Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Farewell to China

This last few days of classes, when I'm saying my goodbyes to my students, I'm having them write down their questions so they can ask them anonymously. They're shy about a lot of stuff, so this gives them a way to get the answers they want without mortification.

One of the things I get asked a lot is if I will come back to China, and the answer is no. I'm glad I came here and the people have been wonderful, but my impetus for student teaching here was never a love for, or really even an interest in, the Chinese culture. It was a test for myself, in several different ways. One, I wanted to plan something that actually came to fruition for once. I know I've mentioned it before here, but I'm really bad about saying I'm going to do stuff, then... not. Two, I'm thirty-two (in response to the question "How old are you?" I answered "Thirty-three" today. Then I really had to think about it), and had never been out of the country. Three, I wanted to see if I could do it. Could I go to a country where I speak little of the language and get along? And I did. Of course, I was not alone at all (the "Can I go to a country alone and survive?" question will have to be answered somewhere like France where I know some of the language), but as homesick as I was, I never seriously entertained the idea of coming home.

And I have been homesick since we got here. Some of that is normal, but the intensity and duration of mine has to set some kind of record. I didn't lock myself in my room sobbing when I wasn't teaching, but I had to really lecture myself some days to enjoy China while I'm here; in general I try really hard not to wish my life away, but this trip really stretched that ability thin. I think eleven weeks away from home is too long for me.

I lost a friend on this trip; I suppose some relationships weren't made to withstand lack of constant exposure to another person. It's not as if I hadn't known this friendship wasn't ideal, but no one likes to receive an email full of judgments that clearly had been germinating for some time. That's life, though; some friendships have lifespans.

I was going to get a QQ (the instant messenger program the students here use) so my students could IM me when I get home, but they have my email; to spend time IMing them strikes me as living in the past.

We will be traveling for about 24 hours once we leave Shenyang, and I know that's going to be exhausting, but I look forward to it. If there's one thing this trip has taught me, it's that China is not the place for me. I'm 100% glad I made the trip, but I'm 100% glad it's drawing to a close.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Homesick, and Homeward Bound

I have definitely been the person here least impressed with China. I've had to have several pep talks with myself where I swear I'm not going to count down till the day we leave, or talk about what I miss most from back home (aside from my family, it's mostly been sandwiches - bread in China, particularly Fuxin, is weird and sweet, and cold cuts are nonexistent. Don't even get me started on cheese).

I've had a good time, and if I had to live the last 7 months all over again knowing what I know now, I'd apply again, no question. But I miss home. I miss St. Louis. Never has it been more apparent to me that I'm an STL lifer. Any illusions I've ever had about moving to Anchorage, AK or Jackson, WY evaporated the day I had to set a weekly Skype schedule with my mother.

As of this writing, there are fifteen days and thirteen hours until our flight from Beijing to New York takes off. Before that we have a bus ride to Shenyang, an overnight stay there, and a flight from Shenyang to Beijing. After we arrive in New York, we have a four-hour layover then our three-hour flight to St. Louis. From the time we take off from Shenyang to the time we land in St. Louis, we will spend twenty-four hours traveling. It's tiring to think about, but I am so ready. I am so ready to embark upon the last day of this trip and get home to my uncomfortable bed that will feel like a suite at the Four Seasons after three months of turning over carefully so I don't accidentally knock my mattress pad onto the floor.

Life in St. Louis isn't perfect, by any means, but it's my life. I can't imagine living in China for a full year as Lee and Ike are, or even saying that I would if I didn't have a relationship to go back to like Adam. I don't care if I meet the love of my life here in the next two weeks; if he's not coming back to America, tough crap, man. Because I am, and I'm not looking back.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Help

There is a student in one of my classes who I suspect is gay, though I have no hard evidence. It's just a suspicion. Unfamiliar as I am with the specific tenets espoused by the Communist Chinese government, I don't know to what de jure level this is unacceptable, but I do know that culturally, it is looked down upon. I recognize that the civil rights fight the LGBTQ community in America is in the process of undertaking right now points to the fact that we are not nearly as accepting of all as we like to fool ourselves into believing, but the fact that there even is a fight points to a willingness, on the part of at least some in our culture, to create a place for all. In China, though, homosexuality is shame upon a family, which, given the fact that the vast majority of families have only one child that they hope will be a boy, makes sense; a gay son means the end of the bloodline.

When this student, who we'll call Ryan, came to me and started a discussion last week, I was not surprised. Students here have a willingness to confide in us in a way they never would with their regular teachers. For one thing, we don't yell at them; in general, we're nicer. Secondly, we're gone in three weeks. If students can begin a relationship with us now, they may have a penpal for life with whom they can discuss the parts of their life that are a secret from their friends and family. So, Ryan sidled up and told me he was having trouble with a classmate, and that she was always mean to him.

There is no such thing as bullying here. I mean, there is, but it's not an acknowledged problem. In the same way that a strong female protagonist in a book from the 19th century can be said to not be a feminist solely because such a thing did not exist yet, it can be said that there is no bullying here. I have been greeted with bafflement when reprimanding students to stop beating on a third. Students knock water bottles out of one another's mouths. Upper middle school here is a vaguely Lord of the Flies-esque tableau of unfiltered aggression and jockeying for position. And even if bullying was a part of the Chinese vocabulary, I don't know that that's what's going on; Ryan and this girl may just not get along. So I assured him that, in life, we don't have to like everyone, and certainly not everyone will like us, but we do have to get along. I told him the best thing to do was ignore her, which I hated.

It's the same horrible advice teachers used to give students back in the '80s; it didn't work then, and it probably doesn't now. As far as matters of this ilk are concerned, though, I am out of my depth. I don't know how Chinese students are expected to act with each other; I don't know how much of their nasty behavior is tacitly sanctioned either by the actual teachers or by the construct of the Chinese educational system. Is this what happens when you not only openly rank your students, but make the standings available for all students to see? So given my limited knowledge, I did the best I could.

Ryan, unsatisfied with my answer (I don't blame him), proceeded to tell me that he sometimes feels sad for no reason. I told him that that sort of thing is common, especially with students his age who are under such pressure. He was unsatisfied again, and commented that he used to have a cousin he could talk to about these things, but she had just left for university. Ah, I thought. I see where this is going. I offered him my email address, which he jumped at. I have not heard from him yet, and I don't expect to until I leave, especially if he is gay as I suspect and is going to find a roundabout way of telling me. The lack of immediacy in email is comforting to me, as I will have time to compose my responses after thinking them through. As big a failure I have been to Ryan in terms of guidance here in Fuxin, I think I can be more of a comfort to him when I am gone and he can use me as a sounding board. At any rate, I hope so.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Chinese Wedding

Jamie made a friend at the primary school, Vivian, who introduced us to potato noodles. So great is her love for her "best friend" Jamie that she invited her to her wedding, which was today. Then she invited the rest of us. The boys chose not to go, not wanting to take the focus off Vivian on her day by creating a Circus of Americans, but there was no way on earth I wasn't going to this. I will, in all likelihood, never attend another Chinese wedding, so I jumped at the chance.

Vivian told Jamie that we needed to be at her house at 6:45. Since we've been in China, I haven't even gotten out of bed before 7:30, so this was something of a struggle for me. I ended up not sleeping all night, partly because of the insomnia I suffer from on a regular basis, but partly because I was wound up and terrified I'd sleep through my alarm.

Jamie and I wore "teachery" outfits, since that's all we brought here with us, though I lent her a pair of flats (it's the first time since we've been here that either of us have worn something that isn't sneakers, and it became immediately apparent why - right off the bat I started collecting grit and rocks in my flats. If that happened in STL, I'd likely just take the shoes off and walk in the grass, but in Fuxin, there is no grass, and even if there was, you couldn't pay me enough to walk in it). Turns out, we were among the best-dressed people at the wedding; we saw more than a few people in sweatshirts and jeans. To think we'd fretted over our clothes!

At Vivian's house, we were basically in the way. She wanted us right by her side (and, in fact, kept telling people we were her "best friends," which I found awkward, especially in light of the fact that her actual best friends were there), so we spent a lot of time either being in her wedding photos or dodging our way out of them.


In order to marry Vivian, her fiancé (whose name no one ever told me) had to get into the room by answering questions posed by her friends ("Do you love her?," "Will you take care of her?," etc.). Once in, he had to searchfor her wedding shoes. After he found the first one, I almost started laughing, because I thought he'd found the wrong shoes - I thought for sure he'd picked up a shoe she went out in in her single days, because it was pretty hookery. Nope, though. Those red suede shoes with the ankle buckles are totally the shoes she got married in. After putting them on her, he picked Vivian up and carried her out of her room and presented himself to her mother, which involved giving her a cigarette and lighting it for her.

From Vivian's house, her family, friends, photographers, Jamie, and I embarked upon a procession around the city. We were in the car for about a half hour, during which time I totally fell asleep for about ten minutes. I was glad, though, because I needed even that little bit of sleep since I had no idea how long a Chinese wedding was supposed to last (Google was of no use to me on that front). When we finally stopped, we were outside at Vivian's soon-to-be in-laws' building, where she presented her mother-in-law with the bouquet (and ended up getting it back?) and everyone was showered in confetti.

After that, we took a ride to the new couple's new apartment, which was enormous. This caused no end of speculation on Jamie's and my part, because Vivian is a teacher, and her new husband is a tennis instructor. Their apartment was huge by Chinese standards (unfortunately, I was too busy gawking to get any photos), and we figure the tennis teaching game must pay quite a bit; either that, or the apartment was a wedding gift (usually the bride's family helps set up the household, though, and Vivian's mother is a widow, so I don't know how feasible that premise is). I guess I would feel gauche discussing such things at an American wedding, but in China, people always want to talk about how much money other people make. At the apartment, there were several engagement albums with glass covers (talk about terrified! I was sure I would drop one), and a DVD of the photos the two of them had taken a few weeks ago. These pictures were pretty hilarious: Shots of them in "New York," "on the beach," in a "field of flowers," and craziest of all, they looked like white people. Chinese women are vain about their skin and do their best to keep out of the sun so they don't turn "yellow" or "black," and the retoucher of these photos earned every yuan they paid him. He must have completely eliminated any hint of yellow, because both of them had porcelain white skin.

After we posed with the couple, oohed and ahhed over the albums, and speculated about the apartment, it was time to go to the reception. Well, the reception hall. The wedding hadn't actually taken place yet, and once we got to our table, we probably waited an hour. You can tell it was a while by the pile of peanut and sunflower seed shells parked between our places. We didn't touch anything (soda, rice wine, sunflower seeds, peanuts, food) until someone else at the table did first, not knowing the custom, and there was a little awkwardness when the food was served because, as foreigners, I think we might have been considered honored guests expected to start the table eating.

Finally, the emcee of the event (who had earlier done a hilarious spot for the videographer at Vivian's house), came out and made an announcement. Jamie and I sighed, ready for things to get going, but we had to wait another twenty minutes. Finally, the groom came out and sang a song to his bride. Then she walked down the aisle (er, I mean "runway") and they were married. Instead of kissing, they hugged, which cracked me up. PDA are so frowned-upon here that they don't even kiss in public at their own weddings. After it was official, the two of them sang a duet. Apparently singing is huge at Chinese weddings, because Vivian had told Jamie and me that we were to sing. First off, only Jamie has a good voice; if Vivian had ever heard me sing, she would never have made such a ridiculous request. Secondly, it's not like we walk around knowing all the words to songs that are suitable for weddings. We had both been sick with sore throats all week, though, so we had truthful excuses for why we would not be entering Chinese Wedding Idol.

After the wedding part, food was served. As is usual in China, there was a huge lazy Susan nearly the size of the table, and servers brought out dish after dish after dish. Now, the only bad food I've had in China is, as you might imagine, cafeteria food. Apparently wedding food follows the American tradition as well, because this stuff was not good. It wasn't as bad as the whole turtle and plate of chicken heads we were served at the barbecue restaurant, but it just wasn't great food. We recognized nearly nothing, though we split a huge meatball that wasn't half-bad. Jamie said she was just going to keep telling herself is a meatball because she might be sorry if she started thinking about what, exactly, was in it. Sometimes that's a good strategy in China.

After dinner (lunch? Brunch?), Vivian returned to center stage in her Chinese wedding dress, which is red. She then threw the bouquet. Jamie and I were relieved when she called all her girlfriends up for that part and forgot about us.

Then, it was over. Done. We didn't know it, though we had surmised from the lack of a dance floor that no one would be doing the electric slide, but all the festivities were over. The actual wedding itself, which we had been terrified would take upwards of eight hours, was finished in less than three, food included. I looked around nervously and told Jamie we needed to keep an eye on the door so we could leave as soon as other people started to but not be the first ones out. We agreed that at noon, we'd make a break for it, but by eleven-forty, there was a bottleneck of people at the door leaving. Not wanting to say our goodbyes to Vivian then be stuck there awkwardly, we waited till the exodus died down a little. I had noticed that our area at our table was the only one piled high with sunflower and peanut shells, and as we left, I realized why: People just threw everything on the floor. As we scooted toward the door, my pants, which are a little big on me, dragged through the thin layer of beer, rice wine, and Sprite that covered the floor. I hopped from one foot to the other on the way out, hissing "My pants are wet! My pants are wet!" They were taken off and thrown in the laundry immediately upon entering the compound.

I certainly don't want to say that I find another country's custom's disappointing, but I think the big let-down for me was the fact that most of what happened (hidden shoes and red dress aside) was co-opted from contemporary American weddings. I guess I figured that a four-thousand-year-old culture would have long-standing traditions that would carry on to today, but what I was confronted with instead was a tacky American wedding made tackier by the presence of both a bubble machine and a smoke machine. I guess I'm supposed to appreciate the fact that technology has made our world so much smaller, and in terms of keeping touch with my family, I definitely am, but there is so much of America everywhere in the world it's like there is no wholly indigenous culture anymore. I was relieved to find, though, that the tradition of a ten-course meal (with the highest offense taken if a guest leaves before all the courses are served) has gone by the wayside, since I didn't get any sleep last night. I was ready to go home and take a nap.


Sunday, April 10, 2011

Reflection: Classroom Management

There are many aspects of education that we, as pre-service teachers, regard as universal. We are taught that children learn a certain way, that their development follows a certain (although flexible) pattern, and that certain classroom-management strategies work while others only succeed in creating more chaos.

I am certainly in no position to argue with educational psychologists or neurologists about the functions of the human brain and the paths by which children arrive at conclusions in general, but I am one of the only five people in the College of Education who are student-teaching in China this semester, so I do feel I have at least a little authority on the subject of classroom management.

One thing the students from last year’s cohort warned us about was thinking the students would be like automatons, parroting back our every word and doing precisely as they were told as if they were programmed to do so. It is absolutely true that my Chinese students do not behave in this way, but by and large, they are more obedient. I cannot imagine an American classroom with seventy-five students having the minor classroom-management issues that I’ve had so far.
My biggest problem with my students has been talking, which is to be expected. There are a bunch of seventeen-year-old kids crammed into a room, sitting close to each other, boys next to girls; of course they’re going to get chatty. The Chinese culture does not allow for dating before upper middle school (high school) is over, but regulation can’t stop hormones, and there is a not-insignificant amount of flirting happening each day at school.

When teaching in America and confronted with students who were talking, I stopped the class, sometimes in mid-sentence. It didn’t take long for students to realize that everything had come to a halt because of their lack of attention, and they, chastened, hushed quickly so class could proceed. But in China, my silence is greeted with confusion. I imagine they are wondering why I’m standing there, saying nothing. Here, in order to quiet students down, I have to call them out individually, shush them, or make them stand in front of the classroom. I have never had a situation in America where I’ve had to do any of these things; I cannot imagine the indignation American students would respond with if I treated them that way, but Chinese kids expect it. That’s the way classrooms are managed here. In America, if a teacher shushes a classroom, students get in on the action and start shushing each other, and soon the classroom is a sea of shushes that is even more out-of-control than the original talking. Here, though, it gets students’ attention, and they pipe down.

Teachers yell at students pretty regularly here as well, though I cannot imagine a situation so dire that would require me to do so. I generally subscribe to the belief that anger does not belong in the classroom, though of course, on occasion my emotions have gotten the better of me. The day I wasn’t feeling well and assigned my students to answer questions about their behavior, I did not yell (and not only because my throat hurt); it’s just not in my teaching philosophy to yell. I remember teachers from my own high-school years who yelled, and they were the ones students hated. I don’t need my students to like me, but active hatred doesn’t serve my classroom goals well at all, and yelling only fosters an adversarial relationship between teacher and class. Not at all the sort of community I want to build in my classroom.

I have difficulty remembering to shush in China, and I have a feeling it will be one of those things that I will finally catch on to by the time I leave and carry the bad habit with me to America. Hopefully, though, I can leave the shush in Asia along with the idea that it’s OK to yell at a class of students, and leave my Chinese students with a positive impression of me.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Reflection #8: Crime and Punishment

As a student, I've always hated teachers that yell. It's been a while since I've had one, but the ones who yell are the ones who have zero idea how to handle a classroom. I can be a yeller in everyday life, but in the classroom I've always found that silence and an icy stare usually does the trick.

This isn't a post about my yelling at a class, thank God. At least I can still hold onto that. But I did lay a spectacular guilt trip on them in the form of having to write answers, in English, to three questions. The whole thing made me feel as icky as if I had yelled; I felt like the worst kind of teacher ever.

I'll back up. Suddenly on Thursday, in my three-hour break between morning and afternoon classes, I started feeling sick. All the energy seemed to drain from my body, and my throat went from slightly scratchy to full-on sore (I'd been raspy all day). I asked Li An if I could go home and teach my afternoon classes the next day, and she was agreeable, but that also involved having the head teachers keep an eye on the kids for that time, and I wasn't dying, so I didn't see the point in making someone else do my work.

I went to my first class, and with 75 kids, while I don't have to yell, I have to do some projecting. They quieted down quickly and I explained that I didn't feel well so I couldn't be as loud as I normally was, and that I needed them to be quiet so they could hear me, and I'd appreciate if they worked hard, and volunteered when I needed helpers. The whole class nodded, solemn, as if I'd set them on a quest instead of just asking for a little courtesy. They were angels, too, as if their good behavior could cure me. I thanked them and proceeded to my next class.

These kids would barely calm down enough for me to deliver my plea for pity. The funny thing is, I'd never had a bit of trouble from them before, probably because rowdy usually suits my teaching style and I'd never asked them to be quiet. Last weekend, when we were in Shenyang, Jim Garrison told me that they had been his problem class, and I laughed; I don't know if I was projecting what he had said on them, but I was in no mood to trifle.

I made it through the first ten minutes of my forty-minute lesson, at which point I asked for a volunteer. Oh they all shut up then. I couldn't even get Future and Shirley, the girls who took Jamie and me to People's Park, to make eye contact. When I told Lee the story later, he asked why I didn't just choose someone. The only answer was, "I was not in the mood to coax."

Instead, I had them all take out pieces of paper upon which they were to answer three questions: Why is sympathy important?, Why is obedience important?, and How do you like people to treat you when you're sick?

Now, two days later, I can laugh at those questions. Why didn't I just ask them "Why are you the worst class ever, why do you hate me, and don't you just feel terrible?" At the time, though, I felt fully justified, and about half my students set to work. The other half were divided between staring me down and being asleep, but I didn't care; I wasn't trying to talk over them anymore.

I laid it on pretty thick, too, telling them they could stop writing and explaining that I had had a fun lesson planned that all the other classes really enjoyed, but now they didn't get to do it. When I got home, I read the answers; the exercise went over some kids' heads, but others were practically distraught, berating themselves for not being more respectful of me. I know some people think these kids are automatons, prepared to act only upon my command, but they're kids. They're jerks sometimes, just like adults. The big difference between Chinese teenagers and their American counterparts is that, while the American kids may have felt bad, they probably wouldn't have confessed it. They would have answered the questions as simply as possible and turned them in. So in this way, the Chinese kids turned the guilt trip around on me. Kudos to them, because I felt like a giant jerk, which was worse than feeling ill.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Reflection #7: Effective Parts of Chinese Education

The first day I taught, I arrived at the gate to find thousands of Chinese high-school-aged children marching around the track in front of the school. On a command from a woman at the main doors of the school, the students stopped marching and broke into a measured run, stepping in unison. My eyes widened and I nearly dropped my computer bag. Every few rows, another student ran alongside, shouting orders (judging by the tempo, it was "Left! left! Left, right, left!"). This, I thought, is why people are afraid of the Chinese military. Or if they aren't, this is why they should be. These kids were clearly involved in some kind of compulsory pre-draft test of military obedience.

Every day at my arrival, I observed this spectacle, and sometimes again when I left. About a week later, as I was getting ready to leave the English office for my first class, Ike and Lee came into the room, breathing heavily. "We ran with the kids!" they announced.

"You can do that?"

"Yeah!"

"Huh." I wouldn't have thought they would be allowed to take part in something that seemed like training. It became slowly apparent, though, that the students, while obeying orders, weren't being groomed for lives of military service, but rather taking part in a short burst of physical activity for its own sake. And I was relieved to discover this.

The kids have a school day better than twelve hours long, which sounds downright torturous. However, unlike their American counterparts, they have a lunch break that's nearly an hour and a half long (enough time for them to go home and have a meal). They also have the fifteen-minute runs twice a day, and a daily physical education class. So while they still spend more time in class than American kids, it's not as bad as it seems at first blush.

They're given ample time to expend their extra energy (whether they like it or not!) and I think this eliminates a lot of the restlessness and boredom present in American classrooms. When I was in grade school, we had PE two days a week, and until 5th grade, two recesses (after that, just one recess). In high school, we had PE every day for just one year (it was a two-semester required course), but after that, nothing. I still have students occasionally falling asleep in class, but one out of a class of 75 isn't bad at all (especially considering that they do have a long day, plus homework), and there seems to be less spacing out in general. I spent a lot of time in my high school classes looking out the window, especially in spring, wishing I was out in the nice weather. The kids at Fuxin Experimental School don't have to wait too long for that wish to come true, though I must admit my daydreaming rarely involved regimented jogs.

There is a big focus in China on physical fitness (accompanied, hilariously, by a nationwide nicotine habit), and that is evident in the students' twice-daily march/jogs. They don't terrify me as they used to, especially considering students often wave and shout "Hallo, Teacher!" at me while they run along. I think it's a great practice, and a way to break up the school day so students aren't dropping like flies from post-lunch lethargy.