- One Person Means Alone
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Before Taigu, people warned me: China was a fiercely social country. After I arrived, I rarely went anywhere unaccompanied. I was ushered into crowded noodle stalls and into corner stores stuffed with plum juice, chicken feet, and hot-water thermoses. I often needed help at the post office, with its hundreds of strict regulations and wisp-thin envelopes you sealed with a depressor and paste. Students took me to the White Pagoda and the courtyard of H. H. Kung, the only historical sites in town that hadn’t been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Eventually, I’d be invited into my Chinese colleagues’ small apartments, where several generations of the family often lived together. I’d be generously served five kinds of dumplings, the bowl full again before I had the chance to set down my chopsticks. [End Page 35]
In the unheated, Soviet-feeling building where I taught university English, I waited in line with other women to use toilets without doors or stalls. At first, I tried to turn my face away from the others, demurring. But there was no use trying to hide anything about our bodies here: whose stomach was upset, or who was crying, or who was on her period that day. We saw it all. We offered stacks of tissues when someone had run out of their own supply.
I lived in a tiny brick house, the tiles on my roof painted with evil eyes to ward off badness. I’d often wake to the arguing of an unknown college couple, shouting their insults right in front of my window, just a few feet away from where I had been sleeping. I’d stumble into the kitchen, startled to find a stranger outside the back door, shaking my (was it mine?) jujube tree and picking up the fruits from the ground.
Like most teachers at the agricultural university, I lived on campus, and I wasn’t hard to find. My thoughtful students showed up on my front stoop, bearing jars of weird floating grains and fermented vegetables sent by their grandmothers. “If you eat this for six days,” they’d say, “you will be well.”
The word was out: I was sick a lot. It was my first time living abroad, and the new microbes were hard on my body. In Taigu, there was delicious street food as well as contaminated cooking oil, air, and groundwater. Shanxi province, even by Chinese standards, was an environmental disaster. The coal plants were next to the grain fields, pink and green smoke rising out of the stacks. On a good day, you could see the mountains that surrounded campus. Most of the time, they were hidden by pollution. Particulate matter caked the windowsills in my house.
People were curious about me. I was asked daily by strangers in the market square what country I was from and why I had come to Shanxi province—sort of the West Virginia of China, except that it was on the edge of the desert—as opposed to the more glamorous Shanghai or Beijing. They also asked how old I was, how much money I made teaching at the university, if I’d eaten that day yet, and, if so, what had I eaten? And why was I “a little bit fat,” they said, but not as fat as some Americans? How often did I need to color and perm my hair? (It was reddish and was curly on its own, I said.) Was that American living in the other half of my duplex my boyfriend? (He was not.) Well, did I at least have a boyfriend in the States? (Sarah, my girlfriend from college, was teaching in Indonesia, but I didn’t explain her, for obvious reasons.) And, occasionally, from students and younger friends: What did I think of the [End Page 36] movie American Pie Presents: Beta House? Was it an accurate portrayal of American university life?
Eventually, I borrowed my friend Zhao Xin’s laptop so I could watch...