Maggie Connolly's Reports
Maggie Connolly, Grinnell Corps: Nanjing 2007-08
Report 1Maggie Connolly
After spending fourteen hours flying overnight, an eight hour layover in South Korea and another three hour flight into Nanjing, the combination of anticipation and exhaustion overcame me. I expected to be able to notice the differences between China and America right away, but really the earth looks the same from above. As the plane descended however, the better China came into focus: the lack of a coherent plan in the city planning; the lack of any traffic laws was more than a little disconcerting, and that haze in the air was not quite the amount I'm used to.
It's amazing how quickly life halfway around the world can become routine. The lack of a grid system no longer causes me to get lost for hours in the city. I join millions of locals everyday in ignoring the what traffic laws there might be, and that haze? Well, it doesn't look so bad today... I can't think of a better way to spend my first post-graduate year.
Compared to the other Grinnell Corps, the Nanjing program is the most established, and in my opinion quite cushy. Nanjing is thought of as a sprawled out city compared to other cities in China, but with a bike I can get anywhere I want in about twenty minutes. I live on the tenth floor of the Foreign Students Building at Nanjing University, one of the few buildings in the entire city that has central heating. My dorm is a single, with its own bathroom (western style toilet included!) refrigerator, television and a terrific view of one of the busier intersections in the city.
I teach at the No. 11 Middle School, which is affiliated with Nanjing University. For three days a week, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, Logan and I teach nine classes, a teachers' class and attend the school's english corner. Logan and I have also opened up our office at lunch time for any students who wish to practice their English more. We have about four or five regulars that come every week to eat with us. Each class has about fifty students, which Logan and I split between the two of us. Our classes are not only the smallest classes these students will ever have in their formal education, but also their only chance to have access to a native English speaker. Each class lasts about forty-five minutes.
Everyday I am greeted with smiles and hellos from all the students, some students like to joke with me and some like to ask me questions before class. Some are quiet, some are loud, and some are just plain weird. I still have no idea who is giving these kids their English names, but I would like to meet them. Some of the more eccentric names I have are Maggot (he really likes worms), Berry, and Stellar. In the past two months I have been blessed with getting to know my students more closely. It is a great feeling to be able to see their improvement and know that I am contributing to it.
Due to the poor testing results of the school, which is the only standard of measure for the government, the principal decided to extend school hours after the national holiday. When we came back from Hong Kong and Macau, we were informed the night before, that our schedules had been changed. Now, many of the students and teachers are stuck at school from seven am to seven pm, six days a week. I feel truly sorry for the students, but at the same time I take my class seriously and become frustrated with them when they do not take it as seriously as I do.
A little on the teaching philosophy I have developed thus far: the kids already have a normal English class; I teach the supplementary conversational one. Many teachers here have never been out of China let alone an English speaking country. All things considered, their English is amazing. When I sat in on the regular English class, maybe five students spoke ten words the entire class, with most of the class conducted in Chinese. So I try to push the kids to speak as much as possible when they are in my class, with the goal of having every student speak every class. My intention is to boost their confidence when speaking a foreign language. The first step to learning any language is to not be afraid to make mistakes. I don't know how many times I've had a student refuse to speak because they are simply afraid of saying something wrong. And I still spend a lot of class time assuring them I don't care if what they say is not technically correct, or a correct answer, just as long as they can be understood.
The most valuable part of my education at Grinnell was to learn how to study. These kids are receiving no such education, I have to spell out everything for them. I have to write on the board exactly what I want them to remember, so it's like being a teacher and a student at the same time. Next week I will be attending a foreign teacher's conference in Changsha, which will hopefully improve my teaching all the more.
One of the things that makes the classroom such a joy is that I am also the student. The pride on the students faces is evident when they are able to help me with my Chinese. Likewise, they teach me about Chinese culture. They answer my questions when I don't understand why something is the way it is. I have found them to be an invaluable source of information.
One few observations about life in China:
China is a nation of early birds. I can hear the hustle and bustle of people on the street at six am. There is no daylight savings in China, so every hour of sunlight is exploited. As soon as the sun goes down, you can see the change in the streets, everyone becomes more laid back; the work day is officially over. Men come out in their pajamas, and there are card games happening on the sidewalk. When I look out my window after ten pm, the only light visible is the twenty-four hour McDonald's a few blocks from the dorm. This has been a sort of small culture shock for me, especially after four years at Grinnell, where a normal schedule is more along the lines of wake-up at ten am and go to sleep at two pm.
No ifs ands or buts, the food is delicious. My favorite food is the street vendor food, especially the dumplings. Just make sure you can pronounce it correctly to avoid any potentially embarrassing mistakes. And it still makes me smile whenever I think of western cuisine as ethnic.
I spend my time walking and biking around town. Purple Mountain and Xuanwu Lake are great places to go for a calm, relaxing afternoon apart from the masses of the city. I study Chinese, and try to stay on top on my Spanish by reading Harry Potter. I have recently taken a second job tutoring English to make some extra money for my travels.
As I have mentioned, we traveled to Hong Kong and Macau during national holiday to visit fellow Grinnell Corps members Becky Mwase and Nissa Mattson. In China, both regions are considered to be part of the mainland, but experiencing them for myself, there is no question that they are worlds apart. Western food and amenities are readily available, along with a larger percent of the population that speak English. Next week I am going to Kunming, which is known as the city of eternal Spring.
China is a country caught with one foot in the present and one still in the past, which is what I find so fascinating about the country. There aren't any bad parts of town because they are in such a hurry to build as quickly as possible that they don't care if the new high-rise is bordering a section of slums, just as long as the high-rise is there. For every person driving a car, there are five riding a moped and ten riding a bike. It is not uncommon to see the bed in the back of the store, where the cashier lives. To go up over night is not just a figure of speech over here, already I have observed several construction sites that have opened for business since I got here.
Some challenges that I have encountered...
Coming here we were told that our rooms would have internet access, but two months later and there is still no internet. This makes lesson planning hard, as well as staying in touch with friends and family back home. Right now I have to go to the internet cafe across from our building, which means I only have internet access two hours at a time. While it could be worse, it is not the most ideals of situations. I have not given up completely on the situation, but I have given up hope on it being solved in a timely fashion.
Goals for the Upcoming Quarter:
Chinese. Although I have studied multiple languages Chinese is unfortunately not one of them. Considering I came here not knowing a single word, my Chinese has improved infinitely, I am just not happy with the pace. I have two chinese tutors, from the middle school with whom I meet three days a week.
Stay in touch. Yeah... I still owe some people e-mails. Sorry about that. How about you e-mail me so I'll e-mail you back? I'm in China, what's your excuse?
Logan for telling me the time.
Austin for telling us what's up.
Fang Laoshi for being the chinese mama.
Professor Hsieh for dinner, lunch and his clout to help us out.
Felix, because he wanted a shout out.
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