By Austin Frenes 冯翱森
NANJING, China — In 1997, foreigners were a rare sight in Fuling, a district of Chongqing municipality, China. 23 years later, Fuling was home to over 200 foreign residents, including an international community of teachers and students, as well as Peace Corps volunteers from the US. Stepping off a train at Fuling North Station on a quiet evening in mid-August, I had no idea that I would be the last Peace Corps volunteer to come to this river town.
中国，南京 — 在1997年的重庆市涪陵区，外国人还非常罕见。23年以后的今天，有两百多名外国人住在涪陵，其中大部分人是外教、学生，以及美中友好志愿者。去年八月中旬，我在涪陵北站走下火车，来到了江城涪陵。当时我万万没有想到自己会是最后一个来到江城的美中友好志愿者。
The impact of the Peace Corps on the local community varied: for some students, the courses of their lives were altered forever, and for others foreigners were merely a passing curiosity. Memories of Peace Corps volunteers ran deep among both members of the university community, as well as members of the broader Fuling community, and not a week went by that somebody wouldn’t tell me a story about a volunteer who had previously served in Fuling. The impact of the Peace Corps was clear to me, and the stories I heard served as guiding points in deciding how I wanted to leave an impact.
Stereotypes and prejudices towards foreigners still lingered in the minds of some older residents of Fuling. I was not a spectacle like foreigners once were, but still drew glances, and was occasionally followed by seemingly-suspicious, old men. Passersby asked questions such as: “Why does everybody in America have a gun? , “Why is there so much chaos and violence in America?” , “What do you think of the finer details of the trade war?” I explained that very few people around me own guns and that my hometown had very little rioting, but one man merely chuckled while smugly walking away and insisting that everyone in the US has a gun.
I was constantly scrutinized by both students and colleagues. They made note of every subtle change in my appearance, the gestures I used, and even the way I ate. When I was seen enjoying boba milk tea from time to time, my students would decide to give me cups as gifts. If I were caught eating something like steamed buns, my students would make memes about it.
Word spread quickly in Fuling. My students once reported that a Chinese colleague of mine had told his classes that I was representative of “American laziness” because I ate at the teacher’s lunch buffet once a week rather than cooking my own food – never mind that he frequented the same buffet.
Memories of my habits will no doubt be long lasting in the minds of the people I encountered and interacted with. A colleague once commented over lunch how a teacher ten years ago would buy a water bottle after every meal, and another commented that a couple that once served in Fuling would wake up in the middle of the night to run. At some point, there was another volunteer named Austin of whom colleagues would randomly tell stories about. I’ve always wondered, if the Peace Corps in China had not ended, what stories would be told about me to volunteers in the future? My love for boba? Or perhaps my 30-pound weight loss in just three months? At the beginning of each class I shouted as loud as I could: “Good morning English language students!” Surely they’ll never forget that.
我在涪陵遇到的人们无疑会一直记得我的习惯。有一次我和一个同事一起吃午饭，她提到十年前有一个美中友好志愿者每天吃完午饭都会去买一瓶水，另一个同事则告诉我几年前有两个志愿者是一对儿，他们经常半夜起床出去跑步。我的同事们还经常提到几年前另外一个名叫Austin的志愿者的故事。我一直在想，如果美中友好志愿者没撤出中国，人们后来会对其他志愿者讲述哪些关于我的故事？我对奶茶的爱吗？我在三个月之内减重十三公斤吗？还是我每次给学生上课的时候都会大声喊出的“Good morning English language students!”呢？最后一个他们肯定永远不会忘记。
Peace Corps volunteers changed the lives of many of the students they served. Every volunteer was assigned a “friendship family” at site. My friendship family “host mom”, Jamaica Tang, credited Peace Corps volunteers with building her confidence in speaking English in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and believes had it not been for them, she would have become a middle school or high school teacher in her hometown rather than becoming a university teacher.
A local teacher named Steven first had a Peace Corps volunteer teacher in Fuling just before SARS broke out, and the English language changed his life. He once told me, “If not for English, I would be tending to pigs in the countryside right now.” Having known 11 Peace Corps volunteers in Fuling over the years, Steven commented that his favorite memories are celebrating American and Chinese holidays with Peace Corps volunteers, and that the biggest lesson he learned from them is the spirit of helping others to enrich one’s own life. Likewise, Jamaica commented that Peace Corps volunteers changed her outlook on “money, contribution, helping others, and charity”.
Hopefully I was able to leave an impact on some of my 300 or so students, just as volunteers in the past had impacted their students. The Peace Corps often tells volunteers that their impact may not be apparent for years or even decades, but I saw massive changes in many of my students over the course of the semester. One student named Huang Xin (Yellow Star) drastically improved his English, going from being almost incomprehensible to among the best in his class, and even came to run on the track with me some days. Another student, Wu Xingyi (Five Star One), was quite shy at the beginning of the semester, but seemed to become much more confident by the end of it. There were students I never even suspected to have been impacted by my classes, but I received messages from them months later about how positive they found their experiences to be.
As January came and I returned from Peace Corps inter-service training more eager than ever to make a difference at site, Steven messaged me, asking if we would be evacuated due to Covid. I had my doubts, but Steven thought it was inevitable, since his Peace Corps volunteer teacher was evacuated in 2003 due to SARS. Sure enough, a few days later, a private car took me to the airport on evacuation orders. After a semester of laughter and good memories in Fuling, and an emotional week in Thailand with other evacuees, I was on a plane back to Los Angeles in tears.
Only time will tell what my short time in Fuling will ultimately mean. Even if my students and colleagues never again have another Peace Corps volunteer teacher to share memories with, I cannot wait to return to Fuling to see not only how the city changes, but also how my students and colleagues change. Just as I and all the other Peace Corps volunteers left everlasting impressions and impacts on the students we served, our students will go on to impact their own students, and so on. Rather than the end of Peace Corps China marking a chill in US-Sino relations, perhaps our legacy is the foundation for future friendship between the American and Chinese people.
Austin Frenes is reporting from Bologna, Italy.