1:15 am, Saturday, October 23.
*I’ve been up way to long.*
This post’s a chronological journey through and reflection on Friday, October 22nd—I did a lot and thought about it even more. Yep, it’s a long one. Enjoy. *If you make it to the end, you’ll get a bonus. Hey now, don’t just scroll to the treat! Read on, read on…
Each Friday, I teach writing workshop from 10 to noon, and we’ve two essays in the queue. Last week I assigned a personal essay asking my students to examine where they’re from, to consider aspects of their home city/town/village, and then reflect upon how aspects of their home have influenced and shaped who they are today. Ok, professional disclosure: Nan Voss, I have appropriated your first year composition ‘ethnography of place’ assignment and adapted it for my first year Chinese English writing students. It’s a great essay idea, especially with these students—it’s helping all of us learn more about ourselves and each other. *Thanks, Nan.
Whatever I ask the students to do, I also do, to model what I’m asking of them, and to scrutinize my writing on the chalk board until they’re comfortable picking apart their writing in front of their peers; for example, we’ll look at one of my sentences or paragraphs and work through it to make it better, more descriptive, better focused. Through this process, I share information about me and in turn, they share information about themselves. And that’s the fun part, sharing and learning about each other; the not-so-fun part—or rather, the more difficult aspect of the assignment—is taking that leap of reflection to consider how where we’ve grown up has shaped who we are.
In theory, I’m trying to focus the outcome of this sharing, learning, reflection and sentence creation and examination so that my students will be able to write their own unique thesis statements. But things in writing class, especially a Chinese writing class—often do not proceed so linearly. My top two students get it and are on to some beautiful, reflective, descriptive essays—what every writing teacher longs to read. But to varying degrees, the remaining sixteen are stuck on long descriptions about their cities’ food and/ or cultural history, passages they’ve doubtless memorized and regurgitated innumerable times and again are vomiting back to me.
I think the remedy for this is to have them continue practicing writing thesis statements on a variety of topics until they get it. Really, I think repetition is key, but I don’t want to sour them on writing, either. Ah, what to do? Temporary band-aid? Of course, give ‘em a creative writing assignment!
Essay # 2, concurrent with personal essay:
In small groups write a story with character development, plot, and story resolution; must have a minimum of 3 pages double-spaced, must also include:
(I brought these items to class)
Two feathers; hawk, egret
U.S. $2 bill (courtesy of Brother James of Old Town, Eureka—yeah, man, I brought it to China.)
Sterling bracelet with semi-precious stones, shells, and bones
At least two characters for dialog
The students pounced on this assignment. One group is working on a CSI mystery sort of thing in which a bird allergy is responsible for the main character’s death. (Bird flu, I think, must still be fresh in the mind.) Another group—all female—is writing a story about a forest-dwelling witch who casts a spell and confines a beautiful young woman within a ‘magic bracelet.’ Her only hope of release is true love or the song of the nightingale. (I don’t know, yet, if true love or the bird song finds her first.) Another standout, written by a young woman who prefers to work alone, is about a young girl who must pawn her grandmother’s dowry bracelet to purchase a feather pen so that her brother can go to the city and sit for the national government exam—not sure how that one ends, but it’s very Tolstoy-esque so far.
Yeah, the students are rockin’ the creative writing thing. At the end of the class period, I nearly had to pack their things for them and push them from the room (so I could catch the bus) they were so engrossed in their stories. Ah, how can I encourage and inspire my students to have this level of commitment and interest in their academic writing? How do I help them understand the purpose and importance of a thesis statement, especially as it pertains to successful western-style writing? How do I make thesis statements as fun as writing fiction?? Anyone?
Well, that’s life in the classroom—it’s often inspiring, frequently entertaining, and sometimes just plain exasperating, though I’m not sure who, at this point, is learning more… So learn, learn, learn and practice your thesis statements every day.
After class, I lunched with colleagues from Spain and Italy—as topic for another post, it’s fascinating to learn about who comes to China to teach and why; several like me are economic exiles such that teaching here is the best and most economical option for a year or so. This year, I’m told, creatives are burgeoning among foreign teachers at Xi’an—there’s an award-winning, Spanish documentary film-maker, an Australian conceptual artist, an American DJ and sound engineer, and of course, me with my voice and words. I get the sense from my arty-pharty colleagues they feel as if they’ve been squeezed from their countries’ art and culture scene, that before coming to China they were spending more and more time working to make ends meet—or not making enough at their art—and less and less time on their films, paintings, installations and music. I have little to substantiate this—save for these conversations, my attempts to understand my colleagues’ motives for being here, and what I hear on CNN China—but given the current world economy, it seems it’s becoming more and more difficult to be an artist anywhere in the West. Or even more generally, perhaps, it’s becoming more and more difficult for everyone in the West to have a life in which there is time remaining for personally gratifying endeavors beyond the daily grind. It’s captivating, really, to consider shifting world economics through the phenomenon of foreign teachers—and not just the creative types—who are flocking to China.
After all that deep lunch thinking and talking, I was ready to play music. In a bold move I went to XISU’s main gate and pulled out the guitar to play by the fountain. Oh boy, what a good time! Folks assembled, lingered and listened, gave me thumbs up, sat by me, filmed and took pictures of me all the while smiling and speaking English and excited Chinese. It made me feel very, very special—an ego boost to be sure—and the experience helped me remember why I ever began writing and playing music in the first place. I play, write, and sing because I enjoy it. I love sharing that experience of genuine emotional response when what I do as a singer/ writer/ guitar player resonates with people. And apparently, I resonated with the passers-by.
In a span of three hours: A group of three female students was convinced I was an American Idol and wanted to know when I was on the show; another young woman sat beside me and cried while I played Gillian Welches,’ ‘Orphan Girl’—turns out, she was new, studying English, and missing her family intensely. Another young man sat beside me, and when I took a little break, he taught me how to write the Chinese characters for ‘clever’, ‘strong’, and ‘love’. We chatted in English, and I learned he was a designer from Inner Mongolia visiting Xi’an to give a speech at a design and architecture conference. We talked about art, design, music—he was wandering XISU and Shida (adjacent school) campuses to get a feel for Xi’an Universities. To be sure, it was a special afternoon that made me remember the power and importance of music. Music should be fun and uniting, not competitive and divisive. It felt so good to be that thing creating and sharing, moving and affecting people so strongly through music.
6:30 to 9:00 pm
Time for staff meeting/ dinner with Humboldt College colleagues—good times and great Chinese food. Yum, with fantastic folks! No forks. *Did I mention the food is really, really good? The food is really, really good. I love chopsticks.
10:00 pm Vice Versa
One of my colleagues, Josh the DJ, has a friend who’s opening a new bar, Vice Versa, in the emerging art-bohemian district just inside the south city gate of Xi’an. Josh is convinced I could get a gig there; he’s convinced he could get a DJ slot. At 10:00 an entourage from campus heads to the bar via the city bus. From the bus, we walk east inside the wall where there’s a collection of intimate cafes and small bars. This part of the city has captured my heart. Most wooing are these tiny “bars” that are privately owned, first-floor living rooms converted to cozy lounges complete with couches, big cushions and house guitars. One place in particular is like Humboldt-meets-Amsterdam-meets-Xi’an—dread-locked Chinese guys, pot leaf stickers, skateboards, hookahs, and fixed gear bikes round out the interior. These people are way cool, cooler than I will ever be in this lifetime, but I sit and compose on Saturday afternoons in defiance of my geekdom, placating the inner writing beast. And these uber-cool, dready Chinese boys and girls don’t seem to mind much my presence working out ideas on their guitar. Sometimes they give me free beer —I’m their odd-fashion, token American.
But the new bar, Vice Versa? Yes, it is cool and caters brilliantly to Xi’an’s emerging young-art-creative class. Apparently, two years ago three Chinese guys and an American ex- pat went into business and are just now getting it off the ground. (I understand there’s a lot of red tape involved in start-ups.) Though the near-ancient, four-story building’s not quite finished, its rough-around-the-edges-ness enhances its inherent bohemian flair. The first floor is set up as a coffee shop and hookah bar with light lemon walls and natural-finish, high-backed chairs; the second floor moans crimson with a full bar and stage (on this night there’s a hip hop competition blaring to a full room); third floor’s unpainted and un-detailed, but there’s another hookah, cushioned seating, and an assortment of miss-matched chairs; the fourth floor is completely rough but will be a roof-top terrace.
The place is packed mostly with foreigners and some arty, fashion forward Chinese. It’s very loud. I’m not the best at the large crowd, loud bar thing, but I force myself to work it and meet people, like Sowan a student from Mauritius; Felipe, an aeronautical engineering student on scholarship from Venezuela; Katie, an HSU student; Antonio from Spain; more Italians, Germans, a Japanese visual artist, bar girls out looking. I venture to the quieter third floor where I meet another guy whose name I can’t now remember but who is a personal friend of Mike, one of the bar’s partners. I tell him I’m a songwriter –and friends with Josh—and that I have a CD, and he seems genuinely interested and assures me that I just need to talk to Mike to set up something. A few minutes later, Josh tops the stairs and tells us he’s booked a DJ gig for next Friday. So, uh, yeah, this is all very possible, playing music, collaborating in Xi’an…*know where I’ll be next Friday…
All the people and the noise and the networking have rewarded me with a champion headache, and dang, it’s only midnight. I’m beat. I wish I were better at this late night thing. I’ve never been any good at it, really—college, grad school, usually in bed by 11. …Maybe I suck at it because my formative years were spent in the company of grandparents and great aunts and uncles, old people who preferred quiet and went to bed after the local 10 o’clock news. Maybe it’s because I spent too much time as a child wandering corn and soy bean fields, alone, quietly looking for tomato worms and arrowheads. Or maybe I read too many books at an impressionable age and learned instead to prefer the library to the junior high dance? I don’t know, and I’m not complaining, but I can’t take any more hanging out tonight. I’m sure I will have many more opportunities to practice and improve my late-night-hanging- skills. Oh, just you wait, Xi’an.
I walk home, hoping a steady pace will lull away the ache, relishing the rhythm, knowing I will spend most of the day recovering.
*Oh yeah, all the videos, photos, filming, editing—I do it all. I’m an all-’round (if sometimes reluctant) digi-nerd. *You could hire me, pay me to do this stuff—let’s negotiate some turkey, now.
Peace and love.
Thanks for reading.
Let me sing you a song, and let your appreciation, our conversation, be sweet initiation.