Thursday, July 22, 2010

Proud to be an American?

Earlier this week we had a beautiful day: the sun was shining and the air was dry. One of the things I miss most about summer back at home is the sunshine and being able to lay out and get a nice tan. Here the atmosphere prohibits getting much direct sunlight, and on those rare sunny days the women cower away from the sunlight, seeking shelter under umbrellas, massive visors, and even children's inflatable swim toys--anything to prevent them from getting tanned. Since model school tacks on an extra hour of prep to our already hour and a half lunch period, and I was not teaching that day, I decided to grab some chairs and sit out on the patio right outside our classroom and study while getting some good sunshine on my ever-paling skin. As I was tanning myself, Joanne, our TEFL trainer, walked by and chuckled saying, "You are such an American." And then I waited for it to happen--I waited for that typical reaction of repulsion from deep within me that says "Please don't equate me with them. I am not like the rest of them." But it never came. Instead I smiled and enthusiastically said, "I know!" And I felt something I haven't felt in years: pride.

I have never been one to bear the label "patriotic." In fact, if there had been a "Most likely to become an ex-pat" award in high school, I would have won it hands down. Ever since my first trip overseas, I got this romantic idea in my head that the rest of the world was so much more pure and honest than Americans. Americans were corrupted, fat, selfish, too rich, etc. The list could go on. I attributed all of this to being an American problem, missing the point that this was not an exclusively American trait, but rather a human nature trait. Give anyone around the world that much money and power and they would be the same way.

Coming to China this time I have begun to see things differently. I don't know if it's because I am coming here a little older and wiser than I was last time, or if it's simply because I'm seeing things from a different perspective because of the nature of my trip, but knowing that I am here to live for two years, and not merely to visit for a few weeks, has deromanticized things a bit for me. Instead of viewing customs and traditions and the way the Chinese people do some things as exotic, they have begun to permeate my comfort zone as I realize that I will have to adapt to these customs for two whole years. I am no longer allowed to stand on the outside, viewing these customs and habits as though on display in a museum or shop window, but rather I have to figure out how to integrate them into my life without completely compromising myself. And so in exploring these customs, and taking a greater look at my own customs, I have come to realize something I know my family has wished for years that I would realize: I am proud to be an American.

Of course, there are still things I do not like about America. But the key point is that I have begun to realize that these things that I do not like about America are things that I do not like about human nature, and maybe it's not America I disagree with, but rather human nature. And maybe other cultures really aren't "better," but rather flawed in different ways.

I feel as though unless I were to completely give myself over to the Chinese culture, and retain no part of my self, then this was a necessary and inevitable realization. In dealing with the stress and homesickness of integration, home becomes a rock; it becomes the foundation on which you are to build your new self. It is necessary then that this foundation be stable and beloved. My only fear in this, then, is that this realization comes purely out of necessity, and will therefore be only a temporary adaptation while I am in this culture. When I return to the states, will I go back to placing other cultural views above my own because it will no longer be necessary for my own culture to captivate and retain that sense of my self? I would like to think that this realization is a permanent thing, because I feel as though this would make adjusting back into my life in America much easier in two years.

I suppose that, for now, the best thing I can do is learn to love parts of my new culture, and remember my love for my American culture, because it is, after all, home. And Dorothy said it best when she said, "There's no place like home."

Saturday, July 17, 2010

I'm Bella to the mosquitos' Edward...

I woke up this morning at 4:30 and was unable to sleep for about 2 hours because the itching was so very bad. I have bites everywhere. So much so that I was convinced that I had bedbugs. My host Mom, however, insists that the biting problem is not caused by bedbugs, but rather the fact that I have blood type O negative. Her husband also is O negative, and has his fair share of bites. She, on the other hand, has zero. This was confirmed by several seemingly reputable scientific sources. Apparently, mosquitos are discriminatory creatures and I smell like a tasty snack to them. Luckily for Bella, her tantalized monster was also a moral creature. How I wish mosquitos were governed by the moral law. Maybe then I would have fewer bites.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

I'm here, I'm safe!

I'm here, I'm safe, and I finally have internet!

We're about two weeks into our Chinese language study now. I took a year of it in college which I've found has really been to my advantage--not that I'm farther along than others, per se, but it is helping me not fall drastically behind. In studying Chinese this time around I have realized something: I would much rather be learning Chinese as a second language than English as a second language. So many people think that Chinese is an extremely difficult language to learn, and as a whole, it can be because it is not natural for those of us used to languages utilizing the Roman alphabet or other phonetic systems of writing. while I love the English language for its complexitites and its nuances, its irregularities and its diversities, I am thankfrul that it is my native language for those very reasons. With Chinese you do not have to contend with verb conugation, tenses, conjuctions, irregular spelling, gender (in other languages, not English), and the fact that there is not one single rule that is absolute. To know English is to adopt spellings, rules, and pronunciations from a wide variety of languages.

Monday I moved in with my host family. I was very nervous about meeting them because I had no idea what to expect. With the language barrier there are bound to be lots of awkward moments--something I have never seemed to handle with much grace. I feel as though there are some people who can take an awkward moment and make it seem less awkward, learning from it and moving past it quickly. I, however, am not one of those people. No, I'm one of those people who tend to elongate awkward moments, making them even longer and more awkward than necessary. However, I was nervous for nothing. I decided before I met them that I was just going to embrace the awkward moments becasue they were inevitable and a necessary part of the learning process. My host "mom" goes by the name LeiLei and she's only 5 years older than me. She is so sweet and very beautiful. She was so excited to meet me, and once we got back to their apartment (after lugging all my heavy luggage up 3 flights of stairs), she and I went all over the apartment with a large pad of sticky notes, and she labeled a bunch of things around the apartment to help me learn vocabulary.

It is difficult being separated from the entire group. There are about 90 Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) right now, and we are split into four groups and are at four different sites. One day a week we get all together for sessions. I was placed in the group with the highest average age, and, incidentally apart from all those I connected with really well during the first week. But I have gotten to know several people at my site who are great. One of those being my Model School partner, Fred. We have to co-teach a 90 minute class for two weeks during training, and I think Fred and I will have a lot of fun--hopefully our teaching styles won't clash. He's pretty laid-back and a lot of fun so I think it should be good.

LeiLei hasn't even met Fred yet, but she already loves him. We went out last night for our friend Sean's birthday after session, and we had to call and ask for permission from our host families to stay out late. Since LeiLei doesn't speak much English, Fred, being first-generation Chinese-American and therefore fluent in Mandarin, called and talked to her. She can't wait to meet him--my friend who speaks such good Mandarin.

We have four more weeks of greulling PST, then we will spend a week each of us visiting our permanent sites. After that wewill have two more weeks of training which will end with our big swearing in ceremony when we are sworn in as official PCVs. And then I will be a college professor. I can't wait to find out what university I will be at and what classes I will be teaching. I don't know where I want to be placed, but I do know that I would really love to be placed near people I have connected with so far. It's incredible how close of bonds are formed with people when you are all put into the same situation. I have truly made some lifelong friends here and are looking forward to seeing them develop over the next two years. And if I don't have an opportunity to live by some of the people, at least I will have an opportunity to travel with them.

Until next time, much love from China!!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Oh, how I hate goodbyes...

I am now sitting here waiting at the gate. I have about an hour before my flight boards. I just said goodbye to my family and I cried the entire way through the checkpoint and all the way down to my gate. There are certain fears that are wanting to completely wash over me and distract me from why I'm here in the first place. If I let them, they will leave me completely debilitated, questioning my resolve for this path and tempting me to get out while I still can.

And then a voice inside me says "Sure, you can decide not to go if you want. You can bow out and go home. There are people there who will understand, who will support you, who will even be glad that you decided not to go.........but what really is waiting for you back home? What job is there for you there? What does your life look like if you don't go? Where would you go from here?" And suddenly, my tears stop and I remember why I decided to do this. It still hurts, but the fear has been somewhat subdued, at least for now.

It just sucks saying goodbye.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Am I ready?

I have three more days left. Actually, it's at the very tail end of this day, so really I only have two days left. I am not yet packed. I still have a very long list of things to do, and I also have a very long list of people to spend time with.

Currently, the entire back end of the house has been overrun by my belongings. Packing is a messy ordeal. First, you must spread everything out and organize it into piles. It's hard to really get an immediate grasp on what 100 lbs. of luggage is like, so you have to organize everything into different piles: Absolutely cannot live without and therefore must go into my carry-on, Heavy and therefore would really really like to fit in my carry-on if at all possible, Need but I can survive if it's lost, Don't really need but really want to bring so will find room for it if possible, and Why did I even think I would want or even COULD pack this?

Then, things get packed until you reach a point where you can't really pack any more because you need those things during the next few days, and you can't pack everything else, because you don't want those things in your carry-on.... So right now, I'm at the point where I can finally start to finish my packing. Currently, it appears as though both of my rooms have exploded and bled into the hallways and computer room.

In other words, people are constantly asking me if I'm ready. This, to me, seems to be a loaded question. Am I ready, as in, am I packed? Or am I ready, as in am I mentally and emotionally prepared to move away from my friends and family for two years into a world of complete unknown: unknown people, unknown language, unknown job... I suppose the easy answer is "HELL NO!" How one exactly goes about "preparing" to leave home and live overseas completely alone for two years, I am not sure. And I mean, physically, mentally, and emotionally. How does one prepare for this? How does one pack for this? Maybe once I get there I'll realize either that I wasn't prepared, which will come as no surprise, or I'll be surprised to discover that I have been prepared all along... I suppose we shall see.