2015

When I started this blog, I stated some goals that I wanted to adhere to over my (what I then believed as my only) year in China. One of those included writing regularly in order to keep everyone back at home involved in things that I was experiencing out here in Shenzhen.

I failed.

Somehow I ended up getting caught up in everything and nothing at the same time. Writing didn’t seem very important back then, and I blamed it on being busy and trying to keep on top of everything. This was one of those little lies we tell ourselves to excuse ourselves out of maintaining something that, while not compulsory, may be beneficial and stimulating. Realistically, I had no reason to fall off the wagon. Last year I was working full time… a full 17 hours with two or three tutoring gigs here and there. This year, I’m working 12 hours (soon to be reduced to 10 following the Chinese New Year holiday vacation) and have found myself with far too much time on my hands. Looking back, I feel a little sickly. I have definitely wasted a lot of potential moments and I hate knowing that I haven’t always maximized my time here.

However, I feel this time has less to do with my belief of being “busy” (I’m so sorry to all my friends who started working full time following graduation, feel free to cut all ties immediately.), but rather with my evolving relationship with China. Last year, everything was new, shiny (“shiny”), and exciting. (Quick aside, anyone who tells you that the Oxford comma  unnecessary is not fully with it.  Omitting it, to quote Nina Garcia, is “NOT. AESTHETICALLY. PLEASING.” Sorry, had to get that out of my system.) This time around, a lot of Shenzhen has a “been there, done that” vibe to it. An unexpected shift in schedule or plans due to my employers neglecting to realize that I haven’t been informed has begun to run thin. My new neighborhood is in the middle of a huge shopping street, meaning huge trucks and delivery carts are wheeled right past my bedroom window at all hours of the day and night. (Also, there are feral cats who duke it out fairly regularly. That tends to lean towards a more humorous occurrence rather than being a nuisance.) I find myself being a little drained in a city that’s purely based off of economic activity and finance, with very little individual culture.

I think my biggest fault as a human is failing to see the big picture of things. I tend to let minor details like those I’ve listed dominate my mind as opposed to taking stock of everything I have and seeing the overall value of the situation. Before I left America this year, I spent the car ride to the airport with my mother discussing my anxieties about returning for another year. The one thing she left me with was: “I know that it may be nerve-wracking right now, but I truly believe that you will come away with not an ounce of regret from returning.”

So that’s why I’m back here. I think that maybe using this blog as a diary/update service of sorts wasn’t really it’s true purpose. Instead, I think that detailing my life and feelings for the rest of the year will be a healthy discourse in keeping me motivated to achieve things that I have yet to accomplish, and keeping perspective of everything going on around me. Some recent soul searching has helped me to realize that I’m not good at being honest with my emotions. I find myself more open and truthful when I perceive things to be on the upswing, but when I think that things aren’t going my way or I’ve done something wrong/made a mistake, I shut down. I isolate myself, and put on more of an act that everything is okay. I know that that is not a healthy mindset, but I do believe that even admitting that I need to work on expressing myself more is a positive step forward. I wanted to believe that I can fix any problems that may arise and that I can handle my own baggage, but I need to also be able to let other people know when I’m feeling a bit out of it or just need an encouraging word.

I want these last few months (most likely my final months abroad, but we’ll see where that goes when the time comes) to be special, like nothing I’ve ever experienced and I’m determined to follow through on what I told myself it would be like in August. Some things that I have to look forward to:

  • Traveling: The month long Chinese New Year is approaching and I’m far more excited about this year’s plan than last year. This year, I have a lot more planned for things that I actually want to see and am genuinely interested in – Taipei, Myanmar, Singapore, Kuala Lampur. It’s going to be an incredible month and I personally can’t wait.
  • Health: One of my goals of things I wanted to do this year was to run the Great Wall Marathon. Cool, right? Well, here’s the thing – I’ve never even run a 5k before so I think I’ll compromise and run the half-marathon instead. Cool? Cool. I actually am excited about it. I think I finally get exercise now. It used to be such a chore for me, but the past month I’ve actually been looking forward to go to the gym and get the endorphins pumping. (To anyone who knew me at Pitt with my anti-physical activity rants – I don’t even know who I am anymore.) I’m not running this marathon to compete or try to place at all (HA.) but it was on my bucket list of thing to do, and I’ll be damned to miss out on this.
  • Post-China: Okay, I know I’ve detailed how I’m going to make the most of my time here, and I promise I will! However, I am also excited to start the new phase of my life back in the States too. I really am excited to see where my cards fall after my *~*illustrious*~* career as an English teacher concludes. It’s been a while since I’ve gone through the job hunt, and I can’t wait to sink my claws into all available opportunities. Also, I take a sick pleasure from making and editing résumés. It just feels so good.

So that’s where I am right now. Sorry if this comes across as a downer, it’s really not supposed to be that way. More of a self-encouragement if anything. I really will try to update more frequently, it feels good typing my soul away (Regret for not keeping up with this last year in 3, 2,…..). I will probably be out of the loop while traveling, but I’ll see if I can download an app to jot some things down on here whenever I’m Wi-Fied up in the hostels. Thanks for all the support over the last 18 months, everyone. Love you all. TTFN.

Thankful

I’m doing Thanksgiving lessons this week, and so far it’s been successful. It’s divided into three main components: 1) The story of the first T-Gives (In which I am lauded with applause every time I write the characters for England [英国 ] and America [美国 ], two characters I learned my first semester in class. I’m not above fame-seeking.) 2) Teaching them the names of some traditional foods and then having them plan a Thanksgiving menu as a class (This has backfired on me. I teach right before lunch almost every day, so I skip from class to the cafeteria and then load up my tray to the brim. Basically, I’m looking like a stereotypical fatty fat from America to my coworkers. Welp.) 3) Teaching them what it means to be thankful and then having them write down what they are thankful for. It’s been going well so far, even my lower level classes are getting into it.

I had an awkward moment today though with component number 3. I was going around, making sure everyone was doing their work and checking their answers. (It’s so much fun to bust kids who aren’t doing their stuff. “Hey, guys! What are YOU thankful for?!?!?“) Making the rounds, one 8th grade boy eagerly waved me down grinning to show me his answer. I took the paper and read.
I thankful for 1BJ.
Now I’m annoyed. 8th graders are notorious for pushing the limits on what is acceptable in class. We all did it at that age. In a different class, I had them write sketches about finding bugs in a hotel room. Two boys presented a sketch about “fuck a chicken.” Not cool, guys.
So I glare at him and begin to tell him off. Why would you do this? Do you think it’s funny? I am a teacher, you need to show me respect. The kid looks back at me, a hurt expression in his eyes. “But, Mr. C,” he stammered, “he is my favorite.”
I looked at the paper again. I had misread.
I thankful for 1BJ LBJ.
He was trying to tell me that he was thankful for LeBron James. Not blowjobs, just his favorite basketball player who he idolized.
Oops.
Students: 1
Mr. C: -500

Min

I met Min on the streets of Hong Kong. Around twenty or so teachers had made the trek to the city to celebrate Hong Kong’s 2013 Pride Parade. Armed with individual bottles of wine, we joined in on the parade and marched through the city in support of the area’s LGBT community. The atmosphere could only be described as jubilant. 5,200 people joined us that day. While this number pales in comparison to the crowds that turn out in similar events in America, it was quite an accomplishment for Hong Kong. The area is notoriously conservative, decriminalizing consensual homosexual relationships as recently as 1991. At the first Pride Parade five years ago, barely 1,000 people attended.

As we were walking the streets, Min overheard my friends and I singing Lana Del Rey songs (Diet Mountain Dew, baby/New York City/Never was there ever a girl so pretty) and joined in with our impromptu choir. I began chatting with her. Following the usual first meeting in China comments (“Your Chinese is SO good! Especially for a white person!”) I asked her why she was marching today.

Min, aged 17, lived in Singapore with her grandmother. She moved to Hong Kong about a month ago for fear of being disowned once her grandmother discovered that she had a girlfriend. Her grandmother does not know that Min’s move is permanent, thinking she’s just traveling with friends. Min’s currently trying to find a job to save up money to bring her girlfriend over, but so far she’s been unsuccessful. Their only communication is via Facebook, but more often than not they end up bickering due to financial stress and the emotional toll all long distance relationships take.

But then Min looked up, and with a smile she stated:

That’s why I’m marching today. No matter how much we may fight now, I know that it’s worth it. I love her, and I want to be happy with her. I want everyone to be happy.

That hit me hard. While we had come to Hong Kong in support of equal rights, we had also come intending for a light-hearted and adventurous weekend (hence the individual bottles of wine). I had never thought about how differently it is for LGBT people over in different countries. Not that I don’t know that discrimination is rampant in other parts of the world, but I never really had considered the individiual. I’ve never been associated with anything other than unconditional support and love from friends and families, never once doubting who I am or what I’m capable of doing. Any obstacle I had overcome is immensely overshadowed by what she has had to endure.

I came to China to have my perspective challenged and my mind opened up by an entire country. All it took was one seventeen year-old girl.

Perspective

Life has been a whirlwind as of late. While getting to know Shenzhen has been wonderful, many of us had been feeling a little stir-crazy. Our passports had been held for nearly a month by various police departments throughout the city as they processed our residence visas. Without them, traveling is nearly impossible. The only viable option is via train, which we still have to present a copy of our passport too, but there aren’t many hotspots you can hit China via train that will get you there quickly enough to actually enjoy a weekend getaway. However, a week and a half ago, the visas had finally finished processing, especially good news considering that last week was a government holiday, meaning it was time to travel.

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180

Today was probably the most necessary day I’ve encountered since moving settling down in Shenzhen. The past two weeks have been a blur in the worst way. In my previous post, I mentioned that I had an extra week off compared to the rest of the teachers in my program. This one week vacation turned into two, and it was not welcome at all. Relaxation is nice, but it was not at the right time. Despite not teaching, my school heads requested that I stay on campus throughout the days in case they managed to fix my schedule (They didn’t.) or if they needed me for anything. Spending two weeks cooped up in an apartment grows old quickly, and I felt guilty for not spending more time exploring the city.
But after today things have definitely taken a turn for the better. For starters, first day of classes! I arrived at the cafeteria around 7:30 in the morning for breakfast, and sought out my contact teacher to finally find out when I would start classes for the day. Unfortunately, according to him, my schedule was causing a lot of issues. At my school, I essentially replace the Chinese English teachers for a period and take over their classes. Apparently, a lot of teachers wanted the same or similar times off, and others wanted me to come in on Wednesday and Friday afternoons (a violation of my contract due to Chinese classes falling at that time). While initially crestfallen, I decided to make the most of this day and accompany Ally to her classes to watch her in action and pick up a few quick tips before starting myself.

Cut to an hour later: Ally and I arrive at the office to drop off our stuff. I had abandoned my teaching materials in my apartment and changed out of my button-down and khakis into a more comfortable shorts/T-shirt combo. (Shenzhen gets hot yo, and it’s hard consistently being a sweaty monster.) Suddenly, rounding the corner at breakneck speeds, my contact teacher sprinted up to us. 

“Connor, we have decided that this week you only teach grade eight,” he panted breathlessly.
“That’s fantastic!” I exclaimed, “what period do I teach first?”
“First period. It starts at 8:30.”
I glanced at my phone. 8:32.
I don’t think I’ve ever sprinted quicker in my life. Bounding across campus like a gazelle pursued by the lionesses, I made it back to my apartment, changed back into teacher Connor, grabbed my USB and books, and made it back to class…fifteen minutes late.
Breathlessly I apologized to the teacher, but she understood. Nowisim is very real in China – the idea of planning things in advance is just not a thing here, you have to be ready to fly at the spur of a moment. Refer to my “getting China’ed” post. That first class started off poorly and just spiraled down quickly. My powerpoint didn’t work so I was forced to pantomime and repeat things repeatedly instead of relying on my fun pictures to explain the class and the rules to the children (All that time on Google Images! Wasted!), and the students were at a much lower level than I expected, which is never good for boosting a waijiao’s (foreign teacher) morale.

Thankfully, the second class of the day went so much smoother than the first. Firstly, their English level was miles above the first class, so much so that I’m still having trouble grasping that they were all the same age. Secondly, whereas the first class seemed generally uninterested and stared at me like I had two heads (AKA normal middle school brattiness), the second was generally engaged and enthused the entire time, and volunteered to ask/answer questions and provide feedback (First time this has happened in either Beijing or Shenzhen so GO KIDS GO, embrace your inner nerdiness!). When I asked what they wanted to study, one little girl chimed in:

“Teacher, we want to study whatever you want to teach us.”

SWOON. SWOONING ALL OVER THE PLACE.

Granted, most classes aren’t like this. Kids are kids, even in China. They don’t want to be cooped up for hours on end in school, they want to play and go outside. I’m guessing that this was the advanced class but I don’t care, I’ll take any positive experience. 

Additionally, they told me that I look strong and they love my blue eyes so Grade 8 Class 5, keep sucking up to teacher. It’ll pay off in dividends by the truckload.

After classes I decompressed for a little bit. After getting sucked into a Breaking Bad vortex (I just started the most recent episodes and my emotions are all over the place at the moment. I CANNOT deal with this kind of emotional investment again, I just recovered from Mike’s death.) I realized it was getting late and needed to get dinner. Guess what guys, I found a second restaurant instead of surly noodle hut! And it is…another noodle restaurant. Can’t win ’em all. (This place is a tick up in terms of taste and cleanliness though. Also, the menu is really easy, just tick off what you want and they fetch it for you. Downside is, the waitresses all doubt I know what I’m doing. After I tick off a meal with the character for spicy in it [辣], they always ask me if I know that the meal is spicy. Yes, waitresses, whiteboy likes the heat, he can handle it.) However, when I got to the street, both restaurants were packed. Panic. 

That’s when I noticed something new. Perpendicular to the street I exit campus from is a highway which I always viewed as impassable, but tonight I noticed a pedestrian bridge traversing it for the first time. I had previously written off my neighborhood as nothing but residential, but my Lewis and Clark senses were tingling and I decided to explore.

Thank God I did. Nearing the end of the bridge, the unmistakable stench of stinky tofu (Exactly what it sounds like, folks. Mmmmmmm, fermentation.) bombarded my nostrils and I knew I was in safe hands. FINALLY, I had discovered my own network of alleyways littered with stores and small restaurants. These were my blood and water in Wuhan, and now I have a new playground to explore in Futian. I’m beyond ecstatic at this.

I ended up at a small outside shack near the end of the street. I sat down and glanced at the menu, but the waitress approached me nervously, definitely not used to Westerners in her establishment. I decided to order the first dish I could read and settled on 酸菜抄肉丝饭 (Pickled vegetables and pork strips stir fried together and served with rice.) Shame to say that the meal wasn’t a home run. The flavor of the pickled mustard greens were salty and sour without being too overpowering, and the pork seemed to be a higher quality than that of other restaurants. Unfortunately, the dish was ruined by one aspect: Sand. When I first started learning how to cook, I religiously took notes from The Barefoot Contessa. Over and over again, any time a leafy vegetable or something grown in the ground was used in a recipe Ina always made sure to note to intensely wash the leaves to eradicate any grit that could ruin a bite. The stems of the mustard greens were fine, but the leafy tops were so loaded with sand that it killed any other enjoyment I had ascertained from the meal.

It’s alright though, there’s always going to be good and bad meals in China, just how it is in America. No amount of sand can ruin just how much today meant to me. I’ve finally gotten to start work and enjoy it (Remember my goals? Going into TESOL is definitely making more and more sense as I get increasingly involved in it.) and I have a whole new exciting area within walking distance from home to explore. Every time I start to think that I’m over China and don’t want to deal with it any more, it always reels me back in. That in itself is something to cherish.

一路平安 

China’ed

“I’m so glad today is over.” “Today was a China Day.” I got China’ed so hard.” Grumblings and musings amongst the teachers have lead to a group consensus: we all got China’ed today. “How does one become ‘China’ed?'” you might be asking yourself right now, and that’s wonderful question! (If you were a nine year-old Chinese boy/girl I’d high five you right now, thereby engaging and enthralling you whilst subconsciously making you want to participate in class discussions. Don’t mess with Teacher – he’ll put some voodoo mumbo jumbo on you, kids.”) In order to explain being China’ed, allow me to demonstrate the various levels of emotional responses via things that I have thought at various points either in the past week in Beijing or two years ago in Wuhan.

Honeymoon

“This is so crazy, I can’t believe I’m in China right now. It’s so crowded, Pennsylvania has nothing on this. What kind of noodles are these? They’re so cheap! Everything’s just so alive right now, I want to live here forever.”

Hostility

“I didn’t even know I could sweat in that area. What’s that smell? Ugh, if I have to look at one more noodle stand I’ll scream. Hopefully the internet won’t be down for the third day in a row so I can maybe catch that one in a million chance of getting in touch with someone. God Bless America.”

Humor

“Is that child defecating in the street? Oh, China, you scallywag!”

Home

Erm, I don’t have anything for home. We discussed these stages in detail at our orientation meetings just to foreshadow the range of emotions we’d experience on our excursion. I’ve definitely cycled through the first three both during studying abroad and during our Beijing training. It’s sad that I’ve never hit that feeling of home, but I wouldn’t expect myself to. My time in Wuhan was only a six week program so that feeling of the temporary always lingered in the air, and I’m currently living out of a suitcase in a hotel so the settling in hasn’t quite hit yet. I’ll get there in due time, forcing anything isn’t going to change how I actually feel.

During our last meeting of the day, Beijing erupted. Fog and humidity wafted through the air the entire day. Air conditioners were the sole motivation for ambling through the sticky mess of the campus, desiring the comforting, artificially cooled environments our classrooms provided. But that sticky humidity brought a message forth upon us. A message to construct an ark, gather two of every animal, and wait out the end of the world to repopulate the world. Sheets of rain slammed into the windows, thunderclaps punched through the walls. By the time we were excused for the day, our path home was engulfed in a shin-high lake. Us teachers had no other recourse but to remove our shoes, roll up our teaching pants (Business casual is a habit, get like us.) and wade our way through the mile and a half hike back to our hotel barefoot.

So where am I with China right now? Wading in a river in the middle of a metropolis, watching cars and buses honk angrily at each other in attempts to weave in and out of the deep trenches of water in the street should read as a negative, but now that I’m back home, warm and dry, it’s funny. China is funny. I’ll have my moments where I’m annoyed, where I want to be back at home and know how to react. But the feeling passes, and the hilarity of the situation arises.

It may not be home yet, but I’d rather laugh in a madhouse than cry in a mansion any day.

一路平安