Friday, July 27, 2018


The Peace Corps has bestowed a lot on us as we continue to check off the boxes of our preservice training. They have given us envelopes of money (gangster status), a medical kit, no less than 10 manuals, a chinese name (mine: Deng Wentao), friends (other like minded individuals crazy enough to put their lives on hold to live in another country for two years) and most recently a new family.

The hotel resembled a busy ant colony the day we left to meet our host families. In our rooms, we gathered our many bags, hauling them down the halls, packing elevators, rolling them down stairs, to our respective staging areas. There we waited in anticipation. Some chatted, others remained in silence, while others played musical instruments. One of our esteemed colleagues even sacrificed precious luggage space for a set of bag pipes. None of us knowing more about our host family than what peace corps staff decided to put down on paper for us. Some volunteers received an extensive description of their host families. "The host family has a cat, a pool, both host parents speak fluent english, the host family has hosted 3 other volunteers" etc. Mine was abbreviated. Dad, 52 secondary school, mandarin teacher. Mom, 42 retired factory worker. Brother, 16 just finished high school and is on the way to university. There's not a whole lot to be gleaned from these descriptions, so I didn't bother to try.

Our host families were waiting for us when our group arrived at Chengdu University. A very nice middle aged couple was there to greet me and take me home, which was just a few blocks or 10 minute walk from the university where I will be attending the remainder of my Peace Corps Training.

The exterior of the apartment building, looked older, as any building might appear that has smog-laden wind blowing up against it daily. The neighborhood was noisy, mostly from construction of an underground conduit on the adjacent lot. The elevator bounced as though suspended from a rubber band as each of us boarded. On the 9th floor the cool-blue hallway lightbulbs flickered or hung dead in their sockets as dad led the way to our apartment door. 

Walking through the doorway was a reminder to read the damn book first. Inside the noise faded. A silence filled the well kept and, although floral, quite tastefully decorated apartment. More modern and well equipped than any I have inhabited over the course of my adult life. Mom rushed over to the China cabinet (an idiom turned literal) and pulled out a glass Garfield tea cup. This was to be my teacup for the remainder of my stay. I was home.

Baba (father) and Mama (you get it), don't speak any english. I just so happened to speak less than very little mandarin, so the last couple days have been interesting. We get along well enough using translation apps on our phones. It'll have to do until my younger brother (who apparently speaks great english) returns from school. The next and most critical part of my integration here now with my host family and later at my school will be learning mandarin. It's too bad I can't just be given the language ability as well.

Speculation, It depends, and Trusting the Process

Today marks our 9th day in China. We have spent the last week or so in a hotel, adjusting to jet lag, attending training sessions on mandarin, TEFL, intercultural competencies, and Peace Corps medical procedures and policies. There are more, but I think you get the idea. This portion of our 3-month training is designed to orient us to the organization, the country, the Chinese people, and our future positions as university instructors. While orientation training is not the most exciting material (mostly common sense) there have been some real gems of knowledge.

Air quality is best in the morning or after it rains. For those of you who have not yet been to China, the air pollution is real. The smog is visible daily here in Chengdu. Modern skyscrapers with their half built brothers appear as ghosts in the endless haze. I'm sure a climate change denier would say they just have something in their eye. Some people can't be helped. However, I think the smog is a bit exaggerated in Chengdu since it is positioned at the bottom of Sichuan basin, which traps the pollution. Perhaps in more rural areas, the stars come out at night. I'm looking forward to finding out.

Plagiarism is more widely accepted in China (not the unforgivable offense and call for expulsion that it is in the U.S.). Past Peace Corps workers often observe rampant cheating in their classes. As someone who has taught in the U.S. I must admit this sounds absurd. However, the Chinese educational system has something that the U.S. does not. Chinese students are required to take exit exams showing competency. In contrast, most U.S. college courses rely on the individual grades from each course to assess whether students have met degree requirements.

Other notable knowledge imparted includes: Be mindful of rogue scooters. Eating Hot Pot can have days-long consequeces. Going out to coffee with someone of the opposite sex means that you're officially dating. I should expect to take pictures with no less than 50 strangers a day.

Most of the cultural differences here make me smile as each day I venture further into the unknown.
Although some in our 81-person cohort have lived and/or worked in China before (some even here in Chengdu), there are two bouquets of unknown we all face. None of us know our host family placements that will last the next two months. We don't know their level of english, socioeconomic situation, how big the family, if they have pets, or cook, or cook good, or have AC. There are an unlimited number of describing factors that could be listed here. There's just no way of knowing other than experiencing.

The other bouquet of unknowns is a bit more permanent. None of us know what school in which of the 4 provinces (Sichuan, Guizhou, Gansu, and Chongqing) we will be placed for two years (4 semesters). Naturally this unknown sparks a certain anxiety in most. How do people deal with that anxiety? Well we try to reason. Protip: never try to reason. The known variables involved are misunderstood at best and the unknown variables, the ones that could never be known, are just as influential. 

So far, I've heard the following reasoning: People who have trouble being alone will be placed in more urban schools with more site mates. Those that have a high level of speaking ability will end up in rural areas which might help them navigate more adverse situations. Those with Master's Degrees will be placed at higher level colleges. Individuals with health issues will be located closer to medical services.Those with teaching experience will be placed at certain schools. Those with TEFL teaching experience will be placed at certain schools. Those with a certain teaching style will be placed at certain schools. Individuals that explicitly state a preference will be more likely to get what they asked for. Those that explicitly state their preferences will not get them.

As I'm sure you can tell, the code has still to be cracked. To be honest, it might be random. Now, have I wandered down some of the above lines of thinking? Definitely. Before I sold everything I owned, strapped myself into a plane aimed across the ocean, I hoped that I would be placed at a high level university in the middle of a large city. Now I'm not so sure. It might be nice to look up across an ancient countryside and see the stars.

The things I’m carrying

July 13th, 2018
My mind has grown quiet over the last few weeks, each day complicated with tasks has brought me closer to the beginning of my Peace Corps service in China. I've said cheers a hundred times or more to family and the friends of new and old.  It's a sweet sadness I first met when I joined the other corps 11 years ago. I've known it ever since.

I moved out of my apartment in Long Beach after condensing my belongings into two cases and a carry-on, throwing away everything else. What did I decide to take with me? I packed the essentials: clothes, shoes, a safety razor, cologne, a blank journal, favorite pens, 3 camera's of varying bulk, 5 lenses of great bulk, the computer I write to you on now, a bundled stack of paper containing medical and personal information, a giant world map, German & USMC flags, a Cubs hat, a leather satchel, and artic grade weather jacket (you never know). Lastly, I packed a book a friend had given me as a gift in the winter of 2016.

Those of you that have engaged in academic battle, who have scoured the internet for scholarship and the pdf's for the supportive quotes and results may agree, recreational reading loses its appeal.

Now, a year and a half later, I have read the aged present, "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien. Part of me regrets not having read it sooner and another see's it as the perfect time. Much of the book reminded me of the other corps and the peripheral duties I had taken on there. It reminded me of the camaraderie of our uniformed family. It reminded me of the insanity of military life, a seemingly organized chaos. 

Although I never served in a combat zone, O'Brien's words reminded me of the friends I knew that went, who found the war. For a while, I felt like I had missed out. It was their stories just as O'Brien's that have made me realize the things I wanted to know I was lucky not to know.

Besides takeaways related to armed conflict, the very thread weaved through the storytelling fabric caused me pause. What did the things that I decided to carry say about me? How would those things be utilized in the unwritten story to come? What future things will I decide to carry? Will I carry them for utility, remembrance, or for love?

I leave for San Francisco tomorrow to meet the rest of the Peace Corps China 24 cohort. The next day we will make our way to Chengdu.

Loose Ends

I looked at her grinning, "What am I thinking?" I asked.
Her reply, "dumplings."
I couldn't believe she knew. how did she know?

"How did you know? We haven't talked about food at all today or dumplings for that matter."
"Because I get you," she said smiling at me in a way only lost lovers know. Will I regret leaving her behind? Who will we be in two years? Will I see her again? Sure we confess our optimism, but the sadness tinted expressions we exchange tell the truth-- neither of us knows.

So here I am now, making her a bracelet as a gift for her to remember our time. I decided to make her an anklet from hemp chord. Of course, I don't know how to braid. I'm sure any 13-year-old girl would laugh at my incompetently fumbling fingers as I attempted to braid. Yeah ok so I googled it... how else do you learn things these days?
I found a silver dumpling charm to put on the anklet. That is to say "We get each other" and obviously, also dumplings are good.

It's difficult to explain how she has come to mean so much to me over the last year. "So much that I'm willing to move to China for 27 months?" you might be asking snarkily. In my defense I couldn't know how amazing she was, I had only known her for a few weeks before I submitted my application to the Peace Corps, more or less promising to cease my way of life on this continent to start anew somewhere else. I couldn't know that we would grow to be so close and that it would hurt this much to say goodbye.

Just as I've been preparing to say goodbye to her, I've been slowly saying my goodbyes to my graduate school cohort, a group of people that have become closer than friends, but more an academic family. We bleed the same printer toner, spending our days making the time, to skim readings, grade papers, drink wine and have a few laughs. 

We'll look back and know what we did here. We'll know that it couldn't have been the same without each and every person who shared that academic experience, just as our lives would be incomplete without our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers. 

I've been letting go of things I envisioned passing onto my children or would at least enjoy looking at in my elderly years. The motorcycle I bought a few years back. We've ridden 14,000 miles all over this golden state, through mountains across dark deserts. I guess I should just be grateful that I didn't die on the I-405, California's free-for-all motorway. 

I still must say my goodbyes-for-now to friends in San Fransisco and Illinois. There is a stack of unresolved administrative issues, changing addresses, notifying the DMV and credit card companies, arranging for diplomas and transcripts to be sent once the school library takes 5 weeks to figure out if I have any outstanding library fines. I still need to arrange my SATO travel to the Peace Corps staging event in San Francisco. I need to pack and weigh my bags. I'm going to need every pound.

It has all the markings of the end of a chapter for me. So, back to the braiding. After a few failed attempts I got the braids nice and tight and have woven in the dumpling charm, all that's left is to tie up the loose ends.

Preparing and the Process

May 15
Hello and welcome! My name is Andrew and this is the beginning of what I hope becomes a comprehensive blog of my experiences as a Peace Corps China 24 (the 24th cohort) volunteer from 2018-2020. Although I haven't yet left for my 27-month long tour of service, It feels like it has been a journey to this point in the application process.
My timeline so far has gone as follows.
  • June 6, 2017: turned in my initial application for a University English Teaching Position in China.
  • June 21st, 2017: interviewed for the position (happy birthday to me)
  • July 1st, 2017: offered and accepted the position
  • July 11th, 2017: Sent in fingerprints and initiated the FBI background check
  • -----A LONG wait later------
  • December 19th, 2017: Received legal clearance
  • January 17th, 2018: Resumes and aspiration statements due.
  • December 20th- February 22nd: Received Medical clearance.  To understand this process better it might be useful to think of the medical clearance part of the application as a scavenger hunt in which participants have to be poked with a certain amount of needles, x-rayed, prodded, and drilled (if you have cavities), all while filling out an array of wonderfully convoluted medical paperwork. It wasn't a terrible experience but one that required a certain level of proactive strategy.
  • March 12th, 2018: First Peace Corps conference call with Peace Corps Staff and other China 24 volunteers.
  • April 12th, 2018: This Second Peace Corps conference call addressed staging, PST (pre-service training) and China 24's miscellaneous questions.
  • June 14th, 2018: Arrive in China spend 2 weeks in a hotel while doing basic orientation/ TEFL training and language courses.
  • June 29th, 2018: Move out of hotel. Move in with host family
  • July 21st, 2018: mid preservice training interview. A panel of 7 people, province coordinators and peace corps staff ask questions to aid in determining best fit for site placements.
So here we are. Lately, I've been spending my days wrapping up my coursework for my master's degree at California State University, Long Beach and selling everything I own besides a bag of camera gear and two checked bags of clothes. And as I've been selling most of my things, I've had a revelation. Not only do I not need most of the things I had, I don't even think about those things anymore now that they are gone.

33 days until I graduate and 50-some days until I meet up with the rest of the cohort in San Fransisco and from there off to Chengdu!