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.

No comments:

Post a Comment