Weekend Outing and Teaching

I ended the week successfully on Friday about noon after giving lessons to the remaining 4 (of 16) 7th-grade classes. One of my teacher colleagues has become very helpful to me as an interpreter. Her English name is Kerry, she speaks English very well. She’s young, just started teaching this year. She took some video of one of my lessons which is shown below.

Friday afternoon, my primary coordinator (advisor?) arranged to have 3 college students, from a local teacher’s college, meet me at my hotel. The Chinese take very good care of their visitors – this is a cultural thing I believe – and these 3 young people were lovely – taking me to several interesting stores (including Wallmart) and helping me to buy some things that are harder to find in China (e.g. floss). They also took me to dinner at a Hot Pot restaurant near my hotel and insisted on paying– I’ve learned that it is a losing battle to try to convince them to let me pay so I acquiesce quickly. We exchanged emails and phone numbers and promised to stay in touch.

Saturday morning at 9am, Kerry met me in the lobby and brought along one of the students, a young man with English name Raulson (NOT the must unusual English name I’ve heard) – we were picked up by the school (Middle School #7) headmaster, Mr. Wang, and driven to a memorial for famed and beloved poet Li Bai, at a location about one hour’s drive north of Mianyang. The drive was very interesting, as it was my first chance to see the countryside – there are very large mountains just to the west and north of town. Mr. Wang drove and told me (through Kerry or Raulson’s interpreting) about what I was seeing and where we were going. He seemed very stiff when I first met him but I know now he is very nice – during the day we visited the Li Bai memorial and a large and interesting cave (Cave of the Buddha?) and I got to know and like him. He wanted to know more about America and I told him my son was a Buddhist which surprised him – we talked a little about religion and how important Christianity is in America – they were all surprised to learn I am not a Christian – I was touched when he told me that, whatever my religious preferences were, I had a kind heart to come and help them with their English. These are the kinds of things I come for – little personal connections that bring together people who formerly knew little about each other.

After a lunch in a town which is known for a certain specialty food (we had it and I think it must be pig intestines prepared in different ways – some good, some not so good – we went to the Buddha Cave which was very interesting – at the bottom of the cave, we boarded a row boat which was propelled by a guide using a shovel as an oar and had a nice 10 minute journey to an exit from the cave into a beautiful river – I will include some photos with this blog. We then climbed a lot of hills and I was quite winded but enjoyed the exercise – weather was warm so it wasn’t too comfortable – but still fun. When we returned to the hotel, Kerry told me the headmaster wanted me to meet her for dinner – like me, she seemed to not really understand why but we met at the appointed spot and met a third teacher, Mr. Wang (Wang pronounced with a different tone), who led us to a local restaurant near the river (this area is surrounded on three sides by the river). There we met two other teachers and had a typical Chinese banquet with about 20 different dishes to choose from. I learned from Kerry that the hosts for the dinner were the parents of one of the 7th graders – they seemed like very nice people but I must admit I didn’t like the idea of parents wining and dining teachers – this seems to be part of the culture of “guanxi” (connections) which is so important in China. The hosts brought what appeared to be expensive rice wine and kept refilling the teacher’s glasses. I politely refused but had my glass filled anyway. They also were offering cigarettes – like the last time I was here, I found that some of the men have a hard time understanding my refusal to smoke or drink – it seems they think it important to share this “bonding” experience – even if I drink only a little – I guess they don’t know about alcoholism – or perhaps they think this cultural custom is more important than sobriety. In any case, these banquets are one of my least favorite parts of being here – although I am treated as an honored guest.  I cannot understand the conversation (Kerry translates what she can but the conversation moves too quickly – also they speak primarily in Sichuanese dialect so even my limited Mandarin is not very useful) and, as the male participants get a little drunk, they become more insistent about offering alcohol and cigarettes. Since I had been climbing mountains all afternoon I found it quite odious – but we were out of there by 9pm so it was tolerable. The host-parents finished the evening by giving us all gift baskets of some kind of plastic-wrapped meat. It was a short walk to my hotel and I got a good night’s sleep. This hotel is not perfect but it’s very quiet at night and I’m thankful for that.

Sunday morning, I got up and looked forward to a day alone, with time to explore the city on my own. The day started with a mini-disaster and a lesson… “never leave your glasses in a shirt pocket when you use the toilet”.  This axiom is universally true, but especially true when you have a squat-style toilet. As I prepared to proudly practice my new-found skill (non-trivial – involves balance, flexibility, planning, and luck!), I watched my eyeglasses fall to the floor and quickly disappear down the drain hole in the bottom of the porcelain floor-level toilet. It seemed to happen in slow motion – like a horrific car accident – and my first thought was.. “Oh my God! This is the worst thing that could happen!”  Telling myself not to panic, I began looking throughout the room for something I might use to retrieve the glasses from the very deep (about 3 feet down to where you can see standing water) drain.  (Yes, I know, after where they had been, perhaps I didn’t want to see them again – but I only have one other pair with me – trifocals that I don’t like so much.)  Returning to the task of “fishing” for the glasses, I realized I had nothing in the room that would work. By this time I had calmed myself and realized: 1) it wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened – worse would have been my wallet, passport or cell phone; 2) as long as I didn’t flush I had time to devise a solution; and 3) worst case, I could ask the hotel for help. I really didn’t want to ask the hotel for help – I didn’t want to have to try to explain it in Mandarin, and I wasn’t sure they would do anything about it. So I went out shopping for something that could be used for a “fishing pole”.  I walked around several local blocks looking for one of the many little hardware stores I had seen before, but it was Sunday morning and nothing was open. I had just about given up when I found a wooden broom and thought of a way to use it.

I also bought a roll of wide cellophane tape and returned to the room. Breaking off the metal hook of one of my wooden coat hangers, I taped it on the broom handle – I was shocked when my second attempt at snagging the glasses brought them up. I felt like I had accomplished the impossible – that my achievement would be worthy of first place on some kind of unusual episode of the TV show “Survival.”

I proceeded to wash my filthy prize in a small waste basket using lots of soap and hot water. Unfortunately, one of the little pads that support the glasses on your nose was lost in the disaster and, thus far, the local eyeglass stores have been unable to find a replacement – tomorrow I’ll ask Kerry if she can help – perhaps I can get a new pair of glasses with the same prescription.

While I was writing this, the maids knocked on my door for their daily cleanup of my room. They come in and completely change the sheets every day – also replenish all the complementary toiletries and do a general cleaning. I decided to give them the plastic-wrapped meats that were a gift from the previous evening and, after initially refusing, they accepted. I wasn’t really sure how I was going to eat them and I figured this was a good way to create my own “guanxi” with the hotel staff.

On Saturday I learned that I will give my introductory speech to the entire school during the Monday morning assembly on the playground. I missed it last week by arriving on Monday afternoon. I have revised the speech slightly since I have already met 1/3 of the students. The students are so supportive of my efforts to speak Mandarin that I am not so nervous, even though public speaking is always a challenge for me. I will speak in both English and Mandarin and I hope I will get it on video.

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