Love for travel yields Chinese adventure for Tupelo native

All in a name
When Chinese students take an English class, they choose English names.
Mary Beth Willis, 25, of Booneville, spent two stints as a teacher in China, and she encountered an assortment of names.
“I had about 25 Kobes and about 15 LeBrons,” she said. “No Paris. No Britney. I did have a Cinderella. I had a Belle. I had all of the Disney princesses. I had one kid named Corn.”
Michael was a popular name, too. Some chose the name because of Michael Jordan, and the others were Michael Jackson fans.
“I got several e-mails from my students on the day Michael Jackson died,” she said. “They were just devastated. They loved Michael Jackson. They love America pop music.”
By M. Scott Morris
Daily Journal
BOONEVILLE – Mary Beth Willis isn’t an optimist, and she’s not a pessimist, either.
Let her explain:
“I’ve got a friend from college. She is an eternal optimist. To her, nothing will go wrong.
“I’m of the mind-set that things will happen and things will go wrong. That way, when things go right, I’m pleasantly surprised.”
Perhaps the 25-year-old Tupelo native and Booneville resident was born with that philosophy.
Then again, she could’ve developed it after a six-month adventure in China where she encountered a run of bad luck.
After college, the Tupelo High School alumna had a taste for adventure. She found a company that provides English teachers for a variety of countries.
“My first choice was Thailand. I always wanted to go there,” she said. “But at the last minute, I switched and said, ‘You know what? I’m going to China because it sounds so challenging.’”
Crash course
She was placed in Chang Zhou, where she taught vocabulary and conversational English to energetic kids from third and fourth grades.
“They gave us a crash course in teaching. Most of us didn’t have teaching degrees,” she said. “We had to learn the basics of managing a classroom and making lesson plans.”
She learned simple Chinese phrases, as well as basic bargaining because even the fruit vendors haggled over prices.
She also was warned not to talk about Democracy, Tibet, Taiwan or religion.
“You will get in trouble if you’re found in a public space being highly opinionated,” she said.
She avoided political troubles, and immersed herself in the culture. Willis made friends among the Chinese and her fellow teachers.
“It’s great. You meet people from all over the world, and people you don’t expect,” she said. “You go thinking you’re going to be the only foreigner, but you’re not.”
China’s ‘Aladdin’
She and a friend flew to Kashgar, an oasis city on the western edge of China, nearly in the Middle East.
“I absolutely loved it. If you’ve seen the Disney movie, ‘Aladdin,’ that’s it,” she said. “It’s a Muslim area. There are donkeys on the side of the road, camels, women with their heads covered, everything. ”
It’s in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which has been in the news lately because of clashes between Muslims and Han Chinese. Willis’ visit pre-dated that strife by more than a year.
“We spent the morning walking on the sand dunes in the Taklimakan Desert,” she said. “That afternoon, we were getting ready to fly back to the opposite side of China.”
And so it begins
As with a lot of troubles, Willis caused her own.
“We were in an Internet cafe. I made a classic travel mistake, and had my bag at my feet,” she said. “It got stolen.”
The bag had her camera, cash, credit cards, passport and iPod. You heard right.
“I tried to keep my cool until I realized my iPod was in the bag,” she said. “That was devastating.”
With no passport, she wasn’t allowed to fly across China. Instead, she took a 42-hour train ride, then had to go to Shanghai to get another passport.
“I had all the documents I needed and I was on the escalator,” she said. “The police report slipped out of my hand and fell down the escalator shaft. That was a 9-story building. There was nothing they could do.”
It took her 10 trips to Shanghai and one call to Sen. Thad Cochran to get her passport back. In celebration, Willis took an excursion trip to Thailand.
She called it “one of the most beautiful places on Earth,” and that’s after she slipped on a boat and stepped on a rusty nail.
The doctor at the tiny island hospital spoke English, and a gentleman gave her a pair of crutches to use. Later, her friend paid for an aloe massage after Willis got a horrible sunburn.
She decided it was time to go home.
Back again
But Willis has the travel bug, and her case is chronic. Thirteen months after her return to the U.S., she flew back to China to teach again.
She spent nearly a year teaching middle-school students, a whole different animal than the third- and fourth-graders she’d encountered the first time.
This time, she had none of the extracurricular troubles that marred her first trip.
She returned to U.S. soil in June, but don’t expect her to get settled. She’s planning to attend a graduate school that offers a travel writing program.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘Are you a glutton for punishment?’” she said. “But that was circumstantial. My bag could’ve been stolen anywhere. That was my fault.”
Willis is neither an optimist, nor a pessimist. What is she?
Let her explain:
“You have to be open-minded and thick-skinned.”
Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or scott.morris@djournal.com.

M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal