My Writing Process – Blog Tour

I’m very happy to have been invited to participate in the My Writing Process — Blog Tour by fellow poet and Cave Canem sister Pamela Taylor. I met Pam last year at the Cave Canem retreat for fellows. We became cafeteria buddies and bonded over discussions on craft and our shared Southern culture. Pam’s blog A Poet’s Double Life offers tantalizing treats for those who are trying to lead creative lives while punching the 9 to 5 clock. I have been following Pam’s blog for the past year, and her unyielding motivation has inspired me to continue my own creative journey while here in China; and her poem-a-day challenge during the month of April offered me poems everyday to feed my soul. I am delighted to be a part of a this online creative community, so thanks Pam for inviting me to take part in this tour!

What are you working on?

I am always working on several poems and creative projects. I enjoy being in the mix and China has provided plenty of poetic possibilities for me to draw from. I’ve been focusing on form the past few months and am in the middle of editing my first attempt at a sestina. The form is very challenging, but rhythmically rewarding. “Leaving Beijing” is about how I try and capture moments with my pen; a meditation on time and memory. I will post it once I’m at least 75% happy and presently I’m at maybe 65. On a side note, My favorite word right now is presently and I’ve actually thought about writing a series of sestinas that all use the word. I like how presently captures the here and now in a very British sort of way. “Leaving Beijing” would be the first in this series. Maybe all would be about time in some sense or another. We’ll see….

I’m also working on a series of Chinese Couplets written in English. I’ve finished the first two groups of couplets written for the The Dance Between East and West project I’m co-creating with my colleague Barbara Moreland and several Chinese students from the English and Art departments. The project, which will be showcased next weekend, partly focuses on creative interdisciplinary approaches for teaching and learning English and partly focuses on the intersection between visual and written representations of China’s changing landscape. Once we finish the project, I will blog about it and share some of the couplets and drawings. My couplets for the project are nature poems based on my travels around China, and I plan to finish the series after Eris and I take our last sojourn to Shanghai. I’m really excited about this series. Following the Chinese couplet rules, which I modified from the traditional rules with the help of my students, are a challenge because the brevity of the form forces me to focus even more on the individual word. These compressed images of my Chinese experience will also be used for my poetic postcards, so a few of you will get to see these first hand.

Along with creating new work and planning poetic events, I am also reediting my first book and submitting a shorter version to several chapbook competitions, and I have a few other journals to send poems to before this year’s submission season comes to a close. Over all, staying active creatively is the stuff that feeds me. No matter what, I focus on sustaining and nurturing my creative side. Besides, people tend to enjoy my company better when I allow myself time to create!

How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?

Hummm, I suppose the short of it is that my work is just that, mine. I write from my own quirky sense of self. I write about my experiences which are shaped in part by my identity as a Southern multi-racial woman, as a traveler, mother, vegetarian, and observer of the world in the late 20th and early 21st century. I think my voice is uniquely my own, as a fellow creator once mused, “kinda like Shel Silverstein with soul,” and a little attitude too I might add. I like humor because laughter is like medicine and I like rhyme and rhythm ’cause I like to get down and funky.

Why do you write what you do?

To sort out the crazies, the sillies, and the rest of the obsessions. To find peace. To attempt to connect through shared experience. To risk and rattle the edges of the mundane. To spark curiosity, inspire, warn, hold hands with and skip on down the lane. I wrote my first poem when I was three and since then the written word has been my guide; through all life’s growing pains, failures, changes, triumphs, tests, loves, lovers and losses I write–it’s what I do.

How does your writing process work?

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Well, it depends on what I’m writing. All of my creative writing is initially done long hand. I write drafts and snidbits on whatever is handy. Various notebooks, envelopes, receipts, whatever is closest when an inspired thought hits. Sometimes poems come when I’m writing in my journal. For my fixed form poems, I will usually write an outline of my idea and then an outline of whatever form I’m using. Then I free write within the frame work and slowly cut back and rearrange. After a few drafts I type the poem and continue to edit (usually playing with word choice and structure) until I feel I have something. Then I’ll send it out to a friend and/or read it to my mom. My mom isn’t the best critic though because she loves all my work and usually cries. My academic writing is far more controlled. I almost always start with a typed draft and go from there. My edits could last forever if there weren’t deadlines. God bless deadlines, it’s the only way I function. Academic writing is also the reason my house stays clean. There is nothing like a late night bathroom scrubbing to help the writing process along.

Thanks again Pamela Taylor for inviting me to this fun blog tour, and thank you guys for reading my post!

On June 16th, please check out the next leg of the tour on poet and writer Sara Amis’ site the Consequence of Change and poet and visual artist Ashley David’s site a word-art-sound thing.

I met Sara Amis marching in a protest on Peachtree St. close to 13 years ago. We both had our kids with us and connected over Sara’s Hip Mama t-shirt. Years later we reconnected in the M.F.A. program at UGA. Now she is one of my close poet friends, and she’s a fellow Southern feminist with enough wit and witchy grit to keep you hang’n on to each word.

I also met Ashley David while I was at UGA. Her passion and knowledge on African Diaspora studies led me to suggest her as my replacement at the Mandala Literary Journal. She successfully ran the journal for two years before graduating with her PhD and moving to Warsaw Poland. Ashley’s poetry is sharp and her experimental edge keeps me on my toes.

Poet bios:

Sara Amis: I grew up in north Georgia, among the ridges and valleys of the lazy tail end of the Appalachians. My father was a civil engineer and my mother was a high school English teacher.  My family is full of educators, storytellers, and eccentrics, and I am no exception to any of it.

Ashley David, MFA & PhD, makes word-art-sound things and lives in Warsaw, Poland. Recent work has appeared in The Offending AdamHyperallergic, and ConjunctionsShe is the founding blog editor for, and a regular contributor to, the Michigan Quarterly Review.

 
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Where in the World Have I Been?

 

Most of January was spent with me in my apartment editing my first book of poetry Among the Garbage and the Flowers. I am happy to say I’m finished, or at least I have stopped editing for now. I even sent it out to a contest and plan on sending it out to several more this spring. Releasing my baby into the wild was a little painful. Some of the poems in this collection have been with me for over two decades. I have grown close to them and fear rejection (some may say I’m textbook). My amazing friend Lee Anne, who is currently living in Madrid, had a lot to do with me completing the manuscript. We talked weekly via Skype and cheered each other on our various projects. She edited and rearranged and I edited and rearranged and then I edited some more. I paced the floor and cried a bit too.

I also sent solo poems out to five different journals and faced my fear. Sadly, I received rejections back from all of them. The first couple rejections hurt bad. The poems I sent were some of my best. After the third I decided to stop checking my iphone first thing in the morning. I mean, what a way to start the day, “sorry to inform you…” or my favorite, “we feel these are not a good fit.” By the end I felt poetically defeated, but then I remembered why I write in the first place, and it is not because I want to be a “good fit.” So, I will continue to send my poems and my manuscript out and eventually I will find a place that loves my work. Last year I got a poem and an academic article published, maybe this year I can shoot for two! Today though, I am content to walk this road slowly. It is nice to be able to smell the flowers along the way.

Finishing my manuscript has freed me creatively, so of course I had to start another project. I have been working with Barbara Moreland, an instructor here, and several students from the art and foreign language departments on a collaborative art project. We are currently calling it The Dance Between East and West and it consists of English Chinese couplets paired with visual art. The poems and drawings respond to China’s changing landscape and to each other. Each poem and painting will eventually be paired to show the “dance” we witness here daily. We plan to showcase our work at the end of the semester and I hope to bring the finished work home to display during my next poetry event.

For the project, I have been writing a series of Chinese landscape poems; my observations of the vast dichotomies of this land. The traditional and the modern, the young and the old, they dance with a grace at times and other times a splintering force. Because of the pace of global technology, China’s “progress” is moving at a much more rapid rate. Men atop donkey carts check their smart phones while the smog blurs the outline of factories bellowing, magpies flying, and laundry drying on rooftops. It is all so vast and seething with contradiction. The socialist and the capitalist sit together and watch the gap widen between the developed and the developing. It is not so different from our country really, except our have-nots might still have electricity for their color TV. The dust that permeates this place tells of lives lost and grand fortunes made. It is a country of dynasties and revolutions, of eunuchs and child armies. History breathes out of crevices and permanent frowns painted on old wrinkled men riding by on tricycle trucks. These loaded with Chinese leeks, with recycling piled high, with children eating pineapple slices on sticks. I am overwhelmed with the possibilities. Of the poems I am writing, of the places I have visited, the time spent here learning. Spent being. I feel blessed to have the aptitude to record.

During this time of creative solitude, I did break away and go to Beijing for a week in January and then in February I went to Thailand to meet some friends who had flown in from Guam. One of my colleagues, Megan, and I took a train to Beijing and booked a hostel dorm at a place called Sitting on the City Walls. The hostel is in a traditional hutong neighborhood. Hutongs are alleys formed by houses, or siheyuans, which are really rooms in a square formation around an open courtyard. The courtyard acts as a community area where neighbors get together to cook, or lounge and play poker. The hostel is in a converted siheyuan, but the courtyard is covered and acts as the restaurant and lounge area, and the rooms are either private or dorms. We opted for the dorms and slept in a upstairs loft area set up with four twin beds in two small rooms. The ceiling was sloped and my bed was next to a long window overlooking a neighboring siheyuan roof. Cats congregated on this roof at night. I could see their tabby and calico bodies huddled together. The occasional fight, for the warmest nook I suppose, woke me up several nights (the only downside to this location). Our roommates for the first few nights were an English couple who were teaching in Vietnam, and after they left a father and daughter moved in. The hotel was right in the middle of one of the oldest hutong neighborhoods in Beijing. All around us were winding alleys connecting the neighborhood in a maze of concrete and wood shingles. On the bigger alleys, little groceries and noodle shops lined either side. Sellers stood with their bicycle carts filled with vegetables and fruits. Dumplings steamed in round bamboo trays, and little tables and stools were strewn around doorways with thick blankets hanging down for warmth. I fell in love with the place. The closeness of it all. The ancient and the new mingled so effortlessly. A 2,000 year old neighborhood puts everything in prospective.

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I also fell in love with Beijing; the city and her people. I visited the Temple of Heaven and the contemporary art museum on my own, and with Megan we saw a touristy production of the Peking Opera, the Lama Temple, and climbed the Great Wall. Each sight was awe inspiring in its own way. The history of the places intoxicated. I could go again and again and just sit and soak up the age old energy. I navigated my way by the extensive underground subway system. It felt good to be able to get from point A to point B on my own. The language barrier is ever present here, but armed with my trusty map and a few yuan, I was able to see the city without being taken for an expensive ride.

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I wanted to experience Beijing punk (I’d watched a documentary about the scene online), so Megan and I went to the School Bar and caught a show with five of Beijing’s premiere bands. The music ranged from pop punk to a more 80s Discord style, with a little techno (think Joy Division) on the side. I met a French guy at the bar who told me the history of Beijing’s scene. While American punk has been around since the 1970’s, Beijing’s scene has only been around for the last ten or so years, but they have copied the styles and trends from the beginning of the American movement. Because of this, there was every type of punk represented: from the 70s leather pant look, to the 80s spiked mohalk and trihalks, to the 90s gutter punks and emo kids. All of them were pressed together in this renovated hutong neighborhood bar trying to carve out some semblance of individuality. Some way to separate themselves from their parents and the constraints of traditional China. When I went outside for fresh air, I even saw a Chinese ducky boy with a slicked back pompadour. He was wearing Levis rolled up and a jean jacket with Stray Cats on the back. I wondered what he’d watched to make him want to try this style. The movies The Outsiders and The Wanderers popped into my head as he and a Chinese skinhead wearing oxblood Docs and a bomber jacket walked off into the night. I thought about getting a picture, but I figured that they might get pissed and display their punk prowess, so I just watched unobtrusively. After talking to some expats from Switzerland, I made my way back inside. Past the staggering green and blue haired youth and the Darby Crash cutout (one of the coolest Germs tributes I’ve seen) to the tiny smokey bar where the music blared, the red lights disoriented, and I pogoed the night away with local Chinese and expats alike. Who were there, as I was, to witness Beijing’s burgeoning underground scene.

While Beijing offered me inviting history—both ancient and modern, Bangkok for me was less than desirable. I enjoyed the company of my friends and my wonderful host who put me up in an art hostel in the central tourist area of Bangkok. I enjoyed the incredible food and the temples which were everywhere. I also enjoyed the locals and the rickshaw taxis and the colorful shacks that lined the ancient river, and the famous Thai massages—that left my body feeling like a good and tenderized piece of meat. What I didn’t enjoy though were the “sex”pats who have turned this tropical oasis into one of the most sleaziest destinations in Asia. The first night there my friends and I were accosted by hawkers selling erotic dances and sex of all kinds (they had menus) while children sat behind makeshift counters in a street market selling dildos and butt plugs, blow up dolls and water pipes. Now, I am not a prude, but we are talking five and six year old kids. It was gross and I was appalled. We had only wandered five minutes away from our hostel when we unknowingly stumbled into the red light district. We got out of there quickly, but not before encountering enough to taint the remainder of my stay. I tried to reason that every country and every city has a sex industry. That people have a right to make their living how they see fit. I mean, even Athens has Toppers and a few jack shacks on the outskirts of town, but seeing the young children and knowing what I know about sex trafficking was too disturbing for me to forget. Being a mother with a fourteen year old and knowing that in Bangkok there were probably hundreds of fourteen year olds being forced to live a life of sexual servitude. I cried and I wanted to adopt every young girl I saw with vacant eyes. Dressed in tiny hot pants and halter tops. Everywhere I went I saw old white men with young Thai girls and the memory of the hawkers calls would ring like poison in my ears, “come in, come see the bananas and pingpong balls.”

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While I was in Bangkok I desperately wanted to “go home,” but the home I pictured was my apartment at Liaocheng University. I wanted to be back to the simplicity of my life here in China. To wake up and walk a mile and a half to my dusty little foreign language department building, to teach too many Chinese college students how to write a western essay, to go to the street market for baked sweet potatoes and black rice soup. I wanted to once again look out my window and see the weeping willows, the crab apple trees just beginning to bloom. Here I have found a solace that I missed while in Bangkok, though Bangkok did provided a good contrast for me. It reminded me that being a traveler, being a human, comes with certain responsibilities and we all have to play our part. I witness and I hope that what I write and what I share inspires others. The smallest perception shift is enough for me to know I am doing my job, and I see that when I talk and share. Yes, I am also an idealist. I’m almost forty, so I don’t think this is going to change. I know in China there are many problems, just as in Bangkok and in Athens Georgia too. I think though that if I can shift a little and you can shift a little, then all that does ripple out and will find its way around the world. Into the depth of this human experience, into the cracks and shadows—to heal. Today I need to believe that this world can be healed. That we don’t have to except misery as an inevitable part of the narrative. I spent a week in Bangkok witnessing—and despite the misery I saw, there was so much beauty. There is so much beauty. But the energy is too thick there, so I eagerly returned to China—as crazy as that may sound. I arrived back on a Saturday afternoon two days before the start of the spring semester. I finished my syllabi, began my lesson plans, and awaited with anticipation for March, which would bring a new kind of adventure to Liaocheng—my family.

 

Christmas is Coming: Part Two

[Better late than never!]

During the week of Christmas we had a departmental holiday party which was a fancy affair. I was glad for this because I brought several nice dresses that I’d yet to wear. Most of the locals here wear the same outfit throughout the week and I have adopted this custom, so I end up wearing the same pants three to four days straight. I do change my undergarments and usually don a daily new shirt however. I might continue this back in the states, though I can already feel Eris’ staunch disapproval. When she was little I used to think I was cool enough that I’d have parent embarrassment immunity during her teen years. How delusional I was. Nothing prevents the inevitable blank stares and eye rolling glares. The, “Mom! Please!” as she tries to distance herself from me. Her friends like me, but to her I can be just as much as an embarrassment as my mom was to me when she’d pick me up from school in her Toyota Corolla wearing her polyester bellbottoms. I still remember my face turning red as the car would ’round the corner. The flaking orange paint screaming to the world its inhabitants were truly throwbacks from some distant time. I wanted my mom to understand how utterly old fashioned she was, “I mean gag me, it’s the 80s,” I’d muse while skating around our condo’s parking lot wearing my “I Love Rock in Roll” T-shirt and matching ruffled mini. The one with the little records silk screened across like a flock of alien black birds. In China, I hear the same thing from my students. Even though some may wear the same outfit for a few days, they will make sure it is modern and hip. When I have inquired about traditional Chinese dresses or shoes my students look at me like I’m crazy, “that’s for old people,” they say and explain that maybe their mothers wore traditional clothing when they were young, but no one under thirty would be caught dead wearing a high collar cheongsam.  So, I guess I just have to embrace the fact that teenagers, in Athens GA or on the other side of the world, will always be embarrassed by their parents no matter for wearing the same clothes or old fashioned ones. Recognizing this is good. It frees me to wear my pants three days in a row which makes fancy occasions, like a holiday party, even more special.

The party was at 5:00 pm on Monday December 23. I’d gotten all gussied up after my yoga class and met the other foreign teachers in front of the School of International Affairs. After a short drive, we arrived at Beijing Duck, a three story restaurant with Liaocheng’s largest lazy susan. There were about twenty five in our party and after mingling for a few we all sat around the table to begin our meal. The servers began to place various platters on the lazy susan, and the main course,  peking duck, was brought out separately. I decided to try the delicacy after watching the chefs wheel in carts and artfully chisel the little ducks down to their bones. The meat was set on separate platters from the skin. I was told the skin was the best part and was instructed to wrap it in tiny Chinese pancakes with green onion and a dollop of hoisin sauce. I ate two and while I’ll probably not order Peking duck skin in the future, it tasted pretty good. A bit reminiscent of my father’s favorite pork rinds. Not as fried, but just as greasy. The other dishes equally challenged my expectations. I also tried smoked tofu skin and sauteed crab grass, both bi products of China’s diverse farming practices.

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While the foods here celebrate China’s natural landscape, the Chinese eating customs mirror their national story. It is one of communal cooperation and shared vision. Where our story is of rugged individualists who eat their food on single serving plates with a fork and knife, the Chinese share from a vast assortment of little dishes with a pair of chopsticks. This creates both a communal feel and built in control. Everything is shared and you can not take too much. I have tried. It doesn’t work. Instead, you wait as the lazy susan slowly spins and use the sticks to get a little bit of this and a second small helping of that. In this way everyone gets their equal share. This is all in theory of course. There are still popular dishes which empty out first, and if one doesn’t pay attention the opportunity to grab what one really wants will pass. I enjoy the Chinese way of eating, though I have heard that many a squeamish American have vocally pooh poohed this custom. That a teacher here a few years back even refused to participate in the sharing of food. It is unsanitary I am sure she reasoned; so many putting their chopsticks into dishes and then into their mouths and back again. We are a nation of germaphobes. Collective schizophrenics with too many conflicting ideologues. Our Puritan past mucks up the ruggedness so championed by our forefathers and mothers. I suppose one must pick and choose among the many narratives we are given. I pick the one that isn’t put off by sharing food and possibly a little spit with a bunch of foreigners. At our holiday dinner we had six countries represented: China, the Philippines, Japan, Korea, America and France. There is something inspiring about eating as a mini united nations. Everyone sharing equally with each other. It is the stuff, I imagine, that will linger well after this journey is done. That will amuse and aid as a reminder of our shared, if not always appreciated, humanity. We found common ground with our chopsticks where we all cracked party jokes and celebrated a semester well done, and the Chinese love to celebrate. Any excuse to practice their culture of toasting.

The toasts that evening started with the Vice President of Liaocheng University. With a translator, he welcomed a new group of Korean teachers who hadn’t made the dinner at the beginning of the semester, and thanked the rest of us for our hard work. The toasts are given in a hierarchical structure, with the most important host first and then in a criss cross order around the table. The culture of toasting here is ingrained into the very fabric of social life. There is a proper order and certain expectations such as with the Gam bei toast which roughly translates “bottoms up” and means you’d better drink every last drop. There are little shot glasses at every set and as the night wore on the glasses were picked up and the contents drained repeatedly. At one point the head of the School of International Affairs, Mrs. Song, and the seven Deans of the University left their seats and began to walk around the table to toast each of us individually. They were a couple people away from me when I realized my glass was empty. There were a few us not drinking so there was one bottle of Sprite on the lazy susan. The bottle was in front of JoJo, so I quickly asked her to pass it to me. I stood up in my cute little black dress, reached over, grabbed the bottle, and as I sat back down realized too late that my seat was no longer there. The sprite flew, I floundered, and very inelegantly fell straight down. There was, of course, the awkward gasps and then silence. I had achieved the first party foul while only drinking Sprite. There are several jokes here, I know. Somehow though I did not get a drop on my little black dress and after I got back up the Deans, who were patiently waiting for me, decided that I needed two toasts. One for the holidays and one for my health.

After the embarrassment of busting ass at the holiday party, I wearily prepared for Christmas eve and Christmas day. My butt was sore and to top it off I was going to have to work on Christmas. The Chinese only celebrate Christmas so far, and giving us the day off was not a part of their understanding of our much cherished holiday. The Christmas eve party ended up being a lot of fun though. I invited a few of my students and several teachers came over as well. We drank hot apple cider (a drink new to my students), sang Christmas carols (I was careful to only pick secular ones), and we watched a documentary on the origin of Christmas. My students were very familiar with the commercialized version, but were fascinated by some of the lesser known facts, some I had actually forgotten.

Being in another country and viewing my culture from a semi outsider perspective has shed light on the sacredness and the absurdity of some of our traditions. The Christmas tree is a tradition sacred to my family. After learning about the connection between the evergreen tree and the Winter Solstice, we began to put our tree up on this longest day and decorate it with lights and ornaments, and every year we get more ornaments in our stockings to add to our collection. I have ornaments from my first Christmas all the way up and in this way each year is commemorated. The decorating of our tree has become synonymous with our family history. This is a tradition that I feel sure I will celebrate forever, but some of our American traditions are a bit embarrassing to explain. I mean, why do we let our small children sit on fat old men’s laps in the middle of commercial districts and take pictures? What does this say about our value system? We encourage and even force our children to go against their better judgement to sit on strangers’ laps. When a woman does this, she is possibly sexually interested, but when children do it it’s upholding a modern Christmas expectation: the dreaded Santa photo. I am happy to say I never put Eris through that awkwardness. I also never lied to her about where her gifts were coming from. I explained to her that Santa was a myth, a fun one that we participated in, but nevertheless a myth. Kind of like the other myths we have about old white dudes, but that’s a different essay. When I was explaining Santa and his reindeer to my students, I kept on prefacing with phrases like, “this sounds kinda weird but, ” or “it’s a little strange; however…” The night got even weirder though when I tried to explain figgy pudding and why Christmas carolers demand it year after year.

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Christmas day I had to teach an 8:00 am class. This was not fun and I didn’t try to make it fun. Earlier in the semester, I’d thought we’d watch the Christmas documentary, but technology being what it is on this campus I was doomed to say important and seemingly intelligent things to thirty-five 18 to 24 year olds for two hours. Usually this is the challenge I love about the teaching experience, but on Christmas morning when I was thousands of miles away from my loved ones I wasn’t feeling the teaching spirit. I also wasn’t feeling the Christmas spirit. So after walking the two miles to my class room, I finished my lecture on the academic essay (we’d been writing stand alone paragraphs up to this point) and gave them an in class essay the second part of the class. Perhaps I was feeling the Christmas spirit, a cross between the Grinch and Scrooge. I mean, who gives an in class essay on Christmas? To be fair, they knew they’d be writing an essay and I had allowed them to create an outline to use. No one did the homework like I’d asked though, so I spent at least ten minutes lecturing them on the importance of paying attention. This particular diatribe usually starts something like, ” Do you think your boss will understand if you tell him or her you forgot? No! Guess what, you’d get fired!” I fired them all in my mind and sneered a little for good measure doing my best Grinch with authority. After class I silently cursed all of China for making me work and went to my office to drop off the endless stacks of journals I literally have nightmares about.

I walked back home around noon and skyped my family for their Christmas eve. My daughter played some Christmas songs on the piano which made me cry a little. I didn’t think I was as sappy as that, but apparently I am. They went off to sleep and I spent the rest of the afternoon wrapping gifts for our teacher gift exchange and dinner. Being around other westerners cheered me up a bit and we ended up having fun and eating a nice dinner at Liaocheng’s only five star hotel, Arcadia International. As soon as we returned, Eris skyped me so I headed back to my apartment and had my first ever skype family Christmas. My mom had taken the time to send all of my gifts-wrapped, including a full stocking, so we were able to do our usual tradition of taking turns unwrapping the spoils. I will say, even though I couldn’t hug my daughter, I was able to participate in a way that only a 21st century mother could. I saw her face when she opened her big gift and they saw me cry when I opened mine. I’d long shed my Scrooge attire from that morning, and I sat back eating cookies watching my daughter open her “santa” gifts one by one. There was even one under the tree from the Chinese lady in red. The skype technology, which usually freezes up and pixelates, stayed crystal clear for three hours. I am not one to claim the divine every time things go my way, but on that Christmas night I felt something big shinning over us. Something sacred that helped us celebrate that day.

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Update: Work is Done, Now it’s Time to Play

Hello All,

I am finally finished with my first semester! I turned my grades in yesterday and now I am preparing to leave at 4:00 am for Xi’an city in Shaanxi Province. Xi’an is over 3000 years old and is home to the archeological wonder, the Terra Cotta Warriors. I will, of course, write while I’m there and will update my flickr account soon.

I am still working on “Christmas is Coming Part Two.” I had to put it down during finals, but will soon have some unlimited time for writing. This is the first time I have tried my hand at narrative essays, so any critique is welcomed and encouraged! This is also the first time I’ve tried writing humorously. It comes naturally, but I usually edit it out due to almost a decade in academia. I feel very liberated writing these essays. I’ve also allowed my poetic voice to come front and center. I focus more on the rhythm of the sentence  than I do on the grammatical structure. I read for flow rather than pay attention to whether its complete or fragmented. I pause and digress when I feel it’s warranted and I’m trying not to second guess myself too much. It’s hard to “let it flow.” The editor and critic wants to rip it to shreds, but this past year was all about being true to my creative self and these essays are a representation of that. I remember years ago one of my professors telling me I could break the rules once I knew them. Well, I guess that time is now. I am having fun writing and I hope you’re having fun reading.

If you know any humorous essayists I should read (besides Dave Berry or David Sedaris–already know and love) please let me know. I am interested to see what others have done or are doing with this form.

So much more to share, but I still have packing to do and am hoping to get at least a few hours of sleep before my adventure begins. I am planning on writing my year end post on the Chinese new year, so I will update you all then on my poetry projects (one old and one new) and share more about my experiences teaching at a Chinese University. Until it happens, thanks all for following my journey. I am blessed and daily humbled by it all.

With a lot of love and many hugs~

yoga

 

Christmas is Coming to China: Part One

The past month has been an experience of celebrating western traditions in an eastern context. In the small working class town of Liaocheng City China, Christmas means glittering Santa cut outs in all the shop windows and light displays in front of the downtown malls. The locals, for the most part, do not know the history, the stories, or the customs, but are aware that during this time of year Westerners hang up pictures of ol’ fat white men and spend a lot of money. The price of anything Western is jacked up during this time which means it will usually cost more than what we’d pay in America. I swore not to be swayed, though I must admit I did partake in 100 yuan worth of Christmas candy including candy canes I hung on my tree. As I have grown older I have become a dork about Christmas. When I was a young punk rocker I sneered at such consumerist traditions (yes I actually practiced sneering in the mirror), but by next year you will probably see me sporting an ugly christmas sweater. Something strange happens when pushing 40. I would like to think that I have matured enough to see the significance of holiday and appreciate the time to think about and spend with family, but really I just think it takes 40 years to socially condition the defiant, that and I just can’t deny the allure of the pretty lights.

Though challenged at times, my holiday dorkiness has proved no exception here in China. As soon as the official Black Friday day arrived, I became busy planning my green and red outfits for the season, deciding which Christmas earrings I would wear with what, and planning my holiday schedule: including parties and gift buying oh my! I had actually been in the gift buying frenzy for a month prior because I had to prepare a box to send home for the holidays. I am happy to report that I actually got the box out in time (the family received it on Christmas eve), though I still have my grandmother’s card on my desk. Some old habits, like preparing christmas cards and never sending them, die hard. Even in China. I have reason to believe that I am not the only one who does this. Perhaps a support group is in order. What would it be called? I am open for suggestions, and I believe that together we can admit our powerlessness and learn, with practice, how to mail the damn letters on time. This habit has actually gotten so bad, that back at home I have a file of unsent Christmas cards. I hold on to them because…well I am not really sure why. Perhaps to remind myself of what a slacker I can be, or perhaps with the hope that one day I will actually send them. My poor grandmother, she has a file of her very own. Really. As I write this I am grateful she doesn’t have technology, though she might like to know that I do actually think about her. But, I digress. Here in China my holiday habits, such as sending cards, packages, and buying a tree were challenged, but with a little ingenuity I was able to have a very merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

One week into the holiday season I started my preparations, and the first was to send my family’s package. You would think that taking a box full of gifts to the post office would be relatively easy, but I have learned that here in China nothing is easy. At least not for this foreigner. First off, I do not drive here in China (nor would I if given the choice), so getting a big box to the post office meant asking a student to help me carry the box and hail a taxi. Then once at the post office, they had to approve every item I was sending. I knew this much, so I had been prepared and hadn’t wrapped any of the gifts beforehand. Thank the herald angles for that. Instead, I brought my wrapping paper with me and wrapped my gifts in the post office after the inquisition was complete. I’d already defended my intent to send an artistic gourd (no I was not trying to smuggle seeds), when the postal warden, I do not use that term lightly, zeroed in on the christmas cards I had carefully taped to each wrapped gift. I have learned to deal with my handicaps and figured this was a sure way to get my cards sent, but to my disbelief she told me I was not allowed to send anything with words in the box. I was getting frustrated, we’d been there well over an hour, but I pulled out each letter and at the end of the extraction showed her that each card had been separated from its gift and was ready to be sent in a different large envelope that I had to purchase. She still wasn’t satisfied. She questioned the traditional Chinese envelopes I’d included with each card. The red holiday envelopes are used here to give money during Spring Festival. They’re considered good luck for the coming year, so I’d decided to send one to each family member with a Chinese dollar bill and a photo inside. When I opened one to show her the contents, she freaked. I mean the stream of Chinese that belted out accosted every pore of my being. I looked over at Hunter, my patient Chinese friend who’d accompanied me, and he said, ” you can’t send money.” I have a hard time believing this is all that was said, but I just rolled my eyes like the foreign teenager I’d been reduced to and proceeded to take the bills out of each card and show her, with a defiance not felt since high school, that each envelope was clean. I wasn’t holding anything back. I knew she didn’t trust me. Hunter told me if anything else contraband were found after shipping I’d be charged and my package would be returned with me footing the bill. There was nothing, though I worried about the words written on my makeshift christmas tags. I decided to take a chance on these, I mean could my package really be quarantined for the words, “ho ho ho from the Chinese Santa”? Luckily, the answer to this question was no, but at the time, as I handed over a fourth of my paycheck to mail the package (ok, that might be an exaggeration), I thought to myself, well I’ll really find out this year who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.

With the package out of the way, I was able to focus on getting my foreign expert apartment decorated. I’d decided to get a real tree, so I asked one of my students, Helen, to take me to a green house I’d remembered her mentioning. That afternoon we started our journey at the student center where I was able to procure green and red garland (the Chinese love shinny things) and the aforementioned candy canes. I was actually excited about being able to put candy canes on my tree, as this tradition has been halted at my house due to my daughter’s insatiable appetite for the glories little peppermint sticks. Not that this is a far exchange for being half way around the world, but it did help. We walked the mile of so to the plant nursery. On the outside were two dim and dirty warehouses connected in the middle with a small storefront building, and on the inside was the most beautiful greenhouse I have seen. Home Depot has nothing on this place. The rows and rows of various plants, shrubs, and trees filled my lungs with a nice dose of oxygen, and the greenery greeted my tired limbs with a much needed rejuvenating surge. I am going to fill my house with plants when I return because walking into a room full of green after a long days work is the stuff of godliness. My student and I walked around for awhile before I spotted several small Christmas tree shaped plants. One even had small red bows throughout the branches. Though as I was haggling over the price for one such beauty, I saw out of the corner of my eye the perfect edition to my house: a five foot ornamental Bamboo plant that had been trained to grow in a latticework pattern around a wire frame; my Chinese Christmas tree. It was tall and a little gaudy, a plastic red bow hung awkwardly around its middle, and one of the leaves had already turned yellow, but the plant had a sass about it and dared onlookers not to be merry. I decided that since I was in China I needed a Chinese tree, and a large overgrown bucket of grass was the closest I could find to perfection.

After paying for my wonderful new plant, the next step was to figure out how to get it home. We tried hailing a taxi and asking the driver to drive back to the shop and get the tree, but none of them were willing. Several said it was illegal to carry items over a certain size and one actually came in, looked at the plant, and then changed his mind. It was getting late, the store was about to close when the woman who sold me the plant finally asked a guy who’d been standing off to the side watching the action take place. He agreed, and hauled my tree to his tri wheeled truck (definitely a Chinese phenomenon), and motioned for us to jump in too. He saw my hesitation, so he ran back in and emerged a moment later carrying two tiny chairs. I am not sure how he thought my rear end was going to fit on that little chair, but his confident air persuaded me and I climbed aboard. My backside fit enough and he went slow, but still the ride is not one I’d like to repeat. We made it back to my apartment though, and he even carried the tree all the way up the stairs. Helen and I decorated it with the candy canes and garland and then stepped back to admire our handy work on my bodacious Chinese Christmas tree.

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The Chinese Way

Chinese dogs are mostly short legged and long bodied, like a dachshund had his way with the entirety of China’s dog population. They run around and poop with as much frequency as the toddlers do in their split pants. I am never sure if it’s dog or human feces when I spot the little turds that litter this landscape. Because it is winter I suspect the toddlers. The dogs have become scarce as they are eaten in the winter by the elders who believe this is a good way to stay warm. I would like to tell them they could just let the dogs lie on their feet. Even though I am more of a cat person, my Amerocentric perspective says “companion animals sweet, Fluffy not food.”  I am living in a Province famous for their donkey meat though (“No party complete without the donkey meat” the advertisements say), so what’s a little dog going to hurt?

There are no squirrels here either. I am beginning to have my suspicions about that population too.

Because there are few animals, I haven’t seen any roadkill. This makes me happy. I have often wondered, while driving down 316 or 78, how I became so desensitized, but then feel it is pointless to pull over and bury each one. I’d never get my work done and lord knows I already have plenty of procrastination tools. It would be a new one though. Roadkill burials. Perhaps I will start telling my students that’s why I don’t have their papers yet. It wouldn’t work here, though. My students wouldn’t know what roadkill is. I could prepare a lecture on the topic. Discuss our cultural differences. While your culture eats various animals we don’t, we enjoy driving into them and then leaving the carcasses to rot. Another reason for the Chinese to think we’re wasteful.

I have not tried any of the mystery meat here. My vegetarian status saves me from the fate of my colleagues who have been served fisheyes and fried rabbit heads, where the guest shows you how to split open the skull and suck out the brains. Apparently the eyes taste like peeled grapes with a little squirt of salt water. The brains were passed on, though, I am thinking a chicken flavored jello, perhaps. I may try the cicadas. They are sold in the frozen section of my local Chinese grocer, but I have been told to wait until spring when the street venders sell them fresh.  I hear we are the only nation who doesn’t put our bugs to better use. We are a selectively squeamish people. We can kill entire populations, use others for experiments, wage war with gusto, imprison people and animals, but ask us to eat bugs and we’re like, “Hell no, we’re American! We’re civilized!” I am wondering why it is “civilized” and even considered gourmet for those pesky Frenchmen to eat snails, but when our down south or eastern neighbors eat other crawly critters, it is just one more reason to look down our noses. Perhaps it’s the butter sauce. Or perhaps it is us who are the “othered” and the world’s populations are all just collectively shrugging, “they’re a waning power,” they muse, “we’ll just let them eat their cake.” We are home to the Twinkie though, which will out live everything except the cockroaches. Hummm, are you thinking what I am?

Besides the culinary differences, China has a host of other little quirks we foreigners here refer to as “the Chinese way.” Whatever can’t be explained logically (or understood by our meager little “civilized” minds) is shoved into the Chinese way category which includes our student’s views on cheating and plagiarism, the various painted trees, and the random folks we see walking backwards or thumping their backs up against trees. While some of these practices have been explained to me, the one I still have trouble understanding is the Chinese concept of time. Here, time is not something coveted for individual aspirations. No, here time is considered collective just as the bath houses are, and anything can change. A holiday at a moment’s notice will be changed to a more convenient date, and the government will tack on a few make up days for good measure. Who heard of making up holidays? Well “waste not want not,” I suppose.  Work meetings are scheduled hours before mandatory attendance, and major departmental functions are scheduled or rescheduled according to…well, I’m not sure because the Chinese way is apparently an ancient Chinese secret.

I am beginning to understand that not knowing is actually more Ok than trying to figure it all out. I am here to experience, not to scrutinize and dissect like my academic mind has been trained to do. My lessons here have become the art of accepting the space of perceived awareness. A sense that reality is bigger and more diverse than I previously imagined, and I consider myself creative. Has it always been a creativity based on the confines of my own conditioned understanding? I am sometimes afraid yes, and this makes me feel small. Here, I see I am just this living woman. Actually, I think it is good thing I am feeling smaller. More like a human just bumping along trying not to get hit. I know in life’s smallness lies vast treasure. Like in grains of sand or fingerprints. Those little mica flakes observed when stillness accompanies one sitting on a ledge. To look around. To accept the fragile state of things. Who am I to say what should be eaten, copied, painted, created, framed within, mulled over or under, shat on, spat at, changed, created or destroyed, when I am just another human having an experience. Just another human observing other peoples’ unique little ways.

Navigating My Way

I spent Thanksgiving with my new American colleagues. We decided to keep the affair small and intimate and didn’t invite any of the teachers or students here at Liaocheng University. I felt a little exclusionary doing this; almost separatist as we proclaimed “Only American’s allowed,”  but something about it seemed necessary. Perhaps it is that I am aware I am having an experience and Thanksgiving in China is part of that. Maybe I wanted to stop the experience for an evening. Just be around folks who, for the most part, have similar conceptions as I do. Have a little bit of familiar comfort and leave the outsider status at the door. In America, I think of Thanksgiving as a time to spend with family and friends and to remember the blessings this universe has bestowed, and here it held a similar yet different meaning for me. Here, I identify as an American as strongly as I protested it back home. America, where most of my adult life I have felt “othered,” is now the place I feel most connected. Is it as simple as “the grass is always greener?” Probably, but when experienced in the moment it is as if my whole being is shifting. Like this cosmic force is beaming its rays and I nod in wonderment exclaiming, “yes, I finally see.” I am American, or as I have learned in China Wo shi meiguoren.

Being an American in China always means navigation in some way. During the work week, I navigate between my safe haven, home base, and the westside of campus where the foreign language building is located. I either walk the two or so miles, or if it’s too cold or I’ve overslept I take the no. 7 bus. When I walk, I pass the University hotel where usually the waiters and other workers are also preparing for the work day. They live in a tiny concrete row house behind the hotel. The women walk out to grab their uniforms hanging to dry and I see the men in their undershirts bustling around the dim rooms usually smoking, and sometimes shooing away the stray dogs who hangout around campus and the hotel in hopes, I presume, for some table scraps. Sometimes I see the women already dressed, wearing their four inch platform boots or heels high enough to classify as bedroom shoes. I often marvel at how Chinese women can walk in such extreme footwear, but then I remember they have a long and sordid history with shoes. I wonder if, because of this, they are now genetically predisposed to wear shoes that constrict and contort. I do not make eye contact with the workers. It is too early to be social, plus I know  I am an American oddity, so I put my head down and walk past catching glimpses of the sideways stares.

When I take the no. 7, I am equally stared at and secretly photographed. I am used to this now and it doesn’t bother me too much. I find I always wear my sunglasses though. I feel protected if I do not let them see my eyes. The bus ride is always filled with adventure. One morning we got stuck behind a donkey drawn cart. The man driving with his whip seemed oblivious to the bus blaring its horn inches from his rear. The man and donkey didn’t speed up or move over. I was on the donkey’s side. I wouldn’t want to speed up either with the amount of recycling pilled in the cart. We inched along for a good ten minutes until the road widened again and the bus driver was able to move around. Again, the witness of that strange dance. Of the old and new locked in a puzzlement of will. To solidify the metaphor, up the road we were once again delayed, but this time in a traffic jam the size of Manhattan. There are lanes, but like most of the traffic rules here they are but suggestions. Cars were going every which way. There were some nose to nose, neither driver wanting to back up, to make space. That day, after sitting in the intersection for close to fifteen minutes, I finally chose to get off the bus, weave around the hundred or so cars stuck in a gridlock, and walk the last three city blocks to my job. Sometimes I have to make the choice to navigate away from the insanity of this place.

Navigating through life here has opened me up to the awesome power and the fragility of this lived moment. My senses are heightened and the world beckons me to come be a witness to the loud screams of humanity, to the clacking of the Eurasian Magpies ever insistent that they too be heard. I am aware of the impermanence. Of the fact that this is fleeting, days already fade as I scramble to make sense of it all. On good days I choose not to try and figure it out and instead opt to take China for what she is, for what we all are, moments strung together like the beads of a rosary. Held close to the hearts of the believers. I am a believer, of navigating the here and now. I just need to remind the gremlins who hide behind in the shadows of former selves. Lately, my reminder has been in the form of learning yoga at a little studio called Soul Dhyana Yoga. The owner and main teacher, Juo Yun Xia, speaks as much English as I do Chinese, but we have formed a relationship based on body language as well as a few calls from my students. I’ve found solace in her little studio. I try my best to do the poses as she instructs. Our eyes will meet and she’ll shift her body in the direction she wants me to go. I oblige her unless my body refuses the balancing twists that force me into presence.

One day a few weeks ago I was treated to a surprise as I walked in and saw a woman I didn’t recognize sitting on the mat in the front of the room. She was a Yogic Nun from Vietnam who gave an hour lecture on the best body poses for women. I was fortunate enough to have stumbled upon a Yogic Nun who knew English, so even though I was the only English speaker in the room she translated for me. We bonded over vegetarianism and she invited me back the next day for a guided meditation session. I went, and her words reminded me of other paths I am familiar with, paths of self realization through healthy living, meditation, and service to others. I was in awe at the energy her tiny frame emitted and sat transfixed as she led me on an internal journey to a place I knew but do not usually allow myself enough time to go. Here, in this tiny yoga studio in China I navigated my way within and when I emerged energetic and refreshed, I knew that this American was right where she needed to be.