Sunday, August 23, 2020

"Are You Ready For The Summer?"

So this summer camp wasn't exactly "Meatballs."

Instead of cabins, we had classrooms. Instead of lakes, we had lessons.

And there was no Bill Murray, aside from the bit of him I always carry in spirit.

But we still had plenty of fun!

Let's back up for a moment. 

Usually, I would be spending late July and early August visiting family and friends in America. This year, of course, is different because of COVID-19. If I were to leave China on my U.S. Passport -- even though I own a home and have a valid residence permit in China -- I would face the same fate as one of my co-workers, who's been stuck in the Philippines since January.

So, toward the end of the regular school year, our company floated the idea by us: How would we like to spend a couple of weeks teaching at the local educational summer camp they run?

After I went to an early meeting and showed interest, my picture made it into some early marketing that went out to students and their parents. How did I know? My friend Julia texted me to say her son Leo had seen my picture, and now he wanted to go to the camp!

At that point, I pretty much had to commit.

The camp itself was 10 full-time days over two weeks, but it really turned out to be three weeks of work. Before camp started, meticulous lesson plans had to be submitted covering each of the 33 class periods I'd be teaching, and then I had to prepare for those classes.

Most of my classes would be specifically for my "homeroom" group of kids, but I was also assigned a Culture class that I'd teach four additional classes. How could I represent American culture in a way that would be both appealing and accessible to 9- and 10-year-old children? I struggled with that for a while, until the thought hit me -- kids love cartoons! And while animation is entertaining, it is often designed with lessons in mind, whether it's exposing viewers to new facts on a show like "Dora the Explorer" or the moral to the story of a Disney movie.

If I was going to talk about animation, I knew I had to get them hooked quickly -- and the way I did that was by producing two videos: a six-minute "history of animation" video and a shorter one in which some of my American friends' kids talked about the current cartoon characters they like the most.

(I am sharing the "history of animation" video with you here, but I promised my friends I'd keep their kids' appearances in the classroom only... no Internet. Sorry!)

There was also a short book I'd be teaching in a Reading class, and the "reading video" provided was woefully poor, so I created a new version of that, too.

So, even before camp began, I'd spent a full week getting things ready to go.

This was my classroom. All of the rooms were named after prominent U.S. universities -- Princeton, Yale, Harvard, etc.

Mine was the only one with the requisite Chinglish misspelling: Standford.  🤣🤣🤣

My classes were broken up into six different subjects: Culture, Reading, Oral Practice, Listening, Drama, and Dubbing. 

Dubbing can be a lot like karaoke. In fact, sometimes it can be karaoke: In two of my Dubbing classes, I had them learn and sing songs from Disney movies, since lyric videos and videos with instrumental versions were easy to find. "Let It Go," "I Just Can't Wait To Be King," and "I'll Make a Man Out of You" were all big hits. However, they surprisingly hated "A Whole New World." Some of the kids even said it would make them run to the toilet and vomit if they had to sing it. 

In the other Dubbing class, they learned a classic Spongebob Squarepants scene about chocolate. They LOVED that one -- especially getting to shriek "Chocolate! Chocolate!" at the top of their lungs.

Six of the girls in class singing "Let It Go."

Culture, as I mentioned earlier, revolved around animation. After showing them the videos and talking a little bit about why animation is such a special artform, I let them loose with their imaginations, challenging them to come up with their own animated characters, then coming to the front of class to talk about their creations. There were definitely some pretty cool ones!

Oral Practice and Listening kind of blended together. Some of the classes were based on a text, with chapters on weather, best friends, work, and free time. But other classes were activities I had to devise on my own. I won't go into all of the lessons, but I'll hit a few of the high notes.

When we did the "Work" chapter, I had them do an exercise called "Draw Your Dream," where they envisioned themselves in the careers they hoped to have as adults. Again, got some really nice work from the students on that.

For a listening exercise, I went into the activity room during lunchtime and laid out a couple of courses in tape. Students paired up in groups of two. One would wear a blindfold, the other would be the guide. And using only words, the guide would lead the blindfolded partner through the course as quickly as they could, with time penalties for stepping on or over the lines marking the courses. They loved this! They even wanted to do it a second time, but another teacher had commandeered the activity room during that period.

When we did a class about deductive logic, they loved playing a "20 Questions"-style game and didn't want to stop. We kept it going through their snack time as they ate! We did an "echo" game, where students worked in pairs and had to mimic each other, adding a new word or gesture to the sequence each time. 

But the text also opened up the opportunity for some more profound discussions, too. During the "best friends" unit, we were asked to predict which people might be best friends, based solely on their pictures. When the book revealed the answers, they weren't at all what we might have expected, which brought us a great opportunity to talk about the phrase "you can't judge a book by its cover," how it's not the things we see that draw people together as best friends, but the things we feel. 

The Reading class text was a picture book called "Be Polite and Kind," which is kind of self-explanatory -- good manners vs. bad manners. Of course, they loved when I acted out the "bad manners" part of it, especially "grumpy grumbly man."

The Drama class was aimed at putting together a presentation that would be part of the camp's closing ceremonies. Since I had to come up with the activity well before camp started, I had no idea what the students' English levels would be, so I decided to do something on the easier side, but with a twist: I wanted them to not only read "One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish," but also re-imagine the book as the illustrators of their own lines. 

It turned into another great arts & crafts project, with some great creativity from the students.

Then we rehearsed our lines and choreography prior to the big closing ceremony!

After the closing ceremony, we went back to the classroom, handed out completion certificated, and took pictures. It was a nice, relaxing way to end things. (We even got one last snack.)

While I missed getting to see my family and friends in America this summer, this certainly filled the time that would have been vacation in a fun way.

Since I usually work with high school students midway through their teens, I get to see a lot of the angst that accompanies those years in class. But that's not the case with 3rd graders. So much fun, so little drama! Granted, they can be a handful, and they can be loud at times, but you also get to see a lot of that youthful exuberance. And, of course, it helped that we all hit it off really well.

I'll miss this group of kids. Though I wonder if I might wind up seeing some of them again in several years...

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Some Special Words For My First Students

Last month, my first group of students -- my 2018 Zhangjiagang Senior High School sophomores -- graduated from school.

I'd really hoped to be there when they did and had talked to the school about speaking at their graduation, but as with so many plans that had been made in this strange year of 2020, these plans fell through. Due to the virus, it became a small, private ceremony with no outside visitors.  

Because I never got to say these words, I wrote them out, then sent it to a colleague there to have it distributed to all of the graduating seniors. 

They were my first students. They will always be special to me. So I wanted to say something special to them, and I'm sharing those words with you now.

If the photo text is too small for you to read, well, here's what it says:

Do you remember the class in which I told you that we are all storytellers?

Well, you’ve just reached the end of a chapter. Why do books have chapters? Because they give us places where we can look back at what we’ve just learned … and look forward to what comes next.

At the end of a chapter, you’re able to see things in a different light. You can see how much the characters have grown and changed. They interact with each other differently. Those teachers you thought were so cruel because they gave you so much homework? Now you can see how much they cared for you. Now, you might even consider them to be friends.

I wish I could have seen you at your graduation ceremony. I was looking forward to seeing all of the faces that would have been so familiar, yet so different.  You have grown and changed. Your stories have gotten so much more interesting in the two years since I met you. And they’re about to get even more interesting.

At the end of this chapter, you can look ahead in awe and wonder at what lies ahead. For many of you, the next chapter will be university. What new stories await you there? What great adventures will you have as you gain more independence, as you start to picture your futures with more clarity and determination? What unexpected plot twists might take your lives in new directions? And what will happen in the chapters after that?

At the end of this chapter, I hope you can look back with satisfaction. You may not be able to rewrite the last three years, but you will be re-reading them for the rest of your lives. I hope they bring you happy memories. I hope they bring you memories of friendship, memories of self-discovery, memories of new things learned, and memories of so many people – teachers and administrators – who worked so hard to provide you with a better future. We’re all looking forward to reading your stories as you continue to write them outside the halls of this school.

Congratulations on your graduation from Zhangjiagang Senior High School. I’m so proud of you all. Now get out there and write some amazing stories!

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

On Being An American Abroad (Long Time, No See: Part 2)

There's a guy I've known since the mid-'80s. We lived in the same apartment building in Hollywood, and because we were both into collecting music -- especially these shiny new things called CDs -- we hit it off really well. He had a bass, I had a guitar, so sometimes we'd try to play along with songs from our growing CD collections. ("Synchronicity II" was a particular favorite of ours, though I'm sure we would have made Sting and Andy cringe.) 

Anyway, we'd been great friends, tried to keep in touch after he moved out of state, but in the pre-social media days, it wasn't easy. So I was happy when we'd reconnected on Facebook. But a few months ago, something strange began to happen. He started attacking me for expressing my political views on Facebook. (Those of you who know me know my affiliations, but I'm not going to open that can of worms here.) 

His attack, while politically motivated, wasn't about my politics, per se. Instead, he challenged my right to speak out on American affairs while living outside the country. And while I knew his claim was 100% ridiculous, it did get me thinking about my situation as someone who is straddling countries and cultures.

I am an American. Nothing can change that. It's my birthright. It's where I was born and raised, where I went to school, had a long career, and spent the first 51 years of my life.

But now, I'm living in China. I sold my home in America and bought one here. I'm living here full-time. In fact, because of the COVID-19 travel restrictions, I've now been in China for over a year without venturing outside the country. Though I still have to file American tax forms with the IRS, my taxes are paid in China.

So... who am I?

On the streets of Zhangjiagang, I am a minority. I'm one of maybe a couple hundred foreigners in a town of nearly a million and a half people. I'm a stranger in a strange land. It can be disconcerting at times. Yes, sometimes I will get funny looks. Yes, sometimes I will get stares. Usually, a smile and a friendly "Ni hao" will bring a smile to their faces, but not always. 

Although I'm trying to learn the language, it's not an easy one, and my progress has been slow. Sometimes, I'm the stupid foreigner who has to rely on translation apps to talk to others or figure things out. (Fortunately, I've made many local friends who have been very patient with me, and that makes me feel better. A lot of them are also trying to learn English, so we may fumble around in each other's languages as we speak.)

At the same time, though, I am appreciated as a foreigner and an American.

People know why I'm here. Many of them have kids in school, and they appreciate the work we do as foreign teachers in their classrooms.

Just as importantly, I am an ambassador. The Chinese have access to Americans and Western culture through news programs, some TV shows, some movies, and some music. But, for many of the locals I've met, I'm one of the first "real live Americans" they've ever gotten to meet and know.

In that way, I am more than just an American. It is my responsibility to be a model American. To share my culture while respecting theirs. To show them a sort of real-world, person-to-person kindness they may not see on the news or in a Marvel movie. To be a good neighbor and not an "ugly American."

So, while my old friend may question my "American-ness" because I'm living in a foreign country, the truth is that I'm more of an American than he'll ever be. 

I am representing America on a foreign stage, displaying and conveying the kind of one-to-one American humanity and kindness the Chinese natives will never see from America's leaders on TV. When the news they watch is equating "American" with "trade war," their interactions with me remind them that the real America is made up of honest, friendly people who, political and cultural differences aside, are very much like themselves.

I am not just an American abroad. I am representing America abroad. I am doing my part to improve foreign relations, one person at a time. Admittedly, it's a small part, but it's still something. 

And it's something to be proud of.

So while my now estranged friend may have challenged my standing as an American, I now have an even better understanding of how thoroughly baseless a claim that was. 

Yes, I am an American, wherever I may be living. And regardless of what the political situation may be back in the States, I will always try my hardest to represent America in the best light that I can.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

24 Hours As A Buddhist At Faluo Temple

The one-lane road extending west from Guanyinshan Lu may be unmarked and nondescript, but that doesn’t mean it’s not capable of taking you on a great journey.
I ventured down that road on Saturday afternoon not knowing what to expect. I’ve visited several beautiful Buddhist temples throughout China, but I’d never had the chance to experience one from the perspective of a participant, rather than a mere tourist.

Arriving at Faluo Temple in the afternoon after a longer-than-expected trip from Zhangjiagang, I joined three of our fellow participants in a reception area that was more tea house than temple. 

The serenity of the setting – ceiling-length windows looking out over the mountain greenery, the pillow chairs, the monk playing a Chinese flute – melted away the stress of my trip. This was my first outing with Album of Suzhou since the pandemic began, so it was nice to catch up with Helena and Polina, who I hadn’t seen since last year, and meet Rafa, a 2020 newcomer to the group. Patrick, Isabella (with three kids in tow), Bernd, and Bonny arrived, and our group was complete.

After our first meal (vegetarian, of course), we ventured out past the end of the temple road, down a path slickened by recent rains. We were surrounded by calm. The water trickling from the pond over the rocks and into the stream below. The gentle rustling of foliage in the breeze. The fluttering of moths across the path from one tree to another. It was a great way of communing with nature, decluttering our urban minds and preparing us for the evening ahead.

As we made our way back toward the temple, the golden walls stood in stark contrast to the overcast sky, extensions of the Earth reaching toward the heavens.  

Returning to the reception room after our walk, we were given our robes. If we were to become one with the monks that night, we were going to dress the part. In the robes, it didn’t matter whether we were wearing jeans, skirts, shorts, or dresses underneath. We let go of our trappings of individuality to become a collective. I didn’t give much thought to that simple act until after we’d done our meditation, when I realized that letting go of our individual appearances had also made it easier to let go of our thoughts as we entered a meditative state.

Although I have practiced a lot of yoga, I have usually found it difficult to enter a meditative state for a prolonged period of time. But somehow, it seemed easier that night. Maybe it was the atmosphere. Maybe the fact that I don’t understand the language very well kept my thoughts from dwelling on anything that had been said. As I focused on breathing rather than thinking, I was able to find and maintain that meditative bliss for the duration of our 10-minute session. 

After emerging from the meditative state and bringing our thoughts back into the room, the monk who led us in the meditation opened up the floor to our questions about what we were experiencing. Amid the talk of reincarnated forms and Zen practices, I was most drawn to the explanation of kindness as a crucial tenet in the practice of Buddhism. Although I am human and fallible, I always strive to place an emphasis on kindness in my life and in my teaching. The idea that kindness is part of Buddhism’s foundation was one I found to be very appealing.

After our questions had been answered, we went on to the second phase of the evening’s meditation, as a special guest brought out his collection of “sleep bowls.” The bowls, it is said, resonate at frequencies that specifically target different parts of our bodies. Used in concert, his bowls brought on a feeling of deep relaxation. Although I remained seated upright the entire time, I’m pretty sure I drifted out of consciousness for a while as he performed. It was a pretty surreal experience.

At the end of the program, it was time to call it a night, as we trekked to the temple’s guest rooms. I must have carried the singing bowls’ deep sleep with me back to bed – I woke up at about 3:30am convinced I’d had a full night’s sleep before coaxing myself back to sleep.

Sunday, July 19, 4:36am


As he walked the hallway outside our doors, the monk played his wood block in a rhythmic pattern.

We woke up, got ready, donned our robes once more, and headed for the temple courtyard.

The morning sky was not yet fully brightened when we began the day’s services. First, there was some kind of invocation before this wooden statue of a thousand hands. At least I’m guessing it was an invocation; it’s difficult to know when you don’t fully understand the language! 

Then, we walked in a line to the main temple hall.

At this point, it’s worth bringing up that I do not consider myself to be a religious person. I was raised with religion, but left it to chart my own path when I was a teen. (That’s a discussion for another time, preferably over a few rounds of drinks!) 

I do, however, consider myself to be spiritual. That being the case, I think it worked to my advantage that I don’t understand the language well. As with the meditation, I was able to push thoughts aside and focus on the beauty of the ceremony itself – the tones, the atmosphere, the emotional presence. 

I had no idea what it meant, but the polyphonic chanting of the three singing monks was entrancing as they weaved their way through intriguing harmonies, accompanied by the punctuations of percussion. Without context, I was able to imagine that the monks were summoning energy from the universe and directing their flow via their melodies, bringing it inside the temple so that it could surround and infuse our bodies. (I may have been completely wrong, but that seemed like a suitably Buddhist mindset to me.)

After breakfast, we were treated to a program about the temple’s long history, including the time it was owned by royalty in the 1600s, and then we took a walking tour around the grounds, getting to see things like the vegetable garden where much of our meals had been grown, the rock carvings, and the statue that overlooks the entire compound from its perch up the side of the mountain.

After a rest and lunch, it was time for our final activity. We headed for one of the temple’s classrooms, where AoS friend Mr. Gu demonstrated the art of fan painting and calligraphy. It was amazing to see this work of art come together before our very eyes!

Then it was my turn to wield a brush. No, I wasn’t going to pretend I could mimic Mr. Gu’s work, but I did get an opportunity to try my hand at Chinese calligraphy. I’m just a beginner, but with the help of Tina, who joined us for the second day, I was able to start creating some drawings that could possibly have resembled actual Chinese characters!

And then, we were finished … time to gather our overnight packs and get ready for the trip home.

When we take part in Album of Suzhou events, we always leave with something. Maybe it’s a deeper appreciation of Suzhou’s history, architecture, folklore, or culture. But this one felt different. We meditated with the monks. We ate with the monks. We woke with the monks. We prayed with the monks. For a day, we actually got to sample and appreciate a completely different lifestyle, one very different from our own. It may not have made a vegetarian or an early riser out of me – at least, not yet – but I could feel a much greater connection to their sense of devotion, their mission of kindness and faith. We were leaving with the some of that flowing energy still reverberating through our bodies, reminders of the peace and tranquility we’d experienced during our stay.

Of all the Album of Suzhou events I’ve experienced, this was certainly the most intimate and meaningful. Thanks, as always, to Patrick for arranging it. Thanks to our hosts at the Faluo Temple, and thank you to my fellow AoS “Buddhists for the Day” for helping make the event so enjoyable and special.