Tea Story: Business is Brewing


Our first drinks at Michelle and Viola’s Tea Story

The students shuffle onto the carpeted patio and up to the counter where Michelle is taking orders. One guy asks for a concoction of milk and tea with a little chocolate. “QiaoKouLi Nai Cha!” yells Michelle to her friend Viola who is throwing together drinks at lightning speed.  This is Michelle and Viola’s drink shop, Tea Story, and today is opening night.

Michelle is a sophomore. She was one of my students last year, studying English for cruise ships (yes that’s a major at our school). On our first day of class, she told me, “My English name is Michelle, like Michelle Obama.  I want to be a great lady like her.” I have seen her growing into a great lady over the last year.  She has a lot of heart and a good sense of humor.


Viola brings me a drink

Viola was born to be a boss. She is Michelle’s roommate and is in the same class. I enjoy her sass, even if it usually only comes out in Chinese. She is strong and knows how to take care of business.  She also has one of the best laughs I have ever heard.

About a month ago, the girls mentioned to me that they were thinking of opening a drink shop on campus. They wanted to ask my advice about bargaining with the owner of a venue that has been sitting empty next to the cafeteria for the last year. We talked about what percent of the profit they should ask for, how many hours they should keep the place open each week, and how to gauge whether this guy would be a good business partner.  At the time, I wasn’t actually sure if they were serious, or if this was some kind of pipe dream.


Michelle chatting with her new English teacher, David

A week later, Michelle called, asking me to come look at the shop. Having been empty for over a year, the place needed a lot of cleaning up and some interior decoration. She and Viola explained their plans for the decor and the type of atmosphere they are going for.  “We want the theme to be countryside,” said Michelle “with flowers and trees and maybe we will paint it green and blue.” It was cool to see them starting to get their idea off the ground. Now the question was, would this place fly?

A week ago, Michelle and Viola’s drink shop had it’s grand opening. The place was packed with students, eager to sample the half-price drinks and get a free VIP card. There was a festive atmosphere filling the place as people played pick up games of pool, sang some KTV, and unwound after a long week of classes.


Joel proves that it’s cool to get drinks at Tea Story

Since, that first night, there have been hoards of students in the shop every evening after night class. It’s becoming a popular hang out spot for all the students who live on the West campus of our school. For now, it looks like this business will be a success.

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Just like Ping: my adventure on the Yangtze

When I was a kid, my mom used to read me this book called “The Story about Ping.” It was about a little duck called Ping that went on an adventure on the Yangtze river. As she read, I would think, “one day I want to have adventures on the Yangtze just like Ping.”  Thus, for my 6-year-old self, I embarked with my teammates on a 3-day Yangtze river cruise for October Holiday.


A cruise boat docked in Wushan

When we met our group at the train station, we discovered that our group of 10 were the only foreigners going on the trip. It gave us lots of opportunities to make friends with the Chinese kids (and their parents) on the boat.  Our first interaction with them happened on the train to YiChang when we met two 10-year-olds named Linda and Daisy. We spent large parts of the rest of the trip playing tag on the ship deck, taking silly photos, and entertaining them with all of our random talents.

We took the train to YiChang to get on our boat.  At the dock, all of the boats line up side-by-side, so you have to walk through other ships to get to yours.  This was how we learned that our boat had cheap fares because it was the sketchy boat.  We still got decent accommodations, though. The rooms were cramped and smelled like mildew, but they were a space to call our own.

Probably the most interesting feature of the rooms was the bathroom, a tiny closet with a toilet, shower head, and sink crammed into a corner by the door to our cabin. When we first got into our room, I checked it out only to gag and take a few steps back in revulsion.  The toilet was full of pitch black water and had little worms swimming in it.  It was sick!  After 6 tries of flushing the toilet, the water finally turned to a mirky grey color and the worms disappeared.

Our first stop on the journey was the mountain city of WuShan.  The town sits among hills rising up from the river bank with bright orange bridges spanning the chasms where the arms of the river spread into the surrounding countryside.  From the top of the mountain, we had a good view of town and the river laid out below us.  We also went to the city center to observe the daily activities of the locals. We tried the WuShan variation on fried noodles and watched people dancing in the park.


The women of the Temple of the White Emperor

The next stop on our cruise was the Temple of the White Emperor.  This temple sits on an island in the Yangtze accessible  by an ornately carved granite bridge. The temple has been in use since the Song Dynasty to worship various nature gods.  Now it is a national historic site and tourist destination.  We mingled with crowds of actors dressed like historic figures, hiked to the top of the island to view the temple, and tried our hand at archery.

On our third day of the tour, we woke up early (like we did everyday) to the sounds of Kenny G. There’s nothing like smooth, sax-heavy jazz to get you going in the morning. It was worth the 5-am wake-up call, however, to see the sunrise over the Three Gorges.

We loaded into bright yellow dragon boats and rode down Jiuwanxi Canyon, a spot famous for towering cliffs and ancient tombs.  Here the cliffs rose in shear walls on both sides. On a few ledges, perched above the water, we could see the tombs.  Modern historians are stilled puzzled at how these ancient people were able to secure their dead to the rock in such precarious places.


A tomb latched to the face of the cliff, 200 ft above the water

This was also the day that we visited The Three Gorges Dam.  Completed in 2006, the Three Gorges Dam is the largest dam in the world. From our boat several miles upriver, it seemed like a small dike, but as we approached on the tour bus, we realized how massive it really is. During the holiday, the dam was free to Chinese nationals, so the place was packed.  We managed to fight through the crowds, however, and get some good views.  We also enjoyed making some semi-inappropriate dam(n) puns along the way.


The Three Gorges Dam

It was a great trip.  If anyone ever goes to China, I highly recommend traveling on the Yangte. My six-year-old self was satisfied with our adventure.  Now I have to wonder, where will we go next?

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Coming Back

Last week, we started classes with the Freshmen.  I have one group of students from the Foreign Language Department and one group from the Cosmetology Department. They are wonderful. Teaching Sophomores these past 4 weeks, I forgot what Freshmen are like. Everything is new for them, and they’re excited about it.  My first-year students bring so much life and pep to the classroom.  It makes them so easy to teach.  I’m excited to teach them all this semester and to see what we become as a classroom community together.

It’s strange to think that this time last year, I had just arrived in China. We came late last year because of issues with our visas.  We stepped off the plane on Thursday, September 17th, and were teaching Monday, the 21st. Now, I’ve been in China for over a month.  It seems like the time has been both slow and fast. On one hand, it feels like I have been here forever, but on the other hand, a month seems like no time at all. It’s interesting to compare this first month to the same time-frame my first year.

Last year, I wanted to go home almost as soon as I got here.  It was overwhelming adjusting to China and teaching at the same time. I had no real Chinese friends for the first couple months. I stressed about planning every lesson. “What if it’s not good enough?”

Coming back has been so much better than I ever expected.  Aside from still having a language barrier, I am pretty much at home in Xiaogan.  I love riding my bike around the city and exploring places that are familiar but always changing.  As for my social life, this has been a busy month. There are so many of the second-year students that I want to spend time with.  Every weekend, and several times during the week, I am hanging out with students or helping them with projects outside of class.

This year, I am starting to spend time with some of the Chinese teachers, too. Last night, a group of us went to play badminton in the gym at school.  My fellow-teacher James is helping me work on my serve and swing.  He and his wife both teach in the foreign language department. I’m looking forward to getting to know them more this year.

One thing that I really appreciate about being here for a second year, is that I get the opportunity to notice things I missed the first time.  During my first year in China, I spent a lot of time adjusting to the onslaught of new sights, sounds, colors, lights, and cultural norms of this place.  I didn’t have time or clarity of sight to really take in all that I was experiencing. Now, I can drink more of it in. It is good.

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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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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.


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.


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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