February 13, 2014

6 Tips for Americans Teaching in China

by eric

Before we left China, I had a request to write a blog post giving advice to Americans who are new to teaching in China. My original plan was to take a month or so to enjoy being home before doing so. That month was over in August. Oops. With Chinese universities getting ready to start up a new semester, I figured now is a good time to rectify that omission.

I’d like to first start with a caveat: Keep in mind that China is large; it contains multitudes. While this is true literally, it’s also true figuratively. The cultural and economic diversity in the country is hard to fathom without having visited it. In other words, unless you’re a Peace Corps volunteer or something similar, my experience teaching in China will likely be an almost completely different animal than yours. (Incidentally, I hope that yours isn’t quite as muddy as mine was.) My students’ entrance exam (高考, gao1 kao3) scores were some of the lowest among students who attend 4-year universities.  If you’re teaching on the coast or at a major university in the interior of the country, your students should come with more advanced skills than mine. Keep that in mind as you read the specifics of this post. With that being said, on to yet another Internet list!

Continue reading

June 24, 2013

An American in America: Part 4

by eric

I’ve been back in China for a fews weeks now, but jet lag, catching-up responsibilities, grading, end-of-service paperwork, and my schedule have kept me from finishing up my thoughts on my US visit. As a result, I’ll finish up the “An American in America” series from China with this post and one more.

The list of things I enjoyed most while in America are predictable: food, cleanliness, ease of communication. But vying for the top spot is anonymity. While in America, most people didn’t notice me much less care about me. I was just another person. When they did notice me, they treated me as they would anyone else in the same situation. Customer service workers, for example, helped me because I was a customer.

It’s been a long time since I had that experience. In some spots in China, the attention is minimal. In Chengdu, we elicit the occasional 老外 (laowai) or 外国人 (waiguoren). A few stare, but mostly, people treat us like we are supposed to be there. The same goes for Kunming. My couple days in Beijing were similar, although I’ve heard foreigners at tourist sites can sometimes become the new tourist site for travelers in from other areas.

At our site, however, we are constantly reminded that we are visitors. When we arrived, we quickly realized that this would be the case any time we visited downtown. Because our campus is on the edge of the city, only those who live on our school street or campus see us regularly enough to know we live here and treat us like neighbors. People in other parts of the city tend to be surprised that we are in Anshun and feel the need to let everyone around them know we are there, discussiing our various quaities. That doesn’t include the four times this semester alone people have yelled some variation of “fuck” at us (including “fuck your mother”).

What’s been a surprise and a disappointment is that while it happens to a much lesser extent around campus, we’re still getting the remarks when around school even though we’ve been living and working on this small campus for nearly two years. Recently, there have been times we barely emerge from our apartment building before students point out we’re there or wonder aloud where we’re going. Even some faculty members still refer to us as the foreign teachers: “The foreign teachers are here.” “Did you tell the foreign teachers about the holiday?” When we eat out, the restaurant owners usually treat us as if we belong in Anshun. It’s not unusual for our fellow diners, however, to analyze who the foreigners are, how well they use chopsticks, and why they are eating spicy food (someone in China at some point decided both that no Americans eat spicy food and that everyone in China should know this. While way off base, his/her ability to spread the word in such a big country has to be admired.).

Some of this talk is done with no malice. In these cases, several explanations account for their actions. The fact that most people in this area rarely or never see foreigners contributes to the situation, as I’m sure does the long tradition of an insular Chinese society. I won’t pretend to know Chinese culture and history well enough to give a comprehensive list or even a well-educated guess. Based on the fact that many people run away or refuse to look at us when they realize we understand them, it’s hard to draw that conclusion about all of them.

The point of all this isn’t to elicit your sympathy. As a heterosexual white man, I face less and less-severe discrimination than any other demographic in the world. When we joined the PC, we knew we’d often run into situations that made clear we were foreigners, although I didn’t suspect I’d have so many people literally telling me so often. And PCVs and those doing similar work around the world deal with similar situations; mine is not unique. What makes this easier (although not always easy) to handle is that we choose how long we are surrounded by these notifications. We decided to come to China of our own free will. We could have lived a more comfortable two years in America. Through the Peace Corps, we had a paid ticket back to America waiting on us at any point during our service.

Not everyone has willfully chosen their circumstances. Other people constantly treated as others might technically have another choice, but it’s not always much of one. One of our students has what are considered strange interests in China: boats, boat-related miscellanies, LEGOs, grocery shopping, steam punk. He also sometimes has a hard time picking up on social cues, so he often has lengthy conversations about naval history in which he is the only actual participant. As a result, he’s often called “weird” or “strange” and has few friends. He can’t call up his American boss and be on a plane in a few days. America, which we like to think of as being welcoming to foreigners, is no exception. Some immigrants or non-white people in America have it better off, but most of them are the “right” kind of immigrant: educated, wealthy, etc. US immigration policy and popular opinion has always had built-in prejudices, the bias changing with history. Just to name a few, people of Jewish, African, Hispanic, Eastern European, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Middle Eastern descent have all been and/or still are victims of this discrimination. Some have had the misfortune of merely looking like a member of one of these distrusted groups. In countries like the Congo, some are strangers in their own country. So although I tire of the constant reminders that I am an outsider, I’m going to try to remember these last few weeks to be thankful there’s somewhere I’m an insider, but more importantly, when I do return home, I hope I can work against those ideologies that seek to estrange.

May 29, 2013

An American in America: Part 2

by eric

I’ve long wondered what room in our house/apartment I will consider the most different from its China counterpart when we return to America, and this trip confirms what I long suspected: the bathroom. Here are a few reasons why:

1. The smell of our bathrooms tend not to reflect what we use them for. In China, even clean, private bathrooms smell like, well, a place where people crap and piss. It’s actually amazing that this isn’t the case everywhere. A place where people dump their s@!$ doesn’t smell like s@!$? That’s one of our greatest technological innovations, just below writing, the Internet, and wireless technology and one spot above the Whisper 2000.

2. You can drink the water without fear of a terrible digestive ailment as a result. Again, this is an incredible advance. Right next to the place where we make water, we can get potable water. On second thought, knock the Whisper 2000 down another peg.

3. Toilet paper, hand soap, and at least one hand-drying method are standard in American bathrooms. It’s uncommon to get one of these in a public bathroom in China. Three is so rare that Saara has a name for such bathrooms; however, I forget the name at the moment. Triple something. A little help, Saara!

4. American plumbing can handle toilet paper. In China, your used toilet paper goes in a garbage can. This means that you have to tie up and dispose of a garbage bag full of poop on a regular basis. For another consequence of this, see #1 on this list.

Every time we tell a new group of students about the differences between American and Chinese bathrooms, there’s a collective “Whoaaaaaaa” of amazement followed by whispered conversations that tend to have the words “America,” “so,” and “rich” in them (our students whisper loudly, so no need for the Whisper 2000). In fact, if I were one of my students and was able to visit America, I might never leave the first bathroom I entered.

May 27, 2013

An American in America: Part 1

by eric

Many of you know I’m in America this week for a short trip. This is the first of what I plan to be a series of short posts on my brief visit. So far, I haven’t left the Seattle airport, which only sort of counts as being in America. As we descended, I couldn’t help the smile that stretched across my face the entire descent. It’s safe to say I’ve never been this happy to be in America.

Three things have stuck out during the couple hours I’ve been here. The first was the smell of coffee as soon as I left the customs area. Thankfully, no one was around me as I took multiple deep breaths, thus avoiding any possible confusion that I was trying to smell strangers. The second characteristic that stands out is just how much English is spoken here. it’s obvious, but your ears forget what it’s like being surrounded by your native language. Multiple times I’ve forgotten I’m no longer in China and turned around to see who the person with incredible English is. Other times, I’ve felt as if I’m being assaulted by the language, unable to ignore it while trying to do other things. Finally, it’s weird to be so aware of the diversity here. My brain keeps wanting my eyes to follow the [insert minority here] people as they walk through the airport. Thankfully, my eyes are still aware that’s an insensitive, bordering-on-racist action and resist.

April 19, 2013

If You Help Us Build It

by eric

Below is a post regarding a Peace Corps Partnership Program (PCPP) proposal we drew up and submitted. Basically, PCPP is the Peace Corps version of Kickstarter, except the only prize donors get is the joy of donating and projects are pulled as soon as they hit the fundraising goal. Because of the incredible generosity of family and friends, our goal was met in less than 24 hours. As a result, we have no page to link to. This post, however, was already written, so it’s going up anyway. Below, we’ll give you some other opportunities if you missed our project but still want to donate.

Remember those long hours spent in the university library studying for major exams or completing major papers? Maybe you didn’t actually enjoy those times like I did, but you probably can think back to a class, exam, or assignment that you worked really hard on and earned a grade that reflected that effort. When you got that grade, I’m sure it made you feel proud of yourself. Confident. Maybe it was the first time you realized you could actually pull off your goals for your academic and professional careers.

Now, think back to the details of those seemingly never-ending nights. The flipping of the pages. The musty smell of the books. The warm coffee. The barely audible whispers. The low, hard, plastic, back-less stools you sat on for hours at a time.

If that last part doesn’t sound right, it’s because I’m describing our students’ situation (well, except for the coffee. But who’s keeping score?). When Saara and I began thinking about what we wanted to do with our Peace Corps service, one thing we decided on is that we wanted to leave something tangible behind that would make the school better (other goals include doing a keg stand with green tea; convincing our students to say, “Noodles. Don’t noodles.”; and starting an intramural sport that somehow combines baseball, literary theory, poetry, and Joss Whedon TV shows. The boxes on that checklist are bare so far). When we saw the crowded, dilapidated library and its small, outdated foreign-language offerings and heard our students complain they had no English-speaking “environment” (read: “place”), we immediately had our secondary project: a resource room.

We didn’t want just a small library with English resources, though. We wanted our students to realize that learning a language means using it outside of the classroom through daily conversation, movie and TV watching, and reading. Moreover, we wanted them to know that learning doesn’t just have to be drudgery, that you can learn by talking about things you’re interested in, watching movies and TV you like, and reading not just textbooks but comics, sports books, and romance novels. A major goal of this project has been to create a relaxed atmosphere where students can hang out or study or watch movies, but do it all in English. Because of a RELO Grant through the State Department and donations from some amazing friends and family [I love you guys!!!! For reals. -saara], we’ve already stocked the room with texts, classic and contemporary alike, as well as some English-language TV shows and movies. However, because our furniture consists of the already mentioned plastic stools, students have a hard time spending a long time in the room. We’re hoping you can help us to buy a couch, some comfortable chairs, and a new bookshelf to help us create this inviting place, which we hope will encourage our students to study and use English, thereby increasing their exam scores and providing more job and life opportunities for them.

This goal has the added benefit of something sorely lacking on many Chinese campuses: a community outside of the classroom. At Chinese colleges and universities, you start your major from day one, and changing majors is difficult to do. At our college, 98% of classes are taken with the same students, all of whom are the same year and major. In addition, many of my students, when asked to list their habits, put “sleeping” at the top of the list. All these factors mean our students spend the great majority of their four years in college interacting with the same 30-50 students. To provide them with more opportunities to get to know other students with other interests and skills, we are working on the Ray Kinsella theory, believing that an inviting environment will make this interaction possible and more likely.

Here’s where I would have pointed you to our project page on the PCPP site, but it no longer exists because of the aforementioned generosity. However, if you’re disappointed you didn’t get to donate and think you won’t feel better until you have, we’d like to recommend this similar project some other China PCVs are working on or the China country fund, from which the PCPP administrators can redirect money to projects in danger of missing their funding goal.

February 28, 2013

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

by eric

[This post was inadvertently published before it was finished, which is why some of you may have had trouble accessing it. My apologies for the confusion. Below is the finished post. Well, as finished as it’s ever going to get.]

When I learned I’d be teaching at a university in China, one of the things I was most looking forward to was getting to know my colleagues as colleagues. While I love teaching, I also enjoy being a part of the larger academic community, learning about other faculty members’ research and teaching interests. I thought the Peace Corps would present a unique opportunity for me to do this with Chinese university teachers, with the added benefit of learning about another culture, its interests, and research methodologies. I envisioned exchanges that were mutually beneficial, with both me and my Chinese peers getting fresh ideas.

The first three semesters of my service have been nearly void of that. Thanks to my program manager, I was able to meet and talk with a Lacanian specialist who lives in Chengdu. I’ve had a few conversations with a dean here about his work and was able to recommend some sources to him, but there’s been very little of this interaction at site. Many factors contribute to this lack, three that I have been able to identify. One is that very few teachers here in Anshun have offices. Various deans have dedicated office space, and we occupy the foreign teachers office. Everyone else must use what free computers they can find in others’ offices. It’s hard to talk shop when there’s no shop in which to talk. Additionally, many small colleges in China are beginning to see an increase of faculty who either hold graduate degrees or are in the process of earning them. With much of the faculty not having received the research  training one gets in graduate school, it follows that they would have little or no research to discuss. The third factor I see is that because smaller colleges in China are often tied directly to a profession–we are at a teacher’s college, the skills students are expected to learn are directly related to that profession and thus are limited. As a result, the classes offered are also limited, which means teachers need only refine their classes each year and not imagine new topics or create new syllabi.

One exception took place recently, when I was able to have coffee with the head of an English department at a major Chinese university. This professor just happens to also work on testimony studies, so we were able to discuss the joy and challenges of that particular field. As the conversation unfolded and I learned that she could expertly discuss many of the same sources I used in my dissertation, I realized that I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed the academic version of shop-talk. Because we work in different periods of American literature, we took turns discussing different testimonial texts and the specific research opportunities and challenges they presented. Continue reading

November 2, 2012

Two Chinas, Not at all Alike in Dignity

by eric

We’ve posted before about the noise in China, how it seems never-ending, inescapable, all-encompassing (you see where I’m going). Often, that’s true. For an example, here’s a video I shot while Saara and I were eating hotpot with some new friends from Ukraine. Saara is shouting to be heard. The noise you hear in the background is from only about ten people. This was by far not their loudest moment, and this fairly representative of our eating experiences.

Here is a video that does not fit that description of China. This is in the Buyi village of Shuitou, Guizhou, near Qinghe, a secluded spot about 90 minutes outside of Guiyang by bus. There’s an amazing hotel on this river that we’ve visited twice now, or not nearly enough. It takes some getting used to the quiet. The lack of a wall of noise makes every small noise all the more noticeable for a few hours, but it is so very relaxing once you adjust.

October 23, 2012

Squeaky Wheels and What Not

by eric

When people ask how living in China is, I often answer, “Great and terrible, exciting and boring, familiar and strange, rewarding and frustrating, and often all of those within the span of about 30 minutes.” Almost every time a Chinese person points, yells 老外 (lao3wai4; foreigner) at us and laughs, within minutes another Chinese person greets us with, “老师好 (lao3shi1 hao3; Hello, Teacher),” a phrase that (a) expresses the great respect teachers are often held in here and (b) recognizes us simply as teachers. We are not 外师 (wai4shi1; foreign teachers), but simply teachers, a subtle difference that is strangely comforting. Any time a Chinese person is so convinced we can’t speak any Chinese that they tell us they don’t understand English after we speak to them in their language, it’s almost a guarantee that later that day we will encounter a patient Chinese speaker wanting to hold a conversation with us about something besides whether we can use chopsticks, if we are accustomed to Chinese food, and if we have visited the nearby waterfall.

This brings us to a few weeks ago. Saara and I were returning from grocery shopping, tired from finishing up a week of teaching and preparing for Saara’s dad to visit. On the crowded bus back to campus, we stood next to a group of university students who proceeded to talk about what foreigners like to do, what they eat, and how they are. Saara turned and asked, “Foreigners what?” (it doesn’t sound so rude in Chinese). Usually, this question effectively embarrasses participants in these kinds of conversations enough to stop the discussion but not so much that they can’t pretend they aren’t embarrassed. It’s a win-win for all involved. Continue reading

September 14, 2012

Fear of a Red Planet

by eric

America needs an enemy to fear. To be more specific, many American politicians are quick to let the American public know who they should be fearing and why that threat justifies their legislation, emphases, etc. Usually, the result isn’t pretty. In cases where a foreign power is the looming monster waiting to take away our freedom, our “protection” has included McCarthyism, the Vietnam War, and the Patriot Act. The list could go on and on. And another endless one could be made for domestic “threats.”

While not as pressing a threat as terrorism right now, China seems to rank high on the list, particularly from an economic perspective. Obama’s recent “pivot” to Asia implies that the region poses a potential danger to our way of life, requiring heightened attention to the area. While North Korea’s recent missile experiments no doubt are a large part of that concern, China’s economic policies* likely play a role, too. Meanwhile, Romney wants to increase defense spending because of the growing militaries of some rising countries, including China. There’s also the “threat” of China cashing in the U.S. debt it owns, which, according to this fear, would wreck the U.S. economy (never mind that China, as of 2011, owned only 8% of all American debt and that China needs a strong US economy in order to sell its manufactured goods).

These fears have as one of their assumptions that China is a thriving country with a huge population that can mobilized at once by its strong central government. There is a sliver of truth here. China’s economy has grown leaps and bounds in the last 20-30 years, making it the second largest economy in the world. However, as I’ve pointed out before, its GDP per capita puts it squarely amongst developing countries. The easily mobilized population fear is, I suspect largely based on the assumption that China’s central government can do what it wants when it wants when it comes to domestic matters. The majestic Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony seemed to only reinforce this idea in many Americans’ minds.

Although an impressive display (and, I’ve since discovered, no exception. The Chinese know how to put together an open ceremony), the coordination and planning necessary to execute the ceremony is no more representative of daily Chinese life than High School Musical is indicative of an American high school’s ability to smoothly perform a school-wide dance (at least that’s what I think happens on that show). While power is focalized here, the government’s reach can be exaggerated. Yes, there is a Great Firewall and Internet monitoring (although, the latter probably isn’t uncommon in the U.S., either). However, black cabs flourish. Unlicensed business owners dot nearly every corner, their carts bursting with food or sundry items. A food-safety crisis looms. These are not the only reasons to question this fear.

The new library on campus that will likely never be occupied.

Living in Guizhou, the least developed and poorest region in China, has diffused any such concern we had before we arrived. Anshun is dotted by unfinished buildings. In what seems to be a fairly typical Guizhou story, the shell of one apartment building just outside campus has been abandoned; the developer has fled with the down payments of prospective apartment owners, including some of our colleagues. A beautiful, modern library on our campus has been nearly completed for a few years, ready to replace the cramped, crumbling library in use now. However, it isn’t likely to get any closer to being finished as the building failed to meet code, and the expense of taking it apart and putting it back together is likely prohibitive. No one is likely to ever step foot in the building, in part due to a very large dog who is very good at warning people not to enter it.

For the past two weeks, our water has been unreliable. On two separate occasions, we’ve been without water for four days. The same situation greeted us at the beginning of last semester, but our province was suffering through a drought at that time. Later last year, construction of a road meant the water pipes had to be disconnected and then reconnected. In both situations, we knew when we wouldn’t have water (and, at least as importantly for us, why) and were able to plan accordingly.  Continue reading

September 6, 2012

Who You Calling an Old Outsider?

by Saara

老外/Laowai literally means “old outside” but actually just means “foreigner.” The “old” part connotes respect (see the words for teacher, wife, husband and elder: 老师, 老婆, 老公, 老人家, respectively). People usually call us laowai, and that’s fine. I can’t remember Chinese names for shit, so I make up my own names for everyone anyway [the people in my neighborhood are Harriet Fruit-Lady, Stella Fruit-Lady, Cecelia NuoMiFan (best 糯米饭 in China, y’all!), Chinese Mr. Rogers (dude rocks a cardigan), and the Green Family (Their restaurant sign is green. Shut up! Clarity beats wit.)]. I hope that our neighbors have special names for us, like “American Fancystockings” and “Foreign Pretty-Glasses,” but I suspect that we’re just The Laowai.

Can you spot the foreigner in this picture?

No bigs. We’re never going to blend. And it’s not like there are so many foreigners wandering Anshun’s streets that they need to differentiate us from each other. When we moved here, we were, as far as we know, the only two foreigners in town. One day at the visa office, we ran into one grumpy American (He was snappish with my waiban. Want to get on the shortlist of people I wouldn’t ask paramedics to pull from a burning cardboard box? Get snappish with the guy who went on a special trip to buy me a space heater because he read that it might get cold that weekend.), but when I asked him how long he’d be in Anshun, he said, “as little as possible,” so I’m sure he’s gone by now. Last Thanksgiving weekend, a 70-something Irish dude showed up at our house, and he’s cool. But we only saw him the once. We had Joanne for awhile, a hilarious, whip-smart Bruneian girl who springed (earlier than summering, later than wintering) on the beige shores of Anshun, but she’s abandoned us for stupid college (We miss you, Joanne!). Oh, and there’s a shady dude who wears shiny shirts and tells Eric to shave his beard so he can get with Chinese girls. He (Mr. Shady, not Eric) also pretends he’s British when he clearly isn’t (Has anyone heard of Oslo, England yet? Until then, he’s a creeper.). So I’m saying that, in this town, foreigners are rare. Even tourists don’t pop up much. Several months ago in our Byzantine open market, I walked past two stocking-capped, backpacked foreigners, but they, like many foreigners China, averted their eyes as soon as they saw me (Travelers, what’s up with that? I’ll talk to you in Mandarin if a total immersion experience is really that important to you.).

Anyway: Near campus, they’re used to us; we see the same people every day, get crazy with the small talk (us: Mandarin / them: Anshun’s dialect). Even the people we don’t often talk to see us enough to know we’re teachers at the college who like to snack on 小聚字 and wave at all the street dogs. No one calls us 老外, except 娜娜, who is 18 months old, and whenever she says it, her parents tell her instead to call us “Auntie” and “Uncle” (阿姨 and 叔叔). I’m sure they call us 老外 when we’re not around because what else would you call us? But they get that we’re not just 老外. Or at least we’re their 老外.

But whenever we leave our area, we attract stares. And giggles. And catcalls. We go to the train ticket office, and someone yells “haalllllooo” from across the street. When we look, they turn away and laugh.* We go shoe shopping, and mothers grab their toddlers and point and say “看到老外!” (Look at the foreigners!).

On the same day that I saw the two foreigners in the open market, a woman standing not two feet away pointed at me, laughed and yelled “老外!” over my head to her friend across the street. At the time, I hadn’t learned enough Chinese to deal gracefully, so I glared at her and harrumphed away, trying to cuss away the powerlessness.

I’ve since developed what I hope are friendlyish ways to deal with the attention—I ask people in Chinese how they knew we were foreigners (It’s a funny joke!) or ask them if they’re a foreigner too (Equally funny!). Sometimes, just starting a little conversation with whatever stranger is handy works—1) If the catcaller is still paying attention, they then figure out that I speak Chinese, but more importantly 2) Because the person I’m talking with usually responds graciously, with a combination of enthusiasm and, when I’m lucky, nonchalance (How I love not being a big deal!), I’m reminded that not every Chinese person is out to yell insensitive crap at me, that I can connect, in whatever momentary way, with the people in my community. Sadly, my Chinese isn’t good enough to have an in-depth conversation about the objectification of the other and the wacky cultural differences in expressions of respect and rudeness, but I take what I can get.

[Also, some people that I try to talk to just stare at me in shock and stammer that they don’t speak English (I don’t think my Chinese is that bad, so I’m not sure what that’s about). But usually, people are nice. I should more often give people the opportunity to remind me that they want to be nice to me.]

[Also also, sometimes, I do not respond gracefully. Sometimes, people catch me when I’m tired—a wise friend pointed out that sleep is the most important resource a PCV has—or hungry or stressed out, and I don’t react well. I stop; I glare; I tell them, in Chinese, to stop being rude (or, once, I mixed up two similar-sounding words and told some poor guy to stop being boring; he looked so sad. I feel really guilty about that one). Sometimes I talk to myself loudly in Chinese about rude people and how they’re annoying me to DEATH! which is so very passive aggressive of me, and I’m not proud, and I’m sorry that I’m not always the best foreigner I can be.]

My Chinese friends say that the catcallers and gawkers don’t mean it badly, that they’re just curious, that they’re trying to be friendly. I don’t exactly buy it. 1) Some of them do mean it badly, which is to say that they mean to make their friends laugh or to make themselves look good and aren’t thinking about us as people, which is understandable and human, but one of the lamer elements of being human. It’s lame when Americans do it—in our own, sneaky American way—to foreigners or homeless people or whomever we think is freaky. It’s lame when Chinese people do it to me. Plus, 2) even if they don’t mean it badly, I don’t know how much that matters. But maybe that’s because I’m American? It seems like my Chinese friends care more about what people mean; I care more about what people do. Neither is a better or worse way to look at things (Really; both have benefits and drawbacks, and of course, it’s so much more complex than I’ll make it sound in a blog post, and really, does it matter, ideas like better and worse?); it’s just difficult sometimes to reconcile two apparently opposing philosophies. And maybe one is a better outlook when you’re living in China, and the other is better when you’re in America.

It’s easy to rethink something or see it from someone else’s perspective, but it’s so difficult to unlearn an emotional reaction. So when strangers yell at me and laugh, I react the way I would in America—I get hurt. I feel angry. No matter how well they mean it. The best I can do most days is keep my auto-pilot reaction on the inside and react like a sane person on the outside. When I don’t have the energy for it, I try not to leave the area of our campus. All that is a lot of emotional work to go through. We have a few friends in town, but the language and culture barriers are such that hanging out with them isn’t exactly a comfort yet; it’s more like an investment in the possibility of future comfort.

I’m glad we moved to China. I love learning new things about Chinese—and, by extension, American—culture. I love learning to speak, read, and write Mandarin. I love that the high school girl that works in Green Family’s restaurant rubs my shoulder to say hello. I love that 娜娜 unwraps gum and gives it to me when I’m done eating at her parents’ restaurant. I love visiting schools in the countryside with our tutor and watching her start gleeful, liquor-fueled crap with people at banquets (even when I don’t understand the dialect she’s using). I love having the same conversation with the Harriet Fruit-Lady every day (You going home? / Yes. How’s business? / Good. / See you tomorrow!). I love working with my students. But living in China as a foreigner can feel isolated sometimes. Isolation, like a dearth of central heat or hot water in the kitchen, is one of the hardships I signed up for, but it still feels pretty whack. In philosophical moments, I get that this is a valuable experience for me to have. I grew up blond on a peninsula of blondness, and as I’ve moved from state to state, I’ve continued fit in, more or less. But in China, I’m irrevocably marked by my skin and my hair and my speech as an other. Of course, I still carry the privilege of being white and American and educated and temporarily-but-not-really-poor (fingers crossed!); I’m not going to pretend. But sometimes it does suck, and suck is suck is suck, no matter how much un-suck I’m otherwise granted, and no matter how much worse other people have it. Their good isn’t less good because mine is better, right? So the opposite is true too, I think. That’s probably several kinds of logical fallacy, but I’m sticking to it for now.

You are tempted to comment with something inspirational. You want to give me a practical solution. You want to line smog with silver. Please, gentle reader, resist. Sometimes things should be complicated and difficult. Let’s just let me struggle.


*I should note here that laughter can mean very different things for Chinese people than it does for Americans. Laughter in both places communicates complex, amorphous emotions; but in each country, they’re slightly different complex, amorphous emotions; plus, where and when it’s appropriate to laugh is different. So, you know. You know?