I realized on a recent trip to three of China's ancient capitals that I now consider Nanjing home. Despite the daily challenges, including misunderstandings and cultural differences, I have grown relatively comfortable in Nanjing. I know my way around at least a limited part of the city. I know where cheap restaurants are, especially ones with English-language menus. I know approximately how much things should cost. I also have friends to hang out with and work to keep me busy.
Sometimes I feel like I have been in China for a long time. Other times I cannot believe that it is already time for my first quarterly report. So much has happened since I first set foot off the questionable aircraft that transported Justin and me here from Hong Kong. Living in China has been a learning process with a steep learning curve. Maybe some day I will plateau, but I think that day would take more than a year to reach. I will try to give you a brief taste of what my life here is like from teaching, to learning Chinese, to trying to maintain dignity while fumbling with chopsticks. It is difficult to separate my life into parts since everything is intricately woven together, but I will try to break my experience into more manageable sections.
My first day of teaching seems a lifetime away. It went neither as well as I had hoped nor as poorly as I had feared. Initially, I assumed that students would already be divided into two classes. The first ten minutes of class proved me wrong as students ran back and forth between classrooms to see where the majority of their friends were. The first class was Junior II class 1. It was and still is an "energetic" class. Students were very curious about me and excited to see the pictures I'd brought, but blank stares told me they did not understand everything. All my summer reading and suggestions from more experienced people went out the window. I went through my lesson plan in half the time I budgeted and ended playing English-language games. I made it through that period and many more since. Some students understood; some did not. Some want to learn English, others are not so excited.
Each week Justin and I split 11 classes of middle and high school students between us and co-teach one class of English instructors. The students are assigned to the classes within their grade based on their abilities (read: their scores on standardized tests and how well their parents know the head-master), with class 1 being the best and going down as the class number increases. Our students range in age from around 12 in the Junior I classes to around 16 in the Senior II classes.
I remember the interviewers at Grinnell stressing that flexibility is the name of the game. They were right (and not just about school). Classes have shown up at unexpected times or have not shown up at all. I often do not know until five minutes into the period whether I will be teaching or not. This variability makes lesson planning somewhat more difficult and taught me one of my first lessons of teaching: taking notes. I initially had trouble keeping track of what I'd covered in a class or what homework I'd assigned if the class did not show up for one or two weeks. I solved this problem by taking notes at the end of each class period. My current teaching goal is to do work in class that will be fun for the students so that they are more likely to participate and get something out of the class.
My latest unit is on films. I combine work on films in general with showing a film in class. I am using the same themes with all my classes but tailoring the films and the content to each class's level. On the first day I managed to lose most of my classes as I tried to explain how to make movies and the techniques used to convey the story to the audience. Since then I have backed off and have been focusing on the story line, and my students have been responding better. I usually spend half of each class watching the film and the other half trying to get students to talk about the film or themes brought up in the film.
In the instructors' class Justin and I showed the film Bowling for Columbine, which we thought would provide a lot of material for discussion. However, in successive weeks our class size shrank and we were later informed that the teachers wanted to talk more and listen lessâ¦ Now we are planning more lessons based on the discussion of articles that we give the teachers to read before class.
In the last few weeks, I have had some of my worst and best days teaching. Maintaining control of the classroom continues to be a challenge with some of the younger kids, while getting students to participate in class continues to be a problem with some of the older kids. I often feel that my time is divided between trying to not let the class-clowns distract me and the rest of the class too much, and trying to make sure that more than a couple of the star students answer all my questions. I have also run into the problem of "group work." Group work means that even if I call on a quiet student to answer a question, several of his or her classmates will call out the answer, which the student will then simply repeat to me. I found this particularly funny and frustrating when I was asking people to tell me about their families and they repeated the suggestions that their classmates had shouted out... however true they might or might not be. Group work also means that I occasionally get the exact same paragraph on a subject from several different students, or even copied by several students out of the same text. Explaining to every class that they should do their own work and the consequences of not doing their own work gets old very quickly. Perhaps I am dealing with the product of Chinese collectivism and should not fight so hard. It is difficult to say at what point I am improving their learning and at what point I begin to simply impose western, individualistic values.
Each class has students with a wide range of abilities, which makes it difficult to plan lessons. I have some students that understand every word and others that do not understand a single word. In addition, there is usually a large gap in the abilities between classes of the same grade. I generally try to hit somewhere in the middle, but I am often disappointed when I realize that some students are bored while their classmates have given up because they don't understand enough. Important classroom techniques learned include: going slowly, repeating things, and above all, patience.
Another issue that is always at the back of my mind when I assign homework is the tremendous workload of and pressure on students in China. There are many students in China competing for a few spots in good schools and universities. From a very young age they must work very hard for good grades and exam scores. They must get into a good middle school to help them get into a good high school, to help them get into a good university. The standings of the schools are generally decided by how many students go on to other good institutions, so getting into a poor middle school (at the age of 12) puts a student on the wrong track and onto a trajectory of mediocrity with lower chances of eventually getting into a university. Students' status is based on their grades and exam scores, which puts a lot of emphasis on teaching for the exam and teaching a certain standardized set of materials in a certain standardized way.
Even though students generally attend classes from 7:30am until 5:00pm, with an hour and a half for lunch, most also attend tutorials in the evening and on the weekends. Tutorials are subject classes that are supposed to be for students who are having trouble in a subject. However, most students attend tutorials for the extra instruction to help them achieve higher scores. This all means a lot of work for students who would probably benefit from a little free time. Teachers are also under a lot of pressure to produce classes with high exam scores, which also encourages teaching for the exam. Several instructors have mentioned that reforms are needed and are currently being discussed in China, but for now the system continues. I think that Justin and I escape the usual pressure on teachers since exams don't generally test oral English, but I sympathize with both my colleagues and students and often feel guilty when I ask something of them that will take time away from all of their other work.
English Corner and Library Hours
English corner provides an informal setting for students to practice their English. Every Wednesday during the later part of lunch, Justin and I go to one of the school court-yards and wait for students to come. After a few quiet weeks at English corner, Justin and I have been mobbed by various Junior I and II classes for the last couple weeks. The senior classes seem less interested in talking to us, or maybe they're just too cool. It is kind of funny to look over at Justin a few feet away, a head taller than the sea of students in red jump-suits that surround him, as we are each asked ten different questions at the same time. "Do you like China?" and "Do you like Chinese food?" are some of the most popular, especially among those with limited vocabularies. Unfortunately, I do not think that I can quite convey to them how much the life and the food continue to fascinate and amaze me.
Library hours have been a little disappointing so far. We do not usually get many students. We have a few regulars, mostly girls that come almost every week to check out and return books. However, I think that both English corner and Library hours are sabotaged to some extent because classes often meet during the same time for extra review time.
Outside the Classroom
My time outside of class is taken up preparing for class, grading, and learning Chinese, though I also find time to eat plenty of good food and just hang out. Justin and I live next door to one-another on the 17th floor of the foreign student dormitory, Xi Yuan. The empty rooms in Xi Yuan also double as hotel rooms and consequently most of the rooms on our floor are occupied by transient Chinese businessmen. They have charming habits like walking around in their underwear, spitting on the floor, staring, and hawking very, very loudly in the bathroom. American culture frowns on these behaviors somewhat, but I believe they add to my experience of China in an otherwise non-Chinese environment. I have a very comfortable room with many amenities, though I do have to walk down a floor to use the bathroom. I often feel guilty when I think about the Chinese university students who live in a similar-sized room with seven other people.
Being a Foreigner
As Emily Mohl said, you know you're in China when you begin to think of yourself as a foreigner. Being a very tall, very white woman in China, I really stick out. I am noticed and stared at everywhere. The attention is interesting, but sometimes I do wish for the power to be invisible or to just blend in. I also occasionally forget and find myself wondering if I have food on my face or if my fly is unzipped, because why else would people be staring? People tell me I am pretty simply because my skin is whiter than theirs. I try to explain that in the U.S. it is cool to have a tan, but they remain unconvinced.
Often my foreignness is advantageous, other times it is a handicap. Looking like a westerner means that people are interested in talking to me and giving me English-language teaching jobs. Other Americans with Asian backgrounds are often discriminated against when it comes to teaching jobs, no matter how good their English. They don't fit the Chinese conception of Western and so are excluded. Non-Chinese Asians fall somewhere in the middle, without many of the privileges granted foreigners but also without some of the disadvantages. As soon as vendors see me, they at least double their prices and usually refuse to go down to what they would sell the same item for to a Chinese person or even to an Asian-looking person. I'm also seen as an easy target for scams, which I must constantly (and not always so successfully) fend off. It is quite apparent that my privileges are superficial and due to no merit on my part but merely to the way I look. In the U.S., people frequently talk about white privilege. It is something which many Americans acknowledge, but which is fairly insidious in the depth to which it penetrates American society. In China, white privilege is more limited but very openly accepted. Adjusting to this, but trying not to accept it, continues to be a struggle.
For the Chinese I often become a curiosity to be watched and discussed, but not to interact with. I have joked with friends that they could make a zoo with foreigners here. This very obvious attention and differentness can be tiring and I sometimes find it hard to relax when in public. I also find myself gravitating toward other foreigners, whom I immediately have something in common with.
Language and Friends
Taking Chinese classes gives me new perspectives and empathy for both my Chinese professor and my students. I know what it is like trying to get a class to participate in an activity, only to be met by silent stares. I also know what it is like to struggle to understand what the instructor is saying. I would recommend future fellows try to study Chinese once they get here with language partners. The Chinese really appreciate even what little Chinese I know and that I don't expect them to speak English. I think that being good at charades is also a helpful quality for Grinnell fellows in China.
The language barrier makes everything more difficult. Going to the store to buy food, asking for directions, and trying to communicate with the front desk at Xi Yuan all become daunting challenges. Having a sense of humor and patience are both very important. Smiling has a wonderful affect on people. I have also generally been amazed by how helpful people are willing to be. Once when Justin and I ventured alone into a restaurant with no English menu, we had half the other patrons of the restaurant trying to help us order a dish. Other times complete strangers have taken time to help us find the bus we need or to make sure we both get on the same crowded bus.
The language-barrier is also frustrating in more subtle ways. When one is limited to very superficial conversations and information in Chinese, it is hard to have meaningful relationships with people who do not speak English. Due in part to this and due in part to my location in the foreign student dormitory, I have made friends with foreign students from all over the world. Their perspectives on China and the U.S. have enhanced my experience of China and given me more depth of understanding. Chinese is my common language with some of my Japanese classmates. Together we practice Chinese and puzzle out menu items. Their responses to Chinese society also make me examine my own responses, which I might otherwise have taken for granted.
For Chinese friends I am somewhat limited so far, though the English-language teachers at the school, in particular Romeo King and Fang Laoshi, are invaluable resources. They invite us to their homes, attend banquets with us and generally take care of us. When Justin or I have bike, computer, or classroom troubles, they bend over backwards to help us. Romeo (so named to match his wife, Juliet) is Justin's language partner and a good source of information about the informal side of Chinese culture. Fang Laoshi (literally Teacher Fang) is, in the words of Josh Blue, the Chinese mother I never had. Frequently she shows up in our office after classes to find out how we are doing and to inform us of the up-coming events in which we are expected to participate. I think partly due to the complaints of past fellows, she tries to give us some advanced warning of our schedules. This is a truly noble undertaking in China, where most things seem to be decided at the last possible minute (the official dates for national holidays are often not released by the government until a couple weeks beforehand). I have even been shopping a couple times with Fang Laoshi, one of her favorite hobbies. However with my height of 1.83 meters, shopping in China is a humbling and hilarious adventure. Needless to say, I have not actually bought very much.
Past fellows, when asked what they miss most about Nanjing, frequently mention the food. On our recent trip through China, Justin and I agreed that trying different foods and meeting the people who served them were some of the best parts of the trip. For me food represents one of the more important parts of Chinese culture and my stay here in China. Chinese hospitality revolves around food and making sure that everyone is well fed. Anytime I am invited to someone's house, I am fed well and often sent home with more food. I am frequently asked what I eat, and then my diet is examined and criticized. In China most foods are good for something, whether they make skin smoother or increase circulation. Local wisdom has it that like helps like, so if you have blood trouble, you should eat blood, and so on. I hope I never have liver trouble.
The Chinese banquet, like a marathon, must be trained for and will not be finished without appropriate strategies. Banquets are all about pacing, starting with fasting the day before. Pacing is very difficult when one is hungry and there are so many different dishes to try. The Chinese hosts also frequently thwart all pacing plans because if they think there is not enough food on your plate, that you are not eating enough, that you should try something, or that you like a dish, they help you by piling food onto your plate. At banquets we generally sit around a large, round table with a large lazy susan in the middle. The table is filled with plates of food that I have never seen before, including snail, intestine, eel, chicken feet, various sea foods, mushrooms, meat, and vegetables. Here in Nanjing they seriously boast that they eat the whole duck. I have now had duck blood soup and fried duck tongue, among other partsâ¦ As each plate is emptied, it is removed and another, different dish is brought to take its place. Banquets usually take a couple hours and I have noticed that other guests often pause to rest in the middle before they continue to eat. No matter how many dishes have gone by, you are not in the clear until the fruit is brought out.
On less momentous occasions (read: every other day) I eat at the small restaurants around Xi Yuan. The food is delicious, cheap, and very greasy. I have learned how to ask for no MSG and I have a few favorite restaurants and dishes. I am still limited as I am timid about going to restaurants with no English language menus and no pictures of dishes. However, I have friends who speak Chinese, and Japanese friends who read characters, and they enable me to venture out to new interesting places serving plates heaped high with delicious foods that I have never heard of before. I have also become a regular at some of the food stands stationed outside of Xi Yuan during different parts of the day, from the early morning to the late night.
In some ways China is like a banquet. There are so many new, wonderful, amazing, interesting things to try that one cannot possibly hope to experience everything in one short meal or year. I would like to thank the Grinnell selection committee for putting their faith in me to come and make the best of this year and assure you that I will work hard to live up to my commitment to serve this community. I love getting emails and mail. I would love to hear if anyone has any thoughts about my experience. Thank you.