Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Littlest Wedding Crasher

My ties with Sam's family go long and deep. I've been to his hometown and met his parents. I've been to his sister's house, which she shares with her husband and 18-month old son. His daughter has known me all of her life; it was I who named her 'Erica'. My feelings of hurt and betrayal at Sam's hand notwithstanding, his family and I have forged bonds over the 7 years I've been here. 
I have been proof-reading and editing his brother-in-law's physics papers ever since Peter earned his doctorate, 4 years ago. Never mind the fact that I am only minimally educated and he is a professor; when it comes to English, I excel.

It doesn't hurt that I am a total science geek and read constantly and voraciously of everything I can get my hands on with regard to chemistry, maths and, of course, every physics discipline.

Three of his four papers that I edited have actually been published, and he has been awarded a several-million Yuan grant from the Government to study the effects of viscosity on irregular-shaped particles, with the intent to deliver a solution for injecting nanoparticles into cancerous cells. And I helped!

He has long intended to treat me to a nice meal as a thank you for my efforts. When Sam told me about it 2 years ago, I demurred. I was happy to help, and I would take any chance to get my science on! Still, nothing would do but to enjoy an expensive lunch at a fancy hotel.

Today was the day.

These past 2 weeks have been so hectic! On top of my regular schedule, I have been covering night and weekend classes for David, who is up to his eyeballs in senior thesis defense. Besides that, I won a contract to research and publish articles on becoming a tutor in various cities in the UK.

I'd never been to the UK, so I had to do a lot of research to make the articles sound like I knew everything about Liverpool, Leeds, Bristol and Glasgow, Scotland. No mean feat considering the limits on Internet pages I can access from China, my time constraints and a flaky WIFI connection.

Needless to say, last week was not the best time to suffer an allergy attack, but what does pollen care?

Starting Monday night, I was rudely awakened in the wee hours of the morning, heart pounding and gasping for breath. For the first 3 days of the week, I operated in a fugue of fatigue and lack of oxygen. Wednesday night, I gave up trying to lie down and just dozed, sitting up on the couch.

Thursday, my killer day, nearly did me in. At least I did not have any impromptu visits like I had the week before, but I did run into Tina, who wondered why I am never home in the evening. Apparently she couldn't see any light through my drapes and simply assumed I was out. I'm guessing she would have dropped in had she thought I was home, as is her wont. I am glad she didn't, because...

For the second time ever, I was working under a deadline. I had to get those articles written and formatted according to my client's wishes by a specific time.

Incapable of entertaining a thought beyond conducting classes, putting food in my mouth and trying to sleep, I didn't write a single word all week. That left only Friday, my deadline day, to get everything written and formatted.

No problem with the writing. I finally managed to get some decent sleep Thursday night, after teaching 9 periods (45-minute sessions). Friday morning saw me up at 7AM and at the keyboard shortly after.

I was banking on the fact that my client lives in France, meaning I would have an extra 6 hours to work, thanks to the time difference.

Unfortunately, he was online and messaging me at 2PM, my time, wondering where we stood on publishing. I had the articles done, but could not access the publishing platform! Could it have been because of the WannaCry worm attack?

Fortunately, he was very understanding and gave me an extra day.

That would have been great, except for the fact that I had to be in class nearly all day Saturday. And my computer was acting decidedly strange; it wouldn't load any pages. When the client's page finally did load, it refused my logon. After much cajoling and a few well-chosen curses, the Internet cooperated and...

Long and short: the work was completed on Saturday evening!

I was looking forward to enjoying a quiet Sunday, taking care of mundane tasks like laundry and house cleaning that I had been neglecting for the past 2 weeks. But first, maybe a small round of my favorite game app on my phone...

Oh, wait! A text message from Sam: his brother wants to treat us to lunch on Sunday. I was sorely tempted to beg off but, in the end, I agreed to go. And so it came to be that Penny, Erica and Sam turned up on my doorstep a full thirty minutes before they were expected.

It's all good. We've been friends long enough that they could see me put on my makeup. They sipped coffee while I primped and little Erica, ever my buddy, played with my deck of Uno cards. And then, we loaded up.

Not only was the lunch rush was in full swing, but the restaurant we were to eat at was hosting a wedding! Only flimsy pink panels segregated the wedding revelers from us ordinary diners. 

Erica payed little mind to the surroundings, still absorbed with the Uno cards (and me), until the MC intoned via loudspeaker on the other side of the partition. And then, the room was so loud we could do nothing but eat: talking was out of the question. 

My little darling nibbled a glutinous rice cake, gnawed on a braised rib and scooped a few potatoes out of the duck stew. And then, she was up and at'em! Parting the pink curtains directly behind us, she gaped in awe at the lavish event before her until a hostess chided her and pulled her back, decisively closing the curtain with her other hand. Undeterred, Erica waited until the Gardian of Pink Gauze disappeared and then she was back, taking in the whole scene, even snagging a decorative balloon.

                                                        The waitress, pulling her back.

She has to be the littlest wedding crasher ever!

Now that I was not so focused on matching green, red, yellow and blue cards, I could participate in the luncheon and, to an extent, the conversation.

Sam's dad has lost a lot of weight, and he looks much older than when I first met him. When talking  with him I couldn't help notice his breath had the unmistakable odor of ketosis. I wonder how his health really is.

Peter and June, the physicist and his wife, had brought their baby son. It was the first time I'd seen him in the flesh. You might think it strange that I didn't ask or want to hold him. The reason is simple: I can't fall in love with another child only to leave him behind in 6 weeks.

As it was, my eyes were stinging with repressed tears. How dear these people are to me! How ordinary, how casual to meet for a meal in a fine restaurant! How crushing the knowledge that, in less than 2 months, we will most likely never sit around a table together again.

Erica, her burst of food-induced energy spent, crawled up in my lap and we cuddled while she colored pictures on my phone. The tender weight of her, the sublime peace of this beautiful, trusting child. The joy of knowing she draws comfort from me just as much as I cherish these infrequent moments of closeness.

I can't bear it. It's easier to think of her as the world's littlest wedding crasher.     

                                                         The fate of the purloined ball

A Handwritten Note

One reason Thursdays are so terrible is that, smack in the middle of the day, just before lunch, I have the worst class I've ever had, including a group of ill-mannered future Chinese teachers of a couple of  years ago, who demanded I teach them something useful. In the end they turned out all right and grateful for my efforts.

Not that undying gratitude is my goal. I would rather see kids change from spoiled brats to thoughtful, conscientious young adults. That group I had before, they've done that. This group, I have my doubts.

There are a few good apples. Gayle, the best of the class, who I believe takes pity on me because hardly anyone participates. Loen, with her heart of gold, who wrote poetry when all the assignment called for was a bit of introspection. Serena, who, no matter how encouraging I am, bears the weight of every Chinese female before her: “You'll never be good enough; you're just a girl!”. Even though she is whip-smart, she shies away from participating in class, choosing intead to mouthe answers to questions I might pose.

And I know she mouthes them because I make it a point to watch her.

Mention, an angry and militant girl at the outset of her university experience, has mellowed into a seemingly ordinary freshman - who secretly reaches out to me. Over winter break she had taken a part-time job in a restaurant. Just before Lunar New Year, she slipped in the kitchen and shattered her right elbow. Naturally she had her parents nearby but, when she could, she was texting with me, keeping me up to date on her many surgeries and her hospital stay.

You should note that the Chinese are not big on pain killers. I can't imagine what this poor child had to endure as they manipulated her arm thrice daily, under the guise of therapy. One of the videos she sent me was of her howling in pain as the doctor repeatedly stretched and retracted her arm. Torture aside, as soon as she was able to grasp a pencil in her left hand and train it to write, she was practicing English, doing lessons that nobody demanded she complete. 

It is for students like her that I became a teacher.

Not for students like Victoria, Deana, Zoe and Major, who spend all of class time sitting in the back of the room, playing games on their phones. So little do they participate in class that I've taken to giving them a zero for that day's grade.

But the ones that really grab my goat and skin it are Gloria, Andi, Queena and Daisy. Gloria in particular.

They saunter into class late, even though they have twenty-five minutes to get there from their previous session. They also 'play' on their phone, usually sending messages on QQ and WeChat, and discussing whatever messages they get amongst each other. Not quietly.

Gloria likes to ridicule. The first time was when we were talking about money: I was illustrating the differences between Chinese currency and American. Apparently, she thought I was mispronouncing a particular denomination, even though its name is written on the bill and I can read (at least that much) Chinese.

The second time is when I was assigning their mid-term exam. I informed the class they could use any means possible to improve their presentation, including PPT (Powerpoint software). “What's PPT?” she asked.

“Do you know PPT?” I asked, pointing to the presentation currently on display through overhead projection.

She turned to Gayle, whom she happened to be sitting next to. Gayle explained, again using the term 'PPT'.

“OH! PPT! Why can't she just talk clearly?” Gloria sneered in Chinese, perhaps unaware, but most  likely simply not caring that I understood her.

I've been bullied before, and I remember distinctly how it feels. I'll be darned if I will let some teenager bully me in front of a classroom full of her peers, whether most of them focus on their phones or not. I vowed to draw my boundaries at the very next opportunity.

I don't think there will be a next opportunity.

Out of sheer frustration of trying to get this class to talk, I've taken to bringing paper to class and having them write down their thoughts. If there is time before the bell rings, they can read what they wrote out loud, but I planned to collect, correct and comment on their efforts, giving them their work back the next week.

ASSIGNMENT: Is it harder to be a boy or a girl in China?

It was meant for them to reflect on various social inequities and ponder a solution to same. A lot of their ideas were mundane – the girls have already been made scared of the pain of childbirth, for example. My lone boy, Durant, stated it was much harder to be a boy because boys are expected to be stoic and pay for everything.

The standout assertion was Gloria's: being a girl is harder. “You have a hard life until you grow old and ugly and nobody loves you, and you can only wait to die.”    

I know bullies get their meanness from somewhere. Until then, in her case, I thought it was simply that she was 'a little princess', the uniquely Chinese phenomenon where there are too many grandparents with too few grandchildren to spoil. Such children generally end up uncaring of others and totally self-absorbed.

I was forced to reconsider my rudest, meanest student. Clearly she has suffered, most likely a great deal, at the hands of some older woman. So much so that she hates older women in general.

Now I understand her attitude toward me.

What is this child facing? Her attitude will bring about a self-fulfilling prophecy: she will be continuously rejected, thus proving she is only worth the abuse she apparently grew up with. How much rage, masked in scorn, does she harbor? And, heavens forbid!, what will happen to her if it all lets loose? Even worse: what will happen to her if she continues to internalize it? 

For every other student, I wrote encouraging messages along the lines of: “Childbirth doesn't hurt that much thanks to modern medicine...”. Mention got a special message: “You are a strong, good person...” On Gloria's paper, I wrote only: “Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Gloria. I understand you much better now.”  

The very next week, much to my surprise, Gloria and her gang walked into class a few minutes before the bell rang and they all took their seats in the very front row. They stowed their phones and paid attention even though I was not firing on all cylinders (see previous post).

I put it down to the power of a handwritten note: those few words built a bridge between me and a girl who is doing her best to not seem troubled and hurt, but whose pain and rage exploded off the page she expressed it on.

We're not going to cuddle and cry together, but perhaps now she doesn't feel so all alone, even as she surrounds herself with as much noise and as many people as she can. This broken girl needed to know someone understands her, and now she has written testimony of it. And who knows? Maybe, after I am a safe distance from her, she might feel comfortable enough to chat with me via text message and open up even more.

I misstated earlier that students like Mention are the reason I became a teacher. Her ilk make the separation from my loved ones bearable and bring joy to my class, and that is indeed great.

The real reason I became a teacher is for the Gloria's who have sat in my classes over the years. Helping kids like her, even with such a little thing as a few words on a scrap of paper, making a difference to a kid begging to be validated.

To me, that's what being a mentor is all about.   

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

We Are at War!

This is not a reference to anything political, in spite of growing global turmoil and tensions. It has to do with a plague I suffered my first year here, when rats availed themselves to my living space (See The Rat Party entry, posted September, 2011).

The first year I lived at this school, my accommodations were dank and dark and moist and fetid, on the ground floor of a girl's dorm building in the original part of the school. After returning from a stateside visit, I came home to find telltale signs of rodents: streaks left by long tails in the dust coating my countertops. Droppings everywhere. Eerie squeals and squeaks at night. And once, horribly, a rat the size of a chihuahua, crawling on my leg as I slept.

The school's leaders did everything to ensure my comfort and safety, going so far as to pay for my hotel for the three days needed for an exterminator they hired to rid my home of rodents. Shortly after, as promised, I was moved into the under-construction housing area where, for a year, I was the only tenant. Since then, I've had swarms of mosquitoes, a colony of ants and a few roaches, but they didn't stay and they didn't necessarily bother me.

A few weeks ago, I heard restless, frantic tearing, coming from the dining room. From having lived in squalor in my younger years and from my experience in the Concrete Bunker – as I'd dubbed my first apartment on this campus, I knew what was going on: rats! Rats were attacking my store of flour!

I keep my flour in the dining room, with all of my other baking stuff, next to the oven and bread machine. My kitchen is too small to fit all of my western conveniences in and I have very little cabinet space. It just makes sense to keep the baking goods near the instruments that do the baking, don't you think?

Because I'd not suffered any type of pest invasion in this house, at least not on any significant or recurring scale, I'd seen no need to 'protect' my goods. Now I needed a change of plan.

And I needed to figure out where the rats were coming from. It seems unlikely that, after six years of my living here, they suddenly decided, en masse, to invade my home. Even more bizzare: while my former home in the girls' dorm was truly ground level, this apartment is several feet off the ground, ostensibly to discourage pests from trekking the four feet or so up into ground floor apartments.

However, with scavenging neighbors continuously attempting to turn my balcony and any area under my apartment windows into a recyclables storage facility (see Fighting with the Neighbors entry, posted February of this year), it stands to reason that some crafty rodent might have wanted shelter from the cold of winter just past, and could have made its nest inside someone's cardboard haul. From that bundle, it would be but an easy leap onto my residence platforms – the balcony or the ledge under my kitchen window. From there, any inlet would do: the hole drilled through concrete to feed the gas line into the house, for example.

Or, they could be coming up through the pipes. We've had flooding rains recently and my kitchen sink doesn't drain well while the campus is under water. However, I saw no evidence of any rodent activity or occupation under the sink. Still, as a precaution, I stuffed steel wool around the gas line and took to keeping the kitchen door closed at night. It is a sliding glass door, which removes the possibility of rats squeezing under. And, in fact, the rats were quite angry about the closed door. Furious scratching and squealing ensued.    

And then, nothing.

I thought I had my rat problem whipped until I did laundry. Because the washing machine draws its supply from the kitchen tap and that connection is not watertight, I drape a towel over the fixture; otherwise, water would shoot out all over the sink and backboard. That towel hangs on the kitchen window bars when not in use.

So, on this fine day of laundry washing, I placed the towel over the tap and noticed that my window screen had a rat-sized hole gnawed into it. Said hole was formerly concealed by the hanging towel. Clever rats! Gnawing a hole where I couldn't immediately see it...

Knee-jerk reaction: retract the screens and close the windows.

Brilliant move, I realize in retrospect. Now the rats are trapped inside my house. I should have just let that screen alone because, the next night, more commotion from the dining room. This time, sounds of claws on fabric. The rats were crawling up the inside of my closed drapes!

True enough, the next morning I found another screen ruined by another rat-sized hole.

Being fundamentally averse to killing anything, even a rodent or other pest, I despaired over how to drive these rats out, combing the internet for a humane solution to my problem.

Gary came over on Saturday. We were going to celebrate our mutual friend Shane's birthday but, before leaving, he and I were going to have breakfast together. As I was cooking, I could hear rats scampering in the dropped ceiling.

In the ceiling?

Let's think about it. These building are concrete shells. Unless I am sorely mistaken, even rats do not have teeth strong enough to chew their way through concrete. Unlike wood-framed houses, an infestation inside the walls of a concrete building is not likely. The only way I could reason rats in my ceiling is that they came from some apartment upstairs, via the vent hood chimney: there is only a plastic hose, similar to a dryer vent hose, connecting the vent hood to the concrete chimney. 

And then, rat logic kicked in.

Neighborhood scavengers living in this stairwell, who occasionally carry their booty upstairs, must have inadvertently introduced rats to our building. And, I suppose, with winter temperatures being so unkind, the rats must have been very happy to live indoors and feed on whatever was left laying around in the apartments above mine. But now, with spring dawning, they must want to return to the great outdoors, where food supplies are no doubt greater. In order to do that, they must find a way down, and then out. My apartment being on the first floor, it is here that they make their gamble for freedom. Finding nothing edible to induce them to take up my residence as theirs, my home was no more than a pit stop for them. With nothing but a plastic mesh screen between them and fresh air, they were but a few moments' gnaw away from restrictive human dwellings.

Telling are the bits of screen mesh, left on the dining room windowsill, indicating that the screen was gnawed from the inside. Equally revealing is the fact that last night, after clearing up some clutter in the dining room and the floor behind the dryer (which is also in the dining room), I heard no rat activity.    

Little did I know, at the outset of this rat adventure that I needed to do no more than to store my flour in a plastic container, thus making the only food source I had that rats were interested in unavailable. Once they found nothing they liked to eat, they were decamping on their own: a win all around!

The downside was that, because of the rats, the brownies I baked for Shane's birthday party collapsed. Unwilling to leave them on the table to cool overnight, I put them in the fridge immediately out of the oven. The next morning, I found the brownies had sunk in the center, resembling a shallow, chocolate volcano. I deemed them too ugly to serve to my friends.

Now I have a whole pan of brownies to eat and no rats to help. Not exactly paradise, but not too bad a deal!   

A New Record?

Thursdays – how I've come to hate them!

This semester, that day is my busiest, with 3 classes, back to back (including a 2-hour lunch break between the second and third set). In spite of having requested no early classes because of my anticipated late night tutoring sessions online - what I had hoped would be my nest egg to fund the next step in my vagabond adventure, with the possibility of it turning into my sole means of support - I have early classes every single morning.

Come Thursdays, I am already through the ringer, what with having to get up early all week, something that is definitely not suited to my circadean clock.

And now, there are night and weekend classes! I knew to expect them sometime this semester because we had a meeting to kick off the Double Majors program our school has embraced just this year. Until now, David, one of the better teachers here, has spearheaded the extracurricular classes but he is now overwhelmed: his regular course load plus assisting graduating students with their theses.

The first night class, last week Tuesday, wasn't so bad, even though I wrapped my last regularly scheduled class of that day at 5:15 PM and had to be back to teach at 6:30, until 9PM. Getting up Wednesday morning for 2 back-to-back classes was a struggle, but all in all, it was not a bad experience.

And then, the night classes suddenly and mysteriously changed to Thursdays. And the afternoon class schedule changed too: sessions now start at 2PM instead of 1:45.

And I had promised to help tutor a former student with a speech she was to give in a few days' time.


Up at 6:20AM for some quiet time before the day's madness starts. Breakfast, a peanut butter sandwich, is included. And coffee. A BIG mug of coffee.

8:10AM – first class.

10:10AM – second class.

11:50AM – break for lunch. And I was hungry!

12:10PM – no gas to cook with! In spite of changing the meter's batteries, I couldn't get any flow. I resorted to heating a bratwurst in the microwave and ladling out a portion of potato salad that I had prepared last weekend in anticipation of this most hectic week.

12:30PM – just as I am preparing my plate, the phone rings. Long-graduated student and dear adopted daughter Vanessa was paying a surprise visit with her boyfriend! The call was not to notify me of a later visit; she and he were outside my door right now!

I wonder if the Chinese will ever learn that surprise visits are really rather rude?

We had a great visit, sadly cut short by my need to be back to teaching and by their need to catch their train back to Hangzhou. The downside is that I had no time for food. I offered my guests to share my lunch but they declined, and it would have been rude to eat in front of them.    

3:35PM – end of last class. The 7AM peanut butter sandwich long digested, I was dizzy and shaking from hunger. I jumped on my bike and steered towards home only to be accosted by Martina, the student I'd pledged to help that afternoon (before I knew the night class had been moved to Thursday).

I mumbled an excuse about not having had any lunch and rode home to wolf down a few bites of potato salad. The bratwurst was wasted: dried out and hard.

4:00PM – back at Teaching Building 3, room 106 to coach Martina with her speech.

5:00PM – wrapped up tutoring; rushed home for dinner. Fortunately there was gas to cook with. Grilled a couple of Brats and had more potato salad.

6:30PM – back in Teaching Building 3, this time on the 4th floor, for my night class. (Why all of the night classes seem to be held on the 4th floor is also a mystery but at least I am getting some after-dinner exercise by climbing all of those stairs.)

No one had told me where this group was, study-wise. The last night class I taught, the students were on unit 5 of the book I was provided; this group was on unit 4. I was completely unprepared. Still, we muddled through, even though I was visibly lagging during the last hour.

9:00PM – finally back home! Finally can take off my boots, change out of my jeans and remove supportive undergarments – although, after being in them for more than 14 hours straight, I can honestly tell you that they weren't all that supportive at that point; more like chafing.

Is fourteen hours in class a teaching record, or do I just feel like it should be?

Even when I was earning $1K a week, I didn't work this hard, in part because there are labor laws in other countries that prohibit working more than ten hours a day (with some exceptions, of course).

I find it ironic that, the first years I was here I begged the school to make more use of me. Now that I am fed up with being here, with my eye on what's next (What's Next is a good question...), I am now being made such hefty use of that I have no time to eat and I drag myself to bed at night.

I guess what Jonathan (Vanessa's boyfriend) said is true: the more adept you are, the more work you get saddled with. At the end of his tenure at the language training school he worked/met Vanessa at, he had been promoted to Teacher Supervisor and was putting in 14 and 16 hour days that included recruiting students and new teachers, as well as teaching as regular course load and covering for absent teachers. He finally quit, after being run completely into the ground.

That rule seems to be true everywhere. I too have witnessed better workers getting more assignments, simply because indolent workers can't be counted on. Which makes me wonder once again: what will this school do when they have no foreign teacher to overburden?