Did you vote?


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


"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.


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!"



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


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.


Dustin D. Ooley

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.



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.


New Students / Just an Update

Last year when I stood in front of my freshmen phonetics classes there was a nervous atmosphere. The students reserved and worried, but I had some of those same emotions. I was just arriving in a new country, after all. My time in China was filled with communication failures, social blunders, and mistakes in cultivating professional relationships that would help me get things done (guanxi).

I have a better idea of what to do this year in my classes. China is not new, but a place I've lived for 15 months. The Chinese classroom is also familiar. The students follow a pattern and I hear many of the same questions; their curiosity is similar to that of former freshmen and to that of Chinese citizens in general. While I'm not exactly finishing their sentences for them, I am far more prepared to educate these students than I was 12 months ago.

This makes things easier... and harder.

It makes teaching easier. I know how to reach my students now. I know what they need from me as a foreign teacher, especially when it comes to questions of culture and thinking.

It makes watching administrative mistakes very painful. When a new staff member argues with me or a Dean says that there is no way to book that room I get upset. It hurts when I know there are ways to fix things, but some people are too lazy to make the changes. The situations are related to development and poverty. Once I heard a cook complain to his wife when he had to get up from his table to get me some extra salt. So sorry to put you out! Sheesh. But then, this is common for Peace Corps, and I try to accept it.

Our game club will begin soon. I'm trying to create some interest in a movie club. Maybe we'll get around to having a boy's club. The English department's population is under 10% male students. Maybe they need their own club.

What are all of these clubs, but opportunities to speak English? They aren't much more. Maybe they are a window into American culture, but I am only one person. More likely they are chances for me to learn more about my students, develop relationships, better understand them, and better understand China.

It's 7:09 a.m. My floors are cold this morning - a sign of the impending winter. I have Chinese at 8:15 a.m., then an English class following it at 10.


More Tiger Leaping Gorge Photos

Tiger Leaping Gorge


Email a Chinese College Student

I have several students who are interested in emailing Americans. Do you want to email a Chinese student? Do you have questions about college life in China? Just want to try something new?

Send me an email and I'll find you a student asap. If you are under 18 I need permission from your parents.



Our Little Vacation to Yunnan

The purpose of the vacation was to hike the 40 kilometer Tiger Leaping Gorge trail over the course of 2 days (one night at a guesthouse halfway along the trail). We began our journey, leaving early from Guizhou and arriving in Kunming, Yunnan 12 hours later. Since it was already late we checked into our hotel and woke early the next day, ready for continued travel.

The bus to Lijiang was supposed to take 9 hours, but it sat in Kunming traffic for around 2 hours. The cars around us honked as we sat in the lingering fumes. All of the windows were open due to the heat. It was another late night arrival in Lijiang, and we didn't know where our hostel was located. We ended up stopping at a 5-star hotel to ask for directions. The price of their cheapest rooms hovered around the monthly salary of a Peace Corps China Volunteer. We knew they were high-class when we saw the sign that warned, "No disheveled people." We looked at one another with surprise before laughing and lining up for pictures with the funny sign, much to the dismay of the 5-star receptionists inside (who were talking to the least disheveled of our group). After getting directions came the long, dark alley walk. Doors passed us on either side with Chinese and English signs and I wondered how we would ever find our hostel. But we did. We found it, went to sleep, and spent the next day relaxing in Lijiang before our 3 hour bus ride to Qiaotou, the Tiger Leaping Gorge trail head.

The 3 hour bus ride was interrupted by an accident involving bus driver negligence. Our driver put the bus in neutral, stood up, and started walking over to talk to another passenger while we sat in traffic. Unfortunately the bus sat on a slight grade and the driver neglected to use the emergency brake. As we rolled and passengers yelled I looked up and saw a minivan disappear beneath our windshield. We had just hit the minivan. This accident wouldn't have been so bad if we could have exchanged information and moved on (the minivan damage was minimal). But the two parties became temporary claims agents, bargaining for a reasonable fee to pay for the damaged minivan! They bargained for half an hour and we arrived at Qiaotou after 4 hours of traffic and bargaining.

We spent the night at Jane's, a hostel established specifically for through hikers. While walking from the bus stop to the hostel I bought my trail pass (50 yuan or 25 yuan for students). The attendant took my Gonzaga University card and gave me the discount, even though I am not a student. Other volunteers who are students were not so lucky: they had no proof of their status and had to pay the full 50 yuan (except the volunteer who used my Gonzaga ID the next day!).

The hike itself was worth all the trouble. Hours on buses and trains were quickly forgotten as we stared across this amazing gorge at mountains that stretched into the sky and disappeared in the clouds. We walked and almost felt the mountains to our right, towering over us. There were moments along the trail when I felt completely free, walking along and listening to the sounds of the mountains and their inhabitants. At some of the higher points (2800 Meters) we could look down to the Yangtze River to see cars and buses lining the roadway. Most tourists opted for the easy option, but I was glad to be up there away from everyone and everything.

Our room in the guesthouse gave a clear view of the mountains across the gorge. It was perfect.

The next day we hiked out and stopped after only about 10 kilometers (30 total) to catch a bus and begin our two-part trip to Dali via Lijiang. In the return van we passed hordes of Chinese people snapping pictures of the river and mountains surrounding them. We stepped down from the mountain and back into China - crowds and traffic and waiting.



During the last week I have been on a short vacation with other PCVs. Currently we are in Yunnan Province, where we have seen a few cities and hiked Tiger Leaping Gorge over a two-day period. Updates on this vacation are forthcoming as my internet connection becomes constant and I have some time to write. Lately everything has been a race to the next hostel or hotel: running to find a place where we can sleep before the rooms are sold-out.

It has been bus ride after bus ride. Problem after problem.

But the trip has been good. It has been something to learn from and a time to remember.

I am glad for the opportunity to travel with friends.