In Guilin Now

Quick update for those who haven’t been in the loop due to my own lack of telling anyone. After hanging around at Ken’s place in Nanning for a month, CIEE finally got the old school to have our old work permits canceled, letting us legally work elsewhere in China. There was a position at Guangxi Normal University in Guilin that at first had been for both Sarah and me, but then we got some really unpleasant news about the job becoming just for one person, on account of one of the positions probably getting filled while the two of us were in legal limbo (thanks, New Standard, for being able to screw us over one last time). So what we decided was for me to take the university job in Guilin, while Sarah goes up to northeast China for a job that we had already been making plans for. It’s a big industrial city, which is good for Sarah because I know that she’s wanting to have some contacts to learn about factory work in China for her anthropology stuff.

It’s been a few days since I arrived in Guilin to teach at my new position at Guangxi Normal University, and I’ve finally settled in enough to get my bearings. At first, it was extremely overwhelming to head off on my own without Sarah (frustratingly the promised position for us both suddenly became only for me, leaving Sarah pursuing a job with some contacts she had made in Shenyang, on the other side of China); for the first time since entering China I was actually alone and didn’t have any friends or contacts around me.

It didn’t help that my first few hours spent here were done so stewing by myself in my new apartment, which on first appearance seemed worse than my second Liuzhou apartment and Ken’s place in Nanning. The exterior feels pretty run-down and the interior shows the schizophrenic design that defines so much of Chinese apartments, with light switches and outlets in odd places, passageways just narrow enough to hit one’s arms when passing through, etc etc. Add to that the cold from there being no concept of insulation in this region of the world, and the view below featuring simple brick dwellings that resemble more the countryside than the more rarified air of Ken’s surroundings, and I was wondering if I had made the right decision.

But later on I found that it was workable enough. It may just be a momentary shift in the weather, but the provided supply of heavy winter blankets make the place warm enough, only barely using the A/C heater in the evening. The kitchen area is completely devoid of anything but a sink and a washing machine, but the addition of a water boiler to have morning tea makes it feel much more pleasant (even if I have to stack said boiler on its cardboard box for it to reach the illogically placed outlet). Once I unpacked, got some clothing hung up, and laid out the supplies I had, it started seeming livable, even if I have to adapt to the Chinese way of doing some things. Because of my early morning classes, I’ve started sharing the habit of showering in the evenings to deal with the wait of heating up the water and just to get the dust/soot of China off me at the end of the day.

Crystal, my waiban, showed me around the campus and gave a very decent tour. She mentioned that at one point she had looked into entering the tourism industry and I can see why. The campus is actually one of three in Guilin associated with GXNU, and this one is not the one with the magnificent yellow-painted arches that are on all the logos and photos of the school. It’s not as pretty a place as Ken’s university, and it’s certainly smaller. The few garden areas are so small that they aren’t isolated at all from the student population at large. But it’s all very practical and seems to have the basic features. According to Crystal, there’s also a place where I can lift weights, so I’ve got to pursue that.

Straightaway I got set up with my class schedule and textbook, which was reassuring since classes were to start the next day, and also reassuring because I seem to have lucked out on a pretty nice schedule. I teach a writing/composition class, and have five classes a week, an hour and 20 minutes each, all with the same unified curriculum, which cuts down on lesson preparation time. Unlike some of the foreign teachers here, all my classes are on the same campus in the same building, so I don’t need to get on a shuttle to teach anywhere else. My classes are on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and while I sometimes have to teach at 8:00 am, I always get done by noon. My afternoons are free, as are four days all in a row. Of course I’ll be busy with grading of papers and such for 150 students, but it sounds like I’ve got the opportunity to explore much more than I ever could back at New Standard.

Crystal helped me get subscribed to get Internet in my apartment, which should arrive after a few days (spending the first couple days twiddling my thumbs in the land of no connection), as well as get me a food card for the school’s cafeterias. It’s just a short walk from the foreign language/culture building, past the building that houses both business classes and the mandatory Marxism classes (how’s that for ironic?), to the most popular cafeteria. I’ve been trying out the food there but I don’t know how much longer I’ll eat there. It’s pretty convenient, just load some money on the card, then the cafeteria gives you a plate with rice and whatever meat/vegetable toppings you want and deducts it from the card. But the quality so far is mixed, and some things are just plain bland, oily, and lukewarm. For breakfast, though, they’ve got some pretty amazing steamed buns a short walk from home that I can grab for cheap on the way to my early-morning class.

When it comes to lunch and dinner I’ll probably see what restaurants are outside the walls. I was really excited to see that just beyond the gates is a Muslim noodle shop just like the one I loved at Ken’s place. With the workers wearing the same traditional dress and the backgrounds and menus literally identical, it felt like I was back in Nanning. The lamian noodles aren’t quite as good, but they’re still excellent.

The classrooms are all pretty well-equipped, with a computer hooked up to a TV screen so I can bring in a flash drive with a Powerpoint or some pictures or video and show them — though the students say some of the text is still too small so I’ll probably have to start making printouts for them. My first day I muddled through a basic introduction and general lesson on the importance of writing, which thankfully I was able to refine afterward into a more interesting and conversational lesson about the structure of a good paragraph.

Each class has a pretty broad range of students, from those who are really excited about learning the language and chat with me during the break, to those who openly admit that they only take the class because it’s required preparation for the national university English exams. In each class the majority of the students are girls (boys tend to major in engineering or business), with the boys always showing up later — but still on time — to sit in the back of the room, and typically are looking to use English to get a good job (though Mori, one of the male students, has a love of English-language rock music that he will excitedly speak at length on, his thick eyebrows raising to punctuate every sentence). There’s of course some unusual names: I’ve got a Bamboo, Sky, Time, Cloud (who mentioned his love of the Final Fantasy video games from which his name comes from), Lightman, Happy, Rings (“like Lord of the Rings”), and Gaga. But most of them are typical enough, and I did notice that a lot of the names sound very French. There is a fascination with France and Paris here (half the notebooks in the stationary stories proudly feature the Eiffel Tower), and these are all students who have chosen — and likely often changed — their names instead of being assigned names like the young children at New Standard, who would get more typically American monikers, or if Sarah and I were feeling particularly silly, Gaelic and traditional Scandinavian names.

I can already tell it’s going to take some work to draw the creativity out of them. The first day I had the students introduce themselves by having them say something interesting about themselves, which sort of devolved into a “what are your interests?” question, a language pattern they had learned long ago and which they had the standard bland answers: reading, shopping, watching TV, playing computer games, and sleeping. The second day got some better results when I gave examples (“Pets? Can you cook something? Travel?”) and mentioned how in America I would often make pizza. Though that also devolved into a checklist of those three categories, it did open them up more.

In addition to the normal weekly writing assignments they’ll have, I’m having each of my students also get a journal to regularly write something interesting of their choice in. Part of this is because the textbook recommends it, partially because it’s a way for them to use English pseudo-outside the class, but also because I’m thinking of Peter Hessler’s “River Town,” the bible of all expat teachers in China, who did that also as a way to get a glimpse into the minds of his students.

I invariably get a good laugh when I introduce the whole journal-keeping thing, because I use Sarah as an example of someone who journals constantly. When I mention what she told me about needing a new pen after only two days of writing, it elicits a gasp in every class… though she may have just been commenting on the quality of Chinese pens, but who cares, it makes a good story. Anyway, I start out by showing a picture of Sarah, who happens to be wearing a bulky winter coat. I casually say “This is a friend of mine. She taught with me at …” and at this point there’s murmurs of confusion, or, in the classes whose students have a stronger grasp of pronouns, in chorus yell out “SHE?!?!” Because Sarah has really short hair, everyone believes she’s a boy, and after I emphasize that yes, she’s a girl, some students accept it and say she’s beautiful, while others say “handsome.” My presentation now includes a picture of Sarah from before winter for me to pull up and prove to the doubters. (Sorry Sarah!)

So that’s that, so far. I’m sure I’ll get all sorts of weird frustrations and annoyances thrown at me over the next several months; it wouldn’t be China without them. And I’m still frustrated that Sarah and I had to part ways so suddenly. But in the end I think this position will be good for me, and I’m definitely redoubling all my efforts on keeping in touch with everyone in our CIEE New Standard diaspora.

When I actually get around to having my Internet installed in my apartment instead of using the free Wifi in the campus international center’s lobby, I’ll upload some nice photos I’ve been taking of the area. The architecture is the same gray, dismal, Soviet/Marxist design that deadens the soul just from looking at it, but the natural beauty of the mountains of Guilin are still visible nonetheless.

P.S.: I just stumbled upon a little place on campus that sells real milk. Actual, honest-to-God milk. Not the weird boxed preserved non-refrigerated milk that is sufficient yet somehow off in its taste, nor the soupy “yogurt” that’s all the rage. There was a place just like this on Ken’s campus but I never got around to trying it. I still fail to understand just how a country can utterly fail at the concept of just offering plain, unadulterated (whether with typical preservatives or the tainting that appears every so often) milk. It may be 5 yuan (79 cents) for 200 ml — well, 4 yuan once I return the bottle — but it’s so, so worth it.

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