Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Halloween, Jing Gang, and Stein Family Visits College Class

My semi-weekly blogs turned into weekly blogs after a while.  Now, it seems they are coming once per month.  My apologies to my family and friends who have wondered what is happening with our family.  We are not dead...yet...and we were a thousand miles from the typhoon that hit the Philippines last week, so we are just fine (and so happy our niece who is in the Philippines is safe and sound too).  So much has happened that I don't know where to begin.  I told myself before I left for China that I wanted the blog to be less of a travelogue and more of a series of interesting observations about our life here.  So, I will revert to that formula and try hard not to go through every event from the last blog to now in chronological order.  But, it may be fun to share some experiences that have happened over the last few weeks.

We did have a chance to celebrate Halloween here in Changsha and we even got to do it a day before all you guys back in the U.S.  This is one of the perks of being across the world.  We still celebrate things when it hits that particular date here and we don't calculate the time difference to see when it's Halloween in America.  After all, the world doesn't always revolve around the U.S. and it's hard to argue it isn't REALLY Halloween until it's October 31st in America.  I remember back in 2000 when London was doing its millenial new year celebration 9 hours before the U.S.  People in America were saying the Brits were stealing our thunder because the new year should be when the Time Square ball drops and not the fireworks over the Thames.  Another advantage of being on China time is that I often forget my friends' and family members' birthdays, but when I remember the next day, I'm still on time.  It's wonderful.  So, for Halloween we tried to keep as many traditions alive as we could.  The children still dressed up in costumes and we carved pumpkins.  Well, they weren't actually pumpkins.  We couldn't find any pumpkins so we carved watermelons instead.  You can see from the pictures below just how well this worked (hint: not well at all).  The benefit of using watermelons is that you can actually eat them as you are hollowing them out for your jack o lanterns.  In terms of costumes, Annie was a weird witch I think, Nicol was a Rubix cube, Ezra was the bearded man, Jeanie was a tiger, and Lucy was a giraffe. I was a stressed out professor (no costume required).  We decorated our apartment the best we could with some wonderful items we received from Grandma Coston.  The last thing we did to celebrate was to attend a Halloween party organized by Stacie's 7 year old Chinese class.  These kids were so adorable and Annie was pretty much the M.C. of the entire event.  She opened with a powerpoint presentation on the origins and traditions of Halloween at the request of Stacie's friend Lily.  The Chinese children were all dressed up in their little costumes and were really chomping at the bit to get on with the trick or treating, the bobbing for apples, the costume judging event, and the lantern decorating.  Jay Sorensen had brought his little girl Eva to the party as well and we were sort of laughing at the fact that the Chinese really know how to take the fun out of these activities sometimes.  Don't get me wrong.  They planned some super fun activities for the children to do....eventually, but they made them sit there for 45 minutes listening to a powerpoint before they could do any of the things they really wanted to do.  Annie was an amazing presenter and I was really proud of her.  She had to shout over a decibel level that would have rivaled the Utah Jazz' Energy Solutions arena on any year (except for this year of course).  But, the kids clearly wanted to get on with the show.  Jay and I judged the costume contest and pretty much awarded the prizes to the children who looked like they would cry if they did not win.  There was no American favoritism going on.  We thought that this would have looked bad, although Nicol's rubix cube was pretty creative.  I demonstrated how to bob for apples (which the Chinese kept calling "biting for apples") and got pretty wet in the process.  It didn't dawn on me until I had dunked my head that the water probably wasn't clean, but it did not hurt me in the end.  For the trick or treating part, we went outside of the building on campus where we held the other activities and all the parents simply found a spot in the parking lot and passed out candy as each kid ran around in circles hitting every candy station about 20 times.  It was great fun to see these little Chinese running around and screaming "trick or treat" at the top of their lungs.  It's a great holiday and candy is candy no matter what country you come from, right?

The following week, we were invited to go with the international students to visit a small city on the outskirts of Changsha called Jing Gang.  Apparently, it was where the main government operated in the Hunan Province during the Qing dynasty and it was interesting to see this little harbor city.  At once it was the biggest city in the province and all the boats used to come in here to trade.  But, now it's dead as only about a thousand villagers live in this town.  There was a really interesting feel to the town, but the number of vendors there trying to sell junky souvenirs really detracted from the "old China" feeling that should have been there.  We enjoyed traveling with the international students and were grateful to Richard Tang (Lily's husband who works for the international office) for arranging for us to tag along.  I was offered a chance to go to this spot with the foreign faculty a few weeks before but declined when they said I could not go with my family.  They had originally told me it was fine, but then they changed their minds.  This happens often, it seems, as adminstrators seem to forget just how big a family of seven in China can be.  I have posted a few pictures of this town with captions.  We were really glad we went although there wasn't much to do there except to buy dried fish and very breakable toys.  

Just a few days ago, I brought Stacie and the children to my four freshmen classes.  I had told my students early in the semester that I would bring my family sometime since Stacie had told me she was willing to do that.  So, the students were asking me every week when they were coming.  I guess I waited for too long (only about 2 1/2 months into the semester) because my students had worked themselves into a frenzy.  Stacie and the children were a little late to the first of four classes and so the students were practically running around the room and pounding on the desks waiting for this American family to arrive.  If you think it sounds a lot like an elementary school classroom, you wouldn't be far off.  I have never had so much difficulty controlling my students in my life.  What's really funny is that collectively, they act absolutely insane.  But, when I silence them and begin class, it calms down quite a bit.  And then, if I ask one of them a question individually, you get crickets churping.  It kind of reminds me of how the Borg operate in Star Trek (ugh, did I just make a Star Trek reference).  They all feel perfectly safe when they are part of the collective group, but you isolate them with some indivdiual attention (at least in a public setting) and they act as though you are sticking a knife right in their belly.  It's a really interestin dynamic and I'm really glad I've had the opportunity to see it.  I will probably walk into a classroom now anywhere in the world and think to myself, "If I can make a Chinese student talk in class, I can accomplish anything!"  

So anyway, back to the visit.  Stacie and the kids walked into the classroom and all the students came out from behind their desks and started to try to grab Lucy and Jeanie and to take pictures of them from less than a few inches away.  It was a little unnerving to Jeanie and absolutely terrifying to Lucy.  She buried her head in Stacie's shoulder and would not look at any of the students. This whole fiasco was entirely my fault as I had forgotten to set the ground rules before we began.  I just assumed that the family would walk in, I would introduce them, and then we would have a little Q&A if I could get them to ask their questions.  I finally told them to get back in their seats and we would continue only after they calmed down.  They complied with my wishes, but you could still see this high level of enthusiasm on their faces.  I got some video of it that posted below because I knew it would be hard to believe unless you saw it for yourselves.  The video shows Nicolas simply saying he plays the piano and you could see them jump up and down and cheer for him.  Then, Jeanie introduces herself and says "Da jia hao," which means "Hi, everyone!"  They just erupt.  I think you'll enjoy watching this video.  After each of the kids had a chance to talk and we answered a few questions about life in China, the things we like and don't like, and about how we home school our children, I broke the class into sections and let each of my children engage a different group for a few minutes.  This was a mistake since the class environment again reverted to utter chaos.  After that first class, we were all about ready to give up and not go to the other classes.  But, I assured Stacie I had misjudged the way they would react and I would definitely get a handle on things for the last three classes.

During class #2, I told Stacie and the kids to wait outside while I put the fear of God into them and told them they needed to stay in their seats and that they could take pictures from their seats.  I told them they would have an opportunity to take pictures with the family at the very end of class, but not before.  I knew that this stringent warning would put a damper on their desire to ask questions in class (which was already at zero), but I wanted Stacie and the children to feel comfortable when talking with the class.  So, I balanced out the strict warning with another warning that the family would have to leave if the students didn't have any questions.  So, I created some anxiety.  On the one hand, they think that Professor Stein will get mad if I jump out of my chair and try to hug his children.  On the other hand, if I don't assert myself a little, the family may leave.  Luckily, they decided to engage my family with questions and they were very good questions.  All four classes ended up being very interested in how we home school and what that involves.  They don't have ANY home schooling in China because children cannot legally go to college unless they go to public school.  And with the ultra-competitive environment here for education and eventually securing high paying jobs, there is no way any parent wants to handicap their children in this regard.  We explain to them that home school children are as educated as public school kids (I would say more, but I know opinion varies on that) and that they can go to college just like any other kids.  We talk to them about the things the children are learning, such as Chinese, reading, writing, music, etc and they seem dismissive of some of the things (like music).  I don't think the Chinese think much of music in terms of creating opportunities for success in life.  But, we believe music changes the way you process information and the way you see the world.  This is valuable to us even if the Chinese do not view it this way.

In terms of my teaching in general, I'm starting to get used to the students and the way they think, which is much different than the way American students think.  For one, they believe that it's the teacher's job to spoon feed them the content they need to know.  Skills that we try to teach our students in America such as critical thinking, problem solving, and leadership are absolutely meaningless here.  I asked how many of my PhD students had ever given an oral presentation in a classroom before.  NONE of them ever had.  To me, that's nuts.  If surviving in the real world had anything to do with memorizing book content, American students would be in real trouble and the Chinese would take over the world as the new global superpower because American students can't remember a fourth of the content taught in our classrooms.  I think the reason our students succeed is a certain level of adaptability that comes from practicing some of those skills I mentioned above.

My work with the American Studies Center is moving forward.  The Foreign Studies College, where our center will be housed, is currently painting the room and refinishing and/or purchasing the furniture.  A delegation from SUU will be arriving in early January for the grand opening, but in the mean time, we recently had an activity teaching HNU students how to play baseball.  We have planned upcoming activities for Thanksgiving and Christmas as well.  The process has been a little slow because all of the decisions related to the center are made by committee, which creates a sense of group cohesion, but can sometimes come at a snail's pace.

Let me finish this blog with just a quick summary of how we are doing generally.  We are starting to get a handle on how things work here.  But, some of the following are still a bit of an adjustment:

1. People pushing and shoving in lines.  They really will try to get in front of you if they can.
2. Spitting in the street.  
3. The toilets
4. Nearly getting run over every time we walk the streets
5. People taking anywhere from 3 days to a week to respond to emails.
6. Crawling internet
7. Sleeping on a wood slat with about a half inch of padding is seriously affecting our sleep over the long term.  We used to wake up every morning sore, but now we don't.  However, I think over weeks or months it does affect the sleep quality.
8. Having to take the bus everywhere.

Things we will miss when we leave China:

1. Tremendous kindness of the people
2. Baozi (steamed buns with meat)
3. Not having to drive ourselves everywhere.
4. Chinese chess
5. Lush vegetation
6. Virtual church branch (only 1 or 2 hours of meetings depending on which classes are taught that week).
7. Singing and dancing in the streets (Americans are too image conscious).
8. 10 yuan haircuts ($1.64).  Often they come with a shampoo and a head massage.  You can't beat that!

The Chinese is coming very slowly and we often want to come home tomorrow.  Other times, we can't believe that we have the opportunity to be in China and are so grateful for all the people we've met and the things we have seen so far.  In many ways, our life is much harder than we thought it would be.  In other ways, it is...nope I think it's mostly a great deal harder than we thought it was going to be.  We are very aware of the stages of acculturation (adapting to a new culture).  We've passed beyond the honeymoon stage and are now squarely in the negotiation stage, where individuals feel a certain amount of anxiety about the stark differences between the home country and the new country.  Next up is the adjustment stage, where we will hopefully start to feel more comfortable in our new surroundings.  The last stage is the "mastery" stage, which we are not sure we will ever reach.  If we do, it will likely be on June 20th of 2014 and we fly out on June 25th.

Here is a funny video of the family visit to my class:


Zhū jiǎo (pig's feet).  Actually very flavorful, but a little fat as you might expect and very hard to pick up with chopsticks because they are heavy.

We will miss these baozi (steamed meat buns) when we get home.  We eat these pretty often.

After those metal rolling doors on the right is the entrance to our apartment complex.  Our street has been under construction for a couple of months now and the cars have decided that since the street is blocked, they should just drive on the sidewalk.

It's very common to see Chinese people walk down the street in their pajamas.  At first we thought it was weird, but then realized we wear our pajamas to the stores and to school too.  Our pajamas just look different from their pajamas, but if you think we don't look pretty sloppy in America, you're fooling yourself. 

Another guy rockin' the jammies and more cars and scooters on the sidewalk.

Our pumpkin...er...watermelon carving party.  I like this picture because the Sorensen's girl Eva looks so cute as a panda.

One of the major difficulties of carving watermelons instead of pumpkins.  They all cracked!  But, it was much more delicious to eat the watermelon as you carved than the raw insides of a pumpkin.

We did what we could with what we could find at the metro.  We've got masks, towels, and some kind of apron.

Nicol is a Rubix cube, Ezra is a bearded man, and nobody knows what Annie was but she looks cute.

You thought your Halloween was scary.  Jay and I found these mannequin heads on the sidewalk as we walked toward campus.

Great costume!

I love the gender neutral nature of Chinese costumes.  Who says a girl can't be Superman for Halloween.

Jay and I judged the Halloween contest and pretty much awarded the prizes to the kids that looked like they wanted it the most.

Ok, let's be completely honest here.  Our candy is WAY better than their candy.

One swing of Jay's makeshift baseball bat (PVC pipe) and it was out of commission.

Everything needed for a good game of baseball in China.  Chinese man (check), American (check), a tree branch for a bat (check). 

The way these girls swung the bat, I thought they were naturals. Until they headed around the bases with the bat still in hand.

This old guy was awesome. He was playing basketball across the way from our game and he kept yelling at cars that would park near his court.  At one point, a few of our baseballs came near him and he started to walk over to us.  I thought we were in trouble.  But, he simply said that our bat was no good and that if we came back tomorrow at the same time, he would get us a real bat.  Very nice man.  It was his 84th birthday and he was out there playing ball. 

Our favorite section of the grocery store.  Or perhaps I should say the most interesting.  The smell is not pleasant.

Two beauties from worlds apart sitting together on a nice fall day. 

Changsha doesn't have parks like we have in the U.S.  They are beautiful and well cared for, but they don't have any of the things we usually see in America for kids to play on, such as swings, slides, etc.  These toys here are for old people to exercise, but the kids will take what they can get. 

I had my PhD students sign up for days to deliver their speeches.  I was worried they would push and shove each other and so I gave them a little lesson on the way people form single file lines in a civilized society.  Probably the only time I'll see something like this while I'm in China. 

The harbor at Jing Gang.  Apparently this city used to be the seat of government during the Qing dynasty.  Now, it's pretty much dead, with only a thousand villagers living here. 

The dried fish for sale in Jing Gang.

The kids found cotton candy at Jing Gang.  I so want that guy's outfit in the background.

Another good view of the harbor. 

At first, we thought the soldiers on the fort were real, but they were just cutouts.

Hey, where's Lucy?  Oh yeah, she hates China, Chinese people, and taking pictures.

Stacie was home with Evelynn who was sick, so we went to dinner without her.  There is always a noticeable drop off in manners whenever mom is not around. 

On our side of the Xiangjiang river that separates Changsha, there are three universities: Hunan Normal University (my school), Hunan University, and Central South University.  This picture was taken at Central South University, which was very distinctive to us with so many bicycles everywhere.  Someone told us that most of these bikes are abandoned and they just sit around rusting. 

Because of the limited number of boys in our branch, we received special permission for Nicol at age 12 to be my home teaching companion.  This is our second visit and it was a fun bus ride to the campus of Central South University. 

So many bikes and one handsome young man.

Our new friend Wouldbe (as in "What Wouldbe a English name to choose?" playing Chinese chess with the children.  He beat them pretty handily even though they are getting much better every time they play.  We'll have to show Uncle Keith and Uncle Garrett (the chess masters of our family) how to play this game when we get home.

Evelynn lost her very first tooth in China.  She was ecstatic!