My Life as a Guest Lecturer

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.

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Lecture in sociology: Sexuality and Society
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The presentation on Education in the USA to my English Department colleagues.

Hiking Mt. Emei

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 Travel: Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, and Hong Kong

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.

 

 

Summer Project 2017

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.

Cultivating Service

Sometimes students here in China mistake my surname (Ross) for Rose. At my request, most of my students call me Miss Megan, Teacher, or Megan. The surname Ross is of Scottish origin, although none of my ancestors were Scottish, which is perhaps why I’ve never been too attached to it. Names and titles are important, but I haven’t yet corrected students for mistaking mine as Rose. I secretly enjoy it.

Recently on my birthday, I bought miniature roses from a vendor among a row of identical flower shops in town. It was a whim, really, as I have never cared for roses on my own before. The little succulents already adorning my balcony needed company, and a flowering plant seemed a welcome addition.

Roses require a certain amount of attention to grow properly. They need pruning and appropriate amounts of water and sunlight to be healthy flowering plants. Admittedly, I’m a bit uncertain about how best to keep them happy on my balcony, but I’m willing to try.

While snipping away at the roses one morning, I realized one’s Peace Corps service also needs cultivation. Not everyone is a gardener, but each of us has responsibility to cultivate our work and relationships at site. From volunteers straight out of college, to those with life experience and already retired, the care and attention needed to during the 27-month service doesn’t end.

Truth be told, not all of us will blossom and flourish at all times. We get pricked by our own thorns and thorns of those around us. We suffer from lack of sunlight and fresh air. We are parched from lack of water or drown ourselves in too much muck. Growth is stunted and parts of us becomes withered and dormant.

Neither will all of us will integrate perfectly or even well at all. There is no magic fertilizer or formula to serving well and thriving at site. Sometimes we try our damnedest to fit in, speak the language and be understood, launch a secondary project, go a day without being intensely stared at, or just teach a lesson in a room full of students who would rather spend their time on QQ (Chinese social media)—all with varying degrees of success or failure on any given day.

Looking at my little roses, I’m reminded of the letter one of my students wrote for my birthday. Addressing me formally as “Miss Ross,” she writes, “It can be easily found you’re a ‘spontaneous’ woman who really loves and enjoys her life including any small tiny things in life. That’s really impressive, cause so many people now are always in hustle and bustle, whinging [sic] about life but forget to stop to cultivate their life tree.”

She went on to acknowledge the difficulty of living abroad and a wish for light in my dark times.

Unbeknownst to her, those themes—cultivation, light in darkness—have been deeply important to me for many years. Indeed, they can be helpful for all of us at some point. Serving in China is hard work, with highs and lows and everything in between; however, there’s wisdom in cultivating a healthy life and looking for the light in what seems like darkness, and I hope my student takes her own advice to heart.

So, what really makes a successful Peace Corps service? Is it unlocking that elusive “integration” process we heard so much about during Pre-Service Training? Is it increasing the knowledge and English skills of students? Dutifully fulfilling all three Peace Corps goals? Making meaningful connections at site and among fellow volunteers? Preparing for a future career? Whatever the benchmark—personal and from Peace Corps—one’s service involves some mixture of time, energy, hard work, self-care, social support, and more.

This month I finished the semester and surpassed one year in China. When classes start again next term, I will have new students, and one of them will probably call me Rose. I’m ready for it, as well as the mishaps and lesson fails, the little successes and fun moments. Meanwhile, I have watering and pruning to do in my daily life.

I’m not sure how successful I will be with the roses through the remaining Summer and Winter to come, but I will continue to care for them, as I will continue to commit myself to my service (I’m likely to be more successful at that).

Looking ahead, as part of the 22nd group to serve in China, I have one more year left as a Peace Corps Volunteer; for the new 23s, they are just beginning their training. To everyone else, you also have opportunity to serve in your own context.

How will you cultivate your service?

May in Pictures

This post is a little late into June, but there are a few experiences worth detailing about events in May:

The month of May brought the Dragon Boat festival in China. Unfortunately, there was no dragon boat race in my city, but I did eat the traditional Zongzi (粽子) a glutinous rice dumpling steamed in bamboo leaves.

Then, there’s a couple photos of what it’s like eating out in China–BBQ outside on a hotplate surrounded by crowds of people. The hot plate is heated by white-hot coals placed underneath, which waiters bring out on tongs through the crowd.

I was asked to be one of the judges for a speech competition with the theme “The definition of happiness.” I’m proud to report that one of my students won the competition.

Finally, I don’t run as often as I used to, but one morning when I ventured out, I got caught in a rainstorm. People around me stared; I imagine their inner thoughts about what the heck that foreigner is doing. I shrugged my shoulders, as I spent a lot of time in Seattle’s rainy climate, the rain-soaked run was welcome.

 

Hiking Up the Mountain

Last month I went with a group of students to a nearby mountain. Mianyang is in a basin, but there are many mountains in the Sichuan province. The students arranged for early transportation for the hour and a half ride to Jiuhuang Mountain (九皇山). No one had told me the scale of this mountain before I arrived. I came prepared for a hike, but not quite for this. As is common here, the mountain itself has been made accessible to non-expert climbers with kilometers of stone stairs, much of it leading straight up the mountain. For those who aren’t keen on stair climbing, there are a series of cable cars leading the way, although it is quite expensive.

About halfway up, there is a suspension bridge (called Lovers bridge) spanning across a wide gap as well as stairs that go alongside the sheer rock face. It was cloudy, and even rainy, which made for some tricky climbing. I imagine the panorama would be even more spectacular had it not been so cloudy.

This mountain also features a cave with spectacular stalactites and stalagmites lit up in a rainbow of colors.

All in all, it was an amazing day that left me exhausted.

April in Pictures

April brought more nice weather and many more activities. At the beginning of the month, the new bike sharing service that is spreading through China made its debut on the campus. Each bike features a lock and a QR code.  The bikes can be rented by the hour or paying a monthly fee, and when one is done using it, the bike can be left anywhere–and I do mean anywhere, even if it is some random place in the middle of the sidewalk or on the side of a busy street.

I had bag of chocolate chips from the US and used them to bake some wonderful cookies, and at the same time made banana oat muffins and lemon bars. I brought them all in for students to taste while I explained the process of how to bake cookies. Sweet homemade treats go over well here, and I’m glad to continue sharing with them about the goodies we make in America.

The nice spring weather has meant more activities outside, such as my continued participation in ultimate frisbee with a group for another college and exploring the city on my bike. There is a nice park downtown to enjoy, however in China, having a designated bike trail doesn’t necessarily mean I have that to myself. Sometimes the electric motorbikes ride in the same path. To keep the e-bikes out, apparently someone decided it would be a good idea to block the path, which also blocks the path for bicycles. I gave up and rode along the busy road for awhile because I was tired of dismounting my bike every 200 meters.

A group of international students from various countries visitied the campus and there were several big events. No one told myself or the other foreign teachers living here about this, except for one of my students who was gonig to be absent as she had volunteer duties all day. It turned out that 14 other students in her class also were volunteering for this event. I found out when the bell rang and only half of my students were present. Surprise! That’s life here.

Finally, I was asked to give a presentation about education in the USA to several other teachers from the English department. This event will soon have its own post, as it involved some collaboarative work between myself and two elementary level educators I know in the US. Stay tuned for that story.

 

Sports Meet

Not unlike other colleges throughout China, my college held a Sports Meet this past month. Colleges and Universities here do not have organized team sports to the degree which the United States does. In fact, this 2-day event reminded me how deeply embedded sports is into my own culture from a very early age all the way through adulthood. This meet, akin to a school track and field day, was a competition within the school rather than against other schools.

I would have loved to have participated in some actual sports, but the teachers here, at least at my college, did events such as tug-of-war. We all marched into the track, and then the teachers left for the basketball courts for their events. This was, however, at the same time as the students continued with the opening ceremony. So I was presented with a dilemma: Stand around and watch teachers compete in 3-legged races and maybe be involved in a tug-of-war, or watch the students perform in their opening ceremony.

I chose to watch the students, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Several departments gave performances, and the Foreign Language Department was one of them. Many of my freshmen students donned chearleader-like outfits bearing their mid-drift and danced around to a pop song waving pom-poms. More of my freshmen students participated in a coordinated calisthenics drill on the field together with students from other departments. There were several more performances, including Kung Fu.

Just being on the track with a crowd took me back to my days in high school running in track and cross country. My students were flabbergasted that I competed in 400, 800, and 1600 meters, as well as 5km races. That just doesn’t happen here. High school students in China are hyper-focused on studying and preparing for the college entrance examination, that they don’t have time for such regular sports, not to mention that females aren’t presented with the same opportunities as males in sporting.

The meet lasted two days, but I only attended the first day. I am hoping to coordinate some of my students together to learn about sports, but that hasn’t happened yet.

This opening ceremony took place on a Thursday, so all classes were cancelled for this event. As is typical here, they will be made up at the end of the semester, although we won’t know exactly which day until some day closer to the end of the semester.

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

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.