I'm not through with it yet, I've just gotten past the part where he rides the Iron Rooster and makes his way to Xinjiang accompanied by a man who has been appointed to stay with him throughout his trip. I remember reading once in Lonely Planet's guide to travel writing that Theroux was a master of using dialogue to bring readers into a place. I have found the conversations he brings into his work to be interesting, but often I think the questions he asks are a bit strange. I've been looking forward to starting each new chapter for what it might reveal but at times I can't help agreeing with some of the reviews I've read about Theroux's condescension. The people he meets are fascinating and the information he brings in to contextualize some of the conversations he has is well woven into the book, but his descriptions of some of these people aren't terribly flattering either. Maybe I can better form my thoughts on the book as a whole when I've finished reading. There's something else he wrote that's supposed to be his best work, I've been thinking of looking for his other writings to get a fuller sense of the kind of traveler and the kind of writer he is. I've also downloaded Pico Iyer's Video Nights in Kathmandu onto my nook. I feel like I've heard the name enough to wonder what he wrote about and as it's part of a collection of writings on the far East it may be relevant. I have to admit, seeing Zhuzhou mentioned in Theroux's book has partly won me over to Riding the Iron Rooster. I'm sad to say though that thus far it's only been a train stop where he said goodbye to a man getting off a train for a connection to Changsha.
I'll be getting on a train (火车 huo che in Chinese, literally meaning fire cart and I remember it as one of the first words I learned in a book my grandpa gave me about reading Chinese) tomorrow evening. WorldTeach is holding a mid-service conference and though the bus station is next to the school my first instinct in traveling is to book a train ticket. Maybe it's the result of being in Switzerland for four years. So, it's off to Changsha for a weekend where I'll be doing a short presentation/leading a discussion during the mid-service conference. It's not terribly exciting. It's about effectively opening and closing your lessons but I've been surprised to hear others talk about how they're not sure about how exactly to close up a class and organized lesson plans have become a strength of mine. I guess it helps that in public speaking we were asked to do something similar to the lesson planning template that we were given during orientation. Basically, we had to outline what we wanted to say in full sentences and write in any gestures we would use so that we could both give a clear speech with deliberate movements and speak more naturally than if we were reading a thick essay. Hopefully, I can be of some help to someone but as of right now I'm a little nervous with making sure that I am where I need to be when I need to be there. I also don't want to be overly redundant when I know I'll be in a room full of people with as much teaching experience as I have so I'd rather talk about what we've all tried and some of the procedures we've developed.
In news about Zhuzhou, I saw sun and parts of blue sky for the first time in two weeks today. I was told it will still be quite cold for at least another month and then Hunan will once again turn into China's oven and the walls will swell with heat and humidity. We had English Corner for the first time this term and it's quite different from last term. More students, more formalized, more observations from other teachers coming and today our lesson plan for 40 minutes had to be changed to accommodate the visiting parents and school board members who are obviously highly important guests. So to make sure they saw us in action and saw what the school had to offer, we were told that class couldn't just end at 5pm. We had to continue holding English corner until we were told to stop and all the groups had had a chance to peek inside. It was a bit frustrating to have to think of something to do for an extra 30 minutes, but what school wouldn't want to show themselves at their best? And even more so in a culture where displaying that best and maintaining "face" is such a big concern. There's truth to the cynical view that we're here to add to the school's prestige because it's a private school that also has native English speakers that students can speak to, but at the same time I haven't felt overly cynical about that because I've found teachers quite willing to help whenever I've had questions. I think even with the greater presence of pomp and circumstance around certain school events such as the beginning of a new term or with greeting important guests to the school, the teachers are quite genuine in wanting to be better teachers and I guess in helping me that's also helping their students more fully take advantage of my presence. Is our school proud of having foreigners? Yes. Do we feel frustrated at times by last minute requests, teachers who keep their distance because they don't speak English well or speak it at all so they're not wholly comfortable sitting with us, and the knowledge that as oral English is not a zhongkao or gaokao subject our classes don't take quite the same priority that other classes on the test will? Yes. But from stories I've heard about the situations of others I'm in very good hands. I've never once felt that I wasn't and though there were problems with my visa in October, I saw how hard WorldTeach, JingYan, and the Hunan Dept. of Education worked to ensure that we were able to continue. Which was great because it would have broke my heart to be turned away a second time and not only that, face difficulty in coming to China later because of an innocent mistake. I think WorldTeach is taking applications for next year so if I want to come back to Hunan through WorldTeach I will need to act fast. As it is, I feel quite content either going home with my experiences, the better sense of self, and the greater trust in myself I sense I've developed or in coming back and being a much more polished teacher with a better understanding of what to look out for.
It's interesting to think through all this now. I remember how it used to surprise when I'd hear about a Chinese-American that moved back to China or read something in a history about cases of families moving back. I'd heard so many times that the US presented so many opportunities that people gave up all kinds of things to come here so with that understanding, knowing that people went back surprised me and raised questions. Undoubtedly, there are still more opportunities to do as a you wish but I've also learned about the appeal of being someone who looks like 95% of the population of China. I guess for those who had the choice to stay or go, there was also value in being in a country where you weren't alien, in knowing that you are a Chinese person in China. Not promising that everyone gets to do anything they can dream of, but at the basic level of education I can say that you're more likely to get second chances for a college education if that is what you seek either for your own emotional and intellectual development or for the boost it gives to your earning potential. I've found myself remembering a professor who once said that Americans had no right to happiness, but that we did have a right to its pursuit. Before coming here, I read in guidebooks and heard from online sources that Asian-Americans would not be treated the same way as other foreigners in China. I remember phrases like "met with a mixture of admiration and resentment" and of being alone in a long lost home, of not being treated with the same reverence and excitement that other foreigners were treated to. I have yet to be met with said mixture of admiration and resentment (or I'm not in the loop enough to hear it) and as I've worked my way through books about China I've started to wonder about how many Chinese-Americans or Overseas Chinese as we're called in Chinese contribute to these travel resources. Is it just that we relate differently and that our take on China isn't quite the same as a number of other tourists? Is that why some guidebooks leave a special box on what to expect as a Chinese-American in China while some mention nothing of the changed relationship and perceptions of overseas Chinese in China? I think the only work of travel literature about China written in English by an Asian woman is To the People, Food is Heaven and I don't remember her mentioning anything about resentment in her book either. Then again, Hunan's history is a bit different from places such as Guangdong so if I spent more time down south it may be a different story. If anything, I've encountered curiosity and confusion that sometimes ends with "xinjiang ren ma?" as people put my bad Chinese together with my predominantly Asian face and arrive at the possibility that I come from Xinjiang province, the province in China with the most minority groups.
I've been thinking about a lot of things this week and I still haven't quite gotten over the shock of realizing I have no more than 13 weeks of teaching left. While asking myself what to do when this comes to a close is exciting, it's also going to be very tough to leave with everything I wanted to talk about and the students who have put up with my off days and my struggles. I know the colleges around here are frequently looking for foreigners to teach English so maybe I should start looking at that as an option for coming back, but I'm also open to the idea of working and saving to come back in a year or two. Who knows? I've heard different things about teaching college, that it's frustrating because they've passed the gaokao and don't feel the same obligation to come to class, that they are more willing to work with you because they don't have that same obligation to exams that they did in middle and high school, that they are serious students, that they have money and don't care...but I also know that all college students still have to pass the college English test regardless of their major so I imagine that adds some incentive to stay in English class. I have the experience now and am more open to the risk since I've discovered that compared to some who take on teaching jobs I was pretty well informed of the challenges before coming here. But I think that's why I encouraged to try for the job again, because I applied and made it clear that this was something I wanted to do with the full knowledge that living in another country is not easy and that my appearance could change the way locals interacted with me. Since I'm going to be in Changsha with all the other teachers and the field director, that might be a good time to start asking about the possibility of doing this again. I know I'd like to see more of Zhuzhou and all the changes that happen around me are fascinating. My Chinese still needs work and I'm always sensing how big this country and how much there is to it, and I've been enjoying the anonymity I have here that I clearly didn't get from men who shouted "Hey China!" from across the street. Not to mention, the ready availability of tea and teawares of varying quality. Sometimes I sense it's less the drinks themselves that interest me than the whole culture and ritual, the contemplation, and attention to detail. But of course, it doesn't hurt that all that comes with a hot drink when you've boiled the water to the right temperature, washed the leaves, brewed and re-brewed for a reasonable amount of time, watched the leaves unfurl and finally poured it into a cup consumption.
To tie things up here, I guess I'm just at a point where I can hear the slow trains of my time in China calling out the next stop and while I'm not super anxious, I am listening for the station I'll be getting off at for the next connection, whether that be another chance at teaching here or taking my new confidence to other places.