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.
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.
They always had a lot of questions
Blue sky!! (I don’t get to see this often where I live)
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.
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.
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.
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.
I baked sugar cookies, spritz, and russian teacakes
Celebrating with the students
The apartment, ready for the party.
I baked sugar cookies, spritz, and russian teacakes
Participating in a gift exchange.
Enjoying the gifts and food.
A table full of snacks
I baked sugar cookies, spritz, and russian teacakes
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.
A lot has been happening in the months of silence on this blog. For one, I was able to have some time in the States over Christmas and New Years. When I returned to Indonesia in January, I still had paperwork to clear up with immigration, and had to make a quick trip to Jakarta to take a letter from the Labor Department. Finally after I got that squared away at the end of January, February flew by.
So to summarize, I’ll provide a few recent photos to share about the time that has passed. First, however, I’ll say that my time in Jakarta back in January was quite an adventure. It took 3 days of waiting, and on the 3rd day when I needed to collect my document, torrential rain overnight again flooded the streets of Jakarta, setting up a crazy commute. Long story short: I ended up taking a motorcycle taxi over flooded streets and zoomed through a massive traffic jam, weaving through traffic. Glad that adventure is over and that I can stay in Indonesia until July as planned.
Here are some photos of happenings in Sumatra (there’s more, but I hope to make a separate post on that):
In February, we had a seminar on child poverty and trafficking. Really interesting information, but also very sad to hear some of the stories.
Occasionally I take my students outside to have class in the yard of the church next door. They love the venture out of the classroom and are always willing to pose for pictures. This is the first year class (’13-’14).
Then in early March, we had a retreat for the first year students. It was a great two days of reflection, Bible study, and worship.
A bishop of a nearby district (who also comes here to teach) had his 50th birthday. A group from the school went to represent and celebrate, and it gave me an excuse to wear the outfit I received for Christmas.
On August 14, 2013 the school held an oral examination of the graduating students. It was a busy and intense day for everyone, especially the students. They were questioned one-by-one in three areas: society, theology, and health. The Ephorus (Presiding Bishop of the whole denomination) was there, as well as the #2 in the denomination, other pastors and deaconesses. All 17 of the students passed. Below are a few pictures from that day (find more here):
Long time, no write! I apologize for the lengthy silence on this blog. Not only was my schedule busy in May and June, but I had to leave the country twice. And my computer broke. Twice. But I’m happy to say my 7.5 year old MacBook continues to live in spite of a power surge caused by a direct overhead lightning strike above my room.
For most of June I was in Balige teaching an intensive English course to some of the deaconess students while a guest from Germany taught a German language course for some of the students. I’ll write a separate blog post about that. Before the course, though, I exited the country again in the first week of June, bound for Kuala Lumpur.
Again in July I had to leave–but July was my vacation month, so I combined a necessary trip out to renew the visa with a 3-week vacation spanning Thailand, Cambodia, and (surprise!) Singapore. Singapore was not on my original travel itinerary, but I had to change in order for my work visa for Indonesia.
This post is only to give a brief update. Stories and pictures to follow. But for now, here’s just one: