Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Orphanage Visit and Last Day in Changsha

Going to the orphanage was a good way to finish off my trip to Changsha.  Chance, Brenna, myself and these three Chinese students named Lucy, Barbara, and Nancy (the Chinese seem to love choosing English names) all went together to see the children, to play with them, and to hold them.  Before we went, we pooled our money and bought them lots of stuff.  I can't remember everything we got but I do remember buying diapers, wipes, formula, bottles, wash cloths, music cds, hair barrettes, toothbrushes, and various toys. We had to go to three different stores to get everything we needed and the workers at the stores were very intrigued as to why these Americans were blowing so much money.  We only spent about 1500 yuan ($225 dollars), but it was a fortune around here.  When we told them it was for the orphans, they seemed very excited and willing to help.  They would find extra boxes lying around the stores so that we could fit everything since we would be riding the bus quite a distance into town to get to the orphanage.  Chance was joking that most people will blow about $500 dollars or more every trip to Cosco, but we were celebrities spending a measly 200 bucks.  Money does go a great deal farther here so by the time we were all done shopping, we had 4 big boxes full of supplies to donate.  

When we got to the orphanage, there were many small children in the hallway and they seemed very happy to see us.  The main ones we saw initially ranged in age from about 8 months old to about 4 years old.  Most I would say were about 2 or 3.  Anyway, the first thing that surprised me was how clean it was and how many workers were there and how attentive they were to the children.  You could tell they really cared about them and were interacting with them and showing us around.  The orphanage is next to an elderly person facility and so the whole building is very much like a hospital. The walls are decorated with things to make it more warm for the kids, but it still had that sterile feel that hospitals do.  There was one cute little girl that kept gravitating to Brenna.  She was about 2 and had Leukemia.  It made me really sad to see her afflicted with such a trying disease at such a young age (and orphaned on top of that).  Another cute little girl kept looking at me so I reached out and picked her up.  She started to cry, but I immediately distracted her with some origame swans hanging from the ceiling.  She warmed to me very quickly and started calling me baba (daddy).  Sad, isn't it?  When the workers tried to take her from me a couple of times, she cried and reached back for me.  I also tried to put her down to play with toys a few times and she reached up for me to pick her back up.  It's a good thing Stacie and I aren't eligible by Chinese adoption regulations to adopt because this girl would have come home with me.  I was about ready to bust her out of that joint and hire some people to help me cross the border into Mongolia.  But, I came to my senses quickly enough.

One thing that is very obvious in the orphanage is that there are many girls and the boys they do have are disabled.  In fact, most of the children in the orphanage had some disability.  I saw many kids with down syndrome, dwarfism, cleft lips and palates, and other ailments.  The boys in the orphanage were much more likely, though, to have a disability and it makes sense why when you think about it.  With the one child policy, everyone is trying to have a boy.  If it's a girl (even a healthy one), they are sometimes just abandoned in the streets and end up in the orphanages.  The boys are more likely to satisfy the desires of their parents unless they are disabled.  

It was a really emotional experience for me and I'm not sure how much I should share on a public blog.  On the one hand, it was uplifting to bring some small measure of joy into the lives of these small children.  On the other hand, I realize that despite the great efforts of these orphanage workers, these children lead pretty sad lives.  We generally saw the healthier kids because they could actually get out of bed and come to interact with us.  Many of the children, though, were so disabled that they simply lay in their cribs all day. When I got back to my room, I had a hard time keeping it together.  I really wish I could adopt one of these beautiful children.  Life isn't fair! 

Buying toys for the children.

Yes, the Angry Birds were a big hit.

Our stash of stuff just before getting on the bus.

One thing I'll never get used to in Changsha.  The crowds.

Showing the little kids the toys we brought for them.

Told you they liked the Angry Birds.

The one on the right is the one with Leukemia.  Such a doll! 

Some of the cribs in one of the rooms.  I went into a few of these rooms and waved at the little babies, but it was hard to see them just laying there.

This is the one I wanted to smuggle out of the country.

This disabled boy just loved Chance!

I tried to put her down, but she keeps clawing at me.

This girl on the left is 16 and spends her time doing bead work.  I took her picture and she literally jumped out of her chair.  She seemed very sensitive to noises and things.

View from the orphanage window.

Bunks for the older kids.

This is the Chinese version of a dryer.  It plugs into the wall and you put your clothes in there to dry them.  It zips up around them.  My clothes have now been in there for 3 hours and they seem to be half done.

Going to my favorite restaurant for the last time.

Still on my way.

I made it.  That short woman in the green is Liu jie.  Miss Leo.  She is short even by Chinese standards, but very very sweet.

She is very excited to meet the whole Stein clan next year.  She speaks no English, but kept saying 2 0 1 3 in Chinese because that's when we will come back.  She also grabbed my arm and said "Wo Bu Yao" (Wo Boo Yow).  I don't want. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Changsha Ferris Wheel and Street Dancing

I have been wanting to go to the Changsha ferris wheel since I first arrived here.  Unfortunately, it has been raining about 80% of the time.  So once the rain finally cleared up, I told Chance and Brenna they had to come with me to check out the 5th tallest ferris wheel in the world.  The four that are taller are in Singapore, London (the London Eye), Nanchung China, and Beijing.  When we arrived at the Changsha ferris wheel, we were a bit concerned at how run down it looked.  You can see from the first photo that it's on top of a building and that building is in pretty bad shape.  Also, when you take the elevator to the top you exit to see a large amount of trash scattered around the rooftop.  We paid our 50 yuan ($7.50) to the ticket attendant, who let out an evil cackle.  Ok, I made that part up.  The attendant was very unenthused as it seemed that not that many people ride this thing.  There are probably 60 or 70 cars to ride in and we were the only people wanting to go on it besides one other group.  This normally wouldn't concern me much anywhere else in the world, but everything is usually so crowded in China.  Why was nobody wanting to ride this ferris wheel?  Did they know something I didn't know? It has only been around since 2004, so I don't understand why it looks so beat up. Anyway, life is too short to be worried about petty things like death (I would only leave five children fatherless), so I hopped on and we started our slow 20 minute rotation.  As we got higher and higher, the view was spectacular.  I did not realize just how big this city was until I saw it from the ferris wheel.  There are quite a few skyscrapers in Changsha, but the wheel was definitely the tallest landmark as we could see the tops of the buildings.  I admit I was a little afraid, but it was certainly worth the money and the courage expended.

Once we got off the ferris wheel, we made our way to a fairly large plaza area next to the ferris wheel.  There were many fun things going on in this place.  I saw little kids (about 3 or 4 years old) rollerskating on a course made up of small cones and there were vendors selling toys and other products.  My favorite thing, though, was a large gathering of Chinese people doing a kind of dance for exercise.  I asked Chance and Brenna if this was common and they said that at 7 p.m. every night all across China, people just gather in the streets and some dance instructor will play music and they'll all do Tai Chi stretches and other kinds of physical movements.  However, even Chance and Brenna hadn't seen a gathering this big.  We estimated there were probably about 2,000 people dancing together in the plaza.  What a crazy sight!  As they say, when in Rome do as the Romans.  So you can see from the pictures below that I decided to get involved and was dancing with these Chinese ladies.  They got a big kick out of it and one of them struck up a conversation with us afterwards.  I've really come to like the people here.

I'm not sure what the 1573 means.  My brother Eric and I saw the London Eye, but didn't go on it, so I felt I had to go on this one.

Too bad we are in an enclosed car or the pictures would be better.

The city seems to go on forever.

Decent shot of an adjacent car and the way they are connected.

Some interesting buildings.

Brenna said she wishes she could lean all the way out.  She's out of her mind I guess.

Soccer stadium.  I'm assuming that's the Xiangjiang River in the background.  Hunan Normal University would be on the other side.

Covering up my fear with a smile.

Standing in the plaza area just outside the ferris wheel.

Calling out around the world.  Are you ready for a brand new beat? ♫ Summer's here and the time is right for dancing in the street!  
These toys were junk, but sometimes you can get some good stuff on the street.

Too bad it's so dark, but you can see many of the people dancing.

This one is just for fun.  Those green looking things are the 100 year old eggs.  I didn't know Dr. Seuss was Chinese!

Not a fan of the stinky tofu.  Everyone here loves it, though!  They keep telling me "It only smells bad, but it tastes delicious."  I tell them to save that line for someone who hasn't tasted it yet.  I HAVE!

I got a little carried away.  I bought all 16 of these DVDs for 130 yuan (about $20). My kids are gonna freak! I just have to think about how to get through customs.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Japanese Food in China

About a week ago, I treated Chance and Brenna to lunch for their one year wedding anniversary.  They said that they already planned to have lunch with their friend Vanessa (the daughter of the Dean of Foreign Studies).  I said they should bring her along and I would treat her too.  Apparently, she was upset (not in a real way) that I paid for her.  She thought that as her guests in China, she should be paying.  So, she planned to get her revenge by taking us all to a very fancy Japanese restaurant in downtown Changsha.  By Chinese standards, the place was pretty fancy.  It was an all you can eat buffet of various Japanese dishes (sushi included) and it cost 168 yuan a person (about $25).  Keep in mind that I've been paying 5 yuan for cheap dinners and 20 yuan for nice dinners up to this point.  I really found a great food buddy in Chance because that kid can eat.  Both of us were salivating at the menu and we were instructed to order anything we wanted.  You're supposed to simply look at the menu and say things like, "I'll have two of these, and two of those, and a couple of these...."   The servers keep track of everything you eat even though it's all covered by the initial cost.   A few of the dishes I remember eating were mango, an egg gelatin, prawns, lamb cutlets, clams, bacon wrapped asparagus, assorted nagiri sushi, california rolls, eel maki rolls, salmon sashimi, yellow tail sashimi, tuna sashimi, codfish, roast beef, chicken wings, ice cream with bean curd topping, banana milkshakes, mango milkshakes, and on and on and on.  Vanessa counted the number of dishes we ate and it totaled 32.  We were in heaven!  She seemed really happy that we were enjoying ourselves so much.

These guys weren't on the menu.  They were just in my shower that morning.

Vanessa and Brenna

Chance and I are starting to get excited.

I have no idea why we both look weird in this picture.

The hibachi grill.

Mussels and prawns.

In America, we aren't used to seeing the whole thing.  We just get them already peeled with the heads and legs taken off for us.  Brenna said she had no idea what a shrimp even looked like until she got to China.

Hmm...what next?

Clams were delicious.  They were huge too.

Tuna and yellow tail.

I became quite attached to this little guy.  I'm stroking him to comfort him just before eating him.

This mango was so good.

The final list of food we ate.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Censorship in China Part II: A Chinese Perspective

After the last post, I thought I should finally initiate a political discussion with a Chinese friend.  Since she's only 23, I thought she would be more open about things.  The disadvantage is that youth often brings an unawareness of things around you, but she was quite knowledgable and VERY interested in talking about these things.  In fact, I tried to cut her off after an hour and she was still going.  I'll try to remember and summarize the key points of our discussion.

First, I asked how the heck Desperate Housewives and Gossip Girl are the most popular American shows in China.  She did not have a good explanation other than to say "I just love those" and I wasn't willing to tell her that she along with 1.3 billion Chinese have very bad taste in t.v. shows.  I understand that taste is all relative, but some things are just bad (Exhibit 1: Twilight).  She indicated to me that there is a Chinese YouTube along with many other Chinese websites that have thousands of American movies and television shows.  So, it's not a lack of options.  Apparently, the Chinese government does not regulate Western popular culture too much as long as the productions are not very political.  However, I would argue there is a fine line between politics and entertainment and this will become a huge problem for the Chinese in the future.  I mean, think about all the political discussions about torture that started just from watching the show 24.  She said she did not feel particularly limited when trying to access content on the internet because she is not very interested in political issues.  She said that if she were interested, she could easily find out about the things she wanted to know because most students, including nearly every person in her dormitory utilize illegal methods to access the internet in China.  I asked her if she was worried about doing anything illegal and whether that would land her in jail.  She said that students don't worry at all about it and as long as they don't search for terms like "revolution" or "bomb" or something like that, the Chinese government turns a blind eye to it.  I still find it a bit ironic that Chairman Mao instituted the current system of government through revolution and that now they get in trouble in China for searching the word "revolution" on a computer.  Apparently, the people in the Hunan Province here are a bit more rebellious than other mainland Chinese because Mao came from here and that the people reflect a similar attitude about seeking change.  

We then talked a little about the Tiananmen Square Massacre.  She said, "Oh yeah, I know what happened there."  I didn't want to taint her answer in any way, so I just said, "Really, what happened?"  She said something like "The government squashed some kind of student revolution."  She also said that "The victor in any conflict gets to write the history."  I then asked, "Do you believe the history that is being taught to you?"  She said: "Absolutely not."  She then explained something that I think is very interesting.  She said that most Chinese people don't believe anything the government tells them and if they stumble upon some information that they know the government is trying to keep them from, they will automatically accept it as truth.  Their interpretation of the situation is that nobody would try so hard to hide something that was not true.  

I also brought up Taiwan and this one was a bit more sensitive than the Tiananmen Square topic.  She basically told me that Taiwan was an important part of China, much the way Hong Kong and Macao are important.  The latter were recently brought back into the fold and so would Taiwan at some point.  I said, "Well the Taiwanese assert their independence from China."  And she said: "So you Americans just accept that because they say so?"  That one really threw me off my game.  I knew that the U.S. government was very careful about openly supporting Taiwan because of our bilateral relations with China, but I suspect that most Americans probably do accept Taiwanese independence simply because they want their independence.  I wondered if revolution is such an integral part of our culture because of the way our country was born.  In many ways, we can probably relate to the position of Taiwan wanting to be free from an oppressive motherland.  I responded to her by saying it was a sensitive issue and that Americans probably did believe that Taiwan was a separate country and explained to her the reasons.  She responded again that Taiwan was very important to the economy and that they would continue to be part of China.  She also said that the U.S. government should stay out of other people's business.  

So, I jumped off of the Taiwan issue and started steering the conversation toward Chinese people's attitudes about the United States.  She said that the Chinese perceive the American government to be extremely aggressive and that we involve ourselves in conflicts that we don't need to be in.  She said that the Chinese government does not start wars, but merely protects itself against attack.  I said, "Or, if North Korea chooses to invade South Korea, right?"  I got a dirty look and so I changed the subject.  I asked her if it bothered her that she has no say in the outcome of government or the distribution of power in her country.  She said that it bothers her, but there is not much she or anybody else can do about it.  She believes that as the economy grows, there will be more opportunities and rights granted to the people.  She argued that the older generations of Chinese were just trying to survive and ensure there was enough food on the table.  She said the young people have their basic necessities and so they are now looking for the next thing to be granted to them and she believes that to be more individual freedom.  I asked if she thought there would be another revolution and she said that she comes from a culture where dynasty after dynasty rose and fell and that it was only a matter of time before this one fell too.  Pretty interesting stuff.  

Last, I asked her about the blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng, who had recently dominated the American media landscape and she had no idea who he was.  I told her to go on her illegal connection and look him up straight away.  I could tell she really enjoyed talking about these things with me and had very little concern about doing so in a private conversation.  She claimed that the Chinese people frequently talk about sensitive current and historical issues with each other, but it's kind of an oral history that never gets written down because of the government controls.

Censorship in China

I wanted to briefly discuss the political environment here since I've been getting a few questions on this area.  I read several Chinese cultural etiquette books before I came and they all said to not talk about the three T's (Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen Square Massacre).  So, I have refrained from discussing any of these issues with anyone.  I have talked with people in a vague way about the censorship and their freedom to talk about certain "issues" without naming any of them specifically.  These individuals basically felt that they had full freedom to talk to anyone they wanted in a more private context, such as with family and friends.  Public discussions of sensitive issues was certainly not advised.   My brother, Keith, asked me if it "felt" like a communist country.  He has been to Russia (after the collapse of the Soviet Union) and served his mission in the Baltics, so he has a sense of at least the remnants of Soviet Communism.  I do not, so I'm not sure what I was supposed to feel when I got here, but I do know how it does feel here.  Apart from the statues and pictures of Mao Zedong everywhere, I certainly don't feel that I'm being watched or that anyone really cares what I am doing at all.  The people seem content and they do many of the same things people do in America (i.e. shopping, eating, talking on their cell phones).  I certainly do not get a communist vibe from this place.

Before I came to teach here, I was a little concerned about the content of my classes and whether I would be heavily regulated.  I was told that I could teach whatever I wanted and there would be no limitations.  So, I made minor adjustments to my existing critical thinking course (mostly just adding some things to powerpoint because of the language issues) and was geared up emotionally for this new adventure.  I was a little concerned when I arrived and saw in one of the classrooms that they had cameras at the back of the room.  I asked one of the teachers about them and he said they were for distance education and other things.  In my own mind, I thought "Yeah, I bet I can guess what those 'other things' are."  However, when I got to my classroom, there were no cameras and nobody scary sat at the back of the room glaring at me.  I have read on some blogs of teachers doing ESL stuff in China that they suspect the Chinese government sometimes asks students to keep notes of what professors say, but I really doubt this was happening in my class.  I guess I could be wrong, but I don't think so.

In terms of the attitudes that the Chinese people have toward foreigners, there is nothing really hostile or suspicious about their behavior toward me.  They seem very curious about me and will often engage me in conversation.  They always have questions about the United States and often want to talk with me about their favorite American TV shows.  I can't tell you how many people have wanted to discuss Desperate Housewives and Gossip Girl.  I'm not sure if this is all that is available to them here, but many people seem to be watching these two shows.  I heard a funny story the other day regarding the censorship of the movie Titanic.  Apparently, the government was worried about the Kate Winslet nude scene being in 3D.  They thought it would endanger people in the movie theaters to have people reaching out in front of them trying to touch a realistic looking Winslet, so they edited that part out of the movie.  Not sure if it's true, but it was an amusing story.  From what I can tell, there is certainly a great deal of Westernization happening in China.  It might be regulated, but it's certainly far from being full controlled.

In order to illustrate even better what the censorship looks like on the internet, I took a screen capture of me doing a search on the internet for various sensitive political topics.  You can see very clearly how difficult it is to find information that the Chinese government does not want you to see.  Have a look below!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Chinese v.s. American Students

Yesterday, I taught my two Chinese critical thinking classes for the last time.  Although it was a little disappointing for me to have to adapt my original teaching plans so drastically, I still had a very positive experience with the students.  We were able to discuss the structure of argument, different types of evidence and how to evaluate it, language issues that are problematic in making good arguments, and fallacies of reasoning.  As a teacher who is always looking to improve on my classroom strategies, I want to take this opportunity to reflect on some of the differences between my American and Chinese students, the things that I thought went really well, and also the things that were a bit challenging.

My brother Keith asked me the other day in an e-mail how my American students stack up against the Chinese students.  Keep in mind that I'm basing this judgment on very little time in the classroom, but my initial impressions are that the Chinese students are better students overall.  That's not to say that they are smarter or have greater capacity to learn.  But, by any really objective standard, one would have to say they are better students because of the value they put on their own education and the amount of time they invest each day in studying and trying to better their futures.  The Chinese students get up at about 6 a.m. every morning to start school and they usually finish around dinner time.  Often, they will have extra classes after dinner and on the weekends.  It's absolutely shocking how hard they work.  I asked a Chinese mother of some elementary school aged children why they study so hard in China and she attributed it to the high population.  She said it was absolutely imperative that they stand out among so many of their peers and they are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goals.  I'm sure most teachers can relate to that very bright American student that shows up for class early, pays very careful attention in class, asks relevant questions, and performs well on every assignment.  Now imagine having every student in your class be like those few students.  As a small example of what I'm talking about, let me tell you about the attendance.  I took role every day in two separate classes of 31 and 32 students.  Not one student missed a single class on any day.  I couldn't believe it!  In this way, the students were exactly like the stereotypes we have in America about how Chinese students are very dedicated.  It is exactly the way we think it is.  

Other experiences I had were nothing like what I thought they would be.  I thought the Chinese students would be very very quiet, unwilling to talk in class, and not very receptive to my very relaxed and humorous (attempted) style of teaching.  They were nothing like this at all.  After breaking the ice on the first day, they fully adapted to my style and talked and participated almost as much as my American students.  I do have to qualify that last statement because American students are very active and it would be tough to beat them at their own game.  But, I was so pleasantly surprised at the active participation in my classes in China.  One kid told me his other classes were VERY strict and that they weren't really allowed to talk in class.  I think the perceptions we have of the Chinese come from some real observations of the learning environment here, but what we underestimate is their ability to adapt to new kinds of educational experiences.  They are pretty dang smart and capable of a great deal more than to just sit their seats and absorb information through a more structured approach.  

I should also comment on some things that did not go well.  First, I found it very hard to use the classroom I was assigned because it contains a small stage in the front of the room with a very large command center, which I've described in previous blogs.  It made it really hard to move around the room, which is something I like to do back at SUU.  Also, the students are very used to using these headsets to listen to the professor lecture.  When they have questions, the professor has to push a button to allow them to speak.  It's a very controlled environment.  Even after a few days of class, the students were still ready with their headsets on when I would walk in the room.  Then, they would suddenly remember that I didn't want to use them and then they would take them off.  We actually only used them when I had a video clip to show as an illustration.  After adjusting to my methods, though, the students stopped raising their hands and shouted out their answers like my American students will do.  I must admit that although I was pleasantly surprised at how many of my examples they understood, I still know there were things that they could not grasp.  I would often define concepts two or three different ways and use several examples to clarify them, but I'm still not sure if they understood some of them fully.  Their body language showed that much of it was sinking in, but I did not have enough time to test them on the material, so I can't be fully certain how much they "got."  Regardless of the amount, there still is something very cool about teaching a critical thinking class in China.  One necessary precursor to any kind of advocacy in this world is the ability to construct and evaluate arguments and to use reasoning in persuading others.  

After I finished my last class, I thanked my students for being so warm and welcoming and they said "see ya next year" in one collective voice.  We then took pictures as a class and I talked to several students that now have a genuine interest in coming to SUU on exchange.  I hope they can make that happen and I've been coordinating with the liaison here between HNU and SUU to help them with their applications.  

Took this shot just before the start of class.

Of the 31 students in the first class, only 2 were males.

Class #1 after we were all finished.  I'm not sure why the one girl is holding my box of melba toast.  

This was another teacher in the college.  He had office hours during my class, so I was always harassing him to help me with the computer system.  

Each class goes for an hour and 45 minutes with a 10 minute break in between.  Most of the students just sat in their seats and talked to me during the break.  

I love this picture.  I was showing them the "Battle of Wits" scene from the Princess Bride as an illustration of various fallacies of reasoning.  Clearly, they did NOT find it funny at all.  Other clips that I thought were far less amusing they thought were hysterical, but not this one!

All these kids were just so sweet.

Picture of me with the second class.