I have had many adventures here in China and plenty of opportunities for reflection and yet I am still unsure what to share with you that could possibly explain what life here is like. Perhaps the best place to start will be the beginning.
The first days in China were overwhelming. Activities that would have been simple errands in America became great adventures in China. Trying to find a grocery store or a bank or even just dinner involved an excited and anxious search and the process of actually buying groceries, exchanging money, or ordering and paying for a meal presented challenges of their own.
I thought of my dorm as home base and slowly mapped out the surrounding area by venturing down and back neighboring streets one by one. This area quickly proved itself a fantastic location to live. Food, banks, our school, the metro, bus stops, and an entertaining night market are all well within walking distance.
I have mixed feelings about our dorm itself. Upon first entering my room, I was thrilled. I had envisioned a room resembling Norris, but this is more like living in a hotel. The furniture is made of a dark wood and all of it matches – the true mark of high class living. We have a desk, small table, two chairs, a bed, mirror, and a cabinet set. The high ceilings and a floor to ceiling window make the room seem more spacious and we have ladies who come to clean our rooms, take out the trash, and make our beds everyday.
I couldn’t believe I was going to live here for a whole year. It seemed like a great escape from dorm life and I really enjoyed it for the first month. But dorm life offers a feeling of comfort that a hotel can’t provide. There was nothing homey about our rooms. More importantly, there’s no sense of community here. There’s no lounge and no kitchen. There’s no common space except the elevator.
I’ve made my room homier with a duvet, pictures, and decorations, but I do often wish for a kitchen or even just a microwave and certainly for a lounge or living room. I’d love to invite people over to chat, watch a movie, play cards, cook, do a tutor session etc…but that means inviting someone I barely know into my bedroom where the only real sitting space is on my bed. On the other hand, our rooms have internet, hot water, heat, and air-conditioning so I really can’t complain. Life in our dorm has ups and downs, much like life in China in general.
Ryan and I teach conversational English at Number 11 High School, affiliated with Nanjing University. We teach three days a week and have nine classes of students and two classes of English teachers. We teach three classes of Junior Is, three classes of Junior IIs (the equivalent of American middle school) and three of Senior Is (American high school). Each grade has its own challenges and joys. The Junior Is are the youngest students and this is their first time having a foreign teacher. Their English is pretty limited and many of them are very shy about speaking. However, they listen carefully and get excited when they understand my directions. They also show great pride in their work, which makes me happy. I also appreciate how plainly their body language evinces their understanding or lack thereof. When they are lost, you can see it in their expressions and when they understand something they smile broadly and nod their heads. If we are playing a game, they can get downright unruly with excitement.
However, the Junior IIs are probably my favorite classes to teach. Their command of English is much better and this allows me to do more advanced activities with them. What I appreciate most, however, is the cohesion of each class itself. For some reason, my Junior II students seem closer with each other than my Junior Is and Senior Is. This sense of community makes class more comfortable and productive. I think the hardest part of learning a second language for most people is actually getting the guts to practice it. Many people would rather stay silent than risk possible embarrassment, but my Junior IIs seem very comfortable with each other and are much more willing to sing songs, play games, and ask questions.
My Senior Is are the hardest classes to teach. They are the least invested in my class and I have often struggled to keep everyone on task. Some of them put their heads down on their desks and others chat incessantly. While there are students with clear interest in my class, a great deal more are entirely apathetic. Every week I try to plan lessons that are fun, challenging, and interesting, but keeping their attention proves constantly difficult.
I have also struggled to define my role as a conversational English teacher. I am always tempted to design lessons that introduce new vocabulary and help them practice English grammar, but I remind myself that they have another English class for exactly that purpose. In my class, I want students to simply practice speaking and gain confidence in their ability to communicate. I think that once you have a base in grammar and vocabulary, the hardest part of language learning becomes speaking out of textbook context. Textbooks teach students how to count, order food in a restaurant, go to a doctor’s office, describe their family etc... They organize vocabulary and grammar into chapters with specific subjects, but life isn’t divided up neatly like that. To be comfortable speaking extemporaneously, you have to be able to use the grammar from chapter ten to talk about the subject matter of chapter one and to switch from talking about a party to talking about your homework. How do you take the grammar, the vocabulary, and parts of set dialogues you’ve already studied and then reassemble them to be able to express what you really want to say? That’s the challenge I want my students to work through.
The problem with this goal of self-expression is that it really requires a small class. I often get frustrated because in a 40 minute class with 35 students the most I could ever hope to hear an individual student talk is one minute. Having them talk to their neighbor can help to some degree, but then many revert to using Chinese. I want my students to practice speaking as much as possible, but I feel like I’m constantly battling time constraints and the chatter the inevitably erupts the second I stop talking.
All in all, teaching here has been a positive experience. I must admit that I am not really cut out to be a conversational English teacher. I prefer teaching content based courses because I enjoy learning or re-learning the material I am to teach. I miss mentoring for biology, chemistry and neuroscience and I prefer teaching English grammar and writing to teaching oral skills. However, I really enjoy my students here and the loud, outgoing, sometimes hard to control ones are often some of my favorites. My students make class interesting and I am always thrilled when they get excited about an activity or when they raise their hands and ask their own questions. Their excitement, interest, and progress make teaching here feel meaningful for me.
Eating in China is an adventure in its own right. I have had some of the best and worst meals of my life in the past two months. I sometimes wonder how I’ve gone all these years without roujiamo, dapanji and dry hotpot. How have I lived without fruit sticks and Hong Kong style dessert? On the other hand, I’ve also now supped on sea slugs, an experience I am not eager to repeat.
Eating in China is definitely a communal activity. You go out with a bunch of people, order several dishes, and everyone shares them. But once in a while you get an individual plate of something special. At this memorable dinner, the individual dish was sea slugs. I must have been staring at mine because the guy next to me leaned over and said, “it’s a sea cucumber.” Oh sea cucumber. That does sound a lot better than giant spiky slug. He told me it is a delicacy in China. Very expensive. Not wanting to offend, I ate all of the sea cucumber except its head, which I tried to hide under some rice. The waiter was very confused as to whether he should clear my plate and asked my neighbor if I was done. I guess you’d have to be out of your mind to not eat the entire slug. Banquet faux pas one.
Sea slugs aside, eating here has been fun. From street food to banquets, there’s always something new, something tasty, and something strange. Beverages follow the same pattern. Tea is the drink of choice here and probably a Westerner’s most reliable option. It’s the non-tea drinks that taste strange to me. I’ve ordered a watermelon drink that could have killed a diabetic, a strawberry drink that tasted exactly like liquefied lipsmackers, and a blackberry milkshake that was smurf-colored blue and tasted like those plastic-wrapped fake blueberry muffins you buy in the grocery store. On the other hand, coconut milk, kiwi juice and something called “sour fruits drink” are excellent options.
One really striking feature of China for me has been the lack of efficiency. China is simply not an efficient country. For example, there are three women who clean my room. One of them empties the trash. One of them makes my bed, and the last lady cleans the toilet. However, there is not enough space in my dorm room for all three of them so one or two must stand in the hall and they are always moving out of someone else’s way. When my safe deposit box needed repair, one man actually fixed it; a woman watched him, and another man stood in my doorway and grunted every now and then. Frank Gilbreth was probably rolling over in his grave. Why do I have to take my laundry to another building, buy blue tickets, go back to the building I live in, down to the laundry room, and then give my tickets to the laundry lady? Why can’t I just pay her and save time and paper? Why can’t I just do it myself with a coin-operated laundry machine? It’s not an efficient system and when I tried to make it more efficient by buying 100 RMB worth of laundry tickets at the same time, the woman selling them to me thought it was very strange to be buying so many at once. Then again, in a land of 1.3 billion people, they probably aren’t looking for efficiency. Most likely, they’re just creating jobs.
I’m still not really sure how things get done here. In the two months since we’ve been here, my room phone, refrigerator, safety deposit box, toilet, and the DVD player in my classroom have all broken. I’ve asked them to repair the fridge and the phone more times than I care to think about and Fang laoshi has called requests in often, but two months later they remain out of order. It took them a week to fix my toilet, which was flooding the bathroom, only a few hours to fix my safety deposit box, and I’m pretty sure my door wasn’t broken, but I came home one day and three people were fixing it without being asked. Beware future fellows; you just may inherit some broken appliances. Last week, the cleaning ladies offered to call in my refrigerator problem. Then they realized my phone is still broken.
Love and Hate
What I love most about being in China is that it’s always exciting. There’s always something new to see and to experience. Travel, train rides, markets, restaurants, the list goes on and on. Even if you don’t go looking for something new, daily life will present some novelty. People used to just hang laundry outside, but now they are also hanging sausages. All over the city there are lines of sausages. Things like this keep me constantly amused and intrigued and I am rarely bored here. On the other hand, I hate the constant spitting, the smoking, and the traffic. When Chinese people spit, they really summon up every last bit of phlegm with a noise that makes me cringe internally. Sometimes they just close one nostril and shoot the snot out the other one. There’s also no such thing as a smoke-free area in China; people smoke everywhere. Finally, crossing the street here is just way too stressful. Cars, busses, motorcycles, and bikes are all flying along at top speed and show no signs of slowing down for pedestrians. I get very wrapped up in my thoughts when I walk. I use the time for reflection, but this habit often puts me in serious danger of motor vehicle accidents. I often have to remind myself of the importance of CONSTANT VIGILANCE!
All in all, snot, smoke, and traffic are trivial compared to the opportunities available here and the excitement of life somewhere new. I do miss Grinnell and I miss my family tremendously, but being here has been a great new adventure and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next.
Hi Ryan! Thanks for helping make my transition to Nanjing much smoother. Your advice and assistance with all things Chinese have made life here much easier for me and it’s really reassuring to know that when I confuse people with my lack of Chinese skills, I can call you and you magically sort things out again.
I also want to thank Doug for running a great program. I brought my Grinnell Corps camp folder to Nanjing with me and many of the things you said then have a lot more meaning now. It’s been helpful for me to look back on our orientation and the advice you gave us.