Mr. Wan

Mr. Wan 1

I was one third of the way through a run the other day when I heard a car honk behind me. I turned around to see a middle-aged man in a black Volkswagen sedan. He seemed just as startled as I was. He pulled up along side me with a broad but odd smile. It seemed forced, out of sync with his eyes. “What are you doing?” he asked. I explained to him what brings me here. He said he worked for the city government in the city of Wuhu. He was back to visit his parents for the weekend. “They live just down the road, there, in the white house on the edge of the village. Do you see it?” He introduced himself as Mr. Wan. “The same ‘Wan (万)’ as one hundred (百) ten thousands (万),” he said. He asked me for my contact information and invited me to dinner. Though his smile and enthusiasm to  made me a little uneasy, he seemed sincere and merely curious. I gave him my phone number and told him I could join him and his family the following night.

The next morning, I saw that the forecast called for rare thunderstorms. I considered calling Mr. Wan to reschedule. As the day proceeded, the weather turned hot, humid, windy, and unsettled. It started to rain lightly in the minutes before I got on my bike to leave. Some of the rain immediately evaporated as it landed on the ground and leaves. As it rose back up to the sky, it carried some of the earth with it: the smell of dirt, metal and grass now mud, rust and mildew.

The brakes of my bike squeaked as I arrived at Mr. Wan’s house. He approached to open the gate with the same strained smile. He graciously took my bike and guided it through the courtyard and into the garage. A woman in her 60s took a half step out of the kitchen near the gate and looked at me blankly. “That’s my mother,” Mr. Wan said with a nervous laugh. “Ma, this is Mr. Du.” She nodded and went back to the kitchen. A puppy came out of the open door of the dining room and approached me cautiously. I kneeled and held out my left hand palm up. “What’s your dog’s name?” I asked. “He doesn’t really have one,” Mr. Wan said. “But he’s grey, so we call him Hui Hui. Right Hui Hui?” Hui Hui didn’t respond. After a minute he approached my hand and let me pet him. “He’ll remember you next time,” Mr. Wan said.

We sat down at the dining room table. Mr. Wan poured us both tea. The room was bright white and without decoration, save for the framed black and white photos of Mr. Wan’s deceased paternal grandparents above a table on the north wall. The linoleum floor was still wet from having been recently mopped. I told Mr. Wan that I am interested in the history of this area. He said this village is called Wan Village, named after his ancestral clan. They settled here 120 years ago, fleeing a famine in Hubei Province, his true ancestral home. Sixty years later they endured another famine, during the Great Leap Forward. “Many people died here in this township,” he said. “My father almost died, when he was just a boy. I think this is why you find that people here seldom have a strong feeling for this place, and for farming. They remember. They want their children to leave. Everyone will tell you that there is no better time in history than right now. And that is because they are not afraid of starving.”

Mr. Wan’s mother began bringing in dishes of food. His father joined us at the table. He was completely bald, tall, and very thin. Yet he moved brusquely, with purpose. He offered me rice wine but excused himself from drinking, drinking a bottle of blueberry flavored milk instead. Before he began eating, Mr. Wan paused to look down at the floor for a moment. His father asked me routine questions about my work and family, glancing at me warily as I answered. After about 15 minutes, he rose from the table and left. “Keep eating!” he said as he left. Mr. Wan’s mother came in not long thereafter, carrying a bowl of rice. I asked her if she still farmed. She said the family had rented the family’s land to a large-scale farmer, like almost everyone in the village. But she and her husband still labored. She sewed at a nearby textile factory. He did plastering work in the county seat. They could use the extra money, she explained. But really they worked out of habit. “We don’t miss farming,” she said. “But we miss having something to do. We have worked constantly since we were young. We have no hobbies. We don’t know of any other life. This is how peasants are.”

It began to rain heavily. I asked her how many children she had. She said she had three: two daughters in addition to Mr. Wan, who was the oldest. They each had one child of their own, all girls. She asked me why I have no wife and children. I said it was partly choice, and partly circumstance. “Yes,” she said. “If relationships don’t work, there is nothing you can do. You have to separate. And that’s okay. More and more people are doing that these days.” I asked if that was a good or bad thing. “People need structure,” she said. “But they also need to the chance to make mistakes. All parents can do is try to give children the right perspective. Once they leave, their lives are their own.” As she spoke, Mr. Wan clasped his hands and looked at the floor.

Mr. Wan’s mother rose from the table to clear away the dishes. I asked him how he spent his spring festival this year. Did his daughter join him here? No, he said. She was with her mother. As he spoke he seemed to force a broad smile, as he had the day before, but this time his mouth trembled. “You see,” he said. “I have had a difficult time. The pressure in my job is so great. I failed. I felt that I could not succeed. And I was punished. And then my wife.” He gasped for air, and started to gently rock backward and forward. “I had never prayed before, but I prayed that God would help me. And he did. I found the Catholic church.” He said that he lost most of his friends as a result of his faith, and he speaks to almost no one about it, including his parents. “Most people don’t understand,” he said. “My life is very different now. But I have peace. I know that God has a plan for me.”

His mother returned to the table. I told them that my life had not turned out as I expected. But that those disappointments were not necessarily a bad thing. His mother looked at me. “The world is so big and you came so far to be here now,” she said. “That is strange, when you think about it.”

I noticed that the sun had set and the rain had temporarily stopped. I excused myself to go home and let them rest. His mother went to look for a poncho for me, and apologized when she could not find one. Hui Hui ran over and bit my shoe. “He’ll remember you next time,” Mr. Wan said. I looked for Mr. Wan’s father. They told me he had left to go to a friend’s house, pointing to a lit window in the distance. Mr. Wan brought out my bike, and they both walked me to the gate. I thanked them for their kindness, and began riding back across the fields to town.


Going to church


One of the many noticeable changes to occur in Pingpu since I was last here in 2014 is the construction of a Catholic church across the river from the township. This was notable to me for a few reasons. Organized religion occupies a very strange place in politics and culture here in China. Seen as potential as threats to the officially atheist state’s legitimacy, religious activities have long been regulated by the Communist Party. Given that the Party’s legitimacy is premised on restoring China’s place as a self-sufficient power – a project undertaken in direct response to Western colonialism – Christian churches have faced particular scrutiny. After the expulsion of most foreigners following the Communist Revolution of 1949, Christian churches were largely pushed underground.

In the past 40 years, the state has in some ways liberalized policies concerning religious activity. In this, it has seemed to acknowledge the void left by the de-legitimizing of folk religious practices under Maoism, which was following by the de-legitimizing of Maoism by the Cultural Revolution and the Party’s embrace of market capitalism. Freedom of religion has been guaranteed under the state constitution since 1982. However, in practice, religious activities are heavily controlled and monitored. Officially-designated religious sites must be approved by the state. As a result, Christian churches in China typically operate in more discreet spaces, such as people’s homes. They are generally tolerated by officials, but crackdowns are not uncommon. As it relates to so many phenomena in China, degrees of official tolerance and intolerance come in waves. It seems the current wave is one of intolerance. The central government is stepping up restrictions, having implemented new regulations earlier this month. Two Christian churches were demolished in Shaanxi and Shanxi provinces in December of last year and January of this year.

So that a church would appear here in recent years seemed odd to me. Walking down the street in town last month, I asked a shop owner and handyman about the church. He told me that it was built just last year with private funds, and that it was not officially approved. I asked him if many people attended services there. He let out the kind of scoffing laugh that seems to follow so many of my questions. “No one goes!” he said, adding a wave of his hand and look off in the distance to emphasize his complete dismissal of the topic.

That seemed unlikely to me, so I set out to explore on a Sunday earlier this month. Service had let out, and a group of men were talking in front of the church. One of them introduced himself as the pastor. Pastor Liu – a medium-built man in his late 40s with intense eyes – confirmed that the church was built last year, but told me that the community has existed here for a long time. I asked if it would be okay if I attended services. While not exactly conveying a sense of warm enthusiasm about the idea, he nonetheless said that would be fine. He told me that the congregation meets Thursdays at 1 pm and Sundays at 8 am.

I headed out last Thursday to attend my first service. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was bracing for the worst: that I might be greeted with some hostility by the parishioners, who could feel that I was drawing unwanted attention to them or perhaps that my goal was to spy on them. When I walked in, the service seemed to have already started. The congregation was singing hymns, the lyrics of which were projected from a laptop onto a screen on the stage. The church was largely just a bare, grey concrete room. The only decorations were a laminate mural on the wall behind the stage. It depicted rays of sunshine falling onto a flock of sheep on a field, a forest in the distance. On the bottom right was written Proverbs 4:23: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it”.

Moments after I entered, a man turned around and looked at me. He then alerted his friend: “foreigner!” Within about five seconds nearly everyone in the church had turned to look at me. I smiled and mouthed “hello” to faces around the room. Feeling self-conscious, I took a seat in the back row. I quickly noticed that while there were three rows, they were distinguished by gender: the men sat only on the right side. The room was fairly small, with seats for about 100 people, though only 60 of them were full. In-keeping with the population of Pingpu in general, the congregation was mostly over 50, with two younger women holding babies. While most people lost interest in my presence and went back to their singing after a few moments, some people kept staring at me with a sort of expressionless look. After I nodded and smiled at them, most returned the greeting, but some just kept staring as though they were in an audience at a play.

A man who was sitting across the aisle from me got up from his seat, approached me and put his hand on my arm. I braced myself for the awkwardness of being asked to leave.

“Do you remember me?” he said. “We met in December. You gave me your card.”

“Oh right!” I said. “I remember you.” I didn’t remember him at all. (On an unrelated note, this concerns me.) I still wasn’t sure what his attitude was regarding my attendance, so I checked in. “Is it okay that I be here? I don’t want to bother anyone or make anyone feel uncomfortable.” (On an unrelated note, you can write that on my tombstone.)

“You can, no problem,” he said, before taking the seat next to me. “Do you believe in Christianity?” he asked. This was a completely reasonable question that for some inexplicable reason I was in no way prepared to answer. So as usual I overthought it and offered a confusing answer. “Uhhhmmm…. I went to church every week when I was a kid,” I said. “I agree with a lot of what Jesus said. I also think what he said is at base reflected in a lot of what is said in other religions.” He stared at me for a bit, then went back to the hymn.

The first part of the service was devoted to hymn singing. Only a few people had hymnals. Most relied on the project lyrics, which seemed to come from a website. After taking a few laps around perhaps three hymns, a man rose from his seat near the laptop and took up a long pointing stick. A new song was projected on the screen. This one was apparently rarely sung by the group, because the man felt it necessary to guide everyone through it exhaustively. Using the stick to keep the time, he sang it alone, slowly, twice. He then went through it again, asking everyone repeat each verse after him. He then asked that we sing it in time with him, before finally letting us sing it independently. Even after all of this, which took perhaps 30 minutes, we were still not ready: we steamrolled through key changes and skipped whole verses. He got up and intoned the parts we flubbed, all the while waving his stick up and down like a sideways metronome.

The pastor then took the stage for his homily. I noticed that he seemed almost broadcast-ready: he generally spoke slowly and simply, repeated concepts, and enunciated in very standard Mandarin without a trace of local dialect. In contrast the homilies with which I am familiar, his often felt more like a classroom lesson. He asked questions of the congregation: “How many holidays in Catholicism?” “How many sacraments?” “How many pieces of bread and glasses of wine per person for communion? 60?” Most were either shy or unprepared. After being greeted with silence, Liu provided us with the answers.

The majority of his talk was devoted to the topic of wealth and gifts. Given that last week was the heart of Spring Festival – during which red envelopes of cash are exchanged and “I wish you wealth!” is a common greeting – such a theme was apropos. “God gives us the greatest gifts for free,” Liu told us. “Love, understanding, peace, consolation. These come down from above, and are all around us, like the air we breathe.” It was a simple and moving message, and a welcome contrast to what for me here can often feel like an overwhelming degree of resignation to the pursuit of money and material goods.

When the service ended, several people approached me with questions about my work and reasons for joining the service. Most were kind and sweet, if a bit suspicious. Apropos of nothing, one of the young women with a baby turned her cell phone around to show me a picture of a luxury watch. “How much does this watch cost in America?” she asked.

I looked at her for a moment, not sure if she was joking or if I had misunderstood her question. “I have no idea,” I finally said. “How much does it cost in China?”

“About 7,000 yuan,” she said.

“Oh, well that’s probably about how much it costs in the US,” I said. “Why do you ask?”

“I’m just interested in things like this,” she said.

My Dinner with Bogdan

welcome to hell

WorldView, April, 2007

The medical staff had warned us that Romanian winters were the toughest.  They had surveyed the emotional well-being of previous volunteers and showed us a graph that took a plunge in November that lasted until April.  My group reacted predictably to the season.  By mid-December 2004, limited sunlight and bad weather had led to low energy, and we all struggled for a reason to put pants on in the morning.  We added pounds, grew beards and went unwashed. Once-ambitious English teachers turned to endless Bingo and Scattergories tournaments, and others spent hours on the Internet taking personality quizzes and sending e-mails criticizing other volunteers’ projects.  It was bleak.

A run of bad luck that month made it challenging for me to stay positive.  A smooth-talking Bucharest cab driver tricked and bullied me into giving him $20 for a $1 ride.  At a restaurant, a waiter spilled a beer on me.  On the train back to my home in a town on the Black Sea coast, an old man who looked like a mummy and smelled like pickles blamed me for the Soviet occupation of the Republic of Moldova and the inflated price of spread-able cheese.

When I got home I vowed to stay in my apartment, but after two cold, rainy days I started getting depressed.  The doorbell rang and my spirits picked up; I was happy to trade my sweatpants for jeans and re-enter the world.  But it was only the crazy woman who maintained the bloc I lived in.  She wanted $2 in local currency to sprinkle water in the halls and rearrange mud puddles on the walkways outside.  I handed over the money, dejected.  An existential chasm inside me yawned and groaned like an old dog kicked awake from a long nap.  I needed some yogurt.

Picking up my mail on the way back from the store, the bloc’s unofficial handyman called out my name from his first-floor apartment.  Bogdan Amatioaie had helped me many times with repairs and twice nearly killed us both by testing for a leak in my propane tank with a lighter and starting a fire in my stove with a pint of diesel fuel.

Bogdan resembled a friendly brown bear, a compact, hairy unit moving with no great urgency on undersized hind legs.  Sweet but confused, he persisted in believing that I was German and deaf.

“Guten morgen herr professor!” he yelled, walking towards me.  “I’m so happy to see you.  I thought you were dead.”  Every few months a new rumor spread about me around town: that I was married, a spy, a Morman, gay, married to a man, marrying a Chinese woman, opening a Chinese restaurant, deaf, German, and now dead.

Normally I enjoyed our conversations, but not this time.

“No, I’m not dead, Bogdan.  I was on vacation.”

“Wonderful!” he said.  “But you don’t look well.  You should come over for dinner.  Elena is making piftie.”  I flinched.   Rancid flounder looks tantalizing next to piftie, a gelatinous mass of cold pork fat and onions masquerading as a holiday treat.  “Thanks Bogdan,” I said, walking up the stairs to my apartment.  “But I’m not feeling real well.”

Back inside my apartment, I found among my mail a Christmas card from my aunt in North Carolina.  It had a painting of a smiling snowman on the front.  “I’m sure there are many Romanian foods and customs about the Christmas season that you will be enjoying,” she wrote.  It made me regret my hibernation. Here I was, wasting my Peace Corps experience inside my apartment, feeling sorry for myself.  Well by god, things we’re gonna change!   I was going to start giving back and making the most of my time here. And I was going to begin with dinner that night at Bogdan’s.

A few hours later, I knocked at Bogan’s door with a bottle of wine in hand.  He greeted me, shirtless and shoeless.  I felt embarrassed, as if I had opened the door to his bedroom by mistake as he was trying on his wife’s clothes.  But Bogdan expressed no shame.

“The German!” he annnounced.  Resting one hand on his sizable belly and the other on my shoulder, he walked me inside to the kitchen, where his wife, Elena, was preparing dinner.

“Elena!  The German is here.  He’s joining us for dinner tonight.”  Elena glared at me and nodded, then went back to stirring her cauldron of stew.  Dressed in black, thin and disapproving, she looked the opposite of Bogdan. She’d always ignored my greetings.  I’d never seen her smile.  Elena didn’t seem interested in a cross-cultural experience.

Ignoring her sullen nature, Bogdan led me into the living room, where he had been watching a soccer game at a high volume being played between two indistinguishable teams in a muddy, half-filled stadium.  He poured me a very tall glass of homemade wine.

“Do you like Romanian football?” he yelled.

“Of course,” I said.  Who doesn’t?

“Who’s your favorite player?”

I was afraid of this question.  The only Romanian soccer player I knew Adrian Mutu, and I remembered hearing that he had been in some trouble lately with cocaine.  I had to think fast.  I drank half my glass of wine to buy some time.  It tasted like fertilizer.  I gambled.

“I like Popescu,” I said, choosing one of the most common Romanian surnames.

“Popescu?  That no-talent drunk!”  He slammed his glass down and pointed a finger at me.  I was in trouble.  I needed diversion.

“Look at that!” I said, pointing out the window at a stray dog walking in the road.  He stared at the one-eyed dog, then looked back at me, confused.  Pointing out a mangy dog on a street in his town was like finding socks remarkable.  But it diverted his attention to my stupidity, a subject he didn’t have the energy to discuss.  We went back to watching the game.

A few minutes later, Elena announced the start of dinner by silently bringing a bowl of Romanian polenta to the table with all the joy of a pallbearer.  Bogdan patted his belly and nodded.

“Ah!” he said in his limited English.  “The wife!”  We made our way to the table.

In addition to the typical ciorba, bread, french fries and fried chicken, Elena added a casserole dish full of piftie, complete with miniature smiling snowmen on top made of butterballs.  I started on the polenta.  The rest of the food was excellent, but I grimaced as I regarded the smiling snowmen, looking like chubby toddlers bobbing in a sea of congealed grease.  I knew I’d have to confront them.

Bogdan and Elena stared at me, clearly pleased with how much I was enjoying the food.  I tried to start some conversation.  “So how do you like living here?” I said.

“We like it,” Bogdan said with a smile.  Then his face clouded over.  “Except for all the damn gypsies!”  Bogdan then took me on an exhausting 10-minute journey through Romanian history and politics, as he saw them.  What followed was a dizzying mix of rumor, speculation, revision, anecdote, limerick and fairy tale peppered with some facts.  Everyone was implicated.

“Asta e,” he concluded.  But what can you do?  When Bogdan had finished even the snowmen seemed tilted and diminished under the weight of his sobering lecture.

As I poured myself another glass of wine, Elena served the piftie.  I insisted that I was full, but she put a heaping plateful of it before me.  My snowman had collapsed at the waist, and a disembodied head stared up at me.  I was out of diversions.  Taking in a forkful, I was surprised to find that when mixed with every available food on the plate, piftie is not without its charm.  My fears overcome and the wine taking effect, I relaxed and enjoyed the rest of the meal.

Bogdan invited me to watch more television while Elena cleared the table. Remote in hand, Bogdan hesitated when a midget appeared on the screen­–a dead ringer for Tattoo on Fantasy Island–who sang manele (Gypsy-influenced dance music) as women in mini skirts danced around him.

“Ah, Romanian girls,” Bogdan said.  He looked at me proudly, as if he was responsible.  “The most beautiful.  What do you think about the women here?”

Since I had heard this question so many times before, I decided to throw him off.  “They’re okay.  But I like German girls.”

“What!” he said.  “No, they are too fat.”  I looked at him, sitting there like a hairy Buddha, and considered telling him he was the portly black pot pointing fingers at the kettle, but I didn’t want to spoil the friendly mood.  Elena returned and sat next to him.  Even she seemed happy.  She asked me if I missed my family in Germany.

Later, over the blare of the television, Bogdan told me how he met Elena.  The wine and heavy carbohydrates didn’t help my poor Romanian, but it was something about high school and gym class and a sofa.  They showed me a picture of their son, a student in Bucharest.  Bogdan toasted the New Year, good health and welcome guests.

After cookies and more wine, my host switched channels to a Romanian program called Vacanta Mare.  It was the worst show I’d ever seen, but Bogdan enjoyed it.

“He’s bald like you,” he said as he pointed at one actor.

“Well, that one’s fat like you,” I said, pointing to another.  He nodded.  Next up were sitcoms and Dog Day Afternoon, which inspired Bogdan to do his Al Pacino impression, consisting mostly of a lot of incoherent yelling.

After two hours of Romania’s cultural channel, I was ready to go home.  I had enjoyed many Romanian foods and customs of the season.  Sure Bogdan and I didn’t really understand each other and likely never would.  But we practiced patience and good humor, like all friends do.  Awkward as it was, I enjoyed the evening and felt lucky to have been there.

Elena invited me back for dinner the next night, and I swear she even smiled.  Bogdan shook my hand firmly.

“I’m glad you came,” he said.  “And that you’re not dead.”

Ross Doll served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania from 2003 to 2005.

Let’s Get Shameless: Or How I Learned to Stop Complaining and Love the Black Sea Coast

Spuneti, September 2004

Looking through my email today, I happened to notice a message from Peace Corps Training announcing group 19’s site placements.  Though I’m not well acquainted with the group, I was eager to see who was placed where.  For me, site announcements left me feeling a little depressed.  A security leak in the system informed me slightly before the big Oscar-themed gala that I was soon headed to Eforie Sud, a small town on the Black Sea Coast. I had visited the coastal city of Neptun with my group not long before, and the thought of returning to the area worried me.  Among my memories of my three-day stay there were getting hit in the groin with a volleyball, severely burning my arms and legs, being accosted by a mustachioed gypsy, and hearing 50 Cent’s “In the Club” blasted outside my hotel room day and night no less than 47 times.  I remember taking lots of pictures, thinking I’d never be back.  “Well,” I figured.  “I’ve never been to this ‘Eforie Sud’ of which they speak.  How bad could it be?”  I consulted the experts at Lonely Planet.  It took some searching, since they didn’t even bother with a sub-section for the town.  I had to look under the Northern Dobruja general section, which collected it with other local towns in the garbage bin of “concrete jungles of the late 1960s,” these “dilapidated, dying resorts.”  I needed a second opinion.  I found a perpetually positive Volunteer friend with a Rough Guide.  “Chin up,” she said.  “How bad could it be?  Let’s just see what the Guide says, hmm?  Hmm.  ‘Squalid, depressing, and not worth a visit.’  Well, good luck with that.”

This wasn’t fitting in with my plans.  In my site placement interview, I remembered asking for a place in the mountains and expecting a small, rural town filled with simple country folk.  Sure, they’d be suspicious of me and my big-city ways at the beginning, but I’d slowly win them over, regaling them with stories of “iced-cream” and motorized carriages, and generally catching them up on the last 100 years of history.  We’d wear animal skins in the winter and sing folk songs to keep us warm.  I might even have a rival or two – a young buck with something to prove.  But I’d charm him too, and we’d secure our hard-won brotherhood by exchanging crude friendship bracelets.

So I tried to look surprised and excited when they called me out in front of the group to present me with my site announcement prize. Getting stuck with a seemingly has-been tourist village had me feeling cheated and overlooked.  It all reminded me of my sixth grade summer camp when at the closing awards ceremony I was deemed “Most Likely to Eat Apple Pie.”  In neither case did the prize seem the result of much personal consideration on the part of the organizers.

Looking back, I came to site last summer with kind of a poor attitude.  My town had all the sounds, smells and appearances that I thought it would.  Not only was I disappointed, but I felt twice as alienated because everyone around me was having so much fun.  It was like being at a party that I wasn’t invited to and couldn’t leave.  I decided to shun their party to make myself feel superior.  I began to venture out of my apartment in daylight only once every two days or so, rubbing my eyes and covering every part of myself with clothing like a recluse in a fallout zone.  On a subconscious level, I also hoped people might notice my strange appearance and absence and reconsider the direction of their lives. Like some seaside-exiled Grinch, I thought I’d teach the people of Eforie Sud a lesson for having fun without me and living in a town and country that didn’t fit my romantic expectations.  I’d show them how they were wasting their lives on the beach!  Some part of me thought I’d accomplish this by walking around town in my winter clothes, perhaps pausing every few minutes to gaze at the horizon thoughtfully and shake my head disapprovingly.  “Who is that somber young American man dressed in corduroy pants and a wool shirt who stays inside his apartment most of the day feeling sorry for himself?” they’d say.  “He’s really teaching me a lesson about how I’m wasting my life here on the beach.”

So I’m happy to say that things have changed after a year.  After getting through a generally boring and cold winter where my tourist town turned into Tumbleweed Alley, I was happy to see the people return this summer.  My town’s not the prettiest, but it has an understated charm.  Heading down to the beach in June, I found that it was easy to join the party, since there’s really no way I could stand out any more than the average Romanian beach tourist, with their luminous sunburns, screaming toddlers, and bright orange shirts that say things like “You Can’t Touch This” with an arrow heading southward.  I began to admire the shamelessness natural to beach goers the world over, such as when morbidly obese men and women here discard even their thong bikinis to stand with only their feet in the Black Sea, stretching their arms open wide and pointing their exposed loins eastward.  It seems no matter where you’re from, the lure of the sea is strong, drawing away your inhibitions and making every man, woman and child feel like a varitable Zeus.  It’s enough to make you fall in love with it.  Looking along the coast, my Grinch heart grew ten sizes.  I bought a Frisbee and even started wearing shorts.  I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now.

I thought about all of this as I scanned the list of group 19 site assignments to see who my lucky new sitemate is.  Who, too, may be born again by the summer sun, shaowarmas and unceasing Manele?  Kelly Henshaw of Mangalia, I’ll see you on the other side.

Meat People From Around the World: Or a story for Ben and the occasionally regretful

Spuneti, March 2005

It’s been said many times that PCVs in Romania do nothing better than complain.  Since this is largely true, it’s worth examining.  Taken as a whole, most of our complaints are pretty ridiculous, the product of a group of people with too much free time, an inflated sense of self and unrealistic expectations.  Complaining begins in force during PST (“Can you believe they made us go to that boring session on safety and security?  Those animals!”) and only seems to increase over time.

But then there are those with legitimate complaints.  I’d include in this category a friend of mine in group 16, who we’ll call Ben.  Ben wanted to do meaningful work for his local managers, but they weren’t interested in using his skills.  In terms of work, anyway, this hasn’t been the experience he hoped for.  Though Ben has never said it, I’m sure there have been many times when he’s wondered if his time here has been well spent. So for Ben and everyone else who’s ever felt the same, I offer the following story of hope and redemption.

I wasn’t feeling especially good about my work as a volunteer even before I met Florin. It was late January, and it hadn’t been a good week at school. While trying to distinguish Martin Luther King from Martin Luther, I inexplicably and with conviction told two different classes that the religious reformer was also the inventor of the printing press.  Later, while talking about Valentine’s Day, some other students said that it was because of my Valentine’s preaching that Dragobete is a dying holiday, and that all we ever do in class are “stupid games.”  So I was feeling like a misinforming, dumb-as-rocks cultural imperialist when I boarded an overcrowded Rapid from Bucharest to Sinaia.

For anyone having doubts about the value of American influence abroad as I was, traveling on a Romanian train isn’t recommended.  I’ve spent a lot of time trying to imagine how anyone could collect such a dizzyingly horrendous assortment of pop music as is piped into the compartments of so many trains here.  Since most of the artists featured on these broadcasts are American, it’s a testament to the typical Romanian’s ability to withstand the cruelest of punishments that, forced to listen to this garbage, they don’t riot and throw me out the window.  When I entered my compartment to the sound of “Living La Vida Loca” blasting from the speaker above the door. I found my seat between a burly old woman and a middle-aged man with an enormous hair coming out of the top of his nose.  The two stared ahead stoically, Ricky’s ubiquitous vacuity just one more trial.

After a few minutes of pretending to read, I sensed I was being stared at.  I looked up to the seat across from me to see a greasy, crazy-looking young man with startlingly bad acne grinning at me. As I really didn’t feel like talking, I gave him a half-smile and went back to my magazine, thinking he’d lose interest.  He didn’t.

“Where are you from?” he said.  I ignored him, staring at the page and scratching the back of my neck.  I hoped he’d get the point.

“HEY!” he shouted.  “I SAID, WHERE ARE YOU FROM?”


“Ah,” he said, nodding.  “I don’t like your country.”  He kept looking at me, as if I was supposed to respond to this.  I went back to my magazine, cursing myself for not taking a later train.

“What are you doing here?” he said.  “Romania sucks.”

“I teach English, in Eforie Sud.”

“That’s stupid, we already speak English.”

I thought about explaining Peace Corps’ three goals and the whole cultural exchange thing, but then I noticed the sweater he had on backwards and the shoes he had on the wrong feet.  I decided not to bother.  But he wasn’t finished.

“Hey!  American!  Do you know about Dracula?”

“Do I know about Dracula?”


“Yeah, I know about Dracula.”

“Do you know about the impaling?”

“I think so.”

“How do you know about this?”

“Well, I’ve seen some movies, and – “

“You Americans, all you know about is Dracula.  Have you been to Sighisoara?”


“How have you been there?”

“I’ve lived here for a year and – “

“Did you know Dracula was born there?”


“How do you know that?”

“Well, I – “

“Have you been to this hostel?” He handed me a brochure from the Gia Hostel in Sighisoara.  I scanned the front.  At the bottom it read “Come and have a look and you’ll stay longer than you thought!”  I took this to mean that the owners might bind you and force you to work in the less-advertised Gia Brothel.

“I don’t think so.  Have you?”


“Then why did you give this to me?”

“It looks nice.”

After a few moments of awkward silence, he had more to say.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he said, smiling sheepishly.

“You do?”  I said.  I was just wishing I had put my headphones on sooner.

“Yes.  And I am not a gay.  No, I just like to meet people from around the world.  I knew you were a foreigner.”

It was here that he introduced himself as Florin.  He was on his way to Brasov, where he lives and does odd jobs “mostly in tourism.”  It seemed strange to me that someone with no attention span, cultural sensitivity, national pride or an ability to dress himself would be hired to do anything, much less to work in tourism. But why make an issue of it.  He asked for my cell number, and I felt safe in giving it to him, since I had exchanged numbers with people on trains many times before and never heard from any of them.

“Hey!” Florin said.  “Do you know about Counter-Strike?”

After what seemed like hours of conversation, we stopped in Ploiesti to the tune of “Take my Breath Away.”  Florin eventually got back to basics, asking me again why I was in Romania, but this time allowing me to answer his questions.  I told him, as concisely as possible, about my job and Peace Corps.  He seemed to listen attentively.  I grew bolder, even sentimental.  I gave him all my reasons for devoting two years to serve here. How I too wanted to meet people from around the world, make a difference, grow as a person.  In the end, I felt I had expressed myself with understated grace.

“That sounds really stupid,” he said.  “You don’t get paid?  I wouldn’t do that.  And we don’t need the help of foreigners.  And we already speak English.  You should go back to America, it’s much better.  Bush!  What do you think about this Bush?”

Back on CFR radio, we had reached a new low with “You’re in the Army Now,” a cautionary tale about the standard downfalls of military service.  As Florin droned on about international politics and American incompetence, “unbelievable” was the word that came to mind.  Unbelievable that I this song was written.  Unbelievable that it was recorded.  Unbelievable that anyone allowed it to be played.  Unbelievable that I had to sit and listen to it as well as this nutcase across from me criticizing my job and values and home.  I kept quiet, but this was just what I didn’t need to hear.  Sure, he was insane and harmless, just as my students with their complaints were young.  But when you’re already feeling down, it can be hard not to let people like this get to you.

Florin got up to use the bathroom, giving me a much-needed break.  It was then that the woman who had been reading a magazine silently next to him spoke up.

“Don’t listen to him,” she said.  “I think he’s a little crazy.  It’s great what you’re trying to do here.”

After saying goodbye and getting off the train later, I thought about what she had said.  Maybe she was right.  Maybe things like tangible outcomes and appreciation were unrealistic.  Results took time and you might never see them, but they happened, often in ways and to degrees you didn’t expect.

About three weeks later on Valentine’s Day, back in my apartment watching The Young and the Restless, my phone rang with a text message:

happy valentines ross!

it was nice to meat u!

ur the first american

i meat.  i like u! enjoy

romania! ur friend


In Romania, Every Day Is Halloween

Seattle Times, October 2004

Logically, Halloween should be huge in Romania.

Or so I thought before I came here a year ago as a Peace Corps volunteer. After all, it does contain Dracula’s native Transylvania. Last Halloween however, I discovered there’s little interest here in our day of movie monster dress up and tired ghost stories. In Romania, where superstitions are abundant and spirits are evil and invisible, every day brings something to be afraid of.

It was halfway through October, at the local high school where I work as an English teacher, when I first mentioned All Hallows Eve to a class of Romanian students. “What are you planning to do for Halloween?” I asked, expecting enthusiasm. “I don’t know, nothing,” they responded. I was confused. “But what about the whole Dracula thing?” I asked. They shook their heads, incredulous. “Is that all Americans know about Romania?”

Well, yes. I didn’t have the guts to tell them that I knew nothing else about their country when I was assigned here. I decided I also shouldn’t mention that I always imagined the real Dracula looked and acted like a cross between Bela Lugosi and Count Chocula.

The historical Dracula wasn’t much of a bloodsucker, it turns out, though he was truly bloodthirsty. Dracula writer Bram Stoker based the character on 15th-Century Romanian Prince Vlad Tepes, a brutal leader known for ruthless punishments. He gained the name Tepes (“Impaler”) from his favorite form of punishment. Far from being a seductive super monster, Tepes is considered a national hero in Romania because of his defeat of fierce Ottoman armies and brief uniting of the country. At best Romanians are amused (and at worse very annoyed) by the misinformation spread about Prince Tepes. The building of a Dracula theme park outside of Bucharest has done little to create enthusiasm for Halloween and its role in misconstruing Romanian history.

When the week before Halloween arrived however, I decided to prepare a series of related classroom activities, undeterred by my student’s clear lack of interest in the holiday. I created a lesson wherein I would brilliantly connect current superstitions with the Pagan roots of Halloween. I decided I would decorate my classroom with candles, pumpkins and fake spider webbing. Then I’d pass out candy.

But on the way home from a large Western-style grocery store where I’d purchased my supplies, there was an incident that was to have terrible consequences for my festivities.

In Romania, there is a phenomenon known as the curent. The curent can be best described as an evil wind that is created when two pathways are made to the outside in a room. For example, the curent is apt to appear when two windows are left open on opposite sides. According to many Romanians, the result is a wind current of terrible power, invading the ears of the unfortunate within and causing them to drop dead, or at least get the sniffles.

To the annoyance of skeptical Westerners (myself included), keeping the curent tamed often means having to keep windows closed on buses, trains and classrooms, no matter how hot the summer afternoon or how foul the air within.

Unlike many of my American colleagues, I had been patient with the curent to that point, shrugging it off as a quaint cultural difference. But the bus from the store that late October day was particularly crowded, hot and unbearable. I decided I’d open a window.

An old woman that looked like a dried apple wearing a handkerchief standing next to me immediately closed it. I re-opened it. She yelled at me and closed it again. After a few more attempts and more yelling, I gave up. I had had it with Romania. How could a people be so unreasonable?

Trying to forget that episode, I went to school the next Monday and decorated my room. When my first class came, I began my lesson by opening the discussion comparing American and Romanian superstitions. Apparently our countries share certain superstitions. It seems a black cat crossing your path in Romania is just as much trouble here as it is in Missouri. Broken mirrors, Friday the 13th, spilling salt, and opening an umbrella or whistling indoors are also all bad, we concluded.

Then things started getting a little strange. Simona in the front row told me that if a pot of milk boils over on your stove that your cow will get sick. “What if I don’t have a cow?” I asked. She seemed puzzled by the question. “Then maybe it will be your mother,” she said.

Raluca next to her then told me that a baby walking on its knees is good luck, which seems reasonable. Catalina said that it’s necessary for the bride to be kidnapped during the wedding and held for ransom by an unspecified man. Simona said something about how a woman must dance with a dead chicken smoking a cigarette. Bogdan in the back row spoke of the godfather riding a donkey into a field to meet the new couple the day after the wedding, though the class was unable to agree on the details and significance of this practice.

It was then that I made a mistake. Feeling too comfortable with my students, I decided I would bring up what had been bothering me for days. “What about the curent? I asked. “Some people think that’s a superstition.” It was as if an evil wind blew threw the room. “It’s not a superstition,” scolded Catalina. “It’s real.” I pressed on. “But it doesn’t effect me or my American friends. Are we a race of supermen?” “You haven’t been here long enough,” was the stern reply. “It’s real.” I had gone too far. I needed an exit. “Who wants some candy!” I said.

After class, with my students alienated and my room covered in Halloween paraphernalia, I began to feel a little silly. Here I had come all this way to a country I knew nothing about, imposed my customs and logic, and expected them to listen. My students had shown me Romania was a fascinating place, albeit one where a pot of milk or an open window could kill you. Maybe it was time to learn more than teach, and be grateful I lived in a place with distinct customs. Sitting down to fill out my grade book a few minutes later, a breeze came through the window. My papers fluttered, and the classroom door slammed shut violently. “Close your window!” yelled someone in the hall outside.

That was enough for me. This Halloween, I plan to celebrate as Romanians do, near a fire, with friends, telling true scary stories, and with all the windows and doors safely locked.