Over the course of the last two months, in anticipation of writing this report, I have been taking scrupulous notes on crumpled napkins or on the backs of Carrefour receipts, jotting things down that were particularly shocking or that I found most deserved to be retold. But as I stare now at my fastidious collection of notes, I realize that as I've grown used to living here, the things that once amazed me now seem so utterly commonplace that I can hardly justify writing about them. In any case, the following is a "brief introduction," as they say in China, of my life here, teaching English in Nanjing.
Jordan and I teach conversational English at Nanjing University Attached Middle School (NDFZ), an inner-city school of about 2,000 students between the ages of 12 and 17. We are at school Monday through Thursday and teach eleven classes each week, including a class for the English teachers. Each grade is split into classes by ability level, which like most things in the Chinese education system, is based on examination scores. We teach only the top two or three classes in grades 7 and 8 (Junior I and II) and 10 and 11 (Senior I and II). To my understanding, grades 9 and 12 are too busy preparing for national examinations to be able to attend our classes. With the exception of one class, I teach all the girls and Jordan teaches the boys, and we'll switch classes next semester.
Our classrooms and office are located on the fifth floor of one of the school buildings, and despite the hike, it's nice to have the entire floor to ourselves. NDFZ has all the features of a typical inner city school, with a few distinctions like several ping-pong tables near the gate and the unique music that plays over the loudspeaker during passing time. Instead of a typical school bell to signal the beginning and end of classes, NDFZ plays music, usually techno interpretations of classical pieces. While strange at first, I now find myself absentmindedly humming the songs through the halls of the school, to the great amusement of my students.
Everyday we get lunch with the other teachers at the school cafeteria and encourage students to practice their English with us during their two-hour lunch break. Though I've been working here for over two months, I am still taken aback by the students' sheer enthusiasm for speaking English, and the undeserved respect I receive from the students as well as the faculty. Students stand up when called on, stand at the door and request to come in if they're late to class, and always greet us in the hallways and before class with cries of "Hello Teacher," as my name is still too hard for many of the kids to pronounce. The other teachers here are wonderful too, and Fang Laoshi, our China Mama and program coordinator, is really helpful with any questions and problems we have, no matter how trivial.
Before coming to Nanjing, the thought of standing in front of a class full of students and being responsible for imparting them with knowledge was quite honestly terrifying. And I am able to say now, that the hours I spent planning for my first day of class did nothing to help me as I stood in front of 30 students, their faces lit up with expectation. Not knowing how much English they could actually speak, I spent the first class just getting to know my students, and had each one of them give a presentation on their family and hobbies outside school. After a week of hearing "I like play basketball," "My favorite pet is dog," and "My favorite American singer is Avril Lavigne," I realized that one of my biggest challenges this year would be to shake them out of memorization mode, and get them to talk about subjects that require them to use their vocabulary in a variety of ways.
I start off every class with a tongue twister warm-up and end class with a "Who Am I" riddle, which the kids are quite good at figuring out. I really enjoy teaching the Junior students because they have this contagious enthusiasm for whatever they're learning, be it American high school culture or just practicing the future tense. They always ask questions and turn in their homework and are just really pleasant students to teach. But as eager as the Junior students are to be in my classroom, equally as apathetic are my Senior II students, many of whom seem past the point of caring whether they learn English or not. I'm still trying to figure out what interests them and how to get them to focus more on the lesson and less on their cell phones, which they disguise as Chinese-English dictionaries.
The biggest teaching challenge I've encountered so far is in trying to balance their low level of English with topics that would interest any other intellectually curious teenager. Surprisingly, so far my most successful lesson has been on the US presidential election and an extremely simplified explanation of the Electoral College. I held a mock presidential election in each class between two class-elected candidates, to illustrate the meaning of voting, ballots, and giving speeches about what they promise to do as President of the United States. Naturally the subject matter of their speeches varied considerably between grade levels: the Junior II students attempted to clinch the presidency by promising to assign less homework in school and holding a theme party for all supporters; and the Senior II students rattled off their plans to bring the soldiers home from Iraq and end the financial crisis by making banks and consumers more confident. I am continually impressed by how informed my students are on events happening in America, and I even had one student lecture the class on the origin of the financial crisis in broken but accurate English.
I've also had a lot of success with a project I started at the beginning of the year with my Junior II students. My good friend Becca Weiner ('08) is a third-grade student teacher at Davis Elementary School, and we decided to start up a pen-pal project. My students loved reading letters from the kids about Grinnell, the city with "no big buildings," and marveled at how some kids lived on a farm, kept hermit crabs as pets and could have a snowball fight in November. We just finished writing our second round of letters with responses to their questions, and my students were so excited that they all brought their own stationery, stickers and markers and wanted to take a picture to send to Becca's class, which is attached to this report. Hopefully this is a project that can continue in the future.
In addition to our English classes, we also hold English Corner outside near the school gate every Wednesday during afternoon break, where classes come and bombard us with all sorts of random questions. I've also started an American Pop Culture Club on Monday afternoons, which has been enormously successful. Around 30-40 kids come each week to learn the lyrics to age-appropriate pop songs, watch sections of popular TV shows and do teen magazine quizzes. I think having this non-mandatory English club has really helped students get over their initial shyness towards us. These past few weeks we've had a pretty steady flow of students in our office during afternoon break, reading picture books like Amelia Bedelia and Charlotte's Web, doing Mad-Libs, and listening to American music. Just a few days ago while I was having English Club, I walked back into the office and saw four senior students just chilling on the couch looking through a recent issue of Teen Magazine. I think it's great that students feel comfortable enough to spend time with us, even though they have to speak English.
Becoming a Nanjingren
Living in this lively and fast-paced city is unbelievably comfortable, thanks to the living accommodations supplied for us by Grinnell. We live on the tenth floor of the Nanjing University Foreign Students Dormitory, which comes fully equipped with a small cafÐ¹, mail service, travel agency and laundry service. And with our own bathrooms, a TV, Internet, 24-hour hot water and two really friendly women who clean the room every morning, I'm not sure I ever want to leave. We share our floor with several students on the CIEE study abroad program, and our building is adjacent to the Johns Hopkins Nanjing Center and an international hotel, making the area where we live an international community of its own. As such, the local businesses are uncharacteristically patient with foreign patrons and are quite willing to let me practice Chinese with them.
Unsurprisingly, the food here is fantastic. You can find something delicious to eat simply walking 100 yards in any direction from our dorm. We live a short five minutes from the infamous Bird Flu Alley, which despite its unappetizing name, touts the most delicious food in the city. Pulled noodles, dumplings, roast duck and fresh chicken soup can all be found in the small restaurants that line this alley, many of which are open 24 hours a day. And nothing says authentic Chinese food like a Chinese banquet. Banquets are celebratory meals where people gather around a circular table, and eat family-style from a lazy Susan laden with a number of tasty and unidentifiable delicacies. These banquets have a surprisingly rigid protocol and standard of behavior, which takes some getting used to. I've actually been pretty proud of my banquet behavior - eating when told, drinking when asked, speaking when spoken to, and returning toasts after they've been received. I've learned never to question people who place foreign foods in front of me, to eat as slowly as possible, and to always remain alert and aware of the people around you. At one such banquet during my visit to Taiwan over fall break, I got a little too comfortable, and became engrossed in a conversation with a friendly teacher about her interest in making jewelry. As I was marveling over one of her creations, the ornament on the earring I was holding fell off its hook and landedâ¦right in my soup. Had the entire table not erupted into laughter, I'm sure that I would have died of embarrassment, having committed the ultimate Chinese banquet faux pas.
Having already spent an extended period of time in China, through a summer language study program in Beijing in 2006, I think I've experienced a milder case of culture shock than some of the previous fellows. However, I think China is one of the few places in the world where facets of the culture never cease to amaze you. For example, sharing the streets with buses, taxis, mopeds and bikers was initially terrifying, mainly due to the fact that traffic laws here are generally considered optional, and are followed only when convenient. Now, I have to consciously remind myself to actually look for cars before crossing the street, and am completely unfazed when a bus cuts in front of me missing my face by six inches. There are certain things here though, that I don't think I'll ever become accustomed to. The incessant smoking for example - I don't care who you are, smoking in an elevator is not safe! Also, the sheer number of people here sometimes becomes exhausting, especially coming from the peacefully unpopulated town of Grinnell.
All in all, Nanjing has proved an endearing city, with such a unique and baffling culture that it is simultaneously frustrating and wonderful. Walking down the streets of this city I really get a sense of national solidarity and pride, a feeling I don't get too often in the States. All around the city there are Chinese flags waving, and banners boasting any upcoming international events, such as the World Urban Forum 4 and the Shanghai World Expo 2010. For instance, on my way to work every day, I take a shortcut through Nanjing University campus, and pass a notice board decorated with icons from the Beijing Olympics and a final Olympic medal count for the top ten countries. Whenever I walk by, students are gathered around the board, beaming proudly and pointing out comparisons to other countries. And every morning without fail, someone has defiled the board by erasing the USA total medal count of 110 and replacing it with a zero. I know this kind of thing is hardly uncommon, but seeing it changed every day shows a pretty admirable dedication to your country.
Despite my grueling 15-hour workweek, I have come up with a few side jobs to occupy my free time here. It seems that simply speaking English makes me a magnet for employment opportunities. A few weeks after arriving, I had managed to find a job at Nanjing's primary foreign magazine working as an English editor and translator. In spite of my embarrassing lack of formal writing experience, I was quickly entrusted to write several articles on my own, including restaurant reviews, profiles of local Nanjingren, movie synopses and even a full-length feature article about the state of the environment in Nanjing and the burgeoning involvement of local NGOs. More than anything else, this experience has helped me to better understand the Nanjing lifestyle, and allows me to practice my spoken Chinese with my fabulously friendly co-workers and my written Chinese while laboring over lengthy translations. It has also given me the chance to learn more about the nuances of professionalism in China, such as always accepting a business card with two hands and the way to formally address people at an interview. I have also picked up a little side job doing voice recording for Nanjing University's oral English examinations, under the guidance of Grinnell's own 2007-08 Nanjing Visiting Instructor, Gao Laoshi. Together with teaching and studying Chinese, my schedule here remains satisfyingly stressful.
Over these last two months, I've found that my initial set of goals have remained more or less the same, but have changed slightly to adjust to the situation. My first goal has always been to become a really successful teacher and dramatically improve the English proficiency of all my students. This idealistic goal has since been replaced by an attempt to just have every student speak at least once per class period. While this might sound easy, it's surprisingly difficult to refrain from always calling on the eager students at the front of the class and wait patiently for an answer from the girl in the back who's unsuccessfully trying to blend into the wall. I've realized that since I only see my students 40 minutes each week, it would be most effective to encourage them to take responsibility for their own language study by getting them really excited about English. I'm still trying to figure out how to balance fun in the classroom with educational material, but my students have been really helpful in telling me exactly what they want to learn about, from American fashion and teen culture to the exact origins of Barbeque.
My second goal is to improve my Chinese proficiency. I've really been slacking on formal study from one of the many textbooks I brought with me for that exact purpose, and I plan on studying a lot more now that I've gotten over the distractions that inevitably come with a new environment. It's also hard to find the motivation to study when my limited vocabulary and natural talent for effective hand gestures usually gets my point across. In my defense, I've only been kicked out of a cab once for not being able to communicate to the cab driver where I wanted to go. Sarcasm aside, before I leave here I really do want to achieve some sort of fluency in Chinese, essentially learning to communicate things I would normally say in English (keeping my hands tied behind my back). I have noticed that as time goes on, I pick up on more and more of the everyday colloquial expressions that you can't really learn in a textbook, so I am seeing some improvement.
Last, I'd like to become better acquainted with this city, and not just with the international haven where I live. I keep putting off doing the touristy things, like visiting Xuanwu Lake or Nanjing's Massacre Museum, and in these next few months, I want to have a better understanding of this city that I grow to like more and more each day. I mean, who wouldn't fall in love with a place where the garbage trucks play "Happy Birthday," the street-cleaning trucks hum "Jingle Bells," the atmosphere can change from a grayish haze to crystal clear in a matter of hours, and you can get fresh hot chicken soup 24 hours a day? This is a great place to work and live, and I look forward to spending the rest of my time here becoming a better Nanjingren.
Thanks Jordan for being so easy to get along with, despite our incompatible taste in movies and disagreements over what constitutes good literature. Thanks also to Professor Hsieh for encouraging me to do this in the first place, and to Doug for making the administrative stuff so easy and creating such a dependable support system.