Friday, September 21, 2018

The Happy Life of Fat House

Today, I went out for a social lunch with several colleagues who work in the school of foreign languages: three Chinese women who are all teachers in the translation/interpretation department, and one American who teaches literature. We agreed how strikingly similar China and the US are, and danced provocatively and politely around the flaming elephant dumpster fire in the room that is the current bilateral situation between our respective countries, as we ate pineapple pizza and other weird buffet foods. Was that even a sentence?

I also was able to show off my newly-discovered party trick that actually takes no effort at all to execute: First, I show how bad I am at using chopsticks, in a really illustrative way, with little bits of random vegetables taking flight all around me. No one says anything, which is polite, but I notice that the other American teacher (who is lovely) actually gets complimented on his ability to maneuver pieces of meat to his mouth using wood sticks instead of a tiny, steel garden hoe. Then, the real twist, is when I give up using the chopsticks in a fit of exasperation (iceberg lettuce don't care about culture), and...I demonstrate that I'm equally as bad at using a fork as I am at using chopsticks. No one expects this part! Everyone, regardless of nationality, is confused. Don't even get me started on knives! Really, I mean it! It's not safe.

I was best in Uganda and Lao, where people often use their fingers as implements and carve their food into beautiful sculptures that help facilitate eating.

As usual, I had no idea what our social lunch was supposed to be, but that's okay. I guess it was just a lunch. But, sometimes a lunch is more than a lunch, amiright?

Pause.

Since I've written you, a lot has happened. In fact, maybe too much. I was all set on having an Emerson-type weekend, where I reflect on the subtle nuances of morning light and stare at ponds, but then suddenly all of these people came out of the woodwork and asked me to do things, and so I did things instead. Probably it was good for me. Last Friday night, I walked to my friend Danny's American-style brewery in Wuhan, where he had whipped up some vegetarian chile rellenos and tacos for me to lift towards my mouth. It was nice walking in Wuhan at night. I walked past a jumbo jet airplane just hanging out on the sidewalk, which was definitely a shock, and then right next to it was a mini carnival park with an old-fashioned German trolley playing creepy music. The juxtaposition was truly amazing! Actually, the reason for the german trolley is because it is on the "longest pedestrian street in the world" (so-called!) and each block represents a different country, and I guess Germany is partially summed up with jumbo jets and merry go-rounds.



There's also a Renaissance style church building too. Besides the plane (which I heard is a restaurant!), there were some cool scenes of night life---people eating barbecue and hanging out outside.


And finally, and my complete favorite, 100%, is the experience of walking past a group of older ladies dancing outside. I had heard about this phenomenon of older folks taking over public spaces at night to do tai chi and exercise, and this frankly exceeded my expectations. This happens on my campus too!



The next day, I took my first bus journey! I went to go visit Lauryn, who is the other fellow that lives in Wuhan. In some ways it was a lot more encouraging than the subway, since a part of you has to die in order to even consider taking the subway. So, there wasn't the claustrophobia, but since buses travel on the normal ground instead of the under-the-earth ground, they are more privy to the bad moods of Wuhan traffic. Wuhan: Rush hour every hour! When I got home from the journey in the afternoon, I basically turned around right away, to go try a new vegetarian restaurant with Nadeesha and Att. This restaurant is only reachable by bus, so I had to get on another bus, and unfortunately this time it took about 1-1.5 hours each way, when it would have taken perhaps 15 minutes without traffic. This is actually why we left at 4:30pm to go eat dinner, since it's quite a production to get anywhere in Wuhan. We arrived back at campus at 8pm. Anyway, we had some of the most delicious vegetarian food I've ever had. It was another Buddhist joint and the flavors were incredibly savory. There weren't really any actual vegetables to be seen, but there were plenty of substitute meats. We ate a spicy mock fish dish, a peppery mock beef dish, and a sweet and sour dish. Amazing.

inside the restaurant:

Our three dishes, before:

 and after...

Dorkily posing outside of the restaurant

The next day, I had a picnic with most of the other foreign language teachers who I hadn't met yet. They all live in the same quarantine as I do. They are nice! There were two German teachers, two french teachers, and a Mauritian man studying to be a Chinese teacher.



It's nice to meet other teachers and friendly faces living near me. I bet I'll see this crew and a few others semi-regularly for outings and such. If I can't magically have a group of Chinese friends yet, this can also be a supportive and friendly community for me.

Later on Sunday, fortified by pasta salad and mango juice, I inhaled a deep breath (I'd been breathing earlier too), walked over to the 'playground', marched up to a group of men playing soccer, and asked to play. Unsurprisingly, they said yes. They were all Nepali students at HUST. They seemed flabbergasted that I played soccer at all but were pretty accepting once I started playing. One of my friends happened to be walking by and snapped an undercover photo:


It was an eventful weekend! Although I felt mildly stressed to be so busy with things besides lesson-planning, I think it was good for me. I think I could literally lesson-plan all-day, every day, so I need to come up with elaborate ruses to distract myself. It's not that I'm a hard-worker---it's more that I'm still adjusting to the situation and am both stressed and intellectually stimulated at the same time at the prospect of designing courses from the bottom-up. It is just too much though. Something has to give, especially since I am nearly doubling my course-load this upcoming week now that I'll be teaching pronunciation classes to freshmen.

This last week's classes were fun. I incorporated more group-work into the classes and made them as interactive as possible. I plan to do that as much as possible even though writing doesn't always lend itself to interaction. I continue to be blown away by how smart my students are and how deep their understanding of English is. It's not that I imagined them to be dull---I'm just not used to working with such advanced students. It feels like teaching students anywhere; I forget that English isn't their first language. More importantly, the students are active and fun. They like discussing different things. They are warming up to me at very different rates (one of my classes has the atmosphere for an 8th grade dance before anyone is dancing), but I can feel it happen. I'm getting more comfortable too.
---------------------------------------------------------

I'm trying to collect differences and similarities between the college life here and back home. Actually, comparing my own college experience at UW-Madison and HUST is not that strange, since they are both comparable sizes and well-known research/science schools. I also am subconsciously comparing my experience as a college student a decade ago to the current student's experience, which is bound to be different anywhere.

The differences:

1. Octogenarians abound on campuses!  I may have mentioned this but there are lovely older folks everywhere on campus! Someone finally explained to me that many of them are the parents of university teachers/professors; they live with them on campus to help out by taking care of the grandkids. Most of the time, you see them pushing a stroller or carrying a baby. It's absurdly cute.

2. Banners...everywhere! Red banners, blue banners, falling-down banners! Not really sure what they say besides a few characters here and there, but they always remind me I'm in a foreign place.



3. Obligatory military training for freshman: While Madison freshmen are perfecting their first keg stand, freshmen at HUST are marching and standing at command for up to 10 hours a day in the sun for the first month of school! Welcome to college!





4. 6pm campus-wide broadcasts: Every evening, a woman crawls into my ear and starts whispering sultry Chinese into my brain. Not sure what she's saying, but I like her voice. Sometimes I hear the word "Trump," and I shudder with what is probably being said about the US president. Here I am, walking home from class and enjoying the daily broadcast.





5. "Innocent" students: Students here seem innocent in comparison to freshmen at Madison. Most of them don't drink yet and some are dating for the first time (or not yet).

6. Lack of Choice in Classes: I mentioned this before, but all students here are in one set group of about 30 people who all share the same major; they stay with this same core class throughout all their classes in college. They don't have the chance to choose classes since their course load is already set.

7. Communication with teachers: I think I sent my teachers formal emails in college. Now, I am on a gigantic wechat messaging group with all my students, and this is a good example of what our communication looks like:



Transcript:
student: GIRAFFE!
Me: Calmly sends Summary assignment.
student: Thank you!
student: BEATS UP HEARTS IN GRATITUDE
Me: "You are welcome" in chinese
Student: repeats "h"
Student: repeats "6"
student: deranged cartoon

It's basically just mass confusion and GIFS.

8. City surrounding campus: Mostly shopping malls and lots of cars. In Madison, it's mostly people earnestly selling free-range eggs and some head shops. Oh, and in the last 10 years, a bunch of luxury apartments for kids from LA.

9. No one drinks coffee. Tea all day. Sometimes milk tea. Students only go into coffee shops like starbucks to make artistic social media posts. Stark contrast to my college experience, where everyone was addicted by sophomore year.


The similarities: 
1. Couples...everywhere! Never found the 'right' moment to take a picture of a couple on campus, but let me tell you...they are here! The preponderance of couples actually makes the campus 0.8% more dangerous for walking, since you could easily get clothes-lined by the hand-clasped pairs. Sometimes getting into the canteen feels like a game of red-rover...

3. The Canteens! I dunno, both Madison and HUST have canteens, but they are pretty wildly different. It's like comparing dumplings and microwaved sausages. Actually, that's exactly what it's like. Nonetheless, there are cafeterias, they are usually uncomfortably full, and you can easily overdose on sodium with one serving of vegetables.



2. Green space: Both schools do this well.


3. Bikes...everywhere!



4. Cruel and unusual living situations for students that goes largely unnoticed by everyone else. You know, 7 women to a room; their only potable water is from their tears...etc etc

5. Concerning amounts of segregation between international and domestic students: Refer to previous blogposts about international student and teacher quarantines.

6. Access to Dairy queen!
Life is funny...in Madison, people order Chinese food (kung pao chicken!) to their dorm rooms. in China, students eat the same soft-serve blizzards that they do in the midwest. We are all connected through grossly inauthentic food posing as cultural cuisine.



7. The gender divide: My school is like 90% boy and my English majors are 97% female. Reminds me a lot of being an English major at Madison...

8. Weird snacks that only college students eat and that are possibly poisonous. I have no words (but who has words for spicy cheezits either?) but apparently HE does "I only eat peas if they taste like grilled meat and then I make this face."


.
9. Students are busy: Shuttling back and forth between the library, just like at Madison, backpacks slung over their shoulders. College campuses are always college campuses.





HUST is a beautiful place. I'm excited for those of you who will get to see it.


Like usual, I'll leave you with some inspiring photographs, this time some screenshots of the auto-translate feature for my social needs feed of 'Wechat,' where people post the usual stuff (inspirational quotes, food pictures, talking about how fat they are, vague and bleak statements like "I am nothing", etc). As you might imagine, the translations almost never make sense. They are delightful. One of the best parts of my day. Without further ado, I present you with some recent favorites: 

1. "The happy life of fat house."  We all know exactly what this means. 



2. I'll let this one speak for itself.
3. A few interesting pieces in this frame. I'm left wondering who "Cooley" is. I'm also left wondering what exactly "Wheelcake" is and how I can get some.



Love you all!

Friday, September 14, 2018

On Learning Curves



What do you do when many aspects of your life involve a steep learning curve? Do you greet each one calmly and start rock climbing up the side? Do you cling to the things you know that you know? Thinks to self, "wow, I'm really bad at _____, so I'm going to focus on how good I am at ____." Or, do you succumb to sheer overwhelmed-ness and drown for a bit, resurfacing when some time has passed and progress has been made?

I've faced situations like this before. As a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Uganda, I'm pretty sure I always felt overwhelmed and 'behind.' I was so sure of not knowing anything that it became part of my story for those two years. As a brand-new teacher living in Laos, I was more able to absorb the challenges and learning curves, probably because I had met such a supportive soul-friend. Looking back on those first few weeks of full-time teaching, though, I remember feeling totally lost at sea. I drowned in the sheer overwhelming-ness of it for awhile until I started to figure out the short-cuts to teachingand regain a sense of groundedness.

I'm enmeshed in yet another situation where my life, from every angle, appears to be a craggy mountain that I have to climb. On a personal level, there are peaks of loneliness to get over as I survey my surroundings and figure out which humans I can connect with. There are long, dry valleys composed of, "what the hell do I eat today?" and, "What the hell does that text/word/menu item/message/utterance/social cue" mean?" or "How do I work out when the air quality is comparable to smoking cigars in a coal mine?" Some days, as I walk around campus, I feel like some awkward, flapping bird that no one looks at but everyone is acutely aware of. At the moment, I can't figure out any of my technology; all my devices are conspiring against me and churning out political coups left and right.

From a professional angle, I'm somewhere in the Himalayas. There's all these mini-Everests popping up around me: I've never taught college-level courses before, I've never taught in China before, I actually haven't taught full-time for several years. I look around at the other fellows in China and sometimes all I can see are their years of experience teaching in universities, their extensive time abroad in China, and their language skills. It's hard to not feel alone, like the altitude sickness is my fault, like I'm already in the red for Oxygen.

I met with four other Americans today who are all teaching in some capacity at HUST, my university. They are all warm and energetic. Several of them are just out of college and freshly-moved to China, yet seem filled with confidence. When I asked a man who teaches literature in my department about how he deals with varying student expectations and the blank stares and silence frequently experienced during the first few weeks of teaching, he replied, "With boundless self-regard." I'm struck by the fresh simplicity of this outlook and how often I complicate my challenges by cross-hatching them with multiple shades of doubt, second-guessing, and reflection. I forget to approach many of my challenges with a simple self-regard.

On the other hand, this has really never been my style. I'm not a, "this is the way things are," sort of person, and this is echoed in how I approach learning curves or challenging situations. As an example, I really don't expect my students to buck up and adjust to my teaching style; for better or for worse, I expect myself to do the lion's share of the adjusting.

In all of my worrying, I forget that everyone else around me is facing their own forms of learning curves. I have a dear friend back home who has a much more difficult situation; while I am adjusting to life in China, she is busy adjusting to the sudden illness of her brother, which she does with amazing self-confidence and thoughtfulness. Another dear friend, who is facing her own learning curve as she shifts from teaching abroad to teaching in the US, helpfully reminded me that no one knows what they are doing. As humans we are always dealing with unforeseen challenges and new situations; we are often called upon to do or say things that we aren't ready to do or say. And, our self-worth doesn't hinge on our ability to 'perform well', or our talent at bouldering our way confidently up the learning curves we encounter. Even if I approach my new life with a certain degree of anxiety or overwhelmed-ness, in reality, my self-worth comes from a more global knowledge of myself---not just how I respond to stressful situations. I am much more than that anxiety. And, my self-regard, although not keenly-felt in these first few weeks adjusting to life in China, is still very much intact and alive. Its able to be expressed in subtler, quieter moments, and is hugely reinforced anytime that I talk to a friend or family member.

I've always felt confused about why my expression of self-confidence looks so different from others. I turn this confusion into a story that I tell myself, the moral always being, "Buck up" or "Be more confident." I experiment with speaking more loudly, using certain postures, intensifying my eye contact. We all perform and exhibit self-regard in different ways. I'm coming to terms with the reality that my gentleness is as much part of me as my eye color, that much of my strength swells from that softness. Expecting myself to be able to 'grab life by the balls' as I live through this new experience is like asking motorists to yield to pedestrians in Wuhan; it just doesn't make sense. I'm a gentle fumbler, the kind of person who is constantly dropping her money in supermarkets as people wait behind her, and that's okay. Don't get me wrong- I like a nice "Carpe Diem!" outlook, but I skew more towards Mr. Rogers than Mark Zuckerberg in the following spectrum:

Carpe Diem Spectrum:

Mr. Rogers|---X----------------------------------------|Mark Zuckerberg

If seizing the day means gently creating positive change through puppetry, then count me in!




And, now for some adorable, delicious, and strange pictures:

Chen embracing and contemplating my plump fox stuffed-animal:


 The special noodle dish of Wuhan: Reganmian, which is hot, peanuty, sesamey, dry noodles. It gives you the only kind of dry mouth that I can really recommend!
 Awesome savory pancake making:
 Chen contemplating Rice Crepes, a type of cantonese dumpling, that I shortly thereafter made a tremendous mess out of by trying to eat with chopsticks:
 My hand moving eating delicious savory pancake closer to my face:
 A mysterious picture of nearly my entire leg that I found. In this photo, I am mid-step. You can also see my chaco foot tanline:
 This is a gigantic mandala hanging above my bed. This is something that only truly spiritual people do, so you can all come to me for spiritual questions now:
 This is what one of our school gates looks like. Otherwise, it's a pretty unremarkable picture:
 This was right after I almost got hosed down by a gigantic water truck that sprays the ground to make it wet, I guess:

Love you!

Ils

Friday, September 7, 2018

Shopping Malls and Sugary Tea

When I'm away from my routine and comfort zone, my identity is much more slippery. Over this past week in Wuhan, I've found myself doing several things that are extremely out of character and that you'd never find me doing at home. This makes me wonder: what is it about living abroad that creates cracks in our seemingly stable identities? What is usually so at stake in terms of maintaining these identities? Also, isn't there something refreshing about doing something bizarre or acting out of character once in a while?

So, here are some things I've found myself doing recently that don't fit into my schema:

Shopping: Today I arrived to a shopping mall before it opened. Actually, I sat outside and waited for it to open. I'll let that sink in for a few minutes...
Pictured below: People waiting tranquilly for the shopping mall to open, 9:30am.


Not only have I been going to shopping malls to purchase things, I've also been using the Chinese version of Amazon Prime to get things delivered to me within 3 days. Before you get too jealous, let me show you what my messages look like from the app: 

Yep, it's all in Chinese, like everything else in China. It's a good thing that Chen, my life coach and friend, is so patient. She receives a lot of screen shots and question marks from me. 

Back to the shopping mall though...if you are my friend, you probably know that I love to talk about how much I hate shopping malls and how the Mall of America is the worst place in the world. Life is funny and here's why: Wuhan is basically one huge, sweaty, shiny, loud shopping mall filled with 12 million people buying shit. Really! Well, it's actually hundreds of shopping malls next to hundreds of other shopping malls. But, it kind of feels like one since to actually navigate around the city, you often have to walk through one shopping mall in order to get to another. It's like a gigantic, chaotic series of Russian Matryoshka dolls, and before you know it, you are inside all of the malls, and all of the malls are inside of you. You are a shopping mall. 

I took some pictures when walking around and inside Wuhan's shopping malls today:

Inside a mall:


 Outside a mall (but about to enter one)...this is where the world's longest pedestrian street begins!



Another theme in Wuhan is definitely construction and thus highly creative ways of getting around as a pedestrian:

The dreaded blue construction-site walls that mean "Good luck walking anywhere, human pedestrian!"

The city bird: the crane!

Creative walkways so that people can pass over construction sites:

And my favorite: When all reasonable walking routes have been destroyed due to construction and you have literally one option to get to a place and it requires walking into oncoming traffic on a highway. 

The great thing about walking in Wuhan is that unless you are happily walking in a mall, you have a right to be PISSED, since if you aren't in a mall, chances are you are walking on a freeway or through a construction site or in an otherwise strange and frustrating urban obstacle course, and so although you have no real right of way as a pedestrian, you maintain a full and incontestable right to be surly AF. In the picture above, the woman walking in front of me on the freeway exercised her right by randomly yelling at every car that passed and kicking the blue construction wall several times.

I digress.

Nesting: I've never been much of a nester, or a person who puts a lot of time and energy and money into making their space cozy, comfortable, or appealing. Well, apparently I do here in China. Most of my shopping has actually been to make my apartment into nothing less than a goddamn paradise. I have plants, wall hangings, stuffed foxes, fluffy towels, and little bottles of scented stuff that somehow diffuses through straw thingies and makes my air smell like FLOWERS. Yes, I did say "My" air. That's kind of weird; I've never been possessive about air before, but that's probably because I've never before owned AIR PURIFIERS. I will only inhale the most purified and flowery air!

But yeah, I really don't know what got into me.



Fixing Shit: I'm 'right brained' which means I get to pretend that enjoying literature and art exempts me from coordinating my hands and brain to use tools. In China-life, I can't play that card, so I found myself looking up the translation for 'wrench,' 'hammer,' and 'nails' today in a store, and later strutted home to hammer, wrench, and nail some shit. So, I'm sort of allergic to DIY and will usually avoid buying anything with those three letters in the title, but I put together my own DIY AIR PURIFIER and am now sucking in the sweet air that I created with my own two hands.


Living in China: And finally, as a catch-all category, I'd also like to remind myself that living and working in China is another thing that is still out of character for me.



So, in other news, I found a canteen that serves vegetarian food! Here's some of the food I've been eating, including spicy lotus root, tofu, and bamboo noodles (I think):



And, here's some of the students I've been teaching:



I had three classes last week, all sophomore 'intermediate writing,' which is just about as vague as it sounds. My job now is to turn it into a class that is about something more specific than 'intermediate writing', which in my mind, could mean anything from 4th grade essays on llamas to college-level Shakespearean analysis.  I'm aiming to hit a spot somewhere in-between those two extremes. I've been asking a lot of questions of a lot of people to try to figure out more about what I should be teaching, and also what the students have already learned in past terms. Actually, my first round of classes included a needs analysis from my students so that I can gather information about their experiences, needs, and writing levels. I felt a little bad doing this since it probably felt like a quiz, but I needed to get the information.

One of the questions was, "What should I know about you, or your college, or your major, or your life, that will help me be a better teacher for you?" For this question, I received quite a diverse range of answers, such as suggestions for vegetarian delivery apps, requests for high grades, and really thoughtful responses that helped me reflect on my teaching style:


I was told that teaching students in China is delightful and this was not a lie. My students are interesting, curious, and friendly. I did a dorky icebreaker in class where students have to answer a fun or silly question about themselves. Instead of being done at, "Dogs are my favorite animals," students provided details and said stuff like, "Dogs are my favorite animal because they are cute, genuine to a fault, and loyal." One student reported his favorite English word as being "Debonair" and another said her favorite was, "double" because of the beautiful way someone sang that word in a song. To a question asking about skills/talents, one student reported that they were 'sensitive to numbers' and could memorize anyone's phone number after hearing it once. Another reported, "day dreaming."

I feel challenged to create a writing course that'll be relevant and interesting for all of the students. A bit of background: in Chinese colleges, you stay with the same group of 20-30 students for your four years. Each of these classes is composed of students who share the same major. I have English majors, International Business/English dual majors, and Translation/Interpretation majors. From my initial observations, the IB/E students seem the busiest (because they have two majors), the English majors seem the most...like English majors (some mentioned loving books, etc), and the Translation/Interpretation seem the least excited about writing. I'm excited to get to know them more although it seems like a daunting task since I have almost 90 students (!) and will be adding 60 more once I start teaching freshman pronunciation in a few weeks.

...the freshman are currently doing military training for their first month at school. They are all dressed in blue uniforms and doing marching drills all day, poor things. What a way to enter college! Here they are waiting for dismissal for dinner:



Besides furiously lesson-planning and course-planning, I've had the opportunity to do some things that are entirely within my character and schema. For example, I've been drinking enough red-bean milk tea to solve climate change and am valiantly pretending that adding sugary red-bean pulp to sweetened tea leads to excellent health benefits. Also, I've been gifted enough quiet alone time to have pickled and preserved dozens of jars of vegetables, become a skilled taxidermist, and learned fluent Mandarin. I've done none of those things, but in theory, I probably could have. Regardless, it has been nice to just bumble around and do my thing. I love people-really I do-but I'm also quiet happy being a lone wolf for stretches of time. Actually, I gave my students this prompt for their writing sample: "Argue whether it's better to be an introvert or extrovert" and I got some really interesting tidbits & fasinating perspectives, like:

-"An introvert's energy sources are very stable and free to choose. People around you cannot be chosen, but things you read, information you got can be chosen. What's more, introverts have much more time for themselves to think deeper rather than hanging out with friends."

-"Above all, I have to admit a lot of benefits to be an introvert. First, being alone can be very efficient, because you can get rid of the cost of time for communication and some unnecessary conflicts with others. Second, being alone can be beneficial for digging something deeper and coming out an extremely personal idea. Third, being alone can be such a comfortable situation for those who are afraid to communicate with people."

-"I think an introvert can not easily be bothered by other things and people. He just wants what he really wants no matter what other people says"

-"In this quick-fix society, we need sometime to be alone and to read books quietly. During the alone time, we can get into our deep heart and do some penetrative thinking which is helpful for our decisions."

-"Loneliness makes a person better."

-"I am an introvert. I'm quieter as well as energetic. Do you know why introverts seem quieter than others? The answer is they spend much time thinking about themselves and the world."

-"An introvert has to be alone. If he is strong mentally and believe in himself, he can find many truths around him. He has his own time to think about himself, to think about the surroundings. However, if he is fragile, he is eager to find friendships but afraid of being hurt. He will be desperate in the end. As to the extrovert, if he is good at gathering information around himself, he will benefit from being extrovert. In the contrary, if he just simply enjoys the happiness and follows his friends, he will get lost. His own purpose will turn into following others' steps." 

Fascinating stuff. Most of the 90 students reported extroversion as desirable, so I paid special attention to those that had something else to say.

I'm going to leave with some more images of walking around my campus and admiring buildings, trees, people, and tranquil little spots I've found:

One of the buildings I teach in:

 A lovely lotus pond:



My view walking back from class at night when the streets are quiet:



Love you all!

Ilse