Maya’s Journal – Day 11

Today, we got tutored again, and met a man from Kansas named Douglas. He has 3 adopted daughters and used to work at Migrant School. As well, we talked a little bit, then grandma and I went upstairs for lunch, Then we picked up Douglas and went to school.
My favorite student is Henry. His English is amazing and he is very funny. His type is super rare. He is funny, but he is not disruptive and very enthusiastic. Doug wasn’t teaching. He was speaking with his director.
We were pooped again, so as I said before, we ate dinner and went to bed.

Maya’s Journal – Day 7

Today we left early for a Chinese tutor that my grandmother hired to learn Chinese. She taught us for two hours, but then 30 minutes was taught because we lost track of time. We hurried back home for lunch, and then left for our bus to the school to teach again.
The students said I’m very good at singing and drawing, so we sung “Yankee Doodle” in class and drew together. The girls in the front and middle seats are so nice and generous to me; they gave me another jellish thingy and two girls made me a paper crane. Grandma and I were completely pooped. All we did at the end was to eat dinner and go to bed.

Maya’s Journal – Day 5

Today we got a breakfast of soymilk and sweet potatoes. We also got ready for our first day of teaching.
At the school, there were lots of troublemakers at the back. I had to stand on a school to be heard, but every time I felt off some sniggled. The teaching day was quite successful, actually, I already had some fans, two girls in the middle seats gave me a pen and a blubbery toy.
When we got home we planned to go to a sightseeing place. Once again, I fell asleep in the middle of dinner.

Unexpected Generosity

Doug Speeching compressed

On Thursday, June 23rd, more than a half a world away from the Jing Yu Xi Wang Migrant School, about 75 kind and generous people gathered to help me make good on the promise I made to Director Wang over three months ago. For those who read my blog back in March, you may remember that I committed to “do my best” to raise enough money to pay for the remaining six air conditioners required to equip the school.
I have to admit that I had my doubts about being able to raise $3000 from those who had never seen the school, had never met the children there, had never heard of Lotus Education and who possibly had no personal ties with China.   I have never been involved in any fundraising.  And, even though I was a salesman for many years, I have a real fear of asking anyone for money.

Two things kept me focused:  First, my promise to Director Wang who had shown me such kindness while I was at the school and second, the words of one of the students.   She told me,  “Teacher, you are in our Chinese hearts now and we will take care of you”.   At the time, she was only referring to protecting me from dishonest taxi drivers.  Not so dramatic.  Nonetheless, that one sentence has driven my desire to ‘take care of’ those wonderful kids who welcomed me while I was there.

auction 2 compressed

auction 2 compressed

So, in mid-April, armed with missionary zeal, I started planning “something”.   I didn’t know what that “something” was, but I was planning it.   I talked to friends, neighbors, colleagues and customers who all said, “That sounds like a good cause! Let me know when you figure out what you are going to do”.   I had no clue.  I won’t go into the details, but some of my first ideas were anemic at best.   Then, one day, I mentioned the fundraiser to a family friend, Sarah, who is a professional fundraiser for one of the local child protection agencies.  Everything started to come together almost immediately.  She gave me clear direction and identified which of my plans were irreparably crazy and needed to be dropped post haste.

Sarah kindly offered her home, which is larger than ours (and considerably cleaner because my children do not live with her).  She designed the invitations, edited my long-winded introduction, created email invites, enlisted her children and their friends to stuff envelopes and created spreadsheets with the invitee’s email and snail mail addresses…and the list goes on.  I was dumbfounded.

The neighborhood Chinese restaurant generously agreed to donate the food and one of my customers agreed to donate the drinks.  I got in touch with the local Confucius Institute  and the Kansas City Chinese American Association.  Their members responded with enthusiastic support.  They provided entertainment in the form of food and traditional Chinese dance and song.   The President of the KCCAA, CJ Wei co-sponsored the event in the name of his organization.

marissa elizabeth anna compressed

marissa elizabeth anna compressed

I claim credit for the idea about the silent auction.  I have always admired the beauty of Chinese art and culture and over the years I purchased several antiques and culturally representative items which I have cherished.   I felt the time had finally come to give those things a purpose.   Other wonderful items were donated by members of the Chinese Community, local businesses, and other generous friends.   Two bright acrylic paintings were donated by an up-and-coming Chinese-American artist who has appeared in the press and has had shows at well-known galleries, Marissa Hitt.  Marissa is a fine, well-spoken young lady who will tell you all about her very unique images. Both of her paintings sold at the auction.  Oh, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Marissa is six and a half (yes, 6yrs and a half).

The weather was beautiful for the event.   Guests were able to view the silent auction, watch a continuous slide show of the school and take from the buffet.   Outside, guests could sit eat and socialize.  It was a very multicultural crowd.

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picture board compressed

I spoke for a few minutes about the school, the wonderful people of Lotus and expressed my deepest gratitude to those who had given of their time and resources.  It was humbling to see how so many people had come together, half a world away, just to express love and support for children they have never met.

The dancers were beautiful, the singers were wonderful and, when the donations were added up, we had not only met the $3000 goal, we had exceeded it by over $700.   I will use this word again: humbling.

The next day, I received a call from my chiropractor who had made a generous donation, even though I had forgotten to invite him until the day of the event. I thanked him again, but he said that he had even better news.  The acupuncturist with whom he shares an office (whom I did not know and did not invite) had been telling one of her patients about the fundraiser and the school.  At the end of the session, her patient left a donation for $1000.  This was truly an expression of selfless compassion.

In the meantime, other donations have come in and we have exceeded the $5000 mark.   I am not only pleased to be able to repay my debt of gratitude to the children of the Jing Yu Xi Wang School, I am also proud of my own community for their generosity and compassion.   What a wonderful thing.


子路曰:愿闻子之志- “老者安之,朋友信之,少者怀之”
One of Confucius’ disciples once asked him: “What is your wish?” The answer was: “That the elderly will have peace, that friends will be true and that children will be cared for and cherished”

wonderful food compressed

wonderful food compressed

Last Good-bye and Home Again

It has been almost two weeks since I posted my last blog. In the meantime, I have said good-bye to the Jin family, the children at the school, my friends at Lotus Education in Beijing, have gotten into hot water with the USDA for importing Chinese dried beef sticks and have slept in my own bed for the first time in almost a month.

Last Tuesday I went to the school for the last time.  The kids were as rowdy as usual, but I was afforded a bit more attention on my final day.  I did my best to tell them that I appreciated their patience with my poor Chinese and that I would miss them very much.  At recess time, I was given little gifts.  There was a handmade yellow bead bracelet  (lots of Chinese guys wear these – I was assured by the little girl who made it that it was just a bracelet and not of any religious significance), several drawings of girls in fancy gowns,  a chalk rendering of a sunset at sea, drawings of cartoon animals (possibly traced, but it’s the thought that counts), a handsome red ballpoint pen (which was permanently ‘barrowed’ by the end of school that day), a small ring set with a plastic red stone (“for your Chinese daughter because she’ll know that red is lucky and it’s the color of her flag”) and sort of an abstract multi-media painting with stars, birds, lightning bolts and  quotes by Zhou En Lai and Deng Xiao Ping on the bottom.   I love the gifts and I love the kids- even the rowdy ones who wouldn’t pay attention no matter how loud I yelled.

Toward the end of class, I looked out the window and saw Director Wang.  I had not expected to see him again as he had gone home to Central China for the Qing Ming festival.   After class he came over and told me that he had come directly from the train station to school in order to see me before I left.  He invited me into his office and quickly brewed me a glass of tea. He produced a new, unopened can of green tea of the same sort he had given me before.  He had bought it in his home town and wanted me to have it.  We talked about my next visit, the school, the students (who I thought was best and who had who had not paid attention – fortunately for the slackers, I couldn’t remember their Chinese names).  I thanked him for his support and kindness.  In the meantime, my tea glass had been filled for the third time and some of the kids were standing outside the door making motions which clearly meant that they couldn’t wait for me any longer.  Not wanting to offend my host, I remained seated and waved good bye to the children.  This was not exactly how I had pictured my farewell, but things never turn out how we expect them to – good or bad.   Director Wang is a very dear man who truly has the children’s best interest at heart and he scares the holy heck out of them. After my last glass of tea and my last barrage of thank you ‘s, he led me to the school gates and gave me a very ‘un-Chinese’ pat on the back.  Outside, my usual entourage was still waiting for me after all.

Henry, Diana and Lily, some of my walking palsThe twins, Lilly and Jessica, little Henry and Diana (all the kids had English names which I found much easier to remember) walked slowly down the dirt road with me, asking some last minute questions like: “Are you sad to leave us?”,  “Are you going to be happy to see your family” and the very Chinese question “How much money do you make?”  (No, I didn’t tell them)  “Can you use chopsticks” and “Do you like Chinese food better than hamburgers, etc. etc”.   Our little group always caused people on the street to stop and stare (old white man with Chinese kids speaking Chinese to him didn’t compute for most passer bys).  But that last day, it seemed that the neighborhood had actually got used to our little parade and we had fewer gawkers.   Diana (who had given me the yellow bracelet) held my hand most of the way.

Unlike other days, the moment we got to the main road, a taxi pulled up.  I hailed him.  “Your mingpian, your calling card, teacher!  Do you have a calling card?  We don’t know your address!   How can we write you?” I didn’t have any cards with me and I promised that I would write them soon and they would get my address then.   I got a quick hug, I think, and I got into the car.  “When are you coming back?”  “Next year,” I yelled through with window. Until that moment,  I had been very guarded about saying if and when I’d be back, but my four ‘protectors’ looked so genuinely sad that I couldn’t have told them anything else.

That night, the Jins fed me my favorite dinner and I played on the floor with Dudu who had told his parents earlier that day, they shouldn’t let Yeye (grandpa) go home.   On the wall in their dining area, they had a very large scroll on which was written a verse by an 11th century poet,  Su Shi

For thousands of years, the waves of the eastward flowing Yangtse have been washing away all the great heroes of the past… Around uneven steeps of the rocky walls which reach the sky, the huge waves beat against the banks, bursting like thousands of layers of snow.

On the first day, I had commented on the beautiful calligraphy. That night, after dinner, the scroll was taken off the wall, rolled up and given to me.  This left a huge empty spot on the wall, a perfect expression of the generosity and kindness afforded me by my hosts, the Jins.

On Wednesday, Livia from Lotus came and picked me up.  I got hugs from the neighbor, and was accompanied to the car by the Jins.   With the thank you’s  and hugging over (hugging is not particularly Chinese), we departed on one last wild taxi ride through Beijing.

Now I’m back home with my wonderful family and China seems surreal and far away. It’s sort of difficult to write about it now.   In the end, the experience far exceeded my expectations and frankly, I never would have believed adventures like this were possible at this point in my life.

Thanks for reading this long blog.  I’ll be back.

Medicinal Massage and an Invitation to Return

Today, Friday, is chilly and gray in Beijing.  The steam is pouring out of the street vendors stands and the dust hanging in the air for the past few days seems to have settled a bit thanks to the sprinkles.   Until today, it has been very dry since I arrived and every gust of wind brings with it a little bit if grit that settles between the few hairs I have left on my head and between my tea-yellowed teeth.   My lips look like the unrestored Dead Sea Scrolls and eating spicy food can be painful if not handled correctly.  The next door neighbor lady took pity on me and brought me a real honest-to-goodness German-manufactured Nivea brand chapstick.  I had forgotten to bring one (although brought every other pharmaceutical under the sun to the point I was worried that customs might be suspicious) and I had looked all over for one here to no avail.  I was so overjoyed that she may have thought my long string of  ‘thank yous’ was ingenuous.  It was not.  My lips are on the amend now, but are still very red.  “As red as strawberries” as one student pointed out.

The same neighbor (whose daughter, WeiWei, is the same age as my host family’s son DuDu – 3), offered this morning to perform a therapeutic Chinese medicinal message on me this morning after breakfast.   Were not talking spa message here.  Key is “Chinese medicinal” so it’s gotta hurt – I figured that up front.  Remember Chinese medicine with those dozens of needles, the flaming cups attached to your skin that create mega-hickies, the burning moxa (incense like tablet’s affixed to the top of the needles), the ground up dried flora and fauna made into a refreshing drink?  That’s what I was counting on.  I have to say that I really like the neighbor lady.  She and Mrs Jin, the hostlady, are good friends.  They are both in the mid-30′s or so and are very modern and sort of…..I guess “laid back’.  The neighbor lady, I found, possesses the strongest fingers I have seen or experienced in my entire life.   The first part of the procedure consisted of her sticking those very strong and pointy fingers so deep into my stomach and leaving them there for a couple minutes at each scientifically designated point.  She got know all my innards up close and personal.  The neighbor exclaimed that I had the softest stomach she had ever felt on an adult.  I asked if this would be a good thing since my Western male mind doesn’t like the idea of being a marshmellow.  Oh, yes!   This was really good, she said.  And the fact that I had not cried out in pain indicated that I am indeed healthy.  I don’t know if she had noticed the tears rolling down my cheeks.  They were not tears of joy.  After all of the recesses of my stomach are had been completely explored and she found that umbilical hernia I need to have taken care of one of these days, she moved on to my back which was tenderized with copious elbow pressure and rapid palm movements.  Legs, arms are fingers were pulled and the bottom of my feet were beaten within an inch of their lives.  It was the best message I have ever had in my life (and I’ve had several).  After it was all over, I was unable to get up for several minutes.  I drank a few cups of hot water (they love hot water here —  no tea, just hot water) and ate only one bowl of Mrs Jin’s mother’s hand made dumplings and vegetables (much to her dismay since she thinks I am about to die of starvation at any moment).  I dragged myself out on to the street and hailed cabs.  Two stopped but wouldn’t take me to school (I was going the wrong direction for the first one and the other one was almost out of gas and the destination was too far).  The third cab stopped and was far and away the slowest, most courteous driver I have ridden with yet.  Downside was that I got to the school late.

This was my last class with the 9-11 year olds (3rd level) before I retrn home.  They were so happy to see me and have me in their class, but really were not into learning English much.  We were working on numbers.  I had them count off. They got to 12 and then looked at me…a couple could go to 20, but only a couple.  They were great at repeating the numbers thirteen to twenty, but that was about it.   Their school book actually had the “1-2-3-5, once I caught a fish alive” song which a sang.  They liked it.   They sing a lot.  We worked on that for the rest of the class.  The finished product sounded something like “ONE TWO THREE FOUR FIVE MMUM AYE PHUSH RYEBE!!!!!!“  But that’s okay….a good time was had by all.

Director Wang was still at the school today.  After my class was over (only had one hour today, he called me into  his “office” and we drank tea from his hometown.  Really strong green tea.   He leaves for home on the train this evening.  Nine and a half hours transt.  He showed me his ticket a couple times.   Our conversation far exceeded my expectations.  We exchanged email and mailing addresses and he wanted to make sure when, exactly, I would return next year.  When I said I couldn’t promise that I’d be back in 2012 he looked honestly distressed.  He showed me pictures of his wife and family in a photo album hidden behind the hanging blanket which separated the room. His wife is pretty and he has 4 children.  Thi is very rare for ethnic Chinese in “One-Child-Family-China”.   Minorities are exempt from from the one child rule, but Mr Wong is ”Han” Chinese and not an ethnic minority.  I only said he was lucky to have so many children and he agreed.  Since we wouldn’t be seeing each other anymore any time soon, he gave me a little folder with little button-sized portraits of of Chairman Mao in the various stages of his military and political career.  ”This is for your Chinese daughter”, he said.  He also gave me the open can of tea from his hometown.  The tea was  clearly one of his prize possessions.    Of course, he knew that he would be able to replenish his supply while on home leave.  Nonetheless, this was a heartfelt expression of his appreciation and I thanked him again and again.  He told me “Many of the children’s parents don’t even earn 1000 yuan (about $360) per month and many of them have several children living in one room.  Those children will be here as long as this school stands and I know that they would like you to come back”.  He walked me across the courtyard to the tin and reebar gate and asked that we stay in touch.

I waved and walked down the now muddy lane with the sounds of the kids screaming their repetitions for their other teachers.  I’ll be back tomorrow.

My Ears are Still Ringing

Yesterday, Monday, I had my first hour with the younger kids at the Migrant School. I have stood up in front of a lot of people before and have delivered messages long and short and have always been rather collected. Yesterday, I nearly fell apart. I walked into the room…no….I squeezed into the room and counted: 67 kids in a room that would be approved for 20 in other places. The kids were actually sitting on each other. I noticed a couple of the more ‘narrow’ kids were sharing one stool. The desks were so far forward that there was not really much room for me to turn around.

Of course, due to the sheer density of the crowd there was a lot of jostling and complaining going on.  It was almost impossible to control the back quarter of the room as there was no way to get back there (unless you are under 5′ and weigh less that 70lbs).    As I mentioned before, the method of teaching the kids are used to is simply repeating after the teacher….anything the teacher says.  It’s kind of like listening to your echo through giant rock concert loudspeakers.   So even if I switched over to Chinese to say “turn the page”, they repeated in Chinese….TURN THE PAGE….I don’t think they were kidding.

The sheer thrill of having a foreigner stand up in front and pay attention to them seems to be incentive enough for them to want to work (well, for about 90% of them…no class is without it’s goldbrickers).  After an hour of high decibel repetition (there was just no way to ask individual questions in that forum), they all filed out of the room, each one thanking me and saying that I should come back (even the goldbrickers).   About 8 stayed behind and brought out short hand brooms with which they swept the massive amounts of garbage on the floor into a big pile, lined up the desks and put the stools on top.  My kids back in America would have a fit if they had to clean up after their classmates.

Today I took a walk to the cleaners to have my clothing washed and my shirts washed and pressed (one of the things that isn’t cheap in China – actually costs more there than in Kansas City) and went by the bank.  The grandmother in my host family is now preparing handmade noodles, stewed pork belly (no, it’s really good), what looks like wild asparagus and something else that smells really peppery….we’ll see.   At 12:45 I’ll catch a car back out to the school.

Thanks for reading.

The Lotus Leap of Faith

Before I tell about my experiences of the past few days, I’d like to tell you about how I got here in spite of my better judgement.

I am a mid-baby boomer, 55. I taught English as a second language 30 years ago in the US. I do speak some Mandarin, but not all that much.  I am married, have three kids ranging from 8-19.  This year, I had a couple of weeks of carry over vacation which didn’t jive with my wife’s or kid’s vacations, so the choice was, clean out the basement or go some place by myself…(the basement is really scary bad so the choice was easy).  I had been to China once before when I picked up my adoptive daughter in 2003 and I really liked it.  Sitting in a hotel room for two weeks didn’t sound too thrilling (still better than the basement gig, though), so I started ‘googling’.  I went from bed and breakfast to homestay and from homestay to volunteer.  There are LOTS of sites out there, but the Lotus site appealed to me.  I wanted to stay in the Beijing area and found that they had two opportunities: A nursing home and a school for migrant worker children.  At first, being an older guy, I sort of thought about volunteering at the nursing home.  I spend lots of time at the nursing home where my mother (now 100 years old) lives in Iowa and I know the routine.  Then, thinking of my long-gone days of teaching, I inquired about the school.

The folks at Lotus wrote back promptly and confirmed that I could volunteer at the school for just the 10 days and that they would work around my schedule in case I had any other wishes (sight seeing, etc).  They also said that they would place me in a host family.  If anybody my age is reading this, you might agree that the idea of living in someone else’s apartment doesn’t sound to appealing.  But what the heck!  Sitting in a hotel room by yourself doesn’t sound too fun either.  I do that enough for work.

My wife and friends kept asking: “Do you know if  Lotus is really reputable?”  I had to say that I didn’t.  I thought, ‘well, if this is all a bust, I can go and get that hotel room afterall’.  The communication I received from Lotus was always prompt and very accommodating and kind.  It was a leap of faith, and I’m so very happy that my trust was well founded.

I was picked up from the airport in Beijing by Livia who is soft-spoken and kind.  She took me to my host family, the Jin’s who live in a very nice apartment in the western suburbs of Beijing.  Mr and Mrs Jin are in their 30′s.  They have a 3 year old son and Mrs Jin’s mother lives with them.  They are very open, hospitable and helpful.  Their son addresses me as Yeye (grandpa) which is just fine with me.

On Friday (I arrived last Thursday), Livia came and picked me up from the Jin’s to take me to the school.  It was quite a drive and rather difficult to find.  I have to interject here that China’s incredibly rapid development has bettered the lives of millions and millions of people.  There are, however, still some sectors of the economy which will catch up someday, but have not as of yet.  The school is located in an area which is truly interesting and picturesque and incredibly poor.  The narrow street (one car wide) is lined with street food vendors, cigarette shops, bicycle repair shops and tiny vegetable stands.  Many Chinese migrant workers live there and you hear different dialects and smell different food.

The school is in a small wooded area.  It is a very old (or looks that way) brick structure with classrooms on either side and a courtyard in the middle.  We met the school director, Mr Wang in his unheated 10 X 10 office.  Livia interpreted when necessary and we set up a schedule for me in the next two weeks.  The entire time we were there, kids were peering though the windows to see the old foreigner.  As we went out, a throng was standing there giving me the peace sign and shouting “hello!”.

On Saturday, I had my first class from 1:30 to 4:00.  There were also some volunteers there from one of the local universities.  They were mostly education majors who come in as well.  They helped with translations as well.  There were about 20 kids in the class, all ranging from 11 to 13.  They were honestly excited to have me there.  We departed from the text rather quickly.  The kids are taught how to read and repeat after the teacher.  They repeated everything I said.  I started to depart from the text and tried to use the words in the text in a sentence.  Yikes!! Obviously, no one had ever done this before with them.  We had so much fun that they decided that they didn’t want to go to recess.  Other kids started to come in and sit down — I think a few came in through the window when my back was turned.  What the heck!  At least they were breaking the rules for educational purposes.   When 4pm rolled around, they didn’t want to leave…I was kaputt.   The photo is of the last stragglers with me after class was finally over.  It was a truly wonderful experience.

I am going back again this afternoon and will be working with some of the younger kids.  Hope it’s at least half as good as the first class.

I’ve written too much and I thank anyone who has held out this long reading my ramblings.  Will try to keep my stories brief going forward.

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