Logan Lewis' Reports
Logan Lewis, Grinnell Corps: Nanjing 2007-08
Report 1Logan Lewis
I wanted very much to say something meaningful in this opening section. After trying five or six times I realized that it wasn't going to happen. It is not I result, I feel, of the overwhelming amount of new experience I to share in such a limited space, but rather because I am not now removed enough from that experience to be able to presume its value or meaning. I suppose all else I can say is please forgive me for the superabundance of parentheses.
Fortunately culture shock has not been too great of a problem for me, even as one bereft of previous experience traveling abroad. I have seen a great number of movies in which someone transplants to a land in great contrast with their own, and accordingly undergoes some variety of personal transformation, and this is what I had more or less expected out of my own experience. However, that thought never came anywhere close to fruition. The Western influence in Nanjing is quite visible, and it becomes hard to feel culturally alienated when an opening of the drapes reveals a McDonald's sign, or when all a young Chinese man wants to talk about is his favorite NBA players-In English.
While it is certainly true that there are a great number of cultural differences between China and the U.S. I feel like none of these is of such a magnitude to make it impossible to get used to. Really it is the small differences which have gotten to me, especially in terms of food, life in the city, and the all-important language barrier.
Shoes to Fill/Expectations
As the oldest of all the Grinnell Corps programs, I feel that the Nanjing program carries the highest expectations. Those expectations, I felt, were raised still a little higher by the praise that I have heard given to last year's fellows, Lauren Knapp and Austin Dean. Even though I know all I do is trust my own best judgment in handling all China has to offer, I still finding myself occasionally asking the question "WWAOLD?" (What would Austin or Lauren do?). Fortunately, to get the answer to half of that question all I have to do is pick up my phone, as Austin still loves in Nanjing, teaching at the undergraduate campus of Nanjing University (NanDa from here on-the abbreviation for its Chinese name).
The People of China
People watching in China is far more interesting than it is back home, and not just because of the novelty. For me, the most interesting thing about the Chinese is the tremendous generation gap that is being created here. As I say again later in this report, a young person in China really has more in common with a young person in America than they do with their parents. And, as for their grandparents, they might as well be from another country. Young Chinese people dress in flashier clothes, hang out at American fast food restaurants, and love American music. In particularly stark contrast with their grandparents generation, a lot of them are really tall.
Old people in China are also fascinating. As opposed to old people in America, retired people here are quite active-especially the women. On one of my first walks through the Nan Da campus on a Sunday morning, I was amused to find about a dozen seventy or eighty-something women dancing to a hot sounding pop song. The old men may not have this same level of energy, but they do have kites and Mahjong.
But to be sure, some of the interest is due to the observer effect her-as a foreigner just doesn't interact with people in the same way. Nanjing is a cosmopolitan enough city that a foreigner out and about does not demand much attention, but in spite of this I have had a few interesting "foreigner moments" here. Most of these have to do with people talking about me behind my back, not knowing that my primitive Chinese understanding is working full throttle to decipher what they are saying about me.
Prior to my arrival, the question of where we were going to live was still unanswered. I was pleased to hear after being picked up from the airport that we were to move into the new foreign student dormitory, Zeng Xian Zi and not at Xi Yuan (the building next door where all fellows prior to us lived). The reason for my reaction were many-most notably the presence of heating and air conditioning and a private Western-style bathroom in each room. Joining us in the building are students from all over Europe, Asia, and Africa who make the surrounding few blocks probably the most diverse in Nanjing.
The neighborhood around the building mirrors the diversity of the people who stay there. Across the street are a number of shops and restaurants of which I am a frequent customer at several. The bosses at these are all quite genial and are always patient enough to give me a opportunity to practice my Chinese with them. Most call me by my Chinese name "Luo Han," which I think they like to use due to its comic value because of its meaning in Chinese (either a follower of the Buddha, or a warrior monk, depending on the translation).
Even though I am overall quite grateful for the quality of our accommodations, we are still without the internet in our rooms. To keep things in perspective, the internet is indeed a luxury, and this problem is nothing more than an inconvenience, but it is bothersome that it seems to be so persistently close to being solved. Going to a coffee shop to use their wireless is not too troubling, but it would be far better to be able to use it in our rooms-which the people at Nan Da have told us would be possible on many occasions which have passed already. Adding to the problem is the fact that both Maggie and I have Mac's, which are not compatible with the XP platform that Nan Da uses (hint hint next year fellows). I also had an interesting experience, when after a shower, the sliding glass door shattered all over my floor more than a minute after I shut it. Luckily now it has been fixed and I don't have to hold onto that worry or slipping in the shower and having to trouble Doug with finding a replacement fellow.
It was during the summer between my junior and senior years at Grinnell that I first became interested in coming to China for the Grinnell Corps program. That in mind, I thought it would be prudent to prepare myself in whatever way possible. For me that meant taking the plunge my senior year and joining a class full of wide-eyed first years in taking Intro to Chinese. That gave me at least something of clue-at least that was the intention.
In reality, I find myself locked in a perpetual struggle to understand and to be understood, and that Chinese on the street is rather different animal than the Chinese of the classroom. Gradually things have improved, but I am still far from where I feel I need to be in order to be able to communicate effectively. More than anything else, I have learned that it is a confidence issue. Some days I feel as if I can stroll right into a conversation with anyone I might encounter, and other days I try to say the most simple thing and people furrow their brows at me as if I were trying to communicate to them in morse code. I've had to learn to not let the latter kind of experiences bother me. That, however, is more easily said than done.
Like most foreigners here, I encountered a great deal of digestive difficulties in my first weeks in Nanjing. There reached a point when I would only go to the deli or to KFC for food because the very thought of Chinese food was enough to quell any appetite I could muster. Through this it became immediately clear to me that actual Chinese food was quite unlike the take out I had become accustomed to from Formosa Garden in Denver or from the special occasion dinner I would have at Chuang Garden in Grinnell. The rule of thumb for me is actually quite counterintuitive: the cheaper the food, the more likely it is to be delicious and not cause stomach problems. Thus: street dumplings, meat on a stick, breakfast burritos (called Jian Bing, which I want to market in the US, by the way) are delicious, cheap, and sit well on the stomach, while "delicacies" such as duck's blood soup, embryonic chickens still in the shell, and stinky tofu have and outstanding chance of making me unable to leave my room the next morning.
In the same way and at the same time, I began to feel stifled by life in the city. Even though I come from Denver (which is not a backwater burg in any sense), I felt utterly unprepared for such urban living. I first noticed this when I heard a bird's call one day and could not remember the last time such a sound came across my ears.
The remedy to this problem was not unlike my solution to my problems in confronting China's cuisine. Nanjing is quite the diverse city, and has something to offer almost anyone. The only trouble is finding where those places. For me, nothing has proven to be better at relieving the stress of urban living better than a bike ride around Xuan Wu Lake, one of the most famous sites in Nanjing. When that is too much of a journey, a walk around the tree-lined campus of Nan Da, Asia's third best university, usually does the trick.
Nan Da Fu Zhong
The Nanjing University Attached Middle School (NDFZ) first struck me as a true inner-city school: old and clearly in need of a little elbow grease here and there-about what I expected. However, I was quite surprised at the facilities Maggie and I each have our disposal: our own classroom for each of us, and also an office which is over twice as big as any other teacher office in the school, and is the only office with its own heater and air conditioner (both of which I have made a great deal of use of). It is clear that the school values us a tremendous deal, as it is not only in terms of the aforementioned facilities, but in terms of the treatment we receive.
Fang Laoshi, one of the senior teachers at the school serves as our go to person for any kind of problems me might have. She takes outstanding care of us, and I could not fathom anyone better suited to the job. The rest of the teachers at NDFZ are great, such as Guo Laoshi and Wan Laoshi, both of whom help me with my Chinese, and Li Laoshi, who helps Maggie. Everyone we have met at Nan Da has also been more than friendly and helpful. This great support staff, I feel, is one of the bet features of this entire program.
Before actually coming to China, I dismissed any anxiety I had in regard to teaching by thinking of the image of the well-disciplined Asian student. The first couple of weeks served to prove me correct, and I even entertained the thought that teaching middle school was easy. However, the next several weeks painted that image as only an ideal. In most ways, the students at NDFZ are quite like the students in America, and in any case, have far more in common with people their own age in America than they do even their own parents. Seeing how they interact with me and with each other in the classroom makes me think back to being their age.
Sometimes I even forget that the students and I grew up a world apart, and it is only when I catch them talking to each other in class that I am reminded that they are not actually American students.
Their respective ability levels differs more than I had expected, even within each class, which is group together according to similar test scores. In one of my senior classes, for example, there are a couple of students who have to turn to one of their classmates for an interpretation to even the most simple thing I have said, while another student speaks so well that I hardly even need to slow down and remove the big words that I usually have to in order to be fully understood. Perhaps a better example is provided by Jack and Hanna (all the students have English names, which brings up and interesting story that I will bring up again later), two Junior 1 (12 year old) students whose fathers are both teachers at Nan Da. Everyday that we teach, both come to our office to eat lunch, and I am consistently amazed at their ability, especially in terms of the breadth of their vocabulary-Jack, for example, can talk about the stock market like most students talk about basketball.
Personal interactions such as my daily lunch with Jack and Hanna with the students have been the most entertaining aspect of living in China. When first meeting the students, I allowed them to ask me whatever questions they wanted. The great majority of these had to do with computer games and basketball, even after I had made it repeatedly clear that I can't perform a crossover dribble without hitting my foot, and that I haven't used a computer for anything besides the internet and writing papers since the Clinton administration. Although it is annoying to a certain extent, I cannot ceased to be greatly entertained by their persistence and their curiosity.
But to include this detail without a quickly before I end this section: In regard to naming, I had quite a difficult time, as I found out not only that I needed to give more students names than I had anticipated, but that all of these students were boys, as (surprise, surprise) I was assigned almost all male students, while Maggie got almost all girls. Thus my small supply of masculine names was exhausted quite quickly. The result, you might ask: three Chinese teenagers named Lyle.
For me, teaching has been something of a job within a job, as getting used to life on the other side of the Pacific has proven to be a job in itself. My first experience with the students at NDFZ was to give an introduction speech in front of all two-thousand of them in English and Chinese. From that point I was convinced that it could only get easier.
To some extent, that assessment was correct. Although I had a great deal of jitters when first placed in front of thirty students, I soon overcame my nerves and found taking the role I had seen acted out over the past seventeen years quite natural. Lesson planning too has become easier and easier, as with the passing of time and the accumulation of experience I have begun to gain a better sense of what works and what does not work in the classroom: what the students find interesting, what gives each student the best opportunity to practice their English, and what allows them to learn a little bit about Western culture in the process.
I still have a long way to go in becoming a good teacher. Sometimes I think I talk too much, and other times I think I allow the "boys will be boys" attitude to reign in class a little to often. However, I am learning just as my students are, and I am confident that as times passes, even though I will never be the perfect teacher, I can always be better than I was the day before.
With an exhausting 12 hour and work week that runs from Tuesday through Thursday, you might wonder how I have any energy left at all. Well, it might amaze you to learn that despite that grueling schedule I have found the time to take on an extra job of sorts. Sarcasm aside, I found that gaining employment as a foreigner is altogether too easy. In one week someone who approached me while I was taking a walk offered me a job on two different occasions. Despite the obvious financial incentives (private English tutors make a lot of money here-even by American standards) I held out, not wanting to be held down in my exploring, and wary that taking on more work might interfere with applying to grad school. Finally I caved, as the idea of making almost enough money to cover my expenses for the week in two hours was just too much. Thus I put up three little 8x11 signs up inside Zeng Xian Zi. Within 24 hours I had six calls, the first coming within ah hour from a high school student to whom I have wanted to ask for sometime what she was doing on the tenth floor of a student dormitory on the other side of town from her house. I have managed to keep my questions to myself, though, as she gives me 200 rmb just for making conversation with her in a coffee shopâ¦if only employment were this easy in America.
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