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.

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.

April in Pictures

Peace Corps

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

culture, Peace Corps

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

Peace Corps, story, teaching

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.


 

 

February and March in Pictures

Peace Corps

The second half of March was more pleasant–the rains returned after a long winter absence which fostered new green growth and flowers. I had some time to get out and ride my bike a few times to enjoy the springtime. At school, the semester continued on. We foreign teachers introduced our English Corner students to the game of Monopoly, which went over really well. One student, who at first didn’t know if she would enjoy the game, said, “Wow, I like it!” after immediately receiving rent after buying a property. There was time to enjoy dinner out with students, as well as inviting students to my apartment to cook some spare ribs. I’m not yet proficient in cooking Sichuan food, but I expanded my baking repertoire by trying out some banana oat mini muffins.

Also pictured here are photos of the Anshun Bridge from a brief visit to Chengdu from February.


December in Pictures

Peace Corps

December, yes, that’s right. It’s time to catch up after the semester break and traveling around (posts about that coming soon). It is now February 2017 and the spring semester has begun. Let’s first go back for a quick summary of the end of 2016.

In December I had the opportunity to go to a temple here in Mianyang with a group of students. It’s called the Holy Water temple, a buddhist temple adorned with many colorful statues. During the month I also had several opportunities to eat out with students, and of course we had our final exams. Mianyang is often covered by gray hazy days, clouds, and generally lacks sunlight in the winter. I would argue it feels like there is less light than Seattle in the winter. There was one morning, however, where I actually saw blue sky (see photos below for side-by-side comparison).

 


Morning in Mianyang

Peace Corps

A soft rain fell  on Monday morning. From my balcony I sipped coffee and stared at the gray sky, rejoicing in the moment. Damp earth below, slight breeze through the screen, a view of my city. A long list of tasks awaited my attention, but for that moment, I could be present.

Today is Friday, the morning sky is obscured by low-hanging haze, a mixture of clouds and other particles drifting in the air. Even though the sky remains gray, natural light fills my apartment, and for that I’m grateful.

It was only 8 days ago I packed up and said goodbye to my new friends, goodbye to Chengdu and hello to this new life in Mianyang. I’ve come so far in the past 10 weeks–I completed my pre-service training, took an oath, and now am an official Peace Corps Volunteer. Here I am, another life abroad, another round of service, this time in China.

This week I worked hard  cleaning and preparing checking off tasks on my list, and exploring this city that is now my home. Mianyang is an hour north of Chengdu by high-speed rail and is Sichuan’s 2nd largest city. With a population over 4 million Mianyang is known as a electronics and science city.

I toured the campus at Mianyang Teachers College 绵阳师范学院  (Miányáng shīfàn xuéyuàn) with a few students and caught the tail end of a college entrepreneur competition, and the closing ceremony that included cultural show and awards. Tomorrow my work begins in a more official capacity, as I will attend a staff meeting and introduce myself to faculty.

There is a favorite phrase here in Peace Corps China, and other locations as well I imagine: It Depends. So many questions arise during pre-service training that are met with “it depends” said with both seriousness and irony. What will I teach? What will my school expect of me? Where will I be placed? What will the classrooms be like? How many students will I have? And so on.

Here I am, already a week into life at my site and there are still questions unanswered. Classes at Mianyang Teacher’s College start next week, although some of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) have already taught their first lessons and some will not teach a class until October. I do not have my teaching schedule yet, while some others have known for a few weeks. I have a nice apartment in a high rise building with a lovely balcony view, but some of my fellow PCVs have less amenities.

What’s it like here? … It depends.

And because of that, I will continue to find joy in the mornings and be present to this new life. It won’t be easy, nor always constant, but I’m ready for the journey.

DSC_0765

Enjoying the morning from my balcony.