Friday, February 20, 2015

Lengthy Reflection in Hoi An, Vietnam

It's been some time since I've really blogged or journaled, at least publicly, outside facebook post reflections. There are a variety of reasons for that. But it's high time to get a post out any way.

I'm sitting in Hoi An, Vietnam, in the breakfast lounge of a backpacker hostel.
Since I had some cash taken out of my bag on one of the many boats coming back from Halong Bay, I'm a bit short of liquid cash I can access here in Vietnam by the means I brought with me.
To the person that took the cash out of my pack: I hope you were able to face your family at Tet with enough wealth to hang your head high. There is so much pressure this time of year for Vietnamese to show off to their families. Theft and suicide rates are up. I truly mean it, I hope it meant something to you and your loved ones. And thank you, for not taking anything else.

I've learned a great deal traveling, you always do, but here are some things I've learned of late:

  • Bringing credit cards instead of debit cards will help you be mindful of your spending and prevent the loss of all of your cards should the worst happen (whole bag stolen or lost), however, it can also leave you in a bind when the unexpected happens, like getting the cash taken out of your bag. In a mostly cash based country this is problematic. This might be made more acute by an extended national holiday when banks are closed. You will figure it out any way – book things through hostel world, agoda, sky scanner, and so forth – but it will stretch your creativity and bring your frugal mindset further into the forefront of your vacation planning than originally bargained for.
  • On a more vain note, if you haven't heard of or tried solid bar shampoo, you are missing out. I understand the bar soap in common use before the invention of shampoo was much different and considered less luxurious – but there are many new varieties now. I intend to keep trying them out; someday I'd like to make my own. However I've decided against attempting any projects involving reactions with lye in my tiny apartment for the time being. Bonus – bar shampoo won't explode in your bag the way a bottle could. Next step would be finding a bar that is shampoo and body soap to only carry one; they exist too.
  • You really do need less clothes than you think, but whoever said don't pack jeans traveling clearly didn't live in their blue jeans. I learned this one after Italy – bring your jeans if you are most comfortable in jeans! I would say the max here is two pairs – wash one, wear one. Less if you'll be in warmer climates most of the time. I was glad I had both pairs up in Sapa when it was around 5 Celsius and my first pair was in the wash after the mud hike.
  • You can get by with two pairs of shoes just fine. Again, I was glad for the second pair after the mud hike.
  • Despite all the minimalist packing tips, I've never regretted having 6 or so pairs of underwear in my pack. I've only ever regretted not having 7. You are welcome for that bit.
  • You can seek respite from the chaos of the city – but you will still be left with the chaos of your own mind. You can find peace and quiet in the middle of the motorcycle mayhem of Hanoi if you can somehow quiet your own thoughts. And you can be stuck in the loudest cacophony of thought alone on a bicycle in Hoi An. “Getting away from it all” is completely relative.
  • Human connection is one of the most important pieces of travel. I've experienced kindness and I've experienced scams, you have to keep both from coloring your perspective of a place too heavily and remember it's the people that make or break an experience. I'm not sure if this sounds as heavy as I've felt it this trip as a solo traveler, I think it's more something to feel for yourself.
  • We all have those days. The days when we wonder whether we can really handle life in Asia any more as opposed to somewhere else, or if we ever did so with grace. When we drown out our minds with our headphones, one wire of which we're constantly twisting to maintain sound – and wonder what it is we're really doing any more. Remember it's still a learning day. Put your pack down. Relax.
  • Understand that the reason you can travel somewhere “so cheaply” is because your nationality, race, mother tongue, education and privileges have given you an advantage over the local population you are a guest to. Don't let that lull you into complacency to be scammed, but don't push so hard to pinch pennies either. People tell me I'm awful at bartering. And I am. But you can't assume every person has bad intentions. It will do nothing but drain you in the end. Sometimes you have to think “her son will have something to eat tonight,” without ever needing verification as such, instead of thinking “I paid too much.”
  • I sometimes have such a hard time with first time travelers, more specifically people that “quit their corporate day job to seek freedom and finally travel the world” and shout it from the rooftops (usually in blog form) – at times (not always), that message to me, is lost in the sound of walking away from privilege and failing to acknowledge that not everybody has that much they could walk away from to begin with. Yes, the job was soul sucking, the clutter weighing you down. Absolutely cut those things out. Yes, you can live so much more cheaply in South East Asia. Have you ever considered, though, the amount of people with the English language capability to see the salary you walked away from that can never earn that much based on racism, passport status and other circumstances? I find it hard to bring this up, I am not trying to steal anyone's thunder or bring anyone down. I'm a blogger, and I'm certain I've been annoying. And I still speak from the privileged position of being a white, American passport holding, native English speaking, young, educated individual. Perhaps it takes leaving one's home culture, whether a lackluster job market or a high paying corporate job, to have this kind of perspective at all. It's not particularly helpful to silence anyone's narrative; but you were seeking a new perspective through this experience any way, right? I'm sure there are plenty of ways my own narrative irks others. I'm somewhat aware of that.
  • There are so many different ways to book travel and accommodation. Now I think, more than budget – I'm interested in finding places that fit with my personality. (Heh, speaking of traveler privilege). I've stayed in some hostels on this trip that would be considered part of the “banana pancake trail,” as a colleague referred to them with a bit of scorn. I've decided I make no apologies for falling into the banana pancake, easy-way lazy backpacker travel style for much of this trip. However, I'm not 20 years old any more, I never was and never will be up for a booze cruise, and no, French guy in my dorm room that I've never hung out with, I'm not getting up at 2 am to drink more because it's your last night. Budget accommodation can have many personalities, it's important to find a good fit if you can. Especially if you're doing slow or long term travel. Plenty of hostel experiences are much more laid back. My experience in Sapa was very different to that dorm in Hanoi.
  • Everyone has their own travel style. It's not just the boiled down stereotypes. I know so many people that scorn backpackers. I have been among them. “Oh I'm an expat not a backpacker,” full of self importance and cliqueish self-righteousness. As if expat vs migrant worker vs illegal immigrant vs non-immigrant (the actual title of Thai work visas) has anything to do with anything besides racism and (perceived) net worth. We're all full of it, truly. Every group has their off-putting traits, and I'll admit I understand which traits fuel the anti-backpacker sentiment. But I am a backpacker. I am a flashpacker (backpacker that needs Wifi and hot showers). I am an expat but also a tourist. I am a medium to slow traveler, and I get antsy if I can't at least get out and cycle, hike, or walk in nature even if it's just a park. Working to include more of that in my current Shanghai life with some day trips. Reflecting after my Sapa trek – I'm just happy to be off crutches and mobile again.
  • I should probably write less more often to avoid ridiculously long posts like this one.
  • It will be really hard to go back to letter size from A4 international paper size.
    Over and out for now.

Saturday, November 15, 2014


Have you ever found, that when you're supposed to be doing a dozen different things - and you're paralyzed by the amount to do - that stopping to help someone else with an issue that is not on that list, in essence, stalling, is actually more fulfilling than completing any of the work you were meant to do?

Is it that misplaced motivation spurs us to complete long dormant tasks, and we feel relief; is it that we feel a greater sense of accomplishment from helping another person than checking off a monotonous task, such as creating a spreadsheet? Or is it something deeper, that in fact - none of what we're supposed to be doing really matters, and that simple act of helping another is actually more fulfilling than the work we are actually tasked with completing?

I mentioned to a colleague that I felt another colleague of ours is bogged down. He responded with "well, I better not make it worse, I better stop coming to her for advice." No! Do not stop sidetracking her! Perhaps, it is that very thing that gives her day a bit of life's blood back, a bit of meaning and fulfillment - perhaps, is it the sidetrack that is what matters.

When you're feeling derailed, and uncertain where to turn - perhaps, perhaps dear traveler - keep following the bend in the path deemed the wrong way, and see where the side track leads.

For all the cajoling to turn back, to change course - well meaning, well advised, ill advised - perhaps it is the feeling in the pit of our stomach that leads us in the night. Perhaps it knows the course better than we can surmise.

I cannot see the stars. But I feel in my gut - there is something here.
Keep wandering, traveler.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

January 4, 2014

It’s January Fourth again. Why is it January fourth again?
I hate January fourth. I will never like January fourth, and I’m not sorry.
Likewise, I make no apologies for the written quality or lack of storytelling in this post. I am marking time, but it needs to be done. This is pretty raw for me.

I got out of bed today, by a respectable 9 am. Respectable for a Saturday.
I put clothes on. Like, presentable to leave the apartment clothes.
I bought groceries. I made sure to collect the proper tax receipts. I picked up a purse I dropped off to have the lining redone – one of my favorite bags, of course I refused to get rid of it. Also unsurprisingly it was made of recycled fabric to begin with. Now the inside is completely redone, two new zippers show the promise of actual function. Holes large enough to let wallets and passports and things slide from one compartment to another have been rectified. One more thing on my long, long to-do list that is now taken care of for the time being. One more thing that has been fixed.
I ate at a fast food ramen joint I refused to frequent in Bangkok, for there were many better options (in my opinion), that I’ve decided is not so bad. And at least it gets me out of my apartment.

I have a brief respite from gospel music, from the hammering in the apartment upstairs, from the motorbike theft alarms that go off simply when someone bumps the stupid things. We have a new water heater (this is a small miracle). We have another new circuit breaker, not melted yet, and we can avoid tripping it if we do not run the heater in the living room. I have decent health insurance. No, really let me say that again: I have pretty good health insurance.

I have a very different life from anything I might have pictured a year ago, let alone six years ago. Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes, more challenging and other times I just think to myself “only my friends are going to believe this, everyone else will just think I’m crazy. Maybe I’m crazy.”

I’m not crazy. Much. And I don’t give myself nearly enough credit. In the past year I moved to my second foreign country. I began a new job, my second opportunity teaching art in a classroom – a milestone I was so eager to reach that yet again, I fail to credit myself enough for it. I made what I consider great progress during my time in the United States, and I had a lot of people on my side – helping me and showing me hospitality. Something I’m often hesitant to accept in the face of my stubborn concepts of independence and self-reliance. I am my father’s daughter.

Really I haven’t felt like publicly reflecting much lately. And I’ll say it again, it’s not about Chinese censorship. It’s my own personal feelings, my sentiments of what is professionalism in my career, courtesy to others. It is one thing to make fun of yourself, and another to drag others in with you. Do so carefully.

But why do I hate January 4th? It’s not because I’ll be turning 28 years old on January 9th. I hate January 4 because it’s the anniversary of Dad’s death. It’s been six years. And sorry, I’m not sorry, I’m not over it.

So, let’s review. To the father that once said to me, “I’m so open minded, I’d be ok with it if you went to IU (Indiana University) and majored in business.” *big goofy grin on his face* And to which I thought quietly, ‘oh dear, you have no idea who your daughter is,’ I’d like to think by this point in my overseas journey you would be on board with what I’m doing. I’d like to think the day you told me you were already proud of me, before you started crying that you wouldn’t be at any of your daughters weddings – that one statement can just hold over for every time it might have been said if you were still alive. But it’s hard. So Dad, here’s a review of what your daughter has done the last six years. And she’s still not giving herself enough credit. Also as I write this, screw first/third person and tense consistency. I simply don’t care right now. Well I do. But I’m going to pretend I don’t.

In the Spring of 2008, Jenny finished the semester and her senior fine arts show. Her senior thesis focused on brain tumors, loss of vision and grief. She had the support of a lot of friends to get through.
Fall 2008 was hard, but she got through that too. A favorite memory is riding her bicycle to meet her student teaching placement supervisor – which gave the impression of being adventurous and apparently signaled to this mentor that Jenny was going to do great things.
Spring 2009 was student teaching, and we lost Grandma Hart. Jenny played her trumpet in her own commencement ceremony. Following at least one commencement speech that discussed loss due to cancer, she cried while the band was playing – but she kept playing despite that. She hopes this was not a moment she showed up on the ‘Jumbotron’ for all the folks in the auditorium to see.
Summer 2009 was pretty low. The job market was rough. Though there were four interviews for teaching positions; a teaching job was not obtained. Jenny moved home and signed up to sell Cutco cutlery. She also began temporary work at the Indianapolis Children’s museum and ended up trying to sell Mary Kay. Things looked up when she obtained employment as an Assistant English as a Second Language teacher. Jenny was able to move back out. Working as an ESL assistant was personally fulfilling work, but there were other things to take into account. Fear of budget cuts and need of healthcare among them.
The summer of 2010, Jenny had her first job teaching art part time. She learned a lot through that experience, especially the need to address her own anxiety and grief.
In 2010, the opportunity to teach in Bangkok, Thailand presented itself. It’s a funny story, we should go through the whole thing sometime. A lot of people were pretty surprised, but I was pretty sure of myself. I landed just before Halloween.
I taught in a Thai government school English program for three semesters, and was in Bangkok during the great 2011 flood. The more I look back on this time, the more I realize I learned in that short time. I also completed 6 graduate credit hours via distance learning at IUPUI in order to obtain a five-year teaching license from the state of Indiana (as opposed to the 2-year license). I was doing a bad job coping with a lot of stress and built up grief and anxiety at this time. I wasn’t always gracious to those helping me, or around me. But I started to work through more of it.
I found a position teaching art in Bangkok, and began my first post as a full time classroom art teacher in a school in April of 2012. When I began this post – it felt like the culmination of what I’d been searching for since graduation – to teach art, to teach my discipline. However by January of 2013 I made the decision to leave that post, even if it meant leaving my newly adopted Bangkok home. I knew, or hoped I wouldn’t be leaving my progress behind, but building on it. By March 2013, I had an offer of employment, not only to teach art, but to build a digital art program, lined up in Shanghai, China. I visited home again in July and August of 2013, took care of a lot of business, and moved to China. During a brief visit to Bangkok in October, a good friend said it well: “We knew it was time for you to go.”

I am doing better financially than I have been since graduation, since ever, for what I am earning on my own. I have to remind myself of that. I stare at my three paper envelopes of savings – new computer, US plane ticket, and graduate school, that have recently started getting attention again since “pay for torn tendon in right foot you need to be able to walk” has ended, and healed fairly well.
I have to remind myself of how far I have come, of how much I have learned, of what I am saving for and of how much grief I have sorted through, of how much physical and mental clutter I have let go of, despite what remains.

I have to remind myself how I now realize what privilege I still hold despite the painful cards I’ve been dealt, and how, not to feel such entrenched guilt for it, but not to wave it around all about the place either in such situations where that can be avoided.
I remind myself how thankful I am for the financial lessons I was able to learn from Dad and Grandma Hart before their passing – and hope that I’ve inherited some of their financial aptitude, too; that in time and with harder negotiation, and better planning, I can increase my income and savings – I can eventually pay for graduate school, I can eventually help look after my brother. All these things take time, clearly more time than myself 6 years ago was forgiving enough to grant. I’d like to think I’ve eased up a little, just a little. I’ve made progress in negotiation, in navigating the work place – even multiple-cross-culturally. I have grown as a person, even if not every aspect of my life – my creative expression, etc., have grown at the pace I want or expect for myself. I’ve grown in ways I didn’t expect, or realize were directions to go. And the fact that I can grow and thrive at all is itself a privilege – one I should remember to treat with a high level of gratitude, even when the circuit breaker is melting.

Dad, you won’t be there at my wedding. Maybe I won’t even get married. Uncle Steve I can’t promise I’ll let you walk me down the aisle because I’ll probably just elope. Don’t worry that won’t happen any time soon. I’ll call. Maybe.

I had a great suggestion the other day. If I’m so worried about writing memoirs that perhaps, I should write them not with the intent to publish them. Perhaps work up that courage later, or just keep them for family. But still write them. I’m going to go easy on myself here, not for want of making excuses, but because the general populace is unaware of how hard on myself I already am. But I will say, I realize more and more how important stories are to me. And that somehow they will play a greater part in my life moving forward.

So Dad, that’s what I did last year. I moved to China, from Thailand. Still working on that marathon – but lately, walking has been a pretty big accomplishment too.

I have an email you sent me. It’s one of my favorites. As I ponder the path my next ten years might take, and how much of it is in my control, or how different it will look, even year to year from what I think, I’m left with this thought as you were grappling with having an artsy daughter, and I smile a little bit:

  Dear Jenny,

    Have you ever considered photo-journalism as a possible career?
    I'm always thinking of things, but it needs to be your call

                              Love,  Dad

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Time and Place Utility

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about presence. Being present in the given moment versus escapism, day dreaming, etc. – because I’ve been trying to be more aware of which of the two I’m engaged in at given points in the day or week.

And when I say escapism, I don’t just mean thinking of a nice beach and a coconut with a straw close at hand, to me escapism can also be remembrance of the past and submerging oneself in memory.

I’m not going to tell you always live in the present moment, because frankly that would be very hypocritical of me. But I do think it’s important to realize the rate at which we frame our lives based on the past, present and future.

Lately, I’ve been recalling Bangkok with a tinge of nostalgia. This is really not news, nor particularly surprising. But as I wait for news of the current protests and check for updates from friends to see they are safe – it is clearer than ever my slice of time in that city came to an end. I am not present there, even when my mind wanders that direction.

I’ve been reading a history book on the United States. Yet again, my time and place are quite off from my actual geographic position in China. But it has gotten me thinking, about a Welsh word, actually – hiraeth. One possible definition of this word without English translation: “a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.”
How could I feel a nostalgia for a United States before my birth? How could I feel nostalgia for a country as it no longer is? As maybe, it only was in my mind and my upbringing, and not in fact? But I certainly cannot be alone. Even the offhanded “well back in my day…” it reeks of the concept.

This is a concept I’ve felt since before leaving the United States. This is, in some sense, something I think everyone has felt in differing degrees – whether or not they acknowledge it as such, or simply frame it in the more mundane terms of phrases such as “life goes on,” “that’s just how it is,” and so forth.

I think we don’t take the proper time to acknowledge our transitions; rather, we ignore them, we memorialize them, we deny they have happened and pretend we can spirit from one place to another unchanged – our same selves in a new context, our ‘good old selves’ when circumstance has frayed our edges, forgetting that our context begins to define ourselves. And at some point we look around, and our physical context has stopped matching our mental picture – and we start to wonder where, exactly, does this character that I am, on this story journey I have set in motion, fit in to it all any way? And isn’t that still up to me? So where exactly am I going? I ran out of map some time ago. I’m just making it up now – so what do I draw on the map next?

I don’t mean for this post to be melancholy, I mean for it to be reflective. Respectful even, in remembering the past – but that felt more important than the day to day observations at the moment.

So I will leave you with a story I was told many times growing up, and a memory I like to take the time to cherish when I get lost:

My father had just been granted permission to drive from his hometown to his University. He stormed out the door with directions to head south down a local high way. He promptly bombarded back into the house, and proclaimed, “Which way’s south?” A tale used to justify directional challenge of other relatives for years since.

I have no idea which way south is, or if that’s even the direction I want to be going. But I’m still going.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Got That Summertime Sadness

This is a rather disorganized stream of consciousness. Enjoy, or yell at me for lack of editing. But here it is in all its glory. Warning: I talk about religion.

Yes I know it’s now autumn approaching winter. But this is currently the track stuck in my head. No actually I haven’t watched Gatsby. No actually I still haven’t finished the novel since 11th grade – but hey. What a great city to reflect on that luxury, Shanghai.

I had every intention of reflecting on my four days in Bangkok, and then reflecting on the acquisition of a blue couch, and then reflecting…bother. This will all be one jumble instead of separate, cleanly divided thoughts. Live messy.

I spent four days in Bangkok over the October holiday for Chinese National day. If you’d like an explanation of the Chinese holiday calendar – might I suggest reading: or Both indicate this is possibly the most complicated Chinese holiday/work day schedule ever, or at least for 500 years. And actually, our school, and many other work places, modified this schedule further still, so figuring out when your friends are working and when they are free has been a big free for all. And yes, we’ve had some Saturday workdays – though we have yet to have a Sunday – there is one Sunday workday in a few months, another Saturday/six day workweek in November. Woo! Go team! Confused? Me too.

So I went to Bangkok. Part nostalgia and part I have loose ends to wrap up and what not. It was a good visit. I got to see some friends. Still missed some people I would have liked to see again. But overall, despite my nostalgia, in many ways, it helped me remember why I left, too. And it helped me wrap up enough loose ends to feel like that chapter is closed, (though not everything). Some things may just be left hanging, such is life. I have no belongings left in Bangkok that I intend to retrieve; I cut down and gave away some more before returning to Shanghai. That’s all done. It’s a relief.
And even on days I long for my balcony, my mango tree and staring up at the stars, in the words of a dear friend, “we knew it was time for you to go.” Bangkok will always have a special place in my heart. But the ways I changed and grew in that city, up to the point I felt I hit a wall – challenged me in ways I never expected. I expect no less from Shanghai.

“…Nothing scares me any more. Kiss me hard before you go, Summertime Sadness, I just wanted you to know, that baby you’re the best.”

On to the domesticity of the couch, then. I distinctly remember a time when I thought to myself, I’m so close to college graduation, and when I get out, get my job and my own apartment (HA like it’s just another check box, it’s not that simple dear) – I’m going to get a couch. I’m going to get a huge couch, a deep-seated couch, maybe denim, not classy but supremely comfortable – and when I own a couch, I will be an adult, I will have ‘made it.’
HA! Well folks, it took me a few more years than I planned, and I’ve moved past that silly metric of adulthood or ‘making it,’ but nonetheless, I purchased a turquoise IKEA couch last week. I had it delivered, and then I assembled it all on my own. Really not that hard, even if it took some effort. And I sat on my couch and thought, well now Jenny, you have your couch. This isn’t quite what you expected, (although somewhat satisfying), now is it?
So glad I bit the bullet and did it last week – despite my aversion to debt, my new friend and colleague has a point – the longer you put it off, the less time you have to enjoy it. My current furniture shopping spree will be paid off in less than three months. Would be sooner, except for the particulars of International wire transfer I’m working under. Don’t ask questions, I got this. In the meantime I have a couch to sit on. Sometimes, money is just for spending. Within reason. But money is a made up construct, like so many things – who is setting the rules any way? I have a couch and I am slightly more comfortable, if not outright happy, for it. Ah, consumption. Enough on money matters today.
Transition? We don’t need no stinking transition. Brain doesn’t have those.

On cognitive dissonance in every day life: So, I’ve alluded to having some difficulty adjusting to life in China, and how actually, it’s less to do with China than other factors. Let’s discuss this. A lot of it has to do with religion. If you know me well enough, you will know that, when forced into a corner (or when asked in a moving taxi) and told to pick a label, I will go with “maybe?” or really, agnostic, but I’d really rather not play with labels or take sides. And with that, I’m supremely uncomfortable with conservative Christianity, as well as very hard line atheism, when directly confronted on the issue. It’s a rock and a hard place for me, in a Communist country where the rules about religion have eased in recent years, but are still certainly very much in place, to be surrounded by so much religion. And neither am I comfortable with those who outright shun it rather than politely side step. In the words of Ira Glass, “this is not what I signed up for.”
Really, honestly – I like the thought that, “there is no reason for the Lord Buddha and the Lord Jesus to fight,” I prefer to sit on the fence than take sides. Call it cowardice or call it openness, call me a heretic. I think people should be kind to one another, and at times, I think in certain ways, religion can be used as emotional black mail. Just as the complete lack of it can be a guilt trip on one’s intelligence for belief, too. At the end of the day, the way I see it, what brings you peace is a useful thing. But you should strive to try not to make other people uncomfortable. There is a case for pushing people’s comfort zones, and there is a case for allowing people to live their lives at they see fit. For further thoughts on my view point, see the This American Life Podcast “Heretics,” about an Evangelical pastor that decides he no longer believes in hell, that Jesus’ death accounted for everyone whether they accept Jesus or not. It’s truly beautiful. Ok that’s my rant on religion, and clarification on why I’ve been feeling so torn up, in some respects.

Related to, but slightly different from above – I’ve realized that sometimes, when you think something has been put in your path for you to learn a lesson – maybe there is someone that needs to learn from you. I told you, I’m agnostic, I prefer to look for some figment of reason, some spiritual alignment in the universe even if I’m a little too free spirited to enjoy organized religious worship or study, and even though I will argue for hours that not everything has ‘a reason,’ there is randomness and entropy we are subjected to in this life, as there are moments that are not coincidence, too. I will have my cake and eat it too.
Over the past few days, some of my cognitive dissonance and discontent has been challenged in other ways. It is so hard, and so taxing to have to think about who I can talk to about what – whether it is religious in nature, about our Chinese tax reporting, or otherwise. It is such a game of masks and I hate that. I am not unfamiliar with wearing masks, and it would be present in my home culture, whether there was this level of dissonance or not. But it’s nice to see a break in the muck at times, to see, here is a place I can help, here is a place I can grow, too, and be genuine, be me.

We don’t need no stinking transitions!
A week ago, I severely injured my right ankle. After spending so much of last year struggling with my left foot and then my back, I’ve been supremely frustrated. Being someone that prides herself on independence and ‘doing it myself,’ and living in a culture that doesn’t necessarily ‘do’ handicap accessible – it’s extremely frustrating. That all I did was miss a stair in the dark and ‘bam,’ that is the most frustrating (nevermind the financial implications and setback to my savings plan). The gossip at my place of employment, whether extreme or mild – is also disconcerting.

In some ways, I wish I had written before my injury, to get more of the philosophical musing down before the hard line ‘and so it goes.’
I knew this chapter of my adventure would not be easy. It is a new country for me, an adjustment to so much. I just didn’t forsee quite this level. I guess that is how it always is. But I will not say “That’s just life,” I’ve decided I hate that phrase with a passion. Why do I hate that phrase with a passion? As I reflect on the one year anniversary of a dear friend’s suicide, just 2 days ago was that anniversary– it’s because of this: when someone is truly, truly down and nearly out – the phrase “that’s just life,” plays to the destructive thought “well then why am I living, if this is all there is?” Perhaps that sounds too extreme, too sensitive. But if I’ve learned anything the last year, as I’ve faced my cognitive dissonance, culture incongruence, physical and emotional pain – it’s that the simple things matter. It matters from having the means to obtain healthy food, to the day or hours by which you miss a friend in passing during travel, to the slightest sentence – it matters. Don’t pressurize it, but don’t trivialize it, because it matters.

I’ve managed to reflect on nostalgia when moving, the domesticity of buying furniture and briefly, human consumption and debt, religious incongruence, and my injury and difficulty asking for help. Yeah – you could say I couldn’t pick a topic today. If you followed along with me, congrats, if you think I’m nuts – well if you’ve read this far you knew that by now, didn’t you?

“Nothing scares me any more, kiss me hard before you go.”

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Starships were Meant to Fly

Perhaps only in Shanghai can I say I feel almost no ambiguity having Nicki Minaj in my playlist next to Mongolian Folk Rock. It’s rather fitting, really.

It’s been quite a week. My anxiety has peaked quite a few times this week. And frankly, I think my reaction was merited.

That said, as my anxiety cooled down I realized the cooling down of the situation was much like looking out over the ridge at Serenity Valley being overtaken by The Alliance. Oh yeah, I went there. Peace is nigh, but I’ll still be traipsing around the universe in a secondhand starship, hopes up high and head down low. Will do my best not to get into a bar fight on U-Day.

Seriously Jenny, how much Tsingtao HAVE you been drinking, now? Well today none actually. Then what is wrong with you? Perhaps I have not been drinking enough Tsingtao. Also I have acquired a bamboo plant. Oh you don’t like my shiny distraction?

Aside from my mental calculus re: Alliance vs Brown Coats, there have been other exciting ventures.

Friday night was the worst thunderstorm Shanghai has seen in four years. The horizontal and spider lightning was rather impressive. The Line 2 Metro was shut down for some time (this is apparently atypical). Someone’s husband wasn’t allowed out of his office building. Some teachers were trapped on the Line 2 metro – flooding, power outage? Chinese Whispers flying. People couldn’t hail a taxi for 30 minutes at a time. Some people couldn’t return home from hospital visits with the taxi situation. Some of us hailed a black market van taxi across the river to Puxi. We had two birthdays and one unbirthday to celebrate, after all, nevermind if it wasn’t the best idea to travel. Mei Guanxi!

I saw the strain drawn on other people’s faces as we inched forward in our van. That other people have their own battle of Serenity raging in their psyche. The African American teacher that keeps having clothes snatched from her hands and told “NO!” when she tries to go clothes shopping. The rude gawking stares she gets out in our suburbiate Shanghai.
The teacher who could not complete his wire transfer across the Pacific to pay his US mortgage. (I am so glad my transfer to pay down my credit card processed smoothly.) I realize we all have our walls to climb.

We finally made it to the Shanghainese home turned restaurant in the Jingan Temple district. We had three tables, many dishes and many spirits. There were birthday speeches, and birthday longevity noodles (slurp them in one go, if you cut them you cut your life). “Don’t give up on China,” said in a thick Colombian accent. “Don’t give up on China,” the catch phrase of the week. You are welcome here, little one, with these three tables of celebration, you are. Friday night was a good night.

Our landlord finally called the gas company about our gas leak, the 7th time we complained. It took my roommate throwing up from the fumes for them to take us seriously enough to call the gas company. They were just afraid they’d have to pay to replace the pipe. So, if you have a gas leak in China, throw up. Or tell them you did. I think perhaps they finally tightened the leaking valve. I’d say I’m sorry for my words versus my landlord saving face, but that would imply I cared about it in this situation at this point, which I don’t. I also got Chinese speakers to call and explain, so that’s no excuse either. I’d let the cultural thing slide – but it’s gas. Not ok.

I’m sorry, I’m still quite new to China. Making me deal with a gas leak for a month was not helping everything else at all.

I am not giving up. I really like my classes, my students, my department – what I wanted to get out of China. A more supportive teaching environment, closer to the age group and art discipline I want to focus on. But it is hiking a sand dune, life. Much of what I thought I had figured out has been a backslide here. I didn’t have these kinds of problems with housing in Bangkok. I had problems, sure, but not to this scale. I was able to live alone. My landlords were responsive and helpful. Even the month I went without hot water, they gave me a key to shower in the apartment next door and apologized the technician kept cancelling. They let me move apartment units when mildew overtook my room. They helped, willingly.
Here, I’ve been met with “why don’t you fix it yourself,” like my old college slum landlords, more than once…
“Don’t give up on China,” in a thick Colombian accent.

I’m really enjoying the city. And I also realize some of the road blocks some of the other new teachers have hit, do not phase me at all – having already been in Asia for nearly 3 years. Other things – well, I hit the wall much harder. Some things, I’m the only one of us facing a particular wall – personally, any way. I’m thankful to know I have people standing beside me where before I was much more culturally isolated. Even if now, instead of the only white woman my age, we are many westerners, but splintered.

I tell you what – much like Bangkok, people thought I would have thrown in the towel much sooner. Some of my close friends in Bangkok were quite surprised I hadn’t gone home. Let me reiterate, I am nothing if not stubborn. I mean, I am Year of the Ox and Capricorn; the most stubborn signs of the zodiac by both Eastern and Western standards. Yep. I went there too.

I sit here while the tones of Altan Urag reverberate through the living room. Ok, reverberate might be pushing it for laptop speakers. But I sit here with Mongolian folk rock. And my juxtapositions just keep getting more and more interesting.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Rolling with the Punches

It’s been quite a week over here. Students with 4 or 5 study halls in their schedules for days on end; schedules changing in the middle of the day without teachers being notified and missed teaching. The terror when I thought half of my yearbook staff was going to drop, including the one student with a camera, a sentiment that has visited most of the staff in some way or another this week. I don’t even think I’ve seen the half of it. Things have settled, some.

I figured out how to wire money home to North America as dollars!!!! I don’t have to just stuff cash in my bra on the rare occasions I fly back! I know people are staring at me again with that comment.

There is a new Chinese visa regulation, as of September 1st, affecting at least half a dozen newly hired teachers, when we attempted visa extension on September 4th. So thankful to be single – the married teachers and those with dependents are those affected. There is more to the story than that, likely. Not particularly kosher of me to elaborate on our theories. A fistful of baht? Would that do it? Wrong country again? Only slightly.

I took a second shot at standup comedy. No colleagues along for the ride this time. Just as well, this is my thing. I got up and filled my time with a slightly more PG (as opposed to last week) variation on my rollerblading fiasco. Oh and for the record – lesbian experiences and ladyboys in Thailand – I will own you if you try that as a pick up line on me.

I’m still striking a balance between holding up my professional masks, personal masks and so forth. One thing I’ve noticed – not that it’s necessarily a new observation – but I’ve noticed the burdens others carry showing through this week as the scheduling and visa nonsense wears us down. And in some ways – it’s nice to realize I am not the only one that needs to let my guard down and be real. That perhaps, there is more opportunity to be real than I sometimes think. Even if I still sit back and take in my surroundings a little more carefully first.
Especially as so many have listened to me, these past few weeks a great deal, but really, always, when I’ve needed it. And oh boy, have I needed it. It’s nice to feel I can pay that forward in my own right after so long feeling I was just always taking.

I ate Chinese BBQ street food three nights in a row this week. I hardly batted an eyelash. I didn’t really mean to do that. Aside from my MSG intake I’m really not particularly sorry.

Two others walked with me to watch some ballroom dancing in the park last night. It was a nice, peaceful, an actually Chinese element to our evening as opposed to oh my gosh we’re back in North America mall cruising. There was some fan dancing aerobics taking place as well.

We ate Muslim noodles, and the toddler had Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance playing on a Samsung Smart Phone. Now there is culture shock, right there. None of the rest is surprising, but Lady Gaga in the Muslim Noodles joint. I have visions of visiting Mongolia someday and Gangnam Style busting out of nowhere. I mean really, it’s not that far fetched if you think about it.

The Chinese government has my passport for the next three weeks to process my residence permit. Or something like that. But they were quite efficient about it while we were there actually. Having spent full days in Thai Immigration, it was hard not to scoff at people asking how long is this going to take for a process lasting under an hour, but I tried. I’ll get it back just in time for my October holiday. So, now is definitely not a good time to get arrested. That was totally on my list for next week. I’m just glad I don’t need to notarize any certificates with one or more embassies, nor is my application held up by health check irregularities. No Thai tapeworms – no Dr. House shout outs. Damn. That would be the perfect disgusting facebook status.

There is so much swimming through my head, as per usual. There’s a brief snapshot.