We went to see the pandas on our first non-jetlagged weekend in Cheng Du. It was also our first genuinely unhealthy air-quality day. The air quality, combined with an abiding social discomfort and a slight hangover, lead me to find a comfortable spot to sit and observe the pandas. From my vantage point, I had a good view of a group of younger pandas. Teen-aged pandas are the cutest, and most viral of the pandas because – unlike the adults – they are still active and they aren’t hairless like the babies.
Here are my host sister and brother. Pei Ning, 11, holds Zhen Zhen’s, 2, hands as she runs around him, in a frankly rare moment of good natured interaction between the pair. Home stay turned out to be the hardest thing about pre-service training. Studying Mandarin was challenging but low pressure; and while I found the teacher training in the afternoon to be slow at times, it was mostly really rewarding. Some days, dreaded coming home after work. The parents told me one of the reasons they applied to host a volunteer was to help with Pei Ning’s E.Q. In one instance, I pointed out to Pei Ning that he shouldn’t antagonize (I had to look this word up on a dictionary app) his sister because he was 10 years older than her. His parents really piled on him and listed – in front of me and the other family members – his many social missteps, and I felt really bad.
A photo from Chinese class, in which my group presents our work to the class. Classes are divided from twenty at each site to around five in each class. One of the language tasks we have worked on these past months is explaining why we chose to do the Peace Corps. For me learning Mandarin was certainly a motivating factor, but not for professional reasons. I think returning to Mandarin has been a way to reconnect with my time growing up in Taipei, which sometimes felt like a different life from the life I lived in America.
Often times at dinners, I’m asked to compare China and America, and it’s a difficult question. I feel that they are both complex and hard to pin down, which makes it hard to compare them like comparing waves at the beach. I always answer in different ways depending on what I’ve experienced or thought about that day. When I ask what they think the differences are, I often hear some variation of, “There isn’t enough social trust in China.” However, when I think of a community of low trust, I don’t imagine a community that fills up public space in the evenings so completely. When the weather is nice, whenever I go to the track, it is full of folks interacting. When you run on the track, you have to weave through the throngs of people walking and chit-chatting with friends. The field and adjacent basketball courts are saturated with pick-up games. The squares at night are full of people dancing the waltz, and the restaurants pour out onto the sidewalks.
Teaching practicum was a great experience. I felt lucky about to have the students I was assigned, the teaching partner I chose, and my training site colleagues. All combined to form a rewarding social network and a fun atmosphere. While the whole experience was meaningful, there were specific moments that I realized were being saved in my memory, even as they occurred. Students created maps and connected themselves in Cheng Du to their family members elsewhere, and then presented to the class. The responses were thoughtful and, as the photo suggests, personal. I think one of the most enjoyable things about teaching and learning a new language is the opportunity for self-reflection that is bestowed when you re-articulate yourself into a new language.
My host grandfather told me that eels like those in the red bucket come from rice patties. I imagine that they provide a convenient added source of income for farmers. I told my host grandfather as we were shopping for food, that I had never eaten eel before. He looked at me surprised and told me that I had it a few nights ago for dinner. The second word in the Chinese name for eel means fish, and I thought I was eating some sort of skinny, long fish. I am not sure what I was thinking!
Taken in the sprawling People’s Park, this is Cheng Du’s monument to the soldiers who died fighting the Japanese. Weeks later my host brother Pei Ning would ask me if I hated the Japanese too, I told him I didn’t, but that I understood why he did, and was appalled by the wartime atrocities committed by the Japanese in China. He asked why I didn’t hate them, I guessed that it was easier for me to forgive the Japanese because those things didn’t happen in America.
People who have never been to China would probably be surprised by the number of cats that live among Chinese communities. I think technically they are stray, only they are remarkably well fed and groomed. We are told by the Peace Corps Medical staff not to touch or interact with the cats and dogs of China, as Rabies is a risk. So Connor is playing it fast and loose in this photo.
My host family went out of their way to show me the big and little pleasures of life in Cheng Du. The first few weekends we embarked on day trips to local temples, mausoleums, and noted poets’ ancient, humble abodes. My favorite was the Jinsha Site Museum, home to the beautiful last vestiges of the first kings of Shu, who ruled the Sichuan basin some 3000 years ago. Here Pei Ning and I enjoy one of life’s smaller pleasures, dry-iced cornballs, outside one of the city’s many tourist attractions. As the weeks went on, and I became busier with work, these trips out and across the city came to end. They were replaced with nightly trips to the track to play basketball, walk around the track, or play ping-pong, which I actually enjoyed more. I felt like I was part of the family as I was part of their daily routines.
An important morning ritual.
The existence of printing shops around campus is one of the more intriguing differences between American and Chinese college campuses. Printing prices here are incredibly low; you can get whole books photo copied for next to nothing. I have a few theories as to why they are in China and not in the U.S., but I think it’s mostly coincidence.
My brother, Kyle, looks into a stone book at a temple at a mixed-use development within the Cheng Du’s central district. His visit was a treat.
My friend Connor, 23, plays under the table with my host cousin, Cheng Cheng, 2. At the time this photo was taken, ten people were living in my household, the maximum would be eleven. I am still not 100% clear where everyone slept. With a household so full of kids, scenes like this were quite common, and chaos became the norm. I felt that playing and entertaining the kids was a way that I could be helpful around the house, as they were too polite to let me help with dishes.
On a budget during training, we almost always are eating at the cheapest places we can find. The food is delicious, and if you are worried you will still be hungry, you can always put a fried egg on top of your noodles for an extra Kuai. But after the site announcements, we decided to celebrate with Beijing Kao Ya, a meal befitting the occasion. We found a place a 30-minute walk away, that was around 24 Kuai per person, cheap for Beijing Kao Ya. When we arrived, we found out that it was a takeaway place, but a takeaway place that happily accommodated us on the street with a fold out table and some chairs.
If I don’t pay attention, I don’t really comprehend the conversations in Mandarin that are taking place around me. I have no peripheral hearing. This gets incrementally worse when the local Sichuan dialect is spoken, which I have trouble understanding even when I concentrate. Large banquets, where there is a din of conversation, often lead me to retreat into my own mind, further curtailing the attention that I am paying those around me. The larger the banquet, the more likely this is to happen. This photo was taken at a larger banquet; it is a celebration of my grandfather’s (right) brother-in-law’s 80th birthday. The birthday boy and his friends all sat at a table together. My table was made up of men aged 24-65; the other two tables were made of elder women, and younger women and their children. Consistent with drinking culture in China, I made a trip over to toast the birthday boy personally. In the small city, two hours away from Cheng Du, I could tell that my presence and my toast made the birthday more special for him. And that made me glad.
Pei Ning, his cousin, Nikey, and I perform Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door at an event for Peace Corps volunteers and their host families. Look at Pei Ning’s face; I think he looks scared. The night before, when the three of us were practicing, my host father confronted Pei Ning telling him that he needed to sit closer and take it more seriously. He placed Pei Ning right in front of me and my guitar, but Pei Ning turned away in an act of defiance. His father, angry, reached into a drawer in the piece of furniture that the TV rests on, and pulled out an instrument of corporal punishment, that looked like a rolling pin with inscribed Chinese Characters. Pei Ning fell into line and turned to face me. We continued to practice with the father nearby, watching. Eventually he came back, got out the stick and told his son to go to the other room, because he wasn’t singing loud enough. Nikey and I looked on as Pei Ning began to cry and begged not to go. His father relented but qualified, “If you don’t sing louder, you are really going to be in pain.”
In Chinese, Cheng hu refers to how you address someone. Mostly people don’t call others by their full name; they address them by their age, position, education level, or occupation. So when I arrived here, I was addressed by the kids as Shu Shu, which means uncle. It is fairly common to call men, who are around 10 to 20 years older than you, Uncle. At first addressing me as Uncle was a polite formality, and a product of the accepted norms. However, as time passed, I began to play an avuncular role in both of the kids’ lives, I enjoyed taking Pei Ning to play sports and I think he liked having someone to play chess with. Zhen Zhen and I would spend hours on the weekend on the couch reading picture books. I was practicing my Chinese, and she was humoring a slow pace of story-telling.
The last week of homestay marked a significant shift in the household. The parents and the kids left for a vacation in Australia, and the grandmother left for Chongqing. So it was only the grandfather and me, until my father’s parents also came to town. This photo shows the four of us at an event for Peace Corps host families. I relished the week, because it was slightly more relaxed, and because I got to know the grandfather a little bit better. In between being told to eat more, he told me that he worked for 11 years in An Hui as a migrant worker to put his daughters through college, and he explained how proud he was of his daughters for their achievement. He told me how much his life had changed, for the better. His hospitality was truly par excellence.
I think often of something a wiser friend once told me, which I will paraphrase “life can’t really have any MEANING, because as far as we know we reach the same result. But there is a lot of meaning to be found in our struggles and challenges.” These two months left me saturated with meaning. The complexity that exists within my host family is something that I only begin to understand, and yet I have become a small part of it, and that vantage point effects my understanding of it. Anyways, I love this photo of Pei Ning, I think he might be thinking about something, contemplating something. Though I might also be projecting.