Campus Life, China, Travel, University Teaching

End of an Era

June was a time of good-byes. Goodbye to another semester, but more importantly to my students, friends, and colleagues in Zhuhai. At that point I knew I would not be returning in the fall. So not only was there the usual end-of-the-semester madness of marking papers and final exams, but there was also a great deal of paperwork for the new job (to be explained), packing up of my apartment, and all those aforementioned goodbyes.

I came to Zhuhai in September of 2011. It was my first time to even visit China, much less to live there. I remember how the entire flight to China (San Francisco –> Vancouver –> Beijing –> Zhuhai) I was a mess, truly a ball of nerves. Even after arriving, there was quite a long nervous period of adjustment. It took time to get comfortable, to make friends, and to understand the ropes at the university. My relative comfort at the end of my first year was hard-won. I would never have expected that I would return for a second year. But I did. And I had a great year.

The best part of Zhuhai was definitely the people. It would not have been the same without my wonderful friend Sarah, with whom I took innumerable long walks and drank enough Nescafe to float a boat or two. And Stephen, the Kiwi I met on my first day, who introduced me to so much of China and took me along on many an adventure. The three of us had so many great trips and many a comfortable day around campus and town. Sniff, sniff. I’ll miss them!

Then there was the wider circle of other foreign teachers, some positively kooky, others lots of fun, with whom I shared many a conversation and meal or just guzzled cheap Tsingtaos with.

Then there were my local colleagues in the department, English teachers who reached out to me at the very beginning and became good friends. Vivid personalities all around who gave me better understanding of local culture and just how things worked (or didn’t work) in China. I owe them big time for all their many kindnesses to me and all those meals that they insisted on paying for! (I must discuss the “hosting” issue in China sometime.)

And the students. Ah! The students. With their wonderful English names, Chinese sense of style and genius for asking questions deemed inappropriate from an American standpoint. In my mere four semesters at BNUZ I estimate I taught somewhere around 2500 students. Of those only a few became good friends, but many remained kind, familiar faces around campus that always said hello. Those that became friends will hopefully remain friends for a long time.

Let’s not forget Zhuhai herself, who was not without her own charm. I remember looking up Zhuhai on a map and being pleased that it was a coastal city. It also lived up to its reputation of being a green, comfortably small city by Chinese standards, with lovely landscaping everywhere and year-round greenery due to its semi-tropical climate. I think I might regret leaving Zhuhai in the near future. I’m understanding now why students would go on and on about the “great environment.”

I’ll certainly miss our beautiful university campus—I didn’t know how good I had it! We may have not been the best university academically speaking, but I think our campus must make at least some most-beautiful lists.

And I’ll certainly miss Cantonese food, especially all those lovely perfectly prepared vegetable. Sigh. And morning tea. And washing my dishes at restaurants. And listening to them talk on their cellphones in public places.

Yes, it was a great two years. And it was hard to leave. But—as they say—it was time. If I stayed longer in Zhuhai I think it would’ve been because I was afraid to move on. Just because something is good does not mean that the next thing will not also be good—or maybe even better! So here’s to the also-good or even better!

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Campus Life, China, Weather

Whatever the Weather

On Thursday nights I go to play badminton at the gym with some teacher friends. I originally typed ‘indoor gym’, but there was some backspace action, because it really isn’t an indoor gym. It is a building with a roof, but open on the sides. What to call it? The semi-enclosed gym? The indoor-outdoor gym?

The gym has badminton and basketball courts, a small sea of ping pong tables, a jogging track on the 2nd floor, and room for various martial arts classes to distract me with their hyah-ing. I applaud the forethought of having a place to do all these activities when it is raining. As Zhuhai has a semi-tropical climate, it is indeed raining quite a lot here. In the autumn there is always the chance of typhoons and in the spring there is a very distinct rainy season.

Last year I thought one month of torrential rain was bad. I must’ve made the mistake of asking for more patience as it has certainly been tested by the last TWO months of rain. Seriously. The end of rainy season was perhaps dramatically punctuated by an official Red Storm warning and a morning of canceled classes last week. There was one more fitful downpour on Tuesday, but it appears we might have finally cleared the rain. I swear there cannot be a drop of precipitation left up there.

The rain began to feel a bit like a biblical plague. Maybe not 40 straight days and nights, but I think we got pretty close. Those of us not used to such weather might have been tempted to go hunt down the disobedient Jonah causing all this bad weather and send him down the overflowing storm drain to his “Ninevah” or large water-based mammal. Whichever he/she encountered first.

So, again, it is great to be able to play your sport of choice regardless of rain or no rain. However. HOWEVER. However. I don’t understand having an open-air gym in a climate that at least 6 months out of the year has temperatures over 80 degrees and humidity of equal or greater percentage.

With the end of the rain, the temperature just keeps climbing. Though I greatly enjoy my badminton Thursday nights, the “gym” is the next closest thing to the Inferno itself. Two hours of vigorous badminton leave me absolutely dripping. No, this is not hyperbole. Full on streams running down my face and back. I didn’t know this was actually possible. I thought this state could only be achieved by people in Gatorade commercials. Oh, no! You too can experience this novel state in picturesque southern China! Swim in the seas of . . . your own sweat?

High temperatures and impending rain have also resulted in another intriguing “plague” on several occasions. Shortly before the rain would begin, small winged insects—“locusts”—would appear out of nowhere and blanket the gym. One second you’re playing badminton and the next you’re dancing around like a fool swinging your racket ineffectively at the bugs all around you and on you. On your shirt, on your pants, sticking to your sweaty arms, getting IN YOUR HAIR! Ugh! Ugh! UGH! It’s enough to make you throw down your racket –no, wait, I can’t throw down my racket because it’s not mine. Okay, it’s enough to make you throw up your arms—no, can’t do that either because then I’ll get bugs there, too! Fine, it’s enough to make you run away, screaming, into the night. That I can do. Maybe no screaming and maybe not full-on running, but on those buggy occasions I certainly did high-tail it out of there. And my colleagues were not far behind.

Speaking of plagues, have I mentioned the frogs? More to come . . .

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Campus Life, China, Educational System, University Teaching

Teaching Files: Houston, we have a problem

One of the worst, but also paradoxically best, parts of my job is marking student essays.

Why worst? Because classes range from 70-90 students. This times however many classes you have. This semester I have only one class of this type. Last spring I had six. Tears of agony. It’s also a challenge because the students often make so many mistakes that catching their meaning is like peering through a glass darkly. Maybe a glass with bullet holes.

And then there’s the plagiarizing. Marking my recent batch of essays I was amazed to find students using the SAME Internet essay as last spring. And also amazed that I could recognize it within a sentence.

HOWEVER! Marking essays in the company of other teachers can be a delight and a pleasure. A trouble shared is a trouble halved, yes? Hunched over our piles of essays there will be intermittent snorts and giggles as we encounter little unintentional gems from our students. Turns of phrase bungled. Accidental play on words. Charming misspellings. We read them out as we find them to the amusement and mirth of all.

My two favorite misspellings from the most recent batch of essays both derive from the word “problem.” Yes, my students were having problems with “problem.” Are you ready? Drumroll, please.

The runner up for the most charming accidental mashup ever!
Give it up for—promble!

And in first place!
For the most charming accidental mashup ever!
I give you—troblem!

(Crowd goes wild!)

Sort of makes you want to be a teacher for a minute there, yeah?

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Campus Life, China, Educational System, Teaching, University Teaching

End of Semester Madness

Immediately following my birthday was the last week of the semester. Everyone is frantically marking papers, final exams, and tabulating grades while still giving classes.

Fortunately it’s a universally understood thing that there won’t be much in the way of teaching in the final week. Movies or conversation are the norm. That’s if the students show up at all as final exams might be scheduled during class time.

I had thought that I was on top of everything and would finish in good time, but as the week went along I realized I was hopelessly behind and would really have to scramble. This culminated in an almost all-nighter on Thursday night. I went to bed around 4 AM, not having had to stay up that late for work since I was in graduate school. Friday was a mad dash and I just barely finished. It wouldn’t have been possible without that late night.

That night we went out to hot pot to celebrate, and then came back and slept the sleep of the well deserved.

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Campus Life, China, Food

Birthday Festivities

My birthday intruded itself upon our last weekend before the end of the semester. I rallied some of the FT community to have dinner at a local Italian place.

I spent the whole afternoon before baking a fabulous cake: yellow fudge marble with custard filling and butter cream frosting. I was in the interesting position of having no powdered sugar, which is the only way I know how to make frosting. Some research on the internet showed me that there are, indeed, other ways to make frosting. So I very carefully whipped up a frosting that is part boiled milk and flour and part creamed butter and granulated sugar. The final product was fantastic—highly recommended and very doable with some patience and care.

Why bake my own cake? Two reasons: one, I genuinely love baking and have few opportunities here; and two, most cakes I’ve had from Chinese bakeries have been all looks and no taste. Not what I wanted for my birthday.

The dinner itself was very enjoyable, but with the crowd of people we have here that’s never enough. Night is still young and all that. So the questions arose of what was next on the agenda. I wasn’t particularly interesting in hitting the clubs downtown, so that left us with . . . KTV.

For the uninitiated, KTV is private karaoke—all the rage in Asian countries. You go with your friends to a KTV, sing all your favorite songs, eat snacks, drink beer, dance—and it’s all in the privacy of your own little room. So different from karaoke in America, which I’ve explained as something only the incredibly talented or the incredibly drunk do.

KTV had struck me as something relatively enjoyable in the few times I’d been previously, so I was willing to give it a go. What followed after that was an extremely enjoyable several hours belting out songs and dancing foolishly among some really excellent people. We all agreed that it was a great time and I went home feeling my birthday had been celebrated in proper style.

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Campus Life, China, Cultural Differences, Travel, University Teaching

December Recap

Apologies! Apologies! It’s been far too long! In the interests of time (and not boring you to tears) I thought I’d provide a summary of what’s been going on for the last two months, as there have been some interesting events and excursions.

Christmas season

Though Christmas is not a Chinese holiday many Chinese students have embraced it as a fun holiday to celebrate with their friends, in contrast with traditional festivals, which are generally family festivals. Christmas observance is mostly observed through decorations, especially the large number of Christmas trees around. Even the little market on campus had a Christmas tree and all the employees were wearing Santa hats for most of December.

My apartment looked very cheerful with all the items I’d bought last year and other things my mom had sent me: pinecones, mini Christmas tree, Christmas dish towels, etc. I even found some Christmas lights, which I’ve been reluctant to take down since I put them up.

Some of my students surprised me with Christmas gifts and cards. Three of my English majors gave me a cute mug, some candles and several apples. Other student gifts included a Yakult, random pieces of chocolate, Mongolian snacks, and more apples.

What’s the deal with the apples? Apple in Chinese is ‘ping guo’ which shares a Chinese character with the word ‘peace’, so to give an apple has become representative of good wishes/peace for Christmas. Which I thought was super cool, once I understood what it meant.

Macau for ‘The Hobbit’

Also in December, a group of foreign teachers decided to venture to Macau to see ‘The Hobbit’. Though it likely would be arriving in China sometime in the future, many of us couldn’t wait that long. So we ventured across the border to Macau. Zhuhai borders Macau and whenever I go to there I think “Why don’t I go to Macau more often?” Then, when I’m waiting in long slow lines to exit “China” and enter “Macau” I remember why I don’t. Yeah. That.

‘The Hobbit’ would deserve a long post of its own. To be brief, I’d say that as a movie it was acceptably entertaining, but as the film version of a beloved childhood book I left disappointed. The Gollum and Bilbo scene was excellent, but that was the high point for me.

Christmas Party

Last year the foreign teachers of my school were extremely lacking in a sense of community. Though a friend and I tried to organize a Christmas potluck, it was essentially a no-go. We managed to scrape together 4 people for a modest evening. Fortunately many of the new teachers that arrived this fall are extremely community-minded. We had a FANTASTIC Christmas party, complete with lots of good food, drinks, conversation, games and really loud off-key caroling. Most excellent.

So December was a pretty good month all around, if not exactly an American December.

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Campus Life, China, Educational System, Teaching, University Teaching

The Other Chinese Student: The Opposite Extreme

Having reflected on some of the less charming behaviors of Chinese students, I would like to honor my promise to balance it out with telling you the best things about them.

The best thing about the other type of Chinese student—the opposite of the first Chinese student—is that they are motivated and ambitious. Our little BNUZ is just the first stepping stone in their journey. These kids are going places. Seriously.

I cannot tell you the number of students who are actively preparing for the GRE, the TOEFL, and IELTS in order to go abroad for graduate school. Those who are not going abroad are attending extra courses on the weekend, leading school-wide volunteer organizations, participating in Toast Masters, double majoring, and doing overseas volunteer trips. One student went to Serbia over the summer for an academic conference. Another went to Australia for a volunteer organization and will go to Kenya for the winter break. Though I despair over the behavior over the majority of the students, there are those other students who make it all worthwhile.

There are students who I would hope to meet in the future in the States, finishing their MA, their PhD, working, settling down, getting married etc. Others I would hope to hear about their progress by email. There’s that sense of potential about many of them. And it’s these students who make it worth it, especially when I have opportunities to develop more personal relationships outside the classroom. They’re great. Really and truly.

This is one thing that is such a contrast with Georgia. In Georgia I had little hope for even the brightest of my students. The furthest most of them might get was the capital, where they would hopefully finish university and be able to find some sort of job. Others you could just tell were bound to stay in the village for the rest of their life. Not that staying in the village is a bad thing, but I feel that more often than not it’s usually due to lack of other opportunities rather than true desire to stay.

So I’m happy for my Chinese students who are taking advantage of opportunities or making their own opportunities. I’m glad that they are working hard in university, preparing for their future. I’m especially glad that I got the opportunity to be their teacher, because otherwise I’m not sure I would’ve returned to China for a second year! A handful of excellent students can go a long way towards making up for an otherwise indifferent bunch.

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