China, Language, Teaching

I am an optimistic person

This made it onto the list of phrases in my first ever Chinese lesson. Repeat. First ever Chinese lesson. It had good company. Things like “I look at the bright side of things” and “hello everyone my name is Amy” and “I have been in China for a few years and I have five people in my family.” To illustrate my dismay, that last sentence in pinyin it looks like “wo lai zhongguo sheng huo le ji nian le. Wo jia li wu kou ren.” Then you add in the tones. I studied the paper incredulously, but when I looked up at my teachers there was nothing but cheerful good will there. Obviously it’s not just me who’s optimistic. I decided not to make an issue of it that night. First lesson and all. Surely I could cull some useful things from what they gave me.

However, after two more lessons of attempting to pronounce complete sentences correctly with tones I am feeling anything but optimistic. There seems to be a vast difference between slow Chinese and fast Chinese. The tones which are clear in slow Chinese are lost to me when things speed up. I want to argue with my teachers that when they say it fast it no longer sounds like a 2nd tone, but rather a 1st tone or a 4th tone. And though they’d given me the stamp of approval on my pronunciation of the Chinese alphabet and all the possible syllable combinations, these sounds change a great deal when placed in the context of a sentence.

I realized tonight that I must tell my teachers that I cannot do complete sentences. I need words. Phrases. My plan is butchered Chinese for the time being. Maybe in the future I can do better. But now is hardly the time for “I look at the bright side of things”.

And the irony is that I was feeling optimistic just the day before. I was recognizing numbers when people were talking. I had learned a few characters. I was making progress. Life was good. Then tonight. Oh wow.

I’m not giving up. I’m still going to learn some Chinese. Some Chinese. Illegitimi non carborundum, yeah?

China, Weather

Typhoon Season

According to some people it is typhoon season.

I say “according to” because as soon as I learn some piece of information, file it away mentally, and then mention it to someone else, it is then contradicted. In this specific case, both people have lived in this area for a number of years. Who to believe? I don’t know.

Regardless it’s been raining off and on. And I do mean off and on quite literally. One minute completely dry. The next completely drenched.

About two weeks ago there were a few typhoon/tropical storms passing through the area. They rumbled by China and then went on do some major damage in the Philippines. On the most memorable day for me it began raining just before I had to go to class. Though I had an umbrella and boots I was soaked to about mid-thigh by the time I got to class. My students were in similar if not worse condition. I had bought an umbrella just that morning after another downpour episode that fortuitously happened when I was in class.

The typhoons moved on and it’s been relatively cool and dry for the last week or so. Yesterday I felt a few raindrops as I was coming back from class, but didn’t think anything of it. The next time I looked about my window before going to my night class, it was absolutely pouring. Again.

Nothing for it. Though I tried walking on my toes for awhile, I was soaked within a few mintues and just gave up. Just have to slosh throught the streets in inches of water. If I didn’t have to go to class, it could actually be fun. The students in shorts and flip-flops are well dressed for this weather. Me in my teacher apparel, much less so.

China, Educational System, University Teaching

The Teaching Situation

All freshmen at my university have to take a course called College English which is made up of 3 classes: Oral English (every other week for an hour and a half), Listening (the same), and Reading & Writing (hour and a half every week). So 3 hours of English class a week.

The majority of my classes are Oral English classes for freshmen. I teach 14 classes of Oral English over a two-week period. I will see these students only 9 times this semester. I also teach one Listening class and two Reading & Writing classes. The icing on the cake is the one Oral English class I teach to actual English majors.

I went from having 122 students at my school in Georgia to something like 20,000 students at the university. Students I actually teach from maybe 60 to about 600. It’s quite a change. Since I will see the majority of my students so infrequently I think it’s actually impossible to learn all of their names. I’m trying, but I think it’s a lost cause.

The students look and act remarkably like students everywhere else in the world. It’s the Bell Curve in action. A few good ones, lots of less-than-impressive ones, and a few that should be shot. Okay, very few in the last category. But some clear problem-students in every class.

Most of my speaking classes have 30+ students. A few have over 40. The Listening and Reading/Writing classes all have about 70. So in general all of my classes are quite large. And most of them meet only every other week. So there’s not a lot of contact time and they’re large classes. It’s really not an ideal teaching situation if you are serious about students learning English.

In dealing with large classes of the mostly spoken variety, I have quickly realized the importance of letting no student off the hook. Everyone will participate. Everyone will speak. If I call on you a smart-ass answer will not get you grace. Nor will just bowing your head and saying “sorry”. No, this is speaking class (in most cases). If you’re not going to participate then stay home. One class already got a lecture.

Playing the hard-ass is not my natural inclination in teaching. However, I had a moment when I realized that in my classes I am the Supreme Authority. Like a moment-of-truth scene in a fantasy novel, I saw that the power/sword/sacred object was mine and I must both take hold of said power and wield it. Failure to do so opens the door for others to usurp it. So I am now walking the knowledge of my supremeness. This is different because I wasn’t the S.A. in Georgia. Once I came to terms with this change in status, it’s really quite empowering. Just can’t let it get to my head.


Market Finds, Gifts and Stir-Fry

Campus Life, China, Gender, University Teaching

Roosters & Hens

I have now been in China for about a month. It’s been interesting.

I feel that the overall situation is an improvement. A university is a far cry from a village school. My students have had years of English instruction. I have my own apartment. I can cook my own food. There is a group of people who speak my language living up and down the halls from me. There are options on the weekend. Lots of things to be thankful for.

But lots of things are different than Georgia. For one, there is no host family. While I don’t miss having food prepared for me or sharing the bathroom with 7 other people, I do miss having people to come home to. I enjoy time alone in my apartment, but then I inevitably reach the time when I want to be with other people. And if you haven’t made previous plans it can be a bit hard to track someone down.

The teachers at my university are a diverse group. There are 25 foreign teachers and we’re a wide range of ages and nationalities. Some have taught in China before, others haven’t. About 10 have been at the university for years and 15 of us are new. And while we all aim to be friendly everyone has different ideas about what they want to do with their time in China. On the whole people are very independent. There’re no group memos about events or any real effort towards inclusivity. No hand-holding here. Which brings me to my next point.

I was dismayed when I realized I was the only female teacher in the new group of teachers. Wouldn’t you want to aim for some balance in the gender of the teaching staff? I asked a few questions and the answer I got surprised me. Apparently it is difficult to find qualified female candidates for this type of position. Really? I was skeptical as I have female friends who have either taught or are teaching at this level in different countries. So, um, okay. Take it with a grain of salt I guess. (There are two teachers amongst the “old teachers” group: one is married with a young son, the other I’ve seen only once in passing. I will, of course, seek them out as time allows.)

So as the lone female in the “new teachers” group my social position was immediately a tad awkward. The average male teacher is of the beer-guzzling, cigarette-smoking variety. As we all know I don’t smoke and have no real thirst for alcohol. Social drinking is fun, but people who “need” a drink are going to get either doubtful looks or a sarcastic raised eyebrow. I gamely try to join in (with the beer drinking), but it’s more out a desire to have something to do with my hands than because I really want a drink. And it’s terribly awkward to be the only non-drinking person at a table. It’s not a moral position. I’m not opposed to drinking. So I join in. But it’s just not that much fun. And when boys drink they seem to inevitably veer towards talking about girls: hot Chinese girls. Surely I cannot be the only woman to find that awkward. And if they talk dirty or swear or gesture crudely an apology is shot in my direction: “Oh, sorry!” I feel like the female invader at guys’ night out. Or the morality police. By default of being female my mere presence operates as a check on their behavior.

Not all the male teachers are of this type. I’ve found a few that can be counted on for relaxing non-alcohol related meals and good company. But again, you have to prearrange things; everyone is just so independent. And then there are a few teachers that have just disappeared into the woodwork that I never see anymore.

In Georgia, in our area, though we had many different personalities, the fact that there were so few of us seemed to bring us together. On the weekends we’d congregate at the one quality restaurant and almost everyone would drop by for a little while to just hang out. There was some low-key gossiping about other teachers, but nothing malicious. There were only 9 of us. So it didn’t seem like a good idea to make yourself too unpopular unless you were planning on going native.

So it’s very different from Georgia. There is no host family and no tight community. I have to just do the things I want to do regardless of whether I can find a companion. Some days this can be a stretch for me, but in general I feel I am holding my own. I amaze myself with how much time I can happily spend alone. There is so much to do! Lesson planning, emails, Skype, Facebook, blogging, reading books, journaling, guitar practice, Pilates, Chinese language study, plus the mundane cooking and cleaning. I never accomplish half of those things on any given day. So it’s not like I’m sitting around bored.

The China situation though has brought to light a possibly unrecognized social need for female company. In the constant company of men I find myself pondering my reactions to them and theirs to me. Is the difference I feel really a male/female thing? Or is it just different personalities and interests? I’ll have a whole year to explore.