Welcome to “Ten Months in Guangxi”

Hello, visitor! My name is Dan Andersen and this is the blog I maintained while living as an English teacher in southern China from September 2011 to July 2012. It details the time I spent in the cities of Liuzhou, Nanning, and Guilin, and the various ups and downs and arounds of my whirlwind life halfway around the world.

If you’d like to read my blog posts in eBook format, my good friend (and fellow teacher in Guilin) Jason Shepherd formatted my writings into a free download. You can get it at his Smashwords page.

One Last Bit Of Nonsense From New Standard

I thought I’d pop in to put one little update about Liuzhou New Standard Training Center. I’m back in the States after finishing up the year working at a decent-enough university (Guangxi Normal University in Guilin), and while my experience with New Standard soured me to the concept of ESL in China such that I will never go back to that country as a teacher, I do still like to keep in touch with some friends I made there.

A few days ago, I was surprised to log onto QQ and see one of my friends, a Chinese teacher at New Standard, relaying a message from the boss trying to get me to delete all the negative posts I had made about the school. It seems that they have finally noticed that just about all mentions of Liuzhou New Standard English Training Center on the Internet are unequivocally negative, and instead of working to change the poor conditions for foreign teachers at the school, they’d rather attempt to pressure their former employees into silence with such phrases as:

did you say something bad about New Standar on the internet (your blog) ?

It’s not good for you, just delete them all.

Such idle vague threats despite the fact that I reside on the other side of the planet and have no plans to return, and certainly not for anything related to employment in China! In the ensuing conversation (the non-English-speaking boss quite obviously present and speaking through my friend, and then in the end angrily typing in Chinese), I received a rhetorical whirlwind of approaches, jumping schizophrenically from the initial angry outburst to:

- scraping the bottom of the barrel for “kindnesses” the boss had done me, bringing up a time when I had broken my foot and the school had provided crutches for me to continue working (as if that was a sign of the World’s Best Boss; even a performing dog gets taken to the vet) — or when he had so generously roped my fellow teachers and me into paying extra to move from the provided apartment with years of mold growth in the kitchen and no promised Western toilet

- claiming that all the negative experiences we had gone through (detailed at length in my other posts) were simply because “this is China” despite constant accounts from other teachers and the coordinators from our CIEE program (and my own better experiences at GXNU later on!) that this situation was significantly worse than normal

- acting as if all of our complaints were confusing, impossible to understand, and had never been properly raised despite the five months of us all being clear and vocal on the reasons behind our complaints, which were routinely ignored

Considering all of us former teachers are still showcased on Liuzhou New Standard’s website, and I personally saw our visages used on newly-created flyers and advertisements five whole months after we all left that school (added to the collection, next to the photos of the foreign teachers who had left before we had arrived), I can’t particularly see a reason why I would censor myself so ludicrously. If anything, this little episode would hurt them further by inspiring this post. But after all, the boss was never good at dealing with people.

There and Back Again

Well, I’m back.

This blog post is actually a few days late, as I got back into the US on July 4th, but better late than never. This blog needs something to finish it all off.

I left Guilin last Sunday evening, catching the last bus of the day to Nanning. With all my belongings packed into two suitcases and a backpack, I was pretty nervous the whole trip, keeping an eye out for potential opportunities for theft. But everything turned out fine on that. I made it to Nanning around 4 in the morning, and sat around struggling to stay awake in the bus station’s KFC. Eventually, I got my ticket to Hanoi and boarded the bus, but not before getting one last bit of China weirdness: a woman riding a bicycle into the bathroom without anyone thinking it was unusual at all.

As I watched the trees and signs and ever-under-construction apartment buildings wrapped in bamboo scaffolding and cobweb-like green protective mesh, it was hard not to be a little emotional. I sent off a host of goodbye texts to all the friends I’d made in China, and even though I won’t use that cheap phone in America I’ll still save it just for all the responses I got.

The border crossing into Vietnam was the first non-air crossing I’ve done (well, except for the one into Hong Kong), and it was a little nerve-wracking. Lots of military in dark green uniforms patrolling the border as you slowly funnel through, and I got the sense that it was pretty serious business. But no one really looked at my bags and while it was a slow process (the entry into Vietnam was basically a crowd of people clustering around and handing their passports to a poorly-organized group of soldiers who hadn’t created an efficient queuing process). But in the end we were on the bus from the border to Hanoi.

Vietnam is beautiful. The skies seem a bit more blue, and even though it’s poorer than China even the smallest and cheapest buildings have some aesthetics to them. It’s a common habit to put a facade on the front of a house to make it look like an old French colonial building. There’s still a lot of development work to do in Vietnam for sure, but I think it helps them that they don’t have this expected weight on their shoulders about being the next big thing like China is, and thus isn’t rushing their way into development at the cost of everything else. It also helps that, while Vietnam is also technically communist and had a cult of personality with Ho Chi Minh like Mao and had collectivization of farms that led to famine like the Great Leap Forward, there wasn’t something quite like the Chinese Cultural Revolution in Vietnam, so more of the traditional culture is preserved.

Hanoi is chaotic yet wonderful. The traffic is even crazier than China because everyone is on a motorbike, and the system is so accustomed to them that everyone moves faster. You can’t do the Frogger stop-and-go to cross the street like in China; you just have to bolt across when you see a possible opening. And yet, there seems to be decent enough policing of the roads that the system works, as opposed to China where breakdowns in order happen so frequently. As with all touristy places in the area, people will come up to you and try to sell you something, but there’s not the sheer desperation that I saw in Yangshuo. There was even one young Vietnamese woman who sat down with and spoke with me to practice her English, and despite my initial wariness at the thought that it would be a scam somehow, it was completely honest and I made another contact that way.

I didn’t really do much in Vietnam, as I only had a day there. But I walked around the lake in Hanoi, picked up one of those neat Vietnamese coffee filters that Ken has, had a great lunch at a very fancy Italian restaurant, went to this cool old Daoist/Confucian temple on the lake (the cultural elements of religious activity are more prevalent here than in mainland China), and stopped by the history museum to see all the talk about the Vietnamese martyrs heroically fighting against the colonial French, fascist Japanese, and imperial US with its fascists Saigon puppet state.

The hostel I stayed at, the Hanoi Atlantic Hostel, was simply excellent and was able to help give me guidance on where I should go during that day. Actually being able to converse with them in English and receive friendly customer service was a great change from the past year. There was a free breakfast in the morning on the top floor, giving a great view of the area and a great meal of French bread (thank you colonialism!) and various local meats. And at the end they arranged some transportation to the airport for me.

I think it was only once I was in the car from Hanoi to the airport that it actually hit me that I was no longer in China. I don’t know if and when I’ll return but there was a sense of finality there that was surprising to me.

There’s not much to say about the Hanoi airport; it’s small and yet difficult to know where to go, especially since I arrived about 4 hours early and my airline hadn’t opened their ticket counter yet. But eventually I got on with no problems and had a pleasant flight to Tokyo, along the way being struck by the ritualized politeness of the Japanese flight attendants that was a sharp contrast to the more brusque “practicality” I remembered from my flight to China ten months ago.

Even though I had a nine-hour layover in Tokyo I didn’t venture beyond the airport. The one word I have for the place is “clean.” At the free Internet area, I saw one of the employees carefully erasing from a desk the rubber mark made from a shifted laptop, carefully sweeping the remnants off the table into a piece of paper to dispose of, then disinfecting the area with a spray. Just one of those contrasts.

The long flight to Los Angeles was a mind-numbing ten hours, but at least I was able to strike up a couple conversations with some people on the flight, one a mother who was visiting her son (who worked in an educational outreach program in Thailand), and another who had been working on one of those medical missions on a ship in Southeast Asia.

Finally landed, got my luggage and went through customs no problem at all. It was amazing just how familiar it all felt even though I hadn’t been at LAX or anywhere American for almost a year, and yet I got to where I needed to go without incident. And after one short flight to Salt Lake City, I arrived extremely jetlagged at the home of my grandmother on the Fourth of July.

It’s a little hard to know my future now. I already have a job lined up in about a month back in Kansas City, and after that I’d like to go to graduate school, but it feels a little strange picking up an old life after being in one so different for almost a year. It’s a little strange to me how easy it feels to go back into the old habits of life here even after being away for so long.

I hope I can keep in touch with those I met and befriended in China, yet I have my doubts. I try to keep in touch with them on QQ, but the time zone difference and language barrier are ever-present, and I’m finding so many of the conversations little more than saying hello or checking in. I don’t know how many of these connections will persist for long at all.

I look forward to talking with all my family and friends about China, though so far it’s just amazing how hard it actually is to really explain it. It’s pretty apparent that if someone hasn’t actually been there, then understanding China is just plain hard. I guess that’s why it’s an experience.

As for this blog, it’s essentially over. The “ten months in Guangxi” are finished and there’s not much more to say. I’ll keep this thing up for the time being, at the very least so potential future teachers know about the badness of Liuzhou New Standard English Training Center. Note: I have now heard that while William threatened to quit, he still is in the office every day, yet without classes. Unsure if this is some sort of bargaining tactic or what, but for those who are wary of him due to my accounts, take note that he is still present at New Standard, using the computer and blaring his trumpet. This blog isn’t particularly artful or vivid in its descriptions, but it’s the account I have and it’ll stay up for a while.

It’s going to take a while to get things figured out and to progress further and to build up my life here, but if there’s one big difference it’s that such a thing is actually possible here. In China, were I to stay there long-term like some of the other foreign teachers I had met, I know that I would continue to drift along in the same role and same life without potential for progress, due to barriers of language and culture. Perhaps home is not just a place where you feel comfortable, but also a place where you can progress.

So I guess I’ll leave you all with that thought.

再见! (Zàijiàn!, “goodbye!”)

Packing

It’s really getting close now. I’ll be back in the States in two weeks. The bags are slowly packed, all purchases are on a purely nutritional basis, and there’s a definite feeling of anticipation. It’s not the sense of getting ready for some adventure that I had when first setting out almost ten months ago. Rather, it’s the feeling of slowly sliding towards the door to put your shoes on after a visit to a friend’s house that’s gone on a tad too long. After a certain point, while things had been fun, it feels stretched long just for its own sake, and everyone’s sitting on the couch fiddling with their cellphones and not talking with each other.

It doesn’t help that I literally have nothing else to do, teaching-wise. This was not of my own choice. About a month ago, I had spoken with the university staff to let them know that I was looking to leave a little earlier than the end of the semester (because my visa expiration is only a couple days after that and I simply do not want to shave it that close ever), and that it was important that I have my final exams on the first week of finals so I could grade them and turn them in before I left. I was assured that this would be no problem at all, and I promptly set up the flight back so that I’d arrive on the afternoon of the Fourth of July.

This morning, I go into the office to see what my exact day of the finals will be (since nothing is ever told to us, or even made available until the last minute), and learn that the English writing finals have been scheduled for July 3rd, during which I’m set to be outside the country. I was not surprised to learn that the people I had spoken with first denied that a verbal promise had been made, and then backpedaled once I showed them the relevant texts and said it had been impossible to implement to their labyrinthine scheduling work.

The result of this is simply that I will not be there to grade the tests. I will not change my travel plans to satisfy them, particularly when they (in an all-too-common habit in China) promise the world to save face then fail to deliver, and seem not to remember that it’s important to notify early the people who will be affected by decisions. I’ll just need to pass on my existing grades (for the meager 30% they’re worth in the final score, all-but-meaningless next to The Exam).

I worry about how my students will be graded. Despite the very clear instructions I have given about how the written questions are to be scored, I worry that my students will be judged on their ability to pull out a series of convoluted over-formal “sentence patterns” toppings and idiom sprinkles to indiscriminately flavor their writing, instead of focusing on strong ideas that connect with their thesis.

I worry a lot about my students in general. The system here is terrible for them. If something’s not on the exam, it doesn’t matter to the students, because it doesn’t matter to the system. The gaokao decides the future for the students. Many of them aren’t majoring in English because they like it or even chose it; it’s because they happened to do best on that part of the gaokao and the universities will only accept them under that major.

Prestige and face matter more than education. Next year all the Chinese students are getting moved to a new empty campus in the middle of nowhere, isolated from the heart of the city and opportunities to communicate with foreign travelers, all so that this campus can be reserved for international students who can increase the school’s name. One student who’s not in my classes has some of the most native-sounding English I’ve heard in China, and she plans to transfer to an American university. The staff and administrators are very uncooperative with her when it comes to giving her transcripts, I suspect because they don’t want to lose their best students.

And most of all, critical thinking has atrophied in the students. I was helping one of my students one-on-one as he prepared for the exam that I’ll no longer grade. He was practicing writing paragraphs from example topic sentences in the textbook and was having trouble creating support ideas with details and examples. As I slowly helped him reach some write-worthy concepts, it slowly dawned on me for what was honestly the first time. It wasn’t a translation issue. It wasn’t an English language level. It was an idea issue. Thinking of the ideas and branching out the relationships between topic and support just wasn’t there, at least in the levels that should be present in college students.

On one level I had always “known” about the problems with critical thinking being eschewed in favor of memorization and lecture, but I had never before been so starkly confronted with it. And the students know it too. They’ll openly talk about how the educational system ruined their thinking. Everyone knows there’s something missing, but how to find it and pursue it is still absent. If the students got a proper dose of Socratic questions throughout their education, it wouldn’t be this way, but how can you easily and quantifiably test for Socratic questions?

They deserve better, from the system, their upbringing, and their teachers. I make no secret of the fact that the only things that make me “qualified” are a college degree, living in an English-speaking country all my life, and being white and thus look the part. And the only reason why I’m at this university, which should have higher standards than New Standard, is because I was jobless and CIEE could probe some connections to land me a job here. I’ve done what I can and have learned a lot about teaching, but ESL in China is certainly at its end for me.

I enjoy teaching and explaining concepts to others, but I don’t know how well I can function when the actual means of communication and teaching are the things I’m teaching. It’s better with the college students than the 5-year-olds, of course, but I don’t know how much gets through that barrier. In fairness, it does truly help that I have to reevaluate what I’m saying and teaching in order to translate it into simple English, but my range feels underused and in fact lessened over time.

The language and cultural barrier is inescapable, even when your boss speaks good English and has experience working with foreign teachers. There’s a sense of being a cog in a machine but without the ability to even reason with the other cogs pushing and pulling you. There’s no heroic champion working to change the system by finding some novel way of getting through to the students or something, there’s just the system, too big to alter or even comprehend (like most of China).

My hours are low, my pay sufficient for my needs. It’s amazing how little I have to actually work here — at most three hours a day, 3 days a week, then the rest is fiddling with grades, looking at assignments, or cobbling together a lesson plan, which I could get away with doing on a hungover Sunday afternoon if I had a habit of such a thing. You hand in your lesson plans or schedule every couple months and then that’s all the school hears from you. For those who want free time, this kind of job has it in spades.

But ultimately my free time feels squandered at best, and ill-gotten at worst. The work simply doesn’t feel rewarding. There’s almost no feedback on whether you’re doing a good or bad job, and it’s just plain hard to tell. I know in some ways I’ve made a difference, especially in improving spoken English of students just by being friends with them and listening to them when no other teacher has, but as a “gap year” ESL teacher in China I can’t shake the feeling that I’m cheating the students — even if the universities and entire system are cheating them more. I feel like I’m putting in a lot of effort but I just never know.

If there’s one great thing I’ve gotten from my time in China, it’s a reinforcement of knowledge of what I need when I work. In the same way working as a bagger in a grocery store in high school motivated me to reach higher in life, the time here helps clarify what I want out of what will essentially take up a good portion of my life for the next several decades. Teaching can feel like a service profession — and while there’s no dishonor in that at all, I’m learning that I need something more creation-construction-based. Work can’t just be a way to make money just so I can have free time on the weekends, it needs to be a craft I can find meaning in. From my time working in a computer science field, I know that I can find that there if I seek it out, and hopefully do something in life that is advancing in some way.

For some, this is life, but I can’t fully understand it. For me, this is not a career path or a future. It’s great as a one-year thing that gives some real eye-opening experiences by being thrown into the deep end of the cultural pool, but beyond that one year I can’t help but imagine it not only as a “resume hole” but just a hole in my own development. Life feels paused, especially in my chosen field (improving your Web development skills when poor wiring means 2 KB/s at best?).

I expect that when I return, I’ll be asked if it was worth it or if I’d do it again if I had the chance to go back and do it all over again. I really don’t know. I’m glad I didn’t do this for the money, as at the end I’m actually a few grand poorer than ten months ago. The first four or five months at New Standard were absolutely miserable, even if I made great friends with Dessa, Alex, and Sarah. In the end it feels very fuzzy and vague — I can’t even remember some of the names of the employees there. The rest of it at GXNU turned out all right but I worry about the effect a protracted time here has had on my personality. I know I feel more jaded and cynical. Mandarin, the language I had studied out of pure random interest for two years, has been whittled slowly out of my brain into just “survival Chinese,” my fascination by the characters and grammar suffocated by immersion to the point of drowning. I’m actually doing some German study at the moment, to give myself a new problem to work on and to rest from Chinese. As for the culture itself, over time the captivating elements dull and the negative aspects feel more pronounced and I seriously worry when I look at those old, bitter, grizzled expats who have been here for years and complain about everything and hate the culture as a defense mechanism because I can see how it happens. There’s a lot of mental exhaustion that can manifest itself negatively and I know I’ll have to rehabilitate things upon my return.

There’s a lot I’ll miss. Cheap mangoes. Those iconic mountains. The ability to walk around for half an hour and be assured of seeing something new and completely insane. And of course the students. I really hope we’ll stay in touch as long as we can.

There’s a lot to sort through after this very long experience.

But what an experience!

All You Can Eat

On Saturday I spent the day with Vivi and Lily, two of my students from class 6 (my first Tuesday class). Today’s destination was an excellent Korean restaurant downtown near the walking street. What made this one unique was not just the high quality of the food, but also the fact that it was an all-you-can-eat buffet. As common as such places are for Chinese food in the States, it’s pretty rare to see them here, as the general cultural attitude here towards them makes me wonder how they can ever stay financially afloat.

It’s 48 yuan for all you can eat, and Vivi made sure we were the first ones to arrive when it opened at 11 am, and checked repeatedly with the workers to ensure that we were allowed to stay until 4 pm. After all, you have to get your money’s worth! The game plan was to eat eat eat until full, then lounge around and play cards with a deck she had specially brought until we were hungry again, then eat some more before they finally kick us out.

The food was stunning, just from the sheer amount of meat available. I’d like to think I inspired the choice after showing my classes a Food Network video all about Kansas City barbecue. Like many Korean places, you order up some raw slices of meat and fry them up on a central hot plate on the table. The only thing that probably keeps parties like our own from devouring the place out of business is that you’ve got to wait around for each set of slices to cook, giving your body time to tell you that no you don’t actually need to eat everything in sight.

Beyond the meats, there were all the typical pickled Korean vegetables and kimchi, and a host of little muffins and little fried sweets. In a nostalgic blast from my past, they had drink machines that served Grape Kool-Aid.

During our conversation a question was raised that I couldn’t fully answer, about what was the “traditional clothing” of America. Beyond tuxedos and formal wear, and things like Scottish Highland clothing, I couldn’t really think of anything that we would consider “traditional clothing” and yet wear it in a way that showed that it wasn’t forever locked in the past. Maybe graduation caps and gowns, too? Any ideas about American/Western “traditional clothing”?

After filling our bellies, they taught me a card game. Now I’m not much of a card player at all, so I’m not going to pretend like I know if this is a Chinese game or not. If it sounds familiar, let me know — I’ll list out the rules since it was new to me:

First, you draw 13 cards, and the objective is to lay down patterns to get rid of all cards before anyone else. There’s a sequence of higher and lower values:

spades > hearts > clubs > diamonds
3 > 2 > 1 > A > K > Q > J > 10 > 9 > 8 > 7 > 6 > 5 > 4 (4 is lowest, 3 is highest)

The kinds of patterns are:
single card
pair
triple + pair
sequence of 5
5 of 1 suit
4 of a kind + single card

The player who goes first is the one who can play the lowest-possible 4 (4 of diamonds if anyone has it). The player must play a pattern of his choice that involves that 4 (either a single 4 of diamonds is OK, for example, or something as complicated as a set of 2 4′s and 3 7′s). Then, each player takes turns placing cards of the same pattern, of equal or greater value. If a player is unable to place something fulfilling that criteria, he passes. When all but 1 player pass, the last player to place something gets to put whatever he wants down, establishing a new pattern rule and base value for everyone to work up from. The winner is the first to place all cards.

In retrospect, the rules were quite simple, but it took me a few rounds to stop making elementary mistakes in strategy. It didn’t help that Vivi felt a need for the game to have a “punishment” for the loser. Sarah will remember this well from our time at Ye’s house in Beijing, where the sweet-tempered and meek-looking Ye became ruthless at mahjong, with a punishment (in absence of money or alcohol) that the loser must drink a specific amount of water and thus have to go to the bathroom in utter defeat more quickly. Vivi had the same idea about drink as punishment, and ordered up a huge bottle of Sprite and then Coke for the loser to quaff.

It should go without saying that this downtime after the buffet did absolutely nothing to rest my stomach and make me ready for a round two of eating. My belly far too full of flavored sugar water, I was not about to consume a single slice of Korean bacon, while the strategist Vivi happily munched away in victory, both over us and over the restaurant at which she had gotten her money’s worth.

Thankfully at the end we took some time to walk it off by wandering around the parks and river downtown. It’s times like this that I really enjoy living in a tourist city like Guilin because there’s such a push to keep things beautiful, preserve green space, and make the air stay clean. Yangshuo may be a contrived hell for backpackers with thousand-yard stares, but downtown Guilin is a little more laid-back. With literally only one month to go, it really makes me think about how I’ll miss this place.

Connections

It’s a little inexplicable to me but, now that I’ve really only got a month left here in China, I’m picking up a lot more friends over here. Maybe it’s my naturally radiant personality.

The first is Victor, who’s not actually a student of mine but is studying education in another college. He’s a 26-year-old from Yangshuo, that beautiful tourist trap, and has had some part-time jobs at a private English school there on the West Street (for those of you following the blog long-term, his role was likely much like Tory’s at New Standard: skilled but always second fiddle to flashier but maybe less qualified foreigners). He definitely knows the draw of a foreign teacher in getting attention for a school. After initially meeting him at an English Corner, he frantically texted me looking for vague undefined help.

When I showed up, he told me he had to give an example English-teaching presentation in class… and he wanted me to attend to help read some simple dialogue (it was the first lesson from the hideous British “New Concept English” with the “Is this your handbag?” “Pardon?” dialogue) during the class. After some probing I was able to determine that he was basically wanting a foreigner to participate to help give his presentation more “face” in front of the teacher grading it. After mentioning I was unavailable for such a job, I tried to help him out in making his lesson plan so it wouldn’t use outsiders as a crutch.

During all this I was able to get to know him. He received a pretty big setback when the private college he went to either lost or never had accreditation, making his degree little more than a piece of paper. Eventually he wants to start up a private English school, and I can tell already that thankfully he cares more about the education than the short-term goals of making some yuan. Later we took a tiny bus out about an hour to the Lijiang Technology College, a very new university that’s simply out in the middle of nowhere. Like so many building projects, it was designed to look impressive in the blueprints and to local officials, but is completely impractical in size for how empty it and the surrounding area is. We met up with his friends studying there, who all praised how new everything was — though there wasn’t much impressive architecturally at all, and I fear that when the building exteriors get no cleaning (as with my own university) it’ll looks as grungy, rusty, and stained as everything else here. It’s quite odd to me that there’s never anyone on ropes to clean the outsides of buildings. It’s all tiled with those weird bathroom tiles anyway (which, by the way, are used everywhere because apparently they’re government-subsidized).

Apparently the English department of GXNU is moving out to a campus very near this Lijiang College next year, which makes me glad I’m not going to be there, considering the remoteness… but it also frustrates me when I think of the isolated students. I spoke with one of my students, Amy, who’s quite frustrated with this as it means it’ll be harder to be exposed to foreigners and practice English naturally or encounter foreign culture. It seems the sort of move to boost university “face” (by keeping the foreign students in the downtown campus), and focus studies on technical English with no respect for the culture that has to come with it if people are going to learn it sucessfully.

This afternoon I spent time with Lizzie, another student (though not my student) who’s looking to transfer to a university in Wisconsin that GXNU has a partnership with. It sounds like she’s got it all set up for the near future, which is understandable considering that she’s got the best English of any Chinese person I’ve met at the university, including the other faculty. I was surprised she was only a freshman — her English is strongly colloquial and natural, with lots of slang and a cadence that makes me wonder if she had studied in Hong Kong. Her father’s a commander in the military, an upbringing which likely gives her her strong patriotism (she’s the first student I’ve talked to who actively adored Chairman Mao more than modern reformist leaders like Deng Xiaoping). But she’s really eager to properly engage the culture in the States (and she always calls it “the States,” not “America” or “the US” as usual), and I can tell she won’t suffer the self-imposed isolation so often seen among Chinese or other Asian students in US universities, who are more prone to stay in their national/linguistic/cultural group rather than engaging the larger student body.

Finally this evening I met with Lawrence, a student whose birthday was today and had what he called a “birthday party” — simply him and me in a Chinese barbecue kebab joint with a torrential downpour around us and a bottle of Spanish wine he had picked up from Walmart and was very proud of. Not a big fan of drinking, at least not in the Chinese style of hammering oneself with baijiu — if I’m to adjust my brain chemistry, I’d favor stimulants like tea to depressants. But I’ll take one for the team if it means a better birthday for a guy whose idea of a social outing was hanging out with a lame English teacher like myself.

If anything, all these connections I’m making now are an encouragement to not bow out and retreat during this last month, and in fact to work hard to preseve these friendships even after I go home. I’ll be keeping QQ on all the time in the States.

As for the teaching front, there’s not much new. We finished “Freedom Writers,” and I think it really connected with the students. This week they’re turning in letters they’ve written to Erin Gruwell, the teacher on whom the movie is based. Once they’re all in, I’ll go to the post office and send them off to her. Perhaps the prospect of their writing being practical and read by someone other than a teacher was a motivator, since what I’ve received so far have been the best pieces of writing I’ve seen so far. There’s only one or two weeks until a review, then the final, and I’m trying to fill in a couple gaps in their knowledge while also showing off more American culture — which is going to be the lasting effect from this class anyway.

I showed my students an episode of Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” all about Kansas City BBQ (Slow-cooked! A multitude of spices! Not having a bit of obnoxious bone in every bite!) and the students, already hungry by the proximity of class to lunchtime, are driven to emotional starvation by the sight of beautiful burnt ends and ribs.

Experiences in Photos

A little reflection on my time in China, regarding pictures… no pictures are posted because I’m lazy, the Internet here is bad, and they’re likely somewhere on the blog already.

A couple days ago I took some time to sort through all my China pictures and mark down on my calendar just when everything happened. I was honestly pretty surprised by a few things. Periods of time that seemed to stretch into infinity were only a matter of weeks.

That first week of orientation of course had a multitude of pictures, because at that point it was all new and there was nothing really distinguishing it from a vacation tour of the area. The sheer number of bronze drum photos is astounding, considering how soon we determined it was the main cultural export of the region and grew sick of them.

That first time Alex, Dessa, Sarah, and I gave in and got some KFC in Liuzhou wasn’t after a long, grueling time in China with no Western food as I had remembered. It wasn’t even two weeks after our arrival to China, five days after meeting up with the people at New Standard. I guess the stress and culture shock seemed long at the time.

And the very first terrible apartment we were put into, with a busted lock, cockroaches everywhere, horrific growing things on the kitchen walls, and no Western toilet in sight… we were (thankfully!) only there for 12 days until we pushed them enough to get a better place.

When I broke my foot, I was only in a cast with wheelchair and crutches for about 3 weeks, but it felt like an eternity. From photos alone, there’s almost no sign at all that I was ever injured.

Even at our time in Liuzhou, rarely did a week or two pass by without something of interest happening (the Golden Week trip to Yangshuo, visiting Wendy’s brother at the teahouse, going to the Confucian temple, heading to various parks, heading to the village with Nina and Amanda and Annie to pick oranges. The first 2-3 months had a lot of that. The best pictures, in my opinion, remarked on the amazing pizza that Ken in Nanning could order, after only 5 weeks without cheese. Though the birthday cake I got with the poor English was a close second.

The true bulk of my photos came when hanging out with Chinese friends, as they focus a lot more on getting pictures of things (rather, getting pictures of themselves in front of things). Example: when going to the horticultural expo, every flower and cardboard cutout required every possible permutation of people in the picture, in various poses. Most of what I took on my own were essentially references of architectural design.

Things really deteriorated in the following month, with little in the way of photograph-worthy memories. From the ill-conceived idea to spend a morning advertising creepily to families having picnics in the park, there was the Thanksgiving “party” where tensions between us all and William finally grew intolerable, CIEE got involved (to whatever degree of involvement we got in the end). The only real memorable things were the performance Sarah and I were up to for the Liuzhou Foreign Affairs Office (with rehearsals nothing but an excuse to do something other than New Standard), and finding a guy outside our apartment area selling awesome popcorn made with a popcorn hammer.

Soon after, Alex and Dessa made their secret “escape,” and Sarah and I had our 30 days notice. There’s almost no photos here as we hunkered down and focused on getting through each annoying day while we waited to make our exit. Most of the pictures here were from Christmas — both the Catholic service we attended on Christmas Eve, and our own gift-exchange the next day.

It was a little shocking to look at the pictures we took when we said goodbye to Tory and Natalie right before leaving Liuzhou in mid-January. The boss hadn’t wanted us to tell anyone we were leaving out of fear of things getting unstable, so it had come out of nowhere for them. There’s a sad contrast in our expressions in the pictures, between how happy Sarah and I were just to be leaving New Standard and the promises of something new in the future, and the hidden emotion on our Chinese friends’ faces as everyone knew we’d likely not see each other again.

Hanging out in Ken’s apartment in Nanning while he was off doing his southeast Asian adventures was simply a time to decompress. Nothing really happened in life as we waited around to hear about new placements from CIEE. We watched movies and studied some Chinese on Rosetta Stone. The big thing, by the sheer number of pictures, was going up to Ye’s home in Beijing for the Spring Festival, and it’s still one of my big regrets that we ended up not staying another week.

The only other picture I have from that point is when we took Ken to the hospital to see if the splitting headache he had gotten in Vietnam was from malaria (it wasn’t). I just had to record for posterity the strange combination blood-test-results kiosk / ATM. Needless to say, we weren’t focused so much on sightseeing as on trying to explain to the nurse in broken Chinese why it was important that she use a new needle and put on gloves before drawing Ken’s blood… you know, considering this region is the AIDS capital of the world and all.

Eventually, I went to teach in Guilin, and after the customary million photos of the campus, settled down into a rather nice routine of photos at local parks or old villages every couple weeks. The big one was Hong Kong, with hundreds of megabytes dedicated to the clean streets, tall buildings, and accessible culture and history on that island.

There’s a part of me that wishes I had taken more pictures at various times. But then I also know that the simple absence of pictures tells a story too, of times when there was no opportunity or urge to capture those moments of life. I’ve got about 5 weeks left before heading back to the States (and I now know how simultaneously long and short that is), and I think I’ve got a good picture of what it’ll be like, photowise. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

Village Trip

Link to Facebook album: here

This past weekend was a holiday for May 1st, International Labor Day. I can’t say I’m much of a fan of the way the holidays often turn out here schedule-wise, since it often involves shifting around weekends and getting excessive work weeks to make up for it. I recall vividly our annoyance in Liuzhou upon learning that, after the 7-day National Week holiday in October, we’d have to work at New Standard nine days in a row to make up for the weekends getting crammed together by governmental edict.

Even I, who have perhaps the luckiest schedule in all of China (classes only from Monday through Wednesday), am adversely affected, as my Tuesday classes are cancelled (meaning I can’t give anything but reviews and practice to the other classes to keep them all at the same pace), and the Monday classes got moved to Saturday, sticking a day on campus smack dab in the middle of my own break. I can’t complain compared with anyone else, but I find it amusing that my typical four-day weekend is actually shortened by this holiday.

But despite the short time I was able to make the most of it, thanks to Kris Law, a student of mine and a good friend who invited me along on a trip to some villages up in the north of Guangxi province. This area, she says, is the traditional land of the “Gaeml” people (as they call themselves, and “Dong” in Mandarin), one of China’s much-famed 56 ethnic minorities. I had been initially wary, remembering previous excursions to see “primitive sites” of the Zhuang people that depicted the ethnic group more as a stereotyped curiosity rather than a culture with enough historical context to be interested in, but Kris has a knack for seeking out destinations that satisfy that “museum fix” we both seem to crave when traveling.

It’s about three hours by bus from Guilin to the town of Sanjiang. It’s certainly much smaller than and much less developed than Guilin (the main bridge in town was under construction, forcing us to take several roundabout routes during our time there), but it’s obviously looking to build a name for itself, with Gaeml-style wooden hotels and restaurants being erected everywhere. There’s a small but respectable central square near a rather large Gaeml “drum tower” that shows both the Thai-influenced architecture and the impressive (if nerve-wracking) accomplishment of building it all with no metal at all. Reaching the top was a nice little climb and gave a great view of the town, and back at the bottom there was a little group of locals singing some Gaeml music in what thankfully didn’t seem like a contrived “culture performance” as is too common here (Kris later mentioned to me that in fact it wasn’t Gaeml music but Communist revolutionary lyrics to traditional Gaeml tunes, a combination probably from the old singing women’s own experiences).

Getting around involves many tuk-tuk rides, a common method of transportation down in southeast Asian countries but comparitively rare in the more bustling taxi-filled Guilin. Tuk-tuks are a fun and cheap way to get around, provided you’re up for experiencing every bump and dip of the road firsthand and are able to quiet that small but ever-present voice reminding you that, if there’s ever an accident with anything bigger, survival is not an option. The whole time I was constantly thankful that I was traveling with Kris, not only because she knew a lot of the history and culture and gave me much-needed context, but because without her Chinese knowledge I’d probably still be trying to give directions to the first tuk-tuk. This area has its own dialect with its own accent, but I had a ready translator the whole time.

Probably the best example of the benefits of traveling with a native Chinese speaker arose on our first hour-long bus trip from Sanjiang to one of the more famous and traditional villages, Chengyang. We learned that, as it’s a big tourist destination famous for its landmark Gaeml bridge that is the symbol of the region, it would cost 60 RMB to enter the village… but we merely had to arrange to get off the bus early, rendezvous with a van along the way, and be taken in through the back path (for the actual residents of the village) for only 20 yuan. As sketchy as I initially thought this was, it’s the typical way to get transport in the small villages: in spartan-looking gray vans with a destination sign in the windshield and a series of plastic stools to add a couple extra seats to whoever wants to cram in along the way. Even the big buses are this way, with our bus from Sanjiang back to Guilin getting a host of wanderers cramming themselves into the aisle halfway through the trip.

This village itself is quite a beauty, and despite getting a discount, our clandestine entrance got us a more authentic experience. The bridge itself is full to bursting with touristy nonsense, from the women in stereotypical ceremonial ethnic garb and silver headdresses at the front gate pressing each visitor to drink some rice wine and make a monetary donation to enter (a repeat of what any Guangxi CIEE participant would remember from our orientation trips) to the mass-produced identical trinkets for sale by every vendor in the village, obviously neither hand-made nor locally produced.

But far before we reached that bridge, we had explored various nooks and crannies of the village, seeing the actual inhabitants working in their fields, washing clothes in the stream (which, compared with the polluted rivers I had grown accustomed to, was among the clearest I’ve seen), and the like. The old people wear traditional Gaeml clothing — not the overly ceremonial silver stuff you always see that’s the Gaeml equivalent of a Plains Indian wandering around every day in a feather headdress — but simple clothes dyed a particularly beautiful shade of deep indigo. One old man saw us looking at a shrine and helped explain by scratching some characters into the road that it was for the highest goddess in the Gaeml belief. He was quite willing to answer any questions we asked or maybe hadn’t asked about the area, and eventually Kris helped disentangle us from the conversation, remarking to me about the friendly hospitality of village people. Old people in China are pretty adorable.

After that village we made our way to Danzhou, an island on the river that once was the capital for the Gaeml people. There’s very little there besides some city gates, an old “club house” for Cantonese people in the area (now someone’s big storage shed), a run-down school lecture hall with one of Chairman Mao’s quotations on one wall in faded, peeling red paint, and some ancient banyan trees dotting the landscape near the ferries. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it just for the sense of “smallness.” It’s easy to be lost in the vastness of this place, and having it be just an island with a few streets makes it manageable. The place really has only three notable exports, two of which are rice wine and honey — the latter of which I now regret not having bought to sweeten my oatmeal.

We stayed at what is the only sort of accomodations on the island, essentially a bed and breakfast which actually was one of the highlights if only for the food. Dinner and breakfast were served on a wooden balcony overlooking the main street. Because Danzhou is an island, getting a variety of supplies is harder than usual, meaning the inhabitants are used to making do with a lack of variety in food. They more than make up for this by taking those few foods and perfecting them. Getting meat on the island is basically out of the question (no villager is going to go slaughter a chicken just for a backpacker), but they cook pomelo rinds in a way that is very reminiscent of meat.

Breakfast was rice porridge, noodles, and the third notable export of this place, a local favorite and now one of my favorites: oil tea. It’s basically puffed rice and wheat in a salty, slightly bitter broth made from oil pulled from frying tea leaves. Imagine Rice Krispies and other breakfast cereals, except with an oily savory tea instead of milk, and you’ve got it. It’s actually quite good.

Afterward, we just made our way back to Sanjiang, dropped into the sparsely-visited and sparsely-filled museum of Gaeml culture (I couldn’t help but imagine how Sarah the museum studies major would judge it, because it was in need of some severe judgment, but seeing as it was the equivalent of a dinky county-level museum in the US I can’t really complain too much). After that, it was just a long bus trip along winding mountain roads back to Guilin, stopping seemingly every few minutes to let more people on in what I’m pretty sure would be a violation of safety regulations about maximum number of passengers — had such regulations been a thing here in China.

The trip was a blast, not just because of what we saw, but also because I got a chance to talk more with one of my friends here. Kris’ English is among the best in my classes, and I find myself using much more colloquial language that I had trained myself out of these past months. At times I had completely forgotten she’s not a native English speaker. But not only that, she’s done a lot of personal analysis about life and society, and is very willing to talk about that stuff. It’s unfortunate that most of my conversations with students here stay pretty surface-level, polite pleasantries and queries about everyday life in China or the US. But here I’m learning a lot: just how low the school system can go with a junior high school where thefts and fights are common and students stabbing students with little repercussions is not unheard of; being saved from that life by being clever enough to succeed academically and because of an inspirational teacher at the time whose own life went downhill afterward; the problems with the educational system’s focus on the gaokao examinations above all else; studying at a second-tier university that has no “masters” to help guide the students toward their own path; the personal conflict between wanting to pursue a dream, or go into a family artistic-stone business that damages the river environments it draws the stones from. Watching CCTV news reports on the tensions with the Philippines and documentaries and talking about history, politics, Vietnam, Taiwan, the role of Christianity in Western history and society and the distinctions between religion and belief in Confucian society, the experiences of grandparents during the Cultural Revolution and what young people today think about Mao and his place in Chinese society. Sobered and frustrated by things as big as corruption and lack of transparency in government and as small as the decline of the Chinese animation industry that stopped caring about crafting homegrown cartoons and settling for just accepting media from the West and Japan.

It’s enough to make me wish I had been a cultural anthropologist like Sarah, trained to actually approach all of this. I doubt I’ll ever have sufficient perspective to understand, but it’s enjoyable to try nonetheless.

So now I’m back once again at GXNU, breakfasts of oatmeal with mangoes fresh from the market, dinners of cool “liangpi” rice noodles from a street vendor, pondering how to beat the coming summer heat I know is just over the horizon, packing a box of things to mail home as the apartment shakes from the rumbling demolitions visible across the street.

Random Hypotheses about Lack of Creativity in Chinese Education

A woman a fellow teacher of mine tutored lamented how the educational system for her daughter will end up beating the creativity out of her by the end of primary school. I suspect part of it comes from existing cultural traditions:

- emphasis on filial piety strengthens expectations that children support parents in old age, encouraging said offspring to find stable means of support instead of more individualistic paths that may hold more risk

- historical imperial civil service examinations over a large territory gives a safe and stable path for scholars and the learned to better themselves, embedding the idea of tests as a means to a better life

- focus on Confucian classics in examinations means it’s safer and more profitable to not rock the boat ideologically, instead using existing quotes and sayings to lend weight to arguments (many of my students write papers mentioning proverbs and idioms, not as features to enhance their arguments, but as pillars of support themselves, as if the mere fact that someone said it a long time ago is itself evidence in support of an idea). It’s similar to how Western education often focused on the Greek and Latin classics, or was connected with Biblical religious apologetics, but the transition that moved education from that in the West was not so matched yet in China.

- the cultural concept of “face” discourages students from speaking out in class or sharing insight that is not safe from criticism, or asking questions that shows ignorance to other students.

In addition, modern factors play a significant part from what I can tell:

- continually oscillating ideologies and crackdowns during the Maoist eras and subsequent decades makes it less safe to encourage strong debate in literature, political science, and philosophy. Math, science, and engineering — fields China is doing pretty well in — are more prone to having “right” and “wrong” answers you can’t really deny.

- the focus on tests favors more quantifiable questions/answers rather than areas that would have to be graded more fuzzily. Hence why math, science, and engineering are favored while the humanities are devalued. When tests are given on the English language, the focus is on highly unnatural technical/diplomatic language that shoehorns in grammar structures and sentence patterns that can be easily checked off a list to see if students know them.

- with so many people in China, it’s important for students to distinguish themselves, but the system encourages doing nothing but focusing on passing the “gaokao.” The college entrance examination is, as my students have shared with me, one’s entire life in senior high school, with one or two days of testing deciding one’s entire future. As one of my students lamented to me, studying 16 hours a day for three years got her nothing but a score instead of being prepared for life or adequately engaging the world. But it’s a matter of game theory: if you don’t make your child study endlessly for the gaokao, that puts them at a risky disadvantage against students whose parents did make them study so hard.

- Chinese classrooms discourage two-way interaction between teacher and student, instead favoring a one-way transfer of knowledge from teacher to student in a lecture format. The university I teach at is not rich or prestigious, and the students lament a lack of teachers who are “masters” to give them a path. All classrooms here are lecture-hall style with chairs and desks bolted to the floor, preventing activities with students in a circle. Class sizes are too large; in senior high school, classes of 70 students are not uncommon. Group work is minimal and long hours of droning teachers allows students to put their brains on autopilot during class.

These is my own idle pondering about this issue, and I don’t know how grounded in fact any of it is. But I wanted to get some of these ideas out, not because any of them are particularly new, but to try to understand the causes. Since I’m having my students do analysis, I should be doing it too.

Bullet Points

I haven’t posted since returning from Hong Kong. I thought I should at least throw some anecdotes on here.

- For assignments in my classes I’m moving from having them write about personal experiences into analysis of existing ideas or things about Western culture. One reason is that all their experiences are becoming same-y in their responses. The frustrating thing is that I don’t think it’s just a limitation in their manner of writing or their skill level, I think that so many aspects of their childhood are mass-produced that there aren’t as many differences, because most of childhood is school and studying the rest of the day. All because of that accursed “gaokao,” the infamous Chinese college entrance exams. Here was one of my students’ perspectives on it: “For gaokao, we paid too much. We paid the hard work of 16-hour per day for three years. We paid youth, enthusiasty, and creativity. What we keep is only scores. Can you understand the anguish of a Chinese student, especially in such a poor place like Guangxi? And the gaokao scores which I paid my life in is useless in college and in future. It’s nothing. I feel sad for the reality sometimes. But I can’t refuse the reality at the same time.” The students in China are woefully unprepared for engaging the world.

- Sports are not as much of a thing here. At least, not in the sense that sports are in the West. True, students play basketball, and ping-pong, and badminton, but it’s all on a small scale. In the US and other Western countries, we have our city teams and there’s a lot of spirit and pride and support for your city team, and that’s completely absent here. At first glance one would suspect the whole thing is contrived support for nothing but the Chinese national Olympic teams, a quest for unity that makes the whole thing homogeneous. A lot of the things they consider “sports” are what most of us consider sports only for things like the Olympics. I’m sorry but I’ll never consider running or lifting weights “sports” — that’s exercise. One of my students mentions her favorite sport is jump-rope, which (1) isn’t a sport, and (2) doesn’t sound like a sport someone her age would be crazy about in the US.

- Sometimes it’s shocking how blatant racism is here. For my classes last week I showed a TED talk by the Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie, about what she called “the danger of the single story,” and how stereotyped narratives of places or peoples leads to a lack of understanding. I thought it would be a good topic for the students to analyze, and I have yet to see what they come up with for it. Just 30 minutes after this class, I ate lunch with one of my best and brightest students in the class, who casually mentioned in conversation how scared she was of the “dark skin people,” by which she meant the African foreign students in the university. She had never met any of them, and none of them had done anything wrong or illegal that she had seen, and her only experience with them was seeing them playing soccer very enthusiastically and roughly with each other.

Certainly there’s a lot of racism and the life in America. But in much of the US, we’ve become multiracial/multicultural enough that, even if someone thinks or believes things like that, there’s a social filter that encourages people to keep it to themselves, not wanting to be publicly racist. China is a monoculture; don’t let any talk of its 56 official ethnic “nationalities” fool you, because those all are less than 10% of the population and are often unthinkingly denigrated like how Native Americans have been in the US, such as tourist attractions that reduce them to a “traditional costume” (if that! sometimes people are decked out in fake leopard skin as “primitive man”). The notions of unity and group cohesion brush ethnic social issues under the rug, content to have big CCTV stage performances of people in their assigned traditional costume harmoniously performing together. It may not be a matter of greater or lesser racism in the two countries, but China’s more open about perceived stereotypes about other races or countries.

When Sarah and I performed in this big foreigner TV performance for Guangxi TV in Nanning last December (essentially nothing more than a chance for each city’s foreign affairs office to show off their foreigners and curry favor with the provincial government), we thought our performance was embarrassing until we saw how other groups of foreigners got reduced to being nothing more than their home countries. One group had a black African foreigner who was visibly displeased at the performance that had been set up for him by people who didn’t know what to do with Africans except put him and a bunch of Chinese people in leopard skin and doing a stereotypical “tribal dance.” Seriously what is it with this place and leopard skin? I try to remember that China is a lot like America was in the early 20th century, but there’s still a lot of secondhand embarrassment.