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Sometimes You Eat Your Pride

I woke up today wondering how much individual free will I have, or have ever had. Whether I’m nothing but a slave to an assemblage of brain chemicals reacting and synapses firing, or if there’s another part of me, separate from biology, with the power to trounce impulse. If there is no separate self, free of biological imprisonment, it means that all of life is completely predetermined. The script has been written, the ending unavoidable. The self, thus, can do nothing but watch with eyes pried open, and react with both horror and amazement.

I had just written a blog about accepting my flaws. Acutely aware of them, they’re easy to accept on good days. Then a bad day hits and you dig out the old metal music catalog to power through your inner bs. I couldn’t swim at world champion caliber speeds every day of the week either. Everything seems perfect on good days. I think Deion Sanders said something along the lines of, “Your reflection looks a lot prettier when you’re winning.” On bad days, avoiding the mirror can seem wise.

Yesterday morning I contacted an old filmmaking colleague. About six years ago, I helped him on a short film that he directed. He had shot some significant commercials in his career. He has a keen eye for visual framing, which isn’t my strongest point. He also lent me some of the best storytelling advice I’ve received.

The shoot I met him on has garnered 28 million views on YouTube. I was just a production assistant who mostly helped the cinematographer, but it’s cool that the project found an audience. Here’s a link:

He showed me the trailer for his latest documentary, which coincidentally is about NCAA athletics.

“It looks great,” I said (sincerely). He’s an excellent filmmaker.

“Actually, it bankrupted Zoochosis (his company) and ruined my career,” he said matter-of-factly.

I meditated on that for a moment. He was one of the rare “pure artists” I met in LA, the kind of guy who never gave a fuck about publicity or image, and never gave a second glance at a bad review.

“Whatever happens, you made something that’s completely your creation,” I said. “That’s what living’s all about.”

We talked for awhile about swimming.

“I fucking hate sports,” he said eventually, knowing full well that I was an athlete.

“Me too,” I said. In truth, I often do hate sports, especially swimming (but NFL is a different story). I hate talking about swimming. I hate that it was my greatest talent, and I hate that it’s how many people define me. I swam for other people, and for money.

“Be good to people, Matt,” he said before hanging up.

He told me about his plans to continue filming with his phone. Broke or not, he said, he’d continue telling stories. It’s a cliche to state, but filmmaking is a tough business. It’s the toughest business. That doesn’t deter many at first, but everyone out there is a self-proclaimed “starving artist” until they get a little hungry.

I’m putting the pedal to the metal now on my writing. It’s time to finish some projects.

Here’s a link to my friend’s upcoming documentary, Animals.

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Another Day in the Life

A collection of weekly happenings.

I had a class on Thursday afternoon with my “special needs” high schoolers (the kids with subpar standardized test scores). One of my favorites is a shy boy who sits in the front. He always sits bolt-upright and sports an attentive demeanor, but he’s never willing to speak. Before and after class, though, he’ll approach me and speak freely, with pretty good English. We’ll talk about Marvel superhero films, zombie apocalypse comic books, and music. He plays the drums and once asked me to join his band as a guitarist. If I wasn’t the teacher, I would join in a heartbeat.

We were doing a simple exercise where I asked the class a few “future tense” questions. The question I asked him was, “what do you want to be.” He said that he wanted to be a dean at a school, perhaps at a university. I felt a mixture of “cynical adult” and “optimistic student” sentiment flowing through me. The cynical world-wary guy was saying, “Be realistic with your expectations”. I hated that thought. The optimist was saying, “Hey, you only have one round of being alive. Go for it, and if you crash and burn… treat it like a rollercoaster ride.” I feel like the day the cynical subconscious drowns out the optimistic one is the day I’ve finally died.

My company videotaped one of my primary school classes this week. The moment before class began, the zipper on my jacket jammed. The room was warm and clustered with 46 students, making it all the warmer. I attempted to pull the jacket over my head, but my shirt started going with it. I taught with the jacket on, and my nerves coupled with the heat led to some intense sweating. The Chinese teacher was struggling not to laugh. After class, the person recording the video insisted it was fine. Maybe it was. It was funny at least.

I found myself going back to the old question, one I know the answer to but think about a lot: how much is enough? I remember a talk that I had with my younger brother about the same question. He brought up his friend’s father, who saved a significant amount of wealth in his youth, only to contract cancer in his late 40’s. He told his son, “Don’t save… just enjoy every moment.” This had a ricochet effect, though, as his son spent himself into a debt-laden oblivion.

I had a dream in which I was swimming again. I was back at the Texas Swimming Center, anchoring a relay at a competition; the details were too fuzzy to recollect. I’ve never been nostalgic for training, but I always found the feeling of conquering someone else to be intoxicating. You don’t really “conquer” in other phases of life; not like that.

We had an intense basketball game at the school yesterday. “Mr. Sun,” our team MVP, had sprained both of his ankles two weeks prior. Leeyang and I had to figure out ways to carry the weight of his loss. Mr. Sun showed up to watch, and his longing gaze reminded me of my own when I walk by a swimming pool.

Mr. Sun had an extremely muscular upper body and a rail-thin lower body when I first met him. That was before his first ankle injury (he’s had three since I arrived in China). Miss Huang, the school manager, told me that he sprains his ankles all the time. “His upper body is so big that his feet cannot support it,” she told me. “He does this five times a year.”

Leeyang added to her statement that after each ankle injury, Mr. Sun let’s himself get fat. “It all turns to fat quickly. Maybe he will get muscular again, but it will only be for a few weeks. Then he’ll get hurt again. He’ll lie on the couch and drink beer while his wife cooks for him. Then, his ankles will heal, he’ll get muscular again, and the cycle will repeat.”

After the game, Mr. Sun and I had dinner. He was in a jovial mood.

“My wife made me so much good food this week,” he said. “But she told me, this ankle injury is the last time I put up with this. No more basketball. This can’t go on. So, I promised her this would be it.”

“So you won’t play basketball with us anymore?”

“Of course I will!” he said with a smile. “Hopefully I’m good by next Friday. My poor ankles.”

 

Severing Ties

It’s been about 6 years since I last saw them.

It seems like it was yesterday that we shared an unbreakable bond, our souls twined around the same ideology, bound to the same mission in life.

I miss them. They were the first friends that I felt understood me, the essence of me. Consequently, I believed that I understood them. Meeting them gave me the first impression that I wasn’t wandering in a dark field alone without a compass. They illuminated the path and pushed me forward. I knew we’d suffer together and triumph together, that our collective spirit couldn’t be broken. How wrong I was.

I often hate them. I hate them for fooling me so easily into thinking that we had something special. I hate them for forgetting me over the years. I hate them for being passive and uncaring while I tried to keep us together. I hate them for proving me wrong by revealing that something I thought was transcendent only struck the surface level.

I’ve mostly let go of it, because I recognize now that I had a lot to learn.

There were a dozen of us, and now I only talk to Tom. We Skype once a month, and he remains the one original link to my dreams of being a writer. He is my affirmation that best friends can remain best friends by choice, despite having no obligations to continue speaking. Keeping platonic friends requires commitment when nothing is at stake, and that isn’t a feat for shallow people.

I fled to North Carolina, and a year later Tom moved to Toronto. For six years, we’ve routinely Skype called. I like to imagine that we’ll be working together again one day. 82nd Street Productions isn’t dead, it’s just getting some funding.

I think back to when Tom and I lived on 82nd street, just three houses apart. Tom wrote “Final Contract” and I directed it, and the excitement we had from its strong reception made us determined to film a series with the star, Jeff Trenkle. We formed “82nd Street Productions” and held “pre-production meetings” at a coffee shop in Westchester. We would brainstorm our next series while Jeff smoked and offered his own insight into his character. It was two guys with a cheap camera and a desire to turn Jeff into the next Nicolas Cage.

Then the reality of the industry crystallized, and a few broken promises and failures sent us on our way out of the city. I don’t remember what happened to our camera.

The last time we Skyped, I thought to myself that my only regret over the last ten years was not writing and directing more films with him.

I also think of Kic, my fellow Texan. I think of the parties we hosted at Hannon apartments, and the discussions on film theory we’d have the next morning, after putting the night’s broken pieces together. I remember sitting at Venice Beach with him and Chris, watching skateboarders in the half pipe, talking about our time in Texas, and eating fried food until the sun set. I think of when I messaged him about a year ago, and how the brevity of his message and the lack of interest in reconnecting angered me.

Finally, I think of Sean, and how we’d go to the New Beverly cinema together every week to catch a screening and director/actor Q&A. After the screening we’d drive over to Tripel to have a late night drink and talk about life, and what brought us out west. I think of how he was the last person I saw in California. He met me in the parking lot that final morning, my truck packed and ready to depart. We hugged, shared a few jokes, and promised each other we’d meet again soon. I haven’t flown back to LA, so I’m half responsible for breaking that promise.

Sometimes I wonder what it says about human nature, that we can convince ourselves so thoroughly that we are together with friends and loved ones because of a higher purpose, while it only takes a few inconveniences to completely obliterate what we had. I It’s caused me to struggle to subsequently trust people; after all, what’s the point in building something over the course of years if a slight gust of wind can knock it down? What is it about the modern world, that we have to be gifted absolute certainty to maintain any dedication?

Maybe we deluded ourselves because we were all just desperate to feel like a part of a group. Maybe that necessity led to forced belief. We were thrust together in the same place, and we needed to bond with someone.

The last time I talked to Tom, he expressed how emptying it felt to return to Los Angeles a year ago, to call up the “old gang” and have half of them give countless excuses for why they couldn’t grab a lunch (he was there for two weeks).

“Lives just diverge,” someone told Tom. “None of us talk to each other anymore.”

Tom and I talked about how sad that was, and by the end I saw a lot more value in continuing to Skype him.

I’m going to write a short script and send it his way; we’ve kept our friendship going for almost a decade now, and I think our mutual love of storytelling hasn’t faded. 82nd Street Productions can’t just lie dormant forever, after all.

Con Air still needs a sequel…

 

 

 

 

The Best State of Being

I believe the best state of being is often the least comfortable one. By best, I mean the most fulfilling.

This is because the natural state of being (also the worst) in the modern era is a state of inertia. We don’t like to move, and we have a million-plus reasons to remain still. We are flooded with sensory stimulus, which creates a “chase the shiny object” mentality. As a result, we’ve grown accustomed to laziness, addicted to thoughtlessness, and in constant need of vapid pleasures.

The most fulfilling state of being, in contrast, is one of absolute productivity; the ability to maximize our minds to create, produce, and change. But getting there requires setting motion to an inanimate object, an object that might be entrenched firmly in hard soil (ourselves).

I was reading somewhere about a growing sense of longing that people in cubicles have for simple outdoor labor. I think this has something to do with the “man is happiest as creator” theory. Even outside, constructing a roof, a person sees oneself as the creator of something. You build, and you see an immediate reward for building. Compare this to most jobs these days that are service-oriented, and it’s no wonder that so many people feel a hole in themselves.

On another note, recently I’ve noticed that there are some distinct and positive differences between myself now and the “me” from my 20s. One is, I’m much less passive and much, much less apologetic about who I am (self-realization?). In your 20s, the world is still relatively new to you, and you have the security of a school to shield you from the difficulties that manifest later.

In my 20s, I think that I arrived at major decisions and tried to wait, too often, for the perfect answer or circumstance before making a move. I think this is the fault of most young people, a consequence of living a mostly-sheltered life and not needing to risk tooth and nail for the sake of the unknown.

I’ve noticed a different me in my 30s. I’m quicker to make decisions, less prone to change my mind, and much less prone to express regrets or remorse. Especially lately, I’ve seen it in my actions. I think that this is the way it should be. I’m more aware of time and its tendency to make things move too quickly, as well as the ease at which time can be wasted. I’ve figured out who I am and thus feel no need to hesitate or apologize to people, so long as I’m acting according to my own truth.

I can’t remember where I read this quote, but I remember hearing something along the lines of, “The person who waits until experiencing perfect clarity before deciding, never decides.” Likewise, if you accept your life, you will never accept regret. I definitely don’t accept regret.

32 is not young, but also far from old, and I feel strangely more optimistic than ever. I’m in a good place professionally, a place that few people my age have reached, and thus I have the luxury to explore unique jobs and places, while many of my peers fret over their student loans. I believe that the people around me can feel this good vibe.

Even in China, I am becoming increasingly active. After a long time of “imagining” myself being a creative writer, I’m writing creatively. I think back to one of the more prolific writers of our time, Ray Bradbury, who said this:

“Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together. Now, it’s your turn. Jump!”

I love this quote because there is no better metaphor, I think, for living life to its fullest than willingly jumping on a landmine when you wake up and purposely setting out to put yourself back together. That, I think, is the essence of time not wasted.

What landmine will we jump on tomorrow?

 

The Case of the Disappearing Teachers

There is a dark side to teaching abroad. Yes, there are fun days, but like any full-time gig, there are also serious disadvantages to moving and living in a foreign country. Culture shock is a very real phenomenon.

Sometimes, teachers disappear. That is, they freak out from the culture shock (or multitude of other things they didn’t expect to encounter), secretly buy a ticket back to their native country, and fly away without telling anyone. They have to flee in secrecy because if they are caught, they will have broken a contract, which can incur some serious monetary and legal penalties.

The school will often find out that their teacher fled on Monday morning, when a class has to sit and wait for a teacher who will never show. Schools and agencies are used to this. There are several “fugitives” every year. Thus, it takes time for a foreign teacher to earn the trust of peers. The first few months, it’s difficult to tell whether a teacher will end up being a “runner.” I have to say that I empathize a little with the schools and agencies here, because it means a loss of money and the shortage of a teacher.

I’ve seen three teachers flee since I arrived last August, which is no short number. The Colombian teachers that I know especially hate this city, mostly because of the weather. One of my Colombian friends, Luis, fled last weekend. He didn’t say a word to me or anyone else beforehand; I suspect he just snapped from the weight of his challenges. One day his roommate went home to find Luis’s clothes and belongings gone.

Luis texted me today. “I’m sorry I had to leave Matt… it’s just so cold and I miss my family. My feet… even when I go to bed, I cannot feel my feet…”. The Colombians I’ve met arrived without enough winter gear and quickly felt the shocking effects of a brutal winter. Culturally, China is about as different from Colombia as it gets.

I remember once, in our Chinese class, when Luis refused to remove his scarf from his face to speak. We were in a heated room by that point, but he was in utter agony. The Chinese instructor would say, “Luis, can’t you remove the scarf to practice speaking a little?” Luis would mutter from beneath his scarf, “I’m… too… cold.” He also had a hat on, and the only part of his skin I could see was his glasses.

The other Colombian I knew, Juan, always said similar things. He somehow made it through his contract though. As I stated in another blog, at the end of his contract, he was practically dancing in the air. I saw Juan enter the taxi for his “final ride” to the airport; he did one of those “heel kicks” in the air before he got in. “Free at last! Colombia, here I come!” In my mind I was thinking, “Man, if I met you earlier I’d help you find some good winter boots.” I asked him if he ever considered a contract extension. “For God’s sake, no!”

You form a strong bond with the foreign teachers who manage to stick around. You have to, really. The foreign teachers are a small enclave of people in your city who speak your language. You discover your favorite places and hobbies together. You hear their life stories and, regardless of where they’re from, draw parallels to your own life. If you’re interested in different cultures, teaching abroad is definitely for you. In Changchun, you might spend a morning with Russians and Ukrainians, an afternoon with some Chinese peers, and a weekend with Colombians, Canadians, or French teachers. You see all walks of life and there’s never a dull moment.

I was thinking about the profession of teaching full-time in a public school system today. It isn’t always easy. I read in an article that public school teaching is rated the “second most stressful” job in the world. I wouldn’t go that far, but I will say that it isn’t always easy. Regardless of what country you teach in, you encounter some bad seeds, as well as bad classes.

I had a very rough Monday this week. I spent a large portion of Sunday preparing what I thought were going to be some great lessons. Then, at the primary school, every class began with students being downright disruptive. Paper airplanes flew. Pushing and shoving was happening everywhere. Suddenly, I had to spend more time being a classroom manager than teaching. I was especially disappointed because it was utterly unlike most of my Mondays, so I didn’t expect it.

Later that afternoon, I had my “special” class at my high school. This is the class where the school system bundles all the kids who either have disciplinary issues or test scores that are significantly below average. As a full-time teacher, I have to manage this class, often without another supervisor.

Getting through this class is difficult, and it was especially difficult on Monday. Often, I’m not even thinking about the lesson plan; I’m just looking closely at the people to make sure no one gets hurt! Monday was an especially bad day after I had a tough time with the primary school. The bell rang and kids started turning their desks around, away from me. Some kids took out their cell phones. Everyone was grossly eating snacks, throwing wrappers on the ground, and shouting over me. Some were playing cell phone music over my speech. This was all in the first 60 seconds of class. Every attempt I made to quiet them down was falling on deaf ears.

As a foreign teacher, my school prohibits me from doing the following: yelling at students, kicking students out of class, demeaning students, and physically harming students. In truth, I think this is fair. What use is it to yell at a kid in a language he or she doesn’t fully understand? If I was 16, there is no way I’d be receptive to a teacher yelling at me in a foreign language. And if I kick a student out of class with a learning disability, which many of them have, there is nowhere for the kid to go.

The kids have Chinese teachers and parents to fulfill disciplinary issues, and of course I can report them if their conduct is impermissible. For a “special” class such as this one, I just try to manage and maintain enough discipline to get students participating and speaking a little English. To me, this means making a highly participative lesson plan, enforcing rules as best I can, and not taking things too personally. On this particular Monday, though, the class was so egregiously bad that I immediately felt crippled. I asked kids to put their cell phones away and they glared back at me. I asked them not to face the back wall, and they again ignored me. I wanted to leave the classroom and never look back, but knew I couldn’t do that. So, I went through the motions of my lesson plan and did my best to tune out the disrespect that I was receiving. I just couldn’t muster the energy to do much more than that. “Survival mode”.

It was the worst class I have ever encountered, in academics or athletics, as an athlete, student, or teacher. It isn’t even close.

That night, I had self-loathing thoughts such as “you’re a terrible teacher,” “you don’t belong here,” “no one respects you,” etc. It was difficult. I needed a good night’s sleep. I was told by a few other foreign teachers that it’s just part of the trade. Everyone encounters it at some point. Don’t take it too personally.

Since then, every class I’ve had this week has been great. Tuesday was wonderful, as was Wednesday. It was affirming enough for me to consider Monday an “aberration.” You really can’t take this job too personally; it’s public school, after all. And teaching, like any job, has peaks and valleys. You just can’t let the bad days overshadow the great ones.

Weekend Trip to Shenyang, Recent Shenanigans

I decided to take a weekend trip to Shenyang, China. It was a pretty spontaneous idea that I decided on last Wednesday. I felt a little guilty not doing much traveling lately; after all, didn’t I fly to the opposite side of the world to see the world? I was told by several people that Shenyang is considered the nicest city in the northern province.

So, with the help of a Chinese friend, I figured out how to book a train ticket and embarked early Friday evening. The train system in China is nothing short of amazing. The train I boarded moves upwards of 300 km/hour and hits every major city from Harbin (the city farthest north) to Beijing, and probably more.

I was in Shenyang by 8 pm. Score! I got a hotel room near the station for two nights, ate a considerable heap of KFC, and fell asleep early. Friday was cold and rainy; not ideal vacation weather.

The first thing I noticed about the city was that it’s enormous. It’s much, much bigger than Changchun, and that’s saying a lot. Changchun has a population upwards of 7 million, after all. A Wikipedia search revealed Shenyang’s population to be over 8 million. That might not seem like a big difference, but one million more people can make a big difference in your feeling of claustrophobia.

I woke up early Saturday, ate some “zhu rou baozi” (rolls stuffed with pork and some cabbage) with porridge on the side, and went to a local day spa.

They take relaxation seriously in China. This day spa was five stories high. The bathroom had several hot tubs and massage parlors. On the fourth floor, where I spent most of my time, were saunas, steam rooms, “napping” areas, a rest area (living room) to drink tea, and a “dark room” to watch movies. The fifth floor had an array of hot tubs both indoors and outdoors.

I sweat out my KFC from the night before, passed out in a hot tub for awhile, drank some milk tea, and finally left. I ended up at the spa for most of the day.

That night I met up with a Chinese work colleague from Changchun and we went downtown to eat and walk around. He recommended me a “famous dish” of spicy noodles with duck, which I thought sounded amazing. We went into a restaurant that looked good and he ordered it for me.

“I love duck”, I said. “I’m really looking forward to this!”

A few minutes later, he said to me, “Oh, I forgot to tell you. It’s a very special part of the duck.”

Suddenly, dread began creeping in. Special part of the duck?

“What part of the duck,” I asked. I had eaten pig’s feet not too long before and was preparing myself to do the same that night.

He searched through his phone’s translator for the correct words.

“The inside of the duck”, he said. “The intestines.”

Great, I thought. Gonna have to suck it up and whoof down some duck intestines.

The dish was served and I took a few bites. Not too bad, I was thinking.

There were also some dark clumps I noticed that looked like chocolate. “Some kind of sweet?” I asked him. “Sweet and spicy?” I was really hoping, even though it would make zero sense, that somehow this was chocolate.

“Not sweet”, he said. He then searched through his phone app for the correct words. “Blood. Coagulated duck blood.”

Nothing like a noodle bowl of duck intestines and coagulated blood to celebrate vacation in China!

The next day, I visited the imperial palace of the Qing dynasty. While there I paid 30 rmb to dress up like the emperor and pose on his throne, which was worth the money. It seems to be everyone’s favorite photo.

A few year’s ago Marilyn Manson released an album called “The Pale Emperor.” That seems to fit me here.

I ate a ton of pork dumplings and got on the train to return to Changchun.

It’s weird being on a train to Changchun on Sunday night thinking, Homeward bound, when you know it’s taking you to a frigid city on the opposite side of the globe of your real home. A city that’s zero degrees on average in January. A city neighboring North Korea and Russia.

I like traveling, and I’ll need to visit more cities in this fashion. There’s so much to do, in so many cities, that I simply don’t believe people when they say “retirement would be too boring.” There’s hundreds of years worth of interesting things to do and see, if you have the resources. Retirement is only boring if you make it boring. To be honest, I’d rather travel than work, and I know that wouldn’t change… if I had the resources to do it.

On a completely different note, I watched David Lynch’s Blue Velvet again last week. I don’t give my father enough credit for having an amazing taste in movies that I’m lucky to have adopted. It’s something you appreciate more as you age, I guess. I was introduced to some really fucking good cinema when I was a kid, including this film. When you’re a kid you don’t often think (not enough at least), “damn, my dad is really smart”, maybe because it’s the nature of a child to think himself an immortal that no one has ever surpassed. Then you grow up and realize your own strengths and limitations, and you have time to reflect on everything. Then you realize, “damn, my dad is really smart,” and your own reflection and place in the world become more clear.

What Does It All Mean?

Legendary rock singers Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell died last year. I still can’t believe it. Maybe I never will.

I listened to a few of their hits this week. Today this caused me to think back to some special moments in high school.

I would drive out to lunch at CiCi’s pizza for their $3.99 buffet with a friend named Mike K. Back then we thought we were invincible and for all I know, maybe we were. We often made lunch an eating contest to see who could down the most brownies and cinnamon rolls. He played tennis, I swam, and both of us were 16 year old guys. This meant that we could eat a hell of a lot. It wasn’t uncommon to see several plates stacked with them on each side of the table. In those days, inconceivably, we’d have sports practice that same afternoon (oh, and some school classes). How the hell was I ever a good swimmer?

“How can you guys eat that disgusting shit?” I remember a classmate asking Mike once.

“You’re just jealous that you can’t, CiCi’s is the shit!” Mike snapped back.

On the way there and back, we’d blare Linkin Park or Disturbed in the car, screaming and barking along with Chester or David Draiman. Those were fun, more innocent times. Times before all the adult BS clogs your brain with superficiality. Our biggest concern was getting a hot date to prom. Never mind taxes, LinkedIn profiles, and credit card bills.

The first time I heard Disturbed’s “Liberate” and Linking Park’s “Crawling” was the first time I knew that music could tell you a truth about the deepest part of your soul too powerful for words. The songs ended in a blink of an eye. I think Mike introduced me to “Crawling” and another friend, Taylor, introduced me to “Liberate.” Both times, seconds after the song ended, I said, “Play that again, holy shit!” I’d never heard a voice like Chester’s before… it was incredible. And the songs played again, and again, and again. And they’re still playing.

The first time I heard Chris Cornell sing “Like a Stone” was also in high school, on a science field trip to Bush Gardens. It’s freaking weird that my mind would remember that. There’s plenty that I’ve also forgotten. But I remember looking out at endless rows of trees streaming by the bus as I listened to the song and thought, “This moment is special. One day we’ll all grow old and die, but right now we’re young and on top of the world, rocking out on a trip to Bush Gardens.” Our science teacher was a younger guy named Clyde Adams who clearly had an appreciation for 90’s rock and sported long black hair. Jeez, I can’t believe I remember his name.

Like Chester, Cornell has a voice that’s one a trillion.

The song is about death, so maybe that feeling it gave me, though more positive than the lyrics of the song, wasn’t far off.

If my immortal heroes can die, I guess it is indeed inevitable that I will die too one day (hopefully not for many decades).

I was just reading a little about black holes. There are not just hundreds of them out there in the universe… there are hundreds of thousands. Hundreds of thousands, but not a single one in our solar system!

And if the universe is so vast, with earth just a mote of sand in a desert stretching for millions upon millions of miles, why are we always so concerned about the small stuff? Why waste time caring about what Johnny or Sarah said, or the refrigerator that needs replacing? Why bother reading stupid tweets or Facebook posts at all? You’d think we’d be trying to make the most of every breath we have. Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell made the most of the time they had; they connected art with millions of people. Their lives were tragically short, but I think they understood the scope of the universe.

Sometimes I think, man, if we knew just how brief and small it all really is, we’d all be making the most of the moment. We’d be shutting off our stupid smart (dumb) phones, soaking in our surroundings, reflecting more deeply, and connecting with each other (not connecting with Ad mongering social networks). Maybe we’d be partying in the park or on the lake and engaging in all sorts of debauchery. Maybe we’d be pursuing the projects we kept putting off for a “better and more opportune time.” But we’d be aware of our own existence.

I can only conclude this: the rule of the universe is that everything eventually ends. So rather than playing by the rules, you might as well just have fun with the time you have. To hell with everyone’s expectations that you fall in line and live predictably. Songs like “Like a Stone” and “Crawling” weren’t written by people who fell in line. And those are the things that evoke my best memories.

I wanted to end this blog post with some profound statement, but like the start of the “Big Bang” or the creation of a “black hole” or the birth of a major hurricane, sometimes a power force just ends everything abruptly, unpredictably, and in utter chaos. When that time comes, and it will come at a time that you will not anticipate… were you appreciating the life you had?

 

 

The Week’s Events in China

One of the more difficult parts of living as an expat is how transient it all feels. The year flies by, and within that year, you see a lot of people come and go.

This is because most people are on a one year contract at most, and chances are they didn’t arrive on the same day as you. Thus, you might spend a few months with a new expat friend. At my school, the other English teaching position has been filled by three other people since I’ve been here.

Every week, you see new teachers arrive. In a blink of an eye, I became the “veteran” teacher fielding questions. “Eight whole months in China! How did you do it? How did you survive?” Phew… no easy answer there. You just sort of “do”!

Last week, a Colombian friend named Juan gleefully left. “Finally, I have escaped the cold!” He said in his thick accent. “I will be able to feel my feet again! Colombia, here I come!” He looked like he was practically flying, his steps were so light and joyful. That was one happy camper to return to South America.

Maybe my Nordic roots make dealing with the cold a little easier. But make no mistake, 6 months of cold weather is a long time. I’m ready for spring. I think I was saying the same thing three blog posts ago. It was true then and it’s truer now!

There are exceptions to the “one year” rule. “Peter”, for example, is an English teacher who has been in Changchun since 2004. 14 years! I see him around all the time. There are a few “expat” hangouts, and every time you go, you run into the same cast. In another post, I’ll give some stories about the top expat hangout, Three Monkeys Irish Pub.

“Maybe you can be like Peter, and become full Chinese one day!” My boss exclaimed as I signed for another year. I don’t think there’s any way I could do that, but in life we take things a day at a time and see where we end up.

“Peter” status is basically the stuff of legend here. I’m pretty sure the entire city of 7 million people know Peter now, because he’s taught them all English at some point!

Here’s a recap of the week’s events:

  • Studying more Chinese this week. I was slack for a few weeks, but now I’m back on it. I think I’ve come a long ways. I know a lot of words, but damn it’s hard to understand a native speaker.
  • I have three classes at No. 6 high school. Of those three, I love one of them and “deal with” the other two. The second class has a lot of immature high school guys that can make your blood boil if you wake up on the wrong side of the bed. Last week we were doing an exercise answering “How long have you…” questions. Every time I said, “How long”, the guys would put their hands far apart and say, “Teacher, mine is SO long!” Hint: they weren’t talking about an appropriate body part. Now I know why some of my old swim coaches threw chairs across the pool in fits of rage.
  • I was getting better at basketball from December to February because I had time to play every day. Now with a different schedule, I can only play once a week, and thus my skills are diminishing. For every good shot, I’m taking three bad ones. I know it’s just for fun, but it makes the competitor in me furious. Last week, a tall Chinese PE teacher blocked a shot I usually make in my sleep, and I found the old Texas “Manimal” on the brink of unloading, wanting to cuss, shove, push, and spit. I have to let that “Manimal” die though. I’m an honored guest in China. I can’t ruin it by being that fiery 22 year old.
  • Last weekend, I almost took a trip down to Dan Dong, China, to see some beautiful sights. The weather unfortunately didn’t permit though (rain and snow the entire weekend), so I plan on going in three weeks and taking plenty of photos.
  • This weekend I’ll take a trip to the hot springs. It’s time to get out more and do the good “touristy” stuff.
  • Finally, last week marked a major Chinese holiday. Usually if there’s a Chinese holiday in the school year, it’s terrible news for teachers. “Damnit, not another Chinese holiday!” is a common sentence you’ll hear. In China, if you have a weekday holiday, you have to make the work day up over the weekend. Thus, I had to work Sunday. So, all the holiday meant was a 6 day work week this week. I prefer the Western idea of holidays more!

That’s all for now. Other than that I’m just trying to resist the urge to buy a Nintendo Switch, which looks really damn cool. Until next time…

Year Two In China, Coming Up

I arrived in China without a long-term plan to stay. Maybe I was just looking to escape monotony. Maybe I saw my own mortality and wondered, fretfully, “Is this it,” as I felt myself start to age. Like many expats, I think, I arrived with the simple desire to see and experience something different. The teaching part was a nice way to make money while changing pace.

I assumed I’d be in Changchun for a year, if I could stomach it. Two years was definitely never part of the plan. But, I’ve signed on for another year. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, after all. If you’re happy, go with it.

This week, I had a meeting with my company’s boss, who expressed that they’d like to be especially accommodative, should I desire to stay.

“In China, we treat you as well as you work for us,” she said. “You have worked really well and your schools express that they like you, so we can give you more flexibility. So please, if their is anything you think you want, you can tell me now before I prepare the contract.”

I think that’s a fair deal. I’m comfortable. I never go home thinking, “What the hell am I doing with my life.” Contrarily, I think, “What a unique life I’ve lived.” You can’t really ask for much more than that.

Do I plan on staying in Chanchun forever? Of course not! I think you have to approach this job a day, a week, a month, and a year at a time (goes for any job really). I’m sure I’ll be back in America… eventually.

Sadly, my schedule is a little different this term; I have a class during my usual “basketball” hours, which means that I can only play basketball once a week. The other players have been asking where I am.

With all that said, here’s a recap of my week:

I had lunch with Leeyang, my usual basketball teammate, on Friday. “I go home every day and my wife says that I seem exhausted, and she worries that I work too hard. Actually, I am not tired from work… I’m tired because I play so much basketball at school!” He then broke into laughter.

It’s interesting because the Chinese trash talking is eerily similar to American trash talking. For example, I told the guys that my favorite player is Tim Duncan. Now, every time I shoot, people on the other team will shout, “Tim Duncan! Miss! Miss!”

Another time I had the ball stolen from me by a much shorter player. I can be too careless with the ball. As he looked back at me he said in Chinese, “Thank you very much!”

If I make a shot, the other team will grumble, “Tai gao le!” That’s the Chinese way of saying, “He’s too tall!”

 

 

 

Teaching ESL Requires Flexibility

A whole lot of flexibility.

Don’t get me wrong, being “good” at teaching, like coaching, does require planning too. There has to be a curriculum, as well as a set of teaching “styles” you’ve developed that are ready to use. There has to be an outline of how the days, weeks, and months will flow, and a vision for what people will gain over a span of time.

But damn, if you teach ESL in another country, you’ve also gotta be really flexible. There is nothing “stable” about ESL teaching! If you want utter predictability, you’re better off just about anywhere else. To lean on any strategy or to follow a lesson plan verbatim can be your doom on any given day.

When I was first starting out, I heavily relied on PowerPoints. I still use them, but I used to NEED them. I put exercises, audio, and video on them. It was nice and convenient–plug in your USB and then let the class fall into place.

Then you enter the occasional classroom where the Chinese teacher says, “The computer doesn’t work today.” If you need the PowerPoint to teach, suddenly you’re screwed. Hope you’re good at improvisation!

Or maybe you have a class with a lot of kids that just don’t like PowerPoints. It happens. The second the .PPT gets switched on, they’re making paper airplanes.

Conversely, if you rely on your chalkboard, you might walk into a classroom where the chalkboard is covered with text and the eraser is missing. With no one else in sight, it simply means that you can’t use the chalkboard. Hope you brought some songs!!!

Sometimes too, you have quiet classes full of students who love watching you write on the board. But you also have some classes that turn into crazed psychopaths the second they see you turn toward the board. How will you handle THOSE classes?

In ESL, the teacher who stubbornly follows a lesson plan, bullet point by bullet point, is the teacher that will slowly (or maybe quickly) go insane.

Sometimes, the game you thought would be your masterpiece just falls flat. Inevitably, the students will hate something that you hoped they’d love. And if they hate it, you can’t fight back at them or display anger to “make” them like it. The verdict is out: your precious game isn’t good! Now, are you going to drag out an activity they hate for another ten minutes while the class turns into a scene from Children of the Corn, or are you going to switch things up?

It doesn’t matter how fun YOU think a game is. If the kids aren’t interested, the game will probably not work to your benefit.

You have to have an honest grasp of the present moment and have an arsenal of “alternatives,” should something not go your way. In other words, make a backup plan! Maybe you have some extra flashcards in your bag, or a “go-to” game like Hangman. But at some point, you’ll find yourself needing to switch gears. You can’t cling to an outline if the outline isn’t working.

You also have to be patient, because if things that are out of your control start to get the best of you–whether it be the PowerPoint not working, or the class fighting back/ignoring you–you’ll find the next few hairs that you grow will be white. The second you display anger and frustration, you’ve lost.

If a plan goes awry, put on a game face, switch to another activity, stay calm, and try your best to make some semblance of progress. Trying your best is truly all anyone (anyone reasonable at least) asks of you; if you can do it with a smile, you’ll succeed as an ESL teacher.

And if that alternative approach doesn’t work, you have to go home, assess what went wrong in the lesson, and try to figure out how a different approach might improve things for the next one. Maybe it’s just trying a different classroom management strategy. Maybe the class just wants to sing more songs.

It’s like sports. Sometimes you lose a match; that doesn’t mean you jump off a bridge! It means you try to win the next one.

I’m not a guy that likes to sing and clap to lame kid’s songs. If some of my old Texas Swimming teammates saw me clapping and singing to “Three Blind Mice” today, they’d probably be wondering what alien invaded the “Manimal’s” body. I wasn’t even that goofy when I was eight years old.

Funnily enough, before I came to China, I had a conversation with a childhood swim coach who knew me as an eleven year old. I told her that I thought I could work well with kids under 12.

“You think so? I think that’d be awesome,” she said. “I think you can, but you know, you were never one of those “rah rah let’s cheer together” kinda guys. Do you think you have that in you?”

No, I’m not that goofy by nature, but I am a guy that likes to do activities that resonate well with people. When I sing and clap, kids tend to love it. I don’t love it, but they do. Hey, sometimes we’ve gotta make the sacrifice. So, I do it! I put on an “alter ego” when I enter the classroom–one willing to be energetic and “enthusiastic” about chants and singalongs–and I go with it. This “goofy dancing McGinnis” isn’t natural, but it isn’t all that bad either.

If you’re willing to change according to what works (in anything you do, not just teaching abroad), I believe the sky is the limit.

And if you feel too self-conscious doing silly little kids’ stuff, remember: just because your friends back home don’t think your goofy, doesn’t mean the people in your new country feel the same way. What better place to act like a “kid at heart?” It’s not like anyone will judge you for being out of character!

So, be flexible!