Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Boy Named Dream

The principal of my high school had this ritual of telling us girls that boys are bad and girls are good—BB and GG. Well, I have never truly considered boys bad, but they have always been these strange creatures that lace the atmosphere with awkwardness and cause me no end of internal unease. So I have avoided them for the most part. Simple enough. That is until I finished my first week of classes and discovered that I have fifty-one girls and a hundred and fifty-one boys. To make matters just a little more awkward most of my students are around 20 years old, making them only a few years younger than I am. Oh, and add to that, I have the adored and esteemed physical characteristics of blonde hair, big eyes, and a high-bridged nose that can attract a crowd in any public setting (but that story is for another time).

So I made myself as teachery as possible (and as girlfriend materialish as little as possible). Still in that first month, I must have received dozens of “Teacher, you are so beautiful”; “Teacher, you have amazing skin”; “Teacher, this”; and “Teacher, that.” But soon enough, my students became inured to my appearance, and I discovered how wonderful almost completely male classes can be—no chattering or giggling or whispering or passing notes or any of the other things that girls love to do. My boys (as I now fondly consider them) follow me with their eyes, talk when I tell them and cease to talk when I tell them. Oh, the glory of control! Plus, they can be simply hilarious with their antics and English stories.

So here is to my boys: a few snapshots of the best and the brightest.

Dream is a tall boy who is one of the bravest students: he was the first student to come visit me during office hours. While his English is not great, he is like the name he has chosen, for he is one of the most hard-working students in the class. I believe Dream will accomplish all his dreams.
Bruce, known as Monkey to his classmates, introduced himself to me as Bruce Lee. He also gives me Chinese movie recommendations and even bought me a gift that related to one of the movies he recommended. He is an amazing artist and invents some the most coherent and creative English stories during class.
Lancelot is definitely one of my favorites. When I asked him if he knew where his name was from, he gave me the story of Lancelot, Merlin, and Arthur. His English is outstanding. One day when I had them bring creative items to class to “sell” in a commercial, he brought a real apple into which he plugged some headphones, proposing that the apple was both a MP3 and breakfast. Most other students sold their pens with no special attributes.
Jeremy is my most unique student and the one I think will go furthest. His English is the best of all my 200+ students. But more spectacular, he is the only student in China I have ever met who possesses true critical thinking skills and recognizes the importance of such skills. In China, it is unheard of to criticize the government or the country—everyone loves China and seems to be blinded by that love (at least in public). When I was talking to Jeremy the other day, I mentioned Taiwan and Hong Kong as being part of China (for even though they essentially are not, it is safer to go with the official Communist line while in China), he jumped in and said, “Well, the government thinks they are part of China.” Woa! What insight into the true nature of his own country.

I could go on to mention my other interesting students, like Vampire or Dragon or Stone, but it will suffice to say that my students in China are a whole new experience, resulting in much laughter, bewilderment, exasperation, or amazement. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Different Sort of Standard

After spending a weekend with my sister in Beijing who is blogging as payment for all her trip expenses, I have been inspired to break from my more academic-feeling blogs and simply relate some of my experiences and feelings while here in China. I will start at the beginning (the very best place to start…).

Despite having lived in China previously, I realized on my first night back that a year and a half away from China was plenty of time to “forget” some of those less pleasant aspects of this land. I walk into my apartment building to discover that the elevator is broken, and I must walk up four flights of stairs with two 50-pound bags and my book-laden carry-on. I sigh and roll my eyes because I should have known. I lug up what I had thought was my fairly downsized material possessions, but doubt on this matter builds with every stair. Maybe I did bring one pair of shoes too many… Well, I successfully make it up to the fourth floor by three a.m., click open my door and enter.

At first sight, the room is clean and spare. Then I enter the bathroom. I lift the lid on my toilet, ready to sit down after having access only to squatty potties for the past several hours and behold, worms. Yes, worms. I suck in my breath as my eyes widen to make sure my mind is not playing tricks. But no, there really are a family of worms that look a lot like our ice worms in Alaska—black, thin, and about an inch long—swimming around in my toilet. Add to that, brown wavy mold is clinging as high as the water line, transforming my toilet into a miniature scum pond. How I wished at this moment that my R.N. mother had not taught me all the fun little details of bacteria. Ignorance would truly have been bliss. Next came the shower I had been looking forward to for the past 30+ hours but that did not turn out as expected either. I was one of the lucky teachers that did not have a water heater already in their rooms, meaning I am on public water, which is unreliable at best (and non-existent at worst). So no hot water at 3 a.m. but ok, I can deal with that. As I open the shower door, I glance down and am assaulted by the black mold ringing my shower floor. Oh, would my mother faint! It appeared that years of leaks had been caulked without ever trying to remove any mold so that caulk and mold were sealed together in wide strips. I breathe out and step in, thinking I can simply wear sandals and survive. That hope dwindles as the water level rises—my drain is clogged. Soon I am standing ankle-deep in moldy water. Ick. So much for washing away the grime of my travels. I opt for sleep and temporary forgetfulness.

Today, three months later, and I smirk at how “American” I was back then. I have become mostly inured to these lower sanitary standards in China—not even thinking about the mold any more, simply flushing down the worms when they show up every now and then, eating street food without caring that the people here rarely use soap, never use sanitizer, and probably don’t have refrigeration. Living in China is an exercise in disciplined thinking—if you think about where your food is coming from or what you are walking on (everyone hawks on the streets and young children frequently pee and poop on the sidewalk) then you might never leave your room. But if you can box up your American standards until a later date, then that public squatty potty in Beijing might even seem more welcome then some gas station stops along I-55.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Might of Many

I remember reading a short story in high school about the fire ants of Brazil, entitled Leningen Versus the Ants. While the narrative itself revolves around the battle between the brains of man and the might of nature, I will never forget a scene in which an army of ants attacks a stag, stripping the meat from the bones in under six minutes. What a feat! Multiple cultures, including America’s Judeo-Christian culture, reference ants as the quintessential picture of industry and teamwork; a single ant is easy to kill but a colony of ants can move a mountain—literally!

A few days ago, I was reminded that China possessed this might of many in the latent power of a billion people. I was sitting outside reading a book when I noticed groups of students carrying chairs down the road. After 30 minutes of group after group of young men and women with their chairs, my curiosity was piqued until I put two and two together. That evening was the opening ceremony for the new freshman class—over four thousand students. The students I was currently watching were providing the seating for the evening. Yes, that’s right. Groups of students were moving all the chairs from all the classrooms from all over campus to the new indoor arena on the outermost edge of campus for the ceremony. My mind flashed back (as perhaps yours is now) to the 2008 Olympic Opening Ceremony. At that ceremony, the world was witness to China’s most powerful and most volatile resource—its people. Hundreds of thousands of individual Chinese men and women created masterpieces of performances during the Opening Ceremony, awing the world with their precision in moving as a single body: not a person out of place even though hundreds of individuals were in each performance. With the might of so many under the reigns of astute, perhaps severe, leadership, it is no wonder that China has found itself the topic of political and economic discussions the world around.

Oftentimes, I feel we in America have lost our appreciation for this value of teamwork and have forgotten that individuals are not stronger than the group. Places like Egypt, Libya, and certainly China still feel the intense pressure of the multitude, and as in the case of Egypt, the might of many people has been the catalyst for great change while in places like China, the political leaders tremble at the thought of domestic rioting. Susan Shirk, a former Deputy Secretary of State responsible for China, wrote a book titled China: A Fragile Superpower: How China's Internal Politics Could Derail its Peaceful Rise. Within its pages, Susan Shirk details the immense respect, to the point of fear, which Chinese leaders have for the power of the people. With so many people to keep content, China must continually walk a thin line of balance between squeezing the people with regulations and providing a sustainable way of life. This balance dates far back into Chinese history as demonstrated in an ancient Chinese four-character idiom: “Nei lua, wai huan”: When there is turmoil within, the barbarians without will inflict disaster. China’s first priority is and always has been domestic stability, and at the moment, China appears to have firm footing. Therefore, the real question is what the might of many—1,331,460,000 to be exact—can accomplish if pointed in a single direction. And all I can think of is a full-grown stag reduced to shiny white bones in six minutes.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

On Your Toes

In my last entry, I lightly touched on the changing face of China from a very global or academic perspective. Today I want to bring the ever-shifting face of China into sharp relief through the microscopic lens of the foreign teachers’ cafeteria. When I first arrived, our cafeteria consisted of a large rectangle room with four large square columns stationed at the corners of an imaginary square on the floor in the middle of the room. Huge round tables occupied one side of the room, with a long table for serving food along the wall. The other side of the room remained bare. The lighting was so completely conventional that I cannot recall the fixtures. This arrangement was completely satisfactory until the returning teachers began to arrive for the official start of the school year: there were not enough chairs to sit even 50% of us. And unlike school cafeterias in the States, here food is put out at noon and runs out about twenty-five minutes later—so to stagger waves of people to fit the number seats meant the last wave got rice and whatever two dishes were the least popular. Fortunately, about four days later six more tables appeared (literally) on the other side of the room.

So that was that, I thought. But no, about two days later those six tables again disappeared. Twenty-fours after this discouraging disappearance, I walk in for lunch and discover several new developments: first, lining every inch of free wall are shiny champagne-colored couches with decorative floral pillows more befitting a karaoke bar than a cafeteria; second, on each side of the cafeteria are suspended golden and crystal chandeliers; third, between the columns in the middle of the room (following three sides of the imaginary square) are metal, very professional-appearing buffet bars; fourth, on the side of the room that was still bereft of our much-needed tables were two new windows in the wall through which cooks could directly serve us. (Now whether these windows had always been there, but simply bricked up or whether they were newly cut, I doubt I will ever discover.) So many of us teachers sat with plates on our laps on our new impressive but impractical furniture. I thought *Wow! They certainly like to keep us on our toes here!* And the fun still was not done. A few dinners later our cafeteria became a literal maze of tables: the vanishing tables reappeared along with quite a few small square tables, making maneuvering around chairs, tables, and people with plates of food quite a spectacle. Now our story is coming to a close (or maybe I should simply say, it is catching up with the present for who knows what may happen tomorrow). The following day, all the round tables disappeared, and the couches and square tables became logical booths or open tables, resulting in an authentic “restaurant” feel.

While photos would have greatly enriched this narrative, I hope you can picture the fun of the foreign teachers’ cafeteria. While hilarious, this progression is by no means an isolated event in China. In fact buildings pop up so fast, that it is common to suddenly discover an oft-used back road or footpath is now a construction zone, if not already the skeleton of a building. Or ask a local child what a specific building is only to realize that they know as little as a visitor because that building is almost brand new (while looking years old). When I lived in Dalian, the expats had a saying for such a time as this: “oinc (the sound a pig makes)”—only in China. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Marble Façade

China presents an interesting juxtaposition of opulence and poverty—an increasingly prevalent occurrence in rapidly developing countries. I walk outside my apartment building on campus, and I see long rows of marble blocks waiting to be laid as sidewalks right next to a heap of rotting rubbish. I walk into our cafeteria where newly installed white marble walls and golden chandeliers greet the eye only to look into the next room to see Chinese workers without masks and often without electric equipment cutting into concrete to lay some forgotten wire. Much like a young gangly boy who in one summer gains 10 inches but whose coordination and inner maturity has not yet caught up with his body, the Chinese people want so much to claim China’s adulthood in the world of global power and prestige that it is growing faster than its own capacity. How long such growth can last I leave up to the experts to theorize.

While on the topic of façades, I will indulge in a brief description of the Sias University campus. If I were to pick one descriptor of the campus it would be eclectic. Sias embraced its international focus by trying to combine the sites and architecture of the world on one campus. We have our colonnaded Roman Plaza right off our German street of faux timber-framed white houses. The “Computer Krankenhaus” never fails to make me grin. Then I could take a jaunt over to the Russian Plaza reminiscent of Moscow. Or if Greece is on my list, then I can enjoy a stroll through a small garden loaded with Grecian statues of very wise- and just-looking men and women. Oh, and I can’t forget the central administration building. Positioned on one edge of campus, this building has two faces: on the campus side, I see a miniature replica of the white house, but if I walk through the building to the public street side, I am surprised by a miniature version of the Forbidden City as seen from Tiananmen Square.  The final touch is to liberally sprinkle campus with willow trees, add a few fountains and waterfalls, two rows of fake palm trees, and little signs to keep off the grass—my favorite of which reads, “Love the grass in return for green." 

Living in a culture where thousands of years of tradition reinforce the concept of keeping or saving face, the fact that the face of China is steadily, if not rapidly, changing is both exciting and frightening. The world (and probably China itself) awaits to see what face China will eventually adopt and defend.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Single Grain of Rice Can Tip the Scale

When I was ten, I had my first introduction to China through the Disney movie Mulan. Fast forward thirteen years and I have studied in China, written my deeply-researched senior thesis on China's "soft power" (a nation's appeal to other nations and peoples), and now stand on the edge of returning to China for one more year as a teacher of English and a student of experience. Since I have begun to study Chinese culture, I have observed how the Chinese value the art of embedding multiple levels of meaning in the most simple of phrases; hence the title of this blog also has several layers of meaning. At the top, it is simply a quote from the Emperor in Mulan: "A single grain of rice can tip the scale. One man may be the difference between victory and defeat." Applied to modern times, China is at such a place politically, economically, and domestically that a single event or action could drastically change their situation...and ours. On a personal level, this blog will contain my "single grains of rice" selected from bowls full of experiences and lessons. Perhaps you will see another level yourself...
So join me as I labor, learn, and live in XinZheng, China.