Since I only teach three days a week, and spend most of my time studying, reading, blogging and sheltering from the cold, wintry rain it is easy to forget where I am. A quick jaunt about the campus quickly reminds me that I’m not in Pennsylvania anymore.
Just beyond the dingy metropolis, my university was nestled at the feet of a jagged, tent-like mountain, green with bamboo, shrubbery, and leafy sword blade foliage. Students roamed the campus in packs on their way to classes, parties, or speeches. Every day at lunch and dinnertime a campus wide loudspeaker system blares out happy-go-lucky pop music, advertisements and announcements in Chinese as well as English sound bites. Stray dogs – enough to provide a respectable cast for a Disney movie – scampered to and fro on errands with or without some tasty piece of trash held in their mouths. Somebody’s chickens pecked at piles of trash. There was the smell of burning trash in the air, and students sang, and played flutes and erhus . They smiled and practiced their hellos on me.
Occasionally a student will ask me more about the week’s reading assignments. One student was worried that I was going to suffer from being away from my family during Christmas, and still another wanted to know if she could talk to me about James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man even though it wasn’t on the reading list. Even though I had the reputation of being a “serious” teacher, students greeted me by name, waved happily, and made me wonder if they were all just part of some Communist counterintelligence network trying to trick me into thinking that China was really a nice place. Meanwhile other students, non-English majors, often ran up to me to ask, “Where are you going,” which is the Chinese equivalent to the western greeting, “How are you?”
I spent Christmas in Chenzhou and Changsha. Stores pumped out Christmas music and overemployed stores had their clerks dressed in red elf hats. Ubiquitous card board Santa faces, disembodied with jolly red cheeks, decked store front windows. It was as if Santa himself had replaced Mao – despite the latter’s birthday being Dec. 26th.
About 20 students from my classes produced a play for the university’s Christmas Party. They call it a party. Americans would call it a performance. One of my colleagues worked with her students for half a semester to sing “We wish you a Merry Christmas.” The party featured many students dancing and singing. Christmas was an excuse to have a “party.”
During the rehearsals I saw many students performing stuff that has very little to do with the Christmas or even being nice to the proletariat. Thus, girls in short shorts chair danced to Brittany Spearsesque pop, or still more Celestial maidens danced with canes. They did things with their bodies that will cure dry mouth regardless of your sexual orientation.
Weeks ago, I got my ass in gear to fulfill my promise of getting students to produce a Christmas play. I adapted a Charles Dickens’ short story, “The Christmas Goblins,” adding a platoon of goblins, simplified the prose, added a scene or two to make a quick 15 minute play. I also added a goblin chorus to sing the “goblin song” from The Hobbit as they whisk the protagonist Gabriel Grubb from the cemetery to their goblin cave. Maybe next year they will be ready for my adaptation of another Christmas classic called The Shining?
There are only a couple hours left before the Year of the Ox yields to the Year of the Tiger. I find myself a stranger in a strange land. I spent half the year as a medical assistant in a rural family practice in a town of 1,200 or so in northwestern Pennsylvania, U.S. Prior to that, I spent most of my life as a beast of burden — a dumb talking ox on a farm. There I dreaded the future, spent much of my time wondering how to make ends meet, and graduate school was my only hope that would save me from falling further down the socioeconomic ladder.
Now, I am in the heart of China where I have time to read the classics, form my own opinions, and do meaningful work. I am doing all things I was going to save for retirement. Now I spend my time wondering where I should go for winter vacation. I prepare lessons for students and indulge in creativity. America raised me to become an artist, inventor, and healer. But offered little but despair and indentured servitude — an ailing dream kept on exorbitant life support in an ICU.
For the first in my adult life I found out just how easy it was to live and love and pursue happiness. My mind is free. I can’t even imagine going back to the U.S. now. I see America like I imagine poor immigrants once saw their oppressive old countries as they came to the New World looking for a new start. They had come west for new opportunities, a fresh start, and hope for a brighter future.
I can either be a victim of a declining empire oppressing its citizenry, or I can rediscover the American Dream abroad. I choose the latter. America is not just a country. It is an idea born like a grail through throngs of foes both foreign and domestic. Now I wonder what dreams may come in the Year of the Tiger.