Shortly after I did my first stint in China as an English teacher, way back in 1984-1986, a fellow Minnesotan named Bill Holm (who had also taught English in China for a year) wrote a book of essays called "Coming Home Crazy." I, and others I'd worked with instantly fell in love with the book because it so aptly described in a way that we couldn't (but wished we could) many of our own experiences and observations and the fact that, upon returning to the US we all felt that we had come home a bit on the loopy side. Life in China in the 1980's was really like living on another planet and our adjustment back to 'normal' life in the States was at times rocky. As I read the book I kept shouting (to no one in particular) "this is what it was like!"
Later, in 1990, when I found myself back in China living in a dormitory with other American students trying to learn Chinese, the book helped us see the sanity of our craziness. Once a week we would gather in someone's room for a reading of a chapter. The China of 1990 wasn't so different from the China of 1985, so these were the stories of our lives.
Because one of my purposes of this blog post is to convince you to run out and buy the book, allow me to include a longish excerpt from the introduction:
"An anthropologist I taught with gave me an interesting insight early in my year in China….."In Asia," the anthropologist said, looking uncommonly wise and Confucian for a Minnesotan with a motorcycle," you either lose your inner moorings, start to sink, go some kind of crazy, and just let it happen, or you will leave sooner than you expected and not learn anything."
"Impossible!" I fulminated. "My moorings are set in steel. I can't live without them."
I woke up one morning three or four months later, crazy in exactly the way he described. I felt no panic, no fear; I was adrift and looking around interested, even cheerful, in a manner that no one who has ever said the words, "Have a good day!" can begin to understand. It would be a good day; nothing would work, nothing would be available, and everything would go differently than you imagined. Now I loved China. Now I was happy….
Scott Fitzgerald, in "The Crackup," said he knew he was crazy when he became unable to hold two opposing ideas simultaneously. The experience of China means that you will never again see singly; the contrary of every idea in your life and culture looks as sane and reasonable as the idea itself. Your consciousness is bifurcated once and for all, so you might as well enjoy it. Every old truth is half a new lie, every perception half a deception. It's all right; be calm."
Bill Holm passed away recently, but the book lives on and has recently been re-released. Feeling a bit nostalgic and reflective in my 25th year of working in China, "the old days" are much on my mind. Amid the skyscrapers and cell phone towers and shopping malls and cars and coffee shops, I am trying to remember what life was like then and how much it has changed.
To assist me in that endeavor, I'm re-reading "Coming Home Crazy, " and am realizing that, , I am still crazy after all these years. And that's a good thing.