Saturday, December 29, 2018

A Blizzard in Wuhan

This has been a difficult year. As I write, an obituary is open on one of my browser tabs. My dear Grandma Marge passed away on the 28th. https://www.holcombhenryboom.com/obituary/marjorie-hogan . It has now been almost 3 months since my oldest friend's brother passed away. And, I'm still terribly, terribly far away.





Since using words to construct an idea of a person's life and legacy comes up woefully short, my mom and her siblings kept it simple: Marjorie is remembered as a kind and gentle spirit.


It is now the 30th, with New Years Eve coming tomorrow. Despite cautionary tales of New Year's resolutions being doomed to fail, it's hard not to want to synthesize and reflect on your life and what you want to focus on moving forward on this auspicious day of the year.


Right now, however, I'm sick, and anxiously waiting the arrival of my boyfriend, who is due to arrive at midnight tonight, and it's actively blizzarding outside- something I didn't realize happened in Wuhan. I am anxious because midnight is a tricky time to arrive, the roads are undoubtedly disastrous (I'm pretty sure the city of Wuhan has no snow plows), and my boyfriend has a broken foot. It's surprisingly tough to find a taxi driver who can successfully deliver me to my apartment, since my campus has an array of gates, some of which are confusingly closed due to construction or time of night. Often, I'm let out outside of the school in a fit of understandable exasperation when the driver fails to find the one open gate. I don't want this to happen tonight at 1am with someone who is unable to walk in freezing, icy weather. Then, I have another lurking layer of anxiety, since this week I need to successfully turn in all my grades, proof, and course materials. I know this won't be a simple thing and that I'll find out last-minute information about arbitrary rules that I haven't followed, since I didn't know. You can't plan for what you weren't told to do.



Between all these middling anxieties, I'm barely functioning in a cloud of worry. I can barely feel my grandma's sudden absence. And, recently, I haven't been feeling as many positive thoughts about China. Since the next few weeks will be spent exploring China without a work agenda, I'm hoping that will soon change.



I hate this anxiety. I hate this worry and negativity. It feels so unworthy, so unnecessary. It's unbefitting for someone in my situation, for someone with my privilege. It's unbefitting to be lost in this fog and unable to clearly feel that my grandma is gone.



So, I'm lost in this fog, looking out my window at this startling blizzard dropping snow in Wuhan. My thoughts are thick and opaque; probably this is unarticulated grief. I can't think. There are no noble or significant eve of New Year's Eve thoughts arising from the fertile sludge of a year of living. It just feels like sludge. It would be nice, if and when they arise, that they be thoughts about my grandma and how she lived her life. I would like my resolution to be something in her spirit, something born from her zenful, generous, soft soul.





I hope to post some belated posts about the last few months and my friend Dani's visit soon.


Love,
Ilse











Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Giant Infants & Train Epiphanies

I had a fun weekend being a giant infant, how about you?

The greatest thing, and possibly the strangest thing, about living in China, is that you arrive to find that your adult age means nothing in terms of everyday functionality or credibility. I've touched on this before. All of us non-Chinese are equalized into giant and incomprehensible babies the day we touch ground in this country. In fact, any illusion of control over your own life is summarily thrown out with all the bathwater and all the babies, except the babies are you and the bathwater is China. I'm going to get back to the baby thing soon, after a few paragraphs.

This last weekend I went on my third outreach project, which was in Southern China. This time, fourth of us fellows converged like a flock of separated geese to present at a TESOL conference at a university. This was the first project where I've had to present twice in a day and I barely survived. The conference itself was pretty amazing. We were greeted in the morning by half a dozen people in traditional clothing, and the first thing we did was sign our names on a gigantic board.


I was really confused, obviously, but I usually am, so it wasn't anything out of the ordinary. I do think it's really interesting that people are basically paid to be hot props wearing traditional clothing at our language conference. Also, I think you'd be interested to hear that I was followed around by conference paparazzi the entire day. It was basically 12 hours of getting awkward pictures taken of me, like this one below:


I get inappropriately nervous for giving presentations but I get inappropriately nervous about lots of things. I think it went well; my first seminar was on cultural awareness in classrooms and then I presented on pre-writing activities.

Me, raising my hand.

Here's how conference weekends seem to go: us fellows start off being all jacked up with excitement to be together, with wild dreams of 'grabbing a drink' after it's over and re-connecting, but then by the end of the day, we are all glaze-eyed jellyfish with chronic back problems, and so we go to sleep and barely say goodnight to each other.

But no one actually wants to hear about a conference: I want to tell you more about my new life as a giant baby. After the 'work' portion of the weekend is over, sometimes we get to tour around the area with the hosting college. This weekend, the incredibly generous college treated us to two days of  amazing touring: a half day in Nanning, an overnight in Guilin, and the next day in Yangshuo. The great thing about being an infant is that the people in charge of babysitting you make sure to fill your schedule to bursting, so that you never a moment to get lost or fall off a cliff or get arrested or accidentally talk about ballsacks when trying to speak Chinese to some innocent person. In our case, the day after the conference, we were all assembled at 730 am and started a day that lasted until about 10pm. During this day, we were so tightly scheduled that we took a car between places that were less than 2 km apart from each other. Also, another important aspect is that at no point did any of us really know what was happening or what we were doing next. We were blind baby bats waking up in bright daylight. We toured the university, which mostly included looking at an empty 3D printing lab while people took hundreds of pictures of us looking politely bewildered. Then, we went to a nearby garden called "The Park of Intangible Heritage" and made a lot of bad jokes about intangibility,  and then went to the provincial museum, and were then tucked onto a train headed to Guilin. During this stretch of time, we were gently reminded by the lovely university staff with us to eat, drink water, not run into walls, not eat our train tickets, and were gently educated on how to walk, how to pass safely through doorways and sit successfully in chairs. Often, due to our exhaustion, this was helpful advice.

3D printing!


I hope to someday meet the person who translated this sign (in the garden of intangible heritage)


The museum. This outfit was made out of bark! So legit.


Actually, you can't help but feel incredible pity for anyone who has to be in charge of foreigners here. It's a stressful, 24/7 job. There's the general, well-founded sense that we can't really do anything right in China. Also, people here are incredibly hospitable. The teachers at the hosting university wanted us to have a wonderful time and if that meant we had to stick to our allotted nap time and allow ourselves to be directed from activity to activity like a bunch of sun-dazed 8 year olds at zoo camp, then so be it.

Living in China continuously forces me to reflect. This weekend, I had many moments of thinking, "yeah, actually, I couldn't do this on my own." I wanted to be able to order food I liked when we ate meals instead of our lovely guides doing it all, but I also knew that I would end up ordering squid balls marinated in pig juice instead of tofu. It's so hard to give up the sense of independence. Is my autonomy so integral to who I am? Do I actually lose anything when I give up the reigns? How do you spell 'reigns'? Certainly not the way I just did.

Anyway, our trip ended up being amazing. I've never seen such beautiful landscape. It was also great to connect with the other fellows and the teachers from the university who joined us on the tours.

The whole crew on a boat cruise:


 Beautiful walking path in Guilin

 unreal boat cruise

 The road to Yangshuo

 The most beautiful scenery imaginable

 We went biking!
 Yangshuo


China makes me think  a lot about human connection and collision. On a literal level, I'm always crashing into someone. Usually it's because they, or I, or both of us, are doing something stupid on our phones while walking. There's this moment of irritation . It's hard to recognize people as people when they are in your space. Why the hell do I have a 'space?' What is that space? I am frequently annoyed here. On the train yesterday, I had seats next to a man who was smoking and watching horrible, blaring videos of animated pandas screaming. Later, he left, and he was replaced by a man-spreading guy holding a box the size of Wuhan. At some point, after I had my usual train epiphany, I dropped my pencil, and he picked it up for me. Where had the irritation gone? I crash into the walls of my small brain daily. I like to think of it as developing my sonar...now at least, I know where the walls are.

I find it hard to connect here. Actually, recently I've found it hard to connect in general. That's where my train epiphany comes in. I don't know about you, but sometimes the only way for me to experience spirituality is to sit on a train for a few hours. Almost invariably, it happens. This time, I think it was partially triggered by my weekend, in which I had felt genuinely connected to the people around me. Recently, my life has been all trees and no forest. I stumble from task to task, detail to detail, and 'make time' for real life, like eating food, connecting with people back home, and loving myself. On the train yesterday, my epiphany washed over me like the warmth of a dear friend who knows you and reminds you, again and again, of who you are. It was the warmth of human connection, of a memory of cooking with someone you love that for some reason doesn't peel off like all the countless other memories of cooking do, but lingers like the treasure it is. It's a feeling that can be leeched so easily from our lives....such a shame that the most essential, warm, human part of us can leave us so quickly when we become consumed by the trees in our path rather than the forest around us. After my epiphany, I closed my eyes, and explored the walls that I have been building in my mind. I want to know where they are and what they feel like.

This is basically impossible to talk about in words. How do we talk or write about the feelings that swell through us like light? Of course, it's always easier to intellectualize it all away. So, to spell it out clearly, for the jellyfish with chronic back pain, and the squid balls marinated in pig juice sitting in the back row, I'll just say it here: Nothing is more important than loving you. Absolutely nothing.

And, if I trick myself into believing that the tree in front of me is somehow more important than you, than our friendship, than our connection, then please help me find the light switch, and point to the beauty there, and there, and there, and let's smell the forest together.

The rest is just details.

Monday, November 19, 2018

What to do with your arms

What do I do with my arms?

Although I do ponder this question in general, I've been thinking lots about what to do with my arms specifically when I'm teaching. There's only so many things you can do with them, you see. Also, if you happen not to frequently double-fist globes and textbooks when you are teaching, you have to constantly be thinking about your next 'arm move.'


For people who think a lot about their arms, a situation like the one above, is ideal. Unfortunately, without two large objects to hold in my hands, I basically forget how humans tend to use their arms, and end up doing stuff like this:

Distracting flourishes

Using my entire hand to point at something instead of a finger.

One Arm hangs limply like a sun-drunk, water-logged swimming noodle, although other arm is happily holding up a large textbook.

Unfortunately, as you can see, even when I am holding something in ONE hand, the other hand and arm are otherwise unoccupied, and therefore up to no good! And that's when I'm in a professional photo shoot! Just imagine my normal days.


Teachers, and other humans: What do YOU do with your arms and hands?


This all brings me to teacher brain. People talk about mom brain (although never dad brain becuz patriarchy) and I talk about teacher brain, right now. What is your teacher brain like? Where does all your thinking power go to?

Usually for me, it's something like this:

18% Next Arm Move
18% F*** I forgot her name
5%  Oops, have to go to the next slide
13% Where R my handouts
5%  What am I doing again?
10% Stop looking at me
5% I can't believe he is online shopping during class
10% Making Sense When I speak Words
5% How much Time is Left/What Time is it
10% Imparting Knowledge to Future Generations


I'm trying to balance myself out more and I sincerely look forward to the day when "Next Arm Move" takes up a smaller cognitive load than "Imparting Knowledge."


In other arms-related news, I just realized recently that I have received three hugs in China so far, and they have all been from 12 year old students. This is part story and part warning/explanation for why I won't let you go the next time we hug.