Saying Goodbye

Peace Corps, teaching

The rain came, and it seemed nonstop for an entire month. Streets flooded, water rushed under bridges, and still the rain fell. July 2018 brought floods to areas of the Sichuan province, drenching my final days in China. With mixed emotions, I looked out the window of my 15th floor apartment and sighed. From atop my balcony, with coffee cup in hand, it all seemed unreal–the rain, the past two years, and what might come next.

The view from my apartment in Mianyang on July 2, 2018

Somehow, I had managed to muddle through, and yes, even thrive for the previous two years in southwestern China. Depression–a familiar companion in my life–and frustrations about living in China, mixed with gratitude for teaching and the good I experienced yanked me in circles.

A long to-do list scribbled on scrap paper sat beside me. The rain had dampened my already waning motivation to do anything outside my apartment, but this was a list mostly consisting of the important tasks necessary to close out my time in China and move out of the country.

Grade final exams; turn in final grades; deep clean apartment; close bank account; fill out Peace Corps paperwork; plan and purchase tickets to travel from China; pack and ship boxes to the US; pack suitcases; and downsize unnecessary items. These were among a larger list of tasks I completed in the final days.

I had already said goodbye to my students in class. On our final class days we had posed for photos, quite haphazardly, and I though exhausted, enjoyed the chaos. One class of sophomores had each written me a note on a postcard. “You’re my best teacher,” wrote a student whose spoken English was minimal nonetheless had progressed and shown enthusiasm for learning. Each note was personalized, composed with thought from that student.

Two students in their third year who had both been involved in the English Corner previously asked if they could cook Sichuan hot pot for me. They showed up to my apartment with bags of fresh meat and vegetables and began chopping away as we talked about life. Soon the apartment was filled our chatter met with the aroma of Sichuan spices and the food boiling in the pot.

A larger farewell event had already taken place, in which a hundred students of mine and my Peace Corps sitemate showed up. The evening was a dizzying event that included speeches and so many posed photos I felt like I was at a movie premier. Each goodbye was important, though I much preferred the smaller slower ones.

As I finished my coffee on that rain-drenched day, I savored the memories. From the first day when I felt clueless and terrified as did my students, right up until the last day when we realized how far we had come. I eventually finished my to-do list, the rain stopped, and my students and I moved on taking the memories with us. As Caroline, one of the students who cooked hot pot succinctly wrote in the photo album she gave me, “The photos end, but the memories last forever.”

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.