Monday, May 26, 2008

Entry Fourteen: Best of Times, Worst of Times

[Due to recent limited internet access, the final three entries are late. My apologies.]

When I made it back to Jinhua from Shanghai I found my host family sitting in front of the TV with grave faces. Premier Wen Jinbao had traveled to the area hit by the earthquake and CCTV footage was pouring in showing the devastation. CCTV dedicated every station to 24 hour coverage of the relief effort as the army mobilized to rescue victims. The school already had fund raisers underway and there was a massive telethon aired on CCTV to raise money. The government responded with everything they have. People everywhere were donating money or supplies. It was really quite moving, not only because of the scale of the tragedy but the scale of the popular response.

In contrast to the somber mood in Jinhua, that weekend I went to Hangzhou to witness the enthusiasm of the Olympic Torch Relay. Ying Nina and Chan, my best friends in China, took me and a few others to Hangzhou. After a pleasant one hour on the D train playing cards, we arrived, waited for a taxi and headed to the hotel. From the hotel we visited a Mongolian Restaurant, and Hangzhou’s reputation for great food held up. Delicious! I did, however, try the first food in China that I cannot stand to eat: Smelly Tofu. Chan (and many others) love it, but to me it smells and tastes like the bottom of a city dumpster. That being said, I tried it three times – just to be sure.

That night we wandered about trying to find our way to the West Lake to buy some of the popular “I love China” garb. Patriotic clothing is the latest trend in a post-protest, post-earthquake, pre-Olympics nationalist fervor. While I have my reservations about some of the government’s decisions, I can say without blinking that I love China. So, I bought some items to reflect that.

My 200 plus pound frame slipped into a XXL “I LOVE CHINA” t-shirt, I wrapped a “Let’s Go China!” bandana around my head, and stuck Chinese Flags all over myself. Walking around the lake at night I was the subject to plenty of pointing, and few people asked to take pictures with me. It was nothing compared with the next day.

That evening we ate fruit and made posters in the hotel until midnight. After a quick sleep and a slow breakfast we left the hotel in taxis to get closer to the relay route. Every inch of the way people were selling “I love China” items, and at a premium price given the quality. We lined up along the fenced off road and waited, absorbing the noticeable energy and excitement. One old man had a great spot on a street corner, which he could have only earned if he had arrived at dawn to claim his position. As the crowd gathered around him his eyes just grew bigger and bigger. Consider what that 70 year old man has seen in his lifetime in China; my mind races to imagine how this day compared.

As the crowd grew larger and larger I became more and more of a spectacle. Strangers asked left and right to have a picture with me, and countless more stopped dead in their tracts to raise their cell phone cameras. My friends commented on what I had already realized, Chinese people were excited to see what they’d call a “friendly foreigner." I was happy to be able to support and celebrate with my Chinese friends.

After an hour of standing, the relay rolled by. The screams and enthusiasm lived up to its billing, but the view did not. I was pushed and pulled within the crowd and saw practically nothing. Oh well.

We went for a long walk around the lake and then to the train station. Upon arrival we boarded a slow train in low class seating. Instead of a chair I sat on a plank, there was no air conditioning. It smelled pretty bad. Interestingly, however, I sat next to a business woman from Hangzhou who spoke some English. She asked a few polite questions and then criticized CNN, a common conversation pattern during the months of April and May. After a scare upon arrival (we almost did not get off the train at the right stop) we were back in Jinhua, tired from a long day but glad to have seen the swell of Chinese excitement.

That Monday would be provide a strong contrast to the joy of the relay, as the entire nation would have a moment of silence to honor all lost to the massive Sichuan earthquake. The moment took place exactly one week after the disaster, and during my Grade One class. When the sirens started everyone in the class stood in silence for 10 minutes. This group has always been very quiet and reluctant to open up to me for a variety of reasons. But on this day I asked them to remain in silence after the official silence and write their feelings. Because this day belonged to the memory of Chinese people, English language did not need to be part of the day’s lesson.

After the students wrote out their emotions I invited them to the board to write what they wrote (in English or Chinese, as they wished). Usually such requests receive silence stares, but this day many students got up to take the chalk. The blackboard was a combination of Chinese and English writing that expressed both grief and pride. I learned how to write the Chinese characters for “sad” and added my message as well. The writing lasted for 15 minutes, until there was no more room on the board. For the last 10 minutes of class we all sat in silence and looked at the board. It was one of those special moments. When the bell rang no one flinched; we just sat together with our words in the open for everyone to see.

I wish I could say that since that special day I have had countless other moments with the same connection, but the truth is I haven’t. Both my students and I have made large strides toward each other this year, but we still do not seem to click consistently. In each of my classes more than half are engaged, but a strong third are not. Strangely, in the halls everyone acknowledges me with the same smile regardless of how tuned-in they are during class. Because of the language barrier, cultural differences, and the students’ circumstances, I really cannot evaluate my success or failure as a teacher here. But, I can say with confidence, it has been an honor to be part of this amazing year in China.

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