Sunday, October 27, 2013

Xiangtan and Professor Stein's Big Beautiful Nose

For Lucy's birthday, we went shopping on the old walking street (formerly named Taiping Street).  It's very crowded and there are many different kinds of shops there for buying traditional Chinese goods.  The best thing about the street, though, is the fact that it's blocked off from cars.  They can't get in there even if they wanted to.  And trust me, they want to.  If there was a gap big enough for them to squeeze in, they would gladly drive on a sidewalk to make their way on to the street.  The only bad thing is that bicycles and motorcycles can still fit, so you still have to avoid getting hit by them.  Lucy wanted to go into these little shops and pick out a variety of items to be her birthday presents.  Some of these stores are so cheap that we could buy her 10 items and it would cost us the equivalent of like 10 dollars.  However, she feels like she is on this huge shopping spree.  Makes for a cheap birthday.   I can't remember exactly what she bought, but I do remember a yellow stuffed animal duck, a snow globe with a dog inside, a rubber snake, and a scarf.  She also bought a robotic dog at the Chinese Wal-Mart.

Once we got home, she opened more presents from her brothers and sisters.  They are so sweet and spent almost all of their allowance on her birthday.  Lucy was cracking us up when she was opening these presents.  Nicol gave her some popsicles that were orange and mango flavored.  Lucy took the orange ones and gave the mango ones back to him saying, "You can keep these. I don't like them"  Annie gave her some presents too and she told her "I like this one much better than this one."
We also had American birthday cake.  We bought a cake mix and some frosting at the Metro (see last blog), but had no way to cook it.  So, Stacie found a recipe online for making cake in a rice steamer.  It turned out incredible and it was so moist from being in the steamer.  We loved it!  We also found candles and a lighter, so it felt like a real American birthday.  The only Chinese touch was that Lucy wanted us to sing happy birthday in Chinese (which we do know the words now).  For dinner, we went to McDonalds.  We always, as a tradition, let the kids choose whatever they want for dinner on their birthdays.  I'm surprised they don't yell out "steak and lobster" more often.  They generally want fast food or french toast or something like that.  At McDonalds, we all ordered hamburgers or chicken nuggets.  I really don't like McDonalds much in America, but there is something comforting about it here in China.  The Chinese keep telling me, "I hate American food."  Then I say, "What American food have you had?"  They then proceed to tell me they've had McDonalds and KFC.  I try to explain that they shouldn't judge our entire food culture on these two restaurants, but they don't listen.  I guess I'll have to hit that Hasty Generalization fallacy (making generalizations from too few examples) a bit harder in my classes.  

For Nicol's birthday, we went back up Yuelu Mountain.  It's so close to our house and the kids absolutely love it.  It's quite a trek up to the top.  At full speed (i.e. without children), we can get up there in about 45 minutes.  With children, it takes about an hour and a half.  The kids had already been on the slide/chute that goes down the mountain, but they had been eyeballing the cable cars for some time now.  So, Nicol chose to have us hike to the top of the mountain and take the cable cars down.  I must admit, I would have preferred to take the cable car up and then walk down, but he was pretty motivated to do it his way.  The cable car ride was super relaxing and the cable cars moved very slowly.  I think it took us 30 or 40 minutes to get down the mountain on the cable car.  When we reached the bottom, a man took pictures of us and offered to sell them.  We gladly purchased them since it was such a good deal (10 yuan each).  You have to admire the entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese.  Anywhere there is an opportunity to make money, you'll see someone trying to use that avenue.  And, they never have a "this task is beneath me" attitude.  They do whatever is necessary to take care of their families.  After we got down from the mountain, I had to teach all afternoon, so I was disappointed not to be able to spend more time with Nicol on his birthday.  But, we gave him presents before I left and planned to have dinner together as a family when I was finished.  For his birthday, Annie gave him some underwear with an American flag on it (pictures to come later on Stacie's blog), Ezra and Jeanie gave him candy, and Lucy got him a Chinese Checkers set.  Stacie and I bought him a remote controlled helicopter (which has already been crashed and destroyed by the way) and a very nice wooden Chinese Chess set.  Chinese chess is much different from American Chess and the kids have really taken to it.  After I taught my classes, we decided to try this new restaurant called "Wow" that we had heard about from Jay Sorensen.  It's kind of like a bar and grill, but doesn't really get that whole bar feel until much later in the evening.  We went and ordered the most delicious pizzas and french fries.  We also ordered Nicol his own piece of cake.  It was chocolate and came with red and green maraschino cherries on top.  On the side was a cherry tomato carved into the shape of a bunny rabbit.  We thought it was kind of weird.

During that week, we also had the chance to visit our new friends we met through church.  Manolo is from Spain and his wife Jackie is from Ecuador.  They have two children.  Jackeline is 5 and Manolo (also called Manolito) is 3.  They wanted us to come down to Xiangtan on the bus to spend the weekend with them and to celebrate little Manolo's birthday.  We were a bit nervous to take the bus by ourselves out of town.  We had never been to the main bus station in Changsha and weren't sure about how to purchase our tickets.  But, we took a leap of faith and just did it.  When we got off the city bus near the bus station in Changsha, we were a little lost and someone pointed out where we should go to find the bus station.  Then, when we arrived, we didn't know where the ticket counter was.  Some nice young girls who spoke English helped us purchase our tickets, walked us over to the bus, showed us where to put our luggage, and waved goodbye.  It was so nice getting so much help.  We often feel helpless here because we can only communicate a little.  When it comes to technical things like communicating exactly which bus you want and which time, it's very hard for us.  We often need help.  We rode the bus for about an hour south of Changsha and arrived safe and sound at Xiangtan.  Manolo was not there when we arrived like he thought he would be and asked that we wait for him in front of the Pizza Hut.  So, we put our luggage down and just stood there waiting.  This drew a tremendous amount of attention.  Xiangtan is a bit smaller than Changsha and they had never seen us before.  I think the people near our apartment in Changsha are getting used to us, but the people in Xiangtan were immediately intrigued by this big American family.  I would say we had at least 30 people surrounding us on the street asking us questions.  They were friendly, but our language skills only get us so far.  We can tell them we are Americans, that these are indeed our 5 children, and that I teach English at Hunan Normal University.  That's about it.  Some of them tried to speak a little English to us, which was nice.  One guy (who got a little too close to my face) said to me: "Hey, friend, are you missing?"  I explained that I wasn't lost and in broken Chinese said "My friend is coming here."  He seemed to understand.

When Manolo arrived, he took us back to his apartment and we were greeted warmly by Jackie and their children.  It was so nice to have Lucy and Jeanie play with their children and we spent a lot of time just hanging out with them during the weekend, picking their brains about life in China, and eating Jackie's delicious cooking.  Because they are members of our church, it was nice to be able to communicate openly with them about religious topics because we are not allowed to discuss our religion at all to Chinese nationals while we are in China.  We kept thinking it must be hard for them to entertain all seven of us, but they were so kind and even suggested we come back every month to stay the weekend.  They even said they hoped that on one of the weeks where students are given Monday off that we might stay for 3 days instead of two.  They have been in China for 3 years now as Manolo is studying for his master's in Chinese philosophy.  He speaks Chinese fairly fluently and has adapted to life in China pretty well.  In addition to introducing us to the Metro, he taught me how to order things off of Chinese Amazon, what types of clothes should be purchased for the rough winters here, and how to purchase bus tickets.  I've got this guy on speed dial, so things are looking up.

In my classes, things are going well even though they are working me like a dog.  I've never taught so many students in my life, but they are sweet kids and I enjoy teaching them.  They certainly don't laugh at all my jokes, but then again, American students don't either.  However, Americans will give the courtesy laugh and the Chinese won't.  When you bomb here with your material, you really bomb!  I got sick the other day I think from sheer exhaustion and had to take one sick day.  I emailed the 70 students to tell them we wouldn't have class on this day and why.  I got 68 emails back saying they are so sad and they look forward to my class all week.  Some gave me tips for getting healthy more quickly and others just expressed that they hope I feel better soon.  From a few students, this would have seemed normal, but from nearly all of them it was a little overwhelming and humbling.  I had a funny experience in class the other day.  When one of my freshmen classes was over, a student came up to me, stood about 8 inches from my face, and just started to stare at me.  At first, I just said "hi."  She smiled and kept staring.  Then I said, "Do you have a question about class?"  She then said, "Your nose is so big and so beautiful.  Can I touch it?"  I said, "Um...ok."  She then squeezed my nose, said thank you, and walked away.  I told Stacie and she just laughed about it.  After all, this girl wasn't telling her anything she didn't already know.  I guess I do have a big nose, especially for around here.  Plus, big schnozes run in my family anyway.

At Manolo and Jackie's apartment in Xiangtan, I offered to take their trash out.  Manolo told me I could try to throw the bag from their 6th floor window to the trash can down below.  As a big basketball fan, I thought "What can be better than this?"

From the 6th floor window.  Manolo is down below with my iPad trying to capture my amazing shot.  Oh, that blue bucket closest to me is the trash can.

Ready, set....


Yikes, I must have gone to the Shaquille O'Neal school for shooting free throws.  My aim is a bit off.

Yet, I celebrate anyway.  "A" for effort, right?

This path leads up to the cableway.  The children hiked a long way to get to this spot.

Annie, Nicol, and Ezra rode in one cable car.  Stacie and Jeanie in another.  I got to ride with this beauty.  I kept this death grip on her the entire 30 minutes down.  Made me nervous.

It was quite green and beautiful.

At the Wow restaurant.

We got a nice care package from my colleague Jon Smith and his family.  It was so thoughtful and the kids are pretty excited about it.  If you have any doubts about their enthusiasm for this stuff, just check out Ezra's eyes.

This pizza was so good.  In China, I would have expected to have hot dogs on it or something, but this was magnificent.

Nicol's birthday cake.  We went out for ice cream too later, so he did get both.  He looks so handsome in this picture.  Growing up too fast.

Speaking of handsome...just kidding.  I could go anywhere in the world as long as this girl's with me.
Lucy's birthday dinner at McDonalds.

An evil Chinese version of a friendly mouse you might be familiar with back in the United States.

People, motorcycles, and cars all jockeying for position in this narrow alleyway. 

Sophia does such a good job teaching our family Chinese.

Here she is teaching the kids how to play Chinese chess.

One of those VERY rare times that the bus is practically empty.

This is before the crowd in Xiangtan got much bigger. 

This is my Spanish friend Manolo on the right.  We went to a small park for the birthday party.  The kids had a blast.

More party fun.  We filled some of the balloons up with little fun tasks that the kids had to perform, such as trying to break the balloon as quickly as possible using just your back side.

Little Manolo loves his birthday.  This impressive kid is only 3 years old and speaks English, Spanish, and Chinese. 

This is about as friendly as Lucy gets in China.

I have a 10 minute break in the middle of each hour and a half class and sometimes I just look out the window. I love that I can see this great view from my classroom and it's even better when the Chinese are outside dancing.

Is there any question why people are curious about us.  I think the cuteness factor is high in this picture. 

My friend Alexander teaching the older children how to play tennis.

The Chinese spend 90% of their time practicing and 10% playing.  My kids were like, "What's up with all these practice swings?  Let's get out there and play." 

We finally tried the restaurant near our apartment called Krave.  It was opened by an American and a Canadian.  I thought the food would only be good because we are hard up for American food, particularly a good sandwich.  But, I think the food was excellent by any standard.  Plus, that dark beverage is none other than classic A&W root beer.  Expensive, but worth it. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

We Found a Store that Will Change our Lives Here in China

I won't keep you in suspense. We found the market the locals call Mai De Long (the Metro). It's basically a giant Costco type store run by a German company and they have tons of foreign food brands. One of our new friends from the virtual branch (church for those who don't know what that is) rode the bus up from a city south of Changsha called Xiangtan to meet us at the front entrance.  He left his house at 7 and arrived at the Metro at 9 am this morning and Stacie and I left our house at 7:45 and spent an hour on the bus ourselves weaving through the streets of Changsha trying to find our bus stop.  Since we don't know Chinese, our friend Sophia said: "Just get on the 132 bus near your house.  Once you cross the river, count 8 stops and then get off."  Lucky for us, it got us to the correct bus stop, but it took a long time.  Once we got off the bus we got lost and had to ask for directions.  We are getting smarter about asking for directions and know that we should always ask someone under the age of 25.  They will sometimes speak at least a few words of English.  So, we asked this 20 something year old and she said, "I'll take you there." She was so nice and helpful.

When we got to the store, our friend Manolo, greeted us, helped us get a membership and asked the customer service desk to hold our luggage for us.  Yes, we were advised by Manolo to bring a huge suitcase with us to fill with all the stuff we would certainly buy.  He gave us other pointers about how to tell which brands were Chinese and which were imported because even the imported food has Chinese characters all over it.  Apparently, items that have a serial number starting with "6" were Chinese and we would avoid those.  It's not that they are bad.  It's just that we can get that anywhere so why ride the bus for an hour each way to buy Chinese stuff. We also learned how to tell if the price listed was per unit or per kilogram.  This was really helpful because we were keeping a running total of our purchases. We knew we could easily get carried away in a store like this one. So, we systematically went through the aisles hunting for stuff we could not find anywhere else.  It was so exciting!  Stacie and I had Annie watch the children while we went on this particular adventure and we really enjoyed our date to the Metro.  Let me list for you some of the foods that were very exciting to find: Hunt's marinara, wheat pasta, brown rice (surprisingly not common in China), canned tuna, Tyson's chicken drumsticks, salami (imported from Italy), German chocolate bars, cereal, German milk, wheat bread, Philadelphia cream cheese, Irish imported white cheddar, Swiss Miss hot chocolate, parmesan cheese, barbeque sauce, Italian seasonings, cinnamon, tortillas, tortilla chips, refried beans, granola bars, Betty Crocker cake mix, and much more that I can't remember off hand.  The ride home was pretty difficult because my suitcase weighed a ton.  I could barely get the thing on the bus it was so heavy.  After I managed to get up to the second floor of our apartment building, we opened up the suitcase for the kids and they absolutely freaked out.  I don't remember them being this excited even at Christmas time. It was pretty funny to hear all the oohs and ahhs as we pulled out each item.

This weekend, we will travel down to Xiangtan to visit Manolo, his wife Jackaline, and their two children.  It will be our first time getting on a bus by ourselves and heading out of the city entirely.  It's only about 30 miles south of Changsha, but to us it's an adventure each time we take the children somewhere we have not been before.  They (the Parreno family) will meet us at the bus station and take us to their apartment.  We will spend the night Saturday and come back late on Sunday night.  It will be nice to spend some time with them because they really are delightful people.  He is from Spain and she is from South America (I can't remember which country).  They have been in China for 3 years as Manolo studies for his master's in Chinese philosophy.  They had their second child here in China and she is due with their third this spring some time.  Manola said the hospital experience was a bit dicey, so they are definitely a brave couple.  We have lots of questions we want to ask them about life in China as we still struggle to adjust after only 2 months in Changsha.

In terms of work and school, it continues to be quite a challenge for me.  Many students still don't understand me even though I feel like I'm speaking at a rate of about 100 words per minute.  Believe me, it's dang slow.  The PhD students and the freshmen are all on about the same level and I feel exhausted at the end of long days in the classroom.  My students email me quite frequently with questions or just wanting to practice their written English.  I have 320 students total (at SUU I might have 100 on a busy semester).  So, I struggle to keep up with all these emails, but I'm doing my best.  Even though I find the teaching part a great challenge, I still think the students are delightful people. They really do want to learn and they feel deep shame when they can't perform.  It's part of their culture to want to answer questions correctly and so they hate to speak up in class for fear that they will feel embarrassed.  One student emailed me the other day and apologized profusely for the entire class doing poorly on a very simple listening exercise I had them do.  I assured her that everyone is progressing just fine and not to worry. 

To be quite honest, my teaching style just doesn't work that well over here.  They are used to having the teacher just lecture them and they take notes and memorize the content for an exam.  To me, this is a really boring way to teach AND to learn.  I try to engage them in the classroom and I'm usually pretty good at this back home, but often I push them hard to respond to questions or to discuss things and you can hear crickets chirping.  My freshmen are much more animated than the PhD students.  The graduate students are too serious at times and don't really see the value of discussing concepts in class.  I explain to them that the best way to learn English is to speak English.  Many of them are very good at writing and reading English, but not speaking it because exams don't require an oral component, so they don't prepare for that part.  For this reason, I use powerpoint presentations (which I detest) and speak very slowly from the slides.  I do my usual schtick in between where I share offhand stories and examples to illustrate things, but usually they don't get my humor or how the example applies to the concept.  Sometimes, I will see the light go on and they will respond to what I'm teaching, but I wish it would happen more often.  I know when I return to the United States, I will be a different kind of teacher.  I hope to be more adaptable and I have given a great deal of thought since arriving in China to how my teaching style might be adjusted in some ways.

Next week, Stacie, myself, Annie, Nicol, and Ezra will start a free Chinese class on campus that is being taught by students in the Foreign Studies college.  We are pretty excited about it.  Our friend, Sophia, is currently teaching us for an hour every Saturday and we really enjoy her lessons.  Now, we will add a class twice a week that runs for 15 weeks.  We had to go to the college and take a pre-test to determine our Chinese level and we did pretty poorly, but we knew a few things.  I'm sure we are all going to be in the beginner class.  That's probably good, though.  Annie was invited to attend a regular university level Chinese class.  The class ran every day for 3 and a half hours and she loved it.  We were told that she might be able to take the class for free, but then we found out the university would not negotiate on that issue and wanted 16,000 yuan per year ($2600) for just the one class.  We love our Annie and would love for her to have this opportunity, but we can't afford it.  So, she is now stuck taking the free class with us.  I think we will have a good time, though.  The children are generally doing very well.  Lucy was struggling for a while to adjust, but she is very happy now.  She runs around, plays, and sings songs out loud.  We are so happy that she is doing so well.  She still doesn't want the Chinese to look at her, talk to her, take her picture, or touch her hair, but otherwise she seems to like it here just fine.

Annie spotted this spider in the mini-market store we shop at around the corner from our apartment. Yikes!  The spiders here are huge too.
Stacie decided to buy these out of curiosity.  Gross looking on the outside, strange purple color inside, taste was...delicious.  Almost exactly like a sweet potato.

Two of my PhD students wanted to meet the family, so we all went to lunch.  These guys have paid for my lunch 4 times before this and now they pick up the tab on the entire meal here.  Nobody will let me pay even though I offer every time.

Underneath the green onions is a fish head.  Ezra and Nicol will pretty much try anything and they liked it.  Stacie and I liked it quite a bit too.  The meat on the cheek bone is especially delicious.  Annie tried the eyeball out of curiosity and said it was gross, but I know it doesn't really taste like anything (except fish perhaps).

Not again!!!  I hate using the squatters in China and avoid them when possible.  Now I know why.  This little (or should I say big) guy scurried out when I opened the door to the stall.  It's hard to tell scale from a picture, but he was about the size my hand (fingers excluded).

Here is Stacie so excited to be at the Metro store.  We both hugged each other and almost cried when we saw how many familiar foods they had.

This is our suitcase with all the Metro food in it.  The scale said it weighed 80 pounds.  You would think from my face that it weighed 180.  Maybe I need to hit the gym.  I've lost 12 pounds since arriving in China.  I know because I stepped on the scale and then converted from some weird thing called a kilogram.

Kids are so excited to get all the Metro food.  The front is the German milk in boxes.  Then, there is a cake mix box on the left.  Annie is eyeballing those Snickers.  You can see she has one hand already on them.

Walking up the street near our apartment.  I wanted to capture an image of how bold the Chinese are about parking on the sidewalk.  This guy with the white car would get towed away in the U.S.

So, my freshmen all had military training a couple of weeks ago, but the first day of class was last Wednesday.  I show up to the class I'm supposed to teach in for the first day and nobody is here except for one student.  That's his backpack in the back.  I asked him where everyone was and he said they were all sleeping, but that he would call over to the dorm to get them to class.  Sure enough, in about 15 minutes the room was full with 35 students.  Apparently, nobody told them it was the first day of school.  It puzzles me sometimes how disorganized yet studious the Chinese can be.  It is such an interesting contrast. 

This is what my email has been looking like lately.  It takes me forever to go through all these.  First, look at the times they are emailing me.  Then, look at how many messages say "This message has no content."  The reason they have no content is because the students will write the ENTIRE text of their email in the subject line.

I just like this picture because it shows what a sweet big brother Nicol is and how much Lucy loves him.  We may have challenges here in China, but at least we have each other.

Is this crazy American teacher making us do group work?  These are freshmen and they quite like the activity.  I introduced a news story about the prevalence of American pop culture in China and asks the students to discuss certain questions about it in groups.  Then, we rejoined as a whole class and continued the discussion.  I had to go around the room and remind them not to speak any Chinese.  It's a rule they love to break, but hey, this is an Oral English class.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Oysters, Snails, and Prawns..Oh My!

It has been pretty busy since the last blog post.  We came home from Zhangjiajie absolutely exhausted. Then, we ALL got sick except for Ezra who was already sick when we first got to Changsha.  The symptoms were congestion, sinus issues, and really bad coughs.  We were so miserable for about a week.  Now, we are starting to feel much better.  Those few days right after Zhangjiajie were especially tough on me because: 1) I'm the biggest baby in our entire family and I don't like to be sick; 2) I had to speak in church via conference call the morning after our return; and 3) Monday was my heaviest teaching day at 4 1/2 hours in the classroom.  It was hard to get through all this being sick as a dog.  We all just wanted to lay in bed and feel sorry for ourselves. But, we made it. Also, there is something interesting that happens psychologically when you are sick in a foreign country.  You wonder if you might just die from the common cold because you can't get the medicine you need at the pharmacy or a doctor who speaks English. 

Annie and Nicol were invited to go with the Tangs and their son, Joey, to the countryside to visit their parents (Joey's grandparents).  I referred to them in a previous blog post in which we all sat across from each other at our apartment not being able to communicate at all.  They are all very kind people.  Anyway, Annie and Nicol have traveled a few hours from Changsha to stay with them for a few days.  We feel really comfortable with the Tangs and know that they will be safe and have a wonderfully enriching experience.  I'm sure they are getting some good practice on their Chinese this week.  It will be like a little weekend immersion program for them. We've gotten a few text messages from Annie indicating that they are having a great time.  Apparently, they have been getting some of the best Chinese home cooking ever from Grandma Tang and even got to play laser tag.  Supposedly, laser tag in China involves dressing up in Chinese military fatigues and hunting each other in the forest with fake sniper rifles.  Annie and Nicol were a little scared because they were simply told they would be going to the forest to shoot at each other.  That's it! No additional information.  The most recent text message said Grandma Tang was washing Nicol's clothes in a mountain stream.  I can't wait to get more details on this interesting adventure.

We could all use a little more practice on our Mandarin.  We are trying so hard to study and learn this language, but it is so difficult.  We have learned many words and quite a few characters, but it just doesn't click sometimes.  I had a fun Skype call with my brother, Eric, yesterday and I told him some of my frustrations.  He said, "So, let me get this straight.  You've been in Changsha for 6 weeks and you are upset that you aren't fluent yet?"  Then, he rolled his eyes.  It kind of put it into perspective for me.  I need to work hard, but also be a little more patient with the process.  It's hard to be patient, though, when every day we have encounters that are frustrating.  We want to be just a little more "conversational."  I think it would really make our experience a bit more tolerable.

I found out today that my resident permit ends on June 30th.  It was my understanding that the semester was over on July 15th and that we would be flying home to the U.S. around July 20th.  I guess not.  I will be wrapping up my classes and flying home before the 30th of June.  So, we will see you all 3 or 4 weeks earlier than we thought.  I'm not going to lie.  We were pretty excited about this news.  We are in the second stage of culture shock right now.  The honeymoon stage is over.  Now, we are squarely in the hostility/depression stage where we are a little uncomfortable and homesick.  But, don't worry about us.  We have a great deal of confidence that we will move through this stage and get to a place where we have a better attitude about things.  I don't want to speak for Stacie, but for me, I have days where I can't stand to see another person stare at me, to watch someone spit really loudly on the sidewalk, or have people yelling at the top of their lungs over something so insignificant.  It's just a very loud and overstimulating environment sometimes and I go home with big headaches.  Of course, all these things I mention are minor compared to the goodness in the Chinese people.  But, some days the small trumps the large because of my fatigue and lack of patience.

This week, the Chinese are celebrating the Chinese National Holiday.  The holiday goes from October 1st to October 7th, but the really important day is October 1st, which commemorates the day in 1949 when the Central Chinese government passed a resolution at Tiananmen Square forming the People's Republic of China.  The schools are all closed and nobody seems to be working much this week.  The people who own businesses or sell things on the street are still very active since this is an opportune time to make money.  But, it's pretty crowded on the streets during this week of celebration.  Richard and Lily Tang invited us to go to a museum on the morning of October 1st to celebrate the national holiday.  We thought it would be a fun experience, so we agreed to go along with them and some other friends of their family.  It seems like every time they invite us somewhere, a mob of other Chinese families are there too so that their kids can practice their English and spend some time with our children.  I should mention that this isn't the only motive for inviting us.  They are very kind people and are trying to help us adjust and have an enriching cultural experience as well. 

So, we drove to a museum in downtown Changsha that holds mostly British art.  There were some really interesting paintings and sculptures in the museum and I enjoyed them for their aesthetic beauty.  However, the descriptions were mostly in Chinese and I couldn't really learn much about the art.  My tour guide was Richard and he was pretty quick about moving through the different rooms.  Stacie, on the other hand, was guided by Lily who took forever to go through the museum and explain things to Stacie.  I'm sure she learned much more than I did in the end.  Outside of the museum was an old house that was the headquarters for the emerging communist party of Hunan during the 1920's.  Mao Zedong used the house as a home for he, his first wife, and his mother-in-law and also as the political headquarters for the party.  When we walked in the house, a man pointed at the picture and said to Lily to ask me if I knew how the young picture of Mao was different from some of his other pictures from later in his life.  I responded that he didn't have his prominent mole in the younger pictures.  The man was apparently delighted that I had noticed this and told Lily to tell me how smart I was.  It's probably the first time in China I've felt anything but completely stupid.  You feel kind of like a baby again when you don't know a foreign language.  You need people to take care of you all the time and you can't speak more than a couple of words.  Anyway, understanding that Mao had a mole emerge later in his life was a great accomplishment for me I suppose.  Also, we found out the Chinese people view the mole as almost magical.  Because the mole became more prominent as Mao's power increased, people feel that having a mole in that spot on the chin is an indication of leadership potential.  After the museum, we went to a park called Martyrs park that was absolutely beautiful and absolutely huge.  It was so incredibly crowded, we could barely move around, but it was fun to be a part of the Chinese culture during one of their most important days of the year. 

With Annie and Nicol gone, we decided we would finally try to find the BIG barbecue place down by Hunan University (a neighboring university to Hunan Normal University).  My friend, Brenna, who was on exchange here last year with her husband, Chance, told me how to get there.  I invited the Sorensens to go with us and we hopped on the bus toward Hunan University.  Unfortunately, I didn't read Brenna's instructions as well as I thought I had and we took the wrong bus.  However, it dropped us off not too far from the barbecue place.  Once we arrived, we saw about a hundred tables and a couple of dozen different vendors selling all kinds of different food.  One lady ran up to us and asked us to sit at her table.  She showed us a menu and we quickly realized that you can't just sit anywhere.  You have to buy food from the places where you want to sit.  So, we said in Chinese that we just wanted to look around.  Once we found some vendors with some of the food we wanted to buy, we sat down at a nearby table.  The barbecue place near our apartment (from previous blog entries) is delicious, but more limited in the food choices.  Here, however, we ended up getting fish, river snails, oysters, eggplant, corn on the cob, fried rice, and chicken legs.  It was pretty delicious.  Ezra and Stacie were both good sports about trying the snails and oysters, but the girls would only eat the chicken and corn (once we washed all the spices off with some bottled water).  Lucy ate some fried rice, which she has never done before and seemed to like it.  But, later at home I asked her if she liked the fried rice and she said no.  So, we are back to square one.  I really thought we had added a new food to her very short list of things she will eat.   Ezra said he wants to try to prawns next.  I've had them before and they are delicious, but Americans are used to having the shrimp peeled for us and eating the tails.  In China, they give you the whole shebang, so you have to know what to do with it.  On the way home, we got lost because we had to wander around to find the barbecue in the first place.  We jumped on the bus to head back to HNU, but apparently the bus went the opposite direction.  We ended up in the middle of nowhere and had to take a taxi back to our apartment.  It was quite a fun adventure.

For those interested in my classroom experience, it has been pretty interesting.  It still remains very difficult to teach students who range in English proficiency from perfectly fluent to can't understand a word I'm saying.  But, the students are very kind, respectful, and hardworking.  I have taught the 3 PhD classes for 3 weeks now and just started two of the Freshmen classes last week.  There is quite a difference between the two groups as you can imagine.  The PhD students are a little older and more mature.  The freshmen are very young and energetic.  Surprisingly, there is absolutely no difference in the overall English skills between the two groups.  The PhD classes contain many students who are teachers at HNU.  I assume they are trying to finish their doctorates for more money and their fields of study differ greatly representing things like biochemistry and physical education.  But, the English skills are fairly weak at this point and it's a struggle for me to try to teach the very good speakers and the very poor students at the same time.  My PhD English classes have also sort of evolved since the first day now that I have a better sense of where they are and what they need to learn.  I would say my class right now is kind of a hybrid English, public speaking, critical thinking, and introduction to graduate studies class.  In my opinion, this is what they need the most to be effective professionals once they finish their degrees, so that's what I'm going to do.  I received a discouraging phone call from Amy at the International Office the other day.  She indicated that the students were trying to sell their books back since I wasn't using the book that was given to me.  I was told that I could use whatever materials I wanted and so that's what I have done.  The book they gave me to "take a look at" was mostly on resume writing and other useless topics for an ORAL English class.  Once the students started to sell their books back (or however they return them), it started to irritate the Graduate School and so they contacted Amy to see if she couldn't persuade me to use a portion of the book so that the students would be forced to buy it.  I asked Amy how much they wanted me to use.  She told me at least half of the book should be integrated.  I kindly explained to her that the book wasn't of use to me since it was mostly to teach English and she said that she would explain that to the Graduate School.  I haven't heard anything more about it, but I am concerned that maybe I should be more accommodating at times.  I really try to choose my battles carefully and this one was an important one to me, so I stood my ground.  I had already structured the class and had a pretty clear game plan for the semester.

One thing that I think would be shocking for the people back in America to discover is that the Chinese never really take a holiday.  We have been officially on holiday for a week now and the students have all been away.  Yet, the university requires that all the students (and consequently the professors) make up for every day missed during the holiday.  Imagine being told you had to teach class on Saturday or Sunday to make up for a Christmas or Thanksgiving break.  Our students would clearly be up in arms over this.  But, the Chinese students willingly make up for every missed day.  I can't believe their dedication sometimes.  The very first time I met two of my freshmen classes was on a Sunday.  Yes, the first day of class was a make-up day for a day they would miss the following week.  When I showed up to class 20 minutes early to get my projector and things set up, EVERY single student was there already.  I couldn't believe it!  They used that 20 minutes to snap photos of me as I was getting ready.  I'm the celebrity American teacher over here I suppose.  I really hope that I'm a good teacher because I'm likely the only foreign teacher they will ever have.  That's some pressure.  My favorite parts of teaching so far are how the students do a slight bow whenever they address me or they hand in their papers with two hands grasping it.  I also quite enjoy the funny emails I get from my students.  Here are a couple of samples:

Dear Dr.Kevin A. Stein,
    There is a Chinese traditional medcine, its name is called the Polygonum multiflorum Thunb in Latin. There is the website related with its function and how to use it by human beings. I hope this is helpful for you almost bald head.  And it is nice to accept your PPT. I should say thank you for your lecture notes and kind patience for our chinese Ph.D candidate student.
 Kind Regards, 
Liu Leihua(Andy)

Dear Dr Kevin,
          I am 何莎莎,my English name is Angela. Yesterday you taught us a lesson. And you showed your lovely family to us. I was moved by your warm family .I am very happy that you teach me. You are my first foreign teacher. And I really cherish the chance as you are my teacher .I will try my best to learn English .I know,my English is not good,but ,I would not give up ! I will speak English as often as possible to practise my speaking,and I will do more reading to improve my reading .In a word,I will be a good student ! Ha ha!
           By the way,your children are so cute! They are attractive and pretty. I hope I can visit your family one day! Best wishes to your family!
My Dear Teacher,
I've received your E-mail.Thanks for you all suggestions.I will be appreciate that if you can point my grammar or spelling mistakes in the future.I'm also glad to sing songs with you.Do you love Taylor Swift?I still remember that you love Chinese culture and wonder more about us.Our nation,geography,politics,army and so on.They are all different from such of "Uncle Sam".We will have more happy communication later.I think we will be good friends. Sincerely zhang can 
Stacie and I have been watching Burn Notice each night as our little guilty pleasure show.  Don't write to me and tell me that you are embarrassed that I'm watching this.  We know it's not going to win an Emmy, but we find it watchable and entertaining.  Unfortunately, it's very loud in our apartment with all the wood and tile floors, so we can't watch the show together unless we put both laptops side by side with headphones in each computer.  Then, I slowly pause and start until the two computers are synced up.  Then, we can enjoy it together, but we have to yell at each other when we want to discuss.  Kind of defeats the purpose doesn't it?

Ezra is almost ready to defeat some Chinese foes.

My feet were so sore one day that I decided to soak them in a hot water bath with some essential oils.  I tilted my head back to relax and when I finally looked up again, Lucy had stripped every bit of clothing off and jumped in.  Here is her very guilty looking face.

One of my favorite parts of clothes shopping is that the men do not use the dressing rooms to try on shirts.  I find it super entertaining that no matter what their build, they are perfectly comfortable just taking off their shirt and putting on the one in the store.  You can see a guy doing this in the background.  It's a bad shot because I wanted to be discreet and because I look a little gay doing it.

Ezra celebrated Annie and Nicol's departure to the countryside with a Big Mac.  First time we went to McDonald's while we are here.  I should add that it didn't taste like a funkier version.  It was spot on and even better actually because they used real cheddar instead of American cheese, which really isn't a cheese at all.

Ezra is getting a lesson on how to get the snail out of the shell using a toothpick.

Here we go. 

The children were excited about this little amusement park at Martyr's Park.  It looked to have some pretty fun rides, but they charge per ride and this could get a little pricey. 

Huh, I've heard of 3D before.

So crowded on the lake at Martyr's Park.  We decided to go out on the boat anyway and it was fun.

Lucy thought she could get a better view this way.  One time, she had the upper half of her body out the window and I had to reel her back in.

Pretty girl among the pretty flowers.

The following video is of Annie teaching the Chinese children about America's Independence Day.  Obviously, we also had a chance to learn from them about their National Holiday as well.

The entryway to Mao Zedong's house and headquarters in the Hunan Province.  The Chinese believe that Mao had these supernatural qualities and often compare him to George Washington.  I was offended at first, but then realized they are just trying to explain to me how much they revere him.  I kept silent, but I'll say it here.  He ain't George Washington!

Outside of the Mao headquarters.

This tree had some massive grapefruits.  They were at least as big as Nicol's head.

I'm told this is the biggest aluminum statue of Mao in Changsha.  You would be impressed if you knew just how many statues there are.

People everywhere stopped to watch Jeanie draw on the sidewalk with chalk.  We really should be charging for this stuff.

This is a picture of the candy that my brother, Eric had in his fridge when I Face Timed with him.  I randomly said, "I miss American food. Show me what's in your fridge."  This is what I saw.  It was so depressing.

My brother, Keith, likes to entertain his nieces and nephews on Skype. He kept getting mad because every time he would do something like this, he would hear the sound of my computer taking a screen shot.  At one point, he challenged me to try to get him stripping down.  I was successfully because I'm pretty quick on the draw, but I can't include it on a public blog.