12.16.2008

I've Moved

I will be posting everything posting everything here.

http://blog.seattlepi.nwsource.com/mychina/

My goal is to only post there from now on, but we'll see.

Sorry for any inconvenience.

Cheers!

12.15.2008

Visiting Anshun


Bethany, Bonnie, Dustin, ZhuKui

Bonnie (Country Directory) and ZhuKui (Program Manager) visited Anshun awhile back. We had a nice hike up the mountain behind the dormitories and then around the back of the school. The back gate, a single door, opens like clothes parting in a wardrobe, revealing overturned rice paddies covered with stacks of rice stalks and women picking heads of Chinese cabbage before the frost sets in.

They visited my apartment as well. "What are those?" Bonnie asks, pointing at some disfigured, withered plants that were there when I first moved in well over a year before. "Oh, those. Well, they are... an experiment?"

She looks with curiosity at my walls, and the pathetic hangings whose sole intention of covering the bleak, white, cracking walls is only too obvious. I use one wall for hanging things sent from home, including pictures, postcards, and little notes. The wall threatens to swallow this small display, and the two dead light bulbs in my 6-bulb 'chandelier' certainly don't add to the ambiance. "Where's your bathroom?" she asks, before heading through my kitchen and through the back hallway to take a look.

"I'm ready to go," she says, "but I need to get a picture of your soap sculpture first."

Please don't ask.

She nods towards my bicycle on the way out - another pitiful thing with the seat removed for hauling loads of wood and tires clearly flat from months of disuse. I almost felt like my apartment was some kind of extension of my volunteering skill; like the disorder was a manifestation of my ability and, therefore, my teaching would also be the same in her eyes: a broken down display of ineptitude.

But I'm sure she didn't think so.

Right?

A message from Peace Corps (China Staff)

Holiday Greetings to All!

The Peace Corps Staff would like to wish all of you the very best during this holiday season. We thank you for being here, for your willingness to leave the comfort of life back in the U.S., and for the personal sacrifices that you have made to be a Volunteer in China.

It is a time for you to reflect on what you have experienced and accomplished during the time you have been here, the difference you have made in your life and the lives of your students and colleagues. Peace Corps can be exhilarating, frustrating, emotionally lifting and emotionally draining all at the same time. Our New Year's hopes and wishes for you are that you consider the amazing opportunities for you in China, savor the experience and continue to do your best for your benefit as well as those around you.

May you, your families and friends here in China and back home have a safe and pleasant holiday season.

Best wishes,
Peace Corps China Staff

12.14.2008

Lecture in Zunyi

I gave a lecture about being an individualist in a collectivist society at Zunyi Medical College in Zunyi (a city famous for being the place where a series of communist revolutionary meetings were held before Mao Zedong led his troops to defeat the Guomingdang). The students were interested to learn what kinds of things made me uncomfortable in China, especially when I explained which American values contributed to that discomfort.

The following is my reflection - sent to Peace Corps as per their request.

Part 3: Site Exchange Report

Note: This form should be completed by the Volunteer who agreed to participate in the exchange and submitted to the respective Program Manager within five days of completion of the site exchange trip. Electronic submissions are highly encouraged. Copies of any relevant outputs such as lesson plans should be attached. Photos are welcomed. Thank you!


Volunteer’s Name: Dustin D. Ooley


1. What organization and/or people did you visit?

Zunyi Medical College (students of Andrew Park and Kari Jefferson)

2. What were the positive aspects of your site exchange trip?

Open dialogue regarding the difficulties of an individualist in a collectivist society. Students learned how western teachers have individual differences, even if they share the same culture, helping them to better understand which characteristics of their foreign teachers are cultural and which are personal.

The chance to better understand student perspectives based on the kind of questions they asked. Students interested in various aspects of my experience had an opportunity to learn more. The next day several students ate lunch with Andrew and me, giving them another chance to ask questions.

I did not fall off the stage.


3. Lessons Learned/Recommendations for other Volunteers?

Don’t forget to have a camera.

Plan everything – even the little things.

Speak some Chinese – they love it.

Little Injustices

Usually traveling is both fun and informative. Trains are the perfect place for conversation due to the family-style seating arrangement and the freedom to walk around. I have had some of my most in-depth conversations on trains, transcending the basic questions like, "How old are you?" and "How much money do you make?"

Sometimes travel can be more cumbersome. Sometimes the people are less willing to talk, due to shyness or lack of interest. Today's trip back from Zunyi was like this; I didn't say much more than "恩 (en4)," an affirmative response to the question from the train worker, "Are you going to Anshun?"

The people around me looked over my shoulder to see me reading my textbook (新使用汉语课本;五册). Even a glance in this book should be enough for a Chinese person to realize that I can speak Chinese. In fact, it's typically a surprise for people that I can read Chinese even after speaking with them for several minutes. Speaking Chinese isn't nearly as difficult as reading (or writing) it in the eyes of a typical Chinese person.

I decided to go back and grab something to eat in the dining car and I walked several cars up, passing the typical stares and furtive elbow-jostlings friends give to one another as I walk by. "外国人 (wai4guo2ren2)" they whisper, "Outside Country Person." When I request a menu at the dining car the waitress happily hands one to me while 3 other train attendants sit at a table smoking and talking quietly. The rest of the car was empty. I sat down, opened the menu, and discovered why. Basic dishes were 4 or 5 times the regular price and I asked if they had egg fried rice. 没有。

"I'll just have those instant noodles," I said, giving the waitress 5 yuan and looking for the boiling water.

"It's outside," she said.

"Ok - I can just eat in here, right?" I said to be polite, not really to ask for permission - I was planning on coming back.

The waitress looked down at one of the train attendants, who was shaking her head.

"You're right, it's pretty crowded in here," I responded without thinking much. "What a strange rule," I added under my breath (again in Chinese). Just because I didn't order the expensive dishes they would let me sit in the dining room.

"Wait," another train attendant at the same table shouted to me as I was disappearing down the dining car corridor, "sit down - it's no problem." I had sufficiently upset them with my snide comments, and that was exactly the result I had intended.

I filled up my bowl of instant noodles at the boiling water container between cars and continued back to my seat through the same sea of whispers and stares. I sat down and hunched over my noodles, slurping them down in several minutes.

When I left the train station after arriving in Anshun, I looked for a cab driver and asked how much to go to the college. "20," he said, and I continued on, shaking my head. "Let him go for 15, he's a teacher at the college," another cab driver said. The first driver yelled after me and said that 15 would be fine, so I turned and got in. Before we left the train station he shuffled a family of four in the back of the cab while I looked at him strangely. "Don't worry, it's on the way," he said. I was still skeptical.

We turned off the basic route back to the college, but not long after he let the family out and we continued on to the college. The family paid 5 yuan, so it was easy to do the math. That meant I owed 10 yuan now. Right?

There's a little trick the cab drivers like to pull in Guizhou. It's happened to me a few times in Anshun and Liupanshui. Drivers will pick up multiple people and force them to pay separate fares, rather than allowing them to share a cab. If you don't know the person, chances are you will have to pay a separate fare.

Once when coming back from a trip to Guiyang something similar happened. I got in after agreeing to 15 and the cabbie said we should wait for students who were also going to the college. "Wait or not, it doesn't matter to me," I said, "it's the same price either way." He looked hurt. And then I helped him recruit a student who got in the cab with us. "Hey, it's 5 yuan to go to the college," he said to the student. "No, it isn't," I cut him off. "Don't listen to him - it's only 15 and I'll take care of it." He looked back at me, "give me something!" he said desperately. "You will get 17, and that's all," I responded, being more generous than I should have been.

And so we dropped the family off and headed back to the campus. The driver tried to make small-talk but I didn't say much but cursory responses. I wasn't excited about getting to know him if I was going to have to shatter his illusion that he was going to get 20 yuan from the combined fares of the family and me. He was still getting 15.

And when we got to my apartment I handed him a 10. He looked confused and then cleared up the misunderstanding by explaining that it was 15. "Yeah, I know - that family gave 5 and I just gave you 10."

"That's not part of the fare," he said angrily, "you can't do that - impossible."

"Pay 20? THAT'S impossible," I responded, and began to get out of the cab.

He muttered a string of dialect that was followed by “老外 (lao3wai4)" another less polite word meaning foreigner. I'm glad I didn't understand everything he said, and I was happy that he didn't get away with double-charging. Many people just fold and give them money (even volunteers). I walked back up the 5 flights to my apartment, not doing much for China during my trip home - but certainly preserving some of my own values for the day.

12.12.2008

Why we are here...?

In a recent post, Phil has pointed to the extensive history of human rights violations in China, something that continues today. These violations include unlawful imprisonment and torture, which are condemned by both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Chinese Constitution. The issue remains very serious, despite the fact that Chinese people are freer now than they have ever been in their long, continuous 5000 years of history.

Of course, Phil would argue that the relative merits of the current government do not outweigh the continued unlawful imprisonment of critical, popular bloggers who, as we speak, are languishing in prisons for the words they wrote.

As an American I believe fiercely in my right to freedom of speech and freedom to make changes. What I’ve learned since coming to China, however, is that this is not my place. There are many reasons for this, and I would like to elaborate. Firstly, I am not currently under American law, but Chinese law. Although freedom of speech is guaranteed by the Chinese Constitution, another clause protecting the current government trumps that clause. Those who say that China doesn’t follow its own laws needs to analyze this problem and work to change it rather than merely making this statement.

Secondly, I am a Peace Corps Volunteer, sent to China by U.S. tax dollars and, though I am not a government employee, I have been assigned with 3 goals to accomplish as a volunteer.

The goals are (1) to help the country meet its need for trained people (which we do by teaching English students who will go on to become English teachers); (2) share American culture with the host country; and (3) learn about the culture of the host country in order to share that with Americans upon return to America.

According to these goals, I find little or no incentive to be outspoken about my beliefs regarding the government (though, in the past, I have certainly posted my share of information that could probably be used to gather a general idea of my feelings). Finding a reason to be more open with Chinese people about my feelings regarding the government would not help me to better accomplish my goals – even if you argue that this open, honest dialogue is indelibly a part of American culture and, therefore, should be a part of goal number 2. For me, however, the link is too tenuous for serious consideration.

Another reason I don’t rush into a healthy criticism of the government is related to how much the issues have been twisted by both sides. Most Americans still think the Embassy bombing in Yugoslavia was unintentional, or they have forgotten about it entirely. Chinese scholars contend that Tibet has been part of China throughout the Ming Dynasty, while scholars just about everywhere else argue that it’s untrue. Young, ultra-liberal westerners jump on the “free Tibet” bandwagon without understanding the arguments made by China. The same is true of other issues that rarely find themselves brought up in conversations in my part of China.

Again, my feelings on these issues are strong, and I have a large supply of emotion that will likely pour out when I return to America. Perhaps one day I will look back and wish I said more, expressed my opinions more freely, and tried to make some political change. But then, would I be any different than those wishing to spread their faith?

I enjoy Phil’s blog immensely and frankly, I’m happy he is taking a different stance than me. It gives us something to discuss.

Peace,
-d

12.11.2008

December is Human Rights Month

Did you know that December is Human Rights month?

Competition or Cooperation?

(taken from
THE VALUES AMERICANS LIVE BY
by L. Robert Kohls)

The following is one of 13 values outlined by the Washington International Center in 1984. It was meant to be a guide to help foreign visitors better understand Americans, and it has been valuable in helping me to be more aware of my own values while I live in a country that is so different.

"7. Competition and Free Enterprise

Americans believe that competition brings out the best in any individual. They assert that it challenges or forces each person to produce the very best that is humanly possible. Consequently, the foreign visitor will see competition being fostered in the American home and in the American classroom, even on the youngest age levels. Very young children, for instance, are encouraged to answer questions for which their classmates do not know the answers.

You may find the competitive value disagreeable, especially if you come from a society [that] promotes cooperation rather than competition. But many U.S. Peace Corps volunteers teaching in Third World countries found the lack of competitiveness in a classroom situation equally distressing. They soon learned that what they had thought to be one of the universal human characteristics represented only a peculiarly American (or Western) value.

Americans feel very strongly that a highly competitive economy will bring out the best in its people and ultimately, that the society which fosters competition will progress most rapidly. If you look for it, you will see evidence in all areas -even in fields as diverse as medicine, the arts, education, and sports -that free enterprise is the approach most often preferred in America."


In the same spirit of competition Phil and I have begun an informal battle of the blogs. First prize is merely the chance to avoid the shame of being second place. Our battle will be fought both tactically and strategically, with each side employing a large staff who will carry out such tasks as monitoring the opponent’s blog or analyzing results from the highly scientific surveys included on the task-bar.

Recently our people sent his people an envelope wishing him luck. The envelope was laced with a virus whose only side-effect is an extreme reluctance to post blogs. We will inform you of updates as we receive them.

The Ooley campaign needs your help, and accepts suggestions on techniques, tactics, or strategies 24-hours-a-day. If you have an idea for a story, please submit it asap via dustinooleyinchina@gmail.com or click the comments link below for anonymity (really – you can suggest anything!).

Cheers!

12.10.2008

Hot Seat



In our Oral English class we tried an activity that I found on the Internet at Dave's ESL Cafe. Each student volunteered to sit in the hot seat (in the background misspelled as "hotseat") and be subjected to 5 questions by their classmates. Whether or not they had to answer the question I didn't say. As with many activities we do, I don't like to impose too many rules. Waiting to see how far it goes is usually more interesting, and I can always move things past awkward moments or even cancel the activity completely.

It took the students a few questions before they got the idea. When they really got going there was certainly a pattern to their questions.

What I found most interesting about the activity was how much their questions revealed their own culture and the individual who was in the hot seat. Questions that were often repeated:

"When will you get married?" (by far the most common).

"What kind of girls/boys do you find attractive?"

"What do you think of the girls/boys in our class?"

The last question is telling because it shows just how much students who know one another very well can still keep some of their true feelings hidden away. Overall their questions were about relationships - a reflection of a long history of Confucianism (don't tell them, though - they feel that they are far more modern than their parents).

I learned a lot about individuals but, more importantly, how the students in the class felt about certain people. Some of the questions were as follows:

"Do you think you're so cool?" (the class thinks he acts too cool).

"Do you have a bf? What do you like about boys?" etc. (she is very nervous and shy around boys).

"Is your duty to your family or your boyfriend?" (A girl who, in 2 years, will have to decide whether she returns home to her family or to the province from which her boyfriend came). Her answer, by the way, was an incredibly well-spoken balance that led to class applause.

12.09.2008

A Trip to the Post Office



Yesterday, on the way to the Post Office I saw this sign. I understood some of the words and the general meaning, but the exact meaning was elusive. I looked at my electronic dictionary. It's something like, "Societal order - everyone does their duty." These signs are nothing new in China, and were used with great success by Mao to convince people of... whatever. Capitalism is bad? Make a sign about it. It's one reason people will have certain convictions that might be without thought. They were told what to believe and then they create justification after the fact. It's similar to McCarthyism in the 1950s (and yes, we too had some pretty heavy propaganda in America at that time). In front of the sign are workers waiting for odd jobs (and playing cards in the meantime).



I mailed something to my parents.



Then I returned home to find these older men playing "Beat the Landlord," one of about 5 games that are very popular in China. This game is a combination of Skill and Luck, like most games the Chinese seem to favor (majiang, chess, and go are others). But like any game, money must be involved. The stakes were high (5 yuan per round), and the men slammed their cards down with an Alpha-confidence accompanied by a loud grunt.



I dropped my things off at my apartment and headed to the office for my office hours, meeting some students along the way who were cleaning the campus. If you didn't know already, that's how it works here. The classroom belongs to the students, so it's their job to keep it clean. The campus belongs to the students as well, who clean it on rotation. Each week the entire campus is cleaned by students, not a hired cleaning crew.

One of the students didn't understand why I was taking their photo for such a mundane event and I explained. "Oh," he said, "they wouldn't believe that we do this, so you are showing them."

"Exactly."

Chinese Names

One interesting aspect of teaching students in rural Guizhou is that very few people enter the college English department with an English name. It falls on the foreign teacher to provide the students with a name - a task that I learned to pass on this year. Sure I had the opportunity to give names to students who are now my friends, making their names more special. But the process was dreadful.

"Sandy... what does it mean?" one student asks.

"Ummm..." I reply, dumbfounded. Actually, unless you ask me what my own name means, I have absolutely no idea about name origins or meanings. And I suspect, to some extent, neither does anyone else in America.

The back-story for Chinese names could probably go on forever (almost), but there are some general differences between Chinese and English names.

My brother's name in Chinese is 艾论,which probably means something like "handsome talker,"but, more importantly, phonetically represents my brother's name using Chinese characters (AiLun - Aron). It's not a perfect phonetic translation because there are many sounds in Chinese that don't exist in English and vice versa. This is the main reason people have accents: they approximate sounds they cannot say by using something close in their own language (Hence: Flied Lice).

So I'm standing there after class and the students have a barrage of questions: "Which English name means 'flower?'"

"Which English name sounds strong and also means clever?"

"What does 'Garth' mean?"

Again I respond:

"Ummm..."

To make it simple I will put it like this: Chinese names are much easier to understand because they are like Native American names. I don't mean that they are names about nature, but that they have a strong relationship with words that are used in everyday speech. An example would be the Native American name, "Running Bear." If we break these apart they will but used in everyday speech. 'Running' and 'bear'.

It's a little more difficult in English. For example: David.

Of course we have 'Dav,' which means ?, and 'id,' which is part of the subconscious.

You see my point? They are words that are derived from other languages and different traditions, rather than one long, continuous history. Sure we could trace 'David' back to Hebrew (and maybe farther than that), and we might even find the words represented by the name. But today it's not so easy - especially when the name is not your own.

Chinese names are broken into two parts: Family name and Given name (in that order). The family name is one character. The 3 most common Chinese family names are: 王 Wang (wong), 李 Li (lee), and 张 Zhang (jong). Tracing these names is probably similar to tracing English surnames, as these names are often related to where someone is from (I think).

Given names are simple, I think. Here are a couple names (family name included)

张美丽 (Zhang Beautiful)
王云超 (Wang Exceeds the Clouds)

The given names can often be broken apart to have meaning (云 means cloud), so it's no surprise when a Chinese student mistakenly takes us for name experts.

My Chinese name was taken from the phonetics of my surname, Ooley. In Chinese is is pronounced /ou lei/ and written 欧雷. My new "family" name is 欧,which means 'Europe,' and my new "given" name is 雷, or, 'thunder.' Though people don't typically combine their family name with their given name to understand the meaning, doing so with my name yields, "Thunder over Europe."

Russia beware.

Dreams from My Obama

Every night I dream of Obama now. Most of the dreams are unrealistic scenes from home, where I hang out with Barack’s family. “Do you want a bagel?” I ask Barack as he enters the kitchen with the morning newspaper.

“Sure – would you toast it for me?” he replies.

“No problem.”

I still remember where I was when Obama announced, live, his intention to run for President in 2007. I was on the treadmill at the gym, and I scrambled to switch my headphones from my iPod to the miniature television attached to the machine. Part of the reason I remember so well is that I almost went off the back of the treadmill when switching the headphones.

It wasn’t long after that I began analyzing his voting record, scouring his history through Internet leads, and trying to learn more about the man who would eventually become our President. When he came to Seattle I bought a ticket and listened intently to a well-delivered, though policy-thin, speech. And to be honest, though I was likely to vote for Barack Obama, I hadn’t ruled out voting for Hillary Clinton.

It was about this time that something was happening in Washington D.C. that would change the next two years of my life. My Peace Corps application was finally complete and approved, and it had been passed on to the Peace Corps China official. I got a call and eventually accepted the invitation to serve in the People’s Republic of China.

The volunteers were much like my colleagues in Seattle: most of them were liberal, and most clung to some kind of idealism. We would have intense discussions about the relative merits of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, but favor eventually shifted to Obama. During these conversations you could always pick out the Republican: the quiet one on the other side of the room. Not long after, Obama won the nomination, and later, the election.

That’s when the dreams began, I think. You see, I’d always harbored some kind of grandiose idea that I would be a part of his cabinet. I’m 27, I have some wordly experience, and I have a decent education. Though I have just described a large portion of the U.S. population, I still felt that I was different somehow – worthy of making those important decisions or, at least, toasting a bagel just right.

Since the dreams began, every morning I wake up to disappointment. I am not in the White House, looking over Obama’s schedule and making last-minute changes, nor am I furiously typing a last-minute article that outlines the subtleties of U.S. – China misunderstandings at a societal level (to be stamped and approved by you-know-who before it is published under his name).

Throughout the campaign I badgered the people in his country-wide election offices, offering to help with the campaign. “Even though I am in China, I could still do something… right?” I never heard back.

Part of my thinking was encouraged by the constant emails from the Obama campaign. With the ability to insert my name in the mass email, the Obama people made me feel special - like they were sending me an important email. It sounded to me like, "Listen, Dustin, we couldn't reach you by cell phone. Would you ask the other volunteers which states they're from? We also need some information about the rural Chinese perspective - what exactly do rural Chinese have to say about Obama? Thanks."

But, of course, these emails were more like, "Dustin - if you give 50 dollars today, we'll send you a t-shirt."

So I wake up and here I am: China. I am thriving here now, but getting caught up in this grandiose thinking always leads to disappointment. During the last days of the general campaign, there was an email that said giving a donation now would automatically enter you in a drawing to have dinner with Obama. I immediately sent 20 dollars, about 1 percent of my annual income. The response was a phone call from America, asking if I could help do some last-minute doorbelling. “Sorry,” I said, obviously upset. “I’m in China.”

I haven’t thought of any solutions to this constant dreaming of Obama. How does one control one’s own dreams?

I guess, for now, I’ll have to make the most of my Sunday afternoons with the Obama family. “Come on,” I say to his daughters, “let’s go grab some ice-cream.” Michelle and Barack look on with smiling faces, not thinking that it’s weird at all.

12.08.2008

Peace Corps China Blogosphere


The blogosphere remains quite small amongst volunteers, but I wanted to point out an interesting blog by Phil Razem, a Chongqing volunteer. Phil's school has around 55,000 students compared with my 5,000 and he lives in a city with millions and millions of people (compared with around 300,000).

Phil's blog is written with a different style and he has some clear goals related to informing people about cultural differences. I have enjoyed reading his blog, if only to get a different perspective of life and teaching in China.

Phil (the handsome guy you see running on the Great Wall in the above picture) and I have an ongoing blog battle where we see who will post more often (don't tell him - he doesn't know about this yet). It's hardly fair, as the content of his blogs is rich and offers links to other places. I am lucky to write enough letters to make up a word, let alone a sentence or paragraph.

Check it out - I think you'll like it.

***UPDATE***
Phil has accepted the challenge.

Power Out


One would think I'd grown tired of talking about power outages. I'm relatively lucky, considering I only lose power about once a month during the winter. I'm not altogether unprepared, either. I have stockpiles of candles and matches, a host of battery powered electronics, and shelves of books.

It's not a problem of heat, either. I'm accustomed to 50 degrees inside - just wear warm clothes.

Part of the issue is that it remains unexpected. From a certain perspective it's a gift. I have to be more creative when planning out my day. In the morning I can only wash my face and feet - the water's too cold for a complete shower. The water for my coffee is heated in a stir-fry pan over my gas heater. I can even blast music in my apartment with my iPod's accompanying speakers (5-hour battery life!).

This last outage was only 24 hours. I can't explain the strange feeling when walking back to my apartment building, looking up to my 5th floor window, and seeing the lights on inside.

The moment the power goes out I emit a flicker of panic. Immediately I categorize the location of candles, matches, a thick winter coat and the Nepalese "Everest" hat to keep my head warm. These are easy to find - and when I settle down to study Chinese the panic subsides. Especially when I realize that I'm perfectly warm and comfortable studying by candlelight.

12.05.2008

Debates



When I first planned to have a debate in class, I was a little worried about the topic. I knew there were things that were controversial, but whether they were appropriate topics or taboo was uncertain. This problem was solved by asking my students to pick a topic. After a painful 15 minute brainstorming session, the topic was decided by the class: "Which is more important - process or result?"

"Really?" I asked them. "You can talk about that for an hour?" I hung my head as I erased death penalty and abortion from the blackboard - two topics that are sure to ignite fiery debate (especially in a college classroom).

So I was skeptical. Who wouldn't be? Process vs. Result?

It was easily one of my best classes. The students were brilliant and used very creative debating techniques, such as asking the opponents a question and attacking the logic of their answer. Only one ad-hom was used, and I wrote it on the board as an example to prevent it from continuing.

One of my favorite exchanges was between a young man and woman:

Young man: I know myself, so I know that's not true for me.
Young woman: How can you know yourself? You say...
Young man: [cutting her off] I know myself because I am myself!

The energy during the debate was exceeded only by the decompression afterward. The students spoke together in small groups for around 15 minutes about the debate. I found myself staring with awe as the students ran the class. I was unnecessary.

"Finally," I thought, after fighting the notion of the teacher-centered classroom for over a year. "They're getting it."

On Arrogance

Since coming to China I have become a different person. Although there are many factors that contributed to the changes, one of the most distinct was my need to look at things differently. This resulted in a need to be more hesitant about forming opinions. It has also led to intense reflection and contemplation. Even if I know little about this deep culture and its people, I am honest with myself (and with all of you). Honest reflection and slowing judgment have helped me to adapt in a culture where a ‘no’ might mean ‘maybe’ or a ‘yes’ might really be a ‘no way.’

During my first year, if there was frustration aside from student propensity to be indirect, it would be the lack of praise. I’m fairly average, so I don’t expect people to shower me with undeserved praise. In fact, I don’t think praise should be given unless it is earned fairly through hard work or unique talent. This talk about praise likely seems a little strange. I mean, really, what’s the big deal?

Let me ask another question: Can you imagine what life would be like with no praise? Mark Twain once said that he could live a month on a good compliment, but how long do we go in our daily lives without receiving some kind of reinforcement for the little and big things that we do? What if I were to tell you I have been generally “praised” but students fewer than 5 times since arriving in China?

Part of this is language, but most of it is cultural. The students have no idea how much our culture is based on a certain level of genuine praise, probably because they are so focused on doing their duty. That’s what I am doing, in their eyes: my duty. If I fulfill that duty, that is its own reward – right?

Triandis (1995) says that
“[Individualists] have an unusually good opinion of themselves and have a need to express their high self-esteem. Their apparent arrogance is a reflection of the culture.”

I think we have a need to be recognized for what we do, even if that recognition comes in the form of only a few kind words.

I didn't much think of this issue until I tried to think of how my students saw me as a teacher. Did they like me? Did they enjoy my class? I had almost no idea.

When studying Chinese with my students last year, we came across the word 傲慢,which translates as “haughty,” or “arrogant.” I jokingly said, “有时我一点傲慢,”or, “Sometimes I am a bit arrogant.” One of my students immediately replied in English, “Yes, you are,” with a tone of sincerity and a laugh that was a little too uncomfortable to overlook. She was serious.

I have often wondered what goes through the students’ brains in my classes and what they think of my teaching. This vague image has changed very little since I first arrived. My cloudy understanding of student perception is also tied to the differences in language and culture.

The small amount of information I have about my students is through a filtered network of gossip that began after I gave a lecture about Special Education in America. Students began to talk about how I taught young children with behavior disabilities in America, and that, therefore, I taught my Chinese students in the same way. The viciousness and unrelenting force of rumors like these make China a dangerous place to make mistakes. Say one bad word in class and you like to swear. Make one mistake and you are incompetent. Once again ‘face’ rears its ugly…head?

I never tried to look down on my students. Asserting that my students and I were the same, separated by culture, I found a place for my thoughts to grow. But the daily grind of English classes leaves an interminable trail of broken sentence structures, forgotten grammar, over generalized Chinglish, and improperly memorized proverbs that leave them sounding like a kindergarten student trapped in a young adult’s body.

I don’t doubt that I have seemed arrogant to them. Nor do I doubt that an independent American observer would give me a long list of small things that I do to slightly alienate or damage relationships with my students. My reasons for accepting that these conditions exist is not because I can think back and remember any, but because listening to broken, poor English day after day changes your perceptions about people. I never did this consciously, nor do I know the extent of my failure to treat people as equals.

Mr. Yang said something in an interview that made me reflect on my own battle against the dangerous notion of superiority:

“I don’t know how to put it. Sometimes I’m very modest. Sometimes I’m so proud – I think I’m the only intelligent guy in this department. That’s stupid, I know! The important lesson is that you may think you are very intelligent, but sometimes people around you are more intelligent than you. The only reason you find yourself intelligent is that you didn’t even cast your eyes on them – you didn’t pay attention to them.”

Though I am not much wiser since coming to China, I am certainly more careful about certain things. Too many times I have cared too much what others think of my classes or me. There is a healthy level of forgetting and moving on that everyone needs to foster when they live here. It’s a lot like getting a sense of humor, and just as painful at first.

When I look back on this experience in the future, and reflect how it has changed me, the Chinese lessons, culture shocks, failures, and successes will not compare with this new longing for honest reflection.


Triandis, H.C. (1995). Individualism and Collectivism (p.158). Westview Press: Boulder.

12.04.2008

From: 安顺欧雷 (Dustin)
Date: Tue, 25 Nov 2008 03:14:04 -0800 (PST)
Local: Tues, Nov 25 2008 7:14 pm
Subject: Are people reading my emails?
I am a Peace Corps volunteer in China (PRC). I get the feeling that
people are reading my emails. One of my friends here was later
questioned about something that she only wrote in email (did not
mention aloud).

Are my emails being read by someone?

What is google's policy with China (is there a PDF that outlines this
policy)?


***RESPONSE***
Date: Tue, 25 Nov 2008 14:08:06 -0800 (PST)
Local: Wed, Nov 26 2008 6:08 am
Subject: Re: Are people reading my emails?
It is likely. I began a Google search using 'Google policy China' for
keywords. I found a couple articles but they were from over 2 years
ago.

Probably the best resource is here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_censorship_in_the_People%27s_Re...

I hope that is a little bit of help.

***MY REACTION***
I attempted to search this website but it was blocked. Blah. The GFoC has struck again.

Despite post-Olympic expansion of Internet freedom, there are still many websites blocked by the "anihC fo llaweriF taerG" (GFoC).

Though Wikipedia is open, specific articles within the website are still blocked.

GRE

Anyone who has taken the SAT, GRE, LSAT, MCAT, etc. knows how strict test admin can be. Read this story to see a different experience.

Game Club

video

Mr. Yang (short interview)

video

12.03.2008

Explosion (update)

I interviewed some students about the incident and, though I heard nothing about mental problems, the students did mention that the boy and girl have not liked each other for quite some time. The fight itself began as follows:

"This is an American map," I said as I was trying to illustrate regional dialects.
"American MAP," the boy said, with a strange pronunciation of "map."
"American MAP," the girl said, imitating him.
"Don't copy me...!" responded the boy.

I don't know any of the words that came next, but they were certainly not kind.

I should explain my feelings a little more clearly, as my original post (below) seems to dwell on my anger. It is true that I felt angry with the students, especially since they were disrespecting my classroom. But my deeper feeling, the one I didn't share with them, was sadness. When harmony is breached there seems to be no limit to what people will do here.

Last spring I saw a man being chased down the street by an angry mob. He tripped and fell, the mob surrounded him and kicked him mercilessly. It took 2 or 3 minutes before police arrived to break up the crowd and carry the man away.

Why did today's incident bother me? Why am I upset about this behavior? Probably because my students are like my younger brothers and sisters. I'm 27 and they're 19 and 20. What does it feel like when you see your siblings fighting? Terrible. Especially when there's no reason for it.

12.02.2008

Explosion

I was reading words to the students in pronunciation class today. They were responding to the words in unison and we were having a nice class. During the chanting, a boy said something slightly louder than the others, but I didn't hear what he said exactly. Then a girl in the back of the room stood up and started yelling at him. The boy stood up and started yelling back at the girl. For a moment I was shocked. I felt the tension build as the students in the room turned to see what, exactly, was taking place. The atmosphere changed even more when the girl threw her pen at the boy, and he left his desk and began trying to attack her.

Other students were trying to hold them apart when I arrived at the back of the room and pulled the boy away from the girl by the back of his jacket, sitting him down on a bench before turning to see what was happening with the girl. She was fighting to break free so she could hit the boy, and he began to yell at her more. I turned to where he was sitting and yelled, "SHUT UP" in his face. He was quiet and I turned back, grabbed the girl, and began to drag her out of the room, yelling "shut up, come with me," as I forced her to leave. I heard another student say to her in Chinese, "Go with Dustin, go with Dustin." I think it would have been easier if she would have listened to the student, but she tried to fight it. She had no choice about leaving, but she dragged her feet and continued to shout.

By the time the girl was in the hallway, another teacher was waiting outside. He asked me what was happening and I quickly informed him. Upset by the student behavior, he apologized and then proceeded to get more information from the girl. Both the boy and the girl went into the hall with the other teacher while I talked to the class.

"I am very angry," I said to them. "I'm not angry with you, but the two students who were involved in this fight." They looked down at their desks, ashamed at the behavior of their classmates. I felt bad expressing my feelings with them when they did nothing but try and stop the fight. They needed to know that I was very angry with those students, however.

After class I talked with the students who were fighting. "Fighting is unacceptable in my class. You disrespected me, yourselves and your classmates. I am very angry." Not knowing what else to say, I went to the Department office to report the incident.

My Chinese tutor, Jane, listened while I told the story. I explained that there should be some kind of consequence for the students, but I didn't know what to do next. "Yes, that boy has some mental problems," she said. "I will ask the class what happened and let you know what to do."

And now I'm waiting for the next step.

In reflecting on the incident there is not much I would have done differently. I still don't know exactly what people said or why. The context of this fight remains unclear. Whether or not this incident has changed student opinion about me, I do not know. An update is forthcoming.

Wednesday Schedule

6:30 Press 5 minute snooze button
6:35 Press 5 minute snooze button
6:40 Press 5 minute snooze button
6:45 Press 5 minute snooze button
6:50 Press 5 minute snooze button
6:55 Press 5 minute snooze button
7:00 Wake up, eat breakfast, shower?, read news
8:00 Pronunciation class
10:00 A different Pronunciation class
12:00 Lunch
12:30 Take a nap
12:45 Go to my office
2:30 Oral English Class
4:30 Daily Office Hours
6:00 Eat Dinner/Return home
7:30 English corner in English Department (speak English w/students)
9:00 Return Home
I hate Wednesdays. They are almost like real work.

12.01.2008

You have a washing machine?!




Often I find a lack of topics about which to write because I am so far removed from America. My immersion in China has somewhat blinded me to the more interesting, basic aspects of life. It wasn't until my father laughed at my system of doing laundry that I thought doing laundry might be entertaining to someone.

My washing machine is standard. I put the clothes inside and use my shower head to fill it with water. The three knobs on the bottom spin the clothes and water, helping to clean everything through agitation. After washing everything once I have to drain the water and run it again to rinse the soap from my clothes. Since this machine has several broken parts (there is no lid and the drain knob stopped working long ago) I must use the attached pull-tie that was rigged for the purpose. The water drains, I fill the washing machine with clean water and run the cycle again.

After draining the water again, I put my clothes in the spinning dryer to the right of the washing basket. Or at least, I did until it broke last winter. Instead I wring the clothes out and in the summer I hang them in the back of my apartment where the sun will dry them within a day or two. During the winter I drape my clothes over a heater after wringing them out - a heater which is only used for this purpose. The main problem I have with my clothes in China is their propensity to get larger, exponentially, with each washing. I have long johns with 10 foot sleeves. It has been difficult these days to find anything that fits me as it once did. I continue to shrink and my wardrobe expands. It would be almost comic if it weren't so sad. Nobody has much sympathy for me as my sleeves drag along the ground to class (nobody has known any different).

I have taken to folding my sleeves back over my outer clothing, which has almost become a fashion statement. In fact, I'm surprised how much of what I do becomes almost the standard for what's cool. Boys around campus secretly want to have long hair, like mine. Several weeks ago I began wearing a bandana around my neck for reasons of warmth and students immediately commented: "Wow - I like your...what's that called?"

My father laughed when I showed him my life over Skype by guiding my computer around the apartment. He laughed at my shower and he laughed at my washing machine. At first I felt slightly offended and defensive of my simple life. I was getting an experience here, not looking for luxury. The more I think about situations such as these, however, the more I find myself smiling along with him. Not because I think it's strange, but for the exact opposite reason.

11.30.2008

DMV

During my time in the office I have overheard very little. The spoken language is often thick with dialect and regional sayings, not to mention the problem of speed.

Occasionally I am able to jump into conversations. Granted the good fortune of gracious patience on part of English teachers, sometimes I am included as an active observer of conversation and even given a chance to include my own insight or some information about America relative to whatever topic is being discussed.

Last week the topic was getting a driver’s license. In America we dream of this moment, which comes when we turn 16, after a year of precise and cruel instruction on the part of your father who, no matter how angry he gets, is only trying to prevent you from killing yourself or anyone else in the future. Or at least that was my experience.

In China it is different. To have a car, one must have money. To have money, one must have a steady job. That’s why drivers are often beginning to drive when they are in their twenties or thirties. Many of the English department staff recently received their license, and their reflections on this process are vivid, if not understandably frustrating.

During this conversation I continually heard one phrase being used with contempt and so I asked about it. Both teachers looked at one another and tried to think of the English translation. “It’s something you do when you’re driving…no, not when you’re driving, when you’re going to stop driving.” I looked at her with a confused expression. “Like parking when one car is here and another car is here,” she explained, with a crude drawing to make things more clear.

“Oh! Parallel parking!” I exclaimed, happy to know that this was something we shared regardless of culture.

Evidently everyone dreaded this part of the test. But we all know that story.

When the teachers began talking of the licensing process I was drawn in further. The process is simple: Fail the test, fail the test, and then pass the test. The first test is free, so it would be silly if people merely passed it: they wouldn’t be contributing any money that way. As a result, the examination officer will find any excuse not to pass students, even if they are skilled drivers. Subsequent tests require a fee of somewhere between 250 and 300 yuan (I forgot the exact amount). Passing the second test is much easier because people had to pay money, but the examination officer will not hesitate to fail applicants if they do not perform well. The third test is like getting an honorary doctorate or being a big donor to a cause: there are special rights extended to these people. The examination suddenly becomes much easier. Provided that the examinee does not destroy any property or kill anyone during the test, they will pass.

When I asked them about this the teachers acknowledged that the process was corrupt, but that there was little they could do about it. It didn’t bother them because they have been playing this kind of game all their lives with guanxi. Private relationships are all about guanxi – who do you know, what can you get based on who you know? This elaborate system will continue when the people you know come calling on you for return favors. The entire system perpetuates itself because people feel obligated (as a manifestation of culture) to repay their guanxi debt. The licensing process is nothing more than public guanxi: you pay and we’ll give you what you need.

This issue runs deeper, with social problems such as bribery permeating all aspects of life (including college admission and elections).

So it may not matter how well one can parallel park if they make one other mistake during the examination. The examination official may ask them to keep driving around, waiting for the mistake they need to justify failure. Or it may be the 3rd testing round, after the examinee has jumped the curb and knocked over a garbage can, when the official calmly steps out of the car and hands the driver a certificate of passing.

Money, it seems, is sometimes more important than performance.

11.23.2008

Water Monopoly (2)

Another student response:

"In my college there is a rule that we must drink the water which the name [xxxxxx]. Only this kind of water. We can't drink the water that we ever drink, so that most of students can't drink water for a long time. I think it's an unfair rule.

I think it's called monopolise. It breaks the laws in business. It also doesn't respect us students. It infringes upon our rights. I don't know why it happens. We complaint our college but we can't save it, so we just suffer it. The water of [xxxxxx] is expensive and bad, and the speed that send water is very slow.

Our college doesn't offer the hot water and the water is too cold to use, so we use the tiger [heater] to make the water hot. But one of the rules in my college is that we can't use the tiger [heater]. If the caretaker find we use it, he will confiscate it. I think it's unfair, either.

How can we defend our rights? Who can infringe upon our rights?"

11.20.2008

Saving face. Losing face.

Face is perhaps the most misunderstood general concept in China. In fact, if you assume that everything I am about to write is actually the opposite of reality, you probably won't be an farther from the truth than if you accept it as is.

We are concerned about this idea of "face" in America as well, but our concern differs in both degree and aspect. For example, most Americans don't often work hard to protect other people from losing face. There are examples of when people will do so, but they are generally more extreme circumstances. After failing a test in America one might feel disappointed, a situation that might be regarded in China as a loss of face. This might also include loss of face for the family. In China, people who are part of the "in group" are likely to try to prevent this loss of face. The sibling of the child with the low mark might recommend that they throw the paper away before showing it to the family. The result of losing face will be a backlash against the child, who will need to study harder, focus more intently, and generally balance this loss of face with future successes.

The degree to which the Chinese concern themselves with face is very high and, consequently, somewhat ridiculous (to me, at least). If a student corrects me in class, I have "lost face." The class will become silent and awkward. If I say something that is culturally taboo, I might also lose face. Luckily these are the only two examples I know (there are actually thousands of ways). If I knew all of the ways I might feel embarrassed a lot more often. This way I can obliviously stomp through my daily life like an elephant (an elephant from a different culture, of course), losing face and making people lose face as I obliviously march ahead. I am a face taking machine. My students probably wonder if I will ever be civilized enough to understand face. I know that I won't.

If I were to create a loose definition of face, I wouldn't say that is is, "The front part of a person's head from the forehead to the chin, or the corresponding part in an animal."

Actually, it would be more like, "the credibility, respectability, and overall goodness of a person." I would probably include more random words to make the definition sound scientific, but right now I have limited time.

Tonight I lost face when I made one of my freshmen girls cry. She wanted to take her pronunciation test again, and I told her it was a risk: if she scored lower than her original test, I would give her the new, lower score. She agreed and took the test, receiving a lower score than the original.

She didn't want me to include the new score as part of her grade - she wanted the old score to stand. I finally agreed and added, "I'm too nice," sort of as a joke. She began to cry.

By the way, did I mention that this entire scene was being witnessed by 6 of my best students, who had been waiting for me in the office? So I lost some face because I wasn't careful about the situation. "Oh stop looking at me like that, I didn't want her to get upset," I told them jokingly after the girl left. So I lost some face because I was too direct about what just happened.

My existence is loss of face. I'm a face losing fool. It's too bad I can't donate it, because I never seem to have much face anyway. It's not that I don't care, I do. It's just that I don't really understand.

11.19.2008

Year 2

China has been many things, and often I find it to be one giant contradiction. My first year in China was often unpleasant. Illnesses, cultural mishaps, a winter with teeth, and adjusting to a new job were each a part of my slow acculturation. There were days that I hated to be in China. There were days when I hated China. There were days when I just wanted to go home. On those days you feel every mile between yourself and home, believe me.

On a few occasions there were complete breakdowns, followed by phone calls home. I became a child again, talking to my parents about my problems and hoping that they would somehow make them go away.

Not only did the problems not go away, they found new ways of manifesting themselves in my life. Suddenly I was throwing up in the kitchen sink AND I had no running water. I am reminded of my cousin's upcoming wedding; the one that I can't attend.

One of my fellow volunteers and good friend summed it up best when he returned to the U.S. for medical leave:

"You are all amazing people and I am honored to have gotten to know you these past months. Your conversations, opinions, cooking, creativity, and lust for living meaningful lives has inspired and given hope to a broken, cynical shell-of-a-man (ie, me).

You should be proud to have survived this odyssey that is Peace Corps China. In many ways this experience is an exercise of attrition that only those with the most endurance (or dumb luck) can suffer through. You have done it. And though we may be the only ones who truly understand what that means, it is nonetheless a commendable accomplishment."

And often that's what it felt like to be in China.

But this year has been different.

This year is the promise of Obama, when compared with 8 years of a Bush presidency.

It began with continued understanding. The need to know what was going on around me and the desire to learn. Many behaviors have slowly been revealed in this way, but I want to point out one that might teach you something. It involves collectivism vs. individualism.

"Since individualists have to work at their relationships to maintain them, they tend to develop skills for effective superficial interaction with others" (Wheeler, Reis, and Bond, 1989).

One of my students' biggest unspoken complaints was my apparent unwillingness to make friends. To them my fleeting conversations were not a part of my cultural upbringing, but a kind of arrogance or inability to do so. Inability to make friends is probably close to the truth of the matter.

Look at it this way: Much separates Chinese people from Americans. Americans are independent where Chinese are collectivist. Americans want to stand out where Chinese want to belong. And what about the culture of poverty? How much of student behavior is determined by "Chinese Culture," or "Poverty," or some strange mix of both?!

Not only have I been trained to create an extensive list of 'superficial' (according to Chinese standards) friends, China makes it even more difficult by forcing me to navigate the great number of people! Not only were my students saying, "We wish you were a real friend who invested time in your friendship with us," but there were 4 times as many people saying it!

I'm afraid I haven't exactly "solved" this problem yet, but that's not really the point. What I want to explain is that continued work in this area has helped me tremendously. I know my students and colleagues much better than before. I am comfortable on the street and I know how to react in most situations. I haven't been ill since the spring. Several of my classes are subjects I've taught before, so I'm gaining experience in teaching at this level (especially pronunciation!).

Feeling better has helped me to be more committed, and being more committed has brought with it more respect and willingness to understand on the part of my students.

I don't have much of a moral here, just that Peace Corps was right when they said the second year was easier (and more fulfilling).


Wheeler, L., Reis, H. T., & Bond, M. H. (1989). Collectivism-individualism in everyday social life: The Middle Kingdom and the melting pot. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 57, 79-86

11.16.2008

Water Monopoly! (or Where is Teddy Roosevelt When People Need Him?)

Students in the dorms don’t have clean drinking water or the ability to boil water for drinking. The result is the need for a water cooler and large water bottle delivery – a convenience now provided with a smile by the school. In the past students ordered water from off campus and it was delivered by the company. Someone at the school realized that the school could buy up the water, hold it, and deliver it to students at a higher price. People started calling the water company to have it delivered directly, rather than relying upon the school. The water company was met with resistance at the school gate, however, and was turned away. Since the school controls what goes in or out of the gate, they simply hold the needed resource until the students are forced to comply.

Many students realized what was happening, and they were very unhappy. So unhappy, in fact, that they called a reporter to report what was happening in the school. The outcome was grim. After meeting with a school leader the reporter told the students that nothing could be done. One student explained, “To my surprised, it is a socialist country, it serves the community? If I have a second change I don't choose to born here like the country.” These students are the very same who are caught between a fierce nationalist pride and a profound confusion at the policies of their own school. They understand that there are injustices, but the authorities here deflect most of this in a fairly creative way: “But look at all of the problems with this place or that place. Focus on this other incident. Look what happened over there!”

When this isn’t sufficient there is always the ability to simply not care about the students. After all, the students here have no idea what it means to protest. They don’t feel their egalitarian souls being stolen by someone stronger than they are. They have never tasted liberty on the same level as we have, and they haven’t been raised in a culture of protest, demanding equal rights, and fighting for principle alone. Despite living in a collectivist society, students, and people in general, are unaccustomed to fighting for what they see as an ultimately futile cause. There is also a lack of creativity. Despite having the foresight to call a reporter, they had no backup plan or understanding of the power that they possess.

As a volunteer here I am completely uninvolved in this process. It’s important that I don’t concern myself with these issues, specifically due to the rules governing my conduct here. Despite these restrictions, however, I am free to share what is happening here. So there you have it.

11.08.2008

More Photos

More English school photos...





Rural School for Weekend Study

Yesterday I agreed to go with my student to the primary school where she teaches English on the weekends. We even planned a short lesson together. Enjoy the photos.





11.06.2008

Student Writing

[removed for privacy]

11.02.2008

Another Train Story

When we got on the train in Guiyang to go back to our sites I didn't expect to see foreigners. I never expect to see foreigners in Guizhou. Ever. But there they were, a large group of Americans, many of whom seemed to be Chinese-American. There looked to be about 30 late middle school or early high school age students. We caught several bits of conversation as we boarded the car next to theirs:

"Come over here, block that guy."
or
"Don't let her get through!"

They seemed to be experiencing difficulties as they were caught up in the push and shove that can only be appreciated by those who have become accustomed to such behavior. I would argue that I am a competent train-boarder, complete with my ability to let the ocean of people bump into me, breathe down my neck, and push their way to the front. I am not a stone in the river. I am the river.

We sat in our seats, but I couldn't stay for long. I needed to know why these foreigners were in Guizhou. Our Guizhou. Perhaps they had come for the waterfall.

I walked back to their car. It was a crowded car, with lost of people standing in the aisle (they bought standing tickets). Before I could inquire about their destination a girl began talking to herself loudly. "Don't tell me he's sitting in my seat, that's my seat, buddy, HEY, listen, this is my seat, not yours..."

It made me nervous. She was talking to him in English, but I'm sure her tone conveyed enough rudeness to make her and the Chinese man lose face. Of course, she was completely unaware that she had lost face. The other Americans were also unaware that their image was rapidly deteriorating in light of other similar incidents.

I watched as three American boys speaking a strange Mandarin Chinese yelled at a Chinese man who was sitting in their seat. It was strange because these boys spoke excellent Chinese and then, suddenly, they would change to English so that the other passengers didn't know what they were saying.

"This is our seat, look at this ticket!" one boy shouted in Chinese.
"I can stand here, it's a standing ticket," replied a Chinese man.
"He can't stand right by us, that's stupid," the boy said in English, and then, "let me see your ticket," in Mandarin.
"Look guys, his ticket doesn't even have a number, it's fake!" he shouted to his friends in English.
"Yeah, it's fake!" other students chimed in.

At this point I was thoroughly embarrassed. I was so embarrassed that my hands were shaking. It was easy to see that these boys had made the Chinese man lose face, and he was defending his right to stand in the aisle.

I decided to intervene.

"It's not fake; it's a standing ticket," I said.
"Then why is it more expensive than ours?" another boy asked accusingly.
"Probably because he's going farther than you," I responded.

It was awkward. This knowledge made me even more embarrassed. These students were yelling at good people. These were peasants and farmers just trying to get back to work - they couldn't even afford seats.

I turned to a girl who looked to be Chinese-American. "Listen, you should tell your friends to calm down. When someone is sitting in your seat, just say '不好意思了,我觉得你在我的坐位。‘ In China you need to be less direct, otherwise nobody is going to cooperate."

"Don't speak Chinese," she responded, "they will understand you." Then she looked away from me as if I was part of the problem they were having.

Never have I experienced such terrible behavior.

The American students continued to be rude and I decided that it was time to leave. I walked back to my car.

Later one of the American teachers passed and I flagged him down. "Where are you from? Who are those kids?"
"I teach at an International School in Shenzhen (near Hong Kong) - those students are 8th graders. Most of them are Korean-Americans who have lived here for about 5 years. Their parents work in China at oil companies or in high tech fields," he said.

Terrie and I talked about it after he left.

"They have probably never been on a train before," she said.

Probably true.

These students who have lived in China for 5 times as long as me know less about how to interact with Chinese than I do. Me, with my terrible Chinese and my strange long hair.

As I'm writing this the incident is already two hours gone, but I'm still angry about it. I try to help maintain the image of Americans as good, hardworking, friendly people, and that picture is destroyed for an entire train-car of appalled Chinese passengers. No wonder I encounter such mixed feelings about foreigners in China.

10.30.2008

Did you vote?



Voting.

I received a phone call asking me to help with a last minute drive to support the Obama campaign. "Sorry," I said, "I'm working in China right now."

I was excited to have my opportunity vote, despite living in another country. But after my trip to the Post Office I began to wonder about the cost.

In China I make nearly 1400 yuan, which is fancy Chinese talk for $200. But living here and spending the money makes its value much stronger than it seems. I would argue that one could treat my salary as dollars. Lunches cost me 5 yuan (America $5) and making copies 3 jiao (America .03 c), so I feel that my salary of 1400 yuan is like living in America on $1400 (not bad, right?).

In the Post Office they wanted 187 yuan to send my ballot to America via Airmail. If you want to do the calculation that's fine (just divide by 6.8), but I try not to think of it that way. The truth is, I just spent 187 dollars to send in a ballot that might not even be counted (who knows how long it will really take).

But it was worth it. Absolutely.

The faces of my students made me feel good about America. Their wonder that I could vote from China was clear. They seemed to understand the importance of this rare moment of American democracy. One student looked at my ballot and spoke rapid Chinese to everyone else. I only caught one phrase: "This way is better."

I guess my only disappointment is not receiving one of those little stickers: "I voted."



Post Office Receipts

10.26.2008

"Would you like to buy some goldfish?"



The question was posed to us in Guiyang, on the street. Typically people sell fruits, vegetables, and trinkets, but this woman was offering something more: friendship in a small bowl of water.

"Just 12 yuan ($2) for two fish and the bowl."

"Ok, throw the net in and we'll call it good." I said.

"No, the fishnet is 1 yuan."

"That's ridiculous!" I complain, "Let me tell you something about the costs of goldfish and goldfish accessories..."

[haggling continues for several minutes]

"What shall we name them?"

"Punk and Rock?"

"What about Tegan and Sara?"

No News

I haven't been posting much lately, but the blame rests entirely on the circumstances of my life. Just talking about this is making me aware of the monotony that is my typical day in China lately.

It was suddenly winter last week. My tutor said, "It will be colder tomorrow because it's almost winter." And it was. It changed from a brisk fall day, to a chilly winter one. I'm almost certain this weather is here to stay.

Today I even went through my closet to find a stack of 5 thick wool sweaters. I put the first one on before shaking out the thick coat of dust that had accumulated. After sneezing uncontrollably for 20 minutes I decided that I didn't like winter. Maybe I'm taking my anger out on the wrong subject, but there a chain of causation there nonetheless.

When I was eating rice noodles at lunch today the cook's husband went to fetch more noodles from the bottom of a gutted washing machine. The drollery sustained me.

At my favorite restaurant I asked how they bought their eggs, and they explained that a man came around with a cart of vegetables and eggs each morning. I put in an order because I didn't want to walk the 3 blocks to buy them. Sure I'm a bit lazy, but it felt good that they wanted to help me out. They took my money and said to stop by the next day. I guess this is probably just a perk. This restaurant is my kitchen, except I don't cook the food and I pay for it when I'm done. In fact, I eat there so much that I might secretly own stock. Call the response to my request an egg dividend.

"How many do you want?" the wife asks.

"Ummm... 30."

"No problem."

I like to pretend I know people and have lots of connections. "You need how many live chickens? No, it's not a problem, I just need to talk to some people." I pull out my cell phone and make a fake phone call. "Give me 3 days," I say after hanging up.

I still don't know how overseas adoption works exactly, but I'm looking into it.

Really, there's no news here.

My students stare at the phonetics consonant sound chart with a dearth of enthusiasm that would make a sloth look like a trader on wall street (pre-recession). A three-toed sloth of genus Megalonychidae! I can see a glassy look that only changes to awkward nervousness when I try to inspire them with a statement of deep profundity.

I turned on my electric blanket for the first time last night.

I just realized that I haven't cooked myself a meal in China since July. Oh wait. There was one time. I cooked a soup.

10.25.2008

The Middle Way

I spent part of my afternoon searching for a Buddhist temple in downtown Anshun. I heard from my tutor that it was just across from the lake, on the route of bus 11. It was raining and cool. Recently the weather has taken a turn; this morning I could feel winter in my toes.

Finally I resorted to asking a couple of girls who looked to be high school students.

"I'm looking for a temple," I said.

"Down there," she pointed, "take those stairs."

When I entered the temple, the "hellos" from a couple younger children indicated that other foreigners had visited in the past. Indeed, when I signed the guestbook before leaving I noticed that a couple from England had passed through only two days before.

I asked if I could get something to eat and look at the temple, and they invited me to eat with them. Sitting down to a vegetarian meal was nice for a change. In these large group situations, I typically pick through meat dishes, avoid the fish, and struggle to fill my stomach.

"You are a vegetarian?" an older woman asks me.

I nod my head and she responds, "That's great, it's good for your health. You will live a long time."

It's nice to hear these things, especially for someone accustomed to hearing, "What a pity that you are a vegetarian, food tastes better with meat - it's healthier too!"

It was also nice to be reminded of my host family experience. "Eat more, eat more!" they said as they lifted dishes toward my bowl. "Thank you so much!" I would respond, taking more of each dish. I felt at home in China again, far from the endless take-out containers stacked in my kitchen garbage can.

Eating at the temple wasn't very different than a typical group meal, proving that even though they were Buddhist, these people were still a subculture of China. Despite living together and practicing their religion, they were thoroughly Chinese. Their manners and mannerisms were the same, even if their clothes were not.

After eating, which was provided free of charge, a host took me on a tour of the temple. She showed me where to light the incense sticks and how to pray. I put 5 yuan (the likely cost of my meal) into the box and she showed me other parts of the temple.

When everyone discovered that I was not a traveler, but a local person, they clamored for my phone number and asked me to return when I had time. "Wait here," one woman told me as I was leaving. She brought me an apple and a pomegranate.

"Come back," they all said. "Come back and teach us English!"

10.23.2008

10.18.2008

Those 5-year students...

I have shared several pieces of this story in the last several months. It began with the letter I wrote to the English Department Dean, stating my intent to no longer teach the 5-year students (reprinted below)

May 12, 2008

张老师,

First I would like to express my gratitude for having this opportunity to teach at Anshun Teacher’s College. My experiences here have been wonderful and educational. The freshmen have been patient with my learning style and I have enjoyed teaching them. This experience has taught me much about education in China and helped me to reflect upon my own ideas of education.

I wanted to express concern about teaching five-year students in the future. Bethany had four classes last semester and four classes this semester (of five-year students) and I have 2 classes this semester. It has been challenging for a number of reasons, but our primary concern is our inability to effectively instruct these students.

One reason we feel somewhat unfit to teach these students is due to their limited English ability. Although I can often get by speaking some Chinese, I have found that anything I say in English is either not understood or misunderstood. We have found that the required text is far too difficult for these students and supplementing the text is a weekly requirement. My limited Chinese ability tends to serve my own ends rather than the need of the students to practice English, but it is nonetheless required for them to understand.

In addition to lack of adequate communication, we feel that we are sometimes unable to understand the cultural nuances of the Chinese classroom. In a typical classroom these nuances can be discussed by speaking English slowly, but in the five-year classroom effective communication about absences, late arrivals, homework, and classroom management are often misconstrued.

It is our request that next semester we do not teach the five-year students. I do not feel that the students have done something wrong, but rather that their ability to speak, listen to, read and write English is too low for us to be successful teachers.

If you have questions about this request, please let me know. I would be happy to discuss any details with you personally.

Sincerely,

Dustin D. Ooley
欧雷


This letter was followed by an assault of indirect communication on part of the Dean meant to keep us teaching Oral English. After my refusal, and implications that there would be consequences for asking us to teach these students again, the Dean finally decided to comply. We wouldn't teach the students again the next semester.

Then the next semester came. Several students who failed my class requested to take make-up exams. The department notified me that I was to give a make-up for the students. A recent post outlines the results of that exam.

I also promised to continue following this story. The purpose is to explain the customs and practices of a poor college in China.

Recently the Dean came to talk with me about the second round of failures. She explained the following:

"Since the students failed the make-up exam you will need to teach them again this semester."

"Nope. No I won't. I have explained to you the problem with foreigners teaching these students and I will not teach them again."

The Dean had a worried look on her face. I needed to work with her to make things right. There is no polarity in China without massive loss of face.

"I'll tell you what," I said, "I'll give you the exam and the exam's answers. You can work with the students and help them to pass."

She agreed.

But this is precisely what I had done twice before. Despite having the one or two-word answers for all the questions on the test, the students still failed to study. The students were so lazy that even given the answers they refused to work to remember what those answers were.

In a couple weeks I will ask the Dean about the status of these students to see about the end to this drawn-out story.

10.15.2008

video

hmmm...

This was a profound conversation

Radio Broadcast

Last week I was asked to prepare something for a radio broadcast throughout the campus. I misunderstood what they wanted and prepared a short discussion. As it turns out, the students wanted to interview me during the broadcast and provide a hot-line for students to call and ask me questions. This is what I wrote for them before I realized it was an interview:

Good afternoon. My name is Dustin Ooley. My Chinese name is 欧雷。 I came to China about one year ago as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I was in Chengdu for 2 months last year. While I was in Chengdu I lived with a Chinese family. I also studied Chinese for 5 or 6 hours every day. My training helped me to learn about Chinese culture and teaching English in China.

The school asked me to talk to you today about American Culture. This topic is too big for me, and I want to focus on two things: my cultural surprises when coming to China and my regional dialect (fangyan).

I had no idea history was so important to a people.

When students talk to me for the first time, I often hear the same questions. After answering these questions, people want to talk about their country’s history. People want to know what I know about the past. I was never interested in history, but now people were asking me about it. I quickly learned Chinese words and phrases such as “5,000 years of history,” and “Qing Dynasty, Tang Dynasty, Terra Cotta Warriors”. My feelings about the history have always been neutral, but I am amazed how many Chinese people have pride in their own history. Where one comes from is even important; to know your roots or laojia is critical. I know why this is important but I don’t really understand it very well. I am from a different kind of society. Our history is brief and few people talk about it regularly.

I expected to learn a lot about Chinese culture when I came to China. I thought that I would understand Chinese people. But the longer I am in China, the less I know. So many contradictions leave me feeling confused and lost. Eventually I realized that I was learning something else: I was becoming more of an expert on my own culture. Coming to China helped me to understand my culture and myself; I needed another culture to help me understand my own. This has been valuable as I try to explain my thoughts to my students. I have started to understand my own materialism and individualism. I have learned how these are aspects of my personality. I accept that I am very different from Chinese people, even after living in China for over a year. I will probably always be different.

When I first started teaching Chinese students I learned to talk slower and more clearly. My students still complain that I speak too quickly, but I try and speak slowly. In class I use more special English. I try not to use complicated grammar or complicated words. I try to be more like Voice of America: clear, slow, and standard. But America has many dialects. Despite my slower speech I still speak with an accent.

I am from a small town in the Northwest of America. My hometown has 20,000 people. I have a unique, regional fangyan. This is the dialect I speak with my family, and it’s different than other parts of America. My dialect is understood by all Americans because it is not like Guizhouhua and Putonghua. But there are still differences. Today I want to share some of the differences using common phrases.

One common phrase is “Where are you going?” In Mandarin this is “Ni qu nar?”, but dialect it is more like, “Ni kay na day?” The same is true with my dialect. “Where are you going?” is actually “Where yuh goin?”

Other phrases are a bit more interesting. “What is going on?” is less clear: “Skoe in on?”

“Do you know what I mean?” is “Yuh no whudeye mean?”

“What are you doing?” is actually “Whud ar yuh doo in.”

“You are going to the store?” is not quite so clear because the last word is the only one that’s the same: “Yer goin du thu store?”

“I do not know what you are talking about.” Is “I dunno whutcher tahkin uhbowt.”

Some of my students understand parts of my dialect. They can follow my lazy speech. But most cannot. Many become frustrated; they have learned British English for 6 years, and now they must learn American English! I feel the same frustration when I try to understand Guizhouhua.