Saturday, January 11, 2014

Holidays, ASC Grand Opening, and Crazy Lady Throwing Nuts at my Head

I really thought that just a few people in my family were reading my blog even though I am aware that I made it a public blog.  It turns out that 11,000 people from 10 different countries have looked at my blog at least once since I started it.  I'm a little surprised that anyone actually cares what we are doing over here apart from just being safe and sound.  The only reason it's a "public" blog is because it doesn't have anything too personal and I'm just too lazy to send everyone in my family and my closest friends a private invitation to join my blog.  So, it's out there for the world to see.  I sincerely apologize to everyone for not posting anything since November 22nd.  I want to be honest and disclose that things got a bit rough there for me for a short while.  With the heavy teaching load (7 classes and 320 students) along with trying to get the American Studies Center up and running, I really didn't have much time to write anything.   And, when I did have some time at the end of the day to write, I was simply too exhausted to do it.  The other factor was that I was trying to cope with my new surroundings, which has been a little difficult at times.  The culture shock has been more extensive at times than I had anticipated and it has sometimes led to a bit of mild depression.  But, I'm doing well now and thought it would be a good time to update everyone on what has been going on for the last month and a half. 

Maybe I've seen too many movies that mess with chronology (like Pulp Fiction and Memento), but I don't think I will go in order of events.  I want to begin with something that happened just today because nothing like this has happened to me in China since I arrived and this story absolutely must be told before I forget it down the road.  Stacie and I needed to go to the local market to buy some food for the next couple of days. We had Evelynn and Lucy with us since they wanted to spend some money they got from Grandma and Grandpa Stein for Christmas.  They had been saving up to buy new winter coats and they both bought ones they absolutely adore.  After we went coat shopping, we were wandering around the market looking for some new wool socks for Stacie and a winter hat for Nicolas (he left his other one at a restaurant too far from home to retrieve it).  As we were shopping, I noticed that this lady kept following us.  She walked right up to the children and looked directly at their faces from just a foot or two away.  Her behavior up to this point isn't too strange for the Chinese, but it became even more odd after she had been following us for about 10 minutes and seemed to go wherever we went within the store. This aisle, that aisle, left, right.  It didn't matter.  I told Stacie, "Hey, something is wrong with this lady," but Stacie is used to people giving us unwanted attention, so she didn't think anything of it.  But, I knew something was wrong.  I said, "Let's go checkout right now." 

So, we went to the checkout line and waited.  In China, the checkers are really slow, so we sat there for several minutes while this lady continued to hover over us.  She was eating these hazelnuts and she would give us dirty looks while throwing the nutshells into our basket.  Then, she started throwing the nutshells into Lucy and Evelynn's hair.  I was starting to feel VERY threatened, but still didn't want to make a big scene. So, I created a wall between myself and the children (who thankfully knew nothing of what was going on by the way).  Then, she went around me and started to bother Stacie.  She threw some nutshells at Stacie and Stacie yelled "Stop it" really loudly.  Stacie knows how to say "stop" in Chinese, but she was too mad to care.  Conversely, the crazy lady wasn't speaking at all.  Everything she was doing was just communicated nonverbally.  We continued to move through the line and try to ignore the lady without creating a confrontation, but she started pelting me in the back of my head with hazelnuts.  I'm thinking, "What the heck are you doing, lady?  Do you not know I could kill you with one American sized punch to the throat?" She continued to pester us. 

I looked over at some other Chinese people nearby and they were watching, but were obviously not sure what to do.  It kind of reminded me of this YouTube video I saw a while back where a guy got run over by a car in the streets of Beijing and a hundred people just stand there and watch curiously. Fortunately, a Chinese man about 30 years old in the other line saw what was going on and told the lady to stop what she was doing.  She did not stop.  The man looked at me again and pointed to his head to indicate that the lady was mentally ill.  By this point, that was already quite obvious.  He saw that she was not stopping her harassment of us and motioned to a security guard to help us.  When the crazy lady saw the situation was escalating, she exited the store, but the security guard knew who was causing the trouble and followed her out.  As we left the market and started walking home, we wondered if she would be waiting for us outside, but we never saw her again.  I hope we never do.  We generally feel safe in China and people are mostly kind to us.  It was a little jarring to have this experience and hopefully we don't have many more like it. 

Moving December, when all of my colleagues were posting on Facebook that they had turned in all of their grades and were ready to start the holiday season, I was so jealous.  I still had weeks to go at that point.  Now, it's January 11th and I know everyone at SUU has started the new semester and yet I don't have to teach until February 15th.  So, it's now my turn to to enjoy a much needed break.  And boy do I need it!  The last month of the fall semester at Hunan Normal University was especially brutal for me.  I had to grade 320 Oral English exams and figure out how to input the grades.  It was such tedious work trying to match their student ID numbers to their Pinyin names and then to the simplified Chinese characters.  My Chinese friend who is visiting SUU as a faculty this year offered me some software to help, but it was for a PC computer and wouldn't help with the organizing of the grades, which is where I was really struggling.  I made the mistake of taking attendance by having them sign a sheet each day, but later regretted this decision when I had to try to read the chicken scratches on the page.  You think it's hard to read English names written out poorly.  Try reading some handwritten Chinese characters. It took me about a week just to calculate my grades and submit them even after the exams were already graded.  Not fun at all!  But, I made it.  Once I turned in my grades, I was wondering how the Chinese students would respond to their grades. Would they whine as much as American students do?  Some of the Chinese students scored quite well on their exams, whereas others did poorly.  It was not unlike grading in America in this way.  The big difference in China, though, is that the students never complained about their final grades (at least not to me personally which is all I really care about).  They can complain all they want to each other as long as I don't have to hear about it. 

It was a little stressful trying to finish up my grades and to enjoy Christmas in China, but I think our family managed just fine.  We went to Xiangtan to visit the Parreno family (as we did with Thanksgiving as well).  It was so fun to spend the holidays with them.  They are such wonderful people and we have become quite close friends with them.  Stacie and I are convinced this is one of those friendships that will last a lifetime.  In fact, Manolo and Jackie are expecting their third child soon (due date is January 8th so we are already beyond that point).  Jackie was crazy enough to have their second child in China a couple of years ago and is even crazier to do it yet again.  Stacie and Annie will be going to Xiangtan the day after tomorrow to help with the Parreno children while Jackie is in the hospital.  So, it's just me and the other four kids in Changsha for a few days.  Anyway, for Christmas we opened presents from Santa on Christmas morning, watched Christmas movies every night, and cooked a turkey in a toaster oven.  It was sublime.  I was told by Manolo that the Chinese don't believe the turkey is actually a turkey.  They believe it's just a giant chicken that has been overfed.  When he tried to explain that it's, in fact, a totally different bird, they just laugh at him.  The most interesting thing we did at Christmas was a series of parties the Parrenos threw for different groups of Chinese children.  They organized three parties and invited 8 children to each party.  They decked their whole apartment in trees, lights, deer, snowmen, wreaths, and many other items.  It was quite lovely.  When the children arrived, they got to help decorate Christmas trees, frost cookies, sing Christmas songs, and get a visit from Santa (any guesses who got to play Santa?).  We did this hour and a half long party three times and it was really fun to see these children experience a real Christmas.  In China, Christmas is nothing more than a big shopping day.  You see pictures of Santa Claus in store windows, but the holiday doesn't mean anything at all to the Chinese.  After all, such a small percentage of people in China are Christians.  The majority religions are atheism, Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism.   We all had a great time celebrating this very special holiday in China. We missed our families a great deal at this time and were very homesick and felt blessed to have such a wonderful Christmas so far away from home.

When we returned home from Xiangtan, I finished my grading and began preparations for the grand opening of the American Studies Center at HNU.  My colleague Kurt Harris (Director of Global Engagement at SUU), myself, Jay Sorensen (SUU student), and Ethan Gali (also an SUU student) have worked very hard to organize activities for the fall semester, to get the center furnished and ready for daily operation, and to prepare for the grand opening.  In the fall alone, we taught the Chinese students how to play baseball and football, welcomed Dr. Sun from SUU to give a lecture on American composers, taught the students about Thanksgiving traditions and served them pie with whipped cream, decorated the American Studies Center for Christmas, visited the local Changsha orphanage with gifts and supplies, and decorated gingerbread cookies for Christmas.  We also had the new office painted, furnished, and set up with a computer, printer, and office supplies.  It was quite an extensive undertaking.  Finally, just a few days ago, a delegation came from SUU (with our Provost Brad Cook, Kurt Harris, and Earl Mulderink) to join with HNU administrators for a formal ribbon tying ceremony to commence the opening of the center.  As part of the opening, we all gave speeches about the center and it's purpose in bringing our two cultures together.  I was flattered to receive big cheers from the students when I was introduced as Dr. Stein (they always pronounce it "stain").  I guess all those A's I gave out paid off because now I'm the popular teacher I suppose.  Actually, they don't even know what an "A" is.  When I told the students in my classes about the American grading system, they were particularly critical about the fact that we skip the letter "E" when we go straight from "D" to "F."  They thought this made no sense at all.  Anyway, I got to speak to the audience about some of the activities we had been doing in the fall and to try to promote the upcoming spring activities.  I was impressed with the size of the crowd at the ceremony, but later found out the students were forced to attend by some of their teachers (not unlike America either).  I only found out that the students were coerced into coming when we had an open house to tour the center between the ribbon tying and Dr. Mulderink's guest lecture.  We intended the tour of the office to be kind of a break time between these two parts of the ceremony and we had cookies and soda prepared for the guests.  However, none of the students would leave their seats because they were worried about getting into trouble with their teachers.  So, we only served cookies to a few dignitaries and I ended up taking about 200 cookies home to Stacie and the kids.  They didn't seem to mind at all.

Well, this blog is already long enough.  At this point, I'm hoping that the rest from school will help me to cope even better with life in China.  The last 5 months have been challenging and rewarding at the same time.  The people here have a goodness about them that is hard to describe, but they think much differently than we do in America.  You just know you are in a different place when you see T-shirts that say things like "Freedom leads to violence" or "freedom is anarchy."  Or, if a student comes up to me and says, "Why do you believe that citizens should be able to say anything they want about their government?  Don't you think they should be stopped?"  These comments lead to lengthy discussions that are probably helpful in generating some understanding between us, but it reminds me we are not in Kansas anymore (for the record, I hate Kansas). 

We get invited to do many day outings with the Tang Family and one of our favorites was to drive outside of the main area of Changsha to a local farm where we got to pick carrots, turnips, cabbages, and some red hot peppers.  The kids had a blast!

We went home with so many vegetables.  We were stocked for a week or two I think.

Stacie made pumpkin chocolate chip cookies and gave them to this grandma and one of the young children.  Of course they had never had them before and they seemed to really enjoy them. 

Jeanie was having a great time playing with the Chinese children.  She kept jumping off of this ledge here once some of the boys showed her how it was done. 

This picture shows the Chinese students taking a xiuxi (rest) during the day in front of the school library.  Most Chinese take a rest between 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. every day.  They would rather start the day early and end it late than to have a short lunch.  Americans would rather have a 30 minute lunch and go home at 4:30 p.m. I think.
I'm glad I finally got a picture of this.  This is how the mail often works in China.  I know sometimes things get delivered directly (such as my packages to the International Building--don't worry family, they do arrive safely).  But, often these mail carriers just set up all the packages on the sidewalk and students have to come pick them up here.

Hanging out with the Parrenos.  Little Manolo (we call him Manolito) just loves Stacie!  Here, she is reading a book to him.  This is the kid that speaks three languages and he compartmentalizes people by language.  One time, I said something to him in Chinese and he said, "No," meaning I have to speak English.  His dad speaks English to him and his mom speaks Spanish to him.  Then, he learns Chinese from the locals.
Here we are at Thanksgiving.  We had pork tenderloin (made by Jackie), cole slaw (also Jackie), mashed potatoes (made by me), pumpkin pie (made by Stacie), and Cheesecake (made by Angela at the bottom right).
It was hard to say goodbye to Jay and Katie Sorensen, who left on December 5th.  We had a nice goodbye dinner for them before they left at a steakhouse. 
For months, we toted plastic forks to the restaurant for Lucy and Evelynn.  Guess what?  We don't need to do that anymore.  They've got it down!
Christmas morning in Xiangtan.
One of our favorite parts of China is the constant mistakes on t-shirts.  First, I'm not sure why New York and Massachusetts are on the same shirt.  Did they just randomly choose two states and, if so, why is New York more important than Massachusetts.  And second, Masachnatts????

It's so cold here that everyone has to wear Chinese style quilted pajamas when they are in their houses.  I had to order mine special online and they were 5XL.  The Chinese are so tiny here.  In America, I wear a 2XL.  When I try 2XL on in the Chinese stores, I can barely get it over one arm (or leg).  I know the sizes are different, but it hurts my self-esteem to have ballooned 3 whole sizes since coming to China.
This is what we did for our New Years Eve party.  Decorated gingerbread cookies and watched movies.  It's a Stein family tradition to watch movies on this night.  Side note--Stacie's mom sent us these packets of gingerbread cookies.  I don't want Kurt Harris thinking I stole some of the gingerbread he sent for an ASC activity.  Just thought I would clarify that.
All of the important SUU and HNU administrators and faculty who are in some way affiliated with the ASC.  Obviously, some worked harder than others.  You know how PR photo opportunities go, right?

I love that Brad Cook and Kurt Harris are important enough people for the Chinese to show them a good time.  Since I followed them around for three straight days, I got to join them on some of their itinerary activities, such as this delightful foot massage.
Provost Cook, Dr. Harris, Dr. Mulderink, and Dr. Stein.  Like 4 peas in a pod.  Here we are at the favorite restaurant of all foreign students, particularly SUU students, and the Stein family of course.  When I told our Chinese hosts that the provost wanted to see where his SUU students were eating, she thought I was crazy.  He toured the foreign student dorm and went to eat at Liu Jie's (Miss Liu's).  They said it was some of the best food they had on this trip, although the expression on the provost's face doesn't look to pleased.

Santa Claus is comin' to town!  Who else can say they played Santa for 24 Chinese kids!?  What a great memory I will always have of this very special kind of Christmas.