Xi'an Update - TJ Acena
June was hot in Xi’an, hot and humid, the air was thick and it left a strange taste in my mouth. Hot is normal for there, humid is not. Huge thunderstorms would pass over the city and I would stare out my window at them in awe. I spent most of my last month in China sitting in my underwear under my air conditioning, aimlessly staring at my computer screen because the closer that I got to leaving the less I cared about anything. I did yoga less, I wrote less, I struggled with planning lessons, and I started to feel lonely. Some things went well, I’d go see my friends in the city and I was feeling like I was starting to get the hang of teaching (I had great students this semester), but as soon as I got back to my room those good feelings evaporated.
Everyone always asked if I was excited to come back. I was, but sometimes I would lay up at night dreading going back. I’m coming back with no money, to a city that grows more expensive every year, with no job lined up, no idea what I’m doing with my life in my early 30’s (grad school?), and a lot less writing than I thought. If it weren’t for the fact that I have so many friends in the city I’d probably be in a full state of panic.
Leaving China was surprisingly easy; I just woke up one morning and then caught a plane out of the country. 24 hours later I was in America. I lived in Xi’an but it was not my home, the year ended without much fanfare, the school had a goodbye lunch, some students gave me some sweet gifts, and I went out for a great dinner with my friends. I was surprisingly affected by the outpourings of sadness by my students when I told them I would not return next year, especially by the freshman English majors. I felt guilty, but I also knew that faking my way through higher-level classes was not going to work out. Leave while they love you, the other foreign teacher told me.
There’s an excellent piece in the Guardian by Tania Branigan, their China correspondent, about living there:
People joke that, after a month in China, you can write a book on it; after a year, you can write an essay; after five, perhaps a sentence. I loved the seven years I spent there, but nothing is as absurd as the idea of being a “specialist” on a country that holds a fifth of the world’s population, has an extraordinarily rich and turbulent history, boasts immense geographic, ethnic and cultural diversity, and is changing faster than one can imagine.
A friend recently asked me if I enjoyed living there and I told them, “The short answer is no.” There are some great things from my time in China: getting to know my students, learning to teach, amazing food, the rich history, being forced to really see the world through a different lens. But when I balance the scales in my head, the good things don’t outweigh all the things I hated: the shitty students, struggling to teach myself how to teach, the constant digestive problems, the air pollution, the frustrating cultural differences, the loneliness. I know I’ve had worse years than this, but it was still hard. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t valuable, that I haven’t learned and grown, that I regret going, that I won’t remember the great things. It was just a hard year.
People told me China would give me something to write about, but I don’t know that I find my own story about China very revelatory, I went away, I came back, I was always on the outside. If you ask me to talk about China I’d probably have to start with what I told me students when they asked me about America: It depends. Anyway, if you want to know more about China then read the Branigan piece, she gives a pretty balanced picture of what China is like.
I haven’t actually made it back to Portland yet, I’ll be there in a week. I’m up in Alaska at my parent’s house right now (Alaska is also having a record hot summer). It’s strange to be back here, it usually is. Alaska was where I grew up, but it doesn’t feel like home. When I go into Wasilla I feel like an outsider, self-conscious, overly cautious. I always felt like an outsider in China, but I was never meant to fit in there, America is my country, I should fit in here. But I don’t. Not this here. I used to fit into Portland, and I probably still do, but it’s not my home anymore. Not because I lived in the real Portland and it’s all gentrified to hell since I’ve been gone (Portland has been doing that since before I showed up there), but simply because I’ve been gone. Nowhere feels like home after a year living out of suitcases. I don’t expect it to be easy just because China was hard. Portland is not a utopia that’s going to save me and I’m not getting my old life back. But pieces of that life are still there, and I love those pieces, I’ll work to make something new. It’s probably going to be hard.