Enlightenment, one post at a time...

Enlightenment, one post at a time...

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Rainy Month of May

I seriously cannot believe it's the middle of May. Where is the time going? Scary. Anyway, for the most part, life has been pretty normal here in Shaoguan. The rainy season is upon us, and mother nature certainly hasn't given any of us a reprieve. Sometimes it rains constantly, without stopping, for days and days. I've never seen so much rain, even in some of the other subtropical places I've visited. On the plus side is that everything is so green and fresh. The downside, well, we're pretty much being bombarded by mosquitoes. They're everywhere, and try as we might to keep them out of the apartment, a few seem to make their way in. Luckily, we have this amazing invention that I will call an electric mosquito racket, and it is one of the coolest things I have ever owned. It looks like a tennis racket with metal webbing, and all you have to do is plug it into the wall to charge it, turn it on, and zap those bugs!! It's pretty fun, usually when you hit a bug with it it just sparks and snaps, and the bug is literally disintegrated within one second. It kills larger bugs, too, but not without a little carnage. Last night, Collin zapped a large mosquito in the living room, and as the racket sparked and snapped, the dying mosquito started to SMOKE, creating a stench so horrible that Collin began gagging and coughing! It stunk up the whole room, so we had to light some incense to cover up the smell.

Hahaha, ok enough about insecticide (I could write a book about that, but I'll spare you). Teaching is going well, and this month I've been trying to get my students to work on a few more challenging projects. Last week, in all of my classes, I held a poetry competition. The week before, I introduced some different kinds of poetry and explained some of the vocabulary. Then I assigned each of them to write their own poems in English. During the next class, each student read their poems aloud, and their classmates voted on who wrote the best poem. Some of the poems were really great, and some just made me crack up. One of my female students wrote her poem about having a date with Justin Bieber, and another female student wrote about her favorite TV show, The Vampire Diaries. Needless to say, it was pretty entertaining to listen to, and overall I was very pleased with their efforts. The winners from each class received a classic English book (The Jungle Book, Treasure Island, Alice In Wonderland, and Frankenstein), and also some Reese's peanut butter cups, which I picked up while in Shanghai. For the most part, the winners seemed really excited about the prizes, until Friday morning. The winner of the competition came to the front to claim her prize, and after I explained what the candy was she said, "But Miss Hutte, I'm afraid I will not eat it!" A little shocked by this, I stammered, "Uh, ok, well, you can, um...share it with someone, maybe?" She was not impressed with the candy, even though she'd never tasted it before. Little did she know how hard it was for me to keep four packs of peanut butter cups in our fridge for over a week without EATING THEM ALL! But, what can you do? ***SIGH***

This past weekend we went out with Alex and the Panamanian students for karaoke. It was a pretty good time, although it got a little crowded and we didn't get to sing very many songs, but we still had fun. Since there aren't any bars in Shaoguan, karaoke is the next best thing. There are literally half a dozen karaoke joints next to the university, and they're used at all the times of the day. You'll go to lunch in the afternoon, and it's not unusual to hear someone wailing to "My Heart Will Go On" or some other sappy Chinese love song. As a rule, in China, anytime is a good time for karaoke. Period.

A couple of weeks ago we went to Shanghai. We only spent a week there, but it was truly amazing. Shanghai is one of the coolest cities I've ever been, there's so much to see and do, and so much good food to eat! We stayed at a really great place called the Rock and Wood Hostel. They had a great restaurant and bar, and the best part was the beds were super comfy!! So nice after sleeping on a hard bed for 9 months! We went to a few museums, ate all kinds of great food like Vietnamese, Italian, Mediterranean, American (burgers) and some local Chinese specialties like xiao long bao, a delicious kind of dumpling. While walking around the Pudong area, where all the tall and modern buildings are, we ran into a group of Americans. I happened to be wearing my Stanford University t-shirt that day, and when they saw it they came right over and started talking to us. Turns out they were exchange students from Stanford, who were doing a semester abroad in Beijing at Peking University, the best university in China. We talked to them for a few minutes about the city and what to do there, and then parted ways. People around the world can say what they want about America and Americans, but it's been my experience that Americans are some of the friendliest travelers, and it was really nice talking to them. We also walked around the Bund, the old part of Shanghai, which was awesome because there are so many old Western-looking buildings, so it doesn't feel like China at all. I kept saying to Collin that it felt a little like the Twilight Zone, we knew we were in China, but it didn't feel like China! It was like some alternate universe! But that's what makes Shanghai so great, you really get the best of both worlds. Western food and culture, mixed with Chinese food and culture, all put together in one spectacular city. I definitely want to go back someday.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Spring is here!

(Well, almost.) Last week, we had about 5 days of absolutely beautiful weather, temperatures in the 70s, sun, and cool breezes. So wonderful after the cold and rainy crap we've been having for weeks on end. It's been a little cooler lately, but we've had far less rain so it's tolerable. Although, it's funny how people from Guangdong think that any temperature below 80 is cold. A couple of weeks ago, we had one day were the temperature got up to about 82 degrees, which felt pretty warm to us. I went to class wearing a t-shirt and jeans, and afterward one of my students approached me looking very concerned. She said, "Uh, Miss Hutte, I think you should wear more clothes!" I told her I was fine but after the fact I thought to myself, "It's like 80 degrees outside! Why are you wearing a winter jacket?!" You see it all the time with little kids, too. It'll be 75 degrees and parents will have their children all bundled up like it's freezing outside. Don't they feel really hot? Crazy...

The other day, we decided to take advantage of the nice weather, so we went into Shaoguan and visited Zhong Shan Park in the city center. Flowers were blooming and trees were sprouting new leaves. We walked around the park, and found a public building where a group of elderly Chinese men were playing traditional music. They invited us in and gave us tea and peanuts while we listened to them play. As we sat, a few more visitors came and went, some of them joined in with their own instruments such as the erhu (a Chinese string instrument). Chinese traditional music is quite beautiful, and this group of guys really knew what they were doing. A lot of traditional Chinese culture has been lost in the last 100 years, so it was nice to just sit and enjoy a little slice of it.

Collin recently bought a basketball, so we've been getting outside and practicing a little, plus it's good exercise. I've lost 25 pounds since we've been here, and I'd like to lose at least 15 more, maybe 20. It's so much easier to lose weight here since there are far fewer tempting foods. But I'm trying to train myself to eat better and get more exercise, and so far it's paying off. We'll see how that goes...

A couple of weekends ago we had some of the foreign students from Panama over to our place and we all played a game of poker. I never thought I would like poker, but it's actually pretty fun. Now if we were playing for real money, that might change things a bit, but so far we've only been using Monopoly money. We opened a bottle of Chinese red wine (which turned out to be surprisingly good, considering most Chinese wine isn't the greatest), and I put on some Latin music for the Panamanians, which I think they really enjoyed. It's really interesting how much more in common we have with them than we do with most Chinese people. I think most Latin cultures, although different than American culture, still share a lot of the same characteristics as ours. Chinese culture is just so different from American culture, sometimes it's difficult to relate to people here, even if they can speak English. But we have made some really great friends here, don't get me wrong.

A few weeks ago, we went to one of the cafeterias for dinner. This one happens to be at the opposite end of campus from where we live, so it's a good walk, but the food is better than some of the other cafeterias. On our way back, we decided to stop at the mobile phone store where we had bought our SIM cards when we first arrived in Shaoguan back in September. Now, I had heard through the grapevine that our picture was on the wall inside the store, but I never thought much of it and had never seen it for myself. But I do remember that when we had originally gone to the store to buy our SIM cards, the manager and employees basically treated us like rock stars, giving us free stuff and taking pictures with us. So it was no surprise that our picture might be hanging up inside the shop, but Collin and I wanted to see it for ourselves. We just assumed that it was probably a little 4x6 photo on a bulletin board. Not really that interested in seeing it, I waited outside while Collin went in to take a look. Through the glass door, I watched him as he looked around for the picture, and then stopped with a look of disbelief. He looked at me though the door and motioned to me with his hands, "Come here, it's HUGE!!". I thought he was joking, but when I walked inside and looked to my right, there on the wall was a giant two-foot wide poster of our picture with the owner of the shop. They had turned the picture into an advertisement, and in both Chinese and English the poster explained that when "foreign friends" came to visit the store, the owner assisted us and provided us with our mobile phone needs. We looked at the poster, and then we looked at each other and burst out laughing. Our picture is being used as an ad for a mobile phone store in China! As we walked home, we could not stop laughing, and we joked about claiming some royalties from the use of our picture! Ha!! Only in China...

Last Friday was April Fools Day and I played a little prank on my morning classes. At the beginning of class, I told them that the foreign language department made a new rule that I must give all my students a very difficult exam to determine their English skill level. I also told them that if they didn't do well on the test they would fail the class. Some of them looked pretty scared and some just plain confused, until I shouted "APRIL FOOLS!!". At that point, they all laughed and breathed a huge sigh of relief. Most of them already knew about April Fools, so they understood the meaning of the joke, and we all thought it was pretty funny. During the break of my second class (we have a ten minute break in the middle of the class), I went outside for some fresh air and told Collin (who was teaching next door) about my awesome prank. When I walked back in the classroom, a few of my students looked at me with utter horror on their faces, pointed to my head and screamed, "WHAT IS THAT??!!!" I immediately freaked out, thinking there must be some sort of heinous creature in my hair (like a spider, I HATE spiders) , and I started pawing frantically at my head to get it off! My students still looked on in terror, and so I thought it was still there, and I completely panicked, furiously brushing my head with my hands! Only a few seconds later did I realize what was going on, and they yelled "APRIL FOOLS!!", and burst out laughing. I thought I was going to have a heart attack, my heart was beating so fast. Not only that, I was totally defeated. I had fallen for the joke, which was ironic since I had JUST told Collin how awesome it was that I fooled my students. Yes indeed, I am gullible. But my students got me, and they got me GOOD. I had to congratulate them for that.

I'm posting this through email, as our VPN hasn't been working lately.  (Blogger is blocked in China.)  So, hopefully this post looks normal. If not, I apologize. :)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Oh yeah, that's right, we have a blog!

Ok, so you know how we said we'd keep up with this blog? Ha, well, obviously we haven't been doing a very good job. * Sigh *

To be honest, we've been in such a routine here that there really isn't a whole lot of interesting things to write about, but I suppose there might be something now and then. Anyway, I'm gonna try to write more often, even if it's about the mundane daily life. You never know what could happen!

So, the holidays came and went. Christmas in Shaoguan was pretty uneventful, but Collin cooked a really yummy meal of chicken and all the trimmings. We actually found a Christmas tree and decorations at the store downtown, so the apartment looked pretty festive. On Christmas Eve, we actually went to a Catholic mass at the church in Shaoguan with our Canadian friend Heather. Now, none of us are religious, but we thought it would be really interesting to attend a Catholic mass in China. It was actually kind of nice, because it was the only time during the Christmas season that we actually heard traditional Christmas songs! The sermon was in Chinese, both Mandarin and Cantonese, so it was actually kind of interesting. Plus, they gave us oranges and cakes afterwards, so that was nice. On Christmas Day, Heather came over and joined us for dinner, which was really nice for us and her. But, all in all, Christmas just wasn't the same without snow, traditional food, and family and friends from back home. We were also invited to a Christmas “party” which was put on by the school. It was interesting to say the least, because it wasn't really a party at all, but more like a variety show with skits and performances. There was a Titanic reenactment, which was actually pretty funny considering the parts of Rose and Jack were both played by guys. But, not exactly Christmasy, if you know what I mean. There was a pretty good performance by the international students from Panama and Indonesia where they sang “Last Christmas” and danced. Probably the most Christmasy thing about the whole “party”!

New Year's Eve was actually pretty fun. A group of us including Heather, Steven, and some of our Chinese student friends went out to the street for Chinese BBQ and some beers. After that some of us came back to the apartment where the guys drank shots of really cheap (and I mean REALLY cheap) Chinese booze. We're talkin' like 50 cents for a small flask. Heather and I made chocolate fondue, which everyone loved, and just hung out at our place and listened to music until midnight. Good times.

Shortly after, Heather left Shaoguan and went to Southeast Asia to do some traveling. I didn't want to say goodbye, it was really sad! We'd become really good friends, and we'd spent a lot of time hanging out, watching movies, eating chocolate, talking, eating more chocolate, etc. We might get to see her since she'll be staying in Hong Kong for awhile, so maybe we can work something out, but I really miss her!! :(

After New Year's came finals, which was a really busy time. I gave each of my students (6 classes – almost 200 students) a spoken exam where they had to prepare a short speech from a list of preselected topics. During our normal class time, I had each of them come into the classroom one at a time, and give their speech. I also asked them one random question which they were expected to answer spontaneously without preparation. Most of them did really well, so I was pleased. The hardest part was determining the exam grades since it was completely up to my discretion as to how well they spoke English. But I think I graded fairly, and I really think that over the course of the semester many of them improved quite a bit in terms of skill level and confidence. I also gave a written English grammar exam to my single student preparing for study in England next year, which also went very well. Collin had many more exams to give then I did, and many more of them were written, so it took a lot more time and energy. I helped him with grading exams so we could get all of the grades in on time. Turning in the grades was kind of confusing, because we were given a sheet (written completely in Chinese) with all the students' names on it (in Chinese) and we weren't sure where exactly where to write the breakdown of percentages for each grade. When I turned it in the first time, I had to do it over because apparently I had done it all wrong, but after a second try I finally got everything right. Whereas my grades were all written on paper, Collin's exam grades in the Econ department had to be entered online for some reason, which was also really confusing. The system wouldn't let him log in sometimes, and if you didn't immediately save your data the system would time out and you'd have to start all over again. Needless to say, kind of a pain in the ass. So, after a lot of hassle, we managed to get all the grades in.

Pretty much immediately after we turned in our grades, we left for our winter break trip to India. Too much to write about that part at the moment, but I'm working on a huge blog entry about the trip. So look for that soon!!

We started teaching classes again about 4 days after we got back from India, which really didn't give us a whole lot of time to catch up on rest, but what can you do? Coming back to China after spending 5 weeks in India was definitely a bit surreal at first, but we're adjusting back to our routine here. When we got here in September, I remember thinking how dirty everything was. But, after being in India, China seems like a clean paradise! NEVER ever in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would say that, but it's so true! India was amazing, for sure, but really really dirty. More on that later...

Teaching is going well so far, I'm teaching four first-year spoken English classes again, two one-on-one spoken English classes with my student preparing for study in England, and one class of spoken English for first-year double majors (students majoring in English and one other subject). We managed to get out of teaching at the language school for kids downtown, which is AWESOME because we really didn't like doing that at all. For my second semester of teaching first-years, I'm trying to make things a little more challenging for them. Last semester, I noticed how so many of them lack confidence while speaking and really need more practice. So this semester I'm really trying to come up with more activities to get them to speak as much as possible. Especially random and spontaneous speech, which a lot of them really struggle with. Many of them need to write what they want to say and then read it aloud, which isn't going to help them at all. This week, I wrote some random questions on pieces of paper and had each of them pick one out of a bag and answer the question spontaneously. I tried to make the questions interesting, so I wrote things like “If you had only one month to live, what would you do?” or “Do you think it is ok to live with your boyfriend/girlfriend before you get married?”. The questions got them interested, and I think it went over really well, plus they were basically forced to speak without preparation, which is exactly what I wanted them to do. I even included one question about gay marriage, asking whether they thought it was ok for gay people to marry, and many of my students agreed that it was ok with them, which surprised me. So not only was this a good lesson for them, but a good lesson for me because I got the chance to learn more about my student's opinions on their own culture and other issues. Very interesting...

We went to Guangzhou a couple of weekends ago, which was a really fun time. We met up with a couple of Collin's friends, Mei Mei and Daniel, from his first China experience in 2008. Mei Mei is Chinese and goes to school in Guangzhou, and Daniel is Nigerian and he works in Guangzhou for the government. I had met them when I visited Collin in 2008, so it was really great to see them both again. Daniel took us to a bar in Guangzhou and we sat outside and had a few beers, which was awesome because there are NO bars in Shaoguan. The place was full of foreigners, and we had a lot of fun talking with Daniel and catching up. The next day we hung out with Mei Mei and ate at an amazing Brazilian BBQ restaurant, which had the best meat I'd eaten in China! So yummy! Then we went shopping at a Western grocery store and bought food to make a Mexican meal. It was really expensive but so worth it! Before we went back to Shaoguan, we visited Mei Mei's family at their downtown apartment and spent the afternoon drinking tea with her father and stepmom. They are such nice people, and it was really awesome to just sit and enjoy some good Chinese tea and their company. All in all, a really great weekend.

Last weekend, we made our Mexican meal with the groceries we bought in Guangzhou. You never fully appreciate what you have until it's gone, and man have we missed Mexican food! We made burritos with all the fixins, and it was delicious! Steven and our friend Lexus and his girlfriend Eureka came over and enjoyed the meal with us, and afterwards we broke out a bottle of tequila along with some limes that we'd bought in Guangzhou. (Oddly enough, you can find lemons in China, but not limes, go figure.) Between the five of us, we drank the whole bottle of tequila, and it was awesome. Especially with the limes! Was a really fun night.

We also went over to Alex's the other night and played poker (with Monopoly money) with some other Chinese students. I'd never actually played poker before, so I was pretty horrible at it. But it was really fun and I learned something new! Never thought I'd learn to play poker in China, but here I am! Ha! Went to play pool a few times at the local pool hall near campus with Alex and Lexus. Again, I'm a terrible player but I still have fun anyway. I came down with the flu earlier this week, which wasn't fun at all! Felt like crap all day Monday, and it took me a couple of days to feel human again, but thankfully it didn't linger too long. Getting sick is never fun, but getting sick in China is probably worse than normal. Thankfully Collin has stayed healthy so far this semester (knock on wood).

Anyway, I know this is long, so if you got to this point, thanks for reading! I'll try to keep updates shorter and more frequent in the future! :)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Another Mandatory Update

Well, the weather has been pretty chilly here.  I'm a little tired of people in America downplaying it.  "Oh, boo hoo it's 30 degrees there?  It's -76 here!"  Yeah?  Well what's the temperature inside?  Because in our house here it usually hovers around the mid 50s.  You can see your breath in the bathroom.  I don't give a crap if its -30 in Wisconsin.  You're outside for about 2 minutes.  Try living in mildly cold purgatory for awhile. 

Courtyard outside the Temple of Hui Neng
Anyway, a few weeks ago, we went with our friend, Heather, to Nan Hua temple, which is the holiest temple in Chan (Zen) Buddhism.  It was occupied by Hui Neng, the 6th Patriarch (think "Pope" or "Dali Lama") of Zen Buddhism in the late 7th Century.  His mumified remains are still on display there in full lotus meditative pose.  It was unbelievably beautiful and peaceful.  We got to watch the afternoon chants/prayers of monks in one of the larger temple areas.  One of the coolest experiences yet in China.  We also ate at a really good vegetarian restaurant.  To get there, however, we had to pass an aggressive gander that was protecting the path.  It was a little unnerving.

A gate at Nan Hua Temple
This last week, as the weather cooled (and it rained almost the whole week), we went to a nearby village called Feng Wan.  The village is famous for one thing: it's hot springs.  We were told it would be very expensive, but that was when the student helping us thought we wanted to hire a bus for ourselves.  When I asked about the bus that makes regular trips to the village, she agreed that it would be "much cheaper" (6 yuan [less than $1] per-person, actually).

The problem was that the bus took us to the village, not the hot springs resort itself.  We were told we could just "take a taxi" to the springs.  Of course, when we arrived it was pouring rain, and there were no taxis.  I asked several people there and they gave conflicting advice.  Eventually, in true backpacker style, we hitched a ride in the back of a noodle delivery truck.  Boxes of flour and noodles were everywhere in the back (it was not quite as big as a semi-truck).  I let the girls ride up in the cab with the driver, and I sat in the back with his passenger/helper.  We went over some really bumpy roads and I was literally in danger of hitting my head on the roof.  Eventually, after I must have broken all the noodle packages in the box I was sitting on, we arrived.  The driver refused any money, and wished us well.  Nice.  I love backpacking.

The springs themselves were INCREDIBLE.  The locker rooms had porters, wood trim, clean floors, private lockers, and warmed towels, not to mention the private shower stalls (complete with body wash and soap).  When we went outside, there were about 15 different pools full of hot water from the springs.  Since it was cold and rainy, there was no one else there.  Just us and the Chinese workers there to dote on us.  We stayed until evening, then went and ate at the restaurant on the grounds.  It may have been the most relaxing day I've ever had in China.  I didn't want to leave.

Class A
Class B
I had my final Friday oral English classes yesterday.  It makes me sad.  These students are really talented, creative, fun, and entertaining.  I'm really going to miss those classes.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Long Time Coming

So, it's been over a month since our last post.  A ton of things have happened since then, and I don't really know where to begin.

We've settled in quite well.  Developed a routine and it's been nice.  We're still trying to plan travel over the holiday, but prices and pay checks are in flux.

We've been teaching at Jordan's Language School in Shaoguan City.  It's been interesting.  I have actually been much better at it than I originally thought (make that "feared").  We've found some games, and I really enjoy teaching the little kids.  Sure, they're hyper, but they're also really, really, cute.  I don't really care for the experience on the whole, however, because of the massive time investment in planning lessons for young children, the time taken to get to the school and back (an hour and a half class ends up taking us around 3 hours), and the schedule (evening classes suck).  We'll both be glad when we're done, but I'll be sad to say goodbye to the kids.

Yesterday Cecelia and I went out-and-about around Shaoguan.  We met with some friends for a lunch date, which, unfortunately, conflicted with the timing of a friend's kickboxing tournament.  Anyway, we did some shopping and went to the Buddhist temple in the city.  As you'd expect, it's really peaceful and quiet.  I really love temples here.  It was something I missed when I went back to America after my stint in Guangzhou in 2008.  This particular temple had a bunch of different books of Buddhist texts (Sutras, Dhammapada, etc), all of which were complimentary.  It is so weird to be able to take tons of books for free in China.  This is a country where NOTHING is free, but it's the Buddhist way.  We ended up with some beautiful books.

Buddhist temple in an alley behind Shaoguan's commercial district
On the way home, we saw a Chinese little person singing karaoke in front of a business (to attract customers I would assume).  He had a really deep voice.  I felt like an ass for having to work so hard to suppress a giggle.  It was really comical, though.

Today I was a judge for the Economics Department's English singing contest.  Groups (or classes) competed, singing terrible English songs ("We are the World", "Doe Ray Me...", "Rest Your Head on my Shoulder").  The groups were pretty good though, and it was fun to be a part of the contest.  Afterward I gave the awards and had to pose for about 300 photos.

Time to wrap this up, I have dinner to cook.

Monday, November 8, 2010

It's About Time!!

Wow, it's been a long time since our last post! Things have been pretty busy lately, but going well for the most part. I'll try to update as best as possible.


Halloween in China was interesting. I spent the week before Halloween watching a lot of horror movies to make up for the lack of celebration. I LOVE Halloween, so being here just wasn't the same! But, I taught a Halloween lesson for my classes the week before the holiday, which went pretty well. I spent hours, and I mean HOURS, making little trick or treat candy bags for my students, almost 200 of them. They all had little jackolanterns, skulls, and frankenstein tags on them, so I explained what all of these were, and I think my students understood for the most part. I also showed them Michael Jackson's Thriller, which got mixed reactions, and a short film by Tim Burton called Vincent.

On Halloween day, Collin and I went to the language school in downtown Shaoguan where we are now teaching young kids English a couple of times a week. The school had a little Halloween celebration where the kids could dress up in their costumes, so the teachers made a slide show of all the different costumes for us to watch with the kids. It's kinda funny how the Chinese interpret Halloween, many of the costumes were kinda strange, the kids might just smear paint on their faces or wear a hodgepodge of different things as their costume. But some of them had more traditional costumes like witches and superheroes, so there was a good mix. I brought a big bag of candy, so at the end of the costume slide show the teachers told the kids we had candy, which then caused a frenzy of excitement. I was immediately surrounded by all the kids grabbing huge handfuls of candy and screaming “TRICK OR TREAT!!! TRICK OR TREAT!!!” Within about 15 seconds, my entire huge bag of candy had vanished. The same thing happened later on when the teachers gave us more candy to hand out during some of the Halloween games. As soon as they knew we had candy, they pretty much mobbed us for it, pushing and shoving each other and trying to rip the bag out of my hands. CRAZY!! Some of the games were cool to watch, there was one game were the kids had to try to drop a chopstick into an empty soda bottle from varying heights, which is not an easy thing to do! There were also speed games, like an apple eating contest and spelling games. The kids seemed like they were having a really good time, but it was kinda crazy so we didn't stay too long.


Last week I taught my Oral English students about thanks, apologies, and appointments. Thanks and apologies were pretty easy for them to understand, and I tried to think of some different ways people in America might say thanks or respond to thanks like “Thanks much!”, “No problem.”, “No worries.” and “Don't mention it.” For the most part, they seemed very interested in learning about these. I also talked a bit about appointments in the West, which has more to do with the cultural differences between the China and the West. In China, no one really makes appointments for anything. Most things happen last minute and people often visit others without notice because it's considered nice to give someone a surprise visit. Our textbook, which I have mixed feelings about, talked a little bit about appointments in the West, but made it sound like all Westerners are these extremely rigid people who never do anything without making an appointment. I really wanted to make sure that my students understood that not all Westerners are this way, and it really depends on the person or the situation. Again, I think they were really intrigued by this subject, as most of the students here are very interested in Western culture.

As I mentioned before, Collin and I are now teaching at an English language school for children in downtown Shaoguan. To be honest, when we got here, we weren't really thrilled to learn that we'd be teaching young kids. It was our original understanding that we'd just be teaching university students. In fact, when the idea was first brought up by the university, they were originally going to make Collin teach at the language school three times a week for two hours each time. Needless to say, he wasn't too thrilled about that, so he asked me if I would take one of those classes, so I agreed. Last week, we taught at the school for the first time. My class, on Wednesday night, was a group of nine students ages 6 to 8. Collin's Wednesday class was a smaller group of kids aged 11 or so. My students, although pretty cute, were absolutely hyper and really difficult to control. The school prepared the lessons for us, so all we really had to do was practice vocabulary words with flash cards and then play some games to help the students learn and remember the words. I did some bingo games which went over pretty well, but by the end I was pretty much exhausted from telling them over and over again to be quiet and sit down. But, I guess you can't really blame them for being hyper. In China, primary school students will start school very early in the morning around 7am, and end classes at around 5pm. Then, they go home for dinner, and then many of them have tutoring sessions or attend language schools like the one we teach at around 7pm until 9pm. Many of them also attend classes on the weekends, too. So, all they do all day long almost every day is go to school, and they don't get much of a chance to play and be normal kids. By the time I see them in the evening, they've already been in school all day and are really hyper. It's understandable. So, even though the situation isn't ideal, we're dealing with it. I'm sure it will be an experience we'll never forget!

English Corner

Once a week, usually on Thursday or Friday evenings, the English students will hold an event called English Corner. It's a time for students and teachers to come together and speak English to one another, and for the most part it's pretty fun. It can be a rather exhausting experience, though, because once Collin and I arrive, we're pretty much surrounded by students wanting to talk to us. I try really hard to talk to many different people, but usually you get asked the same questions over and over again like “Do you like China?”, “Do you like Chinese food?”, “How long have you been in China?”, “Have you been to other places in China?” etc. Sometimes, though, you get some really interesting questions about America and Western culture. Of course, since we're in China, there are some things you cannot talk about, so you have to be careful what you say, but I think we do a pretty good job explaining things to them. The students try to come up with fun activities to do, like dancing and games. But I try to encourage people to talk to each other in English as much as they want me to talk to them, because many students are very shy about speaking English and are not confident in their language skills.

Social activities

My new friend from Canada, Heather, and I have really bonded, being the only two Western women in Shaoguan, and maybe even in all of northern Guangdong! We had a really fun movie afternoon where we watched cheesy romantic comedies and ate peanut butter and chocolate Oreos (yeah they have those here, and they are YUMMY!). It's so nice to be able to hang out and be friends with people that you have more in common with. Don't get me wrong, I love most Chinese people, and I've made some really good Chinese friends here, but the differences in language and culture sometimes make it difficult to achieve a close friendship. She also comes to English Corner once a week, and so we take her to some of the local restaurants that we like here. I think she really appreciates having friends who already know where things are and can show her the ropes.

This past Saturday, Heather and our friend Steven came over and Steven cooked traditional Chinese hot pot. He brought all kinds of tasty food like meat balls, sliced lamb, tofu, and veggies like mushrooms, corn, lotus root, and cilantro. You add some hot spices to a pot of water, and then add all your ingredients to cook together in the pot. Once everything's cooked, you just fish out what you want to eat, and man was it tasty! I really hope we get to do that again soon!

Learning Chinese

I had wanted to take Chinese classes here, but due to our busy schedules, it just didn't work out this semester. So instead, a friend of ours named Patrick has volunteered to come over and tutor me in Chinese. He's actually a student here, and we initially met him through the international office but we became good friends after he helped us with a lot of different things like fixing our internet, and taking Collin to the hospital when he was sick last month. Patrick is a really great teacher, and even though we're only had a couple of lessons so far, I'm really enjoying it and learning a lot. I know I'll never be fluent in Chinese, but I also know that understanding the language better is going to help me immensely while I'm here, so I'm hopeful to learn enough to be able to communicate with people better. I've already picked up on quite a few phrases and words, it's amazing how much you learn when you are immersed in a language. I even recognize a few Chinese characters now, which comes in handy especially when you're ordering food at a restaurant! The language itself, although a difficult thing to learn, is surprisingly not as complicated as I originally thought. So, I'm really excited to learn more and hopefully speak more, too.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Cheeseburgers and Karaoke

This past Friday I had my first experience with Chinese karaoke, or KTV as they call it here. Many young Chinese people absolutely LOVE karaoke. I went with Alex, one of our fellow teachers from Australia, some Chinese and international students, and Heather, a Canadian girl who teaches English to children at a convent in Shaoguan City. (Yes, there is a Catholic convent here!) She just arrived in Shaoguan recently, and wanted to meet some fellow Westerners, so we've become fast friends. It's really nice to have another Western girl around, since I was the only one in the area for quite awhile! Anyway, we went to this place to sing karaoke, and man did we rock it! They actually had some English songs, so we sang some Lady Gaga, Billy Idol, the Beatles, and I did a special duet with a random Chinese dude to the song "Black or White" by Michael Jackson! It was awesome! The difference between the Chinese songs and Western songs was night and day, however. Most of the Chinese songs were really sad and slow love songs, and our choices were usually a lot more upbeat. Interesting contrast, to say the least. But we had a really good time.

A little tired of Chinese food, Collin and I decided to make cheeseburgers the other night. They turned out pretty good, but making cheeseburgers in China is a little more difficult than one might think. First, ground beef isn't too common, and it's much more expensive than other types of meat like pork. So we had to have the butchers in the grocery store grind up some meat for us special order. Then, cheese is hard to come by, but they do have the wrapped processed singles in the store, which aren't too bad. Plus, for some reason, most of the bread here, including buns, is very sweet, so it's not the best for sandwiches or hamburgers. And finally, ketchup and mustard is really difficult to find. However, to our surprise and relief, we actually found real Heinz ketchup! We were actually prepared to make our own before we found it, and thankfully we didn't have to! The burgers were pretty good, but the beef was too lean to make a nice juicy burger, so they were a bit like "hockey pucks", as Collin described them. We also tried to make french fries, but they turned out a bit soggy, so next time we'll try a different technique. It's amazing how challenging cooking can be here, when you have one small hotplate to cook on and limited selection of Western groceries. But, we're making it work. Trial and error, trial and error...

The other day, I was sitting in our office on the computer when I heard some commotion outside the window. I looked out, and to my horror, a bunch of guys were using the biggest stepladder I've ever seen to climb up into the trees and cut down some of the branches. Now, it might not sound that bad, but the trees around the apartment aren't exactly the most sturdy things in the world, and these guys were basically hanging up there with nothing between them and the ground 35 feet below! Imagine looking out your window on the fourth floor and seeing a dude sitting up in a tree staring back at you! I was sure someone was going to die when one of the branches snapped off and fell on the ladder causing it to sway and bend! But, the guy held on for dear life and luckily everyone was ok. And of course, I had to snap a few pictures...

And finally, our friends Steven and Haiyan welcomed a new baby boy last week. They named him Jimi, after Jimi Hendricks. He had to stay in the hospital for about a week after he was born due to pneumonia, but he's ok now. Collin and I went and visited the other night, and little Jimi is just the cutest little thing! We're really happy for Steven and Haiyan, but now they really have their hands full with two little kids. Thankfully, they have a housekeeper who can help them out.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Qiu Tian (Autumn in China)

The past few days the weather here has been phenomenal.  Mid-70s and sunny with a slightly cooler breeze.  Simply wonderful.

At the pool hall
Friday night Cecelia, myself, Steven, Alex (an Australian teacher) and some Chinese friends went out.  We started off with just Steven, Cecelia and I going out for Sichuan food.  After that, we met up with some Chinese, Panamanian, and Indonesian friends at the pool hall.  We played billiards for awhile, then Alex and two of his Chinese friends arrived.  This is when things got terribly muddled, and it is my last clear memory from the evening.

Gan bei
Alex, Cecelia and I with "Pleather"
Alex brought a pitcher of white Russians with him, in which Cecelia partook.  Soon (after Steven left) we all headed down to another restaurant for sweet and sour pork ribs.  In the process, we ended up ordering waaaayyyy too many beers.  I got into a drinking competition with a Chinese friend who is just over half my age and definitely half my size.  We started drinking beer from small "juice glass" sized beer glasses.  We were both drinking it down like shots--one swallow.  Wow.  We ended up joining another group of Chinese guys (also drunk) whom Alex said had "David Bowie haircuts."  One in particular struck his fancy saying things like "Ohhhh, look at your Bowie!", and "the jacket... wait, is that PLEATHER?!", or  "ahh and you're missing a tooth as well, splendid!" to some poor drunken Chinese guy who didn't speak a word of English, but kept staring at us.  We ended up taking pictures with the lot of them (including "Pleather").  After the restaurant, Alex, myself, and some basketball player from the University went in the north gate to relieve ourselves.  We then went to an outdoor restaurant (street food with tables set up along side the road) where we proceeded to get more food, more beers, and even drunker.

Eventually we went home.  Our Chinese friend slept on our couch (as it was way past his dorm's curfew) and we went straight to bed.  The next day Cecelia was really hung over.  She ended up vomiting as late as 5 p.m.  That's when you know you had a good time the night before.  We had to cancel plans that day (for obvious reasons) and stayed inside.  It's too bad, because the weather was gorgeous.

We spent most of Sunday afternoon (after Cecelia slept late, still not feeling well) walking around the campus, taking pictures.  It was honestly one of the best times I've had here yet.  Everything was quiet, it was sunny with blue skies, perfect breeze, and warm (but not hot).  I'm so happy that we're finally getting some quality autumn time.  It seems that, in the States, it's hot until late-September, then it's beautiful for like 3 weeks, then it snows.  In Shaoguan we're actually going to get a full season.  Imagine that.

The leaves have not turned here (they may not, actually); however, some have already fallen.  It really adds to the atmosphere, because the falling leaves make the wonderful rustling sound when they blow, and they also make it smell like autumn.  Another aspect helping the aesthetics is that the Chinese burn leaves.  I really love that smell!

This morning I had class, then walked home, very content, as the sun shone through the trees surrounding our apartment, and the breeze rustled the leaves.  For the first time this trip, I'm really really really happy to be here and nowhere else.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Odds and Ends

Well, things have been going pretty well since we got back from Hong Kong. I've been teaching my freshman oral English classes, which have gone much better than I originally thought. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I'd be teaching, but here I am! My students are really great, most of them are very enthusiastic and seem to like me as their teacher. During the first week of class, I did an activity where students introduced themselves in English by finishing a series of sentences which I wrote on the board. Things like "My name is _____." "I am from _____." "I am frightened of _____." "If I had 1,000,000 yuan, I would _____." Most students gave pretty standard responses, saying that they were frightened of snakes and dogs, but some were quite thoughtful and said that they were afraid of things like being alone and having no friends. Many of them also said that they had never met a foreigner before, so I was the first foreigner they had ever come in contact with. Also, most of the students are from Guangdong province, and have never left this area of China, so for many of them, it is their dream to travel the world and see other places. I also told them quite a bit about myself and where I'm from. For instance, I shared how cold it is and how much snow we get in Wisconsin, and they were all absolutely shocked! Like I said, most of them have never left Guangdong, which is subtropical, and they simply cannot imagine living in a colder climate. For the most part, the students are very shy and quiet, so getting them to speak up and talk is a little challenging sometimes, but it's not too bad.

For my second class, I had the students do a role play activity where we read a short incomplete story about an artist and his friend named John. The two are old friends, and in the past the artist had sold a painting of a girl in a green dress to John. Years later, now that the artist is very famous, he tells John that this painting is his best work, and he would like to have it back. John knows that the painting is now very valuable and isn't sure what to do. So, I had the students break up into groups and finish the story. For the most part, they did really well. Some of them were more creative, such as one group who decided that the artist and John should get into a huge fight where John ends up being stabbed to death by the artist and three months later returns to the home of the artist as a zombie! Loved that one! There was one kind of awkward moment, however, when we got the last group in one particular class, and I found out that they weren't finished with their skit. They were so embarrassed that they didn't even want to come up to the front and perform what they had. At first, I wasn't sure what to do, but then I told them to just come up to the front of the classroom anyway (with a lot of coaxing) and I would perform an improvised skit with them. We made up a story about the girl in the painting being John's wife, and the artist was in love with John's wife, so he wanted the painting back and the two get into a big fight and the police are called to break it up. Very dramatic, and very improv! But, it worked, and I got them to speak a little, so it was a success!

Collin and I are getting used to living here, and things don't seem quite as foreign as they did when we first arrived. Last night, we went downtown and bought a stereo, so now we can listen to music on something other than Collin's tiny computer speakers. This week, we're having a couple of dinner parties at our place and inviting a few people we've met from campus. Should be a good time. Today, we went to the grocery store to get all the food to make dinner this week. It never fails, every time we go shopping and get to the check out, a group of people gathers around us and watches us as we communicate with the cashier and bag our purchases. This time was no different, and after you've spent 3 hours in the store trying to maneuver around and find what you need when everything is written in Chinese, the last thing you want is an audience watching your every move at the checkouts. Most of the time, Collin and I try to let it go, but today we just couldn't deal with it. There were about 5 Chinese men standing around us, laughing and chattering away. I actually looked at one of them right in the eye and said in English "Hi! Can I help you??!!" I'm sure they had no idea what I was saying, but I just couldn't help myself. I know Shaoguan isn't exactly a tourist destination, and the people who live here may have never seen a foreigner before, but GEEZ! It's amazing how interested they are in us. Here, it isn't considered rude to stare, and they definitely aren't shy about it. Needless to say, Collin and I were ready to get the heck out of there as quickly as possible.

This evening, after we got back from the store, Collin was trying to use the new blender we just bought to blend some tomatoes to make a pasta sauce, and of course, the blender broke. Shortly after that, we somehow blew a fuse and our power went out. It took me awhile to find the circuit breaker and switch it back on, but I figured it out! If an American electrician came here and saw the wiring in these buildings, they'd probably have a heart attack. In China, it's not uncommon for many buildings to have external wiring (outside the walls), and there are just wires everywhere. No wonder we blew a fuse!

Other than that, things are ok. I do like living here, but this experience has given me an extra appreciation for my life back home. I think many Americans forget how blessed they really are, and how lucky we are to live in a country that, for the most part, is very clean and accommodating. Our lives are never perfect, and some are less fortunate than others, but if you could see how people live here and the way things are, you'd definitely feel differently about your own life. No question about it.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Xiang Gang

So, we went back to Hong Kong for a few days.  What a crazy ride.  I hope Cecelia posts an entry too because there's way too many weird things to cover in one post.

I went to buy tickets to Shenzhen on Sunday, but the trains were full until the following morning (6 a.m. Monday to be precise).  I purchased two tickets for that train, before realizing that I bought the infamous "standing room only" tickets.  You see, in most civilized countries they fill the train's seats and sleepers, then stop selling tickets.  Not in China.  So long as there are aisles, emergency exits and bathrooms to stand in, they keep selling the standing tickets.  These were what Cecelia and I had.  We weren't even together in the same car.  I stood next to a really noxious bathroom for about 2-2 1/2 hours, surrounded by people smoking cigarettes.  Once we reached Guangzhou, over half of my car exited and I got a seat (throwing some American elbows to get it).  Apparently Cecelia wasn't so lucky.  She stood until the stop before Shenzhen (for about 4 hours, then got to sit for about 45 mins.).

Once we reached Shenzhen we thought our ordeal was over.  We were wrong.  After we cleared Chinese customs, we came into a large hall that was FULL of black hair (that's all you could see from a distance was the back of Chinese heads).  This was just the overflow from the customs area.  We ended up waiting for over 2 hours to clear HK customs.  Ugh.  Goddamn Chinese holidays!

Our hostel room was clean, if nothing to write home about.  Predictably, the first day we were so tired that we just crashed.  The next day we explored a bit more of Hong Kong than I had previously done.  It was pretty fun.  I managed to stumble upon a store that sold money (bills and coins) from around the world.  I ended up buying a colonial Hong Kong $5 bill, a 1 yuan bill from the Republic of China (1936), 5 shilling Ugandan bill from 1973 with a picture of Idi Amin (who I recognized instantly and knew I had to buy), and then 50, 10, and 5 Won bills from the DPRK.  They were so cool that I had to go back and get them.  The 5 Won has a nuclear symbol on it.  It turns out that this Won currency was replaced in 2009, when the people were told to cash in their old bills (which would be made obsolete and have no monetary value) for new ones (at a trade-in max of $40 USD equivalent) which they got a week later.  This was to combat the black market sellers who had accumulated stockpiles of money.  The effect, of course, was to leave many who had saved money extremely angry, and the entire country without money for a whole week.  Interesting.

Yesterday we went to the HK Art Museum.  Amazing place.  There were quite a few beautiful pieces, but my favorite was the fine art exhibit of modern Chinese painter Wu Guanzhong.  He painted a piece called "Two Swollows" which really moved me.  A very minimalist painting of two buildings, with a tree and two swollows flying above.  I ended up buying the postcard because I really loved the piece.

Two Swallows by Wu GuanZho
Today we came back via Guangzhou, and took the bullet train (at 337 kmph) back to Shaoguan.  It's good to be settled again!