Journey to Beibei

Site visit has come and gone. I have seen the next two years of my life and I have survived.

Last weekend we scattered off from Chengdu to our various sites—some journeyed far (36 hours is the rumored farthest trip, to the upper edge of Gansu), some close (one of my training group-members is staying at the same university where we have training now). Some journeyed in merry, bacchanalian groups on ridiculous overnight trains, and some journeyed solo. Like me.

In any case, I was one of the last people to depart for site, and LYY brought me to the big Chengdu train station, which is probably the setting for one of Dante’s layers of hell. It’s all about pushing and shoving your way through the station and onto the train, and it’s every man for himself. But wait, you might think—if seats are assigned and there’s plenty of time to board the train in an orderly manner, is this really necessary? No, it is not. But as for seats—well, they’re not entirely available. Trains apparently routinely get oversold, meaning that some may end up standing or sitting in the aisles. One friend told a story of someone being stuck on an overnight train in a hard seat (as opposed to a soft seat, or a hard or soft bed) next to a woman sitting on the aisle on a bucket. With her cat. I have no such horror stories of my own, but suffice it to say, train travel in China is unpleasant. They make the overnight trains I took in Turkey a few years ago look like the height of luxury and order.

My new host “mother,” LL, and my waiban (something like an administrator who deals with international affairs), FW, picked me up at the train station in Beibei (pronounced like “bay-BAY”). LL is an English professor herself at my university (which I will refer to as SWU hereafter and throughout this blog) and her husband is also a professor in something like food science. They have a 9-year-old daughter, M, and there was also an 11-y-o cousin staying with them. LL and M lived in Vancouver from ’08-’09, so both of their English was excellent, and communicating was generally easy.

I was hoping to spend a fair amount of time with the administrators I’ll be working with discussing the coming year, but that did not happen so much. I am theoretically to be teaching seven sections of the same class, sophomore majors’ oral English, and each of these seven classes will meet once a week for 90 minutes. Oh, and there’s no textbook and no set curriculum, syllabus, or expectations, apparently. Nor did I actually learn what my teaching schedule will be, or much about the academic calendar for the year. Ready, go! So that was a bit overwhelming.

But, my host family were very helpful at showing me around and helping me with some logistical concerns, like setting up a bank account and getting a new cell phone card (I’ll be keeping my Chengdu phone as well, and will be able to be reached on either number, although I still won’t be able to call out internationally from either phone due to ridiculous overregulation of the cell network). And I met my sitemate: as I mentioned in my last write-up, the person with whom I’ll be sharing my life in Beibei is a China 15, meaning that he’s already been there a year. I am replacing a member of the China 14 cohort who left this summer, and whose apartment I’ll be living in. When my sitemate leaves, I’ll get a new sitemate from China 17 (presumably). And so it goes. I think I actually like this set-up—having someone around to show you the ropes is definitely a plus. Anyway, sitemate, David, was very pleasant. Meeting him was a little like a weird blind-date set-up: hello, nice to meet you, let’s start sharing our lives with each other since we’re in this together, like it or not, for the next year.

I got to see my apartment, which is a little small and dingy compared to the stories of luxury that some past/present volunteers tell, but hey, mud hut it ain’t. And I have a Western toilet! The last girl who lived in the apartment (the China 14) left a lot of stuff (linens, spices, toiletries, DVDs, etc) I look forward to using as well.

Other highlights of the week included spending a day at a picnic area at nearby Jinyun mountain, a local vacation destination where you can hike (Chinese definition: climb stairs up mountains), visit a hot spring, or hang out at the local Daoist temple. Here I finally learned to play mahjong, also. We traveled into Chongqing city one day as well—it’s something like a 45-minute drive into the heart of the city, which is a gritty, hot urban jungle of like 6 million people. Remember what I said about Chongqing being one of China’s furnaces? Yeah, the car thermometer read 49 degrees Celsius at 3pm in Chongqing (meaning 120 degrees F). I assume this to be a mistake but….still. You can imagine, it was effing hot. Fortunately, Beibei is a little bit cooler thanks to—ah, trees, or some such? Unclear.

I think I was a big hit with 9-y-o M, who threw a “party” for me involving a handful of neighbor friends and I making dumplings and playing a game that involved us performing for each other. The 11-o-clock number was a choreographed performance of “The Wheels on the Bus,” which LL learned when she was in Vancouver. On my last day staying with them, M and I started talking about Lizzie Maguire, prompting me to share some of my Hilary Duff music, which led into a Hannah Montana singalong, which led into my being her hero for copying her all of my music by said esteemed artists, and then some.

LL and her family will be good friends to have when I return to Beibei, and I think LL will also be a good professional resource—thanks to her time in Canada and her academic interests, she has more knowledge of and affinity for Communicative Language Teaching than most Chinese English teachers, and I’m looking forward to observing her in action, perhaps, and continued conversation on the subject.

In all, I’m glad we had site visit and that Peace Corps set us up with host families this time around (as opposed to the usual pattern in past years). The week had its ups and downs—I almost lost it in the cell phone store navigating the various draconian pricing policies with LL, for example—but in general I feel positively about my site and situation. We’ll see. One more week back on the regular schedule of language training, then a few more days in a hotel in Chengdu, and then I’m back to Beibei a week from Friday, give or take a day.

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