August, 2003 – WELCOME TO HOHHOT: The Start of Adventure for One American

aerial

Notice the mountain range at the north of the city, and the flat plains to the south. Image courtesy of Google.

       

As the white van races past white-washed buildings, and other obscure and meaningless structures totally unrecognizable amid the blur and darkness of the city on this late summer evening, I am thankful to be only moments from where I will spend at least the next year of my life. We turn from time to time, each street looking no different from the last, but I am completely at the mercy of my hosts. My need to “know where I am going” is non-existent—I am already here. I am in the city of Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, located in the far north-central part of China. I am home.

This sentiment may not be unusual except for the fact that I am American. I am freshly graduated with my Bachelor’s degree from a private liberal arts college located right in the middle of Louisiana—the utter south-central portion of the United States. I have often considered the ironies of this new direction my life is taking: not only am I moving pretty much exactly half-way around the world, I am going from the extreme south, to the extreme north. I suppose I have always been a chaser of borders.

“Why Hohhot?” Many people, including myself, have frequently asked. After much contemplation, I can’t more easily answer this question than I can “why China?” The truth is, a symphony of forces have played their part in leading me here. At the present, these philosophical questions are not my concern—rather, my mind is racing with ideas of what it will be like to teach English to college students. No—I am not even concerned about that—instead, most pressing on my conscious is the question “what will it be like to live in a culture impossibly removed from my own?” The stronger part of me quiets these questions, and looks forward to adventure—to Hohhot.

HH

It doesn’t take me long to learn that I have not only entered a new culture, or even a singular experience, but rather, multiple diverse, beautiful, and intricately complex cultures. Each day I spend teaching ethnic Mongolian students the ins and outs of conversational English, I realize Mandarin is their second language, and English, their third—in contrast, I have only just become comfortable saying “hello” and “thank you” in a second language. As I explore city streets, I learn that the Han have a plethora of culinary experiences to offer. I can find everything from Beijing roast duck, to an endless variety of standard Chinese staple dishes. I also hear the shark’s fin soup is not bad—but I am not ready to try this delicacy just yet. The city is saturated in history and culture. Being so close to Mongolia proper, there is no shortage of traditional Mongolian cuisine. Surprisingly, I have even found there is a hidden treasure of Korean restaurants—especially specializing in Korean barbeque. On one side of the streets are ancient Tibetan Buddhist temples, and not much further down, past the old Catholic church, are old mosques, sacred sites of worship for the cities’ ethnic Hui population. Like other Muslim peoples, the Hui take pride in their cuisine, and offer a limitless variety of lamb noodles—and that’s just for starters. Several months later, a friend will even lead me to a tucked-away Xinjiang restaurant—a sole representative of that farthest north-west region of China—perhaps the ultimate borderland in this country.

I am here as a teacher, but part of me can’t help but feel like a student. Every day I learn a new Chinese word or phrase, or a unique historical aspect of my city. When I bike north, I near the mountains. I often come here for solitude on the weekends. I climb to the highest point, which is not really very high, but is high enough to allow me to appreciate the vast outspread cacophony of the bustling city beneath—sometimes noisy, but now, perfectly silent. Hohhot is crowned with mountains to the north, and endless plains in the south. One night a friend joins me in camping on these mountain-tops; we enjoy good conversation, and most importantly, boiled mutton. Miles below us, one by one, the city lights emerge as the evening unobtrusively yet inevitably descends, each single light, a warden against absolute darkness. These luminous guardians are not alone, but are joined by their ancient brothers and sisters above—we have decided to sleep under the stars. We want to appreciate their beauty, and for this reason have not brought tents, in turn, welcoming on ourselves the untamed and uninviting winds from the northern grasslands and distant Gobi Dessert, unnoticeable at first, but rapidly congregating and whipping down on our exposed bodies—but yet, we fear no cold. We have solid food in our stomachs, friendship in our hearts, and the warmth of adventure to keep us through the night. And tomorrow, we return to where it all began—to Hohhot.

This is taken during my second year living in China. I was actually teaching in Xinjiang, but had come to Hohhot, my previous stomping grounds, for a visit.

This is taken during my second year living in China. I was actually teaching in Xinjiang, but had come to Hohhot, my previous stomping grounds, for a visit.

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