Juniors

Jul 7, 2013

Year 2: More respect, less attack

Our life in China comes into better focus

Deconstructing China
Helen, me and TinaThe old school gets pretty roughed up
Left: Me, with Helen and Tina in the cafeteria. Right: The juniors are pretty rough on the old school …
Our grand computer, with no deskA typical Chinese apartment buildingThe view from the school's roof
Old city, new school
Mr. Super
In the bottom left corner you can see: Mr. Super!
The school's color guardYou gotta get that furniture across the bridge somehow
Left: The Tianfu Middle School color guard. Right: How else would you get your furniture from place to place?
Men play Chinese chess by the bridgeWe're out and aboutI love noodles
The noodle shop across the street from the old school is popular with both me and the juniors.
LuzhouThe business hotel
Business hotels are always impeccably decorated. They know just how to make the modern traveler feel fancy.
wo ai chuan chuan
Isn’t my Chinese calligraphy beautiful? It says: I love chuan chuan — in that delicious chuan chuan oil.

This year, we were much better teachers. It was obvious. We overhauled our lessons from last year, making them much more coherent and fun, and we actually interacted with the students rather than spending 40 minutes talking English at them and waiting for them to parrot it back. Classes just went more smoothly, we could feel it, but even more important was our students’ feedback: “That was a fun class,” “Thank you for teaching us,” “English is so interesting,” “TELL ME MORE!” On our last day of teaching, one student told Peter that he hadn’t cared about English before Peter’s class, but now he really enjoys it.

So with the lessons under better control, we ceased being single-purposed ESL teaching machines and relaxed into our role as sophomore foreigners, a little more at home in our adopted country. We made friends with the students, and had deep and meaningful conversations. And silly and irrelevant conversations. They gave us tips about where to travel, and insight on Chinese culture. They also let us know when school holidays and exams were coming up — oftentimes before our bosses did.

Tina, Jane, Helen and the gang remain a fixture; in fact, we just had dinner with them a few nights ago, where Helen invited us to visit her hometown of Yibin and take a tour of the Bamboo and Stone Seas. “It’s a sea,” Tina explained of the latter site, “… of stones!” We all laughed at the tautology of it.

We’ve also picked up another entourage centered on a student who calls himself Mr. Super. He is especially dedicated to practicing his English, seeking us out between almost every class. Edward, another member of the group, is also pretty passionate. He’s joined the school’s prestigious Singapore program, though he has no intention of going to university in Singapore. He just wants the rigorous English practice.

In class 24, I found a group of kids just mad about American pop culture. Jhon [sic], Storm, and Katrina are always picking my brain about which recent music videos and movies I’ve liked. Often, they’re better informed than I am. And in class 21 there was Jessica, who loves any and all things New York.

I have a whole slew of junior buddies, as well: from Amy who tries to shock me with her rebellious pre-teen attitude, to her cousin Barry — one of my gifted students — who would ask me to define stuff like “Silicon Valley” or give presentations to his class about Disney World. There’s also Cary, always demanding to watch TV instead of doing a class, but during each lesson falling out of his seat raising his hand to answer my questions. Of course Young Jane cannot be forgotten, my brash little buddy with a new favorite K-Pop group every week. And Sharon, my self-proclaimed “international translator,” who helped me out immensely when her class got wild.

Peter had his own junior translator, called the Interpreter (the non-blurry figure in this photo), who took an aggressive role in “assisting” Peter, which mostly consisted of shouting “Shut up!” at his fellow students. After class, one day, he helpfully pointed something out by the ping pong tables: “There’s a snake over here!” he said, delighted. “Is it very big?” Peter asked. “No.” the Interpreter replied. “Is it dangerous?” Peter asked. “Yes!” he said. And then he went to go find it.

We reconnected with some of last year’s students, too. Angie, my student from my first ever day in the classroom who told me not to be nervous, pops up from time to time and asks, “Do you remember me?” Which, of course I do. Especially since this year she helped us carry some heavy luggage the half-mile from the bus stop to our apartment. A boy we call the Crane (after his role in this performance of “Kung Fu Panda”) is another recurring character. I spent a lot of time this spring coaching him in his ultimately successful effort to win a full scholarship to university in Singapore. “It was thanks to you I did so well,” he told me. “No way,” I said. “It was your hard work. You deserve it!”

Life outside of school also gained more depth. It took us a few months to get used to living out in the countryside, but these days, we really feel welcome in this small community. We still primarily eat at BBQ or Tofu Soup every night, but we’ve got our friends all up and down the street. Last night, we sat and drank deliciously cold beers with the owner of our regular bodega (of course, while we waited for Tofu to open), and we practiced some small talk with her. I think I even managed to tell her that my parents are coming to visit later this summer.

We’re a big hit with the babies and young children, who stare and laugh at our weird white faces. “Foreigners!” they cry. When we wave hello, they run away, thrilled and delighted. It’s a strange game, but we don’t mind playing along. And they get used to us. The three-year-old son of the owners of Tofu Soup was initially terrified of us. Like, he wouldn’t even look at us. But after Peter offered him a peanut the other night, he’s starting to warm up. He’ll even wave at us sometimes — with a hilariously conflicted look on his face — as long as his dad is nearby.

My Chinese has been getting better and better, meaning I can talk with people who aren’t Peter, English students or English teachers! Locals approach us at dinner, cab drivers have questions for us, shop owners exchange pleasantries. A couple of nights ago, while waiting for the bus, I had my most complex conversation to date, with a pair of laborers who are working on the road being constructed just outside the school gates. It was still pretty basic stuff: “Where are you from?” “America. Where are you from?” “How about that Chinese food. I see you in town eating from time to time.” “We love it.” And so on. But we had new verbs, reference to the passage of time (Chinese verbs don’t have tense, so the grammar does it another way), and, of course, talk about food.

It all makes Luzhou feel like more of a home (even as we’re making plans to move on after next year), and we’ve finally got our feet under us. China still feels foreign, but much less overwhelming.

Luzhou city center
The busy city center of our adopted hometown. We love Luzhou!

Mar 9, 2013

Happy International Women’s Day!

Hey, ladies!

My prizes for Woman's Day

Yesterday morning, I was greeted on my way to class by Angel and two of my other junior students. “Here,” they said, and thrust a small bouquet in my hand. “Happy Women’s Day!” The warning bell rang and we ran off to class together.

The flowers were from Angel’s entire class, so I thanked everyone, and they all cheered. It was a very sweet moment.

Then they immediately started chanting “Watch TV! Watch TV! Watch TV!” Oh, juniors!

Jan 6, 2013

Dinner with Young Jane

Meet some of our junior friends

At chuan chuan with Alix, Young Jane and KOKO (not pictured)
We go shopping at the stationary store before dinner
Alix and Jane pose together outside of the stationary store. KOKO declined to be photographed.

I have another student named Jane, one of my juniors. And there is very little chance I’d confuse the two. Young Jane is incredibly loud and outgoing. On my first day in her class — when her classmates were shrieking in awe and running away — she strode right up and asked me, “You eat 串串, right? And drink 啤酒?” Apparently her home is near sticks, and she had seen Peter and me there eating dinner and drinking beer.

She can be a bit of a loudmouth sometimes, but in an incredibly endearing way. “Emily, that hat is not fashion,” she told me about my winter toque. “Well then, don’t wear it,” I replied.

A few weeks ago, she invited me to go shopping. And the rule is: Always say yes. So we made a date. The morning of our appointed day, she pointed out about seven students who were going to come with us. Although when it came time to go, we were joined by only Alix (a quiet and incredibly with-it kid; while her mouth is closed her eyes are open) and KOKO (I had to say KOKO’s name about 17 times before I got it right). They chattered away as we walked towards the center of the city. I can tell you that shopping with 12 year old girls in China is much the same as it is in the US. KOKO bought a pen, but it was mostly window shopping and then something to drink.

It was decided that after shopping we’d go to dinner, so I called Peter to meet us at 串串. On the way there, the girls taught me some words in Chinese and in the local dialect. In class, I don’t let the students know that I understand some Chinese, because it’s supposed to be a fully immersive English experience and some of the students are reluctant to participate as it is. But my guideline is that if you’re motivated to seek me out after class, you can probably handle the fact that I do know a tiny bit of the language. So I let the girls become my teachers for our walk. And let me tell you, they were as strict with my pronunciation as I am with theirs. It was really difficult!

Over dinner we chatted some more, and laughed and had general fun. They confirmed for us that the terrible erhu busker is playing bad on purpose so that you’ll pay him to go away. He’s been poking us for money — literally — since we’ve been going to sticks, and we had always suspected that he was just being obnoxious, so we hadn’t given him any money. “He’s so boring,” said Jane.

At the end of the meal, they managed to snake the bill from us. If you’re following along and getting the impression we get a lot of meals paid for by other people, you’re exactly right. It’s pretty remarkable. That’s why we try to do things like the pizza party to try to karmically balance it out.

Dec 18, 2012

The Juniors dance

A short break from homework and school books

The Junior dancers
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs ... Dwarves?
Snow White and her seven Santa dwarves
Our favorite performance

All month, junior students have been asking to miss our classes for dance practice — which is just a thing that happens; because oral English is considered somewhat of a supplement, the other teacher often schedule other extracurriculars (or sometimes even tests) during our classes. It’s a little annoying because it messes with our planning, but it’s not too terrible as it either results in a half-sized class or a free period for us!

And Friday, we got to see the results of all this practice at the Junior school dance performance. Many of our students invited us to come watch, so we had advance warning that Friday afternoon classes were cancelled. (Our boss didn’t call to tell us until five minutes after that first afternoon class should have started.)

Even at a junior school assembly, there’s all the trappings and pomp that attend an adult special event: Four CCTV-jr. hosts presided, with their first duties being to introduce all the principals and VIPs. Then someone important made a dull speech. And then the chaos began!

They definitely front-loaded the programming. The opening act was a short retelling of “Snow White,” with a little boy in a dress as our fairest of the land and one of my favorite students, Angel, as the evil queen. It was mostly in Chinese (the local dialect, as one of the teachers informed me), but funny nonetheless.

This was followed by an incredibly impressive and moving ballet piece depicting the violence and brutality of war. Soldiers carried their injured brethren on their backs with loving care, but no promise of safety or reward. It was astonishing to see these young dancers execute some very technical lifts and carries, and at the same time they exuded true sadness and emotion through their movement. It was a stunning bit of dancing, and not generally what one expects to find at a junior high assembly.

The rest of it was exactly what one expects to find at a junior high assembly. There was a mix of traditional and contemporary music and dancing, with hip-hop dominating the contemporary styles. Individual performers showed some real skill, but mostly, everyone seemed to be having fun. A lot of the acts managed to incorporate some “Gangnam Style” horsing around.

By about No. 14 on the program, a lot of the VIPs left. We lasted for 18 of the 20 acts, but they don’t heat the gym and we were freezing, so we took our leave.

In a culture that so strongly emphasizes homework and scholastic achievement, it’s really interesting to see how extracurricular activities — especially the arts — are treated here. I suspect that if you show real promise at an early age, you’re sidetracked into a special school that plays to those gifts. Otherwise, you’re encouraged to put those pursuits aside to focus on your schoolwork as you age. (We have a lot of senior students that say that they used to play an instrument, for example.) But — as someone who believes that arts education is equally important to producing well-rounded, thoughtful adults — I’m glad to see that there is still some time for dancing.

Junior dancers

Nov 10, 2012

Remembering the old school

Juniors gotta learn English too

The juniors

Thursdays and Fridays are our “old school” days, when we return to the city center to teach the junior classes. We reward ourselves with dinner at Sticks on those nights.