I am excited to be back in Nanjing for a second year, and feel especially fortunate that I can benefit from the perspective gained and discoveries made during my first. Gleaning useful insight from this first year without allowing it to color too much of my second has been a new challenge in which I have succeeded to varying degrees. I have to constantly remind myself not to compare current experiences to previous ones too closely; many of the people I used to know, the things I used to do, and even the places I used to go are different. But my previous experience is also a significant reason why this year has already been so rich.
Similarly, coming to China in the first place allowed me to see North America in a different light when I returned to St. Louis and traveled to Canada over the summer. When entering the U.S. from China and Canada from the states, I was struck by the amount of space in my destination compared to that in the place I had come from. I realized when flying into San Francisco, Denver and St. Louis that I had forgotten exactly what it was like to be able to see the "edge" of a city from a plane or not have to weave through a crowd to get anywhere once I arrived. In both Canada and the United States, I enjoyed the clean, fresh air with newfound appreciation after realizing this wasn't something I could take for granted. I reenergized in St. Louis-going to baseball games and concerts, seeing new exhibits at the zoo, working on Habitat for Humanity, gathering new teaching materials and spending time with my family and friends-and was ready for round two.
I met Vicki for the first time in Hong Kong and although some of the initial magic and excitement I felt the first time I came to Asia was gone, I still like the city very much and think it is a wonderful place to begin recovering from jet lag. I was happy when I returned to my room in Nanjing to find everything untouched and not nearly as dusty as the first time I came (apparently, Fang Laoshi requested that our rooms be cleaned). As I was checking in, I even ran into some old classmates from my Chinese course, who welcomed me with "oh, you must have eaten well while you were in America" (which indeed, I did).
I Hate Construction!
When we got back to the 17th floor the only thing that seemed out of place was the conspicuously absent ceiling, but I didn't think too much of it at the time; after all, I had already built up quite a tolerance for the constant noise around me. Or so I thought. I still feel accustomed to this background level of noise, but I was not prepared for construction in Xi Yuan. The building has been in a state of almost constant renovation since the time we arrived in August, with the workers busy installing air-conditioners in rooms which didn't have any and rewiring the rest of the building. For a while, nothing happened on our floor and I thought since our rooms already had AC units, we were going to get off easily.
Eventually, though, the workers found their way to our floor and tore that apart as well. I think my room received the lion's share of noise and disturbance thanks to the fact that the floor's circuitry box takes the place of my room's second mini-closet and cupboard. But even after rearranging the furniture to try and put a little more distance between my head and this giant metal resonator, I still regularly woke up to the shouts of Chinese construction workers and the scream of drills. One especially noisy Saturday, I was startled awake by the grinding crunch of a two-inch diameter concrete drill being used about a foot from my head. And we seldom get peace and quiet on Sunday mornings either; a day of rest does not exist in the Chinese construction worker's week. I knew from last year that I had to bring earplugs, but I never thought I would have to use them in my own room. Until this semester it would have made as much sense as wearing a pair of welding goggles while I biked around to protect myself from accidentally glancing at the exposed welding torch flames in backroad alleys.
If this wasn't bad enough, it also turned out that air conditioners were not the only things that needed work. We received a notice saying that we would have to vacate our rooms the following day from 7:30 am until 9 pm during which time the lights, fans and wiring would be replaced. Although we were only required to leave for a day, the whole process ate up three or four when taking into account the time it took to prepare for and clean-up from the HUGE mess that ensued. At least I knew (from friends on other floors) to put away or cover everything I didn't want dirtied by greasy handprints, standing piles of sawdust, concrete rubble or white wall-powder. Maybe in Nanjing I am more protective of my privacy and conscious of keeping my room clean than I am in the states as a reaction to the pollution and dirtiness. But it still took the better part of two or three days before I could get the room even close to as clean as it was beforehand. And I continued to track dust, powder, mortar and gravel in from the hallway for several weeks afterwards.
Other construction-related gripes include the occasional absence of running water at school (which we discover only when the toilets don't flush), but at least this problem usually disappears the following day. Because of construction in Xi Yuan, we sometimes don't have electricity during the day, either. Since I go to morning Chinese classes and the NDFZ offices are closed from 11:15 until 1:40 every day for lunch / nap-time, this can be a problem if I need to print something for my afternoon classes. I think construction here will be wrapping up soon, though. It's a good thing, too, since I'm not alone in my discontent. A petition has been circulating the building and an announcement was even posted urging anyone who witnessed destruction or vandalism of walls, doors or abandoned equipment to turn the offender in. I guess other people must have been doing all the things I had dreamed of doing myselfâ¦
This is one case where last year has given me a useful vantage point from which to view my current experiences. Even though I didn't know construction would be as bad as it has been, I at least knew it was something I would have to deal with. After returning to America over the summer, I did have to readjust to living in Nanjing. But knowing what to expect has gone a long way towards making my life easier. I already feel back in the swing of things and continue to feel more and more comfortable than I was before, despite the disturbances I just mentioned. In addition to my greater comfort with day to day life, one of the most obvious benefits from my previous year has been an enhanced sense of
In every way I can imagine, I am much more confident and capable now than I was before. I know how the "system" works, who to go to for specific problems and what cultural expectations are in place during certain situations. I'm proud of how much I am now able to do on my own when last year at this time I couldn't even cross the road without an old lady to block traffic for me. It feels good to finally be able to help people when they have problems or know who might be able to help them if I can't. I really enjoy not having so many daily challenges and am happy to provide the other teachers at school with a break. Already knowing my way around has helped me focus on other aspects of life, most notably
Likewise, I feel more confident, knowledgeable, and I hope, engaging in the classroom than I did during my first two semesters. I have a better idea what our purpose at school actually is, what the other teachers expect from us, and how the students benefit from our presence. I have also come to realize that these three things seldom overlap at the same time. It seems like I can pay the greatest homage to all of these by focusing on the spoken component of class since this is my students' most apparent weakness. Last year, this was fairly obvious, but after receiving multiple requests from colleagues and students alike to give more "written work" I began to reconsider my role in the classroom. I think taking Chinese classes at Nan Da also began to affect my methods as well. Despite these courses' nominal emphasis on different skills (writing, speaking, listening), the classes I took have all been quite similar; the emphasis seems only slight. All actively work on building vocabulary, teaching grammar / writing and improving speaking / listening skills, regardless of the official title. I suspect this kind of English class is most comfortable for Chinese students; for me to so heavily focus on listening and speaking must have seemed strange to my coworkers and students at first.
Of course, our ability to provide this focus seems to be precisely the reason we are here. One advantage Grinnell Corps Fellows possess over the many qualified Chinese teachers of English lies in our better oral skills. It is the area in which I feel most effective in the classroom and how I am able to most empower my students. While Chinese teachers can provide a solid foundation in grammar, reading and writing, we can impart greater expertise in pronunciation, listening comprehension and fluency of speaking as well as teach about our culture.
To this end, a topic that resonated with teachers and students alike was a three-lesson unit about baseball, complete with singing "take me out to the ballgame," reading Shel Silverstein's "Play Ball" poem and playing a quick 40-minute game with a whiffle-ball set I brought back from America. It was a meaningful way for me to celebrate the Cardinals' National League Championship title while being so far from home, and leaving the classroom provided a relaxed environment where students could had to rely on speaking / listening skills to communicate. This even seemed to draw some of the shyer students out of their shells, though I would caution future fellows from leaving the classroom too often. I was also pleasantly surprised that so many Senior 1's (equivalent of high school Sophomores) were able to understand and enjoy Abbot and Costello's "Who's on First" routine. At first I was hesitant to actually use it in class; I thought the dialogue might be too fast to follow and did not know how much it would benefit my students. But with a little background preparation and a script to read, nearly everyone followed along diligently and most were able to understand the gist of it. The more I work with these kids, the more they continue to impress me.
The classes I had around Halloween were much better than last year's as well, and I even got some students to dress up in costumes! I think they still don't completely understand the holiday, but at least they seemed to understand it better than last time. The teachers' class seems to be much more productive as well; previously it was cancelled half the time and only Grace, Fang Laoshi and Romeo came regularly. This year, we began by discussing a (pre-approved) Newsweek International article about the increase of protests in China and tried to use it as a vehicle for introducing new words and sparking discussion. It was met with disbelief and incredulity from many of the teachers, some of whom argued about it passionately. After all, the article was probably inaccurate since it didn't take into account programs that hadn't yet been implemented, and since it was only published in August of 2004. It made me feel good to see our overly-polite coworkers become vehement when discussing something. The first time we met, we didn't have enough time to finish, and for a few weeks afterwards, class was cancelled or poorly attended. Fang Laoshi later told us that the main reason she approved the article in the first place was so the other teachers could tell us about the problems with our media!?! A few weeks ago, though, we had almost as many people attend as came the first class. We were able to finish the article and Fang Laoshi even told the other teachers she believed it was true (I had to try very hard not to let my opinions overwhelm the discussion). The simple fact that we were able to come back after a month and finish talking about it gave me a great sense of accomplishment; I hope things continue to go well. It may not sound like much, but just finishing a topic is a big accomplishment compared to what we were able to do last year.
Visitors have occasionally sat in on my classes and given feedback, but even without their comments, I feel a much stronger rapport with my students than I did last year. This comes as no surprise for the students I have already taught and seems most noticeable with the students I haven't. I even got an e-mail from one student complimenting me on my teaching (which I don't think was ALL kissing up since before I didn't begin to have this kind of contact with students until late in the second semester). Maybe this change comes from having a better idea of what has already "worked", and being able to more skillfully implement this into class. Maybe it comes from my students feeling more comfortable with someone they have already seen around; either way, it's nice.
The wide ability gaps within a single class remain a constant challenge, but I have become much better at bridging this gap and making class accessible for the students who are struggling while keeping it interesting for those who are not. Even grading has become a little easier, if still not something I enjoy. I've started giving a quick daily participation grade and have gotten much better at grading homework; hopefully this will make my life easier at the end of the semester. During the past few months I have continued to draw satisfaction and fulfillment from my job as a teacher.
My increased classroom competence has come none too soon, since it looks like this year will be more academically rigorous than the last one; Nanjing high schoolers ranked dead last out of all 18 regions in Jiangsu Province on their most recent college entrance exams. As might be guessed, this means everyone is worried the students are not working hard enough even though the school day normally ends at 5:00 M-F, older students come to school on Saturday and a significant number have tutoring over the weekend as well. The school's administration responded to these results by requiring Senior 2 (11th grade) and Senior 3 (12th grade) students to be at school all day on Saturday, and has extended the school day until 6:30 M-F for Senior 3s as well. I feel sorry for the kids, but try to maintain perspective by remembering that many students work even harder. Competition for a place in college is so fierce that only 12% of applicants are admitted on average, ANYwhere. Since this is practically the only way for children of poor families to gain social mobility, many students attend special schools where they only get one day off a month (and I thought I worked hard in high school!) Since we don't teach Senior 3s at all, this doesn't directly affect our schedule but it does set a more serious tone in our classes and increases the pressure for us to perform. I have duly noted this greater responsibility and have been holding myself accountable to a higher standard of performance than I did last year; with any luck, my extra year of experience is coming at just the right time.
The other main situation in which I've gained increased confidence and comfort has been during my travels over the October 1st National Day break when Vicki and I went to Inner Mongolia. Although it still took the better part of three days to arrange for tickets, I was ultimately able to do so on my own. This would have been unthinkable last year, and until the trip itself ranked as one of my biggest achievements in negotiating Chinese society to date. Traveling to Inner Mongolia was an amazing experience, and although our teaching responsibilities prevented us from staying nearly as long as I would have liked, the trip was unforgettable.
We began by visiting the supposed final resting place of Genghis Khan's ashes where we enjoyed an excellent dinner (washed down with some very salty tea) and danced with a Chinese tour group to karaoke music around a roaring bonfire. We saw stars for the first time since coming to Nanjing and watched a beautiful sunrise on a yurt-spotted grassland. Then we headed to the Gobi desert's nearby boundary where I most benefited from my increased confidence. At this particular location, the edge of the desert really is just that-an edge. Sand spills down for about 90 meters into a wide gorge that runs north-south. Standing on the gorge's eastern edge and looking west, I was mesmerized by the sand dunes which literally stretch on as far as the eye can see. The day was clear, especially compared to the kind of viewing conditions we have in Nanjing, and for almost an hour all I did was stare and take pictures. By the time Vicki and I had our fill, it was close to dusk so we looked for a place to stay and found the cheapest accommodation in the gorge itself (again in yurts). Vicki ended up going on a pony ride under considerable pressure from the owner and I headed off into the night to see if I could find the place which kept the flock of camels I had seen during the day.
I found it about 15 minutes later without too much difficulty and reserved two camels for a sunrise ride the following morning at 5:00 am. I was actually amazed at how easy it was-the owner's Mandarin was quite understandable and though my Chinese vocabulary is not enormous, I was able to convey my meaning without any big problems. Shortly after finding the owner, I began walking back to the yurt under a starlit sky. In Nanjing there is too much light and air pollution to see more than the moon and a handful of dim stars even on the clearest nights. Granted, it wouldn't have taken much to make me happy, but I was completely taken aback by how beautiful the sight was. The desert air was incredibly clear and although there were a few lights on the east side of the gorge, it did little to drown the starlight rolling down over the sand dunes to the west; in fact, the only place I have been with comparable stargazing was in the Serengeti. I could have stayed out all night, but my 4:30 am wake-up time dragged me reluctantly to bed.
We awoke when it was still dark and headed to the camel corral to mount up. Riding a camel was a little more jostling than riding a horse, but I got the hang of it without too much trouble, despite my mount's protest at being awake and working so early. After we traveled for an hour or so, we paid our guide (which I realized was basically for the service of abandoning us in the desert) and watched the sun rise surrounded by sand dunes. I've been in deserts before in the states, but I've never been anywhere so completely dominated by sand dunes and devoid of anything else. This temporary break from Nanjing's crowded conditions only made the experience more precious. I've seen some pretty awesome sunrises, but that one has got to be among the most spectacular I've ever seen and was easily one of the trip's biggest highlights. By around 8 or 9, we decided we had enough pictures and ought to head back before it got too hot, so we followed the sun back to the gorge. There are many places from which to see the desert in China; one doesn't necessarily need to go to Inner Mongolia for the experience. But this part of Inner Mongolia will definitely be one of the things I remember for many years to come.
During our visit to a Tibetan monastery the following day, we saw a currency scam unfold on our bus, where two people enticed a third to buy a 100-note of "foreign currency" for 300 kuai. Even taking this into account, the ride was one of the most pleasant I took during the whole trip. The other passengers were very nice and seemed interested in talking with us out of genuine curiosity rather than an ulterior motive to practice English. It was the kind of bus ride I imagine when I think of small-town China. Everyone made sure we didn't miss our stop and the people who got off at the same time helped us flag down our onward bus.
As we were waiting to board our return train and take a 27-hour hard seat back to Nanjing, I realized that I am still quite confused about queue etiquette. In some ways it seems like Chinese people are as well. When I bought tickets in Nanjing from the new booking office, I saw the first voluntary line I think I've ever seen in China. When I bought return tickets from Inner Mongolia, I had to rely on steel cattle chutes to safely funnel me towards the counter through the surrounding mass of people. And while we stood waiting on the train platform that morning, guards arrived to ensure that people stood in neat, orderly lines. Of course the train didn't bother to line up its doors with the places we were standing so as soon as it screeched to a halt, the lines returned to the familiar, chaotic mob that they had been moments before. Perhaps queue etiquette reflects the heterogeneity I am becoming more sensitive to in Chinese culture; each region seems to have its own way of doing things regardless of what the generally accepted standards happen to be.
Alienation and Separation
These past few months I felt an expected homesickness and longing for autumn. I love watching the leaves turn colors, the cool but not cold weather, the crisp, clean smell of the air, and of course the holidays as well. I like the way it brings the family together after a summer of everyone going to different places and doing different things. Maybe I say this because I have now missed autumn three times in a row, but this year in particular-with its historic World Series and Presidential election-has made being so far from home even more difficult.
Although my hometown boys lost in a big way, I would have at least liked to be a part of the fervor that I'm sure enveloped St. Louis during the pennant race and the first few Series games. Regardless of any disappointment I felt at the Cards' performance, I was still painfully aware that I was missing the Red Sox make an unprecedented and spectacular rally from behind to end their infamous curse. And while the Series was made a little less poignant by being abroad, the election was made even more so. When Bush was reelected it seemed like the world let out a collective groan; I know my own echoed through almost every room in the International Student Dormitory I know as Xi Yuan.
I couldn't understand why it happened; Bush seems like such an obvious bad choice from overseas. And while I felt more alienated from my home culture than I ever have before, I didn't (and still don't) feel assimilated into Chinese culture, either. Maybe part of this disconnect came from having been gone so long during the past few years. But knowing this didn't make it any easier to respond to students who asked "why was Bush reelected?"
Indeed, I had been wondering the same question myself. I wanted to supplement my American news sources with Chinese-based ones, but I was not very successful in finding any. My main obstacle was that my "regular" 10:00 news in English (I still have trouble understanding Chinese-speaking newscasters) was replaced with a business program. I couldn't find a substitute until after the election, so the only news I received from Chinese sources was that the American election's uncertain outcome didn't affect the stock market for the day. I was able to work the election into my lesson plans, though, and held one of my own. When all the votes were in, Kerry won 136 to Bush's 41 and Clinton also got a vote; one student thought he was the best choice because he was "more handsome". I don't know how accurately this reflects the rest of the world's opinion of American politics, but I got a good laugh out of it, and afterwards was able to take the real election a little less seriously.
Junk Mail in a Strange Land
The election and these first few months have given me the opportunity to consider the way I think about home in a way that has not been possible before living abroad for so long. I have been thinking about this once-familiar concept and for a short time, even considered becoming an expat (according to Vicki's criteria, I'm already halfway there). I now think my skills and talents are needed back in the states more than anywhere else but it is exciting to me that I can imagine living abroad for an even longer amount of time than I already have. I think this realization may have come with my first piece of junk mail sent directly to my address in China. I saved it for posterity, but am keeping my fingers crossed that it is a "little emperor" and doesn't have any brothers or sisters on the way.
In China, there is a saying that "a cunning rabbit has three homes." No matter what happens, I know deep down that America will always be a home for me. But it has been wonderful to live in China for another year and delve deeper into a culture that I was only able to scratch the surface of previously. I feel lucky and honored to have been offered a chance to return to my second home again and sincerely hope that my students will benefit from my extra experience as much as I already have. I want to thank the committee for considering me again-it has been incredibly valuable so far and I am thrilled about the rest of my time here. Thanks to Vicki for being my sister in Nanjing and to everyone who has sent me correspondence; I have appreciated every letter, e-mail and phone-call, no matter how small. And if you haven't, what are you waiting for? I look forward to hearing from youâ¦as long as you don't send any junk mail. :-)