October 27th, 2011 | Published in Uncategorized
I have neglected this blog badly over the last two months, mostly due to a major move to a new city: Xiamen, located about four hours south of the small city of Sanming where I lived for two years.
Xiamen is also located in Fujian Province, the mountainous, subtropical chunk of land in southeast China on the Taiwan Strait. My previous city was located in the mountains in the center of the province (Fujian is roughly the size of Pennsylvania), where the air was a bit thinner and the winter a bit colder. I loved Sanming, and was drawn to it initially because of those mountains. The university where I taught was surrounded by small, lush peaks that reminded me of Vermont in the springtime; the town of Sanming itself was nested in a valley and split by a river. The place was simple, small, easy to navigate, and surrounded by natural beauty (even if the city itself wasn’t beautiful).
But in my first year in Sanming I often took excursions down and out of the mountains, south to Xiamen. The highway out of Sanming is beautiful; on the smoggy four hour ride the mountains slowly diminish to hills, and eventually you arrive at the mile-long Xiamen bridge which carries you to Xiamen Island.
The city of Xiamen basically consists of this egg-shaped island, about eight miles long and inhabited by almost two million people. The island itself is beautiful and quite modern, consisting of a major downtown area in the southwest section and several sparsely inhabited areas to the east. The northwest part of the island is mostly heavy industry and north of the island is a spur of land called Jimei, which consists of dozens of colleges and universities, the main one being Jimei University, which is where I now work.
In terms of comfort, Jimei is definitely a nicer place to teach than Sanming University. The classrooms where I’ve been teaching so far are air-conditioned and clean, in new buildings with nice landscaping and quiet teacher’s lounges. After teaching a spring of sweaty classes in the stifling heat of Sanming in 20-year-old cement buildings with walls covered in mold, moving to Jimei felt like being shot into another universe.
However, along with the improved living conditions comes a huge decline in my “specialness”. In Sanming, I frequently was asked out to eat by coworkers and superiors; I dined a few times with the head of the university (the Party Secretary) and I probably ate with my dean fifteen or twenty times. They showed a great deal of respect and appreciation for my work and my presence in Sanming, and I treasured those dinners not really for the food but for the chance to become familiar with the teachers I was working with. I also got a lot of Chinese practice drinking and eating with the gang of ten-or-so middle-aged, rather sexist male colleagues who worked in my department. Mostly, I just felt like I was very connected to the school community as a whole and that the other teachers really considered me a colleague.
In Xiamen, I’ve been out to eat once with the two administrators in the foreign affairs office who handled the paperwork to bring me here to teach, and that is all. I have, of course, spent a lot of time with the other foreign teachers, but as far as integration into the community of Chinese teachers goes, there has been none of that. So the ability to experience the goings-on in a Chinese university has been significantly curtailed, but with several benefits: mainly, my apartment is nicer, my classrooms are nicer, and my city is more modern.
If I had one complaint about Xiamen, at this point, it would be this: traffic is horrible, horrible, horrible. About a month after arriving here I rented a room on the southern end of the island so that I could go down and enjoy the beach and the city environment on weekends (i.e. escape from the university, where bright-faced college students are everywhere, watching you everywhere you go and muttering laowai). The distance between the university and my new room is about ten miles, but it takes me three bus transfers and almost two hours to get there. This is mostly because the public transport system is kind of a mess, and the traffic is super bad, and the island is (like all of China) overpopulated.
Chinese people say it all the time, and it is true: China has too many people.