Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Good Performance, Bad Performance, Music Lessons

This week is the last of classes, and things have been busy now that the end of the term is approaching. Xiao Ma's new thing is the "M-Club" (for "music" and "movies"), so all the people who frequent the guitar shop now have matching t-shirts, and there will sometimes be "parties" with "activities", which could mean anything. He's also more serious about forming a real band, which includes me, so I'll be spending more time there (every day if he had his way). We had a performance last weekend, which they told me about around 2 hours before it happened. It was in an internet cafe, oddly, and along with the music included unusual performances like street dancing and bicycle tricks. There was a band with a female singer who sang two English songs, both by the Cranberries, one of the five or six Western bands whose music can be bought in Zhangye. I was dragged to the front for a game I didn't understand, that involved pressing the space bar on a computer to get a number, after which someone in the place apparently won, what I don't know.

Last week one of my classes was invaded by a foreigner, namely Andrew. There was mild chaos as he suggested we go outside for pictures during the break, and then the students talked him into talking me into abandoning the rest of the class and drinking apricot tea and talking in Chinese. After we went back inside, Mohamed caught wind of the chaos after finishing an exam and joined the room, so the excitement in the students reached a boiling point with all three of their young foreign teachers in the same room. We were talked into singing Chinese and Scottish songs and generally fooled around. Very difficult job, this. I think both students and teacher have been losing their enthusiasm after 17 weeks of class, so I didn't mind being irresponsible for 50 minutes.

Andrew had a friend named Chris visit, another foreign teacher in another province in China. He was from Denmark, and only about an hour from where I spent the summer doing archaeology, so it was good to reminisce about Denmark and show my total incompetence in pronouncing Danish place names ("could you spell that?"). An example of just how complimentary Chinese people are: one of our student friends complimented Chris' Chinese as having "great improvement"; she had known him for two days.

Tonight was a performance in honor of the Communist Party, in which all of the Chinese English teachers were forced to sing, and have been practicing daily for a couple of weeks now. The foreign teachers were invited to participate, and if I'm to overcome my dislike of singing in public, it certainly wasn't going to be tonight. But as my co-teacher was pestering me I agreed I would still come, which I thought plainly meant that I would watch the performance. Lo and behold, last night I receive an e-mail from my co-teacher telling me that I need to meet at 5pm to get my t-shirt, and arrive at the performance by 7:00 for make-up, and that I better eat beforehand so I don't spoil the make-up; I was meant to just stand there on the stage while the English department was singing. He was shocked and appalled when I said I had no interest in being paraded on a stage just because the judges wouldn't embarrass foreigners with a low score (I didn't say it in those words but we heard that is why they wanted the foreign teachers up there, even if they didn't sing). So, I had to meet him at 5pm, and with a pouty-face on he led me to see the Dean of English Department, which maybe he thought was intimidating, but there's only so much authority someone can muster when they have to keep asking you if their English is correct. The Dean put on a disappointed face, but I explained I never agreed to this and Americans are not keen on being displayed on a stage doing nothing, make-up or not (talent doesn't have that much to do with getting on a stage in China, and some performances in the square have been endearingly amateur). My co-teacher is a strange, uptight man who sent a page-long e-mail criticizing me for not responding to a minor e-mail in time, and I'm hoping not to hear much from him in the future. Many of the other foreign teachers didn't go but I was only one given such a hard time about it, because of him. The whole thing was kind of amusing, because Chinese people in authority are used to having a lot of control over their subordinates' lives, and they have little control over the foreign teachers, and if anything we're the ones who intimidate them, because they have to use their English to talk to us.

I now have a new hobby - learning the gu zheng (古筝), an ancient Chinese instrument called the "zither" in English that has 21 strings, is laid out on a stand over your lap, and played with picks taped to your fingers. There is a school in Zhangye that usually performs in an area of the square in the evenings, so I got talking to them, and decided that what the hell, I'll sign up for lessons on an instrument I've never seen before from a teacher who doesn't speak English. As it turns out the teacher is well-known in these parts, and will travel to Vienna in the summer, which is pretty much unheard of around here. She's amazing at the instrument, and so far I enjoy the lessons. I can figure out most of the important things she is saying, and I otherwise learn by watching her demonstrate. It's not a very difficult transition from the guitar, though it is strange being a beginner at an instrument again. Sarah, one of the excitable music students me and Andrew know, also wants to learn gu zheng; she'll come when I do, which should keep the lessons adequately enthusiastic at all times. Every teacher should be so lucky as to get students like the ones here.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

My Chinese Name

I've finally been given a Chinese name - "Dong Yang" (冬阳), which means "sunshine in winter". Because Chinese words sound so similar, the Chinese often explain their name when meeting someone ("Dong as in winter, Yang as in sun"); "Dong" with the same tone also means "east," and "yang" with the same tone could mean "ocean," so there's the potential for some confusion. Chinese name meanings are often flowery and poetic, and the students like to pick English names like "Rain" and "Snow". MoMo gave me the name, so I turn gave her an English name, Maya. I knew she would ask about the meaning so I looked it up, the main meaning being the Hindu concept that reality and the appearance of separate living things is an illusion, not something I had any hope of getting across to her. I just told her it had to do with dreams, and I did originally find it searching for a name with that meaning because it suits her personality, though it seems it means "goddess of dreams" only in the world of Marvel comics.

Me and Andrew now have several mutual Chinese friends, mostly Hexi students from other departments or older English students we don't teach. It's very difficult for me to keep up with the conversation (Andrew rarely talks in English when among Chinese people, which is always) but it's very good for my Chinese. As it turns out the students who want to befriend us are mostly girls, but to be fair almost all the students truly interested in English are girls. In particular there are three very excitable students who have invited us to the park a few times and cooked us dumplings. I'm trying to picture American students giggling around young Chinese guys who could speak only basic English, and somehow I don't see it happening. Andrew had his students give written feedback about his class, and one wrote something like "Thanks to the God for giving us such a handsome foreign teacher to teach us lots of knowledge".

I continue to find out bizarre facts about life in China. Two English students told me they would be busy the next day because they were preparing for an exam; as it turned out they had to practice their gymnastics in order to pass a P.E. exam. They would also have to run; I asked if they would fail if they didn't fun fast enough, which I meant mostly jokingly, but they replied "yes, and we won't get our scholarship". Surely the first thing one does in a job interview for a English teaching position is run the 50 yard dash, so I guess it pays to be prepared. Also, there is no drinking age in China. In the park I saw an 8-year old take a drink of beer from the bottle in front of his parents. Shocked, I asked MoMo how old you have to be buy beer, and she replied "oh, everyone can buy beer". Though I suppose drinking and driving isn't a problem in a country in which hardly anyone can drive. I'm often asked "do you know how to drive?" (they can't believe we learn at 16) and "do you know how to swim?" (very few have ever done so here).

Last week in class as part of a discussion about "stereotypes" and "national characteristics" I asked the students to describe people from different countries. I liked hearing the British described as "optimistic" and Americans as "shy" (I guess they are going by the one British person and one American they know), but the most interesting was always getting them to describe the Japanese. There is a deep-rooted hatred of Japan going back to WWII, so everyone perked up a bit and started shouting things like "aggressive", "cold-hearted", "small", "cunning", etc., while even more enthusiasm was mustered to describe the Chinese as "friendly", "clever", "generous" and every positive adjective they possibly think of. Also last week I gave my first final exam, the final part of which involved summarizing one of the short readings on the exam in their own words. Some memorable statements on Martin Luther King, Jr.: "It is became famous, because he spread the idear which urged people to disobey unjust laws that unfair betwern blank people and white people", and "He was hot and killed in 1968". I should mention that these students were only on the two-year program and are now graduating and have degrees qualifying them as English teachers. But my favorite, which I will quote in full, starts off like this:
"When I reading passed 2, I'm confused! My God! It's too difficult. What should I do? There are a lot of no meaning words. I'm scared I'm going to fail. Take it easy! 'I can I do!' Said to me. So I began to this passage from word to word. When I answered these questions. Because I didn't this passage what's meaning. so I didn't know which chose it. Maybe I haven't confidience. But I tried my best to do it."
She then went on to actually answer the question, and wrote "(Sorry. Maybe I've a mistake. Cancell first paragraph)" at the top. I gave her bonus points for making me laugh.

Never has it been so easy for me to meet people (whether I want to our not), because they will come find me. When leaving my apartment on Sunday there was a woman walking towards me, who stopped me to ask "are you Dan?". I'm not sure how she knew where I lived and why she didn't bother to just phone me, but she owns a small private English school called "You and Me" and wanted me to stop by a celebration her students were having that afternoon. I'm always curious what I'm getting myself into, so I did stop by Dicos (the city's gaudy Western-style fast food restaurant) to talk to the children. It was not entirely unlike being a clown, and I'm starting to get used to being randomly videotaped when I'm talking, but it was amusing. Afterwards Tappy (the woman's English name, which I'll assume she did actually chose herself) invited me to her home for dinner with a group of teachers and Hexi students. It was fun after all, with a few of the students having very good standards of English, and ended with an effeminate male student singing Whitney Houston and Peking Opera and a rousing game of "paper, rock, scissors" to finish the food.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Dragon Boat Festival, sans Boats or Dragons

There happened to be back-to-back holidays last week: first the Dragon Boat Festival, and then Children's Day on June 1st. The main feature of the Dragon Boat Festival are the dragon boat races, which in the middle of a desert are of course non-existent, so people here just eat the traditional zongzi (glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves) and tie string around friends' wrists for good luck (no one told me I was supposed to wear it for a month so I cut the first one off immediately the next morning). For Children's Day I spent the afternoon in Ganquan Park, for the first time in Zhangye fighting through a crowd, for tickets into the park. One of the more maddening Chinese habits is the lack of lines: if a lot of people want something at once it turns into complete chaos. I told my students we should have had the day off because they are often as excitable as children. Last week also had a few amusing moments in class as I taught them American slang and had them use it; there's something wonderful about a job that involves hearing "let's go the canteen, it's totally fabulous. The food is to die for" from a Chinese English student. There was also a group that had obviously learned some slang from somewhere else, but God knows where, as they ended a skit about a bothersome friend by telling him "Fuck off!". Me and Andrew also finally saw the student dorms: eight beds to a room, no desks (certainly not things like computers), and washing clothes by hand in a basin (they often just wear the same clothes everyday).

It's always entertaining to be at the mercy of non-native English speakers. On Saturday a trip was arranged for the foreign teachers by Miss Mao, and we didn't really know what was coming next until we saw it with our own eyes. She had first told me only "we will go to an interesting place... meet at the big tree at 8:30", so she had me hooked from the start. On the bus (we had no idea we were taking a private bus, even after seeing the bus sitting on the campus) she expanded that to "we will go to the countryside.... the hills are different colors". If I had any reservations before, now I was definitely excited. The second and most random stop (there would be many) involved us getting out to look at an office building for a farmer's union for approximately 2.5 minutes, and then getting right back on the bus. After a number of short stops at farmers' homes (more interesting than the union building), we eventually arrived at our destination, which after all was a pretty spectacular landspace of large multi-colored clay formations out in the middle of nowhere (well, even more out in the middle of nowhere). That's the closest thing I've seen to the American West; most likely I'll end up being better travelled in China than America. Lunch was fancy and elaborate (wouldn't have it any other way) - two of the notorious "big plate of chicken" dishes were just the appetizers. I also met Miss Chen, the reclusive teacher from Hong Kong, for the first time. I had had three dramatic sitings of her without seeing her face, and I half-hoped I would go the entire term without meeting one of the foreign teachers (and no one is sure why she is considered a foreign teacher).

In the continuing series of children's performances in the square, I caught a few minutes of what turned out to be Snow White. Chinese children are amusing when dressed in silly costumes, but I think none more so than as the Seven Dwarves. I was mobbed by about 15 senior middle school students in the audience, who fetched another 15 or so and their teacher to come talk to me. Chinese people are probably the most complimentary on Earth; foreigners that can speak any Chinese in China are praised with "your Chinese is great!"; foreigners in America that have any trouble speaking English are often despised.

Also in the square, I had one of my better language adventures so far. An old man was writing calligraphy on the pavement with a water brush, so me and MoMo went to watch. When he found out I knew a little Chinese he and a few passer-bys watched in amusement as I wrote some characters on the pavement. So he started writing sentences to me, such as "which country are you from?", which I in turn answered with the brush. It certainly didn't hurt that MoMo was there to help me. When he left, he didn't say anything, writing only "goodbye, American friend".