2014 in Books

I read a lot in 2014.

Total books: 43

Most read genres: YA (including realistic fiction, sci fi, fantasy, and historical fiction), contemporary literary fiction.

Biggest reading development: Audiobooks! I was inspired by my mentor teacher last year, who told me that there was never enough time to read all the books one needed as an English teacher and that she listened to audiobooks every day in the car. I listened to my first audiobook, The Giver, in February and then seven more. The Corrections was the longest, at 19 CDs and 1.5 months of driving time.

Best book: Bring Up the Bodies. We read Wolf Hall in the Klein Family Skype Book Club in 2013, but the sequel was better thanks to more compelling history (5 years of attempted divorce proceedings aren’t actually the most interesting) and a more streamlined structure.

Best YA dystopia: I guess The Maze Runner. I’m rather tired of this genre, and the worst entrant of the year was certainly Divergent, which I couldn’t get through. Ender’s Game is shaping up pretty well for me right now, though.

Best YA tearjerker: If I Stay. Sorry 13 Reasons Why, Paper Towns, and Looking for Alaska–losing one’s family is more upsetting than a troubled teen girl.

Series I’m most glad has ended: Pretty Little Liars. Things were always pretty unbelievable and these books have been a bit of a slog for a while now, and the 16th book took the cake. Hopefully this was the finale–a bit of a cliffhanger end makes me think not.

YA book I should have read years ago: Jacob Have I Loved. Excellent.

Best book I reread: Of Mice and Men. Didn’t like it much in 9th grade, liked it much now in advance of teaching it to 7th grade.

Book I most enjoyed teaching: Monster by Walter Dean Myers. Unlike any other book most students have read in terms of content and structure.

In 2015, my reading plans include:

  • More audiobooks in the car, while getting ready, while cleaning, etc.
  • More YA, beyond just what I’m teaching or thinking about teaching. Sticking mostly to realistic fiction.
  • Revisiting some of the books my students are reading independently/in literature circles, including Lord of the Flies and Flowers for Algernon.
  • Returns to some of the weightier 19th-century tomes I’ve had cued on my Kindle for a while. I’m looking at you, Mill on the Floss. Maybe even you, Les Miserables.
  • More library books, fewer purchased books.
  • More pre-bed reading and less pre-bed phone playing.

As for a goal number of books…maybe 50? Possible thanks to the shorter length of many of the YA books I read, more consistent progress through audiobooks, and a lot of travel time planned this year.

2014 in Travel

Two-thousand fourteen was not my most travely year, but it was a good one. I kicked off 2014 in Panama, having just celebrated NYE with a transit through the Panama Canal and a cruise ship celebration. Winter and spring saw me toiling through my teaching credential classes at Stanford and student teaching. Summer featured two separate US/Canada cruises on separate coasts, both planned almost on a whim (at least for me), separated by a trip to Boston for reading workshop training. In the fall I began teaching full time (with the one travel highlight of chaperoning a trip to Yosemite). I spent winter break relaxing, with a New Year’s trip to Death Valley that featured all of us in bed by 10.

Bar Harbor, ME, July '14

Bar Harbor, ME, July ’14

So, for 2014…

  • New countries: 2 (Panama, Colombia, on Jan 1 and 2)
  • New Canadian provinces: 2 (Quebec, Prince Edward Island)
  • Places revisited: Las Vegas; Alaska; Victoria, BC; Boston; Bar Harbor, ME; Nova Scotia; Yosemite; Death Valley

Upcoming travel in 2015…

  • Iceland with the fam during Presidents’ Week (is that how you punctuate that?). Northern Lights will be sought and jackets will be worn.
  • Sweden in July with Claire. A trip we’ve been talking about since 2008 is finally happening. Much ABBA and lingonberries planned.
  • Balkan trip with the fam in July, featuring Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, and Slovenia.
  • Somewhere in Central Europe TBD for a few extra days.
  • Hopefully NY in Aug for a professional development course.
  • Whatever else comes my way!

On moving for the tenth time in five years

Cherry blossoms in DCYep, I just did the math. Ten times since June 2008. Anyway, would you like a Q&A?

So many moves; why would you do this to yourself? Well, you know that I love packing for trips, so maybe I also love moving? Ha ha ha. No, it has just happened.

So what is this move? DC to Redlands! Temporarily.

Wherefore? You see, I always imagined DC might be a temporary place for me, as CA has long been where the heart is. I needed to return to DC after Peace Corps to finish my MA in TESOL at AU, and I waited to return until I had a job in hand. Said job has been a great learning experience (yadda yadda yadda), but I’m more interested and fulfilled by teaching. So, I shall teach!

Wait, but so why are you actually moving? Oh yeah. So, I want to teach, but have realized that I’d rather teach younger students and all students instead of adult English language learners exclusively, which is what my previous graduate studies qualified me to do. If I want to teach in public schools in CA, I need a state teaching credential. So, I applied and was delighted to be admitted to the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP), which is a year-long program that ends with a teaching credential (secondary English for me) plus an MA in education.

Oh, so that’s why you’re moving? Yep. The program starts in late June and will conclude in June 2014.

Then what? I’ll be well prepared to teach high school or middle school English. My intent afterwards would be to stay with permanence in a teaching position in the Bay Area.

What in the meantime? I’m leaving DC in two weeks, and will head home for three weeks of relaxation and luncheoning. Then I’m going on a fabulous Eurotrip for three weeks. Then home, then straight up to Stanford and moving into my TBD on-campus residence.

On campus, really? Yeah, it’s best-case scenario in terms of price and convenience compared to surrounding Palo Alto. Munger’s nice, man.

What is this Eurotrip you speak of? I’m glad you asked. Brother Matthew is moving to Geneva so Grandmother Glo, Cousin Molly, and I are going along for the ride. First the whole group will do Paris and Geneva, then Glo and I head on to Grindelwald in the Bernese Oberland (read: Alps). Finally, I’m meeting Friend Ashley in Italy for visiting Milan, Bologna, Ravenna, and San Marino. Three weeks total.

How are you feeling? Excited to get back to Stanford, though it should be a fairly different experience than life as an undergrad. I also anticipate working harder and being busier than I’ve been in the last….oh, 4-7 years.

What are you most looking forward to in CA? Tailgates, the weather, being closer to family, hanging with Dvora’s baby, re-upping my Stanford apparel wardrobe, the Tresidder southwest chicken salad, the social dance scene, reconnecting with friends all over the Bay Area.

What will you most miss in DC? DC friends, Capital Bikeshare, being able to walk to tons of bars and restaurants, my dance cardio class (“Dance Trance”), no driving, my couch.

So have you started packing? People keep asking me this. But I’m having a full-service move and they’re doing the packing for me! I do still have some organizing things to do though.

OK I give up–can you walk me through those ten supposed moves? Stanford – Redlands (June ’08), Redlands – Redwood City (Aug ’08), Redwood City – Stanford EPGY (June ’09), Stanford EPGY – DC (Aug ’09), DC – Redlands (May ’10), Redlands – Chengdu (June ’10), Chengdu – Chongqing (Aug ’10), Chongqing – Redlands (Sept ’11), Redlands – DC (April ’12), DC – Redlands (May ’13). Plus, Redlands – Stanford (June ’13).

Can I come visit you at Stanford? Yes please!

China year: let’s review some data

I have an announcement to make. Are you sitting? Well, probably, since you’re at your computers. OK. Here it is:

I am no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer and no longer live in China.

In fact, I am currently 30 minutes away from boarding a Shanghai-LAX flight (ni hao Jialifuhiya ren!). And I could not be more delighted by that fact.

Most of you readers (other than those dozens of you who are referred here daily by your searches for “Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure”) have probably learned this already, and are probably fairly clear on why this came to pass. I don’t want to go into it all here, but suffice it to say that I decided that living not-in-China was going to be the Best Thing for my health and sanity. That I foresee more personal and professional growth opportunities in the US than in China for me now. I’m confident this was the right decision, although it was of course a bittersweet one. I’m hard at work with Job Search 2011 and have never been anywhere this excited to write cover letters.

Lindsay helps me say goodbye to China at the Horticulture Expo in Xi'an. Very few plants, but many red blobs.

Trying to evaluate my time in China is impossible. But I can say that, although it has been a bumpy road, I’m always going to be glad that I did it and had this year’s experience. At the end of this, I’m more patient and flexible—dealing with the kinds of unexpected setbacks that are commonplace: break-downs (yes, just stand on the side of this highway, perhaps another bus will come at some future point), last-minute requests (oh, your teaching start date? Either the day after tomorrow or next week, maybe), etc. will do that to you. I’m heartier physically—I will never complain about any weather ever again (mark me on this) after spending two months wearing a coat 24/7 in Chongqing winter, and after sweating all day and night during Chengdu and Chongqing summer. My nice, pointy elbows and I can push through any crowd, and I can pop a squat anywhere. Plus, I morphed from being a teacher who had learned a lot of theory but not had a lot of practice into one who felt confident and successful in the classroom.

Oh, and China. I learned so much about China. An “old China hand” who spoke during our first few days of training last summer told us that he thinks that the more one learns about China, the more one realizes one needs to learn. I can’t say China/Chinese culture and I were a good fit, but at least I experienced something so different and survived. And I got some Mandarin skillz out of the bargain. Which I hope to keep up.

But perhaps the best way to sum up the last year of my life is to look at the numbers. Hopefully most of you know what an avid list-maker and spread-sheet-aficionado I am. It’s like I always say (or have maybe said a couple of times): an experience isn’t worth anything unless you can quantify it as data. So let’s mine some of my favorite spreadsheets to get another sense of what has actually happened in the last 14 months, by the numbers!

I visited: 8 provinces and 21 cities in China. The famous ones: Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Macao, Xi’an, Qingdao, Guilin, and Yangshuo. The not so famous ones include, in Chongqing: CQ city, Beibei, Dazu, Yongchuan, Wushan, Jiangjin, Zhongshan, and Wulong. Sichuan: Chengdu and Neijiang. Gansu: Pingliang. Shaanxi: Baoji. Guizhou: Guiyang.

I spent: a median of about 250 RMB per week ($35).

I taught: Around 500 students total.

I read: 46 books since coming to China.

I watched: the same ten or so shows I watched before I came to China, plus perhaps five additions to my annual line-up. Now that’s an accomplishment.

I enjoyed: giardia, gastroenteritis, an eight-month-long wrist rash, some sort of asthmatic/allergy problem, and more cases of “spicy stomach” than I care to count. Oh, and it’s possible I had an intestinal worm issue at some point, but that’s unconfirmed.

I would be happy if I never had to eat again: hot pot of any and all kinds, soup noodles, chicken feet, baozi (bread-y dumplings), chao shou (soup dumplings), huajiao (numbing Sichuan peppercorns), Chinese corn, and shao kao (BBQ). (Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the weirdest thing I probably ever ate in China was bull penis).

I’m maybe going to slightly miss eating, from my local places: kung pao chicken, sweet and sour pork, dry-cooked green beans, fish-sauce eggplant, and the fried noodles they served in the alley behind Leora’s school.

…So, China, I can’t say I’ll miss you and I definitely can’t say I’m sorry I left…but it’s been real. Maybe I’ll see you again some day, but let’s deng yixia (wait a moment) before that happens.

Woot-woot-Wulong

So. It’s been a while since I’ve updated you on goings-on other than travels, so let’s catch up on July first. To review: I finished teaching in mid-June, received two enthusiastic visitors (Dvora and Matthew) in June and July. Next, I was in Wulong working on Peace Corps Summer Project.

Remember that Summer Project is the annual PC China extravaganza where volunteers from each province come together to lead various teacher-training workshops. Usually volunteers are in groups of only 4-6 but this year all of the volunteers from Chongqing were working together since we were teaching workshops for all of the teachers of an entire county school district. From July 10-22, 18 of us volunteers toiled in Wulong teaching something like 300 teachers of all ages and experience levels. It was…interesting.

First, we should try to see it from the teachers’ perspective. Imagine you have been a teacher for 30 years and are told, doubtless rather last-minute, that you are required to give up two weeks of your summer so some Americans can show you how to teach. Apparently the trainees weren’t well informed about what our classes would actually entail, and most of them were seemingly expecting to spend two weeks singing English songs, watching us dance, and seeing some movies. Instead, we 25-year-old Americans marched in and explained: we know you have spent the last 30 years leading your 75-person classes of middle school students in rote memorization exercises out of the textbooks. But instead, you should consider a complete overhaul of your methods, teaching philosophy, classroom structure, and activities! Let’s practice!

There certainly were some teachers—most of them young, enthusiastic new teachers—who enjoyed their two weeks with us and will be making some changes in their classrooms. But for most of the trainees, and in many ways for us volunteers, it was a rather frustrating two weeks. One trainee brought both me and my teaching partner, Amy, to the verge of tears in separate sessions on Day 4. Many trainees would just show up to the first hour of class and then disappear for the rest of the day. And there were trainees in every class who apparently didn’t understand a word we said because, despite being English teachers, they just plain didn’t speak English.

This experience definitely made me thankful for the proficiency level and enthusiasm of my usual students in Beibei. I’ve also heard volunteers say that Summer Project is one of the highlights of their entire PC service, so by no means are all experiences as challenging as our was at times. Nor am I sure exactly what I would do differently if I were executing such an event again: better inform the trainees about what to expect, definitely. Perhaps not make it mandatory, but just open it up to teachers who were actually interested enough to get something out of it. And on our end, my team of teachers probably should have scaled down a little—less difficult activities and more repetition of just a couple of teaching techniques.

And although Wulong wasn’t the most happening place to spend a fortnight (again, it actually made me appreciate further the atmosphere and even the food options in Beibei), it was fun spending time with all of the CQ volunteers, many of whom I don’t see on a very regular basis. And the best highlight of all: most of the CQ ladies crowded into mine and Amy’s hotel room every afternoon, working it out to P90X, Insanity, Hip-Hop Abs, Belly-dancing with Dolphina….

In any case, the first birthday present for my 25th year was that we finished in Wulong a day earlier than anticipated, so we were back in CQ city to celebrate the eve of my birthday with one of the most enjoyable meals of my life: McDonald’s. Shortly thereafter, I was back home in Redlands. Let’s save that for a separate entry.

End of semester reflections

July 1 will be the one-year anniversary of my arriving in China. One year from now, I (expect) to be packing up to go home.

Apocalyptic rubble in the apartment two floors down from mine

The last couple of weeks have been sort of strange. Strange weather—100 degrees for a few days, then rainy and 65. Sort of an apocalyptic mood. Even more construction than usual has meant piles of rubble around my apartment (and fun asides like being woken up one morning to the sounds of glass being broken with a sledgehammer two stories down). Many of my friends—basically all the foreigners in Beibei, and second-year PCVs—are getting ready to leave, and so I’m caught up in a lot of “end of the world” sentiment, even though it is, by no means, the end of the world for me. Half my friends are getting Raptured, but I’m still here…

Classes have been winding up smoothly—at this point I feel like I don’t need to put nearly as much effort into planning as I did earlier in the semester but still get positive payoff, so this is good. I collected evaluations from one of my classes so far, and comments were mostly what I’d have expected. A lot of complaints about how much I made them read and think this semester (well yes, critical thinking skills are what I wanted to improve, so that’s just what had to happen, deal with it). Some complaints about the boring movies I made them watch (classics they’d never heard of like Star Wars, Wizard of Oz, Back to the Future). A couple of “I love you”‘s.

Apocalyptic rubble at the entrance to my apartment

One thing I regret about this semester is that a few really bright students whom I originally anticipated having close relationships with never quite panned out. First semester I required all my students to have a meal with me (well, I told them it was a requirement but only about half did it, and since I only have so much time, I let it go and didn’t count it against anyone). This semester, I told everyone that it was no longer a requirement, but that I had lots of free time, so they should always feel free to initiate on their own. Which they didn’t. I also feel weird about making specific invitations myself—hey, three favorite students, want to have lunch?—meaning that, in sum, there was almost no out of class interaction with most of my students, which is kind of too bad. Then, it was also annoying when a couple of comment cards remarked on how they wished I could have spent more time with them. Hey, I was here.

Women’s club I’m not sure if I can count as a success or not. I do think I really reached and connected with the girls who came, but the trouble is, by the end of the semester, I was down to a core of only seven or so who came. Most of this I think wasn’t my fault—the girls who came each week always seemed to enjoy it, and we did cover the kinds of topics they had expressed interest in from the very beginning. But with 30 hours of class, plus homework, plus other commitments, I think my group was often the first thing to get the ax. I had girls bow out of meetings every week because of needing to study or needing to “take a walk” (that one was ridiculous), and twice I had to cancel a whole meeting a couple hours before it was to begin because I got word that all the students had been called to some mandatory school function (as always, announced last minute). So even though I did enjoy the group and the core members did too, it was frustrating to see it dwindle every week, and frustrating because I don’t know what I could have done differently. I’m thinking that I’ll maintain a relationship with the core group, and maybe suggest a continuance of the group in the form of a weekly dinner or something in the fall. And perhaps, with the new crop of sophomore students whom I expect to teach next year, I’ll start another version of the group in the spring and hope for more commitment.

By the way, the sex talk went well. It was basically me with a group of a dozen girls who aren’t considering becoming sexually active, so a lot of the information was remote. They all seemed to know the biologic basics of sex but not the mechanics. They showed a lot of interest in discussing menstruation and tampons (rather taboo and infrequently available/used), and shared some Chinese wisdom like the idea that cold foods should never be eaten while menstruating. The discussion of hymens was baffling to most and upsetting to some. And everyone was delighted to learn how widespread syphilis is in China—like that it’s the number-one disease, period, in Shanghai. Although many of them stayed uncharacteristically silent and wide-eyed while the discussion was actually happening, afterwards they all said it was very interesting/informative and less awkward than anticipated. A small victory.

This week, I’m having finals in my oral English classes in the form of debates about whether there is need for education reform in China and the US. We’ll see how it goes—they didn’t have a lot of time to prepare, and it’s a bit of a complicated assignment. Next week we’ll just have little class parties—snacks, games, conversation, and asking Matthew (who will be arriving just in time for my last few classes) awkward questions. I have one last British Literature class today in which we’ll be discussing part of Dubliners, and then they have an in-class final next week.

This weekend I’ll have a not-insubstantial grading load from various projects, but it’s something to do: life in Beibei has been surprisingly boring lately. On the plus side, I’ve taken up the CBS show The Good Wife and expect to have made it through two full seasons in under two weeks. I’m counting vacation as beginning on the day Matthew arrives in Chongqing, meaning less than a week to go! There are a lot of faux End of the World rites to get to this week as well with the soon-to-be-departing crew—recently were the final showing by Team Beibei at a bar trivia night in the city (unfortunately, we didn’t win) and the last late night at the downtown clubs, and I expect that final Beibei evenings out, KTV, and (shudder) hot pot are all on the docket in the upcoming future. Again, weird to celebrate the end when it’s just not. Maybe I can take solace in pretending it is, indeed, the end, and can imagine that everything is new again when the fall starts. Hah.