Campus Life, China, Language, Travel, University Teaching

Why is it “too much time ON my hands” and not “IN” my hands?

We have a three-day weekend this weekend, courtesy of the New Year’s holiday. As I have traveled with friends for the last three weekends, it seemed like a very good idea to have a relaxing weekend at home. Energy and funds were running low and the beginning of a cold was another compelling point. Yet, as I sit in my room at 4:45 PM on Saturday, I realize why traveling is such a good idea. It’s just really boring if you don’t.

Having not really slept last night due to a very late night viewing of The Boy with the Striped Pajamas and then several sleepless hours after, I woke up at 9 when my mother dearest called for our prearranged phone call. She graciously granted me another hour of sleep and I went back to bed for 45 minutes. After an epic 1 ½ hour conversation where we covered all the good stuff and she yelled at me several times for not giving her my full attention (apparently my eyes move when I read—dead give-away), I took a deep breath and studied Chinese for a half hour.

Circumstances beyond my control have allowed me to escape Chinese lessons for the last three weeks. They cancelled on me one time. Then the next time we were having our Christmas potluck that night. And then this week we had a department meeting at precisely our usual lesson time. I cheered when I got the email. I’m a terrible student. Of Chinese, at least. Wo putonghua shuade bu hao.

After Chinese I went for a long walk around campus. With 20,000 students and only about maybe 30 foreigners, I always feel very conspicuous when I am walking. Especially when I am trying to exercise. Which makes dark sunglasses a necessity and not a fashion accessory. Much more comfortable. Yet today the university was like a ghost town. Three days weekends will do that. Any student who can will go home. And the ones that can’t seem to stay indoors. After two weeks of individual student interviews for all of my Oral English classes, I know that my students’ hobbies seem to mainly be sleeping, playing computer games, and using the Internet. I’d never heard of sleeping as a hobby before, but I’ve become a believer after having almost 500 students tell me it is. (One student also told me her hobby was washing her hands) At least in China, it would probably be safe to say that sleeping is my hobby too. Two or three hours naps are not at all uncommon.

Anyways, the campus was looking exceptionally lovely today. It took me over an hour to make a complete loop. There are many small walking paths that wander through gardens or around lily-pad covered lakes. It’s a very beautiful campus that someone clearly put a lot of time and love into. There must be a huge maintenance crew as the climate results in everything growing 24/7. In particular, there is a climbing bush with purple flowers—very lovely—but with huge thorns that likes to throw out long braches that then dangle innocently into walkways. I tangled with one early on and my hasty motion to remove my arm resulted in a trio of long scratches.

At this point I am regretting that I have no photos of the campus to share with you. Err, sorry. But! There are lovely, professional photos on the school’s website here that you can peruse if you are interested. Believe me, nothing I take would look that good! What’s amusing however, is the fact that they have changed the school’s English website. When I was initially considering the job, the website featured beautiful scenic shots of the campus. Now, unfortunately, the website has been changed to this. This was particularly funny in a friend’s situation when she directed family and friends to the university website, not knowing it had been changed. Their response had been “Oh! It looks lovely! So many foreigners! What are you talking about? You won’t feel alone there!” So from campus beauty to stock photos. Lovely.

I was dragging towards the end of my walk, but eventually made it home. After a tepid shower (remember that hot water problem?), I had some leftovers for lunch and watched 2 episodes of a TV show. Then I tuned my guitar. Hung up some laundry to dry. Washed dishes. Contemplated two more days of such serenity. And wished I’d made plans to travel this weekend after all. In the absence of travel plans, I got to write a long ramble-y blog post for my loyal readers. Lucky you.

Oh. And this was where I had my fingers crossed that I would be living. Lake-view apartment. Though I moved from the apartment which faced the back of a building, my view still consists of basketball courts and the garbage dump.

China, Food, Language

Gravy, Baby

So while all you people in America were polishing off your turkey dinners on the big T day, I was well into my Friday morning, finishing off my first class of the day. My “Thanksgiving” was a very standard day: wake up, eat, class, break, class, dinner, Chinese lesson, relax, done. I was going to bed when you were just waking up. When you were cooking, cleaning, traveling, going through the usual greeting and catching-up routines, I was sleeping and/or getting up Friday morning.

The Georgians always seemed to marvel a bit at the mystery of time differences. “What are they doing in California now?” they’d ask. And I’d make a guess as to what the folks on the other side of the world were doing. It is a bit strange and marvelous if you think about it. I thought warm and fond thoughts in the direction of home as I stood in my class teaching on Friday morning, knowing you were all together with families and friends.

Being out of the country and associating with people from all over the world, you see your own national and cultural celebrations in a different light. Thanksgiving. What’s that? What for? And you actually have to be able to verbalize this to people. Other Westerners might ask. Students will ask. And it helps if you don’t stand there with blank look on your face.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been away for Thanksgiving. I celebrated Thanksgiving in Oxford with all the other students in my program. We had a massive potluck and it was great fun. In Georgia, I took a weekend trip with friends and we celebrated at an Irish pub in the capital with gorgeous steaks and wine.

This year I attempted to rally the foreign teachers into having a potluck. Response to my cheery email was minimal. I was a little disappointed. It had been such a good email! In the end, we managed to scrape together four foreign teachers and two students for a potluck on Friday night. We had spaghetti Bolognese, mashed potatoes, fruit salad, veggies with Ranch dressing, cheese and crackers and apple crisp. I thought that considering our limited cooking facilities (no ovens and one hot plate each) we did quite well for ourselves. And we had gravy! A box from my mom which according to the tracking had been in China over a week without me receiving any notification was retrieved just hours before the event. In true Thanksgiving tradition, I had leftover mashed potatoes and gravy for breakfast the Saturday morning. An altogether pleasant state of affairs!

Saturday night we went to another Thanksgiving-type event at the home of a friend we met through Couch Surfing. She’s an amazing cook who served us a mixture of Chinese and Western dishes and refused to let us lift a finger. We reunited with two other CSers we met on our trip to Kaiping and also made friends with a German, a Swedish-Chinese, and another American. It was someone’s birthday and we decided to sing “Happy Birthday” in every language we jointly knew: English, Mandarin, Cantonese, French, Swedish, German, Spanish, and Georgian. I sang those last too alone and was not entirely on key. I’ve always loved the Georgian version as there are more words that just “happy birthday”:

Ra lamazi dghea
Ra nateli mzea
Imit’omrom dghes ________s
Dabadebis dghea!

What a beautiful day!
What a clear sky!
Because today it’s _______’s birthday!

Standing there together, our glasses raised in a toast for a newly-met friend, I felt that the spirit of Thanksgiving had been more than fulfilled. In that moment, I didn’t feel liked I’d missed out on a thing. A memorable weekend, indeed.

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.

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?

Communication, Family, Language, Village Life

Present Reality

My time in Georgia has entered a strange in-between stage. I’m finding it difficult to describe. Perhaps the simplest explanation is that I simply live here now. The daily routines of my host family are now my routines as well.

But there are days when I feel a complete stranger. When I feel I will never be reconciled to the isolation I experience here. Is that the right word? Isolation? I don’t want to overstate my case. Is it isolation or just loneliness? My Microsoft Word thesaurus tells me they are synonyms, which makes sense. However, there are those slight differences in meaning I instinctively feel. For me, isolation is physical; loneliness is an emotion. It’s possible to be isolated, but not lonely. And it’s equally possible to be lonely, but not isolated. Lonely in a crowd, yes?

I am not a Georgian and never will be. My Georgian is passable for daily necessities. I have “communication strategies” that involve a great deal of hand gestures, facial expressions, and intonation. My Georgian grammar is almost non-existent. I can communicate what I need to communicate and a little beyond, but not much. I can brokenly report amusing and/or frustrating incidents at school, but I cannot understand stories being told around the dinner table or in the teachers’ room. Usually I can pick up a bit, but only enough to give me a vague idea of what’s going on. Supras, when everyone is cheerfully toasting and talking, are a special sort of agony. I can maintain my party manners for an hour or two, but by the second hour it’s all a façade. All I want to do is get the hell outta there.

In such a setting when a joke is told, someone’s eyes will usually flash up to meet mine, looking for that sense of shared camaraderie. But as soon as their eyes meet mine they seem to recall that I don’t speak Georgian, eyes then flick awkwardly down and away. I’ve learned to keep a polite smile lightly on my face because it’s especially jarring for them when they are looking for that shared laughter and instead see a blank and/or unhappy look on my face. Then I start getting “What’s wrong?” questions. (Nothing’s wrong, other than the fact that I am linguistically locked-out from fully participating in the festivities)

This situation repeats itself frequently. Sometimes I don’t even get the eye flickers. Sometimes I just sit there like a statue, feeling like I don’t exist.

I understand. Really, I do. It’s hard to speak to someone who doesn’t fully understand your language. It’s aggravating, I know. And Americans are some of the worst in their attitudes towards immigrants. All those “lazy” ethnics “refusing” to learn English. At least I don’t get sort of reaction here.

But there is certainly the expectation that I learn Georgian. One certain uncle in my host family feels I have not made as much progress as I should have. No comment. And in my village, where only the English teacher and two students can communicate to any degree, it’s a little silly to expect them all to accommodate me by learning English. So much easier for me to learn Georgian! Never mind the fact that my sole purpose here is to teach English.

I have tried to learn Georgian and have been successful to a reasonable extent. But even if I had been burning the midnight oil, I’m not convinced it would have resolved the underlying issue. Being a non-native speaker is really a bitch.

So there are days when all is well with my Georgian world. I am at peace. Life is good. I am happy. Then it will be brought to my attention again, my inability to communicate or understand. And I feel it again. That familiar sense of isolation. Like a little smack that always stings. Sometimes loneliness follows, but not always. Irritation or irrational anger is a more likely response. Yeah, that’ll show those Georgians. Get mad at them. Uh-huh, Amy. Good one.

Frustrating? Hell yes. I feel that Calvin’s father (of Calvin & Hobbes fame) would tell me that it “builds character”. While my previous experiences with Spanish, the DR, and working with Spanish speakers at the plant had already made me very sympathetic towards language learners, my time here has turned that into an outpouring of empathy for them: immigrants, exchange students, even the oh-so-despised tourists. Actually, no. Scratch the tourists from the sympathy list. They’re only in it for a few weeks and then they’re back home.

On occasion I am genuinely lonely, spending time on Facebook, looking for friends to chat with, checking for emails, etc. But more often than not I am just keenly aware of my isolation. Just me and my English speaking self. In a village of monoglot Georgians.

Communication, Language, Social Customs

Georgian For Life and Happiness

Having now been in Georgia for about 5 months now, I think it would be enjoyable to share with you a bit about the Georgian language.

Whenever I talked about Georgia before I left or when I was home for the holidays the question of language was always in the top 3. Once we clarified which Georgia I was talking about (the state?) and where it is located, inevitably I was asked “What do they speak there?” And it was always sort of enjoyable to say “Georgian” because it’s the kind of answer which is not really an answer even though it’s the truth. (Like when people used to ask me where Azusa Pacific University was and I would tell them it was in Azusa.)


Yes, in Georgia they speak Georgian. Due to their history, many people of course also speak Russian, but Georgian is the language of the State, the media, and daily use.

This is the Georgian alphabet:

ა – A
ბ – B
გ – G
დ – D
ე – E
ვ – V
ზ – Z
თ – T
ი – I
კ – K’
ლ – L
მ – M
ნ – N
ო – O
პ – P’
ჟ – ZH
რ – R
ს – S
ტ – T’
უ – U
ფ – PH
ქ – KH
ღ – GH
ყ – QKH
შ – SH
ჩ – CH
ც – TS
ძ – DZ
წ – TS’
ჭ – TCH’
ხ – KH
ჯ – J
ჰ – H

It has 5 vowels and 28 consonants. Most of them are straight-forward enough.

However, there are the ejectives (ტ – T’, კ – K’, პ -P’, ჭ – TCH’, წ -TS’) and 2 other consonants that cause me some grief. Ejectives, which are not the same thing as aspirated sounds, are annoying because there are also non-ejectives that are the same sound other than the fact that one is an ejective and the other is not. So there is ejective T and non-ejective T, ejective CH, and non-ejective CH, etc. I’m not offended if you tune out at this part, but having suffered through a semester of phonetics I am going to take every opportunity to share my hard-won knowledge with (any) interested parties (John?).

Sometimes the difference is crystal clear to me when I hear it; sometimes it is not. My production of them can be pretty sketchy at times. I try, but it is apparent to me based on people’s reactions that I am not always doing as good of a job as I like to think.

The other two consonants that are difficult are the ღ and ყ. They are approximated in English as GH and QKH. The first, I am told, is similar to a Parisian ‘r’. Which explains my problems producing it. Patricia, you remember that wonderful phonetics project where I attempted to speak French, yes? The second feels like a deep click in your throat. If I think about it when I try to say it, I jinx it. Just gotta go on instinct.

The Georgian alphabet characters are just lovely, I think. So exotic. A pleasure to write. All rounded curves and smooth lines.

The following are the essential phrases for everyday life in Georgia:

გამარჯობათ – gamarjobat – hello – This is used on a near constant basis. Easy to say so no problem.

დილა მშვიდობისა – dila mshvidobisa – Good morning – This sent me into hysterics before I came to Georgia. It just sounded so fantastic. The pleasure has not really worn off. It means something along the lines of ‘peaceful morning’. ‘Dila’ is morning and some part of ‘mshvidobisa’ means peace.

როგორ ხარ? – rogor khar? – How are you? – Near constant use. Everyone who sees me will ask.

გმადლობთ – gmadlobt – Thank you – The additional ‘t’ on the end makes it more formal, same with ‘gamarjobat’.

დიდი გმადლობა – didi gmadloba – thank you very much – Rough translation is ‘big thank you’ as ‘didi’ means big. I tend to say ‘didi gmadloba’ more than just ‘gmadlobt’. Eager to please foreigner, I guess.

ნახვამდის – nakhvamdis – Good-bye

კარგად – kargad – Bye – The shorter way of taking leave. Also means ‘well’. So when asked “how are you?” this is the traditional response. Like saying “I’m good. I’m fine.”

მეტი არ მინდა – meti ar minda – I don’t want more – An essential for all eating situations. Even if you say this that doesn’t mean you won’t end up eating more, but all you can do it try.

გემბრიელია – gembrielia – It is delicious! – Also important for eating situations, but never say it if you don’t mean it as it could be taken as genuine. You might be served that item again and again and again and again.

არა მშია – ara mshia – I’m not hungry – Another essential phrase. It won’t necessarily get you off the hook, but sometimes it is an acceptable excuse. Will probably have to repeat it several times for you to be taken seriously.

Georgian has a very discouraging verb structure. There are 6 persons (1st, 2nd, and 3rd singular, 1st, 2nd and 3rd plural) and each one is conjugated differently. And all the conjugations are so LONG. English is nothing in comparison. There is, of course, structure to the tenses and persons, but there are also lots of irregular verbs. But it’s the length that gets to me. I’m reading it and it’s like trying to pick up a big stack of books or videos. I can pick up the first few syllables, but the longer it gets the more I am straining to try to hold the whole verb in my head. Half the time, just like with an armful of videos, everything just starts falling down and I lose it. Very dramatic mental image, I know.

Another fun little feature is that Georgian does not have PREpositions, it has POSTpositions. So it’s “I go schoolto” and not “I go to school”. They also seem to have fewer of them. It stresses them out a bit that English has 3-4 prepositions for a postposition that they only have one of. And the teachers, like most adult learners, really WANT to understand the difference between ‘at’, ‘in’, ‘to’, and ‘into’ even though I hardly think that is a good use of our time. Difficult to convince them of that though.

And no articles. Noooo articles in Georigan. So that’s another little something fun for my students to learn. A plus for me though in learning Georgian. And nothing in Georgian has a gender. No ‘el’ or ‘la’, ‘los’ or ‘las’. It’s great. And there is also only one word for 3rd person singular regardless of whether we are talking about boys, girls, or automobiles.

So there are some major pluses about Georgian in comparison with English or Spanish. There are also some drawbacks, of course. My Georgian has come along nicely to the point that I don’t really worry about having to communicate on anything that’s an aspect of daily life: greetings, pleasantries, family, plans, shopping, transportation, etc. Of course there are many, many things that I am completely INcapable of discussing in Georgian. Let’s be realistic here. But I am proud of what I can say even though in the grand scheme of things it is not much.

A quick anecdote in closing: One day my host sisters were having a little fun at my expense because I was working on my ყ and ღ sounds. I took it for awhile, but then decided it was time to turn the tables. “Okay, say ‘thirteen’ for me, or ‘the’, or ‘thirty.’” TH is one of the few sounds that English has that Georgian does not. As they were rendered helpless by this slippery sound that forever eludes them, tongues thrust between teeth, I laughed aloud. It’s nice that although my Georgian is not the best, the level of English in my village is not any better. We’re all in the same boat.