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 65ยบ 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.

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