Friday, March 21, 2008

Entry Eight: Harmony and Support

In addition to taking me out to dinner, the English teachers in my office have succeeded to find other ways to keep me busy. I have been in a few new classrooms lately making presentations and answering questions. The most common questions I get in this type of setting have to do with the NBA - they absolutely love basketball in China.

In addition to the occasional cameo in a new classroom, the teachers arranged for me to have two more teaching assignments. Granted, they are on the weekend, but I accepted the fruit of their brainstorming without complaint.

On Sunday evenings I work with a group of 16 little kids. They are maybe 10 years old, and darn full of energy. My only experience with students of this age before now took place during my observation period as a student teacher in college. My biggest observation from that experience: that age group is not for me. Yet, we are having fun and playing language games, and I am holding up quite well. They’re great kids, and most of them are related to the English teachers who have been looking after me, so helping them is the least I can do.

On Saturday I work with a 15 year old student from the number 4 school. She is a brilliant artist and quite the piano player as well, but struggles with English. In our first meeting I discovered that she never learned how to decipher words – she was taught very little phonics, and has no familiarity with root words, prefixes or suffixes. She has been trying to learn English as if it is Chinese – by this I mean, pure word recognition. I am no expert on literacy, but when I was really young I had a hard time learning to read until I was introduced to phonics, so we’re giving it a shot. I bought some letter blocks and we have been forming new words left and right. It is building her confidence, and so she is willing to speak more. She is the hardest working student I have met here, and I am grateful to feel useful as a teacher. Many of my other students treat my class as the “fun” period of their week, which is what it is scheduled to be. It is therefore a pleasure to work one on one as a tutor, rather than one on fifty – where I feel less effective as a teacher.

In return for my tutoring the mother of the student, a professor of English at Zhejiang Normal University, is tutoring me in Chinese. Her English is perfect, and her vocabulary is better than most native speakers. We have a habit of talking about philosophy and Chinese culture, and it has been a pure pleasure to speak with her. But, my actual Chinese lessons have been, well, rough… I am getting the hang of basic phrases that are useful, but Lily (the professor) insists on teaching me characters. I must confess it is not sticking, just like English didn't before phonics. If nothing else, I am learning what it feels like to be illiterate. That is a lesson in itself, and a frustrating one.

One character that has left an impression on me, however, is the Chinese character for “people.” As Lily explained, it has two lines leaning on one another for support. She sees this as symbolic of the Chinese philosophy on life, where people naturally rely on and support each other. This helps to shed light on the continued hospitality I have received from my fellow English teachers, and my new Chinese tutor Lily.

Last Sunday Lily invited me to join her and a few of her colleagues (who were British) for a visit to the Double Dragon Caves, the major scenic escape here in Jinhua.

We met at the gate of her apartment complex and took a cab for a typically terrifying ride through the city and the countryside. Last week I took a picture from a balcony of one of the countless intersections here, just to help illustrate the traffic patterns. Notice how the cars and motorbikes compete for the same space on the road. I guess there is something about the-slow-driving-Mainer in me that just can’t stop being surprised by the traffic here. Then again, everyone seems to get where they’re going without much trouble, so I should probably just get over it.

When we arrived at the mountain we swerved up narrow roads, honking the horn before every turn to alert any possible passerby or car that we were coming. We arrived safely, and immediately I felt the relief of fresh mountain air. The mountain was extremely well managed, and in great condition. These days China proudly celebrates Arbor Day, but events of the 20th century took a toll on much of the environment in the east of China. Yet here the average tree was almost as thick around as something you might find in Maine! Clearly, this place has been protected, and for good reason.

As we walked up narrow steps toward the caves, we passed a small country village. Compared with the rest of Jinhua, a bustling and wealthy city, the village looked like it had seen little change in the last few decades. On one hand, it was charming and beautiful. On the other hand, the contrast between urban and rural life in China is still dramatic and I am grateful to live in the city.

We passed through what felt like a theme park entrance and continued to climb extremely steep steps. Broken branches and broken treetops were everywhere to be seen. Lily explained that the quick and heavy snow that fell in January and February was responsible for the damage. The broken limbs reminded me of the thaw after the big ice storm Maine had in the 1990s, but the lack of a railing on the walkway reminded of a nightmare I had a few weeks ago. Luckily nothing tragic took place on the mountain, and we came to a small house behind which was the entrance to the famous caves.

The scenic area is known as Double Dragon Caves, but in reality that cave is only one of many caves in the mountain. The Double Dragon Cave earns its name from the two naturally occurring rock formations that the entrances, which require little imagination to recognize as dragons. I can envision hiking this mountain hundreds of years ago to find a dragon’s face protruding from a cave wall. It is easy to see how this place was considered sacred and magical.

The entrance to the cave is, well, an experience. Years ago one would have to swim under a bolder, in a pool of cold mountain water. These days one lays flat, and I mean flat, on a canoe dragged by a rope through complete darkness between the bolder and the water’s surface. There are only inches from you and the bolder, and I almost scrapped my knee. I entered the cave lying next to a Chinese tourist who got a huge kick out of riding through with a foreigner. He said hello about eight times and his friends took a picture.

Once inside the cave you find that it is extremely spacious. The walls, just as in all the other caves we visited, had dramatic lighting created by neon lights and the occasional string of Christmas bulbs. Much like the boat entry system, there has been an effort to make the caves tourist friendly. This includes the occasional warning sign, but has yet to include railings for climbing the slippery steps.

My favorite feature about the caves was the waterfalls! It had rained for a few days before our trip, and the mountain water collected in pools that poured through the caves and further down the mountain. The views were just spectacular, almost magical. The caves here are recognized internationally, and one of the waterfalls is the largest known to exist in a cave anywhere in the world.

Once through the caves we began to hike up the mountain. Again, everywhere I looked I was amazed at the health of the forest. Gorgeous views of rolling misty hills worked in harmony with the vivid colors of spring that greeted me along the path. Rather than write about the scenery, I will simply include a few pictures and the let the images speak for themselves.

Astonishing caves, stunning flowers, and endless background of rolling hills – this place is inspiring, and I would say spiritual. As we rounded a corner we rented a van to finish the hike up the mountain, as one of the members of the group was feeling a little tired. Then we arrived at the temple.

There are two Taoist temples on Mount Jinhua. They were built only a decade ago. As part of the reentry of Hong Kong in the late 1990s the Chinese Government restored Taoist temples that had been previously destroyed. While the mountain has almost always had at least one small temple, today’s temple, while magnificent, is not actually as old as it was constructed to appear. As we came to the entrance Lily explained the significance of Mount Jinhua in the Taoist religion.

Some say that Jinhua’s most famous son was Huang Chuping, or as he is known within the temple walls, the Great Immortal Huang. The story goes that Huang entered the caves of Mount Jinhua many centuries ago, probably the same caves that I found so inspiring, and meditated until he achieved immortality. The temple we visited was dedicated to him, as Huang is one of the most important figures of the religion.

Taoism, or Daoism, roughly translates to mean “the way.” The religion emerged through a tradition and philosophy that emphasizes peace, reflection and the natural flow of things. Today Daoism can be viewed as a philosophy, but others emphasize the more mystical figures of the religion such as the Great Immortal Huang.

The entrance to the temple is first guarded by lions, and then by three guardian god figures. In this first hall we met a monk, and through Lily we learned a little about his story.

The monk explained that he choose the religion of his own free will, and practices freely on the mountain. He is not originally from the Jinhua area, in fact none of the monks there are. He said it is common to disassociate from your home as part of accepting the priorities of religious life, and so you move away. He was originally a manual laborer, a minor in the west, and prefers his life as a monk compared to what he had. Yet, he was not shy to explain that life here is not easy and requires a lot of discipline to live happily in such solitude. An aura of peace resonated from his eyes as he smiled his way through this personal story.

Once in the temple another monk asked us to refrain from using a flash on our cameras, but granted permission for us to take pictures because he sensed we were sincere. With him we then stood and observed an idol, a woman, who is the goddess of mercy. Her colors were blue and white, and while it is dangerous to view one religion from the perspective of another, I could not help but see a familiar image of the Virgin Mary captured in the essence of this Taoist goddess of mercy. After paying our respect we moved through the courtyard and took another long look at the scenery.

Next we visited the temple of Huang, a massive hall with a single giant statue. In one corner there was a bed in a tent; apparently Huang is guarded 24 hours a day. After that we walked further up the temple steps to a hall with three deities, representing Life, Death, and Morality. There we made a small donation to buy some incense and reflected as the monks struck small gongs. The energy was peaceful, as much a product of the monks around us as it was the mountain and the temple itself.

When I returned to the city of Jinhua I was surprised how few people had been to the temple, and encouraged them to visit this amazing piece of their local history. I also wanted to investigate how the mountain had stayed pristine while the surrounding area clearly bears the environmental scars of the last 60 years.

I did some research and found a great website dedicated to environmental issues in China. The site explains that Buddhists and Taoists have been actively protecting their holy places for centuries with a strong reverence for the environment. While the temple in Jinhua is indeed new, Lily explained that monks have lived on the mountain for as long as she can remember. This helps to explain why it is so well protected. The website I found goes on to explain that now the Chinese government is actually working with outside parties in conjunction with the religious groups to protect the environment! The government respects the track-record of the Taoists and Buddhists, and is intentionally trusting important sites to their protection. I found this to be a fascinating relationship, especially in light of recent events.

My visit to the mountain ended happily as a recharging experience. Although I can not yet truly understand the Taoist religion or philosophy, I strongly felt a sense of harmony while on the mountain, and remain grateful for the support people here have shown me as I enter my second month living in China.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Entry Seven: Getting Used to Things

While I am having an amazing time here, I must admit that a little homesickness is creeping in. I am dealing with it quite well, but not hiding it from my fellow teachers when they ask. Their response to my slight case of the blues has been extraordinary, and I have been enjoying many home cooked meals throughout Jinhua.

My desk is in a cubicle office with the first year English department. Their office setup is quite similar to ours at Oxford Hills, where a teacher might teach in different rooms but keep a desk in a large space with others. A big difference, however, is that the students stay in the same classroom and mainly teachers move around the building during passing time. It seems to work well. I credit this to the fact the average teacher only has a few 40 minute classes a day, and seems to never teach two periods in a row. This way the teachers do not rush from room to room, and also the students are relatively well contained.

The teachers in my office have especially reached out to me since I displayed symptoms of being homesick. One evening most of us got together at a veteran teacher’s home and made dumplings from scratch. What a treat! I arrived early with pen and paper in hand to take down the recipe. The others arrived just as the filling was complete; a mixture of green onion, egg, pork, mushroom, bamboo, and various spices. At that point we all sat around the table and stuffed dumplings.

They bought the dumpling skin ahead of time, as it is a pain to make. It was similar to pre-made pie crust, but cut into circles roughly the circumference of a peanut butter jar. Using chopsticks, I would drop a clump of filling in the center of the circle, and then wrap my thumbs around the sides to twist the dough around the mixture. I must of have done this sixty times, as we made a lot. It reminded me of stuffing various Italian shells with my mom when I was little, kind of a comforting moment. The teachers were surprised to discover I thought it was fun, and in fact I finished the evening recognized as a fairly competent dumpling stuffer.

As we sat around the table working, the teachers chatted away. I know I have mentioned it before, but the sense of community here is really endearing. When we finished making them, the dumplings were boiled. Finally we ate… and I mean ate. Our hour or so of dumpling making yielded enough to over-feed 10 people and make for leftovers. The meal was served with a side of peppers and a sauce made of cilantro, soy sauce and vinegar. Once again, it was delicious.

A few days later I found myself in a car driving off to another culinary adventure. This time I would also tag along for the shopping.

Ying Nina (Linda) and Chen are a newly and happily married couple. Linda teaches English at the school and has been an asset to me the entire time I have been here. Her husband, a relatively tall man with a great sense of humor, has also fast become my friend. We were out to pick up ingredients for Chen’s mother, who was the master chef for the evening. The first place we went to shop was... can you guess?

This time I smuggled my digital camera into Wal-Mart! I needed it to help illustrate how strange it is to see something familiar also be something foreign.

The variety of vegetables, fruits and meats here far exceed anything I have seen in America. But, there are far fewer canned or packaged products, and almost no dairy. The seafood is either dried (oh, what a smell) or still alive in tanks. Still, if you need something that is hard to find in China, Wal-Mart is your best bet. I found Barilla brand pasta, Italian style tomato paste, and many more items I did not think I would ever find here (but not basil, drat!). Linda grabbed a few items, but said quietly that despite the wide selection she is weary of the meat and produce here because it just doesn’t seem fresh. Having watched shoppers sort through meat bins in the open display case with their bare hands, I felt comfortable with her evaluation. So, we jetted across the bridge to the southern part of the city to find a local market.

The local market, small and on a street corner, certainly was fresh. There were drums of water filled with live fish of every kind, and even live chickens that you could buy and have butchered on the spot. Vegetables were everywhere to be seen. Although the market would not meet an American standard for sanitation, if I had to choose between a sanitized butcher block versus an organic and fresh product… well, I have to say I prefer what the local market here has to offer. That being said, I am grateful my immune system has been able to keep up.

We arrived and once again I enjoyed a meal that was as surprising as it was delicious. We had eggplant, chicken, pickled white carrot, snails in spicy sauce, fish, bean curd, traditional pork sausage, and very special bread that they bought at the nearby village where Chen grew up. They also bought some lamb kabobs from a nearby restaurant that prepared Northwestern Chinese food. They predicted I would like it, and I sure did. Of course, we also had rice, but this time it was served with a side dish: frozen pork fat with peanuts and spices. I put a little on my rice, and though it was different I can see why they like it here. If that sounds a little unappetizing, ask yourself what you’re doing the next time you load butter on your potato.

After the meal we went for a walk and then to a gym. In the end I had so much fun that I bought a membership. The three story fitness club has many different activities in addition to what you would expect, including yoga and “spinning” (basically a stationary bike workout led by a trainer in a room designed to look like a dance club, strobe lights and all). The one thing that shocked me, especially being from Maine, was that some people smoke in the gym! There are no indoor smoking laws here, and people seem to not mind. But, I have to say, for me it takes some getting used to. I suppose that is where I am at right now, in the “getting used to it” phase.

To prove that I actually do more than just eat here, in the next few days I will write about the Double Dragon Caves: an exciting park I visited last Sunday. Until then, I would love to receive any questions you might have about my trip or China in general. If appropriate, I will forward your question to my students here and let them wrestle up some answers. Don’t be shy! : )

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Entry Six: What is Freedom?

Although I spent a lot of time with the other foreign teachers when I first arrived, I have since been working hard to build relationships with Chinese teachers at the school. After all, that is why I am here.

Two younger Chinese English teachers at the high school were kind enough to take me to dinner. Rather than help me explore some foreign dish or traditional fare, they wished to give me what they thought would be a taste of home: Pizza Hut.

Keep in mind that this was not your typical Pizza Hut! It was serious fine dining mixed with what you’d expect: rack of lamb next to a personal pan pizza. It was a strange hybrid of East and West. We used forks and not chopsticks, yet still we all shared every plate of food in the middle of the table. There was a salad bar, but each table would only order one turn at the salad bar and send up the best engineer to cram as much as possible into one bowl for everyone to share. People actually stack cucumber slices 20 high around the edge of the bowl to increase the volume, and then fill it with yogurt and fruit! It is the strangest thing I have seen here; a perfect example of two cultures blending together into something neither of us can recognize.

The meal was very expensive, about $17 US per person, almost $50 US for the entire meal– enough money to feed a modest family for weeks. Yet, they were eager to pay and insisted I do not contribute. Part hospitality, part pride; the burgeoning middle class in China has an appetite to demonstrate their wealth. As I sat there, in a country that struggled for much of the 20th Century, I sipped a cold Pepsi product and enjoyed a meat lover’s pizza while looking out the window at a KFC and a Wal-Mart. Extraordinary.

Our discussion only casually addressed politics, however when I commented on the general wealth of the community, one of the teachers answered excitedly: “We can have anything we want; there is a lot of freedom for us here.” She gave a big smile, and then poured some more ketchup on her pizza, another Chinese habit that surprised me at first.

As an American History teacher, what she said really caught my interest. To describe freedom as the ability to “have” something is a little different from how I would view it. But, I did not press on with questions about her statement and kept the mood casual as we finished the fantastic meal.

One week later I was sitting on a cushy sofa, 8 stories above the street in the new apartment home of a bright young couple. Every fixture in the house was new, the fridge full of good food, and the furniture very comfortable. It is clear that the lifestyle of many people in China today is something to be envied by most of the world, including many in America.

My hosts that evening were two teachers from the school. We enjoyed a magnificent dinner made of five savory dishes. The Chinese English teacher who had invited me spent much of her night translating the ideas, questions and comments of her boyfriend. The boyfriend, aside from being one heck of a cook, has been teaching at the high school since he graduated from the university. He has a round face and wears square glasses, has a serious passion for history, and smiles at controversy with the curious enthusiasm of a scholar.

We spoke freely about world history, both of us energized at the opportunity to chat privately with someone from the “other side” who shares a common interest. He was surprised that some Americans describe Korea as the “forgotten war,” diplomatically expressed his opinion that America’s prosperity was born from imperial activity against Spain, and spoke with emotion about China’s positive direction in the world.

While we did not see eye-to-eye on everything, we were able to speak easily about it all; from the Sudan to American foreign policy in Iraq. He was open, even critical at times, and felt very strongly about issues related to development and economic imperialism.

In a moment of transition between subjects, I expressed that it seems the American media’s portrayal of everyday life in China is an exaggeration. For the most part, people here have freedom. He calmly shifted his position on the sofa.

This time he himself answered in English without help. “Yes, we have freedom to do what we want, but of course we must also follow the law.” On the surface, this statement can also be said about living in America. But here, even culturally, loyalty to the government seems to be more highly valued. I have been politely trying to ask questions about this observation for the last week, but I found the best insights in an ancient Chinese novel.

A friend here recently lent me a book: Reviews of Selected Chinese Classics, published by China Reconstructs Press in 1988. The book is a sort of cliff notes addition of multiple classics from Chinese literature, and a first edition in English.

The afternoon before I wrote this entry I read the first selection, a 14th Century novel entitled The Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong. The plot of the book has three kingdoms in a 3rd century conflict over who will unite and control all of China. Typical of the period, the novel promoted the traditional “supreme virtue” of loyalty to a dynasty rather than a conviction. Luo’s characters were compelling and admirable examples of unquestioning loyalty. The story also promoted benevolent leadership where rulers care honestly for the welfare of their subjects. Yet, and somewhat paradoxically, the story’s conclusion was a tragedy. In the end, the long warring rulers became “foolish and decadent” and a fourth kingdom emerged to conquer all three; all of the sacrifice was in vain.

This story, and for that matter what I witnessed at Pizza Hut, puzzles me – but I am certain it helps to explain how Chinese traditional culture approaches the concept of freedom.

The Chinese desire the freedom to enjoy life and condemn tyranny just as we do. Yet, the traditional story views loyalty to a government as a higher virtue than loyalty to a conviction. On the one hand, this view is very pragmatic; after all, your convictions will probably not put food on the table, but stability and a good government can. Yet, as an American, my instinct is to be weary of government and prize my principles ahead of any leader. What at first puzzled me now feels more familiar, and similar to a classical debate about the nature of man and his relationship with government.

From an American perspective, and in a very fundamental way, our concept of freedom is imbued to value independent thinking. At least that is the ideal.

I am growing to believe that the Chinese approach to freedom is far more pragmatic. It values the opportunities created by the stability that loyalty to a government can achieve.

In other words, in China, if everyone is loyal to the government, then the government can accomplish something and create more opportunity for people to enjoy life. The ability, and lets call it “freedom,” to feed your children is more of a priority than the freedom to protest against some relatively minor issue (an act, by the way, which could be counterproductive because it creates chaos).

So, with this mindset, the best indicator that you have freedom is your ability to have things because it demonstrates that the system is working. And, to be frank, it appears to be working in Jinhua even if it is different from my perspective.

Now, I am not writing this to forsake my own American world view, and also please know that most Chinese people I have spoken with are far more complicated than the simplified extreme of the novel The Three Kingdoms or my black-and-white analysis.

So please, do not take me too seriously; I do not. Instead, I only offer this reflection in hopes of sparking conversation about a subject so central to our own identity as Americans.

What is freedom? Is it more closely related to the ability to act as an individual or survive within a group? Is it best demonstrated by the ability to have what you want, or do what you want?

Please comment.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Entry Five: Free Time

One evening after dinner I got a call from Courtney, they were going to KTV. With no clue what KTV is, I put on a new shirt (getting used to chop sticks) and walked out the gate to meet them.

KTV stands for Karaoke TV. It is different than in the states. It is like a hotel, but each room has a jukebox machine, a widescreen TV and two microphones. It costs about 300 yuan to rent a room for a night, plus whatever else you buy from the menu. Immediately as I entered the room a Chinese man, well, got in my personal bubble.

In China it is common when socializing to talk close. Make that, very close. They will sit with arms around each other just talking and it is no big deal. This particular fellow, a Chemistry teacher at a nearby school, was excited to meet me and practice his English. At one point he grabbed my shoulders and encouraged me to sit at the jukebox to pick a song. I did so, picking a Frank Sinatra song that did not go over too well.

When it comes to American music, the Chinese tend to prefer pop music like the Backstreet Boys. The Chinese music itself is quite beautiful and classy, even a little like Sinatra at times, but they generally do not get excited about slow American music. A Chinese English teacher here theorized that the reason that the US music popular in China is all pop is because enjoying energetic music does not require you to understand the lyrics. Hoping to redeem myself, I later attempted a Backstreet Boy’s song, with backup vocals sung by the Chemistry teacher I first met when I arrived. Great success.

While I only ventured to the KTV one time, I have been playing a lot of basketball. Granted, I am awful, but it is one of the few ways where I can interact with a common Chinese person without the language barrier. One afternoon when I first arrived I saw some people who looked my age playing basketball. I walked up and asked if I could play, and one of them nodded.

We shot hoops for quite a while before anyone said anything, but during a break this particular guy started to speak in English and it was like a flood gate opened. He is a graduate engineering student about to leave home to study in Beijing. He likes English, but wasn’t a big fan of it in school. As he kept going and going he stopped himself and smiled, saying “Wow, I am performing quite well!” He was relaxed. He told me to call him “Shot,” because it sounds like his Chinese name and he loves basketball. We then continued the game of 5 on 5.

Now, many reading this know that I am not entirely uncoordinated, but my athletic strength is pushing things, not chasing them. So, they planted me under the hoop and told me to use my size to dominate the boards. I had success on defense, but I missed every shot I took on offense except the last one. In fact, because the game ended immediately after I scored, I have reason to believe they were being polite. They were waiting for me to score, to allow me to “save face,” a very important Chinese concept. To embarrass someone is sometimes worse than to lie to them, so they kept playing until Big Boy finally nailed a shoot before they called it quits.

Also, I must mention that a group of foreign teachers from around the area meets every Sunday and plays football. Among the Canadians and Aussies I might not be the most athletic, but it sure has been fun to draw up plays and feel at home. It’s not often here when I feel like I am the one who knows what is going on, and so playing football is a bit of a refuge.

Another evening a Chinese teacher helped me open a bank account. She tried to show me how to use the ATM, because of course I do not read Chinese. Things weren’t working at first and for a moment I thought I was in for a hassle. But, then I found an English button and then everything became quite simple. As much as I worry about gates and pine boxes that hide computers, the language is still my largest barrier – but I am slowly chipping away at it, and soon enough, I am sure to get through.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Entry Four: Teaching in Jinhua

There are three other American language teachers here, all recent college graduates just a little younger than I am. Joe, a tall, lanky guy with grayish-black curly hair, is from just outside New York City. He walks like he talks, relaxed but deliberate. He attended college at Fairfield with his current colleague here in Jinhua, Courtney. Courtney is petite, but from just south of Boston and wears it on her sleeve. I have to admit, it was as much a surprise as it was a relief to hear someone say, “That was wicked good,” after eating the Lindt chocolate I gave her and the others when we first met. She studied education while in college and is trying to decide if teaching is what she wants to do with her life.

The third American teacher at the high school is Dan. He is about my height and build, minus the extra weight I added in college. Originally from Florida, Dan has lived and taught all over Asia the last 2 years. All three of them are very nice, and happy to let me tag along on their outings and show me good places to eat in the city. But, we have to be careful not to stay out too late because there is a gate at every apartment complex that closes pretty early. They say it is ok to just wake up the guard and he’ll let you in, but I still can’t bring myself to do that.

When I arrived at the school my first Monday I spent 2 hours trying to find a way to get the computer in my classroom to work. Much like the apartment gate, there are again some obstacles to doing something outside the group routine. So, I had to FTP the file from my laptop to a school computer, and then load the files onto a special drive, and then go to the classroom and type my IP address into the classroom computer, then launch a program, and then I could view the PowerPoint on the classroom computer and show it on the projector. Mind you, I had a flash drive in my pocket with the Power Point file on it the entire time. I could have just plugged it into the computer and it would work. But, the classroom computer is locked in a solid wood box and no teacher has a key. Another strange difference is that the only photocopier is in the administration building, staffed by three people who make the copies for you, and only available at certain hours. I suppose it is a good way to prevent teachers from unintentionally breaking computers and photocopiers, but it takes some getting used to.

My teaching schedule does not involve a lot of class time. I have three classes, each from a different grade level, and each meets only twice a week for one hour. That being said, I have 150 students (50 each class) and would gladly accept much more class time in exchange for smaller class sizes.

On Monday I have only one class, 40 minutes with level-one students; basically the same thing as freshmen. Most of them speak only a little English, but despite the language barrier they are still excited to have class. I presented a toned-down version of my usual style in a Power Point as an introduction. They all think I look like Harry Potter, so I created a slide where my face blends into a Harry Potter picture. They roared with laughter. Their other classes are so demanding that they approach their time with me as a break, and they are eager to laugh. I will try to get them to take my class seriously and as more than a break, but in many ways my period is supposed to be the “fun class” in their schedule.

On Tuesday I met my group of level-two students, or sophomores. Most of this group speaks English pretty well, but they are lively! This group is called the “special teacher” class. All of these students demonstrated at an early age that they were very talented in some way, and their acceptance to college is guaranteed. So, some of these kids are very good with languages, but some kids are good with computers or a basketball. That being said, they are still nice kids, and I am trying to cook up some alternative activities to fit what is in reality a very heterogeneous group.

Wednesday I have no classes, but I spend most of my day at the school trying to build a curriculum. Because I have no textbook, no set curriculum, and because I refuse to take it easy, I have a considerable amount to do right now. That being said, I have more free time here than I expected. So, I have been casually studying Chinese and reading a little Chinese literature. As the year moves along they have plans to bring me into other classrooms, but none of this has happened yet.

Thursday and Friday morning I meet with the two younger groups for a second time. Right now we are working with Harry Potter, since they think I look like him, as a vehicle to learn some vocabulary and break the ice with some acting activities. In many ways I am more formal of a teacher than what they are used to from a foreigner, and I think both the kids and myself are trying to adapt.

Friday afternoon I meet with a group of 50 level-three students, or seniors. Many of them are in a position where they no longer feel as pressured by the exam system because their future has already been determined. Back home, I might call it “senioritis.”

I meet them for two forty minute periods in a row. While this time is familiar for me because of our block schedule at Oxford Hills, it is something unusual for my students in China. My goal for these students is to encourage discussion, but there are obstacles, not the least of which is the fact there are 50 of them and it is a foreign language! But, I am toying with a few ideas and hopefully will have some interesting student designed web casts to send home soon.

The typical Chinese teacher does not have as much class time in a week as does the American teacher, even though the school week is six days long. That being said, the amount of homework grading, assessing and other additional responsibilities make their day perhaps more tiresome than what most American teachers are used to.

The longer I teach here the more fun I am having with my students, but in many ways I feel like I have to learn how to teach all over again. Maybe that's not such a bad thing? : )

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Entry Three: Welcome to Jinhua

After we unloaded my stuff in the apartment, I went with Helen to meet Joe, a 24 year old from NYC who is also teaching here. He has been here now 2 years, and this is his first teaching job. It was his birthday, but he took 20 minutes and walked with me to buy an Ethernet cord, the first step in a long process to get the internet working in my apartment.

I was supposed to meet Helen for dinner at 5:30, so I went back to the apartment to unpack. At 4:52 she was waiting for me outside my window. Her husband, a nice guy who works for the municipal government, had invited me to dinner in the countryside.

Downtown Jinhua is pretty urban, and even though it is not Shanghai, you can get most anything you need. But the countryside of Jinhua is honest-to-goodness rural China. As he drove I again experienced the theme park ride that is driving in China. Stop lights and road signs are treated more like suggestions than rules of the road, and people consistently turn left on red against oncoming traffic if they think they can make it. Yet, there is no road rage, there is no malicious intent. People drive with the same attitude as I encountered when trying to get off the train in Jinhua - every man for himself, but everyone’s smiling.

We arrived at a farmer’s home and entered the main room, about 10 feet by 10 feet. In the middle of the room there was a large circular table stacked with food. A TV was blaring in the corner, but no one was watching. There must have been 15 different dishes, none of them familiar. I tried most of them, but I do not know if I can capture what happened. It was just surreal.

The table was surrounded with large, smiling farmers. They were close friends who all served together in the army for many years. One of them was the host, and the farmer who owned the dairy. As we sat down the host arrived with a steaming basin of fresh milk. There were two bowls in front of me, both for drinks, and I sat on the stool as did everyone else. One of the bowls was filled with the unpasteurized milk, which was DELICIOUS! The other bowl was quickly filled with alcohol, as getting foreigners drunk is a valued pastime in the countryside. Being familiar with this tradition, I was able to avoid any problems by sticking with the milk.

As the meal began I looked out in front of me at the endless dishes and decided to dig in. The closest to me was a plate of what looked like duck meat, so I ate a slice. It was gamey, but the texture was more like beef than duck. One of the farmers gave a big smile and pointed at me, saying “ni xi huan che guo rou!” To translate: “He likes eating dog meat.”

In truth, it did not taste that bad. They usually do not eat dog meat this time of year, but because it has been cold they were eating it. Helen says it has a warming quality, but I am not so sure.

Probably the strangest thing I ate (or that I know I ate) were the baby swallows. The farmers catch the swallows in nets and then roast them. Because the birds are young and small, you can eat the whole thing, bones and all. I ate three or four of them, much to the farmers delight. In all honesty, the meat on these little birds was probably the best tasting dish at the table, but I got sick of crunching my way through the skulls so I quit at four.

Also I ate eel, fish, pea pods, “wild vegetable,” chicken, and pork fat stuffed in Chinese bread. No person at the table had their own plate, and everyone frantically attacked the many dishes. The strange thing is that even though each person approached the table looking for the best cut of meat, you still got the sense they were looking out for each other. I like eating this way, as I get to try many different dishes, but also the sense of community is really inviting. Sure, it is crowded, and any Seinfeld fan might have a fit about the double-dipping factor, but you really feel like you belong to something, no matter how hectic it is.

They smoked cigarettes throughout the entire meal. I do not smoke, and was grateful that they understood and did not take it as an insult that I wouldn’t join along. The last stage of the meal was to eat rice, but first there was a final round of toasts to the host. The rice was delicious, a time honored cap to a great meal.

I had explained to Helen that my mother’s family had once been diary farmers in Maine, but the government split up our farm to build a road in the 1930s as part of the New Deal. She was delighted by this display of my proletariat roots, and told the story at the table to the farmers, who were equally impressed. After the meal they took me into the dairy, and I said, “Like the farms at home.” Helen translated and everyone roared with approval. I looked at the cows, calmly stepped over the flops, and fit right in.

Before leaving we drank boiling hot tea outside. I had brought a small box of chocolates with me anticipating something like this, so I went to the car and presented my host with the sweets: a small box of 3 Lindt chocolate truffles. He was pleased, but Helen was more pleased because I had demonstrated my understanding of the culture and willingness to participate.

Everyone shook my hand and invited me back again, and off I went for another daredevil road race back into town. I sat in the backseat trying to make sense of the last 36 hours. My conclusions should not be taken too seriously, but I will share them nevertheless.

Collectivism, a term often used to describe the paradigm in China, stages the group ahead of the individual. But I am coming to see that it is more sophisticated than that. People look out for each other in China, even if it does not appear to be the case on the surface. The chaos, such as getting off the train and driving around, is actually consistent with the attitude at the dinner table.

Individuality, especially in terms of personal space, does not exist in the same way in China as it does in America. For example: YOU are not eating that plate of cabbage, WE are eating it. The same principle applies to driving: YOU are not driving in the left lane, WE are driving in the left lane, and so I do not view that spot are being yours - it is up for grabs… so watch out, I will cut in front of you.

Because the emphasis is on the group experience, individual space is not viewed in the same way. To a certain degree, the same goes for privacy. YOU are not experiencing life in China; WE are, together, and so some of boundaries that might be valued in America do not exist here in the same way.

I arrived at my new apartment at about 8 pm, and went to sleep. As I fell asleep I could hear people talking outside my window, smell fish cooking somewhere nearby, hear people walking in the apartment above mine, and music being played in the apartment below. Concrete walls can do very little to separate me from my neighbors; after all, this is China.