Peace Corps Writers
Second Time Around (page 3)

Second Time Around

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     Kevin had just bought a book of essays by Washington Irving so we talked about Irving’s place in American literature and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” “What about Whitman?” he said. We also talked about the Hangzhou housing market and whether he should buy the apartment he was looking at near West Lake, half the size of his current apartment, but the location was tugging at him, and whether or not the teachers at our school cared about the students or were they more focused on the expectation to publish an article in a professional journal every year and the Chinese aversion to bad news in any area of public life and how you must know somebody in order to get a job and many, many other things. When I looked at my watch, three hours had slipped by. That’s how you can spend the day in a tea house. How simple. How lovely. How civilized.
     He walked me back to my bus stop; I pushed on with the other commuters, clung to the strap as the old bus weaved around cars, bicycles, carts, and pedestrians for the hour-long ride back to Xiasha, the suburb where our college was. It was the last week of the semester and I didn’t have to peer out the windows to know that the boulevard was lined with flowers, that the streets were crowded with people, that there was a woman on a bicycle with two children and the day’s groceries, that a man was riding one-handed with load of lumber in the other hand, that the musical sound on the bus was somebody’s mobile phone, that there were street signs I’d never learned to read, that there was row after row of small shops selling everything, that I was in China — China one of the great civilizations of the world, China where people have suffered unimaginable indignities, China where there is so much hope and suspicion and life. It was hard not to wonder how I got so lucky.
     An Ethiopian friend once told us that two years is so short in the life of a country, that what we could hope to achieve as Peace Corps Volunteers was fleeting, a tiny wave in an enormous whirlpool. He was right, of course. Five months teaching in a country with an eight-thousand-year history is even less, but for us it was a second chance. A second chance to fall in love with students, to be awed by how deeply connected each of us is on this planet, a chance to see ourselves as others see us, to be shaken out of our daily routine so we can see the power and the beauty of every day, of daily life, wherever we are.
     During those two years in Ethiopia I visited every province, saw the Blue Nile and the castles at Gondar, went to Lalibela, but what I remember and what I miss is my little mud house on a dirt road, the family across the way, the little girl who danced in the street, the students, especially the students. It was the same in China. I walked on the Great Wall, saw the Terra Cotta warriors, floated through the three gorges down the Yangtse, saw the lotus raise its huge and holy head at West Lake, but what I remember and what I miss are the people we knew, the students and young teachers who are the hope for the future. Forty years ago I loved my students because it was impossible not to, but I was young too and didn’t know how beautiful we all were. This time around I knew.

ONE MORE THING. We did this together, Chuck and I. We met in Ethiopia, but didn’t live in the same town and in 38 years of marriage never had the same job, or taught the same kids, or were irate at the same mindless bureaucracy. But in Hangzhou we understood what each other’s day was like. We were colleagues as well as lifelong partners. I loved the sight of him coming up the sidewalk after class, notebook and papers in hand, looking professorial or sitting surrounded by “his” kids in the library. It was a gift, this second time around, to see each other in new light, to teach in China, to be renewed together.

Kathleen Coskran’s short fiction and articles have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies. Her collection of short stories, The High Price of Everything, won a Minnesota Book Award as did Tanzania on Tuesday: Writing by American Women Abroad which she co-edited. She is the recipient of numerous artists' fellowships and residencies including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Bush Artist's Fellowship, and two grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband, Chuck Coskran (Ethiopia 1965–67, Kenya staff, 1969–71). Last year they returned from teaching in China.

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