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.

The Bikes of Chengdu

Peace Corps

In the Spring of 2017 the dockless shared bike system fronted by Ofo made its way to the campus of Mianyang Teachers College in China’s Sichuan Province. The craze had spread across China’s larger cities, and to Sichuan’s capital Chengdu earlier. At the time my students expressed pride in this “great Chinese invention”–and then were confused when I explained China didn’t invent bike sharing, as it was used in the US for some years. What Chinese companies had done was improve, as it were, a system already in existence.

New Ofo bikes on Mianyang Teachers College campus, April 2017

The yellow bikes flooded the campus and were a great way for students to make their way from the main campus buildings to the front gate, 2km away. Yellow Ofos and silver and orange Mobikes also appeared around Mianyang city, with other companies stepping into the frenzy, too.

The concept relies on convenience: need a bike? Here’s a bike! It’s cheap and easy, use it and leave it wherever you are when you’re done. Yet problems in this system became apparent and only grew from there. My students, not used to questioning and critical thinking, missed the potential problems in their pitch to me, such as in order to keep costs down the company mass manufactured crappy bikes that broke down easily; someone has to be paid to keep the bikes repaired and in circulation in popular areas; and if people can, they will leave them anywhere–and I mean anywhere.

As it turns out, Ofo and the other bike share companies were not concerned with repairing bikes; they have left behind mass graves of misplaced, broken, and decaying bicycles throughout China. Furthermore, Ofo’s expansion to the world has now been retracted, with the company struggling to stay in business in China.


The number of bikes that littered the streets of Chengdu grew as if they reproduced like rabbits. By January 2018, the problems in their business model became glaring (to me), especially traveling through the central part of Chengdu. It’s as if they hadn’t thought–or cared–about how many people actually might use their product and the logistics involved in such an operation with so many bicycles, nor about the cost to the environment.


When I gazed in awe at their mass numbers, I realized this was a recurring pattern in how Chinese do business. Locally, at least, small businesses opened and closed all the time, sometimes with short lifespans. They had failed to do appropriate research on product, location, and target consumers.

Uncertain about the future of dockless bike sharing, below I posted a tribute to the bikes of Chengdu.

Beijing

Peace Corps, travel

In the final days of my time in China (July 2018), I was able to take a quick trip to Beijing. I only had a few days, which left me quite rushed, though I made the best of it. Here are some photos.

What Beijing trip wouldn’t be complete without visiting Tiananmen square? The square itself is big and empty; one feels small standing out in the open, the large buildings at it’s borders seem far away. Tiananmen’s significance, however, cannot be understated. At it’s borders are the Forbidden City, National Museum, Great Hall of the People, and Mao’s mausoleum–all central monoliths of Beijing and China. Each of those places has it’s own security to get in and out of them as is normal across China, but what stands out is the strict security even to enter Tiananmen Square’s vast empty space. Foreigners must present their passports, Chinese their national ID. One must pass through a metal detector and place any bags through scanners. The police looked at my ID much in the way any security would, and then waved me through. As I walked on, a policewoman was flipping through a notebook of a Chinese woman who stood next to her– to enter Tiananmen, Chinese nationals are given more scrutiny.

As I walked around, I imagined the thousands of students who filled the space in 1989 and the chaos and blood that filled the streets after the government soldiers and tanks rolled through. The 1989 student protest and subsequent massacre is a forbidden topic within China. Had I breached and publicly talked about it when I lived and worked there, I could have been expelled from the country.

Here is a photo from exiled Chinese artist Ai Weiwei from a series called Study of Perspective in which he photographs a middle finger in front of many of the world’s significant landmarks.

Ai-Weiwei-Study-of-Perspective-–-Tiananmen“-1995-2010-C-Print-325-x-435-cm

From Ai Weiwei’s Study of Perspective, Tiananmen

Lijiang

Peace Corps, travel

Last week I wrote about the wonder I experienced when I visited the Tiger Leaping Gorge in the Yunnan Province last April. During that trip I also visited nearby Lijiang, though I had less than a day to spend there before I had to be back in Mianyang. Here are some photos from that quick late afternoon to morning jaunt through the old town.

 

Witness to Creation

Peace Corps, travel

The gorge is a magnificent sight. Jagged peaks rise straight from the ground below, a stunning contrast in front of the white clouds and blue sky. Formed  by techtonic plates pushing up rock and millenia of wear from water and wind, the sheer faces of the peaks are unparalleled. Deep in the valley below water flows over rock emitting a constant roar, while small homes like tiny specks are swallowed by the towering mountains above. One road cut by machinery into the side of the rocks offers human visitors a fantastic and terrifying route through the gorge.

Some years ago I read writings of naturalist John Muir. One quote that stuck with me:

“One learns that the world, though made, is yet being made. That this is still the morning of creation. That mountains, long conceived, are now being born, brought to light by the glaciers, channels traced for coming rivers, basins hollowed for lakes.”

I was reminded of this when I stood in front of Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡) in China’s Yunnan province this past April. The mountains formed over time are still being formed.

The two nights I spent at the gorge were among the most peaceful during the two years I lived in China. I hiked with a friend, our view of the gorge and conversations still rining in my ears though months have since passed.

“Do I have to go back to Mianyang?” I wrote at the time, referencing my home in Sichuan, and normal life of teaching. Every moment at the gorge I soaked up like a sponge, alive in the moment, yet anticipating the stress awaiting my return.

It is still the morning of creation–and for that I am ever grateful to be alive and witness to this ancient process.

 

Long Overdue Post

culture, Peace Corps, travel

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.

Traveling to Xi’an and Huashan

Peace Corps, travel

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).

People Mountain People Sea

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.

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.

A Look Back to December

Peace Corps

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.

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