Wherein our heroine travels to Hangzhou, China to teach English to an assortment of various students, thanks to an... interesting approach to organization. Let us hear a great cheer for intercultural communication.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Well, I'm back in the US, and about halfway over my jetlag, so I suppose it's time to start catching up on the blogging. Looking at my notes, it turns out the first thing I'm supposed to write about is massage, which turns out to be timely, because I really wish I could have one.

One of the greatest things about China is the foot massages. Whoever the person is who figured out all the pressure points in the foot is a god and I will worship them forever. Even though everything in the little college enclave town where we were staying was pretty much closed, Marcus managed to find a foot massage place, and then told all the rest of us about it, quickly causing us to become regulars. The people there must have been thrilled to have such a huge group of stressed out foreigners suddenly patronizing them repeatedly.

I didn't go the first night that a large group was organized, as I was waiting for an international phone call. The next day, though, Lee wanted to go back, so I went with him. We were shown into a room with big cushy chairs and served tea and the ubiquitous watermelon. Then our foot massage people came in with tubs of very hot water to soak our feet in while they sort of shook out our hands and arms. I got a nice young guy, while Lee got a young woman with (I would find out later) very strong fingers. I'm not sure how relaxing this particular foot massage was for Lee, because our two people were very curious about our group and talked to him the whole time. It was fun for me, because this was the night that I realized I had been in China long enough to pick up a lot of the basic gist of the conversation. It helped that Lee was getting to have the same conversation he had with pretty much every Chinese person we met: Are you Chinese? Where are you from? When did you move from Taiwan? etc, etc.

Back to the actual massage, though. For people who don't know, the foot has pressure points connected to organs all over a person's body. A trained foot masseur/masseuse can tell what's wrong with you just by the various points of tension in your foot. Of course, they then try to correct the problems by trying to mash the knots to death, which is not always the most relaxing experience, but do you ever feel good afterward. That night, Lee translated for me that apparently I was not getting enough sleep, but only mentioned later that I was also proclaimed "not very healthy." I'm pretty certain that if I kept getting foot massages, I'd get healthier.

At the end, after they finished doing both feet and calves, they did our backs briefly, which I, of course, thought was a fabulous ending. Then we were left to gather ourselves and make our way down to the front desk to pay. $5 for 70 minutes. If that's not enough to make you love China, I don't know what is.

Friday, July 23, 2004
I'm not dead yet

Sorry about the complete lack of posting. Our extremely disorganized life in China is not conducive to blogging on any kind of regular basis. I am now so far behind that I've just decided to catch up once I'm back in the lovely USofA and have all the time I need.

Of course, this decision is being externally enforced by the fact that today is our last day of teaching for food, so on Monday we are hitting the road for our promised "week" of touring China. We are taking a whirlwind tour, in 4 days, of Xi'an and Beijing. Xi'an is, of course, one of the four hottest places in China, where it is always 39 C, because if it hits 40 C, they have to stop tours and it's a tourist-dependent city. While I am very excited to see the terra cotta soldiers, I am quite ready to stop being so freakin' hot all the time. I didn't know I could sweat so much.

In any case, after today, I will not really have internet access for the whole week until I am back in Michigan. You can look forward to hearing my more sane reflections on the experience then.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004
Posting Interruption and Delay

If you don't like your schedule in China, don't worry, it'll change. Like, in the next hour, say. Sheesh.

Short version of the trip to Shanghai: Awesome, wonderful, fabulous, perfect! We didn't want to leave.

Reason I can't go into more detail: Last night I got pulled from teaching the college teachers here and sent to teach a large group of doctors at the international hospital downtown. Total preparation time to teach 100+ medical personnel? About 2 hours. At least that was the prep time for me, Pat P., and Pat T. Poor Mary and Lee got pulled out of class here right after lunch and told they were leaving to go to the hospital in half an hour.

The nice thing is that the doctors are all really high level. The bad thing is that I once again have no time because I'm scrambling to catch up and not be totally winging my classes. Argh.

Don't worry, though. I'm keeping a list of all the things I still need to blog about. I'll get caught up on this thing sooner or later. Probably later, alas.

Friday, July 09, 2004
Ping Pong Date

I have acquired an admirer. On the first day, he told us we could call him "Spring sound," which Lee translated more correctly for him as "Spring thunder," so now he goes by Thunder. Thunder is very eager to practice English conversational skills. Thunder finds our class very interesting. Thunder falls asleep in pronunciation class, right after ours, though. Gina wanted to know what I was doing to keep his interest. It has been noted that I am the only unmarried woman on this trip, and this may have something to do with it.

On Wednesday, Thunder stayed after class and started a conversation about when all of us English teachers have free time. Then it was did we have anything to do on Thursday night. Then it was whether I had anything to do on Thursday night. Lee, the traitor, busied himself turning off all the lights and fans in the classroom and getting ready to go, being of no help at all. Since it had already been established that there were no English teacher meetings on Thursday, I felt kind of trapped. Thunder then asked if I knew how to play ping pong. When I said no, he declared that he would teach me. So this is how it came to be that I spent an hour last night learning how to play ping pong the Chinese way.

As it turns out, the English department owns two ping pong tables for its teachers, so Thunder got permission to use their room. He brought two different kinds of paddles, vertical (Chinese) style, and horizontal (Western) style. A horizontal paddle is held like a tennis racquet, so I chose that because it seemed more logical to me. However, after about 10 minutes, he said I should learn the Chinese style, and indeed, it is easier. It looks bizarre, however. It has a very short handle, which you wrap your thumb and forefinger around the base of and then allow the end of the handle to rest on the part of your hand between the two fingers. Your middle finger rests bent against the back of the paddle. This makes it look like you’re holding the paddle upside down, but by relaxing the wrist, it is actually easier to turn the paddle in all directions, at least 180 degrees, and hit the ball more accurately. This may explain why I was so bad at tennis.

It turns out that I’m not that bad at ping pong. We weren’t keeping score, but I know I did score a few times by accidentally tipping the ball over the top of the net. Go me! I also did not have to worry too much about intensive one-on-one conversation with Thunder, because ping pong concentration does not allow for a lot of chit-chat. So I learned how to play pong the Chinese way from a Chinese guy without getting hit on too much. I had set a time limit of one hour, because of a "meeting," so Thunder walked back to my building with me. On the way, he adroitly changed the subject when I suggested that next time he wanted to play ping pong, we should invite Lee, because Lee (truthfully) hasn’t played in a long time and should learn the Chinese way. He then suggested that, because I am so busy during the day, he might show me the sights of Hangzhou by evening sometime. I mentioned I had a lot of lesson planning to do. I will be wary of any suggestions from him that might include going near hills.

When I get back from my weekend in Shanghai, I will tell the story of having a Chinese foot massage, which was the "meeting" that meant my "date" with Thunder was only one hour long. But now I have to leave!

Climbing Hills

Yesterday, our discussion topic was dating and marriage. In our regular class, Lee and I had used my "Who is the perfect man/woman?" activity from Japan, so pretty much everyone (except the people who skipped and went to extra pronunciation class) was primed to discuss. Strangely, we ended up with 3 classes worth of people in the discussion hour, when we had only started out with 5 people in the morning, so we were dealing with a much bigger group. I put them into smaller groups to counteract the tendency of some people to completely dominate the discussion and assigned each group a question to answer about dating and marriage customs in China. Lee and I had about 1 minute to figure out how to restructure the class, and he said later he was somewhat astounded at my ability to make up discussion questions on the spur of the moment as I was writing them on the board and assigning them to groups. Go, go, instant preparation skills! Thank god we're mostly just recycling stuff I've done before.

One of the questions I asked them was about what people do on a typical date in China, and the most Chinese of the answers was "climb hills." We had heard this before, so we asked these students to clarify why climbing hills is a popular date activity. One of the older (30-ish) women said it was just because climbing stretches out the time so you can get to know the other person better. One of the young, unmarried women, though, astutely noted that really it's an excuse for bodily contact. Can I help you over that rock? Oh, be careful on this spot! You get the idea.

Maybe this is a dating idea that could catch on in other countries.

Teaching, Finally

We are actually teaching classes this week! After much, much confusion over who, exactly, our students were going to be, we've mostly (kind of, sort of) got things going. Half of the people in our group are teaching what was supposed to be a camp for high schoolers, but actually has children from 5 all the way up to 17 years old. They must be doing a good job, because each day they get more new children being dropped off.

I am in the half of the group that is teaching the teachers from this college who are not in the English department. We were told at first we would have over 100 teachers, once all the departments sent their contingents. In reality, we have about 30-40, and even though we're trying to make the class changing schedule clear to them, they keep regrouping themselves in the hallway in between classes and showing up in random places. I think they'll grasp the concept about the time we're done teaching them.

Since we don't actually have 100 people, we've been team teaching in four classrooms and trying to rotate the students through 4 classes and a 5th discussion hour back in their first classroom. I'm team teaching with Lee. Since Lee is a high school history teacher in the US and I'm good at coming up with integrated ESL topics, Pat P. put us in charge of deciding on the discussion topics for the 5th hour. This means we're lucky because we've been tying our own class topic to the larger discussion topic, which makes our class seem so integrated and organized.

Our students seem to be enjoying all the classes in general, even if they are generally confused about where to go. Hopefully this means that next year, if it happens again, everything will be much more organized, because people here will know more about what to expect.

Monday, July 05, 2004

On Saturday, we blessedly did very little. In the evening, though, one of the Chinese English teachers, David, and his girlfriend, Emily, came over. Emily is preparing for interviews to get a job at one of the private English academies in Hangzhou, and she wanted to practice with Gina and Lee. Somehow, David ended up staying in my and Mary's room to talk to people while Emily was off practicing. We had some interesting conversations.

David has 4 brothers, two older and two younger. We asked him if the size of his family was unusual, and he said yes. For one thing, few families have so many boys. For another, though, the "one family, one child" policy was instituted in 1978. David was born in 1977, so he got in under the wire, but his two younger brothers didn't. I teasingly said that they had been breaking the rules, and David said, "Well, no, but it is kind of hard to explain. My father, he went to have the operation, but... it didn't work. Maybe they didn't know very much about how to do the operation then." I guess the government has to be lenient if you really tried to comply, but modern medicine let you down.

Later, David asked if I had ever been to any other foreign countries besides China and Japan. The first thing I thought of, naturally, was Taiwan. He smiled broadly and said, "But Taiwan is part of China." Whoops. I had noticed on the weather in the morning that when going through the list of cities' highs and lows, Taipei is listed right in there with all the other T's. I quickly tried to save myself by turning to countries in Latin America, which I know are all indisputably separate countries.

Sunday, July 04, 2004
A Very Full Day

On Friday, we were taken... everywhere. Or at least that's what it felt like. We were up and ready to hit the road at 8am, and did not return until 10pm. We were being hosted, in absentia, by the mayor of the city of Jinhua, a personal friend of Qian's, and he had a very full day lined up for us. He sent an official city government bus to pick us up.

Our first stop was a preserved village. People still live there, but all of the buildings have been preserved or restored to the way they were when the founding family of the village lived there, and supposedly the people living there have reverted to the ancient way of life as well. The city is laid out on a spoked wheel pattern, which looks quite logical when seen painted as a map on the wall, but when walking through it seems more like a maze. The founding family was known for turning out famous apothecaries and physicians, and reportedly to this day you can walk into any traditional medicine pharmacy in the country and ask for a person by that family name. The head of the family was particularly famous for laying down some strict guidelines for the family descendants to follow, which then all other families of the time adopted (with some modifications) as well. We walked past beans and herbs being dried in the sun on walls and walks, people washing their clothes in the ponds, through the family's gathering pavilion and private meeting room, up to their divination area where some people could have their fortunes told, and through a beautifully landscaped garden billed as China's earliest pharmacy.

After yet another huge lunch, we went to our next stop, Double Dragon Cave. On approaching the cave, the first thing I noticed was that there was truly cool air hitting me. Aaaaahhhhh. At the entrance to the cave are two large rock formations that people think look like the heads of dragons. To really get into the inner part of the cave, you have to lie down flat in what are basically rowboats on chains that get pulled under a very low opening. The rock is less than a foot from your face as you pass underneath it. Inside, the cave is much like other cave systems I have had tours of, except more of the formations are said to be dragons than in the US. Many of the areas that have been deemed popular picture-taking spots are now adorned with flourescent plastic Chinese labels with the name of the site. There is a beautiful waterfall inside the cave, and the rock above its mouth is carved to look like a dragon's head with water spilling from its mouth, but the eyes have light bulbs in them, and the whiskers have been covered over with bright red plastic replacements to make them more obvious, which kind of ruined the view in my opinion. Also, if you do not avail yourself of the official photographer services at the various scenic points, they still want to charge you. The exit to the cave is 1/3 of the way up the mountain, so we climbed and climbed the stone stairs to get to the top of the cave. If we had continued on up the mountain, there was a temple at the top, but we were apparently moving too slow and behind schedule.

Our next stop, after a long, scenic, winding drive back down the mountain, was at a traditional medicine hospital in Jinhua. Qian's father is a doctor there. Pat T. in our group is a dietician, while Pat P. is a trained nurse/EMT, and both expressed a lot of interest in seeing hospital practices here, so Qian arranged our visit. First we got to see the pharmacy, which was filled with row after row of drawers containing different herbs, and on top of the drawers on the side of the room were painted ceramic pots containing even more. The pharmacist would consult her list of ingredients, take her handheld balance to the proper drawer, measure out the appropriate weight of herb, and then distribute it evenly to the 5 or 6 prescriptions she was preparing. After the herbs are measured out, the mixtures are taken to the boiling room and turned into teas. There is also another place where they can prepare concentrates, but we didn't see that. Upstairs, we were shown the massage and accupuncture rooms. In the massage room, there was actually a woman getting treatment, but she didn't seem to mind us parading through the room, and in fact received two cell phone calls while we were there, talking all the while as the therapist did his thing. In the accupuncture room, no one was being treated, but the accupuncturist proudly showed off his needles and pretended to put one in Qian's arm so Pat T. could get a picture.

Our last stop before dinner was the auto factory, because Jinhua is very proud to have it. It actually makes only long distance buses. The shift had just ended when we got there, so nothing was really going on, but we got to see the various buses that had been left at their stations. The one that was the most finished was a sleeper bus, which I had never seen before. It looked kind of like a more practical version of the Knight Bus from Harry Potter, with stacked bunk beds in rows. It is the most expensive kind of bus there is. Right now is not the busy season for bus production, so the factory only runs one shift now, in which they can produce six buses. During the busy winter season, to prepare for the spring traveling season, the factory runs 3 shifts, so they can turn out buses 24 hours a day.

After that, we went to the best hotel in Jinhua to meet the mayor for dinner. We had so many people that we had to sit at two tables, and since I wasn't at the mayor's table, I don't know much about him. He did come over to our table at one point to toast each of us individually, and he seemed very taken with the fact that Debbie and I had our hair braided "in Chinese style." We were treated to all the finest dishes, including shark fin soup, which is extremely expensive. I can now report that shark fin itself doesn't really taste like anything, and the soup itself isn't really soupy, more congealed and vaguely buttery tasting. We also had Jinhua ham, which tastes a lot like country ham, but with the fat still on, as they seem to always prepare ham here. I gave my fat to Lee.

Eventually, the dinner ended and we all got back in the little bus for the 3-hour drive back to Hangzhou. I think we were all pretty tired when we got back, but we certainly had gotten to see a lot of interesting things in one day.

Saturday, July 03, 2004
College Invitation

Tuesday night, after returning from the Silk Museum, we took a trip to another nearby college. One of the English teachers at this college had been at the conference, heard our panel presentation, and apparently decided that his students needed to be exposed to native speakers, so he invited us, via Qian, to his college. We didn't really know what to expect when we arrived, having only been told that we would be speaking to groups of students.

When we got out of the van, there was a crowd of students waiting for us with signs for each of the various members of the group. Each of us was adopted by a set of 4 students and taken to the student cafeteria to eat dinner. Most of the others went through the cafeteria-style line with their students, but I was seated at a table with two of my hosts at a time while the other two went to fetch food. When they came back, the placed all of the small bowls of food in the center of the table and set the trays aside, so we could eat communally, like they do with families (and in restaurants) here. I quizzed them about what was in each dish, causing much referral to the cell-phone dictionary for words like "cucumber" and "kelp" (pronounced "klep"). I found out that all the girls, and all of their classmates as well, were International Trade majors, which entails classes in English, Chinese, math, economics, and, of course, Mao Tse Dong. Mao was pronounced their favorite class, because it had the least homework. I had to promise not to tell their English teacher. It also turned out that they had their math final the next day, but had been told by their English teacher that they would have many foreign visitors to host that evening. They very diplomatically said that they thought they would learn more talking to us than they would cramming for their exam.

After we finished eating, they flagged down a cab to take us over to the classroom buildings. Their campus is in the process of being built, and in general very new, so the classrooms are a little ways from the dorms. Other people said they just walked with their students, though, so I think my girls just didn't want to be so hot, which I could completely sympathize with. When we got to the campus, they showed me around their main classroom building, and a little bit of the outside when their teacher shooed us out of the building so he could get ready. They pointed out the pretty streetlights that seem to be on all the campuses around here and said that their teacher said the some teachers think the artistic tops are in the shape of flying birds and they hope all their students will be like those birds and fly away after graduation, and others think that they are Vs for Victory in final examinations.

When we saw that most of the other groups of students had arrived, we went back in to the lecture room. We were one of the first groups in, so we were sitting near the front. When Lee's group came in, the girls all giggled and said, "Is he Chinese?" I explained that his family was from Taiwan, but he moved to the US when he was 2 years old, so he really considers himself American. One of them said, "Ah, we call him a 'banana,' because he is yellow like us on the outside, but white like you on the inside." I thought it was a clever observation, and was impressed with her English explanation, but I didn't tell Lee, because I'm not sure what he'd think about that label. When all of the students who hadn't been in a dinner group arrived too, the teacher called things to order and introduced each of us. Then he turned the microphone over and we each gave a short version of our conference topic, since that was what he requested we do. I was lucky in that mine was easy to modify for a student audience instead of an instructor audience, and they all seemed to smile and understand what I was saying. By the end of the presentations, though, they were tuning out.

Luckily, we then broke into four smaller topic groups to talk about Sports, Dating and Weddings, American TV, and Cultural Immersion. I was one of the people who volunteered for Cultural Immersion, which of course Eva was in charge of, and we had by far the smallest group. Eva would have just launched right into a mini-lecture in her own rambling style, but I managed to jump in and ask an important question, which was whether any of them knew what "cultural immersion" meant. They didn't, so I explained it, and tried my best to bring some of Eva's subsequent points back to a level that non-English-major undergraduates at a business school might find understandable and relevant. I hope they at least got a little bit out of it.

Then it was back to the lecture room for wrap-up, thank yous, good-byes (with some very shy flirting with Lee on the behalf of one girl, which we watched with amusement), and then back in the van to go back to our own college.