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.