Wall of Maps: Rediscovering Home After Two Years in a Chinese Desert

I tape the map of Guangzhou, dim sum capitol of the world, in the center of my wall, even though I only spent four days there. The map of Guangzhou is the largest map. Guangzhou is ringed by Lanzhou, Taipei, Hualien, San Francisco.

Phoenix and Wuwei, the two places I’ve lived most of my life, are absent from the collage. I rip Scotch tape with my incisors. Next wall. Notes and photos from my former students. Pictures my sister drew when she was younger. A caricature of myself drawn by a friend. A poster for a shitty shark attack movie. I tape together the history of my life.

Rewind to three years ago. Friends, family, and acquaintances asking me “why?” in varying degrees of interest and support, referring to the gauntlet of interviews, medical exams, and endless paperwork to live in poverty halfway around the world. I forget how I responded back then, but the honest answer would be that I wanted to live someplace else, someplace far way, and that I wanted someone else to choose.

“I spent the past two years in Wuwei, teaching English, starting sometimes hare-brained community projects, learning Chinese, and playing in a rockabilly cover band named Old Fashioned. You know, saving the world.”

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Gannan Prefecture/Tye Rabens

 

Peace Corps sent me to Wuwei, China, a sleepy town on the cold, arid plains north of the Tibetan Plateau. There are certainly poorer places in China, but Wuwei’s Silk Road glory days are long gone. The men drink, smoke, and swear. The women too, except they’re not show-offs about it. The signature dish is cold, gelatinous noodles doused in hot sauce. Wuwei averages a net water loss each year—water evaporates faster than it rains. I came to love that place with the same ferocity as the locals.

I spent the past two years in Wuwei, teaching English, starting sometimes hare-brained community projects, learning Chinese, and playing in a rockabilly cover band named Old Fashioned. You know, saving the world.

I reminisce as I cradle my bicycle and wait for the Light Rail at dusk. This is Tempe, where public transit options abound compared to much of the metropolis. Busses and express routes drag or dart around us, vehicular cells of the city’s circulatory system taking us from one place to the other. I hang my bike on the rack inside the train, the motion built into my muscle memory, and sit near a homeless man preaching universal love and gender equality to an unreceptive audience of bleary-eyed passengers. My old, familiar life. Phoenix has changed, but then again, it hasn’t.

I woke up from a nap on the train, and the landscape outside my window had transformed. An expanse of flat, cracked earth the color of wheat supplanted the verdant spires of Sichuan’s lush mountains. A new world, beautiful and self-assured in its aridity, flickers past. In the distance, a red-rock plateau. Desert.

My site mate, from the Appalachian region, gawked at the landscape’s emptiness. I smile, at peace, half-expecting to see a highway mileage sign for Tucson. Granted, the differences between Wuwei and the Sonoran Desert would become more obvious over time. Sand dunes replaced plateaus. Brutal winters replaces brutal summers. Struggling rows of corn replaced struggling rows of exurban housing developments. But the reassuring presence of dry air and dust devils and polychromatic sunsets and red rocks remained. Although too sandy and cold for saguaros, it was a desert. It was home.

How strange, to instantly feel at home, even reassured, by the sight of parched ground— for a landscape to be part of your identity. I often thought of family and friends in the following two years, but rarely felt homesick for Phoenix. I had left Arizona, but not the desert. At least, that’s why I tell myself I didn’t miss Phoenix.

Zoom forward two years. Customs in the L.A. airport was sluggish at best— “purposefully lazy” might be libelous— and I’d missed the transfer flight. Of course, my welcome back to America was a giant middle finger, courtesy Los Angeles.

My father picked me up at Sky Harbor. A bear hug and hearty pats on the back all around. We talked Arizona sports most of the drive home— what else? The only strangeness came from how normal and familiar everything felt. Shouldn’t things be different after a miniature lifetime on the other side of the world? The red rock formations of Papago Park jutted out to our left and it’s like I’d been looking at them every day for the past 26 months. I fight through a brief flash of vertigo and ask Dad how Goran Dragić looked in preseason play.

My main job in Peace Corps was to teach English at a three-year college to a cautiously optimistic group of girls from the provincial countryside. In an attempt at mandatory self-expression, I assigned writing journals my second year teaching with free-writes every other week.

For 20-year-olds, my students wrote about missing their parents a lot. Sure, Chinese culture values filial devotion, but still. Grow up. You’re adults. Write about an interesting article you read, or your career goals, or how much you hate your ex-boyfriend, or something.

But no, they missed their parents and their hometowns, the same “backwards villages” (their words) my students ostensibly wanted to escape via higher education. At first, I couldn’t understand it. And they, in turn, couldn’t understand me.

My student Grace confounded her diminutive stature and thick-lensed bifocals by becoming class monitor and a student marked by her curiosity, work ethic, and humility. She, in particular, would pull me aside about twice a month to check in. Teacher Tye, how can you come to our China for two years? You don’t miss your home? I would picture holidays with family or hiking Picacho Peak with friends. Of course I miss my home. But sometimes, traveling to a new place is worth leaving home. Grace would nod vigorously, whether she understood or not. You’re very brace!

I like Phoenix and all, but courage is not what allowed me to leave. I thought of here as “home” only in a very abstract sense. “Home” didn’t contain or define me. For a long time—an ignorantly long time—I viewed my students’ homesickness as a collective weakness. Maybe, I’d rationalize, it’s because many of their families have worked that land for generations. Maybe family is generally more important in China. Whatever the reason, our disconnect was a problem on their end, not mine. Grace had it all wrong. Her attachment to “home,” no matter how fucked up of a place “home” is, was a psychological tic that ultimately held her and her classmates back.

My new hobby is to pretend that everyday occurrences and interactions are completely foreign to me. Like every day is my first day in America.

I marvel in the grocery store cereal aisle, letting the colors and shapes melt together into a carb-heavy mosaic. The mascots on the children’s cereals give me special pause. What a strange and fascinating culture this is! I think. They use friendly pirates, tigers, vampires, and various birds to sell sweet breakfasts to children! And it works!

I have a friendly conversation with the elderly woman behind me at checkout, then another with the middle-aged cashier, and then another with the high schooler bagging my groceries. Americans are so friendly! I swipe a piece of plastic through a small box, press a few buttons. Everything is so convenient in America!

I try the same thought experiment on Phoenix itself: Can I see this city like someone who’s never been here, who has no expectations of it? I choose locations that stir up some sense of place—The Westward Ho, Roosevelt Row, campus town, Tempe Public Library , the homeless resource center I used to volunteer at. It is a pleasant trip down memory lane, but no matter how much I try, I can’t see these places with new eyes. It’s too familiar.

I felt a lot of things those first weeks back, but none of it felt new. Like reuniting with a friend and seeing the entire history of your relationship in the flash of recognition in his or her eyes. It’s anticlimactic, yet reassuring, to see that an old friend hasn’t changed. I returned to the same friends and family, with the same personalities, doing roughly the same things with their respective lives. After all, their lives don’t revolve around my adventures overseas. Once bace in Phoenix, I quickly slipped into a routine similar to my life over two years before. I accepted this easily. Normalcy was deflating, yet comforting.

Phoenix didn’t change much during the two years I’ve been away, and maybe I didn’t, either.

“Another military checkpoint. Ancient ruins. Of course, I had never been anywhere like Xinjiang, and yes, the conflict surrounding me was disturbing.”

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Gannan Prefecture/Tye Rabens

I take a break from taping maps to my wall and catch up with an old friend over lunch. We go to an Asian supermarket to look at teas, buy a few beers instead, over which we rehash old college war stories. We play ping-pong for an hour and no clear winner is determined. A little later, I go downtown to another friend’s place to watch a movie and come back to Tempe in the crisp, dark night. Overall, not so different from a day off in China— except for how I got around.

In Phoenix, it’s a calculated mixture of driving, biking, and Light Rail, navigating the wide, grid-like roads. In China, I was all about taxis. I could get all the way across town for less than an American dollar. I simply gave the driver a vague address—“that new kebab restaurant across from the new shopping center on Qilian Street”—before easing back while he or she intuited a route through winding alleys and illogically-spaced intersections.

We’d engage in sometimes risqué, sometimes predictable, always fascinating cross-cultural small talk. I became a B-list celebrity among the Wuwei taxi community; on several rides, the driver called up a buddy on the intercom to report the sighting: Hey! I finally got that white guy with the good Chinese in my cab! Yeah! He says Chinese beer tastes like horse-piss! Hah!

In Phoenix, I’ve memorized the roads and bus routes, resisting GPS and Google Maps, trusting only myself with my destination. While I knew my way around Wuwei, I preferred to trust other people to get me places. The taxi drivers, weaving through traffic with admirable-yet-life-threatening confidence, provided a more intimate understanding of town than the route itself.

I rack my bicycle and find a seat on the Light Rail, talking to no one. It’s 11:30pm, and we are all bleary-eyed and distant. I bike the remaining four miles by memory, comfortable in the inky chill of midnight. Even if a gregarious, cigarette-stained cabbie had pulled up next to me with the promise of raunchy Chinese celebrity gossip and a $0.50 ride home, I would have kept riding. That is not how I live in Phoenix. Here, I trust only myself with my destination.

I put off going to see my old apartment in downtown Phoenix. I already remembered everything I needed to remember. Cooking on the sea foam green, 1940’s gas stove. Making gin & tonics for friends on my grandfather’s heirloom wooden bar top.  Reading in the shared courtyard until a neighbor came by with a six pack and a story. I loved that place. This studio is where I decided to commit to writing, and where I decided to join Peace Corps. I’ve never felt more confident and independent.

Months after my return to the Valley, I finally go. When I walk past, I see no one and hear only the rumble of a power sander. The entire eight-plex is being remodeled for the next wave of tenants. It looks better now, to be honest. I don’t know what I expected, but this is probably more fitting. I walk past without pause, a power sander for a soundtrack as the curtains drop.

I cross over the I-10 on the 10th Street walkway, a steady drum of cars jostling below at lethal speeds. This narrow strip of cement and cage-wire connects two downtown historic districts for pedestrians, suspended over the heart of this metropolis highway system. The air is cool and soft from the remnants of drag winds. I am standing atop Phoenix, and I have deja-vu.

I’m instantly transported back to China, to Urumqi, the imposing and hair-trigger desert capitol of Xinijang province. It was Summer 2013, the day after Ramadan.   The government didn’t want Uighurs, a prominent minority group that is religiously Muslim, ethnically Central Asian, and historically also lays claim to the region, to “recklessly” celebrate the last day of Ramadan. Riots had broken out that Spring in nearby towns, some of them deadly. These incidents were examples of “terrorist extremism” or “government oppression,” depending on whom you asked, but the area was clearly in crisis. And the Ramadan crackdown was a show of power, the military asserting the region’s dominant culture to be Han Chinese and not Uighur or Muslim.

My bus to Urumqi days before got caught behind a military caravan hundreds of vehicles long. By the time I got into town, outposts of soldiers sporting automatic rifles already dotted every third intersection. The government didn’t want Uighurs celebrating the last day of Ramadan. It worked. Except for Chinese State media, no one was celebrating in Urumqi that week.

Little did I know, I was drifting into the beginnings of a firestorm that would escalate into deadly stabbings and bombings across China, followed by even harsher governmental regulations. Just two years later, Chinese everywhere are terrified of Uighurs. In turn, Uighur men who sport beards cannot ride the bus, Uighur women cannot cover their faces in public, and no government employee can fast during Ramadan.

What a shitstorm. What a vacation.

But I never regretted the decision to travel to Xinjiang province. Although I was in little danger as an American in the region, I still felt exhilarated and hyper-aware for three weeks straight. I was finally in the Taklamakan Desert, alone, biking and backpacking one of the most perilous sections of the Silk Road. A daylong bus ride through hundreds of miles of parched earth, punctuated only by pit stops at two ghost town gas stations. Then, dazzling bazaars the size and decibel level of airports. Then, an infinite horizon punctuated by a single minaret. Then, a grape orchard. Another military checkpoint. Ancient ruins. Of course, I had never been anywhere like Xinjiang, and yes, the conflict surrounding me was disturbing. But despite the 115-degree desert noons and simmering ethnic tensions—or perhaps because of them—I felt a sense of “home” again almost instantly.

In particular, the city’s highway system commanded a strange pull over me. I spent an entire day wandering along Urumqi’s turnpikes in the mid-summer heat, the horns of semi-trucks catcalling me with nearly every step. I probably wrote a shitty poem about it at the time. I stood atop the biggest overpass I could find and watched traffic disappear into the wavering horizon for perhaps an hour. I had deja-vu then, too— of standing on the 10th Street walkway, gazing in wonder at the I-10. At both moments, separated by 18 months and 7,000 miles, I occupied these two places simultaneously.

“The Chinese word for ‘homesickness’ is xiang jia, literally ‘Thinking of Home,’ a term lacking those connotations of weakness or immaturity.”

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A former student, Cassie, with her two cousins in Lognan Prefecture/Tye Rabens

I tape the maps to one wall, photos of my former students and younger sister to another. There’s also a portrait of myself on Wall Two. In the weeks before I left, a cartoonist in Wuwei I befriended drew my caricature to surreal results. The cartoon version of myself is accessorized with aviator shades (which I’ve never owned), a hoary viking beard, ripped jeans, psychedelic background, and a gigantic ballpoint pen slung over the left shoulder like a machete. Perhaps this is how people saw me: a swashbuckling, reality-bending author from the American Wild West.

I’ll take it— this depiction certainly feeds my ego— but it’s quite a brow-furrowing souvenir.

No one from home visited me during Peace Corps service and it’s unlikely that any of my Chinese friends will ever be able to afford a trip here. I often fantasized about showing family or friends around Wuwei, preferably by taxi, impressing them with my knowledge of the town and ability to acclimate. To show them that living in another country is different, but then again, it’s not.

Conversely, in a separate fantasy I tour my Chinese friends around Phoenix, preferably by Light Rail. Sure, they would be amazed by the shapes and thorniness of cacti, and by the wideness of our roads. They would be amazed by the abundance of everything from coffee to tattoo parlors, and disappointed by the dearth of street vendors selling watermelon slices. They would be used to the number of beggers, but amazed by the number of churches. If my Chinese friends visited in October, our fantasy tour would include a haunted house, one of the expensive ones in the middle of nowhere. As they’re chased past sahuaros by a chainsaw-wielding, English-screaming maniac, they might have a thought I often had my first few weeks in China: I am on the opposite side of the planet from everything I know.

But fantasies distract from real life. Phoenix is just a city, struggling to be a good one to its citizens. The issues we face here—urban sprawl, human rights for immigrants, income inequality, water shortages, cultural malaise—would be depressingly familiar to the small-town cartoonist who imagined my life in Arizona to be so vibrant and other-worldly.

Everything is taped to the wall; the maps blur together. Living in Phoenix now is different from before, but then again, it isn’t.

Phoenix hasn’t changed much, but maybe I have. I never allowed myself to take pride in being an Arizonan or a Phoenician. The idea of identifying with a place simply because you grew up there used to seem narrow-minded and trite.

My students in China taught me that I was wrong, that I’d mistaken a simple idea for simplistic thinking. They didn’t miss their hometowns merely out of ignorance, or a naiveté that those “backwards villages” were perfect. Your home is a part of you, and giving up on it is giving up a part of yourself. After two years in Wuwei, it had come to feel like a second home. I recognized that inherent sense of belonging, because I had felt it before, for Arizona. My students taught me there is nothing wrong with an adult missing the place they grew up. The Chinese word for “homesickness” is xiang jia, literally “Thinking of Home,” a term lacking those connotations of weakness or immaturity.

Admitting I love this state as my home gives me the drive to to help make it a little better. Lucy, one of my favorite students, wants to use her college education to teach elementary school in her mountain hamlet of 250 people. When I asked her why, Lucy looked at me like I was stupid. Almost a year later, I may have answered my own question.

For now, I am finished taping things to the wall. Cartoon Tye stares at the mosaic of maps from across the room. They help me remember places I’ve been, but may never return to. I don’t need maps of Phoenix or Wuwei. They are my two homes, the two places I’ll always go back to.

Tye Rabens is a writer and journalist currently based in Phoenix, AZ. He served in Peace Corps China from 2012 to 2014. He can be contacted at writersblank@gmail.com