Friday, June 17, 2011

Yali Middle School presents...

The Lion King, finally on Youtube!!

Part I:

Part II:

Monday, May 30, 2011

Avatar's Floating Mountains, but really.

As some of you may know, the floating mountains in Cameron's Avatar were actually inspired by a series of rock formations in the northwestern region of the Hunan province. Since I am living in Hunan, I have no real excuse for not seeing these wonders.

Well, no excuse needed!

This past weekend, I woke up before sunrise and jumped on a bus towards Zhangjiajie, home to these rock mountains.

Immediately after stepping off the bus, I realized that a hundred thousand Chinese tourists had the same idea as mine on the same day. The buzz from all the tourists and their tour guides, yakking away on their loudspeakers, was more than enough to make one want to turn around and go back home.

Thankfully, a Zhangjiajie native told me of a trail that few tourists frequent. (When I asked a park employee exact directions to said trail, she was incredulous that I would want to go there, since "tourists don't usually go there.") Half an hour after setting out, the buzzing faded away, the people shrank into ants before disappearing completely. Soon enough, my friend and I were alone in the woods, quietly skipping up the neatly arranged stone steps (China doesn't do natural dirt trails), pausing to see the occasional caterpillar forming its cocoon, or to stare back at a monkey looking curiously at us.

Unbelievable sights greeted us at every twist and turn, at every parting of trees and shrubs. These mountains towered over me like old, silent sages from the past, knobby and bent-over, sagging and whispering through the winds their collective wisdom. If only I could decipher their words...

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Lion King - A Yali Musical

Since November, the fellows at Yali and I have been working at putting together a major English musical here starring the kids. Auditions, choreography, blocking, music rehearsals, costumes, set, props, mics, run-throughs after run-throughs, advertisements, ticket sales, and much more--I never really knew how much work and thought has to be put in before something of the like could be put on!

Rafiki, getting ready to open the show.

Anyway, after months and months of tedious preparation and of wrangling the kiddies to come on time to rehearsals (or just to show up), the curtains opened last Thursday to great fanfare. Rafiki belted out "Circle of Life" and the animals of the savannah chanted beautifully behind her (okay okay, so they were a little off key). The show was under way.

Auntie Scar in "Be Prepared!"

Admittedly, both shows had some problems. The music in the first show did not play correctly, and the second show was cursed with mics fading in and out. However, the kiddies responded unflinchingly--they continued to sing their hearts out, listening for signals in the songs to find their places, and when mics failed to work, they just amplified and projected their voices. In the end, these issues were... non-issues.

"Hakuna Matata"

The two performances, I hope, will be remembered for the energy, excitement, and flair that each actor and actress brought in, for the impeccable English by the students with speaking roles, and just as importantly as the former two, for the unique and quirky qualities they gave their characters. Without exaggeration or biase, I have to say that our Auntie Scar's performance was Tony-worthy. Okay, maybe some biase, but she really did bring the house down.

The audience--consisting of school officials, teachers, friends of the fellows, other Yale-China fellows, and the students' classmates, and random local townies--seemed to love it, and glowing reviews poured in almost immediately. My favorite compliment? Best Yali student performance of the year. Not that it was a competition or something, but... yes.

"Can You Feel the Love Tonight"

"This looks familiar... Oh yes, this is how Mufasa looked before I killed him."

A video will (hopefully) be uploaded onto Facebook in the near future!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Seven Days in Korea

Striking a thinking pose at Beomosa Temple, Busan.

It is my last evening in South Korea; I fly out of Seoul tomorrow at 12pm sharp. I will be leaving behind bulgogi, bibimbap, pajeon, and multi-flavored ice cream sandwiched by freshly-made waffles. I will be leaving behind blue skies (though the Koreans keep complaining of the yellow sand blowing from China), the ubiquity of password-free wireless networks, and smartly dressed young men and women. I will be leaving behind the society that gave the world the likes of Taeyang, Girls Generation, and melodramatic Korean dramas.
Traditional Korean song, dance, and drum


Upon arrival, I met up with a friend who I had gotten to know in Singapore. Because my iPhone app sorely miscalculated how long it would take for me to get from the airport to downtown Seoul, I was more than an hour late meeting her. With no means of letting her know that I was running really late, I was surprised to find her still waiting patiently at our meeting point. We ended up having a great time going through the Gyeongbokgung Palace, Itaewon district and, a few days later, the beach city Busan.

The kindness shown to me that day continued. I dropped into a random bakery to grab a quick snack on my way to my Couchsurfing host's apartment. After getting your run-of-the-mill butter roll, I asked for a coffee from the older woman working behind the counter. She then refused my payment. Her husband later came over to chat, and as I headed out, he grabbed a bag, tossed a bunch of pastries and bread into the bag, and insisted I take it along with me for the road. For free. Incredible generosity.

I found Seoul to be a fascinating city, but I did not want to stay there for the entire trip. So, on Day 3, I boarded a bus to a sleepy seaside town called Sokcho (in South Korea, you can literally get from any point to any other point in less than six hours). Why Sokcho? It was at the base of Seorksan National Park, a favorite of the Koreans and known for its massive rock formations. The legend behind the formative rock formations is quite beautiful. Simply, an enormous rock answering the Creator's call to create the world's most beautiful mountain arrived too late to be incorporated into the great mountain. However, on its way home, the rock fell in love with the beauty of Seoraksan and decided to stay there. Tear.
Ulsanbawi Rock at Seoraksan

At the peak of Ulsanbawai, I was disappointed to find heavy fog everywhere, minimizing visibility. I sat down on the rock and, thinking that I had the rock all to myself, opened a bag of the airline peanuts. However, I was mistaken. In fact, I was with three of the world's friendliest chipmunks. Observe:

My visit to South Korea was packed with trips to temples and shrines, bumping through bustling shopping districts, and stuffing myself with some of the most mouth-watering dishes. However, in the end, it is the friendliness of the people and of the culture (and of the little animals, hehe...) that I will remember most fondly.

And off I go, back to China.

A few more pictures:
Temples across Korea hang lanterns in preparation for Buddha's birthday.More lanternsTakoyaki - a Japanese snack I found on the streets of Busan. Delicious.
Waited 30 minutes to get my hands on one of these--multi-flavored ice cream sandwiched by freshly made waffles. Worth every minute of the wait.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Three clear days in a row?

An amazing thing has happened--Changsha has experienced not one, not two, but three clear, blue days in a row! Which means I've had the pleasure of seeing not one, not two, but three gorgeous sunsets over the Yali campus.

Sunset over the construction site of Yali's soon-t0-be main teaching building.

On an unrelated note:
Easter egg hunt (courtesy of Chacey Bryan).

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Almost Puppy and Easter Eggs

While walking down a pedestrian street, I came across a puppy for sale. I could try to describe it with words, but I don't think I could do this little guy justice. So, a picture:
Cue the awwws

SOO cute, right?? Gahhh! The puppy was on sale for only 320rmb (less than $50)! I wanted to buy it, but a local friend stopped me, saying that puppies being sold on the street are not treated well by their owners, usually have diseases, and will probably not live past two weeks. A real bummer... Tear*

On a happier note, today, some Yali students and I decorated Easter Eggs in preparation for the first Yali Middle School Easter Egg Hunt. None of them had done this before, and some of them didn't even know of the holiday. Nevertheless, they weren't afraid to get their hands dirty. Great fun was had by all, and the final products look pretty good (if not particularly strange).
This one is a little risque... >.<Happy Easter to everyone!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Reach OUT!

It's been too long since my last post. The delay could be attributed to many things--my hectic schedule, China's ceaseless efforts at blocking anything and everything actually useful on the internet, and frankly, my own laziness. Actually, there are no excuses, really. Anyway, rather than give an exhausting summary of everything that happened the last two months, I will just write about the recent Yali Reach Out trip, a week-long service trip I took with twelve students and another fellow from Yali.

This was the third year the fellows have had the opportunity to take Yali students on a service trip. Each year, we partner with Yale students on their Spring Break as well as a third school. This time, we worked with Xiamen Foreign Language School (a prestigious high school in the Fujian province). This year, the delegations from the three schools went to Shanghang, a rural town three hours away from Xiamen City in Fujian.

The mission of the trip for the last couple of years have focused on education, specifically going into the classrooms and teaching basic English. In Shanghang, we went to the Baisha Middle School, where the entire school--students, teachers, and administration--greeted our arrival. After the obligatory opening ceremony (Ohh, China...) with its long-winded speeches, the "teachers" descended upon the students in their classrooms.

The welcoming ceremony, complete with bass drums, snare drums, valve-less trumpets, and a color guard!

Greeting the Baisha students

Each classroom had a teacher from all three visiting schools. Due to scheduling difficulties, the visiting teachers had only three days with the students, seriously constraining the scope of their lessons and goals.

Nevertheless, I do think all parties benefited greatly. The Yale students--many of whom had not been to China--was exposed to a part of China that is usually hidden from the rest of the world. Rather than shiny new airports and awe-inspiring skyscrapers, they were living amidst houses made of mud and "left-behind children" (children who see their parents once a year, if that, because their parents are migrant workers in a faraway city).

Working together to plan their lessons

The trip's impact on the Yali students was just as significant. Interacting with the Yale students not only improved their English tremendously, but for some, it introduced the possibility of going abroad for college. For others, it confirmed this goal. Furthermore, the students met other children who were of the same age but lead very, very different lives.

Most importantly, I think, this trip was an eye-opener for the Yali students as to what service can be. They are no stranger to "institutionalized" service, or service co-opted by their school and/or by the city government. For example, they would be required to stay on city buses all day, making sure the young give up their seats to the elderly. More often than not though, the students are told just to seat down and mind their own businesses for the day.

At Baisha, the Yali students realized that they can have a very real impact on their own society, and that being in a privileged position relative to most of the Chinese population, they have an obligation to do so. Even if they make a difference in only one other person's life, the latter can go on and do great things. The rippling effect can be explosive. I think this epiphany has really excited the students, and many of them are already searching for ways to improve their country.

The lesson, in action.

Personally, this trip was a very unique experience for me both in the challenges it presented and also the benefits it allowed. Along with my co-leader, we were in charge a 45-person group where ages ranged from 14 to 21 (you can imagine the problems and difficulties that come with such a group). I had to give an impromptu speech in front of an audience of hundreds. I didn't find out about one of my classes until ten minutes before the class was to start. Events and activities were planned and canceled on the fly. Sweat beads rolled.

In the end, these challenges are really nothing when compared to the benefit: the opportunity to become close the Yali students, to know them as more than just students and for them to know me as more than just a teacher. At Yali, I am the waijiao, the foreign teacher. While I do some activities out of class here and there--library hour, a English musical, a Christmas program--I am always seen as the waijiao. For that week in rural Fujian, I could put English lessons on the side and focus on larger issues with the students. What do they like to do for fun? What are their passions and ambitions? What are their fears? What are mine?

For the two years I am in China, I, too, can be more than just a teacher.

(The kids kept a blog throughout the trip. There are posts in English as well, so feel free to check it out!)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

George Town, Malaysia

I didn't really have an opportunity to familiarize myself with Malaysian culture or history before coming, and while that may have been somewhat irresponsible of me as a tourist, it has been enjoyable getting to know the place starting from a completely blank slate.

Kek Lok Si - The largest Buddhist temple in SE Asia

The first thing that took me by surprise was seeing the headscarves worn by most Malay women. Who knew Malaysia was predominantly Muslim? Not me. I've never even been to a country that was predominantly Muslim. There are mosques in every neighborhood, calling the worshipers to prayer from their minarets. While some of the headscarves were absolutely stunning, I didn't really know what to think about the burqas. I feel like Western society views burqas rather unfavorably, and I almost instinctively pullback after seeing it, but I don't know enough about Islam or Malaysian society to really be comfortable enough to criticize the practice.

Buddhism and Hinduism are the second and third largest religions in Malaysia, respectively. The few Buddhist temples I visited actually appeared to function as spaces for worship. The paint on the temples' walls are refreshingly settled and soft, their rooms filled with the smell of incense and the whispers of prayers nearby. This is in stark contrast to temples in China, where I often get the feeling that the walls were just painted and instead of prayers, loudspeakers blaring from the hips of tour guides.

Food. Surprisingly, it is very difficult to find Malay food in Malaysia. Some may even argue there isn't such a thing. In its place, Indian, Thai, and Chinese cuisines abound. Even when I go to a "Malay" restaurant, the dishes seem oddly familiar. For most meals, I find my way to my favorite discovery thus far in Malaysia: hawker centers, outdoor food courts where countless food-carts set up to serve the masses. The options are plenty, cheap, and most important of all, delicious.

Yesterday, I rented a motorcycle to explore Penang Island a little more extensively. Besides the Kek Lok Si Temple, I discovered many other gems--gorgeous dams, paths where the lush green forest spilled over, and hidden scenic views. See below!

A panoramic view of George Town

Air Itam Dam

Friday, January 14, 2011

Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Spent a few days in the Cameron Highlands, a town four hours away from the capital. A very wndy ride, straight through the heart of the Malaysian jungles. The town itself is comfortably nestled in the valleys of these striking mountains.

After the hustle and bustle of Kuala Lumpur, the oasis of serenity was a welcomed change. We struggled (or at least, I did) through a couple of the jungle trails, hitchhiked our ways to various tea and strawberry farms, and enjoyed epically-long dinners.

Click to enlarge (you'll be able to see the rows and rows of tea bushes)!

Unfortunately, nothing good can last forever. We had to move on, and now we're in Penang, an island on the Straits of Melacca. More pictures and stories to come!

[Update: January 15, 2011] I had to include these pictures!

Kelsey and Chris, more than ready to hike Jungle Walk No. 1, or "Gunung Brinchang"

After conquering Gurung Brinchang. 1, we went to the nearest strawberry farm and
treated ourselves to the most delicious strawberry cheesecake.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Christmas and New Year, in pictures

I decided the most enjoyable way for both me and you is to skip the words and just show you the pictures.

"White Elephant" with my students

Gingerbread House with the Librarians
(using supplies available in China)

Christmas in Beijing

(with Eli and Craiggers!)

Yali's New Year's Student Celebration

New Year's Eve Sparkler Art!