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.

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