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Saturday, May 17, 2008

This Is How The Journey Ends

Not with a bang, but with a long, profound groan.

I've been showing Philadelphia to my students this weekend, part of a two-class lesson on HIV/AIDS that will wrap up next week with a short quiz on the film, some shamelessly fact-dropping dialogues, and well-anticipated awkward silences as I talk about sexual-transmitted diseases in front of a group of students who still laugh at the equivalent of peek-a-boo. Yesterday the film went over pretty well: Chinese subtitles on (because there was no way in hell my students would understand a second of the film otherwise), the students were a great audience, laughing and sighing and nearly crying right where the director wanted them to. Today, well, not so much. I guess tonight was the stragglers, the lets-go-to-Matthew's-movie-and-sleepers, the twinkling screens of re-re-re-checked mobile phones creating a constellation of boredom in the yawning high-ceilinged lecture hall. Some paid attention, some tried to understand, some must have enjoyed the film, but all it did was leave me with a profound longing for home, mixed with feelings of intense resentment and venomous apathy for the rest of the classes I have to teach here in Jilin.

But what am I complaining about? All I have is a wildly unfulfilling job that is inexorably albeit slowly coming to a close. There are far more serious problems in the world, in China. To wit: estimates of up to 50,000 dead and missing as a result of the Sichuan earthquake. I was having a drink the other night with Kevin Clancy, Father Brian (the chronically busy Maryknoll priest here in Jilin), Kevin, Jenny, and Jim, and Jim raised an interesting point. This is China, the land of the One Child Policy. Now that's policy, friends, not a law: many people can and do have more than one child, but it's rare, and it only seems to happen if you're especially wealthy, live in a province with really lax enforcement, live in the country, or (this is China, after all) you know the right people. But for the most part, families do have one child.

And now, for many families, that child is gone, as an unimaginable number of children perished in the disproportionate number of cheap, poorly-made schools that collapsed in the quake.

“Our grief is incomparable,” said Li Ping, 39, eyes rimmed red, as he and his wife slowly, carefully pulled a pair of pink pajamas over the bruised, naked body of their 8-year-old daughter, Ke. “We got married late, and had a child late. She is our only child.”

The earthquake has effected the entire country. And maybe that was why my students didn't care to see a movie about AIDS, about more death and sadness. From having a student break down crying in my class because her boyfriend from Sichuan was unreachable, to having students comment on 2008 being a "terrible" year for China when just days ago they were beaming with Olympic pride ... it's been a strange time here, just five days from the event. When Americans mourned for Hurricane Katrina, where just under 2,000 died, we were saturated with grief. China, and my students, are still reeling from a far more profound disaster.

Well that's quite a pluralistic combo, complaining about being here and then indulging in the human vantage living here affords. That's the paradox, the combination of frustration and insight, that this place brings. I learned from Father Brian that my blog is being read on the radio, on his radio show, here in Jilin. Well, this should make for interesting broadcasting.

Some good news to close: James just finished running a marathon along the Great Wall of China, just outside Beijing. This time last year, Nicki was about to hop over to Hong Kong to run a half-marathon there. For what it's worth, I just ran all the way from campus, along the river, to the heart of Jilin city, for the first time. Not exactly a marathon, but, well, one landmark at a time.

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