully purring as I turn uphill along a narrow path lined with strands of barbed wire. Dogs occasionally race beyond; the bent yet regally robed half-parabolas of old women dot the landscape, collecting dung, herding sheep and yaks, drying cheese, washing clothes, bending painfully upwards to crinkle bent-tinfoil-like faces into broad, wrinkle-etched smiles of curiosity and (if not joy, then) goodwill. Children scamper randomly about houses and tents, occasionally herding small animals, occasionally playing in the grass or swimming in the streams, fully naked. I eventually come to a hilltop, rising only slightly above the surrounding grassy plains, yet providing a prospect ranging far into the distance, towards snowy peaks and distant forested gorges and drunkedly meandering rivers. Some manmade objects dot the landscape – a small school, herders’ tents, a faroff cell phone tower and a distant solitary powerline – but all else is an endless horizon of grasses and topography. I lie down amid the now three-dimensional ground cover, insects crawling around the corners of my head, breezes coursing through my hair and pushing them away, soil below my body warm and comforting and deep and rooted, skies overhead cold and clear and full of freedom and possibility – and here I am, amidst all of this quotidian splendor, mind balanced, at ease, at peace.

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Renao 热闹

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Random thoughts at work.

I have no excuses for not having posted for so long. My life has certainly been quite eventful: a great (if far-too-short) visit to Qinghai with Mike, followed by a 48-hour work/visit to San Francisco and ten days in my cheesesteak-and-Wawa-saturated, Puritan-liquor-law-abiding, newly-surprisingly-hipster home city of Philadelphia (and surrounds).

Now I am back at it. San Francisco work and life, to misparaphrase Mo Yan, are not quite wearing me out: as you might have imagined, summer is the slow season in the world of US education, and I am the only person working on my floor of the school building. It has been quiet enough that I’m almost excited about tomorrow morning’s incursion of workers, who are coming to blast out a wall and install a new door. I much appreciate and cherish quiet and calm; however, it might be a residual feature of life in China that, deep in the bowels of the fourth floor, in a profoundly manmade environment, I find myself missing the chaotic 热闹 (renao, “hot noise”) of daily school life. In China, 热闹 renao is a value in itself, visible and audible (even palpable, often from a great distance) in nearly all good Chinese restaurants, on trains, and pretty much anywhere there are groups of people. It is nothing more nor less than a no-holds-barred cacophonic celebration and affirmation of life.

Increasingly, when in built environments, I find that I also expect such hot noise – and feel moderately uncomfortable in its absence. Alone in a nearly empty building, eerily quiet amidst the surrounding bustle of the technology-fueled urban jungle, the only sounds the occasional mechanized whine of the elevator shaft and the perpetual ticking of the clock as a quotidian reminder of mortality, everything becomes cold, empty and abstractly sterile. I look forward to the chaotic sound and violence of tomorrow: the knocking down of the wall, drills and hammers and dust flying and full of life and energy and possibility. A new door: a reminder of the opportunities and excitements yet to come – choices especially enticing as we do not know where they might yet lead. Sometimes, in addition to a life of quiet, we need a bit of noise and chaos to remind us that nothing at all is fixed or determined – that everything is alive and changing and pregnant with hope and possibility.

Regardless of what happens, I look forward to more renao in my life when the Beijing students arrive next Friday. Hopefully, I’ll be able to fit in a couple of posts before that time. And get out to the countryside for a bit of quiet!

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A Cultural Experience

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Last Monday night, I was treated to a dining experience unlike no other. I had been told that we would be eating at a special hotpot restaurant only for people born in after 1980 – the so-called 80后 (ba-ling-hou) generation. I had been told that the restaurant was decorated to look like a classic Chinese classroom of the era, complete with posters of Party leaders on the wall, lists of monitors and their duties, and all the fixings. Having spent several years in a corner of the Chinese educational system that seems to be several decades behind the more developed areas of the country, I was interested to see what the post-80’s generation thought about the Chinese educational system – and how it was transformed from a kind of mandatory, universal torture into a cause for nostalgia. As such, I awaited this event with eager anticipation.

On the night of the event, my Chinese coworker and her friends, coming from a cafe in Nanluoguxiang, arrived early for the 7:45 reservation. At 7:46, I got a call.

“Where are you?” my coworker said. “You’re late, and the teacher will be angry!”

“What teacher?” I said. “We are about two minutes away.”

“OK,” she said. “You might be fine. But get here quickly.”

I was mystified, but by the time I could respond, my coworker had already hung up. All we could do was run to the restaurant. We walked through the door to find a man holding a wooden rod standing in front of a blackboard and berating a group of young adults sitting at battered, tired-looking wooden desks (albeit desks unusually outfitted with hotpot burners).

With the sound of our arrival, however, he turned around and faced us.

“You are late!” he said. “And you are foreigners! Why are you late?”

I had not expected a “teacher” at this restaurant; I found myself at a loss for words. He turned around and threw up his hands at the crowd for a laugh; then turned back and addressed us.

“You cannot be late! It is against school rules. Sit down.”

We sat.

For the next 45-plus minutes, the Teacher (as I started to think of him, complete with capitalization and lack of quotation marks) berated the ‘class’ (including – and especially – us two foreigners) in a manner familiar to anyone who has spent significant amount of time inside a Chinese classroom. It was utterly distasteful, painfully insensitive – and absolutely hilarious. Even for me, not getting 100% of the cultural references that the Teacher was throwing out at rapid-fire pace, it was one of the funniest experiences I can remember. Class dynamics, teachers’ punishments,  politically-sensitive classes like politics and geography, making fun of classmates, drinking in front of students – everything that the Teacher did was right on the mark, a completely accurate nostalgic satire of Chinese education, and one where (unlike many things in China) seemingly nothing was off-limits.

We eventually ate, ordering our food off of a menu designed to look like a gaokao (college entrance exam) paper, with both ‘single-answer’ (What kind of pot would you like?) and ‘multiple-answer’ (What types of meats would you like?) questions. When we called for the waitress (服务员Fuwuyuan!!), she would not answer; we would, however, get an immediate response when calling for the 值日生 (zhirisheng, student on-duty). Students were called out for classroom behavior, and the Teacher smoked and drank in the classroom. In other words, school in China.

After dinner, there were several trivia competitions relating to cultural icons from the 1980’s and 1990’s – all far above my head. The Teacher, however, continued mocking his class in a manner so reminiscent of an old-school Chinese educator that I was almost unable to breathe due to excessive laughter. Eventually, however, the class was over; the bell rang, and after some pictures we went out into the night, laughing and reminiscing on one of the funniest classes we had ever attended.

Additionally, however, I was curious that the Chinese school experience – a twelve-year Odyssey of almost Herculean (indeed, Odyssean) focused singlemindedness (gaokao) and hoop-jumping (tests, barriers to entry, costs) shared by untold millions of students each year – was something about which these members of the 80后 generation felt nostalgia. Why romanticize something that was so painful to the point of wanting to reexperience or relive it? Was it simply the powerful bond of shared experience – of having been through the wringer together, and, as such, having so much in common specific to this experience that the desire to be part of the group trumps the difficulty and pain of the experience itself? Is the Chinese educational system such a powerful form of control that it defines and shapes students’ lives long after they graduate – to the point that they feel compelled to return to this period in their life, live by and through this set of shared cultural reference points, and, in doing so, feel more intensively happy and fulfilled?

Who knows: perhaps the obsessive and occasionally mind-numbing rote and ritual and intensive, endless focus central to Chinese education is, in at least one aspect, more successful than the American system: I certainly feel little to no nostalgia for elementary, middle, or high school. Perhaps it is because my post-high school life has been extremely fulfilling; I’ve been inordinately lucky to have been able to share a variety of amazing experiences with many amazing people. But what, ultimately, does this 80后 nostalgia for school say about the Chinese and American systems of education? What values can be gleaned from each? And in my home country, how can we make Americans place greater value on (and show greater respect for) education?

Or maybe the 80后 generation was simply drawn to the restaurant by the hotpot. Perhaps we should simply provide hotpot in American schools. At the very least, we could teach American children to love (not fear) vegetables.

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High School Closure

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Sappy. Sorry!

I have a special relationship (or at least I like to think I do) with the first group of first-year students I taught in RG. I helped recruit them and then was privileged to work with them for two years. I still talk with them daily on QQ and WeChat. One of them I’ve (to the best of my limited, long-distance abilities) adopted as a sort of younger brother.

So, as they prepare to take the all-important National College Entrance Exam (gaokao) this weekend, I am in a rather nervous, antsy state. My distress, though concealed, stems from several aspects of this event: the ridiculous difficulty of the tests, the inadequacy of their preparation (and of the capacity of the system from which they graduate to prepare them adequately), the inevitable screwups at the testing site (last year, the listening comprehension sections on both the English and Chinese tests were mangled to the point of incomprehensibility by electrical problems). I am worried because of the test; I am upset because I wish I didn’t have to see people that I care so much about put through such an ordeal – and to have this ordeal determine, to a frightening extent, the trajectories of their future lives.

But I’m also upset because I never felt like I got full closure with this group of kids. Part of me is happy for this; I don’t want closure; I want the current relationships to last long into the future (and I’m sure some will). However, much of this is leftover regret about departing RG last year.

Nearly a year later, and – for fully selfish reasons – I am still not sure if I made the right decision. I’ve tried to get past the idea of dichotomizing the decision as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but the simple fact of my current unease about the students’ futures and our lack of closure speaks to the fact that, contrary to the central dictum of the (awesome) Bollywood movie Three Idiots, not all is well. I don’t want to dwell too much on the past, but I worry too much about these kids not to do so.

Either way, my mind and heart will be with my amazing kids this weekend as they embark on a challenging and hopefully rewarding journey. And while this may be closure for their high school experience, I’m excited to accompany them as they continue to grow and change and develop into their full selves.

And I’m so excited to see them in less than two weeks. To all of my students out there, best of luck on the test. I know you’ll do amazingly well – and we will all be with you all the way through. 加油!

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Beijing: the human city

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Beijing has a reputation among Americans (and really most foreigners) as a bad place to live, a place where living conditions are so atrocious as to render it as unfit for human habitation as the icy, barren outer moons of Saturn. The intermittently toxic air, the sprawling suburbs, the limited water supplies, and the everyday dangers of life (crossing the street, walking down a hutong, questionable meat on skewers, etc.) are all woven into a narrative which paints Beijing as a place approaching New Jersey in terms of pure hostility to human life. And if the stew were not yet complete, the occasional sandstorm whistling down out of the Gobi serves as the additional garnish (as it were).

Having been to Beijing approximately fifteen times over the past few years, I can attest that all of the horror stories can, at times, become reality. The pollution can diminish visibility to a few meters and make any venture outside a painful experience – and more than a little reminiscent of venturing onto some alien planet where all humans must wear gas masks to survive. Traffic is atrociously dangerous. The water table is dropping meters each decade; sprawl continuous apace towards the mountains that surround Beijing on the north and west. And occasionally, there is rat in the barbecue (key tip: only eat at Muslim barbecue restaurants, as meat quality is assuredly high). There are even (gasp!) people from New Jersey (and, what’s worse [for Chinese people], a vast crowd of people from Henan Province, similarly the butt of many jokes).

However, I can also attest that while these stereotypes have bases in occasional fact, they have also been extensively mythologized into an idea of a permanent reality. The sky is not always grey, green space is (in many ways) keeping apace with some of the sprawl, and much of the barbecue is authentically (and deliciously) the meat it is advertised to be. And now, nearly halfway through my three-week trip to Beijing (my longest ever),  I feel like I am rediscovering a place that – while I’ve always enjoyed – I previously unfairly maligned.

Part of this sense of rediscovery is due to absolute improvements in the so-called quality of life issues: the air has been great since our arrival, the subway system continues to improve, and the city center is cleaner than ever. It’s also helped to have a structure to most days, and to be immersed in a Chinese school – though many of my favorite moments of discovery are while wandering by myself.

But it has been most helpful to have friends in the capital, friends who have helped transform Beijing from an intimidatingly vast megalopolis into a human city liberally scattered with points of linkage, roots, mentally mapped specks of personal connections to specific places and to individuals from many walks of life. In one neighborhood, there is the Muslim kebab restaurant, in this other neighborhood, my favorite store owner; yet another has fantastic jianbing 煎饼, while my friend lives in an alleyway deep in another fascinating area of the city. No longer is Beijing monolithic; it has become a human city, full of lives and stories and emotions and dramas and fascination. The macroscopic lens has been exchanged for the microscopic, but on a vast, Wagnerian scale; the simultaneous operas of individual lives that occur all over the city, weaving together and apart, connecting and linking and unraveling and ultimately forming a pattern of chaotic beauty.

This humanized Beijing, it turns out, is not a bad place to live. Just make sure you occasionally bring your face mask.

And sorry, Jersey. Just live with the hope that one day, it might be your turn.

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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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