Greetings! Or, rather, Nǐ Hǎo.
I can hardly believe it, but I’ve successfully completed my service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine. As of one week ago today, I am an RPCV, or what those of us who’ve finished service call a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. (In PC there are a lot of acronyms.) I’m still able to vividly recall my first day, hours in Ukraine as a trainee more than two years ago, after being whisked from Boryspol airport to a quiet sanatorium in the small town of Desna outside Chernigov, like it was yesterday. Now I’m here in Shanghai, China with all that in the past. Wild.
Honestly, I still haven’t processed it all. Two years, while sounding like a long time, in reality passes like a train in the night. I think it’s going to take some time before I’m really able to sit down and figure out what it all meant and means to me, as well as how the whole experience influenced my life. Right now I feel as though I’m merely on vacation. Any day now I’ll be returning to my home in Artemovsk, right?
Fortunately – and unfortunately – no, I won’t be returning there. Yes, leaving Ukraine was bittersweet. I had some great times, but I experienced some extremely trying ones, too. I’d say Ukraine and I had a love-hate relationship. There were certainly times during the past years when I felt lower than ever before, but there were also times when I felt extremely proud, appreciated and as though I was a contributor to the development of the country. It was, at risk of sounding extremely cliche, an incredibly enriching, fulfilling and invaluable experience.
I’ll forever remember my time in Ukraine, especially a select few things. Visiting the Chernobyl exclusion zone was a fascinating look into a post-apocalyptic world. Traveling around the southern coast of Crimea with my girlfriend and swimming in the Black Sea among the many jellyfish and thonged Ukrainians was a wonderful getaway. Celebrating holidays with my Ukrainian friends and colleagues over incountable bottles of vodka and samagon was always an interesting cultural experience. These memories and many others I’ll forever cherish.
Now I’ve begun the next chapter. Let’s call it the China chapter. I’ve been in Shanghai one week now, and I can happily tell you that I’m enjoying it immensely. It’s not only wonderful to finally be living with my girlfriend of three years, but it’s incredibly fascinating to be living and working in the People’s Republic of China. If all goes according to plan, we’ll be living here at least a year, teaching, photographing and writing.
So far, deprived of a vast variety of food during my 27 months in Ukraine, I’ve eaten an array of cultural dishes from all around the world here in Shanghai. I’ve huffed down a delicious Reuban with a pale ale that put Ukrainian beer to shame, I’ve chugged 2-for-1 margaritas and fed my face with fish tacos and I’ve devoured an enormous amount of Chinese street food, including meat-filled dumplings, fried octopus and assorted vegetables and strange fruits. Since arriving I’ve been in a state of pure foodie bliss.
I’ve also seen more smiles in one week on the street than I did in during all of last year. The Chinese are incredibly friendly people. I’ve already made pals with the woman who sells produce down our lane, the guy who works at Toby Good Eats, a quaint food kiosk across the street, and a very talented cobbler who I bought a gorgeous pair of shoes from this afternoon. (The cobbler and I strolled down the street arm in arm in the rain discussing his learning to make shoes as a child in a leather factory operated by his father.)
So I’m off to a good start here in China and I’m looking forward to what’s still to come. But I’ll never forget the good times I had in Ukraine, the friendships made, the vodka shared, the borsch eaten, nor will I forget the many trials and tribulations. It’ll all forever be with me.
Consider this my last blog post here at The Borderland Chronicles. In the not-so-distant future I hope to start a separate blog for my adventures in China, as well as a new personal website highlighting my written and photographed work. If you’ve enjoyed this blog over the past two years, keep your eyes peeled for these news sites soon to come. I’ll post links on Twitter and Facebook once they’re up and running.