Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Midterm week

OK this won't be that long because every second this week has so far been devoted to teaching, eating, preparing for teaching, sleeping, or preparing the midterms. This week I had to give out (at least) three different mid-terms: two for the big class and one (possibly two) for the express class. The first midterm is done, so now I only need to make two more. The two remaining are the much harder ones too. Basically, I don't have free time. But I'll give a short update regardless...

  1. Got a camera today. It's charging right now, so I apologize for not putting anything up. Again, many photos on the way.
  2. Discovered another treat on Guangba Lu which I believe is called "Bing zi," but I call it "Thin meat bread." New favorite food (my favorites change a lot here, I've found).
  3. Speaking of, I'm obsessed with a fruit called "you zi." I am keeping a pace of eating one you zi every day for two weeks, noteworthy due to the fact that these are pretty big. Honestly the perfect fruit. The flavor is a mix between a grapefruit and an orange. Once you open the thick rind, you have to peel away a thin layer of skin on each piece (what you would normally eat on a piece of an orange). I never liked that about oranges... I always wanted to only eat the fruity part inside the skin. The you zi accomodates that.
  4. I'm establishing a rapport with the local folk at the Guangba lu night market. Charm is an international language, eh?
  5. A lady who likes me at the night market gives me food for free, even though I definitely don't want it (probably why she gives me food for free). So I ate what I'm pretty sure was a snail. I was interested in what it was, so I explained the experience to the express class. They laughed, "Be careful." I asked "why?" One student looked through his dictionary for a moment and then said the word "excrement." I learned not to ask questions about food ever again.
  6. Finally talked to friends back home. Very refreshing.
  7. Almost finished watching prison break season 2. Finishing the season is equivalent to a battle with my computer. Somehow I haven't resorted to using my fists yet.
  8. I went to a "dvd store," where I'm pretty sure there's absolutely zero legitimately sold dvds. This is a step up in class from the dvd street vendors, so I'll be frequenting this place. I bought season 3 of prison break and seasons 1-2 of mad men (havent seen an episode, but heard good things) for 20 RMB.
  9. Got paid for November. The amount in my bank account gives me the illusion that I'm rich as hell.

OK those are the big events. Coming soon, I need a haircut, bed sheets, and caulk for my windows. Also I'll be missing my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, for the first time. Ms. Han told me she and the other coworkers would do something nice for me though.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

包子 (Bao Zi)

As you can see, I have learned how to type in Chinese. Does ctrl + shift turn your keyboard into a chinese one? This was a trick I just learned a week ago -- not like it'll come in very handy. We'll see. But do I know what word in the title means? Do I...

So like I said before, for the past two months, I've been walking to my classes from my home. This is between a one or two mile walk if I had to guess; it takes me 35-40 minutes to walk there (comfortably, I can make it quicker). From the first day I walked to my class until now, I've passed by a food place located at the end of Guangba Lu. Again, the whole street is amazing; it's covered by "mom and pop" places...the kind free market economies wish they still produced, as opposed to the walmarts and mcdonalds and what not. This shop at the corner is the best of the best though. When I first got here, if I were to have chosen one place to order from on Guangba, it would've been this one. Why? Because of one food item. I hadn't experienced one until a few evenings ago...

Everyday I passed by the place, I'd eye up these rolls that looked like they were made of a rice-like dough, which were first steamed and then lightly pan fried for a short time...the process is one which I would guess is similar to the making of an english muffin. They seriously looked so frickin delicious. But, my inability to speak anything had stopped me from ordering them. I'd thought about them a lot, though. I asked some of my coworkers about what they are, and they told me they're called "Bao zi." They're one of those things that you never hear about that's all over the place here, but are so ridiculously delicious that you wonder how you'd never heard of them. Anyway the point is, I spent all of the walk back from work that day summoning the courage to buy "liang ge bao zi" (a pair of bao zi -- I was heavily coached), and then bought some for a wallet-crunching 1.5 RMB. I finally had in my possession a small bag of two of these things that I'd anticipated having since the middle of August. I reached in the bag and took a bite. My brain erupted. I was like a kid in a Gushers commercial. The roll was like the most deliciously baked bread roll you've ever had, the bottom and top of which were lightly blackened, and the inside of which was filled with noodles, pork, and green onions that had been cooked together in a brown sauce (oyster sauce, if I had to guess). That's right, onions were in it, and they didn't taste like garbage. The thought of having a Bao zi makes coping with the withdrawal from burritos a little easier...

Also, in an effort to catch up to now, I finally got paid for the first time last Monday. It was funny -- they dont make out checks here so they paid me in cash. Also funny is that there is no denomination of currency higher than the 100 RMB note, so what they gave me for my salary was a huge stack of 100's. I quickly deposited that into the nearest ATM.

Not much else to say. This weekend I just slept a ton, did work, cleaned the apt, juggled my soccer ball, studied chinese, etc. I went to pizza hut for my weekly injection of America. Finally now that I have money, I was actually able to look at things that I was interested in buying. I have a few ideas of what to buy, but feel free to make suggestions:

  1. dvd player -- Necessary. My computer doesnt play any movie files and I'm gonna go insane. It's also a crime that I'm not taking advantage of (as far as I'm aware) legal bootlegging.
  2. camera -- Necessary. I need to show ya'll how awesome this place is, and who I work with, and probably my class. Just to give you a glimpse, heres a picture of me teaching (taken by one of my students in a moment of surprise).
  3. dinner/gifts for my co-workers -- I already bought a rose for my favorite co-worker (Ms. Han haha, I'm charming her up good), but now that i have money I'd like to do something more. I'd like to get Mr. Dong a nice bottle of wine, he's been helping me out a lot since I got here, and something else nice for Ms. Han, but that'll take more thought (again, suggestions welcome).
  4. shoes/shirts -- There's a bunch of shops here that sell nice shirts and shoes that I'd like to go to. Apparently, tho, bargaining with the shopkeepers is a necessity, so I'll have to have Ms. Han or someone come with me so they can lower the price.
  5. a nice rug -- My apartment floor gets so dirty so fast. I'm thinkin a nice floor mat would make cleaning it a little more painfree.

OK now I gotta get back to planning classes. This week is one of the busiest yet...I have to plan, make, and grade midterms for all of the classes, while updating the admins with the class grades/weekly reports. I'll keep anyone with the willpower to read this as updated as I can :)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

No Chinese!

What do I say about teaching.... for the most part, it's great. Oftentimes I feel like I'm back in high school doing improv theater; it can be really fun. There are one or two kids who are constantly either sleeping or messing around with their phones all class.... I haven't really figured this out. I have been told that many of these students come from well-off families, and that coming to a program like this was their back-up plan in case they didn't do as well as they hoped on the college entrance exams. The pre-college system here is basically study your ass off until "the test," and then the university you go to depends on how well you performed on it. Wuhan University is a school which is very difficult to get into this way, but a program like the one I'm involved with offers the "brand name" of a degree from here, while providing the opportunity to study in an English speaking country. The only thing, though, is that in order to get into the program, you need to be able to pay. I have to believe, though, that the disappointment of not killing the college entrance exam is the reason for their disinterest. I mean, I keep things so interesting! I tell funny stories that everyone can understand, and we play a game at least once a week. Anyway other than that, the most difficult part about teaching them is the difference in each student's ability. I'll elaborate on that, but first I guess you should know that I only have two classes: a big one and a small one.

Big class: Very fun class to teach. This is a group of 44 students, all of whom will be leaving to study in Canada in two years. Thus, the pace is a little slower than the express class, and I usually spend most of the time trying to teach the correct way to say words (e.g. the difference between "th" and "s" sounds, or between "v" and "w" sounds), vocabulary, and practicing dialogue. Grammar and reading is taught by the other teacher, Ms. Tai.

What makes teaching this class so frickin difficult is that the difference in their levels is incredibly varied. My job is to make sure everyone is getting something out of each class, so it's tough to balance the needs of the advanced students and the beginners. For example, there are students who can write complicated essays with a good intro paragraph, body paragraphs, and conclusion, and there are students who incorrectly conjugate the verb "be" (I'm not kidding).

The dynamics of the class are pretty funny... the girls sit in the front middle of the class, and the guys form a "U" shape along the sides and back of the room, so they're totally isolated from the girls. There's even a buffer row of desks in between them. The girls are very adorable, fairly shy, and giggle every time one of their own has to answer a question from me. The guys for the most part are very studious and interested, but there are a few unmotivated emo types. Again, I do what I can! I think I handle the insult of students sleeping in class pretty well. I gently toss little pieces of chalk at them until they wake, or activate the speaker system and tell everyone to cover their ears, then play some dialogue really loud.

But, like I said, it's a really great job. The view from my classroom for the big class is nuts. I should be getting a camera soon, so I can show you what it's like.

Express Class: Again, another great class to teach with many characters. The class only has 17 students, all of whom will begin studying in Canada in January of '09. Because the class is smaller, a lot of the education and interaction is more personal. I'd say it's a little easier to teach them, too, since the difference in their levels isn't nearly as varied as the big class. But.... it's still varied. Here's one of my favorite quotes from the express class:

Me: OK, well before I talk about this paragraph, do we know what "atom" means?
4 students: Yes.
Me: (bracing to somehow describe what an atom is) Huh? Really? What does it mean?
Shirley: It means a very small thing, like of iron or of metal.
Me: Wow, very good... "atom"
Allen: "Allen"?

Allen is a funny guy who can barely speak English, but the whole class likes him a lot, and he works as hard as anyone to learn. It's students like him why I spend so much time ensuring the fact that every student, not just the ones who can understand every word I say, are getting something out of a lesson. Though, Shirley is another reason why I spend just as much time addressing the other side of the spectrum. She is the best speaker of English in any of my classes, in fact one of the best I've met in China, and she knows a lot of words that many Americans don't. For example, she knew what ATM stood for, something that is just totally unnecessary. She baffles me on a regular basis.

Anyway so I guess it's pretty clear why this is such a challenging task. The other reason it's so time consuming is the... time it consumes. haha I mean, the number of classes I have is ridiculous, because three days out of the week, I have to come up with separate lesson plans for three different hour-and-a-half classes. Two days, (monday and friday), I only need to come up with two, but again, they have to be unique.

As you can see, Thursday morning is back-to-back classes with the Express class. This is what I refer to as "Face turn black Thursday," a reference to a joke that Allen made one day regarding a dissappointing lesson: I had come up with a lesson where I drew a character on the board, and gave him several features that the students needed to give recommendations to fix, but it failed miserably. I let the students break for a moment and pondered to myself for a minute, but the class was oddly silent during the break. Then Allen said "Face turn black!" which is Chinglish for "You look flustered." Thursday mornings are very difficult to teach even the most focused and energetic students and often causes an utterance of "Face turn black!" by students like Allen.

The classroom for the express class is in a different building than the one for the big class. The window has been open all year so far, which has honestly been paradise. The window is on the 3rd floor, overlooking some of the campus while brushing the canopy of the trees on the ground. Just one of many reasons I need a camera. I should be getting one any day now. Expect an avalanche of photos.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Big 8 Road

Guangba Road -- My new home. Bustling, unkempt, odiferous, genuinely Chinese.... It's what makes being here both entertaining and unpleasant, exciting and repulsive, inspiring and concerning... Truly one of the many yin-and-yangs I've found myself in the middle of. It's purpose is to connect two major roads, Ba Yi Road and Luo Yu Road, so it's only one block. Again, that's one Chinese block, so it takes about 10 minutes to walk down the whole stretch. In the middle of the block is my apartment complex, Yinghai Yayuan. Like I said, I got really lucky.

(My building is obscured from view by the left-
most building, but it looks just like these)

Guangba Road is about every literary device you can think of...metaphor, simile, microcosm, onomatopoeia, hyperbole, personification. The character of Guangba is where I get most of my ideas about China, because there's so much to absorb every time I walk down it. The sidewalk in front of the shops is what a countertop is to a kitchen; workers weld carts and ladders, mothers change their babies' diapers or let them "do their business," and small restaurants lay out their greens on a towel for a natural rinsing when it rains. Thus, you gotta watch where you're walking, especially since many of the bricks on the sidewalk were placed specifically to sprain ankles.

Finding a clean spot on Guangba isn't easy, but, at the least, it's paved, and the city puts in efforts to beautify it. Trees uniformly line the street, and maintainance workers can often be seen sweeping it. However, I've only found three trash "cans" so far on the street. These are large metal boxes with little doors on the bottom so that garbagemen can rake out the filth into a burlap sack, then place the filled sack onto a pull cart and head to the next one.... This job could be a lot more efficient. I hope they get paid as much as they do in the US. Dealing with trash in general actually could be a lot more efficient. If I had to guess, I'd say that littering is not illegal. I see people littering all the time.

Another reason I love Guangba Lu? The translation. According to my students, "Guangba Lu" literally translates to "Big 8 Road." The names of the shops on Big 8 Road are also very entertaining. Most of the names are in Chinese, but there are a few shops with English titles. "Shoes," "Noodles," "Emo Rock Shop." Btw, the mannequin in the display case of Emo Rock Shop dons a T-shirt saying "Lose control of your feelings." There is kind of a weird emo fad going on here -- several of my students have these real elaborate, ridiculous hairstyles, telling me they love emo rock, often using writing assignments to vent their emotions... Whatever floats your boat, I guess. Anyway, my favorite name of a store is "Ann." What's in that store? I mean obviously someone named Ann, but what's the service? What if I opened a store named "Evan"... would people come? I tell myself, yes, since I've always wanted to charge people just to be around me. Once when I was walking the streets of San Francisco, a homeless person accompanied me and told me about all of the brothels and bars to go to. I didn't ask him to come along, but he did anyway. After about 20 minutes, he asked if he could get some money. I was pretty drunk at the time. I told him no. Then he got mad and told me that he had provided me a service. "Service? I should've charged you!" Maybe someday I will, thanks to trailblazers like Ann.

A lot of my biggest achievements have come on Guangba Road. For example, it was the first place that I ordered a bao zi. I will explain this in detail later, but I was incredibly happy when I accomplished this. It's also very vibrant at night. This was made obvious on the night I arrived here... We were approaching my apartment, but before we got there, we literally drove through a market that had set up right in the middle of the street. It was like driving through a block party, but at night. I, of course, laughed during all of this. But it happens every night here, and, similarly, one of my proudest moments was ordering a bowl of noodles in the night market.

Anyway, so my street is great. I've been to other places in the area, and it really is the best place around. A lot of the other streets are either too crowded or have vibrant marketplaces like Guangba's but aren't as pretty or well maintained. Most of these places I come across are on the walk that I take to class every day, so I've had a lot of time to think about them.

My walk, btw, is real long. Every morning I have to leave my apartment at 7:20 so I can arrive at my 8 am class on time. Despite the length, I enjoy the walk very much. It's usually pretty hectic to walk along Ba Yi road (again, that's "8-1 Road" -- sweet name yeah?), but walking in the university is always beautiful. There are many things to gaze at: the trees and flowers, the group of old women doing tai chi, the courtyard at the front of campus, the mountain to the east of campus. It's a nice calmness before the storm (i.e. me teaching)

trace of my route to campus from my apartment.
I'm workin on finding a quicker way, but keep
in mind that there are lots of walls here, and
theres also two mountains in between.
The important landmarks are labelled.


First, yes, it's been a long time since an update. I love updating ya'll, but my schedule over the last two weeks hasn't allowed the time to do so. Plus...I mean, I don't just pull posts like these off of a magical blog-posting tree. It takes hard work! But I really like hearing positive responses from people, so as long as you're reading, I'm happy.

Speaking of, I couldn't be happier in China. Every day is still loaded with challenges, but I enjoy living here very much. I remember people warning me about culture shock. "Psh!" That's what I'd say. Well it's been a month and a half, and I can honestly tell you that I was totally correct in ignoring that concern. There's an article in the textbook I'm teaching about the 5 stages of culture shock... whatever. I came here understanding that whatever routines or conditions I was used to needed to adjust based on the surroundings. For once, I can say that apathy was a positive trait to have. There's only a few things here that I demand, all of which are easily accessible and most of which are just trivial. Like pizza. Need it.

Granted, I guess I was a little worried about a few personality traits that I have. If you need an example of this, one of the more obvious ones would be that I prefer a certain cleanliness that no one really understands. I don't eat off of other people's plates; that's kindof normal I think. But then there's weird stuff, like the fact that I get grossed out by hard plastic containers or utensils. No real reason for that. It's a severe preference, but if it's necessary to adjust, then I adjust. So there were some concerns about meshing with China, but I was never concerned about feeling overly uncomfortable here. Are there some things that bother me? At first, no -- everything that would normally have seemed bothersome was cute or funny to me. Now, however, there are a couple of things about the culture that are starting to get old.

Things that are getting old:

People staring at me -- About 4 years ago, I went on a "rafting" trip in Ohiopyle along the Youghogheny River. Basically, I sat in a raft with my family for 5 hours, encountering brief and harmless rapids once every half hour and getting stuck on a rock for every new set of rapids because I was the only one paddling and our raft barely displaced water. It sucked; I will never go rafting again. But one thing I remember was, at the very beginning of the trip, watching a family of four flying by us on their raft. As they passed by, one of the little kids stared at me. After the first 5 seconds of staring I was pissed. "What the hell is he doing?" Then I became interested in how long he could keep it going. I stared back. 20 seconds passed. Their boat was now about 100 feet ahead of us, but he went out of his way to hold the stare, turning his head and body in my direction. Finally after about 45 seconds, I won the battle as he broke eye contact. "In your face, little kid."

That's kindof the feeling I get anytime I'm walking outside on the street. Surprisingly though, it's not young people who stare the most, but old people! I still get looks from everyone, but old people hold their stares the longest out of anyone. I often return the favor in spades just to stick it to 'em.

Sometimes it can be funny, though. People really like looking at me and will try hilarious things to be as covert and subtle about it as possible, even though they're being real obvious. Like yesterday, I noticed a business man's slowly peeking eyes behind my friend's head. Or the other day, I was shopping in a convenience store and someone noticed me. Once I gave him the "stop looking at me" glance, he went behind the shelf and looked at some noodle bowls, peeking between them to continue his stare.

The food -- Every day, my friend Han Jie asks me "what would you like today?" Uhhh, how do I answer that question... "rice?" Don't get me wrong, the food here is absolutely delicious, but China's snackhole is filled by rice and noodles exclusively, and noodles are made of rice. In fact, the Chinese word for "lunch" translates literally to "noon rice" (with "breakfast" translating to "morning rice," and "dinner" translating to "night rice.") Really though, I mean, how hard is it to make a hot dog? I feel like someone could make some serious cash opening up a hot dog stand on campus. Too much rice.

The language -- it's seriously fucking impossible. I like it, but learning it becomes more daunting the further I get into it.

Basketball -- I've never liked basketball before, but everyone loves it here.

Why do they like it? I've come up with several guesses... First, it's cheap to play; all you need is a ball and a court, both of which are very accessible. Second, nobody here is good at sports, so there's never a court that you can't play on. However, the most obvious reason is that their biggest international sports star is, without a doubt, Yao Ming. As a result, basketball has become the most interesting sport to them because they can actually root for someone who is their own and who competes at the highest level -- the very same cause of my obsessions with Penguins hockey and Steelers football. They can't do that for any other major sport in the US or Europe... soccer, baseball, hockey, football, etc. If any one of these sports had an exceptional chinese player in it, the ratings for them would no doubt double or triple. Additionally, they have their own pro sports leagues here, but they're hardly world class. Leagues like the EPL, the Bundesliga, and the NBA generate much higher ratings. So I imagine that before Yao, there was a major hole to be filled in the demand for watching sports. Fortunately for China, the NBA gives great opportunities to freak athletes from anywhere, so Yao's freakish athleticism was able to ignite the people's interest in the game of basketball.

In the wake of Yao-mania, people watch other NBA stars like Dirk Nowitzky, Kobe Bryant, and Steve Nash, and have consequently deified them. At lunch time here, the west coast of the US is in primetime, so the TVs in the cafeteria I go to have recently been swarming with viewers watching the goings on of the NBA, now that the season has started. It's a pretty big deal. So anyway the point is, because I'm tall and from America, everyone assumes I must have played before and therefore wants to talk to me about it a lot. Ugh.

My computer being in Chinese -- To the right is a screenshot of my computer. This used to be funny, but now it's just annoying. I can't watch anything because of a problem with WMP that is unsolvable because it's written in an alien language. So, all of the bootlegged dvd stands that are so plentiful here are completely useless to me until I get a dvd player, which I have no choice but to do.

And I guess some things that I miss:

  • steelers football
  • talking about the steelers
  • penguins hockey
  • talking about the penguins
  • golf
  • hotdogs
  • cheese
  • kettle cooked chips
  • Taco Bell
  • Yuengling
  • speaking English at a normal pace
  • TV I can understand

And surprisingly, i also miss:

  • doing math problems
  • playing frisbee
  • going to bars
  • crazy pittsburgh weather

I think the next post will likely be a description of what my street and my school are like. Also, since I'm not telling a story I've dropped the roman numerals in the titles. Hopefully I can continue the theme of naming titles that I've started..try to guess what it is!