Maisy Byerly '14: Water or Rock: In Which I Give Up on My Dreams and Find Something Better 

Maisy Byerly was one of the 2015-2017 Shansi Fellows at Shanxi Agricultural University. This is her first year narrative.

Last January, my Return Fellow, Veronica Colegrove, sat me down with my co-fellow, Liam, and asked us the hard question: which one of you is the rock and which one is the water? She explained that she and her co-fellow found success as complements—one more firm but also stubborn or protective, and one more flexible but also likely to be pushed around. It was hard to predict which I would be then, but it’s even harder to say now.

I used to value my adaptability. I always pushed myself to “be a sponge.” It helped me learn Chinese when I studied abroad and has shaped much of my self image. But when I arrived in Beijing this past summer, some switch in my head flipped and suddenly I was all rock, all the time. My room was impeccably clean and I kept a routine every day. On one particularly rock-bottom morning, I found that I had misplaced my nail clippers. They no longer sat in their assigned position in the middle of the top shelf of my bookshelf. I lost it. I spent the better half of a day searching for them and the rest of the day sulking and binge-watching Bob’s Burgers. I began developing a hard pit of fear or anxiety or something-yet-unexplored that drove me to control as much as possible around me. It probably started before I even arrived in China.

Having been accepted to Shansi, I made my goals fairly clear and repeated them to the many people who asked me why I was going. “I want to animate my travels, start a bike repair workshop and organize a women’s workout group.” “I want to turn my travels in to GIFs, repair bikes, and start an exercise group for women.” I had a very clear idea of how I would arrive in China, what I would accomplish while here, and what I would leave having done. I had already started to build inflexibility into my life here. I remember an exchange that I had with my friend Bronwen:

Bronwen: I heard you got Shansi. That’s so awesome! Congratulations!

Me: Thanks! I’m pretty excited.

Bronwen: Someone told me you want to play softball there or start an intramural softball team there?

Me: Haha, no. That’s impossible. That would never work. That would literally never happen. I want to animate my travels, teach students to repair their own bikes and start a women’s workout group.

I suppose I have limited powers of prediction, because while I have notanimated my travels, taught students to repair bikes or worked out in an organized group of women, I have, entirely accidentally, started to build a softball team.

One day during Office Hours, it struck me that my students, with whom I was discussing bitter American sports rivalries, had never played mitt-and-ball, front-yard-with-a-good-pal, toss-and-talk catch. So, for the remainder of Office Hours, and for a handful of Office Hours thereafter, we started to play catch, using the gloves that, prior to this, had only graced the hands of me and my dad. Soon after, I invited my then acquaintance Li Dong to toss a ball around at the small track near our house. My now friend Li Dong and I have a new weekend ritual. The small track is a pretty public place, which has led to many more hands trying on these two old softball mitts. Prior to coming to China, I had, as displayed above, dismissed softball as a possible hobby. I had chosen goals based on what I thought I knew and what I thought I needed. I’m so glad that despite trying to control all of my interactions and all of my relationships, some people managed to remind me of something I love, and, in the process, give me a good tool for solving the problems I was struggling with: how to hang out with friends not at a meal, how to connect with students as equals, how to leave the house and stay outside, in full view of all the stares, for over two hours.

Catch with Bill, Jason and Amber

In one of my favorite This American Life segments (Ep. 572: Transformers), Keith O’Brien interviews a man who’s about to get out of prison, Richard Pierce. In his time in prison, Richard has been silent, not talking to anyone. Now, he is taking Toastmaster classes to learn how to talk to people again. Though he is only learning to give speeches, it starts helping him in all aspects of his life. The part of the story that I can relate to is the idea of communication rollercoasters. For me, becoming too controlling when I first got here became a barrier to communication, and all my interactions suffered. Now, just as Richard Pierce is using Toastmasters to open up again, I am using softball to do the same. My interactions are now on an upward climb.

As I started playing catch with more people, more good things started happening. I started having long conversations with people again, instead of short repetitions of “美国(America),” “教英语 (Teaching English),” “农大 (Shanxi Agricultural University),” “我的中文没有你的那么好 (My Chinese is not as good as yours).” Just the other day, the woman who runs our favorite baozi (steamed stuffed buns) restaurant invited us over to make custom baozi, all because of a long conversation about asparagus. I’ve started learning more about my student’s research. It turns out I have a whole class that researches Alpaca sperm. I’ve also started to connect with people about things that I am truly interested in, instead of just connecting out of convenience. Now I have whole classrooms of people to connect with, instead of whole classrooms of people to shy away from.

Making custom baozi (steamed stuffed buns) with our friends, the 吴 family

I’ve also finally started to talk to people about rural development. With my tutor at my side, I’ve started to interview locals about the changes that Taigu has undergone, their hopes and their fears, as well as more pointed research about corruption that I am interested in pursuing long-term. Again, at the start of the interview process, I was too awkward, too controlling. Then, in the middle of an uncomfortable interview that was going nowhere, a woman walked up to me and started offering up opinions and answers to questions I hadn’t even asked yet. I couldn’t plan what would make these interviews work, and many of them don’t, but instead of becoming worked up and tense, I have slowly loosened my grip on the process. Now I follow the conversation where it is headed instead of pushing it back to my agenda. Like water eroding rock, positive results from flexible conversations are opening me back up to letting go.

Being a “rock,” and cutting short an unsolicited and frustrating interview on an shower-less stressful morning

Freeing up my interview process has also allowed me to learn some interesting tidbits about the place where I live right now. For example, there are four Mazeratis in Taigu, all with different backstories. There is one that, due to the questionable means with which it arrived in the hands of its owner, I am definitely not supposed to ask people about. There was an undetonated bomb underneath the area where the small track is now. It was discovered during construction after being left behind by Japanese occupiers. The school just tore down the giant Communist meeting house from the Great Leap Forward to make room for more personal cars. These are questions I wasn’t asking and answers I wasn’t expecting.

Finding my own form of qualified flexibility has also helped me in the classroom. I have previously struggled with abandoning a lesson plan when it wasn’t working or creating a new lesson plan for a group of students that wouldn’t succeed with the one I’d already drawn up. However, as I begin to let things go, I am developing more flexibility. In the literal sense, I have started to stop class to make my students do stretches when they look tired. But also, now I don’t just read the expressions on my students’ faces, I react to them. This has helped me deal with one class in particular. I don’t know what it is about this class, but 3 out of 4 days, the feel of the classroom is wrong. Not just, this is not quite the success I thought it was going to be, but I must abandon ship right now or they are going to mutiny. Despite these initial negative vibes, they have responded better to my new-found flexibility. If I try too hard to control them, I start to question my own right to stand at the front of the room and give them quizzes. But if I offer up flexibility, it is their choice to meet me halfway or not. I tell them exactly what I am thinking and what options are on the table: “You all have taken too long with this task, you can either finish this during your break, or we can get rid of something on the agenda.” “I have heard too many of you speak Chinese during this activity. We can continue if you speak English or we can switch activities.” As a group of students pursuing their Masters degrees, they can usually muster a mature reaction. Of course, sometimes they can’t and then I have another stress to relieve with a nice long round of catch.

There are still aspects of my life in which I have to be a rock. And when it comes to those, I think I’m getting better. I let myself be more direct with my students and discipline those that are acting inappropriately, even if that person is 35 years old and has a child. I let myself address the person surreptitiously taking my picture. I am also protective of the goals that I do hold dear and protective of how I arrange my time. However, I no longer protect myself at the expense of making friends or learning compelling, motivating things about the people around me.

Acting like water, not like rock, is a Daoist tenet that I learned about this summer during my language training. I remember getting excited about one of its champions, Laozi. My teacher and I talked about the interaction of Laozi and Kongzi (Confucian) philosophy, which struck me as so much more rigid, but I didn’t really understand it at the time. I still saw myself as someone who acted as water, but was just in crisis. I thought people could be just one: water or rock. Now, I know that if I don’t accept and address the parts of me that are like rock, they will develop poorly and at the expense of the parts of me that are like water. I can’t ignore what I want or need, but I should pursue those things with people, flexibly and patiently. And now I’ve gone and gleaned all of these important truths about myself as though I have all the answers, but as anybody nurturing their “water” side knows, don’t overthink it, let it be. Maybe I just needed to play catch to feel happy. My first semester in Taigu has taught me that I need to play a lot more catch in the second semester. Here’s to playing catch with friends in the sunshine, something that makes me happy no matter where I am! More importantly, thanks to the new connections around me that helped me rediscover something I love. It has helped me in all aspects of my life here.

Episode 2: B.Y.O.Z
Episode 4: Jia Zhirong
Episode 5: Baozi
Episode 8: Sometimes Cat
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Episode 5: Baozi