Year Two

Year Two
Chinese crickets

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

8 July 2014


They're baa-aaack!

Yup, those maraca-shaking insects--Shanghai crickets--are back with a vengeance.  After nearly two straight weeks of rain, the sky is (mostly) blue and semi-cloudy, and the crickets seem to say tianqi hen hao--the weather is good.

After trying for over an hour to locate a European cafe I'd often passed on my walks to and from the Bund (but never noting the exact address), I settled for something closer to home.  I was sitting at the only outdoor table at LePause Cafe on Haining Lu, sipping a reasonably-priced vanilla latte (bing de, of course, given the heat) and a cold 11-oz. bottle of Hawaiian water--ridiculously priced at about $3.

This hot and semi-frustrating search had revealed something a bit sad to me--my neighborhood in Shanghai is not especially known for its outdoor seating.  Oh, sure, there are 5-star hotels with outdoor patios on their 8th floors--and the 5-star prices to match.  After living here for a year now, hanging at a hotel with a bunch of tourists who are unknowingly (but willingly) overpaying for their refreshments doesn't exactly tickle my fancy.

What had was my jaunt up and down Wulumuqi Lu yesterday.  I'd been trying to find the Avocado Lady, the famed hole-in-the-wall spot that catered to foreign tastes.  I'd heard about the place months ago but had always had other duties or distractions whisper "Maybe next weekend."  But when my chiropractor suggested posting my sign there, I had to go check it out.

The sign was for Gipsy Danger--the calico I'd inherited from my friends.  The man had been in my intake group but had returned to London about five weeks ago.  His now-wife had just returned to Guangzhou.  She planned to join her hubby when her visa cleared in September, but for now she was visiting her mom, who's not well--and who already has a dog.

The north end of Wulumuqi was someplace I'd never wandered.  Like a lot of Shanghai, there was the ebb and flow of run-down areas, with people tossing their garbage onto the sidewalk without a glance at the pedestrians who might be hit with this trash, followed by mansion-like apartment buildings catering to the rich.  I saw a local guy and his friend hop into a racy-looking Audi that was the outrageous color of a shiny blue beetle's wing.  Ten minutes later, I was dodging dog poop, garbage, and lugees again. 

Just like the neighborhoods, there's a wave-like motion to the traffic that I've come to recognize.  While still maddening to my American sensibilities, the seemingly chaotic scramble of busses, taxis, bicycles, scooters, and pedestrians does have a certain rhythm.  Oh, yes, people still walk five-wide on the sidewalk, forcing me to step into the street.  Near-silent electric scooters still sneak up behind me and beep their horns, making me jump like a paranoid squirrel.  I could honestly go on forever, but I am one person amidst 20-plus million, and my frustration won't change their habits one iota.

There are times when I can be zen about it (thank you, Peace Corps!).  If I'm not ravenously hungry, I can usually force a laugh or shake my head, or even find something entertaining about it all.  Sometimes, I even enjoy it!

It's not always easy, I'll admit.  But it wasn't always easy to love New York City or Spokane, either.  I'm finding more and more that the things that irritate me about some place or some person are sometimes the very things I miss later:  the habits of loved ones, for example.  Or the way people say hello to you so much when you're a foreigner.  Today I actually told a guy No hablo Ingles because I'm tired of people approaching me and making assumptions.  Next time I'll try speaking Pohnpeian, watch their face, and laugh.

But it's that very stuff that I inexplicably miss when I'm back in the States.  Overseas, I always get lots of attention--some of it negative or unwanted, but at least I feel noticed.  In the U.S., especially out West, I might as well be invisible.  I look and talk just like everyone else.  No one knows about me (or even tries) and no one cares.

I'm not trying to be Debbie Downer here, but there is a feeling of celebrity that comes with being an American in China, even in a place like Shanghai (supposedly accustomed--ha!--to the presence of foreigners).

People--men and women, young and old--still turn around to stare, or sometimes smile, at me.  Some even do double-takes.  Two days ago, in the elevator leaving work, a cute little girl shrieked "Laowai!" (foreigner) when she saw me and two of my American co-workers.  The girl's little brother promptly hid behind his auntie's legs.  There's an old man I see on my daily walks to the subway.  He always wears a suit, although he's most certainly retired, and smokes cigarettes.  The first few times we made eye contact, he stared so hard at me I felt insulted.  It wasn't a leer--it was more like an analysis.  Finally I got sick of this and pulled that old Peace Corps trick--smile and nod.  Brightly, I said, "Ni hao!" and waved.  Man, you should've seen his face.  It lit up like a Chinese lantern, pushing wrinkles back into his hairline as he grinned and waved back.  Now we smile and nod at each other every time like old friends.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Why it's hard to leave Shanghai


Understand this:  my social life had been sadly lacking in Spokane for the better part of six years.  I'm very grateful for the time I spent with my family, especially my sister.  I'm grateful for my cat, for blue sky and fresh air.  I miss all of that.  I miss the smell of pine and cottonwood trees.
Nevertheless, there are reasons to stay in Shanghai, and I'm planning on signing up for a second year here. 
KTV
I never thought I'd say this, but Haoledi (Holiday, or as I like to call it, "a howl a day") was really fun!  I can't believe it's taken my nine months to experience this, a hugely popular activity in Shanghai.  Some of the people in my intake group go once a week!
Located next to my center, team-building locations don't get any more convenient than Haoledi.  An American and a Chinese teacher were about to leave us for good, and a new American teacher was being welcomed.  About a dozen of us squeezed into a 25 square meter private room, complete with tiny corner stage, two large flat screen TVs, and a disco ball.  A case of bottled beer was brought in, along with bottle openers, bottles of green tea, ash trays, glasses, tambourines, and three microphones.  We ordered food.
There were songs in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and English.  My new boss from South Africa spent several years in Japan, so he sang quite a few songs in Japanese.  A co-worker with a Chinese wife sang along with the Chinese songs.  Another co-worker has a Korean grandmother, so the Korean songs were hers. 
Unlike karaoke singers in the U.S., most of my co-workers drank very little, if at all, and seemed to take the singing quite seriously.  They had fun, but the emotion behind the (often sad) songs seemed very real.
I sang Green Day's "When September Ends" with a Chinese co-worker--I'd had no idea the video was so depressing.  Two American guys and I conquered Nirvana's "All Apologies".  I'm not a huge Kurt Cobain fan, but I know the song well and felt I owed it to the guy since I was the only Washingtonian in the room.  We sang "Hey Jude" by the Beatles and danced to Psy's "Gangnam Style". 
American Night
Started by an American, this night at the pub occurs every five weeks or so invites every Canuck, Aussie, Kiwi, Yank, Springbok, and Zhonguoren who's interested.  It's interesting and entertaining to hear English through the filter of half a dozen different accents.  Everyone's usually in a good mood...it's common to have a few drinks, and you can meet people from all over (even Greece!) while getting your American fix.  The American guy who started it waits until everyone's had a few, and then he yells, "Candadians, where you at?"  and they all shout back.  "Aussies, where you at?"  They scream.  And so on.  It's great.
Pub Quiz at the Camel
My only experience with pub quizzes before coming to Shanghai was seeing the fancy one in the second "Bridget Jones" movie.  It looked fun, but I didn't know enough people to form a team, and it's not like Spokane had regular pub quizzes (at least ones that I was aware of).
Pub quiz nights coincided with "Tight Arse Tuesdays", meaning you could get two-for-one fish-n-chips and happy hour pints from 4 to 8 pm. 
Team names:  everything from the silly (Monkey Kings and Hampster Whoopie Cushion--our team) to the obscene (I won't mention details, but body parts and dirty words were involved).
The winnings:  500 RMB and a bottle of booze for first place; a bottle of booze for second; and a round of shots for third.
The quiz always involves the week in news, Shanghai trivia, a large music and movies section (hold me back!) and usually some kind of technical, historical, or sport section with a mysterious connection.
I've been twice now, and have had a team of four each time--me, two Brits, and a Chinese woman.  I would say we're all pretty well-rounded, and we did well, considering other teams had six or more players.  We were in the bottom half of about 20 teams.
Our homework assignments were to "revise" (Brit-speak for study) general knowledge and news for the next quiz--I chose baseball and celebrity gossip (twist my arm).
WeChat
This last sounds a bit trite, but yes, I've been sucked in to the social-media-on-your-smart phone-in-Shanghai set.  I never had a smart phone until I came here, but I am now addicted and wondering how I ever did without.
As long as there's wifi, I can connect with my Shanghai friends and acquaintances in a Facebook-like environment on my little Samsung smart phone.  Lately I'm actually spending more time on WeChat than Facebook.  WeChat doesn't require a VPN.  It doesn't try to kick me offline every other click.  When our free wifi was shut down at work, I went out and got a wireless router and set up my own wifi at home--all by myself!  I'm pretty proud of that.  Part of the manual was even in Chinese!!
Grandma's Home
Yu tou tang.  Ma pu doufu.  Yum. 
Yep, fish head soup and spicy tofu are not exactly things I was expecting to like, but they are actually really good at Grandma's.  That's the name of a restaurant that prepares Hangzhou cuisine.  Hangzhou is about an hour outside of Shanghai by high-speed train and is famous for some of its food.

This restaurant is extremely popular, with long queues (for those of us unfamiliar with British English, that means lines) outside 30 minutes before opening.  Part of it is the food.  Along with the aforementioned dishes, Grandma's makes some great stir-fried green beans and peanut smoothies.  Of course there are the usual things foreigners never order (pickled pig trotters, for example, or cartilage of chicken leg).  You can get a large meal for six people under $50.  It's my favorite Chinese restaurant!  If you come to visit me, I promise we'll go!!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Spring Miracles

It's Spring--or is it summer?!--in Shanghai!  Although most of the trees lining Haining Road have yet to leave out, I saw a tree blossoming on the Bund (Waitan); I saw two determined Shanghainese brides taking wedding photos with their grooms, their lips set on creating the perfect image; and I felt a hint of sweat on my face. It's nearly 80 degrees Fahrenheit today, and although the mists of pollution have colored the sky gray, the sun is shining and the birds are singing.  At work the students are flirting with one another in class, no matter their ages, and the British-Chinese couple who are my good friends here have gotten engaged.  Yep, it's definitely spring.

The construction site below me has gone from pouring and curing concrete to jackhammering it all up and setting round rebar cages at seemingly random locations.  I've decided that the Germans are probably the only construction workers I'll ever enjoy watching; everyone else seems illogical and haphazard.  The more I accept that the Chinese have their own methods (no matter what I think of them), the better I feel.

However, this is the fifth or sixth full day of almost continual jackhammering down there--I'm talking 10-12 hour days; and with drilling and hammering in the upstairs apartment, I'm afraid I must report that peace and quiet are not in my immediate future!

I was turned down for an alternative boarding school in Colorado.  As much as quiet and fresh air appeal to me right now, I've decided this was for the best.  Being cold and isolated up in the mountains sounds great for a week or so, but after NYC and Shanghai I'm not sure I could handle it.  Like I said, it's already 80 degrees here; there'd be maybe two weeks of that in CO!

I haven't given up entirely on the job scenario, which is a miracle in and of itself.  I'm working on my Yakima School District application (the second time--the first time was in 2008), as well as applying for an international school here in Shanghai.

There's a Chinese saying that the true miracle in life isn't flying in the sky, it's walking on the Earth.  When I consider the vastness of the universe, this certainly seems to be true.  My feet have taken me to many ends of God's Earth!  I'm grateful for my feet and my ability to travel.  Perhaps I'll never make much money in life, or find stable work as a high school teacher in America.  But I've seen and done much more than the average human being, and that is its own wealth.  I value it and am thankful for it.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Chinese Lessons


Ah, the Chinese language.  I'd love to be clever and say, "Hey, it's all Greek to me!"  However, I've actually studied Greek.  Even with its cryptic symbols (letters that later influenced Russian's cyrillic alphabet), Greek was much easier.

I've learned a bit of Chinese.  And when I say "bit", I mean "a speck".  And when I say "a speck", I mean "something you'd need a microscope to see".  You see, the more Chinese I learn, the more I realize I don't really get it.

There could be fifty words that sound the same--but with different meanings, and the only way you know that is to read the Chinese characters.  I've learned the basics--numbers, compass directions, some foods--mutton, beef, chicken, fruit, wine, beer, vegetables.  Rather than being frustrated, though, I've started to just allow myself to be in awe of one of the most complex languages on Earth.

Given all of the above, finding my Chinese name was a pretty big deal.

A Chinese co-worker had looked it up on the internet for me a couple of months ago.  "'She-suh'," she said, "Or 'She-soh'...you choose."  She smiled.

I'd gotten to like this woman from Inner Mongolia.  She had sparkling eyes and a lot of personality, and her wide cheekbones reminded me more of Qinghai people than Han Chinese--I thought she was pretty.  And she always seemed to be laughing or smiling.

"She's so...awesome!"  I joked. 

In spite of our laughter, I wasn't too impressed, though.  I'd looked up "heather" in Pleco, my Chinese dictionary app on my smart phone.  Shi nan hua.  It had a ring to it.  But the girls in the office (other local teachers) said, "That's cheesy.  You don't want the word 'flower' in your name."  Hua means flower.  I messed around with a few other names, but nothing seemed to sink in or resonate with me, and my co-workers shook their heads.  Nothing sounded right.

I dug up the tiny photo album Mom had made before I left--on the front cover was a scan of my banquet name tag from Ge'ermu back in the 80s.  It took a while to find the matching characters in Pleco.  Part of the app allows the user to draw a character on the touch screen and find the character and its meaning.  After several failed attempts (How hard can it be to draw a picture?  I'd wondered.  Well, apparently hard enough), I switched to searching in pinyin, the Romanized Chinese alphabet.  Typing in xi (the "she" sound) brought up over 50 results.  There are four tones in Mandarin, so I knew xi could have at least four meanings, depending on the tone used. 

However, I'd underestimated the complexity of the Chinese characters yet again.  There were, at minimum, 10 xis in each tone.  Each one had a different character--and a different meaning.  A bit like English's there, their, and they're, but about ten times as complex.  Finding my Chinese name seemed suddenly important, though, and I dedicated myself to finding the right character.

There it was!  Hope.  First tone, the high tone.

(the "suh" sound) was somewhat easier to find.  It was in the fourth tone, the one I remember how to pronounce by using a downward karate chop with my right hand.  means the music of an instrument similar to a zither, from anywhere from 7-25 strings.

So my Chinese name, roughly:  Hope Music.

I'm not sure I knew what my Chinese name meant when I was 10.  I'm pretty sure I didn't care.  A lot of things upset me back then.  Well, for everything there is a season.  When I found my Chinese name, it gave me hope--literally.

Hopeful music inspires people.  I thought about singers and bands who've inspired me:  U2, Bruce Springsteen...songs:  "Carry on my Wayward Son" has been in my head a lot lately.  Good music has pulled me out of many a funk over the years.  I'm not a musician.  I'm good with words, though, and I wondered:  What can I say or write that will inspire people?  What can I do to inspire my students?

The journey continues!

For Lantern Festival (on our Valentine's Day), the āyí (auntie/housekeeper) at my center made tāngtuán.  Literally, the words mean "soup bowl"--yummy glutinous rice balls with sweet black sesame paste inside, floating in a warm sugary broth.  But the director of my center told me the word for "bowl" also means "come together, gather"--like many cultures, holidays in China revolve around food and family.

When you learn anything, experience is the true teacher.  I remember the names of foods because I order and then eat them.  If you don't eat, you don't live, so of course I'm motivated to remember words for water, meat, rice, etc.  I've learned shīzi tóu--Lion's Head--is a name for meatballs sold at Family Mart.  It sounds like dirty words, and makes me laugh!  I can order a Subway sandwich in Chinese.  I remember numbers because I shop at the local veggie market enough to know them, and the hand signals that go with them. 

A co-worker taught me this:  mei zhe liang xin--"not in my heart", or "my heart's not in it".  When your students and co-workers speak better English than you speak Chinese, it's hard to motivate yourself to learn such a complex language.  I can ask where something is--like "Where is the metro?" or "Where is this street?"  I can ask a shopkeeper if they have something or not.  Out of respect, politeness, I always try to say xièxie (thank you).  I can tell taxi drivers where I live, and if they don't understand me, I carry a laminated card in Chinese that gives the name of a store near my apartment--I've always gotten home.  I've told my students some stories about learning Chinese or other languages; I tell them I know how frustrating it can be to learn a language, and how funny, not to mention useful.

Inspirational?  I hope so!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Post New Year


Feb. 7

It's 9:44 am, and it has been raining for over 24 hours. 

That's not stopping the New Year, though.

The fireworks stands have vanished, but apparently some people have a stash.  As the Shanghairen return in droves to the city, pushing and shoving, the thunder of fireworks echoes in the canyons between high rises, booming up to Heaven and frightening away evil spirits.

This must be the safest place in the world right now--from evil, I mean.  Although, if I was a Communist government, I'd be more than a little cautious about this.  One of my first thoughts (as an American, of course), was "Wow, this is a LOT of gunpowder!  If a group wanted to revolt, they'd have some serious firepower at their disposal."

Red bits of firecracker paper swirl in the wind and become soggy chunks in the gutters. 

Feb. 10

It snowed yesterday and today!  No accumulation, though.

Yesterday I went to Lujiazui where all the new, crazy-looking "Jetsons"-type buildings are.  I saw all sorts of cute little kids bundled up and laughing delightedly at this new white stuff floating down into their mittens and onto their faces.  I didn't hold back my grins.  So cute!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Xin nian kuai le!


New York City.  Los Angeles.  Chicago.  Houston.  Philadelphia.  Phoenix.  Spokane.  Imagine these cities combined forces and had a party.  If they pooled their budgets for 4th of July and New Years fireworks, doubled it, and lit everything off...They still wouldn't match Shanghai on Chinese New Year.

Besides a short lull from about 1 am to 3 am and 1 pm to 3 pm, it's been Fireworks Central around here--in spite of the government's so-called limitations (http://www.latimes.com/world/worldnow/la-fg-wn-china-fireworks-20140129,0,2905534.story#axzz2rxQzElFV).

I kinda like it.

Last night around 8 or 9 the neighborhoods a few blocks north of me starting blowing up the good stuff--pyrotechnics that, in the U.S., would be surrounded by a ring of fire trucks, just in case.  I could see flashes of it from my west-facing window, so I ran out to the hallway and looked out that north-facing window instead.  Mostly, everything was sparkling rockets of gold stretching up until gravity forced them to pop like popcorn in the sky--shimmering explosions of gold, and of course, the auspicious red, with a bit of random blue or purple thrown in for spice. 

To her credit, Gipsy Danger didn't seem as nutso as I'd been expecting.  She actually crouched in my window, fascinated by the flashes of light reflected in the windows of the tall buildings all around.  Of course, she's also the most talkative cat in the East, meowing and, at times, even yowling as if I've stepped on her tail. 

I'm watching Gipsy because her human parents, my friends, are in Guangzhou visiting family.  Right now Ms. Danger (named after the Jaeger in the movie "Pacific Rim") is curled up on her blanket in my rocking chair, content during the temporary truce (in firework parlance) to close her eyes and actually nap.

The air outside displays shockingly little damage from last night.  The pollution level is 167--unhealthy--which is fairly normal for this place.  The highest level in the Los Angeles area I can find right now is 80.

The gunshot bangs and the colors that light up the night remind me of some good times with cousins back in the States when we were younger, watching 4th of July fireworks and lighting off some of our own.  When your male cousins are pyromaniacs and are still blowing up stuff at our age (mid-30s), you just end up getting excited about all of it!

As the Year of the Horse gallops in, and the word mashang ("immediately"--as if on horseback) is being overused, let me enlighten you with a few predictions for 2014:  people will fight the good fight based on their ideals, especially towards the end of the year, but meaningless violence is also expected.  Patience and self-control are advised.  Supposedly, this is a good year for single people to meet that special someone.  I might sit that one out.  We'll see.  Businesses involving wood or fire will do well, since this year's horse is a wood horse.  Volcanoes are also predicted to erupt.  If you were born in the Year of the Snake (like me), it might be time to "reboot" your career, which I've been considering doing anyway.

Happiness, prosperity, and longevity to all my readers, and if you speak Cantonese:  Gung hay fat choi!
 
My sources for predictions:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/chinese-new-year-2014-what-the-year-of-the-horse-means-for-you-9096775.html

http://fengshui.about.com/od/fengshuigoodluckcures/ss/Feng-Shui-Tips-Horse-Chinese-Zodiac-Sign.htm

http://ca.shine.yahoo.com/blogs/shine-on/2014-lunar-horoscope-predictions-130052631.html

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

22 Jan 2014


I've finally surpassed the six-month mark in my contract, and I can safely say that I am no longer experiencing culture shock! 

I am, however, experiencing what Peace Corps Volunteers and other seasoned ex-pats know as cultural fatigue.

People still push on to the subway or the elevator as people try to get off.  I know this won't change.  I'm used to it, but it still bothers me.  The logic of waiting a few seconds for people to get out so that it's actually easier to get in seems to be beyond anyone here. 

People still ride their scooters like they have a death wish.  They go against traffic, overloaded with passengers, water jugs, or sharp objects, texting on their cell phones (sans helmet, of course); they ride up on the sidewalk, beeping and swerving--or worse, not beeping at all.  On my best days, I actually find this somewhat exhilarating--what a physical challenge!  All senses on alert!  It's like reflex training camp!  But when you've got the flu, are tired, homesick, or just plain not in the mood, it's like a needle in your spine.  The most I've ever seen cops or traffic directors do is yell at them half-heartedly.  There is no enforcement; and yet, everyone seems terrified of the police because they are part of the Communist government.

The guards that operate the metal detectors at the subway entrance gates only make me scan my backpack half the time.  Still, it's irritating when a man or woman overloaded with shopping bags on a trolley doesn't have to lift their stuff onto the belt.  They don't even get wanded or patted down.  What, I ask you, could be in my backpack that couldn't be in their bags?  Sometimes I'm sure it's because I'm foreign; and it's hard to be angry about this, knowing that racial profiling happens in my own country--land of the free, supposedly.  Sometimes I pick up my backpack at the other end of the scanner, and notice that the second guard--who's supposed to be watching the monitor--is picking his or her nose, watching an ad on the big screen TV ten feet away, checking his or her text messages, or speaking with someone.  Why bother having me put my bag on the belt if you're not even going to watch the scan? 

After six months, I'm used to all of this.  But it still bothers me.  That's culture fatigue.  The shock has worn off, you've gotten used to it--but the culture you're living in doesn't change.  Every "problem" you noticed during week one is still there, and there's nothing you can do about it.

Living in Qinghai in the late 80s, and being a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, I'm well aware that my situation here could be much, much worse, and, contrary to what you might think, I'm not even really complaining.  I'm just tired of it.

Part of it is big city life.  With 20 million people, you must push.  You must hurry.  You must fight a little harder for a place in line, a seat on the subway, a good spot in a crowd.  After three years in New York City, I kind of get it, and then some.

I'm not saying Shanghai is a hell hole, although sometimes, when I can't see the buildings a block away due to the pollution (PM 2.5 over 500, anyone?), or when I can smell the garbage truck 20 floors up, it certainly feels like one.

Okay, then, you ask, are there any good things about Shanghai?  Yes!  I've made more friends here in six months than I did in six years in Spokane.  I have a job here.  I'm even dating a great guy!

I just wanted to say, before I got into the whole Chinese New Year holiday thing, that I'm enjoying my time here as well as getting sick of the place--and that's normal.  That's life.  I feel almost the same way about Spokane--the air was clean, but I had no job.  The traffic was orderly, but there were no decent men to date.  I had my family, but no buddies.  I love Spokane.  But I was sick of it.  And that's why I came here.

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January 14th was the annual party for all the teachers and staff at the adult centers.  It was kind of like a company Christmas party, except we were really celebrating the Year of the Horse.  It was held in Le Royal Meridien, one of the fancier hotels in Shanghai, and everyone was dressed up--"red carpet wear", the invite had said.  The food was "just so-so", as my students would've said.  They'd attempted to make the Chinese food more to the western palette, and the western food more to the Chinese palette, and as a result, everything tasted a little off.  The coffee and the salad were okay, and the desserts, and far be it from me to complain too much about a free lunch!  I cleaned my full plate!

Each center had prepared a performance of some kind--a song, a play, a dance, a traditional something-or-other.  Some of them were downright horrible--people forgetting lyrics, not being able to hit notes, or dressed in way too little and dancing way too scandalously (bordering on strip club, I'm not kidding).  But some of the performances were great!  Two different girls tackled popular Adele songs, and did quite well hitting the notes.  One center had taken "The Twelve Days of Christmas" and turned it into "The Twelve Days of EF", and I was nearly in tears of hilarity by the end--they pretty much said exactly what I'd been feeling, especially when they shouted "NO CHRIST-MAS BREAK!" at the "five golden rings" part on the final verse.

However, another center had decided to retell the story of the birth of Christ, using both foreign and Chinese actors.  One of the actors, a Brit playing a bare-chested Joseph, kept interrupting his own lines to tell us, "It's not blasphemous!" when it clearly was.  I mean, Mary in a pink skirt that barely covered her ass and in three-inch heels?  The Angel of the Lord worse than Tinkerbell, yelling at the characters and bopping them on the head with her magic wand?  Mary pregnant before the Angel's visit?  And, finally, Mary giving birth to Santa Claus?  A Catholic buddy and I met up after, shaking our heads.  The baby Santa thing had been pretty bad.  Some people in the audience had actually walked out of the performance; an American co-worker of mine had laughed until he was in tears.  To top it all, the entire performance looked as though they'd written it the night before and hadn't rehearsed--they repeated lines, missed cues, missed whole scenes, and then interrupted other scenes to explain what they'd missed.

I wondered if the performances would've been better or worse if alcohol had been served.

Speaking of, rather than doing a lucky draw, as was tradition, the higher-ups had decided to purchase a bottle of "Celebration Wine", a red from Down Under, for each one of us.  With its screw-off top, I was sure it was going to be horrible, but the Aussies didn't disappoint.  It wasn't the best wine I'd ever had, but it certainly wasn't the worst.

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The mall where my center is located has seen increased activity since about two weeks ago.  You could equate it to the last-minute Christmas rush at home.

I sometimes feel as though pieces of my culture are being pilfered here:  fake pine boughs dripping with red and gold ornaments, clearly Christmas decor, being used for Chinese New Year; "Oh my darlin' Clementine" becoming the melody for "Happy New Year, Happy New Year, Happy New Year, everyone!"; Handel's "Hallelujah" being used in commercials (I know it is at home, too, tongue in cheek; but here, where no one believes in Christ by government decree, it makes me mad).  There are Nordic patterns on sweaters, and Christmas lights decorating the chilly tropical plants in front of my apartment building.

I then have to remind myself of the bodhisattva incense burner I have at home, my Tibetan singing bowl, the times I've studied yoga or hung Tibetan prayer flags over my door.  The chopsticks and soy sauce in the kitchen.  The red and silver Asian-looking earrings I sometimes wear.  I don't think of myself as stealing anything then; I think of myself as exploring, appreciating.  Is that what China is doing with Christmas--adding it into their Chinese New Year celebration--appreciating?  I'm not sure, but I have to be careful how harshly I judge because I don't have enough information to really know.  And it's not like every Christian in America takes Christmas as seriously as they should.

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I feel bad for my students.  Some of them live far away and are planning to travel over the new year break--but then they admit they don't have their tickets yet.  Tickets are notoriously difficult to come by this time of year.  Some may wait days at the train station without being able to get on a train--my sister and I watched a documentary about it on PBS.  There is a sense of deep obligation to return home for the new year; and an equal sense of guilt, I'd imagine, if the person isn't able to make it.  Some of my students, I can tell, aren't especially looking forward to the holiday; some see it the way Americans might see Thanksgiving or Christmas--a time of forced imprisonment with dysfunctional relatives with the obligatory smile pasted across your face because this is supposed to be a happy time, after all.  Hurried preparations, exhausting shopping trips, and shoving crowds out of your way more than usual. 

A lot of my students are working overtime right now so that they can earn an extra day off.  Working overtime and then spending Saturdays in their three or four--or five--English classes.  Their dedication still amazes me.  It is humbling, inspiring, exhausting, and sad to watch.  When I see a class of twenty having entire conversations in English, it feels like a miracle, and sometimes I just watch with a smile on my face instead of scribbling down notes to use later for feedback.  I can tell you right now, if I worked overtime during the week, I would not be spending my Saturdays learning another language!  At least not for five hours.  Maybe one hour.  For fun.

That's the difference between my students and I.  They are willing to sacrifice their free time because of the benefits knowing English will give them--promotions, a higher salary, a more important title.  My free time, I have to admit, is quite valuable to me.  Even knowing I could make more money makes me reluctant to let it go.  Maybe if I had a family to support, I'd feel differently?  Who knows?