My life in Nanjing is so rich and textured that to try to break it down into neat paragraphs seems like a Herculean task. There is so much here that I have experienced so far and I am constantly learning something new. Each day I come up against a new challenge, or have a small triumph as I discover I've learned how to do something I couldn't do the day before. Like Josh Blue said in his first report, my natural urge is to invite everyone out to Nanjing to experience what I am experiencing, because every detail seems so significant, and there is always something new around the corner, that it seems the only way to convey my life here is to invite someone to come experience it. But since it is not likely that everyone who is interested in what this fellowship is about will be able to hop the next flight over (though any visitors would be most welcome), I'll try my best to give the highlights.
My experience with this fellowship is slightly different from previous fellows because my partner this year has already lived and worked here for a year. So instead of groping around a new world blindly, I have greatly benefited from having Justin's year of experience to help smooth over what I can easily imagine would have been several very daunting and challenging situations. This is not to say that everything here has been an easy adjustment for me, but my transition has been cushioned by having a guide to help me get through some of the larger issues.
On the plane over to Hong Kong, I have to admit, I was filled with nervousness and anxiety about what exactly this coming year would bring-a normal reaction, I guess, to facing a year submerged in a completely foreign culture thousands of miles away from home. But as the plane landed in Hong Kong and I caught my first glimpse of the green hills and the mists that typify the Hong Kong landscape, all of my anxiety and exhaustion left, and an overwhelming awe and excitement filled me. Justin and I met each other at the airport without any trouble, and from there on, he guided me through dealing with luggage, getting Hong Kong currency, and finding our way to the hotel. I was able to relax and enjoy my excitement, to chat and take in the view, without feeling lost and bewildered in such a foreign city. Hong Kong is definitely a great city to help make the transition into China and Chinese culture, as its public transportation is very easy to navigate and English is everywhere. But having Justin to show me the side streets and back roads where some of Hong Kong's best food can be found, and to negotiate the taxi rides to and from scenic spots made the whole visit smooth and relaxing. We met up with Josh Blue, a former fellow now living and teaching in Hong Kong, and both Josh and Justin shared funny and interesting stories about their China experiences that helped prepare me for what to expect. The three days in Hong Kong geared me up for my new life in Nanjing, and though I was sad to leave Hong Kong, I was excited to get to Nanjing.
When we arrived in Nanjing, Justin's familiarity with China, and especially Nanjing, turned out not only to be useful to me, but also to the teachers at NDFZ. We were met at the airport by one of the teachers, Grace, who is a very nice woman and who since has become a good friend. On the ride into the city from the airport, she made our hearts stop and our jaws drop by telling us that we would begin teaching that Monday (just 2 days away!), which fortunately turned out to be the NEXT Monday-my first taste of the kind of scheduling confusion I was warned is typical in China. After Grace dropped us off at our dorm, Xi-Yuan, and made sure that we got into our rooms, she left and I didn't hear from or meet anyone from the school for a few days afterward. The first week that we were in Nanjing, I had a few trepidations that the people at the school would be a little distant this year with the assumption that since Justin has already been through it all they didn't have to reach out so much. It seemed as though the school wasn't too interested in us until they needed us to teach. However, I now know that the beginning of this year was very stressful for everyone at the school. The Nanjing city school district fell last in the university entrance exam rankings for Jiangsu Province last year, and so there is tremendous pressure on everyone to perform well this year. The whole staff at NDFZ was immensely busy preparing for a very rigorous new school year when we arrived in Nanjing. So it was easier on everyone if Justin could start getting me acquainted with the city and helping me with my initial moving-in needs, instead of us relying on the teachers at NDFZ. Justin was able to show me around the city and introduce me to others living in the dorm who could help me out with problems such as figuring out how to buy the right phone cards, getting to the store, and finding good places to eat.
Once school did start, I immediately felt welcomed by everyone at NDFZ. There were TWO banquets in a row that we were invited to that first week, ensuring that we were stuffed full and had plenty of fuel to help us with our teaching. Fang Laoshi ("Teacher Fang"), who is rightfully and affectionately called Fang Mama by all of the Nanjing Grinnell Corps fellows, threw herself into making sure we had everything we needed and were clear about our schedules. After the two banquets, I started to get to know more of the teachers and staff at the school, and I have felt nothing but friendliness and helpfulness from everyone, which has made teaching an easier job for me.
Teaching at Nan Da Fu Zhong has become the most resonant and consuming area of my life in Nanjing. This year we have the same teaching schedule that previous fellows have had. Justin and I teach ten forty minute classes of students each week in addition to teaching one English teachers' class and holding English corner and English library hours once a week. Our students come from four different grade levels. We have three classes of Junior I students (what we would consider 7th grade), three classes of Junior II students (8th grade), two classes of Senior I (high school sophomores), and two classes of Senior II (high school juniors). Each grade level is divided into classes based upon aptitude (judged by standardized test scores), so that Junior I class 1 contains the 50 highest scoring students out of the entire Junior I level; Junior I class 2 contains the 50 next highest scoring students of the entire Junior I level, and so on. Because oral English classes taught by a foreign native speaker are a rare commodity in China, at NDFZ we teach only the 1st and 2nd classes of each grade, with the addition of two special "computer" classes, Junior I class 9 and Junior II class 11.
I was very nervous about teaching to begin with, but I've discovered that there has been a wealth of resources left to us by previous fellows in the form of lesson plans and other materials. My first day of classes went fairly well-it wasn't a blazing success, but it wasn't a failure either. That first day helped a lot to calm my nerves about teaching, and I was reminded that having a foreign teacher is just as strange for them as being foreign and a teacher is for me. Since then, the students and I have gotten to know each other better and a good deal of the strangeness has worn off. Most of the time, the students behave like regular, pretty well behaved kids in class; they pay attention when I'm looking, and try to goof off a little when my back is turned. Like typical middle schoolers everywhere, the Junior students are full of energy and have trouble containing themselves and focusing on the lesson; when I can get them to speak in class, they usually shout out the answer or try to whisper it through embarrassed giggles. Many days I have my hands full trying to keep the giggling and bouncing around to a minimum and the attention focused on the lesson. And like typical high schoolers everywhere, the Senior students are more reserved and definitely waaaaay too cool to answer questions at all. With them, sometimes I have my hands full trying to get them to giggle just a little bit, just to show me that they are still alive.
One of the biggest problems I'm finding in all of my classes, as other fellows have noticed as well, is the wide disparity between comprehension levels within one class. Some students have excellent English skills in general, great reading and writing, a solid vocabulary, and confident speaking skills. Others have good reading and writing skills, but lack verbal proficiency and listening comprehension. And still some students have almost no listening comprehension. But the majority of the students fall in the middle. The wide gap between the few students who fall at either end of the scale is often responsible for most of the behavior problems in class, as the advanced students and the students who are behind in comprehension tend to act out and disrupt their learning and the progress of the whole class. Unfortunately, though I can clearly spot those who are behind and those who are advanced, I cannot find a way to bring the two to a happy medium in terms of my attention during class, and I haven't worked out how to work with them individually.
For my lesson plans so far, I have relied greatly on borrowing from past fellows' lesson plans and combining them with my own agendas, and I think this has been successful to various degrees. I would urge future fellows to take advantage of these materials, but with the caution that a pitfall of using former lesson plans is that sometimes the students have already gone through the material and become bored and restless when I unwittingly try to teach it to them for a second time. If I do run across this problem, I try to urge them to go beyond what they have already covered, but sometimes we all rely too heavily on familiar territory. However, I have had some very successful lessons, and I'm starting to slowly develop a feel for what sorts of activities will keep the students interested and attentive. Several of the other English teachers have sat in on some of my classes, and they have all had positive feedback about my lesson plans and my teaching methods, which has been greatly encouraging to me. It is a relief to feel less like I'm flying blind, and I'm now trying to incorporate into my teaching style some of the suggestions they had for me. I've also found that the teachers enjoy the chance to observe a native speaker in the classroom and to compare teaching styles.
In the mornings I have been attending an oral Chinese class, which has been immensely helpful to me in several ways, and something I recommend that future fellows try to do. Beyond helping me with daily communication needs, the class has also helped me better understand the perspective of my own students. I can now readily empathize with students who feel completely lost in a foreign language speaking/listening environment. I am also discovering that one of the most important things to convey about learning a foreign language is that a desire to communicate is the key to success. My Chinese professor has deftly illustrated that for me by setting my classmates up to communicate with one another-and in a classroom where the students come from diverse backgrounds (I am the only American in the class, the other students come from Korea, Japan, Finland, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, and Belgium) we are endlessly fascinated with prying out the personal details of each other's lives using the new language we all have in common. Learning vocabulary and grammatical structures is much easier if it is accompanied by the desire to ask your neighbor his/her plans for the future.
This type of curiosity about fellow classmates has been one of the harder things to use in my own classroom-my students all come from fairly similar backgrounds, and know each other well. While I've been able to convince my Senior students, to some degree, that examining and communicating about each other's lives is fascinating, my Junior students are less interested in this approach. But a recent lesson on sports that I have given my Junior II students (I thought learning how to play Dodgeball would be a great way to combine their boundless energy with a lesson in American culture) has lead me to understand that having them rely on a desire to communicate with me is the best trick for their level. I'm learning that nothing will prompt a child to try to communicate more than an outraged sense of fairness-some of my kids who have barely said peep to me class have come barreling over to me to point out some infraction of the rules or to clarify a judgment call. ("Miss, I got Mike out with the ball but he will not go out!" or "Miss, Mary stepped over the line, so I'm not out!") And, I've been genuinely, pleasantly, surprised by how inventive some of the kids are when thinking about the rules, coming up with different scenarios and grilling me about how the rules would apply in such instances. My new challenge now is to find a way for all of my lessons to take advantage of a situation in which my students are compelled by a desire to communicate, instead of having them speak only from obligation.
Outside of these structured classes with the students, we also have English library, English corner, and teacher's class. English library is sort of disappointing, as hardly any students have some to look at the books we have, and fewer have checked any out. But I am doing my best to promote the library during English corner. Once a week we sit outside in one of the courtyards during the lunch break to hold English corner. This period is an opportunity for any and all students to come practice their English with us and talk about whatever subject they like. I have noticed, though, that the crowds have thinned out since the students discovered I know very little about the Backstreet Boys and virtually nothing about computer games. Despite my utter dorkiness for not knowing the full catalogues of Westlife and Aaron Carter, I have had some of my most interesting conversations with students during English corner, and I've gotten to know more about their personal lives than I have learned so far in the classroom. My favorite part of English corner so far, however, is the two little girls who come to the school to eat lunch with their parents. I am guessing they are about 6 years old, and during English corner they usually hang out in the courtyard, casually skipping rope and nudging each other until one of them is finally brave enough to come up and say "HELLO!" When I ask "How are you?" they visibly puff up and proudly answer, "I AM FINE, THANK YOU," then quickly dart off.
The teacher's class has suffered from starts and stops, but we have managed to have at two successful meetings in which we discussed an article about the rise of protesting in China. I was surprised that some of the teachers were just as bashful to speak as our students are, but unlike our students, everyone spoke up when asked a question. And even the more bashful students joined in the debate about protest that came up during the second class. I was fascinated by the strong and varying opinions the teachers had, and I think the lesson went well. Unfortunately, since then the teacher's class has been sparsely attended. Hopefully we'll be able to get it back on track soon.
The Twelve Step Program
Living in Nanjing is just as fascinating and challenging as I thought it would be. One thing I didn't really expect, though, was the enormous amount of energy facing significant language and cultural hurtles on a daily basis takes. I have a suspicion that even without so many language and cultural hurtles in my way, navigating daily life in China would be exhausting.
Again, I have to say that having Justin as a guide to walk me through the beginning stages of learning exactly how to do basic daily tasks, such as laundry, ordering in a restaurant, finding grocery stores, etc. has been invaluable. I would have to say that my most frequent thought has been: "how in the world did Katie and Justin figure these things out on their own last year?" But even with Justin's help, I'm learning that there is almost always a challenge within every task, and short cuts are hard to come by. I've come to call this phenomenon the "China twelve step program," in which it takes me at least twelve steps more to complete tasks that usually go smoothly and without much thought for me in the US. For example, when Justin walked me through getting my laundry done, I learned that it's more than a simple matter of dropping off a load and picking it up later. Laundry involves a complicated dance of weighing out loads to the gram, measuring enough soap to clean without leaving soapy residue, being told the price, leaving the laundry room to go pay at the front desk, obtaining several receipts from the front desk, returning to the laundry room with proof of payment, receiving a pick up ticket, and finally being told what time to return to pick up the laundry. This isn't a hard or complicated chore once you know the system, but most tasks in China have a system that is not readily apparent. And it is not uncommon for one part of a system to break down, causing the whole system to shut down and requiring that you come back at some unspecified time when everything is working again. I won't even mention some of the misadventures I've had trying to use various printers, inquiring about transportation, or requesting maintenance for certain machines-situations that cannot be blamed on language barriers, but can only be blamed on knowledge of system barriers. Flexibility and patience are definitely the name of the game here, and learning to take things in stride is my largest task.
Another thing that has made simple tasks a bigger challenge than I expected is my illiteracy. I've always known that I can't read Chinese characters, but somehow this is a more shocking fact now that I'm in China. Even more amazingly, the impact of my illiteracy didn't hit me immediately-I've slowly developed the awareness that I'm missing out on a lot of things that I have always considered a daily part of my life. The first time it really affected me was the first time I wanted to buy dish washing liquid in the grocery store. I couldn't read any of the labels on the bottles I was looking at and I wasn't even sure if I was looking at the right bottles. It occurred to me then that when a label doesn't have English on it (which, surprisingly, a majority of them do) I will rely on the pictures to tell me the information I need. And if there are no pictures, I will guess at what I need or assume I don't need it. In restaurants, I know a few names of dishes that I like and that are common so I can just ask for them instead of reading a menu (though around Xi-Yuan usually the waitresses hand me an English menu without asking). And I've been lucky enough to have people show me the layout of the city so that I don't have to rely on street signs, but rather landmarks. But there isn't always a trick to skirting the necessity and helpfulness of literacy. Sometimes, in my efforts to communicate, if I don't understand what someone is saying to me, that person will write it down and show it to me-a smart move on their part because many of the foreigners around here can at least read, but to their disappointment I'm forced to tell them I can't read and often the communication effort falls flat after that. I also miss out on information about what is going on around me by my inability to read newspapers, understand advertisements and announcements, and access culture through literature. And it takes me twice as long to pick out a bottle of detergent.
One of the most interesting adjustments I've had to make in China has been learning how to bargain. I've quickly learned that often the actual price of an item has nothing to do with what the salesperson, or even the price tag, tells you. Supermarkets, chain stores, and upscale department stores are the only places that are the exception to this rule, and even then in some of these places you can ask for a discount for certain items. People here approach bargaining with relish-vendors expect their customers to bargain and usually offer a high first price, and customers expect vendors to offer a high price first and usually angle for a cheaper one. However, if you are unfamiliar with this system, you may find yourself paying inflated prices. Bargaining has represented several challenges to me; at first it required that I quickly master the language of numbers and money, but now I also need to gain a working knowledge of the value of goods, and shift my thinking to a friendly combative stance when I shop.
I've made some hilarious mistakes in the process of learning how to bargain. I've paid far too much for some things, and I walked away from good deals. My favorite bargaining encounter occurred during my first weeks in Nanjing, and it taught me some good lessons. One night while wondering around the night market that happens every night not too far from the dorm, I stopped by the blanket of an old woman who sells buttons, thread, and other miscellaneous items. I found a spool of thread that would help me mend a vest I own, and asked the woman in my newly confident Chinese how much it cost. I was truly astounded by her response, which to me sounded like she was saying it cost 8 Yuan (the equivalent of one American dollar)-this price would honestly be an outrageous price for a small spool of thread in China. Instead of staying to bargain, I was so dazed that I began to walk away when she grabbed my arm and starting speaking rapidly, lowering the price. Finally, I realized that she was saying the price was now 5 Mao (1 Mao is a tenth of a Yuan, like our dimes). Horror flashed through my mind as I realized that the vendor had originally said 8 Mao, not 8 Yuan, and I had just effectively gypped this poor woman out of the equivalent of 3/8 of an American dime. But she was very happy with the arrangement, and I got my spool of thread. My friends have helped ease my mortification over the incident by pointing out that bargaining is expected and engaged in with relish and a spirit of friendly competition here, and that the woman selling me the thread fully expected me to bargain her down, even if it was only over a few Mao. I realized there will always be miscommunications and misunderstandings for me and my beginner's Chinese, but this experience reinforced that fact that I must learn to listen carefully and slowly before coming to conclusions. Now, if only I could convince everyone to speak to me carefully and slowly, I should be just fine.
While I am discovering everyday that there is something I now know how to do which I did not know yesterday, China has its own way of reminding me not to get too cocky. At a point when I thought I had mastered the psychology of the INSANE traffic here and was becoming a bold and confident cyclist on the streets, I was flipped over my handlebars in a bizarre slow-motion collision with another cyclist. This accident was not my fault (though I have been guilty of doing stupid things in traffic)-an oncoming biker wasn't looking and was swerving all over the path, leaving me no room to dodge around him. However, whenever I explained the circumstances to my students or the other teachers, the response I got from all of them was "you should be more careful." I now have the scars on my elbow to remind me that however familiar I get with some aspect of China, I should always be prepared to face a sudden change, and I should always be more careful.
Life as a rock star/circus freak
You know you're in China whenâ¦you begin thinking about yourself, and referring to yourself, as a foreigner. Even though that seems like a fairly obvious fact, I have made a life here and consider Nanjing to be a home, if only a temporary one. Thinking about myself as a foreigner in my home is new concept for me, but it has not taken me long to start thinking in these terms. I have lived in and visited countries outside of the US, but I've never been to a country that is still adjusting to being suddenly confronted by visitors with different faces, different languages, and different customs. I can't imagine what it would be like to live all of your life in a fairly homogenous society in which everyone around you comes from the same cultural background and has the same physical appearance, and then to suddenly be confronted by a person who not only looks completely different from everyone you know but also speaks a different language and thinks and acts in ways totally foreign to your experience. But a lot of people in China have very little experience of foreigners beyond what they know from secondary sources like films. Even in urban areas like Nanjing that have a significant foreign population, most people only interact with foreigners through a quick giddy/shy 'hello' as they pass on the street. In many ways, I am reminded that most people here interact with me at least slightly differently than they do with other Chinese, and this makes it much harder to really feel like I am experiencing all of Chinese culture-and it makes me very aware that I am not only from another country, but that everything that has made up life so far is foreign to people here.
In October, Justin and I took an amazing trip to Inner Mongolia. The trip was filled with new experiences and awe inspiring sights; we visited Genghis Khan's mausoleum, took a camel ride into the Gobi desert to watch the sun rise, went star gazing at night, and took one raucous bus ride after another. But I was also experiencing to a higher degree what being a foreigner in China is like. My daily life in Nanjing takes place mostly around Nanjing University where people are fairly used to seeing plenty of foreigners; and while they do stare, it is not always blatant or intrusive. But in Inner Mongolia, for the first time I got to know what it felt like to have parents point me out to their children, to be followed at a not so discrete pace by groups of giggling Chinese, and to have the contents of my shopping basket thoroughly scrutinized (and even copied) everywhere I went. I began to feel like an odd combination of rock star and circus freak, and it was never easy to judge which element was the catalyst for the reactions we got. I have a sneaking suspicion that the two elements are inseparable in these reactions. For instance, when a taxi driver almost collided head on with another taxi because he was craning his head so far around to look at us, was it because we were like rock stars to him? Or just circus freaks? I think that probably the answer is he was absolutely floored (and maybe thrilled) to see two foreigners wondering around his city and he was also unbearably curious about such an unknown and potentially unpredictable element. Another time, when we joined a bonfire party one night at our yurt camp, were we welcomed so warmly because they wanted to party with rock stars or because they were curious about how circus freaks dance? Again, I think they were happy to welcome us into their circle and share their music and mood with us, while observing how we reacted to the situation. I was especially touched by this encounter because everyone at the bonfire was intensely aware of us, but they gave us personal space and made us feel welcome by teaching us the dances they were doing (dances oddly similar to the bunny hop and the Macarena). But when it was time for them to leave, as they all lined up and ran to their bus, a huge chorus of "GOODBYEs" almost blasted Justin and me off the ground.
Perhaps a rock star/circus freak analysis is a little too narrow for the complexity of the situation. Whatever the case, I now know what it is like to be the center of attention elicited by being completely foreign to someone. I can even understand the amazement and thrill that glimpsing such a rarity can cause. In fact, seeing foreigners is such a rarity in Inner Mongolia that Justin and I, upon running into some foreigners towards the end of our trip, even found ourselves staring at them!
Beyond being stared at and subjected to barrages of "hellos!" this rock star/ circus freak/ foreigner status continually places me in situations that leave me confused and slightly unsettled. In Nanjing, foreigners are treated with an odd double standard that fits right into the rock star/circus freak feeling. At the beginning of the semester, I would frequently come back to my room to find that various coupons had been shoved under my door, advertising free drinks and other perks at clubs and bars around the city. These coupons always had a disclaimer at the bottom stating they were for use by "foreigners only." After just one visit to one of these bars, it became clear that we were an attraction: a bar that can boast a foreign clientele can draw in many Chinese customers who want to participate in "western culture." While I like being offered a free drink just as much as the next person, it makes me intensely uncomfortable that my appearance and status as a representative of western culture is the catalyst for the offer. I am also intensely uncomfortable that the free drinks I receive inflate the cost of drinks/price of admission for others. This type of deferential treatment goes well beyond the club scene into more daily aspects of life here.
The area in which my status as a foreigner marks me out daily for different treatment most noticeably is within bargaining. Foreigners are usually asked to pay prices much higher than Chinese, based on a whole set of factors that are deeply rooted in history, but which I think today takes most of its basis from the perception that all foreigners are rich and should therefore pay more. Sometimes I can visibly see the wheels working behind an ambitious vendor's eyes when she is working out how much to overcharge me, which usually makes me chuckle, but not always. I do recognize that I come from a far, far more affluent and privileged background than the majority of people here, and that even in their own country I have the ability to earn 2 or 3 times what they make in a month (English taught by a native speaker is a hot commodity and pays a higher wage). And in light of this, I don't mind paying more for goods than Chinese with less earning power; especially if it can marginally improve the lives of some of the people I do business with (like the tailor who lives with his young family in their cramped workshop). However, it always stings a little when I'm told that the price won't go down any further simply because I'm foreigner or when I'm simply being extorted. But there are always situations in which I know I'm being treated fairly to make up for those little blows.
The relationship between foreigners and Chinese is extremely complex and ever evolving. I've only managed to give a few examples that hardly do justice to the situation, and I know that I will continually discover new facets of this relationship throughout my year here.
No report about China is complete if it doesn't mention the food. People in China are very passionate about food, and their passion shows in the product. A common greeting in China is "have you eaten yet?" and auspicious occasions are marked by the special foods associated with every event. The question people most frequently ask me is "do you like traditional Chinese food?' usually followed closely by "what is your favorite dish?". Travel tips usually begin with recommendations about regional cuisine.
I eat most of my meals in restaurants-cooking in the dorm would be the type of twelve step system I normally have no desire to pursue. Plus, there are several restaurants surrounding the dorm where I can get food that is delicious and cheap. Since meals are very social in China, I've had the opportunity to sample a wide variety of dishes ordered by friends who know more Chinese than I do. On the rare occasions that I eat a meal alone, I can rely on the nearby restaurants' English menus, and the waitresses are usually pretty good in coaching me at pronouncing the Chinese names of my favorite dishes. So far, some of my favorite dishes are spicy eggplant (a miracle, since I hated eggplant before coming to China), cilantro chicken, pork and noodles, and garlic broccoli. I've also spent a good deal of time sampling the various offerings of the street food vendors that seem to hang out on most street corners in Nanjing, especially around the university. Some of my favorite street food snacks are barbecued squid (on a stick, no less), boiled dumplings, and spicy goat (we think) meat with cilantro in a kind of pita bread. Street food is definitely for the more adventurous types, and I've started subscribing to a friend's theory that everything should be sampled at least once.
The concept of food in China enters a whole new arena when you mention the word banquet. Banquets are seized upon as opportunities to enjoy elaborate and uncommon delicacies, and the Chinese proclivity for conspicuous consumption is at its full glory during a banquet. Katie Michaelsen described a Chinese banquet as a marathon, and I don't think any other description could be accurate. A banquet is an epic meal of constant eating, drinking (with plenty of toasting), and socializing. Everyone sits around a table and helps themselves from the many, many dishes that appear throughout the meal. A banquet usually lasts for about 2 or 3 hours and during that whole time the table is never empty; often dishes pile up in precarious stacks as more food is brought to the table. There is always more food than one table full of people can possibly eat, and everyone is encouraged to eat as much as they can. Usually at the point when I start to feel full (approx. 1/3 of the way into the banquet) someone gently reminds me to eat as much as I can, then to eat more. I've been offered dishes that range from heavenly deliciousness to dishes that can only be an acquired taste. At several of the banquets I've been to, I usually have Fang Laoshi sitting close to me and periodically heaping my plate with food as she gently says "Vicki, I think you will try the duck's feet, now" or "Vicki, I noticed you liked the turtle soup, eat some more." After endless rounds that may involve, among other things, plates of pigeon, eel stew, an entire fish, pork cooked seven different ways, complex vegetable combinations, turtle soup, duck's feet, thousand year eggs, and pumpkin cakes, salvation is offered in the form of a fruit platter that signals the end of the meal. Usually by this point I'm so full I'm desperately trying to not burst at the seams, but you're not really done until you at least manage one small piece of fruit.
I think it has been said before, but it is true that China is like its banquets. There is a nonstop flow of experiences to sample and I am surrounded by people who gently encourage me to try it all and who will share my experiences with me. I am very grateful to have this opportunity to explore such an amazing and fascinating culture, and I want to thank the Nanjing Grinnell Corps committee for giving me this chance. I also want to thank those who have sent letters or encouraging emails, and those who have listened patiently on the phone while I explain the 12 step plan in detail.