I think I mentioned somewhere that all ACC students have to complete a great big research project on some aspect of Chinese history/culture/reality. The project included a research paper (length varied by grade) and an oral presentation, as well as graded periodic progress checks (turn in a draft, give a presentation about your research so far/your research methods, etc). Third years (my grade) had to write 3,000 characters, which is about three pages single-spaced – like a short research paper in any other college class (six pages double-spaced). Our oral presentations had to be about 20 minutes long. My topic was the Chinese college entrance exam’s effect on students, teachers, and parents. Other topics included NGOs in China, comparing the treatment of Chinese ethnic minorities – especially in Tibet and Xinjiang – to that of Native Americans, pre-elementary education in China, and Chinese beauty standards. Everybody’s presentation was so interesting and well-done and BETTER YET: we finished! I’m not quite obnoxious enough to assume that anyone else wants to see my paper or my power point, but if you ever want to talk about the Chinese college entrance exam system… I’m your girl. I promise I did the reading.
The day after we presented our topics for a grade, we had to present again for a group of senior citizens who were learning English as adults. Our presentations were delivered in Chinese; audience members used English to ask questions, and we responded in Chinese. When I first heard that we would be presenting our research again, I was nervous to give a presentation about the effects of the Chinese college entrance exam – my topic – to a group of Chinese people. Many of my peers knew nothing about the entrance exam, but the majority of our new audience would have personally experienced the effects of the college entrance exam system, whether as students, as parents, or simply as members of the community as a whole.
The change in audience did impact the tone and atmosphere of the presentation. Since my classmates and I were all presenting on topics relating to China, we had the somewhat disconcerting experience of giving a carefully researched presentation while simultaneously eyeing the audience for confirmation of the material presented. Additionally, while not all of the audience members were senior citizens, many were. The difference in our ages was apparent in the difference in our viewpoints, as well as the differences in our means of expression. Presentations that had been one-sided in front of our peers became discussions because our audience had their own points of view regarding our topics and were direct, though never impolite, about adding their viewpoints to the mix. Whereas our peers were, for the most part, attending research presentations as an opportunity to learn about a topic for the first time, forming their ideas about our topics from the research presented, our Chinese audience frequently challenged us to consider a different perspective, to give detailed explanations of how we formed our opinions on a certain topic, or to address an entirely different aspect of the question.
This isn’t to say that the learning was one-sided. Because there was room for dialogue, I think the viewpoints of both presenters and audience members became more nuanced and complex. Additionally, audience members frequently shifted from discussions of Chinese culture to discussions of American culture related to the topic being presented. The issues broached by the audience members were, of course, approached from a Chinese viewpoint. Despite the fact that, as Americans, we were all well-prepared to give at least a basic introduction to most aspects of daily life and social norms in the United States, because the questions were formulated differently than they would have been had a westerner asked them, each question prompted very interesting discussions.
Our second presentation opportunity unexpectedly allowed me to deepen my knowledge of my research topic, to better understand how everyday Chinese citizens’ attitude toward Chinese culture and Chinese social issues, and to approach American culture from a new perspective, allowing me to explore topics that I have no background in and making the foreign familiar.
Also, not to belabor the point, but I wrote a research paper in Chinese and I’m pretty dang proud of it.
ACC had a four day-long “fall break” in early November. My friends and I lazily discussed where we would be going until literally three days before we were supposed to go. In the end, we ended up not all traveling together – Kevin and his friend Bernie went to Anhui Province, and Betsy and I went to Shanghai. Although things were kind of last minute (sorry, Mom), things fell together pretty perfectly. We decided to take the high speed train (高铁) to get to Shanghai, since super high-speed rail is something that the US still doesn’t have. There are two options for the high speed trains: the D train, which is more of a medium-speed train, and the G train, which is crazy fast. We decided to take the D train because a) it is cheaper and b) we were leaving around 7 PM on the day we got out of class and traveling overnight. The fastest option gets you from Beijing to Shanghai in 5 hours, which would have spat us out in an unfamiliar city at midnight. The medium train takes 11 hours, so we got to Shanghai at 6 AM, with a full day ahead of us.
I’d like to take a moment to thank Ariele for telling me about hostelworld.com, which has provided unfailingly amazing hostels and hotels since I’ve been in Asia, starting with the hostel in Shanghai. The website is quick and crazy easy to use, and their reviewing system is on point. This was my first time staying in a hostel, and I was a little nervous about the whole proposal, but it was inexpensive and available, and the pictures looked pretty on the internet. Usually, this would be the part of the story where I’d have to say, “but it was actually a shed”, or “but the pictures were of a scale architectural model and the place was still an empty lot”, BUT NOT THIS TIME! Thanks to hostelworld, Betsy and I spent our weekend living in a Zen palace. It had great coffee, excellent breakfast (not complimentary, but, like, the koi were komplimentary), comfortable facilities, and a beautiful garden. The dining room opened up into the garden, so we ate breakfast and watched koi literally every morning. I dare anyone to be anything other than perfectly relaxed in that setting. It’s called the Rock and Wood Hostel, and while it’s technically a youth hostel, it appears that age really is just a number. The 60 year olds staying there were youthy enough to qualify for a bed and morning muesli.
There was more to our break than our hostel – not that it wouldn’t have been enough. Shanghai is a nice place in its own right. Betsy’s friend Duncan is studying abroad there and was nice enough to play tour guide, so we got to spend time with him. We went to the Bund in the day and then at night, went to the Yu Gardens, and visited the Shanghai Sculpture Space, which is really, really awesome. It’s lots and lots of sculptures and artwork in an old industrial park – there are some in galleries and some in the open quad. The whole place is very interactive. There were babies climbing all over some of the lower sculptures, as well as a bride and groom taking their wedding photos literally riding two giant reindeer sculptures. It was just a beautiful, fun place to wander and relax. When we were finally arted out, we went back to our hostel and soaked in the ambience. As much fun as we had in Shanghai, I was surprised – the last couple times I’d been, I loved Shanghai. This time, I have to say, it was nice, but nowhere near as nice as Beijing. We had a blast over our weekend, but I think we were both glad to go home.
So, like the Forbidden City, the Great Wall is somewhere I’ve gone every time I’ve come to China. Also like the Forbidden City, while visiting the same place three times sounds like kind of a silly thing to do, the Great Wall has been a different experience each time. The most obvious explanation for this is that I think I’ve literally visited different sections of the wall each time. The Great Wall is divided into sections for tourists – Mutianyu is popular because it’s well-maintained, has a chairlift, and offers folks who enjoy courting death the opportunity to toboggan from the wall to the ground; Badaling was the first section to open to tourists; Jinshanling, where we went this time, is popular in the fall, because the leaves change color. I think those are the three I’ve been to, but there are still plenty more!
My first time at the wall, I visited either Badaling or Mutianyu with my parents and Jim and Lee; I didn’t realize that the Great Wall was the kind of thing that had to be hiked/climbed, not just visited, so my while my first time at the wall was really cool, it was also something of a rude awakening. I was in 7th grade. I was dumb. My second time at the wall was during the summer of 2010. I was in China studying with Choate Rosemary Hall, and one of our field trips was, naturally, going to check out one of the 7 wonders of the world. It was July, and not a breezy, gentle July. It was so hot. The weather was clear, which is probably why the wall was really crowded with Chinese tourists. They’re amazing, because while my classmates and I were wearing athletic clothes to climb, the Chinese tourists didn’t dress down at all. Plenty of ladies were climbing in heels; lots of men were climbing in slacks and dress shoes. I have no clue how they did that – the wall is steep and uneven. This time was probably my favorite time at the Great Wall. It was autumn, the weather was gorgeous – really crisp, with blue skies – and while the wall was far from empty, there was plenty of room to enjoy the climb and scenery. I genuinely had a blast and I took a TON of pictures. Here’s a selection from that bunch.
So, while in China, I had the opportunity to celebrate not one but FOUR holidays – two Chinese ones, Halloween, and American Thanksgiving. The Chinese holidays were the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节), which was September 19th, and Chinese National Day (国庆节), which is October 1st, but lasts for 10 days. I’m going to split this up into sections – one for each holiday.
Despite the fact that the Mid-Autumn Festival is a one day affair, my roommate and I started celebrating a few weeks early (more or less as soon as we got to Beijing), or at least as soon as we went to the grocery store for the first time. This is because there’s a traditional treat that goes along with the mid-Autumn festival: moon cakes (月饼).They’re fist-sized cakes with a waxy dough outside and a dense filling. Common fillings include red bean, peanut and fig, and the extremely unpopular five kernel (五仁), which is sugar, peanuts, seeds, other kernelly things, etc. More about that in a sec. Some moon cakes have a dried egg yolk (or four) in the center. My Chinese friends really liked having an egg yolk to offset the sweetness; my western friends and I weren’t big on it. I’ve only tried it once; the egg yolk was crunchy. I’m not sure if that’s how it’s supposed to be. If I ever investigate that further, I’ll be sure to report back. Apparently, there are also fancy moon cakes – fruit-filled ones, “snow-skin” ones, chocolate ones. I’m sure we could have found them in Beijing, but we didn’t stumble upon any by accident. I think the special moon cakes are more popular in places like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
In the weeks leading up to the Mid-Autumn festival, it’s polite to give moon cakes to friends, acquaintances, colleagues, teachers, etc, kind of like a valentine, but for esteem, not romance. If you go over to someone’s house in early autumn and want to bring a gift, a box of moon cakes is a safe bet. Because of this, before the Mid-Autumn Festival, moon cakes take pride of place in the grocery store. Offerings range from the cheapest (individually packaged mini moon cakes for like 3 kuai a pop) to the most expensive (nice-looking boxed sets of moon cakes, to be used as gifts, which went up to a few hundred kuai in our grocery store). Most of what’s on display are the standard-sized moon cakes, individually packaged. I didn’t realize until the actual day of the Mid-Autumn Festival that it was possible to buy freshly made moon cakes; because they’re connected with a festival, I don’t think they’re usually stocked by bakeries. I think the bakery I bought my fresh moon cake from was making them as a one day special specifically for the day of the festival. They set up streetside display tables outside their stores and were just churning out moon cakes.
Moon cakes are really different from western desserts, and to be honest, they’re a little bit of an acquired taste. Part of it is because the pre-packaged ones are made to stay good for a very long time. They’re heavy and a little bit greasy; some fillings are scary sweet, but not in the same way that western desserts are overly sweet. The first time I tried one was in high school, and I was terribly disappointed in the experience. The name moon cake sounds so delicate that I was expecting some sort of translucent wafer/edible moonbeam. Surprise: I was wrong! No one would use adjectives like subtle or light to describe moon cakes, but guess what? Once you get used to them, you learn to love them, and since Betsy and I were used to them, our grocery store’s mountain of moon cakes was worthy of celebration in and of itself. Whoever says moon cakes aren’t an everyday food: for better or worse, the residents of room 607 have proved you wrong. We even had a moon cake friend at the grocery store who helped us pick out what we wanted, and warned us in advance that the day before the Mid-Autumn festival, the massive mooncake mound (literally the center of the grocery store), was going to be gone. What kind of a joke is that? No cakes for us on the day before we’re supposed to be eating these cakes? I mean, we managed to find a different source, but it was a shock.
Now that I’ve written a thesis about moon cakes, maybe I should describe the festival itself. It takes place on the day when the moon is the largest it’ll be all year. The ideal way to spend the festival is to be together with friends and family, looking at the moon, and eating… you already know. Beijing’s pollution certainly added an element of suspense to the whole watching the moon situation. I was literally running between buildings, trying to dodge the haze so I could really appreciate the moon. I did eventually see it clearly!
Observing the Mid-Autumn Festival was a little bittersweet. On the one hand, it’s a beautiful traditional holiday, and having the opportunity to really see how it’s celebrated in China was fantastic. On the other hand, it’s a holiday that’s equal parts about the importance of nature and togetherness, and I was spending it smoggily, a few thousand miles away from my family and friends. Not to worry, though! One of the most beautiful poems about the Mid-Autumn festival (there are quite a few) is actually about being apart from the people you love; one of my teachers read it aloud to kick off class on the day of the festival so we wouldn’t feel too alone over the family-oriented holiday. I think the poem she taught us is actually a part of a longer poem, but I can’t be sure. Here it is:
The poem is about looking at the moon reflected on the sea and realizing that even the people you love who are far away from you are sharing the same moment.
Additionally, in China’s big cities, expats and foreign students are hardly the only ones who can’t make it home for the Mid-Autumn Festival. Both white-collar urban professionals and young people from rural areas move to big cities like Beijing and Shanghai in hopes of finding a high-paying job and raising their standard of living. Many workers lack the time and money that they would need to spend the festival at home. Most of my teachers said they planned on having a low-key holiday – having dinner with friends, or with their spouses and children if they have them, and taking a minute or two to try to see the moon. They had work the day of the festival and the day after (I’m not sure if Chinese teachers and students still had class), so only the one or two teachers who grew up in Beijing felt that spending the holiday with their whole family was a possibility, and even those teachers said they might not end up seeing their whole family, preferring to spend the holiday with friends.
Possibly because observing the Mid-Autumn Festival in the traditional way is becoming more difficult, the main street of restaurants and snack stalls by my university’s gate was entirely filled with people and stalls on the night of the festival. Cars that wanted to get through had to weave between blocks of people and vendors brazen enough to park chuar carts or noodle stalls more or less in the center of the road. On the one hand, the festival didn’t have a formal family feel to it – it was more of a mass of humanity. On the other hand, though, it definitely felt like a festival – the atmosphere was inclusive, which I think was important for people who couldn’t go home. Plus, we were all outside, so we had a better shot at spotting the moon.
About the tragically unpopular five kernel mooncake – apparently, it’s the original moon cake (or at least a member of that illustrious society), and as such, despite the fact that 98% of everyone seems to hate this particular type of cake, the moon cake companies won’t discontinue them. In fact, the poor five kernel mooncake took a lot of flak on weibo this year – there were a bunch of jokes about giving your least favorite person a five kernel moon cake, or testing to see whether your boyfriend really loves you or not by giving him a five kernel moon cake and seeing whether or not he eats it/complains.
CHINESE NATIONAL DAY
Chinese National Day (国庆节) is an odd little 10 day extravaganza. Chinese people (with the exception of ACC’s teachers, because ACC students still had to go to class) get all 10 days off to celebrate. This being China, when I say they get those 10 days, I don’t mean to imply that they get them free and clear – they have to make up 7 or so days by working and attending school on certain Saturdays and Sundays. There are floral displays everywhere, including a GIGANTIC one in Tian’an Men that I don’t think is actually made of flowers. Apparently, it used to be that every province would send a massive “floral” display to Beijing, but recently, as part of Xi Jinping’s efforts to combat waste, that practice got nixed. Except for the flowers, there aren’t really a lot of traditions that go along with National Day. Because of the days off, a lot of people travel, so popular destinations are packed and tickets are hard to come by. Beijing, especially in the center and at clutch historical spots, was a zoo. Our program went to a cultural performance at Lao She teahouse on the actual day of National Day. Lao She teahouse is just a tourist destination – apparently, Nixon and Mao went there on Nixon’s famous 1972 visit to China. I know this because there is a life-sized statue of the two of them shaking hands prominently located in the teahouse. Basically, you go to Lao She to experience a traditional teahouse environment and watch performances of traditional forms of entertainment. You don’t just wander in and find a table; tickets are purchased in advance, and are pretty expensive, especially around National Day. I didn’t really think that Lao She was representative of a real traditional teahouse experience until we watched the movie《 活着》(To Live), which includes this scene: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=coFMgaxH5LM (you can skip the credits by jumping to 1:47, and you can see the whole teahouse by or before 3:00). The teahouse in the movie actually looks a lot like Lao She teahouse. Basically, we sat with our classmates and teachers, sampled tea snacks and tea, and enjoyed demonstrations of kung fu, Beijing opera, acrobatics, comedy, and other traditional performance art forms. While all of this was interesting, probably the best part of the whole Lao She experience was having a chance to be part of a crowd of Chinese tourists. Seriously, the whole place was wall-to-wall tourists, all in town for National Day.
Right before visiting the teahouse, a few classmates, 陈老师, and I walked down to Tiananmen Square to see all the people milling around. It was packed, so we watched and took pictures from across the street. The next day, Betsy, a different teacher, a few other classmates, and I went down to Tiananmen again to visit the National Museum. The museum is massive – big enough to accommodate the flood of visitors without feeling packed, even if it was a lot livelier than it ordinarily would have been – and very cool, but just as neat was actually walking through Tiananmen on the way to the subway to make our way back. Unfortunately, my camera was dead, but the square was bustling with people checking out the National Day landscaping and portraits, crossing over to the Forbidden City, and taking picture after picture after picture. Vendors selling China-themed everything – from temporary tattoos and hats to kites – were posted up about every foot and a half. It was just wild – and the number of people crammed in each subway car pushed the limits of the possible. Outside Tiananmen, though, especially in my neighborhood, which is bustling but not historic, we passed National Day(s) fairly quietly.
Halloween has been pretty low-key for me ever since going to college. No matter what, nothing seems to compare with the hordes of trick-or-treaters who descend on Hyde Park every year and the Halloween enthusiasm that the whole neighborhood shows. That being said, Halloween in China was fun! Our program had a pumpkin carving contest that I initially didn’t anticipate participating in, but ended up joining when I realized that it was less of a competition and more of a group activity. A bunch of our teachers and two of our teachers’ children were there to watch us carve. The teachers offered constructive criticism, and the kids, who were around three and four, just ran around staring and being adorable. There’s an amazing picture of one teacher’s three year old son, Dong Dong, wearing a pumpkin lid as a hat and just looking absolutely baffled. The pumpkin carving was a nice opportunity for everyone to get together and play, and for our teachers to be a part of a distinctly American cultural tradition.
Some students went to a party billed as the world’s largest Halloween party. It was hosted at the largest chalet in China (China has chalets?) on November 1st (so, Halloween in America, I guess). I think the shuttle there took about five hours. I wasn’t really up for such a large-scale endeavor, but it seemed like everyone had fun – Wu Laoshi, who taught me at Middlebury, also had some students from her program in China who went. I think the idea of celebrating Halloween in any way in China is really interesting, since it’s still very much a foreign concept. The website for that massive Tianjin party – the largest Halloween party in the world – was hilarious, because its frequently asked questions were topped off with “What is Halloween?” and “Why are we doing this?”.
As I’m sure you can imagine, spending Thanksgiving away from home was a little bittersweet. However, with the exception of the turkey, which was ordered from a western restaurant, ACC students got to make our own Thanksgiving dinner. Most of you know that I love to cook, but even more than that, having the chance to work together with friends to share the holiday with our classmates and teachers turned out to be one of my favorite ACC memories. We actually observed Thanksgiving a day or two early, but working with other people to contribute to the menu made me feel like I was really celebrating the holiday, rather than just eating a formal dinner in late November. Thanksgiving, apart from being a wonderful holiday in its own right, was fun because it was one of the few times where I got to share a core aspect of American culture with my teachers and other Chinese people – in this case, the chefs and busboys in the kitchen of our hotel, who were amazingly helpful and friendly and endlessly curious about what we were cooking, what the dishes were made of, and if we were really going to eat that. We were playing music on my computer, and any time iTunes started playing a Chinese song or a song they recognized, a few of the chefs would start pacing a track outside the doorway of the room we were cooking in, singing or whistling along.
ACC put out a sign-up sheet for students to volunteer to cook. My friend Kevin and I signed up to make pumpkin and apple pies. Since we were cooking for 60+ people, we decided to make 10 pies. We drafted Betsy to help – she’d never made a pie before, but you’d never have known. We couldn’t have done it without her, or without the ACC teachers, who were amazing at making pie crust. The other person we seriously couldn’t have done it without is Sarah Hilton’s mom, who gave us the recipes for her pumpkin and apple pies. Sure, there are loads of recipes on the internet, and I’m sure that 98% of them are wonderful, but having recipes that we could definitely trust made it much easier to deal with ingredient substitutions, measuring spoons that measure in grams, and ovens that use Celsius.
Because so many students signed up to cook, we were split into two days. Pies were made the day before our Thanksgiving dinner, then wrapped and refrigerated. When we were waiting for the pies to cool, we had a chance to hang out with the kitchen staff. It started out with them offering food – plain steamed buns (馒头) and roasted potatoes – to the whole group as everyone finished up. Kevin, Betsy, and I had already eaten dinner, but the staff made sure that we at least ate some of each dish. In the end, it was just me, Betsy, Kevin, and Guo老师 waiting for pies to cool. The kitchen staff came back with rice noodle soup and literally wouldn’t allow us to say no to the rice noodles, and so we all stood around eating our noodles and chatting. It would have been a fun experience no matter what, but having Guo 老师there made the whole thing really natural – there weren’t any awkward pauses or total disconnects, so we got to talk about all sorts of things – their hometowns, our program, Thanksgiving, their jobs, and so on. To finish things off, we all took pictures together – I didn’t have my camera, but I think Kevin has one – and I started getting super psyched every time I saw someone from the kitchen in the main building of the hotel.
All right, folk of the Western wild. I went to Xi’An over a month ago, and am fairly close to forgetting any/all things that I did there. As some of those things were (sort of) cool, I should write this while I still can. Here we go. Our schedule in Xi’An was as follows: 1. Get to Xi’An around 6 AM. Shower, breakfast, take a powder, jazzercise at hotel until 9 AM. Take a 3 hour bus ride to Yongfeng School BECAUSE WE HAVE FRIENDS THERE!!!! More on that in a paragraph. Hang on to your hats. After Yong Feng, we are released into the city like a swarm of freewheeling idiot locusts… so naturally, I go sightseeing with teachers and refuse to let go of my roommate’s hand. Mostly kidding. After this point, the order of activities gets a little foggy, but please be assured, I had these experiences. 2. Spend a few hours on a bus. Go see the Terracotta Warriors. We are now free to leave Xi’An. Not really. 3. More bus. Go see another emperor’s tomb and accompanying museum. This museum is newer than the Terracotta Warriors one, as this tomb was discovered more recently. 4. BUS. Go see an emperor’s shower retreat. Swanky. 5. BUS. Go ride a bike on the Xi’An city wall. There is already a post about this. 6. Free play day. Choose from a list of recommended sites: my friends and I go to Wild Goose Pagoda. We take… a BUS! Get back in time to collect your valuables, watch some drunken idiot smash the glass hotel front doors, and BUS to the train station. 7. Peace out, Xi’An.
Now that we have the rough outline of my time in Xi’An, let’s get some pictures and adjectives going. Full disclosure: probably because of the enormous amount of time spent on a bus and the insignificant amount of time spent actually walking around Xi’An, this city wasn’t my very favorite. In fact, in my humble estimation, Xi’An is kind of a hole. However, people have chosen to live there on purpose for a looooong time, so it almost definitely has some things going for it, and I did have some very fun times on this trip, which I promise to share with minimal brattiness.
1. What is Yong Feng School, and how do you have friends there? Many of my classmates and I received a travel grant from the Fulbright Foundation. In order to claim our grant, we have to participate in community service activities and then write a page-long reflection about each activity. Previous shindigs included visiting a Chinese nursing home and presenting our independent research projects (in Chinese) to Chinese adult students of English, who then used English to ask questions that we answered in Chinese. Yong Feng school was another community service/cultural activity. We were each assigned a pen pal at Yong Feng. We wrote them a letter, and then went to visit them when we traveled to Xi’An. My pen pal’s English name is Louis. He is 11, and cooler than me by far. Betsy’s pen pal is named Betty. Louis, Betty, and their classmates picked their English names out of a hat – a boy hat or a girl hat, depending on the student’s sex. I thought the names the teachers let their students choose from were very interesting; scanning the list of pen pals’ names was like looking at a year book from the 1960s – Ted, Norman, Betty, Nina, Rose, and Martin were all present and accounted for. Our pen pals had been studying our names, as well. Although my first few hours at Yong Feng School were spent with first grade and fourth grade, a passing sixth grader saw my name tag, recognized my name, and stopped to inform me that his classmate was my pen pal, no small feat in a grade of roughly 40 students.
So, why Yong Feng School? Yong Feng is a little bit different from most schools in China. It, along with several other schools in rural areas, was fortunate enough to attract the attention of an American named Bob Lipp. Mr. Lipp established a teaching fellowship to send two foreign teachers to Yong Feng for a minimum of one year. Because of this, Yong Feng’s English program is presumably much better than other schools’. Yong Feng School also boasts other benefits, such as smaller class sizes – roughly 30 students per class – and resources such as updated buildings and a computer lab. This year, Yong Feng School actually has four foreign teaching fellows, as well as a coordinator, a graduate of the London School of Economics, who is trying to determine whether the work done by the foreign teaching fellows could be done as well by Chinese teachers. Three of the four teaching fellows graduated from ACC, so our teachers were eager to show us what kind of opportunities ACC graduates have a chance at attaining.
We spent the entire school day at Yong Feng. Ideally, we were going to observe a class, meet the teachers at Yong Feng/have an info session about the fellowship that employs them, meet our pen pals, and observe more classes. Because of a scheduling mishap, we weren’t really able to observe any classes except P.E., which was still cool. I think the main purpose of our visit was to give us a chance to experience a day in the Chinese educational system, and encourage us to compare it to the American school system. Even P.E. classes, which aren’t nearly as stressful or regimented as academic courses, and even at an atypical school like Yong Feng, there were clear differences between American and Chinese classes. At my American primary school, PE always wobbled on the line between order and chaos. When we ran laps, we ran at our natural speed in a straggling herd; when we played games, everyone participated, but our varying levels of enthusiasm and skill were easy to determine. At Yong Feng, every grade, from first grade through sixth, ran their laps in a tight formation. There were no stragglers and no real leaders; the students shuffled around the schoolyard in an orderly column, and the whole group finished at the same time. When they finished running, rather than break formation, they just stayed in their rows and turned to face their coach at attention. Grades 4-6 spent the entirety of their PE class jumping rope; 5th and 6th grade were competing against one another to see which grade could jump more. This competition was as well-organized as the laps had been. I couldn’t help but compare these P.E. classes to the tennis classes I taught at Skyland Camp for several summers. My classes had maybe one third as many students as Yong Feng. Had my campers completed a single drill with the discipline and precision that characterized every aspect of PE at Yong Feng, I don’t know if I would have been thrilled or terrified.
My pen pal, Louis, was confident, well-spoken, and polite. Because he still had to go to class, I was a little nervous that we wouldn’t have a chance to take a picture together. Don’t worry, we did. However, because I was concerned, I now have lots of pictures of Louis at P.E. and Louis’s outstanding essay, which was posted on the wall.
The visit to Yong Feng was fun and thought-provoking. However, what really made me appreciate my time at the school was discussing the current state of Chinese education – the system in general, how rural schools compare to urban schools, and how Yong Feng compares to the rural schools around it. This information was provided by the foreign teachers’ coordinator. According to her description, the Chinese education system prioritizes testing above all else. Students rely on rote memorization to test well, which works well in subjects like mathematics and, to a certain degree, science, but is criticized as preventing students from developing creativity and analytical abilities. Urban schools in China are generally far superior to rural schools, particularly in northern China, where rural areas are much poorer than urban areas. In the city, students are more likely to have experiential learning experiences, such as trips to museums, zoos, or historical sites. In the country, such opportunities are very hard to come by. Additionally, rural schools, due to poverty in the region, often lack many resources that are considered basic in urban schools, and teachers’ salaries at rural schools are much lower than the salaries earned by teachers in cities. As a result, excellent teachers at rural schools tend to be rewarded with transfers to a school in a city, or at least to one of the rural district’s established “best” schools. It is very difficult for rural schools to convince good teachers not to leave for a school with better resources and a higher salary.
Rural schools also face difficulties in retaining students after middle school. In the country, many students’ families are relatively uneducated. Many of the students’ parents support their families as migrant workers, who work at low-level jobs in the nearest big city. Children are often raised by their grandparents, whose education levels are frequently lower than those of the children’s parents. In households where the head of the family is supporting the family without much of an education, schoolwork is often not emphasized at home. In China, high school is the hardest stage of education. Moreover, a student’s entire high school experience is directed at preparing them for the Chinese college entrance exam. Because of this, many students drop out of school before high school and begin working. Yong Feng’s students are too young to drop out of school. However, retaining teachers and encouraging students to work hard in school are still issues that the school has to grapple with.
Many of these issues are also issues faced by schools in the United States. Even so, it seems as though in China, these issues are more severe and develop sooner in a student’s career. These are issues that fascinate me in the US, and seeing them framed in a different country’s culture and social fabric made me think of them in a whole new way. My visit to Yong Feng definitely reshaped my concept of the Chinese schooling system, and truly motivated me to learn more about it on my own.
2. Sightseeing with teachers and friends! No, I didn’t actually refuse to let go of Betsy’s hand, but had we not found a group to go play with, I probably would have started acting like a five year old. We went to a street full of restaurants, craft shops, and snack stalls that are mostly run by people from the Hui ethnic minority (回族). All joking aside, I was really glad we were with our teachers, because they took us to several of their favorite restaurants. Without them, it would have been really difficult to figure out where to go, and it would never have occurred to me to spread dinner between three different restaurants. Restaurants and stalls on this street have a few special characteristics. Because the Hui people are Muslim, these restaurants don’t serve alcohol. Instead, each restaurant has its own take on a special beverage called suan mei tang (酸梅汤) – literally sour plum soup. I know it sounds gross, but it’s actually really good. It’s served cold, and it kind of tastes like really strong grape juice. Other specialties include a type of bread – large, round, flat, and very pretty, with sesame seed designs on it – a hamburger-esque snack in which a plain round piece of bread is stuffed with shaved beef, green bean cakes (not like American green beans – these are sweet and a little bit chalky), and a kind of brittle candy that’s made with a huge wooden mallet. Some stalls let you try your hand at using the mallet. I didn’t do it, but a classmate of mine did, but lost his grip on the handle and obliterated a different cart that was selling spoons across the alley.
3. Terracotta warriors! Very impressive. The other museum – also very impressive. I honestly think that pictures might be better than a description for this part.
4. Other emperor’s tomb and museum!
5. Emperor’s shower retreat! Very pretty. Apparently, this place was the favorite spot of one emperor and his very favorite, rather Rubenesque concubine, so there are posters of a painting of her posted all over the place. According to their representation, she was a squinty circle with black hair, so now we all know what emperors go for.
In actuality, this place was very pretty, and if I were trying to impress my very favorite concubine – or my very favorite anyone – and had this place at my disposal, I would probably also invite them for a shower, a stroll, and a rollicking good time.
5. Yep. Please see “Confession Time: Xi’An Edition”.
6. Wild Goose Pagoda is a very tall pagoda in a Buddhist temple. The temple and its grounds are really beautiful – there are very detailed shrines to the Buddha and several bodhisattvas, including my favorite, the Goddess of Mercy (观音). Incidentally, the tea I drank every day this semester is named Iron Goddess of Mercy in her honor. We made it to every part of the temple grounds, which was definitely worthwhile. Weirdly, the one building that we neglected a little bit was the one we had actually come to see. After paying admission to the temple, we found out we had to buy another ticket to climb to the top of the pagoda. Also, the pagoda is extra tall and our time was limited (train to catch), so we walked around the pagoda and looked at it closely, but did not go to the top.
7. Peace out, Xi’An. The story of our triumphant return to Beijing is under “Soul Trains”.
Here’s a quick roundup of nifty China-related things the internet gave me.
1. We already talked about the Forbidden City, but one thing I didn’t mention was a giant, beautifully carved marble slab (apparently the heaviest stone in the Forbidden City) that caught the attention of a visiting physicist. He wanted to know how it got there, and now NPR wants to tell you about it: http://www.npr.org/2013/11/04/242305465/howd-they-do-that-the-story-of-a-giant-rock-and-a-road-of-ice
2. China thinks Norway is a low quality, badly behaved country. Leave it to Chinese officials to stick it to those stuck-up Scandinavian fishsticks. http://drezner.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/12/06/is_norway_a_low_quality_badly_behaved_country
3. Did you hear that China is reforming the one child policy? http://www.chinafile.com/what-will-beginning-end-one-child-policy-bring . They’re also in the process of making changes to the Gao Kao (高考), China’s infamously intense college entrance exam (and the topic of my just-completed research project) and are reportedly closing forced labor camps. There’s still time before these changes take effect, so fingers crossed for smooth sailing.
4. This should probably have been my first link, because as much as I like the other links, this is my favorite. IT’S MY ROOMMATE’S BLOG! http://danesanddragons.tumblr.com/ BE EXCITED WITH ME! BLOGGILY BETSY! Technically, she shares custody of the blog with her friend who is studying in Denmark – hence the name Danes and dragons – so half of the posts do not originate in our dorm room and instead happen in a Scandinavian enclave not tooooooo far from fishy, badly-behaved Norway. Fun fact: Betsy pronounces dragons as dray-gons.
5. Last but not least, this has nothing to do with China but is miraculous: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/mantis_shrimp
Hi, folks at home. For anyone who skipped the title, this post is about swearing, so it may have a few colorful phrases sprinkled in here and there. Steel yourselves. Or hey, if you’re not someone I would usually swear in front of, you could go on to the next post. It’s about Beijing!
If you’re still here, though… I still haven’t finished writing a post about a trip I took a MONTH ago. Doesn’t that make you mad? Let’s swear about it!
This is a link to an NPR post that includes a video called “How to Swear in Cuban”: http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2013/08/08/210112163/how-i-learned-to-swear-in-cuban. It’s a recording of a now-deceased comedian, Guillermo Álvarez Guedes, who was popular with the large Cuban refugee population in Miami because of his ability to represent the uniqueness and “otherness” of Cuban culture set in an American city. He did this, at least in part, by using swear words specific to Cuban culture – slurs that just about anyone who wasn’t Cuban had difficulty understanding. I don’t really know how to “swear in Cuban”, but I love this video, because it highlights the vitality of vulgarity to true fluency.
I guess what I’m saying is, you know you’re fluent in a language when you’re able to properly use the phrases that are almost impossible to teach. For several of the phrases in this video, Álvarez Guedes prefaces his “lesson” by explaining that the phrase has no formal definition – to use it correctly, you just have to know how it’s used. While that sounds simple, without a lifetime of hearing phrases like this, how can you possibly really understand the emphasis of the phrase, its relative vulgarity, its weird little associations? Which words can you use when you’re joking? Which words actually have some positive connotations? Which words can be “reclaimed”? Which ones never will be? What words used to be acceptable, but probably never will be again? What words would you never say in front of your mom or your grandpa? What word is the first one middle schoolers take up to make their friends think they’re tough? What words do your parents not realize have double meanings? Which words make you think of sports games? Which ones remind you of bar brawls? Which words do otherwise polite ladies let slip when they really piss one another off? Which word lets you know things are really, really bad when you hear your parents use it? How does tone or context affect a given word? Which words are the “worse” words? (If you want to hear a funny story about “the worse word”, look up John Mulaney, “The Worse Word”. He’s a stand-up comic and I love him. Oh hey, found it for you:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RC2vOLaTBLE)
What words (if any) do you, personally, refuse to use? Think about the difference between “damned” and “fucking”. Think about the difference between calling someone a bitch or a shit, or any variation on fucker. Think about the smorgasbord of words I haven’t used yet – ones milder or more severe than any of those, depending on who you ask, what time it is, who’s in your company, your personal opinion, and what region you’re in. It’s fascinating, right? And don’t you feel dangerous now, spending so much time thinking about swear words?
I fully confess that, in English, I swear like a sailor. In Chinese, though, I lack the vocabulary and the sense of context that would enable me to use these particularly forceful forms of expression. Moreover, asking someone to teach you how to swear is a complicated little request. First of all, as the video demonstrates (you really should listen to it!), it’s tough, especially considering that I have a limited grasp of the language we’re working with. Plus, the Chinese college students I know, especially the girls, are a little shy about swearing around foreigners. They laugh when we tell them that we swear, but they get flustered when we ask them for help adding a little color to our vocabulary. Because of the difficulty involved in teaching and learning swear words well, I’m officially adding learning to swear properly in Chinese (or any other language I study) to my list of language learning-related goals. Wish me some 他妈的luck.