Asking Why

This place is such a mix of the old and new worlds, always changing, but there are still traces of the world that was. It’s in the details, like the brooms they use to sweep the streets and the small fires to commemorate the dead. The last couple weeks have been busy here and the days are getting shorter and colder.

I picked up a lot of new classes, coteaching listening and speaking classes. The students are all young, mostly freshmen, and it’s weird to be in a place where I must be old because I’m twenty years older than them, but I don’t really know that I count as an adult yet. Growing up or growing old. I don’t really know there is enough benefit to either.

I have added a couple hundred people to my phone in the last two weeks. I just give my contact information to everyone. I talk to people in English, or sometimes Chinese. Some want help with homework, or projects. I’ve edited letters of recommendation, explained poetry in textbooks, and shared old music with teachers and students. The moments are short, but everything teaches me more about the country I live in.

People here like to use names while texting, but out of place from ordinary speech. Sometimes I’ll get a text, then just my name, then another text. In English, that would mean you really want my full attention. “Hey. James. What do you like to eat?” The tone of the sentence feels like it’s really important, but the words are ordinary.

I’ve been trying to explain this to some of my students, but explanations just slow them down. There is a belief that you need to understand to speak a language, that you need to start with rules and move backward, but that isn’t how we learn languages. In school in San Diego I learned the same way, repetition and explanation. But all of us learn to speak before we can even understand the concept of why. We just speak, repeat, listen, and understand. We don’t stop to translate, to check the dictionary for a word, we just do it.

That is what I have been trying to teach my advanced speakers. To feel the language, not to think about it. Just speak, don’t ask why. Most native speakers never know why they say something, and only linguists really understand the depths of a language. Why comes years after we really learn to communicate. That’s part of why teaching children is so easy. They never ask why, they just feel the emotion of the words.

When I taught in Taipei, it was easy and fun. I would say stupid things, quote movies and songs they had never heard. Any random word they said that reminded me of something, I would say. From quoting Rough Riders whenever I called my student Ryder to speak to quoting the Warriors when asking them if they want to play. I would sing the stupid songs my mother sang to me, like when students said they were hungry.

I did it because it worked. They repeat the stupid noises and words, learning accents and pronunciation reflexively. They never asked, they just had fun. English is a big inside joke, filled with cultural references, old sayings, and bits of other languages that we have claimed as our own. Trying to find out why takes a lifetime. Learning how to speak is so much easier.

That is the point I have come to. Trying to teach the students a better way to learn. Not to teach them the language, but how to keep learning after the class is over. How to find a way to love learning. I think that is the hardest concept, to feel before you ask why.

Posted in 2017-11, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

To Change the World

So next week I will have two to three times the teaching hours I do now. I knew it was going to change, but it’s more than I expected. I’ll find out more soon enough. This is what I was looking forward to anyway, the chaos and difficulty. I am kind of glad I had so much time to adjust to living here, but this is going to be fun. I am glad I had time to catch up on tv before I started this.

Some things are still weird here, but that is just me trying to find my way. I have a tendency to break every routine I start. Taichi practice has suffered a bit, but Xingyi and the other Taiji class has made up for it. Cooking, eating, restaurants, travel, just constantly changing.

I went up Baitashan with Muqin last Sunday. It’s a beautiful mountain with a lot of temples, but an easy hike. She brought enough snacks to feed us for a week. Mostly junk food too, nothing really healthy. We spent the trip stealing the bag from each other so the other wouldn’t have to carry it. That trip didn’t need snacks, but it was a good hike on a beautiful day.

The week of Halloween here isn’t really much. Some of the other volunteers had students throwing parties, and mine decided to have a movie night on Friday. I made some suggestions, but I don’t know what they chose to watch yet. At least I can take the leftover snacks to share. There was too much left after the hike.

I am stuck right now between thinking what is coming is too much, and knowing that it never has been. There is nothing that I cannot learn how to do, nothing that doesn’t wind up being easy, but anxiety never listens to reason. It has become easier to ignore, but the voice is always there. It’s strange how no matter how far I travel, nothing can ever convince fear that the world is not what it thinks it is. But maybe that’s a good thing.

I know I’m going to be busy, but I also know what I am good at. I know I can do this, but I really hope it doesn’t wind up taking all my time. I don’t think it will, but I worry it will. I don’t think it’s hard, but I worry it is. Most of the time I just do things. I practice, I speak, I move, I make a lot of mistakes, but I learn. This weekend will be harsh, planning classes for the week, trying to set up patterns to be sure I don’t forget anything. Finding places and times for all that I want to do.

There are moments of panic, questions of why I came all this way when there is a perfectly good life back home. Why do I make my home here, letting go of the places I’ve been. Why I hesitate to stop traveling, even though I keep finding awesome places to be. The truth is, I have lived that easy life, that life of comfort, and I hated it.

There was never enough challenge to who I am. Never enough of a mirror to show me the flaws. The world here is so vastly different than what I am used to, but that was the point. To hit something hard and see what cracks. Every time I heal, I have the chance to heal stronger. Every day is another chance to do something I could never have done back home. Even when I wanted to, the world fights against change. It was easier to move to a place where everything I do is strange, to me and the people around me, then change.

That is the conundrum. Change the world to change myself, or change myself to change the world. I could be weird for humor back home, but there was never enough of a challenge to really test what I am doing. Trying to explain that to someone worlds away fills in the blanks, shows me all the assumptions I make based on everything I have ever known. Since those things are not in place here, I have to find a way to explain them.

I think, in the end, I made my life hard to make it easy. Easy to break, easy to explore, easy to do all the things that are hard back home. It’s not just hard to do, it’s hard to even see the possibility. Change the world to change myself. I studied philosophy, psychology, and sociology, and I don’t really know which has the most effect on me. But when I’m traveling, it’s easier to change the world first.

Posted in 2017-11, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments


Back in San Diego my twenty-year high school reunion is starting, I’m on the other side of the world with a long weekend ahead. Xingyiquan in the morning, Taiji in the afternoon, dinner, class, and a mountain to climb tomorrow. And most of this started ten years ago.

I remember being at my last reunion at the house of blues. None of my close friends were there, but most of them were in other grades anyway. Hotsauce is class of ’98, the Ferret is ’96, and then there were the friends I lost along the way. I never was that close to people back then. I didn’t talk, or join clubs. I played football so I would get some exercise, but my life was in books.

Then 2007 came along and I was in a room surrounded by strangers. People I once knew, but when I think back there are more dragons than people. People who had changed, and some who hadn’t. I don’t think I even really talked to anyone. 7-Up was there. I remember her from my oldest memories at Hilltop, but I don’t think I said more than one sentence before I ducked out. I used to have a much bigger problem talking to people, especially beautiful women.

Up till then, my life was a wasteland with a single oasis of a trip to Greece. I still remember that trip, better than the four years I lived in New York, slowly spiraling in depression. I’m pretty sure I just spent that time getting fat and losing my mind. I am lucky my sister decided to move back to San Diego or I probably never would have left.

I left the reunion early, failing to connect with the world, but at least I found perspective. It was never a main driving force, but in the back of my mind there has been a voice reminding me that I want to have something worth talking about at the next reunion. Something interesting to say. To look back on a life that was worth living. I think I have that, but people here are fascinated by America, so I seem more interesting than I would normally. Perspective can be manipulative, making us believe that the world is centered on us because the mountains move on the horizon as we do.

I live this life, so I never find it as fascinating as the people outside of it. If you condense what I do, I live a fascinating life. Places traveled, lying in bed having conversations with three people in three different languages, climbing mountains, teaching, learning, playing, fighting. There isn’t much routine, even when there is a schedule. I never know if I’m going to wind up having a twenty-minute conversation in Mandarin with the street food vendor, or walk into a class as a guest but spend the next hour and a half teaching. I am chaotic as a person, so I find the chaos comforting.

I wish I could have been there, to see them and to see me. I don’t think I would recognize myself from back then, but then I often see myself in the mirror and it takes me a moment to recognize the features. Maybe it would have gone well, but there is always a trap in going back to places you’ve been before. It’s too easy to fall back into being who you were.

Sometimes that’s a good thing, like visiting an old friend, remembering things a bit brighter than they ever were. Sometimes, they are a shitty friend who can’t do anything but bring up old pain and things they would have done differently. The past is where I came from, but I’m glad I don’t live there anymore. I would have really loved to visit though.

Posted in 2017-10, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Waiting for the Tide

With the new campus opening and everything that goes with it, I’m only teaching two classes right now. That combined with the clinic hours means I’m working about half as much as expected, so I fill my days with Chinese, kung fu, and relaxing. I’m here to teach, and while I might have a week or two that are fairly slow, I know it will pick up soon, but it’s not the trial I expected.

In Mexico and Taipei, I worked twenty-five or thirty hours a week, so there was enough free time and work to balance life. Here, my job is to be part of the community. Right now, the school is busy so I find other places to be, other people to talk to, and other things to do. I keep in touch with the school, but I am waiting for them to settle enough to give me more hours, co-teaching or otherwise.

I think I’m just not used to the salary. I get paid no matter how much I work, since almost everything I do is part of integration, language learning, or teaching. However, when there is no class, it feels like vacation since I love the language and the integration parts of being here. Teaching is awesome, but not easy. Hanging out with people, talking to them, asking questions, and lying in bed listening to music while I write and translate is not.

The reason we have been invited to China is to teach, so that is the first goal. Everything matters here, but without the first goal, I’m not really serving my community. I can find places to teach, I know enough people in middle schools and high schools to find classes to help, or English Corners to join, but I love this University. It’s still the perfect place for me, but I’m can’t do much beyond wait.

I know it will work out, and when I am not talking about it, or writing about it, I forget the stress and I just live here. I eat with friends, I walk across the city, I practice taiji, xingyi, and bagua, and I eat amazing food. Life here is awesome, but I am ready to serve.

We did have a Peace Corps sponsored Chinese class last weekend, and apparently I study more than anyone else who signed up for it. I made a lot of mistakes when learning Spanish, so my Spanish is very weird. A mix of formal and informal, poetry and cursing. I can be understood, but I don’t think I learned as well as I could.

Now, I just add it into life. I study in Chinese by writing a journal of what I did today. A few new words, but mostly just practice with what I already know. I play Chinese music in the background to help me focus. Now, when I play Chinese music, my brain shifts into Chinese easier, so I listen to it when I go out to eat, to set my mind into the language I expect to speak. I translate menus while I watch movies. I review them before going to a restaurant so I know what to order. Sometimes I even write sentence patterns and then fill them in with random sentences for practice. Mostly, it’s just chaos, but how do you fill the ocean with water? Drop by drop.

Right now, I am more a student than I am a teacher. I talk to my friends here in English to learn culture. The questions they ask me teach me about what they find strange, and what they don’t know about us. I talk to them in Chinese just to practice speaking, listening to the Lanzhou accent to learn to understand how they speak here. They still understand me better than I do them, but I’m making progress. I study kung fu, people, and life here in general. Soon, I’ll get back to studying by teaching.

Life is good here, but I think my only complaint is that it is too easy. I did not set out to find an easy life, and when it becomes difficult I know I will learn so much more. For now, I settle in the sun on my balcony, relax, and wait for the tide to come in. I’ll be on my way soon enough.

Posted in 2017-10, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment