I Don’t Know

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“Want something to drink?”

Ah. Here we go.

“I’m good.”

I roll to the left. I’m on a bus, about to pull away from the station. I’m headed five hours west, straight for the heart of 临沧 (Lincang) prefecture. Lincang means water-facing, an allusion to the 澜沧江 (Lancangjiang) river, also know as the Mekong—a beautiful waterway that might evoke eerie green and black images of bloody jungle war. Lincang is home to the 佤族 (Wazu), an ethnic group that the British and French—when colonizing the region around Burma and Vietnam—characterized as too “remote,” too “savage,” too “fierce” to attempt to administer—a designation essentially unheard of in the historical record of the two most ruthless and obstinate colonizers.

The area, and its corresponding region just across the Burmese border, would later become home to sweeping narco-armies that played one of the most pivotal roles in the worldwide opium trade. But, of course, very few people know this outside of the region itself. Certainly few people in China. Certainly fewer people in the West.

I won’t see any of it.

The guy sitting next to me offers me a can of Red Bull. He’s not offering me Red Bull, though. He’s offering me a conversation and I tell him “I’m good.” Not right now. Almost every bus/plane/train ride begins this way. Understandable. The likelihood of finding yourself next to a foreigner is infinitesimal. The likelihood of finding yourself next to a foreigner who can carry a conversation with you is pretty much zero percent. Perhaps there are 50 such people in the entire region. Should a rarity of such magnitude pop up in anyone’s daily routine, it would be difficult to resist conversational temptation. It’s important sometimes, as the object of endless small-talk, clandestine photo attempts, and countless barrages of “hello!’s” to remember and even embrace your inherent rarity—your uncommon opportunity to represent (or be perceived to represent) an entire country. Otherwise, you’ll go insane.

“Where are you from,” A few minutes later the guy has abandoned the Red Bull angle—probably because he’s now drinking it. He’s going straight for the conversation. This question, the most potent weapon in any small-talker’s arsenal, is never not the first one I’m asked. Sometimes I wish I had a different answer—Moldova or Andorra—or something. Something that would immediately quash the conversation for lack of questions. But, alas…

“The United States. Where are you from?”

“凤庆 (Fengqing county). I’m going home. I need to attend to some stuff at home. What are you doing here?”

“I’m going to meet some friends. I live in Dali. I teach English in a small town.”

“How old are you?” He asks.

“24.”

“Oh! Me too.”

He tells me a story that is ostensibly synonymous with nearly every other young person I meet. He is from a small town in Fengqing. He now lives near Shangri-La, the deceptively renamed tourist town that sits at the Yunnanese base of the Tibetan Plateau. He works “up the mountain,” crushing salt for a big company. He’s on a six-year contract that ends in 2017. I do not ask him why he is coming home, as it’s almost certainly not for leisure. But, he says the return trip is extremely rare. He usually can come home once a year during Spring Festival. The journey takes about two days and is expensive. And, besides, the month-long Spring Festival holiday is the only vacation he has all year, except for Sundays.

He shows me a smiling picture of his girlfriend. He says he wants to marry her, but thinks he needs a more stable job first.

He talks about his perceptions of my home country. It’s so big, so developed, so full of opportunities. I, as always, point out that this isn’t entirely true. There are many parts of China—say Shanghai—that are more developed and more full of opportunity than many or most parts of the United States. But, he points out that those parts of China have very little to do with him. They might as well be on another planet. And I, acknowledging that the same can be said for the places in the US that I’ve just referenced, agree.

Because I’ve told him I’m a teacher, we begin to talk about education.

“I envy your American system.”

“Why do you say that?”

“It’s much more relaxed and much more stimulating. I think it would have suited me well. School was very difficult, very tiring. I think I would have done well in America.”

“How did you do here?”

He laughs. “Average. I, you know, cheated a lot.”

“Sure. Me too,” I say.

“We would go to school at 7 and leave at night. You know how it is. Writing, cleaning, busy all day. No extra-curricular activities. No tutoring at home. These are important things.”

“How do you know about those things? You know, if you didn’t have that?”

“Well, I am 24 years old now. I will get married soon and have a child, of course. I think about my child. I want to learn about what I can do for my child.”

“That’s big stuff to be thinking about.”

“It’s really all I think about, you know.”

I don’t.

The bus twists through the green and black mountains. Twilight falls. We meander along the path of the Mekong’s upper reaches. Strikingly blue, turquoise even. Much different than the sepia-toned rivers cutting through Shanghai. We flow through mountain village after mountain village, clusters of mud brick homes dug deep into whatever passes for flat ground.

I rarely meet people my age. Mostly, the folks I come into contact with are decades my senior or pre-pubescent types. Why? For the reasons described in the conversation above. Young adults are simply not here. They are in the mountains, in the cities, already getting started on the next generation. I wish I did meet more of them. Not only because it would be nice to have more friends, but because it’s impossible to understand a place without seeing it through the eyes of people born when you were born. Older people are part of something else. They came up as players in a game almost entirely devoid of the “opportunity” or “choice” we like to think of. They speak a different language, they have an entirely different outlook on things, they will change little. Children are living in the now for the future. That future is hard to forecast, because it will almost surely be “brighter” than it would have been twenty years before. They are young, unformed, mostly unaware of the relative world they live in. In some ways they are like the grandparents that so often raise them. Both groups are abstract to me.

But, people my age are not so abstract. I can understand, that if I happened to be born in Fengqing County in 1990 the likelihood that I would be teaching in the capacity I do is, for all intents and purposes, zero percent. The likelihood that I would have already been crushing salt for four and a half years on a mountain above Shangri-La, entirely wiping out my four years of college, is much higher. The likelihood that I would be thinking critically about my next career move—where, how, how much, ­why?—is zero percent. The likelihood that at 24, I would be thinking instead of my as yet unborn child is much, much higher.

The word unfair did not once cross his lips. He has probably said it many fewer times in his 24-year-old life than I have in mine. And I think, though I often refuse these conversations, I should not. I will never have enough of them.

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Not That Simple

Pressure is a mountain on a mountain. Every day the kids rise at 6:45. They get up, wash their feet, brush their teeth. They slouch on top of cold, rickety desks and stools by 7:10, exhaling exhausted waves of fog in unison. They hardly stop until 8 pm. They’re in bed by 8:30. They have fun, when they can, between classes, at meals, in the quiet hours before sleep when they whisper so the teachers can’t hear. They play on the weekends in spite of their schoolwork, but some don’t have a chance, and some won’t let themselves.

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Fun is an enemy. No one would ever say it, but it is. It’s a distraction from the goal. That goal, taken in a big sense, is a matter of contention. The scaled down goal, though, is an exam in the middle of January. That is your measure. That is your worth. That is your goal. From 6:45 in the morning to 8:30 at night, this is where your energies should be focused. Your ability to reach the goal, today, is something like a minor plot point in a meticulously sequenced novel. It figures to have outsize, but unforeseen, reverberations on the climax. Every moment you edge closer to the goal, the pressure gets tighter. Lost time is magnified. You’re 10 years old. Everything you want contradicts accomplishment of the goal. It’s really, really hard to make sense of it. But, you’re not supposed to.

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I’m wearing a button-down plaid shirt and a purple/navy tie. I’ve got some frosting on my sleeve. My pants are tucked in, more or less. I look unintentionally… like a clown.

It’s the last day of school. I set a big cake down on the desk and the students cheer wildly. I smack the table. They stop. Before we eat the cake I wanted to tell them about the goal.

I told them a story accompanied by a poorly animated powerpoint…     url

“Two old men sat on a bench. One on the left and one on the right. It was a nice day. The man on the left wore a suit. The man on the right wore pants and a t-shirt that didn’t fit well. His pants had holes in them. He said to the man on the left, in the suit…

‘How have you been, my friend?’

‘I’m quite busy. I am tired. It’s nice to sit here with you.’

The man on the right blurted out…

‘My friend, you know, I envy you. Your clothes are so nice. Your house is so big. You eat fish everyday. I remember when we were in school. You worked so hard. We would play and you wouldn’t come out. You have earned your success. I remember how you earned it.’

‘I worked very hard. It is true. And I have had much success. But, you know, I have always envied you.’

‘How could that be?’ The man on the right said, surprised. ‘I have little. I’ve always worked in town. Look at my clothes.’

‘You said it yourself. When you were playing outside, I was studying. You had so much fun. When you passed love notes in middle school, I was too busy for love.’”

The students snickered.

“’Yes, but that was the past. Look what you have gained from all that work. Surely, you are satisfied.’

‘I am satisfied today. But, I will never be able to go back.’”

I asked them:

“Are you nervous for the exam?”

“Yes!”

“Do you have pressure from your teachers and from your parents?”

“Yes!”

“Do you think the test is important?”

“Yes!! Of course!”

“I agree. It is very important. But, don’t forget. There will be a test next week, there will be a test next year, and there will be many, many more tests.”

They sigh.

“There will be many chances. Remember, these tests, your scores, they are nothing but numbers. They are important, but they are not so important. Work hard, but remember, there are more important things than numbers. It may be hard to understand what I’m saying today, but it’s the truth, I promise. Let’s eat some cake.”

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I’m sure they didn’t really get it. But, then again, what do kids really get? That’s their greatest attribute. I’ve seen teachers give them the business. “You cry today, laugh tomorrow. Laugh today, cry tomorrow! Don’t you care? Don’t you want to be something better?” They hear it, but they can’t totally make sense of it yet. The anger, I guess they can make sense of that. The fact is, you tell a child what matters, the values of life and education. You tell them again and again until one day they just sort of accept it. Perhaps—but more likely not—someday they’ll realize it’s not that simple.

It’s very hard, it’s really impossible, for my kids to see outside the exam. I can understand that. The margin of error in their life is heartbreakingly thin. Coloring outside the lines is dangerous. I’m gone in a few months. I can help them on the exam. But, I can’t help them on the vast majority of exams, current and future. I can’t do much for them, tangibly, in the long term. I can’t do anything. But, they’re going to hear and fear about the future a lot. They’re going to subconsciously build a belief that today only matters as a function of tomorrow. They are going to believe it, believe that their only responsibility today is to improve the abstract concept of the future. I suppose if I can provide an alternative take—a fleeting, here today, gone tomorrow dissenting opinion—I have to. It’s good to confuse them. The very thought of a teacher questioning the importance of school or tests doesn’t match up. But, if I believed that that kind of success was the most important kind, I don’t think I’d be a very good teacher.

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On the Other Side of the World

Sometimes I feel an urge to stand up, shout, and toss my porcelain glass of baijiu against the wall. It’s not for anger or drunkenness or some irritable combination of the two. It’s just that sometimes I get this feeling in my stomach, right below my chest, like a massive balloon is about to burst, but can’t. Whatever it is can barely be contained without some sort of cathartic explosion. Sometimes I’m just overcome by reality. I’m overcome by the realization that what I’m firmly planted within is not a dream, but is actually very real, and just improbably incompatible with my previous notions of reality. Think of it like this: Imagine going to a foreign planet. The things you would see there would make no sense to you, yet they would be real. They would conform to all laws of physics and chemistry of that particular place. How about going 100 years forward in time? The things you would see would simply not line up, but still, they’d be real, super-real. And, all you could do is stare and scramble for a method to the madness. Real, but relatively speaking, not so real.

A few weeks ago, I traveled to the nearby state of Chuxiong in search of new schools for Teach For China. The experience was eye opening, to say the least. Each school was unique, each had it’s set of problems, each had it’s needs. The most fascinating school, though, by a long shot, was Wanbi Middle School.

We left Guihua at noon. Before we departed, our local host warned us, “the road isn’t made yet.” We began to ascend the mountain around 12:30. We climbed higher and higher, a tiny speck inching up the side of an imposing cliff face. Our rickety manual Mitsubishi could barely exert enough force to wind around some of the more unnerving turns. Three thousand feet up, no pavement, barely enough room for one vehicle, 10 degree turns, no guard rails. I had to accept that my life was in the hands of the guy behind the wheel early on. I was happy to see that he wore a Buddha around his neck. We kept going higher and higher. The trees disappeared. Still, people lived there. The people up that high in the mountains seemed like ghosts in a way, heavenly beings. They were so utterly removed from the cities and towns on the ground. They lived in the clouds, really.

Around 3 pm we stopped on the side of the mountain. Our caravan included two Mitsubishis; one white, one green. We were nine total: Our team of five TFC staff, two local leaders, and our drivers. I hopped out of the car. In each direction was a slab of rock that looked like something out of The Odyssey. Flat-faced, gray with green patches, and almost straight up against the horizon. Even thousands of feet up, it gave you a feeling of uneasiness, a feeling of inescapability. I threw a rock down the face, which made me feel even uneasier. I went back to the car. Straight below, bounded on all sides, was the Yangtze River, which would terminate thousands of miles East in Shanghai. Here, the river is surrounded by natural monoliths, there by manmade ones.

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At around 6 pm, we finally managed to find a smooth dirt road. The sun had begun it’s descent long before, but it was still hot and bright. Hot, the place was just really hot. The Mitsubishi climbed over one last little bump and before our eyes, in the middle of absolute nowhere, was a city. Wanbi was dusty and dry, and hot. I’d been told nothing about our destination before arrival. As I scanned the horizon, I realized something very peculiar about the place. Every single building was under construction. This was no village either. This was a large, dusty town in the middle of nowhere, and everywhere you looked something was being built. Not a single edifice was fully constructed. Makeshift eateries and convenience stores popped up all over the place. Shirtless guys with all manner of construction contraptions prowled the streets. The citizens had a makeshift vibe too. They didn’t feel right there. It was all very Truman Show.The eeriness was accentuated by the fact that, as I’ve made rather clear, there was literally nothing but rocks and shrubs for hundreds of miles and the sunlight was waning.

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It took me a while to figure it out, but I wasn’t staring into the edge of the world. A massive Chinese company was under contract to dam the Yangtze. As a result, all the villagers had to be relocated uphill. The company was paying for every piece of destruction and construction. They were paying for a town to be created.

I’d like to point out something here: It’s very tempting to look at this scenario and vilify China as a heavy-handed violator of human rights, taking poor minority people from their homes and relocating them to a completely new life. First, as far as I could see, the project was necessary, from a developmental standpoint. Second, as far as I could see, the company is doing as right by the citizens as it can. Third, and most importantly, look around. Every big box strip mall, every highway, every Taco Bell, every dam that you see each day did not come without a cost. The land in which those conveniences reside was not blessed by god and set aside as special capitalist zones in year zero. We’ve got a gigantic manmade reservoir in Sherman, CT: Candlewood Lake, the biggest lake in Connecticut. When we’re out there in July on our boats, having a beer and shooting off fireworks, we often joke about the life that’s going on beneath the surface. We all know that thousands of acres of farmland were flooded to make the lake. It’s said that the ghosts of countless cows and pigs are still down there, living a slightly more watery existence. We see images in the news all the time of the one Chinese geriatric standing in front of a bulldozer that’s preparing to make dust of his home. If you think that same thing didn’t happen in your hometown, or all across America, you might be a little delusional. Capitalism has a price.

I digress.

We step out of the Mitsubishi. I feel like it’s going to explode. We are greeted by the principal and two administrators. The principal: A rail thin middle-aged man wearing giant glasses. He is the spitting image, both in appearance and mannerism, of Dale from King of the Hill. Administrator one: Toad from Frog and Toad. Utterly and completely. Administrator two: A tall, buff guy, who looks like a big, jacked tadpole. He’s almost bald, but hasn’t come to terms with it yet. Wholly amphibious, with tight facial features.

We’re hungry. We head to a makeshift restaurant near the school. There are two round tables set up and a tiny cooking station in the back. It’s still incredibly hot. Toad looks like he’s about to go down for the count. He’s sweated through two layers. To make matters hotter, we’ve chosen a hot-pot restaurant. Two tables, about twenty people (two women). As the endless object of curiosity, I get to sit between the principal and the amphibious guy. If you’ve paid attention to this blog, you know that principals and administrators in this part of China tend to be prodigious in the art of getting incredibly drunk. Let’s party. The sun is pretty much gone by now. The waitress brings a pot of boiling soup to the table and places it on a hot plate. The town is too new, I gather, for a stove. Despite the impending darkness, it’s still seeringly hot. Toad has shed his button down. The hot-pot is a bubbling brew of chickens’ heads, pig’s liver, stomachs, bones, tiny fish, and stuff that I try to block out of my mind. It’s brutally spicy. Each bite brings me closer to dehydration. Naturally, there is nothing to wash it all down with, except 55% baijiu. Luckily, there’s a lot. Toad is going to die, I’m sure of it.

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The principal gets going quickly. Soon, I’m ambushed from all angles. They’re pouring chicken guts and scalding soup into my bowl. They look at me and smile; “Here, take it. Here. Just try it once.” They’re coming at me with shot after shot of baijiu. Not just the principal and the jacked tadpole, but everyone. Even one of the women comes after me. They’re singing songs in strange dialect, my BAC is climbing, I swear I see Toad look me right in the eyes as he sinks his fangs into a still beating cow’s heart. It’s an overwhelming onslaught of hospitality and high-spirits. I stand up. I look around, like a tiny mouse in the middle of Times Square, and think to myself, “Where am I?” A cramped little room, high above the nearest anything. A fake town genuinely being built over my head. A bunch of the friendliest, strangest assortment of people I’ve ever met. Is it even real anymore? That’s when I get that feeling. I just want to smash my glass and scream, like a Jew on his wedding day. I’m overcome by the sheer existence of it all.

Five hundred years ago, you could go anywhere on earth and get this feeling. As things flatten out and foreign cultures meld together, this sensation is disappearing, there’s no doubt about it. The sensation at hand is discovery; the introduction of something so rare, strange, new and exciting that you can barely believe it. It comes about when you’re smacked in the face full force by a new reality. It pushes people to reconsider what they already know. It’s actually a quite scary feeling, a total release from the healthy confines of the “comfort zone.” But, it’s one of the most alive feelings a living person can have. Don’t be fooled by the compression of society or the complete coloring in of the world map, the sensation of discovery still exists, you just have to want to find it.