I’ve been thinking about some of the ways, big and small, in which I’ve been noticing I’ve changed in the almost nine months I’ve been here. Let’s look, shall we?
Five fingers. Never have I ever…
1) Eaten McDonald’s as much as I do now. Yes, there are a few international-ish independent restaurants around Beibei and Chongqing, but with a few noteworthy exceptions they tend to rage from mediocre to terribly bad. The most consistent source of authentic non-Chinese food at prices that won’t break the bank too badly? McDonald’s and KFC. My town has only the latter, but there are also several sets of golden arches that I can access in the city. In the last few weeks, I’ve eaten my first-ever McDonald’s breakfast, fish filet, and Big Mac (I know! I always got nuggets or maybe plain hamburgers when I was a youth.) If we add up all the meals and late-night post-bar trips I’ve made since January to Micky D’s (do the kids still call it that?), we’re probably talking about 10-15 trips. That’s…kind of a lot. But I have no regrets. This stuff can’t be any more unhealthy than oil-soaked twice-cooked pork fat or some other such Sichuan dishes. And no, there are no Shamrock Shakes in China, which has never even heard of St. Patrick’s Day.
2) Been so comfortable discussing bathroom functions, using bathrooms under unhygienic conditions, and timing bathroom trips. In China, gastrointestinal distress happens. A lot. And yes, even to Chinese people—no one is immune when we’re talking about such affronts as street vendors using the same paintbrush to apply oil to raw meat and cooked meat. There are various Chinese words that relate to this issue, ranging from bu shufu (uncomfortable) to full out la douzi (literally translated as spicy stomach, but actually meaning diarrhea.) During training, I probably had some stomachache incident every three days. And even still, everyone is pretty much having some issue at all times.
One way of coping? We alllllll discuss it. In a lot of detail. Because we’re also more comfortable with bathroom-related functions being more a part of life here. Babies and small children do all manner of bathroom things on the street, through their split pants. When you use many a public restroom, you’re going to be pretty intimate with what else has been happening their lately. Etc. My friends were also recently discussing how we’ve trained ourselves to do things like hold it for hours or force ourselves to go at certain times (consider the fact that in my old teaching building, the women’s bathroom was an open trench with no doors, buttressed by wads of used toilet paper and sanitary pads on the floor.) But then, I guess the upside is that I’ve also developed a lot more tolerance for situations I previously would have never considered—why yes, I have used that open trench on occasion, etc etc. Valuable life skill.
3) Done so much packing, unpacking, and general moving around. I’ve got a fun crowd of the foreign teachers to hang out with in Beibei, but often on the weekends I want to hang out with my closest Peace Corps friends, and get away from site for a little while. Fortunately, PCVs are always generous and enthusiastic about traveling to visit each other and about providing places to stay. This, coupled with especial post-IST enthusiasm for socializing and with various other upcoming plans (a PC training event this weekend, Ro’s pending visit, etc.), means that I’m spending far more weekend nights than not away from home this spring. I’ve got a half-packed bag at all times, and I’ve gotten very used to closing up my house for a couple days and hopping on a bus. All that schlepping can get tiresome, but it’s worth it.
4) Cooked as frequently. ‘Cause yeah, I’m getting real tired of a lot of Chinese food. What I always say, even when Chinese people ask (and they ask A LOT) is: yes, it’s good, but it’s so repetitive. Not only is there little else other than Chinese food, there’s almost nothing other than Sichuan food. So no, I don’t want to eat the same dishes every couple of days or even every couple of weeks. When there’s an escape, like McDonald’s, I take it. But I do cook and eat at least one major homemade meal pretty much every day, only sacrificing this to be sociable or due to logistical necessity. This seems healthier, and happier, and also means that when I do have to eat Chinese food, I’m coming at it a little bit fresher. Pretty much I cook similar things to the everyday meals I did at home—a lot of stir-fried/sautéed vegetables with brown rice (buyable but wildly unpopular here) or my pasta suppy (sent from home), occasionally supplemented with the also wildly unpopular chicken breasts I can buy between the chicken legs and kidneys in the grocery. I also cook with my rice cooker a lot—stews, beans, applesauce, etc. I’ve built up a fairly full spice rack and have splurged on certain essentials like olive oil, so I get by. Now, if there were just cheese and decent bread…
5) Had such a weird relationship with time. First off, never have I had so much free time, in some ways. Even compared to last year in DC, when I was taking grad school classes part time in the evenings and went out practically every night, I felt like I didn’t have as much free time or didn’t spend as much time socializing as I do now. With my Peace Corps friends and also my foreign teacher friends, we’re all each other has, and social time tends to be intense. We also tend to enjoy shutting ourselves up in our houses, apart from China, and decompressing. A lot. I’ve read 40 books since I’ve been in China and have made it through many, many TV episodes and movies. And yet, PC China is considered one of the hardest PC programs in terms of the amount of work there is to do and how busy you are. After all, compare a full and formal teaching schedule to some programs where you’re supposed to spend the first six months at site just observing and integrating into your village, making no attempt to accomplish actual work in your “community development” assignment. I don’t mean to say that PC is easy, here or anywhere else—but the challenges typically are not ones that relate to there not being enough hours in the day.
A second issue. Early on in PC, or maybe even before I arrived, I heard a China PCV explain that although the days in China all seem very long, the weeks also go quickly. This definitely seems true. I can’t believe I’ve already been back in school for a month, and that I actually have less than three months to go until my classes end. On the other hand, it feels like I’ve been here forever. They say that the first semester is the hardest part and maybe that will prove true—although according to my sitemate, life in China just gets worse and worse. Yes, there’s a lot of stuff I absolutely hate about China, and I’m sure I always will. Most people I know agree that it takes a very special person, or a LBH (loser back home, ie the kind of person who doesn’t fit in and expatriates so that he can feel like a rockstar somewhere else), to actually enjoy living here. But worrying less about being a Perfect PCV, focusing more on what I can do to make myself happier and make the time I do spend doing China things more rewarding, and living life day-by-day or weekend-to-weekend means that time starts to fly.