what happened on winter break

I have been off work for seven weeks, but all that ends on Monday. That sounds like a great deal, and it is. A little less pressure during the year in exchange for a little less vacation would be even better, but this is the system. This term I’ll be teaching 18 hours each week (3 lesson plans to prepare), plus graduate school, so it’s going to be a tough slog. I’m looking forward to getting back into class, but it’s going to be a lot of work.

In January, I spent a few days in Chongqing. I had some business to take care of and, more importantly, I got to see some friends. I’m really glad I don’t live in CQ anymore. It’s cloudy all of the time, and it’s huge and hard to get around. But the people I met are wonderful and I miss them. It’s going to be harder to see them when I leave China, which is something I am starting to be more acutely aware of.

My friend Chloe and me on campus.
My friend Chloe and me on campus.

Then, Hong Kong, possibly my new favorite city. Oh, I loved it. People speak English, it’s clean, there is anything in the world you want to do or eat, it’s easy to get around, there are lots of islands and stuff. I mean, yeah, of course I like being on vacation, but even beyond that, I really enjoyed being there. I went to some museums, saw some parks that had really cool birds in them (I know, now is the time to start birdwatching in earnest—I haven’t though), and went out to some outlying islands to walk in nature. Wonderful. For real, if you want to come visit me there, maybe next winter, let me know.

Big Buddha on Lantau Island
Big Buddha on Lantau Island

 

Lamma Island. I took a hike around and hadlunch n the waterfr

    Lamma Island. I took a hike around and had lunch on the waterfront.

 

Laser light show on Victoria Harbor.

My original plan had been to go to Vietnam for 10 days after Hong Kong. However, I had some communication issues with the travel agent, so that fell through. This was not such a bad thing. I had a lot of work to do for school. Plus I’m not sure if being away from home for three weeks would really agree with me.

Then I got super bored and isolated and weird. So right before classes started last week, I took the train and 3.5 hours later, I was in Shanghai for a few days. I like Shanghai, too. It’s not Hong Kong, but it was nice to be in a city with museums and subways. A lot of foreigners, too—it’s nice to not be stared at.

 

Oriental Pearl Tower.
Oriental Pearl Tower.
Lantern Festival, Yuyuan.
Lantern Festival, Yuyuan.

Travel is good for me. As I said earlier, backpacking around for multiple weeks on end isn’t really for me, but getting out and seeing new places helps me keep perspective. We don’t have spring break here, so unless I take a quick trip for May 1 (unlikely), this is it until July. Work work work.

Qingdao: sun, fun, and turning 41

Previously on this blog: Beijing!

Hostel Marina was wonderful, located right on the ocean with a friendly vibe like a cute coffeehouse. After our stuff was unpacked, Mike and I met downstairs to find something to eat. A nearby street vendor sold us some grilled prawns and Tsingtao from the keg. Sitting at a little table overlooking the sea, I could not have been more content than at that moment.

View from the hostel first thing in the morning.
View from the hostel first thing in the morning.

We explored the waterfront area the next day, then ventured out to the zoo (small, kind of depressing) and the TV Tower, which promised a great view and mostly delivered. From the tower we spied a suspension car, like a chair lift or the ride at the State Fair. That might be fun. It was all right, but I think it might have been more fun at the start of the day than the end, since we were too tired to spend much time at our destinations. We were told we could see some of the German concession buildings from the ride, but we only saw and toured an authentic wine cellar from the German concession days.

Qingdao waterfront. The sky so blue, the water so green, the 老外 so sweaty.

The next day was beach day. Mike had no swimsuit with him, but I did, so I got to enjoy some time in the ocean. It was so nice to finally be outside and not be hot. However, Mike and I got separated for about 90 minutes. The beach was so huge, and I foolishly did not wear my glasses because I didn’t want to lose them. So I was staggering around blind looking for him, and he was looking for me in a panic. I told him that, if a foreigner washed up on shore, he’d certainly know about it. Other than that scare, we had a great morning.

That night we went to the Qingdao Beer Festival. It felt a little like the State Fair, but just a little off. For example, as soon as I got there I bought a beer. Like you do, right? I guess not, since not one other person was walking around with beer. Instead people would go to biergartens and drink at tables in there. The biergartens had stages with surprisingly good entertainment in them. Dance, singing, kung fu, silks acrobats—great, but with volume turned way, way up. But after a spin around the grounds and a corn dog, I convinced Mike to go into one of the biergartens.

Part of my motivation to go in was that I heard Chinese people love to buy beer for foreigners at the festival. The biergarten we went in had loud techno music and some giveaways, apparently. I got up to dance and got some approving thumbs-up from various other patrons, but nobody bought one for me. Once the noise got to be too much, we left. Mike apologetically said, “I am sorry, Sarah, but I am just not a party animal.” Hey, neither am I, but we had fun. After a Dico’s sundae to celebrate my birthday, we were done being party animals.

These party animals wanted their photo taken with me. My new policy is, one for you, one for me.
These party animals wanted their photo taken with me. My new policy is, one for you, one for me.

Mike left the next morning. He was a great travel companion, and I was sorry we wouldn’t spend my birthday together. But I was also looking forward to doing my own thing for a bit. I went to Xiaoyushan (Little Fish Hill—how cute!). The taxi driver dropped me off at a weird place, but I found a cute coffeeshop that gave me directions and a milkshake. The park itself was small and the tower was only three stories high, but I had a great view and a lovely cool breeze from the ocean. I stayed there for a long time relaxing and contemplating the beautiful day.

My afternoon was much less relaxing. I had a very difficult finding a taxi, and the ones I did find refused to take me back to my hostel. I’m not sure why; maybe they couldn’t or wouldn’t leave their district? So I walked. And walked and walked and walked. I did rest a lot, but my total walk was 3.5 hours. Necessity being the mother of figuring shit out, I determined which bus I could take to get the rest of the way home. My Chinese is still limited, but I worked it out correctly.

I walked past this cool statue while I was lost, so that's something.
I walked past this cool statue while I was lost, so that’s something.

OMG, this blog post is a month late, so I’ll wrap things up. I spent my birthday at the beach and chilling at the hostel. My sister sent me a Kindle book, which led me to discover that I left my Kindle on the train from Beijing. One of the hostel desk workers called the train station for me, but four days had passed and they never found it.

Tuesday was too damn hot. I hung out by the boardwalk and popped into the mall when I got overheated. Wednesday I got on the train, and 19 hours later (Thursday morning) I was back in Nanchang.

I want to write more about Nanchang later. It’s a lot like teaching in Chongqing and also very different. I have a lot of class work and graduate school stuff that may prevent that, but I am going to try.

Beijing in August: too damn hot

I arrived in Nanchang and spent the next two days sleeping. I had felt a cold coming on the day before I left. DayQuil and sleep got me through the flight, but I was in no mood to do anything else. I didn’t suffer from jet lag; in fact, I reveled in it.

Sunday, August 9 I flew to Beijing. Beijing’s airport is massive, efficient, and international. I felt the way I feel in Shanghai’s Pudong airport—like I’m not in China, but in a completely new melting pot of a country. Beijing’s airport also has a shower, which is simply the best idea (if truck stops can, why not airports?).

I took the train and met up with my friend Mike and Mike’s friend Lily. They had arrived by train two hours before, so we went to our hotel to put our things down and rest. At least, that was the plan.

On the subway, I started to feel a little off. I didn’t know how far we had to go, but I thought if I could just get some water I would feel better. I bought a bottle in line for the bus (travel in Beijing is rarely a single-step process), but the day was hot and I was still weak and dehydrated from being sick. I felt my eyes start rolling and my vision go darker. I crouched down so I wouldn’t pass out. A woman waiting in line crouched down next to me and began massaging my hands, pressing points on them. The next thing I remember was Mike saying, “Stand up, Sarah, it’s time to get on the bus.” I briefly wondered what was going on but obeyed. Maybe I blacked out for a second, but I didn’t fall over.

I found a seat on the bus and the hand massaging woman sat by me, continuing to rub my hands and forearms. My vision browned over and I bent over my seat, not caring that I had snot all over my face. After a few minutes, I felt better and was able to sit up and accept some water and a tissue. I think the woman was stimulating my circulation, and I think it helped a lot. Finally I could sit up, speak, and see what was going on.

Mike called his Aunt Meimei, who was planning to meet us at the hotel, and asked her to drive to the bus stop. Once in her car, I felt much better. I thought I would be OK with some water, a shower, and some juice. Aunt Meimei was trained as a nurse and asked me some questions (through Mike—she speaks no English), but I think she agreed that it was just dehydration and heat exhaustion.

At the hotel, the staff looked at me and declared I couldn’t stay there. Some hotels only allow Chinese nationals (not even Hong Kong or Taiwanese can stay there). What? At a Super 8? Apparently. Aunt Meimei had made the reservations and, being Chinese in China, had not considered that option. She called a few other hotels but was not able to find an affordable option. So it was decided: Mike and Lily would stay at the hotel, and I would stay with Aunt Meimei’s family at their home nearby.

First of all, I am so glad I had the presence of mind to buy Aunt Meimei a gift from Minnesota. It wasn’t much, and I would have done much more had I known it would turn out like this, but at least I didn’t feel like a total boor. Second, it was a unique experience, since they live in a hutong neighborhood. (I hasten to point out that it is a modern apartment in a hutong neighborhood, not a traditional hutong with a bathroom shared among several homes. Phew.) Third, it was a bit awkward to stay with strangers, but I tried to make a light footprint. And Grandma (Aunt Meimei’s mother-in-law) was very kind and friendly, despite knowing no English. When she saw me in the mornings, she would say, “lao shi! Chi fan!” I would sit down to breakfast with the four-year-old boy and eat much the same foods as him—moon cakes, corn on the cob, cream of wheat, dumplings, whatever I was given.

The next morning we went to the Summer Palace. I assured Mike and Lily that I would be OK, although I might have to rest and stay behind a little bit. Chinese people know how to look after their elders, and I definitely count. We brought lots of water and some heat exhaustion remedy, and things worked out fairly well. I am interested in Empress Dowager Cixi, and she was one of the rulers who stayed at the Summer Palace. So I’m glad I got to see her former stomping grounds, including her marble boat. Yes, she built a marble boat. Some people’s theocrats, am I right?

 

Boats need to float, Empress Dowager Cixi!
Boats need to float, Empress Dowager Cixi!

The day was a little difficult for me, though. I splashed out for a taxi ride back to the hotel. It was a long trip and fairly expensive, but it was a nice way to see the city. Beijing is prettier than I expected, and even the modern buildings have a lot of character and uniqueness. This is in contrast to Chongqing, which feels like it’s expanding so fast that nobody has time for anything but beige rectangles. Polluted? I suppose, compared to Minneapolis or someplace, but it didn’t look dingy or feel smoky. I definitely plan to come back in fall or winter (probably winter due to my teaching schedule).

 

Three friends and a selfie stick.
Three friends and a selfie stick.

Mike and Lily had a flyer from a travel agent, and they thought that would be the best way for us to see the Great Wall the next day. It was inexpensive, we would have an air-conditioned ride to the Wall, they would give us lunch, we could take a cable car to the top of the Wall, etc. Lily called them to make the reservation and lo and behold, they had 3 spots open. They even knocked off 80 RMB. Mm-hm.

I’ve heard of other tourists getting taken in by scams and other misleading tour groups, and I wondered how they could fall for it. Well, now I know. Because they say what you want to hear adn you want to believe. So, what follows is a cautionary tale.

Mike and Lily got up at 4 a.m. or some such hour to see the flag-raising ceremony at Tiannanmen Square. I was interested, but not 4 a.m. interested. So a van from the travel agent’s came to pick me up, with Aunt Meimei’s guidance. I met up with my friends at the tour bus. They showed me the video of the flag ceremony; the flag was a red speck in the distance, and there was no music or other real pomp.

As the bus ride left Beijing, the tour guide explained (in Chinese—this tour was not for foreigners) that we would have to pay an additional 150RMB for a “show.” Hmph. And we were free to leave the tour at the Great Wall and make our way back to Beijing for a discounted price. We huddled together. I thought we could find our way back (we were at Badaling, one of the easiest spots to see the Wall), but Lily disagreed. I felt it was best to trust her judgment, since I am functionally illiterate in her country. We wouldn’t even save that much money if we left the tour. So, we were in.

I’m not someone who has yearned to visit the Great Wall. I’d be disappointed if I didn’t, but it felt like more of a checklist item. I hadn’t done a lot of research, just looking at friends’ photos. It looked to me like you climbed up some steps to get on the wall and then it was all flat. No, it was not. It was steps, then more steps, then finally, a butt-ton more steps. And the steps were uneven and fairly steep. (I did not see the promised cable car to the top.) So I didn’t get very far. I climbed up a bit and turned around. Mike helped me get to the bottom and then went up to the top to join Lily. I had a chance to sit and think about the Wall, what it was like when it was built, what have been like to be a guard there. That was fine.

Back on the bus, and, after a literal drive-by of some Ming Dynasty tombs, we were herded into a jade superstore. The place was huge. We poked around a bit, but none of us were in the market, so we went to lunch in the same building. It was fairly bad. In a diabolically clever move, we were herded to a food store afterward. Then the show, which was not acrobatics as promised, but a lame magic show in a non-air-conditioned, non-cleaned room. I should note, too, that all of these places were in the middle of nowhere, so we couldn’t just leave and grab a taxi. We were stuck but good.

Finally we were almost done. Oh, wait, one more thing. Mike interpreted for me that before going to Olympic Park, we would go to a building and “rest.” I saw the room we were sitting in and said, “Are they going to do a sales presentation?” Oh, yes, they did. More goddamn jade. We were openly defiant at this point and paid little attention. A couple from Hong Kong overheard Mike and me talking and asked if he was an American. He was so thrilled by that the whole day might have been worth it.

Finally we got to the Olympic Park. We had dinner nearby and came back at nightfall. I didn’t have high expectations, but it was fun to see the buildings lit up. The heat had dissipated and we were just glad to be away from that damn tour group. We just goofed around and took photos and watched people.

 

Check the guy in the background. Yes, sir, that's my booty.
Birds Nest. Check the guy in the background. Yes, sir, that’s my booty.

The next day was a rest day for me. I’m sorry I didn’t get to see more of Beijing, but I needed it. We had dinner with Mike’s family at their home. As a guest, Aunt Meimei kept plying me with food, especially meat. I don’t know what it is about Chinese food, but I always feel like I’m not eating a lot. I just feel satisfied earlier than I expect to. I hope I don’t come across as rude to my hosts. The food is delicious and satiating (it’s not high sodium like Chinese food in the US, which would explain it).

The next morning, Lily headed home and Mike and I headed to Qingdao. Beijing South train station is incredibly huge. Like, Mall of America huge. There is a Starbucks on every floor and two on the third floor. That’s Manhattan-level Starbucks saturation. It was worth it because we got to take the G train, the fastest trains in China. New, comfortable trains, announcements in Chinese and English, comfortable seats, and speeds of up to 304 kilometers per hour. Five hours after we left Beijing, we were in Qingdao.

IMG20150813161949

 

To be continued in Qingdao!

how improv found me again on the other side of the world

Improv comedy was a huge part of my life for many years. It started my third year of college when my roommates and I became fans of ComedySportz Madison (RIP—that branch is now defunct). I knew that people could take improv workshops, but it took several months before I made the mental leap that I could take them, too.

I had flirted with performing before. I did a lot of Forensics (public speaking, not CSI stuff). I had small roles in two middle school plays. Our high school drama department was spotty, but I wanted to be involved. I was mainly doing front of house, and that was fine, but I felt a little shunted to the side. I didn’t know how to act or sing, and I would have been scared to do it. I wanted to try it, but I hadn’t the first idea how to begin. I didn’t fully admit that to myself at the time. I was not the most self-actualized teenager, and in fact I was quite possibly the least.

So improv wasn’t the most natural leap for me, but I was starting to get a little antsy as the end of my college time approached. It was time to branch out a little and see what else was out in the world. And I was fine as a performer. I made friends. And when I moved to Minneapolis, I started classes there to continue having fun and meet some new people.

I wish I could say I learned a lot and was totally cool. Honestly, I did learn a lot, but it was frustrating. I knew I could do better, and I wanted to do better, but I didn’t do better. It took me a long time to get to a level where I was in a regular troupe that did maybe 10 shows a year. I wanted more, and I didn’t know how to get myself there. That manifested in a lot of frustrated and bitchy behavior that likely stemmed from envy and confusion. I didn’t like how I was acting when I was in the improv world. And I was busy and needed to focus on other aspects of life, so I stopped. I promised my friends that I would never do it again. I was out for good.

Then I moved to China. I learned that my contract required a certain number of teaching hours, and two of those hours would have to be made up by leading a student activity. I for some reason (and in my defense, there was A LOT of information being thrown at me when I arrived) thought I had to teach one two-hour workshop. I thought, I can throw together two hours on improv, speaking skills, saying yes, etc. Then I found out it was two hours every week. Ah. I guess I’m back in, Michael Corleone style.

First term I mainly worked with the students in the English Drama Club. Yes, there are Chinese students who perform drama entirely in English. Most of them are English majors, but this year the group became open to all students. One student knew about improv from a British drama teacher she had as an exchange student in Taiwan; everyone else was a complete tabula rasa.

One of my proudest moments came at our first rehearsal. We were outside of the Foreign Languages building and I was starting them with some three-line scene starters. The vice dean saw us as she was leaving the building and stopped to watch. The next day I emailed her about another topic, and she mentioned how intriguing our activity was and how it would help the students’ language and creativity.

I like to joke that teaching is easy; all you have to do is stay one lesson ahead of your students. I didn’t exactly do that, but there were a lot of weeks when I remembered a game or scene structure or concept as I was writing up my lesson plan. And I never, ever stuck 100% to my lesson plan. Any given week was likely to be a surprise. In part, this is because I was never quite sure who would show up to rehearsals. Chinese college students work very hard. I know there are a lot of times my performers would want to attend but would have to take an exam or study. They weren’t just avoiding rehearsals. They did their best. But it was difficult to get any momentum going in the group.

Second term I thought I should try to recruit some of my former students. They were in level 2 English and some of them had fairly low spoken English skills. In other words, a very different group than the English majors in English Drama Club. But why not try?

And a few of them did show up. And a few kept coming back. And a few brought friends. At the same time, the drama club students attended less and less as they had more academic commitments. So we had two different cliques for a time. I regret not managing to meld the groups sooner, but once they began attending rehearsals together more regularly as the show approached, they became good friends.

Photo taken after our first performance. The man in yellow was the teacher who hosted.
Photo taken after our first performance. The man in yellow was the teacher who hosted.

How did I teach this ragtag bunch of Bad News Bears? I really emphasized the ideas of saying yes and trusting your partners (and director). I had a number of moments when I had to stop the scene and say, “Wait a minute. If she says you’re Justin Bieber, then you’re Justin Bieber. Continue.” Of course we worked on other things, but if they only learned one thing, I wanted them to learn to say yes.

This became particularly important as we started to prepare for a show in earnest. The non-drama club students were especially anxious. I knew I had to devise a showcase that would put them in the best light. I wanted them to stretch, but I knew they had to succeed. I had a vague idea of doing a hip long-form show structure, but I had to admit they needed more framework than that. So I stuck to some simple short-form games.

Unlike my ComedySportz experience, we couldn’t rely on cleverness and cultural references for easy laughs. Side note: I also learned that Chinese comedy culture is very different than Western comedy. Even the New York Times says so. Knowing this helped me communicate what I wanted better, although I am still struggling with this aspect of Chinese culture.

We ended up performing twice. One of my fellow teachers had a charity show to benefit victims of the Nepal earthquake, and I volunteered our group. I’m really glad that we had that performance two weeks before our actual show. I was nervous and had a hard time believing my performers wouldn’t crash and burn. I was afraid I’d put them in a situation where they couldn’t succeed. I chose a Le Ronde, which turned out to be weaker than I thought, so 30 minutes before showtime we changed to Freeze Tag.

They nailed it. I had told them that being in front of an audience would add an extra spark. Like magic, it did. Performers who often hung back were willing to jump out and participate. Performers were silly and surprising and said yes. Another teacher told me afterward that he assumed we had prepared, which is high praise for an improvised show. It was also nice to see the dean and vice dean in the audience to witness what we built.

Sadly, some of my students had to drop out of the group before our real show. They were busy with exams and interviews and studying. The main thing I regret is not having the show a few weeks earlier. Now I know. At least they had one opportunity to shine. Nine students ended up in the show.

Telling a conducted story during our second show.
Telling a conducted story during our second show.

And oh, they were so good. Some of the performers spoke too quietly, and I had to gently push a student into a Freeze Tag scene when nobody else volunteered to enter. But honestly, for a beginner improv show, it was great. The students and teachers in the audience were impressed. And most importantly, the students had a great time.

What’s the next step? I don’t know. I am not sure if I’ll be able to teach improv in Nanchang due to my expected course schedule and grad school work. As for the Chongqing students, they might switch to improv in Chinese. I guess that’s fine, but I don’t know who will direct them, and I don’t think they are ready to direct themselves.

One of the performers told me, “Sarah, this is a wonderful memory, and I will remember this for the rest of my life.” I hope I get to work in such a fun and supportive group again, but I don’t want to be greedy. We caught lightning in a bottle. I’m grateful.

news sandwich

It’s spring in Chongqing. I’ve been meaning to write something here, but this has been a difficult semester for a few reasons. My class structure changed—I teach fewer classes, but they’re spread out over more days, and they’re 90-minute sessions instead of 45 minutes. It’s not all bad, but it’s hard for me to get used to.

And you know, I’ve been a little depressed. Living in China is difficult. Making friends is difficult. I haven’t learned the language as quickly as I hoped I would. To be fair, I’m not studying as hard as I could. But I’m working more and sometimes I need to rest. My health and happiness comes first, my students second. I have found that teaching is a lot like massage therapy in that I have to make an effort to keep outside stresses outside so they don’t affect my work. And I’m growing a bit as a person, and that’s difficult and shitty. All difficult processes are. Will I tell you about it sometime? It doesn’t seem likely now, but we’ll see.

So, enough with the apologies. Let’s serve up the news sandwich.

Good news
I was accepted to a Master’s program for English Language Learning. I can study online, with the exception of student teaching. That will have to wait until I return to the US. And that’s fine. I don’t know where I will do it, but I am so far from having to figure that out.

I am looking forward to learning more about teaching and how to do it better. I think it will be useful to show employers that I am serious about my career change. I also think it will be a butt-ton of work. But it’s work I know how to do. It’s not impossible, unless my internet connection fails to cooperate.

Not so good news
My contract at Chongqing University will not be renewed for next year. A lot of things will be changing next year and very few teachers are returning. University curriculum is determined in Beijing, so if anyone knows why these changes are happening, that person is not someone I have access to.

IMG20150412124458
Bad news: you’re dead. Good news: you’re fabulous.

 

I was really upset when I first found out. And I’m not still not delighted with the situation, although I’ve made my peace with it. I am looking for other work and trying to determine the best next step. I have not made a lot of close friends here, but the ones I have made are very dear to me and I will miss them terribly.

BTW, The Simpsons taught us that the Chinese use the same word for crisis as they do for opportunity (crisitunity, if you will). Not true. How could The Simpsons lie?

Good news
How much do you know about the improvisation workshop I’m teaching? Not a lot? That’s OK. Long story short, I have to teach an activity as part of my contract. I thought I was signing up for a two-hour, one-time thing, so I proposed an improv workshop. Whoops, my bad, it’s every week. Better learn how to teach it.

It has been incredible. First semester started out with most of my improv students coming from the English drama club. A few of them stuck around, but many didn’t. This is partly because they are busy and partly because they signed up for English drama club to learn lines, not improvise them. The president of the club told me, “I can require them to come to improvisation.” OMG, no, I’m not going to coerce anyone.

This term, I started promoting it to my former students. They started as Level 1, so their English is not at a high level (although there is A LOT of variation). But they trust me, and that is much more important. Now, my consistent attendees are non-drama students, only one of whom has any performance experience. Let’s do a show!

We are doing a show in five weeks. I am going to put something together that they can do well at. It is not the hip long-form show I hoped for at the beginning of the year. It will likely be mostly short-form games. Think my first ComedySportz beginner showcase. In other words, a few mistakes, but lots of fun. It is OK. It is better than OK. The students who show up have made a lot of progress, and I think that in five weeks, we will be ready.

In conclusion
The pickle on the side of the sandwich, if you will, learning is difficult and horrible and sometimes I think I’d rather not. But that’s not the hand I was dealt, apparently. I whine a lot, but I still want to do better, so I keep going. What else can I do?

my (first?) Christmas in China

This is what it's all about, you guys.
This is what it’s all about, you guys.

About 3 weeks ago, my students started telling me, “Christmas will be coming soon.” Oh, really? It does seem a little strange, since the grass is still green. And it’s cold, but a different kind of cold than back home (partly because many buildings are indifferently heated–my home is OK, but the classrooms are like meat lockers with less ambience). And it stays light a little bit later than back home. So it feels like mid-October, not Christmassy at all.

Then around December 15, the Christmas decorations came out everywhere. Mostly just pictures of Santa’s face plastered everywhere. The library coffeeshop had two Christmas trees, one of the Charlie Brown variety. Decorations tend toward the garish; I bought myself a little wreath made entirely of tinsel. (I showed a photo to one of my students but I forgot to explain irony to him first. He thought it was a little strange, and he wasn’t wrong.)

So we have Christmas here. But we still have to work. It’s like St. Patrick’s Day in most of the US, I suppose–it’s just a fun thing to do with your friends. Also worth noting that 圣诞节快乐 translates as “happy gift-giving festival” and 圣诞老人 is “gift-giving old man.” What’s the reason for the season?

It’s apples. I don’t totally understand, but I guess the word for apple rhymes with the word for good luck, so it’s traditional to eat an apple on Christmas Eve. (So maybe we should eat wood duck?) One of my students bought me an apple in a little cardboard gift box, which is apparently a fashionable thing among students. So I ate that after work, and answered a butt-ton of “Merry Christmas” texts from students.

Then Thursday I had my normal office hours. I could have cancelled them, but my Friday students had their final on Saturday, and I wanted to help them if they had questions. A few students brought me candy and the cards in the photo (I DIE), and I brought some candy with Santa on the package that was kind of nasty. (Side note: I’ve barely had chocolate since I’ve been here, and I don’t really miss it. No wonder my jeans fit like a gang-banger’s.) A few teachers had a little Christmas party that afternoon, but I didn’t want to drink before work.

And that was it. I had a little trouble expressing to my students that I don’t really care about Christmas. I told them that the important thing about Christmas for me is being with my family, and since I can’t do that, it’s not that important. And I explained that Christmas is most fun with little kids around. And I tried to explain that not all Americans celebrate Christmas (they were tickled by the tradition of Jews eating Chinese food). I told them that I’m not a typical American. (Who is?) But you know, it’s sweet of them to care.

Rebuilding season

Please enjoy Johan Santana in a Twins uniform (hubba hubba).
Please enjoy Johan Santana in a Twins uniform (I know I am–hubba hubba).

My boyfriend ended things on Wednesday. He’s a good guy, but we weren’t really a good fit as a couple. I agree with the decision, and was only a 3 1/2 month relationship. It’s still kind of crappy. More rejection? Sure, pile it high.

So this year, 2014, which is less than 1/3 completed, I’ve had major car trouble, an ended relationship, a broken coffee pot (hey, coffee is VERY IMPORTANT), a dead computer, broken glasses, broken bed frame, a failed grad school application. I’m not even going to put an “and” in there just in case I need to add to the list a few more times. In sports, they call this a rebuilding season. Don’t expect a championship, just lay some groundwork for next time.

The thing is, if you’re a Twins fan for more than a few years, you discover that all seasons are rebuilding seasons. They never quite get to the championships. The last league championship was in 2006. World Series? Yeah, right.

And that’s kind of how I’ve lived my life. I go HAM for a while, then I fall back and cocoon, then burst out, then retreat. I’d really like to have a more consistent path of progress. I think some rebuilding is OK and natural, but I don’t want to take it to the extremes I have in the past, where I just completely disappear for nine months at a time. They can’t all be championship seasons, but at least try to get a .500 record now and then.

Things are progressing. I’m applying to a program that I feel good about. I know some people who know people who may be able to offer assistance or advice. And my friends and family have been supportive through all this. (A little support goes a long way. Just a kind word helps so much. I plan to pay it forward soon and often.)

38.5 hours of volunteering

This showed up in an image search for "Wellstone International High School." Sure, fine, whatever.
This showed up in an image search for “Wellstone International High School.” Close enough.

I’ve done 38.5 hours of volunteering at Wellstone International High School. 42 if you count lunch breaks, but I’m not counting lunch breaks (although I do get a lot out of listening to the teachers discuss school issues). I’m really enjoying it, even more than I thought I would. But it’s been hard to write about. I guess I generally write about things that bother me as a way to process, so it’s harder to tackle the good stuff.

Field Trip

I helped chaperone a trip to the state poetry competition (you can look at poetryoutloud.org to find out more about the competition in general). Overall, I was so impressed with how well-behaved the students were in general. One even thanked me–thanked me!–for coming along.

As the program went on, I observed some of the students affected by the performances. I’m not saying they were sitting rapt with hands folded the entire time. But they had definite favorites when we talked at lunch and at the ride home, and they didn’t play with their phones nearly as much as I expected.

Cell Phones in Class

Cell phones in class were never a problem when I was in school in the ’80s and ’90s, obviously. But some days it’s like, what are you doing? You know you’re not supposed to have phones in class. Yet there they are, watching a video. They’re supposed to surrender the phone to the teacher, but it’s hard to get them to give it up, and I never quite feel comfortable pushing hard enough. Then the other day, I caught a girl on her phone twice in the space of ten minutes.

To be fair, one kid was translating from Spanish to English with his phone. I still made him put it away, because it’s not like I can tell from a distance. I hauled a Spanish/English dictionary to his desk, but I don’t think he used it.

The Truth about the Moon Landing

A lot of my time is spent helping kids read individually. I was helping an East African boy read a book about the moon that was written at approximately a second- or third-grade level. The book stated that the moon has mountains, and this kid’s mind was blown. “I don’t believe it!” It just completely threw him. I know some of the students have had very little formal education before coming to the US, and I can only assume he is one of them. “Are they big mountains?” I said they were. (Are they? I’m actually not sure.) I showed him the photos in the book and explained that the dark spots you see from the earth are the craters.

The next page talked about humans landing on the moon. This was less surprising to him–maybe he’d heard it before. Remembering the book Packing for Mars, I told him that the first spacecraft carrying humans only had about as much seating area as a love seat and that everything had to be done sitting next to your crewmates, including bathroom activities. That either went over his head or he thought I was being rude and was polite enough to ignore it.

A good thing

This is what Google Images gave me when I searched for Elpenor. I think it's actually meant to be Alexander. In any case, kind of hot, right?
This is what Google Images gave me when I searched for Elpenor. I think it’s actually meant to be Alexander the Great. In any case, kind of hot, right?

I’m not sure how this fits in with the theme of my last few posts, but it’s been on my mind, so I’ll put it down.

I have worked with a girl at Homework Hub a few times. She’s one of the older kids (grade 7 and up). I don’t know her name; I should introduce myself next week if I see her, before it gets too the point where it’s too awkward. She seems bright, and she’s a hard worker.

I was helping her with some questions about Homer’s Odyssey the other day. We read the chapter where Elpenor fell off the roof and died, just before Odysseus traveled to the land of the dead. When he got there, Elpenor was hanging out by the river Styx, all, “Wassup?” The question was, “How did Elpenor make it to the land of the dead before Odysseus?”

So the girl looked confused, and I said, “Well, what happened at the end of the previous chapter?”

She looked it up in the book and said, “He died. Oh!” And she laughed a little. Like, a real laugh, by a thoroughly 21st century kid, over some crazy ancient Greek story.