Apologies for the long silence on this blog. Since the last post, I have completed the last semester at Mianyang Teachers’ College and closed my service in the Peace Corps in mid-July. After a few weeks of travel, I returned to Seattle and started work at the end of August. I never intended such a long break, as there were many noteworthy happenings in the Spring and Summer. Now is the time to pick up that slack.
I last left off recounting my experience in Xi’an during the Spring Festival holiday. Below are a few photos of what Mianyang looked like during the holiday this past February. A characteristic of so many Chinese cities are LED-lit buildings that light up the night sky and accentuate drab buildings into colorful panoramas. During the Spring festival, lanterns are hung everywhere, adorning the city with red. Combined it provided a wonderful place to walk in the evening.
Xi’an(西安) is an ancient city spanning thousands of years, and was once the capital of China. Emperor Qin Shi Huang had his Terracotta Army built near Xi’an, and dates back to 246 BCE. The warriors were not found until 1974, and excavation and restoration is an ongoing project to continue for decades. Today Xi’an is the capital of the Shaanxi Province and a blend of ancient and modern. Since last December, the high speed rail now operates in Xi’an, thus greatly reducing the travel time from my home from 14+ hours to between 3 and 3.5 hours. I used the national holiday over the Lunar New Year to travel there (as did many thousands of others).
After living in China for more than a year and a half, I’m used to dealing with crowds of people, but there’s nothing like traveling when a billion people have the same holiday. The best decision was visiting the Terracotta Army on the actual New Years day, since most Chinese people will spend it with family. The crowds were noticeably lighter in the city, at least just for that one day. There’s an expression in Chinese, 人山人海, which when translated literally has become the Chinglish phrase, “People mountain people sea.” Meaning, a huge crowd of people. That sums up a lot of the experience living in China. One of the most crowded areas in Xi’an was the Muslim Quarter, because while most restaurants remained closed during the week of holiday for New Year, they were open for business. But man, was it worth it to eat some amazing food.
Bell Tower, Xi’an
Drum Tower, Xi’an
City Wall, Xi’an, on Lunar New Year
Light display at the Lunar New Year
Terracotta Warrior under restoration
Muslim Quarter, Xi’an
Food in the Muslim Quarter
Restaurant serving biangbiang mian, the character “biang” has 43 strokes and hasn’t been rendered to unicode and thus not possible to type
Biang biang mian
羊肉泡馍, Lamb soup with shredded bread
Nearby Xi’an, and also connected on the high speed rail, is Huashan (华山) or, Mt. Hua, one of China’s 5 sacred mountains. The panorama of its peaks are stunning, even in a bit of haze. I hiked up the trail from the west gate, a 6km path of many stone steps with a stretch of steep climbing. Because of the crowds and my two companions, we only ascended to the North Peak and then took the cable car back down. But I plan to go back–there are trails around the peaks and a dangerous side-of-the-mountain trail called the plank walk. Stay tuned, hopefully in Spring or early Summer I’ll have another shot to hike around Huashan.
After a blog break, I’m back, and now with photos from December. It was a busy month and end of the semester. The highlights were hosting another excellent Christmas party and once again sharing my cookie baking tradition (see my post from the previous year). Then on Christmas Day a few other foreign teachers and I went out to a local restaurant that serves Thai food. I did have to teach on Christmas Day, but as we had already finished our final exams, I showed a movie.
The next semester starts in March. Between now and then is the Chinese New Year and a bit of traveling for me.
Ready for the Christmas party
Decorating my apartment
My little Xmas tree
I baked lots of cookies
Ginger bread didn’t turn out exactly as planned, but still very tasty.
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.
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.
One of the stressful things about living abroad is missing holidays and celebrations of the home country. It is a joy to engage and learn new things, but there’s often a longing to return to the familiar. Although I’m not surrounded by the holiday traditions from the USA, I can share them and make do with what’s around me now. Last month I shared Thanksgiving and this month soon will be Christmas.
During the week before Thanksgiving, I taught students in class about the holiday and participated in several events with students and friends to celebrate. We gathered with students to make dumplings, we had dinner with more students, and then I hosted other Peace Corps Volunteers for our own Thanksgiving meal featuring chicken, mac n cheese, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and more–including a pumpkin pie I made from scratch.
The evening of Thanksgiving when myself and a few other foreign teachers gathered around a table with students, we ate and chatted. Then we went around the table to say what we were thankful for. it was a moment of honesty. One student used the image of a train. People get on and off as passengers, sometimes just quickly passing through each other’s lives, but friends are in it together for the long journey. What an amazing reflection.
With a grateful heart I give thanks for life and friends.
Some things at Chinese universities are cemented into the rhythm of the school calendar such as department welcome events for freshmen (I missed this year’s because of a scheduling miscommunication), speech competitions, and sports meets. Well, the Foreign Language Department hosting dubbing competitions is no different.
Last year the competition took me by surprise, with everything being new (see my post on “rolling with it“). This year, however, I knew what I was in for, and still enjoyed it.
The highlight of the night was one of my freshmen students winning the competition all by herself. Normally the students dub over movie clips in groups, but this young woman went solo—a courageous undertaking in this place.
She dubbed over anime in Japanese, nailing the voices and, although I don’t personally speak Japanese, seemed fairly accurate (my American colleague who learned some in college thought it was spot on). As a judge, I was blown away, and as a teacher I was certainly proud (her English is good, too, but like most her age she is shy about speaking). Somehow, she learned either to speak it or imitate the language well. English majors here have to learn another language, but they don’t start that until their sophomore year.
I hope she’ll progress that well in English, too.
The hosts of the dubbing competition
A good crowd of students to watch
My student with her first prize next to the Dean and the Party Secretary of the Foreign Language Department
My plants were doing well in the warmth from the beginning of this month, though the recent cold damp week in the final days of the month have left them a little unhappy. The one little rose that didn’t die during the summer heat produced a few more buds. It has been dreary as of late, so I reflect on the last beautiful day a few weeks ago. Between rain and haze when it’s not raining, the winter months see less light.
It is a practice here for colleges to have military training for their freshmen. While many colleges have this training during the beginning of the semester in September, my college holds it in October. For two weeks after the holiday they trained and thus campus was filled with them in military-style outfits. They are, of course, their same bubbly selves, who talk of making friends and the handsome instructors.
Another notable event, that actually happened at the end of September was a small earthquake. I was in class at the time, a couple of seconds of shaking, but no damage. Two days later I had the opportunity to visit a memorial site for the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. That was an 8.0, caused major damage and many casualties. My students—many of whom are from Sichuan, though young at the time—remember that earthquake. There is a village that was left as a memorial. It was a very moving experience.
Enjoying the art school in the municipality of Chongqing
Some rest and relaxation in Chongqing
A brief visit to Chongqing to see friends. A view from atop a mountain, but not the best view of the city center.
My plants did well in the fall.
Students on campus on break from military training.
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.
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.
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.