Goodbye to Mianyang Middle School

NOTE: After returning home, I had the chance to make a longer video of my experience teaching at the Mianyang Middle School. I’m adding a link to it here.

Video: My Experience Teaching in Mianyang

My final week was busy as I made up the four lessons I missed the previous Thursday, teaching 18 lessons before finishing up on Friday morning. The classes were mostly fun as the kids really enjoyed the skit I wrote… well… what they really liked was seeing their classmates dressed up as Michael Jackson or Lady Gaga. They laughed so hard and carried on that I worried a bit about disturbing neighboring classrooms. Getting them to write and perform their own skits continued to be a hit-or-miss proposition. In a few classes almost every little sub-group performed; in other classes I was lucky to get two or three skits. A few kids were great at putting themselves into a role: a couple of boys actually danced and sang like Michael Jackson and they got screaming affirmations from their classmates. But most students were a little too shy to throw themselves into the role. I tried to inspire them by showing them how they might act – “Yao Ming should talk with a deep voice like this…” and “Michael Jackson has a small, soft voice like this…” In an attempt to show them how I thought Lady Gaga might say “I’m very beautiful…” I tried to look alluring and mimed brushing my hair back while I strutted sexily (well, I tried) across the front of the classroom. The students just loved this, but I think I might have shocked a few of the teachers J. I’m enclosing a video of one of the better skits.

Video: An English Skit

By the end of the week, all two thousand grade 7 and grade 8 students had the special email address that I set up for them to write to me. Many seemed enthusiastic about writing but I made it clear I will not attempt to respond to their emails until I return home in June. I have received only a dozen or so emails thus far so my guess is it will turn out to be a manageable number. I am thinking it would really be nice to find American pen pals of their own age. If any of you have ideas about where I might find some interested middle school kids, please forward them to me.

During this final week, I spent more time getting to know some of the 8th grade teachers. On the previous Friday they took me out for Hot Pot. This is a Sichuan specialty in which a large pot of very hot, spicy oil is mounted in the center of the table and you cook your own meats and veggies in it. I like Hot Pot even though some of the “meats” are internal organs (e.g. stomach) that we don’t tend to eat at home, and that takes some getting used to. After dinner, Miss Ma, Miss Huang (Brenda) and Miss Lam and I walked to a local park where many different kinds of dances were underway. Most of the dancers are retired people and it seems to happen every morning and evening. I tried to dance along with the group doing an interesting dance (see accompanying video) but the moves were too complicated for me to pick up quickly. Another group was doing ballroom dancing and Brenda and I did the waltz for a while and it was fun. This is an aspect of Chinese culture that I really like: people meeting in public areas to enjoy dancing, tai chi, and various other activities. I wish I had had a little more time and energy to devote to this activity: I think the locals would have welcomed me.

Video: Mianyang Dancing in the Park

On Wednesday afternoon, Miss Lai (Lilly) invited me and Miss Huang (Brenda) to her home for afternoon tea. Her home is a lovely, spacious apartment on the 11th floor of a building near the school, with views of the school, the river, and the temple on the other side of the river. She served us tea ceremonially using a beautiful tea set – this involved washing the tea leaves, warming the serving vessels, and some other rituals deemed important by those who take tea seriously. Pre-washed leaves were allowed to steep in a very small pot and each batch of leaves was used three times and we drank from small (tiny) cups that Lilly replenished frequently. Lilly’s apartment is decorated with interesting items she and her husband have acquired and she told us about her experience there during the 2008 earthquake. Following the earthquake, the residents of her building were told they would have to move out until the building could be certified structurally sound. But she and her family stayed anyway, without electricity or water and walking to the 11th floor! She said her whole family (husband is a government worker and their daughter is now in college in Beijing) volunteered to help others for several weeks following the quake.

During the tea, she served some interesting snacks and it was a very nice afternoon. Lilly presented me with a little gift – a medallion of tea from the Qiang people near Beichuan. About 4pm Brenda said she had to go back to school to give another lesson so our tea party ended. Lilly would prepare and serve dinner for her husband at about 6:00pm and then return to school to teach more lessons that evening.

Tea with Lilly and Brenda

Lilly also took me to the bus station on Thursday afternoon so I could purchase my ticket to JiuZhaiGou for Saturday morning. She is very proud of her car and has been driving for several years so her driving skills were better than some other teachers. The teacher that picked me up at the airport on my first day had planned to take me to the bus station but her car was out of action. The first mishap involved a collision with another car that apparently cost her an immediate 1000RMB ($160) payment to the other driver. Just days later, someone else was driving her car and hit a pedestrian. I’m not sure how that turned out but I know I’m not surprised to hear of accidents. Drivers are very aggressive and traffic violations are virtually non-existent as far as I can tell. Being a pedestrian requires care here – even when you have a green “walk” sign, cars turning into the street you’re crossing seem to have the right-of-way – it requires concentration to cross the street here. Anyway, I greatly appreciated Lilly’s efforts to help me buy the bus ticket. Although I think I knew how to ask for the appropriate ticket (correct destination, date, etc.) on my own, it was nice to have an advocate proficient in the language. Her dialog with the ticket agent lasted several minutes and I know I would have been stumped by the first question the agent asked. My Mandarin is improving but I’m still much more capable of asking questions than understanding responses to them :-).

On Friday morning (April 16), my final day, I took the various presents I had wrapped for the teachers with me to school. I gave Mr. Lee, my Chinese Chess teacher, a New York baseball cap and he seemed delighted to get it. I gave other teachers baseball caps, American chocolates and nuts, and a pen that I had made up special before leaving home – it has my photo, an American flag, and the text “I have a friend in the USA” inscribed on it. I gave the headmasters small, framed photos taken on our outings and they seemed pleased, too. In addition to taking me to Beichuan and fishing, Mr. Bian had given me a beautiful, colorful hand-made over-the-shoulder bag made by the Qiang minority from Beichuan, so I wanted to let him know I appreciated his efforts.

On Friday afternoon, I had a few hours before a scheduled 4pm photo session in the school’s courtyard so I walked across the river to get a better view of the temple I had seen from Lilly’s apartment window. It’s a very old temple and the practices I saw there seemed Buddhist but I’m not really sure: perhaps it’s Taoist? My English teachers weren’t sure about that either but it’s certainly an interesting place.

Following a goodbye photo session I had about 2 hours before a scheduled goodbye dinner at a local Hot Pot restaurant, so I just hung around the school grounds for a while. Several kids came up to say goodbye: some wished me well and took some more photos, and some asked again for my email address (perhaps they were ninth-graders whom I had never taught.) One young lady gave me a gift – a small but beautiful sequined Muslim hat from XinJiang Province.

At dinner that evening I enjoyed some final moments with my teacher friends. We talked about how we hoped to stay in touch, and they asked me more questions about America and English usage. I received a very special gift from Miss Chen (Julie), a very nice, quiet person with, perhaps, the best English of anyone I met in Mianyang. A week earlier, we had spent an hour or so looking through an English joke book because there were some jokes she didn’t understand. Humor is always one of the most difficult things to pick up from a new language partly because many of the jokes are based on multiple meanings of words or on references to culturally-specific information. (Actually, Julie’s book was a British publication and there were some jokes I didn’t understand!) The gift Julie gave me was a stamp for my name: with both “John” and my Chinese name “孟思江.” I felt very touched that she had thought to give me such a special gift.

As I finish writing this blog entry, it has been almost a week since I left the school. I spent two wonderful days in JiuZhaiGou National Park, two more days in Chengdu visiting a young friend at Sichuan University and the pandas, and I’m now sitting in a charming guesthouse room in LiJiang, Yunnan Province. As I look back now I realize that leaving Mianyang Middle School wasn’t nearly as emotionally difficult as leaving the primary school on ChangXing Island in 2008. One obvious difference is I spent less time in Mianyang – 4 weeks compared to 12 weeks in 2008. But, I also think I unconsciously kept myself a little more distant emotionally than before. I suppose this special situation – of being welcomed into the lives of so many wonderful people with the knowledge that it’s likely you may never see them again after you leave – warrants maintaining a little distance. But I did have a wonderful time and I would recommend this experience to anyone.

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