Today’s class. Wow. It was. . .I’m groping for an appropriate word. It was almost Zenlike in its futility. All the forces of boredom and aimlessness were perfectly combined, such that had the Bodhisatva entered the room and pronounced us all officially Higher, or Actualized, or whatever the official term is to describe full enlightenment, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Our professor, about whom I’ve written before, is at least as old as the hills outside the classroom window, if not older, and has a strange pair of eyes. They seem to hardly open at all, just two barely-perceptible slits beneath the eyelids confirming that some light, at least, is hitting the pupil. I wasn’t going to say anything to my friends about it because I was afraid it would sound like one of those small-minded things westerners say, but Duan Ying asked me in a whisper at lunch if I noticed our professor’s strange eyes. I was relieved. So it WASN’T just me! Xuebin and I have taken to calling him Dr. Mouse in honor of the fact. Today he came into class a few minutes early and we were all variously reading or dozing. I was working on something and didn’t look up for about ten minutes. When I did, the professor was sitting on a chair at the front of the room just sort of spontaneously vocalizing. I had no idea what he was saying, and when I asked Xuebin he just shrugged without taking his eyes off his book. This state of affairs continued for a while, and then Dr. Wang just. . .stopped. He stopped talking altogether and sat there. I thought it was a little strange, but didn’t give it much thought and went back to my book. But. . .HE NEVER STARTED AGAIN. We all sat there in a kind of unofficial showdown, he blinking mouse-like at us, we looking up from our books once in a while to see if anything was happening. Nothing ever did. We sat like that for almost two hours. Occasionally Dr. Wang would get up to chat with a student about nothing at all, but inevitably he’d return to his perch and regard us with detached scrutiny, as though he was content simply to confirm we were still there. At 11:30 he went ahead and dismissed us for lunch. At least I had my books.
None of us could figure out what had just happened. But then we didn’t particularly care, either, since no one, and I mean NO ONE, came to Taiwan to study anyway. Everyone’s here for the traveling. We had a test in the afternoon, but that doesn’t merit any description. It was a smorgasboard, on my part, of guesses, blind B.S., and vaguely-remembered facts about post-war American diplomacy. I was heartened by the fact that my classmates, none of whom had heard a lecture since the first day of class, wrote much the same. On our way back we discussed the futility of the course, and then Xuebin and I walked ahead a ways (because we naturally walk WAY faster than anyone in the group; I’m not sure why). Eventually we looked back and noticed a teacher talking with the stragglers in our group.
Xuebin then told me something extraordinary. Dr. Ma, the teacher, had apparently been approached by a representative from the Nankai Unviersity Marxism department, and asked to give a short lecture to the students assuring them that Taiwan isn’t nearly as nice as it seems. The clean streets and nice air and friendly people are all just illusions that were put on to impress mainland visitors. Actually, Taiwan is a very dark place that lacks the wisdom and enlightened guidance of the mainland government. Dr. Ma, appalled, declined. I was appalled, too. Who wouldn’t be?
But that’s how deeply this visit has affected my mainland friends. None of them want to go back, and while that sentiment has been accompanied over the past few weeks with smiles and laughs, I’ve begun to see that it’s not a joke. Students have come here and, in large part, have seen what the mainland could have been. They’ve seen what a Chinese society is like when culture is preserved and people are free to read and discuss what they like. When I say they don’t want to go back, I mean it. Talking with everyone these days has begun to make me deeply sad. I say that because they’ve all come alive in this atmosphere and really do look like people who have come home, only with the added joy of never having known that home existed. And now they’re leaving, with no easy way to ever come back. I don’t know how to describe that. I myself only see it from a distance. As an American, I can pretty much come and go at will. But they have to go through a great deal to get even a tourist visa, and living here is pretty much out of the question. How do you deal with that? How do you deal with finding your home and then never being able to go back there again?
Last night I went with Danting and Xuebin to one of the outdoor basketball courts on campus. They had bought, on my advice, a bottle of Kahlua and a bottle of vodka, and we sat around in the late evening drinking White Russians and discussing a little of everything, beginning with Herman Hesse and ending with love. Whenever there was a pause in the conversation, it seemed one or the other of them would take a sip from their drink, shake their head, and say, “How are we going to go back?” How, indeed? I can’t help but link that feeling to one I’ve been having more and more as my time in China winds down. While China isn’t home to me in quite the way Taiwan appears to be for my classmates, which is to say it isn’t the perfect representation of what my home culture could have been, it’s still home in a broader sense. It’s where I’m most comfortable, and to some extent it’s where I find the most meaning, and as I sat drinking with Danting and Xuebin I recognized that I had already made unique, and uniquely deep, connections across cultures in a way that I never will outside of China. Yes, I’m sure I’ll interact on a profound level with people from other cultures when I go back to the States to get my Ph.D., but it won’t be like this. It won’t be a spontaneous need to share frustrations about culture and relationships with people who aren’t native English speakers. It will be something different.
That, I suppose, is the price you pay whenever you pursue something or someone with everything you have. Failure and success are equally painful. Pursue people across cultures and there’s a good chance you’ll forge connections, but given the tenuous nature of international life you’ll probably have to give them up. That’s success. Failure is painful in a different way, and isn’t something I would ever want. But still, finding where you belong is sometimes just as hard as never knowing.