China, Germany, The China Chapter, travel

Geh nach Westen, junger Mann: Go West, Young Man (Haven’t you been told? California’s full of whiskey, women, and gold…)

Every morning in the winter, I walk to school under the glow of the tungsten streetlights, watching my breath billow in front of me in small puffs of steam. My scarf is tight around my neck and my jacket, with its ripped pockets and fraying liner, never quite warm enough. In Chengdu, I always feel cold in the winter.

Every day at school, I defrost in my office or the classrooms, but move briskly through the halls or between the primary and secondary building. The air has too much bite to it, too much moisture, and the cold settles around my shoulders and feet, sinking somewhere beneath my skin to the very bones within.

Back in Virginia, in the middle of the winter, I used to crank the heat in my house up to a comfortable 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit (15-18 degrees Celsius) and wrap the back door with plastic to keep out the chill. I would come home every day and kick off my shoes as I walked through the door. In socks, jeans, and a tee-shirt, I would lounge around, grading papers, watching television sprawled out on the couch, or reading in my bedroom.

In Chengdu, I remain fully bundled in my apartment, removing my shoes at the door, keeping my feet bare only long enough to replace the shoes with slippers. The heat on my living room AC unit is set to 25-30 degrees Celsius (77-86 degrees Fahrenheit). The apartment will never get that warm. The hot air blows noisily, heating the sitting area before dissipating, disappearing through windows and uninsulated walls. To sleep, I wrap myself in a heavy comforter, snuggling close to a water bottle filled with boiling heat. In the mornings, I loathe pulling back the comforter, forcing myself up and into the eternal chill.

It’s official though, I will not be here next year. After nearly four years of the same routine, same apartment, same school, the thought is both thrilling and sad. I knew, when I moved away from Virginia 4 years ago, that, with family there, I would always have a reason to visit Fredericksburg, to watch from afar as expanded and aged.  Chengdu, however home it feels to me now, does not have the same hold. I have friends—good friends, great friends—here, but many will move away to new jobs and new schools in years to come. Yes, some will remain here, but factoring together plane tickets and visa prices, it’s quite possible that I will never be here for more than a few days after I move away.

Always striving to be diplomatic, I have thought about what I will and won’t miss about Chengdu, the city, itself. Thus, this excludes the phenomenal people I have met here.

What I Will Miss:

1) Food. Sichuan food is amazing; hot, spicy, and flavorful. I detest so-called “Chinese” food in the states now with its cloying sweetness and sugar-overload. From the street vendors to the upscale hotpot restaurants, from dim sum to shao kao, China has some of the best (and least expensive) food I have ever tried.

2) Culture. When you go to the touristy cities of China—Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen—I feel you miss a lot of “real” China. These places feel overly westernized. While Chengdu may be slouching in that direction, for now, it remains steeped in tea houses, bamboo-laden parks, and Face Change artists.

3) Togetherness. I know I have written about this before. In the states, we spend so much time indoors, watching television or talking only to those we already know. In China, so much life is lived outside. People exercise on street corners every morning, dance in public squares every night, eat chuan-chuan at small folding card tables, and get in screaming matches over card games, causing crowds three to four people deep to gather around in curiosity. Any time I travel to the west, I find myself wondering where everyone is and why they don’t spend more time with others.

4) Nightlife. Chengdu is known as a relaxing city and, with traffic, this may be debatable. But there is no shortage of things to do here. If you want to watch a movie, there are literally hundreds of theatres to choose from. Ice skating? Got you covered. Ski slopes? Fake ones here too. Want to go dancing? Okay, just pick from the endless stream of bars and nightclubs that have popped up all over the city. Whatever your cup of tea (haha, puny), Chengdu has you covered.

5) Community. Here, specifically, I am talking about the expat community. While this includes other Asians as well, I’m mostly referring to the western community. There are 20,000ish (rough, rough data) foreigners here in a city of well over 15,000,000 people. That’s a very small percentage. And you end up seeing the same foreigners over and over again, especially if you hit up expat restaurants. I’ve met many men and women just because we keep running in to each other grocery shopping or at international school events. Chengdu is large enough to feel quite anonymous, but the expat community is close enough to feel intimate.

I’ll miss a lot more than this, like the cheapness of China and the ease of transportation, but these are the Big Five, as I will call them.

So, where am I moving to? Germany. And considering I never was really drawn to western Europe, I find it crazy and exciting that this is where I’m heading. To make myself feel better about leaving…I compiled a list of things I will not miss about Chengdu:

What I Will Not Miss:

1) Pollution. I am looking forward to being able to walk outside in the winter without checking to see if I need to wear a mask.

2) Traffic. In a city of (last I heard) nearly 17 million people, traffic is—of course—a problem. But common-sense whilst driving also doesn’t seem to exist here. Cars gallop over sidewalks, barrel the wrong way down one-way streets, and blast their horn at red lights as though that’ll make the light change or the traffic move.

3) Inescapable Temperature. Apartments here are basically giant chill boxes. While this is helpful in the summer, in the winter you. can. not. get. warm. There’s no true indoor heating and the standup air conditioning units make the air so dry that hands and lips constantly cracked. Centralized heating will be a dream come true.

4) Construction. This city has grown so much since I’ve moved here. We’ve gone from two metro lines to six (with 15 more on the way). We’ve seen malls and apartments and overpasses spring up from nothingness to fully operational almost overnight. But with that constant climb comes massive inconvenience—rerouted bus lined, closed sidewalks and streets, and more traffic elsewhere.

5) Spitting. This pet peeve is getting a lot better, not nearly as prevalent now as it was, but the expectorating that the older generation does here—loogies smacking against the ground on heavily polluted days—is still disgusting. I will never enjoy the sound of someone summoning up phlegm and will not miss it in the least.

There will be more forthcoming, but for now, I’m in China, trying to make the rest of this school year a great one and preparing to move west.

China, holidays, teaching, The China Chapter, travel

离开纬度 – Leaving Latitudes

In Virginia, summer fades to autumn, the suns sinks in the sky earlier and earlier each day, and one morning you feel a slight winter chill telling you to break out your coat within the next few days.  At least that’s the Virginia I remember, before this polar winter weather came into our lives.  Chengdu, at least this year, is different.  The damp heat hung in the air until mid-October.  Comfortable temperatures followed until late November when the thermometer’s mercury plummeted and the pollution levels sky-rocketed.  Only now are some of the trees’ leaves turning vividly yellow.  We’ve had a couple days (like today) where kids were not allowed outside for recess because of the AQI (Air Quality Index).  Between the cold, the damp, and the pollution, I can’t tell what is causing my cough.  But, looking at the bright side of life (oh, so bright right now), it really doesn’t matter.  Because on Friday, after a half day of teaching (actually writing letters to Santa and drinking hot cocoa), I get to flit away to Bali for 3 weeks with my friends Adam, Jay, and Yang.  The sand, the sun, the inexpensive airfare?  It’s all oh so close!

But what’s been going on here?

The last Thursday in November, we celebrated American Thanksgiving.  Not really much to write about; there was good food, great company, and humorous conversation.  There were even fake flames on the television, which brought back memories of a tape my grandparents used to own that showed…well, pretty much the same thing.  But on a large screen TV, it just made the living room (where we ate) look festive and warm.  I guess the Christmas tree did that too…  So we ate, we drank, we were thankful for health, friendships, and family.  Afterwards, I even convinced Adam to sit through Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog which, in my oh-so-humble opinion, is all sorts of awesome and definitely a film I am thankful for!

Thanksgiving 2014
Kerensa and Me, toasting Thanksgiving

Last week was pretty much chock-full of school work, meaning I stayed late way too often.  We had narratives due on Friday.  This means we had to write a paragraph about how each child was doing in each subject we taught.  So I had 81 “blurbs” to write about student strengths and weaknesses in every subject (except, blessedly, science).  I don’t know yet if it’s a good or bad thing that our school never closes.  We have security guards around the clock, but if you wanna come in and lesson plan at 3am, so be it.  For the record, I have yet to be that crazy.

On Wednesday, we had a field trip to the Sichuan Science Museum for Kids.  The 7-year-olds had a lot of fun running around.  Although I was not as impressed as I was by kid museums in the states, we were pretty much the only people there which made the kids a lot easier to watch.  On Friday, we also spent a good part of the day out of school.  We drove over to the Women and Children’s Cultural Center to have a rehearsal for the Primary School Christmas performance that night.  The 7-year-olds sang and played bells and xylophones.  They were also the first group to perform and were amazingly well behaved (not that we have bad kids, but still, this program started at 7pm after a long rehearsal day) for the rest of the performance.  Afterwards, we gathered all the 7s up and tried to take a group shot, but with so many parents snapping away, it was hard to know where to look!

Most of the 7-year-olds after the Concert
Most of the 7-year-olds after the concert

On Saturday night, we had a staff Christmas party at a local restaurant.  The chef at the restaurant has kids who go to our school, so we were treated very kindly.  Below are pictures that my friend Lucy (always the self-designated awesome photographer at QSI events) snapped.  After the party here, we headed to KTV (Karaoke).  It was my first time going, so I was pretty excited, even though the time spent there was short.  Basically, you get a little room with a couch and coffee (tea?) tables.  Wait staff brings in any food you order while you look through a computer for songs.  Push a couple of buttons (always fun for us non-Chinese reading folk…) and hopefully up pops a music video that you recognize on the television in the front of the room.  We had a few wireless mics and shamelessly belted out whatever English songs we could find like…Scrubs by TLC.  I did get people to play Xiao Ping Guo, which is pretty much the only Chinese song I know…
52 3 4

That’s been day to day life.  Beyond that, many coworkers are hopping on the baby bandwagon (happiness) and many coworkers are going to be transferring to other schools next year (sadness).  My buddy Adam’s actually not coming back to Chengdu after Bali, but moving to another city, which sucks and pretty much means my American Horror Story days are over…

Well I just got my first package from Virginia, so I’m going to head home and open it!  Thanks Mom!  Mwah!

creative writing, poetry

Flurry of Fury: In *Remembrance* of Snow

I remember the first day I saw you.
You were brilliant
and my breath caught in my throat.
You came to symbolize
cuddling in piles of blankets
and gazing
in a dream-like state
at the quiet
outside world.
Oh, how I adored you!
The way you moved,
the way you danced,
the way you clung stubbornly to the earth,
and the whisper-thin tread of your arrival to my life.
the normal apron strings of the day…
for you, I would forgo them all.
Oh how I love you so.

But the world shifted.
Ignored work simply piled up.
You began to annoy me.
I never thought I’d say that.
Not to you…
never to you.
But your constant presence brought turmoil
and afternoons spent cuddling in blankets
were also nights filled with thought
and mornings that stretched on in boredom.
I gave up so much for you:
that concert
that trip
that peace of mind.
And I resented you so much for it.

While I have made peace with the past,
you still impose upon me,
affecting my present
and future.
I need you out
You are the damned spot in my life
that cannot be scrubbed clean.
Every time I hear of your approach,
I grow angry
I want to remember you
how you were
when I loved you.
Not like this.
Not with me hating,
hating you
for your inevitable
of my existence.
I plea, poetically,
for you to leave,
to abscond from my world
at least long enough
for me to move on,
to set things right within myself
so that when I see you in years to come,
I can feel my breath catch in my throat
from your brilliance,
you beauty.