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.

China, Food, Republic of Georgia, Social Customs, Travel

Gone Over to the Dark Side

An unexpected casualty of several years abroad is that my taste in coffee is getting worse. First step is to admit I have a problem, right? So. Deep breath. Hi, my name is Amy. I like instant coffee.

How did this nasty addiction develop? It started in Georgia. Though real coffee beans were available, my host family was firmly entrenched in the instant coffee camp. They drank a Brazilian instant coffee, called Café Pele, that once I got used to it I grew to like, even love.

I left Georgia with a gigantic Yuban-style can of Café Pele. At home in California, I explored the delights of how convenient making iced coffee is with instant coffee. I found that the French Roast that had been my mainstay through grad school suddenly tasted like mud. I tried to readjust, but it just wasn’t working. In desperation, I bought a bottle of Nescafe. I know, right? Nescafe. Seriously?! But it tasted good to me. Another step down a slippery slope. By the time I left America again I was on a half brewed, half instant coffee diet, having somewhat readjusted to “real” coffee.

I came to China last year with the end of my Café Pele. When it was finished, I went out and bought a ceramic one-cup coffee filter and some ground coffee. But it just wasn’t working. Maybe if I had a real coffee pot it would work. But by the time the water had finished dripping through my coffee was usually cold. And if I wanted a second cup? Do it all over again. And me and Nescafe were just getting along so…so well! I liked the taste. I liked the convenience. It was great. My ground coffee sat in the cupboard, sad and neglected.

This past summer was a repeat of the year before. I struggled to find a drip coffee that tasted good to me. I, coffee purist, even experimented with flavored coffee. Maybe a nice mild vanilla-flavored coffee would taste good? No, though it smelled good, it tasted like chemicals. I bought a small jar of Nescafe. Used it up. Bought a larger jar. Oh dear. This was serious.

On vacation with the family, my brother gasped in mock horror at the bottle of Nescafe I’d brought along. “You’ve gone to the dark side, eh?” I couldn’t really deny it. Maybe I was a double agent. Behind enemy lines, exploring the dark side of instant coffee culture. Or maybe I was actually a triple agent, professing reluctant use of instant coffee due to present circumstances when, in truth, my allegiance had changed. Stockholm syndrome? Maybe a little.

Some communal coffee drinking with my brother weaned me off a 100% instant diet. Coffee drinking is very social, you know. As with alcohol, it’s much nicer to drink coffee with other people. No one likes to drink alone.

In defense of instant coffee, you do realize that it’s popular the world over? I have no reason to be ashamed of instant coffee drinking. America is one of the few places that scorns instant coffee for mysterious reasons. Starbucks had released its Via instant coffee in Europe long before it attempted to market it in the States. Did you know? We are the lone holdouts. American instant coffee drinkers must sip in secret lest their preferences open them up to the ridicule of their friends and neighbors. Having their instant coffee shipped in plain unmarked boxes. It’s tough. Maybe someday there will be acceptance of instant coffee drinking in America.

I don’t think I’ll be giving up instant coffee anytime soon.

You’ll still love me, right?

Food, Republic of Georgia, Travel

The Pact

I finally made it to Tbilisi, the capital, last weekend. Since I hardly feel that my initial arrival counts, it was truly my first time in the city. I think it is a shame that it was my first time. I am not really sure why I had not gone earlier. Mostly I blame my teaching schedule which goes all the way to 4 PM on Friday afternoons. Makes it hard to take trips to anywhere of any distance.

 Cruising into Tbilisi on our miraculously uncrowded martshutka, food became a topic of conversation. Stories of the wonderous food to be found in Tbilisi have reached even the far corner of Georgia that I reside in. Chinese food. Pizza. Mexican food. McDonalds. Visions, not of sugar plums, but of Western food, were dancing in our heads. Not really sure who initiated it, but someone, maybe even me, said we should eat no Georgian food unless absolutely necessary. A pact! We agreed. I was surprised at the enthusiasm this created even though I felt it myself. We piled our hands in the middle to signal our solemn oath.

My last post got me some comments on how I was obviously over any initial attraction to Georgian food. That is true in part. Some meals here are endured, not enjoyed. However I think it is healthy. It keeps food in perspective and it forcibly reminds me of Kathleen Norris’ discussions on monasteries and aestheticism in The Cloister Walk. While any given meal might be something I despise, it helps me to realize that it is just as likely to be a favorite meal of someone else in the family. It’s the militant hospitality that gets to me more than the actual food itself. But I digress.

Here’s the summary of how our pact played out:

Thursday night (Thanksgiving dinner): Irish pub

We consumed slabs of pure meat, unimpaired by bones, gristle, fat, or skin, and drank excellent wine and/or beer. It was glorious. I would’ve sung a love song to my steak if I’d been asked to.

Friday morning: Swiss Bakery

Ham and cheese croissant and mini-chocolate croissant. We would’ve had coffee (Susy and I) but for some reason it was not available. Even though there was a shining espresso machine behind the counter. How very Georgian.

Friday afternoon: monastery in the middle of nowhere

After an entirely unanticipated hike that only my innate pride and stubbornness got me through, I chugged a Nalgene of water, ate a mandarin orange that our driver gave me (out of pity most likely) and a pastry that Susy had had the foresight to purchase before we left town.

Friday evening: Georgian Restaurant

I felt that this dinner slightly dishonored our pact but we really had no other options. We were all starving. We had barbecued pork, spinach, French fries, mushrooms, and a lot of wine. Susy’s argument was that none of this was something we had on a regular basis in the villages. I guess that was true.

Friday night: porch of our hostel

More beverages, Swiss cheese, and Sour Cream and Onion Pringles. How American is that?

Saturday morning: Muesli, bananas, milk, coffee with . . . creamer! I think I would’ve come to Tbilisi just to buy this. But the muesli was amazing. And so was the milk.

Saturday afternoon: Cheese, salami, bread, salad, and Lay’s Potato Chips purchased at the grocery store

Saturday evening: The worst Mexican food ever. It wasn’t Georgian, but it sure wasn’t Mexican either!

Sunday morning: More muesli, bananas, milk, and lots of coffee with creamer. Heaven.

Sunday afternoon: Leftover cheese and salami for me. Jason chugged the yogurt. We hit a cake shop on the way to the Metro.

The change in food was just that: a change. And we all know the saying that change is good. Change was very good that weekend. And when I got back Sunday night, opened the door and saw my family eating little grilled fish with leftover lobio, I sat down with relatively good cheer and had myself some lobio. Which is proof that all Georgian food is not bad.

Communication, Food, Republic of Georgia, Village Life

Weekend Sleepover

A strange weekend. A change in plans came late Friday night by email, though I had already been appraised by text message. The next two weeks had seemed such an exciting prospect and the cancellation of next weekend’s events left me feeling slightly bereft. I woke Saturday morning feeling unsettled and purposeless. A long phone call from a good friend and a chat via Facebook left me with a slightly improved outlook. Que sera sera I decided.

I was tripping through my guitar chords when Nestani came into my room. Nestani is one of the few people who generally has mastered the art of communicating with me. She knows to use small words, mostly nouns and verbs, and lots of gestures to illustrate. But at that moment she was having a relapse and longs streams of Georgian were flowing out of her. Of course I didn’t understand. She hollered, yes, hollered, for Tamta, my trusty translator. She came at a run, slightly out of breath. “Amy,” pause for breath, “do you want go Jana’s house?”

I was instantly on alert. Jana and her mother both work at my school; her mother is something like the Assistant Principal. I had wiggled out of spending the night at their house the last time I had been invited for dinner. I lamely excused myself on the grounds that I did not have my contact case. A half truth. It is uncomfortable to sleep with my contacts in. I practically have to peel them off my eyes in the morning if I do. But mostly I just saw no reason to enter the world of Georgian slumber parties. Why? I have a perfectly good bed at my house. And my host family more or less understands how I operate. They know how to communicate with me. To stay with a family who does not speak any English at all—a painful prospect.

However, I realized that I had said that I would be happy to stay over some other time when I had my contact case and was prepared to do so. I really did not have any reason to decline. No other plans on the horizon for the whole weekend. Nestani’s reminder to take my laptop and modem made me flush with anger when I realized at least part of the reason for this sudden invitation. Jana’s laptop cord broke. I saw here coming back from town on Friday. 100 lari to replace it. Which is probably half of her monthly salary. I hate feeling used. But I realized I was committed and was it really so hard to take my laptop and share it with her? Get a grip, Amy.

Laptop, modem, contact case, a few books, and a notebook in hand I made my way to Jana’s. Oh, and the dictionaries—both of them. They were one of the first things in my bag. I wasn’t really looked forward to trying to communicate with them. Didn’t they know what they were getting themselves into?

I arrived at Jana’s around 3:00. We went in and put my stuff in the dining room. I looked through 4 photo albums as the girls ran around preparing lunch. At about 4:00 we had a huge lunch. Supra style. The girls hardly ate anything, but were death on me ceasing eating at any point in time. If I did not have something on my plate, they would put something there. After all the food, then there was fruit, nuts, a bowl of chocolates, a plate of cakes, and a bowl of crackers and chocolate. And sugar-laden coffee. And sicky-sweet juice. And cognac. Sensing a theme?

Then I sat on the couch like a, like a . . . veal. Communication was, as I knew it would be, almost impossible. Neither Jana nor her mother understand that they can’t speak to me like they do to other Georgians. I stared at the TV, which I can’t understand, but if I looked engrossed they seemed willing to let me be. Jana and I took turns using the Internet. For hours. Around 8 PM they were indicating it was time for dinner. Are you kidding me? I couldn’t eat a thing. But I ate one wedge of khachapuri and a cup of tea as a peace gesture. Sweets were being constantly held out to me. No, no, no, no. Ar minda, gmadlobt. Meti ar minda, gmadlobt. They were so insistent they were making me feel bad to be refusing all the time.

At 11 PM, after hours of Georgian television and frustrated attempts to communicate on both sides, I indicated I was going to bed. I was not sure whether I was sharing the room or not, which made me a little unsettled. I tossed and turned all night. I woke at 7:30 needing to use the facilities and was grateful it was morning. Trying to get to the bathroom, I couldn’t get the outer door open. I played with the lock and apparently made enough noise to wake up Jana’s mother. Sigh. She got the door open and I made it to my intended destination. Coming back into the house, the Georgian started immediately. I stood mute for a minute and then gestured that I was going back to bed. Couldn’t stand the thought of staying and trying to communicate.

I slept for another hour and a half. After that it was the same thing all over again: a huge breakfast of all the same dishes as yesterday, TV, Internet, limited communication, followed by another huge meal.

I picked my way through breakfast; I barely made it through lunch. Don’t get me wrong. I was eating perfectly normal portions of food. No less than Jana was eating. However, Georgian hospitality is almost militant. They would stuff the food down your throat if they could.  If you are not eating, there is either something wrong with you or something wrong with the food. So you are walking a fine line between honoring their hospitality, reassuring them that everything is delicious, while not betraying what your digestion can handle.

There is a lot of sugar in Georgian food. And these days, I just can’t handle it. I don’t want cognac. I don’t want juice. I don’t want wine. I don’t want sugary coffee. I don’t want sugary tea. I don’t want sweets of any stripe. Fruit is okay. Plain, natural food is okay. But the sugar is killing me. And Jana’s mother was so terribly terribly insistent on me eating everything. It was embarrassing to have to decline so much. But I knew I did not want or need any more food. And I did not want to make myself sick trying to please her.

I was so grateful to leave and go home.

Educational System, Republic of Georgia, Teaching

Teacher Christmas

Today, I was attempting to leave the teacher’s room to go teach a class. However, I was having some problems getting out of the room.

At about 2:30, I shut down my laptop and put it away. I needed to review my plan for the coming class. A subtle cough by another teacher drew the attention of the local English teacher. The other teacher wanted to use my laptop and modem. Sigh.

I bought a modem and pay for Internet each month so I can use it at home. I bring it to school so that I can work, or at least play, in the frequent gaping holes in my schedule. Today it was a 3 hour gap. But the danger is whenever I bring the modem to school, everyone wants to use. I am aware of how much I owe the teachers at my school. I really cannot imagine refusing unless I had an excellent reason for doing so. Like, like . . . I can’t even think of a reason that would be grounds for saying no. So with a suppressed sigh, I pulled it out and set it up again.

At 2:50, ten minutes before my lesson, they were connecting desks together and all the leftovers from a dinner we had for some guests yesterday were reappearing. Uh-oh. Time to leave the room. If I stayed, they would make me eat. I was hungry, but I would eat after class at home. Fresh food. Not food that had been sitting in the school all night. (See two posts ago). I left the room to go look for the parents who should be coming. I needed to direct them to the new room we would meet in. (Another story).

From the window I saw that the parents were coming up the road. I ran back upstairs to go get my things. However, I had left them in the teacher’s room. Big mistake. When I ran back into the teacher’s room to get them, the table had been assembled. Sit, sit Amy! Eat, eat! I explained. Thank you, but no. I have the parents’ lesson. Oh no, eat first, then go. Yes, eat! Eat! Gah. No getting around it. I sat and ate two small spoonfuls of Georgian potato salad, a spoonful of beets, a spoonful of cabbage salad, and a small piece of khachapuri. I was seconds from jumping up and exiting the room when the dreaded beverage appeared. Some of the worst wine I have had in Georgia. I tried to leave it there. I really did. But then the teacher who provided the wine is like “Drink Amy! Drink!”. Gah. I threw it back and ran out before anything else could be forced on me.

Halfway out the door, the Assistant Principal stops me. Oh man. I am already late for the parents’ lesson because of the food hold-up. Come to the director’s office, she says. Yikes. What did I do? I cautiously follow her in. And then it was suddenly, unexpectedly . . . . teacher Christmas!

On the table were several boxes of Unicef teaching supplies: chalk, crayons, pencil sharpeners, tape, colored blocks, rulers, notebooks, pens, and (the best part) little slates. My heart stopped. Is that? Could it be? Oh my God it is. Little slates. I’ve been dying for something like slates. So that the little students can practice writing the alphabet. So that the older students can be made more responsible for their own work. They showed me everything else in the boxes. But my eyes were fixed on the slates. How many would they let me have? I didn’t want to be greedy. I asked for 5. They said that was okay. I stacked up my supplies and prepared to move out. 5 slates. Awesome. But then the Assistant Principal handed me the remainder of the first box of slates. All of them? I asked. Yes, take them. I am thrilled. 20 little slates and white pencils. Things are looking up for the English classes of Sisvadzeebi Skola. For the teachers anyways. Maybe not for the students. I’m putting my slates to work at first opportunity.

Oh, and lunch was fish by the way. So much for eating at home. I ate 3 mandarin oranges, a persimmon and ran upstairs to escape the fishy stench.

Food, Republic of Georgia, Village Life

Life Without Refrigeration

 Today at lunch my family served me 3 day old khachapuri that had been reheated in the oven. Khachapuri, since I am not sure I have mentioned it before, is a traditional Georgian dish. It is bread baked flat with cheese inside. When fresh and hot, it is quite tasty. Like a giant quesadilla, but with a lot more bread around it and a very unusual cheese. The Georgian cheese, of which there seems to be only one variety, two tops, is generally homemade and is salty as heck. I am not a huge fan, but can choke down a little by itself as it is one of the only readily available forms of protein.  Baked into bread it is much more edible. Back to today.

This khachapuri had probably been made Monday night. It is Thursday. This means that this is a food item containing a milk-based product that has been sitting in room temperature or higher for almost 3 days. Would you eat a cheese sandwich that had been sitting on the counter for 3 days? If you asked me two months ago, I would have said no. But now . . . I cautiously ate two wedges and decided that was as much risk of dysentery I could handle for the day.

My host family does not have a fridge. And this does not seem to be an unusual situation in Georgia. Food is prepared at least twice a day, for lunch and dinner. At meals we eat our fill and then the remainder of the food goes back into the kitchen where it may or may not even be covered. Some items, like the bread, cheese, and butter go in a little cupboard. But that does not mean that they have not been sitting out in the fly-infested kitchen for hours. Hot dishes will stay in their pots and will reappear at all subsequent meals until someone finally finishes them off. With sick fascination I will sit in the kitchen and watch the flies endlessly explore the chicken/khachapuri/cheese/etc that a family member will eat without hesitation at the next meal.

I generally try to avoid leftovers, especially anything meat or milk based. But that does not mean I am always successful. And my vigilance is waning. Sometimes I go ahead and eat the leftovers, especially if the present dish is something I despise. Like fish. Or meat soup. I have yet to get violently ill from this, but my innards seem not to have yet made peace with the food situation in Georgia. I brought a large supply of Pepto-Bismol and continue to use it on an on-and-off basis. So today, because I was hungry and no other food was served, I ate my 3-day-old khachapuri with less hesitation than I ever could have imagined. But only 2 wedges. Because, as mentioned before, I am really not interested in seeing the inside of a Georgian doctor’s office.

Cultural Differences, Food, Republic of Georgia, Village Life

Cure for the Georgian Cold

Saturday afternoon in Georgia. 2:09 PM my time. 3:09 AM California time. You are all blissfully sawing Z’s. Or you should be.

It continues to rain. Big sheets of rain being blown around by the wind. I observe this from bed, from under my 3 ½ blankets and hooded sweatshirt. I just made a trip downstairs to the bathroom. A trip I do not make lightly, especially in this weather.

I am sick. A nasty cold and cough. I feel the inevitable creep of this condition down, down, down towards my lungs. Hello bronchitis? My stash of supplies for this eventuality somehow got left out of my luggage. So now my only defense is lemons, water, and sleep. My mother has lectured me on going to see a doctor if it gets any worse. I cannot express how little I want to have that experience. When a fellow teacher got sick, the doctor told her to drink lots of coffee, wine and cognac. Yes, that was the recommendation of a medical doctor. See why I don’t want to go see one?

I spent most of the weekend downstairs by the wood-burning stove, which remains the only heat source in the house. Once the sun goes down my second-floor room is only just bearable under my blankets. My pockets were being perpetually empited of snotty tissues  and refilled with fresh tissue. My Nalgene was with me always in case of a coughing fit.

In Kutaisi last weekend I bought a box of tissues. I was very excited about this because I have not seen any in my town. Really should’ve bought two as it is almost gone now. Not sure what I will do in their absence. I am not eager to embrace the cloth handkerchief, regardless of how evironmentally friendly it may be.

In town, my host family took me to a pharmacy and helped me buy something for my cough. An act of faith since all the packaging is written in Russian. They also encouraged me to drink a lot of wine at dinner. Didn’t make the connection until later. I thought it was because the kids’ greatgrandmother was visiting. And they were much pushier about me having some vodka too. (Probably thought it was a good substitue for cognac). They were always checking to make sure I have taken my mysterious Russian  medicine, which I always had. Believe me, I am most anxious to feel completely well.

Sunday morning after breakfast I watched dumbfounded as the rain turned to snow and began to carpet the yard. October 31st. My Halloween treat. In the afternoon I had a brief snowball skirmish with the kids. Teo managed to shove a snowball in my face when I was not paying attention. Twice. I only got her back once. But I know there will be plenty more snow to come.

I played checkers with Giorgi and managed to beat him twice. (Yes, my pride is intact. I beat an 8-year old at checkers.) I hung around the stove and ate chestnuts hot out of the oven. Like the “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” of the song. I had never had a chestnut before I came to Georgia. Pretty good actually.

I continue to sniffle and occassionally cough as I finish this post off. Sunday’s snow is melting in the yard. Apparently only a preview of coming events. Hopefully my Russian medicine will work its magic and kill my cough. If not there is always plenty of wine, coffee, and vodka at my house . . .