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.