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.

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