Archive | May, 2011

songs about the impossibility of singing

31 May

So here’s another update post. Let’s see.

We’ve been working on adjectives at school. Here’s the blackboard in my Friday class.

I have a clearer photo, but the kids thought they were being so cute with the peace signs, and I have to admit I found it charming. Little goofballs.

Anyway, that’s 171 adjectives, which they listed without the use of dictionaries (or I policed them to the best of my ability, at least). This activity is from a book called “Five-Minute Activities”, but I have used it in 2/3rds of my classes and every time I’ve had to corral the students and end the activity after 20 minutes. They’d be happy to list adjectives for the whole hour…sadly, I’m mean, and I make them move on to actually producing entire sentences.

Friday was also another adventure in Chinese fast food. This time, Rosabel took me for porridge. I had no idea what to expect…the word porridge always makes me think of oatmeal, but I knew this was going to be closer to soup. It turned out to be a starchy soup with boiled rice and green beans (although it comes in many flavors, I’m given to understand). It was served very cold and we drank it through very wide straws. Not my favorite thing I’ve had here, but it wasn’t bad. And maybe I’d like a different flavor better, who knows.

Anyway, here I am drinking my porridge in the porridge shop.

Along with the porridge, we ate a kind of spicy flatbread. While we were eating it, Rosabel said, “This is minority cake,” and it only took me about 7 seconds to decipher what she meant (the bread is a characteristic food of one of the ethnic groups in China other than Han Chinese). I’ve heard people use the word “minority” as an adjective several times here, and I was a little bit proud of myself because I didn’t need to ask for clarification. I’m getting used to the way Chinese people use English.

Anyway, here’s a picture of the minority cake stand.

Across the street from the main University gate, there’s an alley that must have 20 of these stands. We were there on Friday at dinner time, and it was packed, but I did manage to get a photo of the ròu jīa mó stand. I think that meat sandwich is still my favorite. You can see the pork and the lettuce on the grill, and the woman is spreading sauce on the bread, although it’s blurry.

It’s hard to believe that I only have 4 weeks left of teaching. Living here hasn’t been like a vacation (and I didn’t expect it to be), but I couldn’t have anticipated what it would feel like, months and months in to living this as my real life. I mean, I go to work and feel like I write a dozen lesson plans a week–there’s never a day when I’m not tweaking my lesson plans for the next class or thinking about what I’m going to do with my tutoring groups. I try to manage professional obligations and scheduling and personal time and social time, and business lunches and business dinners and meals with friends. It’s this whole real life–a life I actually really like. And it’s about to be over. Soon my job won’t be my job anymore, and my students won’t be my students anymore. It’s crazy.


I could stay in China just for this

25 May

Last week, my friend Julia suggested that we go shopping. (If you’re getting the impression that “going shopping” is a popular social activity for ladies here, you’re correct.) So on Saturday afternoon, I met her and her daughter Fairy at their apartment and we took the No. 5 bus into the city.

This is Fairy and her cousin, Angel, behind her. They’re both in my Monday night tutoring group.

It was interesting to go shopping with Julia, because she’s a no-nonsense type of personality to start with, and she’s a working mom and we had her kid with us, so it was shopping on a schedule. She was not interested in window shopping; she knew which stores she thought we should hit and that’s where we went, and boom, we were done. To be honest, that’s the type of shopping I usually prefer in the states, and I was fine with it–and she introduced me to some nice discount stores.

Then she suggested that we go to her beauty parlor, where she thought she could convince them to give me a free facial because she’s a loyal customer. She also mentioned that, for 30 rmb, they would rub my back and neck as well. I was picturing something like those places you see at American malls where you sit pitched forward in the special chair while they rub your back over your shirt and people at the pretzel stand watch and eat their cheese dip, but 30 rmb is $4.60 American, so I said sure.

We walked over to the beauty parlor, which meant walking around one of the two lakes in the city center and through the main downtown park. It was packed with people and really loud; local radio stations had karaoke booths set up, and the local opera company was giving a free performance. I tried to get some photos, but it was about to start raining, and we were in a hurry.

There’s a narrow strip of land between the two lakes, and on it there’s an ancient monastery (which is under renovation).

I wanted to get a good picture of the opera performers, but it was so packed that I could only see them from way off to the side, and I had wait for them to turn and face me.

When we got to the “beauty parlor” it turned out to be not so much a beauty parlor as a full service spa. The kind of place that doesn’t do hair or nails at all–it was a massage therapy, acupuncture, mud bath, hot stone treatment, sit around in a little robe, fancy women-only spa. And for 30 rmb, they did 3 hours of treatments.

I’ll repeat the important parts of that paragraph:

$4.60. 3 hours of spa treatments.

They did a full-body massage, a facial, an eye treatment, some type of digestion-aiding herbal saran wrap mud thing, a breast cancer prevention herbal steam treatment, and a percussive scalp massage. It was really great. It was also amusing to hear new age-y spa talk through the filter of a language barrier. They kept saying things like, “Those energy in your lungs has some stones.” At one point, the massage therapist asked me, “Do your arms feel basical? They must be scraped.” I told her to scrape away (I don’t know what she meant, there was no scraping involved at any point in the process).

They’ve never had an American client before and the women who worked there were so excited that they all wanted to take photos with me. It’s a members only kind of place, and as we were leaving, the manager offered me a special membership. 24 treatments for 400 rmb. That’s an amazing price ($61 for 24 treatments, or $2.60 per 3 hour treatment), but I’m only going to be here in Jiujiang for 6 more weeks or so, and this place is across town. I have to factor in 2 hours of travel time (or 60 rmb in cab fare) per visit, and I just don’t think I can make it back 24 times, so at first I thanked them and reluctantly turned them down. But this is a better price than they give Julia as a normal member, so she convinced them to let us split the package. She offered to pay more than half the fee and take 14 of the treatments, leaving me with 10. So now I get to go back to Jofuda women’s health club 10 times before I leave town.

Me, Julia, and my massage therapist:

My face is bright red because they’d just spent 45 minutes scrubbing, heating, cooling, and massaging it. It was awesome.

earned income

18 May

Yesterday, I got another package from my mother, who is wonderful. She sent me a bunch of US change, because I had asked her to include a roll of pennies for my primary school students. I have been trying to think of some small memento that I can give them when I leave. Something American, something they can’t get in China. Something easy to ship and inexpensive–just a simple token. I settled on pennies when it occurred to me that they have probably never seen US money in person before. A penny is definitely uniquely American, and I can explain the concept of a “lucky penny” and tell them that by giving them the penny, I’m wishing them good luck in the future. Of course, it would be nice if I could give all of my students a penny, but 600 pennies would be too heavy to make shipping them practical.

I receive my mail at the school, not at my apartment, so I was opening the package in my office when James walked in. He was very curious about the pennies, confirming my guess that American money is seldom seen in the part of China. James has been to America before, and he prides himself on his knowledge of our culture. He began pointing to the coins and naming them–“This is a quarter and it’s worth 25 cents, correct?”.

When he got the the penny, he said, “This is a one cent piece.”

And I said, “Yes, but we commonly call it a penny.”

To which he responded, “I think they only use the word penny in British English.”

One of the interesting things about the nature of this job is that my coworkers in the English department are all Chinese people with university educations and years of experience in the field of English. They are used to being the experts. I don’t have a university education specifically in the study of English, nor is my education in teaching (which is a whole different barrel of fish), and I don’t have years of experience. And yet my expertise trumps theirs almost every time.

This creates some awkward situations.

I’ve run up against this before with James, because as head of the English department, he is in charge of the standardized English tests that the students must take, as well as the elaborate schedule of practice testing that is constantly in progress. James’ English is excellent–he speaks English better than anyone else I talk to on a regular basis here in China, and by a healthy margin. And he gets very frustrated by the standardized tests and practice tests–I don’t know who writes these things, but it’s clearly not native speakers. They usually consist of reading comprehension and multiple choice fill-in-the-blank style questions, and sometimes they contain really blatant and awful errors. When James runs across these errors, he often asks me for confirmation…and he really is asking for confirmation; he’s already pretty sure he’s correct.

Usually, he is correct, but on a few occasions I haven’t agreed with him, and when that happens, I’m always aware that I have to handle the situation delicately, because as I learned the first time it happened, if I step on his toes, it makes for a really tense day at the office.

I’m never quite sure how to handle these disagreements. On the one hand, I feel like I have a responsibility to correct my coworkers when they are wrong and when they’ve asked me to do so. On the other hand, they don’t always take it very well.

The problem is that I will say something like, “Oh, we definitely use the word ‘penny’ in America.”

And James will say, “I was under the impression that you don’t, because…” and he’ll launch into some big, well-reasoned defense. And he can cite as much evidence as he wants, but at the end of the day, I still win the argument based on “because I say so”.

To my coworkers, English is an academic problem that they spend their careers working on. They struggle and they theorize and they research. One time, my other officemate Joy explained to me how she deduced that she should say “lesson plan” instead of “teaching plan”, and her explanation was 10 minutes of academic resources and online dictionaries and the Chinese equivalent of google scholar. To me, the usage of English isn’t my life’s work. It isn’t even really work–I could do it when I was 5 years old (just like my coworkers could speak Chinese pretty fluently at that age). And, at the end of the day, despite Joy’s intricate defense of her use of “lesson plan”, I could tell her she’s wrong with some authority. And I can understand why, sometimes, that creates awkwardness.

Of course, I’m no expert on educational jargon so for all I know, half the country could be saying “teaching plan”. Quite a bit of language use is still regional in America, and that’s often the tack I take to avoid friction–I state my opinion clearly and then add an “it could be regional” disclaimer. Most of the time, it really could be regional, although sometimes I don’t believe it for a moment, I’m just trying to end the conversation without stepping on any toes.

Today, James argued with me about the penny, and this time, I just couldn’t bring myself to say that it might be regional. We call it a penny. The end. I wasn’t a jerk about it, I don’t think, and his feathers didn’t seem too ruffled. Still, it got me thinking about what, exactly, I’m here as an expert in. The answer’s complicated–I’ve been trying to pin it down since February, and I’m not there yet.

the stuff that finds us

17 May

My mother expressed some interest in seeing photos of Jiujiang University, so last Friday when I met with Rosabel, I took quite a few pictures.

The university sits right at the foot of Mt. Lu.

Before I left the U.S., I spent some time trying to find my school, Jin’an Senior High School, on google maps sattelite view. I never managed to find my neighborhood, but you can clearly see the University’s track. Here it is in person.

Rosabel’s dorm. Except for the laundry, it looks just like a dorm building in America. Funny how that works. 🙂

This week, after our lesson, Rosabel and I went for jiaozi (dumplings) and I remembered to take pictures of the food this time! These were filled with pork and spring onions, which is typical in this part of China. We ate them with a vinegar and chili sauce which was quite delicious! This particular style of jiaozi is named after a flower or a butterfly or something, because of the intricate way the dough is folded at the top. (Sometimes it starts to seem like everything is named after a flower or a butterfly here.) There are a lot of different ways of folding dumplings, and some of them are very complex.

While I’m posting about food, I have become obsessed with the cold vegetable dishes they serve here. They don’t really eat a lot of raw food in China, and I’ve found a sort of horrified fascination with the idea of salad. People bring it up all the time, asking me, “Do you eat salad? Do you like salad?”

So no raw vegetable dishes, but they do eat a lot of cold vegetable dishes–at least in this part of China. Which I think is interesting, because I don’t think I’ve ever been served a cold dish at a Chinese restaurant. I don’t feel like it’s something we associate with Chinese food or Chinese cooking. But here, almost every meal start with cold dishes which you eat before you move on to your hot dishes. And the cold dishes are delicious

I’m especially enamored with this garlic and cucumber dish which might be the most perfect garlic dish I’ve ever eaten. My friend Julia gave me her recipe, and, at it’s core, it’s really simple. Smashed cucumber, garlic, rice wine vinegar, chili sauce, soy sauce, and salt. Very lightly blanch or saute the cucumber and garlic, stir it all together and serve. The rawer the garlic, the better. I’ve made it a few times now, each time tinkering with the ingredients, but it’s really a perfectly simple dish and I think my attempts to improve it have only hurt it.

Here’s a photo of my latest batch.

the best is for the best

12 May

Man, if I could turn my private tutoring sessions into a full time job, I might never leave China.

For one thing, I think I’m better suited to teaching primary school students. If I could go back and do it over, I would go for a primary school job. The problem is that I don’t understand how high school students think. I’m not sure I ever did, to be honest, even when I was one. I didn’t really know how to have a conversation with other 15 year-olds and keep their interest (much less pique it) when I was 15. I’m certainly not a master of it now.

With primary school students, I find it much easier to maintain control of the room, even when I have a demo class of 100+ students and they’re all hyped up and rowdy, because I have a decent understanding of how to get them to react the way I want. If I want to make them curious, if I want them to laugh–saying the right thing to get the response I want is pretty instinctive for me. I suspect I’m not all that unique in this–I think teenagers are a mystery to most adults. But primary school kids…I like them. I like the way they think and the stuff they say, and I feel like I know what to say in response. I don’t feel out of my depth.

I still often feel out of my depth with my teenagers.

My high school students like my class; I believe this. I get constant feedback from the students themselves and from other teachers. I like them, too, but on my end it takes a lot more work to maintain that balance where I like them and I feel like I’m being productive with them.

The other reason I like private tutoring, besides the fact that I just really like the kids, is that it’s a huge ego boost. Parents are dying for native English speakers to teach their kids here in China, and they are so happy to see me coming. They drive me around, they praise me, they give me gifts. And the kids are happy to see me, too…you know, here in China almost every kid is forced to participate in extracurricular academic activities–like Math olympics. Compared to the stuff they’re doing every other evening of the week, my class is fun. If they weren’t with me, they wouldn’t be watching tv, they’d be learning physics. Trust me, they’d rather play blind man’s bluff in English and read National Geographic Kids magazine.

I also like tutoring because at least one parent is usually present–but that parent generally doesn’t speak English very well, if at all. So I have a parent there with me, which prevents discipline problems, but I don’t feel like I’m being evaluated and judged, because the parent can’t understand what I’m saying. It’s pretty sweet. I do lose some control of my lessons, like I mentioned in the entry about my tutoring sessions with Julia and her daughter Fairy. But, honestly, after dealing with 500+ high school students on my own all week, I’m happy to sacrifice a little bit of freedom for disciplinary help.

Also, they pay me really well. If I could get a visa to stay here and do this full time, I could make a killing.

Speaking of primary students, I thought I’d post a photo of the countryside school I was sent to teach at two weeks ago. I was correct in thinking that the “countryside” part had more to do with the economic status of the students than with the physical location. I took this photo standing on the fifth floor of my (non-countryside) high school–you can see the railing I’m leaning over. The countryside primary school is the building with the bright red roof. It’s literally next door.

it was a slow day (& the sun was beating)

9 May

On Friday, I went to Jiujiang University for my weekly Chinese lesson. The lessons started as an hour of basic Chinese, but it’s turned into listening to music, then an hour of Chinese, then dinner. This week, Rosabel took me to her favorite ròu jīa mó stand for a meat sandwich. People here describe ròu jīa mó as a Chinese hamburger–this one was spicy pork, a fried egg, pickled cabbage, and a big pile of seared lettuce on a small round pita. Extremely tasty…much better than the ròu jīa mó in my neighborhood. (I should have taken a photo of the food–maybe next time!)

Anyway, I’m under orders to post more photos, and I’m trying to update more often. So. Here are a couple of Friday pics.

Jiujiang University has two gates, one of which is brand new, and which opens onto a beautiful, landscaped park. I wanted to take more pictures because there are some crazy submerged statues of water buffalo in the stream, and also three more little bridges and a large lake, but I was running late and Rosabel was already waiting for me. Maybe next time.

We were having our lessons in the park, but it’s been in the 90’s here with 70%+ humidity. I guess this is normal for this part of China…it’s just hot. And damp. As I type this, the humidity is 93%! And it’s sunny and 87!

This is the classroom where we’ve been meeting to escape the weather.

light at the edge of the curtain

6 May

I have less than 2 months left of teaching, and probably about 10.5 weeks before I leave China. My brain almost can’t process this.

I’ve done less traveling than I intended to do, so far. Partially, that’s because I’m not in a convenient location for short visits to interesting places. And partially it’s because I feel like I haven’t had that much time.

In retrospect, I had the most time when I first got here…but during that first month to 6 weeks, I was kind of overwhelmed. I thought about traveling, but I felt like I needed time to settle in here in Jiujiang, and I spent my weekends exploring the city, finding the market, walking around my neighborhood. I didn’t really have someone to show me around; I had to figure most stuff out on my own. And, of course, I spent a lot of time on weekends learning how to plan lessons–teaching took up a lot more of my non-teaching hours, in the beginning. I had moments during those first weekends where I was bored, but on the whole I was getting in the groove of my life here. And I thought I’d have plenty of time to travel later.

And then I got busy. During those first few weeks, I was also building a life here, and I started having plans on weekends. Two weeks ago, I had a 5-day weekend while my students sat their midterms. My travel plans fell through at the last minute, and although I ended up spending time with friends in Jiujiang, I was a little bored with 5 whole days to myself. But, other than that, I’ve been busy.

It’s a tradeoff, I figure, because I’ve traveled less than I wanted to, but I’ve made more friends here than I thought I would, instead. I don’t have other foreigners to travel with and build friendships with. If I travel, it’s alone (unless I go visit a fellow American in another town). When I stay here on weekends, I can spend time with my friends in Jiujiang who are students, or who have families.

I think that the friendships are more of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity than the travel (although I still have plenty of opportunity for that). I can always come back–I can even find someone to pay me to do it! But I won’t ever live and work with these people in this town again. But that doesn’t mean I’m not a little bit sorry that I haven’t seen more of China.