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.