In the dark

Last week I taught without electricity. Not that one needs to 'plug-in' a piece of chalk or chalkboard, but there's something surreal about teaching students in overcast half-light that only seeps through the windows.

I learned one important thing which will always help me in the future: Yellow chalk is the brightest.

I also learned that planning should be done including a contingent plan for not having electricity (we have seen several power-outages so far). What exactly can one do to learn English without using your eyes or the use of technology? This question has a riddle-like quality, and if you have ideas I am all ears.

The students were ready to learn. There was no talk of rescheduling. As a sign of my own understanding, I never thought of that as an option (though I would if I were ill).

On the upside, it IS easier to see the glow of a cell phone in the dark.


The Chinese Classroom

Lately my life has been the same routine each week. My schedule is so ingrained that I feel everyone else must know what I’m doing day-by-day too. After all, it’s the same thing each week. This kind of thinking has led me away from posting lately because I have a sense that you already know what’s going on. This is ridiculous, of course, but I often overlook things to write about because of this exact concept.

I have never talked about my students or the specifics of the Chinese classroom. I had been introduced (on a surface level) to the Chinese classroom by things I read in the United States. Then, during our training, we talked about them. Current volunteers came and shared their experiences with the new volunteers. After that we taught for 3 weeks in a model school, where we began to understand the students and the “feel” of the Chinese classroom in general. Finally, we came to our sites and taught on our own.

This process has slowly given me a better understanding of the classroom. There was no immediate rush of information. Nothing anyone told us completely changed our view of the Chinese classroom. But we learned and slowly began to understand and see differences. I guess what I’m trying to say is that whatever I write about the Chinese classroom will not give you a completely accurate picture. I can only share my own experiences.

Chinese students are incredibly attentive. If I wanted to speak for 2 hours about mud, I could probably do so and the students would follow the entire presentation. In their classes, when Chinese teachers call upon students, the students stand up and respond. This bothers me so much that I asked them to stop doing so in my classes. The students typically are not allowed to eat food in their classes. Walking down a hallway while classes are in session allows you to hear one of three things: The teachers lecturing, the students responding or chanting in unison, or a single student responding to a direct question from the teacher. The methods are universally focused upon memorization and rote learning. The classes are teacher-centered and there is little or no group work done during classes. The textbook is the law, even if it is filled with errors. Students can memorize an alarming amount of information. This seems to be built into the very idea of memorizing characters as individual pictures. Rather than learning the phonetic rules and patterns, there seems to be more of a need for young children to memorize stroke order and vocabulary.

This is the classroom I walked into my first day of teaching and, despite my knowledge of these particular things, I still run into problems. My teaching style began as a combination of lecture, activities and games. Even this was too much for the students (they are used to mostly lecture). The day I announced meaningful role-plays the students were very confused. One student gave me a letter because she was concerned about my health (no healthy teacher would give such a crazy assignment!). Often my questions are met with passive silence. “Do you have any questions,” is challenged with their own thoughts, “Why would we ask questions if that shows you didn’t explain it well enough – we don’t want to embarrass you!” or else my “Who knows the answer?” is received with the same quiet thoughts: “If I show I know the answer my friends will think I’m bragging.”

But things are changing. The students are already beginning to become used to my teaching style. They are speaking more often and they are more willing to take risks. My American accent is becoming more familiar to them. And they’re learning to speak, understand, read and write in English.

I throw chalk and poorly write Chinese Characters on the board. I dance and pat them on the back and try to wake them up to these new ways of thinking and speaking. I trip over podiums and I use poorly pronounced Chinese to help them understand instructions. It is only the beginning. We have a long way to go.


Already an expert


Secondary Project

One of the expectations of Peace Corps service is to find ways to improve the community in some way. In China, our primary responsibility is to teach. My site-mate and I have been thinking about how to best fulfill the needs of our community.

Recently the Peace Corps Medical Doctor came to visit us in Anshun. In addition to showing us around our hospital, she also suggested several secondary projects: Buying a goat and selling its milk to make money for the school, starting an apiary and selling the organic, non-pasteurized honey to make money for the school, or opening a cafe. Raising the goat was immediately shot-down by an official at the school. All three options require money, which we don't have. We have been considering applying for a small business grant and we are combing the internet. If you have any ideas about organizations which may give to cover startup costs, we would love to hear about them.

Opening a cafe would have several benefits, including bringing an awareness of American (or western) culture to China, giving students a paid-wage part-time job, and helping the school purchase computers with the profits. The eventual goal would be to hand the business over to the students so that it becomes a sustainable, constant source of income for the school. We are still in the dreaming phase of this project, and you can help us with suggestions to make it work. Just click the 'comment' link below the post. Cheers!


T comma IBE period period T (and guanxi)

T comma IBE period period T seems to be winning the hearts of the masses (the six people who have thus far submitted votes in the poll). A note about how to accomplish this task is in order, because it's not exactly like traveling to California (or to Thailand, Vietnam, etc. for that matter). In fact, I cannot even write the word as it is.

There are new restrictions on travel to this place, and I am rather unfamiliar with the mountains of paperwork required to visit. This is where guanxi comes in.

I could go into a brief history of the etymology of the word guanxi, but I'd rather just say, "I'll scratch your back, you scratch mine" or, as in zoology, "you remove the parasites from my body, I'll remove them from yours." In any case, the difference between the 'guanxi' in America and China is the overt quality it has here. We all know about the idea of guanxi, and we have all used guanxi throughout our lives, but we don't really talk about it. It's generally the principal of reciprocity. We feel an obligation to repay any favors people do for us. In China there seems to be more expectation for this to be carried out. For example, an expensive gift is generally a sign that the gift-giver wants a favor in the future.

Maintaining relationships and "building guanxi" is key to increasing one's success in China. People understand this in the business world, but generally, foreign teachers do not realize its full potential. This all may seem a little superficial, I'm sure, but I prefer to consider it a unique feature of this culture.

Recently I went to Anshun's customs and passport office to have my Visa renewed for 1 year. During this trip I caught a glimpse of guanxi in action. As we were leaving, one of our school officials spoke with a passport official and arranged for them to see one of our classes. In fact, I had 8 passport officials in my class last Friday. During our class break I helped them with basic phrases such as, "May I see your passport please?" and "Have you come to China for business or travel?" This project, still young, may turn into a language-learning CD of more useful English phrases for passport officials. After class I found myself at a banquet hosted by the passport officials. One of our school staff members told me that I could talk to these people if I ever wanted to travel anywhere. Hmmm... I thought.

Now I need to make a language-learning CD.




A treatise on why Chinese food is so delicious



Finally I'm teaching. This is great. Really great.

I always forget how much teaching takes out of you and the first week is crushing me. My voice is almost gone.

But it is interesting and the students are AMAZING. I haven't confiscated a single cell phone...yet.

I found out that I have one 'class' of students for about 10 hours each week. This is very unusual (I have them for listening, phonetics and oral english), but I'm looking forward to knowing them well.

I took these photos with my computer, so I'm sorry if they are not clear!





Although this is rather presumptuous of me, I am going to include it anyway! People have asked what kinds of things would be nice to have and the big 3, due to scarcity and/or expense, are as follows:

Peanut butter

(oh yeah, and American Candy)
(and American Coins)

The basic shipping rates (I know it's expensive!)

1 lbs. $10
2 lbs. $16
3 lbs. $22

Anything over 4 lbs. goes priority at $37+



Liupanshui, Guiyang, Favorite restaurant

Last weekend I went to Liupanshui to visit another volunteer. On the way back, the train was so crowded that I had to stand for the 2.5 hour trip. I read a book, listened to music, and watched kung fu on the television (just like airplane televisions). About 30 minutes from my destination, Anshun, I made small talk with some of the people around me. They all started speaking to me in Chinese and they were very excited. Suddenly, I had 3 offers for seats and people were asking me where I came from, what I was doing in China, and how I like it here. Incredible. People are so friendly.

I am going to Guiyang this weekend to see all of the Guiyang volunteers (there are 9 in and around Guiyang). I have heard rumors that they have cheese and coffee.

My favorite restaurant is near the college. I have been going there a few times each week since I got here. The owners are a man and his wife. I keep going to this restaurant because the owners are so nice to me. They speak a little mandarin and they always try to communicate with me. Often I will get extra dishes for no charge, or they will charge me less than the menu price. A few weeks ago they gave me a jar to make pickled green beans. When I returned from Liupanshui at 10 p.m. they stopped me, pulled me inside the restaurant, and gave me fruit. So we ate and talked about my trip.

The owner is on the left with 2 customers (I told them to make sure they sat from left to right).

This is the wife and her daughter.



Firstly let me apologize about the recent lack of posting; my computer has been acting a little strangely for the past week (last night I came home and it was watching TV with the telephone). I'm not sure what's wrong but it has caused the follwing problems: All of my pictures have been erased, all of my music has been erased, I cannot download anything, and the list goes on. I have wanted to include pictures for some time, but the software is not recognizing the files. This being said, I wanted to share some of my thinking about Staring in China. Ken Harvey recently brought this up during a conversation and it has been a topic of concern lately. I will even give it a nice little title...


One of the most interesting aspects of the Chinese Culture is the relentless staring. Each volunteer (or anyone who goes to China for an extended period) goes through stages related to staring. For me, this has progressed very typically. Before we got to our sites we were told about staring and people saying "hello." This may not seem very strange, but it becomes so when it is incessant. And I notice it more when I'm in a bad mood.

I can classify people who say hello in many ways, but generally there are a few:

Some people will say hello in a friendly manner (especially children).

Some (generally older men) will say hello as soon as they see me just because they see I am a foreigner.

Others will be walking toward me on the sidewalk and whisper something to their friend, who will then look at me. They will stare at me and continue to talk until they pass me. After walking past me one of them will shout "hello!" at the back of my head.

The first two are no big deal. The third becomes a little unnerving. I must say that this is by no means how typical Chinese behave, and it is considered rude to do this by Chinese standards.

Nearly everyone will stare at me if they see me, and many people will generally fall into one of the three categories for saying hello.

Getting back to my main point, the hellos and staring become different as one lives here longer and longer. I have only been here a little over 3 months, and already I have felt many different things.

At first the staring and hellos were a little strange. I chalked it up to a new culture. I didn't worry about it, but found it rather interesting. After awhile I began to love it. The people were giving me so much attention! And it was free, guaranteed attention! All I had to do was show up. At some point, however, it began to bother me. I think this really hit me last week. I have been in my community for a month and people were still staring, pointing and whispering. I felt like this place was becoming "mine" the more time I spent here. It bothered me so much, in fact, that I had to think about it - really think about it. This is because it was causing me to feel like being rude as a reaction to the unwanted attention.

I came to the conclusion that I was internalizing the staring in the wrong manner. By identifying the behavior as staring, I missed the point entirely. The Chinese have no social rules about staring; if they find something interesting they have the "social" right to "stare" as long as they would like. For me to identify this action as staring was unfair to everyone. I am the guest in this culture. Bringing my expectations of how I should be treated is a huge, haughty mistake. It's a bit like walking into someone's house with mud on my shoes because I do that at home. This is not to say that I am feeling much better about the staring, but I more deeply understand my own thinking.

I am interested to see how my feelings continue to change. For now I just smile and wave. Like a movie-star.