I came to Oberlin as a conservatory student in classical guitar and a college student in dance. But ultimately I double-majored in creative writing and dance and didn’t do music--though poetry is a form of music--and good writing is very much concerned with rhythm and cadencing. My professor and mentor Martha Collins told me when I was a junior in college, “I think you’re a poet, but you are very young, and the best thing you can do for your writing is to go out for a couple years and have some life-altering experiences.”
Of the people from my year that got Shansi fellowships, I was the unlikely candidate in the group, the rookie you could say. I had never left the US, and I didn’t know a word of Chinese. But as a writer, I felt like my world-view was so small, and going abroad would be the right choice. Shansi took a leap of faith and sent me to Taigu, China, despite having no international experience. I think the organization is concerned primarily with their candidates as people, and not necessarily what kinds of opportunities or experiences they had prior to Asia.
The initial adjustment to living in rural China, really the whole first year, was hard for me. I made lots of friends pretty early on, which helped, but the new environment made me sick all the time, and the poverty and idleness of Taigu was palpable. This place, though charming and very special, is a dilapidated coal-dust covered town in the middle of northern nowhere, and sometimes I feel like we’re literally on the edge of the world. Also, people were buzzing around me in a language that I didn’t understand. As a writer, this was a real struggle for my ego. I think people had always considered me to be articulate back where I came from, and then I moved to this place where I struggled in basic conversation, couldn’t communicate emotion, couldn’t deal with the subtleties of the language at all, and couldn’t read anything. That was really humbling, and in some ways I think I re-discovered the potency and complexity of language during that time. There are still struggles, even in my second year, although my speaking has improved a lot, and I can have meaningful conversation now. I had to adjust my expectations of myself, and there is still a lot language-wise around me that I don’t understand. But things are much easier this year and I’m really enjoying my time.
I’ve been working on a collection of poems most of the time I’ve been on my fellowship and they are mostly concerned with finding subtleties and metaphor in Mandarin as an outsider to the language. There is a lot of white space in these poems, and that sort of parallels the isolation you can feel when you come to a new place for the first time. “A Map of Shanxi“ I wrote soon after arriving, and it is very much about Taigu, about adaptation, and about “losing" language and its meaning, and sort of finding it again. “In Mid-Autumn“* I wrote last year during the mid-autumn festival, a holiday where everyone goes out and looks at the full moon and spends time with their family. At that time, I was feeling really far away from the world I had previously known. This poem is about being separated from people you love, the complexity of the Chinese language, and how easy it is to make mistakes--you say the syllable “bing” for example and it can mean sickness, bread, ice, etc. depending on the tone.
*Editor’s note: “In Mid-Autumn” is no longer available online. To read more of Elizabeth’s poetry, visit www.elizabethlindseyrogers.com.