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Mis(s)adventures

Oh My Lady Gaga!

One of the things I love about teaching is that I never know what is going to come out of my students’ mouths. Whether it’s a funny mispronunciation, an over-the-line comment, or a brilliant idea, I almost always have stories to tell at the end of the day. For those who I haven’t updated, since I returned from Russia, I’ve been teaching English to international college students at a local university. Most of my students are from China and the United Arab Emirates, but I also have a Vietnamese and a Russian student. Over the course of the past few semesters, I’ve tried to keep track of the funny, profound, and unexpected things my students have said or done. If you’re in need of a laugh or if you’re just interested as to the funny business that goes on in an ESL classroom, I think you’ll enjoy my list of international student superlatives:

BEST CHINESE IDIOM EVOKING MEMORIES OF NAPOLEON DYNAMITE:

Student: They steal my pocket food.

Me: Pocket food? Like snacks, chips? (Student nods) All I could think of was Napoleon and his tater tots all squishy in the pockets of his linty pants…

BEST MISTAKEN WORD:

Me: Do you know what defective means?

Student: Uh, like a policeman?

Drumroll please, we have a defective detective in the house.

BEST MISPRONUNCIATION:

Student: I don’t like to eat green paper.

Me: Hmm…what do you mean by green paper (over-thinking, thus thinking that it must be the Chinese way of saying lettuce). Sudden realization: Green pepper, Hope. He’s saying green pepper!

BEST SATIRE OF AMERICAN ETHNIC STEREOTYPES:

Me: So are you good at math?

Student (grins, gets a teasing glint in his eye): I’m Chinese.

MOST PERSISTENT:

Me: Class, take out a piece of paper for the quiz.

Student: You did not tell me there was a quiz.

Me: When you’re not in class, you need to ask your classmates what you missed.

Student: I did, and they told me there was no quiz.

Me: It’s in the syllabus.

Student: But you did not tell me.

Me: Well, we’re having it anyway.

Note: it has been quite an adjustment learning to teach students from cultures (in this case, U.A.E.) where this kind of persistence and bargaining is simply the way things are done. I’ve definitely had to learn to be direct and firm.

MOST DARING EXCUSE: A student skipped class. After class was over, two of her friends came up to cover for her.

Student: She got lost.

Me: What do you mean? Where is she?

Student: In the Union (which is a three minute walk to my classroom).

Me: But I don’t understand, how did she get lost?

Student: (Points at male classmate) Usually  he goes around to class with her, but when she’s alone, she cannot distinguish.

Ok. I mean, I would understand if it were the first week of classes, but by week 8, if you don’t know how to get to class, an intervention is in order. I definitely didn’t buy the excuse, and I’m glad I didn’t. As I rode away from campus, I saw her walking toward my building for her next class, clearing lacking no directional skills whatsoever.

"I might be young, but I ain't stupid..." (pinterest.com)

Most likely to end up as a challenge on the Amazing Race: Before spring break, my students excitedly handed me a vacuum packed morsel. “Duck tongue, duck tongue!” they said.

Me: sure, thank you, I’ll try it. By the way, where do you get this? Do you order it online?

When I said this, my quietest student grinned slightly and pulled a manila envelope out of his backpack. The envelope was bursting with duck tongue. Oh boy. I did try it, but I’ll admit that I was a wimp and was not able to finish it. It wasn’t the moist slimy texture that got me, or the flavor of Thanksgiving gizzards mixed with formaldehyde. What got me was the bony CRUNCH in my second bite. Nope. I don’t do cartilage.

BEST REFERENCE TO A TROUBLED DECADE IN RUSSIAN HISTORY:

Me: So, what is the significance of the gun in this story?

Russian student: Well, it is like offer of friendship when the woman offer the gun, because when you offer people gun it is like showing sign of friendship.

At first I was flabbergasted by his answer, when it dawned on me: there was a short section in the chapter where a woman offers two children a stick of gum. I began to laugh and told him I had said gun, not gum. “Unless giving a gun in Russia is a gift?” I teased. He didn’t miss a beat, giving a completely deadpan delivery: “In the 90s.”

BEST NEW PHRASE: although all the above superlatives are certainly noteworthy, none compare with the new phrase coinage that shows the elasticity and infinite possibilities of the English tongue (note: duck tongue is not elastic at all). While tutoring one morning, one of my Chinese students got frustrated and let out what I swore sounded like “Oh my Lady Gaga!”

I laughed, sure I had heard him wrong, and asked him to repeat what he said. “Oh my Lady Gaga!” he said again. “Is that like ‘Oh my gosh?’” I asked. He grinned like a little boy and said, “yes, but I want switch with Lady Gaga, and so I say Oh my Lady Gaga.”  And that, my friends, is the best thing I’ve heard in quite some time.

Now I’m curious, for all you teachers out there, what are some of the funniest or most unexpected things that have come out of your students’ mouths?

Waiting, Meaning, Kingdom

“I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.

Scorched to the root

My red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires.”-Sylvia Plath, “Elm”

It haunts acutely when she travels alone. A girl, eyes fixated out and beyond, knifed by meaning and meaninglessness. The rhythmic lull of a Soviet era train hums her to thought and she looks through the window-frame to emptiness and beauty. Snowy fields tinted in orange and pink by the sunset, forest that stretches out in monotony, sights gulped by a wait-er, suffering the contraction of time and eternity. A guttural whisper is the only expression of this bursting, bursting, bursting.  2014-02-05 17.03.05

There is more, there is more, there is more.

There is more, you know. It is your life to breathe the truth that there is more. There is meaning in the orange and pink tinted fields, in the rhythmic lull of the train, in the expanse that knifes you. There is more, so why, then, the tears? Why then, the grasping at a mirage of the flawed finite when the infinite is what is more…you know that it is your life to breathe the infinite and make Him known. Yet in the Russian train, in the car, in crunching through leaves on the trails of a college town, you curse the waiting.

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You curse the waiting because all of this meaning is meaningless without that unknown someone you’ve dreamed of, storied, objectified and distorted into something like a god. Because the waiting is a curse, and unfair, and you are wilting and frantic. Because you have done all the things right and all the right things, all the years added up should be enough, and so your eyes rove in the waiting, pitying the self because she is not adored by someone whom she would make her god. 2013-09-25 17.42.09

It is in the now, the waiting, that your life must be stale. It is in the now, in the waiting He is cursing you with, that you wonder why it haunts more and more in the mundane. There is always waiting, but you thought there was a time limit, because the waiting is worthless, and you have an expiration date. And Plath again gives you words: “I am inhabited by a cry.   Nightly it flaps out Looking, with its hooks, for something to love. I am terrified by this dark thing   That sleeps in me; All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.” The girl is greedy, and if she continues, she will suck the life out of another or spill her blood on the altar of self, spinning the story to sustain herself while she waits, unfaithfully.

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But somehow, she is shaken from the ravenousness by simple truth. The truth comes in the soft yet sudden way that it came to Alyosha, the novice shaken out of his idealization through a suffering that led to hopeful reality: ”Some sort of idea, as it were, was coming to reign in his mind- now for the whole of his life and unto ages of ages. He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life, and he knew it and felt it suddenly, in the moment of his ecstasy. Never, never in all his life would Alyosha forget that moment. ‘Someone visited my soul in that hour,’ he would say afterwards, with firm belief in his words…Three days later he left the monastery, which was also in accordance with the words of his late elder, who had bidden him to ‘sojourn the world.’” -Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov.

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The monastery was, for Alyosha, a comfortable place, a place of safety, a place to view the world the way it had always made sense to view it. And through trial and disillusionment, when the mystical didn’t translate into everyday life, when Zosima was un-deified by the stench of death and humanity, only then could he truly understand the meaning of hope. And only then could he leave the place of comfortable ignorance filled with fantasies and embark on his true mission, which lay outside the monastery walls. The monastery was filled with truth, but its stagnancy also reinforced the lies that blinded Alyosha. The truth for the waiting girl: The waiting isn’t worthless. The waiting has meaning. The waiting points to the greater story, the greatest story.

Ann Voskamp’s words bathe the mind that has become soiled with cynicism: “Every tulip only blossoms after cold months of winter wait. Every human ever unfurled into existence through nine long months of the womb waiting. And the only kingdom that will last for eternity still waits, this millennia-long, unwavering-hope for return of its King. Instead of chafing, we accept that waiting is a strand in the DNA of the Body of Christ. That this waiting on God is the very real work of the people of God.” “This waiting on God is the very real work of the people of God.”

Every act of waiting can point to the most important waiting we will ever do, waiting for Christ’s return. And if marriage is a picture of Christ and the church, then the waiting for the fulfillment of good desires is a picture of our hope and expectation for the King to return and restore and herald in a joyful eternity. When I long, my natural inclination is to find a quick fix to douse the ache. To write my own story, to live in my imagination while cursing the reality that I am forced to live. What if I leaned into the longing and looked to Christ in hope, remembering that the hunger is indicative of the eternity and perfection I am waiting for? The longing can’t be filled by a person; it is a hunger pang for Christ that can only be fulfilled in him. But this longing will not be fulfilled completely in this life. May these pangs direct me the the waiting girl to the hope of the Truth. To be unsatisfied, to wait, to long, is not a curse, but a blessing, because in her little story, the girl can let her longings point to the greater story He has swept her into. A story that may be filled with suffering, but ends in joy. A story that on the hard days doubt may tarnish, but ends, indisputably, in confident faith.

Hebrews 11:13. All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.  

Ending the Run-On Sentence

The past five years have been to and from and flights and car rides and new semesters and new places and new people and new jobs and since I was 18 life has been a perpetual run on sentence and I’ve never stopped.

How does one stop?

After I wrote these words at the beginning of last month, not knowing the answer to the question, I did the only thing I knew how to. 

I went.

I went in hardheaded intensity of trying to figure things out and drank a pot of coffee one morning and powered through crafting my CV and looking up to see that it was 4:00 p.m. and I had applied to 6 jobs and 2 hours later I had two interviews in Boston that would allow me to continue this run-on sentence that seemed to be going nowhere fast, and fast was the only thing that seemed to jive with my embedded sense of work and morality and it’s been something I’ve worked on since I spoke in church that Sunday morning when I was 18 about rest, and then proceeded to intensify the smallest thought or concern with anxiety of purpose and existential quandaries throughout the inside of the pinball machine of five young, heavy years (takes breath).

Yes, I went. Down to Boston. Down to the city that I had idealized as the only energizing, soul-lifting plot of land that I could possibly escape the depression of isolation that I had faced, but still respected enough to fear. Weeks before, I had lived a fairy-tale day in Boston with a friend. Sprawled out in a grassy park with just enough shade to make me chilly, she told stories of the community, accountability and friendship that was all wrapped up in Christ, a kind that I longed for.

So two weeks later I sat in a Starbucks in glasses and Mom’s grey pencil skirt, over an hour early to the interview and feeling kind of dowdy. I tried to enjoy my scone, despite the stomach pains, my faithful companions to any event more stressful than doing the dishes.

The first interview went well, I really liked the school, and Boston, was, well, Boston.

I got to feel the subtle rush of using the subway, which signified independence and memory, though of course it didn’t compare to Moscow. I observed an almost fight over some money or drugs that was filled with lots of expletives and made me wish I wasn’t alone. I had a guy my age drill me with a memorized speech to try to get me to donate money to Planned Parenthood. I ate Dunkin Donuts.

I had another interview the next day, a group interview in which I had to give a demo lesson. This one was less fun, of course, but I was able to at least give myself a solid B when I walked out.

And all throughout, I prayed for wisdom. 

And wisdom, He gave.

Though I couldn’t escape the intensity that is such a part of who I am, I felt peace. I think in the deepest place, I knew the answer before I boarded the bus, but this answer was confirmed in the voice of a beloved professor I got to visit and in the conversations with the girls I stayed with.

And the answer, for now, is Maine. I was offered the first job, and called in for a follow-up interview for the second. Financially, neither of them were the best choice, but that’s not why I’ve decided to stay put. I’ve decided to stay in Maine, because I’m finally surrendering to the truth that what I need most right now is a time to rest. 

I discovered that I’d been telling myself lies, preaching guilt-induced dogma that had no basis in the truth. I was telling myself that I had to abide by black and white rules I’d extracted from what the culture expects of me plus some twisted applications of Scripture, blind rules that didn’t take account of my unique situation. And there was also the doubt that God had the desire to meet my needs for rest and restoration of spirit.

I still have to fight the lies daily, even hourly, but I am becoming more at peace at where I will be in this next season of life. 23 doesn’t look like what I thought it would, but that’s okay. I have room to rest right now while still moving forward. In a few weeks, I’ll be starting online classes toward my MA in TESOL, I’ll be tutoring international students at UMaine, and even get to do some work at a local school that is close to my heart.

But above all, my number one goal in this season is to rest, to heal, to unlearn the patterns of anxious control, to learn how to be led.

Reorientation Ramblings

I sit on the sturdy plastic chair across from my doctor, a vibrant yet calming middle-aged woman who has been more of a counselor than a physician to me.

“You look older,” she says.

My weight is the same, my hair still that thick auburn, but I think she’s looking at my eyes.

“If I were to guess your age, I would say about 25.”

She also tells me that maybe, just maybe, I might have developed an ulcer.

~

Strangely, the journey home was tied up as neatly as a Hallmark movie, a stark contrast to the genre I’d gotten used to. While waiting for my flight from Russia to Germany, I checked my phone to find I had been accepted to the Masters in TESOL program I had applied for. At Gordon graduation, I would have thrown a tantrum at the prospect of more school. Now, I see it as a way to do what I’ve learned that I love doing.

In Germany, while waiting to board my plane to Boston, my tired eyes landed, surprised, on an old acquaintance from college. He was my T.A. freshman year, the one who had first told me about the Fulbright program.  I approached him and we talked for two minutes, small talk mostly, but for me, significant. As I boarded the plane, as silly as it sounds, I realized that I was older. I smiled as I  remembered the nervous freshman who had to rally every last bit of courage to say a word to the genius senior who held the answers to the meaning of life. Coming full circle so seamlessly- can it be coincidental?

No, there are no coincidences in His kingdom.

~

I was reintroduced to English on the plane when a middle-aged southern “gentleman” shouted out as I walked by “you’re lovely!” Though the timing was right, in my two-day old clothes with hair slicked back in a braid and my nerd glasses on, I doubted he was referring to me. My doubts evaporated when he followed me down to the basement floor where the bathrooms were and exclaimed “you’re positively lovely!”

I didn’t go to the bathroom the rest of the plane ride.

~

Preparing myself for reverse culture shock was unnecessary.  As Mom and Dad drive me home from the airport, I do notice that the roads on the highway are really, really smooth.

But haven’t they always been that way?

The waitress at the steak house we stop at speaks English and has a wide smile that I am supposed to rejoice at.

But aren’t waitresses always that way?

I drive the car for the first time in nine months, and it feels comfortable, natural, freedom to the tune of country music and windows rolled down.  Coffee makers and reliable hot showers and not straining to find the right words are taken for granted, because that’s the way things have always been.

Things have always been this way, yet I feel that I’ve taken a backpack off. A backpack full of rocks, a bag I got used to hauling everywhere until I couldn’t remember life without it. Now, I am surprised at how easy it is to walk. I think I could even run.

Still, it is not automatic to be the person you’ve become in the place where you were a different person, in a place where you hadn’t conquered the fears you faced in a different dimension. It was Narnia, where you fought and grew and were crowned. Now that you’re back, you have to fight to keep that identity.

~

I now stand like Polly and Digory in the Wood between the Worlds, in limbo, in that oscillation between a joyful trust fall and a distrustful cynicism.

There is so much I want to do! I want to write that book, start a Russian school, travel, teach, go to grad school, fall in love, buy a car, pay off my student loans!

My brain is an exclamation point.

My brain is an exclamation point, but maybe I’ve missed the message in caps before that eager piece of punctuation.

SLOW DOWN!

I am not used to slowing down.

The past five years have been to and from and flights and car rides and new semesters and new places and new people and new jobs and since I was, 18 life has been a perpetual run on sentence and I’ve never stopped.

How does one stop? 

~

Since I’ve been back, I’ve dreamed twice about juggling. It is a failure dream, of Dad and me passing clubs like we have a thousand times, but this time, I drop every pass. The shiny blue pins are foreign in my hands. We try again and again, and Dad assures the audience that we’ll get it. I go through the familiar, confident motions, but the clubs slip through my hands like butter.

~

Four days after I returned, I coached at a basketball camp, the camp that I went to as a sixth grader, the camp that I came home from crying the first day then went back and faced my fears. I hadn’t played basketball in a while, but it came back to me as easily as hot showers and coffeemakers. The familiar drills were therapy for a mind that was dying for distraction from the implications of uprooting and replanting. I was the coach question of the day, and the little girls soon found out that it was me who spent the last nine months in Russia. One asked why, and when I gave her a bite size answer, she looked at me matter-of-factly and said,

“That’s no reason to go down to Russia.”

All I could do was laugh.

Walking Home, Significant Details

There are less than two weeks to go, and the lack of time concentrates significance into every step. The sounds, colors, smells of this little city, unknown at this time last year, are now dear, родной.

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The familiarity that nine months creates can lull me into not noticing, but the knowledge that 14 blocks of 24 hours is all that separates me from another world wakes me up to savor, to store up memories of the small and significant.

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The call to prayer can be heard from the mosque, deep, throaty Arabic, unintelligible except for the haunting, guttural, drawn-out cry of “Allah, Allah.”

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The dust sneaks inside my shoes with each step, and I remember a friend’s advice: don’t take pictures only of what is considered conventionally beautiful, because then you objectify the place, the experience, rob it of its grit and character.

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I know I won’t see windows like this when I get home,

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and I will see cats, but not on every corner, wild and afraid.

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The white marshrutka, the ubiquitous, sometimes scary, but mostly dependable transport will be something I miss.

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I’ll also miss the colors, where I come from we usually prefer the not-so-bright.

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I will, however, be glad to be able to sit on a bench in the winter without being told that I have just ruined any chance of having children.

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I’ll miss being surprised by where the sidewalk ends.

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And I’ve come to enjoy my dusty walks to the store to buy 5 liter jugs of water and bread, cucumbers and tomatoes.

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And then there is the red fire tower, my landmark, telling me that I’m almost home.

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And my favorite bus stop, where a 4 or 5 bus will drop me off right in front of my dorm, my arms full of bags of milk and pelmeni and candied ginger.

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House 24Б, my home for nine months.

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The metal door that is always unlocked,

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the windowsill where I get my mail,

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the sign that warns non-dorm dwellers to stay out, which is mostly for show.

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And I am home.

I am almost, almost home.

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