A Former 小朋友 (Little Friend, i.e. Child): A Tale of “Never Give Up”

My teaching placement in the far south of China (2009-2011) had me teaching in a very small town called Longzhou at Guangxi Normal University for Nationalities. A majority of my students were of one of the ethnic minority groups in China, of which there are 56. Those in my area included Zhuang, Yi and Miao. This likewise composed those living in the small city itself.

Longzhou, a population of around 600,000, was just 45 minutes from the Vietnam border. This small, rural town was walkable from one end to the other in any direction, which landed you in a rustic landscape of skyrocketing tall, lush mountains with plains of sugarcane or pineapple fields.

Longzhou’s sizzling temperatures had me taking 3-4 showers a day during the most miserably hot time of year, which pretty much started in March and continued to November. Winter’s coldest was 50 degrees.

My bedroom had an air-conditioner but the other 5 rooms in my campus apartment (very large and spacious) did not. My first purchase was a fan which I kept going 24-7 in my outer sitting room, especially when guests came over for a visit.

When I first arrived, I learned how to stay as cool as possible. Like a majority of my apartment neighbors, all teachers with their families, we left our doors wide open into the stairwell to get a good breeze blowing through. Granted, it was mostly hot air but at least it was moving and not stagnant.

I was the only foreigner within 50 miles of the area, and the only foreigner on the campus.

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Solidifying My Reputation as the Welcoming Foreigner

With my door wide open those first few weeks, I had quite a few come up the stairs to linger outside of my doorway, trying to catch a glimpse of the foreigner in her new environment. Everyone was curious about how I’d decorate, the things I brought with me (they were shocked by the 100 boxes that arrived in the truck from Inner Mongolia, my previous Amity Foundation teaching placement) and dying to know just what kind of a person I was, if I spoke Chinese, if I had family coming, how old I was and all the usual inquisitive ponderings that come with a newcomer to your neighborhood.


As soon as anyone slowed down to peer in, I made it a point to invite them in to take a look. I’d chat about myself, sigh over all the stuff I had, tour them through the rooms (no matter how unorganized or messy they were), invite them to sit for a drink or, if they refused, insisted they return for my open house in a few weeks. This open transparency immediately gave me the reputation of being a kind, friendly, social person who was happy to have visitors.

Becoming Auntie Connie

I’m not quite sure how it happened but there was one girl, age 10, who lived in a shop connected to the school. I remember her standing at my doorway, perhaps coming back from visiting a friend upstairs, and looking in as so many others had done. I quickly waved her in, toured her around, filled her pockets with candy and sent her on her way after welcoming her back whenever she had time.

She appeared the next day, a Saturday, with 2 friends in tow. One of those was an older boy (14) who was keen to practice his English. He called himself Joe and announced his friend would be called Amy, since she said she wanted an English name.

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And so it came about that every Saturday morning, from 10 – 12, Auntie Connie’s home was open to fun and games with Amy’s entourage, all my 小朋友 (Little Friends). Joe was always present. (Amy, center, brings two friends. Joe is to her right.)

An 11-Year Friendship: Following a Young Man’s Life Struggles

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The story of Amy I will save for another day but let’s talk a bit about Joe. (Seen here in my home, to the left, here with Tom, his classmate and best friend.)

My 3 years in Longzhou had dedicated visits by Joe, sometimes with invites for his classmates to join him and sometimes just by himself. When I left Longhou in 2012 for my new placement in Luzhou (my current one), Joe and I stayed in touch via WeChat.

I’ve been following his journey through his high school and college years, with his graduation from the university having just taken place last May.

For Joe, the last 9 years have been a frustrating, seemingly unfair life struggle.

His senior year in high school had him taking the gaokao, the 2-day nationwide college entrance exam, along with all his other classmates. For two years, Chinese students prepare for this test in. Weekend classroom study hours are mandatory, as are late night and early morning in-school sessions. The scores of the gaokao determine which university a student can enter or even if a student can enter a university.

Joe failed miserably.

His score was so low, 340 out of 750, that there was no hope of him ever getting into a 4-year institution. The best he could hope for was a 2-year trade school which would not make him very marketable in the outside world.

The heartbreak was that Tom, his best friend, did extremely well and would be enrolled in a medical college to prepare for his future as a doctor.

Joe’s only other option was to try again, with a repeat of his senior year since that is the only way to take the test a second time.

There was no guarantee he would do better but with advice from his teachers and his parents, he decided to go for it.

Another year, another excruciating study regime, another chance at reaching his goal.

His second score? A tad over 400, which placed him once again in a desperately low category.

I can’t tell you how devastating this was, not only for Joe but his teachers, parents and even me. When I received his text message, sent 2 weeks after he discovered his test score due to his low spirits, I called to console him.

Rarely do students take on a repeated 3rd year of high school study that senior year to once again take the gaokao. It is almost unheard of. And Joe was now 20 years old. How embarrassing as a young adult to be living at home, no work, studying with 17-year-olds while all his former classmates were enjoying their junior year of college.

A 2016 Decision Made, With 2021 Rewards Now being Reaped

After a good amount of moping, with dubious family members and teachers wondering about his future,  Joe enrolled in his 6th year of high school.  He became a role model to those who were not great in their studies or whose test scores were low no matter how much they tried.  His teachers and school leaders often pointed to his commitment to never give up, to keep trying, to strive forward and not look back at past failures.

In 2018, Joe’s gaokao score gave him the ability to finally enter the university. He chose to study accounting, and last May, 2021, with half of his senior year being virtual due to Covid, he graduated.

Joe was recently hired as an accountant near his hometown area. Just this month, he traveled to visit his classmate in the big city of Chongqing, which is actually just 2 hours from where I live!  What a shame that I was not in Luzhou and able to join him for a day.  I would have been able to do so, too, because Oct. 1- 7 was China’s National Holiday week,  a yearly public celebration which all can enjoy.

He filled his WeChat messages to me with happy notes and pictures of city tourist sites, delicious food, his hotel accommodations and shopping items he bought. Of course, there were poses of him and his friend as they enjoyed their first holiday as working gentlemen and not poor college students. (Joe is on the right in picture 1; left in picture 2). 

 

Receiving his messages, and seeing his obvious joy after so many setbacks and disappointments, made my heart sing.

Well done, Joe!! You are an inspiration to so very, very many.

“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” ―Thomas Edison

And this one from Confucius:

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” ―Confucius

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A Rare Occasion

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“How many rainbows have you seen in your lifetime?”
“Do you remember your first rainbow? Can you tell us the story?”

Yesterday, I placed these questions, along with two pictures, in a new WeChat group I now belong to.

A former teacher at my school, “Marty” Li, now teaches English at Northwest Medical University which is right next to my campus. I know that campus well because I often would walk there to pick up carry-out dinner items from the many mom-and-pop stalls lining what I called Food Court Alley. My college had, and still has, no such offerings. Independent homemade food sellers have been considered unsanitary by my college authorities so only cafeteria food is served on the school campus. But quite often, the students and faculty where I teach trek the 10-minute walk out our main entrance gate to nearby Food Court Alley at the neighboring college. There we can get the familiar traditional Sichuan cuisine which no bland school cafeteria in all of China can duplicate.

Food has always been my connection with Northwest Medical University, but not anymore.

Two weeks ago, Marty invited me to join with his 30 freshmen English majors in a special group chat. Just like on my campus, there is no foreign language teacher at the Medical University due to Covid restrictions still in place, blocking overseas teachers from coming back to their positions. His school leaders, like mine, are waiting for the ban to be lifted so educators such as myself can return. In the meantime, Marty thought his students’ connection with me would help improve the language skills, and interest of English, among his first years. Thus I’ve been engaging Marty’s 18-19 year olds in numerous Q & As for sharing time. The most recent one had to do with a huge storm that hit my area 3 days ago, and then the spectacular result that came afterwards.

Look at this!! Have you ever in your lifetime seen a double rainbow? What a sight! Hope you enjoy this captured-in-time moment as much as I did seeing it in person. So, so very special.

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Hopeful News of China’s Relaxing Entry of Foreigners into the Country

As always, my days are spent trolling the Internet for signs that China will start moving away from their Zero-Covid policies and enter into a resignation that opening up to us “regular” foreigners (returning overseas teachers and students, even tourists) is needed.

And today, I found it!

Read the below and join me in welcoming that tiny ray of hope and sunshine into my day. May it grow and radiate, speeding into 2022 with visa application approvals and a flight booking to send me closer to getting back into my Luzhou classroom.

https://fortune.com/2021/10/04/china-covid-measures-reopening-borders-vaccine-rate/

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An Earthquake Security Check

“Hey, Bruce!” I typed into my WeChat message to my Chinese colleague, “Bruce” Liu, yesterday. “Sorry to bother you again but have you checked on my apartment yet? I just want to make sure the recent earthquake didn’t do any damage or cut off my electricity to the refrigerator.”

The reply was almost immediate.

” I am so sorry. I forgot but I’ll do it now. Wait a minute.”

“And can you take a picture?” I added. “I really miss my home.”

“Will do!” Bruce replied.

How fortunate I am to have Bruce helping me out with apartment worries.

Bruce (one of the English Department teachers) and his family live on the 4th floor of my campus home in China while I live on the 9th. He has always been the one that I leave my key with during my vacation absences. In the past, he has kindly watered my plants and done a walk-through to make sure things were in order until I returned. To show my appreciation, I brought him goodies or small gifts back from my travels as a thank you.

But as my planned 1-month absence ballooned into 2 months, then 4, then 6 and now 1 1/2 years (!), I dismissed him from watering duties and told him not to bother entering my home unless there was something he needed to borrow. This he has done on several occasions, such as my plastic stools to use for his visiting friends or my collapsable table when he had extra dinner guests.

The last earthquake that shook the building, however, was quite severe and I was concerned about my refrigerator. While no perishable items were in it, the defrosting with electricity cut-off would pool water all over the floor. That was something I certainly didn’t want to happen.

And I was curious as to how dirty and dusty it was, plus the longing just to see my Chinese home.

Bruce didn’t disappoint.

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He reported that all was well, but the plants once again caused him great distress.

“I am so sorry. They are all dead,” he texted with a sobbing emoji afterwards. “Maybe you will have to replace them.”

You think?!

After seeing his photo of my once-lovely, green-leafed beauties, collected in the bathroom where I had placed them for Bruce’s easy watering, I couldn’t agree more. Definitely all need replacing.

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Yep. That’ll be the first thing on my ” to do” list when I return: Buy new plants!

From Marshall, here’s wishing you 平安 (Ping An, Peace) for your day.



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“We’ve created a monster!” My Mom’s Latest Newspaper Column

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Walk With Me—October 2021 by Priscilla Wieck

I had planned to resume this column in September but somehow September slipped away. I am writing this at the end of that month and you will be reading it in October so maybe editor Gary will not give me detention for starting later than the promised time. That’s the way life goes sometimes.

I will first answer an often asked question: Yes, daughter Connie is still here in Marshall. China’s doors remain closed to returning teachers due to Covid-19. Her apartment, her students, her colleagues and friends all await her return. She is, meanwhile, working stateside, mostly by Zoom and occasionally making in-person presentations. 

Now that the weather has cooled a bit, dog Bridget and I are walking a bit later in the morning. Last year, when it appeared that Connie would be here for an extended time, she and I decided it was time to try to correct a couple of Bridget’s bad habits so as to make her a more agreeable walking partner for me. As sometimes happens, our efforts backfired and ended up sorely hampering my morning walks instead of enhancing them.

You know how it is. We’ve all been there. We get a great idea. We think it will absolutely solve the problem we have but it doesn’t work out the way we envisioned.

And that’s what happened with Bridget.

Bridget arrived at my home in 2019 as a rescue dog brought from China by Connie. She loved people and wanted lots of attention. When we met people on our walks, she had the habit of jumping at them to get that attention and often appeared to them to be attacking. When a bicycle or baby carriage neared us as we walked, she would lunge at it. Any dog we encountered, in the yard or on leash, was met by her fierce barks and more lunges. We thought she would eventually adapt to a more civilized way of being in our world but it didn’t happen. So we set out to make her over into a better behaved pet.

A suggestion Connie found in “how to get your dog to behave as you want it to” manual was to distract the dog with a treat every time it started to exhibit undesirable actions. After it eventually learned to modify its behavior, it would receive a treat.

We followed the manual’s advice.

Bridget, being a savvy dog, soon took to the treat-training big time, and that is where we are today. However, Bridget has outsmarted us. We have created a treat monster.

This is a brief synopsis of my morning walks.

I pick up Bridget’s water bottle, tuck the treat bag (minute pieces of dog biscuits) into one pocket, the empty poop bag into another, pick up Bridget and exit the house. Bridget, being an extremely laid back animal, stands in front of the house motionless, yawning and looking completely uninterested in starting our travels.

A neighbor walks by.

Bridget perks up but does not lunge so a treat is given. Lesson learned.

We cross the street and begin our walk.

A dog barks from afar and Bridget balks until another treat is given.

We pass a barker inside a fence. Another balk, another treat.

Half a block later we meet a jogger. The same pattern occurs: A balk and then a treat.

It appears our dog training has replaced lunging and barking with balking and treating. 

City workers –a treat; A mom and dad with a baby carriage — a treat; a guy with a big black dog — a treat.

And so it goes.

Dogs seen or even heard from inside a house are deserving in Bridget’s eyes and ears. Sometimes it takes half an hour and much patience on my part for us to reach the post office, only four city blocks away. Bridget has even decided that trucks and cars are deserving of goodies. People are in them, aren’t they? A stroll down Archer Avenue is greeted with great enthusiasm: More people, more balks, more treats.

Here’s the kicker: On our return journey, our otherwise laid back, lazy pet hustles as fast as her small legs can carry her. She knows she is headed for home for a pleasant snooze in the sun on a nice soft blanket.

So here’s the question: Who has had the behavior modified? The dog or the owner? You decide about that one!

“If you think dogs can’t count, try putting three dog biscuits in your pocket and giving the dog only two.” –anonymous

Peace

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Our China Rescue, Bridget, Is At it Again!

Awhile back, China rescue Bridget entered People Magazine’s World’s Cutest Dog Contest. Some of you helped select her photo to send in as my mom and I couldn’t decide. It was a long shot as over 10,000 entries were received and, sadly, Bridget didn’t make the cut.

Well, we’re at it again!

An area paper, The Terre Haute Tribune Star (Terre Haute, Indiana) is holding its yearly Pet Madness contest, looking for the cutest pets in the Wabash Valley. Mom, Bridget and I are trying again, with odds a tad better. Our little dog is among 142 entries of dogs, cats, 2 rabbits, a cow, a pig, a hamster, a squirrel, a mouse and one surprisingly exotic entry, an African Pygmy hedgehog.

Today began the first round of voting (Sept. 28 – Oct.. 3, Sunday) with pictures of all participants in the paper and on the paper’s website.

Here is what we selected for our Chinese immigrant.

Bridget, Rescue from China (Wieck)

Her Write-up

When my mom lost her husband of 60 years, and her canine companion of 9 years, it was a heartbreaking adjustment. As a teacher in China, I was determined to find a little overseas’ somebody for her to come home to. Through CAR (Chengdu Animal Rescue), in Chengdu, China, I learned about Bridget. The 5-pound Chihuahua mix was found under a bridge, thus the name Bridget. She was emaciated, her brown coat spotted with mange, and discovered shivering, huddled on a dirt pile in a tight ball. When her rescuer contacted me, I traveled 4 hours by bus from my small Chinese city to meet her. From that first pet, I knew: She and my mom were meant for each other. It’s been two years since my mom scooped up our little Chinese immigrant and gave her that first welcoming embrace on US soil. Since then, Bridget has reached celebrity status in my smalltown community. My mom often mentions her in her weekly newspaper column. Bridget attends all local events, from summer band concerts, where she gets free popcorn from the popcorn wagon, to numerous holiday parades where attention is abundantly lavished upon her. Whether perched like an empress in her favorite armchair, racing about the house with a beloved toy, or snuggling next to my mom in bed, one thing’s for certain: She’s found forever love in her forever home.

Voting Does Require a donation BUT ……

Naturally, this helps as a fundraiser for the paper BUT a portion does go toward the Terre Haute Humane Society. I had a talk on the phone with Doug Dixon, the Tribune Star advertising director, who mentioned that last year, more pets were featured than this year, and $750 was the amount sent to the rescue group. He explained that, for paper-sponsored contests, after costs of the vender and other expenses are accounted for, 20-25% of the portion left is sent to a local community project, which for the Pet Madness Contest is the local humane society. The rest is kept as a fundraiser for the paper.

I will also add the Terre Haute Tribune Star is one of the few newspapers that continues onward for a smaller city. It was a daily paper until within the past few years when it moved to 5 days a week, skipping Tuesday and Sunday publications. The staff writers have been very generous in their coverage of me and my time in China, publishing numerous articles about my students and overseas experiences. (See this one, as an example: https://www.tribstar.com/news/local_news/from-my-end-of-the-world-the-sichuan-earthquake/article_e33f7755-6ad3-590c-b2a8-6db619714d03.html)

This newspaper publication also gives so much back to the community.

A few weeks ago, the Cutest Kid Contest (similar to the Pet Madness Contest) brought in $1,500 for the Vigo County School’s Backpack Program, which sustains food-insecure children throughout weekends and breaks, and families by sending food parcels.

I furthermore remember donating through the paper to the 2020 Thanksgiving Day food baskets for those in need. The Terre Haute Tribune Star is an excellent small-city paper whose reporters (I’m sure) are not paid much and which deserves to thrive. So I will say it is a worthy cause to support.

Here is the Contest write-up

2021 Pet Madness Contest Entries

*Vote totals for each round will transfer to the next voting round (3 rounds total).

*A portion of the voting proceeds will be donated to the Terre Haute Humane Society.

*At the end of voting for the entire contest: 1st Place $200 prize package; 2nd Place $100 prize package; 3rd Place $50 prize package

If You’re Interested  . . .

If you’re interested in adding to Bridget’s chances of a win, go to the below for the contest page to see all the contestants:

https://www.communitynewscontest.com/index.php?contestid=391 

Type in Bridget’s name to go to her special page.

Donations online require a vote of 50 at 10 cents per vote which is a minimum of $5.00 US. Credit card information is asked as well. If online is not your preference, checks can be mailed to (or dropped off at): Pet Madness Contest, Tribune-Star PO Box 149. Terre Haute, IN. 47808. Don’t forget to earmark your donation for Bridget!

Rather not the $$?  

Of course, “Good Luck” thoughts are always appreciated.  I know there are so many worthy organizations, programs and local community projects in need of our help and donations.  I  always like to spread the love around and this is one way of doing so for my area.

Hope you’ll consider joining me, my mom, and Bridget, giving a little back to The Terre Haute Tribune Star and the Terre Haute Humane Society.

As always, here’s wishing you Peace (平安), Ping Ahn, for your week! 

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Snippets of China Updates

A lot has been happening among my WeChat contacts. Here are a few highlights, including news reports which so many of my Chinese friends have commented on.

Newest Covid Outbreak

After squelching an outbreak in Nanjing in July, things were looking up until another infection sent a different province into panic-mode.

“Covid-19 infections in China’s southeastern province of Fujian topped 200 as 48 new cases were added to a rapidly expanding outbreak of the Delta variant on Wednesday.”

The outbreak could have started with a Chinese man who was infected during centralised quarantine, rather than an imported case as was previously assumed. Officials originally thought the man, who returned from Singapore in August, was infected from abroad – even though he went through a lengthy quarantine period and tested negative multiple times. According to what was reported, he had a negative test before leaving Singapore, a negative test upon arrival, 2 weeks of hotel quarantine, another negative test, a 1-week hotel quarantine outside of his city of Putian (3 million), another negative test and a 7-day, self-monitoring, in-home quarantine with his family.

Somewhere in between, he was infected by the virus. He passed it to his two children who infected their class and school. His wife worked in a factory and also infected several there. It was just by chance that the school did a random testing of all the students when they found positive cases among the kids. More contact tracing connected them with the father.

Now 3 coastal cities have been affected, with the totals coming to 204. Of those, 50 children in Putian are now in quarantine, in isolation, with no one with them and medical staff in full protective hazmat gear. These videos, taken by a Chinese nurse of a 4-year-old boy, have gone viral.

https://www.taiwannews.com.tw/en/news/4287723

As you can see, China takes its positive cases very, very seriously, shutting down entire neighborhoods, districts, cities and even provinces to continue with a Zero-tolerance stance.

Most recent article:

https://www.scmp.com/news/china/science/article/3149366/chinas-delta-outbreak-fujian-continues-numbers-start-fall

5.4 Earthquake Near Luzhou 

PING!

My cellphone went off at 3:35 p.m. my time, 3:35 a.m. China time last Thursday. The message came from Angel, my former student who is now an elementary school teacher.

“Connie!  We have an earthquake.  It is very strong, almost 2 minutes long. I’m so scared. Things are falling.  Think of me.  So terrible!”

Immediately, I went into overdrive, contacting as many of my friends, colleagues and students as possible before searching out news reports.

Fortunately, all were fine with only a few deaths in the countryside due to poorly constructed homes.  (See below the full report, with pictures of damage.)

https://www.cnn.com/2021/09/16/china/sichuan-earthquake-intl-hnk/index.html

I know, while living on the campus, I absolutely enjoyed the views from my 9th floor balcony area, but I certainly DID NOT enjoy the earthquakes that shook the building from time to time. Some were quite strong, one sending a few of us racing down the stairwell. The Wenchuan Earthquake in Sichuan, while 13 years ago, is still fresh in my memory. If you’re interested, go to my May 2008 blog entries. I reported almost on a daily basis numerous stories and observations. Such a moving and emotional time for all.

Returning to a Campus I Might Not Recognize

Over the past few weeks, as the school year begins, I’ve been receiving quite a few pictures of the campus. Before I left, there were many building projects still half-completed or in the process of starting. So many carefully drawn panels lined fences showing the grand and glorious structures that were to go up. I walked by them on a daily basis, wondering how long it would take to complete:

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Two 5-star hotels, to be used as training centers for students majoring in tourism management and culinary skills, and also to host international scholars; The teacher family high-rise housing complex, for which a downpayment of $20,000 US was required to hold the space, with an additional $60 – 80,000 needed by each family upon completion; a fully-equipped, 5-story experimental pre-school and elementary school attached to the school; Another full campus, located across the main highway that divided the school from the countryside area; Another single teachers’ dormitory located next to my 11-story building.

I honestly was astounded when the pictures started flowing in from students and colleagues to show me all the progress that had been made.

Will I even recognize this place when I return??!!! See for yourself:

Pre-Covid Photos (Before I left on Jan. 7, 2020):  Surrounding the Campus Area

Current Buildings located on Campus 1 and Newly Constructed Campus 2

As mentioned in the write-up of new additions, two were 5-star hotels which would be used as training centers for our students. One is Chinese, seen with the rounded portico and rock landscape. It is located at the side gate of the college.

The other is a Holiday Inn which is located directly in front of the teachers’ housing complex. I mentioned teachers wishing to buy in were required a downpayment of $20,000 with the eventual cost being $60 – $80,000 for each apartment’s ownership. (You can see the high-rise row of the apartment buildings behind the hotel picture). Interestingly enough, the teachers who purchased these were told 2 1/2 years ago they would be ready for moving in by the summer of 2021. Well, it’s past August and I was told they are not yet available but the Holiday Inn, a joint venture between the school, city and provincial governments, is up and running at full speed.

I guess we know where teachers and their needs stand in the great scheme of things: Pretty low on the totem pole.

“Painstakingly Slow”

During my long wait, I’ve done my best to keep in touch with my school, the Amity Foundation and Valentia, my visa  expert in Chicago. Her response to my every-2-month emails for any updates concerning visas to China is this: “It’s painstakingly slow.”

 The hold-up is always on the China end, with invitation letters needed from schools, companies and institutions.  Such letters must be approved of at the city and provincial level.  However, due to the Delta variant, which is highly contagious, no province or city official is willing to approve of a foreigner from overseas to enter their space.  All Covid spreads have been traced to any person coming in from overseas, even with the 2-3 week strict hotel quarantine in place.

Just one bit of good news came out of a Teach-English-in-China company I have been following.  After a year of desperately trying to get any of their applicants into the country, one has arrived and is starting to teach this Fall semester.  The movement of one is somewhat of a miracle, especially happening before Golden Week (the 1-week holiday in October), the government’s ruling party meeting to take place in November, and China hosting the Winter Olympics in February and March. 

Obviously, someone’s school has extremely high-up connections to get that invitation letter approved of and  to maneuver around all the many hoops required to finally get that person into  the classroom.  

Sad to say, such connections will never be my college.  Looks like I’m stuck waiting it out along with every Tom, Dick and Harry, or rather (in my case) Jane, Mary and Sue.

Until next entry, here’s wishing you Peace (平安) for your day. 

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“Where were you when . . .?”

My mom listens to NPR in the morning hours. Yesterday was no different aside from the subject matter: the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

Interviews packed the a.m. program: memories of loved ones lost, experiences retold from those on the ground, reflections after visiting memorials. . . Interspersed between recorded segments were in-real-time broadcasts of commemoration ceremonies taking place.

“This is so much like Pearl Harbor,” my mom said. “I remember we were all sitting around the radio, listening to the shocking announcement of the bombings carried out by the Japanese. My dad signed up for military service not long after that. Only the Army would take him as a chaplain. Other armed forces didn’t want him due to his poor eyesight. From that day onward, we’d all ask ourselves the same question, ‘Where were you when you heard about Pearl Harbor?’ The same with JFK’s assassination, and now with 9/11.”

My Experience of 9/11

It didn’t take me any time at all, like most of you, to remember that “Where were you when…” moment of 9/11.

I had finished my time in Taiwan at Wesley Girls High school where I had taught for 3 years. While I was satisfied with that position, my heart was never in Taiwan as much as it had been in China. I requested a move to the Mainland, to return to the Amity Foundation as an Amity teacher at the college or adult level, and it was granted.

The exciting part of this was landing in a brand new Amity placement.

To fully grasp all that my memories of September 11 had to offer, I turned to my emails to my parents, which my mom had printed out for my dad to read. She had done this from my first emails sent in 1996 all the way to my last email before I became “stuck” here in January, 2020.

Where are all these printed, detailed daily reports? In carefully labeled (by country, month and year) 3-ring-binder compilations, currently in 5 bins, in the garage.

I was in Hohhot, the capital city of Inner Mongolia (yes, that’s a province of China), where I was placed along with Swede Lena, sent by the Lutheran Church. We were to teach at the Adult Language Training Center, among adults who were English teachers looking to further expand their language and teaching skills under Amity’s newly formed program.

As I scanned several printed entries of that first week in Hohhot, there was so much going on. Both of us had just arrived. We were getting to know one another, settling into our apartments in the foreigners’ guest house, excitedly exploring the city on our bikes, finding the best places to shop, meeting with the director of the program, discussing lesson plans, searching out decent books our students would need, making friends with the Chinese staff and other foreign teachers in the building . . .

All those detailed accounts were so vividly recorded! And 20 years later, as I read them, quite vividly relived.

The Day Before

9-11 Three

 

When I landed upon my September 11th entry, which would have been Sept. 10th for my Mom and Dad, it was full of frustrations concerning getting things ready for classes. It was Day 2 of teaching, my Internet was not yet connected to my apartment so I was using an Internet cafe. Then I had given reports of the students themselves, having just arrived for classes from their distant small towns and cities.

When I Did Hear

Since our Internet connection was not yet established in my apartment, I was delayed in checking emails or news reports.  I was so involved in my lesson planning and acclimating myself to my new home that I hadn’t had time. It was Lena who informed me, on our September 13, that something ominous had happened.

“Have you heard about the attacks?” she asked me that early morning, right before classes began at 8 a.m.  

“No,” I asked in surprise.  “What’s happened?”

Lena looked at me in astonishment.

“It’s terrible!” she replied. “Two planes hit the World Trade Center.  Also the Pentagon.  I’ve been hearing reports and watching all these stories.  People on cell phones, saying goodbye to loved ones.  People jumping from the towers.   The entire building collapsed.  I just couldn’t listen anymore.  It was too overwhelming.  You really have to go online to find out more.: 

At that point, it was time for class to begin.  Lena went to her classroom, I went to mine, all the while wondering what in the world was I missing.  Even my students mentioned it during the break, telling me how sorry they were for my country.

At noon, after our morning sessions had ended, I finally was able to quickly bike my way back to the guesthouse, grab my computer and head off to the Internet cafe. 

There I read the emails from my mom, describing the television coverage of the chaos and shock that ensued.  It also allowed me to read more online and send my own reply.

9-11 Four

 

15 September 2001

Hi, Mom and Dad!

Once again, it seems so odd to be here, far removed from the US while all this is going on. I don’t need any more information. It’s all on the Intnert and it’s overwhelming, especially the video tape versions. I’ve seen it all, from the trade center collapse to eye witness accounts and so on.

Monica emailed to say she was so sorry about the happenings in the US. She said Taiwan is very concerned and calling loved ones in America. She entitled her email, “God Bless You American”. That was sweet. Monica is such a nice person. She has been well-taught and always does/says the right things. I do miss her.

Well, life here has been mostly hovering in my apartment . . . “

After that, I went on to the daily news from my end, where I was far removed from what the US was experiencing.

Reflecting on that Email

After reading that page, I’d completely forgotten my best friend in Taiwan, “Monica” (Zhang Qiuhui), had sent me a note of concern. She and I taught together but she taught Chinese literature at Wesley Girls High School while I taught English. She was my first friend at the school and we did so many things together for 3 years: theater, hiking, swimming, eating out. I was always invited to all her family events. She was such a special person, a trusted companion and a true friend.

Monica was also one to be aware of others’ celebrations or tragedies, then send appropriate comments for the occasion. I see in this instance, she was fully informed, as always, and made sure that I knew she was thinking of me and my country.

As this 20th anniversary of 9/11 comes and goes, I hope there’s healing for those still feeling its devastating effects.

And for all those in the world suffering from catostrophic events, current and past, I wish you strength, courage and a comforting embrace.

From Illinois, here’s wishing you 平安 (ping an, Peace) for your upcoming week.

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Face-to-Face, 30 years later

In the previous post, I mentioned “Kevin” Hu , a former student of mine, who found me with a web search. Our connection is now complete on WeChat, where he and another classmate are trying to gather more of us together. He’s not been having much luck yet, mostly due to lack of technology 30 years ago.

In 1991, we had no cell phones or computers within our program. What Kevin has to go on is the below list of participants and their addresses, which he kept all these many years and attached in a text message.

It’s definitely a start but China no longer relies much on mailing addresses except for online ordering. Kevin and I also know that updated developments across the country during these past 30 years have been massive. Old city streets completely demolished to make way for high-rise buildings, countryside and small town families moving to bigger cities, and steadfast neighborhoods of old unrecognizable or no longer in existence.

While addresses may no longer exist, the names of participants haven’t changed. From that above list, I do remember that Kevin and his male classmates were incredibly tight. (See Kevin below, second from the left, during a party where he and “the guys” sang an English song to entertain us.)

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One of his best buds, I remember, was Daniel Ouyang.

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The year they spent together solidified a lifelong friendship. I do remember the two of them were very close, often pairing together as language partners, visiting my home for more English practice time and constantly studying from our textbooks or making a huge effort to take advantage of their full-time study of English.

Kevin mentioned the one classmate he’s kept in contact with over the years was “Daniel” Ouyang.

When Kevin contacted Daniel that he’d found me, Daniel went about setting up our WeChat Nanchang group after messaging me.

His text was much the same surprise note as Kevin’s.

“After 30 years , from Nanchang, do you remember me?” he wrote. “My English name was Daniel.”

We had several notes back and forth, including pictures. Daniel then asked if I’d be available to face-time with him. After checking our time differences, the day was set: evening for me, morning for him, a few weeks ago on a Thursday.

Our Call

Daniel was sitting in his living room, with his grand-daughter beside him, when he answered my call.  His daughter was beside him and his wife was bustling about on the balcony area, picking tomatoes from her garden plants.  Their home was in a high-rise apartment, neat and tidy with a beautiful embroidered goldfish wall hanging above the couch where he had positioned himself with his phone.

“Tell me all about yourself!” I started.  “Are you teaching now during Covid?”

“No,” Daniel responded. “I couldn’t find a teaching job after I left Nanchang.  I didn’t have the teaching certificate.”

That was true for several in our program.  The stipulation to study for a year had been that enrollment was only for teachers, not for adults wanting to learn English.  However, the difficulty had been that many schools refused to let their teachers go for an entire year.  We needed to fill the program because Amity was insistent that if the organization helped get the foreign teachers, then there had to be at least 30 to make the project worthwhile.  When the number of teachers didn’t reach the desired amount, the provincial government opened up enrollment to others.  Yes, the majority were teachers but we did have a few that weren’t. They paid for their study (housing and materials) on their own with no financial help from the education bureau.  These are the ones I remembered most:  Philip (32, wanting to spend 100% of his time studying to pass his PhD application test  and not bother with teaching), a 17-year-old whose parents wanted her to learn English, a young woman yearning to get out of the countryside and saw English as a means of doing that, and  a few others whose stories escape me.

Interestingly enough, Director Xi, in charge of the Adult Training Center and the supervisor, was careful not to reveal those who were not teachers.  His fear was that Amity would get whiff of it and criticize him.  Donna and I often didn’t find out the truth until months later, and even well into that second semester.  Yes, a few of our students let slip they weren’t really teachers but just hoping to get a better job with their newfound language skills.

Needless to say, this was the case with Daniel.

Daniel Today

During our time together, Daniel (age 58) told me that he hasn’t used his English since leaving Nanchang, 30 years ago. He had wanted to get a teaching job but as he didn’t have the education to continue in that profession. He owns his own events staging company.

What’s that?

Whenever companies, schools or organizations hold entertainment or big meeting events, they need staging facilities with high-tech lighting and sound equipment. For such events, private staging companies would be hired to do this. Daniel set up his business with several workers hired to be such an event-planning and staging company. Contests, meetings, celebrations: These are just a few of the events he’s held:


But when Covid became widespread in China, beginning in January 2020, his business stagnated.  No one was allowed to hold big venues.  The country went on lockdown.  He found himself staying at home with his wife, not even visiting much with his daughter and grand-daughter (across town) or his son who was working in another city.

A Trickling Business 

 When we spoke on the phone, he mentioned that things have also slowed down as more and more schools, hotels and companies have bought their own equipment for holding such events.  There is no need to hire out anymore so he is considering selling to someone else and retiring.

I will say that his story sounds very similar to my college,  Luzhou Vocational and Technical College.  Before moving to the new campus in 2016, our many departments and student organizations that held contests or special celebrations had a local company they hired which would set up an outside stage and bring in the lighting equipment, recording and sound system plus workers to get everything professionally done.  But when we moved to the new campus, the school bought the necessary equipment needed for such events.  Our huge auditorium came with everything that was needed, thus no need to hire locally.  Event-planning companies who had contracted with our school for years were let go.  It saved the school a lot of money in the long-run but didn’t help support  local businesses as it had before, which was sad.

Ending our Conversation

Before closing, his grand-daughter and daughter popped onto my phone screen.  Both struggled to speak a few English words.  Daniel’s wife quickly entered into the scene, exuberantly saying “Hello!  Hello!”, adding in Chinese her welcome for me to visit when I could finally return to China

Our 22-minute meeting was one I didn’t want to end.  We left with promises of continuing our WeChat texting, of searching for more classmates and Chinese training center staff, of not losing touch ever again.  I’m guessing we’ll have another face-time conversation in the near future.  

In the meantime, I’ve been jumping the gun a bit by looking up hotels in Nanchang nearby Jiangxi Normal University.  I don’t recognize the city at all on the websites, nor the university which has merged with another in 2003, but that’s to be expected. So many changes in 3 decades!  

Well, even if there are just 5 of us getting together in 2023, it will still be well worth it.  

Until next entry, here’s wishing you peace (平安), ping-ahn, for your upcoming week.

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A 30-plus Year Reunion in the Works

     This WordPress blog is mostly viewed by American friends.  But on rare occasions, I get a surprise note from someone who has found me after many years.   

      “Teacher Connie, this is Kevin Hu,” read my inbox.  “I was your student in Nanchang,  30 years ago.  Do you remember me?”

      How could I possibly forget one of my first students in China?!

The Amity Foundation Adult Training Program    

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Kevin (second photo, first row, seated in vest, middle) and his 29 adult classmates were teachers from the rural countryside.  The 1-year program he was enrolled in, sponsored by the provincial government  and  the Amity Foundation, was created specifically for language educators from poor areas. 

At that time in China, many teachers had had little more than a year or two of college education due to the Cultural Revolution. That time period of 10 years had educated no one except in the teachings of Chairman Mao. Schools and colleges did little in basic education or teaching skills. Just indoctrination of China’s Communist Party greatness with young Red Guards marching about, making signs and reporting, punishing and ridiculing those adults whom they deemed the insidious capitalists. When this devastating time period ended in 1979, China realized they had no qualified teachers to instruct the youth. Crash courses ensued for teachers in numerous subject areas, with the brightest young people (some of them as young as 14) chosen to study under the expertise of previously criticized educators.

For those who became English teachers, their language skills were especially limited. No foreign teachers (actually, very few foreigners at all) had been in China to teach them in those early years of the Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door Policy, which ended the Cultural Revolution’s grip on the country. Most students had just stumbled along in their language studies, some excelling while others floundered

Thus began Amity’s teaching program, which was created in 1986 under the request of provincial education bureaus throughout China. In partnership with Chinese colleges being the hosts, and funding from the provincial education departments, the Amity Foundation helped to bring foreigners to China for 2 years to teach English at Normal colleges or adult education training centers. There was also a language request for Japanese teachers, which Amity also provided from Japan.

Newbies to China: The Foreigners Arrive

In 1991, six overseas teachers (myself, American Donna Brown, Brits Anne and Mick Kavanaugh, Canadians Jeanette and Todd Hanson) came to Jiangxi Province as Amity Foundation English teachers to lead classes in English listening, speaking, writing, teaching methodology and culture. Donna and I were in Nanchang city, Anne and Mick taught at a college 10 miles from the city center and Todd and Jeanette were in Jiujiang, a small town 2-hours train journey from where we lived. Two other Amity teachers from Japan taught Japanese at a college across town from us.

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Donna and I were placed in the Adult Training Center at Nanchang Normal University. 

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Our students, ages 18 to 57, had traveled great distances to commit to this unique learning opportunity.  We all stayed on campus, the students living in somewhat primitive dormitory conditions while we teachers stayed in the gated, quite adequate foriegners guesthouse.  In total, we had 6 Americans with 4 being sent by ELIC, English Language Institute of China. The ELIC were employed to teach the college students and were not involved in our adult program. (Below are 2 ELIC teachers and myself, with our guesthouse workers who cleaned our rooms and took care of Chinese and foreign visitors who stayed at the housing facility for a few nights.)

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Living Conditions in the Guesthouse:  Adequate and Homey

All the foreign teachers had our own 2-room mini-apartment, with bathroom and a fridgerator, but no cooking facilities.

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We had meals served in a communal dining area by a gruff and formidable cook, a former Communist revolutionary war soldier.

The Training Center staff were always very helpful, including booking the university car to pick up our boxes from the local post office downtown. My first year in China, I went overboard in mailing myself 7 boxes from America. Surface mail was still offered, and these took 3 months to reach me. Before leaving for China, I asked those who were already in country what I’d need, thus the 7 boxes you see below. Comfort foods, school supplies, classroom materials, winter clothes, American culture visuals (Halloween, Christmas, Thanksgiving) . . . Even today, I still have some of those same treasured items I used in Nanchang in my apartment in Luzhou, waiting to once again make an appearance in my China classroom.

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Like most Chinese, we foreigners had only bicycles to do our shopping around town. I was so proud of mine! A Red Lion (about the only brand in China at that time), which I bought brand new for an equivalent of $25, half my monthly pay. Here I am with my treasured transportation vehicle, in the guesthouse courtyard.

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Learning to Be A Family

There was no heat (lows of 10 degrees), no air-conditioning (highs of 90 degrees), no washing machines, no modernized classroom equipment (just a blackboard and the classic cassette tape machine), few usable textbooks, and yet, priceless learning took place.  Despite physical discomforts and our cultural differences, by the end of that year, we had formed a close-knit family.  

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Reconnecting      

Kevin and I are now eager to find more former students.  So far, we’ve connected with 5. We are currently working on widening that circle to include those enrolled during my second and third years in that program.  Our plan is to have the classes of ’91, ’92 and ’93 meet for a weekend reunion in the school that hosted us, Nanchang Normal University in Jiangxi Province.  When I return to China, we’ll begin in earnest for a tentative 2023 gathering.  For now, we’re working on increasing that contact list to at least 25, out of a total of about 90 in the program.  With such powerful  technology tools at our fingertips, I’m confident we can get there.

Anyone else out there who remembers us? We’re waiting for you!!

Until next entry, here’s wishing you Peace (平安) for your day.

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