Chengdu

Whatever my expectations here were, it’s really hard to say. I didn’t know what I would find, but it’s not really like I would have guessed. The city of Chengdu, at least in the area we are in, reminds me a lot of Taipei and Guadalajara. I stand out, but not in a way that I’m unfamiliar with. I probably wouldn’t even notice most of the time if it didn’t come up in training so often.

 

The one time I definitely noticed it began when i saw someone following me and a couple other volunteers after we finished playing basketball. I didn’t see a threat, his body language was all wrong for that, so I brushed it off as someone who was just headed in the same direction as we were. Then he stopped us and asked to take a picture with us. It was amusing, and something i experienced with people in Taiwan from time to time. Typically they were friends, but when in Rome…

The food here is amazing, in some ways equal to Mexico, but with more heat and less aguacate. Everything is cheap and I’ve yet to have a bad meal here. The people are often friendly, and little things that I’ve learned about Chinese customs go a long way to smooth the way. I have trouble with the dialect here sometimes, but with how fast they will be pushing us to learn it wont be long before I can get through most of a day without English.

The classes are nothing new, the real difference is that we have more teachers and a lot of hours lined up. The teacher I have now is really good, and clearly has a lot of experience. Were focusing on spoken Chinese more than anything, making it easier for us to integrate into the community, but I still want to learn how to read and write the language too. Dedication and time, as always. Were supposed to have a lot more time once we get to our sites, and I plan to work on my language skills as much as possible.

The one downside to being here is the air, but it’s not as bad as I expected it to be. I walked for an hour or so down the back streets and alleys near the hotel, and I can smell the dirt on my clothes. It reminds me of the days when I was a plumber, going home stinking of sweat and dirt, but it’s not having the effect on me it did in Taiwan. Maybe it’s all the burning spirit money there, I have yet to find anyone following that tradition in Chengdu.

The city is strange, a mix of aging concrete among massive construction sites. Repairs, renovations, demolitions, and new construction surrounds us, and the sky is often grey, but there have been some good days. I like it here, and I know I can call this place home for the next few months. I may get placed here, and I think I would enjoy that as much as anywhere I might find myself in this country. And my time has only just begun.

 

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Leaving

Leaving was different this time. In some was more real, and in some ways just through the reaction of the people who know where I’m going. In many ways, for me anyway, it’s just the next job, the next place to be, but I know they will require so much more than the places I’ve been.

Mexico requires you to show up and be able to speak English well, preferably with a passport, but there really are no rules there. Taiwan has rules, but they are desperate for good teachers, so much so that any teacher who can get the visa will do. The Peace Corps is different. They want me, and they need people with my skills, but there is no desperation. They would rather send no one than send someone who could damage their project and reputation.

The people with me aren’t really what I expected either. Most teachers have a simple goal, money, freedom, an escape. Many of the people who went to Mexico were looking for a party, or a place without the restrictions of their home. A lot of people in Taiwan were looking to build a life, or decided to once they spent some time there. Even the people passing through wee mostly college students working on their degrees. I’m not seeing those personalities here.

If I’m not the oldest of the group, I’m pretty close, and I have more experience in he world than many of them, but that works against me in many ways here. I lack the excitement of youth, the ability to anticipate rather than worry. The problem is, really, I was always cynical. I think that what I’m seeing is many of them are what I could have been, and what I still want to be. With luck, I’ll have the time to learn it over the next few months of training.

What I am now is something different than I have ever been. I’ve always avoided being the face or the voice of a group. Now I’m both. I will be seen as the face of a nation, the voice of America, and everything I do will be seen and questioned. I know it won’t be that way the whole time, but now my conduct is my job, not just an expression of who I am. That makes it much harder to be an asshole, no matter how funny I find it.

I feel hesitant, if that is really an emotion. Wary, maybe, but not really worried or scared. There is something of the fear of success, I’m sure, but I know I can do this. I know I will change because of it. I know that I am doing what I want, living the life I have been searching for. I know, but there is still hesitation, and I don’t know that what I will do for my community will be enough.

I’m looking forward to climbing the mountains, to meeting my first class, and to standing in front of a group and speaking a language I can barely order tea in right now. I look forward to the food, the people, king fu, and seeing what will become of me. The life I had, in many ways, is just an anchor to me now. Not the people or the places, but all the things I used to be, the aged, ancient voices that are so terrified of the life ahead.

Time passes so quickly, but looking at more than a few moments ahead has always caused me more misery than joy. Preparation is the enemy of excitement, for me. Life is chaos, and I try to embrace how wonderful that is. I don’t really know what the future holds, but I’m sure it is noting like he roads i had been walking on so far. The road ahead keeps splitting, and I keep aiming for the road less traveled, I just can’t wait to find where he sidewalk ends.

 

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Four Days to Go

I’m back in San Francisco, waiting for Thursday when all the China volunteers gather in the city and prepare for departure. It was hard to leave Atlanta, but it was harder to be there without any real purpose. I ate too much, did too little, and wasted far more time than I would have liked. I didn’t study enough, I didn’t practice kung fu enough, and for the most part I just existed. It was worth it, though.

I know that I can’t do that again. If I go home for that long, I have to have something to do, somewhere to go, a job, a studio, a project, something. It’s just to easy for me to do nothing. The weight of emptiness drags me down too quickly. Everyone there has a purpose, and it’s infuriating to be without one.

I talked to my family, which might not seem like much, but it’s almost surreal for me. Not small talk, but actual conversations about life an problems that we have had. I don’t trust many people, and that includes most of my family, but this is a start. For me trust is always a choice that I make against my better judgment. I’m never surprised when trusting someone goes bad, but paranoid dysfunction is no way to find happiness.

It’s better to have this distance from that before I go. A calm before the storm, maybe. I don’t really know. I haven’t thought about all that this entails, to leave for this long, to be so far from everything I’ve know. I’m not one to worry, or anticipate. Both always fail me. The only time I seem to get what I truly fear or what I truly hope for is when I create it.

Looking forward, I know this will be different than what I’ve done before. I won’t have the money I had in Taiwan, or the ability to fly home for the weekend like I did in Mexico. I won’t have the option of falling in with the other foreigners, because I will be truly alone. I will have to answer every invite with a yes unless I truly cannot go. My job is to make friends and to be a part of the experience, and I cannot do that binge watching at home.

I never really liked being the center of attention. I can deal with it, but too much praise is as chilling as too much insult. There is always something more I could have done, and making noise about how well I did something feels dishonest. I do what I can, and I’m happy to help, but praise feels dishonest, and I have never figured out why.

I know my job will be relatively easy when looking at how much practice I already have. I know I’ll learn Mandarin faster than I ever could have in Taiwan. I know I’ll see amazing places that few people around the world have ever seen, and I will be changed by the people I meet there. I want to spend a few weeks in Mongolia, I want to hike the mountains of China, I want to see Tibet and Nepal. I want to practice kung fu with old masters, laugh and eat with new friends, and I want to be fascinated, confused, and pulled into life.

Being aware of your thoughts as they arise has a side effect of making it hard to be consumed by life. It’s almost like being aware of a dream. I don’t prepare my words before I speak, but I hear them as though they were said by someone else, like I’m watching my life happen more than I am living.

In a way, that is the goal of Buddhism, to find that separation from the temporary existence that is life, but it also dulls sensation and steals some of the joy from the moment. That is the rest of the goal, to find peaceful joy in that separation from the trappings of life.

It’s a sacrifice I’ve made for a long time, to surrender some of life’s joy to be protected from it’s pain, but I don’t know if it’s an honest exchange, or if it’s necessary. I want to be part of this world, more than I am, but I don’t really know how to do that. I guess that’s the next teacher I need to look for. Someone to teach me joy.

I am glad to be here, and I can’t wait for all of this to begin, but in a way I want to be overwhelmed. I’ve tried to stand as a rock against the ocean for too long, hopefully I’ll find a way to let go and see where the waves take me.

Posted in 2017-06, San Francisco, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

There have been a number of minor problems along the way, but so far nothing has changed my plans. The problem is that everything feels like it will, every problem could be a disaster, a massive shift in all my plans, a waste of time. Anxiety still floats around like a banshee, wailing and haunting my existence. Once, that would have been enough to stop me, but not anymore.

I wonder what would happen if my trip to China falls apart. I doubt I would be out of the Peace Corps, but how soon could I transfer to another country? Would it be better to find another way for now, or to set sail for a far distant shore?

The more plans I make, the more I expect, the more anxiety I feel. There is a reason I always preferred having a direction rather than a plan. Being fluid makes my life more bearable. Stress comes with trying to force the river to my will rather than floating downstream. Both have their place, and my river has been kind, but I don’t think I’ve come close to where I want to be yet.

The places I’ve been have darkness, but I’ve still managed to avoid it, by choice or by luck. There is a lot of pain in this world, and I know I have spent most of my life avoiding it, but I don’t want that to continue. I hate that feeling that pushes me to turn my head, to not make eye contact, to not give because I fear what people will ask for.

As much as I’ve learned over the years, I have yet to really learn to be okay with saying no. I can do it, I can ride the emotions that come with it, but there is pain that is always associated with it. Part of it is the need that people have, that they truly need more than I do and that I won’t be able to absorb that pain forever. Maybe some people find it easy to live apart from others, but for me it’s an inferno.

Joseph Campbell talks about the moth and the flame a lot. The moth finds the flame and sees perfect beauty. It tries to get to it but can’t so it returns to tell all the others about the glory of the flame. The true goal, however, is to enter the flame, to burn and die, and become one with it’s beloved. I understand that desire, but I always stand on the line between the fire and the darkness.

I want to be that passionate about something in my life. I want to love so completely that I will delight in being consumed and becoming one with the flame. But I hold back from everything, especially emotion.

To feel is a glorious thing, but I find so many times that I flinch from the full force of it. It’s a matter of control as much as it is fear. To feel so completely that I lose my ability to control my demeanor, to keep from laughing, or crying. To keep from truly loving something.

I want that fire, and I may get there one day, but for now I’ve been taking the slow way, the safe way. In Mexico I had friends, I knew the language, and I could get home. Taiwan was a place where it’s safe, where you can settle down with a family, where you didn’t have to be paranoid. China is with the Peace Corps. I don’t know how much support we will get, but it’s not truly running off into the world alone.

If there is any real purpose in my life right now, it is to feel, to abandon control and be a part of something more than I ever thought I could be.

That is what scares me most in this world, to lose what I think I am to feeling. What I think I am, my ego, my memories, my weakness. Everything goes away, and there is power in controlling when, but again, that’s just another form of control. The paradox of abandoning all but trying to control the conditions and timing.

I don’t know what will come, but being here, back in the States, I know that what I want will not be easy to find here. Comfort comes to easily, life is too ordered, and even volunteering has a protective coating. It’s too easy for me to avoid the hardest parts of life here, and to fall back to what I used to be.

In a few years, maybe I’ll be ready, but I still think I’ll have a long way to go. To Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Morocco, Estonia, Romania, Moldova, Oman, India, Nepal, Mongolia… I can’t list all the places I dream of, and I know my life will just continue to get harder. I know, because that is what I am looking for. Above all else, I know we find what we are looking for and what we fear, even if it’s not there.

Posted in 2017-05, Atlanta, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment