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Friday, April 29, 2011

...Invaders 1 & 2

Realizing a cry for help would get me nowhere brought home just how vulnerable I was. And at that moment, I saw that he was actually following me. The cheeky *****er! As I walked, he was creeping up slowly behind me, stopping every so often, so as to keep his distance. But I was on alert. I could see what was happening.

What did I do? I crossed the roundabout (at this point I was only 2 minutes away from the Manhattan apartment) and stopped in the middle. The silver car also stopped. I stood and I looked at him. I wasn’t running, no ****ing way! I stood and showed that I was on to him. I didn’t know how clever a move this was, but I didn’t need to run and approach anybody else for help either. Then he slowly drove off down a different street. So I walked the rest of the way, still on alert, as it was the darkest part of my route. And sure enough, out of no where, the silver car appeared again. But I’d reached the entrance of the apartment complex, so I was ‘untouchable’. I went to the security guards but of course they didn’t understand me when I said someone was following me. So I made some gestures, I pointed to the silver car that was already doing a u-turn… and that was that. The car had gone, the guards looked dumbfounded and I, for just 10 seconds, felt upset. But quickly I thought: “No! **** that!” I wasn’t going to let that creep get to me! But I was feeling very unsettled and once again: invaded…

Afterwards I sat in the apartment. Space invader number 1 (Irish-rooted roomie) was trying to take away the concern I’d been feeling, in regards to space invader number 2 (Chinese dude in the silver car). I didn’t need this… I needed peace…!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Still Thursday. Overthinking: I’ve never ever been followed before. EVER. As a white girl, walking the streets at night in any Asian country, means that I’ll of course stand out and people will notice me. But never ever, even when I was in India, has this felt to threaten my safety. I’ve never felt that others were giving me any attention that wasn’t well-intended. Not until last Thursday night.

Have I been ignorant so far? Or is it true what they say: whatever’s going on in your life, will bring into your life more of that particular thing – whether it’s good or bad. My space was being invaded in every sense of the word and, for such a short evening, I wasn’t feeling too happy about being in China. This ‘just so happened’ to be the only time for cruel-intended gestures from others around me, to be brought to my awareness. I was followed home. What were the chances? Ever so slim, I reckon and therefore I know that there’s a valuable lesson in this incident. It’s not the lesson others might think: stay off the streets after dark. Nope. Instead it’s to learn to stand-up for myself in every situation, whether it’s a brief encounter or regular association. I have to always say ‘no’, if saying ‘yes’ makes me feels physically sick, overexposed and claustrophobically pressurized (what a phrase!!!!).

I said ‘no’ to a stranger, I looked him in the eye and didn’t feel massively afraid, even when I had a fair idea what he was up to. I knew it wasn’t for the good of me, to get into that car. Why didn’t I say ‘no’ and face what was happening, when dealing with Irish roomie? Ever since he arrived, I was saying ‘yes’, when meaning ‘no’. I wasn’t doing myself any favours by ignoring the gut-feelings I had, from the first moment his came falling out of the sky and landed himself in our apartment. Those gut feelings were telling me to keep my distance. And not wanting to hurt his feelings or to act as a bad person, were my reason for constantly letting my space vanish.

I can’t believe how much easier it is to look a stranger in the eye and confront him with his bad intentions, and how difficult it can be when it comes to telling someone who’s a lot closer, pretty much the same thing.

This was Thursday night. And regarding space invader number 1 and I, the time soon comes, when we both lay all of our cards on the table.

To keep this incident real… The next day Matt offered me his pocket knife (as protection.. haha… But I’m not going to be using it…). As well I got some extra contact numbers to call, should I find myself in any other kind of trouble again…

...From Outer-space...

So, we walked. It was just me and him. I kept my distance. I was 2 meters ahead and I couldn’t nor did I want to speak. Then, he thankfully said he’d be taking his bike back to our apartment in Manhattan, so I was left to walk home alone… How relieved I felt to be by myself.

It was 8.30pm and I couldn’t get myself away from this disgusting feeling I had for what my new roommate was bringing out in me. I was turning into this person I hate – someone who is bitchy, distant and ignorant. For the first time since being in China, I walked the streets and hated being here. It was dark, I walked in a daze and I was crying for a reason I could only class as being stupid – because I couldn’t pinpoint the exact reason. People stared – as they always do – but now even more so. I wasn’t just a foreigner, but now I was a ‘crying foreigner’! That must have shocked them all!!! But I didn’t care. I tried to hide my face, so as not to give others the satisfaction of seeing my tears, and then I stopped. I stood against a wall. I needed to do something. So I took out my phone, still crying. I wrote a note to myself. I can’t remember what it wrote but it that didn’t matter either. I was letting out this mess inside of my head that was caused simply by being around one person.

I stood there for ages, until I felt somewhat okay again to walk the next 30 minutes home. Just as I thought nobody could harm me, just as I was feeling happier again and relieved – only 10 minutes away from ‘home’ (which was then still Manhattan) – a silver car pulled up beside me. Ever so slowly this guy started driving along side of me, he pulled down his window and was talking to me in Chinese, pointing to the empty seat beside him. Obviously he was suggesting for me to get into the car with him. I spoke in English, smiled and told him to go away. I continued walking. I didn’t feel scared at all. I realized quickly though that he was driving at a snailspace behind me. I ignored it. He then stopped on the roadside, turned off his lights. That’s when I became wary. I wasn’t panicked, I was just cautious.

The part of town I was then walking towards, is pretty quiet at that time of night, it’s isolated too, so not many people about. And even there had been people, I realized if I needed help, screaming at the top of my lungs wouldn’t get me anywhere. Because, if I shout: “Help”… who’s going to understand me? Nobody… And the people can be pretty rude and ignorant to other people in distress anyhow (I’ve witnessed on several occasions for pedestrians to get run over in the street and passersby will just step around or even OVER you)… I so why should their approach to helping a girl in despair be any different…. Anyhow… back to that Thursday night.

I'm back!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Finally… I’m here! I’ve reached my new spot. At the moment I’m sitting at my new desk, just at the window in the new living room that overlooks the busy bustling streets of Jinzhou. I’m in my new apartment, I moved in 3 days ago (Tuesday the 26th) and I feel to suddenly have come home in China.

Man, I don’t know quite where to start. It’s been some time since I’ve updated. The past 2 days have been crazy – in both good and not so good ways. Going into detail, would make this “short update” into a 5000 word essay on people, relating and the importance of space. Will I go there? I’ll just touch the subject briefly.

My last week in Manhattan (the old apartment), was the toughest by far. Up until the start of this week, I was struggling with work and with a certain new colleague/friend/roommate. I was finding it hard to function properly at school and socially as well, just because of this particular person. It was very odd. I was so suddenly and so constantly around this person who knows no limits, who has no boundaries and who admitted to coming to Jinzhou partially for the fact that there was an Irish girl (which is me) here… I couldn’t believe my ears when the new Irish roommate (I’m still referring to the same guy who arrived nearly a month ago) told me I was part of the reason for him to come to Jinzhou. For him then to be living, working and socializing alongside of me, only made the feelings I was getting since his arrival, of being ‘spaciously invaded’ (on every single level), all the more reassuring: my gut-response was legit.

The past week I’ve been quiet, drained and withdrawn. Doing anything felt to be taking too much out of me. So much so, that pushing myself through the week was all I could be happy about. I did it with a smile on my face and the kids gave me everything I needed, all the while hanging on by the edge of my teeth. I had to close myself off from one particular person who was trying to get too much into my mind, my space, my life. I was becoming distant from that individual who was pushing to take things from me that weren’t on offer.

It may sound as if I’m talking in riddles here. And in some sense, I think I am. So, I’ll go to the day when everything reached its peak.

I went for dinner last Thursday night (the 21st) with Lauren (she’s another English teacher from America). The other person who tagged along was the one person who I couldn’t face to be around. I didn’t want him near me, but still I couldn’t say no. Being around him was the one thing that was forcing me to be withdrawn, quiet and desperate to seek isolation. At that stage, I didn’t know why he was having this affect on me. So I told myself to ‘get over it, to get on with it and to stop over thinking things’! So, I forced myself to smile – even when I was feeling sick at the thoughts of him walking through the streets with me, after dinner. But, just like I couldn’t say ‘no’ to him coming to dinner with us, the suggestion of him walking with me, was another thing I couldn’t say ‘no’ to.

Monday, April 18, 2011


That particular Monday was the last day for me to have attempted taking a Chinese lesson. Ever since, I’ve realized what it is that’s stopping me from taking to this language. Whenever I put my mind to doing anything, I need to give it my all. Without being able to put all of my effort into achieving something, I get frustrated and the thing I’m aiming for, feels to loose its charm. It’s my downfall, I know. But on the other hand I can use this as a tool in order to get things done, because to avoid frustration I keep myself focussed on following through a certain thing that I’ve set out to do.

This standstill at the “Golden Chicken roundabout” forced me to reassess where I’m at. And this is what I’ve realized: Chinese isn’t yet my priority. Yes, of course I want to learn it, but to make any noticeable progress, there has to be an enormous amount of regular effort that goes into it; so extensive is the language. Otherwise it’s almost pointless.

What is it, that’s my priority right now? This won’t come as a surprise, but it’s of course: editing my manuscript. That’s the main thing in my life right now that should be getting my full attention, besides the teaching. So I’m starting to see the editing process as being a project; one that can be completed as soon as I knuckle down and use my spare time to finish draft number 2. Chinese on the other hand, is a learning process that can be ongoing for years.

After talking with Helen (the New Zealand English teacher, who has been studying Chinese for 5 years now) and realizing how much I want to learn, but also how my manuscript is far more important than Chinese, I’ve come to the decision to put Chinese on pause and to complete draft number 2. At first I felt like a failure for choosing to pause the lessons… But now, I’ve put it into perspective. I figure: how much MORE of a failure would I feel, if I didn’t give all of my attention to the editing of something I can only hope will be classed as significant. I know for sure I’d feel worse.

So, since making this decision, I’ve re-opened the manuscript. It had been nearly 4 months since last making any kind of adjustments. And, to be honest, I was terrified to go back and start cutting, chopping and reviewing it… But I knew I had to. It’s an inevitable stage I’d have to face sooner or later… Taking the initial step back into the book was actually bigger than the editing I’ve since been doing. It’s actually refreshing, fun and exciting… And I’ve also set myself a deadline by which to complete it and to also get back in touch with the agent in Dublin (the one who advised me to edit and tighten the story).

I’m happy with this decision and I know how I’ll be approaching the Chinese lessons, once it’s time for me to ‘go all out’ and dive into this language. I’ll also know when I’m ready. And up until that time comes, I’ll be picking up small bits here and there and working on something that will truly give me more happiness and satisfaction than anything else ever will… and so… the story continues…

The Golden Chicken Roundabout

Anybody who has ever studied before, will know that only when the student puts in some effort, will the lesson be worthwhile. And this student, by the name of Niamh…hadn’t been putting in any time or effort whatsoever when it came to the Chinese she was meant to be studying! It was probably due to lack of time… Lame excuse I guess… Not very original and maybe not even holding so much truth either…

The fact that I wasn’t studying meant that when I chose to take my 2nd lesson, 2 weeks ago, my mind not in gear at all… It was elsewhere other than in the Chinese textbooks! Oops…

Jessie, my teacher, knew straight away that I was forcing myself to take a class. And she was right. For some reason I felt I HAD to do this, but didn’t really want to. Maybe I was forcing just because learning Chinese is what’s expected of every person who newly arrives in China. This could have been why I’d created something of a mental block between myself and learning Chinese (even though I’ve been picking up little bits here and there along the way, just to get by).

It was still that same Monday afternoon. We strolled through the streets, the alleyways and along the busy roads. We chatted and I couldn’t pinpoint what was going on with me. But I knew there was something stopping me from learning and opening myself up to totally absorbing this language and giving my all, in order to become somewhat fluent. We wandered, and slowly came to standstill…

There we stood, smack-bang in the middle of Jinzhou, on the busiest of roundabouts; the only roundabout with a massive big pillar-like statue in the middle and a golden chicken sitting on top. We stood there, as the crazy traffic with their beeping horns was racing by and the overloaded busses were speeding around the bends. None of this commotion and none of the stares we were getting stopped us from having the most in-depth conversation… and it seemed to last forever (in reality it was probably only 30 minutes, but long enough to make a lasting impression on the both of us…).

The traffic around us was noisy, but it gave me permission to rid myself of my frustrations…

This is what was happening: I’m standing there and suddenly seeing China for the first time ever… All I’m seeing is crazy traffic, Chinese symbols and bright colourful lights everywhere. It’s as if I only just came tumbling out of the familiar world that’s back in Ireland and landed myself smack-bang in the middle of this north-eastern Chinese city. I’ve landed ONLY with one purpose in mind: to break through the Chinese system of words and symbols… The world felt to come to a sudden standstill and I was so desperate for the Chinese secrecy that feels to lie behind their symbols, characters and language, to break itself down. But I knew only with my own discipline and determination would the Chinese language start opening itself up to me…

What a strange scene this was… As I was revealing my frustrations, Jessie too got swept away in the moment, and the heart-to-heart we ended up having, on the middle of the busiest roundabouts in the Jinzhou, was one to change the way I’ll look at that particular location, for the rest of my time here. For Jessie too, the “Golden Chicken roundabout” is no longer just a roundabout…

Friday, April 15, 2011

Saved by the bell - 2

So… what happened? During the last class, I simply stopped teaching! Their class teacher left the room. He obviously knew that this class wasn’t going to be a success and wasn’t willing to face the consequences… and left. Cheeky ******! Was it my responsibility? No. Us foreign teachers, we teach there as GUEST TEACHERS! We go there, 2 times a week. We don’t grade them, we don’t have any responsibility, we don’t have a syllabus or a textbook. And they see these lessons we do with them, as their time to sleep. And here’s me, projecting my voice, using my energy, bringing something fun into their day – or at least trying… and it’s literally all in aid of **** all!

So, yes, during the last class, I stood in front of 60 students. They weren’t being badly behaved… they were just NOT behaving at all!!!! I had no more energy to put into that class. If they didn’t want to have fun, that’s their loss. I had no more reason to be sarcastic or backhanded, I was done! No anger, no frustration, just… nothing… exactly what they were giving me, I was giving it back to them. So I stood, I looked them all in the eye. And felt nothing, but sadness really, for their situation. I never imagined the classes in high school to give me so little in return for all the effort I was putting in… and never before thought I’d ever be able to stand in front of 60 students without speaking a word, without doing nothing and be slowly becoming so unaffected…

In that last class, I became detached from them… I realized I’d been putting too much pressure on myself, to keep them interested week after week. The fact that I don’t have any responsibility whatsoever, when teaching there, means that I don’t HAVE to put so much pressure on myself. But it’s what I do… I want to always do the best I can. This is what I’ve been doing for 6 weeks solid now, and they don’t want to sit and listen to anybody anymore.

Yesterday I walked out of class, without saying a word. Usually I’d thank them, I’d be happy to say: “see you next week”. But… No… Something happened to me, during that last class and I can honestly say that I’m not looking forward to seeing them next week. So I said nothing. And what am I going to do next week? I’m going to play movies… That’s it… The class teacher even said this to me, afterwards… “Niamh…best you play some movies…they don’t want to participate”. So… the pressure is off and this is why I said that I was somewhat relieved. I’ve reached a stage where they’re closed-off to what I have to give and that’s their loss. It would have happened in the same way, with any other foreign teacher, because the weird thing is… it’s nothing personal…

Walking out of there yesterday was the strangest feeling. I was singing this Dutch song: ‘whohowhoooo… it’s over… the love between you and me’ (these are the lyrics when they’re translated.. haha). I sang this same line, over and over and I was walking through the hoards of teenagers who were streaming through the gates, to get their dinner… I walked and I sang as loud as I could and I looked no one in the eye… I cursed I said I was ****ing never gonna to teach these classes again! I had so much energy and I needed to get rid of it… So, I stood on the side of the road, jumping up and down… deep breathing, stretching… still singing while we were waiting for a taxi. I had to get rid of the energy that was building up inside… Man… it was the craziest day so far… But one I needed to go through…

Last night, I was on my last legs… And today I’m good again… I’m happy for what I’ve learnt and to have relieved myself of the pressure I was putting myself under… I know why I was putting the pressure on: I wanted to make a difference to these students’ lives… But how silly is that! I’m only there 2 days a week!!! What do I think I am… Wonderwoman??? To actually make some sort of a difference, I’d have to be there… full-time and for an extended period of time…

Today, I see clearly and I realize… that just because I can’t make a difference, doesn’t mean I’m a bad teacher… Because if I’d get the chance, I would! Yesterdays classes told me I have to accept that my position in the high school gives me nothing to be responsible for and therefore I can’t work towards achieving anything with these teenagers… The classes I have on Wednesday are different. I’ll still put effort into those lessons because I get so much in return… but Thursdays’ classes are when it’s time for the students, the class teacher AND for the GUEST TEACHER (which is me!) to watch movies… I shouldn’t really complain!!!

Saved by the bell - 1

The following day, I woke up and wanted day 2 at the high school to be just as amazing as day 1. I wanted to keep the ball of positivity rolling. I considered whether or not to do the same drama class. But I figured: the students I teach on Thursdays don’t have a great level of English. They’re often disinterested and they generally don’t participate. 240 students would rather put their heads down on their desk and sleep, than listen to me. Would I feel disappointed if I were to do the drama class again, and not get the same response as I got the day before? Yes, I would. So I figured to play it safe, and I did a different lesson…

Throughout the classes, I realized something… even though I wanted to keep the ball of positivity rolling, regardless of what topic I was teaching, I seemed to have reached a point where these particular Thursday afternoon teenage students have closed themselves off to WHATEVER it is I’m teaching. The fact that I went to high school on Thursday wanting it to be amazing, just like Wednesday, made the ‘fall’ I experienced feel like a massive letdown and deflation, but eventually a feeling of relief followed.

What happened yesterday? Well, I had 4 classes. The first one was good, they’re always a great and energetic bunch who respond and participate. The 3 classes that followed are always more tricky. And yesterday was no exception. They were extremely painful hours. To be able to have done my lesson normally, I needed their input. Without it, there would never be a lesson! Because I wasn’t lecturing or talking non-stop! If this had been the case, my lesson wouldn’t have come to a standstill, even if they were all sleeping, talking and showing no interest whatsoever.

What was the result of their disinterest? When I asked them to do something, they blatantly said ‘no’. I confronted so many of them, individually, with a strong, instructive, encouraging and happy attitude and even the quietest ones of the class, the ones that are ‘grade-A’ students, the ones who wouldn’t be disrespectful, they all refused…. For 3 classes straight, this is what I was facing. 180 students… 10 staying ‘okay’… 170 saying ‘no’. I was getting sarcastic, starting to take the p*** and giving back-hand smart remarks (as jokingly as possible). Not that they understood any of my comments and sarcasm; their level of English is too low… Even if they would have understood, I simply didn’t care in that moment. It was the only thing I could do to rid myself of some tension that was building inside… instead of walking out in the middle of class. I didn’t give a **** at this stage.

During the last class, I could feel my energy was being sucked out of me. I had 45 minutes left and knew that the worst class of the day was still waiting. I didn’t know if I had the positivity still flowing through me, in order to get them on my side. It was like the life was being drained out of me and I simply didn’t want to put myself under any more pressure in that hell hole of a school! I didn’t come to China for this!

Drama Class

Saved by the bell – this is what literally what came to my rescue, yesterday, when I was teaching at the local high school… Again, it was a day from hell – the dreaded Thursday I experienced 2 weeks ago, was experienced once again yesterday.

I’ll start from the beginning of our week: Wednesday. This was the most amazing day. Really, I couldn’t believe how well these particular classes at the high school went. I always have 3 of the best classes on this particular day; their English level is high, they’re interested in my lessons and are so willing to participate in whatever lesson I’ve prepared. I’m not saying they’re angels… but compared to the classes I teach on a Thursday, my Wednesday classes actually are.

This week, I decided to prepare a class on a topic I’ve wanted to teach, ever since I was in India working in the boarding school. I wanted to give a Drama class.

Now… I’m no drama teacher, I don’t know all that much about acting, but I know that I can incorporate teaching English with a drama class. How? By giving the students the chance to study some lines from a script I’ve written beforehand. I then let them have a few minutes to act out a short scene in class. It’s a great lesson that gets the class talking and active and it’s also great for me to actually put into practise the theory of a drama class that has been rattling around my brain, ever since I started teaching.

I prepared the lesson on Wednesday morning. It took only an hour and I was so excited to see if I’d get any kind of a response. I thought maybe I was putting too much effort and time into the lesson and maybe I was pressurizing myself too much into giving the best prepared classes and hoping too much to achieve as much as possible when teaching students who aren’t used to having such ‘creative’ lessons and who are often ‘frightened’ by the way I persuade and encourage the students to come out of their comfort zone and their ‘shells’ that consists of text books and drilled academic knowledge.

So… Wednesday: off I went to high school. I was really excited and interested to see if this lesson was going to work. I wanted to see how I could bring these kids to life. And, boy oh boy… I don’t know what happened, but the classes I taught, were absolutely brilliant. It wasn’t so much the actual acting that the kids were able to do, but it was more what the DRAMA CLASS itself did to me. I was on fire! Man, I can’t explain it... At the start of the lesson I was the actress. I was giving examples by switching from one role to another. I was getting so much energy from what I was teaching, even though I’ve never really done any kind of acting before in my life (except for a course of 6 lessons, 5 years ago). It was a crazy experience and I didn’t want to classes to end! I had these kids ‘eating out of my hands!’ I’ve never seen a group of 60 kids together to be so engaged in what I was teaching…

And when it came to the kids doing the acting, it was even more fun. After every class, the class teachers came up to thank me for putting in so much effort. School was ‘out’ and I was still on buzzing with excitement and couldn’t believe how much I loved teaching this particular topic… drama class… Something happened to me, personally, when I was able to be the actor ‘on stage’ in front of 60 Chinese students. I can’t pinpoint what it was…

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Creating space

It’s 10 days since the arrival of the “latest edition” to our small group of western teachers… I’m referring to Ricky, the new English teacher and our new roommate.

When he first got here, it was strange to have someone talking in a broad Irish country accent, here in Jinzhou. It brought Ireland so much closer to this part of the world, especially when he told me he’d only passed through Arklow (my hometown) 7 days before landing himself in China.

On the first night of him being here, whilst getting to know him, I found out that we have far more in common than just our ”Irishness”. I found out that not only would Ireland feel a lot closer, but also… Holland! He told me of his Dutch connection: his father is Dutch and mother is Irish – not very odd. BUT… when I heard that he’d lived in Holland for the first 10 years of his life, before moving to Ireland, I was intrigued. THEN… when he told me WHERE in Holland he’d lived, I couldn’t believe my ears… He told me he’d lived in BREDA for those 10 years, which is the city where I went to college. It’s also where I lived for 9 months after returning from my first year of backpacking, in 2007. THEN he went on to tell me the street he grew up on and even showed me pictures of the house he used to live in, which was down the road from the college I went to! THEN he started speaking Dutch with the broad local accent that only people from Breda speak!

I couldn’t believe it… Here I was, sitting at the kitchen table in the apartment in Manhattan, Jinzhou, CHINA, talking with an Irish dude, who only just passed through Arklow a week before arriving here AND who is talking to me about the streets I remember to have walked down and cycled through, 4 and 5 years ago in Holland… AND who I’d be sharing a flat with, for the next few weeks. Really, the world felt to be the tiniest place EVER…

Anyhow, after the excitement of these coincidences was settling down and he was getting over his jetlag and finding his feet, I was getting caught-up in creating some much needed space in the apartment that suddenly has decreased in size, now that there are 3 people and an Australian Sheppard living together. The time I would otherwise use as my p-time (“personal-time”, “down-time” or “me-time”) has also decreased. It feels silly and strange to admit that living with just one extra person suddenly is taking up so much more of my time, energy and focus and it’s taken me by surprise. And it’s probably even silly for me to be writing about it here, because it’s not a permanent situation.

But I still need to vent it. Today it’s 10 days after Ricky’s arrival and a lot has happened. The group dynamics have changed and I’ve been trying to find a balance between the life in the office and at home. Ricky coming here has only showed me just how much our lives are all mingled. There’s a fine-line between private life and personal life that is often invisible. Why? Because outside of work we all socialize, at school we work together (even though we all give separate classes…) as well as sharing a living space.

The fact that I want to do so much during my free-time makes my down-time feel to be so precious. The past week I’ve been trying to spread myself. It’s been hard. And I’ve been exhausted for pressurizing myself into creating my own space. For 7 days, all I was doing was leaving the apartment at 8am (even when I wasn’t starting work until 1pm) and coming back 12 hours later… It was as if I was running a race. If I wasn’t working, I was either sitting in a coffee shop, writing or meeting up with people who aren’t connected to work. Every morning I’d wake-up at the crack of dawn, do some yoga in the living room (hoping that Matt and Ricky wouldn’t wake-up and I’d then urgently leave the apartment before they’d be up). On the days I’d be working, I’d head to the office where I’d be alone to do the things I’d usually do at home. This caused so much pressure and I was exhausted… Even though I was enjoying my days and so happy that I was still able to do other things by myself.

The following 2 weeks I won’t be putting myself under this pressure. It’s not worth it. Once I move, I know there’ll be certain things I’ll miss about living with others. And it’s true what they say: in every situation, even when it doesn’t feel to fit as good as it could, there’s always something good to find and something to be grateful for. So, I’ll savour the few more weeks left here in Manhattan, with Matt and Ricky and Cooper (Matts Australian Sheppard) and I can rest assured that once I move, I’ll have all the space I need.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Refreshing talk

The viewing of Mike C’s apartment brought me to spend some time with him too. This hasn’t actually happened once, since arriving in Jinzhou. Meaning I never got a chance to talk properly with him, without any distractions from others or without the conversation revolving around teaching and school…

I don’t know if you remember correctly, but Mike C (the teacher from England who’s leaving on the 24th of April and whose apartment I’m taking over) is an eating disorder practitioner back at home. I touched this subject briefly here on my blog, a few posts ago. I remember to have written about how freaky I found it, for him to be only the 2nd person in the world who I’m in close contact with who’s a therapist of this kind. I found out this piece of information on my first night here in Jinzhou. But never did anything with it…

Not until Saturday morning, when I went to check-out his apartment. We sat and chatted about just stuff… and soon the conversation was about writing, about my book, about how he’d always wanted to write too. Before I knew what was happening, I was telling him ‘my story’… my history of the disorder and how it’s the main contents of the book.

Well, anybody who has worked for 7 years with women recovering from any type of eating disorder would instantly know that I too have had my fair share of encounters with the demons of a disorder. It was so funny really, the way I said it to him… It wasn’t even a big revelation. It just rolled off my tongue and all I could see on his face was a warm smile that told me: I know. A smile of recognition and not of shock or of unease or discomfort; just of relief maybe to hear me say it so easily.

We sat and chatted about it for as long as time would allow… It seemed as though time stopped when we were talking. He was interested in how I was treated – because that’s the perspective from which he’s coming. I wanted to know how it was for a man to be so intensely involved in a messed-up and depressed female world that was solely revolving around food. It was so interesting.

At the same time it was like we were having a therapy session… I was telling him of how I’m dealing with it at the moment, how working on the book is a priority and how it keeps me aware. I told him how the move to his apartment was apart of me creating my own space AND my 2nd draft AND that it’s about becoming more responsible and independent… In many ways, this stage I’m at right now is letting me put a different light on the disorder again.

I realized this weeks ago actually: travelling to different countries, from my own personal perspective, is like this: dealing with the current position the disorder takes within my life. Mike C knew that to move to another country, old issues and habits can try to present themselves and take control. And he’s right. He sees how I’m underweight and sees how I eat. He senses the importance I give to healthy food, when most people, if they were underweight, wouldn’t even think twice about what’s healthy and what’s not. He sees my indecisiveness when it comes to what I want to eat and how I’m hooked on certain foods. He sees my frustration when I can’t read the menu and when I haven’t got a clue what meals are being presented to me… And he understands why it’s all happening…

Man, it’s so refreshing to have somebody see it so clearly… and for it to NOT be a female for once… Very different… I felt to be talking so clearly to him about the position the past disorder ‘EXACTLY’ is holding right now and I loved talking about it. Time was ticking, throughout the conversation, even though it felt to have stopped… We had to get to work by 1pm…

In the taxi afterwards, I thanked him for the ‘session’ and jokingly wanted to ask how much I owed him…haha… He said that during the talk he started to miss his old job… How nice that I wasn’t burdening him with my talking! He even gave me some professional advice, regarding my weight… “Niamh, it could be a wise move to have a set-weight for yourself, to NOT GO UNDER… just as a way of protecting yourself from slipping, without realizing…” Because that’s the thing, you can slip, ever so slowly, without realizing it… Especially when being in a hectic job, living a full life and always being active, full of beans and simply the joys of being alive… and when these joys are only being increased by the fact that you’re in Asia, you’re teaching, you’re writing, you’re creating and you’re independent and having great contacts with the people around you…. other issues can always brew away deep down and weight can slip, if precaution isn’t practised.

Initially I said no to his suggestion. But… I know how powerful the mind can be and I know how easily the mind will fool me and tell me my weight isn’t too low… and when the fooling starts, even if it’s regarding 3% of the habits / lifestyle I live by, it can easily become 4%, 10%, 15%… and so on… I know I’ll never let it slip. I’ve come too far. But, to be realistic and to see that a set minimum weight is keeping my situation real and keeping me physically strong and grounded in my experience, then… who am I to say no? Once a month is all I’m permitting myself to stand on the scales (this in order to prevent it from becoming a negative compulsio)…

Such genuine and real advice he gave me… Mr Mike C… Who has said to always be there if I need to talk! But who is also leaving on the 24th of April… Okay, him leaving is making room for me in his apartment. But besides this fact, he’s going to leave a gap in the group and be sorely missed. Not only because of this conversation… but because he’s such a genuinely honest guy, who keeps the group of foreigners in the reality of China… Something I’m often in need of touching base with…

I know I have the tendency to float and dream my way through these experiences… Not necessarily a bad thing, but there’s a happy balance in between. And I hope to find in, once I move into my own space… for the first time ever!!!

Apartment found!!!!

Since last deciding to move, I can already say that I’ve found a new place! It was easy easy easy… On Wednesday (the 30th) we heard that Ricky (new Irish teacher) was moving in. On the same day, I asked my boss if there was anywhere else vacant.

Here at EF (the company where we work) they have a few apartments on offer, for the foreign teachers – just like the apartment I’m in right now. But, seeing as though I want to have my own place, the only ‘downfall’ is that I’ll be paying extra rent each month, whereas in my current situation I’m not paying rent (because there’s 3 of us living there…). Anyhow, my boss gave me a choice between 2 apartments that will be vacant within the next 3 weeks. There both in prime locations and real modern, clean and homely, equipped with everything I’d need. The amount of rent I’d have to pay is almost nothing, when considering what I’d be getting in return.

So the choice was made on Saturday morning. I’d already seen one of the apartments and on Saturday morning I went round to other one, to get a bit of feel for the place. This particular apartment is Mike C’s… the teacher from England, who’s leaving China on the 24th of April. I went to have a look and instantly knew it was the place for me!

It’s so cool… the apartment complex is so central, in the middle of the city. The flat itself is quite big. It’s got 2 bedrooms, wooden floors, furniture, fully equipped kitchen… gorgeous sofa, king size bed and A PROPER DESK!!!!!!!!!!!!! There’s a feel to the apartment that it’s been lived in… And that’s what I was after… The kitchen also feels to have life inside… It’s really cute, authentic and not modern at all… and it happily reminded me of the Indian kitchens; so simple, basic, but homely environment to cook in… Just like the sitting room… (no telly!!! Yes yes yes!!!!) AND a big window I can sit in, that overlooks the market stalls and comings and goings of the little Chinese people, all day long. I’m just around the corner from huge market stalls where I can get fresh fruit and vegetables every day and in summer I’m just a stone’s throw from the night market… a huge market that fills a particular street every evening, with stalls, people, street vendors, corner side tea and coffee houses… Man… it’s so exciting!!!

I can’t wait to get there. It’s like I’ll be taking my China experience to a different level. I’ll be starting to live a life of my own, loose from my colleagues and unattached from the tendency most westerners have to ONLY hang out with the group of foreign teachers from this particular English school. I’ll be apart of Asian life, in this new apartment. Where I am now, Manhattan, it doesn’t feel to be apart of China. It’s a new area of town that’s only recently been built. I’ve heard that 5 years ago, on the same plot of land where there’s now such a luxurious piece of architecture, was farmland… Manhattan is luxury and westernized and that’s why it’s the perfect base from which to start a Chinese experience; you’re still adjusting to being in China, it’s safe and tranquil to have a place where you can totally withdraw from the world outside. You won’t hear a single thing that will remind you of where you are, once you’re inside the Manhattan apartment. And that was fine for me, for the first period here in Jinzhou. But if I were to stay there, I’d feel to be cheating!

And so… it’s the perfect time to move to a perfect apartment in a perfect location!

Losing the plot

The hardest day so far, at the local high school: on Thursday the 31st. 4 teaching hours…

For the duration of 4 classes I was standing ‘on stage’ in front of 60students x 4 classes = 240 students… Every class was looking the same at the next… All the girls with their straight black hair and fringe, all the boys with short black hair… with the same style of glasses and everyone in a white tracksuit… hard to spot the difference!

Anyhow… on Thursdays there’s 240 students x 2 eyes = 480 individual eyes staring at me, observing me, just looking and not taking in a word I was saying or engaging in my class… They were just staring blankly in a ‘zombified’ state. No matter how much energy I was bringing into the classroom, no matter how much effort I put into planning a fun lesson for them and no matter how loudly I projected my voice, it was a struggle to keep them awake, let-alone entertained, amused and engaged in the lesson… This is describing a scene that happens every week at the high school by the way.

I’ve only been teaching there for 4 weeks so far. Up until yesterday, I’ve been able to deal with it. These classes only happen on Wednesday and Thursdays and the majority of classes I give go really well. I can get so much good response. Usually the positive response counts for SO MUCH MORE than the 1 or 2 classes that MAY NOT go too well. Each week, so far, the majority of students have been happy to follow my lessons; so I know I’ve made more of a positive influence to their 10-hour-days at school. Usually I brush-off the disrespect some of the students show me and I don’t take it personal.

But, when life outside of the high school is suddenly getting a little bit too much, that feeling of ‘not being on top of life’ is brought into the high school, into the classroom and into my lesson… When this happens, the disrespect and ill-appreciation of maybe only 40 teenage students (out of the approximate 400 students I see each week) who choose to sleep in my class or mock me in Chinese or blatantly refuse to do anything I ASK them to do, suddenly has a bigger impact on me than the positive feedback I receive from the other 200 students…

This is something I realized after last Thursday. I did my classes in a zoned-out manner. I was feeling emotional and tired because outside of work so much felt to be happening (with writing, the book, the agencies, the living arrangements, studying Chinese…). I tried to let the whole messed-up school environment bounce-off me… but I couldn’t help feeling so bad for these kids who just didn’t give a s*** about anything.

It was frustrating to see how their own class-teacher was there in the room and didn’t give a **** either, about their behaviour and disrespect. The funny thing was, as I walked out of the building, feeling so emotional and in need of big hug…from ANYBODY… I could actually understand why these students would play-up in class. These kids have been shown no other manner in which to use their energies… They have no clue where true excitement can come from… And have only been ‘taught’ that excitement and fun is experienced by pushing the teachers’ buttons (whether it’s the guest-teachers buttons (which is who I technically am, when teaching in the high school) or whether it’s their own class-teacher). What a sad realization.

So, the fact that I wasn’t ‘on top of life’ meant I absorbed the **** that actually is behind the high school environment. It didn’t bounce off me and the 480 individual eyes really affected me. I got back to the office at 17.30 and I couldn’t speak to anybody. The girls in the office were just chatting, being friendly… But I could look NOBODY in the eye without needing to breakdown.

So then, I went to the bathroom, not only once but TWICE and cried my eyes out. Man oh man… I couldn’t even say why exactly I was crying. I couldn’t pinpoint one particular thing that happened, to upset me so much. My classes had probably gone just as good as every other week. But it was intense, intense, intense…

I was still zoned-out and still in need of a hug… I had to approach one particular person. I didn’t care in that moment that I emotional and messed-up… I figured: I’m surrounded by friends… and these are the only people who can offer me support right now. I chose to ‘cross a line’ and admit that I’m only human and in need of a shoulder. So I turned to Matt… I got a hug and I didn’t need to speak… Instantly I felt soooo much better. I then sat for an hour at my desk, writing, writing, writing… that was my ‘speaking’.

I realized then, that teachers here have proven to know me so well. Why? Because they all knew NOT to disturb me; they saw me writing. They knew I was in a zone and that it was best just leave me be. They knew I’d come out of it once I was ‘on top of life’ again… and that’s what happened…

By 7pm I was back in ‘the game of life’ and delighted to be asked to dinner, with a group of teachers. We went to a homely Korean kitchen, drank cups of date tea and ate lots of vegetables and spices… the perfect ending to a ‘perfect’ day…

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Agent Feedback!!!!!

On Sunday (the 27th) I got an email from an agent in Ireland. He’s the guy who I got in touch with, through the radio interview. Peter. He worked at a publishing house for 7 years and now is setting up his own literary agency in Dublin and is in search of manuscripts. I sent the first 50 pages, a month ago. And finally I got a reply at the weekend WITH PROPER FEEDBACK! Yes! I was so happy to read something other than: “You’re book isn’t for us” (which is the response most of the agencies have been giving me lately).

Peter actually told me his honest opinion and gave me some tips. Was it good and positive? There were mixed vibes coming from this email… He saw the potential, but also saw the work that still needs to be done. He suggested I either revisit my manuscript and tighten the story or seek a professional editor to help me with the process… Hummmm… Was I deflated? Was I disappointed to hear that my story isn’t publishable (in his eyes)… At first, of course it’s something I needed to digest… But I soon understood what he was saying and why he was saying it… I took a few moments… thinking, thinking and thinking… What to do? My first real feedback, telling me to edit the story (and reduce the word-count by 20% - making it more accessible to publishers and readers)… Hummm…

So the day after receiving this email – my birthday – I sat at the coffeehouse and suddenly I figured it out! I needed to do this editing myself BEFORE approaching a professional editor. Yes, this is what I needed to do… And to do this, I needed a place and environment that feels… settled. I need to be living in a place where I can totally focus on the story again, if I want to do this properly… Even though the current living situation offers me space, I still feel that I can’t sit down and dive into my story, without being distracted or being influenced by what’s going on around me…

Over the past weeks, I’ve been meaning to dive back into the script again (it’s something I haven’t done since finishing it in December). But I can’t seem to do it. In my free time I’m constantly distracted. It’s like I’m being pulled to the world outside the apartment, when really I should be taking a few hours to devote some much needed work and attention to the book. And because I want to, but can’t allow myself, I then feel guilty because it’s as if I’m neglecting something major…

Whaaaaaaaaaaaa… yes, so this has been happening. I can’t pinpoint what it is that’s so unsettling about the apartment in the Manhattan complex… But something is stopping me from writing and focusing. So… I’m going it alone! Regardless of how lucky I am to have Matt as a roomy and how clean and new and fresh this apartment is…

Before telling others, I let the idea sit with me for…. 2 days… Because then, as ever, the events around me were forcing me to start making it happen. I heard on Wednesday morning that the new Irish teacher Ricky would be moving into our apartment. That to me was such confirmation: Yes Niamh, you need to go it alone… Living with 2 men and a beautiful Australian Sheppard by the name of Cooper (Matts’ dog) would definitely be too much.

This decision is somewhat unexpected, but it’s the right one. I’m just getting my priorities in order… And at the moment, it’s editing my book, at any time of the day or night, outside of my working hours… This will be only one of the many good things that will come my way by choosing to live alone… As well, it will be first time IN MY WHOLE LIFE to have an apartment to myself! Finally… 28 years old and it’s happening… never thought it would be in China… of all places!

It will a few weeks before it’s sorted, which is nice too, because I’ll get to savour my last weeks of having roommates (it’s PLURAL from today… with Ricky arriving!). Keep you posted .

A plan to move...

It’s April 1st. and it’s no joke when I say that my colleagues are great. Really they are. All of the foreign teachers together, we’re a pretty good group together. Right now there’s Helen (from NZ, she speaks fluent Chinese and has been here for nearly 3 years), then there’s Matt (my roomie, from the States, who has been here for nearly 6 months) and Lauren, also American, who has been here 9 months. Mike C (who is from England and here nearly a year) will be leaving in 4 weeks time. Today a new teacher from Ireland is arriving, Ricky. He’ll be living with me and Matt for the next weeks. Also, next week, there’s another teacher from America arriving, Mike W (he’s been working here for years, but was back at home sorting some personal issues for a couple of months). So, in total we have around 6 foreign teachers. Then there’s the Chinese teaching assistants and office staff… which is in total around 12 girls.

Even though there’s quite a difference in the way the Chinese staff and the foreign staff are treated, in terms of payment, rules, uniforms, working hours and general acceptance of what we do in our classes, we all get along great. There are a few who can’t really speak English, but most of them do, so the language doesn’t create too much of barrier when forming a closer ‘bond’ with Chinese colleagues, even outside of the office.

Still though, it’s inevitable for the foreigners to become a group on themselves. And because of this closeness, it’s like we all know where we stand in the group of 6 ‘outsiders’ within this company. The upcoming weeks, there’ll be a lot of changes in our small group, as Mike C leaves and Mike W and Ricky arrive… And this change, has been bringing changes into my own living situation too.

I’ll backtrack to Monday the 28th: my birthday. I was sitting a coffee shop, gazing out the window, writing and wondering… Hummmm… What’s happening in my life? And suddenly the idea I’d been toying with, was something I had to follow through… I’m talking about the idea of moving! Not moving country, but just moving house.

Whops… where did that come from! Niamh, weren’t you so happy with your new roommate? Don’t you and Matt get along great? Isn’t it close to perfect, living in the spacious and luxurious apartment you’ve been given? Yes, yes and yes, is the answer to these questions. But but but… There were some developments in regards to the book that led me to feel the apartment in Manhattan isn’t really the place for me…

Friday, April 1, 2011

Ned Flanders I am!!!???

As the song goes: “Oh what a beautiful morning…”
Can I sing it loud and clear? In my head, I can and I will. But, over the past weeks I’ve realized just how much my positive approach to life can MAYBE be too much for those around me… in the office…

Throughout the first weeks the other foreign teachers have constantly been wondering WHY and HOW I’m able to be sooooo darn positive, in just about every situation… They wondered why, even when I was being ‘bombarded’ with more lessons, I was still smiling? When it was cold and windy, why would I speak of loving the weather? When the kids were playing-up in class, why would I be so ecstatic and excited?

The first weeks, I felt like this ‘questioning of my positive attitude’ was an attempt to bring me ‘down to earth’ and for me to see that life really doesn’t always smell of roses. I then started getting into my head that others were being annoyed by my positivity… Mainly because I got myself the name of Ned Flanders from the Simpsons! For those who don’t know Ned; he’s a character that’s holy, always full of beans and always preaching of how glorious life is… Hummmmm…

I wondered… is that really me? Am I a real-life Ned Flanders? What did this do to me? I simply had to laugh! I thought it was the funniest comparison and didn’t give a s***… (if I were to NOT have been a real-life Ned, I’d have spelt that word without using stars… hahah… because good-ol’ Ned, doesn’t like to curse!)….

All of this has been said jokingly – on their behalf as well as mine... It’s all fun. And, because I was taking these remarks so lightly, I then asked the foreign teachers: “Is it annoying to be around somebody who always looks on the bright-side of every situation? Am I doing your heads in?” Did they want to escape the real-life female version of Ned Flanders? Did they want to bring me down and for me to start givin out about the company, the students, the classes, the hours and just… life in Jinzhou as an English teacher…? And, because everyone pretty much speaks their mind and I want them to be honest with me… I got a straight answer…

It was: “Niamh, we just think it’s hilarious… you’re glass is always half-full…” I had to correct them on this point: “My glass is overflowing, it’s THAT full…!” They added: “It’s just surreal for us to be around a girl who comes into the office and says with so much passion that what she’s about to say will sound so bad… and the only thing she shouts from the top of her voice is: “I’m so excited to go to sleep tonight!”
Niamh, if this is something you consider to be a BAD thing… then nobody can be annoyed by your positive attitude nor will they ever take away your positive approach towards life!”

Also I’ve been told that the teacher I’m replacing, a guy by the name of Roger, was someone whose glass wasn’t just half empty, but it was leaking and just about bone-dry! What a turn-around this has been, for everyone in the office.

Roger was known as the most negative person in the office and he aimed to bring everyone down with him. He hated Jinzhou, hated teaching, hated the classes… So, I’m sitting at what once was his desk, I’m teaching the kids who used to be on the receiving end of his hatred towards… everything. This is the reason for others to initially have been trying to get me to see that life isn’t always amazing or smelling so fresh and being so new…especially not in China…!

But, now that the western colleagues (who form not only the workforce but also my ‘social life’ and my home-life) are realizing that nothing will get me down, even when my 7-year-old student by the name of Robot, provokes me, ignores me and causes havoc in class if he’s told to ANYTHING, they don’t question my smile anymore. I don’t need to justify why I’m happy or why each day something new or ‘amazing’ happens… It’s as Ned Flanders would say: it’s all fan-did-e-ly-tas-tic and spec-did-i-ly-ta-cu-lar when the did-i-ly sun is shining and the sky is blue… 