Saturday, March 29, 2008

Juggling for Deaf Chinese Kids

A lot of the American families here home school their kids, so they have time to go do fun service projects. I was invited to go with them to visit a deaf school. The idea was basically just to go and make the kids feel loved, and since I could juggle, I would give them a show.

Our class tried to take our final that morning and failed miserably. Our teacher had included tons of words that we had never seen before, which she hoped we would just be able to ignore without missing much from the passage. Our panicked stares convinced her otherwise, and she spent the time we were supposed to be taking the test reading out loud all the passages and telling us what it meant.

I was in the mood to do something else, then, and so I did. We took a charter bus to the school, since there were about thirty American kids going total. I sat amid a large group of middle-aged Western moms—something I don't think I've done before in China.

The firsts were just beginning. When we got to the school we were told that if we enunciated clearly, the deaf kids would be able to lip-read our Chinese. I thought it was so strange that I didn't have to think about my pronunciation that I don't think I really talked to them all that much. The kids didn't need much verbal communication. They were all younger elementary kids who just wanted to hold your hand and run around while you tried to play games with them and paint their faces. Here's a picture of me and this one kid. In the background you can see we were trying to play dodgeball, but the kids didn't quite understand and thought they were supposed to catch the ball, not dodge it.

Eventually it was time to gather them all in the cafeteria and let them see me juggle. Afterward they were going to get a snack, so I was lucky to have their attention. It was really interesting juggling for an audience that I couldn't talk to, but having to be so dramatic when I do my teaching job had worked up the actor in me and I did all kinds of goofy gestures and expressions.

I also got the audience involved as much as I could. Here's a picture of me about to unicycle around the five kids I had arranged into an obstacle course. The kid in the front was concentrating so much on standing rigidly that it looked like he was facing death itself. It was just me, though, in a pink shirt.

And then our time was over, we said goodbye to all the little kids we had met, and boarded the buses again. It was a pretty good time.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


Military time still gives me trouble. In Chengdu people will always verbally say "five in the evening" instead of "17:00", but everything official, including the clock on my phone, is in military time. Yesterday after teaching a whopping six classes I wanted to come home, sleep until 9:00 because I felt myself getting sick, do some homework, and then go to bed for the night. Somehow, though, I managed to set the alarm on my phone for the wrong time and woke up at 11:00. I should have done some homework then, but maybe I only think that because of how rough the rest of the night was.

I had been getting sick all of yesterday. I took some Sudafed that I brought from the States before I left to teach, and that kept me doing okay, but I thought that it would be good to sleep extra. After I woke up at 11:00, I took a shower and tried to go back to sleep, but I felt like I had had tons of caffeine. Plus, my skin was irritable and just lying there under the covers was uncomfortable.

I dozed in and out of sleep for the rest of the night. I wouldn't have gone to class this morning except that we have a test tomorrow and I didn't want to miss her review. Plus, ever since we covered a chapter on getting sick, our teacher is always asking us if we have a cold. She only asks if we're out of it that day, though, so that her asking if you're sick is close to a reprimand for not being on top of things. I wanted to be in class, though, so when she asked me, I could say, "Yes, I am sick. I did not sleep well last night. I caught a cold." The last bit, in Chinese, is the title of this post. Unfortunately, she didn't ask me in class and I had to anticlimactically tell her during the break that I wasn't feeling well.

I had a cool moment when I was teaching yesterday. We were playing all these fun games to help the kids learn the new words. One of the games was where I had a cutout of each word plus one cutout of a bomb. When I showed each cutout, the kids would say the word, but when I showed the bomb, everybody went crazy hiding themselves. I got into it, too, and all the kids laughed a lot.

Afterward, one of the kids asked me in Chinese, "Are you going to come back?" I felt proud, because that meant that I had done a good job. I was also excited that I understood his question.

One other thing I wanted to say. It's really too bad that in Chinese, the word for "actually" isn't used the same as it is in English. I used to say it all the time, but my language partner told me that I was using it in the wrong situation, and now I don't know when to use it.

For example, last night I was having dinner with Mrs. Xiong. She asked me to pass the paper towels, and when I didn't understand her (although I did know the word--gah!) she asked what it was called in English. What I wanted to say was, "Actually, in America we would never use toilet paper as napkins." My language skills aren't quite up to that sentence, though, since they don't distinguish between paper you use in the bathroom and paper you use at the table. The high point of my sentence is "actually, but that's been cut out from under me, too!

This post isn't very cohesive, but I'm sick, so that's how it goes.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


Is my contact info really not on here at all, Alex? I'm surprised Google hasn't told me to give it to them. My email address is and I'll be happy to answer any questions you have.

As I mentioned before, I was rejected from the program in Harbin I wanted to go to. After a lot of searching, I found a program in Beijing that I've signed up for. It runs from mid-June to mid-August, which cuts it close getting back to UF for the fall semester. It will give me more than a month to travel or do whatever, though, so that should be good. I'll be at the Beijing Language and Culture University, which is a really respected university. (It makes the HSK, which is the Chinese version of TOEFL, which is the English assessment test that foreign students have to take to do anything with English.)

Best of all, this program offers the chance to do a homestay, so I'll be able to live with a Chinese family for two months! Since I'm already in China, I don't feel as nervous about the lack of information for the program. I figure that as long as when I show up in Beijing I can take classes and have somewhere to sleep, I'll be okay. The program is a little sketchy--they have a nice website, but now that I've signed up, I'm not sure how to pay the balance of tuition, or when I need to, or whether I will be able to have a homestay or not. I'm excited about it, though.

On a related note, Giblin was accepted to the Harbin program. She doesn't know if she's going to go, though. I already promised to visit her in Harbin one weekend if she did do it. It would be so much fun to have one of my good friends in China with me.

I just finalized plans for our spring break. Since we cover three semester's worth of Chinese in this semester, we take our second final this Friday. They're giving us five days of vacation soon after that, so everybody is scattering to travel. USAC students change plans until they're already committed to something. I considered going to Hainan, China's Hawaii, but tanning isn't really my thing (although I know that if it were it wouldn't hurt).

Alex, one of my friends here, was in Chengdu last spring, so he knows what's what. He also likes to practice his Chinese, so when he told me that he was going somewhere and I could come with him, I said yes. It was only today that I actually learned where we were going, because we had to buy our tickets.

It turns out that we're flying in to Guiyang, which is south of Chengdu. Then we'll start adventuring toward Guilin, which is in the next province south. The scenery is supposed to be amazingly foreign and beautiful, so we'll see.

Time for a geography lesson. For those privileged people who can access Wikipedia, check out this page:

It has a large map of Chinese with the province Guilin is in. Sichuan, the province I'm in, is the second province diagonally up and left (next to Tibet). It's difficult to be precise, since I'm not connected to the Internet while composing this, and China doesn't even want me to be on Wikipedia. It should still give you a general idea of where I am and where I'm going this semester.

Alex and I haven't bought a return ticket yet because we're not sure if we'll make it to Guilin in the time we have or if we'll go to a different airport. Also, ticket prices change drastically daily, so we got this one to Guiyang for a measly $40 and we're hoping that by the time we're ready to fly home we'll spy tickets that aren't too much more expensive.

Almost related to plans: I went shopping today and saw a line of people waiting for a bus. I was so confused. Why were people in a line? Why was a crowd not sufficient? There were no railings that made people be in a line; plus, the line extended into the sun when there was shade nearby. It was so strange. I think it was the first time I'd seen a line since I've come to China. Even buying movie tickets they don't really use lines.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


Had I not received an email from my mom a few days ago, I wouldn't have known that it was Good Friday. As it is, it was hard to convince myself that today really was Easter. China doesn't know about Easter, although I predict in a few years the non-religious parts of the holiday will seep in, just like Santas are ubiquitous during Chistmas season. (As a side note, I hear that during Christmas, the Chinese have invented what they think is an American tradition during Christmas: hitting each other with blow-up hammers. One American went to the town square and said that he almost felt in danger when the crowd of Chinese realized there was a real American that they could mob with their hammers.)

Our Sunday fellowship was good. I was so happy to be able to say, "He is risen!" and "He is risen indeed!" I met a few people from the international Sound of Music cast who came. I signed up to help stage a Steven Curtis Chapman concert in Chengdu in early May. Pretty standard stuff for a Sunday morning in China.

I ate lunch with a few people, including a guy recently out of college named James who was going to some park after lunch to meet some other professors at the university he teaches at. He was unsure of the bus routes, and I didn't have anything else to do in the afternoon and thought he might like some company, so I decided to join him.

We boarded the 111 and waited until we got to Jinsha Station. We expected that we would be able to take the 366 from there, but then we realized that we had to take the 305 first. All of the 305, from start to finish. The 305 is so long (or popular) that it even has an express bus, and then once we finished with that, we would still have to sit through ten stops or so on the 366. It was already 2:00 and we decided it wasn't worth the effort, so we went to look around the stores near the station.

We stopped into an English school because James was interested in supplementing his job at the university with a part-time job teaching English. He got their contact info and said that he would get in touch once he had his work visa. This must be a really legit teaching place, because no one cares about official work permits. All of us who work at the university are paid under the table, I think.

Then we came to some guys who were supposed to be selling plants all playing cards. I explained the rules of Beat the Landlord to James while we observed their strategy: you deal out the whole deck, one guy gets to be the landlord and gets three extra cards, and the other two play against him. If the landlord gets rid of his cards first, he collects, if one of the other guys do, they win. I said that I was just waiting for a chance to play for money with people. Only three or four minutes after I said that, the guy we were watching stood up and left to go check on something. This was my chance. I sat down, picked up his cards, and played his hand. That's just how it works here. You don't ask to play, you just wait until there's an opportunity.

I thought I had lost the first hand and started to get out my wallet, but the guys said I didn't have to. It turned out my partner had won for us. I was the landlord the next hand, and with some help from the guy who's place I had taken, worked a really good hand to my advantage and won. Then I was on a team with one of the other guys and we won again. I had a little stash of kuai at this point, and felt a little more confident. Half of the fun is slapping the cards onto the table and yelling something in Chinese when you have a great play, and I didn't quite get the slap down perfectly, but I was improving. My hands weren't shaking with exhilaration as the hands went by.

After maybe ten minutes and seven or eight rounds, James said he was ready to leave, so I finished up that hand (we won) and then left, leaving my winnings behind for the guy who had been playing.

I gambled on Easter, but at least I practiced my Chinese doing it.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Getting Directions in Chinese

This morning I wrote an essay, so by this afternoon I was ready to try to engage with the Chinese. One time recently when I was talking to Mrs. Xiong she told me that if I was ever free on the weekend, I should give her a call and come over.

When I called, she asked if I wanted to come over. I said sure, and she asked if I could come by myself. She had already told me that I could take the bus, so I was prepared for this question. I said sure, as long as she told me how to go. She said to take the 79 to--somewhere--and then change to the 56 until--somewhere else. I was a little fuzzy on the places that she wanted me to change to, but I had gotten as much information on the phone as I thought I could get. From there, it was the people of China who helped me get to the Xiongs.

I walked to the bus station near our apartment and started looking for the street that she had said I should change at. (I didn't actually need to know the street name, I just needed to know the direction, and then once I saw that the bus stop had 56 I could get off and change, but still.) This was a double difficulty because I wasn't confident that the name I repeated was the name she had said, plus I had to find characters that looked like they would match those sounds.

Examining the stops for route 79 didn't yield any results, so I had to ask somebody. I asked a kid standing there if he knew where I needed to go. He didn't, but a helpful businessman also at the stop decided to look. He couldn't find the name of the street either, so he asked if I could call my friend. I called Mrs. Xiong, he talked to her for a minute or two and determined which way I needed to go. He even scribbled directions down on a piece of paper for me.

When I got to the stop I needed to get off at, I realized why I hadn't been able to find it on the map. The stop wasn't the name of the street we were on. I then had to determine which stop to get off once I took the second bus. Again, the directions I had didn't match up to the stops on the board. I later realized that this was because I had the name of their complex and not the name of the stop. I asked a businessman, hoping he would be as helpful, and even though he didn't know, he shouted that there was a foreigner enough that somebody came to help me.

I rode that bus, got off, and walked across the street to their complex. I called Mrs. Xiong and tried to describe that I was at the front, but I wasn't really at the front because it was spread out pretty well and I didn't know where the entrance was. I described things enough that she could guide me. I was really happy that I had recently solidified which word was "right" and which was "left."

Finally I made it to their apartment, without a single word in English. After I had dinner at their house and watched the news in Chinese with Mr. Xiong, I decided to come back. Mrs. Xiong was really impressed that I thought I could get back by myself, but I thought that compared to going somewhere without instructions I understood, getting back was simple.

When it came time to change buses, I even got daring and took the number 12 because I knew it came back to our apartments. I freaked out for a minute during the ride because I thought maybe I had managed to catch it on its way out, but eventually I recognized where I was and everything was okay. I made it back home safe and sound, and even called Mrs. Xiong like she had asked to let her know I didn't get lost.

This was better than my ability to get around with clear directions in Orlando.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Being Laughed At

I had my third week of teaching English yesterday. When Mrs. Xiong picked me up, there was another woman in the car, so I sat in the backseat. It's really difficult to talk in Chinese when there are two people and only one of them is engaged. It's especially difficult since here in Chengdu, people naturally speak Sichuan dialect (named after this province), which, although similar in structure to Mandarin, has a totally different feel with a totally different vocabulary. I have picked up a few words, and since my tones aren't great, it doesn't phase me when their tones aren't standard either, but in general I have no idea what they're saying. That means that when people are in a group, they're either talking to me in Mandarin, or they're talking normally. I'm not good enough to follow a conversation, so them speaking in Mandarin while talking just so I'll be able to understand some parts doesn't get the reaction they want, and they just talk to themselves in Sichuan dialect.

While I was in the car, then, they talked in Sichuan dialect and I looked out the window. It didn't bother me too much, because I like to look out the window, but it was unfortunate that I couldn't spend the time trying to talk to Mrs. Xiong.

Teaching went pretty well, I thought. The kids were really rowdy, and I was teaching really little ones (3-4 year olds) so they were even more lost than normal. I tried to get them active, like teaching them "stand up" and "sit down" and "clap your hands" by having them do the motions, but either they were too young or they were too tired, because my tactics only had limited effect. I taught three classes, and then I was supposed to head back to Chengdu immediately, because I think Mrs. Xiong had planned to eat dinner with the woman.

Once I was done teaching, though, Mrs. Xiong and the woman had to talk for a while about something, and then they got my assistant, Tina (Mrs. Xiong's cousin) and a few other girls and talked to them privately too. I asked what was going on, and Tina told me that the woman thought Tina had been too harsh to the kids and had a few words for her. I didn't think Tina had acted out of the usual, but she told me that the woman's kid had died a few years ago and now that she had another kid maybe she was too involved in making sure everything went right. The woman is on the older side of middle-aged, with lots of wrinkles and a naturally critical look.

They talked for at least half an hour, so that by the time they were done, they abandoned plans for their dinner and stopped somewhere with me on their way back. Over dinner, the woman explained in patronizingly slow Chinese (I admit, my Chinese isn't good enough to tell definitively that her tone was patronizing, but I'm pretty sure it was) how I could have done a better job. I didn't understand everything she said, but she wasn't very patient with me and I wasn't going to stop her to hear a more detailed critique. I hadn't paid attention to whether she had been watching me teach or not, but if she had she would have seen that everything she was recommending to me was stuff that I did.

On the way home, Mrs. Xiong and the woman were talking for a while about something, and since I heard "Pan Wei said..." a few times I thought that maybe Mrs. Xiong was telling the woman things about America that I had told her. I was thrown off, then, when Mrs. Xiong asked me a question that didn't seem like it had to do with anything. It took me several repetitions for me to interpret her questions as, "You don't like going places alone, do you?" I wasn't sure how I was supposed to answer, since this seemed like the kind of question that would follow from the conversation I hadn't been following.

The woman was not helping. Every time one of them asked me a question with a word I didn't know, the woman would shake her head, laugh, and say, "He doesn't understand." This bothered me so much that by the end of the hour and a half car ride I was clenching my fists and was tempted to try to say, "I don't feel like talking any more." She had laughed like I was an amusement, like communication was an accidental by-product of her fun. It's like when you see an old computer and start to test it out just to see how badly it performs, so you can be so grateful about the capabilities of your own computer.

It was the first time I've gotten really mad at somebody in China. I'm so glad I haven't met more people like that.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

An Unexpected Day Off

I have the pictures up from our trip to the Dazu Rock Carvings. I think Facebook lets non-Facebook users comment on pictures, if anyone is interested. I appreciate all the comments my recent post got. Here's the link to the photo album I made:

Today we were supposed to have class, but our teacher had some stuff she had to do, so we didn't have class. I met with my language partner instead, and after a brief session where I complained (in Chinese) that I couldn't speak any Chinese and she tried to reassure me that I wasn't too bad, I wrote a long assignment about a time I got sick. In Chinese you can say "my four limbs" to mean your whole body, so my story was about how I repeatedly was injured and one by one had to have my arms and legs amputated, so that when I got a cold after I had had four surgeries, I told the doctor "My four limbs aren't feeling well" and I said that he didn't understand... because I didn't have four limbs, of course. It was like a Chinese joke, I think. My language partner thought it was so cute that she made a Facebook note out of it so all her Chinese friends could see what it's like having a crazy American as a language partner.

Then tonight I went to see National Treasure 2 with my Chinese family. It turned out to be the perfect movie, because I already understood the plot, and with the exception of complicated dialogue about why they needed to go to London or whatever, the phrases were pretty simple. I understood a huge amount, partly because I knew what it was they would be talking about if it were in English.

For example, when there's a flood coming out of nowhere and Ben and the bad guy have to work together to push a conveniently-placed mill so that a stone lever will raise and everyone can get to safety, I knew that the bad guy would work it so that Ben would have to hold the lever while he escaped. And then, when a rock came crashing down and Ben was almost out and the bad guy was the one left, I understood that he was talking about how Ben should just go, because the bad guy had discovered the treasure and that's all he was after. It's not like I understood everything. I thought Ben and the girl had gotten married, so I never really understood their dynamic. And I didn't know why the bad guy was chasing him, and it was a good thing I had seen the previews. Overall, though, I was pretty happy with how well I fared.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Short Post Concerning, in Part, the Weather

I’ve been feeling worn out recently. We just went on a field trip to a place world-famous for its rock carvings. The rock carvings were pretty cool (I’ll upload some pictures once my computer starts getting the Internet again), but mostly I enjoyed getting out of a day of school to ride on a bus and read.

The worst of winter has passed, and I’d say we’re honing in on summer. When the weather heats up some days, I can see why people don’t like Chengdu in the summer. It will be just like Orlando, except I don’t think it’ll have as much rain. It’s humid, I hear—after living in Florida, nothing feels humid to me—and surprisingly hot. Maybe having the sun out is just a fluke, though.

I’m in a pretty suibian mood. I don’t know how to translate that in English, and actually, I don’t know if you can say that in Chinese either. It means “casual,” but you can’t say in English that you’re in a casual mood. To show you what I mean, though, I haven’t deleted this paragraph.

I’ve also noticed that people have stopped commenting on my posts. I’m still trying to figure out the whole blogging things, so maybe there’s an ebb and flow that I haven’t figured out yet. Comments are a really nice way to let me know that I’m not typing to myself, though.

I think that’s about all I have energy for for this post.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Getting a Job: the lesson

The idea was for me to teach the kids a few animal words. The cousin, Tina, had brought horse, monkey, and panda cut-outs and a panda puppet. Then she told me that games would be good for keeping the kids' attention. What confused me was that the games didn't have to do with the animal words. The games were songs with actions and vocabulary, like "Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes." I tried to think of some activities to interact with the audience, but it was tough.

As you can tell from the word "audience," I half saw this as a performance, only I didn't have any of my juggling equipment. When the time came to do the lesson, though, that's what it looked like.

We were in the playground, because the school was shaped like a horseshoe and the playground was right in the middle. There was a row of chairs that they formed into an arc, each one with a little kid sitting in it. And then I was told that since it was so late in the day, and this was like an extra-curricular activity (or something like that) for the kids, that their parents would be there too. So now only did I have a ton of kids who I couldn't talk to and their stern, Sichuan parents in the background carefully watching to make sure the foreigner did a good job instructing little XiaoXiao. Moreover, Tina, who acted as my helper, and I were both equipped with wireless mics so everyone could hear us.

Tina started warming up the crowd by giving them familiar instructions in Chinese. I led them in a song about their nose and mouth, trying to make sure that they could understand it and not just mimic it. All the kids were really good at mimicking, so if I said something, they could repeat it back pretty well. That level of knowledge seemed to satisfy Tina, but I wanted them to actually know the words. When we started going over the animal names, a few of them already knew the words for horse, panda, and monkey, but others weren't as knowledgeable. I tried to do this game where I laid the cut-outs on the ground, closed my eyes, and as I walked around had them tell me which one I was near, but it was only mildly successful.

I kept making up games, trying to drag out three words into half an hour's-worth of instruction. I was in full performance mode at this point, so when I thought of acting out the part of the animals, and started scratching at my armpits pretending to be a monkey, it didn't even bother me that all the well-off, respectable parents were standing there with their arms crossed attentively watching me leap around the stage.

Finally the lesson was over and I said goodbye to the kids. I asked Tina how I did, and she said, "Pretty good, but next time best job," or something like that. Mrs. Xiong also said I had done okay, and tried to tell me how to improve, but I didn't understand what she was saying. I feel a little stressed out going into it again not knowing what they want out of me, but there's nothing really I can do but keep trying and observe how Tina does it. They said that the parents thought I had done a good job, though, so hopefully I'm not too much of a drain on everyone's resources.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Getting a Job: a Chinese interview

The Chinese mom (who I think I'll refer to from here on as Mrs. Xiong) picked me up around noon and we started driving. Our conversation in the car was strained, but it was only because I had no idea how to talk about anything. I couldn't quite remember the word for lawyer, and I don't know how to say, "I have pretty much no idea what I'm going to do with my life," I was left for a few minutes trying to explain the concept of a lawyer without knowing the words for "crime," "jail," or "trial."

When we got to the school, it turned out that I was not the only one who was out for a job: five girls and one guy were also going to be interviewed to teach English. Mrs. Xiong's cousin, Tina, the one I played cards with during Chunjie and who speaks passable English, is apparently pretty high up in the school, because she was the one conducting the interview. We all sat in some teacher's office, found enough chairs, and then one by one the applicants had to stand up, hand in their resume, and be quizzed about their interests and abilities.

Tina, who is usually very friendly and easy to talk to, assumed an intimidating air of authority that even I as as American could understand. I followed the Chinese part of their interview pretty well. It helped that they all said about the same thing, so if I didn't understand what one person did after college, I might for the next one.

Then it came time for the English portion of their interview. The applicants' English seemed to be about the level of my Chinese, so they tensed up before answering a question, and sometimes got a blank look when they missed a word or two, and generally had pretty poor pronunciation. It made me feel uncomfortable to be there, because I wasn't the interviewer but had more knowledge about English than everyone else in the room put together.

What made me particularly unsettled was when Tina would ask questions in English. Her voice made it clear that she was still in charge, but she was questioning them in broken English. The only part I remember clearly was when she asked one girl why she applied for the job. The girl managed to say, "I like little childs. And, I think they are nice and so I want be a teacher." The girl, it seemed, had gone to college far away, or something like that, so Tina was interested in why she had chosen this school specifically. "Can you give me some excuses?" she demanded. I was alarmed that she was speaking wrong, but luckily no one looked at me. The girl didn't quite know how to answer, so Tina repeated herself. "Can you give me some exact excuses? About why you choose this school?" Finally she explained herself in Chinese and the girl said something.

It was agony to me to watch this process, but finally they all finished. I wanted to ease the mood a little, so I pretended to be the next one to be interviewed. They laughed, and said I could be if I wanted. I said sure, but for me the Chinese part would be harder than the English part. That was in English, though, and I don't think they understood what I meant. I started telling them why I was in Chengdu, and how long I was going to be there, and that while I was here I figured it'd be fun to get a job. With the high pressure of the interview, though, I forgot that they didn't actually speak English, and didn't slow down very much. They were all suitably impressed at my fluency and native accent, and were then herded off to take some kind of tour of the school.

Tina herself personally took me on a tour of all the classrooms for the little kids. She kept calling the school a kindergarten, but I think it was more like an elementary school. There were several stories, with maybe ten classrooms for each grade. We toured the pre-K age group, where each class had thirty or fourty grimy kids around short circular tables. The calmer kids were sitting down, but a large proportion of them were in the halls, or going to the bathroom, or something. I couldn't tell if this was organized, or was just a symptom of there being too many kids.

We toured the classes in the early afternoon, so most of the classes were watching a movie. Interestingly, the teacher was always combing girls' hair while they watched the movie.

When we came in, the kids were amazed to see a foreigner. I might have been the first one they had seen. They gasped, and giggled to each other, and pointed. Tina would introduce me and then when I said anything in Chinese or English, it was too much for them. Their giggles became uncontrollable laughter, and the classroom would look like it was about to erupt with discussion of everyone's impressions. We would leave then, followed by fascinated stares until we were out of sight into another classroom.

So much excitement, and I hadn't even done any teaching yet.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Getting a Job: the set-up

Before I get to my job, let me get to my study abroad program. I've received several questions about whether I will still be in China for this summer, and the answer is yes. The details of that are not completely nailed down yet, but just yesterday I found a program that looks really good. It's in Beijing from mid-June to mid-August. That gives me a good amount of time to relax and travel after this semester, but also a good amount of time learning Chinese. It's at the Beijing Language and Culture University, which is very well-known, and costs less than the Harbin program. The best part is that it offers the chance to live with a Chinese family, which I think would be really beneficial for my Chinese. I'll probably apply in the next day or two.

Last Wednesday I had my first day of a job teaching too many little kids English. Here are the details of it.

I might be starting to see how having guanxi (connections) works in China. When I was with the Chinese family during Chunjie, I was trying to figure out what the wife's job is. Then she asked if any of us were going to work while we were here, and I said I wasn't sure. I didn't need to financially, but if it didn't take a lot of time, it'd be fun. Then she asked how much I would want to be paid, and what days I would be available, and how transportation would work. (Hypothetically, of course.) I had an idea of what we were really talking about, though, so I wasn't surprised when, at the end of our conversation, she said, "Okay, well, when Chunjie is over I'll give you a call and let you know when you'll start working."

Since tai chi has ended, I don't have class on Wednesday, so that's the day of the week that I go teach. My job is to teach English to about 40 Chinese preschoolers at a time, and people are willing to pay big money to have a real American teaching their kid. I was talking to my language partner yesterday about wages for her friend who just got a job. Her friend works as a waitress nine hours a day, six days a week, for a monthly salary of less than 800 kuai. I, on the other hand, will earn 250 kuai for three hours.

As for location, the school I'll be at is in a small town outside of Chengdu. It takes a little more than an hour to drive there. When I was talking to the mom about it originally, I said that sounded pretty far away, but the mom said that she's willing to drive me there and back. That means that not only do I have a job, I have two hours to practice Chinese every week. The mom speaks no English, but is so nice about speaking basic Chinese that I really like talking to her.

I still don't understand the situation fully, but I think I'll be teaching several classes each time I go. Little kids can't handle more than half an hour, but as far as I know I'll be leaving after lunch and not returning until around dinner.

Last Wednesday was my trial run, and it sure was an interesting time. I'll talk about it in my next post.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

How I Celebrated My Birthday

Since I recently celebrated my first birthday since I was 16, I figure it deserves its own entry. Most Chinese people I've talked to say that I'm the first person they've met who was born on Leap Year Day. I wonder if it's because they know fewer people than people do in America. Actually, the USAC students are pretty heavy on late-February birthdays. Mine was the 29th, another guy's was the 28th, and one of my roommate's had her birthday on the 27th. Our program director bought us a huge cake and after the break on Thursday all of us had some. Sofia put the copious icing to good use, but couldn't escape a retaliatory hug:

After class Friday I found out that I had been rejected from CET's program in Harbin. It was the middle of the night in America, so I couldn't call my mom until the evening, China-time. That left the whole afternoon to deal with the news myself. Class had gone really well. I totally nailed a vocab quiz we had, so I was in a good mood about Chinese even though my study abroad plans had been thrown into the air. It was a beautiful day, so we all went up to the roof of one of the apartments. I went up even higher to the top of a little water tower thing, and lied down and took a nap.

When I was done feeling so mellow, I decided I should at least do something with the good weather, so I got two people to film me juggling and made a short video. The file size is large if you're using dial-up, but it's a pretty good video , and has scenery that you would never find in America. The tricks are pretty difficult, by the way. Here's the link:

That night we went to the best Western restaurant in town. The twelve or thirteen people I got to come treated me to a burger and milkshake. Even my language partner and her friend came, so it was quite a party.

When we came back to the apartments, everyone got drunk, since it was a Friday night. If people didn't get drunk here nobody would practice their Chinese, but once they've played a several rounds of beer pong, chatting with the guards outside loses its intimidating aspect. I sat in the other apartment talking to my mom about being rejected and trying to enjoy being twenty.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Getting a Haircut

My haircut coming to China was a buzzcut, since I had to get my mohawk cut. My hair isn't that long on the top, but was annoyingly long on the sides, so after working myself up to it for a few days, I went to get my hair cut in China.

I'd heard that you can come out with a ridiculous haircut because they don't know how to cut Americans' hair, but I didn't know very many words to prevent that from happening.

On my way to lunch I saw a place that didn't look too expensive, but still looked like they did a good job. It's rainy today, so there weren't many people, either. I told them I wanted the cheapest haircut, and they said that was fine. They wash your hair before they start cutting, giving you a little head massage in the process. Then I was presented to my hair stylist, a young guy, and told him I didn't want my hair short.

He was surprisingly restrained in his treatment of my hair. I was expecting to come out with an army cut, but he had a light touch. He distracted me from worrying about what I was going to look like in half an hour by trying to make conversation with me. I've never tried to speak Chinese without being able to move my head. It's not like I'm a bobble-head when I speak a foreign language, but having full range of motion makes me feel more able to communicate what my words can't. He spoke bad Mandarin (or maybe good Chuanhua, the local dialect), so he had to repeat even easy questions a few times before I guessed what he was asking.

After he had gone around my head with normal scissors, he used thinning scissors and went around again. Then I had my head washed again, he blow-dried my hair, put in some Asian gel, and I was finished. I paid my 15 kuai ($2 US) and left.

I don't think it's a bad haircut. I'm still surprised to see myself posing without a mohawk, and I'm not a good judge of my own looks, so in total I don't have a very good idea of how it came out. Here's a picture:

Thursday, March 6, 2008


As part of my adventure of living in China, I've done a few things that I wouldn't normally do. Last night I had dinner with a group of Chinese who were hankering for rabbit, so we went to a hotpot restaurant and ate all kinds of rabbit meat. Some of it was boiled, some was roasted with seasoning (I found my rabbit leg had little meat for the amount of bone); all of it tasted like chicken. Today for lunch we went to a Tibetan restaurant and had all kinds of yak meat. Well, a few weeks ago I got an email from someone asking if I wanted a trial lesson from eChineseLearning. (If you google it, I think their website shows up as the first one.) Normally I wouldn't bother with that kind of thing, but I figured why not.

eChineseLearning is a service out of Beijing that teaches people Chinese online using Skype. They really take advantage of emerging technology to provide a professional product using easily accessible tools. Everyone can download Skype, and everyone can get a microphone (I hear Macs even come with one in the computer). All that's left, then, is to schedule a time that you're free, then log on and have a session with your private tutor. They have materials and trained teachers, all you have to have is money. It usually costs $20/hr, which they say is standard for language tutors.

I'm not their average prospect. First, I'm in China and all I need to do to have a conversation with someone in Chinese is walk outside. I've already taken Chinese, and after a short Skype interview was placed into an "advanced" level. (I do know how to write the word for chrysanthemum, after all.) I had no intention of continuing their service, either. I was like one of those people who go to a car lot because they're offering free hot dogs and soda, but don't want to buy a new pick-up truck.

One more complicating factor was our Internet connection. The mic I brought from home has been lost in transit, and my computer won't connect to the Internet through a cable. I scheduled my trial lesson in the morning one of the days I didn't have language class, and hoped that I'd be able to get in to an apartment with Internet, find a mic, and have a good enough Internet connection to try to learn Chinese over.

Somehow, all those pieces fit together, and after a few failed attempts to log in to Skype, I connected and started my lesson. The teacher had a video hooked up so she could write characters (or pinyin) on the blackboard behind her. There was a delay of one or two seconds with the video, which was annoying, but other than that I thought things went pretty well. I was feeling overloaded with all the vocab I had to learn for class the next day, but I tried to absorb some of the words she was teaching me. We talked mostly in Chinese, which I found amazing. I think if I had continued the lessons, my teacher would have really been helpful, but with only half an hour she didn't know where I was enough to help my Chinese.

After the lesson I found out that the catch wasn't a sales pitch to continue eChineseLearning, like I had imagined it would be, but it was actually that they wanted to get a write-up on my blog. I think that's almost like being paid to write. I got $20 worth of a Chinese lesson, I am delivering them a review. Neither, I think, is quite the way we would have had it had the payment been different--I already have a Chinese teacher, and they don't have any control over what I write--but overall, it's a pretty good deal. If I'm feeling good about myself, I could say that they got the impression that I have some kind of influence over people through my blog. More generally, though, it's just another example of them using new technology to make a profit. I wonder how old the person is who started it? To be Chinese, familiar with computers, business-savvy, and wealthy enough to start a company seems like an unusual mix. Maybe it was started by more than one person.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

I Made a Chinese Friend

Tai chi ended last week, so now my afternoons on Tuesday and Wednesday are free. On this first day of freedom, I came back to our apartment for a while and did some stuff online. I was rejected from the summer program that I wanted to be in, so I've been scrambling to find another program that I could join. On one hand, it's difficult trying to figure out all this stuff from halfway across the world, but on the other hand, it's a lot less stressful thinking about just staying here than it would be if I were in America and had to rework my whole plans for studying abroad. Getting rejected was tough at first, but there's so much going on that I've moved on pretty quickly to what to do next.

When it was 3:00 and I had been on my computer a few hours, I realized that I was in China and should be doing something that had to do with Chinese. I started walking without knowing where I intended to go, and ended up getting on the bus to school, with a vague notion that if any old people were doing tai chi I could practice with them.

School just came back into session this week at the college here, so for the first time I came in and there were Chinese students walking around. There's a fountain in the middle of the campus that has seating around it, and I saw this guy who looked like he was sitting alone. I sat next to him, and after a few minutes when he hadn't left and I had mentally practiced the first few minutes of conversation, I started talking to him. "Hi, are you a student?" He said he was and we started talking about our studies. I asked him what he was studying and didn't understand his answer, but that was okay, and then I told him that I'm an English major who's also studying Chinese. I just turned twenty, he said he was two years younger than me. That opened up a whole new avenue of conversation, since it meant he was a freshman.

We talked about where he was from and what he thought of Chengdu. The university we're at is the college for minority students in Sichuan province, and is proud of itself because it has people from all of the 56 minorities. Each minority has its own language and is ethnically different. Imagine the United States without any Europeans and instead with a ruling Native American tribe. Everyone is kind of the same, but the similarity is mostly political.

The guy I was talking to belongs to one of the nationalities. He can speak standard Chinese (Mandarin), but he also has his own language. It's interesting the way China handles minorities. The 97% of Chinese who are Han Chinese are bound by the one-child policy (with limited exceptions), but minorities are allowed to have more than one kid. This guy I was talking to is the first one so far to tell me had a sibling! He said that people of his nationality are allowed to have three kids. Another thing that China does is what we would call affirmative action: minorities who don't score very well on their version of the SAT get bonus points for being a minority.

All of this made for interesting conversation, but I felt like I was drowning. Even the guy's slow, basic Chinese had me working so hard to figure out which words I knew and what they meant and what I needed clarification of and how to ask him to clarify, and how to reply to his comment in the first place. He was so patient with me. We only had to give up on what he was trying to say twice. Every other time he could simplify things for me enough that I could understand. I live in a two-story house that is occupied by just our family. He usually eats in the cafeteria, but has the food that specially belongs to his nationality.

After a few hours sitting there, two guys he knew came by. He warned them that I didn't understand very much, but they introduced themselves to me anyway and were happy to try their memorized English phrases on me. The guy I had been talking to didn't know any English, except for Hollywood and sister. When they talked to each other, it was in their own language, which had at least one sound that Mandarin doesn't have. I think their nationality was influenced by Arabic societies, because they looked like they were from the Middle East and one of the guys' names was Achmed, complete with the whispered guttural "ch" that you hear in Arabic (Marian can tell me the linguistic word for it).

And that's how I made my first Chinese friend. His name sounds like Elias, and I don't have anything to offer him but he wants to hang out with me anyway, and we're going to meet each other at the same place next week. And although it was arduous, and not very deep, I had a real conversation with a real Chinese person for an extended amount of time. A few times when I was listening to him I started smiling because I was so amazed at myself. Then I wouldn't be able to concentrate on what he was saying, and he'd have to say it over. By the end of the semester, who knows how good I'll be? Maybe I'll even be able to smile and listen to Chinese at the same time. I do have a Chinese friend to do it with.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Buying a Bike

It's funny how having to make a hypothetical decision sometimes makes a real decision too. One of the guys in the program, Colin, bought a bike a week ago but was dissatisfied with it later that day. He said that he hadn't properly considered how much he had to hunch over when he rode it, and was considering selling it and buying a different one. In about ten seconds, I decided that if his bike didn't break in the next few days--and with Chinese bikes you really have to have that test--then I'd be willing to buy his bike off of him.

Of course, Colin warmed up to his bike and decided he liked it, but by that point I had warmed up to having a bike and felt deprived for not having one. I decided to ask Alex to take me to get a bike. He knew a place to get bikes at and had taken all the USAC students there as we've decided to fork over the cash for one. We think they might all be stolen bikes, because they're used, and what Chinese person is going to sell a bike that can still be ridden? We don't know how to ask, though, and we don't really want to know, so we just go.

On the way to the bike market I had a strange experience. Most bikes here have a metal rack on the back that you can sit on, and Alex had even fitted his with padding so it was a comfortable ride while we biked us. As we were riding, though, there was a Chinese kid, maybe 13 or 14, who still had on his school outfit and looked like he was riding home. When he saw me look at him, he said in very passable English, "That's illegal." He meant, of course, that it was illegal to ride on the back of Alex's bike. We're in China, where all the world is a trashcan and I've seen three stop signs since I've arrived--things aren't illegal in China. Besides, we're fifteen minutes out by bike and still have another fifteen before we arrive, and after this trip I wouldn't need to ride on the back of someone's bike, so I didn't take him very seriously. "Illegal!" I tried to say in Chinese in a friendly tone. I don't think my Chinese was good enough, though, because the kid just shook his head and rode on. Now that I think about it, that's probably all the English he had worked himself up to, and didn't know how to continue a discussion on it. And probably it was just a way to look good talking to foreigners. But still, being rebuked by a Chinese kid for being too rebellious gave me a bad taste in my mouth until we got to the market.

It's an outdoor market down a typical Chinese alley, with tons of bikes and tons of salesman just waiting to pounce once you let on that you're looking for a bike. First you look at the bike they've shoved on you, and if you don't immediately reject it, they urge you to test it out in the narrow street, and if you don't immediately say it's no good, they urge you to buy it. I'm still working out what Chinese politeness looks like, so I didn't want to be too fast to reject a bike and felt stressed just thinking. The second one I tried, though, was a really nice 21-gear bike with paint still left on the frame and breaks that didn't squeak. Seriously, most of the time you hear people coming by the sound of their breaks. Alex thought it also looked like a good buy, but I was scared off by their initial offer of 280 kuai. I was thinking of paying more like 120 (less than $20), and when the salesmen saw that I was serious about that they brought a string of junkers to show what a 120 kuai bike would look like.

My eye was on the blue 21-speed, though, and after riding a few others I went back to the guy who had the blue one and offered him 200. He agreed, I paid him, and then I realized that I didn't have a basket or a rack, which the guys said they would be no problem. Four or five of them swarmed the bike and looked like they were disassembling it completely, which made me nervous. They added a front and back fender, with no strength to give people rides (illegally) on the back. They put on a basket so I can put my backpack in on my way to school and started haggling over the price of it with me. I tried to remind them that they had said they would add it on, but they claimed that it was extra, that my 200 only covered the bike. When they offered me a really nice chain and lock for it which they wanted 17 kuai for, I told them that I'd give them 20 for all the add-ons. They agreed, and a few minutes later I had a sweet bike to ride home. I might have been paid a little too much, but not a lot, I don't think.

It took me an amazingly short amount of time to bike back home. Mom knew that no one in China wears a helmet, so I have one that I brought from the States. I think if I wear I'll feel justified biking more recklessly, though, so I maybe it would be safer not to. Feel free to chime in with mothering opinions.