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 at Mianyang Teachers College. 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.

Sports Meet

Not unlike other colleges throughout China, my college held a Sports Meet this past month. Colleges and Universities here do not have organized team sports to the degree which the United States does. In fact, this 2-day event reminded me how deeply embedded sports is into my own culture from a very early age all the way through adulthood. This meet, akin to a school track and field day, was a competition within the school rather than against other schools.

I would have loved to have participated in some actual sports, but the teachers here, at least at my college, did events such as tug-of-war. We all marched into the track, and then the teachers left for the basketball courts for their events. This was, however, at the same time as the students continued with the opening ceremony. So I was presented with a dilemma: Stand around and watch teachers compete in 3-legged races and maybe be involved in a tug-of-war, or watch the students perform in their opening ceremony.

I chose to watch the students, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Several departments gave performances, and the Foreign Language Department was one of them. Many of my freshmen students donned chearleader-like outfits bearing their mid-drift and danced around to a pop song waving pom-poms. More of my freshmen students participated in a coordinated calisthenics drill on the field together with students from other departments. There were several more performances, including Kung Fu.

Just being on the track with a crowd took me back to my days in high school running in track and cross country. My students were flabbergasted that I competed in 400, 800, and 1600 meters, as well as 5km races. That just doesn’t happen here. High school students in China are hyper-focused on studying and preparing for the college entrance examination, that they don’t have time for such regular sports, not to mention that females aren’t presented with the same opportunities as males in sporting.

The meet lasted two days, but I only attended the first day. I am hoping to coordinate some of my students together to learn about sports, but that hasn’t happened yet.

This opening ceremony took place on a Thursday, so all classes were cancelled for this event. As is typical here, they will be made up at the end of the semester, although we won’t know exactly which day until some day closer to the end of the semester.

When Writing Gets Creative, a Reflection on the Peace Corps Write On! Competition

Aliens. Robots. Environmental destruction. Pollution loving aliens. Secret agents. Witches. Killer friends. Dystopian futures. Birds engulfed in shadow. These are a few topics students at my college wrote about during the creative writing competition last month. I was honored to host Write On!, an international creative writing competition facilitated by Peace Corps Volunteers around the world. Much of the instruction for Chinese college English majors focuses on memorizing long lists of vocabulary and knowledge of grammar to score high on standardized tests, so this offers them an alternative way to use and improve their English skills.

The rules are simple: students are shown two writing prompts (different at each grade level) and given one hour to respond to one of them without the use of any aid such as cell phone or dictionary. Their entries are judged based on creativity and overall structure rather than on grammar and spelling. As a host I chose 10 entries from each grade level (in my case, University freshmen, sophomore, and junior), and those entries were judged at provincial and national level against other students from other Peace Corps sites. Those national winners were then judged at an international level from other Peace Corps sites across the globe.

Over 170 students from Mianyang Teachers College (绵阳师范学院) came and tapped into their creativity. I was thrilled—and a bit overwhelmed—at such a great turnout especially because many were not my students. Even more thrilling, one student was selected as the National and International winner for 3rd year university (junior) level.

The stacks of entries for the writing competition.

I first met Chen Lin (陈林) when I told her she was the Write On! National Winner for juniors (we hadn’t yet learned the result of the international judging). I only teach speaking and listening for freshmen and sophomores, so it came as a surprise when 31 juniors attended the competition.

We sat down for a chat in the space at Mianyang Teachers College known as the “Bookend,” an ongoing project started some years ago by a previous Volunteer. The room features stacks of books in English and Chinese, and ranges from fiction and classics to dictionaries and textbooks all available for checkout. The Bookend also functions as a daily English Corner. As I talked with Celina (Chen Lin’s chosen English name), a group of 20 students were already engrossed in practicing pronunciation through tongue twisters.

With Celina (陈林), a junior and winner in the Write On competition at the National and International level.

Celina said she hadn’t participated in Write On! last year, but was eager to this year after she heard about it. When she began her study in Mianyang, she wasn’t too interested in English. That changed over time, in part, to having Gina (A previous Peace Corps Volunteer) as a teacher whom Celina still fondly remembers.

When I asked Celina about the thought process for her essay, she said she had considered a happy ending, but it wouldn’t have been interesting enough. When I read Celina’s essay, I was struck by the unique approach (She chose to write from this prompt: Every morning, a bird lands on your window and pecks at the glass. It is your alarm clock. One morning, it doesn’t appear. Instead, there is a note. What does it say? What happens next?). To me, her story is mysterious and haunting. Part of what drew me in to select her essay for the university 3rd year top 10 was the ending without a clear resolution, marked by two words: “Save me!”

Celina was quite surprised and humbled by the honor to be a national and international winner. Her face lit up with a bright smile as she softly spoke about her experience and future ambition.  She told me she is seriously considering earning a graduate degree after she finishes in Mianyang. She wants to pursue a career translation, and in fact, had perused the Bookend shelves for a translation textbook before our talk.

We parted ways after taking a photo together; she still seemed a little surprised. She wants to participate again next year, and I told her I would be happy to host another competition. Until then, she will be studying and preparing for the TEM-8, another big examination for English majors.

Celina gave her permission for her essay to be published online, and you can read it here on the Write On Competition page.


 

 

February and March in Pictures

The second half of March was more pleasant–the rains returned after a long winter absence which fostered new green growth and flowers. I had some time to get out and ride my bike a few times to enjoy the springtime. At school, the semester continued on. We foreign teachers introduced our English Corner students to the game of Monopoly, which went over really well. One student, who at first didn’t know if she would enjoy the game, said, “Wow, I like it!” after immediately receiving rent after buying a property. There was time to enjoy dinner out with students, as well as inviting students to my apartment to cook some spare ribs. I’m not yet proficient in cooking Sichuan food, but I expanded my baking repertoire by trying out some banana oat mini muffins.

Also pictured here are photos of the Anshun Bridge from a brief visit to Chengdu from February.


Winter Vacation

The dreary gray and smoggy days here in Mianyang persist into March, as the new semester continues. Forthcoming posts about recent activities in the works, however in this post I take a fond look back at the warm winter vacation I spent with two of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers in three sun-filled countries: Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. I returned to places I’ve been as well as experienced the new. I’d been to Bangkok before, but nevertheless enjoyed the massive city; I took a new mode of transport between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, Cambodia–a speedboat, which was definitely worth it; and ventured into Vietnam, all three of us for the first time.

Below are a few of the photos. I was especially enamored with Vietnam. My time there was short, on a few days, but from the sights of Ho Chi Minh City to the food to the beach at Vung Tau–I thoroughly enjoyed it all.

December in Pictures

December, yes, that’s right. It’s time to catch up after the semester break and traveling around (posts about that coming soon). It is now February 2017 and the spring semester has begun. Let’s first go back for a quick summary of the end of 2016.

In December I had the opportunity to go to a temple here in Mianyang with a group of students. It’s called the Holy Water temple, a buddhist temple adorned with many colorful statues. During the month I also had several opportunities to eat out with students, and of course we had our final exams. Mianyang is often covered by gray hazy days, clouds, and generally lacks sunlight in the winter. I would argue it feels like there is less light than Seattle in the winter. There was one morning, however, where I actually saw blue sky (see photos below for side-by-side comparison).

 


Sharing A Christmas Eve Tradition

Growing up, my house was filled with the smell of baking cookies during the month of December. The Christmas of my childhood has the smell and taste of spritz cookies imprinted in my memory. For several weeks leading up to Christmas, my mom would bake batches of several different kinds of cookies. She stored the ones that didn’t get immediately eaten and would not fit in the freezer outside to chill.

One of the dearest family traditions was heading across town to grandma and grandpa’s house on Christmas Eve for cookies and cheeseball. My family, aunt and uncle, cousins, and grandma and grandpa would eat and open presents—and every year, without fail, the gift from the grandparents was a wad of cash, wrapped inside an old check box. This tradition felt as meaningful, if not more, than the other traditional festivities on Christmas Day.

As an adult, I’m no stranger to living abroad and being away for the holidays. This Christmas in China was the 5th time (in 4 different countries) in my life I’ve been out of the country to celebrate, and each time I have had a unique experience. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I am present to teach English and live out cultural exchange. So it felt natural to invite some students over on Christmas Eve for cookies and gifts.

Like my mom, I spent several weeks ahead of time baking (small) batches of cookies. Unlike my mom and grandma, however, I had limited access to supplies here in southwestern China and ran into quirks using a heavier sugar and my small toaster oven.

But oh, did those cookies taste good anyway.

In all, we ate out fill of cookies, snacks, fresh baked pumpkin scones (my new tradition), chili (made by another foreign teacher), and hot cocoa. I orchestrated a white elephant gift exchange and introduced the students to the concept of a party where people just chill out.

My grandparents have both since passed away, and I’m out in the world far from family–yet the tradition still lives on. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to share tradition, home, and hospitality with this wonderful group of students.

 

November in Pictures


November was a full month of fun experiences. I was invited to tea by another teacher and learned about Chinese tea culture. We drank fermented black and green tea from the Fujian province and a tea from the Yunnan province aged 15 years. I discovered the college Biology Department brews its own beer. Yes, beer–and better than any of the mass-produced stuff I can find in the shops.

In other activities, I attended an evening English Corner to talk with students about interview skills and a little bit about Thanksgiving. On Thanksgiving Day I taught 2 classes and then gathered with students to make 饺子 (Jiao zi), which are dumplings stuffed with meat and vegetables, then boiled and eaten with a spicy soy sauce. I also celebrated Thanksgiving with other Peace Corps Volunteers and the next day had a potluck with some other foreign teachers in Mianyang.

Postcards From My Students

A few weeks ago I had my sophomore students create a postcard (or use a real one or photo). The assignment started by asking them to think of something that represented themselves. In class they wrote and shared about it, then I asked them to create a postcard for the following week. One-by-one they presented and described the postcard and why it was important to them.

I heard the most fascinating things. Students talked about Paris, beaches, and space travel. They talked about their hometowns and famous sites in China. One told a wonderful story about raising a cow and how it was important in her life. Another student drew a kite and wrote a poem about being like a kite. One brought in a real postcard of Seattle.

Although they have studied many years of English, generally their speaking skills are lacking. This was good practice using a topic they have interest in. So much emphasis has already been placed on testing and filling in correct boxes, that I choose to emphasize enabling fluency, correct use of what they know, and unlearning mistakes they’ve been taught.

October in Pictures

October was a busy month as I further settled into life in Mianyang and my teaching schedule. An event of note was held to welcome the freshmen on the 21st. Each department of the university has one, complete with dancing, music, emcees, games, and flashy lights. Many of my students were involved in planning, performing, and the behind-the-scenes work. When students had first mentioned to me about this event, I thought it was just an activity for the English Corner, but as I’m learning, performances, competitions, and events are often big productions. Without knowing how these things usually go, I told my students I’d give a short speech. Well, I did, and it felt a little out of place to all the performances of the night, but my words were nevertheless meaningful. Then to my surprise, during an actual English Corner activity about Halloween the following week, the Dean of the Foreign Languages Department kicked off the night by name-dropping me in his speech and paraphrasing to them what I had said before.

Earlier in the month I attended an “international” food festival that mostly comprised of Chinese street food. The students I went with were also disappointed, but we went out for a good lunch.

I also starting using my toaster oven more often and made rolls, banana bread, apple oat crisp, cookies, and pumpkin scones.