At the risk of sounding like a new fellow broken record, I must be honest and say that to even begin to describe life in China not only as a foreigner but also as a teacher seems a ridiculously hard task. I could talk about my life here in chronological order, or I could break it into categories or I could go with MY personal favorite: stream of consciousness. For the sake of anyone reading this, however, I think I will avoid that last one.
Arriving in China was surreal. After a 20-hour flight delay, and staying overnight in a Chicago hotel, all I wanted was a place I could STAY for more than a few hours. I found that in China, and I was so relieved that I think getting here was less of a shock and more of a relief that it would have otherwise been. Thanks to the hard work of Doug Cutchins, Professor Hsieh, and Professor Armstrong, I was met at the Nanjing airport by one Mr. Hu and driven directly from the airport to Xi Yuan, Nanjing University's foreign students dormitory. Upon checking in to my room, I was presented with a note from Ms Fang (our host teacher at the middle school) expressing her distress at my late arrival and asking me to call her cell phone as soon as I got an opportunity. I got to my room, knocked on Lara's door, and as we were talking (within 10 minutes of having arrived at Xi Yuan), Ms Fang was already there, looking for me to make sure that I had gotten here in one piece. I knew at that moment that this woman would be a godsend.
I was right. From my very first moments in Nanjing, Ms Fang (also known as Fang Laoshi and Fang Mama) has been more helpful that I could have possibly imagined. She has showed us where to go to the bank, the supermarket, to get lunch or dinner, to buy a bicycle. She has also showed us good places to get gifts for our friends and family, to get a good cup of tea, to eat dumplings, and to buy train tickets. Anything we could possibly need and do not know where to find on our own, Ms Fang will know, or she will know who knows, and then she will take us there herself, making sure we know how things work so we can do it again on our own if we want to. She calls every time we get back from going somewhere outside the city to make sure we have made it back safely. She does her best to let us know the school's schedule as far ahead of time as she can, which is quite the challenge in China. She laughs at us when we do ridiculous things (the most recent involving the two foreign teachers, one bicycle, and a nighttime trip to Starbucks). And, after recent difficulties concerning our residence visas, I can honestly say that she has seen both Lara and me nearly at our worst and she is still so willing to help make things work for us, which is truly amazing. Without her, adjusting to life in China would probably be truly unbearable.
Teaching might possibly be one of the most educational experiences of my life (no pun intended). I was fairly terrified on the first day of classes - I had never been a TEACHER before. Sure, I had plenty of experience as a STUDENT, but that is very different - despite what your teachers or professors may expect of you as a student, you do not really have to be 'on' all the time. Suddenly, however, I need to be alert and in control all the time in classes, even on those days when I am in a bad mood or do not feel well.
It puts the lives of my former educators into a whole new perspective. To teach is to suddenly be thrust into the center of attention (a position I usually do not mind - under my own terms, of course) and expected to improvise the entertainment, should the lesson not go quite as planned. And, believe me, with middle and high school kids, to call English class 'entertainment' is not an exaggeration.
The students are the whole reason we are in China, and that is (usually) reason enough for me. Lara and I split one class of about 50 students between the two of us. We teach the first and second classes of Junior I (7th Grade), Junior II (8th Grade), Senior I (10th Grade), and Senior II (11th Grade), as well as the ninth class (the 'computer' class) of Junior IIs. I have met and get to interact regularly with some really amazing kids here. In class is one thing, because there are 25 to 30 students per class, but even in a class that size, you can begin to pick out the students who are actually interested in learning English and speaking to a native speaker, and the kids who are only there because conversational English is a required class for them. It is hard to deal with that dichotomy in the classroom (along with the different ability levels), but I do my best to at least get the ones who do not want to be there to not disrupt class too much, even if they do not really want to listen to me. My efforts are not always realized, but I do try hard.
My Junior I students might be some of the cutest kids I have ever met. I know that most of them only maybe understand about half of what I tell them, but they are so eager to learn and almost all of them really want to be there. The Junior II students are a little more difficult to love so easily. Some of them are really amazing people, but, as a whole, I find myself pretty frustrated with them. I suppose 8th graders are frustrating no matter what continent you are on. Senior I is the grade that confuses me the most, I would say. They understand a good percentage of what I say, but it is hard to get to react to me. They talk to one another quite a bit, especially in Chinese, but getting them to talk to me can sometimes be like pulling teeth. On the occasions in which I strike them in some way, though, they are pretty amazing. They can be really creative, if I give them some direction they can find acceptable. The Senior II students, however, are easier to get talking, and their abilities are really impressive. I like to see what they come up with in class, and their classes are usually a good way to help round out the week. One of my favorite Senior II lessons was on intonation and inflection, when I asked them (in pairs) to practice a really easy dialogue I had written for them, but use inflection and intonation to indicate the relationship between the two speakers (I had assigned different relationships to each group). Much to my surprise, almost every group took the basic dialogue ('Hello, how are you?' 'I'm fine, thanks. And you?' etc.) and rewrote the whole thing, in addition to adding the proper inflection and intonation, to make them infinitely more entertaining.
Teaching has resulted in some of my best improvisational moments, though not always the most FUN of moments. I have one particularly frustrating class of Junior II students that has been the bane of my existence since I started teaching at Nan Da Fu Zhong. I happened to end up with every single boy in the class (along with about seven girls) and they just do not understand, or maybe the do not care, that I mean business when I say 'Be quiet!' and attempt to convey some message to them. I tried yelling, I tried explaining calmly, I tried asking them why they talk all the time, I tried ignoring it, and I tried talking over it. Finally, one day, I had had enough and I decided that something had to be done about this. I almost kicked them out of the classroom and then realized that that is not a punishment, so we had to sit in silence for several minutes instead. It worked for a week or two, but beyond that is another matter. It was a nice reminder, however, that, for as often as I feel helpless with that class, I AM still the teacher and therefore the one in charge.
Improvisation is obviously not the ideal way to go into a class, so I have gotten a crash course in lesson planning. As other fellows have done before me, I have been leaning on the guidance provided by the lesson plans of my predecessors. I had absolutely NO idea how to go about coming up with ideas for class or how to structure a 40-minute class period. Justin's plans have been an invaluable resource (his mostly because I have his old computer, not because everyone else's ideas were terrible or something). Without them, I would have been completely lost. I have found several websites that have also been helpful, but it is really the lesson plans of previous fellows that have been my guidance.
We also have a couple of opportunities each week to interact with out students outside of class. English corner has quickly become one of the best moments of my week. This is when I can talk to the students who actually WANT to learn English and talk with us. I have had some of the most interesting conversations with students at English corner. At the very first one, one of my favorite students was talking to me and suddenly he began talking about Hurricane Katrina that had hit Louisiana just a couple of weeks earlier. I was surprised not only that he knew about the hurricane itself, but that he had enough vocabulary (although he called it a 'big wind' before I told him the actual word he was looking for) to actually discuss it with me. I also spent another day talking about sports with a couple of my Junior II boys, which was an experience in itself. I know very little about sports (much to the dismay, I am sure, of all my students who want to 'learn' about basketball), but we were talking about something they do not know very much about - American football. And, while I will never claim to be an expert on football, I know more about it than my students do, and this was a perfect combination for a really fun half an hour talking with them about something I know very little about. To have the opportunity, no matter how brief, to talk about things like this with students who are genuinely interested in talking with me is a truly rewarding experience.
The teachers' class we have been conducting has been quite the experience as well. It is the one class that Lara and I teach together, and it is a pretty fun part of the week. Sometimes we have trouble coming up with topics to discuss in class, partially because we have not been given a lot of guidance by the teachers themselves. Lara and I are very interested in various aspects of Chinese politics, but many of the teachers seem more interested in things like American communities and fashion. But, despite these differences in interest, we have managed to have some really interesting classes with the teachers. There have been a couple of days where, after we have officially finished this class, some of the teachers have stayed behind to talk about other things with us, and these times have been some of the most fun and informational of my time here.
Then there was my birthday (and, were it not for my tardiness in actually WRITING this report, I would not have the opportunity to mention it). Let me tell you, the teachers and students at NDFZ sure know how to throw a great birthday party. Ms Fang organized it, complete with students from each of our classes, laden with gifts, and ready to provide lots of entertainment. This was, in true Chinese fashion, followed by a huge dinner with some of the English teachers where Lara and I were shamed by how much more food six tiny Chinese women could eat while we were stuffed to the gills.
Every moment here, especially in the first month and a half or so, is a learning experience previously understood by few who do this program. I would end each day completely exhausted, having only done things like gone to school for a few hours, read my book, eaten dinner, and maybe walked through the night market. And then Lara reminded me that I am in CHINA. Leaving my room requires more energy and attention than it ever has before. For instance, if I am unfortunate enough to wake up in the middle of the night and have to use the bathroom, I must go through a series of preparatory actions before I even consider leaving my room. I must make sure that I am appropriately clothed to be walking down a hall that is populated mainly by men, that I am wearing shoes of some sort (flip flops are my personal favorite), and that I have my toilet paper in hand. Once I leave my room, I probably want to turn on a few of the hall lights so I do not bang into things, and roll up my pants so I do not drag them all over the bathroom floor. Of course, the bathroom itself is an experience not to be missed. No matter what time of day or night I have to use it, I have to be coherent enough to squat without falling over because that would just be catastrophic. So, even if I have just come from the deepest of sleeps, I must wake up enough not to accidentally step (or fall) into the toilet. This, of course, does not take into account the need to walk downstairs to use the toilet in the first place! But this is just one of many challenges I have faced in China, and you get used to it, so it is not SO bad. I will, however, never take a western-style toilet for granted again!
When I first got here, it was so strange not to be able to speak or read Chinese, but I have gotten by so far. It is less frustrating than it was in the beginning for two reasons: like a lot of the things I do not understand in China, I have just gotten used to my ignorance. I have also picked up a little bit of Chinese, so I find myself looking for characters I recognize, rather than just being frustrated at not understanding anything. And, after three months, I can usually find what I need without help, or have someone with me or can find someone who can speak Chinese, act out or point to what I need, or just guess. We have had various restaurant experiences where the whole menu is in Chinese and we just point to random things on it, only knowing what a few of the characters mean, and it has been pretty successful thus far. Sometimes our food is really obscure or unidentifiable, and that is always interesting.
At most of the restaurants we eat at around the dorm, they give you a pad and pen and you are supposed to write down what you want. Lara and I, of course, had NO idea that is the deal was at first, so they have taken to sending a waitress over to write it down for us (she really just has to copy the one we point to - the menus at most of these places are in English and Chinese). One day, I decided that we were not going to be those helpless Americans who cannot read or write Chinese and need someone else to help us, so I took the menu, we decided what we wanted, and then I painstakingly copied down all the characters for the food we wanted. This, of course, does not mean that I have any particularly impressive talent in the realm of copying characters, but it has helped me feel a little more self-sufficient, and has also been good practice at learning some of the food characters.
Unfortunately my ability to successfully navigate bilingual restaurant menus has not translated particularly well to my performance on a bicycle. I am pretty good at getting where I want to go and we have managed to navigate all sorts of areas of the city, but my ability to ride a bike without nearly killing myself or someone else is sometimes questionable. I think my most 'impressive' day must have been when I managed to nearly run into SEVEN different people. Were it not for my cat-like reflexes (or was it my sheer terror at running someone over and my knee-jerk reaction to clutch the breaks of my rusty old bike with all the strength in my body?) I would have run over two old men, a little boy, two women at once, another guy, and would have been involved in a head-on bicycle collision with another woman on an unlit street after dark. That was close to the beginning of our time here so it is somewhat excusable, but even so, biking can be disorienting at times because everyone is honking their car horns and ringing their bike bells and yelling and it is really confusing when everyone just kind of goes and expects everyone else to look out for THEM when they are not looking for anyone else!
Both Vicki and Katie have mentioned the intense realization that you are a foreigner in a relatively homogenous country. While in many ways, I have stopped having those 'Holy cow, I'm in Asia!' moments just by walking out the door, I know that many people I see in the course of a day still have those 'Holy cow, it's a FOREIGNER!' moments, and they certainly are not discrete about it. It is so strange to be gawked at in your own home (or the area around you home), and it has resulted in some of the most uncomfortable moments of my life, including being stared at for the entirety of a seventeen-floor elevator descent by a man standing ten inches from me.
I think Vicki's rock star/circus freak analogy is quite appropriate in this situation. Never in my life have I been approached by complete strangers who want to have their picture taken with me or want to know where I am from and what I am doing here or who want to tell me how beautiful I am. Even around the area where the student dormitory is (and it is a foreign students dorm, so there are LOTS of foreigners), we get stared at on a regular basis. I had a woman approach me in the Forbidden City to tell me she thought I was very beautiful. I had not showered in two days. We met a man while riding our bikes who is a paleontologist who has been to Ohio who asked us if we needed any assistance, despite the fact that we were not even looking at a map. I have had mothers who speak no English, push their children toward me and hold out their camera as a way of asking me to pose for pictures with their kids. We were at a Halloween party at Nanjing Normal University that was being thrown by the foreign teachers over there for their students, and we were in costumes. This, of course, opened the flood gates, and, while we were standing there having a conversation with another teacher, group after group of Chinese students came over, asking for pictures, and pointing or ooh-ing and aah-ing at our costumes. We even get stared at at school some days, and they are USED to seeing us!
One unfortunate side effect of this phenomenon is the suspicion that someone is trying to take advantage of me because I stand out so badly and look completely clueless most of the time. All those books I read that talked about the idea that many Chinese people hold that all foreigners are rich were not too far off the mark. It is not all that unusual that I think that someone is giving me a higher price for something than they would normally charge a Chinese person. Sometimes being given a ridiculously high price for something is enough to make me walk away without even trying to get a lower price, but generally bargaining is one of the most entertaining parts of living in China. A lot of times, I will not end up buying something if I thought the original asking price was outrageous, but a lot of the time, I manage to get at least a decent deal. One of the best parts of bargaining is catching people off guard by doing it. I think that many Chinese people are surprised when we even TRY to bargain with them, and sometimes they are even more surprised by the prices we give them.
The food in China is quite possibly one of my most favorite adventures. I loved Chinese food before I got here, and the real thing is a million times better than China Sea or Chuong Garden. As I mentioned earlier, there are quite a few restaurants very near the dorm, so we do not have to go far to eat if we do not want to. There are grocery stores, Chinese restaurants, Korean, Muslim, and Western restaurants, tea houses, street vendors, and convenience stores all within a five minute bike ride of Xi Yuan. If we ever go hungry, it certainly is not for lack of choices!
As other fellows have mentioned, one of the most impressive food experiences is the Chinese banquet. I had read about them before I got here, and my first banquet did not disappoint. Plate after plate of everything from cucumbers to eggplant, barbequed pork garnished with Bugles to 'Mao's Dish,' pork ears to beef guts. There are dishes served at banquets that no one actually WANTS to eat, but they are delicacies, so we all just grin and bear it. I will not tell you the most disturbing things I have eaten, because I do not like to think about it, but, besides guts and ear, I have eaten tongue, duck's blood soup, stinky tofu (quite appropriately named), duck head, and even the fallopian tubes of tree frogs!
Similarly to when I studied in London, I am so thrilled that I am close enough to so many new and interesting places that I can see all sorts of places relatively easily. I can say ridiculous things like 'I think I will go to Shanghai for the weekend,' and it can actually happen. Lara and I spent a week in Beijing in October, and it was a great trip. But how could I have just decided to go to Beijing for a week if I were in the States? Or to Hangzhou to meet a woman who is a close friend of my eighth grade English teacher? Or to Seoul to hang out with a good friend from Grinnell who is on a Fulbright teaching English there? China has opened up some amazing travel opportunities. I love that Lara and I can speculate where we want to go this winter - do we want to head south to Yunnan, Vietnam, and Thailand, or north to Inner Mongolia and to take a train across Siberia? Do we want to hang out in Nanjing for the weekend, or head somewhere like Yellow Mountain or Suzhou? These are great dilemmas with which to be faced.
In one of our pre-graduation Grinnell Corps orientation meetings, Doug told us not to feel guilty about taking the things that make us happy with us because it is important to have those things with us. My immediate reaction was 'Ha. Right, Doug. I cannot exactly take all my family and friends to CHINA with me, now can I?' But I could bring things that reminded me of them, so that is what I did. But, when you move 7000 miles away from everyone who matters to you, it is COMMUNICATION with them that is really wonderful and helpful. Without the emails, letters, packages, music, photos, telephone and instant message conversations, and other reminders that they are thinking about me like I am thinking of them, it would be a lot harder NOT to think about them and move on with life in China. It is wonderful to know that, even as we are all growing and changing thousands upon thousands of miles from one another, they can still make me smile with the little things. So, while I could not do exactly as Doug suggested, it has worked itself out in an acceptable way. And he was right - it is important to find ways to stay connected with what USED to be normal and familiar while making new things normal and familiar.
It would be terribly irresponsible of me not to dedicate at least one paragraph to the people who have made this whole experience possible. I am amazingly appreciative that the Grinnell Corps Nanjing selection committee thought I was the right person for this job. I am also very happy that they sent me here with someone who is so willing to banter with me, put up with my antics, and lets me cry on her floor when I need to. Without Lara, I would have given up and run home two months ago. Vicki and Justin have answered any questions we throw at them, and have been a great resource for us. Also, anyone who bit their tongue when they heard my 'I don't know what I'm going to do with my life, so I'll go to China' announcement should be applauded for knowing not to question my crazy plans. To everyone who has gotten a freaked out email or phone call, thanks for listening and thereby helping me reassure myself. And, most of all, everyone who has stated or unstated confidence in me deserves more gratitude than I can even begin to express. On those days when my confidence in myself has been shaken, it is your confidence in me that keeps me going.
Life in China is many things all at once: thrilling, frustrating, satisfying, depressing, uplifting, and, surprisingly enough, normal. Every day presents new challenges, even if it is just crossing the same street I cross every day.
(For anyone interested in the Grinnell Corps Nanjing program, whether as a prospective fellow or simply a curious bystander, Lara and I have begun posting our photos of this year online at http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/grincorpsnj/my_photos. Also, feel free to email us with any questions you may have - we love talking about China!)