Category Archives: Foreigness

Look, A Laowai

I’ve never felt like such a Laowai as I did last Friday when I went to an outside public school to teach a couple of English classes for some local kids. The school was about a 15 minute walk from where I teach, and it seemed to be nestled in an apartment complex and shopping compound. The school was typically quite a bit rundown, and the day was hot and sticky due to rain and 90 degree weather. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was excited and relieved to teach a new batch of students. My regular classes are the same students week in and week out, and most of the time I am more of an entertainer than a teacher, trying to keep the students engaged so the the kids will be happy and the parents will sign them up for a new semester. That’s one life lesson I have learned here. It is always better to provide a service to the person paying. Here, I’m providing a service, teaching, to the kids. The parents are paying, but they are more of a middle man. If at all possible always provide the service directly to the person paying, that way both sides expect production. In my case, the kids could really care less about English. Lesson learned, lesson learned. I’ll have to write a whole post about that. At least at the public school, where I was essentially putting on an infomercial, there was no expectation of learning since I’m only there for 40 minutes a class every 2 months.

So the school is set up in a big square with an empty courtyard where the students play. We got there about 5 minutes before the bell sounded between classes, so we were kinda just standing around waiting. Then the bell rang. About 100 students come pouring out of the classroom and straight to see me. You would have thought an alien had landed. The kids all circled around me, wanted to touch my arms and just me in general, and treated me as though I was some strange creature that landed from a distant planet. It was rather disconcerting, but I was told to expect it.

The classroom was austere and spartan. Oh yeah, it was also brutally hot and I had a couple of 40 minute infomercials to put on.

 

All of the kids were incredibly excited as I entered and started teaching. I had two teaching assistants with me, one of them being my friend Jack, who has very good English. Here is a picture of Jack and I at shane, he has his desk by me:

 

All and all I really enjoyed the lesson because the kids were fun. I really liked the class size; even if a couple of kids weren’t paying attention, so what, there are 40 others. I guess I just am tired of seeing my same kids every week, trying to find new ways to keep them entertained. With the outside locations, I won’t see these kids for 2 months. I’ll be hitting a different school every week, not at all unlike a traveling circus. The TA’s passed out a lot of brochures and hopefully the school will pick up some new students.

The school has really been advertising intensely, handing out fliers at various campuses and giving free demos like mine to several nearby locations. We foreign teachers are left out of the business side of the school, but my impression of the operation and of the neighborhood in general is that everybody is beginning to feel the effects of a slowing economy. Parents are less willing to pay for more than one semester at a time and are bargaining much harder with prices. If there are siblings taking classes together they share or copy a book, whereas I didn’t see this when I first came in. This all points to a larger issues facing the country as whole.

China’s economy is experiencing significant headwinds as it tries to transition into a more sustainable economic model. When I first got here cranes were building non stop. Now construction sites lay abandoned, with the cranes frozen as gigantic monuments to a construction boom that may have run its course. Gee, a massive construction boom backed by government loans leads to a risky and dangerous economic situation. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The historic 20 year run as the world’s factory is coming to an end, and with that will come enormous economic and social pressures.

The legitimacy of the Communist Party for the past two decades has been tied to economic growth, with the belief that the rising tide lifts all ships. Now, however, China has to take that next step in building a domestic consumer economy. Never before has such a transition happened with so many people and in as a compressed time frame like China faces. Growth is slowing and China needs to transition to a more diversified consumer based economy before it gets caught in the middle-income trap like so many hopeful states before it. There is a reason this is happening. A soft landing is the best that the world can hope for.

On an unrelated note, due to the paucity of anything in Wuxi worth seeing, I’m using my free time constructively by taking several online classes on Coursera. They are rather enjoyable, I have taken everything from Metabolism in Athletes to Creative Problem Solving. Right now I am taking a Rhetorical Writing course from Ohio State University. Papers will be peer reviewed and graded by TA’s, so I’ll actually have stuff to turn in. It sounds fun and will involve a lot of writing over the next 8-10 weeks and I’m pretty enthused about it. All free of course, I just have to get around the sensors to watch the video lectures. So is life in Red China.

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New Schedule and Streetviews

We started a new summer schedule here at Shane School tailored to take advantage of the eight weeks off for summer vacation the kids get here in China. I had a bit of trepidation in anticipation of the condensed schedule, with more class time and larger classes, which made the run-up to the start of the sessions the most stressful time here since I first started. However, if the first day is any sort of guide, my concerns were misplaced.

These courses are a pair of 3 week semesters, with a 5 day break in between. They consist of three 40 minute sessions with a 10 minute break between in the morning, followed by the same format in the afternoon, with the day finishing off with my usual preschoolers in the evening. These are MHF, then a normal weekend schedule, which means full days. It seems like a lot, but the new courses replace normal weekday courses and they all come with lesson plans and supplementary materials which makes preparation a whole lot easier. Lesson planning is one aspect of work that truly is work, it's tedious and boring, but also essential. My afternoon summer course is my largest class, about 20 kids in all, about twelve years old I would guess. That's a lot of kids to manage when they don't speak much English and I don't speak any Chinese, but a lot of stuff I do is in teams with a scoring sytem, so the threat and implementation of point reduction is a good way to get the kids to discipline themselves. If a student continues to act up it could cost the whole team, and they are all pretty competitive. Everything went smoothly for it all being my leadoff day with new classes and curriculum.

Some of my favorite foods back home are blueberries and strawberries, salmon, fajitas and pretty much any good dairy, with cheese and milk particular favorites. Well, I can't really get any of that here, so I've been trying to make due with what I can source nearby. There are plenty of dried grains such as rice and oats, as well as dried beans and lentils. Well, I'm not an inveterate consumer of rice, oats, beans or lentils; I really haven't found a way to cook them well and they aren't very exciting. Let me rephrase that. I can cook them correctly, I just haven't found a way to turn them into really enjoyable dishes with the ingredients I have here. I had to search for thirty minutes to find a sealed package of what looks like and I hope are bay leaves. They don't smell like bay leaves as I opened them at home. We'll see how it turns out, I'm making a big pot of pork and beans. Oh well, they do have good squash and purple sweet potatoes, two of my favorite foods.

Just to give you some bearings on what and where you see things, I walk out of my apartment complex gates and face a divided four lane road, bordered with bike lanes and sidewalks, spaced by grass and trees as the median. It's called Changjiang Road, for the purpose of this blog I'll call it Main Street. Across Main Street is the open area where the community dances, sings, trades and gets together in the evenings. Beyond that is a walking mall. More on that later. On my side of Main Street, if I turn left, my school is about fifty yards. If I turn right, I pass the fruit stand, the Korean grocery, several hair salons, new & second hand clothes stores and my coffeeshop. Then in about a 1/4 mile I turn right onto the “Food Street” (Xinguang Road), and about a mile down that road is the shopping center with Carrefour's, the edge of New Business District with larger buildings and what not and some more restaurants.

All the restaurants are pretty much the same, presumably because of the lack of economical, diverse, quality ingredients. If I get food to go I usually buy noodles with meat & veggies at the Muslim owned restaurants/shops, which are the best places in my opinion to buy street food. They have little signs outside (forced or voluntary?) that denote the ownership is Muslim and the food is Halal, which is akin to Kosher and said to be much cleaner than regular street food. The Muslims and Koreans are by far the friendliest store owners, welcoming and kind, so I try my best to shop at their establishments when possible. Perhaps it's simply my perception, but the local Chinese I interact with as cashiers or employees often appear rude and dismissive to Laowai.

The area behind my apartment running along Food Street, behind the restaurants, is a neighborhood for working class (really poor by Western standards) Chinese; vendors, construction laborors and service workers. The scene presented is a blend of shanties, crowded one story apartments, stalls selling everything from exposed meat to industrial chemicals, low hanging power lines, naked & dirty children in the streets…you get the picture.

I took some pictures today. Here is a video to give you an idea of the traffic on the corner of my block at about 6:30 PM. This is the corner of Main Street and Food Street, my side of both. I turn right here to the supermarket. Busy and cacophonous. Everybody honks the horn on their electric moped because the motors are silent, and the honk let's pedestrians know they are coming up on them. Very annoying.

The calm before dinner rush.

Prepping:

Think this would pass the health inspector? Notice the guy cleaning the crawfish in the background with the China tap water in back.

A little cigarette ash gives the grilled mystery meat that authentic Chinese aftertaste. It seems like every man smokes. You can smell it in stores, elevators and restrooms because there are no rules against smoking inside establishments, it must be what it was like in the States before no smoking rules went into effect. I have to say I like no smoking rules.

Typical side street.

Here is a video of the neighborhood next to Food Street, directly behind my complex. I wasn't at all scared, even though everybody stares in one of three ways: amusement, conviviality or resentment. With that said, I wouldn't walk through at night. It's palpable that some of these working class Chinese, with limited access to the outside world, see me and an undefined malice swells up. I can see it intensely in the eyes of the younger men. Certainly a small minority, but present. The kind of fear of the State that doesn't exist in the West keeps violence here minimized, I do wonder for how long. Envy coupled with impotence to State power is always a powder keg.

Not exactly The Grand Canal. You would probably die on contact. I doubt that 24' white PVC pipe running along the embankment pipes in Evian spring water.

On my way out of the neighborhood, opening up to shopping and dining.

The juxtaposition is stark, with high end shopping a hundred meters away. It occured to me most neighborhoods are very well defined in terms of economics and yet exist side by side, and they all have gated entrances coming in and out. The poor areas are gated but don't have security guards to keep people out and the gates are always open, so are they there to confine people in case of emergency?

Look what I found. Two rays of Golden sunshine just outside the entrance/exit of the locals block. Goldens are the dog here. Smart folks, the Chinese dog owners. Somebody is showing off. The one Golden was a really good looking male.

OK. I've got my groceries, left the Mall/Carrefour's, it's getting dark now and you can see how the food street that runs to the Shopping has filled up.

 

I dropped of my groceries at my apartment and decided to take some pics of the walking mall past the dancing and such across the street.

This is the walking mall once you get past everybody dancing/exercising. Not much quality shopping, but that's typical. I'm not sure you can make it out, but most of the second story neon signs and some on the first floor are massage parlors, the kind that don't just give massages, right here within a stones throw and sightline of kids singing. I didn't want to make my filming of the massage parlors obvious, so the “Massage” signs may be tough to make out.

It's really weird. I had more than one strumpet offer a massage with a “happy ending”, which for me would have probably meant phenobarbital and a nap in the gutter, sans wallet. I would have taken a closer video, but I'm sure nobody would have appreciated it. Not the pimp, prostitute or the Japanese business men who flock to these establishments. How many malls in the States have massages and prostitution one level up from an Umbro apparel store.

One last video, this is directly across from my apartment facing my building, the walking mall is behind me. This is the area where families get together.

That's it for now, when the first five day break comes here in about three weeks I might go to either Nanjing or Shanghai with a couple co-workers just to sight see. Nothing is decided, everybody is waiting to see if we even want to go after the first three weeks of a condensed schedule, so I'll just have to play it by ear. Trains go most anywhere here and are really economical, so travel expenses should be relatively low.

If I have problems with the video links I'll have to put them in the next post. Sorry, I don't know how to fix video links yet once I post. I always cross my fingers when I hit the “Publish” button that the censors haven't crushed my video.

That's all for today.

 

 

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.