August 4, 2015

In Retrospect: Semester One, and a Lesson in Getting Things Done

It’s with fondness I look back on my first semester of Peace Corps service. That “shaking your head with a knowing smile” kind of feeling, wishing you could meet your former self to impart some wisdom and tell yourself, “You don’t know how good you have it, kid.”

Not that it felt bad, per se - There were plenty of good times to look back on. My initial arrival in Liupanshui and the shock and awe that came from first laying eyes on the towering green mountains and from tasting the unusual local cuisine, taking my first journeys to the outdoor market and supermarkets, buying train tickets and wondering how I would ever manage to get a grasp on the language, meeting colleagues and students and questioning how I’d ever come to remember their names or find any common ground. It was new, fresh, exciting, terrifying, and I truly felt the sting of Peace Corps isolation for the first time – except I was surrounded by hundreds, thousands, millions of people.

Chinese BBQ: Our go-to bar snack.
Halloween English Corner
My first semester was eventful on occasion. There was a majestic hike through the mountains of Xingyi, Guizhou, all expenses paid including a private suite in a 5-star hotel. (All at the cost of inadvertently appearing in hundreds of photos for future marketing purposes, no doubt.) Weekend pilgrimages to the provincial capital, Guiyang for a proper microbrew and passable western food, plus my second home in China – the Guiyang Starbucks. And let’s not leave our the holiday celebrations: Halloween, spent tearing around Guiyang with a bunch of volunteers dressed to spooky perfection – myself clad in nothing but purple tights and a modified bedsheet. There was Thanksgiving, a cabernet-infused burger bash, which descended to varsity-grade clubbing. Chinese National Holiday, where I stuffed myself full of meaty moon cakes and traditional Liupanshui Hot Pot. And Christmas, in historical Zunyi, Guizhou, with around 20 volunteers gathered for an extra-merry potluck, carol singing, and white elephant gift giving celebration.

Xingyi, Guizhou
Holidays and weekend trips are great, but of course I can’t leave out the main reason I’m here: teaching. Anyone with a mouth told me before my first semester that it wouldn’t be easy… that I would need to “feel things out” and find a style of teaching that suits me best. I had no idea what I was in for.

I’m not complaining. Never, not me. But I remember, looking back, that my greatest challenge during my first semester wasn’t feeling too overwhelmed, but rather finding ways to occupy my ample free time and trying to find motivation and inspiration to prepare two lessons per week for my 8 hours of class. You’d think my four-day weekends would suffice, but for some reason, I’d find myself awake at 2am cranking out lesson plans the night before an 8am class, wondering where the weekend went. I tried to start a few projects to keep me busy, like weekly cooking events with students or coffee dates to practice English, but these all fizzled and I wasn’t always sure why.

Moments like these are one way in which Peace Corps helps me grow. I’d never had that much time to myself - I never would again during service, as it would happen – and it was ultimately destructive. When my weekend started every Wednesday at noon, I’d check out of work until Sunday came around. I tried to foster hobbies and self-education, from knitting and painting to online Excel courses and speed reading, but all of these faded fast. I’d also rediscovered my online shopping addiction after signing up for an account on Taobao (China’s eBay/Amazon equivalent). Sure, there were some excessive purchases like bulk boxes of Canadian Club whiskey and some very spendy dill weed, but among the most usefel and service-altering purchases was a tiny little toaster oven for less than $20.

Believe it or not, that toaster oven turned things around. Living without bread for 5 months didn’t seem like a big deal to me… until I pulled my first loaf of bread from the oven and sank my teeth into a steaming, fresh bite of that carby, moist, handmade chunk of floury heaven. I’d found my calling, and my calling was bread. I came to realize how much I enjoyed the whole process of baking bread, and how I gained as much pleasure from making and eating the bread as I did from giving it away to people.

Challah Back
This works out particularly well in China, as gift-giving is deeply engrained in Chinese culture as a means of solidifying relationships. If it sounds superficial and materialistic, well, it is. There are two ways to talk about this in Chinese. The first is “face”. That’s the direct translation. If we delve a little deeper, though, we can call it “reputation.” I want my face – the way my superiors, subordinates, family, friends, and the rest of the world – to appear powerful. We westerners think, “Why should it matter? People can get to know me for me, when the time comes.” And sure, many Chinese people feel the same way, but the problem is that most Chinese people don’t, and the culture certainly doesn’t agree.

So, every time I toss a few slices of fresh, homemade bread to my colleagues, superiors, or host family, I’m “giving them face.” In other words, I’m showing them respect, which adds a few marbles to their jar of street cred – especially if others are around to witness the gift-giving, making banquet dinners the ideal stage for sealing the deal.

So what’s in it for me? A lot, actually. That’s where the second component of “face” comes in:  Guanxi. The direct translation is relationships, or connections. I like to think of it as “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” Understanding guanxi is like having the keys to the castle in Chinese culture. If you have it, you’ll have a smooth ride… if you don’t, you’ll drown in the moat. So what’s the best way to gain guanxi? You guessed it:  Gifts.

Expensive alcohol and tea are the two easiest ways to pedal guanxi, but homemade things work almost as well… at least, it does for us volunteers, whose monthly stipend is almost laughable in comparison to our colleagues’ salaries. So, when I spend half a day’s food allowance on baking ingredients to bake bread or sweets to give to my colleagues, I’m giving them face, showing them respect. But, reflexively, I’m getting something equally valuable in return: guanxi.

Sometimes, when we have a disagreement or rivalry with our friends or family, we “keep score”.  E.g. I did the dishes four times last week, what are you going to do for me? Yeah, don’t pretend like you don’t know what I’m talking about. The thing is, Chinese people are always keeping score, and that’s the essential nature of guanxi. If I want help from my staff to start a project, or to give me special permission to do something, I can’t slough off minor favors and requests. Especially in the workplace, relationships don’t hinge so much on a person’s character or likeability, but rather on the duration and efficacy of your connection.

Being conscious of losing face is equally, if not more, important. For example, failing to toast any of my superiors at a banquet dinner is hugely disrespectful, and in the event that I didn't bring enough gifts to go around to all of the "important" people, I'd be better off tossing them in the garbage instead of offering them to only a select few. Face is largely about pride, too, so it's essential to tread lightly when someone's intellect is at stake. The easy thing to do? Keep giving gifts and shut your mouth if you aren't sure.

Many volunteers spend the bulk of their first semester not only finding their groove as a teacher, but also establishing guanxi with their leaders. Thankfully, I more or less arrived to site with a silver chopstick in my mouth. My site, Liupanshui Normal College, is the oldest site in Guizhou province, founded in 2000. My waiban, or foreign affairs director, has been working with my Peace Corps program manager (also a Chinese national) since she started with PC, and thus, my site positively reeks of guanxi.

According to inside sources, I was sent to Liupanshui for a reason – to uphold face and strengthen guanxi even further. This works well for me, in that before I arrived to site or met a single person here, they trusted me. How is that possible? That answer is simple: Guanxi law dictates that because of the relationship between my school’s waiban and my PC program manager, only a reliable volunteer should be sent to this site. The waiban asks for something specific, and the program manager delivers. To do anything otherwise would be a direct response to some other inappropriate action or screw-up, as everything is connected where guanxi is concerned. Translation: If I were to screw up somehow, this would damage the relationship between my superiors, and potentially even be cause for retaliation by one of the parties – even if the mistake were solely my fault.

Students trying their hand at
throwing a frisbee.
So, keeping my cool and doing a good job matters far beyond my own personal satisfaction. As such, my first semester was largely uneventful, all things considered, but I nevertheless felt that I did my duty. I said yes to all requests and put my best foot forward when teaching (despite the rampant procrastination). I upheld Peace Corps’ face while also improving my own, and with my second year fast on approach, I feel extremely confident not only as a teacher who finally found his groove, but as an integral part of my school with strong connections to my leaders.

Maybe all of it is superficial… at first. There’s no doubt that I initially took issue with the whole idea of guanxi and face, especially when I was able to see the direct effects of it for myself. Nevertheless, it has its place in ensuring trustworthiness and reliability in those we depend on. I am very glad, however, I don’t need to buy $100 bottles of booze for my employer back in the states just to get approval on vacation time.

So, with a year under my belt and after earning a wealth of knowledge during that pivotal first semester, I look ahead with my head held high. I’ll continue to bake bread, devouring most of it singlehandedly and in one sitting as usual, while occasionally passing some on to make sure our bonds continue to strengthen. My third semester will undoubtedly mirror my first, especially in terms of holiday celebrations and meeting tons of new students, volunteers, and friends, but now I’ve got the guanxi supply to get more and more accomplished.

This is not PC official in any way, but the gist of what we learned during training was this:  For your first year – Observe.  For your second year – Do. I’ve got the guanxi in place and I'm ready to do... no matter how much bread it takes.

My lovely RPCV sitemate at the
local outdoor market.
What kind of teacher would I be if I
didn't do a listening lesson on Futurama?

Starbucks (Mecca)

A Boozey Thanksgiving

Christmas in Zunyi.

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