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Teacher Teach Me! (On teaching in china and being a jr. high celebrity)

Jiangmen, China

April 12, 2011

Warning: Long and rambly…maybe i should split it into two entries…

School Day Begin!

just a sampling of my students...they couldn't all fit in this pic! and some were a bit reluctant to join in

So I had a feeling it might be a bit like this…I’m uh…well, ya…I’m a bit of a celebrity around here. I may have missed my chance at movie stardom…but now I’m a Jr. High School Star (city-stardom is coming along too, oh yes)! Oh, you’d like me to sign your homework paper for you? You want my email, my MSN, my QQ (Chinese version of MSN chatting), Facebook (wait…you can’t even get facebook in China!), “anything teacher please!” Hahaha. I’m surprised people haven’t started bringing out the camera phones. You see, I’m a rarity in these parts, a desperately desired commodity, but curious oddity none-the-less: an American girl in China…light skin, curly-crazy hair (speaking of hair) and the ability to speak English!

at the jr. high. a gathering of some sort...


Jiangmen, the tiny town of 4 million in which I currently reside does not boast a tourist industry (industry? Yes. Lots of factories for sure, but tourists are not interested in seeing where their cheap goods come from or experiencing the resulting smog of “development” that blankets this region), so I’m pretty much like a glowing beacon of whiteness. Which is decidedly inconvenient when I’m aware that I look like bumbling idiot most of the time (illiteracy does that to a person): Hey! Everyone look at me pretending to read a label in the grocery store again! Now watch as I try to communicate with someone! Ok, now everyone turn because, look out! She’s trying to eat something! Oh lord…how I love to emphasize all of my social blunders. Hopefully this hopeless stage blunders to an end soon.

living up to and beyond my foreigner duties. quick snap a photo! (my host brother and I pretending to do tai chi)

As for the celebrity status, well, that may be here to stay; daily routines become exciting cameo appearances, “halloos!” follow me around. I might as well walk around with a flashing neon sign above my head or draped in an American flag with a statue of liberty head-band. The way people gawk, stare and giggle, you’d think I already was! Actually maybe they’d pay less attention cause they’d just pass me off as a crazy person…hmmm. But unlike Africa, people here thankfully don’t overwhelm me in a chorus of “white-lady!” calls. Well, I do get people saying “hellooo!” a lot (and yes…mostly men and kids/teenagers) but that I can easily ignore, smile, nod or respond depending on the sincerity. Actually because people often don’t say anything but instead overwhelm the air with their curiosity, nervousness and excitement it makes me really feel that celebrity status; bizarre for someone who finds themselves utterly dorky and unworthy of such immediate praise.

 

a spot where i like to chill out/hide on campus. the chinese are very good at making attractive rest/leisure spaces!

And because I’m a teacher (daoshi), while I’m on campus I get the FULL force of A-list celebrityness. I think that given the chance, the students might actually swarm me to ask questions and get my autograph…oh wait…that has happened! I’m teaching at Jingxian Jr. High School (7th and 9th grade) and at Zi Cha Primary School (1st grade). The little kids who are insanely adorable….I kinda want to take a few of them home with me (one little boy almost had me in hysterics when I made a comment that the “chocolate car” in our book was “mmm…yummy!” he responded “teacher’s yummy!” and being one of the few kids that excels he clearly knew what he was saying! classic). The little ones generally start hopping around and going crazy when I arrive…shouting out “hallo! Halloooo! Haaaalllo!” constantly. But much more than that in a conversation and they are lost. For these 1st graders, English is their third language. The local language in Cantonese, then they learn the national language, Mandarin…and then…English…phew…I’m amazed they can speak even a little bit and some of them have an impressive reading ability.

this dude was soo excited about getting this pic...notice kids goofing in the back

Surprisingly, I really enjoy teaching the jr. high kids (even though I recall telling myself that should I ever want to teach I should avoid jr. high like the plague) because we can actually have a conversation; the kids have a genuine interest in America and what I’m all about and on the other hand I can ask them about their own interests and discuss China.

But it was the very first day that I got a taste of my newly acquired celebrity status. I should first mention that the lines between teacher and student are much more blurred here than in the U.S. Teachers office? Teachers lunch room? Umm…no. No privacy…they’re all swarmed with students!  You also have to remember, there are A LOT of people in China…think of the amount of people at a normal school in the U.S. and then triple it! But although these lines seem blurred, students definitely recognize the evevated status aof their teachers and are very respectful…of course some of them are little brats…but it’s Jr. High…whadya expect? they just want to get chatty with their friends and eat junk food…haha…universals?!

 

oh my daily walk from the jr. high to the primary school. "here she comes again!"

But let’s return to that first day, and the first few weeks while we’re at it. Cafeteria…a hustle and bustle of noise as one would expect (some kids go home for lunch…the lunch break lasts 2 1/2 hours because people take a nap after lunch…the Chinese siesta! Who knew?!) and being my first day, I grabbed my food and sat down at a table. Little did I know that the teachers sit in my area that I was not in…I was completely surrounded within seconds of sitting down…I would get the food halfway to my mouth and another question would be fired at me as another mass of children descends on my table to see if this new, rare creature was not rumor but was indeed real! Bombarded with questions, pointing, touching, shoving to get a space and a look…this was my first school lunch in China…welcome to Jr. High stardom. We all know that little bit of funny celebrity aura we feel around our teachers when we’re younger…and especially when you see them doing something “normal”…”oh my gosh I saw her in the supermarket! And then she bought food!” “no way! Did you watch her eat! What was she wearing!” hahaha. But as a foreigner and an American at that (Chinese LOVE America) it’s like they’ve watched me on TV their whole lives and now have the chance to talk in person…ahhh! Guess that’s it…i’m a representative for all they fantasize about in the U.S….oh boy…haha

another class! i should have set the lens wider!

The first few weeks while I was teaching the 7th girls would come up to me after class and ask for me to write my name on their paper. My name? Sign it? Just write it out? OK sure! I would do different designs and they’d get all excited. Some of the boys even get just as starry-eyed and their nervous energy while their asking me my favorite sport or if I really know how to play guitar, shows their adorable innocence. Sometimes it wouldn’t happen, no one would approach me after class, and I’d think…huh…guess that class wasn’t as excited as the one before…but I think it’s just shyness…once one person approached…15 others would follow…all giggling and hanging onto my every word. So cute…how can you not get a little energy high from that?! Still…I’ve never been comfortable in positions of authority and to be thrust to the head of the class and immediately revered like a star is totally insane! No really! I’m just as weird, insecure and nerdy as you guys…really! Of course, part of you has to love it and I’ve gained the wonderful sense that anything I can do for them will be great…exciting even! Need a self-esteem boost? Come to China and teach!

explaining a few things with pictionary art. a few of them complimented my pictures (now that's a strech!) and added their own embellishments after class haha

So now that we know I’m a school celebrity, what am I actually doing?! Well, teaching…you know…English…and to a whole lotta kids. I should have guessed….China: population 1 billion. Average class size: 50+ kids. “So how big will my class be?” I innocently asked before my first day of teaching (note: I still had no idea what the hell I was actually going to be doing at this point). Also note: I’ve learned to be skeptical of every promise or guarantee I receive…especially in a place where the majority of people start their sentences with “I think that….” or “Maybe this….”. So when I heard “oooh I think 50 kids in a class…but…um…no…I think they are so too busy…so together…we put two together…I think 100, 110…100…no more than 110…ok?”…well, can you feel my eyebrow of skepticism rising? 100 kids! Whoa! What! Are you going to stack the desks or hang them from the ceiling?? And then I saw my classroom which was more like a lecture hall, complete with a massive screen, projector and microphone (still, I have no idea how or what exactly I’ll be teaching…class starts the next day). Oh dear…good luck! After one week of that they halved the class size (now I was just winging it with power point presentations I put together to learn new vocabulary and little conversation exercises).

After another week they moved me to teach the 9th graders (50 kids in class and in a normal sized classroom yay!) because they have an oral exam in May. I now have 6 classes a week at the Jr. High…that is 6 different classes. So that’s 300 kids, yow! But easy to prepare for since it’s the same lesson all week (is this making sense?). At the primary school, I have 2 different classes i teach twice a week…so there’s 100 more kiddies! Remembering names is pretty much impossible but I’m starting to get to know a few of them who come up and chat after class (this is apart from the crowd mass wanting my autograph and email haha).

this post needed some color. cool laterns hanging in a restaurant off of a buddhist temple

Teaching is going great and even when I think the class has been boring kids come up to me to tell me how much they enjoyed it! Definitely gives ya a boost…I thought I might be getting a fan club when I couple of students brought me little presents and one even wrote me the sweetest letter saying that she “feels happy” because I “teach with a smile”. The kindness and welcoming spirit I’ve received here has been amazing and clearly a bit overwhelming at times. For now…teacher must rest. But really…who wants a signed photo? hahaha

Hair to Stay

Hair? Let it grow, grow, grow! Grow it out ya’ll! Why all this talk of hair?

Well, I’m going to grow mine out for the remainder of my travels until i hit home soil (whenever that may be), and from there, chop it all off for donation! Check out this radicool link for this radicool charity: Locks of Love

1. So…some of you may remember when i left for my trip I looked like this:

Sporting a freshly shaved 1″ buzz cut (tail included) provided ever-so-eagerly by my good pal J.P. in the back of a bar after her awesome weekly Craftnight event, I took off for Africa. Outcries of shock from family members and a cool breeze on my neck. Perfect for traveling and oh-so hip.

2. Then we got to this: Shag-mop with multiple tails. Niiiice. (poor KT had to look at this all day long. DO NOT TAKE THE BRIADS OUT!! MULLET ATTACK!)

(Since i can’t get a crazy vegabond beard going, i kinda like watching my hair get wilder every day…)

3. Aaaaand a little longer here (during the bicylce/WWOOF trip i have yet to blog about. Mmmm kale…):

4. Currently!: Now I’m a master of awkward hair stages. Also…attempting to master awkard Tai Chi poses.

My teacher is amazing…this photo might deceive ya, as i usually have a crowd of people watching the white girl doing tai chi!! I may also be in the local paper HA! Photo credit and possible newspaper fame maker: Ken Wang

Long hair kinda drives me nuts, but I’ve done it once before and i’ve decided to do it again…and I want anyone and everyone out there to join me! Locks of Love is an awesome cause…so come on…grow it out and chop it off!

For now, enjoy tracking my travels through my ever-growing crazy-hair! I’ll post more photos as i go along wooo

*And for those interested: Yes, i wash my hair with a vinegar/water mix (1/3 to 2/3)…check out that curl and shine! In China, my host father helped me find the right stuff and didn’t even blink an eye when i explained (through awesome hand motions) my purpose. I dare ya…

Proper blog entry coming tomorrow…are ya psyched or what??!

Training for the Mandarin Olympics: Tongue Training and Mouth Calisthenics

Jiangmen, China

March 20, 2011

will i be able to read this someday??!

It’s amazing how the language you’ve spoken your whole life conditions your mouth, tongue, teeth and throat to interact and react in a very certain way. These conditions are what make it possible to fluently create the necessary sounds we’ve equated with words. (woah) Of course it makes sense…the more you use a muscle the stronger it becomes…and we all know about the power of muscle memory and the automatic mode your body can go into when performing something you’ve done a million times. And ya…turns out language follows in line with the rule of practice and repetition. Learning a new language, especially one so aurally different than one’s own native talkativity-maker (that’s my awesome, yet highly silly and impractical, new term for language), proves a great challenge. It’s like training for a sport you’ve never even watched; you can’t conceptualize the way it looks, what muscles you’ll need to strengthen and the rules?? Well…heh…you’re clueless there too! Everyday, people communicate with, what is to me, an incredible display of human capability…the entire concept of it; what it is, how it looks, physically written, and how it sounds and works all-together boggles my mind! Random syllables all meshed into words, and somewhere in there, ascribed meaning (meanings and sounds that constantly morph at that…) and hey!…you (yes, you!) can understand me…you can read this! Incredible no? And the variety of all the talkativity-makers (ok…I’ll stop) around the world…WOW.

part of an embroidered mural

To a native English speaker, English sounds, well…pretty normal. But alas! It’s a pretty bizarre thing if you can try to step away from it. Or on the other hand (or should i say ear?) try isolating and focusing in on one word… say it over and over again…you’ll start to doubt yourself really! A couple of times I’ve had to check a dictionary just to make sure I wasn’t making it up! Cloudy, cloudy, cloudy, cloudy, cloudy…haha. And “skyscraper”? Really?! Here, words have deep overlapping meaning (for example, “student” is made up of two characters that represent “learning to survive and live”)…and we’ve got a “skyscraper”…and that is one of the more creative ones ha! Also…”stool” and “stool”…haha. I guess both involve sitting? And “weather vane” …I really had to stop and make sure on that one. But for now I think “snooze” wins as my favorite.

view of jiangmen...my home!

Because language kinda fascinates me I have on many occasions inquired about the sounds of English to non-native speakers and was always met with the same response. Apparently we sound like we are garbling words with a mouth full of marbles! HA! Things only sound normal because we’ve gone beyond the arbitrary sounds. Teaching English has been like stepping backward into English…getting to the root of words…focusing only on their sound for pronunciation purposes and it’s a pretty hilarious thing I tell ya.

After a bit of travel, the language bug hit hard. Not only was I tired of being the typical “English-Only-American” but language provides a window into a culture and obviously opens doors of communication. I think “learn another language!” is written on a list of life goals I’ve got somewhere. And it’s true…you gotta live in the place to really learn it! And now…well, here I am… in China!…Chinese anyone? Guess I wanted a challenge? I had never intended to learn Chinese before…one of the hardest languages to learn wasn’t exactly at the top of my list…I still can’t get barely get Espanol.

oh, if only learning chinese could be as fun and easy as this!

Tone-time. Ahh tones…Chinese had to be a tonal language…didn’t it?! (Therefore the word “ma” has 4 different meanings depending on what tone you use). Oh how different English and Chinese are…my mouth muscles have been on such a regimented English routine that forming some of these new sounds seems like an impossible task. But just like with riding a unicycle, after a while you start to feel the balance and what once seemed impossible offers, in one tiny accomplishment (“I said “big fish”! “dada yuuuu”!), a glimmer of exciting hope.

oh i will win...i can, i must, i shall!

My host father, SuSu (this is the respectful name for someone older than you…akin to calling a family friend “Uncle”) brought home a bunch of English learning phrasebooks so we could both be in on the language learning game. I absolutely love him and I can sense that we are both desperate to really talk to one another! One of our favorite things to do is sit around and look through the books or point at things and ask each other how to say it and then practice, each laughing, but a bit frustrated, and determined to say it right. And the more closely I listen to Chinese (Mandarin to be specific…there are many languages and dialects in China) the more musical it becomes in the way it bounces from one descending tone to a higher held sound. Sure it can be nasal, but when you start to understand words (a very, very few mind you) it doesn’t sound so harsh.

out exploring a nearby park with my host father...pointing at everything and mispronouncing even more

Living abroad really heightens the desire to understand what in the hell is going on all around you(!)… that and the ability to get closer to the locals and my host family of course. Being able to talk with my host father is alone, enough to spark a little fire under that language-learning dream. And then you can reserve the over-zealous body-language, sound effects and excessive pointing (a tried and true friend of the backpacker, I won’t deny) for those drunken party nights instead. Let’s hope this life abroad will be inspirational enough to make miracles happen! Well that and a lot of hard work, memorizing, embarrassing mispronunciations and the willingness to just get out there and try those tones! Who knows how to say “Good Luck!” in Chinese?…I’ll get back to ya on that one.


Chicken Feat or Pork Crimes?

Jiangmen, China

March 15, 2010

 

dinner time...let's eat!

 

So I’ll just say it, after I ate it…meeeat! Ayyeeee! Wa-wah-waahaaa-whaaaat?! Woah…! Yes, this may be a common reaction for many of you that know me as the vegan-freak, crazy-veghead that I’ve been for the past nearly 8 years…or the crazy veg-head that I, uhh…was? Well, I still feel like a vegetarian anyway…I haven’t really found profound enjoyment from eating meat nor have I had any kind of meat-eating enlightenment. I mean, I gots vegan t-shirts and stickers and shit! Haha. I’m kinda into all things vegetable and think I will always be veggie at heart, but for now I’ve decided to play it flexible and bite into some foods I would have steered clear of in the past. I’ve always argued that traveling as a vegetarian is not that hard, but amidst those wonderful aromas wafting through the streets at dinner time, lies the heavily-meaty cuisine of the Cantonese . People do eat quite a few vegetables but meat definitely dominates. I’m also living in a home-stay (which is amazing!) and often eat out with them and other guests who love to watch your every culinary move… and throw things into your bowl…I pretty much gave up on day 1. Well…Dig in!

the usual supper-time spread...notice the fish eye staring right at me

streat meats...all ready for the fry up...a photo is as close as i'll get to that!

Taking that first bite was pretty surreal…like dreams I’d had where suddenly I realize I’m eating chicken nuggets…bleh! WHAT ARE YOU DOING??! Ahhhh! (this is a common dream for veggies haha) Ya…it was surreal…and chewy…and salty and rich…rich rich rich! After not eating meat for so long, meat tastes overpoweringly rich… I don’t know how you guys eat it all the time… I also notice that if I have more than just a lil bit, I definitely feel sluggish in digesting and my acne is coming back, boooo. Eating meat still just doesn’t feel quite right to me, so whenever I take a bite, I kinda play it like a character I once was, and gnaw in like a seasoned omnivore…I think it’s been a pretty convincing performance. Ha. But mostly i focus on the veg. and have at least let it be known that I prefer vegetables. This has also led to a massive tofu consumption… more than i’d probably had in a year at home!  Do you doufu? (it’s doufu here, not tofu!)

chicken feet in a bag! snack-time anyone?

 

a shot of my school lunch! soup, rice, green veg, and either fish, chicken or pork to go along. there's an egg in there too. themed pretty much the same every day. the crazy star looking things are some processed fish ball. school lunch the same the world round? actually some of it's not too bad

Apparently vegetarianism is a concept here, but I have yet to find any such evidence. I’ve failingly tried to explain this on more than one occasion and have only been met with confused looks and/or astonishment (nothing animal??! )…and then an offering of a meat dish. Sure…why not. Another memorable one was “ahh…vegetarian?…emmm…what about pork? chicken? Fish? no!?” hahaha.  Sure I’ll try some of the meat now but l automatically find myself zoning in on vegetable particles (a big chunk of ginger?! mmmm) and picking around the meat bits somewhat subtly. My host mother must have noticed my meat skirting because the other night she made a point to grab a chicken leg and plop it right in my bowl before we were even done eating the soup! Haha. I ate a bit of it of course and later realized that maybe she was trying to make sure I had a piece of meat I wasn’t terrified of …like the head or feet (both served up and supposed to be very good for you! Mmm…chicken feeeeet…I really just don’t get where the meat is on those boney little things). And meat-eaters out there…you have no right to be creeped out…you eat ribs! Ribs! Just trade out pig rib for a chicken tarsal…toenail crunch?

 

eating out at the porridge restaurant (notice the big pot of it in the center of the table?!). the platter in front of Johnny (my host brother) is a fried dough thingy...Chinese dounut! and especially delicious when dipped into the rice porridge (does every culture have a version of fried dough?)

a stacked rice-noodly thing that i heartily dove into! so good and particular to this region...like a ...chinese lasagna of sorts! in the background are these veg and pork buns that melted in your mouth

And that brings me to… Making the most of a meal! Or more accurately, making the most of an animal (as food of course): they eat everything here. I read in some guide book that in this region they eat anything with four legs but the kitchen table. Oh ya! Nothing edible is wasted, which I do appreciate, even if it means a pig head, with cherries for eyes, staring at you through dinner (this would be a pretty fancy occasion which I did get the chance to witness at my host brother’s, grandfather’s birthday celebration(!)…chicken head…not so fancy… I bet the spinal cord is chewy…the pig skin was crunchy!). If you’re gonna kill something to eat it…at least make it worth the poor things’ sacrifice right?! More inline with a hunter-gatherer mentality too…and no matter what it is, I don’t like to waste either. Anyone who’s ever lived with me knows it…I’ll take a spatula to that peanut butter jar!

fast food is fast food is fast food

Another difference with the meat-eating here is that nothing is hidden…you may not see the farm but you definitely see the live animals in the markets and their process to the slaughter. Caged on the street, chopped, boiled, feathers pulled out…chopped some more…now ready for your home cookin. It’s right there when you’re walking down the street. Hungry? You meat-eaters bettah be! People do not seem as distanced from their food and that I definitely respect. My next step is to start getting some Chinese cooking lessons from my host father!

breakfast! (my host father always cooks it up) greens, rolled-up noodles and pork pieces

The more I settle in, the more my family seems to serve me meat: “Ok…I think she’s ready now…try this one!” I think I’m getting the hang of it (I have to develop a meat-eating skill? ) and it has been freeing in a way. That’s not to say that veggies are trapped because if you’re into it, you know vegetarianism/veganism is far from that, but when you eat out or travel it can be a bit terrifying…not in the way that you might accidently eat chicken broth, but terrifying in the way that you might upset or embarrass your hosts and make everyone feel uncomfortable. This is an awful feeling anywhere, but especially so in a place like China, where the concept of losing or gaining “face” permeates every aspect of life…pretty vital stuff. I guess I’m a “flexitarian” for now and tryin’ out some new stuff which i do always enjoy

at the women's day banquet...chinese food of all varieties...and SO much of it too! how are these people so tiny??!

So, I’ve  put my vegan activist mind on hold to dive in and take a bite…then two, then three…and another… I’ve had some good practice shoveling sticky buns filled with veggies and pork (my first meat-sampling…ok…these things are actually insanely good) into my mouth with a semi-distant conscience, and think I’m ready to take on the next meaty culinary curiosity! As i get more comfortable and confident in my new surroundings, I think I will go back to fully vegetarian/vegan, but play it cool if some meat ends up in my dish.

at Grandfather’s big birthday celebration (apparently every year there’s a big party)! he’s handing me the traditional red envolope with “lucky money” in it! Too bad I didn’t get a shot when that dining table was FULL of all different sorts of food…when one thing was finished a whole new item came out…is seriously was never ending…and then…yes…there was birthday cake (the best i’ve ever had by the way…the cake part was like a sweet bread…so soft and delicious)

For now, I’m happy to sit down to a table and accept anything on my plate…that one? OK! All those varied flavors flying around the pan, steaming, frying, bubbling…I do want to try them all! And as I drift on those flavor-waves right to the dinner table, I eagerly hold my chopsticks, tip-tapping and ready-grabbing whatever gets laid out on the table.  Chī​fàn​! (Eat!)