You Are Not Alone: A Story of Friendship and Hope

Peace Corps, story
Administration building on the Mianyang Teachers’ College campus.

This building haunts me. Its imposing architecture and location rend it as the focal point across the sparse college campus at Mianyang Teachers’ College. Long gray buildings no more than 10 years old with paint already cracked span the wide roads. Small trees still growing line the road leading toward it from the main gate. Inside are administrative offices for different departments as well as the school’s Communist Party office.

But that’s not why I’m haunted.

It was the beginning of the fall semester in 2017. A new school year, new routines, incoming students, returning students, new friends, old friends, new classes, same campus. After summer break, the campus again teems with life in the days before classes begin as students return from home.

One of them, sadly, decided to end her life.

She threw herself off the 9th floor of the administration building, the tallest building on campus. It happened one night, and by the next morning everything functioned as normal so much that I had no idea of her death. She had been an English major, though not one of my students. After failing a class, she was being held back to repeat her entire freshman year. In China, students move through their years in blocks, so their days are spent going to different classes with the same group of students throughout their schooling. The pressure to excel and succeed are enormous in this country with over 1.4 billion people.

I can’t recall ever meeting her, but I felt heartbreak anyway. Even a few students said, “No one really knew her.” I don’t think that’s true–they were 8 students to a room in their dormitories and 40 students in her class block–but I wonder who knew of the pain she experienced? Who noticed her, reached out to her?

Day after day I entered this building. I looked to the 9th floor, and I took a deep breath. I wanted to reach out to her and say, “You are not alone!”

Administration building on the Mianyang Teachers’ College campus.

At the time, the school did not permit us to discuss what happened and the Peace Corps advised us not to push anything. I did not tell this story publicly until I had closed my service and left China.

In the Spring Semester a few of my sophomores touched on the subject of suicide in a surprising and moving way in their final video project (see this post about the semester final). Suicide is unfortunately not uncommon in China, though it is a difficult subject to talk about. Whether or not they intended to reference what happened the previous semester, their film project was an important voice in the discussion and suicide prevention.

Their story was simple, yet layered with complexity: One of them, Minnie, falls into depression after a bad break-up with her boyfriend. Her friends, Sherry and Vivian, comfort and support her; however, one day Minnie decides she can’t continue, sends a cryptic text, and is ready to jump off a building. Sherry and Vivian come to her, pull her away, hold her, and support her. They say they are ready to jump together with her. Minnie says “No” and chooses to live. A montage of them watching movies, going shopping, and enjoying out door activities slowly changes Minnie’s depressed catatonic face into one that reflects joy.

Minnie says, “My girls, thanks for being here, comforting and encouraging me, accompanying me though hard times, and you are always my precious possessions, thank you, two girls.”

The bad things passed and they will live a new life, a better life together.

I’m still haunted by that building, but I have hope for me and for us all: we are not alone. There is love, there is joy in this world, and I want to thank my students for telling their story of despair, love, hope, and new life.

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, you are not alone. There is help.

In the US call the National Suicide Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 (available 24/7).

In China, call the Beijing Suicide Research and Prevention Center 010-8295-1332 (available 24/7), or Lifeline China 400-821-1215 (10am-10pm).

My students, at the end of their film.

Semester of Storytelling

Peace Corps, story, teaching

In the Spring Semester of 2018 at 绵阳师范学院 (Mianyang Teachers’ College), I explored storytelling with my Sophomore classes. I guided them each week through the basics of the hero’s journey, genre, and sequencing toward a final group project. The project was to form a story, write the dialogue, and finally film themselves performing their story.

Grading the final project was a huge undertaking for me, as I taught 4 Sophomore classes–with around 40 students each–which when divided up into groups, I still had 40 videos to watch and grade.

It was worth it.

The end result was amazing, a testament to their capabilities and creativity. I asked the short films be 3-5 minutes in length, each person in the group needed to say something, and they were required to submit a written dialogue with the video. Some groups went above and beyond what I expected, utilizing the campus, classrooms, their dorm rooms, even nearby housing–one group even asked my permission to make a longer video that ended up being over 12 minutes, an adaptation of a famous legend complete with costumes filmed at at local Buddhist temple, and included credits with outtakes. Several other groups adapted Chinese legends, there were stories of love and jealousy, one group altered the ending of Romeo and Juliet, while some groups did variations of ghost/vampire/zombie stories. Many groups included their dialogue as subtitles. One group showed two friends supporting another who had become depressed and wanted to commit suicide. This one was poignant because there had been a suicide on campus the previous semester, which had been quickly hushed by the administration.

Here are screenshots from some of videos.

Before writing dialogues, we explored examples of genres and movie plots and they selected what type of story they wanted to tell then mapped the basic sequence of events. Below is the work from a group whose story was about a ghost that haunted a bathroom because she needed help solving her murder. Solid original work and excellent make-up in the video as well.

group work sequencing their story
Group work using graphic organizers to create their story.

I also included in-class storytelling when students came up with a story on their own modeling the hero’s journey. This young woman enthusiastically raised her hand to share, not hesitating to use the blackboard to illustrate her story.

A student telling a heroic journey she wrote in class

Two years have since passed, and this semester with the films I have kept, remains one of the lasting memories of my time teaching in China.

What Gives Me Life

Peace Corps, story

For those of you who know me and have followed my journey for awhile know my personal struggle with the genetic disease called Neurofibromatosis. To those new to my journey, it is apparent when looking at a photo of me that something is different. This post is about living with Neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1), and what actually gives me life.

NF1 is a genetic disease that, among other manifestations, causes tumors to grow on the body anywhere there are nerves. Half of all those with NF1 inherited it from a parent, the other half because of a spontaneous mutation of the NF gene. NF1 occurs in 1 in every 3,000 births around the world. There is no cure, although drugs are currently in development that may help slow and/or reduce certain tumor growths.

2017-10-05_IMG_20171005_074951
Hiking on Mt. Emei.

Back in October I noticed a social media post from the Children’s Tumor Foundation (CTF), a non-profit organization aimed at raising funds for research of all NF-related disorders, raising awareness, and patient support. A big gala fundraiser was approaching, and they wanted selfies from the NF community to use during the event.

I had just returned from a fantastic hike on Mt. Emei and emailed my selfie on the mountain, adding that I was in China with the Peace Corps. The PR-manager thought that was great and asked if I would write a personal story for their website. You can read the post here. In fact, when I sat down to write my story, I took inspiration from an original post on this blog, On Disfigurement and Grace.

When I applied to the Peace Corps and accepted the invitation to serve, I knew the medical clearance process was going to be a challenge—as it is for many of us. But I knew I would have the additional challenge of seeing specialists to document the disease and support me that I was healthy enough to serve with these tumors. I’m grateful for supportive specialists and the medical insurance that allowed me access to them.

It is true that every day when I look in the mirror, it’s a challenge to go outside. But as you can read on this blog and elsewhere, I choose to live and do that which gives me life. I’m proud to be serving in the Peace Corps and happy to have traveled all over the world.

megan-Indonesia

Indonesia: Going Home

Batak culture, culture, Indonesia, indonesian culture, Peace Corps, story, travel

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.

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

Peace Corps, story, teaching

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 my college 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 Celina 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 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, 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 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. 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.


 

 

The Dubbing Competition and Just Rolling with It

language, Peace Corps, story

So sometimes life in China as a university English teacher is a bit odd. We have to navigate a different culture, a different university system, and the sometimes awkward use of our own native language. My students seem well aware that spoken English in this country is often not correct, as they make jokes about Chinglish.

As Peace Corps Volunteers we’re prepped in our training about how things go here, culturally. Accept invitations, we’re told; first impressions are important, so make yourself known; and just “go with it.” Thursday evening was one of those time when all three applied.

A few weeks ago students excitedly invited me to a “Dubbing Competition.” Even after asking for clarification, I still didn’t know what that meant other than it had something to do with movies…and dubbing?. But one thing was certain: Myself, my Peace Corps sitemate, and another new foreign teacher were expected to attend and be judges in the competition.

Although I was told in advance, on Wednesday I received a decorated hand-made card–probably made by students on behalf of the Foreign Languages Department–inviting me to a “Dudding Competition.” Just roll with it.

On Thursday afternoon, 6 students were absent from my class, excused because they were preparing for the event. Just roll with it.

On Thursday evening, finally the event. There were about 10 other judges, and we gave scores on each performance. It was only living through the event that I realized they really meant “lip syncing” instead of dubbing. After the group gave a short intro-performance, they lip synced to a short movie clip. The clip was projected onto screens and both the language they were speaking and a Chinese translation was given.

Since this is the Foreign Languages Department, there were performances in English, German, Japanese, and French. Since I can speak German, I was fine with that, but even though I don’t know the others, I was nevertheless judging their pronunciation and performance. Yeah, just roll with it…

The best part of the night was seeing a group of my students perform the scene with the sloths in the DMV from Zootopia. That scene is something we all relate to and find funny. The whole room was laughing. And in that moment, it made all the oddity and dealing with the unexpected worth it.

An invitation to the journey

story, travel

I remember it well—the day I became a student of Eberhard-Karls Universität in Tübingen, Germany. Paperwork with official stamps finally in hand, I bounced through the cobble-stoned streets of the Altstadt toward the bridge that hangs across the Neckar River. Looking out over the old buildings of this once-walled city neatly reflected in the Neckar’s still water, I savored the day’s accomplishments. It was indeed a fine start to my second week of life in Tübingen, on Tuesday September 11, 2001.

Thirty minutes later at the campus computer lab, my upbeat mood came crashing down when I read with disbelief the headlines about the terrorist attack in my home country. Outside, students carried on with their afternoon, not yet aware that thousands of people had died or been injured when planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York City. None of it seemed real; my heart sank, but I was not hopeless.

The next day, and in weeks following, I unleashed a series of emails detailing my perspective from abroad to a list of family and friends—revealing more than general updates and the life of a university student in Germany I had first intended. The email list began as a method to keep in touch, but evolved into a means to help others see their own country and the world in new ways.

During the year I studied abroad, I traveled within Germany and to 11 other European countries (Austria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden, and Vatican City), writing home about each adventure. Through my correspondence, my family and friends watched Germans grieve with the US in the weeks following September 11; they joined me for Christmas 2001 in Finland, with a Finnish friend and her family as we broke tradition on Christmas Day and took an overnight boat cruise from Helsinki to Talinn, Estonia; they felt my curiosity as I rid myself of Deutschmarks and held the Euro’s paper currency for the first time on January 1, 2002; and they discovered what German universities have to offer, especially Tübingen’s unique charm and history.

When I arrived in Tübingen in late August 2001, I was no stranger to travel; however, that year embodied more than study or travel, it heralded significant change in my own worldview in addition to those around me. In the years since, I have traveled to many more places, and I intend to continue that way of life wherever I am, inviting others into the journey.

neckarfront-reflection

Reflection on the Neckcar river in Tuebingen, Germany.


The above is a slightly edited version of something I wrote in early 2015 just for myself. Later in the year when I applied to the Peace Corps, I used part of it in my application essay. Now I post it to share that next month I will begin my service with the Peace Corps as an English Teacher in China.

More information forthcoming about what I will be doing and where I will be going, including a more formal announcement. Stay tuned…come, follow me on the journey!

Night Train to Colombo

story, travel

Our three-wheeler pulls into the dusty lot used as a bus station. Several mini-buses and big red buses similar to school buses idle around, engines humming and doors open, all waiting to depart to various cities in eastern Sri Lanka. I grab my bags and step onto a patch of caked dirt.

My friend Apriliza emerges from the three-wheeler and stares at me. Two men walk by, discussing something in Tamil as another bus pulls out, kicking up dirt around us. Sri Lanka’s majority population are ethnic Sinhala, but here on the east coast are a pocket of Tamil Sri Lankans.

The Tamil Pastor stands next to me and points to a nearby bus. “This is your bus,” he declares in English.

A few days earlier I had traveled to this city called Kalmunai—a tiny dot on a map with no tourism to offer—by repeatedly mispronouncing its name to random strangers. I was in Kandy, a city in the center of the island, with a bus station many times larger than Kalmunai’s, bustling with buses and thousands of travelers. Not deterred by a few confused looks, I said “Kalmunai?” until a man with red betel nut stains between his teeth spat and pointed toward a mini-bus at the end of a long line of larger red buses.

Wedding Crasher

Batak culture, Indonesia, story

I stood in the yard in front of the church while the crowd began to gather. For once in my life I felt tall—at 5’2” I’m a short American, but next to the young Indonesian women who surrounded me, I could see the tops of their heads without straining.

We had run across the courtyard from our dormitory when we heard the siren that we were certain was the police escort for the wedding procession. People came from every direction to stand in front of the church and wait. Police lined the red carpet keeping the crowd from mobbing the wedding procession, as news cameras rolled and people snapped photos from their cell phones. Life in Balige, a rural town in Indonesia’s North Sumatra province, rarely reached this level of excitement.

Keep Spirit

Batak culture, culture, Indonesia, story

The elderly woman’s body lies inside the house in a coffin covered only by a thin white veil. Aside from the coffin, the room is void of furniture. A dozen members of the family and surrounding village sit cross-legged on the multi-colored plastic woven mat spread across the tile floor. I add my sandals to the pairs already stacked in front of the open door and step inside.

Delviana Naibaho—a co-worker at the Deaconess Theological School where I teach in a town a three-hour drive away on windy pot-hole ridden roads through the Sumatran rainforest—greets me. I call her “Ibu,” a word that means mother, but is also a polite form of address for women akin to “ma’am.”

Today, to show support to Ibu Naibaho, I attend her mother’s wake with a delegation from the school.

“Turut berduka cita, bu,” (my condolences, ma’am), I tell her as we shake hand and sniff cheeks in the Indonesian manner.