Sometimes students here in China mistake my surname (Ross) for Rose. At my request, most of my students call me Miss Megan, Teacher, or Megan. The surname Ross is of Scottish origin, although none of my ancestors were Scottish, which is perhaps why I’ve never been too attached to it. Names and titles are important, but I haven’t yet corrected students for mistaking mine as Rose. I secretly enjoy it.

Recently on my birthday, I bought miniature roses from a vendor among a row of identical flower shops in town. It was a whim, really, as I have never cared for roses on my own before. The little succulents already adorning my balcony needed company, and a flowering plant seemed a welcome addition.

Roses require a certain amount of attention to grow properly. They need pruning and appropriate amounts of water and sunlight to be healthy flowering plants. Admittedly, I’m a bit uncertain about how best to keep them happy on my balcony, but I’m willing to try.

While snipping away at the roses one morning, I realized one’s Peace Corps service also needs cultivation. Not everyone is a gardener, but each of us has responsibility to cultivate our work and relationships at site. From volunteers straight out of college, to those with life experience and already retired, the care and attention needed to during the 27-month service doesn’t end.

Truth be told, not all of us will blossom and flourish at all times. We get pricked by our own thorns and thorns of those around us. We suffer from lack of sunlight and fresh air. We are parched from lack of water or drown ourselves in too much muck. Growth is stunted and parts of us becomes withered and dormant.

Neither will all of us will integrate perfectly or even well at all. There is no magic fertilizer or formula to serving well and thriving at site. Sometimes we try our damnedest to fit in, speak the language and be understood, launch a secondary project, go a day without being intensely stared at, or just teach a lesson in a room full of students who would rather spend their time on QQ (Chinese social media)—all with varying degrees of success or failure on any given day.

Looking at my little roses, I’m reminded of the letter one of my students wrote for my birthday. Addressing me formally as “Miss Ross,” she writes, “It can be easily found you’re a ‘spontaneous’ woman who really loves and enjoys her life including any small tiny things in life. That’s really impressive, cause so many people now are always in hustle and bustle, whinging [sic] about life but forget to stop to cultivate their life tree.”

She went on to acknowledge the difficulty of living abroad and a wish for light in my dark times.

Unbeknownst to her, those themes—cultivation, light in darkness—have been deeply important to me for many years. Indeed, they can be helpful for all of us at some point. Serving in China is hard work, with highs and lows and everything in between; however, there’s wisdom in cultivating a healthy life and looking for the light in what seems like darkness, and I hope my student takes her own advice to heart.

So, what really makes a successful Peace Corps service? Is it unlocking that elusive “integration” process we heard so much about during Pre-Service Training? Is it increasing the knowledge and English skills of students? Dutifully fulfilling all three Peace Corps goals? Making meaningful connections at site and among fellow volunteers? Preparing for a future career? Whatever the benchmark—personal and from Peace Corps—one’s service involves some mixture of time, energy, hard work, self-care, social support, and more.

This month I finished the semester and surpassed one year in China. When classes start again next term, I will have new students, and one of them will probably call me Rose. I’m ready for it, as well as the mishaps and lesson fails, the little successes and fun moments. Meanwhile, I have watering and pruning to do in my daily life.

I’m not sure how successful I will be with the roses through the remaining Summer and Winter to come, but I will continue to care for them, as I will continue to commit myself to my service (I’m likely to be more successful at that).

Looking ahead, as part of the 22nd group to serve in China, I have one more year left as a Peace Corps Volunteer; for the new 23s, they are just beginning their training. To everyone else, you also have opportunity to serve in your own context.

How will you cultivate your service?

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