Sunday, July 23, 2017

July 7, 2017 Buga, Colombia

July 7, 2017

You can't say no to salsa.

I have been in Colombia for only a week, and I have already danced on two separate occasions, once in Bogota and once here in Buga.  It has been eons since I last partner danced, and no alcohol had been involved in those days.  But the Colombian people seem to feel it's just as natural to dance with a stranger as it is to talk with one over a drink or two--their warmth has melted my cold northern blood a bit, I must say.

The courtyard at Hotel EcoBoutique in Bogota.
                                   A singer and a few dancers (Bogota).

Or maybe it's the weather.  As of now it's about 83, with a 55% chance of rain (typical for the jungle).  One of the 15 Colombian teacher's we're training told us that the weather report here is always inaccurate, and so far I think she's right; it has not rained once in Buga (at least not during my waking hours), and the humidity is not as bad as in Micronesia, in spite of what I'd read online.  (I honestly don't think any place is more humid than Micronesia, although Mississippi in July comes close.)

We did have a rather strange rain two days ago, however.  Shreds of blackened sugar cane leaves (burned to prevent the workers' hands from being sliced up) slowly floated down around the compound, floating like feathers onto our shoulders and clothing.  The IMCA hotel, where we are staying, has an small open courtyard in the center, and the floor was sprinkled with the ashes here, too.

A typical day here begins at about 6 am if I'm going walking around "the farm"; or 7 am if I sleep in.  I shower and apply bug repellent before walking to the kitchen/dining room.  Zika, dengue fever, and malaria have all been reported in the area.  I've had three mosquito bites so far (not bad for me, but being reminded of the burn of tropical mosquito bites was not pleasant the first time) and so far I don't seem to be dying of anything.

Our breakfasts are usually eggs and an arepa, a sort of fry bread made of corn.  Sometimes there is cereal or yogurt.  There is almost always fruit and fruit juice (mango, passion fruit, guava, pineapple, or papaya).  Today we had little croissants with the local queso inside (sort of the consistency of feta cheese, but with a milder flavor).  We have also had a fruit almost exactly like a Kosraean tangerine, with a green rind that is easy to peel and is filled with small orange fruit that tastes like lime and tangerines had a love affair.

 At El Parque de las Iguanas in Buga

Our morning training session begins at 8:30 and breaks at 10:30 for a snack (more fruit and/or fruit juice, and sometimes something fried, like plantains), and we continue for another hour until lunch.  At this time, more bug repellent follows, because the dining room is completely open-air--which is lovely with breezes but involves a lot of flies and mosquitoes.  Lunch has been beef, chicken, or fish, with white rice, some kind of small vegetable or salad (the beets were fantastic!), and something fried.  After lunch we have kind of a siesta from 1:00 - 3:30.  Sometimes people take a taxi to town to go shopping or sightseeing (the basilica and the iguana park are the only sights, really), or else stay behind to sleep, swim, or catch up on work or e-mails. 

                                                                                Things that will not make it through U.S. Customs.

The afternoon wakes up a bit with a snack, usually more fruit and fruit juice, although we've had jello and yesterday we had brownies with ice cream!  Our participants usually present their book club activities or lesson plans in the afternoon, with dinner from 6-7 (more of the same), and evening session from 7 until 8:30 or so.  My co-teacher and I usually help groups prepare for their presentations until 9:30 or so. 

It is after sunset that the geckos really take off their chirping—catching mosquitoes and cheering each other on, it seems.  They remind me so much of the lamwher on Pohnpei!  Same size, color (a kind of peachy-pinkish-grey), and sound!

After dinner and evening session, it's more bug spray and beer (the popular brand is Club, pronounced cloob, which is basically Bud Light with an Inca drawing on the can) and/or sleep.

I am so much busier here than I ever was in Micronesia, and three or four of the students are quite fluent in English, so we are always laughing and talking.  I love being in the jungle again--for the most part the air is comfortably humid, and I hardly need lotion at all.  I love seeing all of the green plants—lime trees, banana trees, mango trees, papaya trees, sugar cane—and the brilliantly colored birds (yellow canarios and a few others I don’t know the names of yet) and flowers (birds of paradise and bromeliads that look like pink pineapples).  I love seeing how well the dogs and cats are treated (even though there are only a couple of each and they are quite shy, they don't seem to have fleas or ticks and have all of their limbs and no mange).  

Monday, January 16, 2017

Health care is not a political issue!

All men are created equal.
I keep coming back to the "all men are created equal" thing.
Intrinsically, from the minute we're born, the life of the king's son is equal to the life of the scullery maid's daughter.  The President's life is equal to mine, no matter how much money, power, or property either of us have.  To me, this means all Americans deserve affordable health care, period.  This is not a political issue.  Republicans and Democrats both get cancer.  They both are rich and they both are poor.  This is about the human body being susceptible to illness and old age, no matter who you are. 

Before I continue:  I am not a health care or legal expert, just a concerned citizen venting on her blog.  I tend to vote Democrat, but I am not averse to voting for a Republican if they can do a better job.  Please keep that in mind as you read.
Thomas Jefferson, the main author of the Declaration of Independence, supposedly believed "[w]e are all equal in the eyes of God, and we are all entitled to equal rights." (  2002.  Freedom:  A History of Us.  "The Declaration of Independence".  Picture History and Educational Broadcasting Corporation.)   Of course Jefferson and the other framers of our Constitution weren't perfect men.  Jefferson owned slaves, so his definition of equality is questionable, in my opinion.  Still, I wonder what Jefferson would think about the idea of millions of Americans going without healthcare--when providing that health care was just accomplished by the last administration.
Check out the 9th Amendment: 
"The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage 
others retained by the people."
I'm not a legal scholar, of course, but basically to me it reads:  "Just because we're not putting health care down here in writing doesn't mean people don't have a right to it."  I know a lot of folks have used the 9th as the "right to privacy" amendment.  Legally, privacy means:  "freedom from unauthorized intrusion".  As a woman, I consider anyone's restriction of my right to access women's health resources (including Planned Parenthood--cancer screens, birth control for my endometriosis, etc.) an unauthorized intrusion.  Gun rights activists get angry if their rights are threatened, but a gun is not a body part.  A gun is a possession separate from your body.  I believe people can own a gun if they want--that's a right we have in this country, although I personally abstain from gun ownership.  But if you are upset over restrictions on guns and ammo, imagine how I feel when someone tries to tell me what I can and cannot do with my body!
I honestly don't want to get into the whole debate about abortion or gun ownership.  That's not what this is about.  Again, these are my opinions, and you can agree or disagree because this is America.
I don't want this blog entry to be about politics.  I do want it to be about people having equal value as human beings, and having the same access to health care, regardless of income, religion, color, sexual orientation, etc., etc., etc.
And what about the pursuit of happiness?  How can one pursue happiness if they've got MS, or cancer, or some other painful and/or extremely expensive illness?  How can one pursue happiness if they are penniless due to paying for their treatments out of pocket--selling their house, their car, pawning family jewelry, etc.? 
There are those who say, "Suck it up.  Life is pain.  Learn from Job:  you can be happy and faithful to God even in the midst of your suffering."  And, yes, there are those incredible, inspiring people who have done just that.  Bethany Hamilton, one of my heroes, lost her arm in a shark attack but still surfs competitively.  Helen Keller, another hero, lost her sight and hearing to an illness but still went to college.  There is a time to complain and a time to get up and get on with your life.  But I wonder how many of us--including myself--would have a hard--if not impossible--road trying to follow their example without decent health care.  I'm pretty sure both of my heroes had access to good doctors and medicine when it mattered.

We have proven that affordable health care can be made more accessible to our nation's citizens.  If you care nothing for the value of lives you see as less than your own, surely you can still see that a healthy employee is more productive and therefore gains more profits for the company.  And if your company won't provide health insurance for its workers, then you should at least stand back when the federal government steps up to keep your workers healthy.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

As a teacher, I believe that the most important insight we can gain into the minds of our students--who they are, what they understand about a text or a lesson, etc.--often comes from written, rather than spoken, assignments.  Writing is a huge piece of nearly every high school and college course, and being able to communicate ideas in writing is a skill many people take into their careers.  What happens, however, when we teach writing to reluctant writers?  How can we get them excited about the process, from brainstorming to publication?

            MindMeister, while perhaps not the best tool available for helping students with brainstorming (Prezi or Haiku Deck, anyone?), can certainly help increase student enthusiasm.  It would be much more exciting to brainstorm an essay or other project with colorful, multi-media software than with a simple paper and pencil!  Many of our students have access to a computer these days, and cannot imagine life without the Internet.  Why not show our students what kind of tools are available online? 
            Learning to use MindMeister intuitively was a bit difficult, however.  I was frustrated early on because I didn't understand what keys to use or what some of the features did.  Even the wizard that automatically pops up at the beginning of your first mind map was not the most helpful!  After starting a couple of different mind maps and abandoning them when I couldn't figure out how to do something, I pulled up a few YouTube tutorials.  These were helpful--so much so that I felt embarrassed, because not only were the commands ridiculously easy (tab key, enter key, escape key), the instructor kept praising the "intuitive" nature of the program--which had not been my experience!  In addition, I did not find any helpful videos thoroughly explaining the need--or instructions for--the connection tool which had so frustrated me.

            Once my classmates presented Prezi and Haiku Deck, I felt my enthusiasm for MindMeister (low though it had already been) fall even farther.  Prezi came with more bells and whistles for free, and Haiku Deck was so easy to use--with such stellar results--that MindMeister seemed like a waste of time. 

            I feel that technology shouldn't just be easy for our students to use--it should be easy to teach, as well.  During my presentation, I felt that there were a handful of things I still did not understand about the tech, and there was a question or two I couldn't answer.  Part of the responsibility for this, of course, can be placed firmly upon my own shoulders--I could have watched more tutorials and learned.  However, some of the cons of my MindMeister presentation were genuinely on the tech side.  The templates and images provided by MindMeister were quite thin compared to other similar technologies online.  For example, Haiku Deck provides a large picture bank for free, and Prezi makes it easy to include images, slideshows, and more--without asking the user to pay for the service, as MindMeister does.  If I had to choose between the three to use as a professional, let alone teach to my future students, MindMeister sadly wouldn't make the cut.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Technology in Second Language Education

Question for my classmates:  Suppose you were working with immigrants and refugees.  You receive a grant for $1000.  Would you invest in a library, or computers for your students?  Why?

For my other readers:

I've never been a super-fan of technology.  At the grocery store, I get the items that won't scan.  With my laptop, sometimes (I swear this is true) accounts will be created and software will be downloaded that I never clicked "OK" on.  Even now, I've somehow got two random Google accounts, which is a bit scary because I don't remember creating the second one--but it has my picture on it and everything, and somehow I'm able to login to it.

Signing up to take Technology in Second Language Education at Gonzaga University was not high on my priority list this summer.  I'd actually been leaning toward History of English--give me reading and writing--tangible objects like books and paper and pens--yet most of my friends were signing up for Technology.  I knew I needed to improve my computer skills and get over my fears.  With a deep breath, I made the commitment to Tech for part of my summer class schedule.

So here I am writing a blog about technology!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

An American Girl

With a name like Gipsy Danger, she seemed destined for international travel from the very beginning.

My Shanghainese street cat has now logged more cage time than an MMA fighter, I'm fond of saying.

We've arrived in America.

But it wasn't easy.


Her story began about two years ago, when she wandered past the lobby of the apartment building I lived in.  My neighbors, Balvinder and Cissy, were with me on the couches, drinking 3 RMB (50 cent) 750 ml bottles of Qingdao beer.  Bal had Macklemore's "Thrift Shop" on repeat and was smoking cigars.


"A kitty!"  I exclaimed.  I'd had a couple of Qingdaos by this point, so my enthusiasm wasn't unexpected.  Cissy followed my pointing finger and drew a quick inhale.  "She's lovely," she breathed.

And she was.  The kitten was five months old, we found out later, and had the most incredible markings--gray and black tiger stripes and orange marmalade whirled over a white belly and four white paws.  At the corner of each eye was a downward cheetah tear stripe that could've made her look pathetic--but her eyes were bright and her body language was confident and curious.

As Cissy and I cooed over the kitten and tried to coax her into the lobby.  "That cat is from the street.  Probably has fleas and God knows what," Bal said.

Cissy and I zipped to the nearby convenience store and bought a can of mackerel to feed the cat, and a few more beers.  The cat sniffed curiously at the fish we'd placed outside the building, but didn't eat it.

"Well, there goes my 7 kuai," I grumbled, but I was smiling.

"I'm talking to myself right now," Bal griped from the couches.  The cat followed Cissy and I back inside.  She made figure eights around Bal's ankles and meowed, purring.

"This is a helicopter cat!"  Bal said.  He seemed delighted now that he was receiving the cat's attention.

I picked her up and checked under her fur.  "No fleas.  Or flea eggs," I reported.  My orange tabby back home, Sitka, had had quite a few of both when I'd gotten him five years ago.  It'd been an easy fix, but in China?  Probably can't pick up a flea collar at the supermarket, I thought.

"Boy or girl?"  Cissy asked.

"Hold her upside down and check!"  Bal laughed. 

We all giggled.  "I can't tell, I'm not a vet," I said, "but most calico cats are female.  My guess is girl."

We all commented on the silky smoothness of her fur, and how she didn't appear to be starving.  Cissy and Bal both asked several people, including the lobby security guard, about the cat.  The answer was always the same:  "Homeless."

A couple of hours later we'd grown attached, and Cissy asked me if I'd take her home.  "I can't take her, I already have a cat at home!"  I protested, holding up my hands.  "I can't cheat on Sitka!"  I'd only been in Shanghai for a couple of months, and I was only planning on staying for a year.  But Cissy was Chinese, and her and Bal were committed to staying in Shanghai for the next year or two.

I told Bal about how my sister had captured kittens in her hoodie, and so he did the same--we rode the elevator up to their floor.

The next morning I showed up at their door with cat litter, a plastic basin for a litter box, and some kitten food I'd purchased at Jiadeli, the local supermarket.  Cissy was in the pajamas that Bal's mom had made for her, and she looked delightfully Asian in the bright red and pink colors.

"Oh, this cat," she started worriedly.  "She's too wild, Bal says.  She kept running over us all night, meowing and meowing.  Bal says we might put her back on the street."

I remembered how Sitka had been at that age.  "She'll outgrow it," I said, as we set up Gipsy's things.

Gipsy wouldn't have survived the winter at her young age, a Chinese vet later revealed.  A subtropical city, Shanghai is nowhere near as cold as Spokane, but we did have a couple of freezing cold mornings.

But Gipsy had other challenges ahead of her, most notably, an unstable living situation.  Frustrated with China and especially EF, Bal had resigned his position in April and returned to England.  At that point, he and Cissy had been married only a couple of months, and she'd decided to return to her hometown of Guangzhou in the south to take care of her ailing mother.  Taking Gipsy was not an option--Cissy already had a dog at home, and she'd be busy with her visa application and studying for her IELTS (English language test). 

I encouraged Cissy to call the two Shanghai animal shelters we could find, but one never returned her call and the other was full.

Cissy missed Bal terribly.  Though we watched Jason Statham movies and went to a pub quiz once a week, I was often working, so Cissy was quite lonely.  She also told me she'd started feeding Gipsy people food. 

"She likes it.  She'll eat anything, even the spicy dishes...But then she vomits."  Cissy looked at me, her eyes watery.  "I'm trying to get her ready to return to the street."

"What are you talking about?"  I demanded.  "You know I'm taking that cat."

"What?"  she asked, startled. 

"Sure, I'll take her," I committed, "and I'll try my best to find her a good home."

When Cissy left at the end of May, she hugged me tightly--something she didn't usually do--with tears in her eyes.  "Thank you so much for everything," she said.

I asked around:  coworkers, my chiropractor.  I posted a cute sign with Gipsy's picture at Avocado Lady, a small local shop patronized by many wealthy ex-pats.  I went home to Spokane for three weeks and had a coworker take care of Gipsy.  By the time I got back to Shanghai, I was growing quite attached to her.

I started looking into taking her home with me.  Oh, the regulations!  Oh, the horrors of quarantine!  Oh, the horrors of shipping animals in China!  I heard about epic quarantines--beloved family pets incarcerated in cages for six months; the pets were never the same afterward.  I heard about pets suffocating or freezing to death due to Chinese airline staff failing to pressurize the cargo hold.

I learned that certain airlines would allow in-cabin pets (thank you, United).  I learned that Chinese bureaucracy, while a slow nightmare of paperwork and money, can be handled, even if it means waiting in the vet's office for two hours with your cat for that official pet health certificate that cost 1150 RMB (about $200 US).  I discovered that China has strange demands--the rabies shot Gipsy had gotten the year before wasn't "official", so she was revaccinated, and micro chipped, on the same day--in spite of my reservations that the microchip wouldn't work in the US. 

When Gipsy and I arrived at Pudong International Airport an hour before our check-in time on July 8th, she'd already been in the carrier for an hour. 

Going through security, I had to take her out of her carrier (with about 25 curious Chinese passengers behind me, and doors opening up to the rest of the airport on either end) so that they could scan it.  What if she runs away?  I was sweating and tense by the time we got to our gate, and the sweat really popped when an cute female employee approached me, saying my carrier was too big to fit under the seat.

"Well, what am I supposed to do now?"  I said angrily.  Why tell me now, after security and everything?  It seemed that everything I did in China had some kind of problem, and after two years, I was more than ready to leave.

My rude response should've earned me a smack in the face, but the employee and her coworker called the purser of the plane to come out and speak to me. 

"My name is Laura," she said, shaking my hand, "and I have nine cats myself."  She smiled at me and eyed the carrier with a sharpness.  "Well, the flight isn't fully booked.  Let's go for it."  (Again, thank you, United.)

And the employees were right.  The carrier was about a centimeter too tall to go under the seat, but I shoved and tried.  About five minutes after we got settled, a couple of older Chinese ladies wanted to sit together and asked the attendant in Chinese to ask me to move.  I rolled my eyes and grumbled, but we ended up sitting in an aisle seat, rather than a window, a blessing on an 11-hour flight, and had an empty seat between us and a quiet Chinese man.

We landed in San Francisco.  The Customs guy calmly and carefully looked over her Chinese certificate and took her Ziploc baggie of cat food.  "You and I both know what this is," he said kindly, "but Uncle Sam has rules."

"That's okay," I sighed.  "She's not eating, anyway."

And she wasn't.  No eating, no drinking, no bathroom accidents.  I was starting to wonder if Gipsy's body had completely shut down.  I was starting to worry, but I couldn't do anything about it.  I sweated some more.  I'd only slept a couple of hours the night before we left, and maybe dozed an hour on the flight from Shanghai to San Fran.  I have no idea if Gipsy slept at all.

Again, we had to take her out so that security could scan her cage.  This time we were allowed to wait in a private room with ridiculously high walls.  I kept telling Gipsy how much I loved her, what a good cat she was being, and how proud I was of her.  My mom had sent a hormone collar from the US with supposedly calming effects, and although Gipsy still seemed nervous, it appeared to be working.  When the TSA guy returned, he commented, "By now, most cats are climbing those walls.  You've got a nice, mellow cat."  I beamed with pride and put her back in her carrier, and she was pretty good about it.

We landed in Denver.  And there we waited.  And waited.

A computer glitch had grounded some United flights earlier that day, I learned.  We'd already planned for a 7 or 8 hour layover, but it got later and later.  I'd eaten, but, as the airport's restaurants closed down, I felt hungry again.  I peered into Gipsy's cage.  She seemed fine, and she hadn't eaten.  I drew strength from that.  As we waited some more, I curled up around her carrier, draped between two chairs, freezing cold.  I'd forgotten my new jacket in San Francisco--my only worry then had been getting us through Customs.  The sweat seemed to have frozen on my body.  I was tempted to take Gipsy's blanket and use it for myself, but I kept it draped over her carrier--partly to keep her warm and partly to block off any sights that may have frightened her.

Finally we got on the flight.  It was full.  Gipsy's carrier wouldn't go under the seat.  I had to prop my feet on top of it, and my backpack on top of my knees.  It's only for a couple of hours.  Strangely, I never got reminded or reprimanded about her carrier or my backpack.  Lucky.  No one bugged us.

We finally, finally landed in Spokane.  It was about 1 am.  And I could hear jack hammering coming from near the luggage carousel.  My sister Laura met us and I could tell she was worried about us and the jack hammering. 

"I think Gipsy's kind of in shock, anyway," I said, laughing, loopy from lack of sleep.  It hadn't quite sunken in that we'd made it--that we were in America.  I unnecessarily reminded my sister that we'd lived next to a construction site for two years.  I joked, "It's probably a 'welcome home' sound for her."


It's been over a week now, and Gipsy has met Sitka and Nellie, my sister's cat.  She's explored both levels of the house.  So much space compared to our tiny 40 square meter studio in Shanghai!  Yesterday, she even went outside with the other two cats.  She has fallen for Sitka, following him around like a starry eyed teeny bopper.  There's been some hissing, and some batting of paws, but no biting or scratching.

My Shanghainese girl is now an American girl--out in the open spaces of the West, enjoying the fresh air and grass under her paws, exploring this New World--just like I'd promised.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Freedom is...

"They can take our lives, but they'll never take...our...FREEDOM!!!"

Of course Braveheart's line kindles a fire within me.  As an American, freedom is my middle name.

Interestingly, there are things I am free to do in China that I can't do back home.  I can walk down the street, or onto public transportation, with a can of beer in my hand.  I can light off a fistful of fireworks whenever the occasion (or the mood) strikes.  I can smoke anywhere I want, even if there are a dozen signs claiming "NO SMOKING", because those signs in China are just there for decoration.  If I had a scooter, I could ride it onto the sidewalk and disregard any and all traffic lights.  If I had a kid, I could hold him/her over a garbage can to relieve themselves in public, and no one would call C.P.S. on me.

But what is public drinking compared to the right of free speech?  In my country, I can say whatever I want to about my government, and I won't disappear into some gulag, never to be seen again.  Even now, people disappear in China after saying politically volatile things. 

What is lighting off explosives compared to freedom of religion?  If I decide to run for political office in the U.S., I don't have to swear to renounce religion.  As a member of the Communist Party in China, you'd have to swear your only allegiance was to Communism. 

I don't have to put my age, gender, photo, health, or marital status on my resume. 

Feeling as I do, I still wanted my students to talk about the idea of freedom without feeling as if some foreigner were judging them.  Because the 4th of July is coming up, I thought it'd be a good idea to give them just a few minutes of U.S. history--specifically, why the U.S. declared its independence--and then the rest of class would mostly be open-ended discussion.

When I talked about the colonists' complaints against England (search and seizure; quartering soldiers; imprisonment without knowing the charges against you; and of course, taxation without representation), my students' eyes widened.  In China nowadays, and especially in Shanghai, some of these ideas are as foreign as they are in the U.S.

"After more than 160 years of this, the colonists were pretty upset.  Many of them had only lived in the colonies--they'd never been to England.  Sometimes whole generations had only lived in Boston or New York.  That made them more American than British (even though the United States of America wasn't a country yet!).  But the British government--over 5000 kilometers away over the ocean--was still ruling their lives.  Quite unfairly at times.  And that's why they declared independence."

I knew I was simplifying, but when your classes only run 50 minutes and you don't see the same students on a daily basis, you have to come to the point as fast as you can.

Still, sometimes teaching opens a door in me I didn't know was there.  For the first time, I could really put myself in the shoes of my ancestors.  I could feel a bit of what they must've felt.

I'd prepared about 20 discussion questions for my students--What is freedom?  What freedoms do you have, and which ones do you wish you had?  Is working 40 hours a week like slavery?  Should everyone in the world be able to bear arms (own a gun)?  I knew a lot of my students would be more comfortable if I ran the class as a partner discussion, where only one person might hear their opinions on the idea of freedom.  Running the class this way also would keep me from overwhelming them with my own opinions--at least, that was my hope.

Here are some of the things I caught from three different classes:

I try to escape from my mother's controlling!  [Laughter]  I can't make choices by myself.  [Her parents had said] "If you don't go to Fudan University, we won't send you to another one, and we won't visit you."

[Freedom means] I can read any book I want, watch any program I want...In our country, there are too many limitations, and you cannot choose...

Freedom is good, but we must have rules.

You have to say the [Communist] Party is always right...I don't think it's correct.

Freedom has limitation also.

We can discuss ideas [political, etc.] in private but not will be deleted [by the government if posted online or written in print].

Governments make mistakes...[police] officers make mistakes.

We don't have complete freedom.

The government protects the rich man.  (Not a uniquely Chinese situation, I wanted to tell them.)

[Freedom means] you can say what you want, and no one can hurt you.

It was a bittersweet class, partially because it was my second-to-last Life Club class, and partially because so many of their opinions were similar to my own.  And yet they lived in a country where they couldn't have some of the freedoms they knew existed elsewhere.

At the end of my second class, a female student asked, "Teacher, what's your opinion?"

Part of me wanted to get up on my soapbox, but after living in China for a total of three years now, I knew it'd be the wrong thing.  I wouldn't have been surprised if the government had sent the occasional "guest" to "monitor" my classes, and I could also see myself getting hauled out of the country before the day was over for instigating a revolution.

"Well, this class isn't about me.  It's really about what YOU guys think freedom is.  My ideas about freedom will be very different from your ideas, because we come from different countries."

She looked disappointed, and asked again, "But what's your opinion?"

I wanted to tell her, but at the same time, this was a student I'd never met before.  I knew this was China, and I was feeling a bit paranoid.  The irony is that I'd grown up believing freedom of speech was a God-given right, and here I was, buttoning my lip...meanwhile, a Chinese person, who'd grown up under Big Brother's watch, was asking me to speak freely.  But paranoia won out.  I repeated what I'd said before. 

In the third class, it happened again, this time with a smaller class of students I'd known for a while.  I gave them a similar answer, then expanded a bit. 

"I think education is really the ticket to freedom," I said.  Not very original, but it's something I've believed most of my life.  "We're really lucky--American women, Chinese women.  We get to go to school."  All of my students in this class were women, and they were nodding.  "If we were in some places in Africa or the Middle East, we wouldn't be at school.  We'd be at home with the baby, or working in the field.  That would be our life.  I think it's great that China has such high respect for education."

This was true.  I've felt more respected as a teacher here than I ever have in the States.  Of course, most of my students in the States were considered at-risk youth, so that might have something to do with it.

I was also hoping a little flattery would cover up the fact that I wasn't completely giving my opinion--that on my VPN-sourced news, I've read how many Hong Konger's online posts are taken down; that the people here work hard, pay taxes, and have no right to say what the government does with said taxes.  Taxation without representation!  Censored art exhibits!  My sealed packages being cut open at the post office every single time to be searched right in front of me. 

Only one student seemed to catch on--a girl named Soonie, the one who'd been forced to Fudan University by her parents.  A bright student with smooth English, she looked a little disappointed at my lack of complete transparency. 

If I was ten years younger, I probably would've spoken my mind completely, and damn the consequences.  But was that the right thing to do?  To inspire my students into a democratic revolution less than two weeks before returning to my own "land of the free", leaving them to be silenced (by any means necessary) by their government?  I'm not saying I have that much power, but as a teacher, you sometimes never know.

My hope is that, by having them discuss freedom, by thinking about what it really means to them, that they will come to their own conclusions, their own truth.  My hope is that they will be inspired to discuss things more freely, that they will fight for freedom, not in my way, but in their own.

My hope is that, one day, freedom won't just belong to Americans.  It'll belong to everyone. 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Fish Tank

If you think people aren’t damaging the environment, you haven’t lived in Shanghai.

Even the seabirds don’t fish in the Huangpu River.

Today I saw ten dead fish floating in the water.

I know fish live there; I’ve seen them jump from the water and make little splashes, sending ripples larger than themselves into the muddy, slightly greasy flow around them.  But they don’t live very long.

I’ve also seen a single plastic sandal, capsized like a boat in that river.  I’ve seen cellophane wrappers from cigarette packages.  Styrofoam packing material, floating like fake Hollywood rocks.  A brightly colored Gala apple, dancing on the surface like a sick Halloween invitation to bob for apples.  Bamboo shoots like Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s stakes.  Aerosol spray cans.

The water is unclean.

Oh, it flows.  Pristinely white cruise ships dock along the Huangpu's entire length, huddling conspiratorially together like gossipy fur-clad heiresses.  Short boats carrying coal float just feet above the river's surface, chugging up and down the river all day and all night under their burdens, proudly flying their Chinese flags.  Their laundry is hung to dry on deck, and it flutters in the toxic breeze like Tibetan prayer flags.  Hulking ships from Australia or other locales carry steel car parts, clothing, Siemens refrigerators, Nike shoes, iPhones--nearly everything the world buys and sells.  

But it’s not clean.

The air smells and even tastes like burnt metal sometimes.  Coal smoke sends its toxic fumes into the already deadly air.  Sometimes the air smells of dust or smoke.  It’s worse at night when I come out of the metro and head for home after work.  I wonder if this is why the government shuts down the metro between 10 and 11 pm:  Are they trying to limit the people out in this airpocalypse?  Or is it a secret curfew to keep crime down?

Sometimes my throat hurts for no reason.

I have recurring rashes:  one above my collarbone and one in my left armpit.  Sometimes the skin at the corners of my mouth and nose is raw and peeling.  I get painful canker sores inside my mouth more often here than in any other place I’ve ever lived, but that could just be my body reacting to the   24 million person germ pool!  I have tried Tiger Balm, hydrocortizone cream, and my go-to in the Peace Corps, bacitracin ointment.  I take allergy pills regularly.  Nothing works.  Just when I think I've had my last canker sore, I suddenly find myself slurring around another one.  The rashes go away for a while, but then they come crawling back like cockroaches. 

Whenever I talk to my students about the environment in China, I force myself to admit that the U.S. isn't perfect, either.  Spokanites used to push their broken down cars into the Spokane River.   Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring, that beautiful rainbow of steam and water, was once treated like a garbage pit.  It’s hard to believe that America the Beautiful, Home of the Hippy, once treated its natural treasures this way.  But it's the truth, and if I can, I want to save my students from making some of those same mistakes.

Still, health is the number one reason why ex-pats leave Shanghai.  (  When PM 2.5 (the particulate matter portion of the air quality index) reaches 50 micrograms in the U.S., they caution parents to keep their children inside.  An average AQI in Shanghai is 150.  Daily.  You can't keep your kids in all the time.  Some ex-pats talk about the fact that their formerly healthy children now have asthma. And according to The Atlantic, even some Chinese want to leave.  

But leaving China doesn't mean you'll escape the problem. The Weather Channel reported last year that air pollution from China has reached California.  This has been confirmed by UC Irvine.  Some reports claim that a quarter to a third of the pollution in California can be traced back to China.  Not that California isn't producing its own share, but China’s problem is not isolated.  It’s on America's shores.  We can't point a finger and say, "It's over there.  It's not us, it's them," because it is us.  Pollution doesn't stay inside political borders.  It doesn't need a passport or a visa.  No border patrol is keeping it out, or putting it on a truck or a boat back to wherever it came from.  Its master is the wind and the tide.  And us.  But we've let it get out of control like a spoiled child.

I get so angry when Americans say climate change or global warming is a hoax, because they are straight up lying to themselves.  Suicidal individuals suck on a tailpipe when they want to die.  I don't want to die, but I'm huffing emissions from cars and factories every day no matter where I live.  Scientists in every country have concurred:  the weather all over the world is increasingly extreme.  A co-worker from the Philippines told me they just had hail for the first time in history.  Hail.  In the Philippines.  In the tropics.  What the hell is hail doing there?!

A lot of people in Spokane and in the U.S. don't believe the scientists.  They seem to think science itself is one big hoax.  Well, if you don't believe the scientists, then talk to the oldest man or woman you can find!  Ask them if the weather in their hometown has changed in their lifetime.  I guarantee they will say yes. 

 Notorious for denying anything negative about itself, China admits that the pollution here is extremely hazardous.  In addition, they are perhaps starting to be even more concerned about the effects of environmental degradation on their economy.  The English language China Daily newspaper states that pollution costs equal about 10% of China's GDP.  Whether the Chinese want to or not, they are paying for pollution.  They can choose to pay for organic food and electric cars, or they can sacrifice their GDP.  But they will pay.

 As a whole species, we will pay.
Stephen Hawking, not usually a glass half empty type, has just predicted that humanity won't last another 1000 years on this planet, and that finding another habitable planet is the only thing that will save us.  (
When I've talked with my students (teenagers in danger of dropping out, adult English Language Learners) about pollution, I get them to think of a fish tank.  Some of my students have kept fish as pets, and most know that when the tank gets dirty, you need to clean it.

 “Why?”  I ask.

 “Duh.  Because the fish will die if you don’t!”  a high school student answers.

 “Okay, so what does the cleaning involve?”

 “You must have new water,” a Chinese student answers.

 “Exactly.  Now imagine that our Earth is our fish tank, and we are the fish,” I say.  “What happens when our tank gets dirty?  Where will we get new water?”

 This is when the room falls silent.  This is when even the lippy teenagers get genuinely thoughtful faces.

 I don’t want to scare my students.  I’m usually positive and light.   

But they all need to hear this.

 “There IS no other water,” I tell them.  

Sometimes I show them a picture of our beautiful sapphire and emerald home at this moment.  It's suspended in the black loneliness of space like a lost child.  Unique and limited, precious and finite in an infinity of God's stars. 

“This is it.  If we continue to pollute our fish tank--our planet...We.  Will.  Die.”