Friday, October 31, 2008

All the Tea in China


The Great Wall, dumplings (steamed and boiled), tea balls that open to floral sculpture in boiling water, old women with mandarin collars smiling from centurian doorways, public toilets, tiny apples on skewers dipped in caramel, red lanterns, technicolor Mao, Tienanmen in the smog, toddlers swaddled in padded clothing, coal carts peddled down alleys, The Forbidden City, sound-barrier-breaking spitting, cobalt eaves, silk measured with an abacus,Peking duck with plum sauce.


The conference, titled: "The Interconnected World", was grand. Grander still, the city it was held in. Beijing was synesthesia: you could taste color, smell the sky, and touch the language.

I spent most of my free time in the little Hutongs, the alleys of the old city. Here, laundry hung on hangers in front of windows. Greens dried on door stoops. Donut makers set their vats of oil at intersections in the early morning chill.

A friend, who had spent Christmas there a couple of years ago, gave me the name of a tea shop I "had to visit." I was curious about finding a small alley in a warren of such places. I'd printed off a sheet of practical words with their Chinese characters: taxi, tea, beer, toilet. Somehow, with lots of smiles and nods, I found Alice's shop. The owner uses an English name for such foreigners as myself incapable of capturing the tones of the language (my "thank you" and "hello" sounded like "purple" and "fountain pen" for all I know). I spent hours with her and tiny cups of tea. And I returned again and again. She and her husband and only daughter live in the tiny hall behind her shop. I came back home with enough tea to keep our island's water purification plant in business indefinitely.

And then the Wall. My calves just stopped aching from that up-and-down, 10k hike along the spine of mountains. History and stone. Rise and fall. Time.

Back here on Saipan, I am getting ready to visit my Chinese tailor. She is tiny and sweet and speaks just a few words of English. We communicate well with sign language, but I probably won't be able to explain that the pant hem she'll fix was ripped in her homeland, a world--internconnect--away.
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Saturday, October 11, 2008



(An image of last year's honors class just before Christmas break)

First Week

Did you hear it? Neither I. The power’s out, so the school bell didn’t ring. Nevertheless, we’re in session. (And my battery-operated fan attached to a spray bottle has become my new best friend.)

The seniors’ first project of the year was to create coats of arms to decorate the cover of their journals. We had mottos: “Live hard and die,” “Be all you can be,” “Family and love.” We had symbolic charges: crossing palms, the island’s monolithic latte stones, 670s—Saipan’s area code used on island like a graffiti artist’s tag. We had supporters made of rosary beads and flame tree fronds.

As the students presented, I realized my face was aching from smiling all the time. It was so lovely to see them share themselves. I was loving it. I’m sure it helped that the power actually stayed on all day—a first that week. Still, I am surprised at this sneaking-up-on-me feeling that I do care about this.

My first year of teaching, caring was a matter of getting the basics done without burning out. An oh-my-gosh-I-need-to-make-480-copies-&-grade-second-period’s-quizzes-&-eat-lunch-in-50-minutes kind of way. This year, an odd thing is happening. I am starting to be overwhelmed by what I can only describe as profound caring for these students.

This summer, I took the art Praxis test in case I was able to teach art this year. Afterwards, I went to reward myself with brunch at my favorite café in Ashland, Oregon. It was a weekend morning, so the place was packed. There were only two seats left at the counter, and another woman and I found ourselves no longer strangers as we read sections of the menu aloud:

“Oatmeal pancakes with maple butter?”

“Oooh, blueberry streusel.”

“Or linguisa-spinach scramble . . . .”

Once we ordered (oh, those oatmeal pancakes) we started talking. I discovered she has been teaching various grade levels and subjects for almost twenty years. I asked what her greatest piece of advice was. She looked above the head of a chef in the kitchen and then back to me.

“Be nice.” She nodded. “If I can teach them to be nice, I’ve been successful.”

If I were to create a motto for my own journal, it wouldn’t be too different. “Be kind.” Caring then comes, free of charge.
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