New year musings

In January of 2006, I traveled to London for a semester of studying abroad. Since I decided to live at home through most of college (it seemed wasteful to get an apartment when I went to university where my parents lived), studying abroad was my first experience of being (nominally) out on my own. I teetered between terror and euphoria on the day I left Colorado, but I slept well on the flight. How has a decade passed?

I’ve always wanted to spend time living abroad again, but my attempts at finding a suitable teaching position abroad didn’t succeed. For the most part, I’m happy they didn’t. If I’d taught abroad when I wanted to, I would not have been able to go home when it was important to me. Three people I love have passed away in the last couple years. With the most recent, I was able to fly out to Colorado soon after the cancer diagnosis (July 9th, 2015) and visit for a couple days while my uncle was doing well on treatments (Labor Day weekend). There was never any doubt the disease would be fatal; the question was only “how soon?”

This last summer, I took my first international vacation since 2007. I went to Scotland for about 10 days, and it was everything I hoped it would be. I even went so far as to stand in front of 30 people I knew from the tour group and played Irish flute. My playing is not yet good (rhythm and the bottom register in particular need work), but I forced myself to chuck some of my shyness and play the hornpipe “The Rights of Man” and the slip jig “The Butterfly”. Stretching myself and experiencing new things made June a wonderful month.

My current path does not really have a branch that would take me abroad, and I am quite certain I do not want to change tracks and teach. At this point, putting a potential career on hold would not be beneficial if I ever want to retire.

This year my goals are not too ambitious. I want to finish at least one writing project, continue playing Irish flute, get back into studying Japanese, and learn to be more organized. Maybe focusing on the things I know I can achieve will help me find some answers for the larger picture as well.

I’m… done?

I still find it a little difficult to believe I’m done with my Master of Fine Arts degree. The diploma itself has sat on my desk since January, protected by the stiff cardboard envelope it was mailed in. Until I walk in the graduation ceremony on the 14th, I don’t think I’ll feel like I’ve finished. A piece of paper with my name on it doesn’t seem as concrete a finale.

The months since receiving that expensive bit of paper have been filled with me wondering what to do next. Teaching abroad had seemed like a sure thing, but circumstances dictated that it won’t happen this year. Maybe I’ll get into one of the programs I like on try 2, maybe I won’t. For now I’m working on getting some teaching experience and generally figuring out Plan C.

I’m continuing to study Japanese because I enjoy studying, not because I feel I need it. During my thesis semester, studying helped keep me sane. To a nerd like me, making and studying flash cards is soothing and having the structure of studying something is also a sanity saver. I started to pick Japanese up again faster than I expected, so I suppose all that time I spent watching anime and half-heartedly studying Japanese as a teenager did pay off. I can say a lot more than just 私は日本語が少しわかります(I understand a little Japanese), and I can back up that sentence with evidence. Once upon a time, my fluency in any language other than English was limited to a few pleasantries (please, thank you, hello, goodbye) and the all-important “I don’t speak this language.” For French, Spanish, and German, that’s still more or less all I can say. I’m still surprised how often I was stopped in Europe by natives asking for directions (my favorite was in Amsterdam, where the woman went on to say “English! Second time this has happened today”). Apparently my choice not to dress sloppily paid off, and I managed to somewhat blend in.

One of the best things that’s come out of me beginning to shed my monolingual status is the international community of language learners. I never realized how many fantastic online communities there are, where fluent speakers take the time to correct speakers who are not fluent. I like helping people who are trying to learn English and it’s invaluable to have people correcting my still-sketchy Japanese.

There are other things I ought to be focusing on, such as my writing career, but for now I’m taking it slow while I decide exactly what I want my focus to be. I write, or at least work on plotting and development, almost every day. That too keeps me sane while I figure out all those larger life goals.

Applications and the impersonal

The hardest part about writing a personal statement for applications (teaching abroad) is knowing what other people will find interesting and relevant. Of course I find my life interesting and worthwhile or I would have veered off onto a different path in recent years, but people won’t want to read much about what brought me to this point. It’s not that different, in some ways, from deciding where a fiction story begins. Including too much backstory and context bores people to death, and it turns into that whole “show versus tell” thing we hear so much about in writing workshops.

Showing rather than telling is just as important in nonfiction, but a personal statement is too short to work in very many details. In the same way, by trying to keep things short, sometimes my blog posts are about as indicative of my crafting skills as notes (more like word sketches, if you will) I record in journals while sitting in noisy coffee shops, breathing in the steam from an Americano and not minding one bit that I’ll leave smelling like espresso.

I’m trying to outline the main points before I start a real draft. Maybe an outline will let me prescreen for relevance. It’s too easy to meander into memories of the London flat with what I nicknamed the “stove of death” in the kitchen because it was an old, pre-safety-features gas stove. I remember cigarette smoke from flatmates, I remember burnt toast that set off overly sensitive alarms and brought bored firemen whose first questions were often “alright, who burned food this time?” Birthday parties with Ouzo, gatherings in the kitchen with foods (pungent cheeses, Indian spices, again with the Ouzo) from my flatmates’ respective home countries, windows that did not have screens, smoky pubs, almost missing a flight to Norway, and fascination with how the mud uncovered by the Thames at low tide looked in sunlight.

There isn’t much relevance in that list of first memories which come to mind when I think about the semester in London, yet pieces of it also speak to what makes me adaptable and a good candidate to teach abroad. I adjusted to living with five strangers, none of whom were American or British. I liked learning about where they came from and talked a bit about what made my country of origin interesting. Traveling, albeit briefly, on the continent and in Norway made me want to travel more in non-English speaking countries. How much of that really speaks to what people hiring foreign teachers want to know about a candidate? They are my memories and I turn them over like Tarot cards, wondering what the images and words mean in the context of all the other images and words, watching for patterns forming.

If I’m going to look at memories as if they’re cards, then perhaps I should go for a five card spread. Pick the five most relevant things, then recast them as the personal statement equivalent of a five paragraph essay. I’ve always thought Tarot is a tool for understanding self. Predicting the future is impossible, about as impossible, I feel, as guessing what people reviewing applications will most want to know. Perhaps one card will show five people around a kitchen table in a London student flat, giving one another nicknames (me, the professor; Vanessa, the Queen of Everything; Yezad, malakas), even if the names never make it to the printed page and the only bit of summarized dialogue is me explaining English terms like “DJ”. Another card may show me as a little girl exploring vendor booths on Westford Common during one of the local festivals in my home town, either the one about strawberries or the one about apple blossoms, because traditions continue and there are good things to add to a cultural exchange.

Once I have my five cards translated into a statement, I’ll find friends to edit and call it good. Then I will send it out into the world and hope for the best.

Blogenning Theme of the Week: Language

I’m in charge of this week’s Blogenning theme (cue evil laughter) and I figured I’d go with something I’ve been interested in and working on quite a bit. As topics go, “Language” is pretty open ended.

I’ve disliked my monolingual status for a very long time. It touches on a number of things that annoy me about Americanism. Every so often I run into people who complain about experiences abroad because not enough citizens of countries they visited spoke English. They seem utterly perplexed that people in a country named France would speak mostly French, or that people in Greece might speak mostly Greek. Geographically, the US is isolated, bordered by two countries. One speaks Spanish. The other speaks mostly English, with one French speaking region.

Unlike some nations, the US does not require students to learn a second language. The economy is global, and research shows that learning a second language makes it easier to pick up a third. If we started students learning a second language in elementary school, it would make it so much easier for learning more later. Not only is it easier to learn language as a child, it circumvents the problems middle school (when foreign language often begins to be taught) students face with the onset of puberty-caused self consciousness. I mean, elementary school kids can also be exceedingly shy, but on the whole they’re more likely to participate.

I tried to start studying French in… I think ninth grade, so my last year of junior high school. I didn’t go back for more French until I was nineteen, when I did manage to do more of the whole speaking out loud thing, but it was tough, and I really wasn’t interested enough. I did marginally better studying Japanese when I was, eh, sixteen or seventeen (time runs together after awhile) mainly because I watched a lot of anime at the time so I had a bit more familiarity with the language.

For years after my semi-disastrous attempts to study languages, I thought I’d failed because I didn’t have whatever it is that makes some people absorb foreign languages quickly. I also thought it would take way too much time to start learning, and that I would be better served focusing on other things.

Lies. I had already decided to start learning a second language this year when I realized that teaching abroad would be the right path for me. I did a bit of research into which do-it-at-home programs might work best for me, and then started in on it. Half an hour to an hour of practice with an audio program on my iPod isn’t much to ask of myself. Being a fairly confident adult, I’m even able to practice at work when I’m on break or when I cover an overnight shift.

The best part is that I’ve realized how much more functional some of the newer language programs are than the methodology of some in-person classes. I never learned numbers quite as readily through memorization, but the program I’m using throws a new number or three at me, out of order, in separate lessons so I learn the number and not where in the sequence it fits. So. Much. Better. It really isn’t just about memorization and repetition. Application of lessons learned is so important.

I played with the Rosetta Stone software when I tried to figure out which method appealed the most, but I went with Pimsleur in the end. My bone to pick with Rosetta is that it teaches reading at the same time as speaking, which I find makes it harder to pick up on pronunciation the first few go-arounds. I get tripped up by trying to sound words out, which is somewhere far south of useful considering the way language changes over time, as proven half the time when people unfamiliar with English names wander into my territory, going wait, is that really how Gloucester, Worcester, and Quincy are pronounced? Depending who I’m speaking with, I may decide to share the story of how our word “sheriff” came initially from “shire reeve,” which does eventually sound like sheriff if you repeat it quickly ten times. Pronunciation, like ruins of old cities, soften and wear down over time.

Pimsleur is neither perfect nor cheap, but I’m finding it helpful and more intuitive than classes I once took. I think this is a lesson I should remember when it comes time for me to teach.

Every once in awhile I stop and look at my life and realize how much more content I grow year by year. Crossing items off the list of “always wanted to do” and moving them over onto the list of “accomplishing/accomplished” is satisfying. It’s not a bucket list, per se, because I’m pretty sure I’m not going to care after I die. It’s a list of things I want to accomplish to make my day to day life happier, however many of them I have left (given my family’s longevity, that’s likely a good sixty some odd years, barring disaster or disease, and sixty years of discontent sounds, well, miserable and highly preventable).

Thesis, meet Plans of Planningness

I didn’t expect to write about adolescence quite so much for my thesis. They were not the most pleasant years, and I’ve avoided writing too much about it in the past because mostly I don’t like poking around dark musty corners of the hoarder’s attic that is my memory. Never can tell, in the dark, where the sharp things might be. It’s been kind of weird to finally attempt it, and I’ve tried to layer in some writing that’s a bit… fluffier, so that my thesis semester isn’t entirely unpleasant. My twenties have been kind of awesome and I’ve enjoyed growing into an adult, and life after twenty has provided plenty of random incidents worth writing about. Too bad most of the lighter stuff won’t make it into the thesis; it wouldn’t fit, tonally.

Applying to teach abroad may be a big factor in the somewhat unconscious choice to look backwards. I’m still trying to understand what, exactly, home means to me. Thinking about leaving Boston sometimes makes me hesitate about moving forward with my plans because it has become home. My apartment has become home. I’ve lived in the same place for three years now, and I was able to choose almost every detail in furnishing and decorating. It’s the first place that’s felt like it’s mine. Usually physical objects and physical locations aren’t something I become all that attached to, but I think what’s scary in this case is the possibility I will lose that feeling of home. I don’t know what I’ll come back to after my time abroad is over. Sometimes the coming upheaval seems exhilariting-scary, and sometimes it’s the kind of scary that makes me wonder if I’m making the right choice.

Living abroad has been a dream of mine since I was probably about fifteen, so the occasional doubt and fear is unlikely to sway me. It’s that same long lived aspect of the dream that makes me keep looking back at teenage me, remembering how anime and manga got me interested in drawing and life outside America. There’s an important difference between seeking new experiences as a form of escape and seeking new experiences for the sake of trying out a fresh perspective. Teenage me would have sought the former, but by the time I studied abroad in London at the age of 22 I understood the difference and sought the latter. That’s what made London such a great experience; I wanted to try new things, and I had matured to the point I knew problems can’t be escaped but must be dealt with instead.

At least I’ve found a few things worth salvaging from the dark and cluttered memory attic, recovered few more of the happy memories that had been packed away in mislabeled boxes. Chances are the future upheaval will end up creating more of the memories I want to keep in plain view than it’ll create of the attic kind. There’s never been a guarantee that I’d find a great job in Boston after I graduate, and there isn’t a guarantee I will find a job here when I return, so I guess I get to keep redefining the idea of home as I meander onward.

Recommended daily dose of paperwork

Somehow “plans of planningness” became the generic term for me beginning the process of looking into and then beginning to apply for teaching abroad plans. It’s grammatically incorrect, goofy, I said it to one of my best friends, and now the term is sticking. I’ve grown rather fond of it, so it’s the tag under which you’ll most easily find these posts. Caitlin and I have ended up with quite a few random, seemingly nonsensical terms over the years. Friends are awesome that way, shared history creating a language. But I digress.

Getting my stuff together for applications is progressing. It didn’t take long to ask the appropriate people for letters of recommendation and to get their affirmative responses. I even asked someone to be a backup recommender, a reaction to someone disappearing on me when I applied to grad schools. Fixing that when deadlines drew near made for some lovely heart-pounding excitement back in ’07.

The trickier bit comes in with all the official paperwork. Red tape. We all love it, right? It’s all bright and cheery and Christmas-y. Christmas-y in the sense of Jack Skellington playing the role of Santa Clause. There are all sorts of rules about what form documentation must take. For example, I have to get a copy of my diploma apostilled, which evidently has to happen in Colorado because Massachusetts won’t apostille out of state degrees.

While I could get that done long distance, fill out the appropriate forms and all that, I’m happier starting it in person. I bought tickets for a summer visit to family in Colorado way back in February, so conveniently enough I’m going to be there soon. This way, I can at least know who to call on campus if anything goes astray during the document gathering stage. Since I’ll be there the week CSU’s fall term begins, I’m guaranteed both that the registrar’s office will be open and that for my own sanity I should try to get there early. A campus with something like 25,000 students deals with lots of snafus the first week, and I’m sure I’ll be entertained by some of what students gossip about in line.

It’s good to get as much in place now, in summer and then early fall, as possible because I’ve gone through enough application processes over the years to know things do get lost occasionally (most notably when I applied to the University of Iowa for grad school; a letter of recommendation and another piece of the application disappeared into the labyrinthine bowels of a post office or mailroom somewhere in the US). I’ve also read accounts of people having trouble getting the requisite documentation for the exact types of jobs to which I’m applying. Sometimes various government departments don’t have a straight answer if the employees haven’t dealt with the request before and it can lead to many hours of calling around to find said answer.