My daily life moves at a more leisurely pace than it did as a student at Grinnell College, but all of the fervent activity in China makes everyday jam packed full of excitement. Honestly, it is very difficult for me to write this report! I have spent a lot of time thinking about my time here, but I am far from understanding all of the things I am learning, the ways I am changing, and how else I can continue to take advantage of my opportunities in this fascinating country. I am shifting through a sea of the most absurd, funny, interesting, strange, breath-taking, embarrassing, and educational experiences of my life. I may not have an explanation for all of my experiences thus far, but I do have some perspectives and will try to share them. My goal is to offer you a glimpse of my life in China.
Shanghai Teaching Conference
The plane ride was long, but bearable. I did not sleep much because I kept teetering between anxiety and excitement. Luckily, Erika and I were able to sit next to each other because I would have been bored out of my mind without all her hilarious entertaining stories. Upon arriving in Shanghai, we discovered that there were 13 other teachers from all over the United States of different ages and educational backgrounds attending the training conference with us. It was very nice to have a big group to cling to during my first night in China. All I wanted to do was tell someone at home that I had arrived safely. However, I was unable to contact my family or friends because I had no phone or computer. It was a real shock to be completely cut-off and in a whole new world. During that time, I was forced to rely on my fellow teachers as friends to whom I could share my daily observations, frustrations, and joys. We all had various Chinese language skills and interesting personalities. I believe it was a good chance for all of us to learn from each other's discoveries and challenges. I had a great time learning how to catch a cab, ride the subway, navigate traffic, buy groceries, send a letter, and order food in China. It was a great help and a lot of fun to learn how to survive in a new society with other teachers, and I'm thankful for the friendships I made.
The first week we had language class and teaching class in the mornings and toured the city in the afternoons. My first thought walking into the streets of Shanghai: "I am definitely in China." I had never had so much fun but at the same time been so frustrated. These feelings were mostly a factor of not being able to do much on my own. I could not read or understand a word anyone was saying, did not know where I was going, was scared to use the public toilets, soaked in sweat from the oven-like temperatures (95 degrees and 100% humidity), and my muscles ached from miles and miles of walking.
I remember that it was a lot of fun to wander the area around Shanghai University. I spent countless hours at great teahouses, checked out museums, rode to the top of the Shanghai TV tower, explored beautiful gardens, braved one of the biggest shopping centers in the world, met a famous calligrapher, and tried lots of new food including ten different kinds of dumplings, soups, stir-fry, tofu cooked with just about everything, and crazy flavors of ice cream. One memorable morning, I walked into a tiny cafe, pointed at some random Chinese characters on the menu, and received a huge bowl of noodles. I was so proud of my first solo meal in China because I did not know what I was doing. It was a relief, and from what I now know of Chinese cuisine, it could have been a lot more unappetizing.
Our conference leader and Nanjing University English professor, Don Snow, recommended that we retain some familiar activities from home to ward off culture shock. With this in mind, I woke up several mornings at 6:00am to go running, but this quickly ended when my jet lag set-in. It felt like the bottom half of my body was going to dissolve because I was so tired. The affects of new surroundings are surprisingly overwhelming. It is a task to find a balance between completing all the activities that make life familiar and getting enough rest.
For the next two weeks, we had language and teacher's training class everyday from 7:30am to 5:00pm. It was busy, exhausting, and educational. The language class was a source of frustration because the instructor had very little experience teaching, he only said the new words once, and there was a ridiculous amount of construction noise from the floor right below us. Some days, I was convinced the workers were going to jackhammer right through our floor! It makes me laugh to think about it now, but when I was trying to learn at the time, all I could do was pop some Tylenol. Being forced to scream my first Chinese words to the teacher only feet away made it impossible for me to be shy about pronunciation. Somehow I managed to accidentally say, "I am Satan" in perfect Mandarin during our second class. My shining moment threw our instructor into hysterics for the next ten minutes. It was equally hilarious and frustrating. Learning languages has never been my forte and there was so much information to memorize. Mandarin is difficult to learn because there are hundreds of characters and the spoken language has four tones. To imagine learning eight Cantonese tones is beyond me.
The teacher training class offered a lot of good information and strategies since Don Snow taught from his book More Than a Native Speaker. However, the classes ran for around two or three hours everyday and we often suffered the same construction noise during the afternoons that we did in the mornings. Many days I left with a headache. All the same, I would definitely recommend the experience to future fellows. I found the teaching practicum most helpful for life in Nanjing. All of the teachers at the conference took turns teaching at a middle school in Shanghai. We were all given the opportunity to meet with Don the night before our teaching day to go over lesson plans. I also enjoyed bouncing lesson plan ideas off of the other teachers. I taught two, one hour practicum classes. It is an awesome feeling to have an entire class of Chinese students looking at you, waiting for instruction. I learned a tremendous amount about lesson planning and classroom etiquette. I am very thankful for the training.
I celebrated my birthday at the end of our conference on the 18th of August. It was strange to have people around me that I had only known for three weeks and no loved ones. After teaching my second "practice" class at the middle school, I spent the day at a spa (they're incredibly cheap), and enjoyed a manicure, pedicure, facial, and body massage. That night the other teachers bought me a unique blueberry flavored Chinese cake, and we had a party. All in all, it was a birthday I will never forget. It seems obvious, but without my family and friends around to celebrate my birthday just weeks after arriving in China I quickly became much more cognizant of my need to communicate long-distance with my friends and family. It was an important realization at the time because I would soon be away from my loved ones for many other holidays and celebrations.
I thoroughly enjoyed me three weeks in Shanghai. It was a fantastic opportunity to learn a lot about how to prepare lessons, teach in the classroom, and survive the perpetual chaos of Chinese society in a big city. Most importantly, I believe the friends and contacts I made during this time will prove invaluable resources throughout this year. I've already contacted several of the other teachers to inquire about living arrangements in their city during some potential weekend trips and many of them have offered to let Julia and I stay for free in their apartments! In addition, Don Snow is a great resource and someone I've already had the pleasure of visiting with several times in Nanjing.
It was so incredibly nice to be able to unpack my bags and find some place to call home. Our dorm rooms in the Xi-Yuan building on the 17th floor are very comfortable. My favorite thing about living here is the view. I am living in Vicky's old room, and I was so delighted to find the helpful notes and other reading materials she had left for us. The past fellows have done an excellent job of providing everything we could possibly need. I look forward to leaving my mark on the room and helpful notes for next year's fellows. There is a refrigerator, TV, DVD player, two desks, and a computer in our rooms. The laundry service is convenient. I pay a woman on the 1st floor to wash my clothes, and I hang them up in my room to dry. As every fellow mentions, we share our bathroom with the rest of the floor which is not really convenient in the middle of the night, but the showers have wonderful hot water so I guess it is a trade-off. I am finally used to the tricky squat toilets. You just have to stand wide! Honestly, this place seems very similar to the Grinnell College dorms. Well, except for the occasional Chinese business men wandering the halls in their underwear.
I discovered with the help of a technician from Nanjing University that the computer in my room was too old to connect to an internet modem. With the permission of Grinnell College, I set out with Ms. Fang to buy a new computer for our fellows. I am happy to report that I am writing this report on the new computer and intend to email it from the fast internet connection in my room. There are no interruptions, no echo, no fuzziness, and no one else reading over my shoulder. Thank you to Justin for writing a letter to Nanjing University last year recommending a room internet connection. I cannot express how grateful I am for the communication and lesson planning resources it provides. It is priceless!
Fanny and Gloria, two Chinese teachers from our middle school, have been our Chinese language tutors. Julia and I meet with them once a week to practice our vocabulary and pronunciation. My progress is slow, but I can tell I'm learning some very practical survival phrases that are making my daily life easier. I bought a bike and have explored some very beautiful parks around the city. It's amazing to see how people here take advantage of traveling on bikes. Every street has a bike lane! I highly recommend traveling in Nanjing by bike because the bike lanes are separate from the car lanes and easy to navigate. I opened up a bank account at the Bank of Communications, and they even gave me an ATM card which is much more convenient than travelers checks since it has taken anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hour for processing at a teller window. I am amazed at the number of red stamps used in this country for official documentation.
My delicate American system took a while to get accustomed to all of the different spices and oil. My stomach felt lousy for a couple days after first arriving, but our program leaders assured all of us that it would get better. Thankfully, I can now eat absolutely any mixture of a street vendor's food without a problem. This is a good thing because the food is truly fantastic. I do not think I exaggerate when I say it is one of the real perks of living in China. The fresh fruit is amazing! Just down the road there are several fruit stands where we can buy almost any kind of fruit imaginable including dragon fruit, water apples, and pomegranates. We have found a German bakery nearby with heavenly breads, cheeses, desserts, and deli sandwiches. There is a cheap little Chinese place across from the dorm building. It is homey and there is an English menu. During the Mid-Autumn Day Festival, people ate a lot of mooncakes which are delicious little round cakes filled with paste that tastes like a gum drop. This is a Chinese holiday that is the equivalent of Thanksgiving in the states. Not only do I love the food here, I LOVE the tea, and the jasmine tea is my favorite. A dried jasmine flower is put in a tall glass, and as the flower gets wet, it blooms in the boiling water. It smells like pure sunshine.
I feel really good about this experience and opportunity right now! But I have gone through the normal periods of adjustment including self-doubt, frustrations, and homesickness. I was very nervous to begin teaching and was not sure how I could best develop my teaching skills to embark on this amazing year of instructing hundreds of middle school students. It settled my nerves to be able to begin teaching with the help of Don Snow and the 14 other teachers in Shanghai. My self-doubt has subsided and I'm really happy with all the classes at Nan Da Fu Zhong (NDFZ). Now after a couple months of teaching, I feel like I have a plan for my classes and am making headway.
At NDFZ middle school, Julia and I each have a classroom, a big office with comfy chairs and a couch, a copy machine, and our own western toilets. I feel spoiled. Thank you Grinnell College! Teaching is a whole lot of fun and continues to be more fun each class period as I learn the strengths and weaknesses of my students. Teaching a foreign language is really hard because the kids rarely tell me if they do not understand. Mainly, they just stare blankly. Teaching is an exciting profession but very exhausting especially in the summer heat with no air conditioning and the fall cold with no heat. The kids are a lot of fun and enjoy learning news things about American culture. They enjoy discussing food, clothing, music, traditions, festivals, school, transportation, and sports. I feel like a walking English encyclopedia some days. Classes have been fun because many students are eager to practice their speaking skills. Not long ago it was Teacher's Day, and we received several small gifts from students. It was nice to feel appreciated!
The Junior I classes are the best-behaved and eager to learn new vocabulary even though their speaking skills are basic. It makes me smile during each of these classes to have students enthusiastically looking up the meanings of new words in their dictionaries while trying to pronounce the new words correctly. The Junior II classes require the most discipline and energy from me. Though challenging at times, I find these classes are simply a test of my teaching skills as I strive to find activities that harness the students' energy to benefit their learning. Often I get the most creativity and imagination from these students. My junior II class 9 is entirely 13 year old boys, but they are all very willing to talk with me. I enjoy all their energy and excitement. The Senior I classes are excited to learn about American culture and have the most advanced listening comprehension skills. Many of their dialogues written in class are engaging and highly theatrical. The Senior II students prove to be a passive bunch. I struggle to get them to participate in class voluntarily. Though, it works well to call on them individually, I'm still trying to find ways to make classroom speaking more conversational in nature.
Teaching was very festive in October. Julia and I threw Halloween parties for all of our classes after presenting several Halloween related activities in the previous couple of weeks. It's amazing how much more the students are willing to participate in class discussion when it involves monsters, ghosts, and other scary ghouls. I find it really enjoyable to have an opportunity to plan creative and fun lessons that include American holiday traditions. The walls of my classroom were plastered with amazing drawings and descriptions of "new" monsters, rent-a-ghost brochures, and collective nightmare stories. It's been a hoot. In addition, the annual track-and-field meet was held in October. Because the students do not participate in school organized sports teams, it was nice to see some friendly athletic competition and exercise integrated into their classes. It was very apparent that the students enjoyed seeing Julia and I there to support them.
I have many things to love and enjoy about this place. I love the opportunity to discover new hobbies. When I am not teaching, I have explored other endeavors such as Chinese language courses, learning an instrument, and finding martial arts classes. I found a really nice fitness club that offers pretty much every fitness class imaginable including martial arts. So far, I have tried kickboxing, tai chi, yoga, balance pilates, and fit ball. Ms. Fang offered to find someone to teach me the erhu, an instrument that has two strings and is played with a bow. Julia says I need lessons because I make it sound like a dying cow. Nanjing University allows the fellows to take as many Chinese language classes as desired for free. The only disadvantage is that they move very quickly so I started off with only a speaking class. In addition, much of my time has been spent completing medical school applications. Thankfully, these applications are now finished and are a great weight off of my shoulders. We had a one week vacation in November from the 4th - 13th during which I flew home for medical school interviews. It's not easy to apply for medical or graduate school while abroad.
During the National Day holiday, Julia and I traveled to Beijing by train and stayed for six days. During our time we had a chance to see some wonderful sites such as the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Lama Temple, markets, and several beautiful parks around the city. The Great Wall was astounding and most definitely my favorite! There is a lot of hiking involved in visiting the Great Wall. We had to hike up the mountain, and then hike the wall itself. It was surprising because in some places there were 70 degree inclines. The air smelled very clean after being in the city for so long. The local food was delicious! I especially enjoyed the roast duck. It was a trip I have always wanted to complete, and I am so thankful for the opportunity to travel around China during our breaks from teaching. Unfortunately, I was unable to bring back any of my pictures from our trip because I was mugged on National Day while visiting Tiananmen Square. The thief cut my brand new digital camera off my wrist in approximately three seconds and was lost in the crowd.
I traveled to Hangzhou in October. It is the one city every Chinese person would like to visit before they die to see West Lake. This lake inspired many ancient Chinese poets and painters. So as you can imagine, I had the opportunity to see some really lovely scenery. I went for a walk down by the lake and took the opportunity to practice my newly learned tai chi movements with a group of senior citizens. I spent about five hours leisurely walking through winding lake paths. I happened upon Buddhist temples, a botanical garden, and was invited to feed enormous koi with an elderly woman from her hefty box of onion crackers. I cannot wait to travel more and am having fun planning a big winter break trip with Julia to Southeast Asia.
It was wonderful to visit with Professor Hsieh and Professor Armstrong in October. Much of our time together was spent eating, eating and eating more. I enjoyed getting the opportunity to discuss the future of the Grinnell Corps program and some of the small obstacles that were facing me at the time. I am appreciative that the Nanjing Grinnell Corps Committee selected me for this outstanding opportunity. It is my honor to teach at NDFZ, and I look forward to all that China holds for me in the approaching months. There is a lot to love!!
Even though the frustrations I have encountered in China make me want to scream occasionally, I really do value the challenge. As the Chinese say, "Frustration is nothing but inspiration to make people stronger." As annoyed as this saying occasionally makes me, these really are words to live by in China! This society is so different. I think I can definitely say that living in China for a year will give me the challenge for which I was looking! The toilets are uncomfortable. Having to eat out every meal and not being able to cook is a headache. The bad smells, air pollution, acid rain, trash, and dirt everywhere sometimes makes me yearn for Iowa's green countryside. Having so many people around me all the time hurrying everywhere makes me feel claustrophobic. A person staring at me because I am a foreigner makes me want to hide. Sometimes I feel helpless because I do not know how to answer my own questions. For helping me through these rough times, I have many people to thank! Julia has been a wonderful friend who has made me laugh, listened, and offered advice when I have desperately needed it. Ms. Fang is a delightful woman who is extremely generous with her time and always willing to help us. I wonder how we could ever repay her. Thank you to my parents, brothers, and grandparents for all their love, help, support, and care packages. Lastly, I am incredibly thankful to Grant for his love, encouragement, and willingness to always be available without hesitation.