It has been years since I’ve dyed Easter eggs. It was such a revelation of colors. How a simple egg can be transformed into a work of art!

China, University Teaching

De Colores

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China, University Teaching

An Unexpected Pleasure

It is rare to experience moments of childish delight and pure pleasure. I had such a moment when I helped hide Easter eggs for a colleague’s class.

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China, Teaching, University Teaching

The Positives

The end of the semester had come! With a great sigh of relief, I end my teaching duties and take up some lighter administrative work for the next month in combination with some Chinese language classes.

The relief is not complete because major changes are in the works for the program I originally came to Xi’an with. My colleague and I have been strongly advocating for the program to be transitioned to something less staff-intensive, as there seems little benefit for the university otherwise. I feel extremely conflicted about my actions at times, sometime regretful and indignantly defiant at others. I was accused of ignoring the program by someone far from it and told that “we should work to solve problems, not just give up.” Insert ironic laugh here.

I recently had the chance to return to south China for a conference and followed it with a few days in Zhuhai. It was an interesting time of reflection and evaluation. It was very heart-healing to be so warmly greeted by old students who met me with cries of “Are you coming back?!?” (See, you haven’t always been a terrible teacher!) Former colleagues seemed genuinely eager to chat with me and all expressed regret that I’d left but hopes that I was enjoying my new life in Xi’an. It was a little hard to find ways to politely and briefly express my year. It was like returning to a place where there existed a happier, better version of yourself, where you wonder what you’d have to do to get that “you” back.

Back in that environment I did feel like I had grown positively in some ways. My Chinese, though by no means great, has improved a great deal. Taxi drivers and I can have very nice long conversations these days. All small stuff, but terribly satisfying to be able to do at all. I can be independent in a way that I wasn’t in Zhuhai where I had some wonderful friends and colleagues who carried me through many situations—a blessing, but dangerous if always available. That does not mean that I can solve major problems (like the Internet being down for a week!!!). Next week, I am going to start a four-week summer Chinese language program. I’m a little nervous, but know that I’ll feel better for having made a concentrated effort while I have some extra time.

On the job front, I will be staying in Xi’an next year to work as the assistant director of the American culture center. We finally got news that all the paperwork has been approved just a few days ago. I’ve genuinely enjoyed my work there this past semester and hope that next year will be more of the same. I also have the nicest boss in the whole world. I am so grateful to work with/for him! I also get to stay in my comfortable apartment next year, in my nice neighborhood (still with a empty guestroom waiting for YOU to come visit!) I get to enjoy four more seasons of the lovely Xi’an weather, exploring more of the city and eating more “delicious snacks.”

So in terms of the traditional definitions of comedy and tragedy, my year has been a comedy—starting high, coming low, then rising again to end high. Though, in the modern usage of the word there had been very little about it that has felt comedic. All’s well that ends well? We’ll see . . .

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China, Transportation, Travel

Xi’an Taxis 101

My life in Xi’an is ruled by the teacher’s shuttle bus. Don’t get me wrong—I am very very grateful for the shuttle bus without which I could not live in my lovely neighborhood. However, it angers me that I am so dependent on the shuttle bus when there are seemingly other options that could get me where I’m going on time. Actually there are lots of them—yellow and green VW Jettas that make a mockery of the institution of taxicabs, destroying all of my naïve preconceptions and we’ll just throw in my hopes and dreams as well.

Let’s start with the naïve preconceptions. As a California suburbanite taxis were truly something seen only in the movies. Taxis—as I understood them—were very responsive to hand signals and whistles. One had to merely stand on a curb and throw up one’s arm or umbrella (1-2-3 Hail!*) and a taxicab would come racing to a halt with all the enthusiasm of a dog returning with its ball. Upon dropping off a fare, taxi drivers were already on the scent of the next, peeling away and weaving back into the flow of traffic. Fast, efficient, eager—that’s a taxi.

I rode in a taxi only once in my entire childhood. This solitary time came when our loyal Dodge Caravan, “Big Blue,” broke broke down in San Francisco during a family excursion. After getting our van to a garage, our family of five piled in a cab and continued with our plans for the day. In my memory it hasn’t seemed at all difficult to get a cab. It was as it had been shown to me in movies, you just stood on the curb for a few minutes and—voila! A taxicab!

This experience did not prepare me well for Xi’an. It allowed me to hold onto the obviously false belief that taxis serve at the passenger’s need. Though in Hangzhou there were signs of my future trouble. A short visit during Spring Festival introduced me to the disturbing phenomenon of taxis simply refusing to take you where you needed to go. The dismissive wave of the hand, that dreaded horizontal shake of the head. I was dumbfounded. Taxis turning down fares? What did they think they were?

Upon arriving in Xi’an I assumed that taxi drivers would be eager for my patronage, especially since I was a guaranteed 60 RMB fare. A creative driver could get that even higher (65! 70 RMB!) by taking me on the “scenic route.”** However, in fact, drivers recoiled from destination as I do from the scent of stinky tofu. I quickly learned that it is far more trouble than it is worth to deviate from the school’s spartan shuttle bus schedule.

However, this semester has thrown a hitch into my dutiful riding of the school shuttle by requiring me to miss the afternoon pick-up. I am now tossed into the wild seas of needing a taxi for a long fare at the worst possible time of day—the taxi change-over time. I smugly thought I had a solution to this problem—a private car. Through my work I thought I could arrange someone to pick me up and take me out to my college, thereby dusting my hands of that problem. My colleague though, in her most matter-of-fact text message to date, told me that no one would do that. No one? Did people stop needing money or gainful employment? What’s going on with the world?!?

On Monday I allowed myself a generous 2 ½ hours to get out to my college. I told myself it wouldn’t be so bad—think positive! You’ll get a taxi! I paced the street anxiously, checking the time often. Even when I could get an available taxi to talk to me they, of course, didn’t want to go out to my college. After 30 minutes, I decided I couldn’t wait much longer; I needed to make a decision: keep waiting or go catch a bus. I could take a city bus up to where it connected with one of the two subway lines in Xi’an and take the subway to the end of the line at the train station where their was a true taxi stand—dozens of taxis all lined up ready to go (in theory). Not feeling confident enough to risk it, I caught a bus and enjoyed a packed bus ride and packed subway ride.

At the train station, I was happy that there was a train disembarking and there was a line at the taxi stand. (If that doesn’t make any sense to you, that’s because you haven’t lived in Xi’an.) I’ll only say that a line of fares provides cover—the taxi pulls up, you get in, and it drives away. There’s much less chance of refusal.

However, even here I wasn’t safe. Upon telling the driver where I need to go—a destination only about 10 minutes away—he is extremely peeved, lots of grousing, eyebrows down, scowls abound. And why might he be so vexed? Oh, probably because he wanted a longer fare. And he would have had a longer fare if he would just come down to my neighborhood or had one of his cronies deign to pick me up. Oh, and did I mention that he immediately turned off the meter? Now I’m going to have to pay more because HE’S inconvenienced by my destination. If there’s going to be a contest for more aggrieved person in that car I’ll be DARNED if he’s going to win!

In summary: I can’t get a taxi from downtown because it’s too far away; I can’t get one from the train station because it’s too close. I clearly need a taxi pick-up that’s JUST RIGHT. And where, might I ask, would that be, oh tetchy taxi drivers of Xi’an?

* For The Avengers fans in my life—you know who you are! (No, not the comic book ones—the other, classier ones.)

**Little did they know that I tracked their routes on my phone and got smart to their tricky ways.

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China, Travel, University Teaching

The New Job

As usual, what was intended to be a brief explanation has turned into 800+ words of long, reflective, somewhat emotional blogging. For those of you with limited time, please feel free to read to your capacity. I would humbly recommend the summary and possibly the pros and cons. For those with lots of time wanting the full, delightfully wordy scoop–read on, dear reader!

Summary: For the 2013-2014 academic year I will be working for a respected Midwestern university* but on site with their partner university in China. Students enroll in our program at the Chinese university with the intention of transferring to the American university within one or two years. My “mission” is to get the students fully admitted to the university, prepare them for the transition, and give them the tools to succeed once they are there. (Whew!) My job title is “lecturer” which seems slightly misleading. No, I will not be dispassionately delivering lectures to long rows of seated students in echo-y auditoriums. Instead, I will need to be some combination of marketer, cheerleader, teacher, administrator, counselor, and coach to give the program vision, to keep up enrollment, to develop students and set them up for success in the USA. It’s a tall order.

I have helpfully prepared a list of the pros and cons as I currently see them to give you a peek into how I feel about this new job.

The Pros:
I am employed by an American university.
(I have BENEFITS! Dios mio! BENEFITS! Can you believe it!?! )
They provide a very nice 2 bedroom apartment in a good area (Visitors, puh-lease!!)
And roundtrip airfares.
They brought me to the campus for “orientation” and paid for everything. (I can submit receipts for reimbursement. Whoa.)
They gave me a work laptop. (A MacBook!)
Business cards (Squee!)
I still get to work overseas.

The Cons:
I am the ONLY foreigner onsite for our program in China.
I am one of TWO foreigners at the Chinese university.
Our entire program in China consists of me and a Chinese office manager.
There’s been a lot of transition in the program and nothing has been well documented.
I was told there was a curriculum but there’s really not.
I still work overseas. (Note inclusion on both pro/con lists. Placement depends on the day)
I still work in a country where I no comprendo the lingo. (Sí, dos años en china y todavía no hablo chines. Soy una persona horrible. Yo sé.)

If you’ve reached maximum capacity on hearing about Amy’s new job you may stop reading here. I think you’ve got the jist.

For those wanting more touchy-feely details, read on:

The Longer Version: This job was one of those jobs where you apply with little expectation of ever hearing back. I was surprised to be contacted. There was an initial Skype interview at 11 o’clock at night where I disagreed with one of the interviewers and thought I’d never hear from them again. (Funny story: I actually thought the interview was at midnight and only was in the apartment by chance.) But I heard from them again. A second interview and then a third.

The more I talked to the interviewers the more I was intrigued. They seemed like nice people, with an understanding of what it’s like to work in China, the challenges, the opportunities, etc. At that point I’d sort of pinned all my hopes on being accepted into a special fellowship program for TEFL. This was sort of a change of plans, but not necessarily a bad one. The more I thought about it and talked to people the more it seemed like a BETTER plan. So I signed that offer letter.

A few months later I don’t regret my decision. Of course there are wrinkles to every new job. (See “The Cons”) With a fuller understanding of what has been done and what they are hoping to see in the future I feel slightly overwhelmed.

This is a job with a lot of potential. I have a lot of freedom to create something cool. That’s great. It wouldn’t be that fun to be denied the opportunity to make changes and be creative. At the outset though I think I’d prefer a little less freedom as it’s a lot to try to create something while finding your feet.

I will probably need the year—one full cycle—to find those feet of mine. Which makes this job not really seem like a year position. If you put in all that work are you really going to want to walk away right at the point where you know enough to be able to improve it? But am I committed to staying in China longer? (I mean, REALLY, I’m already going on three years when I never expected to be in China at all.) And my feelings towards China are quite complex, emotional, and therefore messy.

And this all seems like way too heavy of thinking for a job that has only just—and I mean JUST—begun. I haven’t even started classes yet. So think of this as a mental and emotional snapshot of me on this date and at this time: August 31, 2013 at 2:38 PM. It will be interesting to return to this post in a few months of so to reflect on my changing thoughts and emotions. I will endeavor to keep you updated.

*For various reasons, I don’t really feel comfortable connecting my blog with the name of the university as I consider this a personal rather than a professional place of reflection. And I don’t want to get sued by anyone. Or fired.

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Campus Life, China, Travel, University Teaching

End of an Era

June was a time of good-byes. Goodbye to another semester, but more importantly to my students, friends, and colleagues in Zhuhai. At that point I knew I would not be returning in the fall. So not only was there the usual end-of-the-semester madness of marking papers and final exams, but there was also a great deal of paperwork for the new job (to be explained), packing up of my apartment, and all those aforementioned goodbyes.

I came to Zhuhai in September of 2011. It was my first time to even visit China, much less to live there. I remember how the entire flight to China (San Francisco –> Vancouver –> Beijing –> Zhuhai) I was a mess, truly a ball of nerves. Even after arriving, there was quite a long nervous period of adjustment. It took time to get comfortable, to make friends, and to understand the ropes at the university. My relative comfort at the end of my first year was hard-won. I would never have expected that I would return for a second year. But I did. And I had a great year.

The best part of Zhuhai was definitely the people. It would not have been the same without my wonderful friend Sarah, with whom I took innumerable long walks and drank enough Nescafe to float a boat or two. And Stephen, the Kiwi I met on my first day, who introduced me to so much of China and took me along on many an adventure. The three of us had so many great trips and many a comfortable day around campus and town. Sniff, sniff. I’ll miss them!

Then there was the wider circle of other foreign teachers, some positively kooky, others lots of fun, with whom I shared many a conversation and meal or just guzzled cheap Tsingtaos with.

Then there were my local colleagues in the department, English teachers who reached out to me at the very beginning and became good friends. Vivid personalities all around who gave me better understanding of local culture and just how things worked (or didn’t work) in China. I owe them big time for all their many kindnesses to me and all those meals that they insisted on paying for! (I must discuss the “hosting” issue in China sometime.)

And the students. Ah! The students. With their wonderful English names, Chinese sense of style and genius for asking questions deemed inappropriate from an American standpoint. In my mere four semesters at BNUZ I estimate I taught somewhere around 2500 students. Of those only a few became good friends, but many remained kind, familiar faces around campus that always said hello. Those that became friends will hopefully remain friends for a long time.

Let’s not forget Zhuhai herself, who was not without her own charm. I remember looking up Zhuhai on a map and being pleased that it was a coastal city. It also lived up to its reputation of being a green, comfortably small city by Chinese standards, with lovely landscaping everywhere and year-round greenery due to its semi-tropical climate. I think I might regret leaving Zhuhai in the near future. I’m understanding now why students would go on and on about the “great environment.”

I’ll certainly miss our beautiful university campus—I didn’t know how good I had it! We may have not been the best university academically speaking, but I think our campus must make at least some most-beautiful lists.

And I’ll certainly miss Cantonese food, especially all those lovely perfectly prepared vegetable. Sigh. And morning tea. And washing my dishes at restaurants. And listening to them talk on their cellphones in public places.

Yes, it was a great two years. And it was hard to leave. But—as they say—it was time. If I stayed longer in Zhuhai I think it would’ve been because I was afraid to move on. Just because something is good does not mean that the next thing will not also be good—or maybe even better! So here’s to the also-good or even better!

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