Emotional baggage

Relaxing with students after their final presentations

It is finished.

I survived my first semester as an English teacher in China. It’s been a stressful time. Over the past two weeks, I sat through about 25 hours of oral presentations by student groups. Most of them were quite good, but the stress of evaluating 306 students’ presentation skills, and of dealing with malfunctioning classroom equipment, has taken its toll. Not to mention worrying about assigning 306 final grades, with 20 % of them required to be 85 % or above.

On top of this, my computer crashed. My files, documents, and photos are now just memories – vanished into the ether. Fortunately, my class syllabus and weekly PowerPoint presentations are saved on my Yahoo website, and all my photos are uploaded to Flickr, but I’m kicking myself for not backing up my files someplace secure. Many of my teaching notes and plans for future classes are, alas, gone. This is yet another lesson in non-attachment. In the midst of these woes, I magically received one-half pound of kava kava powder, ordered on ebay. In the absence of my normal antidepressant medication, kava works wonders and allows me to relax.

“Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.”

I had my first taste of chicken feet the other night. And lotus root. Two “firsts” in one day is quite enough. The Foreign Teachers had a fancy Holiday Dinner in a private dining room at a restaurant, sponsored by the International Office at the University.

I started exercising again a week ago. Last Saturday, I managed to run four laps around the track, and to walk another four. This is a minor miracle, considering the fact that I virtually quit working out last January, and I haven’t run in ages. I then used some of the “stationary” exercise equipment by the track. After my exercise I was much calmer, but very sore. I ran again a couple of days later, and was barely able to walk thereafter. My next step will be to visit the University weight room to hang out with the muscle boys.

On Monday, as an end-of-semester treat, and to reward my workout, I had a full-body massage. I went to a “spa” at one of the downtown hotels, but the masseur’s heart really wasn’t in it, and after 50 minutes of rubdown, then being rushed out of the place so quickly I barely had time to put my clothes on, I didn’t feel much better than before. Next time I’ll go to one of the storefront massage places, and pay less money for better results.

“Wherever You Go, There You Are.”

There’s nothing like moving to a completely alien environment to make you look at all of your emotional baggage from the past. The most unlikely thoughts and feelings have been coming up, and I often find myself talking to myself on the street. I did this in Los Angeles, but there no one else pays attention. Here, I’m a foreigner (laowei) and someone who talks to himself. The alienation and just plain strangeness of things make me feel very isolated sometimes. At the same time, though, I feel quite at home in Chengdu. Once I learn to speak the language, my experience of China will change drastically. The first six months, I think, are the hardest.

I’m beginning to notice the stages of culture shock as I pass through them: open-eyed wonder, the “honeymoon” phase, anger, resentement, isolation, depression, boredom, numbness, more isolation, and the gradual establishment of some kind of “life.” The next two months of vacation will be challenging: I don’t deal well with unstructured time, and I shall have to create my own structure through learning Chinese, practicing the guitar, making an effort to meet people, and taking some short side trips out of town. I also need to paint my apartment, and to plan the next semester’s classes.

My New Years’ wishes to my friends and family are these: peace, self-acceptance, finding your heart’s desire, and knowing that you are loved and cared for deeply.

Jinli Stree, Christmas Eve: Santa and “Friends.” – Photo by Warren Rodwell.


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