Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Next destination: Changsha

TEFL training, and along with it, orientation to the teaching fellowship in the Yale-China Association, is over. Tonight, the eight first-year teachers will separate, everyone to his or her site: two to Xiuning, four to Changsha, and two here in Hong Kong.

My destination, of course, is Yali Middle School in Changsha, Hunan. The emotions running through me are complex, to a point where I am unable to describe them myself. After two weeks of mentally tasking training in Hong Kong, I feel a real excitement to get there, meet my students, and begin this journey already. The excitement I feel now is more intense than what I felt at graduation and more on par with the energy running through me the first time I stepped on the Yale campus, as a freshman.

At the same time, I can't deny that a part of me is extremely nervous. How will the students receive me? What can I offer them? How do I survive in China for two years? The questions are endless.

I am very fortunate though, because I have the most supportive and caring staff at Yale-China Association, both in HK and back in New Haven. They are so knowledgeable and helpful, and will definitely be an avenue I frequently cross for both practical advice on teaching methods to more abstract issues, reflection, and finding what kind of teacher I want to be.

Also, the other teaching fellows, both first-years and second years, are some of the most passionate people I've come across, and I don't doubt I will be turning to them for ideas and support.

And lastly, I am fortunate to have such supportive family members. Which parents would let their child go away for four years, and then, without much complaint, for another two? Mom and dad: I promise I will come home, sooner or later! Siblings: Apologies for having to leave so many family stuff for you guys to take care of. I will pick up my share in the future, I promise. Miss all of you!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Killer Cuttle Fish!!!

On a completely random note, I posted a video I took on Lamma Island, feeding shrimp to cuttle fish. I did not know what cuttle fish were before this, but this image will be permanently etched into my brain. Jump to the 0:27 mark to see the action, with slow-mo following.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

One Day in Hong Kong

Chrissy was kind enough to schedule in a free day yesterday for the teaching fellows, a nice break from the 9-5 daily grind. Wanting to squeeze everything I can out of this one day, I woke up at 5:30am to see the sunrise from the roof of my building.

Then, Doug, Aaron and I hopped onto the earliest ferry out to Lamma Island, a world so different from Hong Kong proper. Absolutely gorgeous scenery, a small and intimate beach with warm water and "shark nets," exotic tropical flowers, giant bees with aggressive splotches of orange and even bigger spiders, towering banana trees, and rocky cliff sides--what many would consider to be paradise. I spent most of the day hiking around this island, laying out on the beach, and eating very very well.

However, there was just one thing about this island that created a bit of confusion in my mind, which is this ungodly big coal power plant. On one side of the beach, I could see islands lined up along the horizon, with mostly smooth hills and an occasional peak. Shift your eyes to the right side, however, and you would be unsubtly awakened, slapped in the face by the man. Very bizarre juxtaposition indeed. Why would anyone build anything so grotesque on such a beautiful island?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Sleeping by the Polar Bear

The long train ride from Beijing to Shenzhen was not without excitement--a lost ticket here and a broken rib there.* However, those episodes will probably fade from my memory before long, because even though they seem like crazy happenings, they never came up really in conversation or affected the mood after the fact. Instead, the trip was more notable for other things. I finished reading The Color Purple, undoubtedly one of the most emotionally intense novels I've ever read. The main character of the story suffers so much misery and so much tragedy--rape, lost children and sister, beatings, deaths-- and yet she is able to find love and happiness in so many different ways--in another woman, in God, in her belief that she will be reunited with her sister and children one day. It is the way I would like to live, I think.

Another major part of the trip, and probably more significantly, was getting to hang out with the other four mainland Yale-China fellows. Since our first orientation in May, I feel like we are getting to know one another better and better. This summer, I saw how each one of us tackled the language program and the city of Beijing from different angles: one fellow studied Chinese with a passion and ended winning the most 努力 (nuli, or hard-working) student award, one immersed herself in the ultimate frisbee summer league, led her team to a championship, and won the Spirit Award. As for me, I did a little of both, but I ended up putting most of my time working at an environmental NGO. I think that really reflects our individual personalities, values, passions, and preferences. The train ride at the end, in a way, pulled us back together and re-focused our attention back on our common goal--to be the best English teachers we can be in China.

Anyhoo, we are now in Hong Kong, with already two days of teacher training behind us. It has been fast-paced, but Director Chrissy makes all the exercises fun and exciting, playing lots of games, some role-playing, some brainstorming, basically utilizing all the teaching tools we should learn and apply for ourselves. I will give an update on the training in a dedicated post later, but I leave you with a picture of an infinity pool right by my residential building.

Polar bear... no ice... tropical weather... What's the artist's point? Hm...... Meh, it is truly a beautiful installation.

* One fellow lost a ticket only moments after entering the station. This caused much stress in the group, but it actually was pretty easy (but extremely expensive) to solve. Got on the train in the hard-seater section (standing room only), waited for them to verify that no one was on the booked cot, and purchased a replacement ticket at the same cost of the original.

And regarding the broken rib, another fellow fell off the top bunk in our cabin (literally a 10-foot drop), bounced off the middle bunk, slammed into the table, before landing on the floor with a big thud. Everyone stared.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Hong Kong!

Summer 2010 is officially over! I took my last oral exam this morning, attended a graduation banquet, and now I head to the train station, anxious to begin my 24-hour trek to Shenzhen and Hong Kong.

I leave you with a picture I took in Tianjin earlier this month.

See you in Hong Kong.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

On Chinese Idioms, or chengyu

As any intermediate and up Chinese speaker would know, the Chinese language is filled with these idioms called chengyu (成语), basically where four characters--individually insignificant--are placed together to express something much more. The more advanced a student of Chinese becomes, the more frequent chengyu appears in his or her textbooks. And, at the risk of over-simplifying the dynamics of Chinese academic writing, the more chengyu a writer is able to incorporate into his or her own writing, the more likely the work will be well-regarded or graded highly.

A friendly waitress at a restaurant I frequent explained it like this: "When you write an essay, you should fill it up with chengyu, especially in the opening paragraph, as to leave a wonderful taste with the reader." When asked if it isn't sometimes better to use one's own expressions, she confidently replied, "No, because history and society have already established these phrases to be most appropriate. Our own words won't be as good."

These chengyu range the entire gamut of human literary expression; whatever you want to express, there is a chengyu for you. How do you describe a person who unwaveringly dedicated his or her entire life to a lover? 从一而终 (congyi er zhong). To "compare apples and oranges" (yes, I know, an English idiom) is to 一概而论 (yigai er lun). A stingy person? 一毛不拔 (yimao bu ba) or literally, a person who won't even "pluck a hair for you."

Why do I discuss chengyu here? I will not deny it: they have been a thorn in my thigh ever since I began my second semester of Chinese. Each chapter of my textbook contains a number of chengyu for me to memorize, and as all my close friends and family members know, my memory is not the sharpest. Thus, for me, memorizing chengyu has been the most difficult part of learning Chinese. I readily admit to this; you can be the judge of my bias.

I wanted to talk a little about chengyu also because I think there is something about the ubiquity of idioms in Chinese writing and what that says about the Chinese language and mentality.

I believe studying chengyu is definitely worthwhile, but more for historical and cultural understanding than for literary necessity. For example, one of my favorite chengyu is 东施效颦 (dongshi xiaopin). The first two characters, 东施, refers to an extremely ugly female figure in Chinese literature. Her counterpart, 西施 (xishi), is perhaps the most beautiful female figure. In this story, 西施 fell ill one day but did so looking just stunning. Seeing this, 东施 thought this was a way to become beautiful, and fell ill herself. Of course, she remained hideous. Thus, this chengyu is often used to describe someone who imitates another person and fails miserably. By learning this chengyu, you get a small glimpse into a fascinating part of China--its folklore.

I don't think it would be too harsh or unfair to say that chengyu restricts imagination and self-expressions to a certain extent. Why describe the brilliant colors of autumn trees when you can sum it up with 五颜六色 (wuyan liuse, or "five or six colors")? How would you describe the type of person who flies in private luxury planes, goes to the Maldives for a weekend outing, and wraps a Benjamin around his or her cigar before smoking it? 挥金如土 (huijin rutu). The educated Chinese would know these idioms (migrant workers, village residents, etc, are a different story), and they were all taught that chengyu and the words of Chinese literary giants cannot be bested.

I'm not saying that chengyu should be completely banned; it would be extremely foolish and an unimaginable loss to the language. However, contemporary writers and students of Chinese, at times, should be encouraged to select the new and innovative over the old and common. In class, when I use two or more sentences to express my thoughts, my teacher likes to interrupt and suggest a chengyu of similar meaning. Even the idea of creating new chengyu is frowned upon. Sometimes, I use the basic structure of an existing chengyu to make my own; the teacher would furrow her eyebrows and say something along the lines of, "I've never heard that before. Doesn't exist, don't use it." So what if it doesn't exist now? It can only exist if someone creates it, right? And all chengyu has to start somewhere.

What I am advocating is actually not that radical: Hu Shih, a prominent intellectual and writer in China's transition from the Qing Dynasty to a Republic, discouraged using the words of generations past and instead, stressed the importance of living in the tendencies of today. A guest lecturer to my class agreed, saying that you should use your own words if you able to do so clearly and accurately. Unfortunately, I don't think reality and expectations are yet in line with this opinion.

Of course, these are just some undercooked thoughts of mine, hastily jotted down in a blog post, and I won't even pretend they do justice to a literary tool that is older than most nations today. It is definitely something I think about a lot though, especially when cramming for tests. Foreigners are often quick with their criticisms, without much thought beforehand.

人各有见 (renge youjian)--to each his opinion.

Monday, August 2, 2010

"Little Japanese girls running"

Laoshi: "趋之若鹜 (quzhi ruowu) describes going after something with very tiny but very quick steps. Like a flock of wild ducks going after food. Or little Japanese girls running."

Me: "What does that have to do with Japanese girls?"

Laoshi: "Because that's how little Japanese girls run."

Me: "Oh..."