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Day 243: Chinese English Class & A Gifted Watermelon

Nimenhao!

We had a great weekend introducing the girls to some more of Baoding.

During our adventures we found a new restaurant in the He Da (Hebei Daxue/University) alley (where our bread people are) that served what’s essentially sweet and sour chicken (plus two more dishes we ordered)!

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I got to see Duncan teach a class for the first time:

And I had my first experience with a Korean restaurant when we went with the girls and Lex. I tried Kimchi, a Korean tea, a kind of potato pancakes, kimchi bread, marinated peanuts, some mysterious green stuff, and super squishy tofu all for the first time (I liked all of it but the tofu). And while everyone else ordered one-bowl dishes, Duncan and I, in the way that is quite normal for us, ordered a bit more extravagantly and got a dish called “the whole pig”. The middle of the table had a grill in it and a waiter cooked our platter of pork right in front of us. It was probably the most delicious meat I’ve ever eaten and I would go back their daily if I could afford it.

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My students have been hilarious when they see Caitlin and Haley in the hallway talking to me in between classes or when I introduce them to the class. All of the students gather in the doorway to catch a glimpse of them when we’re in the hallway and once we’re in the classroom, the students are torn between being really excited about a new teacher they want to get to know and being afraid and nervous. Almost all of our classes have been better behaved than they normally are because Haley or Caitlin is sitting in the back and the students aren’t yet sure what will happen to them if they misbehave in front of the new foreign teachers.

When I introduce them to the class all of my students ask them the same few questions: What’s your favorite food? What’s your favorite sport? How old are you? But yesterday one of my sixth grade students asked me a question I wasn’t expecting – “Aiisa (Alyssa) why do you have yellow hair and your friend has brown hair?” She worked so hard to say that correctly in English that I felt bad when the only answer I could give her was “I don’t know”. But that question really highlighted a unique feature of American people. Since Americans, historically at least, are a mix of many different groups of people, our features can vary dramatically. So while we, as Caucasian Americans, expect diversity in our looks (such as brown and blonde hair, brown and blue eyes, different nose, eye, and mouth shapes), Chinese people aren’t used to that kind of variation. Almost all Han Chinese people (and many other homogenous racial groups) have black hair and black eyes. Of course they have variation in their features as well but it’s not nearly as dramatic as two white girls from the US both with drastically different hair and skin colors as well as feature variation. In the same class, many students kept asking me if Haley and I were sisters. At first I laughed at thought that it was a ridiculous question but then once I thought about it more I realized that they might think we look a lot alike as foreigners just as a lot of people say all Asian people look alike if they’re not used to seeing it. For example, when I first got here, I confused a lot of my students because I wasn’t tuned in to how their features are different but now I notice the differences in my students without even thinking about it. I’m sure they were doing the same thing I used to do.

Today I sat in on a Chinese-English class and was very impressed and interested to see how Chinese teachers teach English to Chinese students. Though it wasn’t what I was expecting, this particular teacher, I thought, did an excellent job at making sure the students really comprehensively understood the English words and phrases they were learning. Still, as in all of my classes, students tend to add an –a sound to the end of words that end in consonants. Whereas we say “park”, Chinese students often say “park-a”. I suspect that this is because Chinese language words don’t often end with a hard sound and I don’t think they even hear themselves adding the extra sound a lot of the time.

After the class Caitlin, Haley, Li Laoshi, three Chinese teachers, and I had a meeting that ended up lasting almost two hours. We spent the time giving feedback about the class that we watched along with the classes the girls have watched and then had a really long discussion comparing the two education systems. One of the things that struck me the most that came out of this meeting were the ideas of respect and educational entitlement. In China, getting a good education is definitely seen as more of a privilege and thus leads to some more respect for the teachers from the students. In the US, students often feel entitled towards their education and frequently have an attitude of “the teacher must earn my respect”. I think this combined with the characteristics of individualistic and communal societies, respectively, has a lot to do with how the students behave in the classroom in each system. Developing your individual person and asking the question “why” is a big deal in the US and while I think that is a great thing most of the time, it can also lead to students believing or saying, “I don’t see the point behind doing what this teacher says so I’m not going to”. That situation is almost unheard of in the Chinese system. Students do their homework when it is assigned and they pretty freely give the expected authority and respect to their Chinese teachers. However, when respect isn’t used to maintain the student’s behavior in the classroom, it seems that fear fills that gap. The Chinese teachers we talked to today said that they assign more homework to bad students but throughout our time here, we’ve also become aware that corporal punishment is not absent in Chinese schools and is also frequently a source of fear for these students. China, as I learned from Li Laoshi today, is actively making a conscious effort to eliminate corporal punishment from within the schools, but still seems unsure of how to maintain good classroom management in its absence.

Today has been a very educational day. Thursday I’m hoping to see some of the art classes offered at the school and at some point in the future I hope to sit in on a middle school Chinese English class and also a regular Chinese class. I’m very interested in seeing how the different classes are taught to different ages and with different subjects.

To finish the day, Li Laoshi called me into her office after my last class and said she had something to give me. Once in the office, she reached under her desk and plopped a giant watermelon into my arms. I said thank you but then asked her why because it seemed really random and she said “because you have been so good”. And then when I said thank you again she said “what do you think about the reason?” Confused, I said, “it’s very nice”. She laughed and as she walked away she just said “you can decide on the good reason!” So I said thank you again and carried my gifted watermelon upstairs with me. I think it was intended to be a gift of thanks since Duncan and I have helped her a lot with acclimating the new teachers to Baoding and the school, but I was very confused. It’s a great way to end the day though.

Next week we are going to Beijing for a few days over our May Day holiday. We’re excited to revisit some of the places we toured when we first went to Beijing in October over National Day with our friends from North Carolina. This year seems to be rounding out quite nicely.

Thank you for reading and until next time,

Alyssa

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Posted by on April 22, 2014 in Baoding

 

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Day 238: Welcoming the Americans

Nimenhao!

We both had such a great day today! The new teachers from WKU (Haley and Caitlin) got here late last night and we’ve been helping them get settled and adjusted all day today. It’s been so much fun to be able to pass on all the things we’ve learned onto them.

I didn’t teach classes this morning so I got to sleep in and enjoy my coffee before heading down to a meeting with them and Li Laoshi to discuss their teaching arrangement. It’s been an interesting experience realizing how much we looked like them (all wide-eyed and slightly frantic) during our first days here and comparing that to how we are now. By comparing ourselves to them (representing our past selves) we are beginning to see some of the personal growth we’ve accomplished during this adventure. We seem much more laid back, accepting of going with the flow, and actually quite competent and capable (at least we seem that way). And while we’ve been interacting with other Americans more consistently than we’ve done since we were actually in the States, I’ve also discovered that my natural inclination to talk fast hasn’t disappeared out of disuse (I almost always speak slower English when talking to Chinese people so that they can have an easier time understanding me) and is just as expedient as it always was when speaking to native English speakers. What a relief!

Now that we’re with people that don’t speak Chinese, I realize just how much Chinese I do use on a daily basis and that, considering the relatively little time I’ve actually spent studying the language, I speak much more Chinese than I’ve been giving myself credit for. Even Li Laoshi commented on it today telling me that I have learned a lot of Chinese very well for the short amount of time I’ve been here and that all my pronunciation is correct (that’s quite an impressive statement, I think, considering tones and pronunciation are most of the difficulty with Mandarin).

My classes the past two days have been going really well also. Yesterday, my entire P5-1 class stopped class and applauded me when I wrote the Yuan character (元) on the board (they must think I’m simple-minded) and today my J1-6 class cheered when I walked into the room. When I asked them why (because I was really confused why one of my worst classes seemed so happy to see me), they told me they thought I wasn’t coming back to teach them and they missed me. That’s definitely one-way to make me feel all warm and fuzzy. To add to it, that class was the most engaged in my lesson they’ve been all year and I even got “beautiful” drawings of their friends from two of my boys in that class.

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Another girl, from my J1-7 class, drew a picture of me that I think looks a lot like me. She even got my dimple!

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After classes I was able to have several conversations in English and in Chinese with some of Duncan’s third and fourth graders and even some of my fifth grade girls surprised themselves when I asked them what they were doing and they responded with words they learned in my class this past week (like “drawing” and “painting”). It was a very rewarding teaching day, for sure. One of my favorite things about working here is and has been interacting with the students. Whether we’re being silly in the classroom by deliberately confusing he and she (as some of my seventh grade boys did today) or one of Duncan’s students is proudly telling me his name and age because he learned how to in class, interacting and relating with the students is definitely one of the best highlights to this job and this year.

Impromptu Gangnam Style dance party in one of Duncan’s classes:
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While I was teaching my last class, Duncan and the WKU girls went with Li Laoshi to explore the arts classes available to students in the afternoon. Unbeknownst to us this entire year, it turns out the Baoding Bilingual School offer 49 art classes including drawing, dancing, singing, calligraphy, stone carving, stamp making, and musical instruments classes, plus more. They only saw the “traditional” Chinese arts classes today, but were thoroughly impressed by the quality and variety of arts education offered at this school. It was an eye-opening experience and Duncan came back telling me that this is probably one of the biggest reasons the Hebei Baoding Eastern Bilingual School is consistently rated the number one boarding school in Hebei Province. As different of an experience this has been to what teaching in the US would be like, I have learned so much about education, students, teaching, and myself throughout this process. And despite any complaints I’ve voiced along the way, I’m so grateful I’ve had this experience teaching abroad and I’m honored to have been a part of this school and these students’ lives.

Martial Arts/Wushu:
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Stone Stamp Carving:
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Traditional Chinese Calligraphy:
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Music time:
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Paper cutting:
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Drawing of the school and paper cutting:
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To top off the past two happy days, we found a new street food vendor making magically delicious sandwich things. These unique creations are made up of freshly baked bread with sausage in it, eggs, and fried hot dogs all made on an outdoor grill, of sorts. I definitely need to get a picture of the creation process but for now, here’s a picture of the final product:

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We had the first heavy rain of the year last night and it made the air refreshingly clean and moist – a welcome change from the arid, dusty air we’ve been used to.
I’m done for the week and have a short week next week. We’re planning to join the girls on a traveling expedition sometime in the near future. We have a few days off for May Day in a couple of weeks so we’ll probably be venturing out again then. Since we’re going to help them meet their travel goals, we’re may not be visiting Shanghai again and may, instead, be visiting Xi’an again. We’re happy to visit pretty much any place we’ve been so far and having accomplished all our traveling goals, we’re more than happy to add our knowledge to their experience.

It’s been a lot of fun talking to people other than just Duncan (no matter how much I enjoy talking with him, I’ve had only him to talk to extensively for the past eight months and some new faces and voices is a welcome change). We’re really happy that the other teachers are here and we’re looking forward to their month with us. It should be quite an educational experience for all of us and I, for one, couldn’t be more excited!

Thank you very much for reading and until next time,

Alyssa

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2014 in Baoding, Uncategorized

 

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Day 236: The Countdown Begins

Nimenhao!

We’re officially in the final stretch of the year! With 55 days left until we’re back in the States and less than 50 days until our contract is over, we can see the finish line growing ever closer. And to celebrate, we got a real rainstorm today (if you call 2 minutes of rain a true rainstorm). It was very exciting and made us realize just how dirty everything was. We’re so accustomed to seeing everything – bikes, cars, people – covered in dust and grime that after the rain we were astounded by how shiny everything appeared. I guess that’s one of the many things we’ll be getting re-accustomed to once we’re back in the US. And, to also signify the beginning of the end, the two new teachers from Kentucky will be here tomorrow! We’re super excited to meet them and share this experience with them for a month. My students are also looking forward to having and getting to know other meiguo laoshi (American teachers).

We’ve been solidly in the routine since my last post that, though we’ve been happy, has left me with little to write about. My lesson this week has been about the United States (in preparation for the new teachers) and has led to some very interesting situations in the classroom ranging from my students being very impressed by my ability to write the RMB/yuan character () on the board to a student’s exclamation that President Obama is black to my acting out cowboys to give them a stereotypical understanding of Texas. Clearly, it’s been a multi-cultural week in my classrooms. But while my students have started asking me why I don’t study harder to learn Chinese because tones are “so easy, teacher!”, I impressed Li Laoshi and Duncan with my Chinese language ability the other day when we were all just hanging out talking. That was an exciting and motivational experience, for sure.

This week, we also got a “special friend price” (discount) from a noodle shop we frequent and our bread people gave us an extra-special twisty bread thing for free. Additionally, QLH got some new drinks (that may or may not be the same drinks they had over summer last year – we don’t remember) that are delicious and magical.

Special bread:
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Also this week, Kuai Long (the motorbike) got its seventh flat tire in a month and we finally were able to replace it with a new tire (rather than continuing to patch it). Though the rim was a little bent, hopefully that’s all been fixed and we won’t be walking our bike around town any more.

I also got an important lesson from some students in my “international” class about Chinese education. According to them, Chinese education is essentially composed of five things/focuses (this is how it was presented to me):

1) Moral education
2) Intelligence
3) Physicality
4) Moral education
5) Physical labor

I’m not sure what the difference is between moral education #1 and moral education #4 but they did explain to me that moral education in schools is important because most parents don’t like religion and expect the school to teach their children this subject (I’m not sure what they teach though). Intelligence is measured by scores on standardized testing to get into middle school, high school, college, and beyond (these students did recognize that few Chinese students have well-developed imaginations because of this intense focus on testing and competition but brushed it off by pointing out to me that students that show potential in the arts go to an arts school and likewise with sports). Physicality, though not defined to me, I assume means physical education much like is in the US with PE classes and extracurricular sports. Physical labor is literally chore-work. It is the students that clean the classrooms, sweep the walkways, scrub the bathroom floors, garden, weed, plant trees, etc. The children at school make up the majority of the maintenance crew and janitorial staff. When I explained that students do not do that kind of “physical labor” in the US, my students were genuinely astonished. “Who keeps everything clean, then, if the students don’t do it?!” they asked me. I was surprised to hear that this kind of “physical labor” is considered an important part of the Chinese education system (I assumed it was a way to save some money on the school’s part). But my students seemed equally confused when I tried to explain critical thinking to them (even with the aid of a Chinese-English dictionary).
Whereas some idioms, interestingly enough, are exactly the same in Chinese and in English (for example, “bite the dust” and “tip of the iceberg”), there are also some definite differences in linguistic and cultural expressions that are as frequently unexpected as they are assumed. This is just another example of how interesting comparing and contrasting American and Chinese cultures has been for me during this year. I just love thinking about and noting how people from all over the world can relate in some ways and learn from each other in other ways.

We may be making a trip to Beijing again within the next month (partially to take the new teachers but also partially because we’ve literally been to all the places on our list that are convenient for us to get to without a car or a Chinese guide). Datong is eight hours on a regular train one way (which just doesn’t seem worth it to me), Zhangjiajie is truly out of the way to anyone without car, and Huangshan is a day-long journey one way on a train with the need for several hours of bus riding after that. We’ve seen all the big places on our list though, so I’m not feeling like we’re missing out on anything from our decisions. It just means we will do less traveling this semester to new places. Turns out there’s a five-hour bullet train ride from here to Shanghai so we may have to head back to that mega-city to round out our year in China (since that’s where the whole adventure began).

Thank you for reading and until next time,

Alyssa

Introducing the new “Honda Fit” – Chinese edition:
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The back of a cardboard recycling truck in Baoding:
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My initials permanently engraved in a cement sidewalk in Baoding, China:
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Posted by on April 15, 2014 in Baoding, Uncategorized

 

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Day 229: Is She Beautiful?

Hello!

We’re back from a wonderful weekend in Beijing and another day of teaching has already passed. Friday afternoon after Duncan’s classes ended, we set out on a bullet train and were in Beijing by 2 pm. We decided to stay in a different hostel this weekend (partly for adventure and partly out of booking necessity) and so we wandered our way through the chaos of the Beijing subway system and found ourselves amidst the mazing hutong alleyways of Ancient China. It turns out our hostel (Kelly’s Courtyard) is hidden away down own of these narrow streets and (without even a sign to let you know you’re ringing the correct doorbell to the door you’re warily standing in front of) is a traditional Chinese house converted into a small but comfortable hostel. The hostel advertises itself as a “family” but how it should be advertising is as a home away from home. They let you take what you want from a snacks counter and a refrigerator stocked with drinks of all sorts (so long as you go by the honor system and write it down); the internet is fast and consistent; the rooms and the accompanying private bathrooms are the cleanest places we’ve seen in China (we truly felt clean for the first time in months); and the rooftop terrace is an excellent place for reading (Game of Thrones, at the moment) while sun bathing (though I’m sure my paleness did more reflecting than absorbing).
My favorite thing about the hostel though was the silence. As soon as you enter the hutongs the sounds of various motors and their horns quickly dies away and as you delve deeper and deeper into the alleyways, you begin to be able to hear your own thoughts again along with each step taking you deeper into the maze. Once we were in the hostel, however, we actually felt compelled to whisper so as not to disturb other people or, more likely, be overheard (such a conundrum is a rare find, indeed, in a country exploding with people and lacking in privacy). But the quiet was magnificent and desperately needed.

We spent the majority of our weekend either basking in the sun on the hostel’s roof terrace or traversing the city either on the subway or through our wanderings. We also sated our appetite for Western food by enjoying burgers, Papa John’s Pizza, and even some German food in the embassy district (a truly amazing part of the city and one that I would gladly revisit). We even hate some nicer Chinese cuisine than we usually do on the roof of a restaurant near Nanluoguxiang. All in all, the weekend was exceptionally relaxing and just what we needed for a weekend away.

Hutong:
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Have you ever seen a better feast? Behold, Excalibur! (That’s really what it’s called:)
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Today, I taught seventh grade and began my classes by letting them know about the schedule change their about to “endure”. Two seniors from Western Kentucky University are coming to the Baoding Bilingual school next week to spend a month getting teaching hours before they graduate while experiencing life abroad. From what we understand (because we’ve been told very little), these new teachers will be in our classes with us and will be our assistants/co-teachers for the next month. In almost every class I said, “next week there will be a new teacher from America”, the kids responded with “where are you going?!” After I explained to them that I will still be here and I don’t go home until June (their confessions that they’ll miss me warmed my heart for sure), it went about like this:

Student: Boy or girl?
Me: Girl
Student: Is she beautiful?
Me: I don’t know.
Student: Is she your friend?
Me: No.

Student: Where is she from again?
Me: America.
Student: Where are you from?
Me: Meiguo (America in Chinese)
Student: What’s her name?
Me: I don’t know.

[Here they scoffed a bit at how little information I have and they seemed perplexed that we don’t know each other since we’re both from the US. Some students wanted me to go into detail about where we’re both from within the US but in general the conversation continued like this…]

Student: TEACHER! I want a boy teacher!
Me: Why?
Student: We like boy teachers.
Me: You don’t like me?
Students: No!! We like you very much. You’re very beautiful. Boy teachers are fun!
Me: Am I not fun?
Students: NO! You are fun. We want boy teacher. Why does the other boy teacher here not teach us?
Me: He teaches the little children.
Students: Who is the other boy teacher here?
Me: That’s my boyfriend.
Students: GOOD JOB, TEACHER! GOOD JOB! (with winks and thumbs up)
Me: Why do you want a boy teacher?
Students: Boy teachers are handsome and good looking.

So there you have it. Male foreign teachers are handsome no matter what they look like and girl teachers are good if they are beautiful. Welcome to teaching in China.

Other than my lesson in students’ teacher preference based on physical appearances, I had a proud moment regarding my Chinese. I was helping one of my (historically rowdiest) classes with their English homework when one boy didn’t understand what “without” meant and why that was the answer to the question instead of “with”. I was able to explain in Chinese that “with” is “有/you” in Chinese and “without” is “没有/meiyou”. He understood immediately and I was able to demonstrate some useful Chinese under my belt. Happy day!

As for the rest of April, I’m calling it no work April. We didn’t work yesterday and Duncan doesn’t work next Tuesday. Next week the two foreign teachers come in and they’ll be in/half-teaching our classes so they can get their degree-required teaching hours and they’ll be here until mid-May. The week after the teachers get here I work one day out of the entire week and the last few days of April and the first few days of May might also be exams for the students/holidays for us. Combine all of this and it looks like I won’t be teaching full weeks of classes by myself again until the last two weeks of our contract in which we’ll have to administer tests and then we plan on spending the last class partying and hanging out with the students to wrap up the year. It’s a silly schedule but as I’m enjoying my students more and more with every class I’m beginning to be sad I’ll have to leave them. It’s hard to believe this year of adventure is quickly drawing to a close.

But it’s not over yet so thank you for reading and until next time,

Alyssa

A picture of Duncan from one of his students:
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Posted by on April 8, 2014 in Travel, Uncategorized

 

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Day 218: Spring in Baoding

Hey everyone!

It’s been a difficult but routine week here in Baoding filled with chainsaws, early morning wake-ups, negotiating relationships, and another flat tire on the bike.

Sunday we went out for lunch with Enkui and his wife and niece and ate at a great restaurant that was “American” themed. The food was essentially Chinese American food that wasn’t fast food. This means we had a Chinese cuisine variation on wings, beef tips, roasted potatoes, green beans, bananas and coconut covered in marshmallows, and lots and lots of garlic. It was great and since it was cheap and close to the school, I can see us going there again on our own. The best part of the whole experience though, was this monstrosity outside the restaurant:

‘Merika!
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Classes were as scheduled but the students were difficult for both of us this week. We came out of classes just exhausted from trying to maintain focus or manage the classroom effectively. I suspect a lot of the misbehavior and general rowdiness from the students came from their inability to play outside this week seeing as the smog has settled back in again with alarming intensity.

And though the trees are transforming into bright greens and the flowers are beginning to bloom around campus, we were also introduced this week to how Baoding prepares for Spring.

Piles of plastic on the road:
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No more trees and concrete destruction on campus:
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But despite the frustrations, I had some good moments with my students too. One eighth grade girl that I’ve been convinced since the first week of school hates me, wanted to take a picture with me this week and was super excited to talk with me when I was wandering around campus.

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When I asked one of my seventh grade boys who is usually very good in class why he wasn’t participating, he told me he was sad because he was having “woman” troubles (his friend made sure I was certain to understand by writing “woman” at the top of his paper and pointing and nodding with a slight frown). I found this whole situation (not to be degrading) adorable and I really wanted nothing more in that moment than to know the details of his first heartbreak. But treading the line between helpful and embarrassing (which has become a pretty much constant thought when interacting with my middle school students, especially considering Chinese students are more likely to be embarrassed by nothing by a magnitude of about 1000 compared to American students) contained my curiosity and now the world will never know the drama involved in his first love. Though I am routinely observing that Chinese men are not masculine (compared to American standards of masculinity), I appreciated this boy’s willingness to be transparent and honest with his emotions rather than trying to hide any sensitivity under the pretense of “being a man”.

Some very happy fifth graders:
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And at the end of this frustrating week (really just more China fatigue largely fueled by the absence of clean air and sunlight), I am happy when I reflect on my personal growth so far during this adventure. I set out at the start of this year, with some clear goals relating to how I interact with the world around me and I think I’ve made some great progress. I have never been one to be characterized by patience, but now I would even go so far as to describe myself as a patient person. I have become remarkably good (for me) at talking myself out of negative emotional reactions to situations and circumstances I have no control over, and despite (or maybe because of) all the challenges and trials that I have had to get used to as a part of life, I’m much more tolerant, my expectations are more malleable, and I’m more grounded in the present. I’m amused that it took me coming to China and experiencing the most substantial culture shock of my life to make progress on life-long goals of mine, but at the end of the day, that’s why this type of adventure is so valuable. We’ve both been forced to adapt and learn and grow and live outside of our comfort zone and that has inevitably shaped us into new persons that will carry on through the rest of our lives better by having learned and grown from this experience.

Thank you for reading and until next time,

Alyssa

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2014 in Baoding

 

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Day 211: Publicity Stunts with Kites

Another week has gone by and as it has passed spring has moved back in and warmed our hearts. Seriously, with the warmer weather and blue skies, we’ve not had to dress in half of our closet to go outside, we’ve been able to bask in the sun for the first time in what feels like a lifetime, and the smog has been pretty much nonexistent this week. We can finally breathe!

This week was kind of strange in that I only taught Monday, Thursday, and Friday and Duncan only taught Monday and Tuesday, but it was a good week nonetheless. My students were great. We had a lot of fun reviewing what they’ve supposedly learned thus far this semester and even my eighth graders were the best they’ve ever been. I definitely think the change in weather has something to do with the improvement in everyone’s mood.

Today we started the day by going to the kite celebration the elementary school hosted to celebrate the first day of spring. All of the students at the Baoding Eastern Bilingual School have been making, preparing, and practicing flying kites all week to get ready for the celebration today when parents were allowed on campus and the students showed off their mad pom-pom skills and kite-flying (aka kite running). Though it became pretty clear we were invited primarily as a publicity stunt, we had a lot of fun watching the kids run around with their parents and their kites and their excitement to see us made us look really good in front of our bosses (well, Duncan’s kids’ excitement made him look really good in front of our boss; most of my kids had to stay in or go back to class before I got a chance to say hello).

I don’t have any social commentary tangents to go on today so I’m going to include some pictures I’ve taken throughout the week.

Spotted on the wall in the middle school hallway:
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Bike queue at a cross-walk during rush hour traffic every single day:
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In the midst of the chaos:
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Some more “inspiration” found on a bulletin board at the school (who wrote this?):
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We are staying in Baoding this weekend to enjoy the nice, smog-free weather and to do some spring-cleaning in our apartment. Our next trip will probably be to Datong to see some more grottoes but we haven’t decided when we want to go yet. Maybe we’ll go on our next long weekend.

As always, thank you for reading and until next time,

Alyssa

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2014 in Baoding, Uncategorized

 

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Day 202: A Commentary on Modern Chinese Culture

Nihao!

We’ve had another two great days of teaching and have even planned our next trip. This Friday we will be heading to Luoyang in Henan Province to check out some temples and, most notably, the Longmen Grottoes. We’re very excited to be touring again and there will definitely be a post after this weekend (with pictures!).

With little to report about the routine of the past two days, I’m going to relay some thoughts and conversations Duncan and I have been having recently. It’s time for some social commentary and analysis.

There is a stereotype in the West that Chinese people (and other Asians) excel at logic and reasoning (i.e. all Asians are good at math and play chess) to the exclusion of creativity. Though it is true that the Chinese education system (at least the part that I have come into contact with) is void of pretty much all creative thinking (unless students go specifically to an arts school), it is also void of critical thinking and logical reasoning. Almost all classes are focused on and taught with the intention of students scoring well on pre-defined tests. Primary school students (we would call it middle school) have to pass the zhongkao to get into a good middle school (what we would call high school) and then middle school students (high school students) have to pass the gaokao to get into a good university. In their final (senior) year of (undergraduate) university, students do not take any classes, though they are still technically university students, because the intent is for them to either find an internship that will lead them to an immediate job upon graduation or to spend that entire year studying for the graduate school exam. As a result of all this test focus (and extreme pressure from family and cultural expectations) students spend their entire school career memorizing answers to tests (often) without knowing exactly what they are memorizing (especially in English classes). Duncan and I have seen the backlash of this in all of our classes – students have memorized English sounds in certain orders (often right out of their textbooks) but have no clue what they are actually saying. For example, when you ask a student who has been technically “studying” English for the past ten years, “how are you today?” and they respond with “yes”. Give them a test, however, that they prepared for by memorizing the questions and answers, however, and they’ll excel.
There is no critical thinking, logical reasoning, asking questions, or producing original or self-concluded answers. There is only meaningless, test-focused memorization (even in the best of schools). Students can function quite well if they remain in and dedicated to the Chinese system, but once out of it or in the world where some kind of critical reasoning is necessary, they are often stumped because they have never had an opportunity to practice critical thinking. We see evidence of this all the time in subways and on roads, where you see people stopped in front of a barrier, refusing to find a way around, and instead just seem to push into it until it moves (human or not) or they get impatient or when they look right at you as you are driving down the street on your bike but yet they step in front of you anyway.
Recently, there was a news article about the Chinese people lamenting the popularity of a Korean soap opera and Japanese anime worldwide and yet the Chinese (as self-defined examples of Asian culture) are lacking. I think it has to do, somewhat, with the fact that creative and original thinking is not supported within the Chinese system. I also think it has to do with the intense mimicry of other things, especially the Western world, (i.e. convincing fake designer products and a disregard for copyright infringement) that is (in my opinion) quickly coming to erase ancient Chinese culture and becoming a new modern Chinese culture.

It’s no wonder that the Chinese are sometimes stereotypically known as “professional mimickers”. Mimicry of products and culture is so pervasive here that you cannot assume something is real and, in fact, we’ve come to assume first, like many people, that something is fake. We’ve seen fake cars so convincing that the only way we knew it wasn’t original is because they misspelled the brand name on the back of the car (inexplicably). And despite the hundreds of “Apple” stores in Baoding, all claiming to sell the new iPhone “5S”, we had to travel to Beijing to find a store legitimate enough to actually support real Apple products.

And with all this mimicry, comes pervasive lying that we have found to be quite grounded in Chinese culture (based on some reading I’ve done, I think this particular feature originated or at least came to dominance during the Cultural Revolution). But lying isn’t really seen as lying here; it’s more like expected embellishments to make the truth sound better and to save face. Stretching the truth has become so much a part of life and “the way things are done” that most often I don’t think people consciously realize they aren’t telling the complete truth.
And, when it comes right down to it, people here, like anywhere else, are selfish (especially, it seems, in North China). It’s ironic and contradictory, but it seems that people here are more selfish and more egocentric despite their communal society than in the US and other parts of the “Western world” that are defined as individualistic societies. From what we have seen, the average person functions on what works best for them and them alone without any regard for how their actions are affecting those around them (the exception is familial obligations). There seems to be very little empathy and sympathy and decisions do not seem to be made through the line of thought “what’s best for everyone involved” as I would expect from a communal society but rather “what is the most convenient way/thing for me”, what I would expect from an individualistic society. You can see this reasoning in the disposal of trash (“I don’t care where it goes as long as it isn’t with me anymore”), driving (responsibility is on the person behind you; as a driver you don’t ever need to look in the rearview mirror), the treatment of animals (“It’s not my dog, so what does it matter how I treat it?”), and the attitude towards the environment (“it’s not my responsibility” coupled with a lack of education and awareness). It’s quite the unexpected paradox.

This pervasive mimicry, unconscious lying, and selfishness have created a culture of distrust. When I was explaining to Li Laoshi about how to get a driver’s license in the States, her first question after I explained that my parents signed off on my driver’s permit hours was “how does the DMV know their signature was real and that you really did practice driving?” “Well, I guess they don’t but since you put your name on it, they assume you’re telling the truth. Besides, what would they have to gain by lying? Nothing other than an incompetent driver risking their life and the lives of others.” But in China, people don’t trust each other. I found out today that a fairly common practice when you get a new job is to put down a hefty deposit that you don’t get back if you quit without a month’s prior notice in order to protect the company or business owner. When we went through the Visa process to come here and when we were applying for residence permits once we were in Baoding, every step was riddled with bureaucratic nonsense, permits, official stamps (not signatures, because those could be forged), and only certain people were allowed to interact with certain documents and certain parts of the process in what seems like a vain attempt to avoid forgery, lying, or corruption. (Of course, despite all this drivel, corruption is rampant, but that’s not unique to Chinese government.) Further concern from Li Laoshi arose when I was explaining our house situation in the States. She wanted to know how we trust our neighbors if we don’t know them; how can we be sure that someone won’t break into our apartment (explanation of dead bolts); do you have an alarm system; how do you deal with a thief (I have Duncan as a bodyguard); and myriad other questions all centered on the fact that during our regular life in the US, we trust and believe we can trust most people around us to behave civilly and without any intention to do us harm. By comparison, I wouldn’t be surprised if life in the US seems more secure, at least in that respect.

I do think it’s important to note, however, that we function in a specific social domain in the US mainly comprised of friends and family, those we have close relationships with because we trust them. During our time here, the exceptions to most of what I noted have been primarily found amongst our friends and close colleagues and I’m sure it’s similar for Chinese people. Whereas strangers may not be the most courteous, in either country, we forge close and friendly relationships with people by and because of mutual trust, respect, and a personal connection. (Woo! Relations theory!) As I’ve said before, so many of China’s problems stem from the fact that there are just too many people and it’s very likely that the culture of distrust is partially created and maintained because you cannot feasibly maintain relationships or some kind of personal connection with the 1.4 billion people living in China. We function in a largely impersonal social domain here (on top of clearly being outsiders) and I’m confident that is skewing our perception of people and culture (cue Durkheim).

When I was anticipating our move here, I was excited to experience life in a country without a religious system and with a rich and long history of moral philosophers and thinkers. I assumed, as a communal society, that I would see others taking care of or at least being aware of others at a level not normally present in the US. I looked forward to the exploratory conversations of good-deeds, morals and ethics, and community development that for some reason (probably related to China’s history) I believed would be daily conversation material rather than the scholarly and academic dialogues in Western universities. It seems that I had China and the average Chinese person on a very high pedestal and reality has hit harder because of those unfounded expectations.
But I have found a whole new world, once that I did not expect, that is not all bad either, despite not aligning with my pre-adventure day dreams of China. We appreciate the dedication to creating communal spaces (frequently in beautiful parks) that allows for groups to meet, do activities (like the old people dancing and the young people roller blading and jump roping all in the same space), and interact and participate in something as a community. I am amused by the tendency to and frequency of napping. There is an astonishing depth to this country’s history and culture that continues to prove more and more fascinating the farther we delve into it. I love the seemingly endless opportunities for travel to see beautiful places, experience new cultural nuances, and explore historically important sites (I will miss these things a lot once back in the US). I deeply appreciate China’s diplomatic intent to remain peaceful and cooperative. And, the characters that define the written language are beautiful mysteries to me. I have grown fond of how safe I feel here and I’m sure I will experience a significant culture shock upon returning home when I re-enter the world of frequently visible gangs, guns, and violence. And if there is one thing (and there are many things, the Chinese excel at other than tests), it’s hospitality and making guests feel welcome, safe, and cared for. And that is something I will definitely miss.

Until next time, thank you for reading,

Alyssa

 
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Posted by on March 12, 2014 in Baoding, Uncategorized

 

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