As Nichole and I were recently relieved of our teaching duties for the spring festival break, I have had a lot of time to reflect back onto the past semester. Looking back, I am amazed at how much has happened and the truly unique and incredible experiences that China has given me. I say given because I truly believe that no where else in the world would I have been able to have these experiences. Some of my most memorable experiences of last semester have been thrust upon me without much prior notice, such as: the outing to Wuxi with the high school’s teachers and administrators, judging student singing competitions, being a spokesperson for LaZboy at the LaZboy introduction to Nanjing, and being the guests of honor at our school’s Christmas party. The latter is one of my favorite memories from last semester and therefore should be one of the main focuses of this quarterly report. To do this properly, I think it would be best if I used an excerpt from my blog which was written shortly after Christmas.
Christmas in China
“The month of December is always associated with an increasing anticipation leading up to one thing, Christmas. And in China it is no exception. Everywhere I went I would see pictures of Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and loads of other holiday decorations that were a constant reminder that Christmas was indeed coming, even on the other side of the world. I had no idea that Christmas would be as recognized and celebrated as it is in China. Malls and street shops were especially decorated to fit the occasion and for practically the whole month of December I could hear Christmas carols playing on the loudspeakers.
“Our high school was especially into the holiday spirit. Every year on Christmas Eve there is a party for the students and we (my fellow Grinnellian and I) are the guests of honor. Usually, there is a male fellow who dresses up as Santa Claus, but as Nichole and I are both female and both of us didn’t want to wear the completely tattered and worn-out Santa Claus outfit, we asked if it would be okay to bring our male laowai friend (laowai is a Chinese word for foreigner with slightly negative connotations) to be the school’s Santa. Luckily, the school administrators were all about having another foreigner come to visit the school and they agreed. On Christmas Eve, we came to school early to help set up for the Christmas party. We thought that we were supposed to decorate the Multi-Functional Hall, but when we walked in a number of students were already hard at work. Even though it was more like a small lecture hall, the students were able to transform it into a winter wonderland. We felt somewhat sheepish bringing in some paper snowflakes that we had made when the students had much more impressive decorations already up. Pleasantly surprised that we were relieved of our decorating duties, we went up to our office to help our friend get into his Santa outfit. When it was time to go downstairs to attend the party, we stood outside of the Multi-Functional Hall while the Junior One’s filed in. Some of the students seemed excited to see Santa while others didn’t quite know what to make of it. After the last students went into the lecture hall, we took our seats in the front row.
“The Junior One portion of the party (which lasted from 3 – 4pm) was hectic to say the least. There was never a moment of silence even when the other students were performing. However, the teachers planned for this by bringing portable microphones that squeaking and squawked throughout the party. Even though we were in the front row we could barely hear the students who didn’t have mics. After some singing performances put on by individual classes (and a sing-along of Jingle Bells), it was time for the plays to begin. The students were all decked out in costumes as they tried to perform on the tiny, little stage. For the most part, I don’t think any of the other students paid any attention except when the male and female leads had to dance or something of that intimate nature. At that time all the other students would hoot and holler thus bringing even more embarrassment to the already blushing performers. Between the two plays, our friend (dressed as Santa) snuck out to get some bags of candy. After the second performance, he made a grand re-entrance and the students got immediately excited when they saw the bags of candy. What happened then was very reminiscent of the Halloween party. When the Junior One’s see candy, they go absolutely crazy. As my friend and Nichole were going into the sea of students with their bags of candy, I stayed back and took in the madness (also because there were only two bags of candy). I am glad that I was not involved in this part of the party because I could see my friend and fellow fellow being completely surrounded and somewhat attacked by the students. Their teachers tried to intervene but to no avail. There was definitely a mob mentality that the students possessed and they used their shear weight of numbers to overpower Santa and Nichole. When the candy was gone, they were able to make their way back to the front (looking quite jostled and man-handled) and they filled me in on what it was like to be in the mosh-pit of ravenous students. My male friend even told me that a few of the students were not saying very nice things to him, but I assured him that they didn’t learn that type of English from our classes. Now that the worst was over, we were able to watch the remaining performances. One of my favorite performances was a rabbit dance where some students wearing paper cut-out rabbit hats jumped along to a tune like rabbits. It was very, very cute. The party ended with a sing-along of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and the students left bringing their chaotic energy with them. It was now time for the Senior One portion of the party to begin.
“This portion of the party was much, much, much more enjoyable for us. It started with a sing-a-long of “Jingle Bells” and then went straight into the performances. A lot of the seniors put on skits which were surprisingly well-done and quite funny as well. One skit told the story of a prince who was cursed and could only say one word every ten years. After forty years he saves up the words that he can say to ask a princess, “Will you marry me?” to which she replies, “Pardon?” I really liked this play because the acting was outstanding, it had a small dance number to a Lady Gaga song (in true Chinese fashion), and the crowns that the prince and princess wore were hilariously tiny. While there were some really humorous skits, there were others that were not so humorous, but rather practical. One skit was about a child-kidnapping incident and gave advice at the end of the play about what to do if your child is held hostage. Another skit was a modern take on Romeo and Juliet. In this version, Juliet is in love with Romeo but Romeo won’t have her because she is not thin enough. So, she goes to the doctor to get some diet pills. She then goes back to Romeo, but he says that she is too dark, so she gets some skin-whitening cream. At this point, my friends and I were completely appalled and wondering why in the world would someone choose to do a play about this. It didn’t stop there though. She went back to Romeo who then told her that her breast size was too small, so she goes and gets a breast augmentation. She finally goes back to Romeo (as this “ideal” woman) and asks him to be her boyfriend, but to our amazement he declines the offer because he already has a boyfriend. Obviously this play was charged with social critique and thankfully it did not support the message from “Grease,” where one needs to change oneself in order to be liked. I thought this play was particularly interesting for two reasons: one, it challenged the ideals of beauty that Chinese girls constantly have to grapple with. So many Chinese girls that I have talked to wish that they could be lighter or skinner and in a culture that is very blunt and openly judgmental, they are constantly reminded about their physical flaws. I have tried to dispel these notions of beauty to my female students and to thus booster their self-confidence. It really hurts me when these beautiful Chinese girls openly refer to themselves as ugly. Therefore, helping my female students feel better about themselves has been an on-going goal of mine as their teacher and mentor. The second reason why I found this play to be interesting was its open acknowledgement and, at least to some extent, acceptance of gay people. China is fairly conservative and in a country where the one-child-per-family policy is enforced, having a gay child would not be acceptable. Since I have arrived in China I have noticed this negative perspective on homosexuality and I sometimes get questions from my students about gay rights in America. However, it is not so much that they are curious, but rather they are somewhat judgmental in their inquiries. I have had to grapple with how to address their questions in a way that tries to dispel negative stereotypes while still being sensitive to the fact that this is a culturally conservative society where homosexuality is not openly acknowledged let alone accepted. However, I was pleasantly surprised with the conclusion of this play as it shows, at least among the younger generation, that these negative perceptions of gay people are slowly started to be reversed.
“I immensely enjoyed the Senior portion of the party which actually lasted for almost two hours. At the end of the party, Nichole and I were asked to do a little performance so we sang ‘Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer’ to fulfill our duties as the Christmas guests of honor. As the students walked out, each class gave us loads of presents. It was really quite touching as we had no idea that that would happen. My favorite present though was given to me a few days prior by a Junior One student. At the end of class she came up to me and presented me with a Christmas card that she had made. It was so cute and sweet. I put it on my refrigerator because it makes me so happy whenever I look at it. Another student in that same class also gave me a present. At one point he asked if he could borrow a pen (in Chinese) and I took a pen off my desk and gave it to him, but he said (also in Chinese) that he wanted to go to his classroom to get his own pen. I thought this was strange but I allowed it. When he came back, he gave me a lollipop. I thought this was really cute because he obviously forgot to bring it to class so he had to make up an excuse to go get it. I was also really proud of myself that I understood what he was saying in Chinese. Those two gifts were by far the best gifts, but I was really touched that the students organized themselves to buy us presents. It was an incredible feeling.
“After the party, we met up with some friends to have Christmas Eve dinner. Once we had stuffed ourselves with food, we then headed out to spread some Christmas cheer by singing Christmas carols, giving little candy canes to children along the way. Adorned with Santa hats, we sang all the way to the metro station and continued right onto the train. As expected, we were the source of a lot of entertainment for those around us. Numerous people took pictures of us on their camera phones and some even tried to read our sheet music so that they could sing along. We then got off the metro station at the Confucius Temple. There were a lot of people there out and about. A good majority of them were also wearing Santa Claus hats. We walked around for a while (still singing) and then stopped on a bridge that goes over the river. We managed to gather a fairly-large audience now that we had stopped moving. As we were singing, a lot of Chinese people would quickly run up to pose with us in a picture. I think we achieved what we set out to do; to bring Christmas spirit and entertainment to the people of Nanjing. After a while we were all sung-out and we headed back home. It was such a great Christmas Eve that I was sad when it was over. The next day we met up with Katie (a past Nanjing fellow) in the French Concession in Shanghai to house-sit a Grinnell alum’s swanky apartment complete with its own Christmas tree. It was nice to be in an actual ‘home’ on Christmas. Although it was hard to be away from my real home on Christmas, I was surrounded by my laowai friends as well as the students and teachers from the school which made it a spectacular and very memorable Christmas.”
Although Christmas is one of the memories that readily comes to mind when I think about last semester (especially since it was not too long ago), I have also had time to reflect upon my teaching experience thus far as a whole. While teaching has been one of the most difficult and frustrating parts of my job as a Grinnell Corps fellow, it has been the most rewarding and meaningful as well. I was a little melancholy during our last week of teaching because even though I knew that I would see my students again, I was sad that I wouldn’t have them in my classes any more. In many ways these past few weeks have felt like I have just shut a book on my life in Nanjing. Not only did I need to momentarily say goodbye to my students, the school, and to our caretaker, Feng Laoshi, but I had to say goodbye for good to some of my laowai friends who would be going back to the States.
During my time in Nanjing, I truly feel that I have been blessed with the experiences that I’ve had and the people that I’ve met along the way. I also feel like I’ve really gotten to know Nanjing as a city as well. I have been looking forward to the day when my parents would come to visit me ever since I left them in late August. Now that that day is finally upon me, I am much more excited to show them around Nanjing than I am to go off traveling around China with them. I have been planning for weeks in my head all the things that we would do once they got to Nanjing; eat at all my favorite restaurants, show them the school, and have them meet some of my friends. I’m even hoping to impress them with some of the Chinese that I’ve picked up. In many ways, the arrival of my parents really will be the culmination of this past semester as I put my life in Nanjing thus far on display for them like putting my art on display after a semester-long art class. My only hope is that I feel this proud of what I’ve accomplished by the end of next semester.