Friday, July 25, 2008

The People I've Met

The people I’ve met along the way have given this adventure its unique character. This includes both the Chinese people and the other American English teachers. The Chinese people in the street still like Americans—not a universal sentiment these days. And, the other English teachers are an interesting, talented and varied bunch.

The day I arrived in Hangzhou, an hour and a half on the bullet train from Shanghai, I was picked up at the train station and dropped off at a rather nice dormitory at Xiashiang University—where the Babel Language Camp was located. (Yes, I do frequently wonder how these anonymous pick-ups will work out. But, if I happen to look in the mirror when I wash my face or hands, the answer is obvious—I look so different than all of the people around me! It is easy to pick me or any of the 20 some American English teachers out in a crowd of any size!

Jet lag caught up with me then, and I dozed off for a rather longish nap. When I awoke, I met my roommate for the day. She was an African American student, from South Carolina, who had majored in English at USC at Columbia. In order to add something unique to her resume, she had chosen to teach English in a neighboring rather poor province of Anhui for a full year. She had come to Hangzhou to teach English in the summer camp hoping to see a bit more of China.

Later in the evening, other Americans aka English teachers came by to say hello. Some had just arrived; some had already been in Hangzhou for several days. A Mom and daughter, Mary and Molly had decided to make the trip together – a bonding experience for the girls. Andrea had come with her sister-in-law, Vivian, and a 7 year old grand-daughter. Andrea is Dr. Andrea (I never did get her last name – a professor in early childhood education. Andrea and Vivian and I were similar in age – though we didn’t do the numbers. The others were mostly recent college graduates worrying about getting old. Nick stole the show; he was a tall, gentle, African American guy who had graduated from Penn – everyone in China wanted his email address! He handled it well—he really was cool. One of the most talented in my impression was Mario. Mario was studious and quiet; he had just graduated from Haverford College in Pennsylvania, and had had 4 years of Chinese in high school and 4 more in college. (Mario he was placed with me and 4 others; we lucked out. Mario could lead the way). Also in my group is Katie who also graduated from the University of South Carolina, and plans to be a family counselor, and Jenn, a graduate from Purdue University with a major in elementary education and Nate who went to the University of Texas at Austin with a double major in economics and philosophy. Then there was me, determined not to isolated from the fun by dragging around the title “Dr. Bender” but at the same time recognizing that there are limits to faking it. And, China still shows a great respect for their elders. Caught! I needed a way out of the corner. We settled on “Teacher Bender” for the classroom and my name for other settings. The compromise seemed to satisfy concerns in both cultures.

The students I’ve taught have opened a door for me to an understanding of China past and present. The respect that these young people have for teachers and, typically, for one another, is remarkable. I understand that this is one of China’s Confucian principles. Seeing how they work is yet another insight into the remarkable history of China and its rapid march into the twenty-first century. I’ve come to compare this Summer Camp Experience to something like the TIP (Talent Identification Program) that Duke holds each summer, where teens enroll in an intensive writing or a computer course for 1-2 weeks in the summer. So I think there is an analogy. But still these teens are in class from 8 to 5, each day … that means from Monday through Sunday! I have two English Language periods with them; the morning class focuses on the spoken language and some pronunciation and grammar points. The afternoon class focuses on sharpening their listening skills through listening to short passages read at normal (aka fast) English fluency speed and again word by word or phrase by phrase. (They also have classes in Maths (sic), Geography and History during the day).

One day (in fact on a Sunday, when my “poorly trained body” simply rebelled at the thought of a lesson plan) I helped them choose and English name. The all really wanted one. I posted several hundred names on a couple of power point slides and we read them aloud to hear the sounds. They of course knew other names from movies and such. Great fun! Now, I can call on them by name, without provoking a round of laughter.

They’ve told me about their families; about half are only children; the others have one sibling. A few still have grandparents living in the same household with themselves and their parents. Parents are workers (in factories—lots of them here in Cixi), police men or women, teachers, or businessmen or women. They’ve told me too about the environmental problems China faces. One girl’s grandmother lost her garden (house and yard) to a factory; now the air is not so good there, the girl added.

On the ground there seems to be quite a bit of openness to knowledge, facts, information and opinions. As teachers, we have not been asked to censor our presentations in any way. I can’t imagine that it will not influence the way these young people think. China is changing! It is definitely looking outward – towards the US, towards Australia and Great Britain (the major English speaking countries). About a third of the students want to travel to live for a time in another country. There are definitely some who are attentive enough to their English language skill that I fully expect to see them in North Carolina.

The kids have also been kind to me; helping me with my Chinese pronunciation – tones are hard! bringing me herbal medicines when my voice starts to fail. They have been good friends during these two weeks.

The end is of the adventure is nigh. I fly from Shanghai to RDU on July 28, and arrive late on the 29th.I will miss both them – the echo of Teacher Bender, Teacher Bender will stay with me for a while. I’ll miss my co-teachers, too. We’ve become a team, building on one another’s strengths and energies! It’s been a learning experience – incredible.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

CHINA IS CHANGING -dateline: July 19, 2008
China is changing. You hear it everywhere. American colleagues told me that I would be surprised at how modern China is. Chinese friends told me how things have changed since the last time they visited China, one, two or five years ago. Modernization is abuzz. But, tradition is still quite alive, if hidden on side streets just behind the glass facades of the Nike and Beyond (Bed Bath and Beyond) storefronts.

Nowhere is the co-existence of modern and traditional more evident than in the classroom. Yesterday in class, we were doing a lesson on gender and preference for partners in America. The results were from a survey … the standard stuff … women want a man who is intelligent, with good job skills, one who will earn a good salary and have a sense of humor; men want a woman who is beautiful, a good home maker and sensitive. The discussion questions asked the students to rate the most important characteristics and to talk about how people meet partners in their country. These 18-20 year olds are still so shy, that they would not say a word about how “they” might meet a partner. But they were more willing to tell me how their parents met. One girl stood and said that her parents’ marriage had been arranged by grandparents on both sides of the family! Another student stood and said that there was a person who came to her house and said to her mother’s mother that she knew a young man who was a good fit for her daughter. The intermediary, then, arranged the marriage. I know from having read several classic Chinese novels that this is a quite common traditional pattern. A third student rose and said that his parents had met in the factory where they were working. And, a fourth told the class that her parents had met at University where they were students and had fallen in love (we had to work a bit on the formation of the past and past perfect tenses, but that is a side bar to the main story!). I was amazed … one, two, three, four … four different patterns and probably several different socio-economic classes reflected in their brief but telling responses. This is China – changing everywhere, in fits and starts.

The students I am teaching at Cixi High School also appear to be from a wide range of ethnic minorities. Their faces are just more varied in shape and skin color than the students we taught earlier at Xian Shan High School. No, all Chinese do not look alike! Cixi is an industrial city, with lots of factories…and, I’m told, lots of new wealth. Lee, a young Chinese guy and our liaison, added that there are 2.1 million people in Cixi, and more than 1 million of them have migrated to the city in the past generation or two. By comparison the seaside fishing town of Xian Shan has only about 750,000 residents and probably more out migration than in migration.

At Cixi High School, each of us teaches 6 English classes a day. We see each group in the morning and again in the afternoon. The morning class is focused on developing speaking skills, including pronunciation and rhythm, typical of a native English Speaker. The afternoon class focuses on listening comprehension, probably the most challenging (and frustrating) skill for them. It’s a lot; my feet hurt at the end of a day. But, for the most part my students are great. Today, I read a selection on the Giant and Elusive Panda from my Lonely Planet CHINA Guidebook. We practiced some of the difficult words before I read the passage (two paragraphs). Then I read it at a standard Fluent English speaker’s speed. Finally, I read each sentence slowly, word by word, so as to increase their comprehension. Then, in turn, up and down the rows, they go to the board to create a word web, each adding a word that they heard the native English speaker say. When we finished to day the board was covered in words that they had recognized! They were proud of themselves – and could clearly recognize their own progress in sharpened listening comprehension. It was worth a pair of hurting feet! We understand that youth in towns and small cities across the country are learning English just like the students we are teaching. China is Changing!

Monday, July 7, 2008

From Ningbo, a seaside port

The title for this blog came from a fortune cookie. It seems to fit this curious adventure. I landed in Shanghai on July 2, after an uneventful (the best kind) flight over the Pacific. Today is July 7, and I am at last in one city for long enough to unpack my suitcase. Perhaps the most curious thing about my arrival in Shanghai was how unexpectedly familiar it seemed! I felt perhaps it was New York City for the number of skyscrapers, or Chicago for the number of people out walking on the streets, or Los Angeles for the wide blvds. filled with quite contemporary cars, including Hondas, Toyotas, Chevrolets. Even in the hotel, my Chinese greeting was answered in English (what a relief--as I wasn't sure what I'd have said next otherwise).

To find the China that I have read about in books for years and years, I had to look down alleyways or small side streets. There I could still catch a glimpse of the straw bamboo hat with the pointed top and what I call the Chinese shuffle, where an elderly person seems never to completely pick up their shoe from the ground, and definitely puts toe before heel to ground.

Out on the main street the men and women both walk with a gait that is comfortable and thoroughly western. Shao Hongwei,who lives in Shanghai and is a friend of my Chinese teacher, Hong Li and her husband, was a most gracious host. He made sure that I didn't wander too far from my hotel as to reach a point of no return. He and his wife took me out to dinner in an old section of Shanghai that has been preserved with its traditional Chinese upturned rooves and small alleys. The food is to die for! I may never come home. Steamed dumplings, vegetables in rich sauces, with just a bit of meat, cucumbers in Chinese sweet wine vinegar. A bowl of rice arrived, but after the meal -- perhaps in imitation of the French custom of serving salad at the end of a meal.

The next morning, Shao's son and I spent the morning "practicing English with a native speaker." After Blake warmed to the task, he was impressive. We mostly did computer stores -- something a 17-year old knows a lot about -- but on floor after another he explained the differences in the computers, the different softwares, the new styles of i-Pods (very popular here) and MP players (MP4s are now out I've learned).

Then on to the high speed bullet train for a two hour ride to Hangzhou. We had not even enough time there to see the town and we were shuffled off to several other cities where we are now teaching (No, I didn't know we were going to other cities -- I tried to maintain my spirit of adventure through the confusion. I wouldn't give myself more than a C+, though. Maybe that is part of the Chinese way --maybe it was just a bit of poor planning.) There are five us now in the seaport city of Nimbo. The air has the definite feel of the air at Emerald Isle or Carolina Beach, a nice breeze, but a bit of sticky salt in the air

Classes began today. We are teaching at Xiang Shan High School, reputed to be the top high school in the city. During the school year, 2000 students attend classes at Xiang Shan.

Now it is "Summer Camp." One of the headmasters of the school said, "We call it summer camp, but we actually keep them in their same classes!" Each of the 5 of us have 5 classes of 40 minutes each. That's fine. However, I counted 56 students in each of my classes. So if everyone gets a chance to speak, ... a class can go pretty quickly! The students are shy, but brave -- that means they are willing to try to speak English. They are really quite good. Amazing, really. For the most part they are just as dear as they can be ... although there are a few who look like they might like a little mischief if it were allowed.

Today, they gathered in groups to decide what I should know about their city. Then, they cautiously volunteered to tell me about the city famous for its fish, for its beach, for its traditional foods, for the very special zoo and for the park on the mountain top with the pagoda (this one I can see from my pretty nice (and air conditioned) hotel room).

Tomorrow, I promised to show them some pictures of my family. They too seem curious to know more about who I am...who we are ... though they were all quite excited to know that we were from the United States. In one class they cheered. Its been a long time since I've been cheered for my citizenship!

I look forward to working with these young people. They are so enthusiastic; so engaged ... and seemingly quite talented. Today was super; it made me smile as I remembered the Chinese fortune that I found in my cookie two years ago, "Curiosity is life."