August 14, 2014


…is the only honest way to describe this post. Why? Because I waited too long. I have too much to say, and have too many ideas about how to say what I need to. Here ends the preface.

Guizhou Province

CUE: Dramatic introductory paragraph.
Part 1 from “Small China” – unfinished, unpublished, handwritten scrawl.

I haven’t seen a sunset in weeks. Blue sky in Chengdu has appeared only reluctantly and certainly not in recent memory. On the days it has, it hides behind the forest of apartment buildings over 20 stories high in any direction. Yet, blue sky is what I see now… the deepest royal blue sweeping into a rich, dark purple with smoky gray clouds passing in the foreground. Moments earlier, or so it seems, Guizhou province’s infamous lush hills and cliffs dominated the view, their rounded peaks blanketed by the low hanging and impossibly close clouds. Small waterfalls springing from nowhere, cascading into the ubiquitous, reddish-brown river along which our train has traveled since our departure from Chengdu. Any less-treacherous landscape is developed for agriculture, with infinite rows of adolescent rice plants in tiered sections of standing, blackish water, being tended to by farmers both male and female, young and old, whose adjacent, partially-collapsed homes with dirt floors and wet clothes hanging in every window patiently wait their return. It’s been impossible to pry my eyes from the window since I boarded the train 10 hours ago, not only for the striking beauty of Southwest China, but because the sights have had a rather hypnotic effect, sending me to a state of deep reflection and introspection. My journey, much like the train I'm on now, has momentum and continues to advance. I'm just along for the ride.

Liu Jiang (host mom) picking grapes
in her dope-ass Hello Kitty mask
Pre-Service Training is a beast. Coping with the Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) information, Chinese lessons, and Chinese culture all at once can be a little much, especially with summer so nearly at an end. Ever the extrovert, I never fancied myself the type to desperately crave alone time or peace and quiet. China will do that to a person. There comes a point when I don’t want to be gawked at by every national I walk by every day, when I’d rather stay home and relax on a Sunday instead of gallivanting to the countryside to pick mushrooms and grapes in 90-degree heat. But that’s not China life – and I’m not here for a vacation. Relaxation via staying in bed all day? That’s unhealthy. All consumable water must be hot. Piping hot. Especially if it’s a hot day. (Don’t ask why – the logic is lost on me.) The bread is good, sometimes, though for some reason chefs tend to ruin it by stuffing their pastries' centers with “meat floss”, a chewy, salty, powdery substance I believe to be dried pork.

Snapshot from
Maoli Cat Cafe
But Chengdu has its perks. Though staying in bed all day Sunday is a no-no, splaying out in a chaguar (teahouse) playing mahjong, chatting, and napping on and off for 8 hours is a fair trade. Going for a run along the JinJiang river near my host family’s apartment is always an uplifting experience, if only because I feel like a long-legged, graceful gazelle trotting past handfuls of people at least a head shorter than myself. Plus, with my earbuds in, I get to ignore the steady calls “Laowi!” (foreigner) “Hen Gao!” (tall) and “Hallooo!” (you guessed it). The food, truly, is to die for. I’ll declare here and now that I will never again set foot in an American Chinese restaurant for as long as I live. From what I remember, it’s not even close to the real thing (and the real thing is, quite simply, the bomb).

The past few weeks have slid by without much ado… a whole lot of Chinese learning in preparation for the final language exam this week, a few chance meetings with some China 19 volunteers who were able to share their wisdom and offer hope for our futures, a field trip to the Chengdu train station to get a feel for how to navigate through the insanity. Just chipping away at reaching some point of preparedness before we're thrown to the sharks.

In recent memory, the only topic on anyone’s mind was that of site placement, which took place last week. Trainers and program managers had been observing the lot of us since day 1 of training and, in fact, before we even arrived. But just a week before placement, every volunteer interviewed with the program managers in a courtroom-style, incredibly nerve-racking manner. During the interviews, a program manager from each province would ask one question related to skills, interests, or qualifications, and we were asked to leave. Naturally, rumors sprung up like mad – “Was the Chongqing lady looking at you a lot? I’m pretty sure I’m going to Chongqing.” “Did any of them ask you more than one question? If they ask you more than one, you’re going to their province.” “This is just a formality – they already had our sites assigned before we got here.”

New Parade training group awaiting site placement
As a Peace Corps volunteer I agreed to “serve where I’m asked to go, regardless of hardship.” But that doesn’t stop any volunteer for having a preference – and rumor would also have that Peace Corps China tries their best to honor our individual requests. Thus, during my interview, I confidently stated that I wanted to focus my secondary project on outdoor recreation, although a cooler climate and lower population would suit me best. More specifically, I badly wanted a site in Gansu province, but I decided to leave that to fate - truth be told, I didn't care enough to even know which interviewer came from which province, so sucking up wasn't an option either. One very long week later, I stood with bated breath in the very same hotel conference room I first arrived at two months ago, hand in hand (literally) with my 15 fellow New Parade training site volunteers. The time had come to learn our fate – and for better or worse, whether near or far, we would offer only our greatest support.

The whole affair was just as dramatic as everyone had imagined it would be. The speaker said “Go,” and our training site managers dealt our fates individually.
First: Blue folders – Gansu province. Keywords: Desert. Poor. Remote. Developing. Harsh. Naturally, my gut fell while I waited for the New Parade site manager, Zhan Lan, to seal my fate and send me to my “dream province.” But as she pulled out the final folder, it wasn’t my name spelled out on the front. Gulp.
Second: Yellow folders – Chongqing province. Keywords: Hot. City. Thriving. Hot. Hot. Chongqing, I could manage, I thought to myself. Not an ideal climate, but certainly plenty to do. Not to mention the city itself is host to something like 20 volunteers, so the company would be great. But the last yellow folder, again, was dealt elsewhere.
Third: Green folders – Sichuan province. Keywords: Chengdu. Hot. Humid. Earthquakes. Oh please, I begged, as if to the sorting hat. Not Sichuan. Not Sichuan. Not Sichuan. And as the last green folder was dealt with only the pink remaining, I learned my site prematurely.

Guizhou (GWAY-joe) province. Keywords: Lush. Waterfalls. Poor. Culture. Remote. My site, I learn, is called Liupanshui (LEO-pawn-shway), which literally translates to “six plates of water”. For its strange name, my Chinese teacher later told me, Liupanshui is well known throughout China. In fact, the name is a hybrid of the three counties that the city sprawls across: Liuzhi, Panxiang, and Shuicheng. Liupanshui is known in Guizhou as the “Cool City” or “Cool Capital” because, especially during the summer, the temperature is always on the cool side. Winters, on the other hand, rarely see more than a few days of snowfall each year, so the climate overall is very mild. Where the site placement rumor mill is concerned, at least one thing is true – our requests are most definitely considered. I asked for a cool climate, and they gave me the Cool Capital!

Following the morning sorting ceremony (indeed, I may have involved myself in a deep discussion later that day as to which four provinces coincided with the four Hogwarts houses), we were ripped from our comfortable training site communities and shuffled into new groups for a third time since starting Pre-Service Training. Guizhou Province would remain together for the remainder of the day, learning more about the province, speaking with currently-serving Guizhou volunteers, and attending other sessions as well. That evening, celebrations ensued – there was laughing, dancing and shouting, but also hesitance, reluctance and morose. In my case, I would be unexpectedly shoved to the opposite pole of China from a new, but forever friend who will be serving in Lanzhou, Gansu. There wasn’t much time for any kind of emotion, however, in anticipation of our site visits, which nearly all of us would depart for that same weekend. As the first to depart, I would be on my train in just 24 hours. The second great whirlwind of Peace Corps is upon me!

CUE: Dramatic concluding paragraph.
Part 2 from “Small China” – unfinished, unpublished, handwritten scrawl.

Guizhou Province
It’s dark now. The stunning view I enjoyed throughout the day has transitioned to pitch black night. I’m surrounded by the chatter of Chinese travelers – I can only guess at pieces of their conversations, and I wonder whether I’ll one day be able to effortlessly understand these exchanges. My bunk mates, conversely, are collectively fast asleep or reading silently. When I boarded the train twelve hours ago, they rose to a shouting match with my host mom over my luggage arrangements. Eleven hours ago, I had a civil, pleasant, productive conversation with them, wherein I learned that they live and teach in my future city, Liupanshui. Three hours ago, I, my travel mate, Taylor, and three of the teachers enjoyed a thorough conversation in virtually unbroken Chinese. As luck would have it, they are well-acquainted with my college’s Wai Ban (foreign affairs director), named “Tiger,” and within moments of this discovery, I'd find a hot cell phone in my hand with Tiger on the other line. We discussed our plans for meeting and expressed our mutual excitement. At present, I have tentative plans to play badminton, hike, and drink beer with my new teacher friends. How we ended up traveling on the same day, at the same time, on the same train, in the same bunk of the same car is vastly beyond my understanding. Maybe China isn’t so big after all.

Guizhou bound with Taylor
Guizhou Province
As pointed out by our Chinese teacher:
Harry Potter and Ron Weasley
Our Chinese teacher Dong Ping Ping conducting
an effective and informative lesson on
using Chinese in emergency situations.

Host mom Liu Jiang in the mushroom fields

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