Some of my favorite Gansu folk exploring sand dunes, caves, and desert rivers.
A little later than the two or three weeks ago I committed to but I’ve been busy getting into graduate school and stuff(!).
Some of you have already seen this but if not, here’s the video I put together of my trip to Panzhihua to visit Jeramee and a trip with some of my closest Peace Corps pals in Yunnan.
Friends in China: https://vimeo.com/85642372
Watch it then proceed.
Three-ish months until I’m home, sweet home.
Well, it’s a love hate relationship we’ve got going on. At the moment, I’m writing on a Lanzhou high so I’ve got nothing but love to share.
I’ll start with my 24th. I spent my third birthday in a row out of the US and it was one for the books. Two of my closest girlfriends (in Pingliang, 4.5-6 hours away by bus), surprised me by showing up in Lanzhou to celebrate with me. Most of my closest friends were accounted for and we made tacos (thanks Kev), played beer pong (Paul and I are undefeated), ate out, went to bars, went to a club, had a friend from the other side of China visit (Chris), I was serenaded by two amazing friends with a beautiful rendition of Happy Birthday by the world’s best guitarist (J. Han) and the loveliest siren (Katie) around, and then serenaded with a traditional Tibetan birthday song the following night. My friends > your friends.
I’m 24. I just purchased my first anti-wrinkle cream. I blame Lanzhou’s weather, lack of any humidity, and frigid winters. And I’m loving being 24.
I’m still young and I’ve learned a lot, failed a lot but also succeeded a lot. You may remember a post or two back, I mentioned that I was starting a girl’s leadership and development program.
We finally had our first meeting!
It was everything I could have dreamed and more. One, I brought doughnuts and they loved them. Two, I have 10 girls, which is better than the overwhelming 15 I was expecting. Three, they have interesting questions about becoming productive and successful women in China. Four, they’re brutally honest. Five, they trust each other and trust me. Six, they are interested in completing volunteer activities in the community, working with other girls and women. Seven, they want to learn. Eight, they’re as excited as I am.
Doughnuts are always a good intro to uncomfortable topics so I started with that. After they had filled up on sugar and ladybug-decorated doughnuts, I started gently by asking what kinds of questions that wanted to talk about. Most of them came up with really interesting topics, like how to beat men for leadership roles, and some fun topics, like how to find Mr. Right. Unfortunately, I offered, I have only found Mr. Wrong but I have plenty of experience doing that maybe I can tell you about what not to do. They all giggled.
Linda took control after I introduced trust falls. I wanted the girls to feel comfortable with each other, express their trust in each other before divulging some of their darkest insecurities and fears, and to know that I, too, trusted them. We each took turns falling into each others’ arms.
This is my first real solo project. I wrote the project proposal myself, got permission from my school myself, (am in the process of) getting funding myself, and am leading the project myself. All of our other projects have been fun and beneficial to our students but this is my baby and I’m really excited to nurture her and watch her grow. I can’t promise I won’t be like one of those annoying Facebook friends you have who posts way too many pictures of her baby’s first everything. I probably will. Lucky for you, none of them will make it to Facebook (hiatus). If you start seeing too many photos of the same 10 girls, tell me and I’ll try to tone it down.
I think this semester is going to be a good one. I’m excited for it, minus the Lanzhou winter that’s rapidly approaching/here already. And there’s currently nowhere I’d rather be.
As tempted as I am to enlighten all of you with how my summer wrapped up and how my semester has started in a stream of consciousness because everything in my life blurs together, I’ll refrain.
So the last you heard from me, I had just returned from gallivanting (read: taking endless buses and trains) around Xinjiang, the northwestern most province in China and I made it to the border of Pakistan (and more importantly, back from the border of Pakistan). I didn’t detail my travels with more than photos because my words are worthless compared to those photos. In case the (<–)blue link doesn’t entice you, this might. Maybe someday soon I’ll explain the trip in more detail like when our taxi driver hit a man’s donkey, broke its leg and kept driving on the way back from Pakistan.
My third semester started three weeks ago. I’ve got nine months left in China.
I’ve made new friends and started new projects and that’s what I’m going to tell you about here.
First I have to reiterate that my site mate is the best. Paul and I seldom have our differences but even when we do, we go back to being best friends and great co-workers almost immediately. I’m so glad that I didn’t make any requests to Peace Corps about where to be placed or who I wanted to be placed with. They likely wouldn’t have acknowledged my request but had they, I mightn’t be where I am now.
Paul and I have several joint projects. Our first is maintaining and improving the library that the previous volunteers were working on during their PC stint. Some of you who are reading donated to our project and my school, my students, Paul and I are so grateful. Here’s what you helped us accomplish.
We’ve turned the room into a faux-coffee shop, faux only in that there is no coffee. While we’re not finished yet, our room is starting to feel like a place where students might actually go to study, read and hang out to practice English. We painted all of the desks and chairs, purchased lamps, a rug, plants, and so far about 100 books!
All of the collages on the wall were their first semester final exam projects and we printed some of the best photos of our students during their first year. We will keep adding to it over the next year so they can see how much they’ve accomplished and all of the cool things they’ve done during the course of their college education. Our school was hesitant to let us do some things we wanted to do so we stopped asking for permission and starting telling them after we’d already done it. They were ecstatic with the results.
Last semester Paul and I had a cooking club. Groups of 7-8 students came over one night a week for a cooking exchange. We really enjoyed eating delicious homemade Chinese food and getting to know some of our students a bit better. While some of them are still really shy around us, most of them opened up and had quite a few interesting things to say. This semester we’re looking forward to doing it again but this time at Paul’s apartment. I got tired of the pre- and post- clean up.
I’m also starting a Girls Leadership and Development Program, which if successful, I expect to be one of the highlights of my service. Our first meeting is tomorrow(!) over dinner, but I’ve told the girls that we can meet in different places around our campus, my place, the milk tea shop, picnics, Changing Hands. I plan to address issues that affect college-aged girls in an open and confidential manner. Many of my students and those of other PCVs have told stories of parental abuse, sexual pressures, lack of confidence and poor body image, and the belief that women are useless to the development of China because their role is limited: they are supposed to cook and clean for their husband. My goals are ambitious but I’m hoping that my 15 girls will leave at the end of next year empowered, with a positive view of their roles as women and the confidence to both believe in themselves and stand up to external pressures.
Unrelated to Peace Corps, I began interning (unpaid obviously) for an organization in Nepal this past week. The organization is PSD Nepal (Partnership for Sustainable Development – Nepal) organizes many infrastructural projects in the sectors of education, water sanitation, and health. I am currently editing their newsletters before they go out, with the possibility of doing grant writing in the future.
This is a busy semester. I’m trying to figure out my current life, trying to give as much as I can while I’m here and get the most of this experience. But I’m also trying to figure out my future life which I have to do before January: grad school applications, letters, essays, GRE. Nine months sounds like a long time when I count how many more lesson plans and teaching hours that is but considering I’ve been here over a year already, nine months ain’t nothin’.
On that note, come visit me. You’ve got nine months. Do I need to add another link to my previous photos? You’ll have either a more interesting Christmas break or early summer than you would if you stay home in the US/UK/South America, wherever else you may be.
*I apologize if there are any typos – I spent 10 hours this week editing work for someone else and can’t be bothered to here.
I have developed friendships with some of my students and for most of them I was really proud of their effort this past year. I threw a celebration party for my two freshman class for their completion of their first year of college. They brought snacks, they prepared musical selections, and dances to Gangnam Style, and they asked me to make sure I remembered them when I went home for summer. No matter how long I’m gone for, I won’t forget them.
These kids drive me crazy sometimes but I still love them enough to spend a quarter of my monthly stipend to make rice crispie treats for their last day of class. I miss them already and am excited to see them in August!
Not that I’m exactly counting the days. Meh, that’s a lie. Sometimes I do, especially towards the end of the semester when days and life seem to drag on by, slowly as if they’ll never end. I have China days, far more frequently than I’d like. And then other times I don’t. Sometimes I can’t believe I’ve been in China for a year. I think of the stellar friendships I’ve made, the things I’ve learned about people, the people I’ve fallen in love with, the places I’ve fallen in love with, that I can actually express most of my thoughts in Mandarin, they ways I’ve had my heart-broken when projects fail or when people are miserable human beings. And it feels like there’s no way all of that could have happened in a year. It’s madness. I’ve dealt. I have failed at life sometimes and other times, I’ve succeeded beyond belief.
That being said, I have one more class this semester and I’m done. I’ve completed my first year of service.
I wanna jump and shout and dance all about!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I figured it was a good time to reflect upon my experience thus far and what I hope to get out of the next year when I return from summer vacation. In doing that, I thought it would be a good idea to re-read my personal statement to see if I’ve accomplished anything I thought I would or hoped to. I also thought I’d let you read it… If you don’t want to, feel free to skip down to where I write about how much of this happened and has changed.
Your reasons for wanting to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer
The combination of being raised under the philosophy that a good education is a right rather than a privilege and witnessing the recent education protests throughout Chile, my interest in working to improve education systems in developing nations has grown rapidly and passionately. Under-served communities with poor schools produce children who lack the skills to overcome poverty, creating a cycle of impoverished future generations. The Peace Corps aims to reverse this cycle.
I find it tragic that throughout much of the developing world, quality education is a right only for the wealthy, a fact that increases the education gap between the rich and the poor, the rapidly growing income disparities, and results in stunted economic growth of developing nations. As worthwhile as I find my previous and continued work in Chile, serving in the Peace Corps will allow me to work to promote educational equality, something that often goes overlooked by English teachers, and much of the developed world.
The second most important reason comes from another one of the Peace Corps’ missions: promoting cultural understanding between Americans and other nations through immersion. Even though I’ve been completely immersed in the Chilean culture and language, I’ve lacked the opportunity to work side-by-side with my host community on a larger scale. The Peace Corps provides the host community with volunteers to work with them, rather than just for them. I think the educational benefits for both the community and the volunteer drastically improve with this measure rather than sending in a volunteer to work alone.
I am aware that there is a lot of down time for projects separate from the volunteer’s specific mission. I look forward to taking advantage of that opportunity to spend time working with the host community to determine other needs they might have and developing external projects to meet those goals. This is something that is virtually impossible without the help of the host community, yet something that could make just as large an impact in the community and in the volunteer’s time with the Peace Corps.
How these reasons are related to your past experiences and life goals
My experience teaching in Santiago has been eye-opening. I’ve seen the effects of a poor education system and its repercussions on keeping the impoverished in poverty, and keeping wealth within the wealthiest families. Chile’s education system is a perfect example of a developing nation with the strength to provide a decent education for all students, but education is still perceived as a privilege, not a right. As passionate as I am about teaching English in Chile, I’ve developed more passion for teaching in under-served communities and promoting educational equality.
I didn’t know even a year ago that I would currently be teaching English in Chile and equally, I can’t predict what I’ll be doing ten years from now. However, the plan I’ve created for the next several years of my life, post Peace Corps, is to pursue graduate studies for international politics, with a specific interest in work that promotes equal opportunity–including education–in developing countries. The Peace Corps can help me develop skills that I’m working on developing. I will gain real-world experience to help be a contributing member during graduate school and beyond; the language skills will contribute to me being a more competitive candidate in the global arena; and the cultural awareness will go far in allowing me to be more empathetic to the cause I plan to study and work for during and after graduate school.
How you expect to satisfy the Peace Corps 10 Core Expectations (please be specific about which expectations you expect to find most challenging and how you plan to overcome these challenges).
The most difficult of the 10 Core Expectations is the first–the two-year commitment yet I am confident that fulfilling the two years will not be problematic for me. I have spent the past four months in South America, adapting to life in a completely new culture, learning a foreign language, and working in a new field. Further, I have done this without seeing my friends and family from home and seven months will have passed before my first visit home, before returning again next year.
The next most challenging could potentially be integrating into the host community, given the possible language barrier. The only way to ease this challenge is to not be afraid to make mistakes and try to learn the language. I’ve learned it goes along way with building trust between communities and makes the experience more rewarding for all involved. I look forward to the cultural exchange by learning the language of the community and building friendships.
Perhaps most importantly, I plan to meet the other Core Expectations by maintaining an open-mind, having flexibility and being patient. I expect that there will be many occasions where I’m surprised, challenged and frustrated. However, approaching all of these situations with an open-mind will grant me the power to stay positive and focused and adapt to the challenges I will undoubtedly face. I’ve practiced this in South America where has not always been “perfect”. My acceptance of the fact that life in a foreign country may lack the comforts of home has allowed me to see the beauty in the differences I encounter and look forward to new ones.
This is something I recently had practice doing here in Chile, as I was asked emotional and difficult questions about 9/11 and conspiracy theories. Being born and raised in the United States and loving that place I call home, it was difficult to maintain composure to defend my country, my government and my President to someone who believed the US government could be behind something as devastating as the 9/11 attacks. Yet, I refrained from insults, personal attacks and even anger (the most difficult) and was able to have an intellectual discussion and answer his questions. Being able to deal with situations like these has at the very least prepared me to deal with representing my country with respect but also learning about how others perceive the United States. Not the lone reason, but it’s reasons like this why I have a greater appreciation of the Peace Corps mission of “helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served”.
Your success as a Peace Corps Volunteer is based on the trust and confidence you build by living in, and respectfully integrating yourself into, your host community and culture (Core Expectation #4). Describe an experience you have had in living or working in a social or cultural environment different from your own. What specific challenges did you face concerning trust, confidence, and/or integration? What did you learn from this experience that you will bring with you to your Peace Corps service?
The first thing you do when you meet someone is talk to them. What happens when you get to the airport in Miami and they start speaking Spanish before you even leave the country? Culture shock before you leave your own country? I hadn’t heard of it before I departed for Argentina, but I sure experienced it. When I was planning my move to South America, I was particularly concerned about the language barrier I might be faced with. But everyone assured me that I shouldn’t worry, because “everyone speaks English”. This is not the case in Miami, let alone in Argentina or Chile.
I had enough basic Spanish from school that I could both minimally and maximally greet people respectfully. Unfortunately, my Spanish couldn’t take me far beyond that. I had an American passport. I spoke English. And I was constantly awkward, lost, and confused. I was thus granted “tourist status”.
I spent my first few days acclimating, speaking in a mixture of guidebook Spanish and English (when possible and absolutely necessary), but after that, I committed to only Spanish, at least with native speakers I encountered. The difference in the way I was treated was unimaginable. I was invited to asados or barbecues, I made conversation partners, I was offered multiple jobs. While I could still tell there was a difference in the speed they spoke to me, the speech they used or the invites I got, I was more or less “accepted”. My “tourist status” was removed and I was granted “honorary Chilena”.
I can say that I have both recently and successfully demonstrated the ability to learn a new language through (mostly) immersion and as a result was accepted into the local community. I have a deep appreciation for my acceptance, as I can tell it has benefited both me and those in the community I interact with. Upon acceptance to the Peace Corps, I will bring this dedication to communicate with those around me. I look forward to learning a new language, whether I continue to improve my Spanish in a Spanish-speaking country or start again from new, and using the skill to help learn about the culture, its people as well my own strengths and abilities.
As I reflect back on the past year, I realize that I was so idealistic and so unrealistic. I wanted to change the world in two years. And then I found out I was going to come to China and I wanted to change China, the oldest civilization in history, in two years. Come on, Lauren. Be realistic, you’d need to extend a third year for that.
I haven’t changed China. There are 1.4 billion people in China. I haven’t changed China and I was silly to think I could but I wasn’t silly to think I could make any difference.
I think there are two students who I’ve actually impacted, Hannah and Jane. They are my two best students.
They never use their cell phones in class, they consistently score the highest in both Oral English and Western Society & Culture, they spend time with me outside of class and they seem to be maturing as they’re beginning to respond to me when I treat them like adults. I have about 80 students and to have expected to influence all of them would have been far too idealistic, as was wanting to change China, and to influence none of them would have been a waste of time. And you can’t just take the average of the two and call it a day either; that’d also be too idealistic and too unrealistic. I realize that it probably doesn’t sound like much to you; in fact, it probably sounds like close to nothing. But I’m also realizing that being a “teacher” is really hard, especially in a completely foreign culture. So any improvement is still improvement.
I’ve developed some direction of where I want to go in life. Prior to Peace Corps, I thought I wanted to work in international education development with an NGO. But as I realize that no matter how well my students do in school, most of them are still going to be resigned to working for pennies selling sodas in their hometowns, I’m heading in a new direction, to help students like them, students who want to excel but will never be given a fair chance by the system. That includes a second degree, different work experience, possibly learning French, and many more things that I’m ready to take on. But first.
In the next year, I am resolving to actually studying Chinese during the week, not just the two hours before Zhang Laoshi comes to my house for lessons. I am resolving to getting into graduate school. I have a back-up plan, kind of, but I want to pretend that I don’t so that I give my application everything I’ve got. I found one of the only two NGOs that does any mention-worthy work in Lanzhou that might be willing to take a volunteer; I’ve sent an email and will be sending more emails and calling them until they give me a volunteer position with some real responsibility. I am going to visit 5 of my students in their hometowns. And I’m going to save my heart only for people and causes worthy of it. I suppose we’ll see how much of this happens in the next 12 months, in 12 months.
For now, AZ and FL family and friends, I look forward to seeing you in the next couple of weeks. China, see you in three weeks, for summer project, traveling, and two more semesters of spreading the love.
It’s vaguely reminiscent of home. And it’s beautiful.
P.S. I was told that if you receive this by email, the slideshow might not work. Just click over to my blog page directly!
This may sound racist but at least it’s positively racist.
Chinese kids are cute.
There’s not a single Chinese kid who isn’t cute.
I walk in to the classroom about ten minutes before the bell rings, to hear approximately 40 second graders screaming “Hello Teacher!” Most students shout this in unison the first time; some drop off and leave the remaining 20 or so to continue shouting “Hello Teacher!” an additional six or seven times. I smile and calmly reply “Hello Students” and they laugh. So it goes again. Their amusement is charming. About ten students will then surround me at the podium, playing with the magnets I use to post pictures to the board. They scream at each other. They ask me where I’m from, if I can speak Chinese, and some other questions I generally don’t understand because child Chinese is really difficult for me to understand. They continue this until the bell rings, when my counterpart teacher tells everyone they need to sit down for me to begin.
Until this, I dread Wednesdays. I plan all of my own lessons. If my lesson is too easy, the students are bored. If my lesson is too challenging, they give up without giving a second thought to trying it. But finding a good balance between ease and challenge is hard. Sometimes I make it work. Sometimes I fail miserably. When I make it work, I have a renewed sense of purpose here. When I fail miserably, pain is painted across my face, as well as my all of my student’s faces.
Most of the kids who go to this school as daughters and songs of teachers of the college where I teach so many of them are really good students. Today I asked my students to take a picture with me after class. I’ve been teaching them for several weeks and still hadn’t gotten to photograph their adorableness. I ended class three minutes early to go outside for a photo op. Every student screamed with excitement, grabbed my hand, my arm, my bag, pulling me to stand next to them.
The teacher who took this picture insisted that I stand up, She insinuated that I shouldn’t be on the same level as my students. Even if I had wanted to, the weight of the students pulling me and pushing me in every direction would never have allowed me to stand. Nor did I want to. I wanted to be their friend.
I hope China or Peace Corps doesn’t get mad/kick me out for saying this. I want to kidnap them. All. All of them. They’re loud. They’re unruly. But their enthusiasm is unparalleled. Their cuteness is out of this world. And when they hold your hand after class, ask you if you can sing and ask you to give them an English name, they can turn the worst of days into the best of days.
As our other main secondary project, we are continuing the English Resource Center that the previous volunteers started. We had our first meeting to decide what to do with funding, what to buy, how to decorate the room, what kinds of books to get, etc. All of the managers and volunteers were present.
Paul and I are lucky. We’ve got good students. Their English isn’t the best. Their work ethic isn’t always the best. But they’re the best.