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Saturday, May 28, 2011

4 days of seclusion

Finally I gave way to something I’d been wanting to, for the past 3 months. Last week I took 2 days extra off, so as to have a 4 day weekend and was using these days to only edit the book. I felt it was time. Actually for weeks and weeks I felt as though the editing process was way overdue.

I made an attempt to start the process, 6 weeks ago. But I didn’t get very far. I was constantly distracted by life and just exhausted from work. I was making excuses that the circumstances around me never seemed to be fitting perfectly for the job to get done, properly. Secluding myself felt nearly impossible. However once I moved into my apartment, I had no more excuses. I figured distractions were what I was bringing on myself and I realized that the perfect circumstances would never magically present themselves. My own apartment and where I now am, is probably as perfect as it will ever get, at this moment in time. All I needed was to foresee that I wouldn’t be focusing on teaching or colleagues for longer than 1 day at a time. And to have that, I decided to take a leave of absence and withdraw myself from the job, from the people and from China.

At first I didn’t know if I’d be able to follow through. I didn’t know if I’d cope without having any contact with others, for 4 straight days. I didn’t know if I’d be able to get myself into that proper space where the story starts living and breathing again. I didn’t even know if I still had the ability to write in the same manner as the book had been written in. But I figured I’d waited too long, I had to put this editing before teaching, only for 4 days and I had to see if I was capable of still being the ‘writer’.

Well, the way the 4 days planned out, was really better than I could’ve hoped for. I managed to seclude myself and to not be distracted by colleagues crying down the phone over their heartbreak or by invitations to coffee or by the heaving traffic and the hype of activity that takes place outside my apartment. I managed to live and breathe the story again and I loved every minute of it. On Sunday night, just as the week was ending, I was still in teaching mode. And Monday morning I woke up and had to be something totally different. And I successfully became the ‘writer’ overnight!

I’d set myself the target of editing the whole book within 4 days. Of course I was placing the bar of expectation way too high, which is something I’ve always been inclined to do. But I hoped that by putting on this pressure, it was push me to my limits and definitely result in me being in the position of approaching agencies again. I wanted so desperately for draft 2 of my first manuscript to be completed within the space of 4 days. So Monday morning I woke up with this attitude. I was quick to realize that putting on pressure doesn’t let the story live at all! It only stops the flow. I realized on day 1 that this book is something so delicate – as is every story. And every book has so much personality and just blatantly editing without a conscious approach is risky and almost an insult to the story that’s already been written. So once the pressure was off, the flow started. And I was, without effort, in my own zone. During those 4 full days I had only 2 phone conversations (to offer a heartbroken Lauren some support) and any other contact was through text messages. I left my apartment once a day, for an hour, just to get some fresh air. But each time, as I was walking through the streets of this Chinese city, I didn’t feel to be here at all! I was zoned-out and in a daze. I felt so different, was constantly drawn back to the laptop and wasn’t seeing China at all. The more time I spent with the story and the more creative I became, the more it all felt to be coming together, even more so than before.

And did I finish it? No, not quite and I’m totally fine with that. I’ve only got the tiniest fraction to go. And I’m delighted. Because now that I’ve started, I feel like this is all there is. I know that I can dip in and out now, on a daily basis. I know the story needs constant attention, or else it will go stale again.
And so, I can honestly say I’ve truly fallen in love again with this draft. I feel more confident now that the story is accessible for others. I chopped so much – 20.000 words so far. At first I was cautious every time I pressed the backspace and delete button, but by doing so, I learnt that - even if I do delete some words or paragraphs that blew me away - the words are always there! I found that I’m still able to relive everything in such a way and bring it into word, so that what I’m communicating will always be as deep, as passionate or as superficial and entertaining as I experienced the actual event. It was actually a relief to learn this. It made the editing an easy and safe process. And I’m not going to excuse myself for saying that I’ve fallen in love again with the story. Because, no matter how ‘big headed’ that may sound, I have to love what I’ve done and I have to believe that it’s going to be the best it can be. I figure that if the only one in the world who’s representing my book at the moment (which is me!), fails to believe in the potential this story has, then how could that same person expect for the rest of the world to believe in it? So, yes I say it’s amazing once again.

So, after those 4 amazing days, was I able to be the teacher one day and the ‘writer’ – in China –the next? I most certainly was! And now that the book has been re-opened, the process will continue until it’s exactly how I want it to be. I can already say that it won’t long before I’ll be sending out messages to those willing to hear, that draft number 2 of my first manuscript is complete. Because, I’ve started something now and I can’t do anything else other than see it through – maybe at lightning speed!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

More to teaching...

. Life in the office has been a lot better. My high school classes on Wednesdays and Thursday are going well too. I changed my approach and now I plan lessons without expecting anything in return, so I don’t feel any pressure. And when I do get a good response, it’s a massive bonus. And that’s what’s been happening over the past weeks. The response has been good, I’ve been less stressed and I’ve not been getting myself worked-up over it.

I’ve been trying to ease off putting myself under pressure, when it comes to all of my lessons in general. Because sometimes the pressure is applied without me realizing it and other times I think that by intentionally putting on the pressure I’ll perform better as a teacher. But it doesn’t work like that. With pressure, I’m more inclined to feel frustrated when my point is reaching the little brains of these cuties and I’m more impatient and far too pushy. And when I feel no pressure at all, that’s when I’m at my best. That’s when I’m having fun and patient and it’s also when creative ideas come falling out of the sky constantly. And it’s during those classes that the kids are happy and that’s when they’re learning. I suppose with pressure there are expectations to be met. And when they aren’t met, you feel to fail as a teacher. Hummm… I’m not too sure.

I don’t have a lot of teaching experience at all. But I try my best to learn and to grow in this experience. I’ve already realized that this current position is a stepping stone along the path that’s leading me elsewhere. This little piece of information lets me enjoy this experience more, because I know it’s not forever. Also I’m finding out in what other ways I’d actually love to teach, and in what manner I’d prefer to connect with kids and in what countries. It’s cool and really exciting. So I know that the occasional stress and exhaustion I feel, is all in aid of so much more and I therefore just stick to what I’m doing. It’s worth it all!

Her break-up

Relationship breakdown! Not mine… as I don’t have one ;) but Laurens… an American teacher from work. A week ago, she and her British boyfriend split up. And, to be honest, I don’t even know why I writing about it on my blog… Or maybe I do. Maybe it’s because I’ve been dragged into her break-up. Well, not so much dragged in. But it’s been more by choice that I’ve been helping her through it.

I’ve not written about Lauren at all on my blog. It’s not been something intentional. But it may just show that the kind of friendship we have is focussed more on her rather than on the 2 people who form this friendship. She’s in her early 20s, often very lost and she hates China. It’s strange, but I’m fine with the imbalance in our friendship. I know she isn’t the person I’d turn to talk about things that are really important to me nor would I approach her for advice. But at the same time I can deal with her emotional turmoil that is often her life. It doesn’t affect me for some reason. Just like it doesn’t affect me that she’s heartbroken at the moment and on the end of the phone, on a daily basis, crying her eyes out. I’ve been offering her help, I’ve been round to her place to look after her, I’ve been on the giving end of text messages to get her pepped-up for work on a couple of mornings. I’ve sat with her outside a pub, while she was drunk and in despair. And still I smile. Am I a stone and without compassion for what she’s going through, because I’m able to deal with her pain?

At first I thought I was. But during the week I realized that it’s only a positive thing to be able to be there for a friend in need, without letting it emotionally myself become an emotional mess too. Maybe it’s also the imbalance in our friendship that’s letting me remain so unaffected by her pain? I’ve felt like a relationship counsellor on a few occasions. And it’s been a hell of a long week. But I’ve been happy to help her and I’ve actually been learning so much too. And at times there’s been so much advice flowing out of me, advice I’ve never before given to anyone in my life, that I actually shock myself… because I’m definitely not a relationship expert. But to realize that I do have things to say on the matter, was quite revealing ;)

Actually, there’s one last thing I’ll say on this matter. After having spent so much time focusing on her, instead of my mood being affected, my energy actually was. And by Sunday morning - the last day of the teaching week - I was a drained wreck. Not emotionally, but mentally. My head was out of whack. And it didn’t make matters easier that Sunday is always one of the busiest teaching days of the week. I think it’s safe to say that I was a bad teacher. My classes were lifeless... because I was lifeless. My kids were uninspired… because I was uninspired. My kids were out of focus… because I was out of focus. Man oh man… it was bad! After every class I found myself apologizing to my teaching assistants for giving such bad classes. They understood, but it didn’t make me feel any better! It was like, at one point, I didn’t even know how I was supposed to be teaching the particular topics I was meant to be teaching. My brain was just not functioning at all… Lack of focus, lack of sleep, lack of energy… So I guess being the counsellor on call, was affecting me in a different way than I initially thought it would.

I was starting to beat myself up over it. But I didn’t have the energy…hahha. It was just a bad day! I suppose it happens to every teacher. I’m only human I guess. This just showed me how much of truth lies in something I’ve heard from other teachers many times: whatever mood you bring into your class, it will determine the outcome of your lesson. Being a teacher, you always set the standard of your lesson yourself, by the approach you take and by the importance you give to what it is you’re teaching. And when you don’t want to be teaching then you don’t give any importance to the lesson and the kids won’t either. And there’s nothing been taught and nothing being learnt! To have had this feeling only on one occasion isn’t a crime and it doesn’t make me into a bad teacher. There are many different skills and personality traits that make a good teacher. But one of them is that the teacher needs to care for the kids and for the purpose of the lesson. Which would sound so normal, but you’d surprised the amount of teachers who don’t give a s***. And I’m NOT one of them. I’m a teacher who DOES care, even when I’m having a tough day for having given most of myself to one particular friend, leaving very little for me to give to my lessons and to the kids. So, yes I’m a teacher who cares, otherwise I wouldn’t have been phased by the voice that was going round and round my head on Sunday, telling me over and over again that “I don’t want to be here…”

Man oh man... what a week. But it's all good. I never ever expected to write post on my blog about somebody else's break-up...!!! ;)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Tea time & Talk

Yesterday, I finally did it… After weeks and weeks of putting clothes shopping on hold, I finally did it! I went on the biggest shopping spree. I first wanted to go by myself. But after many attempts, I realized last week that it’s too hard and too time consuming to do it alone – the language is too big of a barrier. Especially when shopping at the biggest clothes market. Last week I tried to do the ‘high street brand name’ shopping, but everything is 3 and 4 times more expensive than it is if you go the market (which is always the case).

So I took Elaine (Chinese colleague) by the hand… or she took me by the hand, and off we went. Only 4 solid hours it took us! She is truly the queen of shopping… as well as being the translator, the bargain hunter and the guide through the maze of stalls. The amount of clothes that’s on offer can be so overwhelming and finding the places where the style is suiting me, can be nearly impossible. But… we ran, we were on a mission and it was brilliant! I was on such a role, with around 20 bags hanging out of me… going, going, going… And by 1pm I was back at home and absolutely delighted that I gave up my pride and admitted to needing help with this ‘thing’ called clothes shopping. Years ago, I loved clothes shopping, but then I slowly grew to not love it so much and I found that every time I’d go the shopping centre I’d end up looking for the nearest coffee shop, just so I could sit and write instead of actually shopping… even when I’d be in desperate need of clothes. But after yesterday, I can honestly say that I love shopping again… in China… with Elaine! How cool… and how grateful I was for her bargaining skills ;)

So, I was back at home by 1pm… but the day had only started: I’d planned to also host a tea party! Yes… It was my ‘themed’ house warming party. After being in my new place for 3 weeks I figured it was time to open up the doors of my apartment and let the people in!

The best country for tea, providing the best selection – green, jasmine, rose, lily, ginger… all served in the cutest little tea set, with some biscuits of course ;) It turned out to be a small get-together of 8 of us, which is exactly what I wanted. At first I felt like a ‘dumb-wod’… or a bit of a stick in the mud, for not giving a ‘proper’ booze fest. But then I thought… “Nope! I don’t care what others think of this ‘boring’ themed party!” Giving a booze fest would’ve only been for everyone else who was in need of getting drunk and I would’ve just been doing what others expected. So, I went a head and did my own thing and gave a house warming with a different touch, without expecting anything major to come of it. And it was so cool! I loved having people here and being able to show what I’ve done to the place. Man oh man, how nice it can be to be in a place that’s mine for everyone to actually acknowledge that ‘yes, this apartment really is Niamh’… My music, my incense, my tea… ;) Happy days – living life in the fast-lane!!! (that was a hint of sarcasm… if it didn’t come across.. haha)

Everyone was here until around 8 or 9pm. Then we went to the local nightclub. Monday night, kind of a strange time to party, but it didn’t stop the booze fest from starting. I did join in and danced everything out of my system. How relieved I felt to dance again. It had been a month or so since I last went dancing… So it was high time! I got myself ‘out of whack’… by drinking vodka, smoking a few cigarettes, eating shit and going home with strange men… haha… Ah no, it was just my 2 old roomies. I stayed at their apartment as I couldn’t get a taxi home. And it was actually really nice. I thought I’d hate stepping foot inside the Manhattan apartment again, but it was good… Because I knew I had my own place back home… This morning walking from there back to my own little spot, with a small hangover and looking like hell and feeling exhausted… I was so happy. I picked up street food; the perfect cure… And now… I’m sitting at my desk, realizing today is my 3 month anniversary. Crazy… 9 more months…?? Maybe more, maybe less…

I was speaking with Matt last night, about life in China. He wanted to know if I was happy. But he wasn’t ‘buying it’, when I said that I am. He can read people pretty well… and reckons my body language in the office says everything… I know I’m an open book… So, apparently, everyone who can ‘read people’, will read that Niamh isn’t happy. Huuummmm….

It was actually nice to hear this from him. It shows that he cares and it also confirms the struggles I’ve had over the past few weeks. This week has been better, so I’m moving through it… Matt also said something else interesting… “When you first arrived, I never expected you to stay…when taking into account all the other travels you’ve done… how can a place like this ever give you what you need…” Hummm… again… something that was nice to hear. Both things he said were perfect confirmation of what I too have wondered. How can a place like isolated and enclosed Jinzhou give me the things I need? I instantly knew what Jinzhou was giving me. A place to work on the book. The book is probably the anchor that’s holding me here. And the isolation, the rules and structured life is almost forcing me dip into my own sense of inner freedom and to strengthen that feeling so it becomes a rule of life, no matter what society I’m placed in. This goes for the work environment too… I have to bring my own free approach – the one I have outside of the office – into work. It’s about being open towards everything and everybody. And when approaching life openly it also needs to become natural to feel protected by the freedom I have to be me, regardless of what’s happening in the world around me.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Why oh why such analyzing...????

What a turn around this week has been. I can only say that a change in my approach towards work and towards certain colleagues has proven to be so possible and so… easy!

I’ve somehow managed to rid myself of the pressure I was putting myself under as well as to remove the invisible guard I was holding on to and suddenly it’s like… I can be as unaffected as I want to be by the vibes that are flying through the office. I’m not choosing to ‘suck it up’… instead I’m turning away from whatever it is that doesn’t make me happy and facing towards the things that do…

The past few days I’ve been speaking to a few girls from work; Elaine, Helen and Sophia in particular. It’s helped me so much in keeping a scope on the bigger picture of what I’m doing and why I’m here. And as each day has passed, I’ve been realizing just how insignificant the issues in the office really are. Because, even though I did feel awful, what it comes down to is that I’m the one who always has the choice to either continue feeling awful in a situation OR change my own outlook and approach towards the situation I’m placed in. That way, whatever I get in return will change too… and it can only be for the better.

So, by choosing to spend my time with certain people who I class as true friends, outside of work, I always give as well as take the much needed support. I’m not an island and I don’t thrive on 100% isolation. I want contact and I need to have good people in my life. And I have these things. I’ve got a life now that’s somewhat detached from the office. A life with others and yes, when the time to write comes on a daily basis, I also have a life with only myself… All of these things… along with connecting with people through email, and having contact with my little ‘kids’… and just generally loving the job… life is so good.

I guess I’m learning that by aiming to experience life on as ‘high’ a note as possible, then when the ‘tiniest’ issue comes along and either threatens or succeeds in bringing the level of that ‘high’ down by even the smallest of fractions, it can feel to be like an explosion and it’s almost the end of the world.

I know I’ll always do everything I can in life to be 100% happy ALL OF THE TIME and if I’m not then I’ll do everything I can to fix it. And I’m constantly fixing ‘it’… or ME should I say! Because I know to change the circumstances around me, isn’t always possible and to change the people around me, is definitely not possible. Instead I ‘fix’ whatever error I see in myself and so, the world I see and experience will always change too.

A constant change in life is a positive thing to experience – initially it may not always feel to be as good as can be, but ALWAYS it will be positive. If we’re patient, we’ll see the goodness. And being open to change, whether it’s good or bad, always brings new things into our lives and it keeps things fresh. The opportunities then appear and also our contacts and connections with others become more meaningful and so, we’ll always be taught and helped to progress in life… This leads to the circumstances around us to always be changing…

It’s like a cycle… Not a circle, and definitely not a vicious one… Nor is it a goal. But instead it’s a spiral that only moves onwards and upwards… And it can only be good, right?!

I figure: why would a person settle for a smaller dose of happiness and excitement in life, when they know they can have as big a dose as they wish for? We only have this one life…

I suppose, right now, I’m just wondering why I put such focus on the issues that everybody, everywhere, deals with on a daily basis… issues they feel are unimportant and things we should simple ‘suck up’. Well, I reckon I’ve sussed it out… Firstly it’s because those gut feelings I get, are impossible to turn away from and therefore I need to deal. Secondly… it’s because by over-thinking and analyzing as I do, I’m led to do the main thing in life that gives me excitement, happiness and a feeling of freedom. And it’s this ‘bla bla bla’ I do on my blog, and almost everywhere else too 

Whatever comes rolling from my fingertips here on these pages and however much focus I put on what others may class as insignificant in life, makes every issue almost worthwhile… meaning I’m happy to experience it all… if whatever life throws at me gets me to write…

I’ve come up with the following conclusion: Life presents challenges. Challenges lead to writing. Writing leads to excitement and happiness. Happiness is what life is all about. And so… the circle is complete… or no… it’s never complete; it’s an ongoing story, just as is this life… It’s the spiral that will always be moving onwards and upwards… in a circular motion… yes… This is good… Life is so good!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Roses and fresh fruit

This is real life… and I have to be able to cope. I can’t put that guard around me, when it leads me to nearly crash. For some reason it was like a coping mechanism, but it’s not helping me cope at all! Not if the result leads me to feel so bad!

Life in Ireland, life in Australia, life in India… Interacting, meeting, and facing the world – wherever we are. Issues will always arise. The only difference for me is that I’m in China. Bringing an extra ‘thing’ into the challenge: I have to able to deal with Chinese society, Chinese life, Chinese people, Chinese language along with the job, the colleagues and the general pressure that comes with teaching… I sometimes tell myself to just ‘suck it up’ and get on with it. I tell myself to stop being so overly analytical and so bloody sensitive to my surroundings. But why would I try to act differently than I’m feeling? For who would I do this? I don’t need to prove who I am or what I’m capable of; not to the company, not to my colleagues, nor to myself. I can be open and honest. Also I may be too sensitive in the eyes of those around me. But I’ve learnt that to show weakness and vulnerability is a strength. It takes courage to stand up and say that things can smell of stale urine and fermented garbage and that this smell isn’t making me happy! And yes the effects of such smells can not only mentally send me into turmoil, but they can also send me physically into similar states! So there you have it…

I sat today (Monday, my day off) with Helen and Elaine – 2 colleagues who I can totally relate to on different levels outside of the office – and I said that something has to change. I know for a fact that the way I’ve been experiencing the office environment lately has been created by something in me. It’s not like a few weeks ago, when the company was putting the pressure on. But now, I know it’s me… (this is also a reason for me to say that I’m NOT LEAVING)… I have to change something… I don’t know what though. All I know is, it can ONLY be for the better.

So, the reality of the situation is that I have deal with whatever it is that’s going on. The going gets tough and Niamh doesn’t get going! I’ve landed, I’m here and I’m grounded. Does this mean I’m trapped? No. Because I’m choosing to stay here for reasons that go further than the contract I’ve signed. Does this mean I’m unhappy? No. Because, honestly I can say that through it all, I still smile. I smile when I go to my classes. I smile when the kids learn the smallest of things and when they get excited by how I’m teaching. I smile when I walk to the markets to get that fresh smelling fruit. I smile when I pass-by the old Chinese men on the street playing their card games… and I’m happy when they express their ‘fluency’ of the English language that goes no further than a proud and loud ‘hello’. And especially I smile when I meet with particular colleagues outside of work and when I return to my place, where I’m free…

Again, I’m not making anything into more or less than it is… because even this sense of wonderment, is my reality. I’m not disguising my issues behind a picture perfect description of what I see and do everyday. I’m just experiencing 2 realities right now. Is it a healthy balance… or will the upcoming change (whatever it may be) prove otherwise?...

Stale urine and fermented garbage

The reality of where I am, hits home. And where is my home? It’s here in China. How odd this suddenly feels. Since I’ve started editing the first draft of my book, I’m feeling far more grounded in China than before. By ‘grounded’ I mean to say that my 2 feet are firmly here… and no where else. I never realized just how much the actual act of writing can bring a person into the here and now. This blog grounds me differently than the book. The book appears to be the work I should be doing and it’s come with the past ‘ventures’ I’ve had, whereas this blog lets my current experiences live and breathe.

Sometimes it’s the hard situations we face that force us to see that this is real life. Challenging times remind us that life doesn’t always smell of roses. And since the change in the group of foreign teachers I work with (Mike C leaving and Ricky arriving), this is exactly what’s been happening. The roses are still there, but the scent hasn’t been as strong as it once was. And only occasionally the sweet fresh smell of fruit will fill the air… but the scent of stale urine and fermenting garbage has been tickling my sense of smell more frequently. 2 things have been going on. I’ve been doing my best to ignore the scent that turns my stomach. I’ve been trying to turn away and avoid it by focussing on the sweet scents that remind me of all the simple things in this Asian world that inspire me.

I always have the tendency to take-off, to drift, to float… But in the current situation, if I do so, I know that I could loose myself. I’m not too sure what part of myself I could loose though.

The situation at work really hasn’t been good. I’m not going to make it into something better than it is. I’m being brutally honest by saying that I’ve struggled in keeping myself on top of this life. And it’s because of how I’ve been feeling in our office environment.

When I first walked in 11 weeks ago, it felt positive and full of life. But over the past weeks it’s gone sour. I’m not the only one to have noticed this. I remember how good it felt to be there… and so the change is something I can’t help but to have noticed. The environment that once was open, free and friendly has so subtly become enclosed. And so I’ve created an invisible guard around me with the unintentional purpose of not letting my teaching and my classes be affected negatively. I was (and probably still am) becoming an island – isolated and inapproachable. Everybody has noticed the change in me. And my guard has been getting stronger. So strong in fact, that I was hardly able to hold on to it any longer. As the pressure of was teaching increased, along with the preparation that’s involved in every class I teach, so the extra guard I was holding on to - so as to keep a distance from those in the office who weren’t ‘smelling so fresh’ - caused me to nearly crack…once again.

Being forced to switch between the sour office environment and the happy classroom environment – almost constantly – during the 10 hours days (on Saturday and Sunday), caused such friction. But I managed, up until I walked out of my last class on Sunday night and felt the most intense pain in my back. It was like something was being pulled from within my chest, but there was nothing to be pulled at. My head wanted to either explode or melt and I was an emotional mess. I couldn’t speak for wanting to break down. I just knew I had to get my things and go home. I couldn’t walk and I couldn’t see anything amazing along the streets that would usually bedazzle me. During the taxi ride home, I was in a bubble, looking out the window, seeing the streets with different eyes… Although I think my eyes could have been shut because I can’t remember a thing. All I recall are the thoughts I had of breaking free from whatever it was that was making me feel trapped.

I had thoughts of leaving. I really thought there was no point in me staying if I was feeling so unhappy. But… these thoughts didn’t last. Because… (and this is where REALITY hits home)… I DON’T WANT TO LEAVE!!!! I realized this yesterday. I’m not willing to up-sticks and move, just because something isn’t feeling too good right now. No way. Usually, when being away from home, this would be my initial reaction: leave when it feels right (which is also often when a situation gets tough). But no! I don’t want to go. I’m here, I’m in China. I’ve a job! I’m a teacher! And I’m not leaving just because the scent of fermented urine and garbage can fill my days and cause me to jump in a taxi and ‘bubble’ my way back to my apartment instead of trotting along the streets full of the joys of summer and letting my sense of smell savour the fresh fruit! No way. I’m here and it’s NOT time to leave. No matter how tough this situation gets… Nope… I know that I’ve more work to do here before I can even think of moving.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Domestic Goddess...????

During the first 3 days in the apartment I already felt so safe, so at home and I loved being here. I was still cleaning, settling, sorting and ridding this place of Mike C and putting my own personal stamp on it. Everyday I was tackling one room, giving it my own personal touch. By Saturday (after 4 days) I was down to the last room, the kitchen. I’d saved the best for last! And holy moly, this was a job and a half. It took me from 8 in the morning, till 8 in the evening to complete this task…

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to say that Mike C was dirty, but he obviously didn’t care to get right into the heart of the grime that’s been accumulating in the kitchen in particular, probably for years. But I did care to get into the heart of the dirt.

I ended up spending the whole day getting the kitchen into the state I wanted it to be in, by clearing it out, scrubbing every inch, polishing the necessities and even equipping it with new bits and bobs. Man, it was a brilliant step. Never before have I ever done anything like this! I then actually went out to buy all these little things that I otherwise would never dream of buying… Suddenly it was like: Niamh, are you seriously setting up a home, here in Jinzhou, all by yourself and buying a chopping board, tea towels, cleaning essentials and even a mop???!!!! Yes, you are…

In between cleaning, I took a break and went to the supermarket/department store. I walked around with my trolley getting fuller and fuller and had to laugh at myself… I never thought I’d reach a stage here in China, where household objects would be my main focus, whilst walking around a supermarket. I always associated anything that was for the home as being unnecessary and a waste of money. But, during that supermarket visit I was only too happy to spend and to buy… Okay, let’s keep it real, in China it’s as cheap as chips to equip your home with little bits and pieces that make life more convenient. So, it wasn’t about the expense, it was about what I was actually DOING. All by myself! I was setting up a home, as I walked around the supermarket and filled my trolley with these items. And, my dear mother was with me all the way! She was ever so proud of me… seeing how I too could be a domestic goddess just like her! I learnt from the best I guess…

When I was finished with the kitchen, on Saturday night, I truly felt that I’d come home. Every inch of the apartment has now got my stamp on it! For however long this pad is meant to be mine, it has my mark on it. Saturday night it was as if a weight had been lifted and I was able to breathe. I’d worked so hard getting it into shape, without taking any of the help others had offered me during my first days, and I did it all by myself.

I now have every room set-up the way I want. I don’t have a tv. All I have is my laptop, for the occasional movie and the constant music. The spare bedroom is my ‘creation-station’. I have my painting gear set up in there, which is something I’ve wanted to focus on for so long. In the living room have a library! Yes! A bookcase, with the books Mike C left behind, as well as some of my own. As well I’ve got 2 of the most impressive leather chairs that are in front of the massive window overlooking the streets of Jinzhou. The whole feel of this apartment: wooden floors, along with the bookcase, the desk, the window and the absent telly, makes it feel as though I’ve created a home with one thing as my main focus: to write. I’ve created a writers’ environment! Yes! Or maybe it already WAS a writers’ environment before I arrived, but I’m only really getting a feel for it now.

When I’m here, it’s all I can do: write. There’s nothing to distract me. No tv, no people. When I need distraction, I can have it… I know where to get it, because I have a life outside of this apartment too… Here is just where I can home into myself. And with that I’ll always be in the position to give all I can, in the work and social scene too.

As I was getting all domestic and loving every minute of it, I had moments of wondering: “What the hell am I doing?” “Do I really want to do this?” And, the fact that I was loving it, meant I DID want to do this. I wondered though: am I now settled and will I never travel again? Of course I’ll travel again! Saturday afternoon, as I was on my hand and knees getting rid of the grime that was baked into the cupboards and the kitchen floor, I’m still telling myself: “Yes Niamh, when the time is right, you’ll be putting your backpack on your back and you’ll be off”. It won’t be for another while, but it will happen again. I tried not to panic for doing something I never said was ‘me’: setting up a home. But, for now, it’s what I need. Especially as I realize that I’ve created a writers’ apartment.

When I first came to China, I wanted my China experience to revolve around writing and now I can see that it’s all coming together. I wanted for my book to be doing the ‘work’ it’s meant to be doing, by the time it comes for me to leave. And the book can only do its work, when I put in the extra work too. This extra work I can only do when I’m in the right surroundings. And I’ve found those surroundings now… Here in my new home! I can put in the work and eventually what this year in China is meant to be about, will happen. To write and to focus, a person needs peace and space. I’m finding my peace now and the teaching only gives me the perfect balance to stay connected to China and what it has to offer me.

Monday, May 2, 2011

May holiday - Shivers strike

I’m only realizing now just how life was getting on top of me… And sure enough, what happens when a person has been constantly running and on the go, without taking any proper time to wind-down? When they DO FINALLY wind-down, they get sick. And yes, this is what happened…

Saturday night, after I’d finished setting up my new home, I felt a weight lifted and I suddenly allowed to ‘stop’ running – which is what I’d been doing for weeks in order to find my own space. So my home was set up and I went to bed as happy as larry. I woke-up at 1.30am feeling cold. Humm… strange, it wasn’t that cold outside… I figured I must in need of an extra quilt. But soon, what started as just the chills turned into me shivering so badly that my teeth were challenged in staying rooted in my mouth. Man, I’ve never had such a bout of the shakes before in my whole life. I was frozen solid. It was like I was possessed by something and I had no way of getting rid of it. I then went into some sort of crazy daze and was struck by so many emotions and didn’t know if or how I’d ever get passed what it was that was happening.

Then it struck me: most people are out of town. If this was going to get worse I had nobody to get help from. Sh*t. I then wondered how bad I would let myself get, before trying to seek help. Usually when I’m sick I’ll always brush it to one side and see it as nothing major. But Saturday night, this bout of the shakes seriously scared me. And the fact that help wasn’t readily at hand, made it all the worse. Was there anybody I could have called on, who speaks English, were it to get worse? Yes, I’m sure that one of the contacts I’ve got, would have been able to help me. But in that moment, it felt like there was nobody.

I plonked myself on the sofa and set up my bed there… hoping that the living room would feel a little warmer. 2 duvets and 4 layers of clothes and suddenly it was the morning. The last thing I remember before falling to sleep, was the trembling and shaking that was going through every part of my body. I then opened my eyes, it was light and I could hear and feel nothing… only peace. Thank god… My shivers that were first uncontrollable had stopped and I was so calm. I still felt like sh*t however, but that didn’t matter. I was just delighted that the shaking had stopped. And for the first time in over a year in I don’t know how long I stayed on the sofa all day. All I wanted was peace and quiet and rest. I had to get passed whatever it was that had gotten into me, over the past few days. I ended up sleeping the day away, right through till this morning… Every hour or so, I’d wake and I’d snuggle up a little bit more and let myself fall back asleep again… I didn’t think I’d sleep during the night, for sleeping so much during the day, but I did. I was shocked… In a day and a half, I slept for nearly 30 hours! My holy moly…

I must have been in desperate need of rest. And the only way I’d permit myself to rest was by being forced to slow down by this flu-thing in my lungs. Man it’s crazy the way things plan out. I’m even more delighted that I didn’t go to Beijing for the May holiday.

Ridding myself of this thing I’ve got, will make me all brand new and I’m properly refuelling… And yesterday, in between the sleep, I couldn’t help but feel so grateful to be in this home whilst feeling so sick. It made it so much more comforting. I also know for future reference (and thinking with a more rational mind) that if anything ever happens, I can always call on Chinese speaking English teachers or English speaking Chinese contacts to help me, no matter what time of the day or night. I’m not alone. I’m never alone. So, from here on in, the adventure unfolds, from this home-base I’ve now created. Yes, life is so good!

May holiday - Unloading the work

One morning I came into work (a week and a half ago) only to see on the schedule that they had - once again - given me too heavy a load. And I seriously nearly cracked. For the first time in my life, I actually stood up for myself, in terms of the workload I’d been given. It was only the start of the week and I was exhausted already.

It was during our weekly meeting and I didn’t plan to speak up, but it just happened. Without warning, I said as politely as possible (with probably some desperation in my voice) for them to give more notice when bombarding us with such loads and to follow through what they said they were going to do (which was releasing me the activities I’d been ‘sentenced’ to do). I told the ‘leading lady’ if the pressure gets too much, I’ll crack and I seriously can’t work like this…

Now… this ‘leading lady’ is Chinese… So, do I truly think that my little outburst hit home? Would she have understood what I meant? The chances are ever so slim… The other foreign teachers understood me completely, but anybody who is Chinese, wouldn’t get me at all! Why? Because in China the employees don’t ‘crack’ under pressure! They don’t complain about the load, as it’s a sign of failing. In China, the one who can bear the most weight and do the most whilst being under the most amount of pressure, wins. Here things are viewed as being a competition…. It’s all about performance, performance, performance. Apparently they believe it shows status, strength and achievement. This is also very much imbedded into the educational system too. But that’s a different topic altogether…

So, back to my little outburst. Even though the ‘leading lady’ is able to speak fluent English, my words were probably sounding alien to her. But, I didn’t care. At that moment, I knew I had to speak up. I had to say something before it got too much. Afterwards, I spoke with the foreign teachers and they told me of the differences in Chinese and Western work ethics. But I found it hard to fully engage in this competitive approach to the workload. I didn’t want teaching and lesson planning to become a competition… In that moment I was more concerned about ME and my health. Regardless of what this country believes is right or wrong, in terms of achievement and strength, what I believe to be right or wrong, was (and still is) FAR MORE IMPORTANT. I wasn’t going to suck it up, just to be approved of… Back in the west, they know of the term burn-out. Here it’s unheard of. And on that particular day, the only thing I cared about was my own sanity, because I felt to be losing it. I was then shocked by my level of exhaustion and my inability to deal with what was on the horizon (or the weekly schedule)…

This incident did prove to be what I needed. It forced me to stand in my own truth, instead of the one that’s surrounding me… which is Chinese truth. Okay, I do realize that to teach in foreign countries, we need to be flexible and adjust to their ways… But, when it puts our own selves and our health in jeopardy, then it’s up to us to speak up and to not feel like we’re failing, just for admitting that it’s too much and we’re struggling.

I guess, over the past 3 weeks, they were pushing me more than they had been pushing the other teachers. And the fact that I’m still relatively new and still getting in to the rhythm of planning lessons and giving the classes (which I’ve heard can take up to 3 months for every new teacher), made it all the more intense. The other foreign teachers would never have sucked it up either.

The company was probably testing my limits… seeing how far they could push me… Because, this is how I came across: Niamh will say ‘yes’ to everything, she’ll do it all and do a better job than most. This may be the case, but I can honestly say that pushing me too far will seriously lead me to stop functioning – either for lack of mental clarity or for physical ‘drainage’. And when I reach that point and if they choose to ignore the request I put in to release the load, then I don’t care what’s required or expected of me. Because, in that moment, my own physical and mental self will take the upper hand and I won’t stand for nothing. I’ll walk. It’s as simple as that…

Did my outburst help? It sure did, because now they’ve lightened my load and they’ve been more appreciative of my efforts. My words must have been heard! Yes yes yes! From next week onwards the activities are less… Thankfully! My main focus will be where it ought to be: on the teaching! It’s amazing what a little bit of appreciation and recognition of their behalf can do… Now, I can happily continue to do the best I can and I’ll enjoy it all the more… 

May holiday - To travel or not?

It’s Monday the 2nd of May. It’s 7 days since I moved into my new apartment. Also it’s May holiday: a time for most of Jinzhou to travel. We have 4 days off from work; Saturday (the 30th) through till Tuesday (the 3rd). Everybody from work is out of town. Most have gone to Beijing (which is only 3 hours by train from Jinzhou). And what am I doing? I’m in my new apartment, all on my tod…

These have been strange days, since moving away from Manhattan. We had a shorter week at work, with the 2 busiest days off. For weeks, I was trying to plan a trip and get out of Jinzhou during these 4 days off. I wanted to see something different, and most of all, I wanted to experience a train journey through China. But I realized the only way I’d be able to take a trip, was by going with someone from work, or with some of the Chinese staff.

It sounds so easy, to jump on a train in China by yourself in this remote part of the country where English is so alien… But really, it’s next to impossible if you haven’t got enough Chinese… The simple little things are made into massive obstacles, when travelling: train times, destinations, the right tickets, finding the platforms… and that’s not even THINKING about finding a place to stay for the night! All these seemingly self-explanatory things aren’t so self-explanatory when it comes to travelling from Jinzhou onwards. It would be a different story if I were to be living in Beijing, or any of the other bigger cities where tourists flock and where English is on the rise. But here, it’s not the case.

So… taking into account just how much preparation I’d have to put into taking a trip out of town by myself, that would only last for 2 days, I reconsidered my options. Did I want to go with my old roommates to the rock festival in Beijing? No. I’d loved to have gone to Beijing, but not for that purpose and not for 4 full days (which is how long their trip is going to be) and not with the one individual who I’m having trouble being around at the moment. The fact that I’ve only just moved out of my old apartment and that I’m in desperate need of some me-time, just to regain my sanity after all the commotion of the past 2 weeks, was probably the main reason I chose to stay put in Jinzhou… And I know my time will come to travel further afield, it’s just not right now…

At first I felt like an unsociable and boring bunny for not going along with the others, or not even trying to get out of town by myself. But so much has been going on and the weekends are soooooooooo short that I’ve had no time whatsoever to do any of the things that I want and need to do, without having to explain myself to others or without being distracted by what those around me are doing. Also, this distraction made work all the more difficult. I had no peace and more and more, at school, I was having days where the pressure of the teaching and everything surrounding the teaching, would get so intense that I literally felt like I was losing a hold of reality.

I’ve been journaling my heart out, but it’s all mainly been in aid of staying on top of life. It’s where my extra energy and time was going… And blogging hasn’t been my focus at all, hence my ‘long’ silence. I wasn’t even able to properly think about the book…

So, staying on top of the job, planning lessons and dealing the pressure work has been putting on me, was proving somewhat to be a challenge. I realized at work, they were putting more on me than they were putting on the others. For 3 weeks running, they were giving me extra hours to do so-called ‘activities’. These aren’t normal lessons. How best to describe an activity? You know the kids tv shows where there are presenters who are happy, bubbly, bouncy and teaching the kids things in a playful manner and who do lots of song, dance and games? Well, this is what an activity boils down to. During the activities I’d have an audience too and the ‘positions of authority’ within the company would be there observing me. I was ‘summoned’ with extra activities back-to-back for 3 weeks, along with my normal lessons. At first I didn’t mind, I actually loved it. Doing these activities brought out a different side of me, I got to plan my own approach and those who mattered within the company were supportive. But, after 3 weeks, I nearly cracked. The pressure that came along with the activities was getting too much. I was hardly able to stay on top of what they were expecting me to achieve, or maybe, what I was expecting myself to achieve.

Mingled lives

Often situations and circumstances force us to deal with people who don’t always want to deal with. That’s life. And we can learn to turn away from the people who don’t do us good. But, in our particular situation, it’s not as easy to turn away from certain individuals. Why? Because, 6 foreigners are placed together in the same company and most times, in the same living space and so, lives are mingled. Socializing with foreigners is something that we need, because the contact with Chinese is limited, due to the language barrier. Chinese contact can remain superficial. So, the group of foreigners around which your life is forced to revolve, are the only people you tend to build closer relationships with. It’s almost without having any say in the matter – unless you don’t need any further contact that goes beyond the actual teaching of English. And everybody needs people to share their lives with. The level of ‘need’ the individual may require, differs per person. But still it’s only natural.

So, here in our situation, at the school and with the workmates, we’re limited when it comes to choosing who to spend our time with. And this is the tricky part.

Mingled lives, beyond our control. When I was still living in Manhattan, this is what I was experiencing. The only way I was to take control, was by saying ‘no’. If I’d have been selective when it came to choosing who to spend my time with, I would have taken back the control. But, I wasn’t and that’s why I was losing myself in something… or someone. This led me to feel drained at school, to be distant, to be quiet and lacking something.

A life outside of the school and detached from my colleagues, is what I’ve been advised to build. Others, who have been here a lot longer than I, see how the ‘mingled- lives-syndrome’ can take over. From a more personal perspective, this is not what my journey in China is about. I’m not here to ONLY be placed within a group of foreigners and to restrict myself to these contacts. I didn’t come to China for others to start seeing all of our journeys, our travels, our China experience, as 1! That’s what was happening. For a few teachers, this is what they want and need, and so it’s fine. But, for me, it’s not going to be like that. I’m here for me, and nobody else.

Of course I realize that the teaching is the main part of my journey and it’s giving me these opportunities. And so, I’ll always do everything I can for the company and be the best teacher possible. But, I’m here to live an independent life, to do what I want to do and to spend time with who I choose to spend to with. My Chinese experience is an individual experience. Yes, I’ll hang-out with the foreign colleagues outside of work, but only when I want to.

There are a few colleagues in particular who are helping me so much – Helen especially. She’s the New Zealand teacher who’s been here 2 years and speaks fluent Chinese. She understands me so well, and also has more understanding of how being placed in this setting, can effect the way in which a foreigner chooses to connect with China – either superficially or more deeply.

On that note, I must say, how much I appreciate them all. Even one particular colleague who claimed I was the reason for him to choose Jinzhou, who was starting to witness our China experience as one, who was invading my space and bringing out the Niamh that I really don’t care too much for. It’s a strange contradiction: with some colleagues being too close, I can’t live here – let alone excel at what I’m doing, as being negatively influenced by others will always affect the teaching and the lessons. BUT, without them, I can’t live here either – such is the dependency on the select number of people who have English as their mother tongue. Hummm… How strange. So I do appreciate them all. The fact that I’m speaking like this, about my (no longer) Irish roommate, is because I want to take from everything that happened last week, as much as I can. That way I can get past it and not hold a grudge between the two of us.

Sunday night (the 24th) we finally spoke about it. We both told each other exactly what had been going and why we were on such different pages, when trying to relate to each other. He had different expectations from me. I had none from him. He was pushing for closeness from me; a closeness I wasn’t willing to offer. I felt guilty for not being open and accepting of his nature… which made me feel like the worst person in the world… and so… on and on the cycle goes…

Speaking with him was relieving. We both know where we stand now and it was perfect timing too. Because that same Sunday night, was Mike C’s going away party and I’ve since taken over his apartment! This talk with my roommate was like closing one part of my Manhattan chapter.

And Tuesday morning (the 26th) was the day for Mike C to leave China. It was the day he made space for me… No matter how sad I was to see him leave, a bigger part of me was happier… I needed that apartment, for my own sanity and to get myself out of Manhattan!

On the morning of the move, I had another ‘closing’ conversation with Matt. The best roommate I’ve ever had! With so much else going on, since Irish roommate landed in our lives, we hadn’t chatted for quite a while. During the first 6 weeks, when it was just me and him, we would sit at the table, a couple of times a week. He’d be drinking gallons of coffee and casually doing some work on his laptop, and I’d be drinking gallons of tea and either gazing out the window or writing about something. We’d be in each others company, going in and out of conversation and I’d get to know him so much more than otherwise would be the case. At work, we’d never get the chance to talk. But, during those first 6 weeks, we did. And he’s the nicest and most sincere guy. Tuesday morning, it happened again. We both sat (whilst roomie number 3 was still in bed), with coffee and tea, having great conversations. And that was the best note to end my first chapter in China on. This is what I’ll remember the Manhattan apartment for, and not for how I was feeling once the 2 became the 3. The 6 weeks with Matt alone outweigh the last 3 weeks by far. So… 9 weeks after first landing in Jinzhou and another new chapter starts! Niamh is branching out!