Saturday, August 06, 2011

Chengdu and Thoughts about Homestay

I have moved to Chengdu, a bustling metropolitan city, big, a place I can't explore by foot in a day, a place whose neighborhoods are as big as my Gansu city.  For me Chengdu, has always been a vacation spot, the place you go for Peace Corps trainings, a place where you might spend 10 times more than what you usually spend for a meal since it's a special occasion.  You're getting per diem, and it's only a few times a year that your tongue can have the special treat of raw fish, hummus, bacon, and a bottomless cup of Joe. 
Now though I've become a resident. 
Instead of an African village with once a week transport out on dirt roads or a small Chinese city with a population of over 200,000, I am in a city of millions.  I am in a city with a diversity of international food, entertainment, people, and places.  There's even rugby; however, unlike Seattle where I had enough to spend freely to feed my desire for film, theater, and food, I now must be careful with my money and resist temptation.  Will I have the self-control to face what every volunteer encounters when living in an expensive city?
Cities are exciting and can be cheap.  Biking, buses, a subway, and eating out can all be inexpensive.  Exploring the streets, and going to free concerts and tiny restaurants will be fun.  Finding bike routes out of the city will be great.
Currently I am living in a hotel.  My flat isn't ready yet.  Monday I will be moving in with a host family for a week just like all the other PC trainees who will be on site visit.
When the idea of having trainees live with host families during site visits was being discussed by the training staff, I would often discuss with other PCVs the pros and cons of having a temporary host family in the city you'd be working in for two years.  The biggest disadvantages were
-being used as the foreign face to be shown off to the community
-being requested to teach English
-having a forced relationship in a new community with people whom you might not get along with and who might be hard to avoid
-having work and social boundaries blurred as you might live with a counterpart, a colleague, or a boss
These challenges can be a bit daunting if you haven't figured out how to cope with China yet, like how to tell white lies, how to indirectly say no, how to smile to create harmonious relationships and how to feel at peace with the extremely long social obligations of a single day when you would prefer some privacy and alone time.  A homestay though is a perfect opportunity to learn about Chinese culture and the local community.  Also, it is a time to grow and evolve into a person who knows how to meet one's own needs and desires as well as learn how to implement boundaries in culturally appropriate ways.
As a veteran volunteer, even though I'm fully aware of all the potential frustrations of living with a host family, I am super excited about living with a Chinese family.  Why?
-I can improve my Chinese.
-I can learn about the school, the neighborhood, the people, the pockets of activity and the local customs.
-I can start forming relationships, guanxi, a network of people with whom I can exchange favors.
-I can learn so much by living with a host family like finding the best ways to get my needs and desires met like a new mobile phone number, names of local dishes, a massage place, a place to take martial arts, buy a bike, bus routes, and where to buy yarn.
I like being independent and like feeling successful when I have accomplished something on my own; however, even though I've lived in China for three years and one could assume I can speak a bit of Chinese and can do things by myself, it is still a lot easier and more efficient when community members are helping me.  Most of the time people are happy to help.  At least in theory, when community members are happy, the whole community benefits from the harmony created by helping each other.  (*wink*  Theory and practice don't always match.  I have had plenty of frustrating moments trying to navigate Chinese culture and relationships while trying to keep the well-being of the community harmonious and peaceful.)

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