So a whirlwind month and a half has passed since my arrival in Nanjing. From eating freshwater crabs with my students to speeding down the street in a government car with tinted windows to dancing at a Beijing post-punk concert to starring in a paint commercial, I have had experiences here that I never could have imagined. I often look around me in wonder- being in China is still a bit surreal for me. With this report, I aimed to sketch a rough outline of what the past month and a half has been like. Hopefully it will answer many of the questions prospective fellows might have as well as provide some insight into what living in Nanjing has been like thus far. I will begin this report with teaching (as this is somewhat easier to organize) and move on to what life here is like (definitely harder to make cohesive.)
Teaching is proving to be both infinitely enjoyable and amazingly frustrating. Emily and I are each teaching ten classes a week- two classes of Senior II students, two classes of Senior I students, two classes of Junior II students and three classes of Junior I students, as well as a class comprised of the English teachers at our school. Our weekly classes are intended as a supplement to the students' daily English classes and we focus primarily on improving listening and speaking skills. We do not have textbooks for the classes, which affords a freedom that is both exciting and tiring; it is nice to be able to plan lessons around what the students are interested in, but such planning also takes quite a bit of energy. Perhaps as the year progresses and I become better aquatinted with my role as a teacher, lessons will come more easily. For now, though, I find myself thinking about lesson plans during lunch, in the shower, on my bikeâ¦
The Senior II students are the oldest (age 16-17) and have a fairly good command of English. They are eager in class, which I certainly appreciate, though sometimes this eagerness translates into a sort of rowdiness which can be difficult to deal with. In spite of their propensity towards being overly rambunctious, I do enjoy the Senior II classes. Unlike the younger students, most of the Senior II students are not afraid to speak, which is, obviously, vital for an oral English class. It is nice to be able to have discussions with them, such as the one we had on the differences between American and Chinese schools, from which I think I learned as much from them as they did from me.
The Senior I (age 15-16) students are fantastic. They know quite a bit of English, are well-behaved and very eager to learn, AND they do their homework. They are, as a whole, the most responsive of my students. Many of them seem to be genuinely interested in improving their English and they continually impress me with their creativity. They are still a bit hesitant to talk, but they do participate with enthusiasm. I appreciate that they tell me when they don't understand, which is something the other classes do not always do.
The Junior II (age 13-14) students are my biggest teaching challenge. I have had a hard gauging their English ability and thus some of my ideas have worked well with them, but others have fallen quite flat. The only subject that consistently holds their attention is "Life in America," so we are currently learning about eating in a restaurant in America. (Which is, as I can attest to, a rather different experience from eating in a restaurant in China.) They are not as well behaved as my other classes; indeed, they often talk during class and do not always follow directions terribly well. I am beginning to realize, however, that some of this stems from the fact that they simply do not always understand what it is I ask them to do. Unfortunately, they generally do not ask me to repeat or clarify things, so I don't realize that they don't understand until the class has already gotten rather rowdy. The class is definitely improving, though, which is encouraging.
The Junior I (age 12-13) students are a lot of fun. They are terribly sweet and although they do not yet know much English, I have their rapt attention when I am talking and they try earnestly to answer my questions. They are eager to help one another, which is wonderful, but, if a fellow student hesitates when answering, they have a tendency to shout out the answer. As many of them are shy in class, we spend a lot of time working on answering simple questions. (I think we have finally mastered "What is your favorite subject?") They enjoy doing role plays quite a bit, as it affords them the opportunity to speak in English with a safety net of sorts. I often read to them during the last five minutes of class and they have giggled through "One Fish, Two Fish" and "Go Dog, Go!"
The teachers class is composed of about eight Senior II English teachers, most of whom have a rather good command of English. Each week we discuss a contemporary issue in either China or the US and I enjoy the class because it allows for more in-depth discussions than do my other classes. Although a few of the teachers are somewhat reluctant to talk, discussion is usually lively and interesting and I learn a lot from the class.
We hold an "English Corner" once a week, which is hugely entertaining. Emily and I sit in the courtyard for an hour on Wednesday afternoons and wait for students to swarm around us, which usually happens pretty quickly. It is really nice to interact with the students outside of the classroom and I enjoy the opportunity it affords us to learn more about them. They ask us some great questions about life in the United States, holidays, and what we like to eat, as well as some not-so-great questions about our romantic interests and political leanings, both of which are topics it seems safer to steer away from. We are also in charge of the English library at the school, which is rather impressive in its diverse collection of English books and magazines. For an hour every Thursday, the library (which is connected to our office) fills with bubbling students who, as often as not, seem to be as interested in talking to us as they are in checking out books.
Living in Nanjing
We are living in the international students' dormitory of Nanjing University (Xi-Yuan), which is shaping up to be a very interesting experience. I have plastered maps and pictures on the walls of my room and, coupled with the coffee press that Josh left, (many thanks) it is beginning to feel like home. The dorm is inhabited by students from all over the world and we are enjoying getting to know other "foreigners." Although the elevator still frightens me a bit, I am discovering that I like living on the seventeenth floor- I have a fabulous view of the bustling intersection below me. Sadly, the nearest kitchen is on the 13th floor and has two rather temperamental burners that do not always work very well. While I have experimented there a few times, I usually eat from vendors on the street or in restaurants and I miss cooking quite a bit.
Nanjing is a bustling city of almost six million people- definitely a major shift from Grinnell. It is nice to have all the opportunities a big city affords and I am thoroughly enjoying exploring the museums, restaurants, and parks as well as the busy streets and winding allies. I must admit, though, that I miss the quiet of Grinnell. There are crews at the construction site outside my window nearly twenty-four hours a day, which I must admit I find pretty amazing, but I find myself longing for a respite from the constant noise. Thankfully, the Nanjing University campus, which offers a few grassy lawns and secluded benches, is near the dormitory and I find myself there, book or letter in tow, fairly often.
My most significant source of frustration is, far and away, my inability to speak Chinese. I had no illusions that it would be easy for me to live in China without being able to speak the language, but I don't know that I realized just how frustrating it would be. People are generally incredibly kind to me and I quickly learned that if I smile a lot, people are much more receptive to and patient with me. However, this does not entirely temper my disappointment that I cannot really understand or respond to the principles at school, the woman from whom I buy bananas, or the waitress at my favorite noodle shop. With the help of Emily, my dictionary, and my language tutor, (not to mention nearly everyone around me) I am continually learning new words and phrases and am gradually beginning to be able to express simple ideas and understand a bit of what people around me are saying, but it is a slow process. I am consoled by the belief that, having come here with absolutely no knowledge of Chinese, I have nowhere to go but up.
Some of my most rewarding experiences in Nanjing thus far have been the times I have been able to interact with my students and fellow teachers outside of school. Two of my students and two of the other teachers have invited us to have dinner with their families and each occasion was absolutely wonderful. I am continually amazed by the generosity of the people I come into contact with, particularly my students and their families. Numerous people have stopped to help us when we were lost or confused, waiters and waitresses usually listen patiently to my broken Chinese as I try to explain what it is that I want to order, and the teachers at school invite us to eat with them and take us on excursions around Nanjing.
Emily and I had a chance to travel at the beginning of October during the week-long National Day holiday and had a great time exploring Shanghai, Putuoshan, Shaoxing, and Hangzhou. We took an overnight ferry from Shanghai to Putuoshan, where stayed in a gorgeous but deserted old hotel, swam in the ocean, wandered around monasteries and beaches, and enjoyed being away from the noise and pollution of Nanjing. We spent a whirlwind few days exploring markets and lakes and canals in Shaoxing and Hangzhou and came back to Nanjing tired but happy.
I am learning so much here and am enjoying the new experiences that arise daily. Many thanks to the committee for selecting me to come and for everyone who has been sending fabulous envelopes, letters, and emails. If you have any questions, please feel free to email me at email@example.com.