Feast or Famine

Feast or famine, that seems to be the pattern here. A few weeks ago I was bored. Now, there is never enough time. Classes, projects, students, teachers, friends. This job is difficult for an introvert. I am still enjoying it, but I need time to crash and recover. Maybe in June when my schedule drops off again, but I always seem to find more projects.

This last week was probably the busiest I will have. We had a makeup class for Tomb Sweeping Day, a long weekend festival that reminds me of Dia De Los Muertos. It’s more private, more quiet, but it is still a day to remember family members who have died. A lot of my students went home for the holiday, and the ones that were too far or are Muslim spent time with friends, hiking and eating. It’s a holiday we could learn from, a day to remember family.

I spent the weekend with friends, practicing Chinese, eating, and working on my forms. I haven’t had taiji class for a few weeks now because of time of year. My teacher works at a middle school, so he has been pulled into work on Sundays for competitions and makeup days. Weekends are not protected here, and if you are off on Thursday and Friday you work on Sunday.

Classes weren’t too difficult, but they were fairly constant. Especially Wednesday. I was in a classroom for eight hours that day. Harsh, even if a couple of the hours were a conversation class where I didn’t have to do too much. Adding the time I’ve been spending in the gym and there isn’t much time left to do anything. Feast or famine.

I went to dinner with friends a couple of times, once with my xingyiquan teacher and once with a family I buy street food from a lot. I have gotten used to the dinners with my teacher, and it’s getting easier to talk to them every time I see them. I’m told my teacher’s accent is pretty heavy, but I’m getting used to it. They served soup with chicken wings and beef bones, refilled with vegetables to cook after the meat was gone. They kept most of the beef bones for something, except mine. They were softened to the point where I chewed them up to get the flavor out. Apparently that’s not common here.

The other family is from Sichuan, a husband and wife. Their son was out most of the night, but they had a couple of his friends over, two men he met when they were soldiers together. We spent most of the night talking and drinking, playing a very aggressive form of rock paper scissors as a drinking game. I drank more than I wanted to, but I don’t like the alcohol here in general. It’s far more harsh than it needs to be.

The weather has been all over the scale too. There was a dust storm over the holiday weekend, then a snow the next day. The snow came down looking pure white, but it left dirt when it hit the ground and melted. There was no accumulation during the day, the earth didn’t get cold enough until after the sun went down. During the night it built up some, but it melted again when the sun came up. The days were warm, the nights freezing, but now the temperature is dropping again. I’m told it’s like that here in April.

There is always more to tell, every thing I remember leads me to another event. I have been having dinners and lunches with my students from the IELTS class. I made it part of their practice. Partially for me, partially for them. I can’t do it with my other classes because there are just too many students, but this is a way I can connect with them outside the classroom. They are still nervous, but hopefully I can keep trying to make it easier.

There is more, but there always will be. The details, the people, the memories. I collect as much as I can here, but there will never be enough words to really show the life here. But always, in the back of my mind is a phrase I read. “People travel to faraway places to watch in fascination the kind of people they ignore at home.”

Dagobert D. Runes US writer

Posted in 2018-04, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Death as an Outsider

It’s always surprising to me when someone looks to me for advice, or someone to talk to. Not because I can’t do it, but it’s rare that I seek people out to talk to them about problems in my life. I’ve gotten used to handling them myself, or showing what I choose rather than the whole truth. I don’t know that it was ever in my nature to show anyone everything that I have. I’m sure that cost me more than I would ever care to admit.

I spent a long time in therapy, probably for longer than I really should have. It’s not because they don’t help, but if you never really let go, they never really can help. I have never been one to let go, not completely. I’ve been swallowed by emotion, I’ve hidden from it, and I’ve spent a lot of time suppressing it, but it rarely ever completely controlled me. I understand it, but I still can’t control it either. So we exist, in stalemate. It works, and I’m happy, but there are far more extreme ups and downs that I have never been taken to. So how do I help others with their extremes?

I have students and friends come to me from time to time with problems, and I help where I can. Self esteem issues, lack of understanding the value of mistakes, not knowing that it is okay to feel what they feel, dealing with divorce, how to connect with their family, or how to find balance in life. I used to tell them to look for therapist, a priest, monk, someone they could talk to about the problems. From what everyone has told me, there is a lack of that kind of advice here.

Beyond anything else, I found the purpose of religion to be a community with leaders who could help guide people, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, whatever you want to call it. People who needed someone outside the problem to give advice, or someone who could help them deal with life and death. The west drifted into the modern age of psychology and philosophy, eventually creating an entire workforce dedicated to dealing with people’s problems, with therapy, drugs, whatever the person may need.

China doesn’t have much of a mental health care system, and the religions don’t offer those services anymore, so people are left to their friends and family to help them. Mostly, it seems to work, but there is never an outside voice to consult, no path to the rare and horrifying experiences of life. Books can teach a lot, but there is nothing that teaches life lessons like the right teacher.

A friend came to me trying to deal with finding out that his mother is dying, months at best, even with treatment. He is a doctor, and he never saw the sickness coming. She doesn’t know yet, as is the social norm here. There are choices to be made, and none of them are particularly good. So, he ask me for advice. The outsider, someone who has studied some of these problems. I taught a class on dealing with the series of events surrounding medical death, so he asked me.

The problem is, I also studied sociology. I know that any advice I give him is as an outsider. I am not Chinese, and what I believe and say and do does not follow the social contract here. For me, she should know. It is her life, and her choice, for as long or as short as it may be. But that is not a common concept here. For him, she is ill, and needs to be protected. She needs to be happy and healthy for as long as possible. But that doesn’t mean that she gets to choose the method or details of what is to come.

Everything I told him had that caveat. I am not Chinese, but as an American, this is what I would do. It may not help, it may even be worse for everyone, but I am not far enough inside this culture to understand what life and death are here. I can point out the choices he has to make, that all his doubts and fears come from this extreme loss, that even doctors can’t always tell when a family member is dying, but I can’t tell him what will happen as a result of his choices. I can’t tell him what his family and friends will think, or how they will treat him if he handles this the way I would. I honestly don’t even know how I would handle it. Badly, I’m guessing.

I never realized how tied to that concept I am, that our life is ours alone. I think it was always there, coloring my thoughts, that self-reliance that I always questioned. I don’t want to need anyone, and I never really want them to need me. To want, to desire, to love, to do so many other things, but never need. Need was always too extreme, an inability to exist without someone else.

I do question that choice, because now I think it is as much out of fear as practicality. Fear that limits me, keeps me from being part of those extremes I am still looking for. I used to believe that I needed the basics of life, and I could find whatever else I needed in the people and places around me. The hierarchy of needs. But the truth is, it’s easier for me to be alone than to need anyone.

I know that some day I will be where he is, that someone I didn’t know was that important was at the end of their life before I reach the end of mine. I’ve known people who died, but I really don’t know if I will ever be where he is. That I will be lost to the storm.

I used to think of it as a strength, but it is as much a weakness. It lets me travel the world, learn languages, meet thousands of people I never would have back home, but it also means I am never completely a part of where I am. I integrate, but I am always ready to leave the people behind. I make my house a home, knowing that I will shed all that I have bought. I love easily, but rarely miss it when it fades.

There is something of the Buddhist impermanence there, to be and not be. That is my reality, to be a part of the world, to shed a tear with my friend for his mother, knowing that I will leave, regardless of how much I can help. There are always more people to help, more lives to be a part of, more to learn about myself.

I really don’t know where I am going in all this, or why, or what I will do along the way, but days like this are why I do it. To see behind walls, places hard to get to. This is what life really is, as painful as it is. To be trusted enough to be allowed to be a part of it, even knowing that I may not have the answers he needs. These moments of humanity are what make my life worthwhile.


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Time on my Hands…

The new semester has begun, but not really for me. I’m still only teaching two classes a week and one class every other week. It leaves me a lot of free time, but that is not always a good thing. I go to the gym a couple hours a day, I still practice kung fu and Chinese, but I’ve gotten lazy about the piano. I’m resting, but that is not why I came to Lanzhou.

The university is full right now, but most of the teachers are hard to find. They go back and forth between the campuses, and I am still here. There are supposed to be more cotaught classes, but I don’t know when they will start. My boss in the Peace Corps has contacted the school, and will keep in touch. We are here to work, and this really isn’t fulfilling those requirements. At this point, I don’t know if I will continue at this university beyond the end of this semester, or if they will split my hours with another school.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the school finds something for me to do to keep me around, but that doesn’t really fit with our purpose here. If nothing else, it will affect the next volunteer. Maybe they will go to the new campus instead. Maybe they will still be here but commuting more. It’s really hard to tell in the long run.

It’s not exactly lonely here, but there is something about the lack of work that feels empty. Last semester I was happy for it. It gave me time to ease into the semester, to focus and learn how to teach these students. Now, it just feels like an anchor. At the very least they could split my two large classes into four small ones so I could actually have a chance to speak with all the students one-on-one. I do what I can, but with sixty people in a class it’s hard do what I want.

What I am doing here, I love, but it’s just not enough. I chose the Peace Corps because I wanted something difficult, not because I wanted an easy ride in a big city. I have the benefit of being more integrated into the community here, but that is only because the people at my school are always so busy. Even the students rarely have time to connect with me.

The new class I got is much better, oral English for the IELTS, thirty students, and they speak well. I can focus on them, do more homework, make them see me outside of class for more practice. They want to go to Australia, so I am trying to give them all the practice I can. It helps fill the hours beyond the minimal teaching and side projects. I can always find something to do, but that doesn’t mean it will always be what the school needs.

I’m still sitting in at the hospital, but now they rarely speak to me. I focus on learning Chinese and trying to stay awake for three hours. I have a few of my best speakers in a tiny class so I can help them learn higher level medical English, and I still have the English free talk to go to. There is kung fu, and the gym, Chinese classes, and the random wandering. I see other volunteers sometimes too. Life is just life here, nothing glorious or horrifying.

I think that’s part of what I expected, extremes of good and bad times. I know there is always a certain amount of boredom in the Peace Corps, but China doesn’t have anywhere near the requirements that less developed countries do. Beyond that, I’m in a big city, and in the center of town. The only limitation here is the money.

It would be nice to have pizza sometimes, but that would cost as much as four or five days of food. I hate budgeting, but I really think it helps me stay connected to the locals. I can’t afford a lot, and the people who know I am a volunteer help me out. There is a burger place that constantly gives us free burgers, and we almost never really spend money there anymore. There are benefits to being poor here, especially when you know housing is taken care of. The stability makes a lot of difference.

I am glad I came to China, and I love the place that I am in. I don’t want to go, or change yet. Another year and I will be ready, I know. But part of my mind is already looking ahead, to the next step. It’s frustrating that I will have to pay for college, stuck chasing money for a couple years until I can wander freely again. My mind is already looking to South America, or Central America. Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru. I still want to live in Africa, Eastern Europe, and basically everywhere else.

I think that is part of the issue. I have time to think on the possibilities, but I don’t have the freedom yet. Do I build a retirement, or wander the earth? Do I focus, or explore? I don’t really know, because I want both. I am just glad I don’t have to decide yet.

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Oncoming Spring

There is a common question here, one that took me a bit to really figure out. 回家吗?Did you go home? There rarely is any real context, so the first time I was asked I still thought of home as here. I came home a couple weeks ago. But the people here are talking about going back to the States. What home means to me is just where I’m living, the place, not a place to go back to. Even going back to the States won’t happen for a couple years.

Now that the cold is fading and the people are filtering back in, Lanzhou feels like a completely different place. A few of the places I used to love are gone, replaced or maybe just not back from the holiday yet. I’ve still been cooking at home a lot, but part of that is just because I have to find new restaurants to eat at. It’s frustrating to have to start finding favorites again without the benefit of moving to a new country.

A lot has changed here, not the overview, just the details. There is a bridge outside the south gate of the school that used to almost completely block the sidewalk. It was way too big, and people ignore it and just walk through traffic instead. Fortunately, it was put on the slate to be fixed. By fixed, I mean they cut out the middle section and squeezed the edges together. Now the stairs going up are much smaller, and still virtually unused. But it is much easier to walk around though.

The construction continues here, and it probably won’t end in this area until after I am gone. The coming subway, the buildings going up, if you count all of it I doubt it will ever end. Having a subway here would make things so much easier to deal with. Just being able to avoid the traffic for a while would be nice.

Even on good days walking in the city is never easy. The buildings block the skyline, and the sunrise and sunset can barely be seen, at least from my vantage point. It would be nice to have an upper floor at some point, something with a view. The mountains have been beautiful in the haze, and as spring goes on there should be some vegetation growing at some point.

It’s good to be back home, cool dry air leading into Spring. I’m only teaching about 6 hours a week here, but I’m sure there will be more coteaching as time goes on. The freshmen are still at this campus for one more semester, so I might get lucky and not have to travel as much as before. I fade between anxiety about my classes and fascination with the potential. I can teach anything I want, really. My only instruction has been to get the students to speak more.

Nothning is ever really set here until the last moment, but at least there is always something to learn. With the open lesson plan here I also can practice and teach anything I want to learn. There is still so much I haven’t done, and so many things I can try to get the students focused. I think it’s going to be an interesting semester.

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