Girl Gone.

With three years in China and Hong Kong behind me, it’s time to reveal my next move: a return to the good ol’ US of A with all her flaws and charms. Specifically, I will be moving to Boston at the end of August 2013. You are all invited to the tea party I will immediately throw myself as a housewarming ‘do and which will probably forever revoke the possibility of passing myself off as a true Bostonian.

Earlier this year I was accepted into Emerson College’s graduate program in Publishing & Writing, a 2-year MA program which will culminate in the spring of 2015. I am excited to take what I’ve learned from my time in the educational publishing and editing industry in Hong Kong and apply it to my studies at Emerson. I hope to make myself more relevant to industries outside of education, while infusing my career path with creativity and achieving a better understanding of how I can channel my passion into work that helps others. I’m not sure what that will look like yet, but I have some ideas…

With all this in mind, it’s time to put a period on this long, meandering sentence of a blog. From the ashy air of Beijing to the soul-opening view of the Himalayas to the poverty and war-torn history of Cambodia to the black volcanic sand of Indonesia to the dumplings of Shanghai to the drudgery and skill-building of a six-day work week in the colossally modern city of Hong Kong, it has been a hell of a trip. Thank you for your support and for following along here at Girl Gone China.

In comparison, my new professional site at mariesweetman.com may seem ho-hum if you’re not interested in publishing and books, but that’s where you’ll find me and I’ll do my best to keep it spicy.

Onward!

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Review: Country Driving by Peter Hessler

I take to my blog once again to expound on the narrative excellence of Peter Hessler. He’s not necessarily a magician with words, but he is a master of narrative flow and he captures China in ways that most foreigners could only dream of.

Country Driving: a Chinese Roadtrip is the summer vacation you never thought possible. This book follows three stories 1) two separate car trips following a path set out by Great Wall of China; 2) his sojourns to Sancha, a quiet rural village two hours north of his residence in Beijing; and 3) the life of a factory over two years in a small city in southeastern China, Lishui.

My favorite bits of this book were undoubtedly the time spent keeping track of Hessler’s time in Sancha. He had rented a small home in this village to have a place to get away from the hustle and bustle and dirt of Beijing. It was a gorgeous place to write and relax, but soon he became friends with some of the villagers, and his trips there became less about writing and more about visiting. Over the course of the book, he becomes particular friends with one sweet little boy who becomes very, very ill. Hessler has to advocate for the boy in Beijing because his poor rural background means the busy nurses and doctors barely even look at the boy’s parents as they shout for help during the midst of a medical emergency.

I loved this part especially because it showcases, first of all, the intense and immediate friendships that can spring up between near-strangers. But I especially like the idea of life encroaching on what you think of as your safe space. Hessler wanted to “get away from it all,” but he learned that you can’t become a hermit in another person’s home. The people of Sancha made him very aware of that. It also functioned as a microcosm of China as a whole – as just a few years passed by, Hessler witnessed Sancha go from this rural secret to a tourist pit stop. It brought money to the people of Sancha, but at what many would consider a great cost of natural beauty and privacy.

The chapters about the journey along the Great Wall just filled me with envy – Hessler took about a couple weeks to go as far as he could. There is a point where the Great Wall stutters to an abrupt halt at the shore of the sea, and I would love to see that.

All in all – another great Hessler read.

Awake

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This is Birdie – and yes, she does know how cute she is.

It’s not quite ten o’clock here and, a couple hours from bed, I already know I won’t fall asleep tonight. It’s not that I don’t want to. I have a head cold and my new kitten, Birdie, keeps me up at night, every night, since I got her four weeks ago. Of course I want to sleep. But some nights you just know that you won’t.

Often what keeps you awake is the day refusing to fade from your mind. It’s worries, unfounded or otherwise, responsibilities that you haven’t quite seen through to the end, encounters with new people or old that have sparked your imagination and lingered, memories of days or months or years gone by waiting for the dark nighttime hours to be fully explored. Monsters under your bed.

Other times it’s something a little less mentally intrusive and a little…louder, like tonight and I know no matter how tired I am, the thing that’s keeping me up is only going to get worse.

The monster under the bed in this case is the typhoon roaring outside my window, working itself into a frenzy. I know it hasn’t reached its peak yet. In Hong Kong, there are typhoon warning signals that range from 1 to 8, with 1 being the mildest, 3 middling, and usually jumping straight to 8, the most dangerous level, when the situation gets really serious. We’re forecasted for an 8 around midnight tonight. There’s been one other 8 in the past ten years, and that one occurred just this past September (mentioned briefly in this post).

A typhoon in my apartment sounds like a club that’s hired a bad DJ. My room is loud, riotous, but the noise is unpredictable, with no steady rhythm, and it just keeps getting louder and louder. My apartment faces the sea, taking the full brunt of the wind and the rain, but without danger of flying objects (knock on wood) as I’m high on the 26th floor.

Birdie’s not sure what the noise is all about. Then again, she probably doesn’t care, either, since her nights consist not of sleep but of chewing my hands and batting at my nose with her extended claws.

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Scientia: Inaugural Issue Spring/Summer 2012

Sleep or no sleep, I have big news: Scientia, the magazine that was supposed to have been published in December, is finally out and ready for an audience. I’m proud of it (although, at this point, I honestly am quite sick of looking at the articles) and am very glad that it’s a real thing that I can hold in my hands. Thanks to our amazing new designers, it looks gorgeous as well. I wrote the CTY cover article, as well as some other features and reviews. There’s definitely a lot of room for improvement, but I’m looking forward to building off of this issue to make our second one (slated for a November/December publication) even better than the first.

Other significant news includes the fact that I’ll be in America in two and a half days. I’m looking forward to seeing family and friends, and soaking up northern Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Chicago as hard as I can in just ten days. It’s not enough time and never will be. Lifetimes could be lived in all those places and that wouldn’t be enough time either. But I’m ready for my tonic: the little bit of home that will get me through the next however-long.

Meanwhile, I’ve got packing to do, a kitten to amuse, and a typhoon to wait out all night. It’s going to be a big one.

Yes

Repulse Bay

It’s November. You know, that drizzly gray month where the charm of autumn has waned and the cold is starting to take itself really seriously? I spent part of last Sunday lazing on the beach. We went down to Repulse Bay, a beach towards the southern end of the island with a low wall decorated with brightly-colored cartoon fishes (including one disturbing picture of a fish fishing for other fishes), gravelly sand, and murky ocean bottom. The South China Sea was filled that day with small rusty-hued globules, and I honestly don’t know if they were some kind of pollution or some kind of organism, and I didn’t take any pictures…but I prefer to think it was the latter. Once we swam out past the shallows however, the little blobs dispersed and the water felt great, and the sun came out for a bit… Just a November day in the subtropics. It’ll be getting much colder in the next couple months, so I’m enjoying this while it lasts.

November also means that I’m doing National Novel Writing Month again. I’m well on my way to that 50,000-word novel by 11:59pm on November 30th, 2011. So far I’ve kept on track. The story’s coming along and I’m more than 11,000 words in. It seems to go better when I’m extremely busy with the rest of my life. I use the novel to procrastinate at work, or use work to procrastinate at the novel and so either way I’m being more productive than I would be otherwise. Win-win?

These last couple weeks, and this week especially, have been very teaching-heavy. I’ve got nearly 30 hours of lessons this week with the remaining few hours for lesson planning and my editing duties. But I’m really getting into the groove, I think. Some of my students are wonderful, and I look forward to the hour or two I spend with them a week. More of them are duds, but eh, you win some, you lose some. I’m a better teacher now (as evidence, more students have requested me than my schedule could allow), and hopefully that trend continues.

totally comfy

As for the publishing department, in the last month I’ve sat in on a meeting with a potential new book distributor for our International Baccalaureate series, reviewed the proposal they sent us, finished writing four articles (and editing all the rest) for the magazine out in December, and contributed decisions regarding layout and style. It’s exciting, not just to finally get to do the things I’ve thought I’ve always wanted to do, but to do them and realize that so far, I really, truly enjoy doing those things.

I’m running a hotel this week, it seems–from last Friday to this coming Sunday there’s been and will be a steady string of friends from Shenzhen crashing on my couch. They’re all off for midterms on the mainland, so visits are in order. The couch wouldn’t mind some Michigan bodies on it, either…hint, hint.

Love to all. Be well!

Next

So, I’m going back to the Orient! Not to Shenzhen this time, but to Hong Kong, a world apart from mainland China, where the English language is plentiful, Western food is abundant, toilets are of the sit-down rather than squat variety, and the cost of living is the ninth most expensive in the world. Yikes.

I’ve been offered a job on Hong Kong Island as an English teacher and editor/writer for a learning center in Causeway Bay. I was offered the position mid-June, actually, but arrival in Hong Kong felt so far away that it was difficult to think of the job as a concrete thing. Now with my departure scheduled for swiftly-approaching August 15–a fifteen-hour straight shot from Detroit to Hong Kong–my first “grown-up job” (to me that means: contractual, salaried, full-time, useful, relevant to my interests, absorbing) feels a bit more real. I will be teaching general English, English literature, test prep, and writing to international and Hong Kong students who may want to study abroad somewhere like the UK or USA. I also cannot wait to jump at the opportunity offered to involve myself with the editing department within the company, as an editor and contributor for various English textbooks, and a soon-to-be-launched educational-themed magazine.

For those who have been following along all year, let me reiterate the perks of this new teaching gig specifically as compared to last year’s job: I’ll teach a maximum of six students per session. Six, not sixty. I will not be teaching ESL, since the students already speak fluent or near-fluent English, but instead, literature and writing. Or, as my brain keeps saying, “Books! I’m gonna talk about books all day!” These students will likely be motivated and hard-working, but even if they weren’t, with so few of them to keep track of, they will not be able to sleep through my lessons, text and play games on their cellphones, do their hair in mirrors propped up on their desks, or throw crumpled paper at their peers’ heads at the back of the classroom.

There are downsides, too. The turnover rate for my students will be greater than last year, so I won’t be able to develop as close of teacher-student relationships. And no doubt, there is something completely endearing about a pile of sixty students eager to hang out with me for a class that could very likely turn brutal at a moment’s notice for everyone involved due to that pesky language barrier. My Ping Gang students’ eagerness on most days to let me be a part of their lives as their resident, and dear, foreign teacher, is very unlikely to be paralleled by world-weary international students who are being bullied into after-school tutoring by their parents.

Nonetheless, I am optimistic. I am apartment-hunting, visa-applying, luggage-packing (about to start, anyway), goodbye-saying, summer-enjoying, and I am optimistic.

Countdown: 41 days until takeoff

The more I study Mandarin Chinese, the deeper into contradiction I fall: I am at once gaining access to the language and beginning to understand Mandarin the way I understand English, and I am also realizing just how little I have learned, how far I have to go, and how completely impossible it will be to ever grasp Mandarin in remotely the same way that I know English. Mandarin Chinese and American English, if you haven’t noticed, are not in the same language family. Not just oh, language acquisition is difficult but oh, the written system of Chinese lacks any and all intuition for me; Chinese speech patterns are alien; tones are impossible; and pinyin, while easier (and the only way I can make–or force–headway into this language) is not used at all in China and thus is of little practical use to me except as a study tool. Pinyin is the romanization of Chinese characters into the Roman alphabet, and it’s only used to help us poor waiguoren, or foreigners. Or, literally, “out-land person,” a person from somewhere else. An other.

Am I intimidated by the idea of tackling the Mandarin language?  Yes. Because even if I do manage some level of fluency over years of study, there are 200 languages in China as well as countless local dialects. Dialects! Look what thefreedictionary.com has to say about the word dialect:

di·a·lect // (d-lkt) n.

1.

a. A regional or social variety of a language distinguished by pronunciation, grammar, or vocabulary, especially a variety of speech differing from the standard literary language or speech pattern of the culture in which it exists: Cockney is a dialect of English.
b. A variety of language that with other varieties constitutes a single language of which no single variety is standard: the dialects of Ancient Greek.
2. The language peculiar to the members of a group, especially in an occupation; jargon: the dialect of science.
3. The manner or style of expressing oneself in language or the arts.
4. A language considered as part of a larger family of languages or a linguistic branch. Not in scientific use: Spanish and French are Romance dialects.

I would also add that dialects are indicators of heritage and (often!) geographic location or PAST geographic location. If you speak a certain way that sounds different from the way others speak around you, even if you’re speaking the same language, I’m going to assume that in your past you lived somewhere other than where you are now. Nifty! My nasal tones and my drawled A’s all indicate the Midwestern United States. My lazy “ain’t”s and inflections bespeak a poor, undereducated upbringing while my written/academic voice indicates the exact opposite. More evidence of my past life, no matter where I am at the present! Time traveling via language. We speak in certain ways and our speech tells a story.

There can’t be anything much more intimate than language study. Fluency in any language is the closest an outsider can be to being a local. Imagine being privy to another culture’s idioms and turns of phrase which originated in cultural habit, and understanding just how certain traditions permeate and influence language. History exists in language. Customs. Ideology. Consider the masculine oppressive, sexist structure of English, which is a testament to our patriarchal history: mailman, “he” as a generic pronoun, actor vs actress (why are two words needed for a single profession?). These are the insights that language can reveal. No matter how difficult language study is (and for me, it is VERY difficult) it is also impossibly interesting.

Right now I am completely fascinated by the Chinese phrase hao(3) jiu(3) bu(2) jian(4), which is translated into English as “long time no see.” Which is crazy! Because:

The English phrase “long time no see” is, according to my Chinese textbook, “said to have had its origin in a word-by-word translation of the Chinese greeting.” Now, of course, “long time no see” is not an English sentence–that’s not how English speakers use or construct their language. But we’ve adopted that phrase as our own to the point where even though I am trying actively to think and write about this phrase for the weird thing it is, my mind keeps slipping back into thinking of it as normal.

But think: (1) hao jiu bu jian is Chinese. (2) It was very roughly translated into pidgin English, who knows how long ago (large scale immigration of the Chinese to the United States began in the mid-1800’s thanks to the California Gold Rush, although of course there were Chinese immigrants before then), in a character-by-character/word-by-word translation into “long time no see.” (3) This phrase then becomes a functioning and completely acceptable part of the English lexicon, even though it makes no grammatical sense. (4) Because the phrase has been adopted, when I get to Lesson 4: Hobbies in my first semester Mandarin Chinese class at the University of Michigan during Fall 2006, I come across the phrase hao jiu bu jian in a dialogue and it is STILL being roughly translated character-by-character into the now acceptable pidgin English phrase “long time no see!” An acceptable translation into English should be something like “a long time has passed since seeing you” or even the more casual “it’s been awhile.” But instead, hao jiu bu jian is translated into a non-grammatical phrase which, while ostensibly English, HAS ITS ROOTS IN CHINESE!