Peace Corps in China: A conversation with Eric Doise & Saara Raappana

Culture | by Aimee Groom
Posted: November 4th, 2011 | Updated: November 4th, 2011 | Comments

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Guizhou Earlier this year, Eric Doise and Saara Raappana embarked on an adventure that would take them deep into the heart of Guizhou, one of China's poorest provinces. Just a few months into their two year Peace Corp placement in Anshun and they're already neck deep in cultural curiosity—and adjusting to becoming cultural curiosities themselves. While they are busy disseminating the English language and sharing some American culture, their blog "Horse Horse Tiger Tiger" shares what China is teaching them, with the folks back home. Here, they let us in on a little of what they've seen, heard and learned so far.>>> ChinaTravel.net: First up, tell us a bit about yourselves and what brought you to China? Eric & Saara: We came to China through the Peace Corps. Saara earned her MFA in Poetry at the University of Florida and had been a university-level teacher in the United States, as was Eric, who earned his PhD in the English Department at the University of Florida. We like traveling, teaching, and learning from and about other cultures, so the Peace Corps seemed like a perfect fit. While we didn't pick China—where you serve is ultimately the Peace Corps' decision, we're excited to be in such a fast-growing, vibrant country as China. CT.net: What was the inspiration for creating your blog? Eric & Saara: One of the goals of the Peace Corps is to inform Americans about the culture, customs and people of the country where you serve, and our blog is just one of the ways that we'll be able to fulfill that goal. The name came from a Chinese phrase that means "not too good, not too bad": ma ma hoo hoo (mǎmǎhǔhǔ, 马马虎虎), which translates literally as "horse horse tiger tiger." CT.net: What were some of your first impressions on arriving in China? Tell us about your best experience so far. Eric & Saara: Our first impression of China was how crowded it was, which is probably a fairly typical response. However, soon after our arrival, we moved in with a host family in Chengdu that we lived with for two months, and quickly came to appreciate Chinese hospitality. We also were, and continue to be, amazed at how rare foreigners are in most of China. Coming from America, we take for granted that seeing people of different ethnicities and races is common; but in China (especially in the smaller towns and cities), it's rare to see a non-Chinese face. Stares from unsuspecting, well-meaning Chinese people have become the norm. Huangguo shu waterfalls, Guizhou CT.net: What was your best experience? Eric & Saara: Our best experience outside of living with our host family was seeing Huangguoshuo Falls, the country's largest waterfall. They are actually a series of falls, but due to time constraints, we were only able to see the major one. Once we entered the gate for the falls, we walked through a beautifully landscaped garden populated by stones, worn by the enormous pressure of the falls. The water at the bottom of the falls is a pristine blue. Perhaps our favorite feature of the site is that you can walk behind the fall, providing some amazing sights of the falls and lush surrounding areas. CT.net: And your worst? Eric: Jin Li Street in Chengdu was a disappointment. Once the trade center of the city, it was renovated to restore its previous look, but the result is an Epcot version of what it once was. The biggest problem we had, though, is that there's not much to do there besides shop. Perhaps that's fitting, though, given its historical significance. There is a museum in the center of the area that might be worth visiting, but we did not buy tickets for it. JinLi Street, Chengdu, Sichuan CT.net: You’re currently based in Anshun. Any tips for visitors to the city on what to see, where to go or what to eat? Eric & Saara: Huangguoshu Falls and the Dragon Palace, which we have yet to visit, are nearby. Dog meat is not uncommon. Most restaurants that serve it have pictures of dogs on their storefront, but it's probably a good idea to learn the Chinese characters or hànzì ( 汉字) for "dog" (gǒu, 狗) if you're averse. If you're looking for a nice meal, the Triumphal Hotel near the Beijing Hua Lian Square (Běijīng Huá Lián Guǎngchǎng, 北京华联广场; also home to some large dinosaur statues) has good food (the 11 and 14 buses go here). If you enjoy eating dumplings (jiǎozi, 饺子), try out Běijīng Jiǎozi Guǎn (北京饺子馆; the 11 also goes here, but I believe the sign is in hanzi only, which will make reading it difficult for most foreigners). Anshun is also a great jumping off place for many minority towns. The surrounding area has Miao, Buyi, and Gelao minority villages that you can visit. Travel to and from Anshun is convenient as you can catch trains to Chongqing, Chengdu, Guiyang, and Kunming, among other large cities. One note on the buses: unless there are police around, you don't need to actually be at a bus stop to catch a bus. If you see one approaching that you wish to board, simply flag the bus down with your hand, and they will usually stop for you. However, be prepared to get on quickly as they will take off while you're still boarding if you're not fast enough. Taxis are also fairly inexpensive; RMB 5 will get you most places in the city, although you should make sure you're not getting the foreigner price. If the driver uses the meter, you should get a fair price. CT.net: What is the one thing you wish you’d known about China before arriving? Eric & Saara: Just how different the various areas of China are from each other. This might seem obvious, but because it is still a developing country, the discrepancies between the major cities and the smaller cities can make it seem like you're in two different countries. For instance, without a cell phone that makes international phone calls, it is all but impossible for travelers to call other countries from Anshun. In the major cities, however, international phone cards are fairly easy to come by. In other words, prepare to be flexible if you are planning on traveling across the country. CT.net: What do you miss most from home? Eric & Saara: Definitely the food. We like Chinese food, but I'm certain we'd pay way too much for pizza, American French fries, a hamburger, pie, etc. if we could locate it right now. Anshun has no Western food. CT.net: What would you miss most if you were to leave tomorrow? Eric & Saara: Our colleagues and students have been wonderful hosts, helping us get settled in and showing us around Anshun, and because we still keep in touch with our original host family in Chengdu, we'd certainly miss them. We've also enjoyed learning and speaking Mandarin. The Peace Corps provided us with some wonderful teachers during our training, and one of our colleagues has continued to fill that role admirably. CT.net: What three words sum up your China experience? Eric & Saara: Unpredictable, enjoyable, loud. If you've enjoyed meeting Eric and Saara then drop by and say hi over at Horse Horse Tiger Tiger and see what's going down in Anshun.
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