Thursday, September 30, 2010

Back in the U.S. of A.

Early Wednesday morning, after being in China since early June, I made my return back to the States!

These last few days have been a whirlwind of fun and stress--hiking with 30-40 students, the Moon Festival, Orange Island Music Festival, friends visiting from Shanghai, hot springs, birthdays...

I won't bore you with every detail, but here's a rundown of my birthday and the hike!

23rd Birthday
This was the first time celebrating my birthday in China (not counting when I was just a baby, of course), so I really didn't know what to expect.

Well, it was quite special.

Students brought me small gifts, from very pretty handmade cards to delicious, fruit-covered birthday cakes (four cakes total that day...). There was a surprise dinner, where everyone who had convinced me they couldn't make it (overtime at work, dinner with faculty, teaching duties, train ride to Beijing, blah blah) actually made it. There was a song, on a big stage in the middle of the busiest pedestrian street in Changsha, where the three other Yali fellows belted out song and danced. And, there was Dr. Zhivago, a beautiful turtle, about three inches long, who has a eating disorder and likes to bath in the warm sunlight (or the yellow light of my table lamp).

Thank you, everyone, for making it a day I will really remember. And thank you--Jason, Chacey, Chris--for putting everything together that day, and for making the last couple months so welcoming and reassuring.

The Hike
Buzz about the hike with Mr. C and Ms. Bryan began a week before the actual date of the event. Students running around, asking each other if they were going to go, running to me and Chacey, asking if we had finalized the date, time, and meeting location. Speculation ran wild: more than 50--no, 100! no, 200!--students were planning to join! Aiya! Fortunately, a very manageable 30-40 students actually showed up, probably due to the fact that we met very early in the morning on the day of the Moon Festival and the clouds threatened a torrential downpour. Despite the forecast, the students, Chacey and I powered up the Yuelu Mountain, the tallest peak in the city (but still only at a measly 300 meters). We sang camp songs that Chacey knew (I didn't know any, never went to camp...), ate one of my birthday cakes, and when we got to the peak, played a few glorious games of Ninja (if you don't know it, um, you're missing out).

Windy hike (Photo courtesy of Chacey)

We didn't get back from the hike until late in the afternoon (poor students, they still had homework to do). Chacey and I passed out right away, and didn't wake up until we heard the jarring sounds of fireworks, signaling the festival's end. Our attempt to salvage our own festivities were foiled when we arrived to locked gates at the Ferris wheel.

Four months is the longest single span of time I've ever spent in China, but this trip back to the U.S. still caught me slightly off guard--I hadn't expected to get to come back until next summer, at the earliest. It's rather strange: because I was mentally prepared for the latter, I hadn't allowed myself to miss anything about the U.S. I had thought that my first trip back to the U.S. would come at a time where the stress from the contradictions of Chinese society, the oppressive restrictions from the government, the pollution, the traffic, and the many other senseless aspects of living in China would outweigh the pleasures of the delicious foods, the wonderful friends, the eager students, and my fellow fellows' company. Returning home would act as a necessary therapeutic recharge. Not like this, anyhow, where I am still going strong, loving the steep learning curve, adapting to the culture, and figuring out the layout the city.

However, by no means am I complaining. It is a free trip back home. I will be able to see my mom and grandmother, along with some of my best friends from college. I will get to see Yale before the temperamental Winter wrecks havoc on Yale's beautiful courtyards. I will be able to get a haircut from Yosef at Port Authority, and afterward, schmooze with the former fellows, alumni and associates who served Yale-China through the last 100 hundred years.

The M&M Burger at Rare Steakhouse, NYC -- a wonderful welcome back!

Let the fun commence!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Right around the corner...

is the Mid-Autumn's Festival!

As gifts for this holiday, Yali Middle School was kind enough to give each of the foreign teachers:
  • 2 gallons of cooking oil
  • 25 lbs of rice
  • 1 big box of mooncake
So now, as a household, we have 8 gallons of cooking oil, 100 lbs of rice, and 4 big boxes of mooncake (not counting the many more that will surely come from other sources).

The students tried to explain how the tradition of eating mooncake started. Of course, when first asked, they give the same explanation as they do for everything else: "It is just part of Chinese culture, and has existed throughout China's five thousand year long history."

With further prodding, there were murmurs of some woman (goddess?) on the moon and a rabbit (I think...?). Nothing I could really make sense of.

But no worries, there is always Wikipedia.

In other news, here is a video clip I took of the daily morning exercises at Yali. Some of the kids are pretty good at it, but most of them look like they are just going through the motions, wondering why they have to do such silly things.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Wandering aimlessly on a Saturday evening...

and the few photographs that resulted.

Very colorful writing on the streets of Changsha

Woman cooking off a small street only a few minutes' walk from a popular pedestrian street.

Girls reading in an ATM booth, Chris reflected in the window.

That looks like a delicious Oreo.

An Extracurricular Bazaar... in Changsha???

Yesterday, Yali had its extracurricular bazaar, and oh my gosh, it was madness!

Photography club, environmental club, anime club, broadcasting club, Model UN, English Society, English magazine, break dancing, music clubs, astronomy club, art club, and so many more! Honestly, there was no difference between what happens at Yale every Fall and what happened here at Yali yesterday. Student leaders screaming, playing drums, dressed up as anime characters... complete with blue "Yali" t-shirts, I felt transported back to the Have for the annual Fall Extracurricular Bazaar.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Arise! All who refuse to be slaves!

With those words, from the Chinese national anthem "March of the Volunteers", Yali Middle School began a new year.

The last two weeks in Changsha has been a whirlwind between getting my apartment to resemble a livable space, preparing lessons for class, attending banquets after banquets with school and community leaders (each time getting schwasted with Chinese 白酒 (bai jiu), aka the most disgusting liquor in the world), and meeting new friends.

The Job

Before starting work, I was concerned that the fact I am Chinese-American would expose me to unfavorable reactions from the teachers and students. I've found the students to be mostly curious, some not really able to comprehend how I can be both Chinese ethnically and American. Rather harmless. The teachers are a bit more straightforward with their preferences, often ignoring me to talk to the "real" foreigners. I am interested in how the teachers will respond to me when my class for them begins. Anyway, after a full week, I am happy to say that most of the questions and suspicions over my foreignness have mostly died away (I am ashamed to admit that at times, I've had to "dumb down" my Chinese just to appear more foreign; the constant need to convince people is tiring). Unfortunately, it has been replaced with suspicion that I am not old enough to be a teacher. Ahhh, the pains of looking youthful.

I am currently only teaching three English classes, so my class load is actually pretty light. I meet each class three times a week, for a total of nine hours. However, my responsibilities also include a separate class for the local English teachers, college counseling for seniors, Improv Club, English Society, English magazine called Wings, Photography Club (hopefully!), Library Hour, office hours, a musical (thinking about doing the Lion King!) and a couple other things. Yeah... so my week is (will be) quite hectic. That said, all of these activities are really fun, and I haven't felt drained or burned out at all (yet...).

The students here at Yali are exceptional. I find them motivated and, more importantly, genuinely interested in learning English and exploring Western culture. The fellows host Library Hour every day, where students can come to the English Library and converse with us. Twenty minutes before this even begins, students begin lining up. By the time we arrive, there are over a hundred students waiting. This hour is always during their break time; they have the option to do whatever they want--nap, play, eat--and they choose to come to the Library Hour. The majority of the students who show up to Library Hour are not even students in our classes! Would this happen in the States?

That said, my students are the best students at Yali, and Yali is widely considered to be the best school in Hunan. So, it can be argued that my students are some of the brightest in Hunan!

We discuss so many different things, from my opinions of China to differences in education systems in China and the USA. They ask about Lady Gaga, they ask me to sing Chinese songs. They are like sponges, hanging on to every word.

Among my students in my class, I already have a few favorites:

  • MW asked me what I thought Shakespeare was trying to say in his play "Merchant of Venice." I had to tell her that since I have not read the play yet, I did not know, but that I will read it soon so that we can discuss it. She even texted to remind me. Homework.
  • SL comes to Library Hour everyday, and her English is phenomenal. A quiet-spoken girl who digs country music, Sunny asked me if she could spend the weekends in the English Library. As much as I wish I could let her, the entire building is locked over the weekends. It was heartbreaking to say no to her. I think I may invite her to the fellows' apartments, where the book collection has grown over the past hundred years.
  • CP is a tiny tiny boy with big glasses. The first day, he squeaked his name and I thought he said "Sarah." So, I called him Sarah for the rest of the day, and the poor kid was too shy to correct me.

This is the first time teaching for me, and everyday, every lesson is a learning experience. How to time-manage realistically, how to balance the necessity to slow the tempo of my speech against the benefits of exposing them to more realistic, natural conversations. How to engage everyone, including the few seated at the back of the room, whose eyes occasionally glaze over with boredom or incomprehension. I am learning that, even though I long badly for it, I don't really need to win over the students' acceptance with jokes or the typical antics usually tied to foreign teachers in China. My friend Sam nailed it when he called teaching "all-consuming." Whenever I have free time, my thoughts are tied up in lesson planning, teaching strategies, and the students themselves. The students' expectations for themselves are as high as mine, if not higher, and I want my classes to be conducive for them reaching these lofty goals.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Wonderful students

In a conversation yesterday with students, I mentioned that my favorite fruits in China were 龙眼 (lóngyǎn, or "dragon eye") and extra-ripe persimmons.

Guess what one student brought to me today?

Why wasn't I this thoughtful as a student?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Opening Day at Yali

Early today, thousands of sleepy Yali students gathered on the field for the opening ceremony of the new year. The Chinese national anthem was played, followed by Yali's school song. Speeches followed, of course, by the principal, student leaders, teachers and yours truly, the Yale foreign teachers.

Note the Yali t-shirts, see something familiar?

Also, meet Feiniu (Fat Cow), a cute cute playful puppy I met at a Korean restaurant:

Saturday, September 4, 2010

On being a Chinese-American 外教 (waijiao, or Foreign Teacher) in China

I write this post with some hesitation, mainly because I have only been in Changsha for about a week and a half and I haven't even started teaching.

However, I hope the initial reactions to my race from the Changsha locals and my colleagues at Yali are not representative of what is to come.

Being Chinese-American in China can be difficult; some local people just cannot comprehend how you can look Chinese and yet be of another nationality, or not be able to speak Chinese fluently (in this case, the Hunan dialect). I've found the phrase 美际华人 (Chinese-American) to be useful most of the time, but even with this rather black-and-white identifier, I still encounter folks who nod their head knowingly, only to say, "我就知道, 你是中国人" (I knew it, you are Chinese). When I go out with the other 外教, people we meet assume that I am a tour guide or a translator. It is not an uncommon experience for Chinese-Americans in China, but as you can imagine, this is (more than) slightly frustrating.

Compounded by the fact that I can be young looking, it makes every introduction very strenuous. I have to politely deny that I am a student, that I am Chinese, and that, no, I am not 18--or sometimes, 16--but rather 22, very close to 23. I have to bear the murmurs that arise at the beginning, people questioning my background. Very quickly, it gets very old, very tiring.

Having said all this, I am trying not to be bitter. I think I do understand where much of the confusion and curiosity comes from. It isn't common for the locals to encounter ethnically-Chinese people who are not Chinese, so why would they assume differently when they first meet me? In fact, when a stranger comes up to me instead of the other teaching fellows, his or her instinct is correct--my Chinese language skills, while not anything to boast about, is probably the best among the Yali 外教 (thank you Yale Chinese classes and Light Fellowship!).

My main concern is my students: How will they respond to the fact that I am Chinese-American? Will my race become a factor in my classroom? How do I control that, or use it for my benefit?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Yali Middle School Fun Fact #1

Yali Middle School only invests in sports where it can do well, and soccer is one of these sports (women's basketball is another).

Today, I attended the Hunan provincial championship came (basically a state championship game), where Yali beat its main rival in overtime penalty kicks. After two scoreless halves, it came down to the last penalty kick. The Yali goalie somehow conjured up A-Purd's spirit, dove to the right, and pushed the soccer ball away from the net! Super exciting!! As a result of this win, the team will represent Hunan Province in nationals later this year.

Also, after today's game, the head coach (whose English name, no lie, is Walt Disney) invited the Yale-China teachers and me to a celebration dinner. Lots of food, lots of 白酒, lots of laughter, lots of toasting. Fun times all around.

Looking forward to cheering on Yali athletics (aka, soccer and women's basketball).