Tuesday, November 03, 2009


I struggled with the reality of China for the entire month of September. It was one thing to read about it, and to swim around in it amidst a school of foreign fish, but to confront China head-on every time I opened the front door was too much for my neurotic circuitry. That was September. On the first of October, I woke up and suddenly loved the place. Overnight, my brain had formed a protective callus that screened out all the noise and allowed only the loveliness to seep through.

These stages of loathing and loving were foretold by any number of Peace Corps manuals and cultural integration seminars, so I saw them coming. But again, it is one thing to know about them and another thing to experience them.

Last month's euphoria has faded and November is looking to be a blend of September and October. I have a more nuanced outlook now, a wiser one perhaps. I am ecstatic to be here but mindful of the challenges. Three days out of the week will be good days. Three will be absurd days. And one day (today) will be catastrophic: you will forget all the Mandarin you've learned; after days of invisibility, China will suddenly notice you and follow you about like the pied piper; so you'll lay low in a restaurant, ask the fuwuyuan for a menu, he'll point at the board on the wall, and in the heat of the moment you'll find yourself ordering the bitter melon and bacon combo for ten kuai; winter will arrive later that evening and you'll discover the hot water in your apartment has fizzled out. On those days, you ball yourself up like an armadillo and wait it out. What makes it bearable, even laughable, is the realization that other volunteers elsewhere in the world are reading this paragraph and thinking: bacon? hot water? apartment? and the locals love you? Why don't you write about Nietzsche some more, you goldbricking ninny?

This is easy for me to say, goldbricking Nietzschean ninny that I am, but I believe that the human ability to extract happiness or misery from his surroundings doesn't vary much from one set of circumstances to another. I imagine I would be precisely as happy as I am right now whether I were huddled over a heap of smoldering charcoal while a typhoon made scrap metal out of my Micronesian hovel, or supping on crawdads and Chablis in a dining room the size of the Fleet Center. And precisely as unhappy, too. What matters is having some sort of trajectory, a plot to usher you from one day into the next. That involves finding a cast of characters to support you, and keeping a long list of mostly unattainable goals. It also involves conflict and complications. And laughter. I'm not sure I could endure anything at all if I couldn't every so often collapse face-down on a table laughing so hard I lose track of time and finally, as if waking from a sleep, lift my head, mop my brow and say, "Whew, where did that come from?"

1 comment:

Caitrin said...

This last paragraph is up on my wall. A great reminder on the bad days... and the good.

I look forward to meeting you at IST.