Archive | February, 2011

peanut, peanut butter, jelly

27 Feb

Today I found a (relatively) nearby grocery store that carries Skippy peanut butter and white bread. And, and Coke Zero (you can buy regular Coke and Pepsi everywhere, but it’s impossible to find diet soda).

I just ate the most delicious peanut butter sandwich I have ever tasted.

It’s not so much that I’m longing for American food, it’s that I’m longing for real food. I’ve been living off of hard-boiled eggs, carrots, and ramen noodles. Cooking itself isn’t the problem–I love to cook, and I’m good at it. But grocery shopping is proving really difficult here. It’s one way I’m finding it hard to function in a country that uses a writing system that isn’t alphabetic.

Chinese characters mean nothing to me. I don’t recognize them at all, for obvious reasons; I don’t speak Mandarin, and I don’t read it or write it, either). I don’t understand how words are formed, and I can’t tell where a word starts or stops in a sentence. I certainly can’t try to sound words out the way I could with Spanish or even Swedish. I don’t speak Spanish, but if someone told me the word for soap and then set me loose in a Mexican grocery store, I would be able to walk around and recognize that word on product packaging–probably pretty quickly and without looking at a written reference more than once. (The ability to pick out a repeated word on packaging might be useful if, say, you knew where the dish soap was, and you could tell from the pictures on the bottle that it definitely was dish soap, and you knew where the bar soap was. And in your hand was a bottle of Oil of Olay brand something, and you wanted to know if it was lotion or body wash.) I don’t think that I will be in China long enough to start to feel any real recognition for characters, much less make those kinds of associations. The written language is just so different from what I’m used to that my brain doesn’t even recognize it as language.

I feel like I didn’t explain that well, but it’s the best I can do. Suffice it to say, it’s really strange. I’m totally illiterate in a way that I’ve never been before, even in foreign countries.

This makes the grocery store really baffling. I can’t easily identify anything except the vegetables. I bought a huge jug of something I thought was apple juice the other day, and it turned out to be some sort of cooking oil (corn, I think? or peanut). I now have 7 liters of oil. 7 liters–just think about how much oil that is. The only picture on the label was of some leaves–I thought it was an apple tree, but I guess not!

On a different note, I think that my spoken English is changing a bit. Barring the occasional phone call home, I only ever talk with non-native English speakers. I don’t have to remind myself to speak slowly anymore, I’ve gotten in the groove of enunciating and slowing down. I find myself copying the vocabulary that’s commonly used by English speakers here–mostly for expediency’s sake. I almost always get a blank look when I say “a lot”, for example, so I’ve started substituting “very many”, because that seems to be the phrase of choice here. People know what I mean without my having to elaborate, and in casual conversation, that’s easier.

In some ways, I also think my English is becoming more precise and more varied. I’d never before noticed how often I describe things as “nice”, but I do it all the time, and it also elicits blank looks from my foreign friends. I’m pretty sure that they all know the word “nice”, but in America we use it in a lot of contexts where it’s meaning is implied and very generic. Basically, I use “nice” to mean whatever generic positive qualities are most appropriate for whatever I’m modifying with “nice”.

If I say that someone’s apartment is nice, I mean that it’s structurally suitable or well-maintained. If I say a person seemed nice I mean that they were kind, or maybe friendly. If I say that a gift was nice, I mean that it was thoughtful or attractive.

It’s an insipid word, when you think about it.

When I want to make my meaning clear, it’s easier to be more specific in the first place than it is to explain. Instead of being “nice”, dinner is enjoyable, people are welcoming, China is beautiful and fun.

And this Coke Zero is delicious.


following the river down the highway

25 Feb

This afternoon, I made my second trip to Chinese Walmart.

I avoid Walmart in the states, and I suspect that, once I get settled, I won’t be visiting Walmart here too often either. For one thing, it’s about a 40 minute bus ride through downtown and out the other side. For another thing, it’s definitely more expensive than neighborhood shops.

It has two big benefits, though. The first is that I know what types of products Walmart is likely to carry. I don’t know where to buy trouser socks in my neighborhood yet, but I know that Walmart probably sells them. The second benefit of Walmart is that, when I have a varied list of needs, I can fill them all in one place. Most of the shops here in China are tiny by American standards. Often, they have a very narrow range of products…sometimes, it’s actually sort of inexplicably narrow. There’s a shop between my apartment and school, for example, that carries bedding and mops. And that’s it. Hello Kitty comforters, and mops. The end. You never see that in America. In Shanghai, we found a store that carried used remote controls. Thousands of them, every brand of every type of electronic item you could imagine. But that was it…they didn’t carry the corresponding electronics, or anything else. Just used remote controls.

So. This past week, I’ve been keeping a growing list of stuff that I need. Hangers and room freshener and tupperware and socks. And so I keep going back to Walmart.

The food section of Walmart is pretty mind-blowing. They have a huge selection of live seafood-type items, and they have another section where racks of dried meats hang, unpackaged. Just…rows of loose meats. Like, you can actually put your fingers on the salted pork and then not buy it. You could lick it. I don’t know why I find this so bizarre…when you think about it, in America, anyone could be licking those apples you buy at the grocery store. But somehow it’s different when it’s meat.

My favorite thing about buying groceries in China, though, is the potato chips. I’m not sure I can explain why I find them so endlessly amusing, but I’ll give it a try.

First of all, Chinese people must like potato chips, because they have a lot of them. And they have a lot of familiar brands, like Pringles, and Lays. But the flavors are totally different. They have so many flavors! And the American brands (like Pringles and Lays) always have English translations on the packaging. This is what cracks me up.

First of all, some of them are just strange. Last night, I tried cucumber flavored Lays. Lays also makes blueberry and lemon tea flavors. The cucumber chips were very strange–disturbingly sweet for something that was still, basically, savory. I didn’t care for them. But they really taste like cucumber. Bizarre. I’m assuming that lemon tea and blueberry would have a similar sweet/salty/crunchy thing going on.

I also bought Lays Mexican Tomato Chicken flavored chips, but I haven’t tried them yet. Mexican tomato chicken kind of makes sense in my head…I can imagine what that flavor profile might be like. But they also make New French Chicken…and I have no idea what that is. I also saw Italian Red Meat potato chips and Little Tomato potato chips.

Today at Walmart, I found the Pringles. They had Sour Cream & Chive, which I bought. I also bought Indonesia Satay flavored Pringles. I did not buy Seaweed, Shrimp, or Crab flavored Pringles.

Winning the day, though, was my personal favorite flavor, Hong Kong Fish Ball. I only wish I’d gotten a picture of the can. I will let you know how they taste. I have especially high hopes for Indonesia Satay.

And, since I’ve haven’t posted many photos, here’s a picture of a portion of the Jiujiang skyline, taken from across Gantang Lake.

If it’s sunny this weekend, I’m going to go back into the city and try to take some better pictures. Downtown runs along the Yangtze, and there’s a beautiful river walk.

apples and oranges

24 Feb

Prepare for more talk about work. This is my first week of teaching, so while I do have other daily-life-in-China stories to tell (Chinese Walmart!), I’m a bit preoccupied with the job right now.

I came to a realization today in between classes. Although I tried, I was unable to get any real information about the English proficiency level of my students before I began teaching. I knew that I would have students between the ages of 12 and 17, divided into 4 “grades”, and I was told that their English skills varied wildly. I assumed, without giving it any real thought, that the younger students would know less English than the older students. This turned out to be a faulty assumption.

Approaches to teaching English in Chinese schools have changed rapidly in the past decade. About 5 years ago, it turns out, they changed the way they teach English here in Jiujiang–before that, they were only teaching English in high school. This means that unless their parents arranged private English lessons when they were younger, many of my 17 year olds didn’t start learning English until they were 12 or 13. All of my 12 year olds started learning English when they were 7, at the latest. This seems to make a big difference.

It took me 2.5 days to notice that my classes with the poorest comprehension are all older students. My classes with the strongest English are older students, too, but I think they’re the kids who have had extra English instruction throughout their school careers. The younger students are pretty solidly in the middle.

My first class on Monday was 12 year olds, and when they were able to understand my instructions and successfully complete the activities, I thought, “okay, I’m golden”, because I was assuming that the older students would be at least as proficient. The class after that was 16 year olds, and they were a handful. In retrospect, I’m wondering if they weren’t distracted and uncooperative because they were somewhat lost. I mean, some of the students were definitely intentionally giving me a hard time, and I had to confiscate a number of cellphones. But I think it’s possible that they were restless because what I wanted from them was, to some extent, going over their heads.

I mentioned this theory to several of the Chinese English teachers this evening, and they all nodded. “It’s possible,” one of them said. “It is true that many of the senior students have the poorest English ability. They are the last students affected by old-fashioned thinking about teaching languages, from before policies changed.”

Well, now I know.

I’m happy to consider the possibility that my lesson plan was off-target because it’s something I can change. I can’t do anything about class size, or the fact that it’s not cool to participate in class when you’re 16, so if these are contributing factors to my older classes being a handful (and I suspect they are), all I can do is try to find work-arounds. But I can tweak my approach to lesson planning.

I feel like I’m giving the impression that this week has been hell, or that my teaching has gone badly, and neither of those things are true. 3 out of 9 classes have had trying moments, 6 classes have been wonderful. None of my classes have even approached disastrous. I’ve had 2 teachers from my department sit in on classes, and both were very pleased.

But I fret, and I enjoy being really good at my job. Come hell or high water, I’m going to get really good at this.

First Day

21 Feb

Well, that’s over. Sort of. I have 11 more “first classes” to teach this week, but at least it won’t be my first day anymore.

It turns out I spent a lot of time worrying about the wrong things. I was so concerned about the students’ fluency levels, but I should have spent some of that time thinking about class size. My classes are big, between 30 and 40 students each, and the rooms are physically stuffed. There’s barely room for me to circulate among the desks, and there’s certainly not enough physical space to do activities that involve having the students stand and move around more than a little bit. I just can’t see any way I could have all 40 of them on their feet and mingling, or standing/sitting in a circle. There’s not enough room to move the desks (and I’m not certain I could, anyway–the students stay in one room all day and the teachers circulate, so I don’t have my own classroom. When the bell rings, I leave and the math teacher comes in).

So, that’s going to be a challenge.

My students range in age between 12 and 17. As I’ve prepared for this job, I’ve been assuming that the older students would be easier to teach because their comprehension level is much higher. I guess I thought that it would be easier to plan lessons, and that I’d be able to lead them in more involved and interesting activities.

In retrospect, this seems kind of stupid. You’d think I’d never met a 16 year old before.

Today I taught a class of my oldest students and a class of my youngest students, and from a certain perspective, I was right in my assumptions. The 16-17 year olds understood me. They just didn’t really care. The 12-13 year olds, on the the other hand, understood much less, but they were darling and enthusiastic and well-behaved.

Overall, for my first day, I’m going to count it as a victory. In the end, I got all three classes to settle down. My lesson plan didn’t work that well in the first class because of limited space, so I adapted it on the fly, and by the third class, things were going pretty smoothly. The older students were a handful, but I got their attention and cooperation eventually.

I came home and a did some crash-course reading on classroom management–as tempting as it is to blame the students for being rowdy, I’m very aware that this is a skill set I’ve never had to cultivate. I’d like to improve my classroom management skills as much as possible as quickly as possible, because for the rest of this week, I’ll be making my first impression on 11 more classes. I have no desire to be especially strict, but I have a feeling that if I start the semester letting teenagers see me struggle for control of the classroom, I’m going to have to work three times as hard to get it.

In non-teaching news, after class, James took me to get a Chinese cellphone. I think it’s the last thing I really need his help with for now–I just couldn’t imagine trying to convey “I don’t want an account, I want to prepay for minutes” in Mandarin.

After we left the cellphone store (where the clerk tried to sell me a device that had “aiple ipone” stenciled on it–but, hey, only a hundred bucks!), James asked what I was going to eat for dinner. He’s very concerned about my ability to feed myself, and I have to wonder if it’s because of his experience with previous foreign teachers. Maybe they didn’t cook. Anyway, I told him that I was planning to eat ramen noodles, which seemed to horrify him. I think he thinks I’m going to starve to death. So, despite my protests, he told me he would treat me to what he called “fast food”, and he proceeded to lead me to the duck store. This is a small storefront with a Donald Duck-ish cartoon on the sign. They only sell duck parts, already cooked and sauced. James asked me if I wanted two necks or some feet and a neck, and I went with two necks. It was pretty good; there’s not a lot of meat on a duck neck, but the sauce was tasty.

And now, with my belly full of neck meat, I’m going to bed. Those students wore me out–it was only 3 hours of class time, but I came out of it a bit like a refugee. In retrospect, this might be part of why James treated me to duck parts for dinner–sheer pity.

High school students. Some things cross cultural boundaries.

I’ll be very pleased if tomorrow goes just a little bit better than today, and satisfied if it’s not any worse.

dear old golden rule days

20 Feb

My school:

I start teaching tomorrow. I don’t really know what to expect; I only have each student for 45 minutes of class time a week. At first I felt a bit discouraged about these circumstances–how much progress do they expect me to make when I have so little of the students’ time? But I keep reminding myself that, ultimately, my goal here is to get the students speaking English and to boost their confidence so that they’ll keep practicing. Hopefully, that’s a goal I can accomplish, even if I only see each student once per week.

It’s been pointed out to me that the upside of this arrangement is that it cuts down on lesson planning. I’m teaching 14 classes per week at the high school (and then some other, nebulous classes that keep getting mentioned but never really explained–I may also be teaching at poor rural schools, for example, or at the grade school). I never see the same student twice in one week, so in theory I could write one lesson plan for the whole week and repeat it 14 times. In practice, I suspect that this won’t work, since I’ve been told to expect wild variation in the English proficiency of the different classes. Still, James assures me that, to his knowledge, prior foreign experts have never written more than 4 lesson plans a week–or maybe 2 lesson plans, if both of them could be tweaked into a simpler and a more advanced version.

This week, since I’ll be introducing myself 14 times, I’m planning to use the same lesson plan all week. My biggest concern–and the only thing that makes me truly nervous–is the aforementioned variation in the proficiency of the students. I have no idea what to expect. I have a game planned where the students are paired off and told to write 3 or 4 questions that they want to ask the new teacher. Then they get to interview me, but with a silly twist. The idea is that they can learn about me (I already know they’re curious, since I’ve been approached on the street all weekend), but in order to do so, they have to do enough speaking so that I can start assessing their English level. It’s a fun game (when it goes over well), and even though I know it can be successfully played with early-intermediate learners, I can’t shake the fear that it will be too advanced, and I’ll be left with nothing to talk about for 45 minutes (unfounded, hopefully, because I do have 2 backup plans). It’s really just first-day jitters…I think I’d be worried about any lesson being too difficult, short of teaching them to sing the ABC’s, just because I don’t know what to expect from the students.

Wish me luck! I’ll let you know how it goes.

no wonder they’re so skinny

19 Feb

Back in the USA, I always considered myself to be pretty adept with chopsticks. At times, I’ve even felt a little bit cocky about it, I’ll admit.

I now realize that this was a vanity-fueled delusion. I was very good at using chopsticks to eat beef with broccoli, or sushi. I could manage rice with a certain amount of success, as well as noodles, although I always ended up slurping. Last night, I had to attempt to eat a fried drumstick with chopsticks. In polite company. Chinese people can do this, no problem. Chinese toddlers can do this. I cannot.

I also cannot pick up nian gao (think stringy rice jello–but delicious!), dumplings, or wontons, as all of these foods tend to be quite slippery. I’ve developed a technique where, on the side of the dumpling closest to my body, I stab one chopstick into it, basically skewering it. Then I use my other chopstick normally on the other side of the food and lift it to my mouth, carefully keeping the inserted chopstick turned toward me so that my table mates don’t know I’m cheating at chopstick usage. This is vanity, again–although they might find it amusing, no one here would be offended in any way if I couldn’t use chopsticks. They would probably even dig up a fork, if I asked.

Another difficulty is serving myself using chopsticks. I can pick up one snow pea, no problem. The transport of a portion of snow peas from a serving dish to my plate, however, is problematic. Since meals are served family-style, when the snow peas are passed my way and I move a serving of 20-30 peas to my plate one at a time, I hold everyone up.

I’m getting better, though. I’m hoping that, by the time I return to the states, I’ll be able use chopsticks to catch a fly in midair, Karate Kid-style.

bok choy

18 Feb

Between my apartment and the school.