Adventures in Writing

Hi!  Lots has changed over the last month.  I’ve moved states, bought a house, started a new job, started coaching 3 volleyball teams, started teaching a youth creative writing class and…found a little sister – 2 months old/2 lbs – for my Oscar (cat) who lost his brother one month ago. PHEW!

I am loving Sacramento.  It is not how I remembered it.  It has such diversity here.  From ethnicity to neighborhood vibes, a wonderful mixture – I just love it.

Yesterday I finally ventured out to explore the Artists Open Studios.  Very creative people here.  Driving through the neighborhoods – full of big trees and quaint houses – made me smile and think about how lucky I am.

I ended my wanderings along the American River.  There are paths for miles along the two rivers here.  So fun to think of great hikes after school once my schedule calms down a bit.

My school, Sacramento Country Day, is great.  The 5th graders I am teaching are so excited to learn and embrace new ideas.  My 5th/6th grade volleyball teams are doing really well.  Last Friday, one team had a game and they really played well together – and won!

img_5642My ‘Adventures in Writing’ after-school class is full of kids that love to write.  I am having fun challenging their minds to explore broader possible paths for their characters and settings, and to create tension and drama – it is all great practice for me as well.

Home life:  I bought a bit of a fixer-upper – and it will be a fun work-in-progress.  Sophie – the newest addition to my little family is so tiny and adds lots of springy, impetuous energy to our house.

So all is good in my world.  I hope it is in yours as well.

Have a great end to your September!

Gretchen

Two Days Not in Mexico

My school has decided that I actually need to have a work visa, ie. legal, to work for them.  So yesterday, a mere seven weeks from the end of my contract with them, they sent me to Los Angeles, California to get a stamp in my passport from the Mexican Consulate.  Yes, I had to leave the country to get this stamp.  And yes, I was asked to not mention that I had been working since mid-January at my school in Mexico City.  At least when I was supposed to lie I was going to be in my home country  – yikes!  No worries, I’m still roaming free, no jail time for me. I didn’t even have to lie as after nearly 3 hours of hanging out at the Consulate, I was interviewed and asked 2 questions: how many schools does the foundation, my school, have and, did I like my salary.  Ok, so maybe I lied on the second question :-).

But that is not why I chose to write today.  Rather this forced escape, vacation, killing of time…has got me thinking about all sorts of random things and I thought I’d share a couple oddities I have noticed about myself.

No Hello: I arrive back in the US of A and I stopped saying hello to everyone that passed me by on the sidewalk.  I stopped smiling at everyone and I generally felt more inside myself.  I noticed this as my walk this morning took me into the Mexican/Latino part of town where the Consulate is located.  The closer I came to the Consulate, the more people started saying Hola, Buenos Dias… to me, as most everyone does in Mexico.  I responded in kind, and with a smile and a nod of the head.  Then caught myself.  I realized I hadn’t done that further away where all the gringos were.  That made me sad.  It is similar to how Mexicans, as they pass by your table while you are eating tend to say Buen Provecho.  Basically saying ‘have a great meal.’  I love that.  I’ve tried to think of a way to casually say that when I walk by someone here in the States.  But going around saying “enjoy your meal” just seems intrusive for some reason.  Are Americans that unfriendly?  Well, I’m at least going to push myself to smile at people while I am here.  That can’t hurt.

Which Language:  I’ve been noticing that I don’t know how to speak – any language here.  Not that my Spanish is very good, but in Mexico I have to use it every day (I love that!).  I stumble and work my way around the correct way of saying it until the person understands me.  I have my pat, memorized phrases.  It is fun (most of the time) and challenging.  But then I came back to the US.  I got in the taxi last night and I struggled to find the words to explain where I wanted to go.  My mind kept trying to find Spanish words, yet I knew I could speak in English.  It was silly and I became tongue tied.  It is starting to wear off now, but I am happy to say that some words are still popping to my mind in Spanish first.

Unsatisfied:  I have been in LA since 11pm last night.  So roughly 15 hours – 4 of which I was asleep.  So in those 11 hours of awake-ness, I have been a picky, unsatisfied, seeing all the negative, kind-of-gal.  What is going on?  I can be negative, but I try to find the positive on a daily basis.  But this is ridiculous.  I noticed all the filthy, gum stained sidewalks, the filthy chairs in the hotel restaurant, the unsmiling people (service people), the blandness of the downtown, the lack of anything unique or interesting.  Wow!  Is it just LA or me?  I’m thinking its me in a funk.  Ugh.

But all is not lost – or rather, negative – as of an hour ago I found this great little cafe called Caffe Primo that just served me the best vanilla latte I have ever (seriously!) had. It is a great atmosphere, the food on other people’s plates look amazing, the music is upbeat but not obnoxious.  It is all good.  The people seem happy and there is this great mix of ethnicities.  I like that about big, American cities – diversity is rampant.

Tomorrow morning I am going to visit the California Science Center where the Space Shuttle Endeavor is housed and the big exhibition on display are the Dead Sea Scrolls from Israel – found hidden in caves in 1947.  They are over 2000 years old.  Should be a fun morning.

Then back to work writing my final paper on global health geography for my graduate program.

So me, feeling odd but coming out of it and starting to see the good again, in English.

Enjoy your day-after-Earth-day!

Gretchen

Zaijian China

So, as some of you may have guessed, I have been pondering a big change for some time now.  As you know, I have not been happy here in China for a number of reasons (to read about them visit my posts entitled A Rough Start and Unabated Frustrations).  The unfortunate part is that none of the issues seem to be getting any better.  I suppose my students are learning a bit more English, or, I wonder, is it just that I have lowered my expectations drastically?

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

As of December 1, I decided, as I was turning 48 on December 5 and that life is way too short to be miserable, that I would make a change.  A big one.  This decision came after first dealing with my guilt.  I tend to be a loyal and committed person, or so I’d like to think.  But when one’s life is surrounded by such unsavouriness, is it being loyal to stay, or simply out of dogged duty?

To top it off, the air quality since I have been here has averaged around 200 AQI – The US usually tops out under 50.  With China putting 1.5 million new cars on the road monthly (according to BBC Asia), combined with all the factory exhaust in the city I live in, it is no wonder that I (and all of us foreign teachers) have an incessant cough.

But more importantly, the area that has given me the most pause is my students.  They are good kids, eager to learn, but completely at a disadvantage as they barely understand the language in which I am trying to teach them.  What they desperately need are English classes – all day long.  If my school hosted a 3 month intensive English language training camp it would change everything for them (and make us foreign teachers very happy).  But instead we are trudging through the mire of non-understanding, throwing out our content and grasping at ways to be ESL teachers on the fly.  So much for quality education.

Departure

So all this to say that I have officially resigned.  An ESL teacher is what they need, not a geographer trying desperately to teach rich humanities content to non-English speakers.  I depart with both a sad and glad heart.  Yen Yang?  Possibly.  I have made good friends here and had a bit of an insight into the realities of China, which I treasure, no matter how small my exposure has been.  Now that I have made the difficult decision, my heart (and my lungs) feel lighter just knowing my departure is imminent and that alone tells me it was the right decision.

Have a great December and I’ll be back in 2015.

The Intricacies of Ruins


To continue my Cambodia sojourn…

After my escape from the exercising women atop Bakheng at sunrise and a quick breakfast from a street vendor, Mr. Kong and I started the long journey out to Banteay Srei.  As you will recall, Mr. Kong had a small motor for his Tuk Tuk, so our speed never topped 30 mph.  It was just enough speed to have a light breeze to keep me cool.  And wonderfully slow enough to fall into the mesmerizing scenery of green, green, green rice paddies and palm trees.  Mr. Kong drove for two hours outside in the full sun over bumpy, sometimes jarring roads.  While I on the other hand, relaxed under the shade of the umbrella roof with my feet up.  About 30 minutes before our destination the rains hit hard.  I suggested we pull over and get a drink and wait it out.  The bedraggled looking Mr. Kong gratefully agreed and after I was settled with a cool drink, he proceeded to have the lovely ladies at the nearby street cafe extract his back pain with suction cups.

Once the rains stopped we bounced along again and came upon Banteay Srei – the “woman’s temple.”    This little gem was built by the guru of the future king Jayavarman V. in the 2nd half of the 10th century.  Nearly every inch of the red sandstone is decorated with intricate designs.  Although small in size, I kept circling and re-visiting different sides to breathe in the beauty.

Banteay Srei Buildings CollageI was continually amazed at how well the carvings were preserved after 1,047 years.

Banteay Srei Carvings8

Banteay Srei Carvings5

Banteay Srei Cavings4

Banteay Srei Carvings3

Banteay Srei Carvings2

Banteay Srei Carving1After a nice long visit with mostly European visitors viewing quietly alongside me, Mr. Kong and I headed over to Bang Melea, the ruins that are ensconced with rooting trees and tumbling boulders.  I was excited, as I had been told you can climb and explore all you want at this location.  But unfortunately I found three large tourist buses had just arrived shortly before me, so it was over-run with picture-posing frenzy.  Needless to say, I didn’t stay long.

Bang Melea Entrance

Bang Melea

Bang Melea3

 

The roots and their determination to break through wherever they wanted to, was impressive.
Bang Melea Tree Roots5

Bang Melea Tree Roots4

Bang Melea Tree Roots2

 

Can’t you just see a scary movie in the making with this one?
Bang Melea Tree Roots

 

Very few carvings at Bang Melea.Bang Melea Carving

On the way out to Mr. Kong, I had to stop and spread the wealth to the locals.  At every location they were selling mahogany beads.  I’m hopeful that the trees are sustainably grown… they are gorgeous!

Bang Melea Trinkets

 

So then Mr. Kong and I started our long meander back to Siem Reap.  Here are a few of the images I caught, when I remembered to take photos.  It was so lovely to just smile and wave at the curious, happy faces.

TUK TUK Photos7

TUK TUK Photos6

TUK TUK Photos5

TUK TUK Photos4

TUK TUK Photos3

TUK TUK Photos2

TUK TUK Photos

 

What a great day.

So I will leave you there for now.  Coming up, one more day of gorgeous ruins, orphans, art…  Stay tuned.

Gretchen

 

 

 

Unabated Frustrations

Its been a little over two weeks since my last post and the near impossibilities of trying to teach rich and wonderful, but conceptually challenging subjects to students who barely speak a few words of English, have hit me harder than I’d like to admit.

After my last post there was a five day national holiday here in China.  I spent those days wandering the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  It was wonderful and I promise to post photos and my fabulous experiences later this week.  But as I wandered, I hoped that the lushness of the land, the warmth of the Cambodian people and the awesomeness of the temples would set my mind to the challenges ahead.  I would return with a desire to conquer the problems and preserver in my quest to educate my students on the delectable subjects of humanities.

Unfortunately that didn’t happen.  As I slowly meandered through the vibrant green rice fields, waving to smiling passers-by in my little tuk tuk, it dawned on me that it wasn’t only the student’s lack of English that was dampening my determination;  it was the whole situation.  I was living in a suburb of one million people in what I call “high-rise” city, where nothing is really pretty and you can’t get out of town on your bike to go for a hike simply because it is so far away.  There is nothing to buy that isn’t cheaply made and can be bought anywhere in the world (they make it all right here in Guangzhou) and their aren’t local craftspeople selling their unique items (which I love the most).  The culture is one of loud.  Individually the people are soft spoken, but something drastic changes when they encounter even two other people (or simply answer their cellphone).  The conversation rises to what I would consider yelling.  Put a large group together in an enclosed location, such as a grocery store, and the decibel levels reach beyond what my ears and mental capacity can handle.

So this is to say that I have not found happiness outside the classroom.  I had so hoped that being in the suburbs and nearer to the mountains, that I would spend my weekends hiking and biking and exploring the little villages.  But it isn’t to be.

The one redeeming happiness is the staff at my school.  For the most part, I really enjoy both the Chinese and the foreign staff.  An eclectic group from the US, South Africa, Canada and New Zealand.

So last week, upon returning from my country-side capers, I was supposed to begin with new vigor and determination.  But instead I found that simple requests, written on the white board, such as:  Choose two vocabulary words and write each in a sentence, were received with blank stares and complete incomprehension.  I spent twenty minutes explaining what choose, vocabulary, write each, sentence… meant.  This was a starter, something to take five minutes that would refresh their memories on the vocab.  It was the final straw.  It wasn’t the student’s fault.  They simply didn’t understand.  So I decided that I needed to throw out the curriculum and teach ESL.

I asked my principal and he approved, but that was just for year 7’s.  Then I proceeded to keep trying with the four other grades I teach, which are a tiny bit more versed in English.  I tried.  Although I had revamped my units a few times already, I did it again, slowing them down further.  I left another week wracking my head to find more creative solutions.  The other foreign teachers are doing the same.  We weren’t hired to be ESL teachers and we have all continued to cling to our subject content with the unrealistic hopes that a new day brings enlightenment and fluency to our students.

Yesterday, in near tears, I knocked on my principals office.  We spoke and I explained the reality.  I (we all) believe that he is still in denial of the situation.  He was blown away with the examples I was giving him.  He ended up saying to me “chuck it all and start all over teaching ESL.”  Then proceeded to apologize over and over saying that he knew I didn’t want to teach ESL and he knows how excited I was to teach humanities.

Well, another day has come and gone and I am having the hardest time letting go of my content.  I so want to enrich my students with skills of critical thinking and to open their eyes to what is beyond China.  So I continue to try to find creative ways to infuse ESL with the wonders of the world.  A process, a bit of a roller-coaster and I’m finding, very emotional.

Thanks for listening.  I will bring you beautiful photos and a few tales of ancient Cambodia in a few days.

Gretchen

From Ugh to Ahh in One Day

Will you allow me a moment to complain?  Or at least a bit of a vent?  I promise to reward you with photos and happiness later on.

Teaching third grade is time consuming and really hard.  Hats off to all those that do it and love it.  It requires so much more planning than the one subject courses I have taught in the past to older students.   As a world geography teacher for both high school and community college levels, I could teach full time and get my lessons planned within a 45 hour work week.  Designing four subjects for my little munchkins seems to take me upwards of 60 hours.  Then of course there is the after school club once a week (I’m co-chairing the school Newspaper) and of course I offered my services to teach adult ESL twice a week.  So I have definitely filled my plate nice and full.  I had forgotten how draining it is to be “on” all day long.  No sitting at my desk drilling into a problem.  The few moments between 8:30 and 3:30 (or 8:30 – 5:00 on M/T) when I am not teaching, I am correcting papers, devising alternative plans for my struggling students, speaking with parents etc.

I know.  Blah, blah, blah.  Every teacher in the world knows this.  But I guess I felt the need to mention my revelation because I have been feeling so down for the last couple of weeks.  I suppose its just stress, but in reality I think it is the fact that I haven’t been breathing the proverbial Myanmar air.   I have been feeling very removed from the culture.  I think living on campus is a huge part of the problem.  We (all of us foreign teachers) live in free accommodations built right on the small campus grounds.  So we never really leave.  Of course we do, but its not like going home to your own place surrounded by the culture you are here to be apart of.   I can’t complain too loudly – it is free accommodation.  But I have been missing the connection with the heart beat of this place.

So to remedy my disconnected feelings I spent yesterday alone.

Ha!  I’m not sure that is possible here.

I was sans-foreigners (not that we are all that bad :-)) and instead surrounded by this wonderfully rich and diverse populace full of smiles, giggling children, outrageous juxtapositions, wonderfully spicy smells, monks with iPhones, and a rich history oozing from its very core.

Let me tell you how I jump started my good-feeling, glad-to-be here mood.

I woke up with the sun and lazily laid there listening to the birds that nest right under my window.  They are a happy little chattering lot.  By 8:30 I had motored over to Mandalay Hill, removed my shoes and started the steep climb to the top.  Climbing on stones barefoot is amazing exercise for your calf muscles.  Along the way I met numerous people selling their wares, making the trek to pray, snuggling with their sweetheart and children running up and down as if we were on a flat sidewalk.   At various spots there are platforms with a variety of Buddhas in different states of repose.   Buddha must have been a joy to be around.  He is always depicted with such a gentle and serene gaze and sometimes with an outright smile.Buddha - Mandalay Hill 2

I thought I had reached the top about four times.  But just as soon as I started to relax and look for the promised vista, some smiling, bowing soul would see me and motion me onward.  Its a bit of a maze in the middle.   Then just before the top you enter into the trinket zone.  T-shirts, bamboo flip-flops, bamboo purses, jade jewelry etc.  Just as I was starting to fear that I would never escape, but be circling the stalls for years, I spied yet another staircase and up I went and this time I was greeted with the flashing of gold and cut glass.  The cool breeze swirled around me and I was lifted out of the trees to a near 360 degree view of the Mandalay valley and surrounding Shan mountains.  It was a bit of nirvana.

Mandalay Hill - Top
Beautiful arches at the top of Mandalay Hill.

The temperature was at least 15 degrees cooler than the valley floor.  The whipping wind was a joy.  After photos and a wondering I just sat, leaned back against the gold, facing west and the Ayeyarwaddy river.  I breathed deeply and smiled, well smiled mostly because I was such a spectacle that everyone was smiling at me, so it only felt right to oblige and smile back which resulted in giggles and blushing.

Mandalay - Looking NW from Mandalay Hill
Looking NW from Mandalay Hill. Mandalay city is on the other side of Mandalay Hill.

Buddha - Mandalay Hill 3

In most of the Buddhist temples there is swirling iron work that I have really been enjoying, especially next to the brilliant colors of paint and gold leaf.

Architecture - Mandalay Hill IronAfter an hour or so I found the view of the Palace below was beckoning to me.  I had to go explore its expansive interior.   Although burned out extensively during World War II, much has been reconstructed of the palace itself.  I am currently reading The Glass Palace by Amitov Gosh, an historical fiction novel.  The palace is known as the glass palace due to King Thibaw’s bed made of glass bedposts.  Inside the palace grounds there is a small museum and it houses his glass bed.  Quite unique.

I motored over to the palace, over the moat bridge (good sailing weather by the looks of the white-caps on the moat!) and parked.  I could have driven in, but I wanted to fully feel the immensity of the grounds.  Foreigners are only allowed to visit a very small portion of the grounds as the military has taken over the walled in location.

Never the less, I walked among tall trees, with little disturbance from the dust and grim of the city.  I met three very nice monks visiting from a city far in the north. Walking makes it so much easier to meet people.

The main palace first came into view.  It was hard to get a full photo of it.  The grounds are full of residences of the once thousands of people that lived and worked for the royal family.

Palace - Collage

After wandering through all the residences and council houses, I climbed to the top of the “Watch Tower” – the spiral staircase in the photo above.  The trees have grown so tall that it was hard to see very far, but the photo of me is from the top.  The black and white photo is of King Thibaw and Queen Suphayalat.  I loved all the detailed wood carvings on each of the buildings.

While sipping ice-cold water purchased from the vender at the base of the Watch Tower, I was joined by a happy family with three adorable boys.  They were all smiles and racing to and fro.  The wind was really whipping at the top and although it felt great, you could really feel the Watch Tower sway.  I took a few photos of the boys and then out came their phones and we had a full on photo shoot.  Funny how we are all so excited to take photos of each other – complete strangers.  But all our silly grinning and happiness just filled me up.  I think when this picture was taken was the only time these boys weren’t grinning from ear-to-ear.  They were such happy souls.

Palace - My Boys

As I started to motor home, sticky, sweaty, filthy… I decided to make a stop to get my toes polished.  Why not?

Other teachers had done this, so I thought it would be no problem.  Well, it was a HUGE deal to the gals that I popped in on.  I had 12 girls, many with orange-ish hair, apparently that is as close as the bleach here will get there lovely black hair, trying to decipher what I wanted.  No, I didn’t want a fancy design on my toes.  Just color.  That, I, was very strange.  They said the polish gal was on her way, so while we all waited they just sat around and stared at me, smiling, giggling, staring.   At first it was tiring and I was getting grumpy.  But I wasn’t on a main street and this probably had never happened to them before.  I had to remind myself that I must seem very different to them.  With that I got over my “I’m tired of being stared at” attitude and started smiling and trying to engage them.  Might as well try and make a happy and lasting impression.  Soon the polish gal came and within 5 minutes my filthy feet (remember I had walked to the top of Mandalay Hill without shoes on that morning) had new polish on them.  No foot soak and no leg massage.  Simply wipe off the old, clean a bit of dirt of the nail and re-polish.  Then a hand fan and some physical leaning over and blowing on the toes and I was on my way for a whooping $1.00 – yep, one dollar.

Toes - Getting a Polish

With bright toes encourage my new serenity, I motored home, took a quick shower and was out again with a fellow teacher to have cocktails and watch the sunset over the Ayeyarwaddy river and then to listen to a local band sing mostly foreign songs in Myanmar.  What a fantastic day!

New energy and a determination to SEE all the little, beautiful things that surround me each day, its a good way to start the week.  Just riding to a place where I could write this blog today, I was once again seeing the arching trees, the vibrant colors and the uniqueness of the people again.  Feels good.

Have a great week.