November 30, 2016

Departure: Part I

My final days as a Peace Corps Volunteer were, “in a word” (to quote my students’ favorite canned cliché): emotional. Those last moments with each of my classes – complete with bawling students and homemade scrapbooks – to endless late-night parties and elaborate, festive dinners with my local friends, colleagues, and fellow expats, had me leaving Liupanshui with a heavy heart. And alas, Peace Corps trainings had warned that all volunteers, from Mexico to Mongolia, experience very similar emotions centered around one idea: regret.

Once again, I was a statistic. “I didn’t do enough.” “I should’ve tried harder.” “I’m going to be forgotten.” As I cleaned out my apartment and packed my bags, all I could think about was how many hours and days I spent hiding out, how many times I showed up to class with a half-assed lesson plan, or how many invitations I’d neither accepted nor extended to Chinese nationals in lieu of doing what I wanted to do either alone or with other expat friends. It’s hard, especially in hindsight, to forgive myself for those selfish moments. Thankfully, my actual sendoff from LPS put many of these insecurities to rest, and for as long as I have my wits about me, I’ll never forget my final few days as a volunteer in Guizhou province.

Two days before I left, I decided to get my second tattoo during service. Secretly, of course, as Peace Corps policy doesn’t condone such lewd behavior. I met with three of my best students – a freshman, Jack, a sophomore, Zoe, and a junior, Charlie – and asked them nonchalantly to write a few things down in Chinese, in their typical handwriting.
1.     Returned Peace Corps Volunteer
2.     Liupanshui, Guizhou, China
3.     2014-2016
That was it. “What’s it for?” “Why do you need this?”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. I’ll show you tomorrow. And with that, I set off to the apartment where I’d gotten my first tattoo – a moon in the cancer constellation – and was finished in an hour with a band of Chinese scribbles encircling my left forearm, just below my elbow. The tattoo artist, by the way, was repulsed that I wanted such bad handwriting inscribed on my body forever. “Let me do it in calligraphy, please!” he begged. I just laughed it off.
“Trust me, this is what I want.”

Wolf and Co. for one last time.
My host dad, Wolf, picked me up from the apartment building and we shared a fantastic final meal together before I was showered with gifts in the form of luxurious teas, expensive calligraphy tools, and original artwork from his locally renowned calligrapher brother. After a teary goodbye, I joined a final going away/goodbye meeting for any interested students who wanted to see my colleague, Daniel, and I one last time, take pictures, and ask questions; I made sure Jack, Zoe, and Charlie were in attendance. Once the room filled up, we chatted and took questions – students were either snapping pictures on their phones, smiling huge smiles, or biting their lips to keep from showing any emotion. We ended the formal part of the meeting and invited everyone to come up individually to ask questions, chat, or take pictures, and it was then that I called Jack, Zoe, and Charlie to the front of the room.

Jack, front-and-center as usual, arrived first as I pulled up my shirtsleeve. His eyes grew huge as his jaw dropped. He glanced repeatedly from my face to my arm in total disbelief and yelled to Zoe in Chinese, “Get over here! He got our handwriting tattooed on his arm!” Zoe, then, bolted to the front of the room, grabbed my arm, and went at the fresh tattoo with her thumb, thinking it would rub off. “It’s not real! It’s not real!” she yelled, before looking up and directly into my eyes, her brow furrowed with the kind of expression you might see in a toddler who’s looking at a puppy behind glass and can’t get to it. Charlie was the last to show up, stoic and composed in her typical way. “Wow,” she said, calmly, “This is so meaningful. Really, really special. You’ll never forget us.” And while I took a solitary, tear-filled walk around campus late that night, I knew that she was right.

I spent the next morning, my last, like I spent many of my last couple-dozen days – with Alex, my closest local friend, and his wife, Xiao Wen. We went to lunch together and ordered all of my favorite local dishes: La Rou, spicy fried pork and bacon with green peppers and onions; Hongshao Qiezi, eggplant braised in soy sauce; and Yumi Chao Roumo, stir-fried corn with ground pork and peppers – plus, about three other dishes and a soup. (Alex always sought to impress when it came to ordering food or drinks.) And speaking of drinks, we did. We had to. So at 11:00 am, Alex and I started taking shots of straight baijiu in the spirit of a proper Guizhou send-off. We ate, drank, hugged, and cried. Finally, the pair gave me a gorgeous and, I’m sure, impossibly expensive tea set to attempt to courier home in one piece – it didn’t make it – and I hopped in a cab to return to my apartment on campus for the last time.

In the car, I texted my counterpart, Chelsea, who wanted to spend some time with me and help me tie up any loose ends at home. Before she arrived, though, Daniel, my colleague, my neighbor, my rock, my brother for the entire second year of my service, stopped in to say goodbye. It wasn’t easy, but we’d both done this a time or two before, and any conversation or well-wishes we had for each other couldn’t communicate more than the knowing look into each other’s eyes with a slow-bobbing nod and bitten lip. It’s the end of an era.

One of the many dinners I had before leaving, this one
with Chelsea at a Hunan restaurant.
So we talked, hugged, said goodbye, and Chelsea knocked at the door soon after. She came with a parting gift – and since I mentioned it, I guess I have to say what it was:  Bright. Red. Sexy. Underwear. I didn’t ask questions, I just bowed and said thank you. There was no awkwardness, strangely enough, and we sat down on my couch to enjoy a final cup of tea together. We chatted, speaking of future plans in somber tones as the clock ticked away overhead, taunting us. Although our relationship was somewhat rocky in the beginning, that final semester had brought us closer than ever, and we both felt the heaviness of that final meeting bearing down. When the time came, we shared a long hug (unusual, mind you, in Chinese culture), I hung my freshly laundered bedding to dry for my successor arriving in a few short weeks, we locked the doors, and we left.

Last moments in my apartment!
Waiting outside by the car were Roy, our foreign affairs assistant and all-around good guy, and my host dad, Wolf. Chelsea had to return to the office, and seeing the three of them looking up at me with forced smiles, knowing I had to say one goodbye right then, made me realize the full weight of what was happening. I threw my things in the car and jumped off the sidewalk ledge (Chelsea stands at about 5 feet), engulfed her in a bear hug, and felt all of the excitement toward going home, the accomplishment for finishing my service, and the enthusiasm for whatever was ahead, vanish. I started to cry, my face buried in Chelsea’s shoulder, and I couldn’t stop. This is really the end, I thought. I’m not ready.

Chelsea pulled away after a few seconds, tears glistening in her own eyes on an especially rare, sunny day in Liupanshui, and said, “It’s good to cry, Colton. It means we have formed a truly special bond, and I know we will see each other again.” That didn’t help – cue more waterworks. And so, since I was barely able to speak at that point and I was on track to miss my train anyway, I choked out a meager “See you in America. Thank you for everything,” and we were train station-bound.

The drive was one of the most sobering moments of my service. Wolf and Roy kept silent, either uncomfortable with my outpouring of emotion or aiming to give me the space I needed to recover. I looked out the windows, my head whipping back and forth, trying to see my home of two years like I was seeing it for the first time, hoping to notice something I’d never noticed before or see a familiar face waiting to take the bus back from the market. And when we arrived, I was greeted at the station by none other than Alex, Xiao Wen, and another fast friend of recent days, Michael.

In a stroke of luck, my train happened to be delayed by an hour. Normally, I’d be mildly annoyed, but in this case, it was an opportunity to squeeze in some unexpected and important quality time with the three local friends who made me feel so welcome, appreciated, and integrated during my final months in China. All of them had more gifts to give, and as my departure time drew nearer, I could tell Alex had something on his mind.

“What are you thinking about?” I asked Alex in Chinese.
“Just thinking,” he answered.
“We’ll see each other again, I promise,” I said, trying to comfort him.
Then, Michael spoke up. “He has a plan, Colton.”
“What do you mean?”
“He wants to take you to Tibet.”
I wasn’t sure I understood. Alex looked up with a deviously hopeful smile and started rattling off in Chinese to Michael and Xiao Wen – I couldn’t keep up aside from a few cues like “couple of weeks” and “we can drive there.”

Michael, whose English is among the most authentic of any Chinese person I’d ever met, explained. “He wants you to miss your train. We’ll throw your bags in the car and drive to Chengdu so you can attend all of your meetings, then you can move your flights home back a couple of weeks, and we’ll all go explore Tibet together.”

About a week before leaving, I invited Alex, Xiao Wen,
and Michael over for an authentic western meal.
The infamous [notorious?] Michael.
I was shocked. I couldn’t decide whether to be flattered, excited, or furious. Tibet is a major destination that most Chinese people and visitors alike long to experience. The first thing that came out of my mouth was “Did you just have this idea today?!” Alex confirmed, explaining that he’d only thought of it after we’d said goodbye after lunch earlier in the day… that he came to “see me off” at the station but was hoping to get me to ditch the train and leave with them instead. And as exciting as that prospect was, it was absolutely impossible. I tried to explain, as delicately as I could, that I just couldn’t do it, but he tried his best to refute my points:  It’s too expensive to change my flights (I’ll pay for it!); Foreigners can only travel to Tibet on tourist packages (I’ll buy one!); I’m only allowed to take a flight into the area, we can’t drive (I can pull strings for you!); My relationship will definitely end if I cancel my plans to visit D.C. (Then it’s not meant to be!).

At long last, Alex withdrew, defeated, and barely spoke to me for the next 20 minutes while we waited for my train. Michael tried to ease the tension, but it was incurably awkward. “He’s upset,” he said, “because he thought he could convince you, and he was really excited for all of us to be able to spend some more time together.” When the train arrived, Xiao Wen decided to wait outside while Michael and Alex helped me to load my luggage. We stood on the platform for a few minutes, mostly in silence, and when the train finally called for all-aboard, I tossed my favorite pair of light-blue plastic sunglasses out the door to Alex, he put them on immediately, and he and Michael walked by my window with me until the train left the station. If that’s not a proper goodbye, I don’t know what is.
Moments before departure, and the last faces I saw
in Liupanshui, Guizhou, China.

Once aboard, I relaxed a little. The farewells were more difficult than I could have anticipated, but what I was going toward got me excited: Close of Service. One last chance to hang out with some of my best volunteer friends, meet with my host family in Chengdu, get one last round of Peace Corps pampering, and after two years, call myself a returned volunteer.

The feeling of being able to say that, and much, much more, will be covered at length in the next post in this series of final reflections.
Final shots of campus in the spring.

A burrito pilgrimage to Kunming, Yunnan,
with two volunteer friends.

The view from my main coffee shop downtown.

Beijing Duck! One of the many fancy meals I was treated
to in my final days.

Fried corn, one of the local specialties.

View of the new construction from the dorms.
(Not a rollercoaster, sadly.)
My smash-hit western meal I cooked for Alex and co.

Brother Daniel

Alex and I getting some BBQ (raw meat may have
been involved) after a long night out and about.

I tried to get pictures with all of my regular vendors and
restaurant owners. This is the woman who cooked at the hot
pot restaurant we ate at almost every week.

My go-to fruit vendor - after a year or so she'd give me
cheaper prices and usually throw in a few freebies.

Egg Auntie! Tough as nails and provider of free garlic and ginger
with every purchase.

This family owned my favorite noodle restaurant
in town. Best cure for a bad day.

The final days were filled with student dinners galore - almost
one for each of my 8 different classes.

For some reason these juniors wanted to give me
gifts and take pictures after a tough final :D

The always-spunky freshmen class. We only had a year together
but I miss them a ton.

May 19, 2016


O' the life of a celebrity ;-[
I applied to Peace Corps accepting the fact that, for two years, I’d be locking myself in the closet and throwing away the key. Was I apprehensive? Absolutely. But I’d read plenty of literature preparing me for that outcome, and I’d grown to accept it. Then, during our first interview, my recruiter asked me point blank: “Do you have any other minority- or identity-related concerns that you think could affect your service?”

That’s a little forward, I thought, feeling my blood pressure rising.
“Well… I’m gay?”
“Okay, got it, thank you for sharing that with me.”
Another five minutes of less-intrusive questions passed before the conversation came to a head.
“There’s room with University TEFL in China leaving this June. How does that sound?” Something about her wording made me feel like there was a little wiggle room, which struck me as strange, because prior to this conversation, I always thought applicants didn’t have a choice in placement.
“Are there other options?”
“Well… you’re also qualified for Ethiopia, but…” she hesitated, “I think you’d have a much more comfortable service in China.”

Two years later, this conversation still rings clear as ever, because it took me a good while to understand what my recruiter meant. Ethiopia’s attitude toward the LGBT community is not altogether welcoming. China, on the other hand, is slowly warming to the idea. While not immediately apparent, I grew privy to a handful of gay bars and other gay-friendly establishments in Chengdu, my first home. Then, after I started teaching in my school and picking students’ brains, I was able to grasp the current climate not from reading heavily slanted articles from the media, but from the people themselves.

Special dinner featuring my main bro Daniel and two of our
students, Lauren and Zoe. They won a competition at
English Club, so I made a pizza for the reward.
That’s not to say my information wasn’t slanted. My province is famous around China for being backwards, behind, and conservative as hell. When asked about homosexuality in their country, some students would look me in the eye, dead serious, and say “China doesn’t have gay people.” Discouraging? You betcha. It’s not fun to hear your young minds-for-molding saying things that almost feel like personal attacks.

There’s plenty of reason why things are the way they are. First of all, the majority of the students I work with are very sheltered. They come from villages of 200 people where they were raised by traditional parents and grandparents pummeling their family values into them from birth. They all had cell phones and TV and internet, but had little access to [what I’ll call] “culturally exposing and mind-opening media”. Who can blame them for showing up in a giant town in a giant university where a giant white boy is telling them that, statistically speaking, at least three of their classmates are secretly eyeballing persons of the same sex? Just kidding… I didn’t do that. Not then, anyway.

The second and maybe the most important factor is the obvious one: me. Despite China’s warming attitude toward all some things gay, I was not about to march into my first day of classes tossing glitter and painting rainbows on everyone’s faces. The unfortunate thing is, even though I was assigned to a more gay-friendly country, that didn’t mean I could be out. Sure, I wouldn’t run the risk of getting executed or exiled… in fact, physical violence toward LGBT folks in China is virtually nonexistent – I wish I could say the same for my own, more open-minded country. So, what are the consequences of coming out in China?

I kinda-maybe sang "Hello" at the English
Department singing competition.
Shame, simply put. This shame doesn’t manifest through eye-rolling or gossip, nor does it play out like Cersei’s bare-assed walk back to the Red Keep. In the family context, if a son or daughter isn't straight, he or she can't get married and can't reproduce - the two ultimate no-no's of traditional Chinese culture. The other things that suffer - and which affect me more directly - are relationships built with other Chinese people… particularly those with whom we’re engaged in a power dynamic. What’s at risk, exactly? I’d say almost everything. That’s because if I don’t make my every effort to be exactly what my school is looking for (rather than what I have to offer as an individual), I lose points. And Chinese people… they keep score. Better than anyone I’ve ever known. If I prance onto campus and start rattling cages, I can say goodbye to friendly invitations to dinner, cooperation from the students… oh, and the most important: having any leverage at all within the department.

I’m not saying that staying in the closet directly led to my getting Fridays off for my final semester in Peace Corps. I’m saying that indirectly, this – and a bunch of other stuff – led to my getting Fridays off for my final semester of Peace Corps. Relationships are everything in China, and I wasn’t keen on putting my service in jeopardy from the get-go. That said, I never planned to hide forever… I just had to wait for the right time.

That time came on my 627th day of Peace Corps service, just 50 days from the finish line and, at the time of this posting, on Monday of this week. Having worked with my current 175 students for at least a year (and many of them for nearly two years), I knew it had to be now or never. Much of this aforementioned “work” included cultural activities and lessons to pry open their minds little by little, usually using indirect examples to get them thinking outside the box, then slamming their feet on the ground by giving real-life, relevant examples. On these days, I’d always voice my own opinions, when prompted, and make sure they knew my stance without being intrusive.
All the English faculty dressed to the nines!

So it wasn’t without some lead-in that I laid out some hard truth on the whole lot of English majors at my college this week. My strategy, I’m not shy to admit, was kick-ass. For Oral English and Advanced Listening Comprehension, I titled the lesson “Diversity”. First, we continued a discussion about gender identity and transgender issues which had been on-going for 2 classes. Second, I showed them 10 pictures of 10 individuals of various racial backgrounds, prompting them to guess where each person was from. (They were all from America.) Finally, after a collective brainstorm of different kinds of relationships between people, I showed ten more pictures of pairs of people. Some were family, some were friends, and some were couples. The last picture, #20 of the bunch, showed myself and my boyfriend, Geoff.

After the quiz, it was time for the grand reveal. For the first half, they were astonished and amazed to find that Americans are not all tall and white with long faces and big eyes – though that point was very difficult to get across, even after the reveal. But the real shocker, naturally, was the final picture, and the caption that appeared at the click of a button:  “A Couple.”

As expected, reactions were mixed. The junior students betrayed a mix of confusion, realization, and acceptance – in that order. Having had foreign teachers and having studied Western culture for three years, they aren’t surprised by much at this point. The freshmen, though? Chaos. I may as well have fired a gunshot into the crowd. The first five minutes had me assuring them repeatedly that it wasn’t a joke. After denial comes resentment, so, I heard shouts of “You broke our hearts!” ringing out from around the room. Then, as they began to tire themselves out, a more meaningful discussion ensued. They may be young, and many of them naïve, but generation gaps in China can be seen from year to year with the emerging adult group, and the freshmen seem in some ways light years ahead of other, more mature groups I’ve worked with.
Of course, I had to save the best for last. It was utterly unsurprising that the best reactions came from my sophomore students – the only groups whom I’ve stayed with since day 1 of my service to China. They’re currently enrolled in my Public Speaking course, which is dry and boring compared to the others, but we’re so tight it doesn’t matter in the least. I timed my big announcement around the impromptu speech unit, because during the lecture portion, I put their nerves at ease by giving an example impromptu speech in Chinese.

Freshmen (above) and Juniors (below) losing their marbles
over an online dating compatibility activity we did earlier
in the semester.
So, maybe it wasn’t so impromptu (considering I rigged it), but the closeness I have with these classes coupled with the fact that I did it in Chinese produced the most genuine and heartwarming responses I could have ever asked for. The first group was beaming with smiles, some even clapping and cheering to show their enthusiasm, the cherry-on-top being when one relatively quiet female student shouted, in Chinese, “I also like girls!!”

The second group, which I’ve always connected with better than the others, reacted rather unexpectedly. By the time I got around to them, most of them had already heard through the grapevine. And while a few faces beamed like the first class’, I noticed that quite a few – enough to make me uncomfortable – were eyeing me with a furrowed brow, doing that folded, puffy smirk/frown that you might do if you heard someone swear loudly at a nice restaurant. I learned right away, though, that it wasn’t malice or judgment. It was disappointment – and not for the reasons you’d imagine.

“Why are you only telling us now? Is it because you’re leaving?” a student asked, and about half the class nodded and sat up straighter. It knocked the wind out of me. They weren’t disappointed to learn the truth itself; they were disappointed that I didn’t feel I could trust them with that information from the beginning. I didn’t expect to feel so bad… so guilty… because in that moment, I knew that the compassion I felt for this bunch was something mutual. And they had every right to question my motive – after all, they’d just learned I’d been hiding something from them for our entire two years together.
English girls' soccer team - each year there's a school-wide tournament
that pits all the major departments against each other.

The reason why – and although not every class asked, they all got the answer – was that I couldn’t risk it. I couldn’t risk my relationship with the school, but more importantly, I couldn’t risk losing their respect. Coming out early in my service would be opening the door to judgment and preconceived notions about who I am and how I conduct myself, and I couldn’t have that. I explained to them as bluntly but respectfully as possible that, basically, I needed them to like me and trust me first. To see me as a normal, friendly, approachable, trustworthy, intelligent, successful, and happy person. And that being gay does not define me, nor should it define them or their opinions of anyone they meet in their lives. Finally, I begged all of them to go forward from the class and be more accepting and open to friends and family who identify as LGBT, if for no other reason than because one of their true friends and mentors proved their inherited ideas to be totally false.

Turns out they weren't as indoctrinated as I thought. On the contrary, most of the initial questions were frighteningly normal... like "How long have you known your boyfriend?" and "How did you meet each other?" Being the bunch of hopeless romantics they are (and 90% of English majors are female in China) it almost seemed that they were just thrilled to know I was dating someone, regardless of the person's gender. A few of them actually remembered meeting Geoff a year ago during Jennifer's and Mark's (my colleagues last year) going away party. One of the brighter ones shouted, "THAT'S GEOFF!" much to my surprise and delight. Even the harder, more conservative and traditional students in the classes made a clear effort to listen, understand, and accept the news. They asked some difficult questions like "Have you ever tried dating women?" and "Why would you choose this lifestyle?" but instead of jumping on the defensive, I was more proud of their having the courage to ask in the first place, and I therefore responded as calmly and respectfully as possible.

I always giggled while imaging myself on my last day of classes shouting, “I’M GAY, BITCHES!” over the school P.A. system, then ripping my clothes off and shimmying off campus while cackling like a Disney villain all the way back to America. As it so happens, coming out to my classes directly, respectfully, and well before my last day has been one of the most positive and rewarding experiences of service thus far. What I thought would drive a wedge between myself and them has brought us closer than ever, and even given others a voice to speak out.

My sophomore gems - who I too-often call "my babies" - only had two more questions on the topic before it was time to end class.  The answer to the first one ("When are you leaving?") was met with an outcry of confusion and frustration, since my COS (Close of Service) date from Peace Corps falls before they'll finish their final exams. And the second question, which made for an absolutely perfect bookend on my absolutely amazing class, was simply this: "Will you make time to have dinner with us?"

"Absolutely," I said. "As many times as we can."

I've been connecting with the other foreigners more and more;
some Chinese people like to throw their babies at us
and take pictures :)

I was resistant toward the new construction at first, but things are coming together pretty nicely around here!