A Brief Moment

Nothing here is really what I expected it to be. There have been some long days, some short, useful and boring. There are people I see in a new light, and ones who are exactly what I remember. I’ve found myself to be oddly social at times, saying things in the moment that I question, feeling things that I didn’t expect to feel. Nothing really bad, but unfamiliar.

I spent the first few days getting used to the training again, long days in a chair, trying to find creative new ways to stay focused. There is a lot of variety, and some things that are required. I could find sessions that fit what I needed to learn, but the anchor of being part of a larger organization is still here. Safety and policy fill part of our time, but nothing too extensive.

Most of the sessions I went to had to do with the lower levels of English I found in Lanzhou. A medical university has use for the language, but there are plenty of students who can write far better than they can speak. There were a few people with similar situations I was able to talk to, teachers with very different styles from mine. I am glad we had this time, even if the days were much longer than I would have liked.

I’ve gone out of my way to spend time with as many different people as possible. Lunches, dinners, groups, board games, whatever. There are a few people I have never really had the chance to speak with before now, or at least I never got around to it. It’s strange how so few interactions can change my perspective of a person, or reinforce it. I never stop analyzing behavior, mine or everyone else’s. I don’t know how much of what has happened is because I changed, or something else.

I don’t interact with the volunteers as much as some other people up north, but down here it’s like I found something I didn’t know I missed. Not just the contact, but the contact with people I haven’t heard of for so long. Up north, there is always something going on, and even avoiding the event still requires knowing it happened. A lot of the people here I have thought of since training, but I never had a chance to see.

I went to see my host family on Sunday, for lunch and kung fu. I missed the style here, the formlessness of it. Gege, my host father, started going with me before I left. Now he practices every day, multiple times. His walk has changed, his stance. For me, it’s like looking at an entirely different person.

Before I left there was a boyishness to his movements, a lightly chaotic energy like a teenager. Now he walks with fluidity, and he’s beginning to get that look of a spring, poised on the edge of motion. He talks about the movements, the culture, the medicine of the style. Even if I do nothing else here in China, I hope that I was able to really help him reconnect with something amazing, something he can love.

There are new things here too, among the old. I went to juijitsu and met a Wing Chun practitioner. We rolled mostly, but he is a much better fighter than I am. Fortunately my size gives me some advantage. He reminded me of what I loved about Wing Chun, the simple beauty of it. I think the flow of Taiji is better suited to me as I get older, but I would have loved to truly learn Wing Chun.

For me, this place has been what it is designed to be, personally as much as for my teaching. A look forward at what could be, a look back at the past. Reconnection, rest, exhaustion, pain, joy. A brief moment of a different life, outside the cold of Lanzhou. There is more I have seen, but there are still so many places to go.

Posted in 2018-01, Chengdu, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

South for the Winter

I always forget something when I am packing. It’s part of the chaos, but I just never seem to focus like I should. I was never one for lists. Now I will be gone for a long time, and anything I forget will be far out of reach. As long as I have my passport, I’m sure it will be fine.

It’s interesting heading to the edge of the cities here. The cities are built like you would expect, large streets in the center, slowly shrinking to old roads, but there is also the expectation of more. The main roads stay at six lanes far beyond the edge of the cities. Massive bundles of power lines lead to tiny strip malls, and then to empty space. It’s like every new space that is build is designed to be a city center.

Out where the new campus is there are enough power lines to handle skyscrapers that aren’t there. At night, when we head back, there are massive roads with nothing along side them but a strip mall and a desert. A couple pairs of headlights haunt the streets, but there is nothing to see, and few places to go. Everything is ready for expansion, but the old buildings still need renovation.

That seems to be a pattern here, a focus on new construction over renovation. To simply put together a new building, or neighborhood, rather than strip buildings to the bones and rebuild. I wonder if that is convenience, with all the hassle that comes with renovation or if the buildings might just be too old for that level of construction. Hopefully my Chinese will be good enough that I can ask one day.

It will be nice to be somewhere warmer, somewhere I can rest a bit, maybe see a few things worth taking pictures of. The endless grey and cold here have limited my chances lately, but when I return it will be close to Spring, and hopefully I can start wandering again.

There is still so much to see here, but it’s been hard to do much beyond hibernate. I forgot what the cold was like in New York all those years ago, and here we don’t have to deal with the snow. I’m sure I would start to get used to it eventually, but I would much rather just fly south for the winter.

Posted in 2018-01, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Looking Back

One more week before I head to Chengdu and the city is covered in snow. It’s pretty, and it’s somehow still dry here. The snow is like powder, when you touch it, it just disintegrates before you can make much of it. Just like the dirt here, it looks more solid than it is. It doesn’t leave the sludge you get in New York the day after, but when it melts and refreezes you still have the sheets of ice covering the ground in places.

I find I’m oddly homesick these days, but for Mexico. It’s hard to go out much here because of the cold, so I don’t see people as often as I usually do. I miss Spanish, the food, the insults and challenges. Something about Mexico will always be home, even with all of the problems. But, in another week I won’t have time to think about much beyond class.

IST is two weeks of training for us. Language, teaching, culture, and protocol I’m guessing. After that, I can relax a bit in Guilin. I’ll still have Chinese classes, but I won’t have to stress so much, and Guilin is far to the south where it’s warm. I’m looking forward to seeing more of China, and that is a good place to start.

There is a lot going on here, and a lot of people are leaving town for vacation. They head back to their home towns, to other countries, to wherever they can find warmth, be it family and home or just a warmer climate. It will be nice to be in a small town to see the new year in. The Chinese New Year will be awesome, and I should be able to go to the Shaolin Temple in Henan at some point.

There is a weird balance here when it comes to vacation. I have to report all the details of my trip to the Peace Corps before I leave, but I never really plan that far ahead. I have a direction, not a plan. Like in Mexico when we just drove to Colima and saw what there was to see. To Queretaro then up to Xilitla to see something old and beautiful.

Everything here seems to be trying to fit into a box. The order and stability of the Chinese culture, the requirements of a program like Peace Corps, the need for people to have plans, and yet nothing about this place really holds to that ideal. Plans change often and at the last minute. Nothing is really stable, or even known in advance most of the time. Everything changes, and I like it that way.

I think what bothers me is the attempt to contain that chaos. The desire to regulate and limit the chaos. I got used to the chaos in Mexico, and I think that still suits me more than anything. Rules exist to keep us safe, to teach us how to begin, but there is a point when the rules stop being a guide and begin to limit us. Maybe I just took in too much chaos in Mexico and now I have trouble going back.

I was invited to give a lecture on how to create lesson plans during our training, but I don’t know if I can or should teach what I do. I build from an idea, add in comments, chop it up, reorganize, borrow pieces from other people, and wind up with something that resembles order, but it’s really not. It’s chaos, a series of reminders and triggers so I don’t forget what I want to talk about, with parts of it broken down to help teach the students English while we study medicine.

When I first started teaching the Spaniard talked about how we could teach anything in English and it would help the students more than just teaching them English. Rather than just using a sterile language lesson, teach them about computers, or sociology, or anything. In this case, medicine. They have already studied it for years, I just give them the American perspective in English and help them practice. It is English, but it’s also not.

I have been focusing on teaching them how to learn, how to organize information, how to practice, and how to ask questions. Language isn’t something you memorize, but you have to memorize it. It only exists as communication between people, but we spend most of our time learning alone. You can never know if you are right or wrong about anything until you say it and see the reaction, but we memorize all the rules and words beforehand. Language is inherently chaotic, but we try to teach using rules. Begin with the rules, but only use them until you don’t need them anymore.

All the things we do, the games we play, the stories we learn, the music we listen to, teach us something, but in a way that all becomes part of our culture. Here the games focus on tactics and competition, often with a little gambling on the side. Go, Mahjong, cards, but nothing with too much language or culture in in. In the States we have scrabble, taboo, monopoly, clue, trivia games, word games, and an endless variety of board games that involve competition, tactics, conversation, dialogue, and so much more.

Ying told me it was because the Chinese often work hard so when they play, they prefer to relax. I think that is why TV culture became so big in the US so quickly, something entertaining but doesn’t require us to create something new. Or maybe it’s just all the years I spent playing Dungeons and Dragons, creating worlds and lives out of nothing that gives me such a strange perspective on these things. The beauty was always in the stories we created, the stories I remember as much as if they were real.

It’s always hard to tell what is my perspective and what is tied to my culture. America is so varied, with so many people, cultures, religions, histories, and dreams that it’s hard to ever say what Americans prefer. That is one of the hardest parts of talking about it, trying to tell people what we really are. Trying to explain that even we don’t really know who we are.

Maybe it’s just that I finally have a moment to relax and begin to analyze the last few months I’ve been here. All that is left is the class final and an overnight train to Chengdu. The last part of the semester and the beginning of an adventure.


Posted in 2018-01, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

As the Haze Clears

Tomorrow starts the new year, and the weather has shifted. A haze settled over the city, like during the firestorms in California, a mix of dirt and ash from the desert and factories here. I settled in to hiding indoors when the air quality passed 500. Either it randomly stopped at 999 or that’s as high as the scale goes. Neither would surprise me.

Anything past 200 is hazardous, but most of the time here it’s below that. Blue skies with the brown haze on the horizon, that dust that comes off the mountains here. Over the last week I’ve been able to taste the dirt in the air, like when you’re gardening. It’s not unbearable, but it’s definitely best to stay indoors with the purifier running.

They said winter would get like this here, when the air settles and the pollution rests on the city. It’s still not as bad as I expected, and next week is supposed to be between 50 and 100. I think the thing that bothers me most is the coating of dust on everything. Anything you touch leaves powder on your clothes, like accidently leaning against the chalkboard in class. It also dries out everything, so I am constantly using lotion and chapstick to keep from getting cracked skin.

I spend a lot of time cooking, finding ways to make Mexican food and Italian food here. It’s hard to do American since beef and cheese aren’t common, and I can buy Chinese food easily enough. Indian would be good, but I think that will be my next project, to see if I can find the right spices. So far, the turmeric here has been disappointing.

It has been relatively easy to find a lot of spices here, but most of them are whole and in the Chinese medicine part of the store with the Goji berries and tea. I’ve thought about getting a coffee grinder so I can grind them up easier, but I’ll worry about that after Chinese New Year.

In a couple weeks I have to go to Chengdu for training. Two weeks there, then two more in Guilin. After that is the holiday, and the return to site. I will go to Shangqui, and maybe spend a few days in Xi’an before coming back for the new semester. I don’t really know what I will be doing or teaching, or when it starts, or anything really, but that chaos is common for me now. It doesn’t really bother me anymore.

Today is New Year’s Eve, but as far as I know the volunteers all had a party yesterday. I was at my friends, eating chicken and mushrooms and relaxing. I wonder if I should be trying to connect to them more, but I don’t really feel the need to. It can be fun, but most of the time I would rather find my own way here.

I am still catching up on all the things I missed while I was busy, so once again I am busier when I have free time than I am when I am busy. I still procrastinate, but accepting it just means that I know I will wait until the last minute to do my work. I still fight laziness at every turn, but I don’t expect that to ever get any easier. I am, as always, just me, and just here. For now, that’s enough, but there is still a long road ahead.

Posted in 2017-12, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment