Nimen hao!

Hello all!  This is my first post from Zhong guo after nearly one month since we left home.  My apologies for the delay, but it has been kind of a crazy month and we just got the internet working properly this past weekend.  I will walk through a couple of the primary questions that people tend to ask us.

The first question everybody asks: how is China?

Certainly, first impressions are not as relevant now because my perception of the country has evolved during the past month.

Yet, what were my first impressions?  The first thing I noticed was how large everything seems–sprawling cities with apartment buildings both as high and as far as the eye can see.  Then come the people.  Nobody calls the Chinese lazy…everybody is doing something.  Men and women are working; the streets are incessantly being swept and cleaned, again and again; children are playing; traffic is nonstop; taxis, buses, and subways swarm the cities; even the dogs look like they are going somewhere.

Then, this eery, foreign feeling crept over me.  It isn’t dangerous here.  In a big city like Shanghai, there is a huge disparity between the wealthy and the poor.  Many of the streets resemble streets in America where good people go to get murdered.  When you walk them end to end, though, you see elderly people playing chess or knitting, children playing tag, and everybody in between just living their daily lives the best they can.  There’s no gun flashing, no “victim of circumstance” mentality, no street warfare, no boogie man.  Children are allowed to be children, the elderly are allowed to be old, and people generally seem to be enjoying their lives…

Still, you do see despair.  You see it in the areas most frequented by tourists.  The most obvious is an unfortunate form of human trafficking.  Beggars with no legs, no eyes, no arms, or some combination of the above can be seen fetching a few kuai on the subway, in pudong, or in the French Concession somewhere.  Blind boys click a stick and sing, clutching to a one-armed lady in front of them as she pitifully shakes a cup at anybody who will pay her the least bit of attention.  An elderly woman approaches you for money, unwilling to leave until you either give her something or yell at her to go away.  You see one of the more familiar, Western forms of despair in the con men of cities like Shanghai and Beijing who prey on tourists unfamiliar with the language, the culture and the “rules” of China.

Much of China is impossible to capture in pictures, paintings, or words.  You may be standing in a puddle of muddy filth, look across the street and see a beautiful, newly built skyscraper.  You may ride a tuk tuk to the Jin Mao tower.  You may be walking down a hutong (preserved residential streets that have existed for centuries), holding a cup of Starbucks–Xing ba ke in Chinese.

And the people!  Oh, the people are wonderful.  Chinese people really are simply delightful.  They smile, laugh, and they genuinely want to help you if you need it.  Coming from Tim James’ “Speak Aynglish!” Alabama, I am always so surprised at the level of patience that the Chinese have in working through my twenty or so words of Chinese just to help me.  They will go out of their way to make sure you get what you need (although because much of this is lost in translation, you often get something much different than you expected…but that’s for another post).

Granted, they will take advantage of you at the check out counter if you don’t know the game.  The game is simple: price is not determined as it is in the West.  In America, the price of a good is more of an average of the price that most people are willing to pay for a particular good.  In China, it’s determined on a case by case basis: if you look wealthy, you will be asked to pay a much higher price than someone who looks poor.  In strictly economic terms, this is an equitable system, as someone who has an income five times larger than the lowest payer may end up paying five times the price.  Still, you can haggle for a lower price, and you should.  If you simply agree to the quoted price, then you have definitely overpaid.  At an independent vendor, foreigners should always negotiate a lower price–30% of the quote is prime I’ve been told.  If you watch the Chinese, even they have to haggle.  Pay attention to how much they bought it for, because this will become the de facto price of that item.

The other big question:  How is teaching?

Teaching is a cool job.  It’s complex, can be frustrating and at times hopeless, but it really is a cool way to make a living.  I have four sections of the same class–Academic Lecture Listening–and next week I will get one section of paragraph writing and a Saturday class that I know absolutely nothing about (except that it’s some extra change, kaching!).  I’ve been teaching for about three weeks now, so I will tell you my experiences so far.

The question I kept asking myself before I came was “how am I ever going to fill up that much time?!”  That’s really not a big deal.  You figure out how to time your self, and there’s always an in class writing or listening assignment that you can pull from your back pock just in case.  The real issue is just getting the students to be quiet and pay attention.  University is the first taste of freedom that these kids have ever had, so they are anxious to express themselves socially.  This leads to an unfortunate, but accurate characterization of Chinese university students as roughly equivalent to 8th to 10th grade American students behaviorally.  It really is frustrating to see adults acting like children, but you have to place yourself in their situation to empathize, and then put your teacher hat on and get stern with them so that they settle down.

I feel like I am finally getting a handle on teaching.  My students seem more engaged, I have found my “teaching speed” voice (about half as fast as normal), public speaking is coming more naturally (a good skill to have!), and I am beginning to think about simple concepts in explanatory terms.  At first, I thought I would never be able to control my students, and their English just seemed so low that I didn’t know what to say to them.  Now, I have been having more good days than bad days, and as I said above, my students seem genuinely engaged in the lectures.

Let me be clear: I only have a handful of bad students.  Most of the students are awesome.  They are nice, intelligent, hardworking, and really easygoing.  They have on average 30 credit hours per week, and there seems to be a lot of outside the classroom involvement as well.  I really admire their efforts to become educated. A few students are serious go-getters.   These are the class monitors (student body leaders for each class) and other students who would probably do well as monitors. 

Then there are those who are not so enthused about their studies.  There are really only a handful of these students, but we all know them.  One class of mine has a large population of this sort of student.  I do feel bad for the class monitor who is really a wonderful person, but many of her colleagues just do not stay in line for her.  I have had some horrible discipline problems with this class–students shouting across the room in Chinese, getting up and walking around, using cell phones, and just general anarchic behavior that is really unbecoming of young adults.  So, in response, I am testing out my iron fist method.  I am going to be the most hardcore, authoritarian monster they have ever seen until they get the point and I can go back to just being myself.

Overall, I am really having a great time here.  We live a truly privileged, wonderful life here.  Today, it was about 75 degrees outside, a slight breeze, sunny with clear blue skies.  We played ping pong for hours!

Stay tuned, and I promise that I will write more now that we are adjusted and our internet is working properly!  Topics for next time?  About Zhengzhou, my trip to Beijing to visit Aunt Jody and Uncle David, food, and other miscellaneous topics of interest.

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Goodbyes, tomorrows, and yesterdays.

I am leaving a lot back home: my parents, the friends that I’ve gathered over the years, the city where I grew up.  Anna is leaving her family behind as well.  For both of us, parting with our families has been the most difficult part of leaving.

At the same time, it is difficult to ignore your dreams.  As much as I have to be thankful for, I would be lying if I said that I was content with my life in Mobile.  They say that you are either running toward something or away from something.  Me, I think that I might just be running to feel the ground under my feet, and I’ll only find out where I am going when I get there.  When I graduated in 2009, I made a choice to stay in Mobile for another two years so that I could be with my mother and Anna.  Two years from that point, I have finished the coursework for an MPA, Anna and I are about to start our jobs in Zhengzhou, and I was able to spend a lot of really crucial time with my mother.  I haven’t experienced a lot of growth over the past couple years, but that was a conscious decision on my part and, if I could go back and make a different choice, I wouldn’t.

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All is but a dream

“Tout n’est que rêve,” Zola wrote as he closed Le Rêve, a story about a woman who died the instant she grasped her life’s dream.  Anatole France fleshed out this thought by saying that our dreams and aspirations are the “eternal illusions that we cradle.” (Full disclosure: Anatole France actually hated Zola’s novel, calling it “flat” and saying that the above quote was “the only philosophical reflection that [Zola] ever had”–yikes!).  Nonetheless, Zola eloquently and in very few words expressed a sentiment that has been repeated ad nauseum over the years (see all western music over the past 100 years, Romanticism, politics, art, literature, etc).

It’s the same longing feeling that Bruce Springsteen captures on the Born To Run album: “So, Mary, climb in: it’s a town full of losers and we’re pulling out of here to win.”  Unlike the protagonist in Le Rêve, Springsteen was able to both realize his dream and keep chasing it.  I think this is the crucial difference between Zola’s simplistic message and reality.  We never stop chasing our dreams.  They evolve, but do our ambitions die with our achievements?  Hardly.

The real inference from Le Rêve is that our aspirations are borne out of our experiences and relationships, and that our dreams act as rudders, dictating the direction of our lives just below the level of consciousness.

In his criticism of Zola, Anatole France either misinterpreted or misunderstood Zola’s choice of words in ignoring the word rêve (dream in the context of sleep) in favor of the word songe (dream in the context of hopes or aspirations).  While this transformation is correct to an extent, I don’t think Zola chose his words by accident (he did not say “Tout n’est que songe”).  The word rêve implies a deeper, less conscious way of expressing our desires and fantasies.  When we sleep, we dream.  In our dreams, we create worlds loosely based on reality, but more prominently featured are our unconscious, emotional perceptions of the world around us.

I have been thinking a lot about this idea lately, as I’ve come into the final hours before I step on a plane to China.  Our destination might as well be another planet.  I have no tradition linking me to China; I’ve never studied the culture, the history, or the language; I had never given much thought to China other than in a geopolitical context until about 10 months ago.  The reality in which we are about to find ourselves seems only possible in my dreams.  The culture, architecture, people, language, politics, urban design, and economics of China seem so distant, as if it is not–or could not be–possible.

Yet, it is possible.  China is real, and soon Anna and I will be strolling through Shanghai, drinking baijiu, eating baozi, and wondering how in the hell we managed to find ourselves in such a place.  I am looking forward to the experiences we will have in China, and I know it will be a great experience.

I hope to dream more like Springsteen and less like Zola.

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Take me home, country roads!

For the Appalachians Abroad Teach in China program, Anna and I are enrolled in an online eight week crash course in teaching English as a foreign language that particularly emphasizes the Chinese classroom.  The past couple weeks, we have been coming up with lesson plans using various learning techniques.  This week, we had the choice of doing a lesson incorporating music, games, or drama (or all three!).

I wanted to incorporate music into my lesson because I have always enjoyed playing, singing, and listening to music.  Anna and I were racking our brains trying to think of fun and adult-friendly songs, while also avoiding those that discussed what might be politically sensitive topics in China.  We scoured and, listening to no less than 100 songs in the search.

Non-native interpretation of "I Am the Walrus"

Anna looked at her entire Ipod library, and we still weren’t sold on any one particular song.  They were all too simple, too difficult, too fast, too slow, too religious, too political–or in the case of “I am the Walrus,” too completely nonsensical.

After listening to and laughing a little about it, I decided that John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” would be fun and innocent while providing some interesting food for thought that could be fleshed out into a class discussion.  Like anyone, though, I was having second thoughts about playing John Denver music to college students.

American university counterparts after listening to John Denver

So, Anna and I did some research on what kind of Western music is popular in China.

Much to our bewilderment, John Denver is HUGE in China.  We found story after story about expats sitting in nightclubs enjoying a drink when the familiar words “Almost Heaven, West Virginia” begin to ring out from the PA.  Of all the widely distributed American music out there, why is John Denver considered one of the seminal Western artists in China?

It turns out that John Denver has a peculiar history with the people and government of China (the results of which are probably at least as effective as any UN good will ambassador could dream of).  When Deng Xiaoping was given the royal treatment at a state dinner given by Jimmy Carter in 1979, he was treated to the sounds of America’s favorite country boy.  Deng was rumored to be a big fan of Denver even before the dinner.

Deng Xiaoping, one of the most influential world leaders in recent memory

Then, in 1992, Denver became the first Western artist to tour the post-reform China.  In China today, the song “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is ubiquitous and synonymous with Americana.

It really should come as no surprise that John Denver was the sort of Western musician that would be palatable to the Chinese.  No doubt, Denver’s optimistic celebration of the simple life was well received by China’s leadership, who could now show their population that economic liberalization was not inconsistent with their deeply held cultural values–even Americans can be humble.  A proud, self-proclaimed country boy, John Denver has a lot in common with the 0.7 billion or so country folks in China.

A Chinese train station during the Spring Festival

The song “Take Me Home, Country Road” talks about the nostalgia that comes with leaving one’s countryside home.  For John Denver and for many modern Chinese, that departure stems from the need to work.  Nonetheless, many Chinese still consider their rural homes to be their permanent homes–this is one of the reasons an accurate urban vs. rural Chinese population count is so difficult.  People will work 360 days out of the year in Shanghai or Chongqing, and then return home for the remaining 5 days during the Chinese New Year.  This is referred to as chunyun, annually representing the largest human migration in the history of the earth.  Because Zhengzhou–where Anna and I will be teaching–is a significant transportation hub in China, we will likely witness chunyun in a way that residents of Beijing or Shanghai may not.

Many university students in Henan province probably participate in chunyun, so I think it will be easy for them to personalize/relate to this song.

Anyway, all of this was interesting food for thought, and I was seriously amused that John Denver is so well-known in China (many Americans don’t even know who he is).

Below is the lesson plan that I developed, using “Take Me Home, Country Roads” as a focal point for a larger discussion on rural life.

In this activity, I will introduce (or reintroduce) high intermediate level students to the John Denver song “Take me Home, Country Roads.” I thought this would be a cool and fun song for university age students in Henan province, many of whom may be from rural areas. I myself am from a middle-sized city in Alabama, and so the song really rings true for me as well. At first, I had reservations about whether this song would be appropriate–conceptually, lyrically, and musically–for a Chinese audience. Much to my surprise, I discovered that John Denver has a rich history in China (including being a personal favorite of Deng Xiaoping and being the first Western musician to perform in post-reform China), and is really well liked by Chinese people. Since some students may have already heard this song before, I think it will be easy to get students engaged in the lesson. Also, chunyun is an event that many of the students may have a personal connection to, and I will discuss this as well.
For this activity, we will listen to the song, examine the lyrics, have a discussion about it, and then students will compose lyrics about their home town.
Step 1
To introduce the song, I will tell students the name of the song and who wrote it. Then, as the text suggests, we will listen to the song three times. The first time, the students will listen to it quietly. Then I will pass a lyrics sheet out to students, and we will listen again quietly as we follow along with the lyrics. The third time, we will sing the lyrics together as a group. I will use my beautiful singing voice to get the class engaged. I was actually thinking it would be fun to bring a guitar to class and play along to the music as we sing it for this portion.
Step 2
After students have had a chance to listen to the song a few times and read through the words, I would like to make sure that the students actually understand the lyrics. I will pass out a work sheet with some general questions about the song, and we will discuss the answers as a group. The questions will be simple and content-based: “Where is the singer from?” “Why do you think he wants to go home?” “What physical descriptions can you give about the area where the singer is from?” I will bring pictures of West Virginia, including areas that are included in the song (the Shenandoah River, for example). I will explain some cultural elements that may help to make the song more clear (what is moonshine?).
Step 3
This will be integrated into step two without a break in the class. I will lead the class in a discussion about personal connections to rural areas. Because much of China’s population is from or lives in a rural area, this is a theme that my students can most likely relate to. I will ask the students feeder questions that will hopefully get them to open up their minds to the rest of the class. “Would you rather live in a big city or in the country? Why? Why do you think John Denver prefers to live in the country? If you are from a small town or rural area, do you consider it your home?”
Next, I would like to get the students to discuss chunyun, the annual return of urban chinese back home for the Chinese New Year. Why do people return home for the Chinese New Year? I think this is an appropriate subject because the song discusses returning home to one’s rural roots. Since they know more about chunyun than I do, I will have them explain to me the event and the reasons behind it. This will get them to talk in English using more abstract and creative language, and will also challenge them intellectually.
Finally, I will have the class listen to the song one more time now that we have discussed some of its thematic elements. I will ask them to think about where they are from and to try and imagine the song from their own perspective.
Follow up activities
To follow up this lesson, I will ask students to go home, think about where they are from, and write a one page poem about their home town in the style of (or to the tune of) John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
Alternatively, or additionally, I could ask them to write an essay describing their home, and whether they agree with John Denver’s sentiments about rural life.
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We’re going to Zhengzhou!

 So, Anna and I have been accepted to teach English to college students at Henan College of Education in Zhengzhou, China.  I know what you are thinking–what is a Zhengzhou?  Well, after a little research, I have come to know Zhengzhou as a quaint little town in rural Henan province.  In fact, it is the capital city of the most populous (albeit still very rural) province in China.  The population estimates for Zhengzhou are all over the place, the most conservative of which place it about twice the size of Chicago and the most liberal of which place it at about the size of New York City.

Zhengzhou is most known because of its central location in China, serving as a middle point for cross country train rides.  This should make domestic travel fairly comfortable.

 Many Chinese–particularly those from larger metropolitan areas like Beijing and Shanghai–regard Henan province as the poor, agricultural China of yesteryear.

Nearby Kaifeng, circa 1910

Zhengzhou in the 1980s

In many parts of the province, they are correct in their perception that people in Henan province participate in the primary sector economy.  This perception has a lot of staying power due to Henan’s reputation as China’s breadbasket.  Henan is the largest producer of wheat and sesame in China, and also produces a great deal of rice, corn, cattle, and poultry.

Henan, in recent years, has suffered from drought

Perhaps, at one point, Zhengzhou itself looked similar to these pictures, and its capital status today was a product of its being a convenient stop along the Yellow River for farmers to sell their goods.  Nevertheless, one would be hard-pressed to accuse present day Zhengzhou of being stuck in the primary sector.  In recent years, Nissan, Walmart, and various other big names have set up shop in Zhengzhou.  Today, the city has universities, nightclubs, and enterprising entrepreneurs (for a funny and insightful blog post about this, read Ross Katz’ thoughts on the entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese individual) all throughout the city.

Still, some things are hard to change, while others were never meant to. Zhengzhou, 2008
We are really excited about our move to China, and cannot wait to hear more about the school, the city, the province, and the country!  We hope to update our blog whenever we hear more!
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We got accepted!

Anna and I have just been accepted to Marshall University’s Appalachians Abroad Teach in China program!  We are really excited about our new life in China– a new job, a new apartment, and a new culture.  We received our acceptance letters via email today, and we will be finding out where our assignments are in the coming weeks.  We will keep you posted on everything that is happening!

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