Saturday, December 31, 2011

Last day of the Term

Saturday is a make-up day so that the college can have a three day weekend of Jan 1-3.  We are teaching Jan 3rd's class today.  Tuesday is the day I have 6 periods, a long day.  I am lucky though coz today is the last day of the term for me.  The school asked me to give my finals early, but everyone else has to stay till the 11th of January.
I have about 10 more culture interviews where the students have 10 minutes to
1.  Describe a picture
2.  Look at two pictures and give their opinion about which one is western and Chinese values.
3.  Answer 2 questions about material from the western culture class.
During the other 4 periods, students will watch a movie while I grade their notebooks so I can give them back their notebooks.  Why do I not feel guilty about just showing an end of the term movie and not teaching a lesson?
  1. They have already taken their finals and I will teach them again next semester.  Why teach a lesson plan that I will need for next semester?
  2. In Gansu I participated in the kung fu P.E. class and the way the teacher administered the exam was to have all the students just sit around while he watched one student do the routine.  Having students sit around while I grade their notebooks is somewhat similar but instead of just being bored, they get to watch an English movie.
  3. Watching a movie is like a treat that I want to give to my students for their hardwork this semester.
This semester has had quite a few lows:
1.  Commuting
2.  Having two campuses
3.  Responsibility and stress with the PC support and office position
4.  The dark and dreary weather of Chengdu
5.  Weariness of teaching for 11 years
It has also had some highs:
1.  Biking
2.  Food, art, music
3.  Attending a couchsurfing event and meeting a bunch of independent young local people
4.  The easy to work with school leaders, officials, and counterparts
I need a vacation and what does fate have in store for me?
Paris...  then Guangzhou... then back to Chengdu...

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Secondary Project Fell into my Lap

At some schools it is easy.

In a previous post I wrote, "

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Foreigner Party

Yep that was what it was called.

The day before the party, I received a text message from my counterpart saying, "Are you free to attend a meeting hosted by someone in Chengdu?  You will represent us there."

"I am free.  I can go," I text back.

She sent me the address via email and I would have biked if the rain hadn't been pouring down.  One thing I love about living in a new city is the exploring of streets, bus lines, and getting lost but eventually finding my way.  The meeting was held in a hotel on a street that I had already walked along during one of my exploratory walks through Chengdu.  It was a street full of bright fabric, dance costumes, hostess ball gowns, and ethnic clothes used for performances.

I assumed the meeting was about the safety of foreigners in the city.  I remembered that the Lanzhou volunteers had to attend a session with the police on how to be safe in the city.  Instead the banner read, Welcome to the 2011 Foreigner Party welcoming us to a room full of balloons and plates filled with sunflower seeds, peanuts, candy, oranges, and cookies. 

I arrived early wanting to give myself plenty of time to get lost in case it was a hard to find location.  Plus I had 90 listening papers to grade which I graded to Christmas elevator music whose 2 songs ran on repeat.  By the time the event started, I had finished about 50% of the work.

The room filled with a small number of about 20 foreigners which was surprising because the city has a TON of foreigners.  The party opened with 30 minute of speeches, then two people sang Christmas carols, then we were asked to play games- a balloon race with a partner where you can't use your hands, musical chairs, with your feet pop the balloons that are tied around two people's legs, and organize three people to somehow be on the smallest area of a piece of newspaper.  It was a strange surreal atmosphere where as the party progressed the numbers dwindled from 20 to 10 to eventually 5. 

People in China love playing these games that I often consider are children's party games.  I remember sitting at a Chinese restaurant watching adults play musical chairs and have a watermelon eating contest to receive a free plate of fish or a water bottle.

I did mingle and make small talk learning that many of the foreigners were primary and secondary education teachers and their biggest challenge was classroom management with 60-80 students.  Not sure why my college was invited, but I did learn new games that I can use in my classroom or at parties I might help organize in the future.  It wasn't a total waste of time.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

PCV Living in a Big City

Here I am a Peace Corps Volunteer living in one of the most populated cities I have ever lived in.  Incredible isn't it?  Not your mud hut in a village of 300 families.

It is hard to wrap one's head around being a volunteer and living in such a city of luxury.  I feel like I am back in Seattle riding buses to music shows, biking to museums, feasting on international food, and sipping coffee in a different tea shop every week.  The buses are packed and it is hard to find a seat.  You are always standing.  The subway with its one single line that runs north and south is way less crowded but more expensive.

At first I had culture shock moving from small town to big city, but I have adapted and now am loving big city life.

Because I am working so much with the PC community, I tend not to have as much energy for my Chinese community.  Also because I am only here for one year I have a different mentality towards community integration.  I am holding office hours and learning about my students' lives.  I am inviting people out to dinner and learning about the lives of Chinese teachers, but I am not really doing the footwork that is necessary to start a secondary project. 

If I had been assigned Chengdu for my two years in Peace Corps I would have become more involved.  Even though there are foreign teachers in this city making $1000 a month compared to my $220 living allowance, I think as a PCV there is a different mentality when living in the community.  As a PCV, I tend to want to integrate, to learn language, to find people to work with, and to start secondary projects.  I try to do more than just teach.  I am not here for a salary, for hanging out with ex-pats in foreigner dominated venues, but am here for the Chinese experience, for the culture exchange, for the idea of serving a community.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Chinese American Lost in China

Tonight I went to a CD, Trail Dust, release party at Machu Piccu owned by Zhou Fei.  Living abroad for 6 years in much much smaller communities I haven't been able to go to live shows, so it really is a treat to be able to look at a calendar of events (GoChengdoo) and have a selection of local happenings to pick and choose from.

Back in the states, I would wander Seattle, eat out, drink Earl Grey in coffee shops, attend shows, bike around Lake Washington, and every once in a while meet up with old friends and make new friends. 

Returning to a city whose weather reminds me of the dark winters of Seattle, overcast without sunshine, the life here feels somewhat familiar as I wander the city, drink lattes, eat sushi, attend shows, and bike to lakes, yet I feel like a stranger to this city person who feels somewhat familiar but who also feels like something is missing. 

I have somehow lost part of my identity.  Which part?

Back in Seattle, I felt surrounded by strangers and felt this urge to take part in my own personal social experiment where when riding the bus, I would dare myself to say hello to someone new.  Going to a party, I would take a deep breath and give myself a pep talk to start a conversation.  I was trying to see if by forcing myself to talk I could turn shyness into something new.  I was trying to see if the world was actually a place full of friendly people who all just want to make a connection with another human being. 

I have lost my American identity.  With students, I am the American teacher.  With strangers, I am Chinese.

There are two worlds, the Chinese one and the foreign face one.  I wander an in-between world of having an Asian face who can't speak Chinese yet inside know that I am just like the foreigners with non-Asian faces visiting China.  With foreigners, I am silenced by the expectation of a language barrier.  People won't even say hello unless they know Chinese and I am too afraid to say hello to break that barrier to announce to people that I am American with my accent.

In the Chinese world, people will say something to me in Chinese but if I don't understand their words, they are quickly silenced by their fear of embarrassing one of us because we are having trouble communicating.  When I see a bunch of Chinese bikers all wearing the same biking clothes, I am too afraid to approach them to say" Ni hao," even though I know that they would be friendly.

I feel caught in between two worlds.  I am Chinese who can't speak fluently.  I am American who isn't obviously outwardly American.  In a city where foreigners seem to flock together or where Chinese people want to make foreign friends, I am ignored. 

The reality though is I am the one who is imprisoning myself in my own solitude of fear unable to break through the wall and say a friendly hello in English or Chinese.  I have lost the ability to have a conversation, to reveal little bits and pieces of myself, to tell my story.  This part of me has been replaced with teacher mode, the person who can ask questions to get students to speak English.  If you're not my student, then using Mandarin I can start a typical Chinese conversation about food and where you are from, but find the conversation to dead end pretty quickly making me wary to even start the conversation.  Using English, I have lost the ability to reveal myself replaced with question after question about another culture.  If we are both Americans living in China, then I don't know what to talk about, what questions to ask. 

I feel socially awkward and lost so then I hide away in silence behind my knitting.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

60 km Bike Loop

Southern Chengdu:  3rd Ring Road next to Ikea to Chenglong Avenue to XingLongquan (25 km) then to Huayuang along Chenghuan Road that turns into Lushan Ave (25 km) back to Ikea (10 km)

The roads were wide and the cars were few.  Along this route would you believe that I passed two drive-thru McDonald's?

It was a chilly day to ride but with only 3 top layers, a bandanna to cover my ears, and mittens, I was warm and toasty except for my feet which turned completely numb about halfway through the ride.  I'm still trying to thaw out my toes.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Evolution of my Gender Role

As a kid, I loved playing with baby dolls and taking them out on goat herding outings and picnics.  I loved playing with boys racing and beating them as the fastest girl on the playground.  I found the physicality of boys rough housing and playing sports more appealing than the girls who would stand around the playground talking and putting on make-up.  I dreamed of being physically strong like males yearning for their privileges, and at the time didn't realize that I was already strong in other ways as a natural born leader in academics, extra-curricular activities, and sports.  When the high school commencement speech was given by a white male rather than the Asian female valedictorian, gender roles were re-emphasized teaching me that maybe men really did have a higher standing than women.
In my Alabama college with my first boyfriend, I fought gender stereotypes where the male gender role was of a chivalrous nature with the paying of meals, giving of gifts, opening of doors and carrying the weak female across a stream.  It was easy to fight these outwardly observable gender roles, but my personal challenge was the inward battle of trying to understand who I was as a female and how I interacted with and related to males.  As a people-pleaser I became a 1950's housewife following the male's lead, submitting to his will, ignoring my voice, and changing to try to fit what I perceived was his ideal woman.  My true self would remain hidden throughout the relationship until it rebelled so loudly that I would wake up and realize oh... a 1950's housewife isn't me and the relationship would end.
In Seattle a whole new world of gender stereotypes was introduced where not only were there the heterosexual models but also gender benders, androgynous people, femmes, butches, feminine masculinity and more...  I cut my hair short in protest of being seen and stereotyped as the exotic, feminine, submissive, Asian flower.  I didn't realize though that my body type and Asian features with short hair would lend itself to androgeny and being mistaken as male.  The next stage in my gender role evolution was struggling to understand how I may look male but my inner voice and mannerisms were female.  I struggled with society's expectation that because I looked male I would act male.
I think it is here living abroad for 6 years that has helped me evolve into a person more comfortable in her own skin, more comfortable with who I am in relation to gender roles.  Living amongst traditional cultures where the gender roles are even more defined than in the USA, I have had the privilege of living outside of these gender roles as the honorary foreigner with strange ways and mannerisms.  I have been able to define who I am without the influence of American male and female gender roles and because I am not African or Chinese there was little pressure to fit into those traditional roles. 
Rather than being defined because of female or male gender roles, it is liberating being able to hear my own voice and to define myself.  I can be logical, rational, non-emotional, strong, a leader, a giving caretaker, a listener, an introvert, and a loner without thinking in terms of whether or not these are feminine or masculine characteristics.  Even though the world may judge me according to gender roles, by living abroad for 6 years, I have managed to discover and define myself.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

How are you doing Jen?

It has taken several months to adapt to my whacky schedule and I am not even sure if I have adjusted because it is always changing.  I wonder how people who have rolling schedules where sometimes they work a night shift and other times work a day shift manage their exhaustion from not having a regular working habit.
Why is my schedule whacky?
Well my teaching schedule is not the same each week.  Some weeks I teach 7 classes.  Other weeks I teach 5 classes. 
My position at the PC office is not the same each week. Some weeks I go in on Mondays.  Other weeks I go in on Thursdays.  Plus I am available at any other time when I might be needed for example weekends and evenings.  I think I probably each month have only one weekend totally free from responsibility.
Otherwise I'm adjusting and am pretty happy. 
I enjoy my bike commute. 
I enjoy office hours, one on one time with the students.
I enjoy supporting Volunteers and PC staff.
I went on a day trip to an old town and a Great Wall of Chengdu with the tourism students who were practicing being tour guides.
I was requested the day before the actual performance to prepare something for the Freshmen welcome party.  My first idea was to teach an English song, but then I remembered that I have been practicing Kungfu for three years.  I could do that, so I spent a day and a half reviewing and received cheers at the evening performance full of bubbles and smoke that the President of the school actually attended.  It was a semi-big deal.
I am busy. 
Any lows?
Sometimes I feel guilty that I choose alone time over putting forth more time and effort towards community integration, language learning and secondary projects, but I try to keep telling myself that I have two jobs, teaching and the PCVL position.  I need my alone time too.
Grading mid-terms... I strongly dislike grading.

Legacy of Volunteers

Usually I hear so many good things about Peace Corps Volunteers.  For example, the other day someone told me, "Some people think that a PCV English teacher only helped my English; however, the Volunteer really helped me have the courage and confidence to discover and go after what I really wanted to do in life."
Yesterday one of the English teachers at my college said, "Oh you are a Peace Corps Volunteer?"
"Yes I am."
"When I was in college five years ago, I had a Peace Corps Volunteer teacher.  He would always come into class and tell us everything that he hated about China."

My Dorm Life

Living in a dormitory on the teacher floor where the other floors are used by students is a rare glimpse into the lives of Chinese college students.  Every evening Chinese and English pop music blares through the speakers till 9 pm.  Then at 7:30 am, music with a fast beat is our morning wake-up call.  At 8:10, all of the students stand in formation for their 30 minute morning reading. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Secondary Projects: Love to Hear About Them

Greetings Volunteers who might read my blog,

If you are doing an awesome secondary project or know of any other Volunteers who've got a cool project, we'd like to continue recognizing projects in the bi-monthly newsletter.  I know that everyone has to fill out the vrf; however,  it is usually done at the end of the term.  The newsletter comes out more frequently.  Please send pictures and/or a write-up to your Program Manager or contact me directly.  If you aren't into writing, I am actually also looking for people who'd be interested in having a phone interview about their project.  Contact me if you'd like to be interviewed.

Be well,


Friday, November 04, 2011

Women's Issues

What are the women's issues for American, African, and Chinese women?

Personally, for me as an American woman, the issue is how to define myself as a woman and self-define my role as a woman including how to have a voice to express myself.  I have so many choices that are my own.  I can have a professional career or be a stay at home mother.  I don't have to worry about money because I am confident that I will always have a job to support myself.  I can choose to get married or to remain single and can choose for myself who I date and love.  

Educated American women have many opportunities and the freedom to make their own choices to create their own futures.

In West Africa, during my two years there I saw so many issues that were fundamental to survival.  Education was not equally provided to all genders.  By the first year of middle school out of 100 students, only 20 were female.  By high school, the number of female students probably dropped to one hand.  Health care and health education was an issue.  I helped with handing out food to mothers whose babies were under-weight and mal-nourished.  Women had little choice in who they would marry and how many children they would have.  Women did a majority of the work yet didn't have control of money or have the opportunities to support themselves.  In West Africa, the issues for women revolved around how to survive the hardships of poverty while trying to keep their children alive.

In China, I asked my students what are the women's issues for young Chinese women and for older Chinese women.  In no order of importance, they listed the following problems:
  • working towards the position of women becoming more equal to men's
  • the lack of job experience
  • domestic violence
  • health
  • body image, losing weight, high heel shoes, companies hiring based on height and beauty
  • can't deal with stress as well as men
  • can't drink or smoke like men
They said that for older women the issue was the fear of being homeless.  If a woman didn't have a responsible child, then she would have to live in a home for the elderly where the conditions were very poor.

I asked Chinese teachers the same question.  They listed discrimination in the work place, marriage and mother-in-laws, and domestic violence as issues for women.  They further explained that women have a great pressure to marry and have a child.  If they don't get married or don't have a child, then society will think something is wrong with them.  Marriages often have a lot of conflict because of the family.  There is a saying that I have often heard in China, "You are not marrying a man but his family." 

In my opinion, Chinese women have more choices than African women but fewer choices than American women.  Chinese women are equally educated, have their own careers, and have their own money.  They, however, unlike American women have a greater pressure to get married and to have a family.  Because of this pressure, Chinese women tend to get married sooner and quicker.  They get married to men who might not be their first choice but choose a man whom the family supports.  Even with a cheating husband or a bad marriage, Chinese women will stay married for the sake of the children.

Women's issues are different depending on the environment, culture, tradition, and even the laws of the land.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Napping, Laundry, and Dancing

After four periods of teaching about the government in the U.K. and how to problem solve with friends on a telephone, I sat in a bus with rays of sunshine pouring through, a bus full of people taking naps.  Before I knew it, I too woke as we pulled up to the front gate of my city campus.

Been too busy to do laundry...
Am I living the American lifestyle?
Too tired after full days of work to even do laundry?
Of course after a flooding, my washing machine has been broken.
Doing laundry by hand takes extra effort.
Today I finally had an afternoon at home for the repair guy to come and fix the broken hose.

Tried Salsa dancing tonight with students, but realized after
being dipped and twirled and spun and moved all over the room in crazy steps
that they were preparing for a performance.
They weren't just learning Salsa for fun.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Can I survive today?

How can the quiet sleep of not even being aware of anything be so suddenly and rudely interrupted by lists of things to include in a budget or images of how to arrange text in a newsletter?  What does it mean that my brain won't remain sleeping but at 5 in the morning in the darkness before dawn demand that I start thinking?

Neon soaking layers unable to dry in the wet wind of a speedy ride under a dark gray sky
Peeled off to a single layer of skin already dry
Vulnerable to the day's responsibilities waiting in the wings of pre-productivity
Cleansed with a baptism of cup after cup of warm water
Splattered mud mixed with sweat rinsed clean from a bright pink bucket

Wrapped from head to toe
with soft creative colorful creations of
a slouchy hip hat
a maroon triangular bulky gartered scarf
pink and orange fingerless stockinetted gloves and
purple and red striped fitted socks

Head to toe
warmed by colorful uniqueness
knitted with a single strand of yarn
a memory of the pleasure of creating
instead stuck
in front of a bright screen
with bullet points
and outcomes
typing for cold hard cash
when my soul today
really needs
something different

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Busy: Work and Flat Tires

I've been busy.  For the past two weekends I have been attending various PC workshops/meetings- Professional Peer Support Network (PPS) and Volunteers Supporting Volunteers (VSV).  I got to eat great free food pasta, Turkish, pizza, brownies, cheese, and carrot cake. 
On another note, I am thinking I should probably buy a computer.
Coz with this PCVL position there is a lot of work I could be doing more efficiently if I had a computer to use at home that didn't have outdated software that was all in Chinese.  Right now I am just commuting to the office whenever I have free time to finish up work like newsletters or reports.  It gets tiring commuting.  I could be working from home.
Last week I got up at 5 am to start biking to my other campus at 6 am and lucky for me got a flat tire about 1 mile from the gate of my destination, the countryside campus.  It made me feel happy to fix my first flat tire.  Would you believe that after years of biking, I have rarely had a flat?  Most of my flats were in China and in China there are always people around whom you can pay to fix it.  I figured though I had better make sure I actually knew how to fix a flat tire especially if I do a bike trip and get a flat in the middle of nowhere.  In theory I knew how but now I know I can at least fix a front tire.  The back tire... I think I may need a book to teach me what to do if I have to change that tire.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Gansu and Sichuan Students

One reason why I choose to stay a fourth year in PC China was to discover if students from different provinces were different. 
The Gansu college I taught at was a 4-year school training future teachers in a city with a population of several 100,000.  The students were from Gansu, small towns.  Their parents were farmers. 
The Sichuan college where I am currently teaching is a 3-year vocational school training tourism and business students in a city with a population of 14 million.  The students are mostly from Sichuan, smaller towns than Chengdu.
In America there are differences between kids raised in a city compared to those raised in more rural settings.  There are differences between kids raised in California compared to those in Alabama.  So I expected there to be differences between the students raised in Gansu and Sichuan provinces.
Have I noticed many differences?  Not really.  There are three major differences though.  The Sichuan students have been exposed to more American media like "Gossip Girl" and Lady Gaga.  The second difference is many of the students' parents don't live in Sichuan, but are migrant workers.  In Gansu, most of the students lived with their parents in Gansu before going off to college.  The Sichuan students were raised by their grandparents being forced to stay in the province where they were born.  In order to take national exams, their ID cards require them to take the exams in the province the ID card was issued from.  The third difference is incredible.  Many of the Sichuan students have part-time jobs making 1,000 RMB a month.  My living allowance is only a little more at 1,500 RMB.  In Gansu, the students were happy making 15-20 RMB/hour, maybe working a few hours per week.
There are many similarities.  Students are traditional and feel like they need to be married by 24-25.  They are strongly loyal to family.  Their English level is similar and they are energetic, motivated, young in maturity and love their English teacher.  When asked to make a poster about a geography section of the book, students tended to just re-copy a photograph next to that section of the book instead of reading the text to find words they could draw or use for the poster.  When five students were asked to go to the chalkboard and draw the body parts of a monster that their classmates described, the students drew the exact same monster.  All five of them had almost the exact same drawing.
The students in Gansu and Sichuan are very similar.  The English teachers on the other hand are quite different.  The teachers at my Sichuan college are not as traditional as the ones in Gansu.  They married later than 24-25.  Their English is amazing and they have such a variety of opinions.  They are less shy to use their English and many of them have cars!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

I have two PC approved beds

I am super excited.  I have two beds. 
One bed is in a large empty flat with a kitchen, a shower, a huge living room, a washing machine, a bedroom, and a computer hooked up to the Internet.  This flat is in the new business district undergoing construction and is super noisy with big diesel trucks gearing up and down outside my bedroom window at all hours of the night.  On an old bike that will hopefully not be stolen, it is about a 40 minute ride 8 km (5 miles)  to the PC office where I work once a week during my free time.
The other bed is in a student/teacher dormitory where I have a private room and a squat toilet.  The shower is a community shower where I just have to borrow a key from the security guard.  I am back to doing laundry in a bucket.  This dorm room is about 30 km (18 miles) outside of the city, next to a park with a beautiful stream and fits my desire for countryside living.  It is fantastic!!!!  If I didn't work in the PC office, I'd permanently move out to the campus where I teach.
I bought an expensive GIANT bike and have been commuting via bike.  I LOVE it!  I am glad Africa taught me how to tie heavy things to a bike rack.  I have to carry school books, reading books, shoes, and clothes between two campuses.  Why not have two sets of clothes?  Umm... well I am down to very few clothes because I wasn't expecting to stay in China for a 4th year.  I took home all of my good clothes and I am a terrible shopper.
It is a quick fast ride, 1 hour and 20 minutes on a 10 lane highway where 4 lanes are devoted to bikes, motorcycles, tractors and buses.  The only ugh factor is the air quality.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Drawback to Electricity

Electricity is great.  The world of night is lit up.  People can stay up and live like it is daytime.  People can be entertained by moving pictures and noise.  Students can do homework and books can be consumed.  We can have midnight feasts, do chores, and work till we drop from exhaustion.
In Africa, I learned the delights of sitting outside under the stars creating entertainment with friends and family under the moonlight.  I went to bed early and woke up early.  I found peace in the immense quiet of a world dead to technology.
At night, my Chinese apartment scares me silly.  Would I say that the scorpion carriers and the mice of Africa were bigger and scarier than those in my new Chengdu flat?  Humid wetness breeding wildlife- chunky spiders bigger than my hand, cute mice with long tails and plump furry bodies, and cockroaches not quite as gigantic as the ones in Africa.  Actually no.  It is not the creepy crawlies that scare me. 
I am afraid of the light.
I have lived with wildlife for years.  I slept outside in Africa and one might assume that by living in a flat, the living things would stay outside.  The problem is I am on the first floor and things can climb in through the screenless windows.  The only thing that is kept out is a robber, bars too narrow to crawl through.
In Africa, I went to bed early, listening to the mice checking out the shelves for food and fell asleep believing the comforting lie, "The mosquito net would keep out things with legs."  I was a peace with the living creatures in Africa.
On the other hand, in China the spiders and mice scare me.  In Africa I could pretend that the things unseen did not exist.  In China, as I lay in bed reading, I have the opportunity to watch a large spider crawl along the ceiling from one corner to the next hoping that as I fall asleep it won't crawl over my face.   As I go to the bathroom, flipping on the light, I try my best to stifle a scream as a mice scurries along the wall to the window praying it won't run over my feet.
In Africa, the creatures didn't exist.  In China they do.  Electricity feeds light bulbs and I see all that I am living with.

Blog Backlog

I have just gotten internet and have just recently been able to fix my blogger account to publish via email.  Here are a few blogs I meant to publish several weeks ago.
September 7, 2011- Life without Internet
How much time as a PCV in China does Internet occupy one's time?  Without access in my flat, I am learning that it probably occupied many hours of my day- writing emails, watching online TV and movies, writing blogs, looking up info, hanging out with the online knitting community.  Luckily I quit Facebook several years ago or that probably would have turned my life in the real world into a faint ghost forgotten for an online addiction.
I've still got two weeks before school starts.  The freshmen are doing 10 days of military training and I'll be teaching them speaking, listening, and western culture which is mostly a history class.  My days are empty.
Okay not really.
Last week was full.  There were the last days of PST (pre-service training) and supervisor meetings.  All new PCVs moved to a fancy hotel and I used my "perfect" English to sneak into the hotel provided free breakfast buffet pretending to be a roommate of a room that only had one person in it.  I ate my fill of fresh fruit, baked beans, and bacon.  For some reason I haven't found cheap fruit in this big city and haven't bought any.  It seems fruit is double or triple the price of Gansu.  My dean says that the cost of living these past few months has really really gone up.  I helped my new sitemate buy housewares, a fan, and showed him the free box in the PC office where he got a hot water kettle and plates.  I love the free box!  I met up with a family of one of my friends in Lanzhou.  I got them their return train tickets and they invited me to dinner.  It is good to have friends all over China because getting a train ticket for the day you are leaving can be difficult if you don't buy them 10 days early.  I had dinner with my Chengdu host family.
So it sounds like I'm busy, but actually there is still a lot of downtime.  I've been writing letters and have been reading a book a day which isn't so good since my access to English books is limited.  I go on bike rides and found an authentic American bakery, Leanna's in the Tibetan district that has a small library.  I sit in Ikea drinking free coffee watching fathers feed their toddlers mashed potatoes and meatballs, see the elderly talking and drinking green tea, see young rich people buy trays of food worth $10 of food, pasta, Salmon, dessert, a drink when I can only afford $1 meals waiting for 2 pm happy hour when I can get a $1 smoked Salmon salad.
Do I miss the Internet?  I miss writing daily emails and blogs.  I wish I could look up things to do in Chengdu, find the museums and the live music.  So yes I do miss Internet.  Is the quality of life better without Internet?  I think I do pretty well balancing my Internet use with real life.  I do hope the school accepts our request for free Internet instead of having to pay for it each month.
September 12, 2011- Good news and Bad news
First the bad news
Each week, I am teaching 16 hours, preparing 5 different oral English lesson plans, commuting 4.5 hours, holding 2-4 hours of office hours, and 2-4 hours of English corner.  It is umm.. a heavy load, something that I did not stay a 6th year in Peace Corps for.  So I am a bit disappointed and feeling a bit stressed on how to balance teaching with other things that I want to do and learn.
(Several days ago, I negotiated my teaching schedule and the bad news has turned into better news.  I will be teaching 10 hours some weeks and 14 hours during other weeks.  I only have 3 lesson plans and 4 hours of office hours and English corner.  I will be living on the other campus once a week in a dorm room that has a private toilet and a community shower.  It is a good compromise and I am learning to accept the idea of being a full time teacher instead of a volunteer working full time in the office.)
Next the good news
I got a beat up ancient heavy bike that hopefully no one will steal.  After a couple weeks of getting used to the bike seat, I can say that Chengdu is an awesome biking city!  There are wide bicycle and motorcycle lanes throughout the city.  There are roundabouts and underpasses where major highways cut through.  Also, workers in bright orange uniforms with red flags keep pedestrians from congregating in the bike lanes as walkers wait to cross the street making it easy to ride through intersections.  There is a natural flow of the slower vehicles and only a few go the wrong way.  Biking in Chengdu for me is actually surprisingly not stressful.
I went to Chengdu's Museum of Contemporary Art and was surprised to find a drive-thru McDonald's across the street.  I enjoyed the free entrance fee and the quiet cool open space.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Tasty Bargain in Chengdu

Ikea has an amazing bargain which I wish I had known about over the past three years.  We often have to come to Chengdu for different trainings so knowing about this little gem of a bargain would have been useful.
What is the bargain?
1.  If you fill out the paperwork, you can get a free Ikea Family card.  With this card, you can receive a FREE bottomless cup of real coffee every day except on weekends.
2.  Between 2-5 pm on weekdays Ikea has happy hour where various items are marked at half price.  For example, a plate of 10 meatballs, mashed potatoes and gravy usually costs 15 RMB ($2.35), but during happy hour, this wonderful plate of yumminess costs only 7 RMB about the same price as rice covered with a Chinese dish at your local hole in the wall.
3.  Ikea has FREE wi-fi.
How does one get to Ikea?
From Sichuan University, take bus 76 going west (away from the university).  The closest bus stop is across the street from McDonald's.  When the bus has passed through an underpass, you are getting close.  Wait one more stop and get off at the supermarket Auchan (full of cheaper western food than Sabrina's).  Ikea is behind the Galleria and Auchan.
Take the Metro and get off at the South Railway Station stop.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

New Life: Moving to Chengdu

Moving to Chengdu
I've been a volunteer for five years, so why in the world would I want to remain an additional year?  In Chengdu, there are higher playing jobs!  Instead of a 1,500 RMB living allowance, having to budget and resist temptation, I could be making 6,000-10,000 RMB living a comfortable life, mixing a local Chinese lifestyle with a Western one.  It doesn't make sense to be a PCV for only one year in Chengdu.  In my opinion, one year isn't enough time to build community and start secondary projects.  The reason I stayed in Peace Corps for one more year was to get exposure to the Peace Corps office and to see how thing are run from a Peace Corps staff's point of view, a type of internship to broaden my skills.
There is a hiccup to my plans though.  Originally the PCV leader position was going to be a part-time teaching job then work in the office twice a week.  Due to complications, there is no longer a PCVL position and now I have to be a regular PCV with a full time teaching load.
My Host Family
I had a great four day homestay with my Chinese host family.  I stayed with a newly wed couple where the wife is a teacher at my new college.  We lived in a new flat, beautifully decorated with wood floors in an apartment complex that had an outdoor swimming pool.  I slept in the only bedroom while the couple went to the building next door and stayed with the husband's family. 
The mother-in-law cooked us three delicious meals.  Sichuan food is absolutely amazing!  There is such a variety of vegetables and flavor.  Plus the father-in-law loves meat. 
We drove everywhere, but I kept a mental check on the bus lines so I'd know how to get places on my own.  The teacher took me to see Harry Potter in 3D and we drank tea and played Mahjong for a whole afternoon before having hot pot while watching a Sichuan opera show.  It was an enjoyable host stay, chill, relaxing, plenty of time for myself, and extremely informative about Chengdu's local customs.
My New Flat
It is HUGE!  The living room feels like a classroom that can fit 20 desks except the room is completely empty except for a telephone and a black leather couch.  The dining area is empty except for a fridge.  The kitchen is well stocked with a microwave, stove, and dish drying machine.  The washing machine is high tech.  Push one button and it automatically runs through four cycles compared to my old machine which was more manual. 
The bedroom has a closet, two desks, and two twin beds and an air conditioner.  It is a smaller room than the living room making it easier to cool and to heat.  It is where I'll live.
The bathroom has a bathtub and I am not too excited about having to keep the grim clean.  The college provided a computer but there is no Internet so it is hard to have an online presence.  I am back to handwriting letters and blogs posting them whenever I visit the PC office.
My New Neighborhood
My college is in the middle of office buildings with a few restaurants, the cheap 6 RMB meals mixed with the fancier 30 RMB meals.  Then after a 10 minute walk, I am in suburbia America with its Ikea parking lots, Auchan (French supermarket), and an upscale shopping mall with a movie theater whose tickets are 120 RMB, a Subway, KFC, Pizza Hut, a Tex-Mex restaurant, and Starbucks.  Then if you continue walking for another 10 minutes, there is a more typical Chinese neighborhood with tea houses, massage places, barber shops, a farmer's market, parks with people dancing, doing Tai Qi, and playing with their grandchildren.  Mixed in with this local color is the upscale imported Western food supermarkets of Sabrina's and Carrefour.  My old sitemate described it perfectly, "Best of both worlds."
My New Lifestyle
It took a couple of weeks to adjust to the big city, but finally I'm enjoying it!  I grab a 6:30 am bus and after 20 minutes arrive at the West gate of Sichuan University and then walk 20 minutes to the office.  I work for a day by helping PC staff and by helping with various sessions of PST like a PCV panel or helping the trainees with their semester course plans for the start of school.  At around 6 pm I leave the office and head home to crash.  Rush hour traffic is heavy but on a bus with AC it isn't too annoying.
It is exciting being in a bigger city, exploring neighborhoods feeling less isolated mentally and physically compared to traditional Gansu.  I am excited to explore the things that I've missed for the past 5 years- concerts, shows, films, an international community.  Being in a bigger city I am often not initially assumed to be Chinese.  During a morning run, I overheard construction workers say, "Hua ren," meaning a person with Chinese heritage but not necessarily a citizen of China.  When getting ID photos taken, the photographer asked, "Japanese or Korean?"  It is nice to feel part of a more international city that is exposed to diversity.
I am even enjoying the heat of humid Chengdu.  It reminds me of Africa as I sleep on a bamboo mat cooler than cotton sheets.  Compared to brown Gansu, it reminds me of Alabama, the smell of grass and trees.  Having a fridge, a fan, and running water makes life so much more comfortable than living on the dirt porch under a straw roof in Burkina.  China makes the heat nostalgic and more bearable.
Processing and Adapting
My initial reaction to Chengdu was culture shock... I left America to live a different lifestyle in a different culture, but in Chengdu I was thrown right back into Western food and stores.  After some time, some processing, some psychological adjustment to the idea, my reactions shifted and in the place of resistance, acceptance started slowly forming.  I realized that this is where I am stuck, so try to focus on the things I like about the place.  Accept the idea that Ikea will be my neighborhood coffee shop instead of resisting and hating the idea. 
Am I too flexible?  Not having my own values, ideals, and type of lifestyle to hang onto?  Maybe after five years abroad, I have learned that the only way to be happy is to adapt and accept whatever I am given.  Instead of focusing on the things I don't like, try to find the pleasures in whatever environment I am living.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

First Impression of my New Neighborhood

On an empty Saturday, living in a hotel can be a bit boring, so I decided to scope out my new home.
My university is in a neighborhood of new wide sidewalks and streets, empty of cars and people.  The place is like a research park that only fills up from 9-6 pm then becomes a ghostville.  Luckily there is a subway entrance right outside of the front gate of the university that will take me to the back alleyways of Chengdu.  The area is actually a biking paradise with its wide streets empty of cars.  I even bet the countryside is just down the street.  Even though I am surrounded by new buildings rather than back alleyways of food, color, and Chinese flavor I am in a place where I will be able to bike and have quick subway access to markets, food and colorful sights that I love.
I feel like my new neighborhood is like Huntsville, AL or Redmond, WA.  Who would have thought I'd end up living in a research park in China?  At least I'll be able to commute safely to and from the PC office by bike and there's nothing to spend on coz the few places that do exist are too chic.

Chengdu and Thoughts about Homestay

I have moved to Chengdu, a bustling metropolitan city, big, a place I can't explore by foot in a day, a place whose neighborhoods are as big as my Gansu city.  For me Chengdu, has always been a vacation spot, the place you go for Peace Corps trainings, a place where you might spend 10 times more than what you usually spend for a meal since it's a special occasion.  You're getting per diem, and it's only a few times a year that your tongue can have the special treat of raw fish, hummus, bacon, and a bottomless cup of Joe. 
Now though I've become a resident. 
Instead of an African village with once a week transport out on dirt roads or a small Chinese city with a population of over 200,000, I am in a city of millions.  I am in a city with a diversity of international food, entertainment, people, and places.  There's even rugby; however, unlike Seattle where I had enough to spend freely to feed my desire for film, theater, and food, I now must be careful with my money and resist temptation.  Will I have the self-control to face what every volunteer encounters when living in an expensive city?
Cities are exciting and can be cheap.  Biking, buses, a subway, and eating out can all be inexpensive.  Exploring the streets, and going to free concerts and tiny restaurants will be fun.  Finding bike routes out of the city will be great.
Currently I am living in a hotel.  My flat isn't ready yet.  Monday I will be moving in with a host family for a week just like all the other PC trainees who will be on site visit.
When the idea of having trainees live with host families during site visits was being discussed by the training staff, I would often discuss with other PCVs the pros and cons of having a temporary host family in the city you'd be working in for two years.  The biggest disadvantages were
-being used as the foreign face to be shown off to the community
-being requested to teach English
-having a forced relationship in a new community with people whom you might not get along with and who might be hard to avoid
-having work and social boundaries blurred as you might live with a counterpart, a colleague, or a boss
These challenges can be a bit daunting if you haven't figured out how to cope with China yet, like how to tell white lies, how to indirectly say no, how to smile to create harmonious relationships and how to feel at peace with the extremely long social obligations of a single day when you would prefer some privacy and alone time.  A homestay though is a perfect opportunity to learn about Chinese culture and the local community.  Also, it is a time to grow and evolve into a person who knows how to meet one's own needs and desires as well as learn how to implement boundaries in culturally appropriate ways.
As a veteran volunteer, even though I'm fully aware of all the potential frustrations of living with a host family, I am super excited about living with a Chinese family.  Why?
-I can improve my Chinese.
-I can learn about the school, the neighborhood, the people, the pockets of activity and the local customs.
-I can start forming relationships, guanxi, a network of people with whom I can exchange favors.
-I can learn so much by living with a host family like finding the best ways to get my needs and desires met like a new mobile phone number, names of local dishes, a massage place, a place to take martial arts, buy a bike, bus routes, and where to buy yarn.
I like being independent and like feeling successful when I have accomplished something on my own; however, even though I've lived in China for three years and one could assume I can speak a bit of Chinese and can do things by myself, it is still a lot easier and more efficient when community members are helping me.  Most of the time people are happy to help.  At least in theory, when community members are happy, the whole community benefits from the harmony created by helping each other.  (*wink*  Theory and practice don't always match.  I have had plenty of frustrating moments trying to navigate Chinese culture and relationships while trying to keep the well-being of the community harmonious and peaceful.)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Net has been Down

or so I thought... 
Tonight I learned that there is a new system.  We are suppose to delete the IP address and voila we are automatically online.  I spent several days just waiting coz the net often goes offline.  I just waited thinking the big mysterious problem with the net would be fixed by the computer people.  It never occurred to me that I could fix it myself. 
How I have changed living abroad...  Instead of feeling like I can control the things in my life, I just wait and wait and wait.  Weird.  Five years ago, I'd probably have called someone right away if my Internet wasn't working, but now? 
I waited for seven days and just by random chance learned how to fix it. 
At tonight's going away banquet, I asked the other foreign teachers, "Hey has your net been down?" 
They said, "Nah, a teacher came and deleted the IP address.  Now it works." 
I thought, "Oh."
Now that I have the net back, I'll be offline for a while.  Going on vacation.  I will be checking out Inner Mongolia.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Two Types of Relationships

I think I can categorize the types of relationships I have been in into two categories:
The first is relationships where I was the one in love.  The second is relationships where I enjoyed having the attention of someone who was in love. 
Both have their advantages and disadvantages. 
I like being in love.  It feels good and is inspiring, my creativity exploding into artwork, letters, and projects; however, even though I am in love, I've never taken the vow to be with that person wherever they go.  I tend to follow my own heart of adventure rather than theirs.  Maybe being in love with my own dreams is my priority rather than following a person I'm in love with.
I enjoy having the attention of someone who likes me.  It feels good to be liked, makes the missing holes in my self-esteem feel a little less empty.  The problem with these types of relationships is I start disliking the person and somehow have less of a tolerance for their imperfections.
There is a third category that is quite common in China, relationships based on responsibility. 
In all of my relationships as they become more serious, as the weeks turn into years, my mind does start making lists about compatibility but my relationships are never about responsibility. 
Compatibility?  Like do we challenge each other with our topics of conversation, do we learn from each other, do we spend money the same way, do we handle conflict in a positive way. 
Responsibility?  My students often debate whether or not they should marry for love or for responsibility.  They come to the conclusion that responsibility is the most important.  There is a responsibility toward their parents, having their parents' approval and making their parents happy with grandchildren.  For women there is a responsibility to choose someone who will provide a good standard of living so that their future children can have an easy life.  A woman searches for a partner with a good job and an already purchased apartment.  For a man, he has the responsibility to have a good job and an apartment before searching for a wife. 
Two people find each other, look at the stats and boom are married after knowing each other anywhere from 2 months to a year.  The people I know who are married got married fast once they determined it was a good responsible match and approved by their parents.  They probably will never get divorced because responsibility is the most important even if their mate is cheating on them.  It is better and more responsible to be married than single in the eyes of many Chinese women.
A relationship based on responsibility, on children, on having an apartment, and a good job?  I don't need these things in a relationship.  I depend on myself for my standard of living and lifestyle.  I have the freedom and education not to be dependent on a mate.  I am lucky.
If I had to choose which category of relationship I would prefer?  I think it be great to have a partner whom I am in love with and who likes me back.  An added bonus would be that we are compatible in the things we value.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Lazy Days

Last Friday, I finished with my school duties and finished all of the goodbyes with students.  This week they are in the middle of finals too busy to say goodbye so it was good to finish those before their exams.  These days though every single day I have been having goodbye lunches and dinners with teachers and leaders.   
Through this four week process of saying goodbye to various people by having dinners, picnics, and hikes, I have learned that it isn't really about the goodbye and focusing on the thoughts that we probably will never see each other again, but it is more about spending one last moment with people, cherishing a laugh and a smile, sharing stories and food.  We never say goodbye even though it lurks in the shadows.  Instead, we are just saying, I like you and want to spend time with you.  Thank you for that.
I've been enjoying these lazy days of knitting funky red and purple socks, reading books, watching movies, slapping at mosquitoes, and cooking peach covered yogurt pancakes, using yogurt and baking soda to substitute for baking powder.
What no bike rides?  Yeah yeah...  I gave my smaller bike to my new sitemate who then let a student borrow it for the summer.  Caitlin gave her bike to a teacher, but the teacher has been studying in Xi'an.  I borrowed this bike for a year, and it was time to give it back.  I am without wheels and instead walked an hour to new campus.  I really dislike buses. 
My rice bags are packed.  I don't like that I have huge bags, more stuff than what I flew with to China, but what can one do?  When I came to China three years ago, I brought one fleece.  Now I have 2 homemade sweaters and a jacket, and several heavy pants.  Plus several Peace Corps books I forgot to return to the office during COS conference.
When am I leaving?  No idea!  I wanted to leave this weekend or sooner, like I could leave right now.  I am finished with my school duties and am packed and ready to go having finished all of my goodbyes.  What am I waiting for?  The official Chinese paperwork has not been signed nor submitted for my new volunteer position, so I am waiting for that approval before I can go.  It sort of feels like standfast in Guinea where I had to bike every day to a radio to find out if we were evacuating.  You spend day to day packed and ready to go, but not sure when.  Then one day boom, you get the message and it is time to leave. 
From the very first Peace Corps country I served in, I have been the learning the lesson that you can't control the events in your life.  Instead you just wait patiently and eventually something happens.  It all works out in the end.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Sock it to me, China

If you have been following my blog, then you probably know how much stress, effort, and overtime, we have been putting into moving the Tree House, re-modeling the classroom into a library, and organizing it.  Last night guess what I learned....
This summer the Tree House has to be moved again, to a new classroom.
It is unbelievable!!!!  All those volunteer hours wasted.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Wednesday Final Finals

At 2:40 on Wednesday afternoon my two writing classes took their two hour final.  At midnight, I was finished with grading, calculating their final scores, writing the key, and filling out the statistic report.  I am practically done with my school responsibilities.  I just have to turn in all the exams on Friday, get the waiban office to sign some papers, have an English department farewell dinner and then will I be free?
Today we will have a women's group party.  I will cook pancakes.  Not sure what the students will cook.
A quick word about cheating:
On the national university English exam for all majors which happened a couple of weeks ago, my English students told me a story where an English student wrote an essay for a student who was in the classroom taking the exam.  The English major sent the essay via text by cell phone.  Cell phone?  It is incredible that teachers let students have a cell phone during a national exam.  Cell phones have dictionaries and well apparently you can send a full essay via cell phone.  It is crazy coz the teacher took the phone away from the student, but then the student begged for it back, "I am a volunteer for the red sports meet.  I need my phone."  What?  Crazy!
In my class I told the students to put their cell phones away.  I did NOT want to see a cell phone anywhere near them.  One student quickly checked her phone twice claiming that she was only checking the time.  I took it away, and she almost cried afraid that I'd fail her thinking that she was cheating.  I didn't fail her coz I don't know, maybe she was only checking the time.  I just took it away to ease my mind that she couldn't use it anymore to look up anything if that was what she was doing.
During other final exams, I heard that the teachers just left the classroom for an hour or so while the students were taking their exam.  Oh well...  What can one do?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Goodbye Hike: Picture 3

We walked down a wide dirt road that was probably used by tractors to transport bricks because towards the end of the hike, we found an abandoned brick factory.  At the bottom of the valley a wide stream kept us from hiking further.  In this picture, you can see the tall dark green grass that was hiding the two meter wide stream of brown water.  Tall grass plus water, I wasn't willing to risk trying to forge this tiny stream with a bunch of students.  Snakes like tall grass and water right? 
It was a fantastic five hour outing, hiking the dust bowl of Gansu, having a picnic under apricot trees and just chilling in a relaxed way with happy students who were exhausted by the end of an easy but long hike.  Plus I was super proud of them as they all collected their trash and hiked it out.

Goodbye Hike: Picture 2

Here is a picture of the edge of the plateau that took us an hour to walk to.  Gansu unlike other areas of China is brown; however, in the summer it does get greener.  We don't have waterfalls nor lush dark green wet landscapes.  We do have apricot trees growing wild everywhere as the government tries to fight deforestation where the the earth could turn into even a more dry wasteland.  It took us forever to hike to the bottom because everyone was stopping to eat sour apricots.

Goodbye hike: Picture 1

As a person who loves the outdoors, for the past three years, I have explored the countryside and the valleys.  My city is on a very large plateau and if you want to get to the edge of it to hike you have to ride a bike for an hour or so.  This is why I have never hiked the hills with my students nor started a hiking club because very few of the students have bikes.
The old campus though moved to the new campus which is in the countryside, so several weeks ago, we went on a goodbye hike.  About 30 students met at the Tree House and walked on the flat pavement that cuts its way through farmland, wheat growing everywhere.  It took us an hour to finally reach an edge of the plateau.  It was good to be out under the sunshine and cool breeze.  The students were excited to be doing something different.

Monday, June 27, 2011

New Tailor Made Sundress

Goodbye Picnics

I've been having a string of goodbye picnics with my freshmen and sophomores.  We eat snacks and watermelon.  We take pictures, play games, and sing songs.  It is a fun uplifting way to say goodbye.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


I spent the morning doing laundry and knitting a sock while watching old movies like The Quiller Memorandum.  Then I went out to buy a present for a woman who has a painful time during her period.  It was a period survival kit.  In China, there are interesting rules that surround one's period like no showers, no cold water, no eating cold things.  Suggested by the students, we bought a hot water bottle that uses electricity to heat it, special red sugar that is suppose to replenish one's nutrients, medicine stickers that you place on your belly, and pads.  We wanted to buy chocolate but students said, "Women don't eat chocolate when they are on their periods."  I thought, "What a pity."
Then I showed my sitemate a barber shop that another foreign woman used to frequent.  It is a bit scary getting one's hair cut and styled in China if your hair isn't black and thick.  The hairstyles are just very different in China than in America.  We also tried a new ice cream shop that opened near East Lake Park and painted our fingernails as we waited for french fries and an ice cream platter made to look like a garden.
In the afternoon I watched, The French Connection, which I thought was kind of boring.
In the evening I ventured out into the cold rain to go shopping for dinner.  I cooked a delicious cream of leek, potato, and chicken soup.  I sometimes forget how good western food is.
It was a real pleasant Sunday.  Some days I just need a full day away from students. 
Tomorrow there are rumors that because it rained today there will be no class in the morning.  Instead of having a goodbye picnic with my morning sophomore students, they will have to re-do the Tai Ji performance to be recorded for TV.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Saturday

Today was a lazy Saturday.  I went for a 40 minute neck and upper back $4 massage, then picked up my newly tailored made dark blue with white flowers sundress, got a $3 haircut, tried a new noodle restaurant, and watched Avatar for the first time.  I liked the first half with the exploration of a world and a new culture.  I thought the second half was pretty boring, a stereotypical Hollywood battle.  I am though interested in going to our local 3D theater of 20 seats and seeing if they will show it.
In the afternoon I went to the red sports meet rehearsal since it was free to all spectators.  Tomorrow people will have to have an expensive ticket.  It was boring so I left early.  Early meaning I stayed for 2.5 hours but only got to see like the first 15 minutes of the performances before deciding it was too boring.  The rehearsal did not start on time nor was it very organized, so there was a lot of waiting.  Why was it boring?  There was a 100 person choir that was singing but all we could hear was the tape of recorded singers.  While they were singing, students arranged themselves into different formations like the map of China or human statues documenting the triumph of Chinese soldiers.  Then they started doing a dance that reminded me of the types of Chinese dances seen in the movie Mao's Last Dancer.
Then I stopped at a coffee shop and had three scoops of ice cream before heading to a hot pot restaurant.  My sitemate and I spent three hours eating and chatting with two English teachers.
Now it is bedtime.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Another Friday

Today I was ready for a day mostly alone, alone time to clean up the apartment, pack, get a haircut, watch a movie, read, and write.  Instead a student called at 10 am and wanted to have lunch.  Then at 3 pm there was a singing competition where each department's students and teachers formed a choir to sing red songs.  While sitting on a 2 ft high plastic stool, under an umbrella blocking the bright sun, I listened to ten of the twenty performances awed at the sheer numbers of people singing and watching.  Then it was the last night in the Tree House, a sad goodbye to three years of being part of a community that taught me so much about China.
Lately I've been eating the same meal over and over again.  Students learned that I like fish so they invite me to goodbye dinners with soups, stews, and plates of boiled, stewed, and fried fish.  With my sitemate, we have been eating a lot of hot pot.  I love hot pot because I can mix my own sesame dipping sauce at the sauce buffet. 
Tonight though we had a very different meal.  If we want something new, we usually go to a more expensive Chinese restaurant that has a picture menu.  We ordered two dishes. The first one was raw leafy lettuce served with a super yummy peanut sauce that contained thinly sliced red hot chili peppers.  The second dish was a variety plate of steamed and boiled vegetables- potatoes, taro, corn, salted peanuts, and edamame.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Thursday

Usually I ride my bike to school, but today I took the 7:20 am school bus because I had three large bags of clothes that a student was going to help me find someone to donate them to.  Unlike America, in China, people do not like used clothes, so it is a delicate matter on how to get rid of good clothes without throwing them away in the rubbish bin.
Today, surprisingly there wasn't any Tai Qi practice, so at 8 am I listened to 26 freshmen finals, two minute advertising presentations for face cream, bags, bracelets, basketballs, and more. 
At 10 am, I had a picnic with my sophomore writing class, a class I have been with for four terms.  It was sad and I mistakenly taught a sad song during the picnic.  Last semester my juniors loved this song, but umm... teaching it during a goodbye picnic wasn't so smart.  The song was "Love is Blue," with the lyrics, "Blue blue, my world is blue.  Blue is my world now I'm without you.  Gray gray, my life is gray.  Cold is my heart since you went away."  The picnic was like Halloween where everyone was taking pictures and exchanging snacks filling their goody bags with crackers, marshmallows, cookies, chips, tofu, sunflower seeds, candy, and chewing gum.  I bought a watermelon for $3 to feed 30 students.
At 11:45 am, I took my used clothes to a dorm mother who would take my clothes and redistribute them to people who might want them.
At noon, we had a women's club lunch where the student led topic was "Fears plus Mental and Physical Safety."
Then I knit for a while before Tree House opened.  Tree House workers mopped and dusted since the Tree House's closing date is tomorrow.  A bunch of new students came to check out books for the summer.  Students who participated in the photo workshop brought their self-portraits and texts to put into the Tree House yearbook.
The theme of the day was "I don't know."
Do you know when the writing final will be?
I don't know.
Well I hope we learn about it soon coz the students need to know so they can start seriously studying.  Their final is tough.
So when can we have the women's club cooking party?
We don't know. 
Well what is your schedule like next week?
We don't know.  No one has told us yet.
Is the red songs singing performance tomorrow?
I don't know.  I will text you when the leaders tell me.
Will we have the Tree House meeting tomorrow?
I don't know.  Do you have Tai Qi dress rehearsal?
I think so.
I don't know.  I will text you when the leaders tell me.
At 6:30 pm, I had a fish dinner with two graduating seniors and their family members who had come to help move them back home.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Unpredictable China 2

I tried to predict China to control my future, to make a schedule, but China gently slapped me on the wrist and said, "You can't do that."
If you want to know what is going on, you have to ask students a lot of questions to discover any rumors that anyone might have heard.  You have to visit the office and teacher lounge to make small talk with office workers and teachers.  You have to observe how China works because even though it is unpredictable there is a predictability about the unpredictable or I thought there was.
The English department has been practicing a fan Tai Qi performance for months now and performed it for the sports meet last month.  Before the performance, one day of class was canceled for the dress rehearsal.  They have a second performance this weekend.
Because I knew about the unpredictability of China, I canceled my 10 minute oral interview final exams.  I had no idea when the students would or would not have class.  If they missed a day I would have 360 minutes/6 hours/20-30 students to reschedule which would be a nightmare!  I changed the final to be a 2 minute performance where each class could be done in two hours.
I assumed that because last time, class was canceled the day before the final performance, that would be how it would work this time.  The performance is on Sunday, so I assumed that Friday classes would be canceled.  I moved the two Friday finals to earlier in the week.  I thought, "Yeah!  I  predicted unpredictable China."
Nope!  I was wrong.  This time 4 days of classes have been canceled.  Because only two classes have been able to take their finals, I now have to make-up 3 finals.  This past Monday we had class.  All other days?  No class.
China gently reminded me that humans have no control.  It is fate's playground.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Unpredictable China

Yesterday I heard rumors that Tuesday's morning classes had been cancelled because all freshmen and sophomores had to attend the graduation ceremony.  I went to the office to verify this rumor, but the office workers just said, "You have class  on Tuesday."  I felt a sense of relief since I had freshmen oral English final exams on Tuesday.
Today as I was preparing to carry my bike downstairs to ride to new campus in the rain, I got a phone call from the monitor of my Tuesday's class, "Jennifer, we don't have class today.  We have to go to a meeting." 
"Okay.  Well your final will be next Tuesday then."
Americans often feel like we have some control over our lives and futures.  We have many choices.  After graduating from high school, we can choose our university, then our major, then our career.  We can even change careers. We plan and organize weeks in advance and feel certain that very few things will disrupt our schedules.  We feel like hard work will lead to the successful realization of dreams and plans.
In China, everything is unpredictable and fate predicts and controls one's life and future.  Exam scores dictate your future, dictate if you go to university, which one university might accept you, which major you can try for.  Once those things have been set it is nearly impossible to change or to go after your true dreams.  
My students have a sense of hopelessness.  I don't want to be a teacher, but there is nothing I can do about it.  I want to take my final exam today, but I have to go to the graduation ceremony.  I don't want to be in the Tai Qi performance but if I don't show up for practice I will be fined money.  I want to marry my boyfriend/girlfriend, but I must obey my parents' wishes.  The only predictable thing in China is that some outside force will control your plans and future.  

Monday, June 20, 2011

Beware of old squatters

The most obvious thing to watch out for is things in your pocket.  When you are using a squat toilet, cell phones, keys, wallets, etc tend to fall out then down into the pit of ick.
The second thing to watch out for is dripping pipes from the squat toilets on the next floor up.
The third thing to watch out for is exploding pipes that spray water everywhere when you hit the flush button.  Water gushes out all over your shoes, all over the stalls next to yours, pushing all the human waste out onto the floor.  When you flush those, stand back and be ready to jump backwards to avoid the geyser of water and waste coming out at you.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Chinese Red Shirt

A month ago I had this red shirt tailor made (150 RMB which included the fabric).  My co-workers commented that it looks like a shirt for teenagers since it has no sleeves.  I was like oh...  I guess I need to find something to cover my shoulders when I wear it to school.
There is less pressure saying goodbye to my city since I am moving to Chengdu and am not actually saying goodbye to China.  These are not my last meals or my last few moments experiencing Chinese culture.  I still have a year to eat Chinese food, to have more clothes made, and to go on more bike rides.
Yesterday I gave away my colorings.  Visitors to the Tree House went through the 100 pastel pieces and I signed them along with little notes.  It was fun seeing which art pieces the students choose.  One student asked, "Why did you color so many?"  I said, "It is my hobby."
Also, my gmail account is down.  Send email to my yahoo account.  Thanks.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Recent Tidbits

The other day my Freshman oral English class had a picnic.  We took pictures and ate snacks.  Then they wanted to play games and we played all these games that they would play in elementary and middle school.  For example, catch the chicken where a mother hen stands in front of a long line of her baby chicks who are all holding onto each other's waists.  Then a hawk tries to tag the chicks while the mother hen tries to prevent it.  Or a game where the students stand in a circle on one leg where the other leg is hooked to the leg of the person next to them, their hands on each other's shoulders.  They then jump in a motion like a merry go around, round and round and round.  Another game was a boat race, where two students face each other and sit on each other's feet while holding hands.  Then they race the pairs of people who are also sitting in this position by one student hopping backwards on her butt and the other one hopping forwards. 
Yesterday, I was invited to dinner by two sophomores and realized that lately I've only been talking to freshmen.  It was refreshing to be able to have a conversation with students who can more easily compared to Grade 1 students express their ideas in English.  It made me realize that maybe the reason I've been so tired lately isn't because of all the activities and stress of the Tree House, but because I've been teaching 10 hours a week to Freshmen.  Listening to Freshmen as well as non-majors takes a lot of energy and patience.
It has been HOT!  I am so lucky to have a fridge filled with cold water and popsicles.
Today, I accidentally walked too close to a woman who rushes around the streets getting into people's faces and yelling at them.  As I was heading for the escalator rushing by a bunch of people to go to a hot pot restaurant, she slapped my shoulder and started yelling at me.  This isn't the first time I've had a run in with a homeless person.  A month ago, this one man while I was riding my bike grabbed my handlebars and wouldn't let go.  He demanded that I get off and give him my phone.
I'm burnt out.  Today I realized that I am tired of having English conversations always as an English teacher.
Today a student said, "If you fail students, they will hate you, so you better not fail them.  Plus if you fail them, the students will also hate me and say bad things to me because they believe that I'm your close friend."  I felt like hmm... what kind of psychological warfare is this?

Monday, June 13, 2011


Moving to China, people know that they will have to give up stuff, but actually the things you eventually miss are kind of surprising.

The first and most obvious thing that people tend to miss is food, cheese to be more specific.  

The longer you live in China, other things start creeping in.  Things that you really enjoyed in the states aren't around anymore like art galleries, performances, movie theaters with interesting international and independent films, lectures, concerts, and easily accessible articles about current events.  If you love pets, you might start feeling the emptiness of your flat.  Due to the high statistics of rabies, PC China policy doesn't allow pets except maybe a cricket.

If you live isolated from a bunch of other foreigners, conversations start becoming monotonous.  If in the states you liked to discuss politics, world events, religion or injustices in the world, it is rare to have such conversations.  If you are into pop culture or discussing the interesting stories on NPR, well… Chinese pop culture and stories are different, a bit too unrealistically positive for my taste.

If you aren't in your mid-twenties anymore, it is harder to find people your own age to interact with since most of them are too busy with families of their own, or if they are a lot older, they can't speak English.  I have only found one older friend who is a divorced woman which means she doesn't have as many family responsibilities anymore.  One's social group tends to be young 19-21 year old college students who giggle when you say the word "sexy" or whose answer to the question "who do you want to meet the most in the world" is their mother.  You start missing the women from your rugby team or the eccentric artists and friends you know or people who have the freedom to love whomever they want or your boyfriend or girlfriend whom you left at home.

Most of the time though the things you miss won't ever really bother you.  You'll be busy exploring the culture, meeting new people, and working.  It is just during those low points, maybe during the end of the semester when you're burnt out, that the USA starts sounding like a place you'd rather be.  Don't worry!  A good vacation during the summer holiday will restore you back into the optimistic American PCV who loves China like a home.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

You’re not American

The second goal of Peace Corps is to promote a better understanding of Americans by host country nationals.  What if the host country nationals don't believe you are American?


This is a typical conversation I have with friendly strangers:




"Where are you from?"

"I am American."

"American?  But you look Chinese."

"Yes I am Chinese American."

"Oh Chinese American, so you are Chinese."


As an American, I know I am American.  I speak American English.  I have American mannerisms and values.  I have lived in America for most of my life.


Is it my duty as a Peace Corps volunteer, to try my best to convince host country nationals that I am American so that I can promote a better understanding of Americans?


I have had many conversations in my limited Chinese.


"I'm American.  I was born in Taiwan but my Chinese parents were too poor.  They gave me to American parents."

"Oh.  Four parents?"

"Yeah. I was three days old when I was given to my American parents.  I don't remember my Chinese parents and can't recognize them."

"Oh… I'm sorry.  Do you want to find your Chinese parents?"

"Well, now that I can speak a little bit of Chinese and know more about Chinese culture, it is more of a possibility but still not my priority."


I have had this conversation many times.  Did I convince people that I was American?  Nah…  Americans are white.  Everyone else isn't American.  It is about definitions and it is difficult to change a belief system.  In America, we label people by citizenship and skin color.  In China, people label others by skin color.


So we are arguing about different things.  Chinese people say, "You look Chinese," while I am saying, "Yes, but I have an American citizenship and am culturally American." 


Just by having the conversation people realize that they aren't talking with a local but are talking with someone very different than themselves even though we look alike.  It is in a very small way introducing people to Chinese Americans and the diversity of America.


The question though is, "With locals, how hard should we debate whether or not I am American?"  Do I want to every single conversation discuss my adoption and try to explain the concept of citizenship and culture?  Do I want to become frustrated when we are arguing two different ideas, physical features versus culture/citizenship?


I think in order to stay sane, I pick my fights and try not to let people's non-belief bother or irritate me.  It isn't worth the energy.  With people who can't understand that I am American,  in my heart I agree to disagree.  With some, I just say, "I'm Chinese American," and leave the conversation there even though I can see it in their eyes that they don't believe I am American.  With others, like students and friends, we explore and have conversations about the various ideas about diversity, stereotypes, and Americans.  My students all believe that I am American.  I have never had a problem with students not believing me.  Sometimes it just takes them time to shift and to open up their understanding of the world.


What are some coping mechanisms for the "You're not American," accusation?

1.       Find a Chinese phrase that can be used to explain where you are from, a phrase that you are happy with and that people will somewhat understand.

2.       Be content knowing that you are American and don't feel pressured to convince everyone in the whole world that you are.  Some people are just stuck in their own belief systems.

3.       Remember that the people who interact with you regularly will come to understand that you are American.


It is the end of the semester.  I have hopefully only 2 weeks left.  Next week will be my freshmen oral English finals.  I am not sure when the writing final is yet.
I am burnt out.
Today a student, a good friend of mine whom I've never taught but who is graduating and who can honestly open up to me said, "Most of my classmates think foreign teachers teach them nothing because foreigners don't teach knowledge; however, they like foreign teachers because they feel relaxed in foreigners' classrooms."

Saturday, June 11, 2011

How not to lose your identity while still respecting the culture

Actually if you want to know the truth, it is impossible.  Living abroad changes people. The ones who change the least are ex-pats who have a lot of money and who tend to form a mini America around them.  Peace Corps volunteers though enter a country with open arms and with a desire to integrate into the community.  Their mannerisms change.  Their values change.  Their reactions to situations change, even their language changes.  Is there a middle ground?  Is there a way to be your American self while also becoming part Chinese?
For the past five years, I have been struggling to find the answer to the question how do I maintain my American identity, while integrating and changing to fit my environment.  Have I found an answer?  Not really.  After three years in China, I kind of hate the person I have become.  Well maybe hate is too strong of a word.  I sometimes miss the American me.  I feel like I have lost much of who I was in America, parts of me that I really like.  My American self has been censored so hard that parts of it have disappeared.  It has been replaced by a split personality of an American who hates hiding but does so to become the ideal friendly foreigner, never completely Chinese, but also never completely American.
If China is like a parent, and you want to be the good little child who is loved and accepted, you change to respect your parents.  You change to fit China's expectations or you become the ugly rebellious American teenager trying to push as many boundaries to become your own independent person.  Chinese teenagers often don't rebel and keep their complaints to themselves while secretly wanting a different path.  As good children, they follow their parents' expectations.
China is our parent.  When we first enter the country, the pressure of responsibility is not heavy.  We are like babies exploring the world around us learning how to eat, how to be polite, how to say thank you, but as we graduate from Peace Corps school, we enter the real world.  We are thrown into situations that make our American hearts cringe, get angry, frustrated, and isolated but as good little Chinese children, we swallow our reactions and become a responsible Chinese citizen saving face, creating guanxi (a social network of relationships that help each other), accepting Chinese values, and doing our best to create a harmonious society.  As months turn into two years, no longer do our American values scream at us in frustration.  Like our new found Chinese friends we just accept the world around us and endure it.
After three years in China, I don't try to change the world around me.  Instead I change to fit into my community complaining under my breath feeling the hopelessness of the situation, but just accepting that this is the way it works in China.  I no longer am an American who feels like I can control my environment and my future.  My identity and values have changed.  It is the guanxi you have and the people in higher positions who control a person's environment and future.  No longer do I expect to know the exact date of finals, the exact date of end of classes.  No longer am I surprised when someone tells me that they need this document or these photos immediately.  No longer am I shocked when I enter an empty classroom because everyone forgot to tell the foreign teacher that class was cancelled for a school wide event.  No longer do I fight cheating or students who lie.  No longer do I see the point of failing students since eventually they all pass.
Am I happy that I have changed?  The thing is, if you don't change, you will miserable.  As a guest in China, is it my role to fight the system?  No.  I learn to live with it however I can.  I also have evolved to be able to explain why people are thinking and doing things in a different way.  It becomes easier to accept rather than becoming frustrated and judgmental.  Well, actually I probably still become frustrated but have learnt coping mechanisms like how to rant to a compassionate ear and how to let go faster.
Not only do I change, the people I meet and interact with- my students, the leaders, the locals- also change and learn about Americans.  Maybe not as much as I learn about the culture I am living in, but they learn what kinds of things make me happy and what kinds of things disappoint me.  My students know that I hate it when they plagiarize and cheat and even if they don't stop doing it, they still know that I am unhappy about it.  Leaders learn that Americans like knowing in advance as I joke and smile asking every single day, is there a holiday next weekend?  Even though they don't know if there is a holiday, they learn that Americans like schedules and being able to plan in advance. 
Through our interactions we learn about each other.  To have an exchange of cultural differences, I must remain vocal about my values but never demand or force change.  When deal breakers arise, I respectfully decline and remove myself from the situation, but it is not my role to force others to change.  I am not an ethnocentric volunteer with the attitude- my way or the highway.  I remain American by communicating my needs and values, by discussing with understanding local friends my confusion and frustrations, and by asking questions to find ways to interact within the cultural norms to meet my needs.
My biggest challenge is being the ideal foreigner.  Just like how our Chinese students hide their boyfriends and girlfriends from their parents because it will be frowned upon, I hide many things from China.  China knows me as a friendly, conservative, outgoing, energetic foreign teacher.  My students think Lady Gaga is super weird and greatly dislike her.  What if my American identity was similar to Lady Gaga's?  In order to be accepted and loved, I have to hide her hating every second of it wishing that people could accept me for who I really am.  I feel like I am forming false friendships based on only half of my personality, friendships that allow me to explore the culture, but friendships that don't stimulate my other personality, my weirdness and curiosity for unanswerable questions.  The question is do I really have to hide the parts of me that I assume wouldn't be accepted by China? 
How do I not lose part of my identity while still being accepted and respected by the culture?  I have spent five years abroad.  What has my overseas experience taught me about this question?  Human beings tend to be judgmental.  They tend either to accept with respect or outcast by avoidance based on what they believe is a good or a bad person.  Also, people are open to learning about different people and are open to accepting differences.  There are sometimes characteristics that are deal breakers and other characteristics that may be different from the majority but are still accepted.
In order to be accepted and respected by a culture, I must know the cultural norms, what things are deal breakers and what things even if they are different will be accepted.  For example, I have boyish short hair that many Chinese barber shops will refuse to cut because they feel it will not be beautiful.  It is not a cultural norm for women my age to have short boyish hair, yet I still wear this hairstyle and have not lost respect.  Instead students feel it is cool.  My haircut is not a deal breaker, but what if I dyed it pink or blue?  I also wear ethnic clothes and pants with Chinese dresses.  People find it weird, and students from other departments often stare and giggle under their breaths.  I can handle this attention without any problem and therefore still wear the fashion I like.  If it started getting on my nerves then maybe I'd go more mainstream because of the peer pressure.  There are some characteristics that I hide though because I am not exactly sure if they are deal breakers that would lead to being an outcast.  I am not willing to risk losing the respect of my community to reveal all of my identity and so I lose part of my identity by burying it.
In Africa I even lied about my identity, saying that I had a fiancée/husband.  I preferred losing my identity as a single independent woman rather than fight off a line of suitors, future husbands.  In the heat of the noon sun it was worth sweating buckets to wear a head wrap and dress in long sleeves like a married woman rather than to be harassed by male strangers.  I gave up parts of my identity and my freedom to wear whatever I wanted to survive more peacefully and less frustrated in Africa.
Sometimes I feel like I have given up and hidden too much of my identity and feel like it is impossible not to lose oneself when trying to respect the culture.  The thing is I have had an extremely successful Peace Corps service teaching, starting and completing projects, learning about culture while teaching about my own and being respected by community members.  Finding the best personal compromise, I was able to find a balance between my American identity and the identity I form as I integrate into a community.  During times when I feel like I have lost too much of myself, I must remember all that I have gained by being open to change, by evolving into a different identity, and by keeping secrets.