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

The Chinese Student: Behaviors 6-8

Having read my last three posts that discussed some lovable and quirky behaviors of my Chinese students, some of you might be questioning my decision to teach at my current position. I mean, surely if it’s that bad, I should just move on, right?

I would like to clarify that I am discussing the rather far end of the Chinese student spectrum. You’ll be glad to know that once I purge myself of all the negative student behaviors I see and experience, I plan to follow with posts discussing the best things about my student, because there are, of course, many good things about my students. So don’t despair! I do not plan to wallow much longer, just long enough to surprise and hopefully amuse you with my stories of teaching in the trenches of China—a country with an educational system quite different from our own.

So! On to more student wackiness.

Behavior #6

The Chinese student is not well versed in the procedure for passing in papers. When the teacher requests students to pass in their papers, most students hold their paper up in the air and wave them for the teacher to personally collect them. The Chinese student is apparently loath to hand their paper off to anyone else. Which is curious because usually they encourage their classmates to look at their papers, especially at quiz time.

God forbid they pass their papers down the row so that the teacher can collect each rows’ assignments at one time. No, the teacher must walk up and down, leaning across several students to get the outstretched piece of paper being held at full extension by the student on the very end of the row. Teacher begins to feel like a spinning top as he/she whirls around and around responding to the cries of “Teacher! Here!” from all corners of the classroom. Though the teacher might try to train students to pass their papers in in an orderly fashion, the success rate remains low.

Behavior #7

For any given assignment, the Chinese student may choice to write their assignment on a number of paper types and sizes. Though many students will turn in assignments on paper of an acceptable size, other students seem to take pride in using the smallest pieces of paper known to mankind or being strangely thrifty by reusing previous assignments.

In China, based on this teacher’s experience with students, there does not seem to be a standard type of paper used for school assignments. In America, 8 ½ x 11 inch lined paper is the standard; I would not think to turn in my homework on anything else. I would not use cutesy little notebook paper the size of a Post-It with bunnies and Chinglish. I would not use paper that looks like it came from a refrigerator To-Do list. I would not use the back of my last homework assignment. I would not rip one piece of old notepaper into four pieces to share with my friends, none of whom came to class prepared. Though I included “acceptable paper choices” into my first class introduction lesson this semester, it does not seem to have stuck.

Am I off base here? Overreacting? Shouldn’t university students give some thought to the presentation of their work and follow any instructions given by the teacher? Sometimes I feel like I teach primary school, not university.

One more related behavior that I believe supports my portrayal of this particular breed of Chinese student—the student who comes to class with no textbook, no paper, and no pen. Behavior #8. And when the teacher asks him/her what on earth they plan to do in class without those essential items, the student rarely has an answer. Sitting in a classroom does not a student make. Period. Full stop.

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

The Chinese Student: Behaviors 3, 4 and 5

In my last post, we discussed the Chinese student’s curious use of eyeglasses. This was within the context of being asked to answer a question. Upon reflection, I realized that I had passed over some behaviors that may be of interest to those not acquainted with the Chinese student.

It is worth noting that the teacher must call on an individual student in order to get an answer. If the teacher is foolish enough to ask a question to the class at large, he/she should not be surprised at the deafening silence which will be their only answer. Silence and 80 blank stares. Ease or difficulty of the question is not the relevant factor, as you might expect. Easy questions get as little response as difficult ones do. This is behavior #3. Never volunteer for anything.

If your class has a few motivated students, they might—very quietly, under their breath—answer the question, but you often won’t be able to understand what they said. It will be said too quietly in a noisy class or everyone answered at the same time, effectively cancelling each other out. The teacher will ask them to repeat their answer, but the same problems will often reoccur. It becomes like a bad call and response sequence: What’s the answer? xxxx. What? XXX. WHAT? x. It’s not nice repeating stuff. Students get irritated if they have to repeat too many times. Teachers also get irritated and either manages to read someone’s lips or gives up and calls on an individual student to answer.

This issue could be resolved through the simple classroom management tool of having students raise hands to answer questions. However, the concept of raising hands is completely foreign to most Chinese students and they will not take to it. No matter how hard you try to make them. This is behavior #4: Non-existence of hand-raising. I believe it to be closely linked to behavior #3. If you never volunteer an answer, it follows that there would be no need for a system to orderly hear the answers.

Calling on individual students to answer is then the accepted (and expected) way of running class. When you call on a student, there can be a delay as students process the name. Was that my name? Was that my friend’s name? Chinese students take good care of each other and will wake up their slumbering classmate if their name is being called.

In China, a student is expected to rise to answer a question (behavior #5). I find this a very time consuming behavior as it seems to require a lot of shifting of bags, books, and water bottles. Something inevitably falls and is picked up. When the student is finally on his/her feet, they’ve maybe forgotten what they are supposed to be saying, so the teacher will need to repeat the question. And if the student’s answer is just “Sorry, teacher” or “I don’t know” it just seems like a lot of wasted time and effort as they reverse the process to sit back down, metal water bottles clanging and pens pinging off the floor.

Campus Life, China, Communication, Cultural Differences, Educational System, Religion, Teaching, University Teaching

The 30-Days Summary

Well, it’s been precisely a month since I last wrote for my blog. A thousand apologies. In retrospect it seems that very few reportable events occurred in that time, in all the other ways it’s been a roller coaster ride.

On the teaching front, I have 4 weeks remaining for the semester. This means that things are winding down. Including me. Both the students and I seem to be feeling the approaching end and responding in the typical manner. Any work I need to do seems to take three times longer than it should.

For the last few weeks I have been trying to wade through a backlog of homework assignments, quizzes, and projects. I needed to mark an essay for every one of my reading students (approximately 70 students per class x 7 classes = hell on earth). The essay was on volunteering, its necessity and what the students would do to volunteer. Volunteering is not a strong tradition China and it’s surprising to talk to students about their lack of volunteer experience compared with their Western contemporaries.

Most essays said something like this: I will help you and then you will help me and the love will grow between all the people of the world and soon the world will be a warm, colorful, harmonious place and we will all love each other. That’s all. (A common ending for essays. Th-th-that’s all, folks!) There was a lot of eye-rolling going on as I read these. Nothing wrong with a little optimism, it just wasn’t a very compelling argument to read several hundred times.

There were the budding utopists and then there were the wily coyotes—those who used their cell phones to copy or slightly alter essays on volunteering from the internet. This was far more common than I would’ve ever expected. Sometimes I was amused at their resourcefulness. Sometimes I was outraged.

Then there were the I-will-help-the-old-man-cross-the-street-ers. Who even says that anymore? I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone help an elderly person cross the street in my life. This beyond the fact that I consider this good manners and not volunteering.

It was a long 490 essays.

Then I had to grade reports and presentations from my English for Tourism class. The presentations had been groan-inducing. The reports left me flushed and angry. Almost 100% plagiarized. Even from students I would never have expected it from.

Internet plagiarism is so common in China that it is hardly worthy of note, expect for the relative newcomers who haven’t yet been worn down into a dull acceptance of this distasteful feature of Chinese academic life.

I’m not there yet. So voice-shaking I returned reports to students with the lowest marks I thought the department would allow me to give, lectured them on Western standards of research, reminded them of my first class presentation on this, and then gave them the option to redo their reports, though that means nothing but more work for me. Then I talked to students who seemed genuinely baffled at how to do research and write a report without wholesale copying. It was an educational week.

After all that marking the number of papers in my apartment seems to have hardly decreased at all.

Aside from teaching and marking and planning, the last month has been a time of emotional highs and lows. At the moment I am planning to return here in the fall for a second year. A surprise for me as well as possibly for you.

I suppose in the end it comes down to not wanting to have to start from square one in September. I don’t want to pack up my apartment and bring all my stuff home. I don’t want to transition to a new country, a new culture in the fall. I feel like I am making good progress here. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve made friends. I’ve found my way. I have a comfortable foundation of knowledge and skills that allow me to get around and live my life. Also there’s just so much in China I’d like to see.

When I considered a second year it was with the rosy glow of my coworkers, friends, and students around me. Or at least those things would balance out the negatives of China for me. The cons mostly feature the teaching situation and the cultural context. One thing I didn’t realize in Georgia was how much looking passably Georgian helped me to blend in and feel accepted. I could write a whole blog about my struggles with body image and self-confidence in China. Not something I’ve generally felt comfortable sharing with the larger world. It’s been very, very hard. And that’s something that will not improve next year. Why on earth would I consider putting myself through it all again? I suppose in the end it just seemed like the pros outweighed the cons. And really, I’m going to struggle with those issues wherever I am in the world. The Chinese are perhaps just more direct about it.

So I made that decision, signed my contract and promptly felt that—to some extent—the bottom fell out of my world as some of closest friends here put me on alert that they might not be returning. I took the news better than I expected at first, but with time it’s affected me more and more. I’m standing by my decision to come back, for all the other reasons mentioned above and more, but I can’t help but think about how that change colors my perception of next year. It’ll be Brave New World – Part II. And I suppose that was precisely what I was hoping to avoid.

The option of returning home, which probably is what all of you are thinking about, just doesn’t seem like a desirable option to me. I can’t explain it really, but I like America much better when I’m not in it. I love seeing American thrown into contrast with other countries and cultures. I not only understand it much better when I’m away, but I also appreciate it more.

Distance from American Evangelicalism is also restful. I talk about Church (big C) constantly here and find that I have a lot to work through. I don’t think any other country struggles with religion quite like America. It is so enmeshed in our culture and politics. I’ve tried to explain that to my students and it’s like I’m realizing it as I say it. It’s a big deal in America. Period. Full stop. And not just on the national level, but on the micro level—individuals. It’s incredibly important to me and to most people even if it’s just their distaste for religion or their denial of it.

I suppose I should stop there. Needless to say, there’s been a lot on my mind.

Have no fear; I am not planning any sort of permanent exile. Not consciously, anyways. In due
time, perhaps in a few years or so, I will return to my native roost for good. At the moment though, I will continue in my migratory pattern. And—be advised—soon this little homing pigeon will be homing in on you for a few months of work and relaxation in the native nest.

Campus Life, China, Communication, Family, Republic of Georgia, Social Customs, Village Life

Airing the Laundry

Many things are easier in China than they were in Georgia. Fortunately, laundry is one of them.

The laundry situation in Georgia was tense. Or at least it felt that way to me. My host family had recently purchased a washing machine. In the village, this was quite significant. Though a television was always a given, there was no guarantee that the average family would have a refrigerator or a washing machine, much less indoor plumbing. I felt quite lucky because my host family had two out of three. Indoor plumbing AND a washing machine. But no fridge.

In the absence of a washing machine, other volunteers were doing their laundry by hand, Oregon Trail style. Can you imagine washing your blue jeans by hand? Scrubbing, rinsing, and wringing them out? A truly unpleasant affair. To be carried out with disturbing regularity to every item of clothing you own, including all your unmentionables.

I was sure of my good fortune having been placed with a washing machine-blessed family; though there were many times I wondered if I would’ve rather had a refrigerator. It’s like one of those semi-impossible decision scenarios: what two things would you take to a desert island, rescue from your burning house, etc.

Nevertheless, the washing machine was there, waiting to be used, to fulfill its purpose in the world. However, the family seemed reluctant to put it to work. They seemed to regard it a little warily—the new technology. Laundry was carried out with gravity. With due reverence and ceremony I would make a petition for use of the glorious machine and the presence of its devoted attendants that were required for its operation. I was not deemed capable of operating the new technology unsupervised. And, following the example of my family, it was communicated to me that its use should be limited. We wouldn’t want to tire it out, now would we?

The realization that I was drawing near to a time when I would need to do laundry was always accompanied by a sinking feeling. There were a number of factors to consider: time of day, weather, the use of the WM by other family members, the use of the kitchen for other purposes, would I be available to immediately remove the clothes from the washer, was washing powder available, was someone available to get the surge protector from the shop, was there water, was there electricity, estimated drying time due to weather conditions, and how quickly I needed the clothes clean and dry.

I am not pulling your leg. This was my reality. I learned from experience to take all of these factors into consideration. Do not assume anything. Do not assume there will be washing power. Do not assume there will be water. Do not assume there will be electricity.

Laundry had a psychological and emotional toll. There was the preparation to ask, the asking itself, the material preparation for laundry (getting the surge protector, attaching the water hose to the sink, inserting the waste hose into the drain, and filling buckets with water for the family’s use while the machine was in use), the actual washing, the immediate removal of laundry from the washer, hanging, drying, folding, and then finally rest. It was an all day affair.

Was I making this more difficult than it had to be? Being overly considerate to my host family? Reading too much into body language and tone of voice? It’s one of those things that I will probably never know. I felt it was a huge inconvenience for me to do laundry as I could not do the whole process myself. And I could not expect that the people who I needed to help me would be available when I wanted them. And I could not be sure that even if the people were available that all the required facilities would be available. It was maddening. I developed a laundry psychosis. I wished I didn’t have to do laundry. Ever.

My solution to this issue was to do my laundry as infrequently as possible. I usually did one gigantic load of everything I owned every 10-14 days. Surely they could not begrudge me one load of laundry in that time frame? I don’t know.

I didn’t enjoy doing laundry in Georgia. Far too emotionally fraught it was.

China is much better. Independence in doing laundry, as in other things, is very important. Materially the situation has not changed. I have a washing machine and I air dry my clothes. But everything is on my terms. Laundry: as often as I need it and whenever I want to do it. If I spill something on my clothes—no cause for concern! I can pop it in the wash as soon as I get home. I can do laundry at a time of day that is convenient to my work schedule, not just when I can count of the aligning of the multitude of factors that are out of my control. No one is pounding up the stairs 2 second after the cycle finished, telling me that I need to come immediately to get my clothes. Nor am I sitting around waiting for the perfect moment to ask if I can use the washing machine.

For those living in an apartment building, the balcony becomes the center of all laundry operations. The washing machine is usually located here. For drying, there are a number of convenient devices that make the most of the available space. Installed on the balcony ceiling is a drying rack, which requires a little pronged pole to lift your clothes on hangers up to it. It’s fun. Just don’t drop your wet clothes on the dirty, dusty balcony floor. I also have a clothesline which I use for heavy items like jeans and towels. A portable drying rack is used for shirts and other small items. Widely popular for socks and underwear is a little double hoop with dangling clothespins that can be hung on the clothesline or from the upper rack. It’s very space efficient.

So on my little balcony I have enough places to hang a fair amount of laundry. The only challenge is drying our dismayingly white sheets. This requires a complex operation involving a lot of hangers, clothespins and most of the upper drying rack. It also obscures my view completely until they are dry. But it gets the job done. And I feel the usual feelings of domestic tranquility as I bring in my laundry to fold it and put it neatly away.

It’s a real improvement for me here. This thought crossed my mind last weekend as I was putting a new load in and taking down a load that had dried. I have not changed my mind about Georgia. I still love it and am actively plotting my return. However, it was very, very complicated living in a host family, in a village, and working at a school where you cannot truly communicate with people, where no one speaks your language. The effort required for laundry is perhaps representative of so many of my struggles there. The longer I’ve been in China, the more I’ve been amazed at what I survived in Georgia. China has been a cake walk in comparison.

Campus Life, China, Communication

There’s No Place Like Home!

There was a wee bit of naughtiness this week amongst the foreign teaching staff in regards to our living situation.

You might recall from one of my first posts here that I and all the other new foreign teachers were placed in a new building that was still under construction. We were the building’s first inhabitants—its pioneers. We all took up residence on the fourth floor, except for one teacher who complained and was moved to the ninth floor (the elevator promptly went out of service for several weeks). With time other people moved in, but the Chinese teachers and staff considered the building essentially unlivable for the first months of the semester. We have now been here for over 3 months. And the construction still continues.

(On a side note, the number four in China carries the same connotation as number thirteen does in Western culture because it sounds like the word for death. When someone explained this to me, I burst out laughing. Of course we were all placed on the fourth floor! It’s actually very lucky for them that they have a bunch of foreigners they can put there. We have no fear of four!)

There are several problems with this situation:
1. It states in our contract that the school will provide, rent-free, a one bedroom apartment that includes a kitchen, sitting room, bathroom and bedroom. It’s in our contact. Contract. We are now living in studio apartments that have a combined kitchen and bedroom and no sitting room. Regardless of the fact that everything is fresh and probably nicer than the apartments we would’ve otherwise been given, it’s a contractual issue. Contracts are sacred. Once someone starts breaking/bending the contract, a lot of good faith and good will go out the window.
2. The rooms came equipped with a microwave, but no stove. If we want to cook, we have to buy a stove and/or oven ourselves. And we are not allowed to purchase gas ranges. We can only purchase hot plates.
3. Hot water is limited to a few times a day and only in the shower. As the temperature has dropped, we are now washing dishes and hands in very cold water. Not very sanitary or comfortable. And as to the hot water in the shower, there is no guarantee that it will be hot even if you are theoretically trying to use it during the scheduled times. And of course we are paying for this “hot water”.
4. Then there is the constant daily frustration of living in a construction zone. By which we mostly mean the noise, the dust, and the fumes. But mostly the noise.
5. And there is an air-conditioner, but no heater. It’s downright chilly in my room as I type this. I’m going to have to buy some sort of electrical heater.

Of these four issues, numbers 3 and 4 have been the kickers. As the department protested total innocence, most of us have been gracious about being downgraded to living in a nice-ish type studio. They say they had no idea the school would place us in the new building, that they were notified only days before we started arriving. No time to notify us of this change. The skepticism/cynicism of each individual foreign teacher had to determine how much they believed that. But there is a lot of wrath about the hot water and the construction.

For me, there was generally hot or warm water when I went to take showers at night so I didn’t have much to complain about for awhile. And initially the weather was so hot for so long that even if my shower was a little cool it wasn’t a problem. However, with the changing of the weather, the cold sink water is starting to bother me more, especially as the room is already cold without plunging your hands into chilly water.

It was the morning-shower people who were hit the hardest as it seemed that there was never hot water for them in the morning. That was usually the second question out of everyone’s mouths in the morning, maybe even the first: “Hey, did you have hot water this morning?”

And the noise. Oh my God. The noise! Jack-hammers. Tile saws. Hammering. Workers shouting. Cement mixers. Clouds of dust. Cranes outside our balcony windows. Notices (always in Chinese) that they need to come fix our doors, they need to check our fire sprinklers, they need to paint our balcony, they need to install this, fix that, paint, etc, etc, etc. So will you be free Saturday morning? Friday afternoon? Do you care if they come when you are not there? Workers blocking this exit. Testing the fire alarms today. Workers blocking that exit. They’re tiling this walkway so go out the other exit, but at the other exit they are painting. Ripping out freshly placed tiles in your hall with a chisel when you’re sleeping. Jackhammers ripping up cement that was just poured a few days ago. And then, inexplicably, the workers disappear for days at a time and work halts.

I think collectively we’ve been gritting our teeth for so long it’s a wonder we haven’t broken any. I broke down and sent ONE email to the vice dean strongly requesting that the workers not begin doing anything particularly noisy on the WEEKENDS until after at least 9 AM. Other teachers complained almost daily. Some tried to play hard-ass with the department. They demanded to be moved. They refused to do anything that wasn’t in our contract, replying simply with “I’ll do that when we have hot water and the apartments we were promised”. All of which got us exactly nowhere. Until this week, that is.

On Tuesday, we received an email stating that the department will provide a housing allowance to those teachers who wish to move off-campus. They stated that they have been working hard since the day we moved in to improve the living conditions of our building; however, they admit that “the conditions have not been improved as fast as we expected.” So, if we wish, we can receive a housing allowance of 150 RMB a week, which is approximately $25. Just to be clear, that isn’t enough to rent a decent apartment in the area. Then the fun began . . .

One teacher, who is a bit of a wit, replied effusively thanking the department for all their efforts and asking to use the allowance towards one of the on-campus apartments. It was followed ten minutes late by another email apologizing for his mistake: “In my excitement to be free of this one room cold water cement box, I failed to read the part about the allowance being for off campus housing, and not as a means for paying for the on campus housing that was offered in the original contract. My mistake!” He then asked for a list of apartments that rent for 600 RMB a month; several teachers also requested this in response.

A few hours later, we received a new email from him, suggesting that we should have contest to see who can find the best off-campus housing for 600 RMB/month. “I know it’s early,” he said, “but so far I found this place.”

“The owner assures me that it is private and quiet. No more jackhammers, buzz saws, power drills, excavators, loud talking construction workers, truck horns, etc at 6 am Sunday mornings. Yeah! It looks like it’s on a river, but it may be the runoff from the local chemical factory.”

After that, other teachers just had to get in the game. Another teacher criticized the first, telling him he was being too fancy: “Be reasonable… we’re just lowly foreigners in a foreign land. You can’t ask for an ocean view!” He suggested the following apartment as “perfect for the neglected, disrespected ‘foreign expert’ and recommended that we jump on it before someone else did”

The original teacher complimented the second on his excellent find and told him that with the “proper signage it would definitely have potential.”

It’s naughty, I know, but to be honest, we’ve all needed something to laugh about in regards to the building situation. At the end of the day, it’s a contractual issue and we weren’t the ones to break it. But as foreigners who’s there to appeal to anyways? Too bad we’re not unionized.

Campus Life, China, Communication, Cultural Differences, Language

Eat Your Heart Out

There are many charming things about life in a non-English-speaking country. There are usually a few small things that make me smile or laugh out loud. I’ve been trying to take note of these things and write them down. The students’ English names are an example I’ve already shared with you. A small addendum to that would be a male student named Arwen. He could get together with my Aragorn student from Literature 6. Should he be so inclined.

I have two students who are named “Killer”. Last night, Killer was absent and I couldn’t restrain myself from saying, “Killer is absent? That’s good. No one will die tonight.” Duh-duh duh. No one even smiled! Sigh.

In writing class, clichés abound. The favorites are “on the one hand, on the other hand”. Stop that, or I’ll chop off both your hands. “Every coin has two sides”. No, really? “Such-and-such is a double-edged sword” Oh good, there go those “hands” of yours. And “in a word” followed by much more than a single word. What part of that article don’t you understand?

In speaking class, all foods are “delicious” or “not delicious,” life is “colorful and beautiful,” and people are “clever”. Porky Pig has infiltrated all of China as no student fails to end their answer with “that’s all”. The exclamation of choice is “waaaah” which sounds like Mr. Miagi in The Karate Kid.

We eat in the “canteen” which makes me feel like I am either in summer camp or in the Army. Wherever we walk umbrellas as an imminent eye-threat, as the female students do not want to become “black.” Bicycles whiz past with girlfriends sitting side-saddle on the book-rack on the back. Boys carry their girlfriend’s purse. Cell phone conversations begin with “hello” and end with “bye-bye” which initially made me think they were talking to me. Girls wear glasses with no lenses. The drink shops seal the cups with this nifty plastic cover so you can literally throw a bunch of drink in a bag and carry them to class. The art of hand-raising in non-existent. As is the art of queuing.

Just today I received a paper from a student with the following sentence: “the Internet is like a warm beast can eat youth is heart.”

Don’t you wish you were here?

China, Communication, Language, Teaching

You are the shit

I’m not really sure how it all started, but last night another foreign teacher decided to teach some of the Chinese English teachers the phrase “you are the shit”. I think they had asked her to teach them some slang and this must have been the first thing that popped into her mind.

Explaining slang is always a bit tricky. “Isn’t “shit” a bad word?” they asked. Yeah, we said, if you just say “shit”, but when you add the “the” then it becomes like a complement. Confusion on their faces. The definite article changes an insult into a complement. Really? Yeah, we reassure them. It’s like saying that they are the best, the coolest. Two teachers turn to each other and simultaneously say “You are the shit” with completely deadpan faces. I laugh. They titter, looking slightly troubled, like they think we are pulling their leg.

Already running ahead with the implications of this discovery, another teacher asks if we can say “you are a shit.” Indefinite vs. definite article. I laugh again, but they really want to know the answer. I explain that if you used ‘a’ then it would be an insult. So if you wanted to insult someone you could call them a “piece of shit.” Maybe we could say “you are a piece a shit,” but that normally we would leave off the article altogether. I can’t believe I am talking about grammar in the context of swearing and insulting. But those articles make all the difference, don’t they?

“So,” they ask, “if you say “you are the shit” it’s a complement, but if you say “you are shit” or “you are a piece of shit” or “you piece of shit” then it’s an insult?” Correct, we affirm. The phrase “you little shit” is tugging at my mind, but I think they’ve had enough examples already. I sit back as they experiment with alternately complementing and insulting each other, laughing when they get them confused. Their faces are priceless.