China has been many things, and often I find it to be one giant contradiction. My first year in China was often unpleasant. Illnesses, cultural mishaps, a winter with teeth, and adjusting to a new job were each a part of my slow acculturation. There were days that I hated to be in China. There were days when I hated China. There were days when I just wanted to go home. On those days you feel every mile between yourself and home, believe me.
On a few occasions there were complete breakdowns, followed by phone calls home. I became a child again, talking to my parents about my problems and hoping that they would somehow make them go away.
Not only did the problems not go away, they found new ways of manifesting themselves in my life. Suddenly I was throwing up in the kitchen sink AND I had no running water. I am reminded of my cousin's upcoming wedding; the one that I can't attend.
One of my fellow volunteers and good friend summed it up best when he returned to the U.S. for medical leave:
"You are all amazing people and I am honored to have gotten to know you these past months. Your conversations, opinions, cooking, creativity, and lust for living meaningful lives has inspired and given hope to a broken, cynical shell-of-a-man (ie, me).
You should be proud to have survived this odyssey that is Peace Corps China. In many ways this experience is an exercise of attrition that only those with the most endurance (or dumb luck) can suffer through. You have done it. And though we may be the only ones who truly understand what that means, it is nonetheless a commendable accomplishment."
And often that's what it felt like to be in China.
But this year has been different.
This year is the promise of Obama, when compared with 8 years of a Bush presidency.
It began with continued understanding. The need to know what was going on around me and the desire to learn. Many behaviors have slowly been revealed in this way, but I want to point out one that might teach you something. It involves collectivism vs. individualism.
"Since individualists have to work at their relationships to maintain them, they tend to develop skills for effective superficial interaction with others" (Wheeler, Reis, and Bond, 1989).
One of my students' biggest unspoken complaints was my apparent unwillingness to make friends. To them my fleeting conversations were not a part of my cultural upbringing, but a kind of arrogance or inability to do so. Inability to make friends is probably close to the truth of the matter.
Look at it this way: Much separates Chinese people from Americans. Americans are independent where Chinese are collectivist. Americans want to stand out where Chinese want to belong. And what about the culture of poverty? How much of student behavior is determined by "Chinese Culture," or "Poverty," or some strange mix of both?!
Not only have I been trained to create an extensive list of 'superficial' (according to Chinese standards) friends, China makes it even more difficult by forcing me to navigate the great number of people! Not only were my students saying, "We wish you were a real friend who invested time in your friendship with us," but there were 4 times as many people saying it!
I'm afraid I haven't exactly "solved" this problem yet, but that's not really the point. What I want to explain is that continued work in this area has helped me tremendously. I know my students and colleagues much better than before. I am comfortable on the street and I know how to react in most situations. I haven't been ill since the spring. Several of my classes are subjects I've taught before, so I'm gaining experience in teaching at this level (especially pronunciation!).
Feeling better has helped me to be more committed, and being more committed has brought with it more respect and willingness to understand on the part of my students.
I don't have much of a moral here, just that Peace Corps was right when they said the second year was easier (and more fulfilling).
Wheeler, L., Reis, H. T., & Bond, M. H. (1989). Collectivism-individualism in everyday social life: The Middle Kingdom and the melting pot. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 57, 79-86