Only in Dreams

I’ve been thinking about sleeping lately. I never really notice when I go to sleep, I just eventually realize that I am dreaming. I always dream. It is always more weird to me when I wake up without dreaming. Those rare nights when time just skips between night and day, missing all the adventures in places that never were. Even so, over the past few months, I have been dreaming more than ever.

There is a man who attacks me. I don’t know who he is or why. I block his attack and knock him out of his shoes before his friend joins in. Fighting is normal at this point, and it is rare that I lose. Only in dreams though. I have never really fought here in China, because there is no place to do so. No violence in the kung fu, but still I dream of fighting.

One of my friends here dreamed that when I was going to leave, they fell down and pretended to be sick to keep me here. That is actually more touching than the people who talk about missing me. To have your own brain panic about what to do when I leave is an amazing thing. I don’t really know that there is a better way to know I will be missed.

We talked about dreams, about what they mean and why they are a part of life. None of my friends here have had the flying dreams like I have, at least not that they remember. None of them remember crashing like I have either, hitting the ground hard but still not waking up. The only bad part about it is that after crashing I can’t fly again, like the Earth has a hold of me and won’t let go again.

One of them has the ability to realize he is dreaming, but he always uses it to wake himself up rather than enjoying the adventure his mind has ahead. They focus on moving a hand, then they pull themselves out of the dream. It’s rare that I want that. The only time I force myself awake is when the dreams become frustrating, when I simple can’t do what I want to do. I get annoyed, and I just pull out.

That is a more recent development. Now, I always seem to know when I am dreaming. It’s not in the front of my mind, but rather a feeling behind everything I do. Sometimes I will trust it and begin to take control, but the dream has its own voice, and I can rarely do much to change the story it is telling. I am still not really sure I want to take control. I am not the great storyteller that my dreamer is. The madness and adventure are beyond anything I could create.

I have begun to go to bed telling myself to look forward to the adventure, relaxing into the story to come. A part of me even wishes I could sleep more, to travel in the realms beyond this world. A part of me wonders if there is more to it than just what is in my mind, that dreams connect to something beyond ourselves. That would be an adventure, a world beyond imagination.

But in the waking hours I know they are just stories that I tell myself, processing my life and giving form to all that is in my heart and mind. That is still an amazing thing, but I will always dream of adventure.

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Posted in 2019-05, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

It’s hard to know what I have really done here over the past couple years. It is hard to know the effect I have really had, or if anything was really successful. It was a time of change for my university, and maybe I could have done more, but there has always been a distance between myself and the other teachers. It has always been difficult for me to read my students, to really know if they are paying attention.

There was something I was reading recently, a quote that raised the idea that you will never really know whose lives you will impact or how. I always remember a story I was told about a couple of friends back in San Diego. They said they only became friends because of me. I remember the day, but nothing of what I said or did. I can guess, I can hope, I can listen, but I can never really know. The few that are really close to me tell me some times, and I know there is some change in their lives that wouldn’t exist without me, but decades after I am gone there will still be a ripple.

At least, that is what I hope. The cascade of change, however small, to make people’s lives better. That is why I am here. But I will never know. As a sociologist, I know most of my work will be absorbed by the masses. In any society, change is slow and deviation is suspect. The only time a society changes quickly is a revolution, and few of those are even remotely peaceful.

Most students here see my methods as a deviation from the norm, not something they can really expect from the other teachers. I’m sure they will remember, hopefully fondly, but the reality is that what I teach does not necessarily have any value in their worlds. They cannot question their bosses without risk of being fired. They cannot question the social norms without having society bear down on them, pressuring them to stay in line. They cannot really question much at all.

I am hoping that spending the last couple years trying to teach them to ask questions will help them, but it is really hard to know. It’s fairly common that the people at the top do not like to be questioned, and standing out can often make you as much a target as a success. I believe in questions, more than I ever believed in answers. The right questions and an open mind can change the world.

That is a rare thing though. The people I celebrate, the people I truly want to succeed, they are few and far between. They still have to live in the society they question, and since they are local, they are expected to follow the crowd. The road less traveled here is still mostly empty, even with more than a billion people walking along. I wonder if that is part of the difficulty, that so many people agree about how life should be. To be alone in a group of ten is hard, but when a billion follow the same path it’s hard to imagine that they are all wrong.

I don’t know, maybe that is the issue. Not wrong, but not best. Not best for me. Life works here, and people are safe and relatively happy. They work too hard, worry about money too much, and try to be sure their children will have better lives than they will, but that is the same the world over. That endless human need to make things better. And the biggest problem, that you can’t make people better.

We are flawed creatures, part animal with the potential for more. We stand on the shoulders of giants and forget how we got there. We need others, yet ignore most of them. The endless war of chaos and order given form and let loose on the universe. People make sense to me, in all their beauty and horror. I understand why we fail and choose evil. Somehow, I thought that would make it easier to live in this world.

In truth, it helps sometimes, to create that distance between myself and the world, but the distance is an illusion. That is really why I am here. I have avoided other people’s pain because I can feel it. Too much empathy, or maybe I’m just not strong enough to endure it. Maybe I just prefer to see the good in life, even if it isn’t always there.

Peace Corps China. It’s not what I wanted, or really expected. It was hard in every way I didn’t think it would be, and easy in every way I didn’t want. It was glorious, and terrifying, stressful in ways I never imagined. I know I have changed things for a few people here, and I have found family as much as friends. I can always imagine something that could have been better, some things that could have been worse. But who I am has created this life that I lived here. The only way I could have anything different is to change who I am. And that is still a work in progress.

Posted in 2019-04, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Forward and Back

Traveling in itself is not one of the things I enjoy. Most of the time I am far too big to be comfortable, and I hate having to try and deal with the small spaces on planes and trains. What I love is being somewhere else. A change, something fun, interesting, beautiful. I love meeting new people, connecting with someone or something. I hate planning and setting out on trips, but there is nothing I love more than being somewhere else.

I think I have been in Lanzhou too long, and worse, it’s hard to change things about my life there. Classes are rarely something new at this point, even when the students are. It’s like doing standup and using material that is a couple years old. Even when it works, I want to try something else so I can be entertained too. I am glad for my time there, but being back in Chengdu shows me all the things I missed when I couldn’t stay here.

I spent the last couple days with my original host family, with a daytrip to Dayang to visit the family. We talked, laughed, spoke Chinese and English, and I had enough time to go back to Kungfu here. That is what I really missed. A group of people, laughing and fighting together. I missed winning, and losing. I missed the pain, the exhaustion, all the things that come from spending a couple hours on the mat. I miss the true Kungfu family.

I’ve been lazy in Lanzhou for a lot of reasons, but mostly it’s boredom. I don’t really want to go to class again, to practice forms again, and work on something I will never use with them. At this point, it’s just stressful knowing that I will go and spend at least an hour hoping for the time to pass faster. When I was there, it was hard to see, but in Chengdu it’s so obvious. I practice Kungfu because it is fun. You need the fundamentals, but that is not where the joy is.

It comes from use, from mistakes, from all the things I have done wrong. The small moments where they can tell me I am getting better, that my weaknesses are stronger, even if they are still there. And most importantly, the right teacher. A teacher who is there to fight with us. A teacher who doesn’t make the same mistakes they just corrected in my form. A teacher who can fight me and win easily. I like the people in Lanzhou, but finding a truly great teacher is a rare thing.

I don’t regret my time in Lanzhou, and they were probably right in choosing my university for me, but I really think it was the wrong time. The new campus, the assessment, the travel, and the almost total lack of connection between myself and my colleagues has been a problem. I think I made a difference in some peoples’ lives, and I have made a lot of friends and family. In a lot of ways, I accomplished my goals.

But in some ways, the dream was here in Chengdu. All the Kungfu I could have learned here, and all the things I could have done. It’s still a possibility, that maybe I will find a job here in Chengdu, that I can work in the consulate, or teach in the place I really want to be. That I could leave during the hottest part of the summer, and pay off my loans.

But I think there will always be that idea, looking back at how things could have been different. Dreaming of wondrous things and ignoring the wonder in front of me. As much as I didn’t have expectations, there still are things that I haven’t done, things on a list I didn’t know that I had. Maybe it’s just the end and looking forward worries me. It’s hard to know for sure, but my biggest fights are always inside my head.

Posted in 2019-04, Chengdu, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Moving on

I think one of the main problems for me here is that I have almost exclusively made local friends. That is usually not a bad thing, but when I have problems, I can’t really go to my friends. The people I am closest to don’t speak English, and even if I could explain in Chinese, my problems aren’t something that they would really understand. It’s hard enough explaining to them that I am a volunteer.

It’s not that the concept doesn’t exist here, it’s that there has to be some profit, some way to help your family, something in the long term that explains the sacrifice now. I usually tell them about how the Peace Corps can help people find work, or that it helps you throughout life, but that is usually just to end the conversation.

For me, I think the truth is that I don’t like money. I want to have enough to not worry about it, but not so much that I have to buy things to invest in. I don’t really want a portfolio any more than I want debt. Life is hard for the locals here, and as a foreigner I have a valuable skillset. To them it seems a waste to work for free.

I don’t really know how to explain it. I make jokes to people here about looking for a hard life, but that is not really it. Jokes about looking for danger, or something more than a stable life. Sometimes I’ll tell them that I don’t care about money, then tell them I’m not dating because I enjoy having money. Somehow, the contradiction doesn’t translate like I would expect.

That is part of the issue. Culture doesn’t really translate. There are times when our cultures match up, places where we can meet, but real understanding seems far too rare. One of my friends here said he spent so much time with me that he was starting to act like me, like an American, direct and to the point. Then came the discussion.

I get away with ignoring protocol here, not praising people endlessly, just walking into an office to say hello, asking the people I work with directly for what I need, and generally avoiding the guanxi relationship culture they have here. But I am an outsider. I have a fairly unique and valuable skill set. I can do what no local can. He can copy me, but he will cross the line with them long before I would, and it would be much harder for him to fix the damage. Deviation from the norm is easy when you are not part of the norm.

And so, I wind up listening again, rather than bringing up my problems. Even if I could, I am still at work here, always a volunteer. I need people on the outside to talk to, people who really know me. There are still a few, but distance and time is more a problem these days. I think that’s why it amazes me when I have a really bad day and I hear from them. A random text from someone I haven’t heard from in years exactly when I need it. I don’t have many bad days anymore, but somehow, they still know.

I don’t really understand the universe, but somehow there are connections that don’t seem like they should be possible. It could be coincidence, but that is such a boring universe to live in. Faith has never been my strong suit, but I know there are more things in heaven and earth, than dreamt of in my philosophy.

Posted in 2019-03, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment