Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Gone, But Not Forgotten

Some of you may have been wondering where the Hillmans have gone. Have they, like the Seavers, been sent to that special place where all good families go--the kind of place where all life's problems are solved in less than 30 minutes (OK, really big problems require 60 minutes, as in "Join us for a very. special. episode..." Then you knew Mike had been drinking, Carol had been purging, or little what's-his-name had been stealing candy from the drugstore).

Thankfully, unlike the Seavers, the Hillmans have survived their growing pains (did you see what I did there, sneaking in that joke? ha ha) but are currently constrained by the forces of government regulation. Now, in addition to YouTube, all access to Blogger is now denied at home. You can see the consequences....

I can't post pictures and blog easily. I have to transfer pictures to a usb and then bring them to school and do the work there, which takes more time and planning than I gave to giving birth.

There is some sort of expectation here that I actually work at work. So now, for instance, while I'm very busy, I'm technically not working. And I don't get that much school work done at home, so doing my computer playing and work and no work at home apparently has consequences.

I do have some pictures of Cameron's graduation dance, Noah's track meet, and Ava's gymnastics test on Facebook. Sign up and I'll make you my friend, no questions asked. I'm easy that way. And I'll try to get some of those here, too. Eventually.

Dragon Boat Festival

This weekend marks China's Dragon Boat Festival. Like some other holidays, the connection between the events and the traditions is a bit muddy, but the Chinese are nothing if not celebratory and traditional, so if you have to stretch to make a party happen, then so be it.

Together with Chinese New Year and the Autumn Festival, they are the three major Chinese celebrations--Dragon Boat is celebrated on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month. The celebration began as an event designed to ward off the evil spirits that brought disease and to find peace (in China's very tropical summer climate, diseases can be rampant).
The holiday is also said to commemorate the death of the poet Qu Yuan who died in 278 BC. Qu was a descendant of the Chu royal family, but when the king decided to ally himself with the increasingly powerful Qin family, Qu was banished for opposing the alliance.
During his exile Qu Yuan wrote a great deal of poetry, for which he's now remembered. When Qin finally conquered the Chu capital 28 years later, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowing himself in the river.
The local people who admired the poet threw food into the river to feed the fish so that they would not eat Qu Yuan's body. The traditional snack zongzi is wha the people supposedly threw to the fish. The people then paddled out to in boats to retrieve Qu Yuan's body, which is the origin of dragon boat racing.

It's such a Chinese story, no? Conquering warriors, exiled poets, passionate suicides, evil spirits...and glutinous rice. I need to point out that the key word when it comes to zongi is "glutinous". The very sticky rice surrounds a filling of egg, sweet potato, meat, or bean paste. The rice is then wrapped in a bamboo leaf. There are several holiday treats that sound charming (read here about mooncakes) that sound charming, but are less so when you're trying to get it down. Kind of like lutefisk, I think.

The family vetoed traveling out of town this weekend. We are hiking the Great Wall with several other families on Thursday--I'll have to beat the other Hillmans with a stick if necessary to get out and see if we can see some boat races in town somewhere.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Eat Your Heart Out, ColdPlay--and THIS is a TEACHER.

I am one of those few who really despise the book "The Bridge to Terabithia." I also didn't care at all for the movie, but I do love the scenes with the teacher singing with the students. They all think she's crazy, standing up there with her guitar, but as the year goes on, they respond to her and to the songs that obviously resonate with them. Her relationship with them and with Jess in particular is a testament to the power of a good teacher in a child's life.

"Viva la Vida" is our family's anthem. Noah picked it up and it's played several times a day and so it's one of the few newer songs that I know all the words to.

I love this video. Aside from the little American Idol wannabes (which slay me) what gets me is the passion and joy on EVERY.SINGLE.KID'S.FACE. As the video goes on, though, I noticed something. Watch the kids' eyes as they follow their teacher's every move. They are completely connected to him. He's never on camera, but he's put a bunch of kids in an auditorium and done nothing except sing. Except he's done so much more. He's TEACHING.

Research proves repeatedly that the most important factor in a child's education is the quality of the teacher. Studies have taken children from a classroom and evaluated them for 2 years--one group with teachers chronically ranked as unsatisfactory and one with teachers ranked very good. At the end of 3rd grade, the average ranking of the students was at the 50th percentile. After two years, the students who got the good teachers were at the 85th percentile. Those who got the unsatisfactory teachers were at the 39th percentile. The division and class assignments were random, everyone in the same school, the same district, the same curriculum.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Snarky, Whiny, Ungrateful, and Possibly a Bit Un-PC...all in One Package!

It's May...and anyone who is a teacher knows that nothing but work can be accomplished in May. May is a neverending push of paperwork, meetings, and events, set amongst itchy, scratchy children who only want to play outside. It's always a slog, so maybe that's what's causing my current pettiness.

But first, a bit of backstory...before we moved to Tanzania, I read Memoirs of a Geisha. Aside from being very surprised and duly impressed that a man had captured the emotions and conflicts of the female characters so well, I had...issues. I strongly proclaimed my feelings to my friend Ann and said, to wit: "I hated this book. I just didn't get it. I didn't get the shame and the honor bit. And the whole geisha thing--what is up with that? All the time I was reading the book, I realize I really only like Asian food. I'm not very interested in the music I've heard or the art I've seen and I just realized now that I've read this book I realized that I'm so less than interested in learning anything more."

I may have proclaimed this at a book club, in which case my fellow readers are probably still suffering post-traumatic distress over my candor. I don't usually speak in so many italics.

...and yes...aside from the almost unforgiveable offense of uttering aloud a preference (or lack thereof) for a specific aspect of a culture, I realize that I have indeed lumped everyone from Japan to China to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore under the category of "Asian." And that that I probably left off someone from that list, so now I'm continuing to offend...

What can I say? Somewhere in us I think we have a predilection for some things over others. Blondes over brunettes. Classical over rock. Long before I ever dreamed I'd ever go to Africa, the images evoked feelings in me that say, Russia, didn't. Another friend is so passionate about things Arabic, but is lukewarm about the Spanish influence. Somewhere along the line I realized that any place in Asia would not make my top 10 list of places I wanted to see. There was no specific reason and whenever I've examined my thoughts and feelings, I can't point to any specific event or moment that makes me feel more interested in one type of culture or region of the world than another.

The irony is not lost on my, by the way. When we were looking for jobs, we knew we were likely to end up in Asia--and now that I'm here, there's a slowly growing realization that what I really liked was Chinese-American food. And Thai food. Did you know that rice is always served at the end of the meal here? It's to fill you up in case you didn't get enough, so ordering rice if someone else is paying or asking for it at a home can be considered very rude, a comment on how you weren't fed well enough by your hosts. All I'm saying is that it's hard to eat a massive bowl of gung-bao chicken without it, that's all. That's not the rule in Thailand, where you get your rice with your other stuff. Thai food really is the best in the world.

And I am profoundly grateful to have this opportunity to live in this part of the world. It's fascinating to see politics and economics and environmentalism be splashed over the news day after day and live in China, which plays such a crucial (and often overlooked) role in the world.

All of this brings me to my whinge...we have a 4 day weekend coming up--and I really don't want to go anywhere. Any place, even somewhere close--it's too expensive, too complicated, too iffy. What's there to see--more temples and pagodas? sigh Calandria just got back from Spain. I want to go to Spain. Karen just got back from Cancun and is going to Peru later this year. Why can't I go there? Our head of school just accepted a job in Belgium...I've never been to Europe.
Poor me, I know. Am I really so ungrateful? Is it that those other places have always been on my list of places I'd like to visit, and so I'd pine over them regardless of where I was? Did I suddenly become less adventurous on this side of the world--or was my adventursome-ness in Tanzania an aberration? Am I just wickedly lazy and ethnocentric? Or am I just in a funk?
P.S. You also don't get eggrolls or fortune cookies here. Then, again, you don't get donkey penis or blood soup with bullfrog at Leeann Chin's in Bloomington.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

I'm Just Sayin'

You know swine flu's comin' to China. Here's to washing your hands A LOT! And keep your sniffling snorting hacking self at home, please!

Because I do NOT want to wear those silly face masks.

Things Overheard at School...

...once I had to fly coach all the way to the States. It was awful...

...my missing homework? Didn't you get it? I had my driver drop it off outside the classroom...

...don't you hate having to sit in the VIP boxes at stuff like the Olympics and the Hong Kong Sevens?

...can I use the phone? I remembered I don't like the school lunch today and I want to have my ayi cook me something else and deliver it to me...

...my missing homework? In my bag? I dunno...my ayi/grandmother/mother packs my bag. I guess she forgot it...I don't really know about that...
...how come when I google your dad, he's the 6th or 7th one on the list? My dad's number two...

...I think I'm going to Europe this summer. We went to Brazil, Thailand, and Switzerland already...

...ooooh, I love that hotel. The last time we were there we had our own butler guy!...

PS. I work at an elementary school.

To be fair, there are a few of those comments that do grate on me...it drives me nuts when kids have no idea where anything is because an ayi or grandmother is doing everything for the kids. In fact, in an expat magazine a month or so ago, a teacher bemoaned the fact that one of her students was having trouble with the whole toilet routine and the mother wanted to know what time she should send the ayi in to take care of that for the little tyke. Seriously. We do have ayis that will sit the entire lunch hour Every. Single. Day watching a 3rd or 4th grader eating and then playing. They bring his/her lunch, then collect it at the end so they don't have to carry a lunch box. I mean, honestly. That is completely ridiculous.
On the other hand, it generally humorous to listen to 10 year old bemoan flying coach. I do hope their parents are instilling values such as humility and a grateful heart for those things they have in their lives that are completely not of their own doing. I don't fault them at all for lives that are so different from mine and my own. Believe me, if I could fly business or first class and stay at the kind of hotel that would net me my own butler, I don't know that you'd see me turning it down for a cold water room with a squattie at the end of the hall! Compared to how Mark and I grew up, the trips that we have taken have been luxurious--not just in the locations, but the amenities. We are definitely aware of how blessed we are--and our children are as well (despite having an eye sometimes on what their friends are doing).
On the other (third?) hand, Mark took Cameron and his friends hiking on the Great Wall for his birthday. Another friend organized relay games in the street in front of his house. We took Noah and his friends bowling, then handed out light sabers and turned 'em loose. Every child in every case said that those were the best parties they had ever been to. And we're stacking those against a party Ava's friend went to (the birthday child was in kindergarden) where the parents rented a ballroom at a hotel and had petting animals, clowns, magicians, etc. We definitely know what works best for us and our family!
(but if I ever win the Powerball, I'm kissing coach goodbye)