Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Gone Caving

Expectations: We all have them. Sometimes we like to pretend that we don't. To admit to them can be like showing yourself too much; it can make you feel vulnerable. We have expectations for how our lives will be, for the people we love, for our jobs, and ourselves.

I have to admit that I have always felt uneasy with expectations and with my relation to them. You try on different hats as a young person when you don't know know 'who' you are, and one of mine was a sort of mid-western version of the manic-pixie-dream-girl: the easy-listening version. Girls are taught that it's attractive to be light, whimsical, easy-going, and a bit wild. I had (have) the whimsical part down really well; it was just a matter of pretending that my natural state was to float around and get wide-eyed once real people who I loved naturally formed (or already had) expectations for me as a friend, person, or partner. There's still a very irritating person in me who likes to pretend that they (I) believe in love without expectations and moment-to-moment life without expectations. If you'd like, I'll introduce you to her sometimes, or, better yet, she'll pop up to talk about meditation when you least want her to. Honestly, I have no idea what I'm saying, but I think I was intending to end this paragraph with a balanced, pleasing, and subtly irritating sentence that sort of convinces you that I'm somehow still a manic-pixie-dream-girl yet also a very thoughtful, stable person who honors commitment and expectation. Did I manage?

Anyway, expectations. I have them; actually, I have lots of them. Some of them are heavy and deep, like the Yangtze, which has recently joined the ranks of words that I'll never spell correctly (also on the list: rythmn and sqwauck). If you are reading this blog, I probably hold some sort of deep expectation for you. Probably, it's something like, "________ will be my friend and be nice to me, even if I'm an idiot sometimes." If you are my mom, it might include something like this, "You will tell me I did a good job after projectiley vomiting during a presentation," which is actually quite a helpful expectation to have. Some of my expectations are as shallow as Trump, yet still hold the possibility of catastrophe if ignored or unfulfilled.

These last few weeks, I have had fun, and not fun, with seeing what my expectations actually are, once I expose them to the harsh and unforgiving light of my brain, which generally is more of a soft, forgiving light actually.

A fun time was when Lizzie visited last weekend. We had a great time strolling around Wuhan. On her last night, we went to something called the "Han Show" which is only available to see in Wuhan. I think I was expecting the coolest thing to be a scene where people ran around dressed up like a dragon, which actually would have been super cool. I don't know why I imagined this but could probably trace it back to essentialist history lessons in 3rd grade if I wanted to really dig. Anyway, the show was something like a polyamorous relationship between "Survivor," that show where people rappel up cliffs using their teeth only ("Warrior ninja something"), the Olympics with a pro-doping policy, and the most vivid and bizarre dream you have ever had. Actually, I could barely handle the beauty and the intensity. Sometimes I secretly zone out at plays and think about cheezits and bunnies, but I really didn't this time. Also, the stage moved, and there was a large body of water in the stage area, just to give you an idea. This was a fun example of when I realized my expectation for something didn't at all match up to reality. No pictures of this, unfortunately.

Pictures: Fun with Lizzie


 The famous yellow crane tower in Wuhan:

 Walking around East Lake


 Lizzie enjoying Wuhan's most popular noodle dish: hot sesame noodles



This last weekend, Lauryn and I traveled with Simon (our host contact at the US consulate here in Wuhan; also loves backstreet boys) to Fenghuang with an unofficial primary goal of exhausting us and an official secondary goal of presenting things to some peeps. It was during this last weekend that I was able to really take note of some subcutaneous (I think I was going for 'subterranean' but I like this one better) expectations lurking beneath my thoughts. Let's take my presentations for example. I had to do two of them, one for secondary school teachers and one for junior high students. I was told approximately how many teachers, and I had a topic, and I imagined a certain atmosphere or situation. I definitely assumed a certain level of English. When I arrived, there were a ton more teachers than I had thought, in addition to about 50 children running around and hitting each other. Also, the room was a gigantic presentation hall with a projector screen the size of Trump's ego. I had to stand on a stage that put my ankles at everyone else's foreheads. It was like a Ted Talk but no one understood me and there were kids everywhere. As my presentation began and as it slowly dawned on me that most of my planned activities would not 'work', I could feel my expectations slithering out from under the fake rock where they hid.

Post Ted Talk: Dazed.



Three days later, I entered a classroom filled with 50 junior high school students who looked a mixture of terrified and ravenous. Ravenous as in hungry to eat me. It was a confusing way to begin, so I began in a confused manner. The English level was again much lower than I had assumed. During my lesson, random and loud bursts of music, bells, and talking erupted from the classroom speakers, at which point I had to stop completely and imagine the students eating me. 10 minutes before I was supposed to be finished, a bubbly song came on that prompted all the students to stop what they were doing, close their eyes, and do 'eye exercises' for the rest of class. During a break time, both Lauryn and I signed our autographs (autographs!) in 50 individual notebooks and gave hugs to students. I mean, it was adorable, but also confusing.

Picture: Teaching the junior high students various witchcraft


Signing autographs, like I'm someone who has an autograph.


I did both of my presentations and I think they went fine, but they weren't easy. They wouldn't have been easy even if I hadn't had certain expectations for them; however, I think it did make it even more of a slog. I do think that there's a difference between helpful and unhelpful expectations. I'm not sure how helpful it is to subconsciously or consciously expect how something like a presentation (or any work) will go and I wish I were able to better let things unfold the way that they do.

Between presentations this last weekend we had the chance to explore the area. Fenghuang reminds me a lot of Luang Prabang. It's a lovely, misty little town on a river, with a bunch of old houses on stilts. The entire area is surrounded by a fringe of soft mountains.






The day after my first presentation, Simon said he would take us on a tour of a local mountain and a cave. The mountain was a hill, which was nice for all of us. I like mountains and I want to climb them, but it's not usually a casual thing you do with a few spare hours and a pregnant woman. Lauryn is pregnant. Okay. Then, we headed off to the cave. My expectations, although nascent, included being able to return to the hotel soonish so that Lauryn and I could spend some well-needed time preparing stuff. As for the cave, I expected a cave, but I think possibly only the mouth of the cave, and a few minutes admiring it. I dunno, I don't spend much time around caves; I don't know any of the usual behavior or norms.

It soon became apparent that it was a bit more of an 'event'. We had to wait 20 minutes for a group to exit the cave before our tour group could enter the cave. That seemed like a serious thing. Then, we set into the cave in a noisy group of about 30 people. Our tour guide talked to us as we entered, in Chinese of course, so I made up the translation in my head. It started to register that we were walking quite a bit and getting very deep inside of the cave. This was a bit surprising and even more surprising was how bewitchingly beautiful it was. China always surprises me, as I've said in previous entries. You never know quite what you are in for. Apparently this is a thing in China, but the entire inside of the cave was illuminated by beautiful, multi-colored lights. It's as if Walt Disney and Gollum were business partners and decided to put Disney world into a cave. This cave had a river and the lights reflecting off the river and the reflection of the cave formations in the water was nothing short of magical and trippy.






Because I was under the spell of the cave, it was only after about an hour and about 15 flights of stairs when I realized that it had been an hour (!) and I asked Simon about it. He explained that it was a two hour walk and we had 6 more kilometers, which is quite a lot of kilometers in cave-distance. It was amazing to me that he had somehow had this knowledge all along and hadn't shared it with us. I feel like in the US, there would have been a mandatory 2 hour safety training before you could even enter the cave and then emergency exits every 50 feet, but in China, you are suddenly in the middle of a cave system and the tour guide has forgotten about you and is out of sight. Actually, to save energy, the lights would turn off in the different cave sections when there was less activity, and because our disheveled group of foreigners and foreigner-babysitter (Simon) was perpetually lagging behind, we kept on finding ourselves in the pitch black in the middle of a cave, which isn't necessarily my favorite situation to be in.

By the time we got out of the cave, the day was practically over, and we were all disoriented and exhausted.

Not to be outdone, the next day we went on another adventure, which Simon promised would be just a 'couple of hours.' We drove out to a Miao village, which is a minority group in China that shares the same roots as the Hmong. We looked at a museum, saw a performance, and then headed off to see a village.

Video: This is literally a woman eating charcoal. There was cultural dancing too but this was the most arresting to me.


Some wires got crossed and although I was expecting that our walk would entail a Miao traditional village, it actually began in another cave. This cave was astounding. Apparently, it is a very historical cave for the Miao people; it's where the king used to hang out with his troops and where young women and men gather to sing songs together. Physically, it was gorgeous. On the outside, the top soared high above us and there was a waterfall.

From the outside:



It was clearly a really special place. Then, we entered the cave through a tunnel:


At this point, things got weird. Things DO get weird when you've been told you are visiting a village and suddenly you are climbing into what appears to be the set of an Indiana Jones movie. When we entered the central part of the cave, it became apparent that we needed to ascend hundreds of feet on a rickety-ass staircase suspended in space.

Here's what this sight looked like from the bottom looking up:


So, we started climbing up. About half the way up, I turned around to take pictures of what was now behind me:


 Continuing to ascend into technicolor heaven:







It's impossible to capture what it was like to climb the inside of that cave-mountain. I can only say that it wasn't at all what I expected. It was uniquely terrifying to me, as someone who doesn't like heights. After we had all reached the top of the indiana jones-stairs, we had another tunnel until we reached the outside.


When we reached the top of the tunnel, we were suddenly in a Miao village overlooking a valley. Ta- Da! I guess.



Simon didn't seem to think anything strange had happened or that there was any mismatch between seeing a traditional hill village and rappelling up a multi-colored mountain like adrenaline-crazed hobbits. I realize that walking up steps isn't the same as rappelling (and that I've misused the word twice in this blog so far), but you'll just have to go with me here. By the time we were finished with the whole experience, the day was over, and I had a presentation early the next day.


What do you think? Do you think the most memorable days and moments are the ones when there's a garish mismatch between your expectations and reality? Or, does it just make you tired? I think I vacillate between the two. Obviously, it depends on the situation and whether the expectations are deep, human expectations, like relationshipping, or shallower ones that happen to occur in deep places (caves are deep! haha, SO FUNNY). And, I notice that the more that I CLING to my expectations even in the face of a mismatch with reality, the more friction I experience in the moment. Yeah, I dunno, I'm really tired.

I'm gong to leave ya'll with a real-life image of what it looks like to be a high school student in China (in China high school is often described as more stressful than college):





Oh, and also some adoooooooorable kids (they are the children of some lovely teachers we were spending time with)




Thursday, October 18, 2018

Last few weeks

Hello loves!

I haven't blogged for weeks due to tragedy at home; I've been grieving from afar and constantly thinking of a family that I love dearly and have always felt part of. My heart hasn't really felt 'here' since then. Then, last weekend, I traveled for the first time to do a presentation in a neighboring province.

Let me catch you up on some going ons' in my life in Wuhan. I'm not feeling my normal verbose self, so this is mostly photo-journal style.

A few weeks ago, we all had a week off for 'National Week.' It came at a good time, giving us all a collective sigh of relief and time to catch up. During that week, I promised myself that for every day I wasted away on lesson-planning, I'd make up with a day sight-seeing in Wuhan. During the week, I explored East Lake, the Botanical Gardens, and the old part of Wuhan, which is called Hankou. It seems like if I stayed in Wuhan every weekend/break, I'd still not run out of things to see and do.

A small part of East Lake that reminded me of Minnesota:
 East Lake:
 Walking on the Greenway that goes around the lake:
 On our walk to the gardens (it was national day, so many a flag!):
Lilly Pads at the Botanical Gardens: 
 Lotus-shaped pond at the botanical gardens:

Lovely pond

Going into Hankou (downtown) was definitely cool too, although the literal opposite of spending a day walking around tranquil ponds. This part of Wuhan is bustling and a little more touristy, although touristy for Chinese people, not really for foreigners. There's a lot of old bank buildings and museums and monuments to the revolution. Actually, the revolution technically started in Hankou, Wuhan (which used to be called "Wuchang"); in the early 20th century, revolutionary groups in Wuhan led an armed uprising against the imperial Qing dynasty, leading to the establishment of the Republic of China. Naturally, I had to commemorate this moment enthusiastically!

The rest are pictures from Hankou, in no particular order:

Cool art in Hankou: 
 The huge pedestrian street at night.
 Carving somethin'
 Hankou at night....all the buildings light up

 An outdoor market

 Just so you can see what it's like getting on and off the metro:
 Will we all fit?
 Modeling downtown
 Majestic lions
 Wedding pictures
 A great view of the city and the Yangtze
 Looking awkward in font of a big, old building
 Street sculpture
 We wandered into a free art gallery...




So many buildings like this.
 Although a major city, there's still more of a bustling, alley-way life preserved in some corners of the city where old folks play mahjong and time moves more slowly:


 Fish!
 Fish!
 Snakes and turtles






Sesame jelly candy we tried. 

 Beautiful sky

Later on that week, I went to have a delicious Chinese, vegan meal home-cooked in someone's apartment.



My friend Nadeesha and I:



All of us, including the amazing chef:


I've definitely been blessed with vegetarian food recently. A few days after this meal, Nadeesha invited me over for home-cooked Sri Lankan food, which I am now obsessed with.

Nadeesha was all like, "Oh, I'm sorry, I only cooked 5 DIFFERENT CURRIES" and I think the fact that this picture clearly shows that there's a hole in my sock really tells you a lot about how many curries I would casually prepare for someone.



Oh, and then here are some mysterious green noodles that I recently got from the cafeteria. They attracted A LOT of attention. everyone around me was staring and asking me questions, which was interesting since usually I feel invisible, but I guess no one can be invisible when they are nomming on green noodles. I have no idea why they were green but they were beautiful and I think vegetarian.

Other things: I'm mentoring four Mongolian English teachers as they go through an e-course about teacher training. This is technically a secondary project; I spend a few hours on this per week. Here they all are, standing around my picture like I'm some sort of spiritual guru. 



Besides the e-teacher mentoring, I also just did my first teacher training workshop! I traveled to Hefei last weekend to give a seminar at Dani's university (she is another fellow). We both gave seminars; mine was on critical reading and hers on using mobile apps for vocab learning. The audience members were Dani's colleagues, other English language teachers at her university. They were a great, active, and enthusiastic audience.

This is me, slightly tilting my head and looking apologetic (this is sort of my default look):

Some of the attendees hard at work:
 Group photo


The seminar went pretty well, I thought, and it was really nice to finally do one so that I could see that it doesn't have to be terrifying. I have several coming up before Christmas; I'll be traveling at least three more times over the next two months to do presentations. The challenge is getting used to the increased workload now that I not only have more classes but also have started doing these secondary projects.

After the seminars, Dani, her husband, and I went to the university's first English club of the year. An English club is basically an adorable way to torment foreign English teachers at universities. A group of students come up with adorable, interactive activities---conversation, games that involve yelling the names of different animals and types of fruit, etc, but then all of these things fall through majestically and when the foreign teachers show up to support the club, they basically have to run the whole thing so that it doesn't veer off a cliff and explode. It's fortunate that it's such an adorable gathering, because otherwise it's a complete nightmare where people are either staring or clapping at you at the wrong moments and not saying anything to help move things along. Don't believe me? See for yourself here: https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/zS8CsO0lzgCz7PIb2a2qhQ. Can you see how freaking cute it is? Can you see how I'm about to murder everyone as I'm slowly realizing that I will have to, in fact, facilitate a large, sweaty group of excited 18 year olds for the next hour instead of simply participating?

Actually, the kids were great. We came, we talked, we sweat like buffalo, and we left. And, since I am so used to being an invisible, flapping stork at my university, it was kind of fun to be around students who wanted to talk to me. And, somewhere during that time, a few of the students got really stagy and I filmed them:


The next day, after sleeping off the English club, I met up with Dani and Tucker, and their friend Sally, and we spent the day wandering around Hefei. Hefei is about half the size of Wuhan. There's soooooo many less people. But. There's still a lot of people. Wuhan doesn't have many foreigners but I never saw another foreigner while in Hefei. It feels different there---people talk to you and smile. A grandmother literally put a toddler in my arms and took a picture of us. It was nice having a more small-town feel (haha, Hefei has 8 million people!). Wuhan can feel too big.

I also felt like my day in Hefei was such a good example of what China is like. In China, you never know know what's around the corner. You only have an inkling that it won't be something you expect. In Lao, I knew that around most corners I'd find a raucous group of friends toasting each other with Beer Lao by the Mekong. In China, this is not the case. In Hefei, we saw a little of everything and most of it was unexpected. I'll try to show you what I mean by that below as we go through a series of pictures taken in the same urban park.

So, this might look harmless, right? A group of middle-aged/older folks. This isn't harmless. This is in fact a marriage market, where parents of suspiciously old single children (my age or younger) gather to meet the parents of other suspiciously old single children and make matches. I'd like, more than anything, to listen in on the conversations.

 Here's the notice board at the marriage market. Here's where you can post the important stats about your single kid, like their height, income, and whether they have a house yet.


Sally, below, who is in the danger zone at 25 and single, had many words to say about this phenomenon.

 So, I was wrapping my head around the marriage market, and we rounded another corner, and I saw what looked to be people stabbing fish with medieval lances. Nope, actually people were feeding koi fish food from BABY BOTTLES. I would let that sink in, but I'm not sure if it ever will. You can actually hear the fish slurping/sucking on the bottles.

 
The signs in the park really illustrated the shock and awe factor. YOu might not be able to see but it lists "Storm experience" and "7D cinema" and "child photography" (which I unfortunately misread the first time) as things available in the park, when I was just expecting some wilted tulips.


 Another corner and there's a man creating next-level art out of sugar:


 Then, a ferris wheel!
 Then, small children running around in hamster balls on water! Twins! Dressed the same!


 Then, I had to use the toilet and this was how they were labelled. I guess it's pretty accurate.
 There was some normal stuff too, like this grandpa getting pushed around by a bunch of his grandkids.
 Kids being cute




 People wearing traditional Chinese clothes
 A lovely field filled with life

Outside of the park, we saw some other beautiful stuff:





I'm back in Wuhan now, lesson-planning myself into oblivion. Looking forward to doing stuff besides work this weekend like a few birthday parties and more delicious food. Just did something really weird---dropped a lot of money on winter clothing since it's getting cold here and I brought clothes suitable for Thailand. This morning I saw Chen for the first time in over a month even though we live 8 minutes away from each other. Chen is even busier than I am and sometimes doesn't eat lunch or dinner because she is working. I bought her a grilled cheese sandwich and we talked about relationships and being too busy. 


Speaking of relationships, I'm missing all of you quite a lot. I'm hoping to be able to reconnect with lots of you soon.

Love,
Ilse