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1 - Riding sidesaddle on the back of a motorbike while wearing a chipao.

2 - The sort of glow of sweetness at the back of your mouth from eating walnuts and drinking oolong tea.

3 - Eating peanuts with chopsticks. Testing myself to see how many peanuts I can pick up with chopsticks before dropping one.

4 - Being asked "rice or noodles?" and flipping a mental coin to come up with an answer.

5 - Watching the line dancing at the riverside at night.

6 - Asking "do they have a Western toilet?"

I'm leaving Quzhou by train tonight and flying out from Shanghai tomorrow. There will be another post, as I'd like to put up some pictures from Hangzhou and Suzhou and the World Expo when I have a computer that can do that, but this is my last post from China. It seems like a long time and a short time since I came here, and that's about as profound a reflection as I have to offer at the moment. Take care, happy Fourth of July, and I'll see you on the flipside.
marjorieinchina: (Default)
It has been eight months today since I arrived in China, and I admit to feeling a little the worse for wear. My hair needs trimming, my teeth need cleaning, and my eyes need some kind of help so I can wear contacts again. My camera is chipped where I've dropped it, I got a rip in my back jeans pocket somewhere in Hong Kong, and my tennis shoes are full of holes. Lately, when people see me they frequently remark "You look slimmer" and, to make it clear what they mean, put their hands to their cheeks: "have you been worrying?" What took the cake--I thought--was a week ago when someone came into my apartment while I wasn't here and stole some money I'd had in a drawer.

I can't claim I've been a model of patience, but I dealt with all these things moderately well, because I had to, because it would all get taken care of when I got home. Then my computer failed.

When my money was stolen, I had remarked that at least they didn't take anything else, that if they'd stolen my laptop I would have crumpled. I underestimated myself. When the screen went blue with a blinking folder-and-question-mark icon, I did not so much crumple as erupt. The word "no" was uttered rather a lot. I must have appeared, had anyone been there to see, like Mrs. Bennett when Elizabeth refused Mr. Collins, or like Cassandra when no one would believe her about the wooden horse. I don't think I have ever been as angry at a person as I was at that MacBook.

As soon as I was seeing straight I sat down (I had been pacing) and did some very angry list-making to try to take stock of what I had just lost. If the Apple Geniuses can't retrieve the data off my hard drive (I have no idea whether they can or not), I will have lost: most of my photographs from my first term in Quzhou and anything from the second I didn't upload to Flickr; the programs I taught at the Wolf Center last summer and at least some of my lessons from here in Quzhou (I think I saved some of them to a flash drive); odds and ends and stubs and drafts of a number of unfinished writing projects; and potentially a rather large quantity of music.

I have not lost: anything I posted on the blog or any photos on Flickr; my graduate school writing sample, which is in my e-mail a few times over; my bookmarks in Google Reader and Read It Later, both of which I recently started using in an effort to make my online life more orderly. I don't believe I've lost my college essays and thesis, which I'm cautiously sure I saved to an external hard drive. I haven't lost the last three years of e-mail, which is all in the magic Google cloud.

It could be better, then, but it could be a far sight worse, which is what I told myself when my lists were made out. There remains the question of what I'll do with myself without this little machine. The fact that I used it for teaching is a relevant but minor detail. It's been my telephone, my CD player, my newspaper, my mailbox, and my TV. It has been my link to America in a city where exactly no one talks the way I do.

Maybe I shouldn't have needed such a constant piece of home here with me--maybe I would have been more engaged with China if I didn't have it. Then again, maybe I just would have been lonelier and run through my reading material faster. It's hard to define shoulds and shouldn'ts in this kind of situtation, and it's hard for me to say I shouldn't have relied on the device that supplied me with things to think about during some very long dinners when everyone was speaking Chinese.

I'm done with teaching and have seen everything I know of to see in Quzhou, and three weeks in my apartment without the computer is a grim prospect, so I am taking this as my cue to get out of Dodge. I'll go to Shanghai, to Hangzhou, to Putuoshan; if I've spent too much time in my self-defined American safe space, then all right, I'll get out and eat the food I can't identify and take photos of the monuments and shout at cross-purposes with the people who think they can speak English. I'll do all these things one more time and then I'll go home.

I can't shake the feeling, though, that I made this happen by thinking about how awful it would be. As of this moment, I am setting aside all thoughts of what it would be like to lose my passport.

Typed Thursday, June 17, on the big desktop PC that was in my first apartment and that I've now carted into the new one. It is not really mine and it runs in Chinese and it doesn't have my software, but I've figured it out far enough to write this, and I can still be reached by e-mail.
marjorieinchina: (Default)
Since I've had a lot of time on my hands lately, I've been trying to make a point of leaving the house on a regular basis. When I remember, I take my camera with me.

Friday's walk was particularly nice, because the weather was pretty much perfect--very slightly breezy, not hot, not cold--and I found a new kind of flower. New to me, anyway.

Pretty! )

Anyone know what these are?

There were some trees nearby dropping small, hard, green fruit onto the grass, and I picked up one of these and tossed it in arcs between my hands (I keep thinking I'll somehow teach myself to juggle by doing this) while considering the fact that I'd just taught my last class. My work here, as they say, is done. I will miss pantomiming for the students--putting a hand in front of my face and hunching up my shoulders for "shy," throwing my arms and eyes wide open for "wonderful," flexing my not-at-all-muscular arm for "strong"--and saying things that make them go "Whoaa!" or, to be more phonetically accurate, "Hwaa!" I had a pretty good run of lessons at the end here, on subjects like musical theater and mythical creatures. The kids had all heard the song "Memory" before but they were amazed to see video of the actors from Cats in full costume and makeup. Also, the story of the birth of Pegasus will make any class kind of amazed and confused. It amazed and confused me.

And I'll miss the students, who have been hands-down the biggest factor in making my time here worthwhile. There's an innocence and earnestness in the classes here that I have a hard time imagining in an American classroom. I have some idea of where this atmosphere comes from--the students live in the school, and when they're here they're very sheltered, scheduled from 6 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. with the head teacher checking in during the afternoon nap to make sure no one is reading anything inappropriate (meaning anything that might take too much attention away from schoolwork). Introduce a new element like a foreign teacher into this environment, and the result is cheers and applause and requests for autographs--no exaggeration.

Because the student life here follows such a regular pattern, I've gotten a bit of a thrill from being the outsider who gets to break up the pattern. For my last lesson, I broke the students into groups by numbering off--everyone got a number from 1 to 10, and then they had to find the other people with their number. It's a more time-consuming method than just dividing the classroom into sections, but the room really comes to life when the kids get out of their chairs and sit with different people (and sit at a desk that doesn't have their own homework at it--this close to finals, I have had a lot of students trying to do other work during my classes). The class was about giving advice and produced some great moments:

Student 1: "Who do you like?"
Me: "Remember, ask for advice."
Student 1: "Okay, what kind of boy should I choose?"
Student 2, pointing: "This kind of boy!"
Entire class: "Hwaaa!"

On losing things (the student gave me the paper she wrote this on, so I can quote verbatim):
"You can remember, a boy called Li Bai has ever said, 'the sky gives birth to you, so you are so useful that thousands of dollars lost will be back.'"

On being unlucky in love:
"You can die together. Love is cruel."
(I felt obliged to advise against this.)

On being sad:
"You can listen to {student} sing. Why not listen to him sing right now!"

He didn't sing, but it was a good class regardless.

I have quite a bit of spare time before I go home, and some good intentions of using it to see a few more places. Let's see if I manage that without getting too distracted by the pretty pretty flowers.
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Recently I had a discussion with two students who were preparing for an English competition, and we started talking about city life and country life. I asked them what is grown on the farms here. They were not sure. Their teacher reminded them that the biggest crop in Quzhou is oranges. “Oranges are cheap,” one of the students said. “Oranges are cheap here,” I told him.

The task these students had been given was actually an insanely hard one: they were supposed to contrast their home province of Zhejiang with western Australia. Describing Australia was not necessarily the hardest part. In college I once had lunch at the same table as a girl who was shocked to learn that I was from Minnesota and asked what it was like there. I could think of absolutely nothing to tell her.

The usual prescription for this kind of ignorance is travel, but I think traveling is not necessarily enough... )
marjorieinchina: (Default)
When I left off, it was Wednesday and we were arriving in Xi'an. (Here is a tiny bit of background info about Xi'an! It used to be the capital, way the heck a long time ago, and there are a lot of old things there! Okay, here is a little bit more background info about Xi'an, with my guidebook at hand so I can be sure I'm not messing things up: Xi'an is very near the capital of the Qin dynasty, which was the first dynasty and only really had one emperor, but since he unified the country and built the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors he gets to be a dynasty all by himself. That was a couple hundred years BC. Xi'an was the capital off and on for the next thousand years. There is, consequently, a lot of really really old stuff in Xi'an, and it's better-preserved than the old stuff in many other cities.)

It's strange to start a day by tumbling off a train into an unfamiliar station instead of, oh, taking a shower and having some tea. But once we found the taxi queue and got to our hotel we did all the usual morning things, and then, fortified with showers and oolong, we Set Out to See Xi'an!

Read more... )
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I flew to Beijing from the Quzhou airport on a Saturday evening. The airport here in Quzhou is very tiny and is frequented almost entirely by tour groups. I fell into the middle of one of these when going through security, but it still took only about twenty minutes to go from my apartment to the gate. It would be fine with me if this were the case every time I flew. The flight was full of shouting voices and passengers in matching baseball caps; I spent it writing in my paper journal and making small talk with the woman next to me, who had never been on an airplane before. "You are always writing!" she observed. This is not really true, but maybe it is something I should aspire to.

Read more... )

More pictures at my Flickr page.


May. 20th, 2010 07:15 pm
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At the Jaipur Lit Fest, I went to a panel on the Internet and e-books and the future of print, which was mostly shouty and alarmist and which I eventually wandered away from to find another cup of chai, but while I was there Vikram Chandra said something intelligent along the lines of: "We speak so sentimentally of books as if they were a product of nature. But a printed book is a technology too."

I've been thinking something along the same lines about my glasses lately. For the last month or so my eyes have been unwilling to tolerate contact lenses. I put the lenses in one Tuesday, the week before going to Beijing, and wore them for about three hours and took them out again, and the next morning I woke up with such red, painful, light-sensitive eyes that I canceled a lunch appointment and drew the shades and spent the whole day in my darkened apartment. The whites of my eyes weren't properly white until two days later. It seems to be a problem with the lining of my eyelids, and I'll go see an ophthalmologist when I get back to the States, but in the meanwhile I'm wearing my glasses every day. As a consequence, I have become uncomfortably aware of how much I need my glasses and how they are a scientific instrument carved from some kind of high-tech non-shiny glass to suit exactly my eyes and if anything should happen to them, say if I fell down and they broke or one of the stems snapped off--something that has happened in the past--I would have to navigate a whole system of measurements and prescription in Chinese to get a new pair just to do my job or, really, anything else. And I just cavalierly wear them on my face all the time! There's something weird about this.

Two days ago, in a classroom before the period started, a girl told me, "You shouldn't wear glasses, you will be more beautiful." "Well, thanks for telling me I'm not so beautiful today," I said. "You're welcome," she said. I tried to explain that usually I wear contacts, but she didn't know this word and didn't want to pay attention while I explained it, preferring to ask her friend with a dictionary, who looked it up and told her it meant "eyes." Then she got irritated that I had used such a hard word, "contacts," instead of just saying "eyes," and I was hard pressed to make her believe they were not the same thing.

So I guess what I'm saying is, I think they need better bilingual dictionaries in this school.
marjorieinchina: (Default)
From the Beijing Zoo. I'm not going to win any awards for videography, but still photos just didn't do these guys justice.


May. 12th, 2010 09:51 pm
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I was walking to the junior school a little before 4 this afternoon when there was a brief announcement on the intercom--you can hear these everywhere, as there are outdoor speakers all over the campus--followed by a loud noise like an air raid siren. I thought it was a fire drill or something, except that none of the students I saw were reacting in any way.

I went on to judge a speaking competition for the junior 1 students, and I more or less forgot about the siren until someone mentioned that today is the second anniversary of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. And that was what I heard over the speakers: the commemorative moment of earsplitting noise.

Maybe something like that does make you think about a crisis more than a moment of silence would. Or maybe there's just no way to get the student body silent.
marjorieinchina: (Ariana)
I just returned on Sunday from a week in Beijing and Xi'an, and since I've unpacked and done my laundry, the necessary next step is to post about it. I'll do that soon, but in the meantime, here is an article about teaching that I wrote for the school paper. It is rather longer than it needed to be, it turned out--the teacher who translated it into Chinese also shortened it, but I haven't found out what parts were taken out.

This was also written to be translated, which means the sentences seem kind of choppy. I write enormously long sentences when left to my own devices, though, so this choppiness probably looks like more of a problem to me than to you.

Lessons in Being a Foreign Teacher )
marjorieinchina: (dragon)
(Holy verbosity, Batman, this entry is LONG. If you want to skip the words and just look at my pictures, you can hop over here.)

I have to make a confession before moving on with this narrative, this story about my travels all over Asia: I'm not really brave enough to go traveling alone all over Asia. Try to send me on a solo trip through, say, Vietnam, and I would probably discover some urgent other thing I had to do. What I really did was a tour of the former British Empire in Asia. This meant that I got used to looking right before crossing the street, but mostly it meant that there was widespread English everywhere I went traveling.

I spent a moment feeling slightly guilty about this imperial manner of travel and how it stuck, if not within my comfort zone, then as close to it as I could reasonably get on this side of the world. But I got over it as soon as I arrived in the Hong Kong airport on Friday morning, after a sleepless overnight trip from India, and found a place to buy a blueberry muffin and a pot of Earl Grey.

The western food in Hong Kong was more or less the best thing that had ever happened to me. I've been eating Chinese food pretty happily since October--there is weird food, but it's hard to get tired of rice and noodles; the dumplings are always decent, vegetables are plentiful, and I've gotten rather fond of some of the more distinctly Chinese flavors even though I don't know what to call them. (Just today I had some tofu in a sauce that tasted kind of...caramelized? Weird, but good.) And the food in India was marvelous, except on the couple of occasions when it was too spicy for me. But I didn't realize how much I missed pastries and the coffeeshops where you can just sit and have a slow cup of tea and read your book or check your e-mail and everyone else is doing the same thing. As I recount this part of the trip, you can assume every day starts with "First I went to Starbucks/Delifrance and had a muffin/scone/croissant and it was amazing."

So, I went to the Delifrance in the airport and had a muffin and it was amazing... )


Apr. 24th, 2010 04:44 pm
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Bangalore (officially Bengaluru, but I never heard anyone call it that) was my last stop in India. We flew down there from Delhi, a relatively short flight (and a direct one, which was a relief after some of the traveling I'd been doing recently).

Delhi is part of north India and Bangalore is part of south India. Stating this probably has some of you rolling your eyes, but I didn't know this sort of thing before traveling to India, and the distinction is important. In Delhi, the predominant language besides English is Hindi; in Bangalore, it's Tamil and also Kannada, which are written in entirely different alphabets. The food was spicier in the south, too, which is something that seems to hold true in most places.

Read more... )

I had two weeks in India but this was barely enough to scratch the surface. I need to make a list of places to visit, so that I can put "back to India" on the list. But the trip wasn't over yet! Hong Kong was actually better than I expected it to be, and I'll be back to tell you about that sometime next week.
marjorieinchina: (purple chair)
When your job in a foreign country is to teach classes about your own language and culture, sometimes you find yourself living in a foreign country but weirdly preoccupied with artifacts of your own language and culture. For example, all this week I have had the Superman theme stuck in my head. I did not, however, teach my students to say "truth, justice, and the American way."


Apr. 20th, 2010 12:33 pm
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Hello friends! I'm sorry I've been so absent in this space, and I hope some of you are still reading. I've been all in a tizzy about deciding on an MFA program, which together with teaching has kept me rather preoccupied all the time. But I have decided I will be in St. Paul to start an MFA in the fall, and I have my lesson plan set for the week, and I am going to pick up the thread of my travelogue where I left it off lo those many weeks ago.

So! When last we saw Our Heroine, she was on a bus from Jaipur to Delhi. We got to Delhi late in the evening and were greeted by Sam's parents' driver, who brought us to Sam's parents' house. The next day (Tuesday) was India's Republic Day, and we basically spent it at the house, watching the parade on TV and making plans for the next week. (My paper journal reminds me that we also watched Nigella Lawson on TV.) On Wednesday we went shopping at a number of markets, which were very crowded and characteristically Indian, and I bought some clothes for vanishingly small amounts of money. (Thanks are due to Sam for haggling for me.) I kind of wanted to take pictures, but didn't want to stop in the crowd with a camera in my hands. Then we went to an incredibly strange dance performance, where we spotted a number of people who had been at the Jaipur Lit Fest.

Read more... )

More photos can be found on my Flickr page. The Delhi photos start with this one.
marjorieinchina: (Ariana)
This morning I was teaching a lesson about travel and going around the room having students describe an imaginary trip (where will you go? how will you get there? etc.) when a boy who'd already spoken raised his hand again. I let some other students finish and then asked him, "Do you have something else to say?"

"I have two questions for you!" he said.

I hesitated a moment but didn't want to shoot him down so I said, "Okay."

"Do you agree with America selling F-16s to Taiwan! And do you stand with Obama's party!"

(The younger students almost never use a rising inflection when they ask questions.)

I declined to answer the questions, saying something like "this is time for you to talk, not time for me to talk," partly because I really doubt I'm supposed to talk politics in class, partly because I don't know much about Taiwan or US-Taiwan relations, partly because they wouldn't have understood anything I said on these topics, and partly because for heaven's sake we were in the middle of an exercise. It was all rather startling. I imagine myself a language teacher but for these kids I'm first and forever a foreigner.

My geopolitics aren't sufficiently up to speed to interpret this incident in a broader light. A lot of students doing this exercise say they want to go to America to see Obama, for whatever that's worth.


Mar. 12th, 2010 12:40 pm
marjorieinchina: (Boffin)
So after I went to Shanghai I returned to Quzhou, taught for a couple more weeks, said some good-byes, and left for India.

This was a long trip, because as it turns out, Asia is really big, and two countries that are both in Asia can still be far away. I spent a super-awesome night in the Mumbai airport and eventually got to Jaipur, where I collected my luggage and got into a taxi and then sat in the backseat staring dumbly out at the autorickshaws and camels and signs in Hindi and women in saris until I was dropped at my hotel.

I spent a good part of that day resting until my dear friend Sam, who lives in India and whom I hadn't seen for three and a half years, showed up at the hotel and we COMMENCED ADVENTURES. First Sam took me along to lunch with her publishers, including a German who knew someone from Red Wing. (I could not adequately convey to him how crazy this was.) Then we went to a place called, I think, Albert Hall (Sam and I could not associate this with anyone except Prince Albert, but it was apparently named after a *different* English person from colonial times) and saw a bunch of cool statuary, plus some dumb-looking fake classical statuary. Then Sam's aunt arrived and we all went to a book launch party in a candlelit garden surrounded by people speaking at least three different languages. So, you know. Pretty run-of-the-mill stuff.

For the five days we were in Jaipur, we stayed in a beautiful little guesthouse, sort of midcentury colonial with a lot of historical fragments on the walls including an army commission signed by King George V.


We had breakfast there in the mornings, eggs and toast and marmalade and pots of chai, and then went out to the street to hail an auto-rickshaw and haggle for an acceptable fare to Diggi Palace, where the Jaipur Literature Festival was being held.

Part of the festival venue, in the morning when there weren't crowds of people there yet.

I didn't know this, but the Jaipur Lit Fest is a big deal. Here is one news story about it, and here is another. That's from the US: the more local press, including the Times of India, was all Jaipur Lit Fest, all the time. Sam and her aunt and I appeared on the front page of a Hindi-language paper in Jaipur, in a photograph where we were all craning our necks to stare up at Girish Karnad. Sadly, I failed to find a copy of this newspaper to buy.

I was probably predisposed to enjoy this event because 1) it was in English, 2) people were talking about books, 3) I was hanging out with Sam, and 4) it was my first time in India. So it all kind of ran together, the little terracotta cups of chai and the brightly colored tents and the literary megastars all over the place and the flawless weather and the conversations about mythology and class and Jane Austen. It was just a big gobsmackingly cool five-day-long swirl of events. I didn't take all that many photos, but I took a lot of notes.

The days were full up of literature: usually three panels in the morning and three in the afternoon. Mostly these were conversations between a moderator and one or more authors, with Q&A sessions at the end that ranged from interested to impassioned to diametrically opposed. The crowd was highly mixed--Indian (which itself is a mixed group), Pakistani, a lot of British visitors and expats, a couple of notable speakers originally from Africa, the queen mother of Bhutan...There weren't many Americans, so I still stuck out when I opened my mouth, but the diversity of the crowd was both a shock and a treat after a few months in China.

At lunch and dinner time there was an extravagant spread of local Rajasthani food. Sometimes we ate here and sometimes went outside the festival venue for food, although wherever we went there were people who were obviously also Lit Fest attendees. At night, there was music! Wonderful music. Rajasthani folk music with dancers. Susheela Raman, who was glorious. William Dalrymple reading from his latest book, with Bhoul singers accompanying. On the last night there was Italian food. We had, by this time, three delegate passes left to us by publishers who'd been exhibiting but had left the festival early. Delegates get their meals free (or pre-paid), so we used the three passes to get refills of middling red wine and rather horrid sparkling white wine and heaping plates of Italian food that we shared--me and Sam and her aunt and some cousins and two French guys who'd let us share their table. I pointed out later that, according to script, they really should have been the ones offering food and drink, but sobeit, we broke script. In related news, I'm happy to report I can still speak some French.

There were more speakers than I could possibly write about. I couldn't resist writing about a bunch of them anyway, although I'm aware that "listening to writers speak in India" is perhaps a bit distant from the "teaching in China" theme of the blog. Click through to read the long version of the entry, which consists of me being a huge nerd: Seriously, so many authors! )

The last session I went to was with Vikram Chandra and Alexander McCall Smith, discussing detective fiction. They were having such a nice time talking to each other I was quite sorry to leave, but Sam and I had to slip out to catch the car to the bus station, even though the bus was late. On the ride to Delhi I found I had no space left in my brain to allow for reading, so I looked out the window at India passing by instead and chewed over the previous five days' conversations. This is a process I am nowhere near completing.
marjorieinchina: (Default)
I'm alive! I'm back! I want to tell you about my trip! But it will have to happen in installments, in order to avoid creating the Livejournal Entry That Ate Chicago.

I'm going to start with Shanghai, which is where my travels to India and Hong Kong and Malaysia really started. Way back in January, I had to go to Shanghai to get a tourist visa to India. This was the first time I had traveled anywhere in China alone. For at least the first month after I got here, other teachers were nervous to hear about me even taking the city bus by myself. So it was an important first step.

Click for more! And for pictures! )
marjorieinchina: (Default)
Folks, I'm headed to India tomorrow and will be away for about three weeks. I expect to have Internet access for at least part of the trip, but I don't know if I'll be updating from the road. Have a fantastic few weeks and I'll try to bring back some good stories.


Jan. 9th, 2010 04:42 pm
marjorieinchina: (Default)
"What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child?"
--Lin Yutang

"What do you think I'm eating? Stomach?"
--me at dinner last night
marjorieinchina: (Default)
I keep thinking about America today, in a sort of absent-minded way. I've been editing my lesson for this week, which is to be another version of the lesson I've taught already about the cities and towns where I have lived. I'm debating whether to include the slide about prairies when I teach the seventh-graders about Red Wing. A prairie is not the easiest thing to explain to an audience with very limited English, and if you asked most people from Red Wing what it's like there, they might mention the river and the bluffs and the shoe factory but would probably not tell you it was on the prairie. But I keep thinking about the prairie anyway, as if it were a song stuck in my head. The things I miss the most about home as a place--leaving aside the people that I miss and the cultural differences, etc.--are open space, and clear fresh air, and stars, and quiet, and seeing the sun set. Things that a prairie can give you.

Besides, what's more American than a prairie? It's not a moor or a steppe. Its breadth gives you those spacious skies we like to sing about. Plow it up and plant it and there you have your amber waves of grain.

I won't go on like this, but I could, which tells you something about the note of homesick patriotism that has crept into my oddball expat Christmas cheer. Of course Christmas makes anyone think of home, or at least that's my excuse for the fact that I've listened to Simon and Garfunkel's "America" in the past few days as much as any actual Christmas music.
Cathy I'm lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping
I'm empty and aching and I don't know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They've all come to look for America

I love this song for its combination of goofiness and melancholy, and for the way you know the two characters have walked off to look for America but you have no idea where they're going. They've been to Michigan, Pittsburgh, and the New Jersey turnpike. America is still somewhere else.

Meanwhile, Christmas happened. I was thinking, especially on Christmas Day, about the way we generally put a huge emphasis on looking forward to Christmas, waiting for Christmas, counting down the days with Advent calendars. We've all come to look for Christmas, and sometimes when you open the last door on the Advent calendar, Christmas still seems like it's somewhere else. What are we waiting for, exactly?

It can be good to have an expectant and hopeful mindset. But I guess we need to do more than hope and wait for things, especially things like joy, to happen on their own. Knowing that there wouldn't be very much Christmas for me this year--I didn't get the day off, in fact--I grabbed at what Christmas I could get, where I could get it. I think it's a strategy I'll keep. I don't really want to make a habit of going to work on Christmas Day to achieve this end, but they were good, those little moments of cheer, lighting candles and hanging tinsel on my windows and mirrors. I cooked a Western dinner in the apartment, with the help of a shipment from home of pumpkin and stuffing and instant mashed potatoes. Five of us crowded around my little table to eat together until two of the the five had to dash off again. It wasn't grand, but it was good, and it was what there was, and we made it cozy. You take what bits of Christmas you can find.

I've gotten this far without deciding whether I can make the same recommendation about America. What on earth is Paul Simon looking for? Not "the real America," and I'd like to get through this post without saying "American dream" outside of quotes, but the idea of America, the fact of America, whatever it is Tom Jefferson was after when he outlined those self-evident truths. The fact that the United States was basically dreamed up, invented by a lot of people whose names we know, has for much of American history tended to a sense that we citizens are obligated to finish the job. Rob MacDougall, a Canadian historian of the U.S., wrote beautifully about this after the 2008 election:
The promises made in the Declaration and the Constitution are so great that their betrayal is an inevitable part of the promise. And that’s what makes them work. . . . The “more perfect union” is a limit approaching infinity. As each generation discovers–inevitably!–that the promises made to them were false, they battle to make them a little more true.

He's writing about America as a political idea; Paul Simon, I think, is after something even more elusive, nothing more or less than a tangible, realized American-ness, something like what Robert Pinsky is trying to explain in his long poem "An Explanation of America." Pinsky tells us that "a country is the things it wants to see," which is a good start, but over the course of the poem he locates "the country" in many more things than that, like in his daughter's school play and his own reaction to the word "Vietnam."

That real existence of a country is something one might happily never think about, or one might choose to wait for it, or try to create it, or hop on a Greyhound bus to look for it, hoping it'll be around the next corner or maybe just sort of floating in the air over a prairie somewhere in Iowa.

There are times, here in China, when I say something about the U.S., and I use the word "we" and I think I know what it means. Then it's gone again. I am the only American here--not just the only United States citizen but the only person from the Americas--and I can't really represent a hemisphere. I just try to offer the students and teachers here the little bits of America I can dig out of my pockets in the form of my vocabulary and accent, my ideas about how a teacher relates to a classroom, my very foreign sense--asserted gently, I hope--of personal space.

That's what I've got for the time being. To my friends who are actually in the States, who may have been hit by the storms of the last few days, will you step outside and smell the snow for me? Failing that, just blow a kiss at the nearest prairie.

A late Merry Christmas for those who celebrate it, and an early Happy New Year for the whole bunch of you.
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