Monday, February 23, 2009

Boom, boom, boom

By Kevin

BOOM. The explosion shook the windows of the office where Wes and I were meeting with students for office and library hours.

We weren't sure what the source was. My mind raced past the usual suspects -- this sounded bigger than the normal bottle rockets or strings of firecrackers -- and went immediately to the brick quarries they apparently have up in the hills not far from campus. Then it went to recent coal mine explosions (a recent one in the other Shanxi killed 74 people) "Dynamite?" I asked. "Maybe."

Then there was another. BOOOM. Another. BOOOM. Another BOOOOM.

We excused ourselves from the conversations we were having with undeterred students to discover a huge display of colorful aerial fireworks going off just West of campus. "Whoa. What's that all about?" Wes asked.

"Is today a festival? Some holiday?" I asked a student.

"No. Nothing special," she said, not even bothering to stand up and get a glance. She'd seen PLENTY of fireworks in her day. With grad school classes in Thailand each winter, I've somehow managed to NEVER be in China during Spring Festival, but those who have describe it as being almost like a warzone, with nearly constant shellings of fireworks throughout the day making your ears ring. This was just a tiny tiny sliver of what it's like then.

"It's better than 4th of July," I said.

Wes agreed.

"Yeah. I guess that says something when just any day in China can have a bigger fireworks display than on 4th of July in America."

A good 20 minutes later, as the explosions continued, I asked another student, who had since arrived, about the display, which students pretty much ignored.

"Maybe it's a wedding," she said. "Some rich people, when they get married, they do this."

I tried to calculate how many tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars this display would have cost in the US. "They must be very rich."

I wonder if they're trying to frighten off the same ghosts they try to stave off when they open a new building.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

To market, to market

by Ruth

Christina and I have gotten into the habit of going to the supermarket together, which is nice because otherwise we need the mutual prodding and positive peer-pressure. Otherwise we’d probably keep putting it off until we were subsisting on crackers for all our meals. Also, we can keep each other company on the bus, share a cart, remind each other of what to buy, and share a taxi on the way home. Together we decide which bag of flour or bottle of oil looks most like what we want (by looking at the pictures, since we can’t read the words).

Last night we went to the supermarket, which was a bad idea because it was Friday night. It was so crowded! Fortunately, running into other people with your grocery cart isn’t too bad so long as you don’t hit them too hard.

We jostled our way through the crowd all the way to the back of the store, the meat and produce area. The produce area is always the most crowded, even though the supermarket doesn’t usually have the best fruits and veggies. However, it appeared that sugar cane had recently gone on sale because we saw a bunch of people trying to fight their way through the crowd holding up long black stalks of sugar cane that were probably six or seven feet long. It would have made a great picture – a dozen black stalks of sugar cane sticking out above the mass of people.

I decided to forego on eggs (even though they are one of my main staple foods) because the line was too long. To buy eggs, you have to fill a bag from a stack of cartons, have the bag weighed, go over to the pay counter to pay and get a receipt, then come back and claim your bag of eggs. I didn’t really want to go through all that, so we took a detour around to the meat section, running over a couple of potholes on the way. Apparently the back aisle is not very important because the floor was kinda torn up.

The meat counter has everything from huge slabs of beef, to ground meat (beef? Pork?), to boneless skinless chicken breasts, to whole chickens (head included, of course). Behind the counter a worker was swinging a cleaver into a three foot hunk of compacted meat parts. Meat pieces were flying while people around the counter picked up pieces of meat with their bare hands to examine it. Fortunately, we didn’t have to touch the meat (always better, in my opinion). We just point out what we want and how much, and the meat lady bags some up for us.

Then we had to retrace our steps back through the store to the checkouts, stopping on the way to examine Pringles and Oreos, two nice things we can get here.. When we paid, I realized all my coins are still Thai baht, which don’t do much good here. When we got a taxi, I almost told the driver to go to “Yangda, zong bu,” even though I haven’t lived at that school for two years. Shopping is hard on the brain.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Classroom Anecdotes

By Ruth

(Thanks to those of you who have left comments! I like seeing who is reading our blog.)

I went to class this morning but when I got to room 108, where my class was scheduled to be, the room was full of other students. I thought, “Oh no. I’ll never find them now.” The schedule seems to change a lot at the last minute and into the first few days of class, so several of my teammates have gone to class this week and their students haven’t been there because the students had a different schedule. I wasn’t sure whether my students thought class was at a different time or whether they were just in a different classroom.

So I spent about ten minutes wandering around the different floors looking in classrooms (at least these were students I taught last semester, so I know what they look like!). Coming back down the stairs, I saw several of my students in the hallway. On their schedule we were supposed to be meeting in a second floor computer classroom, which was locked. I don’t think that was right either, because they wouldn’t give us a computer room for Oral English. Fortunately, there was an empty classroom across the hall, and we were able to get settled in just before the bell rang. Now I just need to remember to find out about a permanent room.

It has been fun to see my students again. They are so cute, with their jagged hair done up in scrunchies or big, colorful barrettes. It’s also fun to have students who like me. I was noticing today that 16 of the 35 students were wearing glasses. Probably about twice that many are supposed to wear glasses, but a lot of students don’t like to wear glasses because it doesn’t look cool. I saw one student reach over and borrow her seatmate’s glasses to read the board.

In two of my classes I have students named Anna and Anne who sit next to each other and can’t distinguish the difference between the two names. I never know which one will respond, and sometimes I get confused about which one is which. It caused a problem last semester when Anne and Anna did their final exam together. After finishing, they came back a few minutes later and Anna said, “Um, we think that we were a little confused, so when you asked Anne a question, I answered instead.” I think I’ve gotten them straightened out now, but they still sometimes answer to the wrong name.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Your Turn

Keeping a blog has been a great way to let people know what we have been doing, and we both enjoy writing when we have the time. We know that a number of people do read the blog, but sometimes we forget.
So we would love for you to leave us a comment to let us know you are reading. It's really easy and you don't have to sign up for anything - just click on the "comment" at the bottom of this post and just say hi or leave a little note (with your name!). It would be encouraging to know there are really are people out there reading our ramblings!
We appreciate you guys!

Ruth and Kevin

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Next Two Days

by Ruth

On Monday we finally found out when the semester will start – next Monday. I’m glad we got that cleared up. We also found out a general idea of what we will be teaching this semester – freshmen and sophomore oral, and sophomore culture class. Before we can actually start planning, however, we need to know a few things like (1) will we be teaching just the freshmen here or also the ones on the other campus, (2) will all the sophomores have the culture class or just the ones who don’t get it junior year, (3) when will all these classes be so we can divide them up, (4) will there be a textbook for the culture class and/or what exactly do they want us to teach (in the past, it sounds like it was more of a Western countries geography class). So far we have found out none of those things.

On Tuesday Christina went over to the office to try to get the actual schedule. After wandering through the empty halls, she found out the office won’t be open until Saturday. The teachers will all have a meeting on Saturday to talk about classes, the students will register on Sunday, and then classes will begin on Monday. I am truly amazed. How do they manage to work everything out in the two days before the semester begins? Our waiban (the school official who helps us out) said, “This is Chinese culture.” Somewhat, but we know a lot of other Chinese universities that aren’t this last minute.

So tomorrow we will go over to get the schedule, come back and figure out when all the classes are and divide them among the four of us. Then we can go back and tell them who is teaching what and start planning for Monday. Anyway, we have a really good excuse for not planning ahead.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


by Ruth

Conference is over and after a few days at the beach and then 21 hours of travel, we’re back in Weinan! I usually find conference to be a good time overall, even though every year is particularly difficult in different ways. I appreciate having time in Thailand to step away from the situation and reflect and process and get a bigger picture.

I find the China session particularly interesting because we get to hear about larger trends being observed in China, such as continual urbanization, the growth of an urban middle class who is interested in deeper things – and more open about their interest, significant unemployment, and so on. Even though we live in China, sometimes we don’t hear about what is going on in a bigger level. When we meet together, we also get to hear about what is happening in other cities, new programs, and exciting opportunities.

People from each of the countries also have a time to report on their own challenges and opportunities so we can think about them together. Almost all the countries are suffering from a lack of teachers. Some countries are seeing a lot more openings than in the past but don’t have enough people to fill the needs.

We also had time to meet as a team, to reflect on last semester and plan for the spring. We couldn’t plan much about teaching since we didn’t know what we would be teaching or when the term started (we just learned it will start next week), but we talked about our other ideas for the term. We talked about working together more, what students we want to spend more time with, and came up with all kinds of ideas for really beneficial things to do this term.

All these ideas make me excited but also nervous. Last semester was so busy and stressful by the end and now we are planning even more things for this semester. How does this fit with our definite need to slow down and rest as well?

Kevin and I went to a marriage workshop and one thing the leader was talking about was dealing with stress ('cause -who knew- I guess that affects marriage). We looked at a list of about 15 physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral symptoms of overstress and at least 12 of them described me really well. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it was still disconcerting. I always think I shouldn’t be as stressed (as if that will help), and a different person would be able to handle things much better. Unfortunately, I have to realize how much stress is negatively impacting my health and relationships and therefore my overall effectiveness. Which brings back the old question of how to balance all the great ideas with my increasingly obvious personal limitations.

Thailand has been a good time for Kevin and I to spend time together too. It’s nice to get outside of everyday life and talk about things beside schedules and what to eat for dinner. It’s been good to play games and have meals with other friends too. The person leading the marriage workshop said that certain research shows the difference between a “good marriage” and a “great marriage” is that the couple has fun together. Kevin and I both tend to be too serious about life, so it’s been good to be around others who are naturals at having fun.

But now, even though I was sad to pull back out the down coat, I am ready to be back. I recently realized that we live out of suitcases for a fourth of every year and that makes me really appreciate my own bed, my own shower, and my own schedule. I am ready for a few settled months.