Tuesday, August 12, 2014

July Activities


Kaye Adkins participated in the Rocky Mountain Writers Retreat in Grand Lake, Colorado on July 25-28. The retreat brings together scholars of professional writing to develop and share their research. Adkins worked on her current project, a study of the publications of the World War II Office of Civilian Defense.

Dawn Terrick, Director of Developmental Writing and English Instructor, attended the 16th Annual National Summer Institute on Learning Communities at The Washington Center, a public service center of The Evergreen State College July 14-18.  The institute helps teams develop a proposal or create a two-year action plan for learning communities on their campus.  Terrick attended the institute with Chris Bond, Learning Communities Director, and other Western faculty and staff.  At the conclusion of the institute, the Missouri Western Learning Communities Team created a proposal, timeline and pilot project for a new living-learning, theme-based Learning Community model.

Exhibitions/Publications/Peer Review

Marianne Kunkel's poem "Naming Nephi's Wife" from her new manuscript-in-progress was accepted for publication in the Notre Dame Review. Also, her essay about the tradition of libations appeared on Prairie Schooner's website as part of FUSION, a poetry/art collaboration with Ghana.

Jeanie Crain completed the Systems Portfolio review for AQIP (Academic Quality Improvement Program) at Missouri Western.


Ana Bausset-Page attended the Presentation in Honor of Simon Bolivar at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah on July 26th. A PhD student mentored by Bausset-Page read a paper on ¨La carta de Jamaica.¨


Susie Hennessy was elected vice president of the Greater Kansas City Chapter of the American Association of Teachers of French.

Elizabeth Latosi-Sawin was appointed to the Board of the St. Joseph Public Library.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Recent MAA Grad Mark Henderson on Work as Instructional Technologist

What do I do?

July 21, 2014 at 1:17pm
Today marks the start of week eight of my new career as an Instructional Technologist. I’ve found that many of my friends and family have no idea what I do. I’ve also found that a number of my correspondence in the education and technical worlds want to know more about how the online school works at Columbia College. So, here we are.
First, a little overview. While Columbia College is based in…..Columbia, MO (shocker!), the school has more students around the country than they do locally. They have a number of satellite campuses across the country, many of them on military bases. They also have around 14,000 undergrad and graduate students taking online classes from coast to coast. With the high number of online students, Columbia College has decided to spin off their online campus to a separate entity. I actually don’t work on the Columbia College campus, but rather about 10 minutes away in lovely downtown Columbia.
My job is roughly a 50/50 mix of education and technical work. I will address the education side first, as I know some of my teacher friends are frightened by technology.
The Education Side:

I serve as the middle-man between course instructors and their students. Some instructors are local and we meet to develop courses, while others are around the country and we rely heavily on email. I present professional-development (although it’s not called that) to the instructors to help them create quality online courses. This includes presentations and online activities. I recently designed an interactive web training module on creating online discussions that spark critical thinking. All instructors will be required to complete the module at the start of the next session.
One of the requirements of online courses at Columbia College is that they contain multi-media to enhance learning. This doesn’t mean simply finding cute cat videos on YouTube and sharing them with students. This means spending a lot of time searching for quality videos, podcasts, infographics, etc. that align with the course’s goals. Occasionally, an instructor provides the materials, but usually I have to seek out GOOD multi-media and then persuade the instructor to use it.
Columbia College holds online instructors to high accountability. This means that we are often monitoring the 800ish courses to ensure instructors are keeping content fresh, communicating with students, and updating grades. On the other side of the building, there are online advisors who handle complaint emails and calls from students. Often times, they will run to me to answer questions or fix situations when an instructor is not readily available. This is a bit stressful because some instructors are control freaks (rightfully so) and can get upset if I have to make decisions without their prior consent. I’ve had a couple of heated moments, but for the most part instructors are happy that I’m here to help.
While I’m not teaching any online courses of my own yet, that will happen down the road. They didn’t want to overwhelm me with too much at once, but I am looking forward to teaching online. I will most likely teach some 100-level writing or 200-level literature courses. The good news is that this means more money. The bad news is this means more work!
The Technical Side:

I was a bit nervous about what I would be expected to do tech-wise with this job. I had prior experience with HTML/CSS and a number of Adobe programs, but I don’t consider myself an expert by any means. Fortunately, I was given account access to Lynda.com on my first day and told to have at it. Lynda is a video-heavy how-to site, with professional training on just about every program or application out there. I did a little refresher on CSS and SnagIt, but spent most of my time learning about Photoshop. I’ve always wanted to learn Photoshop, but never had the time or money to buy it for myself. It turns out that it’s not as overwhelming as I imagined. Thanks to my access to Adobe Creative Cloud, I can actually use Photoshop (and many other programs) at home as well.
We use Desire2Learn (or D2L as the cool kids call it) as our Learning Management System. It’s by far the best LMS I’ve seen. When I’m assigned a course to develop or redevelop, one of the first things I do is work on a visual design for the course. Each course has a unique banner, color scheme, and CSS layout. This gives each course a unique experience for the students. This is probably the most fun part of my job, as I get to be creative.
Once the syllabus for a course has been finalized, I create weekly HTML pages, where students find their assignments, readings, and multi-media. I also create discussion threads, quizzes and tests, and gradebook entries. D2L also has checklists that I have to create for each course. This is a place where students can literally check off what they’ve accomplished and assure they have everything completed. Since courses repeat each session, I have to manually go in and change all of the due dates on assignments, which gets old quickly.
Columbia College is in the process of building a very nice video production lab in the basement of my building. This means that we will soon be able to do many exciting things with multimedia to enhance the courses. Since I just happen to have worked at a TV station for six years, I know a thing or two about video production. Since it’s been a few years (okay, 8) since I worked in TV, I do have some refreshing to do. Fortunately, Lynda.com also has tutorials for the types of software that I will use for this.
One of the toughest parts of my job is dealing with accessibility. All materials presented in courses must be accessible for all students. That means documents must be coded correctly for screen readers and all multi-media must be transcribed. I’ve learned that creating subtitles and inserting them into videos is tougher than it looks. Columbia College was sued a few years back by a student with disabilities who had troubles accessing online materials, so they are very serious about all of this.
Reflecting on Grad School:

I’m sure a few people would be upset if I didn’t take time to mention how Missouri Western’s technical communication graduate program helped me get here. In spring 2012, I went to Dr. Adkins’ office not really knowing what tech com was, but thinking that I wanted to be a part of it. I was afraid of switching careers because I didn’t want to abandon all the work and experience I had accomplished in the education world. I was thrilled when she explained that my education background could actually help me get a job in the tech com field. When I started taking courses in the department, I quickly clung to instructional design. When it came time to choose a thesis topic, eLearning was an obvious direction.
One of the most important things I learned in graduate school was how to teach myself how to use programs and complete tasks without someone holding my hand through the process. While I have great co-workers at Columbia College, they we are all loaded with work of their own and don’t have time to answer endless questions or sit me down and teach me how to use a program. I didn’t come to this job as a master of any program, but I do possess the skills to learn and find the solutions I need.
I’m also grateful for the collaborative work that I did in graduate school. Even though I spend the majority of my day working by myself on the computer, this job requires a lot of team work. I’ve learned how to work as a leader and follower, how to communicate with clients, and how important clear communication is in getting the job done.
If someone had asked me what my dream job would be a few years back, I would have described what I’m doing now. I get to work in education, while doing challenging (and usually fun) technical work at the same time. While there were certainly parts of being a high school English teacher that I enjoyed, I never felt like it was really what I was supposed to do with my life. Just two months into being an instructional technologist, I know that I’ve found the field that I’m supposed to be in.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Department Activities in June


Mike Cadden, professor of English, presented the paper “The Need for Distance in Children’s Literature” at the Children’s Literature Association Conference, Columbia, SC.

Michael Charlton, associate professor of English, published a chapter entitled "A Clash of Words: Challenging the Medieval Rhetorical Tradition of the Moral Speaker in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire" in the anthology George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire and the Medieval Literary Tradition (University of Warsaw Press).

Miguel Rivera-Taupier, assistant professor of Spanish, published “Pessimism and Detection in Vargas Llosa’s Who Killed Palomino Molero?” in Critical Insights. Mario Vargas Llosa. Ed. Juan de Castro (Ipswich: Salem Press).
Student/Community Involvement/Successes

On June 2-3, twenty-two teachers and administrators from schools participating in the  i3 College Ready Writing Program (Braymer, Breckenridge, and Hamilton) came to MWSU for professional development work with twelve PLWP Teacher Consultants.  District groups assessed sample student writing and practised strategies for teaching argument writing, research, and essential questions.

PLWP held its annual Professional Writing Retreat on June 6-8 at Conception Abbey, where twelve area teacher-writers worked with PLWP Teachers Consultants Amanda Moyers (SJSD) and Tom Pankiewicz (MWSU) as well as with guest editor and former Oklahoma State University Writing Project Director Britton Guildersleeve. 


Ten members of the PLWP College Ready Writing Program attended the National Writing Project’s i3 CRWP Summer Partnership Meeting in St. Louis on June 23-26 to plan professional development programs and teaching units for the 2014-2015 school year.  Members of the partnership team included PLWP Principal Investigator Jane Frick (MWSU, retired), Director Susan Martens (MWSU), and Teacher Consultants Janet Jelavich (Maryville, retired) and Amy Miller (SJSD) as well as CRWP district representatives Terrance Sanders (Braymer), Mitch Barnes (Braymer), Allison Ford (Hamilton), Traci Scheiber (Hamilton), Lauren Wingate (Breckenridge), and Linda Gaines (Breckenridge).

Susie Hennessy, professor of French, attended the ADE/ADFL Summer Seminar West in Seattle, a meeting for department chairs, sponsored by the Association of Departments of English and Foreign Languages.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

LeAnn Neal Reilly Wins Bronze Medal in Book Competition

LeAnn Neal Reilly, a 1990 graduate, has learned that her third novel, The Last Stratiote, is the bronze medal winner for the category of fantasy in Forward Reviews' 16th annual competition. Forward Reviews is a book review publication dedicated to discovering good independently published works.

 Congratulations, LeAnn!

Here is the press release:

Foreword Reviews Announces IndieFab Book of the Year Awards

July 1, 2014—Last Friday, Foreword Reviews announced the winners of its annual IndieFab Book of the Year Awards for the best indie books of 2013 at the annual American Library Association (ALA) conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. Representing hundreds of independent and university presses of all sizes, the winners were selected after months of editorial deliberation over more than 1,500 entries in 60 categories. This year’s list of winners includes Garrison Keillor, Barry Lopez, Harvard Business Review, Georgia Museum of Art, B&H Publishing, Rizzoli Publishing, SUNY Press, Loyola University Press, Chicago Review Press, Valentine D’Arcy Sheldon, and Wayne State University Press, among others. The winners exemplify the best work coming from today’s indie authors and publishers.
Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Honorable Mention awards, as well as Editor’s Choice Prizes for Fiction and Nonfiction, were determined by a panel of librarians and booksellers. The Last Stratiote was honored with the Bronze award in the category of Fantasy.
A dark urban fantasy that re-imagines A Tale of Two Cities on the modern international stage, The Last Stratiote depicts the age-old struggle between revenge and love in the heart of one tortured woman. 

Author LeAnn Neal Reilly writes novels "about resilient women caught in magical, otherworldly circumstances" (Kirkus Reviews). She grew up in the Midwest, migrated east to Pittsburgh for graduate school, and then migrated even farther east to the Boston suburbs where she lives with her husband and three children.
Contact: LeAnn Neal Reilly, 3 Billings Way, Framingham, MA 01701zephonbooks@gmail.com / 508.877.5789 / www.nealreilly.com

About Foreword Reviews: The editors and staff at Foreword Reviews love indie books and the art of great storytelling. They discover, curate, critique, and share reviews and feature articles exclusively on indie-publishing trends. Foreword Reviews’ quarterly print magazine is distributed across the United States to librarians, booksellers, publishers, and avid readers and is available at most Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, indie bookstores, and by subscription.Foreword’s website features reviews of indie books written by a team of professional, objective writers.
You can also connect with Foreword on FacebookTwitterGoogle+, and Pinterest. 425 Boardman Avenue, Traverse City, MI 49684.
Contact: Jennifer Szunko, Director of Marketing/Circulation
Foreword Reviews jennifer@forewordreviews.com 231-933-3699

Monday, June 30, 2014

Episode 19: On Leaving China

Saying Goodbye

I’m lousy at saying goodbye. I just hate it. Even at parties and other social gatherings, I am more likely to slip out the side door than have to go through the ritual of saying goodbye to people. It is a personal psychosis. Just don’t make me say goodbye.

Z's hand embroidered thank you card
that he made for his teacher.
Leaving China, therefore, is nerve-wracking. I have cringed every time someone suggested a last dinner, a last lunch, a last hurrah. It meant saying “goodbye.” And one is never enough. Everyone wants “one last goodbye.”

Add to that the gift-giving culture of China and it quickly becomes overwhelming and exhausting for me, an introvert to my last cell. I am the type of person who always gets embarrassed about gifts. I hate the attention. I always, always feel I don’t deserve gifts and am awkward and socially inept at accepting them. I hate Christmas for this reason. I cringe whenever someone presents me with a gaily wrapped present. I don’t want any part of it. No gifts, PLEASE.

Imagine my state of mind, then, when the last three weeks have been nothing but goodbyes and accepting gifts that I seriously do not deserve.

Third-Year English majors. Last day of class.
It was a hard day looking out over my last class, third-year students who I first met last August and who have done so much good work for me this year. They have worked harder than they ever thought they could, churning out papers and reading and discussing texts they never imagined they could do – in English. I stood in front of them for the last time and said, “Well. Here we are.” I couldn’t think about “the last class” too much because I couldn’t stand – can’t stand -- the idea of not seeing them again. I thought, “This is the last time I will look out into a classroom and see only Chinese faces.” It made my throat hot and lumpy. Not good.

The students gave me gifts and flowers. I was laden down with love notes, photos, video clips, small Chinese statues, scarves, books, fans with hand-painted calligraphy, journals, photo albums and a white jade necklace that probably cost more than I even want to think about. As the last of them filed out of the classroom that final, hot June morning, I gave each a big American hug (Chinese don’t hug, so this is always an awkward social proposition; they don’t know where to put their hands or head) and said, “I will miss you. Remember what you learned. I will see you in the U.S.” The reality is, however, I will see few – if any of them – again. And this is the agony of leaving.

A clutch of students, my favorite women who I ate lunch with every Wednesday and a few of the “best boys,” wanted to come over to the apartment to say a final goodbye. We played UNO, spoons, and charades (all new American games to them), ate ice cream and popsicles, talked and laughed a lot. I can’t stand the idea of never seeing them again. Can’t stand it.

"The Favorites" last visit
Z said goodbye to his school chums and teacher last week. They all wrote him endearing, tender notes (in Chinese, of course – but Z can read them; his Chinese is amazing). They wrote things like, “I hope you come back soon because you are my friend” and “Thank you for being in our class. Have a wonderful and safe journey to America.” One sweetie pie wrote, “Before you came to our school, I dreamed of having a foreign friend. Then you came to our class. I feel very lucky, indeed. You made my dream come true.” Upon returning home with his haul of missives, Z said, “I need to come back to China. I need to see my friends again. Maybe in two years. I can do one year in Missouri and then one year in China. Like that.” A far cry from his attitude on day 1 of Chinese public education back in September where he bolted inexplicably from the room after 10 minutes, he was so overwhelmed with the unfamiliarity of it all.
Tiantian wanted to take us on “one last field trip,” to the tombs (massive human-mountains filled with Tang and Han Dynasty treasures that can only be guessed at), a car trip outside the city. It was a lovely outing and Tiantian insisted on paying for everything and I just felt guilty and in denial. “No. This can’t be the last time I spend a day with Tiantian.” Stop paying for everything. The women of “Girls Night” organized an outing to the countryside (fishing, hiking, eating). Tiantian said, “There will be gifts.” Noooo! Please! No gifts. I already feel bad enough about leaving. What are you trying to do, kill me?
Final field trip; in the village we visited,
Z got to weave some cotton fabric and
spin cotton into thread.
The Foreign Language Department and the Foreign Exchange Center organized a lunch. Everyone told me how great I am; what a wonderful teacher I am; how much they appreciate me. More gifts. Emails from people back home say things like, “Can’t wait to see you!” “Call me when you get back!” “When does your plane get here?” “I bet you are anxious to get home.” But they don’t understand. I don’t want to leave. I am not excited to return. I am not looking forward to being back in the U.S. I have no desire to return to “normal” after a year of “amazing.”

I am expecting to be depressed. I am expecting to be crabby and not good company. And if anyone asks me, “So, how was it, living in China for a year?” I will likely snarl, “Are you kidding me? You want me to – what? – distill an entire year into a sentence or two? What kind of cretin are you, anyway?”

Z and his amazing teacher, Du Laoshi.
She worked really hard to help him this year.
If anyone says to me, “Wow! A year in China. I bet it feels good to be back home.” I will likely spit and then say, “Yeah. Right. To fat white people who sit around and watch television/play phone games in their free time, eat fast food in their cars, and vote Republican or – worse yet – don’t vote at all? Yup. It feels great.”

Final Blog

For many reasons, leaving China after a year feels too, too soon. I have come to know the city of Xi’an, the bus routes, the parks, the subway, the best restaurants for Indian food, the best stalls for boazi and fry bread filled with cabbage and herbs, the times the monks chant and pray at the local temples, the most opportune time to bike the wall, when to meander through the Muslim Quarter, or what times to avoid when hopping on the double-decker bus. I will miss the feeling of walking around in an exciting and interesting culture so different from my own. Every day I step outside into a new adventure; every moment I look around I see something new, interesting, puzzling or flabbergasting. I will miss struggling to figure out a way to say what I want to say in a way people can understand, a linguistic puzzle of tones and words. I will miss the sounds, smells, and people that this corner of the world has generously offered to me as a home for the past year.
Z and some of his school chums:
Z's last day, saying goodbye outside the
school gate
Right now, outside my open windows, I can hear the electronic plinking of “Oh Tannenbaum.” It is the street cleaning truck. After China, I will forever associate that classic carol with wet cement. I know, also, that it is exactly 10:15 a.m. when I hear the Souza marches out my back window; the morning constitution of a young woman who works in the building next door has begun: Tai Chi to Souza. An odd combination, but she is as regular as clockwork and it is something that I count on, a morning comfort. Everything is right in the world today. She is out there doing her Souza Tai Chi.

Of course there are things I will not miss about China. A few:

-          Being able to locate the bathroom in any building by following the stench. Flush the squat after you go, people!

-          The perpetual interruptions of strangers stopping us, smiling and friendly, to ask if they can take a photo. It gets tiresome after the first 100 or so.

-          Cats tied to trees. Cats aren’t dogs, folks. Stop tying them up. It is against a cat’s nature to be tethered to anything or anyone.

-          Old men spitting big, gross, wet loogies at my feet.

-          Children pulling down their pants and peeing and pooing wherever they feel like it; babies and toddlers being held, bare-bottomed and knees to chest, over grates or at the corner of some green space to relieve themselves.

-          Pea, red bean, and corn-flavored popsicles. That’s just weird.

-          Not being able to read more than 10% of any sign or billboard.

-          The hot, stinky school bus that takes us to new campus to teach (windows don’t open).

-          Blocked and so-freaking-slow internet that some days I wonder what is the point of even trying to email or look for something online.

-          Having to sleep inside a mosquito net.

-          The insane number of people and negotiating my day to avoid crowds (often failing).

-          Pollution grey/brown haze.

Z's goodbye note to his teacher.
He wrote it himself.
What I will miss deeply:

-          The evening group dancing on the plaza; the morning Tai Chi in the gardens: swords, fans, scarves, all moving in gentle swoops and arcs.

-          People walking around belting out a tune at the top of their lungs. Karaoke without the dark bar and artificial, recorded music.

-          The kindness of people, who are willing to go out of the way, several different directions and for long hours to make sure we have what we need and find where we want to go.

-          Hearing Zephaniah chatter on with old women, shop keepers, and school chums in Chinese; hearing him say things like, “See the radical in that character? It means ‘animal,’ but the other part of the character means ‘fur.” So why does that character mean ‘insect’? Insects aren’t animals. Or furry.”

-          People on scooters waiting around on the corners and near the bus stops to take you where you want to go for 10 RMB (about $1.50).

-          Peddling around the city of 6 million with Z on the back of the bike.

-          The street sellers with baskets hanging off their bikes or little carts, hawking anything from the fruit of the day (whatever is in season) to socks to ear buds and phone covers to houseplants.

-          LiLiang’s sesame cookies. And her smile, every time she sees Zephaniah coming.

-          Hoping on a bus, quickly and easily, and getting anywhere I need to go in a matter of minutes.

Traditional Chinese Medicine office
-          Warm “baozi” dumplings bought on any given block, steamy, savory, and delicious.

-          Classrooms full of eager, polite Chinese young people and not a single angry, hostile, bloated by fast food and farm chemicals white boy among them.

-          Sunday morning runs, followed by a quick shower, and then off into the city for a double-decker bus ride to take Z to calligraphy class where he learns to paint beautiful Chinese characters in thick, dramatic, black ink.

-          Living in one spacious apartment instead of driving back and forth between two houses that always need yard work or homeowner repairs.

-          Hearing the gentle sweeping scratch of the gardener’s straw broom as he sweeps the gutters at 6 a.m.

-          Young men carrying the colorful knock-off bags of their female sweethearts (it’s a thing).

-          Women and girls walking hand-in-hand.

-          Exiting the campus gate onto the back street and buying everything I need or want on Guan Hua Lu: fresh lilies and roses ($10 for a huge bunch that lasts a week); housewares, yummy fruit and fresh vegetables; every kind of tofu you could imagine in big, homemade blocks; fresh roasted nuts in any combination or variety; baked goods and fried things; noodle soups; school supplies and art supplies; underwear, sox, and shoes.

-          Babies toddling around in split pants, no matter what the weather; it could be below freezing and they are bundled up like eskimos, but their privates are hanging out.

-          Having a tailor (Song Le) who will make any costume or funky outfit you want for under $40, as long as you can draw it on a piece of paper.

-          A clothes drying room that is sunny and dries clothes almost as fast as a machine without the waste of energy.

Woman spinning cotton into thread
What Will Be Good to Get Back To

-          Public libraries and librarians who know exactly what you need because you are a regular patron; checking out arm-breaking stacks of books as often as we want.

-          Having cats in the house.

-          Friends and family, of course.

-          Summer events and creative, fun camps for kids that keep us hopping every day.

-          Not having to carry toilet paper wherever we go.

-          Not having the government decide when I need heat.

-          Drinking water straight from the tap.

This will be my final blog post on this year’s adventure of teaching in Xi’an, China. We won’t arrive back home for some time, but we won’t be here. Since we are on this side of the world, we are traveling our way back home. We will see you all in a few weeks. Expect me to be a bit depressed at being back in “normal.”

Chi protectors for sale; they are tied on babies to cover
their chest/belly to protect the baby from evil spirits and illness.
Everyone should take the opportunity to do this, pack up your life, cram everything you can’t live without into two suitcases, update your passport, and go live someplace else for a year. Forget worrying about whether you can afford it. Forget worrying about how scary you think it might be. Forget telling yourself your life is too complicated to do something like this. You will reach and grow and learn in ways that are unfathomable to you --  in ways that are unavailable to you in your own culture, in the comfort of the familiar. Traveling as a tourist to a country is not the same as living there. Living there means making friends, struggling through setting up house and learning a community, and calling that new, foreign, complicated, frustrating, beautiful place “home.”  

Zai Jian, Zhong Guo. Xie Xie Ni.



Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Episode 18: Girls' Night and Summer

Friday is finally (finally!) the last day of classes. June 20. A day before Summer Solstice. How is it possible that a third of what is typically “summer vacation” has already slipped by and I am still teaching? While all my colleagues in the U.S. (the sane ones with actual lives as opposed to the over-achievers who report to their offices even during the summer – which is really just sick and wrong) are walking around in flip-flops and tank tops. They are professors on summer vacation: reading on porch swings, sitting in their comfy chairs, composing articles or book drafts while sipping an iced latte, and pulling weeds out of a vegetable garden whenever they feel like it. Meanwhile, in China I have been planning lessons and grading papers, delivering lectures and demo lessons, meeting with students and writing comments on their work until my hand cramps up like a shriveled, sad walnut. I am running around as if it weren’t June but April. It ain’t right, Madge. It ain’t right.
Some sort of corn snack (processed into tubes)
sold on the street near Big Goose Pagoda

I decided we (the Royal and collective “we”) needed some time to kick back and drink a beer. I planned a Girls’ Night for all my favorite female friends in China. I also thought that, since all the guests were going to be Chinese, I would make some American food and see what they thought: cous-cous with vegetables, biscuits and baked beans, homemade pizza, homemade bread, some cheese (Swiss and Camembert), watermelon (in season and as sweet as candy), chocolate chip cookies and chocolate cake.

I spent the week, around classes and grading, shopping and preparing food. On Saturday morning, Z and I got up early and started cleaning the apartment. It took us 4 hours and the place looked great. I went to the grocery store to pick up some last minute items and left Z to his own devices. When I got back with my cart full of food, I opened the door and was met by Z. “Don’t go in the office. At least not without shoes.”
Flowers from Wenning (Girls' Night)


“Um. I was trying to get something off the book shelf and it was high and, well, you know that glass jar of fake fruit that was on the bookshelf . . . well, it fell off and broke.”

Bless his heart, Z had tried to clean up the mess before I got home. The problem was, the jar was not filled with water, but oil. There was an oil slick all over the office floor, trailing down the hall and into the kitchen (where he tried to bring a dustpan full of oil and broken glass). The dust pan (and everything else) was so slick with oil he dropped it in the middle of the kitchen. Splat. Oil everywhere.

I now deeply sympathize with all those environmental scientists who spent weeks trying to clean up the BP oil spill. Sopping up an oil slick is no easy trick. Mop and soapy water only smeared it around, a viscous "ice" rink. I finally resorted to sopping most of the miserable mess up with newspapers and then getting on hands-and-knees to clean up what the newspapers left behind. With Z on all fours in the office and I crawling along the hall/kitchen we managed to clean the mess in about two hours.

Cleaning the floors twice in one day wasn’t really part of the plan.

Just after getting the last bit of tile de-oiled, Tiantian knocked on the door. She wanted to watch me make the cake. Apparently American cakes are a bit different than Chinese cakes. First of all, I just dump everything in a bowl and stir. I don’t measure beyond what “looks right;” I don’t sift or do “dry ingredients” and “wet ingredients.” Eggs are not separated and beat according to whites/yolks. There is no segregation in my baking: everything is dumped in the bowl and then mixed with arm muscle. This I learned from my grandmother who also liked to bake (mostly because, like me, she had a sweet tooth and baking offered an instant reward). Cooking I really don’t like; who cares about cooking? I do it because I have to eat and feed my child. But baking I do because I like to. It’s easy. Just dump and stir. Viola! Sweet goodness, both in the dough and in the baked goodies (but really, the dough is just as good; no need to bake).

I am not sure whether Tiantian was disappointed with my lack of flair. She had learned eggs must be separated and whites beat separately into peaked froth, worthy of cupid butts. She had taken a cake baking course where they measured things precisely using a scale. She had been taught you could only stir in one direction. What? That is just crazy talk. Stir in one-direction? Who in the world thought that up? Some OCD bakery chef with too much time on her hands, that’s who. Stir in one direction. The idea.

Even though I told my friends they did not need to bring anything to Girls’ Night, everyone arrived bearing food stuffs, flowers, and even toys for Z. The women came dressed to the nines in summer dresses and heeled sandals. They all looked lovely . . . and me in my (oily, sweaty) yoga pants and tunic. I had bottles of wine ready, but no one wanted to drink (most Chinese women don’t seem to drink). Juan reported that she didn’t know what Girls’ Night was so she looked it up on Google. Interesting, I said. I had made the stupid cultural assumption that Girls’ Night was universal. Not so. What did she find when she Googled it, I asked? She reported: Girls’ Night involved drinking and talking, usually about personal problems. Hmmm. Interestingly enough, that sounds about right.
Girls' Night Group: (L to R) QingQing, Tiantian,
Helen and her mom, me, Juan, Yanping,
Wenning, Mandy, and ZhuLinFei.
We had a fantastic Girls’ Night without either drinking much or talking about personal problems. We laughed a lot and ate a lot. It is a truly wonderful group of women. I wish I had thought of having Girls’ Night earlier and more often. The chocolate chip cookies and chocolate cake were hits and the pizza seemed to disappear. The cous-cous had too many weird spices: “Takes like Indian food” (not a compliment). No one touched the cheese – except the adventuresome Helen who immediately made a sour face and spit it out saying, “It isn’t sweet! It isn’t sweet!” Later, Helen tried again (she must have thought she had simply chosen a “bad” cheese square), but had the same experience. I believe she is likely to be done with cheese. Dairy is simply not part of the Chinese diet. Yogurt is a new addition to the scene and it is a drink, not a food. The Muslim Quarter sells wonderful homemade yogurt in quaint little glass jars; you drink it with a straw. I didn’t mind hogging the cheese to myself. It's been awhile since I smeared a wad of quality Camembert onto homemade bread. More for me.

Sitting around in a room full of smart, engaged, interesting women, laughing and talking for hours on end was just the tonic I needed to push through the final three weeks of the term. It is hard to imagine that these are friends I won’t see again once I leave China next month. Smart and vivacious women are an elixir that has sustained me throughout my life in many different geographic locations. Ah, to live life fully is to regularly spend time in the company of such women.

Traditional Chinese Medicine at the
hospital pharmacy

 \Traditional Chinese Medicine

Before leaving China, there are some things I want to make sure I do and one of them is/was consult a traditional Chinese medicine doctor. Tiantian offered to be my guide, so last week we set out for our first visit to one of the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) hospitals in Xi’an.

In my mind, I envisioned a TCM doc would operate out of a little shop with jars of mushrooms and herbs and other things stacked against the walls in dusty, sagging rows. Perhaps these practitioners still exist in corners of the city or countryside, but we headed to the hospital. Anytime one interacts with a government entity, one knows the process is not going to be quick. I don’t think this is any different in China than it is the U.S. -- just more people. The process of seeing a doc at the TCM hospital involved so many stations, there is no way I would have been able to figure it out without a guide and a map.

Step 1: Arrive at the hospital and stand outside the window to get a slip of paper with your appointment time on it. Wait time: 5-10 minutes.

Step 2: Carry appointment slip over to “pay for your appointment” station. Wait time: 10-20 minutes. Pay 6-9 RMB (about $1-$1.50 to see a TCM doc; considerably cheaper than what it would be in the states, yes? In fact, I would be hard pressed to think of anything medical—let alone a face-to-face visit with a doctor – that would cost less than $2; maybe a Q-tip?)

Step 3: Take your receipt and head to the area of the hospital specializing in your ailment. We were directed to third floor: reproductive health (my problem involves fibroid tumors).

Tiantian's mocha at the cafe
Step 4: Stand in line to give your receipt to a young person in a lab coat who will then ask you questions about why you are visiting the TCM doc today. He/she writes it all down in a little book that becomes your book; the doctor also writes in this book and you take it with you when you go, bringing it back for the next visit. Wait time: 20-30 minutes.

Step 5: Your little booklet is placed in a stack on the doc’s desk. There were ten people before me. Wait time: 20-30 minutes. The math reveals that the doc typically sees people for less than 5 minutes.

Step 6: Visit with the TCM doc. She is sitting on a stool at a desk in front of a computer. You sit on a stool next to her. She takes your pulse (in both wrists). She looks at your tongue. She checks out your eyes by pulling down your lower lid. She reads your booklet and asks some questions. Her diagnosis: my “Xu” is weak. Tiantian said this is always the diagnosis with TCM. You wouldn’t be at the doc if you didn’t have weak “Xu.” Xu a difficult word to translate. It means something along the lines of “not solid.” Not stalwart. Weak and mushy, perhaps. It refers to the general state of your body, psyche, health. The TCM doc writes down your prescription on the computer and prints it off. Five minutes or less. The doctor we saw was warm, professional, and very attentive. I can’t imagine how she maintains that attitude seeing the swarms of women she does. In any given hour she is seeing, diagnosing, and sending on their way at least 6-12 patients with Xu problems that involve their reproductive organs. More, if she can manage. The back-up in the wait area is daunting.

TCM pharmacy, measuring herbs, mushrooms
to make packets for soup
Step 7: Take your prescription and go downstairs to pay for it. A week's worth of herbs/mushrooms = $30. Wait time: 10-15 minutes.

Step 8: (Almost done!) Take your receipt and prescription to the station where they fill it. You have three choices: traditional herbs that you then boil into a soup; packets of dried powder made from the herbs that you add boiling water to make the instant soup; capsules/pills of the herbs. I chose to get the packets of herbs because Tiantian said boiling the herbs into soup involved a lot more than just dumping the stuff into a pot and boiling it. Wait time: 30 minutes. (Tiantian and I went across the street to the mall and had a coffee while we waited).

Step 9: Pick up your packet of stuff, measured out into doses for each day of the week; only enough for one week because TCM docs want to see you every week until they solve your problem. Tiantian said very traditional TCM docs want to see their patients every three days, but in the large hospital, typically it is once a week.

TCM herb mixture
Step 10: Leave the hospital with your weeks’ worth of herbs/mushrooms about 4 hours after you arrived.

I dutifully made and drank my herb soup (thick, brackish stuff that has the taste of sweet tree bark or some moss-covered earth) twice a day for a week and then Tiantian and I went back to the hospital a week later. Same process. A morning spent waiting and shifting from station to station. My American face got me pushed to the front of the line more than once. I felt guilty about that, but Tiantian thought it was an absolute coup. The TCM doc adjusted my potion prescription and I got another week’s worth. I will be able to go back one more time before I leave the country. The doc said it may take three months of the soup to change anything. I may have to pack an extra small bag full of TCM medicine to get me to the three month mark, but
Soup made from TCM
I am curious enough about the process to commit to the extra baggage.

Parasol Weather

Hot. Sunny. Intense rains and then warm days. It is parasol weather in Xi’an. Parasol season began about three weeks ago. The parasols are lovely little portable shade conveyance systems and most young women don’t go out without them. It is charming to see young women strolling around the city with their pastel, glittery parasols. They are often sporting kicky, feminine summer frocks and high heels. There are short skirts with layers of ruffles, flirty summer dresses made of chiffon and lace, zip-up-the-back fitted frocks of summer garden colors with net crinolines under fluffy knee-length skirts. The young women don’t seem to step out of the house without an eye-catching ensemble (matching bag, shoes, and parasol).

It is such a lovely hot-weather tableau, if you don’t stop to think about how sweaty, scratchy and uncomfortable all those feminine accoutrements must be (especially the strappy, high-heeled sandals). I told Daniel, a Nebraska college student here for a four-month internship (he goes home next week), when he lands in the Midwest, he is going to take one look around and say to himself, “Where did all the lesbians come from?” The difference in fashion choice and aesthetic between Midwestern college women and Chinese college women cannot be overstated. He admitted it might be a tough transition.

Parasol woman by the campus fountain
At school the hot weather means no school uniforms. No more sailor suits with flashy little red Mao scarves tied jauntily around the neck. Z is thrilled with shorts and t-shirts and sandals. He has two more days of Chinese Public Education and they are made all the more comfortable without polyester sailor suits.

The little girls at Z’s school have taken the opportunity (or their parents have) of dressing in their own version of summer attire. The little button-up-the-back cotton, seersucker, and dotted-Swiss dresses harken back to what I and my sister wore as children. White Peter-pan collars, puffed sleeves, rick-rack and careful smocking with embroidery remind me of the Sunday clothes of my childhood. The sashes that tie in the back and full-swirling skirts set off with lace-trimmed anklets are a far cry from the “I’m a Baby Ho” fashion that little girls in the states wear. It is difficult to imagine any 10-year-old girl in the states wearing one of these baby-doll dresses, trading in their belly shirts, “making me look way older than I am” tight-fitting jeans, and neon colors. The Mylie Cyrus/Taylor Swift wee wannabees always make me cringe in discomfort: pedophile bait. Here, it is refreshing to see children dressed like children instead of like mini ill-behaving or slovenly adults.

Little girl on the back of her father's bike

My friend Bridget tells the story of sending her daughter to school in the U.S. in age-appropriate fashion. One day Hannah came home and said, “Why do you always make me wear cute clothes. The other girls don’t wear ‘cute’. They wear cool.” She was in kindergarten. Sigh.

World Cup Mania

I don’t know about the U.S., but in China the soccer World Cup, this year in Brazil, is a big deal. So big that people are staying up all night to watch the games live (“live” in Brazil means 3-6 a.m. in China). On the Chinese Internet there are doctors advertising notes with invented illnesses so you can sleep in and not have to worry about getting to work.

Last day of school uniforms;
Z inside the school gate
Sunday morning, we were on the bus going to Z’s calligraphy class and the bus was suspiciously empty, a note-worthy oddity in China. I felt like we were the last people heading out of town during an apocalypse: the rare survivors.  I couldn’t figure out where everyone was. There were two or three other people on the bus, all of them lolling around as the bus bumped along drooling in a drug-like stupor.

It took me most of the ride to figure out the reason: China was sleeping in. There had been a soccer match on at 3 a.m.