Traveling to Xi’an and Huashan

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

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.

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.

Indonesia: Going Home

When I finally set foot on Indonesian soil again this past August, after nearly three years, I knew I was home again. This post describes my short 10 days in Indonesia during the latter part of August, returning to the North Sumatran province.

My first destination was Bukit Lawang, a mountain village next to the Gunung Leuser National park. Here one can find the Orangutan, or in the Indonesian language Orang Hutan which literally means Person (orang) Forest (hutan). I hired a guide, as one must do in the park, and set off on a day-long hike through the jungle. Though it was not far in distance, I saw Orang Hutan and other wildlife and enjoyed the nature around me.

I also spent time in Pematang Siantar and Balige, the two towns in North Sumatra where I taught English from 2012-2014, and spent a few days relaxing at Lake Toba, the world’s largest volcanic lake.

My time was short, but I filled it with many things. I saw old friends and made new friends; I ate my share of the amazing Indonesian and ethnic Batak food I have missed so much; I visited former students, and even popped into visit the English course of one of my former students; and I once again dipped my feet in the waters of Lake Toba.

It was like another homecoming.

I used to balk when people asked me about my favorite place I’ve traveled. There are so many amazing places that I didn’t know how to choose one. I have, however, since decided it has to be Indonesia.

My heart still lingers there.

Lake Toba is the site of a supervolcano, and was formed some 70,000 years ago after a  eruption so massive, it caused a volcanic winter.

I will always find peace there, and I’m glad I had some time there this past summer.

Taipei, Idul Fitri, and the Indonesian Migrant Community

I was lost in a sea of people. It wasn’t an unusual occurrence after one year in China and two past years in Indonesia–but this time was different. This time my physical body was in Taipei Main Station–a sprawling transportation hub connected by passageways to an underground mall–but my eyes tricked me into thinking I was back in Indonesia.

Selamat Hari Raya Idul Fitri (Eid al-fitr). Sunday June 25th, 2017 marked the end of the holy month of Ramadan for Muslims across the world. Indonesia, the world’s 4th most populous nation, also has the world’s largest population of Muslims, and I just happened to be in the midst of the Indonesian community in Taiwan on this great holiday.

Walking through the station and shopping area, I felt as if I was back in Indonesia. Indonesian women in their beautifully colored and stylish hijabs passed me by the hundreds. I heard Indonesian spoken in public for the first time in nearly three years since I left the country. I even ate Indonesian food that burned my mouth the only way Indonesian cuisine can. In fact, thousands of Indonesians–men and women–gathered at the Taipei Main Station that day eating, shopping, and sitting on the floor for lack of other places.

I sat among them and listened to their stories. A woman shared with me her own story and poetry she wrote.

My reason for traveling to Taipei during my semester break was to visit a former Indonesian student of mine. After university in Indonesia, she further studied in Taipei. It was great to see how she has matured in the past few years. She is not Muslim, nevertheless sees it as important to be with her fellow Indonesians, connecting to them and sharing in this important holiday. The fact that I visited during Idul Fitri was a coincidence, but it only felt natural to take part in festivities.

I was told there are more than 250,000 Indonesian migrants in Taiwan. On Idul Fitri I saw so many women; they come usually as domestic workers, taking care of elderly and children, leaving their own families behind. The men work in Taiwan, too, in factories and as fishermen.

The Indonesians I met were as welcoming and friendly as I remember from my time there. I had my fill of food and fellowship. Unfortunately, it is not always good for the migrants, and they work very hard to have a better life for themselves and their families, sometimes with little reward. I am, however, grateful for the new friends I met and the stories I heard.

The rest of my short time in Taipei was filled with a lot of good food and experiencing various sights around Taipei. I hope someday I can return.


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.