Group Update from China
China is an elusive beast. Even before setting off on a slow boat to China (it was actually a Boeing 747) our group wrestled with the idea of living in China. Expectations filled the skies as we barreled towards Kunming with a notion of what China would be like. A haven of Communism with Chinese characteristics for sure, but what about the finer things like religion and the family structure we would all encounter in our host families? Would we be making a difference at the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) where we would be placed in such a tightly controlled society? What does “Non-Governmental” mean in China? What kind of a difference could a handful of college students make by reaching out to communities in need half way across the world? How about the increasing number of Western firms staking their claims in China? These questions among others bloomed like a hundred flowers and continue to shape our understanding of China with each passing minute of every day. Like the old Chinese proverb, “’I heard’ is good while, ‘I saw’ is better”, we are here for the experience and the opportunity to do something good while learning about this fascinating country that approved our Visas.
Before embarking on this nine-month adventure, I told myself not to have any expectations. Expectations would just taint the experience; would limit me to see China through a certain lens, and unfulfilled expectations would turn into needless disappointments. It's going to be more different than you can possibly imagine, I told myself. You're going to learn to live a completely different life, to see the world through different eyes. Looking back on the month and a half I've spent so far in Kunming, I have to admit that I had expectations, after all. I realize now that I expected life here to be completely, utterly foreign. I expected to be challenged by the differences between the culture here and my own in America. Instead, I'm challenged by the similarities between the two.
To be honest, I never thought China would look so much like, well, an American Chinatown. As I take bus 98 through the packed streets of downtown Kunming, familiar signs flash past: Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC. The signs cheerily display both hanzi, Chinese characters, and their English translations. After hopping off the crowded bus, I could order a cappuccino or a raspberry cheesecake at the cozy French Cafe, or maybe pick up some Dove body wash at the labyrinthine Wal-Mart. I can choose between Colgate and Crest toothpaste, and the smell of glazed donuts wafts through the checkout line. On the bus back home, I almost engage a stranger in conversation, to ask where she's from. I assume she's a foreigner, but when she turns to me I see that she is Chinese, with strawberry-blonde dyed hair and pallid whitened skin. She turns back to her iPhone and taps away at her Angry Birds. Posters of Orlando Bloom are plastered on bus station billboards where I get off, and I head back to my family's apartment, where my host mother has more western baking accouterments than my mom at home in Maryland.
The first month here, I could not stop asking, what has the world become, if I can travel half-way around the earth, and still buy the same brand of toothpaste? I was baffled by this western-looking world. I asked myself, is this what globalization actually means? The take-over of western brand-names and American corporations? It seemed ridiculous that I had travelled so far just to live in a city trying to imitate America. A couple of weeks ago, though, I realized how my expectations of an "exotic" China, or rather my deflated expectations, had been clouding my perception of Kunming as it really is. In reality, it is far more complex than the word "westernized" suggests. All those flashy western names were pulling my gaze away from eye-opening discoveries to be made.
I realized I had failed to value, and sometimes even to notice, all the quirks that make this city unique. There are so many, even on my morning bike ride to work. How had I been able to overlook those hordes of grandmothers, doing tai chi in the park square? Or the construction workers squatting precariously on the sidewalk's edge, slurping thick rice noodles. What about the smell of baking sweet potatoes sold one by one on the street, or the sight of a bicycle with three school girls perched impossibly on the seat? How could I ignore the wonder I first felt walking into the cacophony of those sprawling outdoors markets, where farmers scrape fresh, cool mud off of lotus roots; where preserved eggs, crusty and discolored, are stacked into precarious pyramids; where chickens squawk, ready to be bought live or slaughtered; where mobs of women wearing fashionable stilettos jab at hunks of freshly carved pork, yelling at the butcher and tossing money over the raw meat. I even realized that the parking garage I keep my bike in also houses a couple of hens, nestled in a cardboard box, cooing inquisitively.
But even beyond these vibrant sights, I was missing the subtleties of life here: the gray area between "western" and "non-western." There are lots of KFCs here, but I have to admit the soy milk, Hong Kong-style egg custard tarts, and Beijing-style chicken wraps, among many other additions, are a far cry from any American KFC menu. After my evening lesson, my Chinese teacher jokes, "Kunming is nicknamed 'The Spring City,' but many people nowadays call it "The Traffic-jam City." Maybe the exponentially increasing number of cars is an indication of shifting values, but I think the horrible traffic jams in the bike lanes are uniquely Chinese. My host mom does have an oven, electric beater, bread maker, and many other western cooking devices, but she also routinely boils whole chickens in a traditional Chinese clay pot, and my seven year old sister eats the chicken head—brains, eyeballs and all—with gusto!.
I must admit that there are still some manifestations of western culture that disturb me, primarily regarding body image. Last week I had the privilege of staying in the home of a rural, ethnic minority farmer. Her daughter invited me into her room to show me her recent wedding pictures. The daughter is a very beautiful woman: golden-tanned flawless skin, strong cheekbones, and slender. But her wedding pictures had been photo-shopped to an almost unrecognizable degree; her skin was paper white, her hair lightened, her face cropped. She told me that I was very pretty, because all Americans are beautiful, of course. I was shocked by her words and her pictures, and I gained yet another glimpse into the complexities and competing values of this evolving culture.
Every day, I see signs of the western world's influence on this city. Yet, every day I glimpse snatches of an entirely unfamiliar and fascinating traditional culture as well. I can no longer see with the lens of "different" or "the same," and I certainly have neither the experience nor the authority to label "good" or "bad." I'm here, witnessing these fascinating dynamics, and I still have so many more lessons to learn. The reality is that our world is mixing, pulling, pushing, fighting, and integrating into something not quite "different" and not quite "the same." It's not as simple as "westernization" or "globalization." The intermingling of Western and Eastern has become a reality of this city, and one more example of the contradictions inherent to present-day China, and perhaps to our entire modern world.
Laughter. Some call it a coping mechanism. Some a reaction to a given stimuli. Whichever way you look at it one thing rings true, it is a release.
As I write, groups of coworkers, fellow volunteers and local people slowly congregate at the center of the ‘set’. They are beginning to prepare a play, a short skit really, that they will go on to share with rest of the community in an outreach initiative. The sky is bleak, and the sun obscured. There is a chill slowly passing through the walkway. And everyone sits ready, prepared for what they are about to see.
On the set lie a single wooden table, two tin bowls, and a bottle. The set isn’t really a set; instead it’s a floor about the size of an average bedroom. There are motorbikes in the background and the wanju shi, the toy room, is not but two feet away. No one is speaking, all eyes glued to that single wooden table. Lihua, a local resident, who assists Lianxin, the organization I am working for, with outreach work, enters stage right. She begins to sweep, she is singing to herself. Her words are low and sullen but in the slight crack in her voice, and the pain in her eyes, it can be seen that for her those words, ring true. She looks up as if suddenly awakened. She looks to the table and whispers, “wo hai meiyou zuofan.” “I still haven’t cooked dinner.” Enter stage left, my coordinator, and immediate supervisor, Awei. His face is frozen in a grimace. They go on to act out the duration of a rather dark and brooding script, focusing on domestic abuse and the effect it has on the children, raised in a broken household.
In the audience sat coworkers and locals, providing critiques and suggestions as to how to better relay the performances true message, when they perform for the rest of the community. But what struck me is that, throughout the performance, between the audience and performers there were laughs shared about trips in speech, mistakes and missteps. I asked one of my coworkers how everyone could laugh so freely, in the space of something so serious. He responded shortly and simply, “meiyou renzhen” “Never take yourself too seriously.” He went on to explain, this is why the children trust us, because we laugh with them. They go through this type of struggle everyday and the last thing they need is an overly cold reminder of that. “We laugh with them so they know it’s okay. We smile so they know they can talk about it. We let them trust us, believe in us.” And he left me with one final piece, “If we fear what they face, then how can we expect them to overcome it?”
I understood. For all that these children go through every day, they still have hope. They trust in their leaders to hold them and weather through. The problem exists and they know it, but if their leaders are strong enough to laugh in the face of adversity, then maybe just maybe, they can too. They believe in Awei and Linhua and people like them who never take themselves too seriously and never shy away from a smile or a laugh.
And that’s one thing I’ve learned through this experience, never take yourself too seriously. Don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself. Laughter is a release, it’s a force. It breaks down the barriers of self-doubt and apprehensiveness. If you want people to trust you, laugh with them. Whenever something seems too difficult, I think of these kids and what they face, if they can laugh I can as well.
Xiao pengyou bu yao ku.
Tai qi tou. Di xia tou. Look up, look down. Qing zhang kou. Qing bi kou. Open your mouth, close your mouth. I was sitting on the plane from Kunming to Jinan together with other Operation Smile team members trying to memorize two pages of Chinese sentences. All I could do was hope these basic phrases would somehow help me take pictures of patients before and after the operations, the requirements of my job as a Patient Imaging Technician.
I was more than excited to go to Jinan to help operate on children with cleft-lip and cleft-palate deformities. I imagined I would be useful during the trip, but it was not quite the same as expecting to play any kind of important role. I had only been working at Operation Smile for a few weeks, I still spoke very limited Chinese and I had never been on one of these missions before. I thought nobody would (or could) really expect me to know what would be going on. Yet unexpectedly, while packing for the trip, I received an email saying that I would be the PIT team leader during the mission. Even more unexpectedly, just after I landed in Jinan and long before I felt ready to talk to kids in Chinese, I was called to take a taxi straight to the hospital instead of the hotel.
We were expecting 50 patients. But when I arrived, I found 124 patients waiting for me. Children were crying in the hallway while their parents looked at me with hope every time I called the next patient. Time was short, it was getting late and taking pictures was becoming more and more challenging. When children didn't listen to me, to make sure I got their pictures for the doctors to evaluate, I could just put them on a table and have somebody hold their head straight. This was the simplest solution. But then I had to look through pictures of children screaming and crying knowing that it was me who made them cry.
I tried my best to figure out better ways to calm them down. For the youngest patients teddy bears were usually enough. Older children generally let me take pictures, but sometimes I could tell that they just didn’t want to admit they were about to cry. I would then try to talk to them or show them the pictures and ask if they liked them. I was astonished to see a girl with tears in her eyes suddenly start laughing and enthusiastically go through the next steps of the registration after she said goodbye to me.
However, I didn’t have a good idea how to talk to the adults. I had not needed to until one woman moved her head away every time I tried to correct it, trying to block me from seeing her face. It was then that I realized what the true value of our work was: the operation enables our patients to eat and drink normally, but maybe even more importantly, it gives them the self-esteem they have never had because of their appearance. Looking that woman in the eyes I had nothing I could tell her. I was relieved when a few days later she received the operation.
I expected the operation days would be easier for me since I would be less busy. I knew I would have to stay in the Operating Room looking at blood for many hours, but I thought it would be emotionally manageable. The reality turned out to be more challenging. Children were screaming before doctors put them to sleep, and I found it very hard to take good pictures when my hands were shaking. By lunchtime I was overwhelmed. I did not feel like engaging in any conversation, so I sat alone at a table staring at the food on my plate. Suddenly a young anesthesiologist from Beijing came to ask if I was doing alright. He gave me an apple and explained that was just what operations looked like, and that there was nothing to worry about. He didn’t do anything special, our conversation wasn’t long or sophisticated, but I felt much better when we came back to the OR together.
Each day I had to get up at 6am, and while everyone on the international team left the hospital at 9pm, I stayed until past midnight. I was waiting in the Operation Room with Chinese doctors until the last patient left the table. I could see how tired everybody was and sensed that we were all worried about whether the surgeons might make a mistake. I was exhausted, but I kept smiling to make others feel better. All that time I wished there was more I could do to help. However, when an elderly doctor came to hug me and thank me for my support, I understood that it was exactly what they needed. I also realized that the very same anesthesiologist who had helped me during lunch was sincerely thankful for my help. I noticed that he didn’t take breaks nearly as often as others. He explained that every time he decides he wants to sit down and rest, a child loses the chance to be operated on.
During three days we managed to operate on over 60 patients – yet we turned another 60 down. We accomplished some great things, and I met amazing people, but we still have more to do. The Chinese sentences I learned: Xiao pengyou by yao ku meaning “little friend should not cry” and many others helped me to talk to patients. Still, to wipe their tears off, to make them smile, to prepare them for operations that scared them so much it was not the words, so limited in my case, that mattered. My biggest fear to not be able to make a difference in China because of the language barrier fortunately proved wrong. I learned, first of all, that I could accomplish much more than I had expected; and second of all, that the smallest accomplishments might make the biggest difference.
The first thing my host mom told me when I arrived in Kunming was “Wo men shi yi jia ren.”
We are one family.
I was admittedly a little skeptical. While I figured room and board might not be too much to ask for, genuine, bone-deep caring and the blood-ties of living your whole life with the same set of people weren't going to be built in a day. Maybe not even in nine months: in my case, arriving in a different country with all the appearances of an adult and communication skills of a toddler doesn't exactly guarantee quick, genetically-inspired connections.
So when they whisked me from our program house to a fancy restaurant, sat me down, and universally proclaimed me their new big sister (or daughter, or niece, depending on the relation), I smiled politely. I mostly brushed it off when they lightly scolded me for saying thank you and being tai ke qi, literally “too guest-like,” and assumed that the constant invocations of jie jie (big sister) and warm laughter at my linguistic fumblings would wear down soon enough. I expected this whole burst-of-family-feeling thing came with a bell curve. Relatively static. Nothing too exceptional.
The thing is, I was wrong. Completely and utterly and bamboozledly wrong. Because they meant what they said: wo men shi yi jia ren. Cynical, first-day me couldn't have been more wrong.
Family is built into everything here, and maybe one of the most fundamental facets of what exactly yi jia ren means is in the daily ritual of eating. Eating here is not Western: it's communal every step in the way, from the pouring of the tea to the doling of the rice. The sharing of the meal here makes you family, and to serve is to honor and respect your family's members. Even dishing out the rice carries weight: it means I respect you, and I love you, and it is my honor to give to you and ask nothing in return.
Then comes the main course. Since there are no spoons tucked into each mound of food ready to shovel said grub onto an awaiting plate, everybody picks scattered and bird-like at what they want. My first few nights eating like this, I was anxious: what if everybody eats everything else? What if I'm stuck eating the weird corn I can't pick up or the tofu that I still can't quite stomach? And then I realized – family shares. It was a simple realization, but it made complete sense. In China, especially at mealtimes, there is a constant awareness of others – since there are so many others – and their needs. There is a push and pull to get the right balance, but it's the balance of the community and the individual that makes it possible for so many people to be considered a legitimate part of the family.
Because the sense of family extends far beyond food and table manners. My name turned from Claire to Jie jie pretty much the moment I hopped into the back of my (host) mom's Chevy. At first I found it kind of odd – it seemed a little too intimate for recent acquaintances – and I wondered how everybody calling me Jie jie, and me having a million little mei meis and di dis, didn't somehow dilute the concept of family at all. And then I realized that here, family isn't a quantifiable number: it's not a quota above which you are officially denied further members and asked to press one for more options and two para espagnol. It extends to whom it extends to, and shrinks when any one needs to leave. Further, every specific role in the family is given a different word here: not just brother, but little brother and older brother; not just aunt, but father's sister and mother's sister. It's because you need to be specific when you're asking your heart to hold on to so much.
But the biggest epiphany I've had here about family? The word “thank you.”
My whole stay here, I've been rattling off an endless stream of xie xies to anyone who so much as handed me a tissue. It's honestly reflexive. Then the other night, one of my uncles came over. I peeled him and my aunt a few oranges as an after-dinner snack, and he had the gall, as I handed him a half-orange, to tell me “thank you.”
I was flummoxed. I had usually been the one saying these xie xies even though everybody told me I was being too guest-like. In my mind, I was obviously still a guest, even within this tangle of family and smiles and siblings (and I knew somewhere deep down that my morality may or may not have hinged on the constant issuance of verbal gratitude). Yet when all of a sudden my shu shu said it, it broke my heart.
I was genuinely hurt that he felt like he had to thank me. It wasn't any trouble to peel him the oranges, I thought; I wanted to do something for him. I wanted him to have something to eat. And then he threw it back in my face. It was distant. It was isolating. At which point I suddenly became the consummate Chinese person and scolded him: tai ke qi, I said, shaking my finger at him, noting even as I said it that something had definitely shifted inside. My walls had come down. I wanted connection, and the implication of isolation between me and people I cared about was horrifying.
Family is different here in China than it is in America. I imagined a lot of things, but I'm glad to say I imagined most of them wrong. I'm glad I have a mom who wears fuzzy pink pajamas around the house and pronounces her n's like l's. I'm glad I have a Didi who studies a lot but who also loves to draw, and do magic, and point at dishes at dinner and wiggle like a fish on a hook and exclaim what they are in English at the top of his voice. I'm glad I have a dad who will lug every book on Chinese culture out of his room even though I'm functionally illiterate to discuss Confucius with me. I'm glad that every family friend I meet calls me Jie jie, and I'm glad that everyone I meet I get to bring into this huge, warm, tangled network with me: that every week I add a shu shu, an ah-yi, a ye ye, a ge ge to my roster of people. I'm glad that friends want to dole out rice for me and that I'm happy as a clam to dole it out for them. But what I'm most glad of all? That I'm starting to drop the thank yous. Because they're right; it's tai ke qi. And, like I said, I'm not a guest.
“Hey you jerk! Give me back my chair or I’ll make you get off!” Xiao Lu, 14 years old, screamed. He then shoved his peer off the chair and took it for himself.
Although situations as physical as this do not often occur, arguments and conflicts are common among the children at my service placement, Jiaxin Children’s Assistance Center, which was founded by World Vision. Jiaxin’s mission is to rescue homeless and wandering kids from the streets of Kunming by providing them with financial, emotional, and educational support.
Before I arrived at Jiaxin, I thought about what it would be like: whether the kids would like me and understand my Mandarin, with its American accent, whether I would get along with my coworkers, or simply if I would truly make a difference. I didn't expect that during my nine months in China, I would change the entire world, but I prayed and hoped that I would at least be able to improve one person's life, and in the process develop a more humble and compassionate heart. I feel that during the past month at my service placement, I've grown and learned more than I had ever expected. Facing the reality of what these children have been through has opened my eyes to this social issue and has inspired me to do all I can do to be an example of love, support, and care to these kids at Jiaxin.
Jiaxin has two locations, one in downtown Kunming and one in the outskirts of the city, near the countryside. The downtown location, where I work, provides street children with food and a place to stay during the day. Activities in the downtown shelter include informal classes like drawing, geography, Chinese, and English along with recreational play such as swimming, badminton, and computer games. Nevertheless, because the downtown location does not have room to house the children, the kids return to the streets to sleep during the night. Some sleep in parks while others sneak into KFC or McDonald's which are open 24 hours. The countryside location, however, does provide a place where the kids can sleep. Practically all of the children Jiaxin serves are from the countryside, where families are allowed to have more than one child. Most families in China are only allowed to have one child due to the government’s One Child Policy. Families from the rural areas near Kunming often have many children for the purpose of having more hands to work in the fields, causing some families to neglect their children. Due to problems in certain families that go beyond abuse, divorce, and mistreatment, the kids are faced with a choice to either run away to the city or stay home with the aforementioned complexities.
On one of my first days at Jiaxin, my coworker and I went to do street outreach, also called “waizhan.” It was a sunny, brisk Monday morning and we went downtown to look for children whom we suspected ran away from their families and were living on the streets. We could recognize street children by their appearance and by talking with them. At 11 AM on a Monday morning, most kids are in school, so seeing a child wandering in downtown aimlessly, or sleeping on a bench, we knew that something was not right. We could also tell if we found them passing out advertisements or fliers, which is a common way street children try to make a living. From talking with my coworkers, I have learned that for some children who do this, although their “boss” would in return possibly provide them with food and perhaps a place to sleep, he would often physically and verbally abuse them, manipulating them for his own purposes. As we walked down Nanping Jie, the Times Square of Kunming, we met a boy, about 13 years old, sleeping on a bench. We knew he had been living on the streets for a long time by how dirty he was and the look in his eyes. We asked him how he was doing and handed him a card describing Jiaxin and invited him to come. Staring into his dark brown eyes, I had the impression that he was in desperate need of care and love and that he was without hopes and dreams; I'll never forget the look on his face. He said that he was fine, but in my heart I knew he wasn't, and that he would think about it. I still haven't seen him at the center.
Working at Jiaxin has opened at my eyes to the widespread issue of runaway children in China. I knew China had homeless people; I didn't know that many of these individuals were children. The reality of meeting these kids, some even as young as 8, who would rather live on the streets than face the abuse, neglect, and painful memories of their families, breaks my heart. I know that I cannot solve this social issue in my seven months at Jiaxin; nevertheless, while I am still here, I hope to do all I can to help these kids get on the right track—to be a big brother, a mentor, a friend.
"Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people"-- Karl Marx
There were certain things I was told to expect when coming to China: squat toilets, crowded buses, cheap food, and no religion. In fact, a good friend actually referred to China as a "Godless country". I guess if you follow the logic of the quote above, in a Communist Utopia there is no need for religion. The government fills all wants and frees the people from their ‘addiction’. Even I sort of bought into the stereotype-- I mean, the Chinese government only recognizes five religions-- FIVE. And you have to have countless permits in order to set up a religious institution. Thus, my expectation in coming to China was that I would essentially have to give up my religion for a year.
Of course, this was wrong. In reality, religion is just as common in China as it is in the United States; in some senses, even more so. As we traveled through Yunnan the first month, I got my first taste of Tibetan Buddhism. I saw hundreds of feet of prayer flags strung across mountains, golden prayer wheels bobbing on the dashboards of cars, and the Eight Auspicious Symbols on every store front. As we visited temples and gawked at the magnificent statues, I was most impressed not by their beauty but by their openness. The monks welcomed us into their monastery with open arms and even invited us to stay for dinner. The villagers allowed us watch their daily prayers. No one in the villages seemed to think that Buddha was useless, that their chortens, small temples, should be replaced with libraries. They had pride in their religion and were more than willing to share it with us outsiders.
Upon arrival in Kunming, I thought surely this huge industrialized city would have nothing in common with the countryside of Yunnan. However, no sooner had I muttered the words, “I’m Christian” than my host family had arranged for me to go to church that Sunday. It was so amazing how similar the sermon was to what I was accustomed to at home in America. The choir, the robes, the pastor, and they even sung, “Jesus Loves Me” in Chinese. Again, there was no sense of uselessness, no need to hide their religion from others. Even though I understood about 3% of the sermon, I go back every Sunday to see the warm smiles of the congregation that further confirm that religion is alive and thriving in China.
The Journey of a Thousand Li
“光陰似箭！Guāng yīn sì jiàn! How time flies!” Two months into our Bridge Year experience and I can’t believe where the time has gone. I’m no scientist, but it seems, after careful observation, that everything has an element of time attached to it. Or that everything seems to pass through a veil of time unknowingly. I could go on forever with these ramblings about time, but for the sake of time and space I will save that discussion for another occasion. Being in China for the past two months I have experienced just that—two months of time. It seems long, this whole program seems long when I think of nine months, but slowly with each setting of the Sun in the Western Sky I’ve come to realize what Laozi, the founder of Daoism, meant by his words, “千里之行，始於足下; Qiān lǐ zhī xíng, shǐ yú zú xià; The journey of a thousand li (Chinese mile), begins with a single step.”
A single step.
Each day begins, like every day, with a glance at the clock. Many of them adorn my room. The only one with hands is forever stuck in the past, fitted in the trunk of a mushroom-styled lamp, it ceases to measure the glorious keeper. The rest are digital and sprawled over my desk. There is the restless computer, my faithful iPhone, and its Chinese counterpart. They all share the burden of keeping time. It takes me roughly seven minutes to brave the cold waterfall that is my morning shower after which I’m alert and ready for the day ahead. Six minutes to heat up water for oatmeal. Fifteen minutes to enjoy the bounties of two eggs, a bowl of porridge, and a silly banana that thought he would live another day. My commute to Yunnan University is relatively short, about twelve minutes on my vintage bike from Shanghai. Followed by a rallying three hours of work until the Sun is at its highest and my stomach at its emptiest. Like I would in America, I get an hour for lunch. The race to the cafeteria begins when the campus wide loudspeakers start to play revolutionary songs at exactly 12:00.18 PM. After a bowl of noodles or a plate of stir-fried goodness I return to the sixth floor of the Science Building for the remainder of the day. At around 4:30 I pack up my belongings, tidy my desk for the following day, and finally I’m off for an hour and a half of Chinese class with the jubilant Ms. Jiang. By this hour the Sun is off to distant lands and people leaving Kunming with the stars of different galaxies and the comfort of our Moon until the next day. The brightest heavenly objects shine through the streetlights and neon karaoke signs as I make my twenty-minute cycle home along side maneuvering motorists and slow moving carts of bananas, oranges, and even handbags. A grand affair Kunming is. I return home to a busy kitchen only to find out my host mother just started cooking. Thirty minutes later the food is ready and in that same amount of time we finish our meal. I file away to my room for another hour or so before returning to the same clock that woke me up to check if the alarm is on.
A single day.
I expected nothing but nine months in China. I knew it wouldn’t be America and I was prepared for that. I can’t complain about my cold showers or the fact that I’m sensitive to the air here, because, however long I am in Kunming that is all there is. Nine months. I find myself thinking about how long the program is and still I can’t speed up or slow down the clock. No matter how hard I try I come to the same realization that I have to embrace my time here in Kunming. There is ample opportunity here and I’ve resolved to seize every opportunity to help another person or learn something new whether walking down the street or talking with my host family each evening after dinner. Every second of those little things called minutes translates into hours that after twenty-four successions turns into the glorious day. A single step. A single day. Time is a wonderful thing and I intend not to waste it here.