'Click': Life as a celebrity college professor

Jason Kohn back to school
By Jason Kohn
April 3, 2015

The telltale sound of a cellphone camera reminds me, yet again, of all the new students at my college here in China. 

It’s September, back to school season here, and at my small college in western China we have a thousand or two new students for whom the place and experience is completely fresh.

For most of them, the most novel part of all is the Peace Corps Volunteer walking around campus.  And so, yet again, as I walk by a group of shy-looking girls, I hear the click of cameras and the titter of giggles.  I think, on a very minor scale, this must be what Michael Jordan feels like.

I know how the students must feel.  At this time last year the experiences were all new for me and I felt like an outsider, like a guest. I brought my camera with me everywhere, nonchalantly filling memory cards with (mostly mediocre) photos.  I was just like them.

Now though, after a year here, this place is no longer novel.  It’s comfortable. Familiar. Home. Over the course of the past year I’ve become part of my campus and my community. I’m part of the landscape now. The cafeteria ladies no longer gawk when I walk in and have lunch. The cashier at my corner grocery store is no longer shocked when ask her, “How much?” in Chinese. The school security guard knows my name. I have, to a certain extent, achieved a goal of all Peace Corps Volunteers – to become a member of my community.

However, the new students at my school remind me of the limits of my integration, and of a challenge of China.  I’m one of four foreigners in the entire county – four among millions. Almost none of these students have ever met a foreigner before and so, in some ways, I’m a spectacle wherever I go. While I’ve found a place here, the new students remind me how difficult it is to become a true member of the community. Because I’m such a novelty, because that community is so large there are always new people to meet, and because no matter how comfortable I feel, no matter how good my Chinese becomes, I will always look and be different, I wonder if I’ll ever be able to move from accepted to expected. And, while wondering, I stop, smile for the camera, and hope that by the end of a second year the clicks will have ceased altogether.

Jason Kohn