Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Good China Day

Today was a good China day. This morning I taught one of Kevin's classes. I haven't been teaching this year because I have been staying at home taking care of Juliana. I am glad to be able to be with her, but I do miss teaching. These were students I had taught last year and they were excited to see me; they clapped when I walked in. Nothing like a warm welcome!

This morning I heard from a graduated student I spent a lot of time with over the past few years. She has been in south China all term and I didn't expect to see her again before we left. She sent a message that she is supposed to return just a few days before we head to America, so hopefully we will be able to see her again once more!

In the afternoon, our student Alice came over to see us – the baby. She has been tremendously helpful to us lately. Many students are willing, even eager to help us, but Alice is also particularly competent at helping us, both because she is a native of Weinan, thereby possessing much valuable local information and contacts, and because she is confident and responsible. She enjoyed hanging out and being entertained by Juliana, who is always willing to step up put on a show. Today, she entertained us all by accomplishing her first substantial movement all the way across the living room floor – scooting backwards! I imagine soon she will be crawling, but for the moment she hasn't quite figured out how to propel herself forward. She finds this quite frustrating when lunging for a toy in front of her only to find herself inching further and further away.

Alice was touched when I passed on my giant stuffed giraffe to her. Though I am a big fan of her (the giraffe), I decided she is a bit bulky to ship seeing as she would need her own large suitcase. Alice was happy to take her into a good home, however. She told me it was almost her birthday (which I didn't know) and this would be a nice first birthday present. The only thing is I forgot to tell her the giraffe's name is Gloria.

Apparently it was good timing for the passing off of the giant giraffe because I discovered that Juliana has developed a fear of her. Juliana looked at her (the giraffe) with large, frightened eyes and started crying. I don't know why, since every fourth toy is a giraffe of some form. Perhaps it's the fact that this giraffe is approximately 6x the size of the baby.

Alice has been helping us figure out how to ship our belongings to Yinchuan, and today she brought the good news that we will be able to ship our things by railway straight from Weinan to Yinchuan – all of it for less than $150. Additionally, we found out we finally officially have an apartment waiting in Yinchuan. It certainly will not be as nice as this luxury apartment we have been living in (no heated floors, but there is heat), but it's hard to argue with $115/month. It is also on the campus of the school where we will be studying for convenient access to classes.

The other goodness of the day is harder to describe. It is something in the (relatively) clear air, all the recent blue skies (with real clouds even, white clouds!), the trees that have really filled out this year, and the birds that have filled those trees. Walking outside, seeing the green of the trees, hearing the little birds chirp as they hop on the sidewalk, feeling the warm sunshine, seeing the familiar grannies...all of it gave me a feeling of familiarity. If I didn't know better, I would say it was a feeling of belonging.

Perhaps I am just feeling sentimental since we are getting ready to leave Weinan, but recently I have been having these pleasant feelings that I have before only ever associated with home. It's like...China is becoming beautiful. Beautiful in a way that only the familiar can be. And I almost didn't feel sad about leaving Weinan because I think that perhaps I will find the same feeling elsewhere too.

So if you don't count the hour trying to get Juliana to take a nap or the two hours trying to get her to fall asleep, plus the subsequent pulling out of my hair, all in all it was a pretty good China day.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Moving On

I can hardly believe we only have one month left in Weinan! I am excited about going back to America this summer (though not eager for the baby + 13hr flight and baby + jetlag). But I am reluctant to leave Weinan for several reasons.

First of all, it has become our home over the past three years. It's been a while since I've lived in the same place for three years without once having to move, and I rather like it. I like staying in the same place. I like familiarity. I like walking past the same buildings and trees and unlocking the same door day after day. I probably like it all the more since I realize it won't last. Even if I don't really know most of our neighbors, I recognize them and we greet each other on the elevator. I recognize the little old grannies who sit outside and know which ones will scowl and scold and which ones will smile (while scolding).

I can run out to the little vegetable shop across the street and be back in ten minutes. I know where to find everything I need at the supermarket. We have our favorite restaurants and know which dishes are best at each place. The waitresses know us well enough to not get all flustered by our foreignness, and they know which dishes we are likely to order. We know which little crooked, washed-out path leads up to the old railroad tracks that give easy access to the countryside.

We have been here long enough to watch an entire apartment complex be built and settled, several other apartment complexes rise from the ground, new roads built, several fields plowed down and turned into a driving school, the parking spots outside our apartment fill up with cars...and granted these things can happen virtually overnight in China, but we really have seen the city change over the past three years.

And besides all that, we have students who know us and like us. They come to visit. They help us with whenever we need. They are terribly sad to see us go, and we will miss them as well.

Those are the sentimental reasons I am sad to go. I am also sad because moving means packing - lots of packing. Every time I move I wonder, “Where did all this stuff come from?” I came to China with two suitcases. Two suitcases! And now...well, we already have 12 boxes filled and there is still a lot left to pack. While I feel good that we have finally gotten some packing done, it is still overwhelming. And we don't even have to move furniture!

One tiny issue which makes packing difficult is that Juliana is afraid of packing tape. Or more specifically, she is disturbed by the sound of the tape. She cries whenever she hears it. Unfortunately, there is a lot of packing tape in our future.

We are also still working on how we will get our things from here to our new home in Yinchuan. I'd like to just load everything into a U-Haul, but it's not quite that simple. We are planning to ship things via railway, we just have to figure out little details like how to get it to the railway station and how to get it delivered on the other end. Fortunately our helpful student, the same one whose uncle gave us a bunch of boxes, is helping us find out how it will work.

Still, I am trying to look on the positive side of things. Every thing that we ship means one less thing we will need to buy in Yinchuan. And the cost of shipping is low enough it is more cost-effective to keep what we have. Also, packing and moving is a good opportunity to purge, and I do appreciate a good purge. I can't imagine how much stuff would accumulate if we lived somewhere for say four or five years!

Fortunately,(and not so fortunately) that will probably never happen.

Monday, May 9, 2011

"The World is My Best Friend"

My new favorite picture of the beautiful baby!
You wouldn't know it from the picture, but Juliana has entered into separation anxiety phase with a vengeance - just in the past week or two it has hit full force.  If I even look like I am thinking about starting to leave the room, she starts crying.  Sometimes she can be distracted by someone else; other times she persistently continues to scream until I come back to rescue her.  Sometimes she is not even content to see me; she also has to be touching me or sitting in my lap or gnawing on my arm before she is content.  It's sweet that she likes me so much, but my goodness!

Fortunately, stranger anxiety has still been held at bay.  In fact, she seems to have the complete opposite of stranger anxiety.  This weekend we were at a bunch of tourist places in Xian, constantly surrounded by crowds, and for the most part, she loved it.  She was probably touched about 23322303254354 times in the past few days.  Maybe that's an exaggeration, but at any rate, she was definitely touched by hundreds of people.  She made it into innumerable vacation photo albums.

She was also given all kinds of free stuff: a tomato, a plastic castanet, an souvenir key chain, a McDonald's mini ice-cream cone.  The only thing she actually got to benefit from was the castanet, which she thinks is pretty fun.  Anything that makes a banging noise is a big hit.

Juliana is really quite a good traveler.  It was hot and she was tired and probably a little dehydrated and she was getting tired of being in the carrier, but at the end of the day she still flirted with the crowds on the bus.  She is such a ham.

In fact, sometimes she does better with all the attention than I do.  I feel like most of the time I am pretty laidback, recognizing there is no way I can keep a bazillion people from touching her hands unless I cloister her at home.  I know that most people around have never seen a foreign baby before and are completely awestruck by the sight.  And she is pretty darn cute, so I can't blame them for staring.  I don't mind people touching her hands, taking her picture, and stopping to admire her, especially since she doesn't seem to mind it. 

But after a while the crowds were starting to get to me.  There were those few incredibly pushy people...the ones who try to wrench your baby out of your arms because they really want to hold her.  One lady kept trying to shove me out of the way and forcibly turn Juliana's head so she could get a good picture.  Not okay.  I was pretty mad, but even at that point, Juliana didn't get upset.  She definitely lives in the right country.

Monday, May 2, 2011

What about Death?

by Ruth
Last month we learned that one of our former students died.  His English name was "Today," and he was a junior student this year.  I taught his class last spring, and though I didn't know him well, he was a very friendly boy, actually involved in class, and a good student.  I could tell he was well liked by all his classmates.

He couldn't have been more than twenty or twenty-two and he died of liver cancer, the same cancer that had killed his mother and grandmother in the past few years.  Apparently Today knew he was dying and chose to stay at school because he wanted to be around his friends and classmates.  We didn't know of his disease until after his death, and I can't help but wonder: last year as he sat in my class, smiling and talking, did he already know of his illness?

His classmates and friends struggle to make sense of the loss of this young life.  No one wants to think about death; no one wants to believe it could happen to someone their own age.  One of his friends told us their teachers didn't know how to handle his death.  They told the students that what they should learn from this is to be good students and work hard.  Somehow I doubt that did much to answer the questions or fill the void left by his loss.

This is not the first encounter we have seen of death among our students.   Earlier this year, one of our freshmen students died suddenly from a heart condition after collapsing during PE class.  Two years ago, a student jumped from the teaching building.  Several years before when I was in Yangzhou, we also had a student suicide.  It seems that so many students have already lost a parent or a friend.  Just last week, a student apologized for missing Kevin's class; her father had died.  Despite their best effort to forget it, they know that death is real.

In Yangzhou, I was surprised by students' response to the suicide.    While there was never any official acknowledgment of the suicide, I knew the students were all affected by it. With typical western directness, I talked about it with them in class.  Many of them said, "It was irresponsible," which would not have been my first thought after a suicide.  When asked why a person might do that, most said they it was probably because of pressure.  Several students came over to visit saying they just wanted to be with me because they were troubled by being alone.

Following the suicide here, many students were afraid.  They told us they couldn't sleep; they kept picturing the body they had seen, covered by a bloody sheet.  They stayed up rehashing the details with their roommates but with no resolution.

Suicide is certainly even more troubling in its own way, but any kind of death causes us to slow down and think about life and death and what happens afterward, whether we want to or not.  And yet, how do we deal with death?  Particularly the death of someone so young, taken by disease, accident, or their own desperation.  Mostly it seems that people try to ignore and move on.  Leaders don't want to lose face or incur blame.  Teachers are at a loss for words.  Students continue to smile and talk and go about their daily lives, except at night when they are too troubled to sleep.

Death is a particularly relevant topic this time of year.  Earlier this month the Chinese celebrated (maybe celebrated isn't the right word...) Qing Ming or "Tomb Sweeping" festival, a holiday to honor the ancestors and care for their graves.  It goes a lot deeper than just sweeping off a grave, however; people burn paper money, houses, cars, clothes...all kinds of things their ancestors might need in the afterlife.  By taking care of their ancestors, they are hoping their ancestors will in turn "take care of them," or at least not come back to make their lives miserable.

This was also the month of Easter, the Christian holiday celebrating the triumph of life over death.  I know what Easter means to me.  New Life. Hope. Love. Victory over death.  To most students, it means nothing.  A few might think of bunnies, candy, or dancing (I know dancing has nothing to do with Easter but for some reason students are convinced that every western holiday involves dancing).  How do I show them hope?  How do I help them find meaning in life and death?

I am not the only one thinking about the problem of death.  Along a rather different vein, China Daily (the English version of China's official newspaper) has dedicated a portion of their website to "Education on Death."  The editor's note at the beginning reads:

To be or not to be, that is the question.

More than a question, death is a taboo subject in Chinese culture and education.

The curriculum provides rare discourse about death, which everyone definitely will face, the moment to say the final goodbye to their beloved and the world. It was in 2008, after the deadly Wenchuan earthquake killed tens of thousands of Chinese, that some universities piloted programs to help students develop a rational understanding of death.

Previous media reports found that Chinese parents strongly objected to any attempt to talk about death in the classroom. But, can we really avoid it? Isn't it a core part of life?

This special coverage "Education on Death" aims to present arguments for China to promote death education and ways in an environment traditionally hostile to the topic.

And now, today, talk of death is suddenly all around us because of Bin Laden [whose death I became aware of through a dozen Facebook statuses (stati?).  That's where I see most of my news nowadays, which is admittedly pathetic on my part.]  Should we rejoice because an evil man is gone?  Should we be saddened because after all he was a person?  Perhaps both?  I know it should be significant to me, but to be honest, it feels so far away.  I just keep thinking about all those who die so quietly...no news, no fanfare, hardly even a ripple...just family and friends left behind wondering what to do now.