Sunday, March 1, 2015

Waiting 11 months, or, the Story of the Application

          I applied to the Peace Corps in January 2014. I procrastinated a whole lot getting through the application and writing the essays, mostly because I was nervous about it. "What if I don't get invited?" or the even scarier question. "What if I do get invited?"  I'd been out of school for seven months and was hating my temp job. I loved the people I worked with, but there's only so much call center work and being yelled at that I can take, so planning for the next step of my life was feeling quite important.  After having my lovely boyfriend Michael, my aunt Ginger and her good friend Greg review and edit my future submissions multiple times, I felt ready to finally finish my application. Seriously, the only essay I've ever worked this hard on was the one I wrote for the Gilman Scholarship which funded my study abroad semester to China. 
          At this point in time Peace Corps was still working what we now call "the old system." I had an entire health history questionnaire to fill out and a week later had a Skype interview with my recruiter Kathy who was back in RI.  Kathy assured me that she would send in my nomination but was unable to tell me for what country because PC medical office had deemed that, due to my mental health history and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) they would be limited in which countries I could be sent to.  And then I waited.

          In June it was announced that the Peace Corps had revamped the application process and made it even easier to apply! This was a big deal and everyone was excited. Along with an easier and shorter application, applicants now get to choose which programs (countries) they want to apply to.  Since the beginning of Peace Corps volunteers have been sent to developing countries where they were needed, not necessarily where they wanted to go. This new aspect is still being discussed on forums.  In early July I got an email from the placement office asking for my assignment selections.  I was so surprised since I didn't consider myself part of this "new" system and was prepared to go wherever placement assigned me. Working with the countries listed that could support me medially, I had to choose three countries in order of preference. My list was as follows: 1. Cambodia - Education 2. Macedonia - Education  3. Azerbaijan - Education.  In short order I was informed that I was now "under consideration" for Macedonia with a departure date of September 2015.  Slightly freaking out because that was still over a year away, I called placement and asked if there was any way I could move to a different program with an earlier departure date.  I was so happy to hear that Cambodia, my #1 choice, was open and that I'd now be considered for that country.  And then I waited.

          And waited. And. Waited. Another 6 months. On January 8 I spotted an email from the Cambodia placement officer Tyler asking for a reply to the following:
1.Do you know how to ride a bike and are you comfortable riding a bike 1-5 miles per day? 
-This is the main mode of transportation for volunteers when they are in their communities. Peace Corps will provide bicycles for volunteers once they get to country. 
2.All volunteers in Cambodia live with a host family for the entire 27 months. (One host family for 3 months during training, another host family for the remainder of your service). 
This is to help volunteers integrate into their communities and assist with learning the local language and culture. Briefly, describe your thoughts on living with a host family for the 27 months. 

I answered within 10 minutes and sent it back hopeful; dangerously hopeful. By this point I'd schooled myself to not get too excited about anything related to Peace Corps! I called my dad to update him on this new development as I usually do.  Within the hour my inbox binged again and I found Peace Corps - Invitation!
Dear Nicole,
Congratulations! On behalf of the entire Peace Corps family, I'm delighted to invite you to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cambodia. You've been selected to serve as a/anEnglish Teaching and Teacher Trainer, departing June 29, 2015By accepting this invitation, you will join hundreds of thousands of Americans who have answered the call to service and made a difference in communities around the world.

         And I cried. I actually cried. So many months of waiting and anticipation and anxiety about putting my life on hold were finally worth it! Then began the phone calls to both my parents and facebook announcements and congratulations and the emails. So many emails pouring in for medical clearance tasks and "get your passport and visa applications done tomorrow!" I began the most painstaking medical process I've ever undertaken.

          Presently I'm still in the middle of the final medical clearance and (hopefully) am 2 vaccinations and 6 cavities :/ away from being cleared.  I'm hoping this may help someone make it through the waiting game. The Future Peace Corps Volunteers group on Facebook has been ever so helpful as well as /r/Peacecorps and /r/PeaceCorpsVolunteers!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Metcalf Elementary School Class!

Last time I told you about the different means of public transportation. Did you find it interesting or educational, convenient or scary?  I took a walk today and marveled at the skills the drivers here have. Some of the side roads I wandered down don't look big enough to fit one car down it, never mind two but somehow they manage it.  My friends and I have discovered a great alley that is hidden just across the main road from our school.  On this particular road there are small shops, repair places and restaurants on both sides of the road; some of them spilling out onto the sidewalks and into the street.  I figured it was a pedestrian and bike street until I almost got run over by a car which was going way to fast for it's own good.  Everyone around me seemed to see this as a normal event, so how could I be upset that I'm not used to this?

Now I'm beginning my project that I had proposed for the Gilman Scholarship. I'll be working with the 6th grade art classes at Metcalf Elementary School in Rhode Island, finding things around Beijing to help them explore an aspect of China's culture through art.  When I first told everyone at home that I wanted to learn to read and write in Chinese, most people said that I was crazy.  Here's a little bit of information that I grabbed off Wikipedia about Chinese Characters here if anyone wants to read more.  The biggest thing that most people are aware of is how many different Chinese characters (汉字 han zi) exist.  In books and historical documents there are more than one person could ever need to learn or use.  This is what makes the task of learning to write Chinese daunting. At first I was very nervous about never being able to become fluent in reading because there are so many different characters and combinations that it seemed impossible. Later I was told that I would only need to learn 3,000-4,000 characters to be able to be fluent.  Well that's better! 

I brought my fear of not being able to learn all the characters I would need to my teacher's attention.  She asked me "how many words do you know how to read in English?"  Well, I know a whole bunch of English words. "And how many English words do you not know?" Ahh. As it turns out, although there are many many words in the English language, I also do not know them all! This made me feel better about Chinese and writing.

To know where the bus is going, you need to be able to read the names of the bus stops!!

Writing Chinese characters is fun because you get to draw little pictures every time you write anything!  Some characters are very basic and easy like 不, while others can be difficult like 建.  The difficult ones are usually made up of a bunch of simple ones so they can be easy to learn also!  In my classes in Beijing we are learning 20-30 new characters every-other day which I find very quick. I needed to learn how to remember which parts make up each character fast so I could keep up with my classmates.  After trying for a little bit I discovered that each small piece of the character means something. When you put all the meanings together, you can understand the meaning of the whole character! Yay! It is almost the same as breaking down words in English to understand what they mean. One letter by itself does not help you understand the meaning of a word, but by putting them together you can make educated guesses!

In my next post I will go into more detail about the different ways of writing characters and will show you pictures of characters that I took while I was out walking around my university!

再见!zai jian! See you again!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Getting Around in Crazy Traffic

A small, but necessary skill I have learned so far while in China is about transportation.  My school and life here is in Beijing which has a huge population of Chinese in  a relatively small area.  I was concerned before I got here how I was going to be able to move about the city, namely how was I going to make it to Beijing Language and Culture University for another class that is about two hours away walking distance.  Lucky for me that because of the 2008 Olympics, Beijing now has a complex and cheap system of public transportation!

Since Rhode Island is not a very big place and I usually only frequent Boston, MA, I was not prepared for the size of Beijing. I had looked it up on Wikipedia of course and seen the numbers, but actually being here really threw me for a minute.  When I arrived at the airport a student member of CAPA came to meet Michelle and myself to bring us to campus.  Here I experienced my very first taxi ride ever. In America I had no need to ever use a taxi, I have a car in Rhode Island and am capable with Massachusetts public transit so taxis are completely new to me.  From the airport Doris and I took a taxi driven by a man who spoke very, very little English for an hour to campus.  For those of you who are not from RI, an hour is a very long time to be in a car going somewhere for me. I had checked out a map of Beijing before I came to see how far away the airport would be from campus and I honestly didn't think it would take that long!  Beijing is big guys, really big. So I got in the taxi to come to school and tried to put on my seat-belt, only to realize that while the shoulder part is accessible, the part on the seat is not because of the seat covers!  Every single taxi is like this! I spent a slightly uncomfortable hour in the taxi while driving past signs that say "buckle up!" but nobody does.

Driving in Beijing is a terrifying experience for someone who is used to American driving I think.  It certainly is for me. It looks like chaos and sometimes I think it is, but I've seen very few car accidents. You can not be a passive driver here and get anywhere. Buses and cars swerve in and out between each other and there appears to be a very small margin for error. I've just come to trust in the abilities of the drivers and keep my wits about me when I find myself on the street. 

The bus was the second mode of transportation I learned to use. Last semester I had used the RIPTA buses to get to URI and back because it was too far to use my car everyday.  I thought I was used to crowded buses, but RIPTA has nothing on Beijing buses.  Because the Chinese "personal space" is so much less than the American equivalent, I often find myself squished on a bus so much that I don't need to hold on to anything to stay upright. Elderly people and women with children are given seats if none are already available, even though they always insist that it's not necessary. The good thing about the buses are that there are bus stops everywhere and the frequency is awesome, plus if you have a Beijing transit card, a bus ride will cost you .40 kuai.  The bad thing, for me and my classmates, is that all the signs telling you which buses stop where are in Chinese.  There is no English to be found making getting on a new bus a scary thought. I usually use buses that I have used before for another purpose and can make a connection from a prior experience or if I've memorized the Chinese characters (汉字) for a particular bus stop and I know that the bus will take me there. Otherwise I'm a bigger fan of the subway system.

The subway system in Beijing got a super upgrade in preparation for the 2008 Olympics.  I had read somewhere that 10 years ago, Beijing only had one subway line and it was very difficult to use.  Now there is a great system with what looks like 13 or 14 lines and more being added all the time. Because it is super convenient, lots of people like to use the subway.  I was not prepared for the crowds I found in the stations themselves and then on the actual trains. I have tried to avoid traveling at rush hour because it is so many people moving around, but sometimes it can't be helped. Even at non-peak times the subways are crowded and depending on which stop you are at, they can be dirty.  At least the signs have English on them and a the announcements for the present and next stops are said in Chinese and then in English. Super awesome for the English-speaking tourist.  A ride on the subway will cost 2 kuai which is very inexpensive and awesome for the student traveler. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Shopping in China

One of the things I've discovered my new non-Chinese girlfriends love to do here in China is shop. And judging by the lack of oxygen and space in the discount shopping malls, Chinese girls love to shop too.  While food and other daily necessities can definitely be bought in almost any store for cheap, clothing prices in the malls seem to be around the same as in America. 

But Beijing also has tons of discount shopping malls. 

The ones that I have been to and that my friends frequent have been compared to something called a "swap meet" by my Californian friends.  I had no idea what they were talking about, so I went to check it out not long after we arrived.  I had expected maybe something like Job Lot or even Savers, but no, these are nothing like that.  In 动物园 (dong wu yuan) the zoo market, there are two huge buildings on either side of the road running parallel to the zoo entrance. They look more like office buildings than malls, I think because they lack the outdoor signs that we usually would rely on to be informed about which brands are available there.  This is because there are no actual stores like I am used to!

Inside the doors, stalls line the hallways.  Most are decorated and some even have names, but all of them are crowded and packed with clothes.  Covering the walls in each little shop are hangers and mannequins displaying the styles of each stall, so much that you can't even see the walls themselves.  Sometimes the clothes are displayed all the way down to the floor so that you have no choice but to physically go into the stall to see what they have. And once you're in, the unseen store monitors attack you.

Not really, but almost.  Since these are not chain stores or even large enough stalls to require a uniform, most of the time I have no idea who I should be asking questions about price or quality to.  Once I seem to be paying attention to a specific section or article of clothing however, it becomes clear quite quickly.  The people who are responsible for the stores 售货员(shouhuoyuan) are all in everyday clothing, but they all have fanny packs where they keep all the money they've made during the day.  No cash registers needed. Maybe it's because I don't look Chinese and am an obvious foreigner that as soon as I tarry to browse a selection there is a shop attendant telling me prices and asking me if I'd like to look at anything closer.  In America I prefer to do my shopping alone when I actually get up the energy to go clothes shopping and browsing is something I often do; however this is not an option in Beijing's discount malls.  

I had read in another blog post online that the idea of "window shopping" is not in the Chinese understanding, and in these kinds of malls at least, it's true.  I go shopping with my friends who are American-born Chinese, and I don't think they get as much attention as I do from the shopkeepers. Once I've found something I think would look cute, then discussion begins. First we need to find the right size.  There are only the samples on the walls which are all sized for Chinese bodies. If I need a bigger size, the shop person will go digging under piles and piles of clothes wrapped in plastic bags until he/she finds a bigger size. There is no such thing as trying on these clothes here, although I have heard in the bigger, what I consider "normal" malls you can.  In places like this, I honestly think you just have to guess. The 售货员will stretch the clothes to demonstrate how well they will fit you, and size you by laying the clothes against your back, but normally my question of "可以式式吗, can I try this on?" is answered with laughter and some guy looking at me like I'm crazy.  In America I am normally around a size M or L in clothing, depending on the store.  In China however, it would appear that I am around an XL or even XXL.  This has killed my self esteem in the being comfortable with my body department, not to mention that most Chinese girls are incredibly thin and I'm simply not used to being the biggest person around. 

And then once you've decided that this is something you want to buy, the haggling for price begins.  I'm going to leave that for another post seeing that this one has gotten quite long already.  In short, you can get clothes in places like this for cheap, I mean really cheap, sometimes around $5 American dollars for a button-down shirt.  If you are bad at bargaining or simply don't like to do it as I've discovered some Chinese just don't like to, such as one of my professors, you can just give the people what they ask for in terms of price, or just do your shopping online!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Exploring Other People's Blogs!

Here's just a little post because I love the idea of sharing other people's adventures and blogs about studying abroad in general and about China. I'm totally recruiting!  Check out Arien's blog entry here for tips to prepare for a study abroad semester.

I've found that this blog is amazing and this year Nate is studying in Beijing!  He's been so kind to let me in on some places I should visit while I'm here and he's really a great writer.  I will try to emulate his methods of meeting locals and increasing my Chinese so I can actually talk to people   -_-

I'll keep checking around the internet and post here any good sites I find so other people can use this as a guide  like I did with Nate's.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A China-town in China?!

This week the PCC group and I took the high speed train to the city of Tianjin  (天津).  This was our first chance to get out of Beijing itself, and although it was really cold I really enjoyed myself. Tianjin is a smaller city than Beijing with a population of almost 13 million people and a whole lot of construction.  Of course most of China's cities are sponsoring huge construction works, I think it was more visible in Tianjin because the city is not full of high rise buildings. 

Only took us 30 minutes! How cool!
In order to get to Tianjin, we traveled by high-speed train!  This was my first time on this kind of train, well pretty much on any train besides the commuter rail to Boston. I was surprised how smooth the ride was and how nice the train itself was.  They had western-style toilets, toilet paper and everything! There was more than one student who decided to hold it for most of the trip so they could use the bathrooms on the train simply because we are not all masters of the Chinese toilets yet :)  According to Google Maps, Tianjin is 139 km from Beijing South Railway Station and should take almost 2 hours to get to; on this train it took us around 30 minutes. The train went at least 290 km/h, quick find a conversion table!  And they look awesome! On the way home I bought a small train key chain for a souvenir.  For only 55元, less than $10 this was a great experience.

The biggest difference I noticed between Beijing and Tianjin was the architecture.  Beijing has tons of skyscrapers and modern buildings while Tianjin has smaller, older-looking buildings. This is due to the presence of former foreign concessions.  In 1858 at the end of the of the first part of the Second Opium War, the Treaties of Tientsin (Tianjin) were signed by Chinese, French, British, Russian and US forces.  This allowed for the opening up of the ports to foreigners for trading.  Later these and other countries established concessions in Tianjin which had their own schools, hospitals, churches and the like.  In 1927 Tianjin became a municipality.  Foreign troops were allowed to garrison the river to ensure open access to Beijing until British troops were asked to leave the city, by which time most of the other concessions had been given back to Chinese rule.  Instead of destroying the buildings created by the foreign presences, Tianjin re-purposed them, keeping the feeling of Europe in some of the city areas.  

I think that in the 5 or so hours we spent in Tianjin that I had decided that I liked it better than Beijing.  The architecture, amount of people on the streets and  general atmosphere of the place reminded me of Boston, Massachusetts which is a city I really enjoy spending time in. Since it is a quieter city, there were people in our group that found it boring, especially since it seemed that we didn't really have any specific destinations in mind when we got there. We got to go to a restaurant that sells Tianjin's famous Goubuli baozi 狗不理包子 and also got to see a five legged frog as an extra bonus.

5 legs!

 In short, Tianjin is much quieter than Beijing and appears to have a slower pace to life.  There is a great pedestrian shopping street with a snack street and some higher end (authentic) stores. We went to "Culture Street" where they sell a whole bunch of souvenirs in small shops all the way down this street.  There is an obvious entrance with a gate admidst the Western-style buildings and brand new high-rise apartments, it really looked like Chinatown which was really strange seeing as how I'm already in China. 

Inside I bought so many cute things that will be gifts for friends and family, and also stumbled upon a Mazu temple where people were praying and lighting incense. This was the first time I'd actually been to a religious place besides a church and a temple, so seeing people practicing this in what looked like an ancient place to me gave me goosebumps. I had told Wei laoshi that if I return to China to teach English, I think I might enjoy doing it in a place like this more than I would in Beijing.

People praying

At the end of the day we got out of the freezing wind (had I mentioned how freezing and windy the temperature was that day?!) and went to a noodle restaurant next to the train station.  There I had some of the freshest noodles I've ever had.  We watched the man roll out the dough into noodles, cook them for about 20 seconds and then right into our soup bowls they went! 
And all the historical information I grabbed from Wikipedia!
Fresh noodles being made!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


I'm sorry it's taken me so long to post something new, my classes have been quite demanding and there is so much homework every night! 

So this week starts my fourth week here in Beijing.  I feel like I've been all over the city and seen all the touristy sites, when in reality I haven't even scratched the surface.  When I arrived, we were given a tourist map and a guidebook so we could find places to go that are not included in the CAPA ME program.  I'm trying to plan a day trip to see the Peking Man site on the outskirts of Beijing, but trying to figure out the bus system in Beijing is frustrating and complicated. :( 

I've been busy adjusting to my classes and have been out exploring a bit.  The weather is still chilly and very windy, so I haven't gone very far from campus.  Using Google Maps, I've found some parks around the area and when the weather is warmer, I plan to frequent them often.  One thing I have yet to find normal about this place is that since school started, no matter what the weather is like, there are students out on the tennis, basketball courts and soccer fields all day long.  They start playing around 9:30 am and there are continuously students out there until it is too dark to see anymore.  The window in my dorm room faces the sports fields and I was amazed how much these students love playing sports.  It's really motivational for me and helps me get out of my room and outside to go for walks or take a run around the track. 

 A few nights ago around dusk some of my friends and I were walking to a restaurant and happened to see a few older people doing Tai Chi in a park. They had some music playing and it seemed like a little bubble of peace in the middle of rush hour traffic and busy pedestrians.  If I see them again, I may ask to join them.  Today I got to have a taste of beginning Tai Chi, and it is not as easy as I thought it would be.  We have an elective class, for no credit, to learn Tai Chi. We started with basic stances and stretches, then moved on to some slow, controlled formations.  I don't know what anything is called because our laoshi (teacher) spoke only in Chinese. So I pretty much just followed his movements and those of the students around me!  

Another thing that has surprised me is the amount of Chinese people that will approach me (not of Asian descent) and begin asking me questions in English about America my opinions of China.  I had read that there are many Chinese people interested in practicing their English with a native speaker, but I in my mind I seriously underestimated that number. Some Chinese students will sit in our dorm lobby to wait for international students to come downstairs and will strike up a conversation.  In the beginning I was trying to do homework in the lobby so I could get out of my room, but now I only go down when there aren't a lot of people down there so I can actually get some work done.

Saturday is our group trip to the neighboring city of Tianjin, so prepare yourselves for another onslaught of photos from that day trip!