Adventures Abroad: Devil’s Choir

Adventures Abroad: Devil’s Choir

transformers_g1_prowl_by_tsaisin

You’ve been running for so long still breathing

Hoping soon to find a song worth singing

Every chapter of this note they’re reading

But you’re slowly losing hope on bleeding

I’ll carry you

My darkest desire

When life sings to you through devil’s choirs

Fear won’t steal what burns in you

I’ll carry you a

Away from the fire

My desire, devil’s choirs

My desire, devil’s choirs

Raise another broken glass to failure

A simple promise of a crimson savior

Take a look into the life you’re leaving

I promise you this isn’t pain you’re feeling

I’ll carry you

My darkest desire

When life sings to you through devil’s choirs

Fear won’t steal what burns in you

I’ll carry you

Away from the fire

My desire, devil’s choirs

My desire, devil’s choirs

My desire, devil’s choirs

Black Veil Brides, Devil’s Choir

Well holy hells boys and girls. Today is my last day in Yan’An. Tomorrow I’m setting off for Xi’an to get a quick look at the Terracotta Warrior Army and then I’m heading back to Japan for about a month.

It’s snowing right now, actually, it’s been snowing since early this morning. I spent the morning packing my big bag, cursing myself for bringing dress clothes. Seriously, I wore them in Cambodia and I wore them a few times last semester but the school was fine with jeans and their t-shirt. If I wasn’t looking to start a job in the States that requires some formality in the clothes there’s a very good chance some of those things would’ve been ‘donated’ to the next teacher.

China wasn’t what I thought it would be, which is neither good nor bad, it’s just different. I’ve visited a few neat local places like Ho Kau Pu Bu, the waterfall, and WanHua the peony mountain. I’ve had a ton of fun trying different foods I’d never have considered in the States; chicken feet, stinky tofu, mystery meat on a stick. I’ve picked up some Chinese, though my listening comprehension is much higher than my speaking, I want to keep up with it. I’ve always wanted to be a polyglot and I’ve got the basics of Chinese already. So I’ll either find a class or pick up a Rosetta Stone program when I get back to the States.

But I got everything crammed in my bag and my backpack is filled to bursting with souvenirs for family and friends. It’s so strange to think tomorrow is the last time I’ll be on a train leaving Yan’An. This year has gone by so fast. There were a few days there in July where I thought this year would never end, but here we are.

This time last year I had just arrived in Xi’an. I was nervous about teaching, a little overwhelmed with culture shock, jetlagged, and missing my friends from Cambodia. Now? The sun is starting to peek out and I think I’m going to go down to one of my favorite street vendors and pick up some noodles one last time. I’m excited to see the Warriors and get a better look at the Big Goose Pagoda and I can hardly wait to get back to Japan.

I didn’t really know what to expect from this year, which is a scary/exhilarating feeling when you’re jumping straight into a new place and new job. But that’s life. And teaching here has given me the experience and credentials to keep teaching—preferably older teens and adults—all around the world. I still want to teach for a year or two in Japan. I know that whenever I get back to the States I have plans to start teaching Microsoft programs and who knows, maybe I’ll find a company that will happily send me thither and yon for a week or two at a time.

I was listening to music while I tetrised my clothes into my big bag and a song, Devil’s Choir, by Black Veil Brides popped up. I could remember so many days listening to that song at full volume driving to my fast food and restaurant jobs and hating everything about my life. I had a POS car that was turning into a money pit, I wasn’t making enough money to get a place of my own, I had—still have—student loans due for a degree that was turning out to be more useless than the paper it’s printed on. My depression manifested as insomnia, wild mood swings, and periods of rage so intense I have gaps in my memory. I hated everything.

I started looking at jobs out of state, I started looking at jobs in state parks, government jobs. Anything my ridiculously narrow skill set and degree could get me. And then I had that conversation at the pumpkin patch that kick started the search for TEFL certifications. I found the one thing my degree in creative writing might actually be good for. It took about two years, but a year ago today I was boarding a plane to come to China after spending an incredible month in Cambodia.

It wasn’t easy to get to that point, and it hasn’t been easy being here pretty much on my own with a language barrier the size of the Great Wall. But I made it to that plane a year ago and I made it here for a year and even managed to make a few friends along the way. In two days I’ll be on another plane to Japan, a country I never thought I’d see in person and I’m going to be there a month.

So if you’re stuck and you’re angry, I understand. I won’t say it gets better because it doesn’t. You have to make it better. You have to be brave enough to get yourself unstuck. That’s the hardest part, being brave. Sometimes you have to be willing to jump into the fog even if you can’t see where you’re landing.

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Adventures Abroad: Privilege of Travel

Adventures Abroad: Privilege of Travel

I scrolled past an article on FB about the privilege of traveling a few weeks ago. Although I use “article” in the loosest sense of the word; it was about five hundred words of the author saying we should remember that traveling abroad is a privilege. And while I found that to be an eye rolling duh what caught my attention were the comments. Most of them were unflattering opinions of people who travel abroad. A common thread was that people who travel must have lots of extra money to afford to do such things. That traveling abroad is an elitist pastime available only to the 1%. The article itself touched on that idea; the author comes from a poor background and it took a lot of hard work on her behalf to travel.

There are a lot of blogs discussing the privilege of traveling, like these here, here also here  annnnd this one. That’s just a quick sampling. Google anything about travel and privilege and you’ll find more. There are even links within those blogs to other blogs speaking about the same thing. It’s like blog-ception.

I mean, you read enough of those you’ll feel like an elitist bastard if you mention you’ve been to the state next door. But what’s more irritating than the feather-light brow beating these people feel is necessary is that none of them have proposed solutions.

The article I mentioned at the top was shared over five thousand times when I scrolled past it. And the only thing in that writing is a gentle wrist slap to people who actively encourage others to travel because not everyone has the means to travel and that makes us look snobbish. But there was nothing about how we can reduce that privilege gap and work to help everyone travel.

There’s not much we can do about visa restrictions, unless you’re a powerful figure in your respective country. First world travelers, such as myself, have a massive advantage. Canadians can pop in and out of 174 countries without the hassle of a visa. My fellow Americans, we can skip through 160. Have a UK passport? 175. Have a freaking German passport: 177.

If you’re from Ghana? 63.

Iraq: 30.

And Pakistan and Afghanistan have even less. If you’ve been following my blog you know about my trip to Chicago to get my Chinese Visa and that, while irritating, was easy. I’m only a three hour drive from Chicago. But if I’d had to go to Washington D.C.? That would have required money for airfare and a hotel stay. I would’ve had to take time off work instead of going on a day off. Visas are a goddamn pain and each one you get costs money. If I’d had to go to D.C. the total cost of getting my visa would have been around $500. As it was—if we don’t count the car getting towed because fuck Chicago—the total was $200.

Again, there’s not much individuals can do about visas, but there are some things you can do. Head over to GoFundMe once a month or so. There are people around the world trying to raise money to travel. Sometimes they have noble causes, sometimes they just want to see the world. But if you can spare five dollars, that’s five dollars that can help someone get a visa or get a plane ticket. Trying to untangle the rat’s nest of politics involved with visas is a bit much for any one person, but as one person you can help another.

I don’t have solutions for every circumstance in every country, but—as I’ve mentioned—I’m from the US and those are the issues I’m tackling first. No one can save the world all at once; you have to start with the problems you see. And, as the world has been privy to us airing our dirty laundry, the US has quite a few issues right now.

The first time I went abroad it was during my time at university. I spent a semester in London and from there visited France, Germany, Greece, Italy, and Vatican City. My group was not full of Richie Rich kids either. Most of us lived off pasta and toast so we could afford to travel to additional countries. I missed a trip to Ireland because I had only three hundred dollars left in my account in a time when the dollar was significantly weaker than the Euro. We took the jump across the pond because a semester abroad was roughly the same as a domestic semester. I took out loans to make the trip and I’m still glad I did it even though I’m still staring those student loans in the face.

But not everyone is eligible for loans or the loans they take out don’t cover things like semesters abroad. But what if education was affordable? We can do that. We can make education affordable to everyone. We can fix the system that uses students as another source of income instead of working to help them. Going abroad will still be more expensive than a domestic semester, but we can fix that too. There are programs at universities that will help fund students’ travels abroad, but they’re not advertised. I didn’t know until six weeks before my graduation that my university had a program for writers. Had I written a short paper on whatever country I wanted to visit and how it would influence my work and how I planned to incorporate all I learned I could have had a chance to go anywhere in the world and the school would have paid for the flight and helped with living costs. At the time, one young woman was living in a small medieval village in Romania writing a modern thriller.

I spent about fifteen months saving up the money for the plane ticket to Asia and the program fee as well as money to live off of while I was getting my TEFL. And it was still a tight month before I got my first pay here in China. The reason I went with Language Corps was their China program got me lined up with my job before I even left the States. Had I not had a job before getting on the plane I probably wouldn’t be here. I didn’t have enough money to live for an extra three months and job hunt.

While in the States, I worked two jobs for a while before landing one that paid better than both and then I worked there every week as long as I could until the chef realized I was in OT and kicked me out. I remember very little about the year leading up to coming to China. I remember snippets of work and a few other things that FB reminds me of with their “memories” thing, but I worked pretty well from sun up to sun down. And there are people who are still doing that and working seventy hours or more a week just to afford an apartment and food.

Why don’t we have a living wage? I don’t care if you think people in the service industry don’t “deserve” fifteen dollars an hour. To afford an apartment, utilities, a car, food, and clothes; people will need that damn fifteen dollars an hour. Gods help them if they have kids. I figured at twelve dollars an hour I might be able to afford my own apartment as long as I carefully rationed my utilities and didn’t exceed more than seventy dollars a month in gas money and only spent fifty dollars a month on food. I still have my student loans to pay, and then I’d only be making the absolute minimum payment. So yeah, if you want to give yourself salt poisoning by eating ramen four days a week and toast the other three you can survive on about twelve dollars an hour.

And that’s bullshit.

Minimum wage is not a goddamn punishment. It is not “spending” money. This is a wage paid so that one person or a family can live. They should make enough money they can afford to eat real food and make sure their kids have clothes and if something breaks on their car be able to fix it. They should be making enough to put some money in savings. They should be making enough money when the holidays roll around they can buy their parents/friends/siblings/children a few gifts and not feel the axe of credit card debt hanging over them. They should be making enough money if they want to go out and have dinner and catch a movie they damn well can. Because that is what we do when we have enough money to live. Anyone, anyone, who thinks minimum wage shouldn’t be raised to a living wage is a picture of elitism. Why not? What makes these people who make your sandwiches and help you find your produce and stock your shelves and help you return clothes unworthy of being able to live a fulfilling life without worrying day and night about how they’re going to pay for their water or put food on the table? And that bullshit argument that people should just go to school and get a better job. You mean that school that puts its graduates in tens of thousands of dollars of debt? That school? If people can barely afford to pay rent, what makes you think they’ll suddenly be making enough to pay three hundred dollars in loans every month?

The writer of the article also mentioned she has chronic health problems which limits how much traveling she can do. So let’s talk about healthcare. Many of my friends as well as my sister have chronic health problems. They shouldn’t have to make sure they land an upper tier job to have health insurance. Everyone should have health insurance and it should be affordable. People shouldn’t have to choose between purchasing the medication that keeps them alive or buying food. There is abso-fucking-lutely no goddamn reason for it. Full stop.

Now let’s talk about the other types of privilege that can make traveling easier for some. In just shy of ten days I’m going to visit Singapore. In this particular country it is still illegal for persons of the same sex to kiss in public. It is a crime for which you can be fined or imprisoned. There are countries across the globe that will execute LGBT people. Trans-people can have an absolute hell of a time getting official documents that reflect their gender. As I said, homosexuality is still punishable by death in places.

And that needs to change. Right now. We can support groups who are actively fighting to change legislation in their countries. We can support the people who put their lives on the line by marching in Pride parades. We can acknowledge that these injustices exist instead of shrugging them off because they happen in distant places.

It’s still dangerous for women to travel alone in some countries because of oppressive patriarchal ideas of the role women play in life. We can fight that too. There are women around the world working to change society. Stand with them. Support them either with words of encouragement or financially. Get their message out there. Tell others, share it of social media. Let others know that there are women fighting to make their homes safe for themselves and their daughters.

So I have to say Ms. Ferguson—and all the others—I read your articles and I see what you’re saying. Traveling is a privilege that not everyone has access to. What I don’t understand is why you presented this as the way things will always be. We can change this. We can close the gap of privilege by making education and healthcare affordable, by paying people enough to live, not just enough scrape by and survive. We can make this world safer to travel for everyone, not just white men. Traveling will only be a privilege as long as we allow it to be.

Adventures Abroad: Christmas

Adventures Abroad: Christmas

(Picture by Liam Shalloo)

‘Tis already December 26 for me and it’s the same sort of Monday I’ve had for the last ten months or so. There is some Christmas in China, but it’s more akin to say Catholics trying their hand at Chanukah. They know there are some candles involved and it lasts for a few days and something about a top, but they have no idea why they’re doing these things or what they mean. Same thing for China and Christmas. There is a giant inflatable Santa outside one of the stores and a few Christmas trees scattered about and—for whatever reason—many, many, people walking down the street dressed like Santa Claus. But there’s no spark to it.

When you walk down the street in the States during December there’s a low key buzz in the air. People are excited, they’re stressed, they’re happy, they’re a roller coaster of emotions all focused on this one day. My family doesn’t do the religious aspect of Christmas; it’s a time for family for us. We have a big get together with my aunts, uncles, and cousins over at my grandparents’ house the Sunday before Christmas and have dinner and exchange a few gifts and catch up on everything that’s happened. Christmas Eve my mom makes a ham and we do a big dinner and watch A Christmas Story until we can recite the movie verbatim. Then Christmas day Grandma and Grandpa come over and we do a special breakfast and exchange gifts.

There’s none of that in China. Christmas Eve and Christmas day are shopping days like Black Friday. The only part of Christmas that has trickled into Chinese culture is the commercialized and materialistic part of it. We had to do a Christmas party for the kids which was a waking nightmare for me, I’m pretty sure I still have a headache, but the school wanted either myself or Roommate to dress up as Santa Claus.

Uh. No.

They spent half an hour trying to negotiate with us on dressing up instead of shrugging and moving on or, you know, telling the guy who stays and the school and doesn’t do anything else to dress up, because for them Christmas is all about Santa Claus. In their imaginings of Christmas, not having a Santa Claus is like not having a Christmas tree. Sure for little kids Santa is a pretty big part of Christmas, but with all the holiday movies we have the idea that this is also a time for family gets through a bit.

So it was yesterday while I was at school, as usual, while 7000 miles away my mom and sister went through our Christmas Eve routine that I had my first true moment of homesickness. My sister commented on my FB page that she had said or done something weird that reminded our mom of me and that now Mom was missing me more. I was sitting in the office five minutes from starting my next class where I spend just as much time trying to keep the kids from fighting and screaming as I do teaching them basic English words, I had just finished giving one of my older kids a dressing down for spreading pro-Nazi propaganda during class, and the lobby was full of kids screeching and running back and forth. And I really, really did not want to be there anymore. My sleep pattern has been nonexistent and I’m starting another round with this head cold that I seem to remember having in February that is just a perpetual cycle of congestion, sinus headaches, and a sore throat most likely caused by all the coal dust in the air. I miss the cats and dogs, my dad has a new puppy I haven’t snuggled, and—seriously—thirteen months without any sort of animal nearby is a goddamn crime. I was done with all of this and ready to be home.

If that is true homesickness then I’d like to have a word with some of the authors who have written their characters being homesick because they dropped the goddamn ball. I can understand why people would up and leave short notice, because if I felt like I did during those few minutes in the office all the time I would have left in July. Actually, I would say Laini Taylor in her Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy captures the feeling pretty well. Those books gave me so many feels, you guys. So. Many. Next trip I make out of China I’ll be adding them to my kindle so I can put all my feelings through a shredder again.

Great books, cannot recommend enough.

But, I didn’t get on a plane and head home. I went to my class, stopped the kids from fighting, might’ve taught them a word or two and carried on with my day. I have twenty-five days until we break for Spring Festival and after I get back from that planned excursion I have only eight straight days of teaching to get through and then I will be on my way to snuggling kitties and puppies.

And getting some goddamn peanut butter.

Adventures Abroad: Roommate

Adventures Abroad: Roommate

(picture: Mechs of Law by Popetti on Deviant Art)

 

Ahh yes, took about ten months but I have acquired a roommate and thus the school has acquired a secondary foreign teacher. So I only have fifteen classes this semester instead of twenty-two. Roommate has been here for…two weeks now. First week was a bit rough since I was dealing with both a chest/head cold and my own agonizing brand of cramps. I can honestly say I don’t recall much from that first week.

But, I lucked the fuck out in the random roommate lottery. Roommate is a Brit with a masters in writing, which is cool. He’s also a science fiction and fantasy writer who dislikes the “classics” as much as I do. I don’t care what you say; Great Expectations is a fucking bore.

And neither of us likes The Beatles. Deal with it.

He also has a minor in politics and we’ve had several long talks about current US politics as well as UK politics. Last week we spent about five hours discussing superheroes and feminism. And I’ve also convinced him to watch Transformers Prime which is a huge boon for me. It’s become our nightly thing where we do our own thing during the day but about sunset make or get dinner and watch an episode or two.

Seriously you guys, I cashed in every scrap of good karma I had for this roommate.

I’m still a bit feral, I mean, ten months with no one’s company but my own, we’re lucky I didn’t try to bite him when they introduced us. But I’m slowly remembering how to function with another person in my space. Good news is both of us are fairly introverted so we don’t see much of each other during the day when we’re off. Sounds weird and kinda rude, but it works. Then we emerge and say hello and grab dinner and see if we can get the internet to work well enough to stream movies or shows.

I’m doing what I can to give Roommate a fighting chance for the next year he’s here. He’s already agitated and annoyed with the total lack of organization with the school. Not much I can do about that except tell him it’s not going to improve. He’s taught before, but that was at university level. He was quite irritated with some of the kids this last weekend which was his first real class. I’ve shared some of the discipline tricks I figured out the last two semesters so hopefully he can use those this week. We shall see.

There’s also all the little things I don’t think about anymore. Such as, in Asia, if you want to be polite you use two hands when accepting or giving people things. I learned that way back in January in Cambodia and I’ve been doing it ever since. I don’t think about it now and wouldn’t have thought to tell him that until I saw him hand money to someone.

That’s the hardest part of trying to pass on survival tips. Some of these things are so ingrained I don’t think about them anymore. Things like the using two hands or even how to cross the road. Again, I learned how to do that in Cambodia where there were no rules just suggestions on traffic flow. Roommate has come direct from the UK. He tries to stay on sidewalks and uses zebra crossings and I hardly give traffic a glance before stepping off the curb. It’s a hard habit to break, but you cannot stop once you start across the street or you’re going to get hit or cause an accident. The drivers see you and are already making course corrections to go around you. If you stop you throw off the whole system.

Roommate doesn’t have any Chinese which has thrown me for a loop because while I arrived equipped with only numbers and a few polite phrases I still came with something. So I’m trying to teach him helpful phrases and numbers while he also has Chinese lessons with one of the Chinese teachers.

I have no idea if another teacher is arriving after I leave or if Roommate will be on his own for a semester like I was so I’m just throwing all the knowledge I can at him. The one thing I’m trying the hardest to impart though is the knowledge that the school is going to tell you about important things days or sometimes hours before they need to be done. The ability to roll your eyes and deal with it and then bitch about it with friends and family later is the only way to stay sane. And that, I’m certain, is going to be the hardest thing to teach.

Adventures Abroad: Thanksgiving

Adventures Abroad: Thanksgiving

It is officially post-NaNoWriMo for me. Although if you’re still writing, Keep Going! You’ve got five or six days left, depending on where you are in the world.

Today is also Thanksgiving for me, which kind of snuck up on me since it’s a purely US holiday and no one here knows what it is. Currently, I’m no more home wistful than I was a week ago, which will probably change tomorrow when I see everyone posting about their meals—I really like my mom’s mac n’ cheese recipe—and the parade and football. But since I’m not inundated with delicious pictures of food and snarky parade comments I’m feeling pretty good. My mind keeps flashing back to a Black Veil Brides interview where the band is asked if they miss their families while touring during the holidays. Ashley Purdy kind of shrugs and says they miss them a little, but they’d all grown up doing holidays with families and while they might miss home sometimes, what they were doing was fresh, new, and exciting.

And I can’t agree more. No matter how much this school irritates me with their total lack of organization and qualified managing personnel, this is still an adventure! I was reminded of that last night when I went to the big supermarket before—the Gods’ cursed—English Corner. I am making a new dish to celebrate Thanksgiving and needed to find some ingredients not at the small market down the street.

Turns out, in the three or four weeks since I’d last been to the supermarket they have done a massive remodel. The top floor is now nothing but winter clothes with the walls stacked with heavy jackets and giant bins of leggings and slippers and I don’t even know what else in the middle of the floor. All the household supplies that were upstairs are now downstairs and the downstairs has been radically reorganized. It took me ten minutes to find the milk and since I was on a time crunch I went over to the produce section and picked up what I needed there and abandoned the rest of my list. But now it’s like the first week I was here. I have no idea where anything is and they’ve both reduced the number of available goods and added new things I hadn’t seen before.

According to one of the Chinese teachers, Xi’an got their first snow yesterday and it was a pretty good dusting. At some point this mountain city is also going to get snow and I can decide if I want to tackle Satan’s Stairmaster and climb Feng Huang Shan to get some pretty panoramic pictures.

Even now, ten months into this contract, I still catch myself walking down the street and thinking Holy Shit, I’m in China. Again, the sheer inefficiency of this school makes me want to punch things, but I’m still in freaking China surrounded by mountains.

And last month I was invited to a wedding. That was a lot of fun. Everyone wanted a compare/contrast with US weddings, but the last one I went to was my dad’s rather non-traditional marriage. But I could still pick out the things we have in common such as bringing gifts of money and the reception. That’s probably a once in a lifetime opportunity right there. But it was a lot of fun and I got to try even more traditional Chinese food.

The food is still an adventure. I could 100% do a Travel Channel show where I visit different countries and scope out the best hostels and cheap street food. I love street food, even if it occasionally tries to kill me. Restaurants just can’t compare. I’ve been informed that now that it’s cold, sheep’s feet is available and so I have to try that. Thus far I’ve had chicken feet, pig feet, and donkey. I’ve also had roasted chestnuts for the first time in my life. Holy hells you guys. These things are delicious. That 10 RMB bag has become a weekly expense. I’m like a squirrel here cracking those things open and watching the Daily Show. I hope it’s a winter thing because I might just weep if they disappear before Christmas. I haven’t yet mustered the courage for stinky tofu, but I told the Chinese teachers I had to try it before I left or I couldn’t count this as a true China experience.

So the adventure in China continues and I am thankful today for the many small things that got me to this point. From the speaker in my Anthro 101 course to the chance conversation at the pumpkin patch all the way to stumbling into Language Corps. The road to get here wasn’t easy and sometimes the adventure itself is a trial, but it’s still an awesome experience and next year at the family gatherings I’ll finally have something to talk about.

vaderthanks

A Tale of Two Cities

Hey-oh! I got back from Kyoto, Japan…Wednesday. Well I got back to China Wednesday night, I didn’t get back to Yan’an until Thursday afternoon. A story for another time. Suffice to say I was very irritable by the time I got back to my apartment.

This is something I thought about writing while I was in Japan, but I put it off uncertain if it was finally being in my dream country that had my opinion skewed. And I almost wrote it yesterday, but again, I was less than pleased with the previous twenty-four hours and running on four hours of sleep. But now I’m back at my apartment and rested and the feeling is still there.

 

I don’t like China.

Or perhaps I should say I don’t like modern China. Historically, China is on par with Egypt with how many ancient and incredible things are scattered across this landscape. The Great Wall is always the first thing that comes to mind, but throw a dart at any city or town in this country and I guarantee you’ll find at least one building in that town that was built five hundred years ago. And maybe I threw the dart at the wrong town but where I am now, I don’t like China.

I realized it the first night I was in Kyoto. I realized how stressed and anxiety riddled I’ve been for the last couple of months because suddenly it was all gone. It’s hard to explain, but I’ll do my damndest.

I am a classic introvert. I prefer doing my own thing with minimal interaction with others. It’s probably why solo travel has never seemed so daunting for me. I am a background character. I do not like the spotlight. I don’t like undue attention. I’d rather just go about my day with no one the wiser. Sure, for some that’s their own version of hell, but for me it works.

I am not a background character here. Here, I am center stage. I am the headlining actress at the biggest show you can think of. Everyone watches me. I cannot walk down the street without people watching me go by. Some people will pause mid-step or mid-conversation and stare at me. And I knew coming in that I was going to be under an uncomfortable amount of scrutiny being a foreigner here, but I had assumed after a couple months people would become accustomed to my presence and I’d fade back into the background.

This is not the case.

Sitting on the bus yesterday on my way back to my apartment I sat in the back and had three people turn in their seats to stare at me. The school kids that got onboard clustered—what they consider—a “safe” distance from the foreigner and stared and pointed.

If you want a day in my life here, grab a Sharpie and write “Fuck You” across your forehead and go about your daily business. Watch people stare or cross the street or come up right in your face to look you over.

I’ve had people follow me in stores and on the streets. It was amusing back in March when the people at the supermarket wanted to take a selfie with me. But it’s October. I had a lady almost faceplant while she ran to catch up to me so she could snap a quick picture. I don’t take the elevator at my school unless I’m late because it never fails that all the people who squeeze on with me will stare or take pictures.

I feel like an escaped zoo animal.

I’ve also had people grab me. I had an old man try to pull my bandana off my head while I was eating lunch at Phoenix Square. I’ve had people touch my hair, touch my skin, tug on my clothes. Mothers sometimes send their children over to hug me. Fuck no. Get away from me. I stopped eating lunch in Phoenix Square during my lunch break because no matter where I go there is always someone who follows, someone who wants their kid to come up and say Hi and repeat whatever sentence they’ve learned in school.

I learned the word for “I don’t know what you’re saying” in Chinese and tried that for a while but that doesn’t stop them from trying to talk to me. Trying to take pictures, trying to touch me. So now I answer in German and leave before they figure out what I said wasn’t quite English.

I don’t go outside anymore. I realized that the first day I was in Kyoto. I was up and out of the hostel by 8am and wandering up and down the streets and snapping pictures of things. I used to do that here. But I don’t anymore. I don’t know when I stopped doing it. I’ve been trying to remember but it wasn’t a conscious decision. At some point the stress of going outside and dealing with the stares and the touching and the unrelenting attention outweighed my curiosity about this place. I don’t leave unless I have to for that bullshit English Corner or meetings or class. And even then I dread going out the door.

It wasn’t like that in Kyoto. I walked over a hundred miles in the nine days I was there and never once did I feel like every person on the street was staring at me. I felt like a person again. I faded straight back into the background and took so many pictures and saw beautiful shrines and temples and enjoyed them at my own pace without someone shadowing me or schoolkids staring or people trying to touch me. In fact, the only time anyone touched me was on a crowded bus, and even then they said Excuse Me as they squeezed by.

Even in the small town I went to in search of ninjas I didn’t have that pervasive feeling of people staring.

And I walked around Kyoto at night. I never leave this apartment after sunset. Last time I did that I had a group of guys follow me halfway back. But in Kyoto I walked down quiet side streets to get to my hostel and had men and women pass me without a second glance both walking and on bikes. This is really hard to explain, but ladies I know you know that feeling of hypervigilance you get when you’re on a quiet street alone. I didn’t feel that. I wasn’t walking around with my headphones on or waving my passport and cash around, but I didn’t feel like I had to have on battle armor as I was walking. I make light of my Resting Bitch Face, but it’s a gift when you’re alone late at night. But I didn’t have to crank it up to 11. I just had my regular ‘Thinking about dinner, but my face says Fuck You’ look.

It’s not like that here in China. I never leave my apartment without my headphones and sunglasses. It can be raining cats and dogs or half an hour until sunset, doesn’t matter. My Ipod battery could be dead, but I will still have those headphones in. Every time I walk outside I go full throttle with the ‘Fuck outta my face’ look. And still people touch me, encourage their kids to come up and touch me or talk to me or follow me.

I tried to break my contract back in August during the summer break. Did I tell you all that? I can’t remember. I spent about three weeks in Ho Chi Minh with friends and wanted to move there. There was still staring, but I was insulated enough being with other foreigners that it wasn’t enough to make my hackles rise. But the notice I sent to the people at the school went unread until literally two days before classes were supposed to start and the gods-cursed sense of responsibility I have wouldn’t let me back out and leave them without a teacher.

By the second full day I was in Kyoto, I considered flying back to China, packing my bag and coming back to Japan and finding a job. Literally the only reason I didn’t is because I need the manager at the school to transfer money between my China bank account and my US account. Foreigners can hardly wipe their own asses in this country without needing to present a passport to do it. I can’t stand the constriction. The only time I had to show anyone my passport in Japan was in Immigration and checking into my hostels. That’s it. Here, I had to use my passport to buy a train ticket and then I had to show it again when they came through doing random ID checks. I’m half-surprised I don’t need to show it when I get on the goddamn bus.

This school is a flaming train wreck nothing short of a complete restructuring and mass retraining is going to fix. The only one of the Chinese teachers that actually enjoys teaching is only there once a week now since she got a better paying job at a public school. The other two are only here because they have bills to pay. They don’t like kids and they don’t like teaching. The other Foreign teacher they brought in for this semester is in the same boat. He’s taking classes at a university in Xi’an and this is just extra money in his pocket.

I signed a contract for a year, and when I couldn’t break that contract back in August I dug my claws in to bully myself through this last semester because a year of teaching experience is a year of experience. But since I got back from Kyoto those days on the calendar look longer and longer.

Strangers on the Stairs

I saw some fucked up shit today on the way home from work.

In the city, there are places where you can pass from one side of the street to the other via underground pedestrian tunnels. I use these things almost daily. Sometimes they’re crowded because they all connect to the underground wholesale store that’s underneath Phoenix Plaza. So I was taking my usual underpass and turned the corner to head up the stairs and almost smacked into a group of people milling around. This isn’t unusual. Chinese people will literally stop in the middle of the sidewalk or hallway to take a call or talk to a friend.

What caught my attention was the man on the stairs. I saw his feet first. He wasn’t wearing shoes. He was curled up so small I actually thought he was a boy and thought he was throwing a tantrum for whatever reason, again, happens all the time. But there wasn’t a parent standing over him yelling and I realized this was a full grown man. No shoes though, so perhaps one of the homeless. But that wasn’t right either because he was wearing a bright gold watch. A very nice watch. He’s rocking back and forth not making any sound. And there’s blood on the stairs.

A lot of blood.

About ten years ago my sister called me and told me her jeep had flipped into a ditch. I called 911, called my mom, got in my car and drove over to where she was before texting my dad. She and her friend had been trying to drift in the Jeep Cherokee. The smartest thing either of them did that day was put on their seatbelts or they would have been killed. The car was totaled. The top smashed almost flat, windshield busted out. It scared the everloving shit out of me, but I handled it.

I woke up one morning just a few years ago thinking my sister was getting things out of her closet to go workout. Until I got this weird Not Right feeling. I walked into her room and found her having a diabetic seizure. I called 911and stayed with her until I had to pin the dogs up for the firemen to come in and did it with so little fanfare my dad and stepmom didn’t know anything was amiss until the firemen came in and the dogs started barking. Sure, afterwards I had nightmares and insomnia for weeks and was terrified to leave her alone at night in case she went low again. And sometimes when she’s too quiet in her room I’ll knock on the wall or something to rile her dog up just so I hear her tell him to shut up. But I fucking handled it.

I cannot handle this. I cannot handle this man bleeding on the stairs. And it’s because I couldn’t help him. I know the number for Yan’an emergency services, but my Chinese is limited to conversational and grocery store vocabulary. I don’t even know what the underpass is called or what street the underpass is under. So I can call and say something close to “Man want help,” or some equivalent, but I have no actual idea of where I am. I navigate this city based on where things are relative to either the school or my apartment.

I couldn’t even give him reassurance that help was coming because who knew if any of the people there had actually bothered to call an ambulance. There was a man on his phone, but he was speaking the local dialect which has nothing in common with the standard Chinese I’ve been learning. For all I know he was on the phone with his wife telling her he just saw a man fall down the stairs. The best I could have offered was a solid, “Hello, how are you?” or “Do you need help?” both of which are fucking stupid things to say to a person bleeding from their ears.

Normally one of my Chinese teachers walks with me on Wednesday, but in a supreme twist, her fiancé got off work early and surprised her with a date. At first, I was angry she wasn’t there. At least then I could have found out if any of the vultures called an ambulance instead of gaping like fish out of water.

But I had a long walk back to the apartment to really think about it and I’m glad she wasn’t. She would not have handled this. I’m certain she has some kind of undiagnosed anxiety disorder and if that scene on the stairs didn’t make her scream she would have been in tears. So the Fates were kind to her tonight in sending her far in the opposite direction of that underpass.

But that left me to choose between standing there with the others or walking back to my apartment.

I came back to my apartment. And I am still bothered on a visceral level by my inability to help. In the States, something like this I would’ve handled. Did anyone call 911? Can someone find some towels? Did you see what happened? Do you know him? How far away is the ambulance? They’re all stupid, stupid short sentences but I can’t say them. I can fumble through and make the verbs and nouns stick together like a refrigerator poem but gods only know if they’ll understand me or of I’ll understand the answer.

They don’t clean the stairs in the underpass. So there’s a good chance that blood will still be there tomorrow.

Home Wistful

Home Wistful

Today is Mid-Autumn Festival here in China. As with most festivals and holidays around the world, this day is meant to be spent with family and close friends. The traditional food eaten today is the mooncake, and it is delightful. The mooncake is not just a delicious breakfast/lunch/dinner/snack option; it also has its share of symbolism. As my CT explained to me, it’s round to mirror the full moon’s face that goes back to the story of Mid-Autumn Festival, and as none of my CTs seem to be natural storytellers, I’ve had to piece to story together from vague mentions.

oOo

Once upon a time, there were ten suns. The suns took turns being in the sky, until one day they all rose together. It was a disaster. Crops and people caught fire, the rivers dried up, and animals died. An archer named Hou Yi shot down nine of the suns, leaving only one for light and warmth.

The gods were so impressed with him that they offered him a drink of immortal water. But Hou Yi had a wife, Chang’e, he loved very much and didn’t want to become an immortal without her. So he gave the water to her to hide away so they could stay together.

Hou Yi also had an apprentice who knew about the hidden immortal water. He was a greedy man and wanted to be immortal. So, on the fifteenth day of the eighth month (Lunar calendar) he waited until Hou Yi was out hunting and forced his way into the home where Chang’e was working. He demanded Chang’e give him the immortal water.

Chang’e refused and instead drank it herself and then flew away. She couldn’t stay on earth anymore since she was now an immortal, but she wanted to stay close to her husband. She flew to the moon and built a palace there.

When Hou Yi returned from his hunt and found out what happened, he was heartbroken his wife had fled to the sky. So he took her favorite fruits and cakes and left them out where she could see. He also sacrificed animals for her. The others in the village soon learned what had happened to Hou Yi and Chang’e and, being sympathetic to the pair, also began leaving out fruits and cakes and sacrificing animals.

oOo

It’s a pretty cool story. China is rife with neat legends and stories like that. The problem is finding someone who will sit still long enough to tell you the story. Aside from that, Mid-Autumn Festival is a harvest festival and those around the world are a time for families.

So of course my CTs have been asking incessantly if I’m homesick.

Well, if I am, what are you going to do about it?

I’m not, for the record. I prefer the term Home Wistful. I keep explaining to them that I talk to my parents usually once a week. Skype isn’t blocked, so we talk on Monday or Tuesday and I tell them about my classes and they tell me about work and whatever’s going on in the neighborhood.

I don’t require proximity to people. The only time I missed home was the three weeks I was in Vietnam and that was because we were all busy and didn’t get a chance to talk. Let’s be real, I miss the cats and dogs the most. I definitely need to find a traveling companion before my next big trip. A year without little paws padding behind me is unacceptable.

I do miss a few things about home, chiefly peanut butter. But we’re getting into my favorite season: Autumn. I love fall and Halloween and both of those things are not a big deal here. Sure, the kids know about Halloween, but no one goes full on haunted house, there are no skull and bat decorations, no costumes. No freaking pumpkins. No apple cider, which I’m pretty sure is a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

In Indiana, autumn has a scent. There’s a shift in the way the air smells as the leaves start coming down. There’s a bite. When you wake up and open the windows you can smell the dew on the leaf litter. It’s one of my favorite smells. There’s none of that here. There are trees. But, there’s not really any green space. No matter how early you wake up or how late you go to bed there’s always a tang of diesel in the air. I haven’t smelled grass in months. When I water my plants I pretty much stick my face in the pot just to smell that damp earth scent I didn’t realize I smelled every morning I woke up in Indiana.

I love going through pumpkin patches. I can spend hours wandering up and down the hills searching for the perfect pumpkin. But my favorite thing to do is curl up on the couch with a mug of hot cider and a Tim Burton movie while the clouds are grey and heavy with rain and the wind is too chilly even for a sweater. There’s always a cat close by, either on my feet keeping my toes warm or on my lap trying to get into my cider.

Or when I’m at my dad’s house and there’s a fire in the fireplace and the dogs and I sprawl out in front of it and watch football or a movie with pizza on the way.

Those are the things I miss. I miss the smell of autumn and I miss having a purring cat on my lap or a big farting dog next to me. People I can talk to, I talked to a friend for almost eight hours this week. I knew way back in January that fall was going to be the time I missed home the most, but being halfway through September and not seeing even a pumpkin window cling I think I might miss it more than I thought I would. So I wouldn’t say I’m sick with missing things, but wistful for my own little autumn traditions.

And peanut butter, dammit.

Adventures Abroad: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Well, well, well. Long time no see. I think. I don’t know. Time lost all meaning for me about July 16th.

I’m in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam right now at a delightful hostel called the Skygon. I’ve been here just shy of a week and I am having an absolute blast.

Wait, what? Where did Vietnam come from?

Really, it surprised the hell out of me, too.

So August 1st, I finally was done with classes and sacked out on the couch with snacks and a week’s worth of Daily Shows to catch up on and a second viewing of Zootopia in my immediate future. I had zero plans for that day and the next day and the day after that and after that and so on and so forth. The only blip in this sea of nothingness was an expected visit from a friend who’s been living in Cambodia. And that was almost two weeks away. After that though, I was scheduled to go on a trip with the school to Qingdao. Initially, I’d been told my friend could come with me, so I was really excited about the trip. Then they reneged on that and said they couldn’t bring and unknown foreigner on a school trip. All right, I’ll grudgingly give you that. But I was significantly less excited about spending an regimented ‘vacation’ with my school knowing I would be on a shorter leash than I’ve had so far. And that shit has been short. And it would also cut my friend’s visiting time almost in half.

August 2nd rolled around and I had watched The Daily Show and Zootopia and I was looking around for something else to do when my friend posted a picture of himself at a little outdoor café in Ho Chi Minh City. And I don’t know what happened but, much like my decision to come to China, I thought, ‘Hey, flights to Vietnam are pretty cheap, why don’t I just meet up with him there and we can come back to China together.’

So I messaged him and everyone else down here making sure it was okay that I just fucking drop in like a paratrooper in the middle of their lives and it was. So by Wednesday, August 3rd, I had my plane ticket for a departure time on Friday. My school pretty well wigged out when I told them I was leaving for Vietnam in two days but not much they could do about it.

Friday morning, I woke up at 0300 for no goddamn reason and just decided to stay awake. I had a train leaving at 0700 to get to Xi’an which is about a three and half to four hour train ride and then from there I would have to catch the airport shuttle which would take about an hour and then my initial flight from Xi’an to Hong Kong left at 1550. And then from Hong Kong my flight to Ho Chi Minh City didn’t leave until 2200. Pretty straight forward.

Train left the station no problem. But we stopped on the tracks twice. For about twenty minutes each. We didn’t pull into Xi’an until 1215. The airport shuttle bus leaves every half hour. And of course it’s only like a ten minute walk from the station if you know where it is. Thank the gods for Tuk Tuk drivers, man. One of them gave me directions and then rode down the street next to me for two blocks until he pointed out the tiny, out of the way, im-fucking-possible-to-find-on-your-own station. I bought my ticket and slid into one of the last seats at 1232.

The bus didn’t leave until almost 1300.

Traffic was light, well, light for Xi’an, so the bus actually managed to make good time. That and the man drove like he was possessed, which, not complaining. We made it to the airport just shy of 1400 and I realized as I was walking in, I had no idea which airline I was flying on.

See, to get my ticket, I wanted to use my China bank account because my US funds are, LOL. But the only sites I could use for my China account were, of course, in Chinese. So my manager is the one who actually bought my ticket and then she sent me a screenshot of all relevant information, which was in Chinese.

So I asked the two guys at the door who are in charge of checking for bombs in luggage if they could get me to the right check-in counter and they pointed me with confidence to H. I walk up to the lady at H to verify that this is the check-in counter I need. Nope. She points me to G. So I scurry around to G and ask a lady there. She shakes her head and points me back to H. So I go around again to H and find a different airline counter and ask the lady there. Nope. She points me back to G. So I go to the other end of the Gs and finally fucking find my counter.

I get through my check in no problem. But while they give me my boarding pass, they don’t let me leave the counter because they want to verify that I can actually get into Vietnam. See, the way Vietnam visas work is that you have to fill out all the paperwork beforehand and get a letter of entry and then you pick up your visa on arrival. So I used an express service for my visa since I was leaving really short notice and they lumped me in with the nine other people they had on the same flight. The airline people thought this was quite suspicious that I had all these other traveling people on my official paperwork but I was a solo traveler. So I had to wait another half hour while they verified both with Vietnamese Immigration and the company I went with that I could indeed legally enter the country upon arrival.

1445, I finally get through security—where I had to go through “extra security measures”—and settle at a small overpriced café to finally eat something. After that, I boarded the plane.

And then we sat.

There was a storm en route and traffic control had us delayed to avoid it. I had a three and a half hour window between flights in Hong Kong, which I figured would be enough time to get through all the other security that goes with connecting flights. Only bonus for the delay was that I finally got to watch Captain America: Civil War. What a damn good movie.

So we land in Hong Kong and my primary goal is to find my gate and sit in front of it until I get on that goddamn plane because Holy Fuck this fucking day, man. And the lady at the directing others who had only minutes to reach their connecting flights tells me my gate hasn’t been assigned yet.

So, yet again, I sit down for some overpriced airport food. Although, the Starbucks black current slushie was really good. And Hong Kong has some cool ass money. I was going to ask the lady for smaller bills but there was a line behind me and I refuse to be that tourist. Hong Kong airport is pretty cool too. It has charging stations for your phone at pretty much all the gates so I just plugged in to one of those and caught up on my cracked articles.

With no other issues we finally board the plane annnnnnd the entertainment system is down and won’t be working for the duration of the flight.

 

But that’s why we have Ipods.

Finally, finally I arrived in HCMC at damn near 0100 and then I proceeded to sit for an hour while they prepared my visa. So glad I’m backpacking, because if I’d had checked luggage, I’d have left that shit.

I got to Skygon just shy of 0300 and met Jay, my traveling buddy, outside. Skygon is on the 12th floor of a 22 floor building and has incredible views of the city and river. It’s the cleanest hostel I’ve ever been in and the ladies are so nice. Really, if you ever find yourself in Ho Chi Minh City, stay at the Skygon.

 

 

Sometimes, the ‘Right Thing’ Hurts

Sometimes, the ‘Right Thing’ Hurts

I’ve been in Vietnam eight days now. On the bottom floor of the building where the hostel is located there’s a tiny supermarket. Like the size of a gas station. They have, what Jay and I declared “The World’s Most Chill Cat” who lives in the supermarket. He’s awesome, he sleeps curled up by the ice cream cooler and doesn’t even crack an eye open when people pet him. One of the guys who runs the place picked him up one day like a sack of potatoes and put him over his shoulder and the cat didn’t twitch a whisker.

He’s freaking awesome.

But I went downstairs this morning to pick up some traveling toiletries and something was wrong. As soon as I stepped off the elevator I could hear this awful sound it was a low gravelly meow, like the sound was being piped through some kind of distortion. And there just past the door to the store was The World’s Most Chill Cat yowling and screaming that awful sound while tucked away in a small grocery basket. There was a small dog nearby so I figured, maybe World’s Most Chill Cat isn’t chill around dogs. And then the dog left. And he was still making that terrible noise. It was a noise of pain and fear. There are sounds you can hear from a block away and you know whatever is making it is in pain and scared and that’s what World’s Most Chill Cat was doing. He was scared and in pain and no one in the store really seemed to mind.

Walking up to the checkout I noticed the fur on his legs and belly was dirty and matted like he’d waded through a puddle. I tried to ask the guy what was wrong, what happened, but his English is limited to numbers and I only know three words in Vietnamese.

I can’t leave an animal in pain. So I crouched down to pet him and try to figure out if this was something I could fix. I thought at first he’d been hit by a moto and maybe had spinal damage. He couldn’t get up. It was like his front and back legs weren’t getting the same signals. He couldn’t coordinate his front legs enough to push himself up and his back legs only seemed to be able to kick. But while I tried to calm him I saw the lacerations on his front legs, the bite marks on his neck. He’d been attacked by something. Something bigger than him, and, by the looks of it, something that managed to bite his head hard enough to cause neurological damage.

I had a cat. His name was Oliver. He was my baby boy. He was terrified of everything, but when I was nearby he walked with a swagger and tried to bully the other cats. He was a dork and not the brightest crayon in the box, but he was my little boy.

I had to put Oliver down a year ago this month. He got sick. I don’t know what happened and I don’t know if I didn’t catch it fast enough to save him or if there was nothing I could have done to help him. All I know is that I noticed my fat cat was losing weight, fast. And when I took him to the vet they told me it was probably diabetes. But the shots didn’t help and the food didn’t help. And a week after that when I came home from work he was so weak he didn’t even protest when I picked him up and jumped in the car with him.

They could have done more tests. They could have given him steroids. But I didn’t have the money. I couldn’t afford to find out what was wrong with my baby boy. And he was weak and he was in pain so I did the best thing I could for him.

And I know he was probably a little scared when they gave him the shot, but he was so frail he couldn’t fight. But he tucked his head under my chin like he always did and I held him until his heart stopped.

I miss my little boy. And maybe it wasn’t for the absolute best, but it was the best I could do for him at the time. And that’s what owning a pet is. It’s doing the best for them, the best you can do, even if it kills a piece of you to do it. If that means giving them to a better home or giving them lasting peace, then that’s what you do.

But these people with The World’s Most Chill Cat, they are not taking care of him. They are not doing what’s best for him. There is no saving The World’s Most Chill Cat. The damage is too severe and human healthcare out here is iffy at best. There is no medicine or surgery out here that can save him. And if I can find the Vietnamese to ask them where to find a veterinarian, I will do right by this cat. I will do the best that I can for him, just like I did for my baby boy.