Sunday, September 18, 2011

A collection of thoughts

It's been a while since I've posted a new blog entry, so here it goes. 

A lot of things have happened over the past week, so I'll try to recap as much as possible.

Yesterday (September 17th) was the official one-month mark of my adventure in China. That's one week longer than I've ever spent abroad, and it's also the week I got my Chinese residency permit. It's official - I'm an expat until July 2012. That is so bizarre.

There's a definite shift between visiting somewhere and living there. In the past, I've felt like three weeks was just right about at that point where the things that seemed like novelties of vacation are starting to get on your nerves, and you're ready to go home. You enjoyed your trip, of course, but it's time to sleep in your own bed and be surrounded by the familiarity of your own culture. I can feel some of those same tendencies here. Not in a bad, "I want to go home because I hate Chinese culture" way, but in a, "Jeez, I never really realized how much I appreciate America" kind of way.

The biggest thing that keeps getting to me, and I knew it would, is the way the government is always there. Always. Always making things inefficient. I know there are a lot of people who complain about the American government, and that's fine. But I feel like my entire life has been spent around our legislative system, and I'm in a love-hate-love relationship with it. 

In America, it seems like, if you truly want to, you can go months at a time without ever really thinking about or paying attention to our government. It's there, and you come into contact with it when it's time to pay taxes, if you break the law, etc., but it's not interfering with our basic, day-to-day lives. This isn't the case in China (at least for me). I've only been here a month, and I feel like I'm going to scream if I hear one more person say, "Well, the Chinese government..."

I'll lose my voice by tomorrow.

I can understand having the government play a big role in the beginning of our trip. Naturally, we had to jump through all the hoops to get our foreign expert permit, our residency permit, and our health certificate. I can imagine that anyone coming into the US (or any other country) on a year long residency permit would experience something similar. That's not a problem for me.

What is a problem for me is all the little things that I keep hearing about the Chinese government. For example, my FedEx box. I'll get to the full conversation I had with Chinese customs later, but I kept hearing, "The Chinese government does this...." Even though the FedEx website listed my package as being in Shijiazhuang since September 4th, that actually wasn't true. Apparently, the "Chinese government lists the final destination city, even if the box hasn't cleared customs yet." Cool. That makes absolutely no sense. If the box is still in customs in Beijing, WHY WOULDN'T THE WEBSITE JUST SAY IT'S STILL IN BEIJING?! Well, I'll tell you why. Because the Chinese government says so. The Chinese government has its hand in everything, including the FedEx website. It's everywhere.

Enough on the government. Nothing I have to say about it is truly a major concern. There are just a few little things that irk me because they stand out as different from America. But that's the reason I'm here! To learn how to get past the things that irk me and see how people live outside of my own American comfort zone.

Alright. This week was also the one year anniversary of when I said goodbye to my uncle Tony. I knew it would be a hard day, but I also knew it would be even harder being away from my family. It also marked a full circle for me. Tony's death was the spark of a year that almost spun out of control for me, as I had to say goodbye to two of the strongest people I know - Tony and my Great Gram. I also, clearly, made some life-altering decisions in choosing to move to China instead of continue straight on to law school after graduation. It was a tough weekend, because it was one that I would have preferred to spend in the comfort of my own, familiar church. Living abroad is the definition of improvisation, though. Not surprisingly, there is a lack of Catholic churches here in Shijiazhuang..but I was able to find candles to put in glass bowls, one for each of the people I lost, in a symbolic gesture of what it would be like to light candles for them if I were at home. They may not be here with me, but they're here in my thoughts, when I light my candles for them every morning when I get up. 

It was a trying weekend, but I'm proud of myself for getting through it without just staying in my apartment, stuck in my own head and thoughts. That's a huge part of the reason I came to China - to be able to rely on myself. 

Other things that have happened since my last post:

I applied for the first round of law schools. I applied to four schools, all of which are in my top preferences. Over the next week, I'll be applying to four more schools, as their applications open up. The last round of schools I want to apply to open their applications on October 1st, so hopefully I'll have everything in and over with by mid-month. Waiting is the hardest part, and I think only one of the schools I applied to makes rolling decisions. Cheers to April 1st!

Last weekend, I climbed to the top of a mountain just south of town. It was the most physically difficult thing I think I have ever done in my life. (Yes, including playing catcher in back to back softball games). 

The beginning of the climb started out very peaceful and easy. We walked for about an hour and a half before finding a place to eat lunch. It was so beautiful, and there were places along the trail where they had made picnic tables and chairs out of rocks for people to eat at. Three of the Drake kids had found ham, cheese, and bread at the supermarket near them, so they brought that along (as well as some very questionable mayo that no one ate). They also had Pringles, Chips Ahoy, two different kinds of dessert cake type things, crackers, yogurt, and Coke. We feasted like kings that day. Although I would have never chosen to eat ham back home, it tasted like a little slice of heaven after three and a half weeks of only Chinese food. There was a group of Chinese kids with us, and some of them tried a ham and cheese sandwich. You could tell as soon as they bit into the sandwich that they just couldn't understand what would possess us to eat such a thing. One of the kids was clearly struggling through his first bite. We could tell that he was trying to finish it because he didn't want to offend us. We just started laughing and told him it was totally okay if he didn't like it -- we weren't going to make him finish it! He just asked us, confused, "Is this what sandwiches taste like in America?" We assured him that most sandwiches were much better, because they were more than just plain meat and cheese on a slice of bread. He still didn't look reassured, and probably still thinks Americans are extremely bizarre for eating such a thing.

We kept walking after our meal, and the path started to get a little steeper, but still wasn't too bad. The total climb took us about four hours. The final hour or so was the absolute worst. We came to the road that marked the the next part of the hike, to be met with the steepest set of stone stairs I have ever seen in my life. These stairs went on for miles, and they were the last part of our hike to the top. That final hour was spent with many, many breaks, while we let our legs adjust to how many stairs we were climbing (hundreds!). I may never look at a Stairstepper the same in my life.

We finally made it to the top, and it was breathtaking. I can't find the numbers on how high the actual mountain is, but it was definitely a big one. We didn't realize until we got to the top and started to look around that it was actually the site of a Buddhist temple. Four of us girls took off exploring on our own, and that's when we realized why the mountain was so packed on a holiday weekend. The top was filled with every type of person - old men and women, all the way down to children. So many people were making a type of pilgrimage to the top of the mountain for the Autumn Festival. I couldn't think of a more beautiful place to come and reflect.

We wandered around the massive temple for at least an hour, taking pictures (both for ourselves and with Chinese tourists who wanted a memory of the Americans they met!). When we first walked in the doors, we met a group of Chinese girls making crowns out of flowers. I'm not sure what it signified exactly, but lots and lots of women were wearing them. They gave Emily and I each a crown made of vines and some sort of purple flowers. I'm really bad at identifying types of flowers. I wore mine the rest of the day.

We walked throughout the temple, stopping to see all of the statues and prayer sites. There was a tree, with red pieces of fabric tied all over the branches. People tie those pieces of fabric on the limbs for good luck, I believe. Anyway, pictures to come soon! (There are a few tagged ones on my facebook profile, for those of you who have FB). 

After walking through the temple, the four of us decided to walk back down the mountain by ourselves, as we couldn't find the rest of our group. (Turns out, they were in the temple at the same time as us, but we never saw them - that's how big it was!). The mountain had the original path that we had climbed, but it also had a flat road that you could walk up and down that was much easier on our legs. We started down the path, since we wanted to avoid having to walk down the steep stone steps that we had taken on the way up. We got to a point where it looked like the path was easier, and decided to take that on down. It looked like it would have taken us back to the beginning part of the path. We were wrong, but we didn't know what a pleasant surprise we were in for. 

As we started off down the new path, we quickly realized that it wasn't the same one we thought it was. We kept walking, though, wondering what we would find. After about 20 minutes of wandering down the "wrong" path, we stumbled upon a real-life monastery, buried deep in the mountains. We paused on the edge of the path, not sure if we were supposed to be there or not. We didn't want to disturb anyone.

I caught the eye of one of the monks, who smiled and beckoned us in, toward the temple. We paused, until the second monk followed his lead, smiling and bowing toward us. We walked over to them, bowed, and were shown into the temple. The monks gave us incense to light and showed us where to place it. We were then shown to the prayer cushions, where we kneeled as the monks stood over us with prayer beads and a bell and gong. It was a moment full of meaning. For me, it was a sign that I'm supposed to be here. We took the wrong path, but where we ended up was much better than the path everyone else took. Taking the road less traveled. 

The day we climbed the mountain was September 11, 2011. Again, it was a difficult day to spend away from home, away from the tributes to those who lost their lives and the American pride running through everyone. As we repeated over and over in the cab ride to dinner, "Who would have guessed that, ten years from 9/11, we'd be honoring the anniversary in China?" As we all ate our first taste of pizza in almost a month, we talked about the memories we had of the day... where we were, what we were doing, what we thought was going to happen in the world. It seemed surreal that it has been ten years already, but we honored it in the only way we knew how to while we were abroad.

To continue on with the theme of this post, which seems to be a complete collection of random thoughts, I've also had problems receiving the package that my parents sent to me on August 31st. It still hasn't arrived, though I'm holding out hope that I'll get it on Monday. Here's an excerpt of a message I sent to Blondie, describing my lovely conversation with Chinese customs:

"Today, I spent an hour of my afternoon yelling at Chinese customs on the phone. It was not one of my best moments, but DAMN it felt good.

Preview: “What do you mean for my own personal safety? The box is full of tampons, towels, and a pair of eyeglasses. Am I going to assault someone with a tampon?”

Okay. So, I clearly wasn’t at my best by the time I got to talk to a real, live, English speaking person, and he kind of got the worst of my temper thrown at him.

First, I got my phone working (FINALLY) last night, so I tried to call back the FedEx number that had originally called me about my package. The FedEx website said that my package left Beijing on September 2nd and got to Shijiazhuang on September 4th, but it was currently experiencing a “clearance delay”. I was like, seriously? It’s been in the Shiz for over TEN DAYS, and I still haven’t received it? Yeah. No one answered the phone last night.

So, I called again this afternoon. The phone rang for FIFTEEN MINUTES the first time I called. No one answered. I called back and finally got to an operator. She barely spoke English. She was able to take down my tracking number, then said, “3617” at me, and transferred me to another line. Once that guy answered, I asked him if he spoke English, to which he replied, “Uh. Um. Ohh.. Two minutes!” and then he hung up on me. 

By this point, I was UPSET. I was upset at the entire Chinese system of government. I miss America SO MUCH. I’m so sick of having my every move questioned by the government. I feel like I’m constantly being watched and questioned and monitored, and I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit. This is a terrible place for someone like me to live. I love America too much to put up with this shit. But, I’m glad I’m experiencing it, because it makes me love America like a million times more.

So, I waited a few minutes, thinking maybe he was going to have someone call me back since he didn’t understand English. Wrong.

I called back and went through the whole entire process again, but this time I was transferred to an English speaking man in Beijing customs. This was where the fun really began.

It started out civil enough, and I gave him my tracking number, etc.

Me: According to the FedEx website, my package left Beijing on Sept. 2 and got to Shijiazhuang on Sept. 4th. Can you tell me why on earth it has taken over ten days, and yet I still haven’t received my package?

Him: No, your package is still in Beijing. They need your identification materials.

Me: No, they don’t. I have already sent them my passport copy via email. On Sept. 2nd. Quite a while ago.

Him: Who has told you that your package is no longer in Beijing?

Me: No one “told” me. Your website says that it left Beijing, arrived in Shijiazhuang, and is currently experiencing a delay. This is exactly what your website says, not what a person told me.

Him: No, sometimes the Chinese government just puts the destination city on the website before it clears customs. Do you understand?

Me: No. No, sir, I do NOT understand. That makes absolutely no sense to me. I don’t understand why it has taken this long, I’ve already been contacted by customs, and yet my package still hasn’t arrived. That makes no sense to me at all.

Him: Well, for your safety, it takes 5 to 7 business days to process new packages.

Me: That’s nice and all, but it’s been way past that. It’s been at least 10 business days and my package still hasn’t reached me. I only live two hours away from Beijing. This is completely ridiculous.

Him: Sometimes the Chinese government keeps packages for your own personal safety.

Me: What do you mean for my own personal safety? The box is full of tampons, towels, and a pair of eyeglasses. Am I going to assault someone with a tampon?

Him: Well, they may need to make a record of everything in your package.

Me: They have already done that. I received a list of everything in my package from Chinese customs when they contacted me to ask for my passport. They know what’s in my package. I don’t understand what is taking so long.

Him: This is for your own personal safety.

Me: That’s completely ridiculous. Nothing about this is efficient. This is the worst possible system I could think of for clearing packages.

Him: Well, they may need to mark it as personal baggage before it clears.

Me: Again, that makes no sense. It’s a FedEx box, not a suitcase. Can you please explain to me why this has taken over two weeks since arriving in your country? It left America on August 31 and arrived in China on Sept. 2nd. It’s taken longer to travel TWO HOURS in China than it did for it to travel across an entire freaking ocean.

Him: Okay, okay. Calm down. I will speak to someone and we will clear your package this afternoon.

He then gave me their customer service number. About fifteen minutes later, he sent me a text message from his personal phone, saying that my package was being cleared that afternoon. Only in China can a customs official take your number off a package and text you. That’s how my day went with no internet. Haha."

Since then, this unnamed man and I have been having text message conversations. Apparently, the issue has been that I needed to pay a duty tax on my package because of its weight. Instead of actually contacting me about it via email, as they had done for my passport information, they just decided to wait for me to call them and ask why I hadn't received my package. The man told me that I have to wait for the delivery man to get here, and I'm supposed to pay him. Hopefully he'll at least try to call me when he gets here. It will probably be my luck that I'll be in class when he arrives. Ugh. China. The lesson to be learned here is this: send smaller packages more often, instead of trying to pack everything into one box. 

The lesson to be learned in general is this: CHINA OWNS ME.

Next up on the conversation table is actually how teaching is going. You know, the reason I'm here and all.

One thing I've observed is that my school doesn't seem to have a school nurse. Now, this could very well be because of a lack of communication and language barrier, as I'm only basing this off of conversations I've had with students. I plan on asking Mr. Dong about it in our meeting on Monday. What happened was that there was a very sick student in one of my Wednesday classes. If there is a student in a class who speaks English better than the others, it is very common for that student to be the liaison between me and the rest of the class. One of the boys who sits close to the boy who was sick came up to me and we had the following conversation:

Student: "This boy (points) is very ill."

Me: "I can see that. Is there somewhere he can go?"

Student: "No, he just feels poorly."

Me: "Yes. I understand. Is there a nurse here at the school?"

Student, confused: " nurse."

Me: "Okay. Is there a room he can go to lie down?"

Student: "No. He is just ill."

Me: "Is there somewhere for students to go if they are ill?"

Student, still confused: "No."

Me: "Are you saying no because you don't understand me, or no because there is not a place for him to go?"

Student: "I understand you. There is no place for him to go. He is just ill."

Left with really no options, I just let the boy move his desk to the back corner of the room and sleep during class. I had absolutely no idea what I was supposed to do. I asked if he needed to go to the bathroom, and he said no, he just wanted to stay there. I find it mind-boggling that there isn't a school nurse or anything. What happens if a student falls in gym class and gets scraped up, or if a child vomits and needs to go home? What about the kids who live in the dormitories during the school year? I feel like there has to be some sort of medical facility here. How can there not be? I'm hoping Mr. Dong can shed some light on this tomorrow afternoon.

Oh, and we start our language classes with Mr. Fu tomorrow, so that should be interesting.

Back to my classes. Thursday and Friday, I experimented with having my classes hold a mini-debate. A lot of them had asked about American schools and American middle schools, so I thought I would take a class period to talk to them about how we do things at home. I wrote on the board an example of a typical American middle school schedule - how long the class periods were, passing times, what time school started and ended, etc. Then, I made a list of examples of classes they could take. The kids were really interested to hear that AHS started their first year of Chinese, even though it's at the high school and not the middle school. The kids were really jealous of American P.E. classes, too. I thought P.E. was the worst thing ever when I was in school, but I can't even image having to take it here in China! They have P.E. every day, and all they do is run. They run for the entire class period - almost 40 minutes! There were audible gasps when I told them that, in Ankeny as least, middle school students only have P.E. every other day. They wanted to know what kinds of things American kids get to do in P.E., and I told them we played ping pong and badminton, sometimes volleyball or kickball, that some kids do yoga or weightlifting, we've done line-dancing and rollerskating. I saw jaws visibly drop. I thought it was really interesting that P.E. was the thing they were most interested in asking me about. I only had one kid out of my classes ask me how much homework American middle school kids had. They also wanted to know about the class sizes. I told them that most classes were between 25-30, but some got as big as 35. I obviously have no idea of knowing if that is correct, but I think it was a pretty good guess. They couldn't believe how small it was.

I have to say that class size is one thing that I never really thought about as having a huge impact on teaching until I got here and actually had to corral a class of 45 or bigger. Obviously, I understood that a smaller class size was better, but I didn't really understand fully what the difference was between 25 and 35 students. Oh my gosh, it's huge! I have no idea how I'm supposed to get them to do group work or work in pairs. There's no way I can monitor the entire classroom and make sure everyone is staying on task. There's the same problem when I'm speaking to the class as a whole. I may notice one kid on the right side of the room reading a comic book, but while I'm telling him to put it away, there's a kid on my 
left side doing the same thing who I can't even see.

Back to the debate. In my first class, I split the room in two after my explanation of American middle schools and answering their questions. I told one half to write down five reasons why they thought the Chinese system was good. I told the other half to write down five reasons why they thought the American system was good. I avoided using the word "better" because I didn't want to make any value judgments on either system, and I'm not sure how well me even having this type of debate is going to go over. I wanted to keep everything on the safe side. That ended up being the best choice, because the head teacher came in at the end of the discussion!

After giving them time to brainstorm, I alternated between having each side have one person stand up and read something that they wrote. It wasn't exactly a debate, but they got the hang of it, and pretty soon some of them were "responding" to what the other had said. In my J2 C19 class, which is the class I see twice a week, there were two boys who stood out as my best debaters. One was on each side, which I really liked.

Based off the two debates in my Thursday and Friday classes, this what their thoughts boiled down to:

- Harder classes, so smarter kids
- Easier to make friends, because they stay in the same classroom
- Healthier, because they have P.E. every day
- More discipline
- More focus on schoolwork over sports

- Students have more choice in their classes
- Students have more types of homework (ie: papers, math assignments) instead of just studying for tests
- Students are encouraged to talk more in class
- Students have the option of playing sports and doing more than just schoolwork
- Students get to spend more time with their families, since they get done with school earlier and can have dinner at home

I was pleasantly surprised with how well the "debates" went, even though it took me quite a while to warm them up to talking about it. In both classes, I had a Chinese teacher observing, so I was even more surprised with the honesty I got from the students. I gave my Thursday class the assignment of writing me two paragraphs. I wrote two questions on the board for them to answer - 1. What do you think about American schools? 2. Which do you prefer - American or Chinese? The head teacher was in the back, so hopefully she was able to clarify to them that they were actually supposed to turn it in to me on Monday. Assigning homework like that isn't typical for Chinese teachers. The students just study a lot on their own. I'm really looking forward to what they say in their papers. Hopefully I'll be able to post some of their responses!

That's another thing I've noticed about Chinese students. They're much, much better at writing and reading than they are at listening and speaking. Most of them can write English quite fluently, but are very, very hesitant when it comes to speaking. That obviously isn't a surprise, because that's how I am with both Spanish and French. I can still read quite a bit of French, even though it's been 4 and a half years since I took any classes. Ask me to speak it to you, though, and I could probably only speak passable French 1 sentences. 

Chinese students and teachers are very much focused on making sure that their students pass the big test that they take at the end of high school, to go on to college. That test, naturally, doesn't involve actually speaking English on the English portion of the test. The students just need to be able to answer questions about grammar, sentence structure, etc., on paper.

Don't quote me on this next part, as I am far from being an expert on Chinese schooling. Chinese college students don't choose their majors in the same we we do in the US. We met a friend of the other Drake students, Bright, who majored in something to do with computers at college. He speaks English beautifully. He wants to get his masters in English, but he wasn't able to major in it in college. When he took his tests, he didn't score high enough to be allowed to major in English. His score put him the range of another major, so that's what he did.

Okay, I'm out of random thoughts. Sorry for the crazy length of this post. I'm still working on my lesson plan for this next week. Updates to come soon!

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