MianYang: April 6 – 12

Blog Entry: Monday, April 12th. It’s been a week since my last post: a week marked by busy work days, a brief illness, and two nice outings with hosts who remain persistent about ensuring I have something interesting to do on weekends. Last Tuesday (April 6) was the start of my final two weeks here and, as planned, I began teaching the 14 classes of 8th graders. My plan for grade 8 is exactly the same as grade 7: a “getting to know you” lesson the first week and an “English skits” lesson the second week. I taught the first eight classes on Tuesday and Wednesday and it went well. Like the seventh-graders, they are wildly excited at my arrival, with everyone applauding as I enter the room and some students shouting “Nice to meet you!” before I can even say hello. Some of the girls are so cute because they are really interested in me but they are shy. I often see a little smiling face looking expectantly toward me but then quickly turning away in embarrassment when I make eye contact or speak to them. It’s great fun, of course, to be the object of so many students’ fascination. But it’s also a great honor that they have made themselves so emotionally available to me, and I feel compelled to try to live up to their high expectations for me. They seem to have a predisposition to like Westerners and I don’t want to be the one that disappoints them. So many of them have such a sweet, loving nature that I just want to hug them. Many kids have given me little gifts: origami foldings, pens, candy bars, apples, a Harry Potter book (in Chinese) and even a small compact mirror.

Video: Entering Classroom

Most students are nervous about speaking to me. I understand that and I try my best to help reduce their anxiety. I start the lesson by telling them I am here to help them speak English better and that I will help them if they make a mistake. I tell them that I understand why they are nervous because I am nervous about speaking Chinese and that we must all be brave and speak anyway. I hope my willingness to utter broken Mandarin with a New Jersey accent inspires them to believe they can do at least that well with English. After this pep talk, I open the floor for questions. Typically, I get no questions for the first 30 seconds or so. Then, one or two of the more advanced/brave students will start the ball rolling. Usually, once a student has successfully elicited an English response from me, they are emboldened to ask more questions. Gradually, more and more of the students join in the fun, sometimes encouraged by their Chinese English teacher.

Often, I’ll be asked if I can say something in Chinese, if I can sing an English song and if I know Chinese Kung Fu. Whatever I say in Chinese brings applause, my rendition of “Wheels on the Bus” is highly regarded, and my faux Kung-Fu movements always generate laughter. My natural tendency to be a ham works in my favor here and the class gradually relaxes. Usually, by the time the class ends, there are many raised hands in the air, and a groan of disappointment meets the bell.

I am kind of amazed at my own comfort level in these lessons. Fear of public speaking has always been a problem for me but in these lessons I am totally relaxed from start to finish. I must admit it feels satisfying to be able to walk into a crowded classroom and handle whatever questions are posed, keeping the conversation rolling for 40 minutes. I realize, however, that I have the luxury of having the “real” teacher in the room with me. I know that he/she will help me, if necessary, with discipline and/or translation issues. These teachers have a very hard job. They must handle classes of 65 to 70 young, restless teenagers on their own. They teach about 5 lessons per day but they must also prepare lessons, assign and read homework, grade papers, attend meetings, etc. The school day here is very long. Everyone is here at 7:00am: the students are in the classrooms practicing oral recitations led by a student leader; the teachers peering through an open window in the hallway to ensure the students are behaving. The first 40-minute lesson starts at 8:35 and four lessons precede lunch at 12:00. Lunch is taken quickly in massive dining halls (teachers have a smaller one but there are 180 teachers to feed, too.) After lunch, the school basically closes down until about 2:00. Doors to the classroom building are locked and everyone goes home and has a siesta. For more than half of the students and teachers, home is a flat or dorm room in one of several large buildings adjacent to the teaching buildings. Classes start again at 2:30 and there are 4 afternoon lessons before dinner at 5:45. At 6:30pm, there are three more lessons that run until about 9pm. Evening lessons occur daily between Sunday and Thursday. Teachers and students are always asking me about the difference between their school and American schools, and one of the obvious differences I point out is how much longer their day is. Both teachers and students already suspected this: many of them have told me they think it would be better if they had more free time. Students don’t really even have time to do their homework; much of it must be done on the weekend.

When I was teaching in the primary school near Shanghai in 2008, I taught 7 lessons per week. Here, in the Mianyang middle school, I average twice as many. Yet, this is somewhat easier because I don’t have to prepare two new lessons (one for grade 2 and one for grade 4) every week as I did there. There are so many different classes here — I can get by with two simple lessons that are repeated many times. The downside to repeating the same lessons, of course, is I get tired of doing the same thing day after day. I also hear the same questions over and over again. I was too tired or busy to be homesick until the 30th time someone asked me if I miss my family. I also didn’t realize how ready I am to be a grandfather until the 20th time I was asked if I have grandchildren (no pressure, Michael, I can wait…)

On Wednesday night (April 7), I started feeling a little queasy and had trouble going to sleep – within hours I was quite ill with vomiting and chills. After a restless night, I called my advisor at 6:30am to let him know I wasn’t going to be able to teach that Thursday. Mr. Wang then came by my hotel room about 8:00 to see if he could help. He wanted to take me to the hospital, which seems to be the normal procedure when you get sick. I told him I had my own medicine that I would take and rest in my room but promised him that if I wasn’t better within 24 hours, I would go to the hospital. During the day I dozed fitfully. Still feeling very ill at about 4pm, I decided I needed to start taking the Cipro antibiotic that I brought with me. I felt much better within one hour so it was obviously the right decision. I still have one 5-day supply of Cipro, should I have another bout of illness. Of course, I’ll try to be careful to avoid sickness if at all possible.

I felt well on Friday morning, though still not in the mood to eat much, and gave the two lessons I was scheduled for. In the afternoon, I felt well enough to play some basketball with the boys. Basketball in China has exploded in popularity. The boys here absolutely love the NBA and play on the playground every chance they get. I was able to play with them for 15 minutes but then gave up out of exhaustion. I also played a little ping-pong with a nice young man who brought a paddle for me: needless to say, they are much better at ping-pong than I am :-).

Saturday, April 10: Fishing, Chinese Style
During our drive to see the earthquake damage at Beichuan, we crossed many rivers and I mentioned to Headmaster Bian that I enjoy fishing. He told me that maybe we could go fishing on a future outing. Sure enough, he and two of his administrative assistants picked me up at the hotel Saturday morning and we drove about 45 minutes to an area where we could fish. It was certainly not in the country: the area was more a combination of large business/factory complexes and small homes. We drove down a small lane off the main highway, passing houses and buildings and dodging people and bicycles laden with everything imaginable (one day I saw a guy with a very large sofa strapped sideways across the back wheel of his bike – he was slowly weaving his way across a 6-lane highway!) We made a quick turn and were in a complex that had several large ponds where people were fishing. As you’ll see in the accompanying photos/videos, these are man-made concrete ponds and they are stocked with fish that look something like carp. Fishing poles that telescope to a length of about 25 or 30 feet are provided by the establishment. The pole has no reel – instead a long nylon fishing line is tied to the end of the pole and it’s rigged with a float (bobber to you Midwesterners) and a small hook. Also provided is a kind of dough bait (flour-based?). As soon as we threw our baited lines in, we started catching small (~ 1 pound) fish. The fish are regularly fed something like “Purina fish chow” and several fishermen were throwing handfuls of it around their floats to attract fish. It wasn’t particularly sporting but I enjoyed it anyway. We fished for about 2 hours. When we left, the workers took our fish and weighed them – our fish were weighed (to determine how much we owed) and placed in large plastic bags. I must admit the fish we took away were more lively (fresher) than the ones I usually drag home from a fishing trip at home.

Sunday, April 11: Visit to an Ancient Temple – On Sunday morning, Mr. Wang and his wife picked me up at the hotel and took me to a famous, ancient temple known as QiQu Mountain Temple. The temple is quite far from Mianyang and the roads are under construction so it took more than two hours to get there. Over 1000 years old, this fascinating place is situated on top of a mountain and surrounded by ancient cypress trees. Mr. Wang always wants to get out of Mianyang to enjoy the better air of the countryside. Usually I don’t notice an improvement in air quality on these outings but, in this case, he was right. It was a lovely spot and I enjoyed being there. The temple did suffer some damage from the 2008 earthquake and some of the ancient buildings are still closed for repair/renovation.

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