04 January, 2012

Happy New Year!

Ed. note: I've decided to publish this on both of my blogs, as it has a lot to do with my Chinadventures, as well as my life.

This was going to be the first time I ever rang in the New Year with a group of my friends and peers. Alas, I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.

You see, my mother’s parents live in Tennessee. Growing up, we always visited them twice a year—the week of 4 July and the week of the New Year. I have no qualms about going down to visit my family; I loved spending the New Year with my family. This became even more true in high school and college, because my summers working at camp made it impossible to visit during July.

However, this also meant that I never celebrated the New Year with people my age, participating in the usual traditions and hijinks associated with the ball drop. This year, it was going to be the last first I celebrated in 2011 and the first of 2012. Needless to say, I was pretty excited about it…

Much to my dismay, the day brought balloon animal-like bloating, an upset stomach with cramps worse than waking up with a Charlie horse and diarrhea (I wanted to use a third analogy, but decided no one wants to read about how watery and frequent my bowels have been). Instead, I continue to stare blankly at the papers I need to grade and reflect on what a year it has been.

Which brings me to the present… Hours away from 2012, I find myself motivated to write: in part because I don’t feel I’ve written enough this semester—I miss it—but also because I need something to do to distract myself from the work I need to do, and the downtrodden feelings that come with missing out on a momentous night out with friends.

When first trying to reflect on 2011, I could only think of one thing: CHINACHINACHINA. However, giving it more thought, I realised quite a bit happened this year. That sounds stupid, but I don’t know any other way to explain it. I don’t want to say it was an important year; that sounds foolish, too, but this year has really changed my life (equally doltish).

January started the same way every year started, in Tennessee. However, only days later everything changed. Forgoing the nine-hour car ride home, I hopped on a flight back to Elkhart to begin my first teaching job. I had taught as a long-term substitute before, but this was going to be a full-time position (even if it was just for the semester). I was going to be a real teacher. It was going to be my curriculum, taught to my students, in my classroom. I spent four years studying and preparing, and it was my first opportunity to prove it.

February, I said goodbye to a dear friend. My first, and only, car broke down for the final time. I was never the type to name my car—I always thought that was weird—but I was still pretty attached. The plan was to sell it when I left for the Peace Corps anyway, but I thought I’d watch it drive away, not roll because we pushed it into a junkyard. February also proved that a little whimsy can make a serious impact on my life. It was random chance that I was in the right place at the right time—three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon in West Lafayette—and received the behoved encouragement of a friend (who at the time, actually, was only an acquaintance). I went to an improv audition. I told them I was just there to improvise, and that joining wasn’t really an option; I lived nearly three hours away, I was hopefully leaving the country in a month, and I was car-less. After the audition, they welcomed me anyway. One of the members was even going to school near Elkhart, and offered to drive me. Ad Liberation became some of my closest friends for the months we practiced and performed together.

March was the expected departure date the Peace Corps gave me, but I missed it because I had to have my wisdom teeth removed. I had my wisdom teeth removed in March. My brother also turned 21, but unfortunately I couldn’t make the drive to Muncie to celebrate. I spent a lot of this month and the next reflecting and writing about my time as a teacher, my students, and the state of education.

April was a big month. I received my invitation to the Peace Corps. I opened the envelope to see I was going to China at the end of June. Everything got crazy at that point. I was still teaching, but I had actually received an invitation to the Peace Corps. I started my application in December of 2009, and it finally happened.

In May, I concluded my job as a high school math teacher. It was a wonderful semester. I learned a lot, made some great friends, and I was a teacher. I watched my cousin graduate from high school, with many other seniors I happened to teach. If that nostalgia for “closing one chapter, opening another” wasn’t enough, I also made one final trip to Saint Joseph’s College. One year after my own graduation, it gave me an opportunity to reflect on what I had done and where I was going. It was also a chance to see my friends and teachers who made such an impact on my life, thank them and say goodbye.

June was a blur of preparation and anxiety. I was preparing to leave the country for two years; I was saying goodbye to my friends and family. I was reading about China; I was buying luggage. Then I turned 24 and left the country.

July was China. China. China. I landed in China on 1 July. I don’t even know what do say about the month of July. I started speaking Chinese in July. I started following Peace Corps rules and training for my new life. I was living with a host family and getting a crash course in Chinese culture.

August brought site placement and a gratuitous amount of anxiety. We were anticipating our jobs for the next two years. We made it to the end of training and said goodbye to the new friends we had made.

September, October, November and December was really when CHINACHINACHINA started. It was a blur of learning cultural taboos, small victories, embarrassing moments, and a lot of teaching. Like every teaching experience, it was a mixed bag of frustrating hurdles and amazing triumphs. I had quite a few moments this semester when, at the end of class as the students were filing out, I took a deep breath and thought, “Yes. This is why I’m a teacher”. But for each of those, there were four moments I groaned inwardly and told myself I would never do that again.

It has been a roller coaster. In November, my Peace Corps supervisor visited me to observe my classes, talk to my colleagues and student, and generally make sure I am adjusting to living and working in China. We went to dinner at my favourite Muslim restaurant after class and had a long talk about culture shock and how I was coping. My goal for the conversation was to exude optimism—partly because I didn’t want to come across as anything but well-adjusted, but more so because that is honestly how I feel.

During our conversation, she asked me directly how I was handling the frustrations and depressing moments. I told her frankly that I don’t let them bother me; I just deal with them. I said: “You’re going to face frustrations regardless of where you are or what you’re doing. That’s not why I joined the Peace Corps, and those aren’t the things I’m going to take away from my experience. I’m going to remember the joys and successes, so those are what I concern myself with”.

Admittedly, I wish I wouldn’t have ended a sentence with a preposition, but no one is perfect. She joked about how she wanted to write down what I said and use it next time she speaks with trainees in Chengdu. I was flattered, but regardless, I really meant what I said.

When I talk to other volunteers, and they ask me how I am, I always have the same response: I’m living the dream. Nine times out of ten, they will laugh (which I always appreciate), but it seems to me that they does so because they think I’m being snarky or sarcastic. It’s unfortunate, because I mean it.

I am a Peace Corps volunteer. It’s something I have considered doing since high school, and something I really wanted to do in college. There is a combination of reasons college pointed me in this direction, but I think I’ll save those for another post. I wanted this more than anything, and now I have it. 

At the risk of being too sappy, I guess 2011 was the year my dream came true?

However, since 2011 couldn’t be the year I finally celebrate the New Year with my friends, I am going to end 2011 with a different first: I am going to go to sleep before the ball drops. 

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