The Tail End

Returning to my dorm room from the snake sighting, I stopped at the edge of the soccer field under construction. They had been tearing up that field with big machines since we got there. It suddenly occurred to me that maybe that field was the snake’s home. Imagine his terror when the ground exploded and all hell broke loose. The poor guy was a refuge. Terrified, he shot through the air 50 feet and then slithered down the pathway, into the push. Where do I go?! Where do I go?! His little snake heart was beating against his scaly chest. He spied a doorway and slipped through the gap, tucking into the dark corner.

Think! he told himself. Get a hold of yourself! He wrapped all around himself. Not like that! he hissed. I’m trying to think, he whimpered, but I have an automatic vacuum brain.

That sort of thing.

I pictured the snake’s head again. You know, come to think of it, he looked a little like a poor, lost, black lab, panting and terrified. His homeland was gone and he was in search of a new home.

I looked up at the green hillside where he’d gone. It was a kind of nature preserve rising into high green hills. On the top, a beautiful red and black pagoda staked its claim to the breeze. He would find mice there. He would find happiness.

I glanced over at the guard booth. He slid closed the plexiglass window and reached for the deadbolt on the little wooden door. I gave him a snake wiggle goodbye with my right arm, turned and marched back into my building, stopping of course to peer into the dark corner behind the door.

Clear Thinking, Courage and Manliness

There are two men in our group and four women. Laury and I are in B dorm and both teach at community college. Clare, Marna, Joan and Carol are in C dorm. Clare teaches high school in Castro Valley. Marna teaches middle in San Francisco. Joan and Carol are retired from teaching high school and middle as well. I am the novice of the group. These are some educational gurus.

One day, heading to a meeting in C dorm, I left my building and headed down the path towards the soccer field, which is under heavy construction. I turned left and wound between the buildings on the path, and looped around to the back of C dorm, which is the entrance. I spied something in the bush near the building. Must have been a mouse. I got a better angle and peered in.

Suddenly a gray colored snake emerged from the bush, a few feet away, slid onto the path and headed towards the C dorm steps. I froze and watched. It was about two feet long and didn’t have any markings I could see. It went up the steps I was hoping to go up. It got to the front door of the building. It slipped under the front door and disappeared into the lobby.

I listened for screams, but it was silence. Nobody was in sight in any direction. I worried that the teachers had the door open and were chatting and then suddenly all would be chaos…

Nothing. That’s good.

I stood there on the path wondering if I really wanted to go to this meeting. It was optional, just for folks who wanted to learn from Marna how to set up a google site for their class. I was interested, but not THAT interested. I stared at the gap under the door. Now, if I were a snake in a lobby, I’d bounce around a bit (not being clear on how a snake’s brain works, I tend to substitute the model of one of those automatic vacuums that rebounds around a room) and then eventually I’d head back out the way I came. If I had shoulders, I’d shrug and hiss, “Well, that place sssssssucked.”

The snake wasn’t coming out. What were my other options? I couldn’t really tell them about the snake because digitally liberated traveler that I am, I had no phone. A rock through a window? Which window.

I decided to see if I could see what the snake was up to. I should say that I was never one of those kids with the pet snake running around his shoulders and neck. I was the horrified kid in the corner. “Want to hold him?!”

For the love of god, no! Snakes almost make me want to be a baptist, preaching about evil serpents. Yeah, I know, predators are good, they eat vermin, yada yada. But they are absolutely creepy to me: the way they move (Can they suddenly spring 50 feet like the Monty Python rabbit? Absolutely), the way they occasionally swallow a whole goat, they can swim, they can hang from trees, burrow under any fortress…they’re like special forces with the brain of an automatic vacuum.

I stomped up to the front door of the building. As I stomped I said aloud, “Feel those vibrations? That’s a big human coming.” I was at the door of the building now, minding the gap, big time. I reached slowly up to the handle and tried to pull the door open a crack. I forgot, you have to push with these doors. I began to push the door open and stopped. It’s a metal screen door and you can see through it a bit. There, to the right of the door, in the corner next to the door, I could just make out the gray snake in a loose tangle on the floor.

Why kind of psychotic snake sets up shop right next to the door of an apartment building? Is he planning to just pick us off one by one? I opted not to enter the lobby.

I walked back down the path and thought, time to find a cleaning lady or a guard or something. The cleaning lady would shrug, march up to the door, grab it by the tip of the tail, thump it on the pavement like she was doing laundry, and then hurl it into the bushes (although I have since learned you find these on the menu at local restaurants, so she might have saved it for all I know, which is little).

No cleaning lady.

There is a guard booth nearby as this is a private campus with a gated entry. I walked up to the guard booth. He smiled at me but quickly went to that look of language panic. We had already established he knew no English. I pointed back to the building and began doing the snake wiggle with my right arm. He stared at me. I pointed to the ground and then continued my belly dance move. He stared at me some more. No matter how slowly or how loudly you say snake, a Chinese guard who doesn’t know English is not going to really get it. I tried to show the snake suddenly shooting 50 feet across the ground in a perfect horizontal line, then I wrapped the snake around my neck and fell to the ground, writhing, battle it. OK, not really (besides, that’s another story, as some of you know).

He picked up the phone and called someone. In Chinese he said what I guessed might be, “I’m going to need a strait jacket, tranquilizer and a truck with a cage.”

I beckoned for him to follow and headed back to C dorm. He followed a little ways, wary, but then scurried back into his booth. He was either terrified of snakes, me or of his boss seeming him out of guard booth.

I decided to go check on the snake. As I rounded the corner, the snake emerged from the building. It went down the steps again, straight down the path and into the bushes, up and through a fence out to the greater jungle area beyond.

I decided I was interested in the tech lesson after all and joined the meeting a bit late but with a good excuse.

Who Your Neighborhood?

I ask my students to draw a map of their neighborhood and they draw apartment buildings, roads, supermarkets and schools. This is not your rural China. For 15 years the economy has boomed and the cities have doubled and tripled all over themselves. How many cities in China do you think have more than one million people? Come on, guess.

One hundred and sixty. (Thanks to Laury for that amazing stat!)

How many cities over one million does the US have?


We are talking about a different scale here.

I ask my students to draw a map of their neighborhood and they list other things too:

Friends’ houses.

The Sea.

Harry scrawls, “I have no idea.” Later, he adds Cinema and SCHOOL.

Jonathan, in exquisite printing, labels his map with: 1) My home in Yuexiu Area, 2) Shuiyin Road 3) fruit store 4) fast Chinese food restaurant.

It’s good to know I can still order Chinese if needed.

Tony draws a pond with three fish and a basketball hoop. Basketball, you may already know, is huge here. Last night I watched and India vs. China game on TV. India won. But basketball is still huge. Tony is working on a writing piece about his love for Lebron James (based mainly on “his way of life.”).

Yelena’s map ranges from the Kinder Garten near the park (in the corner of the park she has labeled the Gate) to a big building called Nightclub.

Rebecca, my best writer, has labeled, in addition to her friends’ homes, the Newsstand and Stationer, as well as Hospital (“my father work place”).

Trees, pools, lakes and flowers also feature.

Oscar has scribbled, “This place is where we live in. I live on the first floor and my neighborhood lives on the first floor in next building.”

Yesterday I had to talk several students out of describing their next door neighborhoods.

As I review Oscar’s map, I am suddenly reminded of a flyer that went out from an Asian realtor in Oakland. I quoted it for years and my friend Ken was damn near obsessed with it. The poetry of other English. In big letters it read, “WHO YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD?”

Whistling Blue Bicycles

When I push out my apartment building front door, there is something about this campus that reminds me a bit of a video game. It is big and you wind this way and that across it, keeping to whatever shade you can find. Little men in blue shirts, security guards, ride bicycles up and down the paths and disappear into guard booths and buildings. In the game you would avoid them like frogger avoids cars or mario avoids rolling barrels (as you can see, I’m up on the latest games). Every now and then a smiling woman with a straw hat pops up from the bushes brandishing shears and says, “Good morning!” or “Hallow!” or just smiles.

But the real story is the heat. To be outside is to be hot. To be inside is to destroy the planet with blasting AC. When the sun is completely free of vapor obstruction it burns down upon the humans with abandon. I often bow my head as I trudge across the long basketball court area. In a way, it’s so hot and the air so heavy it is like moving through snow up to my thighs.

The sky talks about raining. It flashes. It rumbles. But it is all talk. When rain finally does fall, it is wonderful but the air is still hot, the sun usually still burns a moment later and the rain does not linger.

I cross the big campus in the morning and head past the Commons where the students are eating breakfast to the building with a nice library downstairs and an IT office. I head upstairs to room 203. (My apartment is 202. My classroom is 203. I never noticed that until now.) The door is already open to my classroom. My TA Gary or Vicky has been here already to unlock it and turn on the AC. I have at least three AC units I mess with in my apartment and two more in my classroom and they each have remotes and buttons to press, all in Chinese, and they are all slightly different. Invariably, I hold up a remote and try top right, then top left, then bottom right, bottom left. If I am really loose and just going for it, I sometimes get it the first try. If I am tired or in a rush, sometimes no button will work. I cycle through all of them twice and wonder about a frosty demise. If I walk away from it and come back, it will turn off first try.

There is also construction happening all over campus. There is construction happening all over China and all over campus. They are building a soccer field here. You have never seen more progress in so little time. They work day and night, scooping dirt, adding rocks for drainage, creating the next layer and the next. I joked they would be playing on it by the end of camp, and it’s really not that far fetched. It was just mounds of rock and dirt when we arrived.

Downstairs from where the kids eat, they are renovating a huge room. In the Main Hall at the school entrance, walls are being moved. Meanwhile, in the visible horizon, there are high rises being built, cranes between them. As you drive into downtown Nansha, you pass construction site after site, and half the roads are closed off, being worked on. It’s a boom. I’m reading “Postcards from Tomorrow Square” by James Fallows and in it he, perhaps by quoting someone else, makes the point that China has been in an economic boom for 15 years and that anyone under 30 has spent their adult life knowing only the boom (You like da boom, I like da boom…). The Cultural Revolution ended over thirty years ago.

At the end of the day, I push my way into the apartment building and head past my colleague Laury’s door. It is dripping wet. Why? Because he has the AC going in there and the hot air is meeting the cold air at his door. This large, dripping wet door looks like something out of the Shining. I turn and head up the stairs to my apartment, turn the key click click to the left, swing open the door, and head in to liberate my feet from warm shoes.

I have traversed the campus once again.

I have survived the heat and taught a good class.

I have made it to the next level of the game.

Ten Bucks in a Chinese Supermarket

This is what ten bucks will get you in a Nansha supermarket:

  1. Four Seas Seaweed Crackers – “Use High Quality Seaweed”
  2. 2 packs of Potato Crisp – “Non-fried”
  3. 6 plums – not ripe, it turns out
  4. 1 cup of Yummy Yummy Instant Vermicelli
  5. 4 little yelloworange possibly mini mangos
  6. 1 small bunch o bananas
  7. 1 bag of Xiang Li Xiang – look like waffle chips but ingredients are also in English: rice, edible plant oil, soybean, corn, egg, millet, black rice, black bean, sesame, walnut, salt, spices - Good but very peppery.
  8. 1 box Green Tea Cookie
  9. A six pack of what I hope is yogurt – shows a picture of a robot frolicking with a bunny/fox guy, only English word is “Kids”
  10. 5 mini bottles of what my colleague Marna tells me is probiotic yogurt drink
  11. 1 cup Soup Noodle

Hello My Name is Frank

In camps such as these, students choose an English name if they don’t have one already and their English and Chinese names ride together on a name tag. As a result, many students barely have any relationship with the name yet. I’ll call over, “Alex!” and they won’t even look up. I’ll go over, tap them on the shoulder and say, “Alex, you’re Alex, remember?”

“Oh yeah!” they smile.

Last time I taught writing camp, which was in Seoul, I barely even learned their real names before camp was over. This time I am determined to master the names by Monday afternoon. Every activity I give them, I take the time to walk around and say hello to each member of each group, entering their name in memory. “Hello, Frank. How are you, Crystal. Hello, Roger. Hi Amy.”

We start the week writing about our names, any name they choose. A large boy with gentle eyes wrote about how he picked the name Doris for himself out of a textbook. He used that in English class for about three years until he discovered it was considered a female name. Then he went with Peter, also from a textbook. The problem is all the other Chinese schools seemed to have the same textbook. He showed up at his middle school and there were about 15 Peters.

A girl with a long intelligent face shared the story of her English name. A big cousin returned from Europe and asked his aunt what his baby cousin’s English name was. She said she didn’t have one. He could pick an English name for his little cousin. He thought about it for a bit and then went with Sophie. She has been Sophie ever since, though she says her English teachers keep calling her Sophia, no matter how many times she corrects them. She says she thinks it’s because many of them are American and Sophia is more popular in America, whereas Sophie is big in Europe. She says, in the past, some students have teased her because they think her name sounds like “So-Fat.” She likes her name, though, and says it means “wisdom.”

One boy, a thin little joker of a boy, starts out the day as Jackie, for Jackie Chan, but by lunch has become Ray. A boy named Mark has changed his name to Hulk by the afternoon, but I refuse to recognize it’s validity. “Nice try,” Mark,” I say. He’s unable to articulate whether it is a tribue to the big green super hero or the Brazilian soccer player.

Enough is enough, I tell the class. For the rest of this week, you are who you are.


I should say that today WordPress, Facebook, and Twitter were blocked here on campus, presumably by the government. Here is a notice we get from the nice staff here:

“Due to some political issues, our ISP just called me that some of the oversea social network websites ( Facebook, Youtube and Twitter ect.) will be blocked this month (Even the ISP doesn’t know how long it will last, they will wait for the notice from the government). This happened last year when the National Congress of the Communist Party of China hold in BeiJing.”

I am trying to do a trick the IT guy here showed me. So just know that if Mr. Peabody vanishes for a while, it’s going to be OK. I’ll be back when the Great Firewall (as they say) permits. We now return to the Adventures of Mr. Peabody, having just arrived in China….

It is Sunday night, the first night of writing camp and we walk into the huge room on the second floor and sit in the front row with our TA’s nearby and the kids behind them, all on chairs facing a screen on a stand. A slideshow plays with the faces of the five teachers and our coordinator extraordinaire, Carol. Beneath the picture, the screen fills with Chinese characters, but the occasional Western words: UC Berkeley, El Cerrito, Common Core, etc.

This room is where the kids and the teachers will eat all week. It was previously called the Cafeteria but now it has a new blue floor and bright red and yellow paint on the walls, purple columns stretch to a high ceiling. New lights dangle from above and the tables are on wheels for great flexibility. This room has been rebranded as “The Commons.” Nice. Now they can’t play the “This cafeteria food sucks!” cards. They can only bad mouth “The Commons,” which may be frowned upon in a communist country.

The National College Preparatory Academy has been open for two years. It is a private school. It has been adding on grades and next year will have its first graduating class of seniors. Before it became the NCPA, apparently it was a private high school that fell out of favor because it offered the same curriculum as the public high school but, you know, charged for it. That’s what you call a bad business plan, so it went under. Now the students who go here are planning to attend a four year university in the United States. We’ll see how the first grads do next year.

The camp director, Lila, calls us each up, one at a time, and we are handed a microphone to introduce ourselves to the nervous kids, eager TAs and curious parents. We have been told to keep it brief so the interpreter can get everything translated. I announce my name to the room full of Chinese families and my voice sounds stiff as it bounces around the large room. I mention my experience. I say where I teach now. I tell them we will work this week to develop a strong personal voice in their writing. “And,” I add. “We will have fun.” Awkward silence. I teeter back to my seat and smile at the other teachers.

Joan ends her bio by telling her students she already has homework for them and they need to meet her after the event. Laury’s eyes light up as he heads to the microphone. He opens with a little Chinese, “Ni hao!” and gets a round of applause. When he finish his intro he gleefully adds, “And no homework!” He gets a cheer. He later tells Joan the homework thing was too good a set up to resist and that even if he had homework he would have canceled it just to be able to say that.

Week one of camp is about to begin!


To the Other Side of the World

Cathay Pacific Airlines, San Francisco to Hong Kong. We board about 45 minutes late. Could be much worse. They let the wealthy on first, the first rows. Then they let the back rows on. We are the middle. We board last. Members of my group are scattered nearby, but we do not sit together. The plane is filled with, at best guess, folks headed to China and India. We are some of the only honkies.

I squeeze in next to a sullen looking guy in a black leather jacket. We will share an armrest for 15 hours. Occasionally he will de-earbud and say, politely, “Excuse me, I need to use the washroom.”

Up to my right is my colleague, Joan. She reads non-stop throughout the trip. She devours an entire book (Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild”) and starts a new one. She reads the New York Times (“Why Computers Won’t Replace You Just Yet”).

I also resist the screen in front of me, saving movie watching for the final unbearable hours. Instead, I read off an on for about ten hours. I am reading Da Chen’s “Colors of the Mountain,” his memoir about growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution, with his parents suffering for being part of the “landlord class.” They are beaten, abused, sent off to labor camps. He gets ostracized at school by kids and teachers. I do not finish the book. I am not Joan.

Periodically, I wander the aisles, heading all the way back to the rear bathroom, even though there is one just behind me. I stretch. I stand and space out, watching a sea of movies being watched. The movie that keeps getting my attention is a Bollywood film, well, because it’s Bollywood. Beautiful people in beautiful clothes do martial arts and group dancing. Every time I get up I see the same  movies in different moments played out on a sea of screens. That guy is just getting to the truck crash. Oh, Hermione is just about to make out with the caveman guy. The animated parrot is hanging upside down beside his nemesis.

The more delirious I become, the more these movie moments feel like my life. There’s Ashley Judd, brushing my hair. The Bollywood woman is crawling through the mud before we began our life together. I am hanging upside down beside my nemesis.

Eventually I watch “Her,” which is as good as everyone said it was. Spike is a genius. Charlotte can whisper in my ear and laugh with pleasure at my jokes any time. I also watch “Divergent,” which I read (Not in one sitting. I am not Joan.)

Near the end of the flight, not having slept at all, my legs, in spite of the stretching, a bit miserable, these words float through my brain: too much to bear.

And then we are there, in Hong Kong, and out of the long airport window I notice the sun setting over the Zhujian River Estuary, dropping into Macau in the distance. The silhouette of a tugboat in front of a quiet wine red sky.

Two more hours of sitting, walking, writing, and we board Dragon Air and flap our wings to Guangzhou, China. We stumble out with suitcases and a voice calls, “Carol!” and there is Lila, our host, with two security guards from her school serving as baggage helpers. We step out into heat and madness. Clare mumbles something about Blade Runner. The air smells like an enormous cigarette, but only, thankfully, in the airport.

We board a mini bus and ride another hour and a half. I am exhausted to the point of slight nausea. I lean against the window and look out at green tropics and shrimp farms and countless countless half finished high rise construction, everywhere. The bus rattles and shakes and every time my eyes close it hits a bump and they fly open. Finally, we arrive through a guarded gate to our new home, the National College Preparatory Academy. It is near midnight and a small group of our TA’s stand there with smiles on their faces. My TA Gary takes my suitcase and gives me a high five. I also meet my other TA, Vicky. They are Chinese but these are their English names. In a flash we are taken to our apartments.

Mine is huge: two bedrooms, all to myself. An open kitchen, living room, and dining area, all connected. A wall of windows, opening to balconies with jungle green beyond. I collapse on a king-sized bed and sleep.

Permitted to Return to a Meadow

BART station transfer, San Francisco. I sit staring at a wall, waiting for my train. There is a blue sign with the image of  a white bicycle. My hand twitches. The brain sent out a message to take a picture of the sign, but then the brain realized there was no camera and sent a faster message to overtake the first. Abort!

Instead, I stare at the sign and think, so that’s how you draw a bicycle.

I’m sitting at my gate, having met up with the five other teachers in my group, waiting for our plane to board, when the guy across from me leans in and says, “Excuse me, do you know how to turn off an iphone?” It turns out I do. It was the first thing I learned when I got one, just about a month ago (that same phone I am leaving behind for this three week trip).

He’s a young guy, clean cut, a whiteboy. He tells me his family made him get the phone because he is off to Europe for a month of travel. I point out my group and tell him we are all writing teachers, heading off to China. He gets a wistful look and says, “I’d like to do that.” He teaches middle school in Menlo Park.

I tell him I teach writing at Laney College in Oakland and he says, “Oakland has a great literary tradition. When I think of Oakland, I think of the poet, Robert Duncan.” I write down the name, not having heard of Duncan.

The young teacher’s plane begins to board for Spain. He rises, we shake hands, and he’s gone.

Later, I look up Robert Duncan. According to Poetry Foundation, his life was changed by a teacher. “Encouraged by a high school English teacher who saw poetry as an essential means of sustaining spiritual vigor, Duncan chose his vocation while still in his teens.”

See? He could have been a productive member of society, but he opted for poetry thanks to the wisdom of his teacher.

Here is a verse by Robert Duncan, born in Oakland in 1919:

“Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
as if it were a given property of the mind
that certain bounds hold against chaos,

that is a place of first permission,”

I feel to a certain extent like I am being permitted (by the universe) to return to a meadow. This traveling thing. I am all a-wander and a-wonder.



The BART Train to China, Part II

I stand with a hand on my suitcase handle and look out the window of the BART train. The warehouses of Oakland zip by. Some sailboat masts poke up behind them.

It occurs to me I have no phone in my pocket. I left it at home, stashed away. I cannot text or be texted. No one can call me. No one can track me.  There will be no pings or zings or bells or ringtones. It is a bit scary and yet thrilling, totally liberating. The train whistles softly across the elevated tracks. Off to the right I see the Berkeley hills.

I have no camera. No digital recording device other than the digits of my hand, transcribing what I see in my travels. I reach down and pat my pockets. Empty. Not even keys. My wallet is as thin as the day it was born, stripped down to just American dollars, 3 cards and a BART ticket.
No jingle jangle. No electronics. Just me and a back pocket journal, a new pen, me and my self, my senses, my thoughts, wearing the only pair of shoes I brought, standing on a train with a blue suitcase and a plane ticket in a blue backpack, riding the BART train to China.