Archive | April, 2011

comme ci comme ça

29 Apr

Tomorrow, I’m going to a primary school “in the countryside” to give a guest lecture to 100 8-year-olds.

The whole thing is just so screwy, because this countryside school is apparently 200 meters from the school where I teach (“you can see it from the 5th floor windows,” I was told). I’m not 100% sure how that works, but I’m starting to get a hazy impression that when they say “rural school” or “countryside school”, what they mean is that it’s a school where the farmers’ kids go. As opposed the school where the factory workers’ kids go. I had been assuming that “countryside” and “rural” were descriptors that have to do with location.

Anyway, the class I’m teaching is going to be outside because the school doesn’t have a room big enough to hold 100 students. It’s supposed to be 93 degrees tomorrow, so that should be fun. I have no idea what kind of English skills these kids will already have–I’ve been told that they >may already know colors and body parts, but they may not.

Of course, I’m not smart enough or organized enough to have prepared a lesson plan early enough to do a practice run with my kids…although if I tried to make my 6th graders sit through 40 minutes of “Heads, Shoulder, Knees, and Toes”, they’d probably mutiny.

Basically, I’m sitting here and it’s midnight, and I don’t feel prepared. I have a lesson plan ready, and I think it’s good. But I’ve learned to never, ever, ever trust a lesson plan the first time through. (I perpetually feel bad for my Monday classes, because they never get my A-game. I’m always fresher and have more energy, but the lessons are always rougher.)

I decided to teach a lesson on “hi, how are you?” because whenever I ask anyone that question here in China (which is about 13 times a day) they ALWAYS respond with, “I’m fine, thank you, and you?” 99.99% of the time, that’s the response I get, like a robot. Or a class full of 48 robots.

I understand how this happens; “I’m fine, thank you, and you?” is the response that they are taught from day one of their exposure to English. And, no matter how fluent I was in French, even at my most fluent, I’m not sure I ever stopped responding to “Ça va?” with “Ça va bien, et vous?” Some things just get drilled into you.

Also, as a native English speaker, I happen to know that I respond to “how are you?” with “I’m good, thanks,” about 95% of the time, myself. In fact, on occasion I hear myself saying things like, “I’m good, thanks. Listen, I’m calling because my car broke down and my dog just died and I have the swine flu, so I was wondering if I could get an extension on that paper.” Clearly, I’m not good, but I say it anyway.

The words do become rote.

But it’s frustrating in foreign language classes because I feel like the kids aren’t really aware of their other options. It’s not like they’re familiar with the full gamut of potential responses and are choosing “I’m fine” because it’s part of their natural communication pattern, the way a native speaker might. I suspect that they’re answering with “I’m fine” because it’s what they’ve been told they should say, not because it has any real meaning to them. And, also, with my kids, as their teacher, I’m always looking for any chance to get a toehold with them. On the rare occasion when a kid does answer “how are you?” with “I’m bad” or “I’m so sleepy”, it provides an opening for a real conversation with a real exchange of information. Even if it’s stilted, even if it’s short, it’s still more genuine communication than “how are you?” “I’m fine, thank you, how are you?”.

As a side note, you might think that the people most likely to buck the trend and answer with something more original that “I’m fine” would be my waiban, or members of the English department at my school. Nope. They always answer with “I’m fine”. The people most likely to give me a real answer are my loudest, most rambunctious boys, who think it’s amusing to wait until the rest of the class has finished chorusing “I’m fine, thank you, how are you?” to burst out with a huge, dramatic, “I’m very, very terrible!”

Tomorrow, I’m going to work with the rural students on some alternate answers to “how are you?”. Hungry, tired, sad, happy, thirsty, great. Easy words, and I think there’s a good chance they’ll know most of them already. A few short activities, a song, and hopefully that will keep them engaged for 40 minutes.



14 Apr

My kids have been insane all week. They have spring fever or something…they’ve been hellions.

At first, I thought it was me. I’ve been struggling a bit–nothing major, but I’ve been in a bad mood for a few days. It’s a very normal kind of bad mood; I’m cranky and overly emotional, and I feel like this at home, too, every so often. But it’s easy for a very normal bad mood or bad day to seem magnified when you’re separated from all your normal coping mechanisms.

Every day, I walk down the road between my apartment and school and I pass the same baozi vendor who smiles at me, and the woman who sells strawberries out of a rickshaw, and the men who play mahjongg around a card table in the middle of the sidewalk. Most days, this walk feels bright and friendly, even though people stare and drivers swerve and honk and run you off the sidewalk at times. But when I’m not in a good mood, everything outside of my apartment door feels deeply unfamiliar and almost hostile.

That’s the mood I’ve been in for a few days, and I thought the kids were driving me nuts because of it. And I’m sure that was partially true.

(For example, On Wednesday I started teaching an Easter lesson plan, and the school made a huge deal about how they hoped I would make real Easter eggs to show the kids. It turned out to be a huge hassle because the light in my kitchen was out, and I can’t change the bulb without a repairman, so after tracking down eggs that were a light enough shade of brown to dye, I had to boil them by flashlight. But I finally ended up with 4 perfect Easter eggs…and then, the very first time I showed them to a class, the kids broke one of the eggs. They didn’t break it out of clumsiness, either; They broke it because they were being jerks. I was standing right there saying, “Wait, stop, don’t do that!” when it happened, and I had already warned them several times. When that egg broke, I legitimately had 2 seconds where I thought I might burst into tears. It wasn’t really the egg, of course…it was accumulated frustration. Things go wrong here all the time–it’s part of the experience of living and working in a foreign country–and most of the time, I shake it off. With a smile, even. But it’s like any other frustration or disappointment in life–you shake it off 9 times, and then the 10th time you break. My broken blue Easter egg was just too much, and I was already in a bad mood. I didn’t cry, and I didn’t yell. But I had to swallow both reactions back hard.)

Today, though, I was in a better mood, and I thought that would fix them problems I’ve been having with the students all week. I was wrong. My mood may have been a contributing factor to my crazy classes this week, but it wasn’t the only factor, because the kids were awful. In my first class they were so riotous that I stopped the lesson and made them sit in silence for the last 7 minutes.

In my second class, 15 minutes in to my lecture, this boy got out of his seat and started shoving and kicking a girl across the aisle. Before I could even react, he had knocked over not only her desk, but the two girls on the other side of her and their desks, as well. I had to physically pull him off her, and he scratched my arm up in the process.

It was nuts.

I have no idea what you’re supposed to do when junior high kids start fighting. I’m not sure if I should have physically restrained the boy or not, but in the moment, it didn’t feel like there was much choice. I wasn’t even really thinking so much about the girl he was shoving–I was worried about the girl at the end of the aisle who had been knocked down. She was on the floor crying, and her leg was all tangled up in the overturned desks. This is one of my largest classes, so I had 48 other students suddenly on their feet. Most of them were trying to help, but these classrooms aren’t really big enough for that many kids to be up and moving around, which is part of why the girls who were knocked over were having difficulty getting up–there’s just no room. I didn’t think she was going to get trampled or anything, but her leg was stuck, and I was worried that if the furniture continued to get shoved around so violently, her leg would get hurt.

The crash of the desks falling over alerted a nearby teacher that something was wrong, and she came running just in time to help me sort things out. This was a young class; as soon as the fight started they were way too overwhelmed to speak English, and they don’t understand me that well at the best of times, anyway. So I was glad to have a Chinese teacher there to help me regain control.

There were no fistfights in my other classes, thank god, but they were still rowdy.

In the end, I decided that the kids and I are obviously all in a bad mood together. They’re crazy and I’m cranky, and who knows if it’s something in the water, or spring fever, or the phase of the moon. All I know is that I have a 5 day break next week while the students sit their midterms, and I am REALLY looking forward to it.


13 Apr

Yesterday afternoon, I was sitting at my desk and my officemate Joy walked in. She was carrying a clear plastic garbage bag full of packages of sanitary napkins and she dumped the bag on her desk. When she saw me staring, she laughed a bit.

She had to have 25 or 30 boxes of maxipads. I was definitely staring.

“The principal gave me these,” she said. “It’s a kind of a…bonus.”

I nodded and shrugged at the same time, which I find myself doing often here. At a certain point, I stopped expecting everything in China to make sense to me–I think all people living abroad probably reach the same point. It’s not that I came over here thinking that China would make perfect sense, it’s just that even if you’re prepared to be puzzled, it’s like there’s this part of your brain that can’t help but try and process new experiences the same way you processed the old ones. Until one day it just gives up.

Others might react with constant questioning and a desire to understand, but I usually just roll with it. I guess I wouldn’t have made a very good anthropologist. It’s not that I don’t care why things are the way they are in China, or why people do the things they do. I do care, and there’s some stuff (usually the big stuff) that I’ll ask about. But I’m a big-picture person and I think it’s pretty interesting to just watch it all go by. And, actually, as the weeks pass and I see more and more of Chinese life, every so often I find that something that used to seem inexplicable will suddenly slot into place and make sense. It’s like looking at all the pieces of a really huge jigsaw puzzle and all of a sudden realizing that the red ones are flowers. I know I’m not going to be in China long enough to get very far into the puzzle, but it’s still a neat feeling when you start to become aware that there is an order and a relationship between a bunch of seemingly chaotic, separate things.

The maxipads actually didn’t seem as strange to me as they could have, because for National Women’s Day in March the principal gave me toilet paper. The equivalent of a 24-pack of Charmin. I thought the toilet paper was a strange, if practical, bonus…the sanitary napkins in a heap on Joy’s desk didn’t actually seem that much more odd–two little puzzle pieces clicking together.

“They’re for the female teachers only,” Joy said, as though she thought I thought James was going to come through the door next carrying his bag of Always with wings.

I said, “I guessed that,” and she laughed.

“I don’t know why they give us these,” Joy gestured to the bag. “I don’t know the sense behind it.” But she didn’t sound puzzled, or anything but perfectly accepting. It’s the same tone I use to admit that I don’t know where the Easter bunny gets his eggs or why they’re painted; It’s the voice of someone admitting that a part of their own culture doesn’t make sense when, in a way, to them, it does. I’ve never felt the need to question why a rabbit would have eggs, and I don’t really care. The Easter bunny makes exactly as much sense as he needs to, surrounded by the other puzzle pieces of childhood and spring and religion and Easter. The picture wouldn’t look right if he weren’t there, and that’s usually good enough.

“It is thoughtful of the principal,” Joy said. I nodded and shrugged together again. “I’d better put them away. I’d be so embarrassed if James saw them.” She went over to a metal utility cabinet in the corner of the room, the sort of thing you’d find in a janitor’s closet or put in your garage, and she unlocked the door. Over her shoulder, when she swung it open, I could see that it already contained two clear plastic garbage bags of sanitary napkins. She shoved the third, new bag onto a shelf, closed, and re-locked the cabinet, which I now knew housed at least 70 packages of maxipads.

It was at this point that I began to laugh. I don’t know why–it was odd when she walked in with the bag, but somehow it was hilarious that it was not unprecedented. That, in fact, she had so many career bonus maxipads that they took up half of a floor-to-ceiling cabinet. That the principal continues to give her more, and, most of all, that she can’t really explain why.


12 Apr

For the past 6 Monday nights, I’ve been tutoring a group of 7 primary school students. This study group was arranged by one of my coworkers, Julia, whose daughter is 9 years old, and we meet every week in Julia’s sister’s apartment.

Tonight, when the tutoring session was over, Julia stopped me on my way out and began telling me that I should feel free to run this study group however I want. I was instantly wary about what was coming next.

One thing I’ve noticed about my interactions here in China is that when someone starts telling me that I can do whatever I want regarding a specific situation, they invariably follow by giving me explicit orders. I’m not talking about people giving me advice on where to travel before I leave Asia or what to eat for lunch when I’m in the city–I’m referring specifically to authority figures, usually in work situations. Whenever someone says, “You should do what you want, but…,” they are always telling me that I shouldn’t do what I want. Instead, I should do what they’re about to tell me to do.

I’ve also noticed that there’s a correlation between the language used to reassure me of the value of my personal judgement and the level of compliance that is expected. Basically, the more expansive someone is about my freedom to choose how to handle a given situation, the bigger the change that they’re about to suggest and the less of a choice I actually have. A quick “do what you want, but…” usually means that the requested change is minor and there’s some room for negotiation. “Please always feel free to run your class by following your own inner compass” means that they’re about to tell me I must start teaching in a combination of Cantonese and German or they’re sending me home.

If you’re ever in China and a government official opens a conversation by spending more than 4 minutes describing the value of your personal will and how your freedom can never be taken away because it soars like an eagle, you should worry. They’re about to send you to prison.

I’m not honestly complaining, I’m just trying to be funny…this system of doing things actually works pretty well for me. Criticism and orders are handled very indirectly, but I feel like I still get the message–at least most of the time.

What Julia actually said, as it turned out, was, “One of the parents thinks it might be helpful if you use more real life situations in your lessons. But it’s just a suggestion. You should do what you’re comfortable with.”

My interpretation of this statement is that in a few weeks, if they notice that I’m not using more real life situations, I should be prepared to explain myself. And my explanation better be pretty sound.

I have no problem with this whatsoever–these people are paying me well, after all. And the reason I haven’t been using real life situations is because after my first lesson with these kids Julia said, “I want you to feel comfortable running the class your own way. But I think it might be better if you had less fun and more work. I am telling the parents to purchase a workbook for their children. You can look at it and decide if you would like to use it in this class…but it’s up to you.”

Clearly, the workbook wasn’t actually optional. She had already told the parents to go out and buy it. The book is horribly dry and dated, full of repetitive speaking and pronunciation drills. Tonight’s unit had the kids repeating cake recipes. I’m not kidding. 1lb flour, 2 tsp baking soda, etc. This isn’t really practical or interesting to a bunch of kids–it’s not practical or interesting to anyone I know in this day and age of So I’m happy to start discussing more real life situations–we can work on ordering in a restaurant or talking on the phone.

I just notice that the longer I live in China, the louder alarm bells ring in my mind whenever someone says, “in my opinion,” or “perhaps you’d better.”

salty what now?

4 Apr

Within about a week here in China, I realized that I could not continue to purchase every item I came across that has amusing Chinglish on it. Still, sometimes it’s irresistible.

The real kicker was that this was not the only brand of peanut with this particular English translation on the bag. Brief internet research informs me that the confusion arises from the character for “to dry”, and its similarity to another, less legume-appropriate verb.

I did a double take so hard in the grocery store.