reflection on mistakes and regrets

For a lazy person, I did a lot of work this semester. (The word “lazy” is a little imprecise; let’s say I’m an enthusiastic about chilling.) Teaching two classes I had never taught before, plus starting my Master’s degree, took an unsurprisingly large amount of time. I spent my time working on a topic I am passionate about, which helped the medicine go down with a spoonful of sugar.

Yesterday I reflected on how discouraged I was when I wasn’t accepted into the University of Minnesota Master’s program. It’s a great program, but the program I am in now is excellent as well. And relating my coursework to what I am actually doing in my job reinforces learning and makes it easier to do the work. I don’t know how I would have completed the U of M program with no teaching experience. I would have done it, but it would have been difficult.

He's FINE, guys.
He’s FINE, guys.

Some people live their lives saying they have no regrets. Others even say that there are no mistakes, just choices. Not me. I regret things. I make plenty of mistakes. Big ones, too. More than most, I bet. It’s OK. It’s OK to say that I wish I’d done certain things differently. It’s OK to say that I should have made other choices. Even though I’m simultaneously saying that my life is pretty good now and seems to be on track to be pretty good for the next 40 years or so. Another path would have probably been good, too.

My senior students are having a hard time with this, as many of us did in our early 20s. They want the best job possible. Of course they do. But I tell them, “If you don’t like your job, get another one.” Yes, it’s easier said than done, and quitting jobs all over town is not good, but the freedom to fail is liberating.

Free to fall, free to fly.

I feel really proud of what I did this semester. I am stating all of this very explicitly because there will come a day, perhaps soon, when I forget it all. Some sort of misstep will occur and it will insurmountable. I’ll worry that I messed it all up permanently. Trust, I am not saying this because I have it all figured out. I have it like 10% figured out. But living in a country where I don’t speak the language has taught me that you don’t have to know a lot of shit to do a lot of shit.

Tl;dr: I’m good, how are you?


Hanging in Hangzhou

I took a quick trip to Hangzhou over the National Holiday. We had no classes October 1-7 (although we have a makeup day on Saturday, as is the national custom). I knew I couldn’t take the whole week off, with work and school stuff, but 2.5 days in Hangzhou, a quick 3-hour train ride, was just about right.

What did I do? I shopped and walked around by West Lake. One day I rented a bike from my hostel and rode around West Lake. I ate a ridiculous amount of fried dumplings. It was great. Let’s see some photos.

West Lake at night.

West Lake really ticks all my boxes: old trees, greenery, big flat expanses of water with boats, cool bridges. The weather was great Friday and Saturday. It rained Sunday afternoon, but I had to stay at the coffeeshop to do some work for grad school, so the timing was perfect.

This was taken at 7:30 a.m., the only time I saw this statue without it being draped with tourists being photographed.

One of my former coworkers essentially told me I was an idiot for going to Hangzhou during National Holiday, as it’s a notoriously crowded time. I was like, OK, thanks. Would you like me to cancel my trip? Would that suit you? And yeah, it was crowded. But I’m a relatively early riser, so it was a bit inconvenient but didn’t spoil my mood.

Ridiculously photogenic.

The only real disappointment was the silk market. I had planned to look for some silk fabric that I could take to have some clothing custom made, maybe a dress or skirt. But the silk market had no silk! I’m quite certain I copied the address correctly and that the taxi driver took me to the right place. It was just a huge warehouse divided into clothing stalls. The clothing was the type of clothing most Chinese people wear, i.e., it looked like it came from Marshalls. I was the only foreigner there, and I definitely got some looks–not rude, just wondering why I came there. (I am not the size of most Chinese people, so that didn’t help.) But you know, that’s hardly the worst thing that could have happened.

I don’t teach again until Friday, so I have a few days to catch up on work and get over a cold. And of course, plan my next trip for winter break.

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.



To be continued in Qingdao!

a quick one while I’m away

I’m working on a longer post about my doings and goings-on lately. I went to the US, came back to China, and traveled in Beijing and Qingdao. But in the meantime, I read something yesterday that I thought was intriguing.

To say Larus has an eclectic background is like saying Roger Federer dabbles in tennis. In his forty-odd years, Larus has earned a living not only as a chess player but also as a journalist, a construction-company executive, a theologian, and, now, a music producer. “I know,” he says, sensing my disbelief. “But that kind of résumé is completely normal in Iceland.” Having multiple identities (though not multiple personalities) is, he believes, conducive to happiness. This runs counter to the prevailing belief in the United States and other western nations, where specialization is considered the highest good. Academics, doctors, and other professionals spend lifetimes learning more and more about less and less. In Iceland, people learn more and more about more and more.

from The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner

The relevance to me, someone who has had more careers than many people have had jobs, should be clear. I’ve been a little apologetic about the fact that I’ve bounced around a bit in my career life, not to mention my life life. But maybe my experience is not the problem. Maybe my perspective needs shifting. Maybe YOUR perspective needs shifting. Ever think of that?

Yeah, I could hang here.
Yeah, I could hang.

Who we are is so affected by where we are. It’s hard to get out of that perspective. Living in China has been useful for seeing the world as other people see it, or at least beginning to.

I had a conversation with my friend Mike while we were traveling in Beijing. We were discussing his future. He wants to study in the US, but it might be prohibitively expensive. I told him that, even if he can’t spend two years in an international master’s program, he can and will manage to get to the US. I said, “I don’t worry about you. I worry about me.” He said, “Why would you worry about you?” I don’t know. Habit? My point is (and if I have to use those words maybe I’m not making it very well), seeing yourself, seeing your problems, and seeing your culture from the outside is useful. And damn difficult.

I’m about to start a new job with two new, more challenging courses to teach. I am also starting my master’s degree coursework. I’m feeling strangely at peace about it. It’s going to be hard, but it’s going to be OK. Right? Yes, dammit.

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.

southern prosperity

First, the big news: In September I’m going to teach at Nanchang University. Nanchang is located in southeastern China. It’s about 5 hours by high-speed rail from Shanghai and close to other cool places as well (Hangzhou, Taiwan, Xiamen), and has a lot of lovely sites in its own right. It’s smaller than Chongqing (most places are). I am told that the weather is not as humid and the food is not as spicy. Nanchang means “southern prosperity.” Here’s hoping, right?


A recent Nanchang weather report. Better come correct with rain boots.
A recent Nanchang weather report. Better come correct with rain boots.

I had to think long and hard about whether or not to stay in China. It’s not always easy living here. I had a really rough time this spring for about 4-6 weeks. And it was in that hard time when I realized that I have a lot of support here. I’m not Miss Popularity. I don’t have loads of friends. But the ones I have are surprising me with their love and support. I wish I could have learned this the easy way, but noooo….

I mentioned in my last post that I have been accepted to my Master’s program. Due to a lot of factors, I decided to postpone the start of my studies until this fall. I’m anxious about how I’m going to do the work and do my job. I’m not always the best student, and working online is new and requires a lot of discipline. But you know, I’ve done hard things before.

Also, I submitted my application to work at two universities, Nanchang and another. Yesterday I got an email from my first choice asking if I am available. Well…no, I already accepted this one, signed the contract and everything. But next year? Maybe? I am learning to embrace uncertainty, which is a big change for me.

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.

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?

Chengdu panda-monium!

Ripe pandas ready for harvest.
Ripe pandas ready for harvest.


I knew my train trip from Xi’an to Chengdu would be a little difficult. I had a hard seat on an overnight train. A student came with me to buy my tickets, and she did the best she could with the limited seats available due to the holiday and students leaving universities for the holidays. Had I been making the reservations by myself, I might have changed things on the fly. But she did fine, and whatever, I’ll deal.

I should explain: there are four types of tickets on Chinese trains: hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper, and soft sleeper. I’ll get to hard seats in a moment. Soft seats are like the seats on Amtrak. A hard sleeper is what I had on the way to Xi’an: a reasonably comfortable bed in a compartment of six. Soft sleepers are apparently in compartments of four and a little bit more comfortable and private.

I found my place in the hard seats. It’s like a restaurant booth, with four or six people facing a little table. The table is for the instant noodles. Chinese people come strapped with instant noodles on the train. Lots of food in huge bags of it, but especially instant noodles. You can buy food at the station or on the train, but apparently that’s overpriced. So they use hot water on the train and make noodles.

The family I was sitting with spoke no English, but they were very nice and even offered me some of their Chongqing snacks. (I don’t know if there is another name for them, but they’re kind of like the breadsticks from Chex mix, but greasier. OK in very small doses.) The car was crowded and fairly noisy. People aren’t allowed to smoke inside the car, but they can (or do) smoke between cars, which wafted directly into our car anyway. I had my iPod and was able to rest my head on the table from time to time and catch a little sleep. So I made the best of it and, when everyone else prepared to get off at 6 a.m. or so, I grabbed my bag and found a taxi…

At which point I learned we weren’t in Chengdu. Guh? Nope, we were somewhere else along the way, not quite there. What do I do? I ran back to the ticket office and tried to get another ticket to Chengdu. The woman explained that I already have a ticket to Chengdu and I can’t have two. I guess she worked out what I was trying to say. A conductor…well, conducted me to the train, and I got on just before it left again. That whole experience was a giant pain in the ass. What did I learn? The same old lesson I keep learning: never assume anything in China. But at least it’s an experience few other travelers have, so maybe I can be proud of that?

I ended up riding that train from 8:45 p.m. Saturday until 12 p.m. Sunday. I was exhausted and hungry when I got to Mix Hostel. I checked in, signed up for the panda tour the next day, ate a meal, showered, and crashed in my bunk. Somebody has to be the weird girl who never leaves the hostel, and that day it was me. I got a good night’s sleep and felt much, much, much better the next day.

I mainly came to Chengdu to see pandas, so we headed to the breeding center nearby (an hour by van). Pandas are mostly active in the mornings, so we got there around 8:30 a.m. and walked around looking for signs of life. The photos say it all. The big pandas were mostly eating and waddling a bit. The young ones played a bit. The ones who slept liked to do it in trees. If you’re on board with pandas, it’s great. If you need action and adventure, maybe pandas aren’t for you.

We also saw red pandas, who are more like cats than bears. They can, apparently, come and go out of their enclosures as they please. One was walking on the path toward our group, and he sniffed my hand when I held it out to him. But they can be vicious, according to the signs, so I left it at that.

We also saw a movie about why the pandas are nearly extinct. All species have an average life of 5 million years, and pandas seem to be coming to the end of theirs. They also aren’t super into sexual reproduction; said point was illustrated by a video of pandas going at it (I’m serious!) and one of pandas trying and failing to score with a lady panda who was having none of it. It was a little graphic. And there was a shot of a panda being born. Like, “What is that? Is that a panda vagina?” PLOP. “Oh, jeez, that’s a baby. Wow.” So, yeah, we learned A LOT about pandas.

We got back to the hostel around lunchtime, and I decided to explore the area around Wenshu Monastery and the Folk Street. Folk Street was fine. There are a lot of souvenirs that are the same at every store/table. Lots of Tibetan stuff, lots of panda stuff. And tiger claw, which I’d never seen before but anticipate seeing more of when I go to Yunnan. I ate six steamed buns, an insane amount of buns but YOLO, and walked around the monastery and nearby streets. Oh, yes, and I bought a book that I want to use to learn to read. The three little pigs are featured on the front, so I think I can get there.

Monday night was another tour to Sichuan Opera. This was a high-end performance of the opera, including a lot of acrobatics, dancing, singing, some silks work, costumes, fire breathing, broad comedy, and face changing. The face changing was apparently the selling point, and it’s quite impressive. They wear silk masks on their faces, and through some misdirection, POW! New mask. It’s incredible. I loved seeing it, and it’s reinforced my goal to see a live kabuki show (as soon as I get my ass to Japan!).

I did everything on Monday. I thought having Tuesday free for exploration would be a good strategy, but I was a little bored and ready to go home. Many people use Chengdu as a base for travels to nearby places, and I should have tried to go out to the Leshan Buddha or something like that. You live, you learn.

After a little bit of getting-lost time, I went to the Sichuan Museum. That was all right, but maybe too similar to the Shaanxi Museum without being quite as impressive. Plus an entire school of children showed up and swarmed the place after I’d been there for a while. In a way that was fun—like when a group of boys tore ass into the room, stopped in front of a silver bowl, and shouted “Whoa!”–but the noise and chaos was a little too much.

I followed the trail of Tibetan monks—seriously, there were a lot of maroon robes around, and they helped reassure me that I wasn’t getting lost—to the Tibetan quarter. Lots of shops selling the same things, once again. I did eat some Tibetan food that was pretty good. After a while I just felt bored and run-down and tired of the gray skies.

The reason I felt run down: I had the start of a cold that morning. Unfortunate timing, but not the worst, since I mainly planned to sit on the train that day. And I did: 2.5 hours in a soft seat and I was back in Chongqing. About 1.5 hours on the subway and I was back home.

This trip helped me see Chongqing in a new light. People do some strange things here, and I wasn’t sure how much is Chongqing culture and how much is China culture. I got to use my Chinese with some positive results. And I hope I am learning to live as a tourist in my home city, to get out of my habits sometimes and explore.

One more trip is planned for the break. My sister is coming on Sunday and we’re going to travel in Yunnan. I’m really looking forward to that, especially since my weather app is predicting sunshine! China is so huge and diverse that I’m very interested to see what we’ll find there.

Xi’an: history, food, and lungs full of carbon

What is this? I had it for breakfast twice and it was delicious.
What is this? I had it for breakfast twice and it was delicious. I must know what it’s called and if I can find it in Chongqing.

My students sometimes ask me if I like to travel. I usually reply, “Well, everybody says they do,” to buy some time and because I’m not really sure of the answer. I like seeing new things, but I also like sleeping in my own bed at night. Of course, those of us who self-select to live abroad are more likely to be travel enthusiasts, but I consider myself more of a migrant worker than an adventurer.

Still, it’s winter break. We have about 6 weeks off, since Lunar New Year is so late this year. Staying in Chongqing is not recommended. Many of the stores around campus have closed for the month, and January and February are not the most naturally beautiful times to be here. (I’ll write more about what I’ve been doing here in another post.) I want to make the most of my time here in China and learn about this country, and it’s really inexpensive to travel here if you can economize a little. So off I went to Xi’an and Chengdu.


The day before I left for Xi’an, one of my students accompanied me to English CAFE. (He had just finished taking exams and was waiting to take the train home. He was bored and likes practicing English, so we made the trip downtown together.) I told him my plan and he said, “Who will help you on the train?” I don’t know. Someone? No one? He decided to go with me to the train station Monday morning, even though his train for home didn’t leave until Monday evening. I told him it was ridiculous for him to sit in the train station for 12 hours and that I would be fine on my own. But if a Chinese person wants to help you, they’re going to help you. You can only argue so much. (I don’t agree with all of Confucius’ teachings, but his ideas about respect toward teachers have been a great benefit to me personally.)

My student and I took the subway early on Monday. He found a comfortable seat and a cup of coffee, and I got on the train to Xi’an with little drama (the signs are not that hard to follow) and found my hard sleeper. I’m not sure if I’d want to sleep a long time on it, but it’s nice to stretch your legs and have a place to put your stuff next to you. The train took about 10 hours and tada! Xi’an.

I stayed at Hantang House, which I recommend. It’s very nice, bathrooms en suite, clean, beautiful dark wood, not too expensive, great location, a little noisy in the evenings but not unbearably so. The beer is not cheap, so it’s not the kind of hostel where you pre-game for your night out. But I wasn’t really there for night life. I stayed in an eight-woman dorm so I could have more money for other activities. That turned out great. Most of my roommates were Chinese, and they are used to sharing and being respectful. Your results may vary during peak season. (The most disrespectful people I encountered on this trip were Americans. Ugh. They weren’t that bad, they just stood out compared to everyone else.) I wasn’t in the room much, anyway, so aside from the need to lock my things in the locker when I left, I didn’t miss having a private room. So I checked in, signed up for the tour to the Terra Cotta Warriors the next day, drank a beer, and went to bed.


I have wanted to see the Terra Cotta Warriors since I first heard about them on Ripley’s Believe it or Not! at at age seven or so. I saw the touring exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, but there is more to explore. A bunch of us from the hostel took a van with a tour guide.

Overall, I enjoyed it. In Minneapolis I got to see some of the warriors up close, but it was hard to grasp the scale of how huge the project is. (And then after all that, they just covered it up and killed all the workmen.) But it was a bit overwhelming and a bit rushed. The tour guide was kind of a B-minus. I know she didn’t want us to feel bored and like we spent too much time there, but I think she erred too far on the other side. I’m really glad I went, but maybe going on my own would have been a better choice. Certainly less expensive.

That evening, four of us from the tour met up to go to the water fountain show at the Big Wild Goose Pavilion. A water fountain show sounds totally Vegas—music plays and the water shoots up in time to the music and there are colored lights. But it was free, so what the hell, right? I did like it more than I thought I would. It was 30 minutes but didn’t feel too long.

We were a little cold from sitting by the fountain, so we got some noodles afterward at First Noodle Under the Sun. The Xi’an specialty is biang biang mian, which I guess is one bigass noodle in a bowl. It was delicious. All the food in Xi’an was really good, without being burn-the-paint-off-the-ceiling hot like in Chongqing.


I struck out on my own and immediately got lost. I had a decent map, and Xi’an is laid out like a grid, but for some reason I had a hard time getting around. The map made things look closer together than they were, and that did not help. After about 90 minutes of fruitless staggering around (which, really, isn’t so long to be lost if you really think about it), I found the Muslim Quarter. And lucky me, it was time for lunch.

The Muslim Quarter is my new favorite thing. So much food, so many things to look at. I love the points where cultures intersect, and the Muslim-Chinese market was so stimulating to my brain (and belly). So I walked around there and ate hot beef on a bun. What else do I need?

The Drum Tower and Bell Tower are both nearby. Since I had to pay to go to them, I decided I’d pick one, not both. Drum Tower it is! It was pretty. They had a lot of antique furniture on display. It was fine, I don’t regret going, but it’s not a can’t-miss unless you really love architecture or furniture.

I wandered a bit more and found myself by the West Gate of the ancient city walls. I had plans to explore the walls; why not now? I paid to get in and decided to rent a bike to ride around the walls. That was a great decision. I would have been a little bored at walking speed, but riding was perfect. The ride was a little rough at times, and I think navigating through crowds might be stressful on a busy day, but this was great. (I was sore the next day; going on a ten-mile ride after no biking for months was not easy!) I also got into a conversation with another rider who just moved to Madison, Wisconsin. It’s a small world.


On the Terra Cotta Warriors tour I had met a woman named Jo, and we decided to attempt to visit the Tomb of Jing Di independent of the Hantang tour group. We both like museums and felt rushed on the Warriors tour. We set out to take the subway and a bus, and it worked out really well. I also started to feel like I was in possession of some useful Chinese skills. The Xi’an accent is much easier to understand than the Chongqing accent, and I was able to conduct simple transactions. Knowing that “图书馆” means “library” meant we got off the subway at the correct stop. Practical language skills at work!

The Tomb of Jing Di is not world famous, but it’s really fascinating. Jing Di had a burial site with terra cotta effigies of men, women, eunuchs, and animals and chariots. The bodies of the humans were about ten inches high and dressed in silk clothing. Each face was individually carved, although the bodies looked to be mass-produced (with a bit of extra attention to the genitals). It looked like a Fisher-Price My First Emperor’s Tomb, and I just wanted to get on my knees and play with the pieces.

After half a day, we returned to Xi’an proper. I was hungry and Jo was cold, so we went to (sigh) Starbucks for a warm-up and then back to the Muslim Quarter for something delicious. We ended up getting deeper into the Quarter than I had on my own and found the places where the actual residents buy their goods. My big honky face apparently gave some gentleman quite a start, according to Jo, who was walking behind me. It’s interesting how unaccustomed to Westerners some Chinese are. (Xi’an was the first place I actually heard people refer to me as 老外, although that could be because their accent is easier to understand.)


Jo reported that the Shaanxi Museum was worthwhile and also free, so I did my best to find it. I had another bout of being lost and wandering in the wrong direction, but I got there. I found a lot of really incredible artifacts and historical pieces. Quite crowded, but I was still able to see everything I wanted. I highly recommend it.

The crowds did make me want to do something a bit more relaxing afterward. I made my way back to the Big Wild Goose Pavilion. I ate again at First Noodle Under the Sun and spent the afternoon exploring the gardens around the pavilion. I didn’t pay to go inside, but I felt I had enough to do. I bought a coffee and just watched the people outside, then walked a bit more when I felt ready. I also walked up and down a street called “Chinatown,” mostly out of curiosity. It looked like a Bar Street with some restaurants (mostly Korean and Indian). OK, call it Chinatown if you want, Xi’an, see if I care.


I didn’t really have a plan for Saturday, unfortunately. I was leaving, but not until later. I think I thought I’d sleep in a bit longer than I did and have less time to fill. So what did I do? Starbucks, then Muslim Quarter for lunch. Hey, it’s my damn trip, I’ll do what I want.

I did pop my head into the Great Mosque. I had read that there would be a charge and that I would not be admitted during prayer times. No one charged me, and no one stopped me from going into the courtyard. I removed my shoes and went into the mosque itself. I looked around a bit, then the imam saw me and shooed me out. It was really beautiful (again, cultural intersections), but all my photos from the courtyard got lost.

I did a little more shopping. Then I thought, what the hell, I’m going to get a massage. There is a place in the Muslim Quarter that advertises massage by the blind. I was still sore from the bike ride and general walking around, so I went for a full body. I kept my clothes on and the guy worked on my through my clothes with a cloth over. He had really good technique and I felt much better afterward.

Overall, I really love Xi’an. Except for the pollution. I should have bought a mask to wear, and if I’d stayed longer, I would have. I felt horrible every night, with a hot scratchy throat and watery eyes. I may go back some day, but I really hope they can manage the air quality. (Some of my students are environmental engineers; Godspeed, you guys!)

At that point, it was time to return to the hostel, pick up my bag, and go to the train station. And there my troubles began.