Monday, November 3, 2008

A Chinese Epic

Kunming, Yunan, China

November 3rd, 2008

(I typed this up at home and am uploading it the next day at the university where we have wireless access…hence the date confusion…and the 16 hour time difference doesn't help either…)


Wow. I don't even know where to begin. I mean…oh my.


Well. After my last blog post, we took a train back to Cusco and arrived at our hostel about 10pm (having been up since 4). We all wanted to shower and then fall into bed and sleep for days, but this is TBB so what actually happened was something more like get your bags out of storage, lay everything out on the bed, reorganize, repack, steal a little shuteye. Hopefully everyone found a moment to shower and, fingers crossed, there was hot water left. I went for the early morning (4am…again) shower in the interest of not dozing off standing up with the shampoo still in my hair…the fact that no one else was showering so there was plenty of hot water was a lovely side benefit. After our last breakfast of coca tea we were off to the airport (where I snagged a Peruvian chess board as a gift for my Chinese host family to be…although we've since been told to give them the gift at the end so I still have it).


We took a short flight to Lima where all did not go quite as smoothly as planned. We couldn't check our bags through to Beijing. Six packs got checked through to L.A. which was the worst case scenario since we would only have an hour and a half layover there and we had to pick up the rest in Lima and recheck them. While at the baggage claim, despite the fact that we piled our bags together as they came off the carousel and stood in a circle around them, we managed to be negligent enough to get Robin's carry-on snagged from right under our noses. By the time we noticed it was gone, it was too late…just barely, which is all the more frustrating. It is not at all difficult to steal a bag in Lima if you're ever in the mood for some theft. You just grab it, walk 100 meters to the front doors and hail a cab. Home free. Unfortunately, Robin's carry-on probably had the most valuables in it, both financially speaking and in a more personal sense – things that the thief wouldn't want anyway but that nonetheless are gone forever. So that was less than ideal, to say the least. From there we flew to San Salvador and then to L.A. We had to go through customs, get our bags and sprint two terminals over. A customs officer complete with a bizarre 1am sense of humor helped us through the immigration line quickly, but we had to wait 20 minutes for our bags so all that initial hurry was for naught. Why U.S.A., why must you make us go through customs on a layover?


Well, we made it through, just barely, and along the way we picked up our new staff member, Beth. She's pretty awesome, although I'm afraid she got a terrible first impression of all of us since we were hot, exhausted and very cranky. I think she's warmed up to us, though. J


The next flight was a fifteen hour behemoth to Beijing and from there to Kunming where we ate a quick lunch (aka a HUGE family style Chinese meal at the restaurant of a fancy airport hotel…food here, incidentally, is delicious) and hopped on a private bus for the two hour ride to Tong Hai where we would have orientation. No rest for the weary, we visited "Tong Hai Numba One Middre Schoo" (for those not well-versed in Chinglish, Tong Hai's Number One Middle School) and taught an impromptu twenty minute English Class. From there we visited a private English school for children ages 4 to 12 run by a very jolly Chinese man named Albert. And then: BED. Yay!


Day two, or whatever you call the first full day in China, was October 28th 2008, also known as my 18th birthday. We ate a traditional Chinese breakfast in our hotel (noodles, chicken soup, fried dough, bread/cake…very good) and then headed to The Hill in Tong Hai for orientation at one of the many, MANY temples situated there. We ate lunch at the temple and had the afternoon off to explore the temples on the hill. I explored for about two hours, arrived back at our hotel intending to do some work, journal, read – something productive, but failed miserably and ended up extending my 30 minute nap into an hour and fifteen minutes until I had to get up to go to dinner.


Dinner was at Albert's school. He and his family cooked for all 21 of us. (21? You ask. Why yes. 15 TBB students, Robin and Sandy, Beth, Sam and Yuen, and Charles. Sam, who is originally from Virginia, and his wife Yuen run the SIT program in Kunming (SIT is the School for International Training…they're our partner NGO here in China) and Charles is a twenty-something Chinese guy who is working with them. He's very tech geeky and very adorable…and very helpful and on top of things.) Meals in China, or at least in Yunan province, seem to always be served family style. At restaurants this usually involves a big Lazy Susan laden with so many bowls that we have to stack them by the time they bring the last few (they come slowly with rice sometime near the end because eating rice first is desperate and smacks of poverty) and at a home it involves a lot of reaching and skillful chopstick maneuvering. Again, the food is generally delicious…particularly noodles, dumplings and anything tofu, although I can now say I've tried wild pig (like chopped up beef jerky) and, more exotically, bee. Yes, bee. It was fried and tasted…fried. But I tried it. Aren't you proud of me?


I'm sorry about all these tangential comments, multiple commas and parentheses within parentheses. There's too much to catch up on to make this cleanly linear. Anyway, Becca's 18th birthday dinner was at Albert's. I was having a nice birthday just hanging out with my friends and being in China, but it didn't end there. I got not one cake, but two because Sam and Yuen bought one not knowing that Albert also knew it was my birthday and had purchased a cake. Both were fabulous. One was covered in beautiful orange flowers (and I think tasted good, but it ended up at the other table so I didn't try it) and the other was themed pink, with a frosting horse (because I was born in the year of the horse) and a plastic flower candle (or, candles, rather because it had one on each petal) that bloomed when you lit it…inside it was sponge-cakey and quite yummy. Dayenu, right? But no. I also got a package from the home front containing not one but 28 Obama t-shirts of all varieties and sizes to share with the group (and, apparently, anyone we met on the street willing to risk arrest for too much political expression). I believe it was Alexandra who said it was the best birthday she ever had…and it was not her birthday. It helped that we are all very into the election and also that none of us had any clean clothing left. The Obama shirts were worn many days in a row. J Dayenu. And yet…also planned for that evening (although we all were exhausted…a 15 hour time change close on the heels of Machu Picchu will do that to you) was a concert of traditional Chinese music held just for us. It was pretty cool. I have a (low quality) video of a few songs which may someday make it somewhere where it can be watched. I actually am hoping to figure out how to rip the sound off the video and use it for the podcast I'll be making about China (we have new media groups in each country and this time around I'm in the podcast group). Speaking of media projects, they're all up now…or ¾ of them are. The Google Earth turned Powerpoint will be up soon…the website wasn't formatted to upload Powerpoint because we didn't intend to be making any…but it will be the best Powerpoint you've ever seen. I promise. It's quite good.


The next day we visited the number 2 high school in Tong High and bused ourselves back to Kunming to meet our host families.  We all live in apartments (I don't think there are any single family homes in Kunming), but beyond that there is a huge range of English ability and lifestyle among the host families. Some of the parents are English teachers (meaning their English is passable and they will at least occasionally understand you), some host siblings speak fluent English, some are learning it in school, and a few host families have virtually no English at all. I've also learned that some host families live in moderate apartments (palaces compared to Bua…with warm running water and some form of toilet or porcelain hole in the floor that flushes) and some live in ritzy penthouses (I'm talking 60 inch flat screen TV's, an upstairs with a koi pond and a ping pong table, multiple computers, cushy leather chairs and a banister painted with gold leaf).


My host family lives in one of the moderate middle class apartments (although not one that has been decorated to feel at all homey). We have a shower that will stay the temperature you want it to be as long as you turn on the electric heater an hour ahead of time and a real toilet. My host family does not, however, have any English. It's just me, my host mom and my host dad, neither of whose names I know because I couldn't pronounce them when they told me. They have a son, but he is at university in Beijing. The frustrating thing is that I'm sure he speaks at least some English because you have to in order to pass the university matriculation exam and going to college all the way in Beijing (a three hour plane flight away) is very prestigious. I didn't even have an English/ Chinese dictionary when I arrived and although my parents came armed with a newly purchased Chinese/English dictionary I needed one quite badly. Luckily, on day two, John came to the rescue by lending (/giving…I'm keeping it…) me his phrasebook since his family speaks English well enough to communicate. Since then, we spend every meal with our dictionaries and a pad of paper to write things down. My host mother can't really read pinyin (the phonetic-ish way of writing Chinese words with roman letters) so when my host father isn't home I have to copy down the Chinese characters from the small dictionary in the back of the phrasebook.


I'm trying very hard to communicate and to be polite, but it's been frustrating. First of all, Chinese people in Yunan speak very loudly, but my family, I've just learned, is from somewhere else where they essentially yell everything. And when they get frustrated they yell louder. Also, I spent an hour and a half Saturday night explaining my plans for Sunday, only to have my family override them twice. I wasn't sure if they didn't understand me (although I was sure they did) or just didn't care that I'd planned to meet friends. I'm getting used to the idea that although we aren't allowed to have cell phones, all the families have phones we can use. Today, after I told Charles about my trying Sunday night (which ended with me in tears for the second time in the last four days….the first time being when I got lost for an hour and a half and finally found two nice although non-English-speaking Chinese boys who could walk me home…and I was half an hours walk away from home so it was all the more amazingly nice of them to take me…I had been getting directions through finger pointing so I thought I was probably close, but no…not even a little…I've since learned my way. I think. I haven't been brave enough to try to get anywhere alone though.) Anyway, when I told Charles, he said I should call him if I ever have trouble communicating and I've already taken him up on that offer. It was helpful, but I don't want to have to go through him every time I need to tell my family something even remotely complicated.


I think what I'm learning from this is that while I'm a little uncomfortable with homestays in general because I never want to be a burden, homestays where you have no common language are just not for me. We do have Chinese class in the mornings for an hour, but I'm not going to become fluent in three days time…and I really need to be at least functional. I'm not. Plus, in addition to the frustrating inability to communicate basic ideas, we certainly can't have any sort of interesting cultural exchange through conversation. While other people have talked to their families about history and politics, I'm excited when I can tell them I'll be home for dinner. And I'm so used to either living in Bua with my 6 host siblings, mother, father, grandmother, grandfather and Isabel or in a hostel in a room with 5 other girls that I get very lonely at home here. Luckily we have very busy and structured days so I'm not home much and when I am I have about 5 different kinds of homework I should be doing and am always very behind.


Our daily schedule goes something like this:

8:30 – 9:30 Chinese class

9:30 – 12:00 Seminars or Lectures

12:00 – 1:00 Lunch (in the insane cafeteria or buying food from a cart on the street)

1:00 – 2:00 Teaching help and lesson planning

2:00 – 5:15 Teaching English at a middle school


When I say insane cafeteria by the way, I mean it. The three walls are lined with food and you push your way through the masses of people if you see something you like, point at it, have some arbitrary amount scooped into your giant metal mug (you have to bring your own bowl/plate/spoon/chopsticks…they aren't provided), put your meal card on what looks like an electric scale but is actually a scanner and have the price of whatever item you just added to your pot subtracted from your total. Food at the university is government subsidized and so very cheap, but street food is still cheaper. I bought three dumplings today for 1.50 kwai. There are about 7 kwai to a dollar. Yeah.


Teaching English is…interesting. I'm teaching at the private school (as opposed to the ritzy half/half school or the public school which has less technology but also only about 30 students in a class compared to about 60 at the other two schools). We went to observe classes the first day (we intended to observe English classes for two days before teaching) and met with the school's head. She informed us that we would be teaching in art, music or P.E. classes, not English classes, and that we were supposed to begin the next day, Friday, and not Monday as we'd intended. It seems that the school wants us there because it is prestigious to have foreign instructors and because we might be able to motivate the students to learn English as a way to communicate rather than as a way to pass a big test that everyone is given at the end of middle school and high school. However, spoken English is not tested, so they don't want us taking up valuable English class time so they're giving us art and music (and P.E.) which makes those teachers unhappy. They want us to incorporate art and music into our lessons, but we really can't, so we just aren't. They also really want us to teach about "American Culture" which is difficult since it isn't any one thing. It isn't really any one hundred things. But we're trying.


We went into our first day of classes pretty unprepared and generally spent the 45 minute periods on introductions, question time and some pictionary. ("We" is me and Noah, my co-teacher. He's the tall blondish one for any of you looking through photos. Some students are teaching solo because the schools demanded it, but the original idea was to teach in pairs and I'm happy to be part of a duo.) The English abilities of the students vary widely. Some have had a lot of outside tutoring, a select few have lived in the U.S. and many have almost no comprehension. There are 60 students in a class so it's virtually impossible to please them all and the students that don't understand don't speak up (since they can hardly put together a question and also because their classmates are not very supportive of botched attempts at English…this is middle school and it can be pretty brutal) so we end up teaching to what we estimate is the middle level of comprehension. Even for the best students, however, spoken English is very weak. A lot of the kids can conjugate to your heart's content on the blackboard and probably write a reasonable essay, but can't speak to save their lives. Chinese education involves a lot of rote memorization which was very obvious when we went around our first classroom having everyone introduce themselves. Each student would stand up, stare into space and say "Hello. My name is AB. My first name is B. My last name is A. My English name is C." Sometimes they would add "My favorite sport is D. My favorite subject is E." and they would always end with "Nice to meet you." Even when I approached their desks and tried to engage them, they would stare right past me. (Incidentally, some of their English names were quite interesting. There were boys named Amber and Erica as well as Snow and Beer.) Many of the English teachers don't even speak English very well. There's really no hope for the students if their teachers need conversational English lessons too, but then again, it's better than nothing and it would be pretty difficult to get foreign teachers to every English classroom in China. I think maybe the English of the teachers will improve when this generation of students grows up because China is just now instituting curriculum reforms to de-emphasize rote memorization and allow for some creativity…at least I hope so.


There's more to say, of course. Every day here is jam-packed, but I'm really tired, it's 11pm (and I'm ready for bed by 8) and I have other homework so you'll have to wait for my next post or buy me a cup of coffee when I get home. This post is long enough anyway…too long really. I bet 80% of you didn't get this far.


Also, FYI, I don't have much internet access. I don't live in a house with wi-fi or Ethernet as far as I know and my family hasn't offered to let me use the computer I just discovered this morning (or to watch any TV…and most families showed their kids the TV, computer and, as a few of our host siblings have, the playstation or wii the night we arrived…I feel a little unwanted, actually. All we do is eat.)


So, to summarize: the days are cool, but the family situation is less than ideal. It's frustrating and rather lonely. I really wish I had a sibling because he/she would either be old enough to speak at least some English and relate to me or be young enough so that language would be unnecessary and we could just play. I'm the only TBBer without a host sibling, although the host siblings do show varying levels of interest in us…some TBBers get followed everywhere and some have exchanged only a cursory hello so I guess a sibling wouldn't really be a silver bullet to make this experience happier. I do enjoy the days, though, and I'm only in this house for another two weeks so I'll be fine. Maybe it'll get better.


On a lighter note, I purchased quite a few very cheap DVD's here which is very exciting as well as a blue and white striped sweatshirt which is very comfy and wonderful because it can get pretty cold here (and I lost my fleece in transit somewhere between Machu Picchu and Kunming).


So, that's the update. Sorry for the lack of organization and the less than beautiful writing.


Much love,



P.S. Election TOMORROW!!! (Sort of…we're about 16 hours ahead of California time so it's tomorrow and a half…we get to watch, or try to watch if we can get a good enough internet connection to do any live streaming, election returns on Wednesday morning…nervous time…) Can you believe we're actually having the election after nearly two years of campaigning? It's nuts.


Annie McG said...

um no that was totally not even long enough. it sounds really interesting and i'd love to hear more about the beurocracy (spelling?!) of the schools in China. And your relationship with your host family. I'm glad you had a great birthday! and i'm nervous for the election too, eek!

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