Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Ping Pong and Paper, Rock, Scissors

Had a very decent weekend, and the most Chinese so far. On Friday me and four of the other foreign teachers (Andrew, Mohammed, Cynthia, and Gary) met for dinner and had some good conversation, mostly at the expense of our students. The main dish was a local favorite that would translate literally as "big plate of chicken", which is exactly what it was. I was excited to find not only the chicken's claws but the head within the mess; the Chinese are not a people to waste anything. I tried my best to eat the claw, but there wasn't too much meat and it was a little disturbing anyway. We took turns playing with the chicken parts and taking pictures, which I thought might be a little rude until I remembered just how much we are stared at and generally made a spectacle of. Towards the end of the meal we were all shocked into silence as we watched an unknown foreigner walk into the restaurant, an older man and the only non-teacher I have seen so far. It was our turn to stare at the foreigner, who pretended not to see us and sat far away. Like proper Chinese spectators, we all wanted to know where he was from and why he was here but no one wanted to ask.

On Saturday I went down to Xiao Ma's guitar shop again, this time with Gary, the Canadian foreign teacher who's been in China 14 years and knows Xiao Ma. My friend Wang Ya Mo, the primary school teacher and "translator" between me and Xiao Ma was there again as well, although Gary sometimes had to actually translate between me and her. As always there were a lot of students hanging out there, and I ended up performing "Hey Jude" against my will twice, the first time with Gary at least. Two high school girls kept giving requests and were mystified that I didn't know anything by Shakira, Mariah Carey, or China's all-time favorite Western pop group, The Carpenters. Xiao Ma's girlfriend cooked dinner for about 10 of us in the back room (this is where the picture above is from), a spectacular meal with 13 dishes besides the rice. The Chinese often play games during dinner, and this time it was rock, paper, scissors. I'm not sure how our hosts were able to destroy us at a game that doesn't involve skill, but they did. It's easy to get the impression that the Chinese don't have as much fun as us because they work long hours and don't do much of what I think of as "entertainment" (movies, bars, rock shows etc.), but I'm starting to notice how much they enjoy each other's company. I can only picture a group of Westerners getting that excited about rock, paper, scissors if they hadn't seen each other in 8 years or were on drugs, which I think is a compliment to the Chinese. During some of the rounds the losers had to sing a song, which few Chinese have any reservations about. Me and Gary, on the other hand, were struggling to think of something when we lost, and of all the songs we knew we ended up singing a rousing rendition of "Oh My Darlin' Clemetine" (not my pick). On the walk home (at about 11pm, after about 7 hours at the shop) there was a man from Xinjiang Autonomous Region (the large, Muslim, northwestern-most part of China) out in front of his restaurant playing a Xinjiang two-stringed sitar-like instrument. He was happy to sing us a few traditional songs, and seeing my guitar, let me play the instrument for a minute, which made for a memorable end to the night.

On Sunday I socialized only with Chinese people for the first time. I spent the morning and early afternoon with Wang Ya Mo, who called me at 9:30am to invite me to fly kites in the city square, which is such a wonderfully innocent thing for one 22-year old to ask another that I couldn't possibly say no. Her "little brother" (cousin) was there flying his kite, but I don't think he said a word, certainly not to me. Ya Mo's kite was broken as it turned out, so I bought one and made pitiful attempts at getting it to fly in the slight wind. Going back to what I said about the Chinese enjoying each other's company, I was amused to see a middle-aged couple in the square sharing one jump-rope and obviously having a blast. Of all the things to be going on in Zhangye there was what looked like a small pop concert going on on the other side of the square, so we went to investigate. A crowd of mostly straight-faced middle-aged men in suits was watching a girl singing on a stage that was set up, with a giant pink banner behind her and suspicious-looking pink umbrellas set up all around. At the end of each song, there was an eerie silence, and I didn't know whether to take that as a sign that they hated the music or pop concerts are so new that they didn't know they were supposed to clap. Ya Mo explained to me what the elaborate set-up was for: to advertise a brand of milk. The People's Republic your parents knew and feared is gone indeed.

Once the entertainment potential of flying a kite with someone you have trouble communicating with was exhausted, we wandered around town for a bit, highlighted by the sight of two ridiculous costumed cartoon characters walking around to advertise something or other. Ya Mo invited me to have lunch with her mother in her apartment, my first invite into a Chinese home. I think her mother was a bit surprised to see me, and the first thing she said was "I don't speak English" in Chinese, as if I were accustomed to English speakers in Zhangye and this would come as a shock. Lunch was quite good and more than adequate, as can be expected. I will not be cooking for any Chinese until I become a master chef, which is not in my foreseeable future. Typically when I eat with Chinese people they will eat little while insisting I have more and more, which I don't object to but feels a little strange to my Western concepts of politeness. After lunch Ya Mo played some music for me that she likes on the computer. The Chinese love their sentimental music (meaning, all of it) to come with slow video montages of mountains and river valleys, and the traditional-style music was pretty good if you ignored the "fashionable" drum samples and guitar riffs layered on top of it. She wants to work on her English and I am obviously in need of learning more Chinese, so I'm glad that we will "make good friends".

Even earlier than Wang Ya Mo, a few of my students had called me in the morning to see if I wanted to play badminton in the gym with them. They suggested 3:30 for a time, and said they would call again at 3. At precisely 3:00 my phone rang, and it was "Sonya", one of my students. She had obviously been running and was completely out of breath, and wanted to know if I wanted to meet with her and her friends. I said sure and wanted to know when to meet, so she replied "oh, right now. I am waiting for you outside of your building". I had only just gotten home and intended to relax for 10 minutes, but instead had to rush out the door to meet my students. She was in fact not standing outside of my building, and I correctly guessed she thought I lived in the same building as Andrew and some of the other teachers. She was still out of breath when I found her, and we met some of her classmates and went to the gym.

For the next hour or so I faced an unending series of my students on a ping-pong table, a match-up I have long awaited. They were almost all better than me but not by too much, which made for some good matches, though the only person interested in keeping score was a very serious and very random man who took over for 10 minutes and was definitely not my student. I finally quit the ping-pong for the basketball court, where a pick-up game was started and I realized how woefully out of shape I am. However, on this side of the world I am definitely a better basketball player than at home. The gym also had badminton, which I tried briefly, and Chinese chess, which I did not.

After exhausting myself, the students invited me to eat at the canteen with them, and refused to let me pay for my meal. I hadn't been there before, and the large cafeteria atmosphere won't be drawing me back too often. After this I invited the three students who were left, some of my most outgoing and talented at English, to see my apartment. Or rather, they invited themselves, but I was happy to accomodate. They thought it was too big and lonely, and not homely enough for their tastes. I was told by "Vivien" that when she heard they would have a new American teacher this term, she thought I would wear very fashionable clothes. Obviously, I am a poor representative of my country in that department. I was also asked why I don't dress "very open" like the American pop stars they see on TV, and they are convinced that most Americans must be completely different than me. They played me music they like, typical Chinese pop which I tactfully described as "not my style", and I was surprised when they took to the Pavement and Morrissey I played for them, and more surprised when they claimed to know Chinese singers who sounded similar. I will likely spend more time with students in the future, which should be interesting, or at the very least sharpen my ping-pong skills.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Making Chinese Friends

Went back down to the Rock and Roll Guitar Pub last Saturday. The owner Xiao Ma ("Little Ma"; Ma is the surname, and this is how friends of the same age refer to each other in China) was glad to see me again, and insisted on stopping what he was doing and changing my guitar strings for me even though I'm fully capable of doing it myself. As he speaks no English I was again lucky to have someone there who does, his friend Wang Ya Juan who is a primary school teacher our age with a lot of "young and naughty" students. According to Miss Wang, Xiao Ma (the "x" in Chinese Pinyin sounds like "sh") wants me to join his "guitar team" and come down every week. She was translating literally from the Chinese and was not grasping the word "band". So, yes, I have been invited to form a band with Chinese students who love Guns 'n Roses and speak no English. Needless to say, I will not be passing that up.

Xiao Ma has a dream of buying an American Fender guitar, a dream I was forced to crush over the course of the afternoon. He was looking to buy a good guitar from America and have it shipped to him - for about $100. Through Miss Wang I delicately explained that a reasonable Fender guitar will cost a minimum of $300 or $400, not including shipping. He was eyeing Eric Johnson's guitar and wanted to know if he could get it for $100, so I looked it up on the internet: $2,000. After an extended period of looking at guitars on musiciansfriend.com, I think reality finally set in, and that was that.

Xiao Ma also took me and Miss Wang to dinner, hot pot once again. I then proceeded to fail at handling my chopsticks, stain my shirt with hot sauce, blow my nose around 20 times (not very polite in China, though spitting is fine), and very nearly die from a hot piece of fish containing about 40 small bones. Miss Wang is a very nice girl but her English is unspectacular, and my Chinese is much worse, so conversation was a bit limited. However, I have actual Chinese friends now, at a guitar shop no less, definitely a step in the right direction. After dinner we went back to the shop to play some more music. I knew they would force me to sing so I brought the lyrics to "Let It Be", and I can only hope the language difference helps mask my terrible voice. Random students hang out there, so there was a girl on drums for some songs. When I finally left at 11pm they watched me take a taxi to make sure I didn't walk home, and Miss Wang called me at home to make sure I was "safe". As an American this was hilarious to me, and you would know why if you saw Zhangye.

To help my Chinese studies I bought a large Chinese-English dictionary this week. It was published in 1978, and therefore serves two purposes: a) looking up Chinese words, and b) good old-fashioned propaganda. Here are some of the example sentences used in the dictionary: "Thanks to the leadership of the Party, we are leading a happy life today"; "When the enemy halts, we harass him" under a word for "rest" or "halt"; "Wherever the troops went, they never infringed on the peoples' interests" under "army"; and my favorite so far, "No one is born with a proletarian world outlook; one acquires it only through ideological remoulding". I couldn't find an entry for Confucius besides "Confucius and Sons: as in the popular slogan, 'Down with Confucius and Sons!'".

I have also had the bizarre experience of a haircut in China. Walking into a haircutter's and saying only "I want" while making a hair-cutting motion, I spent the next half-hour having my hair washed and shampoo-ed, then my scalp massaged for five minutes (by a guy, while my hair was full of shampoo so it was extremely hard not to laugh while looking at the mirror), then my hair washed again, and then cut, followed by another round of wash and shampoo. This set me back all of $1.25, a full ten times cheaper than home.

I don't find it too hard to get by in daily life, but most everything is just slightly different somehow. My campus doesn't seem all that different from a Western campus, but you notice little things like students reading to themselves out-loud from books while standing outside, possibly because of the limited study space you have with 6 or 7 to a dorm room. There is also a loudspeaker system outside, which at certain times plays inspirational music or messages in Chinese or English.

Yesterday, a group of students from class six, my most motivated, invited me to watch the basketball game with them after class. It turns out that different classes form their own basketball teams that play against each other, so me and my students watched their classmates from the side of the court while cheering "Liu Liu! Jia you! (Six Six! Come on!)". I can't say much for their talent, but they have heart. After about 20 minutes they insisted I had better go to get inside, because it was too cold out for me. They want to play basketball or ping-pong with me this weekend, and I suspect they are better at ping-pong than basketball. My students are only about two years younger than me, and I can have actual interesting conversations with them outside of class, one reason I'm glad to be at a University rather a middle school.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Lesson 3: Straight to Politics

Had a good week of class this week. To keep it interesting when doing a lesson for the 5th or 6th time, I like to have at least one part of the lesson in which I don't know what the students are going to come up with. This week I branched off from a reading about Benjamin Franklin and a lesson about American History to teach about political cartoons, showing some examples from America and then having them come up with their own in groups. I wasn't sure if it was going to work with first-year students, but they've been really into it and it's fascinating to see what issues they have on their minds. Some of the recurring themes: environmental issues (man fishing and coming up with only bones, child saying "we no longer need ink!" as they dip their brush into black, polluted water, tree with plastic bags for leaves), farmer's concerns (picture of three modern buildings holding hands and smiling as they trample farmland, picture of farmer with cell phone and tractor), campus issues ("we need light!" in reference to the school turning off dorm lights at certain hours), corruption ("big fish eat the little ones, the little ones eat the little shrimp": money from farmers for roads etc. being used for other things), smoking (cigarette which says "life" getting progressively shorter), American foreign policy (man labeled "America" with many arms reaching into the affairs of other countries), and pressures on Chinese students (mother with flames coming out of her head scolding child who has failed exam, and an elaborate drawing of the student as an ant overshadowed by an elephant labeled "parents' demands, pressures of society" etc. who is being forced into a skull labeled "school" while wishing they could play in the sunshine).

Since the students are obviously interested in American culture I plan to give short talks in my classes, so this week I told them about school in America, including cheerleaders, school dances, and the pledge of allegiance (always gets a laugh as I say it in front of the class, not to mention my explanation of what a cheerleader does). Then to get them talking I have them talk about school in China, which has been interesting. In middle school (junior and senior, which is equivalent to high school) they start class around 7am, finish around 6pm, then have study sessions for several hours. I have seen middle school students in Zhangye walking home from school at 10:30pm. They do this for six and a half days a week, and their only free time is half of a day on Sunday. They take exams not only for university but to get into the best middle schools, exams which will largely determine their future. They wear uniforms growing up, and I always see what look like giant track teams in blue and white uniforms coming out of the middle schools here. Class size in middle school is also a bit larger, as in 50-80. And one thing I've been asked about several times is punishment in schools: teachers here will sometimes hit the students not only if they misbehave but if they answer incorrectly or do bad on an exam, and they are interested to hear how much trouble a teacher in American would get into if they hit a student.

I was again asked if I would sing in class this week, and after I refused and tried to explain our lack of enthusiasm for singing in front of 35 people in America, they were having none of it and started clapping and cheering me on. Phillip was observing my class and only encouraged them; I foolishly told them I would sing if Phillip did, and he immediately sang some lines from a Chinese song. I racked my brain as I heard someone say "a Christmas song!", so I managed the first two lines of "White Christmas" before stopping. I think that was the first and hopefully last time I sing in front of a crowd. It's perfectly normal to socialize with students here, so I need to work out a way to do so without telling 240 students that I'm looking to hang out after class. Some students are eager to talk to me after class and want opportunities to practice their English but are shy and difficult to arrange an actual activity with. I think being demolished in ping pong by my students would be good fun, or taking some out to lunch and avoiding the point-to-the-menu-and-see-what-I-get method. Their personalities are so different from American students; one student this week talked to me during the break to ask what I had dreamt about. They tend to say things like "I hope you will have a happy day", which I think is only partly due to their limited English, and mostly because they actually say things like that in China. They don't do cynicism or sarcasm, and I wonder what the legions of innocent Chinese students studying-abroad think of a place like America.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Mr. Dan, May I Ask a Question?

Yesterday I had an unusual experience in the classroom. Towards the end of the lesson there was a knock on the door, and Mr. Wang from the English Department wanted to talk to me in the hallway. He said that such-and-such department was interested in taking pictures of the foreign teachers in the classroom, and wanted to know if it would be all right if they came into my lesson. I gave him the okay, and when I asked when this might be taking place, he said "actually, in a few minutes. See you then". I have come to realize that the Chinese are not big on planning in advance. Sure enough, after about 3 minutes there was another knock on the door. As it turned out, when he said "pictures" he meant "video", and two people with a rather professional-looking camera came and set up in the back of the room to videotape me at work. The timing was bad, because I was just in the middle of handing out something to the class I wanted them to look over silently for a couple of minutes, so I had to improvise and rush through to the next, slightly more active part of the lesson. Before long I had them doing group work, so the camera crew asked me to help students individually so they could get close-ups of me doing whatever it is that I do. I attempted to look as knowledgeable and confident as I could manage, or at least not a waste of the school's money. I'm really not sure what this video is being used for, so for all I know there is awkward footage of me teaching a class what my name means being paraded on the local news. As far as I know, none of the other foreign teachers have been taped as of yet.

Last night the foreign teachers were taken for dinner, again, this time by the English Department. The preference for formal dining is obviously hot pot, as this was the third or fourth time I've been taken out for hot pot. There were only four of us, because some had other plans and they forgot to invite the new teachers (I only knew through a random encounter with the Chinese English teacher named Tiger). I was looking forward to finally talking to some of the Chinese English teachers, but they were across the large table and mostly talked amongst themselves in Chinese. Me and Gary, a Canadian who has been teaching in China for 14 years, left early to attend to another dinner invitation from a foreign teacher named Julian over at the Zhangye Medical College. He is in his second year with the Peace Corps, and invited the foreign teachers of Zhangye to his apartment where his students were cooking a meal.

We arrived fashionably (an hour-and-a-half) late, and it turned out that none of the other invites had shown up and they had just finished eating. Six of Julian's students were there, none of them being English majors, and were shy even by Chinese student standards. They hid in another room until ready to face us, and then whispered amongst themselves as they tried to figure out our English conversation, excitedly repeating any Chinese place names we mentioned. Their level of English was quite low, but two of them could manage basic conversation, and one in particular would suddenly and loudly interrupt our conversation with a question she had been preparing for the last five minutes. I can't help but smile at the way lower-level Chinese students of English will say "Mr. Dan" or "Mr. Gary" when addressing someone. When talking she not only avoided eye contact but actually turned her head in the other direction while looking down and playing with her hair. I'm sure they've never been in a small room with three foreigners before, and despite not understanding any of the conversation they stayed until me and Gary left, and escourted us off of the campus and directed a taxi driver for us, despite Gary's excellent Chinese. There is not only curiosity but some concern for the foreigners in a place like this; one of my students told me to wear my coat during class so I wouldn't catch a cold, and I am often given a spoon for meals that are not difficult to eat with chopsticks. When I was a little lost and asked someone which way the University was, a small crowd gathered to see what I needed. And there is simply curiosity as well; I would say the majority of people on the street and in restaurants turn their heads to look at me as I'm walking by, and little kids will follow me and hide behind me. I was interested to find out that there are two Peace Corps volunteers in town (Cynthia, another foreign teacher at Hexi as well) since I was vaguely flirting with that idea, so I guess I'm kind of getting a Peace Corps experience without the restrictions and with better pay.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Shy Teacher

Today I had my first "real" classes, as in the first ones in which I had the class for the second time, had given them a reading assignment, and had to really teach them something. It was quite a lot of fun actually, especially when I give the students a creative outlet and let them surprise me. The reading, from the textbook, was about how Native American names are given to them as a way to describe someone's character. As suspected they haven't learned about Native Americans, so I gave a quick lecture on the culture, and then had them pick Native American-style names for each other and myself. I had two classes and was called Shy-Man and Shy-Teacher (they haven't really gotten past "shy" and "handsome" in describing me, although "friendly" might have been thrown in there once or twice), and they picked names like Naughty-Girl, Big-Head-Cat, Snoopy, and Tomato-Salad-Girl for each other. I also had them write about what they thought of the name given to them. An excerpt: "I'm really a naughty girl. Many classmates are afraid to play with me. In our life, we should have much smile and happy. So, I think, naughty is not my fault, but my advantage. Do you think so? I very like this name". I also found an appropriate New York Times article online about how Chinese students like to pick oddball English names in the classroom (http://www.bebeyond.com/LearnEnglish/BeAD/Readings/PickNameChina.html) which I shortened and had them read in class, told them about Western names and gave them a list of their own English names with meanings (I had them share a few copies and mild chaos ensued), and had them describe Chinese names to me and think of some Chinese names for me. It's a scary idea at first, but I expect to find having total freedom in the classroom to be ideal. The students can also be really enthusiastic at times, and will do things like standing in unison to greet me when I enter the room and erasing the blackboard for me.

Last Saturday, I had dinner with Phillip and an English woman named Tracy who is teaching at a Zhangye middle school, both of whom are also going through OWDC for their jobs. Afterwards we went to my place and shared a bottle of baijiu, the popular and potent Chinese rice wine, which I was looking forward to trying. It's probably most similar to vodka but with a strange, vaguely fruity taste and a little stronger. It was a new experience for me to be hosting adults in my own apartment, fellow teachers no less. Only now am I starting to feel like anything resembling an adult, and I do enjoy the freedom and the idea of having my own money and lifestyle.

On Sunday I went shopping for a guitar, and surprisingly I found three or four shops. Generally they had to dust them off, and without fail all of the strings were completely slack as if ready for a lengthy storage. In one shop, the owner was giving a young girl a piano lesson, and both stopped the lesson to stare at me for the first five minutes as I tuned a guitar, until I finally told them to continue. I didn't find anything that grabbed me; that is, until I stumbled into the Rock and Roll Guitar Pub near the city square. There were maybe 7 or 8 university students in there sitting on stools and playing guitars, with their young guitar teacher running the store. The place was full so the (possible) owner insisted that one of the guys stand so I could sit, which I found a little embarrassing. Of course, as soon as I sat down with a guitar everyone stopped playing to watch me. Eventually they got brave enough to talk to me, since one or two could speak some English. They asked me to plug in an electric and play, and the owner sat down with his guitar to play along. Someone requested "Restaurant in California", so the two of us went through a rousing rendition of "Hotel California". This is the one Western rock song most revered in Asia (certainly Thailand), and he knew the solo by heart. The owner couldn't speak English but had his friend translate, and was quite excited about having me in his store and playing with me. We took some pictures together and exchanged phone numbers, and he wants me to come back, which I will. I did buy a guitar from him as well, a decent acoustic for about $50. The other foreign teachers have been a great source of help and outlet for my social life, but I will hopefully also make more Chinese friends as time goes on.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Welcome Banquet

Last night all the foreign teachers at Hexi were taken out to dinner by the President and Vice-President of the University, as well as the Head of the English Department and our waiban Miss Mao. There are nine other foreign teachers (or "foreign experts" as we are considered, and I will soon have a certificate declaring myself one), and I hadn't met most of them. As expected I am the youngest, and the others are from England, Scotland, America, Canada, Singapore, the Phillipines, Egypt, and Hong Kong. The dinner was excessively nice, and we were gathered around a large revolving table with dishes placed all around it, which Miss Mao had to push along the entire meal. There were more than 30 dishes all in all, generally very good, and the most interesting of which included chicken stomach, eel, and an entire chicken complete with head. There was an elegant bird carved out of turnip for the center, which the waitress dropped and broke before it even got to the table, so another was immediately fetched. When I asked what it was made out of, the Vice-President joked that I better not eat it or I would get Avian Flu.

I was told I would have to make a speech as a new teacher and the youngest, but this never came to pass, not that I minded. Eating out in China, especially formally, includes some important social rules such as never drinking alcohol unless you are toasted or toast someone. The bill is also never split, and generally paid by the oldest or most successful. Towards the end, there was quite a lot of toasting going on, and the heads of the University and Phillip started drinking baijiu by the glass, a strong liquor popular in China. Drinking in China is generally only done with meals (I'm not sure yet if there is a single bar in town), and they like to do drinking games that involve fingers and shouting numbers at each other. The game that I was taught involved first showing your middle finger "to show friendship", and I explained that if they are ever in America it would be best never to do that.

This morning Miss Mao took me and the other two new teachers to the bank to open accounts. On the way to her office, I noticed an elderly woman doing Tai Chi with a sword on the basketball courts, which I think is quite a common site if you are up early enough. The bank was very modern-looking, but after about 10 minutes I realized that next to each computer was a wooden abacus, the old-fashioned Chinese counting machine, rather than a calculator. In town there is a new street called European Style Street, or Marco Polo Street, and up and down it are big white buildings with Roman columns, but if you go one street over, there is a dirt road and houses made out of bricks with no doors. There are expensive European cars in town, and right behind them will be a man on a cart being pulled by a donkey. China is supposed to pass Japan and possibly even America in the next century as an economic powerhouse, but they are also the oldest civilization on Earth, and I think this is an interesting time to be here, especially in the places that aren't quite at the forefront of the economic growth.

I also haven't mentioned the weather here. It is cold, probably about the same as New York right now, but considerably drier. It hasn't rained in six months and it seldom snows. However, Southeast Asia was too hot for my tastes and I find the weather refreshing. I think this was also a good time to come because it is only going to get warmer. It wouldn't have been right to stay in Southeast Asia anyway, because if there's one things that connects Binghamton, Buffalo, London, Denmark, and Zhangye, it's that they've all been damn cold.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006


I've been in Zhangye less than a week now, but I already like it enough that spending a year here sounds perfectly fine. When I've told people who know a little about China that I've taken a job in a small city in the northwest, the usual reaction is a long pause followed by "well, good luck". I have had my doubts: spending a year in a city with about 12 other Westerners, being surrounded on all sides by vast stretches of desert (look up the satellite image of "Zhangye China" at maps.google.com), signing a year's contract in a country I've never been to, and teaching university students after no more than 4 weeks' training. But now that I'm here, it's actually right up my alley: lots of opportunities to learn the language, the other foreign teachers are extremely helpful, the food is excellent, cost of living is minimal (I make the equivalent of $365 a month, and expect to save two-thirds of that for traveling), and the Chinese are unfailingly generous, interesting people. It's a small city, manageable by foot and especially bicycle, but very compact and with character, with loads of stores and restaurants lined up next to each other. I think it would be vaguely like coming to America and going to a place like Ithaca, New York instead of a big city. That is, if Ithaca was a bit smaller and had more than 200,000 people, and had buildings that were 500 years old.

The train ride from Beijing to Zhangye (pronounced roughly like "Jong-yeah") was 30 hours long, but I had my own bunk for sleeping and it wasn't boring, especially at the end when we reached my province, Gansu. There are immense stretches of no civilization at all, but the landscape is beautiful to someone who's never lived near the desert or mountains, a bit like a new planet just beginning to be colonized. Even though our conversation was no more than 3 or 4 sentences I could manage in Chinese, the man in the bunk across from me gave me his business card and told me to call him if I'm ever in Beijing. I was picked up at the Zhangye station by the woman from the Foreign Affairs Office with good English who is my waiban, basically your boss in China but in a farther-reaching sense than in America (your employer is "like your mother" as it was described to me, and I have to tell her when and where I want to travel). I was then shown to my apartment. After so much traveling with such excessively large luggage I would have been happy to call any dinghy apartment my home, which is mostly what I was expecting, but as it turns out my apartment is quite spectacular. A living room with tv/dvd, two bedrooms, a separate kitchen and dining room, computer room with internet, bathroom with washing machine, indoor balcony, and a strange little room full of cabinets, all spacious and seemingly new, are for me. It would go for several thousands of dollars in Manhattan; here it and the expenses are free. As it turns out I am in the building with all of the Communist Party officials, with the nicest rooms on campus; they are renting it out for me because they didn't have anywhere else to put me, and I have to move to a more reasonable apartment next term.

I was taken out to dinner by Mao Ai Li, the waiban, my first night, as well as breakfast and lunch the next day, and the eating here is fantastic, well beyond where I was in Thailand and even cheaper. A favorite for a nice meal out is hot pot, in which the tables have a burner in the middle and a pot of soup and various sauces is boiled while the meats and vegetables are added over time. When eating a normal meal at a decent restaurant it is standard to order a number of dishes and share them; a large meal of 4 dishes with beer will cost about $5 between two people, which is not even that cheap, as the little noodle shops all over town offer a filling meal for about 40 cents. The beer is good and comes in large bottles for about 40 cents, a little cheaper than the bottled water. Meals are often quite spicy, and the little noodle places will only have hot tea if anything to drink with it. I have gone out to eat several times with Andrew, another foreign teacher from Scotland, who is an excellent insider as his Chinese is amazing after only six months, and he has extensive conversations with the locals and talks to our waiban only in Chinese. I went to eat with him and a friend he's made who owns a restaurant, who fed us for free and then insisted on also taking us to a classy restaurant and paying for it, while they had an hour-long conversation in Chinese about his marriage problems. There are teachers in bigger cities who leave China knowing nothing more than ni hao (hello). I have mostly talked to Andrew and Phillip, another teacher who just started working at Hexi University (pronounced like "huh-shee") through the same organization as well and is experienced in China and very helpful. I don't really feel the need to meet many more Westerners, and hope to quickly improve my Chinese.

Today was my first day as a real teacher, with my first two classes. I have 7 classes, but each class is actually two 50-minute blocks back to back with a 10-minute break, so just 14 teaching hours a week. I have lesson planning and probably some office hours and other duties, but I don't expect the job to occupy more than 25 hours a week. The first class is spent simply getting to know your students and getting a grasp of their level and how you should plan future lessons, and they went fine. As a foreign teacher in China you have almost absolute freedom; when I asked Su from my placement organization how much guidance I can expect from the school, she said "none" before I even finished my sentence. My timetable of classes and textbooks weren't ready until the day before classes began, and when I asked the English Department about the office hours and co-teacher I was told about, they looked confused and told me to come back in a few days because they didn't know. Also, I was surprised to learn I am teaching Reading and not Oral English. One of my two textbooks in particular is amazingly dull (one story is about a man who makes a living by having his laughing recorded), and I expect to find a lot of my own materials for the students to read. The idea of making up my classes as I go along is a bit daunting at the beginning, but I think overall it will be more interesting than having to strictly follow the school's guidelines, especially stories like "The Left-Footed Thief".

The students themselves, though often quite shy and nervous about speaking in class, are fantastic to be around and very kind and endearing. The level of English is not always as high as you might assume, but sometimes they are quite good and can be very amusing and surprising in what they say. They learn all number of grammar rules and such from their Chinese English teachers, but don't get much practice with real English speakers, and thus they hire us. They are more sincere and younger at heart than American students; when I told my second class I would be taking all their pictures to help me learn their names and that the classroom was so dark (this is not a rich school and I think they turn all the lights off when it's bright enough in the morning) that we'd better go outside, they erupted in cheers. Class size is around 35 (middle school classes are usually 60-80 by comparison) and the classrooms are very simple and tightly packed together. When I started my first class there was no chalk or eraser anywhere in the room to be found, and finally a student got some from another room. I had a number of activities planned but essentially what we got through in a 100 minute lesson was me introducing myself and passing around pictures from home (this causes quite a stir, especially family pictures), having students get in pairs and tell the class their partner's name and three things about them, having the students write out a sheet for me with info like their English names (they all have them, most are typical but there is a Snow and a Fish etc.) and what they want to learn in class, and then taking pictures of each student outside. In a remote city where Chinese outnumber foreigners by more than 20,000 to 1, the foreign teachers are a cause for much excitement and interest, and they want to know everything about you. They always ask if I have a girlfriend and say I'm handsome, and then giggle as the class laughs; socially, especially in dating, China is often much more old-fashioned and innocent than the West, which I love. I get the impression that not all that many of them at this age have dated someone. My second class asked me to sing an English song at the start of class, and said I was too shy when I wouldn't. I was also told I looked like I had a lot of money, and a male student after a long thoughtful pause told me that I was very beautiful.

Life is very different here and therefore very interesting, and I'm looking forward to the rest of the year. It is impossible to find a job as comparatively good in America with a bachelor's degree like mine, and I'm surprised I only heard of this field so recently. Of course, there are a lot of negative stories to be found, but I suspect they are often from people who either didn't do their research or came for the wrong reasons. I will continue to update this page every so often as the year goes on, and hope that everyone at home stays in touch.