Tuesday, April 26, 2011

New Commute

When I first arrived at my college, the leaders said, "The old campus will move to the new campus because our school has been sold to a middle school."

Seniors said, "Oh they've been saying that since I was a freshman."

The first year went by, then the second, and finally in the last semester of my third year, I no longer see students on my campus.  Everyone is in the countryside, 5 kilometers away, in a dust bowl surrounded by farmland.

There is a public bus that stops running at 7 pm.  There is a school bus that shuttles teachers to and from their flats to their classrooms 4 times a day.  The last two buses from new campus back to the living quarters are at 5:40 pm and 9:30 pm.  

Because of the inconvenient bus schedule, I am biking to and from campus every day sometimes twice a day.  Some days like on Monday I will leave my home at 7:10 am, arrive at 7:30, have 4 hours of morning class, eat lunch, hang out in the Tree House, have 2 hours of class, then head home arriving around 5 pm.  

If the Tree House English Community Center had been open on Monday, I would have stayed till 7 pm on new campus.  Unfortunately all freshmen and sophomores from all departments are rehearsing performances from 4:30-6 pm which means the Tree House workers are busy.  The new hours of the Tree House are 6:30-7:30 pm.  I need to bike home before dark which makes the new hours a bit difficult.

The commute is physically easy:  20 minutes down the incline pushed by the wind then 30 minutes back home pedaling up the 5% grade against the wind, eating dust, and closing my eyes as the air becomes full of particles.

Psychologically the commute is stressful.  It is a new lifestyle.  Instead of leaving my house five minutes before class, I am leaving 30-40 minutes early.  I am spending more time away from my flat than in my flat.  I am spending more time surrounded by students, having lunch with students, having dinner with students, resting with students between classes as they visit the Tree House whenever the door is open.

It just takes some adjustment.  I remember the first few months at site in Africa feeling the emptiness of having nothing to do.  Leaving the fast pace of America where you do a million things in one day in order to feel like you have done something, I had to adjust to the slower pace of a new lifestyle.  I learned how to feel a sense of accomplishment if I was able to do instead of 20 things in one day to do one thing per day like sweeping and mopping the floor. I am once again faced with a change in pace, a change in lifestyle.  It is exciting, a bit stressful, and tiring as I have to adjust to my new commute.  I have faith though that soon I will be feeling at peace again.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

3rd COS Conference

COS (close of service) conferences in my opinion have never been a carefree easy-going time in my life.  They are full of paperwork, medical exams, language exams, lists of things to do.  They keep your head busy trying to figure out what to do about the future, reflecting about the past and talking in group therapy sessions about re-integrating into the US of A as well as feeling the weight that this might be the last time we see our fellow PCVs.

Even though I wasn't being evacuated out of Guinea with 105 other volunteers, this 3rd conference in China was also stressful.  It was like my COS conference in Burkina were I was the odd man out, the transfer from a different African country into a country full of close-knit volunteers who survived PST (pre-service training) together.  The China group wasn't as close though since there were several training sites so even amongst the 40 some volunteers they didn't really all know each other.  I wasn't a complete stranger having actually formed a few casual and close ties in Gansu over the past year.

Why was this year's COS conference stressful?

1.  It is overwhelming reflecting about the past two years, three years, five years of service.  How does one make a 2 minute sound byte about this amazing experience that caused so much growth as a person?  How does one answer the following questions with a minute to think about it?  

An attitude or value that I held before I left home, but now reject is... 
An idea about human nature that I now understand more thoroughly and deeply is... 
Through this experience one of the most important things I discovered about myself was...  
One of the most important things I discovered about people whose backgrounds are different from mine was...

A minute to try to come up with an answer is wow pretty overwhelming.  The thoughts and emotions that explode as you reflect, yep emotional overload.

2.  The future...  Many PCVs go back to school, grad school, law school, massage school.  Out of the group they feel the least pressure other than feeling a bit worried about finding housing and making sure all their school paperwork is in order as well as feeling a bit anxious  about whether or not spending two years in a slower paced culture will be detrimental to their re-integration into the faster school pace of the USA.  Others return to retired life and a few of us have to enter the job market.  Hearing the horror stories of RPCVs (returned PCVs) spending months looking for jobs having to work the minimum wage ones to keep themselves fed is disheartening especially since even today 6 months after COSing they still haven't found anything.

For me it was especially stressful because I have applied for the Chengdu PCV leader position.  PC China would love for me to accept this position; however, I have decided to accept only if I get an airplane ticket home for a 30 day special leave.  Being a volunteer for a sixth year would not be worth the money, but would be worth the vacation days.  

I value time off which America doesn't value as much.  America tends to value high salaries and not amazing 1-2 month vacation benefits.  Who gets to decide if I will be given 30 days special leave?  PC Washington, its budget and its policies for extending volunteers.  So at COS conference as everyone was talking about their future plans, I sat sitting on a fence going through the motions of a COSing volunteer.  In reality, my head was in mental uncertainty- will I be in Chengdu for another year or will I be back in the USA?

Stress turned into Hope

There was a career panel made up of RPCVs and one of them gave me a lot of hope.  He was a PCV in Nepal and spent a year and half looking for a job when he returned to the states.  Before joining PC as a volunteer, he had graduated with a masters in engineering and no longer wanted to do engineering.  PC helped him change careers from science to international work.

Hearing his story gave me hope about my future.

His advice:  When you get back to the states, enjoy your family, but don't get stuck on the couch.  Leave the place of comfort and take a calculated risk by moving to a new place which will force you to figure out what you want.  

Where am I thinking about going if I don't get the PCVL position in Chengdu?
New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, or Washington D.C.

Saturday, April 09, 2011


In my freshmen oral English class, we have been practicing using different occupation vocabulary and argument skills by doing an activity called Save Humanity:  Going to Mars.  There is an epidemic on earth and the last healthy survivors are in the classroom.  We built a rocket and have to choose seven people to go to Mars to save humanity.

The students always pick the surgeon, the scientist, the engineer, and the construction worker.  They also never pick all males or all females.  There are always at least two females where one is in her late twenties and the other is 40 years old.

After each group decides on their seven people, I always ask, "So how many babies will your seven people be able to have to help humans survive for the next generation?"

Students reply, "One baby."
Some will be braver and will reply with a larger number, "Five babies."
Even the group who picked four females to go to mars only replied, "Eight babies."

Rarely do they say twenty or more babies where a female could have a baby every 1-2 years.

I tell the students, "With so few babies, when the older generation dies, there will be fewer people than you started with.  Plus if you only have one baby how will that baby have more children?"

I then ask, "At what age will a woman not be able to have babies anymore?"

I get answers all over the map, "35 years old!  40!  45!  65!"

In my mind, I am thinking, "Wow...Interesting."

Friday, April 08, 2011

Haka Statue in China

Photograph taken by M. Verillaud

I have always admired the Maori haka from New Zealand which I first encountered watching the All Blacks Rugby team.  Doesn't this statue in China remind you of the haka?

3 Day Weekend: Meiji Shan

Photograph taken by M. Verillaud
I went to Tianshui, met a fellow PCV M. who traveled from Lanzhou and crashed with a welcoming PCV, L. who bought a humongous chunk of beef.  She had a grill on her balcony and I spent an hour using paper and small green sticks trying to light big chunks of black coal.  Fanning the smokey fumes my knitted red sweater has a new perfume that I am not sure will ever come out.  

One thing I have learned during my life abroad, persistence and patience often leads to success.  Don't give up even if you have very little expertise in lighting fires.  You know the theory so just do it.  Don't give up if your eyes are crying from smoke and you feel your confidence dying as the freakin chunks of coal won't light into hot white embers.  The challenge of starting a fire teaches new skills and no I haven't changed the world, but as a PCV we redefine success.  Et voila I started a fire and felt the sparks of happiness about that tiny accomplishment. Success!  We had yummy grilled steaks.  

I love steak!  I do not like Chinese western restaurants' imitation of steak and have stopped ordering them so having a thick slab of grilled beef was heaven.  Plus L. also made a wonderful eggplant coconut curry served along with Korean kimchi bought from Xian.

Travel tips: Meiji Shan
1.  Tianshui has two cities.  The train station is in one of them.   Then if you want to go to the main city, take bus 6 (3 RMB) from the train station.  It is about a 30 minute ride through the countryside to the main city.  
2.  If you are traveling to and from Lanzhou, train tickets are sometimes hard to get, but there are MANY buses to and from Tianshui, a bit more expensive than a train ticket but more comfortable.  Train or bus, both are about 4 hours.  There are buses in front of the train station as well as buses at the long distance bus station in the main city.
3.  In front of the train station, there are buses to Meiji Shan, 5 RMB (bus 34 or other random buses whose money collectors will just shout Meiji Shan).  It is about a 30-40 minute ride.
4.  Tickets are 70 RMB unless you are a student.  Then it is half price.  If you have a group of 10 people, then the ticket will be 62 RMB.  If you don't want to walk up to the mountain you can take a shuttle for 8-10 RMB.  The walk is about 30 minutes up an easy incline along a concrete road.
5.  If you have free time, you can spend a day hiking and exploring the surrounding hills.

Saturday, April 02, 2011


I have been teaching non-stop for two weeks and today, Saturday will be my last fours hours of teaching before a three day weekend for the Tomb Sweeping Holiday.

I am teaching non-stop because not only do I have 4 hours of class per day, I also am interviewing my seventy Grade 2 writing students, 3-4 hours each day where each student receives 20-30 minutes of instruction.  Their national English exam is coming up and each of them have different problems with punctuation, grammar, organization/structure, or ability to express complex ideas.  I function better on a one on one level.  There is a sense of great accomplishment when helping the students with their own particular weaknesses and praising their strengths, but it is an exhausting job.  Usually I am pretty good at finding the best way to be a good teacher without putting in overtime.  This semester though... I don't know what happened.  Sometimes I care too much.

Teaching non-stop for two weeks?  What about the weekend?  Don't you get a break?

Last weekend for a Peace Corps Project Design and Management Workshop, five us, three student Treehouse managers and two volunteers went to Chengdu for two nights.  Chengdu is FAR!  It is a 22 hour trip by bus then train, but because PC didn't want us to miss class, they flew us.  It was still a LONG trip.  4 hours by taxi and an hour flight plus all the in between time of waiting for take off and navigating a large city to arrive at your final destination. We left at 8 am and arrived at 5:30 pm just in time for dinner.  Four out of the five us are prone to motion sickness.  Travel is not especially fun for us.

This trip was productive because we worked on two projects, Operation Treehouse and a women's club.  The Treehouse English Resource and Community Center is well established.  What can we improve?  In two weeks, we are abandoning the old campus moving to the newly constructed new campus.  Instead of only having 5 departments nearby, we will now have 15 departments.  There be a whole new community that the Treehouse will hopefully find ways to meet the English learning needs of.

The weekend was exhausting.  First we were being urged to have an American work ethic where from 9-5 pm we spend every minute trying to accomplish something with only an hour lunch instead of the Chinese 2.5 hour break.  Second, because we brought students, we were on full English teacher mode helping them understand English, pushing them to communicate their ideas, and giving them confidence to present.  They were afraid that if they spoke English in front of the group, they would embarrass us and their teachers would lose face.  Little did they know that the more they talked, presented their their own ideas and showed how invested they were in the project, the better it made us look.  It was no longer only a Peace Corps volunteer's project, but a collaborative effort that was working towards being self-sustainable.

The third reason why the weekend was exhausting was because after work, we had to be good Chinese hosts and keep everyone happy by keeping them busy and entertained having non-stop conversations, eating hot pot, shopping, and sight seeing.  I am a person who NEEDS alone time, but in China often the only moments to be alone are when you say good night and go to bed.  I did get a nice chunk of alone time while sitting on a warm grounded plane in Chengdu for 1.5 hours before flying back to Xian.

It was a productive weekend and I am glad I went even though I am tired and have caught a cold.  The students appreciated the opportunity to make the Treehouse better and to improve their English as well as experience American culture.

Next bit of news which is also leading to my exhaustion is I am considering staying for a sixth year as a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader.  It is a new position in China and mainly involves supporting volunteers as well as Peace Corps staff.  I have been a teacher for five years.  I have adapted and integrated into three different communities.  It would be interesting to shift from being a volunteer who has survived five years of challenges to using my experience to help other volunteers problem solve and meet their own goals while living in China.

Any thoughts, comments, advice about this upcoming decision?