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You Must Go Home Again II

That I have withdrawn from the abuses of time means little or nothing. I am a place, a place where things come together, then fly apart. Look at the fields disappearing, look at the distant hills, look at the night, the velvety fragrant night, which has already come, though the sun continues to stand at my door.

Mark Strand

I have always thought suicide to be the ultimate act of violence: the explosion that results from a critical mass of shivers, splinters and agonizing open conflicts. And while psychologists assert that depression is anger turned inward, I view it as the long restrained blow in a battle won only by lashing out and retreating across waters into which enemies won’t ford. As I said in a post many months ago:

It is my guess that so many suicides on Chinese campuses are directly related to this sense of familial duty and the inability to express feelings of displeasure. I see student denial of feelings as type of socially/culturally mandated alexithymia that is pervasive in China. Alexithymia is a condition characterized by a disconnect between emotions and actions. Individuals who are alexithymic cannot accurately describe feelings they are having nor are they in touch with how the feelings are being manifested in other parts of their lives. Such disconnect breeds addiction, somatic disorders, difficulty in relationships, or violence.

I recently taught two seemingly disparate classes: one obliquely encouraged students to dialogue about their inner-most dreams and the other, coincidentally and disturbingly scheduled on the day of the tragic shootings in New York, had much in common: Students were asked to differentiate between the words job, vocation and calling and then apply them to issues in their own lives. I was deeply moved and, as is often the case, I exchanged my role as teacher for that of student. Those of us who have taught ESL for a number of years know well when to listen to the sounds that return to us from across the cultural divide. Chinese students are noted for their silence in the classroom Much of what they reluctantly express is meant to be superficial; hence, safe. But, occasionally, if you listen closely enough, you will hear the overflow of the heart become word. The sounds that I heard were not the usual echoes of my own voice and I paid attention.

It is suicide season here and it makes it all the harder to hear student voice fears and lamentations about the future. They expect that their jobs upon graduation, if they are lucky enough to win any in an economy hit harder than than the government lets on, may well be menial and unrewarding. They expressed an awareness that because they are students who will graduate from a provincial college rather than a country funded key university the likelihood that they would join the ranks of millions of the educated unemployed in now greater than ever in recent years. Many of them spoke of their vocational “choices” as inevitable: preparations foisted upon them by parents, poor entrance scores, or a lack of financial resources needed to pursue their true calling.

In my class of would-be businessmen and women there were actually singers, visual artists, humanitarian aid workers, writers, Olympic athletes and more….. My students spoke with passion about their dreams now being relegated to mere meditations on what could, or should, have been.

But when I asked them how they felt about giving up or belaying calls of the heart, I found that they had practiced for so long at giving an outward appearance of gratitude and acceptance that they could not see the dissonance. For them, to grouse about their lot in life, while spending their parents’ hard-earned money on tuition, would be to completely dishonor their families. Few Asian students would ever defy the wishes of their parents in such matters. Instead, it is easier to dissociate or suffer in silence than to profess displeasure at one’s lot in life. It is at once admirable and heartbreaking to see students inexorably tied to the dreams of others while abandoning their own.

I now know of ten student and Chinese teacher deaths in the last three years and all ended their lives by jumping from rooftops–an ending ripe for horrific metaphor.  Expats are far more creative in their self destruction as being an expat has its own set of invited and uninvited emotional contradictions: a feast of anxiety and mourning in he midst of the unfamiliar. I have watched expats lash out at their hosts for the very differences that compelled them to travel abroad. When our minds become cluttered with emotional matter we either reassemble and adapt, run toward more familiar surroundings, narcotize, lose our minds or lash out. Two of my friends have chosen, since since recently losing their businesses, to surrender to depression and deceit and I hope they come to some mental clearing where they can remove burdens of doubt, and rest and recover enough to negotiate a lasting truce with themselves…

In times of trouble I  stay up much too late to watch the box scores when Tiger Woods is playing, I watch endless hours of TV re-runs from the States, eat far too much toxic fast food, and worse…I have come close to wandering off the edge of the abyss, but have many good friends who know that sudden and prolonged silence from this outspoken teacher is a danger signal and I need to be called home if only via a message filled with a written or visual memory of the past…

My Chinese students are not always so lucky. Taught to wear discomfort fashionably they rarely give clues as to the depth of their despair or the strength of the opponents they are fighting. And even if they did, their polite contemporaries, also not eager to take on added responsibility, might ignore suffering in order to save their friend’s”face,” allowing them the illusion of strength.

It was a year ago last month that Chennie fought her last battle. She was an exceptional student who changed dozens of lives for the better. She was a favorite, she was gifted and not in retrospect: she earned the respect, love and admiration of students and classmates long before she died.  There was never a glister of sadness or anger in her eyes. I have stared for hours at the pictures that will keep her eternally young on Facebook and while I know some of the details preceding her death, I doubt I will ever arrive at an acceptable understanding of the hopelessness that drove her to take her own life.

I chose not to to give credence to the criticism of those who find my concern too saccharine or ignoble a task on which to to waste their conceit–like the administrators at Chennie’s school to whom she called out to in vain for help.

Chennie left me with a gift, of course, I wish I could return in person: I attend as best I can to those unable to sleep, I try to give voice to slight gestures of supplication I catch made in solitary anguish and I write in hopes you will do the same for the emotional or physical travelers in your life.

June 1988-March 2008

American Professor in China,Asia,Asian Women,Chinese Education,Counseling Services China,Education in China,Macau,Macau University of Science and Technology,Macau University of Science and Technology,Student Suicides China,Uncategorized

7 responses so far

7 Responses to “You Must Go Home Again II”

  1. HIM Yao Suion Apr 13th 2009 at 8:42 am

    If there are truly good people living upon this earth, it is due to God’s blessing and nothing else.

  2. Expatriate Gameson Apr 17th 2009 at 11:30 pm

    A touching tribute, extremely well written and thought provoking. Thanks for sharing this piece of you…

  3. myHaoon Apr 19th 2009 at 2:04 am

    Maybe there have to be some sort of revolution or, at least, reform to change Chinese students’ situation, thus to save our lives and dreams.

    I’m shocked to know that Chennie is just half a year elder than me. I’m really sorry for her.

  4. Fili Anon Apr 27th 2009 at 12:05 am

    :(

    Sad.

  5. samanthaon Apr 28th 2009 at 6:11 am

    my parents love me so much, especially my dad
    however, when i grew up, this deep love became a burden on my shoulder, heavier and heavier
    they buy me everything i want but never allow me to say no
    at home, my dad is a king who decides everything
    when he cares too much about my personal life, i just want to say leave me alone or ignore his fuss over.
    but i would feel guilty because he did do a lot of things for me(some of them i really dont want him to do)
    i am the one who cherish freedom pretty much but my dad always restrict me to do whatever i want by claiming that is all for my good. but i dont feel good at all.

  6. Rona Maynardon May 13th 2009 at 2:37 am

    I read this moving and troubling post in Shanghai in week one of my first trip to China. Your portrait of the silent anguish facing China’s youth contrasts sharply with the explosion of optimism I see all around me on construction sites and billboards as this vast, swaggering city prepares for Expo. All the more reason why I’m glad I read it. At home in Canada, I’m proud to be an advocate for the 4,000 people lost to suicide every year and the many thousands more living with depression, as I once did. Here in China, it seems these issues are even more painful, even more likely to go ignored. Thank you for expanding my perspective.

  7. Pamela Jacobon May 19th 2009 at 9:18 pm

    What a sad and beautiful article – the suffering and sadness of this culture I will never know first hand – but the loss of a love one from suicide is indelibly etched in my memory – I will forever wonder what I could have done to help my beautiful sister who the last time I saw her – asked me to stay and visit – what was my reply? I don’t have time need to get home…

    I learned that day – never take anyone for granted she was only 20 yrs old… I always make time now – I wish I would have then…

    Thanks for the post..

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