Jordan Lee was the Grinnell Corps Nanjing fellow for 2008-2009.
Jordan Lee's Reports
Jordan Lee, Grinnell Corps: Nanjing 2008-09
Report 1Jordan Lee
On the first day one of my senior boys, who sits in the front row and participates a lot, approached me after class:
"Mr. Lee Can I ask you a question?"
"Of course Hitler"
"How come you have black hair if you are from America?"
While trying hard to suppress laughter I thought to myself: now I know why you named yourself Hitler.
Note: "We" and "our" refers to the other Grinnell Fellow Margaret Block '08 and myself
Ever since my dad first took me to Portland's Chinatown to pick up roast duck and chicken I have wanted to go back and find the source. As I became interested and passionate about cooking in College I put "Go to Hong Kong and eat fow op (what we affectionately call roast duck at home), roast chicken with the green sauce, and roast pork" on my list of things to do before I die. When I found out Grinnell was sending me to Nanjing, I had to make the trip.
After days of searching and exorbitant sums of money spent on food and hotels, I found the place in Hong Kong that every "hanging animal butcher shop" in America's China towns is trying to imitate. There were two tables in the restaurant. They served tea out of those ugly giant thermoses and animals were hanging everywhere. A burly guy stood behind the window with a smile on his face and a big rounded cleaver in hand; the ones used for cutting through bones. He used a thick slice of a tree trunk for a chopping block. The green sauce (garlic, green onions, some type of oil, possibly rice vinegar and other secret ingredients) was sitting in a small bowl on the counter with a small spoon.
In the 15 minutes it took me to eat half a duck, half a chicken, a small plate of roast pork and a plate of rice, at least as many customers came by for take out. It is impossible to explain the flavor or texture of the food, suffice to say that I will never forget that meal for the rest of my life. I now know how those dishes should look and taste, unfortunately I will never be able to replicate it.
Hong Kong is a great city. It is very different from mainland China. The people are courteous, the pollution is not as bad, and the streets and buildings are cleaner. Unfortunately everything is expensive. A cheap bowl of won ton and noodles costs the equivalent of 25 RMB which is good 4 to 5 times the price of a bowl of noodles in Nanjing. The number of skyscrapers and shopping malls is overwhelming, but there are also interesting museums, theaters and parks. The subway system is immaculate, efficient and negotiable. Hong Kong impressed me and I look forward to a return trip when I can afford it.
Back to Nanjing
Returning to Nanjing reminded me of flying back to Grinnell second semester of freshman year. Stepping off a high speed train into a churning sea of people, where the temperature and humidity is miserably stuck in the mid 90's, is different than pulling off I80 to Dairy Queen, Kum and Go, and a foot of snow. Somehow, the feeling is the same. That slightly comforting feeling of "home away from home," is something I find in Nanjing. The small entourage of Grinnellians, my boss at school, and my Grinnell roommate's (Jingsheng Wang '08) family members, have all helped to make Nanjing comfortable for me.
I have to say my experiences thus far are different from the previous fellows. As my third visit to China, including a seven week stay in Nanjing, and my fifth year studying Mandarin, the language and cultural barriers are not the same. No doubt I'm constantly frustrated by my inability to adequately express myself. I still cannot accustom myself to people pushing in front and walking or riding their bikes and even cars into me. Everyone experiences China in a different light and a lot of it has to do with appearances. This may sound horrible to an American who is taught to be "color blind" or to judge someone only by their actions, but in reality, it is a fact of life. For better or for worse one's appearance brings with it many assumptions and stereotypes. In China people are up front about it. It can be partially explained by the fact that China is a homogenous country, but part of it is also cultural. There is a lot of value placed on appearances and people are not afraid to share their opinion in that regard. I can't count how many times I have been sitting at a banquet table and a couple women will talk about the way my face, hair, and eyes look, or compare me to other people even if it was the first time I had ever met them! My favorite situation is getting into a cab by myself. Once the taxi driver deduces that I can understand a basic amount of Chinese, inevitably the first question is "What country are you from?" I usually play with this question and ask them to guess, or tell them I'm from Hong Kong. I rarely get America. Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong or random European countries are the choice assumptions. They can tell from my accent, clothes and face that I'm a laowai (foreigner) but they can also immediately recognize my Asian traits. When I tell them my father is American born Chinese they always go "ahh no wonder," and are likely to go on about how "mixed-blood" are smarter, better looking, etc. etc.
My Chinese blood will come up a lot in conversations with my colleagues as well. One will complement me on my Chinese (any foreigner who speaks any amount of Chinese will receive that complement) and another teacher will explain "He has Chinese blood, his father is Chinese." I try to tell them that my father did not teach me Mandarin but they like the blood explanation better. If only I could tap into my German blood and magically speak Germanâ¦
Two and a half months into teaching I have developed a new found respect for the previous fellows. Only two years ago they were living without air conditioning or internet and used public bathrooms. Now we have laptops, high-speed internet, a.c., heat, a maid that empties our garbage, and bathrooms in our rooms. I remember when I first came to China and everyone spoke rapidly to dialects that I did not understand. I never felt confident enough to use the little Chinese I had learned in two years. Transition can be a difficult and frustrating time, especially when you have not developed a strong social network. How the previous fellows managed to smoothly overcome this obstacle is beyond me.
Last week, for example, I was teaching a lesson on Black History in America and in my middle school classes I ended up teaching almost half the class in Chinese. It probably would have taken me 15 minutes to tell the story of Rosa Parks without employing Chinese. And they probably would not have understood it.
Teaching is both frustrating and rewarding. You have your days when the kids hang on to your every word and other days when classes degenerate into Pictionary. Early this afternoon I had to take a PSP away from one of my kids. On the other hand I have kids who enthusiastically memorized the 6 line poem "The Eagle" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson which my father made me memorize when I was a little boy.
My week is structured into a schedule that I only managed to achieve in my final semester at Grinnell. Margret and I teach 11 classes Monday through Friday. Our week is somewhat like an avalanche that buries us on Thursdays. Noon office hours and one afternoon class on Monday, two afternoon classes on Tuesday, a tutoring session (for my Chinese) Wednesday morning followed by English corner after lunch and three afternoon classes, and finally on Thursday we teach the other English teachers in the morning and have four afternoon classes. Outside of class Margret is running an American pop-culture club and I play basketball with my boys three times a week.
One of the nicest things about our teaching circumstances is also the most difficult. As we do not have a book to teach from or a certain curriculum to follow we teach our students anything we want. The challenge is we have to come up with a lesson plan on our own that involves the students and helps each of them improve their English. I still have difficulties getting students to participate and answer questions. It seems the only thing that ever gets the kids excited is when I play something on my laptop (they loved Obama's acceptance speech).
Extra Curricular Activities
In my free time I have been trying to get a job working in a hotel or as a cook but finding a part-time job in the food and beverage industry, when manual labor is a cheap commodity, is proving to be difficult. Instead I enrolled in a boxing class that meets daily for an hour and ten minutes and twice on the weekends. So far the class has been rigorous and the coaches are helpful and knowledgeable. I am hoping to make some new native friends and improve my Chinese while forcing myself to stay in shape.
I also get together with the Grinnellians in Nanjing at least once a week and we play low-stakes poker with a few other foreigners including Professor Hsieh's son. Sometimes we cook and other times we go out to a bar that reminds me of The Pub in Grinnell that closed down last year.
A couple weeks ago, during our fall break for their mid-terms, I went on a trip to An Hui province with my colleagues. Everything was paid for including hotels and they even gave us a 100 RMB (about 13 American dollars) gift at one of the dinners. Margaret was in Taiwan so at six in the morning I found myself sitting alone on a bus filled with teachers I did not recognize (our interaction with other teachers is mostly limited to the few English teachers who teach our students grammar and vocabulary). Somehow the destination of the trip and the fact that it was overnight trip had not been communicated to me. I figured it out when I woke up around 10 AM to our tour guide's microphone. Regretfully I didn't bring contact solution or a change of clothes.
As we pulled in to our stop for lunch I groggily sat down at my assigned table and finally met some of the teachers on my bus. I knew I was in for a time when one of the guys left, announcing that he was going to purchase 5 bottles of baijiu (a white spirit, distilled from sorghum, usually composed of at least 50% alcohol), one for every man at the table. Fortunately they were pint sized bottles and there was plenty of food to wash it down. Suddenly, I found myself being tested. First, of course, was my Chinese. They asked me if I liked to "eat tofu" (ask one of your Chinese friends what that means). Next they tested my ability to drink, and finally they even tested my chopstick skills with a clove of slippery garlic. On the way back to the bus I found myself stumbling again. Fortunately the baijiu put me right back to sleep.
Apparently I passed the test (read: the women sitting nearby had pity on me) and the women sitting next to me were suddenly treating me like I was their little nephew. Dragging me around everywhere, making sure I did not trip or get separated from the group, sharing snacks with me and even taking pictures of me.
The first stop we made was, from what I could ascertain from the tour guide (who I consequently zoned out after a few minutes), at a Ming dynasty city that was built in very tight quarters. There was paved stone everywhere and little alleyways and inlets that led to a large pool of water in the middle. The next stop was the city Yellow Mountain (not the mountain), which has a lively shopping district packed with candies, teas, and cheap handicrafts. My new aunts bought me "smelly tofu" which was unexpectedly delicious. Anthony Bourdain was right, it is much better on the street than in a restaurant. Next we headed to our hotel for dinner. I suddenly realized this was going to be a problem when they were asking for the teacher's ID cards. I didn't have my passport or my resident permit which they require to book a hotel in China. Fortunately a lot of the teachers didn't bring their ID's either. In the end they made us walk to the police station, which turned out to be a charade because the officer only nonchalantly glanced at us before waving us back. I was rooming with Margaret's English teacher who took it upon himself to protect me from drinking too much and made sure I did not sit with my lunch friends. After dinner I chose to play a Chinese card game with my aunts instead of going out drinking with the guys from lunch. Judging from the condition they were in the next day I made a wise decision.
The next morning we rode a lift to the top of a Daoist mountain that was speckled with temples connected by ancient stone stairways. I could see why it was a religious mountain because the temples were nestled in the clouds, and peaks would appear and disappear periodically throughout the tour. After descending, we visited Ming Dynasty caves that had an impressive amount of stone work done inside. It was as if an entire secret kingdom had once occupied the area. One of the caves was only accessible by boat. The trip was a lot of fun and it allowed me to get to know some of my colleagues who I otherwise would never have spoken with. It also made me realize that they will never think of me as a colleague. I suppose I am the same age, or younger, as their kids and they probably loose track of the new fellows year to year. I guess that brings me back to square one, the problem every foreigner faces in China; it is hard to accept that feeling of not fitting in. Fortunately I have a playing field where all bets are off, the basketball court.
Other Events of Note
The visit from Grinnell professors Hsieh, Yang, and Harrison was excellent and not only because we got a printer out of it. We got to enjoy the best banquet food, including the rightfully touted hairy crabs, excellent company, and most of all we got to see that we are part of something bigger and more important. We are part of a special, enduring relationship that has had an important and even life changing influence on many students and professors.
The Halloween party was an exciting time for the kids. We thought that 10 lbs of candy would be enough to last our 450 kids so we neglected to ration that candy. We were gravely mistaken. Once a kid has rapidly shoved three handfuls of candy into his pockets there is no going back. Even after we started rationing the candy to 3 measly pieces a child we knew we were going to run out. I had to dig through my prize drawer at the end to give to the stragglers. At one point we were so overwhelmed by trick-or-treaters that they almost knocked Margret over and did knock the remains of my lunch on the floor. I was lazy about making a costume so I pretended to be on old beggar with the cane I found in my room when I arrived. I went around and collected at the beginning of every class.
I'll never forget sitting on my dorm bed, drinking a German beer out of a can and eating take-out while I watched Obama's acceptance speech on the BBC. Everyone here knows who "O-ba-ma" is and that he is our next president. Most of the Chinese people I have talked to seem okay with it, someone told me they heard that Obama was going to be better for the world but MaCain would have been better for China but they could not tell me why. Obama is more of a celebrity to the younger kids than anything else. My friends from France and Canada were very happy about the election and thought that it was going to have a very positive impact on the world.
My first goal is always to maintain good physical and emotional health. I can not be a good teacher if I am in a bad mood or sick.
My second goal is to more fully devote myself to work. Think of more creative lesson plans. Come to class more prepared.
Thirdly I would like to improve my Chinese to a more advanced and sophisticated level. I am currently spending a minimal amount of time in this area and I would like to change that.
Fourth: keep cooking when I can, read about food, watch programs on making food and read more about the chemistry of cooking.
Fifth: if possible, find a part-time job in the food and beverage industry. If not, get prepared so I have the option of finding a full-time job in Shanghai next year.
I'm looking forward to an excellent year. The small exciting things and minor victories this term have far outweighed the setbacks. I'll be forever haunted by the look one of my senior boys gave me after I singled him out in front of the class and raised my voice after he repeatedly interrupted the lesson and said something rude in Chinese that he assumed I wouldn't understand. But I'll also never forget when one of my junior boys stood up and proudly recited The Eagle and executed the hand motions with precision. Or when my well-disciplined senior boys loudly chanted the name of one of their classmates until he shyly came to the front and performed a hula dance after planning a trip to Hawaii. Moments like these help me believe I make a difference in their lives.
Now is the time that the Fellows usually thank People. I have no idea who started this tradition or why it exists exactly, but I am a strong believer in tradition.
- Margaret for putting up with me
- My first Chinese tutor at Grinnell and a rock for all of us recent Fellows Felix '04
- A previous fellow who offers lots of advice and a kitchen Maggie '07
- My roommate and one of the major reasons I applied for this program Sheng Wang '08
- My Chinese boss Fang Laoshi for taking care of us
- My American bosses Cutchins, Hsieh, and Harrison for their continued support
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