Superlatives and Cockroaches

Trying to be calm and collected, I deftly maneuvered around the room, looking over students’ shoulders to see their progress on a foldable activity charting comparative and superlative forms of adjectives. Praising a student for writing “more fun” instead of “funner” and then quickly hopping over to the other table to re-explain that you can’t always just put “-est” on the end of any adjective to make it superlative, I was only 70% focused on my larger lesson. The other 30% of my brain was entirely honed in on tracking the movements of the mid-sized cockroach who had joined our class for the day. Knowing that my students lived in rooms very much like the one we were using as a classroom, cockroaches are a part of their lives on a daily basis and I didn’t want to be the wimpy foreigner who couldn’t handle a couple of oversized antennae wiggling across the floor. But, being barefoot, it was essential that that dang, prehistoric bug didn’t get anywhere near my feet! (Yes, I also have cockroaches in my house, but they are mostly confined to the first floor laundry room, and when I see them, I always squawk like a terrified owl and run for higher ground, hollering at Thad to come destroy the evil that can’t scurry across my floor with impunity. Such a reaction would probably not gain me much respectability in the classroom, so I use every ounce of my willpower to keep my shit together, at least temporarily.)

Some days it is cockroaches and others it is rats. Always there are lizards. The abundant wildlife in my classrooms would lead one to believe that I’ve taken up a new career as a middle school science teacher, but alas, English is still my first love and my new little friends are just an added bonus.

Moving every couple of years means it can be difficult to have a prolonged career trajectory, but we knew that would be the case when Thad joined the State Department. Trading my career for the ability to have a lifestyle that not only settles us in far-flung locations for a few years at a time, but also gives us the chance to travel on a regular basis was not a spur-of-the-moment decision, nor was it an easy one. At the time, I’m not sure I realized just what it meant, employment-wise, to uproot every couple of years, but with a few moves behind us now, I’ve come to see that while there can be a lot of frustration inherent in the process, there is also a level of freedom that would be unachievable if we had stayed as educators in Idaho.

This go-round, unable to find a position at the embassy in KL, I decided to look beyond the official diplomatic community and see what other opportunities existed around the city. It wasn’t long before I stumbled upon the United Nations’ High Commission for Refugees, the branch of the UN that deals with helping refugees resettle into safer countries. Malaysia is home to a huge number of refugees, many of them coming out of Burma. These displaced families are here trying to get their documents and paperwork in order so that they can apply for visas to resettle to any number of western countries, including the US, UK, Canada and Australia. Families can be here for years as they get in line for resettlement, which means certain “daily-life” activities need to carry on- schooling being one of them. To facilitate their continued education, the UNHCR supports dozens of refugee schools across the city, where students take daily courses in English, math, science and their local language. After filling out the forms and getting the necessary background checks, I was assigned to a Chin refugee school in the center of the city. The neighborhood is a rundown one and the school is merely a set of rooms in an apartment building, but volunteering there two days a week has quickly taken me back to my days as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

In class, when I am not stealthily dodging cockroaches, we review basic grammar points (like most TOEFL students, there are problem areas that need constant attention) and talk a lot about western culture. Since the ultimate goal of these students’ families is to move to an English-speaking country, we talk a lot about western holidays, mannerisms and classroom behaviors, but there are also a whole lot of pop culture chats. Who knew Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber were so beloved by Chin students from Burma? I’ve learned vast amounts about soccer, as they all have favorite teams and players and most of the boys are horrified at my immense lack of knowledge of anything “football”-related.

When we learned we were headed to Malaysia for our second posting, I was disappointed to find out I wouldn’t be able to teach at the international schools due to visa regulations. (This rule has since changed, but the modifications came about too late for me to apply for positions since international schools hire in January/February of each year and the visa requirements didn’t adapt to fit my needs until late April.) Thinking that I couldn’t teach, I turned my eye to other positions within the embassy community, looking at a couple that seemed to be perfect fits with my background in education and volunteering, but when neither of those worked out, after a few days of wallowing in the misery of rejection, it was back to teaching I found myself, although in a different manner than I had ever imagined. Now, I spend two days a week in small rooms, with just ceiling fans for ventilation and a not-quite-erasable white boards, helping upper elementary and middle school aged kids prepare for a life-changing move, but couching it all in lessons about Thanksgiving and One Direction. It may not be what I had planned for myself for this second State posting, but, as it often turns out, the unplanned experiences are the most rewarding.

(*Note on photos- Because my students are minors and refugees, I did not want to post any pictures of individuals to the internet, as they have fled their home country out of concerns for their safety and security.)

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Blogging for Bucks

A zoo without zebras…

Idaho without potatoes…

Waffles without syrup…

An English teacher without students…

All are hopelessly adrift in a sea of slight melancholy. Until, that is, they find their missing piece. Luckily, I’ve found mine! (My “piece “might disagree with the “lucky” part though.)

Last Thursday, when I got the email from our fabulous mail clerk saying, “Today there is a little mail,” I, like many others in the consulate, locked up shop and headed out back to the mailroom in hopes that a bit of that “little mail” would be addressed to me. Surprisingly, the sun was out, forcing me to dig through my purse to find my seldom used sunglasses for the short walk around the building. But, the search of shades and the short walk were worth my effort- mail in the Ross bin! I had two Netflix movies, a bill from my dermatologist (you know, the one I pay a lot of money to hack off my fingernails, reducing my weekly manicure time by 30%) and a hand addressed envelope. Exciting!

After checking to see what movies I had for the weekend and making a mental note to send off a check to the doctor, I sliced open the edge of the mystery envelope. Inside, I found a letter from my niece, who is going into the 7th grade in just a few short weeks. She’s a budding biologist, hoping to be a veterinarian in the future. To that end, she is going to Florida next summer with her science class, on a five-day visit to wildlife parks, swamps and the ocean. But, as with most great experiences, there is the little issue of the almighty dollar. The fieldtrip costs a lot. She is thirteen. Those two things don’t go together so well.

Hence, the plea for help.

I’m not about to send the child cash, just for the heck of it, but, I will gladly put her to work! Not being there to employ her as a backyard pooper scooper or knick-knack duster, and feeling the tug of the classroom as my Facebook feed blows up with my teacher friends bemoaning the end of summer, I came up with a better plan: I would pay her to write!

In the last six months, she has started two blogs, both of which never really got off the ground. This was the perfect chance to support her fundraising efforts and encourage her to spend time writing. The English teacher in me could hardly contain myself!

So, I sent her a proposal. I would pay her a set amount for each blog entry she posted, but they had to follow a few simple guidelines. (For example, they had to be well-organized, not just a single, gigantic paragraph.) Within those basic parameters, she is free to write about whatever she would like- school, dance, family, her summer adventures, etc.

I am super excited for her to start writing and posting on her blog and I am more than happy to throw down a bit of cash as an encouragement. (Now, if only I could get someone to pay me to write!) Her first post went up today at http://zebradancer.wordpress.com/ and is a fun look at the day she spent at Idaho’s first aquarium.

I may not have a classroom full of 8th graders to pester about reading and writing, but with middle school aged nieces/nephews, I’ll work my magic anyhow.

School Daze, Minus the Spike Lee

“Foreign Service? Sure! That sounds great! With my teaching degrees and background, I’m sure I’ll be able to land a job as we jump from country to country from now until retirement. Hauling boxes of young adult books and hard copies of fabulous lesson plans trans-Pacific/Atlantic will be no problem at all. I’ll go pack my bags right now!” These were the thoughts running through my head as Thad passed test after test to land himself a dream job with the US Department of State.

Oh, the naivety of my youth…

Because yes, I do have a bachelor’s degree in English/Spanish teaching; and yes, I do have a master’s degree in middle level education; and yes, I have taught for seven years in the US and two in China; but no, I cannot just jump on the first job opening at the local international school in each new posting. You see, when traveling with the State Department, the list of rules/regulations is longer than the Christmas list of my five year old niece. (It does include much, much less Hello Kitty. As I think about it, though, a little pink and glitter would liven of the FAM guidelines a bit. )  Some countries allow spouses to work on the local economy and some do not. While the reasons for the prohibitions are as numerous as the aforementioned Hello Kitty swag on the Christmas list, the outcome is still the same: if there is no bilateral work agreement with the host country, the diplomatic spouse cannot work.

That is the boat I am currently floating along in in China. Because there is no bilateral work agreement here, as I was exploring my employment options in Chengdu, I was told that I was not allowed to apply for jobs at the international school, even though there were openings that would have been perfect for my background. Although I was initially disappointed, my spirits were revived when I saw the Community Liaison Officer (CLO) position would be opening up within weeks of our arrival. With impeccable timing and a lot of background working with people in various capacities, the CLO job ended up being a great fit. I’ve been lucky to work under fantastic management during my introductory year to State and had a great time expanding the CLO position in Chengdu. It has been a great way to spend my time in Chengdu.

But, at heart, I am a teacher. I miss teaching, especially literature and writing. (My middle school niece recently started her own blog and I’ve been pestering her constantly about what she is writing about, excited to see some middle school creativity again! She may soon start ignoring me on G-chat messages if I’m not careful.) So, while at times I’ve felt a bit discombobulated by the lack of lesson plans to write or expository essays to edit, I’ve comforted myself with the thought that I’ll be back in the classroom in 2014.

Oh, the naivety of my (less than before) youth…

Much like the royal baby, there was great anticipation for bidding season. (This is an appropriate simile, as you may remember that I wrote a long post comparing Foreign Service bidding to having a child. Check that one out here.) We waited with eager expectancy to find out where we would spend (aka: where I would teach) the next two years. And at last we got the coveted email: Kuala Lumpur.

Great! It is warm (hot!!) year round, the travel opportunities are endless and the cutest baby elephant I’ve ever seen lived in Malaysia. I’ll go pack my teaching bags right now!

Or not.

After the excitement (and shock!) of our posting wore off, I did what I always do- research and obsess. Before the news had even been announced to all of our family and friends back home, my Amazon cart was filled with books (both fiction and non-fiction) about Malaysia and I bought the Malaysia, Borneo, Singapore Lonely Planet at a bookstore in downtown Taipei. I plied through document after document from the embassy in KL, reading everything I could get my hands on about housing, transportation, community events…and work. Much to my chagrin, I soon realized that diplomatic spouses in Malaysia are facing the same struggles that the ones in China are- no bilateral work agreement. Long story short- I can’t teach in the international school in KL either.

Frustration doesn’t begin to do justice to the moment.

Quickly, I decided it was time for a new game plan. Knowing that complaining about the situation wasn’t going to change it, I started scouring the internet for possible online teaching opportunities and bugging everyone I knew in the education world for possible connections into the world on online teaching. But, introductions would not be enough. Coming from a background of teaching in a traditional classroom setting, I figured some training in online teaching wouldn’t be a bad idea, so when I stumbled upon  an Online Teaching Certificate program through Pacific Lutheran University, I knew this was a perfect fit! I’m excited to start a program will give me the tools I need to be a successful teacher in a new environment and an attractive candidate when I start applying for jobs in the spring. (Plus, I need to renew my Idaho teaching certificate in the spring.  Win-win!)

Fall semester might be a little overwhelming. I’m registered for nine credits through the university and plan to keep working at the same time. I figure if I could teach full-time while completing my graduate degree, I can definitely CLO full-time while doing a certificate program. No problemo! (I say now, full of energy and excitement. Ask me again in October and I may be singing a different tune.)

“Foreign Service? Sure! That sounds great! With my teaching degrees and background, I’m sure I’ll be able to land a job as we jump from country to country from now until retirement. I’ll go pack my bags right now!”  I may not have had a clue what I was talking about a few years ago, but I still think the Foreign Service sounds like a great idea and I am still convinced that I can use my teaching degree as we bounce from post to post. It is just a matter of expanding my teaching tool kit and looking at education-oriented jobs outside a traditional classroom setting- both of which are exciting prospects.

Now, about those nine credits…

Where Hors d’oeuvres and Harelips Overlap on a Venn Diagram

As an English-teacher, I love words and thinking about where they come from and seeing how they have changed over time or been combined to create new meanings or even morphed into something entirely different from where they started.  (Okay, so I am not an English teacher at this exact moment, but there is a part of me, that no matter where this Foreign Service sidewalk takes me, will still get excited about the correct spelling of “a lot,” will silently thank each and every Facebook poster who knows the difference between “their/there/they’re,” “your/you’re” and “its/it’s,” will still enjoy an evening of editing a paper for a friend or former student and will still feel the need to obsessively recommend books to anyone who will listen.)

I loved nearly everything I got to teach in Marsing: the Edgar Allan Poe, the expository writing, and The Outsiders and A Christmas Carol. But, I especially loved the vocabulary, especially since I transitioned into a vocabulary program based upon Greek/Latin word parts, rather than individual words. I found each word part I could teach the kids opened the door to a whole slew of new words, rather than just the one that was on the list. Plus, each time we talked about these roots, I was blown away by connections the kids made to words I hadn’t thought of, but really did fit the pattern. This method of doing vocabulary was also great for my kids for whom Spanish was their first language, as the cognates were numerous. But enough pedagogy…just know, English teaching is where it is at!

You would think after studying English and literature for four years at Brigham Young University and then teaching middle school English in Marsing, Idaho for eight years, taking graduate level classes about teaching language arts and then volunteering with Peace Corps to teach English to students in China who would soon be teachers themselves, I would have a decent grasp of the English language at its most basic level. And I do. Most of the time. Or at least sometimes.

But, there are moments when I flabbergast myself with simple words and phrases that I thought I knew/understood and then suddenly a light bulb with roughly the wattage of the sun comes on and I realize how clueless I am sometimes!

On occasion, I  can chalk the problem up to the fact that I read a lot and, at times, become familiar with a word on a visual level, which isn’t a word commonly used in our daily spoken language. When this happens, in my head I think I know the pronunciation of the word and I definitely have a definition of it, but somewhere the link between what my brain thinks that word is and what the rest of the English-speaking world knows it is, don’t connect.

For example: hors d’oeuvres- Yes, I know these are tasty little snacks available at fancy parties, often miniature versions of normal foods, speared on toothpicks so that the eater is as jolly as the Green Giant when consuming these bitty bites. The problem is, for some reason that concept and the above word never collided in my head, and with my lack of French training, I just pronounced that word the way it looked-“oars-de-vores.”  (Hey, I have enough world language training to know that the “h” is silent! What more do you people want from me?!)

So maybe I am just not enough of a Fancy Nancy to have such hoity-toity lexicon.

This whole dilemma comes to a forefront because a few nights ago I nearly fell out of bed as a giant glowing-sky-orb-sized realization hit me while I was reading my book and stumbled across a reference to having a “harelip.” Of course, I know what a harelip looks like. I have been sufficiently guilt-plagued by those late-night commercials of the starving children in Africa, who if I gave less than a dollar a day, would be miraculously cured of their distended stomachs, fly-covered orifices and every other inequity heaped upon them. (Or, half that money would go to cover the overhead costs and advertising for the parent agency and the kids would still struggle to subsist on a daily basis. Not that I am cynical about after-midnight calls for humanitarian aid or anything…)

The thing is, I was reading The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna. (This is a fabulous book, by the way! It has yet to make it into my Book Musings, as I am a bit behind on those right now, but suffice it to say, if you have a chance, pick up this 1975 novel-length allegory, translated from Finnish to English. It is well worth your time.)

But back to my curious lack of basic English understanding.

So there I was, sprawled on the bed with my trusty e-reader, just getting in to this story about a journalist and photographer traveling together, when the news-reporting duo accidentally hit a baby rabbit that is in the road. The reporter, getting out to check on the poor animal, makes a comment about his tiny nose twitching above his little hare lip. His what?!? His hair lip?! Of course! Like Thor’s
thunder-bringing hammer, a connotative smack-down rained down upon my brain! Those poor kids in Africa (and elsewhere) born with a split lip- it looks like a bunny’s lip! Why had I never put two and two together?

I can only figure that this case was much like that of the hors d’oeuvres, but in reverse. I know the word “harelip” and exactly what it means, but maybe I have just never registered it when I saw it
written. In my ever-wandering brain, it was spelled “hair-lip” and I could never figure out what follicles of keratin had to do with a facial disfiguration. And now, it all becomes clear. A harelip- as in resembling the split upper lip of the cute, fuzzy, hippity-hop mammal. How had I never seen through Alice’s looking glass, at her giant white rabbit and realized such a simple association existed?

Both reading and writing are slices of my daily life pie here in China, being much better stress relievers than a trip to apartment complex’ not-so-high-tech gym and the 70% humidity that currently ensconces each pilgrimage beyond my front door, would be.  Instead of giving my lungs and legs a run for their money though, I give my rattled brain chance to unwind the various knots created by the language I’ve been speaking for thirty-ish years.

You may be crafty and slightly mysterious, but I’m on to you now, English language!!

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The Intimidation of Sparkles and Baubles

So, years ago, not long after we were married, when Thad and I were both teaching full time, I used to tell him I wished he had a job that meant I got to get dressed up and go to fancy parties. I love the idea of flow-y dresses, sparkly baubles and fabulous heels.  Yes, Disney and its fairy tales wheedled their collective way into my brain. Who wouldn’t want to trade chores for a glass slipper and a ride in a sparkling carriage? Who wouldn’t love a life of mirrors that told you just how fabulous you looked in the latest ball gown? I was pre-“Dinsey princess” times, where the rags to riches stories are  mass marketed in every shade of pink and purple imaginable, but I did have stacks of books featuring a variety of fairy tale princesses getting happily-ever-after endings in full formal attire.

The teaching world doesn’t provide a lot of those regal-esque opportunities. The closest I got as a middle school teacher was buying a new dress each year for the 8th Grade Recognition Night (i.e.: 8th grade graduation, but don’t even get me started on that topic!) that I planned, prepared and pulled off each year. Those dresses definitely didn’t fall into the “formal” category, being much closer to the “spring casual” one, but they were still a lot of fun. (The 8th grade girls also loved to buy new dresses for the occasion, which really was a pretty big deal for them and their families. One year I wore the same dress, luckily in a different pattern, as one of my students. I was secretly glad to know that I still had the “cool” factor, while she was probably secretly horrified to be dressed the same as her teacher!)

Years have passed. I have a collection of random dresses from each of those Recognition Nights, as well as a couple qipaos (traditional Chinese dresses) and a slew of casual summer dresses, as well as a bridesmaid dress or two. These were doing the trick…until Thad got his new job. Now, as a Foreign Service Officer, he will be expected to attend evening socializing events, as well as more formal ones such as the annual Marine Ball. I definitely don’t have anything in my closet for those!

Now that he has the job that means I need a fancy dress or two, I find myself at a loss! It sounds like I will need a formal and a cocktail dress or two. The problem is, now that I am in that position I used to envy, I don’t really know what to do with it. What exactly qualifies as a cocktail dress? Ack! I go to stores and look at dresses, get overwhelmed and leave without making any headway. This pattern has played out several times over the last few weeks, with the only real progress being the appointment I made for a few weeks from now to go look at a dress that I found online. It falls into the “formal” category, meaning the “cocktail” one is still a complete blur. Where to start?!? (My normal store choices of New York and Co., Target and Old Navy have not been a lot of help. Although, I have found some tank tops and shorts that I will need to add to my dresser before heading to Chengdu!  This is part of the problem- I am easily distracted by easier to wear items and those with price tags that are easier on my wallet. )

I find it odd (and it comes up often as I complain and he reminds me that I am just getting what I wished for) that I used to give Thad a hard time about not having a fancy-pants job, but now that he has a career with the occasional fancy outing (again, none of those in the world of education), I am tempted to shrink back into the land of jeans! I still love the idea of the dressy outing, but shopping for such apparel is a bit intimidating. Once my consular training course is over in just a couple more weeks, dress shopping is just one more thing on my growing list of things to accomplish before our quickly approaching mid-April leave date. Flow-y dresses, sparkly baubles and fabulous heels, I’m comin’ for you!

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