Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Sliding Down the Mountain and First Day with the Ph.D. Students

It has been difficult to keep up with the blog because we went from doing nothing except adjusting to just being in China to actually having to work in China.  Both Stacie and I are very busy all of a sudden preparing our classes and trying to keep Lucy happy.  I believe that latter job is much harder than our teaching.  We can tell that Lucy doesn't like being in China.  She hates the attention from the Chinese people, she hates the food, and she probably hates us for bringing her here.  But, does she tell us that in a rational manner so that we can all talk it out and figure out what we can do to help her transition?  No, she's only 4.  She communicates her frustration by refusing to eat anything except rice and oatmeal and by fighting with her sister all day.  It's become a pattern that we can expect on a daily basis.  She does have some nice moments during the day, but it's usually right after we have given her whatever she wants.  Believe me, we are trying to be good parents, but the chapter in the parenting manual on helping your 4 year old adjust to life in a foreign country where everyone wants to touch your hair and take your picture doesn't seem to exist.  Side note, they even want to touch my hair and I don't have any.  You just have to get used to some extra uncomfortable touching here.  The other day, we were at our favorite restaurant and Liu Jie (one of our favorite people here and a wonderfully sweet person) started rubbing my head and then my back.  I looked over at Stacie with that deer in the headlights look, but she just said "oh, she's just being friendly."  Even so, I don't think I have permission yet to visit the "friendly" massage parlors.

The kids' Grandma Brenda asked over the phone the other day what everyone liked the most about China.  I gave them time to think about it and here are their replies:

Me: Taking the family up Yuelu Mountain for the first time
Stacie: New friends she has made here
Annie: Anything with the little Chinese kids, particularly helping Stacie in the classroom.
Nicolas: The slide at Yuelu Mountain
Ezra: He can't decide.  He likes so many things.  I would guess he loves the snacks, though.
Jeanie:Slide at Yuelu Mountain
Lucy: Slide at Yuelu Mountain

Hmm.  I guess the slide at Yuelu has been pretty popular with the kids so far.  I supposed I better describe it a little.  About two-thirds of the way up the mountain (about a 45 minute walk uphill for our family), there is a metallic chute that winds down to the base of the mountain.  It costs 35 yuan per person (they even charge for the little ones), so it can be quite expensive.  Just to give you some perspective on price, it cost me 500 yuan for one all expense paid ticket to Zhangjiajie for 3 days.  The chute cost our whole family 235 yuan.  So, we won't be doing it often, but it was a big hit.  You sit on a sled-like car and you have a brake that you need to pull just a little when you go around corners.  You could fly off the track if you don't use the brake. If you brake too much, though, the ride isn't quite as fun.  You have to strike a balance between recklessness and caution to get the most out of the experience.  I've posted a video below of Nicolas coming down the last part of the track.  They are really excited to go back up there and use their own allowance for a whole week just to ride this thing for 2 minutes.

We are starting to get a little bored with the food because we are sometimes afraid to go into new restaurants that we haven't been in before and to try to make out the items on the menu.  It's necessary that we expand the number of places that we feel comfortable frequenting, but it's easier said than done.  Many times, we have walked by a restaurant that looks promising only to just keep going and end up somewhere we have been before.  We have been to Liu Jie's restaurant every day this week for dinner.  She has an extensive menu, but it still feels like we could be stretching ourselves more.  Liu Jie is always so sweet and patient with us and the kids really like her food.  It's also cheap too.  We usually pay about 50 yuan for our whole family.  This is about $8 in American money, but we are trying to live on about 100 yuan per day on food.  Remember that we have about 1500 yuan per week for all of our expenses.  So, 50 yuan is pretty good, but not quite as outrageous as $8 sounds to people back home in the U.S.  Liu Jie photocopied her menu for us and Stacie and I have been gradually translating it over the last month.  We now understand about 3/4 of the menu and have learned so many new characters related to food.  In fact, Stacie and I went on a date to a new restaurant near our home just the other day.  We walked in, Stacie grabbed the menu and said "Oh, here are the characters for chicken and noodles.  We ordered and were very happy with what we got.  So, we are making progress. 

I had my first day of teaching on Monday.  In many ways, it was wonderful.  But, in many ways it was extremely frustrating.  The students were generally very warm and receptive.  They seemed to respond to my easy-going nature in the way that I hoped they would.  They answered my questions when I asked and were very respectful.  One of the activities I did on the first day was to have them fill out cards with their names in Chinese characters and Pinyin (the standard Romanized spelling for Chinese).  The roll sheets the university gave me are all Chinese characters and I simply can't read them.  So, they need to write their names in Pinyin (with the tone marks so I know how to pronounce them).  That way, I know the name is Luo Hui instead of just a character.  I also asked them on these cards to do a self assessment of how well they understand spoken English and how well they feel like they speak English.  Some didn't fill this part out, so I guess that answers my question (0 out of 10 on the scale). The last thing I asked them to write was anything they wanted me to know before the semester begins.  Some said things like, "I'm really looking forward to improving my English" or "I can tell this is going to be a fun class."  Others wrote, "I can't understand a word you are saying."  Sigh.  When the students would hand me their name cards, they would do it in a very traditional nonverbal style by bowing their heads slightly (Japanese do full bow, but Chinese just a slight nod) and then handing me their name cards with two hands (they do the same thing with business cards).  I discussed aspects of the syllabus and then did my own small assessment of their English.  I'm sure the structure of my class is probably different from what they are used to, but I have the freedom to do what I want and that level of autonomy is always dangerous with someone like me.  The only people I know who are probably crazier than me are my colleagues in the English department at SUU.

One aspect of the first day that really threw me off was that I had 55-60 PhD students in each of my three classes.  I was told that there would be 35 in each class.  I'm due to pick up 4 more classes of freshmen in 3 weeks and those classes are also supposed to be 35 students each.  With 7 total classes and potentially 50 kids in each class, this should get pretty interesting.  I have to be out of my mind trying to remember all of these kids' names.  But, I'm going to give it a shot.  Stacie had a great suggestion to have them all write their names on the chalkboard and then take their picture with them standing next to the name.  So, I have pictures of all my students already and am starting the process of trying to memorize the names.  One girl wrote me an email after class, though, and said that my decision to have them take their pictures made her feel like a prisoner and that I could have just as easily given them the assignment to take their own pictures and email them to me.  Ha.  I wasn't counting on my students who couldn't understand a word I was saying to get this done on their own.  I was taking matters into my own hands.  This same girl also told me that I once referred to their English names as "American" names.  Oops.  I guess my ethnocentric tendencies are starting to emerge already.  However, in my defense, some names strike me as more "English," such as Richard or George.  But, if you name yourself Steve, I feel like I have every right to call it an American name.  One kid's name was B-Z.  He said, "I like it because it sounds like I'm really "busy."  This very same girl also was upset that I said I would provide them the materials they needed and that they wouldn't need to buy a textbook.  She said that I didn't need to say that.  She said, "Teachers providing material to the students just goes without saying."  It's interesting that she used that expression.  I was thinking she could say a whole lot less to me in the future and we'll get along swimmingly.  Other things were difficult as well.  One is the fact that my classes were in a big lecture hall and many students sat in the back. Then they squinted at my powerpoint because that couldn't see it very well. There was also no air conditioning and I probably looked like that really sweaty American with the hairy arms. 

The bright spot of the day was right after the second class.  It ended at 11:40 a.m. and my next class didn't begin until 2:30 that afternoon.  A student came up to me and said: "It would be our great privilege if you would joint me and some of my friends for lunch today."  I told him I would be honored.  He smiled and I watched him walk back to his desk and then give his classmate a high five.  It was kind of an amusing moment that they were so excited that I accepted their invitation.  They took me to a restaurant and we all lined up around a big table.  There were 8 of us I think.  They pointed to a chair and suggested I sit down.  Once I sat, they all sat down around me.  The two kids that extended the invitation sat to my left and right.  I think this was a formality rather than a coincidence.  The dishes were all about 60 yuan each and they ordered about 12 dishes.  I generally eat for about 7-9 yuan per dish, so this was very nice.  We had a wonderful conversation and they were very kind people.  They offered to help me with anything I might need during the semester, particularly with questions about China or the university.  I offered to pay even though I didn't have nearly enough money in my wallet to cover it.  I knew they wouldn't let pay anyway, but I suppose it was a risk acting like a big shot when you don't have any money.

When the whole day was over, I was completely spent and my feet were throbbing.  I had spent 4 1/2 hours on my feet teaching, then I had an hour and half meeting with Martin Tang (Directing of International Office), and then spent 2 more hours at the English corner conversing with Chinese students wanting to practice their English.  For now, though, I only teach on this one day.  After October 9th, it will be long days on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, plus research and American Studies Center responsibilities.  It's starting to get very busy.

In terms of how Stacie and I are doing emotionally, we have our struggles.  I don't feel like we should just put the good moments in the blog and not describe the hard times.  We have been here almost a month and the honeymoon period is certainly over.  We both want to come home at times, but other times are so grateful to have this opportunity. Our language skills are still very poor after a month, but we are doing the best we can.  Stacie and I went to the mall the other day to try to find her a new shirt or some pants.  Shopping is always stressful because the workers try to talk to us and ask us questions about what we are looking for (makes sense, of course).  One time, Stacie was looking at a shirt and I told her "You're looking too long.  They are going to come over here and talk to you."  We had a good laugh over that.  It was like a covert mission to look at a shirt without attracting too much attention.  Most of the time, we just pass people on the street and they say things to us and we respond with simple expressions.

I did have an interesting experience the other day when Jay and Katie Sorensen came over to the apartment with their daughter Eva.  We had a nice visit and then the kids' friend Joey came over to teach them some Chinese.  Usually, Joey's mom Lily (Stacie's new friend) would come over, but she was busy and sent her in-laws with Joey. Well, these in-laws spoke zero English.  Her mother-in-law sat at our kitchen table across from Stacie and her father-in-law sat on the couch next to Jay.  Jay and I both looked at each other with an expression of "Uh oh, we are all SITTING down and will have to try to converse."  Jay started to say, "We better get going" and I basically sent him an evil glare that said, "You are gonna sit there for at least a few minutes and not leave me alone here."  So, Jay and I started to quickly use up whatever Chinese we knew.  Lily's parents were incredibly nice and we were able to communicate with them that we were happy to meet them and make basic introductions.  We always worry that we will come off as rude simply for not understanding, but a smile, a shrug, and a hello seem to go a long way.

Anyway,  it's such a roller coaster being here.  We leave for Zhangjiajie National Park tomorrow and will be gone for 3 solid days.  We will be completely off the grid, but don't worry about us.  We will update you on everything about this trip when we return. 

Stacie loves the trees and flowers in China.  She is always stopping to take a picture of plants so that she can go home and look them up on the internet.

This week is the mid-Autumn festival in China.  It's a really big deal and Lily and Amy both gave us big boxes of moon cakes to celebrate the festivities.  I think Stacie will write about the holiday in her blog, but she and the kids are reading about the holiday on the internet before we taste the cakes.

The cakes come individually boxed and the whole package is very ornate.

Here is one of the moon cakes.  Some of them were delicious and some were not very good.  It was kind of a variety pack, so it was luck of the draw.

Ready for football and basketball seasons even in China.  I may have to set my alarm and get up at 4 a.m. to watch the games.

Lucy's favorite thing so far.  It's not easy to make her happy, but this did the trick.

Her happiness was fleeting as she cried after it was over because she only got to go once and it was too short.

I haven't looked up what the characters mean yet, but it kind of scares me.  It's our neighbor's car. 

We bought this at the bakery.  It sort of tastes like a pizza, but not really. The boys liked it, but I thought it was just ok.

We found a giant book store down town.  It was at least the size of a very large Barnes and Noble here and they had many books with Chinese characters on the front, but English printed inside.

Some of the students who took me to lunch on Day 1 of class.  The dishes come out gradually, so I never really knew how many were coming.  It ended up being 12 I think. 

These guys from class invited me to play tennis at 7 a.m.  It's a little early for me, but I needed to burn off some stress.  The guy in the orange (American...er...English name is Alexander) was pretty good.  The others were not so good.

We practiced for about 50 minutes and then played for about 20.  I would rather have just played the whole time.  Americans are so competitive.

I'm pretty sure I'm not allowed to take this picture since it involves the Chinese military, but this is a training exercise for the freshmen class.  I'm glad they are doing this because it means more time off for me from teaching them.

We always have the kids buy their own stuff.  They have plenty of opportunities to use the Chinese they are learning.  This guy's shirt says "Uniquely in us, nature opens her eyes and sees that she exists."  Um...ok.

Good stuff.  This is true Chinese style right here.  Not rude at all.

We laughed that this bowl was bigger than Stacie's head.  And, they don't give you a spoon.  You eat with chopsticks and then polish it off the way she is doing it here.

When we bought these, we thought they were lifesavers the way they were packaged.  They were small discs of fruit leather.  Weird.

Class number two completing the grammar and pronunciation assessment I gave them.

The view from my classroom.  Wow!

This is an older picture, but I just found it and it's one of my favorite.  We just flew into China the day before and the kids couldn't keep their eyes open during the day.  This was at about 6 p.m. the second day.  Lucy is out cold in her mom's arms and Jeanie found a good spot to doze off too.


  1. Is Stacie getting email? And can you Facebook Skype ?

    1. Stacie doesn't check her email that regularly, but she is currently using stacie.7@aol.com. My skype name is steinphd and we would love to chat with you that way or through FB. I just friended you again because we haven't been friends on there since you had a joint account with Josh. She also says you guys might come to China. We would love to have you here and will help you with anything we can to make that happen. Just let us know.

  2. You never followed up with the translation of the bin laden car sticker??? I want to know what it means but can't translate because the characters are unreadable in the pic.
    The fact that all students are militarized and all made to recognize that America is their enemy make me hate the Chinese....we won't even get into the animal cruelty and hygiene issues...