Friday, January 03, 2014

Teaching poor kids out in the middle of Yunnan

hey, you!  it's been a while.  but i'm alive and well-ish (reluctant, as usual, to admit to feeling anything other than so so).   here's some shit i've been up to lately.  

i went to a relatively remote town in yunnan province in mid-november.  It was a volunteer program arranged through the british council, with me as the token foreign face.  I’m used to this sort of thing, and hadn’t actually TAUGHT a class in nearly a year, so the prospect of some sort of new experience, along with revisiting my teaching practices, was intriguing. 

I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into.  Even on the flight, I had no idea that I was part of a volunteer program with 10 chinese college students.  I didn’t know where I was going—except that it was in Yunnan.  I didn’t know where I was staying or what was going to be expected of me daily. All I knew for certain was that I would be teaching large classes of middle school students.  Fair enough. 

I had a bumpy flight in from Chengdu on the first saturday.  I cried, with two empty seats next to me. I’ve become quite the nervous flier since the flight from hell last September—where “hell”=phuket, thailand.  I know, not a place that would be considered “hellish” but fuck, that was horrible.  I believe we flew through a lightning storm.  Anyhoo, I now panic and cry at the slightest hint of turbulence.  And crying alone on a plane makes me feel all-the-more pathetic.  I just don’t like the idea of being stuck on a plane of Chinese people if we go down.  They’re already every[wo]man for her/himself when the plane is still taxi-ing.  I would be trampled or eaten. Those are the only two possibilities.  And of the myriad reasons being in a plane crash would totally suck, if it happened to be on a domestic Chinese flight, that would be about the worst thing I can imagine. 

Landed in Kunming for the first time in my life--“the city of eternal spring.”  Always something poetic with Chinese cities, even if they have chunky air.  Fortunately, kunming’s air is significantly less chunky than that of many other places in china.   

Anyhoo...Airport taxi line is slow.  Meet up with danny, the marketing dude from BC.  He introduces me to sue and tony, the news folks from Chongqing (cqtv and cq morning post, respectively).  i still have no idea what’s happening over the next 4 days, other than I’ll be hanging out at a poor school and the classes are big.  No new information.

On the first day we had breakfast near the hotel.  Photos before hopping on the bus to head out into the countryside.  At this point I still don’t know much, but the 10 chicks on the bus are volunteers.  I didn’t realize they were teachers, I just thought they were “helpers”, whatever that means.  It didn’t dawn on me that they would be teaching until we got to the school and they all introduced themselves to a panel of locals. 

After about 3 hours of driving, we met up with some important local government peeps in a city that looked like the fake town in blazing saddles.  I felt like I could easily have knocked the façade over.  But I chose not to, you know, out of respect.  lunch was nice, actually.  Not the food, but just to be able to just eat and not have people try to translate for me and communicate with me.  I know I should appreciate others’ attempts at inclusion, but sometimes it’s really really annoying.  A lot of times, translation turns into conversations about you, while you’re sitting between the two people you’re supposed to be talking “with.” 

Arrive at the school.  the first impression neither denied nor confirmed expectations, because I hadn’t yet set any.  I was just trying not to freak out about the logistics that I hadn’t been told.  it wasn’t until the meeting to introduce all the teachers that I saw the toilets and inquired about showers.  There didn’t appear to be any communal showers, but I just figured that I hadn’t seen them.   nope.  No hot water.  no showers.  it’s a little different for dudes to rough it with no showers.  Girls have certain “monthly needs” that are already really fucking unpleasant and gross.  And the other 10 volunteers were all girls.  But they all already knew the situation. 

i detected an almost amused/condescending attitude from the others:  ‘the foreigner doesn’t know how to rough it.’  there was also the subtle implication that “taking a shower everyday is wasteful.  The very idea is an insult to all of these students and teachers who don’t get to do that.”  So I was pissed because of this presumed “posh-ness” on my part, but mostly because I hadn’t been told.  Like everything else, I had no idea what to expect or what I was doing for the next 4 days.  Considerations seemed to have been made for everyone except the foreigner, despite the fact that they were eager to parade my foreign face around.  They couldn’t tell me anything I wanted to know, but they’d happily put me in front of news cameras to say lots of nice things and try not to look confused and bewildered by my ignorance. 

Got my schedule a bit later.  Sort of.  21 classes over 4 days, plus a 2 hour teacher training session.  The contract was for 14 classes.  So that’s also another nice surprise.  I love surprises!

I planned a generic class that I could use repeatedly.  that was smart on my part.  The volunteers had to teach all different subjects, so there wasn’t the same capacity to recycle materials/activities that I had.  But we spent all evening that first day planning in the makeshift office they’d assembled for us.  Despite the overwhelming ‘lack’ that characterized the school grounds—no tables/chairs in the cafeteria, no showers, no privacy, no heat—the school had recently gotten wifi and the rooms had interactive whiteboards (donations).  Those things saved my life.

The volunteer teachers were set up in a 10 student dorm.  I was put up with 2 of the news women in a classroom that had been cleared out and had 4 cots put in it.  communal toilets and sinks with all the students and they consistently said “laoshi, hao” as they walked past you, squatting.  Polite, even with pants around ankles. 

Dinner was in the table-less, chair-less cafeteria.  everyone hovered or squatted in little circles of friends, eating mostly out of oversized tin cups. 

After dinner I went into all of the classrooms and introduced myself to each group of students.  The classrooms were actually really nice.  2 students per desk, in rows.  Around 40 students in each class.  I didn’t bring too many resources with me, but a few things that might be useful.  BC brought hula hoops, so those proved quite useful for my first round of lessons.

That first night, the news peeps and danny from bc went out with local government people.  I had 6 classes the next day.  They “didn’t want to disturb me coming in late” so all the news peeps got a hotel in town and came back in the morning the next day, after the classes had already started.  So that was a bit annoying.  Mostly because they probably got to take real showers.   I ‘took a shower” in danny’s teacher dorm.  Which meant hovering over the squatter toilet in the bathroom and splashing cold water all over myself, trying to work up the courage to lather up, which would inevitably require more cold water for rinsing.  It was cold.  And sucky.  And none of this would have been a problem, if I’d been told.

On the first day of actual classes, i skipped breakfast, which offended everyone.  Not because it’s rude, but because apparently it’s just fucking crazy and unhealthy and all sorts of stuff to skip breakfast.  Always fun to be patronized as a 35-year old adult.   You can’t really skip meals in any sort of subtle way in china, as so much of their life/schedule/routine is based on meals.  

No coffee!  Of course I didn’t expect there to be any, but I was still hoping some might magically materialize.  No luck.  Classes started at 8. forty-five minutes with a 10 minute break in between.  my underestimation of the students’ skills paid off, as they were all consistently a very low level and were very keen to just repeat everything I said.  But they were some of the most polite teenagers I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in china.  it was actually kind of shocking.  I’m used to spoiled little rich kids at training centers who lack any sort of intrinsic motivation.  so this was quite the 180.

I only had 6 classes that day, but the volunteers were getting milked for all they were worth, with some of them teaching for 12 hours/day.  It’s worth noting that these chicks were just volunteers, with no teaching experience or teaching backgrounds.  They just wanted to join a volunteer program.  So as stressed as I was, at least it was in my professional wheelhouse. 

The rest of the days were pretty much the same, as far as teaching and the schedule.  I taught each class twice, so I only planned 2 classes.  I knew those activities very very well by the end of the week, as did all the teachers who were observing.  It was nice though, because then they could help me monitor all the students and keep them on task. 

There were some other highlights.  on the third day, a home visit had been arranged.  During the  lunch break I joined a caravan of teachers and administrators to drive about 20 minutes to a students’ home off campus (they go home every weekend).  This was quite the humbling experience.  I knew they were going to be poor, that much was obvious, simply by how much the news crew had built it up.  but when I arrived, the kid’s family were so nice, so hospitable.  And it was obvious that this was a big deal for all of them—to have a foreigner and a news crew in their home.  the place had been cleaned thoroughly prior to our arrival.  Despite the dust and the condition of the actual home, the place looked clean and orderly.  We were all given some sunflower seeds to knosh on as a token of said hospitality.  The news team did some interviewing and translating.  The only uncomfortable moment came when the son said his father had purchased his mother.  I don’t think that was a translation error, either.  Yikes.

That same night I was told I needed to attend a singing class, because the students really wanted me to sing for me.  I begrudgingly went.  I say begrudgingly, because the whole experience was characterized by people making plans for my time without telling me.  so then imagine my surprise (and feelings of asshole-ness) when I get to a room full of candle-laden desks and children singing happy birthday to me.  I’d mentioned to one of the teachers that my birthday was the following week, so she had arranged a little surprise party.  The news crew was there, eager to catch me should I cry out of sentimentality (and I was close).  All the kids came up, one by one, to give me hand-made cards and say happy birthday to me.  all in all, home visit plus surprise birthday party made for a pretty overwhelmingly good day. 

The next day I was invited to a traditional dance party.  Surprisingly, I was able to refuse to do a traditional dance with students for the news crew.  I asked “are the Chinese teachers going to be doing a traditional dance with the students?”  “no.”  “then I’m not doing it.  I’ll gladly take pictures, but that’s it.”  at this point, it seemed like the news crew had plenty of token white chick shit for their news program. 

Other things of note, in list form
-a row of dark-haired teenage girls, bent in right angles, hovering over the giant fountain to lather up their hair with what appeared to be an almost synchronized fluidity.  It was mesmerizing.  The boys didn’t wash their hair.
-pigs in a pen attached to the school.  honestly, I don’t know why they were there.  But they were so fucking loud.  
-teacher workshop:  got a lot of teachers from the area into the science lab for me to workshop teaching methodology and principles.  I was waaaaaaay too ambitious and wasn’t able to cover nearly as much ground as a mere 2 hours would allow.  Failed at editing myself.  :(

Ultimately, I was relieved to get out of there (back to beer, coffee and a hot shower. Yes, in that order).  It’s probably something I would do again, now that I know (sort of) what to expect.  But anything good in china is always balanced by something completely unorganized or reactive instead of proactive.  This is an overwhelming truth here. 

By the end of the week, there were two things that had really gotten under my skin:  1)  the amount of translation, when I’d specifically asked the volunteers NOT to; 2) being in close proximity to 10 college-aged girls.  Doesn’t matter where on earth that happens, that shit is difficult.  All the unsolicited advice and judgment that you’d expect from such a demographic.  Good gad. 

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

The results are in!

Distance DELTA Module 1:  Pass with Distinction

I feel fucking fantastic.

Friday, July 12, 2013

[Mostly] 'Merican vacation

I am back!  to clarify, I went somewhere!  SomewhereS.  a month-long sabbatical in hong kong and America (NYC and Nashville).

the trip was exactly what I needed, but I’m sure I’d say that about any holiday I went on.  Still, it feels good to actually be back in china again.  I’ll make sure to recalibrate my opinions once the vacation high has worn off.   But in retrospect, this isn’t how this usually goes.  I recall returning after my Christmas holiday and feeling pretty damn low.  any other time I’ve come back to china, I’ve had the “I just returned from vacation” depression.

I suppose the conditions of my return are different this time.  I’ve come back to a city that I know I’ll be leaving.  Which means all the bad associations will also be left behind.  Even though I don’t even see the horrible people anymore, the fact that I’m sharing this polluted air with them kills me a little bit daily.  Yay for melodrama!  And hatred!  This badness and a proactive (if delayed) move away from it, more than anything else in my career or my life in recent years, is important.  So even if it’s a mere 2-hour-fast-train sidestep to Chengdu, moving there still feels significant, and it’s something that I am demonstrating control over.  being in control is important for me.   And escaping toxicity, even if it’s been reduced to mere vapors at this point.

On a more positive note…(there’s something I don’t usually say.  I’m usually perfectly content wallowing) I came back to people who actually missed my company.  Before that I’ve only had jules and rory.  This time I was missed by people I’m not even related to!  I might go so far as to call them friends!  that’s a big step.

Moving to Chengdu means I’m financially stable enough to rent a new apartment.  It also means I have the freedom to pick up and leave, without permission from a school or the signing of a contract required to set things in motion.  Freedom feels nice.  It’s a little daunting, but ultimately an overwhelmingly positive phenomenon.

Moving on…I’ve run the past 4 days.  I’m using this verb “run” generously, as I’d say a more accurate statement would be “I’ve struggled.  In gym clothes and heat on a treadmill.”  planning on going to the gym again tomorrow.  Small spurts—I’m just starting.  But i’ve always admired how physically fit my dad is.  I would like to emulate that.  It’s difficult at this point for me to run more than 10 minutes at one time, but I decided I would like to 1) be a more active human.  my body is a temple?; 2) have a body that I wouldn’t be ashamed of in a "swimming costume."  It feels silly to admit something so “girly” but I don’t really give a shit.  I find that motivation is best when it’s a mixture of the superficial and the valid. Also helps when you have nothing else going on in your life.  When I’m actually teaching again, I’ll make sure to impart these nuggets o’ wisdom upon my students.  Body image issues are eternally and profoundly motivating!  Nervous laughter.

So my legs hurt.  But I think I might actually continue with this.  right now it’s the fact that I have absolutely nothing to do during the day.  I could further cultivate some hobbies, but I’d like to actually follow through on something.  For some reason, physical exercise seems the most likely?   Before the holiday, I was studying for DELTA.  now I’m in limbo before the next module starts.  So I’ve cooked a lot and gone to the gym a lot.  I say “a lot”, but I’ve only been back for a little over a week.  I even sketched some shit today, and tuned my guitar.  I didn’t play anything, just tuned it.  no wonder I never move beyond the few songs I can barely butcher.  Probably won’t try to actually paint anything until I get to a place where I plan on staying for a while.  Apartment hunting in Chengdu next week.  I hope it yields a place that’s cheap and very me.  I don’t know what that means exactly, other than “with some help from IKEA, this place could look nicer.”  We shall see.

But vacation. Let’s get to that.  What got me writing in the first place.   I spent a week in hong kong initially.  I didn’t really think of this as vacation.  I’ve been there a few times before.  I did distinctly irresponsible/vacation-esque things, but in my mind I was just there to take my test.  So I did.  I also partied on a boat, went to the horse races, ate at an amazing restaurant called yardbird, and drank copious amounts of stella artois at a professional rugby match.  General summary:  Booze was had.  And in large quantities.  I’ll find out about that pesky little test in a few more weeks.  Fingers crossed.

Next stop:  NYC.  Holy shit.  When I initially booked my flight[s] home, I was terrified of going to nyc.  I’ve travelled in huge cities all over asia where they don’t speak any English and I can’t understand a lot, but somehow the idea of travelling in NYC, where people sort of have to speak English, was significantly more daunting than traveling in Hong Kong or Seoul or Ho Chi Minh City or Fukuoka.  I don’t know why.  I think it’s the idea that new york is uber-cool.  And maybe I’m not cool enough.

Whether I am, indeed, cool enough, remains to be see, but once I got there I realized it didn’t fucking matter.  There was this wonderfully diverse mix of cool people, beautiful people, normal people, international people. it’s hard to explain.  And a new Yorker would probably think “oh, isn’t she precious.  Trying to pinpoint what it is that makes our city so great.”  I’m okay with being precious, and with trying to figure out exactly what it is that made me feel completely at ease.  I think it’s probably going from extreme homogeneity to its exact opposite.  7 years in asia has given me a hard, dense outer shell.  It’s heavy.  It’s difficult to put on and take off.  New york helped me disrobe, however un-sexily and temporarily.   I would say I still haven’t put the shell back on.  That’s a very pleasant unfamiliarity.

Being in new york reminded me of all the times people have asked me (as a foreigner abroad) if I’m “proud” to be an American.  Which is sort of a funny notion—to be proud of your nationality.  As if I had a choice in the matter.  But I was proud to be in new york and to sort of obtusely lay any sort of claim to it, or lay claim to it claiming me, this American city in which I was an American.  I wanted to own any tiny chunk—the smells, the sights, the subway, the people, the bustle, the tacky souvenirs, the lump in my throat when I saw the spire on top of 1 world trade center—any bits the city could afford to throw my way.  I wanted more.

but back to that question of geographical pride.  Nyc is not a geographical pride.  It’s a state of mind, and a lifestyle, more than anything as vague as a nationality can so inadequately attempt to sum up.  If living in new york is people’s choice, then fuck yeah, they should be proud of it.  to want to be a part of something so much larger than yourself, but completely undaunted by all the minutiae such macrocosmic “belonging” requires.  Or maybe they are daunted.  I just chose not to see it.

Um, yeah.  I liked it.  a lot.  Not all was good.  Rain.  Rain sucked.  And the first hostel I stayed in—the bowery house.  I had my own “room.”  heh heh.  Room.  that’s a funny concept.  A room shouldn’t be a concept, it should be a fucking room.  but I knew what I was getting myself into.  Anyway.  This “room” was a cubicle, basically.  My head touched one wall.  My feet touched the other.  We all had a shared ceiling.  So my box had no individual lid, but it had walls.  Like an ice cube tray.  this was a very very thin wall that separated me from sir-snores-a lot.   He really got some good sleep.  Because you could hear every congested breath.

The roof was amazing though.  a fantastic view of NOLITA.  Besides the roof, there were a couple of notes posted on various dorm rooms that said “…imminently perilous to life.”  I’m not kidding. Check my flickr photos.  When I checked out, there were 2 notes—imminently perilous to life and a big one that said “vacate” in red letters.  Maybe they were bluffing, but probably not worth figuring out.  when I swung back through at the end of my trip, I stayed in a different area.  Much better.

I should mention sites/areas I visited as a tourist.  I was a tourist, and there’s no shame in admitting it.

The Guggenheim (twice), the met, the whitney museum, museum of natural history, high line park, Chelsea district, theater district, times square, little italy, Chinatown, west village, grand central station, statue of liberty/ellis island (just the ferry.  Wasn’t re-opened yet), piers near high line, comedy show, battery park.   Oddly enough, I didn’t do much night life.  walking around all day sort of takes it out of you.  But I consider this my introductory, just-scratching-the-surface trip.  Night life and good food will happen next time.  I thought it was important to get my bearings.  That’ll help upon my return.  And I will return.

I’m probably forgetting something.  But it was just me wandering everywhere on the ridiculously convenient subway system.  I spent some time with really good friends, too.  It’s nice to see that people from what used to be my “group” are successful humans.  Makes me feel successful by association.

After navigating new york (and getting myself to the Newark airport) I felt invincible.  Shouldn’t that be how I feel navigating in china?  I guess I’m just used to it.

On to Nashville.   I’d been there once before.  Briefly.  I believe it was to go to a matthew ryan concert.  I don’t remember much else.  Honky tonks?  A lot of things different this time around.  For starters, I remember more.  The point of Nashville for me was not necessarily to be a tourist, but rather to observe and be a part of my sister and her husband’s transition to adult life in America.  and of course to bond with my parents.  Who are both awesome.  and happy.  That’s the theme of Nashville.  People being happy.  it was unsettling.  It took a while for me to trust my emotional state.  Again with the melodrama.  That’s how I roll.

Anyhoo, after 6-7 years in china, re-integrating is no easy feat.  But jules, rory and Ramona (the dog) seem to be doing well.  and more than that, they have professional jobs with real responsibilities.  And they’re just happy.   With no hitches.  In china, it’s “well, I make a lot of money, but it’s china.”  Or “well, I live in china, but the money’s shit.”  the happiness is sort of conditional here.  concessions must be made daily to gently nudge and coerce oneself toward “happiness.”  Here it’s reduced to a wounded, gimpy emotion, but i guess I’ll take it.

Happiness seems to require less effort on their parts.  It’s certainly less sarcastic.  It requires less rationale and justification.  Things are easy again.  Things like grocery shopping.  Or going out in public without being pointed and stared at.  You know, the little things.  there are blue skies.  Trees. Dog parks.  Breakfast.  Burgers.  soup.  Craft beer.  live music (small black, holy shit!).  gratuitous hospitality and banter with strangers.  It’s the most relaxed I’ve felt in a very very long time.   And I was happy that I got to see these two deserving people forging ahead sans drama, with a trust of humanity in general.  That was/continues to be the damaging thing about china.  you’re in a constant state of suspicion.  Because adults here behave like either superbly “entitled” or superbly naïve children—foreigners and Chinese alike.   And it has nothing to do with age.

Seems like this is long enough.  For specific details of what I did, I would direct to my flickr page.  pictures tend to be more specific and fact-oriented.  All of this is just me entertaining myself and being sentimental, as I am wont to do.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

"We wanted more"

that's the name of the first chapter of justin torres' book, we the animals. i highly recommend the book in its entirety, not just this chapter.

There’s also this great, vague quote from some saul bellow novella or short story “I want, I want, I want….”. I think it’s from Henderson the rain king…

this idea has been pulsing through my brain as of late. a vague longing. i think i have too much time on my hands. In theory I shouldn’t. in theory I should have no time on my hands—what with DELTA and all the reading I should be doing (taking a break now). And the nice weather and all the exploration of nature that that anomaly should entail. And yet I’m failing on both these fronts. drinking too much and over-analyzing my life. Good times. Yes, we are creatures of habit. Anyhoo, I did something cultural and life-affirming last week. Yes, in chongqing!

Justin torres, came to the chongqing library last week, transplanted from the chengdu bookworm’s booming literary festival to the wonderland of the chongqing library. There is absolutely no irony to the last half of that sentence. The part that lumps “wonderland” and “chonqging” together.

Torres himself--he’s too young to call mr. torres, and that’s also too formal for ye olde bloggy—was fantastic. A very approachable dude, even though I didn’t really approach him. i’ll recount the days’ events before getting to the substance of the event itself.

Getting any information about the event itself was a difficult feat, the same with any information about the art gallery that I visited last month. Or the band I saw last week, recommended by a friend in chengdu. Chongqing is just not foreign friendly in the same way that chengdu is. cool things exist, arranged/organized by Chinese people, but the thought never crosses their minds that perhaps foreigners would be interested in it. so everything requires a lot of word of mouth, or chance stumblings upon, or vague, tangential mentionings on an expat site. I guess I should just get used to having to dig a little more. Lesson learned.

Anyway, I got information about this event from an in-the-know dude from the bookworm in chengdu. I arrived at the chongqing library (the same site listed in the website the bookworm dude sent) 2 hours early. Because in my experience, something always goes wrong. This is why small things like going to the grocery store create stress. Venturing out anywhere is stressful in china. Not always because of language, but because something usually goes wrong that more often than not is beyond your (my) control.

I talked to about 6 different people at the library. Half of them tried to convince me that I was in the wrong place, half of them just had no idea what kind of event I was actually talking about. Fearing that my crappy Chinese was the culprit of all this confusion, I even had a Chinese friend talk to them. the result of that was that my Chinese friend was convinced I was in the right place, even though everyone at the library still had no idea that there was an event going on that featured a foreign author, and that other people might be attending, thus necessitating some rudimentary knowledge of the existence of said event. Rudimentary in that it exists. In a place. and that place is probably here.

So everyone at the library was telling me I needed to go to a different library in the same district. My friend finally convinced them to let me look around to see if there were any signs of the book, or the author, or other people looking for the same event. This required an escort because you needed a library card to actually get into the meatier sections of the library.

After wandering around for 20 minutes with a charming library aid eager to practice his English (he was lovely, actually. An earnest dude, both with regards to language and politeness. It was sweet--a word I don't use often), I finally met the woman from the library who was in charge of the event. She hadn’t bothered to inform anyone at any of the information desks of the fact that there was a literary event being held there (at this point, in the next hour).

This was about the same time that Justin torres showed up with his crowd of handlers and other random members of an entourage. the library had convinced me i was in the wrong place, and then the foreign writer i'd been asking about arrived. ha ha! crazy foreigner was right! this was after they'd told me repeatedly "you made a mistake."

The woman from the library tried to get me to sit with him, but I declined. Personal space is something that perhaps I over-value, having so little of it here, to the point where I place a surplus of literal and figurative distance between myself and others, whenever possible. self-awareness note: this is not necessarily healthy. Or normal.

he had a gaggle of Chinese women fawning over him, I figured that was overwhelming enough. I didn’t want to force conversation or feign familiarity with him in front of an audience. Yes, I read his book, but that’s what the 2 hours that he was slated to speak were for. To talk about the book.

I imagine that’s one of those things people who create things have to get used to—the arguably profound influence they've inevitably had on every stranger they meet, and the sort of fanatical desire for said fan to fully convey said influence to the source. or the expectations of the general public forced upon them to conform to the idea of “you know, those creative types” or people on pedestals. Maybe they just want to drink a coffee or beer in silence, but instead have to constantly be reminded of “the impact you've had on my life.” I think constantly having to be grateful and/or humble would be exhausting. I’m not saying justin torres is some uber-celebrity, but I think for anyone who puts him/herself out there there has to be a little bit of that.

Anyway (lot of caffeine today….), I introduced myself, shook his hand. He asked “are you with the times?” so that was flattering. Asking if I were a representative from the new york times (they were cooperating with the event—the nyt literary caravan). I said “I’m not with anyone. I’m with myself.” Then I tried, politely, to go sit in the corner away from him and let him have his space. His space for other people to consume. but at least not me.

I do wish I’d talked to him more. Haven’t had a conversation about literature or writing or anything creative in a really long time, let alone with a published author. But again, not keen on doing that in front of an audience who still giggle over the fact that they’re talking to a foreigner. Yes, It was that asinine. But it gets even more so.

Eventually he and his entourage are escorted up to the 3rd floor, my friend and I followed. The room was full of Chinese college students.

Get ready for a long, incoherent attempt at a summary of how ridiculous the day’s events were:

There were 4 foreigners (including me) at the foreign author’s book lecture hosted by the new york times at the library in which no one knew about the event that was taking place in which you had to have a library card to actually get to the location (unless you knew someone) that hadn’t been publicized at all in/on any English-speaking venue (aside from the listing I posted on the expat site, which was only met with a very fair amount of skepticism). Bang. Head. Against. wall. oh yeah, and the part where 6 people tried to convince me i'd made a mistake, was in the wrong place and needed to go to another library. just want to reiterate that.

Even after I shook justin torres hand, I was so overcome by the idiocy of the whole process (after ultimately meeting him in the café directly next to the first information desk that provided no information and told me I was at the wrong place. Full circle, indeed). I was still contemplating the notion of just fucking leaving. I felt uncomfortable and annoyed about/by the whole thing. It’s such a common feeling, too.

But I sat down, and he answered some questions asked by a bookworm representative, translated to the crowd. And it was fantastic. Then he read the first chapter of his novel, and I was able to disappear, to melt into my chair. it was true and pure and made me happy to be alive and to be in the vicinity of someone who used words beautifully. i recorded it, but don't know how to successfully embed it here. i'm not so tech savvy....

In the ELT/ESL/EFL world, we are constantly concerned with the pragmatics of language. boiling language down to its communicative essence. Is meaning being conveyed? this inevitably involves reducing things to a lower common denominator (“lowest” sounds too judgmental), stripping speech and communication of its tangentials and double entendres and punnery and all the other extras. There IS a beauty in the pragmatics of this and in the evolution of a language as it changes to accommodate more and more people, but there is also a space for all that filtered out complication and contradiction and beauty.

Sometimes I want to live in that space. Even if I can’t contribute to it, I want to exist in it.
It’s hard to be in two places at once.

After he talked, there was the q/a portion of the lecture/presentation. This was painful. And very high school feeling.

His book itself is a somewhat autobiographical novel. It is beautifully written, but there isn’t a happy ending. There are dysfunctional relationships/dynamics and recurring themes of escape and brutality. There is a familial break/rupture.

Here are some of the questions posed by over-zealous students and one refreshingly out-of-place old-timer:

“why didn’t it have a happy ending?”

“don’t you know about cultural differences between china and America? why do you think people in china will want to read this? how can they understand?”

“how can I achieve my dreams?”

“how can I get published in America?”

“why did you write this book: are you just trying to get famous?”

“why didn’t they get along?”

i’m just trying to imagine the sorts of questions that might come up were he doing this reading in say, a coffee shop in berlin or paris or any other international city (which is something chongqing purports to be). or even in fucking jefferson city, missouri. Surely there would have been some, um, more probing questions about the process of writing or his writing style or themes or some character analysis or whatever.

The chick from the bookworm asked him a series of questions before the audience did, and they were insightful and reflected someone who’d actually read and considered the book. Then they opened for the audience questions and what had been a seemingly intellectual discussion devolved into “oral English practice with microphone and foreign man.”

Anyway, my eyes are peeled for the next nugget of culture that I’m able to uncover here. just to watch it be butchered. Ever the optimist.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Ramble ramble

i spent a few days in chengdu last week for work. was put up in a 5 star hotel, had a great string of breakfast foods, went to the lazy pug (2 breakfast plates in one brunch session), the shamrock, the leg and whistle. Needless to say, stepping off the train in chongqing on Sunday immediately returned me to the funk I thought I’d left. I should have known better than to think it would just disappear. you know it’s bad if you don’t go out for a drink on st. patrick’s day.

what a difference a 2 hour train ride makes—how far you can stray from culture and friendliness and a sense of community and other such “luxuries”. But let’s not wax melodramatic, particularly with verbs like “wax.”

Week 3 of distance DELTA is underway. It isn’t exactly kicking my ass yet, but there is a part of me that wishes I were doing this NOT distance (foreground?), but I guess the whole reason distance is appealing is because in the flesh was out of the question. I just like the idea of a whole community of professionals existing in the ether out there who have the same values as me, academically speaking. Thinking of the opportunities available to me should I actually complete this thing is also a bit of a mind-fuck (hyphenated? dunno…).

China feels like a wasteland as far as professional development goes, one of many black sheep in the ELT family of asia, despite the saturation here (same as korea); higher demand=lower quality of those who call themselves “teachers”. That definitely applies to the ELT pool here. I might sound like a total cunt (said in a singsong voice, out loud, to myself, in my apartment), but hey, it’s my forum to do just that.

Anyhoo, it’s been fun to nerd out with terminology, grammar and phonology. Granted, I could be a little more diligent—let’s be honest, writing this blog here is clearly an “avoidance strategy”—but I’ve always been a marginally successful procrastinator. The good thing is that with my job right now, I have the free time to take 3 times as long as I’m supposed to to finish tasks. It just gives me more time to absorb it all. That’s what I’m telling myself. Have another beer, Jimmy!

Been meeting lately with an associate? (what do I even call this dude? I could call him my friend, but that’s not entirely accurate, either. There’s clearly some sort of business-y exchange going on). He wants to open a new kind of language school in chongqing and is seeking my advice, which I’m usually all-too-happy to give. But I had to explicitly say today “I have no desire to be a DoS anytime again in the near or distant future. The idea is, frankly, terrifying.”

Trying to communicate, via translation, the veritable hell-scape of the past year of your life in someone else’s hometown, due largely in part to the training center his child attends and to the general lack of any apparent cultural evolution on the part of his fellow locals isn’t something that necessarily goes over well. but ultimately he said, “I appreciate your honesty.” So I suppose it was refreshing for us both. We’ll see what happens, but the flight aspect of “fight or flight” is coloring my relationship with chongqing. The only thing keeping me here is the money. Which sounds shallow as hell, but when you’ve never had more than you’ve needed, it’s not something to be taken lightly. For serious, yo.

So chengdu really drove home this idea of community that I’ve been barfing up ad nauseum (heh heh). But what chonqging makes me think about all too much is my sense of identity, or my sense(s) of identity. with my students, sometimes we make lists—top 5s if you will. Then students compare and discuss their top 5s on a given topic—similarities, differences, surprises, etc.

Identity is an interesting idea to me, because it all depends on who is doing the identifying. How do I identify myself, or place myself in the world, and how do those around me identify me? This ties into the community aspect by the sheer fact that I am consistently identified as alien. No matter what I do every day—what achievements or failures, how I look, what I say (either in Chinese or English)—I am an alien first and foremost. This is pervasive. This is constant. This is observed—verbally or non. This is every fucking minute of my existence here. This is not an exaggeration. It is also significantly less-than-charming.

The idea that I have so easily been “identified”/reduced/boiled down/diminished/broken down (emphasis on “broken”), is not something I don’t dwell upon. Ha. That much is fucking obvious.

Human. foreigner. Female. Caucasian. American. English-speaker. Sister. daughter. judgmental fucking cunt. Moderate drinker. Hopeless romantic. Shitty guitar player. Shitty poet. Pessimist. Realist. Idealist. Contradictor (holy shit! That’s a word!). Over-analyzer. Cynic. Masochist. chick who doesn’t know how to deal with physical contact (someone give me a concise, 1-word synonym, please). Control freak. Syllable counter. Brunette with more and more gray daily. Music fan. Person who wants to seem more interesting than she actually is by coming up with this list.

So it’s not a comprehensive list, but what’s important is that the rank of these changes hourly (sometimes more frequently). And they change depending on who I’m with, where I am, what time of day it is, what form of transportation, blah blah blah. All the other variables change, and so does my sense of identity. But now I’m labeling myself. Sorry, “identifying” myself. This isn’t something I used to do. is there value in it? if so, what is that value? Does changing identity correlate to changing reality? I don’t even really know what I mean by that, but shit, it sounds profound.

how many of these identities are totally conventional, how many are significant, and how shitty is it that mere “outside country person” doesn’t encompass any of these? remember, I called chongqing people a bunch of hillbillies last week. Hypocrite? Throw it on the list.

Anyhoo, the root cause of all this over-analyzing is, I think, my generally negative impression of men in the past few months, mostly in my observations of their dealings with other women, but quite frequently in situations involving me. I will opt out of going into detail here. After the badness of my first year here, how the fuck did I think I was going to think about men, Chinese or otherwise? Perhaps it was unrealistic of me to think I’d ever get over that, or that I wouldn’t hold it against every other man. Sorry, dudes.

My femininity, or arguable lack thereof, had never been so apparent until china.

The respect for women, or arguable lack thereof, had never been so apparent until china.

The idea of what it means to be female or notions of some sort of generic “femininity” had never crossed my mind as much as it/they has/have recently. Maybe it had to do with Audrey hepburn’s face being plastered all over ads for a local plastic surgery hospital. Something tells me it goes deeper than that.

So this one huge aspect of my identity that I had never thoroughly considered made me start thinking of the other ways in which I identify. How many of these other identities are disrespected or misjudged or oversimplified on a regular basis?

The syllable counter in me is thoroughly disgusted everyday. In japan, I’m sure it would be a different story.

i know these labels—whether given by others or by individuals themselves—aren’t unique to china, but being here is what made me start thinking about it. I don’t really have a point by rambling on here, it’s just been on my mind lately, usually with a thought of “wow, this feels kind of shitty to the human part of me that I can identify. If I look really hard. surely I shouldn’t have to look this hard.”

I guess I just got to my point there (assuming I had one). it’s all very dehumanizing. That the context of my daily life draws these sort of things out of me to scrutinize and feel obligated to expunge. Do other people feel the same way? Hmmmm.

I’ll end what is altogether a weird read with another Jason Molina jam. I remember writing a long time ago about having an actual vinyl copy of his music delivered to the miracle library in suncheon, korea. that was a distinct and funny experience.

Anyway, Division Street Girl

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Sunday, March 10, 2013

This was on my mind

i don't know why this popped into my brain, but I'm very happy it did.

Last thoughts on woody guthrie