- Last minute things. This is just kind of a general part of living and working here and something you'll run into or read whenever you find something about someone's experiences in China. But this last week it really got to me. No one told me that all classes after lunch on Wednesday were bumped up by 20 minutes so I was late to class. In addition to this, I guess the music club wasn't able to learn the words to a song fast enough so we (the two foreign teachers) were recruited to be the main singers in a show taking place in the next few hours. Which also made us late because we were taken away for rehearsal.
- I guess my voice doesn't pick up too well on mics/wasn't enthused about the situation since my co-volunteer immediately started saying "Hey, I didn't hear you singing at all. Were you? I heard nothing" and I'm sure she was teasing but I got angry and nearly cried anyway because there are few things I hate more than the suggestion that I'm not actually trying. And for me to just go along with this thing while not being the kind of person who feels very comfortable just singing and dancing in front of others (I've managed to avoid KTV for the most part) was kind of a big thing. Even more so since we had to do in front of the whole school, students and faculty alike.
- Did I mention that no one told me that my 7th period would be canceled since the whole school was attending this thing? I mean, I was proud of the kids who got this far in the talent competition, and I knew coming here that I wouldn't always get a warning of events ahead of time, but I just feel like I've been out of the loop on so much. It's like no one even bothers to see if I know anymore...
- I was asked to write an article for the newspaper about my daily life. At first, it just sounded like a fun project to work on. After a few weeks, I was told there was a deadline. After that, I was told it was part of a competition. And finally, when I turned in what I wrote and received feedback, I was told it wasn't detailed enough despite having no concrete instructions about what specifically about my daily life they wanted to know. And then I was told there was a limit on how many words I could use. I never sent a revised draft after my first one because I just lost the motivation after suddenly receiving all these details and hearing my work was insufficient. It didn't seem like my biggest priority. So this past week the other volunteer and I were in the newspaper with our articles. I wish I knew what they said and my students have excitedly asked if it's me, but I have no idea what's written. Knowing that there's a public article with your name on and you're not sure what it says is not the most comfortable feeling...I may post what I wrote originally. It was fun for me, but I can see that it probably didn't fit what they were looking for. Which makes me wonder if the translation of me work went through extensive editing before it hit the page.
- I chose to go to school on Christmas, but I guess everyone was so prepared to give me the day off that it bothered everyone that I was at school. I taught my class, was repeatedly told to go home and relax, waited to lead English corner as usual and no one showed up so I'm guessing that someone just made a decision to cancel it based on the assumption that neither of us would want to come to school on Christmas. Which was kind of frustrating.
- I almost got wifi on Christmas, but again, no one told me that the guy would be coming over. So when I was grabbing treats to pig out on while watching Christmas specials and movies, I got a text asking if I was in my apartment so that they could get me wifi...I sent a message saying I was shopping and asked if it would be easier for me to run over or for him to come another day and got no response. So I paid for my stuff, ran out, showed up at my apartment door 20 minutes after I received the first text and...no one was there. I wound up going across the street to the bakery to grab what I wanted.
This week has been a mix of stress, feeling the end of the year pinch, and growing slightly closer with some of the people around me. So the stressful thing first because they're hanging over my head:
As you've noticed, I changed up my blog. I wasn't too happy with how it looked earlier and this seemed nicer without feeling too cluttered.
And as promised, here's a picture of the Christmas tree across the street. The fact that we have a massive Christmas tree, a KFC, a Vanguard, a Pacific Coffee and the 1984 bakery all across the street from us is a pretty dead giveaway as to how the area we're in is relatively well off and central.
I've been to that coffee shop for wifi from time to time and recently went there for a matcha latte and to download some new books I got through my nook. I really miss some of the discussions I used to have in college and I realized it's been a long time since I read anything new (or read anything beyond the news or a dictionary). It seemed to be an East meets West kind of day as I waited for my downloads to finish and looked over at my matcha latte ("You want this? You know it's not coffee, right?"). A very modern drink that comes to my table not only because of the kind lady who works there but because of the Song dynasty here in China, the Japanese scholars seeking to learn about what was big in China and bringing back the Song's tea ceremony and making it their own, and finally that powdered green tea making its way into a latte. It's East and it's West, it's old and it's new. My expensive 30 yuan beverage is centuries and a few minutes old and it's still hot.
When my books have finished downloading I more or less run into the same contemplation of cultural contact.One of my new reads is a journal of translated Chinese texts into English. Coincidentally, it was first published the month I arrived in Changsha. The other is an anthology of Chinese poetry. Their prefaces share some similarities. Both mention how Chinese poetry contributed to modern English literature, and the Imagist poets in particular. Both mention Ezra Pound's attempts to translate Li Bai with his limited Chinese and the notes of other translators (both think highly of Pound as an influential modern figure in literature, but not so much for his Chinese translations). They both include passages from the Book of Songs in order to take their readers back to the beginnings of Chinese poetry and its various functions. But since one is an anthology that means to trace Chinese poetry from the Book of Songs up to the poems of Mao Zedong and the other a journal trying to enhance literary and cultural understanding of China, they part ways after the Book of Songs.
The journal is simply called "Chinese Literature and Culture" and it not only introduced me to some very modern voices and what I imagine are very real concerns in China today. One story in particular concerned a woman who just finished her PhD and was looking for a university job but after considering her options goes to Beijing to try for a high school position because it seems more secure than attempting to get a position in a competitive market where relations are important. What particularly strikes me about the story is when she and her boyfriend stay in the luxurious house where the protagonist's mother works and become all too aware of what they don't have at a time when both are struggling to establish themselves. Perhaps this struck a chord for me because material things and money are a more explicit issue here in China (it's an issue anywhere, but people are curious/tend to be more forward about asking about your means). People here are not superficial, but one recurring pattern I notice here is a need to "display". Displaying test scores, displaying that you are not a person who needs to worry about wasting food when you leave extra at a restaurant, and the way people dress is often the result of careful thought: how to be well dressed without giving someone the impression that you care about your appearance so much that you don't care about doing your job. We think about the impressions we make on others, but that concern may not be as omnipresent in the US as I've found it to be in China.
Needless to say, I was impressed with the work I saw and they do take works originally written in English that relate to China. I may go through some of the things I write and see if I can contribute. I think the journal is based in Guangzhou at the Foreign Language Institute, a few hours away from here by fast train. The contributors/editors mentioned that part of their desire to create such a journal was due to the limited chances people have to really practice their talents in another language. One way Chinese people talented in languages find an outlet for their talents is in translation. I couldn't help feeling that it was somewhat related to my work here as an oral English teacher so I guess I was drawn to it pretty naturally. I'm still working my way through the other anthology but it is nice to have something to work at and something that engages me in a way I haven't been in a while. Reading is another way for me to understand a place I've found is misunderstood in many ways while doing something I enjoy. My Chinese isn't good enough to even read children's books without a lot of help and I do pick up magazines like I used to in Lugano but I can't read them either. I still want some kind of access to Chinese literature so I guess "Chinese Literature and Culture" came out at just the right time for me and it's not a perfect solution but I do sense that it's bridged what I see with what I'm often blocked from as someone who isn't fluent in Chinese. Or maybe I just generally enjoy work that suggests an understanding and awareness of two cultures. I've found that my students like my computer background which is kind of another product of various artistic traditions, Van Gogh's "Almond Blossoms". I guess I've just naturally been drawn to work that tries to understand and play with different traditions too.
So I'll be showing a movie to my classes this week ("Frost the Snowman") and will have to spend next week telling students what's on their final exam and letting them prepare in class. I wish I'd received more warning on when my grades were due, but that's how it works here. I still don't know when school starts again. It probably won't be too difficult, but with an average of 57 students a class I will need two class periods to ensure that everyone speaks. (Each period I teach is 40 minutes long, and I only see each class once a week.) But as I wrap up with my students and try to find a suitable, short oral exam (I'm thinking that since I asked them for their names on the first day, they can introduce a classmate and tell us a little about him/her, it'd be a way to come back to day one and include some of what they've done and learned in my class or their other class) I've begun reflecting on the ups and downs of this term.
And now some of the tougher things:
So I'm still having a rough time here with consequences and discipline. I need more concrete consequences...but here are some of the fun parts of teaching:
So now to the tougher parts. Because I was so unwilling to take students in to see their head teacher and failed to stay firm and consistent in my card system, I'm now paying for it in students that aren't recognizing their misbehavior and disregard my consequences. So I need to apologize for my failing to keep everyone accountable and insist on my rules now (though I only have a few weeks left to the term now...). I will fight to do better next term, be more clear, be more firm, and show the assistant field director that I was ultimately able to not only create a strong lesson plan, but control my kids as well.
Aside from in the classroom, I recently learned that some of the other teachers have asked our liaison to sit with us at lunch so they don't have to talk to us in English. I never got that impression from the other teachers so to hear that really hurt and made me wonder if every time I've come into the office with questions about upcoming exams, days off, and what students are currently learning, the other teachers are just bearing it. But maybe I've jumped to an unfair conclusion here too. If I was a real pain to talk to, I wouldn't have been invited to another teacher's apartment for Thanksgiving. If I was a real pain to talk to, "Gilbert" wouldn't run up to me and say hi and start talking every time I see him around campus. (He probably wouldn't give me fruit and tea for better health, ask why I'm not using a portable mic, or offer an extra cot during the school's scheduled rest period either...) I'm sure it's anxiety. I guess it's understandable, but also a little frustrating when you realize that you've come to another country and really want to do your job but people are trying to set you up so they don't have to talk to you...I'm sure it's not to be mean. And I do speak a little Chinese which gets both my kids and the other teachers excited at times.
And China's notorious scheduling. We just learned when our final exam grades have to be in and I was advised to spend an entire class period covering what would be on the final exam and spending a lot of time testing for understanding. I know, none of the other teachers knew either until recently, but it is very hard to plan for an entire term when you have to create your own lesson plans and curriculum without a clear term schedule. And hard to plan if you want to travel and book things ahead of time...I'm still not sure where I want to go. Zhujiang (The Pearl River Delta) is high on my list, the terra cotta warriors would be great to see, any section of the great wall...I realize that our family has been gone from that area for a long time, but Zhongshan is also the birthplace of Sun Yat Sen (Zhong Shan is a name for Sun Yat Sen and there's a Zhong Shan Street/中山路 in pretty much every city). It's also famous for having lots of flowers so I'd love to go for that as well. The other teachers said Guangdong is a pretty smart choice for winter since it'll be pretty warm.
Metro, a German store much like Costco, just opened up in Zhuzhou so we took a trip there this past weekend. I really never spent much time out on the West side of the river so I snapped a few pictures of Shennong Square (Yandi Square) and the big statue of Emperor Yan on a rainy Sunday. I actually saw the square on TripAdvisor before I left for China because I had such a hard time finding info on Zhuzhou. It was on my list of must-sees but I'm sorry to say that I don't really come out this way often even though the west side is very beautiful. All the screens lit up at night make for a strange contrast of Emperor Yan, the forefather and an ancient figure, against all the bright very modern electric screens. There's a mall very close by too complete with Wal-Mart and dinosaurs. I do enjoy walking around out here when I have the time.
I've been fighting my classes. I told them they could have a Christmas movie if they were good for two classes. So far, it's been ok. Still noisy. Still fighting. But oh god. My last class of the day today was actually screaming "We're sorry" when I counted up their points and what they lost from me asking them to be quiet. I feel horrible. Especially since they're not the only noisy class, but it feels so chaotic in there. Maybe they can't understand me, but all the time I spend chasing people down to pay attention. All the work I put into telling them to put their homework away. All the energy I expend on asking them to stay with me so I can work with them and not against them. I'm so so sorry kids. But I do want you to have one movie day so I'll ask you again next week if you can behave better for another class and another shot at that Christmas movie. Please, I want to share with you, and while I get quiet classes when I play movies, I am much happier listening to all of you speak because you say such interesting things. Movies are relaxing, but it feels like cheating if that's what I do to get a quiet class. Then I'm not actually doing my job. Oh god, I have to keep pushing for a more manageable class and I hate seeing how horrified they are to have a B for the day. But seriously? How many times do I have to circulate to get you to listen? All the homework that comes out, all the talking, all the hitting, the Rubik's cubes...guys! I love you, but if I have to teach 13 classes like that, there won't be anything left of me for anything except screaming. I nearly cried in my office. But I ate dinner at the school with some very shy boys and we worked out what they wanted to say with my cell phone's dictionary. They told me I speak very fast so I'll have to pace myself better. I'll time myself this weekend, drink a load of tea, and rehearse. I want to be understood. I don't want to be some impossible teacher who punishes for not understanding. I want to be better, and I have to fight to be that better person.
I'm a 3rd year WorldTeach volunteer.