November 30, 2016

Departure: Part I

My final days as a Peace Corps Volunteer were, “in a word” (to quote my students’ favorite canned cliché): emotional. Those last moments with each of my classes – complete with bawling students and homemade scrapbooks – to endless late-night parties and elaborate, festive dinners with my local friends, colleagues, and fellow expats, had me leaving Liupanshui with a heavy heart. And alas, Peace Corps trainings had warned that all volunteers, from Mexico to Mongolia, experience very similar emotions centered around one idea: regret.

Once again, I was a statistic. “I didn’t do enough.” “I should’ve tried harder.” “I’m going to be forgotten.” As I cleaned out my apartment and packed my bags, all I could think about was how many hours and days I spent hiding out, how many times I showed up to class with a half-assed lesson plan, or how many invitations I’d neither accepted nor extended to Chinese nationals in lieu of doing what I wanted to do either alone or with other expat friends. It’s hard, especially in hindsight, to forgive myself for those selfish moments. Thankfully, my actual sendoff from LPS put many of these insecurities to rest, and for as long as I have my wits about me, I’ll never forget my final few days as a volunteer in Guizhou province.

Two days before I left, I decided to get my second tattoo during service. Secretly, of course, as Peace Corps policy doesn’t condone such lewd behavior. I met with three of my best students – a freshman, Jack, a sophomore, Zoe, and a junior, Charlie – and asked them nonchalantly to write a few things down in Chinese, in their typical handwriting.
1.     Returned Peace Corps Volunteer
2.     Liupanshui, Guizhou, China
3.     2014-2016
That was it. “What’s it for?” “Why do you need this?”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. I’ll show you tomorrow. And with that, I set off to the apartment where I’d gotten my first tattoo – a moon in the cancer constellation – and was finished in an hour with a band of Chinese scribbles encircling my left forearm, just below my elbow. The tattoo artist, by the way, was repulsed that I wanted such bad handwriting inscribed on my body forever. “Let me do it in calligraphy, please!” he begged. I just laughed it off.
“Trust me, this is what I want.”

Wolf and Co. for one last time.
My host dad, Wolf, picked me up from the apartment building and we shared a fantastic final meal together before I was showered with gifts in the form of luxurious teas, expensive calligraphy tools, and original artwork from his locally renowned calligrapher brother. After a teary goodbye, I joined a final going away/goodbye meeting for any interested students who wanted to see my colleague, Daniel, and I one last time, take pictures, and ask questions; I made sure Jack, Zoe, and Charlie were in attendance. Once the room filled up, we chatted and took questions – students were either snapping pictures on their phones, smiling huge smiles, or biting their lips to keep from showing any emotion. We ended the formal part of the meeting and invited everyone to come up individually to ask questions, chat, or take pictures, and it was then that I called Jack, Zoe, and Charlie to the front of the room.

Jack, front-and-center as usual, arrived first as I pulled up my shirtsleeve. His eyes grew huge as his jaw dropped. He glanced repeatedly from my face to my arm in total disbelief and yelled to Zoe in Chinese, “Get over here! He got our handwriting tattooed on his arm!” Zoe, then, bolted to the front of the room, grabbed my arm, and went at the fresh tattoo with her thumb, thinking it would rub off. “It’s not real! It’s not real!” she yelled, before looking up and directly into my eyes, her brow furrowed with the kind of expression you might see in a toddler who’s looking at a puppy behind glass and can’t get to it. Charlie was the last to show up, stoic and composed in her typical way. “Wow,” she said, calmly, “This is so meaningful. Really, really special. You’ll never forget us.” And while I took a solitary, tear-filled walk around campus late that night, I knew that she was right.

I spent the next morning, my last, like I spent many of my last couple-dozen days – with Alex, my closest local friend, and his wife, Xiao Wen. We went to lunch together and ordered all of my favorite local dishes: La Rou, spicy fried pork and bacon with green peppers and onions; Hongshao Qiezi, eggplant braised in soy sauce; and Yumi Chao Roumo, stir-fried corn with ground pork and peppers – plus, about three other dishes and a soup. (Alex always sought to impress when it came to ordering food or drinks.) And speaking of drinks, we did. We had to. So at 11:00 am, Alex and I started taking shots of straight baijiu in the spirit of a proper Guizhou send-off. We ate, drank, hugged, and cried. Finally, the pair gave me a gorgeous and, I’m sure, impossibly expensive tea set to attempt to courier home in one piece – it didn’t make it – and I hopped in a cab to return to my apartment on campus for the last time.

In the car, I texted my counterpart, Chelsea, who wanted to spend some time with me and help me tie up any loose ends at home. Before she arrived, though, Daniel, my colleague, my neighbor, my rock, my brother for the entire second year of my service, stopped in to say goodbye. It wasn’t easy, but we’d both done this a time or two before, and any conversation or well-wishes we had for each other couldn’t communicate more than the knowing look into each other’s eyes with a slow-bobbing nod and bitten lip. It’s the end of an era.

One of the many dinners I had before leaving, this one
with Chelsea at a Hunan restaurant.
So we talked, hugged, said goodbye, and Chelsea knocked at the door soon after. She came with a parting gift – and since I mentioned it, I guess I have to say what it was:  Bright. Red. Sexy. Underwear. I didn’t ask questions, I just bowed and said thank you. There was no awkwardness, strangely enough, and we sat down on my couch to enjoy a final cup of tea together. We chatted, speaking of future plans in somber tones as the clock ticked away overhead, taunting us. Although our relationship was somewhat rocky in the beginning, that final semester had brought us closer than ever, and we both felt the heaviness of that final meeting bearing down. When the time came, we shared a long hug (unusual, mind you, in Chinese culture), I hung my freshly laundered bedding to dry for my successor arriving in a few short weeks, we locked the doors, and we left.

Last moments in my apartment!
Waiting outside by the car were Roy, our foreign affairs assistant and all-around good guy, and my host dad, Wolf. Chelsea had to return to the office, and seeing the three of them looking up at me with forced smiles, knowing I had to say one goodbye right then, made me realize the full weight of what was happening. I threw my things in the car and jumped off the sidewalk ledge (Chelsea stands at about 5 feet), engulfed her in a bear hug, and felt all of the excitement toward going home, the accomplishment for finishing my service, and the enthusiasm for whatever was ahead, vanish. I started to cry, my face buried in Chelsea’s shoulder, and I couldn’t stop. This is really the end, I thought. I’m not ready.

Chelsea pulled away after a few seconds, tears glistening in her own eyes on an especially rare, sunny day in Liupanshui, and said, “It’s good to cry, Colton. It means we have formed a truly special bond, and I know we will see each other again.” That didn’t help – cue more waterworks. And so, since I was barely able to speak at that point and I was on track to miss my train anyway, I choked out a meager “See you in America. Thank you for everything,” and we were train station-bound.

The drive was one of the most sobering moments of my service. Wolf and Roy kept silent, either uncomfortable with my outpouring of emotion or aiming to give me the space I needed to recover. I looked out the windows, my head whipping back and forth, trying to see my home of two years like I was seeing it for the first time, hoping to notice something I’d never noticed before or see a familiar face waiting to take the bus back from the market. And when we arrived, I was greeted at the station by none other than Alex, Xiao Wen, and another fast friend of recent days, Michael.

In a stroke of luck, my train happened to be delayed by an hour. Normally, I’d be mildly annoyed, but in this case, it was an opportunity to squeeze in some unexpected and important quality time with the three local friends who made me feel so welcome, appreciated, and integrated during my final months in China. All of them had more gifts to give, and as my departure time drew nearer, I could tell Alex had something on his mind.

“What are you thinking about?” I asked Alex in Chinese.
“Just thinking,” he answered.
“We’ll see each other again, I promise,” I said, trying to comfort him.
Then, Michael spoke up. “He has a plan, Colton.”
“What do you mean?”
“He wants to take you to Tibet.”
I wasn’t sure I understood. Alex looked up with a deviously hopeful smile and started rattling off in Chinese to Michael and Xiao Wen – I couldn’t keep up aside from a few cues like “couple of weeks” and “we can drive there.”

Michael, whose English is among the most authentic of any Chinese person I’d ever met, explained. “He wants you to miss your train. We’ll throw your bags in the car and drive to Chengdu so you can attend all of your meetings, then you can move your flights home back a couple of weeks, and we’ll all go explore Tibet together.”

About a week before leaving, I invited Alex, Xiao Wen,
and Michael over for an authentic western meal.
The infamous [notorious?] Michael.
I was shocked. I couldn’t decide whether to be flattered, excited, or furious. Tibet is a major destination that most Chinese people and visitors alike long to experience. The first thing that came out of my mouth was “Did you just have this idea today?!” Alex confirmed, explaining that he’d only thought of it after we’d said goodbye after lunch earlier in the day… that he came to “see me off” at the station but was hoping to get me to ditch the train and leave with them instead. And as exciting as that prospect was, it was absolutely impossible. I tried to explain, as delicately as I could, that I just couldn’t do it, but he tried his best to refute my points:  It’s too expensive to change my flights (I’ll pay for it!); Foreigners can only travel to Tibet on tourist packages (I’ll buy one!); I’m only allowed to take a flight into the area, we can’t drive (I can pull strings for you!); My relationship will definitely end if I cancel my plans to visit D.C. (Then it’s not meant to be!).

At long last, Alex withdrew, defeated, and barely spoke to me for the next 20 minutes while we waited for my train. Michael tried to ease the tension, but it was incurably awkward. “He’s upset,” he said, “because he thought he could convince you, and he was really excited for all of us to be able to spend some more time together.” When the train arrived, Xiao Wen decided to wait outside while Michael and Alex helped me to load my luggage. We stood on the platform for a few minutes, mostly in silence, and when the train finally called for all-aboard, I tossed my favorite pair of light-blue plastic sunglasses out the door to Alex, he put them on immediately, and he and Michael walked by my window with me until the train left the station. If that’s not a proper goodbye, I don’t know what is.
Moments before departure, and the last faces I saw
in Liupanshui, Guizhou, China.

Once aboard, I relaxed a little. The farewells were more difficult than I could have anticipated, but what I was going toward got me excited: Close of Service. One last chance to hang out with some of my best volunteer friends, meet with my host family in Chengdu, get one last round of Peace Corps pampering, and after two years, call myself a returned volunteer.

The feeling of being able to say that, and much, much more, will be covered at length in the next post in this series of final reflections.
Final shots of campus in the spring.

A burrito pilgrimage to Kunming, Yunnan,
with two volunteer friends.

The view from my main coffee shop downtown.

Beijing Duck! One of the many fancy meals I was treated
to in my final days.

Fried corn, one of the local specialties.

View of the new construction from the dorms.
(Not a rollercoaster, sadly.)
My smash-hit western meal I cooked for Alex and co.

Brother Daniel

Alex and I getting some BBQ (raw meat may have
been involved) after a long night out and about.

I tried to get pictures with all of my regular vendors and
restaurant owners. This is the woman who cooked at the hot
pot restaurant we ate at almost every week.

My go-to fruit vendor - after a year or so she'd give me
cheaper prices and usually throw in a few freebies.

Egg Auntie! Tough as nails and provider of free garlic and ginger
with every purchase.

This family owned my favorite noodle restaurant
in town. Best cure for a bad day.

The final days were filled with student dinners galore - almost
one for each of my 8 different classes.

For some reason these juniors wanted to give me
gifts and take pictures after a tough final :D

The always-spunky freshmen class. We only had a year together
but I miss them a ton.

May 19, 2016


O' the life of a celebrity ;-[
I applied to Peace Corps accepting the fact that, for two years, I’d be locking myself in the closet and throwing away the key. Was I apprehensive? Absolutely. But I’d read plenty of literature preparing me for that outcome, and I’d grown to accept it. Then, during our first interview, my recruiter asked me point blank: “Do you have any other minority- or identity-related concerns that you think could affect your service?”

That’s a little forward, I thought, feeling my blood pressure rising.
“Well… I’m gay?”
“Okay, got it, thank you for sharing that with me.”
Another five minutes of less-intrusive questions passed before the conversation came to a head.
“There’s room with University TEFL in China leaving this June. How does that sound?” Something about her wording made me feel like there was a little wiggle room, which struck me as strange, because prior to this conversation, I always thought applicants didn’t have a choice in placement.
“Are there other options?”
“Well… you’re also qualified for Ethiopia, but…” she hesitated, “I think you’d have a much more comfortable service in China.”

Two years later, this conversation still rings clear as ever, because it took me a good while to understand what my recruiter meant. Ethiopia’s attitude toward the LGBT community is not altogether welcoming. China, on the other hand, is slowly warming to the idea. While not immediately apparent, I grew privy to a handful of gay bars and other gay-friendly establishments in Chengdu, my first home. Then, after I started teaching in my school and picking students’ brains, I was able to grasp the current climate not from reading heavily slanted articles from the media, but from the people themselves.

Special dinner featuring my main bro Daniel and two of our
students, Lauren and Zoe. They won a competition at
English Club, so I made a pizza for the reward.
That’s not to say my information wasn’t slanted. My province is famous around China for being backwards, behind, and conservative as hell. When asked about homosexuality in their country, some students would look me in the eye, dead serious, and say “China doesn’t have gay people.” Discouraging? You betcha. It’s not fun to hear your young minds-for-molding saying things that almost feel like personal attacks.

There’s plenty of reason why things are the way they are. First of all, the majority of the students I work with are very sheltered. They come from villages of 200 people where they were raised by traditional parents and grandparents pummeling their family values into them from birth. They all had cell phones and TV and internet, but had little access to [what I’ll call] “culturally exposing and mind-opening media”. Who can blame them for showing up in a giant town in a giant university where a giant white boy is telling them that, statistically speaking, at least three of their classmates are secretly eyeballing persons of the same sex? Just kidding… I didn’t do that. Not then, anyway.

The second and maybe the most important factor is the obvious one: me. Despite China’s warming attitude toward all some things gay, I was not about to march into my first day of classes tossing glitter and painting rainbows on everyone’s faces. The unfortunate thing is, even though I was assigned to a more gay-friendly country, that didn’t mean I could be out. Sure, I wouldn’t run the risk of getting executed or exiled… in fact, physical violence toward LGBT folks in China is virtually nonexistent – I wish I could say the same for my own, more open-minded country. So, what are the consequences of coming out in China?

I kinda-maybe sang "Hello" at the English
Department singing competition.
Shame, simply put. This shame doesn’t manifest through eye-rolling or gossip, nor does it play out like Cersei’s bare-assed walk back to the Red Keep. In the family context, if a son or daughter isn't straight, he or she can't get married and can't reproduce - the two ultimate no-no's of traditional Chinese culture. The other things that suffer - and which affect me more directly - are relationships built with other Chinese people… particularly those with whom we’re engaged in a power dynamic. What’s at risk, exactly? I’d say almost everything. That’s because if I don’t make my every effort to be exactly what my school is looking for (rather than what I have to offer as an individual), I lose points. And Chinese people… they keep score. Better than anyone I’ve ever known. If I prance onto campus and start rattling cages, I can say goodbye to friendly invitations to dinner, cooperation from the students… oh, and the most important: having any leverage at all within the department.

I’m not saying that staying in the closet directly led to my getting Fridays off for my final semester in Peace Corps. I’m saying that indirectly, this – and a bunch of other stuff – led to my getting Fridays off for my final semester of Peace Corps. Relationships are everything in China, and I wasn’t keen on putting my service in jeopardy from the get-go. That said, I never planned to hide forever… I just had to wait for the right time.

That time came on my 627th day of Peace Corps service, just 50 days from the finish line and, at the time of this posting, on Monday of this week. Having worked with my current 175 students for at least a year (and many of them for nearly two years), I knew it had to be now or never. Much of this aforementioned “work” included cultural activities and lessons to pry open their minds little by little, usually using indirect examples to get them thinking outside the box, then slamming their feet on the ground by giving real-life, relevant examples. On these days, I’d always voice my own opinions, when prompted, and make sure they knew my stance without being intrusive.
All the English faculty dressed to the nines!

So it wasn’t without some lead-in that I laid out some hard truth on the whole lot of English majors at my college this week. My strategy, I’m not shy to admit, was kick-ass. For Oral English and Advanced Listening Comprehension, I titled the lesson “Diversity”. First, we continued a discussion about gender identity and transgender issues which had been on-going for 2 classes. Second, I showed them 10 pictures of 10 individuals of various racial backgrounds, prompting them to guess where each person was from. (They were all from America.) Finally, after a collective brainstorm of different kinds of relationships between people, I showed ten more pictures of pairs of people. Some were family, some were friends, and some were couples. The last picture, #20 of the bunch, showed myself and my boyfriend, Geoff.

After the quiz, it was time for the grand reveal. For the first half, they were astonished and amazed to find that Americans are not all tall and white with long faces and big eyes – though that point was very difficult to get across, even after the reveal. But the real shocker, naturally, was the final picture, and the caption that appeared at the click of a button:  “A Couple.”

As expected, reactions were mixed. The junior students betrayed a mix of confusion, realization, and acceptance – in that order. Having had foreign teachers and having studied Western culture for three years, they aren’t surprised by much at this point. The freshmen, though? Chaos. I may as well have fired a gunshot into the crowd. The first five minutes had me assuring them repeatedly that it wasn’t a joke. After denial comes resentment, so, I heard shouts of “You broke our hearts!” ringing out from around the room. Then, as they began to tire themselves out, a more meaningful discussion ensued. They may be young, and many of them naïve, but generation gaps in China can be seen from year to year with the emerging adult group, and the freshmen seem in some ways light years ahead of other, more mature groups I’ve worked with.
Of course, I had to save the best for last. It was utterly unsurprising that the best reactions came from my sophomore students – the only groups whom I’ve stayed with since day 1 of my service to China. They’re currently enrolled in my Public Speaking course, which is dry and boring compared to the others, but we’re so tight it doesn’t matter in the least. I timed my big announcement around the impromptu speech unit, because during the lecture portion, I put their nerves at ease by giving an example impromptu speech in Chinese.

Freshmen (above) and Juniors (below) losing their marbles
over an online dating compatibility activity we did earlier
in the semester.
So, maybe it wasn’t so impromptu (considering I rigged it), but the closeness I have with these classes coupled with the fact that I did it in Chinese produced the most genuine and heartwarming responses I could have ever asked for. The first group was beaming with smiles, some even clapping and cheering to show their enthusiasm, the cherry-on-top being when one relatively quiet female student shouted, in Chinese, “I also like girls!!”

The second group, which I’ve always connected with better than the others, reacted rather unexpectedly. By the time I got around to them, most of them had already heard through the grapevine. And while a few faces beamed like the first class’, I noticed that quite a few – enough to make me uncomfortable – were eyeing me with a furrowed brow, doing that folded, puffy smirk/frown that you might do if you heard someone swear loudly at a nice restaurant. I learned right away, though, that it wasn’t malice or judgment. It was disappointment – and not for the reasons you’d imagine.

“Why are you only telling us now? Is it because you’re leaving?” a student asked, and about half the class nodded and sat up straighter. It knocked the wind out of me. They weren’t disappointed to learn the truth itself; they were disappointed that I didn’t feel I could trust them with that information from the beginning. I didn’t expect to feel so bad… so guilty… because in that moment, I knew that the compassion I felt for this bunch was something mutual. And they had every right to question my motive – after all, they’d just learned I’d been hiding something from them for our entire two years together.
English girls' soccer team - each year there's a school-wide tournament
that pits all the major departments against each other.

The reason why – and although not every class asked, they all got the answer – was that I couldn’t risk it. I couldn’t risk my relationship with the school, but more importantly, I couldn’t risk losing their respect. Coming out early in my service would be opening the door to judgment and preconceived notions about who I am and how I conduct myself, and I couldn’t have that. I explained to them as bluntly but respectfully as possible that, basically, I needed them to like me and trust me first. To see me as a normal, friendly, approachable, trustworthy, intelligent, successful, and happy person. And that being gay does not define me, nor should it define them or their opinions of anyone they meet in their lives. Finally, I begged all of them to go forward from the class and be more accepting and open to friends and family who identify as LGBT, if for no other reason than because one of their true friends and mentors proved their inherited ideas to be totally false.

Turns out they weren't as indoctrinated as I thought. On the contrary, most of the initial questions were frighteningly normal... like "How long have you known your boyfriend?" and "How did you meet each other?" Being the bunch of hopeless romantics they are (and 90% of English majors are female in China) it almost seemed that they were just thrilled to know I was dating someone, regardless of the person's gender. A few of them actually remembered meeting Geoff a year ago during Jennifer's and Mark's (my colleagues last year) going away party. One of the brighter ones shouted, "THAT'S GEOFF!" much to my surprise and delight. Even the harder, more conservative and traditional students in the classes made a clear effort to listen, understand, and accept the news. They asked some difficult questions like "Have you ever tried dating women?" and "Why would you choose this lifestyle?" but instead of jumping on the defensive, I was more proud of their having the courage to ask in the first place, and I therefore responded as calmly and respectfully as possible.

I always giggled while imaging myself on my last day of classes shouting, “I’M GAY, BITCHES!” over the school P.A. system, then ripping my clothes off and shimmying off campus while cackling like a Disney villain all the way back to America. As it so happens, coming out to my classes directly, respectfully, and well before my last day has been one of the most positive and rewarding experiences of service thus far. What I thought would drive a wedge between myself and them has brought us closer than ever, and even given others a voice to speak out.

My sophomore gems - who I too-often call "my babies" - only had two more questions on the topic before it was time to end class.  The answer to the first one ("When are you leaving?") was met with an outcry of confusion and frustration, since my COS (Close of Service) date from Peace Corps falls before they'll finish their final exams. And the second question, which made for an absolutely perfect bookend on my absolutely amazing class, was simply this: "Will you make time to have dinner with us?"

"Absolutely," I said. "As many times as we can."

I've been connecting with the other foreigners more and more;
some Chinese people like to throw their babies at us
and take pictures :)

I was resistant toward the new construction at first, but things are coming together pretty nicely around here!

August 4, 2015

In Retrospect: Semester One, and a Lesson in Getting Things Done

It’s with fondness I look back on my first semester of Peace Corps service. That “shaking your head with a knowing smile” kind of feeling, wishing you could meet your former self to impart some wisdom and tell yourself, “You don’t know how good you have it, kid.”

Not that it felt bad, per se - There were plenty of good times to look back on. My initial arrival in Liupanshui and the shock and awe that came from first laying eyes on the towering green mountains and from tasting the unusual local cuisine, taking my first journeys to the outdoor market and supermarkets, buying train tickets and wondering how I would ever manage to get a grasp on the language, meeting colleagues and students and questioning how I’d ever come to remember their names or find any common ground. It was new, fresh, exciting, terrifying, and I truly felt the sting of Peace Corps isolation for the first time – except I was surrounded by hundreds, thousands, millions of people.

Chinese BBQ: Our go-to bar snack.
Halloween English Corner
My first semester was eventful on occasion. There was a majestic hike through the mountains of Xingyi, Guizhou, all expenses paid including a private suite in a 5-star hotel. (All at the cost of inadvertently appearing in hundreds of photos for future marketing purposes, no doubt.) Weekend pilgrimages to the provincial capital, Guiyang for a proper microbrew and passable western food, plus my second home in China – the Guiyang Starbucks. And let’s not leave our the holiday celebrations: Halloween, spent tearing around Guiyang with a bunch of volunteers dressed to spooky perfection – myself clad in nothing but purple tights and a modified bedsheet. There was Thanksgiving, a cabernet-infused burger bash, which descended to varsity-grade clubbing. Chinese National Holiday, where I stuffed myself full of meaty moon cakes and traditional Liupanshui Hot Pot. And Christmas, in historical Zunyi, Guizhou, with around 20 volunteers gathered for an extra-merry potluck, carol singing, and white elephant gift giving celebration.

Xingyi, Guizhou
Holidays and weekend trips are great, but of course I can’t leave out the main reason I’m here: teaching. Anyone with a mouth told me before my first semester that it wouldn’t be easy… that I would need to “feel things out” and find a style of teaching that suits me best. I had no idea what I was in for.

I’m not complaining. Never, not me. But I remember, looking back, that my greatest challenge during my first semester wasn’t feeling too overwhelmed, but rather finding ways to occupy my ample free time and trying to find motivation and inspiration to prepare two lessons per week for my 8 hours of class. You’d think my four-day weekends would suffice, but for some reason, I’d find myself awake at 2am cranking out lesson plans the night before an 8am class, wondering where the weekend went. I tried to start a few projects to keep me busy, like weekly cooking events with students or coffee dates to practice English, but these all fizzled and I wasn’t always sure why.

Moments like these are one way in which Peace Corps helps me grow. I’d never had that much time to myself - I never would again during service, as it would happen – and it was ultimately destructive. When my weekend started every Wednesday at noon, I’d check out of work until Sunday came around. I tried to foster hobbies and self-education, from knitting and painting to online Excel courses and speed reading, but all of these faded fast. I’d also rediscovered my online shopping addiction after signing up for an account on Taobao (China’s eBay/Amazon equivalent). Sure, there were some excessive purchases like bulk boxes of Canadian Club whiskey and some very spendy dill weed, but among the most usefel and service-altering purchases was a tiny little toaster oven for less than $20.

Believe it or not, that toaster oven turned things around. Living without bread for 5 months didn’t seem like a big deal to me… until I pulled my first loaf of bread from the oven and sank my teeth into a steaming, fresh bite of that carby, moist, handmade chunk of floury heaven. I’d found my calling, and my calling was bread. I came to realize how much I enjoyed the whole process of baking bread, and how I gained as much pleasure from making and eating the bread as I did from giving it away to people.

Challah Back
This works out particularly well in China, as gift-giving is deeply engrained in Chinese culture as a means of solidifying relationships. If it sounds superficial and materialistic, well, it is. There are two ways to talk about this in Chinese. The first is “face”. That’s the direct translation. If we delve a little deeper, though, we can call it “reputation.” I want my face – the way my superiors, subordinates, family, friends, and the rest of the world – to appear powerful. We westerners think, “Why should it matter? People can get to know me for me, when the time comes.” And sure, many Chinese people feel the same way, but the problem is that most Chinese people don’t, and the culture certainly doesn’t agree.

So, every time I toss a few slices of fresh, homemade bread to my colleagues, superiors, or host family, I’m “giving them face.” In other words, I’m showing them respect, which adds a few marbles to their jar of street cred – especially if others are around to witness the gift-giving, making banquet dinners the ideal stage for sealing the deal.

So what’s in it for me? A lot, actually. That’s where the second component of “face” comes in:  Guanxi. The direct translation is relationships, or connections. I like to think of it as “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” Understanding guanxi is like having the keys to the castle in Chinese culture. If you have it, you’ll have a smooth ride… if you don’t, you’ll drown in the moat. So what’s the best way to gain guanxi? You guessed it:  Gifts.

Expensive alcohol and tea are the two easiest ways to pedal guanxi, but homemade things work almost as well… at least, it does for us volunteers, whose monthly stipend is almost laughable in comparison to our colleagues’ salaries. So, when I spend half a day’s food allowance on baking ingredients to bake bread or sweets to give to my colleagues, I’m giving them face, showing them respect. But, reflexively, I’m getting something equally valuable in return: guanxi.

Sometimes, when we have a disagreement or rivalry with our friends or family, we “keep score”.  E.g. I did the dishes four times last week, what are you going to do for me? Yeah, don’t pretend like you don’t know what I’m talking about. The thing is, Chinese people are always keeping score, and that’s the essential nature of guanxi. If I want help from my staff to start a project, or to give me special permission to do something, I can’t slough off minor favors and requests. Especially in the workplace, relationships don’t hinge so much on a person’s character or likeability, but rather on the duration and efficacy of your connection.

Being conscious of losing face is equally, if not more, important. For example, failing to toast any of my superiors at a banquet dinner is hugely disrespectful, and in the event that I didn't bring enough gifts to go around to all of the "important" people, I'd be better off tossing them in the garbage instead of offering them to only a select few. Face is largely about pride, too, so it's essential to tread lightly when someone's intellect is at stake. The easy thing to do? Keep giving gifts and shut your mouth if you aren't sure.

Many volunteers spend the bulk of their first semester not only finding their groove as a teacher, but also establishing guanxi with their leaders. Thankfully, I more or less arrived to site with a silver chopstick in my mouth. My site, Liupanshui Normal College, is the oldest site in Guizhou province, founded in 2000. My waiban, or foreign affairs director, has been working with my Peace Corps program manager (also a Chinese national) since she started with PC, and thus, my site positively reeks of guanxi.

According to inside sources, I was sent to Liupanshui for a reason – to uphold face and strengthen guanxi even further. This works well for me, in that before I arrived to site or met a single person here, they trusted me. How is that possible? That answer is simple: Guanxi law dictates that because of the relationship between my school’s waiban and my PC program manager, only a reliable volunteer should be sent to this site. The waiban asks for something specific, and the program manager delivers. To do anything otherwise would be a direct response to some other inappropriate action or screw-up, as everything is connected where guanxi is concerned. Translation: If I were to screw up somehow, this would damage the relationship between my superiors, and potentially even be cause for retaliation by one of the parties – even if the mistake were solely my fault.

Students trying their hand at
throwing a frisbee.
So, keeping my cool and doing a good job matters far beyond my own personal satisfaction. As such, my first semester was largely uneventful, all things considered, but I nevertheless felt that I did my duty. I said yes to all requests and put my best foot forward when teaching (despite the rampant procrastination). I upheld Peace Corps’ face while also improving my own, and with my second year fast on approach, I feel extremely confident not only as a teacher who finally found his groove, but as an integral part of my school with strong connections to my leaders.

Maybe all of it is superficial… at first. There’s no doubt that I initially took issue with the whole idea of guanxi and face, especially when I was able to see the direct effects of it for myself. Nevertheless, it has its place in ensuring trustworthiness and reliability in those we depend on. I am very glad, however, I don’t need to buy $100 bottles of booze for my employer back in the states just to get approval on vacation time.

So, with a year under my belt and after earning a wealth of knowledge during that pivotal first semester, I look ahead with my head held high. I’ll continue to bake bread, devouring most of it singlehandedly and in one sitting as usual, while occasionally passing some on to make sure our bonds continue to strengthen. My third semester will undoubtedly mirror my first, especially in terms of holiday celebrations and meeting tons of new students, volunteers, and friends, but now I’ve got the guanxi supply to get more and more accomplished.

This is not PC official in any way, but the gist of what we learned during training was this:  For your first year – Observe.  For your second year – Do. I’ve got the guanxi in place and I'm ready to do... no matter how much bread it takes.

My lovely RPCV sitemate at the
local outdoor market.
What kind of teacher would I be if I
didn't do a listening lesson on Futurama?

Starbucks (Mecca)

A Boozey Thanksgiving

Christmas in Zunyi.

April 24, 2015

Let's Talk About Trains

Photo by Kevin Lynch
_ foreword _

There are good days and bad days abroad; that’s neither China- nor Peace Corps-specific. Once the reality of actually living in a foreign environment sets in and the honeymoon wears off, certain factors or challenges can really affect the way in which we digest the culture of our host country. It’s from a backless foldout seat on a particularly lurchy train ride that I compose today’s entry with a real pen on real paper, much to the delight of every Chinese person within a 5-meter radius from where I now sit, and today... today is a bad day.

Thankfully, the “for-my-eyes-only” brand of cursive I employ for public displays of writing is as alien to them as 99% of Chinese characters are to me – so this entry will remain just between you and me. Today’s train ride could’ve been like any other, but sadly I find the patches of raised, inflamed, and blistered skin on my torso (which, if I didn’t know any better, had in the past 24 hours fallen victim to 47 bee stings all at once) difficult to ignore. Incidentally, the smattering of itching, stinging, oozing rashes wrapping around my ribcage have given rise to a sort of elevated awareness of exactly what it means to be aboard a train in China, an experience which I’m delighted to share with you today. And, as they say (or do they?) through trials of great suffering emerge great artwork. A timely case of the shingles seems appropriate, and I'm weathering it in one of my least-favorite settings in China, no less… so let’s see if I can deliver.

-  -  -

I think we, the foreigners, all learn a lot on China trains… a lot about this country, and a lot about ourselves. Kind of like a multi-day hiking trip where you’re like, “I had no idea so many interesting flowers existed on the other side of that mountain!” and “I really feel of stronger body and mind after that experience” but also “I never want to relive any part of that unless it’s absolutely goddamn necessary to keep the Earth spinning.”

Bearing that in mind, let’s start from the beginning: The station. Imagine, for a moment, the most crowded place you’ve ever been. Double the number of people. Now, the 5 foot tall elderly woman with seven teeth standing next to you in line for tickets is hawking a giant loogie, the four grown men in front of you keep saying “foreigner” in audible Chinese, then looking back and giggling, and the pack of teenagers in an adjacent line are borderline shouting “HELLO!” repeatedly while snapping cell phone pictures of you to post on social media.

Shaky shot of the view approaching the
train station in Guiyang, Guizhou.
You have no escape, so you grin and bear it (or ham it up – your choice) for 20-40 minutes in line. You reach the front, where the ticket seller on the other side of the glass – who definitely hates her job and who acts as though she’s been on the clock for 17 hours – barks at you in Chinese through a crackly speaker… this obstacle, you didn’t cover in language classes. Luckily (this time) you catch enough key words to communicate with the minimum efficiency needed to get by. Meanwhile, the formerly 2nd, 3rd, and 4th people in line have become the 1.1st, 1.2nd, and 1.3rd people in line, as they’re now flanking you on all sides. One man is grinning from ear to ear, simultaneously pleased with and entertained by your pathetic attempts at speaking Chinese. Another woman in heels, a black tutu-style miniskirt, and a puffy down jacket with lace has her elbow lodged into your hip and her face is fixed in a scowl. To show your discomfort, you take a half step to the side and twist slightly away from her elbow. She immediately moves to occupy the 6 inches you just gave her, and now pushes a bit harder with said elbow. Well played, well played.

At last you emerge, ticket in hand, fumbling with a wad of change and receipts, to make way for the departure gate. The security guards are largely disinterested in you, although you notice one nod to her friend and say (in Chinese), “Hey, try out your English!” followed by the usual snickers. The first guard glances at your passport, stamps your ticket, and thrusts the pair back at you. You politely say “xie xie” (thank you) but he ignores you and reaches for the next passenger’s documents.

You enter security, throw all of your belongings onto a conveyor belt, and step onto a platform to get wanded by a guard. She moves you along and you clamber to the other side of the belt to scoop up your things before they roll off the ramp and onto the ground. Hard part’s over.

This is what happens when there are weather delays for 3 hours.
Once in the station, you hear echoes of the prerecorded voice announcing departures, arrivals, and delays in perfect Mandarin Chinese… something you don’t get to hear very often in your dialect-heavy region, and something which you understand quite easily. “Thank God,” you think, “I haven’t completely forgotten this language.” You learn the location of your departure gate, your pride for successful language acquisition swelling, and set off. The station continues to swarm with people, though there’s enough space now to feel your “bubble” recovering. You meander through the crowd to find a seat near your gate, but all of the seats are taken. Not entirely by people, but also by bags.

This phenomenon of bags in chairs, despite 100+ people standing around and shifting in discomfort, infuriated you at first. However, you’ve seen enough spitting, cigarette ashing, and children defecating to know it’s probably for the best. This is also a major factor as to why the Chinese never sit on the ground – EVER – and also why you’ve became a pro at the “China Squat” when your standing muscles need a break. Still, you wonder why some folks can’t simply hold their bags to free up a seat, or make an exception just this once to help a stranger with a 50 pound backpack… but, you think with a sigh, that’s just not the way things work around here.

The China Squat in action.
The intercom interrupts your thoughts to announce that your train is boarding, and suddenly, it’s like someone yelled “FIRE!” In a flash, everyone – with luggage, babies, and giant bags of potatoes in tow – is bolting for the gate. You’re swept into the fray and feel like you’re back in the mosh at Warped Tour 2007. You try to be cordial, but each time you try to give someone space or hesitate for even a moment, seven people cut in front of you. This becomes an even heavier moral dilemma when the AARP-aged crowd seem to be the most aggressive. Finally reaching the front, you box-out someone’s grandpa and shoulder past a family of four to hand your ticket to the guard. She punches out a corner and you pop from the throng like a champagne cork.

You take five swift, powerful strides and nearly trample the person in front of you. It’s one of the 70-year-olds… you still feel the dull ache in your hip from where she elbowed you about 2.5 minutes ago. She’s not walking slow, but her pace could hardly be considered brisk. In fact, despite the chaos from before, nobody seems to be in a hurry anymore, and you’re left stumped as you shift gears to a comfortably-quick pace and easily overtake more than half the crowd who so ruthlessly shoved their way to the front before.

You’re above the tracks now, breezing over a sky walk, then down a flight of stairs, following signs for your train and car number. You find your car and hop on. If you’re putting in a lot of miles and thus have secured yourself a sleeper, you’re in luck. Most folks don’t have time to notice you as you speed down the aisle past bunks stacked 3-high. You find your bunk number, toss your luggage in the overhead bin, hold your breath, and look at your ticket to double-check your bed assignment. Will it be 下铺 lower, 中铺 middle, or 上铺 upper bed?

Personal preference will dictate each individual’s attitude toward the pros and cons of each bed, but in a nutshell:
  The 上铺 upper bed affords you the most privacy, although too much, in my opinion. For anyone over 6 feet tall, the 1-meter of clearance, after struggling up the 7-foot tiny ladder, isn’t exactly comfortable. And for someone who lets his water consumption go haywire during train travel, getting up to pee more than once at night isn’t worth climbing Everest to get back to bed.
  The 中铺 middle bunk is considered by most to be the best of the three. It offers more clearance than the top bunk (You can actually sit up? Weird.) and it’s far easier to get in an out of… no tiny ladders required. It’s the happy medium that many opt for when the choice is available.
• The 下铺 bottom bed is where my allegiance lies. Granted, there’s a massive downside to the lowest bunk in that, during daylight hours, it’s treated like a park bench. So, any Western notions of “my money, my bed” need to be left on the train platform where they belong. In the event that you’ve landed a 下铺, it’s not unusual to arrive at your bed to find 1-3 Chinese people already sitting on it. Maybe one is leaning all the way back to the wall and one may even have her feet up (shoes off, of course). If it’s your first time, you might gasp in horror at the sheer rudeness of the act… but really, it’s just business as usual. And it’s for this reason that most foreigners avoid the 下铺 at all costs, but I happen to be the kind of guy who likes to swing his legs out of bed and hit solid ground. Plus, the 下铺 has the most clearance and makes for the most comfortable writing/reading/phone-playing, even if you’re sharing that space with other people.

Panoramic of a sleeper car.

On the other hand, for shorter distances (or very unlucky long distances at peak travel times during the year), you’ll enjoy the many luxuries of a “hard seat.” Rewind to the cork-from-the-champagne-bottle moment. Now, you step on the train and turn the corner to see 100+ people crammed into a single train car. Because the seats are bench-style and face one another, half of the train can (and does) see you immediately. That number soon climbs to 3/4 of the train, after they tell their friends to have a look. So you smile, look ahead, and swim to your seat. Swim, you say? Yes… swim… because with a cluster of people and baggage blocking the center aisle coupled with the heat and humidity resulting from too many people in too small of a space, it just wouldn’t do to use any other verb.

You roll the dice and look at your number. What is it this time – window, aisle, or center seat? Always, always, pray for the window. It provides a view, VIP access to the tiny table between the two facing rows, and your single hope for a nap during the ride. The other options, you say? The middle isn’t terrible, if you don’t value having a single inch of personal space. And the aisle, well… if there’s any human (besides Chinese humans, obviously, who appear to be immune) who can peacefully succumb to being routinely bumped by passerby, having their feet run over by the snack cart, and the occasional ass-to-face encounters from standing-only ticket holders, well, I applaud you. You have won China.

Travelers pass the time by chit-chatting, napping (See Fig. B), munching on sunflower seeds, staring blankly out the window (or intently and relentlessly at the foreigner - See Fig. A), but the vast majority watch Chinese television or movies on their smart phones. Smoking is allowed, but only at the front and back of each car. This works well if you’re seated in the middle; not so well if you’re anywhere else. The restrooms, like most public restrooms in China, are squat toilets only, and the cleanliness of said restrooms is directly related to how long the train has been in motion. Needless to say, it’s never pretty to board a train that started in Beijing. There are no open container laws anywhere in China, so drinking on trains is normal. In each car (seats or sleepers) there is, on average, one group of young, rowdy Chinese people, usually men, playing drinking games. Luck of the draw dictates whether a salesman is on board your car, peddling things like milk-flavored pro-health lozenges, fingernail clippers, and light-up spinning tops for kids. They’re performers above all-else, and typically elicit a lot of laughs from anyone paying enough attention.

My bad if I incorrectly implied that
only the Chinese like to drink on trains.
Photo by Kevin Lynch
Figure B. Lucky passenger
takes advantage of an open
seat in a creative way.
Figure A. Scowling at foreigners is an
excellent way to pass the time.

By now, you’re well aware that trains are in no way a means of luxury travel. But, if you've known me long enough to know my middle name, you know I love a good bargain, so here's why trains are awesome: To travel 3 hours from my city, Liupanshui, to Guiyang (the Guizhou provincial capital), the cost is 40. That’s the equivalent of traveling from Chinook to Cut Bank, from Missoula to Great Falls, from Austin to Houston, or any other 150-mile trip, for LESS THAN SEVEN DOLLARS, with steady access to a restroom, drinking water, and snacks (or booze, if you fancy). My trips to Chengdu are 14 hours, 430 miles, with all the same luxuries plus the option to lay down and sleep for LESS THAN 30 DOLLARS. And let’s talk about the oh-so-new and oh-so-sexy bullet trains for a hot minute… I can (and will, one day) take a bullet train from Guiyang to Guangzhou (Hong Kong), that’s 650 miles, in 4 hours, for a whopping 40 DOLLARS. That’s the same distance from Bozeman to Seattle, Dallas to Albuquerque, Phoenix to Salt Lake City, or Sydney MT to Libby MT (the Hiline in its entirety)… in only 4 hours, for $40.00, in a nice, new train with clean bathrooms, airplane-style seats, and all the snacks you can imagine. Can you?
From the inside, you wouldn't know
the difference from an airplane. Reclining
seats and armrests, nice bathrooms, the works.

Booshy booshy bullet train.
Relax. I’m wrapping it up now. What I’m saying is this: On the surface, China’s public transit is less than appetizing most of the time, but this is a country that has it figured out. They come from poverty – which still very much exists – so the vast majority of this incredibly inflated population has no car, and certainly not the means to pay $50 for a 3-hour train ride to visit family or to commute for work. So, there exists a very clever, well-established, and affordable system to cater to the peoples’ needs. Trains go virtually everywhere and at all times of day. Some of the $5 rides might reek like piss, shit, and cigarettes, but those with a few more coins jingling in their pockets have the liberty of opting for the same ride for double the price and twice the comfort.

Regardless, in contrast to America, it seems that having a car in China is just more trouble than it’s worth, because the public transportation is excellent. Chinese people are both resilient and appreciative of the means they do have, which is why cramming into full seats, inhaling second-hand cigarette smoke, or bumping elbows from time to time is of little concern. It’s easy to take what we have for granted (like the ability to hop in our cars and drive wherever without spending an arm and a leg). That said, America's public transportation, on the whole, is complete crap. Although, unlike China, it’s rare to see so much actual crap on our public transit. Also, never ask me to explain why the crowd dynamics of China are the way they are… that conversation is a black pit of despair from whence there is no return.

I just caught a Chinese guy close to my age taking a picture of me when he thought I wasn't looking. It's great when they forget to turn the flash off. I looked up at him, my eyebrows raised. He said "Fuck!" and put his phone down. Why he chose to swear in English instead of apologizing in Chinese, I'll never truly know. In this moment, I just don't have the fight in me to ask. I can't stop squirming and jumping from the searing, sudden pains on my chest; this ailment is zapping all my willpower, curiosity, and patience. Today... today is a bad day. But tomorrow will be better.

PS: It's been almost a week since the train ride, and the shingles are healing on schedule :)

The chubbiest cheeks I've
ever seen on a train...
or ever in my life.
A rare exposé of senior citizens
intentionally frustrating me. These two
photos were taken at the same time
at a bus stop. Top image: How many
people were at the stop. Bottom image:
How close this Granny decided
to stand in front of me.
Liupanshui Station and a
partial view of the
less-sexy, slower, and
poorly-named "Fast Train"
we usually take to get around.