Welcome China 19s!

They’re here! China’s newest crop of Peace Corps Volunteers has arrived. They touched down in Chengdu on Sunday night and I am sure are already swimming through the cultural shock that instant submersion in the Middle Kingdom delivers. The numerically monikered China 19s are currently seventy strong and will hopefully retain those ranks as they face the long-haul training that is PST.

With the new volunteers in town and excited to begin their journeys, I can’t help but think back to July 1, 2006 when Thad and I were in the same position. He had diligently listened to Pimsler’s Mandarin CDs in his truck on the way to and from work for the semester leading up to our departure, but I had no such mini-foundation in the Chinese language. (I had a similar commute time, but chose to use it less productively- singing along to radio hits like Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day” and “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” by the ever-fabulous Bon Jovi.) I hit the ground without a “ni hao” or a “duo shao qian” in my proverbial pocket. We arrived in the city late at night, were handed an envelope of living expense money to get us through the summer (money that, at the time, looked like it belonged in a Monopoly box at a yard sale) and a scheduled that left no room for jet lag. Welcome to Peace Corps training!

Little did we know that we were embarking on an adventure that would include not only working with fabulous students from some of the most rural parts of the country and the making of life-long travel buddies and friends, but one that would reshape our future career paths, creating opportunities that we would never have had if we had stayed home in Idaho, just following the status quo.

But here we are, seven years later…

(Has it really been that long since China 12s began their immersion into the world of hotpot, mouth-numbing lajiao peppers and Sichuan-hua?)

That envelope of money of varying sizes no longer looks like it came from a little man with a monocle.  Rather, it has become my norm. Red bills in an envelope for the ayi, a green one if I’m having lunch at a Western restaurant, blue ones for the cab drivers or purple for a soda from a noodle alley shop. Each brightly colored bill is an easy transaction, while those monochromatic green ones from home require constant mental conversion to RMB.

I don’t get up each morning to fill a white board with Poe or The Outsiders or poetry activities for my 8th grade reading classes (although I miss that immensely!). I now pop out of bed to head to the consulate where I get the pot of coffee brewing and spend my days planning community activities, keeping everyone connected to schools and local events, all while working to maintain strong morale at a post far from many western comforts.

So, welcome China 19s. We are excited to have you in the country and thrilled that you are joining the legacy that is Peace Corps China. It will change your life. For me, my service was just the beginning of exploring new sidewalks (many of which you will find to be slicker than snot when wet or littered with what we lovingly refer to as “brick bombs” after a good Chengdu rain); it was a new direction, but one that I wouldn’t change for all the cheese and peanut butter in America.

Welcome.  And good luck!

China 12s!

China 12s!

 

Mere Moments to Decide My Fate

Sometimes in life we are all forced to make some big choices, knowing that the path we choose will dictate our futures, for better or for worse. At nineteen, I decided to get married, which may not seem to be the most prudent decision, but one that fifteen years later I can attest worked out just fine. Or a couple of years after that we decided to sell our home and cars and give away our adorable pot-bellied pig for a two-year stint at Peace Corps Volunteers in western China. Then there was that little choice a few years ago to walk away from my teaching career to become the terribly monikered “trailing spouse” of a US Foreign Service Officer. None of these choices was made lightly or without a good deal of research, but we don’t always have the luxury of time to think through the big ones; sometimes they are thrown at us and we are given mere moments to determine our future.

This is exactly what happened to me today. My back, bum and possibly sanity depended on a single spur of the moment decision. Standing at the United counter at SFO I had to make an on-the-spot determination that would have long-lasting (at least ten hours!) consequences: window seat in economy class or upgrade (for $140) to a middle seat in “economy plus.” Oh the pressure! There’s no time for pro/con charts, no time for color-coding and organizing information about each option, no time to assess the possible consequences of each choice on an individual basis.

Standing 5’10”, those extra six inches of legroom are tempting. But, with an extra suitcase returning with me from America, (filled with nacho cheese, hot sauce, a couple pairs of shoes and a book or two) spending more money wasn’t wasn’t inviting at all.

What’s a girl to do?

Quickly, I mentally rushed through my options as the gate attendant looked at me expectantly. Window to lean my head on for ten hours but with my knees crushed against the seat in front of me that will be unceremoniously kicked back at the first opportunity or half a foot of extra space, but stuck in an uncomfortable middle-man situation that may or may not result in actual access to the arm rests? (My personal rule is that the middle-man always gets the “shared” armrest as a tiny consolation prize for taking one for the team. Sadly, not everyone recognizes this simple karmatic alignment of air travel.)

“Ma’am, which seat would you like?”

Window! I’ll go window!

As I now sit on the floor of SFO charging my laptop before the trans-Pacific flight to Narita, I am left to question my decision. Will my back and bum make me regret not having extra space to curl my legs up in front of me mid-flight? Will I actually be able to sleep for an hour or two, propped against the wall of the plane? These are the consequences that can only be determined with time, when I unfold myself from that crammed economy seat ten hours hence.

She may not have proposed marriage or posited the possibility of moving to the other side of the world, but the United gate attendant did force a major decision with no time to really consider the good and bad of each possible option. Okay, I’ll admit that in the big scheme of things this doesn’t even qualify as a minor decision, but with nothing else to occupy my mind during my four-hour layover, I’ve had a lot of time to ponder the possible repercussions of the choice.

Window it is. Now, only time will tell…