Ping Pong


Spider in my bathroom

I found an even larger one hiding in my mop with approximately 15 baby cockroaches. In one of my most candid, clearheaded speeches of the year, I openly declared war in my bathroom. The shelling begins tomorrow.

Hospital (2)

At about 5:00 in the afternoon I began to have stomach pains. I had just begun Oral English interviews with students. By 7:00 p.m. the pains had become markedly worse. I conducted all of the interviews just outside Bethany’s apartment because it was a sunny day. I went inside and drank some water.

By 8:30 p.m. I had thrown up in Bethany’s bathroom, and I was trying to remain motionless on the bed as my stomach continued to get worse. At around 10:30 p.m. I could no longer handle the pain and, in a plaintive voice, asked Bethany to call the Peace Corps Medical Officer (PCMO) in Chengdu. The details of these phone calls are very hazy. Actually, from 10 p.m. Wednesday until 6 a.m. Thursday I can remember specific events, but their order and what happened during the gaps I cannot recall exactly. I remember the pain that would not go away and instead got worse and worse.

Through a series of phone calls between the foreign affairs representative, the deans of the English Department, my counterpart, and the medical staff in Chengdu, a car was arranged to take me to the hospital. I remember a fog of incidents that were designed to discover what was wrong with me: drawing my blood (my white blood cell (leukocyte) count was around 12,000), taking an x-ray (there seemed to be a bright white spot on the photo that alerted the doctor), a series of stomach probes to determine if there was a problem with my appendix, an ultrasound, and, finally, an intravenous drip feed which included several different medications.

Throughout this time I was almost completely non-communicative. Walking through the halls I would moan because the pain was so excruciating. The two deans from the English Department had met us at the hospital and they stayed with me until around 3 a.m. The foreign affairs representative, the deans, and even the driver helped to support me as I walked from ward to ward for different tests. At one point I had to get in the car to be transported to a different ward in the same hospital (the campus included several different buildings) and another time I was taken to a different building to go to the bathroom. The pain had taken away all of my inhibitions and dignity. I was pathetic.

Of my surroundings I remember the green tiles on the walls the best. The long, old hallways brought back feelings from my childhood, but I cannot remember exactly why the hospital seemed so familiar. The bed sheets were dirty and they asked for new sheets before I started my IV. I had to go to the bathroom again at some point, and the foreign affairs representative helped me by carrying my IV down the hall and into the bathroom (the IV stands were made of wood and had no wheels). When I got back to my bed, the blood from my arm had filled the bottom part of the IV system and wouldn’t go back into my arm. The nurse seemed upset and she disconnected the plastic in the center of the IV, sprayed my extra blood on the floor beneath my bed, and reconnected the IV. It started to work again.

By the time I woke up the next morning I had slept for around 2 hours, but the pain had decreased significantly. After taking blood again and determining that my leukocyte count was still too high (10,000), the doctor recommended that I stay in the hospital for more treatment. The PCMO agreed and I spent the day watching bottle after bottle replaced during my second round of treatment. After going to the bathroom on one occasion, my hand started to develop a bump where fluid was gathering and the IV had stopped. The nurse put a new IV in my other hand and it continued: glucose, some kind of sodium chloride solution, and several different medications. That night they took more blood, but my leukocyte count remained high. I was told to stay another night.

The next morning, after more phone calls between the PCMO and the attending doctor at the hospital, I was told that I might be able to go home. A fourth blood test was done and it came back with a leukocyte count of around 5,000. I left the hospital and went home.

What was wrong with me? This question is difficult to answer specifically, though a general answer to the question is that food led to this problem. Earlier in the day, I made fried Chinese cabbage and rice. I probably used too much oil, and the cabbage led to a buildup of gas in my intestines. The question of whether there was a blockage or not was never answered.

Throughout this ordeal I was taken care of by people from the college. My site-mate, Bethany, accompanied me to the hospital, the foreign affairs representative arranged for the car to take me to the hospital and, when I arrived, the deans were waiting to help in any way they could (and it was around 12:30 or 1:00 a.m.). The next morning students began to arrive with bananas and their class textbooks. My counterpart brought me a large bouquet of flowers and a stuffed-animal goat with a scarf. My counterpart stayed with me for the entire day, contacting the PCMO when needed, talking with the doctor, and making sure I had anything and everything I needed to be comfortable. Students came and went, although one of my freshmen students spent the night in the hospital.

All of the bills (excepting the first registration fee) were covered by the school. Peace Corps will reimburse them later, but it is a requirement to pay for things as they are provided. The x-ray, ultrasound, blood tests, doctor fees, room fee, etc. were paid for, essentially, as they were provided. China’s health care system changed from one of almost universal access to that of “show the money and we’ll help you out.”

The experience was very unpleasant. The conditions were generally satisfactory, although I think they could have been much better. Trying to navigate the squat toilet with an IV in one hand and the bottle in the other is something I don’t want to do again any time soon. The first morning a woman came into the hall where I was sleeping, pulled out a bedpan, and made use of it. The smell of the bathroom wafted into the room where I stayed the second day and night, and people kept coming and going.

There were two other beds in my room, though I think there was only one other patient. He was an older man. I don’t know why he was in the hospital, but he had a type of catheter in his belly and he had a terrible cough during the night. Through this experience I saw how culture affected hospital stays in China. The family stayed with the old man around the clock. There were 3 people who were almost always with him, and when any of them left other family members or friends would arrive to talk with him or help out in some way. They brought their food from home and cooked it in the hospital. They helped him wash and they changed his IV.

The leader of our department could not teach during the last year because he has cancer. He was in a different ward and during a walk my counterpart invited me to go with her to visit him. I remember meeting him at the banquet when I first arrived at the school. He was a very thoughtful person who spoke in smooth, deliberate sentences. He was the biggest teacher in the English department as well.

His room had 8 beds. His wife was busy cooking dinner when we arrived. He recognized me and we spoke for a few minutes about basic things (why I was in the hospital, how my semester was, etc.). I noticed that he was markedly thinner. He was wrapped in a blanket, though the room was somewhat warm. After visiting him, my counterpart said that he was very happy to see me (they had spoken some Chinese that I didn’t understand). I felt very sad, though I hardly know the man.

In my spare time I studied Chinese and slept. My students kept me company by talking with me or teaching me card games. I explored, in some sense, a piece of Chinese collectivism at work. Students left their classes or skipped them to come and see me. I expect that certain students were expected to come and see me to fulfill a duty. I don’t say this to diminish the courtesy of their visits, but to show how the Chinese classroom works. Besides, I may be wrong about the students being expected to come.

Each class has a monitor who is in charge of the affairs of the class. They are the overall leader of the class and most seem to take their jobs very seriously. As I found out one day, there are other types of jobs as well: cleaning monitor, teaching materials monitor, etc. (perhaps there are 10 different jobs). It generally falls upon the leader to communicate with others or represent the class when things happen (if a student is ill, etc.).

When I got back to the school I met several students along the road to my apartment. They asked how I was doing. I met a student who had already visited me in the hospital and she said, “Oh! The other class is going to see you right now. There are 20 students.” She called one of the students and told them that I had left of the hospital. So they went shopping instead. That’s another aspect of Chinese culture: the ability to roll with the situation. Generally there is a more fatalistic bent to their thinking.

I bought some gruel at the store next to the school gate. I climbed the stairs to my apartment, opened the door, sat on my couch, and ate for the first time in 45 hours, happy to be home again.



It's been awhile since I've written about something that's going on in my life. A more typical blog post seems to be about some strange event at the grocery store. Actually, today I was walking on the sidewalk and a man was laying on his back. This was right in the middle of the sidewalk. His eyes were closed and he seemed to be foaming at the mouth just a little bit. I looked up at the storefronts to see if there was perhaps some window from which he had fallen or jumped, but it was boarded up. Everyone was keeping their distance and staring at him. In China, it's pretty common for arguments and thefts and, well, any event to be surrounded by passive onlookers who will not intervene. Sometimes I find myself drawn to these scenes, staring along with everyone else. I feel that I have integrated. Honestly, though, don't hold this against me in America. I need someone to volunteer as my cultural liaison so that I don't spit on the floor of a Pizza Hut or knock somebody down because they looked like they were about to cut in line.

Back to the story: Actually, the story is happening now more than it was happening at the time. I'm recalling all of these details about the man only now that I think back to this afternoon. At the time of the incident, I took in the scene and evaluated possibilities within 5 seconds before completely ignoring the man except to note that I had to step a little higher to clear his left leg. I won't go into the details of how I knew to keep walking, but if you ask me in person I will happily share.

Lately my students have been preparing for their final exams. I'm giving Oral English/Listening interviews (15 minutes per student) in which the students are graded according to a rubric including fluency, pronunciation, sentence structure use (from what we learned in class) and overall understanding. Reading and Literature tests will also be given. This entire show begins today, Wednesday, and ends next Friday.

On July 15th I will be going to the countryside with two other PCVs to teach English to rural teachers for two weeks. More on this in a future post. Promise.

August heralds the beginning of a 1 week countdown to a 3-week visit to the lovely America: land of high-speed highways and other methods of organization, sanitation, and efficiency.

I'll tell you a secret. I don't really feel like I've been here nearly a year. Another secret? America feels like it isn't real anymore. I only remember about 3 things: family, friends, and stuffed crust cheese pizza. The third became a less-than-fond memory during my last visit to Guiyang when I ate so much cheese that I got sick. I guess my body was not accustomed to dairy after it was deprived for so long.

Despite all of that water between China and America, I talk to my parents enough that it feels a little more like a Seattle-Portland separation sometimes.

During the one-week countdown is a flurry of activity in Chengdu: Medical Exam, Dental Exam, Presentation to the new PCVs about how to teach without technology (or, making more with less), and watching the new PCVs teach lessons during their model school experience.

And after all that? Finals, Teaching in the countryside, Medical exams, Presentations and returning to America? Return to China for year 2.


Egg Fried Rice


Weapon of Choice

I believe in some sort of mysterious harmony within athletics. There must be some unifying force (a kind of qi, perhaps?) that can defines the hidden beauty of sports.

My style is that of a very uncoordinated elephant after drinking too much coffee: bumbling. But at times my hand will strike out at the ball as it is falling, only two feet from the ground, and send it back to the opposite side of the table. With a flick of the wrist an ordinary return becomes something else: a slight advantage. Building upon these advantages slowly will yield an opportunity to smash the ball at such velocity that the opponent must turn in defeat and retrieve it.

My weapon of choice is the little known LiBaPai international paddle (2008-E) with dual-side standard rubber. I prefer using the smooth side, while all of my opponents choose the black (red seems to be a little more comfortable for some reason). This paddle is little known only on the college campus. It's probably the best known among primary schools and middle schools throughout China because it's one of the cheapest. At three dollars for a pair, walking out to the ping pong tables turns heads not because I'm a foreigner, but because even the students paid at least 4 times as much for their average paddles. One of the things that drew me in was the inlay on the handle. Look carefully and read backwards:

I hold the paddle differently since I came here. I hold it more like the traditional notion of how Chinese people would hold a ping pong paddle and, indeed, how most students at the college hold the paddle. In other words, I am completely out of style:

The more common grip involves a constant backhand return which is very awkward at first, but common in professional circles:

One of these days I'll get a video together of some very intense ping pong action.


The Finer Things

I live in rural China. I’m not talking about an outhouse with a pig in the backyard, tramping up and down terraced rice paddies to buy my vegetables, but let’s say that things like bread, coffee, chocolate, pasta, cheese, real ice cream, vegemite, and peanut butter are luxuries. Some are nonexistent (vegemite and cheese), some have a degree of falsity (sugary bread, instant coffee, carob chocolate), and some are downright expensive (6 yuan for a Magnum ice-cream bar?).

I’m not trying to point my finger at anyone: I know that there are plenty of specialties Chinese people would have trouble finding in the United States. It’s just, there’s no reason for me to discuss which parts of a pig might not be waiting at the local Albertson’s.

Actually, the point is to bask in the things I do enjoy here. There are foods I’ve found that cannot go unmentioned because to do so would be kind of like forgetting to thank your friend for bailing you out of jail, especially if your friend fails to appreciate the intrinsic reward of helping to free you from what was obviously an unjust incarceration.

Topping the list without question is Dove Chocolate. In my neck of the woods, the closest thing to Dove is Mylikes Chocolate, which, as it turns out, my really don’t likes (the truth is, I don’t like Mylikes Chocolate for the very same reason that I don’t like candle wax). The extent which Dove Chocolate has captured my heart can be seen on my Peace Corps living allowance survey, where “chocolate parties” is listed under entertainment and the cost is too embarrassing to divulge here.

Dove Chocolate bars come in two different styles. I classify the styles as “flavors” and “stuffers.” Flavors include dark chocolate, chocolate, and white chocolate. Stuffers include a regular chocolate bar with “stuff” added. The stuff ranges from almonds and hazelnuts to little bits of coffee, depending on the label. Let me explain which kinds of chocolate I like by telling you the following: white chocolate is disgusting. If you eat white chocolate I genuinely feel sorry for you. No amount of early-age indoctrination could have convinced me that eating white chocolate is not a sin. The sanctity of chocolate has been ravaged by the perpetuated lie that white chocolate is actually chocolate. It’s like saying that broccoli is actually broccoli chocolate, then stepping back to wait for your children to eat it as they eye it distrustfully, except that broccoli actually doesn’t taste half as bad as white chocolate, especially broccoli with a little cheese, which I don’t have in Anshun. The invention of white chocolate has emboldened me to make outrageous claims like, “I can fly,” and when people question me skeptically I point at a white “chocolate” bar and say, “You let THEM get away with it!”

By now you probably guessed how I feel about Dove Chocolate bars “stuffed” with various nuts. In case you haven’t, these bars are a last-resort if the shelves are devoid of dark chocolate or regular chocolate. Even if this is the case, I belittle the chocolate bar the entire way home, to make sure it knows it’s not wanted. I do this aloud to further bolster my resolve against chocolates that are obviously embellishing delusions of grandeur. Besides, the addition of nuts or coffee chunks is a flagrant violation of “getting your money’s worth.” We could compare the price per pound of real Dove Chocolate (flavor: chocolate) to a pound of hazelnuts to get a better idea, but I’m still so angry at the persistent fraud of white “chocolate” that I can’t think clearly anymore.

Teacher Training: Chengdu (and reflections)

Last Friday I found myself, once again, packing my backpack for a trip to Chengdu. This would be my fourth trip back to my training site in the last 11 months: no small number considering the train ride is an overnight, 18 hour ride through the countryside. The journey itself can't be viewed in that context, however, because the scenery is an entire window away. Most of the trip is sitting through a smoke-filled train as people ignore the no smoking signs and light cigarettes. It is a hot, stuffy, torpid slog beset with gawking Chinese people muttering "Foreigner," to one another and smiling as if there was some big joke about the fact that my skin is a different color. Honestly, riding the train is all of these things. That is, unless there are other Peace Corps Volunteers riding with you (there were 3).

Our trip was a little more "What's new with you?" listening to long stories of adaptation and, eventually, what amounted to our acceptance that we had settled in - we were here at last. These trips are smoothed by the fact that we are together in this smoky cage; we are looking out for one another. This is the comfort that leads people in larger cities to become a part of the expatriate crowd, drawn to the easy expatriate lifestyle.

The training itself was to prepare several of the volunteers to help the new Peace Corps China volunteers who will arrive in early July. Each volunteer had selected a subject for the Peace Corps list for presentation. Todd and I will teach "Scarcity and Abundance - How to make the most with no resources or abundant resources." The range of resource availability probably matches that of future volunteers (from chalkboard and chalk to projector and computer).

The training was taxing, and on more than one occasion I found myself wondering when we would actually talk about our sessions with one another. While passing a rubber band with a straw in my mouth I thought, "This is a metaphor for working together, how interesting," before I began to analyze how the metaphor actually breaks down because it was obviously a strait-line activity which resembled top down command and delegation rather than teamwork. But my pessimism waned when the afternoon was dedicated to talking about our future sessions (how would we unify without repeating information, what were we going to teach, were there any suggestions?).

There were occasions when I argued with other volunteers. "Perhaps you should mention something about the different values related to materialism," I suggested.
"You mean how our students are so materialistic?" she asked.
"What?! No! How we are materialistic as Americans," I responded.
"Oh, I don't know about your students, but mine are very materialistic." she said.

And though I doubt that she has a true understanding of her own students when it comes to true materialism (especially when compared to any American), I do not doubt that there are differences between our colleges.

"Maybe you should consider talking to my site-mate, whose literature students don't speak English," I said to another volunteer presenting 'How to Teach Shakespeare in China.' Everyone laughed because they thought I was being funny.
"I'm not joking," I said. The room was quiet. They were embarrassed for me. Surely the students spoke English: how else would my site-mate teach them literature?
"I'd like to see that - I'm really interested in how she does that," he said.

I really do wonder if he cares, however. It seems that the people in larger cities have students who are able to do so much more. The attitudes are different. The levels of English are different. I found myself actually feeling jealous of their situations. I want to talk about the big questions. I'm tired of mundane conversations for practicing sentence structures. I felt left behind in my little corner of the world.

On the way home I pondered. I thought of all the time I've spent here. I thought of the frustrations and the successes. Wondering if I have been worthwhile to the students, the idea that my role is different that I originally thought is a recurring theme.

I haven't enjoyed teaching here like I did in America. Let me say this carefully: I have enjoyed it, but the rewards are so different. Often I have felt that the students look upon me as a teacher with a lack of experience (a death sentence in the Chinese classroom). My elementary experience is seen as not the same and there is a contingent of students who think the classes are boring (lately I have joined them - it's hard to get them motivated with a dated article from their textbooks about recycling).

My role has constantly changed, without changing at all. I have always been an English teacher, and things will remain this way until I return to America. My attempts to help people in Wenchuan, the area hit hardest by the May 12th earthquake, were met with a redirection by staffers in the Peace Corps office ("perhaps there is something a little closer to your site that you can help with"). And there was something - a flood just outside our city. I spoke with the foreign affairs official at my school and he said he would talk with someone higher-up. I have yet to hear back, despite repeated visits to his office to broach the subject. I am available to raise money and help the community, but there is not even a phone call after weeks of waiting. It goes back to the reason we are here, the reason that is cited again and again by Chinese officials: Just do your best to teach English. A message is being sent to me: stop bothering everyone with my desire to find another Chinese tutor (a request made more than 10 times since I began asking 7 months ago). Stop wanting to do anything else and just teach English.

But what if that's not going so well? I wonder to myself. I need something else because languishing in a sea of uninterested students and uninspired teaching is making me weary. The Peace Corps has 3 goals when they enter any country, and goals 2 and 3 have become my new favorite things. I cling to them relentlessly as I watch the school-year draw to a close.

I'm looking ahead to the fall: a new year with new students, new classes and new hopes. A fresh start.


Awkward Moments?

"What have been the most situations for you in China?" my new student tutor asked me in Chinese.

Hmmm...is now the time to express everything? Do I know him well enough? Should I tell him about how angry I get sometimes? The anger at some of the most stupid situations: the cutting in line, the rude people unaccustomed to foreigners to the extent of xenophobia, the people whose view of a foreigner is a little more along the lines of 'foreign devil' or even 'foreign friend' rather than just 'friend'? Let me start a little more gently, I decide.

"Well sometimes people call me a few hours before a meeting or event. It's very inconvenient and usually I don't go because I already have other plans. The person generally seems upset when I say I can't make it - that really bothers me."

"Is that all?" he asks, "anything else?"

The "hellos" at the back of my head? The children shouting 'foreigner' at me as if I were the antagonist in a scary folk tale about a foreigner that eats little Chinese kids? The cutting the cutting the cutting in line!? And do you want to know how I deal with this? I tell them to slow down! I yell at them: 'you relax and do everything else in your life slowly, so why does the sight of other people make you forget all of your manners and rush to trample me?'

No, no. Saying something else would be better.

"Sometimes Chinese people correct what I say, but instead of helping me, they correct everything. It takes me ten minutes to say 'where are you going?' with the proper tones, even though they would have understood me fine despite my poor pronunciation. I don't see the need for this constant correction, even if I say something imperfectly."

He nods his head, contemplating what I've said. I wonder if he's thinking along the same lines. I wonder if he knows how it feels sometimes. Maybe that's why he brought this up - maybe he's waiting to hear this. I decided not to talk about this, however.

The truth is, sometimes I do want to shout. Sometimes I feel like turning over tables and drawing a picture of a line of people and explaining how delayed gratification is received through the knowledge that consistency will win out. Sometimes I want to yell, "This is a society, not a fight for resources - aren't we beyond that!?"

I have never experienced such acute anger in my life. China has brought out some of the worst in me. In a way, China has pushed me a great deal.

And I've never been so thankful. The storm of emotional unpredictability, this torrent of negative emotions has helped me to better understand who I am and what I can endure. I know through and through the differences between China and America have reasons for their existence. I have learned that the culture is so different and so difficult to understand that personally, sometimes I must throw up my hands and make a rude comment.

None of this will prevent me from the realizing my deepest feelings: My love for and interest in China's remarkable culture. The people are different. Most of them, like any place in the world, are good. And while I will remain frustrated with so much, in my mind's eye I see future arguments with American friends as I defend the actions of the Chinese people and government. I see myself becoming upset with someone's arrogant, narrow view of Chinese culture and launching into a tirade about the fundamental differences between collectivism and individualism.

So when my tutor asks me about awkward moments, I know there have been plenty. But I am certain that they have been necessary: a hidden part of my unique education here. They are the many things I never expected when I came (though I expected adversity, I never knew specifics), and they are indelibly printed on my soul.

Dou (pronounced "dough") - 4th tone.

The first time someone used this word when talking with me they also pointed to their cheek. I immediately went into language survival mode, scrambling for context and meaning. "Nose? I have something in my nose? No? An eyelash? Yeah, I know it's jiemao, but what are pointing at, exactly?" The only thing that's changed is that I don't ask questions anymore; I know the meaning. Students will still point and say "dou."

Chinese people are amazing at making your business their own; they are looking out for you and trying to help. When I realized that the meaning of "dou" was "pimple," however, I wondered about the nature of their concern. It's common to hear this from my students, the only prerequisite being, well, a pimple. I have heard this so much that I'm rather accustomed to it now.

The other day one of my students asked me how to say "dou" in English. I said that there were several ways: "Pimple," "zit," "boil," well...you get the idea. I thought about it for a moment and then explained something to the student (something that probably saved the student from an awkward moment of my cross-cultural rage). I said that there were indeed several ways to say "dou," but that I preferred to hear "dou" because the word was firmly within a Chinese context. I don't know how often I would be able to hear, "You have a zit on your face," before I would just snap. "You have a dou" sounds so much nicer, don't you think? Actually, after being immersed in this culture, it sounds almost NORMAL.


Campus Building Attendants

Just inside of each building on campus is a small room. This room is generally used as an apartment by the custodian of that building. In the English department, a husband, wife, and young child live in the room. If I study in the English building during the evening I can smell them cooking dinner. The husband and wife are in charge of cleaning the building (sweeping and mopping common areas), stocking coal, and keeping it locked up during the night. Typically I see the wife cleaning the building, though yesterday the husband was mopping the English office. They will refill the thermos station each day so that teachers have no end of hot water for their tea mugs. Once the wife went out of her way to help me light a fire in the stove during winter; I had piled too many chunks of coal inside the stove before letting the sticks burn long enough.

I often see the husband at the gate. He is in a pseudo-police officer's uniform making sure that only authorized vehicles enter the school grounds. Usually the small office next to the gate is staffed by 2-4 people who are chatting, drinking tea, and smoking cigarettes. When they talk to me I don't understand because their dialect is so thick that even "Where are you going?" sounds a bit like, "Wiya yoo goan."

The son goes to school during the day, but I often see him running around campus with a large stick or something else he has procured from the trash-filled pond. Sometimes he will enter a class when it's not in session and cause trouble. To practice my Chinese I try to have lengthy conversations with him, but usually I only discover that he has just eaten or that he does, indeed, like kites. The students in the building are his temporary family, and the culture expects that when the parents aren't in the immediate vicinity (maybe they're cleaning or on duty nearby) that the students will take a hand in watching the child.

If I'm studying in a classroom he will come over and look at my flashcards and Chinese book. He searches through my materials, digs through my bag until he finds what he is looking for: an orange. He gives it to me and waits, staring as I peel it. In America I would ask his mother or father first, but he is hungry, an orange is healthy, and, actually, I am his parent for the time being. I send him after a garbage can and he obliges, dragging it across the room despite the fact that it is very light. "Pick it up!" I say in a stern, forceful Chinese. He carries it over and begins putting the peels in the can as I divide the orange.