WILSON: Peace Corps Oral History Project interview with Aaron Shrabergon February 20, 2007 in Lexington, Kentucky. Aaron if you would please, please give me your full name, where you were born and when.
SHRABERG: Sure my name is Aaron Hyman Shraberg and I was born in NewOrleans, Louisiana on November 4, 1981.
WILSON: Tell me if you will a little something about your family andgrowing up and so forth.
SHRABERG: Sure, well on my father's side my family came to the UnitedStates from Lithuania in 1910 and they actually settled in Somerset, Kentucky. And my great-great-grandfather muddled around in Somerset for a while, began collecting things that nobody wanted, and less than 20 years later his son, Hyman, had his own scrap metal company 1:00here in Lexington where his family ended up setting up shop for good. So on my father's side my family has been here for over 100 years in Lexington. And on my mother's side their family came to tiny ----- -----(??), Maryland in 1668 from England and they ended up getting a land grant in Rhineyville, Kentucky after the American Revolution and ended up settling there for a short time. In fact my great-great-great grandfather was Zachariah Rhiney, who ended up being Abraham Lincoln's schoolteacher. Abraham Lincoln affectionately referred to those years as his gab school years, so I don't know if it is or isn't to our credit but that history is there. So you could say my family is pretty stooped in Kentucky history, and I grew up between New Orleans, 2:00Louisiana and Lexington. My father had worked in Louisiana and that's where I ended up being born. And he wanted to return to Lexington and so he did so, and then he went back to New Orleans after my parents divorced in the late '80s. And I ended up spending the next seven or ten years living between Lexington and New Orleans. So I was raised between both places.
WILSON: And so where did you say Rhineville?
WILSON: Rhineyville is in what county?
SHRABERG: Rhineyville is in near Elizabethtown.
WILSON: Oh okay.
SHRABERG: The county, I'm trying to remember what that's called.
WILSON: I can't remember now either, but anyway.
SHRABERG: If you get on the Bluegrass Parkway and drive about two hourswest of here you'll run right into it.
WILSON: I can find it that way. Let me do a sound check. So you didyour elementary school in New Orleans.
SHRABERG: My elementary school I was done in Lexington. I went toCassidy Elementary over on, what did I say? 3:00
WILSON: No Cassidy is on Tates Creek.
SHRABERG: Cassidy's on Tates Creek. I went to Cassidy Elementary somany years ago and then I went to Morton Middle School for middle school, and after eighth grade returned to New Orleans, and then I returned to Lexington for college to go to UK in 2000.
WILSON: Okay so you graduated high school in--
SHRABERG: In New Orleans, right.
WILSON: Came back to UK?
WILSON: And what did you study at UK?
SHRABERG: At UK I studied English, ended up getting a bachelor's inEnglish with a concentration in creative writing.
WILSON: And so you graduated in--?
SHRABERG: In '04.
SHRABERG: May of 2004. And in July I was on a plane to the trainingcamp.
WILSON: Okay tell me about sort of what spawned the idea of the Peace4:00Corps.
SHRABERG: Well when I was a senior in college I was considering myoptions. One option was going to law school; one option was just graduating and getting a job as soon as I could and working in the United States, probably in Lexington. And then the other option that I was considering was trying to find a good opportunity to go outside of Lexington, to leave Kentucky, to in fact leave the United States and see what else was out there. I really wanted to broaden my perspective, wanted to see what it was like to live in another culture. I wanted to have that challenge as well. So my thought process was I'm young, I have many years to do graduate studies or to begin working, there's got to be an opportunity out there where I can leave 5:00the country, live abroad, get some perspective, be challenged, and learn something new. And that's really what I was craving. And I also wanted some adventure. So I began doing some research on the internet. I talked with one of my friends who was at Princeton at the time, and he said he was considering the Peace Corps, and so we went into this idea that we would go into the Peace Corps together. Maybe we wouldn't be in the same country but we would both be doing similar things. And then he ended up doing something else and I was still applied to the Peace Corps, and as I researched more and more about the Peace Corps I found it something I wanted to be a part of because of its history, because of its missions, its goals, and because of the stories that I read about the volunteers who'd served. So I began applying in early 2004 and found out just a couple months before I left that I was 6:00invited to go to China. The program had been suspended at the time though, so I didn't actually know if I was going to go to China until I found out that the program was reinstated. So two months before I left I was looking to go to Eastern Europe and then they called me up one day and said, "Do you want to go to China?" I said sure and took it.
WILSON: Tell me something about the actual application process there.
SHRABERG: Sure, well it began with filling out an application online,you know the basic information, name, social security number, and then there were some essays that I had to write. There were three essays such as why do you want to join the Peace Corps, you know what do you hope to gain by joining the Peace Corps, and you know some other questions having to do with my motivation. And the application 7:00process also involved some information sessions. I remember going to a couple of information sessions on campus and being able to talk with a former volunteer who had just returned in fact. And that was really helpful to be able to field that volunteer with questions and ask her some things. And I met my recruiter at that time too, her name was Liz from Chicago and she was very helpful in answering the questions I had, and she knew that I really wanted to go into the Peace Corps. And I interviewed with her on two occasions, and on the second--The first interview was a get to know you kind of interview and we talked. It was over the phone we had the interview and we talked about my motivations for joining Peace Corps and you know what skills I had and what I wanted to do. And then the second interview was more concentrated on the work itself, what it would be like, what I might 8:00be doing. I would be an English teacher somewhere overseas and what I should, would expect when joining the Peace Corps. And we talked a lot about my own personal ability to be flexible, to be you know whether or not I'm a patient person, what my personal qualities are, and at the end of the second interview she said that she was going to recommend me to go to the next level to be invited into the Peace Corps. And at that point I had to get my medical, which was a pretty arduous process, I mean going to like doctors and you know getting passed on that. It was pretty easy; I was pretty healthy at the time so I didn't, I don't think I had much to worry about but just getting all of it, everything in line, all the paperwork, all my you know dotting my i's and all that was probably the most difficult part of the process actually in the 9:00end. And then I got an invitation in the mail. I had to go all the way out to the post office to pick up this special post that needed to be signed for, and I went there and picked it up and opened it up and it said, "Congratulations! You've been invited to join the Peace Corps China program."
WILSON: So how long did that process take? When did you--?
SHRABERG: The process took for me over six months. I think about ninemonths from start to finish. I spent probably a month or a month and a half deciding whether or not I even wanted to apply. I would go to the Lucille Caudill Library on campus probably four or five times a week, get on the computer, and just look at the website. And sometimes I would even open up the application and then like I had five minutes till class and I would say, "Okay I'll do it tomorrow." And so I like that whole time, and this was such a--It was an exciting time looking back on it because I was senior in college, I had the support of you 10:00know the people around me who I cared about and they wanted me--They were excited for my future and I was too, I just didn't know exactly what I wanted to do. And every time I went into that library I feel like I got closer and closer, and then one day I was just like, "Alright I've got some time, I'm going to finish this application and press that submit button." And I did and then it just it went from there you know. Once I got the ball rolling it was really exciting and I really set my sights on it.
WILSON: Did you ask for China or some--?
SHRABERG: Well when I met with Liz I told her I said you know I had theopportunity when I was a freshman in high school down in New Orleans to begin studying Chinese, and I took that opportunity probably because it was an unusual language and I was excited about that. I was excited about something that was just so, so different. And I began studying Chinese in high school and I told Liz I have almost seven years of 11:00Chinese language experience and in the interview I said I could be a more effective volunteer in China if I could speak the language. And I would use that to my advantage; I would use that to reach out to more Chinese to be able to teach students at a lower English level the language. And she agreed with me but she said, "I cannot recommend you for a specific country. That's part of Peace Corps policy. You can't join Peace Corps to go to a certain country." And I accepted that reality as part of my application, I said that's fine. The important thing is I want to go abroad. More important than learning the language is that I'm able to serve the Peace Corps' missions, serve the Peace Corps' goals, which I really believed in and do believe in. And the opportunity to go abroad was just far more exciting than going to a specific country.
WILSON: But you could ask?
SHRABERG: You could ask and I did ask. And they said, "Well see," sothere was no guarantees but it ended up that way. 12:00
WILSON: Your talking about studying Chinese from that early period makesme think I didn't ask you and should have, did you, had you had any experience traveling overseas before?
SHRABERG: Not to that point, no. I, when I was ten years old I didspend some time in Egypt, Israel, and England. Two weeks, it was a family trip, and I can only remember bits and pieces. And I think at that time I wasn't as excited about being overseas about seeing the pyramids of Egypt or you know Picadilly Circus. I was more concerned about beating level five on my Game Boy you know. I was your typical American kid during that time so but it was, you know having those memories is good.
WILSON: So why do you think you decided to take Chinese language at13:00middle school?
SHRABERG: You know I've thought about this especially recently sinceI've been writing essays for grad school, and I think it was being in a new place, being a new kid, being in a new city, having to learn a new language so to speak, the new culture of New Orleans, which was very distinct and is very distinct. I think it was something that I could be passionate about and be interested in, and it was like a hobby that I just picked up. I think I needed a hobby, something that I developed at that time. So I think it was just part of my natural development and I was in the right place at the right time too, which seems to be the case for me and the Chinese language, the Chinese culture, and the Chinese people. Strangely for the past ten years every time I've entered an academic environment or you know been in particular social situations I've had to either speak Chinese or had the opportunity to continue studying Chinese. So there's been this connection between 14:00me and that language and culture for these many years. It all started back in high school.
WILSON: So you received this package that said you were accepted to theprogram and to go to China. The program was to do what?
SHRABERG: The program was teaching English as a foreign language,which in China there's a great demand for, for English teachers and particularly they like people from outside of China whose native language is Chinese [Editor's note: English] so to help with pronunciation and also just because you're an expert by virtue of being a native speaker.
WILSON: So tell me something about your training or sort of whathappened after the acceptance of the--
SHRABERG: Sure. You know the--In my mind their approach to newvolunteers was to keep us stimulated but at the same time sort of 15:00unaware as to what's going to happen in the next step, even the next day. So for example we get to China, they give us a plane ticket to fly to Chicago, we meet all these people at staging. We don't really know what staging is about. We have a rough idea and we have our little packet. We have a rough idea but we don't really know, and then we find out staging might be you know your last chance to say okay this may not be for me or it might be you know an opportunity to meet the people and to get to know the program even further before you go overseas. I was so nervous at staging and I had to talk to one of the officials from the Chinese education department who was thanking all of us, and we each had to tell them why we wanted to go to China and thank them for letting us do so. And I just remember being very nervous and like even shaking. I was mortified to have to speak in front of 50 new people about why I wanted to go to China. And then before we knew 16:00it after three days we were on a plane from Chicago to Beijing. That was fun; I didn't get up from my seat the whole time. I was really nervous, still nervous. And then once we got to China we were in the Beijing airport for about five hours, we were all exhausted, we'd been traveling for almost 20 hours, and you could sort of feel the group morale just going further and further down. And then you're on a plane from Beijing to Chengdu. We landed in Chengdu and it was pouring rain and we had all of our bags and everything. We had to throw them in these--It was once we landed in Chengdu everything started going at what I would call the--It was like this fast pace that I wasn't expecting and I had never seen before. We got off the plane; there was a bag specifically--There were some cars specifically for our bags. These, you know, men came over, just grabbed our bags, threw them in 17:00the car. We met one of the country--The country director was there, one of the program managers was there, and they're like, "It's okay, they're taking your bags to the hotel." They took our bags; we all got on the bus and sped over to the hotel. And then they brought all our bags to the hotel and dumped them in front of the hotel just in a huge mountain pile and we all had to sort of sift through the bags you know. Everyone was sort of waiting by the door out of the rain like, "Okay who's going to come get our bags and bring them to us?" And they're like, "Alright, there's your bags. Go for it." So you know I got my bag and it was like soaked in mud and water and dragged it up five flights of stairs to the top of this little hotel in downtown Chengdu. And it was just raining and humid and you know there were like plants and insects that I'd never seen or heard in my life, and I just felt so out of place. I just had no idea you know but it was exciting at the 18:00same time. I just wanted to get in my room and kind of take a breath after that, which I did. I met, I had one roommate Darren Sullivan, a friend of mine who we still keep in touch to this day. But he was sort of with me all along the way in. We chatted a little bit about the experience that we were having as we were having it, and he ended up being my roommate in Chengdu for those first three or four days. And then after those three or four days we were all told okay you're in these color groups. We had four color groups--red, yellow, green, and lavender. And I was a member of the lavender group so and our group had such great camaraderie just right off the bat.
WILSON: What was the distinction or no particular?
SHRABERG: I think the personalities were very compatible. You know wehad all different kinds of people in our group. We had southerners, we had people who you know were from the northeast, we had people from 19:00out west, we had older, we had younger, we had Mexican American, we had you know people who went back maybe several generations in the country, so we had just a nice little mixture of Americans in this group. And I think everybody had an idea of why they were there and we ended up getting to our training site, where we would live for two months, and there were some--There were a few key players in our group that were very outspoken, but the emphasis in our group was on you know let's all get along, let's work as a team, let's figure this out together living in China. And people, I think people were just very open to sharing their experience. And there was a sense that we were kind of pioneers 20:00in this particular community because the community had not seen many foreigners or non-Chinese. I've gotten used to calling Americans foreigners now, but there were not many non-Chinese in this community and I just think that the group had good group dynamics.
WILSON: So the different color groups went to different communities fortheir training?
SHRABERG: Right, exactly. So our color group was at it's calledShikada, which is short for Southwestern University of Science and Technology, and it was in Yenjang, which it two hours north of Chengdu. Chengdu is the capital city of Szechuan. So this particular city was on a river, which was beautiful, very green, really nice people and it was also a very culturally distinct area. So we were able to really--I 21:00mean when we showed up you knew we knew we were different and it felt different but it was also really exciting. We were in that honeymoon phase that you can be in. And in many ways that brought us together. But you know in the morning and at the end of the day and at night we were a part of a Chinese community, a larger Chinese community. We all had our families and it was amazing how each volunteer adopted so well or adapted so well to their family and was in a way adopted. And during training getting to know the volunteers was also about getting to know the Chinese family.
WILSON: So were you each living with a Chinese family during thistraining period?
SHRABERG: Yes, each living with a Chinese family and we would talk aboutour families during the day. You know like my grandpa did this last night or my grandma did that or you know my little sister is so cute she does this, my little brother asked me this last night and I had to answer him with this, and what should I say to my mom. You know I can't, I'm going to be late to dinner tonight, like I can't run back to 22:00class right now. Is she going to be mad at me? So being able to share what it was like together brought the group together as well and we really most of us bonded very well with our Chinese families. I still keep in touch with my Chinese family.
WILSON: What other elements were there to the training?
SHRABERG: Well the training involved--The training was probably themost rigorous thing I've ever been through. I mean those two months were hellish frankly. First of all we had to get up. I would usually get up I mean before the sun rose, maybe 6:30, 7:00. That's when my parents would get up; they'd have me breakfast cooked maybe a boiled egg with some mian bao, which is like bread also some soup or some rice porridge. And I would eat breakfast for about 15 minutes and then I'd go out the door and usually I would see my friends Leslie and Daniel, they lived in the same area as me, and we would all sort of meet up and 23:00do the 20 minute walk down this hill in the really hot Szechuan heat just sweating immediately when you got up and sweating out the door and down the hill to the classroom. Or we would go up, I'm sorry. Up the hill and we would do technical training for about three hours where we would talk about education in China, Chinese society and culture, and we would discuss possible you know cross cultural issues that we might need in the classroom. And it was really just a time for us to learn how to be teachers in China. And then we would have lunch at about 11:30, and in China they take almost three hours. Most communities take almost three hours for lunch because they have the actual eating and then the rest afterwards. So we would most of us would go home for lunch and then we would rest. And some of us would go out onto the street outside of the university. We were living on a campus. 24:00We would go outside the university to eat lunch and about 1:30, 2:00 that would end. We would go back to, we would go down the hill from there to the classroom buildings and we would do Chinese class for about four hours with little breaks after each hour. And that was really tough. I mean rigorous language training. I'd already had that fundamental level and I was put in a class with another student who had lived in China for some time so she had some language as well, so there was just two of us in this class and it was a pretty rigorous Chinese class. But I learned so much I mean my level--They have a language proficiency in the Peace Corps and my level went up I think like five or six levels just in those two months because the language training was so excellent. And our teachers were very good, and for them it was exciting to be in that atmosphere teaching these future 25:00teachers. I think it was unique for them to be in that atmosphere too. I mean we really bonded with our teachers too; we had a lot of fun with them and then after about a month of that routine--Well I didn't really finish the routine. After class we would go home and then it was just time with our families. We would maybe have a meal, we would maybe go out and play basketball with our little brother or sister then have a meal. Then the whole eating experience was fun because that was your time to really practice your Chinese. And I really tried to stay positive for that that whole time. And my family, my family and I ended up really bonding on many levels. One with my grandfather, he would crack open a cold snow beer; he really liked that. This was one of these western customs that he picked up in his travels throughout his life. He loved a cold beer whereas most Chinese men would like you know a glass of baijo or rice wine or perhaps another spirit. My 26:00grandpa was a beer drinker, so every night we would share a cold beer. And he would have one waiting for me. He would say, "Yulong" and that to me was great and we would chat and you know there's just these little things that I remember about him like if he didn't understand what I was saying he would just continue smiling at me. He was just so happy that I was excited about--And I was excited about talking to him, and every now and then he'd say, "Yesa," which means, "What does that mean?" It was just the way he said it was like this old you know wise Chinese man you know it's just like what does he mean? And then my father, who had a little bit of English would say, "Oh he means this Grandpa," and Grandpa would say, "Okay." And one joke we had one day was I asked, I was a little nervous talking native, talking Chinese to native speakers. So one day I asked, I asked Grandpa. I said, 27:00"Grandpa, how old are you?" And it's not impolite to ask an old man how old he is in China. People who are older are generally revered. And he stood up and he said to me, "I am 152 years old." And I said, "What? 152?" And then I said, "152 years old?" And he died laughing. I mean he started cracking up; he was laughing so hard he actually, I had actually asked him on accident, "How tall are you?" and so he said, "I am 152 centimeters tall." And so I misinterpreted you know that was that communication barrier there, but it was something that we laughed about for the next three weeks until I left. You know every night Grandpa would say, "Yulong, I'm still 152 years old," and that was just something that stuck with us. But so being at home was great and they 28:00would serve fruit and watch TV and just very much be a family and play poker. My grandpa knew some good card tricks.
WILSON: So would you say these were sort of middle class Chinesefamilies that people stayed with?
SHRABERG: Yes, very much. They were university professors and they werepart of the burgeoning middle class of China. You know their fathers either worked I mean did hard labor, were sort of the heroes, the labor heroes. And many of them were the labor heroes of early China, the new China. And you know they came, their hope was that their sons would go to university, so a lot of the people that we stayed with were those, were from that generation. And they were all well off, not in poverty, but they came from something much different than what they 29:00were living. I mean they lived in these high rise apartments that were brand new and many of them not filled. It was the China that I began to read about after I came back that I didn't really know about. A lot of things were unexpected and I didn't research China too extensively before I went but it's funny now that I'm back that I can see what I--I was living with a certain class of people, which is one thing at the end of the experience I said that Peace Corps might want to think about changing. On the other hand as much can be learned from them as can be learned I think in my opinion as much can be learned from them as can be learned from anyone. I mean particularly for any particular strata of Chinese society.
WILSON: Did you have any kind of medical component to your training30:00or preparation?
SHRABERG: Well we had many shots, maybe like 14 or 15 by the end oftraining. Dr. Hu, who's Dr. Hu was the joke, or who's our doctor, right, it's Dr. Hu! No, who is the doctor? It's Dr. Hu. So Hu was our doctor and she was great, she sort of practiced the western and Chinese medicine both. She was interested in both and she was, we kind of considered her our little miracle worker because sometimes she would, she was just an excellent doctor I think. We all trusted her and really liked her and but she would come around every now and then with a big needle and she'd want, she'd be like, "Okay it's time to go," you know. So you'd have to get maybe two or three shots in one session and some of us didn't like needles. I didn't have any big issues with that but yeah you know constantly being, constantly getting shots, it seemed like we were always lining up for a shot. And some 31:00people had medical conditions that needed to be addressed. I had some sinuses, sinus problems because of the humidity and just it was a very hot and wet place at that time so I had some sinus issues. But we were not I don't believe we were trained in any CPR even or anything as far as emergency. We had a medical kit that was given to us. It was like a briefcase but most of us were in cities where there were hospitals and there was roads with access to major cities.
WILSON: What kinds of medical problems did Peace Corps anticipate orprepare you for?
SHRABERG: Well they said the most common medical problem would bemental. Depression would be feeling you know stigmatized or feeling lonely and they said a lot of the Chinese volunteers suffer from this 32:00because I think China is you're in relatively less danger of getting for example a parasite or--Which I did end up getting actually in the end but just a minor--But you're in less danger of getting physical illnesses rather than the mental, the psychological. So they were and actually our Peace Corps medical officer, the Chinese medical officer was interested in psychology. She'd had her degree in psychiatry and so she was informed of the importance of volunteers mental, mental well being. And I mean after living in China I think that was the most common, that was from my vantage point that was the most common reason for volunteers to ET.
WILSON: To leave early.
SHRABERG: To leave early or to just feel you know to be ill to maybe not33:00want to go to work, not want to leave their apartment because of--You know in a lot of ways they would tell us you're responsible for your own experience and you know I personally believe attitude determines outcome but some you know if you try and maintain your sense of humor but sometimes you know you're in a vulnerable position somebody yells you know at you inappropriately or calls you a foreigner and you just don't want to be a foreigner that day. You know you want to be someone who's walking through a crowd anonymously and just is in their element. And it seemed like sometimes when you get to that point where you're finally accepted something happens and you feel really foreign. You feel really like an outsider and so sometimes that could be frustrating. You know going out on the street maybe people don't like you if you 34:00go and start speaking Chinese and you use all the perfect tones and you sound better than you know the news reporter on CCTV, Chinese TV. They still don't really understand what you're saying because all they see is this foreigner, this person talking Chinese that maybe shouldn't know how to speak their language. So but you know you learn, you adapt to those situations and you learn. Okay maybe you walk up to them and say, "Okay I'm going to speak Chinese. Are you ready? I'm going to speak Chinese," and you sort of then you begin speaking. You don't just go right into it because ultimately you have to realize that you aren't Chinese. You are an American or you're a Kenyan or you're you know Italian and you're in this country as a visitor. You don't live there. You're not a native; you weren't born there. And that's very, this is very--This is a very common awareness in China for I think 35:00for people who are non-Chinese. You are reminded daily that, and I'm sure this is true for other countries as well, but in China--Although some people like to integrate more, maybe make an effort to learn the language, pick up some cultural habits like calligraphy writing in China, or you know paper, shadow puppet making or something like that, and you try and find things that will gain you more and more acceptance. But yeah I would say that just being an outsider, always referred to as old outsider, can sometimes be frustrating.
WILSON: So the training was how long?
SHRABERG: Training was two months.
WILSON: Two months and then what happened?
SHRABERG: Then in keeping with the theme of you don't quite know whatthe next step's going to be until you're stepping in, "Okay, we're 36:00all going back to Chengdu to the capital of Szechuan where Peace Corps headquarters is located," and that's where we spent the first few days when we got off that plane and had to go get our bags ourselves at the hotel. And nobody knows where they're going to go. Some of us could go all the way up to Gansu to a place called Jongya or to Lanzhou the capital of Gansu. And some of us could go down to Goijo or to Xongxing; nobody knows and everyone is trying to figure out who's going to go where. And you have your final interview. We had an outside I guess you could call him a consultant who came in to help train volunteers in China planned our cross cultural training and--
WILSON: Out from?
SHRABERG: Well he was actually from South Africa. He was an Americanliving is Lesotho and he does like training and workshops for people who are going to be living in foreign countries. And so the Peace Corps or the US/China friendship volunteers, which is the Chinese arm of the 37:00Peace Corps in China, they invited him in to do some of the training to help plan and coordinate the training. So he assisted us in our training and he was basically the, one of the organizers along with the Chinese people working with Peace Corps in China and the actual Peace Corps workers. And again I say this with the idea that Peace Corps was re-entering China after the SARS epidemic. So in my opinion they were trying to do things a little differently. They were experimenting.
WILSON: But this is somebody or a group who had experience in China orat least had experience in--?
SHRABERG: Not experience in China but like experience in Africa.
WILSON: But in training--?
SHRABERG: In training aid workers or NGOs or people from outsideentities coming in and just what to expect when you enter it, when you 38:00enter the culture. So we had to--We had an interview with him and he basically apparently was going to decide whether or not we would, you know whether or not we were ready for service. And we could voice any concerns we had with him. And then the night before we were supposed to find out you know we all, we were in Chengdu, which is a big metropolis and we all sort of went out together, especially our lavender group. We all went to the same place and just talked about where we might go. And we were all really, really sad to be being split up because we grew so close in those couple months. And then we got up the next day and about, I think it was about--It was in the morning. We had breakfast and then after that we all went to this big conference hall at a hotel and they had a big map of China on the 39:00floor. And then they would call your name up and you would go and be asked to stand on the city or town where you would be living for the next two years. So we actually didn't know until he told us, and then that was a pretty emotional day just leaving everybody. It was nice. Some of my, the people I'd grown closer to, were stationed close by to me. Others were across the country but we all managed to keep in touch by email or phone. And but everybody really grew into their own.
WILSON: And how did you then get to your sites?
SHRABERG: Well I took a train. Everyone took train except for a couplevolunteers who were close by, maybe three or four hours from Chengdu took a car. But I took a--It was a 21 hour train ride from Chengdu to Lanzhou.
WILSON: By yourself?
SHRABERG: Well I was with several other volunteers and some of themwere stationed along the way so we'd get you know we'd be four hours 40:00from Lanzhou and my friend Will got off the train, just got off at this little stop with his, with a couple of Chinese that were with him, a couple of people from his school. And he just got off and we said goodbye to him and that was really sad.
WILSON: But there were people from the school that went with you?
SHRABERG: Yes, right. There were people from the school who broughtus there. So I'd met my dean, Daisy Sun Nailing, and I also met her assistant chair or Jia Na and she was--They were both really nice and me and who was going to be my site mate Suzie and a few other volunteers, we all went up together on the train. And we were in their hands at that point. And they were you know we were their new foreign teachers so they wanted to take care of us. And they, we went up to Lanzhou with them, got off the train. They actually sent a Russian interpreter to the train station for some reason. I think they were expecting some Russian teachers too, but they got us. And we weren't 41:00able to communicate with the Russian interpreter.
WILSON: So tell me again and so we get it correctly on the tape what thename of the city was, how it's spelled, and where in China it is.
SHRABERG: Okay the city is called Lanzhou and Lanzhou is spelled L-A-N-Z-H-O-U, which is the ----------(??) for the Chinese, and it's the capital of Gansu province, G-A-N-S-U, Gansu province. And that's located in northwestern China near Mongolia near Chinghai and Xingjong province.
WILSON: So you got there. What was your job?
SHRABERG: Well my job was from three days when I arrived I found outafter getting off the train was to begin teaching university level classes set in an environment exclusively for Chinese students. So I 42:00would be teaching anywhere from what I later found out was 50 to 100 plus Chinese students at a university. And they had us scheduled, they had us scheduled for about 19 hours a week of classes and the limit was 16, but we didn't say anything because we really wanted to just do all we could you know to help them out. And we were going to teach over in the western part of town at our school. Our school was called Lanzhou University of Science and Technology. And we were taken to our school, taken to our apartments, which were very nice actually, very well furnished and they gave us a microwave, a stove, we had a kitchen sink, we had a bathroom, bedroom, study, and a living room with a couch and a TV.
WILSON: So you had electricity?
WILSON: Hot water?
SHRABERG: Hot water, electricity. We had --our living circumstances43:00were very, very good I would say, better than other volunteers who lived in the same city. And across the country other volunteers had you know--We even had a washer. Some volunteers had no washer and they had to use a squat toilet. We had a western toilet, which we were more accustomed to. Although maybe I'd prefer a squat toilet; I don't know. It depends. But yeah some volunteers didn't have any heating. We had heating during the wintertime, which was good. So the apartment was very nice, and I was told by my vice dean Daisy that I would begin teaching three days from then. And so I frantically tried to prepare some lesson plans, the introduction, introductory lessons, looked over some textbooks that they gave us and basically just wanted to be in the right place to get into a van which would then take us to the campus. 44:00We were teaching on a satellite campus, a campus away from the main campus for that first semester. So I wanted to be at the right place to catch the van to go there. And three days later it was on September 14th or 15th of--That would be '04 that we walked into our first class. I walked in and it was 100, no it was 50 students, freshmen and they were all English majors. And the minute I walked through the classroom door they all erupted in applause and cheered and were so excited for me to be there and they had a big sign, "Welcome Aaron," or, "Welcome to our school foreign teacher Aaron," and they were just really excited to see me. And I was really nervous. I mean I was--I just I remembered one thing I need to speak loudly. I need to speak loudly 45:00but not shout just so everyone can hear me. So I began to introduce myself and told them where I was from. And I spent that whole class just telling them about me and having them ask me questions about me.
WILSON: In English?
SHRABERG: In English. And I remember at the end of the first class Iwalked out and the monitor, I heard them made a comment in Chinese and they all started laughing. And I have no, to this idea I have no idea what he said. I have no idea what was so funny but they grew to like me and I had those students for like a year, a couple semesters and like-- 46:00
WILSON: Aaron you were describing your job teaching and they just toldme about sort of your first class. Go on and tell me what else.
SHRABERG: Well a little bit about my first class. The classroom itselfwas very long. It was hard to reach across the classroom with your voice. You had to speak actually very loudly. There was a chalkboard, a desk, and a lot of chairs. And it was a cement floor. There was no heating in the classroom so it was a little chilly. The lights worked that day but some days they didn't. So it was a very--It was actually 47:00for me it seemed like a pretty easy environment to work in because you know you knew what you had to work with. So after that first day I got an idea of you know what I could prepare for the classes and what I could bring to the class. I had them write down actually things they might want to learn about America. And I got a lot of different responses like I want to learn about American culture. I want to learn about American football. Why do Americans call football soccer? You know. And I want to know about you. A lot of them just wanted to know about me. So I began to draw up some lessons after I got an idea of their level of English in that first class. And I really just wanted to be prepared, over-prepared if need be for the classes. And 48:00I was new at teaching at that time. So I had a lot of questions and I ran into some problems with planning and with you know classroom management. And I had to learn how to be a good teacher, how to be a good classroom manager, how to get the students interested in what I was talking about. So doing these things in the classroom, which they did teach me to do in training, but implementing those things was harder than I thought because well you get into the classroom and you know you just assume, begin teaching, but I lost sight of some things like speaking loudly a few times, walking around the classroom, you know writing things on the board. So learning how to be a good teacher to utilize different methods of teaching so I can teach to different 49:00styles of learning was difficult. I didn't mention that we had a model school for three weeks during our training, which really helped me personally because I didn't have any teaching experience previous. I had tutoring experience but never in such a large classroom. So those three weeks in model school helped me figure out you know what it was like to be in the classroom in front of so many students. But once it started you know you'd be--The awesome responsibility of being that person, being an American representing your country whether you liked it or not, whether I liked it or not I feel like I was an emissary from this country. And they really looked up to me. They wanted to know about me. They wanted to know why Americans did this, why Americans did that, and their ideas about our country and our culture they brought to me and whatever. Many times whatever I said they took very seriously so that, and I saw, looked into their eyes and they were all 50:00so young and very impressionable. You could just tell that they came from different places than some of our middle-schoolers might come from. I'm sure a teacher here gets the same sense but it was just really clear to me that I was in a very important position.
WILSON: So how old would these students have been? You said they wereuniversity students.
SHRABERG: They would have been 17 or 18.
SHRABERG: Some of them were a little older. It depends when they couldget to university. A lot of them came from the countryside so they might have spent a few more or less years in the countryside before they came into the city or another city. So that was my first class and after that I met each class. I think each class that week actually got better and better. And you know just planning the classes, bringing the material to the students and being able to present it in 51:00a understandable way was one of the biggest challenges. There's of course a lot of communication barriers. If they don't understand what you're saying you know it's hard to teach. The multilevel classes were one of the most difficult things to teach, having students from all different levels in one class. And just the hugeness of the class, it was 100, 130 students in one class was really difficult. But my--I was--I became very passionate about teaching after a while, but only after really struggling, really being in the weeds for a long time struggling with classroom management and just keeping my students attention especially in such a big classroom atmosphere.
WILSON: What was the most difficult adjustment for you in China?52:00
SHRABERG: I would say to that point just being on my own in a new place,probably being on my own in a new place with a new job having to do something very new from what I was doing. I was the student, now I'm a teacher. I was living in my own culture, now I'm in a totally different culture. I wasn't living on my own in college; I had other people that I lived with. Now I was alone in an apartment. So dealing with totally unfamiliar waters was the most difficult adjustment. 53:00Teaching was very hard. Teaching in fact the first semester was a source of a lot of stress but I never gave up and I never said, "This is something I can't do." I can do this and I can do it well. So but meeting that challenge was very difficult. I mean I probably spent far too much time planning and researching you know how to teach this particular pronunciation or this particular grammatical point or this particular story far too much, but in the end you know working really hard and then taking a step back after that first semester and saying, "Okay I don't need to do this. I can do more of this." And you know learning to--Just learning to be a teacher was I think the biggest challenge. And I mean I got along very well with my site mate. We spent most every day for at least a few hours together because we had the same schedule teaching. So being able to--
WILSON: Your site mate being another Peace Corps volunteer?54:00
SHRABERG: Yes, another Peace Corps volunteer. Being able to eithercommiserate or to celebrate with that other person was really helpful. And then after about three weeks of the--After my first three weeks in Lanzhou some of us volunteers decided to venture out into the city. We just kept to our campuses and our apartments and we decided, "Alright it's time to like venture out." So somebody chose a place to meet and said we all have to get to that place on like a Saturday and meet there, and it was somewhere in Lanzhou in a city with three million people on the banks of the Yellow River. So most of us made it; most of us made it. Some of us didn't make it there because they were either lost or had something else. But seeing people that were, that I hadn't seen in a while was really helpful. We were all able to talk about our experience and that really made things easier. We had people 55:00who had taught at the university before in the United States, people who had degrees in teaching, who had their master's in teaching who I was like, "You know I'm having this problem in my classes. I need you to tell me what to do. How do I meet this challenge?" And being able to share this information with the other Peace Corps volunteers was very helpful. And you know a lot of the times they didn't have answers and they would tell me, "Well you should ask your Chinese colleagues or you should ask your dean. Talk about it with the administration. Talk about it with your students." So a lot of the challenges that I was having I found could be best met by just communicating with my students or with the dean or with somebody in the administration and just working with you know the Chinese. And that's part of what it was about, why we were there you know training men and women to meet a need, which was English teachers, foreign language teachers.
WILSON: That's sort of a description of things that you didn't feel56:00particularly well prepared for. What do you think you were best prepared for?
SHRABERG: I was best prepared to meet the communication barriers becauseof the trainings I'd had, but also the cultural barriers because having grown up--And I think this is one thing that came into play for me and still does. Having grown up in this region in the southeast, in Kentucky in a place where there aren't many Jews, being Jewish myself growing up Jewish, growing up in an environment where there is a need to reconcile your culture with another culture with a mainstream culture came into play in my life. And my mother was not raised in the Jewish tradition but my dad was and so I have both of these influences 57:00in my life and I think that taught me how to balance well and how to be able to work well in a multicultural environment and how I react to that particular experience. So being in China a lot of the challenges that people were having I'd had before and I was able to face those challenges and help others to face them too. And so that was something that worked well for me I think. And also just being open minded and understanding that things are going to be different. That's okay. And that I think in many ways I carry with me the fact that I would want to be--I will treat others the way that I would want to be treated or I wouldn't treat others the way that I--I didn't want them to treat 58:00me. You know it works both ways but ultimately just being open, being aware of the differences and those qualities really worked for me in China. And also having a sense of humor, which you know you hear about many times, which is just plain true. Some people, some volunteers would get offended where other volunteers would try and be, well make a situation more humorous than offensive. There seemed to me to be at certain points--You could make a decision. Is this going to turn out bad or is this going to turn out good? Are you going to be offended that this person doesn't understand you or are you just going to sort of say okay I need to try this again and re-approach the situation? And maybe then they'll understand me. 59:00
WILSON: Can you give me an example of that or where there was humor?
SHRABERG: Sure, well you know my site mate was a Japanese Americanso she resembled a Chinese. So when we would go out to buy fruit at first they would only look at me; they would never look at her, never talk to her because they thought she was just another Chinese. And so whenever we went out to buy fruit I would do all the talking and I would do all the buying. And they would be very interested in getting to know me as an American. And when she began telling them that she was American they would insist that she wasn't. She was Chinese whether she liked it or not. And after a while you know every time we would visit the same fruit vendors. We would go out for fruit and we would visit the same fruit vendors. And every time she would tell them again and again, "No I'm American. I'm American. I'm not Chinese; I'm from America." And they say, "No no you're Chinese. It's okay you're Chinese," you know very conciliatory you know. Just get used to it. 60:00But she never relented and then after a while she became very close to a lot of Chinese and non-Chinese. And the vendors particularly were beginning to pay a lot of attention to her after a while you know. For me my novelty had worn out. I was no longer this American. I was just a, you know, another outsider who was still here. So she became the one who was bargaining for fruit and was talking to them and you know. They were very kind to me but they you know were not as--My novelty wore out like I said so I could have been upset and maybe said oh you know I'm no longer so special. But I realize that that's part of the experience and I needed to you know work hard and make an effort to 61:00communicate with them in order for them to get to know me and perhaps gain the same level of acceptance as someone who looked more like those people or those people thought were more acceptable. Those people may have thought that this person was more acceptable than this one so I had to make an extra effort and I embraced that challenge and I said okay you know I'm going to practice my Chinese and I'm going to go have conversations with these people and bargain for fruit and be obnoxious at the market and you know make sure that you know they know that I'm you know I can do it too. I can run with the best of them. I can you know make an effort to be like them, try and I guess the word is integrate. Try and be--Or assimilate, try and assimilate into the culture as much as possible.
WILSON: What did you do for recreation?62:00
SHRABERG: Recreation. Well exercise is very common. I did play tennis.They had dirt courts at our university and Lanzhou for some reason is famous for its tennis. The ambassador to the United States or to China from the United States went and played tennis at Lanzhou. In fact at my university on the mountain there was a little country club with a couple of green like turf courts, very nice courts, apparently the nicest tennis courts in all of western China. But we, us professors and students we had to play on the dirt courts of course, which were very nice too. But I picked up tennis. I'd never really played tennis and we went out and bought some rackets for 30 RMBs, a little over five bucks, a little under five bucks in fact. We went out and bought a couple of rackets and me and my site mate began to play and then my students wanted to play. And when we were playing at the court some 63:00other colleagues wanted to play. And in nighttime I liked visiting with my friends. You know we would go to restaurants out to eat. Sometimes we would go to like a tea house.
WILSON: These would be Chinese friends?
SHRABERG: Yes, Chinese friends, our colleagues, and also other PeaceCorps volunteers. At first it seemed like just the Peace Corps volunteers would want to hang out. And then after a while a Peace Corps volunteer would bring their Chinese friend. And then the next weekend another Peace Corps volunteer would bring their Chinese friend. And so by the end of the first year every time we had a social gathering there would be--It would be probably 60 to 70% American and then there would be 30 maybe 40% Chinese. So but you know a 64:00lot--Sometimes it depended on the kind of recreation we were doing. Like if we were just having like a dinner, like a Christmas dinner, a Thanksgiving dinner, something like that you know we would invite like a lot of our Chinese colleagues. And then if we were going out for like dinner or we wanted to go out like dancing or something we would bring like our younger colleagues or our younger Chinese friends who actually would enjoy doing that kind of activity. So and China is one of those countries where it gets--It's very multifaceted in its culture. There's a younger generation who want to embrace more American ways of having fun. And there's conservative elements, people who don't, maybe don't enjoy going out or just want to you know enjoy doing other things. So you know you, as you begin to meet more and 65:00more Chinese as we did, as I did, I had to adapt to what they liked to do recreationally. And they would invite me too to do things recreationally. Like some of my friends just wanted to go out and have some jiaozi, some Chinese dumplings, drink you know one beer and then it was time to retire because they had to go home and plan for their class tomorrow. And some of my Chinese friends wanted to go to the tea house all night and drink rice wine and you know stay out until you know 11:30 and then take a cab back to the university. And because they don't have to teach tomorrow or maybe they do but you know they'll be up and they'll be in the classroom. They'll be fine. So there was--It was fun reading those different people and getting to know their personalities and what they like to do. So a wide range of things. One of the most popular things to do would be to go climb the mountain, to go climb the various full mountains around the city or to 66:00go for a walk along the river. And those are things that I actually really enjoy. I never thought that I would really like just going to walk up a mountain. But it's a very peaceful thing and I think it's something that's engrained in the Chinese culture and the mentality to get away from the city and society and go and be in nature as sort of an escape. So there's that element is working there but also by the virtue of just being in those places is very relaxing and drinking tea and just being with friends, being social was a great source of happiness, recreation. So I enjoyed doing that too.
WILSON: Did you travel?
SHRABERG: I did travel. I traveled yeah extensively. My first trip forthe Chinese Spring Festival in 2005 was to go to--First we had three 67:00weeks in the city called Jong Ya. We were doing teacher training, a workshop teaching teachers how to teach English better teaching them teaching methodology. And that was a really fun experience. It was organized by all us volunteers. And after living there for three weeks me and a couple of my friends decided we wanted to go all the way to western China, as close as we could get to like the Pakistans--Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central Asia. Because we heard about this culture there, the Hoi culture of the Kuryi culture, the Shinjiang, which is new territory. This new culture in this province that we just were curious so we took a 24 hour train ride to the city called Urumqi, and then we flew from there to this city called Kashkar. And we traveled all around that area and it was very eye opening 68:00experience. I'd never really experienced that Central Asian culture and seeing that mixed with the Chinese culture was really interesting. I also traveled to Hainan, which is an island in the South China Sea. And there I encountered like southern Chinese. And when you go to China there's these different regions and different pockets and everyone speaks a different dialect of the language and people even appear different and they eat different things, and there's just these different cultures of Chinese. So seeing that was really interesting. And then the differences between western China and Beijing--You know I traveled to Beijing, I saw Xian and then Beijing, and it was interesting to see the eastern Chinese, the developed China or the more modern China versus the western Chinese where things were not as developed. They didn't have the big metropolis buildings and there's 69:00more farming, more agricultural society versus the more industrial society in the east. So yeah my travels allowed me to get to know many different Chinas in one China.
WILSON: And so because of that language difference I assume your Chinesewas--?
SHRABERG: Well most people can speak--
WILSON: Speak Mandarin?
SHRABERG: Yeah right. They always said I speak very normal. I speakvery standard you know. And so I said yeah you know well I studied Chinese and I read the dictionary sometimes. And they say, "Oh okay so that's where you get your tones which are very standard." But most can understand and speak the standard dialect. It's called just like normal or standard modern Chinese. Most people can speak or at least understand it. That was the most interesting thing, being able to speak to somebody but not being able to listen. You don't understand. But you can, if you have a good ear I think you could probably pick 70:00up on some standard words interspersed throughout a very dialectical, dialect-filled conversation you know. And yeah I became somewhat of a linguist in China I think. I was just very my interest in language just grew and grew more and more as I traveled and saw that dialectic phenomenon at work. That was interesting.
WILSON: I guess you've talked a little bit about your interaction withboth volunteers and other volunteers and host Chinese. Are there any particularly meaningful stories from your experience? Incidents of some sort?
SHRABERG: Yes. One thing that really affected me in fact was I grew71:00rather close to one of my students. His name was Huang, surname was Huang. And called him Tom, we still keep in touch to this day. But he was a real standout in one of my classes and one day he just, he came up to me after class and he just goes, "I want to play tennis." You know let's go play tennis tomorrow and I was like well maybe not tomorrow maybe this day. You know I can--Let's do this and so I said okay you know no problem when do you want to play. And we arranged a time and then we met and I, to me getting to know him he was very open. He wanted to discuss the issues about with modern, in modern China the issues that some Chinese youth might be having. His English was very 72:00good but he was curious what I thought about you know why some Chinese college students commit suicide or why you know why China is having you know where is China going as a developing country. You know he wanted to know what do I think the economy in China will do and how will that affect Chinese. And so we ended up talking in English and Chinese a lot about some of these issues and I decided well you can become my Chinese teacher because we seem to have good rapport, we get along. You know we have good conversation. And so we got along very well over the next few months and he would come over usually twice a week to teach me Chinese. And I stopped teaching him actually about three 73:00weeks after we met I stopped teaching him. The semester ended but he kept on tutoring me in Chinese. So and after the semester ended, the next semester ended and the summertime was quickly approaching I was going to leave China in about three weeks from then. And he wanted to take us out for some barbeque, Chinese barbeque. So we went out for barbeque and he ordered kidney to eat, like sheep's kidney. And yeah we were sitting down at dinner and he ordered kidney and I ordered just regular meat and he said, "Do you want any kidney?" Or he said to me, he looked at the kidney and he said, "Kidney, right?" and he touched it, his area where the kidneys might be back here. And I said, "Yeah 74:00that's right, Tom. Very good. That's a kidney." And he's like yes you taught this to me. You taught me the word for kidney. And he said, "You know Aaron one day in class we were doing a lesson on the human body and you were teaching us about organs and you taught us the heart and you know the liver and you know the intestine and the kidney. And we asked you Aaron is this the kidney?" And I said yes that's kidney. Great job. And he said, Tom said, "You praised us that day. You told us that we were doing good." And later that night at the dorm everyone said Aaron is a great teacher because he gives us confidence. He gives us compliments. He makes us feel good about ourselves and he's just telling this to me so eloquently and like I was like, "Wow, okay thank you Tom." Like I gave you confidence and just the thought of you know these students going back to their dorms at night and saying you know Aaron is a good teacher and he's doing a good job. You know Tom was 75:00sort of the messenger of just saying you know you did a good job and it all started with that kidney. So I took a bite of the kidney; wasn't so bad. You know after that I decided I needed to try some kidney. So that was a moment for me towards the end of my service. And I was feeling I think some volunteers were feeling either like they wanted to stay another year or like they were really ready to leave. I may have wanted to stay another year. I really liked my experience until the very end. But I made a what I might call a rational decision to leave China and do something else. But yeah that made me feel like my time there was well spent.
WILSON: So what do you think the impact of your Peace Corps service was76:00on the country and people?
SHRABERG: Well I think for just by virtue of being there was anaccomplishment. Showing up you know but being available to the Chinese people, my students, my colleagues, and the people on the street in the community working. The fact that I was there and I was not Chinese I think affected the people in my community and affected me too, but affected the people in my community. And that they were able to see something and get, maybe even get a glimpse of something that wasn't familiar but was there. It was there but it wasn't something that they were used to seeing. And I really enjoyed talking with store vendors, 77:00with fruit vendors, with taxicab drivers, and just giving them a little bit of conversation and being able to speak Chinese was great with them because they might understand as a person you know someone from a certain country with a family. You know they would talk about family with me. They would talk about job and how old I was and so being able to introduce myself to this culture in this country I feel had an effect and influenced. I think I probably influenced some people. In fact we started this--It's interesting because now the 11th group to go--we were the 10th. The 11th group to go and the 12th group to go are still plugged into this. There's an expatriate community which wasn't there before because all the volunteers left. In Lanzhou the volunteers that are very outgoing that like to bring Chinese into the 78:00group, where you know for example at my school and at many schools all the foreign teachers live in the same dorm. Anyone who's not Chinese lived together in the same building away from other Chinese. But Peace Corps made a point; there was a rule that we could not live in those kinds of all foreign teacher dormitories or houses. So I lived with all Chinese neighbors; every volunteer did. And I think that was one of the most effective ways of allowing us to get to know more Chinese, to get to know the old lady who's always--Or the old ladies and old men who are always you know crouched out around your door playing mah-jongg or you know just chatting and all the kids and Chinese children that would come over each day. So that allowed me to also become a member of the community and be remembered you know. Even if they're you know over a bowl of noodles right now saying, "Remember when that foreign 79:00guy did this or you know remember when this happened?" I think that that was an important part of my experience.
WILSON: What was the impact on you?
SHRABERG: On me? Well I think I gained a lot of respect for Chinese forone, which I didn't, which I just didn't really know what to expect when I got there. And I ended up coming away with a tremendous sense of interest in China, interest in Chinese culture and language but also more understanding of what went on in the country before I was there and what's going to go on you know after I leave. I came in there and 80:00I saw things and I learned things, and I feel like my perspective was generally broadened. Like being in a country like that I said before I went people do things differently and that's okay, but now I've seen it in action. And there's actually some things I didn't agree with and I didn't think was okay. And I would complain to Chinese about them sometimes and they would agree with me. So being an impetus for change, teaching me how to be outspoken but not offensive, being respectful, being mindful of what the standard is in that country. If I wanted being able to instigate some change or some people to be proactive but not in a disrespectful way I think is something that China taught me. 81:00And this might sound strange but one thing that it taught me was how to say no. Because being asked over--I was asked to do so many things that I had to end up saying no to because I felt really overextended. I could have been teaching almost 30 hours a class tutoring children in the evenings and then like translating documents and helping to do like audio recordings and just never, never having any time for me or to you know to sleep hardly. So learning how to choose where I want to be the most effective and where I want to say you know okay I need to hold off and do less here because I'm doing this and I want to focus on this. Learning how to prioritize things and focus on certain things was one thing that I came away with the ability to do. Some of us felt 82:00so bad because you know we couldn't do everything that was asked of us. But after a while you know I came to realize you know they'll find some way to do it or I can do this much but I can't do all of it. So just learning to feel about your limits was one thing that Peace Corps taught me. And I think it taught me how to speak louder in front of a group of people, how to be a good public speaker, how to--It gave me confidence just like it gave my students confidence. I think that it gave me confidence too. So and ultimately I think it made me a more experienced person. I don't know if I'm having the responsibility to be a teacher, having everything that I had going on taught me to live 83:00a balanced life as much as I could but also to work hard and to be a confident individual. That's one thing that I came away with.
WILSON: So what was it like coming home and how did you come home? Didyou come directly home? Did you travel?
SHRABERG: I came via Europe so I was part of a caravan of Peace Corpstravelers, but it was just me and my girlfriend who I met in the Peace Corps. She and I traveled from Chengdu and we flew to Paris, France. That was culture shock. I mean that was shock; I don't know if you call it culture shock. But the architecture was different, the air was different, the people were different, everything was different. And it was exciting to be in that new environment, and we traveled around Europe for a month and a half. And I'd never been to Europe except 84:00for when I was ten years old. But at that time I was really paying attention and noticed how there were some similarities between Chinese culture and European culture, and these are the things I noticed immediately. As I had to change my routine, change the language I spoke, and just the way that I did things. Everything seemed so much easier for one because there were a lot more English speakers. I looked like some of the people there. When I was in Italy they thought I was Italian; when I was in France they thought I was French. So you know "Bonjour monsieur." "No. I'm sorry I'm American." "Oh you're from America? Okay." But even those so in a way, in some ways I felt like being in Europe I was able to acclimate to living in a different environment and a western environment too, something that was non- Chinese. It gave me the opportunity to travel around and get to know western civilization like Greece, going to Crete, going to Heraklion, 85:00seeing Cnossos, seeing Athens, you know going through Italy, visiting some big you know after being in China and seeing everything Chinese I was suddenly like in the cradle of all these great western you know artifacts and sites. I was able to adjust and decompress from my Chinese experience in those few months. And but then really returning to America at first it was nice to be told that you don't have to do anything right now for the first week or two. It was like just don't do anything just relax you know just get used to being an American. I was like okay. But that to me that was just like well okay I'll watch 86:00some TV you know I'll eat some food. I'll eat more food. You know we called in phase one, phase one which was you know eat, relax, don't do anything. And I mean being home at first was like so stimulating. Everything was really new and delicious and wonderful. And yeah it was great to see my family again. I missed home. I felt more than ever you know traveling--The last book that I read is a book called The Art of Travel and it's by a guy who's French. I want to say his last name is Brecht; I'm thinking of Bertoit Brecht the playwright, but that's not the same. It's called The Art of Travel and it's a great book. In the book he discusses one of the greatest things you can learn by traveling is how much you have or what you have at home 87:00you know. Or maybe first you have to explore your home space before you can really appreciate the other spaces or vice versa. So having been abroad I gained a real appreciation for my own space, my own culture, my own country. And that's something that I initially was sort of you know given very quickly a big dose of very quickly. So I felt it was like an element of debauchery to being home you know like oh I'm home in America you know the land of the free where you know the Coca-Cola runs like water and the Snickers bars are to be found at every supermarket. The Cheetos you know grow on trees. So but it was great being home experiencing all those very physical things and then also just being in America amongst Americans. And see I felt and still do feel like this is home for me, particularly Kentucky and Lexington. 88:00I'll always have a home here and really, really appreciate that, being home. It really made me appreciate being home.
WILSON: What do you think the impact of your Peace Corps experience hasbeen on your family?
SHRABERG: Well my parents are very proud. Actually this is somethingfor me personally. When my parents--My parents did come to visit me in China last summer in 2006 or last May rather just before the summer for the holiday in China. And everyone around me, my Chinese friends and my non-Chinese friends told me. They said, "Wow, your parents are really proud of you." Like they could see it, how proud they were that I was living in this country. They came to visit me at my site, they saw all my classrooms, they saw like my daily routine. I took them 89:00to the fruit market. I took them downtown and just gave them a little tour of what my life is or was at that time. And they were very proud of what I'd accomplished. And then when they heard me speak Chinese they were like really proud. They were like wow our son speaks this language you know and he's really grown up. They looked at me in the cab when I went to pick them up from Beijing and they said, "You've grown up. You've matured. You've changed." So and that made me feel really good because I didn't really notice that and I wasn't making a point to change. I just went there and was myself and I listened to other people and what they had to say and made some great friends and had a wonderful experience. So all in all they were, I'd say they were very proud.
WILSON: What has the impact been on your career path?90:00
SHRABERG: Well that is yet to be seen. Well being in China I in thelast few months I formed a very real idea of what I wanted to do with my life and career wise. I like teaching and I also like the idea of working in Asia of working with China in that community. And when I presented this idea to one lady who I'd grown very close to, Mrs. Zhang who is a Chinese program manager and a friend of mine, she was very excited. She was almost she was joyful that I wanted to continue to work with China even after I left China to come back. And that she was one of the--She inspired me to want to be--She was a source 91:00of inspiration, one of the sources for me to return to this America, apply to graduate school, and hopefully be able to get a degree in Asian studies or business. But ultimately with or without continuing my education I hope to be on a path where I can work in an Asian community doing in a possibly a developing Asian community like China, Malaysia or Singapore something like that and helping with businesses and helping people to get what they need. And also helping to increase the channels of communication between our country and a country like China because it's such a big country and it's opening up. It's been opened but it's still opening up. And there is still a lot of work to be done both in the United States helping people to get to know China 92:00and in China helping them to get to know other countries and cultures other than their own. So I hope to be working in probably a business capacity to be using my skills that I learned in the Peace Corps as a teacher, as a motivator, as someone who gives people confidence and as a leader. Those skills that I learned and the confidence that I gained and the friends that I made, I hope to be using all those skills--
WILSON: Tape two of Peace Corps Oral History interview with AaronShraberg. Aaron we were, you were talking as we left the other tape sort of about your future and your career path. If you have something more to add to that that's fine, or what do you--What have you done since you came back would be my next question. 93:00
SHRABERG: Sure, okay. Well I'll add one more thing and then I'll answeryour question.
SHRABERG: So in essence working in a nonprofit capacity or for anorganization that I believe in and I'm passionate about, whether it's for the State Department or for an NGO or for a business, ultimately I want to be doing something where I can utilize the things that I've learned and also be doing something that I believe in and that I care about. And hopefully continuing my education will take me further in that direction and that's my goal.
WILSON: So you went in as a volunteer in July of 2004.
WILSON: And you returned?
SHRABERG: In July of, well October of 2006. I left in July 31st of 2006.
WILSON: And so what have you--?
SHRABERG: So since then I, when I initially got back I was applying94:00to graduate school for the first three weeks, which actually ended up turning into about a month and a half of filling out applications, writing essays. I got in contact with some old professors. I searched out my old Chinese teacher. I wanted to continue taking Chinese lessons with her and she very graciously agreed to do that and then she passed me onto some students here in town who I talk with now and again, some Chinese students who are living here. I worked at a bookstore at a month from December to January before it was a temporary job at a bookstore here in town. And then I took off for the new year for a week of traveling to see my other Peace Corps friends--one down in Memphis and the other up in Minneapolis. And then when I got back 95:00I started thinking more and more about what's going to happen in the future, you know if I do in fact get in school if I move somewhere. You know I'm looking to continue my education but also start a career. So I said well I should get a job somewhere, begin saving money, so that when I do move I can either transfer or at least have that you know make that move feasible. So still preparing for the next step and you know really just trying to get things organized and get into a routine. I like to keep to my routine now which is working and exercising and then making time for friends and you know just trying to get ready for the next step.
WILSON: Is--And maybe you answered part of this when you were talkingabout sort of anticipating a future career but let me ask it more 96:00specifically, what kind of additional international travel or whatever do you look forward to?
SHRABERG: Well I'd certainly like to go back to China one day. I missChina. I'm in that period of time where I really miss the country that I served in and I really want to go back there and just hang out with Lui Wei and Hou Xian Jun and all my friends you know and just be in that place you know. So I do want to go back to China. I want to go to Taiwan, I want to go to Hong Kong. I want to travel to other Asian countries. What was really interesting to me during my service was traveling to a country like Thailand, which was adjacent to China and seeing the differences between two Asian countries and how China has influenced those countries and vice versa. So I want to do more traveling in that region in general, and I look forward if I work in let's say the international relations capacity working with, working 97:00in that region, maybe even living in that region and making a career in that region. I'd really like to travel. I definitely got you know what they call the bug when I was overseas. I just enjoy being in other cultures and experiencing those new things. And there's many places both in Asia and also you know for South America that I'd like to travel to. Maybe that sounds like the Foreign Service or something but we'll see. We'll see.
WILSON: Are you still in contact and what kind of contact with theChinese or for that matter Peace Corps friends?
SHRABERG: Yes. With my Peace Corps friends I do keep in contact withthem. We talk nowadays since I've been back every couple weeks. Some 98:00volunteers I talk to, well my girlfriend I still talk to almost you know every week at least. But some of the volunteers I hear about now and then like it was the Chinese New Year recently so all the volunteers are emailing each other like crazy and saying, "Happy New Year! Happy Year of the Pig!" you know and then that sparks a lot of emails about what everyone's doing. Some people send out emails regularly and I talk to some of my former volunteer friends. And then the Chinese we, yeah I email my Chinese friends. I have probably five Chinese people that I keep in contact with in China on a regular basis, maybe every bi-weekly or every month.
WILSON: Are these former students, colleagues, or the family that you--?
SHRABERG: Two are former colleagues and friends. One is--Well former99:00colleagues and the two former colleagues teach at a different school, but also teachers and friends. And then I have one former friend and colleague and then I have one person who's a friend that I met towards the end. And then I have the student that I keep in touch with, and also my host family who I keep in touch with, which would be my host mother and father, my host little brother, who I hope to see again one day, maybe bring him over to America. I don't know. But he's just about 12 years old now, so I keep in touch with them and I keep in touch with my host grandfather and grandmother as well.
WILSON: And this is by email?
SHRABERG: Yes, and then every now and then I talk to some of thepeople that I worked with, the Chinese and Peace Corps like my program manager. I'm in contact with her and my country director.
WILSON: You were talking about how you communicate with some of your100:00former friends and colleagues in China. It reminded me of another question that I actually didn't ask you earlier, which is relevant because of the time span of Peace Corps. What were your means of communication and what was required of you by Peace Corps in that regard, whether security issues, did you have cell phones?
SHRABERG: Yeah well I was the safety and security sub-warden for myprovince, which is something I don't think they had back in the day.
WILSON: No, no.
SHRABERG: So this is new. And actually I got an interesting perspectiveabout this position from a former volunteer who was working in China when I was there. And she said that you know this is something that's new to Peace Corps and it's you know back then it was about the work, it wasn't about the safety and security. But in the times we live 101:00in yeah, safety is an issue particularly fear of anti-Americanism or whatever. So I was given a cell phone and I'd never had a cell phone until I joined the Peace Corps. So there was some kind of irony with that if you're thinking something, if you're thinking what's more Peace Corpsy or what's less Peace Corpsy. But anyway I got this cell phone at--They told me I need to check it three times daily. I should call the office and give any updates on any you know security problems like any anti-Americanism that might be running around the city or you know, and also that I should read the paper and keep up to date on the times and what's going on in the press. Three issues were on the forefront at that time. One was the Taiwan Straits issue, the other was the North Korea issue, and the third was the issue with Japan and the general visiting a shrine in Japan could upset Japanese. And then 102:00of course America are allies with Japan, so there were some issues that I needed to stay abreast of while I was there and I did. But it--The cell phone was more of a source of anxiety for me than it was feeling safe. So but I did my job and I checked the cell phone and it just became a duty that I had and I did my duty.
WILSON: You checked it what three?
SHRABERG: Three times a day.
WILSON: Three times a day.
SHRABERG: Breakfast, lunch, and dinner yes. And I just did my duty andthat was that. But nothing, we had a couple of tests and actually the person who was testing with me was Dr. Hu. Who's Dr. Hu, she was our doctor. She was very--I enjoyed talking with her so whenever she would call me up for a drill I was pretty excited you know because we could just chat. And if we couldn't find a volunteer we would talk about where he is and what he's been doing and I would get information from her about other volunteers you know and what they were up to. And so 103:00it was I mean I enjoyed doing that and people you know some volunteers because they had a safety and security sub-warden they picked me and I said sure I'll take the responsibility.
WILSON: Were you responsible for other volunteers?
SHRABERG: For other volunteers yeah and they, some of them looked tome for what was going on back in Peace Corps headquarters or what was going on in China or in the city. If somebody had a problem with security or let's say a fan blew out in their bathroom and almost you know electrocuted them, which did happen, that they would call me and say, "Aaron you need to get the safety and security guy Zhou Xiang on this because it's not right." So I was in charge of about 20 volunteers at one time that were mostly in the city that I was in, but some were scattered in little cities around Lanzhou. And I would make my little 104:00announcements about you know safety and security every now and then and people would sort of perk up and maybe give some input or you know that might turn into like an invitation to go to KFC.
WILSON: So it was a social--?
SHRABERG: Yes, so it became somewhat of a social outlet sometimes. AndI think people yeah--
WILSON: What was the expectation on the other volunteers? Did they haveto contact you or somebody else?
SHRABERG: Well they didn't have to contact me. If they had trouble--Well if they had trouble with like security like we had one volunteer unfortunately who ran into some issues with his site and had to leave in fact. And he contacted me, he was a friend of mine too, but he contacted me and I went to his site and I made sure that he left his site safely. I mean I was there. I helped him pack his apartment up and I arranged with his school to get a truck to take us to the station so he could get on the train and leave. And we left like we left in the night and it was not that we needed to. The security situation 105:00wasn't so severe, but being there for others was something that I just did and as a safety and security sub-warden yeah I just ended up being there for those people who wanted me to be there. Now if you had a problem with sexual harassment or with some inappropriate issues, anything, then you could contact me or you could contact anybody--a friend that you felt comfortable talking to. But my real, my number one duty was to be the contact between the volunteers and the Peace Corps headquarters and the embassy or the consulate and you know Washington. Like I was out on the field and just telling everyone what to do when Peace Corps told me what to do, or the consulate or whomever, somebody 106:00in Washington. So I was really just to do what they told me to do.
WILSON: What about personal communication? Were you in email contactwith other volunteers, with your family at home?
WILSON: By telephone?
SHRABERG: We used email and I called every now and then. Sometimesthe phones would get cut off for whatever reason. Usually it was a bad connection. And the emails were probably the most common way of communicating, sometimes by letter. Although getting mail at my site was very hard. It became very difficult although I must say this I did mention the Chinese poster earlier about sending letters to China. And the Chinese, China Post is the actual postmen that ride the bike or deliver the letter are amazing because sometimes the letter just comes 107:00with a name and a place and there's no real address, but they find you or they give it someone who knows you. And I love this about Chinese.
WILSON: Even in a city of three million?
SHRABERG: Yes even in a city of three million you know go to theUniversity of Technology and find you know Zhou Xiang and give this letter to Zhou Xiang and you know somebody knows Zhou Xiang because there's that--Somewhere the collectivist culture comes in. Everybody knows everybody and you know maybe you have someone who knows someone who knows someone and therefore they'll get that. Things work out. It's kind of interesting to see that. I couldn't see someone who knows someone who knows someone giving a letter to that person in the United States you know. It probably would be more likely to happen in China. And you have to write the address you know the exact address so--But I think email, letter writing, every now and then you'd get a package which is nice because they don't have many western products. 108:00You'd get a western, a package with western products, you open it up and it's like America shoots out you know like light from a bowl of gold you know at the end of the rainbow. It's like and you just get that whiff of home and you're like whoa, you know. You sort of remember a little bit. I had that experience. My sister started working for Starbucks my first year. She sent me nine packages of Starbucks coffee, like some Skittles and like some western made products. They smelled like you know Target or Wal-Mart and just when I opened the box it was like all those things at once you know and that was fun. But and then communicating with students mostly by email and I like to write the Chinese when I write them. Sometimes I write English too but they always write me in English.
WILSON: Even if you write in Chinese.
WILSON: What's been the impact of Peace Corps service on sort of how you109:00look at the world and what's going on in the world?
SHRABERG: Well my--I feel my--In many ways I understand the importance,the--I appreciate and understand the importance of our own country and what this country means to me from living in a place like China. Like the freedoms we have, the culture that we have. Because in China people think it's their--Do you want to get--? In China I feel like in many ways their culture, they feel like their culture is just as legitimate as ours. And it is a very--It's a system. It's an entire system that the Chinese have that is very different than ours but still 110:00works. And we have our system and there are things about America that I just genuinely love. I love this country and I loved--I began to appreciate my home and where I came from and the kinds of things that maybe before I didn't notice or didn't appreciate so much or didn't realize that I had that I now realize I have. So there was a lot that I saw that I didn't necessarily like or maybe preferred. There are things that I saw there that I preferred or didn't prefer over what I saw here. Like I don't you know--I mean it could be anything. Like I loved eating Chinese food and spicy food but man I missed hamburgers. And you know what? I missed, I also missed--But there are other things like I miss people following traffic laws all the time. I mean you know you stay in your lane, you stop at the red light, you go at the green. You don't run through the red or drive on the median and you know almost take out the bicycler. And you always have to look across 111:00the street no matter where you are in the country in which I served. You can't just cross the crosswalk. You know the organization is different so you just have to be a little more alert. And coming back home I at least in Lexington you know people to tend to follow the traffic rules a little more. They adhere a little more to that so and also the different freedoms that we have. You know for one of the analogies I'd like to use or metaphors is in China they don't--The windows in every floor of the building open. If you have a 100 story building, the 100th story window will open. That's practically inconceivable in this country. And that's a type of freedom but there's a reason we don't have that freedom in this country. And I can't pinpoint exactly why that is. Maybe because people who are hurt falling out of windows or it's just not safe, but we--You know there 112:00are certain rules that we have in place that other countries don't have. And I--It--You know in China I did feel a little less secure because the rules were different and there were different freedoms that they had that I just thought I didn't really perceive them as freedoms. Well I did perceive them as freedoms but also they were a little bit dangerous. You know not following the traffic rule or that you don't have to wear your seatbelt or you know having the window of a very high building being just able to be opened like that made me think about you know what we have and why we have it. And also China is one of those countries where the population you know doesn't have as much--The individual doesn't have as much freedom to retaliate or to be able to stand up for their rights especially against the system, against the government. There's not many lawyers in China, which you 113:00know I used to be--You like to think okay lawyers are terrible you know they're you know. They're what are bringing down the country or something like that but really lawyers serve a very practical and meaningful purpose. And to know the law, to be able to be familiar with the law is a great purpose. I mean that's something that not everyone has. I mean there are people who are totally in the dark who are just really struggling because they're not empowered and they don't have that freedom that we have. So there's a lot of little things like that and big things that added up to make me really appreciate my own country and also to appreciate the other country. So realizing there's a different way of doing things but there's room for change and there's still room for you know. There's still room or perhaps there is a, for me personally there is a need to be able to institute change to be able to be a part of something. I mean this is our work is not over. 114:00It continues. We have to continue to move in some direction towards something rather than just stopping and calling it a day you know. Work is never finished. My work as a Peace Corps volunteer, that spirit of volunteerism, of being able to make a difference is not over. It continues because there--You know there are many different things going on all around the world and for my own experience some people in China want different things. Some people in other countries around the world want different things. And there's stuff going on out there. I mean the world is bigger than just this place that we live in. And the people who can institute change I think Peace Corps volunteers are some of the most informed people, some of the most culturally sensitive, and 115:00can be very well suited to helping to keep the communication between cultures open and to teach people about other cultures, and also to help communities get where they want to be in their own way. That to me is pretty important. I mean if you go into a country like China and try to change everything it's not--It's just not going to work. Other countries in Asia I saw work change dramatically by even Chinese culture or western culture but yeah. Being you know recognizing that culture's right to be there, legitimacy of those people of that culture is something that being in China taught me. And it just taught me to appreciate you know other things, other people, other cultures.
WILSON: Is there an ongoing role for Peace Corps? And if so, what is116:00that?
SHRABERG: Well yeah, yes absolutely. Because the world is very--It'sa big place once you've been--Once I had been out of the country I realized the world is a very big place. There's a lot that people don't know about us as Americans. There's a lot that Americans don't know about other people and to me it seemed like there was a demand for some answers for some truth for some representation of America or Americans. So I do think that Peace Corps's mission and also to meet a need. I mean there are countries that are in need. They want more English teachers. They want people to build sanitation. But also you know the direction the world is moving at this time and you know if more countries, being familiar with other countries who are across oceans and that this kind of environment that we, that we're 117:00moving towards necessitates that people become or that some people at least continue to do that work. That makes communication easier, that makes understanding greater, and that makes compassion more available because and I think Peace Corps does that. I think it makes people and people are interested and I feel like a lot of people I've talked to are interested in knowing more about China. And I'm glad that I went to China and that I can tell people a little bit about that. And I'm also glad when I was in China that I was able to tell people about our country. But yeah I think as we move further and further in the future Peace Corps not only helps to keep that energy going to keep that communication going but also helps to meet those needs. But it's good to have you know to me at this point it's great to have that 118:00communication between cultures.
WILSON: Okay that's sort of the last formal question I have but whatquestion haven't I asked you that you would like to answer?
SHRABERG: Alright wow. We've asked and answered a lot of questions.Well how about I would like to ask you the final question. Oh no well we can do it off the record.
WILSON: That's just a question is there just anything that you werehoping to say that I didn't probe you about? If not, that's fine too.
SHRABERG: Well I think this has been a very good interview and thank youvery much. 119:00
[End of interview.]