Parkinson’s Law

Since I started this blog last year, I’ve learned something about myself. Basically, that without a solid schedule, self-imposed or otherwise, everything in my life grinds to a halt.

Case in point: my blog postings, and lack thereof. I can write everyday, if I want to. I proved that in Taiwan, when I blogged daily for an 11-and-a-half-month stretch, Internet access or no, with minimal damage to my sleep schedule or mental stability. Then I came back from Taiwan, engines raring to go, and started this blog. And Idid well at it at first–I posted often, and I was Freshly Pressed after just a month on the scene. I was elated.

But, over time, my life got more cluttered, and my postings got more erratic, to the point where they stopped for months together. I’ve just come out of one of those stretches, in fact. Looking at my archives links now makes me depressed.

My posts have lost all meaning...

My life has lost all meaning…

So what happened? I lost the structure in my life.

In Taiwan, I blogged. Daily. It was what I did. It was a murderous self-inflicted posting schedule, an imperative I had dared myself to do because it sounded hard, and I knew I would never be willing to let myself down by failing it. And, rain or shine, eventful day or dull one, I would sit at my computer and I would write–something. Anything. Sometimes good, sometimes laughably bad. This, they tell you–and, indeed, I told myself–is what writers do. They write, full stop.

Screen Shot 2013-06-09 at 8.39.14 PM.png

I didn’t realize, though, that writers write because of a decision they make to write. Writing will never just happen. Writing must, always, be a choice, a challenge, a conviction that writing for the sake of writing is worth it. It needs dedicated time, a dedicated mind, and a dedicated purpose: to improve.

After last summer, I lost that. I forgot. My life came at me willy-nilly, and I left it at that. I started freelancing, with my clients rarely sending notice beforehand, on the expectation that, whenever their manuscript came across my desk, I would drop whatever else I was doing and finish their work, pronto. And I did. I skated from deadline to deadline, indulging myself in the luxuries of unspecified work schedules by wasting hours of my time and spending late nights finishing things I should have finished days ago.

I never missed a deadline. My work was good. But, by ignoring the necessity of structure in my life, I lost hours upon hours of my life, hours that could have been spent with friends or reading or in advancing my career or writing blog posts, all poured down the drain of unstructured time; all left at the altar of procrastination.

All lost in the sands of mixed metaphors...

All lost in the sands of mixed metaphors.

Yet even then, I did at least have my class schedule. I knew I had to be somewhere from 10:30 til 3:45 daily, and my freelancing work had to fit around that.

But my classes ended in mid-May, and as the last vestiges of my structured life fell away, I noticed something: I was getting less done. It made no sense. For the first time since I began freelancing, I was having trouble meeting my deadlines. Sure, some of them had shifted up a bit in the week, but that wasn’t enough to explain it. I could actually feel my work getting less efficient. Simultaneously, I felt myself growing bored.

And then it struck me: I’d lost my structure. I’d suddenly been handed my days, wide open, on a platter, and I had no idea what to do with them, so I did nothing. I was experiencing Parkinson’s Law, and the answer to my dilemma suddenly became clear: make myself a schedule. Put in place artificial time constraints. Maybe install Anti-Social.

Yes, we are now at the point where society has dubbed it necessary to pay people to stop us from social networking...

Yes, we are now at the point where society has dubbed it necessary to pay people to stop us from social networking…

So I began blocking out my days, with specific and achievable work goals for different portions of the day, and the same sorts of work at the same times of day. Now, for instance, I write my freelance articles after lunch. I wake up around the same time everyday, and go to sleep approximately eight hours before that. All my work is set to be finished on an orderly timetable of my own device, and well before my official deadlines.

What productivity looks like.

What productivity looks like.

And, already, it’s working. This post, in fact, is part of the fruit of it.

Blogging is important to me. Blogging well, and constantly improving my writing, is even more so. And I am now making the decision, once again, to blog regularly. Not daily this time, but at least twice weekly: I will now publish at least one post on Tuesday, and one on Saturday.

(Yes, I know this is being published on a Sunday. I couldn’t wait til Tuesday. Besides, I said at least twice weekly!)

I refuse to waste my days, or to get done in four hours what should be done in one. In high school and college, I overloaded my days with classes, work, and extracurriculars, and became an expert in getting a lot done with no time. (This is not an uncommon effect; it is part of why studies show that students who work get better grades than those who don’t.) I spent years learning to multitask and learning how to get a lot done with no time; now, I am learning to get a lot done regardless of how much time I actually have.

Paradoxical? Perhaps. Necessary? Definitely.

My life is now scheduled again, and my stress and boredom levels have dropped as my productivity has skyrocketed. Case in point: this is my second post in three days. With my structure back, my life has returned to regular operating capacity. Life is as it should be.

And even if it weren’t, I’ll be back to a regular daily routine next week, as I start a new job. Parkinson’s Law, your days are numbered.

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Piecework

What do you do?

It shouldn’t be a difficult question. It never used to be: I was a student. For years, I was a student–for as many years as I can remember anyone would be asking me that question, I was a student. Sure, I was some other things, too–college is certainly not free here in the USA–but explaining my modgepodge of jobs then came secondary, if it came at all. What did I do? I was a student.

Then, I graduated. And then, for a year, another easy answer: I’m an English teacher. Or, if I thought it would mean anything to whomever I was speaking: I’m a Fulbright scholar.

Now, though? Now, such facile answers seem like pots at the end of a rainbow; now, an answer to this question requires a few minutes of your time, and possibly more than a few clarifying questions.

Or, “What do I do, what do I dooooo?”

What do I do? I’m a hyphenate. To be more specific, I’m a writer-writing tutor-college application consultant-transcriptionist-proofreader-editor; oh, and also, a student at a ministry school. A very difficult-to-describe ministry school, as luck would have it. (I should add blogger to that list, but clearly, with all these hyphens, those that come sans pay have been slipping.) And I’m applying to graduate schools, since you’re asking, and therefore obviously care deeply about my personal life.

My personal life. Not pictured: me

So, it’s complicated. When people ask me what I do, I prefer to turn abstract, and to tell people that my job is like a patchwork quilt, with dozens of little squares sewn together to create a motley arrangement that somehow, (usually) pays the bills.

My life, everybody!

It’s funny, though: when I began this post a month ago, I began it with somewhat of a sour attitude, somewhat of a sense that my crazy, hyphenated world was something to be looked down upon, or to be avoided at all costs. But the truth of the matter is, it isn’t. The truth of the matter is that it rocks.

Why? Well because, ultimately, all this piecework means one thing, and one thing only: I’m doing it.

Right now, I’m making a living doing what I want to do. I’m using my English major, consistently and in several different venues, and getting paid for my expertise in each of them. Sure, none of them are full time jobs with benefits, but they are enough, and they allow me to be one of the apparently tiny proportion of college graduates who are actually using the skills they learned there out in the real world.

And, beyond just being allowed to use my expensive education for something, I’m doing what I want to do, at what is likely to be one of the only times that I’m free to do so. Honestly, what I scrape in through my jobs isn’t much–but it is enough to finance me, living on my own with roommates, taking little trips every now and then, going to a school that I chose, and applying to other schools that I’m choosing. I can flit about and do what I please–on a limited budget, sure, but how many other jobs do you know of that allow you to work from wherever you happen to be? Freelancing may not be steady money, or a lot of money, but it takes the “free” in its name seriously.

My life now isn’t easy, and it isn’t the typical “success” I was taught to strive for. But it works for me, and for where I am right now, and it has provided me with the amazing opportunity to be fully me, doing what I fully want to do, right now.

What do I do? I follow my dreams. And you?

No-write November?

So here’s the deal: I’m about to disappear for a while.

Or, at least, that’s what I’m guessing might happen. I’m actually not sure. I’ve never done this before. Done what before, you ask? This. NaNoWriMo.

For the uninitiated (or the still-uninitiated–I mentioned this briefly back in “Confessions of a (Nonfiction) Writer”), NaNoWriMo (na-no-wry-mo) is short for National Novel Writing Month, which, in America, is actually a thing, and also happens to be November. So, every November, a giant group of wannabe/lapsed/functioning/experienced (maybe?)/aspiring writers take on the totally-unrealistic-yet-somehow-still-achievable goal of writing a 50,000 word novel–in a month.

The rules are simple enough: over the course of a month, write 50,000 words that add up to a single, completed story. You cannot begin before November 1st, or finish after November 30th. You can research and outline ahead of time (I’ve done neither, unfortunately), but that’s it. If you stick to the schedule, you write an average of 1,667 words a day. It’s a bit strenuous. It’s a bit insane. It’s also a bit of a time-suck.

Which brings us to the topic of today’s post: I’m doing it this year. Yes, me, she who feels accomplished if she somehow manages to post once a week; me who hasn’t actually accomplished that feat since August. Me, whose one post deemed by the blogosphere to be worthwhile was one describing just how difficult and painful writing fiction can be. I’m going to write a novel. In a month.

So, maybe, don’t expect to be seeing a lot of me this November. Unless you’re on NaNoWriMo yourself, that is. Then, expect to see me posting daily, adding to my word count like (famous sports person) adds (points/goals/scores/touchdowns) to their (set/match/game). Because YES, I’m going to finish this thing. Time to conquer my fiction rut, with the help of the writer friend who got me into this and the massive writerly community that will judge me if I fail. Peer pressure for the win!

And, if you’re a NaNoWriMo-er, feel free to look me up–my handle on there is bekahg. I’m sure we’ll all need a little encouragement at some point of the month! Sixteen-hundred words a day is a lot no matter what’s going on in your life; with my schedule, it might just mean the end of every nonessential behavior, like blogging.

Or, you know, the beginning of every nonessential behavior. As I write this post, I’m very aware that I’m doing it solely because I have something else more important to work on that I don’t want to do. Procrastination is a powerful force, too.

Peer pressure versus procrastination: which will win? Stay tuned to find out.

Blog Awards

Hello lovely people! I tend to be quite horrible at responding to things like this, and for that, I apologize. BUT, recently (very relative term, there…) I was nominated by two wonderful fellow-bloggers for two blog awards, the One Lovely Blog Award by Playful Meanderings, and the Liebster Blog Award by Read Stuff With Me. Thank you both so much! I feel very honored.

Thank you, Playful Meanderings!

Thank you, Read Stuff With Me!

So in order to truly claim these awards, it’s my understanding that I have a few responsibilities to fulfill. Let’s take them one at a time, because I’m a list person and that’s just how I roll.

One Lovely Blog:

Zee rules:

  1. Thank the person who nominated you.
  2. Add The One Lovely Blog Award to your post.
  3. 
Share 7 things about yourself.
  4. Pass the award on to 15 nominees.
  5. Include this set of rules.
  6. Inform your nominees by posting a comment on their blogs

7 things about me:

  1. I am a coffee fanatic. I’m the person who asks restaurant waiters what kind of roast they’re serving, and who avoids Starbucks whenever possible in preference for better-roasted, better-made coffee from independently-operated coffee shops.
  2. I currently live in California, and am one of the only people living there who gets really excited when it gets what passes for chilly outside. (Still not cold–last week on the radio, the weather forecast was ” cooler today, with a high of 93 degrees”–yes, in October.) The reason for this is that I was born and raised in the PNW (so, cold and rainy quite a bit of the time), and then spent the last year in Taiwan (so, tropical-to-subtropical year-round), meaning that I am currently going on a year and a half without a winter, and I miss it.
  3. When not writing (which seems to be far too often lately…sorry about that), I am a book editor by trade–freelance, at the moment, so if you are ever looking for someone to copyedit and/or proofread for you, let me know! I’m game to edit most all writing (erotica excepted)–short or long, fiction or nonfiction. (Shameless plug, I know, but…)
  4. I love traveling. So far, I have visited or lived on four continents, out of which, somehow, Europe is not one. I hope to hit my last two fully-governed-and-inhabited continents, Europe and Africa, within the next five years or so, and then I’ll begin the encore round.
  5. I’m a dog person. (As a side note, my definition of “dog” is “large enough that it could not possibly be mistaken for a cat, chinchilla, or other small rodent.”) My black lab, Zoe, lives with my parents right now, but I eagerly await the day when I will live somewhere that allows for animals, so I can return to being a *real* dog owner.
  6. I love rivers. Whether I’m swimming in them, floating down them, kayaking along them, or just sitting beside them, I love having a river nearby. My family’s home is riverside, and it took me a few years of living in Seattle before I realized that that was the only thing missing from my life there: there’s plenty of water to be had, of course–lakes, canals, Puget Sound–but none of them are rivers. And rivers are the best.
  7. I adore scarves.I have a pretty good-sized collection and, as soon as the weather permits, I am rarely seen without one on. What’s not to love? Extra warmth, extra color, extra fashion points (Maybe? Not much of a fashionista…), and extra fun. I would write “Scarves are the best,” except that I just that about rivers, so, for those who get the (obscure in America) reference, “Scarves are cool.” As are fezzes.

The Nominees:

I have to be honest and say that I feel wholly inadequate to select nominees for this award, for two reasons: there are SO many amazing blogs on WordPress, and I have been SO negligent in seeking them out and exploring them. But here’s what I’ve got, in no particular order:

  1. Confederacy of Spinsters
  2. Don’t We Look Alike?
  3. Ameliael
  4. Abuchon
  5. Xenogirl
  6. Our Small Moments
  7. Snotting Black
  8. Elizabethly
  9. Mittens Kittens
  10. Daniel Koeker
  11. Change is Good……right?
  12. Girl on the Contrary

Also, I’m going to branch out to non-Wordpress sites here, because I have some friends on other platforms who, quite frankly, rock. Their blogs are:

  1. To Earthward
  2. Alina Sayre
  3. A Road without End

The Liebster Award:

The Rules:

  1. Answer the questions that your nominator posed to her/his nominees
  2. Pass the award on to five other bloggers
  3. Ask five questions for one’s nominees to answer

Questions for Me:

Who is your favourite author and why?

  • Someone actually asked me this earlier today, so I’ve got a whole slew of answers cooked up. Classic author: Leo Tolstoy, because he somehow makes me care about each of his tiny details while absorbing deep philosophical thoughts and telling just really good, well-constructed stories. (Insider’s tip: don’t start with War and Peace.) Modern nonfiction author: Malcolm Gladwell, because duh. Best-written, most entertaining, most informative books out there. Go read them. Now. Modern fiction author: Michael Chabon, whose writing inspires me by it’s amazing fluctuations between paragraph-long sentences and tiny ones that drive the point home fast. Truly, truly a master of the craft in every way, and someone who I aspire to be like.

Share with us one childhood memory, happy or sad, which had an impact on you.

  • When I was 6, my family went to Disneyland with my best friend’s family and another pair of family friends, who didn’t have kids at the time. It was a great time overall (as is often–hopefully always–the case for young children at Disneyland), but my best friend and I share one memory of the trip which stands out for (what passes for) trauma, more than fun. On one of the days we were there, our parents took our older siblings into the haunted mansion and left us with Mike, one of our family friends. While we waited, Mike unknowingly committed the worst of adult injustices towards kids: he ate a candy bar. Without sharing. It wasn’t until years later that my friend and I compared notes, yet we both distinctly remember it–Mike, with his Airhead, and us, just standing and watching, wishing we had some. It was pretty impactful.

If you had to choose one person on planet Earth with whom you share the closest relationship, who would it be?

  • I plead the 5th–WAY too hard to choose!

What can make you smile in times of distress?

  • Having a dog to pet–either that, or my dad or brother stubbornly persisting in telling stupid jokes until I break and have to laugh.

Which is the most amazing and influential movie you have ever seen?

  • I’m going to shift the question here and say Memoirs of a Geisha, which just so happens to be my favorite movie, as well. I hated it the first time I watched it, but loved it ever after: the gorgeous cinematography perfectly captures the spirit of the book, and the bittersweet sensation of the story is a welcome change from the easy endings of most movies. LOVE it!

My Nominees:

  1. Melissa writes D.C.
  2. Alice’s Adventures
  3. 2 Dollars a Day Ghana
  4. Jump!
  5. Words for Worms

My Questions for Them:

  1. What is your single biggest pet peeve, and why?
  2. Would you rather lick a walrus tusk (while it’s still attached to the walrus, of course), or have a camel stand on your foot for 30 seconds? Why?
  3. If you could do absolutely anything in the world and magically be amazing at it, what would you do and why?
  4. What (or who) inspired you to start blogging?
  5. You have one day left on earth, an unlimited sum of money, and a device that travels through time and space. Where do you go, and what do you do?

So I’m sure I no longer deserve these awards, what with my massive lapse in writing and my failure in responding to my wonderful nominators in any sort of timely fashion. BUT, those I’ve nominated certainly do deserve them–and everyone should go check out their sites! They range from travel blogs to parenting ones; writerly musings to photo blogs. I hope you enjoy what they have for you! And, again, thank you Playful Meanderings and Read Something With Me!

My Fulbright Experience, Uncut

Note: Call it laziness or call it commitment to an initial draft, but I’ve decided to post the original, uncut version of the article I wrote and linked to on here earlier. Enjoy!       (Written in May 2012)

I froze. “Dear Fulbright Applicant,” the email began. My heart rate doubled. “My name is Jonathan Akeley and I am the Program Officer at the Institute of International Education responsible for the Asia-Pacific region. Please give me a call at the number in my signature at your soonest convenience to discuss the status of your Fulbright application.” Suddenly, the final project I was working on couldn’t be further from my mind.

I read it. Read it again. Ran downstairs to look at my last letter from IIE, the one bearing the nerve-destroying title of “alternate” that I had filed away at the back of my desk drawer. Yep, there it was: “if we have any news regarding your grant status, we will contact you by email or telephone.” I ran back upstairs. Read it again. Studying was no longer a possibility.

“Um, Alison?” My roommate looked up from her own, less frantic studying on the other couch. “I think I might have gotten the Fulbright…”

I had been waiting to hear back from them for months; had been hoping and dreaming and fantasizing about the possibility for over a year, ever since I first heard about the Fulbright program in Dr. Thorpe’s English Capstone class (which I fortunately took a year early) and attended an on-campus information session.

I had printed out Fulbright’s thick application packet, from which I learned that Fulbright had grantees in over 150 countries worldwide in four distinct roles, two of which I was eligible to apply for as a graduating senior: junior scholar and English teaching assistant. As an English major with tutoring experience, I decided to shoot for English teaching assistant (ETA). Then came the hard part: picking a country.

That summer, I got busy. I scoured the descriptions of every country with ETA positions, highlighting age taught, general responsibilities and time frame, and calculated the acceptance rates. I looked at culture, climate, politics, living conditions; everything, and considered such far-flung places as South Africa and Nepal in my frenzied search.

And when the haze of indecision lifted, only Taiwan remained. I churned out my personal statement and statement of purpose, took them through a few drafts, and found several professors and friends—one of my employers happened to be originally from Taiwan—who were willing to recommend me. Then, in September, the week before classes started, I hit submit. And waited.

And waited, and waited. I was a senior; all my friends were making plans, getting into grad schools and making real steps into their futures, and I was stuck doing nothing but hoping and praying that I would get in. It sucked.

In January, I told God that I had given it up. The next day, I received an email from IIE saying that I was a “recommended” candidate. From here, they told me, my application would go to the supervising agency in Taiwan; if I was chosen by them, I would be a grantee. I was ecstatic!—and then settled back into waiting.

In April, I still hadn’t heard. I told God that all I wanted was an answer, either way. The next day, I heard from IIE—but it wasn’t exactly an answer. It was the dreaded “maybe”: I had been chosen as an alternate; if the program got more funding, or someone dropped out, I might be chosen to replace them. Maybe. It was the least conclusive news I could possibly have heard.

Which is why, two months later, as I prepared for finals and graduation, I nearly had a heart attack when I finally mustered up my courage and returned IIE’s call. Mr. Akeley sounded bored as he told me, but I didn’t care: I was, officially, a Fulbright scholar.

Bekah 老師  (Teacher Bekah)

“Do you have a boyfriend? I a handsome boy!”

Nothing like getting hit on by a student to get me acquainted with my new 6th grade class! It was my first day—first class, in fact—at Qingshan Elementary, and while I’d somewhat adjusted to being asked personal questions, this was the most forward a student had been. To his credit, though, he was at least using his English. And that’s why I was here, right?

I had been in Kaohsiung (pronounced Gāoxióng) for just over a month at that point, a month that had been filled to bursting with group bonding (cue 12 overachieving young Americans trying to pitch themselves), teacher training (nothing like good ol’ teaching theory!), school tours (tall buildings with outside hallways and courtyards set against various backdrops), a slightly testing assignment process (cue the 12 overachieving young Americans all vying for the same coveted schools) and, finally, a placement: I would be teaching 550 fifth and sixth grade students in the Xiaogang region of Kaohsiung, working alongside Taiwanese co-teachers Alison, Maggie, and Patty at Hanmin and Qingshan Elementary Schools. Just three months after my cryptic email message and graduation, I was actually doing it: teaching English in Taiwan.

And, as a teacher, what fun I’ve had! Taiwanese teaching practice tends to follow a pretty strict textbook-based strategy, and as a new, young, American teacher, it was my de facto job to mix it up a little. For Halloween, I spent a week in pirate get-up as my co-teacher and I read a bilingual version of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and my kids made fantastically detailed paper Jack-o-lanterns; for Thanksgiving, my kids made their first-ever hand turkeys (and loved drawing flames all over them, since the literal Chinese translation of “turkey” is “fire chicken”); for Christmas, my kids coated paper ornaments with glitter to hang on the blackboard “Christmas tree,” and describe in English. For Easter, we took over the multimedia room and covered it with little white paper bowls filled with homemade egg dye; the beauty of the resulting eggs more than offset the many messes we made.

On a more ordinary day, our lesson plans might include teaching condiments by way of a blind taste test, holding post-test tournaments of American hand-clap games like “Down by the Banks” and “A Sailor Went to Sea Sea Sea,” playing wink murder while asking and answering “When’s your birthday?”, or teaching “Whose clothes are these?” with the clothes relay race everyone seems to have played at some point while growing up in the States. In between classes, I may find myself talking about movies and Facebook with Kiki and Sherry, two fifth graders with impeccable English; studying Chinese with Peggy, whose imperious finger and fierce determination easily marks her for a future in teaching; or facing a line of students that curls out the door to my office in their eagerness to ask me “What’s up?”—in return for a piece of candy, of course.

One first period, I was taking myself a bit too seriously and plunged straight into a phonics lesson, having my students repeat after me. “Bay,” I said. “Bay,” they repeated. “Cake.” “Cake.” “Mail.” “沒有! (méi yŏu). I had to take a minute to stop laughing. Pronounced almost identically, “méi yŏu” means “don’t have”—or, more commonly, “no.” And they all said it, spontaneously and in perfect unison, right when I most needed to remember to laugh.

Stories like this fill my daily blogs, and ensure I never go long without a smile. The day they found a squirrel in the hallway; the day a 5th grade boy answered “What are you wearing?” with “a black bikini” (he most definitely was not); the day a 6th grade boy claimed his future profession was “shemale”; the day someone finished a string of questions—“What do you do at the restaurant?” “Eat food!” “What do you do at the park?” “Walk the dog!”—with the equally enthusiastic “What do you do at the hospital?” “Die!”

Whenever I step foot on campus at either of my schools, I am met by a steady shower of “Bekah 老師好!* Hello, Teacher Bekah!” coming from the mouths of innumerable adorable elementary school students. Kids here are required to greet those they meet in the hallways with their appropriate title: in this case, teacher, or 老師 (lăoshī).

For me, though, this title was like a new shoe: it fit awkwardly at first (me? A teacher?), rubbing uncomfortably in places as I tried to figure out what, exactly, it meant. I got a few blisters trying to figure out what it meant to be an English co-teacher in Taiwan. But with time it, like all new shoes, grew contoured to my foot, and I now wear it as a second skin. Me, a teacher? Why yes, of course I am!

*“Bekah lăoshīhăo!”

One White Chick in Asia

He let loose with a long stream of words, some of which I knew, but most of which flew past so quickly that he might as well have been speaking Greek. In fact, it was Mandarin. Uncertain, I asked him straight out: “Kěyǐ ma?” Can you?

“Kěyǐ,” he replied. I can. Relieved, I motioned to my mom, who was waiting on the curb, and we climbed into the cab and headed for the hotel.

It was December, and my mom had come to visit for Christmas and a tour of the island. I, with my three months of language training, was her tour guide. I was petrified, but so far, so good: we had made it to Taitung, and after several failed attempts we were now in a cab, going in the right direction. Mission accomplished.

I came to Taiwan with a Chinese vocabulary of maybe 50 words, most of which were utterly useless on a day-to-day basis, and had to learn in a hurry how to do necessary things like order food. I quickly discovered that even the simplest activities—ordering coffee, for instance—could be baffling if you didn’t speak the language. Going to Starbucks was completely disorienting: everything looked familiar, exactly as if I were back home in Seattle, but then why couldn’t I tell them what I wanted?

I enrolled in Chinese courses, and soon learned enough to get by, but of course language was just one of the many differences I encountered in moving to Asia.

In my first week of teaching, I almost walked right past my co-teacher, Maggie, on the sidewalk without recognizing her. How, you may ask? Well because, besides her regular clothes, and the 100 degree heat and 100% humidity notwithstanding, she was covered from head to toe in a hat, face visor, face and neck mask, detachable sleeves, and gloves. In Taiwan, this is not uncommon: white skin is the epitome of beauty, after all!

As a very, very Caucasian American, complete with light hair and blue-green eyes, then, I got used to standing out (if I had a dollar for every stare I got while waiting at stoplights…), and being commented upon—and to being looked at in horror whenever I went tan-seeking in my tank tops and shorts. It’s not that they care from a modesty standpoint; no, they just can’t fathom me wanting to turn my “beautiful” white skin dark.

Fortunately, I had my wonderful host family to help me through all the sticky cultural bits. Fulbright provides ETAs in Taiwan with the perfect situation: we live in apartments together, but are also assigned a local family to serve as our guides to the culture and country. As a result of this wonderful set-up, I’ve been able to do things like spend the Taiwanese election night at my host mom’s brother’s house, being taught Chinese by my nine-year-old host cousin, Jenny, and making dumplings with my host mom, Margaret, her daughter Emily, and their extended family. I bring a notebook with me wherever I go with them, whether a Mother’s Day dinner or a weekend trip to Taichung, so as to jot down all the new words my host dad, James, is forever teaching me.

Ten months into my grant, I now feel fully assimilated to local culture: I no longer balk at being stared at or being asked if I have a boyfriend; using chopsticks to eat such varied fare as pig knuckles, black chicken soup, and seafood of very variety is now second nature. Though I still get frustrated with the traffic patterns, I am now fully aware that every stoplight is optional, and that driving on the right side of the road is sometimes just a suggestion. I know to ask every question multiple times to get the politeness out of the way, and I know not to argue about money in public. I’m still white, sure, but can I navigate Taiwan? Kěyǐ.

“Oh, you’re a Fulbrighter?”

My Taiwanese friend Tom was jealous. He grumbled as we got ready; grumbled as we left the hostel; grumbled as we took the MRT and then said goodbye. Not that I can blame him. We stepped off the MRT and donned our official name badges: time to go meet the president.

Being a Fulbright scholar opens doors you would never expect. Overnight, you go from being just a student to being a V.I.P., a “cultural ambassador” to your host country, with all the rights you would expect from such a position.

So, on October 10, the Republic of China’s 100th year Anniversary, all Fulbrighters in Taiwan were invited to be the guests of the Minister of Foreign Affairs for an official celebration at the Taipei Guest House. We greeted the Minister and his wife at the door, and then spent the evening watching a phenomenal traditional drum exhibition, eating delicious food, and rubbing shoulders with diplomats from Fiji and Swaziland, as well as American dignitaries including Donald Rumsfeld. And yes, we met the President of Taiwan; while I was shut out in the crowd that inevitably followed him, two of my roommates got to shake his hand.

Besides this landmark occasion, our position as Fulbrighters in Taiwan has brought us uncountable opportunities, such as dinners in our honor given by the Director of the American Institute of Taiwan (the diplomatic equivalent of an ambassador, since America does not formally recognize Taiwan),and special tours are arranged for us in Taipei and elsewhere.

And of course not all of the opportunities come from our official capacities. Because of my Fulbright, I have experienced things like driving a scooter in a typhoon, swimming in clear, blue, warm water in March (not likely in the PNW), taking a quick break-time trip over to Thailand, seeing lanterns raised over the Love River at Chinese New Year, watching the New Year’s fireworks at Taipei 101 in person, and helping sing the American National Anthem at the MLB All-Star Games hosted in Kaohsiung. The sheer volume of amazingness contained in a Fulbright grant could never be contained in just getting invited to important functions: it’s everything you experience, every day, for an entire year.

Whenever I meet someone here, in a hostel, for instance, and we trade stories, I always get the same reaction: “Oh, you’re a Fulbrighter?” They nod their heads. “That’s awesome.”

Yes. Yes it is.

Winding Down

It was just an offhanded comment by one of my roommates: “Well, after all, it’s one of our last free weekends here…” And, just like that, it hit me: I’m going home. Soon. As I write this, I have another month and a half in Taiwan; by the time you read it, I’ll be back in America for good.

But, not really for good. Because if there’s one thing my time as a Fulbright scholar has taught me, it’s that the world is just a whim and a few saved paychecks away. Obviously, moving across the world is a huge step, and one that involves a ton of planning, paying, and travel time. But, once you’ve done it, it becomes remarkably apparent just how feasible it is to do. Pick up and move to another country? Sure, why not! Once you’ve adjusted to living in a culture in an infantile state of non-knowing, it doesn’t really matter where you display your ignorance.

It’s liberating, really: when you know nothing, and know you know nothing, you can go anywhere.

My year as a Fulbright scholar is one of the unquestionably big events in my life. It has changed me as a person, making me both more independent and more able to rely on others and God; more confident and more aware of my limitations. It has taught me to view myself and my place in the world in a new way. At SPU, they encourage you to “engage the culture; change the world,” but what often goes unmentioned is how, by putting this credo into action, the world also changes you—for the better.

I honestly don’t know yet what my future holds. I imagine it will involve something to do with words—writing and editing are my two great loves—but, really, who’s to say? I’m a planner, yet if there’s one thing this year has taught me, it’s that while plans mean nothing, God will always provide. And when He does, I know I’ll be ready to meet whatever’s coming my way—and this time, the answer won’t interrupt my finals.

Applications and Publications

These past few years, the four seasons of my life seem to have been Winter, Spring, Summer, and Applications. And, surprise, it’s Applications season! That, combined with the fact that I recently moved to a house that, as yet, has no WiFi, is why I haven’t been posting much lately. I spend long hours each day plugged into my computer at a coffee shop, but those hours are typically split between sifting through my overfull inbox, revising application essays, and freaking out about the fact that I have to take (and pay for!) the GRE in the next few months in order for my application efforts to actually be worth anything. I do have a post in progress, and will try to get it up in the next few days, but until then, I thought I owed those of you who care an explanation.

The second reason for this quickie post is much more exciting: I’ve been published! One of my university’s magazines asked me back in January to write a piece on my experience as a Fulbright scholar, and that work is finally through production and ready for general readership. If you want to check it out, just click here! Or if, for some reason, that link isn’t working, go to SPU.edu and click the tab for “etc”–it’s the cover story.

Yay!

So that’s my exciting little life tidbit for you all. Hope you enjoy!

(Note: the editors wrote the titles and worked with me to chop down quite a bit of the story, so if it seems choppy in parts, that’s why. Perhaps I’ll publish the unedited version in a post someday…)

Confessions of a (Nonfiction) Writer

Okay, I admit it: I like nonfiction.

Now this might not seem like too big of an admission for a blogger to make–well, of course she likes writing nonfiction, that’s all she does around here, anyway–but, for me, at least, it actually is a big deal. See, I don’t want to like nonfiction. In fact, I’ve spent the past several years trying to convince myself that I prefer fiction–and, to some extent, I still do prefer it.

(Oh, come on now, Bekah, no need to go into denial here, you’ve already gotten the worst of it out…)

But it’s true. When I sit down to read a book, it’s usually a novel I’m after, or a book of short stories–with the notable exceptions of a few amazing nonfiction books such as Outliers and King Leopold’s Ghost and Will in the World–and, when I daydream about a mythic future in which I’m a best-selling author (with a few Pulitzers and National Book Awards to my name, of course), the book in my hands as I dole out those interviews with talk show hosts is invariably fiction. When I remind myself that I need to spend more time writing, I sit down to one of my several in-progress short stories, and console myself that, come November (aka NaNoWriMo), I will at last begin work on a novel.

Yet, even so, when I just sit down to write, fiction is not what comes out.

It’s a cliche of writing to say that writers write, not because they want to, necessarily, but because they can’t help themselves. Well, as much as I may hate to admit it, I can help myself when it comes to fiction; love it as I may, my writing process in that genre is full of jerks and half-starts and self-doubt. I question my characters, I question my word choice, I question my conflict(s), I question my pacing, I question where, exactly, the story is going, or needs to go. It becomes almost impossible for me to turn off my self-critic and self-editor and just write. I may love the outcome, sometimes, but getting there is often nothing less than painful.

Then there’s nonfiction.

Shortly after high school, I was reading The Writing Life, a book of essays written by famous authors on the subject of writing that a high school teacher had given me, and I remember getting to one entry by a famous biographer, describing his process of becoming a nonfiction writer. The book itself is boxed away somewhere right now, but his general reasoning for his genre choice has haunted me ever since I first read it: He said his life had been too boring, too ordinary, for him to write fiction. I didn’t want that to be me.

I’ll be honest, before college I didn’t even know there was such a thing as creative nonfiction; in my thoughts, writing existed in two categories: fiction, and textbooks. That may be a bit of an oversimplification, but not much of one–if I’m remembering right, I read my first-ever piece of personal narrative, an excerpt from Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, during my senior year of high school, and it existed in my mind as an interesting, but isolated, writing form. Besides, even that was an exercise of journalism, and of research, more than of creativity. Creative nonfiction? That just seemed like a contradiction in terms.

Even in college, creative nonfiction flew under the radar with me–I got a Creative Writing degree on the fiction track (the only other option was poetry), and it wasn’t until my senior year that I took my first and, to date, only class in creative nonfiction.

But I was hooked. Sitting down to write was so easy–I just wrote! No questioning my story–it happened! No questioning my characters–they existed! Sure, I still had pacing and word choice to think about, but the primary struggles behind those concerns–namely, the constant preoccupation with setting up my main character’s personality and motivations through tone–disappeared, since the narrator was, suddenly, no one other than myself. My creative voice sprang forth almost without my trying. It was bliss.

And it is bliss–even now, as I type this, I cannot help but remember that that is what I am doing, now: writing nonfiction. And it was what I was doing, all last year, as I wrote my stories from Taiwan. When I want to process something, I write. I can’t help myself. And what do I write? Nonfiction.

What I didn’t understand about the biographer’s description of his entry into the field, but which I understand now, is that nonfiction of any sort is more forgiving than fiction of an ordinary background–but that doesn’t necessitate a boring life. In fact, in the case of creative nonfiction, it requires precisely the opposite: you must go have amazing adventures, or at least be able to dramatize your smaller ones, or you will have nothing to write about.

As a fiction writer, it actually helps if you had a screwed up childhood or identity issues or what have you, because those are the sorts of real human problems that go into making real human characters out of the ideas in your head; those are the sorts of fictional people people want to read about. As a nonfiction writer, reality’s okay–all you have to do is be able to organize it in such a way that it becomes interesting and meaningful. Nonfiction is intensely personal, and it’s that, very intimate, nature, and the author’s ability to bring others into that space, that makes for a good piece. Drama isn’t necessary if you’re doing it right.

So yes, I like fiction–I like reading it, and I want to like writing it. But the fact is, at this point at least, I’m a nonfiction writer–might as well step out of the shadows and claim it outloud.

Double Duty

It’s interesting–when I left Taiwan, I imagined myself immediately entering into a period of intense productivity. I’d have to, after all–it’s not like I was coming home to a job or anything. Within that productivity, I figured, I’d blog occasionally, as I saw fit, but the main focus would be job applications and revising old works for submission: blogs are, after all, a long-term investment, rather than a pressing responsibility, and after a year of daily blogging, I was tired to death of staring at a blinking cursor, willing myself to just write something already so I could go to bed.

Flash forward to now. I’ve been home almost a month already (a month, really? Wherever has the time gone?), and my plans for productivity have fallen in shambles around my feet. What have I done with my time? Well, that’s easy–I’ve gone camping, twice; I’ve visited Seattle; I’ve helped my parents repaint my old room; I’ve caught up with old friends; I’ve put a few things in order that I’d left out of it. I’ve read, and I’ve watched the Olympics. But the things I’d planned to do? The applying, the revising, the submitting, the decision making? I’ve done very little.

Today (by which I mean the 7th, not the 8th) was actually one of my most productive days in recent days, assuming you don’t count catching up with friends after a year abroad as productive: I sent several emails, finished and turned in a job application for a job I’ve been pining after for ages, read a bit–and wrote not one, but two blog posts.

Yes, somehow as I turned and ran from my old daily blog, promising myself only that I would post weekly on here, I found myself starting a new blog for the pure thrill of it, one which, though I scarcely noted it while I was making it, all but requires a daily post. It is, after all, called Word-of-the-Day Toilet Paper.

And what did I find? That concept blogs are infinitely easier to post on those that call for long-form narratives plucked from my life and turned into something supposedly worthwhile. And that, as a result of that, this blog, my self-proclaimed “serious” blog, was suffering.

Well, shoot. I guess it’s time to kick it into high gear with a two-post midnight posting–hooray! So much for giving myself a break from daily posting: who wants that pressure when you can double it?

Productivity is a slippery thing, especially when you start factoring in faux incentives like how many views your posts get, or how many fellow bloggers ‘like’ or ‘follow’ you, or the ever-present shadowy goal of WordPress bloggers of becoming “Freshly Pressed.” So it is that now, nearly a month after returning home, I find many jobs as yet un-applied for, many pieces unedited and unsent, many decisions unmade.

But I also find two blogs, growing slowly but surely, and without the torturous advance of the blinking cursor at midnight. The other things will get done–they are, after all, the inevitable immediate necessities. And, in the long-term, maybe my double duty will pay off.