Monthly Archives: June 2014

Presentation for Parents and What I Miss So Far

Sunday at school I had parents come in to my kindergarten class and watch me teach for about 40 minutes. I was suprisingly sanguine, I guess it was because the kids probably know more English than the parents, which meant as long as I looked good and the kids liked me, then I was fine. The class went smoothly, the only hitch was a particular student that has a tough time concentrating and could probably use some pharmaceutical assistance. He simply cannot sit down and pay attention, which kind of made me a sympathetic figure in that I have to teach class with this maniac. I tend to ignore him on most days so he doesn’t rob the other kids, but today I had to feign concern because his mother was right there. The setup was such that all the kids sat in an arc in front of me in their little chairs, meanwhile the parents and grandparents sat behind them watching intently. If the students weren’t quick to participate, which the weren’t since they didn’t want their parents to see them get a wrong answer, the parents sharply said something in Chinese that loosely translated into any language “Answer the question!” It went well, the manager said there was no problem and I’ll get a full review on Thursday at work.

Here are some pictures of my immediate neighborhood, with the fruit stand and small grocery that I visit most days. The grocery store is owned by a Korean family, with what I believe is the mother or mother-in-law running a fruit stand next door.

That slightly blurry women is the owner of the store, and as you can see in the back there is a small meat counter. Not shown is a reach-in deep freeze with various frozen seafood items and a produce refrigerator with some essentials such as bell peppers, onion, cucumbers and what have you. The Korean shops are the best because the food is not Chinese sourced, its imported from Korea with Korean lettering, however for canned items the only thing that is immediately recognizable is Spam. This is the afore mentioned fruit stand, the little lady that runs it watches action films dubbed in what I believe is Chinese on a little TV in the corner of her stall.

Since no small shops have signs with prices, I know I was getting Laowai (foreigner) prices when I first began shopping. My prices have slowly gone down, so hopefully they are beginning to assimilate me. The fruit is very good and they have fresh produce and some basic cuts of meats inside. They sell the best kimchee I’ve ever had, and while my experience is limited, the stuff in the states doesn’t come close.

There are of course some items that cannot be purchased easily or affordably here, such as protein powder which I like for convenience, and there is no decent yogurt or cheese or quality beef and seafood worth mentioning. What do you take for granted that would be immediately missed if you lost access? Not big things like family or health care, I mean stuff like particular foods, conveniences or entertainment. A few things come to mind for me. First is the amazing variety and affordability that our supermarkets provide us with in America. I miss stuff like my 10 pound bag of frozen blueberries, in retrospect an amazing variety of cheeses, meats and fish, all available without concern that it is safe to eat. I miss being able to jump in a car and pick up most anything, clean air to breath and water out of the tap that is safe to drink. Cable TV is nice and watching sports, but it seems my teams do best when I can’t watch them. Being able to order food and get what you thought you ordered, which is difficult here because if you can speak English you are not going to be serving in a restaurant. Oh, and I cannot forget a clothes dryer. Not so much the convenience of not having to hang clothes, that is really no big deal. No, the big thing with the dryer is that it gives you softness and fluffiness that hang drying doesn’t, and today I wore my last remaing shirt that had that dryer softness from back home. Nothing left but hang dry stiffness. This isn’t to bemoan my condition here, I certainly am not going without. It is simply a reminder that a lot of little things are taken for granted back home. So the next time you dry off with a soft towel or order a pound of Boar’s Head havarti cheese from the deli or want to tell the waiter medium-rare, remember they are all under apprecited luxuries, however small.


Presenting my Kids

Just a quick little post to let everybody know how things are going. Since I took over for a teacher that was leaving before his semester was over, my classes have pretty much involved the last 3 or so weeks of his 12 week semester, then I reviewed the material and gave a final, both written and oral. Pretty simple stuff really. Now, tomorrow for two of the classes I will have the parents come in and watch half my class and then I give a little presentation in which the kids show off what they have learned. I think they will probably do well, I’ve been drilling them on exactly what they will need to know in class. Then again, they are preschool age, so you never know. At this level they really don’t feel the pressure to get the language right in and of itself, they just want to make the teacher and the parents happy. With that said, if they clam up on me it could be a long lesson.

Towards the end of it all I read out a little presentation I have written on what they have learned, why and what the next steps are. The TA has a copy of what I will say and has translated it. She translated by hand this afternoon what all I prepared, spending a lot of time with their English/Chinese dictionary. I take my iPod with me to school, so I showed her Google Translate on Safari and she was taken aback, having never heard of the site or function. My iPod has a VPN installed so the censors aren’t much of a problem, I can freely use Google and whatever sites that may be blocked at any given moment. I don’t think most of the Chinese ever think much about using search engines or social media that isn’t approved by the state. They have their own Twitter, Sina Weibo, and their own Google, Baidu. So much productivity and creativity is lost due to the censorship, it’s stifling and Orwellian. I get the feeling they don’t realize how much they are being denied.

The weather here has been miserable, hot and humid with a bit of rain. The kids must have brought a little summer flu bug in because a couple teachers have it, but for now I seem to have escaped. I will continue to wash my hands fastidiously and hope for the best. Monday we have a seminar to learn some more teaching methods. We had a similar one last Monday in which several long time teachers got up and gave about 3-4 hours worth of lectures and interactives to give us some continuing education. I was skeptical at first, but everything was effective and was well worth the time.

That’s it for now, just a short post during the busy time of my week. Now I’ll try to post to my website, and if I can sneak past the censors I’ll read it on my blog, which is of course blocked in China.

On Teaching and Leaving Your Comfort Zone

Today was my first really good class where I felt like I was actually teaching. This was a late afternoon class, and earlier in the day all the teachers and most of the assistants from the Shane Schools in Wuxi assembled at the main school downtown for a teaching workshop on activities for teachers to use in classes for young learners. There were about 50 of us in total, the whole thing took about 4 hours. It was put on in preparation for several short(i.e. profitable) and intensive summer courses: each two semesters, each semester lasting about three weeks, all aimed at 5-8 year olds, starting in a couple weeks. The short sessions go on top of an abbreviated regular schedule, so the summer will be busy and everybody makes a nice bit of extra cash in the end. Anyways, I tested the ideas from the workshop on the younger learners(preschool) I had that afternoon, little kids who at that age might as well be another species as far as I'm concerned, and to my delight the class went amazingly well. The students were engaged and energetic, we all had a lot of fun playing active learning games, and I felt like a teacher and not their white faced English talker for the first time. At the end of every class material is briefly reviewed and they all grasped the ideas and actually learned something, even this poor little girl who was new to the class, didn't know anybody and was completely terrified at first. She was scared and on the edge of tears which made me scared on the edge of tears, but by the end of the class everybody was smiling and saying “bye-bye John”. An aside, it seems every Chinese person from birth seems to know the phrase “bye-bye”, it is the most ubiquitous English phrase in China. This somewhat prolix story leads to my next topic, comfort zones.

It’s manifest that moving to China and doing something I've never done before (teaching), with people I'm unaccustomed to (little Chinese kids), has placed me far out of my comfort zone, and that is a good thing. Leaving your comfort zone is neutral, not a good thing or a bad thing, it is what we make of it. Adding risk and the unknown to your life pushes you to improve yourself and become what you weren't just moments before. Now, I'm not talking about dangerous or ill-prepared risk, I'm simply talking about doing something new, something different, that is appropriate for your life. Everybody can't and shouldn't go to China and teach, it is unappealing or unrealistic for most. But what you can do are little things. Try that new restaurant that looks too unfamiliar and that you don't think you would know what to order, it might just be good. Watch a new movie, or an old movie you haven't seen. Cook something totally different, try a new jogging route or exercise routine or whatever fits your life. We are all habit forming by nature, it makes us more efficient and allows us to focus on other tasks. Nonetheless, the burden of habit that underpins our daily routine prevents us from branching out and trying something that might be more enjoyable or fulfilling. After all, wouldn't like to try what he's cooking just once:


Street Video

OK, so after much effort and downloading, I'm going to try again to post a brief video of the the street I walk down to get groceries. I took the video with my iPod, so we’ll see how it looks. I'll link it above and I'll try to embed it in my post below, unfortunately this has been difficult because the censors seem to be very adroit and attentive to blocking anything related to video uploads. I'm going to show you one side of the food street that I walk down, so turn your volume up so you can hear the sounds and pay attention to the signs you see. Definitely not in Kansas anymore.

The smells on the street are the best part. The aroma of grilling meats and stir-fried garlic, onions and peppers combine into an ambrosia that is a joy to take in. I partake a couple times a week, that is my self-imposed limit on eating meat in China that is bought off the street. My general axiom is this: for street food, and less expensive food in general, if the meat is so small I can't recognize the source animal or cut, only eat semi-weekly. The small bites of meat on the kabobs could be anything. I cook at home often.


Tiananmen at 25

One week ago was the 25th anniversery of the crackdown that crushed the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Would things had been different today had the protests not taken place? There was never a possibility of the protests succeeding in overthrowing the existing order given that the ideas and demands where inchoate and unrealistic, so what were the causes and consequences of the protests and why is there so little resonance here in China today?

Had Tiananmen not taken place, the perennial internal problems that bedevil China, internal versus coastal developemnt, rural versus urban and central versus regional power would remain. What the crackdown did was that it allowed the hard-liners such as Li Peng to gain enough power to recentralize control and shape social and economic policy in the years following the incident. Then Party Secretary General Zhao Zhiang, who was a champion of Deng Xiaoping's market oriented reforms, would not have been purged and the current economic liberalization may have happened sooner. Deng must be considered one of the great leaders and humanitarians of the 20th century, bravely initiating reforms that would eventually lead more people out of destitution than at any other time in human history.

In 1989, extensive fiscal and legislative powers had been decentralized to regional governments, leaving Beijing weakened and unable to unify policy. The economy was faltering, which was a prime driver of the protests to begin with, and Beijing may not have been able to reassert control without Tiananmen. What the protests did was allow the CCP to recentralize power on their own terms in 1989. This is important because two years later the disintegration of the Soviet Union rapidly occured and could have spread to China, and without the retrenchment of power in Beijing that had just taken place as a result of the serious but managable Tiananmen incident, China may not have had the command and control in place to manage the crisis. For the CCP, the Tiananmen protesters, with no real platform or power base, may have saved the Communist Party of China by giving it cause to reassert control before the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Since 1989, due to censorship and a general scrubbing of history, “the incident” has disappeared down the memory hole for the most part. To those born after 1989, it exists, in some sort of ephemeral way, but an entire generation has grown up post-1989 with no real knowledge of the event and has only seen a China that is on the rise. No attempt has been made to rehabilitate the memory of those involved as is the case with The Great Leap Forward and The Cultural Revolution. This history of Tiananmen should not be viewed as simply the crushing of a genuine uprising and realistic hope for democracy for China, it was neither to begin with. Ironically, the history of Tianamen shoud be viewed as the event that permitted the reassertion of CCP authority during a time of weakness, crucially just prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union that saw the fall of communism from Poland to Russia to Khazakstan.


Potemkin Villages

Today was the final day of my first full week as far as class load is concerned. The beginning of the week was pretty stressful and I didn’t have time to catch my breath till about five minutes ago. My initial impressions of the students at our school was that the students are fairly bright and motivated. I don’t believe that the little ones have any idea why they are there, but the parents do, which means there is always a mother, or a father, or a grandparent, or all of the above hovering around the classrooms trying to listen in on what’s going on. They are all very nice and respectful, students and family, but the overriding emotion I gleaned from them was total investment in the child. Taken to the extreme, your child’s performance as a reflection on the entire family can turn into perennial disquiet for all involved. At the younger levels the students enjoy all of the doting and just want have fun, but as the kids get older and know what is at stake, the pressure becomes evident and the children and parents have fewer smiles. The kids at this point are studying hard for their parents honor and face, not there own. A lot of strain for a 14 year old. Incidentally, several of the parents at the school have two children attending, so apparently upper middle-class and above can afford the fines, or find ways to be exempted from the one-child policy in China. I haven’t asked, but may in the future.

This morning from around 8:00 AM till noon, Dwayne, who is the head teacher and branch manager, gathered myself and four TA’s on a planned trip to give a quick English competition to students at three state schools. The kids were from six to eight I would guess and the test was very basic: five pictured flash cards were laid out with elementary vocabulary, and the students entered one by one and had to name the picture on the card in English. An example would be an apple, where I would simply point to the apple and the student would answer “apple”. Very basic; apple, banana, dog, red and yellow were all that were shown. Bear in mind that these kids have been studying English at state schools for at least three years now, and having heard of the vaunted Chinese education system I figured they would all ace the contest. Well, after about 120 minutes and as many students, there were maybe 5, that’s right, 5, that got all of these very basic vocabulary correct. Almost the entire lot was either clueless, or maybe one, two correct answers max. I didn’t expect bilingualism, but what I saw was stunning. The schools were dilapidated and I got the feeling that these government schools were there to churn out factory and construction workers, not scientists and thinkers. The difference in these students and the students I have at Shane English is night and day. From what I could learn from the other employees at my school who have worked throughout China, it’s much worse in the rural areas. It appears that a lot of what we see and hear in the West about Chinese education standards is simply Potemkin Villages all the way down.

Tomorrow I am off so I’ll try to take some pics but I’ll certainly post again on some unrelated thoughts.