Witness to Creation

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

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.

What Gives Me Life

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.

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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.

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Thanksgiving

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.

Dubbing Competition

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.

 

October in Pictures

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.

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 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?