Friday, February 25, 2011

Still Learning to be a Teacher

Yesterday after work I took a yoga class that is offered on campus.  I arrived about 15 minutes early, rolled my yoga mat out and rested on my back.  I felt myself become quite emotional and on the edge of tears.  I realized it was the first time I had completely “let down” since arriving here.  I had not been aware of the level of tension I was holding everywhere in my body.  Because I do not want to get lost, or accidently offend someone, I find that I operate with a heightened sense of awareness at all times.  Unfortunately, the yoga teacher seemed to be a former gymnast with minimal yoga training (and minimal English) who wanted us to do extreme back flexion moves that I knew could potentially incapacitate me for weeks.  Hearing the wise voices of my past yoga teachers I did my best to stay in my own practice, and made it through the class.  In the future, I will develop my own kinder and gentler yoga practice and do it in the privacy of my apartment.
Today was a beautiful, sunshine-filled spring day here in Zhuhai.  Genie, our fabulous teaching assistant in the General Education Office, walked with me through the Zhuhai campus of Beijing Normal University (BNU), where I took a few photographs and she took a few photos of me.  UIC is directly next to BNU.  All and all it was a lovely day until I returned to my apartment at about 5:00PM and, once again, could not connect to the Internet.  In that moment, I could feel my chest get a little tighter and my breathing become shallower.  I was particularly frustrated because late Friday evening is when I try to speak with my mom on Skype (11:00PM my time is 9:00 AM her time) – and I was concerned that would not happen. 
My office mate, and upstairs neighbor, Victor, has quickly becoming an important part of my support network here.  He only arrived in August, but has a good sense of the area and speaks some Chinese.  This evening we walked to a “noodle place” in Tangjia – the commercial center of this northeast corner of Zhuhai.  Yanyan, another important person in my life here, introduced me to this restaurant earlier in the week.  My Gustavus colleague, Mike Hvidsten, taught at UIC during the 2009/2010 academic year and Yanyan had been his teaching assistant.  She is bubbly and bright and has taken me under her wing since I arrived.  Yangzhou Fried Rice has become my comfort food of choice, and once I had eaten a generous portion of that, and walked back to Hai Yi Wan Pan, I was feeling a little better.
Then, miracle of miracles, my Internet was magically working again.  
This says "Learn to be a teacher for others; act as a model to the world."

At BNU, Genie had taken me into the building that contained the calligraphy of the “motto” for the school.  It says “Learn to be a teacher for others; act as a model to the world.”  In these moments when being abroad feels overwhelming, I know I am learning lessons that will make me a better teacher.  As to acting as a model for the world – that is a little more than I am willing to take on right now.  

Monday, February 21, 2011

Strange Dreams

Last night I went to sleep in my pajamas, a fleece pullover, a long sweatshirt, Josh’s flannel pants and two pairs of socks.  I was warm, cozy and slept soundly.  I had two strange dreams.  In the first one I was at some sort of Water Park.  A former student named, Ron, was there and he wanted me to try the slide.   It was a long tube, but unlike tube slides at water parks I am familiar with, this one was filled with water and you needed to hold your breath all the way through.  Ron entered the slide feet first and reached up to hold my feet to make sure I got all the way through.  The tube was longer, and because of the water inside, slower than I expected.  I got panicky toward the end because I did not think I could hold my breath that long.  In the dream, I did make it through and swam to the surface for a breath of air.   I had to chuckle when I woke up immediately following that gulp of air.  Oh so many possible interpretations of that dream!  In terms of adjusting to my new environment, it is a long way to the other side of that slide.  
In my second dream some nasty, centipede type creature had attached itself to my second toe.  I was kicking hysterically and which resulted in the majority of the creature’s body tearing away leaving only it’s head attached.  I really have no interpretation on that one, and will just file that away under bizarre dreams.
The strangest thing just happened.  My blackberry phone, which I only use for an alarm clock, just beeped with a message, and then rang.  Both were announcements about a snowstorm at Gustavus.  The reason this is surprising is that it has been my experience up until now that my American blackberry does not work here under any circumstances.  I quickly texted Bob, and the small indicator said “D” – as in delivered.  Bob replied he was just getting off the train in Washington D.C. and would call when he got to the station.  True to his word, a few minutes later the phone rang again, and both Josh and I had a chance to speak to him briefly.  Another breath of unexpected air!
Over breakfast Josh was telling me how the locals call him “Gwailo” – Gwai Lo literally means “ghost man” and is a common way to refer to Caucasians in Cantonese.  The shuttle bus driver, “Gwailo want off?”  The Starbuck’s cashier shouting instructions to the barista, “Gwailo want caramel macchiato!”  (Yes, there is a Starbuck’s in Zhuhai.  Josh has been there.  I have not.)
The first Internet guys arrived at shortly after 9:00 AM just as planned.  After a great deal of exploration, they determined the problem was not related to the equipment in my apartment, but was a bigger issue with lines in and out of the building.  They needed to arrange for additional help to look into the situation.  (After numerous phone calls, they handed the phone to me and Jessica was on the line, and explained the situation to me.) I do not teach on Mondays so I agreed to stay home and they said they would try to get someone here today.  At 3:30PM I got a phone call saying someone should arrive around 4:00PM. 
Before the Internet went out, I had downloaded Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones so I spent the long, quiet day of waiting in my apartment happily reading that.  I had started reading Country Driving before I left.  He is a great writer and storyteller, and I am sure I will devour everything he has written in the time I am here.  He weaves history, geography, politics and sheer hilarity into memoirs about living and working in China.
Okay, it took a good hour and half but they figured it out and I am once again connected to the world!  Maybe being cut off from air was about being cut off from the Internet.  Maybe the creature attached to my toe was about my dependency on instant communication.  Who knows?  I think this Gwaipor (ghost woman) thinks too much. 

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Hui Yi Wan Pan

Our seventh floor apartment faces the back of our building, and looks directly across the street on to the back of an identical building.  Someone on the fourth floor of that building keeps birds on his balcony.  I can see three birdcages on one side, two hanging in front of the balcony, and at least one on the other side.  In the mornings when I am first moving around, someone is often out there feeding the birds.  On the first floor of that building lives a cat lady.  To the best I can tell, she has 16 cats.  Her apartment opens in to a small yard surrounded by a fence.  She comes out with all the cats in the morning, and feeds them.  When she returns to her apartment there is a flurry of furry followers that makes it difficult to count. 
We live in Parc Paros #18. A resident on the second floor of our building keeps a St. Bernard on their balcony.  Their apartment faces the front of #18 and Josh and I always talk and wave at the dog when we arrive at the entrance to our building.   Every day at about 5:00 PM two or three elderly gentlemen gather in the small lobby of #18 to play what I believe is Chinese Chess.  It fascinates me and I always want to linger and see if I can figure out more about the game.
Birds on the Balcony

 All of the balconies have two drying racks (thin metal beams with holes evenly spaced where you can insert hangers) that are suspended close to the ceiling and lowered via a pulley system attached to the wall. On Friday, I bought a drying rack to put inside the house, assembled it and figured out how to use the washing machine.  Currently I have clothes hanging both inside and outside and our apartment looks like laundry central.  When I first arrived Jessica (the kind International Ed staff member who helped us get settled, and serves as my “go-between” whenever I am dealing with language barriers) had taken a digital photo of the instructions on the washing machine and then printed the photo and translated the instructions for me.  It is a simple machine and works well, but it does not seem to have any temperature options.  Everything is always washed at the same temperature, which judging from sticking my hand in the water is cold.  It is tricky to tell when anything is completely dry because at about 50˚F I can’t tell if it is still damp or just cold to the touch.  I try to tell myself to quit whining about the cold because in no time at all it will be over 90˚F.
At UIC, I share an office with a historian named Victor.  We discovered he lives in the apartment directly above us at #18.  We also figured out that last Monday, when we had Internet installed in our apartment, Victor’s Internet quit working.  Yesterday, the Internet technicians came to fix his Internet, and once his was working – ours no longer worked.  Of course by the time I discovered this, the technicians had left the building.  I will wait until later in the day to call Jessica as I hate to bother her on the weekend.  She helps international staff but her first responsibility is to the international students and I believe she has had her hands full with that. 
Josh went home from school on Friday with his buddy, Anthony, and last night Anthony spent the night here.  When Josh texted me to ask if it was okay for Anthony to stay over, I said it was fine but he needed to bring a big blanket with him because our apartment is frigid. The forecast predicts it is supposed to warm up some this week and I really hope that is accurate.  (Of course I cannot check the current forecast because I don’t have Internet!!)
Josh and Anthony
Negotiating this 14 hour time difference has been tricky for communications with home.  Bob is currently out east for a number of meetings so the time difference is only 13 hours.  The most frustrating part of not having Internet service at this time is that this morning we had a scheduled “Skype” date.  We had very intermittent Internet service throughout Europe and Israel, but in both of those locations our Blackberry phones worked so we could always communicate through e-mail or “blackberry messenger.”  Here our U.S. phones don’t work at all, so when the Internet goes down I feel particularly cut off.  These days, I, like many others, am so used to instant communication that I begin to feel as if it is an entitlement and I have been cruelly wronged when it is not available to me.  Given the situation at hand, an attitude adjustment seems my only option. 
Happy New Year - it is the Year of the Rabbit.
One thing that has worked well in our apartment is the hot water.  I don’t quite understand the system, but it is environmentally more progressive and heats the water only when you need it.  Whatever the system, a hot shower is a luxury I thoroughly appreciate and think it is the best course of action for facilitating the above mentioned attitude adjustment. 
(Six hours later . . .)
Josh, Anthony and I headed over to the Xiangzhou area so Josh could get some of the food he remembered so fondly from his first days here and I could try to find a yoga mat.   Anthony informed Josh that the “fat noodles” included in the bowls of ramen were most likely some sort of intestine, and that ingredient quickly lost its appeal.  He is still a big fan of the dumplings.  I found a yoga mat and a few other items and caught the shuttle back to Hui Yi Wan Pan (Horizon Cove).  It was a little warmer today and while still hazy, it did not actually rain.  My Internet guys are suppose to be here about 9:00AM, and, fingers crossed, I will back in touch with the world later in the day. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011


My father was 41 years old when I was born, and I was 41 years old when my son, Josh, was born.  Because my dad was a police officer he was profoundly aware of the fragility of life.  He never really expected to see his three children live into adulthood, and his parenting slogan was “I am not always going to be here, so you need to learn to take care of yourself.”  This morning, as I sent Josh off on his own to catch the shuttle to take him to the other side of the city, I realized how much of that attitude I carry with me. 
Fortunately, my dad lived to be almost 87 years old, and for most of those years he continued to take care of me in a number of ways.  Still, I take nothing for granted in life.  I hope with all my heart that I live a long and healthy life and live to see Josh well into his adult years.  Drawing on an over used cliché, I spent the first decade of his life trying to give him strong roots.  I now believe it is my job to give him opportunities to stretch and strengthen his wings.  I want those wings to carry him wherever he chooses to go in this life and recognize I could be laying the groundwork for those wings to carry him far away from me.
It is with this awareness I find the time we are spending together all the more precious.  Before we left on this journey I had joked with many of my friends that I hoped Josh and I would still be on speaking terms by the end of this year.  At home we regularly bash heads over the most mundane things - his music is always too loud, his cell phone battery dies and he is unreachable, and his diet of pizza and coke makes me insane.  All of which are typical ingredients for tensions between parents and teenagers.  While traveling together we rarely argue.  We laugh a lot and, most importantly, we take care of each other. 
Before we left in October I was speaking to my mom about my anxiety concerning the upcoming trip.  I realized the last time I had really challenged my own wings and taken a big leap into the unknown was in 1981 when I left my position as a high school biology teacher at Apple Valley High School, and moved to Tempe, AZ, to pursue my Master of Fine Arts in Dance at Arizona State.  I have most happily been with my husband (and best friend) for 26 years, at Gustavus for 23 years, and lived in the same house for 22 years.  As you can see, I am not really big on change.
While I believe in the power of words, I believe more strongly in axiom, actions speak louder than words.  So here we are.  Whatever convoluted logic got us here – I am happy we are here.


Many friends back home have asked me exactly where in China we are spending these five months.  Okay - a short geography lesson.  Zhuhai is located in the southern part of the Guangdong Province, near Hong Kong and Macao.  It is on the western bank of the Pearl River estuary and is adjacent to the South China Sea, which borders Hong Kong and Shenzhen to the east and Macao to the south.  The name, Zhuhai, means Pearl Sea – as it is the point where the Pearl River flows in the South Sea.
The city is known for its long, beautiful coastline, abundant palm trees and relatively low population density.  It has two nicknames: the city for lovers and the city of a hundred islands.   It is really hard for me to get a grasp of the size of the city.  The land area covers about 1,700 square km, and the sea area covers close to 6,000 square km.  Included in this area are 146 islands alluded to in its nickname. With a population of 1.3 million, it is considered a “small city” in China. 
The area has been inhabited for thousands of years but until the 1970’s it was a group of fishing villages with a population of about 100,000.  In 1980 it was identified as one of the first “Special Economic Zones” in China.  This designation, given by the central government, gives the area special economic policies and more flexible government measures making it easier and more attractive for international business. 
While the city has grown immensely in the last years, it is still a very clean city with a lot of green space.  There are very few international tourists here but it is known as tourist spot for individuals from other parts of China.
The weather in Zhuhai is sub-tropical.  It varies from about 10C/50F degrees in winter (now!) to 35C/95F degrees in the summer.  I realize to my Minnesota friends and family, 50 degrees might sound balmy – but you need to realize that most places do not have heat.  Including most of classrooms on the campus of UIC (Students and faculty leave their coats on during class, and offices open into outdoor hallways) and more significantly – our apartment.  It warms up during the day some, but it is REALLY chilly in the evening.  I just pretend it is like camping.  I wear multiple layers of clothing around the house, and multiple layers when I go to sleep.  (Josh just informed me he could see his breath in his bedroom.  See?  Just like camping.)
We live in a very nice complex of apartments called “Horizon Cove” or “Hai Yi Wan Pan.”  This was one of the first things we learned to say in Chinese, since most taxi or bus drivers do not speak English.  There are many, many employees of UIC in this complex, and the college provides a shuttle bus to campus at 7:25am, 8:00am, 8:40am and a return bus that leaves from campus at 4:30pm, 5:40pm, 7:00pm.  If I need to travel back and forth at any time in between the scheduled shuttle service, there are two city bus lines that work.  So for me getting to school is quite easy. 
For Josh getting to school is a little more complicated.  He is attending an international school that is on the complete opposite end of Zhuhai, near the border to Macao.  He takes a bus for about 40 minutes then walks swiftly for about a half mile, arriving at school about five minutes after the start time, which, considering the logistics is acceptable to the powers that be.  Making it all worthwhile is the fact he really likes the school and has already made a number of friends there.  Actually, the groundwork for those friendships had already been established.  A family from Gustavus was here during the 2009/2010 school year and their son, Nathan, went to QSI.  Nathan had stayed in close communication with his QSI friends and told them when Josh would be arriving.  Josh immediately adopted Nathan’s friends, and they seem to have adopted him.
I too have met wonderful people at UIC and really enjoyed the students in my general education “Story” class.  In many ways it is very hard to believe we have only been here five days. 
One funny story then I need to call it a night.  This morning I took the bus with Josh to make sure he got off at the right stop and to personally make the trek from the bus stop to the school.  I had a very nice conversation with the principal and an administrative assistant then walked back to the main street to wait for a city bus to ride back to campus.  While waiting for the bus, I noticed someone across the street take out a camera and take a photo in my direction.  I thought of all the times I have seen someone unusual – such as a very elderly person with amazing lines on their face, or someone with really colorful clothing, and I have wanted to snap their photo.  This was the first time I was really aware of the fact that I was the novelty.  I think I best get used to it.


Monday, February 14, 2011

White Guy Juggling

It’s Monday morning here in Zhuhai and I just left Josh at Quality School International of Zhuhai for his first day of school.  I returned to our apartment to wait for a person to arrive and install Internet service.  It is the first time I have been alone in the apartment since we arrived (though Josh has spent many long hours here on his own while I was at orientation meetings) and seemed like a good time to gather my thoughts.

We had a few complications getting here.  Let’s start with a week ago.  Last Monday, the evening before we were leaving, the pipes heading out of our kitchen froze for the first time in the 22 years we have lived in the house.  Nothing like a backed up kitchen sink for a calm evening before departure.  After a visit from our local plumber reporting there was not much we could do other than put a space heater under the kitchen sink and hope for warmer weather, we decided to head to Patrick’s (a restaurant /bar in St. Peter) so Josh could indulge in one last “Fatty Patty Pounder” (a huge burger) before leaving Minnesota.  Tuesday morning, Bob was not feeling well at all, and our good friend Sue, and her sister, Donna, drove us to the airport.  Check in went smoothly, and in due time we boarded a huge 747 in route to Tokyo.  After leaving the gate and heading for the queue for take-off, the plane stopped and the pilot announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, our flight attendants have found a weapon on the plane.  We will be returning to the gate for further security checks.  Please stay seated and I will keep you informed as I know more.”  And back we went.  We spent about an hour at the gate while police and security agents joined us on the plane and there was much huddling, whispering and head shaking.  A couple was escorted off the plane surrounded by security agents.  Eventually we were asked to take all of our belongings and leave the plane and go through a special security check.  All the checked baggage was removed from the plane.  This all took well over an hour, and then we were asked to re-board.  We don’t know a lot more, other than the fact the couple that was removed from the plane initially had actually found the “weapon” which was some sort of knife in the seat pocket in front of them.  We arrived in Tokyo three hours late, missed our connection to Hong Kong, stayed in a nice hotel in Tokyo, flew to Hong Kong the following evening, spent six hours (12:30 AM – 6:30 AM) in a very nice hotel, and then boarded the Ferry to Zhuhai.

Once again, the immigration agents had difficulty believing that the living, breathing short-haired Josh was the same person as the long-haired Josh on his passport, but eventually convinced, they let us enter China.  

Jessica, from the United International College (UIC) International Education office met us at the Ferry whisked us over to our apartment to “settle-in” (i.e. drop luggage, see how the burners on the stove work, and the hot water works) and then took me to new staff orientation, which I arrived at about two hours late. It was during the first break I realized that neither our American cell phones (with international plans) nor the Chinese phones that had been given to us by friends who worked at UIC last year, worked.  That was the moment I knew I had no way to reach Josh, and he had no way to reach me.  Needless to say this was unsettling.  I was able to borrow an extra phone from Jessica before boarding the shuttle from UIC back to the apartment complex.  It was almost 6:00PM when I got back, and as I was walking from the shuttle stop to the apartment, I saw Josh heading toward me.  He told me he had gotten a little upset when he realized none of our phones worked, but he found the grocery store in the complex, purchased some bread, peanut butter, oreos and a few boxes of Kleenex for the apartment and was fine.  It had been a long day, but I needed a little more than peanut butter and oreos for dinner, so Josh showed me the way to the store, we picked up a few more supplies and settled in for the night.

The next day (Saturday), I went to orientation in the morning then successfully navigated the public bus system back to the apartment, picked up Josh, and took a bus back to the college.  We found the China Mobile near the college, got new sim cards for our China phones, and met up with Charlie, a film teacher from L.A. who is also new staff for spring semester.  Josh and Charlie immediately hit it off.  Later we took the shuttle back to the apartment complex (Charlie lives a few buildings away in the same complex), kicked back in our individual apartments for about an hour, then met to take a shuttle to a major shopping mall area.  Charlie was still in need of a phone that worked in China so we set off to find a China Mobile in the area.  We passed an alley filled with street vendors and realized we were all hungry.  We each ate a bowl of fresh ramen noodles with seasoning, herbs, and peanuts.  Since no one spoke English, we were not really sure of the ingredients we had selected by pointing to various bowls, but it was delicious.  Josh and Charlie were still hungry so we ventured a little further and found a dumpling vendor.  The dumplings had some kind of seasoned chicken inside and Josh was quite sure it was one of the best dishes he had ever eaten.  With filled stomachs we set off to find a phone for Charlie, and a few more necessities (a sheet for Josh’s bed, towels for the bathroom) for our apartment.

Charlie had expressed an interest in seeing Josh juggle, so we bought three oranges from a fruit vender, and Josh started juggling.  The owner of the stand started yelling, and at first I thought he was angry.  But when I turned and saw his face, he was grinning from ear to ear as he shouted.  None of us have enough Mandarin to really know what he was saying but we imagined it was something like “White Guy Juggling!! White Guy Juggling!!”

We found Charlie a phone, a sheet for Josh’s bed, and towels for our apartment (plus everything and anything you could ever need at a huge department store) and headed home.  There is a lot more to tell, but I need to head over to UIC and get my course materials copied so I am ready for class at 8:00 AM tomorrow morning.

It is an interesting city, and it will be an interesting five months.  More soon.

Monday, February 7, 2011


Tomorrow we leave for China, where we will spend almost five months and I will teach spring semester at United International College.  When we reach Hong Kong at about midnight on Wednesday we will have been traveling for over 25 hours.  We will sleep in Hong Kong, and the next day we will take the ferry to mainland China.
That very matter of fact paragraph does not capture the anxiety I feel as we once again head out.  One of the very big lessons of this year is trying to make friends with uncertainty.  My anxiety about negotiating a new city in a completely foreign country is relatively low in proportion to my anxiety about leaving my family (my mom, who is in a nursing home, and my husband who is holding the fort) here in St. Peter.
Before I left in October I had picked up a used copy of Harold Kushner’s book Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World.  I liked the title, but the issues he addressed are not really the issues that unhinge me.  I am not concerned about being involved in a terrorist incident, but I practically have an aneurysm if Bob or Josh doesn’t reply to text message from me in a timely manner. 
Right now I need Christopher Robin to remind me that I am “braver than I believe,” and writer Anais Nin to remind me that “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage,” and poet Mary Oliver to remind me that “when it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement.  I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”

Leaving home is always hard, but I am as ready as I will ever be to take this next corner of the world into my arms.