Tag 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

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.

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.



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!

Discipline by awkwardness: a test project

As many of you know, I have had problems with many of my students being noisy while I’m teaching. This stems from a variety of reasons, some of which include: boredom, being brought up to resent foreigners, genuinely not understanding me, pretending they don’t understand me, and so on. The students who don’t like foreigners, there isn’t much I can do with them, other than show them kindness and try to make my lessons interesting and useful. The ones who don’t understand me, even my dumbed-down English, I can only hope that the Chinese English teachers will help them, and I will do my best to help them when I can. The ones who pretend they can’t understand me, because they view a foreign class as a party class with no frightening presence of their Chinese head teacher, I have to figure out how to deal with.

I don’t like yelling in class, but lately, I’ve been using it too much. But oddly enough (duh), shouting at middle school children to be quiet isn’t very effective. Some of them are embarrassed and stop talking, but most of them disregard it, and probably are amused at the fool I’m making of myself. Poor foreign teacher, shouting BE QUIET at the top of her lungs.

I went to sleep the other night feeling foolish and even a little guilty at how much I’ve been yelling at my classes lately, and realizing that it’s not helping them, and it sure isn’t helping me. So, yesterday and today, I tried a method that I’ve heard from other teachers: the awkward stare.

The awkward stare goes like this: when your students are rabble-rousing, don’t yell “be quiet” until you’re red in the face (been there, done that). Just stare. You don’t even have to glare. Control yourself, and be calm. Just stare, and when the noise level goes down to just a few pairs of students talking to each other, stare at those individual groups until they stop talking and start squirming uncomfortably in their seats. They don’t know what to do with it. I try to hold the awkward stare a few moments longer, until all the kids are wondering what the heck I’m going to do next, and then I just continue on with my lesson as if nothing happened. If they start talking again, I do it again, and if the whole class period keeps being interrupted like this, I tell them at the end that I am going to talk to their teacher about them, and then snag the best student to come translate for me. And they do not like this. I have yet to see if this will prove very effective, but I left class feeling much less angry and tired than I usually do, simply because I didn’t lose control of myself, and that made my life easier. I may have lost minutes of teaching time because of the stare-down, but honestly, there is no point in teaching when I have to shout over their voices anyway.

I can’t make my students respect me. Some do, some don’t. However, what I do in class, I am accountable for, and I have to live with it. I would much rather keep my cool than try to get across to a class via yelling how rude I think they are, because chances are if they’re ill-behaved, me yelling this fact to them won’t change them. But flying off the handle, like I’m tempted to do, will change me, and I don’t want that to happen. This country is too hard to live in with that, too. I snapped at one class yesterday, at the end of a very obnoxious class period, with my sinuses feeling like they were exploding because of a cold– “you are all rude, and I do not like you.” I laughed about it later, but I couldn’t help but feel hypocritical in my own rudeness.

I’ll let you know how the awkward stare pans out in the following weeks!  I don’t think I’ll run out of stares…it’s not hard to summon that awkwardness when you’re me.

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!