Monday, April 19, 2010

A dream within "a dream"

One of the courses that I teach is called Public Speaking. For the last several weeks, we've deconstructed MLK Jr's, "I Have a Dream" speech by evaluating certain techniques that are repeated throughout.

Today, I gave a quiz over some background information that was required research (to supplement their understanding of the political atmosphere in 1963 America).

The quiz was two questions:

1) Tell me everything you know about Jim Crow Laws.
2) Tell me everything you know about Brown vs. Board of Education.

The scores are abysmal, but there are a few responses that not not just ridiculous but ridiculously abstract:

By the way, black people can be treated better than before.

Brown vs. Board of Education is the beginning of the education of black children. It's the base of the black education. You know, brown is the color between black and white.

Jim is a boy's name, and Crow is a bird which is covered in black.

Jim Crow is a very famous people, and do lots of favor to struggle for the freedom of Negro. And he has many hobbies.

And my favorite. I've read it about five times, already:

Brown vs. Board of Education. Sorry, I know nothing about Brown. I can only say: "Sorry, Brown, I don't know you. But you don't know me, either."

flower power

There is a young man on campus who was in a sophomore in one of my classes last year. We became friends and shared some meals and walks. I haven't seen him much this semester, but we still keep in touch.

This past weekend, I was supposed to have a reunion dinner with him and two of his classmates, but I had to cancel twice due to a cold that, while benign enough, hits me hardest in my overall energy level.

He sent me a text message this afternoon informing me that he had left something for me at the front desk of my dorm. Several hours later, I found his mystery gift waiting, complete with tinsel and glitter. I think those embellishments make me love it even more.

Dear Meagan, Hope you can get well as soon as possible. Sorry I did not contact you for such a long time.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea

Few people understand what I do. Cramming a life into a suitcase and then transplanting it thousands of miles away for an undetermined amount of time seems...


Why leave behind a home and family and friends? Why abandon the shrinking possibility of a husband and children? People all over the world would give their right arms to have just a portion of my upbringing, so why throw it all away to be part of a culture in which I will forever be marked as an outsider? Sure, Just don't live there.

But that's not what He says. He says:

The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.

Blessed are the feet of those who bring good news.

And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens [with a holy people].

We – you and I – are living on the edge of existence as we know it. I believe that it is entirely possible for that “twinkling of an eye” to happen within my lifetime, maybe even before I have a chance to grow old and weary. To think of it quickens my heart rate:

That I may not die.

That I may not even finish this essay before the trumpet sounds and I pierce the cloudy dusty skies of this city in my ascension with the saints.

If I adopt this as reality, then I have no time to waste, and giving up the momentary pleasures of the life I knew becomes a forfeit worth it all just to hear Him say:

Well done, good and faithful servant.

*inspired by*

Saturday, April 17, 2010


Some of my favorite passages from Marilynne Robinson's book:

For a dying man I feel pretty good, and that is a blessing. Of course your mother knows about it. She said if I feel good, maybe the doctor is wrong. But at my age there's a limit to how wrong he can be.

My point in mentioning this is only to say that people who feel any sort of regret where you are concerned will suppose you are angry, and they will see anger in what you do, even if you're just quietly going about a life of your own choosing.

For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn't writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone.

You are shy like your mother. I see how hard this life is for her that I've brought her into, and I believe you sense it, too. She makes a very unlikely preacher's wife. She says so herself. But she never flinches from any of it. Mary Magdalene probably made an occasional casserole, whatever the ancient equivalent may have been. A mess of pottage, I suppose.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

a delicious read

It is an amazing thing to watch people laugh, the way it sort of takes them over. Sometimes, they really do struggle with it...So I wonder what it is and where it comes from, and I wonder what it expends out of your system, so that you have to do it till you're done, like crying in a way, I suppose, except that laughter is much more easily spent.

-John Ames, in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A DQ kinda blizzard

Date: April 13, 2010
Location: Bonaire, Georgia
Temperature: 83 F
Conditions: Sunny, winds NNW 5 mph

Date: April 13, 2010
Location: Harbin, China
Temperature: 27 F
Conditions: Snow, winds 40-45 mph, straight up crayzay

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Easter: the unabridged version

Despite my silence about Easter weekend, it was actually full of moments that I wish I could just project across the vast expanse of sky that hovers over wherever you happen to be.

It began several weeks beforehand; we planned two or three activities to which we could attach holiday explanation. My Canuck team-mate and I teach classes of same-level undergrad students, so we combined our efforts and sketched out a scavenger hunt throughout campus with clues relating back to the events of Easter. The other team-mate designed a well-organized egg decoration activity. After seeing her arsenal of dyes, I'm convinced that she subsidized the college tuition for all the children of PAAS employees.

The Canuckster and I didn't have such a stash, so after very unsuccessful attempts at homemade approaches, we gave up and supplied nothing but colored pens and markers. Note: Never trust an online authority who promotes using boiled red onion skins as a “fun and organic way” to dye eggs.

The hunt and the egg contest were both held on Saturday morning following a week of lessons about the history of Easter. We sent students all over campus by positioning volunteers at different locations, which each person holding a clue that, when answered correctly, would take groups to the next location to obtain the next clue. (Sample question: “How many people were at the Last Supper? Go the dorm which corresponds to this number.” Most figured this out and hi-tailed it dorm 13 where we had someone waiting to intercept them.) Each clue was written on a piece of paper that acted as a puzzle piece, with the puzzle forming an egg shape when completed.

The first group to finish was a quartet of boys – three of them my students. I attribute this to two things: Boys outnumber girls at this university 7:1, so they were statistically favored to win. Also, boys here are endearingly unkempt, so running around campus while panting like a pack of delusional bloodhounds isn't perceived as a challenge to their coolness.

As groups straggled in – out of breath – we offered them snacks and drinks and then set them to work decorating a group Easter egg. Once we had all the students assembled, we elected our volunteers from the scavenger hunt to act as judges for the egg contest. Each group chose a representative to display its egg at the front of the class, with judges passing by and asking questions. This sounds official, but it was actually just a ruse to get our judges – all very sweet and “available” guys – some face time with the girls. It was like a very awkward version of speed dating.

Once the winners were announced, we informed them that the Canuck and the American would take the bronze, silver and gold teams out for a victory lunch. (See how I correlate this to the Olympics, WHICH I STILL REFUSE TO BELIEVE ARE OVER! Read previous entries for details.) Considering that most of these kids eat in the dining hall out of economical necessity, this reward - plus the advantage of having so many eligible girls in one room - quickly cemented our activity as the coolest “non-dance-non-Rubik's-cube-themed activity” of the semester.

Lunch was the Canuck, me, approximately ten girls, and one nervous young man who somehow got drafted on one of the winning teams. We had a great time, made a campus cafe owner very happy, and left with full bellies. On the way back to the dorm, one of the girls in the group asked me what I would do the next day for an official Easter celebration. I explained to her that I had planned to go to a sanctioned morning service. She told me that she also attends a group and asked if she could be a guest with me. I welcomed the company, and we set off the next morning for the 45 minute walk, along with some other HIT students and personnel. En route, we discussed the events of the morning as we understood them from their 2000 year history, my own contributions settling on how it was the unlovables to whom he appeared – the Magdelenes and the Peters and the Thomases – all, in some way, facets of ourselves.

Somewhere in the discourse, I mentioned that another student would meet us there. I hadn't planned to invite him, but things had changed the week before. During the lesson on food (see previous entry), his classmates ended up wandering to different parts of the room while he and I moved from talking about Bananas Foster to – inexplicably – his life choices. I remember that he looked at me and said, “I don't know what I want to do, but it's really hard because I only have about a year to decide if I want to stay in my major, but I have to live with that decision for the next 40 years of my life. It's just so hard, and I don't have anyone I can talk to.”

Not many freshmen acknowledge that abrupt truth.

As I nodded, he looked down and refused to look back up. I knew what that meant. I said nothing and patiently waited for him to navigate the conversation. He looked up with tears gently gliding down his face and apologized for being emotional. While he wiped his cheeks with his sleeve, I gave him a reassuring smile and said that I would be available anytime for a future chat. He thanked me and then went to the restroom to wash away the evidence.

For the next few days, he was in my thoughts. I finally decided to invite him to a Sunday service and sat down to type out the email only to discover that he had acted first. He sent me a message that I'd like to post, but I promised him that I wouldn't share his information with anyone, so I intend to keep that promise, even on an international scale.

What I can share, however, is my reply:

I'm so glad that you wrote. Friday mornings are a little calmer for me since I don't have classes. Quite often, I spend several minutes thinking about the past week - the good and the bad. This morning, I thought about the conversation that you and I had on Wednesday. It appears that we both had the same thing on our minds.

Let me put to rest any fears that you may have about what you shared with me. What we discussed will stay between us. I don't share my students' personal information and stories - that's unprofessional and, more importantly, not the way a friend should behave.

Second, don't buy the idea that, "Real men don't cry." Some of the most honorable and respected men whom I have known have been men who are not afraid to show their emotions during times of great trouble, joy, sadness, etc. Human beings were never designed to act like rocks. From the moment of conception, we are living, breathing, thinking, feeling beings. In my opinion, that's a marvelous gift - to be granted so many emotions and thoughts that make us different from all other animals. So, crying isn't something for which you should apologize.

Finally, there are some other things that I would like to talk to you about, but email is my least favorite method of one-to-one communication. Are you free this weekend or next week? Maybe we can have lunch together. I think you will be very interested in what I have to say.

Take care, and thanks again for writing.

The following week, he approached me after class and I nominated a Sunday afternoon lunch, knowing full well that I could tag it onto the disclosure of where I'd be that morning. He showed immediate interest in both, and we agreed to meet at the location of the service.

He stepped inside with us to a packed room. We took side seats next to the other members of our group and began with a choral convocation, many of the songs being ones that I've sung since I was young. “In C Alone,” the first of the series, is one I know by heart. As the lyrics began, he turned around with wide eyes, I guess in surprise to hearing his teacher sing. He began to grin and whispered, “That's a beautiful song.” I smiled back and continued singing. He never sang but followed the words with his eyes, trying to absorb the meaning of what was being echoed through the building.

I took along my bi-lingual copy of the word and let him use it. As expected, he was totally unfamiliar with its contents, but I could tell that he was intrigued. As different verses were highlighted, I'd reach over and find their locations so that he could read along in his own language. During that time, I kept petitioning and asking for understanding to be granted despite the language difficulties.

As soon as the service was over, we shuffled outside and made lunch plans. He joined us, and I was so thankful to see how the other students exercised such congeniality toward him. Of course, it helps that he's one of the more confident and friendly types. After lunch, three of us encouraged him to walk back to main campus with us, and it's no coincidence that we three were also the same ones who walked TO the service. It was during that journey when I first informed the other two that he would be joining us, that he knows very little of what we believe and would need some people to come alongside him that day for explanation. What they accomplished on the walk back was something that I cannot duplicate or even improve because they're his peers and, more importantly, his national peers. I'm the foreign teacher, and that's not ever gonna change.

We arrived back and took a few extra minutes to meander through campus. Ending up at my dorm, I remembered that I had agreed to loan out a few DVDs to the girl in our group, so I ran upstairs and grabbed some movies for her. While I was rummaging through my collection, I came across the Narnia tales and decided that my morning guest might benefit from watching them. At the very least, I knew that I could use the videos as a way to introduce him to the concept of allegory.

I returned to the lobby and presented them with the selection. He immediately went for the Narnia movies. I tried not to look too excited.

And that was the last time I saw him. I teach his class again this Wednesday (and every Wednesday until the end of the semester). If you've made it this far into the reading, then please pause for this young man. Ask that his eyes and ears may be opened. Ask that he may have the peace for which he longs. Ask that my presence and influence in his life would find favor with his family. (Parents and grandparents can make or break relationships here.)

So that was my Easter weekend.

No pastel dresses and little girls with bows. Just a crowd in jeans and old people with wiry hair.

No swelling orchestra music filling the sanctuary. Just a guitar, an ill-tuned violin, and a choir of four mangling their way through a song from “Sister Act II.” I'm not kidding.

No formal dining table offering ham with macaroni and cheese. Just a restaurant full of Chinese people and me, ordering the likes of pork, eggplant, and cabbage dishes.

No overwhelming numbers surging forward during the invocation. Just a few of us going in with a hope that we desire to see flourish in this city...beginning, perhaps, with a kid who was assigned to an ordinary English class.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

It's almost like Hallmark.

Messages in response to the news that I have a headcold:

Well, take care...victory belongs to you!

I believe Chinese medicine will cure Chinese cold! Come on!

Take care of yourself and drink more water.

Hoping you are feeling better everyday and will soon be well enough to stay.
(Stay where?)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Chinese take-out

I don't journal too much, so this is as archival as I get these days, unless you count Post-It notes. But, this is just way too much fun to think about without putting it somewhere for safe keeping:

Last week, my Wednesday classes had a lesson on restaurant etiquette. I had several stations to which groups rotated, with each station offering some kind of activity. One station introduced new vocabulary (a la carte, a la mode, soup du jour, gratuity, etc); another offered names and descriptions of dishes which had to be identified using a slideshow on a digital photo frame; I even had my own station where I demonstrated a very basic version of Bananas Foster, much to the delight of sleepy-eyed, breakfast-deprived students.

Once all the groups completed the stations, we assembled as a class and discussed certain protocol. I had partners perform role plays and rehearse mock conversations between a server and a patron. I also gave out real American menus that have been collected over the years by former teachers. I don't know who was more fascinated: THEM over the menus with their glossy prints, oversized photos, and thick binding or ME over watching THEM. As we neared the lesson's end, one girl – clutching a menu to her chest – looked at me with a longing in her eyes and asked, “May I keep it?” I glanced at what she was holding so tightly. It read, “SONNY'S.”

Before dismissing the students, I gave them a unique homework assignment. I wrote down the URLs of six different restaurants, each one a chain with multiple locations. The students had to visit the websites, choose one of the six restaurants, and get familiar with the online menu. They also had to choose a location somewhere on the west coast and record the phone number. My last instructions made them gasp: “Next week, you'll bring that phone number to class, and I'll select a few of you to call these places in America and ask them a few questions.” They nearly lost bladder control.

Fast forward a week. I was surrounded by 30+ students, so quiet that I could hear their simultaneous breaths. Cell phone cameras were out and ready to capture the historical event. One student sat in the hot seat after being randomly chosen from the stack of ID cards that I keep for each class. Using my cellphone and an international calling card, I dialed the number and pressed “speakerphone.” Bodies leaned in as they began counting rings. Suddenly, the rings would stop, the line would go silent, and a REAL! HUMAN! VOICE! FROM! REAL! AMERICA! would break the silence. Here's an excerpt from one of the riveting conversations:

“Hi, Welcome to Olive Garden. This is Michelle. How can I help you?”

The breathing intensified. Pupils dialated. A pause. “Uh...” whispered the student, “What time do you close?”

“We close at 10:00.”

“May I make a reservation?”

"Sorry, we don't accept reservations. It's a first-come-first-serve basis."

“How long is the wait?”

"Hold on, let me connect you to the front lobby."

Eyes immediately looked to me in panic. What does that mean? Lobby? Why? WHY? WHYYYY?

“It means that she's sending your phonecall to the front desk because that's where the line forms. Don't worry.”

A few seconds later, another voice came through the phone. “Hi, this is Lorraine.”

“How long is the wait?”

"About 20-25 minutes."

"Ok, thank you."

"Ok. Bye."


Faces lit up with victorious smiles. High-fives erupted overhead as I heard the audience congratulate the caller in such a way that, if they had the right vocabulary, would sound something like this:

You totally rocked on that “What time do you close?” question! That was so street.

Once breathing and pulse returned to normal, the caller would then select a card from the student pile and everyone would gasp as the next draftee nervously approached the hot seat. In all, about five to six students were able to make calls. I told them that we will work a few more in next week.

They left class in a delighted frenzy of chatter. I left class with a smile that could not be contained.