Category Archives: China

Things I will miss in China

Here’s the second part–despite the truth of the first post, there are many things that I will truly  miss after I leave China.  Here are some of them.

  1. Having restaurants and markets within short walking distance
  2. Cheap and delicious restaurant meals
  3. The shopkeepers who line the block around the school and let me practice my Chinese
  4. My kindergarten kids!
  5. The fun middle school classes who ask questions, use English in class, and do hilarious skits to practice their English
  6. My apartment, despite its plumbing flaws
  7. The man and woman who make the chicken sandwiches across from the school
  8. The man from the fried chicken and french fries place that always chats with me and patiently tries to understand my Chinese
  9. My weekly lunch dates with my girls from class 22
  10. Playing rambunctious games of Settlers of Catan with the foreign teachers and dishing about our week
  11. My students that I’ve tutored to study abroad–Volcano (Aiden), Chris, Eileen, Echo, Victoria, and Peco
  12. Seeing my kindergarten kids walking together to the playground and having them all shout my name at the top of their lungs and hug my legs as I go by
  13. Walking into class 5 (middle school) and having the kids run up to me and ask what we’re learning today
  14. Pretty much every student in class 18 (middle school)
  15. Learning random Chinese words from hearing students say them in class
  16. The cheapness of taxis
  17. The sushi chefs from our weekly sushi restaurant who chat with us as they prepare the food
  18. The adorable couple who own the Taiwanese restaurant and the staff there that laughs when we order the same thing every time
  19. Kenneth, the man from Hong Kong who owns the honey shop and chats with us when we stroll past his store.  A kind, wise person.   He was the hardest so far to say goodbye to.
  20. The guy who gives us haircuts and talks to us about his dream of opening a hair salon in Los Angeles
  21. Being able to go home and take a nap at lunchtime if I need to
  22. Making coffee for my tutoring students
  23. Being able to take a train to just about any other city
  24. Street food
  25. Countless milk tea shops
  26. The old man and woman who sell us fruit at the outdoor market and always sneak extra fruit into our bag as a gift
  27. Chinese babies
  28. Sharing and hearing travel stories with other people
  29. Making friends unexpectedly
  30. Hot Pot on cold nights
  31. The Muslim restaurant with the little boy that always runs around the tables
  32. Julia, the kindergarten teacher from Xiao class 5
  33. Watching people ride on their bikes with strange objects, like trees
  34. The thrill of a fast, frightening taxi ride
  35. The familiarity of able to call any older woman I’ve just met “Auntie”  (ayi)
  36. The mojito place in Beijing on a hot summer day
  37. Letting my cat out at night to go gallumphing down the empty hallway and back
  38. The guard at the east gate who always smiles and waves at us as we go in with our grocery bags, and sometimes asks us what we’re making for dinner
  39. The pretty girl that we buy fruit from just down the street
  40. The lady who used to have a restaurant next to the school and gave us food from her own table so that we could try new things
  41. Eating the amazing meals that Jerry’s mother makes
  42. Hanging out with Jerry…but, maybe we’ll be hanging out with him in the U.S. as well once he begins university there!
  43. Peking Duck
  44. Meeting people from so many places in the world
  45. Those moments where I recall, again, the excitement I felt about being in a different place when I first stepped off the plane in Beijing
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Things I won’t miss in China

This is the first installment of a two-part post on the things I won’t miss and the things I will miss after I leave China.  Some are a bit amusing to me albeit annoying, others are far weightier.  Here they are, in no particular order:

    1. My leaky kitchen sink that floods the kitchen every time I wash dishes
    2. My nightly mosquito search and destroy missions before bed
    3. The heavy duty industrial Shijiazhuang dust that is everywhere
    4. Floors that are impossible to clean
    5. People who look at my feet
    6. People who stare at my grocery basket to see what foreigners buy
    7. Flip-flops being disdainfully referred to as “Japanese-style slippers”
    8. Awkward teacher-training meetings
    9. The absence of cheese
    10. Relying on public transportation
    11. Teaching untouchable wealthy children who don’t experience much discipline
    12. Teaching children who make so much noise that the responsible, attentive children in the class can’t hear and participate above the noise
    13. The adjective “interesting”
    14. Taxi drivers who tell you to get out and catch a taxi across the street if they’re not already going the same direction as your destination `
    15. Living one door down the hall from my boss’s office
    16. Waking up on weekdays and some weekends to the sound of students and school employees in the hallway outside my apartment
    17. Not being able to see the sky most days because of the pollution
    18. The assumption that I don’t know grammar because I teach oral English
    19. The CCTV cameras that watch me enter and leave my apartment and apartment building
    20. Cooking on a stove that takes many brave and dangerous clicks of a lighter to get lit properly
    21. Drivers who speed on the wrong side of the road to get in front of cars stopped at traffic lights
    22. People who push onto elevators instead of letting you get off first
    23. People who cut in line
    24. Employees with microphones who shout the prices and sale items at you as you walk by a store display
    25. The ER
    26. Keeping my blinds closed so that the high school students can’t see into my apartment from across the courtyard
    27. Shoe prints in inexplicable places on my apartment walls
    28. Students who shout “hello teacher!” at me in Chinese, and then immediately shout “she doesn’t understand that!” in Chinese….every.single.day.  I understood that since two years ago.
    29. Being told that a 7th grader is too young to know right from wrong
    30. Working on the weekend to make up for getting a few days off for a holiday during the week
    31. Rampant xenophobia
    32. Running out of my arsenal of Chinese phrases right after a local tells me my Chinese is good
    33. Kids peeing in grocery stores, parks, on sidewalks, and pretty much any place else that’s not a toilet
    34. People who appear to show hospitality but who really just want free English lessons
    35. Feeling conspicuous every time I step out my door

The next (and not so depressing) list will be posted shortly, so stay tuned!  I wanted to save the best things I want to remember for last.


Exam Time

Last week after Friday’s classes, I was elated: the classroom part of teaching here is finally over.  It was a hard week of review–hard because the students didn’t seem to realize I was doing it for their benefit and didn’t pay extra attention–but it was tempered with the happy thought that we were almost finished. There were moments during that week, however, where I was able to feel a tinge of sadness that I would be leaving some of these kids who have become a source of some joy to me.

Some classes are really fun to teach, and I am a different person when I am with them than when I am with a terrible class. The good classes are the ones who pay attention and actually love learning, the bad ones hate being told anything.  I am able to be freer and joke more with the good classes, because I know that I have their respect, but with the bad classes, I can’t show much of that side of me, because if I loosen up much at all they walk all over me, and don’t hesitate to show their disrespect.

By my last class on Friday, I had worked up so much energy in the sheer anticipation of almost being done, that I was a far quirkier teacher than I usually am, and had them in stitches the whole class period.  It was kind of like an out of body experience, to be honest.  I’m pretty sure they couldn’t believe how much energy I had, because I’m usually not that chipper with them on Friday at 4:25 pm.

This past week, I’ve been giving the final oral exams to my students.  I have written 3 tests so that the students can’t listen in on the previous student and copy their answers (cheating is unbelievably rampant).  Each student has 2-3 minutes to answer my questions, correctly pronounce some sentences, use two vocabulary words correctly in a sentence, and describe a picture.  That’s it.  It’s a short test, but that’s necessary in order to get through all the kids.  I got through something like 325 kids this week, and that’s not quite half of them.  Testing is easier than teaching in the classroom–I can save my voice and some energy, but it’s still draining to do 3 class periods in a row.  I am grateful to sit down though and do more listening that speaking so that I can really gauge each student’s progress.

In the Oral English teachers’ classes at this school, only 20 points of their final grade is obtained.  The Chinese English teachers’ classes make up 80 percent of their grade, which is probably another reason why we don’t matter that much to the administration or students.  10 points of the final grade is for class behavior and participation, and 10 points is for the actual exam.  By this time in the year, for most students, I can take one look at their faces and know exactly what behavior score they should get.  Last semester, it wasn’t as easy to remember, so I was slightly more generous in giving them the benefit of the doubt.  It may have satisfied my sense of justice and dignity to give low behavioral scores to the students with awful attitudes and behavior in class, but it felt even better to give high marks to those who  deserved them. Some students have improved a lot this semester, and their grades show it.

Next week, we will finish the exams, and if any students are absent and miss the exam, then we have another week of contract left for them to make it up.  I am hoping that I can finish all of the testing next week so that we will have a free week to just relax, pack, and say goodbye to all of our favorite people and places in the city.  Only three more weekends left in China.  I can hardly believe it.


Noticing beauty

For nearly two years, I’ve taught oral English to Chinese middle school students.  I never knew that 12 and 13 year old children could have the collective power to make a day terrible and worn, or bright and interesting.  One of my Wednesday students has twice made statements that had slightly annoyed me at the time, but later made me reflect sadly about the way her life must be. The first one was on why she doesn’t like hiking–naturally, there are people who do and don’t like hiking, no problem.  She said that it’s too tiring and boring to enjoy.  I asked her if she could reconcile the whole tiring part by looking around at all the beauty you can see on a hike.  She made a face and said “oh, I don’t care about that.  I don’t like those things.”

As I gave the lesson that week on hobbies, I realized that so many of these children had never been on a hike, never been camping, never had a pet to play with outdoors, and didn’t even like the sound of those things–things that had been barred from them in the interests of studying hard and getting good grades in school.  In my limited perspective from the 40 minutes that I spend once a week with my 21 classes, I think that this absence of interests outside of school has stunted them, maybe for life, unless they can relearn how to appreciate simple things, like little children naturally do.  They still have a sense of wonder and awe for things unknown to them, but I’ve noticed that the only thing that really triggers this is through watching a movie or a short clip in class.  Precious little else seems to interest them.

This week, I taught about music genres, with mixed results.  Some kids’ faces lit up as we talked about different kinds of music and listened to music clips.  Some of them shouted out artists and songs that they loved, and were excited when I said I liked them too.  Others had nothing to say about what kind of music they liked, and didn’t respond at all to the music clips that I played as examples of different genres.  But when I got to showing the entertaining music videos, they watched intently.  The same girl offered up her opinion as she was doing a practice dialogue with another student.  The girls had to ask each other what kind of music they liked and disliked, and this girl quickly said, “I don’t like any music,” and sat back down with a smirk on her face.  “Really?” I asked her.  “You don’t like any music at all?”  She responded confidently again that she did not enjoy music.  And that’s something I can’t understand.

There are two classes in the middle school that participate in the band and orchestra.  They were by far the most appreciative of the music lesson, and it made me glad to see that they enjoyed so many different kinds of music, and not just pop.  But, I know that when they enter high school, they won’t be able to play in an orchestra any more.  Music and other art forms will be considered irrelevant to their studies as they devote three years in high school to preparing for the Gao Kao, the nationwide college placement exam.  Their whole lives up until now have been full of studying and exams in preparation for this single exam, and many things have been and will be sacrificed on the way.  And there are very few students who can come away from that and still have the sensibilities to see and appreciate beauty, whether in hobbies or in music.

I guess I can’t judge my students too harshly when it comes to their sensibilities for art, music, or literature.  There’s not much of a place for it in their education, and arguably, in their culture as it is today.  These are not the words of an expert on China, but of someone who has seen kids in the system and been astounded at what the absence of good art, in whatever form, has done to them.  Where creativity and innovation is not appreciated, and educational rigor is focused almost entirely upon exams, beauty is certainly not a flourishing ideal.


The kids who make my job fun

Every week, I look forward to teaching Class 18 on Friday morning.  They are bright, happy, and eager to learn, and we always have a blast.  They are always excited to practice their English and experiment with the dialogues that I give them to practice, and I’m always a bit sad when the bell rings and class is over.  You know you have an exceptional class when they all groan when the bell rings, because they also don’t want class to be over.  In other classes, kids immediately start rustling around and getting ready to jump out of their seats when the bell rings (let’s be honest, I probably would have been the same way), and if I go a minute over to finish something, they start whining and telling me “class over!  class over!”  Either my lesson is boring, or they’re just really eager to run around and go crazy for the 10 minute break between classes.  I hope it’s the latter.  Anyway, here are a few pictures from Class 18 yesterday, in which we learned about ordering food in a restaurant, and Antoine showed off his new invention–tubing manipulated to look like glasses, through which he drinks a bottle of juice.  Oh man, this kid makes me laugh.

 


Longsheng Rice Terraces

On Friday of last week, the three of us hopped on a bus bound for Longsheng Rice Terraces, roughly two and a half hours north of Guilin.   Translated into English, “Longsheng” means “Dragon’s Backbone,” which is a great description of the sharp ridges that have been cultivated into step after step of rice fields built right into the mountainsides.  After leaving the city limits of Guilin, our bus wound through lush countryside and rumbled up twisting mountain roads.  I should mention here that no matter the terrain, Chinese drivers always drive fast, and they always want to be first, so there was a lot of swerving and passing going on, even when the driver couldn’t see around the next bend in the road.  If I had just arrived in China last week, I think I would have had a heart attack on that bus, but after a year and a half of life here, I just contented myself with clutching my armrest a bit tighter.

The bus dropped us off at a small village called Heping, and there we hired a man to drive us to the village of Dazhai as an entry point for hiking the rice terraces.  I was transfixed by the scenery on that 40 minute drive, seeing steep mountains sloping down into narrow streams, and smelling wood smoke in the air.  We drove through tiny villages with chickens fluttering across the roads and muddy dogs loping in-between wood houses built on the riverbank.  When we pulled up to the gate of Dazhai, old women in traditional Yao (a minority group in China) clothing surrounded us with their baskets of wares, saying “hello!   postcard?  very nice.  I give you cheap.  okay?  okay?!”  We tried to scoot past them so that we could hike first and then see about buying souvenirs, and after a little while, they stopped following us and hung back to wait for the next busload of customers.

Despite thick fog that curled over the steep rice terraces and wooden houses of the village, the view was absolutely beautiful.  Steep stone steps climbed through the fog, past rows and rows of rice fields and small clusters of houses.  Wood fires kept the air smelling like smoke and something like cedar, and chickens made noise as we walked past the houses.  It felt like we were absolutely separated from the rest of the world.  Once we climbed higher, the steps were coated with a bit of snow and ice, and we brushed past stalks of grass coated in ice that fell and shattered next to us.   The occasional mountain horse (pony?) was tethered here and there in the terraces, and we saw a few people walking between houses in the fog.  Other than that, we didn’t run into anyone else on the trail.

We got a bit turned around and hiked to a village opposite from where we intended to hike, but it didn’t matter too much.  After we figured out where we were and prepared to hike back down the mountain, a woman from a nearby house called to us and told us that she would prepare food for us.  I think it’s fairly common for foreigners to buy a meal made by a villager, since there really aren’t any (or many) restaurants up there, so after some deliberation, we accepted.  The lady invited us into her home, which had a huge loom set up in the long front room, which was lit only by windows cut into the wood.  We stepped through another door into the kitchen, where a fire was burning on the floor by another window.  An elderly woman and a younger woman sat by the fire; the old woman weaving a basket and the younger one sewing something else.  Another, much younger woman came too and told us that the woman who invited us in was her mother, and I think that the old woman was her grandmother.  They lifted a huge pot off the fire, which looked like it contained some sort of mash for their chickens or pigs, maybe, and set a clean pot over the coals.  The woman started to boil some eggs for us, and set some yams in the coals to roast.  The old lady smiled toothlessly at us and kept weaving her basket, and we started looking around at the kitchen in the half-light inside.  I tried to hide my surprise at discovering a dead chicken behind me, and a rat that looked like it was being prepared for eating, and hoped that we wouldn’t be offered roasted rat for lunch.

Once the yams were ready, the old lady pulled them from the coals and tossed them over to us; the skins turned my fingers black but the inside was hot and delicious.  The other women started bringing all sorts of home-made (we discovered this was probably not true) wares into the kitchen, piling them on the table.   They had scarves, wall-hangings, blankets, pillow covers, and other items that they said were made at the loom in their house.  We haggled a bit and bought some things that we found out were over-priced when we saw the same things for sale in Guilin, but I am happy nevertheless that we had the experience of eating a meal in their home, even if they did get us to buy more than a meal.  After we had bought a few things, the lady making the meal brought a just-plucked chicken into the house, cut it up, and cooked it with a bit of oil, salt, and ginger.  It tasted great, although in typical Chinese-style, all the bones were chopped up with the meat, so it took a bit of skill to eat it with chopsticks instead of my hands.

The youngest woman had told us that the price for the food was just whatever we decided to pay, and so we assumed that they made their money from what hand-made items they sold, rather than meals.  Because of this, I was more willing to buy things from them.  After we ate, however, the lady told us that our meal would be 200 yuan.  Yikes.  We argued a bit and got the price down to 160 yuan, and we felt not a little silly and disgruntled with the obvious gyp.  But, we agreed afterwards that we were glad that we had the opportunity to eat in their home, even if we left with less money than we expected.  And I can’t imagine that too many foreigners come through at this time in the year, so I hope that it helped them out a bit during the low season.

We hiked back down the trail to the village of Dazhai, and I panicked for a bit because the last bus back to Heping came later than we thought, and I worried that maybe we had missed the last one already.  But it finally came, and it carted us back to Heping, where we caught the last bus to Guilin by the skin of our teeth.   I was ready to collapse into bed after all that hiking, and haggling, and bus-riding, but I am so glad that we had the chance to hike a bit in the Longsheng Rice Terraces. Perhaps it would have been more breathtaking in the spring or fall, when the fog isn’t heavy and the rice is green or golden, but the ethereal quality of mist and fog over the terraces made for a great view.


Guilin

 

Last week, Alan, Elijah, and I made our way from Shijiazhuang to Guilin on a train that wound its way through five provinces, taking nearly 25 hours to reach our destination.  We were able to purchase hard-sleeper tickets, which reserve one bunk per person in a train car crammed with bunk-beds reaching to the ceiling.  Six bunks are grouped together in two rows of three-bunk stacks.   Our bunks were next to a family traveling from Beijing to their hometown of Guilin–a father, mother, little boy, baby girl, and an old grandmother.  The  girl had beautiful, bright eyes, and she stared and laughed at us constantly.  When she got fussy, her grandmother lifted the girl onto her back, and the mother tied the girl in place on the grandmother’s back so she could walk around and quiet her down.  I am always amazed at how strong even the oldest people here are in China.  I constantly see them carrying heavy loads, or even just their grand-babies.  Although the train journey was ridiculously long, it really wasn’t so bad, because I came prepared with a stack of books and a multitude of snacks.  Our train left SJZ close to noon, so I read all afternoon, slept most of the night, and then read again all morning till the train stopped close to 1 pm.

When we got off the train in Guilin, I was happy to notice so much green around us.  Shijiazhuang is such a dry place, so seeing all the trees and other plants growing thickly in Guilin was a nice change.  The weather was chilly and rainy though, so we rushed to get something to eat and then to find our hostel.  The first meal we had in Guilin turned into my favorite so far on this trip.  You choose your toppings (I usually choose either duck or pork with vegetables), and then they steam rice in a clay pot, and then put the rest of the ingredients on top.  It’s really simple, but so delicious.  Plus, most of these restaurants have pictures on the wall of each menu item, so that definitely helped us.  I pointed to one dish that looked good and asked the cook what kind of meat it was, and he immediately started bobbing his head and flapping his arms up and down like wings, and then threw in some duck noises for good measure.  And man, that duck meat was great.

While in Guilin, it was drizzly and cold most of the time, but we still enjoyed our stay and had some great day trips to see the sights in the area.  Guilin is famous for its karst mountain landscape and the beautiful Li River, and we made the most of our time there.  The hostel we booked was nice, and not just because it had two kittens tumbling all over the place that I kept coaxing to sit with me.  The service was helpful, the food was pretty good, and I spent some time reading and playing some card games in the common area.  Some hostels make you want to just stay in your room when you’re not out and about, but this one had a nice atmosphere that didn’t make me feel like holing up.

I’ll post more in detail soon about the day trips we took to Longji Rice Terraces and to Yangshuo!