The Air We Breathe

I returned from Kathmandu late last night. More on my other-worldly experiences there and in India and Tibet to follow. Today, I want to share the news that my Peace Corps odyssey has come to an end. I debated whether to write a post about it. I don’t want to discourage anyone who’s currently in, or thinking about joining, Peace Corps. And I’d be a liar if I said I don’t care about being judged for backing out of something I had planned to do. Those concerns are outweighed by my desire to put my genuine self – the good, the bad and the ugly – into my posts, in the hope of helping someone who’s going through a similar experience. So here goes.

When I decided to apply for Peace Corps, I pictured myself living in a village or small city in South America, habla-ing Espanol, and helping people improve their skills and education to make their lives better. I put South America as my preference on my Peace Corps application and started investigating places to brush up on my Spanish skills. During my Peace Corps interview, I was told they only send people to South America who are already fluent in Spanish.

I was nominated to teach English at a university in China. Anxious to learn more about what that experience would be like, I searched for books about volunteering for Peace Corps in China. I hit the jackpot with Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion, by Michael Levy (the “Kosher” part referring to the fact that Levy is Jewish). Levy liked his experience in China. The intent of his book is not to discourage people from joining Peace Corps.

But Levy wrote about things that were news to me. Did you know that sixteen of the world’s twenty most polluted cities are in China? That nearly 200 Chinese cities fail to meet minimal air quality standards? And that fifty percent of China’s rivers and lakes are so polluted that they’re not even fit for industrial usage, and ninety percent of China’s urban groundwater is contaminated?

Levy describes his airplane’s “slow descent into a brown soup of pollution” and an “industrial nightmare” in Chengdu (the capital city of the Sichuan province and Peace Corp’s headquarters in China):

“I imagined the capillary veins in my lungs recoiling in horror as breath after contracted breath dumped carcinogenic particulate matter into my previously healthy chest cavity. It wouldn’t be long before my Chinese teacher would tell me that smoking cigarettes was actually healthy because it prepared one’s lungs for Chinese air. The tobacco, she insisted, served as a vaccine against the smog. This seemed far-fetched to me, though I reconsidered my convictions after the Peace Corp nurse advised us to cease all exercise. An increased heart rate, she warned us, would lead to deeper breathing which, in Chengdu, meant a more profoundly damaged cardiovascular system. Best to sit and smoke, perhaps.”

This seemed far-fetched to me, too. How could any country, especially a world power like China, be in such horrendous environmental condition in 2012? Then the Universe handed me a gift. I went for my annual physical at Northwestern and my regular doctor was on vacation. I saw another doctor who recently returned from several years of living in China.

She confirmed the dangers of breathing Chinese air. After living in China for two years, a CT scan of my lungs would look like that of a life-long smoker. Knowing that I’m on Synthroid (a prescription thyroid medication), she also told me about her mistake of getting a prescription filled in China. Many commonly used U.S. medications aren’t available in China, or don’t contain the same ingredients, or are counterfeit. She became seriously ill from the prescription medication and had to return to the U.S. for several months of detox.

Not exercising or taking my thyroid meds for two years would be compounded by what Levy describes as the “oil heavy” Chinese diet, consisting of “fried dough for breakfast every morning and piles of greasy meats for lunch and dinner” (something  I experienced first hand during my week in Tibet, which is officially — albeit very, very sadly — part of China). And the meat frequently comes from man’s best friend. Lassie. Rover. Toto. Levy describes walking past the “Dog Meat King” every day on his way to his classroom: “Its name – as well as the carcasses that dangled in its windows – made me pretty sure they weren’t serving chicken.”

Not. What. I. Bargained. For.

Sometimes that thing you’re pursuing with all of your energy turns out not to be the right thing for you. But if you’re lucky, and if you’re open to it, you learn from the journey. You learn about yourself, the world, and what truly matters in life. In this case, I learned that while I was willing to sacrifice my material possessions, I’m not willing to sacrifice my health. I also learned how lucky we are to find ourselves living in a place where we can step outside and breathe the air without worrying about what our CT scans will look like as a result.

I still have visions of going to South America for volunteer work. Only this time I plan to go to Guatemala in 2013 to help build schools from recycled materials with an organization called Save The World Today (featured in an article in the September 2012 edition of Oprah’s “O” magazine). Did I mention they don’t eat dogs in Guatemala?

Lost and Found

This week, as I sort through and pack up my belongings to move to a smaller place, two things are happening: (1) I’m shedding boxes and bags full of stuff that’s no longer me (why in the world did I accumulate so many things relating to shoes??); and (2) I’m finding old beloved things that I had forgotten all about (so THAT’S where I put the watch my dad got when he retired!), and I’m bringing them back into my life. I’ve also been following T.D. Jakes’ advice to “move into a new room” that makes me “dream again, think again, read again, learn again, a room with people who make deposits and not just withdrawals in your life.” Part of moving into that new room is doing this blog. I’ve encountered some very kind and helpful people in this new room, including Kate MacNicol, who recently reminded me that I should be reading Writer’s Digest.

Writer’s Digest used to be a regular part of my life when I was working on my Masters in Editing and Publishing at the University of Cincinnati, back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth. (OK, there were no dinosaurs, but there were no iPhones or Kindles either.) I lost that part of me when I went to law school, like a cozy sweater I put in a storage box and lost track of. By directing me back to Writer’s Digest, Kate helped me remember how much I enjoyed focusing on the writing profession before I got sucked into the black hole of lawyerdom. Finding that part of me again feels pretty wonderful. So thanks, Kate, for being a rainbow in my moving clouds this week!

If you’re also in the midst of moving into a new room, keep at it! Your efforts will pay off if, like T.D. Jakes advises, you take baby steps, wait for the payback, and have courage to take risks. And if you see a chance to help someone who’s moving into the room where you already reside (like Kate did for me this week), seize the opportunity to be a rainbow in their clouds….