31 October 2014

ESL Teacher Life

{at a local high school in ShenZhen, China}

If I had my way with blog post titles, they'd always be ridiculously long. Today we're back to #ChinaLife. The other Rachael will be talking a little bit about her job working in a private international school in ShangHai. I'm talking about what working life looks like for us these days.

{sometimes we take pictures of each other in our work clothes while waiting for our bus}

We both teach conversational English classes at a local high school. Our high school has about 3,000 live-in students, which means that as far as student population goes, it's 3/4ths the size of the college we attended!

Of those 3,000 students, I teach 10 classes (each class once per week) of about 50 students each, and Angel teaches 18 classes (each class once every other week) of about 50 students each. That means that I have about 500 students and Angel has about 900 students. I teach the equivalent of 10th grade and Angel teaches the equivalent of 11th grade.

We don't have a classroom of our own--at our school, the classrooms stay with the students, so I teach in 10 different classrooms and Angel teaches in 18 different classrooms. Some of Angel's classrooms are on the 6th floor which require a long walk up, up, up! We don't have any assigned curriculum, just the mission to help our students move from the English theory classes they've been taught for years to actually being able to communicate in the English language. We create our own lessons based on what we determine are our classes' interests and greatest needs (this week's lesson in my class was on semi-advanced preposition use, Angel's lesson was on terminology used in comparing and contrasting, with the difference between Chinese and American high schools as the theme).

Besides the class schedule, we also jointly lead a weekly "English Corner." English Corner can mean many different things, in this case, it happens to mean gathering up approximately 100 11th graders outside and leading them in games that encourage English speaking, letting them interview us, or teaching them how to swing dance. Even though I'm loud, I'm usually given a loudspeaker when leading English Corner, and I feel very important when I have a loudspeaker in my hands.

Schedules don't tend to be set far in advance, so we tend to go into work with a "Be prepared at all times" mentality. The first time we led English Corner, we didn't know we were doing so until about 2 minutes before. Good thing that I have the kind of personality where I'm not flustered or stressed by that sort of thing! Also, it's a good thing that I let youth group games for years so I have a never-ending dictionary of games in my head...

Other duties generally include being the go-to English speaker for any extracurricular needs: spell-checking and editing for coworkers or students, and helping students with special projects. Angel helped one of his students create a list of interview questions to prepare for interviewing an astronaut who came to visit our school, and then acted like he was the astronaut in a mock-interview in order to give her a chance to get comfortable with the questions and format. Our ambitious students like to chat with us during class breaks to get natural conversation practice, something that is incredibly rare for them. The other day we helped brainstorm student speech topics for controversies about holidays (are holidays wasteful? over-commercialized? Should religious holidays be celebrated by people who don't share that religion?).

Probably the most challenging part of the job is designing lessons that get all 50 students involved and talking and hopefully learning and growing more comfortable in their second language. During time that I give them to work on projects in groups or pairs, I often wander the classroom to randomly ask questions of students. Sometimes when I ask a student a question, they'll say "Sorry, my English is very poor." But that's not quite good enough for me. I'll respond with a grin, "That means you need to practice your English more, right?" and I'll do what I can to keep them talking for a bit longer.

I had one of those encounters the other day with a boy who sits in the back of class and I asked him to just tell me a sentence, any sentence, that used the word however. He responded with a sentence that actually contained perfect grammar (a rarity in my grade level) and I about jumped out of my skin with congratulating him. The look of joy on his face when he said, "Really? It was correct?" was priceless.

We have a huge range of abilities among our classes. Students who can't put three-word sentences together are lumped in with students who are effectively fluent but just have large, random gaps in their vocabulary. We try our best to include all students and their levels equally in our lessons but don't always succeed.

Our students are largely well-behaved. Occasionally they try to do homework for other classes or sleep during our class, but those students are a small minority. They always greet us when they walk by in the hallways, either with a "Mrs. Rachel/Mr. Angel, Hello!" or the Mandarin "Lao Shi Hao." Sometimes they sneak their cellphone into class and ask us to please not tattle to their head teacher, but they really want to take a picture of the American teacher to send to their parents (my face is all over social media, I have no doubt of it).

Angel's claim to fame at the school is his sports interest. He plays basketball after work with our coworkers once or twice a week, and attends the students' basketball tournaments to cheer for his classes. He also, famously, walked on his hands in the introductory lesson for all of his classes, so that his students would know what kind of teacher they had. I seem to be best known for my looks (awkward). Once I was chatting with two boys and they saw Angel in the distance, asked if he was my husband, and then one told me: "Your husband is very handsome!" and the other boy added, "But you are really beautiful!" There's something about speaking a 2nd language which means that the compliments are more direct than they otherwise would be. My students aren't shy to compliment themselves, either. I had several students introduce themselves to me: "Hello, my name is...... I am a very handsome boy." I love these teens so very much.

I've read blogs before that claim that teaching ESL overseas is hard. I mentioned that to Angel and he scoffed. To be fair, he worked as a hospital nurse in a PCU unit for 5 years, so his definition of  a "hard job" might not be the same as the definition in the mind of the average liberal arts major with a brand new B.A. who wants to see the world.

This is not a hard job. You can probably already tell, it's not even a full 40 hr. per week job. It's not for everyone, but for me it's the kind of job that I can wake up excited to go to every single day. Sure, there's overarching problems with the ESL teaching system overseas. I don't like it that some of the ESL teachers I know openly state that they dislike children. I think the kids deserve better than that. I know that most of my students will never ever be 100% fluent in English. But to me, this is a very, very good job, and one I'm blessed to have for this season.
29 October 2014

Things We See

Trying something a little different today. I like to focus more on words, because I recognize that photography isn't one of my or Angel's talents, but, recently, I feel like a lot of the little sights we see on a regular basis are so interesting, and I like to capture and remember them in mediocre photos.

 Making Powerpoints filled with faulty grammar--I will be assigning students to find what's wrong with the sentences and fix them. I'm focusing on using grammar points that my students find especially tricky.

 Dinner! The huge cabbage dish with garlic all over it was all for me, the wonton soup was for Angel.

 A cute message that my students wrote, decorating one of the blackboards in their classroom.

 These are the bus schedules/routes, conveniently located at every bus stop. Angel commented recently, "When I first saw these, I thought it was hopeless, and I'd never be able to figure out what bus to get on. Now, it doesn't seem so bad."

Granted, most of the time he's still relying on me to figure out which bus will take us where, and when to get off, but we're both growing to understand the public transportation system better.

 Very stylish man carrying a little dog in a bag. This is pretty normal. However, one day we saw a man waiting to cross the road with a giant live turtle tied by a rope to a stick. That was interesting

Da Mei Sha
 The colorful angels of DaMeiSha, one of the most famous beaches of ShenZhen (not that ShenZhen is famous for beaches or anything, but we wanted to experience a local beach).

 It's not a pyramid or a plate, it's a food pagoda! This just really made me smile.

 Dinner at our friends' home. All this food for only 4 adults and an infant! Actually, this isn't all, there was another vegetable dish, pork soup, rice, and apples and oranges, in addition to what's pictured here: tofu, "tree ear" mushrooms, grapes, shrimp, beef, fish, and chicken.

 Chillin' at the park with the rest of the neighborhood + an inchworm.

 I'm not sure I've ever heard a better description for Jenga than "The Tower for Sociality."
I mean, I'm pretty sure sociality isn't even a word, but you know exactly what they mean, don't you?

We like to hang out in pretty places, so we see couples getting wedding photos taken quite often, but this was my first time seeing an entire group, bridesmaids and groomsmen and all!


What did you think? Is this the sort of post you'd like to see on The Random Writings, or should I stick to more words and cohesive topics?
26 October 2014

Missing Milestones

It's my sister Lizzy's 21st birthday today!

Just hangin' out with Jerusalem back when she lived in Israel for 3 months when she was 19.

Missing milestones is a natural part of my family's lifestyle, and always will be. For me, the milestones I hate missing the most are the ones that naturally lend themselves to parties. If you know anything about me, you probably know that I like to throw a good party.

So, today, I thought I'd talk about what I'd do if I were there, with you, Lizzy, to celebrate today.

First of all, I know you'd be so happy to see me, since I've been gone for over 3 months now. Surprise!

I'd try my best to declare today a national holiday so that you didn't have to work and go to class. If I didn't succeed, I hope that at least your boss would give you a birthday cake in honor of the day.

Once all of that boring "real life" stuff was done with, we both know that birthdays require the wearing of lovely new clothes. I suggest this Modcloth dress. It's your green and I can picture you wearing it already:

And while were talking about imaginary Modcloth dresses, I might as well pick out what I'd wear for the party. What about this one? Festive and eminently suitable for the occasion. Plus, I mean, we have to look as different as humanly possible whenever we're together so that people don't confuse us:

I'd assign Isaac to making Korean dishes for dinner--bulgogi beef and kimbab especially. I don't have experience in cooking these dishes, which is why I delegate.

I'd delegate cleaning the bathrooms and vacuuming the house to Angel. He's really so good at both tasks. We can't have the birthday girl doing chores, but you have to have the house looking awesome for company.

(Because we're inviting ALL your friends over, of course, I know how important they are to you!)

I'd decorate--we'd have coordinating muddy brown napkins, burgundy paper plates, and cream-colored plastic silverware. As much as those color kill me, today is for you. I'd make up a bunch of cookies, because cookies are better than cake, and I'd set out all sorts of fixins' so that when your friends came by, everyone could decorate their own cookies with frosting and candies and sprinkles and glitter. I know they're the crowd who, although being over 21, would not scoff at fun of this sort. I'd decorate a cookie for you and it would bear a special message: "21 is not actually old."

(It would have to be a rather large cookie.)

We'd eat our Korean dinner, with tea and coffee to accompany it, and you and your buddies would retire to the basement to play while me and my boys/minions cleaned up the dinner. I'd arrive downstairs just in time to lead everyone in a rousing "Hot Sauce Game."

We'd all stay up way too late, but if you can't do that when you're 21, when can you? Love ya, Liz!


Guys, my sister, for this birthday, is asking for recommendations to shape her year of being 21. What book or movie or fun/important experience or goal could you suggest to her? I know that most of my audience is over 21, so what sorts of things do you think would make for an extraordinary year at this season of her life? That Lizzy of mine is anything but average.
24 October 2014

Cultural Faux Pas

At this point, I'd kind of thought we were immune to this. I have lived in Asia before, and I spent my entire college career studying the language, philosophy, and culture of China, so I thought I had a good handle on all the dos and do nots of our new home.

Turns out, when it comes to culture, like most things in life, you never stop learning.

Because, you see, when Angel is too lazy to style his hair, he'll wear a baseball cap instead.

Lately it's been this John Deere cap, because it's the only one he has. This lifestyle doesn't allow for a lot of duplicates.

Angel made the grand mistake of going casual to the office on a day when he didn't have any classes. "Casual" meant he didn't want to put product in his hair, so he wore a cap.

He'd hardly been working at his desk for long when a coworker pulled up a stool next to him. From her body language, he could already tell that he was in for a serious conversation.

"I know you're new to China," she said, "And I am very, very sorry to tell you this, but it is very bad for you to wear a green hat."

He snatched the formerly-innocent John Deere advertisement off his head, stuffed it in the backpack, and said, "Can I ask why?"

"Just believe me. It's very bad."

Now we know, from this point on, Angel will only wear his cap when we travel outside the country.

We were curious enough to do our own research on why wearing a green hat is so bad that our coworkers won't even tell us why it's bad. According to the internet, wearing a green hat means a man's wife is cheating on him. Aiyah! Also, according to the internet, the reasoning behind this is because the phrase describing the action of wearing a green hat sounds similar to the phrase that means cuckold. Not that everything found on the internet is true, but to me, this has the ring of truth, as most Chinese superstitions stem from a would-be innocent object being a homonym or near-homonym of something bad and undesirable. The nature of Mandarin lends itself to homonyms, they are much more common in that language than in English, but this is one I'd never yet come across.

If you're ever in China, now you know, leave the green hats at home!
21 October 2014

To Women Who Don't Date

I come from within the non-dating Christian community. I never actually read any of the too-well-known books on the topic: i.e. I Kissed Dating Goodbye or Before You Meet Prince Charming. To be honest, I had no real interest in the topic and occasionally found that I suddenly needed to go help out in the nursery whenever a visiting preacher decided to tackle the topic of BGRs (boy-girl relationships) in my youth group, because, man, those sermons were kind of miserable.

And yet, I agree with the overall principle of such teachings, though they tend to be incomplete (one of their flaws is tackled here). I am glad I didn't date before being courted by my husband. I treasure the fact that he was my first love. To me, he's worth it.

Yet I've noticed something that saddens me among the young women from the non-dating movement. Many of these young ladies are open about their desire to be married and to raise a family, and they've also committed to not getting involved in casual romantic entanglements, both of which are well and good--but what I've noticed is that years are going by and youth is fading while women now in their upper 20s and 30s and beyond are still longing for a husband but don't appear to be any closer to having a prospective spouse than they were a decade ago.

I'm not talking here about those who don't want to get married. They're good. If you aren't married and you don't want to be, I'd say that situation lends itself easily to contentment. I can't relate to that sentiment myself...when I was 16 I swore I'd never get married but it didn't take me long to change my mind.

What concerns me right now is those women who long for families of their own, yet may not even realize that some of their own actions may be thwarting the desires of their hearts. I've noticed that ladies who have committed to waiting on God to "write their love story" can often be susceptible to a few bad habits that might be to blame for an excessively long waiting period. Here are a few of those:

1. Being downright unfriendly to the opposite gender.

Often, in a desire to avoid leading anyone on via flirtation, women simply won't make friends at all with men. But friendliness is not inherently flirtatious. A smile, a kind word, an invitation to a Christmas party--that kind of stuff goes a long way. It's long-held wisdom that most good marriages start from friendships--if having only female friends is one of your standards, it might be time to rethink that standard. If all of your social events are "girls only"--that's not conducive to building healthy relationships with the kind of friends you might marry.

2. Dressing unattractively. 

 If you want to marry a boy, it's best not to dress like one. I know, because I wore jeans and unisex tees all through high school--I have the lack of a figure which means I resemble a boy when I dress like that, so I don't anymore (although at times I imagined being the heroine of a book where I had to disguise myself as a boy to survive some sort of terrible disaster...I'm still keeping that option in the back of my mind for future reference). Yes, yes, yes. Men SHOULD appreciate our minds and personalities and not our looks...but they don't always do that, do they?

3. Refusing to have private conversations with men. 

 Now, I'm not recommending here that you go park in the seminary parking lot at 11 at night to have a chat with your friend...but there's nothing inherently wrong with talking to a man. Chat with them at school, work, church, on the phone--because how in the world do you expect them to appreciate your brains and personality over your looks when you refuse to talk with them unless your father or a group of friends are present? Some might not believe this, but there is actually no law in the Bible against talking to guys. Here's some advice: You are an adult human being. You have control over your actions. You will not, suddenly, against your own will, find yourself falling head over heels in love with a boy or compromising your own convictions if you talk on the phone to a boy, even if no one else is listening in on your phone call. Trust me, I've tried it. You may rack up a lot of minutes on your cell phone bill if the boy is really fun to talk to, but I suppose that's a risk you'll have to take.

4. Lack of demonstrating practical spousal skills.

I'm not that old-fashioned. I appreciate a husband who can cook and clean as well as I appreciate a wife who can too. This isn't about gender roles, this is about maturity and generosity and skillfulness, traits needed in a spouse. I consider myself a good cook--at least for someone who is too lazy to use recipes. In college, I regularly brought cookies or fried noodles or muffins to get-togethers with friends. When I walked into a friend's apartment and saw dirty dishes all over the kitchen, I'd start washing their dishes. Giving away food and helping people out with unpleasant chores are attractive traits--DO attractive things.

5. Saying "no" all the time. 

 There are times to say "no." And family first, I get that. And work, and homework, and church commitments. There's a lot of different priorities in life--but there's still value in just being the kind of person who finds a way to say "yes!" when they can. During my freshman year of college Angel often called me to go hang out with him. I didn't like his idea of hanging out--to me it looked a lot like dating without even dating, so I'd propose alternatives to his ideas rather than just refuse him. He'd ask if I wanted to go out to see a movie with him, and I said, "Hey, actually, my cousins are sleeping over tonight, you wanna come and play dominoes with us?" [and that's how my cousins famously met my future husband]. He'd ask if I wanted to go get Mexican food with him and I'd tell him to bring it over to my grandparents' house and we could play checkers after we ate [I was a riot, can't you tell?].

6. Being too picky. 

 I've noticed a trend among women who are waiting for God to write their love story: an idea that since the Creator of the universe is in charge of coming up with their perfect spouse, there will be grand spiritual fireworks when they meet him and he will be amazing and there will never be a doubt in their mind that this is it. Now, I'll admit, I was never cut out for romance, so maybe my experience is unusual, but sometimes the guy for you is just a normal guy and the two of you kind of simultaneously decide that getting married both sounds like a lot of fun and is a logically wise choice, and your parents agree. The fact is, the whole "soulmate" idea is not Scriptural. Marrying someone who shares your beliefs is Scriptural. Marrying a guy who isn't a loser (including but not limited to: liars, weasels, and pigs) is wise and will make your life much easier--but beyond that, there's actually a lot of flexibility. Marriage isn't the rocket science you heard about in that cliched proverb.

The point of all this is: the way I see it, choosing not to date casually doesn't doom you to a life of hanging out with your girlfriends waiting for the perfect man to show up. There are things every woman can do to make marriage a more likely outcome of her lifestyle.

What's your opinion on the matter of finding a mate?
20 October 2014

We Saw the World in a Day

I first heard of Window of the World (世界之窗, shìjiè zhī chuāng)theme park when researching China before we ever moved to ShenZhen, and when I heard of it, I knew that we had to go sometime. The concept of the park was one I found highly amusing: they took just about every landmark you could possibly think of from all over the world and recreated them in the miniature.

Attending this park reminded me a bit of my visit to Epcot in January, only I wouldn't say that attention to detail was quite on the Disney-level (i.e. all the food served in the park is Chinese food, nearly all of the performers are Chinese), but who would expect that? Disney is quite unique.

Still, we had a grand time. The concept of making an amusement park based on the idea of collecting famous sights from all over the world and putting them in one place caused me to be overcome with giggles from time to time, but it was an awesome day, giggles and all. The park also boasts a couple of rides for which you need extra tickets (we were at the park for about 6 hours, and that was going at high speed to see everything, not stopping for food or extra ticketed rides). They have "cultural shows" in different regions of the world. We went to a "cultural show" that took place in a European church, as you'll see below.

Quite frequently, this park reminded me how very much not a traveler I actually am, because I've seen a grand total of 1 of the sights in the park in real life. However, many sights reminded me of friends and family who have been to the real places. Let me know in the comments which of these real places you've been too!

Window of the World Louvre Pyramid
 The Pyramid from the Louvre was the exit from the metro. My family was there last year.

Window of the World Ishtar Gate
 I'll be honest, I had no idea what this was, and there was no sign, but I was very intrigued so I googled "ancient blue brick wall" and discovered that this is the Ishtar Gate.

 My family was here, too, a year ago. And Joslin, what do you think of our Eiffel Tower selfie?

 I love being the master of the map.

 I still haven't figured out what this is. I Googled "fancy Chinese gate" but apparently that's too vague a description. Does this look familiar to anyone?

Window of the World Angkor Wat
 Angkor Wat, another adventure my family went on without me...

Window of the World Stonehenge
 It's Mini-Stonehenge!

Window of the World Niagara Falls
 Niagara Falls.

Window of the World Mt. Rushmore
 This was the one sight I've seen in real life, Mt. Rushmore. Amanda just went there, by the way.

Window of the World New York
 Angel hadn't been to Mt. Rushmore, but he had been to New York, so we've each racked up a total of 1 famous landmark a piece. Note that their New York is pre-2001.

Window of the World Lincoln Memorial
 I was yelling, "Abraham Lincoln is so tiny!" and Angel said "He's even tinier on the penny." 

Window of the World Tower of Pisa
 Yep, it's leaning.

Window of the World Washington Monument
The Washington Monument made me think of Sam!

 This was the one "cultural show" that we made sure to get to--a 15 minute "Christian wedding ceremony". The choir sang several hymns in Mandarin, including one that I recognized as "Holy, Holy, Holy." The priest/man in the hat said a short message about marriage in Christ (in Mandarin, of course), and the very non-enthusiastic bride and groom bowed to each other after exchanging rings. It was extremely intriguing to see this interpretation of something that's part of my own Western Christian culture (although I believe this is intended to be a Catholic wedding, or else liturgical Protestant--in any case, it didn't really resemble weddings I've actually been to, was slightly depressing due to lack of enthusiasm on the part of the actors, but was extremely interesting).

Windows of the World didn't have every cool sight of the world, though they had a large number (around 130 is what they advertise) of them. Given my biases, I thought that they should have had Devil's Tower, the Petronas Towers and maybe a few landmarks of Israel, and more from the continent of Africa, which was largely ignored except for the Pyramids and the Sphinx. Which of these landmarks from around the world have you seen in real life? And what do you think would be most cool to see in miniature?
17 October 2014

Living Expenses Comparison: Michigan vs. ShenZhen

Today I'm joining up with The Rachael Way to present you with a slice of #ChinaLife. I'm talking about how the ways in which we spend our income have changed since the move, check out her space to see what she's talking about!

I can imagine that when I publish posts like "How to Move to China", plenty of people wonder, "And why would anyone want to do that?"

There are plenty of reasons. The financial side of it wasn't a key reason for us, honestly, the best financial decision to make last year would have been for Angel to finish grad school and start working as an NP, but we chose a different route.

Wherever you are in the world, there's ways to save and to spend money--some who teach ESL spend every penny they make, others use this as a strategy to pay off debt or start a savings fund, it's up to the individual.

Today, I wanted to do an open comparison between our living expenses in Michigan and our living expenses here in ShenZhen:

Let me start out by saying that I know that we kept our monthly expenses during our life in Michigan rather low. We had our splurges and little extras, but we were blessed to live in an old home owned by my parents (that explains the low rent) and made plenty of lifestyle choices and used strategies aimed at keeping our regular bills as low as possible. Here's what they were:

Estimated Monthly Bills in Michigan:
Rent: $400
Car insurance for our two cars: $150
Gas (cars): $200
Groceries (just what we ate at home): $300
Gas (house): (summer) $20, (winter) $80
Electricity: $30
4 AT&T cellphones (just talk, no text): $100
AT&T Internet: $30

Total? Over $1200 in fairly basic living expenses. This doesn't include health and dental insurance premiums which were deducted before we received Angel's paycheck, or all the "Extras" of life such as dates, going out to eat, or hosting parties or car maintenance or vacations or buying clothes or stuff just for the fun of it, that's just the bottom line of what we basically "needed" to spend.

Estimated Monthly Bills in ShenZhen:
Rent (housing provided by our employer): $0
Utilities (water, electricity, gas, internet, provided by employer): $0
Groceries (including eating at home, restaurants, and the cafeteria): $250
Public Transport (bus and metro tickets): $30
1 Cellphone (talk and text): $5

Total? Under $300. For basic living expenses--although we do splurge a little on food (Men like to eat, I've found). Obviously, the numbers are skewed because we are earning our rent and utilities, but they're considered part of our compensation package, and our paycheck is separate. Our living style has changed a lot since we moved--I can't even imagine how much it would cost to own two cars and rent an 1800 sq. foot home here (it would be a lot). I didn't know how I would feel about having to use leg power or public transportation to get everywhere, but while it takes some adjustment, I like to highlight the benefits:

1) I never liked driving anyway.
2) We never have to look for a parking spot.
3) ShenZhen's public transportation goes just about anywhere, and is very inexpensive.
4) All of this walking is getting me into the best shape of my life.

Cars are expensive, aren't they? I'm appreciating this inexpensive season of relying on public transportation!
15 October 2014

It Runs in the Family

Excessively large, curly brown hair.

Telling stories of  past adventures for hours on end.

Healthy appetites, or the ability to consume mountains of fried chicken, veggie curry, and rice in mere minutes.

3-way Skype calls.

Getting really, really angry about matters of injustice (those Irish tempers...).

Hiding food. Because if your siblings find it, it's gone.

Knowing that there's always room in the car for more.

"Adopting" other kids because there's only seven of us.

Quoting lines from movies we've all seen more times than we can count.

Believing that sleep is a waste of time. "You'll sleep when you're dead."

Being ready to go anywhere, anywhere at all, at a moment's notice because you never know when Dad'll say: "Waterpark! Be out the door in 5 minutes."

Side note: Believing that if we say, "We can still make it to the waterpark!!" twice a day, Dad will eventually believe us and take us there.

Considering the word Boring just about the worst insult there is. Either that or Chikabuhbuh. The horror.

Refusing to speak in sentences that contain only words found in the English dictionary. Too boring.

Thinking that preparing food for a dinner party of 20 is no big deal because we've all been able to do it since we were preteens.

Being either kind of gigantic or miniature. There's not much of a middle ground.

Accidentally heading straight for the sink and washing stacks of dirty dishes as soon as we enter a friend's or relative's home because we've been conditioned to have a perhaps unhealthy fear of dishes left in the sink.

Secretly laughing at people who think Malaysia is the same thing as Indonesia.

Being super happy every time Mom and Dad are gone even though we love them because there's just something awesome about having the house to yourself and doing things that the parents probably wouldn't appreciate if they were home (like science experiments that involve dropping eggs off the balcony). 

A love/hate relationship with Pizza Saturdays

Being pretty much convinced that Angel's always been one of us and that the main reason he joined the family was because he always wanted a half-dozen extra little siblings.

Surprises in the Living Room (secret code word that means all of the kids are in trouble)

Believing that popcorn is the greatest meal in the world except for chicken butter masala with naan bread.

 Being mistaken for another member of our family because too many people can't tell us apart.

What kind of traits run in your family?
12 October 2014

Being Sherlock

 Let's just accompany this post with Sunday's outfit: Baju Kebaya done casual.

I've lived my whole life with the conviction that people in general, if they really knew me, wouldn't like me. This stems from a fact I've experienced time and again: people don't actually like smart people (especially smart women, but that's a topic for a completely different post), they just find them convenient and useful.

I am unusually academically gifted. It was extremely hard to type that sentence, and I can already feel a physical reaction of anxiety rising as I think about people reading it. Most likely, you'll read it and think, "Okay, you got As at school, so did I."

If you want to translate it as that, that's totally fine. But that's not really what I mean. I have a feeling, that, all over the world, there are unique "smart-alecs" like me, hiding behind a facade carefully created out of purple hair and a reputation for being a conscientious student.

I managed my own education from the time I was about 8 years old until I started college. Mom bought the books and graded my tests and essays, but I chose my courses and chose how fast I finished them. My parents held me back a grade in middle school so that I would graduate high school at 16 instead of 15. I scored in the 99th percentile on both the ACT and SAT exams without really studying. I never had a course in college where the academics really, really challenged me. A few classes took a little more time than others, but I never did homework past 7 or 8 at night and one could say I had a social life...I was married for nearly half of my college career (and there was that wedding one week before final exams). I routinely had research papers written and ready to hand in weeks before they were due. I am really, really good at multiple choice tests, especially, as I have an exceptionally strong ability to guess--Angel and I have joked about me possible being able to pass the NCLEX without ever stepping foot in a nursing class because I've taken some of the little "practice tests" he's had for different certifications and have gotten remarkably good scores based on pure guesswork and no actual knowledge about the medical field--but really, it's so easy to figure out the answers when you just apply logic. I took the written portion of the Michigan Cosmetology Exam (100 multiple choice questions) in 19 minutes and got 100%...but to be fair, I think I could have done the exact same thing without even going to cosmetology school.

I was very surprised on the occasions when I got less than 100% on an exam in college--but when my classmates bumped into me in the hallways before a test and told me how stressed they were about our final I'd say, "Yeah, I know right? Sounds like it's gonna be ridiculously hard, I've been studying a lot."

When I had to work in a group project, I'd routinely write the entire paper, present it to my classmates, turn it in to the prof, and then act surprised when my group members told me, "Wow, look at the grade we got! Hey, you wanna be partners for the next project?"

I never begrudged doing a group project by myself--honestly, I wouldn't have wanted my classmates' lower-level work to lower my GPA, and writing papers that got As was easy for me, so i was happy to do it.

But college was where I really began to hide my academic abilities from my peers. Because I learned from those group projects that people really like classmates who know their stuff when final exams come, but outside of asking you to email them your class notes, they don't really want to be your friend.

I made a point of not pursuing any extracurricular academics during college. I never wanted to be known as someone who was "smart." I didn't do the school newspaper or get my degree with extra honors. I did ballroom dance club, theater club, Bible study club. I acted in student films. I dressed in every color of the rainbow and wore my bellydancer scarf bedecked with jingly coins on exam days to make people laugh. I ignored the academic side of me as much as one possibly can while taking 16 credits (no more, no less; good enough to graduate on time with ease, but nothing ambitious) a semester.

I cringed when my professor would hand me back my exam in front of the whole class, with 100% emblazoned in red across the front and the comment "As usual, La Perfecta." My Spanish prof used to give me a wink and put his finger to his lips in a signal that meant, "Yes, Rachel, I know you know all the answers so I will call on everyone except you." My Greek Mythology prof wrote me a rather incoherent love letter about how it was students like me who made the field of academics a worthwhile profession.

So maybe I'm wrong. Maybe some people like you if you're bizarrely good at school. But it's mostly your profs--it's definitely not your peers.

I got an A- once, from a prof who said snottily to a student who was complaining about her B+, "I don't give As. Be happy with your B+, that's an exceptionally high score for this class." At that point I decided to take my A- and be happy about it.

The fictional character I have always related to most has been Sherlock Holmes--only I think I like people in general a little more than he does. And I do like them, very much. Like Sherlock, though, I can't relate well to most people, and I find that when I reveal how different I am, they tend to keep their distance.

I can't give my siblings or cousins or closest friends advice on strategies for learning a language, or taking a college class, because they write off anything I say with, "I'm not like you, Rachel. Everything is easy for you, okay? No one else is like that."

And I guess they're right. I often feel, with Elementary's version of Sherlock, that it doesn't seem like there's anyone else out there who's just like me, although I know there is, there's just not a lot of us. Unlike every version of Sherlock that exists, on a daily basis I choose to hide the way I observe and learn and seemingly "just know" stuff.

People don't like people who learn effortlessly. I imagine it's because they feel that I might look down on them because they don't learn as fast as I do. I don't. Being academically gifted doesn't give me any right to look down on others and because I am so smart I can recognize lots of skills that other people are better at than I am (i.e. parking large vehicles). I'd never say people are jealous of me. I wouldn't necessarily wish this on anyone. I wouldn't wish to be different myself, not really, I like myself very much--and never ever even the slightest bit having a hard time at school is not truly a heavy cross to bear because I got the good grades and I got to play all the time--but still, it's not the sort of thing that makes people want to be your friend.

I'm not claiming I'm the smartest person in the world. In fact, for the most part I actively try not to encourage my brains. I spend my time going on adventures at the park and reading fiction and watching movies and playing games and being a class clown of an ESL Teacher. I don't want to encourage myself to keep learning more because that's only going to widen the gap between me and all the people I love.

(*side note: Maybe, since I'm lazy with this brain of mine, I'm actually more like Mycroft than Sherlock...but then again, I'm extremely physically energetic, which is Sherlock all the way. Never mind.) 

I know that my family (immediate and extended) loves me. But they also roll their eyes when I go into a rant about how people totally miss the point of the Ru Tradition, popularly known as Confucianism. They send their papers to me to edit--but they just click "accept changes" and ignore my beautifully worded notes about WHY they needed to use the subjunctive mood of the verb in that particular instance. And they openly claim to hate me when I come back to Malaysia after 6 years away and can figure out the general meaning of written signs in Bahasa when I haven't done anything with the language in years.

So there it is. I'm Sherlock--with a habit of pretending to be dumber than I am. I love people, but I'm often lonely, because I find it difficult to build deep relationships. And yet I've found that the only close relationships I've ever been able to form have formed with the relatively few people who both know this little fact about me and accept me, too-big brain, and all. So maybe, after all, secrets like this are worth sharing.
10 October 2014

A Rainy Vacation

Our few days in Malaysia happened to coincide with early October, historically the rainiest time of the year in my hometown, which meant that we had a much more laid-back trip than it is in our nature to have, simply because our plans got rained out on several consecutive days. But that's okay-- perhaps a little relaxing at home on vacation is not such a bad thing.

We did successfully consume mountains of delicious food (my family found my reaction to delicious homemade fresh popcorn highly amusing), and even got to check out a few shops, museums, and artwork around town that are new since I moved away.

I have to say, I think my best memory from the trip is the afternoon that the whole family spent sitting around the dining room table, playing the card game Golf while listening to sad songs. It turns out that playing sad music can be an effective strategy for card sharks, as we found throughout the game that certain players made some very poor plays when distracted by their own tears, so we took turns suggesting the saddest songs we could think of in an attempt to make the other players cry to give ourselves a chance at winning. Maybe it's only a coincidence that Rebekah, generally known as the most heartless of us all, managed to win and not be distracted by songs that had most at the table weeping. And dad just rolled his eyes at the weirdness of his house full of women.

"It's your turn!"

"But he lost his job and now he's going to lose his home and how are they going to pay the medical bills...."

"Play the card!!"

 It's a long standing joke that my Dad doesn't exist in photos since he always takes them. Angel captured this rare shot!

 When hiking, it is necessary to carry sticks to threaten monkeys with. Seriously, there are monkeys everywhere and it's true, we might laugh when we see tourists carrying open food containers get attacked but we take no risks ourselves. Always walk with a stick and don't get too close to monkeys.

 Steamboat BBQ wasn't on the list of must-eats but it was our final dinner in Malaysia and worth every delicious bite. We definitely get our money's worth at the buffet. Besides dinner, I believe Angel had three ice cream cones and a popsicle from the dessert table. Everyone else opted for ais kacang, while I ate a couple pounds worth of honey chicken and called that 'dessert'.

Penang Hill Hike
 We hiked up a little mountain but morning haze obscured the view of the city. This hike isn't a particularly easy one, at least not for me--but I can tell I'm healthier and stronger than I used to be, as I finally made it to the infamous "Level 5" stopping point--for the first time in 10 years! Hurray!!

Made in Penang Museum
 A little bit of trick photography at one of the new museums downtown.

Penang Street Art
 New since I left for college are little piece of street art like this one, popping up on pre-war buildings in the downtown area. Dad, Angel, and I went out scouting for paintings....during a torrential downpour so we just drove past, didn't even get out of the car.

 We tested out the water at the forest park--a little cold, actually, for my taste.

Teluk Bahang Forest Eco Park

 My sister Anna has a mini-Anna glued to her side at all times, so baby Anna joined us on a number of adventures.

And we decided we needed a truly "special" family photo. Let's just say cousin Shannon and baby Anna are temporary placeholders for my two missing siblings, until the next time we're all together again!

It's always hard to leave--but leaving this time wasn't quite so bad--possibly because we do love our little home in China and it doesn't require a 36 hour transit time from our home to theirs.

What's your favorite thing to do when it rains on vacation?