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.

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