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.

July 7, 2014

Fish Out of Water

What a difference a weekend can make.
After some hasty night-before packing, a couple brief training sessions, and a lunchtime “this can’t be happening” panic, I said a few hurried but painful goodbyes and loaded my life onto a bus once again. This one was bound for New Parade, one of four permanent training sites for PC China volunteers. The site visit began with climbing four flights of stairs in the 80 degree, humid Chengdu heat – so my first impression wasn’t so stellar. But that was overshadowed by the anxiety and excitement of meeting my host family, who would be waiting upstairs.
My host mother, Liu Jhiang, found me shortly after I entered the cramped, stuffy classroom. She took one look at the sweat beads forming on my forehead (something I’m completely used to by this point) and insisted I put my bags down and move toward the barely functional air conditioner at the back of the classroom. After a couple of announcements from our site manager, we headed out.
The trip to the apartment community was the typical chaos and anarchy that is daily traffic in China… honking, nosing into intersections, motorcycles and bikes weaving every which way. Twenty minutes later, we arrived at the complex – a tangle of several 18-floor buildings complete with rooftop gardens, wet clothes hanging on every balcony, and a pleasant brick walkway looping around to connect them all. My host mom guided me to the 18th floor, it would so happen, and welcomed me to my new home. First, it was off with my shoes. The Chinese have outside shoes and inside shoes, and to go barefoot or in socks is unacceptable. Unfortunately, the Zhongs were ill equipped to outfit my size-13 skis with the typical inside sandals, but thankfully the flip-flops I packed along have solved the conundrum. After that case was closed, I politely refused a shower in several different ways, and compromised for washing my face and drinking some water. After a half hour or so of more broken introduction conversation and a small tour of the apartment, she whisked me to my room, saying “Now rest! Now rest!” before shutting my bedroom door behind me.
Food has been the primary focus of the home stay thus far. I haven’t felt remotely hungry for days. It’s unusual to “clean your plate” at homes in China. The way they see it, if you’ve finished all of your food, you must still be hungry for more. It’s been hard to kick the habit, and consequently, every time I finish my food, I have no time to protest before someone at the table is dishing me up some more. This is especially true for the zero-English grandmother and grandfather of the house, whom I scarcely see aside from mealtimes. They prefer to spend their days relaxing either in their bedroom or on the rooftop garden, complete with chickens strutting around.
My favorite observation thus far is how nobody in China expects Americans to have even rudimentary proficiency in using chopsticks. Every time I sit down to a meal with new faces, they watch me take my first bite with wide eyes and huge grins, excited to see me struggle and expecting big laughs. Unfortunately for them, my technique is passable and there’s usually not much fumbling on my part – although the more “slippery” foods tend to get the best of me.
Liu Jiang, my host mother, has exactly the level of English proficiency that I hoped for. We’re able to communicate well enough, but we want to, and are, learning a ton of each others’ native languages through our discussions. This morning, we sat in the living room and discussed some random Chinese vocabulary, and afterward I helped with her pronunciation in “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. This evening, we had a long discussion with both my host parents about our homes and where we come from. Liu Jiang is the perfect picture of the “care-so-much-it-comes-off-pushy” Chinese host mother the Peace Corps painted for us, but she’s extremely kind and I’m very grateful to be here.
My host father, Zhong Ling, speaks very little English and is more distant, but surprises me from time to time with atrociously pronounced phrases like “good morning!” followed by some laughter. Today he pulled me over to the water cooler for a second time and explained “Deez one HOT – Deez one COLD”. My host brother, whose American name is Sam, has been studying English for several years and is nearly fluent. At 15, he’s more eager to flaunt his English than to help me with Chinese, so we’re a bit at odds. I’m already getting frustrated with his saying “Pardon?” “Let’s go!” and “What?” all day long. His good friend, however, who we jokingly call “Mr. Tien,” is a perfect little punk whose English level is low, but he’s always excited to learn AND teach – and he’s never too serious. Mr. Tien and my host mother will be critical in these first few weeks – then, hopefully, I’ll be able to functionally communicate with Zhong Ling and the grandparents. Overly optimistic? You betcha.
Tomorrow, I’ll be strapping on my helmet and saddling up on my old, rusty bike to brave the insane Chengdu traffic to New Parade Training Center to launch back in the rigorous cycle of six-day weeks of TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) and Mandarin courses. I’m dreading the impending exhaustion, but looking forward to seeing my training classmates. The home stay experience has made me feel like a fish out of water, and I’m ready for a routine again (esp. one that involves seeing my fellow volunteers again on a regular, albeit finite, basis). It’s become clear to me that my first two weeks weren’t necessarily a quintessential Peace Corps (or even “Posh Corps”) experience; I was in my element then. Now, I’ve been forced to immerse more intimately… there’s no hotel room to go back to anymore. And to be honest, it is difficult. But stepping back and looking on a broader scale, I realize it’s important to understand that this is just a small piece of a much larger puzzle. Is this the most difficult portion of the overall journey? Of course not. Will it get better? Is it worth it? Hell yes.