My Life as a Guest Lecturer

As a Peace Corps Volunteer I have a unique opportunity to represent and share aspects of the United States. In fact, the second goal of the Peace Corps is, “To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.”

Embracing the second goal, I’ve had several opportunities to teach subjects other than English as a guest lecturer, emphasizing different parts of my culture. This has been fulfilling because I can use my experience in teaching and public speaking to reach more students and colleagues. During the past year I’ve given lectures in three different subjects.

Drawing from my work experience in non-profits, homeless shelters, and connecting families experiencing homelessness to housing resources, I gave a lecture on the basics of social work to social work majors. Study and practice of social work is something new in China, so I was able to share perspective on what it’s like in the United States.

Then, utilizing connections to primary school educators in the United States, I gave an introduction to the US education system with specific information and stories from two different elementary schools. I presented that lecture twice–once to fellow English teachers at my college, and again to primary school teachers during a training this past summer.

Most recently, I gave a lecture to sociology majors. The same teacher who invited to teach on social work asked me this semester to teach a chapter from the sociology textbook.  I was surprised to find out this class uses a sociology textbook from the USA that has a Chinese translation. He sent me the English copy and told me I could choose any chapter I wanted. Not wanting to pass up an opportunity to engage with students about a challenging subject, I chose to teach the chapter about “Sexuality and Society.” I taught a lot of what was in the chapter, but also incorporated specifics about sexuality and culture in the United States.

All of the presentations were well received, and I answered a lot of good questions. Being able to speak about these subjects and sharing culture have been among the more rewarding aspects of my service thus far.

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Lecture in sociology: Sexuality and Society

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The presentation on Education in the USA to my English Department colleagues.

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Hiking Mt. Emei

During the week-long holiday earlier this month (National Holiday and Mid-Autumn Festival), I spent a few days hiking on Mount Emei (峨眉山), one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains in China. It is 3,099 meters high (10,167ft) and features hiking trails and a golden statue at the summit.

I actually met one of the students from my college in the train station. He and his friend also planned to visit the mountain, and though I planned to be alone, I was glad for the company for part of the way.

The first day was drenched in rain. It was cold and wet, and upon reaching a Buddhist monastery,  I was glad for the respite and shelter from the rain. Upon finding out the students had to return to Mianyang the next day, I altered my plans. In the morning we backtracked a bit to a big temple (Wannian), took a bus to get higher and hiked the final 6km to the Golden Summit.

They took a bus back down, and I stayed at a monastery near the top.

With the rain gone and fog cleared the next morning, I had nothing but spectacular views of the blanket of clouds below. Since I had the time, I decided to hike down more than 20km that I missed by not hiking up.

So yes, I didn’t hike the whole way up (which is a goal for some), but I did plenty of hiking and I took my time to enjoy the scenery along the way. The change of plan worked to my advantage as I got more spectacular views delaying a day and hiking down instead of up.

It was an amazing experience and I would most definitely do it again.

Indonesia: Going Home

When I finally set foot on Indonesian soil again this past August, after nearly three years, I knew I was home again. This post describes my short 10 days in Indonesia during the latter part of August, returning to the North Sumatran province.

My first destination was Bukit Lawang, a mountain village next to the Gunung Leuser National park. Here one can find the Orangutan, or in the Indonesian language Orang Hutan which literally means Person (orang) Forest (hutan). I hired a guide, as one must do in the park, and set off on a day-long hike through the jungle. Though it was not far in distance, I saw Orang Hutan and other wildlife and enjoyed the nature around me.

I also spent time in Pematang Siantar and Balige, the two towns in North Sumatra where I taught English from 2012-2014, and spent a few days relaxing at Lake Toba, the world’s largest volcanic lake.

My time was short, but I filled it with many things. I saw old friends and made new friends; I ate my share of the amazing Indonesian and ethnic Batak food I have missed so much; I visited former students, and even popped into visit the English course of one of my former students; and I once again dipped my feet in the waters of Lake Toba.

It was like another homecoming.

I used to balk when people asked me about my favorite place I’ve traveled. There are so many amazing places that I didn’t know how to choose one. I have, however, since decided it has to be Indonesia.

My heart still lingers there.

Lake Toba is the site of a supervolcano, and was formed some 70,000 years ago after a  eruption so massive, it caused a volcanic winter.

I will always find peace there, and I’m glad I had some time there this past summer.

Summer Travel: Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, and Hong Kong

Summer is drawing to a close, the night air no longer drenches me in sweat and rainy days and a blanket of haze have again settled in masking the blue skies (today is a sunny exception). The fall semester is a month on, and now September has past.

It’s time to catch up on posting.

I spent some considerable time traveling this summer. For now, a smattering of pictures, hopefully I can post more of the interesting ones later.

I also traveled to Indonesia, and that will get its own post.

 

 

Summer Project 2017

Panzhihua (攀枝花) is a small town–for China–nestled in a mountainous area of southern Sichuan province. Back in July I spent 2 weeks as part of a group of Peace Corps Volunteers offering training to local Primary and Middle School English teachers. It was a 14-hour train ride south from Chengdu through some lovely countryside.

There were 6 Peace Corps Volunteers and 180 teacher trainees. It was a hectic time during which everyone felt exhausted. Although 1 week would have sufficed–the teachers gave up their summer and were already quite capable–it was a success. It was important to be a presence there as a foreigner to share new teaching ideas, exchange culture and fellowship, and to help them improve their own English skills.

Other than being a small mining town, Panzhihua is also known for mangoes, and I had a steady flow of those the whole time. One of the teacher trainees even mailed a box of mangoes to my apartment so I could continue enjoying them at home.

Taipei, Idul Fitri, and the Indonesian Migrant Community

I was lost in a sea of people. It wasn’t an unusual occurrence after one year in China and two past years in Indonesia–but this time was different. This time my physical body was in Taipei Main Station–a sprawling transportation hub connected by passageways to an underground mall–but my eyes tricked me into thinking I was back in Indonesia.

Selamat Hari Raya Idul Fitri (Eid al-fitr). Sunday June 25th, 2017 marked the end of the holy month of Ramadan for Muslims across the world. Indonesia, the world’s 4th most populous nation, also has the world’s largest population of Muslims, and I just happened to be in the midst of the Indonesian community in Taiwan on this great holiday.

Walking through the station and shopping area, I felt as if I was back in Indonesia. Indonesian women in their beautifully colored and stylish hijabs passed me by the hundreds. I heard Indonesian spoken in public for the first time in nearly three years since I left the country. I even ate Indonesian food that burned my mouth the only way Indonesian cuisine can. In fact, thousands of Indonesians–men and women–gathered at the Taipei Main Station that day eating, shopping, and sitting on the floor for lack of other places.

I sat among them and listened to their stories. A woman shared with me her own story and poetry she wrote.

My reason for traveling to Taipei during my semester break was to visit a former Indonesian student of mine. After university in Indonesia, she further studied in Taipei. It was great to see how she has matured in the past few years. She is not Muslim, nevertheless sees it as important to be with her fellow Indonesians, connecting to them and sharing in this important holiday. The fact that I visited during Idul Fitri was a coincidence, but it only felt natural to take part in festivities.

I was told there are more than 250,000 Indonesian migrants in Taiwan. On Idul Fitri I saw so many women; they come usually as domestic workers, taking care of elderly and children, leaving their own families behind. The men work in Taiwan, too, in factories and as fishermen.

The Indonesians I met were as welcoming and friendly as I remember from my time there. I had my fill of food and fellowship. Unfortunately, it is not always good for the migrants, and they work very hard to have a better life for themselves and their families, sometimes with little reward. I am, however, grateful for the new friends I met and the stories I heard.

The rest of my short time in Taipei was filled with a lot of good food and experiencing various sights around Taipei. I hope someday I can return.


Cultivating Service

Sometimes students here in China mistake my surname (Ross) for Rose. At my request, most of my students call me Miss Megan, Teacher, or Megan. The surname Ross is of Scottish origin, although none of my ancestors were Scottish, which is perhaps why I’ve never been too attached to it. Names and titles are important, but I haven’t yet corrected students for mistaking mine as Rose. I secretly enjoy it.

Recently on my birthday, I bought miniature roses from a vendor among a row of identical flower shops in town. It was a whim, really, as I have never cared for roses on my own before. The little succulents already adorning my balcony needed company, and a flowering plant seemed a welcome addition.

Roses require a certain amount of attention to grow properly. They need pruning and appropriate amounts of water and sunlight to be healthy flowering plants. Admittedly, I’m a bit uncertain about how best to keep them happy on my balcony, but I’m willing to try.

While snipping away at the roses one morning, I realized one’s Peace Corps service also needs cultivation. Not everyone is a gardener, but each of us has responsibility to cultivate our work and relationships at site. From volunteers straight out of college, to those with life experience and already retired, the care and attention needed to during the 27-month service doesn’t end.

Truth be told, not all of us will blossom and flourish at all times. We get pricked by our own thorns and thorns of those around us. We suffer from lack of sunlight and fresh air. We are parched from lack of water or drown ourselves in too much muck. Growth is stunted and parts of us becomes withered and dormant.

Neither will all of us will integrate perfectly or even well at all. There is no magic fertilizer or formula to serving well and thriving at site. Sometimes we try our damnedest to fit in, speak the language and be understood, launch a secondary project, go a day without being intensely stared at, or just teach a lesson in a room full of students who would rather spend their time on QQ (Chinese social media)—all with varying degrees of success or failure on any given day.

Looking at my little roses, I’m reminded of the letter one of my students wrote for my birthday. Addressing me formally as “Miss Ross,” she writes, “It can be easily found you’re a ‘spontaneous’ woman who really loves and enjoys her life including any small tiny things in life. That’s really impressive, cause so many people now are always in hustle and bustle, whinging [sic] about life but forget to stop to cultivate their life tree.”

She went on to acknowledge the difficulty of living abroad and a wish for light in my dark times.

Unbeknownst to her, those themes—cultivation, light in darkness—have been deeply important to me for many years. Indeed, they can be helpful for all of us at some point. Serving in China is hard work, with highs and lows and everything in between; however, there’s wisdom in cultivating a healthy life and looking for the light in what seems like darkness, and I hope my student takes her own advice to heart.

So, what really makes a successful Peace Corps service? Is it unlocking that elusive “integration” process we heard so much about during Pre-Service Training? Is it increasing the knowledge and English skills of students? Dutifully fulfilling all three Peace Corps goals? Making meaningful connections at site and among fellow volunteers? Preparing for a future career? Whatever the benchmark—personal and from Peace Corps—one’s service involves some mixture of time, energy, hard work, self-care, social support, and more.

This month I finished the semester and surpassed one year in China. When classes start again next term, I will have new students, and one of them will probably call me Rose. I’m ready for it, as well as the mishaps and lesson fails, the little successes and fun moments. Meanwhile, I have watering and pruning to do in my daily life.

I’m not sure how successful I will be with the roses through the remaining Summer and Winter to come, but I will continue to care for them, as I will continue to commit myself to my service (I’m likely to be more successful at that).

Looking ahead, as part of the 22nd group to serve in China, I have one more year left as a Peace Corps Volunteer; for the new 23s, they are just beginning their training. To everyone else, you also have opportunity to serve in your own context.

How will you cultivate your service?

May in Pictures

This post is a little late into June, but there are a few experiences worth detailing about events in May:

The month of May brought the Dragon Boat festival in China. Unfortunately, there was no dragon boat race in my city, but I did eat the traditional Zongzi (粽子) a glutinous rice dumpling steamed in bamboo leaves.

Then, there’s a couple photos of what it’s like eating out in China–BBQ outside on a hotplate surrounded by crowds of people. The hot plate is heated by white-hot coals placed underneath, which waiters bring out on tongs through the crowd.

I was asked to be one of the judges for a speech competition with the theme “The definition of happiness.” I’m proud to report that one of my students won the competition.

Finally, I don’t run as often as I used to, but one morning when I ventured out, I got caught in a rainstorm. People around me stared; I imagine their inner thoughts about what the heck that foreigner is doing. I shrugged my shoulders, as I spent a lot of time in Seattle’s rainy climate, the rain-soaked run was welcome.

 

Hiking Up the Mountain

Last month I went with a group of students to a nearby mountain. Mianyang is in a basin, but there are many mountains in the Sichuan province. The students arranged for early transportation for the hour and a half ride to Jiuhuang Mountain (九皇山). No one had told me the scale of this mountain before I arrived. I came prepared for a hike, but not quite for this. As is common here, the mountain itself has been made accessible to non-expert climbers with kilometers of stone stairs, much of it leading straight up the mountain. For those who aren’t keen on stair climbing, there are a series of cable cars leading the way, although it is quite expensive.

About halfway up, there is a suspension bridge (called Lovers bridge) spanning across a wide gap as well as stairs that go alongside the sheer rock face. It was cloudy, and even rainy, which made for some tricky climbing. I imagine the panorama would be even more spectacular had it not been so cloudy.

This mountain also features a cave with spectacular stalactites and stalagmites lit up in a rainbow of colors.

All in all, it was an amazing day that left me exhausted.

April in Pictures

April brought more nice weather and many more activities. At the beginning of the month, the new bike sharing service that is spreading through China made its debut on the campus. Each bike features a lock and a QR code.  The bikes can be rented by the hour or paying a monthly fee, and when one is done using it, the bike can be left anywhere–and I do mean anywhere, even if it is some random place in the middle of the sidewalk or on the side of a busy street.

I had bag of chocolate chips from the US and used them to bake some wonderful cookies, and at the same time made banana oat muffins and lemon bars. I brought them all in for students to taste while I explained the process of how to bake cookies. Sweet homemade treats go over well here, and I’m glad to continue sharing with them about the goodies we make in America.

The nice spring weather has meant more activities outside, such as my continued participation in ultimate frisbee with a group for another college and exploring the city on my bike. There is a nice park downtown to enjoy, however in China, having a designated bike trail doesn’t necessarily mean I have that to myself. Sometimes the electric motorbikes ride in the same path. To keep the e-bikes out, apparently someone decided it would be a good idea to block the path, which also blocks the path for bicycles. I gave up and rode along the busy road for awhile because I was tired of dismounting my bike every 200 meters.

A group of international students from various countries visitied the campus and there were several big events. No one told myself or the other foreign teachers living here about this, except for one of my students who was gonig to be absent as she had volunteer duties all day. It turned out that 14 other students in her class also were volunteering for this event. I found out when the bell rang and only half of my students were present. Surprise! That’s life here.

Finally, I was asked to give a presentation about education in the USA to several other teachers from the English department. This event will soon have its own post, as it involved some collaboarative work between myself and two elementary level educators I know in the US. Stay tuned for that story.