The Old Must Go for the New to Come

In January 2010, I crammed 25 years of my life into two little 50 lbs bags and headed out on a China-bound plane to educate the young and inquisitive minds of Dalian on all things American. But why? Why leave a coveted associate producer position at CBS (and six years of journalism training to boot) and head off to a lowly English teaching position in China? Why? Because, frankly, I've learned getting what you think you want out of life isn't always what it's cracked up to be. What follows are the tales of my trials and triumphs (like overcoming my fear of the dreaded squatty potty) and the lessons I've learned along the way...

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

And So That Was Christmas...

In the 26 Christmases that I’ve spent here on Earth, I’ve been extremely blessed to celebrate all but one of them with my family. This year was that one exception…

This year, I didn’t spend Christmas Eve sitting around the fireplace with my mother, step-father, brother and sister, drinking eggnog and reading Scripture verses (Luke 2:1-20 to be exact) or placing emblematic ornaments on the tree. I didn’t lounge around in my pajamas Christmas morning munching on my mom’s famous cholestorol-laden French toast while my siblings opened presents around a purple and gold-clad pine tree and “David Foster’s Christmas” CD played in the background (the same CD that we’ve played every Christmas morning since like 1993.) No…this year, I spent Christmas in the classroom, wearing a 99-cent Santa hat and pretending to be happy about working on the most sacred day in the Christian world. Ni-ho ho ho, children! Teach on earth and good English to all men!

But then again, I would be remiss not to acknowledge that all throughout the year, people are required to work on days which hold incredible amounts of spiritual significance and sentimental value if they happen to fall outside the faith or customs of the mainstream culture. But on Christmas, my own self-absorbed, Ameri-centric ego took little comfort in this fact. However, during the periods when I was not wallowing in my own self-pity, I did enjoy some high points this Christmas.

I spent an unforgettable Christmas Eve, throwing an East-meets-West-style Christmas party with my wonderful coworkers full of Chinese dumplings  (a traditional dish of Chinese New Year) with American-brand fillings (like chocolate and graham crackers; and sweet potato, condensed milk, nuts and chicken…you know, the kind of stuff that keeps us at No. 1 for obesity), the tackiest gifts known to man and ridiculous door prizes.

And like I said before, I spent most of Christmas Day in class merrily conjugating verbs, but the high point of the day, was in the evening when I went with a fellow teacher to a Chinese Christian Christmas concert. One of my adult students, who happened to be a Christian invited me to her church to attend the concert. I was really excited to go. I’d been looking forward to being able to go to an actual church service on Christmas all week (especially, since as a teacher at an English training school open on Saturday and Sunday, I rarely get to go to church at all.) In my mind, I’d pictured a scaled down version of every church Christmas production I’d ever attended, complete with the flashy stage lights, the dramatic renditions of Christmas carols (in Chinese, of course), and the soul-stirring altar call at the end…

So…I’ll be honest, it wasn’t what I expected. There were no dramatic openings, no stirring solos, the service ran incredibly long and the only “Christmas” song they actually sang was “Jingle Bells” (a Chinese favorite which can be heard at random throughout the entire year). And of course, being in a Chinese church service, I didn’t actually understand most of what was being said. Yet even in the midst of this very different world of worship where I could barely understand most of the words (and quite honestly, found some of the songs altogether cheesy), I also felt like I was in the midst of something more familiar to me than almost anything else in China to date. I couldn’t understand any of the songs or messages word-for-word, but I knew the overall meaning of everything.

What was most interesting about the night was the fact that one of my Chinese coworkers and another former student of mine had agreed to go to the concert, too. Neither of them were Christians and they had never been to church before, but they ultimately ended up doing most of the translating for me during the service. Ironically, after translating a few sentences, they would stop and ask me what it meant, and so I would try to explain as best as I could. Eventually, I just started to share with them my own personal experience with God and it got to the point where I felt like I was giving a sermon.

 It was strange…In America, I think we are so regularly exposed to Christianity (with all its churchly strengths and flaws) that we take its very basic tenets as common knowledge. Pieces of the Gospel were etched into our very Constitution. So to be frank, I think a lot of Americans have a rather jaded view of Christianity in general (including the Christians, themselves.) Most of us can quote John 3:16 in our sleep. It’s not exactly a radical, new concept for a country that claims to be indivisible under God (however, disingenuous that claim might be). Yet, on Saturday, it really hit me for the first time, that for my two friends here in China this is a radical new concept…that this Almighty God, the Creator of the Universe, would love them so much that he would send His only Son to Earth to die for them.

At one point, my coworker turned to me and said “This God is so big and mighty…and I am so little and insignificant. I don’t think I am worthy of Him.” And I said, “That’s the whole point. That’s what Christmas is about…This great God saw you and he loved you so much that He sent His Son to be born on this day.” My friend looking a little flustered, smiled and chuckled nervously, then quickly turned the other way.

I’m sorry to say that, I didn’t end up staying through the entire service. On the English program I was given there were about 20 songs listed…and by about hour two of the concert they had only gotten through Song 7 and I was getting hungry (I know, I know…it’s a lame excuse for leaving church early, but you try sitting through a four hour Chinese concert and then, judge me.) Anywho, the night was capped off by joining some of my coworkers and friends for some hotpot (this dish where they give you all these vegetables and meats and you place them in this spicy pot of boiling soup) at this fancy restaurant, a vain search for a place to sing bad karaoke (easier said than done on a Saturday night when the waiting time for renting a karaoke room exceeds an hour), and a lovely Christmas cake that somehow ended up all over everyone’s face (don’t ask.)  

And so that was Christmas…a far cry from the intimate, familial gatherings of Christmases past but nonetheless memorable…and nonetheless a reminder of the holiday’s true significance…Love (I know, it’s cliché but no less true)—the love we show to our families, whether they’re in the next room or the next hemisphere; the love we show to the new people that are placed in our lives with each new season; the love we show to those who feel insignificant; and most importantly, the love He showed to All. It’s a love that surpasses gifts, Christmas cards, telephone calls, e-mails, and words in any language. So with that, there isn’t much else to say but: Sheng Dan Kuai Le! Ye Shu Ai Ni!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Holiday Season and The C-Word

Slowly but surely signs of Christmas are emerging from the storefronts and shopping centers of Dalian…and I suppose, the rest of Westernized China. However, Christmastime here lacks the in-your-face excess of a good ole-fashioned commercialized Christmas from back in the states. Sure there are some gaudy Christmas trees with blinking lights, tacky pictures of smiling Santas and medleys of lackluster carols playing in the background. But there are no lights strewn along city streets and no garland hanging from lampposts. Christmas songs and ads don’t flood the airwaves the day after Thanksgiving (but then, again there is no Thanksgiving in China.) There is no steady jingle of Salvation Army bells outside every building. Every store doesn’t have pictures of happy people holding gifts of red, white and green. No seat for Santa Clause in the middle of any given shopping mall. And most coffee shops here don’t offer any special holiday-themed drinks (except Starbucks, but sadly, even they don’t serve Gingerbread Lattes on this side of the Pacific. Sigh.)

It seems that in China, Christmas is simply given a passing nod rather than months of preparation, weeks of television specials and thousands—or collectively billions—of dollars in spending. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing…except that now I find myself desperately straining to find those pieces of Christmas that I left back home. And I suppose having spent my past three Decembers in New York City, the Christmas capital of the World, my standards might be a little too high at this point. But beyond the superficial spectacle of giant Christmas trees, wonderland storefronts, and larger-than-life holiday productions…what I find myself longing for most from home is the very focal point of this whole holiday—Christ.

Yes, as I said before, there are decorations and music. You can find jingle bells and Christmas trees and tinsel and Santa hats and pictures of reindeers…but what you can’t find is a single Nativity scene. I’ve found bells and bows to top my tree, but I’ve yet to find an angel or a star from the East (but I guess if I did find a star, it would quite literally be from the East—ba-da-ching.) There are plenty of pictures of Old Saint Nick, but not one of a babe in a manger…Cards and signs that say “Merry Christmas,” but no acknowledgement of its context within Christ.

Say what you will about Christmas deriving from some Roman pagan holiday. I won’t deny that just like most Western holidays, ancient paganism has had some influence on when and how we celebrate it. But that pales in comparison to the influence that the birth God's one and only Son has had on this entire Earth. And it is the commemoration of that holy birth—not Winter Solstice, Yule, or Sol Invictus—that has generated the observance of billions across the globe and essentially the entire holiday season. More importantly, it is the acknowledgment of that birth and God’s unconditional love for mankind that gives the holiday season any semblence of meaning for me. I’ve heard people often say they’re not into the whole religious aspect of Christmas, but at the risk of sounding narrow-minded and politically incorrect, I honestly can’t quite wrap my mind around that concept. The pure semantics of the word indicates that it is a celebration of Christ—a mass of Christ

Beyond the lights and the cantatas and the food and even the family, it really does come back down to Jesus for me…which is why I guess, right now, I’m at a loss for holiday spirit even amidst the trees and wreaths. But then again—at the risk of sounding corny—maybe this year, my focus needs to be less on Jesus’ place in ceramic Nativity scenes and more on His place in my own heart…Well, it’s only the beginning of December. There’s still time to get into the Spirit :o)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

21 Questions

It’s hard to believe, but I’ve now been teaching at Jayland longer than most of my Western colleagues. It’s been 9 months, three semesters and over 20 different classes. Over that span of time, it has become a weekly ritual of mine to begin many of my classes by asking my students to write down a question that they’d like to discuss at the end of class. They are allowed to ask questions about virtually any topic they can think of; the only condition is that the questions must be written in English. Over the weeks and months, I’ve built up quite a collection of classroom queries, so I thought I’d share a few gems with you. I’ll leave my responses up to your imagination. :o)

1.     How do you think the Iraq War, now it’s the end of it? Do you think the U.S. Army won?--Adult Student

2.     Why do America speak English?—Middle School Student

3.     What language does people in Mexico speak?--Middle School Student

4.     Do you like to wear dress or skirt? Do you like to eat fruit? Why fish can swim?—Middle School Student

5.     Why we must to do a lot of homework always during our vacation?—Middle School Student

6.     Why we must drink water?-- Middle School Student

7.     Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not. Nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not, unrewarded genius is a proverb. Education will not. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. Do you believe this to be true?—Middle School Student

8.     [A sketch of poop and an arrow] What’s this?—Middle School Student

9.     What were Confucius and Marx famous for?—Middle School Student

10.  Who invented life and people?—Middle School Student

11.  Why are Americans very strong but Asians are very weak?—Middle School Student

12.  Why does Americans stay in the sun everyday and there skin is so white?—Middle School Student

13.  Why do Americans have white skin but Africans have black?—Middle School Student

14.  Why is America powerful?—Middle School Student

15.  Why did Americans believe in the God so much?—Middle School Student

16.   Why American girls so beautiful?—Middle School Student

17.  What does “Howdy” mean?—Middle School Student

18.  How to ask for help when a man is sick seriously at midnight?—Adult Student

19.  I just saw a sentence in a movie: “Is your skirt sick?” I am not sure what’s meaning of that. Could a skirt be sick?—Adult Student

20.  What means the sentence: “The people across the hall are getting a divorce?”—Adult Student

21.  I haven’t a question. You and Agnes [my co-teacher] are very good and pretty. I will study with you in the future.—Adult Student

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Xi'an and So On

I can always tell when fall is approaching…not just by the crispness of the air or the shrinking hours of daylight but by the blueness of the sky in the morning. It’s a deep, rich, cobalt hue that you just don’t find in the steamy haze of summer. It’s that perfect kind of blue I always see in pictures of sunflower fields or white picket fences. And it is beautiful, especially when set as a backdrop to a spectacular landscape of multi-colored foliage. It’s a sight I both love and dread, because with it comes an end to my favorite season of all—my beloved summer in all of its temperate, leisurely bliss and a return to the rapid pace of a frigid school and holiday season that perpetually lacks enough hours in the day. And as I reluctantly face the end of summer’s sultry road, I, being the writer that I am, find some consolation in reflection, and it has been quite a summer to reflect on…However, for the sake of time and space, I’m not going to sit here and recap my entire summer abroad (and I mean, if you really wanted to know, all you’d have to do is scroll down a few posts.) But I will recap the last and latest memory of my Chinafide summer, that is, my trip to Xi’an…and my very first getaway alone. The ultimate declaration of my independence as a SSBF (for a full explanation of this abbreviation, please refer to “The Afric-Asian Relation” posted April 25.)

So unlike the thrilling gate faux pas, the joyous seven-hour delay, and the hilarious hostel bed mix-up that I encountered during my trip to Shanghai, this time around I managed to board, depart and arrive in Xi’an without incident…well, except that at one point for some inexplicable reason, the airport decided to change the gate to my flight about 30 minutes before departure, BUT fortunately, I’ve lived long enough to know that when everybody you’re sitting with in an airport simultaneously gets up and rushes to another location for no apparent reason, it’s probably a good idea to follow. So I did…and it was smooth sailing from there. Got to Xi’an. Got to my lovely little hostel (although, I’m pretty sure the taxi driver overcharged me.) And got ready for the next two days of independent exploration.

The wonderful thing about touring a city alone is you have no obligations to anyone else. You can go wherever you want whenever you want for however long you like and you don’t have to deal with anyone else slowing you down or hurrying you up. It is so liberating! So I strolled around my new temporary neighborhood…admired the looming majesty of the Xi’an Bell and Drum towers and the bustling metropolis that stood below, listened to a live performance, and snapped photo upon photo of all I surveyed…until I soon became aware of the lone traveler’s classic dilemma: the freedom to go and do what you want…but no one to take pictures of you actually doing it. So after several unsuccessful attempts at one-handed, self-portraits, I was approached by a short and pleasant-looking Chinese gentleman who’d apparently taken notice and taken pity on me. He offered to take my picture for me, and taking notice that he too was alone, I offered to return the favor. A few more photos, a broken English/Chinese conversation, and a walk through the Drum Tower later and I guess we’d both silently resolved that we would be each other’s “picture buddies” for the rest of the tour. Since, he spoke a little English but didn’t understand much English and I spoke a little Chinese but can barely understand it, he spoke to me in mostly English and I replied in mostly Chinese. It worked out perfectly. After touring for about an hour or so, my new friend—“Edward” as he is known in English—invited me to join him for lunch, which I thought was quite fortunate since ordering food at any cheap, local restaurant on my own would be a bit of a challenge (especially, if the menu had no pictures for me to point and grunt at) so I accepted…and thus, began the longest inadvertent date of my life.

During lunch, Edward asked me what else I was planning to do for the day. I said I was planning to check out the City Wall and the Wild Goose Pagoda. Then, I asked him what his plans for the day were…Oh, well, whattaya know! He was planning to go see the City Wall and Wild Goose Pagoda too! Well, I’ll be darned! He also kept mentioning something about this Tang Dynasty Construction something or other that he was looking forward to seeing that night and how he would love it if I could go. At this point, I was starting to get the feeling that this guy was not planning on going on his separate way anytime soon, but I figured he was nice enough, so I’d oblige him for the next few hours. After lunch, we headed to Xi’an’s massive 1,500-year-old City Wall, and at Edward’s prodding, I reluctantly agreed to rent a two-seater bike with him and rode the entire 33 km-long wall (roughly 20 miles.) It was actually a lot of fun with a truly amazing view of the city. I was glad we did it, but I was growing more and more annoyed with my new friend, who by this point had taken to holding my hand and asking other people to take picture of us…together (which are probably floating around some Chinese social network as I write this). By the time we had gone through the Wild Goose Pagoda, I was seriously done with the whole stupid make-believe date that my solo trip had become. Meanwhile, Mr. Pepe Le Pong was stuck to me like glue and still trying to convince me to go with him to see the Tang Dynasty Construction site or whatever after I’d repeatedly told him I was tired and just wanted to go back to my hostel and rest.

He kept saying: “You can have a drink and sit and have a rest, ok?” or “You can eat something and sit in the restaurant and have a rest, ok?”
To which, I repeatedly replied: “No, I’m not thirsty/hungry. I want to go back to my hostel and rest.”

He didn’t get it, and he was getting more and more on my nerves, but I felt kind of sorry for the guy, so I said I’d hang out with him for a few more minutes, check out this Tang Dynasty thing and then I was out. He said, “Ok, ok,” but I knew by now, that getting rid of him was not going to be that easy. I was pissed. Here I was on MY vacation by MYSELF and yet, once again, agreeing to do things I didn’t really feel like doing out of obligation for somebody else. How did I get myself into this? And how would I get out? And then, it came…the golden opportunity for my getaway.

On our way to the Tang Dynasty Construction site, we stopped in this little mall area, so Edward could get some new batteries for his camera (I guess all the incessant pictures he kept having people take of us finally wore his camera out.) And despite my insistence that I was not thirsty and did not want a drink, he ordered some kind of large latte bubble tea at a vendor near the entrance of the mall. Since I really couldn’t understand what he was saying, I thought maybe he was just ordering it for himself, since I had clearly stated (in Chinese) that I didn’t want it. He told me he was going to quickly buy some batteries and kept saying (almost pleading) “Please, stay here, ok?” And honestly, I really was planning on staying put, because I felt sorry for him…until, the vendor lady turned around with two large cups of bubble tea and I realized that Edward had completely ignored the fact that I’d repeatedly said I didn’t want one. I don’t know why, but that was the last straw. I was over it. I quickly peeked down the hallway to see if he was anywhere in sight, then I smiled cordially at the vendor lady as she cheerfully stood there with the two cups of nasty tea, took out my phone to fake a phone call and told her I would be back shortly. I walked outside and jetted down an alleyway, hailed a cab at the nearest intersection and bid a fond farewell to my dear friend/stalker. Honestly, the thought of him returning, camera in hand, to a lonely counter of two large bubble teas as anxiousness and disappointment gradually crawl across his face still haunts me now… Sigh…Ah, well. I’m sure he’s over it now. On the up side, I did achieve my long-standing covert mission of dating a Chinese man (well, sort of.)

The next day, was spent on a tour of the Terracotta Warriors with a bunch of Europeans and Australians—which to my glee, consisted of mostly tall, attractive Australian guys :o)—and led by the cutest little tour guide ever named “Zhe Zhe” (pronounced like “Zsa Zsa” Gabor) It was phenomenal—6,000+ clay soldiers uncovered and reconstructed from a world a millennium years old, and countless more to be excavated. Like the Great Wall, it is a total testament to the infinite creativity, ingenuity and insanity of the human mind.

Of course, there are a handful of other more mundane anecdotes I could share about my time in Xi’an, but truthfully, they’re really not worth the space (and this post is already occupying a gross amount of space as it is). In any case, I highly recommend that anyone living or staying remotely close to Xi’an visit it at least once—the architecture, the history, the diverse collage of culture along its peopled streets just make it such an incredibly rich experience. And it was an absolutely wonderful way to cap off an absolutely unforgettable summer. Now, on to the next season. Stay tuned. :o)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Goodbye, My Friend

It’s been quite a while since my last post and I suppose much has occurred in the interval. I’ve witnessed live chickens get ripped apart and devoured by wild leopards, gone on an epic search for a panda, seen a UFO, gone out with a former track gold medalist, and listened to bad American country sung by Filipinos in a German pavilion at a Chinese beer festival…but perhaps, I’ll bore you with those quotidian tales another day. Right now, I’m far more preoccupied anticipating the fast-approaching departure of a fellow teacher. Tonight is her last night in Dalian. And while she is not the first teacher that I’ve had to say goodbye to here, she is the first real friend that I’m truly going to miss.         

Although, living, working and playing together on a nearly 24/7 basis, one would assume our little commune of Jayland teachers would’ve become incredibly tight-knit, I’ve only actually gotten close to a select few coworkers and this particular coworker is one of them. I attribute much of that to the fact that we were both inducted as newbies into the Jayland family on the very same day, and likewise equally subjected to all the initial quirks that expat life in the enigmatic Middle Kingdom has to offer.

Eight months ago, we both arrived in Dalian International Airport on the same deathly cold January night—a mix of exhaustion, excitement and bewilderment. Then we both sat dazed and confused as we struggled to stay awake through 10 days straight of orientation and training all while still under a cloud of jet-lag and culture shock. Then, of course, there was the apartment registration, the passport registration, and the poking, prodding, and pricking of a makeshift health clinic as we were herded through different rooms (including a room where we along with like 20+ other people were required to take our own urine samples…in our own designated test tube.) Fun times. From there began our adventures in teaching, traveling and Five Color City (a seedy section of Kaifaqu that can be best described as a carnival on crack.) And while, we certainly didn’t spend every waking hour together and we definitely had our differences in activities and tastes, I always felt this sense of sisterhood among us—which is probably due in part to her endearing tendency of calling everybody “sister.” She was the fun, pretty, pleasant, easy-going younger sister in our dysfunctional hodgepodge of a staff. And while she has always been a relatively quiet presence among our boisterous bunch, she was a much-needed presence. A balance. Now, it seems like that balance is about to be thrown totally off.

Truthfully, I don’t really care for change all that much. I know that sounds ironic and maybe even downright hypocritical as I chose to move thousands of miles away from everything that is truly familiar to me. Perhaps, I should rephrase that and say I don’t much care for change I can’t control.  I suppose that’s not unique. Most people don’t. But I think even in the midst of big changes, we are still always grasping for remnants of normalcy. Moving to China was life-altering, but in the midst of it, I found normalcy in the routine of my work and in the bonds of friendships…Friendships that I had expected to last, at least, the length of my contract. But life rarely ever quite lives up to our expectations…for better or worse.  Then again, who’s to say that the friendships I’ve formed with my coworkers have to stop here in China? With the advent of Facebook, Skype and G-Chat, it’s definitely a lot harder to lose touch with people (even, if you try!)  However, I am a realist and don’t really subscribe to the whole “No goodbyes, only see you later” school of thought, because let’s be real, sporadic wallposts and picture comments just to say “What’s up” and “Happy Birthday" hardly constitute a friendship. But it is what it is…And for now, this is indeed goodbye…So goodbye, Sister. (We never did get to go on that Chinese double-date, did we.) You will be missed more than you know. :o(

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Rules of Attraction

So, since beginning this blog several months ago, I’ve adhered to a general policy of not mentioning any of my coworkers in my posts. However, recently, I discovered to my quasi-amusement that a fellow teacher thought it fitting to mention me—actually, more specifically, my cleavage—in a recent posting on his blogsite, so I feel it is only equally fitting that I make brief mention of him.

In his post, my coworker recounted an evening a few months back when he first began working for Jayland. At the time, he was new, totally unfamiliar with the area, and for whatever reason, offered little assistance from the staff in terms of practicalities like where to go to get a decent meal in Kaifaqu. Early on, I had developed somewhat of a soft spot for this particular coworker because he reminded me a little of my younger brother (they are almost exactly the same age and have similar fashion sense) and he’s also the only other brown person on the staff (he’s Mexican.) So one evening, being the friendly four-month veteran that I was, I offered to take him out for dinner. Now, I don’t have the slightest recollection of what I was wearing that evening (though, apparently, he did), but I know it was certainly no plunging neckline. At the same time, I am fully aware that I’m not exactly small on top and my preference for v-necks coupled with my frequent tendency to cross my arms when I walk and talk can certainly create the perfect conditions for cleavage. But why this astute, young ex-pat would chose to spend an entire post analyzing this slight wardrobe malfunction when living in a country that offers a myriad of other novelties and absurdities on which to muse is beyond me. Perhaps, it’s just a testament to the psyche of the prototypical American post-grad male who—however, intelligent, enlightened, and informed—is still most preoccupied with female anatomy.

This is not to say his post wasn’t a good read because it actually was. My co-worker happens to be an excellent writer and he broached the subject in good taste (that is, if it’s considered good taste to broach the subject at all.) Overall, the post was more about the rules of male-female interactions than anything else…it just so happened to be based on his interaction with me…and my cleavage. Nevertheless, it actually got me thinking more about the rules of male-female interactions in China, and the whole Chinese notion of attraction…an area which has not ceased to perplex me in all six months of my stay here. 

Now, when it comes to male-female interaction back in the states, I don’t profess to have it all figured out, BUT I’d say I’m pretty well-versed. In New York, I did my fair share of wining and dining with some of the city’s finest; and like most females who’ve spent enough time in urban settings, I became rather accustomed to the catcalls, grunts and genuine compliments of approval that are generously dealt out along the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan. And while at the time, I generally found such behavior vile and primitive,  I also found it--as much as I hate to admit it--strangely reassuring. I understood what it meant…Just like I understood the meaning behind a prolonged gaze, forced laughter at jokes that aren’t really funny, feigned interest in topics one could care less about, childish but calculated teasing that gives one an excuse to touch another. Yes, for the most part, I could easily decode these messages for their romantic subtexts. And from there, I would reason the most appropriate response with a clear understanding of what said response revealed about me, my interest and my standards.

Yeah, the rules of male-female relations were fairly clear to me…until I came to China…a world where having people gaze at you for uncomfortably long periods of time is a way of life—if you’re a foreigner…where men and women are prohibited from dating until they are good and graduated from high school (seriously)…where men and women of dating age (20+) don’t actually date so much as just get engaged leaving fairly little room for surveying one's territory and scoping out other possibilitiesand where waif-like women bleach their hair and skin in vain attempts to emulate the likes of Nicole Kidman and Kate Moss, leaving a curvy, curly, and very brown lady like yours truly to wonder if anyone here even considers me attractive at all or just some exotic sideshow freak.

Who knows? I’ve lost all frame of reference when it comes to how to relate to men in this country. Here, eye contact means nothing because everyone stares. A Chinese man’s attempt at carrying on a meaningful conversation with a foreign woman, might be for the sole purpose of advancing his English skills rather than with any intent of making romantic advances...but then again, maybe it's the other way around. And even the most profuse compliments don’t necessarily translate into attraction here as much as pure fascination. I’ve had a number of men remark about how “beautiful” I am as their girlfriends stand beside them nodding enthusiastically. Likewise, I’ve also heard heterosexual men gush about how handsome some of our Western male teachers are (of course, I am just assuming they're heterosexual). I suppose many of the true indicators here are lost in translation.

Truthfully, I don’t know why it even matters to me. It’s not like I have huge desire to date any locals at the moment (although, an entry I posted a few months back may suggest otherwise. Heh heh.) Actually, I don’t have a huge desire to date anyone at the moment. But like most women I know, I do like feeling attractive. I think human beings, in general, are just wired with a desire to feel...well, desired (the rhyming was not intentional). And while I have learned to love the butterscotch skin I’m in, the longer I’m here, the more I have to keep reminding myself that I am attractive, because in a country where petite physiques and deathly pale skin are the trend, it's easy to forget. But then again, being a freak show isn’t so bad. I’m pretty sure when I’m finally back to the normalcy of the states, I’ll really miss all the stares, the pointing, the snapshots…and the blogs about my boobs. So here’s to being an Af-freak-can-American :o)

Monday, July 19, 2010

What Happens to a Dream Revived?

From the moment six months ago when I signed the teaching contract that would set my life on course to a brave new world, I silently resolved that my family would someday join me. A fraction of this resolution was due to guilt--that is, the guilt in knowing that by signing a one-year contract, I would be missing two very monumental moments in their lives: my brother’s graduation from the University of New Haven and my mother’s graduation from her master’s program at Johnson & Wales University. Yes, guilt played a minor role BUT a much bigger factor behind my mission was my mother—the adventurous, would-be traveler, who for decades had put her ambitions of seeing the world to the side in the name of marriage, family, and one obligation after another…My mother, who instead of using travel as a means of getting away from her kids, always saw it as a way to show her children any little piece of the world she could afford…or even as a way for us to see a piece of the world she couldn’t afford to actually see herself—like my 9th grade trip to Europe…all the while tucking away her own global aspirations for 51 years until they gradually gave way to a fear of leaving the familiar. She instead eventually contented herself with listening intently to the faraway traveling tales of her friends, her sister, her (ex)husband and eventually, her eldest daughter…

But when it comes to family, I am a woman after my mom’s own heart and I could never be fully satisfied with simply sharing a few stories about my unforgettable experience in China with those closest to me. I knew my life here just wouldn’t be complete until I had at least some of my family members here to share in the experience. So like I said, the day I accepted my position in Dalian, I immediately started to strategize how I could afford to fly my mother and brother out to see me. After all, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that had my mom been given the same opportunity, she would have done anything and everything in her power to make sure my brother, my sister and I were by her side…and as a matter of fact, despite my inability to afford a third plane ticket, she did do everything in her power to make sure that my 14-year-old sister came along for the ride. And thus, after months of planning, praying and anticipating, last week my family boarded a 26-hour flight (bless their hearts) and stepped out of the world they knew and into the world I’ve now come to know so well.

So what happens when a family who's never been off the continent of North America spends five days in the world’s largest country? Well, first, they learn about five of the most essential Chinese phrases: “Ni hao” (Hi) “xie xie”(Thank you) “bu ke qi” (You’re welcome) “wo shi mei guo ren” (I’m American) and “tai gui le!” (that’s too freakin' expensive!) Then, they learn how to pronounce at least one of these phrases coherently. They discover that when it comes to karaoke (or KTV as they call it here) the Chinese do not play (I’m talking 3-plus hours of completely sober renditions of sad, syrupy sweet, love songs.) They go sight-seeing, of course. While sight-seeing, they stop every five steps to take pictures of rocks, trees, buildings and Chinese people, slowdown every ten steps to film a commentary on the rocks, trees, buildings and Chinese people; and get stopped every 20 steps to get their pictures taken near rocks, trees and buildings with random Chinese people. They also learn very quickly to always carry a bunch of tissue paper and hand sanitizer when entering bathrooms. But of course, I kid. 

There is so much more to the story of my family’s visit last week that runs so much deeper than I have room to type about.  But from my perspective, some of the most meaningful moments were watching as my beautiful, sweet, amazing co-workers welcomed my family with open arms and a gorgeous scroll painting complete with the characters for their newly-dubbed Chinese names inscribed along the sides (“tang lei lei” for my mom Melodie; “tang ming kai” for my brother Micah; and “tang yue yue” for my sister Shemaiah) and then explained the meanings of each. For a family well aware of the significance in names (“Rhema” means “the Lord speaks”; “Shemaiah” means “the Lord hears”; and “Micah” means “like unto Jehovah”) it had particular resonance.  

In addition to meeting my awesome co-workers, I also determined that my mother, brother, and sister couldn’t possibly come all the way to China without seeing the Great Wall (I mean, I think it’s kinda like a tourist’s rite of passage) so later that week we took a two-day trip north of Dalian to the China-North Korean border in Dandong to see a lesser-known area of the Great Wall (equally as beautiful as the section of the Wall in Beijing but with just a small fraction of the tourists.) It was a trek. The weather was sweltering and the climb was crazy steep…but once we did make it to the top (which took a little over an hour) and surveyed the mountainous terrain of China and North Korea that lay below, I think that’s when it really hit us all that we were really here…altogether…as a family. A dream come true…compliments of a gracious God.

Now, Micah, Shemaiah and my mom, are back in Rhode Island safe and sound, and I suppose, attempting to get back into the groove of daily life while recovering from the double-jet-lag of two 20+ hour flights in one week. And while I suffered about a 24-hour bout of homesickness and depression after they left, it has since, subsided and given way to a sense of peace and contentedness that I have not felt in a very long time…A joy in knowing that God allowed me the privilege of sharing an experience with my family that no story—no matter how colorful or vivid—could ever truly recreate. My mother always says that when it comes to blessings, God doesn’t use a spotlight. He uses a fluorescent. In other words, my big move to China wasn't just for my benefit alone…it was to give the people I love most an opportunity that they may have otherwise never taken… and perhaps, it was to save a deferred dream from dying. I think my mother put it best in a message she sent to me upon returning home:

I feel like something about me is a little different now.... Something that had lain dormant in me for about 30 years has been re-awakened...

Dreams never really die, they just need the inspiration to be revived. Here's to you and all your dreams, Mommy :o)

Friday, June 25, 2010

Shanghai: The Good, The Bad, and The Chinese

It’s been about a week since I celebrated another one of China’s many national holidays (complete with four days paid vacation—gotta love this country) in the nation’s famed “Pearl of the Orient.” Armed with my plane ticket, 2000RMB and next to no comprehension of the Chinese language, I set off  bright and early on a foggy Saturday morning for the Dalian International Airport to begin my great Shanghai Expo excursion…except that planes  don’t fly in I actually ended up spending the next six hours sitting in the Dalian International Airport waiting for any coherent word about when my flight would actually take off…though, it was in fact a good thing my flight didn’t actually take off at the time it was originally scheduled to since about two hours after checking in, I discovered to my very pleasant surprise that the genius at the check-in desk had typed the wrong gate number on my ticket…then, I spent the next hour asking various flight personnel through a series of points, broken Chinese and exasperated grunts where the frick my gate was. Most responded by pointing to the gate number on my ticket even after I told them (in Chinese) that it was incorrect. Then, I would proceed to repeat once again that the gate number on the ticket was incorrect and try to suggest that, perhaps, it might make more efficacious to…oh, I don’t know…look up the flight number in that there magic computer box of theirs... at which point they would all respond the same way “wo bu zhe dao” ("I don’t know"), because apparently, in Dalian, working as a flight attendant at an airport requires no actual knowledge of said airport or its outgoing or incoming flights. In any case with the aid of an English-speaking Israeli man who happened to have an English-speaking Chinese friend, I eventually located the correct gate to the correct flight, and just a short four hours later I was on a plane…and only a brief hour and a half after that I actually took off in that plane. And then, FINALLY, headed for the grand city of Shanghai.

Now, had this been my first and only experience in China, I must admit it may have very well led me to some rather derogatory notions about the country and its people—like that its run by a bunch of people with the intellect and competency of mentally-challenged five-year-olds.  But I suppose by that same logic, an outsider might also conclude the very same thing about Americans after spending a day at a post office or clinic in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. But I am not so ignorant as to subscribe to such a narrow-minded view, and thankfully, this was not my first nor will it be my last experience in China, so I know full-well that this fine country is filled with plenty of intelligent, insightful and incredibly helpful people…none of whom work at the Dalian Airport.

Needless to say, by the time, I arrived in Shanghai and boarded a coach bus from the Pudong Airport to my hostel, it was pretty late and I was more than a little irked that I had pretty much spent all of Day 1 of my vacation in an overcrowded airport. However, all the irritation subsided the minute I looked out the coach window at the glittery, glamorous wonderland that was downtown Shanghai at night. The mix of palm trees, gleaming skyscrapers, and flashing light beams of blue, purple, gold and pink are somewhat similar to what I imagine Las Vegas looks like at night, except much more tasteful in design (although, I’ve never actually been to Las Vegas). And as we glided over a rainbow-lit bridge toward our final destination, I even got a glimpse at the breath-taking exteriors of the Expo pavilions and the thousands of people floating in and out of them.  At that point, that sight alone could have made for a sufficient trip. It was really too amazing to put into words...and a scene I totally would have missed had my flight departed on schedule. So I guess it was all worth it…well, that is until about three hours later when I spent about an hour or so with one of the hostel workers trying to figure out which bed I was supposed to sleep in. 

“I sink i’s ok,” he said and pointed to a bed, “Use zhis one.” 

“Umm, but it kinda looks like it’s still being used,” I replied pointing out the fact that there were still books, toiletries, folded clothes and a pair of glasses on it.

Pause. “No, I sink i’s ok. You can sleep zhere. No problem.”

Found out about an hour later it was, indeed, still being used by another understandably annoyed patron. But in the end, she got a bed, I got a bed and all was well in Shanghai.

The next two days were spent doing all that touristy stuff that tourists do…visiting the art districts, markets, novelty shops, taking pics at the famed “Bund” (a strip along the river that provides this beautiful mix of ultra modern sky-scrapers and turn of the 20th century Victorian-inspired architecture), posing (and not posing) for “Yes, I am American” photos taken by random Chinese tourists, contemplating the meaning of life at the Yu Garden, and spending too much time waiting in lines at Expo pavilions for five minute demonstrations…All culminating with a fabulous night on the town in one of Shanghai’s fabulously fancy (and overpriced) restaurants overlooking the city’s gorgeous nightline, followed by a walk along a trendy little strip of restaurants, bars, and bistros and riveting conversation about race relations, the NBA, Obama, and Oprah with three lovely young Chinese gentlemen—actually, they weren’t very young at all (and were most-likely married) and our conversation was rather limited given the fact that they only knew about 10 English words and we knew about five Chinese phrases. So our exchange went a little something like this:

Man 1: Oh, so you, uh, American.

Us: Yes, American!

Men: Yeah, American girls good!

Us: Yeah! (Everyone cheers)

Man 1: (Looks at my two friends, looks at me,) Uh, you all American?

Us: Yes.

Man 1: (Points to my two friends) You two white. (All three men look at me) Uh, you…

Me: Black! (Everyone cheers)

(Men pause...look puzzled, ponder this for a minute, then, lo and behold...the epiphany.)

Man 2: NBA! (The other two nod)

Men 1 & 3: Ah, NBA!

Me: Yeah, NBA! (Everyone cheers) 

Me: Obama! 

Men: Obama! (Everyone cheers)

My friend: Oprah! (Everyone cheers)

And thus, a fitting and profound conclusion to my soul-searching journey through the concrete wilderness that is Shanghai. Sure, there are plenty more tales to be told, but perhaps I will save them for another time (or maybe, I’ll save myself the carpal tunnel and just post the pictures instead.) In any case, Shanghai is an absolutely awesome city. They say it’s the New York of China—and in some respects, that’s very true. In some ways, it pales in comparison to NYC (as do most things), yet in others, it totally outshines it (figuratively and literally, ha!) I recommend anybody living anywhere remotely close-by visit it. The fact, alone, that I can even say I went to the World Expo, in itself, is pretty darn cool. I think it’s a great testament to one’s life to be able to mention any monumental international or historical event and utter the words “I was there” in the same breath. I pray everybody is afforded at least one opportunity to do so in their lifetime. So here’s mine: In the summer of 2010, Shanghai hosted the largest World Expo in history...and I was there :o)

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