Theo Carney '14: Taigu Chronicles


Theo Carney was one of the 2014-2016 Shansi Fellows at Shanxi Agricultural University. This is his second year narrative.

There have been times though when I’ve often felt that everything is too much: oppositional cultural differences, homophones, Karaoke in traditional characters I can barely read. Hierarchy. High-context (mis)communication. Friendly dissembling.

Then there’s been the good kind of overwhelming: the wide-eyed, things-falling-into-place-overwhelming. Weekly practices with the school’s soccer team. Grading at my friend Conan’s lab, where I sit typing this, where I hang out with his labmates, former students, and get dinner together. Conversations with my friend at Seven Teas, whom I call uncle without feeling weird, to whom I can show photos of India without feeling guilty that he probably will never be able to afford such a trip or even leave the country.

There is Jason, now studying in San Jose, who my father just met this week when he flew out there for work. There is Russel, who invited me to spend Spring Festival with his family, which I wrote about last year. There is Xu Shifang, ever cheerful, who can always put me in a good mood, smiling or bent doubled laughing about something small. There is Rachel, who accompanied me to Xinjiang. Shen Zeguang, who laughs at nearly everything and seems to have a third eye for the absurdity in everyday things.

There’s Jesse, who is apologetic sometimes, in an expansive way, for Taigu’s rough edges, who’ll teach me 查水表,“water meter checker,” a euphemism for the person who spirits you off into a van after you post something a bit too real on Weibo (Chinese Twitter). Once on the street, our conversation was interrupted by a couple of drunk idiots who needed to know right then “what country are you from?!” Afterward Jesse brought me strawberries, and made that same, chuckling, almost national apology. These friends I hope I can stay in touch with.

I feel a growing, immense gratitude, for this ever-increasing number of people who can treat me foremost as a human being, rather than simply as a foreigner. And I feel gratitude for all of my Chinese teachers who, through incredible skill, training, and patience have, put me on the road to being able to communicate with and understand the world and people in a totally new way. Gratitude for the moments of grace in which I can see my students, often times inactive, unmotivated, and unprepared for class, as people just like myself, trying their best in an educational setting the tedium and intensity of which confound explanation. Gratitude for everything and everyone who has helped remind me that the people around me are doing their best, that my best is good enough. I hope I can remember all these new little understandings.

New little skills that make things easier. For example, people often ask “where are you going?” as a greeting. In the past, sometimes if I didn’t have a good, quick reply, something inside me would implode. Why do they need to know where I am going?! Where the hell am I going anyway?! Why can’t I think of a simple answer?! Recently I found that simple answer: you can kind of wave your hand abstractly and say, “There. I’m going there.” Or little things, like not frowning when I have to wait longer than I’d like for a student to speak. They will–at least my undergrads will–if I encourage them enough.

Words of Encouragement for future Taigu Fellows  

There is an unbelievable, almost gullible tenacity in many of the people you will meet here, tenacity to be happy, tenacity to find success, to reach a goal in spite of enormous hurdles and incredible competition. Some of it is memorized, some of it is real. There are people who will help you, often, to understand something you find incomprensible. There are people who will listen when you explain something unpleasant that has happened to you, who will not pretend it was a misunderstanding or a fluke.

There will be many people who are surprisingly nice and warm to you at random times, who wiill make your bad day turn around. During the spring and summer, there are birds that will sing to you and remind you to look up, to remember that, in total contrast to gray winter, the spring campus is a slice of heaven. There are some people who stare but, if you have the energy, will return a smile, and remind you that probably a lot of the starers, gawkers, lurkers, and gapers are not making you uncomfortable on purpose.

Cooking with last semester’s students

There will be students who surprise you with their worldliness, their sense of humor, their acuity, and their understanding of their classmates. There will be students who first disappoint you, then surprise you, especially if you encourage them. You will find verbal reprimanding of dubious efficacy, but don’t forget to show them their grades.

In moments of clarity, you will find yourself appreciating the incredible difference of your new Taigu world. The word propaganda will lose its negative political edge and become a slightly annoying, mostly amusing part of your daily experience: loudspeaker excercise drills at 9:50am accompanied by old folks shuffling and bending like Y-M-C-A dancers, single-dog abuse 虐狗 at lunchtime (sappy love stories, probably meant toshame single women into being less picky and choose a boyfriendencourage young people to confidently pursue the one they love!), political updates at dinner time, and random snippets of mechanically spoken English texts or sometimes Steve Job’s Stanford commencement address. All on loud speakers older than this fellowship.

You will appreciate the track, a place where children can run around unattended (sometimes into the middle of a soccer game), where old folks have a strong community to hang out in, stay active, and take care of their grandkids (get your act together and take care of the elderly 孝顺 America), playing badminton, kicking jianzi (I refuse to say shuttlecock), hundreds of aunties 大妈 working out an umbrella line-dance routine, grandpas practicing sword Tai Chi, or doing whatever they damn well please, because they’re old and have seen crazy $h!7 you could never imagine so just agree and nod your head.

At night, the campus is beautiful and eerie. By the Thinking Lake, the noise of the day retreats, the frogs croak, the cats stop complaining, and the sound of trains arriving and departing ring out longingly like ghosts, like whales underwater. There’s a charge in the air as wheels speed up, and wails of farewell. In shaded areas, in the Lover’s Forest, you see strange dark rockforms resolve into pairs of hands, backs, clasping each other, murmuring, motionless like haphazard marionettes.

Advice and Info for future Taigu fellows:
  1. Do not spend too much time in the house.

  2. When you find a friend among your students who’s English is good and seems interested in being friends, see if you can spend time in their lab or wherever they do school work.

  3. Relatedly, if you can find a thing to do that involves the presence of other people, but that you can do and enjoy without needing the social element, do that. I play soccer. It puts me around people. I drink coffee everyday. It brings me to a shop whose owners are my friends.

  4. Learn slang if you want to make your friends laugh and freak out and ask you for the umpteenth time “you even know [common slang word]?!!” Green tea bitch 绿茶婊, dick hair 屌丝, strong-willed 任性(ehh, not my favorite but common), house-boy/girl 宅男/女, 逼格 (too difficult to explain, but fun to repeat like a crazy person).

  5. Don’t let the constant stares and unwanted attention get you down. Also, don’t expect it to go away. It won’t, but you will get stronger, and less easily bothered. But you will be bothered, and you will probably continue to be bothered until you leave. So do not be embarrassed or ashamed if you find you cannot just ignore it. If you aren’t bothered, please explain this magic trick to me.

  6. Unless you appear fully ethnically Chinese, don’t expect to blend in. People like Weibo star Mike 随 who is half-Chinese, half-American, speaks perfect (Beijing-accented) Mandarin, has spent half his life in China, and is famous for doing solid impressions of regional accents from every single province/municipality–he is still 老外 This seems true across the board. This is Mike 随 talking about it in Chinese: <> And if you pass as Chinese here, but are not exactly culturally Chinese, someone might just call you a “Banana” anyway. So in short, don’t expect nuanced understandings of identity. I say this not as criticism but as a reality; if you are aware of this and accept it, you can adjust your expectations and have realistic hopes.

  7. In-group out-group dynamics can feel exaggerated in China, but being foreign simply adds another thick creamy layer to the regionalist pie. Remember that it’s not only directed at you.

Final Words

Taigu is a funny, tiny place, and if it’s any indication of its national reputation, when I tell other Chinese people where I work, they think I’m talking about Thailand (Taiguo). In spite of everything, I think two years here may oddly be the biggest adventure I’ll ever experience: wandering around a little rural town in one of the less developed provinces of China. It hasn’t been easy, but I’m glad I did it. Chinese megacities like Beijing are the upper crust of the country, what state-produced movies and TV series show off, but this has been an experience of the simpler, humbler side of the country, which is real and beautiful. I’ve learned to be patient with people, and with myself. I’ve gotten better at making myself happy. I’ve started to grasp how much of what I take for granted as universal is really just my own culture.

Looking over this draft, I feel that I have not done what I set out to do. I wanted to write a cheerful-sounding report to show how fulfilling my time here has been. It has been, but this story here, like Taigu, has a life of its own, and the best stories and life-changing experiences I bet are not always positive. Let’s say it’s a first draft. At present, I’m sitting outside, the birds are chirping, and to my left is a chubby middle-school aged boy with his father. He is holding a school book; the front cover says 英语 ENGLISH. His father is making him study. He looks at me through glasses, a mix of longing and hesitation.

“Ay-cho-ess-pee: Hohspeetal.”

Pingyao with the Pops

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Beilin Museum, Xi'an

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A War of Resistance TV Drama Filmed on Campus, the Director gave me a Shandong Snack

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Greatwall, Jiankou, with Father

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