Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Letters to Santa

During a recent Christmas lesson, I asked students to write a letter to Santa Claus. I explained that children in the West write letters to Santa to tell him what they want for Christmas, and why they deserve it. I expected some simple and not especially interesting letters asking for things like mp3 players, and some were like that, but many had a uniquely Chinese-student approach to the letter. For example:

Dear Santa,

I can't touch with you a long time, I don't know how to do recently. Forgiven me and I think you study hard to pass exam. The Christmas is coming, I wish you are very happy and get a lot of gifts of your parents and your best friend. There are not lots of gifts in my town so I can't send gifts of you. I will bring best wish of you. Happy Christmas!

Your best friend Hank

Dear Santa:

I know my wish is simple but it couldn't be put into my sock. I wish my grandmother has a healthy body and a happy smile like you. Thank you! Others said Santa is a tie [lie] But I believe you're always staying around us.

Your Pupu

Charistmas will come but I am not happy. I have a trouble. I have not a good gift to give my gf. I am worry about it. Can you help me? I need it very much. Happy Charistmas!

yours Andy

Dear Santa,

The Christmas will be coming. I have some whishes want come true and I believe you can help me to get them. Because you are very kindly and friendly, aren't you? I want to have a very good thing to protect my father's knees and a beautiful coat for my mother and some delicious bread for grandparents. They are soft for the teeth.

Oh yes, I only want to have a new cotton-shoes! Ha-ha! I believe you can.


Dear Santa:

Merry Christmas to you! I hope everyday is happy like today. I want to have a pair of shoes that keep warm and beautiful. Because the weather is very cold. My mother walks long time to work everyday, her feet often cool and pain. So I want to a pair of shoes that can keep warm for my mother. Please realise my dream. Best wishes for you.

Yours: Candy

Dear Santa Claus,

I am a boy who worry about all the thing happened in daily life, I don't know how to manage it completely. Especially, in the respect of emotion, I love a girl, but I don't know how much she love me, how to get her heart, head and heel. I don't know how to make her happy. I need some advices on it.

I don't know how to cope with the relationship between career and emotion. I can't control it easily. So I am very doubtful about it: St. Nicholas, you are the cleverest in the world. Can you tell me the best way to do it. I always think about it. It makes me nuts. I can't calm down. I think I will go crazy. Saint, please tell me what I should do. Finally, I give my best wish to you.

a boy

I liked the fact that so many students asked Santa how his life was, and that so many of them thought first of what their family needed. In the west we have an impression of Chinese having very strong family values and in my experience it is most definitely true. Probably one of the most striking things to a westerner about Chinese students is their sincerity and lack of cynicism, which is all the more apparent when they are using English. The average westerner is usually exposed to China through the occasional news story, mostly unflattering ones, and I often wish this could be balanced with exposure to the more undramatic, low-key and endearing side of China and its people.

Have a Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 17, 2007

AIDS Lesson

Recently I gave a lesson to my freshman classes about AIDS, as that was the topic of the homework reading. AIDS and related topics like sex and drug use are not exactly common conversation topics in China; other than Little Ma's crude sense of humor, I can't recall a single time I've heard a Chinese person mention sex in the past two years. Seeing as the word "girlfriend" is enough to get giggles from a class, I was curious how my students would respond to the lesson.

My first surprise was how little they learn about AIDS growing up. When asked, some students said they learned a little about it in school, but many said they didn't learn about it at all. So I asked if parents talk about it and there was a loud, resounding "no." I asked if there is sex education in school, and apparently there is none. I again asked if they learn about it from parents, and there was an even louder, unanimous "NO." One girl said aloud "that's impossible." I asked how they learn about sex, and after a pause a few students said "from the TV" or "from the Internet." I know the government provides AIDS education (in fact the only two posters adorning the faded and cracking walls of my classroom are about AIDS, including the first photo above, taken by my brother Erik while in Zhangye) and an AIDS day is promoted on December 1st, but it seems AIDS education in China is not quite where it could be. Many Chinese believe you can get it from mosquitoes, for instance.

During the lesson, which I actually borrowed from another teacher, the students had to separate a number of activities into the categories of "high risk," "low risk," or "no risk" for HIV. For example, "sharing a toilet" or "kissing" should go under "no risk" while "intravenous drug use" and "from mother to infant" should be placed under "high risk." The homework was very informative about HIV/AIDS and they overall did very well with this. One of the activities included was "oral sex" (low risk). Many students asked me what this meant, which was probably one of the more awkward things I've had to do in the classroom. Not knowing the Chinese word and not wanting to get too graphic, I simply said "sexual activity using the mouth... if you don't know what I'm talking about, ask a friend." In one class a girl said in Chinese, a little too loudly, wo mei zuoguo! - "I've never done that before!"

There was also group work during the lesson that had the students discussing HIV/AIDS-related issues. One of the questions asked if HIV testing should be required for certain jobs. While answering this question, one girl told me in a quite serious, deadpan voice "yes, I believe HIV testing should be required for some jobs, especially whores."

I also learned from my students that testing for HIV is not common in China, as there is a stigma attached to it. If you get tested for HIV others around you assume you have it, and will avoid you. I've since read that those diagnosed with HIV also may be ostracized, even to the point of their family refusing to eat with them or doctors refusing to touch them. Condom use is not universal, as it is associated with promiscuity. Until 2003, condom advertisements were illegal in China, and one survey found that 60% of Chinese condoms are faulty. Needles are also sometimes reused in China, even in hospitals.

At the end of the lesson, I gave students the chance to write down any questions they had about HIV and AIDS or the day's lesson. A few examples:

Are there a great number of students having the sex innections [I think they meant "intercourse"] with the different sex in American?

Is it possible for them to suffer from HIV if two lovers have sex without using condoms?

This is the first time I heard someone talk about sex in the public. I being to realize the importance of sex.

Use a condom weather have a side effect?

I think though China is a feudalist society, when children are thirteen or fifteen it's time for parents to teach them something about sex, and to teach them how to make friends with boys or girls, or what to do to protect themselves.

Can you give a kiss to a girl if she is infected with HIV?

Once someone had HIV, did they have the equal rights to do what they want to do? Like go to school, contribute to the society. If the others, especially their relatives didn't understand them.

In America, when students grow up a adult, their parents are encourage (or allow) them to sex with somebody. Is it true?

Our country passed a law, people can get married during their university. Do you think AID will spread faster?

In American, are old people frightened with AIDS?

Is it common that in USA, the middle school students having a sexual experience?

In China, if you want to test HIV or AIDZ, you are thought a patient who get infected HIV. Many people around you will be away from you. I want to know what do the American people think about?

I heard there are many people having HIV in America. Is it true? Does the government find the better method to control the AIDS?

When did the first HIV appeared? Why did he have HIV? Did he has too much freedom to infect HIV?

In your country female's virgin is concerned a lot, isn't it? In college, if you allow to married with somebody? In America, what's the average age people get married?

I remember when I told other Americans of my decision to go to China, there were mixed reactions. Many people, especially family and close friends, were enthusiastic and sometimes envious. However, many people had a negative and usually ill-informed reaction: "China has AIDS," "China is full of poverty," "they put people in jail for no reason," etc. My girlfriend at the time's immediate response to the idea was "China is full of AIDS." In China, AIDS is often associated with the West, and I once read a story about an American dating a Chinese girl whose mother's first reaction was to ask "does he have AIDS?" In truth, America does have the bigger AIDS problem, with more than 1,000,000 people infected with HIV, compared to China's 650,000 (China also has more than four times as many people). During the height of Maoism and China's isolation, parents in the countryside would tell naughty children that the foreigners would come to eat them if they didn't behave. While American parents were telling children to eat up because "there are starving kids in China," Chinese parents were telling their own children to eat well because there were oppressed capitalist children "starving in the West." It's funny how much I appreciate the importance of education now that I'm not actually in school.

HIV/AIDS in China
HIV/AIDS in America
Sex statistics by country

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Learning English the Manly Way

After close to two years I still love shopping in China. You never know what curious things await you. Case in point, from the children's section of a local bookstore:

It's not that we don't have war-inspired children's toys and merchandise in America (I remember owning a pack of Desert Storm trading cards myself) or America could be considered a pacifistic country at the moment , but the learning English theme is interesting. But hey, if "guided-missile submarine" inspires a child to learn a foreign language, I'm all for it.

There was also an earlier post at Sinosplice about the same subject.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Zhangye Rock City

Along with the English language, Western culture is making inroads in China. American movies, for example, are readily available on DVD in Zhangye and all over China. Many of the textbook readings for English students talk about Western countries and their culture and history. But one of the areas that I've felt is lacking is Western music. There are a few English songs popular in China, and a top five list would look something like this:

1. The Carpenters - Yesterday Once More
2. Michael Learns to Rock - Take Me To Your Heart
3. Celine Dion - My Heart Will Go On
4. Groove Coverage - God is a Girl
5. Emilia - Big Big Girl

Many Chinese students can sing these songs and any foreigner living in China will smile in recognition, but anyone reading this at home will think "huh?" Students are always surprised when I tell them the English songs they like are practically unknown in America (and no one would like them), and at home I haven't heard "My Heart Will Go On" for maybe 10 years.

Thus, this term I've made it my mission to introduce real Western music to the students. I wanted to start an English Music Club much earlier but never had a decent singer available to help out; this term my friend Stefanie is here, and "Zhangye Rock City" was started. Only 30 or 40 students show up per week, but we enjoy it and the students (mostly my freshman) are enthusiastic about it.

Picking songs is a little tricky, as they need to meet a lot of criteria: A) students will like the song B) we like the song, or at least don't mind it C) the words are sung very clearly, and not too fast D) there are not too many words E) the singing is not too low, as 90% of the students are female F) it was popular in the West, or at least can represent Western music. So as much I would love to go over a good PJ Harvey or Arcade Fire song, we stick to things like "The One I Love" by REM and "Last Kiss" as done by Pearl Jam. Last time we did "Do You Realize?" by The Flaming Lips. Chinese popular music tastes are quite firmly in realm of melodramatic love songs, so "Last Kiss" was particularly popular.

The way this works is we give the students copies of the lyrics, discuss the song, listen to it several times while singing along, and finally play it without the recording. Below are videos from music club of "Maps" by Yeah Yeah Yeahs and "Imagine" by John Lennon. The instrument that Stefanie plays is an American folk instrument called the Autoharp that she dragged all the way from California to northwest China. Suggestions for other songs to use in music club are welcome.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Just When You Thought You Knew Your Own Hair Color

The other day my friend Nissa was asked to visit a local middle school to observe a few classes and talk to the teachers about education in America. During one of the classes the Chinese teacher was leading a class discussion about Nissa, and at one point asked her in front of the class "what do you call your hair color in America?"
"Red" Nissa replied.
To her surprise, the teacher responded "no, no, it is blond hair. Your hair is blond."
"Well yes, we have blond hair in America, but we call this hair color red."

And a small argument ensued with the teacher insisting that Nissa has blond hair. This is not the first time she has been told she does not have red hair (for reference, she is the witch in the last post). In the case of the middle school teacher, I could be wrong (and I wasn't actually there at the time) but I think this is a good example of "face" (面子 miànzi) in Chinese culture. The dislike of making mistakes or being proven wrong is a lot stronger in Chinese culture (and east Asia in general I'm led to believe) than it is in Western culture, i.e. "losing face." It's a common mistake for students to call blond hair "yellow hair" and I can envision the teacher having emphasized this beforehand, waiting for her moment in class to bring the point home, and then not wanting to back down when she was proven wrong in front of the class. But even when face isn't at stake I've seen similar situations, like a conversation I once had with a student:

Student: "Foreigners have blue eyes. Why are your eyes black?"
Me: "Um, actually my eyes are blue."
Student: "No they aren't. Your eyes are black."

It's funny how stereotypes and preconceptions can be held on to even in the face of clear evidence. Nissa told one of her classes that most foreigners (and we are always "foreigners" in China, never Westerners) have the same eye color as them and they actually gasped in unison. When you want a job as a foreign teacher in China it is required that you provide the school with a photo of yourself; those with white skin, blond hair and blue eyes will get a job considerably easier than those with darker features (not only black people but, ironically, Chinese-Americans) regardless of qualifications. Non-white foreigners face a lot of discrimination and even fear in China (a black journalist wrote about a shop assistant bursting into tears at the sight of her) but most Chinese, having never met one, are entirely unaware of this and would strongly deny it.

Chinese conceptions of foreigners are always interesting. They are also sometimes shocking or insensitive, but you can't really blame them in a country that is 95% the same race, the same hair color, the same eye color, and is considerably more conformity-driven than Western culture. Look at how much discrimination and close-mindedness exists in America despite our enormous diversity and high levels of education and prosperity. I can recall several moments from college when my educated, liberal friends made shocking comments about black people. But as an example of what I mean (also from Nissa's class, which unlike mine deals directly with cultural differences), students were asked what the differences between China and America were and a student replied "in America people discriminate and look down on minorities, but in China we always help minorities." Another said "China has 55 minorities, but America only has black people and white people." Needless to say, I'm not so sure about that.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Halloween in Zhangye

This term I've had the pleasure of the company of two friends from America, Stefanie and Nissa. They taught in the city of Yangzhou last year and this year decided to come to this university to work on my recommendation. This has led to a lot more American-style fun lately, including a colorful Halloween last Wednesday.

As I mentioned a year ago, celebrating Halloween in China can be pretty memorable. Christmas has become popular in China (some stores and bars even have Christmas decorations year-round) but Halloween is still barely known in these parts. Not being within a thousand miles of a good Halloween costume store, we first had to make our own costumes, which involved a long, long weeknight on October 30th making a cardboard box into a witch's hat. We had earlier also done some pumpkin carving with Chinese characteristics; small, green Jack-o-lanterns fashioned out of souvenir Xinjiang knives.

At night we held a Halloween party for students, with decorations, the Monster Mash, apple bobbing, toilet paper mummies, a raffle and a cake walk. With 35 freshman practically bouncing off the walls with excitement in my apartment ("do you want to play a game?" "YEEESS!!!!") I was feeling a little claustrophobic, but the students had a great time and it all went pretty smoothly. Afterwards we went to see our friends at our favorite bar, China Fire, and shower them with candy.

However, my favorite part of the day may have been in the afternoon after we first dressed up. We each went to class in costume, which was cause for plenty of excitement and camera phone pictures with students. We also had some shopping to do, leading to the priceless reactions of locals to the sight of a witch (Nissa), vampire (Stefanie), and devil (me) getting money from the ATM....

...eating pasta at the nicest restaurant in town...

...shopping for produce.....

...getting assistance at the supermarket...

...deciding between eel and chicken in a bag...

...picking up some sausage....

...choosing candy for the party...

...buying imported liquor...

...checking out...

...and checking a cane and witch's broom at the bag check.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Chinese Students: Happy Every Day

"What are English students in China like?" you may (or may not) have asked yourself. Well, this Powerpoint slide and accompanying e-mail from one of my freshman students should give you an idea:

Dear teacher :
happy weekend! just now ,i send a slide to you. it is my fist slide that i just study how to make it , although it is not a good , i want to send it my teacher , hoping you can have a good mood every day . there is a smile like sunlight . as matter of fact ,i do not be good at computer , later ,i must study computer well, making many
beautiful slides to send my teacher and friends , hoping they are happy.
every thing is best ! May success and prosperity crown all your undertakings.
all my best wishes for the future!

They certainly are endearing. And I may start signing future e-mails with "May success and prosperity crown all your undertakings!"

Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Little Humor Today

The Onion

The Chinglish Files
(one of my favorites is in the July archive, on July 5th)

Monday, October 22, 2007

Oh What a Nice Little Devil Your Child Is!

The Chinese language is confusing. Like any language very different from one's native tongue, a person who has never studied Chinese might be tempted to say Chinese words "all sound the same." But to a native English speaker there is a glimmer of truth in that--Chinese has only 400 different sounds (monosyllables). By comparison, English has 8,000, a full twenty times as many. That means a whole lot of Chinese words have the same sounds, but they are distinguished by the four tones in Chinese (high and level, rising, falling and rising, and sharply falling). This is pretty interesting for the linguist or dedicated learner but a small nightmare for the absolute beginner trying to learn Chinese pronunciation. How important are tones? A few examples of words with the same sounds that are differentiated only by tone (the marks above the letters show the tone):

小姐 xiǎojie - miss/young woman/prostitute (in northern China)
小节 xiǎojié - (in music) one measure
小结 xiǎojié - summary

打算 dǎsuàn - plan/to plan
大蒜 dàsuàn - garlic

上海 Shànghǎi - Shanghai (the city)
伤害 shānghài - to injure

公里 gōnglǐ - kilometer
巩俐 gǒnglì - Gong Li (the actress)

眼睛 yǎnjīng - eyes
眼镜 yǎnjìng - eyeglasses
燕京 yànjīng - Yanjing (city name)

贵子 guìzi - precious (such as a child)
鬼子 guǐzi - devil (such as a child)

要是 yàoshì - if
钥匙 yàoshi - (door) key

杯子 bēizi - (drinking) glass
被子 bèizi - quilt
辈子 bèizi - a whole lifetime

病人 bìngrén - patient
兵人 bīngrén - soldier

You'll notice that this is not a problem in written Chinese because the characters for these words are completely different (though getting the thousands of different characters mixed up is another story). To my surprise I haven't seen too many funny or embarrassing misunderstandings, although being simply misunderstood is par for the course. Once a student asked me if the food her and her classmates had just gone through the trouble of cooking for me and Andrew was delicious and I said "no," to her surprise and her classmates' amusement. When she said xiāng (delicious) I heard xiǎng (would like) and thought she was asking if I wanted any more. I read a story about a foreigner asking for a banana (xiāngjiāo) cake in a supermarket and getting a bizarre look because he had accidentally asked for a rubber (xiàngjiāo) cake.

But one of the better stories I can remember about confusing tones came not from China but from a friend named Jenny in Thailand, where the language is also tonal. Whenever she referred to Thai boxing, known as muay thai, it would get a great reaction from the class. It's not always easy keeping the students' interest so she would refer to muay thai as often as possible in class, only to learn later that the way she was pronouncing it she was not talking about Thai boxing at all, but rather Thai pubic hair.

Any other stories/easily confused Chinese words out there?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting

During my trip to Ningxia I visited the provincial museum in Yinchuan, which included an exhibit about Hui culture. The Hui are one of China's national minorities and Ningxia is their "autonomous region," a province in which an ethnic minority is theoretically given a lot of control in the provincial government (Tibet is also an autonomous region). There are plenty of Hui in Zhangye, and though quite assimilated into Han Chinese culture they are distinguished by the practice of Islam and the distinctive white hats worn by the men. Part of the fun of Chinese museums is reading the captions, which tend to have a very Chinese flavor to them:

And of the many pictures chosen to represent Hui culture, my favorite was definitely this one:

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Daytrip to Inner Mongolia; or, "At the Ends of the Earth"

This week I spent exactly one day in Inner Mongolia (a northern province or more accurately "autonomous region" in China, not Mongolia the country), in a town called Bayan Hot (or 巴音 Bāyīn in Chinese). I live in a fairly remote city, but this really felt like heading out into the middle of absolute nowhere. It was a journey of close to three hours to the city, the last half of which being through pure, desolate desert with almost no signs of civilization. It's a small place that I knew little about besides it being in Inner Mongolia, the main inspiration for going.

Besides the slow pace of life and a chance to see Mongolian writing on all the signs, the town provided one of the ample opportunities to view the dichotomies and contradictions of modern China. Immediately outside the town limits, one can see the traditional clay and brick housing common in northwest China:

Mere streets away, inside the town, I was a little taken aback when I turned a corner and saw this modern monstrosity of a building:

This stadium could clearly hold the entire population of the town, and seemed a bit out of place, as well as ill-used. I asked a couple of locals and they said it was already closed for the winter but in the warmer months they hold art shows and the like. I've read that the provincial government is prone to flashy displays of development in lieu of more practical spending, and a 60,000 capacity stadium has been built in provincial capital Hohhot that with the exception of the opening celebrations is unlikely to fill up. In the near total-silence of this small town it felt a bit surreal to stand in front of it, like an apocalyptic future in which most of the population had been wiped out. Near total-silence is surreal in China anyway.

The main attraction of the town is a Mongolian temple, which was similar in style to others I've seen as many Mongolians practice Tibetan Buddhism. One monk who I guessed to be in his 30's had an obvious affinity for Westerners, and once he discovered I could speak Chinese quickly engaged me in conversation. This turned into a fast-paced and passionate 40 minute lecture about his thoughts on the society around him that fascinated me as much as it gave me a headache; he didn't pause much and I could only catch around 30% of what he said. The main idea was that he's become greatly disappointed in the loss of basic decency and morals that has accompanied fast economic growth. He thinks people in China are interested in money, success, and the approval of others at the cost of everything else. Though he said there are still decent, honest Chinese people around, the whole society is promoting economic success as the be-all and end-all of life, and it's wrong. He also is disappointed in the attitude towards Mongolians like himself; he told me they are seen as stupid, slow and uncouth by many Chinese, and they aren't truly understood. It's true that almost every time ethnic minorities come up during conversation with a Han Chinese friend they have used the word 野蛮 yěmán, which means "barbarous" or "uncivilized" and have made several disparaging remarks (generally students, who also claim during class that there is no discrimination in China). This disillusionment with society inspired him to become a monk two years ago. He hoped I would learn Mongolian and travel to Mongolia proper someday, an idea I've toyed with anyway (the traveling part at least).

I've noticed a pattern of minorities opening up to foreigners in China, whether it was Uyghurs in Xinjiang or Tibetans in Qinghai. I suppose complaints to Han Chinese would often fall on indifferent or even hostile ears (I've heard comments like "those minorities, always complaining; they have it good enough") and we provide a fresh and interested source of conversation that is outside the system. The Chinese tourists walking past us during my talk with the monk paid little attention, the only exceptions being a student who giggled and wanted to ask me where I was from, and a woman who interrupted to ask the monk if she could take pictures. I think images of Confucian scholars and Tang poetry had given me the impression of the Chinese as quite thoughtful and spiritual, which wasn't necessarily on the mark. Whatever other virtues modern Chinese society has I wouldn't put deep spirituality at the top of the list, and famous temples are pure tourist attractions with guys in their new cowboy hats taking pictures of their girlfriend while she gives the "V" sign and smiles (more on that soon).

After leaving the monk I took a bus back to Yinchuan, and on the way out saw this billboard:


roughly translated:

Development is the #1 duty
Enriching the people is the #1 goal
Harmony is the #1 mission

Chinese Words and Phrases 4: 和谐社会 héxié shèhuì

Hexie shehui means "harmonious society," and is a phrase that pops up a lot in China these days. One of the current favorite government slogans, it was adopted by the Party in 2004. In the wake of such rapid growth China is experiencing well-publicized social problems including a large gap between the rich and the poor, environmental devastation, and protests by Chinese who have been forcibly moved from their land in the name of development. According to the government "a harmonious society is defined as a socialist democracy, with rule of law, social justice, honesty and credibility, balancing human activities and natural resources." If asking citizens to help build a "harmonious society" sounds vague to you, apparently the government agrees, as according to China Daily the government has recently decided to create "an index system judging social harmony." Hm. Today the terror threat in America is the color green, and the social harmony in China is around 6.4 out of 10. Another popular government campaign is the "8 Virtues and 8 Vices" or "8 Do's and Dont's," which I spied in English during my traveling:

I'm intrigued by the Party slogans, and the propaganda, much of which is perfectly well-meaning. You just don't see "Cherish Life; Give Up Drugs" painted in giant letters by the government on walls in America, or billboards encouraging you to "Carry out the Three Represents." Signs like these would be mocked to death in the West. When I first started studying Chinese I looked forward to being able to understand the signs, posters, and billboards, which are pervasive. The most common theme is probably the one-child policy, with signs reminding the populace that "Having a girl is the same as having a boy," "Carrying out the one-child policy is every citizen's duty and obligation" and "Girls are the builders of our future." I'm not sure how excited many Chinese get about getting behind the slogans anyway; for instance, Chinese bloggers who get their blogs blocked now sarcastically write about being "harmonized."

Anyway, whatever President Hu Jintao and the rest of the Party meant by Harmonious Society, I hope it wasn't this:

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Ningxia Travels I: Capitalism Run Amok, Pyramids in China

It is time again for the National Day Holiday in China, a time for the Chinese to reflect upon the founding of their socialist republic and the myriad way it has improved their lives. And what would make the dear Chairman prouder on the anniversary of his establishment of Communist China than sales, sales, sales!

I particularly like the man in the gorilla costume, let's see a close-up of that:

I've been in the city of Yinchuan for the start of the holiday and more than the pleasant museum and tranquil pagodas I can't help but notice the capitalist orgy taking place on the streets. Need a Nokia phone? A wedding dress? In the mood for audience participation, games, prizes, karaoke, or just silly dancing? The streets of a Chinese shopping district during a holiday are the place to be. Despite the sarcasm I do actually enjoy the oral assault and chaos you sometimes get in China, especially when I know I have a small, relatively sleepy city to return to. There is something to be said for the sight of adults old enough to have been through the Cultural Revolution giggling and fighting over the chance to thrown plastic rings at cell phones for a prize. Even during normal times Chinese stores know how to open or remodel in a grand way--giant inflatable archways, confetti, firecrackers, and for the really ambitious, cannons. Inevitably there is a also a mammoth stereo system playing upbeat pop or a stage with live karaoke singing.

As much fun as I'm having otherwise (is that a pizza buffet??) one of the main reasons to come to one of China's smallest and most obscure provinces is for a bit of history, in the form of thousand-year old pyramid-like tombs left by the Xixia kingdom. These are the centerpiece of the few remains of this fearsome and somewhat mysterious kingdom which at times rivaled the Chinese dynasties of the day, but was destined to be destroyed by Genghis Khan and the Mongols. In their heyday they controlled a sizeable piece of northwest China, including Zhangye.

In the end the real reason I came to Ningxia province is because no one else wants to. Traveling to and from a popular destination during a Chinese national holiday is between very difficult and a nightmare and only those with extensive experience in China can appreciate the feeling I had when I bought an overnight sleeper ticket for the train in less than four minutes. I also appreciate being simply a novelty rather than a target for harassment by vendors.

It rained heavily at the park today, and a group of us found shelter and entertainment listening to an elderly musician in a pavilion, which I probably enjoyed more than any of the ticketed attractions around town. Many curious locals have come up to talk to me and find out why I'm here; on hearing I was American one woman remarked "but aren't Americans black? Your skin is so white!" For the thousandth time a woman encouraged her shy child to "say hello to the American uncle!" and a woman suggested the violinist "play a song for our foreign friend over there." If willing conversation partners are one of the keys to learning a language, China might well be one of the best countries in the world to do it.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

University Life in China

As you might imagine, and as with pretty much every other facet of society, university life in China is quite different from that in a Western country. In some ways it feels more like a continuation of high school, and students are not nearly as independent and self-reliant as they are in a Western university. Ironically, the foreign teacher at this school who was least able to adapt and in fact quit a year early was the only one with a PhD and extensive university experience in America. In general the young and inexperienced teachers are successful in this environment. I've worked out a list below of some of the most obvious differences between university life at home and in China, in no particular order:

-Students are organized into classes by major, and given a class number and individual student numbers. They take all the same classes with these classmates, and have no control over their class schedule. At this school classes in the English department are around 35 students each. Some Chinese teachers call students by their numbers rather than their names.

-Changing one's major is much more complicated than in America, and involves getting permission from both departments and paying a fee. Choosing a major is also limited by your results on the college entrance exam and many of my English students would rather be studying something else. By the same token there are students with excellent English abilities in other departments who want to be English majors but can't because of exam scores.

-Each class has a class monitor, chosen by a class vote. The class monitor attends weekly meetings, passes on announcements to the class from the department, and is in charge of class activities. A student once asked me "how do you choose class monitors in America?" I explained that we don't have them, and in great confusion she asked "but who is in charge of the class?"

-Student dorm rooms typically have 5-8 students in rooms that would hold 2 in America. In this school the beds have thin straw mattresses and very little besides bunk-beds, the students' (few) possessions, and wash basins. The students do their laundry by hand, and typically wear the same two or three outfits. Males and females live in separate buildings and are not allowed to enter the opposite sex's dormitory buildings.

-Students have the same roommates for all 4 years, typically classmates that they also see in every class. It is extremely difficult to change dorm rooms and some students have falling outs with their roommates that affect the entire class atmosphere. However the drama is minimal compared to the nightmare you would get with American students in the same situation.

-Showers are in buildings separate from the dormitories and cost 3 yuan (less than 50 cents). For most students this is a significant amount and many students shower once a week.

-The school has implemented a new rule: it is mandatory for students to study in the campus classrooms from 7-9pm every night. Students who are absent and caught will be punished by having their exam grades lowered.

-Students must sign in around 7am every weekday morning, even if they don't have morning class. If they miss enough times they will be embarrassed by having their name read on the campus broadcast system. Students from families with money can and do bribe the people in charge of broadcasting and sleep in as they will.

-In English classes taught by Chinese teachers, it is typical for students to sit quietly and listen to the teacher lecture for the entire two hours, without the chance to speak a word of English. Both teachers and students (with some exceptions) will never speak English outside of class unless absolutely forced to (even with me many students want to use Chinese instead). In a three person English conversation with two Chinese and a foreigner, the two Chinese people will typically use Chinese when talking to each other. The result is that students can study English for 10 years and still be terrified of speaking to me in English. By contrast, even in high school I recall classmates using Spanish or French outside of class for the fun of it.

-Some textbooks are fine, but most leave something to be desired; there is a real textbook used at this school which has one word on the cover: "Listeing." I was able to change to a good series of reading books, but of the 40-odd stories in the first textbook I used, the most recent one was from 1971. Most were considerably older.

-Students (and Chinese people in general) are fond of performances. Campus entertainment usually takes the form of karaoke competitions and dance and music performances from students.

-With the dormitory situation, there is pretty much no privacy at all for student couples. Couples cuddle on benches or find a somewhat "secluded" spot in the grass, especially at night. I've seen what appears to be couples breaking up, simply standing off the side of a path because there is nowhere else for them to go.

-The dormitories are locked at 11:30pm, even on weekends. Two students once accompanied Andrew to a Christmas evening church service. It was so long that they missed their curfew and spent the entire night in an internet cafe, and were sick the next day.

-In order to have drinking water, students have big thermoses that they fill up in designated buildings that supply hot water. On the few occasions when the power has gone out in these buildings some students simply didn't drink anything because they didn't have money to buy water.

-Once per term each class has "duty week." This is a week when they don't go to class, instead cleaning up campus (sweeping, burning garbage) in their official school uniforms.

-Freshman have a week of military training, usually the first week of college, in which they wear uniforms, are drilled by soldiers, and do a lot of marching and shouting.

-My school has demolished the old library but not finished the new one. There is no library on campus at the moment.

-In general students don't get out as much as their Western counterparts. I once took some student friends to see Zhangye's famed "Great Buddah" statue, about a 25-minute walk away, and they were simply amazed I could get there so easily. They had never been that far away from campus before.

-There is a school broadcast system with speakers all over campus, which loudly plays news, the national anthem, and inspirational music. Broadcasts begin at 6am.

-Students stand up in unison to greet the teacher when he/she enters the room, and erase the blackboard for the teacher during breaks. Students rotate the duty of bringing the chalk and eraser to the classroom. When the student on duty forgets (which is often) I have no chalk or eraser, and someone then scrambles to get chalk from another classroom while others give me tissues to erase the board with. I've had to resort to cleaning the blackboard with a mop. I've tried hiding a cloth in the room for the times the students forget the eraser but it was soon stolen.

-Other than desks, small stools for students, the teacher's podium, the blackboard, and one electrical outlet, there is not so much as a garbage can in the classrooms. Occasionally the power is out and the outlet doesn't work, generally when I want to play music and really need power.

-Because of the crowded dorms and lack of study options, students often study outside. Because of the Chinese love of reciting out loud, this leads to the amusing sight of students reading books to trees.

-College students do drink, but not even approaching the amount that American students do. Drinking is not allowed in the dorms and due to money issues, curfews, and social norms students don't often go to bars. It is also almost exclusively males, as a Chinese female who drinks or smokes is not looked very highly upon. Working age males, however, drink much more than those in America, and it's an integral part of doing business in China. There are apparently some drugs available but I'm sure drug use is also much lower than in America (though apparently rising in the cities). Chinese drug laws are also much stiffer and include execution (incidentally China executes more people than all the other countries in the world combined).

-Pre-marital sex is considerably less common in China than the West. According to 21st Century (an English language newspaper for Chinese students), 15% of Chinese aged 18-21 have had pre-marital sex, and for the 21-24 group 39% have had pre-marital sex. The numbers are probably lower in a smaller, more conservative place like Zhangye. By contrast it claims that two-thirds of Americans under 18 have had sex. Because of living conditions it would be nearly impossible for a willing couple to have sex on campus in the first place. There is short-term off-campus housing available for students so those that are having sex often rent rooms for that purpose.

-The majority of college students have never had any kind of job before. In China a student's job is to study and they are not encouraged to earn their own money or pursue hobbies. Many of my students are getting their first part-time jobs tutoring younger students in English. Getting into a college is the result of a student's score on the college entrance exam; no other factors are considered and the pressure and preparation put into this exam are utterly unlike anything American high schoolers go through.

-It would unusual for a Chinese student to pay for college themselves. Generally they are completely funded by their parents.

-In almost every aspect of life Chinese students are less independent and self-reliant than Western students. Even with the means to do so I suspect none of my students would be willing to travel alone, even to a nearby city. Definitely not the girls. Students find it odd that I would even go out on the street by myself.

-Students seem to have little sense of note-taking, even in college. For the most part they scribble whatever I write on the board verbatim into the margins of their textbook and take no other notes. I questioned a student about her notebook and she told me "oh, I do have one, I just don't bring it to class because I'm afraid that I'll lose it."

-The student-teacher relationship is much more formal, with teacher as unquestioned master. A student was telling me a story about her middle school days. The teacher asked students to write down what they thought of her class. The student was naive enough to be honest and critical, and was asked to come to the teacher's home to be shouted at and criticized. It is also still common practice for teachers to hit students for misbehaving or performing poorly.

-Students at this school have an extremely limited knowledge of how to use computers. They have taken computer classes at the school, where they are taught a programming language that I've never heard of. I asked a student why it was useful and they said "oh we won't ever use it. But if we have this certificate it will help us get a job later." Many if not most students are unable to successfully use a search engine, send an e-mail, or get to a website when the address is already known, things which apparently are not taught in computer class. I once watched Andrew teach one of our students how to type in Chinese on a computer.

-A fairly high number of students wear glasses.

-No students own cars. Quite few teachers own cars; they are still for the wealthy. Only some students own bicycles.

-Especially in comparison to American students, Chinese students wake up early on weekends. A student once told me "sometimes we quarrel in my dormitory because I like to wake up early and do exercise with the window open on weekends, but my roommates like to sleep in late." "Late" turned out to be 8am; she preferred to get up at 6:30.

-The entire concept of education in China is different. Rote memorization is king and students are taught to copy what has come before; discussion, independent or creative thinking, unusual opinions, asking questions and certainly challenging the teacher are not encouraged. And it shows; on several occasions I've asked a student to help with some everyday task, such as sending mail to America or using a washing machine, and they were of little help because doing something unfamiliar was a bigger issue for them than the language barrier was for me.

-Foreign teachers are generally the only ones who place a heavy emphasis on the students speaking during English class; Chinese teachers sometimes deride this as "playing."

-Cheating is a much bigger problem than in the West, and is much more accepted. Students freely admit to cheating when asked. I've heard a story about a Chinese professor telling university students to "just copy from your sources. I don't want to have to correct all your English mistakes." I've had students copy straight from their textbooks (the difference is obvious) during class when all I asked them to do was do some free writing about what was on their mind, and not for a grade.

If asked to compare different aspects of American and Chinese culture, I can generally find positives and negatives of both. I didn't mean this list to be a list of complaints, but it's true that education is the one area where I can see no advantages to the Chinese way. Two of my students were shocked to come across a ranking of universities worldwide that listed Qinghua University (the best in China, which students make untold sacrifices to try to get into) at something like #180, and whispered in Chinese about how it was just a Western bias against China. Some of the problems lie with the difficulties of overpopulation (middle school classrooms typically have 60 or 70 students) and of a developing country, but some come from attitudes and ways of thinking that for the sake of Chinese students I hope eventually change. Also, I'm speaking from personal experience and not all these things would be true in all universities in China, especially if the problem is money (this is a third-tier university in one of China's poorest provinces after all). As a whole students here are not satisfied with their educational experience, and I find they usually agree with me when the conversation turns to criticizing education in China. However, I would also be interested in working in a better school in a wealthier city as a means of comparison.

When speaking Chinese with people in town, I am frequently asked if I'm studying abroad here. This first of all makes me smile, as I don't think Zhangye would be high on the list of destinations for a study abroad candidate. But it also makes me imagine life here on the other end of the classroom. I think I'll stick with being a foreign teacher.

(on a side note, for an overall excellent China read that partly deals with being an American studying abroad in China, in the early 80's no less, check out Chinese Lessons by John Pomfret)

Trapped in the Classroom

I got trapped inside a classroom this week.

Currently all of my classes are taught in the same classroom. Because it has a TV inside it is securely locked with a security door that I have the key to. Inside the security door there is also an old wooden door which is now broken and has no handle, and has remained this way for weeks. On Monday this wooden door was closed and utterly impossible to open, and we had to find another classroom. Then, during my Tuesday lesson, a not particularly observant student tightly closed this door while I was speaking.

Sure enough, when it was time to end class and leave, the door could not be opened. Without the handle the latch was not going anywhere, and the class watched on with amusement as I struggled with the door. Students tried the door but it was no more willing to move than Excalibur from the stone. I asked if anyone had a cell phone and the class monitor was quickly on the job. The other students took the chance to take pictures of me with their camera phones (I'm teaching freshman who for the most part have never spoken to a foreigner before this month). Though we were on the first floor we couldn't escape through the windows, as they all had bars. At least no one will steal the TV. After the monitor made a phone call he started shouting out the window at passing students to get help, and trying to communicate with people in the hall by shouting at the small (barred) opening near the ceiling. The students repeatedly asked me if I had a key (after quickly consulting with each about how to say "key" in English); no, I did not have a key to the wooden door, and this was clearly not the problem when there was no handle and nothing to put a key into.

It also began to hail heavily, a very rare event in these parts and an appropriately dramatic touch. Finally a teacher came by to bang on the door really hard, to no avail. She also wanted to know why I didn't have a key. Eventually something she did worked and the door opened, allowing us to leave after waiting around like idiots for 10 minutes after class. I went straight to the English department to inform them about the door. I was assured that because the door has no handle it can't lock and there is no problem. After making clear that I had definitely just gotten stuck in the classroom with 35 students they said they were calling a repairman to take care of it. The door has still not been fixed.

Never a dull moment.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Sichuan Travels

Finishing off my summer travels (in my usual timely fashion), I'll very briefly write about the end of the summer holiday when me and Danielle traveled through Sichuan on the way back to Gansu. The first destination was Zigong, which I chanced upon an interesting description of (at www.holachina.net). It was larger and more modern than what I had imagined, but it was a likable city with some noteworthy ancient buildings and a fun dinosaur museum. At the Wangye Temple I had my first and so far only proper teahouse experience, which was quite enjoyable but does not necessarily make for a exciting story.

Next we set up base in Chengdu and made a day trip to Leshan, a city renowned for having the largest Buddha statue in the world. It was worth braving the crowds to see the Buddha and the rest of the grounds were both attractive and practically deserted.

Chengdu was the last stop before returning to Zhangye. Three years ago I doubt I had even heard of Chengdu, but it is among the largest cities in China with a population of 11 million. Chengdu has all the hallmarks of modernity one would expect in such a large city, our chief interests being pizza and Western-owned bars with great music. Many large Chinese cities rub me the wrong way but I would include Chengdu along with Shanghai and Xi'an in the short list of big Chinese cities I could live in.

One of my favorite moments in Chengdu was in the square in the evening, with the giant Mao statue paternally watching over us. The square is undergoing major renovation including a stop on the city's upcoming subway system, and is now outfitted with a fountain system that by Danielle's account wasn't there last year. It's a flashy fountain with jets of water that dance and shift unexpectedly, but the real fun of it was watching the locals' immense joy over the fountain. Children and college students (who have their childish streaks anyway) got the greatest kick out of running up to the fountain and running away when the water shifted and sprayed them, with amused adults watching on. I'm not sure Americans could muster quite so much enthusiasm over a fountain, and it's often for the simplest of reasons that I love being around the Chinese.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Jones Family in China

At the beginning of my summer holiday, my father and 22-year old brother Erik came to China for a visit, a trip I had long anticipated. It was an eventful and rather successful two weeks, but I'm going to keep the write-up relatively short, especially since I write this blog partly for my family and half of them were there.

The start of the trip was near disaster--as I waited for the two of them to arrive in the Lanzhou airport, wondering why their flights wasn't appearing on the arrival board, I realized for the first time that the copy of the ticket I had said "22 Jun" instead of "22 Jul," nearly impossible to notice from the way the ticket was printed. My plan of buying their tickets from Beijing to Lanzhou really early had backfired, with the travel agent selling me tickets for the wrong month. To my immense relief they arrived on a slightly later flight; after some confusion in Beijing they were able to get same-day tickets on the same airline for cheap.

The first day was spent in Zhangye, where they were able to meet a number of my friends and see in person where I'm teaching and why I like it so much (the food by itself is reason enough). Their first meal was at China Fire, where owner and friend He Le cooked up some fish. I don't like fish in China because of the tiny, deadly bones, which combined with the spicyness make the dish at best annoying to eat and at worst lethal. He Le placated me by saying "oh, this fish has no bones." When it arrived with every bone intact, I brought this to his attention, to which he replied "oh, well it has far fewer bones that other fish." Chinese-style communication. In the top picture they are standing with my friend Little Ma's father, who is a painter and quite generously gave my dad and Erik a painting each as gifts.

After Zhangye we visited Jiuquan, a city similar in size to Zhangye where we were invited to visit the homes of my friends Joy (her Chinese name is 徐莉) and Beth (高彩霞). Joy and her uncle can be seen with my dad and brother in the second pictures above. During this stay, and throughout the trip, my friends insisted on calling my dad "Uncle" in English because using his first name would be rude. There something endearing about my non-English speaking friend Beth catching my dad's attention with "uncle" and leading him around. We were guests in one of Joy's English classes, a summer class she organized completely on her own by going door to door and renting a classroom. It took her a lot of work to convince the wary, mostly poor locals that their children would benefit from extra English class, and she made enough money for herself to pay off a decent amount of tuition she still owed the school. Knowing her situation I had insisted she borrow money from me, but all she ever took in the end was 10 yuan (about $1.20) to buy a train ticket at the end of last semester when she had quite literally run out of money. Nowadays Chinese people are often accused of excessive greed and concern for money, and I'm sure that sometimes it's true, but you don't have to look far to disprove most stereotypes.

After Joy's class we rode to her Uncle's house in a cart, powered by her cousin on a bicycle. I knew this was going to be serious "country living" and was looking forward to the stay, as well as the reaction of my dad and brother. Overall they enjoyed it, despite the perils of using the toilet: it was nothing more than a pit in back of the house, and to even reach it one had to run the gauntlet of two blood-thirsty dogs. At the end of its chain, the second and larger of the two was no more than a foot or so from the toilet, all the while barking and trying to break free and tear your face apart. Add to this a curious cow, whose large head comfortably fit over the fence and into the bathroom "stall" to see what you were up to, and the fact that a family member insisted on chaperoning any guest to the toilet at a close distance, and you have your ideal Chinese bathroom experience to welcome newly arrived foreigners. The bathrooms in general (Western, sit-down toilets are quite rare outside of classier hotels and homes) were a constant source of shock/amusement/photo opportunities for my dad and brother throughout the trip.

After Jiuquan it was back to Lanzhou for a flight and an unexpected hospital visit. My parents give to a charity called Smile Train which fixes cleft palates in poor children around the world, and my dad (who is a doctor) had a visit organized for us at the participating hospital in Lanzhou. We were met at the train station by head surgeon Dr. Lu and an attractive medical student with the English name Sara who would act as translator. They had obviously been confused by the e-mail I sent to Dr. Lu, as Sara was eagerly holding a sign that said "Welcome Dr. Dan." My dad and Erik were surprised and amused at the royal treatment we received, especially the banquet lunch with some of the higher-ranking hospital staff that ended in drinking games (one hopes they didn't have surgery in the afternoon). During the hospital tour my dad started to take a picture of a dental hygienist working on someone's teeth, but they made him wait while she awkwardly put on her mouth guard and cap. A doctor beside me said quietly to Sara "we wouldn't want the foreigners to think that..." but she stopped him and said "he can understand Chinese" while motioning to me. I gave a knowing smile.

Once we left Gansu, the trip became significantly more touristy and less unique, so I don't feel the need to go into detail, as plenty of travel writing exists about these places. We spent three days in Yangshuo, followed by shorter stays in Hangzhou, Xitang, and Beijing, including a day trip to the Great Wall. We did a four-hour walk on the Great Wall, starting at Jinshanling (金山岭) and ending at Simatai (司马台), a good choice that escapes the hordes of tourists that apparently descend on spots like Badaling that are close to Beijing. The least known of the places we visited was definitely Xitang (西塘), a fairly quiet little water town in Zhejiang province that was a nice change of pace from the large, modern Hangzhou. The pictures below are from the area outside of Yangshuo as well as the Great Wall.

Finally, I'll include a brief excerpt from the journal my father wrote about trip (which totals over 20 pages). I enjoyed seeing their surprise at all the little cultural differences I'm now used to (though still amused by), which have been put down in writing by my dad:

General Observations About The Chinese


They love to cook and love to eat and most of their life centers around food.
Their families are very close and they all respect one another including the kids.
They have very little in the way of possessions and are much happier then most of us.
They enjoy “taking a rest” after lunch and can stay up real late at night.
They love to do everything and share everything (including experiences) in groups.
They have tremendous pride in their locality and also in their nation as a whole.
They love to have visitors, especially foreign ones, and are incredibly hospitable.
They love to have their picture taken.
They are getting much taller.
They generally seem to be where we were at in the 1940-50s
They do not know how to form lines and wait their turn.
They never touch their food with their hands.
They squat rather than sit on the ground (like "animals & wild people").


Men love to play drinking games with each other using beer in shot glasses.
Men chain smoke
Men drive crazily.
Men sometimes are seen wearing their shirt with its bottom rolled up exposing their belly.


Women do not drink alcohol.
Women do not smoke.
Women ride on the back of bikes and motorcycles in a side-saddle manner.
Women respect themselves and their men.
Women are great cooks.
Women do all the cleaning and serving.
Women find lighter skin to be more attractive and some cover up completely outdoors.

Items that could be used in making squares for travel bingo in China:

girl riding side-saddle on back of bicycle
kid standing up between parents on motorcycle (no helmet)
man with shirt rolled up over belly
“welding mask” on woman to block the sun
arm cuffs on woman to block the sun
a women with an umbrella to block the sun
public urination
hacking up and spitting out a “lugie”
a cow or water buffalo being walked along the roadside
people playing badminton on the side of the road with no net
“happy pants” on a baby boy
hawker shouting “hello, water”
a rickshaw
a motorcycle/cart hybrid
a bicycle extremely overloaded
a cart or truck extremely overloaded
poor “Chinglish” on a sign
a bathroom with a Western toilet
a person squatting
men playing drinking games
people doing Tai Chi
a car passing a car that is passing another car

Bonus squares (automatic wins):

any Chinese forming a line
a car stopping for a pedestrian
a bus that is not packed
a bathroom with toilet paper
a motorcyclist wearing a helmet
a Chinese man wearing a green hat (means his wife is cheating on him)