Archive for December, 2010
Let there be no doubt that I am a huge Christmas enthusiast. I fully believe in the power of snow and Christmas lights and decorated coniferous trees to bring peace on earth and good will to all mankind. I love ugly sweater parties and brightly lit department stores and “Carol of the Bells” and those peanut butter cookies with the Hershey’s kisses in the middle. Don’t even get me started on the Plaza Lights, my favorite Kansas City tradition.
However, this Christmas is different. This Christmas, to all Scrooges and Grinches out there — I’m with you.
It all started when the foreign teachers at my university in China went out for my friend Hibes’ going away dinner Tuesday night. She was returning to Minnesota for the holidays, and we decided to send her off with the ultimate Chongqing dish — hotpot. Hotpot is a communal meal, in which you order raw meats and vegetables and cook them yourself in a big vat of boiling oil, similarly to the way we eat fondue. I’ve had hotpot a handful of times and have never been a big fan of it (too oily), but this recent experience has sealed my dislike. I’ll spare you the more horrifying details, but let’s just say I have not eaten a solid meal since Tuesday.
So now it is Christmas, and I am stuck in bed with the stomach flu. This, in a country where all food is cooked in oil and doused in some form of sodium. Blech. My usual comfort foods are unavailable. My family, who would no doubt be overly sympathetic and gladly spend their Christmas holidays joining my pity party (or so I tell myself), is half a planet away. My bed here is not as comfy. The TV programs are not in my language. I’m hesitant to go to the doctor should I need to. All my normal routines of illness have been disrupted, as have my normal Christmas routines.
It’s not just about the fact that I’m sick. It’s more that I’m sick on Christmas. There is so much about this season that I love, and this year I have to celebrate it secondhand. I downloaded Christmas music and movies to my computer. I made a PowerPoint presentation for class and held a gift exchange with my students. I bought some colored lights and a small, cheap Christmas tree from a nearby Wal-Mart and I hung up the Christmas decorations that my mom sent me. But it’s not the same without my family, without snow, without my local mall to browse for gifts, and without driving around listening to Christmas music on the radio. Despite my best efforts, Christmas from this far away isn’t the same. The nausea that’s accompanying it is just adding insult to injury.
I know, I know. It could be much worse. I have gifts to unwrap and other foreign teachers for company and an abundance of e-cards from students. But still, I’m struggling to feel optimistic about the holidays this year, what with constantly sprinting to my bathroom every time I try to eat food and being in China instead of at home. I keep hearing that this will at least be a Christmas to remember, which is true. One day, I am sure, I will remember this experience and laugh. In the meantime, as long as the Chinese Olympic gymnastics team insists on holding its practices in my digestive system, I am going to curl up in bed with a hot tea and some Pepto-Bismol and watch a bootlegged version of A Christmas Carol. And for the first time in my life, I will be sympathizing with Scrooge.
Kelsey Gustafson is an editor with Two Passports. She moved from Kansas to Chongqing in 2010 where she teaches English to Chinese students.
Home: It’s a difficult concept for expatriates, particularly during the holidays. If home is where the heart is, then last year was definitely a Christmas spent away from home for me. But this year, well, it’s complicated.
I started to realize this yesterday morning. I laid semi-awake on the fold-out bed, caught in the middle of the familiar battle between sleep and that damn bar that sits beneath the mattress of every fold-out bed ever made. Just as I resigned myself to opening my eyes, I was greeted with an unexpected interruption — little feet stepping climbing into the bed, surrounding my body. Little muffled giggles. Then, a little whisper, “John, wake up!”
It was the voice of my cousin’s six-year-old daughter, Kiera, flanked by her three-year-old brother, Owen. It was one of my monthly visits to Virginia Water in England, where my cousin Mich lives with her husband and kids. One of the great benefits of moving to the U.K. earlier this year was the opportunity to be closer to family. From the moment I started considering applying for Irish citizenship, Mich has been a beacon of support. We share the grandfather who entitles us to Irish citizenship, so she was enormously helpful in helping me work with the Irish consulate and move abroad.
Since moving to Britain this year, though, she’s been helpful in an altogether different way: She’s made me feel at home in this foreign country. Taking a more active role in my cousin’s family gave me a sense of home that I’d been missing. I’ve spent the past few days at Mich’s house celebrating an early Christmas (since I have to work on Christmas day). That’s not the only Christmas invitation I’ve received though. This fact snuck up on me: In the eight months I’ve been in Cardiff, I’ve met a good number of people. I’ve made some good friends. I’ve been invited to good number of Christmas parties.
Christmas parties have a strong tradition here in Britain — American Christmas parties seem downright stuffy in comparison. If this country does boring Christmas parties, I’ve yet to find them. “Christmas-dos” are a time to drink yourself silly and feast on Thanksgiving-sized dinner feasts, despite (or perhaps in some cases, because of) the presence of your boss and all your co-workers. Last week I donned my tie and jacket and sat at a long table full of co-workers, downing glass after glass of wine and opening Christmas crackers (a trinket so common here and around the world that I’m met with universal shock when I tell people I’d never seen one before moving abroad).
I was also invited to a handful of other parties from friends. Between my new job, work on the TV pilot, and simply being a member of the community for eight months, I’ve had my plate full of invitations and turkey. I’ve never attended so many formal get-togethers in such a short time, even when I was in Minnesota.
Christmas can be a moment of supreme challenge and isolation for new expatriates, as I learned last year during my first lonely Christmas away from home.
But this year I’ve come to learn something new. To an extent, Minnesota is and will always be my home, but that doesn’t mean I can’t feel at home someplace else. I guess the concept of home isn’t as absolute as I once thought.
Your twenties are a time to find yourself, to discover what you really want to do with your life, to be a free spirit, unbound by the shackles of responsibilities to come. At least, that’s what people keep telling me whenever I fret about the “life progress” of my recently married, home-owning, IRA-paying friends back in The States. Ever since graduating from university, I seem to be going toward the opposite extreme, never staying in one place for more than a year. My first internship out of college lasted eleven months. The second full-time contracting gig: Seven months. I lived in Ireland for five months. And in March, just shy of one year after moving here, I will finish my residency in Wales and move on to my next adventure.
I’ve accepted a job as a tour guide for a company that runs bus tours throughout Europe. From March until October, I’ll be criss-crossing the continent, talking into a microphone and leading people through Amsterdam, Vienna, Rome, Barcelona, Munich, Prague and a slew of other cities. “On the Road Again” will be the soundtrack to my life as I spend six months without any permanent home. I expect it to be a simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating experience. I expect to become a more prolific blogger as I spend lots of my time on a bus and will take lots of photos and videos.
But most importantly, I’ll continue the self-fulfilling prophecy of my “less than one year” lifestyle. In November 2011 I’ll need to find a new opportunity. Who knows how long that one will last?
“The Americans are identical to the British in all respects except, of course, language.” — Oscar Wilde
“So, where are you from?”
I get that question a lot, from both sides of the Atlantic. It’s funny, when I’m in the States and say, “Umm, just down the road,” Americans don’t believe me. Whereas the Brits put their heads on one side and say, “I know your accent is from somewhere, but I’m not sure where.”
I’ve lived in Britain for 12 years now. In many ways I am British now as well as American.
Sometimes it might be easier just to live in a country that had a completely different language; then I wouldn’t have to decide which word to use, knowing both would probably be understood. In a room with Brits, no problem, I use British terminology. When I visit my family in the USA, I switch to American, but a mixed crowd of British and American people sends me into a linguistic dilemma. And, maybe, an identity crisis.
It started innocently enough when I first moved abroad. Out of pragmatic concern, anyone will end up changing pronunciation to be understood. During the beginning of my junior year abroad, I quickly discovered that when ordering beer (a vital skill), bartenders didn’t really understand when I ordered a ‘haff’ pint. But if I asked for a “hahlf,” then presto, I was understood! Suddenly, you find yourself pronouncing “tomahto” or “aluminium foil” like it’s always been that way. It works in reverse, too. In American restaurants, my husband’s very British “water” takes two or three repetitions to get through, so he’s switched to “waddah.”
But pronunciation is only part of the change. Language develops through experience. There are some areas of life in the USA I’m oblivious to because I’ve only experienced them in Britain — this is particularly true of home ownership and childrearing. I have no idea what escrow means or what the point of a Roth IRA is. But I can discuss in detail the dangers of gazumping, and am deeply attached to my Baby Bonds. It’s tricky to discuss some areas of life with Americans any more, because I just don’t have the words for it.
Then there are words that you already know are British because you like the Beatles, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or Doctor Who (depending on your generation or access to BBC America). These are words you use to consciously “fit in.” My mother abandons all thought of the word “TV,” and cheerfully talks about the ‘telly’ for the duration of her visits. As you stay in Britain longer, your knowledge of what I call ‘Briticisms’ expands, and you get more used to words like “smarmy,” “naff,” and “loo.” I suspect there is even a point of pride in using the most complicated British terms with ease and panache, which I only realised when I started using Facebook and had to think about both a British and an American friends reading it.
Another challenges presents itself in the form of inflection. After a time, you might find your voice go up, then down when you ask a question. My niece is seven years old, has lived her whole life in West Virginia, and after a two-week visit with us will ask, “Would you like a sandwich,” with a perfect up/down British cadence. This is one of those funny ways that language is like music. It’s also a great way to spot a Brit who has lived in Australia, because their sentences go up at the end? Like they’re asking a question?
You need to be careful about which words and accents you acquire, however. Like learning another language, you sometimes pick up the vocabulary without understanding the cultural context. In Britain, although things have changed a lot, your accent still says a lot about your social class. So if you pick up a regional accent, or drop the ‘t’s at the ends of words, you can end up giving yourself a cultural identity you didn’t necessarily bargain for. I still don’t entirely understand the class difference between a ‘living room’ and a ‘lounge’ — but there is one. The more time I spend in Britain, the more I learn about these subtle differences. I suppose getting annoyed about class connotations shows there’s a part of me that will always be American.
Of course, at some point everyone hits a wall with their accent. I start sounding more American when I’m really tired, or when I go back to the US for a visit. I’ve refused to say ‘lorry’ instead of ‘truck’ and I’ve taught my kids this one, too. You can see exactly where I’m balanced culturally, by my inability to decide whether to say ‘zee’ or ‘zed’ for the letter Z. Every time I hit it (and there’s a lot of Dr Seuss in my life, so it comes up), I have a little hiccup and never say it the same way twice in a row. I also maintain my American accent for choice phrases, such as ‘For CRYING out LOUD!’ (useful and G-rated). I don’t think I’ll ever be able to pronounce ‘centrifugal’ force, or ‘clematis’.
All in all, my speech gives me a decent measure of how much I have immersed myself in British culture. My American self is still there, both in how I say things and the words I use, but my everyday language is mostly British. And that’s a pretty accurate reflection of my personality at this point in my cross-cultural experience. I wonder if my accent will continue to change as time goes on.But I have a feeling my accent, like my identity now stands astride the Atlantic. One of the realities of long-term expatriate life is that you get the advantages of understanding two cultures, but you can never identify yourself with a simple label again, let alone decide how to pronounce it.
Mich Mazzocco moved to England 12 years ago after growing up in Western Maryland and studying abroad in France, Latvia, and Ireland. She lives in Surrey with her husband and two children.
It’s just another Saturday in China. I am standing in the front of a dreary-looking classroom, trying to coax my students into helping me unlock the computer. Every week I come into the room prepared to integrate technology into my teaching, and every week I have to enlist the help of my unwilling students in order to do it. Although each room has a computer and projector, these are kept locked up to avoid theft. Not only have I not been given a copy of this key, I have no idea where to find it, despite several inquiries.
So every week, I scowl in vain at the locked metal box, eventually asking my students for help. They stare at me, eyes as blank and expressionless as if I had not said anything. I ask again. And again. Finally, one student leaves and returns a few minutes later magically holding the key. Class begins.
Let me make this clear: I am not a teacher. I have no teacher training (formal or otherwise), no aspirations of a teaching career, and only the vaguest of ideas as to how the Chinese education system works. And yet, I also am a teacher. Each week, I am responsible for making sure seven classes of Chinese university students are taught how to speak and write English at their respective levels of learning. I was given no textbook, no syllabus, no training or guidelines of any sort. Just a copy of my schedule and the e-mail address of another teacher in my department I could go to for help.
This semester has, needless to say, had its ups and downs. Not knowing what to teach, I defaulted to explaining American culture for the first half of the semester, until it occurred to me that my Advanced Speaking students were not doing nearly enough, well, speaking. I began incorporating small group discussions, but they politely asked me to stop. I gave them reading assignments, but they complained my selections were too difficult. I assigned them to write a summary paper of a movie and was surprised to find that half my class copied theirs from Wikipedia. When I assigned them a second essay, this one requiring a bibliography, one group e-mailed me to say it was too much of a headache (and yes, many students still copied theirs from Wikipedia, this time being sure to include the References from the bottom of the page). I’ve managed to resolve all of these issues as they’ve come, but sometimes I’m not sure who’s teaching whom.
My classes of double majors are the most challenging, largely because their English is not as good as that of my other students. It doesn’t help that the class is held over the weekend, meaning many students don’t attend and the ones who do come are resentful of it. Asking these students to participate in class is like pulling teeth. Instructing them to form groups for a project elicits bored looks and silence. A few weeks ago, we spent the class going over idioms. I explained what it means to keep it real and to jump the gun and to catch some Zs. After my lecture, I instructed my students to make up a dialogue using three of the idioms I had just gone over. I always smile when I’m assigning a project, as if I can transfer my enthusiasm to them this way. I also always ask whether they have questions. This time, as usual, their response was silence. And, as usual, when it came time to present, I had one group tell me they didn’t do the assignment. Silence and apathy are regular themes with this class.
This is not to say that there aren’t good days, because there are. Every so often, I will hit on a lesson plan that gets my students excited and involved, or I will find a topic that provokes questions. Still, though, I often come away from class feeling frustrated. I don’t know what my students know, I don’t know how to teach them, and I feel caught between shoving my way of teaching down their throats and being a young and naïve pushover.
The week of Thanksgiving, things had been particularly bad. My students were complaining more than usual and trying to get me to take back an assignment I had given them. Several of them had been making it a habit to stay after class to tell me what I did wrong each lesson. I felt bombarded with negativity. I re-read my contract with the university, looking to see how iron-clad my commitment here was.
But a few hours after class with my double majors, I received this e-mail from a student:
It was the unexpected nature of this that really hit me. The rest of my inbox was full of “I-can’t-find-any-sources-for-my-research-paper” e-mails, and it took me a few seconds to understand that she wasn’t asking me for anything. Just, you know, saying thanks. Reading over the e-mail a second time, I blinked hard to make sure it was still there. I took a deep breath, feeling myself physically relax, and I smiled.
Her courage and consideration were enough to make me slide my contract back into its drawer. Though I have to expect that frustration with teaching will continue to be a part of my Chinese experience, this helps. On the really bad days, I will keep this student’s words in mind, and I will smile, and I will ask one more time where the damn computer key is.
Kelsey Gustafson is an editor with Two Passports. She moved from Kansas to Chongqing in 2010 where she teaches English to Chinese students.
In The Beach, the main character, Richard (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), graduates from school and uses the opportunity to detach himself from the comforts of Western modernization, in hopes of finding himself and of finding the ever-elusive paradise. A sentiment I’ve always related to. As he puts it, “For mine is a generation that circles the globe and searches for something we haven’t tried before….”
Picture this; he’s landed in Thailand with nothing but his backpack and a thirst for adventure. Wandering the dark streets of Bangkok, a hustler approaches him and offers him snake blood. “You wanna drink snake blood?” “Wait a minute, did you say snake blood?” “Oh yeah!” “No thanks.” “What’s wrong with snake blood?” “I just don’t like the idea.” “Or maybe you’re scared, afraid of something new!” “No, I just don’t like the idea, that’s all.” “Ah-ha! Just like every tourist—you are all the same, just like America!” So what does Richard do? He drinks it, of course! As he puts it, “Just keep your mind open and suck in the experience.”
This scene replayed over and over in my mind during the flight from my hometown of Nassau, Bahamas to the other side of the globe — China. Having just secured a job in finance, I was heading to the Far East for two weeks of training, this being the first trip of many to come. A lot was on my mind during that flight—what would my colleagues be like? How long will it be before they all agree that I suck and send me back home? But for some reason, that scene kept popping back into my head. After spending the past few years living abroad stateside and in South Africa, I was eager to discover what experiences the Far East held. So after nineteen hours on an airplane, four dumb movies, three plastic meals, two bottles of wine and one Xanex, I finally touched down in Hong Kong.
There I found myself on the corner of Jordan and Yau Ma Tei, staring down the vortex of the total Asian experience. Beneath the orange glow of hundreds of red lanterns, stalls lined the narrow streets for miles with an endless array of knick-knacks to peruse through in hopes of finding some hidden treasure. I took note of the amber glow emanating from the market, its light reaching past the neon signs into the night sky and, taking a step forward, I dove into the tide of people swimming past me.
An endless array of toys, electronics, clothing, shoes, belts, accessories, paintings, and jewelry paraded past my vision. Some stalls appeared to carry nothing more than mere junk and others boasted horrific plastic and polyester designer knock-offs while others displayed more traditional Chinese trinkets to choose from. The mixture of trinkets was so eclectic! Initially the stalls all seemed to sport J-U-N-K. Calculators, pens, cheap (and probably used!) undergarments, plastic cups, and unrecognizable Chinese movies lay shamelessly sprawled out for all to see. Plastic ‘Abibas’ and ‘Mike’ sneakers hung overhead amongst ludicrously fake designer handbags. I even spotted a shiny plastic tote flaunting ‘LL’s’ instead of the Louis Vuitton ‘LV’s’ — need I say more?
The market transformed into a dream however, once you got past this initial hazing. The stalls began to bear rings, jade jewelry, antique cameras and old black & white photos of Victorian Hong Kong scenes. Wooden sculptures of Buddha and dragons became redundant. Hanging good luck charms, caged nightingales, Chinese fans and painted porcelain statuettes now lined the street.
I wandered for what seemed like a very long time gazing over the display tables, avoiding eye contact with aggressive vendors, when the toothy grin of a green Chinese dragon caught my eye. Nestled among an assortment of silver coins, antique Conde Nast pocket watches and jade beads I picked him up and assessed that he was of pure jade due to his heavy weight and irregular coloring.
“Ahh, nice dragon. Made with real jade! Real jade! How many you want? I give you good deal!” was what I instantly heard over my shoulder.
Turning, I met the beaming smile of a non-descript, forty-something year old Chinese guy. Reaching out he grabbed my hand and shook it vigorously, his eyes literally looked like dollar signs. Releasing my hand, he immediately placed a set of jade dragons, along with a pair of blue lions he had caught me eyeing, in front of me. “Buy all these together and I give you good discount!”
I didn’t even know what I wanted yet and this guy was pushing me to buy $300US worth of souvenirs! I decided that the best tactic would be to play hard to get, so I told him to give me minute. About five minutes had passed before I heard, “Are you ready yet? What else you want?” Looking back at my dragons I grabbed one and put together my own set. Now it was time to play poker. Taking my guidebook into account, I knocked 60% off his named price and after another 10 minutes of tug and war—arduous haggling, disagreements and even at one point my turning to leave — I finally walked away with that jade dragon, a blue lion statuette and some not-so-sincere invitations to come again.
On my merry way I went, continuing along the street, which by now had split into two paths due to stalls in the center and store fronts on either side. With buildings on both sides and the blare of naked light bulbs criss-crossing their way overhead, the market appeared to be within a tunnel. It was now about 8 o’clock and the crowd had grown exponentially denser. I wrestled my way through the sea of sweaty bodies. Colors began to blur together, sound became a monotonous drum before I broke free into a small clearing at the end of the tunnel.
Scanning the area I could see curtained stalls with what appeared to be queues formed outside. Upon closer inspection I realized that these were the stalls of the Night Market fortune tellers! Tarot card readers, palm readers and tea leaf readers made their fortunes here. Sneaking a glance through one of the curtains, I spotted an old lady summoning the cosmic wisdom of her crystal ball! Make-shift tattoo parlors enticed with the opportunity for a more memorable keepsake (provided you didn’t die of infection first). A shrill sound pierced my ear and, turning in that direction, I glimpsed what appeared to be the climax of a Cantonese opera street performance. The spicy aroma of burning incense hung on the air. Venturing a few feet into this new world I discovered some authentic Chinese street cafes or Dai Pai Dong, as they are called, offering native delicacies such as bird’s nest in coconut milk, eel and the always delectable sea horse soup.
This was the China I had been searching for. Justin had retired for the night and from here on out, Richard was yearning to break free in search of that ever-elusive paradise. I wondered just what my fortune would say, whether I should risk a Chinese tattoo, or whether one of these kitchens held that snake blood I was searching for.
“Trust me, it’s paradise. This is where the hungry come to feed. For mine is a generation that circles the globe and searches for something we haven’t tried before. Just keep your mind open and suck in the experience. And if it hurts, you know what? It’s probably worth it.”
Richard never did let on as to what exactly occurred that night…
Justin Ritchie is a contributor to Two Passports. He grew up in the Bahamas, went to university in Minnesota and currently makes frequent business trips to China.