My week was marked by foreigners in Zhuzhou events both on Monday and on Friday. I was looking forward to the ceramics expo in Liling, but we arrived on the morning of the last day. Still stuff out on the floor, but a lot of empty booths and shelves since a lot of people were packing up . And then we were a bit late to the museum so we had to rush through it and didn't see much. There were a few nice pieces, the biggest ceramic jars were all for alcohol, and we saw some ceramics done so finely that they were used for lightbulbs because they were so thin. I was looking for a gaiwan and saw some nice celadon sets that were cheaper than I expected, but nothing really caught my eye. I talked to one of the teachers I haven't seen much since getting separated into our sites and these events are always interesting for me because I get to meet people working in Zhuzhou who aren't necessarily teaching, though there are a number of teachers. I met a family with a Chinese wife and a German husband and their young daughter. The husband said he'd been here for 4 years and hadn't learned much Chinese. He said his daughter always calls him very lazy in Chinese. I met another man working with China Southern Railways too. I may have mentioned this before, but Zhuzhou is probably the biggest transportation point down south. Sometimes people have to come here from Changsha to get a train because we have so many connections that pass through here.
Speaking of trains and connections, during Friday's event for foreigners I had a great conversation recently with a man who's been here for 13 years. He mentioned that you only get a passing view of a city from the trains and don't always get to see everything going on in there. Maybe he meant that because of all the people that must pass by Zhuzhou when they ride the train but never get off on their way to Changsha, Guangzhou, Kunming, or other places more popular as destinations than as stopping points. I was really fascinated to hear everything he had to say because for the most part, I've noticed/encountered relatively young people who stay for 5-6 years and then seem to move on to other things (though there is a group of people who started a company in Changsha, a few of whom used to be in WorldTeach). To find someone clearly at a different stage in his life from many of the other younger people I run into both because of the opportunities available here in China for foreigners (teaching is the most common, it's usually a little harder to find work in other fields but not impossible and that while most seem to like it here and stay for longer than they planned, they seem to move on to other things) presented a unique opportunity. I asked him what brought him to China. He told me that many people from his home country (Morocco) generally go to the US or Europe for work or school, but he saw a growing China and came out of curiosity. He intended to stay for a year or two, then to go to grad school in Belgium. Now he's married and has an 8 year old daughter. I asked him about the biggest changes he's seen in his time here. And like with many things, the biggest changes are the smallest. The first thing he did was point out of the bus windows and talk about the cages for air-conditioning units and how the government had paid for metal bars and things on all the windows so that things wouldn't fall out on the street anymore. The next thing he talked about was jaywalking, "It's much more controlled now. We had guys standing on the street and they would ask jaywalkers for 20RMB. And then people would run away or stop jaywalking not because they didn't want to pay, but because..they felt very silly..." he put his hands against his face so I asked "Embarassed?" "Yes". He told me that the Xiang river used to be a total mess. Things stuck all over the banks, dead animals, junk, bikes and other things used to float through the river. He told me about the efforts to clean up the river around Zhuzhou to make the most impact. If they cleaned up further downstream then the dirty water from here would still come down to others. He told me about the factories that have since moved and how awful the northern part of the city was when it had a chemicals factory. He told me all the chimneys (except one) have since disappeared. Since we were riding on a bus back into the city and I saw the cars around us as we went on the bridge over the Xiang, I asked him if there were more cars. "Oh yes. Many more. And many more kinds of cars." He pointed out his school and the dorms, the opera house in construction, and I asked him about Yandi Square. He told me the statue went up the year he came to Zhuzhou, but there was no square. It was all fields and some graves. I find it hard to visualize. I actually found someone's site where they posted photos they took years ago and compared them to the photos they took on a recent trip, but I still struggle to think about what it must have been like. When I go to YanDi Square now, it's clearly been designed both as a place of leisure and a bit of a tourist spot but there are still things in construction such as the opera house and a concert/arts hall. Those fields have been turned into a lake. The whole set up is near a museum/development exhibition hall which I've only been to once. Listening to my new friend made for quite a story and a chance to get an understanding of this place that I really haven't had access to too much.
It was a long conversation that took course over dinner at Songxizi and the bus ride back into the city. And I guess I'll now have to work backwards to talk about that long but very satisfying Friday. So I and the other teacher here agreed to take part in a program with other foreign teachers to teach in a school that was still in Zhuzhou county but outside of Zhuzhou city. We were assigned to LuKou Town. I got nervous and started to overthink what I needed to do a little bit but then looking at my lesson plan and powerpoint realized that I'd done what I could to teach new words and play charades, but that at this point I was just going to have to deal with any problems when the problems came. I was a littler nervous because I was teaching 8th and 9th grade for a day. It was weird. I didn't have to write and show so many pictures. I just said "take out a piece of paper" and pulled a piece of paper from my notebook "write one verb" and wrote the word swim "now fold it", and showed them, "and put it in this bag". It went smoothly, but the same verbs (fly, play, make, do, swim, sing, dance, run, jump, fight, write, read, watch) came up over and over again so after 20 minutes, I let the last 25 minutes of class be about questions. The 8th graders seemed more willing and warmed up to me more than the 9th graders. I think the same 4 outgoing 9th graders asked me questions over and over again. The 8th graders were so ready to ask me anything some pulled out their textbooks and scoured for a topic. It was really fun. And lunch was awesome. I finally tried hongshao rou while another guy with my name started singing "If it's good enough for Mao, it's good enough for me." He was a character. I knew I'd like hongshao rou before I ate it because everytime I see a picture of Mao's favorite dish it's always cubes of braised pork that seem to be mostly fat. The texture, the flavor, and all of it was great but we all resisted eating the whole thing since our table was so crowded with other foods. Then we went back to organize a question and answer session with the students
I remembered how curious and active my students were when we first met, so I was looking forward to being the new face on campus again. What I didn't think about is how much bigger the school would be (it was a public school and I think it covered primary to middle, if not up to high school) and how we would be mobbed by students who wanted us to sign their notebooks, their jackets, their English books, and sometimes, themselves. It was crazy to leave lunch and get to where we needed to be. I'd already allowed my students to ask me questions in class but there were so many people still who had questions. Some of them surprised me actually, one very outgoing girl with very good English in my 9th grade class asked me what I thought of LGBT and not really knowing the views I would encounter (I've heard that because China doesn't have the same religious context, it's generally more open but I also know that there are people who don't know much or don't understand, and then there's the traditional idea of family too...) I just said "I know what it is, but I don't know very much about it". But I probably should have guessed from her question that she asked because she knew something. She told me after class that she was a "B" and I was pleasantly surprised to find someone so young and so open about who she was. But it may just be that I'm a foreigner and a number of students have told me they feel free when they speak English, so there's that to consider. The sense of freedom is part of why people say such strange things in English sometimes. We talked about South Park, if I like pandas, my favorite drink, where I'm from, what schools in America are famous, if I like Chinese food, if I like China, if I liked the school (they asked me this during my first class when I'd been there for a total of 20 minutes), if I liked la tiao ("What's la tiao?" "This! Try it!"), and if I could accept some gifts from the students. It's always a little weird to be such a huge celebrity for a day on account of nothing more than you being a native English speaker or from another country, but I'm now the proud owner of a handmade pair of earrings and two hair pins, a Chinese chess set from Zhuzhou's top chess player, and a drawing of a tired kitty. I let them have my QQ number too so now I have over 30 requests that I need to add to my contact list. It's always hard to juggle being available to students with your own need for time to yourself but these kids don't have a regular oral English teacher so I thought I'd let them at least write to me every now and again. And they were so welcoming and such characters, I'm not saying no to them.
So that's a very brief summary of my week. On Friday, I had to leave my apartment at 7:20AM and we got back to the city at around 7:30PM so that day alone was pretty packed with new sights and new faces. We had to get up early on Monday too but besides seeing the expo and the museum before they closed for the day, we didn't have a lot of commitments to meet. And we were done after lunch. But I do have some photos of those excursions so I guess I'll spare you all having to read more text when I could just show you people making soy milk.