Frog Thoughts

I can’t sleep because the campus bullfrogs that live in the lakes and gutters are deafening even though we live on the sixth floor. Couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

Anyway, I haven’t written in a while, for several reasons:

1) The thought of chronicling our Spring Festival trip (Vietnam-Cambodia-Malaysia-Beijing-Philippines) was too exhausting. (I did keep a journal during the trip, though.)

2) Busy! School work, applying for jobs, preparing for life in the U.S.

3) I’ve been feeling some negativity about my current situation and some fear/anxiety about the future, which is never fun to write about.

However, thanks to the incessant frog-croaking, the creative gears are turning and I think I have something to share. (Bullfrog is literally cow-frog, 牛蛙, in Chinese, by the way. Ours especially sound like lowing cattle.)

Recently, it was Teacher Appreciation Week in America. I hope you all celebrated, and that my teacher friends and family in the U.S. got the recognition and thanks they deserve! Lately I’ve been feeling a bit frustrated with my own teaching and, honestly, with my students. I’ve always found it difficult and tiring to “perform” during class, and recently have been preoccupied with my personal life and not feeling very into my lessons. Also, it’s hard to constantly feel like my students don’t get me—although I connect very easily with some of them, I have a complicated relationship with most. As a very young person (luckily they don’t know that I’m like, three years older than them, max), and as a foreigner, I don’t think I’m seen in the same way as a Chinese instructor would be. Sometimes I feel like a zoo animal, or an alien. Sometimes students say things that make me uncomfortable, frustrated or offended—unintentionally, but it’s wearing. And sometimes, as I’m sure all teachers do, I feel like I am making no impact on their education or understanding of written or verbal English, or foreign cultures, or the world outside of the formerly-longest-teaching-building-in-Asia.

And this makes me want to give up. It makes me want to go on cruise control and coast through the rest of the semester until we leave. To do the minimum of my personal standard, and focus on other things.

However, as a last-ditch effort (“this is my last special favor!” “I’m going to take more time for myself!”), a couple days ago I gave some extra help to two students via email; some suggestions, encouragement, a few articles I thought they’d find interesting. And both of them responded with two of the sweetest emails I had ever received, thanking me, not knowing that I really needed that, right then. It was totally unexpected and could not have come at a more necessary time. It made me really happy. And Teacher Appreciation Week went global.

So—don’t give up. Very rarely will people tell you what you’re doing in their lives; you have to trust that something is happening, without your knowledge, maybe without theirs. Teaching is planting seeds that you might never get to see sprout, right? So when you do see them sprout, it means a lot. Appreciation comes unsolicited at very random times, and you need to find something that validates you beyond tangible acknowledgment of your success to hold you over. What feels like a waste might not be. What feels like stagnation might be very small, very slow progress.

You can do it, today! 🙂


Small Update; Birthdays, Holidays

Thanks to all for the birthday wishes! I had a great birthday. Josh made me eggs and toast for breakfast, bought me truffles, and took me to Pizza Hut. (Do you see a food theme here?) We actually went to Pizza Hut for my birthday last year, too, because Pizza Huts in China are actual sit-down restaurants. They have many more options besides pizza, too– seafood, pasta, very thin steaks served on little skillets. Pret-ty fancy stuff. We each had a bowl of cream of mushroom soup and shared a Supreme pizza with stuffed crust (which in Chinese is called a “cheese heart” crust, haha). It was definitely the richest food we’ve had in a while.

However, we need to get in training for rich gluttonous American goodness, because we are going back to the States in less than two weeks! We’ll be in Grand Forks for about a week for a very special wedding 🙂 Traveling internationally at Christmastime is going to be a new and no doubt chaotic experience for us, but it will totally be worth it. We are so looking forward to those all-important 3Fs: family, friends and food. Josh would add “football” to that list because the Vikings will play the Sunday we’re home. Woohoo!

Our semester does not end until mid-January, so we’re relying on our coworkers to cover the classes we’ll be missing that week– I’m so surprised at how willing people are to help us out, and how readily people have agreed to take on extra work for us. Thanks so much, guys!

The weather finally got colder in Zhuhai– we were still experiencing highs in the 70s up until early last week. Within one day, the temperature dropped at least 10 degrees. People in Zhuhai say the exact same things about the weather as people in Ohio: “We get all four seasons in one day!” “If you don’t like the weather, wait a bit!” Rapid temperature change is a go-to point of small talk in more places than you’d think.

I might have mentioned this last year, but even though temperatures are in the 60s during the day, it’s pretty cold at night because our buildings don’t have central heating. Below a certain territorial median in China, public buildings aren’t required to have heat (above that line, they aren’t required to have AC). Also, our buildings are all made of concrete walls and tile floors, which makes it colder inside our apartment than outside. We have a little space heater, but haven’t busted it out yet. We’re trying to stay strong! Although no matter what we do, our bodies are going to be completely unprepared for a North Dakota winter.

The Self-Generalizations of the 1.4 Billion

Lately I’ve been really disturbed by some of the huge generalizations my students make, about their own country and other countries. For example:

– From a student essay: “People outside China probably are not familiar with smog, for it only occurs within China.”

– When I tell a student I studied French for three years in high school: “Why do all foreigners study French?” I ask her what she means, and she says that her Portuguese teacher also studied French. Ipso facto, all foreigners speak French.

– Josh does a lesson on Gender and Sexuality. After class, his student asks: “Why are all gay men so handsome?” Josh asks what she is talking about. “Well, in all the movies I’ve seen…”

Within China and among Chinese people there are extensive generalizations, too. Everyone who lives in Foshan (home of Bruce Lee’s kung fu teacher, Yip Man) knows kung fu. Men from Shanghai are notoriously obedient. Everyone who lives in Shantou has tons of brothers and sisters. Etc., etc., etc. Every time my students give presentations on their hometowns, I learn a new regional stereotype, and am baffled that my students remember so many of them. It gives new meaning to their favorite phrase, “As we all know…”

You can see more of these here:

As a 19 year-old, I also made many generalizations about people and places I didn’t understand, or was unfamiliar with. I know many young people in America have crazy misconceptions and stereotypes about other countries and cultures. But I feel like my Chinese students have been encouraged even more strongly to put people into categories, to make broad sweeping claims and never investigate them, by the government and by their education system.

First of all, Chinese students have no time or opportunities to consider the world around them, to travel, to think about anything that will not be on the college entrance exam. They come to college extremely sheltered, having achieved the one goal set for them since birth: get into college. Then they are adrift, relying on the broad strokes from (incorrect) textbooks and isolated personal experiences to tell them about the world.

Furthermore, the excuse for such regional and domestic generalizations is often “Too many people in China!” Only by putting people into little boxes– defining them as either “this” or “that”– can we make sense of such a huge population, determine who will succeed and fail. This mentality is practical and to an extent makes sense, but leaves out the millions of people who do not clearly fit in one box, who are different in some way.

An example of the “Too many people!” mentality gone horribly wrong: My students recently told me that some jobs, like being a translator or nurse, have height requirements. I learned this because I asked why students kept including their height on resumes, which I found hilarious at the time. In fact, some companies choose to hire translators over a certain height for the company’s “image”. A better translator may not be hired because she is an inch shorter than a less competent one. I think the nursing height requirement is more official– a student said her cousin desperately wanted to be a nurse, but was not accepted into a nursing program because of her height. My student’s explanation was that the company and school needs some kind of definable trait to judge applicants by– they couldn’t possibly investigate each person’s qualifications individually.

By promoting and encouraging people who play the game correctly, who are able to check the correct boxes, who strive for mediocrity, China is wasting its young people’s talent and crippling itself. I know this objectively and read about it in Foreign Policy articles, but it is really sad to be reminded of it with concrete examples. I really fear that some of my students do strive for mediocrity– strive to get by in college with okay grades, to get a mid-level job in a soul-crushing office, to pay ridiculous prices for tiny apartments in cities clogged by pollution that will make their children sick, to survive and not stick out. This is the China dream.

This post was not intended to be so depressing, but here it is! China is a perfect example of “the more you know, the less you understand”; also, sometimes a good example of “the more you know, the less you want to.” I am really happy to be here, and happy to more deeply understand my students’ lives and the place we both live in, but some things I learn also make me very sad.

Vietnam Trip, Updates in General

So…yes! We went to Vietnam, THREE WEEKS AGO ALREADY. Our week-long National Day Holiday came less than two weeks after the start of the fall semester, and although it was wonderful, coming back and hitting the ground running with classes threw me off a bit. This is my excuse for not blogging earlier. Take it or leave it.

On the recommendation of a very good American friend, we flew from Hong Kong to Hanoi to Hoi An, a small beachy, touristy, but not resorty town in the middle of the country. It’s about 45 minutes away from Da Nang, a major port city and the location of an air base used by the South Vietnamese and American forces during the Vietnam War.


Map featuring Hoi An.

Hoi An is smaller than Da Nang, and features a lot of cute hostels, two main nearby beaches, and an historic Old Town, which has beautiful architecture influenced by surrounding countries in Southeast Asia, including China. Although we didn’t meet any Vietnamese people who spoke much Mandarin outside the tourism industry, we were surprised by Chinese characters in temples and older buildings. The Old Town also has a Central Market with many food stalls, and there are tailors, gift shops and cafes in many restored buildings.

We stayed at the Hai Au Hotel, which, for about $30 USD per night for both of us, was an actual hotel rather than a hostel. The staff spoke English really well and were super friendly, the hotel has a delicious restaurant (with free breakfast!) and a pool, and you can rent motorbikes and bicycles from the front desk. I would totally recommend this place to anyone traveling to Hoi An.

During the day, we would go to the nearest beaches (either An Bang or Cua Dai— An Bang is a bit farther, but less crowded, while Cua Dai is where most tourists end up) (both are beautiful!), and swim, read, drink Vietnamese coffee (which is incredibly sweet, therefore, I love it– an iced coffee and condensed milk mixture), and have lunch in a restaurant on the beach. Often, if you pledge to eat in a restaurant, you can use the place’s beach chairs for free– you just have to have a meal or order drinks from them. One day, we rented a motorbike (Josh’s heart’s desire, my begrudging concession) and drove around the countryside. We ended up in the back streets of a little village and took an unexpected tour of the coconut palms in a basket boat, with an old lady who made us jewelry and headdresses out of reeds and caught crabs.

Cua Dai Beach

Cua Dai Beach

An Bang Beach

An Bang Beach


Our basket boat tour guide.

The crab she caught for us.

The crab she caught for us.

At night, we would eat delicious delicious food and walk around the Old Town and the river. Wikitravel has a good list of Hoi An foods to try, and Hoi An actually has a lot of specialty foods that aren’t available, or aren’t as good, in other parts of Vietnam. They were all delicious. We ate cao lau, a noodle dish supposedly made with water from the wells in Hoi An, white rose dumplings, fried wontons loaded with shrimp, vegetables and spice, and banh mi, sandwiches with veggies and meat pate on French baguettes. (Say what you will about French imperialism, but it was REALLY NICE to be in a country with French bread and coffee everywhere.) Actually, we made it a point to eat at a restaurant proclaimed by Anthony Bourdain to have the best banh mi in Hoi An, and therefore the best in Vietnam– Banh Mi Phuong. Josh and I believed it lived up to the hype.

We had a great vacation that consisted of perfect vacation things– relaxing on the beach, eating amazing food, and learning about a new country and culture. I feel pretty familiar with China, now, with my language skills and basic cultural knowledge, so it is good to be humbled by an experience in a country I know little about. Hoi An is very tourist-accessible (I was really surprised by how many European and Australian tourists we saw), but going outside of China is a good reminder that I know very little about the world in general, have so many places to see and learn about, can be a tourist who is respectful and open if a little clueless. Josh and I both really want to see more of Vietnam during our Spring Festival holiday.

As for general updates– year 2 continues to be better and easier than year 1. It’s so nice to have relationships with our Chinese coworkers and foreign coworkers who stayed on. Our new teachers from Miami are the best kind of Miami people– really hardworking, down-to-earth, ready to experience China and do a good job in the classroom. We’ve continued to cook a lot, but are discovering yummy local restaurants we somehow missed last year– there is still so much to explore, even in the small area around our campus. Planning classes comes more naturally and takes less time this year (although I have many mistakes to correct and lessons to improve). Josh is working hard on grad school apps!

I definitely feel homesick, but rather than it being an overwhelming feeling, it’s just something that is always there and only distracts me if I think about it too much. I’m a little worried that I’m less willing to take risks, or embarrass myself, or really plug in to being in China this year– it gets tiring to live everyday life at a slight disadvantage, and to know that easy things will cost more time and trouble than they would in your home country. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I am not someone who can live abroad long-term, and that means that I have a lot at home that’s worth returning to 🙂

Wedding Bells

Josh and I were incredibly honored to attend the wedding of two of our Chinese friends and SIS coworkers last month, Joey and Paul, in Shaoguan, Guangdong. We were even happier than expected to arrive in Shaoguan the night before the wedding because we almost missed our train from Guangzhou to Shaoguan– the kind of close call that necessitates running down an endless hallway with our bags to the platform and stumbling onto the train two minutes before it leaves. But we made it! And we wouldn’t have missed the wedding for the world. It was awesome.

With the lovely bride, Joey.

With the lovely bride, Joey.

On the morning of the wedding, Josh and I went to Joey’s hotel suite, and mostly got in the way while her bridesmaids helped her get ready. Actually, at Chinese weddings there is only one bridesmaid (the maid of honor) and one groomsman (the best man), but the bride and groom each have a team of “sisters” (姐妹) and “brothers” (兄弟) to help them. Josh and I got to be “sisters”! 🙂 Joey’s mom and dad were both there, helping her to get ready, and they were clearly so happy that their daughter was getting married. We also met a stream of Joey’s relatives milling around the room, taking pictures with Joey and smiling excitedly. We were all waiting for the groom, Paul, and his “brothers” to arrive and demand entrance to the suite, and soon, they did! Joey went and hid in a back bedroom, and her bridesmaids heckled Paul and the groomsmen from behind the closed door. The brother team had to pass red envelopes (红包) full of money through the doorway to the sister team in order to gain entry. The sisters insisted on more and more money until, finally, the troupe of guys was allowed in, triumphant in their victory.



While the brothers searched the suite for one of Joey’s shoes, so Paul could put it on her and whisk her off to get married, Paul answered tricky questions about Joey from her bridesmaids. He did a great job, knowing where she had a birthmark and what her first English name was! After a tip from Joey’s dad, the brothers found Joey’s shoe, and Paul was allowed to go into the bedroom and put Joey’s shoes on for her. Then, they performed a tea ceremony for pairs of Joey’s relatives, thanking them for coming. The relatives gave the couple red envelopes in return.

Presenting tea to Joey's parents.

Presenting tea to Joey’s parents.

After the relatives were served tea, the couple got in a car to visit Paul’s family’s home, and perform another tea ceremony there. Some of Paul’s friends set off booming fireworks as the couple left. Josh and I and the other guests followed in other cars, and after they finished the ceremony at Paul’s family’s home, we all went to the reception!

Getting in the car to go to Paul's family's home.

Getting in the car to go to Paul’s family’s home.

Beautiful bride and handsome groom!

Beautiful bride and handsome groom!

The reception was beautiful, and the food was delicious. Josh and I knew that Chinese hosts offer cigarettes at weddings; there were a couple packs on each banquet table. We asked another SIS coworker why this was a tradition. He said, “Well, people like to smoke at parties, just like they like to drink!” The most obvious answer makes sense!

Paul’s sister Wendy hosted the reception, and performed the vows for Joey and Paul. Actually, I was really interested in how a lot of Western wedding traditions were incorporated into their reception. Joey’s dad led her to an awning, where Paul promised him that he’d take care of Joey. Then, Joey’s dad let Paul walk with Joey down an aisle. They said “I do” in their vows (well, “I’m willing,” “我愿意!”). They cut a cake that was mostly fake (since most guests probably didn’t want to eat cake), and poured champagne into a little tower of glasses. It was really fun!

Cutting the cake (only one tier is real cake!).

Cutting the cake (only one tier is real cake!).

Pouring the champagne!

Pouring the champagne!

After the ceremonial parts, Joey changed into a red dress– Chinese brides traditionally wore red, but many brides today wear a white dress for part of the day, too, like Joey did. Joey, her parents, Paul, his uncle and mother, and the bridesmaid and groomsman walked to each table, toasting them with brandy. We discovered that most of the wedding party, understandably, was surreptitiously drinking iced tea! For the rest of the afternoon, we ate, socialized, and took pictures. Eventually, we went to the train station with two other SIS coworkers and headed back to Zhuhai.

Joey in her red dress with some of her "sisters."

Joey in her red dress with some of her “sisters.”

Joey, Paul and their families were incredibly welcoming and hospitable. The wedding seemed so focused on the guests and the family members present, rather than wholly focused on the couple like at a Western wedding. It made me wish I had done a receiving line at our wedding, and made sure that each guest knew just how happy we were to have them there. Joey and Paul were always making sure we knew where to go, and had someone to help us, even though they had a million other things to think about. Chinese hospitality is a beautiful thing! We were so lucky not only to have an awesome cultural experience, but to celebrate the love of two great friends. Thank you so much for letting us be a part of your special day, guys!

Big happy family!

Big happy family!

Back for More!

Even though we’ve only been back in China for a couple days, I can already tell that this year is going to be better and easier than last year. Being familiar with campus, with Zhuhai, with what to expect from our jobs, administrators and surroundings is a great feeling. Knowing where to get groceries and what restaurants we like is a great feeling. Seeing friendly faces on campus is a great feeling. Being back is a great feeling!!

I’ll try to illustrate the already-stark contrast between our experiences last year and this year with two abbreviated itineraries of our arrival in Hong Kong:

August 2013: Arrive in Hong Kong. Melt in a puddle of sweat. Take an expensive cab to hostel in Mongkok, one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Sleep until 3 pm the following day. Wake up. Cry (me). Walk around Hong Kong, having a very nice time, but no real idea of what to do or see. Somehow bumble our way onto the ferry to the mainland and get picked up at Zhuhai’s port.

August 2014: Arrive in Hong Kong. Are prepared for the heat and actually adjust pretty quickly. Take the MTR Airport Express line to hostel in Tsim Sha Tsui, less crowded and oppressive than Mongkok. Sleep until 9 am the following day. Wake up. EAT DELICIOUS DIM SUM INSTEAD OF CRYING and know what to order. Know exactly how to get to the ferry and take a cab from Zhuhai’s port to our new apartment, which is full of wonderful amenities left by our former coworkers (THANKS! Pics to come).

Things are looking pret-ty good!

If anyone reading this is considering living abroad, I’d make this recommendation: do it for more than a year. When I studied abroad in Beijing, it was clear that one semester was not enough– I had just become familiar and comfortable enough with China to really enjoy it when I had to leave, and knew that I wanted to come back, for longer. But, really, even a whole year is not a long time, in the grand scheme of things– not enough time to do everything you want to do in a place like China. A big difference between our arrival last year and this year is that last year, a year seemed to stretch out ahead of me for much longer than it actually is. Now, I know how quickly our time here will be over, and that I’ll miss this.

It was hard work to adjust to our life here last year, and I think this will be the year that we get to fully enjoy and take advantage of that foundation. No regrets about coming back! I was expecting more thoughts of “Why are we doing this?” and am happy to report that I know exactly why we’re here, and that anywhere else wouldn’t be the right place for us right now. We’re excited to use this year to enjoy China, improve our teaching and Chinese, and prepare for our next steps in America.

Of course, there are things I will miss about America that I got to appreciate a little more this summer, even besides the obvious 3Fs (family, friends, FOOD). One of those things is sweet, sweet anonymity. I have never experienced real, extended Otherness before coming to China, especially not in a place that I feel comfortable in. I will always look strange to most people I see on the street, no matter how long I live here. My presence will be announced and commented on and children will be forced to strike up conversations with me by their parents. I enjoyed going about my business in the U.S. without feeling different, without anyone noticing me. However, I have resolved to win all staring contests with curious Chinese strangers (children and adults) this year. I have also resolved to have a good attitude about people’s curiosity and roll with it 🙂

“What Did You Learn at School This Year?”

We’re back in the States! Josh and I are in North Dakota until tomorrow, when we’ll drive to Ohio. We’ll stay there for a couple weeks, then head back here for a couple more before returning to Hong Kong in mid-August. 

It’s good to be here. 

I’ve been very lazy the past couple of days, but I’m actually looking forward to revising my lesson plans and putting together materials for the Writing Center this summer. I already have ideas for better activities, handouts, and class discussions. I’m excited to correct the (many) mistakes I made this year and be a better teacher for my new students. 

In that spirit, I want to share some things I learned this year. 

1. You can’t be all things to all people. 

Not all of my students liked me or thought I was a good teacher, and that was apparent at times. I have always been a people-pleaser, and I found myself considering specific students while planning lessons, and thinking about how I could get their attention or even prove myself to them. Eventually, I realized that, although I can certainly improve as a teacher, there are still going to be students who are not interested in me, my class, or even their education in general. Their interests and attention lie elsewhere, and that’s not my fault. Furthermore, not everyone likes my personality, my humor or my teaching style, and I can’t force them to.  

2. The best thing you can teach students is to take responsibility for their education. 

China’s educational system, as the stereotype goes, is one of rigidity, with little emphasis on creative or flexible thinking. The goal of this system is often not to foster learning, but to pass tests, no matter how meaningless they are or how little real-world ability they measure. Even in college Chinese students have “supervisors” who monitor their attendance and performance and a predetermined class schedule with the same group of classmates. As a result, some students don’t take responsibility for their learning or even know that they ought to. In many classes, they can pass a class simply by passing the final exam. Many are not studying a major that interests them, but a major that they were assigned or “allowed” to enter. I want these students to think about why they are in college, and how they can make the most of a course or a major, even if it isn’t their passion. I want them to care about what and how they learn. 

3. Boundaries are important. There’s a difference between being helpful and available to students and stretching yourself too thin, rendering you useless. Of course, there’s a difference between setting useful boundaries and neglecting students who need you. 

4. Everyone should have to stand and perform (and teaching is very much a performance) in front of a group of students who are clearly not interested in what you have to say or what you plan to accomplish. Apathy towards you from the people it is your job to serve is very, very humbling. 

5. When my students ARE interested in what I have to say, sometimes I realize it’s crazy that I have a captive audience to espouse my views to. Their impression of the U.S. comes largely through me (in addition to The Big Bang Theory). I have been so happy to correct some incorrect ideas about my country (no, NOT everyone in America owns a gun), but I am also giving an unavoidably biased view that is shaping their perception of America and perhaps of the Western world (where most of them have never been). It’s a big responsibility. They trust me because they know few other Western/American foreigners and I am their teacher. Also, I’ve learned that it is just as difficult/inaccurate to generalize about America as it is to generalize about China. 

6. Judging other people is toxic and exhausting. It doesn’t change their behavior and just exasperates me and often comes from my own insecurities. It’s not worth it. 

7. Over-compartmentalizing ourselves, over-analyzing our desires and thoughts and projecting them to define who we are is not healthy. Introspection is good, but too much introspection is paralyzing. It’s impossible to completely categorize and classify every part of oneself and make sense of it, make it add up to a clear label. Where’s the limit? When do we ever reach our “authentic” selves? Too much self-inquiry can drive you crazy. 

8. On a related note, I don’t think a home-work life balance exists, I don’t think we should pursue it, I think we should just be who we believe to be in all areas of life. 

9. My students constantly talk about “entering society,” an event that they believe occurs for them after graduation. They call college a “small society,” a little microcosm where they can relax in the aftermath of their stressful high school lives and finally pursue some hobbies and romantic relationships. It’s incredibly frustrating. Of course, we have this idea in the U.S., too: we act as though there are no consequences in college, it’s a time to explore and experiment and make mistakes, and that it’s acceptable and natural to do so. To an extent, sure. But to think that there’s a time as an adult that you aren’t a full-fledged member of society is naive and selfish. Everything you do affects someone else, even if you aren’t working or dating someone or have a family or out of school. You can make positive, meaningful decisions and changes for your and others’ benefit as a college student; you are not waiting in the wings of your real life, you are in real life.

Similarly, it was very clear to me at times that some of the people I’ve met and worked with in China did not consider their life there “real life”– it was a time spent waiting to return to the U.S. and get on with other things. It was an interlude of minimal responsibility and, of course, no consequences. Why squander any minute of the life you’re living “waiting” for “real” life to begin? Why make excuses?

“No excuses” would be a good mantra for our next, and last, year in China. I’m excited to go back and do more, do better. But I’m also very glad to be watching the World Cup with my North Dakota family 🙂