Monday, December 29, 2008

my lowly view--China in 2008

The news coming out of the US during the past year seemed dominated by reports of gas prices, presidential politics and financial turmoil. I know there is so much that I probably didn't catch, but at some point along the way I had to accept I couldn't keep struggling to remain connected to the US through every headline or pop culture news item.

And I had enough to keep up with over here. There are years in people's lives that will always stand out in their own personal histories. I think all Americans will pause on the year 2001 when they are retelling the story of their lives, and share where they were and what their life was like then. Now, in the final days of December, I am sure that 2008 will be that year for most Chinese--certainly from what I've seen in the lives of my students and friends.

To recap--this has been the progression of the past year from over here (dates are based on my unofficial memory):

Jan/Feb--The worst winter in 50 years shuts down much of the country. Thousands are stranded in train stations during China's largest holiday of the year (and in a country where the major forms of transportation are train and bus and large migrant populations only get one time a year to go home and see their families--this is more significant than what you'd imagine in the US). (I was in SE Asia and decided to stay on the beach until the trains were running again!)

--a situation of unrest occurs in a Western province (I must answer the question "Why does the American media, like CNN and NY Times, lie?")

--The international reaction to that situation affects the Olympic torch relay and spurs rising frustration/nationalism among the Chinese people. (I learn to say "I am not French.")

--a tragic train crash kills/injures hundreds near Qingdao (my travel plans are changed when my train to Qingdao is canceled)

--The Sichuan earthquake brings devastation and sadness to everyone here in China

/June--The responses of support/relief in China is overwhelming and bonds many together

--Mass flooding in the South of China

--the 2008 Olympics have a successful run in Beijing. China wins the overall gold medal count to the pride of the Chinese people. (Every question asked to a foreigner for the next two months begins with "Did you see the Olympics?")

-The tainted/poison milk scandal affects nearly everyone--To a nation with a one child policy, contaminating baby formula for cheap gains is a low blow. (Fear hits me personally only when I learn it's reached the chocolate makers!)

--Worldwide financial crisis hits Chinese investments/factories/lives (Maybe I'll stay abroad until I have good credit again--see ya in 7 years!)

I don't know if I can convey to you how personal these stories are to my students--even if these events didn't cause any actual changes in their personal lives. Sure, in America, we get annoyed when other countries pronounce their opinion of America's action, and sure, we have plenty of Olympic spirit every 2 years, and sure, we're all worried about finances too---but I don't think I've seen the level of personal/emotional devotion to patriotism the way that it exists over here. It is personal. A critique of China is taken as a critique of each of them, individually. It's been interesting to observe.

The earthquake hit everyone hard--as all natural disasters do. It was heartbreaking. In the days following, I began our classroom discussion by just asking how everyone was doing, how they were holding up. The air had that hush that occurs after great tragedies--we remember that quiet in America the week after 9/11 and Katrina. Nobody feels like they can or should laugh aloud. I never knew what to say so I turned to Mister Rogers for his words--and somehow that story helped us to cry a little together over the sadness of it all. We did what Mister Rogers told us to do--and we talked about the helpers. The post-80's generation came together in response to this earthquake--with hundreds and thousands of young people appearing in Wenchuan for cleanup and repair and countless students donating so much blood and money that they quit taking it. This is a generation once accused of laziness and selfishness--but they are now applauded for their response.

And after those low lows came the highs of the Olympics and the national pride that came with it. Beijing put on quite a show and the thrill is something my students still talk about. Many laugh that watching the Opening Ceremonies was better than all their Spring Festivals combined--and that that night was the first time they stayed awake that late. Though they are all 18-20 years old, they remind me of when I was 12 watching our female gymnasts in Atlanta. It's just fun.

And now we're all watching the financial crisis on all sides of all oceans. Sorry China, this one is our fault ( in....the Americans'). I don't know if my students have parents who are affected--but it's something to watch. We're all in this one together.

I'm amazed to think that I have been here in China for most of this roller coaster historic year. It all hit home to me during one of the Christmas parties with my students. A student told me, "This has been a very colorful and big year in China--and you were our only foreigner we knew during the year. I think we will remember that."

There have been difficult questions in the past year. What is the difference between nationalism and patriotism? Who should be blamed after natural disasters initiate mass damage? What is the proper response as a citizen to corruption? How can we keep cultures unique and special and still accept globalization? The list goes on and on...

Some of these questions were mine and some were my students. It's been quite a year. It's too early for me to blog about how this year has changed me or changed China (as if I'd really know) or changed anything... for now I am just recapping for blog posterity the year of 2008. From China. See you next year.

Friday, December 26, 2008

This year's Christmas

Most of the dishes are washed now and the mess of torn wrapping paper, while not completely cleaned away, has at least been gathered from the ocean on the floor into plastic bags or piles around the living room. The tree is still up but the lights will stay off now--soon to be packed into an old cardboard box and left in the corner of my spare room. My second Chinese Christmas has come and gone.

All in all--I'm really proud of the holiday that we worked together to share and make special. It was a really lovely day. Katera and I invited some of our good American friends to spend the night with us, so on Christmas Eve, Julie and Katie and David came up (Julie is in her 2nd year here too and Katie and David are married). David made wassail, Katera provided brownies (which are a delicacy over here), Julie brought fudge (a delicacy anywhere) and we all drank warm drinks and watched Fred Claus and Merry Christmas Charlie Brown in our pj's. A little after midnight we paused for a candlelit service to think about Christmas, sing the more meaningful carols and share the Supper. It was all filled with joy and peace.

On Christmas morning, I was up early to make cinnamon rolls and latkes while Julie and Katera scrambled eggs in her kitchen. We drank leftover wassail or coffee and had a hearty breakfast and opened presents together (each person brought one generic wrapped present--all gifts that someone would want) and even had stockings complete with oranges in the toes! After hanging out for a while, everyone dispersed to their own apartments for naps or more Christmas fun.

This being China, there were of course a few potential calamities to be dealt with. Our water was turned off on campus the two days before Christmas--so washing our few pots and pans for reuse was a bit difficult, and it was annoying to ask guests to manually flush the toliets using a bucket of water! I killed the yeast in my cinnamon rolls by using hot water instead of warm water to mix the dough (all of you in America need to pause right now with a prayer of thanks for Pilsbury and canned cinnamon rolls) and my electric eye kept turning off while I was frying my latkes so the oil wouldn't stay hot enough to quickly cook them.

Despite such trials, it was a beautiful day. The dishes were washed with my bottled water jug, the toliet stayed flushed, the cinnamon rolls were just a little heavy and chewy instead of light and fluffy but still just as sweet, and the latkes managed to not get tooo soggy and tasted pretty good. We had fun opening presents and I think we were all able to savour our moments together instead of spending too much time thinking of where we weren't for the day.


As I've been tidying up from a long week of Christmas parties, I keep looking at the nativity scene I painted really quickly. I told the story 8 times during the past week--and my thoughts keep lingering on Matthew's account...the wise men, specifically. Two thousand years ago, scholars from the east began a journey to find....well, something. From the east. Two thousand years ago, these men were searching for wisdom or purpose or some type of key to life and were not able to find fulfillment in any of their own culture's answers. In the east. So they gave up looking among their society and turned upward to the stars. Among those stars, they found a light to lead them to a strange land and to a newborn type of king for a newborn type of kingdom.

So here, in my Christmas in this land in the Far East, I think about that star, and those men--so empty and hungry in their own land that they would risk everything to travel long miles following a star. I think about how the answer the star brought those men to changed the world forever. And now, two thousand years later, our hope is that the wise people in the lands in the east don't have to travel far from home to find the answer of that star. Our hope is that they will find stars right here, at ground level, in the midst of life here. It is a heady thing to claim to be a star, but it is what is required of each of us. As we think about that Christmas star leading people to an answer, we must never forget that we too are called to shine like stars in the universe as we hold out....well, you know the rest....whether to those in lands to the east or lands to the west. Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Gifts from my students

I'm told these are muscle beaters that you use to message your muscles.

So many cute cards

This is a stuffed dog basket...

Tuesday, December 23, 2008



Occasionally a class invites us for a night out with them. These evenings are usually a lot of fun but a wee bit taxing; consisting of a big banquet dinner with scary entrees of fish heads and pigs feet and then usually followed by forced performances at a nearby KTV--the karaoke bars found on nearly every corner in Wuhan. All sorts of hilarity ensue--but unfortunately it is usually caused by breakdowns in communication which, though they make for good stories, can get old after a while.

I was expecting one of these nights when one of my Masters classes invited me to meet them in the classroom last Sunday night. I've really enjoyed working with these students because they are not far from me in age and we can share cultures as peers together. Approaching the classroom, I was greeted by Winfred, who I always think reminds me of the owl in Winnie the Pooh, who greeted me and ran ahead into the classroom, shutting the door behind him. Hmmmm.

When I got to the door, it swung open from the inside as Elton John's Step Into Christmas began to blast from the speakers. Stunned, I walked forward into a room filled with balloons, Christmas lights, a fully decorated Christmas tree, and gift bags of oranges, candy and chocolate. A powerpoint slideshow was showing glowing photos of Christmas lights and snow covered houses. Before I knew it, a Santa hat was on my head and I was ushered to the seat of honor.

The next hour was a complete Christmas program. A host of ceremonies introduced student acts, and they performed skits of a family shopping for presents, of a Christmas morning looking for Santa's gifts, and of an 'election' with Santa campaigning for president! Carols were sung, gifts were shared, games were played, and I was blown away.

The most wonderful thing about all this is knowing that my students got together, recognized that I would be 'missing' the most important holiday of my culture, and decided to create a Christmas for me here. The kindness of this is overwhelming. I'm really blessed.


Another tradition is our annual Christmas dinner with the English department. The Dean of the department takes the foreign teachers out for a banquet style dinner. We are joined by our coteachers (each of us has a Chinese teacher from the English department who serves as a liason for us--letting us know about our schedules, meetings, requirements etc...) and any others from the department who are invited. Again, these types of gatherings are fun but can be exhausting. The banquet culture involves lots of 'toasting' and it's always a little overwhelming for me.

This year, it was an incredible relief to have a like-minded/kindred spirit friend there, Katera, to exchange shocked glances and kick each other under the table when we needed to say "did he REALLY just say that?" or "I CAN NOT believe this is happening right now." It made the evening 5 times more fun.

But nothing, nothing, NOTHING in my experiences of Chinese banquet dinners will ever top what happened towards the end of the meal. As usual, our hosts and coteachers began insisting on "performances," which would take another post to describe...we'll leave as this: when meeting with any group of people over here, it is usual and even expected that you will be forced to play monkey with a song, poem, dance...something. It's usually a song.

Anway, the performances were demanded and we all took our awkward turns at singing a Christmas carol or whatever. Katera pulled out a song from her time in Africa, I sang my version of my ringtone (which is a popular Chinese pop song--in Chinese--so I only put phonetic sounds to the tune), and Jesse sang a carol. Somehow, the singing kept going, and the evening evolved into a singalong with everyone at the table--including songs from John Denver (a usual choice. Country Roads is taught to all high schoolers here), and THE BEATLES--seriously, we sang Hey Jude, Yesterday, Yellow Submarine and many many more.

It was just one of those times when you must stop, look around, and say to yourself, "I am sitting at a banquet Christmas....with the whole room, Chinese and Americans, singing Beatles songs." Seriously, this is quite a life we lead.


This has less to do with Christmas, but it was lovely. Walking to class a few days ago, I noticed a couple in the distance walking towards me. They were walking close side by side, hands in pockets, eyes focused straight ahead or on the ground. Their faces were locked in grim distraction--her lips were pursed together in a tight angry line and he had the defeated look of a guy who knows he's not gonna win, and is a little annoyed about it.

As they walked briskly, something in her thoughts made her roll her eyes as she ever so slightly shook her head to herself. The tightly closed lips relaxed a little. Still without looking at him or changing her brisk pace, she raised one eyebrow and made a short comment. I didn't hear and wouldn't have understood it anyway--but I'm pretty sure that it was ironic. There was the tiniest bemused smile in the corner of her mouth--the side that faced away from him...

The silence fell back over them as they continued their walk--but his face and countanance were amazing to watch. The subtle transformation of a guy stuck in the doghouse into a guy whose been let off the hook. He never lifted his eyes from the ground a few yards ahead of him, but his shoulders and neck got straighter and higher. And his face melted into peace. It did. It melted into peace. All those muscles of anger and tightness dissolved as his smile began to spread. He didn't look at her or do anything to let her know that he was smiling, they just kept walking in silence...but it was a moment. Grace had just passed between the two of them. They were going to be ok.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Telling the story

Christmas is an odd thing here in Wuhan. It's not really celebrated, but it is marketed. The shopping areas and hotels fill their lobbies with Christmas decorations--but Christmas is really viewed as a great shopping day over here--there are huge sales in most of the stores. Chinese children don't grow up waiting for Santa Claus and the origin of the name of this holiday isn't known to most.

For this reason--it's so much fun to share the Story of Christmas with our students. It's important for them to be aware of this Western understanding of the holiday, so we incorporate the lesson into our courses. This year, I invited ALLLLL of my classes to come up to my apartment for Christmas parties. This means that on 7 different occasions, my apartment has been crammed with 25 students hearing the Christmas story and making Christmas cards and advent calendars! I'll post pictures once we are finished with all the parties...for now I thought I'd show some of my tools to help teach the lesson!

my tree!!

I painted this really quickly one morning before the first party to help explain our new vocabulary word, 'nativity.'

Please Lift me Up that I'll have enough energy to finish out the week before Christmas and that my words will plant seeds in my students' lives! Love to you all!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Morning Commute

The winter mornings in Wuhan are misty, when the bamboo forest and the arched bridge over the pond look less like cultural landscape marketing and more like authentic and ethereal scenes taken straight from an ancient brush painting. The first turn from my building runs along the gate of the preschool and kindergarten. In the minutes before 8 o'clock, the path is a maze of motos, bikes, occasional sedans and bundled tots following parents laden with bed rolls and backpacks. The kids are bleary eyed and flushed underneath their layers and layers of stuffing as they're hurried through the pink castle painted entrance. In the afternoons they will point or stare at my passing, the bold ones practicing their "hallo"s, but it's too early to look up or notice others in a world full of not-my-mom/dad's when all they want is to keep clinging to mom or dad. In just a few hours they will be dancing in unison to the duckie song, laughing and singing--and if I don't have a morning class I will wake to the sounds of their play--but it is 7:40 and now I am just another pair of pants and shoes to shuffle past as they give their sleepy farewells.

The next turn is to the main stretch that serves as the entrance artery within the school gates. The tiled sidewalk is lined with palm trees on one side and white-barked maple trees on the other, their brassy leaves still clinging to the naked white branches or cruntching under our feet. I dodge the bound-twig brooms of the street workers who seem to make a game of raking at my heels as I pass. The nauseous odors of breakfast foods drift through windows and I realize that even after 3 semesters of life here--there are some smells I will never quite acclimate to.

I'll learn how late I am as I approach the pond. If I am early or right on time, the old ladies will still be in the midst of tai-chi exercises with lengths of gold ribbon or red fans to accent the fluidity of their movements. If I'm late, they'll be squatting on their haunches to rest or will already have moved on with the day.

The main square is next--large open concrete resembling Tiananmen for a distance that I can't estimate--but it takes a good 10 minutes to walk from top to bottom, running almost the length of the whole campus. Here is where I noice how utterly silent the walk has been. It wasn't this way until winter hit--the cold has closed us all off into our own thoughts. But on the square, each morning without fail, students find spots to themselves and read aloud from lesson books, broken and halting English, often monotone, always with focused intensity, being spoken every 3 to 4 yards. The Ministry of Education recommended morning readings for all college students, so they receive a passage book in their classes and take to the streets/squares in the hour after the mandated morning exercises. And so for three paces you'll hear a history of an ancient Viking landing, and then it will be the proper etiquette for tea or brunch, and then a few yards away an intent young man with glasses is repeating "mechanic" as "ma-chan-ac, maCHANac, mmmmACHANac, mACANac, mAYCHANac," until he switches to "en-jeen, anjeen, jjjjj, jeen, enjeen," and in a few yards further it's vaguely recognizable Shakespeare.

One more turn to the teaching building and 150 steps to the 6th floor language labs. The clock in the lobby is 5 minutes slow, which is encouraging when I'm running behind. I live on the 5th floor and teach on the 6th and climb up an average of 380 steps a day (on good days with few errands/outings) but I still huff and puff by the final ascent. The stairwell is filled with former and current students, and though I usually recognize their faces, I am never quite sure if it was yesterday or a year ago that I saw them in my class. I'm always terrified of crossing paths with a current student and completely blanking on recognition. In a classroom setting I can remember most of their English names, but it's hopeless outside in the wide world. My labs are at the end of the hall, cold and white and uniform.

At 8, class begins.

Monday, December 8, 2008

A good ol' RANDOM post

1. My shoelaces have started to get untied on a daily basis. I haven't changed anything about how I tie my shoes--the laces are still strong and clean--there's no explanation. So, at least once I day, I feel like I'm 5 again.

2. The cold has settled into our apartments. My bedroom stays warm enough--but it gets to the point where we don't want to change clothes. It just feels too cold to get undressed even for a second--so we do the locker room thing where you change clothing without revealing any skin. It's not about modesty--it's about warmth.

3. I'm obsessed with cooking soups these days. I've made creamy potato and carrot soup, savory southwestern pumpkin soup and an impromptu one-serving tomato soup in the past few weeks. My online recipe file is getting filled with more soups to try!

4. India is postponed. Over here in China, our winter break is centered around the Chinese New Year/Spring Festival. We'll be in class straight through Christmas, but get about 4 weeks of a break in mid January to mid February. I had been planning on backpacking through India for a month--stopping in Calcutta for a week or so of service, working in the footsteps of Mother Theresa, checking out the Taj Mahal in Agra, getting a hut on the beach in Goa etc.... but the recent attacks have postponed that. Katera and I racked our brains to come up with some excuse that would make it seem less irresponsible for us to go in light of the new instability--and there was just no way to make it work. We're keeping our hopes up that we can go at the beginning of the summer--which could be even more awesome b/c we could backpack our way through Tibet, cross into Nepal, then make our way into India before flying back to America for our summer break. Our fingers are crossed and our eyes are on the news. Which brings us to:

5. SE Asia is coming!!!! After many hours staring at the globe and mourning our India setback (which--by the way--we are actually saddened by on a level other than the selfish one mentioned here--but that would require another post and sincere writing to express), we decided to head back to SE Asia and spend a month backpacking around there! Megan, Katera and I will join forces this time and we're hitting the countries that Megan and I didn't make it to last year (we both traveled through SE Asia on different trips). So we're starting with a cheap flight into Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and will travel into Singapore, through Malaysia, southern Thailand, and Laos and then hit the southern Chinese province of Yunnan. I'm extremely excited about it--I have two great traveling companions, the trip is dirt cheap (our budget for a month is somewhere around US$800 total), the weather will be warm, the food delicious, and I feel really comfortable getting around SE Asia after doing it last year.

6. I can't stop listening to The Cars these days.

7. I finally made it to the library!!!! Last year--in one of those wonderful moments of discovery mentioned before--I wandered through my university's library till I was delighted to find a section of English lit! I pressed the school this year to allow me a library card and after some warnings, we all received them. The selection is primarily literature classics--which works for me because I'm trying to take this time before grad school to catch up on many of the great works of literature as well as acclaimed works of recent fiction that I missed in my primary-undergrad education. Katera and I have both been in voracious reading moods--so it's been fun. This semester I've read (off the top of my head):

-The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
-A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
-Lady Chatterley's Lover by DH Lawrence
-Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
-Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
-Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

and currently I've opened the Divine Comedy by Dante--but I can only find Inferno and Paradiso, so I might not make it very far into it! It's a shame, because the passages I've read from Purgatory looked the most interesting. Maybe I'll find it at a bookstore somewhere though! I just feel sooo thrilled that I have access to the library now! I can only get 5 books at a time--so I'm looking forward to finishing this round and heading back for more.

8. I've got my fake Christmas tree out and will decorate it and the house this week!!! It makes me miss home so much--but even that doesn't diminish the joy of Christmas season!!! love to you all!!!

Friday, December 5, 2008

The ORIGINAL Soulja Boy ballet!--this makes me laugh

I can't help it--I had to share this!! Their energy is sooo infectious! It makes me want to go work out or something. My favorite moment is second 39-40. This kid is hilarious!!!!