Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Frustrations of travel
                     On a trip to the public gardens in Weihai, John and Brittany became horribly ill and had to grab taxis to our hotel.  Shelley had been ill several days with the flu but was finally better after a trip to the doctor.  Zane was ill too and had not come along.
                      Everyone’s better now which is a relief, because this evening we commence a 16 hour train ride to Beijing.  We’ll be in Beijing overnight and then take the plane home to America.

In pursuit of beauty
                 The women were have been experimenting with Chinese beauty treatments.  It was startling to come home and find them in face masks.  Shelley swears her skin is firmer.  I’m certain it makes no difference on Gabriela and Brittany—there skin is so good to begin with.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Rite of passage
             Brittany Gilbert turned twenty-one a few days ago.  We threw a surprise party for her—something they don’t have in China. There is a Chinese version of the Happy Birthday song which our Chinese counterparts sang.

Generation gap
             We were asked to perform a group song in SICT’s summer “gala,” a glorified talent show in which mildly students sing into microphones, dance around in scanty costumes, and demonstrate karate.  John Mooneyham served as English speaking emcee.
 It was difficult to locate an American song all of us knew, and we finally settled on a neutered version of Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” without the last three verses, which are very radical.  Then I learned we were expected to lead the entire assembly in a rousing rendition of “Auld Lang Syne. Brittany, John, Gabriele and Zane, none of whom are past thirty, claimed not to have heard of this song.   They learned it however, though they thought it was corny. 
Dear Teacher-- Laoshi
                   In a recent book, Dana Goldstein characterized teaching as America’s most embattled profession.  Teachers are often scapegoats for our social ills, simultaneously blamed for low achievement by impoverished students, pressure upon the most privileged, and the drop in America’s test scores.
                At times, Chinese teachers experience similar pressure, for parents from China’s rising middle class want their children taught by those who can give them a competitive advantage.  But in China this criticism is muted because of the age old respect this culture affords to their teachers.  ‘Laoshi’  (pronounced LOU-SHU) is translated ‘teacher,’ but in addition to naming an occupation, the title carries a deep respect seldom afforded to an American educator.
             Above: Students sing for their teachers at a farewell assembly.

             Below: Gabriela Montes serves as an intern teacher in a Chinese elementary school.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Opening exercises
               Monday mornings, there are formal opening exercises in the elementary school where we are working complete with brass band, student led flag salute, and a short play about the virtues of cooperation.
              Some students dress in the school uniform; some simply have the red tie. If not, they may wear the school pin with the Communist Party insignia.
                Little girls in red dresses welcomed us in memorized English and brought us small gifts.
The universal language
               On Sunday, Wang Ping invited us to her home.  Both her Liu, her husband, and her daughter play the erhu, a small string instrument the size of a violin which rests on the musician’s lap like a cello.  Its high-pitched sound is beautiful, resembling the human voice. 
                 John Mooneyham, who plays both guitar and bass violin, managed to play a recognizable tune on the erhu.  Meanwhile, Liu had a go at the guitar.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

            This past week, we did a combination of English teaching and professional in-service in several Chinese Kindergartens, elite places with one to ten teacher-pupil ratios, and state of the art equipment.  In addition to government subsidy, parents pay steep tuition.

              The program is highly structured, and while there are interest centers as in American preschools, they are used very little.  The day begins with teacher -led calisthenics on the school yard.  There is no free play or experimentation with materials.  Children learn Chinese writing, English, math, art, and rudimentary science. Their performance is precise and impressive.

Early writing
              What the Chinese call Kindergarten lasts for three years.  The children begin to attend when they’re three years old and move on to grade one at age 6.  In China, three years of Kindergarten is common and desirable, but not universal.  The Chinese writing system is so complicated that it takes two additional years of study for literacy to develop.  The character in the center of this paper plate was made by a teacher.  The surrounding copy attempts were done by a very young child.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Children’s Day
               Monday was Children’s Day, a time when children receive presents and get to put on talent shows, rather like junior beauty pageants. I’m made uneasy by such exhibitions of juvenile talent and worry that the adults may push the kids too hard.   Some of the kids sang and danced really well, and most appeared to be enjoying themselves.
Cherry picking
              The markets are full of cherries this time of year.  Yesterday, they took us to an orchard where we picked box after box of cherries.  Not sure what we’ll do with all of them.
Martial Arts
              Jinan has a martial arts team, and yesterday we were treated to a lesson/demonstration. The opening moves promote flexibility, similar to Tai Chi, but I was afraid I’d hit myself in the face with the nunchucks—weighted metal sticks, held together with chains, and I retreated to the role of photographer.

The feminine ideal
                    In the children’s bookstore at the Jinan Art Museum, I saw a book obviously intended for little Chinese girls. Even in China, one cannot escape from Barbie,  with her infinitesmal waist and gargantuan chest.  No Western woman I know is actually shaped this way, and Chinese women have way smaller breasts than we.  Besides, the Chinese have very dark hair.  Shouldn’t a doll look more like the child who plays with it?

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Climbing Mt. Tai
                Mt. Tai rises nearly a mile above sea level in Shandong Province. Confucius came here to think, and emperors made the ascent to prepare for their reigns.  Taoist temples and ancient inscriptions flank the ancient stone steps. The climb is considered very difficult—far more so than the Great Wall—and several people cautioned me not to attempt it.
            The Chinese take special care with the elderly, and I’m afraid I now qualify. As we proceeded to climb, a 45 year old colleague appeared at elbow and began to divert my attention to the historical aspects of Mt. Tai.  The man kept encouraging me to rest and take pictures— clearly he thought I should focus on something other than arriving at the top. 

                  He carried my backpack-- a great help-- but when he continually grabbed me by the elbow, I found it annoying; however I didn't want to offend this erudite gentleman.  He kept telling me to slow down-- claiming we weren't far from the top and there'd be adequate time to meet up with the others before they descended. He was lying.  As we neared the peak, we ran into my young female students, who are very pretty. They’d already been to the top. Our party was descending. The girls distracted him briefly, and I made my getaway. 

                When my guide caught up with me, he tried to make me take pictures of Taoist shrines and historic inscriptions, but I grabbed my hiking pole and persevered.         
                The day was foggy, but the view from the top was magnificent. We took a cable car down.

Who takes a passport to the doctor’s office?
               Shelley and I had our checkups in Johnson City, but Zane, John, Gabriela and Brittany still needed theirs.  We drove by university van about forty minutes to a clinic in downtown Jinan.  Here, an officious white coated receptionist told my students they had to have passports.  Brittany and Gabriela had brought theirs; Zane and John had not.  Was the excursion wasted for them? Couldn’t they have their exams anyway if the school agreed to bring the documentation later?
             The receptionist said it was out of the question.  John dug in his portfolio and brought out Xeroxed copies.  These, we were told, were not acceptable.  Wang Ping persisted and asked to speak to the gatekeeper’s “Leader.”  Evidently, this person was far more reasonable.  The exams proceeded.

             My students were afforded a reasonable amount of privacy for their exams—a great improvement on the way these things were conducted in 2006.   Afterwards, we had ice cream.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Comfort food
             We were given a lesson in making jaozi. These are Chinese dumplings, resembling ravioli.  They are formed from circles of dough which are filled with vegetables or meat and then fried or boiled. Jaozi have a characteristic shape resembling a half moon. Their production is time consuming, but they are delicious.

Penmanship lesson (or shall I say brushmanship?)
             We were given a lesson in writing Chinese.  Rather than representing speech sounds with letters, the system represents concepts using stylized symbols.
For instance, ren, is represented like this:
         Think of a person walking.
         This is the way the Chinese write ‘da,’ their word for big.
         To form the word for sky, ‘tian,’  we draw an extra line above the man figure:
         Tiananmen as in Tiananmen Square means ‘Gate of Heaven.’
         Notice that the third character in this place name looks a bit like a gate.

         Today, the Chinese use pens and pencils as we do.  But the system was designed for ink and a brush.  In some ways, it’s easier to write Chinese with this ancient equipment.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Friendly Governmental Suggestion
             This traditional Beijing home consists of small buildings which open out to a courtyard. The same family has stayed in this complex for a few generations; however, the government “suggests” they allow tourists to view it.  I believe that under the new dispensation, they receive payment.  One of the men was cordial, but several members of the family seemed unhappy to have us gawking at their home.  Having experienced annual parsonage inspections, I understood.  This would be far worse.
           In a discussion with another professor, I referred to China’s new system as Capitalism, and I was corrected.  We call it “revised Socialism,” my colleague said with a grin.
Skull session
           Our students have started teaching, and we collaborate with our partners concerning lessons.  They’ve been asking us to do lectures, and we do prepare power points. But we’re also trying to include some  group activities. Obviously, you can’t learn a language without trying to speak it.

Community Mail
             Chinese students live six to a tiny dormitory room and have no post office box of their own.   
             When they purchase an item over the Internet, the package goes to a shop in the student center where they lie around on the floor awaiting pickup.  I don’t know if they pay for this service. The procedure does not appear secure, and would make me uncomfortable; however, I’m told the students must show their ID’s.   

Monday, May 25, 2015

Literal Translation

          This sign is posted on the wall of my room.  So what the heck does it mean?  ‘Pensile’ is an obscure English word meaning ‘the building of a hanging nest.’  Notice the picture in the upper left hand corner of the notice.  The sign is actually telling people not to hang laundry from the sprinkler system.  
            Likely, the sign maker plugged an appropriate Chinese phrase into a translation app on a cell phone or electronic translator, and the apparatus came up with this piece of nonsense.  Portable software has its place in travel and the initial phases of learning a language, but past that it slows people down and makes them sound silly.  Often, when intermediate learners ask me how to improve their English,  I tell them to throw these automatic dictionaries out of the window.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

              The Chinese retire earlier than we, generally by age 55 or 60 for men and sometimes as young as 50 or 55 for women. The government determines retirement dates, and people often don’t have the option of working afterwards.  A favorite pastime of senior citizens here is traditional Chinese dancing, which participants do very beautifully.  A retirement spent in this way would drive me out of my mind.

Lake or Sea?
                Our last day in Beijing, we visited Bei Hai Park, where the ancient emperors went to worship.  ‘Bei’ means ‘North,’ as in Beijing.  ‘Hai’ means sea.  The emperor who first built this place was from a desert region of Mongolia.  He thought the vast lake here was actually a sea.

 Moving on
              We have left Beijing. We took a bullet train to Jinan, capital of Shandong Province.  It was in Shandong that Confucius, the Chinese sage, lived and taught.

               Our work here is the heart of this project.  We will be teaching English to college students and also to children in the public schools.

Friday, May 22, 2015

                  Yesterday, we climbed the Great Wall, perhaps China’s greatest signature landmark.  It was designed as a military installation not a tourist spot, and it’s fairly difficult to climb due to its uneven surfaces. While there are steps built into the stone they are uneven, and at times the climb is sheer.  I’d done it before  in 2006 and 2007 when I was younger but not as fit.  Frankly, I didn’t know if I was still capable.  I’d brought along clunky hiking boots just for this purpose, and I’d brought a collapsible hiking pole.  Both were difficult to manage on the plane. But gear is important.
                 The Wall is at altitude, where the sun is extremely strong, so it is best to be wearing a hat. I had my ETSU cap, but the other women didn’t have anything, so purchasing hats was the first order of business.  Brittany was pleased with hers. 
I’m not especially fond of heights, but I do enjoy challenges, and I was determined to get to the top if I could.  The climb was tedious. Along the way, I passed Brittany and Shelley, who were more concerned with enjoying the scenery and saw no need to climb to the top.
At the top, a very nice gentleman consented to take my picture.  The way down proved to be difficult, since I was dealing with gravity as well as unstable footing.  The pathways were crowded, and at one point, a woman jostled me.  I chose to ride down on the cable car.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

What time is it?

                      Our analog clock is based on the sundial, an ancient instrument for measuring time.  We saw this one at the Temple of Heaven.  It is read upside down, so the time of this picture was close to Noon. 

Traveler’s Trouble
                   It was a glorious day, not oppressively warm, and the air was clear by Beijing standards.  We went to Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven.  In the evening, we saw a performance of the Chinese Acrobats.

                    Along the way, I developed an ailment politely described as “traveler’s trots.”  I get it pretty often when I’m in China—something to do with unfamiliar bacteria, I think.  It’s even harder to manage in a group than when traveling solo.  On a positive note: there are now an increasing number of Western style toilets in public places.

What does tomorrow mean? It is 5:30 pm here, but at home it’s 5:00 in the morning. I leave Weihai tomorrow and make a stop in Beijing. ...