Sunday, April 25, 2010

Winds of Change

Wherever the Wind May Call Me

About a week ago I wrote a full blog and decided not to send it to anyone. There was nothing sensitive per se, but I realized that I was essentially saying the same things I’ve said before in a new way. That is when the new thought struck me.

I noticed that I was starting to settle into a routine. I don’t feel like i’ve gotten stuck in a rut - I know what that feels like - but definitely there is a certain amount of repetition that I am recognizing. For once, I dont see it as all bad. However, I do recognize that this could be a dangerous stage for me. Dangerous because I may ignore new problems by dismissing them as old issues. The fact that I recognize it is an encouraging thought.

My classes and I are at that point of the semester (one more week of content before finals) where everything cognitively shuts down and you are ready to be done. Its not a pretty sight sometimes, and its definitely not fun to have space cadet students when you are trying to get them involved. Such circumstances make moderately boring lessons into a nightmare, and even games that had decent potential become the doldrums on the open seas.

Luckily, we will all be done very soon. I keep reminding them that the end is near (and not in a naked hobo wearing a sign in New York kind of way) and to take heart. They listen. . . Sometimes.

We move forward. Occasionally together. It has been a real trek to get to where we are and there is no mistaking that. I have learned a ton about what it means to be a teacher and a good student, and hopefully they have learned a lot about reading or writing depending on what class they have me for.

Next semester is full of promise and I greatly look forward to it: almost as much as I look forward to the week long break that comes before it.

Regardless of the prospects of a new semester, I have realized a very important thing about my circumstance right now.

I am content with the stage I am at.

I am not content to stay in this occupation forever maybe not, but I am confident that I am where I need to be for the time being. I am learning skills that I need to learn and I am being proven in a way that I needed. I needed to know that I could really go somewhere and adapt to the language and people in a way that most cannot or will not. I needed to know that I could go and “acculturate”.

I definitely have a lot of work to do, but I am on the right track.

Here is the juicy part (I always think of Juicy juice when I hear the word juice... and even though its kind of miserably non-juice-ish... I have some really fond association for it and the tin-can stilts that my mom used to make out of their oversized containers).

I realized that I really do love China. I didn’t before I came, and I don’t think this is necessarily some calling to stay here forever, but the fact that I could stay here forever is an incredible sign. I am a restless spirit. I am more often than not fidgety and looking for the next stage of growth and development. Right now, I feel like China is a vast green horizon full of growth and intrigue and I am astounded by how comfortable I am here.

I am almost done with my first Chinese textbook. I have already purchased a new one, and I love seeing my language skills grow and be measured by increasingly more demanding books. I look forward to seeing that grow.

I was at dinner yesterday night and somehow the concept of “getting into someone else’s head” came up. I’ve always liked the idea. This time however, some friends of mine said that they wouldn’t want to get into the Chinese mind. Without a doubt, the average mainland Chinese tinkerbox has some odd toys rolling around... trust me... this isnt just racism. I however do want to know what goes on in their heads.

My view on culture is that it is amazing. Not to say that there aren’t ups and downs, pros and cons etc, but that a style of living would be agreed upon by a group of people (a functional view of culture that I hold) is an incredible thing. I like to know about culture and understand how to operate within it, without being bound by it against my will.

It is one thing to choose to be limited to honour those around you (that one’s for you mom) and another to be ignorant of your own chains.

The same thing is true with culture I feel. Know the problems and advantages, and understand how to use them to really connect with people.

All that said, I do not know what my plans are exactly, but I know that this is a good stage for me. I dont know the expiration date on this milk but it smells good for now.

(Ok so that metaphor doesnt totally apply because Zhengzhou smells pretty horrendous sometimes.)

So I dunno where the lemons went... evidently life gave me milk... so im gonna make cheese instead of lemonade. I think cheese is more multipurpose and useful.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Identifying with Someone at the Same Stage

I come from a family of incredibly independent people.

Until about the age of 15 or sixteen in fact, - we could not really get along as a group. We were very divided and there were factions. My two oldest sisters got along well...ish. My brother and my second oldest sister got along famously. I sort of got along with my oldest sister, but our relationship was never what you might call steadfast.

I am a very unique person. It is true that everyone wants to be unique, and so this could just as easily be a cry for attention as anything. However, I do believe that there is no one quite like me. Yes I know this sounds arrogant, but I am quite okay with that. I do not mean to say however that I am the best.

I have not taken calculus or organic chemistry nor did I graduate valedictorian from university, but I do not take those as measurements of the quality of my life. It is mine, and I will live it as I will.

That said - let me tell you about something that I find very interesting.

Coming to China and learning oh so very much has been an incredible experience. There are many things I have learned, and many things that I will continue to learn.

The thing that I find very interesting is actually not what I would qualify as a “main idea” but more of a “supporting detail”. Sorry for the terms, but I am teaching both a reading and a writing class right now- and that is what is running through my head.

I have a friend that I work with, who is quite unlike me. As people we are definitely not the same. This friend did go to the same school as I did, also graduated early from high school and had the same major at university.

She however, identifies more as “an educator”.

Regardless of this - I have found that having her as a friend has been very interesting because we are at a very similar stage. we are both new teachers, however she has a bit more experience than I do. She is at an early stage of Chinese acquisition, and finally: we are both fresh out of college, and teaching English in China. One cant help but feel a certain degree of association in a scenario like this. We go through similar if not the same hurdles, and I am really lucky to have someone like this to bounce ideas off of.

I think the reason this whole thread/ line of reasoning has caught me as so interesting is because this stage feels so much like I imagined university would. University did not feel this way though.

I think this feels more like I imagined university would because I imagined that university would be an environment that I would be trained to do something that I could apply. That is not the real function of the undergraduate degree though. Very few people actually get to work in their field of study after the undergraduate level. Why do you think so many people take graduate studies so quickly?

Some call it “hitting the snooze button on life”, but I dont think that is the case. Yes you are deferring the time that you actually have to “get to work you smelly hippy”, but I think that a certain portion of the population who look for graduate studies right away, are simply seeking for a way to feel like they know their subject well enough to do something worth while. And that is no bad thing.

(PS any of you grammatically concerned people who think I shouldn't have started a sentence with “And” -- it is a discourse (big picture) level conjunction and perfectly legal in spoken English so quit trying to tie me down!)

Back to my topic.

As we were both heading home from an adventure with some mutual friends that day, we were biking. If you have read my other blog about “Tour de Zhengzhou” - you will understand the significance of that. This friend will be going back to Canada to work for the summer :P - and will have the great fortune to teach with other teachers and essentially shadow, watch, and participate with them in the act of teaching. It is almost guaranteed to be a valuable experience. I know she will make good use of it.

You are probably wondering why I am writing about someone else: particularly a girl.

In answer to your ponderings / questions (particularly those of my beloved aunt!): No.

The real reason I am writing about someone else is because I think it is really interesting that I finally feel like I can identify with someone else. I don’t feel like I need to justify some way that I am different. I do not feel like I need to explain how our situations are so very different. I have simply come to this place where I have no problem admitting that our situations are in fact quite similar, and I am very excited that she gets to take this situation, and this context and really use it as a time to grow. I however am eyeing the next door, and looking at what tango steps I need to do to get across the dance floor to it.

This is healthy. I dont feel like I am in the “wrong place” for the time. I know this is where I need to be for this stage, but I don’t think this is where I need to be for the long run. My goals as it stands are to learn as much about this game, and then move on to the next one when I am content with what I have learned.

This ain’t my royal ball Cinderella ~ I wish you the best of luck.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Get Some Fresh Air

I can remember Las Angeles being described (or was it Jersey... I dunno - one of those forsaken cities) as having a perpetual and unnatural cloud over it during the 90’s.

Zhengzhou is currently in that state. It has been that way since I have been in the city, and I greatly fear for my lungs HAH. The air quality here is very poor, and it is an every day affair to look off into the distance... and fail to see very far, not owing to your own ocular incompetence.

When I recieved an invitation to go get some fresh air with a Chinese friend’s family - I took the opportunity as an important venture. First off - I love hanging out with these people. Second and third, any opportunity to be ‘in’ a Chinese family is greeted as a very important inculturating moment, and also a language learning opportunity. Finally... it is good to get away from the concrete and hordes of people for once.

I have come a very long way from when I visited New York all those years ago (Yes, I know that sounds funny coming from a 21 year old). On that trip - when I went to New York with the Saint Louis Symphony Children’s Choir to sing at Carnegie Hall. I was very unimpressed with the idea of “cities”.

When we touched down at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, I was greeted by a floating runway and one miserable hill of grass that had “Welcome to New York” tattooed into the side of it. That was the only green I saw the entire time I was there. Coming from a lush and definitely larger than average green back yard with fairly old trees on it. I was hankering for some nature by the time I got back home to St. Louis. It was in that trip that I decided I did not like cities.

Little did I know that the one thing that would really hold constant in my life in the following years would be my aptitude for change.

My apartment in Zhengzhou had been without water for about 5 days... so I was feeling rather in desperate need of a shower. The only real redemptive thing I can say is that sponge baths “do the trick” when one hasn’t many other options.

Fortunately, my Chinese friends are incredible hosts, and had volunteered their shower to me the day before: so I packed up my towel, shampoo etc and zoomed over in the morning after collecting some books and what not so that I could do a little work while “getting fresh air”. Crazy... I know - but I am a new teacher.... and I want to at least be working my butt off - even if I am not the most phenominal at my job.

After taking a wonderfully hot shower and sharing some incredibly delicious United-Statesian coffee with my Chinese friends - we departed for a distant reach of Zhengzhou.

A good while in the car later, the city was still there. However, things did start to look more rural. Instead of 25+ story buildings in every direction, we began to see only about 5.

In our riding, I really began to develop my understanding of what a developing country is. China has a thriving economy and a serious population, but standards of living, and environmental standards are definitely clear markers of China’s status as a developing country. It was humanizing. In the car ride my friend, her american husband and I had a discussion on the way China treats the environment. He, being a modern and what I understand to be “new-age” thought it was a tragedy that China treats the environment the way it does.

I agree - it is a tragedy, but I also agree with his Chinese wife (my friend, and connection to the family) - it is not fair to expect a developing country to put environmental protection ahead of economic development. I don’t know any leader that would sacrifice the well being or happiness of their people for the sake of the weather: especially when those things are directly connected their own social-economic status.

We arrived at our first destination a little while later. Behind some very dusty hills that reminded me of Southwest Texas, we found this Buddhist temple with certain composite parts that were over 1800 years old. It was a very interesting place. However I would be lying to say that I wasn’t a little bit uncomfortable inside the main building.

After walking around the grounds, marveling at architecture and taking a few pictures of the particularly old (and albeit smaller) building, we got back in our car and made our way to the lake that had been talked about. It wasnt really a lake... it was more of a pond, but there was still water, paddle boats and possibly the most vile outdoor squatty-potty behind concrete barriers that I have ever been in the remote proximity of. Oh my. I have been camping a-plenty and this out does any of the camping lavatories I have seen.

The wait for the paddle boats was far too long - especially because there was no real time restriction on how long you had the boats for - so we hiked back to the car and went to another location.

Not before we stopped at a village for lunch. Well.... you need to understand that masculinity in China often involves Baijiu - which is thoroughly described in a previous blog - if you have the desires to find it. White lightnin’ with a very distinctive taste for those of you who have no other context.

OK so moral of the story is - I hadn’t eaten too much at breakfast... and they had me drinking before I had really eaten. My hyper active metabolism did me in right quick. I was very coherent - and knew when to cut myself off, but I was definitely on fire till dinner time.

Not that I was very hungry however.

Chinese meals are a huge schmorgespord, and I was so very stuffed after lunch that I thought I wasnt even going to be able to eat dinner. That is of course... until my eyes got ahold of me at dinner.

Anyhow - not to go too far! We went to another lake-ish area with paddle boats (im beginning to think there is a theme) and “relaxed” for a while. We circled the area a few times like a tired dog and then chose our spot. I drank the coffee I brought with me - because honestly... few things go better with nature than coffee.

I am not so sure if the air was super fresh, but the nice breeze on a warm day while seated next to water was definitely appreciated.

Somewhat later as the afternoon was getting along - we got back in the car and headed back to the downtown and tangible shroud of Zhengzhou. We picked some friends of the family went to the restaurant.

We’ll - Dinner is an affair all to itself in China. I have to say I love it.

The next day I was feeling pretty pudgy from a few days of binge eating. I decided I needed to stop that kind of thing... and so i’ve been watching what I eat for the past few days and biking as psychotically as usual and I feel nice and skinny again.

Go ahead and roll your eyes -your just GREEN with envy.

Hyperactive metabolism doesn’t help when drinking... but it does help when one enjoys eating.