Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Vignettes from the Past Few Weeks

I'm sorry about the lack of posts this month -- let's just say, I've been lucky to find time to sleep, let alone write!  Meetings, essays, tests, creating lessons, technology problems, more technology problems . . . Stephanie has been a stressed gal lately.  But, here are some little vignettes:

Our ayi is a blessing beyond belief.  Coming home to those beautifully polished floors twice a week and a delicious home-cooked meal every Tuesday . . . ahh, healing experiences.  Ayi made jaoza (dumplings) two weeks ago, and they were so heavenly that I could actually hear the Hallelujah chorus in my head with every bite I took.  Beth and I ate off those things for about a week, since Ayi clearly thinks we are starving.  Last week, following our exhausting round of four meetings in one day, we were delighted to come home to something marvelously spicy.  I can't wait to see what Ayi comes up with today!

The girls have really impressed me.  When we first started, they could barely hit during scrimmages.  In one of our early practices, I joked that poor So Young was a magnet, because she got hit in the head SIX times!  In another early practices, all of the girls who wear glasses managed to get hit in the face (?!).  Now, they are SO much more accurate!  As always, they continue to be a very upbeat, team-spiritied bunch, but now they're adding some real skill to that.  I really think we have a shot at doing well in our first game next week.

For three weeks, I walked sadly past Lotus's fruit and vegetable stand, which was closed because her husband was in hospital with pneumonia.  Thank goodness, he is just fine now.  On Saturday, Lotus was back, to the immense joy of all of us foreigners in this neighborhood.  We all love Lotus!  I told her that we were all sad to go so long without seeing her, and she said that she really missed all of us, too.

The Joys of Technology (Can You Hear the Sarcasm?)
I had a professor in college who was fond of warning us, "Those who live by technology will die by technology."  He could not have been more correct lately!  We teachers have joked that the theme of this school year is technological difficulties.  Between our dear host country continually blocking things left and right on the internet (some days Google works, and other days it doesn't), the issues with our network, the server issues (got struck by lightening back in August, for one thing), and of course, all of the email mayhem, we have all begun to twitch a bit when we think about technology.  Last week, we had a particularly "amusing" incident:  One branch of our company did something that messed up email, then sent an email to tell us about it!  I laughed aloud over that one.  It took a few days to get the mess straightened out, which meant that I had no way of accessing the ninth grade essays, which the students had emailed to me.  Argh.  We worked out a potential solution to future issues in our last high school meeting (thank heaven for an on-the-ball high school principal!) and we have a solution as well for getting out urgent messages reliably:  We now have a whiteboard in the teachers' lounge.  Yup, we're kickin' it old school!

A Test for the Sophs
My sophomores took their first "Ms. Thompson" test on Monday, and oh what a joy it was.  I have the unfortunate quality of actually caring about these kids, which means I make a lot of work for myself.  In this instance, I created four different versions of the test, to make cheating almost impossible, and put both a map and a huge essay on the thing.  Ug.  That was some painful grading!  So laborious!  For the most part, I was pretty happy with the results.  In my smaller class, every student passed!  In fact, the class average for them was 95.7%, which meant that I brought in snack cakes for them today as a reward.  In my larger class, only two kids failed.  Most kids were in the A-B range, with a few Cs and Ds.  I can live with those grades!  I was a bit dismayed by just how badly a few kids did (I told the class that a couple of tests caused me physical pain and made me punch the sofa), but I was thrilled with how seriously almost all of the students took the essay.  I allowed a cheat sheet for it (3x5 inch, and I didn't let them use it until they had handed in the main portion of the test), hoping that it would mean better thought out essays, and my plan worked!  Most students gave good introductions and conclusions, had very specific details, and even spelled everything correctly.  I think I may continue to allow essay cheat sheets on future tests.

Presentations for the Freshies
My adorably stressed freshmen had their first papers and their first big solo presentations!  They had to give a thorough explanation of their own personal worldview in their paper, then present it to the class within very specific guidelines.  I was, on the whole, quite impressed with what a good bunch of presenters I have in this class.  All of them came prepared, most had excellent eye contact, and they followed the directions!  What good freshies I have!  They were a bit frightened of the time requirement (two and a half to three minutes for the speeches), but most kids did just fine staying within the limits.  To let them know when two and a half and then three minutes were up, I squeaked Yay Duck.  Alice, a very cute and likable Korean girl (all but one of my freshies are Korean, actually) in the class, had sage advice for her classmates after she had finished her speech:  "Just don't focus on the squeak.  At first you feel afraid of the squeak, but if you relax, you don't have to fear the squeak.  And you feel very good when it is all over."

Chinese Lessons
I accused Jackie on Monday of deliberately trying to make my head go sailing off from the sheer amount of material we covered.  She smiled and nodded.  Today, it was more like facial calisthenics.  We focused on some sounds that require considerable effort (particularly the ü sound), and my mouth was actually sore when we finished!  However, both days Jackie accessed my efforts as "Fei chang hao!" (fantastic).  Apparently, we will finish pinyin on Monday, and then we move on to focusing on vocabulary.  I'm excited because I've been dying to be able to communicate better with Chinese people, particularly now that I have a new volunteer activity that allows me to interact more with them.  I continue to love my Chinese lessons, despite all the work.  Last week, I actually had the chance to teach my teacher!  Jackie taught me the word for panda, and was surprised to learn that many American zoos have them (she's never been to the USA, so she is always interested to hear about what it's like).  I mentioned that red pandas are more common in zoos, which thoroughly confused Jackie -- she had no idea what animal I was talking about!  I tried to describe them, but she was still definitely envisioning a literal red panda, so after class, I emailed her a picture.  She had never seen a red panda, and was enthralled with how cute they are.  I think these cultural interactions, where we learn about each other's home countries (or in that case, about our own), are probably even more enjoyable for me than learning the language.  I love it when Jackie explains the reasoning behind certain words or tells me bits of history.  I love, too, the large number of Chinese friends that I'm making.

I am certainly still in transition.  For those of you who have never lived abroad, I don't know that I can accurately put into words exactly what it is like -- you really have to live abroad in order to understand it.  It's a whole score of emotional, physical, psychological issues that a person goes through simultaneously, but also in stages (or in some cases, onslaughts).  With my mother experiencing health problems back in my passport country, my transition has had a definite shift.  This week was really rough, because emotions that I have not really worked through came to the surface all at once and demanded attention from me.  On Monday, I had a bit of a breakdown after school, which I worked my way through with a very long walk on the rocks in the ocean, followed by dinner with Beth.  Probably the amount of stress I've been under has made my emotions more of an issue than they would otherwise be.

There are definitely a lot more emotions at play for me now than what I experienced in Korea, and not just because of what's going on with my mother -- plus, China is really a completely different ballgame.  Like in Korea, I have not experienced any homesickness -- quite the contrary; despite all the issues, I feel quite at home here, even more so than I did in Korea.  Korea, however, felt more like a short-term adventure that I knew would be of only a one or two year duration.  China, from the start, is guaranteed to be two years.  But I am already feeling quite strongly that it will not end there.  I could easily see myself staying here for a very long time, assuming I am not called elsewhere.  I love my job, I work for good people, I have comfortable living conditions, I have friends, and I have an excellent fellowship.

Some people have wondered whether I have experienced any feelings of isolation.  Well, not many.  I have had a few moments, mostly earlier this week, but on the whole, living in community the way that we do here, I am generally not alone (either physically or mentally).  People here are really compassionate, and they tend to notice when someone is not running on all cylinders, so I feel very cared about and cared for.  I have tons of support and love here:  I get a lot of hugs, I found a muffin in my cubbyhole in the teachers' lounge yesterday, I get regular emails (when we aren't having tech issues, that is), I've gotten notes, and I get invited places more often than ever before.  People always want to stop and chat when they run into me, which perfectly fulfills my psychological need to get out a high minimum number of words each day!  And speaking of invitations, I get at least two dinner invitations every week!  Nitta is an encouraging and supportive principal, so even though I just agreed to take on even more work at school (?!), I feel very appreciated and valued at work.

On the whole, although transition has its ups and downs, it's a river that I can ford my way across.

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"Passage—immediate passage! the blood burns in my veins! Away, O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!
Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?
Have we not grovell’d here long enough, eating and drinking like mere brutes?
Have we not darken’d and dazed ourselves with books long enough?

Sail forth! steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go, And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!"

~Walt Whitman, "Passage to India"