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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.

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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. 🙂

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.