Thursday, November 26, 2009

innocence makes the heart grow fonder

Despite what you might think, I’m not that well-traveled. Even so, I’m confident that there is no place like China in the whole wide world. Here’s one reason. The other day I was waiting for my Great Gatsby quizzes to finish their copying in the copy store on campus and I ran into one of my old students named Alice, who’s incredibly short and whose English is more than a few rungs below ‘intermediate’. I didn’t remember that her name was Alice at the time; so I asked for her Chinese name: Zhang Yuan Yuan. She heard me speak Chinese with the copy store worker and was impressed. She told me I had “made a great progress.” I then told her that my Chinese was not that great and she should test my skills by asking me some questions in Chinese. She agreed with glee. Suddenly, the seemingly slow-witted little girl began to spit out sentences at light speed. I told her to slow down and answered her questions the best I could. As she was speaking I noticed that her pronunciation wasn’t like that of someone from our city, Baoding, which is located in the north of China, in the Hebei province. She sounded like someone from the south. So, I asked her where she was from. Jiangxi, she said, which is in the south. I was right.

“You speak southern Chinese,” I told her in broken Chinese, “People from Baoding say bu sher, but you say bu suh.” (bu shi = no, it’s not)

Just then I realized that the entire score of people in the copy store had been riveted with our Chinese conversation because they suddenly began clapping. They couldn’t believe that an American could hear the difference in Chinese dialects. I can’t imagine Americans or Canadians or Englishmen or Belgians celebrating for a foreigner like that (those are the only other places I’ve been). This isn’t the first time this has happened. About a month ago I struck up a Chinese conversation with a girl on the bus and even though I could have sworn the mass of bodies on the bus had been minding their own business, it wasn’t so. The girl told me she worked at McDonald’s and she eventually told me that I should come visit her there, an obvious flirtation. For some reason, at that moment I picked up my head and looked around. Everyone was facing me, each set of eyes were fixed on me and their mouths were gaping. What is he going to say?? they seemed to beg.

Another example. The same night after I left my conversation with Alice, I went to Hebei University to meet up with the other teachers on our team and we put on an English Night. It was a little lackluster, to be frank. Not only were we subdued to a smaller room with less students because of H1N1, but some of us teachers were a little tired and not quite in the mood to lead songs and games in front of 100 Chinese students (yes, that is less than normal). But despite ourselves, it was a success. The six of us, plus 2 other teachers who we have become close with, formed a panel on stage to discuss our families. Each of us tackled a question that we had chosen and prepared for before-hand. My question was, “What is the most difficult thing about your relationship with your family?” I chose this question because I wanted to talk about our family’s struggles through divorce, and how painful it has been. I wanted to stress the importance in mourning that loss (and how it took me nearly a decade to do so), and that when someone wrongs you, it’s an opportunity for forgiveness. My family’s story isn’t over, I told them, we are still growing. After we answered our prepared questions, we opened the floor for the students to ask questions. Two students wanted Amelia’s attention, but each went about their approach in different ways. During one of the students’ questions, I saw a girl a few seats away from me writing frantically on a small piece of paper. After a couple drafts which she discarded, she settled on one and then folded it several times, and asked the students in front of her to pass it to Amelia, who was standing next to me. I couldn’t help but peak: “You’ve made a great impression on me with your story and I want to make friends with you.” Amelia looked up at the girl and the student pecked her head down a little and waved a cute, embarrassed wave. Another student raised his hand to ask a question. It was a boy with dark skin and he bravely stood up and said he had three questions “for the beautiful girl standing next to Jon.” Summary: One, is she single? Two, would she date a Chinese boy? Three, would she consider anyone in this room? We all laughed and I covered my face with my hands like one of the embarrassed Chinese girls would. Amelia’s answers: Yes. Yes. No. “I’m a teacher and you are students!” she reminded them. Everyone laughed.

During my short talk on the panel, I got choked up and my voice broke a little. I didn’t think that would happen when I had prepared what I had to say, but that moment I felt close to the situation, despite the thousands of miles and days that separate me from its clutches. Personally, the distance of China has an estranging effect on my relationships at home. My heart has a hard time extending beyond my current surroundings. But that moment it did, and I hope for more moments like that, that will remind me what the Father is doing my heart and wants to do in the lives of those I love. As the great philosopher once said, “Distance means nothing to me. It only makes me want to see you longer.” And that was even before he wrote My Friends Over You.

Friday, October 30, 2009

In my younger and more vulnerable years

My students hate me, I'm sure of it. My old students love me. They always tell me how much they miss my class. Of course, they do; I would miss my class too. Last year all we did was play games to get the Freshman to open their mouths. Now I teach Juniors, who are effectively Seniors because they graduate in three years. I taught them the word, "Senioritis" because they all have it. They don't want homework (who does?), especially not from the push-over foreign devil. After I assigned the first chapter of The Great Gatsby all I heard was complaints. It's too hard, they kept saying. It is hard. Sometimes it takes me until the fourth or fifth class of teaching a passage to really get what Fitzgerald is saying. The guy is so beyond me that I'm apprehensive to even claim that. But I wanted to challenge them. I wanted to be real teacher and I wanted them to learn something, instead of just play games. So after every reading assignment, I give a short, harmless quiz to make sure they've read it. The results, so far, have varied: some classes did fairly well, while others failed miserably. While one bad apple does seem to spoil the whole batch, I think dedication spurs others on just as effectively. Those classes that do the work and get it seem to be led by certain ardent students. One girl named Sunny read more than I asked the class to, including the last chapter because she wanted to see what happens (ala my sister, Faith).

I should have seen it coming. In my experience, many of my students are shameless cheaters. Whenever I've given a test, patrolling is a necessity, as the students will obviously look at each other's papers or pull out their books. It's absurd. Yesterday I had two classes in the morning. The first class failed the chapter 3 quiz miserably. As I patrolled the aisles, I saw their shame as they sat still without a clue and I pitied them. It is a hard book, after all, I thought. So I gave them one of the answers, outright, and a hint to another. They still failed miserably, but at least not pathetically. The class that directly followed had inverse results: nearly every answer was perfect, and identical. As I patrolled that class, I saw all the correct answers quickly written, and it was like a sinister revelation, like the end of The Usual Suspects. If I was holding a coffee mug, it would have soundlessly tumbled to the ground. I could feel the electricity in the air as the storm clouds hovered over me; I was angry. It wasn't just the test they were cheating, they were cheating me. I felt like a fool for having compassion on the previous class, not just because they abused me. I helped them because I wanted them to like me. It was also surprising that they were so juvenile. Junior college students banding together to cheat as a class in such an obvious fashion. The boldness was astounding. As I normally do when I'm angry, I breathed deeply and spoke softly as I collected their papers.

"Wow," I said sarcastically as I leafed through them in front of the class, "you guys did much better this time. I guess I should be happy, right?"

The students were smilingly timidly; they don't really understand sarcasm, which only encouraged me to lay it on thicker.

"Hm, all the answers are right," I said as I turned to write a short list on the board, "This leaves two options. One, everyone did the homework. Yay! Two," I paused and turned around for effect, "the other class told you the answers."

They all booed and hissed. Of course they didn't cheat, they said. I reminded them that I was a student for sixteen years. "I know," I enunciated. I told them that I really didn't want to have to make different quizzes for every class, but I would if I had to. They didn't like that very much. It took me a minute to collect myself as I was reading through Gatsby, I fumbled over the words, still feeling pangs here and there. Do i just shrug it off? I thought as I read the book aloud, Is forgiveness the answer here? I still have trouble discerning my heart (as Ryan would say): was I only upset because of my insecurity as a teacher? Am I allowed to be angry with them? How does my forgiveness towards them effect how I take measures to keep them from cheating again? No matter the reality of how I was hurt, the fact remains that I took it personally. Certainly, I have learned a basic lesson in teaching (in China): don't trust students just because they giggle and swoon when you smile at them. They want to get by without doing the work just as much as I did in high school, even if they are college students.

The cheating aside, I have felt more comfortable teaching these past few weeks. Finally, this week the students seem excited about reading Gatsby. They want to see what happens when Gatsby and Daisy meet "accidentally" at Nick's for tea (my favorite chapter). I'll end with my favorite line from the book: Nick is hovering around Gatsby's elaborate library as Gatsby and Daisy sit together on the sofa, allowing reality to flirt with, but eventually fall short of, their dreams:

No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man stores up in his ghostly heart.


I have donned a mustache for almost two weeks now and the students have taken notice. General dissatisfaction is the response from my girl students. Chinese girls don't much like facial hair, especially on the upper lip. Except for one. Lily sent me this text message immediately after leaving my class this Monday:

Jon, I like your moustache, which make you more handsome and maturity.

Sweet victory.

Notice the pants. and the awkwardness.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

something there is that doesn't love a wall

I'm not sure what Robert Frost was talking about. The greater the wall the better, I always say. And it doesn't get any greater than The Great Wall itself. It was almost embarrassing telling people that I had lived near Beijing for 10 months and had still never been to the massive wall. But now the monkey is off my back and I'm a real man, according to Chinese culture. "不到长城非好汉" bu dao chang cheng fei hao han. “He who does not reach the Great Wall is not a true man.” My classes were all impressed when I spoke it to them, after I had unbuttoned my dress shirt to show the meaningful "I CLIMBED THE GREAT WALL" shirt I was donning underneath. The Great Wall is truly massive; it stretches nearly four thousand miles, and we only hiked on it for five hours. Some of our hike was devastatingly steep, like a ladder, but those inclines were mostly climbed the night of our arrival, either dimly lit by the setting sun or by our fluorescent headlamps. Our second day on the wall was generally easy, save for a few breaks in the Wall that we had to surmount. Oh, by the way, we slept on the Wall. That's right: on it. Our menu for the trip included: tuna sandwiches, homemade Chinese chex mix, Great Wall brand red wine, donuts (actually called 'donitas'), and a tiny Snickers bar (thanks, Kerry!).

That was the most eventful part of my National Day holiday, a weeklong break in classes to celebrate new China's 60th anniversary. There was an ornate parade and military exhibition on TV that I missed; I was wasting my time watching a Redskins game instead (Dan Snyder has made a cuckold me, of all of us). But I did see the replay. President Hu JinTao stood presidentially out of an open sunroof of a black car as it rolled past all of the formations of soldiers and workers and humungous missile launchers, shouting, "Hello, comrades! You work too hard!" The regiments shouted something back about it "being for the people" after Hu Jintao's exclamation.

Speaking of holidays, I've got another five day break in class coming up including this weekend. I'm off to Beijing this weekend to cheer Ryan on as he runs the Beijing Marathon; then it's back to school for a two day "Sports Day," during which I will cheer on more runners (I'm not ready for primetime yet).


As Tim chronicled on his blog, we got mopeds. We set out to buy full-blown motorcycles, but after learning the specifics of Chinese motor law, we down-graded and bought the next best thing. My bike will go 50 mph if I push it, which originally sounded like a con to me, but after driving in Chinese traffic for a month, it's definitely a plus. I'll just say that the traffic here is a little wilder than in the US and speed is the least of my concerns, another reason why you'll never see me riding without a helmet. The new experience of driving in China has taught me some new Chinese words, but just as in the states, I always have to learn the hard way; for example, the difference between the words, chi you and chai you: gasoline and diesel. Even after seeing my buddy, Cameron, make the mistake of filling his bike with diesel first-hand, I misunderstood the gasman at the gas station and successfully puttered out on my way home a week ago. It was in the exact spot Cameron's bike broke down. I admit, I let more than a few expletives fly behind my yellow-tinted face shield as I walked it home. Thankfully, I was only about a mile away from home. A couple days later one of my friends from Tim's school, Kevin, came over to help me fix my bike, syphoning out the diesel and adding some of his syphoned gas into my bike. It turned out to be a good excuse to hang with him. We found out that we have something in common: our futures our uncertain. He graduates this winter and will look for a job in the south. If this is my last year in China, I'll head back west to find a job, really far west.

Kevin's not the only student I might not see much of over this next year. My good friend Jack from last year is now in Beijing, toiling. Vince might go back to his hometown a couple hours to the north after this semester to find work. And who knows with Robert; we've already had a handful of goodbye dinners for him, but he always seems to come back to Baoding. The reality of my time here is unsettling; it truly is but a breath. And yet that breath is invigorating. Each moment is an opportunity to trust in the "future grace" of our Father. Thanks, John Piper!

But now for something completely different:

Look closer... that's right, those are cigarettes in the grabber machine. Life is beautiful, isn't it?

Friday, October 9, 2009

leave me a massage

Getting massaged in China is good for so many reasons. Chief among them, of course, is they give you really flowy pajamas to wear that hearken you back to Saturday mornings in front of the tube watching Eek the Cat and X-Men. Not to mention, it feels good to have someone use their fist as a billy club and nail you in your lower back, over and over, which, thankfully for me, does not hearken back to childhood days. It's nice to pay less than $10 for 2 hours of full body mincing. It's also nice to lay on your stomach while someone suctions cups of fire onto your back and it's even nicer when your masseuse comments on how white your butt is while she's doing it. The procedure, ba huo guan, is supposed to suck the cold out of your body, and the darker the circles left on your back, the worse your health is. After seeing my red circles, I was told my health was li hai (great), while Ryan's was bu tai hao (not too good). Ryan's masseuse also told him to not leave China.

"Don't leave," she said in Chinese, "You can find a wife here."

This isn't the first time a woman has told us that. Last year the woman who sweeps the area around the campus lake told us not to go anywhere. There are plenty of girls here, she told us. Our visit to the masseuse was also a nice gauge of our Chinese speaking abilities. I was able to actually carry a superficial conversation with my masseuse, whereas last year we relied solely on our Chinese friend in the room. She didn't like, however, when I told her she was being too rough in Chinese (and with a little Charades). Her smile faded into an instant frown. I was sure to tell her once she continued that it was very shu fu (comfortable). All the masseuses in the room were from our city, Baoding, except for mine. She grew up in Shanghai. I asked her how she ended up in Baoding, hoping she would say true love or something romantic.

"I ran out of money," she told me.

I guess Chinese yuan burns as hot in your pocket as dollars do.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

one goal to rule them all

It was the 2nd half of the semi-finals in the inter-department soccer tournament. It was 1-1 with little time left and several of us were bleeding. You could feel the simultaneous disbelief and hope among the English department players. My shin was bleeding after diving to cover up an errant ball in front of an empty net. It was only our 4th game together, marking my 4th game of goal keeper experience, ever. We were one of two teams to make it out of our 4 team division, by winning two of our first three games, the 2nd victory coming against the vaunted Finance department. Vince didn't care about anything after that.

"No one expected us to beat them!" he reminded me several times, "No one will remember the champion, but they will remember that the lowly English department defeated the Finance department."

In fact, Vince was so sure we'd lose to the Finance department that he told Ryan and me that he would become an X-tian if we did.

"So, this is like your baptism," Ryan told him at the end of the game. Vince smiled back.

Vince is the most passionate player I've ever seen. If a team could win on sheer emotion, we would just send Vince out there, 1 vs. 11. Every header is followed by a yell, and every on-coming defender is met with a battle cry and a road block. He might not be the most skillful player on the field, but he makes up for it with adrenaline and will. After I dove to save the errant ball in the 2nd half of the semi-finals, Vince screamed, "Yeah!" and picked me up off the ground. That moment was one of the reasons I had grown to love the goalkeeper position. I don't know how I had missed it my whole life. You mean, I get to be the last line of defense? I get to react to shots and use my hands? Put me in! During the first game I had let two goals go in, the first of which was obviously my fault. But I learned and I grew. The next two games I didn't allow any in. Of course, it helped that the fields and goals were smaller than normal size and I can reach my hands above the post. That aside, I felt capable, but I soon experienced the down-side of playing on an island: capability doesn't preclude culpability.

During the final minutes of the tied game, there was a foul just outside my goal box. It was a routine indirect kick. Three of our players lined up as a wall in front of the kicker, several other players marked men in the box, and I sank into my ready position. The only option for the kicker was over the wall and I was ready. The whistle blew, players scurried and jostled. The ball flew over the heads of our defensive wall. I got this, I thought. The ball sank like a slider and I put my hands in between my legs to block it and before the ball arrived I started to think about a counter-attack. I looked up to see where our attackers were so I could get them the... the ball! It hit my hands but didn't stop. It dribbled behind me like an out of gas marathon runner stumbling across the finish line. My teammates turned away. I closed my eyes. Vince. Oh no. And in a moment my luck had run out. The game ended and I apologized to my teammates. Vince later sent me a message to assuage my guilt:

"nice play today, you have saved us from hell many times. we can't stand here to play without you. we're proud of you. remember my friend. we're a team. we win as a team. we lose as a team. we still got one more game to play tomorrow. one more game to win."

The cliches meant more this time than they ever did. Unfortunately, we lost the consolation game. A 1-1 tie that ended in a shoot-out. Our players missed, their shots were perfect corner blasts and I froze like an oak tree in the face of each one. We got 4th place. That night the team met for dinner at the on-campus restaurant with cases of beer to consume. Luckily Ryan and I were able to avoid the binging because we already had other plans. We celebrated with them for about a half hour, made speeches, took pictures. All of the players were either my old students or my current students and most of them are poor students. It was a blessing to be able to have fun with them and show them I cared outside of class, so that when I shush them in class and tell them to do their homework they'll know I still like them.

Ryan and I agreed: it's a gift to be able to have something you love coincide with the Father's plans. I played 5 games in 8 days and loved every bit of it, and through our fun, students were cared for, love was shown, we became closer with Vince. Who knows whether he'll keep his word (I think he will), but I love that he felt the freedom to joke with us about our beliefs. This experience has given me the freedom to dream. I have passions and interests for a reason and it's up to me to dream about them and show up, asking for and expecting opportunities. The Father will do the rest.

Monday, September 28, 2009

my face is a certificate

If only they knew. I'm just an average joe back in the states. In fact, I've been told a handful of times that I actually look like "Average Joe" from the reality TV show. But they keep staring and pointing and the girls keep giggling. The fringe life of a pale-skinned American male in China has been magnified this year by my move onto campus, and that my new on-campus apartment is bracketed by two all girls dormitories, each of which can see right into my kitchen and bedroom when my curtains are drawn. It's quite a wake up call when I roll out of bed and shuffle into the kitchen for coffee in just my boxers and slippers. Whoops, looks like I forgot again that there are literally a thousand freshman girls out my kitchen window (5 floors, 6 students to a room). I met a girl named Emma the other day who told me she had already seen me before.

"You live in building #8, Emma? I live in #9. So close!"

"Oh yes, I have you seen you in your window many times."

Not to mention that three of my six classes are all girls, 50 in each. Even though my junior students are less impressed with a foreign teacher than my freshmen were last year, I still hear random snaps from cell phone cameras while I teach. Teaching all girls has had its perks so far. They're more eager to participate and seem more comfortable being themselves, whereas the girls in my other classes don't express themselves as freely, as the boys will joke them for girly comments. And it is always a bigger hit in the all-girls classes when I'm showing pictures of my life and I say, "Do you want to see a picture of one of my handsome friends?" When I hold it up some girls are nearly bursting through their desks with their arms outstretched (they loved Christian's faux senior picture from our trip to Colorado). All this to say that while I'm far more comfortable in my second year as a teacher at the Hebei College of Finance, the school, in many ways, hasn't changed towards me. They still haven't recovered from my initial arrival a year ago. I stand out as much now as I ever did; jogging around the track (that's right, I do that now), eating a bowl of noodles, buying a bottle of water in Chinese. But standing out does have its perks.

Yesterday one of my students from last year, Peter, came over to help me go change my cell phone plan... about 4 hours early. He came over at ten in the morning, just before the rest of our IECS team was to arrive for our Sunday morning family time, and he brought Jessica with him, also one of my old students.

"I'm busy now, Peter,"I said, "I can go around 3 pm this afternoon. Is that okay?" I had already told him yesterday that I wanted to go at that time. They both seemed disappointed. I didn't understand. At 2:59 pm they came back, this time with one more friend named Judy. I thought we were just going to the campus phone store... why the big group? I thought. They stood there looking a little embarrassed, and they peered at me with big puppy eyes. Peter chimed in.

"They very much want to leave school," he pleaded, "can we do this in the city?"

Immediately I understood. The students aren't allowed to leave school due to the swine flu. They need special certificates signed and stamped in order to leave. Some of the students take drastic measures, like Peter, who will climb over the fence with his friends in a secluded corner of campus. Vince, a close friend, works in the administrative office and was left with nothing to do one night for enough time to rummage through all the cabinets looking for the certificates. He found them, made about ten copies for himself, found the official red stamp, and signed and stamped them. He has considered making a business out of it. But for the most part, the students are stuck at school and are bored out of their minds. They flock around the campus pond and just sit there, looking lost. Every day at the gates you can find boyfriends and girlfriends holding each other through the bars, giving each other gifts, as if it were some kind of prison. You just hang in there, baby, we'll get you out of here soon enough. Eat your greens! I looked at how helpless Jessica and Judy were and I knew I was their only hope. My plans for the day flashed before my eyes; class for the next day was
still largely unplanned and I was tired.

"Alright," I said with playful reluctancy, "we can go off-campus."

"Yeah!" the girls exclaimed.

Their plan was to go with me to the phone store and then go off and do some shopping. As we approached the school gate there was a handful of incredulous security guards, screwing up their eyes at us. We walked right through. One of the guards questioned the girls as we walked by and I told him, "yi qi," (we're together) in hopes that my broken Chinese would be endearing and help them forget all the beaurocracy. He smiled and waved.

"That was easy, huh?" I said to them.

"Yes, it was," Jessica responded, "it's because your face looks like a certificate."

I've been called many things, but a certificate, that's new.


On a side note, after I showed the picture of handsome Christian to my first class last week, I followed it up by trying to show them another handsome friend. After
the first picture, they were eager to see what else I had.

"Want to see another handsome friend?"

"Yeah!" Girls were already reaching for the picture.

"This is Chris."

This time, they frowned. The mustache doesn't do it for the Chinese girls. So, I playfully withheld the picture from them.

"What's wrong with Chris? Well then, you don't get to see him!"

In China you can be fairly sure that if one class doesn't like something, the rest will feel the same way; so, each class since I've played the same game. After they are disappointed by the mustache, I angrily put the picture back into my album and they laugh. This morning, after seeing the picture, one of the girls yelled, "terrible!" and everyone laughed. So, I angrily withheld the picture, but I must have played it too well. Tonight I got a call from Sunny who apologized for saying that my friend looked "terrible."

"Maybe I have been in a bad mood this morning and I felt guilty," she told me, "So I'm very sorry. Actually I do think he is handsome!"

I couldn't help but laugh as I forgave her. I told Sunny I would tell Chris that she thought he was handsome.


Here's a shot of a couple separated by bars (it's hard to be conspicuous when you're as white as I am in China. They looked right me when I took it):

Sunday, September 13, 2009

where is my mind?

I'm finally going to China, at least as far as I know. I received my Visa invitation in the mail on Friday and tomorrow I'm heading to the Chinese Embassy in DC to get my Visa. Tuesday I'll fly. If all goes as planned, which it probably won't (not pecimism), I'll be in China on Wednesday. I'll be bombarded by students on arrival, the vast majority of whose names will have left me. Hopefully, they won't take it personally. There are a few students with interesting English names I will remember though, like Loretta, Sunshine, God... seriously, his name is God and He'll be my student this year. I'll be sure to teach Him with reverent fear.

One of the reasons I'm so excited to go is that I think part of my mind is already there. I think Tim and Ryan must have stowed a piece of it in their carry-ons when they flew over two weeks ago. I haven't slept well since they left and sometimes I've even found it hard to think clearly. Like today, for example, I was describing my birthday to my friend in China on Skype and I had to pause after I wrote, "For lunch I ate a..." I couldn't think of the word. I sat thinking. What the heck kind of sandwich was that? I could still taste it. There were a couple people sitting around me, but I was embarrassed to ask them to help me remember a sandwich meat that starts with 'P'. I actually googled "best sandwich meats" for help and I finally found it: pastrami. Anyway, I hope to be in one piece when I get there and that I'll stay that way for the foreseeable future.


I was showing my Aunt and Uncle some videos from China yesterday and I realized that there were still a couple I hadn't made public. So, here are two skits we performed in the Spring. The first is the classic chef skit where the chef's arms aren't actually his, but the guy's behind him inside his oversized t-shirt. You know the one. I pretend to have a French accent as Tim's flailing arms protrude from my armpits, knocking things over and covering my face with peanut butter. Half of the skit is me describing to Tim where certain items are on the table, which never seems to get old. On a side note, Tim can barely breathe inside the jacket I'm wearing and is sweating profusely. Just after the video ends, Tim's slippery hands try to pick up a glass bottle of hot sauce, which slides right out of his butter fingers and smashes all over the floor. The students were very concerned. I made a joke about how dropping the lajiao (hot sauce) is very bad luck. Apparently, they didn't get that I was kidding; later, a couple of students asked me if that was really true. We also didn't practice. We performed it at our English Night. The second video is another skit we performed at an English talent event in front of a good 300 students. It's the Middle School Play. You know the one. Look for Ryan's dramatic fall in the 2nd act.

The Chinglish Kitchen

Middle School Play

Thursday, September 10, 2009

china delay

I was supposed to leave on August 27, but it's two weeks later and I'm still sitting in my old bedroom in Norfolk. The reason I'm not in China has to do with my Visa. For some reason, it expired; no one can tell me why, but it has. For much of my two week hiatus I've been sitting on my thumbs waiting for a package to come in the mail from China. The package is like the flick of the finger on the first domino. Once it comes several things can happen, ending with my arrival in Beijing, which will begin my ten month stint. It seems my wait will come to an end tomorrow, at least that's what the Post Office told me. Apparently, they're tracking it. Today I checked the mail at least four times before it arrived. When it did, I found something like a practical joke:

Maybe this is China's way of telling me they don't want me back... Yeah, here's your "Visa" to China!

During my extra America time I've spent a lot of money, mostly on an iPhone. With it I've been able to record the past two weeks. Here are a few highlights.

Monday, August 24, 2009

on vicodin

*caution: graphic content*

I'm currently naked, and have been for the better part of 4 days. I just showered for the first time in that span. Naked doesn't mean exposed; I have been wrapped in swaddling clothes for modesty sake. While I won't go into detail, I had surgery this past Friday, and it had to do with my bait and tackle. Everything's fine now, except that I've been on Vicodin ever since. A narcotic, in every sense of the word. One of the two active ingredients is acetaminophen, which I figured was the part of the tag-team that relieved the pain. Last night, in an effort to be normal again, I decided to just take Tylenol instead of Vicodin (mainly so that I could have a beer), hoping that the loopiness would go away with the pain. Unfortunately, whatever the surgeon did to me on Friday left me with formidable pain. The Tylenol didn't cut it; so now I'm back.

Vicodin doesn't make me say funny things. It doesn't make me see apparitions. And it doesn't really knock me out. It's almost akin to having a few beers. Basically, it makes me care less. I do sleep more easily, but not because of the drug itself; I think it's because my scope of concern when I'm on the narcotic shrinks to the size of my bed, almost like Scrooge's bed-curtains he hides behind. And it might take the Ghost of Christmas Future ripping my curtains aside to convince me there was something more to care about. But I wouldn't say I am Scrooge, who might lack care for others; I'm not care-less, more like care-free. I've also enjoyed how great of an excuse it has been to do nothing. Of course, I am in pain and I can't really do anything even mildly strenuous, but I when need to, I'll ostentatiously play the surgery card. Yeah, sorry, I really wish I could go with you to hang out with all of those acquaintances; it's just the surgery, you know?

The surgery was my first and it was scarier than I anticipated. The nurse was exhaustingly nice. When she learned I'm living in China, she asked me if I knew a neighbor of hers who was also living there. Fat chance. She poked needles into both of my arms, one for an IV and the other to draw some blood. Strike that, an asian nurse came in to take my blood when the other one wasn't there. Later, with my mom by my side, I was visited by the first ghost: the Nurse anesthetist. Boy, anesthesiologists are a bore, aren't they? Whenever I see one I end up falling asleep! I wanted to use that one on him, but when he started to explain the procedure, he frightened me. Apparently they were going to give me an epidural.

"We are going to stick a needle into the middle of your back, near the spine," he explained, "Then we'll ask you to arch your back, with the needle still in, and we'll put a catheter in through the hole we've made. After that you'll lose feeling from the waste down."

"Boy, I just never thought I'd ever have to get an epidural," I said, mildly excited until I realized what this all meant, "So, during the surgery I'll be awake?"

"We can give you some sedation so you might feel like taking a nap, but you'll be mildly alert."

I'm pretty sure my eyes got bigger. Alert was not one of the words I wanted to hear in the same sentence as surgery. But I trusted them and I signed the waiver. At least I could say I've had an epidural before, right? Then the second ghost came in. He was nice too, but he actually had good news.

"So did you make your decision?" he asked.

"Decision?" I was confused.

"Yeah, did you want the epidural or general anesthesia?"

"You mean I can just be totally out if I want to?"

"If that's what you want."

Hm. A huge needle in my arched spine and being alert while someone cuts me open OR falling asleep and waking up to the problem fixed.

"I'll do the general."

The third ghost arrived and was as calm, if not calmer, than the ghost of Christmas future. The surgeon explained the procedure once again and, whether it was the anesthesia dripping into my IV or the solemnity in his voice, I nearly fell asleep before he finished talking. Until he told me I couldn't drive for a week and a half. Lame.

The surgery was easy, from my point of view. All I did was fall asleep. I remember them starting the drip into my IV, the surgeon leaving, then being carted back to the OR. I must have cracked some sort of joke about everyone's inexperience in the OR because all I remember is one of the nurse's laughing about it being all of our first times. Unless she was serious, which would mean that I made the right decision. I would hate to have been awake and hear someone say, "whoops." Hopefully nobody goofed in there. down there.


I'm going back to China on Thursday, September 3. Mark your calendars, America, things are about to get a lot duller once I leave.

Tim and the rest of my team will be arriving a week earlier than I am. In case you don't know Tim, here's a picture of him. It's really recent.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

the student becomes the teacher

This week and next week I am sitting in front of around 300 students individually for an oral exam. This will, in total, take about 32 hours of my life. Yesterday I made it through my first 5 hours. I have asked my students to choose one of five questions and prepare to talk about it with me for five minutes. Easy. My purpose is for them to express themselves rather than memorize and recite answers. So far the conversations have been interesting. The favorite question so far has been: What makes China so special? Sometimes at the end of their answer I'll say, "You forgot to say the food!" One girl named Nancy took the cue and started talking about her favorite foods. She was aghast to hear that my favorite dumpling filling is egg and tomato. She had never had it before and she couldn't get over it. "Egg... and tomato?!" This is a popular Chinese dish, but when it comes to dumplings most Chinese are pretty convential: pork and a vegetable. Nancy's favorite was pork and cabbage. Many of the students educated me about their favorite parts of Chinese history and culture, and I was glad to listen.

Some students chose to talk about how much they admire Chairman Mao Zedong, or Premier Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Premier during Mao's reign. One girl said she admired soldiers for their self-sacrificial attitudes.

"I have to tell you, Jon," Sunny said to me at the end of her exam," I have a boyfriend and he is a soldier. But this is a secret! You can't tell anyone!

"It's a secret that you have a boyfriend?" I asked her.

"No, it's a secret that he is a soldier!"

I have no idea why that would be a secret or why she would tell her teacher during an exam, but I was about 4 hours in at that point; so I didn't think about it too much.

One part of Chinese history I learned more about yesterday was from my friend, Jack, over dinner. He began to explain what the Nanjing Massacre in the winter of 1937 meant to him. What ensued was an hour-long conversation about hatred, revenge, and forgiveness. Jack couldn't find it in himself to forgive the Japanese for what they had done, to the point of a sense of hatred for all Japanese people. He kept saying that the Japanese government is in denial and that if they asked for forgiveness, he would forgive them. I implored him to ask our Father about this.

"If He says it's okay to hate them," I said, "then you can hate them. But don't hide this from Him."

He said I couldn't understand how he feels, that I'm not Chinese. He's right, and the things that were done to his people were terrible, absolutely unmentionable things, but when does forgiveness takes place? Does it depend on the other party's asking for it? If we use Our Father as an example, forgiveness is usually a preemptive strike... This is something we all have to deal with in our lives. Jack's not the only one.

If you don't know much about the Nanjing Massacre, I encourage you to learn about it. Some call it the "forgotten holocaust." But if you have a weak stomach, steer clear of the pictures or accounts of some of the things the Japanese did.

I'll see you in less than two weeks, America!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


(I'm tired)
I awoke as my bedroom door creaked open. I rolled over to identify the intruder. Peeking his head in the doorway was Jack, one of my closest friends at school, and, as of a month ago. a new brother. He's also one of my favorite people in the world. But it was 8:30 on Saturday morning and I had just had one of the most people-ridden, tiresome weeks of my life. All I could muster was a groan and I just rolled back over. Jack got the message and quietly closed my door and left me there. I probably should have said something like, "hello," but I just couldn't do it. I just laid there, feeling invaded. The long week had started the previous Saturday with a surprise trip to Beijing.

For several months, IECS had been preparing for three "English Weeks" in our three cities: Baoding, Lang Fang, and Tianjin. Dozens of Americans had raised thousands of dollars to make the two week trip; they had taken off work and prepared music and skits to perform, among other things (like buying me Tums and more mac n cheese). Our five man team in Baoding was preparing for their arrival as well. But then the Swine Flu came and for a myriad of complicated bureaucratic reasons all three of our English Weeks were prevented from coming to China. There was nothing IECS could do. Money was lost; time was wasted. It felt like a kick in the pants. Our IECS Director, Newt, had already arrived in China early before he knew that the trips were canceled. So in lou of the canceled English Weeks, Newt invited the IECS team to Beijing for a final gathering before the end of the year. It was a bittersweet time, the last time our team would totally be together. But it was like salve on the wound of the English Week cancellation and we were all grateful to reconnect. The Baoding team arrived in Beijing early on Saturday morning to take advantage of our time there. We visited the Olympic Square and went inside the Bird's Nest, which honestly felt more like an empty stadium than a historic playing field. But we made our own fun, as we always do. Unfortunately, we mismanaged our time at the Bird's Nest and at 2pm we were all starving... for American food. And we were all getting a little edgy.

"If we keep talking we're just going to get angrier," Tim pointed out, "No more talking until we find the place where we're going to eat!"

The rest of us liked the idea and consented. For a good ten minutes we just walked and pointed. We made the trek (no pun intended... you'll see) to an outdoor mall where we knew there was a lot of foreign options. We went to a few restaurants to check out their menus, still in silence. The waiters were more than a little confused. After several attempts at choosing a place with thumb-votes, Tim broke the silence in frustration. It was interesting to see all of the misunderstandings come out. Each person had different ideas in mind about how much to spend and what he wanted to eat, but we couldn't talk about it. Eventually we settled on McDonald's. We hadn't intended to eat there, but when we spotted the COLDSTONE in the mall we decided to save our money for desert and eat cheap. The other big surprise at the mall was the underground movie theater.

"Oh man," I said to Tim, "if Star Trek is playing, I'm going to see it."

We walked down the escalator in our excitement (running would overdo it... it's an escalator) and there it was, a huge cardboard advertisement for Star Trek. We entered the clean, futuristic looking cinema and saw that it was playing, in a half hour. We rushed to Coldstone to get milkshakes and snuck them into the theater(I don't know what the Chinese rule about bringing your own snacks is, but we didn't want to risk it). It was awesome: the movie, the milkshake, the deafening sound, the science-fictionness, the dad in the front giving high-fives to his little sons at the end of the movie...

That night and the next day our team celebrated being together with great food and good conversation. We essentially said goodbye to six of our team members, who aren't returning next year. The Boading team arrived back home that Sunday night with just enough time to go to bed. Here was my schedule for following week:

Monday: Class and English Corner until 7:30pm, then English Night practice until bedtime.
Tuesday: Chinese class in the morning, English Night prep in the afternoon, and English Night at night (which was a huge success), then McDonald's again... it's an English Night tradition.
Wednesday: Class all morning, NT Wright reading assignment in the afternoon (for dude time the next day), then Team Dinner and Family Time at night.
Thursday: Class all morning, Dude Time in the afternoon, our friend Ken's birthday dinner, then a student-run English event at night called the "Flame Youth" (Vince's creation), in which we were participating in a few skits.

I'll stop here.
The Flame Youth event ended a little later than expected (Vince even had to cancel his rendition of the "I Have a Dream" speech) at around 10pm, which meant I would be going to bed when I got home, just to wake up at 6:30 the next day to go back to school for class. So, Jack, the intruder form earlier (or later, depending on how you look at it), invited a few of us to stay in his dormitory. He said he had a couple empty beds and he could make more empty if we needed to, which we knew meant he would kick roommates out. Our friend Tony from Beijing was visiting us and decided he would stay with Jack (he was instrumental in Jack's decision to join our family), and so did Ryan. Now, I'm not one to miss out on a good sleep-over; so, despite my exhaustion and my expectation of a poor night's sleep in the dorm, and my fear that if I said yes it would mean that one of Jack's roommates would be sleeping outside on the concrete that night, I said yes. Jack was so happy; he couldn't get the smile to leave his face. He worked so hard to make our beds nice for us and to take care of us. It was a great time to be together. The electricity cut off at 11pm, as it does for every dorm on campus, and we went to bed. Around 11:30 I was about to drift off... when, all of a sudden, my good friend Tony beat me to the punch, audibly. He started snoring at a volume I've never witnessed before. I laid there trying to overcome the noise for about an hour and a half, when I finally achieved Nirvana. 6am came swiftly, and I wasn't happy about it, as the night of sleep seemed to do more harm than good. But breakfast in the cafeteria with the guys was well worth it. I used the experience to explain the word "snore" to my classes that day, which made them laugh. Most of them said they had roommates who snored, but none of them said they did. Hm...

My day at school ended around 4pm and I met up with Tony and Tim in Tim's dorm at Hebei University to find Tony sprawled out in Tim's bed watching Max Payne on Tim's laptop. I quickly pulled out Hot Fuzz and told him to switch movies (I had just bought it). That night we went to a Spa, a long-overdue gift we had promised Tony as a Christmas present. We sat in the hot tub and sauna together, got massaged, and ate at the free midnight buffet. What a great time. It was relaxing, but I still longed for that sleep I'd been missing. That's why, the next morning, when Jack popped in my room at 8:30 I shrunk away.

But our Father blesses us and meets, even in those times of exhaustion and bad moods. Scratch that: the boss meets us especially when we're tired and in a bad mood. Sometimes that's when he uses us the most. It's then when we rely on Him. All that he asks is that I be me, and He'll be Him. Somehow, after that tiring week, Jack and I are closer, and two other students, Jack's friend Billy and our friend Ken, have heard the Good News and are studying and considering what they've heard. Be thinking about them. Ken and I have talked a few times recently about the Father and he's got lots of questions.

This weekend is the Dragon Boat Festival in China and we have Thursday and Friday off of school. About one billion people will be eating Zong Zi's, sweet rice and a date wrapped in a leaf triangle, to celebrate. Me? I got a good night's sleep last night; I just read for about an hour; I had cereal for breakfast and a bowl of Macaroni and Cheese for lunch. And I'm ready to go again.


This country is fickle about websites and it doesn't like blogger right now, which is why there's no media on this post... yet...

Sunday, May 10, 2009

the media room

"Ugh!" shouted Vince as we walked across campus, "I can't believe you can get a media classroom that easily! I have applied many times for a media room and I never get one!" Everyone knows who Vince is; he is one of the most important students on campus. He is the head of the Ministry of Study Affairs, a student union full of undercover brilliant students who would rather hold events, have ministry meetings, and study their own preferred subjects than study for their classes. Who can blame them? The majority of the students at Hebei College of Finance ended up at this school by failing to pass a few standardized tests that would have allowed them to attend the school of their choice. On top of that, many of them were forced into majors they didn't choose. It's a slippery slope in China. Once you don't pass the tests in high school, you don't get a choice in much of anything. But that doesn't mean you have to just sit and take it, or so Vince would tell you. You can create a slew of student unions and hold English speaking events until your head explodes instead. If you've ever seen Rushmore, Vince is Max Fischer, with a touch of Jack from the Newsies, always leading the charge against the establishment. Except that he doesn't do lasso-dance routines when he's by himself. Well, I guess I have no way of knowing that for sure...

"You have to apply for a media room?" I asked him, confused. All I usually did was ask for one.

Our walking pace quickened as Vince was trying hard to find something to blame for feeling slighted over never getting his media room, and I was trying to give him one: my white skin.

"Sorry, man," I told him, "you know it's just because I'm a foreign teacher. All I do is call Ms. Zhao and she finds one for me. Listen, next time you want a media room I'll book it for you."

I could see in his eyes that he didn't want my pity. But I felt sorry for Vince because the school does bend over backwards for me. Just last week I asked for a media room on Tuesday night for my classes on Wednesday morning by sending a text message to the head of our department, Ms. Zhao. She responded promptly by giving me a media room. I arrived there in the morning and put in the DVD I wanted to use. Nothing happened. I looked at the computer again. No DVD compatibility. Crap. I quickly called Ms. Zhao, explained the situation, and within ten minutes my students and I moved to a different media room with a DVD player. I then proceeded to show some movie scenes without subtitles for listening practice (Dead Poet's Society, Little Miss Sunshine, Hitch, Superman). Another victory for the waiguoren (foreigner).

The next day things weren't so easy. I found out the night before that there was no media room available with a DVD player, only the one useless media room that I had tried that day. I could just see Vince grinning over a bowl of noodles, satisfied with his sabotage. But I wasn't going to let it defeat me. No DVD, no problem. I explained my predicament to Ryan, who conveniently teaches in the classroom next door. We had just heard an idea that day from our friend, Emily. Her parents had come to visit her for a couple weeks and she brought them to a few of her classes. They played a game where t
he students tested Emily to see how well she knew her parents. They asked her questions, and her parents wrote their answers down before Emily could answer. Emily then answered for her parents.

At 9am that Thursday morning, during the class break, Ryan and I directed our students to the DVD-less media room that I had reserved, which had suddenly found its use; it holds 100 students, which was about exactly the number of our two classes combined. I wrote "How well do Ryan and Jon know each other?" on the board and we played. The students were on one team, their goal being to stump us, and Ryan and I wer
e on the other. The first question was predictable.

"Does Ryan have a girlfriend," one of Ryan's students asked me. Everyone laughed. It's funny every time to them.

"Ryan does not have a girlfriend," I answered with confidence. An easy point for us.

"Okay, now who wants to ask me if Jon has a girlfriend?" Ryan asked the class after the laughter had subsided. They laughed again. One of my students named Christina stood up to ask a question.

"How often every week does Ryan wash his hair?" she asked. Christina had apparently noticed that Ryan hadn't washed his hair that day, something she always seems to notice about anyone. Actually, the last two times I had seen Christina, she had told me, "I think it's time to wash your hair."

"Hm, I'm going to guess 3," I said. Ryan doesn't wash his hair that often.

Ryan held up his paper, which read, "2." One point for the students.

One of Ryan's female students stood up. Most of the questions came from females.

"What's Jon's favorite movie?" she asked Ryan. This was a hard question, so the student decided to give Ryan a break. She said I could write down five movies and Ryan had two guesses to guess any of them. It was hard to be honest with my top-five list; I wanted him to guess one. So, I put Lord of the Rings, which we were both reading, and Superman, which we had watched in my class the day before. The result was unfortunate.

"X-Men and... uh... Ace Ventura?," he said. One point for them.

The game continued on with a few hard questions and a few easy ones. Ryan guessed my favorite quote correctly (found on the left side of this blog); I missed the age of Ryan's dog by one year; Ryan guessed that my favorite experience in life was either my trip to Newfoundland or my trip to Colorado/Oklahoma, both of which were great guesses. But I tried too hard with my answer, "Teaching in China." The last question was perhaps the funniest.

"What color underwear is Ryan wearing today?" Coco, Ryan's student, asked me. I remembered seeing a pair of black boxers hanging in our shower room recently.

"Black!" I guessed. Ryan peaked in his shorts.

"White." The class lost it.

And so the game ended.
The class: 13
Ryan and Jon: 11


I love watching my students watch movies. The rest of that week, I decided to simplify my movie-viewing in my classes down to just one movie: Superman. I showed each class the rooftop interview between Lois Lane and Superman for listening practice, and instead of switching films like I had planned I just decided to let them watch more Superman. They knew very little about him, just that he rescues people. Most of my classes had big smiles on their faces when Superman took Lois for a ride over Metropolis. But their big reaction came when he first rescued Lois as she fell from the dangling helicopter. The laughed when Clark ran down the street and ripped his shirt open to reveal the bright red "S" on his chest. But they gasped when he caught Lois.

"Don't worry, miss, I've got you," Superman tells her calmly.

"You've got me? But who's got you?!" Lois exclaims. They all laughed.

The helicopter then falls towards Superman and Lois. Instead of avoiding it, Superman flies right at it and catches it with one hand, his other arm occupied holding Lois.

"Wow!" many students gasped. A few of them even clapped.

There's something in the innocent heart that jumps for joy over Superman. And somehow, the Chinese students still have that heart. Imagine a classroom of 50 American college students watching Superman. We're too cynical to react like them, even if we'd never seen Superman before. And even if we felt like they did, we wouldn't clap or say, "wow." Which is why I took hold of the chance to actually smile when Superman catches Lois. Because that's how I feel when I watch Superman; happy.

Monday, May 4, 2009


(Tiananmen = gate of heavenly peace)
Friday, May 1st was International Labor Day. But you probably didn't know that, did you? That's because you live in America, one of only two countries in the world that celebrates Labor Day on a different day. Why? Because America can. And Canada can... tag along. After tossing around a few ideas, and having a few fall through, Tim, Ryan, Cameron, and I decided to go to Beijing for a couple days. According to common sense, it was the wrong weekend to go; Beijing is already chalked full of people, but especially on holidays. And it felt like every one of them climbed aboard the no. 9 bus with us as we left the train station Saturday morning. Where were we going? We weren't sure, which was the beauty of our visit; no plans. I needed to buy new shoes (I've never been able to say that my shoes "broke" before, but I'm pretty sure my foot's not suppose to stick out the side), and everyone else mostly just wanted to eat at Subway. I was the only one who had never been to Tiananmen Square during any of my visits; so I quickly shouted the idea out to everyone as we were passing it on the no. 9 bus. They sort of shrugged their shoulders and we got off the bus. Most of our decisions were made with the shrugging of shoulders. And here is what ensued:

9 - 10 am - Tiananmen Square, not only the biggest square in the world, but apparently the most bugged. Why they closed the viewing of Mao's body on such a busy day is beyond me.
10:30 - 11:30 - wi-fi @ Starbucks
12 - 1 pm - foot-long Subway Melt w/ 10 yuan Mt. Dew (you finally made it, MD!)
1 - 3 - shopping at a yuppy outdoor mall - I bought new cross-trainers
3 - 4 - walking in a circle for an hour
4 - 7 - reading, napping, drinking at the Bookworm, which was, unfortunately, a few hundred feet from where we started. Great bookstore, horrible online map. I loved the fact that there was a bar. It felt more right drinking a Gin n' Tonic while reading LOTR than coffee ever has.
7:30 - 8:30 - bloomin' onion & medium rare burger at Outback - truly novelty in China
9 - 11 - waiting at a riverside street of shops and bars for Tim's college friend to show up (she was on her own and kept having to borrow random people's phones to call Tim as she tracked us down)
11 - 2 am - chatting and walking with Tim's friend, Lisa, an English teacher in S. Korea
2:30 - 11 am- sleep
12 - fruitless search for more Mt. Dew (good grief, it's good)
2:30 pm - train ride home. My seat was next to a pair of cute Chinese kids squeezed together into one seat. It was a brother (9) and sister (11), whom I talked with the entire hour ride, instead of reading and listening to music, my original plan. You can't miss an opportunity to try out your Chinese with kids. There's nothing better than making them laugh out loud by telling them that your friend is actually your 40 year old grandpa. "Bu ke neng!" they kept shouting (impossible).

The greatness in the trip could have also been its downfall. Our purposelessness, thankfully, didn't spill over into how we related to one another. It's always a tendency on vacation for me to live selfishly, to only think about what I want to do. But we grew together on this trip. While we have been together for a good eight months, Ryan made an interesting observation over our burgers at Outback.

"There are still ways that we don't know each other," he said as he dipped his fried onion slice into that 2nd bowl of bloomin' onion sauce, which you always have to ask for, "You guys have never seen what I'm like when I pursue a girl."

"Or when we're with our families," Cameron added.

How deeply can you know someone?
Why do Chinese people eat ice cream before their meal and eat white rice last? I have no idea.

Our picture in front of the father of Chinese democracy, Sun Yat-Sen.
Still revered, I guess.

North Face. Ben Sherman. Nike. Quiksilver. Apple. It ruled.

sleepy head at the hostel.


As a Redskins fan, I'm not sure how I missed this video. It's probably because I don't pay enough attention to Chris Cooley's blog, which is one of the most popular player blogs in all of sports, and there's a reason why. Aside from being one of the best Tight Ends in football, Cooley works hard to give his readers tons of backstage info and stories about the Redskins you could never get anywhere else. This fantasy draft video from last fall is a great example. Fred Smoot is hilarious.

Monday, April 27, 2009

a beard's tale

I go home in two months. This is something I've been saying for the past month, probably because no matter how many times I say it never feels more true. And I've let my beard grow out to prove it. Last night a few of us (to the right) were walking through an underground mall when we walked by a popular clothing store called "Septwolves." Sprawled out and inanimate lay a life-size gray plastic wolf with sparkling eyes in the corner of the store. Its head was tilted upward as if to meet the gaze of the shoppers and entice them to assume a wilder clothing style, but when I looked at it all it did was remind me of my old bedroom. Our family's part-husky mutt, Darla, used to sleep in my room when I lived at home a few years ago. I used to close the door behind me when I went to bed to keep the cats from creeping in at night (I hate cat hair); so poor energetic Darla would always have to wait for me to wake up to let her out. By morning she would have always left her dogbed and found a fresh spot on the carpet to lay down and wait on. Whenever I would roll over and open my eyes for a moment in the mornings, Darla would already be staring at me, and when I'd meet her gaze, even if just for a moment, her ears would immediately tilt back and her tail would start to wag. She never figured out that it was usually a false alarm. But there she'd lay, patient and poised. And on I walked in an underground mall in Baoding, Hebei, China, thinking about how my dog used to patiently watch me until I woke up in the mornings when I used to live at mom's house in Norfolk, Virginia.

I wouldn't say I'm homesick, but I was. My western body never expected me to spend any extensive amounts of time this far east, so when my blood cells or neurons or whatever it is that gets things done in my immune system built my immune system it didn't take Chinese colds into account. But they should have and hopefully they've been paying attention this past year because I've been hit hard. Two weeks ago I caught one of my worst, and I cancelled two classes, something I haven't done yet. I made the call to cancel my classes in the morning before I went to bed; so when I woke up it all of a sudden hit me that I had no obligations that day and I became euphoric. How should I use this glorious day? Which movies should I watch? What book should I finally finish? I quickly went to pour a bowl of cereal and make coffee. This almost made me forget I was sick, until about a minute later when I... well, let's just say I was pretty congested in just about every hole in my head. Actually being sick really takes the fun out of staying home sick. Every minute my head seemed to gain more weight and my morale slowly plummeted. Somehow that day my cozy room became dull and suffocating and my quaint apartment suddenly seemed just plain small, and I wanted to go home. I imagined my response if I had gotten a call from my boss, Newt, that day with the opportunity to do just that:

"Hey, Bubba! (he says bubba a lot) I got some strange news for you. You've been fired from the Financial College... something about telling a student she was a hermaphrodite? (I'll explain later...) Anyway, I've got a flight home for you tomorrow. Can you make it to Beijing by the morning?"

"Hot dog! I'll be there in an hour!" I would've shouted in ecstasy. I would have then grabbed my gray hoodie and macbook and left the scene of the crime like a bat out of hell, congestion and all.

Eventually I soothed my sore heart by watching Heat (for the first time) and an episode of Jeeves & Wooster, but not even Bertie Wooster's dopey humor could lift me out of this hole I had suddenly found myself in. Sickness and sadness seem directly tied somehow, and it wasn't until I really recovered from my sickness that life here became exciting again. Now I truly believe that that sickness was a divine thorn in the side, the squeeze I didn't know I needed to get the splinter near the threshold of the skin, to a place where I could see and deal with it. The homesickness had been there, probably for a while, but I didn't know how real it was until I was holed up in my apartment for two days with a congested head and an overwhelming amount of unwatched movies taunting me from my dvd booklet. Now it seems that the splinter isn't gone, but that home has taken its right place in my life; something I miss dearly, but I wait patiently for its arrival. I'm still excited to go home and make Darla wait for me to get up every morning this summer. I'm excited to live with Austin and Graham for two weeks and wash dishes at Austin's restaurant for some extra money. And, holy cow, the beach...

I need to shave.


A few Wednesdays ago, I had just finished teaching the first half of one of my two undergraduate English classes (my two favorite classes) and I was getting my supplies together during the break when one of my generally shy students named Nancy called me over to her desk.

"Hey, Jon," she said anxiously with a big smile, "I have a question."

"Okay, what is it?" I smiled back.

"What do you call it when it's a boy and a girl at the same time?"

My smile vanished, afraid of what she was asking me.

"Um... it's called... (my voiced lowered) a hermaphrodite."

"How do you spell that?" she started to look suspicious about my answer.

"Sorry, I've never actually written this word before, so I don't know to spell it." ...which was true, even though I could very well have looked it up in my ipod's dictionary. I just didn't want her to learn this word. "But it's called a hermaphrodite."

She thought for a moment. "I thought it was called twins."

It all made sense.

"Yes, yes, you're right. It is called twins. Yes, this is the only word we use to describe this. I thought you meant something else. Yes, twins." I quickly went back to my desk. It was one of the loneliest awkward situations I have ever known; I was the only one in our conversation who know how awkward it really was.


For anyone who doesn't have a mom to do this for him:

Friday, March 27, 2009


(spring is coming)
Each of my students has one major project this semester; they have to make a five minute presentation on their plans for the ten years following their graduation. Many of them have used the opportunity to talk about big dreams, like owning their own foreign trade company, traveling all over China, or, as one girl named Ivy explained, living in a cottage in Switzerland where she and her husband can raise their two little "trouble-makers." It's great to see all of the students on the edge of their seats as they listen to their friend stand up front talk about his or her dreams. Without fail, when it's time for the presenter to answer questions, a student will stand up and ask a question like, "What qualities will you look for in a husband?" or "Tell us about your mr. right." This will guarantee a ripple of giggles throughout the room (something I can't resist joining in on). One of my favorite things about the presentations, and teaching here in general, is the mispronunciations and grammatical errors. It's inevitable for a people with such a different mother tongue to butcher English, and it tickles me every time. Charles was answering questions following his presentation when someone asked him where his love for basketball fit in with his plans for the future. Charles paused, looking for just the right word. Unfortunately, he found two right words, and just put them together,

"Basketball is my hobbit."

I was the only one to laugh.

Marina was explaining... something (admittedly, I dazed out for a moment) when I heard her say,

"I think we all need stromboli!"

Based on the context, I realized she had meant to say, "strong body," but instead she made me think of dinners at the Hatchers, courtesy of Joyce Hatcher (tell her I miss it, Ryan), and I dazed out again.

The classroom isn't the only place for English misunderstandings. Just this morning I heard Ryan carefully enunciating his email address to his student on the phone,

"...b...e...t...t...w...y...@... No, Owen, it's not two U's; it's the letter 'W', like the word, 'window'."

As I'm beginning to study Chinese, I know I make similar mistakes in their language; they're just a little more gracious than I am.


For some reason, I've gotten into the same conversation three different times with three different people in the last week about the relativity of truth. Our close friends, Robert and Vince, seem to think it's possible for truth to be completely relative. "We are all truth detectives, but no one person can know it" Robert (seen left) said. Vince used a different metaphor, one that can more easily identify with. He said he believed in a "programmer" and that we're all computers. It's up to us whether we want to buy into that software we've been programmed to use or not. "I am denying everything!" Vince exclaimed. More than whether this is true or not (notice how truth works), it's about living a life of convenience. We all tend to want to believe what is convenient for us, and we sometimes fool ourselves into thinking we're searching for truth. This is where our conversations with Robert and Vince have gotten, which is extremely exciting. I was talking with my friend, Ken, last week over KFC sundaes about what he desires in a girl. He said he doesn't really desire a girlfriend right now, but that his mother told him that "it's his duty" to find a wife (don't evey try, mom). Eventually I was able to explain why I respect my brother and his wife's relationship so much. I told him I love that they share the same goal; they encourage one another to a relationship with their creator. This led to a bigger conversation about our creator.

Things are happening here; for us it's a matter of living with purpose. We have some great friendships with students, as well as with each other. I want my relationships with my students to grow into something that resembles my relationships with my brothers, Tim, Ryan, and Cameron. And they are.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

english night

I must admit that there was a time when I didn't feel like having an English Night. But there I was last Friday night; giving high fives, leading 250 students sing "Brown Eyed Girl," and dancing my way down to the stage to "Paper Planes." And I wouldn't have had it any other way. Ryan and I had attempted to pitch an "English Club" to the administration at our school last semester, and it met unexpected opposition. Ms. Zhao, the head of the English Dept. and our boss, heard the word 'club' and immediately expected us to plan an opening ceremony for our bonafide 'club', which would include board meetings and club officers. So, we decided to re-pitch our idea under the name "English Night" a month or so later, and I can gladly say that we haven't appointed any club officers yet, and we don't plan to. Ms. Zhao loved the idea, and so did the students.

"Hey, are you coming to English Night on Friday night?"

"What is it?" one skeptical girl answered.

"Well, we're going to sing some English songs and play some games--"

Her eyes lit up. "Perfect!" she exclaimed, clasping her hands together.

Many of us in Baoding had set goals at the beginning of the semester to switch gears with our friendships. Last semester we had stretched ourselves wide among the students, taking advantage of every opportunity to get to know our students. As a result of this, we all have close friends on our campuses, many of them unexpected. This semester we decided it was time to go deep instead of wide. We have tried our best to focus on those close friendships, sometimes having forsaking others in order to do so. It has been quite a change, and extremely fruitful. And so I sat at our initial planning meeting with the other four people on our team, skeptical. We were dreaming about what songs to sing and what kind of a skit to perform, and I couldn't stay quiet any longer.

"I'm sorry; I'm all of a sudden wondering why we're doing this in the first place," I said, "I mean, if we're trying to go deep instead of wide, why do we want to host an event for hundreds of students. Isn't it a little counter-productive?"

The others were confused, rightfully.

"We aren't just getting up there singing songs and giving a lecture," answered Emily, "It's about much more than that..."

"We're proclaiming truth to hundreds of students," added Amelia.

And so I was convinced. It took about another ten minutes for me to jump back on the bandwagon, but jump I did. Especially after Tim and I were assigned the "Run-On." It had been a while since any of us had planned a Club, and we were a little rusty. But all it took was a night of planning over grilled cheese sandwhiches in my kitchen for Tim and I to create a character infusing kung fu and magic, and we were back in the groove. You should have seen Tim practicing his opening magic dance across the red tile floor, or maybe it would be better if you just watched the performance itself...

-Important Notes-

Our good friend, Vince (seen above), was responsible for the camera-work. Notice the acrobatic cinematography.

Near the end of Part 2, Emily (Rose) gives a heart-wrenching monologue where she rhetorically asks the crowd, "What should I do?" Listen closely for a girl yelling, "BEAT HER!" Apparently, by the look on her face, she wasn't kidding. It nearly broke Emily from her character.

Part 1

Part 2

The Night led to some good conversations and opportunities to get closer with our good friends. It was a success in every possible way. So many of my students have told me in class this week how much they loved it.

Be thinking about our close relationships with Robert, Vince, Jack, and Ken.