Although I’ve always fancied that I am a kumquat in the game of “if you were a fruit, what fruit would you be?” apparently I evoke responses of cuteness and apple-ness as well. That was the first remark I got when I was introduced to the medical assistant in the PC office here.
Yes indeed, I’m finally in China after a month and a half of slacking in the States. I spent one week in Chengdu for training and then took a 12 hr overnight train to arrive in Panzhihua, my site, this morning. It’s been an interesting experience so far. I can already see that the challenges of PC China (or shall we say U.S.-China Friendship Volunteers) are totally different from what we had in PC Bolivia. I am living in a city of 1 million people in southern Sichuan province, I have a washing machine and internet access in my massive apartment, and I have what appears to be a real job here as a university teacher. I blend in better than any other volunteer (it puts my sunglasses Bolivian disguise to shame) and am more likely mistaken for being mentally handicapped based on my level of Mandarin and blank looks following questions in Sichuan dialect rather than applauded for my feeble Spanish and Quechua. But there are some threads that tie my experience in Bolivia to what I see here. We’re still fulfilling the 3 Peace Corps’ goals of providing skilled people where they are needed and cultural exchange…and even the mountains surrounding Panzhihua make me think of las montañas del Valle Alto. So far, I’m very hopeful about what my experience can be here though. I spent a lot of my time in the States feeling guilty for not accomplishing what I had hoped to during my time in Bolivia and the choice I made to leave what I had started in Bolivia to go halfway around the world and start over in a move that can only really be called selfish. Finally arriving in China has helped me to move on and think about the future though. When I finish my work with Peace Corps, I will have spent more time in China than Bolivia and will hopefully have a better mastery of Chinese than Spanish. I hope that I will help students improve their English to the best of their abilities and that I will learn how to teach in the process. I have high hopes for my language skills and dreams of HSK success, but those are tempered by the fact that in contrast to where Spanish was critical for my work in Bolivia, Chinese is not especially necessary in being a successful teacher. Also, I will be teaching English majors who have blown me away in the classes that I observed with their huge vocabularies and overall knowledge beyond any English students that I encountered in Bolivia. It seems as if what they really need is just to practice all the knowledge that they have stored in their impressive memories and my job is to make sure that what they can read and write can be used in practical oral speech as well.
I’m actually not going to be teaching for a few months though…since I don’t have any formal classroom teaching experience (minus 10 student classes with Literacy Volunteers), I’m going to be spending the next two months observing classes and planning for next semester. Then we’ll all go on the long break for Chinese New Year and then I will start anew in February with a new class of students (hopefully having blazing success!). There are two other foreign teachers here, Claire, another PCV who has been here since Fall 2007, and Michael, a friend of another PCV that is in Panzhihua at another university. Other than us 4 Americans though, the expat community is pretty much nonexistent (this contrasts greatly with the concentration in Chengdu and Chongqing). We’re also pretty isolated from other volunteers which is a double-edged sword (hah, gotta start practicing those idioms so I can teach them to my students, did I even use that right? maybe I should call it a mixed blessing). It probably helps us integrate better into Chinese culture and concentrate more on the language without the distraction of going out with volunteers and expats every weekend, but getting to hang out with other volunteers is half the PC experience and we’re really too far away to even get together with others during weekends when there are holidays. Plus it stinks that I got to know some of the volunteers in Chengdu but it’s possible I might only see them once more before they finish their service since they are all in the group that came in 2007. Some of the more memorable experiences during my time in Chengdu were my first Sichuan hot pot and shaokao along with karaoke and getting to see the other volunteers teach as well as their secondary projects. I got to observe an English language singing contest that is held annually at one of the schools (one girl even sang Tori Amos and it was freaking awesome), a hip hop class that one of the volunteers teaches, and a lecture on American food that culminated in a sandwich making contest. The best part probably being the cute little Chinese students that did not know that mustard and peanut butter probably are not the best combination which resulted in their classmates that were the judges running out of the room to spit out the atrocious combinations that they were forced to try. Something tells me that those students do not have a very good impression of the American sandwich. Jelly and red onion anyone? I also had a lot of laughs from the English names chosen by students (and teachers!)…I met a teacher named Tomato and there were students with colorful names such as Moon, Jujubur, Fish, Lantern, and Auntie. Yes, there are fun times to be had in China!