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.

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Religion, Social Customs

Considering the Patriarch

One of my first weeks in Korbouli I had the day where I and most of my village waited for the Patriarch. It ended up being kind of a downer and shaped some of my initial opinions of this Patriarch man.

The Georgian Patriach, Ilia the Second, is what the Pope is to Roman Catholics. Not being a Catholic, that’s that much less of an understanding I have for the Georgian’s relationship with their Patriarch. I think it’s all a little creepy. That’s the Protestant in me speaking, I know.

I admit to being highly suspicious of religious leaders. And not just of popes and patriarchs, my skepticism extends down the church hierarchy. I’m not a big fan of deacons either. Or elders. In fact I seem to suspect almost anyone in a position of authority. (Could it have something to do with the fact that most of them are men?)

Anyways.

I’ve kept an eye on this Ilia Meore after the initial disappointment of my village. He’s on TV regularly. His territory is of such a size that he seems able to get around quite a bit. The poor Pope just cannot compete. The Patriarch baptizes babies; he visits schools; he blesses hats (really!), he leads special services. He’s a busy man. And the people adore him. I’m positive that his public approval rating far exceeds that of Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian President.

So I believe my opinion of the Patriarch has softened a bit. It was inevitable. Of course he can’t stop at every village he drives through. Though maybe he could at least have slowed down.

I found a very interesting CNN clip on YouTube about the Patriarch that gave me some additional perspective.

Have a look:

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Religion, Republic of Georgia, Village Life

Waiting for the Patriarch

On Friday, the entire village of Korbouli was eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Patriarch. Classes were cancelled and it was clear to me that this was a Special Occasion of note.

What and who the Patriarch was remained a mystery for some time. I assumed he was the businessmen who paid to rebuild my school and was also responsible for paving the road and bringing electricity to our area—a sort of benefactor. When I checked my assumption with the English teacher, she answered in the negative. No, not the businessman. How irritating. We “negotiated interaction” in both English and Georgian. Eventually something she said made me ask “eklesia?” or “church?” and got a huge head nod in the affirmative. Ah-hah, mystery solved. The Patriarch is the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church. I indicated an appropriate level of awe and said that of course I would like to meet him.

However, I did not know how much time this would involve. I arrived at school at the usual time, a bit before 9 AM. I stood around waiting for someone to tell me what I was supposed to be doing. After awhile it dawned on me that there would be no classes; this was the sole event of the day. Both teachers and children had brought bouquets of flowers and spent time arranging them to their best advantage. After two hours of waiting I was thoroughly bored.

We finally began walking at around 11. I now assumed that we were walking to a church. No, we were just walking to the main road. Apparently this majestic personage would just be passing through. We lined up on both sides of the road. It seemed the entire village had turned out for this. Georgian flags began to appear, as well as St. Nino’s Cross, a cross where the horizontal beam is bent down. Martshutkas and other cars pulled in and out. The priest and his altar boys appeared in full regalia, carrying icons from the church and a large cross. I saw two other teachers from my program. No one seemed to know when the Patriarch was going to appear.

The sun beat down. We shifted our feet and walked around. Flowers brought for the Patriarch began to be used as weapons, either to tickle ears or thwack heads. I met some 12th grade students who spoke very good English. It was nice to be able to ask some of the questions I’d been storing up and have them answered. The younger children from my school circled around and I tried to learn some names. I checked my phone. 1 PM. Incredible. However, I was content to be making friends with the students. I was not bored. Yet.

Just before 2 PM I had honestly given up on seeing this personage. I was happy just to be standing in some shade. The 12th graders I was with indicated, with typical high schooler disinterest, that they did not care to see the Patriarch. I agreed. Moments later people began running back to the road. We turned to see the beginnings of a motorcade, led by a police car. I indicated with my head that I was going to walk back to the road and the students nonchalantly strolled in my wake.

However, there was little to see. The motorcade rolled past, about 15 cars total and did not pause at all. The Patriarch was apparently on a schedule and was unswayed by the number of faithful who had turned out to greet him, by the signs, the flags, his priest, or the now tattered flowers of the children. I turned to one of the students and asked, “Wasn’t he going to stop?” It was not a matter of personal interest to me, but I could not help feeling a little put out for the people of my village who had been waiting all day. “We are a very small village,” he responded, “perhaps not important enough for him to stop” I expressed a little indignation. I dislike the semi-servile relationship between major religious leaders and their followers.

With the last cars of the motorcade disappearing over the next hill, people turned to one another, philosophically shrugged a shoulder and headed home. The remaining flowers fell forgotten to the ground. Of all the faces I saw as I too turned to begin the long walk back to my home, the face of the local priest caught my eye. He looked a little forlorn, a little lost, his eyes following the motorcade over the hill, as his altar boys looking questioningly at him, icons in hand. But eventually his eyes returned to the present, he shouldered the cross brought out from his church and started on his way.

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