Authentic Self

There are a lot of things about this place that seem so familiar. When I was growing up, we would spend our summers in New York, out in the Hamptons, before the place changed for me. I remember when I would spend hours in the blueberry patch, or behind it in the woods on the edge of the swamp. I Remember the wine berries, and the grapes behind it that I never liked, with their tough skin and giant seeds. The tree out front would have tiny tart apples on in, and the pears would fall from the tall tree at the edge of the woods.

I keep finding pieces of that childhood here. The tiny tart apples I never really enjoyed are here in the house, just something ordinary here. The grapes are in season, but it makes it easier now that I can just eat the inside and spit out the skin. The pears are much bigger, but the flavor and the graininess is the same as I remember. I even saw my grandmother as I walked into a store one day, not as she was at the end, but like when I last spent time with her. It was only a moment, but I see how people walk before I see their faces. It’s just how I see the world.

I have family here, like I do in Mexico. I love my family back home in the States, but most of us don’t really have much in common. We talk more than we ever did in the past, but the things we love and how we see the world are so vastly different it seems we can never really find a middle ground. We’re still family, but there is blood, then there is the family you choose.

There has been a lot to do here. Now that we’re done teaching, there is more free time and so much more to do. We started to go on adventures outside of the city, to a replica Great Wall, and I found a kung fu teacher. He teaches traditional Chen style Tai Chi. There are differences, but it reminds me a lot of Wing Chun. Close quarters combat in a very relaxed style, like I learned in San Diego and San Francisco. I’m just happy to have a teacher again, and this one is hard to read at all. I can’t tell how good he is because I can’t really challenge him enough to make him really try. If I get to stay in Chengdu, I will be there as often as I can. I know there are other good teachers here, but they aren’t always easy to find.

I was half-asleep at lunch the other day when I realized how much the constant language classes were affecting me. I was in a stairwell where the cool breeze was passing through and I could hear the birds chirping. As I drifted between being asleep and awake, I could hear the birds speaking to me. My mind began to overlay the noise with what we had just learned in class and I could hear the birds speaking Chinese. It’s not that the classes here are special, or that they’re advanced in any way, but the constant influx of language, in the class and at home, make the brain strive to understand the world it has been put in.

People always seem to think of homesickness as a mental thing, or a comfort thing, but I think it’s as much physical as anything. The mind needs to understand the world, and it needs to communicate. Take it away from all that it has ever known, and it begins to panic. Suddenly all the patterns and places it learned for food, shelter, and safety are gone. There is only noise that it must understand to get what it needs.

Here, we are thrown into the noise and expected to swim. In the chaos the, I don’t know, desperation, of the mind is tested and forced to adapt to the world around it. It is what I wanted, for sure, the loss of comfort and the easy life, but there is always a difficulty to it. All of it is balanced by the amazing people and places here. The world that is so familiar and strange. There is so much to take in, and so much to be a part of that even the joy becomes chaos.

The hardest part for me is always finding balance. Living here isn’t so hard. Talking to strangers, being watched, and even all the strangeness are relatively easy at this point. The hard part is not losing myself and all that I have learned to the chaos of emotion and logic. Trying to do things that seem like they must be, that they should be, and finding out that I am just abandoning part of myself. Worse, a part of myself that I need to endure here.

I made teaching harder than it needed to be. I made my life harder in the process. This is easy, if I can just be. In the words of my teacher, to hold on to my authentic self. It was not an easy lesson to learn. It cost me more than I would like. But it was necessary to my survival here.

I never really can tell if I am changing, or just orbiting something just out of sight. I never feel that different, but life feels easier now. I know I can be who I am, as strange as that may be sometimes. I know how I want to teach, and how I want to find my place here.

This is home now. I am thankful for the chaos and the trials, even if they are somewhat self-inflicted. I never really know what part of me is in the way until the gears begin to grind. I just can’t wait to see what’s next.

Posted in 2017-07, Chengdu, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Becoming

“If you wake up in a different place, at a different time, can you wake up as a different person?” I’ve been wondering about who I am becoming here, about how much pre-service training will affect who I become at site. I feel limited here, not by the place, but by the other volunteers. There are too many other foreigners around to make this easier. I know this can’t be like the oldest stories I’ve heard, where you enter the culture and sink or swim, but I still want that.

There is a lot of work to be done, and there are still things I can learn here, but I don’t get out as much as I want to, or see as much as I want to. It’s not that it’s hard, mostly just the heat draining my energy. It’s easier to hide in the air conditioning than it is to go wander in the sauna the city can be. It’s another day, and we’re heading out to a long day away from the house. Architecture, gardens, parks, and food. We’re leaving the city, but only just. I don’t know exactly where I’m going, but I don’t really mind that. I can let someone else take the reigns and I can simply be.

Last weekend I wandered the Bamboo forest next to Sichuan University, Wangjianglu Park. I was told by Jie that it’s not very old, but it’s still at least as old as the States. Poets from long ago sat in the park and wrote, next to the paper makers on the bank of the Jinjiang river. There are statues, graves, buildings, and an old well. A memorial of the art and beauty of this place before the city overran it.

I find that happens to every city, people want the modern world and the concrete jungle, but there are always parks around where you can try and hide from what the world has become.

I don’t really know where I would want to live. I always hated the idea of the big city, having no place to escape from the echoing traffic and the endless people, but over the last couple years that’s where I have been, and that could easily be my next two years. San Diego, and the suburbs in general taught me to be comfortable with a lot of space around me. It’s like going into the ocean. I often feel more comfortable in the water than on land, but I understand why the endless depths are hard for some people to deal with. More than once I have sat on my board and imagined the wild beneath me. On bad days my mind drifts to the unspeakable horrors I read about so often in my books. Then it passes, and I’m just alone in the water.

Being alone is a comfort to me. I rely on my own abilities, my own knowledge, my own drive. It’s not always best for me, but most of the time I prefer it to most of the people I come across. I can talk to anyone, but that doesn’t mean I can take comfort in it. Honestly, I don’t really think I want to.

Comfort is still my worst enemy, the best bait in any trap. There is always part of me that looks back and wants to believe that the worlds I’ve left behind were better for me than anything I might find out here. That I can become everything I want to be in a place where life is easy. I don’t believe that voice anymore, but I still want to.

This is a good starting point for most, but a lot of me just wants to begin. I can just be here sometimes, but a lot of me is looking to what comes next. The beginnings of anticipation, something I don’t remember feeling since I was a child. Anxiety is familiar, but anticipation, that can be beautiful.
I’m sure there are metaphors to describe the training here in the Peace Corps, and I don’t really think any of them fit. Each of the people they brought in are vastly different, and none of us will become what we will be in the same way.

I’m sitting here, waiting for the noon heat to fade enough so we can travel around the city, listening to songs I’ve heard a thousand times, waiting to leave the fourth ring of Chengdu for the first time. There’s an ancient town, an old wall, and dinner to be had. I am happy here, happier than I was when I entered Mexico or Taiwan. This is not where I want to be, but I can see the door, and I can’t wait to go through.

Posted in 2017-07, Chengdu, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Making a Home

Next week we begin teaching, practicum, they call it. It’s not much, compared to what I have done, but I have never taught at a university before. I’m sure it will go well enough, and I know I’ll be able to do anything they put in front of me. Time just keeps moving faster as the days go by.

I’ve been spending a lot of time relaxing, balancing out the social requirements and work associated with the training. There are people I like, and people I don’t, but all of them have something to teach me. Back to my meditation basics. Endure, and in enduring grow strong.

The city here is really familiar, like Taipei and Guadalajara in some ways, with traffic and noise almost everywhere. The traffic flows differently though, more naturally and chaotically. People ride bikes against traffic in a construction zone and no one even notices. People walk through traffic unceasingly, but the flows mostly pass each other without harm. The traffic lights mean nothing. Honestly I don’t think people even look at them. If it’s urgent, they honk, and if it’s dangerous there are police standing there directing traffic. It’s strange, but it works.

I am slowly making friends, to some extent, or at least getting used to speaking to more people. I understand more than I acknowledge, and sometimes the delay is enough to know I wasn’t really understood, but not enough to really keep up with every conversation. My favorite was when someone laughed at a joke, then said “wo mei ting dong,” I don’t understand to her friend. It took me a second, but I couldn’t even really explain to them why I laughed so hard.

Jie is helping me practice my language skills. She is learning to teach Chinese to foreigners, so we both get to practice. It’s really useful for me, if only to keep practicing with as many people as possible. The class I am in is a bit below my level, but the next one up is a bit too high. I’m practicing patterns and words that I learned a year ago, but it’s good for me to slow down and make sure it’s right, to focus on learning a solid Chinese accent. “If you can’t do it slow, you can’t do it fast.”

That always sticks with me at times like this. Seeing people push to get new material and words, whether or not they are really ready for it never made sense to me. Language isn’t difficult, it’s just practice and time. In any given day you repeat your words and patterns a thousand times aloud and in your head, and every time you are practicing. “Life is kung fu.”
I know I keep repeating these words and phrases, but that is how my mind works. Repetition dictates how we behave and what tools we have to deal with the world outside. Trying to fully realize this and use it to my advantage means that there are a dozen simple phrases that arise and show a reflection of the world around me. It always makes me wonder when I see how I distort that reflection.

The days here are wet, it rains a lot and the air is dense with humidity, but it isn’t unfamiliar. The days are getting hotter, but it’s not really uncomfortable. The air conditioner is setting off my allergies, but that’s nothing new, really. I feel comfortable here, at home, and I’m glad for it.

At this point in my life, I am where I want to be, and it fits. The city outside with it’s back alley gardens and the family I have found here is wonderful. I have been working toward being here for a long time, but I never believed it would fit me so well. All the frustrations, the problems, and the distance has been part of my life for years now, and integrating with the locals is more natural to me than seeing this world from the outside.

I know I’ve been wrong before, and I’ll be wrong again, and all of that wrongness has put me here. And that, I am grateful for.

Posted in 2017-07, Chengdu, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pandas and Hot Pot

I don’t even really know where to begin. The first week here felt like a month, and the second was gone before I could breathe. This place is amazing, but I really haven’t even scratched the surface yet. The people are amazingly friendly, like I’ve found them to be almost everywhere I’ve gone. Maybe I just choose to remember the good, but I’ll happily take that flaw.

The work is what I expected, basic TEFL training and language classes just like any other, but we’re being thrown straight into the fire, with the language and the teaching. A friend of mine said that the language training with the Peace Corps is good, and I have yet to meet even an average Chinese teacher, but a lot of it is the situation. The books are no different than others I’ve seen, but all of us know we will not be able to find the food we want if we can’t learn basic Chinese in the next six weeks.

The people here are motivated, but they are a very mixed group. I know there are a few that I have yet to speak to, and others I just don’t remember very well. Too much too fast, and today my mind was a wreck.

I have friends in the group, people my personality goes well with, and there are people that I know I grate against. I get along with most people in time, and who knows what will happen when we get to site. I can’t wait to know where I am going, to be in my new home.

I am with the host family now, awesome people with a beautiful home that I finally have my own room in. I don’t mind sharing, but after three months of never being alone in my own space, this feels great. We went to hot pot and ate everything that can reasonably be put into a boiling pot of serrano pepper soup. Organs and bamboo, onions and legs, steak and brains. It’s not that the taste really changes across the foods, its the texture. If Bourdain hadn’t pointed out the importance of texture, I would be lost when it comes to enjoying hot pot. Except for the stomach. That still tasted like menudo.

There are things I miss, but I feel at home here. This place is great, and I’m glad I got to be here now, more than any other time I might have been here. I’m exhausted, but in the best way possible.

 

Posted in 2017-06, Chengdu, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment