April 24, 2015

Let's Talk About Trains

Photo by Kevin Lynch
_ foreword _

There are good days and bad days abroad; that’s neither China- nor Peace Corps-specific. Once the reality of actually living in a foreign environment sets in and the honeymoon wears off, certain factors or challenges can really affect the way in which we digest the culture of our host country. It’s from a backless foldout seat on a particularly lurchy train ride that I compose today’s entry with a real pen on real paper, much to the delight of every Chinese person within a 5-meter radius from where I now sit, and today... today is a bad day.

Thankfully, the “for-my-eyes-only” brand of cursive I employ for public displays of writing is as alien to them as 99% of Chinese characters are to me – so this entry will remain just between you and me. Today’s train ride could’ve been like any other, but sadly I find the patches of raised, inflamed, and blistered skin on my torso (which, if I didn’t know any better, had in the past 24 hours fallen victim to 47 bee stings all at once) difficult to ignore. Incidentally, the smattering of itching, stinging, oozing rashes wrapping around my ribcage have given rise to a sort of elevated awareness of exactly what it means to be aboard a train in China, an experience which I’m delighted to share with you today. And, as they say (or do they?) through trials of great suffering emerge great artwork. A timely case of the shingles seems appropriate, and I'm weathering it in one of my least-favorite settings in China, no less… so let’s see if I can deliver.

-  -  -

I think we, the foreigners, all learn a lot on China trains… a lot about this country, and a lot about ourselves. Kind of like a multi-day hiking trip where you’re like, “I had no idea so many interesting flowers existed on the other side of that mountain!” and “I really feel of stronger body and mind after that experience” but also “I never want to relive any part of that unless it’s absolutely goddamn necessary to keep the Earth spinning.”

Bearing that in mind, let’s start from the beginning: The station. Imagine, for a moment, the most crowded place you’ve ever been. Double the number of people. Now, the 5 foot tall elderly woman with seven teeth standing next to you in line for tickets is hawking a giant loogie, the four grown men in front of you keep saying “foreigner” in audible Chinese, then looking back and giggling, and the pack of teenagers in an adjacent line are borderline shouting “HELLO!” repeatedly while snapping cell phone pictures of you to post on social media.

Shaky shot of the view approaching the
train station in Guiyang, Guizhou.
You have no escape, so you grin and bear it (or ham it up – your choice) for 20-40 minutes in line. You reach the front, where the ticket seller on the other side of the glass – who definitely hates her job and who acts as though she’s been on the clock for 17 hours – barks at you in Chinese through a crackly speaker… this obstacle, you didn’t cover in language classes. Luckily (this time) you catch enough key words to communicate with the minimum efficiency needed to get by. Meanwhile, the formerly 2nd, 3rd, and 4th people in line have become the 1.1st, 1.2nd, and 1.3rd people in line, as they’re now flanking you on all sides. One man is grinning from ear to ear, simultaneously pleased with and entertained by your pathetic attempts at speaking Chinese. Another woman in heels, a black tutu-style miniskirt, and a puffy down jacket with lace has her elbow lodged into your hip and her face is fixed in a scowl. To show your discomfort, you take a half step to the side and twist slightly away from her elbow. She immediately moves to occupy the 6 inches you just gave her, and now pushes a bit harder with said elbow. Well played, well played.

At last you emerge, ticket in hand, fumbling with a wad of change and receipts, to make way for the departure gate. The security guards are largely disinterested in you, although you notice one nod to her friend and say (in Chinese), “Hey, try out your English!” followed by the usual snickers. The first guard glances at your passport, stamps your ticket, and thrusts the pair back at you. You politely say “xie xie” (thank you) but he ignores you and reaches for the next passenger’s documents.

You enter security, throw all of your belongings onto a conveyor belt, and step onto a platform to get wanded by a guard. She moves you along and you clamber to the other side of the belt to scoop up your things before they roll off the ramp and onto the ground. Hard part’s over.

This is what happens when there are weather delays for 3 hours.
Once in the station, you hear echoes of the prerecorded voice announcing departures, arrivals, and delays in perfect Mandarin Chinese… something you don’t get to hear very often in your dialect-heavy region, and something which you understand quite easily. “Thank God,” you think, “I haven’t completely forgotten this language.” You learn the location of your departure gate, your pride for successful language acquisition swelling, and set off. The station continues to swarm with people, though there’s enough space now to feel your “bubble” recovering. You meander through the crowd to find a seat near your gate, but all of the seats are taken. Not entirely by people, but also by bags.

This phenomenon of bags in chairs, despite 100+ people standing around and shifting in discomfort, infuriated you at first. However, you’ve seen enough spitting, cigarette ashing, and children defecating to know it’s probably for the best. This is also a major factor as to why the Chinese never sit on the ground – EVER – and also why you’ve became a pro at the “China Squat” when your standing muscles need a break. Still, you wonder why some folks can’t simply hold their bags to free up a seat, or make an exception just this once to help a stranger with a 50 pound backpack… but, you think with a sigh, that’s just not the way things work around here.

The China Squat in action.
The intercom interrupts your thoughts to announce that your train is boarding, and suddenly, it’s like someone yelled “FIRE!” In a flash, everyone – with luggage, babies, and giant bags of potatoes in tow – is bolting for the gate. You’re swept into the fray and feel like you’re back in the mosh at Warped Tour 2007. You try to be cordial, but each time you try to give someone space or hesitate for even a moment, seven people cut in front of you. This becomes an even heavier moral dilemma when the AARP-aged crowd seem to be the most aggressive. Finally reaching the front, you box-out someone’s grandpa and shoulder past a family of four to hand your ticket to the guard. She punches out a corner and you pop from the throng like a champagne cork.

You take five swift, powerful strides and nearly trample the person in front of you. It’s one of the 70-year-olds… you still feel the dull ache in your hip from where she elbowed you about 2.5 minutes ago. She’s not walking slow, but her pace could hardly be considered brisk. In fact, despite the chaos from before, nobody seems to be in a hurry anymore, and you’re left stumped as you shift gears to a comfortably-quick pace and easily overtake more than half the crowd who so ruthlessly shoved their way to the front before.

You’re above the tracks now, breezing over a sky walk, then down a flight of stairs, following signs for your train and car number. You find your car and hop on. If you’re putting in a lot of miles and thus have secured yourself a sleeper, you’re in luck. Most folks don’t have time to notice you as you speed down the aisle past bunks stacked 3-high. You find your bunk number, toss your luggage in the overhead bin, hold your breath, and look at your ticket to double-check your bed assignment. Will it be 下铺 lower, 中铺 middle, or 上铺 upper bed?

Personal preference will dictate each individual’s attitude toward the pros and cons of each bed, but in a nutshell:
  The 上铺 upper bed affords you the most privacy, although too much, in my opinion. For anyone over 6 feet tall, the 1-meter of clearance, after struggling up the 7-foot tiny ladder, isn’t exactly comfortable. And for someone who lets his water consumption go haywire during train travel, getting up to pee more than once at night isn’t worth climbing Everest to get back to bed.
  The 中铺 middle bunk is considered by most to be the best of the three. It offers more clearance than the top bunk (You can actually sit up? Weird.) and it’s far easier to get in an out of… no tiny ladders required. It’s the happy medium that many opt for when the choice is available.
• The 下铺 bottom bed is where my allegiance lies. Granted, there’s a massive downside to the lowest bunk in that, during daylight hours, it’s treated like a park bench. So, any Western notions of “my money, my bed” need to be left on the train platform where they belong. In the event that you’ve landed a 下铺, it’s not unusual to arrive at your bed to find 1-3 Chinese people already sitting on it. Maybe one is leaning all the way back to the wall and one may even have her feet up (shoes off, of course). If it’s your first time, you might gasp in horror at the sheer rudeness of the act… but really, it’s just business as usual. And it’s for this reason that most foreigners avoid the 下铺 at all costs, but I happen to be the kind of guy who likes to swing his legs out of bed and hit solid ground. Plus, the 下铺 has the most clearance and makes for the most comfortable writing/reading/phone-playing, even if you’re sharing that space with other people.

Panoramic of a sleeper car.

On the other hand, for shorter distances (or very unlucky long distances at peak travel times during the year), you’ll enjoy the many luxuries of a “hard seat.” Rewind to the cork-from-the-champagne-bottle moment. Now, you step on the train and turn the corner to see 100+ people crammed into a single train car. Because the seats are bench-style and face one another, half of the train can (and does) see you immediately. That number soon climbs to 3/4 of the train, after they tell their friends to have a look. So you smile, look ahead, and swim to your seat. Swim, you say? Yes… swim… because with a cluster of people and baggage blocking the center aisle coupled with the heat and humidity resulting from too many people in too small of a space, it just wouldn’t do to use any other verb.

You roll the dice and look at your number. What is it this time – window, aisle, or center seat? Always, always, pray for the window. It provides a view, VIP access to the tiny table between the two facing rows, and your single hope for a nap during the ride. The other options, you say? The middle isn’t terrible, if you don’t value having a single inch of personal space. And the aisle, well… if there’s any human (besides Chinese humans, obviously, who appear to be immune) who can peacefully succumb to being routinely bumped by passerby, having their feet run over by the snack cart, and the occasional ass-to-face encounters from standing-only ticket holders, well, I applaud you. You have won China.

Travelers pass the time by chit-chatting, napping (See Fig. B), munching on sunflower seeds, staring blankly out the window (or intently and relentlessly at the foreigner - See Fig. A), but the vast majority watch Chinese television or movies on their smart phones. Smoking is allowed, but only at the front and back of each car. This works well if you’re seated in the middle; not so well if you’re anywhere else. The restrooms, like most public restrooms in China, are squat toilets only, and the cleanliness of said restrooms is directly related to how long the train has been in motion. Needless to say, it’s never pretty to board a train that started in Beijing. There are no open container laws anywhere in China, so drinking on trains is normal. In each car (seats or sleepers) there is, on average, one group of young, rowdy Chinese people, usually men, playing drinking games. Luck of the draw dictates whether a salesman is on board your car, peddling things like milk-flavored pro-health lozenges, fingernail clippers, and light-up spinning tops for kids. They’re performers above all-else, and typically elicit a lot of laughs from anyone paying enough attention.

My bad if I incorrectly implied that
only the Chinese like to drink on trains.
Photo by Kevin Lynch
Figure B. Lucky passenger
takes advantage of an open
seat in a creative way.
Figure A. Scowling at foreigners is an
excellent way to pass the time.

By now, you’re well aware that trains are in no way a means of luxury travel. But, if you've known me long enough to know my middle name, you know I love a good bargain, so here's why trains are awesome: To travel 3 hours from my city, Liupanshui, to Guiyang (the Guizhou provincial capital), the cost is 40. That’s the equivalent of traveling from Chinook to Cut Bank, from Missoula to Great Falls, from Austin to Houston, or any other 150-mile trip, for LESS THAN SEVEN DOLLARS, with steady access to a restroom, drinking water, and snacks (or booze, if you fancy). My trips to Chengdu are 14 hours, 430 miles, with all the same luxuries plus the option to lay down and sleep for LESS THAN 30 DOLLARS. And let’s talk about the oh-so-new and oh-so-sexy bullet trains for a hot minute… I can (and will, one day) take a bullet train from Guiyang to Guangzhou (Hong Kong), that’s 650 miles, in 4 hours, for a whopping 40 DOLLARS. That’s the same distance from Bozeman to Seattle, Dallas to Albuquerque, Phoenix to Salt Lake City, or Sydney MT to Libby MT (the Hiline in its entirety)… in only 4 hours, for $40.00, in a nice, new train with clean bathrooms, airplane-style seats, and all the snacks you can imagine. Can you?
From the inside, you wouldn't know
the difference from an airplane. Reclining
seats and armrests, nice bathrooms, the works.

Booshy booshy bullet train.
Relax. I’m wrapping it up now. What I’m saying is this: On the surface, China’s public transit is less than appetizing most of the time, but this is a country that has it figured out. They come from poverty – which still very much exists – so the vast majority of this incredibly inflated population has no car, and certainly not the means to pay $50 for a 3-hour train ride to visit family or to commute for work. So, there exists a very clever, well-established, and affordable system to cater to the peoples’ needs. Trains go virtually everywhere and at all times of day. Some of the $5 rides might reek like piss, shit, and cigarettes, but those with a few more coins jingling in their pockets have the liberty of opting for the same ride for double the price and twice the comfort.

Regardless, in contrast to America, it seems that having a car in China is just more trouble than it’s worth, because the public transportation is excellent. Chinese people are both resilient and appreciative of the means they do have, which is why cramming into full seats, inhaling second-hand cigarette smoke, or bumping elbows from time to time is of little concern. It’s easy to take what we have for granted (like the ability to hop in our cars and drive wherever without spending an arm and a leg). That said, America's public transportation, on the whole, is complete crap. Although, unlike China, it’s rare to see so much actual crap on our public transit. Also, never ask me to explain why the crowd dynamics of China are the way they are… that conversation is a black pit of despair from whence there is no return.

I just caught a Chinese guy close to my age taking a picture of me when he thought I wasn't looking. It's great when they forget to turn the flash off. I looked up at him, my eyebrows raised. He said "Fuck!" and put his phone down. Why he chose to swear in English instead of apologizing in Chinese, I'll never truly know. In this moment, I just don't have the fight in me to ask. I can't stop squirming and jumping from the searing, sudden pains on my chest; this ailment is zapping all my willpower, curiosity, and patience. Today... today is a bad day. But tomorrow will be better.

PS: It's been almost a week since the train ride, and the shingles are healing on schedule :)

The chubbiest cheeks I've
ever seen on a train...
or ever in my life.
A rare exposé of senior citizens
intentionally frustrating me. These two
photos were taken at the same time
at a bus stop. Top image: How many
people were at the stop. Bottom image:
How close this Granny decided
to stand in front of me.
Liupanshui Station and a
partial view of the
less-sexy, slower, and
poorly-named "Fast Train"
we usually take to get around.

April 10, 2015

Fast Foreword: Service.

I remember the recruiter’s words clear as day, sitting in her cubicle dotted with magazine clippings and pictures, the relative coldness of the University of Texas cookie-cutter office building clashing with everything I’d ever imagined Peace Corps to be. Jayna, on the other hand, was everything Peace Corps. Her patterned skirt and handmade wooden bracelets were obviously overseas artifacts, and her short, semi-spiked hair unabashedly screamed, “I’m probably gay.” Those weren’t the words that resounded most – although, to be fair, I did spot her a few weeks later at an LGBT event, so, color me validated. The words she said, however, that really struck me were, “Those two years will fly by.

It’s with that conversation in mind that I find myself 10 months into my Peace Corps experience, 6 weeks into my second semester as a university English teacher, and most importantly and apologetically, ending my 8 month writing drought.

I get to deal with these monstrosities (a.k.a. Orb Weavers)
on a near-daily basis. #mypeacecorpsstruggle
Blog laziness is like being in a bad relationship. At first, you know what you’re doing isn’t right, but for whatever twisted reason, it feels kind of good to be bad. So the first few weeks go by… you say, “I’ll blog about that later,” or “this would make a GREAT story when I sit down to write tomorrow,” but before you know it, tomorrow turns into next week and next week turns into three months. By that point, you’ve waded waist-deep into the muck, and you’ve decided it’s just easier to stay here in the comfortable and familiar instead of putting forth all that effort to pull yourself out. This post, though, is my first heave. And on that note, I want to apologize. You’ve watched me sink deeper and deeper into this bad relationship. You gave me advice. You told me I’m so much better than this. And now I’m getting out of it. Woo!

Like any end to an era, this will be a process. Chronology is out of the question, and, if I may speak frankly, anyone and everyone who decides to write a detailed autobiography later in life is probably full of shit. I can’t remember what I had for dinner last night – and I’m staring at the crusty bowl right in front of me. My point is, this won’t read like a diary, with neatly scrawled dates at the top of each entry and tight cursive script detailing every agonizing part of every ordinary day, pleading that some day, someone will somehow find my monotony interesting. The truth is, I live here now. I eat, breathe, sleep, poop, pee, laugh, cry, walk, talk, and dance like an idiot HERE. In this bizarre country, this wacky town, where I will be spending two years of my adult life. So really, what use is a chronology? Thus, what I plan to provide for you – and for me, 60 years from now with full-blown dementia – are essays. That’s right, essays… with central themes and if you’re lucky, maybe even a life lesson or two. Today’s essay isn’t an essay in essence, but rather: The Foreword.

My really ugly campus on a clear day.
“A Foreword?” you’re probably asking. “Aren’t those at the beginning of books?” Shut up. This is my book, my rules. And for those suckers already invested in what I’ve written so far about this experience, I have a confession to make: Almost everything up until this point was about PST – Pre-Service Training, leading up to my first couple weeks of classes. That was my honeymoon phase. I enjoyed it while it lasted, and I hope you did too. We both deserve at least that much. Now, I’d like to move on to what Peace Corps is actually all about. Disclosure: Some or all of this may sound defensive, but that’s only because it kind of is.

“Colton, are you too busy to keep up on your blog?” Oh, how I wish I had the short answer to that question. It brings me to my first overarching and carefully planned point for this post:  Peace Corps is exhausting. “But you were just telling me on Skype that you only taught 8 hours last semester, and that you only planned two lessons per week. Right?” Seriously though, shut up about it. So maybe I’m only “on the clock” something like 20-25 hours per week, but as a Peace Corps Volunteer and unofficial ambassador from the United States, volunteers are actually always on the clock. “So, Colton, just smile and be happy! And blog about it!” Ha. I’ll put this in as simple of terms as possible: Every time I step outside my apartment, I’m at work. Smiling, waving, greeting students and strangers alike, hearing cell phone cameras snapping away from all unflattering angles and diffusing shouts of “Look at the foreigner!!” and “SO TALL!!” with politeness through gritted teeth, all while forcing my brain into overdrive as it attempts to digest the unsolvable labyrinth we call Chinese Language.

I’ll return home, heave a gargantuan sigh, put away my groceries, and look at my computer. Time to lesson plan, record grades, answer Peace Corps emails, cook dinner etc. etc.  Maybe 8:00 pm rolls around and I’m all set for tomorrow, so what sounds good? Straightening up and using the last fragments of my remaining mental faculties to compose a blog? Or, watching 3 episodes of Pretty Little Liars and going to bed? At this point, anything even resembling “work” is out of the question. And so the pattern begins (along with my horrifying, embarrassing affinity for bad television).

Anyway, I’m done making excuses. Because I do find blog writing fulfilling, and I value the impact this has not only on you and me, but on Peace Corps and China in general. So this is me, telling you, I’m getting myself out of this bad relationship. I’m going to do better and have more respect for both of us. Okay?

My super-appreciative face after
opening my brother's care package.
In retrospect, most of my earlier posts are romantic and dazzling, almost sickening in their sweetness. Does it sound like I have a bitter taste in my mouth? Only slightly. Because while I still have those days of awe, where I fall asleep grinning ear-to-ear, engulfed in the warmth and satisfaction of accomplishment and oneness with the universe, there are also days where my head hits my pillow filled with confusion, resentment, and loneliness. These are the days when I know why volunteers throw their hands up and hop the next plane home, and it’s in those moments I fear to my core that I’ll be next.

To those in China, I just heard your collective gasp. To those in America, I just felt a wisp of wind as you sat up straighter to read on. To both of you – settle down. I’m not going anywhere. Good days and bad days are part of life, and I have far too much Davies stubbornness to quit something like this halfway through. I’m also just masochistic enough to believe that my hardest days in China are the best days for real, live, grown-up Colton down the road. It reminds me of those “PAIN IS WEAKNESS LEAVING THE BODY” t-shirts everyone wore in high school. Then I remember high school sports, and feel simultaneously queasy and comforted. China is so much easier than high school sports.

I sense this Foreword moving backward. So let’s move on… general to specific. So what is Peace Corps service? Can it be adequately summed up in a single page of a word document? I’m damn well going to try.

Service is truly multifaceted. Maybe that seems obvious, but it wasn’t to me. My pre-China view of service was very straightforward and romantic: You go to a country, plop down in some random community, and have one very specific task to carry out before you leave two years down the road. Wrong. The task – in my case, TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) – is more of a primary objective. It comes coupled with several other aspects, namely the secondary project and ancillary Peace Corps duties.

The secondary project, to my knowledge, exists in most or all Peace Corps posts around the world. It is exactly what it sounds like, and provides volunteers an opportunity to enact positive change in their communities in an area they are interested in and/or knowledgeable or passionate about. Community needs are also a vital consideration. I’m in the midst of planning my project now, working with a motivated student to start an organization to educate and inspire students and community members about littering, with broader goals of tackling pollution and addressing other environmental concerns within the community. It’s very ambitious, but I’m hopeful. One of the main goals of the secondary project is to create something sustainable, to breathe life into something that will live on long after we leave. My site, however, is notorious for student apathy, so I have my work cut out for me.
My stellar freshmen giving me gifts for Christmas :)

Another major facet is involvement within Peace Corps. I should have expected this, looking at my tendency to bite off more than I could chew in both high school and college, but upon learning about the various committees and organizations within the Peace Corps China community, I couldn’t resist. I’m currently serving as a Volunteers Supporting Volunteers (VSV) member, and I’m also involved with Peace Out, a brand new LGBT organization started by my very own cohort of China-20 volunteers. There is also a professional/work support organization, an art collective, and a gender & women’s empowerment group, all of whom work hard to involve and engage volunteers on a regular basis.

Being plugged in to other volunteers via social media and these organizations is a major defining factor for some, myself included. In a country where I often feel like an alien, staying connected to friends and peers within Peace Corps is very helpful in keeping myself grounded. The added responsibility, too, despite giving me more “work” to do, also has a major impact on whether I feel like an effective volunteer, and if I’m being honest, I’m more functional and productive with too much to do as opposed to not enough.

So, what does service look like? Not what I thought it would. Not even close. I’ve bidden farewell to my grand visions of sleeping in the dirt in Africa, dancing around fires by night and learning to cope with face-sized spiders by day, getting chased down dirt roads by a gaggle of giggling Ethiopian toddlers. I’m embracing China life, little by little – but as you’ve seen and will continue to see, this is one hell of a process. My goal, with a fresh pair of eyes and an eager mind, is to share it all with you. That means talking about the good days and the bad, not only to further your understanding of this country and the people within it, but also to help myself process this transformative experience which already has, and will continue to shape me in ways I could never have imagined.

Jayna was right, but only in some ways. In month 10 of 27, I’ll admit that service is definitely flying by. It’s hard to believe I’ve been in China for almost a year, but at the same time, I feel so completely removed from life in America that it’s as if I’ve been in China for a decade. The paradox will only continue to get more complex, I’m sure… I miss my family and friends and the convenience of American life, but I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.

Pro Selfie with one of my colleagues, for
whom I cooked a proper french toast breakfast.

A glimpse at how I stack up against my students.

One of my all-star students and my former Chinese tutor, Molly.

A mega-legit American dinner for my host family.
Meatloaf and Apple Pie included!

I hate living here.