As we wend through low mountains to reach Hunchun, I see a broad, muddy river to my right. Mr. Wang asks the taxi driver if North Korea is on the other side, and the taxi driver says that it's not right on the other side, but it is there. The river and its banks are empty, with just the mystery of distant hillsides to speak to us about that other country.
Hunchun itself is a sprawling town, with wide pavilions and spacious streets. The landscaping is perfect almost everywhere, but like many places in China, you cannot escape the surrounding agriculture and open space. The dust coats the streets and tiled sidewalks, the awnings over every business, and somehow in the overcast sky, even the city looks a little drab. But at night, the sound of music rings in the air and in the central plaza there is dancing of all kinds (even ballroom!), crafts and games for the children including a motorized railroad and cars, an enormous inflatable bounce-playground, a two-story big screen showing movie clips, and a night market along the street. It disappears during the day, leaving only a big empty plaza, but every night the music and the laughter returns.
WCS has its field office on the northeastern outskirts of the town. It is a spacious two-story house with a large courtyard. In the courtyard garden they've planted tomatoes, squash, bok choy, potatoes, beans and apple trees. Downstairs there is a sitting area, a large kitchen, a bedroom, bathroom and cubicles in the large living area. Upstairs is a meeting room with a projector, surrounded by three bedrooms and another bathroom.
The luxury of my Best Western hotel room, however, is a far cry. Here, the hot water is broken, and there is no refrigerator. The internet is fast and reliable (though my VPN is not), but the stove is spotty, as is the apparently broken washing machine. My bed is very hard, and the house is very cold. Mel and I can tell that no women live here - the kitchen is covered in layers of oil which Mel attacks with "Muscle Man Cleaner" that she found in the nearby supermarket. I'd rather be dirty than shiver my way through an ice cold shower, but I think I'll eventually give in. Mel says there's a public shower house - we may try that tomorrow instead.
This afternoon we went to California Beef Noodle house, and chatted with a couple of local high school students that Joshua made friends with, as well as two women who have both been here for nearly two years, and whom are both returning home to the States this week. Tony also took us to the market, where we found stall after stall of beautiful, fresh vegetables. Lots of unsustainable NTFPs (Non-timber forest products), and things like duck eggs, goose eggs, and quails. But also fresh tofu from the soy that's grown in the surrounding fields, little strawberries and bananas, just-cut garlic, and all manner of other vegetables. All for less than .25 USD. My cooking bones are coming back to me, and I grow excited to try all the different produce.
I admit I am a little homesick already, and probably culture shocked. But the work is thrilling - the challenges daunting beyond belief. When Tony describes to me the issues, I am taken aback but also incredibly excited. And I feel I could make a difference here. I think, this is the change that I want to see in the world. It's only the second day, I know, but maybe this feeling is meaningful nonetheless.
It's fun for me to watch Joshua be frustrated by me and Mel's deliberateness, and Mel to discover Chinese language and food, and probably for them to watch me bumble through my first days here. It's fun too, to pick Tony's brain. I'm not truly awake yet here, I haven't yet begun to see or feel what it is to be here, who these people are, and what I am here. It's already May 20, but I believe I have time.