December is usually a fun month (Christmas), a crazy busy month (finals), a significant month for relationships (students are starting to feel comfortable with us), and a stressful and difficult to handle month (end of semester burn-out).
This December has indeed proven to be all those things. Last weekend Kevin and I had about a dozen students come over to help decorate our apartment for Christmas. It was three hours of happy chaos. The past teachers left a bunch of Christmas decorations (thanks Hoovlers) and so we had no shortage of things to put up. After we had decorated the tree (which turned out quite nicely) and put up Christmas decorations on the walls and doors and windows and hung “garland” (tinsel) around every possible piece of furniture, I showed the students how to make Iris Paper Folding decorations. Pat, Kevin’s mother, had shown me how to do it, and it’s not that hard, but it was a little difficult to explain to students. They got the general idea though, and settled intently on their work, with paper and scissors and tape flying around. By the end the floor was as decorated as anywhere else. Most of the paper designs worked out pretty well, and the students were happy to take them back and decorate their dorms. So that was the fun (and exhausting) part.
I just finished grading phonetics quizzes and now I have to start on oral quizzes and by the end of the week I will have started final exams. I also have homework from a few weeks ago that I’ve never returned (Shh, don’t tell. I may just not return them. I’m such a bad teacher…). I have been getting discouraged because my students have been getting pretty bad scores on their quizzes overall, and that does make me feel like a bad teacher. Because they are mostly good students and trying hard, they just don’t get it. Maybe there has been improvement, but right now I’m not really seeing it.
The busyness has been compounded by the fact that we have been repeatedly unsure of when the semester would end. At first, we heard we would need to be finished with classes and finals by the 19th. After a few weeks of indecision on that point, the school leaders finally said, “If no decision is made by tomorrow, we will not end early.” Later they confirmed that classes would end at the usual time, so we would need to be done on the 26th. Then, just a few days ago, one of the leaders called Wes and we should give our final exams on the week of the 29th. This was frustrating because (1) we had finally figured out our plan for our last classes and the end of the semester, (2) several of us had already told our students about the exams they would be having on Christmas week, and (3) Kevin and I already had plane tickets and would be leaving halfway through the week we were now supposed to be giving exams. I may have yelled and fumed a bit. We finally worked it out to give the exams at the planned time and then do an extra “fun” class the last week just before we leave.
It always seems like right before we leave at the end of the semester, we start reaching new levels in relationships with students. It takes a while to get to know them and even longer for them to feel comfortable enough to open up and trust us. We have been meeting with several groups of interested students and have been having good conversations at office hours. I have had some good conversations with individual students too. They have started asking me advice, which (see earlier post), I love. Yesterday I invited a student to come over. We talked about all kinds of random things, and she told me that her high school classmates had just died the day before. So we spent a while talking about death and how it’s hard when people we know die. She said, “It is like you have shared my sorrow, thank you.” It was encouraging again to feel like maybe I am helping someone by being here.
The burnout part has been coming into most parts of life, at least for me. I remember now I would usually get this way at the end of every semester – mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted and overwhelmed. Which makes me not handle life and all the extra little cultural stresses very well. I’ve glared at several completely innocent people passing by just because they’ve looked at me the wrong way. I’m bringing out the teacher look much more often (my student answered her cell phone in the middle of a quiz the other day! Come on!)
This past week held its own drama. On Tuesday afternoon a student asked Kevin if we would be the questioners for a speech competition on Thursday. When Kevin asked me I immediately said, “NO.” Some of you still think I’m a nice person, and I have my moments, but lately I feel like the niceness factor is wearing very thin. I was feeling completely overwhelmed and exhausted and we had just shown our lovely foreign faces at a song competition a few days before. We had already agreed to be interviewed for the radio program this week and sing for the Christmas program the next. But when Kevin told the student we could do it, she said, “Oh, I know you are kind and I think you will be able to do it.”
See, when people “ask” or “invite” us to do something, it’s not so much an invitation as an assumption we have already said yes, even though we didn’t know anything about the even two minutes ago. I can’t blame the students too much for being pushy and putting tons of pressure on us, because they are getting tons of pressure as well. I still find it frustrating though, and my Americanism calls for immediate digging in of the heels. I’m not going to get bullied into something!
So finally they gave up on us and moved on to Christina, and then to Wes. One student tried to get Christina to move her lecture. Another student tried to get Wes to move his class. Christina agreed to do the competition if they would find another time for the lecture. They couldn’t do it, and finally on Thursday a student came to Christina and said, “I think this has been a cultural difference.” Basically, her analysis was that Chinese people help their friends but Americans, if they already have something scheduled, will not help their friends. Blaaaah! I knew this was going to turn into a cultural mess.
I have been thinking about it this past few days. I know it was a bad situation where everyone lost face. I guess we should have just said yes, but where in the world do you draw the line? No wonder we get so burned out by the end of the semester. There are so many problems when foreigners are inserted into this system of guanxi (where you help a friend, regardless, and then they help you out later – the brief somewhat-accurate explanation). For one thing, we have about 500 people who consider us “friends.” And since for about 99.7% we are the only foreign friend they have, they come to us whenever they need a foreign friend. If we don’t help them, they lose face and we lose face. But there is no way we could possibly agree to every request/demand placed upon us without going crazy. Maybe someone could, those people with super human power who run themselves into the ground, but I know I can’t. I’m already at my limit.
So what do we do? How do we solve this problem? How are we supposed to do any kind of good if people think we aren’t helpful? How are we supposed to do any kind of good if we crash and burn?
This December, I feel caught in a place with no easy solution.