Last Speech To Students

This is what I said to my students today before the bell rang, signaling the end, after two years together, of our last period of English class: 

I know this is our last class together, so I wanted to say a few words about what this experience has meant for me.

I'd never been to a place like Dazhai before. My childhood in Hong Kong and Chicago was a lot more comfortable than yours, and maybe you haven't thought about this much, but there are all kinds of places in the outside world where you could be successful. I don't want any of you to be stuck here forever. I want you to have choices. That's why I became your teacher.

I know that it's hard at your age to think about the future. You don't believe that you'll ever grow up. Trust me, you will. I used to be your age as well, and here I am. I was lucky, I had many advantages that you don't have. You have to work harder, study more, and plan diligently for the future, because nothing is free in life. Success is not an accident.

There are fewer and fewer young people in China now, so there will be many opportunities for you, especially if you're creative, educated, and comfortable with technology. The world is getting smaller. You will see big changes with your own eyes. Don't be afraid to take part in them. The world has only ever changed because people ike you decided to change it. Don't be shy to say what you think and stand up for what you believe.

I know that I have been only a small part of your lives for 2 years, but I hope you never forget that, no matter where someone comes from, we all want the same things. It doesn't matter if you're American or Chinese, we all want peace, health, and happiness.

I have so many dreams for all of you, and it is very difficult to say goodbye. Just remember that goodbye just means another hello again sometime later: "You say yes, I say no. You say stop, I say go. You say goodbye, I say hello!"

If you ever need anything, don't hesitate to ask me for help. I may be going home to the U.S. now, but I will surely come back to China. I want to see you; I want to hear from you. Thank you for all of the wonderful memories. I'm so proud to be your teacher, but I'm even more proud to call you my students. 

Two Brave Girls: Visiting Cindy and Isabel

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Tonight, Dazhai is lit only by the lunar eclipse and the countless stars (and the dull glow of my battery-powered Macbook), as we are once again without power. Usually I would be preoccupied with how much of an inconvenience this is for me, but I learned today that I have very little to complain about.

A few hours ago, Richard and I returned from a very meaningful home visit. It's one thing for students to tell you how far away they live, and another to quite literally walk in their shoes. For Cindy (张兴茴) and Isabel (兴芳), two of our class' brightest students, walking home means a three-hour trek up into the mountains. Today we experienced their weekly reality first hand, snaking our way up an uneven dirt road and taking shortcuts through steep, rocky paths. It was exhausting, but the beautiful terraced hills, plunging valleys, and gushing rivers more than made up for it.

We were lucky to have several students as guides and company. Riley, another of my top students, seemed to enjoy racing to the front of the group almost as much as me, so we found ourselves chatting together much of the way up. After a year and a half as her first English teacher, I'm amazed at how far her English has come along. She can understand much of what I say, as long as I speak slowly enough and confine the words I use to vocabulary we've studied. Though my shoulder still hurt from briefly dislocating it earlier in the week, her youthful energy almost made me forget all about it. I taught her the phrase, "time flies when you're having fun", and before we knew it, we'd arrived at Cindy and Isabel's modest home.

Cindy and Isabel are cousins, I learned today, though their similar Chinese names should have been a dead giveaway. They are only thirteen, but because their parents work somewhere else, they've been left home alone to fend entirely for themselves and Isabel's younger brother. They live in a broken-down shack at the peak of the mountain we had just climbed. They do everything without the help of adults: cleaning, cooking, washing clothes, feeding their younger relatives, which wouldn't be so hard if they didn't have to grow most of the food they eat, gather wood to burn as fuel to cook with, and hand wash everything, including themselves, using one ice-cold water spigot. It's hard to believe, isn't it? Us westerners hear all the time about unspeakable hardship and tragedy the world over, usually from the comfort of our sofas or the distance of our computers and e-readers, but here I was, experiencing first-hand the difficult reality of two of my kindest and most successful students.

They were overjoyed to have us visit. I tried to reciprocate their happiness the best I could, but on the inside I was deeply saddened, not only by the unfairness of their situation, but by my own ignorance of it as well. I kept thinking back to when I was their age, and how carefree my life was by comparison. I was self-centered and blissfully oblivious, as every kid deserves to be. I certainly didn't do anything special to deserve that. But what did these girls do to deserve any of what they got? They were born in the middle of nowhere, that's it. And despite it all, they are thriving. It's cruelly ironic that the sweetest and hardest working students of mine have it so tough, whereas most of the assholes in my class happen to have much more money. Maybe it's not a coincidence at all. The kids that have nothing in the way of material comfort realize what's at stake when they come to school and are seizing every opportunity to get out.

We said goodbye after a hearty meal--food always tastes better when you help to make it yourself; we brought a lot of stuff we had bought at market day up with us--and my head was swimming with thoughts as we meandered back down. A truck took a corner too tight and smashed its wheel on a rock as it passed us by. I put down my backpack to see if I could help but quickly realized the problem was much too serious for me to do anything about. Sometimes I feel that way about students like Cindy and Isabel and the adversity they are forced to face. The extent of the poverty here is truly daunting, and the world often seems too short on empathy to do much about it. 


It's easy to get stuck in that way of thinking, anyways. Afterwards, Richard and I spent an hour or so in the dark talking at length about how we could raise some money to help put these girls through high school and maybe even college. Obtaining a high-quality education would totally transform their lives and empower them to do anything that they set their minds to. That sounds like a trite cliché, but after spending hundreds of hours with these amazing young women, I know in my heart that it's true. I will update this blog as our plans progress. I hope to have a convenient and accountable way for you all to contribute to this cause up and running sometime in the next several months.


A Haiku

Water Buffalo,
Today you were surrounded
By some friendly geese.

Brief Reflections on a Memorable Year

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Tonight is my last night in Dazhai before I head back home to the States for a much-needed month-long vacation. It's hard to believe that a year has passed by since I first arrived here in Yunnan last July. On the one hand, it's been a very long, lonely, and difficult twelve months, but at the same time I've grown so much emotionally and developed resiliency and skills I never thought that I would have.


A good chunk of the other fellows have chosen not to come back, but I am. The biggest reason why is because I love my students. The smallest things that we take for granted every day are sources of endless joy for these kids, and I feed off of their hopefulness and doe-eyed youth. Just the other day, I took Jake (the kid who lost his father last semester) out to dinner as a reward. It was literally his first time out to eat at a restaurant, and he's fourteen years old! And tonight, as I was giving my whole class advice for their English test tomorrow during our last study session together, I gave them test preparedness strategies like: get lots of rest, complete the entire exam, make educated guesses, and eat something for breakfast. To which I heard a chorus of, "we have no money to buy breakfast." At which point I hastily offered to buy them all a bowl of noodles (less expensive than I thought at first; $20 for 50 bowls of noodles), to their raucous delight. I could go on and on, suffice it to say these kids are a source of endless inspiration.


Being alone out here the last few days--Tom, River (or Rio, as it were, his new Spanish name), and Richard all deserted me for managerial responsibilities--has allowed me to do a lot of reflection and deep thinking about why I'm here and what it all means, blah blah blah. Sometimes it feels like I'm looking at myself from the outside and I just can't believe what I'm seeing: someone conversing easily in Chinese with local Yunnanese while he chomps down unthinkingly on some animal organ. Culture, politics, race, income, religion, and every other social divider just seems so fluid and artificial to me these days. I read a lot of news from across the pond and so much of the divisiveness and dismissiveness that bleed through the headlines smacks of cultural ignorance and a total lack of empathy. This will surely be a problem for me as I adjust to a month of living back home. I need to get off my goddamned high horse... but I probably won't be able to help raising an eyebrow at my friends and family from time to time.


It's been reinvigorating seeing a fresh crop of fellows roll in. There will be a bunch of them just down the road from us here in Dazhai next year, which should make our placement a little less lonely. I hope so, anyways. They're all in the same place that I was a year ago: a six-week teaching boot-camp in Lincang. And even though the newness and freshness that I can see in their eyes seems like a faraway place, I'm familiar with the road they are about to embark upon. Looking back at the glut of pictures (thank you, Tom) I have from this past year, the Gareth of last summer looked jarringly similar to these new Bambys. Complete with round happy face, sinewy muscles built on American carbohydrates and condensed protein, etc. Recently, I've heard it said that the new fellows have it better in terms of resources and support this year, but I wouldn't want to be in their shoes again, staring down the barrel of two years in rural China. That wasn't an easy feeling. Being halfway done with this fellowship is giving me a false sense of closeness to the end. The rational side of my brain tells me that next year will take just as long as this year, but the poetic side of my brain thinks it will just fly by. The fact that so many things are coming together for me personally just adds to the feeling that I'm on the crest of a wave hurtling into my very exciting, though still thoroughly mysterious future.


I'm a little worried that I've over-planned my summer. I'll be juggling a lot of balls--traveling, authoring, interning at the New Yorker, applying to schools--luckily I learned how to juggle when I was home sick one week in 4th grade. Taking things one step at a time is the only way to get it done. That's something I've gotten better at out here: focusing in on a goal and getting it done. Sounds very Zen, but like I said, I've had a lot of time in my own head lately. That's what happens when you have nobody to speak English to for whole weeks at a time. One step at a time... My first big step involves traveling halfway across the world by myself in one piece! Wish me luck.

So it goes.

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After a very pleasant afternoon spent celebrating a Chinese holiday with my student Brian and his wonderfully welcoming family, we walked down the hill back to town and he showed me the latest attraction to grace the neighborhood. And then there we all were staring at the legs of a dead infant sticking out of the riverbed. Someone upstream had apparently disposed of their baby girl quite recently. Apparently the police have been contacted but they can't or don't want to do anything. What can you say? There are no words to describe the horror and dread.

The Cultural Rhythm of Yunnanese Dialect


                 It's a common misconception abroad that Chinese people speak one unified national language. Dazhai locals, and hundreds of millions of their Chinese brethren living all across this enormous country, speak Yunnanese dialect (fangyan), and sometimes Mandarin with quite a heavy accent. The words, tones, and grammar are often quite different from Mandarin. There appears to be little subtlety with which ideas are expressed in Yunnanese dialect, that is to say that it's a no-nonsense language. Of this, however, I'm sure I am mistaken. To my untrained ears, at least, it always seems like there is some sort of dispute going on between whomever happens to be speaking dialect in my vicinity. It's an aggressive language that seems to end each sentence in a burst of energy and emotion. The way the locals speak reflects the culture in which they inhabit. With little to no modern luxuries or leisure time, these hard-working people like to get to the point pretty quickly. Nobody seems to have the time or the energy to pontificate using impractical pleasantries like you might hear in the big city or from speakers of British English, French, Portuguese, or some other nicer sounding language.


             Having basically achieved a certain level of fluency in Mandarin Chinese, it's quite daunting for Tom and I to face the prospect of relearning the language several times over so we can be fluent in all the dialects we've encountered. (My favorite, Sichuanese dialect, is probably my favorite only because it's kind of cute sounding, and Sichuan also happens to have millions of cute women who naturally speak cutely in their mother tongue.) So instead of attempting multi-dialect fluency, especially when attending say, dialect-only meetings, we choose ignorance. Now more than ever, I believe in the famous saying, "ignorance is bliss". Being able to feign total cluelessness when we hear dialect affords us a set of unusual rights. For example, Tom and I are the only ones who have a good excuse to pay absolutely zero attention during school meetings. The principal or some other figurehead will drone on about this or that and we can read books and play Sudoku in plain sight. Not that being able to understand what's being said stops the local teachers from not paying attention... Anyways, playing the stupid foreigner card is an important strategy to remember whenever and wherever one finds themselves in China.

Tears for Jake

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I'm writing this post with a particularly heavy heart. Forgive me if this post seems too emotional or is difficult to read, but blogging seems as good an outlet as any to channel sorrow. Yesterday, I learned of an awful tragedy. I have a student whose father recently passed away. His name is Jake. Jake is a quiet boy who doesn't do so well in school, but tries hard and is rarely naughty. He hasn't been at school much for the last couple of weeks and I just learned the reason; his family is coping with this tremendous loss. The circumstances of Jake's father's death are not very pleasant, but bear telling because we're talking about one of my students--whom I'm collectively beginning to love just as I hope to love my own children someday--and the challenges that he is facing during these difficult weeks, and will continue to face for the rest of his life, when his family calls upon him to provide for them in ways that his father will never be able to again, now that he, just 12 years old, is the only "man" left in his household.

             Richard, my CEI teammate and close friend who also teaches math to the same students that I teach English, reads their journals every week. It was not until after he read Jake's most recent journal entry that we learned about the death of Jake's dad, now almost two weeks ago. Here's a quick version of Jake's journal entry, as relayed to me by Richard:


Jake's dad had been drinking and gambling a lot recently. One night, he was drinking and gambling (on Mahjong) and lost 300 RMB (about thirty dollars). Furious at himself, he stumbles home and continues to drink to the point of wildness and deep sorrow. Apparently he made quite a scene because Jake and his family members were all quite worried about him. He stormed out of the house that night and disappeared. After he went missing for several days, local villagers from all over began to search for him. Jake, now shouldering more of the household chores in the absence of his father, went out in search of wood to chop for the cooking fire. [the following sentence is hard for me to write, let alone fathom if this were actually my dad] Jake then found his father's dead body hanging from a tree in an apparent suicide.


            When I first heard the news I had to fight back tears. The lives of the children who live out here are difficult enough already. My head spun as I struggled to grasp the staggering number of ways not having a dad would change Jake's life forever. I suggested to Richard that we should reach out to Jake soon and do whatever we could to comfort and support him. With no counselors or psychologists at our school's disposal, Jake is very much shouldering his grief alone, at least while he's at school anyways.

             Almost as soon as Richard and I had finished talking about him, Jake's situation quickly morphed from abstraction to painful reality. All of a sudden here he was sitting next to us weeping. Apparently another student in our class, Tim, had teased him about his father, and a small group of others were egging Jake on to fight him. We made Tim apologize, and then Richard and I did what we could to console Jake.

             As I put my arm around Jake's shoulder, I marveled at Richard's Mandarin eloquence. His advice to Jake was deep and meaningful, and hearing him talk about loss so intimately was sad, but also inspiring. "You don't have a father any more, you can't change that", Richard said, "And there will always be things you can't change, so you need to focus on what you can change". That starts with staying in school (Jake's been considering dropping out), but even that will be much more difficult than it sounds. The only money Jake receives comes from the school (about 6 dollars a week for meals). Apart from that, Jake's family has little means to provide for other expenses, like his bus rides to and from school, not to mention everything else (shoes, clothes, pens and workbooks, etc). Richard told Jake that if he succeeds at school, the government will pay him to go to high school and college. I'm not familiar enough with the Chinese system to know exactly how true that is, but being an academic standout would go a long way towards rescuing Jake from destitution.

              Richard went on to say that he could fully empathize with Jake's situation: "When I was just nine, even younger than you, I lost my mom," he said. This being the first time I'd ever heard him mention that I was quite taken aback. "Is that true what you told Jake?" I asked. Then he told me all about his mom and her struggle with Leukemia. Suddenly Richard's tough-guy personality made all the more sense to me. Thankfully, it seems that time, his dad's unyielding support, and an awesome stepmom made Richard the resilient and strong person that he is today. I can only hope that Jake is half as lucky.

                In a dark room with nothing but flashlights illuminating our tired faces--the power had been absent all day, an apt metaphor for the cloudiness of our hearts and minds--Richard, River, Tom, and I talked long into the night about the day's emotional events. I played mopey songs on the guitar and Richard talked about his mom with all of us for the first time, repeating the story he had told me earlier to Tom and River. My mind strayed to Jake again. The saddest part of all of this was that none of the other teachers at school seemed to care very much. Life is cheap out here. Nobody kicks up a fuss for another dead farmer. There are millions of stories like Jake's all over this unimaginably big country. I hope with all of my heart that Jake can prove everybody wrong and be somebody, otherwise he will be forgotten quickly. But I won't, not ever. 

Laos and Back, Part II

By the time we walked through a small village (in the true sense of the word, not even close to the size of Dazhai, the place where I live in China) and crossed the Mekong River to get to our hiking trail, it became clear that we were far from everything familiar and comfortable. For some, like me, this realization was a source of endless excitement and wonder. For others, roughing it in the middle of the jungle got old very quickly.

The hike was not for the weak of heart. Colorful spiders bigger than the size of my fist could be seen hanging from the branches of several trees. Our guides were hacking away at the forest underbrush with arm-length machetes, and the dank air swarmed with mosquitoes as we powered through incline after steep incline. At this point, the slower members of our group had already started to lag far behind and complain about the strenuous hike, one girl's legs were so badly covered in bug bites that they had started to swell up. It looked quite painful. I looked down at my own legs and was pleased to find them relatively unscathed. Grateful for my Yeti-like fur, which seemed to have prevented many a mosquito from penetrating all the way to my vulnerable skin, I plowed ahead.

The exertion of our morning ascent left us all starving for lunch. Our guides quickly went about chopping down our table (a man-sized leaf upon which our food was served). Never have eggs, bananas, sticky rice, and small pieces of beef tasted so good. With full bellies and rested legs we set off for our campsite, located somewhere in the middle of the rainforest. On the way there, we crossed over the top of the mountain we were climbing to little fanfare. It was impossible to see over the dense tree-line and enjoy the view, though I closed my eyes and imagined it to be spectacular.

The descent down to the campsite made for the most difficult stretch of hiking. Our footing was so tenuous at times that it took lots of focus and strength just to stay upright and on the "path". Another girl was so traumatized by the treacherousness of the "path" that she spent the last couple of hours crying, convinced of her certain doom. On the other hand, me and the other guys were eating up the adrenaline rush of our rainforest adventure. In a moment of intense hubris, Lucas (a big boy) even jumped onto a vine and swung like Tarzan, though the rest of us couldn't help but observe the look of pure terror and concern that our guide shot his way. Luckily, Lucas survived his momentary lapse of judgment unharmed, and before we knew it, we had made it to our temporary home for the night: a small hut by a trickling stream, with nothing but Mother Nature all around us.

 Channeling my inner Adam, I bathed naked in the crystal-clear splashes of the mountain stream. It was cold but infinitely rejuvenating, and I swear I felt happier alone in that idyllic spot than I have been in a long time. After my mini-catharsis by the stream, I pranced jubilantly back to camp to wait for the slow pokes still making their way down the mountain. After nightfall we all huddled around the fire that the locals had expertly conjured up for us. Another simple but delicious meal and a few ghost stories helped all nine of us pass out in one big pile, huddling together for warmth (and maybe stealing blankets from each other when the opportunity presented itself). I woke up several times in the middle of the night to gunfire-like pops, which turned out to be nothing but bamboo cracking under its own weight. I wrestled with a lot in my dreams that night, but I woke up so refreshed the next morning that I could barely remember what was troubling my subconscious so deeply the night before.

After another delicious fire-cooked meal, we hiked back down to the river, cheerfully chatting about anything and everything. We boarded kayaks and started paddling down the Mekong. We stopped for lunch in the middle of a small village, many of us tip-toeing shoeless past local places of Buddhist worship and huts on stilts where these Laotians all happened to live. Small emblems of the familiar global culture we left behind in the rainforest the evening before began to reappear; we chugged coca-colas at lunch, and later, large bottles of Beer Laos to celebrate finally making it to our destination and the end of our mini-camping trip. The rest of the guys and I posed for some fun pictures after we hubristically struggled upstream through Mekong currents and all five of us climbed up on a big, slippery rock. 


Tired But Happy Mekong Men


As we rode back to downtown Luang Namtha in the back of a dirty tuk-tuk, and again several times on the seemingly endless bus rides back to our mundane little corner of rural China, I was struck by the vastness and diversity of South Asia, of which I have still seen so very little. Here's to adventures and living and breathing and eating and drinking and learning! I can't wait for my next vacation. 

An Airplane in the Sky


The other day, I was standing on the basketball court with some of my boy students, and we looked up and saw an airplane. To you, this might me seem quite unremarkable, but for me it was downright profound and thrilling. It's been months since I can remember seeing an airplane in the sky. I've lived my whole life in major metropolitan areas where the comings and goings of aircraft are so frequent that they become just another mundanity of everyday living. This was a special moment; I could sense the excitement in Brian's voice when he exclaimed, "Look, an airplane!" We all marveled in awe at the beauty of the long white jet stream as it was painted across the blue sky.

 And then it hit me: how easy it is for me to hop on one of those amazing machines and go anywhere I want to. I'm American, educated, wealthy (by comparison to the boys standing next to me), and bilingual. Jetting from place to place is so accessible and familiar to me, but for my boys, that airplane is as far away as it looks. Most of them will probably never take one in their entire lives, and almost all of them had yet to do so by the time they first set foot in my classroom. There exists a wide gulf between the opportunities that these kids, these amazing kids, have and will ever get, and the opportunities that I have been given all of my life and completely take for granted.

As they're enjoying their pretzels and refreshments at 35,000 feet, the people on board that plane surely didn't pause to think about all the people living in "the middle of nowhere" that they're flying over. Next time you fly over Bumblefuck, try taking a moment to think about who's looking up at you and what they might be thinking.

Teaching My Girls to "Sing"

On Wednesday evening, most of my girl students and I performed an English song ("Sing", by the Carpenters) in front of the entire school (about 900 people). It was the culmination of a month of at times difficult preparation; most of them could barely read English when we started learning the lyrics. I'd never really coached a group of kids for a performance like this, so I was a little nervous beforehand. With the help of Richard, my good friend and fellow teacher, we taught our students the meaning of the lyrics and to sing them with passion and cheer:


Sing, sing a song

Sing out loud

Sing out strong
Sing of good things, not bad

Sing of happy, not sad


Sing, sing a song

Make it simple

To last your whole life long

Don't worry that it's not good enough

For anyone else to hear
Just sing, sing a song


After our mistake-free performance, the whole school gave us what sounded like the biggest round of applause of the night. All in all, singing "Sing" was a really cool way to get my students excited about music and English. And after the way they performed, I couldn't be prouder!

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