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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Grinnell to Nanjing, rediscovering family

This morning I opened my eyes and had an angst-inspiring moment in which I didn’t know where I was. A full five seconds passed before I remembered—I am in China. I have experienced this disorientation multiple times since arriving here one month ago to begin my Grinnell Corps: Nanjing teaching position.

Initially, my disorientation was completely inexplicable. To me, Nanjing doesn’t seem that different from some cities in the United States. There are subways, paved streets, Pizza Huts, IKEA, coffee shops and two-story gyms with treadmills and pilates classes. In fact, if it weren’t for all of the people around me speaking Chinese, I could go entire days without being reminded that I am half a world away from the United States. Intellectually, I know that this place I am inhabiting for a short while is the product of a history and belief system unlike anything my Westernized perspective has prepared me for. However, despite the fact that I have been here for one month, the root cause of my confusion didn’t become evident until one week ago, at a banquet in celebration of “Teachers Day,” a national holiday.

The banquet was held in a large hotel meeting room, which had been equipped for the occasion with roughly twenty circular tables, each with ten chairs around it. My first glance into the room stopped me midstride. Everything I saw was pink—the tablecloths, the chairs, the curtains, the decorations on the wall saying “Happy Teachers Day” in Chinese—everything. After I got over the fact that the entire room looked as though a Pepto-Bismol factory had exploded, I looked at the mountains of food I was expected to ingest. I was informed that the muddy liquid substance was turtle soup. The bird in the middle of the table was fried pigeon—I could tell it was a bird because its head, beak included, had been severed and fried in addition to its other body parts. The black squiggly noodle things were fresh eel. The steaming pot closest to me was bullfrog and pumpkin stew.

Just as I was congratulating myself on finishing at least one bite of everything, the dishes were cleared away and the waitresses appeared with another round of equally interesting food. Halfway through this second round the toasting started. Each of the three school principals stopped by our table to offer us toasts, after which the head teacher of each of our classrooms appeared to toast us as well. Administrators of other schools followed them, and our Chinese tutors followed them, and finally the organizers of the banquet. After each toast, someone would say, “Gambei,” and everyone would empty their glass of its alcoholic contents into their mouths. Then, as the third round of food appeared, our handler arrived so we could go toast everyone who had given us a toast. By the time the watermelon came to signify that the end of the banquet, I saw many people from my school being physically helped away from the tables.

The entire gathering reminded me more of one of my family reunions in the rural Midwest than of a gathering of coworkers to honor their collective work. It wasn’t until after the mind-boggling experience that I realized that the banquet was, actually, a gathering of a family. Having been a student all of my life, I have never experienced a work culture, and I cannot yet say that I feel like a part of the family that celebrated Teacher’s Day together, which ultimately explains my feelings of disorientation.
For the past four years, I have been a part of the supportive and celebratory Grinnell community. As such, it has been almost four years since I have awoken alone, without subconsciously feeling that community support. However, if the thirty-plus people who toasted me at the Teacher’s Day banquet is any indication of the welcoming community which awaits me, I am excited for the day when I can once again consider myself a part of such a support system.

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