Thursday, September 28, 2006

Military Training

Of the many things that are part of university life in China that American students would never, ever, even consider putting up with, military training is surely one of the most bizarre. This week is military training for the freshman at Hexi, which means that instead of having class they wear matching uniforms and march in line while shouting the numbers "yi! er! san! si!" or "for the service of the people!" all day, every day. Each class has its own military officer, and they were already going at it when I woke up at 6:30 this morning. The girls are particularly amusing to watch, as they usually look like 15 year-olds. This week has been cool but apparently it's common for students to march until they feint in hot weather. The shouting is so loud outside that it's actually pretty distracting while trying to write this.

However, my students are all sophomores so I didn't get out of any classes this week. For some groupwork they had to tell a story about visiting a foreign country. There's been the expected romance in France and kangaroos in Australia, but there have been some more interesting selections - today a student visited Iraq and heard a local complain about the war, and one group described North Korea as a wonderful place to visit, with interesting history and nice scenery. Groups in two different classes chose Japan, but my hopes for the first positive words about the place from Chinese people were let down as they went on about the shocking treatment of women, who are supposedly routinely beaten by their husbands and lacking the hard-won equality of women that the Chinese enjoy. I decided not to mention that China is the only country in the world where more females commit suicide than males. One of these groups asked me to describe Japanese food, and it was obvious they hadn't so much as heard of sushi. That says something about Chinese-Japanese relations that I know more about Japan than they do. More than one group has also gone to Egypt to visit Mohamed, the teacher who left last term, and a group this morning visited New York to attend my wedding.

There are two new young American teachers in Zhangye named Danielle and Stephen, both from the Peace Corps, who look to be bringing a small taste of home to the place. We went out last Friday, one of the few Western "nights out on the town" I've had here so far, and they taught me a Chinese card game. Before meeting them that night, however, it was time for another very vaguely-described performance. I was given an invitation to a "party" (which could mean anything) at 7:30 being put on by the Environmental Society or something of that sort, and told to bring my guitar along. I said I would probably come, but just for a while because I would have other things to do. Of course, when I got home at 8 after dinner I saw I had five missed phone calls, and when I arrived at the music building with my guitar three of my students were standing outside the building waiting for me. There was an official performance list with my name on it, and even better, Andrew's name, next to "harmonica," because once he had made the mistake of playing a simple song he knew in class. He wanted none of that and went to Church, but I dutifully ended up on stage with my rusty-stringed acoustic, performing a brief acoustic version of my song "Seattle" in front of the crowd of over 500, who were crowded into the aisles. Despite my students' best attempts to convince me before I went onstage, I did not wear make-up.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Americans Are Bad

Today, the school gave me a bicycle. Again. Actually, it's the same one given to me at the end of last semester to finally replace the one that was stolen, but this term I was told I couldn't have that one for reasons unknown, waited for the new one for two or three weeks, and was finally just given the same one again. Chinese people find it amusing that we only ride bikes for recreation in America, especially when I describe loading bikes onto a car, driving the car to a park, and then riding them. Even in a city as small as Zhangye, riding a bike is not relaxing: I have to be aware at every moment in order to dodge the various pedestrians, bikes, motorcycles, cars, donkeys, and carts of fruit that block my way. But it's still about the only exercise I enjoy, and I can venture farther into town and break the monotony of the area outside the university.

This evening I decided to branch out and eat at a restaurant I'd never been to in a different part of town. The staff at restaurants here are often less than subtle about their surprise at seeing a new foreign customer, and about halfway through the meal I could hear the server excitedly re-telling the entirety of our dialogue when I ordered to the rest of the staff, emphasizing the part when he asked "big or small?" in English. The Chinese are the anti-French in that they don't speak English but they love to use it.

Because I'm not out-going enough and I have trouble making small talk in any language, I don't get nearly as much conversation practice in Chinese as I should. Zhangye is lacking in things like teahouses, but outside the Great Buddha Temple is a shady walking street with benches, and occasionally I study Chinese there as conspicuously as possible in the hopes someone will come up to me to talk. Tonight I had one success, as a middle-aged man rode up on his bicycle to start a conversation. He immediately pulled out a soiled packet of "Sweet n'Low" sugar, all in English, which he proudly placed in my hands. In fact, I had trouble getting the (limited) conversation off the subject of the sugar, and he kept repeating a single, urgent question, which to me meant only "sugar youbing?". He was obviously convinced I would suddenly understand the words if he just tried hard enough, and he recruited a man riding a bicycle-powered garbage cart that passed by. I asked him to write his question, but he said only "my writing is not good" with some embarrassment and it became obvious that neither of them knew how to write. After the two had an extensive conversation about whether or not I could understand Chinese, rather than actually talking to me (this is common), Cart Man asked where I was from, and declared "Americans are bad!" as he rode away. I've heard little anti-American sentiment, but I'm sure that has as much to do with my limited Chinese as the open-mindedness of locals. In the end Sugar Man still didn't give up - he asked me to come again tomorrow, when he'll have someone else write out the question for him.
(note - he wasn't there but I later figured out he was asking if we have "diabetes" in America)

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Some Boys Like to Collect Girls' Underwear

Learning Chinese is best undertaken by masochists. The spoken language has four tones, which must be pronounced clearly and accurately to be understand and to distinguish the many similar-sounding words (the sound shi can mean "to be", "ten", "time", "city", "to try", "an event", "lion", "wet", "teacher", "lose", "reality", "knowledge", "stone", "food", "arrow", "style", "the world", and many other things depending on context and pronounciation). It's the only major world language with no alphabet, and thousands of characters must be memorized before you can start reading and understanding Chinese. Mastering a word in spoken Chinese tells you nothing about how to write it, and there's no way to be certain of how to pronounce a character you've never seen before. Spoken and written Chinese are separate enough that it's like learning two difficult languages, and experts describe Chinese as around five times as difficult to learn as Spanish. Local dialects are so varied that Chinese people can find communication with people from other areas difficult. That said, I came here for a challenge, and I enjoy the punishment. I'm trying to re-double my efforts after losing ground while traveling, especially when I have trouble being understood and my Chinese teacher says things like "I see your listening hasn't improved over the summer."

Of course, learning English is no simple task for Chinese people, and all of them have to do it. They have the most difficult time doing it, as the total lack of grammatically correct English in public in China goes to show; even a large, fancy, and surely expensive hospital sign set in stone in Zhangye says "Zhangye city mumicipality." I could probably count the number of absolutely perfect English sentences my students have written on one hand. This week some students went over an old reading final exam with me, and some multiple-choice questions had either no right answer or several. Sometimes I have a very frustrating time getting my students not to speak Chinese when doing big groups activities, so I'll have to keep with smaller groups. One of these small group activities this week required students to answer the question "what is the strangest hobby you have heard of?". Many involved eating something, whether it was glass, soil, stones, or centipedes. A couple described things that would include my family - having a snake for a pet and enjoying fishing even if you don't catch anything. One shy boy stood up and said "I have heard that some boys like to collect girls' underwear."

My first few days back in Zhangye after traveling felt strangely underwhelming, but I knew once the teaching started my enthusiasm would pick back up. All in all I consider my students some of the most wonderful people I've met, and I enjoy things like office hours that ought to dreaded as "work." Usually an ideal group of only 4-10 people show up for my office hours, and last week's were particularly good, as a few students vented intelligently about some problems with Chinese teaching methods (namely, 'memorize and be quiet') being used for language and their appreciation of what the foreign teachers do. One of my favorite students wanted to ask if I knew about an English book she had heard about, that she wanted to look into because the main character was a rebel and older Chinese critics warned against it. She didn't know the English title, but she said the author's Chinese name was something like "Sha Lin Jia", and I immediately perked up and asked "do you mean Salinger??". She indeed meant The Catcher in the Rye, so I let her borrow the copy I brought, which made my day.

There is a holiday in China called Teacher's Day, which happened last Sunday. In America those kinds of holidays tend to get marked on a calendar somewhere and never brought up, but this one seems important in China. A few students stopped by to see me and give me fruit, and many called to wish me a happy Teacher's Day. Both of my new classes gave me nice gifts - a stylish thermos, and by far the most entertaining, a toy guitar that lights up and plays children's songs when you touch it. The English department also had an extravagant hot pot dinner for all its teachers, in which the foreigners were placed together in the same room and the few Chinese teachers joining us said little. There was also the expected 30-course banquet for welcoming the new teachers (an older couple from New Zealand via Northern Ireland and a young Peace Corps volunteer) a mere two days later.

Finally, there was another performance with the "Guitar Club" Saturday evening, which was mentioned to me in a phone call three hours beforehand. Luckily two student friends happened to be in my apartment, and Xiao Ma's garbled Chinese was translated to me. This was at the Zhangye Medical College, a few of whose students I have met through the teacher Julian last term. Being nursing rather than English majors, they made my students sound like members of the House of Lords. Perhaps because they get less entertainment than Hexi (not that it's exactly a non-stop party here) they were so enthusiastic as to give the impression Chinese people do like rock music. I was told to play a song on my own towards the end, and Xiao Ma felt the need to summon an English-speaking teacher on stage to talk to me. She started with ni hao (hello), so I said ni hao in return, which was all it took to excite the crowd. She said in English, "your Chinese is very good!", and as I haven't let learned "don't patronize me" in Chinese, I only replied "I think it's just ok." I was asked to tell the audience about myself, and had to ignore Xiao Ma's scolding in my right ear about not saying it in English; I'm here as a teacher, not a novelty act. Though I've matured well past the point of enjoying guitar heroics, after so many performances of strumming on a barely-audible acoustic to songs that are absolutely boring for me to play, combined with many listless hours among a group I can't communicate well with, I felt a patriotic duty to show them how we play in America, and pulled out every obnoxious rock star behind-the-head-as-fast-as-possible-show-off move I could remember. This went over well, and someone shouted something like "one more song, how about it!", so I played and sang the one White Stripes song I know the words to, which received noticeably less enthusiastic applause. The quest to find an English singer has begun in earnest.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Love Doctors and Big Buddhas

The second term of teaching at Hexi has begun, and I've picked up where I left off here. Zhangye feels pretty normal, but going back to America might blow my mind. Six of my eight classes are returning from last term, so it's a relief to see familiar faces who don't have to warm up to me for several weeks before they want to talk. I can end up in a half-hour conversation with some of my more talkative students when I run into them. It's nice to teach at a university. The first week I've eased the students into talking English again with an "advice column" lesson I found on the internet, including getting them into mock therapy groups in an activity called "Love Doctor." Some students have taken this chance to ask me about my personal life and offer advice, which has been amusing: "what are your problems? We are all doctors here."

I haven't properly returned to Zhangye until Xiao Ma has vaguely mentioned us playing at the school the next day, and I end up performing with the band in front of 500 students, which is what happened on Thursday. It was an entertainment extravaganza for the new freshman, so we just started it off with two songs. The highlight was surely the student who sang Italian opera, and was amazing. Andrew told me he saw the large stage being set up on the basketball court and thought "ah, Dan will surely be playing on that." Despite becoming more Chinese than many Chinese-Americans he also says he's not sure about getting another job in China after going home for the summer and re-discovering that there are countries where things work properly and bathrooms are cleaned. I wonder what going home will do to me.

Normally I'm pretty enthusiastic about saying "no" to the many random job offers that come my way, but occasionally I can be talked into doing one lesson at a school in my spare time. Today I rode an hour-and-a-half bus to the town of Shandan with my student Peter, who asked me to come to the school he worked for over the summer, and I agreed because I had heard good things about the town. I gave an hour-long lesson to 9 year-olds, which was 5% showing them photos, 10% going over "hello, how are you?" and 85% improvisation. Photos from home are a sure winner but in this case were a mistake, as I was literally stampeded by students leaping from their seats to grab them. They eagerly set about looking at/destroying them, and at the end of class ran out with them all before I remembered to ask for them back. I also made a little boy cry. That sounds terrible, but all I did was ask him "What do you like to do?" when we were working on that, and I terrified him so much I saw tears forming in his eyes. The lesson actually went fine, and a sycophant from the school went so far as to applaud my brilliant teaching "strategy" of just using English, instead of Chinese and English, to teach the children. The high point of the day was a visit to the "Great Buddha Temple", which they guessed with great uncertainty was 1000 years old. It was a fantastic seven-story pagoda that housed an absurdly large Buddha statue, with the face painted in gold. They claimed it was the largest seated Buddha statue in all of China, but they also claimed that the nearby horse breeding-ground is the largest in the world, which I cast a skeptical eye on. Funny that places like this just lie about unnoticed in China; I had never heard of this Buddha temple until, say, 11:45am today.

I also had the pleasure of facing Miss Mao in ping pong. Miss Mao is the highly energetic, highly entertaining, and highly taller-than-normal waiban of our school, who is the person keeping an eye on the foreign teachers and being bothered when our toilets don't work. I called to let her know I was back, and she mentioned ping pong in answer to my question about her summer. I had barely finished mentioning we should play sometime when she said "tomorrow morning!". When I showed up, before I could greet her or even cross half of the room she said "lai! ("come" or perhaps "let's go!")" in a loud voice and marched to a table. I held my own, but that's not to say I won any of the many games. I think she was just toying with me.

Due to a mysterious woman we are calling the "vice-dean" because we don't care for learning names, things seem strangely organized this term. We even had an English department meeting, unbelievably, the first "meeting" I've seen of any kind. There was even a hand-out, with only one English mistake. Things are shaking up around here, sort-of, and seeming almost "job"-like. Of course, I was called and told about the 10:30am meeting at exactly 10:27am, so I can take comfort that some of the general chaos and disorganization will remain. Otherwise the place wouldn't be the same.