randomness alert…be forewarned.
I am an early riser, one of those apparently annoying people who, regardless of duration slept, is relatively energetic at hours when the acutely angled sunlight still bathes the landscape orange-tinged gold. Sometimes, I go for a run; other times, I work, for I am productive at these hours. And sometimes I simply make tea and sit on my porch, distracted from grading by the sight of the landscape flickering into illumination before my eyes as the sun reaches deep into the valley.
Recently, however, I’ve been waking up and feeling less relaxed and more battle-ready. I still have my morning energy; getting out of bed is not usually difficult, but when I do I feel like I am armoring myself for a fight. This fight is not physical, but rather one of demands and needs and obligations: I am in a battle, surrounded not by soldiers bearing swords or guns but by people who want things from me.
Take last week. First, our former library assistant, a sweet but hapless man who now works at a travel agency, gave me a call.
“I need maps,” he said.
“What maps?” I said. I think you can buy them at the store near your office.”
“No,” he said. “Those aren’t OK. I need you to make me maps of trips in Ti$et. The students say you are good at teaching about the geography of other countries.”
I ignored the logical disconnect and, after two subsequent visits to my home, finally figured out what was wanted. I spent nearly several evenings putting together the nearly twenty-five maps required for the company’s website, and upon their completion invited the two travel agents back for a look.
“Very good,” said the boss. “But can you put the logo of our company on it?”
The company has no logo.
“Can you do this?” I asked. “It is pretty simple.”
“No,” they said in unison.
“Then I will show you how to do this,” I said. I spent the next twenty minutes showing them how to insert a simple text box. When I finished talking, I asked them if they had any questions.
“So when will you finish this?” they asked.
“I just showed you how to do this!” I almost screamed. “Can you just do it yourself? I’m very busy.”
“I don’t know how to use computers,” the former assistant said. “You will have to do it.”
“What have I been telling you all this time?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I wasn’t listening carefully.”
The next day, a group of monks came to my apartment at 9:30 pm asking if they could study English with me. Heaving an internal sigh, I agreed (you can’t really refuse a group of monks) but said that today wasn’t good, and that they had to procure the ABC textbook. They came back on Monday, and we got started. With the alphabet.
None of them knew anything past ABC. This made D an exciting adventure and transformed otherwise bland E into unknown and potentially perilous terrain. By the time we arrived at Z, well over an hour and twenty minutes later, I was exhausted. I had spent all day teaching and working at school prior to this class. The monks cheerfully waved as they walked out of my apartment; one, their representative, stayed on for a second.
“So”, he said. “Same time tomorrow?”
With a busy teaching schedule including two night classes per week, I am loathe to give up any free evenings. “I’m busy tomorrow,” I said.
Wednesday is the sacred night where neither Andrew nor I have night class. “Not a good day.”
We went through the rest of the days in the week, most of which are taken up by class, and resolved to keep it at Mondays. Then, Wednesday night, when I was visiting with a university student, I got a call.
“Why are you not at home?”
It was one of the red-robed men, calling me to come back for a lesson. I apologized profusely, but said that I really couldn’t do more than once a week.
And it continues. We had to move new computers (donated by Tianjin city) into the computer room this week. We were supposed to get 25 of the new machines, and signed a contract with the headmaster that claimed those computers as ours in perpetuity. However, when we went to pick them up from an empty conference room, there were only 23 boxes.
“The other two were taken by offices that needed them,” said the very same man who had signed the contract two days before. “We hope you don’t mind.”
Then there are meetings with administrators about various things and with a computer teacher who wants to take another of the machines. We are running a new series of student clubs and a mentorship program to run, starting a project to contact and survey all of our program’s alumni, and helping first-year students prepare for an upcoming scholarship-organization-sponsored trip to Shanghai. There are summer schools, scholarships, and – most importantly – the gaokao on the near horizon. The library table is collapsing and the chairs are breaking daily. And our library assistant unexpectedly quit last week, leaving the two of us to deal with the mess on our own.
Additionally, I’ve taken on a type of side job editing for a friend’s new travel website, Passion Passport. As I enjoy writing and editing, this is almost a way to relax from everything going on at school.
And then there’s the teaching, which has been going extremely well recently. As students’ English continues to improve and communication becomes more fluid and facile, the work – and the time spent with the kids – gets increasingly rewarding. As we progress to more in-depth conversations in English, the students’ personalities continue to emerge.
I love my life and work here. I love the mess of insanity and demands that seem to permanently hover around me. I enjoy going into battle. But sometimes I like to take off the armor and relax for a spell – say, a two-day weekend with no responsibilities or random demands. Ha. Look for that to happen about the time that I stop getting stares when walking down the street. The price I pay to live in paradise…