Saying Goodbye

Peace Corps, teaching

The rain came, and it seemed nonstop for an entire month. Streets flooded, water rushed under bridges, and still the rain fell. July 2018 brought floods to areas of the Sichuan province, drenching my final days in China. With mixed emotions, I looked out the window of my 15th floor apartment and sighed. From atop my balcony, with coffee cup in hand, it all seemed unreal–the rain, the past two years, and what might come next.

The view from my apartment in Mianyang on July 2, 2018

Somehow, I had managed to muddle through, and yes, even thrive for the previous two years in southwestern China. Depression–a familiar companion in my life–and frustrations about living in China, mixed with gratitude for teaching and the good I experienced yanked me in circles.

A long to-do list scribbled on scrap paper sat beside me. The rain had dampened my already waning motivation to do anything outside my apartment, but this was a list mostly consisting of the important tasks necessary to close out my time in China and move out of the country.

Grade final exams; turn in final grades; deep clean apartment; close bank account; fill out Peace Corps paperwork; plan and purchase tickets to travel from China; pack and ship boxes to the US; pack suitcases; and downsize unnecessary items. These were among a larger list of tasks I completed in the final days.

I had already said goodbye to my students in class. On our final class days we had posed for photos, quite haphazardly, and I though exhausted, enjoyed the chaos. One class of sophomores had each written me a note on a postcard. “You’re my best teacher,” wrote a student whose spoken English was minimal nonetheless had progressed and shown enthusiasm for learning. Each note was personalized, composed with thought from that student.

Two students in their third year who had both been involved in the English Corner previously asked if they could cook Sichuan hot pot for me. They showed up to my apartment with bags of fresh meat and vegetables and began chopping away as we talked about life. Soon the apartment was filled our chatter met with the aroma of Sichuan spices and the food boiling in the pot.

A larger farewell event had already taken place, in which a hundred students of mine and my Peace Corps sitemate showed up. The evening was a dizzying event that included speeches and so many posed photos I felt like I was at a movie premier. Each goodbye was important, though I much preferred the smaller slower ones.

As I finished my coffee on that rain-drenched day, I savored the memories. From the first day when I felt clueless and terrified as did my students, right up until the last day when we realized how far we had come. I eventually finished my to-do list, the rain stopped, and my students and I moved on taking the memories with us. As Caroline, one of the students who cooked hot pot succinctly wrote in the photo album she gave me, “The photos end, but the memories last forever.”

The Bikes of Chengdu

Peace Corps

In the Spring of 2017 the dockless shared bike system fronted by Ofo made its way to the campus of Mianyang Teachers College in China’s Sichuan Province. The craze had spread across China’s larger cities, and to Sichuan’s capital Chengdu earlier. At the time my students expressed pride in this “great Chinese invention”–and then were confused when I explained China didn’t invent bike sharing, as it was used in the US for some years. What Chinese companies had done was improve, as it were, a system already in existence.

New Ofo bikes on Mianyang Teachers College campus, April 2017

The yellow bikes flooded the campus and were a great way for students to make their way from the main campus buildings to the front gate, 2km away. Yellow Ofos and silver and orange Mobikes also appeared around Mianyang city, with other companies stepping into the frenzy, too.

The concept relies on convenience: need a bike? Here’s a bike! It’s cheap and easy, use it and leave it wherever you are when you’re done. Yet problems in this system became apparent and only grew from there. My students, not used to questioning and critical thinking, missed the potential problems in their pitch to me, such as in order to keep costs down the company mass manufactured crappy bikes that broke down easily; someone has to be paid to keep the bikes repaired and in circulation in popular areas; and if people can, they will leave them anywhere–and I mean anywhere.

As it turns out, Ofo and the other bike share companies were not concerned with repairing bikes; they have left behind mass graves of misplaced, broken, and decaying bicycles throughout China. Furthermore, Ofo’s expansion to the world has now been retracted, with the company struggling to stay in business in China.


The number of bikes that littered the streets of Chengdu grew as if they reproduced like rabbits. By January 2018, the problems in their business model became glaring (to me), especially traveling through the central part of Chengdu. It’s as if they hadn’t thought–or cared–about how many people actually might use their product and the logistics involved in such an operation with so many bicycles, nor about the cost to the environment.


When I gazed in awe at their mass numbers, I realized this was a recurring pattern in how Chinese do business. Locally, at least, small businesses opened and closed all the time, sometimes with short lifespans. They had failed to do appropriate research on product, location, and target consumers.

Uncertain about the future of dockless bike sharing, below I posted a tribute to the bikes of Chengdu.

Summer Project 2017

Peace Corps, teaching

Panzhihua (攀枝花) is a small town–for China–nestled in a mountainous area of southern Sichuan province. Back in July I spent 2 weeks as part of a group of Peace Corps Volunteers offering training to local Primary and Middle School English teachers. It was a 14-hour train ride south from Chengdu through some lovely countryside.

There were 6 Peace Corps Volunteers and 180 teacher trainees. It was a hectic time during which everyone felt exhausted. Although 1 week would have sufficed–the teachers gave up their summer and were already quite capable–it was a success. It was important to be a presence there as a foreigner to share new teaching ideas, exchange culture and fellowship, and to help them improve their own English skills.

Other than being a small mining town, Panzhihua is also known for mangoes, and I had a steady flow of those the whole time. One of the teacher trainees even mailed a box of mangoes to my apartment so I could continue enjoying them at home.

Hiking Up the Mountain

Peace Corps, travel

Last month I went with a group of students to a nearby mountain. Mianyang is in a basin, but there are many mountains in the Sichuan province. The students arranged for early transportation for the hour and a half ride to Jiuhuang Mountain (九皇山). No one had told me the scale of this mountain before I arrived. I came prepared for a hike, but not quite for this. As is common here, the mountain itself has been made accessible to non-expert climbers with kilometers of stone stairs, much of it leading straight up the mountain. For those who aren’t keen on stair climbing, there are a series of cable cars leading the way, although it is quite expensive.

About halfway up, there is a suspension bridge (called Lovers bridge) spanning across a wide gap as well as stairs that go alongside the sheer rock face. It was cloudy, and even rainy, which made for some tricky climbing. I imagine the panorama would be even more spectacular had it not been so cloudy.

This mountain also features a cave with spectacular stalactites and stalagmites lit up in a rainbow of colors.

All in all, it was an amazing day that left me exhausted.