Ep #038: Keith Petit, China 2009-2011

Keith Petit is both a fellow RPCV and podcaster, host of the Expatriate Act podcast. As an English teacher in China, he worked to break his students out of the mold of rote memorization while navigating around sensitive cultural topics such as Tibet and Tiananmen Square.

On this Episode:

  • Teaching English to students while a government monitor made sure Keith didn’t say anything inappropriate
  • What happens when the classroom, and town, you are teaching in starts to flood
  • Finally learning the written Mandarin for “Sex Toy Shop”

Photos from Keith’s Story

Keith Petit’s Peace Corps Story

Where and when did you serve? What did you do?

I served as a TEFL instructor at China West Normal University in Nanchong, the People’s Republic of China from June of 2009 until June of 2011.

What is one of your favorite Peace Corps memories?

I had the privilege of MC-ing a Peace Corps China talent show toward the tail-end of my service. Though I suffer from tremendous quantities of stage fright and procrastinated away any script I may have had in mind — thanks in large part to the Tsingtao® Brewery Company, I managed to successfully improvise a snappy, Lettermanesque monologue that (somewhat miraculously) did not get me kicked out of the Peace Corps. Over the course of the night, some of my most (and least) talented friends put on performances that ranged from sublime to absurd to sublimely absurd, and the entire evening remains one of those hazily remembered vignettes that seem to glow with more and more warmth as the years tumble past.

What is one of your least favorite Peace Corps memories?

Like many another Peace Corps China volunteer, I indulged my latent nicotine addiction to its very fullest. One spring afternoon, between classes, I was out having a smoke on the second-floor balcony. My government-issued classroom monitor (and student) had followed my scent and cornered me against the rails. He said that he had a few questions for me. He wanted to know what I thought about the (then recent) Japanese tsunami and the ensuing nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima. Using the most politically neutral language I could manage, I voiced my deep sadness regarding the loss of Japanese life and livelihoods, and expressed my hope that the Japanese people would recover with the same resiliency that has seen them through any number of tough historical times. My student saw things rather differently. As you know, he told me, Japan and Our China are lifelong enemies. It is my hope, he said, that many Japanese are killed, that many more suffer, and that the country struggles to recover, if it is to recover at all. I was unsure of how to respond, so I took an especially long drag and whistled a hot torrent of smoke out over the ledge. After the smoke had dissipated fully, I turned back to my student and nodded. The bell rang. Time for class. I had been in China for over a year by then: long enough to understand that China was a place that changed shape by the minute, but remained as ideologically rigid as the Great Wall itself.

What do you miss about the Peace Corps?

I miss the camaraderie of my fellow volunteers. There is no faster or deeper route to friendship than to discover a foreign country with a group of complete strangers.

What is something you learned in the Peace Corps?

I have learned that change is best effected on a small scale and that one’s ideals matter much less than one’s deeds.

Do you have a favorite quote or local saying?

In Mandarin Chinese, “chai” means to destroy and “nar” means “where.” Thus, the word “China,” when pronounced a certain way, can mean “where (or what) shall we destroy?” In a part of the world that is under constant construction — and destruction — this is a particularly apt pun, and one that the Chinese themselves are no less aware of.


Other Things Talked About This Episode:

4 Ts Chinese Restaurant

Overheard while riding a bus in China:

The Expatriate Act

“An occasionally suit-coated ex-expatriate with chronically untied shoes sets off in search of the world’s weirdest travel anecdotes without quite overcoming the social anxiety that keeps him semi-permanently cloistered in a basement studio apartment with his cat.”

When not being interviewed or hanging out with his cat, Keith interviews current and former expatriates on his podcast, The Expatriate Act. His show is a bit longer than the My Peace Corps Story podcast, less structured, at times a little brash, but none the less its really worth a listen. Might I recommend Episode 41 featuring a gentleman you may know:

*1:36:01 -Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (not Pavlov!)

The Expatriate Act is available on iTunes/Apple Podcast, Stitcher, Soundcloud, and many other podcast providers.



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