That I have withdrawn from the abuses of time means little or nothing.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.
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
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