I vividly remember the day last March when I found out that I won the scholarship to come to Nanjng for the year. From that point, I spent a lot of time thinking about my coming year in China-what I thought the experience would be like and what kind of goals I wanted to set for my time on the other side of the world. After two months I can report that my expectations as to life in China were completely off. I thought life in China would be great. Actually, it is FANTASTIC. If you decide not to read the rest of the report please know that I am very busy and very happy.
My experience thus far has been so rich and textured that I can only hope the my quickly deteriorating skills as a writer can express how wonderful, bizarre and challenging the last two months have been.
This scholarship is, after all, a teaching scholarship so it seems the most logical place to begin. I can honestly say that of all the experiences of China, my hours in the classroom have been among my most enjoyable. I have discovered that there is something very special about your average Chinese teenager. Despite all of the work they do-the Chinese believe in the quantity theory of education: the more hours you sit in class the more you learn-they are humorous, good -natured and still excited about learning. I can't really express how happy it makes me when one of my students uses a word or a phrase during class that we learned several weeks ago.
Lauren and I teach Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons at Nanjing University Attached Middle School (NDFZ). Although not one of the top two or three schools in the city it has a very good reputation and I have found that this reputation is well deserved. Everyone at the school has been very friendly and welcoming. We usually teach about 8 classes of students that are between the ages of 12 and 17. We also teach a class for the Chinese teachers of English. The school itself is divided between the Junior School and the Senior School. The Junior School has Junior I,II, and III-grades 7, 8 and 9. The Senior School has classes Senior I, II and III-grades 10,11, and 12. Within each grade there are about six to seven classes of students based on tests scores. Junior I Class I and Junior I Class II are the top students in their grade, the same for every other grade.
Lauren and I teach Junior I Class 1 and 2, Junior II Class 1 and 2, Senior I Class 1 and 2 and Senior II Class 1 and 2. So, we only teach the top students in the school.
For this group of students, the youngest students at NDFZ, new to the school and perhaps new to studying English, the presence of a foreign teacher is something of a momentous event. Due to the fact that they are not yet too cool for school they are active participators. At the same time, this energy boils over and they get a little loud. It is by no means a disrespectful loud but an "I am so excited" kind of loud. It is hard to get mad at kids like this. There are a wide variety of skill levels but these student stands to learn a lot. There listening comprehension has already increased quite a bit.
Reading through old reports, I noticed a number of the past fellows have had problems with the Junior II class. Thus far, they have not given me any problems whatsoever. In fact, Junior II Class I is easily one of my favorites. Sometimes they do not like to participate but they have enjoyed the overall theme of the semester-expressing yourself. I just had a particularly successful lesson about words you can use when you feel lazy and words you can use when you feel energetic. Likewise they have also taken to the weekly homework. I am having all of my classes, except Junior I, find five new English words a week. They must write the words down in a notebook and give the definition as well as use it in a sentence. After some initial misunderstandings all of the classes are really getting excited. A lot of students have started to write down idioms and other write me notes and asks questions that they do not want to ask during class (more on this later). I think they are beginning to recognize the fact that they are really learning a lot of new words over the course of the semester.
I will be honest, this is my favorite group. More than the other classes they have a very distinct class personality. They are all interesting kids and some are simply hilarious. When I arrived in class last week to see all of the vocabulary books stacked on my desk I remarked how great that was and one of the students who is, I must admit, the class spaz blurted out, "Time is money, Mr. Austin." Indeed it is. There also have a sense of togetherness that some of the youngest students have not quite yet developed yet-they are a class in the fullest sense of the word. They also have a fairly equal level of English so it is not as difficult to plan lessons.
Senior II Class 1 actually focuses on math and science where Senior II Class 2 focuses on language arts. In a way it is like they have already chosen a major. The difference between the two classes is immense. Class 1 is not all that interested learning English, let alone speaking it, while Class II is very enthusiastic and every week the class goes by without hitches. I had a few early discipline problems with Class 1 but I have turned things around in the last three weeks and things are looking up for the rest of the semester.
Life at school keeps me busy during the week but leaves my weekends free so I have started another teaching job-the idea being that the more I teach, the better teacher I will become. I work Friday night, Saturday morning, Sunday afternoon and Monday night at the British American City School. The school is based in Singapore and they have been very kind to me. These classes have been incredibly enjoyable because I am teaching mostly Grad students from Nanjing University who are working towards their PhD in subjects like Econ, Fine Arts and Environmental Science. In fact, one of my students is actually getting a PhD in paleontology; you just don't meet too many of those, no matter where you are in the world. Another student in my class is the anchorman of the 6 pm news. So, we are quite the crew.
They have tons of life experience and I can teach about a lot more than I can at NDFZ. It is also nice because I can occasionally try out ideas for my Senior Classes and the class for the teachers at NDFZ. It may seem like a lot of extra work to take on-each class is 1.5 hours-but I much prefer being busy to being bored. On a side note, the school advertises around the neighborhood and they describe me as "Austin, American: Friendly, Knowledgeable, Power in Action" Am I an English teacher or a superhero? In China, sometimes the line is quite blurry.
Life in China
Life in China is enjoyable and challenging. Luckily, Grinnell has provided us with great living accommodations. Lauren and I live on the 17th floor of Xi-Yuan, the dorm for foreign students at Nanjing University. Every year the Grinnell Fellows live in the same two rooms so when we arrived at the end of August we found all kinds of DVDs, books and teaching materials that had been left for us. I was surprised to find that there is actually a pharmacy in my closet as well as a lifetime supply of Listerine. In addition, I am now the owner of five pairs of slippers.
My room is bigger and nicer than any room I ever had at Grinnell--I have a TV, refrigerator and air conditioning-all of which I never had at school, where I generally lived like a monk. We have hot water twenty-four hours a day and we have someone who comes in each morning to take out our trash and sweep our rooms. We are really quite spoiled.
Life at Xi-Yuan is unique. Across the street there are a number of small, cheap and delicious restaurants and every night several street vendors sell dumplings and other small little treats. It is remarkable that so many different nationalities are represented here at Xi-Yuan. Of course there are a number of Europeans and a large number of Africans -- it is a truly international environment.
Beyond the gates of Xi-Yuan, Nanjing is a beautiful city. With a population of about 6 million and no end to development in sight, Nanjing is constantly changing and growing. When we first arrived Lauren I would play "Count the cranes" to see how many buildings were under construction. In a way all this construction is comforting-I like to be where things are happening.
Nanjing was the capital of six dynasties and was the head of the Nationalist government under Chiang-Kai Shek in the 20th century. Beyond being a city of much history it is a city of considerable beauty. All of the streets are lined with huge trees that act like a canopy, keeping the sun and rain out as you ride your bike. The city is protected on one side by the Yang-tse River and on the other by Purple Mountain. Although sometimes the pollution hangs in the air and torments throughout the day there have been a number of days this autumn that were crisp, clear and clean. Between buses, cabs the subway and my bike I have no trouble getting around the city. I have seen most of the places of interest around the city except for the Nanjing Massacre Museum which is closed until December.
As all the previous fellows have remarked, the food is unbelievable. It is cheap, delicious and ready available. The time between when I decide to eat and the time when I start eating is, on average, about four minutes. During the week I will have some fruit for breakfast and eat lunch on a street right next to NDFZ. Sometimes I do not eat dinner or I will just get some dumplings from the street vendors. One of the most bizarre experiences for the foreigner in China is the banquet. A banquet takes place for several reasons-you have something to celebrate, you have somebody to impress, you have a business deal to close or you are just really hungry.
The banquet is a serious business; the Chinese take their dining experience, and their drinking experience, with a certain solemnity. It is more a test of the size of your will than the size of your stomach. Like most things in life, perseverance is the key. All of the food appears on a round table with a rotating center and if you want a certain dish all you have to do is to spin the table. You are then implored to eat by every person at the table who will lament how skinny you are and repeatedly ask which dish is your favorite and how you find the food in China. Then, just when you are establishing a rhythm and making it way through all of the food, the drinking truly begins and that is when things get dangerous.
The Chinese, especially Chinese men, love to drink. Their toxin of choice is Bai-jiu-a foul, heinous and vile drink that smells bad, tastes worse and punishes you on the way down in a way that not even Hawkeye Vodka is capable of. That being said, I am starting to like it. Once the banquet moves into the drinking phase it is hard to stop. People will toast you. You must toast them. People from other tables come to you table. You go to other tables. Eat. Drink. Eat. Drink. Drink. Drink. Eat. You have to remember who has toasted you so that you can return their kindness. Keeping track of all of this can be quite byzantine. Then the watermelon arrives signaling the end of the meal, people stand up to leave and you are not drunk but the banquet leaves you buzzed, contented and slightly confused. All quite good fun except when you have a busy banquets schedule. There was one Sunday where I had a banquet lunch and a banquet dinner-quite the delicious death wish. Despite all this food, I know that I am losing weight
The pants that I brought are really starting to sag.
To close this section that I love Nanjing for two other reasons: I can wear the same clothes day in and day out and I never have to go to the ATM to withdraw money-my kind of place.
Things I do not like
Between the banquets and being accorded a princely respect that I do not deserve, it may seem that all things are peachy in here in Nanjing. In general, they are-with several small exceptions. The pollution here is bad and will only get worse. My worst moments in Nanjing come when I am riding my bike behind a bus and just get punished with exhaust. I am pretty sure I am well on my way to the black lung. Luckily, my lung cancer might be delayed several years because I do not indulge in one of China's favorite pastimes: smoking.
Not even in the in the restaurants of Rome or the coffee shops of Cairo have I seen people so dedicated to smoking. Smoking is acceptable and even encouraged in all public places. Everyone in China smokes. Everyone. What's more, everyone thinks it is cool. Smoking then leads us to the third aspect of China that I dislike: hawking up spit.
Now, I have nothing against spitting in general. I do not find it disgusting or revolting-sometimes you have a lot of saliva in your mouth and you have to take care of the problem. However, in China they do not just spit. They summon up all the fluids and congestion in their body from the bottom of the throat to top of their sinuses in some sort of primordial display of manliness. This habit causes me particular consternation when the sound of men hawking up their spit wakes me up at 6:00 am. Now, I usually get up at about 6:30 am so the early hour does not bother me but rising to the sounds of men hawking up their spit is worse then any alarm clock I have ever known.
But as I said, these are only the smallest little inconveniences.
Before I came to China I set a list of goals for the year. My first goal was to become a good teacher. My second was to get sweet at Chinese. Third, I wanted to make good use of my free time. I will be honest. Right now, I am not a good teacher. I am working hard and talking my job very seriously but I have a long way to go. My classes run smoothly and my students seem to be getting something out of them, as best as I can tell, but I aspire to much more than that. I have studied a few languages and I think one of the most important functions of a language teacher is to make the students the owner of the material. The fact of the matter is, I only see these kids once a week for 40 minutes a day-this session alone can do relatively little to help a person's confidence and ability in a language. Studying a language has to be an every day activity done with meaning and passion. In this way, I think the burden is more on the student than on the teacher. My main goal is to help students realize that if they truly wwant to get good at English they have to take a more active role in their own education. This will be a year long struggle but I am working hard and making progress every week.Also, I have been surprised to find that the kids really look up to the two of us. I honestly didn't really think that would happen. Some of my students will write questions to me in their Vocabulary Books about things that have absolutely nothing to do with English. In short, I have to work on being a better role-model. Yikes!
My second goal of getting sweet at Chinese is actually going quite well. During the summer I went to Beloit College to attend an intensive summer program. We had class for about 7 hours a day and usually about 3 hours of homework. Over the course of nine weeks we covered one year's worth of Chinese. Although the summer itself was rather like purgatory, after graduating from college two weeks before I was not exactly thrilled about being back in class, I gained a lot from the program. It was probably one of the best decisions I have ever made-it has made my first two months here much easier. I can hold basic conversations, get around and function just fine. My listening comprehension has skyrocketed. I understand more than half of the stuff that I hear on the television and I can get the main idea from most conversations I hear on the street. I am in a self-imposed silence period of sorts. I am listening to Chinese more than I am speaking it-my theory being that the language has to go in before it comes out. I have decided not to take formal classes. I am disciplined enough that I will do the work without the structure provided by the classroom. I have several tutors throughout the week who have been quite helpful. Also, I would most likely end up missing quite a few classes for school obligation anyway. We will see how this strategy plays out.
Third, I am definitely taking advantage of my free time. I study French about two hours a day and brush up on my Italian for about 1.5 hours at night. In addition, I spend a little time reading each day. I recently finished with a massive 800 page tome about the British Aristocracy and I am about 250 pages into an Anthology of John Stuart Mill's writing. Reading "On Liberty," in the middle of a Communist country will get a young college graduate thinking critically about all sorts of things. I brought a few other books to read so I will not be without any intellectual exercise. So between teaching seven days a week, studying three languages and reading some weighty books I am really busy.
Things I want to work on in the up coming months
I think my first 2.5 months in China have been very successful. I have transitioned to Chinese life and Nanjing feels like home. But there are a few things I have to work one. First, I need to stop being lame. This will not come as too much of a surprise but I do not go out much on the weekends. Rather than go to one of the bars or clubs with Lauren and some of our other friends I usually just stay in and read. This has two causes- to begin, I do not really like the going out. Next, the one time I did go out I got surrounded by a gaggle of Chinese girls telling my how handsome I was and asking if they could be my girlfriend. For me, this was all pretty uncomfortable.
Also, I need to work on staying in touch with my friends back in the States. I hardly ever even talk to my parents and sister. I haven't talked to my good friends from school at all. This needs to change. So, to Rob, Nate, Wepking, Bowers, PK, Doug & Co. I am going to work on this whole communication thing. Also, feel free to send me an email. I still have my Grinnell address, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org (l as in Lewis).
I will leave you with one observation: China is an incredible complex society with a fascinating history and a quickly changing way of life but if you took away rice, dumplings, tea, cigarettes or Wrigley's Doublemint chewing gum this place would fall to pieces.
Lauren for being tight. I think we are going to be like a married couple by the end of this year.
Doug Cutchins for helping us out from the other side of the world
Professor Hsieh for the visit to the Nanjing in October. It was a great night.