An Interpretation of Accepting Acceptance

Today’s guest post is by Jenica Brittingham who is an English Literature and Theatre teacher originally from Normal, IL and currently living and working in Shanghai, China. Jenica shares wisdom on accepting our choices, coming to terms with different cultures, and living our dreams.

Publication1

For the last five years, I have been living in a foreign country.  Now this isn’t just ANY foreign country, but China, a land of a different language, different morals, beliefs, religion, but mostly, culture.  Anyone who has seen me or even talked to me about my experiences would know that on a general basis, I have not been a fan.

Most days, I will rant about the inconsiderate individual, a strange, and sometimes gross custom or stereotype (like spitting in the street or defecating in a trash bin, which yes, a large part of the population does do), but some days, I will have a moment of pure wonder as I glance outside the window of a taxi at a city, like any other, that is full of people with traditions, and on the occasion, magic.

While it can be difficult to find among the blaring horns of drivers and among some of the locals arguing (or possibly laughing, I can’t always tell) about the price of something, that magic can still be discovered, usually on a warm spring night, much like this one, when the air is somewhat clean, the lights of the city are shining like a beacon, and just a few stars are visible about the skyline of the city. It’s moments like these that create a sense of contemplation, moments that bring me back to my thoughts overall.

While living in China, I have had the privilege of teaching some amazing students who have reignited and re-inspired my passion for theatre and performing, causing me to actively pursue and perform in plays and musicals once again.  As I am nearing the end of my five year stint, I am faced with questions and options.  As I am preparing to leave, I am faced with the possibility of once again being a “leading lady” in a musical theater production, something I haven’t gotten to be since I was 17!  So, I must decide if this rekindled passion is enough to convince me to stay in a “world” and culture I have not always gotten along with, or if I should let go of my new-found community and family and start a new journey of self-discovery.

While facing this dilemma, I am reminded of my grandmother Dorothy, who taught me to always follow my hear, my passion, and to always believe in myself.  She was always one of my biggest fans and I continue to take her words of wisdom to heart.  However, the trouble is while living in China, I have constantly doubted myself and have consistently struggled to continually believe in myself.  So the question is, should I return to America where I have more confidence and self-esteem for myself in general, or should I remain a bit longer to continue to fight and strive for my passion?

Either way, I both win and lose a little, which doesn’t seem to bother me.  What does seem to give me pause is the thought of having to make a decision overall, and then accepting my choice, as well as embracing it full on without looking back or having any regrets.

Having now written down all these thoughts, I find I am not any closer to making a decision.  Still, having it truly out in the universe (or at least out on the internet), I am finding that I am accepting that a decision is going to ultimately have to be made. So, thank you China for your obscure five years and the potential few months more that may still occur.  You have been both a challenge and a blessing, but don’t tell anyone I said that!

Advertisements

More Than Words

By: Jenni Taylor

I in no way have a gift for learning languages. Heck, I minored in Spanish in college, lived in Peru for two years, and was still being corrected on my grammar the day of my flight home.

After my time in South America, I was suddenly given the opportunity to live and work in Shanghai last April.The decision was quick, and the extent of my research was looking China up on Wikipedia. My Mandarin? I learned “ni hao” in the airport.

The first three months flew by, in a flurry of re-learning the basics that come with moving to a new country: how to buy groceries, how to take taxis, how to say “wrong number” to a misplaced telephone call. My Chinese classes were limited to once a week due to my work situation, and I spent much of my time hiding behind the other foreigners when I couldn’t communicate. Soon, I found myself faced with summer break, no job, and no Chinese. I made the leap to take a job at a two week long summer camp in a nearby city called Yangzhou. Not the best gig, to be sure, but it was money, experience and a free tan, right? My job was to teach young students English-speaking skills they would use in the fall when they returned to school.

The kids LOVED when I tried to learn Chinese. One particular day, I spent about two hours going over the same two lines of a song. Couldn’t get it if my life depended on it. But just as I was about to bang my head against the wall, the third graders I worked with surrounded my teacher’s desk and started to help me. First they laughed, of course. But then they said the words slowly and carefully, with the patience of saints.

My Chinese is never going to be perfect. I will be happy if it is even close to conversationally functional one day. But the connection between my students and me that day was totally worth all the pain and flashcards. Their eyes lit up when they heard me trying. They were only ten years old or so, struggling over their own English workbooks, and there was some sort of recognition when they saw me struggling just as hard at my own desk. It’s about seven months later now, and while I still struggle, their help that day helped me to keep going. I even have the whole song memorized now, and catch myself singing it when no one is looking.

There is beauty in learning a language, in being able to communicate with others. But there’s something even better, when you can share a smile, a laugh, a hug- -even pain. It goes beyond where words can reach. My kids reached me that day when the frustration was driving me crazy. I just hope I was able to reach back, just a bit, and let them know how truly fantastic they are.

When You’re Not Looking

By: Jenni Taylor

Every so often I put on my headphones, jump on a crowded bus, and head a few miles away to tutor a young girl in English. They live in one of the hundreds of thousands of high rises bursting out of the concrete on every street corner, reaching up through the pollution to find the rare sunlight filtering through the smog. I know the route well- walk, bus, walk, elevator, do my job, and repeat steps to go home.

This time the parents were heading out to see the opera, and the young girl was left with her grandparents as babysitters. The old gentleman’s eyes met mine as I greeted him in Chinese, unsure of their background. He responded in English, and proceeded to offer me slippers in clear, slow, and intensely polite English. Though surprised at his perfect accent, I briefly thanked him and turned my focus to the girl for the next hour. I was here for a job, after all.

As we ended, the grandparents came back into the room to see me off and begin cooking dinner for the girl. The man gently stopped me again to chat.I had no interest. I wanted to go home. It was cold and while the bus ride was short, it was always crowded and uncomfortable.

The silliest part of all of it was that I had planned on going home to continue reading a book on recent Chinese history, a book that was changing my perception of China on every page. Each chapter made me feel like I knew less and less, and made me more eager to learn.

The older gentlemen spoke slowly and softly. He asked me where I was from. “Chicago, ah, I have been there twice,” he said. “The Sears Tower, the highest building. The cold wind from the lake biting into your skin.” It wasn’t what I had expected to hear. He went on to tell me that he used to work for a foreign service radio in Beijing in the 1970s, and was an English teacher for several years at a well-known Chinese university. The conversation didn’t last long, but nevertheless I felt humbled.

I had closed my eyes to the world around me and had almost tuned out this poetic, experienced grandfather who simply wanted to chat with me. I had become hardened after failed attempts at friendships with the Chinese and had decided to learn everything from books rather than people. I had stopped looking for relationships, and had almost missed one right in front of me.

It’s a small, insignificant story, but it reminded me to keep my eyes open at all times. With the new year just beginning, it is such a small step to resolve to look for the good in others, to be open to wonder, to go slowly and see what there is to see under the more obvious layers.

My very simple resolution is to stay awake. I’m ready to find something beautiful.

It’s Still Pretty

By: Jenni Taylor

When I was 15, I went to an “extreme camping” camp for a few weeks. We took our bags and our mosquito nets all over Wisconsin and Michigan until we hit Lake Superior and just stopped. The other girls teased me, for saying “it’s so pretty!” at every turn. It’s hard not to when you are watching the northern lights above the trees or the sun set over the lake. It really truly was pretty.

It’s about 9 years later, and instead of Michigan and Wisconsin, I stayed in the small city of Jiujiang, China. I spent a week with a family, in which two of the six members could speak English. We climbed mountains, sat by waterfalls, and hugged bamboo. The phrase I learned the fastest was, “hen piao liang!”

It’s so pretty. It’s still so pretty.

This motif has played out through my whole life. I take a step back, I look at the world, and everything I see amazes me. This big, beautiful, strong world, that at the same time can be so small, bleeding, and fragile. It’s complex. It’s messy. It’s hen piao liang.

A Chinese friend asked me how to pray. I told her my favorite Anne Lamott quote, that there are three types of prayers: Help, Thanks, and Wow. But you don’t close your eyes, she said. I don’t need to close my eyes, I told her. As Anne Shirley said,

“I just feel a prayer.”

SAMSUNG

Transitions

By: Jenni Taylor

I skipped out of my last semester of college in order to teach in Peru. I loved my college. We had hookah club and quidditch club, interpretive dancers with ribbons waving their arms in the trees, and you could talk about vagina power over cigarettes and imported beer every weekend if you wanted. Leaving sucked. I took my first grown up job in South America, took out my piercings, and even stopped dying my hair- huge sacrifices for a girl like me. I had to let go of this whole image of myself I had built up and put on a uniform instead.

While it wasn’t easy, I entered this amazing jungle world with cold showers, pit stains, and kids throwing markers at you or hugging your neck alternately. I loved it and hated it in turns probably every day. Sometimes I would just curl up and cry in my big empty bed, and sometimes I would sit in a rocking chair talking Spanish with grandmothers and feel like I never wanted to leave.

I say all that because growth is slow. I always felt a little jipped because of leaving college early, and yet I find myself in a pretty similar environment now. I find myself wanting to get weird piercings and dye my hair all over again, because I don’t know who I am in this kind of world without those things.

Peru was straightforward. Poverty was straight forward. Kids throwing up on you was pretty straightforward, too. I miss the simplicity, the latin bass thumping from down the street and the stars speckled over the mango trees outside my window. Now I’m a city girl, a Shanghai girl, where the taxi lights and the high rises stretch on forever and everyone you see has crazy shoes and looks a little bit lonely. I’m finding my place still, where the jungle part of me can put on heels, be sophisticated, and be real about it. That’s the key, really, to not getting lost. Being real. Being you.

The funny part about that is it only happens when you stop trying. I can stand on a street in a city of 20 odd million people and feel lonely or lost and wonder who the hell I am, or I can look at the people surrounding me and see their place in the world, see their connectedness, their loneliness, their joys, their heartaches. When I stop being me, I can become them. I can see myself reflected in the humanity around me and realize it’s not about me at all, it’s about us, all of us, all of us together.

Then things don’t feel so lonely after all.

Loose Thread: Touching Moments

Today’s Loose thread is about moments that touched your soul this week.  

So tell us….What moment touched you this week?

Jenni: I recently moved to Shanghai to work as an intern before starting the school year as a teacher in the fall. Being an intern means all the non-fun parts of teaching- grading, power point making, grammar worksheets, etc. My only interaction with students occurs for one hour of tutoring with different students every day after school. Earlier this week during lunch break, I ran into a 5th grader I tutor. “Miss Taylor!” she shouted, and waved me over to watch her and her friend do tricks on the monkey bars. I cheered them on and clapped when they were done. As I walked away, I heard her friend ask, “who’s that?” “That’s my tutor, Miss Taylor!” my student said, in the excited, proud sort of way that warms your heart. It was a simple interaction, but it was enough to remind me why I teach and that boring office work won’t last forever.

Autumn: This week I went to a German beer festival with several friends. It was an amazing intergenerational experience of people from 16-80 singing songs and dancing together. The night ended with a series of group hugs. During one hug I was literally stuck in the center of a group of about 8 people. I couldn’t move and wasn’t even properly standing, I was being simultaneously supported and overwhelmed by my friends. I occurred to me after I freed myself and regain my breath, that that is what deep love is like, it is both totally overwhelming and totally supportive. 

How were you touched this week?

Touch

By: Jenni Taylor

It was my first week in Shanghai, and a friend of mine thought the best way to be inducted into Chinese culture would be through a full body oil massage at the Dragonfly Spa. I said hell yes, of course. There’s a first time for everything.

We put on comfy robes and the scratchy paper underwear. I laid down on the bed and tried to fit my head in the weird head hole. Not made for my tiny head of course, but it would do. There was a little plate with sand and flowers underneath, as something pretty to look at instead of the black soled shoes of the masseuse.  Instrumental music played in the background, peaceful and calm and Enya-like.

Scoff all you want, but halfway through the massage I was already planning how to carry the masseuse off with me to the Bahamas to live happily ever after. What I experienced in that cozy upstairs room in the middle of Shanghai was something called safe touch. Safe touch is amazingly hard to find in this world. I thought safe touch had become extinct, and all that was left was the bad messy hurtful kind. But there they were, strong hands making me feel safe, oh so very safe and beautiful and worthy of- good touch. All the bad touch faded away, and I felt like Dorothy getting ready to see the Wizard, with all the primping and trimming and stuffing and shining after a long hard trip through Oz. I felt like I was being put back together again, that my body was beautiful, that maybe touch could make you whole after all instead of taking bits and pieces of yourself away.

I don’t know what heaven is like, or what it really means.  Whatever it is, it won’t be disembodied spirits floating around with harps, that’s for sure. There will be touch. The beautiful kind. Shy. Sloppy. Passionate. Strong. Loving. Playful. Comforting. Warm. Healing. Maybe we’ll all get our own personal masseuse, too.