Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Welcome Week

[A bearded figure in a corduroy suitcoat assumes the podium. He fiddles with the microphone for an inordinately long amount of time, then turns the thing over in his hands and contemplates it with much wonder, as though he is a time traveler from the 19th Century. You figure this foppish boob is some sort of invalid handyman, an acid casualty turned Peace Corps janitor. You wait for him to get off the stage. Then he produces a crumpled wad of receipts from his pocket, flattens them out upon the podium and violently clears his throat. He begins to speak. Horrified, you realize that this is a second-year volunteer, and that he is speaking to you.]

Welcome, Peace Corps Freshmen. It is June the 20th. One week to go. By now, your mom has finished packing your underwear. You have quit your temp job, broken off your most recent long-term romantic relationship, and have finally abandoned all hope for your last-ditch grad school application to Vanderbilt. [Here, the speaker chuckles to himself but receives no laughter in return. He takes a long swig from a Nalgene bottle containing a murky brown fluid and coughs.]

Yes, these are anxious times. I remember them well. The Peace Corps seemed like a grand idea about a year ago, when you were unemployed and sleeping well into the afternoon upon an inflatable mattress in the utility room of your ex-girlfriend's studio apartment. And it remained a grand idea up until two months ago, when your selfless dedication to service made you an instant celebrity at the local watering hole, where old timers would slap you across the back and say, wistfully, drunkenly, Y'know, I wish I had ... y'know ... when I was your age ...

But now that the idea is inching ever closer to becoming reality, it is starting to feel like a terrible mistake. What if Vanderbilt has a sudden change of heart? What if Shirley Hawksby is the love of your life and you just don't know it yet? And then, more existentially: why, of all places, China? Of all the things I could be doing with the next two years of my ever-vanishing youth, why should I spend them teaching college English in Sichuan Province? Two years is a long time, you figure, and couldn't I just stay home and make a difference here in Sandpoint, Idaho? And meanwhile, there's Shirley Hawksby to consider. And her double-D gazongas to consider ... Maybe you should call the Peace Corps and tender your resignation. But no: this is the US Government you're dealing with, here. So you contemplate faking your own death, and you wonder whether Shirley Hawksby would run away with you if you both agreed to adopt suitably sexy-sounding aliases.

In all likelihood, Shirley Hawksby and these last-minute anxieties of yours will wind up losing out to your sense of adventure. One way or another, you will board that flight to San Francisco, and in a hungover daze, you will sit through a litany of getting-to-know-you icebreaker sessions. Then, along with however many of you there are, you will make the great leap across the Pacific to the People's Republic of China. I could, of course, tell you what is likely to happen after that, but I wouldn't want to ruin the surprise.

The question that brought you this far is the same question that plagues all Peace Corps volunteers: is what I am doing right now worthwhile? There is no easy answer to that question. It is a hypothetical question in a way, because it implies that you could be elsewhere doing elsewise. The question opens up an abyss of where-should-I-be's? and where-might-I-be's? The ability to ask hypothetical questions is the greatest curse humanity has ever been blessed with. We have the capacity to dream up an infinity of universes, reasonable universes and totally fantastical ones - universes in which we fake our own death and run off with Shirley Hawksby, universes in which we bring the literary world to its literary knees, universes in which we remain in Sandpoint, Idaho for the rest of our lives doing god-knows-what - and out of those millions of universes, we must in the end choose only one. Almost one year ago to the day, I chose the universe in which I would spend two years teaching college English in China. So the question I suppose you might have for me is this: do you feel like what you are doing right now is worthwhile?

Here, I could let my eyes glaze over. I could run off at the mouth about all the wonderful things the Peace Corps is doing in China. But that would be disingenuous of me. Of course, the Peace Corps is doing wonderful things in China and all over the world. I no longer question their motives. But I do question my own motives. Is what I am doing right now worthwhile? The question is there waiting for me in my morning Nalgene bottle of Nescafe, and haunts me even after who knows how many nightcaps.

Peace Corps China is different from most other Peace Corps programs. You will be fairly comfortable in China. No huts. No hovels. You will have an apartment. You will probably have a DVD player in your living room, if not a computer. At first, you might be disappointed that you're not roughing it like Peace Corps Uganda, but before long, you will find yourself griping about how glitchy the DVD player is, or how slow the internet is, and so on.

You will not be dropped via helicopter into The Shit. Nor will you find yourself in an idyllic Chinese village. The Shit, as far as Peace Corps China goes, is a relatively poor metropolis. In all likelihood, you will be placed in a very large city where your only regular contacts are shish-kebab vendors and taxi drivers. It is unlikely that you will save any lives during your two years of service. You won't be digging irrigation ditches or treating AIDS patients. You will work a regular old J-O-B during the afternoon, and when the working day is done, during that time of day in which girls merely want to have fun, you will be left to your own devices. So you will attempt to bond with China during that time. But try as you might, you will find it immensely difficult to make a single Chinese friend among any of the 1.3 billion people that surround you. Alas, despite your best efforts, you will remain a foreigner in this country, and for that reason, you will be both embraced by the locals and kept at arm's length from them.

It will be hard for you to see how much of a difference you are making. A full calendar year has passed, and I have absolutely no idea as to what kind of impact my existence is having on Nanchong or its millions of inhabitants. At least in a Ugandan village, you might be able to cite specific instances of having helped so-and-so, or of having done such-and-such. Here, the fruits of your good deeds are not so evident. After one year in China, the people in your neighborhood will continue to heckle and taunt you as though you're fresh off the boat. You will go entire semesters wondering whether you have taught anyone a single damned thing. You will bust your ass for four months trying to teach your students that America is a diverse place, with black people, white people, Latinos - even Chinese people! And when the final exam rolls around, every last one of them will tell you that Americans are white people with big noses and lots of hair. Welcome to China. It's very Chinese here. And it's been that way for 5,000 years. Just how does one go about changing a Chinese city the size of Denver? Beats you. Beats me.

Do I feel that what I am doing is worthwhile? Yes. Maybe. I don't know. Yes. I think so. I just got back from Chongqing [hooting in the back row from the Chongqing contingent] and I was struck by the fact that on the bus ride home from what might be the largest city in the world, none of my fellow travelers seemed to have ever seen a foreigner before. They couldn't help but stare. Everything I did was exotic. He's reading - in English! He's sending a text message - in English! He's passed out and is drooling on my husband's shoulder - in English!

I grew up in Nebraska, a state as homogenized as the milk it produces, but Nebraska is Spanish Harlem compared to Sichuan. In Sichuan, the mere presence of a foreigner is enough to trigger moped accidents, stock market crashes and mass hysteria. So as a volunteer, you are endowed with a kind of superpower, the superpower of constant visibility. And you must decide at some point whether you will use that power for good or for evil. For two years, you will be the center of attention, wherever you go, whatever you do. Not a booger will go unpicked without comment. It is irritating, to say the least. But will you remain pleasant? Will you continue to make public appearances? Will you take the heckling with a grain of MSG? These are silly questions if you are living in America, or serving in Uganda. But they are not so silly to me. These are the questions that haunt me. It is difficult to remain pleasant. It is difficult to leave the apartment. But it is my job, a job before which my J-O-B is insignificant. Because the strangers who bother me on the street tell me about the foreigner they met six years ago. He was fat, they'll say. Or she was mean, they'll say. He couldn't speak Chinese, they'll say. They remember everything about the last foreigner they met. A city the size of Denver, and they remember one foreigner. And I am that foreigner for thousands of people I won't remember after I leave.

I will not save any lives in China. I will not dig any ditches. But this is the most powerful country on earth and its inhabitants know next to nothing about the outside world. So, simply by existing, I am informing them. By walking to the corner store to buy toilet paper, I am educating them. By successfully eating a bowl of ramen with chopsticks, I am astounding them. So is what I am doing right now worthwhile? Yes. I think so, yes.

[Here, the bearded figure in the corduroy suitcoat grows nervous, unplugs the microphone and, before your very eyes, eats it. Disgusted to the point of becoming violently ill, you watch the microphone sink down into his esophagus. He belches and takes a bow. There is a smattering of applause from the back row. In one week, you will arrive in San Francisco. There will be icebreakers.]


Alicia Sartori said...

Thanks for this 'welcome letter' so to speak. I found it helpful because it is good to know that there will be other volunteers that are down to earth about their service. I know I won't be changing the world during my service, and I don't hope to. But you're right, just by being there, you're making an influence on people's lives, and I hope I can keep that in mind when people shout "haaaallooo!" at me on the street in a few weeks.

alison said...

I'm almost a year away from my service, and I think your post a year from now will read a little differently. The way that your students and friends cling to you right before they're about to never see you again (different from the normal clinging ...)might alter your definitions of things like 'worthwhile.'

Also, welcome Alicia!!!! China is awesome!!!! I don't usually use exclamation points, but that's my analysis after having been there 2007-2009.

patti s said...

A lot of people seem to read your posts and I have read more than once that you are the best. I have even said it myself. I'm not there, never have been, but I do consider myself "knowledgeable" about the whole PC China idea. People ask me all the time why it is important, or why we let them "use" us this way. (teaching English). I finally figured it out-for myself anyway. It is called Peace corps for a reason. You said it and Alison said it too about the students. How many do you teach or come in contact with a day? Add to that the people they tell about you and this is the amount of "peace" you spread around. To those of you leaving and those staying and those on the way, let me say thank you. For all the things your experience is not, (ditches, huts, etc.) it is not easy, but no one said it would be. Thank you all.

mosiah montoya said...

Wow! It sounds like the Sichuan experience is very different of that of the Gansu experience. While I do not dig ditches or work in an HIV hospital, I do work with very eager students from very rural backgrounds. Perhaps because my town is small it allows itself to be a little more welcoming to outsiders. Making friends up here is difficult but not impossible.
Having served in Central American and now here in China I have found that the challenges are very similar. I think it boils down to a few questions.
How can I best serve my community?
How can I be me and this idea of an outsider at the same time?
How can I express myself in this impossible language?
Where is a bar that has cold beer?
Hope to see you in Beijing or ZY soon.