Just Be Yourself, Chiner

Every time I take a bus in China, I forget that buses come with entertainment, usually in the form of horribly violent action movies shown at deafening volumes. In my experience, these movies are usually Chinese versions of the Western action movie paradigm, and they make me sad on a few levels: not only that this is the kind of entertainment people apparently want, but also that of all the things China has learned from the West, this is one of them. I sit there on the bus with my earplugs trying to read, but I just keep thinking: have we taught them this? I know this kind of thing would not have succeeded in China had Chinese people not embraced it, but still.

All over my town, this theme is being played out as myriad construction crews are meticulously destroying all the pockets of traditional mud brick/tile roof farmers’ homes remaining where the town has expanded around them. Sharp new cookie-cutter apartment buildings take their place. It’s like China’s doing everything in its power to get rid of its Chinese-ness and replace it with some idea of what it thinks the rest of the world expects. It makes me mourn a little; the farmers’ homes are the only interesting structures in town, and the only things that look actually Chinese.

This same mournful feeling has haunted me on the few occasions that I’ve seen my students dance (at their “parties” – ha!). The dances the students choose to perform are usually a mix of traditional Chinese dances with (occasionally tacky) flowy costumes, which, though not always masterfully executed, are kind-of cool. Then, after a few of these, a squad of girls in miniskirts will take the stage, dance music blaring, and shake it à la rap video, or try. I don’t know where they’ve learned these moves, but I always find them terribly disturbing. The Chinese, in my experience, are not a particularly rhythmic people. Now if you want haunting melodies with lilting vocals and graceful dance accompaniment, they’re your guys. But every time I see one of my students shaking what their mama gave them (which, let’s be honest, is not usually a whole heck of a lot), it just feels wrong. Wrong in a way it doesn’t when American college students do it. It’s like children imitating something they don’t fully understand. I don’t mean to condescend, but these are kids who have never left home, never had a boyfriend, and sometimes cry because they miss their mom and dad. They’re not necessarily childish, but they are childlike in a wonderful way, and I instinctively want to protect that, albeit from the influence of my own culture.  When I see them do these dances, I want to stand up and yell, “Young lady, get down here this instant and put some clothes on!” And I find myself filled with sadness that this part of my culture has intersected with theirs, to the detriment of my sweet students from the countryside, who have no business trying to dance like a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader just because that’s part of Western culture and Western culture is cool. I’ll take the tacky flowy costumes any day.

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A Love Without End, Amen

Daddies don’t just love their children every now and then.
It’s a love without end, amen.
– George Strait (I am from Nashville, after all!)

The room across the hall from mine is occupied by a student and her father. The student, you see, is in a wheelchair. Because the dorms have no elevators, and no handicapped facilities of any kind, there’s no way for this student to live the normal dorm life – 8 roommates and all – that her peers live. So the school found her a room, and her father, at no telling what cost to himself and their family, gave up his job, moved to this town, and lives here helping her so she can go to college. Every day, I see them across the campus, the father quietly pushing the wheelchair to class. I’ve never spoken to them, but every time I see the student, she’s smiling at people she passes, seemingly undaunted by all life has thrown her way, never failing to make me wonder how I would handle the same.

The school built a wooden ramp on the stairs outside my window for her wheelchair – the only ramp I’ve seen on campus. I have absolutely no idea how she gets into most buildings, or how she even gets to class. The teaching building is 6 stories high without an elevator. Do she and her father ever leave campus? How on earth would they? There’s no way to push a wheelchair on these roads, and there’s no way to get one onto one of the few buses that come by our campus. I haven’t asked, and I haven’t wanted to pry, but it makes me think.

I’ve wanted to talk to the student and her father, but I’ve hesitated because I don’t want to be guilty of the crime I’m so often a victim of here: making them feel like a spectacle through unwanted attention. The inability to go to the grocery or grab a quick bite of dinner without the attention of the masses trained upon me has been the most difficult thing about life in China, but I get to go home and blend in again. This student will never not be in her wheelchair. One evening, I was coming home, and as I fumbled for my keys, I noticed that their door was open. I glanced in quickly, and by the time I had opened my door, the father had quietly gotten up and closed theirs. Perhaps they understand this need for privacy better than I ever will.

The sacrificial love of this father was put into even clearer relief this week after I took a trip to our town orphanage. The children at the orphanage are not actually orphans, but children abandoned at birth because they were born with special needs. Their “special needs” can be anything ranging from Down syndrome to cerebral palsy to unsightly birthmarks on the arms and legs of an otherwise perfectly normal child. For whatever reason, though, these children are not wanted, and are sent to the orphanage to grow up. (The orphanage also houses the area’s special needs adults, who tend to be sent to facilities such as these to live.) I don’t know enough about this to speak with any authority, but it seems that in China there’s a degree of shame associated with having a special needs child. Or it could be that poor families don’t feel they have the resources to provide for a child’s special needs the way the orphanage can. Whatever the case, it seems that special needs children are often cast off. But not my across-the-hall-neighbor. That her parents kept her, that they loved her, and have gone to such lengths for her to succeed, touches me. It’s not like her parents are members of some forward-thinking, educated Chinese elite – I guarantee you they’re farmers who didn’t go to college. They’re just good people doing the right thing and loving their child.

After she finishes here, this student will likely return to her hometown in the countryside where she will be the town doctor. Over the years, her patients will observe her having a normal career and good life, and maybe it will give some of them pause before giving away their babies born with special needs. And that is how change happens.

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Stay With You, I Very Happy

Hi everyone! The new semester is under way, but before we move ahead, I want to hearken back to the end of last semester, though it seems like ages ago. I didn’t have time to write about all this before heading out on vacation, but in the last few days of December, I was invited to some of my students’ New Year’s parties, and, well…they did a number on me. I want to tell you all about them.

One thing I think American readers will find interesting about my college (and, in fact, most Chinese colleges) is that students are put into classes of about 50. With these 50 classmates, Chinese students will not only have all of their courses over the duration of their 2-4 years of college, but some of these students will also be their (6-8) roommates. So at my college, students wake up in the morning in their dorm room of 8, go to morning exercises together, go to breakfast together, go to all their classes with the same 50 people, play ping-pong together after class, have dinner together, and then, for two hours in the evening, have mandatory study hall in their “homeroom” classroom with their 50 classmates. It’s a lot of togetherness, but also sheds light on why students are always asking me if I’m lonely living by myself. I think most Chinese people can’t fathom it. As you might imagine, though, Chinese students become extremely close to their roommates and classmates.

So, at the end of December, a wonderful student I’ve become quite close to named Will appeared at my door with a red invitation summoning me to his class’s New Years party. On the appointed evening, my sitemate, Anna, and I made our way to the teaching building and found their homeroom class, which was decked out in streamers and balloons, with incredibly intricate pictures and Chinese characters covering the blackboard – chalk was doing things I didn’t know chalk could do. The desks were arranged in a U-shape around the classroom creating something of a stage, and each one was piled with a mound of sunflower seeds and chocolates.

One thing I love about Chinese “parties” is that no Westerner would ever call them a party. I cottoned on to this fairly early in the school year when another teacher asked me what song I would be singing at the Christmas “Party.” My stomach gave a sickening lurch, I swallowed dryly, and said, “Excuse me?” Turns out the Christmas “Party” is that happy time of year when all the English Department teachers entertain about 300 students by singing English songs for everyone’s enjoyment. The Welcome Freshmen “Party,” which Anna and I happened upon one cool September evening AT THE OUTDOOR STAGE IN THE SPORTS ARENA WITH 4,000 STUDENTS AND TEACHERS WATCHING turned out to be a 3-hour song-and-dance spectacular, complete with ethnic costumes, stirring monologues and hosts in tails and ball gowns. So…yeah. I guess “party” means different things to different people. If by “party,” you understood “performance,” I guess you’d be baffled if you arrived at someone’s house, they gave you a glass of wine and told you to go mingle.

And so, armed with this knowledge, Anna and I took our seats on the front row and waited for the fun to begin. Presently, the students sat down, and two of them – the hosts for the evening – took to the front of the room and, demonstrating the Chinese love of overly-formal rhetoric, greeted everyone with, “Esteemed classmates, teachers, and special foreign guests Anna and Lindsay: Welcome! Everyone, good evening! Let the 2011 New Year’s Party begin! [both bow deeply, applause]”

What followed was an excruciating series of students standing up and performing for each other. Some danced, some read poems (often to the accompaniment of cheesy music in the background), but most of them sang songs, either with music or just a cappella. There was the barely-audible warble of a pink-cheeked girl with bangs and a barrette; a group of girls holding hands, swaying and singing to a song called “Friend;” some of the cool guys completely rocking out, unabashedly, using a Coke bottle as a microphone. Will, the student who invited us, belted out a lovely rendition of “Yesterday Once More” by the Carpenters (who, by the way, are still big in China). Almost without exception, the singers looked like they wanted to die, but they got up and did it again and again. As each student sang, other students would approach him or her and give the singer a gift – an orange, a lollipop – as encouragement, and in sweet acknowledgement that it is not easy to stand up and sing in front of fifty people, even if they’re your best friends.

About an hour into the party, the students’ homeroom teacher, a fun guy of about 33 who is my Chinese mentor and also a good friend, arrived. After an appropriate amount of heckling from the students, he was cajoled into singing everyone a song. He ambled to the front of the room, the crowd went quiet, and in a husky voice, he crooned a love ballad with no accompaniment. It was so painfully awkward that I just couldn’t look at him – I was squirming – but neither he nor the students were fazed. At all. The awkwardness of it still makes me shudder, even at a two-month remove. And I guess that’s the lesson: different cultures have different ideas of what is, and should be, embarrassing.

During this whole affair, a few thoughts kept running through my mind: First, Why, why, in a country of such stereotypically shy people, is this how they choose to celebrate? It was absolute torture for them, but they volunteered to do it themselves. Is it some bizarre rite of self-assertion? Or is it just that in a life as 1 in 1.3 billion, it’s your way to be in the spotlight for a second? And second, Why is singing such a big part of Chinese culture (The number of karaoke parlors in every town! The number of times I’ve been asked to sing a song in public!)? And why are they so consistently bad at it??

As the evening went on, the singing and dancing were punctuated at intervals by rousing games of musical chairs, relay races and tongue twisters. At one point, Anna leaned over to me and whispered, “They’re doing this all sober.” These are 20-year-old college students, having the time of their lives, and this is their idea of a party. Can you imagine what it would take to make a group of 50 American college students sing songs for each other? Play musical chairs? Decorate their classroom with streamers and balloons? I’ll tell you: lots and lots of beer. But here, the thought of alcohol had not even crossed anyone’s mind. It was incredibly refreshing.

The next night, two other students, Frank and June, invited me to a school-wide party in the teaching building. They met me outside with a gift of candied fruit and ushered me in. As soon as word got around that one of the foreigners was there, I was retrieved and escorted to a lecture hall full of hundreds of students. As I entered, applause. I was requested to sing a song. I declined. I did, however, address the crowd, wishing them a Very Happy New Year. As I stood there in front of the masses, I contemplated my sloppy attire and was reminded, again, never to leave home not ready to address hundreds at the drop of a hat. Oh, China.

That done, I found Frank and June, and went with them from classroom to classroom. Each room had a different game or activity set up for students to participate in – relay races, obstacle courses, trivia challenges – and you got prizes for winning! (Ensworth readers, it was like Super Saturday!) The hallways were plastered with riddles painted in beautiful calligraphy that students were clustered around, trying to solve. Again, the students were having the time of their lives – college students! – and there was nary a drop of alcohol to be found. It was just good, clean fun. Everything was so fun, so creative, and so cheap – the students put it together so well. I had a blast.

Frank and June ushered me around for a bit, and when it was time to leave, I thought, and not for the first time, that when I’m with my students, I’m happy. I feel good about myself and my role here, and the students – they do my soul good.

Often, when I spend time with students, they’ll say this to me, but this time, it was my turn to say it to them: “When I stay with you, I very happy.”

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Back in Business!

Hi everyone! Sorry for the long hiatus in posting! I was away from my little town just having, oh, the most wonderful two-month vacation I could possibly imagine – more on that to come! But for now, I’m back. Classes have started and I’m slowly (so slowly…too slowly) getting back in the swing of being a responsible adult and volunteer. For those of you who are aware of my students and their awesome names, the semester, though only a week in, is promising on that front already: one girl introduced herself to me last week as Jane Eyre. The full crop of names will be revealed in all its glory in the upcoming week and I will be delighted to share the best of the best with you all. I’ve got a couple of posts in the works and hope to have them up soon. Hope everyone is doing well and that I’ll talk to y’all soon!


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Exams 2010 – The Highlight Reel

Happy New Year, everyone! It’s been a crazy month but the semester has ended and it’s vacation time! Before I head out, though, I want to share with you some highlights of my exam season. I don’t know what crazy impulse led me to decide that having a conversation with all 600 of my students was the best way to assess their progress in my class, but decide I did and charged ahead. The biggest challenge was maintaining interest in what each student was saying, but they helped me out along the way by unintentionally offering up tidbits of amazing English that made me have to stifle my giggles. I’d like to share some of those now.

– One of the ways students could get extra points was by asking me questions in their interviews. With that in mind, one sweet little girl, after finishing what she was saying, composed herself and addressed me thus: “Dear Madam…may I ask you a question?” I don’t know where she learned to call someone “Dear Madam” – I don’t think she’s been reading a lot of Jane Austen – but however it happened, I’m just glad it did.

– One rather hapless young man came in, had his interview, and left. 30 minutes later, he came back in. I asked him why he was there as I’d already spoken to him. He squirmed in his seat, looked at his paper, muttered something in Chinese, and ran out of the room. Turns out he was trying to sit in for another student who didn’t want to have his interview and thought his foreign teacher wouldn’t notice! Not as dumb as I look, kids. Busted!

– One young lady, when asked what her hobbies were, launched into a pre-prepared spiel about how her hobbies included collecting proverbs and tongue twisters, which she then tried to demonstrate for me. For the record, Chinese students are not good at English tongue twisters.

– Another girl, bless her heart, confused the words “hometown” and “homesick.” “Teacher,” she declared, “I welcome you to my homesick!”

– Listening comprehension was one of the skills I was testing in this little exam – i.e., did the student answer the appropriate question. One unsuccessful example of this was the following exchange, which actually happened:

Me: “Do you have any brothers and sisters?”

Student: “I’m sorry to hear that.”

– Many of the students, as they got up to leave, left me with deep bows and the following, which I’m sure they all prepared in advance: “Teacher, Christmas is just around the corner. I wish you Merry Christmas!

– One young man named Sun presented me with a gift of a bag of sunflower seeds, which he produced from his pocket at the end of his interview.

– Many students seized the opportunity to ask me for my phone number, and now just call me to check in. For instance, one young man named Gavin is particularly solicitous about my happiness and everyday affairs. At 10:30pm, my phone will ring: “Hello?” “Hello teacher! What are you doing?” “I’m going to bed, Gavin! What are you doing?” “I am also going to bed. In my dormitory.” “Ok! Well…good night!” “Good night teacher! See you soon!” And that’s that. He just likes to check in.

– One student, when asked to describe her sister, told me that “she has a small fat,” which I took to mean she was a little bit plump.

– One girl told me her favorite hobby was playing tennis table.

– I noticed for the first time that I had a male student named “Lovely.” He is actually a charming young man.

– The time I had to fight hardest to keep in my laughter was when a student told me, when asked why she liked our college, “I want to be a noodle.” I think she was trying to say “nurse.” I almost lost it.

– The students knew in advance that part of their exam would include describing one of their family members, both in terms of appearance and personality. This is something we worked on in class. Imagine my surprise, then, when a student’s complete description of her brother was, “He has short hair and a pair of eyes.” That was it. “Ok!” I said. Moving along!

– Another student told me that in college, he wanted to “learn as much as popular.” Popular, possible – English vocabulary words do all start to sound the same eventually.

– The most touching moment out of 600 was when a student told me about her family. “I have a mother and 3 sisters. But my father – he went to another world. I sad very much.” I almost got choked up.

Another interesting thing I came across in these exams was that out of 600 students, no more than 10 were only children. One-child policy, you ask? I know. There are ways to get around it, especially out where I live, where, as they say, the mountains are high and Beijing is far away.

So with that, I’m off! Happy 2011 and look forward to sharing more bits of China in the months ahead!

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Just Thought You Should Know

A few things to share that aren’t related or categorizable:

I realized the other day that I’m the hot guy on our campus insofar as all the girls giggle and blush when I say “hi” to them.

Chinese people are straight up food pushers. I spent the day at another teacher’s house a few weeks ago – we’re talking 10 hours or so – and there was never a time when we were not eating. We started lunch, and about an hour in, I was thinking “I’m going to die,” and we hadn’t made a dent in the mounds of food. Not a dent. And then, four hours later, we were eating again. Where do they put it? How do they pack it in? These are not big people. This sweet woman was watching me eat, and there’s no way she could possibly have thought I was hungry, but she kept offering me fruit, and I couldn’t say no! That’s the thing – they’re so generous and so hospitable, you just can’t refuse. My fruit total for the day was, and I am not lying, 10 clementines, a banana, a pear and a kiwi, and this is on top of two enormous (and amazing) meals. I’ve realized that a valuable survival skill in China is being able to put away large quantities of anything, however unappealing, at any time, however un-hungry you may be. Just had a hearty breakfast? Ah well, you’ve just been summoned to a hot pot brunch with the Vice Principal! Don’t like intestines? Sure you do!

There’s a part of town called “Market City,” a labyrinthine warren of shops selling everything you can imagine (mostly junk, mostly for cheap) that extends for blocks and blocks, though you’d never know it when you enter. It’s a black hole; I have yet to visit without getting lost, and have yet to exit by the same way I came in, mostly because I can never find it again. I avoid going because every time I go, I lose precious hours of my life that I will never get back being adrift in a sea of cheap bric-a-brac. Things Market City makes me want to do:

Best package I have spotted at Market City:

Stopped by South Mountain Park the other day for a walk and happened upon a “jam session” of retirees playing traditional Chinese instruments, complete with warbly singer. Neat.

We all know (or maybe we don’t – ha!) how little inducement I need not to shower, but I’m pushing even my own limits here. My shower is on my balcony, which, despite having been glassed in, is still a bit brisk at all times. My shower is a hot water tank affixed to the wall of my bathroom with no water containment system on the floor, so when I shower, the water goes every direction but toward the drain (read “dirt hole in the floor”), because the floor was built as a balcony floor and not a bathroom floor. I bought the world’s biggest shallow plastic tub (in electric blue, if you must know), which I now stand in to shower, and I attempt to direct all outflow from the showerhead into it, and am seldom successful. The good news is that it takes me roughly three times as long to clean up after the shower as the shower itself takes, so by the time I’ve finished mopping up all the errant rivulets of shower water, I’ve usually worked up a nice little sweat, or at least regained normal human body temperature. My complaints, though, are nothing. I learned the other day that our students – the very ones with whom I share a dorm – don’t have showers. They have to go off campus to a bathhouse to bathe. So thank goodness for my mop and plastic tub.

In other news, I’m trying to make sense of my recent and inexplicable desire to listen to nothing but Garth Brooks.

Lots of love to everyone. Sorry I’ve been negligent – things have been busy! Hope to talk to you all soon!


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Where My Students Are From

A few weeks ago, my sitemate and I were invited to give a guest lecture of sorts at a nearby middle school. We dutifully prepared our Power Point about “Middle School in America,” and, along with some of our colleagues, were collected early one chilly morning by a school minivan to go deliver our scintillating oratory.

We were told that the school was a rural school, and, not sure what to expect, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the terrain whizzing by our window as we climbed over the dry dirt hills that keep our town firmly penned into its long, skinny shape along the river. I bumped along in the back seat as we hurtled over the mountains to the plateau beyond, Chinese pop music blasting, and my sweet and very earnest colleague delivering to me synopses of several famous Chinese operas. I must have feigned interest admirably, because the synopses just kept coming, but my mind was stuck on what I was seeing outside our window: terraced fields hugging the sides of the hills, stepped just the way you’d imagine a topographic map ought to look in real life; ears of dried corn stacked like big, yellow rafts in farmyards, the only dash of color in a world of tan, sage and gray, just like an Andrew Wyeth painting; dry, scrubby hillsides pockmarked with the dark mouths of cave homes where many Chinese farmers still live; fat pillars of dried corn stalks leaning against each other outside farmers’ mud houses.

We arrived at the middle school, home to 700 students, who study in un-insulated and barely heated schoolrooms, some of which have broken windows. There was a dirt schoolyard, a basketball net, and pit latrines with no roof to shelter students from the biting cold. Many of the students’ parents were assembled in the schoolyard for a meeting, and as we entered, all of their heads turned – no doubt we were the first foreigners they’d ever seen.

We were warmly welcomed by the school and fed steaming bowls of beef stew. After lunch, we gave our talk, which was by far the most forgettable part of the day – it seems silly, how much more we learned from the students than they could have learned from us. After our talk was finished, we took a walk through some of the farms around the school. Farmers passed us on the dirt paths with baskets over their shoulders or pulling carts of hay. As we walked, I asked one of my colleagues, “Is this what your hometown is like?” “Just like this,” he said; just like this for him and for the vast majority of our students. They grew up in brick homes with no insulation and only a coal stove for heat, in small farming communities just like this one, with parents who didn’t go to college but who toil day after day so their kids can. And when our students go home for Chinese New Year in just a few weeks, this is where they’re going home to. Can you imagine the pride their parents must feel, thinking that their children studied hard enough to get into college and off the farm for the first time in their family’s history? This is these kids’ shot at ending generations of poverty and backbreaking labor. Seeing where they’re from firsthand, I felt like I maybe understood my students and their humility and reserve for the first time.

I think our driver was anxious to get home, because on the way back, he was apparently trying to prove his skill by showing just how much like a bat out of hell he could be. An unpublishable string of imprecations kept my mind distracted through our Mario Andretti-esque race downhill around switchbacks in the road. We were finally deposited safely back at the school gate, and I made my way back to my apartment, but for the rest of the night, all I could see was tan hillsides and dirt paths wandering between farmyards.

school yard

beef stew lunch



cave homes

with farmers

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