Xian Update - November 2014

by TJ Acena

It was interesting to watch the elections unfold from China; I had to remind myself that everything I was reading about was happening in my country, my state. It’s not that I think that China is my home after two months away; I constantly feel like an outsider every time I leave my apartment. It’s the simple fact that physical distance makes things look smaller; America is a place across the Pacific Ocean I read about in the news and the news is emotionally exhausting. One of my seniors asked me about the elections. He has a pretty solid understanding of American culture and history but I managed to surprise him. I told him about how low voter turnout is, about how the Republicans try to disenfranchise voters, and about how Citizens United let loose untold billions of dollars into election advertising. 


“Elections are an ugly time in America,” I said. 

“I wonder if China will ever have elections,” he said to himself. 


He hoped that it will one day. And because he hoped for it I hoped for it to.


I’m glad to see that Oregon decriminalized marijuana, not that I am looking forward to lighting up as soon as I land back in PDX, but I think the drug laws in our country disproportionally affect people of color both in the states and, as Martha reminded me, in Mexico. 


Right before I arrived in China Jackie Chan’s son got caught with marijuana. He could go to jail for three years. 


Anyway, back to Xi’an. The weather is turning here as well. The days are getting shorter, colder, and smoggier. Industrial parks and factories surround the school I teach at; there are only a few smoke stacks around my campus, I’m not sure exactly what they are releasing into the atmosphere. I notice clear days now; blue sky is something unusual, worth noticing. In a way it reminds me of the clear days that break out in the middle of Portland winter. I’ve been watching the air quality more closely now; most of the days range from ‘moderate’ to ‘unhealthy’. It’s hard to make sense of how worried I should be; none of the students here on campus wear an air mask. I finally asked one of my English classes why they don’t wear masks, they said they wait till it gets really bad. They’re used to it. I often wake up with a sore throat. Thankfully I inherited an industrial strength air mask from a former teacher at the school. 


I also inherited a space heater, which is good because the radiator next to my bed could not even melt cheese.


I went to Hua Shan recently, one of the five sacred mountains of China, and got some amazing fresh air. It’s about thirty minutes away by bullet train. There was a surprising amount of people climbing the mountain. ‘Climbing’ is the right word to use, but perhaps it’s making you visualize the wrong thing. Stairs are built into the mountain, so you’re actually climbing and descending seemingly endless amounts of stairs, not that it makes it that much easier. There is a famous ascent path of mountain where you have to climb using footholds while holding onto chains or walk on planks miraculously attached to the side of the mountain but I didn’t take that path. I took the cable car. 



It was cold that morning. Once I got to the first peak I walked up to the simple chain guardrail and looked down, my sense of vertigo was dulled by the mist that rolled up the side of the mountain and floated away over my head, hiding the 6,000-foot drop. The guardrails are covered in locks engraved with the names of lovers and thick red ribbons representing wishes and prayers. 


Despite the crowds something still felt sacred about this mountain, and when the fog broke in the afternoon, slipping away like a tide, revealing the full scope of the towering peaks it became very clear. I didn’t understand these mountains, the slender shapes, the impossibly steep and smooth faces, it wasn’t like any mountain I had been to before. It seemed impossible that I should be up there, that anyone should be up there, that anyone would have ever made it up there and built one of the small temples or shrines that I saw. 


I also made it to the Terracotta Army recently, which is just a short bus ride from the city center. It was nice, but I enjoyed Hua Shan more.



I taught a lesson on Thanksgiving for my classes, mostly because it was easy to come up with and I am not very good at lesson planning. I even made a PowerPoint presentation. I don’t think about Thanksgiving a lot, I usually just show up somewhere with a side dish or a bottle of wine and leave feeling bloated and sleepy, but explaining the tradition to my classes made me sad that I wouldn’t be able to sit down with a group of good friends and share in that food you only have the patience to make once a year. 


I’m constantly marking the passage of time back home: the election, the holidays, my Facebook feed, calls from my family, these updates, and it’s hard not to see how the life you stepped out of just goes on without you. The country is changing, Portland is changing, my friends are changing, and it all changes together. And it somehow changes within a framework I understand, even from across an ocean. My life is changing too, but it feels separate from everything back home. Sometimes it’s trips to strange and beautiful mountains with new friends and sometimes it’s sitting alone in my apartment lying in bed watching Netflix to try to distract myself from how aimless I feel. 


I guess I’ll find out how much I changed when I get back. Homecomings are a mirror you can hold up to yourself.