Sunday, May 27, 2012

I miss libraries

Today was a perfect Sunday.

It started with a 45 minute run cut short to 30 minutes because lately I have been having drained energy on my jogs around the track, fatigue on both the mental and physical side.  The fatigue might have been due to a Saturday college sponsored all expense paid for, day long outing including a three hour hike on an incredibly beautiful, lush mountain dotted with temples and Taoist monks, but I kind of doubt it.  For the past week, my exercise routine has been been off.

Brunching with a fellow volunteer, I treated myself to a yummy authentic eggs Benedict plate with all you can drink coffee sprinkled with thought provoking conversation, about sorely missed topics- culture, values, morals, diversity, etc... Questions like what kinds of actions are worse than cheating on a lover?  What happens when you mix Chinese and American college graduates in an intense 6 week training where they live as roommates, 4-6 to a dorm room?  What does forgiveness look like?  Do American women feel less threatened by Chinese men than American men?  Where is the source of my passion?  It was great!  Four hours of just drinking coffee and chatting.

Then I went home and opened up a sociology textbook, Race, Class, and Gender, edited by Margaret L. Andersen and Patricia Hill CollinsAs I read the stimulating essays, I realized that I miss libraries.  I miss university bookstores full of textbooks mirroring the latest trends in hot topics.  I wondered what kinds of essays Chinese sociologists are writing about their country.  After reading a Cornel West "Introduction" to the book Race Matters, I wondered if because I am Asian American I too might be one of the "rootless, dangling people with little links to supportive networks that sustain some sense of purpose in life."  I got angry reading an essay titled "Economic Apartheid in America" by Chuck Collins and Felice Veskel, an essay that reminded me of the trends that I fear about America, "less free time and more working hours, fewer households with health insurance, and diminishing retirement security."  In China, my mind tends to get lazy, numbed by too much Internet TV and conversations with beginner English speakers, so today's college reading material got the gears turning.

Compared to Gansu where the major topics of conversation were about family and weather, moving to Chengdu has been somewhat refreshing where colleagues start conversations on the environment, food safety, corruption, prejudice, luxury items, differences between the cost of living in America compared to China, and education.  Often the details are backed by something someone read off the Internet.

The thing is the Internet scares me even though it is the information age.  Do you believe that information leads to freedom, leads to truth?  90% of my students felt that Internet was a necessity instead of a luxury.

What percentage of the info on the Internet is well-researched opinions/ideas and not just some info byte issued by an interest group trying to further their own agenda?  There are so many outrageous "truths" believed because the point of view is well-written with a tone of authority.  With the emphasis on rote learning, the lack of critical thinking about Internet topics becomes apparent with the following questions I have been asked by both leaders, colleagues, and students:

"The local bank received an e-mail about the Nigerian government requesting to deposit money into their bank.  Could you please help me understand this email so I can translate it into Chinese for my friend who works at the local bank?" 

"Is it true that in French museums Chinese people aren't allowed to enter because then Chinese people will discover that France has many Chinese artifacts?"

And more that are a bit too sensitive to post here.

Feeling myself being pulled into a black hole of monotony, existing withing thinking, of living the cycle of working and watching instead of having books to read, how do I prevent myself from becoming a mindless person? 

Libraries or Internet?

I wonder why I never really got into gathering knowledge from the Internet preferring libraries and bookstores.  Maybe I am just out of date and need to get up to speed.  Buying English books in China is difficult, so maybe abandoning books to surf the world wide web for info is a habit I should adopt?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Few Suggested Coping Strategies: Asian Americans Living in China

There are many different ways to deal with stress, unwanted attention, defending one's identity, teaching about diversity, and facing people's assumptions.   Here are just a few that may or may not work for you.

-If you are just beginning to learn how to speak Chinese, learn a few phrases to explain your identity in a culturally understandable way.  Even if they don't understand your explanation, try to find a way to be at peace with people not understanding who you are.  There is really no point in fighting.  In your heart, agree to disagree.

-Smiling, being warm and friendly, people will be more open to hear what you have to say.  Laughing together helps ease the conflict of not being understood.

-Ignoring unwanted attention doesn't always make the attention go away.  Instead it can often instigate people's anger as they lose face because you are ignoring them.  Say hello.  Be friendly.  Toast them with your glass.  Answer their questions and then leave if you don't want to spend the night drinking with them.

-Find a friend or a journal who will listen to your frustrations without judging, trying to solve the problem, or defending China.

-Surround yourself with a local community who is open to learning about who you are on a more personal level and grow together teaching each other about diversity, being American and being Chinese.
-Give yourself permission to have a day off from China and enjoy a vacation alone in your flat reading a good book, creating art, listening to music or watching a film.

-While in public like on a train or with a shopkeeper, if you don't want to have a long conversation full of personal questions, put up some barriers.  Don't make eye contact.  Wear earphones or be totally absorbed in something else like a book.

-Take a break from your community.  Go on vacation.

I think one of the hardest things to cope with is the isolation one feels when no one understands who you are and are pigeonholing you into someone you are not.  If you have any suggested coping strategies for that, do let me know.

Being Asian American in Chengdu versus Gansu

There are some advantages to being Asian American in China.  I blend in and don't get yelled at by complete strangers nor do people stare at me.  While alone on the street, there is a sense of being invisible, a peaceful relief.  In the classroom, students think they can understand my English better because I look like them.  Colleagues and strangers feel a certain level of comfort around me because in their eyes we share ancestors.  Some feel connected to the familiarity of my physical appearance and that somehow breaks the ice of shyness making it easier to connect.  I don't get called upon to be the token foreigner, the non-Asian face that can dance and sing and give an impromptu speech with a 10 second notification.  It seems like being Asian American in China can be so much easier than for other Americans.

In Gansu though, it was mentally wearing as I often fought and defended my identity as an American who spoke broken Chinese and was trying to understand Chinese culture.  People shouted out hello to my sitemate as we walked past, but I was the one who was attacked with curiosity, a barrage of questions about the foreigner sitting with me.  It was exhausting having attention as the assumed translator, followed by a million personal questions as people tried to understand why my Chinese was so poor when I looked like a Chinese person.  I had to learn how to deal with people not understanding why in my eyes I was American.  I had to learn to accept that even when I explained my adoption story and used the Chinese phrase American with Chinese ancestors, I would forever be defined as Chinese because our definitions were just different.  In Gansu, one was defined by one's physical appearance rather than one's mannerisms, ways of thinking, language, and passport.  Because of my black hair,  I became Chinese by default, an owner of a green card, but someone who totally understands Chinese culture because of my skin and can learn the language faster because of my genes.

During my stay in Gansu, I didn't realize how exhausting it was until I lived a year in Chengdu.  In Chengdu, people asked, "Where are you from?" 

"I am American with Chinese ancestors."

Most of the time, the questions ended there.  I was not assumed to be a translator.  I was not assumed to be fluent in Chinese.  I was not stared at because I spoke English.  Many people in Chengdu understood what it meant to be Chinese American and didn't try to force me to match their notions of me being a Chinese speaking woman from China married with children.  I was left in peace.  Living in Chengdu as an Asian American was easier than living in Gansu because I didn't have to expend energy to defend my identity against a wall of assumptions.  Just like how it was easier to live in Seattle than in small town Alabama, in Chengdu I lived without daily conversations that were sparked by my skin color.

Some may think, "Who cares if people assume that you are Chinese.  You blend in and don't get unwanted attention.  Or isn't it fun to help people become aware of their stereotypes and assumptions?"

For all of us who get unwanted attention or have to defend our identities especially if it persists for days, months turning into years, we face the draining weariness of battle fatigue.  Constantly hitting that wall of rarely being understood leaves its mark even if it's unconscious.

It has been a breath of rejuvenating energy living in Chengdu where I can breathe a sigh of relief as people accept without questions that I am a foreign guest in their city.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Bad Bargaining Skills

In four weeks my 6 year reign as a Peace Corps Volunteer will end.

Life has been busy.

I just got back from a nostalgic trip to Lanzhou for a weekend Project Design and Management Workshop.  I visited a partially deserted- due to the cold and rainy weather- snack street and ate my way up and down the shoddy stalls, trying morsels of BBQ innards and chunks of lamb and fish, washing it all down with boiled milk chuck full of dried fruit and grains.  I was reminded of how it felt being an Asian American sitting beside Caucasian friends attracting the attention of middle aged men, drunk on foul smelling rice wine, trying my best to ignore them, but having all of their attention directed to me because I am the "Chinese one" who is assumed to speak the language and translate their drunk slurs.  Chengdu has been a much easier place for me being Asian American.

Monday, I attended "Identity Matters: A Diversity Training for PC China Staff."

Then the rest of the week instead of catching up with the responsibilities of lesson plans, exam prep, COS paperwork, and packing, I entertained a visitor.  We found a hot pot buffet for $7 and I learned that even though I have been in China for 4 years I still think like an American.

My visitor wanted to buy some black, baggy, cool pants like the ones that I had recently bought.  I had bargained from 300 RMB down to 150 RMB, but thought that I had given in too easily.  After buying the pants, I felt the price should have gone for 80-100 RMB and was ashamed of my terrible bargaining skills.  My friend on the other hand is much much better at knocking down prices.  I assumed that it would be safer for her to go into the store alone because once the store owners recognized me, they would be like, "Yeah.  That is the Chinese American we ripped off and we can do the same to her friend."  I waited down the street.

My friend walked out empty-handed, "They wouldn't budge.  They wanted 160 RMB and kept saying that I had American dollars."

As we walked away disappointed, the store owner caught my eye and called us back into the store, "Oh our American friend.  We sold her some pants a couple months ago.  We will give you a good price."  They went from 160 RMB down to 120 RMB right away.  Then as my friend tried the pants on again, we made small talk and I reminded them that we were Volunteers.  They said, "Oh that is so good.  Okay okay, 100 RMB."

Even after being in China for 4 years, I totally misread the whole situation and assumed that because I had gotten ripped off the first time, my friend would also get taken advantage of, easy targets if the store owner remembered how bad I was at bargaining.  Instead, the thing that was most important, was the guanxi, the relationship we had formed the first time I visited their shop.

One Photo, Two Points of View

During office hours in the new Resource Room, the students looked at poster sized photos that RELO sent as a resource for teaching.  (This packet of photos can be found in the PC China IRC.)

My students and I observed the following:

In a photo of an American middle school classroom, what drew my attention was how different the classroom was to a Chinese classroom where instead of being overcrowded with students, each American student had their own desk.  Instead of white walls, the American classroom was full of color and projects hanging around and crowding tables set up along the walls.

One student pointed out, "Look at that student.  He is writing with his left hand.  In America are you allowed to write with your left hand?  In China, my grandparents would hit me if I used my left hand."

In a photo of four middle aged diner cooks sitting down taking a break, what drew my attention was that there was an Asian man in the picture.

One student found it strange that the cooks while on break were ALL reading a newspaper.  She commented that in China, cooks on break wouldn't read but maybe listen to music.

In a photo of a kindergarten class sitting on the floor listening to the teacher read a story, what drew my attention was how cute the kids from diverse backgrounds looked.

The students commented, "What poor conditions in the classroom.  There are no desks.  They have carpet instead of tile.  I can't believe the young students are sitting on the floor!  How dirty."

Sunday, May 06, 2012

the ins and outs of the monotony of daily life

When the new English Resource Room opened for the first time last week, 30 students showed up and obvious leaders stepped up to the plate discussing the purpose of the room, making a list of rules, and creating a list of names to vote for, names like ABC English Room, Jay's Room.  I put my foot down when they wanted to name the library after me.

On the countryside campus, since I wake up at 6 am and don't start teaching till 8:50 am, I went to the new English Resource Room and two students followed me to study.  Studying to me means a quiet atmosphere.  As I tried to read my new book, one student recited an English story and then vocabulary words.  The other student recited speeches in Chinese.  I was amazed at the noise level of two students studying, astonished by their ability to focus on their own material even though their voices mixed loudly.  I cannot imagine 6 roommates studying in their dorm room.

Because I am going to Gansu for a weekend workshop, I had a ton of lesson planning to do on Saturday.  For my writing class, we will have a resume competition then for the second class will write metaphor poems and 6 word memoir poems (idea from Runnin' The Great Wall blog).  For my listening class I worked on a lesson to prepare for the CET4  and a lesson on consumption and trash using 3 clips from a BBC report on how countries deal with their trash and the educational short, "The Story of Stuff."

I am also preparing a 20 minute presentation about American high schools for an audience of Chinese high school students who have lost their motivation to study They have been arguing that America is such a good country and the students there don't have to work as hard as Chinese students do.  Their teacher wants me to refute that argument and help motivate the students to keep studying diligently.  The only problem is umm... I graduated high school in 1995.  America's education system has undergone huge changes.  Good thing, I know how to research a topic that I am unfamiliar with.

I edited a friend's 20 page math paper on inpainting using partial differential equations.  I think it is so hard for students in China who are trying to get their PhD.  Technical English is hard!

During a 5 hour bike ride in the rain and fog with incredibly loud trucks along a barely used newly made wide lane highway into the small plots of farmland carved into hills, the quiet, sporadically disrupted by low flying planes above, made my Sunday perfect.  I love riding my bike.

A lovely surprise lay staring at me in my take-out bowl of duck.

Lastly, I stepped in poo for the first time since being in Peace Corps.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Random Tidbits from a Relaxing Weekend

Monday night I wanted to patch a flat but found a razor that slashed too many places to be fixable which meant I needed a new tube.  My plan for a Tuesday 80 km bike trip to and from the Zebra Music Festival came to a screeching halt. 

I have realized that I don't sleep well in Chengdu.  It is just too noisy living beside a construction site that never seems to stop working.  There is always some type of machine that drones on throughout the night.  Then when I am just about to fall into a deep slumber I wake up because at 4 am the machine suddenly stops, disrupting my body's attempt to adapt to sound waves attacking my ear drums.

I have realized that my runs aren't peaceful because I lesson plan while going round the track.

I read a Time's article that reported exercise doesn't always help people lose weight because after a run people will reward themselves with food thus canceling out any good the burnt calories might have had.  There is evidence that claims the better way to lose weight is to record what you eat.

Today while eating beef and rice, the person I was sharing a table with asked in Chinese, "Which ethnic minority are you?"  I wonder what about me today made me look like an ethnic minority instead of Han Chinese.  I was wearing a black T-shirt, a necklace bought in Gannan, a T autonomous region of China, and a black leather bracelet.  Maybe it was the necklace?

I can't decide which type of day/week I prefer.
Is it better to be extremely busy or to live a relaxing day of non-productivity?  Stress versus guilt?
I loved my relaxing weekend, but then today I started feeling a bit of a depressing guilt creep in. 


I am dreading it but also thinking maybe it is healthier- back to the grind on Wednesday.