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... 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.