September 12, 2014

There Will Be Tears

Swearing in - Official Peace Corps Volunteer! Picture with PC China Country Director Mikel Herrington
How is it I’ve been at site for two weeks? It’s almost like a “boy who cried wolf” scenario, having been uprooted four times in the past three months – unbelievable. It’s like I’m reluctant to get too comfortable in my new digs, in case I’m relocated again. But the fact is, though it doesn’t feel like it yet, I’m home.

Another week in the hotel with the 80-strong China 20’s group went just as expected. A heap of information with a hefty dose of chaos and a sprinkle of bitter-sweet. Chinese classes wrapped up the week before (I scored Intermediate-Low on the spoken exam, plenty room for improvement), so the remaining sessions would build up to our first steps to take at site. In other words, hours of discussing how to settle in, make contact with our staff and colleagues, stay healthy, etc. It won’t come as a surprise that we were all grateful to experience this as a group, and reflexively decompress as a group by way of hotel room beer consumption, too-frequent trips to Starbucks across the street, and impromptu (but awesome) volleyball matches and hookah sessions.

Training Site "Starting Varsity" Language Class 

Hitting up another Cat Cafe.

But, as is Peace Corps custom, just as I began to get used to the ongoing company of my fellow volunteers, I was once again ripped away from familiarity. I found out that Wednesday that I would be departing for site Friday afternoon – among the earliest departures of the group. The wound went a little deeper upon learning a handful of good friends would be departing Saturday morning instead, leaving them another night of camaraderie and shenanigans in the wake of my absence.

Friday morning arrived too soon. We began with the swearing in, which, though it was more informal than expected, proved to be a very pivotal, emotional experience. As the culmination of a grueling summer of training, swearing my allegiance to the Peace Corps mission and cementing my title as an official Peace Corps Volunteer was an amazing experience – for as long as I live, I’ll never forget how I felt in that moment, facing the blunt but exciting reality of the significance of my decision to be here, and the resulting impact I may be able to have in the lives of so many people.

After the swearing in came the official ceremony, featuring inspiring and encouraging words from host country nationals, school representatives, Peace Corps staff, and finally, an outstanding song & dance by a few PCVs and a speech in Chinese from two of our Mandarin-fluent volunteers. In traditional Chinese custom, a ridiculously lavish meal would follow – there was even cake, and it almost tasted like the real thing.

Swearing-in with my Austin homie Steph.

After the meal, I had only about an hour to pack and say goodbye to everyone. First in line were two of my Chinese language teachers who surprise-crashed the party. They were a little shocked, but very touched, to see me well up when I gave them hugs and said goodbye. Kevin, my training sitemate and language classmate, hotel roommate, and future Guizhou Province-mate would be leaving on the same train that afternoon. So, the two of us left the lunch in the first wave and retired to our hotel room, packing in silence aside from the occasional sniffle neither of us could keep back. One by one, our friends began to convene in our room. There wasn’t much anyone could say… just a lot of fidgeting, lip-biting, and slow, silent head-shaking while we enjoyed each others’ company for the last time in a long time. The tears were unyielding, but I was smiling in spite of them. As upset as I was to part ways with everyone, I was overwhelmed with joy for how meaningful these friendships had become to me in such a short amount of time.
Kevin "Klynch" Lynch

When the time came, I waited in the lobby for the shortest half-hour of my life. Each year, every school sends a representative to collect the volunteers and help them move, and my Waiban assistant, Roy, had come to fetch me from Liupanshui – I’m trying not to resent him for it. Pulling away from the hotel (with my two besties chasing the car – this is why I love these people), I swallowed hard and forced myself to face forward. I realized I wasn’t leaving anything behind; I was going toward something. And not just any old something… I was headed for my assignment. The reason I came here in the first place. Pre-Service Training is so long that it’s easy to get nearsighted and comfortable. Sure, we spend our days preparing for service, but up until the moment I actually left for site, it didn’t seem real. Then, it got really real, really fast.

I was afforded somewhat of a slow release in that Kevin and I shared a cabin on the train ride to Guizhou. The two of us, along with our school supervisors, spent the initial hours of the evening on our 16-hour train ride chatting and practicing Chinese. We picked up some new words and tricks, ate dinner together, and finally went to bed after nightfall. After some restless sleep, I awoke to watch the sun rise over Liupanshui’s outer mountains. My sense of purpose restored, my sadness and reluctance transformed into excitement and eagerness to begin teaching.

My Chengdu host mom seeing me off.
Once you get the badge of being an official volunteer, Peace Corps wastes no time in getting the ball rolling; in my case, I was left to my own devices at site after about 20 hours. That said, anyone with a mouth told me that things would change drastically at site. They weren’t kidding. In the 12 days I’ve been at site, I have taught a total of four classes. That’s 8 hours total. Bit of an adjustment from the 8am-5pm, 6 days a week schedule I was on at Pre-Service Training in Chengdu. And adjust I have, more or less. It’s felt like too much downtime at times, but I can’t say I’ve hated sleeping in most days and finally getting a chance to catch my breath after PST.

Wetlands Park near my apartment on the Liupanshui Normal University campus.
Because I opened my big mouth about being some kind of super athlete (at least, that’s what they heard) to my foreign affairs staff during my prior site visit, the health and fitness department caught wind and now they all want a piece. I played basketball with them twice during the first week – the first time wasn’t so pretty; the second? Better. Having not played a proper game in years, I wasn’t so optimistic. The other Chinese players (students and teachers alike) play almost every day, and they’re outstanding. I’m sure it came as a shock to them that the 6’3 American could barely hold his own. It’s a work in progress.

What I did find from playing – aside from a heat stroke and lack of oxygen up here at 6,000 feet – was friendship. Until then, I was unsure how to approach friendship with host country nationals (HCNs), but through a vehicle like sports, they can just fall into place. That’s how I met Peng Jie, a fellow newcomer to Liupanshui from Northern China who teaches with the health and fitness department. He was eager to get to know me, and I him, so we exchanged numbers and have had a few opportunities to socialize. His English level is a notch above my Chinese level, which isn’t saying much… needless to say, we learn a lot from each other.

Peng Jie’s superior, the most tenured of the health faculty from what I understand, is 45 years old, fit, and as any proper PE teacher should be – full of shit. He’s got a good balance of bullying and compassion. On my first outing with the P.E. crew, we all went to KTV (karaoke) and he reminded me roughly ten times how appreciated I was and how much he looked forward to our friendship. He has a good relationship with his students; the group of them frequent the restaurants outside my apartment and I get regular invites to join in. Naturally, I’m force-fed food and beer until the only logical out is to make up an excuse to leave. It’s a good problem to have.

Classes began nearly two weeks ago – I kicked off with two junior-level Advanced Listening classes right off the bat. The students were dazzled by my presence… the only real challenge was getting them to quit taking pictures of me during class and to stop gushing about my height. My freshmen started a week later, and were surprisingly much more responsive. To my understanding, many of them have moved to Liupanshui from very small towns or even villages, and most of them have never had the opportunity to meet a Westerner, let alone have one as a teacher. Thus, they hung on to every word I said and cooperated extremely well. Their English level, on the other hand, was much lower than I anticipated, but I’ll look forward to seeing their leaps and bounds throughout the semester and year.

Monday, September 8 was Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival (or Moon Day), which occurs on the night of the full moon between September and October each year. It represents oneness and togetherness, especially with family. On Mid-Autumn Festival and the days surrounding it, Chinese people gorge on Moon Cake, which is a small, round pastry filled with some kind of filling depending on the region. Liupanshui specializes in sweet and salty dried pork – somewhat of a different experience from the sweet cakes people enjoy elsewhere.

For my first moon day, my LPS host family took me out to lunch, then on a drive through the countryside. On perilous roads we drove through old villages with people relaxing outside their homes or arranging la jiao peppers on the concrete to dry. We encountered modest, but gorgeous waterfalls sending water careening through Guizhou’s lush hills. For a time, we followed a large river and saw gigantic, mysterious caves begging to be explored. After a few hours of driving, we returned to town to enjoy dinner with my host mom’s parents.

Dinner was a delight as always – it doesn’t get much better than Chinese home cooking. Throughout the meal, my host grandpa kept refilling my baijiu glass and cheersing me almost immediately every time, endlessly praising myself and the American people. Many older Chinese folks feel very appreciative and compassionate toward Americans to this day because of our aid to China during World War II. It’s a topic I’m not well-versed on, but one I hear about on a regular basis. That, along with the prices of every make and model of car sold in America. Time to do my homework.

Host family at Eagle Mountain
At the close of Moon Day, my host dad, Wolf, asked me, for a second time, if I could find to time to visit his art class. I hadn’t said no before, but I was hoping for some time to settle in. Given the degree of downtime I’ve had so far (and considering how I’ve spent most of it), I couldn’t, in good conscience, put it off any longer. We agreed on a lecture for Wednesday: “Survey of Art Studies in American Universities”. Sounds legit, right?

Liupanshui Backcountry
In reality, due in part to my laziness but also to my inability to find my classmates’ student work readily accessible and lack of prep time, it turned into a slideshow of Colton’s crappy artwork spread across his 4 years at MSU. So, I stepped into the classroom, holding my breath and reassuring myself that, at the very least, it would be quick and dirty and only for my host dad’s one painting class… no sweat. But as the student head count neared 50 with standing room only, and more than 5 teachers filed in, I wasn’t feeling as sure of myself. My host dad then informed me that word had gotten out – as it always does in China – about my little talk, and several teachers had rerouted their lesson plans for the afternoon. So no pressure.

Languo Hot Pot - LPS Specialty
The art students filed in and ooh’d and aah’d upon catching a glimpse of me, taking out their phones and snapping pictures. By now, I’ve just learned to throw up a piece sign and grin and bear it; once they realize I’ve caught on, they’re not so brave the second time around. Plus, it’s priceless seeing their reactions when they review the photo and see me looking them dead in the face. My host dad gave me a brief introduction and after, I stood and said “Nimen hao” (hello everyone) to a resounding “WOWWWW” from the entire class. “Dui bu qi, wo shuo hanyu bu tai hao,” (I’m sorry, I don’t speak Chinese very well) I followed, to which they answered “No no no!” or “It’s good it’s good!!” I then gave my usual shpeal about my hometown, family, and process of getting here, all in Chinese, and carried on into the lecture. My first slide was rough, as I wasn’t sure how to dive in. “These are my first portraits,” I said, not sure how to proceed. So I flipped to the next slide.

“Wait! Explain them please – I’ll translate,” said my host dad. And with that, we were off… analyzing my cripplingly novice freshman year artwork to my standout junior, competition-winning pieces (to some VERY unexpected applause from the students), and rounding off with my lethargic senior thesis and professional work. The lecture spanned two hours… though I’d only brought enough coffee for 30 minutes. Following the lecture, I shook hands with several teachers and, naturally, posed with students for at least 20 pictures, before accompanying Wolf and his class up to the painting and drawing studio on the sixth floor of an adjacent building.

Art lecture.
I walked around while his students worked on a detailed still life of a circuit board – I secretly hated my host dad for a moment while I watched them… those projects were the bane of my existence. But then it occurred to me how here, as opposite from Montana State as I could possibly be, the students were doing the same damn work. Even more – their work was indistinguishable from that of mine or my classmates’ back in the day. Perspective strikes again. I had only been in the class for a few minutes when I saw a shiny black piano tucked away in the corner. “Is this also a music classroom?” I asked Wolf, my words dripping with ulterior motives while I motioned to the piano.
The following performance.

“Yes,” he said. “We share with the music class and have to rearrange each day. Would you like to play something?” He shouldn’t have asked. We pulled out the piano and I sat down, cracked my knuckles, and rattled off my ultimate crowd pleaser, Nuvole Bianche by Ludovico Einaudi while 5 or more phones recorded and/or snapped more pictures. If you haven’t heard the song, look it up – and have a tissue on hand. I finished playing six minutes later to more applause. “My heart!” shouted Mr. Wolf, shaking his head slowly. I brought out Canon in D and decided after to call it quits. My host dad informed on my way out that we were going to dinner to celebrate Chinese Teachers’ Day, and that I should be ready in an hour. “Hao de!”

Celebrate we did. An hour later, we were zooming through Liupanshui’s streets to a restaurant in the city, picking up some of the other art faculty along the way. Once we arrived and made our way to the best seats in the house, I was introduced to my dining mates: the art department head, the school of art dean, and the head of another school department. At this point, I very much regretted changing into a T-shirt after class. Once the food was ordered, we began to drink.

“Do you have class tomorrow?” my host dad asked.

“Nope!”  Wrong answer.

Teachers' Day Dinner
“Then today, we drink!” The three hours in the restaurant passed in a blink, going by just as easy as the two bottles of baijiu went down between five people. But so much was accomplished… I was inducted as an unofficial faculty member into the art department (“You’re in the wrong classroom! Why are you teaching English?!” they kept saying), I made fishing/camping/beer drinking plans for this fall, the dean of the school of art is taking me to his home village in Eastern Guizhou, and the pack of us are driving to Bijie to visit Kevin in the near future. That’s China… Baijiu = Business.

Following the massacre, we walked, in as straight of lines as possible, to Wolf’s business partner’s office, where he prepared authentic Chinese tea for all of us. It’s quite a process – one which I’m excited to learn on a day when I’m not struggling to stay upright. So, we carried on with tea and there were talks of KTV, though thankfully, they never panned out. After getting a cab home and crashing immediately, I awoke the next day paying dearly for my sins, but with fond memories of my first Teachers’ Day in China.

A food sick chased after me that day as well, so I laid low and kept close to the bathroom. These things are inevitable; we have only the ability to control symptoms while our bodies adjust. The baijiu, obviously, didn’t help matters. Peng Jie, intent on discovering why I couldn’t play basketball or do anything that day, insisted that if I didn’t see improvement by the next day, he was taking me to the hospital. I tried to explain that I had Western doctors in Chengdu (who would send my sorry ass home if they found out I’d gone behind them to receive Chinese medical care), but he retaliated with something along the lines of “I am your brother and I will take care of you! You don’t need doctors in Chengdu, you will go to the hospital and I will take you.” Such a stand-up dude. Now that he’s paid for at least 5 of my meals and brought me enough baijiu to bring down a bull elephant, I invited him to an American breakfast this weekend – the only thing I can cook with confidence. In China, though… we’ll see how that shapes up. French toast and breakfast potatoes might not taste quite the same given my limited ingredients and supplies.
Wolf doing tea right.

I am settled, and I am comfortable. There were tears, and they were important, but Liupanshui is home. Seeing dishes pile up and gazing across my living room at clumps of dirt on my floor is an unwelcome reality check, but there’s also something inherently badass about taking the bus for $0.15 to the vegetable market to haggle with local vendors to get my two gigantic eggplant from $1.00 down to $0.80. Also, I can’t leave out the drinking instant coffee and eating peanut butter/banana toast in my underwear while conducting my daily morning facebook creep session. Or pooping with the bathroom door open. Yeah, I missed living alone.

Having that long-lost alone time is great, but the people here are what keep my head above water. My sitemate, Jennifer, is a China 19 Volunteer, a phenomenal cook, and an amazing person who I genuinely look forward to spending time with. My host family will continue to be my rock in LPS, and I see our friendship continuing far beyond my service in China. My waiban staff and counterpart, Chelsea, are all endlessly helpful, my students are hard-working and kind, and with an organic friendship in rapid development, I’m getting my first taste of how it feels to assimilate and really feel a part of such a different culture. It will no doubt be an ongoing trial throughout my service, but it’s off to a great start.

For any readers looking me to send me something sweet (instant coffee is totally cool, but sweet words of affection are also welcome) - here's my mailing address. Be sure to print off and include the Chinese characters to ensure a more reliable, speedy delivery!

Colton Davies / LiuHaoTeng
Foreign Affairs Office
Liupanshui Normal University
No.19 Minghu Road
Liupanshui, Guizhou Province, China 553004


August 17, 2014


Liupanshui, Guizhou, China

After my fourth nap on the train, I awoke to total darkness. The interior lights had been extinguished and the countryside was passing in a blackish-blue blur. I checked the time, and jolted awake upon realizing my stop was scheduled in about ten minutes. I scrambled to collect and consolidate my belongings. (I’ve always had a talent for cluttering up a space in no time at all.) Then, in the 15th hour of my journey, at the stroke of midnight, the train finally slowed to a halt as the voice over the intercom spoke, “(Chinese rabble) Liupanshui (Chinese rabble).” I had arrived.

I stepped off the train to a brisk 65º F, quite unlike the blistering 80’s and 90’s I was used to in Chengdu. I opened my mouth wide to pop my ears and drink in some crisp, cool mountain air – it had never tasted so good. One of my bunk mates, a high school health and fitness teacher in Liupanshui, relieved me of one of my bags while a second ushered me forward, leading me to the station’s exit. It’s impossible to get anywhere as a foreigner in China without several sets of helping hands along the way. I struggled up a flight of stairs, walked around a corner, then struggled down a flight of stairs, and was extremely relieved to see yet another flight of stairs dead ahead – it’s starting to feel like a fun house, without the fun. Oh well, I thought… It’s not like I got any exercise spending the better part of a day stuffed in my 3 ft x 7 ft x 3 ft sleeper cell on the train.

At long last I arrived – huffing and puffing the thin, 6000 ft. altitude air – to the exit gate. In typical Chinese fashion, a crowd had gathered to push and shove through the two single-file exits, so I had no choice but to join the fray. In these situations, my presence usually calls enough attention and awe that I pass easily, and this was no exception. Once through, I heard a voice to my right say “Colton?” (or more accurately, the Chinese attempt which sounds like “Ko-den?”) almost instantaneously. Baffling, I thought, how someone I’d never met who was assigned to pick up the foreigner from the remote mountain town’s train station was able to spot me in a crowd.

“Hello and welcome to Liupanshui!” he said. “I’m Roy.” I introduced myself in turn, all smiles in the wake of being off the train, breathing fresh air, and observing that, though crowded, this city’s version of a crowd compared to Chengdu’s was laughable. He and his driver led me to their souped up Honda Element, and within minutes we were cruising through the streets of Liupanshui, windows down, enjoying the cool night breeze. Resisting the urge to stick my head out the window and lap up the delicious air like a dog, I settled for taking in the sights. Like any Chinese town, every tall building was beautifully lit with a myriad of colors and dancing patterns, ranging from one skyscraper gently but steadily pulsing every color of the rainbow to another with cascading baby blue specks mimicking rainfall. I noticed immediately that we were driving up and down hills, as well. After Chengdu and Austin, I hadn’t until then appreciated how much I missed a city with dynamic topography.

Following a quick bite and a celebratory beer, Roy took me to my apartment. We winded through the streets of Liupanshui, which were devoid of the crowds of noisy people, the tangle of honking cars, and the mess of motorcyclists barreling full speed through all the madness. After about 10 minutes, we pulled into campus and turned onto a dirt road dotted with potholes – an ordinary sight in China. We came to a stop shortly after, right outside a very old and run-down building, whose first story consisted of several questionable looking restaurants, residences, and storage areas. It was dark, but it also seemed apparent that garbage was piling up in the area. Roy must have forgotten something, I thought. He’s probably getting my keys or something. But, at that moment, Roy turned to me and said “Here’s your new apartment!”

I laughed. “You’re joking!” Whether he didn’t understand or didn’t appreciate the comment, I can’t be sure. Nevertheless, I learned, as our driver killed the engine and stepped out of the car, Roy wasn’t joking. My smile faded. Though my predecessor assured me in his parting notes that my apartment was “SWANKY” (yes, in all caps), I was suddenly doubtful. Maybe they’ve moved me, I thought. Does the dream end here? Roy led me around the building, where matters only got worse. More piles of garbage and rusty metal contraptions met me at the rear stairwell, and I drew a deep breath, echoing the Peace Corps expectation in my head. "Serve where you are asked to go, under conditions of hardship if necessary." We reached the second floor to find a heavy, green metal door nearly lost amidst endless layers of stamped graffiti on the walls. “Here it is!” said Roy. He fumbled with the lock for a moment and at last swung the door open. I closed my eyes, preparing for the worst.

Swanky, as it turns out, was an understatement. I switched on the lights to find an enormous living room with an irresistible, comfy-looking, gigantic couch opposite a sizeable TV and DVD player. Adjacent to my living room stood the master bedroom with a wardrobe, clothes drying rack, and a queen bed. Next stop: a lavish dining room with a gorgeous table and chairs, along with a cabinet full of glass and dinnerware and, as I exclaimed with a resounding “WHAT?!” – a freaking blender. To the dining room’s left, a guest bedroom with another wardrobe and bed. My kitchen had all the fixings, from pots and pans to chopsticks and some leftover spices keeping in the fridge. The final stop, the bathroom, contained my washing machine, a decent shower, and most importantly, a Western toilet.

“Unbelievable,” I told Roy, who simply smiled.

“You like it?”

“Absolutely.”  Roy took his leave then, and I immediately went America all over my new digs – specifically, I had some serious barefoot time to catch up on, as, in China, bare or socked feet should never touch the ground. After buzzing around to burn off some adrenaline, I set up my water distiller and went to bed with what I assume was the stupidest grin on my face. I hadn’t felt the embrace of being “home” in two months, and damn… this felt good.

Roy arrived to my princess palace the following morning at 9 a.m. sharp with breakfast in tow. I – still barefoot – made tea and ate, still shaking my head in disbelief, while Roy ran off to the foreign affairs office to copy my passport. The next step: meeting my LPS (Liupanshui) host family. Roy accompanied me outside and around the apartment building, and I gasped. The view I received at 2am wasn’t such an accurate depiction of my new city. Instead of a sea of black, broken only by streetlights and a stray illuminated window on campus, I was looking upon a bright blue sky with fluffy white clouds whose horizon was met with Guizhou’s mystical rounded mountains covered entirely by dense forests. This view was broken only by the handful of tall buildings on campus, though their strategic, impressive design only worked to compliment the lush landscape.

Liupanshui Normal University
Wetlands Park

I walked across a boardwalk and through a miniature park to the campus gate, and saw a slight Chinese man (who, at first, I was sure was a teenager – this happens often) waving to the pair of us from across the main entrance to Liupanshui Normal University (LNU). After introductions, it became very clear to me that his English was on par with my Chinese. This might be a problem, I thought. Struggle though we did, however, we became fast friends and discovered a host of shared interests. The easy one? He happens to be an art instructor at LNU. So, naturally, it would (and did) follow that we have oddly similar worldviews, which I found surprising considering we literally live at opposite ends of the Earth. “I’m not part of the communist party,” he informed me on our first day via an online translation engine. “But I don’t think America has it all figured out, either.” Yep… we can hang.

Mr. Yi introduced me to his family – his wife, Mrs. Wang and their 13-year-old daughter – who extended their warmest welcome into their home in West Liupanshui just minutes from the LNU campus. Mrs. Wang is a Chinese Mandarin and writing teacher at our school, I learned, though she doesn’t teach Chinese as a second language. The unexpected result: a total lack of understanding due to her complex vocabulary and lack of awareness and sensitivity to the challenges of non-native language learning. Oddly enough, I had a much easier time over the course of the visit understanding my host dad’s Guizhou dialect (which varies considerably from the Mandarin I’ve been learning). What I concluded at the end of the visit was that to be a language learner means encountering a tremendous amount of frustration and resistance. It’s hard work, and it’s easy to give up. Mr. Yi, myself, and every language learner out there know this to be true. We know the universal, fundamental principles: Speak simply, slowly, and repeat everything. Therefore, as partners in the ongoing struggle, our communication was relatively effective.

I spent the entire Sunday with Mr. Yi and his family, and by the end of the day, we were all fairly comfortable with one another. Mr. Yi is eager, open, and intelligent. He speaks with conviction through a huge grin and looks upon his family with adoring eyes. We have countless shared interests and mutually look forward to a positive, lasting friendship. Mrs. Wang is usually quiet and reserved, but loves to laugh at a good joke. She bobs around the kitchen with her short haircut and dainty rounded glasses and smiles sweetly anytime we interact. On my last day, she stated, in rapid Chinese, that she hopes to be able to engage me in conversation very soon (no pressure). A perfectly proper Chinese woman, she emitted a horrified gasp when, upon inviting her and Mr. Yi into my apartment one day, I kicked off my shoes and walked through my living room with socks on. Their daughter is a good student, but shy. She treks the 20 minute walk home from school each day for her 90 minute lunch, shuffling into the kitchen/dining room with her blue and white “LPS” (Liupanshui) windbreaker uniform. Her knowledge of English is extensive, though like the vast majority of Chinese students, she lacks confidence in speaking and needs practice in listening. When she doesn’t understand a word, she’ll ask for its spelling rather than its repetition or definition.

LPS Folk Festival
During my visit, Mr. Yi would pick me up every day at some point in the morning and drive me around the city and surrounding area. “You’re lucky to meet me,” he said unabashedly. “I like to drive around the countryside, and I’m happy to show you everything.” We started on Day 1 at the heart and worked our way out. First, we walked the Wetlands Park on campus. A newly built and utterly breathtaking work of art, the Wetlands Park is a stone’s throw from my apartment building and wraps around the campus. As we perused and he pointed out different landmarks or types of foliage, I was nearly choking up – and this wouldn’t be the last time. Next, the city of LPS. We began by driving my bus route into town, a 10-minute cruise with the windows down that would drop me at a supermarket for prime everyday shopping. We attended a folk festival organized by Mr. Yi himself, where I was fortunate enough to see an array of minority artwork, customs, and people. We drove to a park celebrating the history of the city, and then into the mountains to gaze upon spectacular views and stunning monuments. On my last day, Mr. Yi took me to lunch in the “factory city,” which lies tucked behind one of the many rounded mountains present throughout the area. I was treated to nanming huoguo, a delicious and ruthlessly spicy Hot Pot found only in the mining city. We gained VIP access to the factory history museum, whose displays were designed by Mr. Yi, and I was able to learn about the factory’s construction just before driving right through the mess of gigantic machinery billowing smoke amidst tangles of pipelines and sprawling roads winding through the chaos of it all. Intermingled were decrepit houses and apartment buildings, restaurants, and shops existing for the workers and families of workers – indeed, it was a city of its own.

Day hike overlooking LPS
LPS East Gate
Nanming Huoguo with my LPS
host dad, Mr. Yi a.k.a. "Wolf"
On day two of my visit, I had the great pleasure of meeting Xiao Hu Yue, my Waiban (foreign affairs director), whose English name is simply and accurately: Tiger. My predecessor informed me that I needn’t try so hard to impress him, because he’ll do all the work. Regardless, when Tiger arrived to my apartment at 9 a.m. on my second day, I promptly invited him in and made some tea. We chatted briefly – he was mainly interested in what I thought of the apartment – and without even a sip of tea, we were out the door and touring the campus. On this tour, Tiger pointed out various buildings and their purposes, from student housing and the dining hall to faculty offices and the police station. Once we concluded, he asked me about my family and my home state, how I ended up as a Peace Corps Volunteer, the usual song and dance. He then introduced me to Chelsea, a bubbly, goofy, and impossibly nice Chinese English Teacher who would serve as my counterpart for the duration of my service. “The volunteer before you said I might get a very handsome new counterpart! He was right!” she exclaimed while she bounced up the stairs to shake my hand.

Chelsea then accompanied me to the Bank of China, where we would meet Roy and set up my local bank account. En route, we had a very lively discussion about LPS and battled to learn more information about each others’ backgrounds. I couldn’t say enough about how much I was already enjoying the city, and how I looked forward to exploring the area in depth. “I will show you everything!” she promised. “And after we see all of Liupanshui, I’ll take you around Guizhou and all over China! It’s my DUTY.” Yep. I’m going to like this girl.

After visiting Bank of China, Roy and I walked for about 20 minutes to a banquet dinner Tiger had planned for my welcome. Mr. Yi and the family were invited as well, though only he would attend. Roy and I entered the restaurant and made our way to a banquet room on the balcony to chat over tea while we waited for all of the attendees to arrive. I learned that he’s one of five children, but the only boy, and he has a wife and a son himself. Tiger was the first to show up, and the three of us discussed more of my background. We spoke about the campus and I enthusiastically complemented the amazing sports facilities. From there, we launched into a conversation about different sports we all enjoy, and Tiger recommended that I gear my secondary project toward sports and fitness. I happily agreed – this was exactly what I had in mind. Chelsea arrived next, bringing her light and quirky energy. Mr. Yi and a fellow art instructor, Mr. Yang, entered shortly after, and we sat down to begin. Tiger insisted that I move to the most important seat at the round table – the very back, where the viewer can see the door and every person who leaves or enters. I refused twice, as is polite in China, and finally consented to the new arrangement.

“Do you drink baijiu?” asked Tiger. I’d been warned about this. As a male with a male superior in a province with an especially developed drinking culture, it would be to my advantage (or ultimate demise) to accept invitations to drink… not that anyone had to twist my arm. “Yes,” I answered. And the game began. Baijiu (pronounced BYE-jee-oh) is Chinese rice liquor, usually 100-proof, which tastes like a hybrid of vodka, silver tequila, and gasoline. It’s often consumed at formal meals, and Guizhou is especially known for its production of the popular spirit. Especially at nice dinners, each guest has a half-shot glass which is to remain filled at all times in the event of spontaneous cheers, which are frequent. In traditional fashion, I was informed, there must be three cheers before beginning the meal. Tiger began by welcoming the guests, especially myself. Roy went next, promising to help me in any way possible to make sure I was happy and effective as a volunteer in LPS. I made sure to take the third, and profusely thanked everyone for their kindness and support before expressing my enthusiasm for teaching at our university and my innate love for my this new, beautiful city. I felt myself choking up again as I came to a close with the five other guests’ faces beaming up at me, so I cut myself off with a meager “thank you again,” a final nod, and I raised my glass. “Let’s begin,” said Tiger.

The meal went as many Chinese banquets do, with several platters of food placed on a large glass disk in the center. The guests can slowly circle the food around so everyone gets a taste. Usually, and tonight was no exception, each person has an empty bowl used for soup or to cool down food that's too hot. Otherwise, the rule of thumb is to dive right in to the communal dishes with your own chopsticks, and take whatever you touch. Everyone toasts each other frequently – sometimes for a specific reason but sometimes just to be polite – often standing up and moving around the table to do so. For those who choose not to drink, using tea is acceptable. In Chinese culture, women very rarely consume alcohol during mealtimes, so Chelsea toasted with tea. In only moments, it seemed, we were opening our second bottle of expensive, Guizhou-made baijiu, and the atmosphere was loosening up. My confidence in Chinese began to skyrocket, much to the delight of the table. Laughter was picking up more and more with each toast, and by the end of the delicious meal, our second bottle of baijiu was empty.

“Would you like to drink more?” asked Tiger. I was unsure how to respond. In China, it’s most polite to accept all offers, to eat and drink when asked to.

“Dou keyi,” I responded politely in Chinese. The literal translation is “I could do both.”

“Okay,” said Tiger in his low, raspy voice that reminds me of a kind of sensei. “We will get some beer, and I will drink with you.” Apparently, we weren’t the only ones interested. My other colleagues were eager to continue, as well, and after two or three bottles, the Chinese side of the table were in very good spirits. It’s in these moments that I’m especially thankful for my body mass and lineage, and the science doesn’t lie. When my 5’8, 140 lb. Chinese associates and myself drink the same amount of alcohol, the results are drastically different.

“Colton,” Tiger said with a composed but slightly goofy grin, “you can drink very well. That’s very good.”

“Thank you,” I said with a small bow. Mr. Yi, meanwhile, had recently declared that his English name would be henceforth be "Wolf," and the name stuck. Mr. Yang, on the other hand, had fallen silent and resumed eating from the turntable. Chelsea was enjoying the spectacle, and also remarking on my relative composure. I’d also found an admirer in the form of a young girl, about 8 years old, who kept sneaking in to our private room and drawing me picture of flowers and the like. I’d draw something simple or add to hers, and send it back through our liaison, Chelsea. This turned into an ongoing game throughout the night which we all thought was both adorable and hilarious. When the evening came to a close, Tiger shared a cab with me back to campus, and dropped me off at my apartment. Yes, my very own apartment, where I promptly kicked off my shoes and walked around – that’s right – barefoot.

When it came time for me to leave Liupanshui on the evening of my fourth day, the newly-named Wolf drove me to the train station. I was surprised to find myself dragging my feet; the thought of returning to hot, noisy, crowded Chengdu seemed anything but appetizing, but I resolved to focus on Friday’s group session (a.k.a. reuniting with the other volunteers). Finally, the reality had set in that we would, for the next two years, have the opportunity to meet only a handful of times. And with so young and so meaningful of friendships, it seems a damn shame.

The next 24 hours, unfortunately, were unbearably “China,” which did nothing to slant my view of Chengdu in a positive light. It began with the overnight train ride, complete with screaming babies, screaming adults, children playing jungle gym on my bed, and to top it off – a broken air conditioner. My ticket brought me back to the East Railway Station rather than the North Station five minutes’ walk from my host family, so after my arrival I had to stand on the subway for an hour. I felt I deserved a cold beer after the whole ordeal, so I and a fellow volunteer friend, training site mate, Chengdu neighbor, and soon-to-be Guizhou Province mate named Leah planned to meet for an informal debrief. On my way out of the apartment complex, the guard whom I’ve greeted every morning of every day for the two months I’ve lived here stopped me and asked for my registration paperwork. After fifteen minutes of struggle and confusion, I had to call my host mom (who I refer to as the bulldog) and she sorted out the mess in what I’m sure was very assertive, effective, and probably scary Chinese. Weaving through traffic on my bike is customary but seemed extra awful today given the circumstances, and by the time I arrived at the convenience store, I wasn’t in good shape – but the beer helped. On my ride home, my pedal broke. So, naturally, once I arrived and had dinner, I shut myself in my room, cranked up my air conditioner, and went to bed early.

I dreamt of Liupanshui’s slow pace, clean air, breathtaking sights, and kind people. I pretended I was in my own apartment, in my own bed, basking in the silence of a city that actually sleeps. While Leah’s and my sites are remarkably similar (though more than 10 hours removed), the most striking commonality we felt was reluctance to return to Chengdu. I’ll miss my volunteer friends to death, and parting ways will undoubtedly be a heavy emotional blow, but I know we won’t lose touch. Friendships in tow, I’m ready to begin my work – to live and breathe and serve as a volunteer in a developing community, to inspire change and see the results unfold before my eyes. And dammit… I’ll be barefoot every chance I get.

Overlooking Liupanshui Normal University, rear.

August 14, 2014


…is the only honest way to describe this post. Why? Because I waited too long. I have too much to say, and have too many ideas about how to say what I need to. Here ends the preface.

Guizhou Province

CUE: Dramatic introductory paragraph.
Part 1 from “Small China” – unfinished, unpublished, handwritten scrawl.

I haven’t seen a sunset in weeks. Blue sky in Chengdu has appeared only reluctantly and certainly not in recent memory. On the days it has, it hides behind the forest of apartment buildings over 20 stories high in any direction. Yet, blue sky is what I see now… the deepest royal blue sweeping into a rich, dark purple with smoky gray clouds passing in the foreground. Moments earlier, or so it seems, Guizhou province’s infamous lush hills and cliffs dominated the view, their rounded peaks blanketed by the low hanging and impossibly close clouds. Small waterfalls springing from nowhere, cascading into the ubiquitous, reddish-brown river along which our train has traveled since our departure from Chengdu. Any less-treacherous landscape is developed for agriculture, with infinite rows of adolescent rice plants in tiered sections of standing, blackish water, being tended to by farmers both male and female, young and old, whose adjacent, partially-collapsed homes with dirt floors and wet clothes hanging in every window patiently wait their return. It’s been impossible to pry my eyes from the window since I boarded the train 10 hours ago, not only for the striking beauty of Southwest China, but because the sights have had a rather hypnotic effect, sending me to a state of deep reflection and introspection. My journey, much like the train I'm on now, has momentum and continues to advance. I'm just along for the ride.

Liu Jiang (host mom) picking grapes
in her dope-ass Hello Kitty mask
Pre-Service Training is a beast. Coping with the Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) information, Chinese lessons, and Chinese culture all at once can be a little much, especially with summer so nearly at an end. Ever the extrovert, I never fancied myself the type to desperately crave alone time or peace and quiet. China will do that to a person. There comes a point when I don’t want to be gawked at by every national I walk by every day, when I’d rather stay home and relax on a Sunday instead of gallivanting to the countryside to pick mushrooms and grapes in 90-degree heat. But that’s not China life – and I’m not here for a vacation. Relaxation via staying in bed all day? That’s unhealthy. All consumable water must be hot. Piping hot. Especially if it’s a hot day. (Don’t ask why – the logic is lost on me.) The bread is good, sometimes, though for some reason chefs tend to ruin it by stuffing their pastries' centers with “meat floss”, a chewy, salty, powdery substance I believe to be dried pork.

Snapshot from
Maoli Cat Cafe
But Chengdu has its perks. Though staying in bed all day Sunday is a no-no, splaying out in a chaguar (teahouse) playing mahjong, chatting, and napping on and off for 8 hours is a fair trade. Going for a run along the JinJiang river near my host family’s apartment is always an uplifting experience, if only because I feel like a long-legged, graceful gazelle trotting past handfuls of people at least a head shorter than myself. Plus, with my earbuds in, I get to ignore the steady calls “Laowi!” (foreigner) “Hen Gao!” (tall) and “Hallooo!” (you guessed it). The food, truly, is to die for. I’ll declare here and now that I will never again set foot in an American Chinese restaurant for as long as I live. From what I remember, it’s not even close to the real thing (and the real thing is, quite simply, the bomb).

The past few weeks have slid by without much ado… a whole lot of Chinese learning in preparation for the final language exam this week, a few chance meetings with some China 19 volunteers who were able to share their wisdom and offer hope for our futures, a field trip to the Chengdu train station to get a feel for how to navigate through the insanity. Just chipping away at reaching some point of preparedness before we're thrown to the sharks.

In recent memory, the only topic on anyone’s mind was that of site placement, which took place last week. Trainers and program managers had been observing the lot of us since day 1 of training and, in fact, before we even arrived. But just a week before placement, every volunteer interviewed with the program managers in a courtroom-style, incredibly nerve-racking manner. During the interviews, a program manager from each province would ask one question related to skills, interests, or qualifications, and we were asked to leave. Naturally, rumors sprung up like mad – “Was the Chongqing lady looking at you a lot? I’m pretty sure I’m going to Chongqing.” “Did any of them ask you more than one question? If they ask you more than one, you’re going to their province.” “This is just a formality – they already had our sites assigned before we got here.”

New Parade training group awaiting site placement
As a Peace Corps volunteer I agreed to “serve where I’m asked to go, regardless of hardship.” But that doesn’t stop any volunteer for having a preference – and rumor would also have that Peace Corps China tries their best to honor our individual requests. Thus, during my interview, I confidently stated that I wanted to focus my secondary project on outdoor recreation, although a cooler climate and lower population would suit me best. More specifically, I badly wanted a site in Gansu province, but I decided to leave that to fate - truth be told, I didn't care enough to even know which interviewer came from which province, so sucking up wasn't an option either. One very long week later, I stood with bated breath in the very same hotel conference room I first arrived at two months ago, hand in hand (literally) with my 15 fellow New Parade training site volunteers. The time had come to learn our fate – and for better or worse, whether near or far, we would offer only our greatest support.

The whole affair was just as dramatic as everyone had imagined it would be. The speaker said “Go,” and our training site managers dealt our fates individually.
First: Blue folders – Gansu province. Keywords: Desert. Poor. Remote. Developing. Harsh. Naturally, my gut fell while I waited for the New Parade site manager, Zhan Lan, to seal my fate and send me to my “dream province.” But as she pulled out the final folder, it wasn’t my name spelled out on the front. Gulp.
Second: Yellow folders – Chongqing province. Keywords: Hot. City. Thriving. Hot. Hot. Chongqing, I could manage, I thought to myself. Not an ideal climate, but certainly plenty to do. Not to mention the city itself is host to something like 20 volunteers, so the company would be great. But the last yellow folder, again, was dealt elsewhere.
Third: Green folders – Sichuan province. Keywords: Chengdu. Hot. Humid. Earthquakes. Oh please, I begged, as if to the sorting hat. Not Sichuan. Not Sichuan. Not Sichuan. And as the last green folder was dealt with only the pink remaining, I learned my site prematurely.

Guizhou (GWAY-joe) province. Keywords: Lush. Waterfalls. Poor. Culture. Remote. My site, I learn, is called Liupanshui (LEO-pawn-shway), which literally translates to “six plates of water”. For its strange name, my Chinese teacher later told me, Liupanshui is well known throughout China. In fact, the name is a hybrid of the three counties that the city sprawls across: Liuzhi, Panxiang, and Shuicheng. Liupanshui is known in Guizhou as the “Cool City” or “Cool Capital” because, especially during the summer, the temperature is always on the cool side. Winters, on the other hand, rarely see more than a few days of snowfall each year, so the climate overall is very mild. Where the site placement rumor mill is concerned, at least one thing is true – our requests are most definitely considered. I asked for a cool climate, and they gave me the Cool Capital!

Following the morning sorting ceremony (indeed, I may have involved myself in a deep discussion later that day as to which four provinces coincided with the four Hogwarts houses), we were ripped from our comfortable training site communities and shuffled into new groups for a third time since starting Pre-Service Training. Guizhou Province would remain together for the remainder of the day, learning more about the province, speaking with currently-serving Guizhou volunteers, and attending other sessions as well. That evening, celebrations ensued – there was laughing, dancing and shouting, but also hesitance, reluctance and morose. In my case, I would be unexpectedly shoved to the opposite pole of China from a new, but forever friend who will be serving in Lanzhou, Gansu. There wasn’t much time for any kind of emotion, however, in anticipation of our site visits, which nearly all of us would depart for that same weekend. As the first to depart, I would be on my train in just 24 hours. The second great whirlwind of Peace Corps is upon me!

CUE: Dramatic concluding paragraph.
Part 2 from “Small China” – unfinished, unpublished, handwritten scrawl.

Guizhou Province
It’s dark now. The stunning view I enjoyed throughout the day has transitioned to pitch black night. I’m surrounded by the chatter of Chinese travelers – I can only guess at pieces of their conversations, and I wonder whether I’ll one day be able to effortlessly understand these exchanges. My bunk mates, conversely, are collectively fast asleep or reading silently. When I boarded the train twelve hours ago, they rose to a shouting match with my host mom over my luggage arrangements. Eleven hours ago, I had a civil, pleasant, productive conversation with them, wherein I learned that they live and teach in my future city, Liupanshui. Three hours ago, I, my travel mate, Taylor, and three of the teachers enjoyed a thorough conversation in virtually unbroken Chinese. As luck would have it, they are well-acquainted with my college’s Wai Ban (foreign affairs director), named “Tiger,” and within moments of this discovery, I'd find a hot cell phone in my hand with Tiger on the other line. We discussed our plans for meeting and expressed our mutual excitement. At present, I have tentative plans to play badminton, hike, and drink beer with my new teacher friends. How we ended up traveling on the same day, at the same time, on the same train, in the same bunk of the same car is vastly beyond my understanding. Maybe China isn’t so big after all.

Guizhou bound with Taylor
Guizhou Province
As pointed out by our Chinese teacher:
Harry Potter and Ron Weasley
Our Chinese teacher Dong Ping Ping conducting
an effective and informative lesson on
using Chinese in emergency situations.

Host mom Liu Jiang in the mushroom fields

July 20, 2014

Quarter Life: The China Edition

Infamous Chicken Feet. The cold, spicy variety.

I was tired. It had been a long week, to say the least, although where Pre-Service Training (PST) is concerned, a “short” or “easy” week is laughable. I was getting used to the exhaustion by this point. It didn’t help that 4pm was drawing near… nor that my belly was stuffed full of delectable birthday cheesecake, my head crammed full of various Chinese words and phrases I’d already forgotten since language class that same morning. I was hiding out in my classroom, sitting in but not really paying attention to my teaching partner, Zahra, conducting her lesson. I, meanwhile, was filling out an evaluation form for a fellow trainee I’d finished observing in the first hour of class.

Sweat began to accumulate on my forehead, thanks to our semi-functional air conditioner combined with Peace Corps business casual dress code requirements in hot, humid, Chengdu. I continued to labor over each area of the evaluation – classroom presence, lesson content, etc. – trying to give thorough, genuine, constructive feedback, when I noticed Zahra excuse herself and slip out of the classroom. Strange, I thought. Is this my cue to jump in on my day off? We hadn’t discussed this. Within ten seconds or so, though, she returned, but with two other volunteers named Brigid and Nicole – along with them, their 20 students. Compounded with our own 23 heads in a classroom no larger than 15 x 20 feet, the atmosphere was a bit claustrophobic.

I remained seated on my precarious, baby blue plastic step stool, stumped as to how this raucous activity would possibly relate to Zahra’s lesson on debates, and whether Brigid and Nicole had conducted a similar lesson next door. “Mr. Davies, could you stand up, please?” said Zahra, startling me.

I stood. She pried my binder and unfinished evaluation from my grasp and set them down on my stool. I was still confused. There was no way I could actively participate unless it was a lesson on a giant among the townsfolk. (In a tiny room packed with 40 sixteen-year-old Chinese students, my height became glaringly obvious.)

“Does everybody remember what we practiced?” she shouted to the group.

They responded with a resounding “YES!”

Oh, I thought to myself. Now I get it. Just then, Zahra belted out the first word of the birthday song and the students followed in suit. Meanwhile, my fight-or-flight had kicked in. My hands flew up to my face, and I turned to run. With no escape route, I had no choice but to face the music. The students sang perfectly – particular attention was paid to the difficult “th” sound in “birthday,” and most of them slaughtered my name. My face was heating up as I blushed; my eyes watered from gratitude. As the students finished their song, I thanked them profusely, applauded their voices and pronunciation, and they filed out in a storm of giggles. Speechless, I could only shake my head and proudly sport the gigantic grin cemented to my face. This is real, I reminded myself, drinking in the moment.


Turning 25 in China wasn’t something I had planned. Indeed, if you’d asked 24-year-old me a year ago, I would have laughed at the prospect. “Peace Corps?” I would have said. “Yeah, it’s crossed my mind.” Chuckle chuckle.

Fast-forward two months, September 2013. I complete the PC application for shits and giggles, and let it expire. Now’s not the time, I think. Then it’s December – the feeling of misdirection sets in, along with the bitter confusion of wondering whether I’m doing what I want to be doing, and if I’m happy… then, I stare the beast in the face and answer the question honestly for the first time: No. I’m not happy.

So I start and finish the application in a week’s time. You can always back out, I reassure myself. This isn’t final. I sail through my recruiter interview, straight to nomination to China. My legal clearance paperwork arrives in the mail the same week, and I send in my fingerprints immediately. It’s still just an option, I think. Two weeks pass, and I receive my official invitation to serve. One day later, on February 16, 2014, I respond to my invitation in the affirmative. Four months later, I’m hurling over the Pacific Ocean, an official Peace Corps Trainee.

Now is the honeymoon phase, they keep telling us. If you haven’t hit your slump, you will. I, for one, believe that knowledge is power. To be aware of the honeymoon phase is half (or all of) the battle. Is my honeymoon phase skidding to a halt? Doubtful, though I’m surely in a phase of transition. I find myself often thinking about how different things could be. If I’d stayed in Austin. If I’d stayed in Montana. If I’d chosen a nomination to Ethiopia instead of China. I sometimes thumb through the #peacecorps thread on Instagram, seeing so many of my peers having incredibly different experiences. I could be in Latin America planting trees. Or Uganda working with HIV/AIDS prevention. But I’m not. I’m here because I’m meant to be here. Sure, I’ve felt frustrated, confused, and vulnerable at times, but the feeling of wanting to stay up late to work hard on a project, of wanting to be on time, awake, alert, and presentable, of wanting to inspire knowledge and impact people in an overwhelmingly positive way, of returning home knowing that I’ve made a difference, and will continue to do so… I forgot what that felt like.

“I live here,” I say aloud sometimes, to reassure myself. In a city frequented by foreigners with backpacks and cameras, there’s something empowering about dressing up each day, riding the elevator down from my host family’s 18th floor apartment, and walking to the bus with nothing but a small backpack full of school materials. I’m still stared at as often as any foreigner, but it’s apparent in my overall presentation that indeed, I live here.

I eat my breakfast of steamed milk and utterly flavorless, chewy, dense bread and unsalted hard-boiled eggs for breakfast like any proper Chinese national. I sweat through my undershirt before I get to class. On cool or clean air days, I may elect to bike – waking up via the “death by China traffic” adrenaline spike trumps a cup of crappy instant coffee any day. I take a beating from my language teacher every morning, being bashed over the head with new words and phrases in Mandarin until I want to curl up on the floor and weep. I eat my 75-cent lunch of white rice and miscellaneous stir-fried vegetables across the alleyway. I review my lesson plans, prepare my materials, and teach said lessons to my spunky, goofy group of Chinese teenagers. I bus or bike home, and if time allows, take a run along the broken brick path beside the lazy, brown Jinjiang River – careful not to boot any wayward poodles and weaving around old men waiting for fish that will never bite, smoking pipes and smiling with their remaining teeth as I trot by. I return home, clothes drenched from the humidity, and shower before dinner – an extravagant spread of 4-8 different dishes of varying extremes cooked up by nai nai (grandmother). Water spinach is a regular and delicious feature. My adoration for eggplant (chiezi) is by now very well known, and usually honored. There’s the usual plate full of spicy chicken that seems to have been butchered by a second grader, and an adventurous option like blood, feet, or heads, which I’m always quick to sample.

Nai nai has discovered my love for cold drinks and latched on. She’s tough as nails and we have little to no communication, but I thank her in staggering Chinese every day for every meal… I know she cares when she makes my favorite dish, Yu Xiang Chiezi (sweet and spicy eggplant) and pours me a full mug of bing cha (cold tea) – much to the family’s disgust. She’s a surgeon with chopsticks, able to snatch up half a dish of steaming bean sprouts from across the table and have them back in her bowl in about a second flat. Most of her dialog, translated by my host mom, concerns me eating more and being sure to try every dish on the table. Yeye (grandfather) is all smiles. He usually wears shorts and a tank-top (or no-top). A man of few words, he’ll almost daily see my empty rice bowl and, despite my protests, hobble into the kitchen and emerge seconds later with a heaping scoop I can’t refuse. Yesterday, he attempted to pour me a full glass of baijiu (Chinese white liquor, 100 proof) but the family protested in an uproar and I was allotted a half-glass instead. Occasionally, he launches into a ten-minute babble while the rest of the family sits in silence, completely unresponsive. I can’t tell if it’s senseless, senile rambling or a tale of epic proportions.

One day, I'll understand for myself. For now, I'm 25. I live in China. And I'm happy.

VERY rare sunset sighting in Chengdu.

Chengdu from a mountain top!

Hiking the mountain.
Easy afternoon sipping tea and chatting on the mountain.

Peach picking outside Chengdu.
My new buddy "KeKe" picking peaches.

"Hot Pot" - Chinese Fondue

Pig Stomach - Cow Stomach - Eel

My teaching partner, Zahra, and our Chinese observer, Charlie.