Saturday, January 5, 2013

A year in review, part 3

Hopefully this is the third and final part to the 2012 review. Gotta get started living 2013 already!

First off, I just want to share something I did so it can serve as a warning to you to not do the same.

The other night I watched Rosemary's Baby right before bed.

Don't ever do that. Never ever never ever ever ever never. I had the most bizarre and vaguely frightening dreams. All night long. I woke up feeling like I never even slept. I also woke up feeling pretty sure the little blonde child in my nightmare was half mine and half Satan's spawn.

Speaking of slightly demonic children, yesterday was the first day back to work at the kindergarten after six wonderfully lazy days off for the new year holiday. And holy cow those kids were insane. They were all jacked up on six days of pent up energy.

There were a few times I wished I had my video camera handy to record their insanity. Some of them were sitting in their tiny chairs and literally vibrating/shaking, ready to explode if we didn't provide some sort of release. So I tried to make my classes extra active today so they could get up, jump around, be silly, whatever it took. Several of the kids turned into miniature tornadoes of fists and feet, and I'm pretty sure I'll have dozens of tiny bruises appear before the day's over.

So I think I left off last time with summarizing a bunch of things I was happy to have accomplished in 2012. Most of it was writing and language-learning related. I've had more free time in one year than I've probably ever had in all the years prior. One thing that I wished I had dedicated more time to was playing the harmonica. I played quite a bit, but not as much as I could have given all this free time.

I tried using some of the free time to take on some extra teaching. I started teaching Friday nights at the kindergarten. The school holds extra classes for older students who have already graduated the kindergarten, and they are held from 8-10pm on Friday nights. Not the greatest teaching schedule, but it was good experience and a little extra cash, so that's a plus. I was able to gain some experience teaching primary/elementary, middle and high school students this way. I learned some valuable lessons (some of which I've written about already)… 1) Never ever make kids go to school on Friday nights after being in school all week for 10+ hours per day…it's pure torture. It's torture for the kids and torture for the teacher. 2) All thirteen year olds should be locked away until they are fourteen.

I was really happy to have gotten that experience, especially when I came here thinking I would just be teaching three to five year olds. It was a great way to challenge myself. And it was interesting to see how different age groups require different sets of teaching skills. I mean yeah, that's obvious, but until you actually stand in front of each of those groups and have to perform, it's just theory. I found it fascinating to see the subtleties between the age groups…the subtle differences in the ability to grasp new material, different learning styles, personality development, the students social interactions, everything.

Oh, and then there was the experience I gained teaching at a university for about 5-6 weeks. I had the opportunity to fill in for another foreign teacher who was hired but had not yet arrived in China. I taught freshman, sophomore, junior and senior classes. The subjects ranged from basic ESL for each of those levels, to tourism English, to business English. That was a pretty intense trial-by-fire, sink-or-swim or what-have-you experience. And I think I did a pretty good job. The university administration informed me I received very good reviews from the students, and I had a blast with those kids…uhh young adults?

I also picked up some tutoring gigs on the side. I think tutoring a 4 year old little boy one-on-one for an hour at a time is the most challenging thing out of all the teaching I did. We mixed it up quite a bit so I could keep his attention and not have him get bored. I created my own materials, downloaded some from the web and went prepared with a variety of subjects, songs, games…and yes, stickers and treats for bribery. I'm not above such tactics.

I feel like throughout all of these experiences and all of these age groups I got a very well-rounded picture of the ESL teaching world. I went into it completely blind, not knowing what to expect, not knowing if I had what it takes, and coming out of it feeling like a champ, not quite a seasoned pro, but definitely a contender for Rookie of the Year.

In addition to all the free time throughout the school year (working only 4 hours per day is a beautiful thing…well, when cost of living is so low), we received 6 weeks off for summer holiday. I took the opportunity to do some traveling. I spent the first two weeks in Beijing visiting my long-time friend who moved there about 5-6 years ago, and the next four weeks traveling around Cambodia, a country I've wanted to visit for as long as I can remember.

Hainan, where I live, is the southern-most province in China. It's the little island south of mainland China. So instead of flying to Beijing way way way up north, like a normal, sane, smart person would do, I thought hey, know what would be fun? Let's take the slow train, all 36 hours of it, and I'll get to see the entire countryside from south to north, won't that be fantastic? Well, it was pretty darn cool in some ways, but in other ways it was absolute hell. I've already written about it on this blog, but here's a list of words that summarize it nicely…

bloated, swollen ankles
baby-in-split-pants + 36 hour train ride = bad news for everyone
diarrhea baby poop all over the floor omg kill me now
friendly seat-mates to share munchies and pass the time with
beautiful countryside views

And now I can say I've traveled nearly the entire length of China south to north, no matter how miserable it was. It sure was an experience.

Beijing was amazing. I stayed with my friend and his fiancé for most of that time, and his son was visiting from the states so I got to spend time with all of them as a family, which was wonderful. Thank you, Charlie! I spent the first few days in a little guest house in the Hutong area on the north side of the city. The Hutongs is an older part of the city that has somehow managed to retain that old-style-Beijing-iness of single story buildings and narrow side streets that take you on awesome walking adventures. I felt like I had stepped into another world. I loved walking around that part of the city for hours on end.

I think I arrived in Beijing on a Monday afternoon, so I went straight to the guest house to lie horizontal for six hours straight to deflate my ankles (have you ever tried sitting for 36 hours straight with only 1 bathroom break?) and then I took the next day to explore the nearby neighborhoods on foot and do some sightseeing. Then on Wednesday I took a small group tour to the Great Wall. The small bus/van picked me up near my guest house early in the morning, and there were about 6 or 7 foreigners in total, and I think there were 3 of us Americans. The others were from Switzerland, Germany and somewhere else I forget. They stopped at a jade museum first, which was not on the itinerary, but the tour guides get a commission if their tourists buy anything, so it's a necessary evil of the group tour thing. It was actually pretty cool to learn about the jade, how important it is in Chinese society and how many different kinds of jade there are. We also got to see a workshop where the people were drilling, dremel-tooling, sanding, and polishing the jade into all sorts of things like bracelets, little statues, etc. I didn't buy anything. It seemed really expensive at the museum, and I had seen cheaper prices at little vendor stands while walking around the city. We also visited a pottery factory, and were able to see some of the workers during the many different phases of the process.

Then we rode another hour or so out to the Great Wall. My memory is terrible, but I think the name of the section we visited was Mutianyu. From what I learned, I think there are three main sections that are most popular to visit. Mutianyu is the middle one; it's not the closest to Beijing and it's not the farthest, but it's just far enough away to not be super flooded with tourists, and it has some of the best views. I'm finding it difficult to put into words the feeling that swept over me when we approached the wall, when I first stepped foot on it, and the next couple of hours of walking up and down its stones. I posted all of the photos to my Flickr account, probably way too many photos. Most of that section of the wall is a nice, easy walk, but there were parts of it that were a downright grueling workout. My leg muscles were shaking by the end of it. After the wall, we headed back toward the city and visited a tea house. It was nice to sit and relax while the lady poured us various teas to sample.

On Thursday I got another tattoo.

For the next week or so I stayed with my friend and had a great time hanging out with him and his family. We went to several great restaurants, had the famous Peking Duck, and had happy hour at his apartment almost everyday. He had some American whiskey he had brought from his recent trip to the states, so that was a very nice week. Since they were all busy during the days, I took that time to walk for hours and hours around Beijing's different districts. Each district has its own vibe, and I'm really happy I took the time to go by foot and get a good feel for each one. I also visited the 798 Art Zone a couple of times, which is a collection of art galleries all situated in the Chaoyang District, just a taxi ride to the northeast side of town. On one of those trips I got stuck in a massive downpour and was trudging through water up to my ankles until I finally gave up trying to find a legit taxi and ended up taking a "black" taxi back to town. It's apparently heavily frowned upon to take the black taxis, but I tried, I swear I did. Cross my heart.

Other highlights from my time in Beijing:

Tian'anmen Square
Forbidden City / Palace Museum
Antique market
Silk market
Temple of Heaven
and walked through several of the big, beautiful parks

If I ever decide to come back to China for an extended stay, I would like to stay in Beijing. It seems to be one of those places you could explore for years and still just scratch the surface.

Then I flew from Beijing to Siem Reap, Cambodia. I toured the Angkor Temples there for a couple of days (and posted a million photos to Flickr) and took a bus to Battambang. The only thing set in stone for my visit to Cambodia was a Vipassana meditation course from August 1-12th held on the outskirts of Battambang. I arrived a few days before the retreat, stayed at a wonderful little guest house, and explored the town by bicycle. I kind of fell in love with Battambang, kind of like the way I instantly fell in love with Cordoba. You know how you visit a place and you just sort of know right away whether it's your kind of place? Well that's why I didn't stay in Siem Reap any longer than it took to tour the temples. It's not my sort of town. Battambang was definitely my sort of town. It's less touristy and has a lot of great little restaurants and coffee shops, and is surrounded by the most beautiful countryside. The guest house where I stayed was on the very north side of town, right on the edge, and I was able to bicycle around the country roads for hours and still not be too far away from the town. I met a French tourist and we did some sightseeing together, and we bought some marbles ("klee" in Khmer, one of the only Khmer words I remember) and played marbles with children all over the outskirts of town. We also visited some temples, rode the bamboo train and visited the bat caves (I posted videos of that awhile back).

The Vipassana course was a 10-day course in learning how to meditate, and maintaining complete silence for 10 days straight. It was surprisingly easy once you're in that environment and mindset. The days were long, waking at 4:30am for our first 2-hour meditation of the day. It's amazing what happens to the mind in complete silence, surrounded by a hundred other people with the same goal, and situated in the beautiful Cambodian countryside. The first couple of days are challenging in reining in the mind and keeping it focused on meditation. It's like your mind goes through this process of finally getting around to thinking about things that have been back-burnered for so long because your daily life is so full of moving and talking and thinking about the immediate tasks. With all of that stuff out of the way, the back-burnered stuff comes to the forefront. Sometimes I let my mind wander for way too long before reining it in, but sometimes it felt like it had to be done, just to get stuff out of the way. I have not kept up with the daily meditation like they suggested doing in the mornings and evenings, but I have done it here and there over the past months since the retreat. Would like to make more time for this in the coming year(s).

Battambang was beautiful, and I wanted to move there and teach ESL in 2013. The guest house owner was extremely kind and introduced me to some of the universities in town, and I was offered a teaching gig on the spot. They wanted me to start immediately though. I guess they were spot on when they said it's easier to find a teaching job in Cambodia if you're already on the ground in Cambodia. The guest house owner also introduced me to some local business people in the micro-finance industry and had some good conversation. Then he set up a meeting for me in Phnom Penh with a venture capitalist who was in town for some more humanitarian-slanted work. He's looking for IT people to help him get some projects off the ground. So by the end of the trip I had several leads and connections for work, should I be moving there any time in the near future. Somewhere over the past couple of months, though, plans have changed and I'm returning to IL to spend some quality time with family. I hope to spend some more time in Cambodia in the not-too-distant future.

So anyway, I bussed down to Phnom Pehn for the meeting and spent a couple of days wandering around the city before bussing down to Kep, a small coastal town less touristy than Sihanoukville, which was the other beachy destination I was considering to chill out in for a few days. I stayed at a comfy guest house in Kep, did some swimming, ate some awesome food, and even rented a motorbike for a day and drove down to the Cambodian-Vietnam border. I wanted to ride into Vietnam for the afternoon, but it turned out to be way more expensive than planned. The border police played the game with me called "hmmm, what can we get away with charging the foreigner for another 30-day visa upon re-entry"… not cool, border police, not cool. So I said my thank yous, turned around, and rode back to Kep along a different route, basically making a big circle and getting to explore more of the back roads. It was one of the best little spur-of-the-moment, seat-of-my-pants adventures I have ever taken. I kept testing the limits of the bike and my fear by seeing how fast I could go and still manage to stay alive. And I forgot to put on sunscreen before setting off on the ride and burned the shit out of my arms and shoulders. August in Cambodia is pretty damn sunny. Who woulda thought.

I took a boat to Koh Tonsay ("Rabbit Island") the next day and chilled in a hammock on the beach under some palm trees. That's where I met the lovely older Siberian couple who introduced themselves and kindly shared their rum in mouthwash bottles with me. They also wanted to share some shrimp-in-a-ziploc-baggy with me but I politely declined. I wanted to move to Siberia and become their adopted daughter…part time anyway. The boat ride back to Kep was wet. Ridiculously wet. Because the drivers of the boats decided to race each other at top speeds against the waves, which had us all holding on for dear life. Everyone was completely drenched upon arrival. What a blast.

After a few days in Kep, I bussed back to Phnom Penh and did some more sightseeing for another day or two. I visited S-21, the Tuol Sleng genocide museum, and met one of the survivors who was there for book-signing and to speak about his experiences via interpreter. I bought his book and read it on the flight home. His story was tragic, and it's a miracle he survived. I also bought another book, When The War Was Over: Cambodia And The Khmer Rouge Revolution, and read it over the next couple of months. It's massive and packed full of Cambodia's rich history, as well as the more recent history surrounding the Khmer Rouge and Vietnam War. Mind blowing. After an amazing month in Cambodia, it was time to return to China and start the new school year. I packed a lot into those six weeks of summer vacation, the longest vacation of my life.

That's about it for all the big happenings of 2012. Some other random stuff that happened…

I went to KTV (karoaking) several times with various Chinese friends, which is a big deal for someone who has only ever karaoke'd (karaoked? karaokied?) once in her entire life. I sang one song a couple of years ago because I lost a bowling match. The loser had to karaoke in the bowling alley bar. It was excruciating…for everyone. Well here in China, your group of friends rents a small karaoke room where they can sing in private amongst themselves. It's way too loud and most people are drinking and talking and playing dice games while you sing anyway. My Chinese friends always make me sing the English songs, but I decided to finally learn a Chinese song, and I actually sang it one night, and didn't do too bad. Here's the song I learned…不得不爱 or Gotta Love You.

Another random thing that I did earlier in the year was join a boxing gym. A tall, dark and handsome Chinese guy taught me how to box. He even gave me those hand-wrappy straps that real live boxers wear, for free. He also made me run barefoot around the gym floor, which eventually resulted in a foot fracture, tear or sprain of some sort. I was hobbling around for…I don't remember how long...I lost count after six weeks of walking weird. Right before that happened is when I had planned to run the Danzhou Hainan 2012 International Marathon which was to take place mid-December. That left me plenty of training time to get back into marathon shape. But with the foot fiasco and then the long summer holiday full of no running, I gave up on that idea.

I didn't do too much exploring of the island while I've lived here. I went to Sanya once (famous-ish beachy resort destination on the south side of the island), and during that trip with the teachers from my school we also visited Yanoda (the "rainforest" near the middle of the island) and a town called Baoting, where we had a meal that was supposedly very nice.

This past year has felt like ten years, and I'm actually looking forward to returning to my tiny hometown after all these 17+ years away and laying low for awhile and catching up with family. Living in China has been an amazing, intense, and mind-altering/expanding experience, and I hope to return for another couple of years stint in the future. I will miss several things about living in China, even some of the more frustrating experiences, because if nothing else, they served as a sort of mirror. Every experience here makes you stop and think about things from a different perspective. I will miss how quick and easy it is to buy fresh fruits and veggies at the little produce vendors and get yummy soup from the soup man in the alley at all hours of the evening. I will miss trying to have conversations in a foreign language with whoever I meet while out and about, in a taxi or wherever. And as strange as it sounds, I will miss being an outsider. It really messes with your head, you know, in a good way. The number one thing I will miss, which I think I've written about previously, is that every single time I leave my apartment, I know I'm going to have an adventure. Something unexpected and surprising always happens.

And I keep thinking to myself that it's gotta be possible for life to be like this every single day no matter where you live. Maybe it's just a matter of keeping in that mindset, open to the world around you, saying yes more often than no, and the adventures and surprises will present themselves.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


  1. PICS OF TATTS (all of them! ASAP!

  2. "The number one thing I will miss, which I think I've written about previously, is that every single time I leave my apartment, I know I'm going to have an adventure. Something unexpected and surprising always happens. And I keep thinking to myself that it's gotta be possible for life to be like this every single day no matter where you live. Maybe it's just a matter of keeping in that mindset, open to the world around you, saying yes more often than no, and the adventures and surprises will present themselves." - Those are really profound words to live by...thank you for your blog!

  3. Stumbled upon your blog during poetry month last April, and have thoroughly enjoyed checking in sporadically since then. These last three entries were absolutely thrilling. Having done the ESL journey myself several years ago (much less courageously than you... I stuck to the "top tier" city because of the safety net it provided!) I have simultaneously been brought back to the craziness of living and working abroad and also the thrill of doing it. Great writing. Reading this has definitely sparked something in me...we'll see if that spark turns into anything more significant. Thanks again!