Behind the mask -
 
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Training Zhenyuan and Jingdong TLTs.
We write about our travels, our family life, health problems and work. We write about people we meet, things that bug us, culture, food, money. In fact, we write about almost everything except how we're really feeling. We write this blog to keep you up to date with what we're up to in China, give you a sense of what it's like to live in China, to create a picture of the VSO experience. The truth is that for me the hardest thing about being here isn't the squat toilets, the work pressures, the dangerous roads, pollution on Ninger Avenue, the two-facedness of the Dean of English. The hardest thing is the social and professional isolation, and the loneliness. I've felt isolated and lonely before, but I have had other mechanisms of support, other ways to manage this. Here I feel more restricted. Now that my Chinese has improved I can talk to people at bus stops or when I pop into a shop. I can greet our neigbours and chat about the weather. When it comes to more serious things like how the kids are getting on at school, or how many more hundreds of swine flu cases there are in Simao, or increasing traffic and dangerous driving, our would-be reference groups are non-existent. We sit with the parents and grandparents at pick-up time but most of them can't get beyond the, "oh, can your daughter understand the teacher?" or "can you use chopsticks?" to get to the things that really matter. It's lonely and hard dealing with these things on our own.

One doesn't need to be standing next to a best friend to lighten the load. It's sometimes enough just to know that others feel the same worries, the same pressures, have the same questions. Maybe it is true here, but it's hard to access. Either people don't open up much, or they just don't open up to us. I suspect both is true. I was recently asked by SAFEA (State Administration for Foreign Affairs) to complete a "knowledge test". I'd say 'general knowledge' except that it wasn't. It was mostly facts about the USA and Chinese culture, with the odd bit of maths thrown in. One of the questions was: "Would you generally describe the Chinese people as...(a) excited (b) outgoing (c) supressed (d) lively?" I opted for supressed, though I know it varies according to place, person etc. Maybe I'll lose my job for this somewhat negative view but where we see excited, outgoing and lively people it tends to be in a crowd, expressing drilled sentiment like jia you ("come on!") next to a basketball court. I find it hard to have a heart to heart because people don't often express their own feelings.

I'm still here, still doing my job, still smiling and making the most of life, but when I fall asleep and wake up in the morning, it is often with a heavy heart. If I think of Scotland, if I think of Freda being ill, if I think of many things, I feel profoundly sad. I'm homesick and probably have symptoms of mild depression but it's hard to leave. I love my job. I have a job. We have a home and the children have a reasonably happy life. Ali doesn't have a job but is writing a book and seems happy to have escaped the 9 to 5 routine of the BGS. We spend the holidays travelling to fascinating places and exploring rich and interesting cultures. We have a couple of friends who know a little part of us and accept us for who they think we are. That's as good as it gets in many cases. The fact that half of our selves are shelved back in Scotland may be irrelevant. Every environment forces one to compromise in one way or another. So what's the problem?

I'm lonely and isolated. That's hard to manage sometimes. There are emotions behind the mask and that's a very real part of this VSO life.

Paul
12/11/2009 12:35:55 pm

Sounds like you are having a, very understandable, rough patch. Good to be able to read how you're feeling though - your honesty shines through. Perhaps this is an early indication that it's time to move on?

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