Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 in Review

2011 was . . . wow, even I am at a loss as to how to describe it.  I think this is the best I can do:  2011 was a bipolar teenage female year having a very rough, long menstrual cycle and occasionally getting drunk or taking mind-altering anti-psychotic medications in order to cope with it, and also battling numerous authority issues.  Yup, that about sums up 2011.

History students will one day study this year -- actually, my history students will study it for a little while when they return to school at the end of January!  It was the year of protests, revolutions, scandals, dead despots, and the world media's obsession with Pippa Middleton's rear end.  I don't have space for all of the events that took place, but here were just a few that captured my attention:

  • The US finally got Bin Laden.  Now I am not a person who rejoices in death of anyone, but here I had to make an exception.  That man was evil.  I don't care that another will just rise up to take his place; Bin Laden had a special kind of dreadful hate about him, and I cheered when I read that he was gone from the world at last.  I still have nightmares sometimes about September 11 -- that day will likely haunt me for the rest of my life, and I didn't even lose anyone that day.  I cannot forget the horrible, wrenching fear that gripped us all that day and the days that followed.  My teenage journal records all the sleepless nights I spent as a high-schooler, convinced that we were headed for World War III.
  • The Arab Spring.  It was like a game of Middle Eastern dominoes, with revolutions breaking out right and left and Twitter and Facebook suddenly playing a role that their creators never imagined.  I hope and pray that the new governments will do better by their people than the old, but . . . I am not holding my breath.
  • The deaths of Qaddafi and Kim.  Two more evil men, both of whom had hands and hearts so blackened with blood and corruption that they almost ceased to be human. Others will take their places, sadly.  Especially in the case of North Korea, winter is far from over.
  • A whole bunch of people throughout the US got really mad, had no common goals/aims/ideologies, and decided to riot and basically make lawless pests of themselves.  I'm sorry -- I just can't take the "Occupy" protesters seriously.  Change is not brought about by neglecting your responsibilities, shouting, waving signs (several of them with abominably bad spelling, by the way), and trying to goad the police into using gas.  What takes place when those protesters gather is nothing grander than small-scale anarchy -- it's like a bunch of overgrown toddlers throwing tantrums because Mommy won't let them breastfeed anymore.  Yes, change needs to happen, though I am certain I disagree with most of the protesters as to exactly what type of change is necessary.  There is certainly a better way to bring it about.

2011 was a big year in my personal life as well.  I really have no historical significance at all, although I do like to hope that I at least brighten whatever corner I happen to be in (I do try, anyway).  However, since this is MY blog, I'm going to indulge in mild narcissism and review some of the big events that happened to me this year:
  • I brought in 2011 with no clear idea of what my future held, other than that I was pretty sure God was ignoring my wishes and calling me back to the classroom.  After the Manasses experience, I had sworn off ever teaching again.  Fortunately, God knows what's best for me and never listens to my feeble protests (to be fair, He does make the journey very pleasant once I stop kicking and screaming).  It was not until February that I became aware that I was likely headed back overseas in my future -- and even then, I confess that I had plenty of doubts.  I had two dogs, tons of furniture, and a car -- how could I possibly leave the USA?
  • I fought the War of the Thesis.  It was bloody, exhausting, fraught with danger and difficulty, plus the CIA tried to reclassify a large portion of the documents that I needed.  At several points, both my thesis chair and I believed that the thing would never be written.  I had nightmares about showing up to my defense with nothing to defend.  I even wrote a short story about my thesis becoming self-aware, coming to life, and trying to kill me.  On April 23, just a few months after I started, I was able to write on this blog, "As of 10:00 am today, the horrible, monstrous, insidious, ill-formed offspring of my feeble mind, also known as my thesis, which has plagued me like a host of ten thousand camels tap-dancing on my shoulders in combat boots, is finally written."  On May 2, I defended the monster and passed with flying colors!  In the same vein, I graduated on May 13 with my Master of Arts degree in history, having completed it in a year and a half, and finishing with High Distinction (solid 4.0).  That's pretty much the biggest achievement in my 27 years of life.
  • There was, of course, the car accident on May 6.  A distracted young driver hit me head-on on a mountain road.  She is now trying to push a claim against me.  Ah, irresponsible, greedy Americans -- how they warm the heart.
  • I moved to China!  It was by far the biggest decision of my life, but once I made it, I never doubted that it was the right choice (even though my family thought I was nuts -- they usually do, so I lovingly ignored them).  Since leaving in late July, I have found a degree of happiness and contentment that I previously could never have imagined.  I teach at a fantastic school with the finest group of educators I have ever met, and my students are a brilliant and witty ensemble of pure awesomeness. I don't have a single student that I would like to lead to the guillotine!  I occasionally indulge in the mental image of bopping one or two of them, but on the whole, I love 'em all!  I also have had my heart completely stolen away by China -- who would ever have foreseen it?
  • My mom got sick.  This was, for me, probably the most difficult thing to get through in 2011.  She's doing all right now, but for a while, she had me pretty terrified.  It's really tough to grapple with sick relatives and not be able to do anything for them because you're thousands of miles away.
  • I wound up on this surprise extended journey in Korea, all because of an obstinate ankle that refuses to behave.

And so, I face 2012 with a lot less uncertainty than I faced 2011 (for one thing, I have THE BEST JOB EVER! and for another, I don't have to worry about whether or not I can actually write a thesis).  As I enter another year, I do have a few questions on my mind:
  • Will I start the new year with an operation?
  • When do I get to leave Korea and go back to China (not that Korea isn't a great country, but China is home)?
  • Will Kim Jong-Un be as evil as his father?  What will happen here in Asia because of him?
  • How will I ever get this bloodsucking reckless driver off my back?  Doesn't she realize that I'm as good as a pauper?!
  • How soon is too soon to give my freshmen a pop quiz next semester?
  • Being out of sight, is it only a matter of time before I'm out of mind for the people I left behind in the USA?  Has it already happened with some?
  • How can I better brighten my corner?  Am I doing enough?

Farewell, 2011!  Welcome into the world, 2012!
And a happy New Year to everyone!

"No Unnecessary Walking"

The doctor said "no unnecessary walking".

I am not a good patient.  When a doctor tells me to rest and drink lots of fluids, I go to work instead (but I do increase my coffee intake -- hey, coffee is a fluid!).  Actually, I don't even go to the doctor for most illnesses.  I follow the example set by my mother and wait until it's bronchitis or plague.  I'm a Thompson -- we're tough!  (And stubborn, and accident-prone . . . ).  When I sprain my ankle, I often don't bother to ice it (but I do wrap and elevate . . . and then walk on it).  I never finish antibiotics -- I stop when the symptoms stop or when I just plain forget to take them.  Yes, thanks to that habit, I will probably be one of those people who die of antibiotic-resistant ear infection someday.  When I had my wisdom teeth removed, I pulled out my own stitches -- and the pain was a lot more bearable after I did so.  I don't read all the warnings on medication.  I don't measure out my cough syrup -- I just take a big gulp from the bottle when I feel like I need it.  I never stay on crutches as long as I'm supposed to.

Yes, I am a very, very bad patient.  A patient with no patience for being a patient, in fact.  Which, coupled with chronic badluckitus, is not a good combination.  Not at all.  I am very often a patient, and I seldom listen to all the directions.

I really am trying to be a good patient right now.  I'm trying not to walk . . . but not walking is BORING!  I watched a Chinese soap opera with Korean subtitles today (I understood about 10% of what was said and absolutely none of the subtitles).  I studied my Chinese characters.  I played Sparkle on my iPad.  I threw a rope for my friend's dog.  I did laundry.  I planned writing assignments for my sophomores and my freshmen (mwa ha ha).  I practiced my epitome-of-evil-supervillain-history-teacher laugh.  I tried not to think about how much I really wanted a long walk . . . even in freezing-beyond-belief, so-cold-that-your-eyeballs-turn-to-iceballs Seoul.  Occasionally, I cast hate-filled glances at my ankle and talked aloud of amputation (the ankle heard me.  I don't care if it doesn't have ears).

Four more days until I return to the hospital for more tests.  Four more days of being a good patient. . . . You know, I wouldn't mind taking a cross-country trip to Jinju again . . . maybe walk around that castle for a few hours?

Okay, fine.  I'll go find another Chinese soap opera with Korean subtitles.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Bad News, Bad News, and Good News

Okay, good news first:  According to the doctor whom I saw at the hospital today, I'm not just imagining things -- there actually is something wrong with me!  (Yes, this is good news.  Few things are as annoying as pain or other symptoms with a cause that a doctor cannot locate.)

The first bad news:  My ankle is worse off than I thought.  I thought that I just had a stretched ligament, from all of the sprains I've had over the past nine years.  Wrong!  Apparently, somewhere down the road, I managed to tear that ligament.  And, there is a problem with my leg that I never knew about (the muscle has had damage and weakening owing to the ankle problems, and it is in turn contributing to the ankle problems).  I wound up being at the hospital until about 3:00 today, and in addition to my two doctor appointments, also squeezed in a radiology visit.  Thank goodness I have really good insurance now!

The second bad news:  I have to stay in Korea a bit longer than planned, because I need to do more testing to determine what is to be done with me.  I definitely have to have physical therapy, both for the ankle and for the leg, but I also am probably going to wind up having surgery.  I'll find out for sure after some more testing and related mafan on the 4th of January.  Until then, the doctor warned me "No unnecessary walking."  Not sure what that means, in a country (continent, actually) where one walks just about everywhere, but I guess that means no more cross-country trips this week.  Good thing I did Gyeongju yesterday!

Stephanie Returns to Gyeongju

Yesterday, I stood in the exact same spot where I had stood three years ago.  Actually, I probably stood in a lot of the same spots where I was three years ago.  Sadly, a lot of things have changed since then.  I was hoping to prove Daphne du Maurier wrong for once, but she really was uncannily correct when she wrote, "We can never go back to Manderly."

I flew into Korea on the 27th, and since this voyage is mostly for the purpose of having my bad ankle finally tended to, I opted to go down to Gyeongju on the 28th, before any doctor had the chance to tell me to stay off my ankle.  They've gotten a high speed train down there since I was there, which means that it now takes just a little over two hours to go from the top of Korea to near the bottom (i.e. Seoul to Gyeongju).

I won't lie -- I was feeling pretty sappy and emotional about going back for a visit.  I had eager plans to surprise Cate, my wonderful former boss.  I thought there might be a chance of even running into former students, though they would have grown quite a bit since I saw them last.  That year that I spent there in Gyeongju was one of the most foundational years of my life -- it was the year that I went from being a pathetic, broken shell of a human being (2006 and 2007 were not kind to me), took back the reins, and grew into a person I could feel confident being.  I had a lot of spiritual growth during that year, too.

I anticipated that Gyeongju would not be exactly the same as I left it -- after all, Korea changes incredibly quickly.  I just didn't count on one very sad change . . .

English World is gone.  The small, successful hagwon (academy) where I worked for that lovely year has left without a trace.  Perhaps it failed during the economic hardships that have struck the world, or perhaps Cate just grew tired of the stress of running it.  I have no idea where she is now -- English World was the only link to finding her.  In its place is a completely different business now, and the building, though fundamentally the same, is also changed.

I walked all around the city, ignoring the protests from my ankle, marveling at what had changed and what had stayed the same.  Many of the stores I patronized are still there, even the dinky little Hello Kitty store where I used to buy stationary.  The coffee place that I loved most is now a different type of restaurant, though the outer decor of the building is the same.  I found the spot downtown where I fell and sprained my bad ankle during my first month in Korea, and avoided a repeat.  I chuckled when I crossed the street at the same crosswalk where the infamous pears-down-the-shirt incident took place.  I avoided slipping on the curb where I tumbled off my bike one morning, and I gave a friendly wave to the tomb that I used to pass each day on my way to English World.  I stopped at the "fish cookie lady's" stand to buy the treat that I used to love -- and she misunderstood my request for two cookies, made me buy a whole bag instead, and yelled at me.  A creepy guy tried to get me to share his sausage-on-a-stick.  He did not stir any sentimental memories for me.

In the end, between all of the cross-country travel, I only spent about 4 hours back in Gyeongju.  And, honestly, those four hours were a bit disappointing -- no joyous reunions, the "fish cookie lady" has turned mean and senile, and the foreign friends have all gone on to other places.  Nevertheless, I'm glad I had the chance to go back for a day.  The last time I was there, I really thought it was the last time.  It was nice to be wrong.

And to Cate, wherever she may be now:  Thanks for a wonderful year, and for being one of the best bosses I ever worked for.  I'll never forget all of your kindness to me.

Keeping Christmas in China

This year was my first Christmas in China, and I am happy to say that it was suitably special.  I opted for a four-day-long observance of the holiday, since it is, after all, my favorite holiday (yup, I'm corny that way).

On the 23rd, I kicked off my festivities by inviting some of my closest Chinese friends (and a couple of American friends) over for a traditional Midwestern dinner and my favorite Christmas movie -- It's a Wonderful Life.  I made a really simple chicken casserole, which my Chinese friends loved, to my relief (I always worry that they won't like our buttery western foods, but they always surprise me).  The movie was even more meaningful than usual, likely because I had to explain quite a bit of it to my friends.  I got to see it from their perspective, and I realized that it really is a film of universal truths.

I was invited to quite a few festivities on Christmas Eve, but after a wonderful-but-exhausting semester of school, I really just wanted a lazy day to myself.  So, I spent the entire day in my pajamas, watching movies and playing Age of Empires (I am proud to say that Napoleon, Queen Elizabeth, Ivan the Terrible, and Queen Isabella were all soundly defeated).  I slept in far later than any adult should (I think it was about 11:00 when I finally got up!) and I ate decidedly unhealthy junk food.  It was just the tonic I needed, especially after all the stress from finals -- my students think they have it tough, but they don't realize how painful the grading process can be!

Christmas was really unique.  I mean, really, really unique.  I enjoyed a traditional English Christmas, complete with turkey and crackers (the kind that explode and have goodies inside, not the kind that one eats with cheese).  I celebrated with a few British friends, a sweet Finnish gal, two fellow Americans, and several new Chinese friends.  We had a riotous game of multi-lingual charades after dinner.  One of the highlights was me pretending to be a watermelon.  Another wonderful moment was watching someone else act out a very energetic octopus.

On Boxing Day, my last full day in China before departing for my trip to Korea, I had a wonderful stew dinner with several other foreigners.  It was like an evening spent with family -- the kind of family that one likes belonging to, not the kind that binds and gags.

I hope you all had lovely Christmases, too, readers!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

This Past Month . . .

For the sake of relatives whom I have not, perhaps, done well at calling or otherwise communicating with (although, to be fair, that is a two-way street -- you relatives could email me once in a while, you know!) and readers who may have wondered why I didn't blog for nearly a month, here is a summary of what's gone on this past month:

  • My VPN stopped working and a multitude of other technological problems/frustrations took place.  Hence, no access to my blog for weeks.
  • I tried out multiple types of (PAINFUL) Chinese medicine on my bad ankle, and finally decided to bite the bullet and look into surgery.  So, I'm heading to Korea in ten days, with the main purpose of the trip being to see a doctor.  Perhaps if we fix this ankle, I might be less clumsy!  (Or just find another body part to keep injuring.)
  • I got put in charge of designing/planning a game for our entire high school, which we'll do next week.  Needless to say, the game involves spies. ☺
  • I was coerced into eating another type of fish.  It wasn't horrible, so long as I kept my mind off of what I was eating.
  • I got lost trying to cut through the hospital to get to a bus stop and wound up in a maternity ward.  (To be fair, that hospital is MUCH bigger than it looks at first glance.)
  • I was introduced to three more fruits that I have never heard of before (which do not, to my knowledge, have English names).  All three, by the way, were quite tasty.
  • I accidentally taught moderately offensive English slang to a group of Chinese friends.
  • I got to relive part of my thesis research by teaching my sophomores about the Ottoman Empire.
  • I had my first experience with a Chinese tailor:  After doing a spectacular free-fall down the front steps of one of the buildings at school, I tore my only pair of black slacks (and skinned up my knees, naturally).  The tailor not only completely repaired the large hole in one day, but also did it for less than a dollar!  I only wish knees could be repaired so promptly!
  • I discovered that, contrary to the beliefs of several friends and students, a stapler CAN in fact be used to successfully repair a severely torn backpack.
  • It snowed a few times -- and very graciously all melted within the same days that it fell.

I'm Alive! -- Just Weary. Very, Very Weary.

I wonder, is it possible for a teacher to get Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from the week before final exams?  If so, I am definitely a casualty.

Honestly, it shouldn't have been that stressful of a week.  I had no teaching to do, for one thing (let me clarify that statement by reassuring all my readers that I do, in fact, love teaching).  All I had to do, initially, was spend the week reviewing with my students so that they could go forth and do well on their final exam on Friday.  Should have been an easy week, right?


Remember back in May when that irresponsible twenty-year-old wasn't paying attention, was driving in the middle of the road, and managed to hit my car head-on on a mountain road?  I decided to behave in accordance with my Christian worldview and didn't sue, even though I had ample grounds for it.  After all, I was injured:  internal bleeding, concussion, whiplash, massive bruising, worsening migraines . . . and let's not forget the psychological impact, either.  I have not driven a car even once since May 6 -- and I don't want to.  I still have nightmares about the crash.  I still relive the fear, emotion, tension, etc. every time that I recall the crash or look at the photos.  As much as I may strive to stay in control and sensible, that crash really shook me up.

I bring this up, because it's all back in the forefront of my mind:  The woman who hit me (who was AT FAULT) had the audacity and greed file a claim against me.  I spent last weekend writing a seven-page account of the accident, which I sent, along with photos, to the insurance companies involved.  Two more emails from them followed, hounding and harassing me for details and documents that I simply do not have.  This, readers, is just one example of what is wrong with the United States.  Victims don't have rights.  The person who caused that accident, who is to blame for my injuries and etc., gets to continue to intrude into my life six months later.  She can waste time and money of others with . . . you know what; I am going to cut this rant off right here.  Suffice to say, I am pretty irritated.

On Wednesday, my stress was up the wazoo, what with the emails and other mafan from this legal hassle.  I barely slept that night, with the result that on Thursday I had my worst migraine in months.  I went into school an hour late, hoping an extra hour of sleep would help, but it did no good.  On the bright side, I did get to practice nearly all of my Chinese vocabulary from lesson 8, as the taxi driver had no idea how to get to our school (even after calling and talking to our receptionist) and I had to direct him most of the way.  Unfortunately, I had to fight nausea and vertigo the entire day, not to mention being in excruciating pain.  Ordinarily, I would have called in sick under circumstances like that, but with my freshmen taking their final the very next day, I was worried that they wouldn't do well without a final review day with me.  I figured that one day of suffering for me was worth it if it helped them do better on a test that is worth 20% of their total semester grade.

Friday dawned a better day, I am glad to say.  I had some great encouragement from some Chinese friends, my secret santa left me another in a line of wonderful gifts (a fuzzy blanket that just begs for hot chocolate and a good book), and our principal gave me a good pep talk.  With my students all taking their finals together in the lunchroom, I had most of the schoolday to myself, so I could do some planning and tackle a bit of grading.  I had the chance to check out the middle school science fair and get an idea of the sort of students I'll be having in the next few years (some good prospects, I think).  I was particularly looking forward to seeing the project done by a coworker's daughter:  this incredibly creative young girl gave spiders drugs (alcohol, sleeping pills, and caffeine) to see how it impacted their ability to spin webs.  Now that is a student that I want in my class!  (So long as she doesn't bring spiders to class, of course -- those things are definitely the spawn of Satan.)

Yay Duck and Yuck Duck scores from this week:

Yay Duck:  My freshmen did an AWESOME job on their huge history project -- they completely blew me away!  My Chinese lessons are still going really well.  I was finally able to get a new adaptor for my Mac, so I no longer have a dead computer.  I leave for Korea in ten days!  The semester is, for all practical purposes, over!

Yuck Duck:  The legal mess from the US (hey, that rhymes!).  I've had the same migraine, off and on, since Wednesday night.  The semester is, for all practical purposes, over.
"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"