Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Chinese Roomate

I was introduced to a young Chinese woman (24) who was also looking for an apartment. I jumped at the change to live with her for two reasons. One, to remove myself from being under the thumb of my employer, and second to learn more Chinese! Her name is Gao Lina and she works as a liaison between the pharmacy and doctors in hospitals.

So far, if we are both home, we spend the evening munching on fruit with dictionaries open attempting to communicate. It is slow and frustrating, but also hilarious at times when we have misunderstood each other and then realize what we are really trying to say. For example, tonight, I was trying to tell her a story in my broken Chinese about a class that I had today. I explained that I had four students all 7 years old. They started to fight a bit and then three of them started crying really loudly. I said that I couldn’t teach them anymore so we just made paper airplanes for the rest of class. With a perplexed look, she asked me why 7 year olds learning English? I said that their parents want them to learn English. She exclaimed, “They have parents?!?!” I said of course. Then finally…she repeated my original story and I realized that I had indeed begun by saying that I had four 70 year old students that got in a fight and cried and then we made paper airplanes instead of having class. Oh my, what an image.

The other most recent miscommunication highlight was when she tried to tell me that I had a huge booger in my nose. But, I was in a hurry and just left the apartment pretending to understand. It wasn’t until a half hour later when I made the discovery in the reflection of a store window that my brain pieced all the words together.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

"No why!"

One my favorite observations from teaching these kids is watching them react to questions that are not answerable with an absolute right or wrong answer. While most Chinese students have a commendable memory, the Chinese education system leaves little opportunity for critical/creative thinking or opinions. So, I start easy with some material from the book:

Me: “True for False, the first video games were invented in the 1980’s.”
Student: “True”
Me: Right, and is the world better or worse now with video games?
Student: Better
Me: Why?
Student: (pause….) No Why!

“No Why!” is now my favorite answer! It is as if they are correcting me on my ill-formed and nonsensical questions. I have been told by my older Chinese students and friends that you learn early in China that the “why” question is useless in many arenas. “No why!” Priceless. I actually find my self trying to ask why about subjects that I think might evoke the “no why!” answer just for my own amusement!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

English Speech Competitions

I am quickly learning that Chinese parents are focused on testing, competitions, awards, and results for there child. In a country of 1.3ish billion, there must be some way to carve up the levels of abilities. To this end, there are often English speech competitions around the city to encourage English learning. Some of my students were invited/forced to enter.

The process goes as follows: The student writes a short composition in Chinese, the Chinese teachers at my school translate it using an on-line translator, and then they follow around the foreign teachers all day trying to get us to make the text sound normal. While I don’t mind helping, online translators leave something to be desired for accuracy. So, for about two weeks, during my ten minute breaks between classes, I was tried in vain to derive meanings from sentences like: “I hold the lead of the gold metal to an innate wandering smile.”

Next, the student has to memorize and rehearse these ridiculous speeches on the themes of patriotism, work ethic, their favorite subject in school etc. This is where I learned that there is apparently a certain type of voice just for delivering speeches in China. The louder the better! My first rehearsal class was in a small room with one student. He was a small framed 10 year old with glasses and big cheeks. I waited with his hardcopy of the speech as he prepared himself. He stood, hands at his sides, fixed his gaze at a point behind me where the ceiling and wall met, and then belted loud, strong, monotone phrases! I stopped him immediately trying to keep a straight face and told him that would be unnecessary.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

May Holiday in Chang Bai Shan

May holiday was a compact traveling experience farther into Northeast China. The destination was Chang Bai Shan, meaning “ever white mountain.” We travelers made a colorful group of personalities heading into Jilin province. We began as three: another American teacher from my school, a Chinese teacher from my school, and me. The American teacher is a hilarious guy from LA, with good Chinese, knows NBA like he was betting on it, loves conspiracy theories, practices Tai Chi in the middle of public places, and cracks himself up consistently. The Chinese teacher, "Colin" is a short, round faced 24 year old who loves speed metal, wears cheap sunglasses and a fanny pack, and eats faster than anyone I know. He smokes an extra cigarette while bartering for taxies/busses and hotels, though rarely actually takes a puff. Rather, just waves it around in the air with his elaborate gestures.

We took an overnight train ride in a smokey sleeper car with sounds of cellphones playing pop music late into the night. I watched Colin engulf an entire bag of little dried squid parts way too fast and wash it down with a light sudsy beer. He suffered from a stomach ache for hours.

The morning arrived all to slowly. As we chugged into Tonghua the hallway filled smells of instant noodles, more cellphone amplafied pop music, and a long line of people waiting to use the sinks for their ritualistic morning face wash. (I don't know seems to be a big deal here) We missed a connecting train to take us to the little town of Baihe so we had to take a minibus over roads that would make a Forest Service Fire crew cringe. One hour into the 6 hour bumpy ride, the driver handed out barf bags. Thirty minutes later we saw and smelled last night's squid parts and beer all over again. Miserable. While I turned the other direction to avoid getting sick myself, I befriended the young Korean guy beside me on the bus. He spoke a little Chinese and a little English, but insisted on writing everything on his hand with his finger before verbalizing. Good thing it was a long bus ride.

Baihe was a sleepy town with a mix of Chinese and Koreans. The women drove motorcycles and no one was trying to hustle us white people. Refreshing! The next morning we got a taxi to take us to the gates of the Chang Bai Shan nature preserve, which is China’s largest Nature preserve. I didn’t know that places like that existed in China. There was still a foot of snow on the ground in the forest and the air smelled like pine sap. It was raining in Baihe, meaning snow on the mountain. After a good hour and a half climb up hundreds of ice covered steps, we reached Tian Che (Heaven Lake), which was still frozen. We walked onto the lake and into North Korea! Thrilling, but a little eerie considering the white out blizzard conditions.

The trip back was two long train rides. However, the second will be the most memorable. Everyone warned me not to travel during national holidays. Now I know why. We arrived in the city of Shenyang (about a 6 hours north of Dalian) only to find that there were not only no beds for the night train to Dalian….but no seats period! So, do as the Chinese do, pay half the price and just stand. So from 11PM to 5AM, I stood on this smoky, crowded, hectic, smelly, stuffy train. I have heard of people standing for much longer, like 40 hours all the way across the desert. The lesson learned is to fly if you can afford it.