The Very First Week of My New Job


For as bitter as failure tastes it is a quick acting medicine. I never wanted to step up there unprepared again. I never wanted to feel deep fear for the people I was helping and end up paralyzed. There will always be room for mistakes in my life but only so long as I fix the ones that arise.

I re-forged the powerpoint until each slide became less dense with random words and only the necessities were left. I straightened out animations and visuals to as clear a point as I could get them. With a bit of recollection I remembered some disciplinary methods I could implement as well. More important than anything I had fallen back on the old tricks I had learned years ago to get some confidence back. Sometimes it felt silly to say to myself that I could do something but materializing the words meant that I could cling to them like water wings until I could tread water. It also helped tremendously to see in a group chat that many of my fellow foreign teachers experienced the same dilemmas. Many of us had overestimated what the kids knew or what we could do in the first couple days.

Back from scratch and heading into the next two classes with some more confidence, the plan straightened out into something closer to what I had imagined. Standing before an energetic class of eager third graders who had never seen a foreigner did not shock as bad as when it was an entirely novel experience. The crooked teeth of ten year olds could not cannibalize me. The dynamite eyes of explosively energetic children could blow down the mountains in the class’s way as much as it could tear us all apart. It was up to me harness that energy.

A picture of the gardens at the entrance of my school, Wujin Star.
A picture of the gardens at the entrance of my school, Wujin Star.

Much was up to me and that became clear with every minor correction and addition. An ounce of effort from me could mean a pound from them. When I smiled half of them would too. When I got into a song it could sway the back of the class and when I was too tired I’d have to circle like a shark for anyone not trying. In that way less effort in one area meant more in a few others. There were classes that were battles no matter what. But you fight out those battles until you strike quick and targeted. Stickers and treats as rewards helped many students snap into the work.

Bribing the children with stickers and cookies made them eager to speak at every opportunity, but it had a serious side effect. I’d stand in between the rows of desks scanning for a kid that hadn’t had the opportunity to talk. Quietly at first, I’d hear the exertion of kids trying to stretch their arms out of their sockets and up to the sun. How it would build. How the noise would swell until I’d hear “teacher” nearly screamed in English as well as Chinese and see a sea of arms reaching out for those stickers. I could not even imagine the days when stickers had that magic – an affirmation you needed to possess. The subtle understanding of a cookie as something ten times bigger than a little sweet had completely left me even at this shallow stage of adulthood I am at.

After each class I’d come out panting and demanding water, but my eyes would be wide and I’d find the teacher that helped me after class just so I could run my mouth off a bit just to lose some excess energy. At times I’d even strike gold and get advice. It was always to change the simplest things, but more than a few times the simplest things made a world of difference. Dialogues do not work in bullet points, they work in A’s and B’s or Jacks and Jills. Vowel sounds ought to come before the words featuring them. Their mouths have to churn conscious to chew up every word. Only one person in the room could subconsciously devour whole English sentences, unhinged snake jaw style, and that was me.

Sometimes the other Teachers taught me unintentionally. A bit of close listening and I’d learned some Chinese instructions to stumble over with ugly Mandarin side of my brain. When a teacher told me how she was pleasantly surprised not to have to translate my instructions the entire class I started to feel like I could actually do this. I still need to learn the Mandarin phrases to keep the kids in line and cannot manage a class entirely on my own, but I can wait to reach that point. Right now baby steps feel like lunges, so I’ll hold out until I find a good stride.

The abstract star that is something like my school's logo.
The abstract star that is something like my school’s logo.

In between classes I managed some English interest classes with the help of one of the third grade teachers. I talked about the basketball game H.O.R.S.E. and played basketball with a few of the kids. Around the same time I sat in with the teachers and had a collaborative lesson planning session with the teachers. We shared some snacks and I taught them the word “raisin.” It made me realize that it was a bit of an anomaly. Why not just call it a dried grape like every other fruit? Then I realized raisins deserved a little more. Dried banana slices could not step to the raisin box on a shelf in every kid’s house. Raisins justified bran based cereal, something dried apple could never claim.

After I told them my lesson plan and they had serious skepticism about me teaching the pronunciation of two vowels over one class. In my mind I could not fathom stretching out a vowel over forty minutes. We all agreed to try it out and if it did not work I’d retreat to a vowel a week. Honestly it felt strange to teach by vowel anyways, but most methods seem arbitrary in some way. I’d have a chance to prove my plan just once this week. One class had gotten a lecture ahead. It was the one class that I had taught on my very first day, class 9.

This time I stepped in with a lesson plan that had the backing of some experience, even if it was fledgling stuff. More than that, the fear and paranoia that riddled me once had abated now. Teeth were just teeth, eyes were just eyes, energy was just energy, and the kids were just kids. The boy that asked me if I was happy earlier had been in my interest class and was one of the best English speakers in the grade. I had played basketball with him. This time he did not feel the need to ask that question. The rest of the class was still raucous but I realized it was not out of derision. They had a raw interest in the strange words they heard me say, and the odd way that I carried them. They were invested in the way they were supposed to be to the point that they’d repeat any word I’d said. After leading them in a chant, I’d say “very good!” and they’d say it back to me in a chorus. It threw me off a bit at first, but I could not help but laugh it off after a while.

Maybe more illuminating than anything, the kids of class 9 managed my review section perfectly. They knew almost everything of the class I thought I had botched beyond repair. The nervousness that I had was toxic. Drinking it in I’d think that I couldn’t do anything, and drinking those thoughts in I’d inch closer to the point where I actually couldn’t. Introspection matters, but never to the point that it should fog up the outer world. I would keep trying to improve, but that improvement could only come with confidence. When I said my goodbye, the teacher expressed remorse over the wildness of the class and her not bringing them in line. I felt confident enough to say that was false modesty. The class went well. So had the week.

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~Austin R Ryan

The Very First Day of My New Job


The first day of teaching is sort of like the first time performing something. The previous day you spend composing everything you’ll teach, learning your lines, and thinking up some improv in case anything goes wrong. The performance itself depends on your confidence first and your audience second.

I made my way to the classroom a bit early and got in during the students’ break time. On seeing me they all rushed in and started screaming out their best hellos. I brought my large red backpack and had dressed up in my nice black slacks and a green button down short sleeve shirt so that I looked a little bit like mint chocolate chip ice cream. We had been taught not to be threatening, and what was less threatening than mint chocolate chip ice cream? Unfortunately it is not very sturdy either.

I had met the teacher there to help me but only briefly during an intense meeting. Initially I tried to handle the kids. A sea of tiny eyes poked back up at me from absolutely enthralled faces. There were so many hands that I could not process all the possessions of mine being touched. Two sides of my brain started grinding it out against each other as Chinese and English questions bounded in. Both were equally hard to understand at first. Just then the teacher there squeezes in a question about my plan and whether it involves powerpoint.

When I say that it does, she shoos away several children before opening up a compartment with the computer that links up to the projector. As I am plugging in the flash drive and booting up the program, a Chinese error message pops up. A student right underneath me pulls on a pant leg and looks dead at me with eyes twinkling. “Teacher, are you happy?” That question makes my face scrunch up for a second. It is absolutely surreal. The ends of my mouth wiggle as I try to make a big smile. My eyes are still wide with worry and wrapped up in the Chinese teacher’s efforts to fix whatever went wrong with the computer. “Yes, I am very happy.”

When the powerpoint loads up I see that three children pulling at my backpack, about to pull things out. The mandarin words for “please sit down” come rushing back to me and I tell the crowd to disperse for their seats and pull my backpack back to me. All contents still seem to be there. I have brought stickers and candy with me that I plan to use to bribe the children into good behavior.

When the class starts, I stand up and give the class a small hello and introduction in Chinese. It does not seem they understand a lot of what I say. There are blank stares and a fair share of laughter. There’s also a lot of smiles, but my stomach is rocking so hard I can’t tell what those tiny teeth want from me. All these stares from eyes more eager than I had ever seen… It feels like I am being devoured. I think I am being chewed up by kids half my age, but it is my own lack of confidence that really grinds me down to mush.

“Teacher, are you happy?” The boy says again. Why you are still asking? What in the world is happening right now? I look at him for a second. I swear there’s so much shaking energy in children that at times their eyes seem like fuses twinkling on the edge of the next thing they’ll explode into. That smile is still stretched onto each of my face, though my eyes are wide and can’t crease at all for fear of failing to register a single visual sensation. The room is so full of the colors children love piled on top of construction paper practically cut from my own youth. I look back at him and nod vigorously.

Then I start up the powerpoint. My heart is pounding at me to wrap everything up quickly and the words issue out in blurted burst far too fast for the kids to pick up. Heads tilt. 什么?什么?什么?shenme. Chinese for “what?” Whispered words that speak to failed communication. That shit sits ugly in my dreams during Chinese nights. So I start in with gestures.

But gestures are not always a universal language. It takes me several tries before the students understand what my wafting hands are signaling. The teacher steps into help. “来(lai)!” She yells out loud. It means something like “come here” but has a lot more uses. The kids are very slow to silence, even in spite of the teacher’s anger. I am in between her and my own powerpoint, shaking. I look over and feel nauseous at how crowded with words I made each slide.

The gestures start to come and the class goes on, but not so gracefully. I squeeze out a few activities, like getting them to write down some words they know and put their hands up if they have English names. Most do not. I am already notorious with names. I could not get a handle on all of my aunts’ names until I was a teen – it was funny, they used to quiz me on it. With Chinese names the task is twice as hard because there’s no context. English names line up with a cultural figure, an old friend, extended family, a character on TV, something. But with Chinese it isn’t so. Not every kid will be named after someone famous like Mo Yan or Liu Bang or even something close to a Chinese friend or teacher.

Every activity takes twice as long as I imagined, mostly from explaining the task to the teacher, having her quiet the class down, and then translating it for them. I just barely scratch along to the last thing – a dialogue – and it is way too hard for a lot of kids. The bell rings as they try to complete the task. Pleasant piano tunes trickle through the intercom system. All the kids rush me. Their little hands start tugging and grasping at my arms, my bag, and even my flash drive. I try to answer their barrage of questions. Before long I have to grab my red bag away from some kids and secure my flash drive. As I do, I realize I hadn’t used any of the rewards I brought with me to class.

“Teacher, are you happy?” Those words reverberate like echoes across a classroom crammed to the brim with sensation. It bounces off walls of stimulus. “Yes, I am happy.” But it feels like the Earth is quaking and I can’t do this. It feels like I am a mile out from being a real teacher, let alone the one I want to be. When I finally step outside the teacher, Angel, and I speak a little bit. She tells me that the class is a bit badly behaved normally, but I think it is just covering for me. The feeling of failing is so immense that it shrouds me in anxiety, so I just say I will do better next time and beat out a path to my next class. Kids line the hall to say hello to me. I try to respond without getting caught in conversation. It is easy to feel spiteful, like their energy sunk me. But I know better than that. My Father of four and Mother of a small business centered on kids taught me to be better than the bitter bite of my pride.

Another teacher stops me and tells me that there was a mix up; I don’t have to teach it right now. The paranoia bites me so deep that I think they all know how bad I did and don’t want me to teach until I can do better. This piercing feeling of regret at having failed children and adults alike pushes up an awkward apology. “It is like this for all of us the first week.” The teacher says, “It is okay.” But I hardly even believe it. I am stretching out every inch of my legs into a shambling stride back to my apartment on campus. The next hour or so is a lot of pacing and talking to myself. The hour after that is trying to learn what my fellow AYC teacher here did. Back to the drawing board. Let’s rehearse these lines until I’ve got every ounce of intoned intention down right.

~Austin R Ryan

Orienting


I’ll lay it out straight. Orientations tend to suck. Orientations are often ice breaker banquets where the surface is still chilly after countless camp counselor style warmers. That’s not to say every orientation is that way, but there’s a certain art to situating someone for something. The bigger that something is the harder it is to situate someone to it. For those four year undergrad programs there’s only so much placing a program can manage and the unexpected ends are so vast that designing something that sticks past the start is hard.

Ameson Year in China (the program we had all enrolled in) located us pretty well. Maybe Ameson had it a little easier, but I think teaching ten months in a developing nation unfamiliar in custom and language still had a murkiness that would make anyone a bit uncertain. Most of us were uncertain of a lot of things. Most of us had no idea what our cities and schools looked like, let alone our apartments. Now before you go thinking I went off unprepared I’ll have you know I gave my city and my school a good google – half past cursory in quality at least!

But even with that knowledge, even with pictures of apartments and word of policies, the reality of any event does not hit until you are right there in it. Many of us felt uncertain, and rightfully so. Near none of us had taught English for this long – if at all – or been to China for such a stretch of time. We had all had learned how to teach over the internet, but that had been over a month ago and that task still felt daunting.

The first day we had all been up early. New friends and acquaintances reported having woken up early as 5 AM. I had managed to sleep in until 6 AM and for the first time I had the odd problem of waking up too early. Last night my roommate and I had both tried to tough it out until 10 PM to battle off jetlag. I turned on a movie on my laptop at eight and he turned on the TV. In less than ten minutes he fell asleep over the covers with the remote still in hand and in less than thirty I fell asleep in front of my screen and awoke only briefly enough to turn off my computer and get under the covers.

In the morning everyone admirably beat their eyes open across several dense lectures from important Chinese academics. For a while I thought this might be the pace I’d have to run the whole way, and I quickly bought myself some caffeine to keep me going. Fortunately the lectures subsided some and the teaching training began in earnest. After a few days I dropped the jetlag, too. The feeling of getting into a new timezone is akin to shedding old and heavy skin for a fresh and light new layer.
Before long everything started to pick up. People were going and sampling the night life, some even venturing into two hours away central Shanghai in small groups. English as foreign language teachers started to refresh us in old material we had learned online. More importantly, they demonstrated much of what they taught on us so we could see how the parts form into a whole. Each instructor radiated the word “teacher” in such a way that they made me envious how they owned a function so thoroughly. The mastery they had over one thing was fascinating and deeply encouraging. I had the feeling that even without owning an ounce of what they had, I could tap into it and make something come together the way I liked.

It was overwhelming, but in China so is everything. Look outside and everything is moving towards so many ends that there’s no tying it together. All that movement occurs in different dialects of a language that has no root with a western one and a culture nurtured in Confucianism and Communism. Try to capture each memorable moment in your mind and you’ll have it racing. Try to capture it all on film or paper and you’ll race your mind right off a cliff. So in a way absorbing all the knowledge of wise elders felt par for the course.

Each day we were booked solid so I hardly even noticed the time fly by. Towards the end things got a bit hectic and wild. Our organizers arranged an impromptu trip to downtown Shanghai where we all performed the Macarena in a flash mob. We had about ten minutes to prepare it and that showed somewhat but it went well enough. By the time we were done a ring of Chinese people had enclosed us with flashing cameras and the little lights of phones.

After that everyone went to an immensely crowded section of Shanghai where we all took pictures with the city skyline. A few Chinese people joined us. I was crouched across the way from two Chinese women taking pictures on their camera phones. Using the large and goofy facial features of mine I cheesed enough to get them to notice me and laugh a little. I felt proud of that. It felt like a little honest connection. I tried to give them a pleasant emotion and they received it just fine. In a way, it felt more communicative than a conversation would have. In butchering every Mandarin phrase I know over and over, sometimes it seems frustratingly like I am only read with delight at doing something right or awkwardness at missing another thing. The frustration of language is making words pack the right punch and biting down on a second tongue doubles all that up.

By the end of the night I had to turn in a photo essay for a competition and by the next morning I needed to be ready to do a teaching demo and take a test. Somehow it all fell into order. Everything came together hastily and felt like it could fall apart from a slight push, but it all held up. The demo lesson went well and the test even better. The end came fast and whacked me on my ass. Not much past an hour of taking the test, the results were in and I was sitting in a closing ceremony watching awards get doled out. Of course I was an entrant into a competition myself and eager to hear the winners. In the whole of my mind I was sure I wasn’t one of them and bracing myself for the defeat. At that moment I could see all the overwrought tendencies of my fake-deep, faux-philosophical writing coming up to shame me for trying at this thing.

These days I am more determined not to take my own abuse. This time some thoughts fought back and told me to stand by the decision. How was I supposed to grow by shutting my writings in? Embarrassing is a word you live until failures turn to successes. Red cheeks and cringes are what build up creative muscle. Screw not trying. I ought to try hard every day even if it means I die embarrassed.

It was all melodrama anyways. I was one of the winners of the contest I entered into. Hearing my name called genuinely shocked me. A tall wave of harsh self criticism crashed against the reality of winning the award. Happiness crept up on me, but it was so cautious I could hardly feel it. Much of the growth I made had been done alone, reliant on stabbing open words and tearing apart pieces to see what was worthwhile in each. The happiness of a warm reception was and still is a fair weather friend that knew it ought to walk gingerly over even unjustified self-criticisms. That happiness owed much of its existence to that self-criticism in the first place. Flitting happiness had no right to unseat the beast that bit at my heels until I got things done – the beast that, when I appease, gives me true confidence. Feeling all those negative emotions try to rebound into something positive felt really odd. Maybe I did feel good about winning, but maybe the errors I scrounged up while scared in my chair ought to haunt me some.

I gave myself a break anyways and thanked anyone who congratulated me. Who knows what all of it really means? I liked the other winners’ pieces more than my own and think they showed most of the entrants did well. The sharp and willful people that had come here to teach all seemed up to the task of beating me at writing something so maybe I should be proud, but maybe hardly anyone took the time. In the end it’s all questions that don’t need answers. I was happy enough with what I made.

The liaison at our school told us right after the ceremony that the school driver was ready to take a fellow teacher and I to our new home in Changzhou. Before I could unpack anything, I repacked everything and said sharp goodbyes to the people I met. I had not time to track down many I wanted to see off, fearing that I’d make a bad impression by having my host school wait on me any longer. Before I knew it, I was oriented. Though I still did not really know where I was headed and I still have no idea what it will mean.

~Austin R Ryan

Airport Sorrows and Solid Ground Smiles


I have made the grave mistake of promising some folks back home a travel blog as I go to Changzhou, China to teach English. If you travel abroad, this is something you should avoid doing. You might think I am just being misanthropic, but if you don’t heed my warning you’ll have the task of adequately recording the sentimental memories clinging to you all the way from one international flight to another. But I am here, and I want to bring a bit of it back home for some relatives, so this starts my second Chinese travel blog.

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Plenty of trips start with a nearly crying mother, I think. That’s where mine really begins. It is the fine point where my mind cordons off old home from roaming. While I am weighing my baggage my mind is far off. Most people look up when they think about things, and my eyes are trained on the massive swooping ceiling of O’Hare. It looms grey and full endless empty space like an international airport ought to do.

My mother’s making anxious conversation with the clerk at the desk passing me easily through the process. I am hearing the words, registering them. But it is hard to respond right.

“He’s my last one.”

She says of me, the fourth to live outside of state and the second to live out of country.

“He’s the baby.”

And that one I’ve heard so often that I can hardly be embarrassed anymore.

“Oh, this is really the hardest one.”

That one slips out, and it’s really different from what I know.

“Oh, I’ll miss you guys a lot. That’ll be the worst part about being so far away.” I say. The O’Hare ceiling curves into endless up and open. The words are token in some way, but you do your best – especially with goodbyes.

Together we haul my two massive bags off to the side to get scanned and tagged. Then I step into the security line and hug my Mother. I had gone fast enough that my Dad did not need to come in, but I hugged him earlier. When my oldest sister Britt left to live in Cyprus with her husband I remember her looking back at us. She was waving, with beautiful thin drips of cinematic tears coming from the corners of each eye. As the line moved and Mom did too, I wondered if I should cry like my sister had. I really couldn’t even if I wanted to. But seeing her standing there in Indianapolis International security is so vividly beautiful in my memory. When she stepped over that threshold I swear it was so singular and dramatic that even near a decade later my head can set the scene in detail. In recollected strokes I’d painted it out so well I can still see the whole airport materialize around her.

Sometimes stomaching forward movement is a forced process, and glancing back seems like it’ll suck you into hell with Orpheus. I respected the way she looked back, brimming up. It seemed courageous to roll up all that past and future into the present and let it wash outward in overload. I am not sure if my heart could even manage it. But I believe you are in part the strength of your family. The O’Hare airport swelters up with the hot talk of time consumed passengers. Everyone’s steamed words boils up to the top of the building and I am with it watching it shift and lurch along in line. I am looking up. Maybe I was thinking about how I wasn’t alone. Most likely it wasn’t so pretty, just something pithy about the trip in front of me.

But I’ll spare you the nitty gritty of TSA checkpoints and layovers and try to highlight what good and interesting I found in it. Chicago goes to LA and LA to Taipei. In between I am feeding myself caffeine and rough sleep to keep upward. My body’s a twisted ball of anxiety, I can tell you that for sure. No matter how bad my memory is, if it is a long trip then I am sweating it. Believe me, I have done it before in several separate forms. Far flung as Spain and close as D.C. and San Francisco I go hours early to airports for meeting eventualities that have rarely struck me.

At the LA airport I am six hours early for my flight and ask an attendant for the gate number. There’s a school group heading back to Hong Kong swimming all around me. On the flight I am packed tight to not touch a Chinese teenager on one side and a woman on the other. For some reason, I am constantly stealing glances. Is this the time to practice Mandarin? I stayed silent since the thoughts in my head sounded too loud.
At Taipei the airport is Orientalized tackily. It has a calligraphy station for anyone interested in dabbling in that during their layover and random Asian topography splattered over linoleum floors. There are people from the States, clearly from my program but I have million other things twisted up in my stomach so I can’t fill up on conversation. Intriguingly, I see early my later roommate standing a few chairs away from me.

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Then there’s Shanghai Pudong, my final destination. The halls here stretch on endlessly. If looking up at O’Hare was something then looking up here was something more. The glass arteries pour us out across at least ten of those flat escalators that carry you and your luggage across terminals. The big red camping backpack saddling me bites on the shoulders some. Normally I am shaking at the baggage claims for fear of losing something dear. This time my heart is really racing. But it can’t even beat for long before the big black bags come pounding out on the conveyor belt. Funny how things work out, someone I’d come to talk to quite a bit at orientation was across the way, speaking on his own anxious waiting.

My baggage is quite a bit. I have to stay for eight months, so there’s a lot to bring along. I have to place a smaller suitcase haphazard on another and roll both away. Hearing so much huffing and puffing, a friendly Chinese man offers to help, but I decline. It’s fine for now. I am on solid ground and I couldn’t care less how much I was carrying.

AYC coordinators meet up with us and in no time I am carrying on conversation. All of our faces are marked with the mixed feelings of eagerness and anxiety. Coming together, I think we all feel a little less alone. I know I do.

On the bus the Shanghai suburbs spin outward and I really feel back. It is a weird sensation, but in some way I feel a simultaneous sense of familiar and far, home and hotel. I had been in this place once before and for some reason it felt incredibly fitting to be back. The sun starts to settle behind rows of buildings constructed to look the exact same. Some stand half-constructed underneath the dying sun, while others sparkle with bits of light while all of them tower over small, squat housing areas with green lawns that sometimes turn to dirt fields. It is not vibrant foliage, not tiered rice paddies, not ancient terraced roofs of palaces. It is only a grey freeway that sprawls out into a suburban nowhere that has rapidly reached out to everywhere. It is a place where people live, will come to live, and will move away from.

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It is China. Lots of journeys start with crying mothers, but most don’t end that way. Most journeys don’t stay in what was given away from an old home, but live in the process of making a new one. Maybe I can manage this. Maybe I can teach like I mean it, make meaningful connections like I speak the language, and live here like I’d like to. I’d be happy to just get close to those expectations. That tight ball of anxiety and nerves in my stomach bit by bit untangles and I feel an easy smile creeping up on me.

~Austin R Ryan

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