Day 18: I Get Older, They Stay the Same Students

Like all good English teachers, we like to make jokes about our students. But rather than being intentionally mean-spirited, we do it as a way to stay sane and relieve our own stress at the challenge of becoming proficient in another language. Learning a language, as opposed to most other skills, comes with an incredibly high risk of embarrassment, considering that verbal slip-ups are often associated with a great deal of humor. But not being afraid to make mistakes is a mantra I often drill into my students, and it would be hypocritical then, if I didn't stop to laugh every once and a while. And besides, it's not like the feeling isn't mutual. Chinese friends and teachers here do it to us all the time—including drawing attention to an especially embarrassing slip of mine that confounded “medical insurance” as “beverage insurance” that I will seemingly never live down.

The boy's half of my "K" class posing for photo-ops after our last class of the spring semester last year.

But in the same way, when it comes to students, you can't help but get frustrated by the same things. In a given class, it's entirely too easy to generalize and envision them as a sea of clones. Everyone has similar tendencies to aversion and exhibits the same sorts of behaviors—confusing gender pronouns, sticking out their tongues when they're embarrassed, whispering to neighbors in Chinese when they have no idea what's going on. Especially when it comes to our first-year English majors, it's almost as if their every response has been pre-programmed by years of Chinese education. Everyone seems to know the “right” thing to say—that is, non-controversial, generally positive, and at times, blatantly nationalistic.

But even among the stand-outs, certain archetypes begin to crop up, forging similar strains between this year's students and last's. There always seems to be, for example, the smart student in the front row who is a go-to for answering tough questions. The outspoken girl who's volunteering in class is purely crush-motivated. The cute girl in class who you secretly have a crush on. The mild-mannered boy in the back who will surprise you with how much he knows. The former English major know-it-all with a chip on her shoulder. The student who is always missing class for work obligations in another city. The gutsy group of girls who are the first to befriend you outside of class. The athletic bunch of guys you play basketball with on the weekends.  The older student with a spouse and child who you wonder why is enrolled in graduate school. The dumpy, clueless boy who understands nothing save for how much he can glean in Chinese from his neighboring seatmates. The adventurous and creative student who excels in role plays and class skits.

The girl's half of my "K" class posing for photo-ops after our last class of the spring semester last year.

I suppose it doesn't help then, that this year's lesson plans are almost mirror carbon-copies of last year's. It's been wonderful being able to capitalize on those lessons that worked and fine-tune the ones that fell flat. I now feel like I have a coursebook that I can draw ready-made lessons from for nearly any situation. In grading student essays and class presentations I assigned for homework, I've also taken careful note of especially juicy tidbits. Compiled and categorized, I give you a short “best of” sampling of student essays from this year and last, centering on the topics of self-introductions and food. I'll save the more profound and touching responses for a forthcoming post. It might be my jaded teacher-side talking, but if all of the bad English parody sites out there have taught me nothing else, it's that there will be plenty more examples in the months to come.

The unintentionally suggestive:
“Guoyan is very famous for nuts. I invite you to have a taste of our nuts.”
“I think a lot of people like to my hamburgers.”
“In this festival, I want to do once your family personally. In a round round holiday sweet sweet honey.”
The needlessly detailed:
“When we cook this noodle, we use pieces of cutter to cripple the white collar into pieces and then use water to boil them.”
“The Datong hot pot is reasonable, it is consist of the chassis, the pot body, the copper gland, the fire tube, and the cap part.”
The absurd:
“When I eat the sweet meat, my temper will become so sunshine at once.”
“You'll feel a strong burning in your mouth, what a wonderful feeling!”
“I don't know whether you have already saliva, but I must suggest you can't eat more.”
“It's difficult to point out the most favorite food. But I find gruel plays a more and more important role in my daily life.”
“Often eat fried foods, due to the lack of vitamin and moisture, easy to lose, constipation.”
“I like to eat something that can be called food, so I have a weight that makes others worried about me.”
“My cat is a haughty cat. She doesn't like embracing.”
“When I lost passion, I will speak to me: 'Go, Go, Tony, hard working to be a excellent student.'”
“Please lead us to swim in the ocean of English and we will do our best.”
The hopelessly mistranslated:
“My family is very warm and fragrant.”
“I look forward to make a chronical friendship with you.”
“Every year, many tourists travel to Hongtong, one of the countries in Linfen, to sacrifice their ancestor.”
“She is a fan of telling horrible stories.”
“Koalas are my favorite. They are very cute and naïve.”
“Dumplings mix up some meat and vegetables like a pie with vinegar.”
“I like noodles because they are delicious and good-looking.”
“My favorite food is cattle.”
“Nowadays, fast food is so bandwagon.”
The non-sequitors:
“She hates chicken and selfishness.”
“All these activities enrich my extra-curricular life very much. Oh. I also dislike mango.”
“Folk music is my favorite. Anyway, I feel great pity for our country's singers.”
“You look like my sister. I must study hard.”
And the down-right incomprehensible:
“...add spring onion until fragrant go fishing.”
“Oh! I like drink is milk. I don't know cooked. Sorry! I will try to cook some food.”
“The hobby widely cause me to be substantial; the numerous friends cause me to feel urgently richly!”

Day 17: Corporal Punishment Gets a Face Lift

One of the most pervasive stereotypes about Asians in America is their smarts. Whether it's a product of parents or simply the educational system, there is the notion that Asians somehow “learn” better than most other people. And while this factors prominently into the “model minority myth,” it also underlines how much we as Americans don't understand about the education system across the Pacific.

The exterior of the main teaching building on campus (photo courtesy of Alexandra Sterman).

Education didn't get to be such a high priority overnight. Though I plan to write a subsequent post detailing the situation in China more generally, in Taigu, the environment still isn't exactly speed-tracked for learning. SAU is what can be referred to as a mid-tier school—it doesn't require a tremendously high score on the college entrance examination, but it ranks higher than the private vocational colleges that serve students who fail the test outright. Though the years leading up to college are paved with sleepless nights of studying and manic rote memorization, college and beyond is a breeze by comparison. Here in Taigu, college, graduate, and PhD students have a reputation for being lazier than their middle and high school counterparts. As a result, students routinely skip classes they find boring, text in the back of crowded lecture rooms, and play Warcraft in internet bars in lieu of doing homework. Unfortunately for them, China knows a thing or two about taking disciplinary measures to enforce appropriate classroom protocol.

At one of my part-time teaching jobs in Taigu town, my boss stood before a classroom of admittedly mischievous middle school students brandishing a jagged chair leg. He then proceeded to shout in Chinese, “if you don't behave well in this class, I will use this to beat you,” before walking out and pleasantly ushering me in to start my lesson. It was not the first time I had been privy to the threat of physical violence at an institution of learning. When I did an activity on values and morality last semester, the vast majority of my students were in favor of beating their children, as almost everyone in the class had been beaten growing up either by their parents or their school teachers. Punishment for acting out in class in China is severe. A friend told me that when he was in high school he was once forced to stand within the confines of a chalk-drawn circle for an entire class period for disrupting his teacher. Others have spoken about the tiny metal rulers that teachers would use to hit you if you were nodding off in class.

A hallway and a segment of the wall from inside the main teaching building, both of which look like vestiges of a zombie apocalypse.

Earlier this year when we were taking the new Fellows around campus, Gerald aptly pointed out that the main teaching building looks suspiciously like a level straight out of the classic shoot-em-up arcade game, House of the Dead. The walls are pockmarked with what might as well be shells from a sub-machine gun blast and the halls are so stark and dimly lit that you almost expect a biologically engineered undead to emerge from the shadows at any moment. At the front of the entrance stands a rusting statue of a famous Chinese educator and a precariously dangling chandelier as if to warn of imminent danger. The classrooms themselves are bare and gloomy save for coats of white paint that seem to wilt further into gray by the day and large portrait-sized biographies of famous Socialist dictators. Even in midday, walking the halls alone can send shivers down my spine. So in the end, the big question still remains—what's more terrifying: a flesh-eating mutant or the Chinese disciplinary system? Hand me that shotgun any day.

Day 16: Have Your Cake and Eat It Sparingly

A part of me laments the fact that I haven't celebrated my birthday in China. Last year, my 22nd birthday in New York was my last big send-off before embarking on this Fellowship, and this year, I was nearing the tail-end of a summer of travel in Southeast Asia with a bunch of strangers on-board a cruise liner floating through Halong Bay. What's worse is that next year, my plan is to be back home for my birthday so that my visa doesn't run out and I can start readjusting to American life again. Though it disappoints me in some ways, after experiencing a myriad of birthday celebrations over the last year-and-a-half, I at least have a good sense of what I will be missing out on.

Lighting the candles on James' birthday cake, generously provided by the Foreign Affairs Office (photo courtesy of Alexandra Sterman).

Even for young people in China, birthdays aren't nearly the raucous occasions that they are in the states. Especially since China doesn't have age requirements on drinking, the very concept of a 21st birthday party loses its sanctity and function as a rite of passage. Most times, a birthday is an understated affair—oftentimes spent having a big meal with friends or going out to sing karaoke. But despite its lack of pomp and ceremony, there are still some traditions that stick. One involves the ingestion of a heinously long noodle to symbolize longevity, while most of the others seem to revolve around the decadent and oftentimes unappetizing excuse for a birthday cake that's served up at every party.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I have a deep well of knowledge on Chinese birthday cake culture. It not only stems from repeated (and begrudging) samplings of the baked good and a handful of purchases for friend's parties, but on the couple of occasions that I have actually witnessed the entire process of it being made from start to finish. Chinese cakes here evoke memories of the worst cakes from Chinese bakeries back home in New York. It starts with the base—a squishy brick of yellow sponge cake neatly trimmed and molded into a perfect circle. Next comes the syrupy-sweet icing, which comprises about 3/5 of the actual cake. It is plopped in heaping paddle-fulls around and on top of the sponge cake and swished in place with a spatula. On the top is where things get really artisanal—chefs armed with pastry bags squirt bits of colored icing to shape into flowers, figures, animals, and the lettering used for personalized messages. Then, the entire masterpiece is packaged under a plastic lid, fastened with twine, and ready to distribute.

Just as we did last year, we celebrated Lynn's birthday just before the start of the semester.  We went first to karaoke and then bought her cake and dinner at an outdoor market in town (photo courtesy of Alexandra Sterman).

Ironically, my first real memory in China is of a birthday party. Not 24 hours after I arrived in Taigu, Anne invited me to go out to dinner with her and a couple of Chinese friends to celebrate her friend Lynn's birthday. Slightly jet-lagged but desperate for an amicable first impression, I agreed, and no sooner was swooped up in a cab and dropped off first at a karaoke parlor and then on to a restaurant for dinner. Since then, many birthdays have come and gone—all evoking the most infamous tradition of smearing icing on the birthday recipient's face for good luck. That, paired with the reality of eating such cake on tiny Styrofoam saucers with a fork designed for garden gnomes, it would appear that Chinese cakes are meant more for destruction than actually being eaten, which is fortunate given the taste. James, too, celebrated his birthday in the fall, and we pulled out all the stops in observing the Chinese traditions, icing and all. Because at the end of the day, it's all about cross-cultural acceptance.

Day 15: Water, Water, Everywhere, Nor Any Drop to Drink

As is the case in many developing countries, in China, tap water is not safe for general consumption. Before I moved here, it was the first time in my life—aside from a brief family vacation in Puerto Rico—that I had to envision going through life without being able to drink the water. I imagined lugging a miniature reverse-osmosis water filter to China to hook up to my kitchen sink and brushing my teeth with rainwater. My old housemate Brendan, when he was living abroad in Taiwan, told me that he took precautions both to boil water and then run it through a Brita filter before he deemed it safe enough to drink. In reality, though, the situation here is a lot tamer than I anticipated. We have a snazzy water cooler in our living room with a split hot/cool water valve system, and when we finish each 20-liter reusable container, we simply call to have a new one delivered right to our door.

I realize the privilege that comes with being able to drink tap water, and yet ironically, in some of the only places in the world where that's a viable option—America and Japan, among them—it is becoming more and more unusual. People have become so afraid of the safety of tap water that it is gradually being phased out by the bottled water industry. By contrast, in China the fear of tap water is not irrational—whereas Indian locals actually do drink the water, no one in China drinks straight from the tap. Rather, all of the water is irradiated or boiled, making the only water served at restaurants scalding hot. It also means that in order to have drinking water, students must carry large hot water thermoses to water-filling stations on campus and wait until the water is cool enough to drink. There is a danger that comes with a society used to handling boiled water, evidenced by the burn marks and scars on many of the people.

A long line of spigots at a hot water filling station on campus.

But aside from drinking water, water culture in Taigu is a complexity in and of itself. For one thing, it's hard to tell whether or not the black water that seeps into our washing machines actually gets our clothes any cleaner. For another, the water in our houses turns off at 11pm every night. That means no showers, no washing hands, and no brushing teeth. In spite of the annoyance, what's worse is that the schedule is incredibly inconsistent—sometimes the water shuts off as early as 9pm or stays on all night. Every turn of the faucet makes for a thrilling adventure—at times it's business as usual, but every third or forth twist, it'll surprise you.

The shower is equally as finicky. I pray for those rare times when I can take a shower completely uninterrupted by the gargling sounds of the pipe gaskets, a prolonged shock of coldness, or the water intermittently turning off for minutes at a time. I like to compare my shower-head to a spitting dragon—every now and then it likes to sputter and hiss at you with a concentrated blast of scalding hot water. The quality of the showers also varies based on the time of day—with the water pressure deviating from a healthy stream to barely a trickle. But the worst and scariest by far are those times at night—past the water cut-off curfew, with no shops open and no water left in the cooler—where we literally find ourselves without any means to drinking water. It's yet another reason, I'm learning, not to take even the most basic things in life for granted.

Day 14: This Room Was Built on Good Intentions

You know the old saying that goes: “things always get worse before they get better”—the belief that even at its worst, there is the supposition that in the future a given situation will improve? Well, whoever coined that phrase obviously never lived in a Chinese house.

This realization was a long time in the making. I had seen structures outfitted and thrown up in nary a month's time in numerous cities in and around China, but most strikingly on campus and in the town of Taigu where I live. Giant construction pits full of concrete slurry, mortar, fragmented brick chunks, and wooden support beams line the edge of North Yard, and seemingly transform into habitable structures overnight. However, as James, who worked as a stone mason for a year, will tell you, not all buildings are created equal. The instability and shoddiness with which buildings get erected in China is largely to blame for the grave aftermath of catastrophic events like earthquakes and landslides, which have been headline-making news of late. The emphasis is on getting buildings up, and not about ensuring the structural integrity of them to any large degree.

The door to my bedroom, decorated with posters from Hong Kong, New York, and Japan.

From an outsider's perspective, China's economic development is advancing at a blistering pace. But foreigners only see one side of the story—the tall, glittery new highrises that line China's skylines in Shanghai and Guangzhou. The truth of the matter is much more nuanced—that wedged within those massively tall skyscrapers lie innumerable building codes violations and a bevvy of cost-efficient, but ultimately low-quality building materials. While the exteriors may be paragons of grandeur, little thought is placed on the effects of that hasty construction in the long run. In fact, Chinese modernization bears a stunning correlation to the state of our one-story flats.

Much to my surprise, following the long summer holiday, I returned home to find the interior of my home meticulously re-modeled. Though most of the renovations were much needed fixes, within a matter of weeks, they had done very little to affect any kind of long-lasting change. It became clear to me that rather than tackle the problem at its core, aging houses like mine have just been remodeled to oblivion. In one of my first lessons on living in Taigu, I learned that leaning up against any surface is a recipe for discolored clothing. The white-wash walls in our homes are really no more than compacted layers of chalk and the external “bricks” are actually just red-dyed cinder blocks made to look like them. Since I first moved in, numerous dance parties have worn away the evenness of the floor, we've needed three replacement living room tables, and rats have chewed holes through drywall, plumbing, and ceiling tiles. Cracks have already begun to form in the new paint job of our neither sound- nor weather-proof walls.

My bedroom, outfitted with a poster from Pingyao, a tapestry from Oberlin, and a nightstand overflowing with nick-knacks and student gifts.  The red lantern from Nanjing in the foreground transforms the room into a seedy opium den by night.

In an effort to counteract such shortcomings, I've made a few DIY modifications. I did my own make-shift insulation by layering the three floor-to-ceiling windows in my bedroom with thick sheets of plastic. Though it does make the room warmer and ironically gives me quite a bit more privacy, it unfortunately eliminates the ability to see the sun. I've also tried to do a few less purely practical touches in the way of interior decorating, reprising my role first at Oberlin and later at Cornell—starting with a newly acquired lantern from Nanjing and a few well-placed wall hangings and posters. While they may not be enough to stop natural disasters, at least they're small steps toward improving my quality of life. Perhaps things do get better after all.