It's Been Real, Zhangjiajie.

And it’s official – I just unplugged my fridge; this Zhangjiajie chapter of my life is fast coming to a close.

In two short hours, I’ll be leaving Zhangjiajie for one final trip to Sichuan to visit the famous Jiuzhagou and its unfathomably aquamarine pools, and Songpan (with the wonderous company of Gabriel and Cat), before making the trek by train to Hong Kong and finally commencing my month-long unplanned trip to the Philippines, and South East Asia.  As of now, I have a one-way plane ticket from the beautiful Puerto Princesa to Cambodia and have purchased no others.

In spite of my excitement for the totally foreign (Zhangjiajie, itself, while being “foreign” in the sense that it was not a large city like Beijing, has always felt remarkably familiar to me), there is, as can be expected, pre-emptive nostalgia that is clouding my ability to see what lies before me.

If I am to reflect on this time, I can say that it has been good.  As I bid farewell to friends one night this week, where three Americans, and two Chinese friends with excellent English, sat and played Jim Rummey at a 24 hour KFC (such is not surprising as “a night out on the town” in ZJJ), I don’t remember March through May.  I feel like it was February last week and I was stepping off the plane, and muttering things under my breath as I prepared myself for what I thought might be one of the toughest five months of my life.

Using such extremes as ‘toughest’ is silly – challenging, it has been.  But, as I look out the window, my panorama spilling with sunlight, at the mountain range that has become my silent neighbor, my Home Improvement Wilson, to whom I have nodded a daily ‘good day, sir’ since that first day in March when I discovered its existence, realizing it had quietly watched over me during Zhangjiajie’s misanthropic Winter like a safeguard, it is difficult to place myself back into the fragile state that I was in when I first arrived in February.  I was frigid, lonely, a walled-in hermit crab hiding in her tiny shell.  I was resistant, for longer than I would care to admit, to my surroundings, and in doing so, I did not fully embrace how fortunate my circumstance had been until my last month, or even, two weeks here.  My sister used to tell me that during each chilling Ithaca Winter at Cornell, she thought that she would never return; but Springtime arrived, with only several weeks left of school, just in time to clear every bleary-eyed student of his or her memories of freezing desolation, and reaffirm why they had made the right choice in picking the most GORGES campus in the country.

Zhangjiajie’s claim to fame is it being home to the Hallelujah Avatar Mountains (and Tianmen Mountain).  A week before leaving, my father found this mesmerizing video of Jeb Corliss windsuit skydiving as a part of a Red Bull Challenge (  Inevitably, my delusions drove me to begin picturing myself squirreling through Zhangjiajie and her verdant mountains, and gliding through the air until docking on a cliff edge where, obviously, my comfortable home would be located.  I never adequately pictured what this place would be like, which in hindsight, may have been the best thing for my experience – with no expectations, I could simply be in this new place, as best I could.

For the extent to which my scant knowledge of this city before arriving allowed me to prematurely and most ignorantly boast to my friends using said video to illustrate the nature of my new home, I should be ashamed.  I only made it to the National Forest Park (塞林公园), and Tianmenshan (天门山) once.   Although, if we’re being honest here, I have a history of rewarding myself with Haagen-dazs ice cream for running a mile – plus, (as I would justify to myself as I stuffed my face with fried rice and Mad Men/30 Rock/Game of Thrones episodes) why catalyze, even further, my already meteoric ascent to (strong, oh my!) thunder thigh-dom?  I already have my seven-story apartment hike multiple times per day to give me the big push.

I have attempted to write this post almost every day this week, but the task has proven impossibly difficult.  As I have begun to clear my walls of the “garments” they have worn for the past five months – the drawing of a three-headed lady with a “big ass” who is “devish (devilish)” that my 19 year old students made when learning body parts, the hooks that held the 14 scarves I seldom wore, the score cards from a birthday pub-golf tournament that few of us remember – I see what good has come of my short stint in Hunan.

It goes without saying that the pulse of a city is brought to the forefront by people – as though each person who I’ve met and formed the most minor of connections with has – and dear me, not to elicit such tired images of “angels leaving footprints on my heart” – in some way, tread on me, bringing a reddening flush to my skin, and allowed me to escape the numbness that is borne of loneliness.  I say tread, I think, because it is often an exhausting labor of love to endure an obsequious Chinese person who knows nothing of the West, or to spend hours seemingly getting to know a person over an intimate meal and revealing conversation, to only have them not acknowledge you when you pass them the next day, or to wade through the frustration of determining whether you tingbudong(don’t understand), because the person is speaking Mandarin, Zhangjiajie hua, or because, quite frankly, you’re just not smart enough.  At the core of this experience has been the people I have met.

Sheepishly, I will admit that it has taken quite some time to realize this.  Much of my complaining was done when left in solitude – whether in the dark womb that is my bedroom, or wandering the streets of my city with a trusty iPod to keep me mentally stimulated, but emotionally void.  I would leave my apartment some days to escape the monotony of low-lighting and TV shows, the characters of which had begun to feel like my friends, and feel minutely fulfilled by my ascetic peregrination through the dirty streets of Zhangjiajie, appreciating the slight high that a passerbys’ smile or a rambunctious 6 year old with a rat tail chasing after a questionably rabid cat would give me.  But, ultimately, I returned to my apartment with a similar sense of dread for what felt like was an inadequate and unsustainable lifestyle.  These days came and went; from what I hear, many other foreign teachers around Hunan felt similarly.

As I was advised before coming to Hunan, “how your day ends really depends on yourself a lot” – and that has never felt more true than during these past two weeks, where my impending departure has kept afloat a sense of urgency to do any and everything, lest I be consumed with regret.   In the past two weeks, I have been a “judge” at an English talent show; I have spent the night playing ma-jiang with the no bull-shit old men in my apartment building; I have shared a meal with the entire extended family (including the boyfriend who they were meeting for the first time) of complete stranger, a woman who I met a month ago, while getting a massage, who took me into her twin sister’s home in the boonies of Zhangjiajie, the most enormous and beautiful house I have ever seen (her husband is government official = $$$) coaxed her drunken grandfather who remained at the table as the whole family went back to their television, and watched her brother-in-law, a government official, waive all expensive fees and restrictions with a simple smile and pat on the back, as I was treated to a live musical performance at the base of Tianmenshan; I have passed hours sitting with the owners of a Xinjiang restaurant, playing with their children, and exchanging Xinjiang hua (“Poosh!” means goodbye) for English (Ma Xiao Yan still calls me “Merte” even after hours of practicing “Morgane”). And I, with the two female owners, spent 3 hours on food alley, scrubbing the grime and filth off of their restaurant chairs with metal sponges and basins of soapy water; I have picked up ALL of my phone calls from unknown numbers, and actually gone on QQ (Chinese instant messenger) to speak with my students despite common exchanges tantamount to the following:

Me: “What are you doing today?
Mandy: “Yes, I don’t understand.”

These past two weeks, I have felt the rush of newness, the pressure and joy of perpetual yesman-dom, and the sweet ambrosia that life yields when you finally lift the veil of that ponderous, indiscriminate Fear that lays over the world just below your feet, that weighty cowardice that obscures the possibility and potential of everything that is before you.

I will miss how comfortable I feel in China, whether as a consequence of my upbringing in HK, or because while still an untamable force in the pasture, the wild beast that is Mandarin finally seems to have a lasso hooked around one of its horns. After leaving Beijing in 2009, an unfettered boldness had been engendered in me, and it has since returned.  This boldness, I believe, is a universal phenomenon in speaking a foreign tongue because you simply cannot grasp how you are perceived and heard by a native – you only regurgitate the sounds and gurgles you know to be “Chinese” or “French” and hope that your message gets across.  I will miss the way speaking Chinese allows me, for once, to get out of my own head, and stop being so crippling self-aware.  You divorce yourself from your identity when you speak a foreign tongue, and it sometimes makes you never want to return to it.

In a way, I am fearful for what awaits me if I return to America – perhaps more of the same.  Perhaps not.  When I said goodbye to a number of European teachers several weeks ago, I wrote in my journal: “what begs me to stay in China is the promise of more expats – they are a certain breed, and amidst the often suffocating foray of crazy, a most excellent breed.  Though what makes me yearn to stay here is already – if not now, very soon – gone.  But, it also asks me to evaluate the option of staying abroad, accepting that I like feeling unique, different, special, someone who, even in her presumed normalcy brings something to the table, by virtue of her very being, background and country.”

Today, what begs me to stay is the prospect of getting lost in the local flavor of a city, of becoming an adoptive daughter in another Xinjiang restaurant family, or relying on Mandarin to pass the night with 8 crusty-eyebrowed Chinese men, whose sagging breasts make them appear almost maternal, as they laugh at my fumbling, 8-year old-level conversation.

What I can be sure of is staying in Zhangjiajie would not be right.  I told someone off-handedly, that one should leave a place while still wanting more.  I am doing that now.  This city will, undoubtedly, forever be a special place to me, and it will stay pocketed in the recesses of my mind like a prized jewel that I could show to, but never share my intimate relationship with, the rest of the world.  It is my own, and it has become a respite of sorts from everything that lays outside – the larger cities, the tiresome social obligations, the working world.  I know, though, that it is a valley that does little more than protect me from the infinite Other – which is not a life; it is only a hiding spot.  What comfort I have attached to this place, I know is derived primarily from the fact that what was once quite alien has evolved into the regular, the familiar, and is now secure and reassuringly unchanging.

I appreciate grand-sweeping life changes, yes, and I do hope that I have many more to look forward to – but, I am, nonetheless, also, a girl who values routine; someone who sees the reinvigoration and strength that comes with security through the seizing of brief moments of interruption to hold, and covet as fuel, for when life, inevitable, feels monotonous.

I know that this time will undeniably be idealized in my memory; I am certain that whatever follows this life of ease, and freedom will no doubt pale in comparison, but I will be happy to recognize that it will not be a baseless glorification of the past, for these five months have been good.  They have been worthwhile, and they have been necessary.

I will leave you with this image of my final morning in Zhangjiajie:

I was awoken at 7:30 AM by a phonecall from Leslie with the message that I would need to call him again at 4:00 PM that day to meet.  Why he felt it necessary to call me to remind me to call him is just one more reason why Leslie is who he is, and why Chinese and American definitions of preparation differ.  Now awake, I browsed through the internet and replied to a text message from Nut that I had forgotten from the day before – I was giving her a newspaper that my father had sent me from Rye, NY, and told her I would meet her on campus that afternoon.  40 minutes later, I heard pounding on my door, and a yell from Nut.  It was still 8:30 AM.  She was there and insisted on staying at my apartment until she could escort me somewhere.  Thus, I had no choice but to chug a coffee and go to the gym.

I was glad that I had come for a final run in the gym.  In the World According to China, gyms have no air-conditioning, and readily encourage smoking from its employees.  For the duration of my run, I was at peace, something which had only begun to occur when coming to China; apart from the excessive sweat that would spill off of me, the wisps of cigarette smoke creeping up my nose as I bounced to the beat of my song, I would stare out onto the building next door, whose towering wall of grey brick and (new, but built to look ancient) Chinese style roof and tiling often lulled me into a zen-like state when jogging – this was real China: old, new, and completely unaware of the omnipresent irony and contradictions that make this country one of a kind.

This Too Shall Pass

Yesterday marked the first of many goodbyes I will have to say when I finish my five months teaching in Zhangjiajie.  Goodbye.  Goodbye to friends.  To me, a proper goodbye does not leave a person feeling sad, but rather, leaves him or her with an ineffable emptiness, a palpable absence, a previously unfathomable void, and a pervading feeling of “what now?”  After major life changes beginning at age 6, through a move from comfortable NY suburbia to HK, the internal relocations, the return to a suddenly insipid reality by comparison, a divorce, the unforeseen deaths, college, studying abroad, I can say with complete certainty, at age 23, that it is a myth that you can prepare yourself to say goodbye.  In an instant, the internal conglomerate that makes you who you are, is changed.

There is something very unique about friendships abroad – you labor to find connections that are justifiable reason to open yourself to strangers, in distinctly intimate ways, knowing that you will part ways again soon.  You settle, at first, for superficial excuses for like-mindedness; you are grateful to discover that you both like Radiohead, and that at one time in your twenty three years alive, you both passed through Washington D.C.; you are grateful for the hellish conditions you endure together on a 18 hour train ride, for the hours you spent squatting over a hole at 3 AM after bad food, for the night you fell off a stage at a club and jumped right back on because being pushed to the brink by this country has made you fearless and accepting of the fact that ‘to err is human’; and you are grateful for the moment you realize that your friendship has transcended situational convenience and entered the realm of compatibility, and authenticity.   I felt it when I was 7, growing up in Hong Kong, forming immediate bonds with friends, who I knew I might never see again in two, or at most, five years time – and again in 2009, with my fellow language-intensive programees while studying abroad in Beijing.  And I feel it now, after only four months with a group of people who came together ten months ago, and shared a dinner table, basking in a mutual malaise with the surprisingly inhospitable journey they were about to embark upon in China.

It seems odd sometimes knowing that friendships abroad are inherently built upon the tacit understanding that they will end sooner than most, and that they are geared towards that often very anticlimactic finale to the symphony of a moment of intense friendship.

I have always admired the upbringing I had – I learned at an early age how the internet, a phone call, but more importantly, a simple sentiment, and the tiniest effort can bridge the gaps between long distances.  I value that clairvoyance because, to be obnoxiously colloquial, it helps you avoid sweating the small stuff.

I am good with goodbyes because I have done them frequently; I have divorced myself from people, from lifestyles, from cities I considered home.  I am good with goodbyes because I allow myself to fully appreciate how much they disrupt order.  I am good at goodbyes because by anyone else’s estimation, I am actually quite terrible at goodbyes because I let them change me.

Anyone who knows me will attest to my partiality towards sentimentality, nostalgia,  - tears, even.   Sometimes I wonder whether I am far too sentimental, or whether I am, quite simply, more vocal about it.  Other times, I imagine that everyone feels as much as I do, but the people I find myself most drawn to are those who live their lives remarkably detached, and free of any potentially limiting connections; that it is made up of those who look to the future, rather than allow themselves to be weighed down by the encumbrance that comes with appreciating, if not idealizing, the past; that I see my life as a weather contour map, made up of friends who continuously move from low to high pressure, and whose only directional know-how is outward.  I think these are the elements that give my life color, that ultimately propel me forward.

As I get older, if I have gained any knowledge that could qualify as “growing up,” it is accepting the reality that everything has a time – that this too shall pass.  People, events, experiences, friendships are all granted a stretch of time, and those prized moments, whether a day, or a number of years, will inevitably become less relevant, another card added to our mental rolodex under, “The Past.”  In spite of ourselves, no matter how hard we might try to preserve a moment, the course of its life ends with burning embers.  Friendships have a time – Yes, there are people who I still yearn for, whose absent companionship I still feel, years later, and is as apparent as a body imprint that shapes an old mattress.  But they had their time.  And while I am not there yet, I am learning, bit by bit, to swallow it without a bloated sense of but why not?

Friendships have a time, and we are beholden to time.  We are defenseless to its inherent predictability, to its necessity to, quite literally, keep the world spinning madly on.

So with this, there is little else to do but to appreciate the time, to forget that we are on a perpetual trajectory towards next, and occasionally pause to feel the rain, to take out your ipod headphones to hear a street vendor scream, and to fill ourselves with every ounce of anything in preparation for the void that might one day come.


High School Senior Morgane had it right all along.

When I was 18 years old, I wrote a graduation speech.  Like every other senior, I was required to write a speech; each was then submitted and read by the English department, out of which were then chosen 6 or so speeches to be performed for these same arbiters of good, and three chosen to be delivered on Graduation Day.

I had written my speech the morning it was due – waking up at 6 am to write before 7:45 band practice – I struggled at first, defaulting to recounting one of my most memorable nights in high school - the night of my first all-nighter - unsure of where my meandering recollections would take me.  But eventually, the delirium of an early morning, and the anxiety and pressure brought about by the sudden gut-wrenching moment of panic realizing that you have just osmosed from the semi-permeable membrane of “it's so early” into that of “it's almost _:__” created a release for me, and bubbled into a beautifully-tied confluence of saccharine platitudes, and authentic reflection.  Well-drafted, it may not have been, but derivative and trenchant, I think it was.  And, for once, I believe, what I meant to say - at a time when I rarely ever knew what I wanted to say, always vouching for the bigger vocabulary word, over the bigger meaning - was honest.

The speech, as I mentioned, chronicled my first all-nighter.  I was a HS sophomore, and my paper on Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart was due the next morning.  Other classmates and I labored into the early morning, all the while instant-messaging, with a finale crowning our flagrant attempts to procrastinate of commandeering a car for a 4 AM meal at our local diner.  My speech ended with the following (I was 18, so, please, trudge through the cheese):

“Perhaps this story was applicable only to my circumstance, and my life, but ultimately, today, with so few days of school remaining, I can’t help but apply the same idea of procrastination to our present situation.  High school has been one big procrastination- a mere distraction from the real world. One extensive trip to the diner to relax us, to help replenish us, to build our confidence, and to clarify the importance of seizing opportunity.  Someone once told me life is not about thinking, it’s about doing.  We are all procrastinators, with respect to whatever it may be, so please, get distracted, in the worst times, look forward and hope and understand that those distractions are life. If I could impart one piece of advice to the Class of 2007 as each of its members make his or her way to every corner of the world, I would say, procrastinate.  Procrastinate shamelessly and never regret doing it because it is during those few brief moments of interruption that we truly live."

(As an aside, I must say shame on me for actually quoting myself - I feel like Conan in his 2000 Harvard Commencement speech.  It's an all time favorite)

I wrote this when I was 18, but how much has really changed?  Yes, yes, as a person most certainly have, but my life perspective, I am discovering, has not.   As I sit in my bed, observing the success of many of my friends, knowing that I have passively waited, expecting my future to come to me, I realize that despite the lack of clarity that remains the only thing consistently defining me at this point in my life, one more thing remains unchanged: my commitment to procrastination. It carried me through college, but it is continuing in my post-grad life, just as high-school Me, sagacious as ever, had suggested that it always should (lets hope sarcasm translates).   Almost three months into my experience in China, I wonder, sometimes, especially considering how much of my time is spent relishing infinitesimally small moments of home, and seeking the solace that only a sliver of butter, or slice of bread can offer, if this journey for me, has just been another procrastination from the “real” world – whatever that means.

I read another commencement speech (coincidentally, tonight) that proffered “don’t work” under all circumstances.   Perhaps this is not bad advice.  “Work” by virtue of its name, is undesirable.  But perhaps it is.  In truth, the threshold between creating a comfortable distance from the dreaded office job, and running away from anything that closely resembles one is thin, and often blurred.  In my mind, my fear of committing to my future has allowed me to defer my decisions to my commitment to procrastination; my commitment to nothing.

So where does that leave those of us who cut our hair the night before a big test, or wrote emails to ex-boyfriends at 4 AM (the loneliest hour of the day) from an empty library, or those who uprooted themselves (to China) to evade confronting the daunting job market?  Maybe all along, what beauty I saw in procrastination, I am now understanding is simply laziness.  My speech did make the final round – I’d like to imagine because some piece of the message resonated as true with the English staff, but who can say?

I do not expect to reconcile my tendentious logic with the present need to figure out where I will be in two months – I only wanted to pause, momentarily, to accept and recognize that this idea that poured out of me when I was 18, that I wrote off as contrived, and hallmarkedly-saturated verbiage, has proven to be one of the few pillars of conviction that has remained unchanged in five years.  So is there some truth to this?  Surely there must be.

Yangshuo: That’s So Backpacker (Part III of III)

Phase 3: That’s So Backpacker

For the final installment of my Yangshuo post, I give you my time with people.  I think what was so distinct and fortuitous about this trip was the fact that following  several satisfying days by myself, I got to remember the beauty of good company.  My second to last day in Yangshuo, I hopped a bus to the already disgustingly packed downtown, as Monday marked the official start of Qing Ming Jie holiday.  From there, I had to haggle with several cabbies, until I finally jumped on the back of a motorbike, who took me to the hostel – a 7 minute bike ride through a covered walkway of souvenir stands, next to the river.  There, I met Cat, a friend who teaches in Zhuzhou, and with whom I had spent two weekends in Changsha, her friend Tom, who was visiting China, and two other teachers from Zhuzhou, Gabriel and Cait.  The next day, Sammy, another teacher from Zhuzhou would arrive.

The charming hostel (Tripper’s Carpe Diem, again, I’d recommend to anyone) was tucked away in a small nook along a hillside dirt, and was the ideal set up for backpackers.  The common area of the hostel was open-air, and sat like a balcony overlooking a farming plot,; there was a pool table at its center, and tables that made you feel like you were a royal looking out onto your prized fiefdom.

We ate lunch – Western sandwiches on sliced bread – underwhelming to say the least, but still a slice of home (pun-intended?)  We rented bikes from the hostel and set off to find a high-jump bridge that Cat had been searching for since the first time she had come to Yangshuo earlier that year.  We wove in and out of pedestrian traffic, coming close to hitting other bikers and crashing into moving vehicles frequently (especially with faulty brakes!). At first it had felt bothersome, but by the following day, navigating through four lanes of buses and cars, breathing in gusts of engine exhaust, felt exhilarating and natural.  We eventually came to an isolated dirt road, flanked by those fantastic mountains again, and our pace slowed so we could enjoy the scenery. Gabriel fell to the back, and never returned – always “manning the tail.”  The best.

We did come to a bridge after close to an hour of biking; not the bridge, just a bridge.  It was also the Minnie Me of bridges next to the one we had been trying to find, perhaps only 2 meters from the water. It was a cloudy day, and it was humid; Cat was determined to jump in the water, and we had all become converts.  Bamboo rafts flowed slowly under the bridge, and we asked a man how deep the water was – he told us it was too shallow to jump into.  Several times we tried to find means to justify jumping – finding tiny pebbles and tossing them into the water to see how far we could see them sink, asking more rafters – until finally, someone grew balls, and the rest of us followed suit.  Off came the pants, and the shirts, and in we went, one by one, into the shallow water (though he who passed the 6’5” mark hit his toes on the ground twice).  It was freezing, but refreshing.  When the time came for us to put our clothes back on, we formed a circle of t-shirts, Gabriel’s new Chinese hat, and rotated who was at the center changing.

It all felt so backpacker.

The bike ride back was breezy, and we stopped downtown for snacks, but after about 30 chuan (meat, vegetable, etc skewers), it became more like dinner.  I had my first beer, after what had felt like a lifetime; it went down easy.  We made it back to the hostel just as darkness had taken over – the back dirt road was not lit, so we relied on cell phones to lead us home.   Back at the hostel, it was beers, card games, trolls, fawns, centaurs, and Rumspringa.

A leisurely morning later, we found ourselves on the rooftop of our hostel, feasting on Western-style breakfast (French toast and bacon – just getting my fix before heading back to ZJJ) under the sun.  A coffee, a spilled tea, and a broken mug later after a hilarious incident of Gabe v. adorably fat bumble bee, we gathered our things and set off for the mudcaves.  The streets which had two days prior been virtually empty, were now packed with cars, and amazingly, there was traffic getting to Golden Water Cave – but we arrived, exchanged our shoes, and Cat and I took out out contacts (thank god).  We moved to the outside waiting area – we were the only ones there; fifteen minutes later, this wouldn’t be the case.  Without realizing, we missed the opportunity to sneak in (I think very lucky, considering what happened inside the caves), and we were soon joined by 18 or so foreigners, some European, in tight spandex and matching tops, and others American, wearing cut off jean shorts, and an Arizona State t-shirt with the boobs to match (I know, unfair – I’m just saying she didn’t help the American stereotype…).  I felt like I was at a concentration camp waiting to enter the gas chambers – it was bizarre (and unfounded probably).    Our tourguide was memorable for saying two things: “these here, are stalagmites – and these here, are stalagmites (that’s a typo, I’ve corrected these Tourism scripts that “Tourism” majors memorize), and “hurry up. Please don’t fall behind” – even when, after 20 minutes in the caves that gleaned with tacky bright neon lights, the power went off suddenly, and a large crew of strangers in bathing suits, packed into tight crevices, and walking down tiny staircases found itself stranded in pitch darkness, phoneless.  “Don’t fall behind.”  Right on cue, robot.   That was fun.

When we finally arrived at the mudpits – large pools full of diarrhea-like soupy mud, it didn’t take long for everyone to leap in.  It was cold, and revolting, and therapeutic, and gooey, and dirty, and oozing through my toes, and grasping at everything up to my knees, and was fantastic, and yet scary, and was the 1950’s “Blob” and Jabba the Hutt, and trapped souls in Ursula’s dark cave, and it was suction, planting my feet like I was a sea reed drifting without a care, and then it was in my hair, and in my mouth, and then it was underneath me as I floated on my stomach, all my limbs held up in the air.  It was awesome and seriously, seriously gross all at once.

After pictures, and riding down a tiny slide made of rock, the gaggle of shit-stained strangers piled into a shower (are you seeing this holocaust thing yet?) and “cleaned” themselves under the four cold water faucets.  What followed was a cave of “natural” hot springs, and oh how they were heaven.  With the steam rising, and 20 or so people jammed into small pools, fluorescent colored lights covering the ceiling, and reflecting off the water and the fog, it felt like a skuzzy underground bar that you’d see in Men In Black, where shriveled tiny aliens, smoking cigarettes would serve you beer and sleazy cocktails.

We emerged from the caves, ready for sun, feeling refreshed, but tired.  We worked our way over to the same restaurant where I had eaten with Xiao Li and the old woman the other day, where it was fortunately empty, and stopped at a passion-fruit stand along the road for a deliciously fresh cup of yum.  Exhausted, we decided to bike back; as a consequence of the tremendous traffic, and our own fatigue, we got split up.  Also, poor Gabriel’s bike got a flat tire, and after haggling with a driver to take him to the center of town, admittedly for a ridiculously high price, Cat and I continued back alone.  Gabe would get screwed over, dropped off at far-off round about, find a bike shop to fix his own bike, and bike back alone.  Cat and I took a quick detour before the hostel to a clearing by the Li River, where we could take a chilly dip in the water.  The water of the idyllic scene was so still it looked fake.  The water was frigid.

We were met by Tom and Sammy on the ride back – and I got a free ride on the back of my own bike by Rickshaw Tom.  The rest of the afternoon was spent drinking beers, ordering about every single appetizer on the menu, followed by an impromptu call for dinner, and finally, my departure back to town to catch my hour and half long bus back to Guilin for the night.  I managed to catch a bus immediately, but passed an unpleasant 90 minutes as they were playing a typically gory Chinese film, wherein every scene, someone was killed in a clever, gut-spewing fashion.  On Wednesday morning, I woke up early, fought a large group of French tourists on the streets of Guilin at 6:15 AM for a cab, and suffered a minor heart attack when I thought I was going to miss my 7 AM train, but made it back to Zhangjiajie at 4:51 AM, Thursday morning.  Yes, 22 hours later.

Yangshuo, what a trip.

Yangshuo: I'm a Real Person Again (Part II of III)

Phase 2: I’m a Real Person Again

As you might have guessed, after two days of what I’d like to call punishment – for what the crime, I still do not know – from which I felt a moral obligation to have derived some important life lesson (view above, I suppose?), things began to turn around.  On my first full day in Yangshuo, the sun was out– brighter and warmer than I could have hoped for – and the ever-present rock that I felt in my stomach, had shrunken to something of a baseball. I was feeling better, albeit only comparatively.  I also had spent my early morning reading blogs and thanks to some thigh-thudding, was able to fix my camera.  I could practically HARK those beautiful Angels SING Hallelujah! as I took my first photo, from my rooftop, of the sun stretching its ray-arms over the sleeping town of Xingping.

I quickly grabbed a bowl of zhou – congee rice porridge – for breakfast, of which I could only eat a few bites, and got on a bus to the center of town.  The streets were lined with bike-rentals, all offering the same deal of 10-20 RMB for day rentals, charming stands with colorful dresses, and saturated, to capacity, with foreigners.  I felt almost overwhelmed by how many blonde-haired Caucasians I saw, all grasping at their maps, as they marched along the sidewalk in their Teva sandals.  My beautiful baby-blue bike was purchased from a sweet lady with a deformed right hand – she hid it nervously under the length of her blazer sleeve whenever she thought my eyes fell to it.  I hadn’t noticed at first, but when (like an asshole), however, I insisted that she put a basket on my bike, I had to watch uncomfortably as she manually tied six individual strings to attach it, with one hand.

Shortly before taking off, I fell prey to the charming flower tiaras that could be found on the heads of almost every female – and many male – tourist.  Old ladies spend their days crafting intricately woven crowns of fresh flowers – it only seemed right that I buy a 5 RMB crown of pink roses to christen the start of a wonderful day en seule.

Of the many routes I had considered, I vouched for a pleasant 20 minute bike ride to Moonhill, on a large paved road, reasoning I couldn’t quite stomach the bumpy back dirt roads.  Moonhill, reminiscent of the Jefferson Land Bridge in Virginia, is a bridge-like structure that, on this perfect day, arched, like a stone rainbow, against the backdrop of blue, blue skies.  Biking solo is a true gift – I moved at my own pace, stopping periodically, if not excessively, to take what I believed, at the time, to be “the perfect picture.”   Foolish, Morgane.

I arrived at Moonhill, purchased a 15 RMB entrance ticket, and hiked up to the top.  After 45 minutes of steps, boatloads of embarrassing Myspace-style photos of self, and some quality all-consuming self-loathing for deciding to wear spandex under my shorts, the stifling embrace of trees and shrubbery, seeming to insulate all the heat, released its grip, and opened to an expansive view of the city below – I was exhausted, but satisfied as a gust of wind slapped across my flushed cheeks.  I laid down on the ground, under the shadow of Moonhill, wrote in my journal to indulge Thoreau’s legacy, and basked in Spring’s arrival.

At the top of Moon Hill, I met a 19 year old Chinese girl, a student in Guangxii, named Xiao Li, when a shriveled old lady, using tired, butchered Chinese and English, tried to sell us both postcards.  As I motioned to walk down the mountain, she said, “I will come with you,” and we walked down together – using only Chinese, which I was thrilled about. There was something disarming about her, in that she enjoyed my company, but was perfectly content on her own as well.  She, too, had come to Yangshuo alone for the holiday.  She had a childish face, though was also exceptionally practiced as the judgmental mug, which she had given me earlier when I had asked her to take a picture for me.  Her smile was radiant though, and I first saw it when she whimpered about wearing jeans and a thick sweater in the heat.

I had expected to part ways at the base of the mountain – in fact, my annoying I’m-in-an-Indie-movie-about-self-discovery had actually hoped to get back to listening to tunes as I biked, on my metaphysical “road towards self-awareness,” but it would not be.  I had told her that I had wanted to ride a bamboo raft down river and she approached a woman, who expectedly, offered a wildly expensive price; during the fray, I realized that despite having no appetite, I needed to eat.  Our bargaining having been unsuccessful, the old woman made our meal her new goal – she insisted that she direct us to a cheaper restaurant, as everything in the area, touristy as it was, was overcharging.  Thus, she on her bike, and us on ours too, biked to an isolated street off the main road, to a charming (and empty!) outdoor restaurant.  I ate for cheap, and for the 10 minutes that we sat, Xiao Li and I agreed to take a 2 hour bamboo raft ride together, splitting the cost of 150 RMB between the two of us.  It was exhilarating, meeting a stranger, with whom I could only speak Chinese, and now committing to an afternoon with her.

5 minutes later, a man arrived, with a 3-wheeled car, to transport Xiao Li, me and our bikes to where we would load onto our raft.  The ride itself was enough of a treat.  I wonder, sometimes, (phase 1 lesson, hey hey?), whether its ever really worth it to take photos, because as you venture deeper beyond the realm of comfort, what fascinated you previously is suddenly outdone, and immeasurably less than.

The bamboo rafts were exactly what I had dreamt they would be, and I could not have asked for a kinder sky – the rafts, no more than a meter or so wide, had 2 seats haphazardly placed on bundles of bamboo shoots, narrowly flanked by water – I liked that there were no safety measures; I liked that we could sink, and that this was simply a trial and error contraption gone right.  Before boarding, I whipped off my spandex and shoes, and we set sail.

Our rafter was a scrawny, cheeky 18 year old, with eroding teeth, and loose-fitting clothes over his scarecrow-figure.   We floated down river, slowly, and placidly, as other rafts sidled by us, and we, like members of an exclusive club, exchanged mutual ‘hellos’ to our respective neighbors.  It was wonderful.

But we soon discovered that our “playful” rafter, was actually an unruly, obnoxious, annoying adolescent who had not yet realized the parameters of humor.   It began when, in the first five minutes of our trip, he splashed us, slapping his bamboo stick against the water.  We laughed, and foolishly thought, how lucky we are to have such a fun rafter!  Then, he stopped to get a cigarette, and his rowing pace steadily waned, until we were inching at a glacial pace forward.  Then, he splashed more water on us – specifically on and at my camera, despite pleas to NOT do that.  Then, he stopped a vendor selling beverages and snacks down river, to get a beer – a big bottle.  Again, we thought this fine, but with a cigarette in one hand, and a beer in another, the already-rapidly decreasing pace came to a virtual halt.  We were polite at first, asking that he go a little faster – especially because I had to be on a bus back to my hostel by 6:30, and we would have to bike 15 minutes from the unloading dock – but, he was unrelenting.  He continued to slap us with water, he began splashing water at other rafters in spite of their grimaces and “noo!s,” and began calling out insults at passerbys (“HahahA! (pointing) look at how fat you men are! You men are so fat! Two fat men on a raft!). Then, he pulled over at a floating photo center, without word, got off our raft, and sat down with a handful of peanuts, as we tried to entice anyone else to take his place.  When the time came that he accidentally dropped his rowing stick, and we watched it float away, finally resorting to using the large sun-umbrella as oar, and retriever, we realized that he was drunk.  We began to outwardly apologize to neighboring rafts, embarrassed by what had begun to feel like our rude younger brother – or maybe, that blackout fraternity guy that you “mistakenly” forget to bring to dinner.

In spite of him, the journey was still fantastic.  Everyone alongside us was a tourist in some way or another, and relaxed, as choruses broke out between rafters, and passengers, along the sparkling river. There were about ten “waterfall” drop offs, where photographers were perched at the ready, to capture our reactions to the front of the raft being completely submerged, and the wash of cool water rushing over our sun-beaten feet.  3 hours later – an additional hour having been tacked onto our trip – we docked.  A camel, two monkeys in costumes, and a white horse with blue and red pom poms stood motionless on display – like an unsettling dystopian carnival.  Oh, terrible China. I biked back feeling like light– a generalized, nameless burden lifted.

That night, I feasted on pizza again, this time enjoying every bite.  For my last morning solo, I got the notion that I would hike the mountain outside of my hostel, at 5 AM, in the dark (for those you who know me, I am terrified of the dark), to see the sunrise.

That morning, I was somewhat disheartened that my alarm had woken me.  I was dreading this hike.  It was 5:07, I remember, and the adrenaline pumping through me, provoked by the mere thought of climbing up a mountain in the pitch dark, had quelled any hope of me justifying going back to sleep because I was “tired.”  I was so far from it.  I was nervous, and excited – in the same way, moments before taking an incredibly important exam, you get energized, imagining the weightlessness that will come when you are done.  The silence in my room was such that I began to hear drumming in my hears, and high pitches of white-noise, as I wavered between to go and not to go.  And then I remembered a line from a C.S. Lewis book that I had happened to read, and write down, minutes before leaving for Yangshuo – something that I am chalking up to something more powerful than coincidence: 

Make your choice, adventurous Stranger;
Strike the bell and bide the danger,
Or wonder, til it drives you mad,
What would have followed if you had.

I had to go.  So, out the door I marched, into the black night.  I dilly-dallied, no doubt, but I tripped up some stairs in the direction of up.  I cannot stress just how dark it was, and multiple times I stumbled into paths that ended with – cliff.  I walked for about 15 minutes alone, admittedly very scared, when I saw a man approaching.  I quickly said, “do you know how to go up this mountain?” in Chinese – and I was happily surprised to hear him say that he was going to see the sunrise too. We climbed together, as the simple steps became treacherously steep.  We moved at a rapid pace, me always in front with my flashlight, I think partially for fear of missing the sunrise, but more, because the hypochondriac in me had also convinced me that yes, this man was a murderer, posing as a backpacker, who would kill me.  (Surrrreeee, your wife and daughter are sleeping at your hotel…)

We came to terrifyingly tall ladder, and by 6:15 AM, we reached the top, where a man and his wife, and their son, sat, exasperated.  They had been here since 5:30, and were quite certain that the clouds settled in the darkened sky, would block any sunrise we had all trekked to see.  Nevertheless, I was glad I had come, and the sickness having worn off, I felt like a real person again, finally.

The world below seemed so small, and so distinctly far away.  Atop this cliff, there was only the present, and the pure, unmitigated sense of pride that flowed through me.  There’s something very special about pushing yourself, physically, and ever so ignorantly, contorting the prevailing sense of glory and accomplishment to suit your metaphysical shortcomings, and vulnerabilities.   Here I stood, having pushed my Sisyphean stone to the top of the mountain, nodding my hat to my (sheepishly long overdue) fear of the dark, high-fiving my fear of being alone, and shouting a “what’s good?” to my slovenly habits of wasting days in bed, watching television, as I worked my way beyond them.  As unimportant as it may seem to you, dear reader, I felt I had come a long way, as if this were a real moment of departure from who I was in Zhangjiajie only two days earlier, and even further, from who I had been in New York, two months prior.

While I felt very alone standing at this peak, I did not feel lonely.   This was my moment of Friedrich’s “The Wanderer” – the Romantic painting, where a man about whom we know nothing, stands upon a rock, staring out onto a mysterious landscape, obscured by clouds and fog, but never without a faint hope that lingers in the distance of clear, blue, and pink skies.  (Ref:

I checked out that morning, after the most satisfying of Western-style breakfasts: banana crepe, and two eggs – and went to meet friends downtown.

Yangshuo: I want to die, I want to die. (Part I of III)

Phase 1: I want to die, I want to die.

I planned to head to Yangshuo Friday evening after my class – I would take a 5 hour train to Changsha, kill and hour or so, and then hop on an overnight train to Guilin (16 hours), followed by an hour and a half bus from Guilin to Yangshuo, and finally a 45 minute mini bus from downtown to the small fishing village of Xing Ping, which sits peacefully, along the Li River, and is a prime locale for all gluttons of sickeningly breathtaking scenic photos, like myself.

As, of course, this set up is laying the framework for, it was not this simple.  After an uncomfortable week of gastrointestinal tango, the latent stomach bug that had been tickling and bloating me up all week attacked full force on the afternoon before my Friday train.  As I skyped with my parents, in a fetal position, I questioned whether I should still go.  But, feeling an obligation to avoid needlessly-spent money, I went – my 21 hour trip was, in short, a nightmare.  As I lay on the train, under the curiously moist sheets of my hard sleeper, delirious, feverish, oscillating between extreme hot flashes and stinging chills all over my body, I thought only of sleep; it made me appreciate my health, as I heard the snoring men and women in my sleeping bunk (there are 2 sets of 3 beds on top of one another, with no doors or othersuch).  I fell asleep at around 6 AM, only to be awoken at 7:30 when the train turned on all the lights, and began blasting music reaching such decibels and pitches that it could only be considered “death by discord.”  This was an I hate you, China moment.

Someone hated me, though.  When I finally arrived in Yangshuo, I made the trip to my hostel, just as the sun was beginning to set.  I felt a muted rush of satisfaction as I spotted the first green mounds for which Yangshuo is so famous.  Once I arrived, fearing I would waste the rest of my afternoon drowning in my misery, I allowed a lady to overcharge me for a motorized bamboo raft ride down the Li River because I felt too nauseous to do anything else but sit.  Once I paid the 100 RMB, and faced the incredible landscape of pyramidal mountains, and the orange glow of the sun beaming out towards me, I reached for my camera to snap a photo.  “Lens Error.  Restart Camera.”  Yup.  Like, I said, someone hated me.

The bamboo raft ride was_____.  Frankly, it could have been anything; it was beautiful, but I had to want it to be beautiful to get past how sick I felt.  As we turned down one of the river beds, into the shadow of a mountain, and the sun began to set, the biting chill of a quick breeze began to beat like needles against my already stinging skin.

We stopped at 2 islands for photos ops – as I would learn in Yangshuo, photography stations, some on land, others, floating, were scattered along various waterways.  Photographers with professional cameras would take several photos of you, and your guide/bamboo rafter/navigator would then pull over, and you would view your photos moments later on their computer, paying 15 RMB per photo to have them printed, and laminated.  While these are actually very common at tourist locations in China, it always seems oddly anachronistic to be in an “ancient” village, or floating on a bamboo raft, or on the edge of a mountain cliff, and then see the newest model of HP Printer only meters away.

At the second island pit stop, I met a pleathery-faced cormorant fisherwoman, likely in her 70s.  A long pole rested on her shoulders, with two cormorants birds perched on each end, their feet attached to a 6 inch piece of string.  The eyes of cormorants are mesmerizing – like rare jewels of deep emerald and aquamarine that seem to hold secrets. I asked to take a photo (yes, I justified the 15 RMB), and complimented her beaming white smile of fake teeth.  “Fake!” she squawked.  Fake or not, I told her, her smile was still very nice – but she could only talk of the blemish on her front right tooth that polluted her dream of the perfect smile.

The western-style hostel – Xing Ping This Old Place International Youth Hostel (I recommend to anyone)  – was like a big hug.  All of the hostesses spoke excellent English, there was available internet, clean rooms, and what’s more: wood-fired pizza.  To anyone reading this where this rarity seems irrelevant, I don’t care.

I ordered a pizza, despite my curtailed appetite, and began eating quietly with my thoughts and light-headedness.  About 3 slices in, a Chinese girl behind me tapped on my shoulder and offered me a slice of her pizza.  She spoke Chinese, and when I, unsure of how to respond, offered her a slice of my own as a default reaction, she got up, and joined my table to talk.  She was bold, and told me she had come to Xingping to avoid the “business” culture that had burgeoned so rapidly in the center of Yangshuo, as tourism had transformed from an industry to a culture.  People there, she said, were too concerned with money.  She wanted to escape it.

A bi-racial couple had been staying at the hostel as well – a white man, who had the look of a business man who had spent months preparing for this trip, sporting the bright blue UnderArmor shirt, and matching New Balance sneakers he’d purchased specially for these days, with his Chinese wife (who proved to be the first unpleasant mother I have ever met) and their two adorable half and half daughters (2 and 4).  On this first night in Yangshuo, the Gods were kind, and granted me one concession: during my meal, the couple had asked the hostel to play Toy Story 2 on the large projector by the tables – ripped off youku, obviously.  The low lights went down, and the cacophony of conversations that filled the room soon lulled as peripatetic twenty-somethings, and forty-somethings drinking beers and sucking in their guts alike, turned to watch Woody save our day and give us hope about the world.  While my fever returned, and I remember shivering throughout the film, I lay outstretched on my back across the restaurant benches, the two hostel kittens curled up in my lap, taking in every moment of what felt like home.  I was in bed by 9, hopeful for a better morning.  Hope, however, was met with periodic wake up calls – every 3 hours, in fact, on the dot – to the rooftop bathroom, until 7 AM when I decided that sleep was a lost venture, and I would commit to the light. 

Phase 1 lesson: Don’t be a passive admirer.  This was the period of simple pleasures, where for the first time, really, I was forced to fully appreciate my surroundings without passively relying on my camera to remind me thereafter how beautiful a place might have been– and feeling as ill as I did, I was forced to actively see, and to remain present because drifting off into delirium felt prodigal.

A Word on Life in China

It has officially been 19 days since I arrived in Zhangjiajie, and I feel I am finally starting to see a life developing.  Before I indulge myself in a lengthy stream of consciousness word vomit diary entry about my jam-packed weekend, which can really only be as interesting as the diary entry of a 12 year old girl excited, about new friends and new things can be, I wanted to first share a few salient experiences, lessons and observations:

1. Experience: The friends you’ll meet sharing the heater blanket

In China, since there is no central heating, everyone relies on small personal space heaters; one looks like a fan and stands about 1 meter high, but often starts fires (!), and the other is about the size of a shoebox.  Because much of the Chinese store-keeper’s life is spent somewhat sedentary, between the occasional need to attend to customers, in almost all venues in Hunan – inside or outside – you will find storeowners sitting at small tables draped in a thick blanket.  As it happens, underneath these small tables is either the latter of the two space heaters, or a pile of burning coal, while a thick quilt is placed over the table to insulate the warmth – small chairs or benches are placed around the table. Most laoban 老板 or “bosses” spend their days seated at their tiny thrones of heat, inviting any customer to join them not as merely a courtesy, but as an expected and normal gesture. Sometimes it feels like people are never taller than waist high when you’re talking to them. During my time here, I have shared these tables with many strangers, among other places, at a restaurant, waiting for my table, in hotel lobby giftshop (all without heat) behind the store counter while Leslie checked his email (on the gift-shop owner’s laptop), at a music store, and now, at a medicinal store.

Blanket Experience: The IV “hook-ups”

Leslie called me an hour or so ago, asking that I come downstairs to pick up my passport (I officially have my Foreign residency for China, valid until July 31, 2012).  I went down to meet him at a Medicinal store, or “doctor’s store” as Leslie called it.  The store was divided in two – the front of which was all sterile white tile, and women in white coats who could provide herbal medicine and some “American” medicine (though I don’t think the latter is so true). I walked into the store, holding a mug of hot coffee (which everybody found hilarious), wearing my furry Russian hat (see below).  In the back room, there were two blanket tables, as they will now be called – Leslie and a woman sat at one, and an old woman with a lazy eye, a fifty-something man, and a small boy sat at the other.

Most interesting of all: everyone was hooked up to their own IV.

I joined Leslie at the table and huddled under the blanket.  The woman who sat with us did not speak, but smiled.  Leslie returned my passport, and then gave me a vacancy to return to my apartment, but I preferred to stay.

This is what I like about China – how wonderfully casual it is.

Both the boy and the man were here because they had “colds.”  Leslie was here for a hangover.  For an hour IV drip of saline + penicillin, it cost about 40 RMB.

Leslie had been here once before when the boy was here, and he divulged his story to me.  The young boy, now 7, with his grandmother, had been hit by a police car when he was 6 months old.  The police officer, responsibly, paid for the child’s hospital visit (a whopping 200,000 RMB or almost $32,000), and then gave the family an additional 100,000 RMB.  The parents agreed that once this additional sum was paid, any injuries, or “dumb” that the boy experienced, would not be a consequence of the accident.  As it were, the boy had suffered much damage.  At age 7, he still has very limited memory – “he will meet you today, and tomorrow say, who are you? – though he remembers his parents and grandmother “that’s a different story” said Leslie.  He cannot read or write, but he does sing one song!  This is when I saw the father in Leslie show: he tried to get the boy to sing, and as we urged him on, he kept looking at me saying “just encourage him.  Just encourage him.”  The song he can sing is “Happy New Year” (only these 3 words), sung to the tune of “happy birthday.”  However, he also could not say “happy” despite teachers teaching him every year.  Instead, he says “Herb-es” which apparently is 1) a set of mountains in Europe (?), and 2) a kind of candy in China.  Paternal Leslie translated to the grandmother, who feared that her son was “fool,” that I said he most certainly was not, which made her smile.  Leslie then said, “as long as he happy – doesn’t matter.  Doesn’t matter.”

It was odd, but felt so characteristically China.  Here we sat, strangers in a room, learning the most personal and intimate details of each others’ lives – it felt like an especially contrived scene from a movie (namely 50/50 comes to mind) about what its like to have chemotherapy, where people of unlikely ages, shapes, and backgrounds bond during their sessions, as they wait for the administered toxins to take effect.

2. Lesson: wearing my Russian furry hat is GOOD.

I was chilly today so I wore my hat to the kindergarten and kept it on for the rest of the afternoon.  Apparently, a famous Chinese warrior, by the name of Yang Zhirou, or LiFei (I will clarify this when I leave my apt. in my hat for dinner) wore a hat like this (and was obviously ever so pro-China), “always ready to fight.”  Adoring fans included: Leslie, old lady at medicinal store, owners of stand at the base of my building, cab driver.  Will DEFINITELY be sporting this baby to class on Thursday.

3. Lesson: Clinginess/taking-a-hint may or may not be a foreign concept to Chinese youth

If you remember my previous post, I had mentioned a boy who lived in my building, named Edmond.  He is the son of “number 5” and will be taking the tremendously difficult Gaokao, or college entrance exam on June 7.  He was the one who casually dropped “rome wasn’t built in a day” and “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” because silly Chinese English teachers have drilled into the minds of these poor students, who systematically recite what they are told, that streamlining idioms is “casual” and the adhesive tape that keeps the English language intact – if they only knew! Bah!

Eager Edmond – who I have dubbed “fat panda” (I know, I know, terrible), and who a past teacher who also experienced his enthusiasm for English dubbed “happy floating cloud” (also, extremely appropriate) – is, well, eager.  His thirst for English is unquenchable; unfortunately, his overzealous approach to treating foreign teachers resonates more as crazed girlfriend from Hell than “friend”. Edmond called one Monday afternoon, inviting me “to play” with him, coincidentally when Manchester James was visiting.  As it happens, Edmond had met James in Cili several days after I had.  James, only moments earlier, had been describing a hilarious boy named Edmond who he had met, who spoke British English and pronounced “BBC” and “CCTV” as “Say-say-tay-vay” and “Beh-beh-say.”  Judgment aside, it was agreed – this mysterious Edmond was flamboyant.  I was convinced we were talking about the same Edmond- which his phonecall minutes after, confirmed to be true.  Edmond, upon learning that James was also in Zhangjiajie, pleaded that we meet him.  We told him we would call him if we were free later in the evening. James and I were preoccupied most of the afternoon, finishing our evening at 6pm with a massage, and street food.  During that time, I had put my phone one vibrate.  When we returned home, I had 10 missed calls and a text message saying: “Why you no call me?” I called him back, I apologized.  He laid on the guilt, I think unknowingly, by saying, “my father saw you and James eating in the streets.  Why don’t you call me back?”  It was awkward.

James had a similar experience with a stranger who sold him a dictionary, to whom he also foolishly gave his phone number.

I did eventually have lunch with Edmond and his friend the next day.  We ate dumplings.  It was his day off – which leads me to…

4. Lesson: Americans have it good.

Hey elementary, middle, and high schoolers – time to quit your bitching.  We have it extremely good.  Edmond has just begun his “Hundred Days” meaning there are officially 100 days remaining until he takes the Gao Kao.  The hellish exam covers subjects in English, Chinese literature, math, science, physics, chemistry, etc.  The exam is taken June 7, and students receive their scores 20 days later.  Based on their scores, they then have FIVE – YES, FIVE – DAYS to pick which colleges they would like to apply to.  They can only choose five universities, and generally, can only apply to one-three majors at each school (all of which have their own qualifying scores for acceptance).

Regarding their “day off,” treat yourselves to this, non-Chinese students: Edmond and his friend have class from 7 AM – 10 PM EVERYDAY, but get the MORNING off on Mondays.  BUT, since the Hundred Days has begun, that “half” day will cease to exist.  After they told me this, I felt like a royal asshole for my hissy fit about fulfilling social obligations.

Prevailing lesson: suck it up, Morgane (and you, too).

5. Experience: teaching kindergarten. 

Today I taught my first hour long session with little people, aged 3-5.  I call them little people because I do not think I could find a more apt word for these tiny foot-and-a-half tall creatures that scream and smile, and drool, and kiss, and move, as if without joints, in their marshmallow suits of neon pink, red, and big boy blue. I had been introduced to the school by another American, who has been in Zhangjiajie for 10 months, Becky, the previous Thursday.

The kids sat in a semi-circle of tiny colorful chairs facing Becky and me, who also sat in tiny chairs.  I had watched her teach for an hour, as she robotically repeated“this” pointing at her feet, and “that” and pointing at the wall, all the while two Chinese teachers – all smiles! – stood behind her thumping on a tambourine, or clapping. Over, and over and over again.  The same happened with “I like” and “I want,” as the adorable smiling things repeated; some took no notice (there were two 2 year olds) and crawled up to Becky and me, kissing us, others tried to push their way out the door, and some were happily perplexed in the whimsical world felt only by a toddler (and hopefully by me, when I go senile), laughing periodically at the sight of their own hands.  I was exhausted having just watched the class.  I’ll admit, I had been having a down day (which I will explain below).

The sad rain cloud that seemed to be following me everywhere was immediately cast aside, though, when class ended.  Instructed to, or perhaps conditioned by habit, the fleet of 12 or so mini-smiling-gremlins charged towards me and hugged me.  Several students kissed me, but for 3 minutes, they did not let go.  It was a sea of arms, and tugs and I felt the tears well up in my eyes – kids! I cannot really describe what being attacked by little people is like, but there is something that is so pure about their embrace.  It is without judgment, it is not tainted by cynicism and embarrassment; above all, it is with love.  In a twisted way, when little kids hug you, they really sort of love you.

I taught my first class today, and after an hour, I was drained.  I think I blacked out during the “class” because I don’t remember much.  I just remember yelling.  The beauty, and the challenge of teaching kids who repeat the sound you make simply because you say it, and not because of its meaning, is that it is doubtful that they’ll really remember anything that you’re teaching.  It’s a blessing and a curse.  The class ended in hugs again, and I left feeling satisfied that I had taught, and had made some money, but relieved that I could return to a quiet room (with new green plants in my bedroom – Leslie’s gift to me this afternoon!)

6. Lesson: girls are a much tougher crowd. 

Earlier last Thursday morning, I had met one of my university classes for the first time, and discovered, first hand, how difficult it is to teach a class of all girls.  Girls are nasty.  You can almost hear them say “look at me, have you seen how beautiful I am? Oh- and by the way, I don’t care, and I probably don’t like you” each time they flip their hair, or put their head on the table (one girl was sleeping!), or meet my enthusiastic question with a quizzical look.  Yes, card-dealer, I’ll see your standing-on-table move, and raise you an “I don’t give a shit, thanks.”  That’s not to say that they didn’t like me – they did – but they were nevertheless far more hard-pressed to please.

7. Lesson:  I am now not just “50% like” Leslie’s ex-girlfriend, but “90%” – using it to my advantage?

Apparently, I remind Leslie of his ex-girlfriend, who he CONTINUOUSLY calls his “extra” girlfriend, despite my correcting him.  He also refers to his “extra” wife.  I don’t even need to make the joke – its already done.  His ex-girlfriend, who is also 23, lives in Cili and is a dancer.  Leslie is 43.  They dated for almost a year, and broke up several months ago because Leslie wanted to settle down, and she, like a young, attractive twenty-something, did not want to. Two weeks ago, Leslie said I was like her 30%, and it has slowly risen to 90%, as of today.  Friends warn me that Leslie is “snakey” – apparently, in the future, I should expect drunken phone calls from him.  But, I feel like I understand him, and know how to deal with him.  To me, he’s harmless, and lonely, and a good father, so what can you do?

Maybe that’s why he’s been so helpful.  If anything, I think he feels bad that his extragirlfriend is living in such a crappy apartment.  He apologized for its condition today, again, after spending the afternoon bringing me 3 gorgeous new green plants (REAL), getting me a new washing machine (which is so fast, it’s stretching all my clothes, ugh), installing a new stove top for me because of the state of the other one, and finally cleaning all the black mold out of my fridge.  He rinsed the fridge by tossing buckets of water over the soapy suds of watery-black-mold puddles.  He then ripped the tape from a patched hole on the kitchen floor, and let the dirty water filter out that way.

As an aside, Leslie, lonely though he may be, is not without requirements; as his self-proclaimed matchmaker, I tried to gauge what was Leslie’s type.  Turns out, being age 22-28 is the bare minimum requirement.  Again, Leslie is 43.

I was outraged – I told him “THIS is why you don’t have a girlfriend!” He didn’t budge.  I asked him what he would do if he found a wonderful woman, who he was deeply in love with who was 29 –I could see him cringe as he said, “I- I – would have to think about it…”  In spite of himself, he then said, “age doesn’t matter in China.  I don’t think it’s the same in your country.”  I told him on the contrary.

Also – Bin-nan, the disgusting carcinogen that he is often chewing, is considered manly because as the story goes, it grows on a very tall, rod-like tree; men who climbed to the top of these trees to retrieve the bin-nan, upon touching ground, found a wife.  Now, whenever the conversation falls to women, I tell Leslie that he must first climb a tree.

8. Lesson: In winter, dishes are to be done in the shower. 

Self-explanatory, and true. It’s too cold to do the dishes using the freezing water in the kitchen. I currently have an enormous pile of dirty dishes that I’ll have to do when I take my next shower.  While standing next to my toilet.  Oh joy.


The hour hand of the clock brushed slightly past the number three.  It was almost 3:40 AM, and the calm, and relief of morning still seemed no closer than it had at midnight.  In an effort to assure herself that she still knew how to read, and continued to find solace in the escape routes offered by text on a page, the girl fought off the fatigue of the day in order to finsh her book.  She did, and yes, she thought to herself, I certainly still do like to read. She also thought, I could write this book.  The latter was an afterthought, but something which had been running through her head since the moment the author had unveiled her signature suggestions for how to ensure that your child becomes seemingly successful, while still apparently staying a virgin: overly-protective parents, their subsequent praise, unfortunate body proportions, and love of cats.  Nevertheless, this woman was famous, and deservedly-so.  The girl’s transient thought of becoming a comedy writer for a successful show dissipated slowly, as only a night of sleeplessness can allow, and thought, this is a good place to end the evening.  She felt satisfied, and exhausted.

She turned the lights off.  The absoluteness of darkness that now engulfed her swiftly rushed towards her, as if jumping down her throat.  Blind, and helpless, suddenly, a creak from inside the hallway—the first image which appeared? The zodiac killer.  Just a stoutly man in a black suit, pacing, step by step, into her room.   She imagined the flash of slightly rusted silver that would gleam from the edge of the knife’s blade before it would be plowed through her torso.  No, she thought.  I am twenty-two.  This is absurd.  She turned to her left side, grabbed her stuffed animal bear from the floor with her toes.  The sleeve of her eyelid practically hugging the brown, nearly black irises underneath, she begged her mind to take her away from this obscured recess that was her room.  She thought of her future as the next Tina Fey.  Do I like cream puffs enough? she wondered.


Cambodia.  Ah, how do I even begin to describe this place whose bloody history still bears so much of an influence on the way some tourists choose to see it.  I will admit with my tail held tightly between my legs that before coming here, I knew next to nothing of it's past.  More shameful is that reading my Lonely Planet (what my Couch Surfing host in Phnom Penh would flippantly called the "Lonely Idiot")'s elucidating introductory paragraphs was my first exposure to names like the Khmer Rouge, and Pol Pot - all designations I had heard before but had never bothered to explore further.  I don't know what kind of favor I'm doing myself by revealing this, but alas, it is truth. 

In any case, by the time my plane touched down in Siem Reap, my intrigue into the bloodbath that had ensued beginning April 17, 1975, when the Khmer Rouge ruthlessly began "liberating" cities throughout Cambodia, began.  While I would inevitably go to Angkor Wat and the surrounding ancient temples, my interest lay in what stories I might be able to uncover from this country's locals, and what personal accounts I might be able to gain from asking often inappropriate, probing and at times, selfish questions.  

Anthony Bourdain, early in his career, decided to stop taking photos of his trips after visiting Angkor Wat.  The history, the towering peaks, and the breathtaking views were, in a word, impossible: their beauty impossible to be captured, their calmness impossible to convey on record, and their majesty impossible to conceive from a relayed image on our rectangular screens.  In some ways, I very much agree.  Faced with the famous temples of Angkor Wat, whose steeples resembled the sandcastles I used to build when I was little, like drips of cement that dribbled and rolled down each pike, and later Angkor Thom, and Banteay Srey, a picture could not compare.  I frequently stopped to take a photo, but after clicking the button, I could only think that the resulting image looked flat, inadequate.  Above all, there was no way to capture the peace of this place before the crowds come.   There is a magical stillness that only exists in the moment.

At the time of the sunrise, despite the mass exodus crossing the mote bridge into the giant gates, silence prevails.  Silence, and crickets singing in unison - and once the sun had come up, the sound of the occasional tourist brushing his Tevas against the stone floor, or a couple speaking softly to each other, remaining quiet as if compelled by an innate respect for an almighty power beyond our comprehension that rests in these ancient monoliths.  There is a calmness in the order of things - a timeless sameness to the way the flies lift off the grassy spans and how the morning sun yields a transient quality of light that bounces off the moist slabs of rock, glossed over in morning dew and rain residue.  It is a beautiful place, and when you emerge from the Bayon, you are surprised to feel like a king, looking out to all of your subjects.  You think to yourself, ah, I have done well for myself.  As in Versailles, the Met, any building, in fact, my favorite part of this place is the steps - weathered by the people who built it 800 years ago, it is remarkable how intact this castle remains.  

By 6:42 AM, I had discovered another reason why being at Angkor Wat would drive a person to never take pictures again: tourists - the flocking, headache-inducing, picture-ruining pests!  Like ants that pool around a fresh drop of strawberry italian ice that has dripped off of your spoon onto the hot tarmac on a blisteringly warm, summery day, all of them - all of us - were there in search of the serenity and ostensible calm that this place could provide.  As my body was continuously pushed and nudged and smacked by sweaty-palms and wet backsides of men in their 50s who - yes, yes, I know, you're on vacation - should not be wearing tank tops, I dreamed of a giant fly swatter to squish every single one of these tiny insects, polluting the quiet embrace of the trees of Ka Prohm, and squandering the chance to bask in each temple’s all-presumed power and awesomeness.  What I'm getting at, of course, in far more words than necessary, is that past a certain hour, the temples were teeming with tourists; I have so many pictures of every and anyone's child.  

Under the oppressive sun, my tuk-tuk driver, Prohm (sometimes pronounce, "vroom! like car!" had said) and I moved to a shaded area for lunch.  He would become the closest thing I had to a friend in Siem Reap.  We had met at the airport when I had first touched down, the first stop in my solo travel, and thus found me wildly vulnerable, impressionable, and –you guessed it, stupid.  He had driven me through the streets of the city outskirts as I took in the blackness of the air, the smell of coal, and the muted silence of the city’s periphery.  There was a noticeable dearth of street lamps, and when I had asked why it was so dark, he had solemnly reported, “It is the government—corruption." 

Here, though, in the light of day, as we ate our lunch together, we got to know each other.  Prohm is smart; he is perceptive, funny, and an avid learner.  Intimate cultural distinctions excite him—Americans  say "absolutely, very, extremely," whereas Brits say "of course, really?" he would animatedly describe.  He wrote out the Khmer alphabet for me, and I taught him some Chinese.  We fought over the tenses of "know/knew/had known."  He divulged his love of language and kickboxing.  As we spooned our curry into our mouths, we laughed over his impressions of different English accents he had heard through the years; he described his former kickboxing regimen, how he had been fat 2 years ago, and how he now jogs in the heat with 2 t shirts and a hoodie sweatshirt to make him "strong" as kick boxers "don't have big muscles but are strong."  Though slim, and very fit, Prohm said, "Cambodian women don't like me, they like men with big stomach.  Bigger stomach means more money."  

For an additional fee, following lunch, we went to Banteay Srey, an isolated series of towers an hour-long ride away famous for its intricate carvings.  On the way there, we would pull over at the giant "pool," or a lake of sorts, that had originally been reserved only for kings, and he taught me kickboxing, while I asked self-defense moves.  "Kick me," he would say, to prove his skills, putting me in a headlock.  At that point, I suggested we move on.  

Banteay Srey was a quiet slumberland of delicate patterns and ornateness. Finally, away from the crowds, the crickets resumed their choral cries, and I sat down in a corner and began to draw.   One second gorgeous, the next pouring rain, I found shelter under a stone doorframe with a burly grey-haired man.  He was from Nice, France.  He knew where my grandmere lived. "le monde c'est tres petit," his wife called out from across the road, under her doorframe.  The rain eased up enough, and Prohm met me at the exit to take me to my last stop of the day, the Landmine Museum.  

The Landmine Museum was started by Akira, a child soldier, named one of CNN's heroes in the past decade for his work in demining the thousands of unexploded land minds that litter the country's terrain, and was a sobering reminder of the more recent history that existed here, in spite of the splendor of the Angkor complex. The space was small – a central encasement filled 7 feet high in clear plexy glass displayed remnants of small mines that had been taken from areas of Cambodia – mostly Northwestern area, where, I would later learn, is where my tuk-tuk driver, Phrom had grown up.  What I saw was jarring – in place of the large, clean spaces of a modern museum were simple bulletin boards displaying newspaper clippings describing the incident.  Others, titled “WAR PROPAGANDA” rudimentarily cut out from a piece of paper was encircled with photos of Khmer Rouge troops “liberating” cities throughout Cambodia, while faded print-out pictures of Pol Pot and other key figures who would assist in the systematic killing of about 1.7 million people in a mere 3 years, 8 months and 20 days of the Khmer Rouge rule filled the empty spaces, accompanied by short biographies.  

When I emerged, almost two hours later, Prohm rushed me into our tuk-tuk, as we would make it back just in time for closing. "You are upset?" "Yes, very." "You have not been to Choeung Ek," he said almost cheekily.  During the ride, we did not speak much.  40 minutes later, "Are you tired?" he asked, noticing my silence.  "No, just upset - I have so many questions."  He kindly pulled over, and peeled back the memories that I believe he would have much preferred to have kept wrapped tightly shut. He began, "This is my country." He is the tenth child in his family, and describes more of the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge's reign, following Pol Pot's death in 1979.  Born in 1981, when he was 8, he was not allowed to go outside because land mines were going off constantly -“sometimes I think I still hear it, andI jump."  During the ensuing years, as the Vietnamese took over, he recalls how he and his brothers "ate everything - I live in the forest - frog, cricket, snake, turtle.  We eat to live.  We eat tree leaves most."  Then, he volunteered information about the death of his eldest brother, who had been killed by the Vietnamese -  “that is why I do not like the Vietnamese right now, not yet.”  The Vietnamese had believed his brother to be a Khmer Rouge, when, in reality, he was only in the government army.  No sooner that this brother had been killed, Phrom described how his family was being pursued – the details of which were absent, for by this point, I could see his eyes wandering to the surrounding grass, as he played with the screws of his tuk-tuk – anything to avoid eye contact.  "I only know 10 years of war, my brother 20..." he shook his head, looking down, trying to shake away tears that had long been suppressed and would never come, " but my mother, my father - 40 years they know of war."  He was not speechless, but the grief he felt provoked snorts, little guttural attempts to speak, as if grasping for words was like gasping for another breath.   His parents, save for one brother, are in a refugee camp in Thailand.  He sees them from time to time when they visit him here.  I asked if he wanted to live with the brother who lives in Phnom Penh - "he doesn't like sport, and for me, I do not want to live with him." He continued to shake his head, "he does not like sport." I wish I could have had something more to say than, "I'm sorry." 

Minutes later, as we set to driving, our tuk-tuk got a flat tire.  I was honestly glad to stop - the thought of riding back in silence after what he had told me knotted my stomach.  The woman who fixed his tire, just another lady who had a shanty bamboo shack along the road, was married to a short 5'2" stoutly, muscularly fit man with dark skin and a big smile.  Despite his age, maybe 5 \0 or so, he remained firm, all his skin clung to his form, revealing the muscles that lay underneath.  Like Prohm told me, kick boxers don't have big muscles, but they are very strong.  This man, who I'll call the compact fighter, and his 3 children came out to play.  The oldest child was maybe 9, and the other, a 3 year old with the most adorably round black eyes, crusty- shirted and eating the end piece of a banana, the residue all over his arm and face, indicating he'd been holding it for manyminutes, sat on the bars of a machine, balancing precariously.  He did not speak, just watched, glassy-eyed.  the third, maybe 2, paced wearing a dirty t-shirt and no pants, parading behind his older brother.  Prohm and I battled a little more as the lazy-eyed wife fixed his tire, until the fighter hopped like a spritely ninja. 

His front two teeth were weathered down but they did not detract from his cheeky smile inviting me to slap him.  He curled his fingers, asking me to kick him, so he could show me his defense - I did ; and wham! his arm slapped it away, twisting behind my back, stepping between my legs, pivoting and twisting his torso, and motioning his final move to the fighting dance, a slow motion whack of his elbow into my face, stopping just short of my nose.  Wow.  The invitations continued as he sought to teach me good defense moves, unlike Prohm, who generally used more kicks, slower more graceful, you could see this mean was lightning quick, simple, and unpredictable, disarmingly small, and excited by fighting - by the challenge of a foolish competitor whose jaw he could undoubtedly break.  Though we were "Playing" after 7 minutes of "hit e again...try to get close to a pretend threat, " I was actually tired, and each time he wrapped his elbow around my neck, or twisted my arm - just to show me! - his reaction time was infinitely faster than what I could handle. We both laughed, but by the end, I threw my hands in front of my face, and said, "I'm scared!"  He loved it.  An easy meal, almost.  like challenging ayear old to a spelling bee - you can’t help but want to keep playing.  Twice, though, he indulged his need and tripped his 9-year-old son from behind, knocking him to the ground - the only thing that made Prohm laugh uncontrollably.  

We pulled away after about 15 minutes of play. Prohm explained that he had been a fighter in the 80s - "a kick boxer? A competitor, like you?" "No, he was in the army.  From his training."  This was a man who had learned to be feared, to be their best, the quickest to survive. It changed my whole perspective - the child play that I had been engaging in.  

There is a heaviness to this place unlike any sensation I have ever felt – more than likely, following this very jarring paradigm shift as to what things are truly important in life, and after my weighty conversation with Prohm, I could only see this country as a place that still reels, ten years later, from the devastation brought on by greed and megalomania.  In Cambodia, that you are approached in the streets by a man with no arms, propping up a basin of books for sale on his shoulders, touting an attached card taped to the front that reads, "the war is over, but land mines are still here, " or "I want to work" or "I will not beg; I have a family," as you sit at your outdoor cafe sipping your $3 coffee with cream and sugar is to see the effects of war - that he is only one in thousands of Cambodians with a similar story.

I bought a copy of First They Killed My Father while seated at an outdoor café – palpably seated on one end of the grossly long economic spectrum – from a girl who sold withered books from a basket, parading from tourist to tourist.  She was the first who had approached me; in my time there, many more would sidle over, often limbless holding poorly laminated photos of their families with harrowing tales of residual landmines that had destroyed, limb by limb, their livelihood.  I read the book from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh and would finish just before crossing the Cambodian border into Laos, and compounded my all-consuming Cambodian experience.  When we crossed the border, the grayness that hovered cleared as we moved into Laos.  I cried. 



A Tribute to Jean

When Bruce first reached out to me, I was both overwhelmed and humbled to speak on behalf of the youth that Jean influenced and touched during her lifetime.  Everyone here knew her in a different way.  I had the perspective of a teenager coming into adolescence, guided by someone who never judged. 

My story with Jean begins as it might for many of the young people here today.  I met Jean when I was 12 when I accepted an invitation to attend one of her weekly youth group sessions on a whim.  An awkward 7th grader struggling to find her place, I had just moved back to NY from a whirlwind experience abroad, and was trying to find my bearings.  What I’m sure was a combination of natural adolescent angst and my situation, left me feeling, like so many other teenagers, wholly unnatural in my own skin, inadequate to the core, and unsure of my identity. 

Youth group, for those who aren’t familiar, was a place for people to come together, despite their seemingly mismatched backgrounds, their interests, and their friendships.  It was a place for kids who weren’t quite sure who they were and were trying to figure it out.   For a middle schooler, it also meant free Chinese food or pizza on a Monday night, a game of manhunt in and around the church, and inevitably a careful discussion about how we were all doing, all led by Jean.  It was an evening about inclusion, a routine that established normalcy for those of us who sought it, but most importantly, it created a community that transcended the cliques of middle school and later high school; it was about creating a nest of acceptance, and never having to justify why you were the way you were. 

As, I would hope some young people are here, would remember, and I of course can only speak about the kids who were in my odd and special medley of a group, youth group was a place that didn’t discriminate.  In spite of Huguenot’s affiliations, during my time, the youth group was filled with Jews, and self-proclaimed atheists, Catholics and non-believers; we had athletes, artists, and emos; popular kids, quiet kids, boys with long hair, girls who put on accents, an opera singer, a boy who talked about his two cats, Pronto and Snowflake, girls who crossed out the labels on their t-shirts because they were exploring what it meant to be “non-conformist”.  It was truly a collection of teenagers coming into their own, a group of kids who were starting to ask big questions about who they were, who they wanted to be, and who they wanted to surround themselves with.

And that what was so special about the environment that was fostered and cared for so lovingly by Jean.  With every new attendee, she opened her heart just a little bit more to them.  Jean was the central pillar that kept a safe haven afloat for so many for so many years.  While each night didn’t have to mean anything particularly significant, it was about the continuity, the security of knowing that that family would always be there that made it feel so special. Because ultimately, it all mattered, and Jean mattered. Once we entered into that community, we kept coming back, and would continue to come back.


First, I’ll be honest, many of us came back for the free Chinese food.

But then, it was for the marathon rounds of manhunt in the dark parts of the chapel, where week by week, we all became friends, chasing each other around the chapel barefooted.

Then, it was for the gym nights.

Then, it was for the bake sales, and the friendships that formed over a fold out table and cupcakes.

Then, it was for the talent shows.

Then, it was for the midnight runs, where our parents joined in our clan, and phalanxes of carpooling middle-schoolers stormed NYC and gave out food to the homeless into the early hours of the morning.

Then, it was for the nights we decided we wanted to volunteer for events, working in the kitchen during a fundraisers, organizing napkins and clearing out garbage.

Then, it was for an overnight sleepover in the church, whispering in sleeping bags in the second floor of the church as the hush and din of Pelham - and Jean’s “now sleep, children” willed us to sleep.

Then, it was the for my first 10-day work camp trip to Puerto Rico (the inaugural trip having been to South Carolina the year before), that introduced us to a whole world of young people with similar values, where we repaired porchs, and painted cinder block homes in bright colors - and many of us got to see what lay outside NY together - where we learned what a “god sighting” was, and were introduced the notion of “care cards.”   (if you went to work camp, you will know what all these mean.)

Then, it was for the excitement that came with each successive work camp, returning with old friends, and extending the invite to new.  As Jean said in an email to the graduating seniors in a farewell email, “we’ve done a lot together” and we had.  After our trip to Puerto Rico came Michigan, then Canada, and finally Nicaragua.

Little by little, we all kept coming back. We all kept coming back because we had found a temporary respite from the judgment that came with being a teenager. 

For me, I kept coming back until I graduated.  That was 6 years spent under Jean’s tutelage.  I joined a community, scarcely expecting to plant roots, and formed a bond because Jean had created a safe space for me to grow as she did for so many other young people.  When I reached to many of my peers, their responses were all the same - the ultimate unifier being simple: seemingly a lifetime of lessons of compassion and generosity, and tireless support.

And that’s why so many of us are here today - because there was no way we couldn’t be for a woman whose selfless spirit is so deeply intertwined with who we all are. Jean only expected the best of us, and taught us that our mission in life was simple: learn about ourselves while serving others.  She was dazzled and delighted by young people, and for that reason, we felt appreciated for all that we were.

Jean was a person of the young, a bright soul, who I think we’d all like to remember as she so often was seen - smiling from ear to ear, and laughing, her head thrust back, as she chuckled with a rhythmic bounce - the kind of laugh that told you that it was OK to be who you were, that you were safe, and that you were wanted.

That was the glory of Jean.  Effortlessly, she eased so many of us out of adolescence as the conductor of a beautifully orchestrated dance into adulthood; the careful guardian who stood by and trailed us as we began to ride our bikes solo, and eventually took off into the distance as fully-fledged adults. She launched us into the real world with the tools, and skills to succeed, the moral code, convictions and values to do right when confronted with the wild world around us - and mostly, she taught us to be kind.  She taught us, by example, to approach the world with a palpable softness, to listen, to care, to recognize that everyone had something to contribute and teach.

Jean did all of this because she had nothing but love in her heart.  She was the shining beacon of untarnished good.  She derived joy from our strength.  She wished success and the best for us all, and supported us unconditionally.  Many of us continued to feel that support even after we left Pelham in the form of a facebook post, a happy birthday note, a comment passed along to a friend’s parent at Decicco’s to ask how we were doing.  For one lucky former member, it was a visit from Jean and Bruce, who, after years and years of support, visited her in Marion, SCto see how she had put her heart into developing a community garden.

She loved each and every one of us, and we loved her right back. 

I wanted to close with a short message that Jean emailed my class of graduating seniors:

I know how bright, capable and thoughtful you are, and I know that you will be able to become whatever you dream to be.  I think you will also always be other-directed, and will live so that positive change is the result.  Look out world here you come!  You will be in my prayers and I hope you always recognize the presence of God when you experience care and love.”

Jean, Thank you for being such a big part of my life.  I, and so many others, will never forget you, and will carry you with us for the rest of our days, in all that you’ve taught us.  As another youth group member wrote, “She may never be canonized but if any one of us ever does anything of merit, Jean's stamp is somewhere in the DNA.”  We love you.