I was a China 5: part of the fifth cohort of Peace Corps volunteers allowed into China—and only the fourth since the events at Tiananmen Square.
It might go without saying that our students at the small teachers college in the urban farmers crossroads of Zigong had never heard the full story of the 1989 massacre in that Beijing square, where—according to them—a mere handful of malcontents had occupied China’s sacred gathering place, always under Chairman Mao’s gaze, for the sole purpose of disrupting social order, until authorities calmly ushered them out. When we showed our students a photo of one brave Chinese youth staring down a tank, they refused to recognize the tank as Chinese, though without question it was.
“That’s Russian,” one student said. “That tank must be Russian.”
We did some things that probably we shouldn’t have while we were in China.
At one point, the four volunteers at our site—two women in their 20s, my wife and then me—misread a string of cultural subtleties intended to forbid us from taking about 20 of our students on a field trip to another college some two hours away. This was at a time when our students had been told that they couldn’t gather in groups of more than three without a permit. Communist Party bosses were alerted to our misdeeds. They tracked us down in this other town, and our foreign-affairs liaison looked weary as he explained that the words “It might be difficult to take such a trip” really meant “Taking such a trip is likely to cause an international incident.” That liaison, Lu Fei, expended what I’m sure was a significant amount of social capital, guanxi, protecting us volunteers—and potentially averting an international incident. Lu Fei spoke no English, and my Chinese was never more than passable, so we’ve lost track of one another since my Peace Corps service ended at the beginning of the millennium. But I love that guy.
Peace Corps, if you’re lucky, equals love—or at least relationships of a kind you couldn’t conceive before. Our former students, now in their 30s, aren’t allowed to use Facebook, so we keep in touch through WeChat, an app that you might or might not have heard of but which dominates in China. Last year, one of the students visited the United States and took the two extra flights necessary in order to visit us in Vermont, where her 3-year-old girl danced with my daughters. I’d directed Didi Gong in an English-language stage play at Zigong Teachers College, but mostly she had studied with my wife, Beth. In English that Didi had developed in Beth’s classes and office hours, she thanked my wife for being the best teacher she had ever had. As she spoke, Didi broke into tears. That’s how grateful she was. Beth cried, too.
Peace Corps, if you’re lucky, opens the world to you and helps you discover a part of yourself to offer the world. In my position as a media adviser at the University of Vermont, I make sure my students know about my service so that they have someone they can approach if they’re curious. So far, I’ve managed to get two of them overseas: One of my newspaper advertising managers today teaches English in Armenia, and one of my radio station managers just returned from the Mbunza village of Mupini in Namibia, where she worked daily as a health educator.
I’m thrilled to see my American students experience the toughest job they’ll ever love. You can, too. If you’re thinking about beginning the adventure, do it. If you don’t take the chance when you can, you’ll always wonder whether you should have. And if you do take the chance, you’re unlikely to regret your decision. Or forget your experience.