It's hard to believe we have been here for over two months now. Yet at the same time, I feel so at home here, it's as if I've been living in Nanjing for quite some time. The daily noises, sights and (unfortunately) smells have begun to transform from strange and startling to familiar and almost comforting. Although, the smell of stinky tofu, which I think resembles a sweetened raw sewage smell, will never be comforting. The sounds of old Chinese business men in the morning (this usually begins around 6:30) have served as a second, more grotesque, alarm clock and the surprised look they all have on their faces when I catch them strolling down the hall in their underwear every morning (I'm living on an all-male floor) is an amusing way to start the day. It should be noted that Xi Yuan - the dorm Austin and I live in - is also a hostel, and so Austin and I are the only permanent residents in the building. But enough about Xi Yuan for now, the point is, China is growing on me every day and as of yet, I have generally enjoyed a much smoother and more constant transition into living the life of a cosmopolitan ex-pat in China than I had expected.
First, let's talk about why I'm here. Austin and I have been loving school. Although our classrooms are on the fifth floor, many students don't mind the hike up to come visit us during lunch. On the whole, the students are amazing. Our youngest students are 12 years old. On the first day of class, the students decided to divide themselves up, rather than adhere to the groups their teacher had assigned, and all of the boys went into Austin's classroom, while I got all of the girls. I'm not going to lie, it's been a little refreshing to have a class full of obedient, yet enthusiastic girls, who would be happy doing almost anything in class as long as it means they can ask me questions like, "Do you have a boyfriend?" afterward. However, I am a bit worried for next semester when Austin and I will switch classes and I will get the boys. I don't think he has much to worry about though, seeing as all of the girls think Austin is the living incarnation of Harry Potter.
I mentioned comforting sounds earlier; one of the best sources for comforting sounds is the school loudspeaker. Instead of proper bells, the school plays music - anything from a nice waltz to techno to daytime drama. Additionally, in the morning and afternoon they will do "Eye Exercises" which means a woman will count to eight with music playing behind her and the students are supposed to massage the area around their eyes to relax. More than anything, this helped me learn how to count to eight in Chinese pretty quickly.
I am becoming more comfortable with teaching each week, although it's clear I still have a lot to learn. I have had some discipline issues in one class, which I won't go into, which has taught me more than all of the other teaching challenges, that teaching is something you have to learn by experience. Of course there are theories and approaches that I can read up on to help guide my classes, but so much of teaching depends on the relationship between the students and the teacher and the environment of the classroom. No book can fully teach me how to create and sustain such a positive environment. With every disappointing class (of which there have not been many), I find even more respect for all of my past teachers. I now realize how exposed or disappointed they must have felt when students weren't participating. Or how personally offended and hurt they may have become when students didn't take their class seriously. Recalling my days in junior high and high school, I know students rarely mean to offend teachers and that even if they don't seem interested it doesn't mean that they aren't, but I'm not gaining a greater understanding of where some of those classic teacher looks were coming from.
The staff at NDFZ have been nothing but wonderful. Fang Laoshi (the woman who is more or less in charge of Austin and me and serves as a surrogate mother) is patient and hard working as always. If we have a random question which she does not know the answer to - as we sometimes do - she will tell us the next day. She has helped us buy plane tickets and train tickets and secured our residency permits. I think it would be possible for us to do all of these things on our own, but Fang Laoshi has made many of the more stressful tasks to perform in China quite a bit easier. The other teachers have also been great though, inviting us to their houses, taking us to the nearby mountain, taking us out to dinner, and offering to help us in whatever way they can.
All in all, I'm really enjoying my time at NDFZ. The students are by and large eager, creative, interesting, and pretty hilarious. It's exciting to try to come up with ways to make my class a place where students want to come because they know they can relax from the everyday rigor of Chinese academics, but at the same time learn English. Because we only see our students once a week, it's nearly impossible to really create a learning trajectory and even harder to see improvement. The most important thing I can do for them is to help them see that learning English can be interesting and that it is incredibly useful and important. When learning a foreign language, it is easy to forget that the ultimate goal is to communicate with people. Until you are thrown into a situation where you actually need those language skills, it's difficult to appreciate the true value of knowing a foreign language.
I guess that would make a nice segue into talking about learning Chinese in China. In terms of communication with non-English speakers, the first two weeks were overwhelming to say the least. All of the characters looked the same and I couldn't distinguish Nhege from Jhege (this from that). After a few months now and trying to study Chinese as much as possible in my free time, it's starting to come.
The English-speaking Chinese friends I've made so far have been really helpful - encouraging me to use Chinese when I can and patiently correcting my grammar or pronunciation. Even the strangers enjoy hearing me practice. Usually if I try to speak with people I don't know, they will let out a good-natured and reassuring laugh. For the most part, I've enjoyed this. Learning a language is funny, and as long as I know they're laughter is good-natured, I'm not offended and even appreciate the light-heartedness. However, there are always the exceptions, which have luckily been few and far between for me. Overall, it's a great environment to learn a new language in even if Chinese seems downright impossible at times.
We're living on the 17th floor of the International Student Dorms/Hotel at Nanjing University, just as the previous god-knows-how-many fellows have. Speaking of which, I was most surprised to see all of the "presents" left in our rooms for us: gorilla slippers, more medicine than Wal-Mart pharmacy carries, beer (and mold) in the fridge, a cup full of coins, all sorts of clothes, a cactus, two computers, a broken arhu, bike locks, a can of sauerkraut and a bottle of gin. I'm sure my friends are well aware that the last two were my favorite presents. The best part is that I'm still discovering things in the depths of my closet, making every 4 days a little bit like Christmas. Also, between the two of us Austin and I have a pretty impressive library and DVD collection. So, thank you to all of the previous fellows for the presents. I fully intend to carry on the tradition.
The weather has been spectacular. While the first week we were here was perpetually cloudy (leading Austin and me to believe that it was smog and that we would never again see the sun), the weather quickly improved. I'm surprised that it is still not cold. Currently, Austin and I are comfortably sitting in our office with the windows open in T-shirts - It's November 9th! I am in constant dread of the impending winter, however, and was a little worried to find that my heater either doesn't work, or I cannot operate Chinese machinery (both are equally probable).
Although I've been here for over two months, I still feel as if I have not secured a steady schedule. It seems as if something always comes up. And, many simple tasks, still take me at least twice as long to complete as they would at home. Nevertheless, I'm desperately trying to maintain a daily schedule. I almost always get up before 7:30 (it's no 6:30 like Austin, but impressive for me). I try to go to Chinese classes at Nanjing University with all of the international students in the morning. At noon I come to NDFZ, buy lunch on the street where all of the students eat, and eat in my office while I do last minute things like writing quarterly reports. I teach and study in the afternoons until 5:00. Then we have grading to do, which can take between 1 and 2 hours, and I try to run around the track. After that, dinner is up in the air. Sometimes I'll eat at the restaurant across the street, other days I'll wait to eat the dumplings from the street vendor who comes at 9:00, and others I skip it entirely seeing as by the time I eat it seems a bit pointless. Unfortunately, I only adhere to this schedule 35% of the time.
The food has been amazing. The street vendors outside of the dorm provide reliable breakfasts and nighttime snacks. You can get steamed dumplings, wonton soup, noodle soup, or a Chinese breakfast burrito (as I call it) for breakfast. But, you have to get there before 8:15, when they start to pack up. The street food at NDFZ is also quite delicious. Austin's and my favorite is a cart filled with vegetables, forms of tofu, and noodles. You pick your own ingredients by hand (which means you don't have to try to tell them what you want) and then they throw it all in a pot of boiling water. It comes out hot, delicious, and relatively ungreasy - which is rare. Everything in China is full of grease, which would be my biggest complaint about the food. While I do eat a lot of tofu and vegetables, it's hard to imagine I'm actually eating anything healthy when it is soaked in so much oil. Unfortunately, they have dismantled to poor excuse for a kitchen that did exist at Xi Yuan, and it can be a little difficult to find time to cook during the week.
Regarding the bountiful banquets, I believe Austin has addressed this in his report. All I will say is that it is more food than you can imagine, and just when you think it is over, there is always more. Until you see the watermelon (which is always dessert), no one is safe.
I am slowly working my way into the Nanjing music scene, albeit a very unimpressive one. I think the Grinnell Elks Lodge books more concerts than all of Nanjing, but I hope to soon change that. As many of you know, I was closely involved with music at Grinnell and I brought my guitar with me here to Nanjing. Between playing regularly at a restaurant/bar and briefly judging the Chinese version of American Idol (it sounds cooler than it is - really), I'm meeting and playing with new musicians from Nanjing every week.
For the past month, I have been playing (and getting paid) two nights a week at a nearby bar/restaurant called "Behind the Wall" (formerly "Bowing in the Wind"). This experience has been wonderful for a few reasons. First, I get to perform regularly and I can play whatever I happen to be in the mood for. Some of the random foreigners who frequent the restaurant have begun approaching me at clubs (which I don't go to as much as Austin makes it sound). Hopefully by May I will enjoy a low-profile celebrity status. Second, I get to play with some amazing musicians and Nanjing natives. The owner and lead musician at the restaurant is really into American folk and blues music and his friend, who plays a mean Spanish guitar, just bought two banjos in Shanghai. We have big plans to start a band, although no definitive actions have been taken yet. Making music with others has always been a really important part of my life, and so it's really great to have found a group of people that I can so easily play with. Finally, the people I have been meeting through music have become good friends. It has been great to meet so many cool Chinese people that I feel really comfortable hanging out with. It makes me feel more as if I am actually living here, and not a perpetual visitor.
Before I came to Nanjing, I definitely had some goals for the year, but as always, they were a bit vague and definitely subject to change. I certainly wanted to learn how to teach well and to help my students improve their spoken English. This is a goal that I intend to maintain throughout my time here and one that I think I can constantly work on improving. Teaching has proven to be a bit more difficult than I had given it credit for, but I learn immensely from each class I teach, and I can see my growth as a teacher and my students' growing enthusiasm and comfort in my classes. I'm still working on securing a rhythm and creating the perfect lesson plan. I hope that by the end of this semester, all of my students will not only have enjoyed speaking English in my class, but begun to appreciate the usefulness and importance of it.
A second goal was to learn Chinese. As I mentioned, this is coming along, but I could certainly work a little more diligently toward this goal. Lately I have been thinking that if all goes well this year, I may be interested in finding another semester-long teaching position in another area of China (ideally rural) to help me keep working on my Chinese and get a more holistic sense of the country.
Third, I wanted to immerse myself in the country and culture as much as possible. This is a little tricky, considering I'm still working on Goal No. 2. I would say I have done a good job thus far making friends with Chinese students and musicians and hanging out with the NDFZ teachers and various important people of Nanjing who occasionally ask Austin and I to dinner.
Unfortunately, I will always be white, and so I will never really fit into China. The color line has been a lot more pronounced and a lot less taboo than I had expected. I have spent a lot of my free time with Felix (2005 Grinnell grad and Nanjing native) and an international student from Austin Texas (whom I met through Elizabeth Lay'06) who was actually born in Nanjing, but grew up in the United States. Spending time with a Chinese boy who acts American and an American boy who looks Chinese has allowed for some interesting, and at times, very frustrating situations that I would otherwise not experience. It is difficult to know that my friend cannot get a job teaching English as a native English speaker because people do not believe that he is American, whereas if he were white, it would not be a problem.
Goal No. 3, has been difficult for a few reasons. We live with over 100 international students. I regularly see people from France, Ghana, Kenya, Canada, England, New Zealand, Korea, Vietnam, Spain, etc. and I can hear at least 3 different languages when I sit on the front steps to our dorm. And so, I absolutely love living near these people, taking classes with them, eating with them, and going out with them. Yet, at the same time it is a bit of a hindrance. It creates this false universe - a No Man's Land - we're not in China, but we're not in any of our home countries either. When I've gone out on the weekends I've gone to clubs that definitely cater to Westerners, playing all sorts of European and American music and giving 50% off discounts to foreigners (really non-Asian looking people). I hope that in the upcoming months, I will spend more of my free time experiencing Nanjing, and not just Nanjing's bizarre ex-pat community.
A fourth goal was for me to improve my music (guitar playing, songwriting, singing, performing). On many fronts, this is going better than ever expected. I'm playing more often and more regularly than I ever have, I'm teaching lessons and I'm earning some travel money by doing what I love. As always, I will continue to set new goals for myself in this area, but in general, I am just happy to know that I there are some people here who can help me along.
Fifth, I hoped to use this time to figure out what I am going to do with the rest of my life (or at least next year). Unfortunately, there has not been too much improvement on this. I'm still a disillusioned recent college graduate with a liberal arts degree and a whole lot of conflicting ideas about what kind of career I should pursue. Maybe by the next report I will have begun to figure it out.
By the next report, I hope to have actually written more than one letter (Graeme, you better feel lucky). I hope to have spoken with my parents more than twice. I hope to be able to confidently order food and have a basic conversation in Chinese that doesn't involve confused and nervous smiles. I hope to have established a solid rhythm for my classes. I hope to have not succumbed to the pressures of KFC, McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Starbucks (which are everywhere). In short, I hope for more of the same. I hope I can experience this city even more intimately and be as successful an English teacher as I can.
I would say this is shaping up to be an amazing year. Apart from an unfortunate trip to Taiyuan (a coal mining city - don't ask), Austin and I have had great experiences and are doing really well at maintaining positive attitudes. We're both incredibly busy doing things that make us happy. I can only think of two instances when I was even close to homesick - but those were mostly because I missed all of the good people in Grinnell. I know "No honeymoon lasts forever", as Andrew Hsieh mentioned when he visited. I'm sure there are challenges ahead. But, I think Austin and I are both confident that we will be able to tackle those challenges with enthusiasm.