Thursday, November 30, 2006

A Very Chinese Ticket Hall

Anyone who has traveled in China will appreciate this:

Jawdropper, Showstopper, Collarpopper

Little Ma, the "rock star" of Zhangye, called me this afternoon for the first time in a while. He told me he wanted my help translating something that was in English. The idea of trying to translate Chinese for someone sounded exciting, although I was sure I was in over my head, whatever it was. That's him in the picture, which is from an earlier night at a dance club (and Gary can be seen doing what he does best in the background). When I arrived at his shop, there was an amusing scene: Little Ma and several of his friends hunched with furrowed brows over a big, fancy effects pedal for electric guitar, which had instructions and markings that were entirely in English. It was an elaborate, complicated effects pedal which would take me a couple of long afternoons in a basement to master even in English, so I wasn't of much use at all. Oddly, the Chinese for things like "flanger" and "effects parameters" haven't come up in my textbooks yet. However, I did get the chance to pick up a few useful guitar-related words along the way. I'm meant to go back tomorrow afternoon for practice, and then perform with his band at 3:00. I asked where the performance was, and he laughed and said at a jianlao, a word I didn't know. So, I looked it up in the dictionary: prison. Apparently a policeman invited him to perform there (he seems to know a lot of people). He also mentioned 1000 something-something which I didn't understand, and I can only hope he meant there would be one thousand inmates there. This should be interesting. I've been getting bored of his guitar shop, but maybe he's worth staying friends with after all.

Beef Noodles and Hot Pot: A Very Chinese Evening

On Tuesday night a man that me and Andrew have befriended invited us to come down to his noodle shop, and I will describe the night to give an idea of a typical evening of hanging out with Andrew and his Chinese friends (who, due to his previously mentioned conversation skills and friendliness, are numerous). We started off with a couple of bowls of Beef Noodles, the specialty of his and many other small noodle shops. Beef Noodles originally come from the capital of this province, so our students are proud of them and easily excited by their mere mention. Andrew had the idea of us watching him make the noodles and taking pictures and video of the process with my camera, which more than pleased him. When asked if that would be ok, he loudly said something very similar to "Of course you can take pictures! I am very happy!" I've always wanted to get a better view of the noodle-making, and it turned out to be picture-worthy in all its noodle-wacking and cauldron-bubbling glory.

After cleaning up (I decided against documenting the dish "washing" process) with his wife, he took us out for a second meal further down the road. His mother-in-law also came, a jovial and meddling woman who I found amusing. She spent much of the evening trying to talk us into letting her fix us up with a wife or two, possibly her unmarried daughter. Despite our protests and excuses, our friend (who I'll call Little Liu, as in the Chinese habit of putting xiao, little, in front of a friend's surname) insisted on taking us for hot pot. However, it was a simple place with a hot plate for every table and not the usual two-hour extravaganza in a fancy restaurant. The owner of the place, who had a used-car salesman cheesyness I kind of liked, was delighted to see two foreign and Chinese-speaking customers. He soon requested a picture with us, and jetted off to borrow a camera. He presented us with a plate of fruit (gifts are not unusual, but in all cases previous have been something I don't want), and tried very hard to treat us to some beers with him. But it was a school night, and we are, of course, responsible teachers.

After saying goodbye to our Chinese friends Andrew suggested a quick stop for naicha, "milk tea", at a place we like in front of the school. I had been fairly quiet during the evening, because Andrew's Chinese ability is well ahead of mine and I think and speak too slowly even when I do understand the conversation, and liked the idea of ending things in English. It's actually Andrew who usually carries the Chinese conversations, and there are few pauses. This didn't last long, however, as a man who was obviously drinking with his friends got wind of Andrew's Chinese, and was especially amused by a few words of Zhangyehua (Zhangye dialect) we could muster. He invited himself to sit down with us, and this time we didn't get out of drinking, as he had bottles ordered and glasses poured before we had time to protest. We insisted on leaving after just a few glasses (and mind you, in China they drink beer out of shot glasses), but he managed to exchange numbers with Andrew and promise to invite him out to eat sometime. Luckily he didn't take to me, mostly asking me what I was thinking about so quietly and why I insisted on saying things to Andrew in English. In those four hours, me and Andrew paid exactly 4 yuan, for the milk tea, which is the equivalent of 50 cents US. On the walk back home, Andrew complained about the hassle of having given this stranger his telephone number. And then we thought about that for a second, and marvelled at having a life in which the big annoyance of the day was agreeing to being taken out for a free meal.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

English Plays: Chinese Students Are Not Shy

I have often thought when doing role-plays in class that many of my students would make fine actors. So, I was happy to discover that all classes in the English Department would perform plays. They worked on the plays for weeks, and a final set of the 12 best were selected, down from the original number of perhaps twice that.

To my surprise, I was invited by one of my classes to take a part in their play. The role was that of a guitar-playing father, and out of 270 students I know of one who plays guitar (in another class), so I suppose I was right for the role. This was class 6, one of the most outgoing I've taught, and though the script was kind of weird, they turned it into an entertaining performance. The story, which they took from the internet but judging from the script was definitely written by Chinese English students, is about a dishonest candy salesman in front of the school gate, who makes dirty candy that makes the students ill. It was highlighted by talking, dancing candy ("I'm dirty!" "I'm ugly!" "I'm dirty and ugly!"), no less than two Aqua songs ("Barbie Girl" and a song that repeated, loudly, "come on let's go get it on!"), and the charismatic performance of Alice, the candy salesman with a drawn-on mustache. In the play I have two daughters, who ask me to play guitar in a ploy to get money from me, and were appropriately whiny. My students are better actors than me, and they had to encourage me to really get angry at the daughters when they trick me.

The final performances took place last Friday evening in the music hall. Many students went all-out when renting costumes and having their hair done, and some of them I had a lot of trouble even recognizing. After several "no"s, I finally got it across that I was not interested in wearing makeup. The picture below is from rehearsal; none of my pictures of the actual performances came out decently. Half of the plays were put on by classes that I teach, and I had seen rehearsals of several of them, so I had been looking forward to it for a while. The first play was Snow White, which I knew from rehearsal was one of the best, and I was very impressed. This was put on by a class which sometimes irritates me this term, due to their lack of enthusiasm on Friday, but in fact their English is very good. Another class, who are a teacher's dream and my favorite to teach as of late, did a very successful rendition of Cinderella. This class has always done amazing things with role-plays, and they love the stage. The student who played the wicked stepmother was perfect; Andrew has admitted to being afraid of her in the past. There was full-on ballroom dancing featuring the entire class in costume, and in true Chinese style, Cinderella was taken away on the back of a bicycle at the end. Another highlight was a Chinese story about two lovers (both played by girls) and a severe, disapproving mother, which was written by the class and did well with the judges.

Phillip, the teacher from England, was confident that the play I was in would win first prize simply because it had a foreign teacher in it. I doubted it very much, because although our play was good several others clearly deserved it more, and I figured he was just being cynical. However, sure enough, when the results came in it was our play, The Pocket Money, which was victorious. I was happy for that class, but also quite annoyed at how much I seemed to have affected the outcome. I disagreed with the results in general (Cinderella didn't even place), but it was an exciting night, and easily one of the highlights of this term.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Censorship? What Censorship?

I was simply stupified when I read this:

As it mentions, China has the most sophisticated internet censorship in the world. You can't even read this blog in China (I can only access the page for updating it). I also like the comment about the "legal problems" of journalists.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Admiration for My Students

I've come to the conclusion that my students are better people than me. A few days ago some of my students came to my home because they wanted to cook dinner (a win-win situation, as they like to cook and I rather enjoy eating), and told me how they spent their day: by visiting an orphanage to see a small boy with mental problems. They heard he didn't have any money for art supplies, so they pooled together some money (of which I'm sure they have very little) to buy him art supplies. I truly enjoy spending time with my students - many of them converse quite easily in English, and seeing them outside of class feels more like spending time with Chinese friends than English students. I see them slightly more often since I decided to cancel my formal office hours and just give them all my phone number, and that evening I spent an enjoyable few hours watching Chinese cooking and being taught Chinese idioms. Art, one of my funniest male students, can be seen in the photo. On another day this past week, I watched The Wizard of Oz with a student, which had Chinese subtitles and the added benefit of learning useful phrases like "Toto, I think we're not in Kansas anymore".

Before arriving, I worried that my salary was low even for China (a trainer on my training course with China experience scoffed at me, said I was selling myself short, and declared he wouldn't work for less than 12,000 RMB/month, four times what I'm paid). My wage would actually be illegal at home, because translated into US dollars it is easily under minimum wage. However, upon living here I realize how over-paid I am by Chinese standards, and it's difficult not to feel guilty about it sometimes, especially when students tell me about their parents who work as teachers and make less than half as much as me, and are struggling with putting their kids through college. A friend of Andrew's, after graduating and making a long, unsuccessful attempt at getting a good job in Shanghai, has come back and settled for a job in a computer store that pays 400 RMB/month, or roughly $50. Many of my students wear the same clothes everyday, and one of my hardest-working students casually mentioned how she has to walk for miles to get to the nearest phone in her hometown. A bicycle at school is a luxury only some of my students can manage; I don't think even the President of the university has a personal car. This is one of the poorest provinces in China, where many live under the official poverty line of $86 per year (yes, per year; I've spend that much on concert tickets), and my students are so good-natured that it's easy to forget what kind of difficulties they and their families must face in life. The Chinese have an admirable life attitude and overcome difficulties without complaint that would drive most Americans into depression, or at least chronic complaining. A student I've come to know is an only child whose father has died from cancer, and whose mother has recently gone blind, but has to bribe doctors to get any treatment - sadly, not uncommon. And I only know this second-hand, not because the student has even mentioned it. Many shop-owners and vendors I know work roughly 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, and yet greet everyone with a supremely satifisfied smile day in and day out. A girl who was a friend last term when she was a senior, and has one of the highest levels of English I've seen in anyone at the school, now works 15 or 16 hours every day for a dishonestly run middle school. She was whispering over Skype because they aren't permitted to chat on the internet, and the phone cut off suddenly because a leader was walking by. Whatever "difficulties" I face in the future when I return to America, it's fair to say I don't have the right to complain about anything ever again.

Speech Competition

Recently I was asked to judge another speaking competition. These have their benefit, but I would like to see a competition in which the students write their own speeches. Or at the very least, don't give the word-for-word same speech that was given 8 contestants previously. The rousing nationalism of "I Am Chinese" ('who can say we don't have nuclear weapons!!') was slightly less affecting second-time around, and its hallow anecdote about meeting an arrogant American tourist was more grating the second listen. Otherwise the speech contents got no more controversial than "you should love your parents". By far, the best moment came early on during a speech titled "If I Were a Boy Again", which used the word "boy" in the first person repeatedly and would have been forgettable, if it weren't for the fact that the student giving the speech was a female.

One of the foreign teachers, when told as were waiting there would be 26 speeches (there were 19 as it turned out) simply made a break for it, not to return. This led to a mildly awkward moment when he was asked to stand up and greet the crowd and he wasn't there. There was another moment at the end when a foreign teacher was called on to make a speech and it turned out he had stepped out into the hall. But I suppose that's bound to happen when you expect teachers to make impromptu speeches about learning English without giving us the slightest warning. For some reason I'm usually not asked; I suppose it pays to keep a low profile. Finally, there was a moment as we were waiting that dimmed mine and Andrew's already low level of enthusiasm for the evening. A student asked Andrew if he could read the Chinese characters being displayed, and he very easily read out the English translation, which was along the lines of "Hexi University Management Department Student Magazine's First English Speech Competition". An English teacher turned around and said "oh you can't read that! A student must have told you". Andrew's been here long enough to be cynical about these condescending attitudes and very sarcastically replied "yes, of course, because foreigners can't speak Chinese!", to which she just nodded and smiled. I've had Chinese conversations interrupted by passers-by shouting to the other person, "oh, he doesn't understand Chinese!" In China, it's easy to vent your irritation through sarcasm, because no one understands it.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Sickness and Joy

Sometimes I have the feeling people in town want to talk to me, but are hesitant at first. I generally eat out by myself (when I say "generally eat out", I mean every single day, twice), which is of great amusement to my students because 1. I freely admit to having no cooking ability and 2. doing anything without the company of at least 1-3 other people is perplexing to most Chinese people. Sometimes I try to initiate conversation in restaurants by asking what a character is called that I've seen on a sign and written on my notepad, which generally fails but at least is educational. Tonight I ate at a restaurant with no customers but a friendly-looking staff of one, who was happy to identify a character called tie and recommend a dish but opted for 15 minutes of awkward silence afterwards. But just as I was about to leave she excitedly came up to me with a magazine, in which she found that character used in a sentence. I'm constantly wishing I was a better conversationalist; this led to all of 20 seconds of speaking practice in wish I confirmed that yep, I teach at Hexi University, and could think of nothing more interesting to say than "studying Chinese is hard, but I like it". Chinese is a wonderfully practical language though; learning the mystery character of this outing confirmed that the little stick-on photo booth pictures that are popular here are called tie zhi xiang, "paste-paper-pictures". The dish I ate had cashews in the name, which I had to look up, but are literally "fruit waist"; sometimes the logic escapes me.

During the last few days I've been sick, for perhaps the first time that I can blame food, though I have no idea what the culprit was. I cancelled my Monday morning class halfway through, as me and my stomach weren't really in the mood for the unenthusiastic class 8, an announcement which was met by great indifference. But as I suspected, motivated student Charlie volunteered to help me visit the doctor on campus. The staff was of course amused to see me, and after 1.5 minutes of translated consultation, loaded with me up with no less than four medications, setting me back approximately $1.12. Seeing my bottle of water, they also warned me at least 5 times that cold water is bad for my health, and to drink only hot water. Chinese people are very insistent in general that cold drinks are bad for you, making them annoyingly difficult to buy sometimes. On our way out, Charlie prevented me from buying fruit ("it's too cold! You must eat hot food"), so I had go out again later to stock up on fruit. The two Chinese medicines looked deceptively like balls of chocolate, but my taste buds were quick to suggest otherwise; they did warn me "it will be bitter". It worked, at any rate.

And in the interest of including a colorful picture in this post, allow me to introduce you to Joy (on the left, Dr. Seuss outfit), the least jaded person I know. Joy is one of the most appropriately named Chinese students I've met, and I recall her saying something like "everyday is sunshine and happiness!" when I first met her. She apparently has been fearing for my warmth and ability to survive by myself, as last visit she presented me with a gift of long underwear and a note that ended "forever and pure friendship!" My cynical nature was wary of her at first, but I've decided I like her after all. She is one of a group of excitable non-English major students me and Andrew are friends with and affectionately refer to as the "teenage daughters", who now that I think about it I think I've mentioned before. Now she is also a second Chinese teacher to me and Andrew, along with our demanding and quick-talking Lina. I like lessons with Joy because she refuses to speak English unless I am hopelessly lost, and because I can say "now let's just chat" after I run out of questions after 11 minutes. Lina's two-hour lessons from my textbook can be intense. Joy is often accompanied by daughter Fiona, who tends to say "I'd like to use your computer!" and disappear for 40 minutes, and never knows what I'm saying in Chinese.

Foreigners speaking Chinese seem to encourage one of two extreme reactions: 1. very complimentary, and very patronizing congratulations on being able to utter "hello" or "I want a bottle of water" (most common response), or 2. the assumption that you are fluent. A few students in one of my most likeable classes announced "let's have a meeting!" to me during the break, and the monitor went on for several minutes to me in Chinese about a plan the school had for helping poor students, of which I understood almost nothing. My guzheng music lessons are made that much more difficult by attempting to process both Chinese and a new instrument, but I do like that they treat me like a person and have the patience to explain everything and help me look up words in the dictionary. I like the girl who teaches me (who, like all the students there, is very pretty, which is kind of distracting to the intense concentration necessary), who has begun going so far as to try to explain the old Chinese stories behind many of the songs. Of course, I infinitely prefer conversations above my level to reaction #1; as Andrew said after seeing a foreigner who spoke little Chinese get showered with praise for saying ni hao! (hello), "sometimes I wonder, what's the point of studying?"

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Silly Chinese Sun Visors

I came across a good post from Sinosplice, a popular China blog, I thought I'd share. It concerns one of the many funny things Chinese people do which I don't think I've mentioned or gotten any good pictures of, which is to wear enormous face-shielding visors on sunny days. In China, and it seems most Asian countries, girls in particular are obsessed with getting lighter skin, not darker. Girls are often seen using sun umbrellas or holding their books in front of their face on the way to class, but nothing beats the Mega visors that can be seen everywhere:

Friday, November 10, 2006

A Night at the (Chinese) Opera

I just had my first viewing of Chinese Opera, which seems to get mixed reviews from foreigners and young Chinese. I went with Danielle and Stephen, the two Peace Corps volunteers, and we weren't quite sure if we'd enjoy it or stay the whole time. Obviously, we weren't going to understand anything that was going on, and Chinese Opera is notorious for its high-pitched, grating style of singing.

We arrived at the music hall no more than 10 minutes before the performance started, which meant there were no seats left and there were many students standing in the aisles. So we were prepared to stand quietly in the back for the opera, but the school would of course be having none of that. A man apparently in charge of seating arrangements immediately spotted us and ushered us right up to the front row, into a set of empty seats that were obviously reserved and were equipped with programs and water bottles. In fact the front row was clearly marked with a sign that read "Seats for Leaders", and thus we spent the duration of the performance next to humorless Communist Party leaders in suits.

As it turned out, the performance was a lot of fun to watch. The singing was tolerable and the accompanying live music was genuinely enjoyable, and watching the performance was still entertaining even when understanding every 20th word or so. Besides the singing and music there was a lot of choreography with impressive acrobatic moves, comedy of some sort, and a fight with a fire-wielding demon. At the end there was an act of modern opera, which involved the same style of music but with drab People's Liberation Army uniforms replacing the colorful costumes of classical opera. At several points during the opera an old man with a cane behind me, who was by my guess 112 years old, tried to give me explanations in English about what was going on. The best of these was when he tried to explain a character who he said was like Venus, and having some kind of affair with humankind, ending simply with the words "make love!" and chuckling softly to himself.

For no other reason than our being foreign, relatively friendly, and unmarried, rumors seem to be flying about me and Danielle. An old guard at one of the school gates who loves to talk to us despite the difficulties of doing so (I've discovered a strong relationship between how friendly someone is and how thick their Zhangye accent is) beckoned me and Danielle into his security room this afternoon after we returned to school together because we ran into each other on the street. I watched him flip through a book with English phrases and then close it quickly, after which he spewed out some sounds at me that, I take it, were a form of language. I had a guess at what he was saying from his gestures and what I thought he was asking me earlier that day, and he shook his head "yes" when I said "are you asking if we're married?". We get a kick out of this, and it's tempting to play with our students' minds.

For this week's lesson, I was definitely playing to my audience. Food being one of the prime obsessions of Chinese people, our in-class "reading" was English recipes. I then had them write out recipes for food they knew how to cook in English, which I think was genuinely good in that it required giving specific directions, involved new vocabulary, and got them motivated, but it certainly didn't hurt that in the end I now have a large collection of Chinese recipes written in English. Have I mentioned that I really like my job?

Saturday, November 04, 2006


On this past October 31st, I think we gave Zhangye the best Halloween it's ever seen. My students didn't know all that much about it, so I enlightened them in class during the week before Halloween about what it was all about. This segued nicely into having the students tell scary stories. I wasn't sure how that would go, but a number of students were actually pretty good at it, and a few stories got genuine screams from the girls in class (meaning, the majority of the class). Knowing full well that if there was time at the end of class I would be asked to tell a story, I brushed up on "The Tell-Tale Heart" and ended up telling it to a few classes. I don't think any lesson I've done has gotten the students paying more attention to their classmates' presentations than this one.

Danielle, a Halloween fan, also had the idea of holding a Halloween party in her apartment with one of her favorite classes. Me and Gary teach that class as well, and we showed up in costume fashionably late. We could hear the party going on from several floors below, and everyone screamed (in delight?) when we came in. We came in at the tail-end of two students being wrapped in toilet paper, which the students would not tire of during the two hours, at one point wrapping their three foreign teachers together. We had previously had a foreign teacher pumpkin-carving party, and the students liked the pumpkins so much they asked to take them home. It was overall a big success, with bobbing for apples, numerous people being locked in the bathroom (for instance, me), and dancing to suggestive Jamie Fox songs.

After the party the three of us went out to give candy to strangers and visit Gary's friend's bar. Gary took the lead with the bowl of candy, and would approach random people on the street, especially those walking alone, and say nothing while holding out a piece of candy to them. He had the best and most frightening costume and the foreigners tend to be stared at uncertainly anyway, so he got mixed reactions. Some were amused and thanked him for the candy (to which he wouldn't respond), while many were having none of it and stayed at a safe distance. One English-speaking young man wanted to know where he was from, and he silently pointed up slowly towards the moon in response. There is a young boy who always stares at me with a worried expression in a restaurant I eat at regularly, and when we stopped in there he looked absolutely terrified.

But the best moment came when we brought Halloween to a recently opened restaurant nearby. This is probably one of the nicest restaurants in the city now, with three floors and a guard to keep an eye on the many cars. Me and Danielle hung back as Gary went in, and I saw what was coming, because the three uniformed young girls at the entrance had their heads turned the other way and at first didn't see us at all. When Gary was directly in front of them with arm outstretched, they turned around and simultaneously screamed at the top of their lungs and literally ran away. This of course had the full attention of the room full of businessmen and Party cadres, and a young man wearing a suit came over to Gary and said "thank you.... now leave quickly", while shooing him away with his hand. I felt it was quite an accomplishment for foreigners to be kicked out of a restaurant in small-town China.

It turned out that Gary's friend was not at his bar, and to our disappointment there were no other customers for us to freak out. I suppose it was a Tuesday night after all. However, the boss's gorgeous and very likeable girlfriend was there, and she got a great kick out of us, and hung out and took some photos with us. Most likely I'll be in Zhangye for Halloween next year, and if all goes well my American friends I met up with in Xi'an will be here as well, so I can only hope we top this year.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

A Short Dramatic Story

There is a car in front of apartment building 9 on campus, the building in which Andrew, Gary, and Phillip live. This car has four flat tires, and a small scandalous story behind it. Apparently, the man who owns the car is (or was) cheating on his wife, and some kind of drama broke out that ended with the mistress (concubine?) slashing the tires of the car. It's been there for a weeks now, and doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

On a separate occasion, a Chinese woman said to a foreign teacher, "it must be hard for Chinese women who marry foreign men, because they cheat on their wives".