Cultural leave is a very different thing for me in Peace Corps. Normally it can be really aggravating to be constantly surrounded by people, to eat every meal with them, to have people wait until I go to bed before they do, but not this time. It was all for fun, but in a way it was also work.
I went to WuShan 武山 near Tianshui 天水 and to a few cities in Longnan 陇南 to visit students and their families, and it was probably one of the best things I have done since I have been here. There were still some of the restrictions, to stay on the path and be safe, but I don’t always listen anymore. Sometimes I find a path and follow it, as long as the others know where I went off to. Other times I just relax and see what there is to see. I will be on my vacation soon enough.
In Wushan I went with a few students to visit one of their hometowns, literally on top of a mountain. It was almost all farming, and most of the people on the actual mountain were related by marriage or blood. Most of the 200 residents were either very old or very young. The children could go to the primary school on the mountain that had only 5 rooms and a basketball court. There was running water and electricity most of the time, including solar powered streetlamps helping to blot out the stars after dark. There was no sewer system though, and no outhouse. Just an area behind the house fenced in to where it met the mountainside. Still much cleaner and fresher than many of the bathrooms in the city, but there were only the four of us guests and my student’s grandparents to use it.
Most of the older children and parents were in the city proper about an hour away, working and going to school in a place filled with the same kinds of stores and buildings you find in most places in China. My student’s brother is an artist, doing some amazing charcoal drawings of the life he has seen in his town. The sad part is, he was amazed that I wanted his drawings, and that I was willing to pay. It is exactly the kind of art I am always looking for, but apparently he felt they were so bad he burned most of his work a while back. Such a tragedy.
I was able to sit and watch the stars, eat with several different families, follow the sheep, play with the dog, and cook them spaghetti sauce and handmade Italian noodles before I left. They were kind, and always seemed happy to see me after the initial shock of seeing me on the mountain. They had been told I was coming, but the reality is that no one really goes there without reason, whatever their nationality. At the end, my student’s brother even gifted me with the drawing I asked about, of the ever present Chinese men playing cards in the streets at night.
I sat up late with my students watching the stars, and we talked about almost everything in life. Such a beautiful and amazing way of life, but not one I am ready to live for more than a vacation at this point. We talked about how happy the people there were, especially compared to so many people we know in the University. People who live simply, grow what they eat, and rarely need much they cannot get locally seem so much happier than all the people in the city working endlessly to buy things that are never enough.
I will always have a problem with how many women here think they are ugly, or at least not beautiful because their skin is the wrong color. White skin is beautiful, but I always remember how many people back home are looking to make themselves darker, to tan in some way. People always overlook the good when they are looking at something they’re not.
Longnan was very different, more like Taipei in some ways. We were in the city mostly, but just outside in every direction there were beautiful places to see. There were canyons, rivers, mountains, all close and waiting to be explored. In some ways, it was a regret to be with so many people.
The children were fun to play with, but they were still loud in the wilderness. The family was really friendly, but there never was a real chance to be alone with my thoughts. Even to be with just one other person, to walk and talk was a rare thing. It could be frustrating at times, being in such a beautiful serene place followed by a dozen people playing music, talking loud, and taking pictures.
After the first day, they settled down a lot. I interacted with them a lot at dinners and around the house, talking and laughing, but they started to understand that in nature I just wanted to be part of the world around me. To take some pictures, to listen to the river and the birds, or just to talk quietly to one or two people. I have a very different take on life outside of the cities.
It was a wonderful trip, even if it felt like work on occasion. It was everything I hoped it would be, and really an encouragement to go see other students in the future. I know I have some students much further south in Yunnan and Shenzhen. Maybe I’ll go there during the spring holiday for a week or so. It was just the first of many trips, and I am looking forward to them all.