Composing the first entry of what’s to become my farthest-reaching and largest body of writing to date isn’t something I’ve taken lightly. In fact, I’ve been so intimidated that it’s taken me over a week to spit it out. So, without further ado, and knowing that I’ll likely look back on this entry in two years with an elitist, worldly air of superiority… here goes nothing.
It’s 6:00 pm in Chengdu, Sichuan, China. That’s 14 hours ahead of Montana and 13 ahead of Texas. If anybody’s wondering, the future is great – we’re still here. My temporary roommate, Junior, and I are hiding out in our air-conditioned hotel room. Betty Who is bumping through a headphone in my left ear while Chengdu’s single English channel bounces off my right. “Natural” light is pouring through our window from the always overcast, grayish-white sky. The constant whooshing, screeching, and honking of steady traffic have become comfortable and normal, which I’m glad for. Those who crave silence in Chengdu will be left wanting.
My arms hurt from the second round of vaccines administered in a converted hotel room downstairs an hour ago, during which the Chinese PC (Peace Corps) nurses prompted me to show off what little Chinese I’ve learned so far. I proudly recited my latest phrases, “I have fourteen American dollars!” and “How many RMB (Chinese Currency) do you have?” much to their delight. This morning and afternoon were much like any afternoon during PST (Pre-Service Training). Breakfast at 8:00 am, group meeting at 8:30, and splitting into training groups for TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) training, health and safety sessions, and cultural context lessons. Today’s topics: teaching reading, preventing STI’s, and teaching writing.
Typically, we’re allowed 1-2 hours for lunch. I’ll never forget my first lunch in China, when Stephanie – whom I befriended in Austin before our departure – and myself broke free from the 80-strong group to find a more authentic and intimate restaurant to try out. We wandered into a hole in the wall place on a side-street, which, at the time, seemed a complete anomaly. After my feeble attempts at communicating in Mandarin and pointing at pictures on the wall, we struggled through ordering amid stares from locals and were soon brought gigantic bowls of beef/noodle/vegetable soup. It tasted incredible. Sichuan province is famous for its food, not only because of the killer flavor, but it’s spicy as hell.
Sichuan peppers are found in about half of the dishes served at restaurants. They’re small, round pellets about the size of bb’s. Though occasionally ground and used as seasoning, they’re more often used whole. Understand, this is no ordinary pepper. Biting into one won’t elicit a “burn” or anything of the sort, but rather a small burst of minty, gingery flavor followed by a bizarre numbing sensation lasting anywhere from 2-10 minutes. The feeling is slightly uncomfortable at first, but easy to get used to… kind of like a quick shot of local anesthesia from the dentist, without the shot.
The food honeymoon, however, has graduated to a food hangover. It’s not uncommon to hear my fellow PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) exclaiming, in an unmistakably facetious tone, “I feel like eating Chinese food today!” or “MAN I’m craving noodles.” It came as a bit of a surprise that, even in a developed, modern, thriving city like Chengdu, food diversity isn’t much of a reality. We Americans have the luxury of going out to Taco Bell for lunch and Olive Garden for dinner (not that I’m condoning such behavior), but doing so in China is not only difficult, but would break the bank in a hurry. Thus, it’s rice, noodles, and pork for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Oh, and a note to coffee drinkers: get used to Nestle Instant Coffee or kick the habit.
Friends and family have asked me to describe in detail my evident transformation, to elaborate on my culture shock and enlighten those of you stateside with my new and penetrative look at the Chinese way of life. Unfortunately, that story is still being written. Patience, readers. PST is a rigorous beast that roars six days per week, unaided by this thing called “jet lag” which I’ve never experienced. My habits fall in with the majority of my peers’, which goes like this:
Dumplings for breakfast.
Morning training sessions.
Noodles for lunch.
Afternoon training sessions.
Noodles for dinner.
Unwind/decompress with other PCVs and crappy Chinese beer.
Crash and burn.
China isn’t the alien world any of us imagine it to be. There are, without a doubt, more similarities than differences – though to be honest, seeing squat-toilets everywhere and nearly getting killed by locals barreling down sidewalks on scooters every day can make a wayward Westerner feel a bit out of place. But despite the language struggle, the intense training sessions, and the excess of noodles, I’ve risen each day with an enormous smile on my face. I’m so pleased with my decision to join the Peace Corps community. I’m madly in love with my fellow trainees, trainers, and staff, and with this fascinating country and its friendly, resilient people. A note to the nagging, inexplicable tug I’ve felt for the past few years toward something grand: I’m glad I finally listened. For the first time in recent memory, I’m living without a shred of regret or resentment. It’s one hell of a feeling.