07/10/2012 - 08/28/2012 88 °F
Staring. Just staring at a white wall with three holes in it. Something must have hung there at one time. I don’t care. I don’t want to think about it. It’s just a white wall with three holes. I love the wall because I can just stare at it and it doesn’t expect anything from me.
I am laying mentally exhausted on my bed after another nine hour day of Peace Corps training. The Peace Corps keeps us very busy. When I get a chance to just stare at something and not have to think I am thankful.
This particular bedroom with three holes in the wall is in a faculty housing building on the campus of Sichuan Normal University in Chengdu. I live here with a Chinese family of six. All Peace Corps China Trainees live with local families during pre-service training. They set us up with home stay families for a few reasons I think: cultural training, language practice, exposure to Chinese family life, 24X7 trainee tracking, and mental strength training.
My family consists of a married couple in their mid-thirties, an eight year old daughter, a fourteen year old nephew, and a pair of grand parents. Nephew and husband speak English well. The wife understands more than she lets on, and Grandpa and daughter know enough to have little chit-chats with. It seems to me that they are all perfectly happy to speak English. They like the practice. So that’s what we do. So much for my Chinese language training. As a consequence of my English speaking home stay family, and the fact that I don’t study much, I am the worst Chinese language student in our group of eighteen volunteers (except for Jeff, of course).
I’m pretty sure Grandma, Tan Fang Xiu, runs the show in this house. She seems to be dishing out commands pretty regularly. The eight year old needs to practice piano, the 14 year old needs to get out of bed, Grandpa needs to be doing something. Grandma does most of the cooking too. We always have four to five dishes, rice, and soup for lunch and dinner.
I consider Grandpa, Jian Jixun, to be a bit of a specialist, technical advisor, and watcher. He showed me how to do laundry. He pulled apart the cable box and identified one of the chips inside as the trouble maker. One day I held some sort of electrical contraption steady for him while he soldered it. We get along well. We don’t talk all that much but we don’t have to, cuz we’re dudes.
The kids are funny, each in their own way. David the fourteen year old has endless energy and is always excited. He has taken it upon himself to ensure that I never have to stress myself or put forth too much effort at anything. He helps me cross the street, shows me where the dinner table is each night and generally makes sure that this half-wit foreigner doesn’t kill himself. He treats me like a toddler. I think of him as Mother David.
The girl, Jian Siyi, is hilarious. She’s animated. Her facial expressions paired with her tone of voice paint a pretty clear picture of what she’s thinking. I usually don’t understand her language but I get the gist I think and I’m usually laughing at it. She’s really talented too. She plays an awesome piano and is good at all sorts of games. We like to play catch in the house and hit stuff (anything) back and forth to each other with ping pong paddles. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to be doing that kind of thing in the house. No one seems to mind.
The Mother, Yan Dong, and Father, Jian Zhirui, are a fun pair. They are very active and like sports. They have taken me to play badminton and ping pong a couple of times. The Mother likes to laugh at me while she runs me around the badminton court. She likes to point out that the sweat running down my face is actually tears, that she is making me cry. She’s the wise-ass, trash talking, competitive sort. She’s a lawyer. The father on the other hand is more supportive. He encourages my badminton play by saying “good” after each of my decent shots. If my shots get too good though he quickly puts me away and then laughs at me. He’s an educator.
As I continue to lay starting at three holes in the wall I think about how unique and crazy each of the people in my home stay house are. I’m not sure why I call them crazy. I think all of my Peace Corps colleagues are crazy too. Spectacular and crazy. Maybe it’s not the people themselves that are crazy rather the situations and atmosphere that we all find ourselves in together. It’s all so unexpected and new.
Here’s some more unexpected and new. The washing machine at my home stay is on the deck and the refrigerator is in the living room. There is a western bathroom with a jacuzzi but the jacuzzi is the home of two turtles and a storage area for sock and underwear wash basins. You can’t wash socks and underwear with the rest of your clothes in the washing machine on the deck. You wash them by hand in the bathroom. There is a squat toilet in the shower. The kitchen is way too small for both the refrigerator and the amount and variety of food that comes out of it.
The things that you can touch and see that seem a little different are easier to understand than the more behavioral/cultural differences. In particular, I refer to the complete lack of planning and notification of upcoming events that is so common here. Kidnapping. I think about it often. In the midst of my efforts to get on top of my studies and find a little down time for myself there is the constant specter of the home stay family kidnapping.
Kidnapping can happen at any time. There is rarely any warning. The home stay family has decided on some plan of action and it’s going to happen right now no matter what you happen to be doing at the time, no matter what you’ve already planned, no matter if you’re even present. They will find you and you will come. You might be going to dinner. You might be driving to a lake. You might be going to a track to watch Chinese four wheel drive enthusiasts beat the snot out of their rigs. You have no idea. You are coming and that is that. It might be for an hour. It might be for most of a day. You’ll know when it’s over. You will not be consulted as to your availability. You will almost certainly have fun.
I am a bit of a planner and with all of the work and studying required to keep up with my training classes I plan how I spend my time pretty carefully. The kidnapping completely blows up any effort on my part to plan my week. I have attempted to mitigate some of the uncertainties of the kidnapping. I have explained that I have a lot of work to do for my Peace Corps training and that hot pot and beer until 10 PM isn’t such a good idea. In the act of kidnapping I have asked how long we will be gone or what time we will be back home in an effort to bring attention to the fact that I have things to do. The replies are wildly inaccurate. I have actually tried to plan for a kidnapping. It doesn’t come.
The kidnapping is one more difference between American and Chinese cultures that I have had to adapt to. I’m glad that I’m getting a taste of it while living with my home stay family. There has been much discussion about kidnappings between volunteers and trainers. We have been informed that we may not know what classes we will teach until a day or two before the classes start. Kidnapping results from a lack of advanced planning or notification. When asked about why there is no planning in advance, one Chinese trainer said, “If we plan something too far in advance we might have to change it later.”
This is why I stare at three holes in the wall when I have the chance. I need to have these moments of doing nothing, thinking about nothing, worrying about nothing. China is all around me and she wants me to be constantly moving, improving, learning, adapting. So I take a little rest.