Monthly Archives: October 2011

A rare student

This semester, I’ve had the chance to tutor three high school seniors, all girls, in conversational English.  One girl is hoping to study abroad in Toronto, Canada, and needed to practice her English in preparation for her university entrance exam and interview.  She had those two weeks ago, and she’s waiting to hear if she will be accepted or not.  I really hope that she will be.  She is one of the brightest, most creative people I’ve had the pleasure of teaching here.  She is not like most of my other students, who are so conditioned from the educational structure of memorization, exam, memorization, exam that most of their inherent creativity is pushed out by the time they hit middle school.  I prepared discussion topics and worksheets for our tutoring lessons, but we hardly touched those, except for the interview practice questions, because each time she walked in the door we immediately began conversing and didn’t stop until the time was up.  We covered everything–poetry, books, favorite authors, philosophy, religion, politics, family, and education.  She was very quick to admit that there was much more out there that she didn’t know, and that she wanted to know more.  This is not a very common attitude in students here, because most of them seek information only so far as it is relevant to exams.  But she actually appreciates knowledge for its own sake, and we quickly realized that we were what Anne would call “kindred spirits.”  She shared a lot about her life, and what she thinks about education, especially her dissatisfaction with her own.

Her story is like that of many other Chinese high school students.  In their first year of high school (Senior 1), students in China choose between Arts and Science concentrations.  Arts students take English, Art, History, Geography, Politics, Chinese, and Math classes. Science students take Physics, Chemistry, Biology, English, Math, and Chinese classes.   I may be missing one or two classes somewhere in there, but that’s the gist of it.  Many students who would prefer the Arts concentration are convinced by their teachers and parents to go the Science route instead, because there is much greater competition in the Arts category to get a high score on the gaokao (China’s biggest test–it determines which tier/quality of universities one can get into).  The Science route has fewer students, so if you are a good enough student, you have a better chance of getting a high score on the gaokao.  My student (her English name is Echo) is one of those who would have pursued an Arts concentration, if not for her parents’ and teachers’ advice.  She also wants to study Psychology in college, but her parents told her that she must study Business Management instead, as this will be better suited to getting a high-paying job.

She loves history and literature, she can think critically and creatively about things she reads, and she questions the world around her.  And yet, she is in an educational system that does not cultivate students to ask why, and whose goal is largely for the sake of economic advancement rather than the sake of well-rounded, informed, creative-thinking, responsible citizens.  The system is all about getting ahead and winning, not bettering yourself just because it’s a good thing to do.  What’s amazing is that she realizes this.  Most of my students don’t, or if they do, they don’t care or think about it very much.  I have hope that if she has the chance to go abroad, she can live a richer life, not because she couldn’t live a full life in China, but because she, more than most of my students, is open to the idea of growing and learning from cultures other than her own.  Most students don’t care at all for the world outside, so it’s refreshing to me when I see one who does.  I am genuinely excited to see what Echo does in the future–I hope there will be more like her!


A few pictures from Qingdao

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I’ve wanted to write about my trip to Qingdao a couple weeks ago during the National Holiday, but it’s been hard to find time to write.  China’s National Day falls on October 1st every year, and we got seven days off to celebrate 62 years of the P.R.C. and its glorious one-party rule.  We celebrated by getting out of dodge for a few days, hopping on a 9 hour train bound for the seaside city of Qingdao.

One of the things that I can successfully get through with my hit-or-miss Chinese is booking train tickets, because during last year’s Chinese class, we practiced it over and over.  The problem is, traveling during any public holiday in China is crazy, because thousands upon thousands are all traveling at the same time.   At the train ticket office, Elijah and I waited in line to buy our tickets as soon as the office opened, and we made it inside in good time.  We were only able to get standing-room tickets though, which were super cheap but made the prospect of the trip sink a bit in my imagination.  It was still too early to buy return tickets, so I returned two days later with Alan to buy more tickets, and we were so annoyed when person after person cut the long line to rush to the front and buy their tickets.  After a while, the security guard on duty started turning the line-cutters away to the back of the line.  Nobody here queues for anything, unless they’re forced to queue with metal gates or something.  At Starbucks, they have yellow guiding ropes from the cash register to the pick-up area so that no one will crowd around.  Lining up is as big a novelty as getting a mocha frappuccino at Starbucks.  Before I lose myself on this rabbit trail, suffice it to say that we managed to at least get seats on the train back home, even if we only had standing room tickets to Qingdao!

The train journey was…interesting.  We had tickets for the train car right behind the engine, so we had some space at the front of the car to sit down and stretch out on the floor the whole night, which was better than some people had on the more crowded cars.  No one had to step over us, and after popping a Nyquil, I dozed a little bit and read a bit as well.

Qingdao was a refreshing change from our dusty Shijiazhuang, and it was nice to see the ocean and the old German architecture mixed in with modern buildings.  It’s a very hilly city, so we wore out our legs each day walking around and taking in the scenery.  We visited the brewery museum of China’s most famous beer, Tsingtao, which was begun when Qingdao still belonged to Germany, and has since passed from German to Chinese to Japanese and back again into Chinese ownership.  The museum was pretty cool, and our ticket price included a few samples of Tsingto draught beer.

Walking around and getting lost on side-streets and in parks was nice, but finding a restaurant became one of the most frustrating tasks.  Finding a place to eat that didn’t involve pointing at fish and crustaceans in pails on the floor to order was difficult.  I like some seafood very much, but a lot of those little places looked a bit sketchy.  I didn’t fancy spending a day in Qingdao within short leaping distance of the bathroom.  Despite the difficulty in hunting down restaurants, I think we ate really well over those few days.  We started just looking for the Muslim restaurants, because we knew they’d be cheap, delicious, and simple to order from.  We also went to the district of the city that houses all the international restaurants, and had some delicious Vietnamese food for lunch…which fueled my interest in visiting Vietnam even more.  We also visited a tiny island called Little Qingdao with a German-built lighthouse.   It had a great view of the old battleships and submarine anchored in the harbor at the Naval Museum, and also a gorgeous coffee shop with the most amazing coffee I have ever had in China.  It was a surreal experience to stumble upon the little place, hidden behind some trees, and feel like I had just walked into a European coffee shop.  It was expensive, and I was about to walk out without buying, but Elijah was very kind and bought me a Snow White Mocha.

The best part of the trip for me was our day-long excursion to Laoshan, a mountain next to the sea a couple hours bus ride from Qingdao.  We bought tickets at the entrance that were twice as much as my Lonely Planet book said (shame, shame), but I think it was all worth it.  With the tickets, we had access to the tour buses going to the end of the park and back, so we did a combination of riding in the bus, looking out at the fishing villages and tea farm terraces nestled between the mountain and the sea, and hiking the trails above the villages.  We walked I don’t know how many stone stairs to the top of one mountain area and enjoyed some truly breath-taking views of the villages and ocean far below.  We were all three dressed in shorts and t-shirts, and I was amazed (you’d think I’d be used to this by now) at the outfits the other tourists were wearing.  I think I lost count of all the Chinese women mincing up stone steps and over mountain trails in high heels, little skirts and crazy tights, and heavy sweaters.  I don’t know how they do it—the high heels or the warm clothes in such lovely weather as we had that day.  Maybe it’s because of that strange phenomenon we have today, of going to beautiful places with the intent only of taking cute pictures to show you’ve been there, and not just taking in and enjoying the beauty for its sake.  Too many things become a photo opp instead of an experience.  Pictures are great, but if you take pictures without taking time to just look with your own eyes, then it’s a shame.

I’m glad I got to visit another city in China to broaden my perspective of what this huge country looks like, since I’ve yet to see more than four cities.  I can’t wait to travel in January and February!

I hope to write again soon about how my classes and tutoring students have been lately.  Besides that, I’ve been reading Mansfield Park  in snatches when I have a break between classes, trying to cook, and trying to snuggle with our street-kitty, who prefers to snuggle with Elijah.  She likes to jump on things, wrestle with plastic bags, knock things over, wrap herself in tinsel, and steal my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  She is also an affectionate, sweet little kitty, so I forgive her for tromping on my groceries and trying to eat my food.

“You could be a part time model…

…but you’d probably have to keep your normal job.” –Flight of the Conchords

This song has been amusing me lately because, though I am sure I would not survive in America’s modeling world, being a minority in a Chinese city means that I get asked to do modeling jobs here and there. But it’s not my real job, clearly. The first show I did here was for a wedding photography place in town, and I basically just sat in a fancy chair with a huge, poufy wedding dress on with three other foreign models. I had no idea what I was doing, so I sneaked glances at the other models to see how they were posing, and tried to do my best. My problem is, I get the wild urge to laugh at the wrong moments, so I probably looked like I was just wincing half the time. Or maybe that was because the dress was a couple sizes too small.

I did another show for winter coats a few weeks ago, and that started out terribly but ended okay. The agent told me not to bring high heels, because he didn’t want me too tall next to the Chinese models. As the only foreigner in the show, they didn’t want me to enhance that by being gargantuan. So, I brought flats only. The boss-lady in charge of the store was not pleased. I think every time she walked past me she glared at my shoes and muttered imprecations under her breath. So, we had to line up inside the store, don big winter coats over our clothes, and then walk the runway outside, turn around, come back in, and switch to another coat. I felt like a fool in my flats, and the very weird leather pants they decided I should wear, so the first few gos were less than great. But after awhile, I decided to just not care about it. It’s not my real job. I’m just doing it for fun, and I don’t plan to be a professional model. So, I changed my attitude and probably did a bit better after that. Plus, there were some little village boys, probably 7 years old, in front of the crowd at the runway who would cheer and dance around whenever I came out, and yell WAI GUO REN!!! whenever I was inside, just in case I forgot to come out (?). The boss-lady started to smile at me and ignore my shoes after that.

I have very mixed views on modeling and all that it can entail, but one thing is for sure–modeling in China is absolutely nothing like it is in America. And for that, I am grateful in a way, but it also gives it an extra dose of crazy. Next modeling job I decide to accept, I’m definitely bringing my heels, even if it does strike terror into their hearts.