One of the cool things about working at a medical university is that when they do an art gallery, it looks like it was part of an anatomy class. I don’t know what the contest really was, but the art was really cool. The pictures were hung on a line outside the teaching building, waving in the cold breeze. Some were simple, as if I had done them. My favorites were all way beyond my ability.

Time is still passing quickly here. Christmas decorations are up in some places, and there is a big purple tree near where we practice kung fu. They even welded steel plates over the fountain grates to make space for it. There are a few shops with lights and tinsel, and some pictures of Santa, but I’m not surprised it’s not a big holiday here.

I had forgotten about the holiday, and about presents. I want to send presents to family, but we really don’t make the money to ship things home. There is always amazon though. I can do some basics, nephews and nieces, but the rest are harder. The distance never really bothers me until I realize what I’m forgetting. What I missed.

It would have been nice to be back for Christmas. I remember promising that once, but the reality is so much more complicated. To do what I want requires that I be away. This is the life I chose, and I’m glad I am here. This is what I want to do, and where I want to be. It’s just easy to forget the cost.

I know the other volunteers have to teach holidays, or get to. I don’t really know if I want to or not. It’s hard to pass on the understanding of holidays I never really focused on. Dia de los Muertos is easier, Fourth of July in the park with Mexican food and baseball. The holidays I care about seem to be mixed with Mexican culture, Filipino family, an endless variety of cultures. I guess that’s about as American as it gets.

I miss the mixture, the endless kinds of food, celebrations, potential. Here, there is all new stuff, but it always follows the culture. There are dashes of culture from around China, but it’s hard to find the ingredients I am looking for, much less the variety. I love it here, but I do miss home sometimes.

I think part of it is the cold. It’s hard to go out for long, hard to really explore. I forgot what the winters were like in New York. We had snow, which turns to sludge the second day. I remember driving in it, chipping a layer of ice off my car so I could go work in a house with no walls. It’s easier to remember the food, the summers, swimming, and the storms.

Here, winter is a time of Yin, and we just passed the Day of Heavy Snow. I don’t really know the proper translation, but we only have a couple more weeks until Winter Solstice. It may still get colder here. It just means it’s a time to rest, practice indoors, and wait for the world to turn.

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I feel like I’m going into hibernation. All I want is to eat and sleep, and the cold outside doesn’t really fade anymore. There is still water frozen on the concrete where someone dumped a bucket a week ago, and it’s really hard to get up in the morning for kung fu.

I kind of took the week off. I wasn’t feeling great on Sunday, so I slept in and relaxed, and spent most of the week doing the same. I went to Taiji that day, but I could barely practice. I know there is something wrong when I can’t let go and actually do my forms. I just felt exhausted, and every move felt strange.

Teaching was hard too. It was hard to project my voice, hard to keep up with what I was saying. It’s like when I feel lazy, or the first glimpse of depression, but it’s just the cold. I want to do things, but it’s cold. In Mexico they called me a polar bear, and I can feel the bear right now. I just want to eat cookies and sleep somewhere warm, but there is too much to be done.

I missed out on a skiing trip today, but there is hope at least. They almost have my size ski boot, which means I have a chance when I get back to the states. Maybe I’ll actually be able to rent some and go, or snowboarding, that would be cool too. I was going to go anyway, hike in the mountains and enjoy the view, but I guess it’s not really in that kind of area. Just a slope and a snow machine out here in the cold. There are still places to go, but I definitely need to plan a bit more for them. Gather my gear and start traveling, like I did in Taipei.

I miss not having to plan these things, just joining my friends on the bus, hiking to god knows where, and relaxing on the way home. I miss the exhaustion, the mud, the fresh air, and the hot springs. So many things that I haven’t found here yet. I just have to keep searching.

I think the hardest part is waking up in the morning. I have never been a morning person. I have trouble getting out of bed before 9, and I’d rather stay in bed till noon rather than eat breakfast. I spent a week sleeping later, and now trying to shift back to waking up at 6:30 for kung fu is taking a lot of work. I’ll get there, tomorrow maybe.

Time is passing fast here, planning and teaching take up a lot of it, but every week I am amazed that it is already the weekend again. It’s nice, actually. There aren’t many places to go, or things to do right now that involve the outdoors. I plan a hike, then sleep and hide from the cold. I’m sure there are movies coming out, but I can stay in and practice Chinese, maybe watch TV. I need a reason to go out, and right now I don’t really have one.

That was one of the benefits of Taiwan, with all the foreigners rushing out to see the island every weekend. I never had to plan because there was always something going on, someplace to be. There was time to relax, time to play, time to work, it was a good balance. I am still glad to be in Lanzhou, in the heart of China, mostly because life was too easy in Taipei.

I had a good rest this week, and I only have a few more weeks of the heavy class schedule before I go back to having too much free time. I had heard about the Peace Corps being feast or famine when it comes to free time, and that is the case here. I have all of February off of teaching, and January is only taken by Training, no actual classes. I’ll have time in the summer, vacations and breaks, so most of my job will be to make friends here.

That has been getting easier too. I have met enough of the students now that most of them know who I am. I don’t always know them, but most of my classes I only teach once a week and none of them really speak in class.

I am still learning how to teach listening, and there are things to do, but I have trouble teaching them for the college English exams. The only way to learn to get better at understanding English is to listen. We watch cartoons, listen to music, and practice with the test, but it’s always hard. Not to practice, but to convince them it’s easy. The brain wants to learn, but repetition is not what it likes. Learning should be fun, it should be easy, and it should take a lifetime.

It’s strange here, slow and fast, busy and empty, cold and, well, colder. I understand exactly why soups are so popular here, more than the flavor, the feeling of being warm as it heats you inside. Right after eating it is one of the only times I am really comfortable in the weather this time of year.

It gets easier all the time, I just have to adapt as I go.

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The Ordinary.

I think the strangest but most useful thing I brought to the desert was my wetsuit. I’ve had it for years, a spring suit I bought in San Diego when I was first learning to surf. I’ve worn it in rivers, oceans, seas, and now in the desert. It drops below freezing here in the mornings, so I wear it to practice kung fu.

It’s tight, but it keeps in heat while I’m practicing. It feels familiar, and it still smells like salt and coconut from the ocean and sunblock. I was worried it would be useless here, especially when I found out I was going to the edge of the Gobi Desert, but it keeps me warmer than anything else when I’m practicing.

If you work hard enough, you sweat, even in the cold here. Layers don’t help when they get wet, they just hold the chill to your body. The wetsuit was designed for this, I sweat, it keeps the water warm, protecting me from the air. The legs and sleeves are short enough to not be a problem, and I can still flex and move like I need to.

My fingers still freeze, and sometimes my face is so cold I can’t speak properly, but I can practice, and it feels so good to get warm again. I got used to the cold surfing in San Diego, all those years in the cold ocean water for hours. I was a lot fatter then, so I was warmer, but it really wasn’t worth the trade. At least the wetsuit comes off easy.

I’ve been working a lot more here, to the point where there is never really a day off. Feast or famine, but both have their place. Another month and my schedule drops back down to something easier. Plus I can reuse some of the lesson plans I’m building now to teach those students too. I haven’t been hiking, or traveling much, but it’s really to cold to be outdoors for more than a few hours anyway.

I’m having a mini-thanksgiving with some of the volunteers tonight. Baked ziti isn’t really tradition, but with the ingredients I have, this is what I can make. It’s hard to find all I need to make Mexican food, and American ingredients are expensive, but Italian ingredients always seem to be easy to find. It would be nice to find fresh basil though.

Life here is just life, nothing fancy, nothing complicated. It’s unfamiliar, but still the same as it ever was. The language is different, but I talk to people here as much as I did back home. The oddities never seem cultural as much as individual, a choice someone makes rather than a cultural norm. Maybe it’s because this is my third country to live in, or maybe I just found a comfortable medium where everything seems ordinary. Ordinary, but spectacular.


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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.

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