Friday, August 27, 2004

two conclusions

well, i've been home for a week now. finally my mind is catching up to my body. i am no longer having dreams where i am in china, am no longer wondering where i am when i wake up, etc. i can't say i am not constantly still thinking about my experience though...i am. it is in the front of my mind, all the time. and there seem to be two important lessons i learned there.

the first is easy--i wrote about it in a very early posting...outdoor exercise is important to health. this seemed to be a daily necessity for so many of the people in china...they *needed* to get their exercise every day, the same way they needed food and sleep. and this isn't fancy team-sport exercise either. they aren't in softball leagues, members of a gym, and aren't part of biking or swimming clubs. mainly they just go do whatever they want to do: walk around the track, hit a badminton birdie with a child or friend, shoot baskets, do stretching exercises, ride a bike. the sort of spontaneous activity that gives them freedom. freedom from memberships, expensive fees for recreation leagues, scheduled game-times and even practices, etc.

the other lesson is about the language. i have decided that it is shocking the way the american educational system does so little to promote the value of studying a the study of a second language. i know that most high schools have a 2- or 3-year language requirement, but still, that is too little too late...and many students treat is simply as a requirement that they need to fulfill, that's all.

every educational theorist knows that the most effective language learning must happen early and must be reinforced for years. let me be blunt: EVERY CHINESE STUDENT STARTS LEARNING ENGLISH AT THE AGE OF 10 IF NOT EARLIER. every single one. at the age of 10. some of them start when they are infants, but i won't pretend that's common. it is common though for students in 1st and 2nd grade to go to a language school on saturday afternoons. i met one such 5 year-old girl--her name was tina ["T - I - N - A"]--and i had lunch with her and her aunt and grandfather the last saturday i was wuhan, and we visited until she had to go to english class at 3:30. but back to the point. why don't all americans learn language earlier? why isn't it a cultural value? why is our country and our educational system so focused on inwardness? why aren't we looking at the outside world?

here's a politicized example that i myself am surprised i'm making. and i'm only using this example because merely saying "we should learn a foreign language because it shows we value the world outside america" seems like an argument that arrogant self-absorbed americans can dismiss too easily. so this example shows the human toll of being a inward-looking example has to do with the tragedy that happened on September 11th, 2001. in the period before the tragedy, the intelligence community simply didn't have enough americans who knew arabic to prevent it. they didn't have enough agents who could translate the messages, penetrate the groups, and stop the terrorists. think about it. do you know any native-born american anywhere who has ever studied arabic? have you ever heard of it being taught in any school? why isn't anyone studying it? isn't it an important language? the political situation in the middle east has been in a threat to american stability since the post-WWII period...isn't this enough time for some Americans to be studying arabic, not just to speak it, but so we can understand the people who live in these countries?

now, getting back to chinese. why aren't more people in america studying it? why aren't any american 10 year-olds [better yet ALL american 10 year-olds] studying chinese? china is a coutry that is poised to probably take over the world economy in my lifetime, but certainly in the lifetime of today's schoolchildren. and why isn't anyone bothering to learn their language [and at the same time, their culture and their values...since this is all part of one piece]? with as much trade and business as america does with china, why aren't we learning to speak to them and understand them? i will tell you one thing, and this isn't complicated: i sat in many meetings with american and chinese teachers, where we negotiated all sort of [usually banal] details of our program, and when the chinese teachers could talk amongst themselves in chinese right in our presence, it gave them a substantial advantage in the negotiations. i can only imagine how much leverage this language differential gives chinese people in business and political deals with americans. by knowing our language, they know *us*. they know who we are--learning our language has enabled them to learn about us, all while we sit back and do relatively little to understand them.

so what is the conclusion: the conclusion is that everyone--it's never too late--should do something to close the language gap between america and the rest of the world. instead of allowing them to study and learn about us on a one-way street, we need to start learning about them. we need to start living abroad, traveling internationally as much as possible, and if you have children, or grand-children, or are friends of parents of children, we must start taking it upon ourselves to help every american to start looking outward instead of start valuing the world outside of america--especially the middle east and far east--and not just being absorbed in our small part of the world here in the western hemisphere.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

program is over

well, yesterday was the closing ceremony. it went well and i am happy about the great work the american teachers have done here. i am filled with a sense of accomplishment and wonder [at the boundless kindness of the students] but also deep sorrow. today the weather is cold [relatively], cloudy, and a little rainy. it suits my mood but i am sure the sun will be out shining bright tomorrow or monday and i will be happy to flee Wuhan, which all of you may recall me telling you before i left is known as "one of China's three furnaces." ha!!

heading to shanghai on monday and then home to columbus on tuesday. [arriving 9:30am wednesday]. email access might be a little less easy in the next few days but i am sure i will be online off-and-on so i'd love to hear from you all and otherwise i'll see you/talk to you when i get back!!

thank you all for your kindness and support during this program. it has meant a lot to me to stay connected to all of you who have written or posted comments on the weblog. i am glad i experimented with this new technology and hope you have enjoyed participating in this monumental life-changing experience with me. i will write some more final comments when i get home, i imagine. maybe i'll compose some words on the plane.

bye bye, blob

Friday, August 13, 2004

the final daze

well, today is the last day. the goodbyes have already started. the only thing helping me fight back the tears is the belief [whether real or not] that i am definitely coming back next summer.

first, last saturday night there was a banquet to celebrate cooperation between the american and chinese teachers. at that time, i said goodbye to a couple of the teachers who had sat in my class occasionally. they were headed out on a trip this week and wouldn't be able to attend today's closing ceremony or tonite's final banquet. throughout the program, there has always been a chinese english teacher [or two, or three!] in my class, observing. there are something like 200 of them at Wuhan University and maybe 40 of them participated in this program on a daily basis. they watched me and the rest of the teachers with a keen eye for how we conducted lessons and always had exceedingly nice things to say after sitting in my class. the chinese and american teachers developed a true spirit of cooperation, i think, mainly since we respected the excellent job they had done [almost none of them had ever had the privilege of even a week or a month of experience in an english-speaking country] and wished them the best for continued success. this first goodbye let me "practice" and get a feeling for what it would be like this weekend, saying goodbye to everyone else.

and then yesterday, i said goodbye to one of my students, Cara. she is one of the two who come from the countryside. she came up to me at the mid-day break yesterday to say there was a family emergency and she wouldn't be in class friday morning to give her final speech or able to participate in the closing ceremony, where my class will sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame, [clad in OSU hats & t-shirts, and Clippers t-shirts]. but Cara was sad, and she had some gifts for me. turned out there were gifts for me--red ornaments to dangle from my rear-view mirror!!--and then what i thought was a snow-globe that needed to be filled with water. the scene inside was a windmill, and there were tiny white styrofoam pellets. i flipped the switch on the bottom to hear what song it played, and immediately the windmill started spinning at about 1500 rpm and while Fur Elise played [the last piano recital piece i ever learned, at 14 years of age] the little white pellets flew around like snow. very very cute. if there are more gifts like it--and i suspect there will be--i will definitely need to build a small shrine to this group in my apartment when i return.

after talking to Cara and receiving her gifts, i went home for lunch [ended up taking my laundry to the dry cleaners and then grabbing some small buckets of the famous Wuhan hot-dry-noodles (spicy and soupy, at first, but then the noodles absorb the broth and become "dry")] and to get organized before the rehearsal for the closing ceremony. for some reason, i am the emcee for this event too. [not sure if i mentioned, but the speech contest went very well and my role as "Host" was limited--some introductory and closing remarks, but otherwise simply ushering in-and-out the students!!]. at the rehearsal, we had little idea what to do--trying to script an event like this is like hitting a moving target, as the university administrators are always changing what they want (which is fine with me, i'm flexible]--but one of my roles is to introduce Carmen Ohio, which all of the OSU and Wuhan teachers will assemble on stage to sing. obviously, it is a beautiful song. there is an audio file of the marching band playing it on that i downloaded, and we will sing along to it. it is an exceedingly slow almost funereal rendition, but i think it is appropriately ceremonial for this afternoon's ceremony.

after the rehearsal--my group also rehearsed Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and will throw bags of peanuts and Cracker Jack to the audience at the end--my students kidnapped me and we went into a small office in the auditorium. Cara wanted to give her speech. it was very special. she talked--for 15 minutes at least--about "Educating the Countryside Children." i took my video camera to record it, but of course the battery died. duh bob. the summary follows: her introduction was about a small child who died when his mother, a field-worker, noticed he was ill but placed him by the riverbank and said prayers for his recovery while she finished her day's work...and of course he died; then she told stories of how the parents give their money to build temples and towers but not to improve schools. also, how grandparents who have plenty of money only donate it towards the education of their male grand-children and not the little girls. it was a very authentic plea on her part. she was, after all, one of the few students who make it out of the countryside to the University. and the only reason she escaped the usual fate of the countryside children is that her father was the teacher in the village. come to think of it, both of my students from the countryside are children of teachers.

after 15 minutes or more, Cara finished her speech. it was a labor for her. she was emotionally invested in the speech itself, and tremendously sad about the end of the program and how she had to leave a day early (presumably for a death in the family--i asked Ada to find out definitively what was happening, but not even she could coax this out of Cara). there were several long pauses in her speech. i wasn't sure if she was struggling to remember it--these students memorize everything--or if she was on the verge of tears. it seemed like both. by the 2nd or 3rd pause, while Cara composed herself, imagine 20+ people in a tight crowd, cheering for her under their breath. i heard soft urgings like "c'mon" and "take your time" and "it's okay" from the students. it was very wonderful to hear them support her this way.

after she finished, i said a few words about how impressed i was that even with a family emergency, it was her idea [i never would have forced her] to find a way to deliver her speech. i also gave her the "cowboy hat" that i had been wearing all over China. it became sort of my symbol around the university--people would see it from down the hall or across the quad and call out to me, before they could have ever recognized my face. the thing about the hat though is that it strongly resembles a chinese farmer's hat. in fact, at first that's what most people think it is. i always wore it proudly though and thought Cara would do the same. interestingly, as we left the auditorium [after the class presented me with their gift--so that Cara could be a part of it, since she was leaving--a nice tea set because they knew i had been looking for one] a couple of farmers with their hats walked past our group on the sidewalk. some of my students snickered a little about the similarity between the farmer-hats and Cara's hat (which made her slightly embarrassed, i think), and i had a chance to tell all of them--but especially Cara--that she should never try to hide where she came from, that she was a great advocate for the countryside children, and that she should be proud to use her voice to speak for them here at Wuhan University.

then, by 6 o'clock--as the road we were walking on split with one path heading to my hotel--i parted with my students. this is when i finally said goodbye to Cara, as did the rest of the group. the thing about goodbyes in china is that something we take so much for granted--giving someone a hug--isn't part of the ritual. in fact, i haven't actually figured out how these goodbyes will work. in america, i would give people a tight hug and squeeze them around while i patted their shoulder/back, but i don't think that's the way it will happen here. i have said goodbye to others already--people who i didn't feel as intensely close to as my students [who have been my family here for the last 5 weeks]--and even on those occasions, it feels very hollow not to have any sense of touch in the goodbye. it's not like we would shake hands either, but even if we did, that would be hollow.

so, here i sit in the computer lab at almost 7am, about to embark upon what i know will be an excruciatingly sad day. i need to keep in mind that it should be a celebration too. my other 22 students will give their formal speeches, and i know [because they all practiced them last week] that they will be excellent. many of them are using PowerPoint slides to enhance their presentation and others [like Mike, who LOVES chemistry and will build the classic baking soda & vinegar volcano] will use visual effects or demonstrations. today needs to be a celebration, i think, and not a sorrowful occasion, because what would truly be sad is if i never had the privilege of coming here to teach and the honor of knowing these warm generous thoughtful kind-hearted students (and teachers, and administrators, and hotel staff, and food vendors, and taxi-drivers, and...everyone else who welcomed us so sincerely here in china).

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

more names and a summary of my day-to-day teaching

today in class i had student named Muggle [he said he had used a lot of english names in the past and would continue to use whatever he liked best each day], a student named Steady ["slow and steady wins the race"], and a student named Bright. they seem to like the nature names. i also had a Sun.

in the last few days there has been: Minus, Beryl, TinTin, TaoTao, and a woman named Silly!!! she said she thought "silly" could be positive and not just clownish, and she wanted it to be positive. sounded good to me.

only a couple days left of teaching. i am left with mixed emotions: i am glad not to have to teach baseball much longer [sometimes it is like banging my head against the wall to teach people who have never seen a game], but i am sad about losing the rhythm of seeing new students every day [except friday, that is].

in fact, it's like every day is an entire quarter or something. i start by welcoming them with my favorite maya angelou poem: On The Pulse Of Morning; and then i do a few hours of baseball [an important part of america's past], and finish the day with a couple hours about animals/animal rights [and important part of the planet's future, to stay in balance with nature].

the teaching has been more rewarding than i would have ever thought. especially the teaching about animals and animal rights. i explain to them the traditional animals that are in american homes [cats, dogs, rabbits, fish, birds], then talk about the many positive ways animals are in our lives [companionship, protection, pet therapy, and service animals (guide dogs, rescue dogs, police dogs)], then i move into a more common way animals are part of our daily lives: FOOD.

at that point i start talking pretty aggressively about the culture of animal consumption and how we used to do it [a hundred years ago] for survival, but how i don't think anyone can claim anymore that we eat meat because we *need* to. my claim is that we eat them because they taste delicious. i talk about vegetarians and the choices they made [for many reasons: their own health, the wise use of global resources like land and water, religious beliefs, and finally the belief many have that animals are entitled to life as much as we are] and build to a conclusion that challenges the students to *think* about why they eat meat... in fact why everyone eats meat, and whether we need to. i also ask them to think about the "right to life" and where it comes from. we talk about how the right to life doesn't originate in the constitution, it is only guaranteed by it. [the right to live presumably existed before any constitution articulated it]. and i finish by asking them to try and figure out that if they have the right to life, and if the constitution of china doesn't *give* them the right, then where does the right come from and why wouldn't animals have it just the same as humans do?

all in all, it is a very intense afternoon. the students usually walk out of the classroom stunned, because they have never thought about this before, and they aren't the kind of students to sit there, roll their eyes, and send text messages when someone from america [a country they have studied so hard for so long] is giving them a persuasive speech about animals. if nothing else--even if they don't accept the challenge to start thinking about what i am thinking about [i tell them i am not asking them to think what i think but to think about what i think about]--they are usually very hypnotized by the emotional presentation i summon up for this topic. in fact, it even surprise me. i did not have preaching about animals on my mind when i accepted this topic. i simply wanted to talk in general about the importance of animals in americans' lives, but the program staff asked me to "lump-in" animals rights so i did...and this is what i came up with. very interesting stuff. the bottom line: don't expect me to eat meat when i come back home. ha!

Sunday, August 08, 2004

a minor impediment to my unfettered enjoyment of the program

i should have written awhile ago about a small part of the program that has been a bump in the road. it hasn't been enough to register with me more than occasionally--i certainly didn't let it stand in the way of completely enjoying my time here--but it is interesting and has a lot to do with one major component of teaching english abroad: a small but not statistically insignificant percentage of foreign english teachers are evangelical and accept these jobs as a means to get inside the heads [and classrooms] of young students.

so, it is not surprising that one of the teachers on the trip is a former [or current--do they ever stop? are they ever "off the job?"] missionary. by the end of the second week of the teaching, it came to my attention he had been saying things to the students like: "homosexuals are people who were abused as children or came from broken homes." this is an attitude i find deeply offensive. and the only way i heard about it is that he specifically said just this to my homeroom class. when they came back to me on friday of week 2, one of them asked me if it was true that gay people were abused or came from broken homes. [the issue came up in my class because i read an incredibly inclusive maya angelou poem--my favorite--where she catalogs the many diverse people who comprise America, including "the gay, the straight, the preacher/the privileged, the homeless, the teacher"].

i immediately asked them where they heard this--i wondered where because i suspect there's no place on the planet that GLB issues are more invisible, so how did this even get on their radar?--and they told me one of the other teachers [who shall remain nameless--although it might be better to use his name than to refer to him as "the evil teacher" as i will do later...ha!] said it in class. by the way, his topics are california living and advertising...he told me during our eventual confrontation that the issue of same-sex marriage came up in terms of the schwarzenegger recall election...quite a stretch from "california living" if you ask me--i followed the recall election and i don't remember this being an issue at all. hmmm. ] all i knew about the guy at the beginning of the trip is that he lives in california and works in advertising. he's not even a teacher. i honestly think he became part of this program--i know he came in as a replacement, at the last minute--because we needed 20 bodies to come here and he was able to get on a plane with 2-weeks' notice.

anyway, back to friday of week 2. i must have looked horror-struck when my students told me what they had heard, and i immediately told them it wasn't true. like i said before though, same-sex relationships are something that are almost completely invisible here, and since my students are so unbelievably intellectually curious, it is natural that they are fascinated by it. after all, they are smart enough to know they are being deprived of some information. so, that day i talked to them for 10 minutes or so about religious dogma and how certain people spread misinformation to advance their political agenda.

later that night--this was the original hot-pot frenzy night [incidentally, this friday we went to a self-serve/individual hot pot restaurant and it was great, but nothing could match the first night!]--i was back in the computer room at around 11pm and i confronted this other teacher. it wasn't something i had planned but it just happened. from across the conference table where our machines are set-up--and with a couple other teachers in the room (so he would know this was a public issue and not a private one)--i asked him, HAVE YOU BEEN TELLING OUR STUDENTS THAT HOMOSEXUALS WERE ABUSED AS CHILDREN OR CAME FROM BROKEN HOMES?? i was very accusatory simply in the way i asked the question. i was starting down a slippery slope where i laid into him for at least 20 minutes about not having the right to spread his dogma to our students as fact.

interestingly, his immediate initial knee-jerk response was: "you're not gay are have a girlfriend, right?" i think he was surprised that someone who wasn't gay would call him out like i was. without giving details of the conversation, the highlight was when he accused "my side of the issue" of being intolerant of his position. i told him OF COURSE I WAS BEING INTOLERANT, IN THE SAME WAY I WOULD BE INTOLERANT OF A MISOGYNIST BEATING HIS WIFE OR THE KKK TERRORIZING AFRICAN AMERICANS. i also told him he was perverting the discourse by trying to co-opt the word "tolerant." oh, and one other highlight...he said [quite calmly actually...he stayed stoic throughout this probably because he knew he couldn't match my intensity and he would try to impress the others in the room--who were staring more intently at computer monitors than i've ever seen anyone do--with his turn-the-other-cheek-attitude] that he felt attacked. to this i replied, OF COURSE YOU SHOULD FEEL ATTACKED, BECAUSE I AM ATTACKING YOU AND YOUR IDEAS...i told him not only was i attacking him, but i said IT WAS MY DUTY TO ATTACK HIM AND EVERYONE ELSE WHO SPREADS HATE AND INTOLERANCE.

so this is a short summary of my first run-in with him. it was draining but i was happy i didn't let it slide. and i knew it was the right thing to do it publicly, because i was getting signals--visual cues, like a thumbs-up--from people walking behind him out the door. i also heard about it for a few days to come, people telling me they were glad i confronted him. also, the public part of it was important so that he was on notice that the teachers were onto his game and would be paying close attention.

flash-forward to thursday of week 4. after classes were over for the day, i was in the lobby of the building and some of the students i'd had the previous week came up to me, excitedly, and started talking to me. they had just won some "prizes" at the end of the day. i asked them whose class they had been in--it was the evil-man's class--and then one showed me a PSALMS calendar and another showed me a PSALMS music cd. again, i must have been visually outraged. i'm sure a look of disgust broke over my face. i asked them if they knew what this stuff was. at the same time i was asking them, another student actually pointed to the word and said "what does this mean...palms?" i told them these were christian materials, that this teacher was trying to recruit new christians, and that this was something that was specifically forbidden by our program [and i think according to the laws of the chinese government, as well!!]. anyway, i felt horrible for bringing them down off their high, but again, it was educational for them to see what was really going on. and to their credit, they immediately started joking about how the christian prizes weren't of great interest to them anymore.

later, i told a couple of my best friends in the program what i had discovered and we decided something needed to be done. not having the energy for another personal confrontation, i felt like since he was passing out materials, he had broken a program rule, and the program administrators should deal with him. so, friday morning i wrote an email to the two OSU staff running the program, and decided to let them handle it. i also mentioned it to my team leader, who said she was happy someone finally "caught him" at this, because there had been rumors it was going on but nothing that we could confirm.

so, about 11 o'clock that friday night, i found myself back in the computer room. [after the other hot-pot dinner that i already mentioned...the self-service one]. anyway, the evil-teacher was there, as was my friend frank...who witnessed the original confrontation. i was chatting on MSN with frank--not uncommon to do even sitting next to each other, so we can make plans for our meals without generating mass-group-interest--and i told him i didn't have it in me to personally confront the guy and i was going to bed.

i was starting to make my move for the door, when our fearless leader minru came him. he was the main point-of-contact for the creation of the program--he had taught at Wuhan University in the 80s--and he handled the recruitment and training of the teachers. [interestingly, since this teacher came in so late, and lived in california anyway, he obviously wasn't a part of the trainings we held at OSU...but as a missionary, i'm sure he was aware of the laws of china.....and oh, i forgot another thing...after the first confrontation, he and i managed to be very cordial. when i went to dinner one lazy saturday night with frank at a campus restaurant, we saw him sitting by himself and of course we asked him to join us. he told us how his wife was hard at work in her rural chinese village spreading the gospel, and he lamented how hard it was to do this according to the laws of the he couldn't honestly proclaim ignorance!]

so anyway, minru came into the computer room and he had been in Chengu at a conference all day and hadn't checked his email. i knew he would read the message within a few minutes and i wanted to get into my bed as soon as possible so i signed off and headed for the door. as i reached for the handle, i heard minru say "bob, come here for a second"...i smiled at frank as i walked over to minru, who pointed to his computer screen and said he had just written me a said thanks for letting him know--because it showed how much i cared about the program--and that he would take care of it in the morning.

by noon on saturday, the other OSU administrator told me the discussion had already taken place, and that the offending teacher had promised not to distribute any more materials. this was probably the only resolution--i'm not sure how we could have handled it otherwise, although now it occurs to me we should have had the guy make a 2-3 minute informal speech to at least the class those two students were in who received the Psalms materials, and maybe to every class, about how it was inappropriate to pass out religious materials in a classroom setting in China!!

the most important part--the language usage of chinese students!!

somehow, i managed to forget about probably the most important part of the trip, maybe the biggest question i had in my mind before i came [other than the heat, which even at a cooler-than-usual 90-degrees most days, has been a non-issue]: what kind of language skills would the chinese students have?

the answer is simple. their skills are excellent. of the 300+ students i've taught so far--every one of whom has to stand in front of the audience and pick a defensive position on the baseball field they want to play (about half pick catcher, not surprising since i describe it in my talk as "the brains" of the team)--only maybe 1 or 2 have been difficult to understand. but instead of speculating about that, i want to share some of the wonderful aspects of hearing them speak english.

1) a few have british accents. this is really cool. i have a student who is giving her formal speech at then end of the program on raising a lion, and her first line, in a *heavy* british accent is: i wuuuunt to raise a liyyyyy-uhn. it brings a smile to my face just to hear her say it.

2) it seems the expression "the feeling is __(blank)__" is a common one. i bet it is the main construction in dialogue practice the first few years of studying english in china. during the first week of teaching, i was hearing many students describe something and then analyze it by saying "...and the feeling is good." again, i found this great to hear and i began trying to coax them into saying it...after their speech i often asked for more details, specifically saying: how would you describe the feeling you got?

3) in chinese language there is no distinction between brother and cousin. so most the time these students mention brother or sister [although a rare few--from the countryside--do have siblings] they are referring to their cousins. it is neat though how the language brings the family closer :)

4) also, in chinese language "he, she, it" are the same word. so at least a few times a day, the students are referring to people as either a he or a she when the person is a she or a he. for some reason, i think this is also endearing and i don't correct it. usually, in the middle of the next sentence, the speaker realizes the mistake and corrects it, or his/her friends immediately catch it and start mumbling "he he he" or "she she she" whichever is the correct one.

5) there are also many single words uttered under the breath that i hear a lot and love....these are visceral reactions that people have when i tell a story about something bad ["tear-uh-bull" or "whore-uh-bull"] or something good ["ba-yoot-i-ful" or "lah-ve-lee"]. it seems when they say them that one word has never been as expressive before.

6) the students also have a way of introducing thoughts/ideas that they don't want to be offensive by saying: "it is said that....". i can't think of any examples, but it is enough to hear them start saying "it is said that..." to make me smile when i'm eating with them or visiting after school!!

in general, the way second language speakers use language is typically quite beautiful and precise. they learn volumes of vocabulary and are very specific with what they want to say. in fact, they have little pocket dictionaries with them every where they go [that look like calculators sort of]...and these dictionaries function as translators and they are always whipping them out to find the word they want, or when i speak, to figure the meaning of the word i just used. but enough about the translators...the speaking is the wonderful part. although they don't have confidence--or didn't have much in the beginning--they are all quite functional. they would be just fine if they came to america. better than fine. i had many ESL students last year at OSU who didn't have the skills these students have.

it is wonderful to hear them using "my" language, to in fact, be making my language their own with the words and phrases they use. it gives me great perspective on how imprecise so much of the language is that i use on a daily basis...from the "filler" words so many of us use such as "like" to the slang phrases that aren't really very expressive at all. basically, for the last month i have become very conscious of each word as it comes out of my mouth, in a way that i'm obviously not thinking about when speaking with native speakers. and i think having to be this conscious is not only helping them to learn vocabulary, build skills, and improve their english, but maybe i will find when i get back that my english has improved as well.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

english names

there's something i keep meaning to write about but never get the chance to. almost every student we teach has an "english" name. from the first day we went in the classroom, we were told that it would be easiest to learn these and keep track of the students this way. [of course now that we're in the 4th week i think that it would have been better to learn how to pronounce their actual chinese names, oh well].

so, on the first day, i was with my homeroom. their names were interesting, but not extraordiary: Jade, Vincent, Belinda, Yolanda, etc. there were even a couple students who didn't have names and they asked if i could give them one. now this is an interesting concept--asking a complete stranger to *name* you the minute you meet them. i told these two to think hard through the morning and during the mid-afternoon break [12-2:30 so the students can take a sleep] and ask me again later if they hadn't arrived at something themselves by then, which they did [Cissy and Victor].

sometimes the names have a phonetic link to their actual chinese names. for instance i think Jade's name is Jue [pr. "Jway"]. so that's pretty close. but over the next few days, the really interesting names started pouring in: Jet [favorite movie star Jet Li], Blue Star, Bluestar, Zurich, Tiger, Mars, Peace, Spring, Coral, Pearl, Joy, Rain, Fish, Chilly, Little Bird, Newboy, Potass [she's a chemistry major], Super, Conan King, and even a Lucky. this was the source of much hilarity when i introduced the students to my cat Lucky.

what's most interesting about these names is how they got them, and what they mean to them. most of the chinese students were given names by their family that mean something. not in the way ours do--our parents pick a person [like Bobby Kennedy, for me] to name us after and then we get that name. their names are also words that are used in the everyday language. sure, some Americans have this. the girl next door to my parents is named Summers. but it's less common. so they themselves--usually when they start studying english--pick a name they like. sometimes they change. yesterday, i met a student named HARRY POTTER...and her, yes, *her*, name used to be shelley. but when she started reading the harry potter books, she said she knew she had to change. the books were magical and took her to a wonderful place where anything was possible.

here is how another student got his name: on sunday night, frank, heather, and i met some random students for dinner and a bike ride. ["random" because none of them were in our homeroom classes and we really weren't sure how this date was arranged, but as we reintroduced ourselves at dinner, one student whose given name was Chun said he didn't have an english name. [another said his name was Albert...which he simply found by opening the dictionary and starting in the beginning!] so, after dinner, we started riding off towards east lake. Chun and i ended up in the back--there were 10 of us, riding single-file on a fairly busy lakeside road, which was gorgeous--and i asked him about his name. he says he is hoping, actually, that i can give him one. right then. this is a tremendous responsibility of course. so we ride for a little while longer and talk a bit more, and i just think about his name, Chun, and it comes to me--the obvious: Chuck. i tell him, i think rightly so, that Chuck is an endearing form of a more formal name Charles, and is used by people who are familiar with a Charles and want to use this name to express their fondness for him. so there you have it. now there's a guy named Chuck studying Information Sciences over here at Wuhan University.

Monday, August 02, 2004

i went to church

actually, it was a catholic church, and it was beautiful. i think it was named Holy Family, based on the mosaic above the altar which featured Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. on sunday, three other teachers and i, and one student, set out in the unofficial-official university van to find the catholic church. i wasn't sure at all what we were looking for. after 10-15 minutes, when we arrived, it certainly didn't look like a western/european church. we pulled off of a side road, went up a small driveway, and stopped in a courtyard. there were buildings on all sides of us, and as i looked at the back of the van, i saw a shrine to the virgin mary. then we went in a small, side door, and all of a sudden, it *did* look like a catholic church. there was an altar, statues of jesus on the right and mary on the left, and a choir loft.

the music started, and the priest entered behind 4 altar boys in white cassocks. he didn't come in from the back, but instead from the side. they made their way to the altar, paused there for a moment, then the priest and one altar boy made their way back down the main aisle, dipping a palm frond in the holy water and showering the congregation. after making their way back to the altar, the mass started. the ritual itself was all very usual and comfortable. i followed along with no problem, as easily as i do back home. there was the responsorial, the two readings, a sermon, and of course the singing. i couldn't recognize the songs specifically, but their sound was familiar.

the interesting part thoughout the mass was the crowd. the church was what i would call medium-size. not small by any means, probably 30-35 rows of pews on each side of the main aisle. the people there were all older, more mature chinese. we speculated that this was the grandparents...the people who were catholic before the 1949 revolution and the governmental regulation in the 1950s. i am not even sure if the church has been in constant existence throughout this period. now, it co-exists with the government peacefully, but not cordially. in fact, the government still prevents the church from affiliating with the Vatican.

but back to the people. they were all very special, and very kind. not unlike nearly everyone we've met so far. they were, naturally, very thrilled that we were in the church, and many made efforts to talk to us as soon as we arrived, all throughout the service, and immediately afterward. of course we had no idea what they were saying. the one student with us, Linda, did her best to stay with us, but they would grab one of us and take us in one direction to show us something, and then someone would grab another and go somewhere else. also, we were trying to get to the priest to talk to him. eventually, after taking some photos on the altar, we reached the priest and i was able to give him a "Holy Family Volunteer" satchel that my friend Fr. Kevin [pastor at, coincidentally, Holy Family in Columbus] had given me to deliver to someone in China. i am pretty sure, but not completely sure, that linda was able to convey to him this was a gift from a priest in America. he seemed happy nevertheless, and we took some photos of him, before loading into the van.

as we left the church, i started thinking about the thriving congregation, and how hard it must have been for them to keep their faith. the period of the 1950s-1970s was surely a very dark one for them. but whatever they went through then, they were there now, undeterred, celebrating with each other and their God.

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