Sunday, November 29, 2009

Wash Chinese Tea Leaves?

Today I drank a berry tea, a western tea bag sent via a care package to my sitemate. As I poured the boiling water over the tea bag for the first time, the water turned into a deep purple with a rich, strong berry taste, a bit bitter. As I poured the boiling water over the tea bag for the second time, the drink turned into a murky brownish dark liquid with a taste of hot water. I didn't even try pouring the boiling water over the tea bag for a third time.

Are American tea bags that weak, can only be used once?

Usually, I drink Chinese tea and can pour liters of water over the same green leaves, brown leaves, flowers and have a tasty drink of tinted color for hours.

I do wonder though, are the tea leaves dirty? What is the process of drying leaves in China? Should I be washing the tea leaves with hot or cold water? Why are Chinese tea leaves stronger than tea bags? Is there really tea in those tea bags?

A couple digressions:

Last night's Thanksgiving feast and this morning's leftover dessert breakfast of pumpkin pie and apple crumble was yummy. Thanks to all of the cooks. Because my gas tank was empty, I instead of cooking bought a garlic covered Chinese salad of an unknown green vegetable and a deep fried chicken for the Thanksgiving potluck.

I am still knitting, but because my camera lens is not working at the moment, I have not posted the pictures of the 4 recently finished projects: socks, neck warmer, scarf, ear warmer.

Podcasts that I have been recently enjoying are Rubyfruit Radio, Cast On and maybe a new one called Quirky Nomad.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Teaching Breakthrough

Yesterday was a frustrating teaching day on new campus with one hour of greatness. I have been having difficulties teaching non-English majors, but finally I had a breakthrough.

During my second hour of class I had my first and only good hour in the whole semester, a semester fraught with failure after failure of activities. I used an activity on the Peace Corps China Wordpress Site. The activity of listening to a story and making decisions about what to do about a monster attacking the city has been an all around success. It can be made more difficult and can be made easier depending on the class level. In my English-major freshmen listening class, giving each student their own character to act out was successful. With my non-English majors just having the students as leaders of the university think about what to do was a success.

Finally my non-English major students sprung to life laughing, gasping, and speaking English!

Hopefully this is the start of many breakthroughs after weeks of failure after failure of being able to engage the students. I have tried activity after activity in my teaching bag of tricks only to be met with empty stares and penetrative silence.

The best parts about teaching on new campus are

1. I get to bike 45 minutes a day.

2. Students who take initiative and ask about how to volunteer and whether or not we can start some type of club on new campus. I am always looking for ideas initiated by the community.

(If you want to read a longer detailed rant about my frustrations, just pop me an email and I'll send it.)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Surviving Abroad 101

During my Peace Corps service living abroad for four years, one of the biggest lessons I have learned is find peace in the things you cannot control.

In America we have a different attitude towards time. Things start on time. Don't be late. Time is money. Do things quickly and efficiently, multi-task. This attitude creates a belief that we have some type of control that if we do A and B then C will result. We expect if we take our car to have its oil changed, it will be done in a timely manner. We expect if we have a doctor's appointment for 1 pm that it will somehow start around 1 pm or at least we'll be given some type of attention by being put into a little room and having our blood pressure checked. We have this expectation that things should be done in a timely manner and if it isn't then by complaining to someone something will get done. We have this idea that we can control the situation to create the outcome we want.

In America we have this attitude that things for the most part work. The bank works. The postal service works. School works. Your house, your plumbing, your electrical wiring, your gas, basic utilities work. They don't fall apart. There is a sense of order, of schedules, and of reliability. This safe atmosphere creates an attitude of expectation, a feeling of a sense of control, of self-entitlement. If there is a blackout people complain and expect the lights to be on soon. If water is cut then there had better have been notices indicating when. If your mail or newspaper didn't arrive, someone will pay!

In other countries, things work differently. Flights are canceled as you are waiting at the airport. Electrical sockets suddenly burst into flame. Toilets may not flush for a year and the workmen who were suppose to show up on Friday never show. The last day of the semester and when finals will start is a big mystery. A listening lab filled with 100 computers doesn't work for a whole semester. A teacher will arrive to class and for some reason or another the students don't show up. A person is locked out of their house because a poor quality lock was installed that only after 4 months breaks. The driver of the taxi stops for an hour banquet just 40 minutes outside of your destination after being in the car for 5 hours already. All of these things, each and every one of them happening in just one week. In other countries, things work differently.

Living abroad one has to let go.
Let go of expectations.
Let go of control.
Let go of your faith that things work and will work in a timely manner.
Let go of your belief that you should be informed of important information.

Unexpected things are always happening and there is nothing you can do about them in a fast efficient way.

Be patient,
and find peace in the things you cannot control.

Yesterday, I waited a whole morning for a man to come fix my lock who was suppose to arrive at my front door at 9 am. Instead he arrived at noon. Why get mad, stressed, and impatient over something I cannot control. Instead while waiting, I had a nice breakfast, a 40 minute walk around the playground, a nice hot berry tea, and read a good book.

Be patient,
and find peace in the things you cannot control.

Everything works out in the end.

I was able to take a shower and get to class on time, and even if the man hadn't come until late evening, I still would have found a way to be stinky and teach my class. Things tend to always work out in the end, maybe just not exactly the way you would want them to.

Survival 101
Be patient, wait, and find peace in the things you cannot control.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Tired but actually Quite Happy

Every week I only work a few hours. I teach for 10, lesson plan for 4, have Chinese lessons for 6, and sit in the Tree House for 12. According to American work standards, I don't do much during the work week but hey I am a volunteer. One could assume that the weekend would be super relaxing. Today is Sunday, my day off, and yet counter to assumption, I am exhausted, mentally and physically.

My clothes are wet and stinky from steam coming off my exercising body in the chill of winter, steam caught in my heavy non-breathing water/wind proof shell making me soaked from the inside out. I went on a 6 hour outing, biking against the wind, biking on dirt roads, fighting melted snowy mud, hiking down a mountain that almost killed me as I slid down the mountain in the layer of slick dirt. My body is tense and needs a massage. My face is tired and needs to smile instead of this worn tense frown. My tongue needs water and I want a warm place to sit and relax.

But no! The world hates me today. After my long day out, I can't unlock my front door. It is probably due to the kid who is always putting keys into my lock, banging on the front door, and running away. Yesterday I heard him and his friend fiddling with the lock, shouting laowai, then banging on the door with his fist and running. I didn't even get up from my nap to answer the door coz I could hear every single word that was going on through the thin walls.

Exhausted I am from naughty boys and physically tired from a full day outside. Exhausted from spending 6 hours trying to speak and understand Chinese. Exhausted at not being able to get my lock fixed because the guy who helps take care of the flat is in Langzhou. Exhausted at missing a phone call tonight because I'll be sleeping in a strange bed instead of my own comfortable house. Instead I'll be trying to relax in another person's home, not my own, a place where the toilet doesn't even work. Exhaustion will not go away today, but I bet I will sleep well tonight. Exhaustion gives a sense of accomplishment, a full day, a job well done. Today my soul can smile.

(Sunday night writing club's writing activity. 1. Make a list of emotions. 2. Pick one emotion. 3. Brainstorm ideas for that emotion. 4. Write about the emotion. My emotion was exhaustion.)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

In the Valley

Today is one of those sad days. In the cycle of living abroad, there are up days and down days. Today is a down day.

My Chinese lesson was excellent though. I was able to answer 5 questions about my childhood in a full story paragraph talking about my mother being afraid of me going to school on a school bus and getting lost at the age of 5 not knowing any Chinese and looking Chinese, talking about being yearbook editor in high school and not having a boyfriend, talking about making mud pies and going swimming in the front yard pond to gather clay at the bottom to make pots, the Alabama sun as the drying oven, and talking about the different animals we had on our farm. I was also able to listen to a joke on chinesepod and watch a Chinese cartoon before class and retell the joke and what the cartoon was about.

I feel though that my spoken Chinese has hit a wall. Everyday, I have been studying how to recognize characters and have been typing different dialogues and homework on the computer, but my spoken Chinese has taken a hit. I stutter along. I wonder if my brain can't do both at the same time. At some point everything will come together, right?

Back to the down day. Why today?

Well in a world where I spend a lot of time with students or had a week with a bit too much socializing, I need a break and just want to sit cooped up in the house knitting and having a Star Wars' marathon, eating ramen water heated by an electric kettle because my gas tank went empty the night before while cooking a bean soup. Cooped up is not a positive thing. It feels like being an old person like my grandmother when I was living with her. That world revolved around meals, TV shows, naps, when the mail arrived, and then bedtime. It had a quiet restless unproductive feel to it. But there are times during the week that I too feel the need for such a day but then once the day is over it feels not so good.

I did leave the house once today to have dinner at the restaurant mall, four stories of restaurants, had a plate of sizzling noodles, and eavesdropped on a couple with whom I was sharing a table with in the crowded restaurant. They spoke of the food, spicy, sweet. They spoke of the weather and of what majors are good to do in college. It was small talk boring talk but I understood it. If that is all couples talk about then the language barrier wouldn't be a problem if I wanted to date someone Chinese. I bought 50 miniature oranges from one of the many vendors pushing bikes around with baskets full of mini fruit. I ate candied strawberries on a stick and stopped at the new bakery where the workers speak English. Chinese bread tends to be sweet even the ones they claim are salty.

Now I am back home working on a blue striped sock.

Tomorrow will be another day. I've been invited on a bike ride. The people I went to Henan with during the summer will all be back in Xifeng for a week. It will be warming to my heart to be reunited with all of them.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Strange Food Bits

PC visited and we had a huge fancy banquet with the President of the the school along with a lot of delicacies imported from other regions of China. Dog was delicious, very tender and meaty.

My yogurt this morning was full of raspberries and red beans.

My student brought me a huge bag of wrinkly red dried fruit that looks like dates, maybe figs, but nothing like the African dates and figs I ate in Senegal. The Chinese ones are more light and airy. She said, "Put them in your tea. It helps the blood of women."

Monday, November 16, 2009

Ugh, Snow Ugly

I come from Alabama a place where any snow and ice will completely shut down the city and will close schools. 

I am not a snow person.

Because I had just finished two years in Africa, and only had Seattle weather in my memory, I only brought a fleece to China.  Boy that was a mistake!  Lucky for me I got a couple of care packages with thermal underwear and heavy jackets.

For about a week now, we have had snow, all types of snow.  Snow that turns into ugly dangerous ice.  Snow that turns into black slush.  Snow that is fluffy and crackles when you walk in it. 

Fluffy snow is somewhat beautiful but even such fresh clean beauty doesn't magically turn me into a snow person. 

I still don't like snow.
I don't like how you have to walk cautiously.
I don't like how suddenly your feet slip from beneath you.
I don't like how cars can't stop and go crashing into people and other bumpers.
I don't like how my clothes get all wet.
I don't like how snow sneaks into your collar and ears.
I don't like having to take a bus instead of biking.

I remember not liking a lot of things about Seattle's weather like the rain and like never seeing the sun almost always seeming to be in some type of darkness. After 6 years, I got used to it and barely noticed those depressing clouds.

I guess I will get used to snow.  It might be a nice thing to get used to.  It does remind me of Christmas postcards and it is fun to knit for; however, my knitted gloves, hats, and scarves are not warm enough.  I need to line all of my knitted items.  I am probably going to cut up some extra fleece pants to line my crafted yarn.

In other news, our one flight a day to and from Xian has been canceled due to the weather.  PC site visitors will have to take a car.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Not an A-Line Bob

Looking for pictures online, I found some great A-line bobs with a high shaved nape. I even found a cartoon picture for hairstylists to stress the point that I wanted a sharp angled bob and not a straight bob. I found a picture to indicate that I wanted the back to be short and high.

My bangs are not long enough yet and still have to catch up with the rest of my hair, so I thought I'd shave off the back which was getting too long-could almost be put into pigtails- and get a new clean cut.

Some of my students recommended a salon and wrote down the hanzi for me. China has thousands of barber shops, and I went along the street checking my notebook against each barber shop sign until I found the recommended one. In I went, showed the 10 workers the pictures, informed them that I wanted my bangs to be the longest part of the hairstyle, asked how much (10 RMB), got my hair washed, and sat down in the chair, pictures in hand waiting to see what would result.

As I was poked and cut three times on my cheek, I told the hairdresser I wanted my hair to be shorter than what she was doing.

She said, "It won't look good."

What does one say to that? Usually I don't really care for public opinion but when a hairdresser says, "That won't look good," it is advice that is kind of hard to ignore while sitting in the chair.

I like hard extreme lines. Unless you are a person with a crazy hairstyle who works in a hair salon, extreme is not a common hairstyle in China which makes it hard to get someone to cut my hair the way I want.

So voila, compared to the shag I was wearing before, here is my new haircut a clean style cut to my female hairstylist's preference. It is longer than what I wanted. Because my bangs are not the longest part of the haircut, it is not a slanted bob but some type of widow's peak like hairdo except on the side of the face instead of on top of the head.

I will get another cut in January, a short short cut. Next time my bangs will be the longest part of the hairstyle and everything else super short!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Language Boxes in My Head

My head has three language boxes: English, French, and Chinese. During French club, my brain gets frazzled as it jumps from box to box. Sometimes I hit a wall in one of the boxes and can't get out of the Chinese box to enter into the French box or vice versa. Sometimes I think I am in the French box believing that the words coming out of my mouth are French when in reality they are Chinese. Ta and toi which one is which? Being in a tri-lingual atmosphere hurts my head as I stutter along jumping from box to box and sometimes getting stuck in one box when I want to be in another.

Monsters Who Torment Poor Freshmen

Yesterday I taught a listening lesson on Halloween and then last night about 6 freshmen visited the Tree House. I asked them what types of scary things are in China. Witches and vampires are not so common but ghosts and zombies, plus monsters, are. I didn't understand their description of the monsters though. They kept talking about a little rabbit. I didn't understand how a little rabbit could be a monster.

Then I asked them, "Since there are no witches, who does magic in China?" They replied that even today villages have men with yin yang compasses who determine where good water is, where a good place is to bury the dead, and other things. Then we talked about fortune tellers who can tell you stuff from throwing coins, from your face, or from your palms. The students laughed when discussing it not believing in that kind of stuff.

Then they told me about the bad boys who live in a building right next door to theirs who throw trash into their dorm room through the window. They have a corner room on the 4th floor and the boys are on the 5th floor opposite their window. The poor bullied freshmen had to pay a huge sum of 18 RMB (6 meals) to have the window fixed and replaced.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Snow and 3 Pairs of Pants

Today we had our first snowfall.

Growing up in Alabama I am not an experienced snow girl. Walking in snow is like walking in the rain. You get wet and it might be smart to carry an umbrella. Who knew?

Tonight I realized that I have missed so many musicals: Wicked, Spring Awakening, Billy Elliot and I am sure a ton more. How sad.

What else have I missed? books? graphic novels? film festivals?

As they dig their way through the free box, students ask, "Why do you like to knit so much?"
"I have to keep my hands busy. Instead of just sitting and twirling them, I like to keep them moving, building a single thread stitch by stitch into fabric. It is really amazing how a piece of yarn turns into something else."

Note to self. Stop knitting hats. Chinese students do not wear hats. Unlike Americans who believe we lose heat through our heads and chests, Chinese students believe in order to keep warm you must wear three pairs of pants.

Because today was a full day of teaching, I went to the school cafeteria to eat; however, today I wandered into each of the four cafeterias only to be met by a wall of students. Everywhere I turned there were students, and I didn't have the patience to push my way to the front waiting my turn by inching my way forward with my nose, shoulders, and body jammed against the disorderly crowd of a line where an inch of space would mean giving someone else my place in line. Instead I stood outside being snowed upon wondering what to do. An English graduate from Xian who speaks Japanese, who works in the English department's office and who was having the same dilemma as I, invited me to eat with him at a restaurant off campus. That was nice.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Learning Chinese Characters

For some reason I have had a very bad attitude towards learning Chinese characters (hanzi). I started with the PC hanzi book and gave up after only two chapters. I felt discouraged at not being able to write the characters. For some reason, I had this idea that in order to learn characters I would have to be able to write them.

Learning Chinese vocabulary has so many steps:
1. Learn how to read pinyin
2. Remember the tones
3. Learn how to read hanzi
4. Learn how to write hanzi

So far I have only semi-mastered step 1 and I still sometimes make mistakes when I read pinyin.

This past week I had an epiphany.

To learn Chinese characters one does not have to write them. You can just read them and learn them through recognition!

I wish I had realized that earlier.

I can use a computer to do my homework instead of having to actually write out the characters. This makes learning the Chinese characters a lot easier! Yay!

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Learning: Go to a class or read a book?

I am an independent learner. I tend not to learn from teachers or from other people. I am a type of learner who goes to the library and researches how to do it. I learned how to knit, how to draw, how to juggle, how to fold paper, how to cook, how to use computer programs from books. Teachers were people who gave homework and grades. I learned from books.

I have never participated in a writing class. The writing club though is super fun! It is pretty amazing how writing activities inspires us, how talking about writing with students inspires, how sharing our writing inspires. Maybe there is something beneficial to learning through interacting with people compared to my usual method of the lone independent learner.

Unexpected Gift of Writing Club

Writing club is an excellent way for students to improve their English skills. For an hour, they are reading, writing, speaking, and listening. They are free writing which is an attempt to continuously think in English. This is hard for the students especially for the freshmen. For the participants of the writing club, I believe the hour of thinking and trying to express themselves in English is the most useful skill for them to practice.

Personally for me the best part of writing club is getting to meet the students through their writing, through the thoughts they put on the page, through what ideas they decide to write about triggered by the prompts. I have spent a year getting to know students through the questions I ask about love, family, culture, conflict, and school. Because they are shy it is hard for them to bring up their own topics to talk about; therefore, everything they talk about is somehow influenced by me, by the questions I ask. I am not really learning who they truly are. Their experiences and thoughts are somehow filtered by the one who asks the questions, but with the writing club there is a free flow of thoughts and ideas coming from within them.

As writers, we write from our experiences, from our feelings, from our philosophies. We write about things that are dear to us. When given writing activities, the prompts inspire writing based on who we are. Sharing our writing with each other leads to cultural exchange, leads to an exchange on a very personal level. I am learning more about the students from what they write about than from the many conversations that I have had with them.

Today we did two writing activities: 1. a warm-up of writing an emotion poem 2. using random words to inspire us to write a poem (Random Words Epigraph).

What have I learned about myself and my students ? I learned that I in contrast to the students write about pain, tension, conflict, a pessimistic world while they write about happiness with very beautiful peaceful imagery. But then I also learned about some of them being in love with crying, about the prison of anxiety, about the freedom that kite flying invokes, about how it is maybe better to be weak when there is a fight. We shared with each other how we view different emotions and situations differently. We opened ourselves up and revealed ourselves in ways that answers to my questions never seemed to touch.

Writing club has surprisingly had some unexpected results. I was hoping to just practice my writing and to help the students practice their English skills. Instead I am seeing a new side to Chinese students and they are seeing a new side to their American teacher.

Newest Hat

Hopefully during the winter break I will be able to go to Harbin to visit a student who graduated last year. Harbin is cold. I need a warm hat. I finished it today. (Leef's Ear Flap Hat)

My yarn stash is almost finished. Yay! Soon I will be able to start on a sweater.

Today has been a quiet day. I planned a lesson and prepared tonight's writing club exercise. I cooked a tasty piece of pork with some potatoes. I finished watching the movie UP, and my desk has become a mountain of chaos full of knitting stuff.

Friday, November 06, 2009

General Update

Wednesday I had listening class all day, a day without electricity. I had prepared a Halloween lesson plan; however, because of the lack of a computer, I was only able to do half of the lesson which was the vocabulary listening quiz, the history of Halloween, and the telling of a spooky story, "The Monkey's Paw" by W. W. Jacobs. The rest of the time we listened to each student's homework while writing down each question practicing listening to the different ways students pronounce words. Their homework was to ask 5 questions to their classmates, listen to the answers, write down what they heard and then present one question and answer to the class.

I was asked to knit two hats. I finished both of them. I have found the bookmark crochet pattern that I will be using to make Christmas gifts. It is a pretty fast project. Today I made 5 of them.

Chinese Corner
Chinese corner with 11 people was a loud affair exactly how Chinese banquets should be which really indicates something positive about the 6 foreigner's Chinese. It was an 8 course meal: a salty instead of spicy hot pot filled with vegetables, plus other dishes, eggs and tomatoes, chicken with green peppers, a spicy string mushroom salad, eggplant, green beans, fried tofu, ending with a fermented rice egg soup that was sweet with kind of an alcohol after taste. Twas a cheap $20 and I should probably take pictures next time.

Chinese Class
FYI if you ever want to learn Chinese by yourself, Chinesepod is an excellent site plus they give PC volunteers a discount. Today I learned my first Chinese idiom: "Be there or be square." I am not really into learning idioms, slang, or bad words, but today while searching on for lessons, I found a 4 minute lesson on an idiom. I also found this guy from Africa teaching Chinese with like over 50 lessons. It is kind of strange watching an African guy teach you Chinese.

5th Year in PC
Currently I am in my fourth year with Peace Corps. Next summer will be the start of my 5th year. Shall I stay for that extra year? Peace Corps will pay for a month home leave. I feel that because I was evacuated out of Guinea and placed into a new country, I didn't really become a part of any local community in Africa. It really does take time to adjust to a new village and for that village to accept you. However, in China because I have been here for two years, I am connecting with people, making friends, learning the language and developing ideas for secondary projects. Plus I have a strong desire to see some of my students graduate. I would need a third year to continue down this path.

I cooked a peanut butter stew the other night which included beef bones, mushrooms, bok choy, garlic, ginger, and potatoes. I left it out for over 24 hours believing that my apartment was as cold as a refrigerator; however, I was sadly mistaken and spent a night waking up every hour with stomach pain and a trips to the toilet. I think mushrooms are a tricky food for one's stomach, even my stomach which after 4 years overseas is not delicate at all.

My mood these days feels strong emotions brewing deep in my chest. I have a strong desire for isolation, solitude, and lonerville. I don't know why. I am happy when I leave the flat and interact with students and friends. I am happy when I participate in clubs, class, and dinners. I feel fine; however, I also feel a sense of freezing cold. Maybe as I sit in my 3 season sleeping bag, a hat on my head, a scarf around my neck, with three top layers, and three bottom layers including 3 articles of knitted clothing, the freezing cold is influencing my mood and piercing into the depth of my soul forcing me to face the dark personal issues that I have been hiding and avoiding so well.

Winter has arrived.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

French Club

Last night was the first meeting of French club. No one really came, except for two other foreigners, one student, and a teacher. The reason I decided to start the French club was because several teachers on campus are studying French. To go to graduate school people have to take the post graduate exam where they are tested on a third language other than English. Our school only teaches Russian. Other schools, bigger schools teach French, Dutch, Japanese, and others.

We had fun doing French Bonjours, Saluts, and Ca Vas plus the alphabet.

Last night I met two teachers who study French by themselves and who have never been in a French classroom. It is shocking how much French they know, how motivated they are to study! It makes me feel guilty about my measly 4 hours a week of Chinese small talk with literally no sitting at a table to study Chinese. Even with only 8 months left, I need to get my butt in gear. Why waste an opportunity? If people who have zero opportunities to speak French are learning French, then I need to be studying Chinese with a vengeance. I am living in China for goodness sake where everywhere I turn I could be practicing Chinese.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Rice Pudding

Two questions Chinese people ask as small talk are

"Are you used to China?"
"Yes I am used to China."
"Do you cook for yourself?"
"No I do not cook for myself because I don't like washing dishes."

I usually eat one meal out and at home snack on apples, oranges, sunflower seeds, yogurt, jello, ramen noodles, oatmeal, and tea as I lesson plan, knit, and watch movies.

The other day I opened this can of what I thought would be deliciousness but instead found a hard mass with no moisture, with a middle of red bean paste that smelled like cat food. Canned rice pudding turned into trash food. I am not sure if I was suppose to cook it, heat it up, or if it had just gone bad.