Friday, December 5, 2008

A "Magnetic Field"

Here are some lyrics I'm interested in right now, from the song "I Don't Want to Get Over You," by Magnetic Fields
(Thanks to Darius for the referral.)

I don't want to get over you.
I guess I could take a sleeping pill and sleep at will
And not have to go through what I go through.
I guess I should take Prozac, right,
And just smile all night at somebody new,
Somebody not too bright but sweet
And kind who would try to get you off my mind.
I could leave this agony behind which is just what I'd do if I wanted to,
But I don't want to get over you cause
I don't want to get over love.
I could listen to my therapist, pretend you don't exist
And not have to dream of what I dream of;

I could listen to all my friends and go out again and pretend it's enough,
Or I could make a career of being blue
I could dress in black and read Camus,
Smoke clove cigarettes and drink vermouth like I was 17 that would be a scream
But I don't want to get over you.


Got a few done on Tuesday at The Natural Choice. It's my first time getting "official" braids (by that I mean done by a professional, not the chick down the hall who knows nothing about ethnic hair or a half-hearted attempt by the chick from gospel choir).

Sicily used a bit of gel, soothed my scalp with some olive oil (not extra virgin, mind you), and quickly spun 13 little braids in a band around my hairline. They are 2-3 inches deep, about how long my new growth is. The hair around my hairline is a different texture than the rest, more fragile and fluffy. And even along my hairline the hairs on the side are a bit different than those on top, which is why the braids are spaced out more on the sides (the hair is finer and less dense). I swear, there's about 57 different hair textures total on my head.

It feels good on my little baby hairs. They still get that itchy feeling as they continue to grow out. The braids pull them out of the intense curliness, if just for a few weeks. I tell ya what, this transition to natural is slow-going! It's been over a year now, and I don't think I've got more than 3 inches or so of new growth that's been brave enough to reveal itself. Come on out and prove yourself, my friends. I must confess that I miss the length I could get with a little texturizer, but I'm givin' this all-natural thing a shot.

At first the braids felt too tight. So much so that when I raised my eyebrows I was aware that my entire mass of hair was moving too. But after about a day or so they calmed a bit. I can't not sleep on my sides, so I was worried they'd get fuzzy real quick, but they're stickin' around just fine. Washing might be a challenge, but we'll see. Kinda cute, huh? I might have to start getting these done more often, on those days when I think I just can't take it anymore. I need to show my old boss at CPK, who one day basically told me that I wasn't "black enough" for braids.

Adam's and Eve's Hair

What kind of hair did Adam and Eve have?  
Most likely peppercorn hair, the oldest documented hair in the world. Aboriginal peoples in Africa (the birthplace of mankind) have this hair, and there are isolated tribes today whose members maintain this short "pepper-like" style, such as the Khoisan of South Africa and the Adamanese people. The hair is short--it never grows more than a few inches--and is gathered in tiny clusters all over the head. Quite cute, really. And perfect for sub-tropical living. Why, you ask? Curly hair gives what has been described as a "radiator effect," an adaptation to very hot, equatorial climates. It pulls heat and sweat away from the head in a spongelike way, helping maintain adequate body temperature under that blaring sun. It's naturally dry, too, so it drinks up the moisture. I used to notice this about my own hair--it would soak up water likety-split, and dry time after a shower was 5 minutes flat. 

The evolutionary trait of straight hair came later, as people migrated north and adapted to colder climates. They needed more hair to cover their heads and keep the heat in. 

This is why I say Adam and Eve were black, period. And on their heads were kinky little clusters that kept them from sweating too much as they pranced around their jungle paradise. 

Friday, November 14, 2008

Uncovered Secrets of The Girls Who Went Away

In the decades before Roe v. Wade, there was a wave of "disappearances" in high schools across the country. Girls would suddenly leave school and tell everyone they were "visiting an aunt" or "studying abroad," when really they were pregnant and secretly shuttled off to unwed mothers' homes, where they were to have babies and immediately give them up for adoption. Why was this happening, you might ask? You've heard about that era--the fear of Communism, the push for the nuclear family, for Cleaver-family perfection. Sex education was virtually non-existent, and people relied on rumors to guide them through the birds and the bees. Didn't help much in the backseat of the car while being pressured by your boyfriend. Consequently, many young girls got pregnant. Often their parents pressured them into going to the unwed mother's homes the minute they started showing, essentially forcing them to give up the child for adoption, no questions asked. For obvious reasons, that relinquishment followed the women long after they were supposed to "forget," and many held onto the secret for the rest of their lives, never telling future husbands or anyone else.

Ann Fessler, artist and adoptee of the same era, came into contact with some birth mothers who began to tell her their stories. She realized this was a story--a hidden history--that the nation needed to hear, and she began researching. Hundreds of women who came forward, ready to describe what happened to them, to dispel the myths society had placed on them as dirty, licentious teens, and to hopefully make contact with their relinquished children (more than half of the women who participated have successfully found their lost children).

First came the book, The Girls Who Went Away (pictured above), and soon Fessler will release a film based on the book. She has done amazing work archiving these women's voices, making sure this history doesn't stay hidden. She visited Pitt last month to show her film-in-progress and meet with our Adoption Culture class. I was fortunate enough to get a chance to meet her and sit down for an interview, which is published in the latest issue of Hot Metal Bridge

For more about the phenomenon of Girls Who Went Away, click here.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Shine On

There is a song I heard the other day, and the sound of it pierced me simultaneously with ache and joy, a visceral heart-response that at this point could only be related to Brandon. I had a flash of memory of a spring weekend when I was running down High Street in Columbus, the smell of drying dew and newborn flowers in the air. I don’t know why that song conjured this scene in my head. Perhaps Brandon had shown me a song like this that spring? Maybe I was listening to one of the songs he’d given me on my iPod and feeling especially connected to him at that moment while running? The sound of it was just like something he would have given me. Upbeat, Indy, lighthearted (but not empty) lyrics, emotionally charged more through the instruments than the voice.

The DJ announced the song is “Shine On” by the Kooks. He said it’s new, and I wonder if B’s heard it, if it’s been uploaded to his iPod for months already. I’ve grown a special affection for his type of music, and sometimes I hear a song and recognize that he would love it right away. I can see him doing his silly little dance, wagging his finger to the beat and shaking his head, a white Ray Charles showing you what it’s all ‘bout.

I like the song, though right now it makes me sad. In a few weeks I might try to download it onto my computer. Let it be just what it is—a song—and nothing more.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Amen, At Last

It is over. At last.

The most drawn-out, tense election in history, during the most stressful economic times America has ever known. The campaigning, the media attacks, the SNL skits, the Bristol Palin pregnancy jokes, the hate ads, the slander. Over.

We now have a man with true integrity headed to the White House. A man who can speak intelligently, who seeks to build bridges and bring change. A man who listens. Back when no one knew his name he listened to poverty-stricken residents of South Chicago, he listened to a gathering of newly unemployed factory workers in Galesburg, Illinois (my hometown).

We now have a man who represents the look of America headed to the White House--not a rich, privileged white male who has never known poverty or the sting of racism or a language other than English. Obama is mixed, white and black, as America is mixed. He does not have divided allegiance to either race, as America does. I hope his presence at the top can start to change the thinking around here.

He's got quite the task ahead of him ("get us out of this war!" "fix the economy!" "fix healthcare!" "make college affordable!" "fix NCLB!"), but I agree with my fellow voters that there's no one better for the task. It's time to start fixing.

My prayer to see this man rise to the top has been answered. At last. Obama, at last.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sleepy Writing

A peculiar thing happens when I sit down to write sometimes. It's almost exclusive to when I write something related to my manuscript. I'll read through the section I've written most recently to get back into that place of the story, and after about 20 minutes my head begins drooping downward, threatening to hit the computer on its way to Nap Time. This happens regardless of whether or not I'm fully rested.

It's a phenomenon that puzzles me to no end, and truthfully it's quite inconvenient. This semester I have to work hard to even find the time to write my own stuff, and a half-hour snooze is not part of the schedule. What is the source of this acute fatigue? Does it happen because I feel overwhelmed to write a 200-pg story about my life that no one will likely care about anyway? Is it some sort of narcolepsy spurred by stress? Is it caused by the emotional investment it takes to find the truth of a story and write it in an original way? Or, worst yet, do I bore myself?

I asked my roommate and fellow CNF student Adri (you may know her from whether she's experienced this. Sure, she said. Sometimes she'll nap when writing, and those naps are actually productive because they're full of dreams about her story. Hmmm. I think I usually dream too, though I haven't later noticed what the dreams were about or whether they influenced my writing. But at least someone else could relate, which partially alleviated the fear that I've just picked up another freakish habit.

A few months ago, I was even more relieved when reading an interview with JeAnne Marie Laskas (a prolific writer who is also one of my favorite professors) on, in which the interviewer asked how she knows where to begin writing after spending weeks gathering information for her immersion journalism pieces. JML replied something like, "That's when I take lots of naps." Ahhh. An award-winning, experienced writer confesses to this sleepy-writer syndrome--maybe it's actually a good thing!

With confirmation from other writers, I'm starting to think it truly has something to do with that spiritual place one goes when creating art. Perhaps it's the brain's transition from left-brain thinking to right-brain thinking. I like this option best.

Friday, September 5, 2008

"Well, of course Obama will get the black vote, but could Palin get the women?""

Do they think we all base our votes on the constructs of gender, religion, and race that society puts on us? Could Obama really get all the black votes, just because he is black? Not because he is an intelligent and competent patriot? Could we admit that perhaps those people who have dark skin use their minds, they read and research, they vote based on a myriad of values and experiences they’ve had individually? Preposterous.

"The names at the top of the ballot on Nov. 4 will be McCain and Obama, but the juicier battle this fall for an important group of swing voters — white working women with children — may be fought between the other two stars of the Republican and Democratic conventions, Sarah Palin and Hillary Rodham Clinton.", 9-5-08

Let us reduce people to skin color, gender, religion, because people are not more than the sum of their parts, and those parts are solely what motivates them.

Sometimes I hate the media.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Obama's VP

I've been a fan of Obama from the beginning. From his humble beginnings in my home state of Illinois. I find that he is honest and true to his word. He once came to a factory nearby my hometown when it was closing. We're talking rural Illinois here, WAY far from Chicago and the "politically important" people. And he listened. This was especially touching because Illinoisians living outside of Chicago often feel ignored. Dad and Mom lived in the state capitol, Springfield, for a few years after I moved away. Dad complained that our governor (whose name no one can pronounce) did not stay in the city for the night as he was supposed to on certain meeting days, but flew his private jet back to Chicago immediately at voters' expense.
Obama wants to do things differently, and he preaches about change, which our country most desperately needs. He does not support this expensive, disgusting war. He does not believe that global warming is a conspiracy theory or propaganda against America's capitalist economy. Thank God.

I was hoping Obama would choose Bill Richardson. But I also knew that two minorities running together would be too much for many Americans to accept. Sad.

Biden, I'm not sure about. I don't know him like I know Obama. By appearances, he seems to be what some angrily say is "old washington." Sure, he's older, and he's been around for 30-some years. But "lack of experience" was a weakness for Obama in the primaries. He's white. No one will accuse him of being Muslim. He hasn't committed adultery (that we know of). He's from Pennsylvania, a swing state.

I think Biden seems to be a smart choice, and I trust Obama's faith in him. Now let's get them elected so we can finally have faith in our country again.

Back Home in Pittsburgh

That's right. I said "home." It really is starting to feel that way.
After a week of jet lag in Columbus, hanging out with Brandon, checking in with work, I moved to my new apartment in Pittsburgh and was once again thrown into the flurry of a new school year. Preparing to teach Freshman Comp (the materials for which I did not receive over the summer by some administrative mistake), unpacking and setting up the new place, buying books for the classes I'm taking, preparing for the upcoming retreat, preparing to start the Fuel and Fuddle reading series, trying to find a moment to write. I almost cracked on Tuesday. Literally. I then decided that with the extra load of classes and other things going on this semester I simply do not have time to worry about the following fairly-usual concerns:

Reading every possible book that could in some way be related to my manuscript
Money spent on food
Money spent on entertainment
Responding to e-mails immediately
Responding to phone calls immediately
Stressing about doing the absolute best in my classes--I'll just have to do what I can
Stressing about writing the absolute best manuscript by April
Working out 3 times/week--it will probably end up being once or twice
Thinking about everything that's on my plate right now (just ignore it, or as Brandon says, "Don't look down.")

So far this has helped me not over-stress the past week. Stress is such a natural part of how I deal with things that I feel a little fake, like something is missing. But it's also kind of nice. Perhaps this can be a small improvement that will outlast the semester.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Home from China...A Few Things I Will Miss and Several I will Not

It's good to be home. I'm so glad we were able to go to Beijing, but I became infected with some sort of stomach virus or parasite soon after we arrived and suffered silently (I'm sure Brandon would say otherwise) until getting home. Which brings me to something I will not miss about China: Let me just say that using the hole-in-the-floor toilets when you have traveler's diarrhea or possibly giardiasis is NOT fun. Extremely uncomfortable. See picture. No wonder the Chinese have such amazing Achilles tendons.

I will miss the 3-RMB breakfast Rachel and I would buy on the way to school. It consisted of purple sticky rice surrounding spinach (possibly), orange-powder vegetable, some other unknowns, and crunchy toast-chip things.

I will miss dan bin--the spicy egg dish Rachel and I would buy for lunch sometimes at the University.

I will not miss cafeteria lunches. Or the fatty pork delicacy.

I will not miss the constant staring.

I will not miss the lack of toilet paper in the bathrooms. Or often the lack of soap. Basically, I dislike everything about bathrooms in China.

I will miss nightly chats on AOL with Brandon. Yeah, yeah, we can call each other or even SEE each other here, but I liked the live writing. Felt like old times (we used to chat online freshman year of college when I had a crush on him...8 years ago).

I will miss Rachel.

I will miss cooking lessons with Huang Biao.

I will miss the everyday adventure of China. I think being constantly challenged by living in a foreign country is refreshing. A great way to reset perspective.

But I will not miss the stress that goes along with that.

I will not miss the language barrier, or hearing the word in Chinese that is equivalent to our "um" in conversation. It sounds very much like a racial slur. THE racial slur. The N* word. Believe it.

I will not miss the lack of diversity.

I will miss riding the metro. Why don't more U.S. cities have those?

I will not miss the scorching heat.

I will miss the kids. Possibly even being the teacher.

The Great Wall

Our goal for our last day in Beijing was this: see the Great Wall. Seems simple, right? Nothing's simple in China!

We checked out of our hotel (this also proved much more difficult than necessary. I love the little shrug that Brandon does when someone is speaking to him in a language he doesn't understand.) Then we took the metro to the northernmost stop, where one of the front-desk people at our hotel had told us to go to catch a cab for the GW. We haul our luggage on the metro, make the transfer, and think we've almost reached our goal. Not so. Cabbies refused, or told us they would charge exorbitant prices and wouldn't drop us at the railway station to catch our train back to Shanghai.

We then went to the English "helpers," and one guy told us we needed to take the metro to the westernmost stop and get a cab from there. His name is Wang Peng. He accompanied us (and carried my bag--I love chivalry!) Then he escorted us out to find a cab and negotiated the price we wanted to pay. This took him a while. At first we were about to jump in a random woman's shoddy-looking car when an actual bonafide cabbie offered to take us. We were ready for the adventure, but felt more comfortable taking the cab. We got in and reached the wall in 40 minutes, ahead of schedule. Things were going to smoothly, so we knew something would happen. We get to the gate and guess what? Tourists were not allowed in. Because the opening ceremonies were later that evening? Who knows. So the cabbie drove on for another 10 KM to take us to another section. We then ran, literally RAN, up the mountain to reach the wall. It was stunning. Huge. Absolutely amazing. We had just enough time to stare in awe for about 50 seconds, take a few pictures, and run back. Time was ticking by this point.

After leaving the Great Wall I felt the negative side of China's disregard for labels/brand ownership/copyright. I was able to get several things for very cheap that shouldn't have been very cheap if they were genuine: Coach purse, two ipod shuffles, Brandon's Prada sunglasses, Gucci sunglasses. I also got a fake memory card, which screwed up about 10% of my pictures. Not cool. I had an awesome shot of B and me near the Great Wall that didn't turn out.

We rushed home, and then discovered that our cabbie wanted us to pay him an EXTRA 200 RMB! For having to drive 10 extra KM, and for some highway tolls. What! Ridiculous. See picture of Wang Peng fighting with him on our behalf: What a great kid. I want to tell someone about how much he helped us.

Still, we ended up having to give the greedy cabbie 100 more than originally agreed upon (which I guess is only 14 bucks, but still) b/c we had to get on the metro to catch our train. This was annoying, and we were flat broke with no money to buy dinner. And because China has not jumped on the credit-card bandwagon (so inconvenient!), we had no way to get food. We didn't want to exchange a bunch of money when we were on our way out anyway. Luckily Brandon found an ATM that miraculously accepted his bank card and we withdrew the 100 RMB that the cabbie had taken from us.

Violence in Beijing

As Brandon and I were waiting for our connecting flight in Minneapolis, squabbling at each other after traveling for 26 hours, we were alerted to the news blaring from the televisions. Two Americans, in-laws of the men's volleyball coach, were stabbed by a Chinese man who subsequently killed himself.

Guess the games won't go off without a hitch. I'm surprised the media seems to have moved past it so quickly, and already it's no longer headlining the news.

The security in Beijing was already so high that it was difficult to be a tourist there. Now it must be even more inhibiting.

Preparation for Olympics

Here are a few things we discovered Beijing was doing in preparation for hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics:

• Holding classes—or showing promotional videos (we aren’t sure which)—on the correct way to stand in line. How to
Queue. Silly, but after a month in Shanghai, I can see that it’s needed.
• Classes or promotional videos on Not Spitting. Still saw plenty of men hawking blobs on the street or sidewalk, but
perhaps it’s better than it was before.
• To reduce traffic, only allowing half the cars to be on the road each day. Every other day cars with odd license plate
numbers can drive, then on the other days the evens can drive. This rule does not apply to cabs.
• Many people had to change their work hours so they wouldn’t interfere with Olympics traffic, or so they could go to the
games and cheer for China. We met a high-school boy on the train to Beijing who said he is required to go to the games,
that everyone in his high school is required to go. What a chore.
• Providing English “helpers” at every metro stop. (more on this later—Brandon and I definitely took advantage of this)
• Removing dog from all menus. This, I think, is silly. So what if they eat dog? They shouldn’t change their ways just
because they know Western people find it disgusting. I'm pretty sure people in India find our meat-eating habits disgusting.
• Of course, all the efforts to reduce pollution/smog. Many factories are closed. (not the one Brandon’s boss is thinking of
working with, luckily) Despite this, we didn't see the sun or blue sky once while we were there. And still there were people wearing surgical masks as a way to deal with it (this was actually taken in Shanghai, but you can find people wearing these all over China.)
• I read an article in National Geographic about how officials were inducing rain and clouds months before the Olympics in
order to control the weather.

They are really trying. I hope the world appreciates their efforts. Thanks, China.

Whose Propaganda?

This post had to wait until I got home, as it surely would have been blocked by that lovely Chinese censoring.

On the sleeper train from Shanghai to Beijing, Rachel, Brandon, and I shared a car with a Chinese man. He was sweet and bubbly professor, and he bought us all dinner and beer. (Love that old-fashioned sense of male chivalry!) He conversed with Rachel in Chinese for the most part, but he talked to all of us some about China in general. Definitely a patriot, as most people in China are I suspect. (Doesn't seem to be a lot of dissent. Plus with all that Olympics/World Expo hope pulsing everywhere, it's a time to be proud of China.)

Then we began to talk about some sensitive issues, which made me nervous, but he cheerily enlightened us with his opinions. He told us it wasn't that surprising to him that Rachel and I had seen a woman with bound feet at Yuan Garden. They haven't died out yet, though the woman was probably very old. In fact, his mother's sister has bound feet. He said that the bound feet was an "attractive/fashionable" look during the Ting and Ming Dynasties. We danced around the reason WHY the look was so "popular." I didn't want to go there.

He agrees with China's one-child policy. It doesn't matter really, he says, because he only wants one child anyway.

But then the light conversation took a turn, though I think it was unnoticeable to him. He said a few things that utterly shocked us. First, he said the events that we have learned occurred at Tiananmen Square (not clear about whether he was referring to the protests in 2001 or in 1989--probably 1989) actually NEVER HAPPENED. He saiyou "Tianamen Square is not what you know." He said that some English actress had been visiting Beijing and upon returning home had decided to spread lies throughout the West. He said that our media is biased and doesn't give us the whole truth. How ironic for him to be saying that, as chances are the news he gets is state-controlled.
Rachel was more than a little disgusted. She said she didn't need to be fed the same-old Communist propaganda and delusions that she'd heard a hundred times. I was floored. It was clear he truly believed what he was telling us. He truly thought that nothing had happened, that the rest of the world had conspired against China.

How common is this kind of brainwashing?


No Melanin, Please

A few days later, I found more evidence to continue the quandary touched upon in my last post. I was absently watching ads on the television in a cab. Absently, that is, until I saw the latest L'Oreal product offering and how it was endorsed. First of all, the sub-brand is called "White Perfect", and the products are "re-lighting creams." Once again, whiteness seems to be a virtue in China, and apparently L'Oreal knows it. The choice of words in the ad offended me, and I thought it would not fly in America, nor would this blatant promotion of White is Better. At least I hope not.

It makes me think of more primitive times in our U.S. history when Blacks would try to bleach their skin, which was happening about the same time hair relaxing became a huge industry. Of course they felt they had to do it. Their existence in this country began in shackles that were directly related to the color of their skin. Their livelihood and their quality of life depended on being as "white" as possible. It's sickening to think about that kind of self-hatred today. But the remnants of that destruction are not gone yet in America. I'm sure in Asia people don't even realize that attitude could be interpreted this way. I saw a total of 7 black people the entire time I was in China. I wonder how much THEY get stared at on the metro.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Whiteness as a Virtue in China

Here sunscreen is not called “sunscreen” but “whitening cream.” The marketing people must have thought, “it will sell better if we remind people it will keep them white, or even mislead them into thinking it will actually lighten their skin.” It’s along the same lines as the full-coverage cape-like shirts and the Darth Vader-esque sun visors that cover the entire face of a woman riding a motorbike. (see picture) And the pretty parasols everyone carries? At first I was impressed. I appreciated this delicate attention to skin protection, and I think they must have much lower rates of skin cancer, but then I began to realize it had to do with whiteness as a virtue. Skin color associations with class—if your skin is dark, you are probably poor and have to work manual labor out in the sun. It’s better to be as “white” as possible and therefore privileged. I know that it’s just ignorance, that it’s not overt racism, that they don’t realize how this might appear to someone who has darker skin himself or comes from a country where there are people with naturally dark skin. But at the same time it makes me cringe a little. Add that to the gaping and staring we get everywhere as objects of exoticism, and I can’t help but value the diversity of home. I’m glad I come from a country where there are many different colors and races and cultures, and it’s not unusual or blog-worthy to see a Chinese person or an African person or a Brazilian person riding the subway.

My Jealousy: Hope in China

I have to confess: I'm a little jealous of China right now. There is so much excitement and optimism here. After visiting the urban planning museum and seeing how much they're changing and architecturally uplifting Shanghai as a city in preparation for the World Expo in 2010, I see bright things in the future for China. It's true that there are propaganda-esque slogans spattered throughout the museum, but it's also true that there is construction at almost every turn, many newly successful businesses, a willingness to be bilingual with Chinese and English, and a changeability that I've not encountered before. The country is only going to continue to modernize, and already its on the cusp of moving from developing to fully developed. And with the Olympics coming up in Beijing and something like 95% of Chinese people believing that China will win the entire games, the hope here is absolutely electric.

It feels quite different than home, where our dollar is plummeting, our president has a historically low approval rating, we're stuck in an unpopular war, the housing and credit markets have crashed, oil prices continue to skyrocket, and global warming is threatening our sanity (or mine, at least). There is a sliver of hope, I think, and for me that's the prospect of Obama taking the presidency this fall. I honestly do not know how I'll live in my country if McCain is elected president. But even if Obama does pull it off, he's got his work cut out for him.

So yeah, I'm happy for the people of China. But I can't help being a little envious too.

Brandon in China, and closings

Brandon's here! It's so great to see him after not seeing him for 45 days. He arrived Thursday night, and we took an airport bus from Pudong International back to our hotel in the northern part of the city. Immediately he got a taste of the insanity of China crowds. They crammed about 55 people too many on the bus, and we were all squished together in the aisles with barely enough room to breathe. Brandon was shoved down the steps toward the door and inhaled an old man's stale breath the entire ride, so I think he would have preferred not to be breathing as well. A guy from Iraq was standing by me. After asking me where I was from, he said, "Ah, yes. There are many American soldiers in Iraq right now." At which point I cringed and said, "I'm sorry." He said it's okay because it's "coming up," whatever that means. He then said that he loves Obama, like everyone else I've met here. Obama truly has international appeal, and I wish that the world had a vote, not just Americans. Our president and our economy affect the world in such a large way, it would only make sense for the world to vote for the next American president. Anyway, this Iraqi guy was a jolly, round-bellied chap who confessed that he didn't like Chinese food and preferred the American fast-food joints to anything else. (Hence the pouch belly.) Turned out he was staying at the same hotel as we were, so we shared a cab back from the football stadium.

On our day off on Friday, we went to Pudong. The best part was going up in the Jin Mao tower. The rest of the area was pretty lame. Plus it was one of those deathly hot days, and we came home exhausted in the middle of the day to nap and escape the scorch. I didn't want the day to be a waste for Brandon's sake, so he and I ventured out to Xitiandi Lu after dark to meander along the road I call "the Short North of Shanghai."

Next day Rach and I had to teach, then we went down to Nanjing Rd. and the Bund with Brandon. Stopped to observe a group of people dancing on the corner (see picture). Love that. Wish people at home did that more. The old guy in the red shirt was hilarious.
Poor Brandon was dragging by the end of the night. I thought I was going to have to carry him home. But he laid his head on my back and fell asleep on the busride home, and that was fine with me. (I was on his lap b/c it was so crowded.) The bus stopped for about a half hour because some guy lost his wallet. Where, we don't know. Did he suspect someone on the bus stole it? No. But the authorities will go ahead and inconvenience half of Shanghai so that we can all be uselessly concerned. "It's custom in China," some guy tells Rachel.

Today Rach and I had to teach again, and Brandon went down to the Old China city on his own. It's nice that I can just let him go on his own and know that there's little chance he'll get lost b/c he's so good with directions/maps/knowing where he is at all times. In class I taught the kids about Halloween, a holiday not celebrated in China. I blabbed about the history of the holiday (did you know it originated in Ireland?), then let the kids go "trick or treating" with me. I gave them pencils and candy as they recited "trick or treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat." It was fun, and once again I owe my mother for being right. All the teaching ideas she gave me before I left have been so useful. I guess she really knows what she's talking about! :)

Tomorrow is the last day of teaching. I'll be glad to be done, to have a break, to rest, but I'm sad to leave the kids and to leave the friends we've met here (Huang Biao, Parker, Rosco). It's been quite an experience. Not sure I would have jumped in so readily if I'd known what I was in for, but I'm definitely glad I came so it's better I didn't.

And then...August 5th, we're taking the sleeper train to Beijing. Can't wait!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Another Funny Thing--Cabs

All cabs are equipped with "shields," pieces of plexiglass surrounding the driver's seat that take up half the front seat and essentially box in the cabbie. It's supposed to be for protection, but not only does it look ridiculous, there are huge gaps where the plexiglass bends around the seat, and if someone were really bound and determined to assault a cab driver he could easily reach around the flimsy plastic and do it. Some clear shield that's about as effective as Saran wrap isn't going to stop him. It's like, "Hey, I've got this band-aid...that's as good as a bullet-proof vest, right?"

Monday, July 28, 2008

Chinese Fashion Sense

Many Chinese, especially those here in the richest city of China, have great fashion sense. But often you’ll see clashing patterns in one outfit (plaid with flower print, animal print with Hawaiian pattern). And guess what’s all the rage, as in everyone has them and wears them with everything, regardless of whether it matches?: Crocs. Big, floppy, holed-rubber shoes in bright, clashing colors. I have never liked Crocs—I think they’re cute on children because they look like children’s shoes. But everyone wears them, all the time. Check out this picture of a woman wearing flower-print silk pajamas, a sun visor (more on these to come), and bright, ever-obnoxious purple Crocs. What a combo!

Chinese Students' English Names (Hilarity Abound)

Most of our students at camp already have English names from previous English courses. I’ve had to name a few, and gave them names that were special to me—and also what I thought were very American: Brandon (after my beloved, of course), Rachel (after my friend from Ohio and my new friend here from Boston), and Nikki (one of my best friends in Columbus).

Now some of these English names are wildly nonsensical. Rachel and I have ascertained that sometimes words/names are chosen based on meanings or sounds that resemble their Chinese names, regardless of whether they're actual English names. Several are random words that are barely English at all. Here are some of the best we’ve seen so far.

• Lemon (boy)
• Black (boy)
• Red (boy)
• Jany (girl)
• Lily (girl--this is very popular for some reason)
• Pinking (girl--what?!)
• Candy (girl)
• Cookie (girl—spelled “Cicy”)
• Bean (boy—no, I did not give my boyf’s nickname to a Chinese student!)
• Even (girl)
• Kitty (girl—also very popular)
• Zooma (boy)
• Dragon (boy)
• Lala (girl)
• Go-go (girl)
• Toshi (boy)
• Cherry (girl—popular)
• Peddy (girl)
• Winnie (girl—she told me, “like Winnie the Pooh!”)
• Grammy (girl)
• Marry (no, not like “Mary,” but as in “husband-wife union”)

Even Microsoft Word and Blogger are catching these. Not English Names.

Here’s the absolute chart-topper: right now I have a male student named Insect. A little difficult to call on him without laughing. Rachel says there isn’t really a Chinese syllable that sounds like it, so I’m not sure where it came from. Or do I really want to know...

New Students--Last session!

The new students for our final 10-day session are great. They are motivated and excited, which is a change from last session. It’s amazing how the dynamic of a class can make such a big difference. If the majority of the class is studious, I think it motivates others to do their best as well. If there are several bad seeds, it can really throw off the balance of the class and make things much more difficult.

I am getting a little exhausted, though, to be honest. By the end of the program we will have taught 26/30 days, meaning we really only had 1-day weekends. Plus we've been cramming sight-seeing adventures and other experiences in there too.

There are a few things I miss: Brandon (this is a constant), sunrises that occur at normal times--NOT 4:30 AM, bread, cheese, and even McGraw (aren't I a nerd? I can't help it.)

Huang Biao

We have a new friend, Huang Biao. He’s the head chef at the army hospital near SISU where we work, and he placed an ad to barter: he will teach a native English speaker how to cook real Chinese food in exchange for concentrated English conversation. Rachel and I agreed this would be worth looking into, so she called, and for the past week we’ve been going to his kitchen directly after our classes for our cooking lessons. So far he’s taught us how to make the tomato-egg slime that we see everywhere (with what we didn’t realize was straight MSG!), and dumplings.

The first time we met him, I thought he seemed nervous, overly polite, even scared of what we might think of him. He took us to a small diner near the hospital to treat us to an authentic Chinese meal. We didn’t know what we were in for. Here are a few of the dishes he ordered: fried spicy chicken, soft tofu with gelatin-like fish eggs on top, stomach-and-liver soup, and chicken feet. Yes, I said chicken feet. It was the first dish to come to the table, and Huang is motioning us to try them, try them. They were cold, clammy, and cartilage-like, exactly what you might imagine for chicken feet. I was horrified, but took one bite for good measure. Rachel took a second helping with Huang’s urging, and I was impressed. Could she actually like them? (Alas, she got sick the next morning.) The stomach-and-liver soup was almost as frightening, but we refrained from asking exactly which animal the stomach pieces had come from. Talk about disgusting.

He is a small man, with longish side-parted hair and endearing smile wrinkles that make you want to give him reason to smile all the time. He’s very sweet, and he’s so receptive to speaking English. I was afraid he would resort to Chinese with Rachel often to get points across, and that I’d be lost in the dust again. But he truly makes an effort, and my-- he is an eager student! Each day we go to the kitchen he says that he’s been studying new words we give him. I wish my students in Class 3 were so motivated!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

How to Haggle in China

Today Rachel and I went to the Old City section of Shanghai (see picture). Thinking, as we have several times before, that we wouldn’t be spending any money. It’s the older part of town, and most of the sites are temples and churches, but there were several shopping markets along the way. One of which is a mecca for electronics and other great finds. I bought some gifts for people and therefore can’t mention details about all of our purchases, but here’s our formula for haggling.

1. First, I show interest in the product. Ask questions, finger it, nod, smile, all the while formulating a price I’d like to pay. Keep in mind the exchange rate right now is 6.8 rmb to 1 dollar, and in China often you can get things for half of what you might pay in the U.S.
2. Second, I ask the price. Rachel and I grimace in unison at stated price. Look hurt.
3. We discuss under our breath in English. Mention things that could go wrong with product.
4. About this time the salesperson begins lowering the price on his/her own as we show doubt. We let him/her lower the price as much as he/she seems willing without prompting.
5. Next, we counter offer with a little below what we want it for. Then it’s time for the salesperson to grimace, look hurt, sigh, and shake head.
6. We increase our price slightly, to what we want to pay. Rachel can speak Chinese, and so often they turn to her and begin conversing, thinking they can pull her onto their side and get her to coax me. She’s firm.
7. If the salesperson is still wavering, I begin looking around in exaggeration (this works best when there are several salespeople who are selling the same thing within one market or area).
8. I put money on the table, the exact amount that I want to pay, and tell the salesperson it’s all I have.
9. Finally, if the salesperson hasn’t budged yet, Rachel tells him/her in Chinese that we want to look around and might come back later. This is the clincher, because they know we won’t be back. Then they whine, slam things around, and give the product to us at last for what we want to pay.
10. We walk away smiling.

Needless to say, we made out like bandits. Here’s what I got for approximately $56 (USD):
• Two tiny MP3 players—ipod imitations. Literally one inch by one inch. MUCH better for working out than my clunky dinosaur ipod mini. 1 GB each.
• 5 pairs of underwear
• 1 bendable lighter, 1 specialty lighter,
• 3 strings of pearls (China is definitely the place to get real beauties)
• Hand-carved “gift” made from Chinese redwood (the one I’d been eyeing in the States was about $200)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Trying to Communicate

Last night Rachel and I grabbed a cab home from the pub. Rachel, as always, began by telling the cabbie in Chinese where we want to go. After this the two might converse for a few minutes and that's that. Well, this time the man tried to tell her something that she didn't quite get, and so to elaborate he began writing with his finger the Chinese characters for the words on the cab roof. This was hilarious to me as it is well known among foreign students who study Chinese that the characters are the most difficult part. The learning of them comes last, after being able to understand the voiced language and being able to speak it yourself. So writing the characters when someone doesn't understand what you're voicing doesn't help. Ever. Yet time and time again people will do this. Even to me, a foreigner who obviously does not know Chinese. Someone will try to talk to me in Chinese or Shanghai-ese, and I shrug, tell them "sorry," and begin to walk away, when they wave for me to wait and type out the symbols on their cell phones or grab the nearest pen and pencil to write out the characters. Reeeeeaaaal slow, as though that will help too. It's quite comical. So last night when the cabbie began scratching out the complicated characters upside down, on the roof of the cab, in the dark of night, it was just too funny.

Twilight Zone "Lecture"

The new kids are here. Suddenly they've dumped some older, high-level English speakers on me, so I'm no longer teaching the equivalent of Levels 3 and 4. I have Level 4 and Level 6, so my planning is not offset like I'd hoped. Though they tried to give my Level 4 kids the Level 6 book, which is way too hard for them. And then tried to not give my Level 6 kids a book. So I moved the books from the Level 4 class to Level 6, and then Tracy tells me that they don't have any more Level 4 books and won't be getting any! So what am I supposed to do? Play games with them over and over. That's all anyone seems to want: games. Luckily Rachel's Class 2 can share their Level 3 books with me, and I'll start near the end where we left off first week for my Level 4 class. And then for my Level 6 class. I had about 5 punks in there who decided that they didn't want to do English, they didn't care, and they would just disrupt class constantly. I was so upset and frustrated that I told the Chinese TAs that they had to be removed from my class. It was a complete detriment to the rest of the students, and I was super grumpy. This camp tries to be ridiculously regimented, but ends up being disorganized more often than not.

Today I was appointed to give a lecture to a high school camp class about "anything American." I talked about the "green movement" that's happening right now--how people are trying to be more environmentally conscious, including myself, and how it all relates to oil and global-warming issues. I talked for about 40 minutes and opened the floor for questions. There weren't many, so I was about to wrap up early when the teacher said, "no, no, there's still 10 more minutes." So what? What am I supposed to do, just stand there? Is it so bad to end a bit early? And then, Lo and behold, a girl raised her hand and asked if we could play an English game. So apparently I was supposed to act as teacher then too. Aren't they too old for games by 11th grade? I don't remember playing games in my Spanish classes over and over by the time I was in high school. It seems a little elementary. So I awkwardly led a game, with a Chinese student telling me what to do the whole time. She told me to write down six different subjects and choose a student to talk about it for 30 seconds. One of my topics was "Dating in China," as I'm curious about this. A student said that they are not "allowed" to date until college, that their teachers in middle and high school won't let them. Seems a little odd. Are teachers involved in students' personal lives? How do they even know if students are dating? She said they have to focus on studying, studying, studying all the time so they don't really date. Interesting. Perhaps this explains the indulgent PDA Rachel and I have spotted with young-ish couples in the metro stations. They have to sneak around? Or they're so excited to make out in public b/c they've had to wait for the freedom to date for so long? One 16-year-old student told Rachel and I that he didn't date, didn't want to, that he was "too ambitious." There seem to be a lot of single people here. Not sure how I feel about it, not that it's my place to feel anything, but on one hand I think it's impressive that people don't get tied into those things and stay so focused on academics. Wish I would have stayed more focused through college (I wasted too much time on Mr. Wrongs, and although my grades didn't suffer, my personal development might have). But then again, how do they do it? Are they that much closer to their families that they don't need immediate fulfillment of that kind of love? Don't they get lonely? I suppose a lot of it has to do with your culture and surroundings. Perhaps I wouldn't have felt so lonely after college if 80% of my friends weren't leaping away to get hitched.

But back to the "lecture." Finally, with not a minute over time, I found a stopping point in the game and told the group "thank you." As I started to walk out they erupted in applause that somehow seemed eerily scripted--loud, fierce, and forced. It's that regimented aura again. It felt a little like the twilight zone.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

When You're the Biggest City in China, Does That Mean You Can Be Pushy?

Every single Chinese person I've met has been kind, calm, and seemingly passive. But when venturing out on the streets or trying to use public transport, I see a different side.

The traffic is horrendous, as it is in any giant city. But I've never seen anything like this. Cars will literally shove through a crowd of people to get through, even when the walk sign is green, loaded buses will come within inches of nipping an innocent bystander who has dared to step into the street. It even happens with kids! The poor little ducklings from camp will be trying to cross the road to get to the cafeteria when a car will blare the horn until they back away. Biked and mopeds do the same, and those could even be the most infuriating b/c often they drive onto the sidewalk and make walking near impossible. Not to mention the incessant honking. What to do when a pedestrian is crossing the street? Honk loudly and plow through, if the walker doesn't get out of the way it's his/her own problem. Even bicycles roll down the street "brrring, brrring!" It's so bad that there are "no honking" signs posted on SISU's campus. You know it's bad when you have to put up a sign to tell people not to honk their horns. Rachel and I decided that pedestrians are last on the totem pole, dead last. I wonder about the fatality rate. Two years ago the rate of assault against cross guards was an average of about 20 times a month: Talk about road rage.

Another site of basal, animal-like behavior happens when getting on the bus or metro. Standing back to let those getting out come first? Forget it. Nose in the crack of the door, invisible starting blocks underfoot is more like it. Rachel and I could not believe the shoving that took place when our bus pulled up the other day. As she said, "it was like a huddle of hungry pigs at the trough." Funny thing is, the bus was empty, so it wasn't like no would would be able to get on! People were shoving each other, bumping shoulders, grunting forward. Not only did it look ridiculous, but the whole thing was counterproductive. One by one people could have calmly mounted the steps, but three persons trying to go at once made it impossible, as the door was only wide enough for one.

Parker says that in Beijing they've been having "queue" courses in which they teach people how to stand in lines in preparation for the Olympics. (And they have something like "no spitting" day to try to get people to stop spitting in public places.)

Perhaps I should start teaching the kids in my class about lines and spitting and driving etiquette. Train them when they're young.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Yu Garden Outing

Today we went to the Yu Garden (see picture). It was situated within a maze of huge, pagoda-like buildings full of merchants, something labeled the Dragon Mall, and Rachel said it reminded her of a place in Beijing (see picture). The outside was overcrowded with tourists, but once inside the garden was surprising silence and peace. We walked along the bridges and peeked into the many stone nooks and tiny museums, all running alongside ponds filled with multicolored coy fish. Here we are with our parasol, what everyone around here uses instead of sunscreen. I think it's brilliant, and an untapped accessory in the U.S.

Let's backtrack. Before we reached the Yu Garden, group of four students from Beijing—two girls and two guys—approached us outside the metro stop and invited us to join them for a tea ceremony. We tasted the finest ginseng tea, jasmine tea, and sweet fruit tea, and learned a little about the history of tea (see picture).
The experience was interesting, and both Rachel and I enjoy tea, but overall we felt it was rushed, and the exorbitant price of 150 rmb qualified it as a tourist trap. We were bummed because we continue to spend more money than we plan every time we go out lately. Part of that is going where the wind takes us, often with a very loose agenda and only a neighborhood in mind, but all the same we need our money to stretch until we receive our next stipend installment.

In other news, Brandon is coming!!!! I am so excited to see him. Now each time Rachel and I go somewhere new I’m thinking, would Brandon like to come here? Last night we walked by a small park with glittering water and wildflowers galore, and all I could think was how it emanated romance. Something in my throat jumped a little and I felt again a surge of excitement at the thought of seeing him. It’s been 29 days. He will arrive on day 43.

Didn't Your Mother Teach You Not To...

Stare? Apparently not in China. And not when the subject to be stared at is non-Asian. Everywhere we go, especially on buses and trains, people are staring, staring, staring. Openly gaping, unabashed. Yes, we are white. Yes, our hair is light. And yes, mine is wildly curly, “exotic” as one boy told me today.

Sometimes it makes us feel like celebrities when people stop us in mid-walk to ask for our picture or to plead that we pose with them. Or gasp in awe when we tell them my hair is not a perm. It’s flattering. And we’ve even made a few friends when people march right up to us and tell us that we’re beautiful and ask us to talk with them so they can practice their English. But the constant staring gets old. Sometimes I meet the gaze head-on, or I’ll wave or say hello, but even that doesn’t work sometimes, and what I really want to do is glare. But then I remember that I’m representing America and don’t want them to think we’re all arrogant jerks.

It’s also frustrating that our American looks mean nothing but dollar signs to a lot of people. Sometimes beggars will come right up to us--I’m talking literally in our faces--and try to block our path and force us to choke up our millions. Rachel and I are not wealthy, and we’re not exactly on vacation, either.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Funny Words in Shanghai

Funny thing about how English words are randomly put together for slogans, on T-shirts, on notebooks. Or words that perhaps someone thinks capture the essence of the product/service. We walked by a spa called “Oddness.” And a club called “Richy.” I bought a notebook that reads on the cover, “Summer Fantasy: In the hot summer, have a cool, cool excited to get food stupor, after all is a particularly good thing.” Rachel and I surmise that it’s probably just like how Americans get tattoos of random Chinese characters that mean nonsense out of context. Pretty hilarious though.

More Adventures

Today was the last day of the camp’s first session. I have 9 students staying for another term, but most kids had to say their goodbyes. They all wanted me to sign their books and give them my e-mail and phone number. They’re such cute little buggers. I’ll miss them. (see picture) Little Martin had me sign his SISU camp hat. I told one of the Chinese TAs for Level 3 that now he’s ready to be a father. He pretty much looked like a new father by the end of camp—disheveled hair, unbelievably exhausted eyes, and an overall slump to the shoulders and shuffle of the feet as though the very act of moving requires too much energy.

After our short class, Rachel and I scooted off with Parker, another foreign teacher, to see more of the city. Parker’s from Nashville, TN, originally, and has been in Shanghai for the past two years. He showed us around his neighborhood, which is in the French Concession, an area that is already becoming a favorite of mine, and then herded us east, stopping at giant shopping malls, a French pastry shop, and a smoothie joint along the way. These malls were the ritzy ones, with stores such as Gucci, Armani, Dior, etc. Window shopping for us. Along the way throughout the neighborhoods and the malls, Parker dispensed as much knowledge as I’ve gained in multiple history and current events classes. The kid has intricate understanding of China, Chinese culture, the new Lama, who just might put his stamp of approval on the Olympics, Buddhist traditions, Thailand, Tibet, you name it. He came here and began working for an American real-estate company, then quit and began traveling around everywhere a month ago (he traveled Indonesia by himself), and now he’s enrolled in school for Chinese language and is freelance teaching. Needless to say, he was a well-qualified tour guide and a great conversationalist. Rachel and I were more than a little impressed.

Then we headed toward a university on the west side of town where one of Rachel’s friends is doing a summer-intensive language course. We popped out of the metro stop at a park near the school and began scrutinizing our map, as always. Then we hear a tiny voice saying, “Can I help you?” We looked up to meet a young Chinese woman who offered us a beautiful smile and an escort to the park. She is studying English and was excited to meet some American girls with whom she could practice speaking. At one point she told us we were beautiful and exclaimed, “You’re not fat!” To which we laughed and laughed. America the Obese. The world knows of our gluttony.
Lily was her name, and she was entirely generous with her time. She wants to take us out around the town, and we vowed to meet up later. How sweet. I hope for the chance to show kindness to a foreigner in America one day.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


HOT. We’re on the same latitudinal line as the southern U.S., like mid-Georgia or Alabama, and it definitely feels like the South. At least our hotel rooms are air-conditioned. (Service otherwise is sub-par, but that’s a different story.)

The other day Rachel and I meant to go to Old City Shanghai, which is west of the Bund area. We figured it would be a place where we could see the sights—some museums, a tea house, etc.—and not spend a bunch of money. Not so. We started off at the Fabric Market, which is a conglomeration of clothing booths squished into two huge buildings. They have designs galore, and what you do is pick out designs you like, then the person measures you, you put down a 50% downpayment, and then the seamstress makes it for you and you pick it up a week later. Imagine having something tailor made to fit you! Only problem is Rachel and I haven’t mastered the art of bargaining. We haggled some for the dresses we bought (sarong-like things that can be shaped around your body in a million different ways), but then later realized that the seamstress accepted our haggle too quickly and moved on to the measurements and the colors before we knew it. We probably could have talked her down another 50 yuan. Oh well. Still cheap. We literally stayed there all day browsing. I got a beautiful pearl ring—don’t worry, we did the scratch test—in an antique setting. Now we’re sitting on considerations for further purchases before going back to pick up our dresses next week. Rachel wants a soft blue wool coat that’s shaped sort of like a pea coat but sort of has that modern military look. I’m considering buying a suit fitted perfectly to my body. The jacket has a beautiful scooped neckline with a collar that bends out over the shoulders. That doesn’t sound cute, but trust me. The woman at the stand claims that it’s a direct replica of Dolce and Gabbana. These people will tell you anything for a sale, so who knows. I also want a slim black jacket with red Chinese details on the cuffs. Where the coat comes together the one side is longer than the other, adding angles to my torso in the trendiest way. It’s completely unique and completely China. But how much to spend. I might ask for more of an advance for my teaching salary.

Teaching is going well. I’ve got the 9-10 year olds. They’re sweet as sap, but the short attention spans stress me out sometimes and make it difficult to get a lot done. I’ve got to be part entertainer part teacher to hold their interest. I do like it, but I think I’m glad to be heading toward teaching college freshmen in a few months. At least our salaries are pretty good, and offset the cost of the trip and all expenses while I'm here.

Today we went to meet a few ladies who work at the 3M’s Shanghai office. They know Rachel’s aunt, who works at the Minneapolis branch and comes to Shanghai at least once a year for work. They took us out for pot dinner. Or was it “hot pot” dinner? Absolutely delicious. We each chose a type of soup, fish soup, “Chinese medicine” soup, and a few others. Rachel and I went with “Chinese medicine,” which was surprisingly good. There was ginseng, Chinese wolf berries, mini dates, and some sort of bark in it. Didn’t taste “medicinal” at all, in what I think of as medicinal anyway. Herbal. We each at a pot with our chosen type of soup, which we allowed to boil. Then on little plates were served various meats, vegetables, and tofu creations, which we put into our boiling soups to cook for 1-3 minutes, then dipped in our sauces. The sauces were gathered from a smorgasbord of them, which we were instructed to dip our cooked pieces into. The drink served was a cool vegetable broth, actual chunks of carrot and corn and whatever else anchored at the bottom, with a piece of sugar cane in it. The ginseng boosted my energy, and I felt a little high, actually. I must figure out how to cook Chinese food.

The ladies were impressed, of course, with Rachel’s Chinese. It’s surprising for many people to meet Americans or native English speakers who speak Chinese. They know how difficult it is. At any rate, I felt a bit like a wallflower, but that was okay. A free meal and a chance to hang out with four other successful, single women. I don’t get enough of that in my life in the States.

I’m hoping Brandon will come visit while I’m here, but unfortunately even if he does we can’t get the same flight home. That 12-hour flight would be so much better with him there. I can’t really gauge whether he even wants to come, which makes me disappointed. He’s had a lot of other things going on in his life lately, though, and I know international travel isn’t as much of a priority for him as it is for me.

Gotta run. Need to plan for tomorrow’s lessons. The last full day of teaching. Short day on Tuesday, then Wednesday off, then the whole things starts over again with new students. Whew! I can’t believe a third of our trip is already over.

Monday, June 9, 2008

When I Realize I’ve Gone Green in the Head (or, it’s time to back away from the ledge)

When I’m agonizing to my mother on the phone about how global warming is here, it’s getting worse, look at all the natural disasters, and what if it’s Armageddon? And what if the world is ending and I’ll never have a chance to bear children and let them run in wild grass and catch fireflies in their hair like I used to do? And there’s nothing more that I can do—already I recycle and reuse everything I can think of, I’ve stopped drying my hands with wasteful towels or unnecessarily consuming electricity by using a wall dryer, I’m switching all my cleaning products to Shakleee eco-brand, I don’t drive, etc., etc., and yet with all this there’s no way I can save the world alone.

I tell her I find myself almost getting angry at cars that idle on my street and push harmful fumes into the hair, at that lazy person who tosses his or her Styrofoam cup into the trash without a thought, or the rows and rows of evil bottled water at the grocery store. And I am starting to feel that in order to completely wipe out my carbon footprint I need to stop going places, consuming things, doing things, which essentially means I’ll need to die and instruct my parents to use my body as fertilizer.

To which my mother replies by calmly asking whether she needs to go inside and get nails and a hammer so she can nail me to the cross.

Jesus came to save the world, honey--NOT you, she says. Oh yeah. Right. Chill out.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Saving the World

There’s only so much I can do. In the past few years, I’ve gone from a new awareness of environmental issues to hyper-agony over my every move. Obsessions are not unusual for me, but this might be pushing the envelope. I’m not writing this list in order to boast my hippie-ness, but rather to note what I’m doing so far, in hopes seeing my efforts in print will console me for all that I can’t do. There's nothing unusual or particularly super-Earth about these things, but I'm always thinking that I could be doing more.

• Recycling. Even when there isn’t pick-up, I’ll drive it to wherever, drag it to work or school, etc.

• Realizing that even more than recycling, reUSING is more effective. Started saving all containers I foresee a use for: empty 32-ounce yogurt containers, empty glass salsa bottles (if I keep the ingredients tag on it I can try to make it on my own!), small lotion bottles, empty bodywash containers

• Buying and using rechargeable batteries (and charger) only

• Reading in bed with my flashlight (rechargeable batteries) instead of a lamp

• Using Earth-friendly cleaning supplies and laundry detergent

• Selling my car (this is the biggest lifestyle change I’ve made)

• Riding the bus

• Riding my bike instead of riding the bus when possible

• Taking the stairs instead of the elevator up ten flights to my apartment when I’m not lugging my bike

• Not plugging in my laptop overnight when my computer is “sleeping”

• Using “stickies” on my Mac instead of daily Post-It notes

• Going from using plastic bags to paper bags at the grocery

• Going from paper bags to using my duffel bag and backpack at the grocery

• Buy most things used (off my favorite site, Craigslist). Most recently: a coffeemaker and a bike. Shop consignment for clothes. Don’t add to the materials in the world…use materials that already exist.

• Air dry clothes in a sunny room with open windows instead of using tons of energy with a clothes dryer (this can often be the most non-energy-efficient appliance in a home!)

• Deciding to cancel my prescription, which gets shipped to me from Arizona every three months. Have been considering canceling it for several reasons, but the thought of gas/energy being used in shipment tipped the scale

• Try to buy local goods whenever possible

• Subscribe to for the latest environmental news updates

• Research “green” companies to invest in myself and encourage friends to invest in

Thursday, April 24, 2008


Hurts. When someone you're dating decides they just don't like you, or think that things won't work out, after a time of getting to know you, this is painful, but it’s just another part of dating. You move on. Happens all the time.

When someone who is supposed to be your birth father denies your existence even while you are in the womb, then again as an adult, never having met you or known you, this is a rejection of a stranger. It is non-specific. It doesn’t have anything to do with who you are, or your worthiness. This kind of rejection is even less individualized than that of a rejection from a literary magazine that decides your work won't fit with the current issue, or of a company that decides you aren’t the right candidate for the job. This kind of rejection is not rejection, really. It isn’t supposed to hurt.

But yet it does.

I Heart Craigslist

Okay, I know there has been some scary-stalker stories associated with Craigslist, but for the last year it’s been quite the source of adventure, cheap accumulation, and asset relief for me. This week in particular has been one of shopping blessings on Craigs.

Today I bought a bike from a girl named Katie in Moon Township. She advertised on Craigslist a few months ago, and in the dead of winter not many people were looking for bikes yet. I e-mailed her and expressed some interest, but without a car I wasn’t able to coordinate getting out to Moon to get it at that time. Well, she e-mailed me last week to say the bike was still available and was I interested? Luckily my always-generous roommate offered to lend me her SUV in this morning (she walks to work to save the environment and also there is absolutely NO parking in our corner of the city, which is also part of why I ditched my own car). The bike is a lovely purple, and it was just the right price. Only fifty bucks. Most bikes advertised on Craigs in this area are going for hundreds, partly b/c there’s such high demand around here with all the students and the environmentally conscious urbanites, and partly b/c there are lots of trails and an entire bike culture with many specialty bike shops. But bikes also get stolen fairly often around here for those exact reasons, so for my first bike (as an adult, that is…I haven’t owned or consistently ridden a bicycle since age 12) I didn’t want to cough up too many bones.
Katie was sweet and friendly. Blonde hair, high-fashion make-up. She said she was moving to Toronto. I told her one of my best friends lives there now. As she was taking me to her basement, showing me the bike, and helping me wheel it outside to Kat’s car, we had a nice conversation about what she plans to do in Toronto. Her husband is already there, and she’s trying to get a job in sports marketing. It was a quick, friendly interaction. I was all set to go, as I’d gathered several bike supplies earlier in the week. Two days earlier I got a bike helmet, a bicycle tire pump, and a flashing light to use when riding at night for $12 from Anna down the street. She advertised on Craigs, of course, and we had a nice correspondence via e-mail. She used to live in my apartment building, in fact. When at the bike store later, I discovered that a Schwinn helmet like the one she sold me retails for $29.99. Boo-yah!

Then, right as I was steering my new bike into my apartment and fastening my brand new bike lock (this I actually DID buy from a store) on the back, Gwendolyn called. She’s the girl I e-mailed about her coffee maker. I don’t drink coffee that often, but I’m noticing with my new graduate student lifestyle and constant study mode peppered with intermittent late-night social activity, sometimes it’s just a must. I’ve been drinking it more often lately, and I’m actually starting to like it. And I LOVE iced coffee in the summer. Figured I’d get the cheapest thing they had at Target, ‘bout $20. But, in browsing my favorite Web site, I came across Gwendolyn’s ad. She wanted to be rid of her $50 coffee maker plus 2 packages of filters for ten bucks. So I rode my new bike over to her apartment (about six blocks away), met her dog, saw her apartment, had some nice pleasantry talk, and came home with my new coffee maker. 10-cup Hamilton Beach, with all the bells and whistles and timers. Nice.

I always wonder if in less brief transactions I might get a chance to be friends with some of these people. Maybe Katie. Especially Leah who bought my car. She was about the sweetest person I’ve ever met. Perhaps the young mother who bought my bookshelf. She looked like a good time, with that wind-blown hair and that artsy tattoo on her arm. That funny, bubbly woman who bought my Coach purse. Or the kind but shy girl who bought my roller blades, riding them wobbly around the parking lot while her boyfriend looked on. Maybe even that cute doctor guy who bought my end table. Probably not the Indian liquor-store owner who bought my video camera to monitor the cash register. There was no chitchat with him as he fumbled nervously with my camera, rushing to check the front of the store several times. He had a business to run, and a sketchy one at that.

There is another reason why I find shopping on Craigs satisfying, one that extends beyond mere frugality or the trash-to-treasure finds. It is, in its own way, saving the environment. Now hear me out. About a year ago I was reading Rolling Stone at Brandon’s and found an article featuring an up-and-coming musician. I forget her name now, but there was a full-length picture of her wearing a flowered dress, a smart red jacket, and white shoes. Cute. In the article interview, she confessed that although now she’s making decent money, she still insists on buying used. Every item of her outfit in that photo was purchased thrift. She said that it’s a moral thing for her. By not buying new, she’s not adding more material to the world, and she’s not supporting sweatshops. I had never thought of it that way, but it totally made sense. Not adding more material into the world. Reusing what’s already there. Not having to cringe at the tag that says “Made in Bangladesh, where everyone is starving.” Plus I’m becoming more and more concerned with environmental issues, and this reasoning further bolstered my desire to buy used whenever possible.

And so, I heart Craigslist. As with any relationship, there are things I like about Craig and things I don’t like. I have not found the job section to be particularly helpful. The personal ads are rather sickening. The apartment ads can be frustratingly deceptive. But there are products to fill almost every need, and I’ve had flash encounters with some friendly folks. And that’s always worth my time no matter what.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

God in the News

Whenever I flipped on the news last week, I did not see coverage on another Brittney Spears tragedy (why does CNN condescend to those stories sometimes?), but rather I see the Pope. Pope Benedict XVI has graced the United States for a whole week. He has counseled victims of priestly sexual abuse, he has prayed on Ground Zero for those whose lives were affected by the World Trade Center bombings of September 11. And, surprisingly, the media loves him.

I do not understand Catholicism. In my own increasing walk with God, I have continued the Protestant faith of my youth. I’ve always been intrigued by this large, historic faith that has the most beautiful churches, that exudes tradition and ritual from people around the world, has been the root of Holy Wars and centuries’ long strife, and that is the origin of my own faith. And that seems to refuse alignment with Protestantism. This faith whose name literally means “universal,” yet I get the sense people feel closed off from it. I have visited a few Catholic churches and have tried to learn more about the faith over the past year, partly to try to understand where my boyfriend comes from. It is the church of his youth, one that hasn’t called him back.

I saw a Catholic tract last week on the 71A bus on my way to class. It said that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that the Catholic Church is the Way, the Truth, and the Life of Jesus on Earth. It referenced the Bible verse that says Jesus’ bride is the church, but posited that He has only one bride and it is a Catholic bride. It cynically noted that Jesus was not a polygamist, and was not married to such offshoots as Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian, or Methodist churches. And that’s when I stopped reading.

The only time I’ve been hurt by a church was when I was turned away from communion at a Catholic church. I did not know the rule that only Catholics can partake of God’s table—not all God’s people—in their eyes. I left the church feeling angry and rejected.

I also don’t understand the seeming fascination with Mary, Jesus’ mother. Of course she played an important role in God’s plan, but she was distinct from her son in that she was fully human. She was used by God, but she was not God. And so the prayers to Mary, the almost-worship of her confuses me. Brandon says it’s not exactly worship, but another avenue to God. Same with the saints, I guess? I received a rosary for Christmas (Dad is buddies with the priest in town who knew I had a mild interest in learning more about Catholicism). Prayed it a few times. But the praying to entities other than God feels disloyal to me. Thou shalt have no other Gods before me, right?

The church has a serious pull. In this country many people do not wish to sacrifice, do not wish to acknowledge evil in the world, do not want to work hard to eradicate sin in their life and focus on righteousness. It’s too much work, and does not promise immediate reward. It does not mesh well with our consumer-driven, immediate-gratification, greed-and-pornography-filled society. Many Americans lackadaisically go through life with an understanding of God that only reaches as far as the church doors. And if they enter into a church only once or twice a year, it remains an empty ritual. They do not allow it to extend into their lives, color the way they see the world, and give them purpose and a deeper understanding of what it means to love. Yet according to CNN surveys, most people believe in God and consider themselves Christians.

So it’s refreshing to see national attention on this thing of goodness, on someone who does the work of God. Essentially, God is in the news.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

An Incredibly Cheap and Satisfying Vacation

Last week, Wednesday through Sunday, Brandon and I took a much-needed getaway. Midwestern winters always drag on entirely too long, and we were both getting antsy for some sun. Pittsburgh feels slightly more dreary than Columbus did, though weather reports don't really confirm this. I was convinced I was as pale as I've ever been, although most people who bother to read this will know that I do tend to over-dramatize things. 

It was also the cheapest vacation we will probably ever be able to construct. 

Wednesday I hopped on the Greyhound from Pitts to Columbus. Met a few characters along the way, as always. I had with me a manuscript from a fellow writer in my workshop class. He is a comedic writer, who writes slapstick, in-your-face, electric-paced fiction. I was cracking up in line as we waited to board. A guy who calls himself "Dreadz" to commemorate his disgusting chunky hair (I always think dreadlocks look so depressing and deliberate on white people, but that's another story), wanted to read it. So I gave it to him when we took our seat. I carefully chose my spot in the next row and one seat behind him so I could record the pages on which he laughed and could report back to Dave. He read the entire thing (it's exhausting, really, that kind of charged writing), laughing aloud several times. Then I handed it to Nancy next to me, a Californian travel agent who happened to have worked for McGraw-Hill for 19 years(!) She tsked and handed it back to me after reading to page 6, saying, "I'm just not the market for this. If this guy tried to date my daughter, I'd hang him." Tough crowd. Well, the story did delve into some sexually graphic territory, and the main character is a narcissistic buffoon, but it really is funny. Somehow. Anyway, I arrive in Columbus after my guerilla book-agent experience, at around 6 PM. 

First we drove to Nashville to my friend Chris' new place. He's one of the few friends from high school who has reciprocated effort to keep in touch, yet I haven't seen him since '05. It's tough now that my parents have moved away from Knoxville, the place I most identify as a "hometown." Luckily we saved an hour due to time zones, though still arrived later than I'd hoped, at 10:30 PM. I finally met the love of Chris' life, Leah, and promptly fell in love with her myself. We chirped away about our common obsessions: recycling, organic food, the environment, and changing the world through teaching, while our boyfriends nodded along and stole side glances at each other. After a few glasses of wine, we hit the sack. 

Next morning Leah had to leave early for work, and Chris took us all around Nashville, excitedly pointing out areas of interest like an expert tour guide. He's totally in love with the city, and completely in his element with all that country music. We went to an indy music store, which reminded me of the one Brandon dumps all his money into in Columbus, and the boys were in heaven. We also strolled downtown, the club areas, past music halls, and drove by Vanderbilt University and the strip of town where all the record labels and recording studios are. Then we ate some BBQ beef for lunch (unfortunately the place toted all plasticware and styrofoam). 

Next stop: the beach! We drove about 7 more hours to arrive at Pensacola beach at dusk. It was beautiful, and we were so excited to actually be there. We had brought sleeping bags and figured we'd sleep in the car, or, perhaps, on the beach. I was a little nervous about the second option. It was spring break time, so we figured obtaining a hotel room might be tough, and we wanted to be adventurous anyway. Plus we didn't want to spend a bunch of dough. So we called the police and county sheriff to see if beach bumming through the night was illegal, and surprisingly it isn't. We found a pocket of coastal America that allows vagrants, I guess, since most places strictly forbid this. So, we smoothed out our bedding and watched the stars, the gleaming moon, and matched our breathing to the lapping waves. I was a little jittery when the occasional person would stroll along the dark beach, but the place was harmless and eventually I fell asleep.  

We awoke covered in ocean mist, though Bean referred to this (in a mechanical voice) as "condensation." Not sure why I found this so hilarious. So, we hung our two wet blankets and our towel over the wooden fence railing, put on our bikinis, and began to play on the beach. Finally! The sun was partially covered by foggish cloud, so we didn't think to put on sunscreen at 8:30 AM, though later we regretted this. I layed out for about a half hour, before Brandon's attention span expired and he pestered me into getting up and helping him dig a moat in the sand. A moat around a nonexistent sandcastle, mind you. Then we went running. I immediately realized that I was dehydrated (not wanting to drink much on the road of course), and had to stop after about a mile. Superstar Olympian had to keep running, of course, but that was fine. I had to get some water. So I meandered into one of the big hotels near our section of beach and found a bathroom accessible from the parking garage. I filled our water bottle and retreated, but not before noticing the pool on my way out. Brandon was done running shortly after, and we ate sandwiches and grapes that we'd packed for lunch. I realized that my face was red even after cooling down and decided we should lather sunscreen. It was too late. By the end of the day we were complete lobsters. Sad, really. 

After lunch we went to the pool at the hotel, following a family as they entered the key-access gate. The woman asked me if we had a key, to which I told her no. She said, "That's okay--we'll let you in."  Soon after we realized that we definitely didn't fit in. Everyone there had money spilling out their ears, and there was no one close to our age there. It was all yuppie, suburban families, complete with skinny wives with manicured nails and 2.5 kids each. But we didn't mind. Until a woman came up to me and with a venomous, hushed tone said, "I know where you slept last night, and I know you're not staying at this hotel. You are stealing resources, and it's not right. I suggest you leave quickly and quietly before I call the authorities." Whoa. I was shocked, embarrassed, mortified. I gathered our things and told Brandon we had to leave. Now. He begins barking "Why? Why?" and I'm shushing him and trying to leave quickly. We get outside the pool area and I tell him what happened. Did she work there? he asked. I didn't know. All I knew was that she terrified me, her threat, especially that she knew we'd slept on the beach. I felt a rush of shame, of being put in my place. Brandon wished he would have heard her or had known what was going on so he could jump to my defense. I pondered how these things happen to me individually. Slimy threats, racial slurs-- they never happen when anyone else is around. Anyway, Brandon and I could eventually laugh at this pathetic woman who obviously had paid a lot of money to be removed from lower class people like us. Her world is small and unimportant. Does she care about the election? Does she care about Darfur? Does she concern herself with international acts of genocide? Doubt it. 

After that we went to the entry of Pensa Gulf beaches to a Sea-Do rental and motored along the ocean for a while. I drove for part of the time, and it was surprisingly easy. Then we went out for seafood at Peg-Leg Pete's. We had raw oysters for the first time. Brandon liked them, but I'm still deciding. Eating them with Saltines and cocktail sauce makes it difficult to distinguish the mild fish taste, but what bothered me was the consistency. Slimy things give me the creeps. Then we had our first lobster. It was yummy, but, as I'd experienced once before, there's not a lot of meat on the thing, so we broke down and ordered fries to fill us up. 

Much to dragon lady's disgust, we enjoyed a peaceful night's sleep on the beach again. 

Then Saturday morning we got up, ate our packed yogurt, and went to the local YMCA for free showers (paid $2 to rent towels). By now we are thoroughly impressed with our frugality. 

On to New Orleans, a surprisingly short distance of 2.5 driving hours. We arrived at Bob and Mary Jo's house around 1:00. Bob is my birth mother Patti's brother. So they are my aunt and uncle by birth (yippee!). We ate sandwiches and chips for a late lunch. Note to self: sunflower-seed bread is amazing!  Then they took us all around New Orleans--showed us hurricane damaged areas that are still waiting for repair, BradJolina's new house, and the downtown/French Quarter area. The downtown is so unique. Brandon and I commented on the beautiful Victorian and plantation houses. Apparently right now is wedding season because we saw several different weddings in progress at the many large houses. All the houses had wraparound porches and balconies, with French black metal railings. We went to Cafe du Monde, a popular coffee shop, where we ordered Bob's favorite coffee. Chicory coffee is what it is, and it was indeed delicious. I looked over at Brandon and we shared a moment: Look at this, you could run a coffee shop like this one day. Then Bob and Mary Jo's middle daughter, Beth (my cousin!) met us. She is pregnant and totally cute. And sweet. It's exciting to meet beautiful people and know that you are related to them.   

We walked around the French Quarter a bit more. There were street performers and music everywhere. I figured it was only alive like this during Mardi Gras, but they said it's like that all the time. Wow. What a fun city. 

Then we went home and Mary Jo made an amazing jambalaya soup. Beth came over later with her dog Roxie--an adorable boxer that made me want to go out and buy a dog right this second. Then Amy and her family came over. She's the eldest daughter who has two kids. Her youngest, Nicholas, looks so much like Justin (my half-brother) it's uncanny. He is literally a mini-Justin. We ate and were merry, then Brandon and I crashed in an incredibly comfortable bed. Not that the sand was terrible--it was more like a very firm mattress. 

Next morning we woke up and began the loooooong, 14-hour drive back home. It wasn't terrible until the last 3 hours or so. Then we were both ready to be out of the car, not driving, and asleep in bed. 

Let's deracinate the cheapness of this vacation, which made it all the sweeter:

Gas: $170  
Lodging: beach, friends, and family $0
Food: family and friends: $0; groceries: $25; BBQ with Chris: $15; seafood dinner: $60; Burger King: $8; Cracker Barrel: $18
Entertainment: Sea-do rental: $45; beach fun: $0; touring cities: $0
Showers: family and friends: $0, YMCA: $2
Quality time with each other, Chris and Leah, and the Johnsons: $0, and better than anything we could buy

Total: $343 ($171.50 each)

That's what I'm talkin' about.