Archive | June, 2011

maybe i think too much

22 Jun

I’ve started my last week of teaching. Since I only see each class once a week, this means that everyday this week I teach 3 or 4 “last classes” with different groups, saying goodbye over and over. It’s been fun so far because in every class we’re just playing games and taking photos, but it’s also sad.

After this weekend, I think time is going to start passing even quicker. Next week I’m traveling with Rosabel to her hometown of Pingxiang where I’ll be staying with her family. Then, I’m returning to Jiujiang to teach at summer camp for a week (some of you have already heard the saga of the summer camp situation, so I’ll spare you the details–I’ll just say that it was a last minute addition to my duties and leave it at that). After summer camp, I’m heading to Beijing for 3 or 4 days before I fly home.

I’ll try to keep updating…I have a feeling traveling with Rosabel is going to be especially fun–every time I talk to her, her plans for what we’ll do in Pingxiang have multiplied. And I’ll be back in my apartment in Jiujiang for a full week after that, so I know I’ll have internet access. There’s a whole backlog of stuff I’ve wanted to post about while I’ve been here…some of the entries are half-written (like the one about my students’ self-chosen English names that I began in February and never finished) and I’ve also composed lots of blog entries in my head that have never made it to the screen (like the one about how earnest Chinese high school students seem compared to Americans).

There are many things that I’ve learned and things that I’ve thought about and things that I’ve noticed while I’ve been here that I’ve wanted to post about, but I haven’t shared them because I don’t feel like I’m done learning or thinking or noticing enough to report back to you. I have all these trains of thought that have been developing the whole time I’ve been in China and I haven’t yet reached a point where I feel like I know what I want to say about them. For all the things I’ve been thinking about, I haven’t come to many conclusions.

I don’t know if that makes any sense at all to anyone but me. But I have a feeling I’m going to be talking about the stuff I realized and learned here in China long after I return to America.

I’m gonna tack on some random photos here, just because I want to.

This is a portion of the main street between my apartment and the school, at night.

My apartment building.

At the base of Mt. Lu, in a field of rape (the plant that makes canola oil…there’s no such thing as a canola plant, the name was derived from “Canadian oil, low acid” and caught on because canola oil sells better than rape oil) (before this photo was taken, my boss the headmaster asked me in very stilted English if I would join him “on a walk through the field of rape”).

My bed with the mosquito tent–and thank god for it, too. Chinese mosquitoes are immune to Deep Woods Off and they’re constantly biting me…I probably have double malaria.

cultural transmission

19 Jun

While riding around Jiujiang on the No. 5 bus I’ve noticed that some of the bus stops–the nicer ones with shelters–have televisions set amidst the advertisements. People crowd around the tv, idly watching while they wait for their bus. I had never been at one of those stops until I started going to the spa every week, but now with my new routine, I’ve gotten to see up close what Chinese people watch while waiting for the bus. I expected it to be commercials, or maybe the news.

It’s America’s Funniest Home Videos.

It doesn’t say that it’s America’s Funniest Home Videos, but it’s pretty obvious. The people in the clips are obviously American, the clips are obviously set in America, and they are clearly home videos. Of people getting hit in the crotch, falling off stage during school plays, getting bitten by llamas, and letting their dogs drive the ATV.

People in Jiujiang love America’s Funniest Home Videos.

It makes sense–from what I’ve observed, physical humor is hugely popular here. Most of my students don’t know Pirates of the Caribbean or Hannah Montana, but they all know Mr. Bean. They adore Mr. Bean.

I have a theory that’s there a connection between the huge importance that they place on face and saving face and their huge amusement at seeing people fall, trip, or generally look stupid.

In all of the classrooms in my school, the teacher’s desk is at the front of the classroom and one step up off the floor. The floors are concrete, and the teacher’s desk is on a raised platform of concrete that is about 6 inches higher than the rest of the room. This platform doesn’t extend from wall to wall; it runs the length of the blackboard.

I routinely fall off this platform. Usually, it’s when I’m writing on the board with my back to the class, and I take a step back to examine what I’ve written. I’ve never fallen down (like, off of my feet), but I walk backwards off the edge of this platform all the time, and I trip, stumble, over-correct, and flail my arms around trying to maintain my balance. It happens at least once a week in one class or another and my students always gasp and stare and titter.

I’ve occasionally seen the same thing happen to other people in the school. Usually, there’s a big reaction, and the person who almost fell turns bright red. I’ve seen my students, and even other teachers, become genuinely upset and flustered by stumbling over this concrete ledge even when it seems like no one noticed.

I don’t turn bright red when I stumble in the classroom. Sometimes I say, “whoa!”, and if it was an especially dramatic almost-fall, I might take a second to laugh at myself once. But then I just go on teaching. I feel like I spend 80% of my life stumbling around like a jackass (and here in China it’s probably been closer to 95%). You know when you’re striding down the sidewalk, feeling pretty good, and then you trip over absolutely nothing–a crack, a pebble, a rolypoly bug? And the momentum of almost-falling makes you lurch forward for a few steps like you’re about to break into a run, and then you right yourself? And you look back to see what tripped you, and half the time there’s nothing because the rolypoly bug has crawled away?

That’s my preferred method of travel.

I still feel pretty good about myself, in spite of the jackassery, because–well, number one, I choose to believe that everyone is basically stumbling and flailing through life and they just don’t talk about it (if this is not true, don’t tell me). After all, falling is only human, as is the occasional ill-timed llama bite or baseball to the crotch. And number two, I think that Americans tend not to be so terribly bothered by looking stupid in this particular way. I realize that’s a very broad generalization, and it’s one I’m not prepared to defend all that stridently. My evidence is mainly the existence of America’s Funniest Home Videos, which has been on the air for 21 seasons.

21. I think that’s telling.

I’m not saying that I’m less self-conscious than anyone else on earth, or that Americans are less self-conscious than the Chinese. But I think maybe we’re self-conscious about different things. I’ve had students who were standing and talking in front of the entire class pass gas loudly and not even blink. Everyone has a chuckle and they move on. When I was in high school, if that happened to me, I probably would have started crying. Even today, part of me feels like I would just die. But from what I’ve observed, Chinese people are much less self-conscious about most bodily functions than we are in America–and when I step away from my own squeamishness, much like tripping and falling, passing gas is only human.

I guess what I am saying is that I think there’s a link between the subjects that carry a kind of sensitivity in our culture and the subjects that we find funny, between what makes us blush and what makes us laugh, and I think maybe it explains why they’re watching America’s Funniest Home Videos at the bus stop in a small city in the middle of rural China.

Even if I’m wrong, it’s interesting.

As a footnote, if anyone reading this ever considers submitting a video to AFHV, you should know that there’s a chance that that 10 second clip where the ass of your pants goes up in flames might someday be enjoyed by a few million Chinese commuters, shoppers, and school children.

when I see your face there’s not a thing that I would change

9 Jun

I thought I’d post some more photos of my students, a.) because I love their little faces, and b.) because I’m feeling too lazy to actually compose a post right now.

One of the games that I pull out when I have 10 extra minutes at the end of class is a version of blind man’s bluff. In all of my classes, we’ve done role plays focusing on giving directions (turn right, turn left, go straight, etc), so for this game I put a piece of candy or a sticker in a plastic Easter egg. Then one student wears my travel sleep mask and the rest of the class first chooses a spot to put the egg and then directs the blindfolded student to the egg, using English only.

Hilarity occurs when Vivian accidentally gropes her classmate’s head while searching for the egg.

Trying (in English) to keep a friend from wandering blindly out the open classroom door generates the kind of urgency that gets you on your feet.

You can see the purple egg in the background, balanced on the neck of a Coke bottle. They don’t make it easy on each other!

Now let’s move away from the blindfold game.

This is Peter. He’s the class monitor in one of my Junior 2 classes. I’ve never taken the time to explain this, but high school here in China is divided into Junior High and Senior High. There are three years of each. The Junior students are basically 7th, 8th, and 9th graders, and the Senior students are 10th, 11th, and 12th graders. So Junior 2 means 8th grade, and that is my favorite age in the high school.

I feel mean saying that, so I want to qualify that of course it has nothing to do with liking the kids personally more or less than any other students. The Junior 1’s are very enthusiastic, but they can’t always control themselves. Teaching them feels like playing a really long and tiring game of whack-a-mole (I hope it goes without saying–not because I’m hitting them, but because no matter what direction I’m looking, there’s something crazy going on out of the corner of my eye, and I’m never one step ahead). I don’t teach the Junior 3’s, because they’re a graduating class and so they have extra exams this semester. When it comes to the Senior students, even my best classes are somewhat disengaged, and my worst classes are disengaged and uncooperative.

I find the Junior 2 students to be the perfect balance. They’re young enough to still be enthusiastic. They’re engaged and cooperative and they haven’t hit the full-on teenage apathy stage yet, but they’re a little calmer than the Junior 1’s and they have more self-control.

Anyway, Peter’s class has never given a moment of trouble until 2 Wednesdays ago when one of the students lit a cigarette and tried to smoke it in the middle of class. He turned green and started coughing violently–it was pretty funny–and when I was done being stern at him, Peter grabbed him, pinned both wrists in one hand, and literally dragged him out of the classroom and to their class teacher’s office.

He’s a super helpful kid. It’s the class monitor’s job to do this kind of stuff–you know, I’m not allowed to give out punishments myself. And when this kind of thing happens and it really needs to be reported to someone who is authorized to handle the situation, I’m often helpless. I teach 14 classes a week, and for most of those, I don’t know who their class teacher is. There are 15 minutes between classes, and I move from room to room during the day. Often, by the time I get to a classroom the class teacher is already 10 minutes gone. Even if I knew who the class teacher was, I don’t know where anyone’s office is, most of the teachers outside of the English department speak very little English, and I don’t know the students’ Chinese names (and for some of them, I don’t know their English names, either).

Anyway, if you look over Peter’s shoulder on your left, off in the distance you can see the neighborhood of apartments where I live. My building is a few streets behind the ones you can see, but it’s in that general area. And if you look behind Peter to your right, you can see two men with sledgehammers tearing down a building. They have been working on this all semester. It’s interesting to me because tearing down a whole building by sledgehammer is really slow going, and in America I feel like you never see people whose entire job is to swing a sledgehammer 8 hours a day. It takes weeks! It wouldn’t make financial sense to pay a person to do that; it’s cheaper to rent equipment. But here in China, they’ve been working on this building forever.

Now here are the boys in my Monday night tutoring group:

That’s Tommy in pink, Bob in neon yellow, Jack and Morgan in orange.

And we’ll end with one bored face and one smiling one.

Peace. 🙂