Tuesday, March 24, 2009
Although I wore short sleeves for much of the last week, my students were continually shocked. In fact, most Chinese people are shocked. It isn't May 1 yet (the widely-recognized day for shedding of coats). Even though most students complained of being hot in class, they flatly refused when I suggested they remove their coats. A few did roll up their sleeves, but none removed the outer layer. They also cried out "no, no" when I flipped the switch to the classroom ceiling fans. "Dust," they explained.
But on Friday, I saw something rare: a guy rode his bike wearing a sleeveless shirt (think 1980s). The strange thing was - it was a little bit cool that day (maybe 60s) -- cool enough that I was wearing a sweatshirt. In fact, as far as I can remember, it was the only time I've EVER seen anyone in China wearing short sleeves when I wore long.
Then, today, the temperature was in the 70s. I spotted a young man walking down the street in short sleeves. I've seen rolled up sweatshirts and a few long johns underneath shorts. I'm starting to wonder: what would their mothers think if they knew they were flaunting the rules? It also makes me wonder where these enduring traditions come from. Who decided that you had to wait until a certain date before donning short sleeves?
Sunday, March 22, 2009
So yesterday we went on a bike ride with students and...nothing broke! Amazing.
Not nearly as exciting to write about, I must say, but I thought I should share it anyway for the sake of being fair.
This time we rode out to the west of Weinan through a bunch of old villages. Signs of spring are all around in the warmer air, the budding trees, and the green fields. It was really pretty and by the end of the ride the sun even came out.
Seven students came with us, and they all seemed to have a good time. Several of them said to let us know if we go again. Some of them don't get out much and spend entirely too much time studying and/or wasting time on campus. The freshmen don't have many classes so many of them are suffering from chronic boredom. Going places with the foreigners, however, is seldom boring. We are always doing strange and unexpected things like riding down bumpy dirt paths just to see where they go.
The bike ride was shorter this time, with no breakdowns, but it was still over two hours of almost solid riding, so we were pretty tired when we came back.
Tonight I'm thinking of going over to visit the dorms. I always love knocking on the door and freaking them out, because of course they are not expecting me. Good times, good times.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
As we pulled into the bicycle repair shop at the end of the bike storage yard on campus, I wondered how much it would cost to get my bike back into riding shape for the next ride we've planned for Saturday.
I waited for the repairman to finish patching a tire, then Wes started to explain my predicament. Within ten minutes he had replaced my front tube, agreeing that indeed it was too big, noticed a buldge in the side of my rear tire, which he said was rotting, so he replaced it.
"Do you want to keep the old tube?" Wes asked me.
I briefly thought about how if I wanted to, I could make a tire patching kit out of it, but realized that it's so much easier to just bring it to the repairman when I get a problem.
"Nah, I don't need it."
"Are you sure, cause I'm sure he's going to patch it and sell it to someone else and make a profit off of you."
Thinking back to all the repairs he's done for us for 1-5 RMB or less (we're talking 15-75 cents), I wasn't too worried.
"I think it's fine if he makes a profit off of me."
"You sure?" Wes joked as we looked at his dingy clothes and grease-covered hands as he greased the chain. "Obviously he's living a life of extravagance."
Finally, he re-tightened the troublesome nut that wreaked havok on my last ride. It seemed he didn't have any truly new nuts to replace it with.
"Duo xiao qian?" I asked.
"Si shi kuai." Wow, about $6 for an inspection, a tube, a tire and their installation. "Probably his biggest sale in a long time," Wes said. I handed him 50 kuai and he dug into his pocket to make change.
"I don't think I could even buy a tube for $6 in the States," I told Wes as we left. Even after two and a half years in China, I'm constantly amazed at how much less things cost here. I probably could have negotiated the price lower, but he earned the money.
As we waited, we saw a foreigner, who looked like he couldn't be much older than our students, walking with a girl toward one of the dorms -- the same foreigner we saw earlier in the day at KFC. Mind you, this is the first Westerner I've ever seen in Weinan (met a family of Koreans, but they blend in pretty well), so to see him twice in the same day was a bit strange. "Wonder what he's doing here?" My encounters with most foreigners I've met in China who don't work for our company have been strange. Most seem to be social outcasts of some sort, who either thrive or wither at the sudden attention they get in China. I always find myself wondering what they are doing here.
After the repairs were done, we rode off to find a nut and tools I could bring with me on Saturday's ride. No troubles on the way, so I guess we've gotten that nut tight enough to last awhile, but I don't want to get stuck again, so I need the right tools.
When we pulled up to the tool shop, Wes guided me to a woman he'd done business with before. "She's a sister," Wes said, pointing to the thick Book sitting on the table behind her.
She smiled and greeted us warmly, then proceeded to find the right tool for us.
We also bought several nuts and lock washers and some concrete nails so we can hang some pictures on our walls (it's impossible to drive regular nails into these concrete walls).
When we asked how much we owed her, her response caused a brief argument. I couldn't understand all the Chinese, but the gist of it was something like this.
"Nothing," she said.
"Oh no, we have to pay something."
"No, you are my brothers. I want to give them to you."
"Can't we just pay something for them?"
"No, I insist. They are my gift to you."
"Well, is there something we can do for you?"
"Just talk to the Father about me. That is enough."
"Ok, we will do that. Thank you so much."
"Thank you," she said.
As we left and I put the money back into my pocket, Wes said, "Maybe money would be an insult to her. We should make sure to bring her a pie or something next time."
It was a great reminder of how gracious the Chinese are here, especially those who know hope.
Sunday, March 15, 2009
This afternoon I was sitting on the couch doing some
I opened the door two high school aged girls that I had never seen before. One of the girls, seeming only slightly fazed by the foreign face, immediately launched into Chinese. I didn’t understand a word of what she was saying, and I had no context clues to help out, since I had no idea why they were here. They stood in the doorway for about five minutes while she said a whole bunch of stuff and then asked if I understood, to which I would always say, “Ting bu dong.” No, no, I still have no idea what you are talking about.
They tried to start using gestures, but those weren’t so helpful either. The quieter girl waved her arm around in a circular motion and the talkative girl tapped on the door. She tried to think of any English words she had learned. Finally she came across “cooka!” Which she repeated over and over again. That I understood, but I still had no idea what she was talking about. After a while, she pulled out a spray bottle of what looked like cleaning solution from her backpack.
I was standing right in the doorway, but somehow she managed to squeeze her way in anyway, continuing to say a lot of stuff in Chinese. She sprayed the cleaner on the light switch and started wiping it away with her hand saying, “Good! Good!” Then she darted into the room to grab some tissues from the table, and used them to show all the dirt that she had cleaned away.
Now I was starting to get the idea that they must be trying to sell this stuff. But I was still completely confused and now they had come inside and shut the door. It’s not that I felt intimidated by high school girls, I just find it very strange when people I’ve never seen before force their way into my house.
The girl reached over and opened the door to the bathroom. It was clearly not what she was looking for. But she gestured around in there and said a bunch more stuff. Then the girls took off their shoes and started to walk back through the house until they got to the kitchen. There the girl sprayed stuff on the stove hood and used the same tissues to wipe away more dirt. I started to cough from the very pungent odor while the girl continuing going on about how her spray was really good. At least, that was my guess.
Finally I told her I didn’t want the cleaning spray. She seemed undeterred. She picked up the other cleaning spray and tried to explain how hers was much better than this one. I had a recipe book on the counter which the girl picked up and started flipping through. She read out several words in English, just for the heck of it I guess, “Apple cake,” and then looked up at me expectantly. She continued to talk on while the quiet girl looked at the pictures on my fridge. After a few more times of saying I didn’t want the cleaning spray, I guess she got the idea.
I tried my best to usher them out of the house. I was impressed by their bravery. Most people get really nervous when trying to talk to foreigners or when we can’t understand what they are saying. It didn’t seem to matter to these girls much at all. I was impressed but a little annoyed too. And about as confused as when they came. I still don’t understand a lot of things that happen in my life.
Saturday, March 14, 2009
Last weekend we went on another long bike ride with students. If you remember reading about our long bike ride last semester, there were a lot of similarities.
We waited our friend June at the front gate at 1:30 p.m. Fifteen minutes later she arrived. "I can't find a bike," she declared. She'd also brought along one other friend with no bike.
"Maybe we can take a bus and meet you there," she said.
"Where are we riding to?" we asked.
"There is a dam outside the city," she said.
"How far away is it?"
"About an hour."
"Is it uphill?"
"A little bit."
After some negotiation, we decided we'd ride our bikes halfway there, with the two smallest girls being toted on the racks on the back of the bikes Wes and another guy rode. Then they'd ride a bus up the hill leading to the reservoir.
So we left. After huffing and puffing for awhile, we wound up walking the bikes up part of the hill, making a spectacle for several other Chinese bikers who began to walk their bikes up the 15 percent grade. On the hilltop, there was a large Buddhist Temple right before we reached the hazy lake.
Unfortunately the sun didn't clear away the haze until we were riding back home.
Several of us sat on the top of the dam while Ruth, Christina and several students hiked down the steep incline and wandered around fishing pools at the base. I gazed into the haze and tried to make out the details of the surrounding landscape. The temple, which was maybe a mile away was almost engulfed in haze, as were the terraced hillsides and the "lake" created by the dam. Couples sat on the steep incline, picnicking. Families flew kites together. Motorcycles whizzed by, leaving trails of dust for us to cough on.
We learned that one of the students, a senior, spent the last semester teaching in Tibet.
Then we began riding further up the road into the reservoir-side villages.
That's when things began to go downhill.
And I don't mean the incline of the mountain. First my chain came loose. But that wasn't too bad. With a little cajoling and some greasy fingers, a student and I managed to get it back in place within a few minutes.
Not much longer, my entire right pedal clanked to the ground. If this is beginning to sound familiar, that's because it was. These same things happened on our ride to the river in the fall. I picked up the metal part and began to search for the nut, which had come loose and fell to the ground.
We backtracked a bit, then saw it in the middle of the road.
It was about this time that I realized I should have brought some tools.
While we struggled to hammer on the pedal with a brick we found by the roadside, Christina had spotted a cute toddler playing next to her grandmother, who sat on her
front porch, garden tool in hand. "Maybe we can ask them if they have tools," I suggested. The grandmother wore a traditional silk shirt. The wrinkles in her face told of a long life. The child was swaddled in the thick clothing Chinese children always seem to be covered with. On her feet, she wore fancy traditional, likely handmade shoes.
Our caravan approached the man and explained our predicament. Soon, while the girls oogled the child, the woman's husband, wearing a simple blue Mao suit, walked into his home and returned with a screwdriver. Not exactly what I had in mind. We needed a hammer and a ratchet, or at least some sort of pliers if we were going to get this bike working right. Nonetheless, the student jammed the flathead screwdriver into the area next to the bolt and attempted to tighten it. The man suggested we continue on to the bicycle repairman, further up the road. We smiled and thanked him and went on our way.
When we got to the repair shop, the repairman wasn't there. Just two young boys sitting in front of a television watching a Chinese drama program. The student asked if he could borrow some tools, then began digging through the cardboard box. He found a hammer, which helped us push the pedal on further. Screwdrivers, wrenches. Finally, he found a bent, mashed socket. Unfortunately it was too small. Then another. Too big. How could they not have one that fit this nut? I decided I'd just get the nut as tight as I could with my fingers, then tighten it again when it loosened.
"Is it better?" a student asked.
"Not really. I think I'm going to need to go back," I explained.
Without complaint, we set back down the hill.
Less than five minutes later, I felt the pedal began to wobble again, then clank to the ground.
I searched for the fallen nut, found a brick, hammered it back on, then tightened it with my fingers. "This is going to be a long ride home," I realized.
"Is it better?" another student asked.
I explained that I can't get the nut tight enough without tools, but they didn't really understand. I just hoped that since it was mostly downhill, I wouldn't have to stop every five minutes to reattach the pedal.
In the distance, we saw a funeral procession making its way down the road. A group of men and women wearing white mourning clothes that look a bit like labcoats walked as a group down the road. Boys, perhaps the oldest sons or grandsons, carried colorful wreaths at the front of the procession, followed by perhaps 10 other mourners.
As I rode past them, I hoped that my pedal would make it far enough down the road that I wouldn't completely disrupt their mourning. Then again, that had probably already happened, when they saw no less than four foreigners riding bikes through their quaint village.
After one more stop, we made it to the long, steep section of the hill. I figured that coasting would be easy here.
About halfway down, I realized that my tires were whining strangely. But I didn't dare stop.
At the bottom, I realized the problem - my tire had somehow gone completely flat during the incline. Maybe the increased pressure from the high speeds?
Even more, the chain on Ruth's bike had also come loose. So we reattached it.
Since the sun was getting closer to the horizon, I decided I'd just ride on it. "Who cares if it ruins the tire," I thought. Realizing we were almost back in town, I said, "Surely there's a repair shop ahead."
So I began pedaling. Within minutes, the pedal fell to the ground yet again. Then I spotted a shop with a tire hanging on the side. We asked if we could use their pump and filled the tire. Across the street, a group of three young men sat on top of a rooftop playing rock music on acoustic guitars.
Less than a minute after we resumed our ride, it was flat again.
"I guess next time I'll have to get it patched or buy a new tube," I explained. Wes wondered if I could just hail a cab and have the cabbie bring me back with the bike in the trunk.
Soon we spotted a motorcycle repairman fixing a flat on a motorcycle.
He agreed to fix my flat and reattach my pedal with proper tools. With weathered hands, he pried my tire loose and began dipping it in water, searching for the hole. Spotting the steady stream of leaking air, he scuffed up an old piece of rubber and rubber cemented it over the hole. It reminded me of when I learned how to fix a flat from my dad all those years ago. After a good 15 minutes, he'd fixed the hole in the tube and reattached the pedal. But he explained that, somehow the tube inside the tire was too big. That's why it went flat. "Should we get a smaller tube?" I wondered aloud to the guys who were translating. "You can get that fixed at the school." They replied. "What about between now and then, I wondered to myself, hoping that the temporary fix would get the job done, realizing that the Chinese ethic of "if it can still be used, you shouldn't throw it away" was probably at play. So I played along. We handed the man five kuai and hit the road again.
Less than five minutes later, the pedal fell off. Again.
I was getting ticked off by this point.
We found yet another repairman. This time I convinced the student that we needed to replace the nut because the threads intended to lock it shut were worn. It clearly wasn't staying in place. But he didn't have nuts, just tools. "Can we borrow the tools," the student asked. He figured we could save 1 RMB and do the tightening job ourselves this time.
It lasted for three blocks. Again, it came loose.
Again we asked if they had the nut. "No. But you can use the tools."
I put my weight into the pedal and tightened. "We can have the repairman at school fix it," the student assured me. I just hoped we wouldn't have to stop again (we were maybe a mile away by this point).
Thankfully we made it back just before sunset.
The students laughed at the experience. Wes suggested I leave "Tank" (my bike) somewhere where a thief might steal it. "All the problems they'd get with it would be their punishment," he suggested. I seriously considered his plan. Unfortunately, the person stealing it likely wouldn't keep it. They'd sell it.
"I think before I ride again, I'm going to make sure I have all the tools I need to fix it myself," I told him. "Gotta bring a tool kit along on these rides from now on."
Again, I guess this is what you get with a secondhand bike in China.
Friday, March 13, 2009
I don’t like giving homework very much because then I have to grade it. I still give homework sometimes because it’s marginally useful and then I feel like a good teacher. Sometimes I am rewarded by the funny things they write.
Last week I asked them to keep a sort of learning journal, recording different activities they did to practice English. Several students had this idea of practicing pronunciation by putting a pen in their mouths. I’m not sure where this idea came from. One of my students wrote about her progression through this idea, and by the end I was laughing too hard to read it. It’s been a long, rather discouraging week, so I was really glad for the comic relief. I hope you find it as funny.
Date: March 8th
Activity: I put a pen in my mouth and tried my best to read my lessons clearly and loudly. But it sounds like some animals’ roaring. I think it is terrible. Using this way to improve my pronunciation seemed very uncivilized. But my friends told me it is really useful and his perfect pronunciation was benefit from it. I put the pen in my mouth again. If it is useless for me, just playing.
How helpful was it? I felt I could speak English more fluently and easily when I took the pen out of my mouth.
Next time I would…I plan to go on to do this action and take a pen which is thinner than this one.
Date: March 9th
Activity: I put the thin pen into my mouth and tried to speak loudly. But I couldn’t keep it in my mouth again. I must grip with my teeth to keep the pen. It became more difficult for me to pronounce well.
How helpful was it? I think I should [change] the proper pen to practice. But this time I imagined an excellent idea. I can put some glass balls to practice. This time I felt pain in my mouth.
Next time I would…I imagined I can put a candy in my mouth. I think it will taste very delicious and the effection will not too bad.
Date: March 10th
Activity: This time I put a candy in my mouth. It really tastes very nice but when I read I always want to absorb the candy. Finally, I couldn’t help eating it. Then I put another in. But, unfortunately, the same result occurred.
How helpful was it? From this action I found when we feel comfortable both mental and physical we will work well. The candy helped me to resume the level of my pronunciation and get a little higher.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Tonight the same student was talking to me in the office. She is always very friendly and tonight was excited because her roommate had braided her hair and shown her how to wear makeup. She is from a small, poor village where her family grows peanuts. Her uncle was the first person from the village ever to go to university. She is currently the only person in her village that is going to university. “I am very lucky,” she said. Especially lucky since she has two younger siblings, one of whom is a boy. Many times poorer families will save their money to send the boy to university since they feel it is more important for boys to get an education. So yes, she is quite lucky.
Thursday, March 5, 2009
By Ruth (but then, you would have guessed that very quickly...)
Part 1 – Playing Cards
I use playing cards in class to divide students into groups. It works really well because there are enough for all my students and groups of four usually work pretty well. Enough to make it a little interesting but still small enough that everybody needs to talk.
The first time I start passing out cards, they get excited. Fifteen times later, I don’t even have to explain what to do. Sometimes they groan if they are those students who don’t like a) standing up, b) talking to anyone besides their best friend, c) talking, and/or d) being in class. Mostly though, they enjoy the few moments of utter chaos as they yell at each other and wave their cards around and make their way to the other side of the room.
Since I use them in about every other class, the cards get pretty beat up. I collected the cards back the other day and noticed someone had drawn their own hearts on the ten of hearts. Sometimes they get lost, too. The other day a sophomore came up to me after class all embarrassed and said, “Last week I accidentally took the seven card because I put it in my pocket. Can I bring it back to you tomorrow?” Just before my class the next day, the girl knocked hesitantly on the classroom door. When I opened it she whispered, “I come to bring you the card.” Turning her body away so the other students couldn’t see she slipped the card into my hand then ducked away. It was funny. It really wasn’t a problem, but she was so embarrassed.
Part 2 – The Colored Number Phenomenon
This is related but you probably won’t be able to tell it at first.
I have this thing where I see numbers as colors. I didn’t consciously realize it until high school or college. Or rather, I should say, I didn’t realize that everyone else doesn’t see numbers as colors. This year I was delighted to discover this is actually a legitimate phenomenon called “synesthesia.” Wikipedia calls it “a neurologically based phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.” Makes sense, huh?
Thinking of numbers as being inherently colored is one of the more common forms. Some people also see numbers, days of the week, or months of the year as having certain personalities. I do that too, with numbers. One of the most interesting forms, in my opinion, is associating a certain taste with different sounds or words. I don’t do that, so I don’t really know how it works. There is no “standard” for color-number association, it varies by person, however it is consistent with a person over time. So here is what it looks like for me:
Number - Color - Personality
1 – White
2 – Light blue - youthful
3- Yellow – sweet and girly (and named Lillian…that I can’t explain)
4 – Purple – quiet and shy
5 – Green – friendly and outgoing
6 – Dark blue – motherly, caring
8 – Maroon - responsible, organized
9 – Brown – kinda boring and not very easy to get along with
I’m not sure that one has a personality. It’s so good and quiet it just blends into the woodwork, if you know what I mean. Some of the personalities are more related to the colors, but some purely numerical. Who doesn’t like a good 5? Fits in anywhere, works well with others. 9, on the other hand, just has to make thing difficult. Some of the personalities are definitely related to the colored pencils I used to play with as a child. The light blue was short and therefore one of the younger ones that dark blue helped to take care of. Brown was practically unused and didn’t fit in very well. The purple pencil was about eight years old and probably the one I identified with most. I did have real toys, I really did, but I think my colored pencils had more personalities than my dolls ever did.
Ok, now that I’ve thoroughly lost you, let’s bring this back around to the beginning in a nice segue.
Part 3: The Segue
So the other day in class I had passed out the cards and students were looking for their other group members. I came upon a student with a three of hearts and said, “Ok, well you have a yellow so let’s look for the others.” Then I laughed at myself because while I confuse them in my head sometimes, I rarely confuse colors and numbers out loud unless I have recently been explaining this phenomenon to someone. It didn’t really matter though. It went right over the student’s head into the box of “things my foreign teacher says that I don’t understand.” It’s a big box.
And there you go. It is sort of related. At least in my head, it was related. But then, so are colors and numbers and personalities and a lot of things that make no sense to other people. So probably it's not related at all. Just an attempt to make the things in my head seem connected to the outside world. I wonder what ever happened to that colored pencil family?
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
As we walked to dinner last night, we were surprised to see a small tent set up outside the adjacent apartment buildings, with a pair of white-clad people mulling around outside. For a moment I thought they were nurses. Perhaps they were having a blood drive? I wondered.
"It's a funeral," a student explained.
"I've never seen a Chinese funeral before," I said, as we continued to dinner, hiding my curiosity. Somehow during my first two years in Tonghua, I managed to never see a funeral, just the numerous graves on the side of the hill outside campus. I imagine that maybe it was simply too cold. So they were held indoors. On the way back, we made sure to make a detour closer to the tent, so we could get a glimpse inside.
Inside there appeared to be an altar at one end, where a photograph of the dead man was displayed. Next to the photo, there were joss sticks of burning incense and what looked like a pile of fruit. Offerings for the departed. Alongside the tent, which looks a bit like a 15-by-15-foot, 3-sided enclosure they might use for a booth at a fair in America, were a trio of multi-colored Pinwheel-like Chinese wreaths. Inside, a pair of mourners sat on the ground, wearing baggy white clothes and turban-like hats, crying. I couldn't tell if they were relatives or professional mourners. In China there is a tradition of hiring professional mourners for funerals.
I asked about the white clothing and discovered that mourners typically wear white because the body turns pale after death.
"What will happen?" I asked.
"There will be a singer. They will sing Shaanxi Opera all night," a student explained. "Starting at midnight."
"What's it like? Is it like Beijing Opera?" Wes asked.
"It's loud like heavy metal music."
I waited expectedly last night with my earplugs ready to muffle the sound, but was surprised that they didn't start singing.
Today, however, when I came back from office hour, loud grating music was blaring and a woman alternated between singing and wailing into a microphone (yes, this is all amplified for all to hear). I saw her playing a keyboard, and other musicians played a Chinese horn and the violin-like 2-stringed Er-hu. I gathered that perhaps this is the actual funeral. Maybe yesterday was just the first day of mourning. By this time, than a dozen mourners were gathered in the outside tent, even though the temperature had dropped into the 40s. About half of them wore white clothing. Some were inside, sitting. Several men were outside, burning paper money over a fire in a bucket, lighting loud popping fireworks. Other things seemed to burn in the flame-filled bucket, which was filled nearly to the top. Probably things like paper houses, paper cars, paper TVs and other things they think the departed might need to have a comfortable afterlife. These things show their respect for their elders and keep the relative happy so he won't have to pester them on earth.
Other customs I've heard about include keeping a light shining for the dead person "to light the way" and bowl of half-cooked rice near the body. The word for "half-cooked rice" apparently is pronounced the same as "live," echoing the family's wish for life. But I couldn't tell if they were doing these things or not. In any case, it seemed, from an outsider's perspective, to have little in common with American funerals. I'm gonna have to find out more.