A Long Over Due Update

The most honest interpretation of my lack of posting here isn't because I have been too busy. Its that I am feeling more and more attached  to my life here. So I find it more difficult to justify spending time sharing my new life instead of enjoying and expanding it.

Since my last post, Life has required me to reshuffle my priorities in pursuit of a more precise definition of what my life here is going to be. Before my last post, I had viewed my time here in Shanghai as temporary and my relationships as particular to this time and place. Since then, I have developed a more everlasting view of the people in my life here and determined that I could see myself living here for the next several years.  I now envision myself watching my friends get married, decorating my apartment however I see fit, and launching my career from this school.

The people to whom I have bonded over the past several weeks are not the names and faces I, at first, introduced you to. In fact, my relationship with Kayla, Emily, Don, and Sarah is limited to a smile, a nod, and an exchange of basic pleasantries. But I have grown to have quite meaningful and deep friendships with four couples.




Hannah and Dan. A couple from Boston who met at a Social Justice conference. Hannah has forced me to become her best friend, not that I have any objections. Dan is an absolute delight to listen to; I love getting him started on a topic and watching and listening to his passion and insights. Together, the three of us can talk about just about any subject for endless hours. They are two of the hardest working people I have seen here and I consider myself to be a debilitating, but welcome, distraction for them. (Hannah is pictured above)

Vicky and James. Two worldly Brits who both have PhDs, love video games, and question everything. Our talks about Brexit have provided me a much clearer picture of the divide between the English nationalists and the more European-minded British people.  We have, on more than a few occasions, been in café or bar grading, eating, drinking, and talking all at the same time, with conversation topics ranging from self-reflective philosophy to the lore of Skyrim to the reasons and motivations for the rise of nationalism in Europe and the US to our past interest in model airplanes.

Kat and John. Kat, as I have said previously, is closest person to Mary Poppins I have ever met and John is a big man with an absolute heart of gold.  They have spent the past year traveling around Asia, which included a 3-month stint as volunteer teachers in the slums of India. Their dream as a couple is to open and run their own school in a developing country. They were the people I turned to in my darkest moment here in Shanghai and their aid was given so warmly and selflessly that I had no choice but to improve.

Aaron and Matt. Though not in a relationship with each other, they may as well should be. Aaron is my designated mentor, fellow history teacher, and my office is directly next to his. Aaron is a weird dude who operates at his own level in his own way. Between my inquisitiveness and his unconventional thinking, we have explored some bizarre and dark and inventive and hilarious corners of the human imagination.  Matt is a psychology teacher and psychological consultant (he cannot be called a therapist!) for the students of the school. He is one of the most mindful and empathetic people I have come across and is endlessly funny. A rugby-loving, beard-growing, body-building Jew from Alaska the size of a bear, he always garners looks of fear and curiosity from the locals. The two of them have their own language with each other—they use voices to represent different characters they have built up over their years of friendship. I am not entirely sure how I fit into their dynamic, but they seem to enjoy having me, so maybe—eventually—I will learn the voices as well.

In no particular order, here is a brief description of the past several weeks of my active life:
  • Visited, but did not enjoy, Shanghai Disney
  • Experienced Sleep No More, which was one of the best of my life
  • Enjoyed a fancy dinner at a double-Michelin Star Restaurant
  • Bought a bicycle....not sure why I waited so long
  • Relaxed with drinks at a rooftop bar overlooking the Bund
  • Began to tutor a student for some side money
  • Endured and overcame a wave of depression
  • Watched Dan fail a $30 eating challenge
  • Celebrated three friends’ birthdays in three VERY different ways
  • Bought new furniture and art for my apartment
  • Accompanied Aaron to a Shanghai soccer match
    • (Shanghai's football team won the Chinese League this year!)
  • Planned my financial future, including the creation of a budget
  • Danced at a 90s club with cute British woman and an adorable-but-way-too-drunk Chinese man
  • Immersed myself in a heavenly hour-long $35 massage
  • Gained 10 pounds from delicious food and too much alcohol
  • Failed to exercise much
  • Avoided news of the election….until recently
  • Injured my hand in a bar
  • Planned a three-week vacation in February
Since I do not have the time to describe in detail every one and since I am here to please the audience, I will now ask you all which stories you want to hear. I will tell the full stories of the two that receive the most votes, so whichever you want to know more about, feel free to comment here.

The last thing I will mention is how much more at-home I feel now that I have begun to decorate and furnish my apartment. At first, I thought that living in a spartan apartment would be healthy for me; it would keep me detached from any personal belongings, make me not want to spend much time in my apartment—and therefore doing more things. But only last week did my thinking change. I wanted to settle here. To make my own life here—which requires me to build my own living quarters. I cannot identify one moment or conversation that changed this thinking, but the change has unquestionably occurred.  Perhaps it was the realization of social stability. I have my job. I have my core group of friends. I am here. I am home.

The Tale of 3 Burgers

I ate 3 burgers this weekend and learned something new as a result of each one.

The Story of Burger #1

I was scheduled to go to Beijing on Thursday night via a sleeper train. I needed to go to Beijing to handle some paperwork that couldn’t be done in Shanghai (its a long story about paperwork and bureaucracy, so unless you are a paper-pusher-fetishist, you can thank me for skipping over it). I told the taxi driver to go to the train station, but the driver did not clarify which of Shanghai’s three stations and brought me to the wrong station. I blame myself for not specifying and for not monitoring the progress from my phone. The reason I didn’t use DiDi or follow my progress on the phone is my phone was low on battery and I was saving it for the train.

Which brings us to…

Lesson #1: Always have a fully charged phone when beginning an adventure. Seems obvious, doesn’t it?

So, I missed the train. At first, I was more disappointed with myself than angry about the lost money or opportunity. I needed to collect my thoughts, so I sat down in the terminal and talked myself through the situation. That is about when the fury with myself came in. It was the first time I had had a good cry in quite a while.

When the tears began I realized to what extent I was overreacting, I felt a voice in the back of my skull ask why I was. I laughed at myself, stood up, and walked to the nearest Burger King. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast; I had skipped breakfast to plan this last-minute trip. And there was no doubt in my mind that I was more susceptible to stress as a result.

And if I was going to eat food to settle me down, I figured I might as well eat some comfort food. And so I ate Burger #1. 

It was bloody awful. Probably the worst burgers I have ever eaten. Didn’t even come with french fries! But it calmed me down and I got home without incident.

The Story of Burger #2

Friday was not an easy day at work. Many of my colleagues contributed to my Beijing plans, a few changed their schedules around for my convenience, and I had to backtrack on a commitment I gave for Friday in order to go to Beijing. I had to explain and apologize to everyone for what happened and was embarrassed every time, despite all the efforts by others to blame the cab driver. It was an emotionally draining day. After work, I went home and immediately took a nap. I was prepared to spend the evening in my apartment, watching movies, drinking alone, and just recuperating.

Until Harry texted me while he was shopping at Walmart. He told me to meet him at the McDonalds on the bottom floor of the Walmart in half an hour. “come get fat with me” And so I did. I pulled my heavy head out of bed and met him at McDonalds. He knew I needed to get out of the apartment.

We ordered and went to sit down, when we saw Kristen and Luis at a table waiting for their food. We sat down and joined them; Kristen was visibly upset about something. We listened to her vent. Their food came first. While they were eating and we were still waiting for ours, we spotted Vicki and James looking for a table–luckily there was another table available next to us. They also described their need for something familiar.

I got a small double cheeseburger, fries, and some chicken nuggets for us to share. Burger #2 was fantastic. After my horrible experience at Burger King, that small McDonalds cheeseburger restored my faith in what a burger can be. And no, this is not sponsored content by McDonald’s. It was just exactly what I needed in my life at that moment.

After we had our food, an Irish PE teacher came in after he was done with the gym and a primary teacher came into McDonalds as well! He had had a Bad China day.

Without any coordination, 8 of us in 6 groupings from the same school had felt the need for something familiar. We all shared our frustrations and swapped encouragement and support. We had all been brought together to feel something familiar and we found something friendly. Food truly is the great uniter.

Lesson #2: Friends matter. Don’t be afraid to rely on them.

The Story of Burger #3

I made plans with Hannah on Sunday night to go to an Indian restaurant she had been dying to try. We left at 7pm. It was an hour-long bike ride away, but I hadn’t worked out that day, so I figured it would be an opportunity to get some exercise.

So I rented a bike and we got going. (Bike rentals are incredibly cheap; I spent 10rmb–or $1.50–on this whole evening’s bike adventures, which, as you are about to see, are substantial). The journey would have taken an adventure had we known where we going. The maps apps we were using did not update as we moved, so we went past where we needed to go quite substantially. When we arrived at the location the maps app had directed us, I locked the bike I was using (which ends the rental) so we could walk around the mall to find the restaurant. We couldn’t find it.

So, ever the resilient people, we found a new restaurant we wanted to try. But we couldn’t find a Mobike to rent–the one I had used to get there was rented by someone else. I don’t have any of the other apps active. The new restaurant was only a mile away, so I offered to run next to Hannah on her bike to get there.

It was closed.

At this point, it was 830. I was very hungry and more than a little sweaty. And Hannah and I were (semi-) jokingly saying very nasty things about and to each other in order to let off some steam. I proposed we head back to the fancy burger place we had passed to get to this dead end. They were a Michelin-star runner-up last year for their burgers–totally worth it going to while we were in the neighborhood. The fact that it was so highly regarded (and frequently recommended to us to try) meant it was in a league higher than the likes of the King and the Clown.

We sat down to wait for a menu. 10 minutes elapsed. Hannah and I played rock-paper-scissors to determine who would get up to get us a menu. I won. She returned with menus. We figured out what we wanted. Waited another 10 minutes. I got up and walked to the bar to order our food. While there, I asked for ice water.

Our food came reasonably quickly. Time to dig into a well-recommended $14 burger and enjoy a fancy-looking chocolate-mint shake! It had been 2 hours since we had left, we had burned 600 calories to get here, so my excitement for this first bite could not have been higher…

Burger #3 was probably the most average-tasting burger I could image. It had some flavor. The bread was soft, but flavorless. They didn’t grill the bun! There was absolutely nothing good about this burger.

The chocolate-mint shake wasn’t that sweet nor was it minty. It could be described as drinking thick dark chocolate milk. The fries were the same you could expect at a Denny’s and the ketchup was a house-specialty and had about as much flavor as a thrown-away tomato at a Walmart. I was legitimately baffled by how this place was so well-regarded. I will have some choice words for those who recommended it to me.

Hannah and I did not let the disappointing food ruin our evening; we enjoyed a fantastic and insightful conversation–an occupation Hannah excels at. We talked for about 30 minutes after we finished eating–it was now around 11pm.

We got up to go and walked to her bike. She stopped and slapped me. We hadn’t paid. They didn’t give us the bill! We, of course, had to get up and ask for it!

We walked back in and paid, though I argued (for the sake of it) that they did not deserve to be paid for a disappointing meal and terrible service. Hannah, who had been a server in a previous life, insisted that the difference would have come out of the employees’ paycheck and could not live with herself for stealing the food. We paid. Bitterly.

It took us a while to find me a bike for the return journey. A long while. So I continued to run. We passed several bikes that were out of commission and in need of repair. I finally found out, rented it and began riding. The seat was broken, so its vibrations were colliding with all of the wrong places. So I needed to switch bikes.

I rode that one until we found another. Switched to bike #3 of the evening. I so wish this would have been the last one so I could title this post “3 Burgers and 3 Bikes” but no. This one had a wonky chain. That eventually snapped on me! (Don’t worry, I won’t be charged for it). But it did cause me to crash–without injury. And I had to walk to find a new bike.

We got home at 1230. My legs were sore from propelling broken heavy bikes. I had sweated through both my shirt and undershirt.  I chugged what felt like a gallon of water when I got home.

But, I learned something important that night.

Lesson #3: I need to buy my own bike.

Oh and also:

Lesson #4: With friends, all things are possible.

Including the enjoyment of a disappointing dinner, the endurance of a rough night, and the escape from a bad weekend.

To my friends reading this and to those who participated in it: Thank you. 

Love and appreciation to all.

 

 

 

 

 

On Companionship

One thing I love about Shanghai is the guilt-free ability to take long showers.

My hair is still wet as I write here what I was thinking about in the shower.

I am someone who craves companionship and doesn’t fully embrace friendship. By companionship, I mean–I want someone to be my best friend. I want a significant other–regardless of whether there is a romantic side to things or not. I, perhaps, feel as though if I find a companion who I click with at every possible dimension, I will finally be a complete person. This is, of course, hogwash.

But it explains why I am so quick to let whither friendships that I can tell cannot be companionships. It explains why I am so easy to fall in love with people, despite knowing that due to our situation or their personality, we simply are not star-crossed lovers.

And in the shower, I realized that I am growing friendships here, but nowhere has it been more apparent to me that I lack a companion–and that that is okay.

Moreover, it is a useful challenge for myself to learn how to live more independently. To use various friendships and the support and engagement they can provide to enhance my experiences and stabilize my mental health.

For example, Don is the guy I talk to whenever I want someone to teach me something about soccer, kindness, or beer. I can talk to Kat whenever I want to feel inspired to follow my passions, travel the world, and to do good. I talk to Harry when I need to feel down-to-earth or when I need a jolly laugh. Whenever I feel like engaging in deep philosophical discussions, Hannah (who I have not formally introduced here; different Hannah from the one in the Oktoberfest picture) is my go-to. When I want to discuss coping with mental health problems, Hannah’s boyfriend Dan has been a valuable resource. Though none of these friendships are exclusive to those topics or experiences, I can be assured that if I feel like I need one of those experiences, I can talk to the designated person.

I used to think this type of friendship was exploitative or that I was pigeonholing my friends, but I’ve come to realize that just because an attribute of a friendship might be the foundation, it does not have to be the framing, interior design, and exterior painting.

I have also come to realize that it is genuinely unfair to expect one person to provide or be the source of all the support and interaction someone needs in life.

It is also useful to me to have a better understanding of what it is I need in my relationships with other people; I want a better glimpse of what I can provide myself, what I seek in my relationships with others, and why I find tiresome in others as well. In other words, I am collecting data for both how what I want, expect, and need in a companion and how I can be a better friend and eventual companion to others.

This genuinely feels like a mind-altering realization, but it is not yet complete. I hope you will challenge me on these thoughts. I eagerly encourage any feedback or comments to my thinking here. I need it, friends.

On the First Few Weeks

Hello all,

I’m sorry its been a while since my last post. As I am sure you can understand, it has been quite busy here. There isn’t much point in detailing every aspect of the past few weeks, so instead, I will tell a few stories with the pictures I have managed to take. Let’s begin with an unglamorous, but useful picture:

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After the first day of classes, most of us in Building 5 gathered in someone’s apartment to discuss our first impressions of our students. Consider it a mass therapy session. I know its not a well-composed photograph, but I genuinely enjoy candid pictures that capture the essence of a moment, and I think this does that. No one but me knew the picture was being taken.

To introduce some of our players so you can put faces to names. We will go anti-clockwise starting with me. Immediately behind me is Kayla, a middle school English teacher from Stockton. Sitting in the chair next to Kayla is John–who was a BMX coach in his native England. He and his significant other, Kat, (who is on the other side of him) have been travelling around Asia for the past year-and-a-half, including volunteering teaching English for a semester in the slums of India. He is a PE teacher; Kat is a high school English teacher. Her office is directly behind mine, so we have become quite close walking to and from the office. Kat is closest person to Mary Poppins I have ever met.

Next to Kat in the blue shirt is Don, who I have talked about previously. I’ve also mentioned the next two people: sitting on the floor is Emily and by the door is Harry. Here is a moment we all shared the first week in an underground bar (no, those aren’t our first drinks of the evening).

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To finish the introductions above: on the couch talking to Harry is Kristen and her husband Luis from Nashville. Kristen is an elementary teacher and Luis teaches biology. I have spent quite a bit of time with them as well!

So now that you have a brief introduction to everyone, let’s start with telling you about Tiger…

After the first two weeks, Harry–a PE teacher–was desperate for a good workout and knew I, too, wanted to find a gym to frequent. He came downstairs, banged on my door, and ordered me to get ready to sign up for the gym.  We knew full-well that signing up for a membership was going to be a difficulty erected by the language barrier, so we braced ourselves for a stressful time and went to the gym–about a 15-minute walk away on the fourth floor of a mall.

When we arrived, the women at the desk immediately got on the phone and without words, prompted us to sit down. A tall lanky man in his low-to-mid-twenties came out with a big smile and shook our hands. “I’m Tiger!”

We shook his hand and talked about signing up for membership and though his English wasn’t spectacular, the combination of guessing and liberal use of translating apps, we could carry a conversation with him. While I filled out the paperwork, Harry asked him why he chose the name Tiger (for the golfer, naturally) and what he liked to do in Shanghai (oh, you’ll see later in the story).  As Harry did the same, I talked to him about basketball–he is a huge LeBron James fan–he once had dreams of playing professionally, but his ambitions were cut short by a knee injury. As we finished the paperwork and were prepared to start our workout, Tiger asked us if we would like to have drinks with him at 10pm that night. That was quite late for us and Harry was reluctant to do it, but I–wanting to make deliberate choices to be more adventurous–pushed him to agree to do it. Tiger said drinks would be his treat; neither Harry nor myself would ever consider passing up free food and we certainly did not want to refuse his generosity. We agreed to meet him. Wanting to be somewhat safe, we suggested a restaurant in the mall by the gym and Harry and I agreed privately that we wouldn’t go to any other location.

We went home, showered, and then walked to a restaurant near the mall for dinner, where we each got a beer. We finished eating, went to our designated meeting spot with Tiger, got another round of beer, and waited. By 1015, we were talking about leaving. Until he showed up with his girlfriend, who went by Joy. They brought with them a grocery-bag filled with beer. (Note: in China, it is perfectly acceptable to bring your own drinks with you to restaurants. And indeed, most restaurants do not serve many drink options, so its essentially expected you BYOB).

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There are 11 beers in this picture. What I failed to capture was that each of us had already been served one and Tiger had drank one as they walked over. Joy informed us that she would only be having one beer, so it then fell on the three of us to finish the rest.

Every few minutes, Tiger would raise his can and proclaim, “Ganbei!” the Chinese equivalent to “Cheers!” or “Prost!” and, he informed us, it was traditional for the guests to keep drinking until the host put his glass (or can) down. And so Harry and I did–keep in mind, we had already consumed 2 half-litres bottles of beer at dinner and while waiting for him. Yeah, its that kind of evening.

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Little did we know, however, that Tiger had called ahead to order a platter of food, partly seen above. (I took this picture because, well, let’s just say I recognized I would not have remembered much of the evening otherwise).  The platter he ordered was, what he claimed, a collection of his favorite foods, but I suspect he ordered it to challenge our Western sensibilities. I’m sorry I didn’t take more detailed pictures, but the essence of the dinner can be seen above.

On the top of the tower was my least favorite item available: Duck feet. It was all bone and skin that you hate by sucking out the juices. It was flavored quite spicy, so I had one to try, then avoided them. Would not recommend.

Beneath the duck feet on the tower is what I enjoyed the most: bullfrog. It had the texture of a thick fish and was deliciously flavored. However, like most Chinese food, the bones and cartilage are left in–doing so enhances the flavor, but makes eating more of a challenge. Especially with chopsticks!

What looks like an orange fish is an absolutely wonderful mango-gelatin dessert. The was none left at the end of the night.

Not pictured is another item I did not much enjoy; ox stomach. It was incredibly chewy quite spicy, so I avoided it after a few bites. In the bowl closest to Joy in the picture was a fantastic steamed potato dish that was the most comforting food to eat there.

But in the bowl closest to me was the biggest surprise of the evening. When the bowl was placed on the table, I immediately recognized what it was. Being quite drunk, it was the first thing I took a bite of.

And it was delicious. It melts in your mouth; the flavor coats your tongue. No chewing is necessary.

I told Harry to try it; without hesitation, he picked his chopsticks through it and ate it. He asked what that was. I asked if he really wanted to know.

It was pig’s brain.

Tiger complimented us on our bravery and willingness to try everything. I probably ate the frog the most, with the brain second. Despite having had dinner a few hours prior to this feast and having gone through a not-insignificant quantity of beer, we ate and talked and drank until they kicked us out at 1230 in the morning.

We were the only customers left. We attempted to leave a tip; they abjectly refused. We offered to split the cost with Tiger; he abjectly refused. We said our goodbyes–he and Joy were going to visit her parents for a few weeks. Despite the praise of our ability to eat, Tiger was disappointed that we hadn’t drank more–I think he was prepared to get another 16-pack. Harry and I promised that when they returned, we would bring Tiger around town and this time we would pay. So I have to look forward to sometime in the next few weeks.

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Alright, switching gears. This is an almost complete 3-D printed model of the school that the students are constructing for the school’s 25th Anniversary celebration. The blue arrow is my apartment; the red arrow is to my office. The walk takes less than 5 minutes.

732833661672966237.jpgOne of my favorite parts of campus is the colony of semi-feral cats that live here. The guards feed them at night, but they stick around on campus full time. I’ve never seen a mouse or rat on campus and I am sure they are a reason why. There are a few kittens around; the teachers who live off campus either adopt them or find a friend to do so before they get too old. They aren’t exactly friendly, but most don’t mind if you pet them, which I, of course, do on occasion.

The cats are somewhat of a school mascot. There is a club on campus that raises money to treat them for any medical issues and to pay for their food. If someone adopts a kitten, the club will even pay to spay or neuter them and ensure they have all their shots. But there is a much sharper line in Chinese culture between wild and domesticated animals–even cats. So the locals refuse to get the feral cats fixed until they are adopted.

The picture is intended to demonstrate how hot and humid its been here, but also how fearless they are. They sit around the lunch area while the kids are eating; they’ll jump on the tables and follow you around if they know you have food or if you scratched them in a particularly excellent way.

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Despite having an office, I do not always have to work there. This old stone Go table is my favorite place to work. The building you see in the background is where my office is, so its near enough to not be hassle to get to. Behind the table is a heavily forested area, so I can feel like I am a part of nature while being apart of it.

There is also a cafe for teachers only to work and meet in where I frequently find myself working. Think of a toned-down gentleman’s cigar and cognac club, but with coffee and red pens instead.

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Last weekend, a group of us went to an Oktoberfest party. Since we have a few new people here, I will reintroduce everyone. Behind me on either side is married-couple Don and Sarah. The woman doing the sorority-squat is recent college grad (and sorority member) Sam, an elementary school teacher. Next to her is Hannah; they are best friends from their undergrad sorority and embarked on this journey together. They very much act like sisters. The tall woman in the back is Dana, who is also a PE teacher. And you all should be familiar with Harry and Emily by now. Between Emily and Hannah is Kayla (wearing sunglasses). More on her another time.

This was the only picture of the food I managed to get. They gave us these platters of food and we just dug in. There was all sorts of potato stuff, sauerkraut (naturally), sausages, various deli meats. There were only three beer options and none were especially good. But what they lacked in quality, we more than made up for in quantity.

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The last thing I will post here is the activity I have added to my schedule that I am most excited about. I am one of two coaches for the school’s baseball team! There is a baseball club on campus, but the school wants to field an official competitive team. So they recruited myself and a middle school teacher named Dane to lead the team. He played through college (including with a bunch of current major leaguers!), so he will probably do most of the coaching. But I am planning on keeping track of and integrating baseball statistics into our team.

We are beginning by having a teachers vs students baseball game, which you can see us preparing for below. I am coaching the teacher’s team; Dane is coaching the unofficial students’ team. Yes, I already have official school merchandise!!! 596566546786307811.jpg690937243671554846.jpg441907577987115002.jpg

My other extra-curricular activity is a competitive History team that I will be leading. Think a cross between academic decathlon and spelling bee, but purely for history. I went to a meeting to talk with my club members; the photography club happened to be immediately next to us. A member of the club (and a student in my 12th grade class!) snapped what has to be one of my favorite pictures of me ever taken. 54091961005074485.jpg

And that is where I’ll leave you.

Thanks for all of the love, support, and interest,

Atticus

PS: So as to not leave you all hanging for so long, my new goal is to publish shorter posts more frequently. Hope you won’t mind!

On the First Days

Arrival: Wednesday

I arrived Wednesday evening, got picked up at the airport by a driver who spoke precisely no English, but he was holding a sign for my school and knew exactly where to go. The highway was pretty empty; a majority of cars were either taxis, luxury cars, or cars marked with the DiDi–the Chinese equivalent of Uber or Lyft–logo. Sitting in the back of a van, hugging my backpack, from the airport to the school felt like a kid walking through the line of Space Mountain; the transition from the world I have always known to a roller coaster of experiences was one of tension, wonder, and all-encompassing change.

Because I hadn’t allowed myself to sleep on the plane, I had to force my eyes open throughout the van ride to the school. I reached my apartment without incident. And as soon I walked through the front door of the building, a jovial guy with a big smile and a clean English accent greeted me. Harry is a fantastic dude; he is incredibly sweet and quick with a joke that sounds right out of John Cleese’s mind. (When I noted his sense of humor’s similarity with Monty Python, he beamed and said that was greatest compliment someone could pay him). The first thing Harry did was offer to help with my bags; luckily for both of us, my apartment is on the first floor; his room is directly above mine. Once I got the basic unpacked, I went upstairs and we talked a bit. Until we heard the apartment door open once again.

A married couple had just arrived with 11(!) bags. And guess what? They were not on the first floor.  They were on the 5th floor. So Harry and I brought a few bags each up their apartment, which sufficiently tired me out. I went back to my apartment and crashed.

Day 1: Thursday

I was awoken to the sound of groups of cadential shouting in Chinese outside my bedroom window.  Local teenagers were organized into perfectly straight and organized lines like a company on parade; they wore identical pure white shirts and bright blue-and-red pants. They marched, chanted, and saluted together–lead by young men in army uniforms. I had problems getting my students to wait in their desk for the bell to ring; these students were running around the basketball courts in unison. Welcome to China.

As I later found out, all Freshman are required to spend a few weeks before school starts in this military academy. This is their introduction to conscripted military service, a requirement for all Chinese citizens. They live in the dorms next to the teachers’ apartment building and they drill with army officials. They wake up early to scrub their windows with newspapers, have no doors to their bedrooms, and are instilled with disciplined CCP ideology.

There was nothing officially scheduled on Thursday; half of the building was due to arrive that day.  Harry and I quickly met those who arrived on Wednesday and we broke into groups based on our priority. A few of us in the apartment organized a trip to the Walmart that is a few blocks away. The differences between American and Chinese Walmart is slight; the products are almost entirely Chinese, but there is a small Western selection. The process of buying products works a bit differently, but we figured it out easily enough by watching the locals. The best teachers we have available to us is simple observation and imitation of the locals.

A group of 10 of us grabbed lunch at a place mere steps off of campus called Kung Foodle–a name I included purely for those of you who love puns. Ordering would have been difficult, but the owner (accustomed to having Western teachers grab lunch there) fashioned a pointer of a chopsticks and straws. A few things were laid plainly clear by this short trip to and from this restaurant: you can see how clearly Chinese demographics skew older and a good rule of thumb in China is the younger someone is, the more likely they are to speak English–and anyone over 50 almost certainly speaks not a word of it.

Later that afternoon, a group of veteran teachers organized a series of trips: one to the phone store to get local SIM cards, one to Metro (a German equivalent of Costco), and one to Ikea. Most of my building took the public bus to Ikea.

In order to navigate the labyrinthine home good store, we broke up into small groups. Harry and I were joined by Emily, who lives on the second floor as well. She, like me, is a first-year teacher, born and raised in Chicago, and has three older brothers. The last point I mention specifically to help you understand how fun this Ikea trip turned out to be. Any sort of teasing Harry and I could dish at her, she could snap right back into our faces.  She knew when to roll her eyes, give a gentle slap on the arm, or devastate us with questions of our masculinity. But she also knew when to let us lift heavy things or her and rescue her from the occasional cockroach in her apartment (we’ve all had an appearance). Though the three of us became fast friends, let’s just say that I do not allow myself to be their third wheel.

I had never been to Ikea, so it was a fascinating and overwhelming experience. I tried to imagine what it would be like for an older Chinese person who survived the lean days after the Revolution to walk into perhaps the greatest display of global Capitalism available. I bought the equivalent of $200 worth of stuff for my apartment, including a desk lamp, some dish and cookware, clothes hangers, and trash cans (which, bizarrely, was not included in any of our apartments). But others bought far more, which presented an obvious problem to get back; we would take up most of the volume available on the bus that brought us here and none of us had the ability to communicate to cabbies to get back (and for boring technical reasons, none of us but the veteran teachers could order a DiDi). Luckily, an Chinglish-speaking Ikea delivery-van driver noticed our predicament and offered to drive all of us back to campus for the equivalent of $20. So we packed everything into the van; 4 of us could sit in chairs, but the rest of us piled in, sat on boxes or the floor of the van. It was hot as hell, but the driver would not allow us to open the windows, lest we be seen by the police who might suspect he was smuggling us. Someone demanded that nobody pass gas for the duration of the ride.

We got home without incident. I finally had the chance to finish unpacking, including hanging my clothes. Now fully unloaded, I am using about 40% of the storage space that this apartment has. It’s starting to feel like home.

Day 2: Friday

The first day of organized activities, which began promptly at 7am for the mandatory health check. We were told to stop eating and drinking anything but water for 12 hours beforehand, so we all piled into the bus to the health center a little grouchy, tired, and hangry. At the medical center, all 35 of us teachers were queued in the lobby with paperwork and passports and one at a time instructed to go down a hallway with a long series of numbered side rooms. Like a YA novel, each room presented a test. In the first room, we were assigned a locker and given a robe; all of us had to take off our shirts yes, ladies had to remove their bras) and put the robe on. A few of the guys took this as an opportunity to make jokes about looking like Hugh Heifner with the medical-white-and-blue robes, while the women did their best to stay modest in such clinical conditions.

First we had our heart rate and blood pressure checked, then we were sternly directed to an eye exam. We had chest x-rays, ultrasounds (of the lungs), and had some blood drawn.  The nurses and medical staff appeared to know only the English words required for their portion. “Open robe.” “Stand here.” “Make fist.” “Thank you.” “Room 105. Next!” The facility was clean, but sparse. Like the staff, there was nothing comforting about the facility–no corporate art or relaxing color palettes. Just clinical awkwardness.

If I am being honest, my mind went to a dark place while waiting for the next room. We all made jokes and tried to comfort and/or tease each other, but when I had a moment while Harry and Emily were in other room, I thought about how obedient we all were. That the clinical atmosphere and direct orders denied us the ability or desire to protest. We felt awkward, but not uncomfortable. I wondered (and worried) what more the staff could do to us before anyone seriously objected, or if the patina of authority and medical necessity would make us all compliant. Perhaps to put too fine a point on it: if I was instructed to go into a room filled with showers, I cannot say that I would have hesitated.

Well, how the hell do I transition out of a macabre Holocaust reference?

I will just do here what we all did there: just keep going. As batches of us finished, we walked to a nearby convenience store to get snacks and something to drink. No one fainted, but Emily was worried she might. Harry and I said we would carry her back to her place if need be. After we all got some snacks and shared some jokes at the nurses’ expense, the mood lifted. I sat next to and spoke extensively with Kayla on the hour-long charter bus ride back. She lives in the same building as Harry, Emily, and I. From Stockton and used to work in a really tough school there. She was burnt out, broke up with her boyfriend, and wanted to do something crazy. She is a completely open book and with enough assertiveness and sarcasm in her 5-foot body to make anyone slightly intimidated to get on her bad-side. She has a version of “the look” that every mother and teacher possess that can instantly quiet a classroom of even the most rambunctious teenagers.

We all got lunch together in one of the school cafeterias.  This dining hall serves Chinese foods, while the other specializes in Western dishes (it will open once school starts). The food is far better than any I have seen in an American school.  Those with less-adventurous tastes might have objected, but I found the food a welcome exploration of flavors. You might not know precisely what meat it is you are eating, but I have vowed to try anything and everything while I am here. I was comforted to see that few of the new teachers were particularly good at using chopsticks and that all of the veteran teachers were, so its a skill that will be developed.

After lunch, we were finally given our class schedule and the teachers’ editions of the textbooks we were to use. To be clear, the textbooks are Western that are practically identical to those used in American schools. I say practically identical because there are three primary exceptions, called the Three-Ts. Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen Square. According to both the Chinese administrators and Western teachers alike, these are the only “sensitive topics” that are different in the books. So since I’m sure all of you are wondering, here is the perspective of Chinese government:

Tibet has been a part of China for a very long time.

Taiwan is a province of the People’s Republic of China.

The Tiananmen Square Incident was no massacre but a “counter-revolutionary rebellion.”

All of us teachers were told this, but the likelihood of a PE teacher been asked about this seems fairly slim. No, the most likely teachers to be asked about these issues are the unlucky souls who have to teach the history of the 20th Century, most especially the 10th Grade Modern History class, which spans from 1500 until Present day.  Any guesses as to who one of those teachers might be?

Harry is a PE teacher….Emily and Kayla are doing Middle School English….any one else you can think of?

I have two classes. One period of 10th Grade Modern History and the second of 12th Grade Western Civilization (basically European and American history). So it is a virtual certainty that I will be covering this material in class. I want to be clear: at no point were we told we were required to teach the Party line. We were welcome to state that these were controversial and politicized topics. We were encouraged to ask the students to think critically and do their research about the Three Ts, but we should not be “pushing our ideology” onto them. Which I interpret as code for: if you are not willing to state the Party line, avoid the topics as much as possible and that to do so would be seen as an attempt to politicize history. That only these three topics were seen as sufficiently political should be all one needs to know about the seriousness of these issues are to the security of the CCP’s public image.

Anyway….Because I was only assigned two classes, I now have the liberty to create my own electives! I have thought about some possibilities and will work with my department to do so. I will provide updates on this matter, but I am incredibly excited for the opportunity to design my own curriculum! I think comparative political systems or the history of sports will be my first proposals.

Since we have derailed from the story a bit, I should insert a point of clarification here. There are two teacher dorms; only new (to this school) teachers are permitted to stay here; if you resign your contract, you are given a stipend to have housing elsewhere in the city. Mine is called simply Building 5 and is close to the center of campus. We are about half the size of Building X, the other teacher dorm–and the only building on campus with an elevator. Though I have had one-on-one conversations with just about all of the new teachers now, (unsurprisingly) circles of friends are developing mostly based on which building you were assigned and which department-and-grade level you are in.  Because I am the only new teacher to the high school history department, I will have to be a bit more transitory with my friendships.

In case you are wondering: the various grade levels do not interact much professionally. The primary school teachers do not work with the middle school teachers, who do not work with the high school teachers. The high school English and Social Studies departments work together, though they are currently attempting to be more closely aligned. STEM classes are taught by Chinese teachers.

Alright, that’s enough of that. Back to the story.

Friday evening began when the 30-year-old couple of Don and Sarah organized a group of 11 of us to go to a burgers and brewery place near the Shanghai Expo Center where the world exposition was based a few years ago. Due to being the oldest of the group of new teachers and having strong parental personalities, we all call them Momma Duck and Dadda Duck, much to their reluctant delight. Don picked the place and Sarah wrangled up the taxis, made sure everyone knew where they were going, etc. They’re so patient and generous and wonderful.

I was in the taxi with Don; our method of telling the cabbie where to go was to type in the address to a Google-Maps-equivalent and show the driver, who would smile and nod. We then tracked our progress on the app to ensure we weren’t being misdirected. The cabbie dropped us off close enough to our destination, which was (unbeknownst to us) in a mall. There was no signage for it, so we all wondered around the mall until we found the remnants of the burgers and brewery place! Lights out, stuff off the walls, tables stacked. But the website still said it was open!

We later found out that we had learned the hard way a necessary lesson about Shanghai: stores open and close with no announcement or indication regularly. Rents fluctuate quickly, permits aren’t renewed, owners get bored and move. It just happens.

So we had to figure out what to do. We still wanted to eat and drink, but none of the other spots in the mall were what we were looking for. I remember seeing a concentration of Western options as we drove to the our failed destination and so we began walking. And walking. And walking. I had certainly underestimated the distance to these locations and a rebellion among the more tired and hangry was certainly brewing. Until Mr. Pancake saved us all.

Mr. Pancake is a breakfast-for-dinner place with what turned out to be precisely two kinds of beer: Coronas (served with lemons, not limes!) and Tsingtao, the national beer of China. It was silly, but it was cheap and open and no one objected. And it turned out to be wonderful time.

What that night revealed to me is the selection-bias this kind of job demands. Only people who are flexible and adaptable and can maintain their patience and sense of humor could both do this kind of trip and find it worthwhile. Sure some of us were getting grumpy, but we could make fun of that fact.And we all certainly laughed about it after we got some waffles and beer in us. We all know we were thrown onto a roller coaster together and there is an immediate camaraderie that develops when put into the inherently stressful situation of moving across the world. Plus, we all share the same job and love of it! I am truly among a wonderful group of people.

Day 3: Saturday

I woke up early and went for my first run. Not feeling particularly adventurous, I ran around the school’s track. I had run two miles before Dana, a 32-year-old PE teacher from Kansas City joined me. She suggested we do some ab work outs between laps, so I joined her in doing so and will probably replicate that process later. We did a mile together, so I was pleased to end up with a solid three miles.

We had information sessions about the school and our departments for the bulk of the day, but nothing that is interesting enough to relay to you all. But on Saturday, three things happened that made it a productive day.

  1. I went to the bank to exchange my USD into RMB so I could pay people pack for buying my beers and transporting me around the city.
  2. I solved my internet problems so I now have wifi in my apartment.
  3. I bought a Chinese cellphone so that I could use WeChat. A brief explanation of WeChat: it is the one-app-fits-all for communication and transactions. Absolutely everyone in major Chinese cities has and uses WeChat every single day. You can use it as a messenger with friends and families, including calling, video calling, and sending files. But, once you have a Chinese bank account, you can use it to pay absolutely everywhere. Every restaurant and store accepts money through WeChat, including back-of-the-van-grocers. We have heard reports of beggars and street performers accepting donations through WeChat, though I haven’t seen it for myself yet. In essence, because of WeChat, urban China is a mostly cashless society. However, due to the trade war between the US and China right now, the school has not yet been able to create our bank accounts. Hopefully soon. Luckily I brought a good amount of cash!

Saturday evening was another evening of food and alcohol organized by Daddy Duck Don and Momma Duck Sarah, this time things went much more smoothly. We took the subway for the first time and ended up in a part of town that one could mistake for Chelsea. There were tons of Westerners around. We started at a (really good!) burgers-and-beer place, where I had a veggie burger, a gin-based cocktail, and their house beer. We also got to watch some Premier League football, which made Harry happy. We then went to a classic cocktail bar that was standing-room-only, where I had a Lychee-based cocktail that turned out to be far better than I expected. Funnily enough, some veteran teachers from our school came into the bar shortly after we arrived, so our group of 12 inflated to 20! But because of our size, it was time to split up. A handful went home, a few more went to a karaoke bar, but myself, Harry, Emily, Don, and Sarah went to a ruin bar similar to those found in Budapest. I got a classic Rum-and-Coke, we played intoxicated pool (which is the same thing as regular pool, but a lot funnier), and Emily, Harry and I sat in a bathtub together.

It was easily one of my most fun nights out ever.

There was no drama in the group, there was fantastic conversation, and every drink I had was tasty and generous. Cheers to all who made it happen.

Day 4: Sunday

We got home about 1am, so I was more than happy to sleep in. I spent a few hours in bed reading and catching up with the world, and I wrote the bulk of this post. Harry, Emily, and I went to lunch and Walmart to continue populating our rooms with basic necessities like closelines to dry clothes, quick food options, and cleaning supplies. A quiet and productive day before a very busy week begins tomorrow.

It is my goal to take more pictures so that I can post them here. To force myself to begin, I will post sometime this week a tour of campus with plenty of pictures, so be on the look out for that!

Let me know if you have any questions you’d like answered in the comments! And don’t forget, if you follow me here, you will be automatically notified everytime I post something!

Love and appreciation to all!

 

 

 

 

On Internet Troubles

Hello All,

My apartment is the only one in the building that has had difficulty connecting to the internet. I am writing this from my friends’ apartment! I haven’t much free time to work on it the past few days, so I can’t post anything.

I  also haven’t been able to get a 4G connection on my cell phone, so if you have tried to contact me or have been hoping for updates, I am working on it and will give you as much information as I can once I get it up and running.

Sorry all!

Party Speech

By the end of this speech, I am going to make four pledges that in many ways consign the rest of my life to this moment. This is appropriate as this feels like the end of the first book in the trilogy of my life.  

First off, countless small thank yous to my mother for planning, organizing, and preparing this party which serves as a perfect epilogue to a book in which you all appear.

I am so grateful to be able to share this moment of celebration and appreciation with all of you and I can neither thank you all enough for coming nor can I equally celebrate your contributions to the person who stands before you.

I hope you all will join me in sending some appreciation to the three people who have endured me the longest, my parents and sister.  

This day is as much a celebration of them as it is for me.  So I want to take this moment to recognize what they have done for me over this past year in particular and over my 26 years in general.  The trajectory of my life changed dramatically 15 months ago and if it were not for the stability and generosity my parents provided, I would have crashed and burned instead of quite literally flying away. Truth be told, I feel as though I can never do enough to show my appreciation for all of the sacrifice, support, and love they have shared with me.

The many “thank you for dinner”s and gestures of appreciation were certainly necessary for me to show my appreciation, but they never once have felt sufficient.  I have struggled throughout the time I have lived here to find a gift that would be sufficient to show my appreciation but was dumbfounded and paralyzed. What could it be? What could possibly honor the commitment and sacrifice a parent makes to their child?

My conclusion was that, despite the tangible sacrifices and pains they have endured, that nothing tangible could be returned to them. But I did think of three things I could do. Why three? Well, three is a nice pretty poetic number, so I figured that was as good as place as any to stop thinking.

Number One. I pledge to live a good life. I imagine all parents want their children to be healthy and happy and those absolutely are rabbits I intend to chase for the duration of my life. Through volunteering and the community-building–most notably through Special Olympics– that has bound so many of us here together, I pledge to continue to help spread happiness, health, togetherness, and inclusion to as many as I can.  But my parents taught me that in order to live a meaningful life that one must act in service of the reduction of the suffering of others. From my dietary habits to my political philosophy, my parents have instilled in me an ambition and obligation to reduce the suffering of people and animals alike wherever possible. They have also passed on to me a limitless curiosity and an endless generosity that fuel the fire to see others warmed and raised by my efforts.

Number Two. I pledge to love and to look after their daughter, my sister, Keri. Goober, I once said on camera that you have taught me more than any other person and I continue to believe that.  I find an excuse to bring you up in practically every conversation. There is nothing I love bragging about more than you. You have the most remarkable ability that, frankly, none of us here can match. Whereas I try every day to show others how to be happy, you are unique in your capability to spread the light that can brighten any soul, mystery, or situation: joy. The difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is internal, even selfish–it is created and contained by an individual and all we can do is tell others how we are happy and hope that they obey and repeat the results. Whereas Joy is special. Joy, by its very nature, is shared and spread like a contagious ray of sunshine. And you, Kerith Lee, are the sun; you are an absolute and constant source of joy in my life–and I do not think it is presumptuous to say–all of our lives. I am so grateful that you are in my life exactly the way you are and I would have it no other way.  So I pledge to you and to our parents that I will forever be with you to ensure that you are happy and healthy so that your joy can spread to all who have the pleasure to have you in their life.

Back to the parents for Number Three.  I pledge to pass on your lessons to a new generation.  Though I cannot promise that the lessons will be passed to genetic or adopted successors, the spirit of your examples will be given everyday to my students, regardless of where I am.  I certainly attempted to do so in Chula Vista, Granada Hills, and will continue to do so in China. I will strive every day to learn new ways to ensure that your examples of compassion, service, and enjoyment of life will spread through my own words and actions so that your legacy extends far beyond me.

As the witnesses to the three pledges I made here, I need you to know that you are involved as well. It takes a village to raise a person and all of you are a close approximation to my village. Everyone here has played a role in shaping the person I am and the man I aspire to be. This is an honor I do not take lightly. I view myself as an ambassador of this particular amalgamation of people, an envoy for this community. I aim to make this community–this village–proud.

I have seen members of this community give their time, talents, and treasure to improving the lives of the less fortunate. I have often been a benefactor of your own generosity and friendship.  Some of you have either shared or endured the pain and frustration that my depression has wrought; that you are here today is a testament to the power of love that has given me the strength to fight my demons and the ambition to improve myself in every possible way.  My depression has caused me to treat others poorly, but all of you have contributed something to my battle towards betterment. It is because of each and all of you that I have been able–time and time again–to climb out of the chasms of mental illness. I wish for everyone to be as fortunate as I am to have a community of support like you.

Now a fair question to ask is if you all are so wonderful, why would I ever want to leave? Because as most of you know, I have always felt a compulsion to leave this hometown.  It is has been a lifelong ambition of mine to live in another country. You all know how I am fascinated by other cultures and different ways of living.  But so far as I can tell, it is only the obedient who are born into the circumstances in which they most easily thrive. And only the wisest can thrive in any environment in which they find themselves. And as all of you know, I have an inner rebel who makes as many mistakes as has victories, I know I have yet to find the environment in which I feel I can thrive. And, because of my parents’ teachings and your examples, my particular definition of thriving is where I can do the most good for the most number of people.

And if you will allow me to make a public confession, I have always felt undeserving of being part of this community, that due to my personal shortcomings, I was not living up to the ideals and examples of those gathered here. I view this pressure–real or imagined as it may be–as a challenge.  

And so, my final pledge of the evening is one I make to all of you. From this adventure in China and throughout the remaining chapter of my life, I pledge to live my life in deep and abiding appreciation to all in this village, to honor the unyielding commitment you all have shown me, and to double the love you all have seen fit to share with me.

I thank you all. I love you all.  And in a very real way, I am you all.