Friday, September 24, 2010

It seems appropriate that my first blog should be “What I did on my summer vacation” since school started for us early in September.

As part of a Summer Service Learning Program (SSLP), which is part of Tsinghua University's "Educational Poverty Alleviation Program," I went to China from July 10-31. Tsinghua is considered to be one of the top Chinese universities in the country. There is a debate as to whether it is Beijing University or Tsinghua is the top university--it depends upon who you ask :-), but Tsinghua is referred to as the “MIT of China.” This year's SSLP program is being funded by the Tseng Hin Pei Charity Fund out of Hong Kong. A USD math professor grew up with the president of the foundation, and when USD's Center for Community Service Learning was approached as considering the SSLP for USD students, the current director was unable to attend; consequently, I was offered this tremendous opportunity to evaluate the program as a possible CSL and/or International Study Abroad program. One of the many sites possible is Inner Mongolia, and I leaped at the chance.

Thirty different teams were deployed throughout rural sites in China beginning on July 17th and ours left for Inner Mongolia on the 18th. The team was composed of five Tsinghua University students--3 males, 2 females ranging in age from 19 to 20. They are enthusiastic, conscientious, and so hard working. The two American students are quite the sensation since they are both blonde and blue eyed. Every where we go on campus or in the city of Wulanchabu City, they are swamped by the Chinese students who want their picture taken with them. The number of cell phone photos of the two will be circling the city.

Wulanchabu City (in Huade County) is such an interesting city, and most striking is the fact that there are NO MONGOLS to be found in the entire city! Through the process of “Hanification” where those of Han background are “encouraged” to migrate to remote areas (such as Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia), the indigenous population is gradually forced out. As a consequence, the only possibility of seeing any Mongols would be to travel to the capital which is five hours away further east from Wulanchabu. So much for those images of Mongols riding their ponies across grasslands pictured on the “official” website for the county. The school—Huade Number 1 refers to the fact that is the first one built in this city. The school is relatively new, and the school building where we taught was built in 2008. Classrooms are definitely designed for limited interaction with a unit of six seats with a long writing surface attached on the back are bolted to the floor. The seating units all face forward, of course. The technology, however, was impressive. There is a "smart box" in the front which contains a computer that can project onto a large screen. It also contains a state-of-the-art overhead projector (much better than the ones USD has!) On the first day, students were randomly divided into 5 different teams (to coincide with the 5 college students from Tsinghua University). Each team was to develop a team name, a team slogan, and a team song. It was fun to have them do this ice-breaking, team-building exercise. The five teams named themselves: Winged Dream, Crossover, Key to Fighting, Golden Key, and Flagship. Each day, there was some form of competition that involves the awarding of points for participation (points for answering questions, especially during the English lessons, points for coming to the board and answering) and the competition was quite fierce because the winning team will get a prize.

The first night's activities (July 20th) were so hilarious. Teams had to play "telephone" but in pantomime, and as the pantomime went down the line, by the end no one could have possibility guessed what the "traditional Chinese" phrase was. The point of the activity was to highlight how information is transformed from one source to the other leading to the possibility of total misinterpretation. Thus, one of the other points was that in order to learn more effectively, it required students to look up information first-hand rather than relying on others to relay the information. This was followed by an activity where teams formed circles with the instructions that they had to remember who was on their left and right; students were instructed to move about freely, and when the moderator called time, they were to freeze and then reconnect their hands with the original persons on their left and right. This produced a huge tangled mess of humanity. The goal was to unravel this twisted mess into one complete circle without ever disconnecting their hands. This activity was to develop communication, cooperation, and strategy (not to mention body coordination). It was amazing to watch how students figured out how to “game" the activity, and just how quickly once strategies were in place how the teams reached their objective. It was so much fun.

Although there was supposed to be small breaks in between the activities, the students clamored for everyone to continue. The next activity involved assigning females one value and males another; they circled around, and when the moderator announced a figure, the students had to scramble to form a team of at least three people that represented that value. At least one female had to be in a group. Those who are not able to form a team had to sit out--a sort of mathematical musical chairs. At the end, six males who were eliminated and had to come in front of the entire group and were subjected to doing something demanded by the moderator who asked for "activities" from the crowd. The first hapless group and to strut forward while saying, "We love you all; we love you all.” This was performed to hoots and howls from the entire audience. Despite a long day, the activities go well into evening, and the group reluctantly go back to their dorms/homes at 10:30 P.M.

Each day begins early for students who routinely arise at 5 A.M., attend classes until noon; rest until 2:20 when classes resume until 4:45. Dinner is at 5. Evening class resumes at 7 and ends either at 9 or 9:30. At that time, they go back to the dorms (10/room for girls; 6-8/room for boys) where they routinely stay up until midnight to review their work, and during the regular session, to finish homework. I am exhausted from just arising at 6 A.M. and staying until the end.

In deference to my age (which apparently “trumps” my status as “professor”) they refer to me as Grandmother, and when they come into the room in the morning, many come up to make a point of saying hello to me. At Number 1, all the course work in Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics are designed to help the students pass their Gao Kao--the entrance examinations for college. College entrance is based solely on the scores of their Gao Kao, and the pressure placed upon these students is truly phenomenal. The students who were in this special course are the top students in the Senior level II class (the equivalent to Junior status in the states).

The issue of why so few rural students continue their education is simply a structural one--not enough facilities or teachers to accommodate the number of eligible students. The students are absolutely sweet. They seem young for their age, but it is due to the fact that they do not have much adult interaction. Added to the fact that they really have no free time, it is hard for them to develop a sense of adulthood. Everything is focused on passing the Gao Kao. Yet, in terms of work and study ethic, if US students had one tenth of their dedication, our country would not be 20th in the world. The other day, there was a basketball competition between member of the Yao Ban (number 1) class and members from another Senior Level II class. Students were all aflurry with excitement. Some students only stayed for a short time and then wandered back to the classroom to continue to work on their assignments. It is impressive and, in some way, depressing to think about how much of their lives will be dictated by their scores on the College Entrance exam—the sole determinant of getting into college.
The last day at the Number 1 was the most touching. Students worked feverishly to plan a special party that including singing, presenting gifts of huge banners autographed by everyone, dancing, and eating. The students purchased two beautiful “birthday” cakes complete with candles which they celebrated our collective “birthdays.” There was not a dry eye in the audience. At 10:30, the lights were automatically turned off, and we all slowly worked our way down the stairs. In the front of the school, we made our final farewells with promises to stay in contact. What a memorable experience.

Today, I am still in contact with a dozen of the students who send e-mails. Technology has made it possible to stay in touch in ways that would not have been possible even a few years ago. My plans are to go back next summer with a group of USD students. Thus ends my blog.

Judith Liu

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


by Karen Kenyon

I believe there are two ways people begin to write-- those who always wrote, were born to write -- and those who have something happen that turns their world upside down, and they have to write about it. I’m the second type. I did always love to express myself though -- but for the first part of my life it was art -- drawing and painting.

But with the birth of our second child my life was turned upside down. I learned to view the world with new eyes, as if an optometrist had clicked the lens changer and my focus shifted. My husband and I, and our four year old son, had looked forward to this new baby, and when she was born with extreme problems -- she was Down Syndrome -- we were shocked, and saddened, and concerned.

So, I started writing a poem to express what I felt about Johanna. I began to see that what looked like her inadequacies were her assets too. Writing the poem, “For Johanna,” helped me see how precious she was. She would not judge others. She would see the beauty of the butterfly without wondering what its Latin name might be. She would not cause wars.

By creating a poem with my feelings and observations of Johanna I came upon awarenesses I might not have had if I had not put pen to paper, I then had a new perspective, for I was not only the mother faced with a new and difficult situation, but I was the one who wrote about it. The careful crafting of my expression (as opposed to journalling) gave me a way of framing the experience, in some sense giving it a name, giving it words to float on. I was encouraged by a therapist to send it out. Though I’d never sent out any writing, and had only written a few poems (and given most away) I took his advice.

Not knowing where to send it, I sent it to Ladies’ Home Journal -- a magazine I happened to have. I had no idea how to submit. I didn’t know about Writer’s Market or following guidelines. But, as it turned out they took my poem, paid me the enormous sum of $35, and published it. Later, a woman I knew at the time, who’d published articles, told me it was a “fluke” -- that if I’d looked at Writer’s Market I would have seen that Ladies’ Home Journal does not take “unsolicited” poetry. Good thing I didn’t know what I was doing!

When Johanna died, suddenly at only six months of age, we were devastated. One morning, a few months later, prompted by people’s well-meaning words, “It’s all for the best” -- I felt the need to cry out -- “But I loved her.”

And I found myself again turning to my new friend and solace -- writing.

So I pulled out the old light blue Smith-Corona typewriter my dad had given me in college. I sat at the kitchen table, and I began to write the story of Johanna. I called it “Johanna Was a Sunshower” -- and I told of the dark and light her life brought, and how much she had taught me.

In a few days I showed it to a neighbor who had done some writing. And she encouraged me to send it out. Again, I had another magazine at home -- Redbook, and at that time Redbook had a “Young Mothers” column. My story seemed to fit that category. So once again, still not knowing the rules, I sent the story.

I didn’t really expect a reply, or imagine they would actually take it. So this all drifted to the back of my mind, until one day -- half a year later, I received a letter from the editor, apologizing for at first losing my manuscript, but then finding it, and loving it. They too wanted to publish my work.

When it came out, I experienced what I now recognize so easily, a major turning point in my life. Something about seeing the story in print, in columns, in an actual magazine! Maybe I could be a writer, I thought.

Anyone who’s suffered a major loss knows that you then look for a new path in life (consciously or unconsciously). And when in a day or two I went to the grocery store and saw on all the current issues of Redbook-- yellow stickers which read “San Diego Mother’s Moving Story” -- I felt a confirming shift. The path seemed clear, and to open.

I signed up at the local university for writing courses (I’d dropped out of college at the University of New Mexico after three years as an Art major once I knew I’d be getting married). I learned about writing from a more professional vantage point, and a new world came into view.

And Johanna’s nursery became my writing room. Where there had been diapers, there were now stacks of clean paper. Where there had been diaper pins, there were pens and pencils.

So, sorrow, loss, and emotional pain led me to writing -- but I continued because writing offers so many directions -- dimensions -- so many new adventures, and so many awarenesses.

Since then I wrote a memoir, Sunshower, published by G. P. Putnam (Richard Marek imprint) abut the tragic death of my young husband, only eight years after Johanna’s death. This book was another lesson in how healing writing can actually be.

But I’ve also written thousands of articles now -- about theatre, food, travel, art, interviews of notable people --in publications which include Newsweek (two “My Turn” columns), British Heritage, The Christian Science Monitor; for 2 1/2 years I covered San Diego stories for the Los Angeles Times. I also wrote a Young Adult biography of the amazing Brontë sisters -- Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. I have two other books in progress -- and always another article coming out. Poetry remains my first love.

Now, after forty years of writing, and 30 of teaching, there are two lessons I’d like to pass on. First -- write from your heart -- and second, don’t be faithful to all the rules! Send your writings where you’d like them to be. You might be surprised!

******Karen Kenyon is the author of Sunshower and The Brontë Family/Passionate Literary Geniuses, and numerous feature stories. She teaches at MiraCosta College in Cardiff, California, and at UCSD Extension in La Jolla, California..

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Writing Out of Bounds: A Pathway to Memoir

by Kathy Jones
A year after a student of mine named Andrea was murdered by her boyfriend, I began to write a book about the event.
I have always felt vulnerable about writing. But, until I wrote Living Between Danger and Love, I had been able to hide behind the scholarly jargon of my field. I couldn’t hide in this book. Not that I didn’t try.
When I first started to write about the murder, I approached it like every other academic topic I had taken on—as if it was only a philosophical problem to solve. And the problem, as I saw it then, was domestic violence so I approached it as a feminist writer—as someone who wanted to engage the issue of violence in intimate relationships in order to empower women and men to work against violence. In the beginning, I wasn’t very self-reflective. I allowed my analytical mind to take over and it took me far away from the subject instead of more deeply into it.
Then, two things happened. In 1996, after a lecture I gave about interdisciplinary perspectives on violence against women, I used Andrea’s story to illustrate the points. After I'd finished, a close friend approached me. How much of the story was I willing to tell, he wanted to know. How much of the truth was I going to share? I knew exactly what he meant. What he was asking was this: Was I willing to reveal myself?
A year later I gave another lecture on the same subject. A graduate student raised his hand and then posed a controversial question: “But where are you in all this?”
Those two incidents, along with conversations with friends and family and other women writers, prompted me to write a different kind of book.
The following fall I went to Sweden, a place both familiar and strange. And there, in the shadow-filled Nordic autumn, I began to write about my family, my childhood.
At first what I wrote seemed to have no connection to the book I was writing about Andrea. Interesting memories, I thought, and took copious notes. Then, I sent a portion of what I had been writing to an editor with whom I had worked on an academic book, and after she read what I’d written she said something that both scared and exhilarated me. “Get rid of all the footnotes!” she said.
And so I did.
And when I discarded the footnotes I also discarded the protective scaffolding that had prevented me from discovering a more authentic, writerly voice. Hidden in a thicket of references and arguments was a stronger, surer voice saying, again and again, I must speak the truth, I must speak the truth. Only then did I understand what and why I was writing.
To me, Living Between Danger and Love is a memoir of mourning. It’s about loss and coming to terms with the unsettling of self that loss evokes, an unsettling brought on by thinking about all that remains, undone and unsaid and unfinished, and then wondering how to go on living with that.
I tried to write what it felt like to experience living with difficult memories. I explored complicated, uncomfortable feelings about memory and loss. Many people might say that the issues I wrote about in this book—violence in intimate relationships--are far away from their lives. But the point of memoir is to bring what seems far away closer; the memoirist tries to make the strange become familiar.
So, for me, writing memoir took me in directions I hadn’t anticipated and helped me find a voice I hadn’t known I had. And it pushed me to examine how writing help one engage with the things we have in common as humans. Because writing opens you into the world.

After teaching women's studies at San Diego State University for twenty-three years, Kathy Jones retired (early) to pursue her writing career.  An award-winning scholar, with several books in feminist theory and politics, Kathy published her first memoir in 2000, Living Between Danger and Love: The Limits of Choice. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Briar Cliff Review Fiction International, and online at Mr. Bellar's Neighborhood. In 2009, her play, Acts of Faith, based on the short stories of Grace Paley and written in collaboration with Sharyn Blumenthal, was produced in San Diego by Laterthanever Productions. She is currently revising another memoir, What Hannah Would Say, and is at work on an historical  novel, Not For Oneself Alone, based on Hannah Arendt's years in America. She also blogs at WritingRevolutions. When she's not writing she is practicing yoga at Ginseng Yoga in San Diego. You can read more about Kathy at her web site.