Peace Corps Writers
A Writer Writes
Read other short works about the Peace Corps experience Second Time Around

by Kathleen Coskran (Ethiopia 1965–67)

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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?”

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