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.

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