Heart on the Path

And so I’m cast free into the world again, with more than a week to find out what comes next. Peace Corps, China 23. I’ve dreamed of this for a long time, but it’s not like anything I imagined but it’s exactly what I hoped for. Not something easy, not something pure, but something that would test me, maybe even break me one day. As long as I can recover, nothing else really matters.

I spent my last weekend in Chengdu by leaving with Jie and going to Leshan to see the great Buddha statue. It was amazing, but like so many other things it is lessened by the number of people there. The gaze of the Buddha looking out over the river, carved from soft stone that crumbles so quickly is matched with the endless repairs as people try to prevent the inevitable decay. It is a perfect monument of Buddhism, showing how temporary everything we do truly is. For all the majesty and wonder of life, it all ends.

I’ve been reading The Teachings of don Juan by Carlos Castaneda, and it suits in a way. Beyond all the hallucinations and distortion of reality there is a simple idea there that resonates with some of the questions I’ve been asking myself. Why China? Why abandon the world I knew? The reasons I once had don’t always satisfy me anymore, maybe because of how stressful the training is, or because of some of the ways reality failed to live up to my dreams.

Does this path have heart? I’ve never heard it put that way before, but I’ve heard that question a thousand times, asked it in a thousand different ways. All paths lead to death at some point, so looking at the end of the path is always the same. The path I am on goes nowhere, but so did the path I lead back in San Diego, and the one in Mexico, and Taipei, Atlanta, San Francisco.

I spent a lot of time looking for questions, and I still love finding one that really resonates with me, one that makes me think about the answer. A question that may never have an answer I can put into words. Does this path have heart?

I like to think it does, that I’m doing what I love because of love, not just to escape my fear. Which leads to the second point that resonated. The enemies of a man of knowledge. The first is fear, and I have never made it past this enemy. I live with it, walk with it, even talk to it sometimes, but it never really fades away. I’ve noticed it more over the past couple weeks, when I didn’t fail, when nothing went wrong, when I didn’t go home.

This is a hard thing to do. I’ve done it before, and I’ll do it again, but changing my path isn’t easy, and I don’t think it should be. I can do it, but I don’t think it should be done without question. All those people I’ve left behind who show their support or wish they could be here may have made the better choice, to stay on the path before them. As long as the path has heart there really is no reason to take the harder road.

I always liked the idea of the road less traveled, the life of the bard, but I don’t know that this is what that is. I don’t know that any road is less traveled anymore, or that I’m not just making my life harder than I need to. I have a new place here in Lanzhou, time to rest, to think back on the last couple months, and sitting in this void I find myself asking questions that I have asked so many times before.

But I also have a new question, or at least one that’s new to me. Does this road have heart. There are glimpses of heart even now, in the faces of strangers here in the street. In a small smile, or a wave as I pass through the security gate. I’ve only just begun, and there is heart.

I don’t know this city yet. It’s cold, and lately it’s been raining every day. It’s old and busy, but there is potential here. There is beauty and calm. I can understand people, and I can get what I need. I can make a home here. I don’t know if heart is something you find on the path or something you invest in it, but I only have control over one of those options, so I will go forward as best as I can. I will give heart to my path.

Posted in 2017-08, Chengdu, Leshan, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


Leaving here is as hard as it was to leave my home in the States. I’ve settled in more than I expected, and while I had more free time to study than most, I feel like I missed out on some of the strangeness that comes with a family that is new to hosting volunteers. I don’t really know if that’s good or bad for me.

They are my family now, and that’s really more than I had hoped for. For all that could have been, it’s over now, and I am glad I was here. I don’t think there is much that is more stressful to me than not wanting to go home after a long day.

We went up into the mountains again, but more like the trips I took in Taiwan, a long hill with a waterfall at the end. There were places that were far more off the beaten track, but nothing is really pristine this close to the city. Too many weekend tourists, and far too much garbage. It’s the same everywhere, you get too many people in an area and trash begins to get left behind. It wasn’t anywhere near as bad as Mexico could get, but I wish I had brought a trash bag for the trip back down.

My time in Chengdu is almost over, but it feels like I’ve been here six months. It will be nice to have some time to rest up and plan for next semester, and I should have a week when I get back home to Lanzhou.

Home, I know it’s not yet my home, but the word still fits somehow. Like so many things here, it’s not what I would have asked for, but it really suits me. Karma at work, I guess. I’ve heard that word used to describe so many things in life, but for me it’s a very simple thing. What you do, and the energy you put into the world, shapes your entire existence. I came here, learned and taught, and what I found waiting for me is everything I could have hoped for.

I have found that in my life it is better for me not to ask for specific jobs or positions, but simply to be who I am and see what comes my way. I don’t hide what I like, or don’t like, but it feels like when I ask for something, I limit the possibilities of what could be. What I don’t know about the world feels infinite, so I just do my best to let the waves take me where they will. I always seem to wind up in a place that suits what I need to learn.

Finding the right teacher is always the focus of my energy. I’m moving again, so I need to find a new kung fu teacher, a language teacher, and any other teachers that may come my way. I can learn from anyone, and everyone has a lesson to teach, if I really listen. I always wonder who the next teacher will be, and what lessons I still need to learn.

Pre-Service Training taught me a lot of things, filled in most of the blanks I had from teaching in Mexico and Taipei, but I think the real test for me was the people. Being together so much for so long is not something I am used to. I rarely even date because there are so few people I really want to be around that much. As much as I love people, it’s hard when you can’t choose who surrounds you.

I think my biggest problem was my idealization of what the Peace Corps should be. Too many old books, most of them written after service when the bad memories have faded. Almost all of us are new to what we are doing and what is ahead, and I forgot that when I found my dream coming true. Making peace with that was hard, but necessary.

I have never been part of such a mixed group of people, and finding my place among them was hard too. I don’t know what’s ahead, but at least I know I have support going forward, that I have a group that I am a part of. I got used to doing everything on my own, but I really don’t think this will be like what I’ve done before.

I think in the back of my mind there was always the idea that this wouldn’t really test me, that I had prepared too much and this would be a job like in Mexico. I would teach some, practice kung fu, make friends with the locals, and learn as much of the language as I can. I am so glad to be wrong.

I’m sure that will be part of it, but I don’t think I can be who I was going forward. I still hold my integrity and my loyalty at the center of who I am, but I think almost everything else will change here. I used to be more frightened of that idea, but now there is the edge of excitement too. Part of why I left home was to find the edges of who I am, and to see what happened when I looked into the void beyond. I don’t know what I hope to find there, but I know it will be something I need.

Posted in 2017-08, Chengdu, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Home in Lanzhou

Some places you go, and it just feels like somewhere you’ve been before. Lanzhou is one of those places for me. San Diego has more granite, but the beauty of the brown and green mountains, the vivid sunsets, and the edge of dryness to the air is all too familiar. The buildings remind me more of Tijuana, or Taipei, the food is and isn’t like Chengdu, and the people are friendly like every city I’ve ever lived in. I know I could make a home here.

Lanzhou is like most of the cities here, under construction, filled with old and new styles jammed together, order in every moment of chaos. There is a feeling to the place that is so familiar, and all the fear just falls away as I walk through the city.

Fear is always in the background whenever I move to a new city. Fear of talking to new people, of finding new places to eat, finding places that feel comfortable and safe. I wonder if it will ever fade, or if I will always have that fear with me.

I have never lived on a college campus before, but with everyone on vacation I don’t know what the campus will be like when I go back in a couple weeks. There were basketball courts, a track and soccer field. People played badminton and ping pong in the cool breeze, and walked around the puddles left over from the rain. As dry as it is, it still rains on and off throughout the fall and into winter.

In that way, it has the feel of Guadalajara, the wet season and the dry season. The sun hits my face and I can feel the burn, but my back is cold in my shadow. I’m back in the mountains, about a mile above sea level, but that just means I need to give my body time to adapt to the thin air again. I can feel my throat begin to dry out and I remember that I have my own fridge to keep cold water in.

It’s strange having my own place, not just a room, but an entire apartment to call home. The squatty-potty in the shower leaves something to be desired, but it’s safe, it’s clean, and it’s mine. Some of the other volunteers have to clean their places, or they have old or unrenovated apartments, but my school took care of everything for me. There are some oddities, and it feels bare without any art on the walls, but it’s home.

I think the strange thing is the layers of windows and doors. The front door has two actual doors to it, like a screen and a door, but they’re both solid. The old style exterior windows are outside, but they installed a new set of sliders on the inside of the frame. I see it as an extra layer of protection from the dust storms that are supposed to come up in the summer, but the aesthetic is strange. I need to pick up a few things, but I will be there for the next couple years, so there is time to invest into making it truly mine.

The Peace Corps gives us contacts in the new city, like they did when we arrived in Chengdu. My waiban, Shine was there to pick me up at the train station after the twenty-two hour ride. She is my contact at the school for basic problems and needs. There is something they tell us before we go to site, to accept all invitations. All of them. There is no way for you to tell what is good or bad until you have some experience with the people around you, so accept all invitations.

Shine invited me to teach pronunciation to an advanced English class of post-graduate medical students. Accept all invitations. So off I go, lesson planning and making a powerpoint, neither of which I wound up using. There was some fluctuation on what I understood she wanted, and in the end it was more of a speak and repeat session practicing everything from “succumb” to “dioxyribonucleic acid.” Back and forth for two hours, speak, repeat, then practice with the people next to you.

It was more of a series of ten minute mini-lessons with some added commentary and questions. When one student asked me about my pronunciation of “larynx” I pointed out that they would be dealing with people from all over the world and that everyone would have a different pronunciation of these words. I am only here to offer my experience and accent for them to practice with, not to be the hard line of what is right or wrong.

That being said, I think my pronunciation of “larynx” has a bit of Texas twang to it. One of those remnants of where I have been, like when I tell people I lived in “neyork” years ago, the state, not the city. An accent is the mark of where we come from and where we have been. It’s personal, and tells a history to the people who can hear it. It’s not something we should strive to lose or change, any more than we should try to change our past.

I think the things that I found most interesting was their reactions to the little things. The first time a student asked me a question I went up to her and squatted down so I could see her eye to eye. As tall as I am, there can be something threatening about my presence around strangers, especially when they see me as an outsider or a superior, so I tend to stand back, to shift my shoulders so I don’t seem as focused on the person, or I squat so I don’t seem as tall. I dropped down next to her and a quiet laugh went through the room. I’m guessing that is not common for teachers here, but I always found it to be effective.

There was also a student who was surprised when I asked about pronouncing a word I’d never seen before. He was practicing pronunciation with the class when I first walked in, so I used him as the resident expert. I have basic medical experience, but some words are too specific for anyone who has no need of them. He was surprised that I would look to him as an expert, but for me it was a way to reinforce that I am not perfect, and that I am the last word when it comes to English. Simple concepts, but they are not ones that everyone has thought of before.

One of the things I found interesting about college students and college culture is the tendency to look to experts and teachers rather than trusting your own experience. I think part of that comes from not really having experience beyond the controlled world of most of our childhoods. It’s easier to assume that someone else is the expert, and then the day comes where someone is looking to you for the answers.

I always find it odd when people look to me for advice or suggestions. I think in some way I assume that everyone sees what I see, and knows what I know. Part of me sees the people around and I know that cannot be true, but I never really trust that part of me. I am a student, and I have learned a lot in my life, but I would never claim to be an expert. Jack of all trades, master of none. It’s what I aspire to be, as should any true bard.

I’m looking forward into a new city, a new world. I know there is a place for me there, and I know that I can do good and be better than I am now. One of the highest aspirations of a bard is to travel all the world and collect stories they find there. I don’t know if I will ever be able to see all of the world, but I will do my best to learn what I can and post it here. Just don’t ever believe that I am an expert.

Posted in 2017-08, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Dreams on the Other Side

Gansu University of Chinese Medicine. I didn’t know where I wanted to go because I didn’t know something like this would be a choice. It’s perfect. A smaller city, an hour to any number of awesome places, at a place as old and traditional as I could imagine. I have yet to see anything that is less than what I could have dreamed.

I leave tomorrow, on a twenty two hour train ride. That would not be my first choice, but for now, I think it just adds to the story. A long journey ahead with dreams on the other side. I came here wanting to feel, and now I do. The concept of art is to express things beyond words. The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao. I have endless stories from others in my head, quotes and fragments of what they saw, but this is mine. I’ll try to share it, but I really can’t, I don’t have the words. Three languages and I still haven’t found anything to fit this.

My family and I spent last weekend here up in the mountains, so much like the far away places in Taiwan, but far more restricted than that. I can’t wait until I can get back to the places we so few people go, place hard to get to. The stairs and the railings never suited me much, but the beauty of the place and the people were still here. I miss jumping from dangerous heights, drinking from the stream where the water is still clean, and feeling the distance from the world. Here, the people are still awesome. Someone offered me chicken wings from a bag, and there were still locals relaxing in the water until it started raining.

There were a number of volunteers with us, the Bourgeois, Happy Rice, Guizhou, Whyshenme, and the Voice. Normally it would be harder to come up with nicknames for them, but we’ve been together so much for so long that it comes easier. And now, most of them will be gone. Only five of the Sichuan Normal University training group will go to Gansu, Out of sixteen. It feels like we’ve been together forever, but it’s been six weeks. There will be nineteen of the China 23 training group going up there, and we have the China 22s waiting for us already, but in a lot of ways I will be alone.

My campus is small, and I am the only foreign teacher there. The students will be doctors and nurses, training mostly in Traditional Chinese Medicine, with the older students doing their residency in nearby hospitals. I got a packet filled with information on who I report to, notes from the last volunteer there, a new host family, and a list of things to be done. It’s far more information than I received anywhere else, and far more support already in place.

I did find it amusing when someone referred to an eighteen hour a week course-load as heavy, but I got used to much more in Mexico and Taiwan. There will be more lesson planning, but no homework to be done. I am ready for the work, and I can’t wait to see what else is there. That’s all there is for now, anticipation. Enough that it drowns out the possible horror of the train ride. Enough for me to really feel it, like standing in the river, waiting to be swept away.

Posted in 2017-08, Chengdu, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment