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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The Calligrapher

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Traditional Chinese calligraphy is written in columns from top to bottom and right to left.

“Swish, swish.” The calligrapher’s brush flicks across the paper, spelling out the characters for “héxié”: harmony.

The paper is “best quality.”  The brushes, however, are deemed “just so-so.”  I trust the man when he says so because he is the number one calligrapher in Xiaogan.

“He’s very famous in this area,” says our Chinese teacher, Zhao laoshi.  A few days ago, Ms. Zhao invited all of her foreign pupils to meet with an artist friend of hers.  The artist decided it was a prime opportunity to introduce us to his friend, the calligrapher.  And so it goes in China: somehow you find yourself standing in the office of a friend of a friend, watching a master at his craft putting inky black meaning onto an empty, soft, white page.

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Putting on some finishing touches

While he works, the calligrapher shares a bit of what he knows about the history of calligraphy.  The art of calligraphy is over 2,000 years old.  It can be used to write many forms of the Chinese characters.  There is official script, elegant yet simple characters, once popularized by the emperors. There is cursive script, beautiful yet complex characters, praised more for their decorative nature than for their ability to actually be read.  Then, there’s running script, a blend of form and function wherein the characters flow in intricate blends of simple and complex shapes.  “Today I am using running script,” he tells us.

He looks up from his work for a moment as he finishes the history lesson.  “Caligraphy is not just writing,” he says. “It is art.  This handwriting is a way to express our emotions.”

Each of us is given a page of calligraphy with the character of our choosing.  Some of us chose joy, others patience, others good luck.  I chose harmony, a peace that is growing and dynamic.

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The Calligrapher holds up the artwork that he created for Danielle

Before we leave Mrs. Zhao tells me that usually the calligrapher’s works are very expensive, but these are a gift. “It’s an honor,” she says.  I can’t help thinking that “I’m just a kid from the States who can barely teach English,” but I feel humbled by his kindness.  It’s strange how an act of honor toward us can be humbling.

I give back the only compensation I can in my broken Chinese: “Xie xie nin, thank you very much.”

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Salsa and Summertime

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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?)

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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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