by Kathleen Coskran (Ethiopia 1965–67)
The following essay was published in September, 2007 at PeaceCorpsWriters.org,
and in 2008 received the Moritz Thomsen Award for Best Short Work about the Peace Corps Experience
I JOINED THE PEACE CORPS at 21 because I was restless for adventure and after two years in Ethiopia, discovered that true adventure lies in the relationships and routines of daily life. I was delighted to live in a tiny mud house with the tin roof, thought the sound of roosters in the morning and the whoop of the hyenas at night exotic, learned to prefer fiery food that made me sweat and cry, but the surprise was my students. I fell in love with them — 75 kids in an unlit classroom with mud walls and a tin roof, 75 kids who walked an hour or more to get to school, kids whose parents I never met, whose fourth or fifth language was English. They were my adventure.
After two years I came home, married Chuck — also an Ethiopia PCV — and embarked on that other adventure, raising children and living on a tree-lined street in a Minneapolis neighborhood. But when we entered that limbo state some call retirement, we got restless again and last year we took a job teaching at Zhejiang College of Media and Communications in Hangzhou, China. We knew it would be interesting, knew we would learn more than we would teach, knew it would be great, but, at first, we didn’t recognize this journey as a second chance.
There is something sweet about a second time around, a second taste, a familiar experience cloaked in new clothes. You are able to savor the taste, to breathe in the pleasure more deeply, to take in the sweetness with all your senses. We found it doing what we did more than forty years ago — teaching young people in an ancient country full of challenges, young people who were eager and optimistic about their future and who were also deeply aware of the enormous challenges their beloved country faces. In Ethiopia the challenges were political first, then economic — who would succeed Haile Selassie; how would land reform be achieved. In China, it all starts with demographics — how to support a population of 1.4 billion people. As one student wrote, quoting an economist: “If we put the Chinese population in the richest country — America—America can’t afford it either.”
We were nervous that first Monday morning, unsure of who would be waiting for us and what they would expect. We both arrived twenty minutes early and found the students all there, three to a desk, in their jackets, hats, and mittens, warming their hands on bottles of hot water or tea. We introduced ourselves and invited them to do the same, in writing and in English, so we could get their English names for our class list and learn a little bit about each of them: name, hometown, interests and hobbies, hopes for the class. They came from all over China — as close as downtown Hangzhou, as far away as Inner Mongolia, but, incredibly, they all said they came from the most beautiful city in China, a city that is famous for . . . something . . . and they felt lucky to come from such a wonderful place. We were charmed by their lack of cynicism, their enthusiasm for their origins and their deep admiration for their parents.
I taught writing and the reward for reading 240 essays every week was the insight I was given into the lives and worries of the students. Our twenty-year-old students with their deep attachment to their families and their physical connection to each other — always walking arm in arm, girls with girls, boys with boys — seemed younger than their twenty years, innocent, but they were not naive. When they wrote about the serious issues China faces they were fully aware that these problems are their problems. They are the first generation of the one-child policy, and they believe in that policy, yet they wonder how they will care for their parents and grandparents without the help of siblings. According to a China TV news report, seventy-five percent of the average family’s income goes for education. After the government announced that education in rural areas would be compulsory and free through junior school (9th grade), one student wrote, “Our country’s future depends on the next generations with good knowledge. How can we build our country with the junior school level?”
We were the oldest people on campus — the average retirement age in China is 50 for women, 55 for men — but the students treated us as peers, as fascinating people with something to offer them. They wanted to talk about everything. The movie “Brokeback Mountain” was much on their minds. They also wanted to know what we ate, what we thought about Japan, if children took care of their aging parents in the United States, if we fell in love at first sight, how we disciplined our children, what we thought of Jane Austen, if we watched “Desperate Housewives,” and why we came to China.
Our sense of wonder was rekindled by the simplicity of our life there. We lived in a small apartment on campus, walked or rode our one-speed bicycles everywhere, bought food daily, worked hard, made friends, took the crowded bus into Hangzhou on the weekends to walk along West Lake or drink tea (or coffee — yes, there was a Starbucks). We were glad not to own a car, and when students asked if we knew how to drive, we admitted that we could, but didn’t mention the two cars in our garage in Minneapolis.
Doing without — no car, few clothes — was easier than slowing down. Colleagues talked about spending the day, the whole day, relaxing at a tea house. We tried, but couldn’t figure out what you were supposed to do all day at a tea house. At every establishment we visited the server brought us each a tall glass half full of tea leaves and filled to the brim with hot water then left a tall, pink thermos next to my chair. No spoon to push the leaves down, no sugar, no lemon. If we tried to drink too soon, we burned our fingers on the glass and got a mouthful of tea leaves, so we had to wait for the leaves to sink. Even so we were never able to last more than thirty minutes in such an establishment. We drank our tea, sometimes refilled the glass once from the thermos, and left.
It was a young teacher in our department who taught me how to drink tea. Kevin — I never knew his real name, his Chinese name — spoke beautiful English but wanted to sound like a native and asked me to help him with his intonation so we practiced rising and falling inflections for a couple of hours a week. For our last meeting he invited me to go to Qing Teng Tea House, the most famous in Hangzhou. It was obviously several steps above the tea establishments Chuck and I had frequented and expensive — 60 yuan for a cup of tea. “We must have Hangzhou’s most famous tea, Dragon Well tea,” Kevin said.
The tea came in two tiny white china cups, no handles, but with lids and saucers. After a few minutes, I lifted my lid to drink. “No,” Kevin said. “You don’t drink the first or second water. The leaves are dirty.” He lifted his cup and, using the lid as a shield, poured the water into the tall ceramic bowl on the table. (I’d thought it was a vase.) I did the same, and then he took the teapot of hot water that was on a small brazier near our chairs and refilled our cups. “Do you know what the lid is for?” he asked. Well, that was obvious — to keep the tea hot. He smiled, picked up his cup between two fingers and his thumb, raised the lid slightly, and breathed in the aroma of the tea. “The lid holds the flavor, so you take it in just as you sip the tea. Like fine wine,” he said. “The bouquet.”
There was a tray on the table that we took to an adjoining room where there were two long buffet tables with hot and cold delicacies: spring rolls, soups, meats, fruits, tarts. Kevin filled the tray. “You must try this and this and this.” Each was more delicate and wonderful than the one before and every time I said I liked something, he went back for more. After an hour or so, the server appeared to put a bowl of several kinds of fruit on our table, to refill our tea pot with hot water, and to rekindle the fire under the brazier.
Kevin had just bought a book of essays by Washington Irving so we talked about Irving’s place in American literature and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” “What about Whitman?” he said. We also talked about the Hangzhou housing market and whether he should buy the apartment he was looking at near West Lake, half the size of his current apartment, but the location was tugging at him, and whether or not the teachers at our school cared about the students or were they more focused on the expectation to publish an article in a professional journal every year and the Chinese aversion to bad news in any area of public life and how you must know somebody in order to get a job and many, many other things. When I looked at my watch, three hours had slipped by. That’s how you can spend the day in a tea house. How simple. How lovely. How civilized.
He walked me back to my bus stop; I pushed on with the other commuters, clung to the strap as the old bus weaved around cars, bicycles, carts, and pedestrians for the hour-long ride back to Xiasha, the suburb where our college was. It was the last week of the semester and I didn’t have to peer out the windows to know that the boulevard was lined with flowers, that the streets were crowded with people, that there was a woman on a bicycle with two children and the day’s groceries, that a man was riding one-handed with load of lumber in the other hand, that the musical sound on the bus was somebody’s mobile phone, that there were street signs I’d never learned to read, that there was row after row of small shops selling everything, that I was in China — China one of the great civilizations of the world, China where people have suffered unimaginable indignities, China where there is so much hope and suspicion and life. It was hard not to wonder how I got so lucky.
An Ethiopian friend once told us that two years is so short in the life of a country, that what we could hope to achieve as Peace Corps Volunteers was fleeting, a tiny wave in an enormous whirlpool. He was right, of course. Five months teaching in a country with an eight-thousand-year history is even less, but for us it was a second chance. A second chance to fall in love with students, to be awed by how deeply connected each of us is on this planet, a chance to see ourselves as others see us, to be shaken out of our daily routine so we can see the power and the beauty of every day, of daily life, wherever we are.
During those two years in Ethiopia I visited every province, saw the Blue Nile and the castles at Gondar, went to Lalibela, but what I remember and what I miss is my little mud house on a dirt road, the family across the way, the little girl who danced in the street, the students, especially the students. It was the same in China. I walked on the Great Wall, saw the Terra Cotta warriors, floated through the three gorges down the Yangtse, saw the lotus raise its huge and holy head at West Lake, but what I remember and what I miss are the people we knew, the students and young teachers who are the hope for the future. Forty years ago I loved my students because it was impossible not to, but I was young too and didn’t know how beautiful we all were. This time around I knew.
ONE MORE THING. We did this together, Chuck and I. We met in Ethiopia, but didn’t live in the same town and in 38 years of marriage never had the same job, or taught the same kids, or were irate at the same mindless bureaucracy. But in Hangzhou we understood what each other’s day was like. We were colleagues as well as lifelong partners. I loved the sight of him coming up the sidewalk after class, notebook and papers in hand, looking professorial or sitting surrounded by “his” kids in the library. It was a gift, this second time around, to see each other in new light, to teach in China, to be renewed together.
[July 2008] Kathleen Coskran’s short fiction and articles have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies. Her collection of short stories, The High Price of Everything, won a Minnesota Book Award as did Tanzania on Tuesday: Writing by American Women Abroad which she co-edited. She is the recipient of numerous artists’ fellowships and residencies including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Bush Artist’s Fellowship, and two grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband, Chuck Coskran (Ethiopia 1965–67, Kenya staff, 1969–71). Last year they returned from teaching in China.