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.

oh her eyes, her eyes

5 May

I spend all week dreading Thursday. It’s my longest day–I teach 4 classes, and they’re spread out so that I have 2 long breaks in the middle of the day. Neither break is long enough for me to come home–I don’t usually do the 40 minutes of walking, round trip, unless I have at least a 2 hour break. Plus, on Thursday nights I have a tutoring session after school, but my dinner break between my last class and tutoring also isn’t long enough for me to go home, so I end up eating in my office. These circumstances combine so that I leave at 10am on Thursday morning and don’t get back home until 9pm.

Luckily, once I make it through today, my week is pretty much over. On Friday, I only have 1 class in the early afternoon, so I can sleep in and then still have plenty of day left after work. And then the weekend!

This week, I’m doing a love song/terms of endearment lesson plan with all my classes. It’s fun, and I think it’s one of the more solid lesson plans I’ve put together, but we spend about half of the class listening to and discussing Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are”. I have listened to this song 30 times already this week, and it’s not like I loved it to start with. Basically, I don’t care if I never hear it again. The kids are very interested in learning about popular American music, though, and they’re not familiar with very much of it. They’re previous exposure is limited, so they’d never heard of Bruno Mars (or Hannah Montanah, or Beyonce, or Taylor Swift). I’ve used this kind of cloze activity once before with Miley Cyrus’s “The Climb” (which is great for reviewing present progressive), and they loved it.

Today I have 4 classes, so I will be listening to “Just the Way You Are” 12 more times. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t choose a song I really love, because I’d be sorry when I never, ever wanted to hear it again.

don’t know nothing about nothing

2 May

I wanted to share my favorite track off the new Paul Simon album, called “Rewrite” (right click below and “Save Link As” to download it to your computer). Every time this song comes on my iPod and he sings “I’m gonna change the ending” I find myself nodding along. It’s probably got a bunch of deep significance, since I’m 32 and cramming all kinds of new beginnings into a very busy year (FINALLY graduating from college! going to live in China for a while! going to grad school!).

But it’s also a really great song (actually, the whole album’s awesome).

Rewrite – Paul Simon

Ever since I got to China, my iPod really wants to play Paul Simon. I don’t know why–for the first month or so, I was really into listening to “Hearts and Bones”, and then it was “The Rhythm of the Saints” for a while. And of course “Graceland” is one of my top 3 albums of all time, so it’s in constant rotation. It’s just good seeing-the-world music.

I also wanted to share some photos from the week I spent in Shanghai back in February, so I’ll just go ahead and tack those on here, as well.

Chinese acrobat show! This night was the first time I used my new camera, so the photos aren’t stellar.

My roommate Kayla and I at The Bund, which is the heavily European-influenced financial district of Shanghai. (The European influence is in front of us, not behind us, so you totally can’t see it in these pictures.)

I managed to take this photo before I noticed the 2 police officers in orange vests blowing their whistles vehemently and descending upon me. You’re not allowed to stand on park benches in Shanghai, apparently.

They raced us through Old Shanghai one night on the way to dinner. I managed to snap some photos, but none of them turned out that great…so bear in mind that I was being jockeyed along while I tried to snap these. Also, it’s worth mentioning that we were there immediately after Chinese New Year, during the Spring Festival, which is the biggest holiday of the year in China. It’s kind of like arriving in the US for the first time on December 27th? Totally the holidays.

We went to a club one night, and it was less than $15 cover for an open bar. I went around trying to get everyone I met to do the robot, and by the way Chinese youth totally know how to do the robot and when you ask them at 2am on a crowded club dance floor, they’re totally happy to demonstrate. I managed to take this picture before I got yelled at by club security, and if you don’t know the people in the photo enough to recognize them without seeing faces, it’s probably boring. But I find it amusing, so I’m posting it.

One of the last nights, we played Apples To Apples in the hotel. I was bitter because I got dealt “Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots”, which is quite probably the best card in the entire Apples To Apples deck, and then I didn’t win the round when I played it. Any game where Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots doesn’t automatically win isn’t a game in which I want to take part.

And, finally, Kayla in our hotel room packing to leave on the night before orientation ended.

a light and tumble journey

2 May

I’m behind on posting about what I’ve been doing lately. This is probably going to be somewhat sketchy on details, but I have photos!

I’ve been hanging out with my Chinese teacher, Rosabel. She’s a student at Jiujiang University and when we met for our first lesson a month ago she declared that we were meant to be friends and go shopping together. And, lo, her prediction has come true.

This photo was taken during an afternoon spent shopping (and shopping, and shopping) in the city center a few weekends ago.

Last Sunday, I went on a second outing to climb Mt. Lu. This time, it was just the female teachers from my school, and we went to climb a different peak, taking a path through the UNESCO geo-park. It was much more scenic than the last climb, and also more my speed…a meandering, winding stroll looping around and up, rather than a staircase pointed straight up a sheer incline. I wasn’t planning to go on this expedition, but my friend and coworker Jenny called and woke me up at 6am that day, and she wasn’t taking no for an answer. We had a lot of fun.

On the bus ride to Mt. Lu.

Jenny and I, climbing.

And here are some photos of Mt. Lu that I took along the way.

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.