Re-entry (Or: The wonder of distance)
The energetic current of passing period echoed through the rusting yellow bars of the classroom’s windows. I glanced out at students laughing in the first day of spring, unfocused thoughts tingling my brain. Was it really this easy?
Alex, my American boss, told me at the end of a hurried training weekend that the key to teaching is to have a clear image of what you want your classroom to be. At the time, it was hard to know what he meant. I had never taught a class before. In planning this next semester, though, I began to see. Knowing where your priorities lie and where you’re willing to let your students have control, not hoping but knowing what the fundamental aspects of a lesson will look like in practice. These things come with experience.
Now, as the last class of week 1 wound down, a student that had been silent the whole of last semester punched her hand into the air to inform the class that fighting a horse-sized duck would be better than fighting 20 duck-sized horses. Ducks are cowards, she explained in cool, clear English, and when you yell at them they run.
Coming back to 吉首/Jishou after Chinese New Year hadn’t been easy. As I walked toward my apartment from the 5am train, little bits of quick-winged panic flapped around me. Where were they coming from?
My first 4 months here hadn’t been so bad. I watched. I listened, or tried to listen. I changed the rhythm of my life to make small the swings in my teaching experience. There were still days near the end of the semester that classes just didn’t work. Days when a silence run too long would split open the hairline fractures in my teacher’s mask and I would watch my students recognize the moment of fear and frustration beneath.
Those days got to me.
Other days follow them, though. Generally better ones. With an optimistic disposition in my pocket it wasn’t hard to keep an even keel. So why this dark, flitting fear?
It came to me on its own time: Distance. Escape. This is what happens when you leave for 2 months. By creating distance from your life, distance brought not just by physical space but also by time, you gain a lens with which to look back.
Then you re-enter the atmosphere of your old life and you get a fresh, visceral look: all that you liked and didn’t like, all the pressure, all the people, all the small lapses and points of pride. There is a moment when it’s all wrapped up there like a knot of yarn, waiting to be unraveled and put into its routine.
I struggled this vacation with the feeling that I was escaping something. I didn’t want to be one of those people—every expat community has them—who use travel as a way to defer confrontation with the problems of “real life”. Usually these are small things, social ineptitudes that feel more comfortable in the murky expectations of cross-cultural exchange. But they leave behind a taste of fear and of cowardice in the face of that fear.
Here’s the thing, though: Escaping the gravity of one’s life and routine is an unavoidable consequence of travel, and it’s usually constructive to escape, as long as you return. My time in Yunnan gave me a moment to process that first semester and decide on my priorities for the next one. More importantly, it broke up my routine and gave me the opportunity to make the changes that needed to be made. My teaching is so far working out better for myself and my students, and I’ve been hit with the realization that the 360bybike project isn’t far off in the future. It’s on, it’s rolling, and I don’t think I’ll have a better time to practice and prepare than I do right now.
Most of the people I meet while traveling are older than me. They have stable jobs and constant lives. They ask me why I’m planning years of travel starting now, at 22. I tell them because I want to and because I may never be freer. I think now maybe I’ll add that I travel so that I can return, more sure of my direction (altered a few degrees) and more dedicated to the life that I’m living (fundamentally changed).