Thursday, August 21, 2008

Home on the Range

Dear America,

Appropriate to this final post of my China blog would be the first two stanzas (especially the second stanza) of John Lomax's 1910 version of "Home on the Range," reproduced below for your convenience.

Home on the Range
Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam,
Where the deer and the antelope play,
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day.

Home, home on the range,
Where the deer and the antelope play;
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day.
Where the air is so pure, the zephyrs so free,
The breezes so balmy and light,
That I would not exchange my home on the range
For all of the cities so bright.
Home, home on the range,
Where the deer and the antelope play;
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day.
On the flight back to America, I had the good fortune to be seated with two of my classmates, and one of them described our experiences in China as "Concrete, Smog, and Communism." While this description suffers the limitations of all three-word summaries of a rather complex and rich experience, the simplicity of expression does distill much of our impressions effectively.

To fully describe my last few weeks at Swarthmore would take more time (and a better memory) than I possess. The following is some of the highlights as best I recall them. It seems like a different world; and, I suppose, it was.

The second-last week of classes, which was actually the last normal week, went by in a blaze of, if not glory, something as equally blinding: In addition to the bi-monthly written essay, followed by a 15-minute oral report on it (this time to be accompanied by photographic illustrations; the topic was travel/tourism), there was the opportunity to participate in an extra-credit report. I and another student opted to work together on ours, which eventually turned into a half-hour report on cultural differences between Americans and Chinese. We took the positions of a Chinese and American "expert", each giving examples of why his own culture was superior to the others. It was fun, but would have been more fun if we'd had sufficient time to prepare.

That last weekend was a mix of good and bad: We were spared our usual weekly exam, which meant our week ended Thursday afternoon instead of Friday afternoon; Friday morning, instead of our exam, all the ACC students would be participating in our own version of the Olympics.

To celebrate our lack of exam, about half the 4th year ACC students went to a famous Xinjiang (China's westernmost province, in the news lately because of local unrest and riots) restaurant. This restaurant in addition to having grand food (they offer things like "whole roast lamb" and, which we selected, "2-meter skewer of lamb"), has various performances for two hours. They featured traditional music and dancing, demonstrations of kung fu hip hop, a snake dancer, and multiple audience participation activities: drinking beer through a straw contest, a business card drawing, and more.

Because most of the audience was Chinese, and therefore adverse to publicly making fools of themselves, and because we all were American college students abroad (and no one has better qualifications to publicly make a fool of himself), we ended up participating in nearly all the audience participation tasks. One of my classmates got a snake draped over his neck by a scantily clad woman, two of them participated in the beer-drinking contest (though one nearly got disqualified for trying to apply principles of syphoning to his advantage), and our entire table got roped into learning something which is either traditional Xinjiang dancing or is an ridiculous hoax for the entertainment of the Chinese patrons who weren't crazy enough to volunteer. This traditional dancing ended up snaking its way (so to speak) off the stage an onto a long line of tables which had been cleared off in the center of the room. Abruptly the stobe lights and modern dance music switched on, and we proceeded to (as the saying goes) rock it out for the next twenty minutes or so, with impromptu line dancing and all. It was an amazing end to the night.

To those who may express incredulity that I am using more than the figurative "we" in describing these events, let me assure you that I was indeed an active participate in the above shenanigans, and I'm almost convinced that should I be interested, there may just be a place for me in the line dancing profession. Thankfully for my reputation, however, I believe the only photographic evidence of these events were recorded by someone who is stuck in China. It was a fun alternative to writing essays and studying grammar.

The next day's ACC Olympics were relatively unremarkable; they were a mix of language questions, physical activities, and other events. In the afternoon I began a series of some of my most unwise moves ever: I attempted to go shopping on the day of the Olympics. After a quick nap, I made the hour-long trek to the Beijing Zoo market (I feel there are at least a half-dozen possible puns here, but I will leave them up to the reader's imagination), which past years had been a great resource for clothing and similar presents at discount rates. I arrived at 4:30 pm, only to see a flock of security guards shaking their heads at me as I reached the top of the stopped excalator. If there's one thing I know about China, I know this: seeing about twenty security guards shaking their heads at you as you approach them does not bode well. Sure enough, I reached the top just in time to see the last show shut its curtain; While the market normally closes at 6, starting that day they closed at 4:30. Why? Because of the Olympics.

Hot, tired, and discouraged, I decided I didn't want my day to end up a total waste, and so made the choice to hike over to Beijing's biggest bookstore to buy some dictionaries I wanted to take back to the US with me. This was located on Wangfujing street, a famous pedestrian area. After arriving I stopped in the park in front of the restored Catholic cathedral and decided to study some Chinese and maybe chat with some Chinese people (this is where I had met my Beijing lawyer friend last year).

Sure enough, not five minutes had passed before a young buck came over and started talking with me. His spiel was that he worked for one of the local art galleries (which means some artist hired out a shady-looking room in a building and gets young bucks to sell his work for him at high rates to foreigners. So I agreed to look at his art gallery. It was like many other Chinese art galleries I've seen, and as I admired some of the truly beautiful pieces, I also felt old and jaded; I had seen all this before, I knew the delicate interplay that would have to occur before I could leave without having bought anything: it was all predetermined.

After leaving, I pushed my way through the masses of pedestrians to get to the bookstore -- but, of course, it was closed: because of the Olympics. By this point, I had one hour before the Olympic ceremony began in earnest, and I was torn between returning to school and just spending time on my own there (something I wasn't excited to do), watching the games with a bunch of Chinese people and strangers at the large television screens in Wangfujing, or going to visit my restaurant-owner friend. I opted for the last choice, and decided the subway would be the best of several not-direct ways to get there. a half-hour later the subway driver announced in the car that, because of the Olympics, the stop I needed was closed. I got out one stop early and tried to make my way be foot, only to be stopped twice by lines of police officers shaking their heads; The sidewalk had been closed off. I made my way through the hutongs until I got back to the main streets, where I found the entire population of Beijing was desperately (and senselessly, as there was nothing there to see) trying to get into Tiananmen Square -- which was perpendicular to where I was trying to go. After forty-five minutes of intimate reintroduction to the fact that Chinese standards of personal hygiene are lower than American ones, I managed to break free of the crowds on the other side, and ducked gratefully into the hutong where my friend's restaurant was located. But, as I had come to expect given previous luck on this day, my friend still had not returned from her hometown. I ordered a late dinner and watched the show in the poorly air conditioned restaurant, nursing the free tea and my dissatisfaction at the Olympics.

While the opening ceremony was pretty enough, and certainly the scale was impressive (something like 15,000 people were coordinated in the performance), I failed to be specially moved by it. I don't know if I am being influenced by all the rest of Olympic baggage, but I still fail to see the opening ceremony as all that grand. Truth be told, given a choice I think I would enjoy watching most feature films more than the opening ceremonies, and they'd be much shorter to boot!

The following day, armed with knowledge of how to subvert the Olympic restrictions, I managed in the course of a few hours to buy all the things I needed or wanted, while for my last Sunday in China I went to a local Chinese church; and found myself disappointed to discover that while my Chinese has improved mightily, I still have great difficulty following a forty-minute sermon.

The last week of ACC was quite grueling, primarily because I contracted at least one illness. I had done my normal lesson preview and vocabulary memorization on the weekend and expected to prepare for my final exams during the week, but beginning Monday evening, I fell terribly ill. Between Tuesday and Thursday, in 48 hours I managed to sleep for 24 of them. The rest of the time I was mostly lying in bed or struggling to make it through class. I lost my appetite, eating an average of one small meal per day. And in the midst of it all I prepared and presented a 20-minute powerpoint presentation on Chinese martial arts and two ten-minute presentations on education reform and theories of China's past, present, and future development. There were also four take-home essay questions to be completed, and the final written exam on Friday.

By the time Friday morning rolled around, we fourth year students (even the ones who weren't sick) were exhausted and had reached the point where we didn't really care about our last exam. But, to our great delight, we discovered that an additional, non-graded essay had been attached to the end of our exam. After a near mutiny, most of us settled down to fishing this last task set between us and freedom. One student gave up after writing 100 characters, but after submitting it to the professors they refused to accept it and sent him back to the exam room to write more!

After finishing the essay and submitting it all, I went to the kitchen and was washing some dishes. It was then that I look outside for the first time that day: a beautiful power blue sky speckled with snow-white clouds was smiling down on me. I took it as a symbol of my final liberation from my long study program. It was truly beautiful.

That afternoon after selling some of my leftover things to my professors, I arranged to meet with one of my Chinese friends (she is already engaged, so I'm safe there). We went ice skating. I was inordinately excited to go ice skating; despite being decidedly mediocre at it, I find it's lots of good, clean fun, and I enjoy teaching other people how not to fall down. As it was the middle of the afternoon the rink was populated almost exclusively by young girls under the age of 10 who were busy practicing their jumps, twirls, and other fancy tricks (nothing like someone who looks about 5 years old and is wearing a pink dress skating circles around you to make you feel competent). We skated for an hour and a half and then went to KFC to chat for a bit (she said she enjoyed learning how to Skate, and swore that by the time I come back to China she'll skate even better than I do), before I returned to my university to participate in the final graduation ceremony and sumptuous dinner of roast duck.

While many of my compatriots went out to party later that evening, I was bushed and still sick. I spent the evening packing up my belongings, chatting with a classmate who was sad that I was abandoning her (she is sticking it out at ACC until December), and fielding telephone calls from several of my Chinese friends who were also sad to see me go.

Saturday morning I woke up early, finished packing, and then went to try to find some watermelon before I took the taxi to the airport. Every time I visit China the first thing I eat is watermelon, and the last thing I eat is watermelon. I had bought some watermelon earlier, but it had gone bad. The stores all were closed, so I instead sat on a bench and waxed into the sky. It was the most perfect sky and the most perfect weather I had ever seen in Beijing. I was in awe, and was completely content to do nothing more than sit, and look at the blue sky, the white clouds, the yellow sunlight, and the green leaves.

It is hard to explain how much the weather affected me. Certainly the change in weather coupled with the final release of two months of the most intense studying of my life were mutually reinforcing, yet I suddenly realized that blue skies and natural environments were something that I could not do without for too great a period or time, or life would lose its luster.

I had intended to write up a little note to each of my professors thanking them for their efforts in teaching 4th year Chinese this summer; they deserve the thanks. Between packing, a computer outage, and all the rest I never got around to it, however. I compromised by leaving a rose for each of them on their desks.

Two fellow ACC students were on the same plane back to the US, so we all travelled together. One final gift of the Olympics, a sort of insufficient peace offering as we left, was Beijing's new airport we departed from. We got through security and rushed over to one of the spanking new widescreen TV's just in time to see Michael Phelps win his 6th gold medal by one hundredth of a second. As we waited at the gate, we relaxed (or slept, for those who had pulled an all-nighter) on their super-comfortable and brand new cushioned seats. It almost made up for all the other Olympic inconveniences.

One of my classmates
described our time in Beijing as "concrete, smog, and communism". It was apt enough. Even on the plane, echoes of our time in China continued to reach out to us: when boarding, the theme song "Beijing Huanying Ni" (Beijing Welcomes You) played on repeat. And, 13 hours later as we arrived in New York, This song again played in what may have been one of the greatest ironies of the whole event: Even when landing in New York, Air China cannot divorce itself from a state-induced narcissistic obsession with the Beijing Olympics.

After a weekend at home catching up with local friends and participating in my younger brother's "going to college" party, I returned to college, where I am now working for the ITS (Information Technology Service) department, getting trained and helping with tech support. It's good work, and good pay, and gives me the opportunity in down time to write this update, respond to e-mails, and other minor but time-consuming tasks. And, as I have learned not to underestimate, every day the weather has been beautiful. It has been clear, bright, and cool; and Swarthmore being a National Arboretum doesn't hurt one bit either.

Yesterday I borrowed the hardware repair guy's solder. I resoldered the broken piece of my motherboard, and now the laptop I broke a week before leaving for China, and hauled around all summer works again. It makes me very happy, and also makes me realize never to trust what HP outlet Chinese guys say about whether my computer is fixable or not.

I'm beginning to worry that I'm losing my newly-learned Chinese at about the same rate I acquired it; give me two months and I'll be back at square one. While I am definitely losing some, however, there is a lot that will remain.

Looking back on the summer as a whole, I realize that it is about what I expected: I don't think I can honestly say that the summer was "fun", especially as compared with the last two summers. Even though there were some fun times, honestly, this summer was work. Whether working at an orphanage, or working at a university, I was working, and working hard.

As a result, I find it hard how to answer people when they ask about my summer. I usually say that it was good, and I learned a lot. It's true. It was good, and I did learn a lot. I don't really want to say it was enjoyable, because for the most part, it was really enjoyable: but the hard parts were hard because if they were easy, I wouldn't learn as much. ACC was the best learning environment for language that exists, and that is why I chose it in the first place. I decided at the beginning of this summer it wasn't going to be a fun summer, but a hard one. And so it was.

The summer wasn't fun, per se, and quite possibly this blog has revealed that to many of my readers. But having fun is not the only thing in life. This summer has definitely been worth every single day; I have learned much about Mandarin Chinese, about Chinese culture and psychology, about the Olympics, and about myself. And that's more than what anyone can expect from two and a half months.

My time in the Middle Kingdom is over -- for now. Any readers who wish to hear more stories are welcome to contact me.

For the last time,

Chris Green

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