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.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Photo of Tree House

Here I am in the Tree House before its hours of operation helping a chemistry teacher with a rejected paper that needed major revisions both in English and scientifically.  It has been ages since I have read a GC-MS paper along with anti-microbial properties of an oil extracted from a medicinal plant.  I was not very happy doing this especially since the English was quite poor!  After somewhat fixing the English often having problems deciphering between long forgotten scientific jargon and badly translated Chinese into English, I then had to explain what the editors asked her to improve scientifically.  For each thing, she had an excuse why she couldn't do it, so... what could I do?  I just said, "Well if you don't address the editors' comments, I doubt it will be published even though you have interesting data that is extremely different from other studies."
So what do you think of the Tree House?  Do you think it is a western style or a Chinese style?  All of the leaders were quite critical of us painting the shelves black, but I trusted my sitemate.  I personally think it looks terrific with black shelves!
If I am going to be in the Tree House during its opening hours of 4:30-6:30, I tend to teach in the morning and then stay at school the rest of the day.  I've been lazy and don't want to bike back and forth from old campus to new campus four times a day preferring only two times a day. I eat lunch in the cafeteria, take a nap on the couch, read books, then participate in free talk with visitors to the Tree House.  Is it healthy for me?  Hmmm... I tend to snack a lot on new campus.  They have ice cream and chocolate easily available.  Plus when I am feeling drained and tired, I am drinking too much cola.  I hate cola, but for some reason I am allowing new campus to drive me to drink it.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Recent Headaches

Photo taken by Mathilde Verillaud


Life has been busy.  I thought life would stop being so busy after the Tree House moved from old campus to new campus, was remodeled, and had its opening ceremony.  I thought I would have a nice peaceful month waiting till I moved to Chengdu.  Instead of a restful goodbye, one headache after another keeps popping up and bugging me.  My life has been stressful.


Headache Number 1


At the Tree House opening ceremony banquet, the dean of the department asked, "Umm.. Jennifer I heard you could play the piano.  Could you please play the piano for the Red Sports Meet happening in a month?  Our department is singing red songs and needs someone to accompany us."  


In China, it is impolite to say "no."  It is more polite to make an excuse or to say a white lie.


"Umm.. Well I am really busy.  I am moving soon.  I have 150 ten minute interviews to give the freshmen oral English class and about 60 five hundred word essays to grade."


"Well, we won't be practicing every day.  Only about once a week."


"Oh… well I was hoping to go to Lanzhou for dragon boat festival."


"Oh well you won't have to play the piano then because I have to first teach the teachers the songs."


"Oh… umm… well, I am not very familiar with Chinese songs.  I have only played western music and Chinese music has different melodies and rhythms."


"I can help you."


"Okay… umm.. I will see."


I spent the weekend cursing my inability to say "no" in an indirect manner that would get me out of playing the piano.


On Monday, I went to the dean's office and he showed me the songs with the jian pu symbols, no staff with notes, just numbers and numbers underlined to indicate rhythm for only the right hand.  It was at that point where I was finally able to escape the obligation to play the piano, "I am not familiar with this type of music and am not so good at improvising my left hand."


Headache Number 2


Even though it was a great honor to be nominated for the Dunhuang Prize, an award for foreigners who are making great contributions in Gansu for teaching, economics, science, etc, it was time consuming because I had to write 1000 words about my contributions.  It would have probably been easier if my computer was running efficiently. Instead my computer freezes every other sentence.


Headache Number 3


A leader of the department asked me to write 15 lesson plans on American and British literature using four books for a summer school course for middle school teachers.  When was it due?  Less than 24 hours!  Why didn't I say no?  Because I knew it was impossible for him to read four books, to decide which 15 stories to teach, and to write questions for each of them in 24 hours.  I had already taught the course and could do it.  He had two other courses he had to prepare for the next day.  Even though I couldn't use my own lesson plans but had to make new ones that consisted of 5-10 questions per story, I could still do it much faster than he could.  I felt obligated to do it because he had nominated me for the Dunhuang Prize and that is kind of how Guanxi works.  You rub my back and I rub yours. 


It was NOT fun!  Plus my computer is stupid, so I rode my bike to new campus at 6 am in the morning to use the computers there.


Headache Number 4


Women's club is great.  Each of us are preparing a topic for each week and it was my turn to prepare a topic about conflict resolution and active listening to help your friends when they are in trouble.  I spent the evening researching the topic, coming up with activities and questions.  I decided that as a westerner I couldn't really teach conflict resolution because Chinese people tend to follow the philosophy of conflict avoidance.  I did come up with cool activities for active listening though.


The next day, what did I learn?  The students are required to practice Tai Qi from 2:30-5:30 every day.  What time is Women's Club? 3:30-4:30. Women's Club is cancelled?


Headache Number 5


The students are required to practice Tai Qi from 2:30-5:30 every day for a month.  They are required to miss class.  In order to get through the 150 students, I had scheduled two weeks of oral interviews starting at 8 am till 4:30 pm.  All interviews had to be cancelled and I had to think up a new way to give final exams.


Headache Number 6


Paperwork.  Whenever you leave site, there is a lot of Peace Corps paperwork: a site guide, a volunteer reporting form, a description of service form, and paperwork that the people at your school have to fill out.


Headache Number 7


This past weekend was a three day weekend, Dragon Boat Festival.  I was going to Lanzhou.  I got a call the night before leaving, "Your writing final exam is due on Monday."  In order not to have to work on the weekend, at 9 pm, I worked on the final exam on my stupid computer where 30 minutes of work takes about 2 hours because the computer freezes every other sentence.  


Medicine for Headaches


Except for the 8 hour one way trip by bus, Lanzhou was super relaxing.  I visited M. who was a perfect hostess.  I ate real milk ice cream covered with real chocolate, a Magnum bar.  I hiked a dusty mountain and had a picnic with yummy sandwiches covered in lemon mayo, cheese, and sausage.  We took hilarious pictures.  I watched a French comedy.


I went swimming and learned how to do the butterfly then ate a baguette full of cheese.  There were two swimming pools.  One was shallow enough that almost all adults could stand comfortably.  The other swimming pool was much deeper and wasn't shallow enough to stand in.  If you wanted to swim in that one, you had to pay for a 30 minute exam in order to swim it.  I also got to wear a swim cap for the first time.  That was fun. 


I spoke French.  I ate chicken wings, then bacon and cheese pasta and watched a hilarious movie called Rubber about a tire that kills people.


Headache Number 8


I don't know how to say goodbye and feel stressed about it.