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.

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