The Longest Christmas of my Life

Hour 1.0 to hour 8.5

One last time, I slept on Amy’s brown leather couch, the soft tropical breezes drifting through the screen door. I rarely have insomnia when I’m in Thailand. Or maybe I do, but the night is so beautiful through the wide windows that I don’t even notice.

I dreamed that I was babysitting a young boy, and I glibly mentioned the myth of Santa Claus. He was horrified. His mother came rushing in. “No no! She’s just kidding!”

But the boy refused to be comforted. “How could you lie to me?”

I felt terrible.

So I guess in a sense I had a Christmas dream.

Hour 8.5 to hour 13

We’d already given our gift to each other, but we decided to try for a traditional Smucker Christmas in every other respect.

Amy took on the role of Dad, and made turtle pancakes for breakfast.

We ate the pancakes with honey and mangoes.

Then Amy got her Bible, and we sat around and recited the Christmas story. Normally it’s Jenny who has the Bible and keeps us on track–so I guess Amy took on all sorts of different roles that morning.

It was a very lazy morning. We were already packed from the day before. In an effort to not have to unpack, I’d hand-washed a few of my things and set them out to dry overnight.

Unfortunately, it happened to rain during the night, and the morning was damp and cloudy instead of the usual hot and bright. I brought in my wet things, lay them over a chair, and aimed the fan at them.

They still didn’t dry very fast.

“Maybe you can dry them in the toaster oven,” said Amy.

So I dried my clothes in the toaster oven.

Hour 13 to hour 15.5

As soon as the lady at the airport check-in desk saw us, her face fell into a look of sympathetic recognition. “Ok?” she asked, making a circle with her thumb and forefinger.

“I think so,” I said, handing her our passports.

She scanned them, and then looked visibly relieved. “Ok!” she said, smiling.

We set our suitcases on the scales. The zipper on our big suitcase had busted on the way over, so we’d replaced it with a somewhat flimsy zippered plastic bag. “Can you tape this up at all?” I asked. Amy hadn’t had any tape.

“No, I’m sorry, I don’t have any tape.”

I said a prayer over the flimsy bag, and we watched it roll down the belt and out of sight beyond the dangling rubber flaps.

Hour 15.5 to hour 19

This flight played a cute Chinese movie called “Love Simply,” and it had large easily-readable English subtitles.

It was about a single mom who still had posters of a musician named Fan Zi that she was really into in the ’90s. Her daughter didn’t know who her real dad was, so when she had to give a report at school about her dad, she said that Fan Zi was her dad.

The kids didn’t believe her, so she said that she would get her dad to sing a song for the school.

So then of course the mom tried to track down Fan Zi and get him to sing for the school, and then they kind-of fell in love, but then the mom got engaged to this other guy who was a good friend but also pretty weird but also quite rich, and drama drama.

I missed the end of the movie because I had to use the bathroom.

Hour 19 to hour 23

Do we follow the signs for international transfers, or for baggage claim? We were told in Chiang Mai to pick up our bags in Shanghai and re-check them. But we were transferring to another international flight.

We tried international transfers first. “No no, go that way!” The lady told us when she saw that we didn’t have a boarding pass. So we went that way.

“This isn’t Shanghai, is it?” said the guy behind us.

“Yeah it is. I mean, it’s Pudong airport, but it’s in Shanghai. I guess there must be multiple airports here.”

“Oh, okay, because I heard her say…that word…and I was like, ‘that’s not Shanghai.'”

The guy–I never caught his name so I’ll call him Chris–was from Toronto, the type of guy who likes to travel the world and jump off as many tall things as possible.

“What were you doing in Thailand?” we asked him.

“Dude, I was in Southern Thailand, that city’s basically like Las Vegas, full of debauchery, and then one night I was drunk and someone was talking about doing yoga and I thought that was a good idea so I went with my gut and decided to be a yoga teacher. I spent the next thirty days basically living like a monk. It was radical, man!”

We had a bit of an issue getting through immigration. Some higher-up had to come check our papers. But eventually we got through, picked up our bags–still intact!–re-checked them, got boarding passes, and went back through immigration to our gate.

We still had 50 Chinese Yuan, equal to $7.74, that we’d saved from our Chinese adventure because we thought we’d be spending 12 hours in Chinese airports on layovers. Ben rested with our stuff while I went looking for something to buy.

You know how stores in international airport terminals are. Lots of designer handbags, fancy chocolates, and stereotypically Chinese-looking designs printed on teapots, silk scarves, and fans. There wasn’t much I could buy with seven bucks.

Until, there it was. A tiny convenience store crammed in among the fancy designer perfume stores, stocked with authentic-looking Chinese junk food.

I grabbed a bottle of peach tea, a bag of odd cookie-type things, and a triangular seaweed and rice treat that I’d seen in a Korean drama once. And then I turned around and saw, of all things, Kinder Surprise eggs! I was beyond excited. My aunt used to bring us these from overseas, as they are banned in the US.

Yes, all of this cost less than 7 bucks.

We still had money left over, so Ben ran off to buy another peach tea and a box of Kit Kat-like bars. I opened my kinder surprise egg. It wasn’t quite like the kinder surprise eggs of my youth.

Instead of a chocolate egg with a toy inside, there was a plastic egg with a toy in one half and chocolate in the other. Oh well, It was still yummy.

My toy was a little bunny with a ring that could fit around its neck or on your finger.

As we got ready to board our flight, Chris came along. “Hey, do you want some Chinese rice cakes with icing?” I asked him. (That’s what the bag of cookie-type things turned out to be.)

“No thank you,” he said. “Do you want some chocolates?”

He held out a box of fancy chocolates from one of the fancy shops. Each was shaped like a different animal. I chose one shaped like a monkey. Ben chose one shaped like a duck.

“Thank you!”

“No problem, man.”

We chatted with him as we boarded the plane. He showed us pictures of the cliffs he’d bungee jumped off of. We talked about Chinese grandmothers shoving people out of their way.

“I wish I’d brought some socks, man,” he said. “It’s cold. I brought shoes, but no socks.”

“I have some socks!” said Ben, yanking a pair out of his backpack. “They’re kind of old, but they’re clean.”

“Seriously? That’s awesome, man!”

“Merry Christmas!”

“Hey!” I said. “We all got Christmas presents today. You got socks, and Ben and I got chocolates.”

Although we realized later that Ben had given away a pair of Steven’s socks.

Hour 23 to hour 33

As you can imagine, I was very tired at this point. I wanted to go to sleep but I knew we were going to eat soon, so I finished watching The Great Gatsby, which I’d started on the way to Thailand.

An okay movie, but it didn’t seem nearly as nuanced and subtle as the book.

Then I finished watching Love Simply.

Spoiler alert: They ended up together. (Although the hilarious thing was that when he did his grand proposal with all her friends dancing along in support, one of those friends was the ex-fiance.)

We ate, and I tried to sleep. A kid behind me was yelling and yelling and would. not. shut. up.

I got up again and watched Paper Towns. Ben went to sleep. I prayed and prayed that he would sleep well, so that he could drive us home, since I knew I’d be unable to.

Tried to sleep again. Now the kid was screaming and crying, a relentless wail that would not end.

I watched It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, which seemed an appropriate thing to watch on a sleepless night after traveling to foreign places.

All in all I only got about one or two hours of sleep, off and on. But God answered my prayers and Ben got a solid 6 hours.

Hour 34 to hour 39

We stood at the carousel and watched for our bags. First came the sturdy bag, right as rain. Then, around the corner came the flimsy bag, burst open, it’s contents spilled across the belt.

Frantically I searched for the most precious thing that had been in the bag; my diary. There it was! I grabbed it, and then tripped over other people and other bags as we ran alongside the carousel, retrieving my flip-flops and my electric kettle and Ben’s copy of Searching for God Knows What. 

Everything was there. It must have valiantly held together the entire trip, only to burst at the last minute when it was tossed onto the carousel.

Our Last Hard Thing was crossing the boarder from Canada to the US. We waited inside while the officers searched our car from bonnet to boot.

Mom once had a very bad experience making this crossing, because she forgot to declare her apples from Thailand. They showed her capsules of activated charcoal they’d unearthed, and said accusingly, “is this heroin?”

I thought of every possible thing they could bust me for. Was the barley tea I brought too seed-like? I had a couple unlabeled mineral supplement pills, would they think that was drugs?

But they told us we were fine, and could go.

“Merry Christmas!” I shouted as I exited the door.

I felt sorry for them, having to work on Christmas Day.

I dozed off and on the rest of the way home.

“Hey Ben!” I said, “It’s the last minute of Christmas!”

He didn’t say anything. He was busy looking for a gas station.

Hour -3

We finally got home at 2:30 a.m. The moon reflected on the fog and lit up the night.

I went into the kitchen to get some food. When I saw the leftovers, I laughed. Smuckers celebrate Christmas the same all over the world, I guess.

More Flight Drama

“I’m sorry, but you can’t fly through Tianjin without a visa.”

“What?”

“You need to call your travel agent and get another ticket home.”

“But…what?”

We stood at the checkin desk, bags packed, ready to go home. The lady at the desk looked sympathetic, but she really couldn’t do anything. Our ticket was from Chiang Mai, to Tianjin China, to Shanghai China, to Vancouver BC. Apparently there are only certain Chinese cities you can fly through without a visa, and Tianjin is not one of them.

No kidding. I guess that’s what we get for booking through a website called “Cheapo Air.”

We called Amy through Facebook using the airport wifi. She came and picked us up, and we went back to her place and played phase ten.

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Merry Christmas Eve, I guess.

It was 3 am in Oregon, but I sent mom a message telling her what was up, thinking she’d get it in the morning. The “ping!” woke her up, and she woke Dad up to get him to call Cheapo Air. As he was the one who had booked the tickets, he was the one best suited to try to sort out the mess.

Furthermore, he has “Dad voice.” You know the voice, when your dad has had ENOUGH, and you are to apologize to your mother and go to bed without any supper and all nonsense is from henceforth forbidden.

The people at Cheapo Air not only got Dad voice, they got 3 am Dad voice, and presently, for a small fee, we were scheduled on another flight.

Thanks Dad!

So Lord willing, we’ll fly from Chiang Mai to Shanghai to Vancouver tomorrow, all nonstop flights with only one short layover.

We’ll see how that goes.

 

Failures in English Teaching

Nestled in the jungle outside of Chiangmai is the Night Safari. It’s just like any other glorified zoo, except instead of viewing the animals by day, you view them at night. 

Exciting, huh?

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When I last came to Thailand, just over a year ago, I declined the opportunity to go on a night safari tour because there were many other things I’d rather spend my time and money on. However, a section of the safari is a walk-through area housing smaller animals in cages, and this is much cheaper to visit. Amy and I went one day, taking a lunch along and eating at an empty pavilion that stood along the trail.

There were multiple pavilions along the trail, and we couldn’t figure out why. There was nothing in them–neither animals, nor benches, nor tables. What could they possibly be used for?

On this trip, we found out.

Evidently, the Night Safari is not only a popular tourist destination, it also hosts events. Events like a weekend English camp. Events where random trailside pavilions become English learning stations for groups of children to visit one by one.

We arrived at the Night Safari early Saturday morning, while the sun was bright but the earth was still bathed in a cool breeze. The place wasn’t officially open yet. Cleaning ladies walked along the pathways with wide straw brooms. “We’re with the English Camp!” We said as we walked through the gate, and they waved us right through.

Zac, one of the organizers of the event, was waiting on the other side. He gave us badges to wear and ushered us into a large meeting room. There the four of us, plus the other English teachers, sat at a round table and drank instant coffee. Zac pulled a stack of papers from his yellow grocery bag.

“These are the papers you’ll need for your stations. These are for today, and these are for tomorrow. And this sheet is for assessment of their abilities.”

Looking over my papers I saw that some of them were labeled “actor,” and some “director.” The kids at my station were supposed to get into pairs, one being the director and one being the actor. The director would say things like, “Say ‘Hello.’ Pretend you are very very tired.” And then the actor would have to say “Hello” while pretending to be very very tired.

A simple enough concept, as long as the children could read and comprehend English. Amy said that Ben and I should run through it first so they knew what they were supposed to do.

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Ben and I prepare to teach.

Ben and I settled in at our station, and pretty soon a line of sixteen children came marching up, flanked by two university students who were helping out. The university students quickly made themselves scarce. “Hello,” I said. “I am Emily, and this is Ben. To start, I want everyone numbered 1-8 to stand over here, and everyone numbered 9-16 to stand over there.”

The kids split neatly into two groups. So far, so good.

“You are going to pretend to be directors,” I said to one group, “and you are going to pretend to be actors,” I said to the other. I handed out their papers. “You will do what it says on the paper. Ben and I will show you how to do it.”

Ben and I did what the papers said.

“How are you?” I asked.

“I’m good,” said Ben.

“What kind of movies do you like?”

“I like funny movies.”

“Say ‘I’m hungry.’ Pretend you are very very hungry.”

“I’m hungry,” said Ben, moaning and holding his stomach.

We went through the whole paper. Then I turned to the children. “Okay, now you try it with your partner.”

Nothing happened.

“Can you read the paper and do what it says?”

They gave each other glances of utter confusion.

I went to a child. “Can you read? Look, it says, ‘how are you.’ Can you say, ‘how are you?”

Blank stare.

The teachers weren’t supposed to say anything to the children in Thai at all, but this clearly was going nowhere. I ran out of the pavilion to try to find the university students who were supposed to be helping out. They were hanging out next to some pastel ceramic penguins, chatting. “Come help me!” I said, “I need you to explain to the children what to do!”

They followed me inside, where I showed them the actor and director papers. They read them, discussed them with each other, asked me some questions, and then tried to explain to the children what to do. Thus we were able to muddle through the half hour session, with the kids who knew English better helping the ones who were still 100% lost.

Zac came lolloping through about then. “How’s it going? Do the kids understand what they’re supposed to do?”

“Um…nope.”

“Oh well, give them all ones and we’ll come up with something different to do tomorrow.” And he trotted on down to the next station.

The point of the camp was not to teach English so much as to assess the current skills of the student, rating them a five if they could do the activity on their own and a one of they couldn’t do any of the activity.

We gave out a lot of ones.

As the subsequent groups came through we re-adjusted things, having the university students translating our directions from the very beginning. Instead of demonstrating the entire activity at once, Ben and I went through it line by line, first doing it ourselves, and then having the children do it. In this way we muddled through the rest of the day and were able to provide a skill assessment that was hopefully somewhat helpful.

When we finished supper that evening and walked out into the greater park area, there were people everywhere. This is prime tourist season. There were food carts, and traditional Thai dances, and little booths where  you could pet small animals.

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Me and my friend, Mr. Albino Porcupine.

With our nifty badges we could get on the Night Safari tour for free. We climbed onto an open-air bus that was painted to look like a giraffe, and set off down the dirt trail. It was night, and the tour guide shone bright lights on the animals as we passed, spouting various interesting facts about them in heavily accented English.

Which was cool and all, but I did feel sorry for those animals being awakened from their sleep by a brilliant light from a tour bus. (Although people did throw them lots of bananas and such, so perhaps that made up for it.)

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Ben and a giraffe that ignored us because we had no food.

We slept at the safari that night. Away down another dirt road, on another open-air bus painted to look like a giraffe, we rumbled and chugged on and on until we came to a guest house of sorts, in what was apparently a “Camp Gronud.”

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Our room had a bunk bed, one outlet, and a fake tree made out of cement and built into the wall.

I should have taken a picture of that fake tree. Perhaps hung my jacket on one of the branches. But I didn’t.

“Have you ever done that team-building exercise where everyone stands in a circle, and grabs hands with people across from them, and then they try to untangle themselves without letting go of hands?” Zac wondered the next morning.

“No, but I’ve heard of it.”

“Okay, well that’s what you can do at your station today. The university students all should know how to play it. It should take about fifteen minutes for them to untangle themselves.”

“What will the students do for the other fifteen minutes?”

“Oh, they can practice their cheer. Or they can practice their skit.”

I had no clue what their cheer or their skit consisted of, but I figured the university students would know what was what. I happily trotted off to my station, grateful that there would be no confusing actors and directors today.

Geshum, the 8-year-old child of one of the other teachers, came along with me since he speaks fluent Thai and English. I helped the children get into a clump and grasp the hands of the people across from them, and Geshum explained the concept of untangling themselves.

It didn’t go so well. They managed to form themselves into two interlocking circles instead of one big circle, and were thus never able to fully untangle themselves. Whatever. We did the best we could.

“Let’s play duck duck goose!” Whined Geshum.

Just like the day before, the first group was the one with AWOL university students, so I couldn’t get them to lead the students in practicing their skits or their cheer.

So we played duck duck goose.

Turns out, duck duck goose is a spectacular game that transcends language barriers.

The next three groups were able to untangle themselves quite quickly, after which we played about ten minutes of duck duck goose before I told them to practice their cheer. We never got to the skits. Ben left because he didn’t have anything to do, and Geshum left because he didn’t get picked often enough in duck duck goose. The teams were supposed to be at the stations for 30 minutes and spend 5 minutes between stations, but the time lagged more and more as things went on.

The last group could. not. untangle themselves. I couldn’t figure out how to untangle them either, or I would have given them some pointers. Should we just quit and play duck duck goose? Oh well. It’s a team-building exercise. Let them do some team-building.

Thirty minutes passed. I guess we’d just have to quit. I turned to the university students. “The time is up,” I said, pointing to my phone. “We’re done.”

“Oh, my phone is dead,” said one student, by which I assumed he meant that he hadn’t been watching the time.

I had noticed that the university students tended to hang around for a bit before finally leading the children to the next station. I didn’t know if they were confused or if this was just the Thai way. When these two university students didn’t leave, I just figured they wanted to wait a bit longer and see if the children could untangle themselves.

They couldn’t. We waited and waited, at least ten more minutes if not longer. Should I say something again? Tired and exhausted, the kids stepped over arms and ducked under, staying as tangled as ever before.

Finally one university student came to me with something written on her phone. It said, “If the children do not leave soon they will be too late, and will not be able to eat lunch.”

“Oh, they can go,” I said. “They can quit. It’s fine. I told you they were done!”

“Finished?” she asked.

“Yes, yes, they’re finished!”

We all left the stupid tangle game and went in for lunch. I felt so stupid. “The time is up?” Why had I kept saying “the time is up?” Of course that didn’t make any sense. Why is time up instead of down or sideways or forward or backward?

Finished. Finished is the word to use.

I’ve read a lot about needing to be willing to fail miserably in order to learn, and that’s how I comforted myself through my embarrassment.

After lunch was the grand finale, where the kids were supposed to perform their skits and their cheer. The skits, it turned out, were renditions of popular tales such as “The Three Little Pigs,” and were the focus of Amy’s station that day.

They dragged on…and on…and on. They never did get to their cheers.

Oh well, I’d heard most of them anyway.

“Little Pig, Little Pig, let me come in!”

Thus ended English camp.

“You’ve done so much already, you could probably call your trip a mission trip,” Caleb, another teacher, had joked to us earlier.

We laughed. It had been a hectic four days.

It was time for some relaxation. We went home and chilled for the rest of the day.

Into the Thick of Things

I was an angel but I had no wings. I fluttered the tails of my long white sweater, hoping the children would get the picture. “I am an angel,” I announced, in case there was any doubt. “My name is Gabriel. I have come from God with a special message for you.”

I spoke slowly, enunciating clearly and using as few words as possible. “You will have a baby. He will be the Son of God. You must name him Jesus.”

“The Son of God!” Amy, or should I say Mary the mother of Jesus, exclaimed.

The Thai schoolchildren sat in rows on the floor, watching us. Levels of comprehension varied, as we tried to present the Christmas story visually, with Ben acting as both Joseph and the Shepherd, and a vase wrapped in a sheet and pillowcase standing in for Baby Jesus.

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Thai children are particularly good at sitting in orderly rows. Photo credit: Amy Smucker

When we arrived in Thailand Wednesday evening, Ben and I had no idea this trip would require us to be actors. Amy sprung it on us as we sat in her living room and ate soup, trying to recover from our two-and-a-half day journey. “By the way, Kimberly volunteered us to act out the Christmas story for the children at the school where she teaches.”

Kimberly, Amy’s roommate, looked up indignantly. “I asked you. ”

“Well, yeah, I guess. And I thought they’d like to do it. You like acting and stuff,” she said, turning to me.

“When is this?”

“Friday morning.”

“Also, Friday evening,” Kimberly put in. “Chad and Jenny are doing a Christmas party, and they want you to act it out there too.”

“But…I’m the one that has to come up with what we do?” I asked.

“Yeah…but you like doing that kind of thing.”

“Okay,” I said. Because it’s true.

I do like doing that kind of thing. Both aspects. I like coming up with skits, and I like being thrown into the thick of things when I come to visit a foreign culture. I like hastily constructing costumes out of broomsticks and old sweaters, and I would rather make new Thai friends than go to a popular tourist location and get kissed by an elephant.

This trip has been particularly fun because I’ve been to Thailand before, so I don’t have to start at square one when it comes to friendships.

It began Thursday evening, after a short partial day’s rest from our travels. “Do you remember Leila? And Ahn? They work at the college.” Amy asked me.

“Yes, of course I do!”

“We’re having a mookata party tonight, and they’re coming. Also, my friend Amy whom you’ve never met. And Kim. Remember Kim? You helped her with her homework last time you where here.”

“Oh, Kim! I’d love to see her again!”

We rolled out rice mats in the driveway for sitting on, and took the floor lamp outside for extra lighting. Leila, Ahn, and Leila’s husband showed up first, bringing veggies and raw meat and mookata grills. Mookata is a traditional Thai dish in which you fry meat and veggies and boil more veggies in the broth. The idea is to spend half the time cooking things and the other half eating, plucking things off the grill with chopsticks and trying different flavors together.

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Ahn and I grill meat. Photo credit: Amy Smucker

It ends up being a sort of potluck, with everyone bringing something new to fry and stew. I fried and stewed and chatted and fried for hours.

“Are you all ready for your skit tomorrow?” Kimberly asked when all the guests had left and we were mopping up the grease that had drifted into the house and settled on the floor.

“Wait, that’s tomorrow? What time are we starting?”

“Oh, probably 9:30 or so.”

Ben, Amy and I gave each other exhausted glances. “I’m tired. How about we get up early tomorrow and do it?”

“Sounds good to me.”

“Me too.”

It was settled, then. We got up early in the morning and tried to figure something out.

“Okay, Mary, you start out over there. Joseph, on the other side. I’m the angel, so I’ll come in this direction and tell you you’re going to have a baby…should I make a gesture of a pregnant belly or of rocking a baby?”

In roughly half an hour we scraped together a passable five-minute skit of the Christmas story, in relatively comprehensible English. I donned Amy’s white dress and sweater in order to be an angel, and we transformed Ben from Joseph to Shepherd mid-skit by handing him a straw hat and a telescoping mop handle. (The telescoping part was important–all props were transported by motorbike.)

Amy’s roommate Kimberly teaches classes for the English program at a local government school. A friend of Kimberly’s was putting on an hour-long Christmas program for the whole school, with songs, gift-giving, a craft, and, of course, a short skit of the Christmas story. Only one or two grades could fit in the assembly room at once, so the whole program was repeated five or six times.

Which, for us, meant five minutes of acting, fifty-five minutes of waiting, and another five minutes of acting, over and over.

As we were relaxing after one of our performances, I heard Amy laughing.

“What’s so funny?”

“The teacher asked a student, ‘do you know what a shepherd is?’ And the student said, ‘Santa Clause!'”

We had to do the skit again that evening at Chad and Jenny’s Christmas party. Chad and Jenny are Amy’s co-workers, and they invited some university students over. I pulled out the bags of marshmallows I’d brought Amy from the states and whipped up some Santa Rudolphs for the occasion.

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Photo credit: Amy Smucker

It was a little weird doing the skit for university students since we’d geared it towards children, but it went fine. We rounded out the evening with decorating Christmas cookies, reading the Christmas story, and trying to unwrap a Christmas present while wearing oven mitts.

I was exhausted after that party. “Are you all packed for tomorrow?” Amy asked me.

“What? Packed? Are we going somewhere?”

“We’re teaching at English camp! Didn’t you read my email?”

“…I skimmed it. I didn’t realize we were spending the night there.”

“Well, we are. We’re leaving tomorrow morning, teaching all day, spending the night, and teaching the next day too.”

“Wow, you really threw us into the thick of things right away, didn’t you?”

It was okay though. I like being thrown into the thick of things.

Coming Soon: Adventures of Teaching an English Camp at a Thai Safari.

Take a Sad Song, and Make it Better

I knew that I’d figure things out eventually and everything would be fine, but sometimes my emotions don’t listen to my logic. I didn’t want to cry, but I felt the tears trickle down the side of my nose anyway. Blast.

What was wrong? Let me make a list:

  1. I had been traveling for a day and a half, with no end in sight, because…
  2. Our flight to Kunming, the second leg of our three-flight journey, was delayed for four hours due to a “mechanical issue…”
  3. Which we didn’t know any details about since we didn’t speak Chinese
  4. However, we knew we’d missed the third flight entirely
  5. And we couldn’t contact my sister Amy and tell her what was going on, because we weren’t able to connect to the internet at the airport
  6. And when the delay was over, and we got on the flight, they kept saying something about going to “Nanning”
  7. But we didn’t want to go to “Nanning,” we wanted to go to Kunming
  8. And then the flight attendant got on the intercom and explained in hard-to-understand English that if we wanted to head on to Kunming after Nanning we had to *garbled words* and collect a *garbled word.*
  9. And I was very confused.

Confusion+tiredness=tears, probably a very natural reaction, but I turned my head to hide them anyway. I looked out the window. And what I saw took my breath away.

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Source: Wikipedia (Not exactly the same as what I saw, but the closest I could find.)

What are those squiggly things glinting in the sun? Oddly-shaped ponds? I peered closer. Rice fields! Of course!

We flew down, down, over green forests and red, red dirt, and terraced rice fields all over the hills, making the landscape look like a topographic map. It was unbelievably beautiful.

Nanning turned out to be a tiny little airport with only one gate, and a crisp-but-pleasant breeze blew in our faces as we descended the steps of the airplane, a nice contrast to the freezing temperatures of Shanghai. We followed the crowd across the blacktop, hoping we were doing the right thing.

A lady in a long blue coat stood by a door, yelling something, waving a handful of what looked like blue laminated bookmarks. Her voice was lost in the swift breeze. We left the pack, and walked closer. “Kunming! Kunming!” she was shouting, and so we took some blue bookmarks and walked into the gate area through her door.

It was only a short wait. I had time to use the bathroom. The toilet was the  the squatting-kind, which made me feel happy inside, because I was in a place that actually felt Chinese, instead of the sterile generic airplanes and airports I normally find myself in.

And Ben was able to connect to the internet and send Amy an explanatory email.

In short, my spirits were refreshed.

Of course with all the hopping on and off of airplanes and shuttle buses, and with boxed dinners being thrust under my nose every time I began to doze, I was quite tired by the time we reached Kunming. Too tired to keep up with Ben’s rapid pace, I sat down to send Amy another email on Ben’s phone while Ben fetched the luggage.

I typed a message, and clicked “send.”

“Message held in queue,” it told me.

I looked up at the message Ben had sent earlier. That one was also “held in queue.” It had never sent. Amy had no idea why we didn’t show up at the airport.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t connect to the internet. The only way to get the password was to put in your phone number, and they’d text you the password. Which didn’t exactly work for foreigners without overseas cell service.

Ben fetched the suitcases, left me with them, and ran off to talk to the people at the China Eastern counter about the next flight to Chiang Mai. I was alone in a strange airport with two suitcases I could barely pull, and no way to contact my family. I spread my Tinkerbell blanket on top of the largest suitcase and lay my head on it. Unbidden, another tear trickled down my nose and dripped off the tip.

Suddenly, someone beside me began talking very excitedly in Chinese. I looked up. A lady with a yellow scarf was gesturing wildly to me. She pointed to her phone, handed it to her friend, and scooted up next to me.

I smiled, wide. The friend snapped a picture.

“I want one too!” I said, handing her my camera so she’d know what I meant.

Then everyone in the friend group wanted a picture with me. They all wore magnificent brightly-colored clothing, and they jammed a red hat on my head and took pictures of me in it.

It was so much fun. They knew two English words, “yes” and “hello,” and I knew no Chinese words at all. One lady tried very hard to communicate, pointing to her nose and tapping her hand and holding up two fingers, but I was completely lost.

Then Ben came back, and they wanted to take pictures of us together, though Ben wasn’t particularly enthusiastic.

They gave me a bottle of water, which was nice, since I’d lost mine along the way, and we looked through the pictures we’d taken and gave each other smiles and “thumb’s up” signs until they had to go.

“So what’s going on?” I asked Ben, my spirits once more revived.

“They only fly to Chiang Mai once a day, so we have to spend the night here,” he told me. “They put us up in a hotel.”

“Did you tell them we were brother and sister so they’d give us two beds?” I asked.

“I just hoped they’d figure it out.”

“WHAT? You just assumed they’d KNOW?”

“I told them we were brother and sister.”

“Oh.”

We waited for the shuttle, and I longed in my heart for some music to listen to.  I had nothing. Even Chinese music would have soothed my soul. Instead  I sang, so softly that no one could really hear me over the general airport buzz, and pretended that I was listening instead of singing.

“Hey Jude, don’t make it bad, take a sad song, and make it bet-ter-er-er…”

“That’s what I’ll do,” I decided. “I’ll make this sad song better. I’m in China. I’ve never been to China before. I’ll have fun.”

We walked into the hotel room, and the first thing I saw was that, blessed relief, there were two beds. As I stood there admiring this fact, I heard Ben say, “wow, the shower’s not very private.”

Yes, that is a giant window between the bathroom and the rest of the room. Ben hung out in the hall while I used the bathroom, and then he got his chance to go when I went downstairs to ask how to connect to wifi.

“It’s easy,” said the receptionist. “No password.”

It wasn’t easy, though. Facebook wouldn’t open. Gmail wouldn’t open. Twitter wouldn’t open. Google wouldn’t open. “You can go down and talk to the receptionist this time,” I told Ben.

“It’s weird, though,” said Ben. “I can connect to ESPN just fine.”

“Really?” I tried opening Internet Explorer instead of Firefox. When I typed in “Facebook,” it re-directed me to a Bing search of headlines like “sites blocked in China.”

This was the one time in my life that Bing was more helpful than Google. Because apparently Google was blocked in China. Along with Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, etc.

Thus began a frantic search for an alternate way to send a message. “Can you comment on Mom’s blog?” “I think I had a Yahoo account once.” “Do you remember the password to Mom’s old Juno account?” “Maybe I could post on my blog.” “I guess I can message my fantasy football league members through ESPN.”

It turned out that Blogger was blocked, but WordPress wasn’t, at least not entirely. A basic HTML version of my blog loaded, but it wouldn’t let me post. I tried posting using my phone.

“Success!” I shouted.

“Oh good,” said Ben. “I don’t know how long it would have been until my friends saw this fantasy football message.”

And then we collapsed in gales of laughter at the random and bizarre communication methods we were resorting to.

The next morning I woke up before Ben, and held a towel up while using the bathroom in the off chance that he groggily opened his eyes. I wondered around the hotel looking for breakfast, and found nothing. It was absolutely frigid, and the hotel doors stood wide open. Burr. I returned to our room.

Besides two pairs of crocks and a roll of toilet paper the size of a can of cream-of-mushroom soap, the hotel room didn’t have much. It did, however, have all the necessities in the way of tea-making.

 

That was quite nice. I wrapped myself in my bedspread and drank tea and ate crackers with peanut butter. Man, it was COLD.

Ben finally woke up. “It’s snowing,” he told me, looking out the window.

“What? Really?”

“Yep. See the snow on that car?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Did we forget to turn on the heater last night?”

“There’s no heater. I checked. There’s no heat in the entire building.”

“Oh.”

Happiest of happys though, when I checked the comments of my blog post I saw that, not only were Mom and Amy vastly relieved to see that we were okay, but a girl that Amy and Ben knew was actually living in Kunming at the moment. Amy typed in her phone number, and I scribbled it down on a piece of paper and went down to the lobby to ask if I could use the phone.

Felicia, was the friend’s name, and she was as friendly as friends can be. “I live an hour away, but I’m not doing anything this morning,” she said. “I’ll take a taxi over right away.”

Ben took a walk while I showered. The water was hot, warming me through and through, and I sang “hey Jude” at the top of my lungs. I was making the sad song better.

I hadn’t packed for cold weather, I’d packed for Thailand, but I did the best I could. A skirt, under which was a pair of leggings, under which were my pajama pants, rolled up to the knees. My light jacket over my t-shirt over my long-sleeved shirt. Socks borrowed from Ben, and a light scarf wrapped around and around my neck. My Tinkerbell blanket wrapped around my shoulders. I was as ready as I’d ever be.

 

“Where do you want to go?” Felicia asked when she arrived, all friendly and smiles.

“Someplace where it’s warm,” I said.

She chatted a bit with the Taxi driver in Chinese. “Do you like hot pot?” she asked us.

“What’s hot pot?”

“It’s a Chinese dish…there’s a heated pan in the center of your table and you put in all sorts of meat and vegetables and make a stew.”

A warm soup in a warm place sounded heavenly. “Sure, let’s do that.”

We walked down the street and around the corner, as I tried to avoid getting water in my not-particularly-waterproof shoes. Flakes of snow nestled into the purple fuzz of my Tinkerbell blanket.

“You just had to be stuck here on the day it snows!” said Felicia.

“Does it not usually snow here?”

“Oh no! They call this the city of eternal spring. A couple years ago it snowed, and people were so excited because it was the first time it had snowed in seven years.”

We stepped into a tiny restaurant that, like the hotel, left its doors wide open. This made me dubious, but it did seem to be warmer in here. Someone gestured to the floor and there, in a square pan, was a pile of burning coals, keeping the customers toasty.

We gathered around the low table: me, Ben, Felicia, and the taxi driver. The waiter brought a pan of broth and set it on the burner in the middle of the table, and then brought us plates of meat and vegetables, and a large kettle full of tea.

 

This already seems like a core memory, forever powering travel island. Sitting there on that low stool, in a completely unexpected location, with two brand-new friends.

The taxi driver ladled meat and veggies into my bowl. “How do you say ‘thank you’ in Chinese?” I asked Felicia.

“Syea-syea,” she said.

“Syea-syea,” I told the taxi driver. I now knew a word in Chinese.

But what I remember most was the juxtaposition of cold and warmth. The snowy wind blew in the open door, nipping at my nose and freezing my toes. The coals warmed my legs, as I tried to get as close as possible without burning the edges of my Tinkerbell blanket. The soup warmed my insides, and the kindness of strangers warmed my soul.

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Photo credit: Ben

My logic was right. We figured things out, and everything was okay. We paid for the hot pot with the 400 Yuen we’d been given as compensation for our delayed flight, and gave the leftover money to Felicia hoping to cover a fraction of her taxi cost, even though she insisted it was okay and she was happy to come.

We went back to the airport, checked our bags, and got on the plane for Chiang Mai. We were delayed over an hour while they sprayed the snow off the plane and waited around for other unknown reasons, but at this point that seemed like pittance.

“How many hours have we been traveling?” I asked Ben when we finally reached Chiang Mai and were filling out immigration paperwork.

“Fifty hours,” he said. But I added it up later, and it was actually sixty-two hours. Over two and a half days.

But we fetched our suitcases and walked through the big glass doors, where Amy was waiting with her arms full of hugs.

We had finally arrived.

Please Read This If You Are Mom or Amy

Ben and I had a flight delayed four hours and couldn’t seem to connect to wifi anywhere and missed our flight to Thailand and can’t get another flight until tomorrow afternoon. 

Also, every single messaging service seems to be blocked. No gmail, no Facebook…so now I’m trying a blog post out of desperation cause I just want to go to bed. 

So yes, if you’re reading this, Ben and I are fine. 

Amy, we get in at four thirty tomorrow. 

Everyone else, stay tuned for more interesting travel updates coming soon. 

Stress

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Photo Credit: Esther Mae Wilcoxson

I understand that stress is a normal/needed biological reaction, but doesn’t it seem a little ridiculous to you that our body has the same reaction to schoolwork as it does to being chased by a bear?

I go to great lengths to decrease the level of stress in my life. I take a lighter course load even if it means I stay in college well nigh forever. I miss the hippest parties so I can recharge after a busy week. Unchecked stress causes both physical and mental illness for me, and the trade-off isn’t worth it.

Still. Being in college means that stress is inevitable. It swims in softly, circles around me, threatening, until dead week due-dates approach and it clamps down on my abdomen with its cold spiky teeth.

(In my head I imagine stress as looking somewhat like an angler fish.)

“It’s just a test,” I tell myself. “I could get a B. Or even a C. It wouldn’t really matter. I’d still graduate.”

But the angler fish seems immune to logic, and it never swims away until the tests are over and the slap-dash assignments are handed in.

So here’s a question: Is stress at school inevitable? Or are we doing it wrong?

I have several rants that are constantly simmering in my head, ready to boil over if anyone says a trigger word. This is one of them:

WHY is success in college measured by how much effort you put in instead of how much you actually learn?

College students are supposed to put in 2 hours of homework for every 1 hour of class time. Why is this? Who decided that this was a good idea?

In college, I’ve had a few classes that didn’t just teach me things, they fundamentally altered how I viewed the world and humanity. One of them was a history class at Linn Benton. I loved it so much I immediately signed up the next term for another history class from the same teacher. Another was a population geography class I took this term.

But here’s the thing: These classes were not stressful. They had almost no homework. In fact, the other day I realized that even though I took them at different colleges, the classes were structured almost identically:

  1. A short, relatively easy quiz every two weeks
  2. A discussion every week on something we’d talked about in class, with the scoring based more on scope of thought than on following a specific formula
  3. A bit of in-class work
  4. No final exam

So here’s a parting question: If learning and stress are not directly proportional, why do schools treat them like they are? Why is there an assumption that more homework = more learning?