Thursday, September 24, 2009

"If you aren't confused, you aren't paying attention"

phonetics students
Originally uploaded by kevsunblush
One of our company leaders, who has lived in China for over 20 years, has several mottos for understanding life in China/Chinese society. One of them is, “If you aren’t confused, you aren’t paying attention.” Our lives seem to often demonstrate this point. Take this afternoon, for example...

2:30pm - Kevin and I go to teach our phonetics classes (they are in multi-media computer classrooms). I arrive to find my classroom unlocked but empty. I have no idea where they are, and since I have only met them once, I don’t have any phone numbers yet. Meanwhile, Kevin arrives at his classroom to find my students instead of his students in his classroom (it takes a while to realize this, however, since we’ve only met these freshmen once).

2:35pm – I call my teammate Kelly who also teaches my student and has fortunately gotten their phone numbers already. I find out the student monitor’s number and try to give him a call. Meanwhile, Kevin realizes my students are in his classroom and goes searching for his students.

2:36pm – I call Kelly back since I can’t get a hold of the monitor and ask for another student phone number. I call the student but he can’t understand anything I’m saying. At the same time, Kevin shows up at my door saying he has found my class, and he will send them down.

2:40pm – My students arrive in my classroom. I have no idea why they went to the other classroom, but we can finally get started. Kevin finds his students and brings them to the right classroom.

2:45pm – Kevin can’t get the computers in his classroom to work. He goes to the office to enlist some help. The help (the poor people from the office who deal with all our problems) was unable to help. The Office Man told Kevin he would find another classroom for him, but then disappeared. Kevin ran to find Office Man while his students waited in the hallway.

2:55pm - After running up and down the stairs several times, Kevin was able to find Office Man who unlocks a new classroom for them. Kevin finally starts class.

3:10pm – I am doing individual pre-tests with my students while the others watch a movie. Everything was going smoothly until 20 minutes into the movie when the students’ computer monitors all inexplicably stop working. I try the only things I know how to do – reopen the program and reboot the power. These have no effect so I send a student up to the office for help.

3:15pm – I tell the waiting students to talk about something random and try to continue my individual testing. Office Man comes down and does something with the computers and the power. He leaves before we realize it still doesn’t work.

3:20pm – I send the student back up to the office, but he finds no one there. They are apparently now all in a meeting. They cannot fix it until after the class. I tell my students to do some random activities from the book while I try to finish up the tests.

3:55pm – After about five more interruptions which I won’t detail, I finish up the tests and try to finish up the class. I’ve gotten pretty accustomed to unexpected problems and confusions, but I am still feeling rather frazzled.

4:10pm – As my next class of students enter the classroom, I go back up to the office to request more help. Another office man comes down and he and another random person try to do some different things on the computer. Finally they decide that these computers cannot be fixed right now, so we all move to another classroom.

4:20pm – Meanwhile, Kelly has arrived to teach her Oral English class only her students aren’t there. For some reason, the students thought they would have Kevin’s phonetics class today instead. They show up at Kevin’s classroom and are confused and a little bit offended that Kevin won’t teach them now. He tells them they are supposed to be meeting Kelly instead.

4:30pm - Kelly and her class are reunited. Kevin and his next class find each other. My new classroom computers work well with no problems. We are all happy though still deeply confused.

Fortunately, my second class got to actually see the movie (Wild Hearts Can’t be Broken) and they loved it. Perhaps even more than I do. They laughed at funny moments. They clapped at triumphant moments. I heard sniffling during the sad parts. They clasped their hands and leaned forward during suspenseful moments. They sighed contentedly during the romantic parts. I love showing movies to Chinese students.

If you would believe it, this story was actually even more complex in real life, but I left out some of the other complications because I figured you'd already be confused enough. Chaos is often a normal part of life in China, but not usually quite so much for quite so many people all at the same time. As the Chinese would say, "Aiii Yaaaa!"

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The (Constant) Sound of Music

by Ruth

Everywhere I go these days, I hear singing. It’s not just my blissful state or unrelenting optimism (I have finally admitted that I am indeed a pessimist). There is actual singing going on every which away I turn.

We are just about a week away from China’s big 60th anniversary. Sure, this country has been around for thousands of years, but it is also 60 years old in the sense of being the People’s Republic of China. So it’s a really big deal. I would say it’s like 4th of July on steroids, but that really doesn’t begin to describe it. We just don’t do celebration on the large scale that China does.

We have been hearing about the grandiose celebrations that will be happening in Beijing. They are supposed to top the Olympics, and that was quite a presentation. There will probably be fireworks being shot off every minute of the day in every city across China. Our school is doing its part to participate as all the students are bursting with patriotic pride. And also, bursting with song.

For the past two weeks as we have walked around campus, we keep encountering groups of 30-50 students and teachers practicing songs outside various classroom buildings. Often there are several groups practicing on different parts of campus. We hear it from our apartments, in our classrooms, and everywhere we go. The first week it was mesmerizing. The second week it was interesting. Now, I'll be honest, it's getting a little tiring.

Tomorrow will be the big performance, so today the groups have been in mega-overdrive. All day long, they have been gathering to practice on the front steps of the main classroom building, this time complete with microphones, large speakers, and costumes. When I walked to class at 7:30am, hundreds of people were already congregating. My classes were carried out with the benefit of constant background music…if it can be called “background” music when you have to yell over it. When I finished with class at 4:15, hundreds of people were still gathered around while various groups loudly practiced their songs. Even during the rest period, the sacred after lunch rest period which is usually the quietest time of the day, the groups were practicing their singing. Now, at 11pm at night the speakers are still blasting out their music. It sounds like I have music going in the next room. Good thing I’ve got earplugs. Who knows when this will end.

So tomorrow will be the big performance, and I’m not quite sure what it will be like. Or rather, I’m pretty sure what it will sound like since I’ve been hearing it for weeks. But I’m not sure how long it will last. Apparently each department is performing. There are 20 departments. So I think we’re looking at hours…and hours. We were strongly encouraged to move our classes to different times because it's a big deal. I think it will be interesting. For all the practicing, they are bound to be good!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Bye-bye Facebook, Facebook goodbye...

Dear Friends,

Effective last week we have entered a post-Facebook world. The little people who sit in little cubicles in some little city blocking websites all day have finally been effective. We searched through several different methods of worming our way around the block, but the programs that once working for us have now been terminated, at least at our school.

And so, we are forced to end our Facebook relationship. Maybe I shouldn’t say it’s the end of the relationship but rather that we’re “taking a break.” It’s possible that one day (say, after the big upcoming anniversary), Facebook will all of a sudden become available again. Until that time, let me explain the operating procedures for those of you who have forgotten how communication ever happened before Facebook.

What we can do:
1. We can still post notes (because actually they are just imported blog posts).
2. We can still read comments made on our notes (because they are emailed to us).
3. We can read private facebook messages (which are also emailed to us).

What we can’t do:
1. Reply to private facebook messages (unless you are so kind as to give us your actual email address)
2. Read comments left on our walls or perhaps other random places.
3. Look at all the nice pictures you posted.
4. Post our own pictures (unless maybe if they are part of the blog).
5. Update you about what we are doing five times a day.
6. Read your updates about which cereal you chose to eat, how much you hate traffic, and what kind of toothpaste you use (I think we’ll survive anyway).
7. Read your updates about important life events which you no longer tell people about because you posted it on Facebook.

What you should do:
1. Still leave comments on our notes, because we do like comments. 
2. Tell us your email address so we still have some method of contact.
3. Remember your poor Facebook-less friends and TELL us when something important happens in your life.
4. Don’t forget we exist.

Thank you for your patience and understanding as we all attempt to adapt ourselves to these more archaic forms of communication.
Mr. and Mrs. Ruvin

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

When is it OK to lie?

by Kevin

"We will have to be sneaky," Brian told us when we went to visit him in Lanzhou, Gansu, the next province to the west of ours. "I don't want my boss to find out that you came."

Sometimes it's hard for us to completely grasp the ethical issues Chinese people face dealing with foreigners. Usually a Chinese person would be glad to parade around a foreigner in a town that is rarely, if ever, visited by foreigners. They would gain a lot of face for being the person responsible for bringing a white face into town. But, our relationship runs deep enough that exploiting us wasn't on Brian's mind.

But still, it's complicated.

Last Spring, just after he had started the job teaching English at a small tutoring school in a tiny three-street town outside of Lanzhou called Hai Shi Wan, he asked his boss if he could have a day off so he could come to visit his foreign teacher if I came to visit. It would be my first chance to see him since leaving Tonghua more than two years ago. His boss said he would give him the time on one condition: he wanted to either photograph us and use us to advertise for his school or he wanted us to do a lecture for his students. Since our company prohibits us from doing outside work, I was hesitant. Before I could reply, Brian said, "I told him that I don't think you can do it." His boss didn't understand why we would say no. After all, the nature of guangxi in China means going out of your way to help friends and colleagues. His boss thought that if Brian has a strong relationship with some foreigners, he should be both willing and able to leverage that relationship to help his new relationship with his boss. "I would rather not do those things," I told him. "But I will do whatever you need me to do. If it helps you with your new job, I understand."

Unfortunately issues with getting a visa renewed (it took more than a month) meant that we had to postpone our trip until this fall. In the ensuing months, Brian decided that he doesn't want to work there for much longer (another story, which I'll try to get to soon).

So when we came, he made a difficult decision: he lied to his boss, saying that he needed the day off so he could go into Lanzhou to attend a friend's wedding. That meant we would have to lay low in the town. "If my boss finds out, he will be very angry."

As we checked into our hotel for the night, I was doubtful that it would be possible to keep quiet the arrival of "Wai guo ren" (the word for foreigners is literally "outside people"). The receptionist seemed genuinely shocked when we arrived. Even though the 2-star hotel, owned by the State Grid Corporation of China (the national power company), is the only one in town approved to the government to house foreigners, apparently they haven't had many. She nervously smiled and called her manager to ask for the proper procedures for checking us in. Since they didn't have a copy machine on hand, they took our passports so they could make photocopies, promising to return them before we left the next morning. I wondered when, or, more specifically, if foreigners have stayed at the hotel before.

So when we walked through the small town, which has maybe 20 or 30,000 people and covers about five blocks on three main streets, we took a small back road. Keeping news of foreigners coming to town quiet was going to be difficult. The key was going out of the way to make sure if his boss did get wind of foreigners coming, nobody would connect us to Brian.

Everywhere we went in town, people stared intently at us. Most welcomingly shouted "hello," but many others had suspicion plastered on their faces.

When we got to our hotel room, the door was open. I figured a cleaning lady was getting it ready for us. Instead, a young girl was sitting in the room watching TV, shocked to be disturbed by foreigners. Undoubtedly, she was the daughter of someone working at the hotel who had picked a free room to watch some TV. It wasn't difficult to see why the hotel had two stars. It smelled like a mixture of cigarette smoke and standing water and there was a large water stain on the carpet next to the bathroom. The bathroom door was so ajar that it didn't come close to closing. The bed was also only slightly softer than a piece of plywood. Ruth curled the blanket underneath her to provide a semblance of padding. After sleeping horribly on the noisy, smoke-filled train the night before, we slept like babies for about 11 hours while Brian went to work Friday night and Saturday morning.

When his boss unexpectedly called for a meeting with parents that afternoon, we hid out in the small bachelor's pad Brian shares with two other teachers, who were also sworn to secrecy. We watched our first game of snooker (a billiards-like game) on CCTV 5 and marveled at the sparse decor. They had four beds, a few seats, a coffeetable and a TV stand holding a small TV, but that was about the extent of the furniture. No mattresses on the beds. Although two of them were softened by half-inch mattress pads, the only padding on the third bed was a layer of cardboard.

The closest we got to the "Frontier Study School" was when we drove past it in the city's peculiar three-wheeled taxis, which Brian mocked as "Huge Road Mice." Brian couldn't risk us getting any closer.

Huge Road Mouse - small
Originally uploaded by kevsunblush

When we left, Brian escorted us onto our train and we said our goodbyes. We got situated and noticed that the train was slowly beginning to creep forward. Brian hurried toward the exit, certain that he would be able to leave. I looked out the window hoping to wave goodbye one last time. But he didn't materialize. Then suddenly, laughing, Brian plopped down into the seat across from me. "The conductor wouldn't let me get off."

He pulled the printed train schedule from his pocket and searched to see if there would be a train he could take him back that night or early enough the next morning that he could teach his class. No. Laughing, he began calling his boss and coworkers to try and reschedule his class, telling them that he'd gotten stuck on a train seeing off some "friends." "I am embarrassed," he said. "Now whenever you think of your trip here, you will think about this. At least I will have a funny story to tell my students."

I tried to slip some money into his pocket to pay for his unexpected expenses, but he swatted my hand away.

The bright side was we got a few more hours with him, since we had an hour to wait in Lanzhou before catching our overnight train back to Weinan. Throughout the train ride, an exuberant woman attempted to sell us a variety of toys. When she realized that our Chinese was limited, she asked Brian if he would help her translate.

Brian again lied to protect us. "I don't know them," he said.

She didn't believe him.

"I saw you talking to them in English," she said. "Just help me translate into English."

"I don't speak English," he said.

"I won't leave until I sell something to the foreigners," she told him in Chinese, occasionally throwing out the few English phrases she could remember: "Hello." "Pleased to meet you."

After a good 10 minutes of bantering, during which a car full of passengers watched, she finally walked away.

When she approached again later, she again attempted to get us to buy something. Sitting down, she asked another man to teach her what to say in English so she could make the sale.

She hid out in a seat near us, waiting to catch Brian speaking to us in English so she could convince him to help her make the sale.

Finally, as we were exiting the train, Brian told us to make sure we had all our things. As we were walking away, he turned around while I forced some money into his pocket to pay for his unexpected expenses.

"I knew it," she said. "They were together."

We couldn't stop laughing. Brian said, "Now I have two stories to tell my students."

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


by Ruth

The freshmen have arrived. This has been evidenced by:
- Huge banners, balloons, and blow-up welcoming arches
- Lost looking kids wandering around with suitcases
- All day announcements and music blared through the loudspeakers (alternating between quiet elevator-type music, loud, patriotic marches, and high-pitched operas)
- A special 2.5 hour welcoming program of speeches and performances
- Thousands of kids walking around in matching wind-suits and now…
- Thousands of kids broken into class groups, standing in line, turning, and marching together
- The leaders counting off “yi, er, san, si” followed by “YI, ER, SAN, SI” from the students

Unlike in America, the freshmen arrive two weeks after the older students. They have a short orientation and then go through military training before classes. Military training is when they stand in lines and shout out numbers. After a while, they will add marching and turning to the regimen. They do this all day long (with of course the lunch/nap break in the middle, because it would be inhumane to not allow a mid-day nap). It seems like it would be pretty boring, but some of the students say they have fond memories from that time. I guess in all the time that they are standing around doing nothing, they talk to their classmates and start getting to know each other.

We thought the freshmen would have two weeks of military training, but now it appears that they will start classes next week, which means that we will need to start teaching them next week. Kevin and I are teaching half sophomores and half freshmen, so this first couple of weeks we’ve had significantly less to do. I guess we should figure out what we're going to teach these little freshmen. Darn it…now we actually have to work. What a drag.