September 12, 2014

There Will Be Tears

Swearing in - Official Peace Corps Volunteer! Picture with PC China Country Director Mikel Herrington
How is it I’ve been at site for two weeks? It’s almost like a “boy who cried wolf” scenario, having been uprooted four times in the past three months – unbelievable. It’s like I’m reluctant to get too comfortable in my new digs, in case I’m relocated again. But the fact is, though it doesn’t feel like it yet, I’m home.

Another week in the hotel with the 80-strong China 20’s group went just as expected. A heap of information with a hefty dose of chaos and a sprinkle of bitter-sweet. Chinese classes wrapped up the week before (I scored Intermediate-Low on the spoken exam, plenty room for improvement), so the remaining sessions would build up to our first steps to take at site. In other words, hours of discussing how to settle in, make contact with our staff and colleagues, stay healthy, etc. It won’t come as a surprise that we were all grateful to experience this as a group, and reflexively decompress as a group by way of hotel room beer consumption, too-frequent trips to Starbucks across the street, and impromptu (but awesome) volleyball matches and hookah sessions.

Training Site "Starting Varsity" Language Class 

Hitting up another Cat Cafe.

But, as is Peace Corps custom, just as I began to get used to the ongoing company of my fellow volunteers, I was once again ripped away from familiarity. I found out that Wednesday that I would be departing for site Friday afternoon – among the earliest departures of the group. The wound went a little deeper upon learning a handful of good friends would be departing Saturday morning instead, leaving them another night of camaraderie and shenanigans in the wake of my absence.

Friday morning arrived too soon. We began with the swearing in, which, though it was more informal than expected, proved to be a very pivotal, emotional experience. As the culmination of a grueling summer of training, swearing my allegiance to the Peace Corps mission and cementing my title as an official Peace Corps Volunteer was an amazing experience – for as long as I live, I’ll never forget how I felt in that moment, facing the blunt but exciting reality of the significance of my decision to be here, and the resulting impact I may be able to have in the lives of so many people.

After the swearing in came the official ceremony, featuring inspiring and encouraging words from host country nationals, school representatives, Peace Corps staff, and finally, an outstanding song & dance by a few PCVs and a speech in Chinese from two of our Mandarin-fluent volunteers. In traditional Chinese custom, a ridiculously lavish meal would follow – there was even cake, and it almost tasted like the real thing.

Swearing-in with my Austin homie Steph.

After the meal, I had only about an hour to pack and say goodbye to everyone. First in line were two of my Chinese language teachers who surprise-crashed the party. They were a little shocked, but very touched, to see me well up when I gave them hugs and said goodbye. Kevin, my training sitemate and language classmate, hotel roommate, and future Guizhou Province-mate would be leaving on the same train that afternoon. So, the two of us left the lunch in the first wave and retired to our hotel room, packing in silence aside from the occasional sniffle neither of us could keep back. One by one, our friends began to convene in our room. There wasn’t much anyone could say… just a lot of fidgeting, lip-biting, and slow, silent head-shaking while we enjoyed each others’ company for the last time in a long time. The tears were unyielding, but I was smiling in spite of them. As upset as I was to part ways with everyone, I was overwhelmed with joy for how meaningful these friendships had become to me in such a short amount of time.
Kevin "Klynch" Lynch

When the time came, I waited in the lobby for the shortest half-hour of my life. Each year, every school sends a representative to collect the volunteers and help them move, and my Waiban assistant, Roy, had come to fetch me from Liupanshui – I’m trying not to resent him for it. Pulling away from the hotel (with my two besties chasing the car – this is why I love these people), I swallowed hard and forced myself to face forward. I realized I wasn’t leaving anything behind; I was going toward something. And not just any old something… I was headed for my assignment. The reason I came here in the first place. Pre-Service Training is so long that it’s easy to get nearsighted and comfortable. Sure, we spend our days preparing for service, but up until the moment I actually left for site, it didn’t seem real. Then, it got really real, really fast.

I was afforded somewhat of a slow release in that Kevin and I shared a cabin on the train ride to Guizhou. The two of us, along with our school supervisors, spent the initial hours of the evening on our 16-hour train ride chatting and practicing Chinese. We picked up some new words and tricks, ate dinner together, and finally went to bed after nightfall. After some restless sleep, I awoke to watch the sun rise over Liupanshui’s outer mountains. My sense of purpose restored, my sadness and reluctance transformed into excitement and eagerness to begin teaching.

My Chengdu host mom seeing me off.
Once you get the badge of being an official volunteer, Peace Corps wastes no time in getting the ball rolling; in my case, I was left to my own devices at site after about 20 hours. That said, anyone with a mouth told me that things would change drastically at site. They weren’t kidding. In the 12 days I’ve been at site, I have taught a total of four classes. That’s 8 hours total. Bit of an adjustment from the 8am-5pm, 6 days a week schedule I was on at Pre-Service Training in Chengdu. And adjust I have, more or less. It’s felt like too much downtime at times, but I can’t say I’ve hated sleeping in most days and finally getting a chance to catch my breath after PST.

Wetlands Park near my apartment on the Liupanshui Normal University campus.
Because I opened my big mouth about being some kind of super athlete (at least, that’s what they heard) to my foreign affairs staff during my prior site visit, the health and fitness department caught wind and now they all want a piece. I played basketball with them twice during the first week – the first time wasn’t so pretty; the second? Better. Having not played a proper game in years, I wasn’t so optimistic. The other Chinese players (students and teachers alike) play almost every day, and they’re outstanding. I’m sure it came as a shock to them that the 6’3 American could barely hold his own. It’s a work in progress.

What I did find from playing – aside from a heat stroke and lack of oxygen up here at 6,000 feet – was friendship. Until then, I was unsure how to approach friendship with host country nationals (HCNs), but through a vehicle like sports, they can just fall into place. That’s how I met Peng Jie, a fellow newcomer to Liupanshui from Northern China who teaches with the health and fitness department. He was eager to get to know me, and I him, so we exchanged numbers and have had a few opportunities to socialize. His English level is a notch above my Chinese level, which isn’t saying much… needless to say, we learn a lot from each other.

Peng Jie’s superior, the most tenured of the health faculty from what I understand, is 45 years old, fit, and as any proper PE teacher should be – full of shit. He’s got a good balance of bullying and compassion. On my first outing with the P.E. crew, we all went to KTV (karaoke) and he reminded me roughly ten times how appreciated I was and how much he looked forward to our friendship. He has a good relationship with his students; the group of them frequent the restaurants outside my apartment and I get regular invites to join in. Naturally, I’m force-fed food and beer until the only logical out is to make up an excuse to leave. It’s a good problem to have.

Classes began nearly two weeks ago – I kicked off with two junior-level Advanced Listening classes right off the bat. The students were dazzled by my presence… the only real challenge was getting them to quit taking pictures of me during class and to stop gushing about my height. My freshmen started a week later, and were surprisingly much more responsive. To my understanding, many of them have moved to Liupanshui from very small towns or even villages, and most of them have never had the opportunity to meet a Westerner, let alone have one as a teacher. Thus, they hung on to every word I said and cooperated extremely well. Their English level, on the other hand, was much lower than I anticipated, but I’ll look forward to seeing their leaps and bounds throughout the semester and year.

Monday, September 8 was Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival (or Moon Day), which occurs on the night of the full moon between September and October each year. It represents oneness and togetherness, especially with family. On Mid-Autumn Festival and the days surrounding it, Chinese people gorge on Moon Cake, which is a small, round pastry filled with some kind of filling depending on the region. Liupanshui specializes in sweet and salty dried pork – somewhat of a different experience from the sweet cakes people enjoy elsewhere.

For my first moon day, my LPS host family took me out to lunch, then on a drive through the countryside. On perilous roads we drove through old villages with people relaxing outside their homes or arranging la jiao peppers on the concrete to dry. We encountered modest, but gorgeous waterfalls sending water careening through Guizhou’s lush hills. For a time, we followed a large river and saw gigantic, mysterious caves begging to be explored. After a few hours of driving, we returned to town to enjoy dinner with my host mom’s parents.

Dinner was a delight as always – it doesn’t get much better than Chinese home cooking. Throughout the meal, my host grandpa kept refilling my baijiu glass and cheersing me almost immediately every time, endlessly praising myself and the American people. Many older Chinese folks feel very appreciative and compassionate toward Americans to this day because of our aid to China during World War II. It’s a topic I’m not well-versed on, but one I hear about on a regular basis. That, along with the prices of every make and model of car sold in America. Time to do my homework.

Host family at Eagle Mountain
At the close of Moon Day, my host dad, Wolf, asked me, for a second time, if I could find to time to visit his art class. I hadn’t said no before, but I was hoping for some time to settle in. Given the degree of downtime I’ve had so far (and considering how I’ve spent most of it), I couldn’t, in good conscience, put it off any longer. We agreed on a lecture for Wednesday: “Survey of Art Studies in American Universities”. Sounds legit, right?

Liupanshui Backcountry
In reality, due in part to my laziness but also to my inability to find my classmates’ student work readily accessible and lack of prep time, it turned into a slideshow of Colton’s crappy artwork spread across his 4 years at MSU. So, I stepped into the classroom, holding my breath and reassuring myself that, at the very least, it would be quick and dirty and only for my host dad’s one painting class… no sweat. But as the student head count neared 50 with standing room only, and more than 5 teachers filed in, I wasn’t feeling as sure of myself. My host dad then informed me that word had gotten out – as it always does in China – about my little talk, and several teachers had rerouted their lesson plans for the afternoon. So no pressure.

Languo Hot Pot - LPS Specialty
The art students filed in and ooh’d and aah’d upon catching a glimpse of me, taking out their phones and snapping pictures. By now, I’ve just learned to throw up a piece sign and grin and bear it; once they realize I’ve caught on, they’re not so brave the second time around. Plus, it’s priceless seeing their reactions when they review the photo and see me looking them dead in the face. My host dad gave me a brief introduction and after, I stood and said “Nimen hao” (hello everyone) to a resounding “WOWWWW” from the entire class. “Dui bu qi, wo shuo hanyu bu tai hao,” (I’m sorry, I don’t speak Chinese very well) I followed, to which they answered “No no no!” or “It’s good it’s good!!” I then gave my usual shpeal about my hometown, family, and process of getting here, all in Chinese, and carried on into the lecture. My first slide was rough, as I wasn’t sure how to dive in. “These are my first portraits,” I said, not sure how to proceed. So I flipped to the next slide.

“Wait! Explain them please – I’ll translate,” said my host dad. And with that, we were off… analyzing my cripplingly novice freshman year artwork to my standout junior, competition-winning pieces (to some VERY unexpected applause from the students), and rounding off with my lethargic senior thesis and professional work. The lecture spanned two hours… though I’d only brought enough coffee for 30 minutes. Following the lecture, I shook hands with several teachers and, naturally, posed with students for at least 20 pictures, before accompanying Wolf and his class up to the painting and drawing studio on the sixth floor of an adjacent building.

Art lecture.
I walked around while his students worked on a detailed still life of a circuit board – I secretly hated my host dad for a moment while I watched them… those projects were the bane of my existence. But then it occurred to me how here, as opposite from Montana State as I could possibly be, the students were doing the same damn work. Even more – their work was indistinguishable from that of mine or my classmates’ back in the day. Perspective strikes again. I had only been in the class for a few minutes when I saw a shiny black piano tucked away in the corner. “Is this also a music classroom?” I asked Wolf, my words dripping with ulterior motives while I motioned to the piano.
The following performance.

“Yes,” he said. “We share with the music class and have to rearrange each day. Would you like to play something?” He shouldn’t have asked. We pulled out the piano and I sat down, cracked my knuckles, and rattled off my ultimate crowd pleaser, Nuvole Bianche by Ludovico Einaudi while 5 or more phones recorded and/or snapped more pictures. If you haven’t heard the song, look it up – and have a tissue on hand. I finished playing six minutes later to more applause. “My heart!” shouted Mr. Wolf, shaking his head slowly. I brought out Canon in D and decided after to call it quits. My host dad informed on my way out that we were going to dinner to celebrate Chinese Teachers’ Day, and that I should be ready in an hour. “Hao de!”

Celebrate we did. An hour later, we were zooming through Liupanshui’s streets to a restaurant in the city, picking up some of the other art faculty along the way. Once we arrived and made our way to the best seats in the house, I was introduced to my dining mates: the art department head, the school of art dean, and the head of another school department. At this point, I very much regretted changing into a T-shirt after class. Once the food was ordered, we began to drink.

“Do you have class tomorrow?” my host dad asked.

“Nope!”  Wrong answer.

Teachers' Day Dinner
“Then today, we drink!” The three hours in the restaurant passed in a blink, going by just as easy as the two bottles of baijiu went down between five people. But so much was accomplished… I was inducted as an unofficial faculty member into the art department (“You’re in the wrong classroom! Why are you teaching English?!” they kept saying), I made fishing/camping/beer drinking plans for this fall, the dean of the school of art is taking me to his home village in Eastern Guizhou, and the pack of us are driving to Bijie to visit Kevin in the near future. That’s China… Baijiu = Business.

Following the massacre, we walked, in as straight of lines as possible, to Wolf’s business partner’s office, where he prepared authentic Chinese tea for all of us. It’s quite a process – one which I’m excited to learn on a day when I’m not struggling to stay upright. So, we carried on with tea and there were talks of KTV, though thankfully, they never panned out. After getting a cab home and crashing immediately, I awoke the next day paying dearly for my sins, but with fond memories of my first Teachers’ Day in China.

A food sick chased after me that day as well, so I laid low and kept close to the bathroom. These things are inevitable; we have only the ability to control symptoms while our bodies adjust. The baijiu, obviously, didn’t help matters. Peng Jie, intent on discovering why I couldn’t play basketball or do anything that day, insisted that if I didn’t see improvement by the next day, he was taking me to the hospital. I tried to explain that I had Western doctors in Chengdu (who would send my sorry ass home if they found out I’d gone behind them to receive Chinese medical care), but he retaliated with something along the lines of “I am your brother and I will take care of you! You don’t need doctors in Chengdu, you will go to the hospital and I will take you.” Such a stand-up dude. Now that he’s paid for at least 5 of my meals and brought me enough baijiu to bring down a bull elephant, I invited him to an American breakfast this weekend – the only thing I can cook with confidence. In China, though… we’ll see how that shapes up. French toast and breakfast potatoes might not taste quite the same given my limited ingredients and supplies.
Wolf doing tea right.

I am settled, and I am comfortable. There were tears, and they were important, but Liupanshui is home. Seeing dishes pile up and gazing across my living room at clumps of dirt on my floor is an unwelcome reality check, but there’s also something inherently badass about taking the bus for $0.15 to the vegetable market to haggle with local vendors to get my two gigantic eggplant from $1.00 down to $0.80. Also, I can’t leave out the drinking instant coffee and eating peanut butter/banana toast in my underwear while conducting my daily morning facebook creep session. Or pooping with the bathroom door open. Yeah, I missed living alone.

Having that long-lost alone time is great, but the people here are what keep my head above water. My sitemate, Jennifer, is a China 19 Volunteer, a phenomenal cook, and an amazing person who I genuinely look forward to spending time with. My host family will continue to be my rock in LPS, and I see our friendship continuing far beyond my service in China. My waiban staff and counterpart, Chelsea, are all endlessly helpful, my students are hard-working and kind, and with an organic friendship in rapid development, I’m getting my first taste of how it feels to assimilate and really feel a part of such a different culture. It will no doubt be an ongoing trial throughout my service, but it’s off to a great start.

For any readers looking me to send me something sweet (instant coffee is totally cool, but sweet words of affection are also welcome) - here's my mailing address. Be sure to print off and include the Chinese characters to ensure a more reliable, speedy delivery!

Colton Davies / LiuHaoTeng
Foreign Affairs Office
Liupanshui Normal University
No.19 Minghu Road
Liupanshui, Guizhou Province, China 553004