Let’s Take Teacher to Kaifeng Part 1.

I left Portland in the summer of 2013, to begin a new adventure in China as an English Literature teacher for EFL Chinese students who were prepping to move to the U.S., and Canada to continue their educations. It was really a whim. I had been feeling trapped and stunted, doing my usual, what am I really accomplishing in this life lamentations. This a usual lamentation that I’ve been singing since I first left college in 1997. It’s a familiar song that is on a fairly continuous loop kind of like when a horrible pop song gets stuck in your head. In truth, I’m sick of the song, but at times it can lead me through interesting doors, albeit I’m generally singing the same tune too loud to be able to pay attention to my  immediate surroundings. Surely, more then once I have missed an opportunity to grasp some enlightening notes to help me in the great quest of purposefulness. Regardless, if I had the overwhelming desire to be a great teacher or to experience China, or to be an avid traveller (all of which I have at one time or another felt) I ended up in China. It was more a case of who I knew than what I knew, but the outcome was the same; I was in China.

As I write this post from a coffee shop in Busan, South Korea, the days tick away from my time in China, and four years have past. Since China I have moved to the Czech Republic and traveled to parts of Eastern and Western Europe then returned to Portland, and now I sit in cafe called Coffee Farm in Saha-gu in Busan. This post will remain static on this page, and the days will continue to tick. Perhaps you have stumbled across this blog while looking up something on China, and as you read, five more years have passed since I’ve posted, and who knows what I’m writing and where I’m writing. Will I still be traveling? Will I be writing? Will I be alive?  I haven’t posted much about my experiences because thoughts have been in the way, more personal, more emotional thoughts and feelings that have been an impediment to sharing my general experiences in China, and in the other places that I have been since then. Occasionally, I am able to force myself to the page, but the moments are far and fewer between. Yet, that need to record my life, maybe in some attempt to have some relevance beyond death, is still there; small as a wisp, but still there.

There are moments when my thoughts are drifting and some brief yet strong memory from my year in China resurfaces. I never know what triggers it, but it always brings a smile to my face, and a slight nod to my head, which at times baffles and amuses me because I struggled in China. It goes to show that things can become better when nostalgia sets in. Even though I discount my pleasant experiences there I will state that it wasn’t all a struggle or at least that there weren’t moments of joy in the experience of struggles. I do hope that in the coming years that I can and will devote more time to the practice and art of writing so that one day I can accurately and succinctly convey the emotions, and the experiences that triggered those emotions, in a way that can take my readers to China. Can I reach the ability to tell my history like a poetic story? Can I transport you with my words to this place without sounding sentimental or whiney? I honestly don’t know if I will ever be able to do such a thing, but if it’s true that practice and deliberate practice bring about true growth, then I have to look at each post, be it about an event from the past or this current present, as a step toward learning to create that transportive storytelling.

Here is the beginning of one such deliberate practice of a storytelling:

Once upon a time, I had a complete and total meltdown at school, number 47 middle school, where I taught high schoolers,  in Zhengzhou, China.  I was in the office talking to one of my best and favorite students when one of the staff dropped a little bomb on me. On all of us. In a typical Chinese administration fashion, a set holiday was taken away from the teachers and the students in a very last minute non ticket refundable manner in order to use the school for Gaokoa practice testing space. Gaokao is this brutal future life determining test  that all Chinese students who want to attend higher education have to take in order to have a hopefully prosperous future. It is considered one of the most difficult tests in the world. Post test results are the top students have their photos in the national papers, and a number of suicides which are not reported in the same papers. It is stressful, and also status building. So it means nothing to the administration to forgo much needed and desired vacation time for students and teachers in order to be the poster school for testing. I, of course as can be determined by my current tone, don’t think this test is the be all to life, and at the time pretty much lost my shit at the knowledge that I just lost my vacation-days days before they were to take place. I had no concern for mianzi or guanxi. These are Chinese words for saving face or keeping up appearances and relationships that are far more complex, yet central to Chinese society, then I can effectively explain. Needless to say, my “face” exploded. I lost it in full view of my student and my Chinese co-workers.

When I think back on this 20 minutes of pure fury which I experienced in some bizarre out of body fashion, I wish that I had a camera rolling so I could watch the horror that my co-workers appeared to show on their faces and in their bodies, and the shear madness that I was unable to control. I really went mad. I was a thin line of consciousness from physical destruction. It was this outer body entity of myself that was watching me lose it that was the only thing that managed to keep some small about of sanity about me. I screamed and railed about how this was the very reason why people hated China; and no wonder they don’t return; and how the administration and the bosses treat people like shit even their own citizens; and it just keep going.  I’d grip a desk with a blinding passionate need to over turn it, but this calm voice of reason would wash over me and say, “you look crazy, right now, and this is not their fault, and your student is standing right there. Let go of the table.” So I would release my grip of what ever object I had in my grasp with a rapid snap of force, and scream out, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I know it’s not your fault!” And, immediately my wrath would return, “BUT this is bullshit!” and I would frantically pace the room seething and looking for something to destroy. It was truly a moment of madness where my personalities had split. I would even begin laughing at myself at the ridiculous irrationality of my behavior. I would laugh thinking, oh my god you can’t un-do what you are doing right now. The terror on my co-worker’s faces would only mildly pause my raging. It was only my student who was able to calm me. Unlike my adult co-workers who couldn’t move and just stood in shock staring at me, it was my 16 year old student who threw her arms around me and pulled me into an embrace, and held me in her arms. “It’s okay teacher. It’s okay.” I wanted to cry and collapse into her arms, but a new I needed to pull it together and be the adult I was supposed to be. “We won’t let this happen.” She said, and then she ran from the office.

I slumped into my chair, my head drooped forward over my desk, tears heavily forming into the base of my eyes. “I’m sorry.” I whispered to the still stunned Chinese staff. “It’s just…it’s just not fair.” I sighed, and looked at them. “I know it’s not your fault. I know it ruins your vacation too.” The head teacher held her hands up in a calming manner and said, “just, just wait, I will talk to the President, maybe something can be done.” And she left the office.

I don’t remember much else except that my student returned to the office to declare that her and the other students had decided to protest the change and that they would refuse to go to school on that day. “And if that doesn’t work teacher, we’ve decided that we will take you on a vacation after school is over.” I smiled lightly at my student. I had just incited a tiny revolution, which although oddly charming could result in me getting arrested for subversion, but what a story that would make.  This mini-revolt didn’t take place because the President of the school decided to allow our department the day off. I assume that the head teacher painted a very clear description of the foreign teacher’s utter decent into raving madness. It ended up making me a minor hero among my Chinese colleagues because they were able to maintain guanxi yet keep their vacation time. One teacher came in and spoke to the lead teacher in Chinese and after a moment leaned  toward me and whispered, “Thank you.” I may have been permanently marked the unstable one, but I had my uses.  I know that other foreign teachers had had outrages, but based on the frozen fearful faces of my co-workers I was fairly certain they had never seen anything like what came out of me on that day. Hell, I had not experienced that level of a tantrum soberly in a long-long time, and it was more than I had ever released. I knew it stemmed from the pressures of work but more so from the repressed grief that I had been carrying over my mother’s death. Still, I was shocked by my behavior. I didn’t know that I had an actual demon possession lying dormant inside me.

I suppose in all other circumstances I would have been embarrassed, but China had a way of taking bizarre events that would have what you would think to be a predictable outcome and flipping it into an unpredictable result. Everyone went on vacation, and at the end of the school year, six of my rebellious students took me on their mini vacation which was a complete surprise and a contradiction of expectations.

“Teacher.” My student said during the last week of school. “We want to take you with us on our holiday. Will you come. You just pay for your room and we will do the rest.”

It seemed a little unprecedented to me a teacher going on vacation with students–not as a chaperone, but as invited guest on their trip. It would never happen in the states. I said yes. My students took me to Kaifeng. It was me, six teenagers, and three e-bikes.

First Impressions of Busan, South Korea

CIMG9592The day is August 9th, and I am sitting in my hotel room to avoid the sweltering heat in Busan. A heat that I am not accustomed to as of yet. I’m not certain one truly acclimates fully to heat and humidity, but people do live in it.

My first days in Busan began with angst. I had flown from Portland to San Francisco on Virgin America, and then from SFO to Beijing to Busan on Air China. Two transfers, two airlines, three security checks (China’s was the toughest) and because of the time difference it seemed like it took me two days. I had left on the 4th and I arrived on the 6th. What happened to the 5th? But, more importantly, what happened to my luggage? Somewhere in all of that transferring my luggage was lost. I wasn’t calm about it, but also there isn’t much I can do. It felt like a big loss, and not the best way to arrive in my new foreign city.

I’ve moved to Busan; for at least a year, and I was feeling apprehensive about the move. I can’t say why I felt or feel apprehensive. This will be my third time moving out of the U.S. on some crazy adventure that I don’t plan well. It’s the fifth foreign country I’ve moved to, and my second Asian city to live in. One would think that by now I would feel more comfortable with the whole affair, but apparently I don’t. Apparently, I have a hard time doing it, but by the time I return to the states, I no longer remember my trepidations, and I do the damn thing all over again. I’ve never lost luggage before though so it is an added challenge. I tell myself, as my friends also tell me, “I have to believe things will work out. It will come back to me.” I try to put my faith in this thinking, but it didn’t stop me from crying my eyes out thinking about certain things I had in the case. That awesome jacket. My shoes; the one’s I loved. My brand new external hard drive that I had meant to put in my carry on, but forgot to. Then of course, my travel journal that is filled with pictures of my mom and home- it is something that gives me peace. That’s what really hurts. That can’t be replaced. So, I cried my first evening in Busan. I cried because my luggage was lost, and I cried because as per-usual, I don’t know what I’m doing nor do I know why I decided to go this route, and I’m afraid. That’s all normal for me. The thing is, I do know what I’m doing. I know more now this time then ever, but it doesn’t stop me from doubting myself or my choices. That too seems to be normal.

A friend met me at the airport. I was very grateful. I had felt uneasy on my arrival, what, with exhaustion, loss of stuff, and second-guessing my life choices. It was good to have a familiar face greet me in an unfamiliar place. Nikki, who I had met at Angloville in Poland a little over a year ago, guided me onto the subway and into the city where I am am being put up in a hotel near Nampo district. I’m to be in this hotel during my training period for my school. It’s about two weeks. I am not officially hired until I successfully complete the training. So who knows, maybe I will be back in the U.S. in two weeks more broke and in debt than ever, and with no clothes. Let’s hope not.

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Nikki and I wander a bit in the heat till we found a little restaurant where we ate cold noodle soup and kimchi and other delightful Korean snacks. As we walked around in the district of my new Asian city, I couldn’t help but compare Busan to Zhengzhou. Asian cities are so different from European cities as they are different from American or New World cities. The smells are different. The architecture, and the urban planning is all different. I don’t know a lot about Busan yet, but I believe a lot of it was destroyed in the Korean War so much of the urban planning is post- 1960’s. Also the land scape is hilly so that creates a different type of planning. There are some similarities to Zhengzhou in one particular smell and in the people, but they are only subtle similarities, and there were differences in what seemed familiar. Immediately, I noticed that it isn’t nearly as crowded here. In fact, the side streets were often empty. When it comes to the hustle and bustle of the subway people seem to be more polite here. There is some pushing, but nothing compared to China. If someone pushes past you they seem to be from the older generation and not to aggressive about it. In China, I found it to be very aggressive and all ages. I felt a bit like there was a sense of panic in Zhengzhou like a person needed to push everyone out of the way or they’d be left behind. Plus, in China there was the whole cutting in line (which really annoyed me) which I haven’t encountered here at least not in my one day. There was a similar smell. It wasn’t all over or as potent as in Zhengzhou, but it was the same smell. It is a terrible sewer smell that is sharp and pungent. It was very prominent in Zhengzhou, but I would only occasionally catch a whiff of the smell in some alleyways in Busan. Sewage actually smells different in China and Korea (in the two places I’ve been) then in American cities. It all smells like shit and bad, but it also has a different kind of bad. A sour kind of bad. Oddly, I find that fascinating. I imagine it is what we eat and how we live.

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After Nikki left I returned to my room, and cried a little. Then stared out at my view. I do have a nice view of the port from my window. I am far from the popular beaches but I can see the bridge that lights up like a rainbow bridge at night and connects the Yeongdo-gu island to the mainland. I can also see Mt. Bongnaesan and all the lights from whatever and whomever is living over there. Looking out the window calmed me some, and my exhaustion overwhelmed me. I tried to read a bit before going to sleep, but I was out before 9 p.m.

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In the morning after struggling to contact Virgin America, and not getting much help via chat (I have no phone right now so it adds more to the difficulty) I had another cry, and then told myself, I needed to get it together. I’m here. There’s not much I can do but hope. I can cry all I want, but it isn’t making anything better. Although, it did feel pretty good to cry. I ate the complementary breakfast offered in the hotel. It was kimchi, and rice, and some quail eggs. There was also some cakes that I think may have been fish, and a finely grated white cabbage salad. It wasn’t amazing, but it was fine. I am already a big fan of kimchi. After eating, I was determined to try and explore. I wandered a bit through some streets until I found my way to Yongdusan park.

Immediately upon stepping under the trees of the park I was surround by a cacophony of buzzing and caterwauling. I can only guess that it was insects. For a moment, I had thought the caterwaul was coming from strange birds, but the consistency and pattern of repetition and tone matched with the other buzzing which I knew to be beetles. So I’ve concluded, that indeed, there are some monstrous bugs living in the trees above us. There were subtle things that captured me as I wandered melting in the humidity that was already high by 10 am. The insects that I could hear, but not see. The bark of some of the trees that seemed to look as if it was melting, and the soft shapely pinecones that sat delicately side by side in a tree as if they were siblings. They are siblings. I enjoyed the Busan tower, and the various Korean design of some of the buildings, but really it was the nature in the park that was the most interesting part. I took some photos, and as I did a man offered to take my picture. I’m sure he wanted money for it, because he was trying to pose me. I’ve never been all that comfortable with strangers taking my picture- especially when they offer it. I don’t think I photograph all that well so I’m pretty awkward about the whole affair. Still, he took them and I walked away. I began to feel damaged by the heat and I gave up my exploration. I felt a little better, and I was glad I got myself away from myself.

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As I wandered back to the hotel I discovered art and murals in various alleyways and I saw a numerous amount of coffee houses. I had thought I would be giving up coffee for a year, but it appears like Busan has more coffee places in just this neighborhood than all of the city of Portland. It is good coffee too.

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Stopping to Visit the Peonies of Luoyang

In Luoyang every year from mid-April to mid-May when the peonies are in full bloom the city celebrates the Peony Festival. There are many peony gardens to visit in the ancient city that was once the capital of China. The most famous and main garden is the Luoyang International Peony Garden. It is one of the oldest peony gardens in all of China.

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I did not go to this garden. I couldn’t tell you which garden I visited. All I can say is that I was in Luoyang during the Peony Festival.

It was May of 2014, the morning after I had just hiked Mt. Hua with my friend Sean, and his friend Xiang Kai. We had hiked for 14 hours the night before, ill prepared and with little experience, on one of the most dangerous mountains . I’m talking about myself as far as the experience hiker part goes, but I didn’t think Sean was an expert, and I knew Xiang Kai had not hiked many mountains. Hiking in China is different than hiking in the U.S. In the U.S. hiking is a solitary experience. You climb with one other person maybe a few people and perhaps you cross the path of another hiker or two, but mainly it is you and the wild, and the animals who ignore or watch you. In China (or at least on Mt. Song, and Mt. Hua, and the other mountain I hiked) there are no animals only hoards of people. I never saw any animals, not a squirrel or a lizard only a bird or two. I’d never seen so many people on a mountain at the same time except at a ski resort during a holiday. The day we hiked was rainy and cloudy so it wasn’t nearly as crowded as it could have been. Even on a bad weather weekend there will still be hundreds of people climbing. It doesn’t matter if you go early in the morning or late at night it’s still crowded. The key would be to go off season during the middle of the week and definitely not during any vacations or weekends, but when you’re a teacher you have the same schedule as all of China, so either you don’t go at all, or you experience it like all of China-crowded. I had decided that day that I would one day return to China, but not to work only to travel so that I could plan my visits to ancient sights and geological wonders on the off times, but those were and are daydreams for other days.

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It was Sean’s idea that we stop in Luoyang to attend the Peony festival. Xiang Kai had to work that evening so he would not be able to join us. I was exhausted. My body felt worn and broken and I was irritable and still fuming about Sean’s comment that I was too old to climb a mountain. Ignorant boy, my mind ruminated on his off handed remark about my age that only an ignorant boy would make. I had hoped his feet were still suffering from his badly chosen climbing shoes. The wise thing for me to do would have been to go home, eat something nutritious, and then go to bed, but when Sean made the spontaneous suggestion I felt I needed to go. Life is an unexpected ride and you never know when it will stop and where it will start and many times an opportunity is a one time only opportunity. When would I be in China again for the Peony Festival? I had already decided not to renew my contract. I had already decided to leave China. I could tell myself I would be back, but I didn’t know for certain. Some days I hated China, and would think, never again- never again will I return to this country. It had been a hard year for me, and not all China’s fault, but I was in China when my mother died. It was in China when the most important person in my life left this world. My worst fear had been awakened. How many times had she told me that she would not be able to live without me? How many times had I promised I would never let her die alone? How many times had I told myself I would return and take care of her? China was to be my last experience, my last galavant as an explorer of this world living a life style that I didn’t believe was meant for me. I had never imagined I would ever be able to travel, that I would have lived in foreign countries. I was an accidental traveler and it was time to return to my “real life” whatever that was meant to be. I was going to go back to California and going to care for my mother. I didn’t want to live in Chico because there wasn’t anything for me there, but she was there and she needed me. I had been too slow, and too selfish, and I had failed her. I failed as a daughter. I suffered through that guilt alone in a foreign country, a country so foreign from my own that even our process of grieving was different. My mother died alone, and I had not been there to help her.  My anger, and my guilt, and my pain all manifested into my frustrations about a country that was so incredibly different from my own. I did have Sean though, my friend with his choppy english and his oh- so Chinese ways of thinking. Sean my friend who stayed by my side the best he could and tried to show me the things he loved most about his country. Sean was an impatient Chinese teacher, and impatient about many things, and he expressed much frustration about where he was in his life, but through it all he taught me a lot about patience and how to deal with frustration and how to accept that where you are is where you are, but that change is always around the corner whether you want it or not. Uncertainty is the essential part of this life experience and in the uncertainty lies the choices.

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This was life, and I was still living, and I had to take the opportunities as they came no matter how much my body hurt, and how aggravated I had felt when would I have another chance? I agreed to stop in Luoyang and to see the Peonies.

My body was not in full agreement with my mind or my heart. As we wandered from the train station to the nearest garden my body began to pull rank and my brain switched sides and together they caused me to grumble and slouch and move among the flowers like an impetuous child snapping bored pictures here and there waiting to stop to take a nap. Once in the garden all I really wanted to do was lie down in a bed of purple peonies among all the butterflies and drift off into a deep sleep. I did my best to not unleash my grumpiness on Sean, and I allowed him to tell me stories about the history of China and the symbolism of the flowers. He was gracious enough to understand that I was not feeling my best, yet still seemed to enjoy my company. In the end I knew I was not fully present in the moment, and that my body and exhaustion had won this battle, but simultaneously I was aware of the value that the day, and the weekend held.

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We are gifted moments in life and too often they only come once. Some are large and noticeable, but most are small and subtle and too easily we miss them. We don’t take the chance to strike up a conversation with a stranger or take the path that no one is following. I know no other person from my life, as of yet, that has hiked a sacred mountain with friends from China, and eaten prepackaged chicken feet and teriyaki marinated boiled eggs, and then stopped off at a Peony festival that had been celebrated for two thousand years. When I do meet someone who has experienced this it won’t be the same as I had experienced it. We all experience our lives differently, we are similar, but still we are each unique.

I didn’t get to enjoy the Peonies to the fullest of my capacity, and I wasn’t able to collect the memories of the day here in a nice well packaged form to share with others as to the best way to see the Peonies. I didn’t have to because no matter where I go in the world I am going to be me. That means me in a bad mood, me in a good mood, me irrational and me aware. Me wonderful and me not wonderful. My goal is of course to lean my life more towards the awareness and wonderful, and to be in the presence of my life and embrace the moments. Some days work and some days don’t regardless if I am climbing a sacred mountain in China or washing laundry in a laundry mat in Portland, Oregon. Years later I can think back on my hike and my visit to an ancient garden with my friend from China, and look at the pictures I took of flowers that had been planted and cultivated for two thousand years. I can accept the fact that flowers and gardens are not top on my bucket list, and I can say to myself, I did that, and I went there, and I was in a bitchy, irritable, and grumpy ass mood, but I was there. I took that moment and received all that it offered me even if the gratitude came a week after some solid rest.

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