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.

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