Things I’ve learned this year

So I recently celebrated a birthday. And completed a fairly arduous year at STEP. And graduated from Stanford (again) and am entering a new phase of life/the working world (again). And am on a plane with nothing else to do but update this LONG NEGLECTED blog. As is fitting for a teacher of English and a student of learning (or something) let’s journey back through what I’ve learned this year, loosely defined as starting in April 2013 when I last did a life-update post.

In April 2013, I left DC and moved temporarily back to Redlands en route to coming to Stanford. I learned: that I am directly responsible for one marriage and emigration from China, that Malaysian noodles are a dish best enjoyed late at night and probably mostly in Malaysia, that just because a couch wouldn’t fit through an apartment door doesn’t mean you can’t wrench it out.

In May 2013, I took the Social Science CSET, a test required of social studies teachers in California. I learned: there is more to California history than Junipero Serra.

Padre Serra in the Capitol, 4/19/13

Padre Serra in the Capitol, 4/19/13

I traveled to Paris and learned: that Benjamin Franklin’s nickname in 1780s Paris was The Lightening Ambassador, that you can have a bad meal in Paris but it’s not very likely, that entry to the Disneyland Paris hotel is for guests only but if you walk with purpose you will be fine, that you must know the storyline of Phantom Manor (the Disneyland Paris Haunted Mansion-equivalent) in advance to understand the intricacies of the ride, that “Get Lucky” was about to be a Song of the Summer, that the line for Notre Dame is very long at all times always.

Small World America room, 5/27/13

Small World America room, 5/27/13

Then we went to Geneva. I learned: that Chez Ma Cousine and its chicken is as wonderful as it was in 2006, that the Wall of Reformation is larger than I remembered but the Reformation Museum is smaller, that the Movenpick ice cream store is not properly positioned on Google Maps, and that CERN really just looks like an office park.

The Wall of Reformation, 5/30/13

The Wall of Reformation, 5/30/13

At the start of June 2013, we were in Grindelwald. I learned: that the Swiss Alps are truly delightful, that no one does hiking signage like the Swiss, that there are many types of mountain transportation available, that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is terrible, and that my love for my water bottle knows no bounds. Later I learned: Zurich is really expensive.

Selfies with timers are hard, 6/5/13

Selfies with timers are hard, 6/5/13

Then Italy. In Milan I learned: that pointy cathedrals are amusing, that Lord Byron stole a treasured lock of Lucretia Borgia’s hair, that you should not stand directly in front of the automatic doors at “The Last Supper,” that amazing food can be stumbled upon anywhere. In Bologna I learned: that sometimes it’s worthwhile to take a cab rather than drag luggage over yet more cobblestoned blocks, that aperol is not good, that food souvenirs are the best souvenirs, and so are vintage fashion magazine covers purchased from street vendors. In Ravenna I learned: Galla Placidia is an excellent historical character, that green is the best color for mosaics, that beach parties don’t happen on weeknights. Finally, I learned: that transport strikes can derail your rail-to-San-Marino-and-get-a-new-country plans, that Ferrara is a good back-up plan, that the Sforza reign was dramatic, mighty, and fairly brief, that sage/squash/browned butter is a winning combination, that Sicilians make excellent mussels.

The pointiest of them all, 6/8/13

The pointiest of them all, 6/8/13

I started STEP. I learned: that they weren’t kidding about it being busy, that Munger is an excellent place to live, that the Tresidder Southwest Chicken Salad is as good as I remember but still too stuff-heavy.

In July 2013, I learned: that sixth grade is actually kind of amusing, that Little Brother ™ has a switch on the back of his neck (spoiler alert!), that the math building Thai Café is still $6 and still a model of efficiency, that kale is plentiful and wonderful in California.

English STEP at summer school on my bday

English STEP at summer school on my bday

In August 2013, I learned: that on Fridays we wear orange, that the Olsen film Holiday in the Sun has aged very well, and that learning speech cues like “say more” in our Literacies class would have a lasting impact on the conversational gambits of many STEPpies. 

In September 2013, I learned: That you should never set up your tailgate at the lowest point of the lot when rain is predicted, tthat I am definitely allergic to Ambien and that Chinese lanterns ala HSM2 make a wonderful way to end a wedding.

Peace Corps wedding reunion, 9/14/13

Peace Corps wedding reunion, 9/14/13

In October 2013, I learned: that most of the Stanford class of 2008 has aged well, that the panda vest keeps one extremely warm, and that three times is the right number of times to celebrate Halloween. 

Stanford Halloween Party 1

Stanford Halloween Party 1

In November 2013, I learned: That I am the best at planning Napa trips (let’s be real, I knew that already), and that it is very difficult to determine which Oak Glen ranch makes the best apple cider.

Chilling in the kitchen at French Laundry, 11/11/13

Chilling in the kitchen at French Laundry, 11/11/13

In December 2013, we went on a Panama Canal cruise. I learned: Puerto Vallarta makes for a fabulous food tour, that there are no sloths on the Pacific side of Costa Rica, how locks work, that I’d been misattributing the number of countries I’ve visited (should be either 58 or 48 depending on your definitions). I also learned that Lil Jon can come on to DJ extremely late.

Puerto Vallarta food tour, 12/24/13

Puerto Vallarta food tour, 12/24/13

In January 2014, I learned: that I like Great Expectations a lot more on a second, adult read, that Petaluma makes for an excellent day trip, and that iPhones are much sturdier than you might think.

In February 2014, I learned: that taking four graduate classes, teaching one class, and applying for jobs makes for a busy existence, that going directly from the airport to the party is the correct way to start a Vegas weekend, and that crowd safety and control is not something taken appropriately seriously. 

In March 2014, I learned: that I make an excellent Miss Havisham, that you should not try to go down a steep unmarked path near Half Moon Bay while holding beach chair and you should not attempt to go up it at night.

Miss Havisham, 3/14/14

Miss Havisham, 3/14/14

In April 2014, I learned: that Carmel Valley is a lovely place and so is Point Reyes, that Stanford’s Ram’s Head can put on a great musical, and that even when the parameters of a job search are well-defined there are no sure things.

Carmel Valley, 3/30/14

Carmel Valley, 3/30/14

In May 2014, I learned: PACT (the performance assessment that most California credential programs use) isn’t actually that bad, that making others listen to you reflect on your teaching journey has its amusing parts, that deep fried moon pies actually aren’t even that good but artichokes always are, that I am fabulous at murder mystery games, and that there is no cell service in Dorrington, California.

Castroville Artichoke Festival, 5/31/14

Castroville Artichoke Festival, 5/31/14

In June 2014, I learned: you can store a lot of tissues in the sleeves of a graduation gown, that there is no good way to wear a mortarboard, that it is possible to go do a bar mitzvah, bar mitzvah party, two-hour drive, wedding, and wedding party in one day, and that this is a thing that necessitates having seven pairs of shoes in the car.

Post-graduation ceremony, 6/15/14

Post-graduation ceremony, 6/15/14

I learned things in July too! But that’s going to be a new travel-centric post of delight.


2013 Musings

Oh hey, remember this blog? Various reasons are accountable for my decline in posting. Most obviously, I do not live in China anymore and do not travel so much anymore and therefore do not have as much to say anymore. But sometimes interesting things do happen! So, since I have oodles of time (what with being one of a very few people remaining in DC this Christmas week, alone, in the rain snow), let me give you a brief update on my doings. Also, I’m going to try to use this time-oodle to finally get around to writing a travel post about my August trip to Israel–look for that next! First, though, let’s reflect on 2012 and 2013.

On geography. I’m coming up on my nine month-mark in DC–it’s been a good time, and I definitely love lots of aspects of living in this city. But just like I felt torn between DC and CA when I was applying for jobs last year, so too do I now feel pulled westward by people/things/my Calornian identity. Also slightly ridiculous: in nine months, I will have made five trips to CA. Expect to see more of me in 2013, you golden state, you.

See, lipstick

See, lipstick

On resolutions. In 2012, my major resolution was to wear more jewelry. I am happy to report great success at this resolution. I’ve also done better at 2010 and 2011 resolutions to wear more lipstick and heels. Not yet picked a resolution for 2013: any suggestions? Behavior-based personal “improvement” resolutions are clearly favored.

On friendships. In addition to my success at my official 2012 resolution, one other thing I’m most proud about in 2012 is how I’ve kept up or rekindled various friendships. When you do something like the Peace Corps, it’s easy to become close with people preternaturally quickly, as if you’re all in a war zone together, but it’s not easy to imagine what will happen to those relationships after returning to the “real world.” Delightfully, though, many of my Peace Corps friendships have transferred easily to America. Being able to visit with friends here and do normal things like shopping and eating non-Chinese food for the first time in the history of a friendship has sometimes felt slightly surreal, but is excellent.

In addition, it’s been lovely to reconnect with CA friends through various visits and special events, as well as my DC friends. It was somewhat strange when I first arrived in DC, feeling that so much time had passed and so much change had happened from when I lived in DC two years prior, but finding that life  in DC has been continuing unobstructed for others. But falling back into normal life and resuming relationships in DC was smooth. By mid-2013, it’s likely that virtually 100% of my closest DC friends will have left DC (mostly for grad school), though, so interesting changes ahead.

On travels. 2012 kicked off with a sprawling, shoestring trip to Southeast Asia. 2013 kicks off with the most opposite kind of vacation imaginable: Walt Disney World! That’s right: Marissa, Matthew, and Roberta are headed to Orlando after 5 years absence, ready to take in both Universal parks and three of the parks of WDW.

This trip was planned rather quickly, but fortunately I still have enjoyed plenty of time to make my dining reservations and my minute-by-minute ride schedules. This time around I’m assisted not only by the bible of guidebooks (The Unofficial Guide to Disney World, whose praises I sang in the Stanford Daily the last time I visited the World), but also by a wait time mapping technology heretofore unavailable on previous trips. This means that our plans for each day at the park are not just ride-by-ride itineraries  but are now minute by minute! (Actual sample: 9:56am, arrive at Space Mountain. Wait 3 mins, ride duration 3 mins. Walk 5 mins to Swiss Family Treehouse, arriving 10:07 am. Wait 0 mins, attraction duration 13 mins. Walk 1 min to Jungle cruise….) Remember that at age not-quite-11 I hand-wrote a multi-page ride-by-ride schedule for my family’s first trip to Disney World; Pre-Teen Marissa would be pleased to see how my interests endure and how technology assists.

Also, after spending a fair amount of time last week fooling around with my plans for Epcot, two nights in a row I had horrible nightmares involving finding myself at Epcot at 11am with no idea where I was, what I’d been doing all morning, or what I was supposed to be doing next. Shudder.

In any case, I’m not sure what other travels 2013 will bring, but I suppose that’s part of the fun. Up first, pre-WDW: I’ll be ringing in 2013 in Chicago with Peace Corps friends! I’ll report back.


Washington DC Edition

June 15, 2008

Long ago someone described an analogy that stuck with me, about how much the first four years post-college–the first four years of “life”–mimic progress through an education. Freshman year of “life,” 2008-2009 when I was living in Redwood City, I was figuring out where I was and who I should be becoming, halfway between homesickness for the halcyon school days and feeling like a bona fide adult. Sophomore year, 09-10, saw me getting out of my comfort zone and exploring new territory, having moved to DC. Junior year I “studied abroad” in China. Senior year featured some soul searching (leaving China, beginning the job search) and finally becoming fully and gainfully employed and adultier.

Next month will mark the four year anniversary of my graduation from Stanford. I never would have envisioned that these four years would have looked like this, but it’s certainly been an amusing ride.

Back to the present. I had originally interviewed at Booz Allen Hamilton in October of last year and had been tentatively offered a job shortly thereafter, but not to start until April. In January off I went to Southeast Asia and in February, to that action-packed Caribbean cruise. Within a week of returning I got the phone call I’d been waiting for, with a firm start date from Booz Allen three weeks hence.

So, next up was a whirlwind of packing and shopping (BAH offered a relocation package that took care of all the costs of moving my large quantities of Stuff) and quick goodbye-west-coast trips to AZ and SF. Ro joined me for the trip to DC, and we arrived Apr. 5, preceding my moving truck by a couple of days. The biggest delight of the day was the couch that had been purchased in CA and stubbornly refused to fit through the apartment door. Hey, did you know you can hire people to come to your house, take your furniture apart, and then reassemble it inside?

See the size of that couch? See the size of that hallway?

At Booz Allen, I am a consultant in the Strategy and Organization Capability, Organizational Efficiency and Effectiveness Center of Excellence. Yes, it’s possible to say that in one breath but just barely. What this means practically is that I’m on a project helping the Department of Navy work towards audit readiness by compiling and centralizing information about financial procedures. As far as consulting gigs go, this one has some advantages–I’m on a small, manageable team of 6, it’s a contract expected to last as long as two years, and I’ll have a legit permanentish office, as opposed to sitting at a client site or sitting in temporary office space. One downside is that that office is in Crystal City–this is a commute that involves about 16 mins of walking, 15 mins of metro-riding, and 2-10 minutes of wait time, so not bad (but not as ideal as it would have been to sit in the Booz Allen DC office by my house). My project is still in the ramping-up stages and there are some kinks to iron out (still waiting for that permanent office to be assigned), but all in all this is going to be a good opportunity to do real work and learn a ton.

Meanwhile, things on the “life” side of the Work-Life Balance are swimming along nicely. Somehow I’ve already managed to consolidate/acquire more friends in this go-around than I did in the 09-10 year, so it’s been a busy few weeks and I’m not complaining. Except about how I’m not getting an ideal amount of sleep. It’s a great time to be in DC–good weather (mostly), people excited about summer’s arrival, and lots of new people to meet.

I’m also really happy with my living situation–I’m in a decent-sized studio in a big building on Scott Circle, within a 10-minute walk of three metro lines, the White House, Whole Foods, and tons of restaurants and bars, and in a 25-minute walk I can be in almost every major entertainment district in DC or, like, the Smithsonian. For all my frequent Smithsonian trips.

It’s kind of strange to be able to look forward and not see any major changes on the horizon. This is pretty much the first time since high school that I haven’t known a move was eventually coming, and that I’ve had an occupation that can really go on indefinitely. But meanwhile, I’ve got some exciting plans to look forward to. Matthew and I are doing Birthright Israel in August. I expect to be in CA for weddings etc in August and October. There are a couple of delightful friends planning visits to DC in July. And hopefully along the way there’ll be more local adventures like beach trips.

So, sum total, life is pretty good. It would have surprised me, at college graduation or even at leaving China last year, to know what was going to happen down the road but I guess that’s life. Come visit me in DC and see for yourself!

Happy birthday Chet: The Chester Arthur Trivia Quiz!

On the heels of my Newsies post, I’ve been thinking about other Obsessions That Have Shaped Me. And what more fitting day to do so than today, October 5: the birth date of my hero, Chester Arthur.

I first “discovered” Chet (as he was known to friends, and therefore to me) around ninth grade, when I read an article about him in a book of miscellaneous trivia. The piece talked about how Chet is a fine example of someone who now belongs to the “dustbin of history”—where historical figures go after they’re forgotten. This didn’t sit well. Here was a man who was President of the United States, for christsakes, and who did a halfway decent job of it, and yet many Americans have never even head of him. (This is true: spend 10 minutes standing next to Chet’s portrait at the White House or National Portrait Gallery and the overheard audience commentary will be abysmal.)

Chester Arthur has had a surprisingly large impact on my life for someone who died 100 years before my birth. He played a not-insubstantial role in getting me admitted to Stanford, I’ve written essays and a short play about him, and I have a small collection of books and memorabilia dedicated to him.

So today, please take a moment to help me pay tribute to our 21st president on what would have been his 182nd birthday. And to celebrate, I present: the official premiere of the…

Chester Arthur Trivia Quiz!

Ten questions follow, and a bonus round. Submit your answers in comments or just keep score at home. I may even award a genuine Chet-related prize to whomever scores highest! So no cheating. And those of you who have played the oral version of this with me may be handicapped.

In any case, it’s clear who the real winner here will be: Chester Alan Arthur, whom we’ll all be learning about together! Let’s start. Each question is worth 5 points.

1. Chet was actually born in 1829 and died in 1886. However, there has been some confusion in the historical record. Which of the following is true?

a.     Chet told people he was born in 1825—perhaps because he wanted to seem older and more mature when he began his political career.

b.     Chet told people he was born in 1830—perhaps because his wife was younger than him and he wanted to seem more youthful.

c.     Many people thought Chet actually died in 1885—because he was known to be in poor health and then wasn’t present at the inauguration of his successor, President Cleveland.

d.     Chet never knew for certain what day he was born—October 5 or 6—because of a lost birth certificate and confusion in his large family.

2. Chet’s father had which of the following occupations?

a.     Preacher

b.     Teacher

c.     Lawyer

d.     Local, elected politician

3. Which of the following positions did Chet himself NEVER hold?

a.     Teacher

b.     Lawyer

c.     Local, elected politician

d.     General

4. In 1859, Chester married Ellen “Nell” Herndon. Although they had two children, and although Chet was crushed by her death from pneumonia in 1881, their marriage was troubled at times. What was perhaps the biggest source of conflict?

a.     Whether Chester Jr. would follow his father into politics or not.

b.     Money, thanks to extravagant spending by both parties on clothes and entertainment.

c.     Slavery, since Chet was a staunch abolitionist and Nell was a Southerner.

d.     Slavery, since Nell was a staunch abolitionist and Chet was a Southerner.

5. Which of the following can best be described as an enemy of Chet’s?

a.     President Ulysses Grant

b.     President Rutherford B. Hayes

c.     President James Garfield

d.     President Grover Cleveland

6. Chet was included as the vice-presidential candidate for the 1880 election as a compromise to keep various political factions happy. Which was Chet’s political faction?

a.     Stalwart (Republican)

b.     Mugwump (Republican)

c.     Half-Breed (Republican)

d.     Republican (unaffiliated)

7. After Garfield was assassinated in 1881, Chet became president. Which of the following did Chet accomplish while in office?

a.     The Pendleton Civil Service Act, reforming the excesses of the spoils system and providing the basis for the Office of Personnel Management

b.     The opening of the Brooklyn Bridge

c.     The Chinese Exclusion Act (which Congress passed over Chet’s veto)

d.     The beginning of the creation of a modern navy

e.     Discovering the young Louis Comfort Tiffany and hiring him to redecorate the White House

f.      All of the above!

8. After leaving office in 1884, Chet did not actively seek reelection due, in part, to failing health. Which of the following was the cause of death?

a.     Heart disease

b.     Kidney failure

c.     Liver failure

d.     Cancer

9. Which of the following has NEVER been a nickname for Chester Arthur?

a.     The Man About Town

b.     The Gentleman Boss

c.     The Dude

d.     Elegant Arthur

The statue of Chet in Madison Square Park, New York

10. Chester Arthur made the news briefly in 2008. Why?

a.     Because of comparisons with Obama’s ACORN controversy.

b.     Because Chet’s father’s family and Obama’s mother’s family are from the same Irish town.

c.     Because both attended Harvard Law.

d.     Because of comparisons with Obama’s “birther” naturalization controversy.

BONUS ROUND: Name as many as you can of Chet’s passions, pastimes, hobbies, and extracurricular activities. Each correct answer is worth one additional point.

Thanks for playing! I’ll post answers/explanations and winners (if applicable) in 2-3 days, so get answers in the comments section soon!

And, of course, Chet and I also welcome any general comments, questions, or well-wishes here or on his Facebook or Twitter.

Redlands, Home Sweet Home

It’s strange that I’ve only been home for 2.5 weeks now. It seems like China was forever ago. Thanks to my visit home in July/August, when I underwent the majority of the reverse culture shock, this time around it’s been easy to slip back into old routines and familiar settings. And it continues to be a delight.

There are certain vows I made while in China–like that I would never complain about the weather again–that I have so far held up with ease (you call this too hot and humid?! I would have *killed* for this kind of weather any day in Chongqing!). And I’m also maintaining my generalized delight with America. There are still moments where my ability to solve simple problems thanks to a shared cultural context takes my breath away, or where I realize with a start what a luxury it is to be able to speak at full speed and with full range of vocabulary 100% of the time.

But more important than any language- or environment-related perks of living in the US again is the more generalized delight and pride I feel in being an American and living in the US. I know, I know. But it’s true what I’m telling prospective employers: I’ve never been prouder to be an American (the song that relates to this is still my cellphone ringtone), and I am so thankful for my China experience in part because it has made this so much clearer for me.

So, I job search. Especially after teaching in China and seeing some of the pros and cons of that system, I’m interested in working in education and on education reform in this country.

After the party was the after-party, and after the party was the hotel lobby, where I posed with the bride, Ashley, and another close friend, Lauren.

Meanwhile, spending time Redlands has been fun too. I was thrilled that I was home in time to be added as a last-minute bridesmaid for the wedding of my close childhood friend, Ashley. No, you don’t want to know how much time, money, and effort went into securing the cobalt-blue chiffon bridesmaid gown the week before the wedding, but suffice it to say it was all worth it.

The wedding line-up. I'm on the faaaar left!

Last weekend was jam-packed with wedding activities (errands! luncheons! after-parties!) and it was a delight. Yes, the wedding party was rather sprawling (count ’em: two ministers, 11 bridesmaids including two maids of honor and one junior bridesmaid, nine groomsmen including one best man, two ushers, two attendants (ie, guestbook ladies), three flower girls, and two ring bearers), but it was an elegant, well-organized event through and through. Well, except for the wedding party’s ride on the “party bus” from the ceremony to the reception, which got a little inelegant….

So, Redlands has been a pretty good place to be lately, and so far there certainly aren’t any regrets. In the next couple of weeks I’m doing a Return Tour to visit Matthew in NY and possibly job hunt in DC and/or the Bay Area. Stay tuned.


About a month ago, Ro sent me an excited email—a tour of the stage version of High School Musical would soon be sweeping through five cities in China, including my very own Chongqing. The information I could find in English was sketchy, but I learned it was playing for a couple weeks at the huge, state-of-the-art opera house in Jiang Bei, across the river to the north from the downtown area. Presumably, thanks to the promotional photos that featured non-Chinese actors, this would be in English. Obviously I had to go.

Of course, I asked around a little to my PC friends but no one was too psyched either about (a) going or (b) spending the kind of money on tickets that might be required. So instead I suggested it to the host family I lived with when I first came to CQ [this, btw, is the abbreviation for Chongqing that I use frequently. Keep up!], who have a 9-year-old daughter who is enthusiastic about such things as Hannah Montana, if not yet exposed to HSM, and whom they fervently encourage in English pursuits. Said host, LL, called the theater for details, and found out the cheapest two tiers of tickets were “sold out”—so we made the plan to arrive at the theater for the Saturday matinee and try to get cheaper tickets day-of. I didn’t have huge confidence in this plan, but whatever.

So on Saturday, off we went—me, LL, 9-y-o daughter M, non-English-speaking husband of LL, there just to drive and not to see the show and be generally silent (this is almost always the case), and friend of LL and her 13-y-o daughter, K, both of whom lived in New Zealand for a year and speak excellent English. (You may recall that LL and M also lived in Vancouver for a year, so same situation). We arrived at 2 for the 2:30 show. “Stay in the car,” LL and Friend instructed. “If the vendors see you, they may charge a higher price.” Probably true. LL and Friend first approached the official ticket booth, who quoted the cheapest ticket price available as 280 yuan, or about $40, which is quite steep given my monthly “salary.” They then skulked around to various scalpers (a new word I taught them), but nothing was working out acceptably. Then back to the ticket booth, 10 minutes before the performance was to start. “We’ve had a cancellation…” was now the story, and we were sold five tickets in the top balcony for 180 yuan. Pleased, we hurried into the theater.

Those of you who saw High School Musical in San Francisco with me in 2008 can best imagine what the production was like. I don’t remember all the features of that production, but I did notice a couple small differences–like no slow-motion glowing basketball on a stick sailing towards the basket in the final game scene. However, it was essentially the same—except for the Chinese supertitles on a screen above the stage, like you’d have at an opera. There were no Chinese people in the cast, or anything of the sort.

The show was fun, although I’d say the cast wasn’t quiiiite up to the quality of what I expect to see as a national touring production at a major theater in the US. I know it’s a kids’ show, and that it’s catering to a Chinese audience, perhaps, but a couple characters, especially Sharpay, were exaggerated to the point of not funny. But still, I got a little teary when the first song started, thinking about all my nostalgic, fuzzy associations with HSM at home. But what was perhaps even more interesting than the show itself was the audience reaction.

Because, mainly, this theater audience didn’t really know how to be a theater audience. The huge auditorium wasn’t full, and I expect steep ticket prices, and what seems to me to have been mediocre publicity, may have contributed to that. But it was filled with wealthy Han Chinese, and Han Chinese only. I was the only white person there besides the performers, and nor were there any Chinese minorities about (since they tend to be poorer).

But it felt like everyone was play-acting at being a theatrical audience. At a Chinese performance, the audience chatter throughout, and stop to clap and interrupt whenever something exciting happens. Here, the audience mostly sat in studied silence, however, forgetting themselves only here and there when they would burst in to applaud when a ballad, like “What I’ve Been Looking For (Troy and Gabriella)” began, then remembering to clam up again. (Chinese people have a serious love for ballads. At any karaoke session, it’s the majority of what you hear). There would be tepid applause after musical numbers, but it was like people weren’t totally sure whether applause would be appropriate, so they didn’t. This was even worse for the curtain call—first, the last number ended, and there was fairly good applause. Then, some dancers came back on, danced, and bowed, to a little applause. But as each subsequent performer came back on for his bow, the applause tempered down to nothing. It rose again for the final all-cast bow, and then immediately ceased when the performers went offstage. The “encore” bow was a joke, since encoring a bow when no one had been applauding in the first place seems a little…forced.

There was other stuff. When the lights came up for intermission, there was confusion and silence, even from my companions, until an announcement in Chinese was made about this being only a 20 minute break. There was a child of about 4, who had come up to me in wonderment outside the theater and then who happened to be sitting near us. But by sitting near us, I mean, walking around the whole balcony throughout the show, without any intervention from his ipad-wielding mother. During one part near the end, when some dancers came up into the audience to “watch” the performance of “Breaking Free,” the child ran right over to the cheerleader girl and was hanging onto her while she was trying to lead the step-clap. Still no parental intervention. They probably thought it was cute.

Oh, and a fistfight broke out in the orchestra part of the audience at the very end of intermission. The parties involved were helped out by ushers, but only after a couple minutes, and only after the second act was already beginning. It was bizarre.

I think the production definitely could have made a few changes to make it more audience-appropriate. There were a few concessions—a couple of heavy-handed references to Chongqing, and occasional “ni hao” or “xie xie.” More amusingly, a Chad line—“ Do you think LeBron James or Shaquille O’Neal ever auditioned for their school musical?” was changed to mention Yao Ming. A couple of the character exited to go get “dim sum” (not even something you can get in Chongqing). And in the silly, extended drama club scene that’s only in the stage show, where the characters are doing an acting exercise impersonating animals, one dancer was instructed to “*be* the panda!” But despite the Chinese subtitles, there were many, many lines and references that would have gone over all the audience members heads. Theater-related puns, references to pop culture, etc. A couple small things may have been changed—like, sadly, “Everyone loves a good jazz square, it’s an American classic!”—but what they did change seemed random and so many jokes were surely missed. Plus, some staging conventions, like occasionally having cast members go into the audience, were totally inappropriate—it would completely draw focus from whatever was on stage, even after the actor had left the audience, with everyone standing up and chattering and craning to see what was happening.

After the show, in true Chinese style, four of the principal actors were ushered out to the lobby to sign autographs—in character with character names, ala Disneyland or something. The crowd mobbed them, with everyone holding up their camera phones to try to get a shot. This went on for 15 minutes, with M and K trying to get their tickets signed. By 20 minutes after the show ended, we were walking around the side of the theater to the parking area past…the entire cast, now in street clothes but still in makeup, smoking cigarettes just outside the theater, mostly being ignored by the other former audience members exiting.

It seemed worthwhile to approach them—there’s some solidarity in being a foreigner here, definitely. I talked to a few of them for a couple minutes—yes, this was a China-only tour, something like two months long, and most of them didn’t seem to be American, as there was a mix of European and African-sounding accents. “How has it been going?” I asked vaguely. “Uh, OK…It’s really…different. The food, and the people, and stuff,” answered an African dancer girl. “Yeah, I’ve been here for a few months, and am going to be here for two years more, it’s an adjustment,” I replied. Suddenly several more cast members were paying attention to me. “Really?” the girl who played Martha (!) asked, looking shocked. “How are you…coping?” Seems to me they’ve probably been having a really tough time here. That’s a long time to spend in China, traveling from place to place (never fun), probably with little to no cultural training or knowledge, and facing these weird audiences and whatnot.

We headed back to Beibei and to dinner at a banquet-style restaurant, where a little roughhousing on the girls’ part led to an “expensive” vase being broken at the end of the meal, leading to a heated dispute over fault, leading to police intervention, and leading, eventually, to my hosts paying a pretty small fee. Just another day in China.


Spring Musings

I leave for Peace Corps staging in San Francisco in 71 days, and then China itself two days after that. Thoughts?

Obviously there are nerves, but I’m starting to get more and more excited, and feeling more and more ready. In the fall I couldn’t imagine leaving DC as soon as the spring, and although I continued to go through the Peace Corps motions, perhaps in my heart of hearts I doubted that I would be for real doing it. When I got my China assignment at the beginning of December, the Real still hadn’t quite kicked in. China, in almost seven months? Sure, we’ll see.

For whatever reason, I think my change of heart occurred around February. In January I got back from fabulous xmas vacation, I celebrated New Years with new friends in my new town of DC, and I began to see the world through new eyes (no really, new vision-corrected eyes). And once all the bustle of all that excitement calmed down, and I got underway with the work of my second semester of school, I kind of woke up one week and realized that I was actually going to do this. That I would be ready to go some four months hence. I do love DC, and am sorry to be leaving my friends here, but it’s going to be OK to go. Continue reading