Sunday, July 25, 2004

i had the hot pot

on friday, i was back in the classroom with my "homeroom" group. i had taught them for the first two days of the first week--the orientation half-day, then the first real day of our teaching. after that, they shuffled into 8 other classrooms before coming back to mine. from now on, i will have them each friday. on these days, we are establishing some continuity with them, and walking them through the process of preparing and delivering a formal speech. [usually, each day in each class with the revolving groups, all the students simply do 1 or 2-minute impromptu speeches.]

so, on friday, group #10 returned to me. it was a wonderful reunion--they were happy to feel comfortable with a teacher they already knew, and i was happy not to have to quickly read 20+ new personalities and faces. after our initial greetings, Ada, my class monitor [the position is a throwback to the time when the communist party had a larger presence in the educational she is just in charge of opening the AV cabinets and having everything turned on when i walk into the room] stood up and was talking [not in english] to the chinese english teacher observer who sits in the back of my room, and then Ada turned to me and said: YES, WE THINK WE SHALL TAKE YOU TO DINNER TONITE. there was exultation from the class, and of course i agreed. i told them it would be my honor to take them to dinner and they laughed in my face. this was not the plan, Ada said, smiling, for me, to take them. they were taking me.

after a full-day with them--4 hours in the morning, and 2 hours in the afternoon--at 4:30, we went to a restaurant near campus for hot pot. but first, since it was so early, there was the singing. singing seems to be part of almost every activity. and most restaurants have karaoke rooms in the back. so we went into one--it was about 90 degrees up in that place, but they were undaunted--and the women, mainly, started singing english songs. not necessarily american songs--i had never heard any of these--but songs in english. and you know what? all of a sudden their pronunciation and rhythm to their speech was impeccable. it made me think how we should be encouraging them to be more lyrical in their daily dialogues. now i just need to figure out how to do that.

as far as the singing goes, of course there was strong encouragement for me to sing. i should have declined, obviously. not only am i not a strong singer, but my voice has been shot since the program started. i'm not used to teaching for 6 hours/day, every day, and doing so much of the talking in class. i tried to sing American Pie. but this isn't your standard don mcclean version of american pie over here. no, this is a teased-out, play-the-crowd, live techno-concert duet version of uniquely chinese origination. so, combining all this--the sweltering heat in the room, my lack of natural talent, the ailing throat, the surreal arrangement of the song, and i was honestly so BAD that i think the students collectively decided they would just try to pretend i wasn't singing and save all of us the embarrassment. normally, when someone sings, there is near rapt attention on them, but when i was singing, i noticed that they were all carrying on animated conversations and when i finished they just smiled and resumed with their own songs. maybe this will work in my favor though, i doubt they will beg me to sing again next time.

after the singing, at about 6 o'clock, after other class members had trickled in [21 of the 23 were there by this point--another had a flute lesson and i forget what #23 was doing], we settled down for the hot pot. we squeezed in around 5 tables, each with its own sunken cauldron of boiling broth. and each pot had a spicy half and a flavorful-but-not-spicy side. there was a propane tank fueling the fire, directly underneath. i sat in the middle of the long table, on the "female" half [13 of them, and only 8 guys], with at least a one-woman buffer between me and the exuberant guys who were constantly parading around in front of me at the table and making toasts, after which i was of course obliged to finish my little plastic 4-oz. cup of beer. first, about the food. the monitor again took charge. she ordered plates and plates of thinly-sliced meats [beef, lamb, fish], and then veggies [lotus roots, potatoes, bean sprouts], and there was also tofu, noodles, and too many other things to list. it was a frenzy of food. not unlike when i eat it in the States. in fact, it was almost exactly the same and because i had eaten this style a few times back home, the students were amazed that i knew what everything was, knew what it was all about, and most importantly, could use chopsticks!

so that was the food part. then there was the drinking. there is obviously not a drinking age in china. this is a country that doesn't even use stop-lights [or roundabouts] to control the traffic. there is an anything-goes attitude, and i have grown to appreciate it. many times in columbus i've felt like a pavlovian dog waiting for a red light to turn green so i could GO, but not here. people are trusted. so the guys--who amazingly look even younger than american first/second-year college students, started in with the beer. and keep in mind, i haven't had more than a sip of beer in over 10 years. but i knew before i came to china this would be inevitable. what could i do. they were hosting me--they were paying the fiddler so they were calling the tune. so i drank with them...just a little, obviously. i knew enough to refuse when the class-drinking-king, Fox, wanted me to down an entire 20-oz. bottle with him, but other than that, there was little harm done in raising more than a few of those 4-oz. beer "shots"... one by one, as the eating portion wound down, the guys each presented themselves in front of me and made their toast. for a hot sweaty sloppy affair, they lent an air of formality to it that was fresh to me. it was really rather adorable. i looked at these young men and saw their fathers and grandfathers in them. as hard as it was to imagine that one day they would be older, i knew that they were practicing for the part. ultimately, one young guy, David, who literally looks like he's 14 at the most, raised the last glass: bob, we are most happy you are here in china. but you MUST be missing your family. WE, away at college, miss our, let us DRINK to our families. it was a sweet sentiment indeed.

as it all wound down, Ada-the-monitor went into action. she had already orchestrated everything about the night. covered the karaoke from her own pocket, ordered all the food for the entire table, sent a couple of the guys to a store down on the street for 2-liter bottles of pop [for the female students], and now she was negotiating with the restaurant staff and then started collecting 20 yuan from each person. they were all happy to pay--money started flying around the table. but again, they wouldn't let me help out at all. [i couldn't believe it--in 10 years, TEN, of teaching at OSU, i don't think a student has ever bought me so much as a coke or a candy bar.] at first i thought maybe the students were simply being polite, refusing a few times, but then it became clear: it just wasn't going to happen. i insisted enough to get them to agree to one concession though: next time we did this--next friday i imagine--they would allow me to treat them. we'll see if they stay true to their word though, otherwise if they resist, i may have to sneak away from the table towards the end of the meal and stuff some of my monopoly money into the server's pocket.

after we left the restaurant, our group began to disassemble. first, half of them headed south to the off-campus dorms as the rest of us went north towards campus. then we got to the campus gate, and another half-dozen headed to their quad as i and 3 others started up Lou Jia Shan. finally, it was just 4 of us. next, halfway up the hill, Cynthia and Jade, whose families live in wuhan caught the bus to their neighborhood, and then it was just Vincent walking me up to the hotel. he's a neat guy--a software major from hunan province--and as we walked, we were making arrangements to go on a bike-shopping adventure the next day, looking for the famous Wuhan cymbals that so many american musicians use. ultimately though, we got to the hotel, and after being enveloped in the warmth of this large family of students all day, i was on my own and able to think--as i collapsed into my bed after a cold shower--about the overwhelming kindness that came so naturally to the students from group #10.

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