Saturday, September 15, 2007

Images of a northeastern University

I have completed one rocky semester a small under-funded university of no great esteem. Many of my students have reported with humility that they had dreams to a more prestigious larger university, but did not score high enough on the national college entrance exam and so ended up here. While some students come from as far as Xinjiang province (western China) and Sichuan province (South Central), the majority of my students are from Liaoning (my Province) and Jilin or HailongJia (two neighboring provinces to the Northeast).

First, some images. The classrooms, hallways, and lobbies' once white walls have long since been smudged and the floors are dusty. The desks are in rows and bolted to the floor. It is an ordeal anytime students need to move about the room, as everyone in the row has to move too. The desks are covered with a mix of Chinese graffiti, which I can’t read, and some English graffiti that I don’t want to read because it is some memorized fluff that is painfully sentimental and dramatic. The windows are dirty from rains falling through dust filled air due to the surrounding construction projects. There is always a scattering of paper cups, used tissues, and even melted ice-cream pops from the previous classes. The girls wear tube like sleeve guards that go up to their elbows to keep the dirt form the desks away from their nice clothes. The teaching podium is completely covered with chalk dust so I never know where to put my things. I usually put it on the ground which to me looks like a better option. However, once after class some students approached me with concern.

Concerned student: “Teacher, why do always you put your bag on the ground?”
Me: because there is no other place to put it.”
Concerned Student: “You can put it on our desks next time. Please don’t put it on the ground. The ground is dirty, and it makes us worry for you!”

Apparently, not many of my actions go unnoticed.

Like most of the low budget modern constructions in China, the teaching buildings are Soviet style non-insulated concrete. This means that sometimes it is colder inside than outside. Through the winter months, teachers and students alike keep their coats on during class. All the students bring seat cushions to put a thermal layer between themselves and the cold desk seats. I have teased a few of the boys for having particularly girlie pink Hello Kitty seat cushions. They don’t seemed bothered. Occasionally, if I have to sit down, a student will offer me their seat cushion, which I take to be a great honor.

Instead of drinking fountains in the hallways, each building has a large water boiler machine on the first floor. Since no one drinks tap water here, everyone lines up with thermoses for hot boiled water. Around the boiler lie slippery scatterings of saturated tea leaves, flowers, and various other less recognizable pieces organic matter on which students have been sipping in their tea all day.

Outside the landscaping is a bit more comforting. It is obvious that they are trying to keep as much green as possible on campus. In the afternoons there are outdoor speakers blaring music and messages. Dormitories are strictly single sex. Students sleep about 6 to a dorm room, and they have a curfew of 11:00 PM when the electricity is cut. (Although, once during a late night jog around campus I caught a young man climbing out of the girls’ dormitory window. He looked shocked. I just snickered and kept jogging. Although I really wanted to give him a double thumbs up). Once during an in class Truth or Dare game, I strategically discovered that by freshman year, a handful of students had already jumped the fence to get into the campus after the gates were locked at the 11:00 curfew. The alternative is to stay awake all night in a smoky internet bar. Luckily my blond hair is proof enough that I’m not a student and I can come and go as I please.

Monday, September 10, 2007

New Chapter

After three jobs and moving four times, I have finally moved into a more permanent, more comfortable situation here. I will be teaching English a local uniersity for the next two semesters. The job comes with a large apartment on campus, internet, health insurance, a real work visa, and free Chinese classes with all the Japanese and Korean foreign students here.

So far it is nice to run around the dark track in the evening with students, see the extended families of faculty that all live together on campus, and generally feel like I am at a real academic institution instead of a business. Like most Chinese Universities there is a curfew of 11:00 and the guarded gates close. Luckily I can come and go as I please.

Right now the freshmen are doing their obligatory military training on campus. All day and into the evening I can here chants and marching from groups of extra young looking freshmen sporting camouflage and the signature red handkerchief around the neck, all sneaking peaks at their cell phones.

This is the second week of classes and I am teaching 16 hours a week. Twice a week I travel an hour through the countryside to another a branch campus right on the coast. There is a little bubble of about 10,000 students there! When class lets out it is a bit overwhelming to be the only blond in a river of Chinese college students returning to their dormitories. My “American Culture and Society” class has 65 students! I have given two rather uninspiring lessons to them and will have to get creative quick!