Kelly Branyik, China
The sky is grey, the air damp, and a stinging cold bites at my cheeks making them a rosy pink color. I sniff in the runny nose driven by the cold and burrow in to the warmth of my winter coat. This isn’t Colorado and thankfully, it doesn’t snow in Chongqing, but still the dull skies leave a chilling feeling much like they did in Colorado. I had never lived in a place where the sun rarely came out. I could see how living in Chongqing makes people want to leave. “No human should be living in Chongqing,” my counterpart Erin had said once. “The conditions are horrible.” She was speaking in relation to the cold, the air, the abundance of mountains. I wondered where she thought it would be appropriate to live, but I didn’t ask. As I looked into the sky, I realized I had stayed stationary within the sea of people for entirely too long. A swift breeze swept across my face bringing with it the cake-sweet scent of the La Mei flower. In English, we call it Wintersweet, the only flower able to bloom sweetly in the bitter Chongqing winters. I had yet to see this flower with my own eyes, but I was told it looked like strings of golden lights against the pale winter sky. Its scent haunted me like a ghost of a former lover. I had a great longing to see it, yet it remained invisible.
Almost every day I found anxiety in teaching English. I wasn’t sure I knew what I was doing. I never dreamed I would open a new site, let alone teach at the high school level. With no language or teaching skills, the days seemed to be getting worse rather than better. I reminded myself to stop expecting so much, a reminder I would soon forget many times during my service. As I sat down in the chilly office, slipping my hands into my pockets for warmth, kids screamed obscenities as they ran through the halls and teachers chittered along the hallways in the Chongqing dialect. I felt the breeze from the open windows dance with the warmth of the AC. This is the Chinese way, to dually open the windows and use the shallow warmth of the AC.
I opened my email to see a message from my Program Manager, Sandy. I had sent her an email earlier voicing my struggles with teaching and integrating. She kept a close eye on me, like a mother would, and I soon started to call her Momma Sandy. She came to visit my site often, smiling pleasantly and laughing to ease my worried heart. For months I could never figure out why she placed me, the least qualified of all, here. The thought troubled me any time I was left with my own thoughts. In her email, she voiced her hopes for me and her complete faith that this was where I needed to be. “You are like the La Mei flower,” she said, “growing beautifully and thriving even in the coldest of winters.” Her words brought me to tears in the emptiness of my office. I felt helpless and alone as I wept at her kindness, how the Wintersweet flower did seem to resemble me in the very moment, and how I wished more than anything I could fall into the arms of my parents. I couldn’t see her faith in me a year ago but still, I carried her words with me like a little kid’s lucky penny. It was only a few weeks later that some kind acquaintances appeared on my doorstep to give me two 3-foot high bundles of Wintersweet. And the symbolism would soon leave its mark deeper within my heart that I ever thought possible.
These days, the autumn air is uncertain of whether it should be hot or cool. Regardless, I sweat through most of the 100-degree weather as I begin my second year as a Peace Corps China volunteer. I find ease in speaking the language, occasionally slipping in bits of dialects for kicks and giggles. The fear of failure has lost its place in my life and I find that I look forward to the challenges within the bitter Chongqing winter. The Colorado girl in me begins to ignore the challenges that were once present, stealing minutes in daydreams imagining the sensation of bundling beneath scarves and layers of clothing, sipping Starbucks coffee over my Chinese textbook, occasionally glancing out the large windows to watch small children prance about the square with their grandparents slowly behind them. These very daydreams enticed me into the thought that this second year would certainly be better than the last, regardless of what others would say.
After a year, Peace Corps stopped being Peace Corps and started being life. Each day I do the same mundane things. I share conversation with friends over coffee, I go shopping, read books, listen to music, lay around on my couch, work hard to make an influence, kiss all the adorable babies, call my mom and dad. The difference is, I’m not in the US anymore. And when Momma Sandy comes to visit me now, it is all smiles and hugs that lift me from the ground as she tells me, “I knew all along you could do this. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind.”
As the winds change and the skies threaten Chongqing with darkness, somewhere the golden strings of La Mei will again blossom, against all odds, underneath the shady skies, bringing that intense sweetness I long to breathe in during my walks home from the day’s unique adventure. And with each breath, a new golden bud will glow standing bright against the grey, and I’ll yet again be like the La Mei.
Categories: Outside Perpective