Sunday, November 4, 2012

Knowledge Litter

Ever have one of those days where your brain functions only slightly above "imbecile" level?  Lately, I fear I've been abusing that privilege.

Mostly I've been demonstrating this through loss of prior knowledge.  For instance, in my past few Chinese lessons, I keep forgetting characters that I learned ages ago, or suddenly going blank on how to use a particular grammar pattern that I previously drilled myself on.  I find myself forgetting other knowledge that I should know well, too, like how many electoral votes there are total, or the US presidents in order (I memorized this years ago and used to be able to whip through them in 28 seconds), or major features of various ancient empires.  Yes, I realize that for most people those things might not be the most common of common knowledge, but when you take into consideration that I majored in history for both degrees, teach history, and have been researching history for fun since I was seven years old, you come to see just what a frightening load of information is dropping out of my head lately.  I have a mental image of my brain actually strewing facts and thoughts across the streets as I walk, leaving a path of knowledge litter behind me wherever I go.

Knowledge acquired less than a week ago is particularly vulnerable lately - it slips through my mind like water pouring over my hand.  This would be why I nearly threw The Arabian Nights across the room in frustration - the intricate web of story within a story within a story tied my beleaguered brain into a series of successive, dizzy knots.  It got to the point where I couldn't figure out where the plot had gone.  Only the fact that the book is in electronic form on my iPad saved it from hurtling through the air!  That's another thing - I seem to frustrate easier lately, too (and no, it has nothing to do with merely being female).

I think the two flus in succession is what did me in.  I feel like my body finally recovered, but forgot to tell my brain.  Here's hoping that the two finally agree to synchronize once again - China is littered enough without the contents of my brain falling out!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Stomach Flu: We Shall Call It a Cultural Experience

Just two weeks had passed since my lengthy bout with flu, and I thought all was well.  Aaaaand then, the roommates both toppled over with stomach flu.  I knew my days were numbered.

The vomiting actually started on Tuesday evening, but I thought I could just forego eating and thus make it through school on Wednesday.  With many, many teachers down with this thing, I was concerned that we would not have enough subs to cover my classes.  However, the low blood sugar from not eating had me so dizzy on Wednesday that I finally gave in and ate a decent lunch . . . mistake.  After I vomited up my lunch, I agreed with the other teachers that it was best to head home, rather than help spread the disease further.

Heading home was not such a simple matter.  Our dreadful dirt road that leads up to the school building is at present being paved, which means one cannot walk down it to the main road.  Fortunately, the guards were helpful (and my Chinese is good enough now) so I was able to get directions to the main road via a very rustic, "scenic" route through the local village.  Nothing like getting raced at by a bedraggled chicken while holding your heaving stomach and attempting not to trip on VERY narrow alleyways!  A few locals chatted with me pleasantly as I wound my way through the never-ending maze of tiny ramshackle buildings in search of the main road that I was beginning to question ever being able to find.  I was quite delighted when my path finally deposited me on the correct road - albeit a bit further down than I had anticipated (I guess the chicken distracted me a bit).

I had initially planned to taxi home but, ditz that I've been lately, I forgot to put money in my wallet and only had a few kuai with me.  So, 104 bus it was for me - my least favorite bus, but the only one that goes from way out where the school is to my home.  The main trouble with the 104 is that it never comes!  I waited more than 30 minutes for that wretched contraption, while suffering the indignity of having THREE  301 buses arrive in succession, within less than five minutes.  I was, in my present nauseated and dizzy state, rather embittered against the 104 bus.

When the bus finally came, I breathed a sigh of relief - and after the second stop, realized that that breath might well be my last.  A man sat in the available seat next to me, hauling a basket full of very fresh, very fragrant fish.  It may have been the fever, but I am convinced that I saw some wiggling tails . . . and I also earnestly believe that one of those fish winked impishly at me.  The smell was pretty damaging to me in my state, but the other options were stand in the back or get off and wait forever for another 104.  It was only the beguiling image of my oh-so-merciful bed playing across my mind that kept me in my seat, holding my breath next to the fish-man.

As soon as I got off the bus, I began to heave and soon discovered, to my surprise, that there were indeed still some contents left in my stomach.  The gutter received them all.  I was relieved that, for once, there were very few people around to see the show, "Remains of the Lunch."  As I finally recovered myself enough to head home (the 104 doesn't go all that close to my home, so there was still a decent walk after disembarking), I became aware that the Korean business behind me was merrily blasting "Gangnam Style" on its loudspeakers . . . and I just happened to be vomiting right during the line "Hey, sexy ladies!"  I stifled a chuckle, then headed home, mentally composing my own version of the song, containing the memorable line "Upchuck Gangnam style!"

It was with considerable relief that I entered the front door, ghostwalked to the bedroom, and collapsed facedown in the welcoming embrace of my bed.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Into the Magnet . . .

It's been one of "those" weeks.  The entire world's weight is stacked on my shoulders in concrete blocks, I'm juggling twenty things that all happen to be on fire, and all I really want some nights is just to curl up and have a good cry.  Everything always seems to fall due at the same time.  People choose the same weeks to be undependable, or to guilt me into taking on extra work.  It's like bad weeks are a magnet that collect chaos and stress unto themselves.

My flu is finally gone, although the cough is still lingering a bit.  It left quite the path of destruction in its wake, as I was incapable of accomplishing anything for a full two weeks.  It's good to have my health back, but I feel like all that piled-up work has just body-slammed me to the floor.  I started trying to pick up some of my old "releases" again:  started planning a new story, got out the jewelry supplies, bought a bike, even tried to find a new novel to hold my attention.  But, honestly, I think my usual stress relievers really just added more.  My mind is devoid of inspiration for writing or crafting, I need to buy a lock before I can use the bike, and the books I started all frustrated me with tedious plots that simply could not captivate me.  What I really want, even need, is the wet nose of a dog pressed up against me.  But that will have to wait.

I don't want to give the impression that life is dreadful, or that I regret being here.  It isn't that way at all.  I have found that when life goes well here or when it goes poorly, it all seems to clump together - one thing piled onto like thing piled onto another mirror image of the thing before it.  I think back to when I was a child and used to enjoy scooping up pins, thumbtacks, and such with a large magnet my mother gave me.  The entire magnet would be so covered in the silvery-colored metal objects that its blue hue was quite hidden to the eye.  That's life here, expressed in one image.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Feed a Cold, Starve a Fever . . . Torture a Flu?

I had big plans for my week off (October Holiday, a lovely Chinese creation):  I was going to climb a mountain with friends, get all of my grading done, spend some time with a few friends, and, naturally, take a ton of extra Chinese lessons.  In short, it was going to be the perfect week.  I even planned out a special help session for my sophomores, just because I thoroughly enjoy spending time with the rather nutty creatures.

And then the flu happened.

On the very first Saturday of the break, I climbed the mountain as planned.  As a cheery group of Chinese and Westerners, we took on Fu Shan, a rather pretty and pleasantly small mountain near my home.  We had an utterly glorious day for it: perfect blue sky, cool air, invigorating-without-overpowering wind.  And, I only fell . . . well, I think 5-6 times (the first time was within seconds of boasting loudly about not falling, of course).  But no real injuries other than a few cuts!

We ate a picnic lunch together up there, then split up, with a few of us going down one way and a few choosing the opposite way.  My group of 6 paused for a bit, under a canopy of Buddhist decorations (Hannah called this spiritual warfare), to sing a hymn together in two languages simultaneously (I LOVE doing that with Chinese friends) and then to pray together . . . simply beautiful.  After climbing down, I had the chance to do something I have always wanted to do:  I drank water straight from an old, deep mountain well.  A very sweet group of locals filled our water bottles for us from the well, laughed at how thirsty I was, gave me a refill, and then complimented me on my Chinese.  I came home exhausted, but merry.

Really exhausted, actually.  I took a nap — something I very seldom do — and when I woke up, I noticed that my throat was starting to really hurt.  I chalked it up to a day of mountain climbing, then joined a friend for a massage and dinner . . . I got to eat donkey meat soup for the first time.  Surprisingly delicious, and now I can mark another hooved animal off the list of those few remaining that I have not eaten.  By the end of dinner, my sinuses were starting to feel heavy and full.  By the time I got home, the fever had arrived:  102°.  I made my way steadily up to 103° the next day . . . and except for a few isolated times, spent most of the next week in bed, weak as a newborn calf.  My body ached as though a tank had rolled over me a few dozen times.

By Wednesday, I was enjoying the added features of vomiting and nausea with rampant dizziness.  The fever enjoyed our time together so well that it stuck around for a week.  I eyed my dying plants that I keep forgetting to water with marked envy — at least their suffering only consists of dehydration.  I kept mechanically trying to get grading or lesson-planning done . . . but the words would start spinning on the page within minutes, and my fuzzy head just couldn't take it.  I found that doses of The Mentalist were about all that my fevered brain could focus on.  I survived mostly on crackers, cough syrup, NyQuil, Chinese cold medicine, Halls cough drops, and Sprite.  Definitely not my diet of choice.

On Monday, after more than a week of flu, school resumed.  That first day just about killed me — I honestly have no idea where I found the strength to stay on my feet.  Since my flu seemed so pleased about taking up residence in my body and showed no particular inclination to leave, I named him Irving and contemplated enrolling him as a student at our school.  My concerned Chinese teacher and adopted older sister, Maggie, insisted on taking me out for traditional Chinese medical treatment after school.  In other words, she wished to torture me.

The treatment consisted of this:
  • Step 1:  The woman who treated me gave me a very hard pressure point massage, using some special type of salve.  Maggie explained to me that the massage has the same principals behind it as acupuncture.  It felt as though my neck and back were some stubborn bread dough that was being kneaded by an angry Soviet housewife.
  • Step 2:  Using an animal bone, my neck and back were scraped with great diligence and pressure.  Known as 刮痧, this treatment, quite frankly, hurt like hell.  I felt like a deer being field-dressed.
  • Step 3:  Using fire (held scarily close to my bare skin), the woman burnt the oxygen out of a glass, then suctioned it to my back and moved it, with super-human pressure, up and down repeatedly. Then repeated. And repeated. And repeated.  Known as 推罐, this treatment put me in the appropriate frame of mind to sell out my country.  I offered to share state secrets, but unfortunately could think of none, other than that the president is a fool (which Maggie and the other three Chinese people in the room all already knew).
  • Step 4:  The woman treating me took what is called a plum blossom needle — a delightfully sinister contraption with nine super sharp needles — and, quite literally, beat my back with it.  Maggie graciously explained the technique to me, but I was too distracted with whimpering to hear her explanation.  After about fifteen blows, the woman (and witnesses) were satisfied.
  • Step 5:  Once again, the oxygen was burnt out of glass jars, which were then suctioned to the now-bleeding areas on my back:  拔罐.  I soon resembled a feverish glass-backed turtle (as Maggie gleefully observed . . . she does claim to love me).  The jars syphoned out blood that, my practitioner informed me, was "bad".  Feeling more than a little bit like a medieval plague victim, I lay still on the bed with the jars in place for about 15-20 minutes.
  • Step 6:  After the glasses were removed (each giving a rather satisfying ploop! as it came off), I received a harsh rubdown/massage with a rough towel.  I was slightly startled to observe the amount of my blood that now stained the sheets . . . and slightly lightheaded as well.
  • Step 7:  Hygiene first!  The woman sprayed my entire back with alcohol.  She then stepped back and declared, “好的!"
My back, after the first day of treatment, was quite picturesque . . . I like to think that I resembled either a chemical warfare victim or the loser of an intense bar fight:
Yes, it was painful . . . very, very, very painful!
I had a harrowing experience on the way home:  I discovered the dead body of a person laying amidst some trash.  For a horrifying, dreadful five minutes, I frantically thought through my options.  Check for a pulse?  Run for help?  Phone someone?  Scream?  Since China has no Good Samaritan laws, I panicked that I might somehow be held responsible for the death, whilst simultaneously feeling extreme guilt for my own selfish self-preservation and grief for the human life cut short.  Was it natural causes?  Was it murder?  What if the murderer was still there, lurking in those dark bushes, waiting to cut my own life short . . . you can well imagine my slightly hysterical relieved laughter when I discovered that my dead human body was actually a few ill-positioned bags of trash.  Apparently, The Mentalist and fever should not be coupled together for prolonged periods of time.

On Tuesday, Maggie took me back for another round of the same treatment on my back, and my front and upper arms as well.  Although I at one point begged Maggie to mercy-kill me, I did appreciate getting to miss a meeting.  推罐 and 拔罐 over my breastbone felt as though ravenous demons were tearing into me and sucking the breath from my quivering body . . . Maggie found the imagery amusing (although she did sympathetically pat my head through it all).  On the way home, I had a violent nosebleed that thoroughly terrified about three dozen Chinese people.  It startled me a bit as well — I wasn't sure how much more blood my body could afford to lose!

On Wednesday, Maggie took me in for the third and (thank God) final treatment.  On the way there, she amused herself by making me tell a story in Chinese to the entire bus full of Chinese coworkers . . . I promptly began my story by informing them, in Chinese, that I have a sadistic teacher who enjoys torturing me.  The entire bus applauded.  (Although a bit embarrassed, I was flattered when Maggie explained later that she just wanted to show off her student.)  The final treatment had me writhing in agony on the bed — Maggie cheerily observed that I quite resembled a worm.  Indeed, I did feel rather like a smashed one there at the end.

I have this to say about all the torture, however; it did actually bring about a turning point in my flu.  Maggie gave me a very thorough explanation of the entire process and theory/history behind it, but I have my own theory on why traditional Chinese medical treatments actually work.  I believe that the flu, observing the lengths of torture that you are willing to undergo in order to purge it from your body, becomes so terrified that it packs up its bags and flees.  Irving, being my own tailor-made flu, is, naturally, quite clumsy, so he keeps tripping on his way out.  Thus, I still am left with the emphysemic sailor cough, exhaustion, gnawing headache, and a bit of physical weakness.  Other than that, I am definitely getting better, little by little.  Today I cheered to see the first non-colorful drainage from my sinuses.

Ah, China.  Land of new experiences and new knowledge.

Monday, September 24, 2012

And Then You Smack into an Ironing Board . . .

I often suspect that many people believe if they were to cut me open, they would locate a Chinese book where a heart ought to be, a sheaf of history monographs where a brain ought to reside, and, most definitely, clumsiness in place of all the other essentials . . . and I bristle about it.  Perhaps I ought to switch to decaf.

After 28 years of it, I'm used to my clumsiness and the oafish way in which I walk/stumble about . . . but lately, it has really irritated me.  I'm tired of being that person, the court jester of bruises.  Ordinarily I laugh or shrug those stumblings and bangings and tumblings away . . . but lately, I've gotten annoyed instead.  I don't want to see those antsy looks on Chinese friends' faces each time I approach a staircase, or a crack in the sidewalk.  I don't want students to hold their breath every time I walk past an extension cord.  I don't want to approach the steps getting off the bus with trepidation each day, wondering whether or not I am about to plummet to the ground in an unladylike heap.  I don't want to fear the rug that gleefully lies in wait for me in front of the main entrance of the secondary school building.

"Why," I ask the walls, the sidewalk, the sea, or even the trees (those wretched, ugly new ones that were controversially planted months ago at great expense and still can't stand up straight), whichever inanimate or animate object that happens to witness my latest escapade, "Why is it always me?  Can't someone else do the tripping and slipping or the smashing and crashing for a bit?  Can't I just have a moment of gracefulness in an entire lifetime of black eyes, sprains, scrapes, burns, scratches, inexplicable harm from seemingly-innocent objects --"

Yesterday, the universe replied.  As I reflected on my own clumsiness, I tripped over the doorway whilst carrying an ironing board and got hit in the eye with the leg of it.  Second black eye of 2012 . . . I'm choosing not to count the almost-black-eye back in July.  As I commented to my roommates, "Usually when I get a black eye --" one of them interrupted, remarking, "Very few people would start a sentence that way - I don't think black eyes are usual for most people."  I sighed, and chose to force a laugh, though inwardly I just wanted to . . . well, punch myself, but that would only have given me another black eye.  It's tiresome being me.

Today I fell down the stairs again.  I guess it's nice that now my left eye and my left ankle can color-coordinate.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Photos from Spring and Summer Travels

I am in no way artistic, so I make no apologies for the complete lack of artistry in my photographs.  I see something that pleases me, and so I push the button and capture it.  I just don't think that some things need added embellishment.

长白山 (Chang Baishan, Jilin Province)  - It can only be seen two days out of every year (in a good year).  The side I am on is China - the mountains across from where I am standing are in North Korea.
景山公园 (Jingshan Park), Beijing
景山公园 (Jingshan Park), Beijing

At the Ming Tombs.
At the Ming Tombs.
天坛 (Temple of Heaven, Beijing)
I just love all the vivid colors.  天坛 was probably my favorite part of Beijing, despite my massive migraine at the time.

Thursday, September 20, 2012


I feel so tired sometimes — soul-weary might be a better name for it, perhaps.  As though I were ceaselessly running, running, running; fighting to live selflessly, and better, and more wholesomely and guided by Someone other than myself . . . but sometimes I just want to sit and stare into space and envelop myself in nothingness.

I suppose I'm still working through grief.  And my way of handling grief is, well, to work.  Sitting and dwelling on loss doesn't bring anyone back, and it certainly does not restore what is broken.  It merely makes you more aware of the gap that used to be filled by someone — or, in my instance, someones.  In my estimation, it's the only healthy response.  "We can never go back to Manderly", as du Maurier immortally penned — so we've nothing left but to move forward.

But sometimes, alone, at night . . . Oh, how I miss them.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Few Thoughts from Dorothy Sayers

“It it is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality, unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the fundamentals of Christian theology.  It is a lie to say that dogma does not matter; it matters enormously.  It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe.  It is hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely idealistic aspiration of a simple and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting, and complex doctrine, steeped in a drastic and incompromising realism.  And it is fatal to imagine that everybody knows quite well what Christianity is and needs only a little encouragement to practice it.  The brutal fact is that in this Christian country not one person in a hundred has the faintest notion what the Church teaches about God or man or society or the person of Jesus Christ."

"I admit, you can practice Christianity without knowing much theology, just as you can drive a car without knowing much about internal combustion.  But when something breaks down in the car, you go humbly to the man who understands the works; whereas if something goes wrong with religion, you merely throw the works away and tell the theologian he is a liar."

"We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him 'meek and mild,' and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies."

Monday, September 3, 2012

A Study in Melancholy

“The melancholy river bears us on. When the moon comes through the trailing willow boughs, I see your face, I hear your voice and the bird singing as we pass the osier bed. What are you whispering? Sorrow, sorrow. Joy, joy. Woven together, like reeds in moonlight.” ~ Virginia Woolf
In the quiet stillness of the nights, or in the midst of a crowd, I've recently found my thoughts dabbling in swirls of melancholy.  Oh, there's no need for the butterfly nets or the oft-recited platitudes — I'm still, at the root, a happy person.  I'm still happy, but I'm also . . . sad.

The summer was one of loss.  

My best friend's mother died in July, and I even now tear up at the flood of memories from fourteen years of having my life touched by hers.  How does one even begin to say goodbye . . . from across the world?  It was an anticipated pain, for she had been gravely ill for quite some time, but no matter how prepared I thought I was . . . I wasn't.  I wasn't at all.  It seems so silly to me that Lorie's death should entangle itself so with the selling of my parents' house in August, the house I spent half of my life in . . . but it did.  It was as though in one summer two ties were severed, forever.  Lorie's death was even more than that, though   it was a gunshot that hit just over my shoulder, missing me by such a small distance that I felt its sting as it rushed past.  My mother is sick, too.  I worry so much about her . . . and there's absolutely nothing I can do about the time bomb living inside of her.  She can say she's well, she can come all the way here to visit, as she did in June . . . but she's still sick, and I'm still afraid.  I can pray and I can praise God for the little things . . . but my mother is still sick.  She who seemed invincible to me once . . . is not.

I was blessed last year with two very special, lovely friends whom I immediately felt at home with (kindred spirits, if you will).  Through difficult times last year, they were there.  When I yearned for deep conversation, beyond what generally can be found, they were there.  We could discuss philosophy, novels, theology . . . for all of it, they were there.  And then, in June . . . they weren't.  One went back to America, another on to a different city here in China.  In mere weeks, two of the people here who made it most a home were suddenly gone.  

My dearest friend here, my 姐姐 who has led me more than any other individual to love China and to have a heart for Chinese people, was so overjoyed to at last be expecting a baby.  She had struggled and hurt from an empty womb for so long.  I rejoiced with her, because no one could possibly be a more loving mother than she.  And then, just as suddenly as God had given . . . He took away.  I know in my heart, as deeply as I know anything, that He loves us all and means all things for good.  I know that someday something beautiful will bloom in the empty place.  But at the moment, I ache so much for her.  I selfishly miss seeing her each day, and that special way she has of blessing people just by a word.  

For I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were.  O spare me a little, that I may recover my strength, before I go hence, and be no more seen. ~ Psalm 39:12b-13

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Socially Unacceptable Behavior I've Picked up in China

"All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And everyone else is They: 
But if you cross over the sea, 
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on 
We  As only a sort of They!"
~ Rudyard Kipling

Living here these past nearly-eleven months, I have picked up some "bad habits":

  1. When I see another foreigner (bluntly, someone with a non-Asian face), I stare.  I don't just give a polite, disinterested glance; I give a prolonged, Chinese-style, "Look, it's a laowai!" stare.  Running through my mind are a swirl of observations and queries:  "Do I know you?"  "Hmm, German?"  "What accent will come out of your mouth when you speak?"  "Newbie or tourist?"  "Wow, look at how big her eyes are!"  "I haven't seen that shade of skin in months!"  "I wonder what on earth an [insert nationality here] is doing here?"  
  2. I cross the road at a leisurely pace, walking directly in front of multiple lanes of oncoming traffic.  Guiding my steps is the confidence that comes from knowing that they probably won't actually hit me, although they will come darn close.  (Of course, the sad fact is that if I were Chinese, they probably would hit me -- I personally know three different Chinese people who have been hit by cars while crossing the street.)
  3. I openly discuss diarrhea.  In fact, diarrhea was about the third or fourth thing I learned how to say in Chinese when I first arrived (you may draw your own conclusions from that statement).  Now granted, I do come from a family that delights in sharing, analyzing, and comparing various southerly-located bodily functions, but most westerners really don't discuss diarrhea, in depth, in polite conversation.  Certainly not with the lady they buy their vegetables from!  (To be fair, she brought up the subject.)  The topic has also come up repeatedly with both of my Chinese teachers -- they really love diarrhea as subject matter for sample sentences.  It was even up for discussion with a complete stranger I met and chatted with (in Chinese) on a bus, and was happily chatted about with a taxi driver on one occasion.  And of course, diarrhea is highly appropriate lunchtime conversation with several of my Chinese friends.
  4. I use my fingers when eating, if it happens to more conveniently assist the food in its route from bowl/plate to mouth.  It's perfectly acceptable to do so here - Chinese friends are constantly telling me, "Just pick up the meat in your hands; don't bother with chopsticks!"

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Tragic Tale of a Hand and a Doorknob

A few weeks ago, I slipped and fell in the shower, twisting my right hand under me.  Five minutes later, after bending down to pick up my clothes, I smacked that same hand quite soundly on the bathroom doorknob.  Two days later, I had a similar encounter with the same hand and the bedroom doorknob.  Since then, my hand has taken more than fair revenge on me . . .

For more than two weeks, my hand looked like a purple balloon, or, as my Chinese teacher pointed out, a mantou (Chinese dumpling).  I figured it was just a typical back of the hand injury, so I kept using my hand and occasionally iced it.  I finally went to the doctor after nothing improved . . . and learned that I had a stress fracture.  No biggie, but I was banned from using my hand and sentenced to weeks of wearing a now-greatly-despised sling.  No cast, for which I was grateful.

The trouble is, although the swelling is down most of the way, there is still quite an ugly bump, the color is still largely purple, and I'm still in daily pain.  I tried typing a bit today and even writing my signature twice (I know I'm not supposed to yet, but sometimes necessity overrides doctors' instructions), only to find that I set it off again and had quite a bit of pain to deal with.  I'm pretty tough when it comes to pain, having considerable experience with it, but wow does this hand HURT!

What hurts more though, is my pride.  I don't really have too much pride normally, since injuries and my many shortcomings work together to keep me humble, but I am apparently not very accepting of my own weakness or lack of ability.  I can't seem to bring myself to ask for help very often, even when I should.  I know there's a lesson to be learned in all this . . . yes, Stephanie, you really are bound by multiple limitations!  No, Stephanie, you cannot be a self-sufficient island.  Yes, Stephanie, you do need to ask for and accept help sometimes.

On the bright side, I am getting very skilled at using chopsticks with my left hand.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Happy Birthday, Thesis!

Today is my thesis' first birthday -- yes, the six-month tormentor of my days and nights has turned one year old!  I know, normally people probably don't remember the exact dates of things like this, but I accept that I am an oddity.  Just for fun, here's what I wrote that day (April 23, 2011) after finishing those last few words:
I'm in a state of shock at the moment.  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.  I actually wrote a thesis.  I contributed something original, something on a topic which has not been covered, to the field of history.   
Forgive me while I faint. 
Okay, had to get that out of my system - the faint, not the shock.  No, I'm still in shock.  I honestly never thought I'd be able to do it.  I mean, have you ever considered what actually goes into writing a thesis?  It is no ordinary paper.  No reading a few books and then jotting down what you learned.  For my thesis, I read 62 books, countless journal articles, more than 1,000 pages worth of US foreign affairs cables, more than 2,000 pages of declassified OSS documents, several US presidential executive orders, and a couple dozen newspaper articles.  Oh, and I did that this semester . . . the same semester that I wrote the thesis.  That would be why I am just now finishing the creature. 
It's an odd sort of feeling, looking at the stack of pages that I created.  I'm not sure yet whether to tenderly regard it as my beloved child or as a grotesquely mutilated fetus that somehow survived to make it out of the womb.  I suppose I shall have to reserve judgment until my committee has reviewed the creature.
 The funny part is, even after a year, I still haven't fully figured out how I view my thesis.  I still regard it with half pride and half revulsion.  I am far enough removed from it to now be able to feel a glimmer of appreciation at my writing (I'm not meaning to boast; I just think I did a good job), but I still cringe when I suddenly think of things I should have done differently.  I guess this is evidence that I probably shouldn't go ahead and turn it into a book -- I don't think I'm cut out to be another Geoffrey Wawro.
Jasper "helps" me with research.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

We All Laugh in the Same Language

It was difficult knowing exactly what to pack when I filled my suitcases in preparation for China last July, although I did pack with considerably more knowledge and foresight than I had back when I packed for my year in Korea.  This time around, I knew well the value of "sacred objects": a treasured teddy bear who has been with me since I was eight, the dragon who accompanied me to Korea, the memory book my Virginia friends put together for me, the afghan my dear friend Rachel crocheted for me.  I knew that any weight those took up in the suitcase was weight well spent.  But what to spend my remaining limited pounds of weight on?

I knew that shoes and clothing would be hard to come by, with my "curvy" American size -- I would have to bring as much as possible.  And necessities like medications, deodorant, and, er, "western-style feminine necessities" were certainly worth the space they took up.  Books were a tragic situation:  I knew there just wasn't room for them, but I also knew I couldn't live my days happily without some Sayers (still not on Kindle, sadly), my Common Book of Prayer, and a couple of other favorites.  My old movies on DVD are valuable stress relievers (and, as I have found over the past several months, Chinese friends really enjoy them).  The rest of the packing was headache-inducing as I struggled to place the appropriate value on all of the things that had suddenly sprung from the woodwork, as it were, and seemed to tapdance about me singing of their various merits.  How to narrow it down?  It was all "just stuff" -- but some of that stuff can really make the difference between a stressed-out Stephanie and a relaxed one.  More importantly, I needed to assess what would hold the most value for achieving my goal of bonding with those around me.

In the end, I made the right decisions this time.  I reasoned that games, though they take up weight and are not used daily, nevertheless spark social interaction and could help in relationship-building with Chinese people.  What better way to bridge a language/culture gap than through laughter?  And so, even though it weighs about five pounds and meant leaving behind several other things that I wanted, Qwirkle made the cut.

Qwirkle is a shape and color matching game that is equally fun and challenging for both children and adults.  Best of all, by its very nature, it is easy to teach to someone who does not speak the same language (or who just doesn't speak it as well).  As I learned tonight, Qwirkle is a perfect game for mixed groups of foreign and Chinese people, kids and adults.

I had been wanting, for some time, to have my teacher Theresa over for dinner.  She took me out for coffee on a Saturday a few weeks back and basically voluntarily gave up about three hours of her time to teach me Chinese (we chatted, reviewed vocabulary, and then played some games in Chinese -- in other words, I had a wonderful time).  I couldn't wait to give a return invitation.  Finally, I had my chance tonight.  I had Theresa, another close Chinese friend Maggie (the one who gave me my first Chinese nickname, 老三), two foreign friends, Edith and Angela, and the kids of another set of friends (Edith was babysitting them).  With such a varied group of people, I was concerned at first about how to ensure that everyone had a good time.  My efforts seemed initially doomed when the local stores suddenly decided to stop carrying the ingredients I needed for the meal I had planned (that happens a lot here).  Fortunately, my creativity rallied at the last minute:

I decided to introduce my two Chinese friends to nachos (I knew the foreigners would be happy, particularly the kids).  Although cheese is not so loved by the Chinese as it is by Westerners, I knew that the two friends I had invited are both fans of it.  And, it struck me as wise to have a meal where people could pick and choose the ingredients they wanted to include, since I was trying to please the palates of two quite divergent cultures and two equally divergent age groups.  Nachos, as I had hoped, were a tremendous hit!

For entertainment, I wanted a game that would let the kids be involved without forcing the adults to pretend to have fun while actually being bored.  Even more importantly, I did not want Theresa and Maggie to to feel uncomfortable -- some Western games can have the effect with Chinese people, if they are not confident enough with their English (Maggie and Theresa are both pretty fluent, but modest).  I wanted a game where everyone would have as close as possible to a fair shot at winning.  Qwirkle was perfect for my purposes!

Since it involves matching colors and shapes, it is easy enough to pick up that explaining the game is easy.  However, there is a lot of strategy involved, which keeps it interesting for everyone.  At the same time, it is simple enough that you can easily keep up conversations while playing.  To make it even more interesting, I decided to add a rule:  if you made a mistake, the people on either side of you got to make a rule for you that lasted until your next turn (for example, having to act like a bird or only being able to speak with an accent).  The kids got MORE than a bit crazy with the added rule, but hey, at least they had fun (their parents are in America at the moment, so I figured something crazy would be good for keeping the missing-Mom-and-Dad-tinglings away).  After the kids left to be put to bed, Maggie and Theresa decided to stay for one more game with me, which was also a great opportunity for them to make me speak more Chinese (ALL of my Chinese friends LOVE to do this).

It was nice to find yet another game that crosses cultures, languages, and ages well.  It always feels great to clean up after a successful evening like this and know no one was excluded, and that everyone had fun together.  These are my favorite moments in China:  when East and West meet together and realize that they are not so different after all.  We all laugh in the same language.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Fumbling with Language

I thought, for the general amusement of all, that I would share from my ever-growing list of mistakes I have made while learning this lovely, entertaining, confusing, frustrating, and delightful language (yes, Chinese is all that and more):

What a Difference Tone Can Make!
The undisputed winner of "Most Humiliating Chinese Mistake Ever" is the time that I accidentally said my first (and, hopefully, last) Chinese obscenity.  My friend Linda (who is Chinese) was quizzing me on characters and held up the flashcard that I had written 草 on.  In my excitement at recognizing it, I shouted out "cao" . . . but with the wrong tone. When you say it with the third tone, it's a nice, innocent word that means grass or plant.  Say it with fourth tone, as I inadvertently did, and you make your very closest friend in China turn incredibly pale from shock!  Her eyes widened, her jaw dropped, and she insisted that I, "Say it again, right now, exactly like you just said it!"  After Linda's horror died down enough to explain what I had said, she was able to inform me that I had just discovered the equivalent of the 'F' word in Chinese.  哎呀!

We All Have Our Hobbies . . . 
Another classic is the time, back in the early days when I was just learning pinyin, that my teacher (Jackie, at the time) wanted me to say "I like birds."  With the correct tone, the sentence should be “我喜欢鸟” ("wŏ xĭ huan niăo").  However, ignorantly using the wrong tone on niao turned the sentence into “我喜欢尿.”  To the untrained Western ear, the two sentences sound the same.  But to the ear that knows Chinese, I confidentially informed my teacher, "I like to pee."

I Suppose It Could Be a Legitimate Thing to Study
When I first started with my teacher Theresa, she was asking me what I like most about Chinese, after delightedly discovering how much I love learning this language.  I meant to tell Theresa that I really love to study 汉字 (hànzì), which means Chinese characters.  Naturally, I used third tone on zi instead of fourth and instead said that "我爱学汉子" ("wŏ ài xué hànzĭ"), which actually means "I love to study men."  I don't think I have ever made Theresa laugh so hard!

It's Raining Stephanie
Recently, when telling a friend in Chinese about my experiences with gardening as a teenager, I was relating the tragic experience I had with a beautiful yellow rosebush.  Yellow is my favorite color, and I had been so excited to find this gorgeous plant.  I did everything I could to make it happy and thriving, but the rosebush repaid me by dying.  I meant to tell my friend that the death of the rosebush made me cry, but I accidentally mixed up 哭 (kū) with 雨 (yŭ) -- so, I instead told her that "I rained".  She was quite amused at the mental image.

The Ice Might Get in the Way . . . 
In my lesson with my weekend teacher, Lulu, today, I was supposed to be discussing things that people can enjoy doing in the wintertime.  I meant to say that I really enjoy ice skating in the wintertime, but for some reason, I said "huá shuĭ" instead of "huá bīng".  So, the sentence that came out of my mouth was, "In the wintertime, I often like to go water-skiing."

You Really Shouldn't Eat Those
When discussing food with some (Chinese) friends, I was talking about some of the things that I really enjoyed eating when I lived in Korea.  In particular, I was very fond of the Korean pancakes (not the delightful fluffy breakfast treats that spring to mind; these are a completely differently but nevertheless incredibly delicious type of pancake).  Sadly, I yet again made a mistake with my tones.  As soon as I informed my friends that one of my favorite dishes in Korea was "lăo bīng," the look of confused horror on their faces proved that I had made an error.  "Oh, wait, I used the wrong tones!" I realized aloud.  "I meant to say, lào bĭng."  "Oh, good," one of my friends laughed.  "I am so glad to hear that you do not like to eat veterans!"

Perhaps I Should Just Make My Own Language!
And then there are the times when I get all the words right, but I just can't get the grammar correct.  When checking over a short story that I had written entirely in Chinese (my first such attempt), Lulu suddenly laughed aloud.  As it turned out, I had used Chinese words with perfect English grammar.  Smiling, Lulu remarked, "You know, Stephanie, you and I are so much alike.  I speak very good 'Chinglish' and you speak very good 'Englinese'!"


I was caught off guard recently when three different friends all used the same word in describing my life here in China.  They all said that I had made sacrifices to be here.  At the time of each conversation, I didn't quite know how to respond adequately or appropriately -- I think I express myself much better in writing than I do verbally.

I adamantly do not view life here as sacrifice.  Is there hardship?  Sometimes, but it isn't privation of any sort.  Emotionally I have gone through quite a bit these past nine months, and yes, all of those things are difficult to handle alone and so far from the sources.  I struggled tremendously with guilt during the worst part of Mom's illness, wondering how I could stay here while she was left without a daughter to care for her -- but at the same time, I was following the clearly marked path that I saw God leading me down, and also honoring my mother's wishes; there just was no other course to take.  I've struggled recently with some of the other bad news coming in from stateside, coupled with some issues here.  It's hardship, it's baggage, it's weight; in my crasser moments I refer to it succinctly as "crap."  Sometimes things make me cry.  Recently, things made me angry (a rare occurrence, so I didn't quite know how to handle it).  But I don't think it warrants the title "sacrifice".

To me, sacrifice is so much bigger and deeper.  It involves tremendous loss.  I've lost things, yes, and the losses of some things do hurt (like Eowyn, St. Timothy's, the close involvement with Lantern Hollow Press, Inklings III, freedom in some of my decisions).  But I haven't had to give up anything essential.  And I feel like I have gained so much that to call coming here sacrifice is almost an insult to God.  I've been given so much, even when I'm spending a few weeks weighed down with situations beyond my control.  I know that my previous two posts lacked my usual joy, but even in the dark cloud I've been inside lately, I've still known that I am blessed to be here.  It's a gift, not a sacrifice.  I know that the people who have called it that have meant well, but I really stiffen at having such a significant word applied incorrectly -- it just seems like a slight to the people who really do make sacrifices.

Jesus's work on the cross was sacrifice.  God sending Him was sacrifice.  David Brainerd working himself to death at age 29 was sacrifice.  Taking a bullet meant for someone else or giving away your last dollar to feed someone else or living in a leper colony in order to care for them -- these things are sacrifice.  I don't think that sacrifice always needs to involve death necessarily, but it does need to be pretty earth-shattering, in light of precedent.  Moving to China to teach my favorite subject to extraordinary students and show love to the most gracious and loving people I've ever met -- that's just not sacrifice.  Having a few tough blows isn't enough to make it that either.  It makes me really uncomfortable to have that word applied to my situation.  I know that most people stateside have a very different view of China; please, please let this post convince you that life in China is not a sacrifice.

To the three dear people who have used that word with me recently -- please don't feel censured; I understand what you meant even if I stumbled about in a verbal confusion when you first said it.  But my life here is not sacrifice.  I may have spent 26 years not wanting to ever set foot NEAR China, but it only took a few months to change that.  I am exactly where I want to be.  I've been given the rare gift of having my dream come true, even though I never knew it was my dream.  I am honestly very happy, even when I'm sad.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Where Have All the Outlets Gone?

I think I've partially solved the mystery of my increased headaches (besides the two health issues):  it's the lack of outlets for my stress and emotions.  While I have always been a person who actually thrives, to an extent, on stress, here I have encountered a situation never previously dealt with:  my primary outlets for stress are completely gone.  Additionally, I have dealt with a considerable amount of emotion here, something I am not generally comfortable with or welcoming to (I generally completely avoid anger, and I have a similar response to sadness and grief).

My biggest outlet was always the presence of a pet, usually a dog.  In fact, I have only spent two years out of my entire life NOT having a dog (not including this almost-a-year in China).  I never realized just how much that meant to me until now.  I wondered recently how I coped with loneliness in Korea, since I was so isolated in Gyeongju.  The answer is Jasper.  That furry darling got me through a lot; I don't know that I would have made it through grad school without him and, later, Eowyn.  But here, I've had to give that up.  I dream at night about Jasper and Eowyn, and I often wake up feeling a sense of emptiness at their absence.  In the past, empty apartments never felt so empty as this one does now.  Some days I almost dread the apartment, knowing that no one furry is waiting with wagging tail to greet me.  During the difficult emotional times, such as now, the apartment almost feels like a prison at some moments.

I also have greatly missed my jewelry-making, though not nearly to the extent that I miss having a dog.  When I was packing for China, I wanted to bring my supplies, but since I had no idea what situation I would be entering, I was afraid to bring too many things that would have to be carted back to America if things didn't work out (clothes can easily be disposed of, but not all belongings are so easy to part with -- a lot of money went into my jewelry supplies!).  On the bright side, I'll at least have these things when my parents come to visit in two months.

My third missing outlet is a bike -- what a difference that made in Korea!  Riding past the tombs, the rice paddies, the temples . . . it was rejuvenating.  I have thought about buying a bike here, but being more in a city than ever before in my life, I am uncertain about the quality of rides that I would have.  Somehow I can't imagine gaining quite as much relaxation from back alley streets as I found pedaling past cornfields in Michigan, the river in Gyeongju, the flowering dogwoods and Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.

I've made studying Chinese an outlet here, and it does honestly help, but I think I really need to find another outlet as well, one that perhaps uses my mind a bit less.  My writing, at present, just adds stress -- the more I read through and edit Sídhe Eyes, the more I grow to hate what I have written.  At present, I am thoroughly convinced that my novel is the most uninspired and nauseating piece of drivel ever written.  I'd love to step away from it, but I can't let down the rest of Lantern Hollow Press.  And honestly, I do want to publish the thing . . . I just kind of want to burn it first.  I keep hoping that it will turn out like my thesis -- I spent the whole time convinced I had written something completely bush-league and pathetic, but when I recently reread it, I was actually a bit impressed (I even, I will admit, briefly again entertained the thought of expanding it into a book -- delusions of grandeur, I know).

I guess I'll just have to keep searching until I find that perfect outlet for life in China.

Any suggestions?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Standing (almost) Alone

"Stand up for what is right, even when you stand alone."

My fourth grade social studies teacher had this statement on a poster hung amidst a myriad of similar mantras in her classroom.  I recall that the words overlay a photograph of a man standing dramatically erect in an obvious sea of disapproval.  Although the image was cliche enough that I don't recall it clearly, the sentiment has stayed with me all this time.

I had to live out this statement earlier last week; I have seen something all year which is horribly wrong and which I have fought against constantly.  The sheer frustration at people who should know better behaving in such a callous, inexcusable fashion built up until I suddenly found myself speaking out about it, trying desperately to hold back emotion and avoid inadvertent insult.  I didn't want to cause hurt or anger, I didn't desire confrontation; I just knew that if I stayed silent, I was as guilty as the rest of them.  I needn't have concerned myself:  my words were "water off a duck's back" as they say.  Nothing changed; the people who are most to blame in this either ignored me completely or showed me the cold shoulder.  Conversations in the days to follow proved that my stand accomplished nothing; apparently this situation is not even on the radar for the people creating it.  And that, to me, is the ugliest fact of all.

Was it worth it?  Yes; I can answer affirmatively without hesitation.  It made no discernible difference, I regretfully have to admit.  I suppose I didn't really expect it to -- this cancerous behavior is too engrained at the moment.  Definitions and morals will have to change before this situation can be resolved -- and the message is just getting completely blocked out by other, more frivolous concerns.  However, I can sleep with a clear conscience because I know that I TRIED.  I spoke out.  I didn't blindly accept something that I know to be wrong.

It's been difficult because I want so much to like every person I meet and to think the best of him or her.  But when you consistently see people content to behave in a hideous manner towards other people, perfectly content to keep hurting and excluding them, how can you keep thinking the best of the "guilty" parties?  They KNOW better.  They each have an obvious moral compass.  They have NO EXCUSE.  They make excuses, but none of them are valid.

How do you fight against wrong when the people doing it don't view it as wrong?  How do you keep yourself free from the tarnish of their actions?   How do you avoid falling into a self-righteous attitude?  How do you fight against the anger that rises up within you when you see so little impact from words that came from the heart, words tinged with pain at what you witness each day?  How can seemingly GOOD people be so BLIND?  These are the sorts of questions I've been grappling with each day.  They're the tarnish on otherwise beautiful, meaningful days.  I've had to remove myself repeatedly from situations just to keep from speaking out again, this time in anger.  I'm not completely alone -- a few other people share the frustration and the burden -- but sometimes it feels like I might as well be alone.

I've shed a lot of tears lately.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Culture Conversations

A Kind Person
Me:  "Linda, how do I say 'kind' in Chinese?"
Linda, slightly puzzled:  "Kind?"
Me:  "Not zhŏng; I want to know how to say 'kind' as in, she is a kind person."
Linda:  "Oh.  You can say qīn qiè dē."
Me:  "Qīn qiè dē?  Could you write down the characters for me?"
Linda writes out the characters (亲切的).
Me:  "Oh, wonderful!  Now I can thank people better when they are kind to me."
Linda:  "Oh, actually, we don't say that.  You should only use this when you are not talking to them."
Me:  "Like if I'm talking to someone else about a person who is kind?"
Linda:  "Yes, never to the person's face.  We don't say things so strongly."
Me:  "So to someone's face . . ."
Linda:  "You can say hĕn hăo, or maybe hé aĭ kĕ rén, but never qīn qiè dē.  If you say that, they will maybe feel —"
Me:  "Bù hăo yì si?"   (Bù hăo yì si means embarrassed.)
Linda:  "Duì."
Me:  "So maybe I should just stick to complementing Chinese people in English?"
Linda:  "Yes!  Exactly!  You can say as strong as you want to if you do it in English."
Me:  "In that case, you are the KINDEST person I know!"

Western Directness
Me:  "Linda, would you say that I am a direct person?  You know, like a westerner is direct?"
Linda:  "Oh yes!"
Me:  "Am I ever too direct?  I mean, do I ever accidentally seem insulting to Chinese staff here?"
Linda:  "Oh no, no, you are never that way.  You are a very accessible person."
Me:  "Accessible?"
Linda:  "We are all feel comfortable with you."
Me:  "Ah, okay.  So I don't offend with my western directness?  Ever?"
Linda:  "No, because you are not so direct in Chinese.  You only do it in English."

Typical Questions
Lulu:  "One of my students just send me a text.  He wants to know how to say to a Chinese person, 'mind your own business.'"
Me, laughing:  "Oh, did he get asked how much his salary is?  Or how much he weighs?"
Lulu:  "Yes, probably.  But you can't answer that way!"
Me:  "Ah.  Yes, we find those questions rude in America.  We don't think it's polite to ask things like that, especially to ask a stranger those things."
Here the conversation went on in Chinese, since this was, after all, during one of my lessons.  However, for the sake of my readers, I'll record it in English.
Lulu:  "In China, it is not rude; it is okay to ask the questions if it is an older person."
Me:  "Yes, I get asked those questions often, too often!"
Lulu:  "How do you answer?"
Me:  "Oh, I have an easy solution.  Any time that I don't want to answer a question from a Chinese person, I just say, 'tīng bù dŏng' and pretend that I don't understand Chinese."
Lulu, nodding:  "Yes, that is a very good method."

Double Words
Lulu:  "So sometimes we say the word two times, like cháng cháng or kān kān."
Me:  "Yes!  How do I know when to do that?"
Lulu:  "There are usually three times when we do it.  First is when it is a suggestion or maybe not so much.  And second is if you want to have a try, maybe not definite about it."
Me:  "Okay."
Lulu:  "And sometimes we just say it because we think it sounds better.  Because, you know, when we speak Chinese we usually want to use two characters instead of one."
Me:  "Why?"
Lulu:  "Just . . . because.  Actually, I am not sure why exactly we do it."
Me:  "So in other words, you do it just to confuse poor westerners who are trying to learn your beautiful and thoroughly frustrating language?!"
Lulu, laughing:  "Yes, probably."
Me:  "I KNEW it!"
Lulu:  "So we use those three ways for putting the word twice."
Me:  "I'm never going to understand this, am I?"
Lulu:  "Probably not."

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Back at Last

After a three-month absence, at last I am back to blogging!

It has been a difficult three months, to say the least.  I don't like to let myself dwell on negatives when there are always positives that one ought to focus on, but here are three of the "yuck ducks" I've battled recently:
  • Headaches every day for the past month.  And I do mean every day.  Up until this past week, about 4-5 of those headaches were migraines each week.  It was exhausting and miserable trying to work through the pain, but I really had no other option -- I can't just quit when my body gets in the way.  I got quite frightened at one point, wondering if perhaps my two little aneurisms had decided to grow up and cause trouble.  During the worst of the migraines, I would huddle in my bed and worry that it was a brain tumor (believe me, migraines make even the most illogical things seem perfectly logical and likely).  I greeted each new day with dread, knowing that it would only be a matter of time before that day's headache arrived.  I finally broke down and went to the doctor, and I am now trying to make some changes to improve my condition.  I'm still having headaches each day, but it has been a full week since my last migraine.
  • My closest friend here in China had to leave, owing to visa problems.  This is her story, not mine, so I won't go into all the details.  We spent the past week in Hong Kong trying to get another visa for her and had the sudden surprise ending of her having to temporarily return to the USA instead of getting a visa -- I didn't see that blow coming.  It's going to be lonely without her.  
  • For one terrifying week, my MacBook died and appeared to have deleted everything on it.  EVERYTHING . . . including my only (at the time) copies of my master's thesis and my 310-page completed first novel.  It was my most emotional week of 2012, believing that I had lost the only two impressive achievements of my life.
And, for balance, three of the "yay ducks":
  • I was able to restore everything on my MacBook, so nothing was truly lost.  And, now everything is backed up as well.
  • I can now read more than 800 Chinese characters, after only eight months in China.  Although I'm a little proud of this, I'm also a bit disappointed with my recent slow progress (owing mostly to the headaches).  I had set a goal of 1,000 characters by my upcoming birthday, which means I need to speed up the learning process if I am to make it.  I did, however, have one achievement today:  I finished writing my first short story entirely in Chinese characters.  It's nothing great, of course, but I am pretty happy that I managed to do it.  I can't wait until the summer, when I can work on writing a much longer and more complex one!
  • I got to go to Hong Kong this past week (for spring break; blog post about it coming soon)!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Great Camera Caper

For those who are regular readers, you already know the long, sad story of my battle with cameras since leaving the USA in July.  For the sake of newer readers, however, I'll go ahead and summary the whole story, rather than just starting with the conclusion.

So, here is the "bullet point" version of my long-lasting camera escapades:

  • When packing to leave the USA, I had the hindrance of having to first move everything from Virginia to Michigan.  Because of that, some things got hopelessly lost.  Among those hopelessly lost items were both my universal camera battery charger and the cords to connect either of my digital cameras to my computer (in lieu of the charger, the cord would actually have sufficed for charging the cameras, so really I could have gotten by with just one cord).  So, no way to charge the cameras and no way to access the pictures on the cameras.  Hoping optimistically that I would be able to find a charger and cord in China for at least one of the cameras, I went ahead and packed both cameras.
  • Once I arrived in China, I discovered that no, cords could not be found, nor could acceptable chargers.  So, I now had two completely useless digital cameras.
  • I spent a ridiculous sum ordering the appropriate cord for my Cybershot off of Amazon.  It took a while for it to clear customs and make it to me, but once it finally did . . . I learned that it was for a later model than the one I have.  So, still two useless cameras.
  • I attempted again at some different stores to see if I could find the necessary cord for at least one of the cameras in China -- no luck.  I felt saddened and a bit covetous every time a friend whipped out her camera to snap pictures of all of the beautiful and new things we were seeing and experiencing in those first months.
  • I did considerable research into the best cameras for my purposes and went ahead and ordered a new camera off of Amazon.  I figured that it would prove to be worth the investment, since both the amount of megapixels and the zoom were so much higher than either of my cameras.  I awaited the arrival of my new camera in eager anticipation of the wonderful photos I would soon be able to take . . . 
  • Chinese customs kidnapped my new camera.
  • Weeks passed . . . 
  • I filled out forms, sent copies of everything from the sales slip to a copy of my passport, and even had our school receptionist do a bit of begging and beseeching on my behalf. 
  • More weeks passed . . .
  • Finally after paying a ridiculous ransom (they called it a customs fee), I received my new camera.  The first days in China were long past, but at least I could finally catch up on photo-taking . . . or could I?
  • The new camera, as it turned out, did not come with an SD card.  The internal memory could only store up to twelve photos.  
  • I went to the electronics stores around town, only to learn that none of them carried the type of SD card that my new camera required.  I now had two completely useless cameras and one partially useless one.
  • I felt like weeping as time after time, I had the privilege of traveling to various places throughout China (Hwangdao, Beijing, Weihai, Penglai, Weifang, Shenyang), only to be unable to capture any of it on film.  So many special moments had to go completely unrecorded.  I was able to get some photos from friends, but it just wasn't the same.
  • Months passed . . . 
  • The first semester of school ended . . .
  • On my daytrip down to Gyeongju, I stopped at an electronics store that has a reputation for having everything.  I asked for an SD card, showed them the camera, they got out an SD card for me . . . and it was the wrong size.  The two salesmen informed me that I would have to get it online.
  • Here in Seoul, I decided to put forth one last effort.  I went to an E-Mart, figuring that I would once again be disappointed.  Even when the salesman handed me the SD card and I payed for it, I was still convinced that it would turn out to be the wrong one and I would have to return it.  At a Starbucks, with considerable trepidation, I inserted the card into the camera . . . and it fit.  At last, I had a digital camera that I could use!  Overjoyed, I began to mentally plan out where I could go to start experimenting, at long last, with my wonderful new camera that finally was usable . . .
  • The battery died.  
  • I left the charger in China.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Resolutions for 2012

I'm resuming my former tradition of making and attempting to keep New Year's resolutions (I took a year off in 2011, after I failed to keep several of my 10 resolutions in 2010). And so (drumroll please), here are my official resolutions for 2012:

1.  I am going to renew a resolution I made back in 2009:  To focus on the things that I can alter, not the things that I wish I could alter.

2.  I resolve to learn at least two new skills this year.

3.  I resolve to improve even faster at my Chinese.  For starters, I am aiming to know 100 characters by the time I resume my Chinese lessons on January 30 (right now I know about 50 characters).

4.  I resolve to walk more . . . once I get this ankle straightened out.

5.  I resolve to finish writing Sidhe Eyes (my fellow authors at Lantern Hollow Press will cheer on this resolution, especially since the book was supposed to be finished last summer originally).
"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"