April 6, 2003 - Personal Web Site: Goodbye to China
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April 6, 2003 - Personal Web Site: Goodbye to China
Goodbye to China
Goodbye to China
Goodbye to China
Dear Friends and Family,
When we first got to our site, Peace Corps gave us an assortment of forms to fill out. One of them was called the "Site Locator Form" for emergency evacuation. Caryn and I worked on drawing our map of Dengguan, laughing at the silliness of drawing a map of a helicopter landing site in Dengguan. It was there, in Caryn's living room, that we developed our Evacuation Fantasy.
It goes like this: Caryn and I are industriously teaching class one morning. Suddenly, we hear a whirring outside. We hear, "Go, go, go!" and suddenly, a band of Marines burst into our classroom. The students' eyes grow wide. "We've got to go! Now!" they shout. "But our students, our lessons," we protest, like the model volunteers that we are. "There's no time!" they shout back. We run after them, and the helicopter is hovering over the sports field. Two hunky Marines (Caryn interjects here that her hunky Marine is a bald lady Marine in a wifebeater t-shirt) come swinging down from the chopper on ropes and sweep Caryn and I into the sky. We rise into the sky still dangling from the ropes, a la "True Lies." As we soar down Dengguan's only street, the last thing we hear is the lonesome cry of a motorcycle taxi driver: "The foreigners have left!"
Evacuation fantasy is quite different from evacuation reality. On Friday morning, we found out that all volunteers were to leave China due to SARS. We had no additional warning, just a little over twenty-four hours to pack our bags and leave. No chance to say good-bye to our students, no chance to do much of anything except frantically pack and give away all of the possessions which we have accumulated in the last two years. No chance to feel the sadness which is so natural at this time.
Why is it so frustrating to leave Peace Corps? At times, I have hated this place. I have taken out my calendar and literally counted the days until I could go home again. I have gotten into fights with taxi drivers and fruit vendors, gotten chewed-up corn cobs thrown at me by a man selling bicycle seat covers, been called a cultural imperialist, and broken into frustrated tears at times. There are times during my service when I have not been proud of my behavior. There were times when I wanted to skip class and hide under the covers all day. But I never left. And I dragged myself out every day to teach. Somehow, despite my laziness and my weakness, I have made this work. It has taken the better part of two years, but I finally feel comfortable here. I feel like I'm not a bad teacher, and that at times I may have helped some people. China has shaped me. It's made me a different person than I was in Boston.
It took about 3.25 seconds for the news to travel around Dengguan that I was leaving. My apartment was filled with people helping me pack, giving me going-away presents of wood-ear fungus and plastic Snoopy dolls. Our school organized a hasty going-away banquet with "many delicious vegetables just for you, Tang Mali." I watched my apartment turn from my home back into the dingy cement box that it was when I moved in.
Caryn and I loaded all of our things in the car. There was only enough room for us and Yang Ning, our waiban. However, Liang Aiping and Han Lu decided that they also wanted to see us off, so they hopped on the bus for the 4 1/2 ride to Chengdu.
"SARS?" they said, "There's no problem. The Chinese government has it under control." "Maybe you should take this to protect you," added Han Lu as she thrust a bag of Half Blue Root medicine to take with me. "This will keep you safe and healthy." She smiled. As we rumbled down the highway, we noticed one of the new billboards that the government has erected all over the highway: "Sichuan Province: A Disease-Free Zone."
We left Chengdu early the next morning. It was a grey day as usual, and all of us were crying as we embraced and said good-bye to this place which somehow has become our home. We piled onto a bus, then a series of airplanes, and now we're in Washington for the next week.
I realized something as I packed some things and threw out others. This is life. All of this time, I've been mistaking my old life in Boston for my life, and thinking of Peace Corps as something that fills the time until I get back to my real life. And I've been missing the point.
Each morning, I walk to the market to buy the day's vegetables. I buy one jin of tofu and whatever vegetables and fruit are in season. I joke with the ladies at the market, and I teach class. It's a simple life, but I built it myself. I have had the good fortune of knowing some wonderful people. And now, I am gone.
And I come back realizing that my life in Boston is gone too. I have no apartment, no job and no money. And somehow, in that there is a certain freedom. There are a million directions, and I could fly in any one.
I joined the Peace Corps because I wanted to cut the fat off the meat of my life. I wanted to learn, and I wanted to test myself. And I have, I have. And somehow, although I have left in a flurry and don't know what the next step might be, I feel like I'm heading in the right direction. Because if I built something in China, I can build something in Boston. Or Washington. Or Seattle, or Paris, or Tokyo, or wherever I might happen to end up.
I will return to Boston next week, and look forward to seeing you soon.
I stepped from plank to plank
So slow and cautiously;
The stars about my head I felt,
About my feet the sea.
I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch,--
This gave me that precarious gait
Some call experience.
Dear Friends and Family,
It's been two weeks since I left China. I left seeing the cherry trees beginning to bloom pink in the sky. I left two hundred students with no teacher, an Earth Day celebration half planned, friends with no explanation of where I was going. I left an apartment in shambles. I left everything that I couldn't cram into my backpack in plastic rice bags on the sidewalk.
Cherry season is short. For a few brief weeks in the spring, the small red berries appear on every table in the marketplace, and then they are gone. They are among the most coveted of all the fruit in Sichuan.
There were times when it was difficult to live in China. There was the burst pipe that dumped so much raw sewage into my apartment that we had to set up a network of bricks and flowerpots to hop through the fetid lake that my apartment had become. There was the time that Liang Aiping and I went to the temple on the Buddha's birthday and were chased by the lepers. There were the awful moments of seeing dead peasants on the road killed by farm trucks speeding down the subpar road to Dengguan. There was the time I got into the fight with the creepy guy in the motorcycle taxi who tried to grab my arm and I ended up having to run all the way into town. There was the time a spider bit me on the eyelid and I couldn't open or shut my eye completely. And there were the long, long nights in the winter when my fingers were so stiff that I couldn't even knit anymore and I had to boil more water to fill my hot water bottles almost as soon as they were placed inside my jacket pocket.
Cherries in Sichuan have a unique taste. Put one into your mouth and immediately, you are struck by the bitterness of it. Just as you wonder why you put this foul thing into your mouth, you are overcome with the sweetness of it. It fills your mouth so that there is nothing else you can do. Conversation stops, and the world stands still as the sweet juice of the cherry coats your tongue, your teeth, and then your throat. And after you've eaten it, you can't pop more into your mouth right away. You sit there with a smile on your face for a few seconds.
Oftentimes, when I'm telling folks about my Peace Corps experience, they pull a face like they've just eaten a sour cherry. "It sounds awful," they say, "I could never do that." This is my fault. When I tell people about the hard times, it's easy to forget that aftertaste that was so sweet. Because just as I was miserable, I experienced moments of great happiness. I was invited into the homes of strangers, given meals by people who had little to spare, loved by people who were looked at with suspicion by the community for daring to love a foreigner.
I arrived in China a baby. I couldn't speak the language, cook the food, take a bus by myself or buy vegetables at the market. Every night that first summer, as I fell into bed exhausted, I cried myself to sleep wondering what on earth I was doing. I had a life in Boston which I loved: a job someplace where I enjoyed going each day, family nearby, great friends. I traded all of that in for this new life which I didn't understand and didn't particularly enjoy. Those first few months, my mind was always ten thousand miles away in Boston as I absorbed the gravity of this decision which seemed to be based on a spur of the moment decision to avoid going to grad school and a Peace Corps recruiter who was too handsome for his own good.
The months went by and I grew. I learned words in Chinese, then phrases, then sentences. I made friends. I wrote Chinese characters over and over until I could read a train schedule, a menu, a short children's book. I had misadventures with boys. I learned to navigate a bicycle through the gridlock of Beijing. I learned to swear in Sichuan dialect, to stick up for myself, to peel an apple in one spiral thread. I learned how to teach and how to knit. I said goodbye to many people. And I learned to love the place which had seemed so polluted, so crowded, so foreign when I arrived.
Every autumn, a flower called tanhua blooms all over Sichuan. It grows in a pot, and although it's quite expensive, even families who are ordinarily frugal bought one. It only blooms for one hour of one night. People watch their tanhua continually to determine which night it might blooms, because it would be a shame to miss the hour when it might blossom. They say, "Tanhua kuai huale," a proverb which means, "The tanhua blooms but for a moment." The proverb has a slightly negative meaning, that things are beautiful only for a moment before they die. Yet everybody gathers together to watch the moment when the tanhua blooms, and they watch it until the blossom withers before their eyes.
One autumn night, I was fast asleep, when I heard Liang Aiping shouting out of her upstairs apartment, "TANG MALI! TANHUA KUAI HUALE!" I ran outside to see Liang Aiping running on her porch in her nightgown. When she saw me, she snipped the flower from the tanhua, deftly slipped a needle and thread through the stem, and dropped it to my proch to see. "Keep it!" she said, "It is your first tanhua."
When I first arrived in China, on one of those difficult nights I wrote in my journal, "I'm not sure why I'm doing this, but perhaps the auto-pilot of my soul is wiser than I." Just like the season of the tanhua or the cherry, it was two years out of the long train that will make up my life. But it was sweet, it was bitter, and the taste will remain in my mouth forever.
I've enjoyed writing to all of you during these two years, and will always be grateful for the support that you've given me during this time. The letters, the packages, the telephone calls and the e-mails got me through some very difficult times. There's nothing quite like going away to make one realize exactly how much one has at home. I'm looking forward to seeing you all again.
U.S. Peace Corps, Environmental Education Volunteer
Sichuan Institute of Light Industry and Chemical Technology
Zigong, Sichuan 643033 CHINA
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Story Source: Personal Web Site
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