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?"


"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.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Reflection #6: Avoidance Maneuvers

This week, each of us was to do something we'd been avoiding. I know of three things I've been actively avoiding, and two I was willing to do something about (sorry, Dr. Westhoff, only if it's an absolute emergency will I use a squat toilet): Speaking at least a little of the language, and cooking.

I promised myself I'd learn at least one new phrase each day this week. Once I embarked upon this undertaking, though, I had flashbacks to trying to learn Mandarin via computer program: The crying, the difficulty of working on my phrases even ten minutes at a time, the arduous hours of work I put into learning the few phrases I do know. A phrase a day just wasn't feasible. I ended up mastering "I speak a little Mandarin" and "Wow!" At least now I have something to say to the taxi drivers who just start talking when I get in ("I speak a little Mandarin," that is, not "wow!" though that could be just as useful, considering driving practices in China). I plan to build on that, though, it's just going to take me some time. By the time I leave, I might be able to have a carefully choreographed conversation with someone else.

Which brings us to cooking. We've eaten out a lot. I've changed a lot of my behaviors here in China (mostly out of necessity, but that's OK - if I can break some bad habits because I have no choice, hey, they're still broken), but it takes a lot more than a different hemisphere to change who a person is fundamentally. I'm still me, I'm totally OK with me, and I'm just not much of a cook. By and large, when I take it upon myself to make something, I do a pretty good job, but it's not something I enjoy doing, and I avoid it when I can.

I wasn't necessarily avoiding cooking because we were in China, but that does add an element of difficulty. Cooking anything I would normally make at home is nearly impossible (even with the bags of tomato sauce I found at the grocery store, and the noodles that are everywhere, spaghetti is out of the question, since the requisite spices are at least one continent away), so my only other choice is Chinese food. One thing we haven't had since we got to Fuxin (if only because we don't know the words, so they're tough to order) is egg-and-tomato dumplings. Which are exactly what they sound like - tomato and scrambled egg inside dumplings. So I took it upon myself to make these for dinner one night. Jamie joined me in both my effort to embrace cooking for this week and my disgust for squat toilets. We were cooks. We would cook.

We went to the market, cameras in hand, for our adventure. I had looked up the words for everything we needed online, and written them down in pinyin Chinese. Except with Mandarin being a tonal language and all, no one understood a word I said. We did a lot of pointing and holding up fingers, which worked pretty well until we got to the flour lady. I pointed to the bag of flour (labeled, mercilessly, in English), pointed to the half scoop of something she was holding in her hand, and signaled that I wanted two of those. Except instead of giving me two half-scoops, she gave me two whole scoops. We have a lot of flour now and are considering making pancakes with the extra.

I looked up dumpling recipes online, and found out that the dough is really simple, which of course means it's also extremely complicated. Without proper measuring implements, I had to eyeball the water-and-flour mixture, and I think I did OK-ish. I couldn't get the dough as thin as it is in restaurants, and where I did manage it, the dumplings burst. They ended up a lot doughier than I wanted, and I thought they were bland, although everyone else said they were good. Jamie gets credit for the fact that only one exploded in the boiling process, because I'm not a great sealer; she went back through and made sure all the dumplings were properly closed up (the one that did explode did so because of a weak spot in the middle of the dough).

The process was simple enough, but time-consuming. It took us nearly two hours from beginning to end, probably because I insisted on having minced garlic, and since I couldn't find a jar in the store, I minced my own, by hand, with a knife. A pain, to be sure, but it was worth it to me.

Overall, I think the endeavor was pretty successful. We have four bulbs of garlic left, two extra tomatoes, and I threw a bunch of green onion out (you have to buy those in enormous bunches). Considering Jamie and I figure our obligation fulfilled, I doubt anyone will use any of the leftover ingredients; they'll probably get thrown out.

I might make dumplings again when I'm back home, but all the things that I dislike about cooking are magnified 10x in China, due to the language barrier. I cooked in China, I'm glad I did it, but I'm never going to do it again.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Reflection #5 - Culture Shock

In Beijing, I was startled by the traffic: the number of bicyclists willing to ride right in front of oncoming vehicles, the acceptance of stop lights as suggestions rather than directives, the sheer number of cars. Then again, I was in the very back of our bus, unable to see 90% of the close calls we encountered. So when we got to Fuxin, and most of my traffic experiences started being from the front seat of a taxi, "startled" turned into "crossing my legs so I didn't pee my pants in fear."

I have perfected the art of going limp, my reasoning being that in most drunk-driving accidents, the person who is drunk generally comes away relatively unscathed, compared to the people who are aware of what is coming and are tensed up in fear. I can't close my eyes, though, because I'll almost certainly never be back in China, so I'll never see traffic jams comprised of taxis, buses, bicycles, pedestrians, and pedicabs (trust me, the pedicabs in Fuxin are nowhere near as classy - they're basically a bike with a couch on a trailer behind it and all wrapped in Saran Wrap).

When we cross the street here, we make sure both ways are clear, then we scram! We're not waiting around for a city bus to come bearing down on us, honking its horn and narrowly missing our pedestrian butts. Because the thing is, they won't hit us. No one ever hits pedestrians. A cab will swerve to miss someone, forcing everyone else on the road to create brand-new lanes of traffic. Everyone will honk at everyone else, and everyone will ignore everyone else's horns, their faces impassive as if they're thinking of what to make for dinner.

Three cars will make a left-hand turn onto the same street at the same time, and somehow no one hits anyone else, which is nothing short of a miracle, considering all the taxis are at least 15 years old, and none of them have had their brakes, shocks, alignment, or transmissions checked since they rolled off the line.

People here drive on the sidewalks, so I don't know if you can actually call them sidewalks. It's legal to park there, too. The cars have seatbelts, at least in the front seat, but no one uses them and in fact, Dr. Westhoff got reprimanded by a cab driver for trying to put hers on one day.

Our first day in Fuxin, Ms. Chen took us to the New Mart, and I rode in the car driven by her husband, a police officer. With Ms. Chen acting as translator, he asked us questions about traffic in America, and how many accidents there are. He was shocked when we told him there was usually a major accident every day in St. Louis; I was shocked that there wasn't one every hour in Fuxin. I told him that in America, we only use our horns when someone hasn't noticed a red light has changed, or if we're angry. Also, if someone honks their horn at us, we become automatically angry.

And then I dropped the stop-sign bomb on him. I explained stop signs to Ms. Chen, who asked, before even blowing her husband's mind with the new information, "What if there are no other cars there?"

"You still stop."

Pause. "How long?"

"Three seconds."

"If there are no cars there?"

"You still stop."

Silence. Then she relayed the information to her husband, who expressed similar disbelief.

"What happens if you do not stop?"

"You get a ticket."


"You get in trouble with a police officer."

Much more rapid-fire Mandarin.

Having been in China for three weeks now, I can appreciate their disbelief - driving in China and driving in the US are two entirely different animals. Every day I get into a car, I'm sure it'll be my last day on earth. I've often uttered the half-joking prayer, "Dear Baby Jesus: Please do not let me die in a cab in China." But Fuxin has more people than the St. Louis Metropolitan Area, and apparently accidents are a rarity, so I should just chill out.

Yeah right. I think I'll just keep white-knuckling the door handle and trying to go limp.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Reflection #4

I know this happens to teachers all the time, I just didn't anticipate it happening in my second week, and with such a fun lesson!

Many of my students responded in their surveys that they wanted to learn about the lives of American students. So I created a lesson where, the first half, they learn how real high-schoolers talk (minus the "like," which I am guilty of). Basically, saying things like "Hey" and "Hi" instead of "Hello," asking "What's up?" and not saying "Bye-bye." Let me tell you, nothing gets 70 17-year-olds to never say "bye-bye" again like telling them that in America, only babies say it. I don't know where they all learn this, but they do it, and I don't care, but I feel like it's my job to inform them that they sound like 2-year-olds. After I teach them different greetings and all that good stuff, they practice with each other, then I ask for brave volunteers to come up and have a conversation with me (with the Powerpoint slides still up for reference).

In the midst of all this, we do a ton of pronunciation work (changing "gir" to "girl," "wuk" to "work," for instance. Plus, they have a tendency to say "s" for "th," as in "How are sings wis you?"). They feel incredibly silly sticking their tongues out to get the proper "th" sound, and I think they think I'm screwing with them when I tell them people really do greet each other, "Hey, girl!" Overall, though, they love it. With the time leftover, I go over the high-school structure and give the highlights of each year. The girls, as you might imagine, love the idea of prom.

But today, my first class was just aggravating as all get out. Normally, in a class of 60-70, I'll have one sleeper and one kid who is reading. I generally let it slide, because they aren't distracting, and I'm not grading them on this. I'm an extra class. I won't get into a power struggle in a situation where I have no actual power. Today, though, at least 5 kids were asleep - full on, lying back in their chairs, mouths open, OUT. Part of me feels sorry for them - going to school for better than 12 hours a day must totally take it out of you, even if there are breaks for marching/running. The other part of me wants to shake them and point out what an opportunity it is for them that I'm there. Not me in particular; I fancy myself a good teacher, but it's not like I'm striding in telling them that they're so lucky to have me. It's the fact that they have a native speaker in what is pretty much the global language. I may not like the linguistic colonialism that puts English in the mouths of nearly every country on Earth, but it's a fact that English is a prestige language in China, and the presence of a native speaker is something very few Chinese students get.

Then there are the readers. Usually the kids with the comic books try to be discreet and hide the book behind a pile of school books on their desk. Today, though, I had several, and they were sprawled across their desks, completely not giving a crap. Then the rest of the class just sat there, staring at me. I'm used to this sort of thing from American kids on warm Friday afternoons, or the day before Christmas vacation starts, but so far (even with this same class) I hadn't gotten any such behavior from Chinese kids, and I hadn't anticipated that I would. I felt like someone had pumped them full of Benadryl before I got there to see what I would do.

There's usually one kid in each class who's a bit of a do-bee, but if there was one today, she was asleep. The do-bees get on my nerves quickly, but I'm always grateful for them. I wonder if I could pay my BFF Peter to join this class as well as the one he's actually taking with me.

The fact is, there will be classes like this. My second class today was great, and all the rest of the ones this week have gone really well. I'm going to guess it's not me, at least not this time. I'm not above taking responsibility for making my classes interesting, but sometimes you get a group of kids with a crappy attitude, even in Communist China, where I think they're required by law to be enthusiastic.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Reflection #3

Today, all of us except for Lee (who had to teach at 7 am on a Sunday - my first instinct is to laugh, but I also know that there but for the grace and all that jazz) went to New Mart (the small one - I don't think I can handle Fuxin's idea of a mall again any time soon) then to the actual market. I don't know what to call it, except "the market." Lee calls it the flea market, but I don't know if that lines up with my perception.

At any rate, we decided to walk from New Mart to the market, and on the way there, one of my students called out to me, "Miss Olive!" I recognized him, but with approximately 900 students and no formal introductions, names are rough right now. I introduced the other teachers to him and asked him his name. Fortunately, he told me his English name, Ben, because half the time I can't pronounce the Mandarin names and am probably calling them "cow belly" or something. He walked his bike alongside us and followed us to the market. Ike asked him where he was going, and he responded, "With you!" This is a huge cultural difference I hadn't anticipated - even if the coolest teacher in all the land rolled up to an American high school on the sweetest motorcycle ever made, you would be hard-pressed to find a student willing to go shopping with that teacher. In fact, such behavior would probably bring up questions. But here, it's a pretty big honor for Ben to help us out. He didn't want to leave us, either; we kept looking out the cab window at him, standing on the sidewalk, waving goodbye.

At 4, I had an appointment to go "for a walk" with two of my students, so I took Jamie with me. Despite Chinese protocol, I felt better having someone with me; there's too much American in me who's afraid of being alone with students and accusations and talk. The girls were agreeable, though, and they were disappointed to find out that I only had an hour and a half allotted to them. I had no idea they had anything planned, but they ended up taking us to the small rinky-dink amusement park. We played a shooting game, then went rollerblading (so, yes, there is video out there of me on rollerblades). It's my best day in China so far, all thanks to my awesome students. I know as a teacher in America, I will have great days with my students, but I can guarantee they won't involve shopping and rollerblading. It's a cultural difference I appreciate very much right now, and one I will miss when I'm gone.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Reflection #2

I had a disagreement with Ike the other night about our goal here in China. I'm still not clear on what he aims to teach these kids or why, but for me, the objective is clear: Every single one of these kids, despite their indoctrination, is dying to get out of China and come to the US, at least for a while, and I am here to help them do that. They don't have access to a ton of information about us or how we live, so I want to teach them the cultural stuff no one teaches you about: what it's like to go out to dinner; how to end a conversation gracefully and politely (if anyone knows the answer to that, let me in, will ya?); how to interpret nonverbal social cues; what to do at a party; what to do in more formal settings; what we actually say in the US, and what we don't.

I only have 10 weeks, and I'm too much of a realist to think I'll get through every single one of these topics to my satisfaction. That's OK, though, because I'm going in with a dopey-eyed sense of optimism; I can't stand when people say that if they touch just one person's life, it'll be worth it. I want to help every single one of these kids realize their dreams of going to the US, and make that transition easy. Where's the success fulcrum? I don't know. As a teacher, do you ever really know how successful you are?

As pre-service teachers, we keep hearing that half of us will have quit the profession in five years, due to "burnout." I think burnout can probably be attributed to never really getting any solid feedback. In nearly every other job, you know exactly where you stand in terms of performance, but in teaching, you never get straightforward feedback, and that can be frustrating. I'll let you know in May whether or not I feel like I was successful in my endeavor here.