Salsa and Summertime


Mixing the salsa

“Xiaogan weather is very changeable.”  I hear this phrase from my students on a semi-weekly basis.  Usually it is accompanied by admonishments to wear more clothes and drink hot water so that I don’t catch a cold.

Lately, however, this has been a complaint about the heat that has descended on the city like a sticky, wet blanket.  We experienced a week of weather that looked somewhat like Spring, before diving into 80 degree days marked by sunshine and humidity.  While it is a little uncomfortable, I will gladly take this over the frigid, bone-numbing cold of winter.

With the onset of summer weather, I decided that is was time to teach my students the art of a classic North American food: salsa.  (Now, before anyone complains to me that salsa is technically Mexican and therefore better suited for a Spanish class than an English class, I have to ask: Have you been to Texas?)


Culinary art

Wednesday afternoon, I hit the grocery store with a couple of students, and we loaded up baskets with hot green chili peppers (la jiao), onions, garlic, cilantro, lemons (they don’t really have limes in China0, and tomatoes.

The next day in class, I handed out vegetables, knives, and a recipe and let them do their best to figure it out.  I think it’s good practice for them to try to follow instructions in English without a ton of help from me.  It lets them see how far their English has come and gives them a sense that they can do things on their own.  It also gives me an excuse to try 8 different versions of salsa without doing any of the prep work.

Aside from one student’s concern that pepper and onion are not safe to consume raw, the activity was a smashing success.


A finished product

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One Day in Xiaogan

I recently received an email from someone who is applying to TA, asking me all sorts of questions about the program, life in China, and specifically what a typical day in the life of a TA teacher is like.  It made me realize that I’ve never written about that, so here goes: a typical day in the life of this TA teacher.


Freshman students from my 102 class

I wake up at 6:45 every morning, grab some breakfast (usually oatmeal or toast), and get ready for a day of teaching.  By 7:40, I am heading out the door to be at the school in time for my 8 am classes.  I walk into the classroom, greet the students and ask how their weekend was, and class begins.  

An hour-and-a-half later, I’m heading back to my house to grade and lesson plan.  We typically only teach one or two classes each day, although this semester I have two days where I teach three.  The free time during the morning or afternoon is a really good time to prepare for classes.  For every hour in class, I probably spend an hour on grading and prep, so my days tend to be pretty full.  

At noon, the students break for lunch.  Every couple days I have lunch with students, either in the cafeteria or in one of the local hole-in-the-wall restaurants that thrive in our neighborhood.  It’s a good way to get to know the students outside of class, and it really helps to have someone who speaks Chinese along when you are ordering food. 


Rè gān miàn, a traditional dish from Wuhan that is a popular meal for my students

After a 休息 (xiu xi) or rest, afternoon classes start at 2:30.  I teach for another couple hours, and then it’s off to English corner.  Twice a week, we have a time when the students can meet with foreign teachers to practice English in an informal setting.  This is called English corner.  I enjoy it because you never know who is going to show up or what you will end up talking about.  

In the evenings, I grab dinner with my roommates.  At night, our street is covered with carts selling everything from jiaoze (dumplings) to chow fan (fried rice) to ma la tang (a spicy vegetable soup).  We walk down the aisles of street vendors, saying hello to the ones that we have come to know and greeting students as we pass.  

Night is falling on Xiaogan.  In my living room, Dani, Cosette, Kaleb and I are eating dinner and playing board games or watching a movie, swapping stories about the funny things that happened in class today.  In the morning we will reset and do it all over again.  This is the life of a TA teacher.

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New semester, new challenge

I realized today that my last post on my “weekly blog” was over six weeks ago.  Oops! I’d like to say that I didn’t post because I was super busy traveling around China and prepping for a new semester, but that’s only partly true.  In truth I spent about two weeks of my winter break doing nothing (I think we need that sometimes).

The last two weeks, I have been enjoying the return of my students and the start of a new semester.  I’m teaching all three of my freshman classes again and adding in two groups of sophomores to whom I teach Business Negotiation.

Fun fact: I know nothing about business, and my only negotiation skills come from haggling in craft markets from Mexico to Rwanda since I was 16. Nevertheless, my department has handed me a textbook and trusted me with the business education of 100 students. TIC, this is China, as they say.  I’m taking it as a challenge and a learning opportunity. Who knows, maybe I’ll open a business one day and need to know this stuff.

I have class soon, so I will leave you with some photos of my travels during winter break.  These things are supposed to be worth a thousand words each, right?


The Birds Nest, Beijing


Beijing Opera performed at the Summer Palace


Mountainside housing at the Summer Palace


Empress Cixi’s marble boat


Details of Cixi’s marble boat


Banners in Suzhou Marketplace at the Summer Palace



Yangshuo in winter


Seven Star Cave in Guilin


Monkey business in Guilin


Incense at Qixia Buddhist Temple in Guilin


Hanging out in Guilin


Year of the Horse arch in Guilin


Rubble on the Great Wall


Hiking 6 K on the Great Wall


Riding bikes through Yangshuo


Beautiful Yanshuo, China

Beautiful Yanshuo, China


Tiananmen Square in the morning


The Forbidden City


Imperial Gardens at the Forbidden City


Wishing pond, frozen in Beijing’s winter


The Lama Temple, largets Buddhist temple outside of Tibet


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Little Family


Xiao Mei, Xiao MianMian, and Xiao Yu, our family getting ever bigger

My friend Shannan always tells her class that they are a family.  The students have heard this so often that they have latched onto the idea and now call their class “Our Family.”  It’s written in large letters on the wall of their classroom and under the heading are photos of each student.  That’s beautiful, the power of those words.  If you tell someone long enough that they are your family and treat them as such, then it becomes true, no biology necessary.  

I too am finding myself in a new family.

My students recently gave me a Chinese name, something I’ve been waiting for all semester.  I can finally introduce myself to people in Chinese with a name that they can pronounce: “Ni hao.  Wo jiao Xiao MianMian.”  Xiao MianMian, that’s my name.  It means “Little Sheep.”  My students think it’s adorable, but say it’s the sort of name that’s only fit for a small child.  I however love it, for two reasons.  

First, I love it because it is a nod to the meaning of my English name.  When my parents named me Rachel, I don’t think they realized exactly what they were doing.  Rachel is a Hebrew name meaning “mother sheep” or “lamb of peace” or “lamb of God,” depending on who you ask.  I think they chose this name because my family is in ministry and it is a good strong Biblical name.  What my parents didn’t consider is that I was born in mid-March, making me an Aries, the zodiac symbol of the ram (male sheep).  I was also born in 1991, the Chinese Year of the Sheep.  See a pattern yet?  With all this stacked up, how could my name be anything other than Xiao MianMian?

The second reason I love my name comes from the very first part of it: Xiao.  It’s the Chinese word for little or small.  It also happens to be the first word in the Chinese names of both my roommates: Xiao Yu (Litte Fish) and Xiao Mei (Little Beautiful).  My roommates and I were bound to become friends.  For one thing, we are teammates with TA, and for another, we are three of maybe 9 Americans living in a city of 1 million people.  The whole expat thing tends to bring people together.  However, the way I have come to regard my roommates (and the other TA teachers for that matter) is the way that Shannan sees her class, as a family.  We now even have a family name to prove it.  In China, your family name is the first word of your name.  So we are a little family, the Xiao family (get it?  It literally means Little Family).  

This is beautiful.  It’s what I think God intends for all of us to be for one another.  It’s what I get to try to be for my Chinese friends, too.  I get to invite them into my life and into my family.

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Bicycles and Finals

The past few weeks have been flying by.  We are rushing toward the end of the semester at the speed of light.  This week our students are taking their oral finals.  For the first time in my life, I am on the other side of a final exam, being the one giving it rather than the one taking it.  On Monday, I almost think I was more nervous about finals than my students were.

On Saturday, a group of my students wanted to get out and unwind a little.  They invited me to go for a bicycle ride with them.  We met at the main school gate around 10 am, and I hopped on a tandem bike with my student Eileen.  One of my students, Jake, is from XiaoGan.  He led us out to the edge of town where a river marks the barrier of the city proper.  We turned down a country road along the river and rode out to a spot on the banks.  The boys gathered firewood, and we ladies, set out blankets for a picnic.  For the next hour, we roasted potatoes, played tag, and chatted in a mix of Chinese and English (they in Chinese and me trying to keep up in English).

After our “brunch” we jumped on our bikes and headed down some backstreets into the center of town.  At a food court near People’s Square, we had a lunch of noodles and Mijo.  Mijo is a XiaoGan specialty.  They take rice and ferment it until it is a sort of wine, then it is cooked down into a semi-sweet soup.  I think it is an acquired taste, and so far I don’t really care for it. I must try the local delicacies, though.

We then rode through a park on the other edge of the city, ending up at a local carnival/amusement park called Happy World.  A couple of the students wanted to try out the rides.  We hopped on a ride that swings on a giant pendulum while sending our seats spinning around.  One minute you are looking at the city skyline framed in blue, and the next you see the ground hurtling toward you.  As we strapped in, I looked at my student Cloud beside me and thought, “At least we are in this together.”

That thought is still with me as I begin finals week.  I am nervous about giving my first finals and figuring out the grade book.  A lot depends on this week for my students.  Their final tests are also as much a test of me as they are of my students.  No matter what, however, we are in this together.

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