At the end of March pink buds started popping out of the trees on campus, not just the ends, all the way down the branches. The next week the buds had yawned open, tiny pink mouths, like coral. The week after that the blossoms were gone, swept up by straw brooms of the groundskeepers. The temperature would jump and fall every few days, each time settling a little warmer than the time before, I stopped wearing sweaters to class. One day there were leaves everywhere, as if there had been leaves all along, I had just failed to notice them. I switched off the space heater in my room.
Other things are changing too. A new convenience store was built outside the high-speed train station, which I pass through every time I catch the subway. The apartments being built across from campus have been painted, new billboards adorn the city, and crosswalk signals have gone up at major intersections. Some of these changes happened while I was gone, but others in the last few weeks. It’s nothing remarkable per say, cities change. But I realized that to notice changes to the city you live in requires a level of familiarity to it.
Xi’an is familiar but it’s not any closer to being my home than it was before. I travel with a little more confidence around the city, but I still travel as a stranger. When I go into the city people watch me, struggle to communicate with me, do not see me as part of their society. I’m constantly confronted with my foreignness outside my room, my inability to understand what’s happening around me, and sometimes, to deal with what’s happening around me. Just leaving my quiet room on campus shocks me a little, a sea of Chinese college students. I think, Oh yeah, I live in China.
It’s not that I forget I live in China, I always know I’m here, like I know my heart is beating in my chest, but it’s not something I think about sometimes. My room is just four walls, sounds come up from road, light shines in from the sun, but nothing unusual happens. I could be anywhere. It’s a little like being lost, moving from the specific to the general, losing your bearings. I drift away from China. I don’t mind being lost sometimes, feeling like I’m the only person who might exist, it’s the same as taking a walk into the wilderness. But sometimes this drifting happens when I’m chatting with a friend online, or watching a movie, or listening to a song, and I drift somewhere familiar. It’s not back to Portland, but it’s somewhere familiar, this state of being in China but not being in China.
I find myself seeking out the familiar more. One of my favorite things to do now is take a bus out to a Starbucks in the North part of the city. Sometimes I go with the other foreign teacher (there is now another foreign teacher at the school) and sometimes I just go by myself. I order a sandwich or a pastry, sometimes both, it’s nice to eat something familiar, not an approximation of what a sandwich or a pastry should taste like. And even though no Starbucks are identical they are immediately recognizable, there is that aesthetic, the modern and solid furniture, the inoffensive American music, the smells, that let you know you are in a Starbucks. Even if the store is filled with people speaking Chinese, it feels like I could be somewhere else. Somewhere familiar, even if not Portland.
That’s globalization for you I guess.
I also make a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches now.
A few weeks ago, on the first sudden warm day of spring, I walked outside without a jacket; it had that same feel of the first nice day of spring back in Portland. And all I wanted at that moment was to call up a friend and go to some bar with a patio and talk for hours. But I was in China; surrounded by thousands of college students thousands of miles from the people I miss the most.
Last week it rained, a heavy rain that you felt coming hours before it happened, it reminded me of Portland too. I’m sure long time residents thought it was just part of living in Xi’an. But to me it felt like something else, the past invading the present, desire.
Is it Portland I want? Or more generally, to be back in my own culture? I know that Portland might not be familiar when I get back. I know that there are parts of my own culture that I hate. I know that when I think about going back I’m filled with hope and relief but also fear and anxiety. But I think about all the time.
I have two months left in China now.