Kelly Branyik, RPCV China 20 TEFL
I’m reminded of every single bad choice I ever made, bad feeling I ever had, my annoying sense of urgency, my extreme lack of patience, times I was a bitch for no reason to good people, hung over mornings after a drunk night, and how many times I woke up feeling sorry for myself.
My parents and I drove down I-25 in Pueblo, Co and we passed by the last apartment I lived in before I moved to China. The apartment overtaken by bed bugs, with blank walls thickened with layers of paint, old carpet coming up in the corner, a suspected drug addict next door, down the street from a Taco Bell where I regularly practiced gluttony. This was back then, before I moved around the world and lived in China, when rent was a cheap monthly $150 that I could barely pay for, before I knew how my life would change that summer in Peace Corps, before I would find a cut in the rope that was slowly hanging me.
It doesn’t make sense. People say relocation doesn’t change you, that your problems follow you wherever you go. The problems will follow you, and 8,000 miles away from home and away from you natural coping mechanisms, you just might find your problems right in your face. I knew there might be problems, but these problems would be worth facing. I knew things would be different when I first walked into my apartment in China, the just-remodeled, no bed bug, nicest apartment I have ever lived in.
So, most people would quit in the face of their problems, and live forever in denial. I used to quit in subtle ways all the time, like a sort of rebellion, like those people who say “I love my body the way it is” when really they wish they were skinnier. I did not love my body, who I was, my temperaments, and how I treated people but I pretended they weren’t there. In reality, I quit on myself every day because I didn’t believe I deserved anything good. But I was not about quitting Peace Corps, not this time. A part of me knew I would change for the good if I could just do this. So that was the expectation I set.
The expectation did not reflect the reality, the story behind my Peace Corps Experience. I didn’t realize how many problems I had until I left the comfort of my home. And they were ugly, deep, infected cuts that I dug into to clean out. I didn’t have my mom, dad, or best friend around to comfort me when I didn’t like what I saw. I didn’t hide myself in a bottle or smoke a joint to numb the pain. I didn’t go hop in bed with a loser who would only drag me down again. You know what I did?
I took each day at a time, I went to the gym, learned Chinese, taught English, traveled, wrote, and I even fell in love. Those all sound like great things, and they most certainly were, but not a single one of them was effortless. Not one of those things was easy or didn’t cause pain or discomfort in some way. In fact, most of them were so difficult I felt like quitting… a lot. But I didn’t quit.
Each day I taught English to vocational high schoolers who could barely speak English. Those poor kids. I couldn’t speak the Chinese to even be understood let alone discipline. The kids walked all over me, so I made a choice to dedicate much of my time to learning Chinese. After just a month of the challenge constantly throwing itself in my face, I picked up the healthy coping habit of exercise. The gym became the center of my success physically, mentally and professionally. It was there that I made friends, practiced language (which contributed to my teaching ability), kept up my health, gained confidence, and learned patience. It was there that I learned how strong I could be. It was there that I found people who would not let the sad little foreigner quit. It was my community.
And yet, amongst all that, I faced other things, difficult things, like being stared at every day for how I looked, frustrations around understanding culture, always being crammed into the square hole that is all preconceived notions of foreigners. They drove me mad, until one day, the weight of all these things caused me to stop caring so much about what people thought of me.
After two years of tears, sweat and confusion, I came home a different person. I learned how to be away from home. I lost 50 pounds. I went from zero to nearly fluent in Mandarin. I learned how to be patient and walk slower. I learned that getting angry isn’t the answer. I learned to sit silently and listen to people. I learned how to care for people in different ways. I learned how to care for myself. I learned what love meant to others and I learned about what truly mattered to the people around me. I learned how to share. I learned not to care what people thought of me. I learned to stop complaining. I learned the importance of living.
All of these things, they can be learned, practiced, and perfected by all and everyone with willingness and openness, something I didn’t have before. I don’t know how long it would’ve taken for me to make a life change that colossal here in America, where I was living with all my comforts. So I removed myself from them and said I wouldn’t quit. Boy, did I want to quit sometimes.
Not everyone has or will have this same experience because it depends on where they are in life. For me, Peace Corps was a humbling experience, despite its many challenges. Right now, this description of my service may not sound very inviting if you are the person considering joining the Peace Corps and if you feel that way, it means you aren’t reading hard enough.
Joining Peace Corps changed my life. It required a lot of work, persistence and strength I didn’t know I had. Looking back on it, I would make the same choice to join again.
As we drove through Pueblo, passing by the old apartment with bed bugs, I felt great compassion and sympathy for the girl who used to live there, the girl who was lost for so long, the girl who couldn’t seem to find her passion, the girl who hated herself so much she didn’t feel like she deserved anything good. As much as I felt sorry for her, I also admired her brief spark of bravery. I thanked her greatly for her lessons, the lessons that aren’t mine anymore, and I thank Peace Corps for everything is has done for me and will continue doing for me until I leave this planet.
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