Badminton and Gals: Something of a Struggle

Season’s greetings from China!

I’m finally writing another blog post – something I’ve been failing to do for the last two months – because I’m riding high on a wave of delight at the moment.  I’ve rediscovered something that I hadn’t expected to lose, and it’s a pretty grand sensation.

I have just returned from an evening of badminton with a student.  We played in the almost-dark, with a single bulb lit in the massive outdoor multi-purpose court, surrounded by marching, chanting PE students and their shouting instructor, while the class buildings around us poured out-of-sync recordings of the school anthem from every open window.  And we played some serious badminton, too.  There’s nothing new or unusual about this – I frequently play badminton with students, often in the gloom and always in the midst of moderate to severe chaos.  I have also upgraded my typical American just-a-bit-better-than-Memorial-Day-barbecue badminton skills to hey-that-foreign-girl-is-decent-enough-that-we’re-all-gonna-watch badminton skills.  None of that was especially exciting.

The exciting bit?  I played with a girl.

Now, I’ve played with tons of girls before.  It has always been a blast, but it’s always been more of a social experience.  Yes, these gals are firmly a grade above American picnic badminton, and they are way better than I was upon arrival, but it isn’t sporting the way I was rather expecting.  I am usually the only one wearing pants and tennis shoes.  Skater skirts do not promote serious exercise.  All of this is fine, and I love playing with them, but…

“Take care!”

“Are you tired?”

“You don’t need to run.”

“How about a rest?”

I’m no kind of super athlete.  I fall pretty comfortably in the middle range of fitness, by American measure.  I like sports.  I like being fit enough to be able to do cool stuff.  But so often – not always, but often – I feel improper playing with female students here.  If I take two steps to hit the birdie, I hear startled gasps from my partners.  If I jump to reach a high hit, they chorus “Oh, it’s okay,” as if I should not bother and really ought to just reassemble my composure.

I like sports and sweating and working hard as a team.  With girls, though, I have learned to just swing my arm around and take nice slow steps.  Otherwise, I feel a bit – freakish.  Like I’m doing something unseemly.

The badminton courts are not the first place where I’ve felt this way.  It absolutely agonized my host family, my students, and much of the general populace when I failed to carry a parasol during the summer.  I am convinced that heat has less to do with it than does the preservation of women’s skin.  Pale as ghosts, that’s the meaning of true womanhood right there.  I apologize for my nasty tone here – I am jaded, I admit it, but the constant discussion of female beauty here irks me.  I have been told a thousand times (by Chongqing and Sichuan women, note) that women from Chongqing and Sichuan are the most beautiful women in China, because of the overcast summer skies which help them stay gorgeously corpse-white all the time.

This may or may not be helped by the dress sense in Chongqing (which is starkly different, I know, from many places in northern China); there is a lot more leg going on here.  On any given day, most of my students are wearing mid-thigh or higher skirts.  More surprising to an American mind are the skirts my colleagues are wearing – I cannot keep up with a single one of my middle-aged counterparts, and honestly I am not trying, because NO.

The same can be said of high heels.  You do not want that ninety pound lady stepping on you in the elevator – her stiletto heel will cut through your foot like a knife through butter.  Mountain hiking is a popular pastime here, but the dress code really doesn’t seem to change too much; an alarming number of gal hikers will be struggling gamely on in four inch heels.  A far fewer number – equally alarming for its low count – will be going barefoot, heels clutched in a hand or sticking out of a purse.

Let’s pause, though, in this rant, and take some breaths, and observe something.  For those of you who are a bit uncomfortable with the short skirts discussed above, I will take a moment to throw a Chinese curve ball at you.  Cleavage, boys and girls, is not okay.  It is extremely not okay.  I have never, ever, ever seen any clothing that even threatened cleavage on anyone at my site, and these are college kids we’re talking about.  The wardrobes of college kids everywhere on the globe make their parents cringe, and there is still no cleavage here.

Okay, I’m exaggerating.  Every once in a while, every once in a long, long, while, something might threaten.  But I swear I’ve never witnessed any neckline that would make a high school principal so much as bat an eye.

I taught a lesson on American fashion (Some of you are laughing at this.  Stop it.)  for my sophomore non-English major students.  They were floored by pictures of American college students.  Stunned.  They weren’t too fussed about the guys’ clothes, but the girls?  From the waist down, they thought American gals dressed like little kids.  From the chest up?  Put a shirt on!

My point is simply a reminder – to both my readers and myself – that culture differences of this sort are exactly that.  Just differences.  In the case of questions of female beauty, it is easy, and natural, for me to feel affronted.  The forwardness of my Chinese students when it comes to physical characteristics can make me a bit more prickly than I ought to be, as well.  My kids, bless them, have no qualms at all about making conversation about however I happen to look that day.  It’s something of a painful joke for all of us in the Peace Corps – we swap grimacing stories about ways that we were humiliated by completely innocent students.  Some of my own personal favorites…well, some of your favorites, possibly, dear readers.

This to a poorly coordinated outfit: “Teacher, why you dress so confusing today?”

This to the one day I wear a headband: “Renana, I don’t understand that thing.  What is the meaning?”

This upon suffering a breakout: “Teacher, go to a doctor for your face!”

This to a bad hair day: “Here is a brush, Renana.  Maybe you can use it.”

This, during mid-term interviews, wherein my students were instructed to teach me something: “Okay, teacher.  I thought for a long time what I want to teach you.  And now, I decided to teach you something special for you.  I want to teach you how to lose weight!  It will really help you a lot!”

If you groaned aloud when you read any of these, imagine how many groans I have swallowed in the past four months.  China, the surefire way to teach yourself to roll with punches – it’s thick skin or madness here.

(Also, yes, my students largely call me Renana.  My highest level English students call me Reanna.  This puts them about level with the highest level English speakers in America.  Good to know that some things are constant in every culture.)

The point – sorry, I lost the point somewhere.  Ah, right, badminton.  Badminton and gals.

Exercise does not fit into many of my students’ perceptions of girl-things. (Diet, OH yes.  But exercise, not generally.)  They are a bit uncomfortable hearing that I play volleyball, and are quite unnerved when I mention that my sister and I both played soccer.  I frequently ask my students to exercise with me, and they are not at all interested.  They exchange glances, generally, and ask me to “take care of myself.”

The same restlessness that first led me to the volleyball courts also got me to frequent the badminton courts, as well.  I’m more often there than the volleyball nets, now, because I’ve made friends with a handful of (male) PE students who apparently spend their lives in a constant flow from track to soccer field to basketball courts to badminton nets, and do not eat, sleep, or go anywhere else.  This is a lie, I’m sure, but the evidence of my experience couldn’t prove it so.  These students saw a random foreign girl swinging around a racket, and decided they’d teach me some real stuff.

They school me – by schooling me.  It is actually pretty brutal exercise, but they are fantastic teachers, more patient and encouraging than any other instructors of anything that I’ve had in China.  Meeting them has been one of the highlights of my experience here – especially because, with them, I never feel like I’m doing something absurdly unfeminine.  It’s likely because I’m foreign (‘weird foreigners, they always do weird things’), but I genuinely think that there’s more of a sense of ‘we’re all buds together’ when we play, even if I’m garbage compared to this gang of Bruce Lees.

I’m completely serious about the badassitude of these PE students, by the way.  My school has one of the best basketball teams in Chongqing, and also, I’m frequently told, one of the best, if not the best, PE programs in the municipality. #myschoolisthebestschool #ahhhyeaaah

Yet it has been so frustrating to think that only my foreignness makes playing sports seriously okay.  I don’t like being forced to rein in my enthusiasm.  I don’t like playing badminton while standing still.  I don’t like missing social cues and looking like a weirdo.

There was a moment, perhaps two weeks ago, when several students and I were shopping downtown.  We saw our bus arrive just when we came into sight of the station, and one of the girls shouted ‘oh, no, let’s run!”  So we ran.  Ish.

I missed the bit where running was a joke.  My students broke into delicate high-heeled jogs.  Me, I thought we were really running, so I did.  I caught up to the bus, banged on the door.  It stopped.

My students were not right behind me, like I thought they were.  They were quite a ways back, and they were laughing so hard they could barely stand.  I came close to dying, actually dying, of embarrassment.

We got on the bus.  I was really wishing I’d tripped on the curb back on the sidewalk, because it seemed like falling on my face would have been more womanly than sprinting for a bus.  I genuinely thought I’d damaged my reputation with these students.  I wasn’t surprised when two of them caught my arm on the ride.  Now that the laughter had subsided, I knew I was in for a ‘take care’ talk.

“Most girls in China don’t do that,” they told me, seriously.  “You know it?”

“Yeah, I know it,” I said, in the special tone of brittle cheer I use for moments like these.

“We were so surprised!”

“Yeah, I know that too.”

One of them leaned forward to get a good look at my face.  “Many girls in China don’t like to do that,” she told me, “but I think it’s okay.”

The male student with us was nodding enthusiastically.  “It’s important for health.”

“You are so fast,” added the gal on my other arm.

It was not the time to point out the many virtues of no heel shoes.  I turned that little conversation over in my head a lot longer than it deserved, probably – but it was the first time any of my girls had taken that tone toward active athleticism in women.  There were obviously some female students who were serious about certain sports – I witnessed this during the annual sports meeting held by our school – but I had yet to encounter any.  It was a nice thing, to be praised a little for something I had been starting to believe had defeminized me in the eyes of my students.

And then, two weeks later, I got a call from a strange number, and when I answered, I heard an unfamiliar voice.  “Hi, Rena.  My friends said you are fast?”

Nancy – her English name – is neither a PE student nor an English major.  However, she’s mad for 运动 (exercise) and wants to practice her English, and ended up with my number.  We met at the court, and she looked me up and down – which I admit I was also doing to her (hopefully more subtly), and she asked, “Easy or difficult?”

“Difficult,” I said, then, apprehensively, “okay?”

We swatted a birdie at each other for two hours this evening, and she set a pace that my PE pals would approve of.  She played in platform heels, but informed me five minutes in that next time, she was going to wear her sports shoes.  I chose to take that as a compliment, and I really think it was.

Her English is excellent.  She’s a very outgoing student, is happy to answer questions and hold conversations while pummeling me, and, when I’m too busy trying not to lose to talk, she cheerfully practices English by giving us a sporting commentary.

“You hit that side – now me – now you, hurry – now I will 扣球 – oh, and you tried to hit it, but you missed and failed.  You should be faster.  You should have faster re – retack – ”

“Faster reactions?”

“Yes, yes, reactions!  You should react more faster!”

“That’s an excellent word.”

And then we beam at each other and she serves again.

I don’t think I’ll ever feel improper on a badminton court again.  Nor will I ever think about Chinese womanhood without thinking of Nancy and her wicked 扣球。

 

It’s wintery and miserable at home, my readers, and I’m sorry for that, but make a note to get out there come summer and whack around a birdie or two.  You’ll need the practice, because I’ll be itching for a game in 18 months, and I’ll be gunning for you.  Let’s talk again soon.

我是谁?Who am I – Really?

Language learning is an incredible experience.  It is fraught with complications, frustrations, and revelations.  I spend part of the time reveling in a successful exchange.   The rest of the time, I’m pretty certain that I’m living in some kind of linguistic bomb shelter, secure against even the deepest immersion and the most diligent studying – and Peace Corps, it must be said, has the biggest and best ‘nukes’ (metaphorically speaking, of course) I have ever experienced when it comes to language learning.

To give you a bit more detail, we had an average of three and a half hours of language learning 5-6 days a week. Conservatively, that’s 17.5 hours a week.  PST (pre-service training) is 10 weeks long, and roughly 7 of those weeks contained this language schedule.  So that’s about 120 hours of Mandarin class.  For the sake of comparison, a four credit college course, lasting 15 weeks, only allows for 60 hours of classroom time.  PST language training, therefore, crams a year’s worth of university language study into 7 weeks (and yes, we do get homework, too).

Let me also emphasize the difference between the two kinds of classrooms.  In my experience with language learning in college, language classes through the 212 sort of ballpark (4 semesters of language) are usually still taught with liberal use of English in the classroom.  In Peace Corps, at least in my experience, it ain’t so.  I would hazard to guess that in the second half of PST, classes were taught 60%-70% of the time in Chinese, and every one of our instructors is a native speaker.  On top of that, there is precious little classroom time where we are not speaking Chinese ourselves, broken as it might be.

I’m going to clarify for a moment here.  Two years ago, I took a semester of Chinese while in college.  Because of this experience, I am in a Peace Corps language class that consists largely of trainees who, like me, have some amount of Chinese experience.  Therefore, there are also Peace Corps classes that have more English-based instruction – by the same token, there are a handful of trainees with a mountain of Chinese experience who have classes entirely in Mandarin.  Don’t judge all Peace Corps language training courses by my experience.  I am in one class out of many, in one country out of many.  We all have very different experiences.

If there is one thing every PC language class has in common, however, it is this objective: to create language users, not language learners.  This is absolutely vital to understanding not only the PC attitude of language learning, but also its attitude on integration.  And beyond even that, in Peace Corps China it is the attitude each volunteer takes with them to their site as we in turn become TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) teachers – we in turn help our Chinese students to make this transition themselves.

To be honest, I find this transition to be a challenging one.  I am a thinker.  I crave learning for the sake of learning.  I want to understand, to mull things over, to examine all the bits and bobs of an idea and garner as many perspectives and insights as I can.  I ponder things.  I take my time.  I tend to favor an academic perspective.  I am knowledge-hungry.

This is my greatest weakness in the Peace Corps language classroom.  Here, what you know is largely irrelevant.  What you can use is what matters.

I waved goodbye to my personal comfort zone quite a while back, and I’m still a long way from cozy with this new learning style.  Every day (no, I’m lying, most days) in the PC classroom involved colossal brainwork.  Thank god for my trainee classmates – if they were not so hilarious, Chinese would be one long grind up a pretty barren mountain.  As it stands, it is still a long grind, but the mountain has pit stops every five minutes with fantastic roleplays involving 马桶师傅 (yes, that does read ‘toilet master’), Chinese charades, cut-and-paste art projects, atrocious and excellent crimes of Chinglish (committed both by our class and our teachers) and bonus field trips to local markets in search of the price of pig feet and sesame oil.  Even so, learning Mandarin is hard, and it is not always fun, and there have been moments of utter incomprehension that make me want to flip my desk over.

Then, of course, I would leave class, order from a Chinese menu, ask a local for directions, read a bus schedule to find my way home, stumble through an evening of conversation with my family, visit with their non-English speaking friends and clumsily but politely evade their questions about how much money I make and if I think America is better than China, return home and have the usual who-will-take-the-first-shower argument with my host sister (which I usually lose, because I am a pushover, and therefore shower first, because this is China).  When I finally collapse into bed, and think about how terrible I am at Chinese – ha.  I might feel like I know nothing, and that’s a really uncomfortable feeling for me – but I can use far more than I would have dreamed I could by this point.

Yet there’s another major hurdle here.  It is – as, at the root of all matters, everything about Peace Corps seems to be – a dilemma of identity.

As someone who over-thinks everything (couldn’t you tell?) I’ve spent a lot of my life identifying myself – strengths, weaknesses, tendencies, complexities, the whole bundle that makes me.  It’s a pretty knotty, intricate bundle.  I’m complicated – everyone is.  Yet I’m quite attached to this messy identity, because it’s me.

Here, then, is the problem for the immersed language learner, and maybe especially the Peace Corps language learner.  I’m here, motivated by all these multi-faceted parts of myself, for a complicated purpose that depends upon interaction and mutual learning – and I can express none of it.  That’s the terrifying part of jumping into a language like this.  The world around me, and worse, myself, have been reduced to a minimal vocabulary and fragmented grammar.

Who am I?  Seriously, really, who am I now?  The terrible truth is that I’ve got two identities: Reannon, me, the person whose hopes and dreams and fears carried her to China, and 代瑞娜, whose got no sense of humor and no ability to hold a conversation and who has an irritating tendency to nod as if she understands what people are saying but actually doesn’t have a clue.  I also have to confess that part of the reason this second gal is so shell-shocked has to do with the rather unfortunate pronunciation of her name – it sounds like Dài Ruìnà.  Each of those little downward slashes indicate the Chinese fourth tone.  It’s a name, in other words, that always sounds as if a drill sergeant is snapping it out just before slapping me with 50 push-ups.

So, during PST, I would wake up Reannon, brace myself, transform into Dài Ruìnà (read it as Dai!Rui!Na! if you prefer, that actually describes the sound quite accurately) at the breakfast table, and take the bus to training, where I would pop between the two personalities depending on who was talking to me.  It was exhausting.  It was miserable.

Here in Yongchuan, as an English teacher, this still often holds true.  My Chinese remains slightly less than not-great, and now I do not have the comforting bubble of my Peace Corps classmates to get me through.  However, I am finding that my two identities don’t chafe each other quite so roughly.  There are a number of reasons for this: I have many students and colleagues whose English is excellent, I am fortunate enough to be a school with a handful of American teachers (and we cling to each other pretty dearly when the going gets rough), and, not least, I pretty much threw out my Chinese name with the trash during my last day in Chengdu.  My listening ability has improved as well, thanks to a fellow teacher here who has let me sit in on her ‘Chinese-for-Foreign-Students’ class, which while ostensibly for novices is still conducted entirely in Chinese (she said ‘bus’ in class the other day, in English, to my great surprise – apparently ‘bus’ is a difficult concept to describe or mime, whereas ‘population,’ ‘law,’ and ‘wrench’ were completely doable).

My new-found peace with my severed selves, however, has another source.  My students have given me something that even my wonderful PC training pals couldn’t give me – my students, all 200 of them, come courageously to class every day and throw themselves into doing anything I ask.  They buckle down and endure a class conducted 100% in English.  Some of them actually tremble in terror when I stop by their desk to listen to them practice, but they forge ahead anyway.  Sometimes it takes coaxing, sometimes it takes their friend holding their hand, (yes, literally), sometimes they revert to Chinese to tell me “I don’t know how to say!”  But they always get through.  And then at break I see the same kids transform into who they really are – that quiet boy in the back is really a wicked table-talker during the break’s card game, and that girl who hid her face in her hands when I came to listen to her pronunciation is now singing Katy Perry songs loudly and happily to her friends.

And slowly, slowly, over the course of the last eight weeks of teaching, I am watching their struggles with language and identity – struggles so similar to my own – shape different people out of my students.  Different people to me, but in reality, these are the people they’ve always been.  For them, English crippled who they were.  Now, they are overcoming that.  They are growing in confidence; they are mastering the mind-game that language-learning has been playing with them.  I have a class on Wednesday evening that on the first day could barely look me in the eye when I talked to them – this past week, they played an elaborate Halloween prank on me involving a string of coordinated distractions and a zombie mask.  They didn’t need English to do this – and they didn’t need me to know Chinese.  All they needed was to realize that their sense of humor, their sense of fun, was not tied to language.  It’s part of who they are, and as long as they are confident in that, language barriers are pretty flimsy barriers after all.

It’s not all about learning English or Chinese – it’s just as empowering, just as important, to learn that you can throw language out the window and still be you.  I owe my students for finally putting 代瑞娜 to rest.

 

If any of my readers have had minor to moderate identity crises while studying language, I hope you’ve found something in his post that resonates with you.  Thanks for reading, and we’ll chat again soon.

Are American Parents Afraid?

Hello again!  Following close on the heels of a cheerful catch-up post, I’m back again to talk about something more serious.  In keeping with the theme of this blog, which is recording day-to-day conversations and really thinking hard about them, I’d like to share a discussion I had with several Chinese families over the Mid-Autumn Festival holiday.  It’s not a very happy topic – if you’re looking for a feel-good sort of read, pop over here and enjoy me gushing about dogs.  Otherwise, buckle down to think hard about what I’m about to say.

Holiday meals are not something that are skimped on over here.  Take Thanksgiving, double the number of dishes, make most of them strictly for meat-eaters only, and swap out any of the non-meat items for something with rice, and you’ve got something that still pales in comparison to the lunch, and also the dinner, that I experienced at the beginning of the holiday.  Back State-side, Thanksgiving for my family meant more food than we see in a room any other time of year, but that was meant to feed more than fifteen people.  This banquet-caliber meal served eight, two of whom were 9-year old girls, and there was at least as much food here as our big family shindig back home has.

I honestly don’t remember if I’ve yet mentioned how very much I love duck.  So.  I love duck.  I love it roasted, I love it braised, I love it cut up in little bits with all the greasy bones jutting all over the place, I love it in those little dumpling wrappers that are so hard to grab with chopsticks, I love it in soup, I love it in rice, I love it for lunch and then I still love it for dinner after it has sat out on the table for hours under a cute little food umbrella to keep the bugs off in the Chinese way.  There was a lot of duck during this day of mighty foodstuffs.  I was pleased.

That gives you a little bit of context when I say my loving duck is something of a defense mechanism during Chinese-only dinner conversation.  If I don’t know what the general table talk is about, I just wait for a lull, throw a beaming smile at the cook (in this case my host-grandmother) and tell her just how much I love her duck cooking.  (I do this with eggplant as well, which I also dearly love, for some variety).

So it was during one such conversation that I was chewing my way through a great deal of duck when the words ‘America,’ ‘students,’ and ‘school,’ began to fly around.  I spat out my duck bones onto the table (which was not at all rude of me – we all had a growing pile of bone and gristle next to our plates) and began listening hard, thinking this might be a conversation I might be able to join…but nope, I wasn’t keeping up.  I went back to my duck just as all eyes jumped to me.  “Ermmm,” I said, hurriedly spitting out a fresh bone and trying to chew quickly.  “很好吃,” I eventually managed, because ‘very delicious’ can’t ever be a bad response at a dinner table and all the eyes seemed to want me to say something.

This, for some reason, sparked renewed, vigorous discussion.  I wasn’t quite catching all the words, but I was being asked things along the lines of ‘do Americans always have it?’ and ‘Americans like it a lot, don’t they?”  It seemed a bit weird to be talking about duck so intensely all of a sudden, since I’d been mentioning it regularly at meals and it had never seemed to be that interesting a topic before.  But I went right along with it.  “Sometimes,” I said.  “Not often.  Some people -” a pause here while I sought help from a translator app – “hunt it.”  This caused an outbreak of murmuring and several thoroughly startled looks.

“Americans like this?”

I shrug.  “Some like to hunt.”

“Is that why?  But what about (buzz of Chinese)?”

The question didn’t make mountains of sense, so I just shrugged.  For a conversation about ducks, this was getting pretty detailed.

“But Americans have many, right?”

“No…no.  Ducks?  No.”

The table collectively blinked in surprise, and looked toward the fellow asking most of the questions, I got the swift and strong impression, suddenly, that I had been the only one talking about ducks.

“No.  This,” he said, and mimed a handgun.

Nope.  Forget ducks.  This was a whole new class of holiday dinner discussion.  We were suddenly talking about American gun control.

It is not at all an easy thing to talk about an issue as loaded (heh – sorry) as gun control – not with close friends, not with family, not in the comfort of an American home.  It’s an icky conversation – though a necessary one – because emotions and opinions on both sides run very hot, very quickly.  It is much, much harder to talk about in a language that’s not your own, immersed in a culture with no history of the Second Amendment, and while facing head-on the colossal caricature of America that America has itself created and stuck in the heads of other citizens of the globe.

We had a long, long talk about guns and Americans.  The language barrier was partially broken down when everyone at the table promptly whipped out their smartphones – an obvious indicator that everyone, from my dear old host grandparents to the pair of nine year old girls, were more interested in this than in anything else I had ever had to say.

But the more we talked, the more I realized it wasn’t interest, exactly, that motivated their questions.  It was concern – a very, very specific concern.

“Guns at schools,” said my host-mother, who was straining her English to the breaking point, just as I was straining my Chinese.  “We know in America, children die, because of guns at schools.”

I looked at this woman, the glowing single mother of a single child, and felt everything I was going to say – the thousand academic explanations, the hoity-toity little history lesson I’d been trying to mentally translate to explain the right to bear arms, the soothing noises of standard safety precautions in schools, the reality that plenty of Americans don’t have guns, that plenty more support the idea of gun control in some form or another, the undeniable fact that everyone grieves after a school shooting, and most of all how complicated the gun control issue is in America, how it’s a culture war itself, how it’s so embroiled in politics and lobbying and consumerism and national image and self-defense and machismo and freedom – everything I could say sounded so stupid.  Was so stupid.  My own opinion was utterly moot.  Children die, said the Chinese mother of one.  How on earth  could I ever say ‘please understand my culture’ to that?

Others at the table were nodding, stone-faced.  Murmurings surfaced – English names, names of schools, names of students.  They knew Sandy Hook.  They knew more about the victims than I did.

“Are parents in America afraid?” my host-mother asked.

What a question.

The truth is, yes.  Many are.  I told her the truth.

The gentleman – father of one of my nine year old dinner companions – told me some truth of his own, then.  I can’t promise that I can relay his words accurately, as they came to me second-hand twice-over, through the combined translations of my host-mother and his baidu translator app.  But I can tell you that he put down his chopsticks, put a hand on his daughter’s head, and looked at me squarely with somber eyes.

“America has good schools, good colleges, and no gaokao.  But I would never want my child to go there.  I would be too afraid.  We watch television, and we see the shootings.  I am so sorry for American parents.  They must be everyday afraid.”

I am not making any statement regarding gun control here.  My own opinion is far from the point.  This is only one conversation with two families – though concern about American gun control comes up much more often here than I ever would have guessed.  I also want to acknowledge that China has experienced its own share of school violence, though not to the degree nor with the frightening regularity that America has.  All I want to share with readers is what the eyes half a planet away see, what these hearts feel.  I’m not out to rock the boat.  But if this little conversation rocked you, made you reel, then think hard about it.  Don’t shove it away, with a ‘what a depressing blog post.’  Don’t brush it aside.  Think about it.  Feel it.  Think about mothers and fathers in China, watching American news.  Remember that they worry about you.  Remember that when they think of America, a part of that picture, small but very alive, is a nation full of guns, all pointing at our children.

America should know what the world sees it as.  America should remember that there are people who shudder in fear, who tremble, to think of their children living in our country.  America should have a long, hard think about that.

 

Sorry for the downer of a post, all – still, I felt it was an important discussion to share.  Look for more in the near future.  Let’s chat again soon.

Post from China

I have once more neglected this blog.  Apologies!  I have about ten half-written posts, and it is past-due that I got something out there.  I kept trying to merge them all into one, but it was too long and pretty nonsensical, and so now I have given up and will just try to slam them out until I’ve caught up on everything that’s happened, everything that’s been said, and everything that I am dying to say.  There’s a lot – good, bad, ugly, straight-up bizarre.  For this first post in what will hopefully be a pretty steady stream to come in the next few weeks, I’ll hit some of my quick impressions of my early teaching days.  There’s a lot of warm and fuzzy in this post.  It hasn’t all been that way.  Still, writing this brought back some pretty magical memories, and I hope those at home will get a laugh, or at least a smile, out of it.

Peace Corps Pre-Service Training has come and gone, and now China’s National Day has zipped right on by, as well.  I have been teaching for over a month now, and I have so much to say about it that I could go on forever.

When I was putzing around Chengdu back in July, too busy worrying about learning Chinese to spare much thought for teaching, a week break when school had only been in session for two weeks sounded pretty dumb.  Turns out it’s something of a godsend.  My colleagues and I only received our teaching schedules a few days before classes began – meaning we didn’t know what subjects we were teaching (much less the level of our students or what textbooks we would use) until 72 hours before the first bell.  A holiday two weeks in, therefore, is a fantastic idea.

Meanwhile, there have been some conversations with students, colleagues, and miscellaneous others that have been quite revealing.  Sometimes I’m not actually aware of the conversation at all, until someone says “My classmate/teacher/grandmother/bank teller/market clerk/this random guy at the bus stop was talking about you today…”  One of my American colleagues told me recently that QZone (a social networking site very much like Facebook) had recently acquired a slightly creepy collection of photos showing me writing on the chalkboard.  “They think it’s crazy you’re left-handed,” he told me.  “All these comments are asking what it means.”

Thus, when students began bringing it up in class, I was prepared.  “Yes, I’m left handed,” I told them.

“You use your left hand?”

“Yes.”  I paused here, because they’re all looking at me expectantly.  “Because I’m left handed,” I added, since more explanation seemed to be required.

“What’s it mean?”

“Um–”  Really, is there a good answer to this question?

“Do you use your left hand to show you’re smart?”

“Ah–no.”  Does that sound like maybe they’re accusing me of boasting?  ‘Cuz I’m pretty sure that’s what was happening.  “I use my left hand because it works better than my right hand.”

“What?”  A chorus.  I had to laugh.

“Watch.”  I turned to the board, switched the chalk to my right hand, and scrawled a predictably awful handwriting sample across the board.

Silence while forty students stared at me, thunderstruck.

There are these moments, occasionally.  My lesson plans are sometimes abandoned momentarily while we talk about whatever it is that’s so surprising or foreign.  I had to spend a while, for example, soothing my students after the left hand discussion by explaining that when I learned how to write, I started with my left hand and never changed.  Students asked why my teachers never tried to change my writing hand.  I said that my teachers looked at my paper after I wrote it, and since my letters were correct, they didn’t care about my writing hand.  Writing with your off-hand is hard, I told them.  Try writing with your left hand sometime.  There was an immediate flurry of pencils and paper, and an outburst of giggling.

Similarly, my students and I are constantly engaged in good-natured bickering regarding food and drink temperature.  They watch me drinking ice-water with the same pained expression as a mother watching a beloved adult child picking all the peas out of his casserole.  They’ve got some sort of sense that it’s not their place to nag, but really, what are you doing – you’re an adult, for pity’s sake!  Cold things, I’m told, are bad for your stomach, especially if you eat something hot and drink something cold simultaneously.  In the same vein, there was an episode where my host mother and I went swimming, but the pool’s showers didn’t have hot water.  Oh, well, right?  We can shower when we get home.  Or we can suck it up and rinse off here.  Nope.  If we did either of those, we would sicken dreadfully.  So we showered–thoroughly–at the pool, headed out (where it was raining, and of course we had to buy magazines to hold over our wet, thoroughly showered hair whilst running for the car) and immediately showered again once we got home.  Because going to bed with wet hair from a warm shower is always better than wet hair from a cold shower, regardless of the fact that wet hair is cold after 5 minutes no matter how hot the shower in question was.

Sometimes I am the one gaping in astonishment.  The first time my students turned in their homework assignments, each with a very formal “thank you, teacher,” and a little bow to accompany it, the majority of them had written out the assignment on sticky-notes.  Coming from a place where a paper with anything other than 12-point Times New Roman font meant half the teachers wouldn’t accept it, that was a bit weird.  No, I didn’t expect typed papers.  I wasn’t really expecting homework on teddy-bear-shaped sticky notes, either.

Speaking of homework assignments, I’ll close this post with a quick review of what the students and their most recent assignment has taught me.  I asked my students to pretend they were studying in America.  If their friends and family could send them a box of 10 things from home, what would they want sent?  I gave a few examples of American knickknacks that are unobtainable here, and challenged them to think of things that they might not be able to find in another country.  Students told me all about their lists during class.  It was highly informative and quite hilarious for all sides.  Below is a list of some of the standouts:

  • Chopsticks – Because in America, we don’t know what these are, or how to use them, and we never sell them ever.  Apparently.
  • Old Dry Mom – This is the literal translation of the name of a particular hot sauce that is the Chinese equivalent of ketchup – it goes on everything.  If it’s not spicy, it’s not food, or so they tell me.  It also prompted a talk about when words should be translated, and when not.  This is an excellent example of ‘not.’
  • Some Snakes of Chongqing – After seeing this on about 5 or 6 different lists, I finally had to ask.  I’ve been in Chongqing a while now, and while snakes do appear occasionally in both soups and alcohol, neither seemed particularly popular among my students.  It turns out that ‘snake’ is the Chinglish version of ‘definate’ – just as most adults still can’t spell ‘definite’ correctly, so even my highest level students can’t spell ‘snack.’  At least now the texts that read “Teacher I bring snakes to class for you” will cause me a little less trepidation.
  • Beijing Roast Duck – A particularly delicious Chinese dish that I will miss madly upon returning to the States.  However, I do hope no one includes these in care packages, because customs is unlikely to clear any box containing a still-whole duck carcass, roasted or not.
  • Bacon – WHERE?  WHERE IS THE BACON?  I have been here for months and THERE IS NO BACON.  I accused my students of being shameless liars, and they demonstrated that in every Chinese-English translator, there is some form of pig-meat that is NOT bacon, but is nonetheless unfailingly translated as ‘bacon.’  And then they brought me ‘bacon’ the next day.  It was not bacon, and I was sad, but there is something magical about thirty students waving chopsticks at a body while shouting ‘bacon’ that would cheer anyone up.
  • Six God – Chinese mosquito repellent.  It stinks quite terribly, and is, according to Peace Corps medical staff, not to be used indoors.  I don’t know what this suggests about its toxicity, but I do know it puts most Western repellent I’ve used to shame.
  • Band-Aids – Featured on roughly 2/3 of all lists received.  America, presumably, is full of sharp things.
  • Medicine –  This also includes medicine-type things, a sampling of which includes: swabs, alcohol, stethoscope, painkillers, cold medicine, diarrhea medicine, eye lotion, sterilized bandages, scissors,  styptic (I actually had to look what what this was, props to the multiple students who 1) knew the word, and 2) are so prepared for adventure that they would actually have it sent to them in a care package), and hemostat (like I said, mad props).
  • Traditional Chinese Medicine – Definitely a separate monster from the above.  Sometimes weird, sometimes practical, always fascinating.  I encourage anyone interested to open their mind, slam this into Google, and continue to keep your mind firmly open while reading about this.  It’s worth mentioning that ‘disease theory’ and ‘germ theory’ are, in terms of cross-cultural studies, exactly that – theories, with alternate explanations offered by many cultures.  If you are interested in acupuncture, herbal medicine, yoga, or even massage, you might find aspects of Traditional Chinese medicine that ring quite true for you.
  • Housekeys – It’s important, when you’re half a planet away, to always keep your housekeys on you.  The chances of losing them in America (versus the chance of them vanishing from your mom’s cupboard drawer back home) are obviously low,  and you never know when you might need to catch a plane home to pick up a change of clothes and find yourself on your doorstep thinking “Ah, curses, I left my keys on the table next to the teapot again.”
  • Flashlights – Because in America, we don’t have lights.
  • Godmother – Will she fit in a box?  Will she survive the month in transit?  Or is this some strange combination of hot sauce and mosquito spray?  We may never know.
  • Mildewed Tote – The best kind of tote, apparently.  I never did learn what exactly this was supposed to mean.
  • “All kinds of gift with Chinese characteristics” – It was pretty incredible how consistently this appeared on lists.  Presents for foreign friends was a top-priority packing item, which speaks to the really sweet side of nearly all my students.  For anyone at home who worries about me, don’t – I have a small army of Chinese students pressing treats and kindnesses on me on a regular basis.  This has nothing to do with me, and everything to do with a culture where respect and concern can surface without fear of embarrassment.  To worry about someone, to seek out someone just to help them, is just what is done here, and there is never any shame in it, as there sometimes is in America.  It’s refreshing, it’s incredible, and I hope I can carry some bit of it back with me when I return.
  • “The things we have forgotten to bring” – And then we have the ever-practical.  Also quite nice.
  • “I need nothing but a letter from my family – my mom, father, grandmother, grandfather, sister, boyfriend, brother, cat, dog, and friends.  Everything is OK.” – Dawwww.  On a side note, I got a hug from this same student today, because, she said, “Today is Halloween, and Americans like Halloween.  So can I hug you, teacher?”  Halloween, everyone, the day of hugs.

Also, apparently, the day I finally go home and write a blog post.  I’ll dedicate this one to that student and her hug.

Happy Halloween to all my readers, and this time, I promise, we actually really will talk again soon.

Rough Goodbyes and Volleyball

Last Thursday, on August 31st, I was sworn in as an honest-to-goodness Peace Corps volunteer.  Immediately after the swearing-in banquet, I crammed myself in amongst my luggage for the four hour drive to my new home in Yongchuan, Chongqing.  I endured my first genuine Chinese banquet by making very poor Chinese conversation with each of my many bosses, survived their toasts, and then buckled down for my first cleaning session by bleaching every surface in my bathroom.  Friday, I caused minor mayhem in the supermarket, accidentally rousing what felt like half the store employees to help me in a spirited search for American cheese. Saturday, I pushed my broken Chinese to the limit by teaching my local host family (yes, we do have a host family everywhere, whether we actually live with them or not) several card games, with Go Fish being the resounding favorite of my nine-year-old host sister.

Sunday, I ate my first ice cream in Yongchuan.  It was weird, white, milky, and indescribably important.  With that ice cream, the idea that this was ‘home’ finally sunk it.

Since arriving in China, we’ve lived in what has truly been an American bubble.  No matter how foreign our surroundings might seem, we had other volunteers in close proximity.  For me, these other volunteers were the highlight of each and every day.  Even my genuinely ‘Chinese’ experiences with my host family were colored by talking about them with my volunteer classmates.  They were so much a part of my experience that leaving them last Thursday was about as painful as leaving America had been.  Perhaps more – when I left the States, it was in search of a Peace Corps adventure.  Yet here, they had become the adventure I hadn’t really expected to find, and now I was leaving that, too.

As you may know, I’m here in Yongchuan as a university English teacher.  Many of my fellow volunteers have already begun teaching – in my case, however, classes do not begin until September 15.  As I stared around my empty apartment on my first night, the idea of two weeks of bored isolation kept ringing dully in my mind.  It was not a pleasant prospect.  All I wanted was to keep busy until the pangs of missing friends passed.  If they passed – I wasn’t certain they would.  And how could I keep busy without students?  That was what I was here for!  I was prepared to be miserable.

Sunday night, at a beautiful lake park, arm-in-arm with my host-grandmother while my grandfather demanded the English name of every tangible object in sight, I swallowed a mouthful of strange white ice cream and was struck with a sudden realization.  I wasn’t bored.  I wasn’t lonely.  I certainly wasn’t miserable.  For the first time, Yongchuan felt like more than my service site.  I had wanted a service site, of course, in the abstract sort of way you want something that you can’t really picture.  Since that evening, this city has snapped into place among my Peace Corps hopes and dreams.  It has made that lovely, vague Peace Corps dream solidify, in a way even my time with fellow volunteers had not managed.  I want to be here.  I want to serve here.

In a more practical sense, that ice cream brought another revelation.  Why wasn’t I bored?  Because the wonderful people around me – namely my host family – were going out of their way to involve me in their lives.  I don’t doubt for a second that they understood just how agonizing it would be for me to pace around my apartment in crazed solitude for two weeks.

The next bite of ice cream brought with it a firm determination.  I wasn’t going to slink about itching to do stuff anymore.  Nope.  I was just going to do stuff, come hell or high water (somewhat hilariously, this is eerily accurate in Chongqing, the land of downpours and soaring temperatures).

I plan my ‘doing’ day by day, with plenty of courage breaks in between high-intensity Chinese language tasks.  For example, I had a long discussion with a storekeeper while looking for some way to hang posters.  I cheated heavily by miming, may the language-learning gods forgive me.  I also rambled quite a lot.  An exact English translation of my question, complete with awkward pauses, might begin a lot like this: “If I have…a thing…like this…that thing I want to put…here…I use what?  How can I put that thing here?”

Please keep that storekeeper in your thoughts and prayers.  I have probably scarred her in some irreparable way.  I know it took me several hours to recover.  She didn’t even laugh, the sweet, patient woman – until I started laughing, anyway.

My major – and most successful by far – act of ‘doing,’ however, has become a nightly ritual.  It was born out of desperation, frankly, as I was getting restless enough to actually consider going out and trying to describe posters to helpless people again.  I grabbed my volleyball – purchased in Chengdu to facilitate more time with other volunteers – and rocketed for the campus court.

Understand that there is one single volleyball court on a campus with three soccer fields, two tracks, perhaps twenty outdoor ping pong tables, at least as many badminton courts, and basketball courts everywhere there’s space to spare.  I have never seen anyone using the volleyball court, except to play badminton when the other courts are all full.  Volleyball doesn’t have much of a following, it seems, much less the sort of spontaneous volleyball-ing I was about to do. I did not care.  Maybe, I thought in a fit of reckless madness, the sight of a laowai (foreigner) setting a ball to herself might at least spark a conversation.

It has, every single time, done considerably more than that.

I’m never on that court longer than five minutes before someone joins me.  The first time it was an older man, who played fabulously while his beaming wife did tai chi on the sidelines, frequently shouting heartily at us when someone managed a skillful save (usually him) or flubbed an easy ball (quite often me).  The second time, yesterday, I played with a student who was also really skilled (on a sidenote, for a place where no one plays volleyball, everyone seems to have brilliant technique).  We sat down and talked for a while afterward, and I told him I wanted to play volleyball every day, because it seemed like a good way to meet people.  He said he didn’t like volleyball very much, but that he would like to play with me again sometime, pointing out (rightly so) that it would be good practice for my Chinese.

Today, I when I reached the court, I heard a mighty “Hallo!” bellowed across the stadium.  My volleyball friend was charging across the place, with two friends in tow.  He had a basketball under his arm, which he promptly dropped the moment he reached the court.  “We were waiting for you,” three grinning students informed me.  We played until we couldn’t see the ball anymore.  One of the students had never played before, but she was fearless.  At her request, we took on her boyfriend in a 2 vs. 1 game.  By the end, we were screaming delightedly like a pair of high school freshmen every time she sent the ball somewhere he couldn’t reach.  Armed with only limited Chinese volleyball vocabulary, I reached new and glorious heights under their tutelage (well, it feels that way).  Our shared hesitancy, mine with Chinese and theirs with English, faded fast with a ball getting bashed around.  And together, our Chinglish was magnificent.

Me (in Chinese): I think if tomorrow –

Her (in English): Tomorrow we can play!

Me (in Chinese): Tomorrow you can come with –

Her (in English): Tomorrow we can play with more friends!

Yes, I do think every sentence ended with an exclamation point, for everyone involved.  There was just too much excitement all around, and there is always a feeling when you’re speaking a foreign language that if you’re forceful enough, everyone will understand you.  Onlookers must have thought we were the happiest bunch of mostly-deaf volleyball players in existence.

Her (in English): I never play –

Me (in Chinese): You never play volleyball?  Really?!

Her (in English): Yes, I can’t –

Me (in Chinese): You can!  I think you learn –

Her (in English, with considerable pride): Quickly!

We played well into twilight.  It was probably the most fun I’ve had on a volleyball court in my life.  When we left, I was sent off with a chorus of “see you tomorrow!”

I have this wonderful feeling that they mean exactly that.

Icebergs and My Right to Be Me

Integrate.

Thus we have been commanded, since touching down here in China.

Imagine I’m saying that word in a deep, monotone  voice, repeatedly, unceasingly.  It rolls through our consciousness every day.  It is sometimes a subtle thing, sometimes not – we’ve had a zillion sessions on how to do it, why it’s important, how our success in this regard impacts our service.  It’s subliminal as well – from eating habits to pedestrian behaviors to dress code, we’ve picked it up automatically, in a subconscious effort to blend in a little better.  And we are, of course, internally motivated as well.  We have to integrate – because isn’t that what we all came here to do in the first place?

To integrate is to become part of a whole – culturally, though, it’s trickier than that.  It’s about being able to participate fully in a community, and to contribute to a community, which of course cannot be done without become engaged and active and involved with a culture.  It can mean eating local food, dressing like local people, adopting local customs, accepting local taboos, adhering to local traditions, and generally going a bit farther than just generically respecting from a difference.

The trick to it, Peace Corps tells us, is to alter our American way of thinking ever so slightly.  We have to teach ourselves to think in three steps: Description, Interpretation, Evaluation.  We have to ask ourselves three questions:  What do we see?  What do we think?  What do we feel?

We, as Americans, have been wired by our culture to interpret everything we see.  In other words, we have too much of the second step in our thinking, and we have very, very little of the first.  We instantly process what we experience past just describing it and jump straight into interpreting it.

For example, we were pretty darn floored by the traffic here in Chengdu – not just the amount of it, but the way it positively pummeled our senses.  Squealing tires, madly veering taxis, and the horns…dear Lord, the horns.  I was immediately under the impression was that every driver in the city was either a raving lunatic or madder than a hornet every hour of the day.

Of course, I was absolutely wrong.  As an American, I absorbed what I was seeing and hearing and instantly inferred something – and once I had inferred something, I stopped thinking about what I was seeing and hearing.  This is not Peace Corps thinking.  This is American thinking, and I’m learning – I hope – to leave more and more of that American thinking behind me.

So, if the American mind says Chengdu drivers are angry drivers, what does Peace Corps thinking say?

The Peace Corps thinking asks us to take a step back.  Stop leaping to interpret – wait, soak it in, describe it, really see it.  Don’t decide what it means.  Just watch.  It’s okay to recognize your feelings about it (like, I never want to ride an electric bike in Chengdu), but stop short when you start to make outside judgments.  Don’t think ‘they must be angry.’  Instead, see and describe.  ‘They honk their horns a lot.’  That’s a fact, observable and tangible.  That’s something you see, not something you decide.  Just look.  Just listen.

I spent a while looking at Chengdu drivers.  ‘Okay,’ I thought.  “They’re honking their horns.  A lot.  They’re leaning on their horns.  They honk before they change lanes.  They honk when they want to park and someone’s in their way.  Bus drivers honk even more.  They honk when they turn.  They honk just before they reach an intersection.  Look at their faces, though.  They don’t look angry.  Especially the bus drivers.  They look totally chill.’  This became even more noticeable with my host mom.  She’d be fully engaged in a cheerful conversation, and honking at people wouldn’t even break the flow of the discussion.

I became pretty accustomed to constant horns.  After a while, I stopped paying it any special attention.  After about three weeks here, I was standing at a bus stop, idly watching a bus closing in at high speed on some electric bikes who were putzing lazily through the bus lane in front of the station.  The bus honked, a nice long one, and the bikers looked over and cleared out – and I thought, ‘good that they honk like that, lettin’ people know they’re coming.’  And then I almost fell over.  My god, how stupid was I?  No one honks in Chengdu because they’re mad – no, they’re honking because there’s 14 million people here all trying to get somewhere and they need to communicate.  The American image of someone practically standing on their horn spitting with rage is all wrong here.  Instead, those lovely 30 second carhorn blasts are practically courteous – ‘scuse me, I’m a big ‘ole bus and I don’t want to ruin anyone’s day, so stay on your toes while I make this turn!

That’s the gist of Peace Corps thinking.  It’s also a hugely important part of integrating.  And it is equally important for maintaining sanity.  These Peace Corps sessions were actually quite hilarious when we all got to share our stories, but there’s serious importance here.  It is natural for us to think, for example (this is an excellent general example in China)  “My host family doesn’t respect me when I say ‘No.'”  When we are forced to back up and just look at what’s happening, we can describe it like this: “My host family continues to serve me food even after I say I don’t want any more.”  Another good example is “My host family has/Chinese people have no tact.”  A fellow PCV here in training with me showed me his text history, wherein his host mother had asked him “Have you diarrheaed today?”  Happily (or unhappily), I could comfort him with a story of  my host mother informing a waiter at a restaurant exactly why I didn’t want spicy food.  Another friend talked about his experience in a gym locker room, where he – um – was confronted with some Chinese stereotypes about American men.  It’s very, very easy for American minds to jump to making ‘no tact’ sort of inferences.  Instead, though, we’re working to train ourselves to take each instance for itself, and not to make judgments or assumptions based only on our American perceptions.

I want to briefly introduce you to the concepts of culture that give Peace Corps’ argument some clout.  Below is a diagram that you can find online in seconds, called the Iceberg Concept of Cultural Exchange.  This one is from the Indiana Department of Education (like it says), and I selected it because it is the most similar to Peace Corps’ that I could find in a 10 second Google Image search.

 

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The value of visualizing culture this way is to reinforce the idea that what is immediately seen and noticed about a culture cannot be immediately understood, and certainly cannot be immediately explained.  Academic study of a culture is not a genuine understanding of a culture, either, because there is just so much below the level of what outsiders can see and study that simple answers to ‘why’ are just not a good way to think.  Peace Corps thinking, in the context of this diagram, encourages us to stay at the level of the visible, rather than trying to quickly make assumptions about the deeper aspects of culture.  Those deeper concepts are very important, don’t get me wrong – but they really cannot be understood until we have begun to experience them over and over.  We would be doing ourselves a disservice to try to actively speculate on the why’s and how’s of things from which we are still too distant.  Integrating isn’t getting things immediately, but it’s going with them, flowing with them, and letting things fall into place as you become more involved in the culture.

But there is a danger in wanting to integrate – especially, I think, in the way Peace Corps volunteers want to integrate.  It’s so very important to us, and we all think it is so very essential to our service (which it surely is), that sometimes – sometimes – we risk losing touch with something more than those American ways of thinking I’ve been talking about.  Sometimes, we threaten to compromise ourselves in our endless striving for integration, and no one – not Peace Corps, not our host families, not our communities, not even us ourselves – want us to do that.

I’m not talking about anything dangerous, or unpatriotic, or even anything serious.  These are little things that happen, small things that, even as I force myself not to interpret and only to describe, still send a tiny little voice in my head crying ‘I don’t want that, that’s not me!‘  They seem insignificant on the surface, and often I think I’m being stupid to be affected by them, and so I stifle my feelings.  I unsync with myself.

If my first Chinese revelation was about dogs, and my second was regarding carhorns, then my third had nothing to do with China and everything to do with myself.  It taught me about my own identity – the value of my own identity – even amidst a foreign place where I wanted more than anything to integrate.

Our host families have been briefed – thoroughly – on Americanisms.  This includes our diets.  This includes warning that we might not want to eat some things that are commonly eaten here, and this especially includes requirements that we be told what we are eating, in case we would then choose to never, ever eat it again.  So my host mother has been quite fully prepared for me – but my dear, sweet host grandmother, who left her rural hometown to visit for a weekend, slipped under the radar.  She speaks not a lick of English, doesn’t put much stock in putonghua (standard Mandarin) either, and rather speaks a local dialect (sichuanhua) so thickly that I was lucky to pick out one word in an evening.  She  is an absolutely marvelous cook who 99% of the time has an uncanny sense for the foreign girl’s strange predilections for foods.  Because my host mother (who is a dermatologist at a massive hospital) is an incredibly busy and hard-working woman, my host grandmother took full charge of cooking that weekend, to everyone’s delight.

Meals that weekend were massive, with something like ten or twelve dishes for the four of us, and there were usually several things spicy enough to singe my throat just by looking at them.  There were also always several things made more or less specially for me, sans spice, sans that god-awful huajiao (which causes a sensation which a Mr. Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking has compared to that of “touching the terminals of a nine-volt battery to the tongue”).  Usually, a quick glance across the table informs me as to what I should jump for, and my host grandmother is happy to help by loading my bowl with her recommendations.

On this particular evening in question, a particular dish set off all the right flags, going off appearance, and my instinct was proven correct when my host grandmother dumped a fair sized portion on my plate.  I began – it was good.  I gave my host grandmother the smile and nod that we use to discuss her cooking, and she gave me the return rapid babble in sichuanhua that indicated her usual lack of surprise and her eternal willingness to serve/get/make me more.

At this point, my host mother looked up, with what seemed at the time like surprised interest but in retrospect was in fact an ‘oh-whoops, I didn’t tell her what that is that she’s eating’ sort of interest.  She pointed at the pile of food on my plate, and told me what it was.  I looked at her blankly.  You know, because I was thinking ‘haha, yeah right.’  She repeated what it was.  I looked back at the food.

I’m not going to tell my loving American friends and family what it was, because you are all much happier in ignorance.  I will tell you I looked up, gave my beaming host grandmother a second nod and smile, and finished the dish.  I will also promise you I avoided seconds.  I did all this in an absolute vacuum of emotion.

I felt so weird about that whole exchange all night.  Something felt so off.  Not anything regarding my host family, but something about myself.  I felt uncomfortable.  Uncertain.

The next morning during class, I told one of my other PC friends what had happened.  I don’t know what I expected her to say, really, but her reaction absolutely floored me.  “Reannon, if that had been me, I would have been furious!”

I gaped at her.  She stared at me.  And then we had a long talk.  Thank god for that talk.

What had happened that night – the reason I felt so uncomfortable in my own skin afterward – really wasn’t about the food.  It was about integrating, about trying so hard to trade the American mind for the Peace Corps mind that I’d basically shoved my own mind aside.  I’d forgotten about the third step in the cross cultural exchange.  How did I feel?

“I do feel disgusted,” I admitted hesitantly to my friend, and the longer we talked the more confident I became, and the more comfortable I became with the memory of the experience.  “I’ve got the right to feel disgusted.”  I couldn’t just watch and listen and nod and smile – I also had to feel.  I had to – that’s part of who I am, and if I kept smothering that, I would have been sick with misery and never known why.

That’s not to say I should have thrown up my hands in horror at the dinner table.  Honestly, I would probably have eaten it anyway, because my host grandmother is a rockstar and I would still eat anything she made specially for me with specially-for-her gusto.  I would have felt so, so much better, though, if I’d been self-aware instead of just culturally aware.  Simply recognizing, internally, that I had powerful feelings about what was happening, rather than blanking out as I had done instead, is something that remains within my power and is my right.  Neither Peace Corps nor my host family has ever wanted to take that right from me.  The only person who had not recognized that right was myself.

I can tell you right now, that classroom conversation with a friend has already changed my Peace Corps experience for the better.  In many ways, it was the most important conversation I have had so far.  It doesn’t matter how far below the surface the iceberg goes – I’m not going to toss my feelings aside to go diving after it again.  When I dive, my heart’s coming with me – and that includes personal opinions about what belongs on the dinner table.

There are Still Golden Retrievers

At last, I’m finally surfacing after several weeks of silence.  Life here has been an utter madhouse for the last two weeks, in good ways and bad ways and every possible way under the sun.  It’s been delightful.  It’s been infuriating.  We’ve all felt horrified and exhilarated and exhausted and invigorated depending on the day and the hour and the moment.

My fellow volunteers and I have sat around together and tried to describe what is going on in our heads and hearts, and after trying for a while, it feels like it’s impossible.  We can’t articulate it.  Whenever I try to think through what’s happening here, I imagine my brain as some kind of hopeless stew that some poor failed culinary students threw together out of bits and pieces from two completely different recipes.  It’s a weak metaphor, but it’s the best a hopeless stew brain can do right now.  And yet, when I look around helplessly at the China 20s around me, and hear them fumble for the words to describe their day, or their mood, or their wonderful and horrible five hour trip up a mountain during their first day with their host family, who speak next to no English, where they saw blue sky and looked down on clouds from a summit monastery and dropped their shoe in a latrine-style squat toilet – when I listen to them, and to myself, I realize we understand each other perfectly, and that we might very well be the only people who ever understand.

To you who read this in America, whoever I am to you, however much I love you and you love me, please realize this, because one day I might myself forget this and try to tell you how important, how precious, how exhausting, how frustrating a moment was, and it might not make any sense to you.  We can’t make sense of it ourselves – but we can see the understanding in each other, and thank God for that.

Whew.  That was a heavy start.  It’s been a heavy two weeks.

Let me give a brief explanation for why we are reeling so wildly having not yet been gone a month.

On the 4th of July, we moved in with our host families. In what we originally interpreted as an act of kindness, Peace Corps had given us the entire weekend off from training, beginning Friday afternoon, to settle in with our host families. We thought, “Ah, at last, a few days to relax, to catch up on sleep, to recover from the initial hyperactivity and terror of our first few Chinese lessons, to do laundry, to take a break from the trauma (and, of course, the delight, I do wearily acknowledge the delight) of fumbling through feeding ourselves at different Chinese restaurants every meal, to get a bit of space from the rest of the volunteers, whom we’ve spent every last second of the past two weeks with, to escape the seemingly endless PC orientation sessions on diarrhea, underwear washing, diarrhea, Chinese ATMs, diarrhea, a hundred different techniques to say ‘no, thanks’ to baijiu (at best, a hard-hitting whiskey – at worst, think moon-shine), and also diarrhea – a weekend with my host family is just what the doctor ordered!”

Ha. Ha.

My host family is utterly fantastic. My host mother is a dermatologist who finished her post-doctoral work at Stanford, my host father is a nuclear engineer, and my host sister skipped 7th grade in China to attend a middle school in America (literally skipped it – none of her USA classes counted in her Chinese school, and let’s face it, she didn’t exactly have access to a 7th grade level Mandarin class). They all speak excellent English, and are much more understanding of my “Americanisms” than I have any right to expect. They have also been incredibly gracious, both with their time and their money, and are extremely driven to show me parts of Chinese culture, history, and literature that they don’t expect my Peace Corps experience will allow me to see (and rightly so). I am wildly grateful, and continually astounded by how gracefully they have accepted me into their lives.

They have introduced me to Chinese poetry, taken me to a Sichuan museum of culture and arts, taught me easily twice again my original Chinese vocabulary, shown me the art and importance of serving tea, taken me to a 100 year old tea house, included me in their membership at several athletic swimming pools, and taken me to World Cup games in coffee shops in the wee hours of the night (they are not soccer fans themselves). They have continually introduced me to new Chinese or Sichuan foods, given me crash courses in Chinese history, taken me on a tour of Chinese hospital, and showed me around the biggest building in the world. They have bought me strawberry everything when they detect I am feeling stressed (incidentally, while I like strawberry, it is not my absolute favorite flavor of everything – I will never correct them, ever, in my life, because being handed a strawberry ice cream or oreo or yogurt or cocktail or strange goopy bowl of ‘strawberry’ stuff “because I think you need some right now and I know it is your favorite” is up there among the sweetest things anyone has ever done for me). They have found Italian salad dressing for me. I’m still not sure how – if this extremely American-familiar family has to hold a half-hour conference stretching across two supermarkets discussing ‘salad juice,’ I really was beginning to doubt that Italian salad dressing existed here at all.  They have taught me how to kill cockroaches half the size of my foot, how to eat with chopsticks, how to navigate the Chengdu bus system (this is probably more worthy of college credit than half the courses I took in school), and how to find a parking spot in a Chinese city.  They have taken me to a Sichuan Opera, which is hands down the coolest thing I’ve seen while I’ve been here, and given me the magnificent experience of watching a master of the Erhu, which struck me in the moment as an absolute high point of my life.

My fabulous host family has created the best moments of my China experience so far.  Yet it must be selfishly said that they have been part of the most stressful moments as well.  China Pre-Service Training is already about a 48 hour work week for me, plus the Chinese study, and when model school began this week, I’m now spending a minimum of two hours a night working on lesson planning and prep.  Assuming the rest of the time was my own, I would be pretty darn busy.

The rest of the time is never my own.  In order to give me these wonderful experiences, my host family takes up most of the time I have left.  It is a challenge to find time to sleep, much less time to unwind.  They want to teach me China – all of China, immediately – and they want to teach me Chinese – all the Chinese, immediately.  Simultaneously, they want me to meet all of their friends and family, all of whom are wonderful and most of whom are hilarious, and to communicate with these friends and family in, as I have said, ‘all the Chinese, immediately.’  It’s excellent practice, but Lord, the brainwork involved could power a spaceship, if mush stew could ever power anything.

They also, without realizing, have occasionally led me straight into culture shock (and other sorts of shock) scenarios that drive whatever sorry sum of Chinese I have straight out of my head.  Like my loving American readers, they can’t understand why something simple sends me reeling like it was the biggest/best/worst thing in the world.  I’ll put some examples below.

  • Water, says my host family.  Drink water, they say.  You get dehydrated if you don’t, they say.  I still don’t know how to get water in my host family’s house.  It’s some arcane process that occasionally graces us for reasons known only to my host family, and they are not telling.  Whenever I ask if they can show me how they filter/boil/whatever they do to get water, they say, “yes, wait a moment” and make me sit down.  And then they bring me tea.
  • The cat.  I’m living with a cat.  Her name is Tissue (because she’s white…?) and she is 4 months old, and she is soft and warm and adorable, and I spend half my time trying to get her off my computer or out of the honey jar or prying her teeth out of my clothing, which she has decided makes marvelous dental floss. Yes, I know lots of Americans have cats.  And yes, if on any given day I’m feeling irritable or stressed or exhausted, it is at least partially to do with the ‘culture’ of cats.
  • The swimming pool.  Wait, scratch that.  The swimming pool has nothing on the locker room.  I’ll skip the beginning of the story and go straight to the end – the curtain is closing on a locker room full of unclothed Chinese ladies and a single mortified, unclothed American (guess who) and as these Chinese ladies conclude their hearty discussion about my everything, one of them turns to the American with a beaming smile the size of China itself and says “Chi le ma?” (Have you eaten? – it’s a customary Chinese greeting, equivalent to the English “How are you?” that no one ever truthfully answers.  As fate would have it, I processed the meaning, but did not learn the customary colloquial until class several days later, where my teacher paused in her instructions to ask why I was laughing).  I challenge anyone who thinks they have a healthy appreciation for the absurd until they have been ‘chi le ma?’ed whilst shampooing their hair.
  • The windows.  I hear apologies ten times a day about the air quality and the mosquitoes and how hot it is outside, and even as I hear this, the windows all over the house are being joyfully flung wide.  The windows, I’m told, must be open for at least half an hour in the morning, “for health.”  It is a strange paradox, to my American mind, that ‘health’ can flow into one’s house with a train of mosquitoes and humidity and smog and screaming car horns – and yet, I once found myself backtracking on my route to class in the morning, driven by the vague but persistent feeling that the ephemeral ‘health’ of the morning might be missed since I’d forgotten to open my window.
  • Spicy foods, and oily foods.  These are inescapable, and are especially inconvenient, as one of my fellow PC trainees delicately and succinctly put it,  “in the context of squat toilets.”
  • On the topic of food – the question “What would you like?”  No matter my answer, I am inevitably given something different from whatever it is that I say I like.  Nearly without exception, I am given something vaguely related to my request, but bigger.  More expensive.  ‘Better,’ is the definite vibe in the room.  “Just rice,” I say, and now I have rice and duck and eggplant.  We go to the dairy, and the thought of fresh, cold milk is wonderful, so I say “milk” and am handed a massive bowl of sweet yogurty something (with strawberries, of course).
  • “How many times?”  This question was posed by my host mother, replacing ‘hello,’ ‘goodbye,’ and ‘how was school’ for about a week every time I entered the room or called home.  I shan’t trouble you with details – suffice it to say it concerns spicy/oily foods and that most emphasized of Peace Corps training sessions.  We’ve all had it, and we’ll all have it again, but that doesn’t mean I need to describe it to everyone in hearing range (my little sister, fellow Peace Corps trainees, the waiter, everyone on the public bus)  every time.

 

There you go – a few nuggets on which to chew.  I would be writing this forever if I wanted to list them all – and I could write forever about this, truth be told.  It’s absurd, and hilarious, and always fascinating.  I’ll leave you with a high point, though.  This, I think, might be the sort of moment that will sound mundane to my Western world connections.  Bear with me.  If it seems silly, that’s okay.  It seems silly now I write it, at least a little bit.  But it didn’t feel silly.  It still doesn’t, and I don’t believe it ever will.

It was a moment with a  dog.  Lord, that dog.

Like I’ve said, I’ve met many family and friends and friends of friends and family of friends, and one of these family friends’ friends have a dog.  She’s a golden retriever.  My host family told me about her when we were on our way there, but they didn’t know the English name for the breed, and all they said was these friends have “a fat dog that gets sick a lot.”  I’ve seen a lot of dogs here, actually.  Some have people, and look happy, and gambol about leash-free after their owners with what seems like a higher awareness of traffic dangers than most Chinese people (and way higher than us lao wai).  Some have no people, are equally traffic-savvy, and are likely carrying a thousand lovely presents that I really don’t want on my skin or in my bloodstream.

I had yet to see the sort of dog I think of as ‘my sort of dog.’  You know the ones: big, hairy, slobbery fellas that will knock you over and stick their long noses in your face and grace you with their doggy breath.  I wondered, briefly, in the car on the way to these friends’ apartment, if they might maybe have a cool dog, but dismissed the thought quickly.

But when that front door opened and this huge, happy golden retriever came bounding out…there really aren’t words.  It was like being hit by a bus, if that bus was the happiness bus and getting hit by it made me forget I was in China and that everything and everyone around me made no sense – no.  That’s absolutely wrong.  It made me remember that I was in China and there were still people who had golden retrievers.  I spent the entire evening curled around that dog, chattering happily (and probably mostly incoherently) in Chinese to these delighted pet owners who got down on the floor and played with us, too.  A week later, the memory can still hoist me out of the worst moods.  If the most beautiful thing so far has been the sound of that Erhu on the opera stage, the happiest moment – out of many, many happy moments – was the shock of that dog.

That dog was my first revelation.  I’ll call it my first China Moment.  For the first time, I let go of the differences and found something so familiar it nearly took me out at the knees.  I am in China, and there are still golden retrievers, and people who love them, and people who love people who play with their dogs.

There have been a thousand happy moments here.  Please don’t think I was miserable until this dog, and have been miserable since.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  I am happy – I am so happy that it’s exhausting.  It is only that this dog let me touch something I had given up for lost without ever realizing I’d lost it in the first place.  It let me find my feet again after alternatively whizzing around sky-high and stumbling around in confusion.  It was a grounding point.  It was, in a way, my most important conversation so far.

 

Once more, I have begun a ‘short’ post and ended it several days and too many words later.  Apologies!  Once PST ends, we are told (heh, ingest with more than a few grains of salt) we will have a great deal more time.  Perhaps I will then be a bit better about keeping these shorter and more frequent.  The best to all of you, and we’ll chat again soon (er).