It’s Thursday morning and I’m officially off work until Tuesday! Coupled with no work on Tuesday this week, and I’m on a (broken up) six-day holiday! Apparently, this weekend is Tomb Cleaning Festival (“a very important traditional Chinese festival”) but we didn’t find out about this until Monday afternoon. We were going to take advantage of this break by going to Datong to see some more grottoes, but because of the late notice, we were unable to buy tickets. After a ticket search to go to Huangshan, Hangzhou, Xi’an, Chengdu, or Shangahi that ended up with almost every single train in China completely sold out for this weekend, we managed to get tickets and a hostel to spend the break in Beijing. We’ve been to Beijing several times now and we’ve done most of the big touristy things there are to do there, but I’m sure it will be a good weekend (though almost certainly a crowded one) nonetheless. If anything, it will be a nice change from Baoding.
Baoding, however, has been much better recently. The smog hasn’t been bad and we’ve had many warm spring days. The city even seems to be enjoying the warmer weather (though we do continue to see the most masks worn on the clearest days and the fewest masks worn on the smoggiest days – go figure). Apparently, Baoding as a city has taken on some new project to try to beautify the city and thus all week we have seen city workers planting row and row of plants along the streets, trimming dead limbs off of trees, and even planting new trees here and there. Last week, the school cut down a whole bunch of trees in the courtyard (under the false pretense that they were unhealthy) and this week they have replaced the felled trees with new young trees with twice as many. All of the flowers are blooming and the school even hired workers to wash the outside of the buildings and windows (truly making a remarkable difference). Yesterday afternoon we even saw the kids playing in the courtyard among the flowers in what appeared to be some of the only free time we’ve ever seen these students have. Springtime seems to be making everyone happier (along with making the driving worse, for whatever reason).
Monday classes were trying this week but my Wednesday classes more than made up for it. My fifth graders are almost certainly my favorite grade as a whole. Every class I walk in to the students swarm me and try their best to tell me little tidbits about their lives in an amusing string of Chinglish. I’ve had students tell me all of the video games they played over the weekend, that they helped their mother cook dinner, that they played with their new baby brother or sister, and even when they moved into a new house or went on a trip to visit extended family. Sometimes, the highlight of their weekend (and probably the following week) is when they get to tell me that over the weekend they went to KFC, went shopping, and then went to the WC (how all of China refers to the bathroom).
At one point this week, I was attacked with hugs in the hallway. As I had about seven children clinging on to me in some way, about twenty more of them were trying to tell me all about their friend’s new shoes which turned out to be Heelys (those tennis shoes with wheels on the bottom) and he proudly slid around the hall and into the classroom as the bell rang. I thought it was super fun and now I want some too!
Also, in “interactions with my students” news – I got a QQ. For those of you that don’t know, QQ is one of the main social networking apps in China and has at times been called Chinese Facebook. In reality, it’s nothing like Facebook and almost exactly like (by which I mean, definitely the exact same programming as) AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) from pre-Facebook times (back in those prehistoric days when MySpace and Neopets ruled). All year I have had students come up to me and ask if I have a QQ and finally, this semester, I decided to get one while inspired by the thought that I could keep in touch with some of my students come time for my US return. I was hoping to keep it kind of on the down low but once one student got my QQ, the entire school inevitably had my QQ id. Ever since I decided to enter the Chinese online social scene, I’ve been getting “friend requests” almost continuously from random people between the ages of 11 and 14 that I can only assume are my students. Some times they send me a picture of themself with their English name and what class they are in and I can remember them really quickly, but other times I get a student (whose name is in Chinese characters) saying “Teacher. Do you remember me!?” and then if I say no they’ve gotten upset. (I’m sorry; I just don’t know all 1500 of my students’ Chinese and English names.) Their English is not as good as it should be (considering the high emphasis on learning English and their years of studying it in school) but I’ve enjoyed the little bit of communicating I’ve done with some of them so far. One of my sixth graders wanted to tell me about MH370 and the “first lady” while another student wanted to tell me about their favorite band. Last night, another one of my students added me to a class chat on QQ (group messaging) which was quite an honor but also quite baffling considering they are all using Chinese internet lingo and when I tried to use Google translate to figure out what was going on, I’d effectively already been bypassed by another 100 lines of colloquial text blurbs. Regardless, I’m excited to talk to my students outside of class and in a more natural setting. Potentially, I’ll be able to inspire them and teach them more English through QQ than I ever could in a classroom. And at the very least, they’re all super excited that their wài jiào teacher from America accepted their friend requests on QQ (I remember the feeling when someone I looked up to or was older than me added me on Facebook – I can pass it on).
Yesterday as we were riding along Dongfenglu (one of the main roads in Baoding), I was reflecting on things China has that are better than in other parts of the world and as we passed one of the most happening spot on our side of town, I settled on parks as a good example. Parks in China are such happy places that could frequently be described as beautiful outdoor multipurpose centers. In parks, older people gather to play Chinese checkers, Mahjong, and other card games. We’ve seen music lessons taking place as a whole group of friends practiced playing the erhu together. And almost every park in China is filled with dancers of all different varieties around sunrise and sunset. Yesterday, as we rode by, I saw men exercising by swinging chain links around their bodies and whipping giant whizzing tops to keep them going. There was what Duncan and I call an “old people playground” filled with people of all different ages exercising by swinging from monkey bars, stretching, and climbing all over this “fitness” play set. Grandmothers tasked with babysitting walked around with their friends while watching their grandchildren interact with other kids and teetering on wobbly legs. Some people were just sitting on benches enjoying the nice weather while others were hollering across the way at their friend who they’d just spotted on a bike. I even saw one man just staring at a tree. In some parks you’ll find young couples enjoying a private and quiet moment together as they hide in the darkness, and other times you’ll see friends practicing roller blading or kite flying while they listen to music. Some parks even have vendors that can sell anything from high-powered laser pointers and giant stuffed animals to sweetened pineapples and kebabs. And as we saw in Chengdu, sometimes parks are even places to set your adult-child up with a date. And when you compared this image to parks in the US filled with joggers and anxious parents, it’s easy for me to see why parks in one country are literally and figuratively a central part of life whereas parks in the other country are quickly fading away or frequently deserted.
Though I’m looking forward to our return to the States, I am going to miss how easy it is to hop on the bike or take a walk just a few minutes into town. Even though we certainly don’t live in town, a convenience store, restaurant, coffee shop, grocery store, and mall are all within distance of a short and (if the weather’s nice) pleasurable walk. It’s nice that a stroll in the park is just a couple blocks away and is safe and filled with life even after dark (indeed it’s busiest time). And upon further reflection, I believe parks may well be communal modern China at its best.
We’ll soon be off on another adventure around Beijing so thank you for reading and until next time,