Tag Archive: teaching English



The number one thing my students complain about in Los Angeles is traffic. And it’s my Swiss and German students, who, no doubt accustomed to trains

brake check

brake check

running like clockwork, are most often dismayed with LA’s lackluster public transit. Why, they ask, are the busses always so late? It’s not just LA I respond. I concede that in general, America doesn’t have very well-funded or well-developed infrastructure for mass transportation. After WWII, I explain, America built a bubble empire around private vehicle ownership, and then many communities ripped out well-established trolley lines and bus routes to encourage the use of cars. This was the case especially in southern California. Meanwhile, Japan, Korea, and much of Europe invested in mass transit innovation and infrastructure. Now, America’s biggest cities have serious issues managing where to put all those individual cars—that’s why traffic and parking are always so frustrating in LA or in any big American city.


Sometimes, though, I tell them that America missed the train and now we’re so far behind we can’t even run to catch the bus. Truly, as their American English teacher, I’m always a little embarrassed to explain why this great nation has such sucky public transit. But Nikolas, from Switzerland, insists it’s really because America’s favorite pastime is waiting. He says, “I don’t understand. If I drive, I wait on the freeway. If I take the bus, I wait. Disneyland, Six Flags, Hollywood clubs, the same. Don’t get me started on the Dodgers and baseball…” Nikolas concludes, “You Americans must really like waiting around.”


Hmmm. Maybe. Conspiracy theorist friends, any input?


fix a flat

fix a flat

Yeah, so traffic. I do it every day, whether by bike or car, for at least an hour. I prefer biking, though, and have discovered I can get places faster that way, especially during morning/evening rush hours. But, I do drive more often than I’d like, and therein lies the philosophical dilemma: how to make peace with having to do something that’s not really very enjoyable? It’s part of the price we pay to live in this amazing city—reconciling our lives, dreams, and careers with the tedious reality of LA traffic.


You must make peace

You have to make peace with the fact that living ten miles from your job easily translates into a one-hour, one-way commute. Obviously, living closer to your job would alleviate drive time stress, but the better-paying jobs are on the Westside while more affordable, artist-friendly housing is in Echo Park, Lincoln Heights, East Hollywood, Silverlake-ish.


When I lived at the international house, I commuted from East Hollywood to Westwood, ten miles there, ten miles back. Sitting in the car creeping along for an hour in morning traffic really, really sucked, so I began biking. But not everyday—that’d just be too much. Here’s how I made peace when I did the

What Ms. Davis said

What Ms. Davis said

stop and slow: Sing along with 100.3 The Sound, roll down the windows and rock out. Or some mornings listen along with 102.7, Ryan Seacrest and Ellen K. What? No, really. They’re sharp and funny, and I like listening to Ryan and Ellen banter on about celebrity gossip. Or talk about Ryan and his dog. And Richard Marks. Don’t judge. Listen for yourself. Here’s the thing: being mad, angry, and cranky—horn honking, finger flipping, screaming—and sitting in

traffic doesn’t work for anyone. You gotta get over it. And as I’ve embraced this, I’ve found that there really are a lot of courteous drivers, as if the collective commuter unconscious knows this sucks for everybody, so we might as well make the best of it and be kind. Patient. And not flip out.


In all this driving, biking, traffic-doing, I have noticed a few wonky things about our fair city that really would make most drivers in other areas lose it. Here are a few tips and observations:


Avoid the freeways

Mornings and evenings the 405 and 10 are parking lots. Forget ‘em. Instead, figure out surface streets that can get you where you need to be. True story—I have a route from East Hollywood to Culver City that can take under forty-five minutes in rush hour traffic.




Parking check

We all do this, park in a space that’s really close to a red curb or driveway, or maybe we’re not sure if it’s permit-only parking. So, we leave the car running, get out, check the signs and make sure we’re not in the red, not blocking someone’s drive. Definitely make sure it’s not street sweeping day because the penalties are steep–$63 if you’re not permitted properly and $73 if you’re parked during street sweeping. Ouch. I’m more than OCD about this. As are most LA drivers. Parking check, necessary ritual.


Lane position is everything

There’s a less-impacted route I drive to work, but to do it effectively, you’ve gotta know the lane structure. For example, to maximize efficiency, you must be in the center lane for part of the commute and then know when exactly to get in the right lane because the center lane turns into the left turn lane at an intersection without a left turn arrow. Timing is everything. You can be stuck fifteen cars deep if you don’t change lanes at the right moment. Then, to get onto Westwood, you’ve got to get back over to the left lane and continue with a few more center/right lane changes for optimal forward motion. *Actually, the bike is much better for this route 🙂


Why do so many LA intersections lack a dedicated left turn arrow?



This mystifies me. Even some of the larger intersections don’t have a left arrow—WHY? A few days ago I sat, patiently of course, at Centinella and Venice for seven minutes to make a left onto Venice. Without a left light, cars end up turning as the light changes from yellow to red, so that left-turning cars remain in the intersection when the light turns green for the cross traffic. At peak times, this creates a huge traffic flow problem—cars stuck in the intersection trying to complete a turn. Why not add the left turn arrow to all the intersections?

Shitty Los Angeles city streets

Really, I’ve ridden and driven on a lot of streets—Hollywood, Silverlake, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Miracle Mile, and all over Westwood, Venice, and Santa Monica. The roads on the Westside are slightly better maintained (more affluence on that side), but they’re still not great, and the roads in Hollywood, Silverlake, east side-ish are really torn up and a peril to ride on. Where does all the revenue from parking violations go? Clearly, it’s not into road maintenance or street repair…


Well, there ya go, a 10 month intensive study of LA traffic. It’s frustrating but manageable, and if you let it, negotiating LA traffic can teach some humbling, very Buddhist life lessons. Patience, perspective, kindness, tolerance and peace.

Come ride with me.


Yup :)

Yup 🙂

map of Thailand

map of Thailand

a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction —Virginia Woolf

*equally applicable to women who write and sing

SuratThani is Thailand’s largest southern province. It’s also, confusingly, the moniker of the region’s capital

blue betty, hot, hot, hot G ride!

Blue Betty

city which frequently gets a bad rap. Guide books profess there’s not much to do, little spoken English, and that it’s a dirty, working-class backwater. And partly that is Surat, but a lively night market—chock full of traditional Thai dishes, fresh fruits and veggies, roasted insects, larvae!—nice roads and bike lanes, low cost of living and many near-by tourist hot spots make this hard-working city of farmers and fishers a very nice place to live. Really. Maybe this southern almost-coastal city doesn’t have galleria shopping or medical spas, Sirocco’s or an abundance of blinged out temples like some up-north metropolises, but what Surat lacks in iconic Thai attractions, it makes up for with its location near some of the country’s most amazing natural wonders.
Ready for this? Check that map. Uh, huh:

Surat is a seven hour night boat ride from Koh Tao—spectacular diving, snorkeling in the Gulf of Thailand; a two hour ferry from Koh Phangnan—long, white beaches, clear water and full moon parties; less than two hours from Krabi—Thailand’s rock climbing and caving mecca; two hours from Kao Sok National Park—home to the world’s oldest evergreen rainforest, elephants, waterfalls and floating bungalows; an hour by motor bike from a series of waterfalls mostly known by Thai locals. And these are just a few of the

sunset koh phangan

sunset koh phangan

biggies. There’s so much more—monkey training camps, Buddhist meditation centers, coconut plantations, mountain biking everywhere—Surat’s a great, great place to live and work, well-suited as a centrally-located adventure base!

So, I live in a veritable adventure zone. This is great! But I also appreciate that Surat is a real Thai city. There are maybe 120 foreigners, roughly 40 are teachers. (In China, I was ‘laowai.’ In Thailand, I am ‘Farang.’ Foreigner.) Not a big ex-pat community, so I will have to learn and negotiate the culture if I am to thrive. 🙂  Embrace and thrive!

Are there places to play if there aren’t many westerners? Ahh, Yes! Maybe not as many as in Xi’an (for those just tuning in, I spent a year teaching college English in Xi’an, China, a city of nearly 10 million), but I know, now, of at least four places, and really, one is all you need! Just down the street is Old Coffee, and then of course, there’s Big’s Bar.  Big’s is my favorite so far and caters to the teacher crowd…it’s where I went last night…

saturday night market, surat thani

saturday night market, surat thani

…On my bike at night after the air had cooled and traffic subsided, was mostly me and my thoughts riding on Donnok over to Big’s. Pedaling and singing, in my blue flower tank, smiling and thinking, happy to be in light clothing, sandals, no sleeves. No hat! A lovely exercise.  Elegance. On two wheels and thinking of nine months past, returning from China, digging in, getting bearings to focus and be Humboldt and work and sing, make music.

And then the incline how it lifted slowly steeper, steeper, measured, steady, gradual. The slope, rise over run, then over-run and no rise but clinging, clawing, tearing to make it, to hang on. Just hang on. Grasping, gasping. Hang on!

But I slid the slide slowly, pieces falling, chunks, who I thought I was and thought I wanted, sloughing from me, burning, burnt, exhausted, cast off, vertical slipping, slide down. When I let go, I relinquished but didn’t give in.

(that tiny flame somewhere, so far inside— still there burning—white hot and searing)
and landed here, Thailand, teaching. No more pushing, striving—just be and be renewed, renewed for writing, singing, performing, loving. That little white heat inside held itself to me, my soul heart beating a torch forced, examined, to acknowledge, reconcile me to that thing I love most. Forced me to admit, acknowledge, embrace:
I love singing. I love performing. I love writing.

And the breath of that tiny flame roared back, “Girl, thank you, love these, honor them, DO them.”

And I promised I would never again deny that I can write, sing, and perform. I love these. LOVE. And I am good at them.
Love to word wrestle and melody make. Love practicing a song over and over until it is seared into me. Am smitten when wrapped in that silver chain connecting a soul and mind to the ether flame where forged all great lines, turns of phrase, melodies.

Money, profit are not connected, here, not related to this. Money, no relationship to love. I embrace the fact that honoring these truths—all this love—may not ever be profitable. I accept this.

But I must: love writing, love singing, love performing. That’s all I need to do.



No more money-competition-blah-blah-blah, who’s-who-what’s-what. NO MORE!
I love what I do and that is enough.

All this thinking and singing out loud on the bike in the short mile from home to Big’s bar… No one was there when I arrived, an empty 10 o’clock Tuesday. Roofed but open-sided, the night breezes pass gently, street noises drift subtle—this is not China, the air is not loud, but soft with easy bursts of laughter, sweet with big, whole-toned Thai pop…parked by the frog pond, the bike leaning against slightly leaking cement. The pond, cluttered with jungle plants, a desk, maybe, other random furniture?… sang to him, the frog, this new understanding of honor, love, expression— his low croaks, rhythmic and resonant, intoning agreement, like how butterflies know when you know of them and they flirt and hover so closely, teasing with their awareness…

a Steady Boat, part of the collaboration…Sam.

…and then chatted with owners Big and Champ, who were busy working on their first edition of Surat’s new art, music and culture

passing it on

from one to the next

magazine—deliberately lo-fi and hand-drawn indie but assembled deftly in latest InDesign crack. These guys, four total, alties bent over screens, smoking cigarettes, gesturing and speaking fast Thai, a pause, exhale, laughter and cigarette smoke. Through the speakers, Dylan croaked Maggie’s Farm, and Marley wailed, then Brandi Carlyle.  Joni Mitchell.  Indigo Girls? And  Sarah Mclachlan—an ENTIRE Sarah McLachlan album/mix (the one with the rainbow connection). Girl music, these guys?  Softies for Sarah and the rainbow chicks…

Behind the counter Big turns down the music and  hands me his classical guitar: Play.

And so I did…sang for them until midnight while they worked on layout, ads and design. I let it all out, the real love …because I really,

really have to sing….because I love to sing…I love to share this love for singing, music…got lost in words and singing, the rhythmic frog honking, floor fans blowing. Two hours passed? Honest, unobtrusive, the sound tapestry for the working art-alti-writerly-Surat fringe trust.

As I gathered my things to leave, Big grabbed my hands and all alive and serious says, “You need to sing. Your voice can help people.”

koh tao super sunset

koh tao super sunset

Cannot speak words to respond.  Instead, a warm smile, pause, bow head: Gratitude, grateful for the compliment—perhaps the best thing ever heard after singing, really, like someone had faithfully peered through, knew and felt all the psychic battles, wars waged and recent reconciliation of the soul. That, really, more than anything I want this love—this singing, song, writing—to be soothing and healing. To help. As if Big got all of this and knew beyond the language and culture gap the kindest, most genuine thing to say—like he knew what my soul needed to hear.

That’s what love does. One of the things, anyway. It  helps people.

It does.

It transcends.

It heals.


12 plants 3 passenegrs 1 bike

12 plants 3 passenegrs 1 bike

By Josephine Johnson

on her throne


A couple days ago, my VPN (secure connection to jump China’s firewall) expired. Non-issue—renew and resume under radar, above the flame, right? Uh, well…

Brief background: since May 1st all foreign teachers on campus have been tortured with internet connectivity issues mostly with trying to connect to non-mainland China sites. Gmail? Google? Forget it. Even Facebook and this blog with VPN have been spotty and exasperating. So, a few of our venerated teachers, a kindly faction of Mormons and one retired software engineer, approached our residence coordinator to remind her tactfully that we foreign folk have friends, family, bills, (and Facebook!) that necessarily require a solid internet connection.  Besides, it’s in our contract. (Dang it!!) Having a working internet connection is part of our contract.

“Well, on my computer,” said Miss Lin, “I don’t have any problem with Chinese sites. Just use Chinese site. Then you have no problems.”

Of course! Why didn’t we think of that?

Ah, China, harmony or delusion…

And it gets better.

I renewed the VPN yesterday only to discover that it no longer VPNs. Yeah, 25.95 USD thrown at the great grinning flames for nothing.

washer fixed, clothes clean

I broke my washing machine, but then I fixed it. I made a silly video of my repair escapade, too, but will have to post some time later when internet is less wacky. Like when I'm not in China...

Great. Current internet status? Well, here’s what’s weird—I can occasionally get to my gmail, like once a week if I’m on late at night. No Facebook. No Twitter. No YouTube, Vimeo. But apparently I can access this blog, and today at least it is loading really fast. If you are reading this and want to get in contact with me, I suggest contacting me through this blog—leave a comment & hopefully I can comment back. I hope that will work anyway…*no small miracle I can post pics—wow. Thank you.

Lemme say that again: Due to China internet weirdness, if you want to contact me, leave a comment with your info/ question/ whatnot/ whatever. Yeah, but please, don’t write anything you wouldn’t want your Mom (or mine) to see.

Let’s hope this works.

Since I’m here, how about another student story?

My students know I am sharing their work, and it has become a point of honor for them that I share the best of their writing online. They dig it, and I think the “reward” makes them work that much harder.

selecting fabric for Chinese-style dresses

selecting fabric for Chinese-style dresses

Have I mentioned lately how great and awesome my students are? They are. Great and awesome.

Last week we took a break from working on portfolios and cover letters—I needed this as much as they, believe me. Some of these papers we’ve been over seven, eight times, and well, you can imagine words, thoughts, topic sentences, spelling errors, thesis statements all beginning to swim before the eyes making story/analysis/research a Dali-inspired, Monet blur of quasi-fact, grammar error, cross-cultural, Chinese-infused, near-miss poetry. We all needed a break from this.

Last Tuesday we read in class (read what we read) Ray Bradbury’s  “August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains.”  Why this story? Well, it’s short, and I knew we could get through it in a day (two class periods) and use it as basis for students’ creative writing. Plus, the students are also studying American film and culture, and I knew that they had recently watched Dr. Strangelove in Josh’s class. I knew the theme of this story would tie-in and relate to other material that they had recently explored.

I put the students in groups of two and three and had them read the story out loud to each other. Most have learned English from Chinese

Xi'an's famous street of tailors and fabric vendors

Xi'an's famous street of tailors and fabric vendors

English teachers, so their pronunciation needs work—reading aloud is a great way for my kids to become more confident in speaking English.  As they read I circulated around the small groups listening to their pronunciation and asking them questions about the story to make sure they understood what was happening. I helped with vocabulary, too. When everyone was finished, I reviewed the main points of the story to make sure they understood that all the occupants of the house were dead, that all that remained of their presence were the non-charred reverse flash silhouettes of the family on the exterior wall of the house. They got it, this grim thought provoking story, and were pensive and oddly eager to set upon the task of writing their own stories.

The in-class assignment was to use Bradbury’s tale as a jumping-off point. They could tell the story from another perspective. Perhaps an animal lived. How would you describe that creature’s experience? What would it be like? Or what was the family doing just before the bomb? How else can this story be told, this tale explained? Whose eyes do you choose to see it through? Be creative, I urged and encouraged.

At the end of the day, I had to make them stop. They were so committed to their stories.

sewing ladies, Wenyi Nanlu

sewing ladies, Wenyi Nanlu

Below is Sharpay’s creative take on the exercise. No one else had a story like this. Thank you, Sharpay, for your sincere thought and creativity. And as last time, these were hand written in-class. I asked Sharpay to revise and type her story for the internet. It has been slightly (not much, you’ll still find errors, awkward phrasings)revised (spelling, grammar) from the original story.

The Notice Board

                I’m a notice board inSan Francisco,California. I didn’t know clearly what happened. These days, there are so many note papers on me. For example: “Liz, I go toNew Yorkwith father, call me if you see it, Lily” “Train toColumbia$200, 071-796-2403.” From passersby, I figured there must be a big disaster in California because many cities’ airports couldn’t be used. People are coming to San Francisco to plan to get to another city.

More and more note papers are stuck on me. One said “nuclear weapon.” While I was thinking, a mother and a little girl came. The mother was writing a note paper on me.

“Mom, what’s nuclear weapon?” The girl asked.

“It is a horrible weapon. It can kill anything, the house, the people, the animals, even the biggest elephant,” The mother answered.

Grandma's envious, all this fabric, puts Joanne to shame,,,

Grandma's envious, all this fabric, puts Joanne to shame,,,

“Would it be more scary than earthquake?” The girl asked.

“Yea, Sweetheart. Come on. We have to go.”

“Where are daddy and brother? They went to visit grandma and didn’t come back. We need to wait for them,” The girl said.

“We…we can’t, sweetheart.” The mother turned her head, and her daughter couldn’t see her face. She cried. She frowned, and the muscles in her face were quivering. The tears fell out of her eyes. She turned back to face her daughter.

“Daddy and brother will come later. You know, Allendale is far away from San Francisco, isn’t it?”             The mother smiled at her daughter.

“When daddy and brother come, can we go to Disneyland ?”

“Yes, yes, of course we can.”

“Let’s go, mom.” The girl grasped her mother’s hand.

bins, rows, aisles of notions, ribbons, fabric, buttons

bins, rows, aisles of notions, ribbons, fabric, buttons

Her mother turned back and saw the notepaper on me. She muttered to herself: “If they could come back.” After tears fell down, she left with her daughters.

The note paper said:

Dear Jack:

Are you with our son Patrick? I go to New Jersey with Olivia. It is too dangerous here. I love Patrick and you. I believe you will be with us all the time.

 Kissing You Clair

After their leaving, a young woman came with an old man.

“I told you I didn’t want to go to anywhere. Your mother is here.”

The old man was really angry.

“But, dad, this is not an earthquake or a flood where everything can recover in several years. This is the nuclear weapon. One hundred years is not enough. Come on. Go with me. You will die here.”

The young woman was anxious.

“No,Georgina. I promised your mother. I will be with her all the time, even though she has died. I will not go any other places. You can go.

sewing and stuff

sewing and stuff

You need to live, my daughter. Go toPhiladelphiaand have your life. I am old, and I don’t have too much time. Let me be with your mom,” the old man hugged the young woman.

“Do you know why I came back? I lost my mom when I was seventeen. I don’t want to lose you. Please, go with me,” the young woman cried loudly.

“Georgina, my good daughter,” the old man kissed his daughter, “I love you. Believe me. I love you. I was too busy before. I didn’t have time to accompany your mother. I am sorry for her. I love her so much, but I can’t give her enough time to be with her. You can live nicely with your husband and kids. Bob is a good guy. You will have a good life like before…”

“Dad, no…”

“Listen to me,Georgina. Let me stay. It is not terrible for me. Trust me, okay?” The old man smiled at his daughter.

The woman stared her father for a long time. “I love you, dad. Anytime you want to go to Philadelphia, call me.”

“I love you, too,” the old man smiled.

The young woman left angry, and the old man was looking at her all the time. After he couldn’t see her anymore, he turned back to leave a note paper:

Dear Eva:

                Gina is a good daughter. Please protect our daughter, even though she is not my kid, but she was not as bad as her father. I was proud to be called father by her. Come back and take me with you.

Love You. Sanji

                Though I couldn’t understand human beings’ emotions, I did feel sorry for them when I faced this all the time. Then, a boy came.

He was about 21 years old. He had black hair and black eyes, yellow skin. He was thin and tall. He wrote an Adidas sport T-shirts with a tiger on it. He looked around and went straight towards me. He looked sad and pining. He scanned the note papers on my body. He cried without any expression. Then, from his backpack he took out a photo and a notepaper. Then, he turned and used  the English he knew to stop passerby.

“Excuse me. Do you know the nearest hotel?” he stopped a middle age couple.

“Go straight on this street, and you will see a hotel. Wait, young man, you want to live here?” The man spoke.

“Yes, thank you.” He walked to the hotel.

“Hey, young man, don’t you know what happened in California? It is too dangerous here.”

“It is none business of you.” He still didn’t have any expression.

“Don’t be silly. You aren’t American. Where are you from, my boy?” The woman said.


“Why did you come to San Francisco? You know, all the planes to California are empty except the police planes. You have come for someone, didn’t you? Do you know which city she stayed in?”


“The town’s near Eureka? That should be okay. She must be alive.”

“Seriously? Thank you very much.” The boy seemed awake finally. His eyes were bright like that he finally got hope.

“Yes, young man. Let me guess. Is that your girlfriend?”

“Yeah, she went to Arcata for studying. She should be back this summer, but…”

“Don’t give up, my boy.” The man said, “You guys love each other, right? Trust love. Love can make miracles all the time. Gook luck.” The middle age couple left.

I saw the note paper and photo he left. There were two people. One was him, the other must be his girlfriend, an active and cute girl. In that photo, they wore school uniforms. It was so sweet, but I couldn’t read the Chinese on the note paper. Then, a boy and a young man came. They had black hair and yellow skin.

“That’s Chinese on that board, dad,” The boy shouted.

“How’s that possible?” The father stopped.

“What is it talking about?”

The father read,“’Dear, Mia,’ This is the name. ‘I come for you. I will wait here for you. Call me. I used the former number. If you appear, please, marry me.’ Then it’s the name. Wow, there is a ring under the photo.”

“Yes, a love note. What a cute couple they were. I hope he can find her,” after reading, she said, “Let’s leave something for them.”

“Good luck.” The woman wrote near the boy’s words, and then she said, “Come on, let’s go.”

I knew the content of the note paper and the girl’s appearance. I really hoped I would see her.

Several weeks later.

I still stood there, too many note papers stuck on me. Many people wrote Chinese or English under the boy’s notepaper; there were pages of wishes from strangers for them. Today, after another person left a note paper on me, I saw a group of girls who were speaking a foreign language. Wait, wasn’t she that girl?

“Mia, that’s your photo,” One of her friends said.

I saw from the hotel the boy walking and he saw me—no , he saw the girl.

Why does this make me think of UHF?


Joy Luck Club

Our book looks like this.

forever will be (a song sketch thing-y) from Josephine Johnson on Vimeo.

Josephine Johnson

Recently, we finished Amy Tan’s, The Joy Luck Club, and as part of that unit, I required the students to keep vocabulary lists within their reading response journals. I asked them to look up twelve to twenty words for each chapter (sixteen chapters in all), write the definition and part of speech for each word, then use the words in their own sentences. As I graded the journals, I made my own list of words that were common among all the students’ vocab entries.  From my list I selected twenty words and devised a ‘fun’ final vocabulary test. On a Thursday, I gave the students my list of words that they would study over the weekend. I explained that on Tuesday we would have our test; they would be required to write a creative short story using correctly in both meaning and grammar at least ten of the words from the list.  They would have fifty minutes to craft their story. Creativity, proper usage, correct grammar are of the essence!

Below are two of the best. Though she only used nine instead of the required ten words, Mia’s was by far the most creative; hers is the “Lovely Rings.” *Mia wants to study design,

computer lab

computer lab Sharpay Corinne Ainder Vicky Asuka---getting down the details of portfolio requirements

jewelry and metals at HSU. Olina, I think, took more risks with her choice of vocabulary words. *Olina also tells me her mother makes her play piano when she goes home, though I think she’d rather not…  The vocabulary quiz stories below incorporate words (bolded) from Tan’s, The Joy Luck Club. *One last bit of disclosure: The students initially hand-wrote these stories in-class. I asked Mia and Olina to correct a few errors then send me their final drafts typed, so these two pieces have been revised from the original. 🙂

Lovely Rings

There were a couple of ornate rings lying in the jewelry shop. They were blue and red. They were dainty and loved each other. They wanted to stay with each other forever and have a happy life. If one ring had some wonderful experiences or sad times, he would confide in the other ring.

However, distress happened. One day, a man went to this jewelry shop and found this couple of rings. He thought they were

Ladies from the movie The Joy Luck Club

Ladies of the Joy Luck Club from the film

beautiful, and he wanted to buy them. He took them home, and then the man wanted to take apart one to know how the ring was so beautiful. The two rings realized that the man was a jewelry designer and that he wanted to know the structure of the beautiful jewelry.

The blue ring decided to scrape himself because he wanted the man to destroy him, not the red ring. That was an ordeal for him, but he could stand it. The red ring felt so sad.  She knew that the blue ring’s love penetrated her life, but she couldn’t prevent him from doing what he thought he must.

When the man wanted to begin his work, he found that the blue one had some scratches, and he started to destroy the blue one. At that time, his wife went to his room, and she nudged him and said,

computer lab Eunice Carrie Flora Mia Vicky

computer lab Eunice Carrie Flora Mia Vicky---the task at hand

Cease. Don’t do that please.”

“Darling, I wanted to know the structure of this ring.  You know, I’m a designer, and this blue one was scraped,” the man answered.

“I know, but they were so delicate, and they were beautiful and matched. It’s a pity to destroy one,” she said.

“Okay, darling, I will not do that.” A warm smile appeared on his face. Then he put the red ring to her finger, and he put the blue one on his.

A Free Bird

Read the book & watch the film 🙂

Tomas is a ten-year old boy, but he is not a normal person-he is a noble. There is rose embroidery on his cuff, which represents his noble status. Tomas is a piano prodigy, and he practices piano all day. His mother always applauds him because he is so diligent. No one but himself knows that he is lonely. He tries to be a perfect boy in front of others, but he has nausea to practice the boring piano. The only thing he can confide in is a vase that his dead father gave him on his eighth birthday.

One day, he broke the vase accidently, and when he wanted to pick the pieces up, one piece penetrated his hand’s skin. The blood flew, and he had much distress. He stared at those pieces and felt very sad because his memories of his father were also broken. He wanted to cease this boring life, so he started to rebel against his mother. Tomas made big noises when he was eating a meal, and his mother said impatiently, “Tomas, according to protocol, you shouldn’t make noises when you eat such a dainty meal. Understand?”

“Mom, why do you always interfere with me? I don’t want to be a hypocritical man, and I must express my real feelings. I don’t like playing piano, and I want to play with other boys…”

“Stop, Tomas! Don’t forget you are a noble. How can you speak like that?”

“No mom, you never understand me. Do you know how much I admire the birds flying in the sky? I won’t be a puppet any more. I want to be a free bird,” Tomas said firmly.

Tomas went back to his room and packed because he wanted to leave this house which was like a big cage that trapped him. As

Amy Tan, so eloquent, bright & beautiful

Amy Tan, so eloquent, bright & beautiful

soon as he went out of the gate, he would be a free bird, but he would also meet a lot of difficulties. Was he ready to face everything? His mom couldn’t see his expression on his face, but she could feel his firm back view.

“I am a free bird now.” Tomas said to himself and smiled.


computer lab Eunice Vivian Olina Icy

computer lab Eunice Vivian Olina Icy---serious business

*OK, I don’t know about that last bit of  ‘feel his firm back view,’ but Olina did a great job, and I’m really proud of her work.

HSU, are you ready for this, ALL this awesomeness headed your way August 15th? Get ready—they’re gonna rock your redwood world!

let our life be magic & open

let our life be magic & open---yes!

By Josephine Johnson

My students and I have six weeks before the end of spring semester. We’ve precious little time to finish a literary analysis of The



Joy Luck Club, complete a pop culture-focused research paper, perfect writing portfolios and portfolio cover letters. All this writing has to be good—C+ or better—or the students will have to re-take first year composition at HSU in the fall. And I can’t just pass them at the end of the semester, either, as I’m not the only one reviewing their work. My department and colleagues will also assess the students’ final submissions. So, really, not only are the portfolios an indication of student writing proficiency, but they’re also a measure of how effective I’ve been as a teacher this year. Talk about potential for losing face—if a student’s portfolio is deemed non-passing and he or she has to take first-year comp again, then I look like

all is well, all is well, all is well

all is well, breathe in, breathe out

a crummy writing teacher. So, I’m burning hot midnight oil right now to make sure the students have correct English grammar, mechanics, and most difficult of all, thesis development permanently scorched into their brains.  Oh yes, and proper MLA formatting.

As I sit here typing, I’m freaking out a little knowing that I should be drafting an assignment sheet on correct portfolio formatting instead of working on my blog and personal writing. But in thinking about my students’ writing and my expectations for their work,  I can’t help but reflect on how much insight I’ve gained into the Chinese educational system especially with respect to how little scaffolding exists between teaching western ways of

learning to minds molded by strict Confucianism. As I mentioned in the post Learning in China: Primary & Secondary School, National Exams, University the Chinese education system is heavily influenced by Confucianism and is focused on memorizing and reciting information in order to pass a series of standardized tests.  Creative thought is not encouraged—expressing an idea in ‘your own words’ is akin to failing. Students under 18 spend their lives studying and memorizing in order to pass the national college exam, as this one test determines their future in China. And it’s not enough to just pass; the higher the score, the better the  university the student will be accepted into. This system is great if you’re a fine bubble-filler-standardized-test-taker, but what if, despite all the memorization, cramming, and regurgitation your mind has been forced to endure, you are brilliant in other ways and not particularly good at taking tests? Well, sucks to be you. Really.

At a coffee shop where I often grade papers, there’s a young Chinese man—I’ll call him Ray, though that’s not his real name—who occasionally likes to practice English with me. He’s an avid internet news reader, and his English is pretty good. He did not do well enough on the national exam to get into a Chinese university, and his parents do not have enough money to send him abroad or to any special study programs. He works in an electronic repair shop and does English translation work on the side. He talks with me sometimes and asks about how best to avoid using ‘Chinglish’ (his word) in his translations. (I tell him to read English—read as much native English as possible.) He always seems happy, but there’s this clipped-wing squint in his eyes when he laughs. Without a college education, he tells me matter of fact and without apparent want for sympathy, he will not find a suitable wife and will probably never leave his parents’ home. At least that’s what he says.

Ray’s not all sadness and gloom, though. In fact, he’s really funny. The other day he told me a joke he got from the internet

Semiotic analysis?

about how Osama Bin Laden once sent terrorists to China. Yes, he sent them to blow up Chinese buses, but the terrorists couldn’t get on. (Maybe you need to live here to get it, but buses in China are always packed to the gills—scarcely room for commuters let alone a bus bomber.) He thought this was very funny, and well, so did I but probably for different reasons. The point is, Ray’s obviously smart, but because of an education system that places every last importance on one standardized test, and because he did not do well on that test, he now has little opportunity to pursue learning and formal education beyond high school. The inequity of this is nearly unbearable to me. So, I’ve started carrying an extra English novel in my backpack when I go to the coffee shop.  Next time I see him, Ray should be ready for Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets.

Some come to China to spread Christianity, Mormonism. Clearly, I’m a disciple of the Mind, spreading the gospel of Thought.  Independent thinking, creative thought—more dangerous than God in China.

OK, back to my students.

My students are both similar to and different from Ray. Like Ray, several did not do well on the national exam, and a few even re-took their last year of high school so they would have a better chance of doing well on the exam again—according to my students, one can take re-take the national exam once. But it is not cheap to take that last year of high school again. Likewise, it is not cheap for these students to study in America. Unlike Ray, most of my students are from wealthy families that can afford second chances.    Though several of my students did not do well on the national exam, like Ray they are smart, lateral thinkers. And I know this because by far the best writing they have done for me has been in their creative writing journals and in their creative writing assignments; when I read their journals and stories, I very much get a sense that they are starved for creative outlet. Again, the obvious inequity just gnaws at me—really, the only difference between my students and Ray is that my students’ families have the means to compensate for the fact that they did not fit within the rigid Chinese, Confucianism-based education system.

To be clear, my students are very thankful for the opportunity to learn English and study abroad—their diligence never ceases to amaze.

click, enlarge, read...insight into the language I battle...

Maybe you’re wondering just how instructive creative writing assignments are with respect to gaining academic English proficiency?  Ok, granted creative writing in general is not thesis driven—students are not comparing texts , synthesizing thoughts, and arguing for a point of view or proffering original academic thought. But creative writing must have a point, and it must be expressed in grammatically correct English (unless you’re e.e. cummings or James Joyce). This semester we read The Joy Luck Club which essentially is a collection of different characters’ creative personal essays. Each essay, or character’s story, has a story and a point at which each woman experiences a critical moment of self reflection. These different critical moments become the main points—the creative theses—of the individual chapters. Pointing this out to my students was like turning on the sun for them. This point helped them with their story telling skills and helped them understand that even though we may be doing creative writing, we’re not just rambling—we must have a point, a creative thesis as I came to call it.

So, this semester’s creative writing class became my method of grammar instruction and critical thought organization. We started with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, then moved on to Anne Lamotte’s Bird by Bird and finished with Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club. They were required to keep journals for all the readings plus complete an array of creative writing assignments. I also sneaked in a couple academic, thesis-driven assignments with the novels. I wanted to do some Dickinson and Thoreau, too, but we ran out of time. Maybe by American university standards this was not much reading, but for most of my students, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was their first English book. From Harry Potter to the Joy Luck Club, we covered a lot of ground, so that in the end, creative writing class became a hybrid literature, composition, creative class— a lot of work, but I think it most helped the students develop their writing.

But knowing what I now know about education in China, in particular knowing that my students come from a very wide range of English level proficiency, I would have structured my syllabus, tailored my methods,  and designed my courses much differently. For example, these are the classes I taught/ am teaching this year:

Fall semesterEnglish 1A; Academic Reading; Writing Workshop

Spring Semester: Creative Writing; Academic Writing and Research; Writing Workshop

What do YOU make others see?

In retrospect, what I should have done was to have structured a remedial English 40 class for the fall and then taught English 1A in the spring. And for the record, Academic Writing and Research should not—rather cannot—be taught in China, at least I can’t, not with the resources currently available to me. From an instructor’s perspective, for anyone thinking about teaching English writing, just start with remedial English. Unless you are an insomniac and don’t mind staying up really late trying to untangle grammar issues, figuring out patterns of error and then developing lesson plans targeting student errors (copious!), just don’t. Sleep is better, do that instead. Beginning with easier material will make your life much, much easier and you will be less likely to question your ability as a writing teacher and your worth as a human being, if you take it slow from the begining.

As far as Academic Research and Writing goes? Uh, the great firewall, pretty much says it, though there is more to this challenge than just China’s inferno of censorship. But the firewall is enough.  Essentially, I have very few academic resources available to me to teach my students proper research methods. Plus, as an HSU instructor, I only have one login pass to the HSU library and academic databases  like JSTOR and Ingenta.  My students, to engage in real scholarly research would need login passes, too. It is not feasible for me to sit with each student, one by one, as they login and search the HSU databases for appropriate articles.

So, how do you do scholarly research on the other side of the great firewall? Well, you do it the best you can, and use every

Humboldt College Staff

obstacle as a teachable moment, confident that once the students get to HSU they will actually have an introduction to the library and learn first-hand how to use the electronic card catalog and databases. At least I hope so because I sure can’t show them over here. So, we use Google and Baidu and take note of how the same search terms used in the different search engines often yield different results. We examine what this means in terms of information availability. And with this I hint at censorship though don’t actually say as much. But then sometimes Google just doesn’t work, and we are forced to use Baidu, the Chinese version of Google that readily complies with China’s ‘internet business laws.’ Double Speak, you know.

I have so much more to share about my teaching experiences, and really, I’d love to write a book about them. But who would want to read it? Unless you’re really into cross-cultural education and international experience, I can’t imagine many would want to read at length about my pattern of error observations (usually issues with prepositions and confusing the verb infinitive stem ‘to’, also interference of passive voice axillary verbs with present tense active constructions. See, it’s boring.) If you want to know about my teaching and what I’ve learned, you can email me. josephine.jhnsn@gmail.com I’d be glad to answer questions—the demand for writing teachers in China will only increase as China slowly reforms its education system. Ah, education reform in China—it’s inevitable. And it’s a topic for yet another post!

Maybe I should write a book, make it kinda teacher-ly, pedagogical-like, research-y and such. I’d like that.  🙂

Thanks for reading. Love, Jos

*No donkeys were harmed (or sung to) in the writing of this post.

Hey, my VPN is out end of May—hope to get one more post up. After that, this blog gets updated State-side in July!

See, it IS funny. Ray's joke, get it? 🙂

At the top—a new song ‘Make it Right’ enjoy!


Learning in China: Primary & Secondary School, National Exams, University

rainy day xi'an

Feb. 28 xi'an, china

When I accepted the position teaching writing at Xi’an International Studies University, I had no idea, really, what China’s education system or students might be like. I assumed that since I’d be working with first-year students, they’d have matriculated through a system similar to the U.S. or Europe and be prepared to tackle the rigors of college courses taught in English. Though they were—and continue to be—up for the challenge, in no way had my students been through an education system like the West’s. None had ever written an academic, thesis-driven paper. Most had written—hand written—up-beat, brief descriptive pieces praising the attractions of their hometowns or their favorite family vacation, writing well-suited for Chinese travel magazines but not so much for academic papers. The Chinese virtue of ‘harmony’ is omnipresent and likely influences all communication written and oral.   So far—and I say this as observation, not judgment— most student writing tends to lack assertion or argument. And this makes sense—there’s no argument in harmony, right?

But this seeming lack of critical writing skills doesn’t mean Chinese students aren’t sent through a meat-grinder of an education system.  It’s different, here. In China, the ability to memorize and recite is highly revered; even my lower-performing students can quote facts, numbers and historical dates—in English—to give the best Jeopardy contenders a run for their money.  Our students have been through a rigorous system to be sure, but its focus is more on memorization and not so much on synthesis as this recent USA Today article alludes.  (I know, I know, USA TODAY—the McDonald’s of news. But it’s relevant. Check the comments, too.) This New York Times opinion piece (01-15-11) offers insight and a slightly different perspective.

umbrellas, Feb. 28 Xi'an, China

umbrellas at the market

There’s also keen emphasis on raising and educating children to be successful, prosperous, so that they will be able to take care of their aging parents. This one-child policy, instituted in 1979, continues to shape demographics and increasingly confounds long-held cultural values.  Nearly all my students are only-children, which means there’s tremendous pressure on them to be successful not only to provide for their futures but for their parents’ as well. There are some loopholes, of course. If you’re wealthy you can get out of anything—like anywhere else in the world; if you are an ethnic minority, you can have more than one child; if you’re a farming family, you can have multiple children. There may be a few other exemptions, though I think these are the main ones. But the bigger issue, the elephant in the pagoda, is that the State-sponsored pension fund is just not enough to cover the cost of retirement. (This article from the China Daily, State-sponsored media, briefly addresses the issue.) In China, your kids are your retirement and security.  So, all of my students have been made from a very young age to learn, study, and achieve in order to get a good job, ostensibly with a high salary, so that they will be  able to provide for their parents.

One of my students told me of her childhood spent reading, studying, memorizing, test taking. For as long as she could remember, her mother woke her at 5:30 am to review and prepare for the day. By 7:30, she was at school until noon. From noon to 2:00, she could take a nap or rest. From 2:00 to 4:30 pm she resumed school work.  Each day from 4:30 to 6:00 she studied piano, took ballet lessons, or did some kind of sport. From 6:00 to 7:00 pm, she ate dinner; after dinner, she would meet with a private English tutor until 9:00 pm. From 9:30 to midnight, she did homework. And then at 5:30 am, repeat.  All of this in preparation to get a good score on the national exam that determines which university a student will be placed in as well as what major the student will study. In some instances, though, all the preparation, focus, and study is for naught. The subject or university a student is interested in, sometimes, is not the one he or she ends up in. The national exam score determines a great deal about a student’s future, but in some cases, students are just placed in a university and given a major and must follow the path they’ve been given.

Take a look at this—Foreign Teacher’s Guide to Living and Working in China—lengthy, but good. Check out the timetable/ course schedule near the bottom. This is how my students have spent most of their lives.

hot pot vendor, street market

hot pot, feb. 28, xi'an

So, students at Humboldt College have been burning midnight oil most of their lives, combusting, and will continue to do so throughout their undergrad experience. For example, our students take Chinese and English courses during both halves of their first year; half are Chinese classes—Chinese Literature, Moral Ed. & Study of Law, P.E., Contemporary History of China, Math—and these classes meet twice a week, two hours each class period. Classes at Humboldt College include Academic Writing and Research, Creative Writing, Western Civ., 20th Century Film, Oral & Cross Cultural Skills/ Communication (3hrs/wk). Plus, a two hour writing workshop lab once a week. These are their classes for one semester.  Tally the hours:  18 classroom hours per week in their Chinese coursework. 21 classroom hours with Humboldt College. That’s 39 hours per week our students spend in class.

39 hours a week in class. There’s precious little time for anything else but study. Forget free-time, boy/girlfriends, daydreaming.

I think the words of one of my students are particularly insightful. Last semester Mia wrote a personal essay about her biggest dream. She did a great job with it, and it gives her perspective of and experience with education here in China. She’s bright, talented, and the embodiment of  ‘if you want something badly enough, you won’t stop until you get it.’ Highlighted words are vocabulary I asked students to incorporate into their papers. *Mia knows I’m posting this and is happy to share with you—if you’d like to make comments (constructive, please) for her, I’ll make sure she gets them. (Her paper is below.)

As always, thank you for reading and listening. I so enjoy all the comments, emails, and feedback I receive.

Mia, Eunice, Vicky---Library Project fundraiser, Feb. 25, 2011, Xi'an

Mia, Eunice, Vicky---Library Project fundraiser, Feb. 25, 2011, Xi'an


I Know You Are the Most Beautiful One

A dream is a seed in each person’s heart; it brings hope and impetus when you are in difficulties. A dream is a guide.  It tells us the most beautiful way in our life. “What is your dream?” My teacher in primary school always asked us. “Scientist,” one classmate said. “Writer,” another classmate said. “I want to be a designer and build up my own company.” This is my answer for her question. Yes, being a designer and building up my own brand is my dream, and I have had this dream for many years. It is an important part of my life. I found I really liked design in my childhood, and I tried to do something about design and learn more about it. This made me feel good. This dream gives me huge impetus to face any difficulties, and I also have made some plans for the future to achieve my dream. Having this dream, to be a designer and build up my own brand, makes my life vibrant and clear, and I have encouragement to face any problems.

When I was young, I liked drawing and doing handicrafts very much. I often watched a TV program called, “Change Space,” a really famous TV program in China about decorating rooms. Two families changed spaces to design each other’s rooms, and then they were all surprised. It’s really funny because they often use rubbish like cola cans or broken CDs for creative decorations. Each time I watched that program, I thought it was creative, and it aroused my interests. So I found I really liked design in my childhood.

When I was in middle school, I tried to do many beautiful handicrafts. I read some books about how to match colors or how to do a handicraft step by step. I combined my ideas with decorations, and they were really wonderful. For example, I used some colorful papers to fold a small box or a cute animal. I also made some beautiful cards to send to my friends and family. I drew some wonderful pictures on them. I made a lovely doll for my little sister as a gift on her birthday. Each time I finished my work, I felt really good, and it made me feel that I did a good job. Making decorations in my room and doing handicrafts often fascinated me.

When I was in high school, I worked really hard to pass the exam to enter a university where the design major is very good. My physics is not very good, but I insisted on doing exercises everyday and tried my best to get high scores no matter how difficult it was, or how tired I felt. I had encouragement to face all of these problems, because of my beautiful dream. But at last, I couldn’t go to a design school, but I will never give up. I believe that “where there is a will, there is a way.” If I insist on working hard, I know I will get more opportunities. One year from now, I will go to America and have a chance to choose another major to make my dream come true. My dream always gives me encouragement to face any problems.

rainy day dog

rainy day dog

To make my dream come true, I have some plans. A big goal needs to be divided into different small goals; in this way it will be easier to achieve it. My first goal is to study hard in Xi’an International Studies University this year and maintain a g.p.a. greater than 2.4. I also need to improve my English skills to make sure I’m ready for life in the US. Second, I want to study hard on my major in U.S. and get good grades, so I can develop great ability. I think classes will be more interesting, and I will enjoy them a lot. Then I will come back to Xi’an International Studies University and finish my classes here. Meanwhile, I want to be a graduate student. I am not sure whether my graduate school will be in US or China. I will decide in the next two years. Then I want to become a designer in a company, gain more experience, and earn lots of money. At last, I will leave that company and build up my group and set up my own brand.

When I begin to build up my brand, I will use much time to design a series of products with my most creative ideas. I will make the first series of products to influence the marketing. And then, I need to create advertisements to advertise my brand. Then, I will continue to design more and more wonderful products, expand my market, and strive for great influence. At last, maybe everyone will know my brand and ideas. They will use my products and feel really comfortable. I’m looking forward to that day when my dream comes true, and I will be happy to see that. Maybe there are some difficulties, challenges, or nuisances that I can’t expect now, but I will keep this dream in my heart and face the problems with encouragement.

I do have some trepidation about my dream, because there is more pressure in modern life. There are many people in China, and that results in a lot of competition to find a job. There are many elites in our society, and it might be hard for me to find a good job that I really like. But I believe that if I insist on working hard now and make myself more outstanding, I will find a nice job. If I couldn’t find a good job, I will try my best on apprenticeship to improve my ability, and then I will find opportunities to achieve my dream.

Being a designer and building up my own brand is the most beautiful dream in my heart. I have had this dream for many years. It inspires me to face all problems and encourages me to solve them; my dream makes my direction in life more unambiguous. My dream makes me grow up. My dream is a teacher teaching me success in my career. Oh, dream, I know you are the most beautiful one in my heart!

Tuesday, December 21st                                                                                                                                                                                                 (photo credit, gareth blackett)

Josephine sings, Village Cafe, Xi'an Dec. 11, 2010

State capitalism, authoritarianism, economic development, environmental degradation, worker exploitation—Merry Christmas! This one’s all these and more—and maybe as uplifting as a lump of coal in your stocking.

But I had to. Write this. Deep issues are troubling me and not just about China but also about our world’s socio-political-economic structures. This one’s not light-hearted and not especially easy; though I promise no quiz, an essay response is acceptable. Mostly, I’ve been thinking about, and surrounded by, construction, development, “economic progress”—rapid western-style development that is radically altering the shape and spirit of China. At the very least, near-24 hour construction is permanently altering the cityscape of Xi’an. And High fashion stores are popping up.

nov 29 dirt truck and street sweeping

With cranes and dirt trucks currently clanging arrhythmic and jarring in the background, I am going to connect this relentless campus construction (paces from my back porch) with my personal experience of loss of landscape and nature to teaching my students and trying to temper their goals and ideas with what insight I have regarding the cost of progress, consumption, and consumerism.

All this development and rapid re-making are breaking my heart—not because I think China villainous for wanting to be part of global economics and international consumerism, though I think, for all of us, this pursuit a broken model and an obviously unsustainable way of living on this planet. But for the second time in my life I am witnessing first-hand a massive re-shaping of landscape and culture that I don’t think is entirely for the best. With all my heart, mind, intention—I want a radical paradigm shift which will require nothing short of a complete and utter over-haul of human behavior, want, and need. As a species we have to redefine our priorities.

Here’s a little film with music chronicling the early stages of campus construction. 1:50

Here we go.

I grew up in Greentown, a tiny notch in the bible belt of north central Indiana. There I learned to be hard-working, resourceful, God-fearing, practical—I got gumption. My cousins and I most often applied our gumption to adventures outdoors to keep us occupied, to keep us from some labor intensive task, like picking rocks from the bean field so grandpa could run the disc or plow. We’d make-believe in the woods, explore old barns, wander farm fields, search for arrowheads. We’d bike to the Wildcat Creek Reservoir and create our own Star Wars-meets-Indiana Jones-saves-the Box Car Children story of how one day we’d all escape Greentown and live rich lives in a distant city far, far across the galaxy. We’d barely get home before dark but in time for dinner before our folks would come looking for us.

These times outside, these adventures, really, are responsible for my best attributes, my love of nature and appreciation of the interconnectedness of life. These outdoor escapades taught me how birds, trees, cows, horses, cats, dogs, our vegetable garden, even poison ivy could speak, could be loved, could be love. Being outside loving the sun, summer rain, winter moon, lightning bugs, autumn leaves—loving all the plants and animals around me—made me happy, whole, loving, and good. And plants and animals love you right back—they know when we notice them, when we love them. All those living things are always there vying for our attention. They want to be seen. They want to be loved, too.

construction near Big Wild Goose Pagoda

A few years ago, I went back to Indiana after not having visited in several years. And in many ways nothing had changed. It was still a sleepy rural town keenly proud of its agriculture and Christianity, population still under 3,000. But there were some striking differences. The downtown had a new Subway sandwich shop; there were major renovations to the high school. Most significant was the new housing addition at the south edge of town. All along the Wildcat Creek where I once fought to be Luke Skywalker in an epic Star Wars adventure, where we once swung from wild grape vines—my cousins and friends daring each other to back-flip from the vine Hollywood-style away from pursuing imperial storm troopers—now rose up rows of upscale cookie-cutter homes, a large housing division. What was once county-owned public land and farm field had become private property all the way to the edge of the creek. Finely manicured backyards with Home Depot patio tile, Pier 1 Import deck furniture, and perfect Martha Stewart illuminations (all surely made in China) now stood where my cousins and I once took our stand against the Empire.

I was sitting in the back of my family’s car riding the freshly leveled and paved country road that paralleled the Wildcat Creek when I saw the changed landscape. A family member pointed out how this was now the nicest place to live in Greentown, how it must be one of the nicer developments in all of Howard County, that you had to be doing well to live there. And then my nose started to fill up the way it does just before I start crying. At first I played it off as allergies. But the sniffles progressed to a near wheeze, and my nose became snottier and snottier. I just couldn’t hold it in any longer, and hot, fat tears began rolling down my cheeks.

“What is wrong with you?” My folks asked, but they didn’t get it (bless their hearts, truly). They thought I was being “typically dramatic” and over the top when I tried to explain all snotty-nosed and tear-streaked what those fields, creek, and creek bank meant to me, when I tried to explain how there was a red oak tree on a hillock that I thought was special because it helped me think, that the tree and I were friends.

Oh, come on--it's Tang dynasty...jeeze

I will be the first to admit—I am given to a flair for the dramatic. I’m an artist, performer, writer, song-writer for heaven’s sake. I feel things, really, I am sensitive. But I know I wasn’t over the top and merely hung up on some faddish, environmental propaganda as tears slid down my face in the back of my parents’ car. It hurt in my heart, deeply, to see what had once been a rolling tangle of blackberry bramble, grape vine, yellow poplar, cotton wood, sassafras, dogwood, and Wildcat Creek tamed and perfectly parceled into pleasantly bourgeoisie backyards. In the back seat of the car, it felt like a vital part of me, my memories and history, had been violated and irretrievably lost, sacrificed to progress and so called economic betterment. I can’t go back to that portion of the Wildcat Creek and love the trees and trails that nurtured me. My cousins and adventure friends, we can’t go and meet for an afternoon of Star Wars for old time’s sake— though we could, but we’d likely trip over Martha’s latest summer settee and set off some insecure homeowner’s burglar alarm.

Maybe that’s why all this construction, here, on the XISU campus has me upset. Dirt trucks, 3:00 am digging (not that I’m sleeping then), constant construction rumble (all for the sake of a parking garage, for CARS!!) have hit upon a raw nerve—this construction makes me think of something I once loved dearly, dearly, and lost.

Xi'an, China--construction everywhere

And so I ask: Is losing nature really progress? Really?

During the week of Thanksgiving (roughly November 22), the university began working on an underground parking garage, and in nearly seventeen days, the site was completely excavated and ready for pouring the foundation. The first eight days, crews worked all day and most of the night, breaking around 5:30 am then resuming at 9:00 am. The next nine days construction occurred only at night beginning around 5:00 pm and going until 5:30 am.

Large yellow trucks hauled tons of dirt at breakneck speed through the campus. (Again, I defer to Peter Hessler; in Rivertown, he also writes about the ‘dirt trucks’ and how they are responsible for killing a significant number of pedestrians and bike riders each year in China. The drivers are paid by the load; the faster they go, the more loads they can carry, the more money they can make. Yeah, low/no regulation state capitalism, good stuff.) I think once campus officials realized how dangerous it was to have so many dirt trucks speeding about at all hours, it would be very, very bad were a student to be injured or killed. So construction was restricted to night only. The only problem with that is the construction site is immediately adjacent to the foreign teachers’ apartments and the guest teacher/ student residential hotel. This was only a problem for us. Apparently, no one else was/is bothered.

dec 15 new campus garage

The construction of the campus parking garage embodies many aspects of the nature of state capitalism in China, but it’s also symbolic of the very worst of western progress. Right now, construction is taking place throughout Xi’an and all over China, and in many instances, not all, this is underwritten by the Chinese government, which brings us to state capitalism.

It’s really nothing new–the U.S. does it, too, but in a slightly different way. Though China remains a communist country, it has embraced capitalist market structures to maintain the State—since the 1990s China has been seriously tinkering with its economic formulas and strategies to figure out what works best in terms of nation-wide economic improvement while still maintaining strict control over individual freedom. At some point in the 1990s, China figured it had to do something economically to be competitive within the global economic framework, but at the same time, the ruling party did not necessarily want to deal with any of the civil headaches that come from the typical pairing of capitalism and democracy.

Right, we’re all taught in school that democracy is necessary for capitalism, that capitalism and communism are mutually exclusive? Maybe not so—it depends on the flavor of capitalism. I have found some informative articles that might give you a better understanding of what I mean as I write about Chinese and U.S. state capitalism.

Will Chinese Capitalism Replace the Free Market? The Larger Struggle China’s Working Class Drives Capitalist Development Authoritarianism the Chinese Way

Another illuminative example with respect to Chinese state capitalism is Ordos, China–it’s a city the government built as part of an economic stimulus strategy. Read more here: Revisting China’s Empty City

Aljazeera chimes in on Ordos, too–you really should watch this.

more construction near Big Wild Goose Pagoda

But let’s go back to the campus construction story—as I think it illustrates very well a couple of basic truths regarding economic development in China. In China there is a seemingly endless supply of labor. The country-side is full of people who have been convinced that cities hold more opportunity for them than their rural ways of living. Country people pour into Xi’an and other Chinese cities to do low–level, unpleasant construction jobs—driving dirt trucks is among the lowest. To my knowledge, and according to others in China with whom I’ve spoken, there are labor unions but in name only, not in the politically empowered sense in which westerners conceive of them. Really, there is very little in place to protect the lowest workers in society—safety, wage issues, workers’ rights these are not discussed much, non-issues for the most part. Why would they be? In terms of money and economics, having minimal worker protection is a plus to a company and the State. If accidental death or injury occurs, a worker is easily replaced with another eager and desperate. In many ways this is like mid 1800s-era capitalism in England—the workers are free to perish or rise, but their labor and time unequivocally benefit company owners and the State far more than their time spent laboring at low wages will ever benefit their desire to rise and make more in society.

In this system workers’ labor, and to some extent the profits of company owners, go to bolster the State to make China an economic powerhouse in the world. Fewer labor laws means there are almost no lawsuits and very few labor disputes (though factory labor is beginning to realize they do have power and strength in their numbers), so the government doesn’t have to “waste” a lot of time on these issues. This also explains why construction can take place all day and night—low wage, surplus labor, minimal worker protections. Many workers, and not just the lowest wage earners, toil as human batteries. With all due respect, China’s 8% annual GDP growth is achieved on the backs of peasants working long hours for very low wages.

what construction, progress replaces

But the U.S. carries out its own variation of this system; let’s be honest, grain subsidies granted to mid-western farmers (or any U.S. farmer for that matter) that ultimately result in market manipulation keeping export prices high; large government stimulus packages that artificially bolster the domestic economy; tax cuts that often benefit only the wealthiest Americans—these are also aspects of state capitalism. The United States’ brand has screwed with foreign and international markets for years. Maybe it’s China’s turn, now, to economically screw with the rest of the world. But at least the west pays more than lip service to the notion of worker protection and fair wages. The west, at least, has that going for it.

The west has set the example. And now China has joined the race to develop and become economically viable on the world stage. And just like my like hometown, the casualties will be nature, natural resources, and local and regional culture. It’s happening, been happening. When I ride the bus from Xi’an to the Qin Ling Mountains, I see construction usurping farmland, taking over the green country-side. It’s happening, and I don’t know what to do to stop or slow it—Monkey Wrench Gang tactics not likely to work here—or would they? Imagine Chinese activists at the Three Gorges Dam, but then imagine the aftermath and destruction for miles downstream. That would be more tragic than good. Definitely not the best solution.

great example of urban planning--a park space in residential area

How can I close this little essay with at least a glimmer of hope? It’s Christmas week for goodness sake. I’ve gotta have a chin up, bright and happy message here somewhere.

Ah, my students.

A couple posts ago I mentioned how I was teaching them about semiotics and how by examining cultural signs and symbols, one can learn more about a culture? In class we’ve been talking about production, consumption, and the resource extraction necessary to make and ship all the things they are being told (thank you, Communist party) to buy. My colleague, Josh, has also been using the Story of  Stuff in his classes to better explain the downside of capitalism and economic progress. We’ve been examining the act of shopping and buying stuff as a cultural and semiotic act both in the U.S. and in China. What does what you buy say about you and your values?

And you know what? My students are coming to understand the notion of finite resources and how we all can’t continue consuming and blindly throwing away things without thinking about where items will end up— an incinerator, the ocean, a landfill, until we’re all choking on, drowning, buried in our refuse. I tell my kids that I wear second-hand clothes. They really seem to like my goofy-wacky ensembles, even more so when I tell them my clothes are bought at yard sales and thrift stores (I have to explain these concepts—no yard sales, thrift stores in China) for nearly nothing. My wardrobe is part of my personal art and creative challenge, I tell them, when I buy clothing I focus on the idea of recycling and minimizing how much I spend. I’ve told them I don’t own a car, that I think bikes are the way to go on this planet, that bikes keep you healthy and get you where you need to be. I tell them I am proud to take the bus. Essentially, I am an anti-consumer (anti-American maybe?) trying my darndest to foster critical thinking skills among my students and help them understand that the dominant global paradigm just won’t hold forever, that we have got to come up with another way of living on this planet before we humans have wrung out all her resources.

I think they’re getting it.

so purdy

I’ll keep you posted about my students— next week, I’m planning to write about the education system in China and maybe—if I get the ok from my student—share a paper that one of them wrote. It’s good. And I promise this next one will be a little more up-beat.

So, forget the consumerism crap—have a meal with your family this Season and tell each other how important you are in each others’ lives. You don’t need to buy stuff to express love, gratitude, and appreciation. Happy holidays to all ya’ll!

And, oh yes, go outside and play and tell the plants and rocks and animals how much you love them.

Much love, ~Jos

Uh, fluorescent lights...

Hey all,
I’m having a really, really tough time accessing and maintaining a consistent connection to social media, this blog, and occasionally, gmail.

So, I am off Facebook for a while. I’ve spent a lot of time, waaaaaay too much, with proxies, VPNs, and chasing secure connections—folks, I’ve only so many hours in a day, week, month, year, life, and I’d like to spend as many of those away from a computer screen, away from troubleshooting, untangling, re-installing, and re-booting. Never mind my often, painfully slow internet connection. Because all of this is so tenuous, I cannot promise weekly updates or even every-other-week updates.

What’s more, I want to write and share my experiences, not because I feel some sort of pressure to maintain brand Josephine Johnson, indie-singer-songwriter, but because I want to write. I want to enjoy writing, without feeling as if I have to have something witty, novel, and keenly engaging uploaded every week. I can’t live like that. So, this is what I do and how I do it: I write frequently—both music and prose—and I’ll share them as often as I can to give you a window into my thoughts—presuming you are interested—so as to minimize the amount of frustration I experience in both doing and sharing these things.

Can you understand?

If I have not alienated you, or made you feel bad for your love of endless hours spent in front of a screen, read on. I have much to share, but it will be in fits and bursts and on my own terms and not according to some social networking-based, e-marketing strategy, or some plan to become the next big internet sensation. *Unless, of course, you enjoy what I have to say/sing, and you would like to help me become the next big internet sensation; in that case, yes, help me get the word out about my blog and adventures by sharing them with your friends on Facebook/Twitter/Whatever. It would would be greatly appreciated—I just can’t do it right now.

If I have email access, I will make every effort to let you know of a new post—provided hackers have not turned my gmail into a direct line for wholesale Viagra distribution.

If you’ve stayed with me this far, thank you.

old ways beside the new


In this funsie, I attempt to reconcile beer, nature, music, teaching—float or fly, < 2 min. Cheers!

“Semiotics, also called semiotic studies or semiology, is the study of cultural sign processes, analogy, metaphor, signification and communication, signs and symbols” Wikipedia

In teaching English to first-year Chinese college students, I have heinously underestimated how much time it takes to prepare lectures, devise assignments, and provide timely feedback. It ‘s one thing to teach first-year composition to American, English-speaking 18, 19, 20-year-olds, but it’s a different beast entirely teaching English to first-year Chinese students. I’m finding that increasingly late nights, early mornings, lunch breaks, and dinners are committed to class prep and student papers.

students passing between classes

The kind of feedback I’m accustomed to giving American students must now be given to my Chinese students in simpler terms and run though a sort of cultural filter to make sure I’m maximizing my ability to reach them.

The reading text I use (what the department selected), Signs of Life, takes a cultural studies-perspective to examine American pop culture in critical essays by folks like Malcolm Gladwell, Thomas Friedman, Eric Schlosser, Gloria Steinem, and other lefty progressives. The articles are complex, analytical, and rife with academic language, constructs, and concepts these young people have never, ever encountered. (Recall, Gladwell writes for the New Yorker.) Before we dug into the anthology, we spent a week untangling the meanings of ‘cultural studies’ and ‘semiotics’— tough enough for first-year American college students. Can you imagine my students’ confused faces when I first tried explaining these very western concepts in English?

on campus mushroom = broadcast speaker

To “get it,” we spend a lot of time going over new words. And sometimes, I think I see that light turn on above their heads that they understand how all the concepts, words, and meanings are interrelated. Like when we worked through the definition of ‘profit margin’ by drawing a large Starbucks (yep, Bigbuck$ has infiltrated China) cup on the chalkboard and brainstormed to fill it with business expenses (rent, bills, taxes, employee pay—my students generated these costs!) until the slim, un-chalked bit remaining at the top represented what the business actually made after all expenses were taken into account, the profit margin. Other times, I know they’re lost…and they hate me. But at the very least they do stay awake, answer vocabulary questions, and read aloud when I put them on the spot. I put them on the spot—Yeah, I’d hate me, too.

But because my teachers and professors never let me slide and always demanded my best, I now pay forward that gift, and curse, to my students.

Right now, we’re working on Gladwell’s, “The Science of Shopping.” It has some serious vocabulary, for example, ‘urban geographer’, ‘retail anthropologist’, ‘treacherous’, ‘Decompression Zone’, ‘profit margin’, ‘Invariant Right’, ‘theoretician’, ‘empiricist’, ‘parlance’, ‘frivolity, humility’—but a few from the long list I’ve culled from the reading. These students really like shopping, and with China’s rapid consumer culture growth, I think it important they understand how they’re being marketed to, or manipulated, as blossoming consumers. The Gladwell article discusses how market researchers have videotaped and monitored American consumer behavior since the 1970s when baby boomers (‘baby boomer’ was one of our words last week) began coming into wealth and needed more stuff to spend money on.

village, small farms across from new campus

My students are not jaded when it comes to economic growth and consumerism. (In the West, especially Humboldt County, we understand the dark side of economic growth, how it does not benefit everyone equally and how it frequently harms and destroys natural resources. My students do not yet see a link between economic growth and its attendant environmental degradation and diminished opportunity among the poorest. *I hope this is not too broad but explains better what I’m I trying get at with respect to my students’ perspective of economic growth.) In reading their personal essays, which address how where they grew up influences who they are today, many consider the rapid growth in their hometowns or cities as overwhelmingly positive. Most speak of how their home cities have been improved with development and commercial shopping centers; they cite how cities are better, now, because they have “many more tall buildings” than they did when they were children.

One student was so painfully uncomfortable writing about the coal-mining town where he grew up that he instead wanted to write about the city where he and his family moved where he was eleven years old. He wanted to write about how he and his family could do so many more things in the city like go shopping with his family and go singing with his friends at KTV (KTV is comparable to American Karaoke—KTV and singing, in general, are huge in China). For my students, it would seem that shopping and participating China’s emerging consumer culture is a mark of honor if not outright national obligation.

new campus built at the edge of Xi'an

After defining ‘semiotics,’ and ‘cultural studies’ and after reading articles by Gladwell and Schlosser, I asked my students to go ‘shopping’ for their homework assignment. They are not required to spend any money; instead, I want them to go to their favorite shopping centers, and in terms of the Gladwell and Schlosser articles, observe where merchandise is placed. I want them to examine whether the Decompression Zone and the Invariant Right principles hold true for their favorite places to shop. I want to know what they see when they first walk into a store—what kind of merchandise is on the right? What’s on the left? Are the aisles narrow or wide? Are there sale items, if so where are they located? How far inside, in terms of paces, do you have to walk before you encounter merchandise? Who is shopping in this store—men, women, children? Describe the shoppers.

From these observations, we will begin the first stages of our cross-cultural, thesis-driven argumentative paper. This will be heavy stuff, I think. I hope I can trick ‘em with shopping, get them interested in critical analysis by first going to the mall…oh, they will hate me.

private students, Sunday afternoons

********I do have a creative writing assignment that you might like to read—my students have said it’s ok to share with you, really:
“Hello, Josephine

This is our group (Flora, Carrie, Ainder, Tiny, Yuki). It’s totally OK for you to share our creative

writing story with your friends, we are happy about that.”

—-Flora, Carrie, Ainder, Tiny, Yuki

Thanks, ladies!

creative writing stuff


*They have revised this story twice, and though there are still some minor grammar/ mechanics issues, I think they’ve done a great job—see if you can spot the required elements: dialog, bracelet/jewelry, chapstick, feathers, $2 dollar bill. Enjoy!

Yuki and her fairytale

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Yuki who lived in the forest with her parents. The only friends she had were the animals – deer, rabbits, and birds. Though life in the forest was very comfortable, playing with her friends, picking fruits from the tree……she still wanted to have a look at the world outside. When she was 16, she got her parents’ permission and decided to go out of the forest. After a long walk, she arrived at a town near the forest. She did not know where to go, so she followed the crowd, and then she saw many people getting together reading a bulletin on the wall. She walked closer, and saw that it reads:

Tonight the prince of our country will hold a dance ball to find a suitable girl that will be his wife in the future. Any girl in this country can join in it.

“Oh, I want to go there and meet the prince!”
She couldn’t hold her excitement and said it loudly. She had heard from the birds in the forest that the prince was very kind and handsome. Though she had never fallen in love, as she grew up to be a big girl, the desire of finding a romantic love was becoming bigger and bigger in her heart. But to her sadness, the only two things she had with her are a 2 dollars’ cash, which she picked up in the forest after two travelers had left it carelessly on the ground, and a feather, which was her parents’ birthday present to wish her good luck.

She stood in the crowd and a feeling of great loss occupied her mind.

“Look at me, I don’t have nice clothes on me, how can I get the prince’s attention? And where can I find the carriage to take me to the prince’s palace downtown?”

When thinking of this, she became very upset, and walked along the street without purpose. But then, someone near her caught her attention. It was an old lady in worn-out clothes, crouching in the corner. Many people walked past her, but no one paid any attention to her.

“What a poor lady! She must be very hungry and cold. I must do something to help her!” She went to the lady, and gave her all the money she had – two dollars. The old lady looked at her, eyes filled with appreciation, “Good girl, you are so kind!” Suddenly, a light appeared around her, and the woman turned into a witch with a magic wand.
“You’ve seen who I am. Speak out your wish, and I will realize it for your good deed!”

“The lucky goddess has come to me!” Yuki shed tears excitedly and said:“I want to go to the dance ball! Please help me!”

Before the sound of her voice died away, she found herself transformed into another person and from head to toe, she looked brand-new. A big and delicate carriage stood in front of them, and it seemed that only they could see all that happened. She is so beautiful in that golden dress, with precious jewelry sparkling on her neck and wrist.

“Oh my god! Is this me? I can’t believe my eyes!”

“Wait! There is one thing left!” The witch waves her hand again and a chapstick appeared in Yuki’s hand,“Wipe this stick on, and you will be the most beautiful girl tonight.”

“Thank you! I don’t know how I can show my gratitude to you……”

“Don’t thank me, it is your kind heart and that magic feather on you that brought you luck.”
That night, Yuki attracted everyone’s attention, especially, the prince’s. And the ending, like every fairytale, is self-evident!

Hey, wanna run with me? Real quick–less than 3 minutes. Come on!


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…

10:00 am
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:

creative writing stuffs


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.

that tv tower (on a clear day)

1:15 pm
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.

2:30 pm
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.

Xi'an street

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.

My colleague, Josh,  DJ’ed the Vice Versa Halloween party–get a feel for Xi’an’s emerging art, music, and live entertainment venues.

*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.

Made it, China

Where I live

I’m in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, China, and I finished my first full week of teaching. Things are going ok. I finally have a place to live and am no longer staying with the college Dean, which is a huge plus. I’m sure Mary’s happy to have her space back, though I feel like I’m in outer space, orbiting a planet so distant and foreign. Everything’s just so different from Humboldt, Savannah, Indiana, the U.S. of A. There are soooo many people, diminutive Chinese people—I’ve never felt so tall, or big. I am a giant, little me, a broad-shouldered, tough-legged giant in a land of lovely lotus men and women.

Things to get used to:


ready, set, squat

In my apartment, I have a western-style toilet; at the university and in most other places, squat toilets are the norm. No tissue provided, even at school. I’ve gotta bring my own. So far, I just hold it until I get home—yeah, really grosses me out. But, I’m a backpacker, right? A hardcore adventure girl, tough, can handle it….uh…no cultural judgment intended, but it’s just gross…um, hoping to work it out, this squat toilet business, jeeze, ick…

Public Spitting
It’s just what most folks do here—hocker up a big, loud loogie and forcefully aim it at the ground, often inches from my feet. And that hocker-throat sound? Dear God, aural kryptonite, nearly makes me Rainman. So, I’ve learned to stay plugged in to the i-pod when walking in the city or on campus.

street sweeping

street sweeping

Air Quality
I think folks spit so much in part because of the crappy air. Xi’an is located on the loess plateau which makes the city fairly high and naturally very dry. Dust storms are common here. Take inherent aridity, add lots of dust plus poorly regulated exhaust from an exponentially expanding city (a colleague mentioned that Xi’an’s population has grown by 2 million in the last 3 years), and you’ve a recipe for horrendous air. I know this is about to verge on “too much information,” but when I return from running in the mornings, I blow my nose to find the tissue(s) streaked with brown and a range of fine black particulate. In his book, Rivertown, Peter Hessler also writes about this phenomenon. (Check out Rivertown if you are curious about teaching English in China—I definitely relate to his experiences.) I run to stay fit, keep healthy. But am I really doin’ my body good in this air??

Good stuff:


Food’s Awesome.

fresh fruits and veggies 🙂

Seriously, I thought I liked Chinese food, but now that I’m here and have eaten authentic cuisine, I’m smitten. I’ve gone out with colleagues to a variety of restaurants—lower-end noodle shops, street barbeque (Lyndsey B. wondered if I’d knowingly eaten any feline, so far, don’t think so…), middle and higher-end restaurants, and it’s all soooo tasty. My favorite, though, is just eating from the street vendors; it’s really cheap and fairly healthy, as healthy as it can be surrounded in the swirl of chemical-air. After running and before heading to school, I like to have this rice flour-based Chinese crepe-thingy with an egg added plus shredded carrots, cabbage, hot peppers, a little shredded potato, these long noodle-like pieces of mushroom—oh, it’s so good. Salivating. I can’t wait for breakfast tomorrow, the best!

snack time

Students are Rad-tastic.
Indeed. I have 17 young minds to engage, challenge, and (hopefully) inspire in the next 10 months, and nearly all of them really, really want to be in the program and are over the moon to be going to Humboldt State next year. They listen. They take notes. So far, they read the assignments. They participate in class even though speaking solely in English is hard and often embarrassing. They don’t like making mistakes in front of me or their peers, but I tell them I make mistakes all the time—and prove it by jumbling their names terribly—and that the best way to learn is by making mistakes. It’s ok, mistake away, I tell them, we’ll learn together that way.

Oh, I miss Humboldt and all the music and open mics and gigs, but there’s good music stuff here, too. The other day I discovered a city park where multiple groups of 3 and 4 retired folks were singing traditional folk music. It’s beautiful to see and hear people enjoying music out in public, singing with abandon—some of the groups had microphones and amplifiers, and one 80+ year old man was crooning with all his heart a song that sounded like traditional Chinese opera. He was very good. I also heard my first erhu, an ancient Chinese instrument that sounds similar to the violin but looks entirely different. There’s an elder who plays erhu in one of the stairwells on campus—I’m hoping we can be friends. I would like to learn this instrument, truly, truly. It’s gorgeous.

*I need to get some more erhu footage, but below you can watch a few local Xi’an singer-songwriters performing at Nashi Lijang–they’re great.

And I’ve been playing my stuff as well, and it looks like I’m angling to get something set up at Aperture (hippest hang in the City, really) and the Sculpting in Time Café. I will keep you posted.

To great adventure,