New City, New Challenges

It took almost two weeks longer to get my Z visa to China than expected. The good news about that thoroughly frustrating situation is that I got to see more of my family and friends. The bad news about it is that I arrived in a new country only a few days before starting classes with my students. These two and a half weeks have been a blur of medical appointments, lesson planning, teaching, meetings, bank trips, trips to WalMart and IKEA to get my apartment set up, figuring out WeChat (which I am still working on because it is the main mode of communication and payment here – and I just figured out that it even translates messages!) and the simple process of learning the wheres, whats, and hows of a new country.

 

What is the best way to get to work?

Where do I catch the bus home?

How do I get a water dispenser in my apartment?

Where do I find food I can order when I don’t speak the language – who speaks English or, at least, has an English menu I can point to?

Where do I get coffee? Something I’m finding is hugely challenging unless you want to pay $4 at Starbuck’s!

Where is the bank?

A new city always means learning the basics – and a new city where you don’t speak the language creates its own set of challenges. I also discovered that the VPN issue in China is real. Without a VPN, many helpful websites are blocked. WeChat and a VPN are your best friends.

Fortunately, I live directly across the street from a WalMart and a mall so I have access to anything I need and won’t starve. These past few weeks – fighting jet lag, preparing for classes, and trying to get the paperwork for my residency – it’s just been hard to find the energy and time to get things done. But, thanks to a typhoon day and a few good nights of sleep, I am finally starting to feel normal.

I haven’t had a chance to see much of my new city other than the paths to and from work or other obligations, but the area I’m in is beautifully green. I love the trees that line the sidewalks and the water fountains placed in strategic locations and the street cleaners with their stick brooms and big hats to protect them from the glaring sun. I love the little kiosk huts that dot the sidewalks in place of the convenient stores that I became accustomed to in Taipei. And I have had no problem finding Western food if I am craving a good pizza or French fries or even a salad. But I’ve only found one street food cart serving buns and dumplings and feel as though I haven’t yet seen the true China.

 

Shenzhen is what I expected and not what I expected. There is construction going on everywhere as it is the fastest growing city here. There are tall, modern buildings near older, somewhat dilapidated buildings and others in between. There’s English but not everywhere or even as much as I found in Taipei. And there has only been a little bit of culture shock.

The first week here felt like a picture that was out of focus. The people looked different and dressed differently than in Taiwan. But the humidity and the heat were the same. The city smells different. The food is similar but different – more meat, less vegetarian options, less tofu, more potatoes and pasta. There aren’t 7-11s on every corner or drink shops side-by-side, but there are pizza joints and cafes and other restaurants everywhere! The people are kind but more aggressive with less smiles. The scooters are different, smaller and less prominent than the cars. The buses are a better option most of the time than the subway, at least where I live. And taxis don’t always have their light on when they’re available so you just stick your hand out every time you see one.

The picture is more in focus now. I’ve adjusted. I don’t expect it to be just like Taiwan now. I knew that intellectually when I arrived but, in my tiredness and in trying to adjust, I still emotionally expected it. I literally compared everything to Taiwan…and it always fell short. Now I am starting to look at it as its own city with its own pros and cons and not keep score. I can’t wait to see more of the city and discover what makes Shenzhen unique and special in its own right.

A new city and new challenges – I see good times ahead!

 

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USA: Baltimore, MD

Baltimore, Maryland has one of the highest murder rates in the USA. It’s a diverse city of historical significance that is overlooked at times. It’s where the original flag was sewn by Betsy Ross and the Star-Spangled Banner was written. It’s the city where Babe Ruth was born and Edgar Allan Poe died. It’s beautiful and ugly and interesting, old and new. Depending on where you are in the city, it can be either very safe or very dangerous – and those two places are often side-by-side.

For me, though, Baltimore is home. Although I didn’t grow up there in the traditional sense of the word, I was born there and we made annual visits to see family. The city is rich with my family’s history, with stories told repeatedly and places pointed to with the pride of relationship. To this day, when I visit, we’ll pass a place I may not know and hear a story about an aunt or an uncle or a cousin or a grandparent or even one of my own parents. I feel connected to Baltimore more than any other place that I have lived.

I didn’t realize how special Baltimore was to me until the past few years when I would go to visit and feel nostalgia for childhood memories. I didn’t realize how deeply rooted and visceral those memories became because I was with family: the crab boils in the backyard that always created tiny cuts on my fingers that tasted of Old Bay, walking to the snowball stand with my cousins on the hot pavement and the pleasure of sticky, icy sweet on my tongue on the way back, the horror movie marathons in my aunt’s basement where I would hide my face and sit close to my brother, my grandmother’s cooking that always involved lots of cheese and butter, hanging out with my cousins and feeling both special and alienated because I lived in another city most of the time while they all lived near each other.

My grandmother, my mother’s mother, passed away recently. I wasn’t there because I was in Taiwan at the end of the school year and couldn’t come home.  She was a constant presence in my life either through my mother talking about her or my own visits with her. In my childhood, she was someone who loved me and who would hug me tight when I would go to see her, but someone I didn’t really know that well. I loved her because I knew I should and because she loved me, but I could only talk about her cooking or the way she was with my mom when my mom was little. I had very few memories with her of my own.

As an adult, I finally took the time to get to know her. I learned how to ask questions and listen to the answers. I got glimpses of the little girl she was during the Depression, living with her grandmother, dreaming big dreams and getting her heart broken. I met the young girl who married an emotionally abusive man when she was too young to know better then moved on to someone even worse. I saw the woman who had three children because that was what you did, and any slim opportunity she may have had as a poor, uneducated woman in the early 1900s disappeared.

My grandmother was intelligent. She started off with the disadvantages of extreme poverty and a bipolar disorder. When she met my grandfather, she was suffering from depression, running from an abusive husband with three of her four children in tow and trying to support them. She then got married for the third time. My grandfather was 16 years older than her, an Italian immigrant who spoke broken English and worked the night shift on the railroad, and he was her savior.

Nan and Pap

Between the two of them, they had six children when they got married; they had four more children together. The picture I have that stands out in my mind is them living in a two-story Baltimore city townhouse with plastic covering the furniture and sticking to my legs in the summer, a hot kitchen with my grandmother either cooking or doing dishes, three tiny bedrooms bulging with too many people, hugs and laughter everywhere I turned, and stories told so many times I felt like I had lived some of them myself even though they took place before I was born.

There was also drama. There were tears and fights. There were mistakes and gossip and family who cut off others only to forgive them several days or months or years later. But there was always love in that house, a fierce love and loyalty that was there even when we weren’t.

Those memories will always be a part of me, and, even though I love the Inner Harbor and Ellicott City and Annapolis, those memories and that two-story townhouse are Baltimore to me.

USA: Phoenix, Arizona

I landed in Phoenix last Saturday with most of my belongings packed in two very heavy suitcases, a carry-on bag, and a purse (a giant purse stuffed full of things). I keep saying that I want to get rid of more things, but I really want all of the things in these bags. I am not a very good vagabond.

The week was filled with training sessions for my new position, good meals that caused me to gain a few unwanted pounds, and networking opportunities to make new friends. It was much more interesting than I anticipated, and I didn’t meet one person I didn’t like. On top of that, downtown Phoenix is a really cool city with a big heart!

The training – the training was almost all very targeted so I was able to learn more about the company I’ll be working for, the philosophy of education, the educational goals, and the expectations for my position. They also included some sessions to prepare us for moving to China which was very helpful, and I was able to meet people whom I’ll be working with. This was probably the best part because I made connections with a few people, and, I will admit, I’m a bit nervous about the move. Knowing I’ll have a few friends already helps immensely.

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Although I spent most of my time in the Phoenix Convention Center, I did have an opportunity to wander around here and there for a few hours, eat at a few of the restaurants, and go to the symphony. It was interesting that most of the waiters had tattoos and that graffiti art was everywhere – even on the side of a credit union, advertising the building. Something about the tattoos and the graffiti art go together, as though art is a part of showcasing everything and everyone to their best advantage.

The art, the symphony, and the buildings revealed what kind of city Phoenix wants to be.

The graffiti art – the murals were amazing! There was a skeleton with a black hood holding a sign that said, “Love Life.” There was an area with a wall of kindness for encouraging messages with a mural behind it that honored the homeless who had died in the city. The messages were mostly positive and life-affirming which made my heart happy.

 

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The symphony – the music was BEAUTIFUL! It wasn’t a full symphony, but a quartet just for us as the symphony has the summer off. If you have a chance to go, there is some serious talent in Phoenix. They only played for about 45 minutes, playing music from old to new, ending with Jimmy Hendrix! Corinna, one of my new co-workers, and I both cried during several of the songs, including “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Granted, we were both jet-lagged and emotional but, still, they were good!

The symphony has also done a study that shows that listening to music improves Alzheimer’s. They are the only symphony that has promoted and participated in a medical study of this sort and have published a paper on it. In addition, they have created a school program for elementary students that pairs music with learning. They also did a study on their school program which showed increased scores in the classes that used it and the students’ scores remained higher beyond the classes they took using the music program. Bottom line: music is good for the brain and the Phoenix Symphony is out to prove it.

The buildings – I took a picture of a building with Westward Ho on the top and had to look it up because it also had ASU on the side. I learned that it was a low-income apartment building and ASU decided to partner up with Westward Ho and use students to offer services to the tenants – social services, nutrition services, medical services, etc. Arizona State University wants their students to be part of the community rather than an isolated institution of learning and they are acting on their words. That’s why we educate and get educated – to make the world a better place.

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I enjoyed my time learning about the city and my new company, but, after a little less than a week in Phoenix that was packed full and just when I was recovering from my jet lag, I left the most comfortable bed in the world at the Renaissance Hotel and hopped on a plane to head East to see my mom.

See ya again one day, Phoenix, but I’m moving on to something else for now.

Is Love a Choice?

So, my ex-boyfriend and I had a long text conversation today about the end of our relationship.  It’s been close to four months, I think, since he broke it off rather abruptly. He told me he ended it because he gave up on our long-distance relationship – of course, there was another woman involved so I’m sure that was part of it, but whatever – and I told him it’s all good and people’s feelings change and it was for the best. Blah, blah, blah.

And that got me thinking about what I actually believe about love and commitment.

Thing is, I do believe everything I told Jon. But I also believe love is a commitment. You date to see if you want to make that commitment. We did and he didn’t. Fine.

But, after that, after you make the choice that you love that person and want to be with them forever. At that point, it’s not an option for your feelings to change. What I mean by that is this. You fall in love. You make a choice to commit. Then you keep committing every day.

You commit to love that person.

You commit to be honest with that person about what you need.

You commit to do whatever it takes to keep that love alive.

You commit to make sacrifices for their happiness and, because they love you the same way, they will also make sacrifices for yours.

I don’t know at what point in the relationship you make this commitment, but I think you both know when it happens. And it’s not to be taken lightly. It’s a big deal.

Because that commitment means it’s the two of you against the world. You’re no longer flying solo. You no longer have the option to only do what you want. You have to consider another person. And you made a commitment to love and be with that person forever. Anything less is a betrayal.

For some people, for some couples, that seems pretty easy. I think, in some ways, it’s how far you open your heart. Once a person is in there deeply, embedded, they become a part of you. It makes it easier to make that daily commitment because to hurt them, you hurt yourself. But, even then, you can’t forget. You can’t take it for granted.

I’ve seen so many couples who thought they were safe, that things were good. Then, a few years later, one of them cheats. The excuse of the cheater is always that they didn’t feel that their partner listened to their needs. It’s imperative to check in with each other. To talk and to listen to each other.

I’ve never been married.

But I’ve seen a lot of marriages – both good and bad.

I’ve listened to a lot of people with broken hearts tell me what went wrong on their side. I’ve had friends who have been cheated on and friends who cheated. I try not to judge because I know marriage is hard and that it takes two people for it to work. And that’s my point. It’s work.

The couples I know whose marriages are currently good all say that it’s work and that they work at it. They talk. They check in with each other. They compromise. They BOTH compromise. They make deals: you do this one night for me and I’ll do that one night for you. You figure out what’s important to each other, and you make it happen.

And I’ve never heard a couple who works on their relationship say that it wasn’t worth it. Love always is. It’s worth sacrifice and pain and hard work because…well…love.

For now, I’m flying solo again and that’s okay. I am living the life I want, learning to love myself the way I deserve to be loved, and opening my heart up to the Universe to be more generous and caring and vulnerable and daring. I’m learning not to be afraid of physical or emotional pain on my path to get what I want. And, hopefully, I’ll find someone to share in my crazy adventures along the way.

Of course, the steps required to get my Z Visa may kill me but, if I get through that, I am psyched about what the future holds.

What are your thoughts about love? Can you make a choice to love one person forever or are you at the mercy of whimsical emotions? Is the notion of loving one person forever a social construct or is it a desirable and attainable goal?

I think that choosing to love one person forever is a desirable and attainable goal. And, the older I get, the more I think that love is a choice. You can choose to love someone forever. I am, however, an idealist and a romantic so I believe the impossible is possible if you want it badly enough!

But whatever you believe and however you believe, I also know that you must be true to yourself. Think about this. Take the time to love yourself and decide how you want love to exist in your life. There are no wrong answers as long as you’re honest with yourself and the people you allow into your heart.

Peace.

The Hard Stuff

There are times in my life when I feel like I’m losing my mind and that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. Okay, there are lot of times in my life that I feel this way. Sometimes I feel this way when the day before I was completely sure of where I was headed and what I wanted to accomplish.

Today is one of those days. It is pouring down rain outside. I’ve spent a crazy week trying to get the paperwork together for the visa for my next move, figure out the logistics of the steps for my move, do my current job which is fortunately not too terribly stressful, and not completely freak out about moving in less than seven weeks.

I’ve been trying to relax today, but a part of me is so excited and another part is trying not to fall apart in panic. This is me: two conflicting sides. This is my life and what I do to myself. I think part of it is that I’m alone. I do all of this alone. And I never stick with any one thing so I’m constantly learning new things, changing things, and complicating my life. I exhaust myself sometimes.

I don’t know if this sounds like I’m bragging or if I’m having a pity party, but it’s neither. It’s just who I am. It’s not better or worse than others. It’s simply the way my moods swing and my brain works and it’s how I’ve chosen to live my life. I don’t regret anything except that life is probably not long enough for me to do everything I want to do, but I’m okay with that as well. I plan on plowing ahead until I can’t or don’t want to anymore. Then I’ll stop and settle and be grateful I did as much as I did.

But there are moments like now when I want to bury myself under the covers and never leave. However, I know that’s not an option and that, when I finally come out from under the covers, the option I will wish for is the one that takes all the work. So I may as well do it and finish the hard stuff as soon as possible so I can get on with enjoying the good stuff.

Isn’t that just the way?

There’s no easy path to get the life you want.

Learning Mandarin

Learning Mandarin Chinese is hard. I’ve read it. I’ve heard it. I’ve experienced it.

Learning another language is always difficult, but Mandarin takes it to a whole new level. For one thing, the characters look different. They sound different. Then throw in tones, and it’s on, baby. The same word can have different meanings depending on how you pronounce it – and some of the sounds are nothing like the sounds we use in English!

Needless to say, I’ve lived in Taiwan for two years where the primary language is Mandarin Chinese, and I’ve barely gotten past a few words and phrases. The only thing I consistently order in Chinese is coffee. The rest I point and motion to explain what I need.

I’ve been lucky living here in Taiwan because enough people speak English or, at least, have enough English skills to help me that I haven’t had to learn Mandarin. I’ve tried. I’ve half-heartedly tried. When it started making me feel stupid, I quit. Then I would try again a few months later and so on.

I haven’t made much progress.

However, I got a job in China.

Yes! I got a job!

And it’s in Shenzhen, China.

From what I’ve read about China, English is not as readily spoken. So I’ve started trying to learn Mandarin. Again.

It’s still hard. But this time I’m more motivated because I have a feeling I’m going to need it. I feel like I’m picking it up faster than before because of my past sporadic studying. It’s somewhat familiar. I’m trying to study at least once a day.

After my lesson today, I was feeling really good about it.

Until I went to a restaurant I go to a lot and tried to order my usual salad in a different way. *sigh* I had no idea how to explain it in Chinese and resorted to lots of pointing and hand gestures until the owner figured it out. I immediately felt like a failure.

But this is what learning something new is like. The progress is slow. And you may feel stupid at times. But you can’t quit. If you quit, you definitely won’t learn it, but, if you keep trying, you will eventually get better.

I mean, how else will you spend your time? If the choice is between watching television and learning something new, pick the learning something new option. Ask yourself: at the end of the day, which one is going to be more memorable, not to mention more useful and, quite frankly, more interesting?

So what skill have you been putting off learning?

Maybe now is a good time to start.

Job Hunting and Dating

Job hunting is like dating – and I hate both. I haven’t written in what feels like forever because I’ve been busy looking for a job for the coming up school year. I’ve interviewed with five schools, trying to find the right fit and what I discovered is that I feel like I’m dating.

There’s the search for a good fit. You want to be open-minded, though, because it may be different once you speak to someone about everything you see so you decide it’s worth a shot.

You send them an email to let them know you’re interested and attach your resume to give them a chance to review your qualifications and decide if they want to give you a chance as well.

You wait by the phone and check your email every five minutes hoping for a response.

Then they contact you! You get excited then nervous and wonder if you really want it badly enough. But now you’re stuck so you get ready for the interview.

You get dressed up, butterflies in the stomach, hoping it’s a good match.

You arrive early for the interview, not too early because you don’t want to look desperate, but you feel a little desperate because you want it so badly or you think you do or you at least want them to like you and want you on their team.

Then the interview. You’re nervous at first then you relax as you start talking and get a sense of the interviewer and the job.

Then it’s over and, once again, you’re waiting by the phone and checking email to see if you get another chance to impress.

They reach out and you have to decide: Is this the one? Do I continue or move on to the next one? Is it fair to go for a second interview if I’m not sure I want it? Is it fair when I know I have a second interview with a job I’d rather have?

It’s exhausting.

For now, I hope the job hunt is over and I’ve found The One (for the next two years anyway).  I’m waiting on a contract…still constantly checking email.

Unfortunately, I still have to put myself out there on the dating scene. But I actually think I learned a few things about dating from this interview process!

  1. It’s important to be yourself because, otherwise, it’s not the right job. You both have to be honest to make a good fit.
  2. It’s okay to say “no” if it’s not the right one for you and no one will get hurt. The sooner you say “no,” the better so they can move to the next one.
  3. You will absolutely feel it in your gut when it’s the right one.

Fingers crossed that the contract arrives soon so I can stop checking my email.