Andrew Boor '18: Maneuvering through the Constants and Shifting Landscapes: What did this year change?
Andrew Boor is the 2018-2019 Shansi Fellow at Beijing Normal University. This is his end of the year narrative.
Given my previous experiences living and studying abroad in Beijing during my third year of study at Oberlin, I naïvely assumed that I would be welcomed back to Beijing Normal University with a smooth transition into post-graduate life and a comforting sense of familiarity. Within that calculation, however, I had taken for granted the ever-present constant of transformation. So much about myself and the way I would now need to navigate through my surroundings had changed since graduating from Oberlin. The shorter length of the Beijing fellowship without a doubt also exasperated an overwhelming sense of urgency that consumed my thoughts and encouraged me to hastily embark on a search for tolerable occupations that could allow me to fulfill various financial obligations. My year as the Beijing Fellow was largely colored by my relationship to the transformations observed around me and within my life and myself. These various transformations were initially met with my resistance and a deep-seated aversion that would prove difficult to dissipate. It would take much of the year for me to learn how to interact with these changes and come to terms with the shifting landscapes I would be confronted with.
Post-graduate life seemed to bring along with it a slew of newfound anxieties and opportunities. Opportunities to experiment with and further explore both new and old interests. However, within this exploration there was a constant reminder that this period of relative freedom had a clear expiration date. Within my haste to busy myself, I began an internship at a contemporary art gallery in Beijing’s Caochangdi Art District and rapidly consumed as many books concerned with China’s rapidly transforming political economy as possible.
Throughout these experiences I gained a clearer idea of just how many transformations Chinese society was still experiencing and the extent to which Beijing had changed since I had last been there in 2017. These differences manifested both physically within the urban landscape and within the overall social climate as well. The last remaining remnants of a vibrant street food culture in Beijing had all but disappeared and many Hutong alleyway communities once full of life and haphazard consumption had been hollowed out and plastered over with grey cement. It was quite clear that as China had grown more and more visible on the global stage, Beijing was attempting to remodel its urban environment to matchup with the elusive standard of the “global” city. I also witnessed a rapid rigidifying of the social and political spheres of discourse that had steadily intensified since the 19th National Congress of the CCP in late 2017. Artists that worked with the gallery that I interned at repeatedly made comments about how careful they now had to be when depicting either taboo or risqué subjects. Some of my students had also candidly asked in my office hours what exactly was happening in their country that would propel an already dense internet censorship apparatus to become even more impenetrable.
The current iteration of transformation that China was currently undergoing without a doubt instilled a sense of alienation from the feelings of familiarity that my study abroad experience had led me to associate Beijing with. In addition to the changing political winds, the vicissitudes of the seasons eventually brought the bitter Beijing Winter. The air was dry, the skies were grey, and I could not wait to escape to warmer places for my winter break. I still remember very clearly how an overwhelming sense of fatigue and chronic low levels of energy had overtaken my body over the last few weeks of the first semester. However, I definitely do not want to make it seem as if excitement had reached a total flatline during this time period. There were periodic moments of excitement and elatedness to be had whenever Radia, my Shansi cohort, would visit me all the way from Taigu and we would plan our two-month-long escape to Southern China and South-East Asia. There were moments of joy to experience when Lyric, last year’s BNU Shansi Fellow, and I would embark on a quest for culinary bliss across the city. There were also occasional genuine moments of engagement between my students and I in my office hours that I was so beyond grateful to have. I remember one particular instance where a circle of students had collected at office hours to continue a spirited debate we had in class about what exactly it meant to “walk away” in Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. Moments like these had become so precious to me.
A Christmas Dinner of Peking duck shared with Lyric Grimes.
A group of my students and I near the end of Semester One.
Once the semester had ended, there was no way I could have expected how drastically the pace of my life would shift during our two-month-long backpacking trip. I found that my seemingly endless stream of groggy consciousness had been almost immediately interrupted by daily planning of travel routes, hunts for various local foods, and periodic moments of absolute calm and a healthy dose of absent mindedness. Our travels weaved together a stunning tapestry of landscapes and experiences that ranged from hikes through the majestic gorges and mountains of Southern China, treks in the lush jungles of Vietnam, moped rides throughout the arid mountains of Northern Thailand and all of the lovely meals and parties that we encountered along the way. The experiences shared on that trip and the transformations that occurred within myself could not have happened at a better time in my life. I could feel real changes within myself, particularly in the way that I chose to think about the changes within myself and around me. Change is inevitable and constant, and my own inertia had led me unable to cope with these new challenges that I was facing.
It was silly of me expect that this year as the Shansi Fellow to BNU would wash over me with ease. This expectation contributed in part to my absolute shock towards the ways in which my first year of post-graduate life would shape up. Although I am nearing the end of this journey and am still no more certain of what the next ten or so years of life will bring, I can at the very least say I have a deeper clarity of my passions and take comfort in knowing that there are many possibilities available to me. I know that without the worthwhile bonds and connections that I have formed with others throughout this fellowship, this shift in perspective would have been much harder to come to. While it is certainly harder than allowing ones changing surroundings to provoke anxiety and fear, it is just as possible to take inspiration from the ever-transforming rhythms of one’s life.
After two months of travel, I was feeling refreshed and prepared to return back to Beijing Normal University. For the second semester I took on a set of new responsibilities and was teaching mostly international students from countries as varied as Russia, Ukraine, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Mongolia. I also took part in starting and coaching the Chinese Language and Culture Department’s first ever British Parliamentary Debate Club. During our practices, students would debate several topics including women’s rights, LGBT rights, and the ethical economic development of Rural China.
The dizzying changes that Chinese society has experienced over the last forty years have understandably barely begun to be made sense of. But being able to witness how artists, students, and academics alike have been processing just what exactly it means to exist in such a rapidly changing society has been a worthwhile experience. Everything that this year has shown me has proven to me that connection and communication are vital tools to help us collectively process change and sew deepening divisions. And at a time when the impact of these changes and divisions are having an increasingly apparent and suffocating effect on both individuals and the global community at large, it has never been more important that we keep connecting and communicating.
Radia at the Jindao Gorge in Chongqing.
Being safe in Pai Thailand!
Radia and I posing in Pai.
With our friend Hana on a mountain in Vietnam
Jagori’s tea urn, where all the employees take tea twice a day.
An incredible sunset by our Air BnB in Pai Thailand!