Xi'an Update - December 2014

My finals are over; all that’s left is to turn in the grades for my classes and I can leave on my two and a half month winter holiday. Due to how the lunar new year falls on the calendar this year’s winter holiday at my college is longer than usual, I’m not sure why, I just want to get out of this city as soon as possible. 


In the four months I’ve lived here it’s hard to say that I’ve grown attached to Xi’an, mostly due to where I live in the city. Out on the North edge of the city, surrounded by industrial parks: I’m only able to go downtown on the weekends. Going home from downtown is a problem, taxi drivers do not like to go all the way out to my university, and some will refuse to go there. But also, every time I go into the city, it’s for some specific purpose: checking out a historical place, or to buy groceries at Wal-Mart (this is the cheapest place to buy groceries and has the biggest selection), or visit my one real friend in the city. I often stay at her apartment since she has an extra bedroom; many weeks she is the only person I have actual fluent spoken conversations with. Sometimes when I visit we just stay in her apartment talking all night; about China, about our jobs, about what we’d do back home, where our home is. It’s easy to forget that I am in China, and honestly it’s kind of a relief. 


Things in Xi’an are familiar but I don’t really live here. That’s the fancy import grocery store I can buy cheese at, that’s the subway station I always get off at downtown, that’s the McDonald’s I go to when I can’t stand to eat noodles, that’s the Western style coffee shop I sit in and read books. At most I see any of these places once a week, often I see them less, last week I came down with the flu and didn’t go into downtown.


Martha probably knows, but in case you don’t, dear reader. I would avoid shopping at Walmart or eat at McDonalds back home. I (usually) have the economic privilege to shop at stores and eat at restaurants that are much better to their workers. But now, I constantly look for simple Western pleasures, and I’m not picky about where I get them. I eat a lot of Snickers now, it’s one of the only Western products sold on my campus, and even though they cost the same as a bowl of noodles I eat them once a week. I want small sweet things to make me feel better.


I just found out there is Dunkin’ Donuts here. Game changer.


Obviously it doesn’t help that I don’t speak the language here. Every day I walk through dozens of conversations I don’t understand. On campus, on the bus, on the subway, in the streets, at restaurants, at stores, nothing here really happens to me. Everything happens around me. Often I am the thing that is happening, people stare at me as I move through the crowds, point at me, take my picture. Occasionally people come up and talk to me, they always ask me where I am visiting from. It can not be conceived that I might be a semi-permanent feature of this city.

And I don’t think I want to.

I’m worn down. I’m tired of struggling in my job with no clear directive on how to teach. I’m tired of struggling with the students who can barely bother to pay attention in class when I do manage to come up with something. I’m tired of struggling to pronounce the few words and phrases of Mandarin I know and never being understood. I’m tired of people always pushing in front of me in line. I’m tired of only having someone to talk to once a week. I’m tired of the air pollution. I’m tired of my poorly built apartment with its peeling plaster and leaking pipes, I’m tired of my lingering stomach problems. I’m tired of squat toilets. I’m tired of being cold all the time because no one in China will shut doors or windows. 

So I’m making my way South, and I’m not sure where exactly I’ll end up yet. But I want to have beaches and sun.

The university shuts down over the holiday, they lock all the doors and turn the power off and everything. Rheea’s post about the stray dogs of Bangalore reminded me of the one thing I worry about while I’m gone: The campus animals. There are three dogs and maybe four or five cats that live on my campus, all on the charity of the students. They are all semi-domesticated; while they have no fear of people they aren’t generally interested in them either. At night it dips below freezing, I’m not sure where they take shelter during the nights, but once the campus is abandoned I’m not sure what is going to happen to them. 

Xi’an seems to have a pretty Western view towards cats and dogs. I often see dogs on leashes being walked around in the city, sometimes in outfits, and there seem to be very few strays. It’s not like other parts of South East Asia I’ve been to. There are pet stores in some of the shopping malls, and I’ve often seen people selling puppies on the street. Once, while walking down an alley in a less developed part of the city I stumbled across a ‘pet shop’ that I found pretty appalling, the front windows were stacked with cages of small dogs and cats. Outside there were some big dogs lying in iron cages.

Some of the students have asked me about the protests in Ferguson, they always ask if I am concerned about the violence and the property destruction. The other week I was having dinner with my friend in the city and she told me about her students from her English news/media class, they all seemed to look down on the protestors. Really, it’s not surprising when I considered how the Chinese public seemed to react to the protests in Hong Kong, which were the most well behaved protests I’ve seen in my life. It really highlights the cultural pressure to behave ‘appropriately’ in all things. One would never want to act in a way that would appear disorderly, to challenge the cultural norms, or reflect poorly on their family. It’s not that the students seem unsympathetic to the cause of the protests in Ferguson, but they believe that the protester’s behavior is unseemly. Instead they would say that people should write letters to the government and petition for change, this action is more appropriate. The students also seem to have a strange belief that governments will always do what is morally right.

I have a distinct distrust of systems of power, especially those which are rife with oppression. Maybe it’s my legacy as an American. It seems so naïve to me to trust that authorities that have enshrined systems of oppression into a society will suddenly realize the error of their ways after reading a few letters. The changes in American society weren’t just handed down from an enlightened government, they came because people went out onto the streets and demanded the change that was desperately needed.

In talking with gay Chinese guys I see the same thing, this idea that the government/society will change slowly at it’s own pace with acceptance of homosexuality. It might, especially as LGBTQ rights make headway in other countries, but the thing is that headway is coming because people in those countries are making noise. There is a reason that many consider the Stonewall Riots the serious beginning of the gay-rights movement in America, because it was the breaking point for us. We got angry, we went out into the streets, we were mad as hell and we weren’t going to take it anymore.


I feel like I’m jaded on China right now. 


Hopefully I’ll be feeling better after a nice vacation.


I’ll try to send an update in January, not sure where it will be from though.