KTV (or Karaoke to everyone outside of China)

Chinese students like to have fun whenever they can.  Really, who can blame them? They spend about 40 hours a week in class and an extra 10-20 buried under Everest-sized mountains of homework. They have to find ways to unwind. Favorite pastimes among my students include playing computer games, watching movies, playing basketball, going shopping, riding bikes around town, and singing KTV. 

KTV, or karaoke* as it’s known in the West, is one of the must-have experiences in China. It’s right up there with seeing a giant panda and hiking the Great Wall. If you haven’t gone out for KTV at least once then you haven’t really lived in China.

On Saturday, three of the sophomores took my roommates and I out for KTV and dinner. In the afternoon, we went to one of the local KTV parlors and booked a room.  Unlike karaoke bars in the States, KTV is not a mode of public humiliation. When you sing KTV, you book a private room with your friends, bring any snacks you want, and choose any and all songs that you want to hear your party belting at the top of their lungs.

We loaded up a mix of Chinese and English songs featuring pop hits like Miley’s “Party in the USA,” classics by Abba and the Beatles, and local favorites like “Xiao Ping Guo” (My Little Apple). Then, we grabbed microphones and a tambourine and jammed out. 

One of the best (and worst) things about KTV is that it doesn’t matter if you can sing or not. It’s about having fun with friends. That’s how I found myself standing in front of my students and roommies rapping a rendition of “Magic” by B.o.B. that would have had my high school choir teacher hanging his head in embarrassment on my behalf if he was there. As for my actual audience, I’m pretty sure my students are convinced, for better or worse, that I’m awesome and have the voice of an angel. I sometimes wonder if I should take them to get their hearing checked.

After three hours, we were loosing our voices and decided it was time to head to dinner. It was a great way to spend Saturday afternoon with students. I think we gave Jenna (my newest roommate) a good first KTV experience. Little does she know that there are many, many more to come.

Kaylene, Aimee, Cosette, Jenna, and I singing KTV

Kaylene, Aimee, Cosette, Jenna, and I singing KTV

*NOTE: Karaoke is actually a Japanese word.  I’m pretty sure that the phenomenon started in Japan, but the Chinese will never admit it.  China and Japan sort of hate each other. It comes from being at war with one another on and off for over a century. Anyway, all things that we consider to be Japanese are relabeled in China. For example: karaoke is KTV, and sushi is called “Korean food.”
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Karma?

Monday, I started my 3rd semester of English classes.  So far, I only have 8 hours of teaching each week, all of which is in the Logistics department.  When our freshmen start class in 2 weeks, I will pick up 4-6 more hours. The administrators in Logistics requested, for the first time this year, that they have a foreign teacher to teach Oral English to their students, so the English department is loaning me out to them for the year. Mondays, I teach two classes of Logistics sophomores back-to-back in the morning.  It makes for a busy day, but I get a little more down time later in the week.

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Planning lessons for beginner students

I am looking forward to getting to know students from a different department. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot by teaching low-level students this year. This, however, is not the perfect schedule that I envisioned for myself.  See, I developed this devious master plan last year which, probably for the best, just isn’t meant to be.

Here’s what happened. I told the higher ups that I didn’t want to teach my old students from last year again this year.  “I’d rather teach Freshman English majors,” I said. Now before I explain to you how I have tendencies toward being a sneaky little imp, there actually was a good and valid reason for this.

The good-teacher reasons are as follows

  1. Students benefit from multiple perspectives. It’s important for my students to experience other foreign teachers as part of their education. If they can learn from the teaching style and difference of cadence and accent of another American teacher, they will come out with a more well-rounded view of the English language and American culture.
  2. The possibility of clear, true friendship. I can be a more genuine friend to students if I am not their direct authority figure.  While I believe it is possible to befriend one’s students, I think my relationships with people who aren’t depending on me for their grade have a certain quality of genuine affection that can occasionally get a little bit muddled in relationships with kids in my class.  It’s nice to know that we are hanging out because we both like each other as people, rather than because I’m their teacher, so they have to spend time with me.

Now we get to my bad side.  The bad- (or lazy) teacher reasons for not wanting to teach my old students include:

  1. Less prep time. I already have pre-fabricated lesson plans for Freshmen on file somewhere.  That means that my prep time for each class could easily be shortened from 2-3 hours to about an hour per lesson.  I was so looking forward to all of that free time.
  2. Freshmen start class later than everyone else. The Freshmen at HBPI start classes three weeks after the rest of the student body.  During their first 3 weeks at school they go to mandatory military training and drilling. It’s a mix of intense group-bonding exercises and lots of learning to march and count in unison. If I was only teaching Freshmen, then I would not have to work during their drills weeks. Do you have any idea what I could do with three weeks off during the late summer in China? There are places to go, things to see and do, people to meet! But as I said, it is not meant to be.

I told the powers that be all of my good-teacher reasons, not wanting them to know my ulterior motives, so they gave me what I asked for. My old classes will be taught by some of the new teachers. They are going to be amazing together, and I know the students will come to love them as much as they loved me.  I do miss those kids a little, though, realizing that I wont see them every day.

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Our local Buddhist temple, peaking out from the trees on campus

Meanwhile, I am making all new lesson plans, trying to tailor my approach to the low English level of my new students. Low-level classes are some of the hardest English classes to teach and they require the highest level of energy. About two-thirds of what the teacher says is met by blank looks of confusion from the class. For most native speakers it’s a struggle to think of a way of saying things that is basic enough to be grasped by beginner students.  The irony of it all is that my plan was to set things up so I would have the easiest semester possible, but instead I am taking on 8 hours of the some of the toughest teaching situations that the school can give me. This is what I get for trying to cheat the system. I have to wonder, does the fact that there’s a Buddhist temple next to my campus mean that I can blame the situation on bad Karma?*

Actually what I believe to be more likely is that God is trying to teach me something.  Probably, “stop being lazy; it never pays off!” There is also the reality that God and I are always closest when I am facing challenges.  Maybe God is trying to get me to see the good that comes of this.  We will be spending a lot of time together this year, (S)He** and I. And I get the opportunity to witness the transformations in my new students. The lower their starting point, the more they get to grow. That is a gift for both them and me.

 

*Disclaimer: I don’t actually believe in Karma.  Don’t worry Mom, while I have a deep respect for Buddhist, I’m not planning to convert any time soon.

**I have a really hard time referring to God with pronouns that express a specific gender. We are all made in God’s image, both male and female. That’s why I like spoken Chinese: she, he, and it are all translated as “tã.”

 

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On Change and Roots: the Other Half of the Story

For all those who are wondering, I have made it back to China and am getting ready to begin my second year of teaching. We have three new teachers in Xiaogan, so part of my role right now is to prepare them for living here.  I’m enjoying playing tour guide and food expert, while it lasts.  I expect that within a month or two they won’t need me so much. 

I meant to write a post while I was in the States this summer, but I couldn’t get my thoughts together until the day before I left.  So, even thought this comes a little late, here is a little share of something I’ve been musing about all summer:

People say that when we travel we should expect change.  We are told to prepare ourselves for the reality that home will not feel the same when we return.  We are also counseled by countless well-meaning friends, psychologists, spiritual leaders, and novelists to recognize that it is not in fact the traveler’s home, but the traveler herself who has changed. Home feels different because we are different.  With all due respect to those well-meaning figures, I think that philosophy only tell us half the story, at best.

For one thing, it creates a high horse for the traveler.  She rides back into town on this steed, changed, full of worldly experiences, looking down with pity on all those who haven’t changed a bit. Perhaps, the traveler mourns the gap that now exists between she and them. “How can I be here, for I now belong to the world?”

For another, this idea cheapens and discredits the experience and the reasoning of those who choose to stay. How naive of us to equate the physical with the spiritual or the socio-emotional.  We act as if, without geographical movement, we are left with stagnation. We forget that without a place to stay, without healthy roots, a tree cannot grow. Nor can it flower, produce fruit and seeds, and rest dormant in the winter.  We are conditioned to expect that those who travel will change, but not to expect and embrace the change in the lives of the rooted.  

During this summer, I reconnected with a number of my friends and family who are choosing, for various reasons, to stay where they are.  These people have changed and grown so much in this year alone.  They are experiencing new relationships, occupations, roles, life lessons, and spiritual growth.  They embody the reality that change is a good and healthy part of everyone’s life.

In many ways, my greatest sadness concerning my life as a traveler is the reality that I will miss things.  My “yes” to experiencing and witnessing the growth in my students’ lives, naturally implies a “no” to being able to witness the growth in the lives of the people I know back home. This however is my hope and my prayer for all the people I have recently said goodbye to: May you grow and change as you were made to do; may you journey to new depths even as you remain where you are; and may I rejoice in this with you from afar.

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Packed and Ready to Go

My students have packed their bags and left for home.  Now I am preparing to go home myself: cleaning my apartment, buying last-minute souvenirs, and trying to fit everything into my bag.

 Over the weekend, I got to make one last trip into the Chinese countryside. I was invited to visit my student Victor’s family in Da Wu.  I met up with Victor and 7 of my other students in a campus drink shop.  We packed into a 7-passenger van and drove 2 hours Southwest of Xiaogan.  

Victor’s mom had dinner on the table when we arrived.  As we tore into the dishes, I was reminded of times when I would invite all my friends over during high school.  My mom would cook up a lasagna and a plate of cookies, and within 20 minutes it would be gone.  

In the evening we walked around the city and then watched some Chinese reality tv.  We watched a show called “Baba Women Qu Nar?” (Daddy, where are we going?)  It’s about these 5 sets of fathers and their kids (all under age 10) who are taken out into the wilderness and given multiple challenges that the have to complete.  My favorite was the episode where they had to play soccer in a recently harvested rice patty.  I love seeing some of the similarities and differences between Chinese t.v. and American shows.

The next day, we went hiking at a war memorial.  This part of the country was the center for the communist revolution in the mid-1900s.  The park that we hiked through is full of monuments depicting heroes of the revolution and famous battles.  It was an interesting look at Chinese history juxtaposed against my energetic students who were more interested in climbing all over the monuments than looking at them.

On Sunday, we had my last hot pot of the year.  We gathered around 8 pots of boiling broth and dipped vegetables and meat into it the water until they were cooked. I enjoyed having one last big meal with my students, laughing about our memories from this year and looking forward to our summer plans.

After we came back to campus, my students took their final exams, and I finished up my paper work for the year. 

Our part of Xiaogan is steadily becoming quieter and quieter as our students head home.  Soon, we too will vacate our apartments and fly home.  I’m so excited to come home for the summer, but I know I’ll miss my students.  Just 7 ½ weeks until I come back to China!

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Holiday in Hunan

Last Thursday was International Labor Day, so we were given two extra days off of school. I was invited to go home with one of my students and two of her friends. It was a crazy whirlwind of a trip, but it was an awesome opportunity to spend some quality time with Cloud, Eileen, and Wendy outside of class.

I’ll spare you most of the boring details of traveling to the little town of Li Ye. Let me just say what was originally sold to me as a 4 hour trip by train turned out to be a two day odyssey of switching from train to bus to car before finally arriving to spend one day in a little town in the mountains of Hunan Province. This was nothing, however compared to the trip back to Xiaogan on the night train. Ten hours of playing cards with Mexican tourists because the only tickets available were for standing room. We bribed the conductor to let us sit in the dining car overnight, but still we had to pass the time somehow.

Anyway, although it was a long trip getting to Li Ye, it was well worth it. Li Ye is probably one of the most picturesque little villages in China. Cloud’s family welcomed us wholeheartedly, and took us around town to see the local sights. This included a visit to one of China’s finest museums of Qin Dynasty history, a night walk through the old town to join in the annual torch festival, and a trip to the top of Ba Mian Shan (3 Noodles Mountain) where we rode horses and hiked into a hidden cave. They also treated us to some local food, including lunch at a floating restaurant on the YouShui River.

While I really enjoyed hiking and sightseeing, my favorite part of this trip was seeing my students’ personalities come out in ways that I don’t see in class. For example, while Cloud is shy about speaking English, she is confident and joyful in everything else. She has a boldness about her that makes you feel as if she can do anything. When she mixes this with her adorable smile and friendly personality, you soon realize that she can get away with anything.

Eileen is cool and confident, and she knows it. She loves shopping and taking selfies, but remains a capable leader in group situations. She’s also pretty good at giving advice and isn’t afraid to share her opinions

Wendy is one of the sweetest people you will ever meet. She has a servant’s heart and loves to help people. She is not exceptionally talkative, but does love to ask questions and get to know people. She also has a great smile.

All-in-all, it was a great trip. I’ll let the pictures fill in the rest of the story.

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In the Wuhan railway station

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hundreds of people waiting to board trains in Wuhan

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Mountain homes on the way to Li Ye

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A stop in Ji Shou. From left to right: Wendy, Eileen, and Cloud

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With Wendy and Eileen, waiting for a taxi

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The city square in Li Ye, lit up for the torch festival

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Citizens of Li Ye gathered for the torch festival

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Cloud, Eileen, and Wendy in the city square

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Dancing around the flames

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The view from Cloud’s house

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Architecture in Li Ye is a blend of ancient and modern styles

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The woman in the background let me borrow their traditional basket backpack

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Fishing boat on the Youshui River

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Baodzi sellers serving up steamed buns and dumplings for breakfast

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Silly selfies

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Qin Dynasty museum in Li Ye

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The city gate opening onto the mountains

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2000 year-old legal documents: characters carved into strips of bamboo

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A passport from 2000 years ago

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Li Ye as seen from the top of Ba Mian Shan

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I’m on a horse

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Cloud’s younger brother riding a horse

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Hidden archway and cave at the top of Ba Mian Shan

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Posing on the rocks in front of the cave

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Climbing on the rocks in the cave

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A view from inside the cave

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Li Ye’s floating fish restaurant

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Fish pen in the river inside the restaurant

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A fishing bird. These animals are trained to dive into the water and retrieve fish for their masters

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Old town Li Ye

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A last look at the village before we headed back to Hubei

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Our fellow travelers on the road to the city

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On the night train

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