Discovering Judaism in Rural China

Monday, September 28, 2009

By sundown tonight, I will have fasted for 24 hours. No, it’s not for a traditional Chinese celebration (what Chinese holiday involves the absence of food?), nor is it for some outlandish dare conspired by my co-Fellows. In the Jewish calendar, today is Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement—the holiest day of the year for religious Jews. That’s wonderful, you might say, but what does that have anything to do with me?

Not many people know that I am a quarter Jewish. From time to time, I even forget myself. Because I’m Jewish on my father’s side, some stauncher Jews have written me off as not technically being Jewish at all. There is that, coupled with the fact that I could never stand on a level playing field with my predominantly Jewish classmates in high school. There was Jewish school to contend with, the flurry of bar and bat mitzvahs, and the high holidays that were always observed as school recesses. Needless to say, I had almost none of that personal exposure to the religion. My relationship to Judaism peaked at age six when I celebrated Passover at my Uncle Ben’s house in Upstate New York. All I remember about the occasion, though, was searching feverishly with the help of my cousin and my sister (presumably for the Afikomen), and drinking grape juice disguised as wine at the dinner table. Since then, I have celebrated Hanukkah on one occasion with my dad and my sister (mostly as an excuse to light the menorah my dad inherited from his mother), and have pieced together the rest of my Jewish identity from what I’ve learned on Seinfeld.

But my estranged relationship to Judaism is less a product of my upbringing than it is a reflection of my own interests. I can’t blame my dad for not better exposing me to Jewish culture because I never expressed that much interest to begin with. The intense Judaism of my high school intimidated me, and because I felt that I could never match that level of devotedness and intensity, I chose to down-play that part of my identity. Not to mention that many of my classmates were self-righteously and conceitedly proud of their heritage—flaunting their Jewishness as unabashedly as the Tiffany bracelets around their wrists. It’s not that I was ashamed of being Jewish—quite the contrary. I took my heritage to heart and poured over the histories of Jewish people as if they were uniquely my own. But high school was also a mini-turning point for my identity—and one that was quickly capitalized on at Oberlin. In my grade in high school, I was one-half of only 1 ½ Asian Americans—the other being my best friend—and I realized then that we were something of a rare breed. The familiar “fight or flight” mentality colored my consciousness, and from 7th through 12th grade, we were inseparable, reveling in our common ancestry.

Or at least a part of mine. College represented a continuation of my Chinese-soul searching, largely due to the strength of the Asian American community—four years of meetings, biennial conferences, and annual heritage months, that culminated in my eventual study of Mandarin. It’s what brought me to China in the first place, but all along the way, I’ve felt like a part of my identity has been conspicuously left behind. It seems incredibly ironic to me that it took living in China to finally get in touch with my Jewish side in a way that a New York City upbringing did not.

Perhaps this has to do with the fact that outside of me and Anne, there are no Jewish people in the entire city of Taigu. This fact alone takes off a lot of the pressure associated with not feeling “Jewish enough.” Now that I am surrounded by Chinese people, I again feel like the outsider, this time in my Asian American skin. I am neither American enough nor Chinese enough, so, I figure, I might as well be Jewish. If only the same mentality could be applied to my eventual application to Birthright Israel—so long as it doesn’t go bankrupt first. But the reaction towards Jewish people is very different here then back home. It seems that the very same stereotype used against Jews in America (money-grubbing, good businessmen) is actually used in China to one’s credit. Chinese admire Jewish smarts and shrewdness, and in many ways, the two cultures are parallel in their adoption of these traits. It is said that people who are part Chinese and part Jewish are looked upon very fondly here, and I hazard to agree, despite some discomfort on the actual reasoning behind it.

With my newfound Jewish pride came, of course, the necessary initiation. With a bris or bar mitzvah almost certainly out of the question, it fell upon two major holidays in September to give me a proper induction into Jewish culture. Luckily for me, Anne is as close to a “practicing” Jew as I will meet for the next year and is thus certainly more knowledgeable and more experienced with such ceremonies and traditions than I. We missed the apples dipped in honey on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, but we were determined, at least, to repent properly, even if we couldn’t attend services. The idea of fasting for me was not an easy one. Simply wrapping my mind around it was a challenge. Why would I willfully deprive myself of food, and at what cost to my body and my mind? I have always held fast to the importance of eating and maintaining a healthy diet. If my absurd ratio of blog posts dedicated to food isn’t indication enough, it was also one of the key pieces of advice I gave to incoming first-years during my senior year at Oberlin. During Orientation at the start of the fall semester, I was given the opportunity to sit on the “Many Voices” panel, which, as any Oberlin student will tell you, is a mildly boring but (hopefully) equally engaging introduction to some of the diverse student voices at the college. Rather than talk about the merits of sleep, doing homework on time, or cultivating good friendships, I urged them to always eat breakfast and to never skip a meal—tenets that I still strive towards in my own life.

But I decided that if I was really going to do this, at the very least, I needed a good reason. And, eventually, I found it—not only would fasting be a good discipline for myself, but it would also be a reminder of how many people in this world go hungry every day and have no choice but to experience on a daily basis what I am merely dabbling willy-nilly with for one day. Eating three meals a day is a privilege, and certainly one that after this experience, I will not take for granted. There was also the motivation of Anne herself, who has fasted on Yom Kippur for most of her adult life. Fasting together was something of a bonding experience that made it that much easier to accomplish, rather than if had I chosen to embark on this mission alone. There are also people who fast all the time, perhaps unconsciously, or those who think little of it—skipping breakfast and then forgetting to eat lunch. I knew for myself though, that this would be a challenge, as meals are rarely the sorts of occasions that I fail to remember.

If the last 24 hours have taught me anything else, it’s that starvation dieting is almost certainly not for me. The day started out fine, as I woke up early to finish lesson planning and walked over to my 8am class without a hitch. As luck would have it, the subject for this week was a continuation of the lasts—a lesson dedicated to American food—and I did my best to fritter away the time despite the constant shouting out of ingredients, names of restaurants, and food descriptors. It helped that in my first class, a lot of the lesson was about the pitfalls of American fast food and its affect on childhood obesity, an easy way for me to make a mental plug for my own dismissal of eating for the day.

After class and heading into lunch was when it really started to hit me. I missed my daily breakfast of bing and a banana, and decided that I was going to cheat and allow myself to drink water, as I am often prone to dehydration even when not bound by a no-food pledge. Without eating, I realized how much additional time I had. Not only that, I began to think about how much time is spent snacking in between meals, and how easy it really is to eat mindlessly whenever a pang of hunger strikes. These feelings don’t spur me too often, but today they certainly made themselves known, prompting me on more than one occasion to hide away the snacks I keep for when I need a quick sugar rush. Even my bottle of vitamins started to look good after a while, and it suddenly felt weird to remind myself not to eat them. Over the rest of the day, I experienced a lot of the normal feelings when it comes to being hungry—light-headedness, dizziness, tiredness, confusion. It felt like being drunk or not getting enough sleep—the same sort-of out-of-body sensation that makes you believe you are someone else. I often felt loopy, as if after a day or two more of doing this, I might start to have hallucinations. Going to teach in the afternoon without lunch was brutal, but at least it was a way to keep my mind occupied on a feeling other than wanting to eat but being unable to.

For my first time trying my hand at fasting, the experience went quite well. With the minor detriment to my ability to teach aside, there was no real harm done outside of that inflicted on my stomach. The feeling during the fast was both comforting and painful. My ability to concentrate and focus was raised to a much higher level than I anticipated, and it was interesting to discover how much I sometimes use food to reward myself for completed tasks. With no future incentives to distract me (save for the point at which I would be able to eat again), I felt that I could really live in the present, feeling each minute pass as though it were infinite. Not only that, but I felt incredibly accomplished at having set out to do something that I didn't think I ever could. At 7:30 sharp, we all went out to dinner to celebrate, and there was an almost euphoric quality both to the conversation and to those first few bites. Your mouth gets used to chewing again and your stomach starts churning out the acid it has been gurgling at you for the better part of the day. Like a meal after a bout of intense physical exertion, the food tasted spectacular, regardless of what we were actually eating. Anne and I looked at each other with wide eyes and even wider grins—the taste of food passing over our lips and the warmth and color returning back to our skin. Inevitably, I ate too much, and as we left the restaurant, my stomach started to feel sick again—this time not from an absence of food, but the feeling that perhaps I should start to fast anew.

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Climbing That Other Great Wall: 北京 (Pt. II)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

As strange as it is to say, my disposition toward Anne’s relatives was almost viscerally familiar—one that had evolved after years of careful study with my own extended family. This is fitting given Anne’s own background as a quarter Chinese, and also explains why she has relatives living in Beijing. Each conversation began the same way: her great aunt posed a question, and I, as the dutiful and polite guest, was naturally expected to respond. Her husband, like most older males in my mother’s family, preferred to stay reticent, but I could tell she herself was excited. Here I was, another part-Chinese, her kind, the kind of person she could joke around with and not worry about offending. She wore a face I knew well—beady eyes, a wide grin, the kind of head nod that will egg you on despite reservation. And almost reflexively, I was all but ready to deliver the culmination of my childhood knowledge of Cantonese—the perfected smile-and-nod routine—until I realized that I could understand her. Or, perhaps—more accurately—that I should have been able to.

For she was not speaking Cantonese, the bane of my childhood insecurities, but the very language I had been studying for over a year. Not only that, but she was speaking the most standardized regional dialect. And still, there was nothing. My head registered sounds but no meaning—a garble of tones and nonsensical word pairings. I managed to half-register a reply before sinking back down in my chair. For a time, a few short exchanges were all it took to shatter any hopes I had hindered on my study of Mandarin. It was such a debilitating feeling to have to disappoint someone—and to do so in their native country, no less—not for lack of effort, but out of sheer ineptitude. As she began to realize what transpired, I saw the familiar sag of the face, the smile drawn downwards, air blown out from between her lips, as if to say, “just another American in China, and he can’t speak Chinese.” It was particularly hard looking like her; all the familiar marks of a Chinese but without the means to communicate.

It’s difficult for American-born Chinese who can’t speak their familial tongue. It is like an entire life spent being perceived one way and constantly underperforming those expectations. In practice, it’s not nearly that dramatic, but it certainly feels it at times. I’m perhaps luckier in that I don’t always look Chinese, at least to many people here. It’s only when I am a little more explicit that it seems to register. And as proud as I am of my heritage, it’s sometimes easier to pass simply as American—with no hopes latched on my presumed knowledge of Chinese language, custom, and mannerism. In this way, no one has to get hurt.

The Great Wall, as seen through one of its watchtowers.

After dinner, the five of us went back to Anne’s great aunt and uncle’s apartment. This too was like entering a parallel universe. Anne’s relatives, like my own, speak Chinese—this time a different dialect—but I still could not understand them. They live in an apartment, strikingly similar to my aunt’s house in Queens—but in Beijing. I’ve come to the conclusion that older Chinese people must actually share a similar lifestyle, in the same way that classic older white suburbanites do. Trading in the sticky plastic coverings that overlie couches and the slightly dingy, off-color window draping, older Chinese couples might superimpose excessively large pieces of furniture in cramped quarters, and year’s worth of boxed belongings, stacked floor to ceiling behind long pieces of fabric. I am no stranger to this lifestyle. I remember well the tiny outdoor porch where my aunt used to hang clothes and store bulky appliances, the living room that smelled of carpeting and stale air, and her kids’ bedrooms, which, after long years without use (her kids are now grown-up with families of their own), had become part-time capsule and part-storage closet. I remember how every inch of space was monopolized, and the way each saved item functioned like a comforting reminder of the past. Living through the Cultural Revolution seemed to make Chinese perpetual pack rats in the same way it did for Americans who were alive during the Great Depression.

At Anne’s great aunt’s apartment in Beijing, I was guilty of a little snooping. I had to prove whether or not my theory was correct. And indeed, there was something of the familiar—her great uncle’s study, where I stayed for the duration of the trip, had tables and bookshelves bursting with old magazines, newspaper clippings, and expired advertisements. There, too, were the same antique lamps, the coarse wool blankets slumped over the bed and chair, and the crinkly old wallpaper that hung ominously like a too-big coat. We wore slippers in the house, ate communally at a makeshift dinner table in the living room, and always tried to look busy. On my first night, we went shopping in the local area and stumbled upon a cheap retail store that was selling two pairs of jeans for a 100 yuan (about $15). Anne, Lynn, and I each bought a pair before stocking up on snack supplies and water at a convenience store. We would need some fuel for our trip to the Great Wall with a couple of Anne’s Oberlin friends the next day.

Despite the infamous Beijing smog, the Great Wall was still a sight to behold.

Sleep was in short supply as all three of us were out of bed well before 5:30 and on a taxi on our way to the youth hostel where Anne’s friend Anna and her boyfriend Sam were staying on the other side of Beijing. We were lucky that their hostel had trips running out to the Great Wall on a nearly daily basis and we just happened to pick a good day to join up with them. The whole ordeal was a little pricey, but it included all of the necessary admission tickets for the wall (they charge you at junctures spaced somewhat arbitrarily throughout) and the roundtrip bus ride, which took just about three hours each way. It was great to be able to “talk Oberlin,” even though it was with alums who I had not known previously while at school, simply because the shared experiences that bond Obies are enough to fill tomes of their own.

Before I delve any further into my actual account of the Great Wall, though, I thought I’d start with a small disclaimer. I often feel like most accounts of Westerners describing the majesty of a foreign, daresay “exotic,” place are met with no small degree of orientalism and essentialism. I was somewhat conscious of it when I was in Japan, but even more so here. It is so easy to write off the most surreal experiences with phrases that heighten the value of a sight as a result of its foreignness, or perhaps in this case, its Asian-ness. Not to mention that after a time, every temple and palace begins to take on the same aesthetic. As such, I will try to refrain from using the kind of language that might be indicative of such sights, though, in all fairness, it is hard to talk about the Great Wall without paying homage, at least in some part, to China itself.

Not knowing the specifics of the Beijing itinerary before packing, I was somewhat at a loss for proper hiking attire. More than that, I figured a weekend rendezvous in posh Beijing would be the perfect place to break in the new shoes I had bought just one day before leaving the states, and which I still had never worn. Needless to say, the 8 km tour of the Great Wall put a small dent in that plan. But shoes aside, the trek was great. For those of you who have also scaled at least part of the manmade behemoth, we went from Jinshanling to Simatai, a stretch of over 30 watchtowers that the tour books touted as one of the “least touristy” sections of the Wall. And for all intents and purposes, they were right—the only other foreigners we saw for the entirety of the four-hour jaunt were those that accompanied us on the bus trip up there. It was hard not to marvel at the incredible scale and majesty of it all. The walk was surprisingly exhausting, and consisted of numerous breaks from the climbs and descents that characterized each tower. The snacks we brought proved incredibly fruitful, and included crackers, dried fruit, nuts, beef jerky (famous in Pingyao), and, of course, plenty of water.

One of the only drawbacks to the entire experience, however, was the rampant number of vendors pushing their wares on various passersby. As foreigners, it makes sense that we look like huge dollar signs, but it was so discouraging to have scores of old women follow us for literally minutes, making small talk and complimenting our Chinese, before eventually asking us to buy their things and the five of us reluctantly having to turn them down—one at a time. This whole process became exhausting quickly—we could hardly go an entire watchtower without running into another vendor, selling everything from food to postcards to incredibly kitschy “I Climbed the Great Wall” t-shirts, available in a myriad of colors. There was one particular juncture that was slightly harrowing to traverse—the Wall basically let off at a window that was about ten feet off the ground without much of a landing save for a small platform located a few body lengths to the right. It was at this precise location that a very prudent saleswoman set up shop, essentially “saving” tourists by grabbing their arms and swinging them over to safety, and in the process, guilting those same tourists into opening up their wallets. We left with a couple American dollars worth of overpriced water and postcards. After all, how, ethically, could we refuse?

Nearing the end of our hike, there were quite a few sections of the Wall that were being outfitted with new bricks and cement as a result of erosion.

Another three-hour bus ride and a quick dinner later, I got back to Anne’s great aunt and uncle’s place that night feeling like my feet were on fire. I kicked off my shoes, slid on a pair of slippers, and waited for my turn in the shower. It was then that I began to understand some of the differences between this apartment and my aunt’s house in Queens. As Americans, no matter how hard we may try to avoid it, the agents of Westernization plague our everyday lives, from where we eat to how we use the toilet. Though not the case with regard to most everything else, in the case of the latter, China has in large part been able to bypass the globalization bug. China is notorious for its public squat toilets, especially where I live in the countryside, where all manner of refuse are contained atop a raised basin before being sloshed down to a hole in the ground. In many ways, it is more hygienic—never making direct contact with a seat saves countless millions of germs from being spread—but the regular lack of sinks and toilet paper seems to compensate for that pretty well.

And so, even despite knowing this, it still managed to shock me that instead of a traditional Western shower, I found myself standing in a bathtub almost comically small for my size, holding a bucket of luke-warm water in one hand and a fussy showerhead in the other. In that instant, the comforts of American hygiene fell away, and I had to laugh at myself just a little, squinting through the screen of an open window that surely someone across the street was having a fun time admiring. I managed to hose myself down without making too much of a mess, and with no small degree of grace, hoisted myself out of the tub and back to bed, where I slept as soundly as I could have hoped—all things considered.

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Beijing State of Mind: 北京 (Pt. I)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Not yet one full week into my two year commitment in Taigu, and I was ready to leave. Maybe the rain was starting to get to me, or the air, or the overwhelming feeling of being an outsider in this country. Whatever it was, there was hardly an escape. The days that lingered on did so without repent, and I didn’t want to burden my Senior Fellows with the grief and trouble of entertaining me when there was nothing for me to do. I figured that learning to cope with bouts of boredom and loneliness were all part of the necessary culture shock experience, but already my patience was beginning to wear thin. I was anxious for James to arrive, and for classes to start, but, at the same time, I was intensely scared of those same inevitabilities.

Without many other options, I tried my hand at simply living in the present. Fortunately for me, Anne mentioned after a few days that she would be going to Beijing to visit some friends before classes were to start. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity. The trip would figure nicely under the umbrella banner of past travel experiences with friends—as did the nature of my friendship with Anne in general. Over the greater part of the first week, we had been spending a lot of time together—not surprising, given that I am known to fall under the guise of strong female figures when experiencing a new place. Such was the case at Oberlin (Cheska), studying abroad in Japan (Katie), and even this past summer at Cornell (Jannine). There’s something about female friends that put me at ease and bring me a great deal of comfort in unfamiliar surroundings—perhaps a microcosm of my general approach when it comes to the majority of the friends that I keep. I also knew, however, that these kinds of friendships can sometimes become stifling and overwhelming—that two people can grow tired of each other in the time it takes for them to be propelled towards one another in the first place—an oversight that has endangered some of my friendships in the past. I recognized this, and tried to preempt it—devising my own itinerary for the time that Anne might be spending time with friends, and selling myself on introspectiveness for large parts of the trip.

Anne and I would be joined by her Chinese friend Lynn (who I mentioned briefly in my first China post) for four days in Beijing. The two of us would be staying at Anne’s great aunt and uncle’s house, thus saving ourselves the trouble of finding and paying for a hostel, while Lynn would be staying with her boyfriend who works in Beijing. I was excited and nervous at the same time. Though Taigu life was bearing down on me, I felt like I still hadn’t fully settled and that the few roots I had planted would be quickly wrenched from the ground. Unlike all of the other Fellows, I hadn’t spend significant time in Beijing (or any time for that matter, outside of my three-hour layover), and so I was also skeptical of my own ability to navigate in a big city without a commanding knowledge of spoken or written Chinese. More still was the issue of money, and (more specifically) not having very much of it, because institutions that accept credit cards, both in Taigu and beyond, are still something of an anomaly in China. But these hindrances aside, I was excited for the change of pace, and the chance to experience a city that many have compared to Tokyo and New York—at least one of which I am incredibly fond of.

One of the scenic posts in Taiyuan, which we perused before boarding the fast train to Beijing.

Our journey began at 7am sharp—with just enough time for me to pack, change, and get to the train station headed first toward Taiyuan, and then by fast train to Beijing. We arrived in Taiyuan in time for breakfast—a short meal of rice porridge or zhou, this time sweetened with fruit, as I had never experienced before—and had a decent amount of time to kill. After some window-shopping and clothes-trying—done largely to humor the whims of store employees eager to impress some Chinese fashion upon me—we went to a big park to sit and relax. Park culture, as I had learned from textbook readings over the summer at Cornell, is very big in China. Most parks are free, but other well-known ones run a few yuan. This particular one even featured a small amusement park—a miniature Coney Island, complete with a tiny rollercoaster, merry-go-round, and a few carnival games sprinkled amidst food vendors and other stands. When I relayed the advice I had gleamed from the text to Lynn—that visiting small Chinese parks is a great way to observe the daily life and customs of Chinese people—she laughed at me. No one goes to parks to observe natural life, she told me. Rather, people go there to live their own lives and heed their own habits, separate from those of others, and in that way, people can enjoy one another’s company more-or-less harmoniously. And for a few hours, under the shade of a few trees alongside the amusement park, we did just that.

The self-contained amusement park, which, inexplicably, had a very A Bug's Life-feel to it.

We eventually met up with the first of Anne’s friends—Acacia, a recent graduate of Shanxi Agricultural University who now works in Taiyuan. We went to lunch, and though I understood only fragments of conversation, it was good to experience an immersive Chinese language environment—something I would encounter time and again over the course of my four days in Beijing. After lunch, we bid farewell to Acacia and the three of us boarded the fast train to Beijing—three hours wrought with small conversation and shut-eye. When we arrived, we headed straight for Anne’s great aunt’s house. Located snuggly in the center of West Beijing, it was a boon to be able to stay so ideally-situated for free. Her great aunt and uncle were incredibly accommodating, and it wasn’t long after we arrived that we were whisked out to dinner at a fancy nearby restaurant. We ordered perhaps more food than I had seen in my week in Taigu up to that point (and we were no eating slouches in Taigu, either), including some of the famed, oft-exalted Beijing kaoya, or roast duck. Needless to say, the food was delicious, and for the five of us—great aunt and uncle included—it was a veritable feast. In typical Chinese fashion, we were urged to eat and drink mercilessly, this time, thankfully without the added ingestion of alcohol. Even still, by meal’s end, and despite a litter of exhausted plates and stomachs, we ended up taking a few whole dishes to go.

A view from the window of the moving fast train of some of China's lesser-known countryside. Much of the land is terraced to provide better irrigation for farming.

(More on childhood insecurities, Chinese apartments, déjà vu, the Great Wall, kitschy t-shirts, the agents of Westernization, and a shocking revelation in Pt. II of this post).

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Teaching Class and Taking Names

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

On the morning of my first class, I woke up in a cold sweat. It was so dark that I could scarcely make out the outline of my room, but my body was convinced that I was late. With no clock to assuage my fears, I lay transfixed in bed, certain of my ineffectualness but too scared to confirm it. Images began to fill my head: classrooms swelling with students, a vacant podium where a teacher ought to be standing, bells signaling the start of class, the methodical pulse of a clock’s second hand. Slowly, I got myself out of bed, and with a weary eye, peered over my cell phone at the time. 5:17am—still over two hours until class. I let out a long breath, tiptoed back to bed, and tried everything in my power to go back to sleep. As anticipated, my alarm sounded just over an hour later—but I was still awake. My mind was awash in worst-case scenarios. What if my lesson is too boring? What if my students can’t understand me? What if they don’t like me? What will their perception of me have on their attitude towards Americans? Towards all foreigners in general?

I had spent the better part of two days fiendishly hacking away at my first lesson—fine tuning it until all of the parts felt right. I would start with self-introductions, then discuss ground rules and expectations for the class, and then help students with choosing their names. I decided that the crux of my grading rubric would be based on attendance and participation (with homework and the final skit rounding out the rest), as my primary goal in an Oral English class is to try to get my students to speak as much as possible, regardless if it’s correct all the time. I figured too, though, that this would probably be the hardest thing to ask of students, so I was setting myself up for quite a bit of teeth-pulling, at least in the first few weeks. After the break, I would have them fill out a survey to get a sense of their background—who they are, what they want to learn, what their strengths and weaknesses in English are, etc.—and take their pictures, so that I could better remember their names. But with all of the mystery surrounding the logistics of teaching itself, any degree of prep work in the world would have hardly felt useful.

I did know a couple of things about the teaching situation beforehand—small tidbits I had gleamed from Anne and Nick as well as our boss, Zhao Hong, who ran down our schedules and gave us a brief prep-talk in Chinese about our classes. “Your students will be nervous about having a foreign teacher,” she told us, “so as long as you can be calm, you will do fine.” Ironically, during the break of my very first class, some of my undergraduate students were quick to point out that I “looked nervous” and that I should “relax.” But I realized that it was less about being nervous speaking in front of a bunch of people (despite how nail-biting it is, public speaking always gives me a thrill), than it was about letting people down who have trusted me to be a good teacher. My students are counting on me to have experience and be able to adequately teach them, and it is my responsibility to follow through. If I don’t put the effort in, not only do I fail myself, but I fail over 100 students, on whose lives I could have otherwise had a meaningful impact. Not to mention the fact that we’ve been prepping for this moment since the beginning of January, so there was a lot riding on how we would handle the first day.

The notebook where I write down all of my lesson plans. Originals are in black, and additional comments and revisions are in blue. I figure that using this as a resource will exponentially reduce the workload I will have as a teacher next year.

I teach four different Oral English classes, each with about 30 students. Three of them are graduate student classes which meet two times a week. The fourth is a class of undergraduate English majors who I teach once a week. The English majors are all second-years, having had Ben (the previous Shansi Fellow) as their teacher last year. Though they are all college students, the dynamic feels a little bit like high school—I can tell they are somewhat cliquey and though I am only a couple of years their senior, I often feel much older. This is a good sentiment to have, at least when it carries over to my graduate students. With no exception, they are all older than me, most just a year or two, but some upwards of ten or more—the equivalent of “continuing education students,” in addition to teachers in other departments who are interested in studying English. It feels incredibly strange to be teaching students who are older than me, mostly because I can’t understand why they continue to come to class and listen to me. After all, what can some fresh American college graduate really teach them about anything? For most of them, I am the first foreign teacher they have ever had. Their majors are all related to agriculture (hence the name of the university), with subjects as wide-ranging as ecology, forest protection, landscape architecture, crop genetics, soil science, and veterinary medicine.

Each class period is two hours long, and so, in all, I end up teaching seven classes totaling fourteen hours every week. Ostensibly, the time I spend teaching seems almost laughably paltry—and before I arrived here, I certainly shared those sentiments. I figured that in comparison to a 40-hour-a-week job in the states, this teaching gig would almost certainly be a cinch. I even began to contemplate the ways I would spend the almost endless expanse of free time that I imagined myself to have. But in practice, this is far from the truth. Planning lessons takes an incalculably long time, as does all of the behind-the-scenes work of grading papers and previewing teaching materials. Not to mention that standing, speaking loudly, and gesturing (wildly) for four hours a day starts to take its toll. But, that aside, the situation is almost as ideal as a person in my position could ask. None of us teach class on Fridays, yielding us permanent three-day weekends, and the open schedule allows for a lot of other activities that can be pursued based on individual interest.

Just a sampling of some of the essays I am already having to wade through.

But though the situation may be ideal, it’s not to say that there aren’t a ton of challenges that come part and parcel. The first is the length of the class period. A two-hour class can certainly feel unwieldy at times, even when simply trying to hold a class’s attention. Often, it would seem more beneficial to have four one-hour classes per week instead. But we’ve devised good ways to remedy that problem, taking a ten-minute break at around the one-hour mark, and letting our students out ten minutes early so that they can get to their next class on time. The second challenge is the classrooms themselves. My English majors’ classroom doesn’t have a board of any kind, but rather, a projector hooked up in quite elaborate fashion to a computer. Theoretically, this makes it easier to use advanced technology when planning a lesson, but it ends up being more inconvenient than anything else. Thankfully, my graduate students’ classroom has a blackboard, so when demonstrating how to spell a word or assigning discussion questions, my students don’t have to squint at a tiny palm-sized computer screen by their desks to read it. However, in both classrooms, the desks and chairs are bolted resolutely to the floor, with all of the attention directed forward at the teacher.

This stands to demonstrate a critical difference between the American and the Chinese system of education. Whereas American education is by and large more “student-centered,” in China, lecturing and rote memorization seem to be the primary tools at a teacher’s disposal. From what we’ve heard from student friends of ours, students are oftentimes incredibly bored in traditional classes, and there is little to no participation. Professors will assign experiments and homework and expect students to spit back key terms and data for exams. Though this is not unheard of in America, in my experience as a student I have found this to be more of the exception than the rule. However, as teachers we now have the power to change that through a fair bit of flexibility, creativity, and patience. I am trying to scrap the “lecture model” of teaching and spend the majority of every class emphasizing group work so that students can actually practice the language. I have found that this works best by having students switch seats and take new partners to discuss in small groups.

I assigned a "Show and Tell" assignment for one of my first classes, and one of my graduate students surprised me by not only bringing in mooncakes (appropriate for the fast-approaching Mid-Autumn Festival), but then insisting that I keep them as a gift!

Another major challenge is assessing my students’ language levels. Within any given class, there is a wide discrepancy in the level at which my students perform—while some seem near fluent (at least conversationally), others can barely string together a complete sentence without asking for help from their classmates in Chinese. It also seems that many, if not all, of my students can read and write at levels three and four times higher than they can speak. Trying to mitigate these wide inconsistencies has proven difficult, and so oftentimes I end up relying on those higher-level students to act as language shepherds for those who are struggling, in addition to giving them more advanced work. The final challenge is designing lessons. Without a textbook or supervision of any kind, we are given almost total freedom to plan and implement a curriculum. Though this is incredibly nerve-racking in the sheer vastness of material out there, it also enables us to be creative about having to pick and choose which aspects of English language and culture we are most passionate about teaching.

One of those initial “teacher moments” came when giving my students their English names. As second-years, all of my English majors already had names, but with few exceptions, my graduate students were blank slates, and despite their having studied English for upwards of ten years, giving them names was a weird sort of christening into the English-speaking world. But it was for that very reason that I felt so panicked—I found myself seated with an immense responsibility just minutes after meeting those students. After all, what’s in a name? Everything! How could I possibly discover enough about a person in so short a time to decide what their English face to the world would be? Luckily for me, unlike in Chinese, most English names don’t come with an incredibly complex back story—though names are necessarily derived from different cultures, their meanings aren’t intrinsically linked to the components that make them up, and names like “Chris” or “Barbara” aren’t really all that different from “Thomas” or “Samantha” save for subjective preferences and the labels we associate with them from past experience.

And so, rather than name my students based on famous American people or on actual friends of mine (a strategy that other Fellows have taken), I decided to take a more laissez-faire approach to name-choosing. I started class by brainstorming some well-known English names, and then gave my students some time to think of names (and in some cases, adjectives) that they liked and felt suited them well. This led to more than a fair share of requests (“I really like flowers and am interested in swimming. What should my name be?”), but for the most part, my students came to individual decisions about their preferred monikers. The results were certainly mixed. I got more “A” names than I knew what to do with—“Ann,” “Anne,” “Anna,” “Amy,” “Angela,” “Alex,” “Alice,” “Alva,” “Andy,” “Anastasia,” “Alma,” “Albert,” “Allen,” “Amelia,” and even “Anny,” when two people in the same class wanted the name “Annie.” I also got a fair share of the sports-related (“James” after Lebron James, “Owen” after Michael Owen), the famous (“Bruce” after “Bruce Lee), and those influences by popular culture (“Nemo” and “Clark”). Then, of course, there were the downright strange—“Ripal,” “Era,” “Rainbow,” “Apple,” and “Marhone,” just to name a few. One of my more inquiring students settled on the name “Karl Marx,” and his seatmate wrote down the name “Hitler,” gesturing to himself. I kept “Karl Marx,” but “Hitler” was the only name I turned down. Because at the end of the day, it’s about my students, and who am I to say that “Salary” is a fixed wage, or that “Jocab” should actually be spelled “Jacob?”

Me with fellow teachers James (left) and David (right) after our first day of class.

I’m starting to think of myself as a real teacher. It feels so empowering to dress up every morning in slacks, a blazer, and dress shoes, all with a messenger bag full of ready-to-impart knowledge slung over my shoulder. It’s almost enough to make me look forward to the mix of bewildered and inquisitive stares I get from students passing by my classroom. This is no small discovery, as previous to this experience, I would never have pegged myself as an educator. Given my tutoring experience in high school and at Oberlin, working with students was always on my mind, but being a legitimate teacher was almost certainly out of the question. I didn’t think I had the confidence or the motivation necessary to pull it off. But now my students smile and wave when they see me, and I leave each class with the sticky soft sensation of chalk still clinging to my fingertips. Despite my request to simply call me Daniel (as the title of “professor” requires a degree that I can’t say I’ve acquired), half of my students call me “teacher,” and more than a handful staunchly resolve to call me “sir.” I’ve even developed some of the telltale traits of English teachers—learning how to speak slowly, enunciate my words, pace my sentences, and repeat phrases until they stick.

In short, it is a job—like most other things in life—that comes with its fair share of triumphs and hardships. It certainly helps that I have four other foreign teachers here that I can work with and bounce ideas off of. And it also helps that the Chinese model of education seems to build-in an immense amount of respect for educators—much more so than that in the states. To say you are a teacher in China really sets you apart as a professional. In class, the students are incredibly courteous—they apologize profusely if they are late, volunteer to wipe the blackboard for you, and stop talking immediately when you speak. After hearing so many horror stories about students with discipline problems or who don’t cooperate (whether in the states or abroad), I feel so fortunate that the worst I have to deal with is a room of blank faces when I say something that my students don’t understand. By and large, they are smart, hard-working, and motivated to learn—and I am more than excited to get to know them all a little better as their teacher.

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Getting My Feet Wet

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

In my first week in Taigu, it rained nearly every day. Embankments were flooded and dirt and gravel roads bubbled over with mud. In the commercial area of campus where street vendors perennially sell food, bricks were laid in the street to form a walking path, and people clustered under the shelter of umbrellas and small awnings. The weather has been strange to say the least, as this part of China is known for its dryness—the stale dust that hangs in the air and clings to the walls of your throat. Its location high in the mountains means that rain travels from the west and often gets dumped on Western Shanxi Province before it ever reaches Taigu. On the whole, though, it’s been a nice change. Aside from the grayness that often accompanies it, rain brings a certain freshness to the day, replacing the sticky warmth with damp cool. Here, we informally judge the air quality by the clarity of those mountains way off in the distance. Partly obscured is pretty good, and if you can make out anything more than the general outline, you’re doing really well. On most days, though, it is just a slushy gray blur—an ink blot on the horizon—done up in water paint by some ancient Chinese calligrapher.

It’s been hard to characterize the last few days. Thinking about my first week in Japan and how absolutely overwhelmed I was about everything, coming to China has not been accompanied by the incredible culture shock I had expected. I can chalk this up to two main differences. The first is my Chinese upbringing, coupled with the simple fact of having grown up in New York City. However incredibly different rural China is from anything I’ve ever experienced before (and don’t get me wrong, it is), I feel an intrinsic connection to this place. The people, the places, the food, the sounds, and yes, even the smells, conjure a familiarity borne from the spiritual more than anything else. I am reminded of home-cooked dinners with my extended family, of walking through Flushing’s Chinatown in the pouring rain, of make-shift squash gardens in the front yard, and of laundry hanging from the windows of tenement apartments. The faces I see are simultaneously familiar and strange; their visages coated with stories—of grief, wonder, hope, and sadness—some of which I already know by heart.

The front gate of Shanxi Agricultural University—erected as part of the 90th anniversary of the college in 1997.

The second is the amazing job the Senior Fellows have done to indoctrinate me into living here. As mentioned in my last entry, Nick and Anne have both been here for a year and have been incalculably helpful to my general well-being. They have patiently answered every question and entertained every concern that I have lavished upon them. My co-Fellow, James, has also been great and we’ve been getting along surprisingly well in our shared apartment. In addition to the three of them, there are two others in our cast of characters. The first, David, is an ‘09 graduate from the University of Vermont who came to Taigu to teach English on his own without the help of a program. But he may as well be an Oberlin grad—aside from some inherent “bro-ness,” he meshes with our little group just fine, and has been a great addition to meals and outings. The other is named Matthias—a 36-year old Germany native who teaches German to a group of specialized (read: very wealthy) Chinese students with aspirations of passing the German college entrance exam. For most of them, though, this is a pipe dream. As Matthias explained, his students’ German is very poor on the whole and unlike in China, they can’t use their money or clout to buy a degree. Though disheartening, this fact doesn’t seem to nag him too much. He teaches much more than the rest of us and makes a hefty salary by Chinese standards. But a significant portion of his money goes to his biggest vice—alcohol—as he chooses to remain “drunken” for the majority of each day. When he does not drink, it’s like a switch has been flipped—he goes from garrulous to silent, his humor fades into discontent, and it is difficult to watch this transition. At lunch when we he is sober, he is a shell of the man we see at nights and at parties we throw together. I think he must know this weakness, but he can admit it less to himself than even we can to him.

From left to right, my three Shansi co-Fellows: Nick, Anne, and James. It was taken at Golden Hans, a German barbecue restaurant in Taiyuan. This picture is for Scott, who maintains (quite accurately), that I never have pictures of people in my blog posts.

We speculate the reasons for why he came to China to teach. He is a published author in Germany with three novels—two, under a pseudonym that he used because he was drunk, and one was his college thesis—and all three books are displayed proudly on his bookshelf. We guess that there was some falling out either with his family or his work that made him emigrate. He constantly tells us that he is a poor man by German standards, and that he can’t afford to go home, but his spending habits would suggest otherwise. He bought an expansive motorbike in China that is fixed near the doorway and is almost never used. He imports food from Germany weekly—stacks of cans of liverwurst, packages of cheese, whole sausages, bread, containers of Nutella—and has scores of other edible and potable wares that he buys from Walmart in Taiyuan. He has made friends with tons of Chinese students—filtering them through “levels” of QQ (the MSN or AIM equivalent in China)—and constantly receives calls and texts from them on his cell phone. In new places, he is treated like a king—as a teacher, his students’ parents are forced to buy him everything when he visits their hometown, putting him up in 4-star hotels, delivering beer to his door, and taking him out to McDonald’s for dinner. He can speak but a few key words in Chinese (hello, thank you, beer, etc.), despite already having lived here for a year, but he says that this academic calendar will be his last.

When he is serious and talkative (a somewhat rarer phenomenon), he speaks highly of his sisters and his homeland. More interestingly, he speaks of why he is still living in China. He hates a lot of the food here—not to mention the beer—and he gets annoyed by the same things we do—feelings of isolation, dirty surroundings, air that tastes of coal. But through it all, he is content. He smiled wryly when he explained that he was the most ignorant man in all of China—that he cannot read or communicate and has no notion of what’s going on. In Germany as an intellectual, he was miserable. There were too many problems that we was made constantly aware of. But in China, bureaucracy scarcely bothers him because he doesn’t understand it. I hazard to admit that there is some truth to his logic. Other than these foibles, though, he is a kind-hearted and gentle man—and a wonderful host—and for lack of any other foreign friends here, he does a remarkable job of putting up with all of us.

One of the many decorative gazebos on campus.

We foreigners are regarded as something of an enigma—endlessly fascinating and inscrutably mysterious. We are tall and big and ignorant and Western, but every once and a while, we can pass as Chinese. Occasionally there are no stares. Drivers don’t slow to gawk, street vendors don’t pause from cooking, young kids don’t point and giggle, and old people don’t take a second glance. Despite our small numbers, we certainly comprise a Motley crew when we go out to meals or walk around campus together. I have been spending a lot of time with the other foreigners here largely because I don’t yet know anyone else, and they have been a great source of comfort and guidance in a new place. Not to mention that they are just a really great group of friends to hang out with. I suspect that this will change soon as I meet more people and get more situated here, but thus far we have been doing a lot together.


The Pepto-Bismol-hued dormitories that house both undergraduates and grad students alike. Perhaps not the most eye-catching design, but on the plus side, check out all the built-in clotheslines!

In my first week, James had not yet arrived and classes were not to start for another two weeks. For the first time in a long time, I found myself with very little to do and a lot of time to do it in. The internet wasn’t working, and I had already arranged and re-arranged my room countless times up to that point with little else in the way of activities. I started watching some Chinese television with the hopes that comprehension would filter through my conscious mind like osmosis, and did my best to do some character studying for a couple of hours every day. Being the only newcomer to the country, as all of the other foreigners have spent over a year here prior (James and David included), I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder when it comes to my knowledge of China, as well as my Chinese ability. Coming in with only a year-and-a-half of formal study under my belt, it was hard to wrap my mind around a lot about this place—the nuances in the Shanxi dialect, how fast people spoke, and how staggeringly little I was able to understand at the outset. But in the time since, I have been faring pretty well. I can order food with little difficulty, make small talk with students or bewildered passersby, and communicate to a reasonable degree with the handful of Chinese friends that Nick and Anne have. My Chinese level is certainly not where I want it to be (which is, ideally, fluency), but I know I will have to put in a lot of work if I want to achieve that. Right now speaking English is too easy, and pretty soon I will have to really step out of my comfort zone.

In the unstructured free time that constituted the majority of those days, a lot revolved around simply talking and eating food, luxuries that I wish I had budgeted more into my life at Oberlin, as I had done during my summer at Cornell. Dinners linger long after the food is finished, and conversation makes its rounds around the table like a collection plate. Anne and Nick have already taken us to some of the best restaurants in town. Some are a little distance away, usually a long walk or a cab ride if we are in the mood for fancier or specialty foods when the occasion dictates. But many are located right on campus in an area known as bei yuan, or North Yard. The strip is right off the main crawl that leads to many of the campus buildings and dorms. At first glance, it looks just like a big open-air market. Vendors are sandwiched side-by-side along both sides of the narrow sidewalk, as cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians all share the middle roadway. Walking along, one can find almost anything as far as food goes—small hand-sized bing (pancakes) of all varieties, nai cha (bubble tea), tian dian (desserts), and shui guo (fruit). There are also slightly larger stands that make fresh food right in front of you like barbecued meat on sticks, fried rice, noodles, and tofu. Almost all of it is delicious, not to mention exceptionally cheap. Dabbling at a few such stands will only run you between 50 cents and a dollar U.S., if that.

A view of North Yard at night, where it becomes home to swarms of students looking for late-night eats, as well as a social life, due largely to the lack of any other significant night-life activities.

On either side of the vendors, there are little stationary stores, delis, hair salons, and sit-down restaurants. There are countless eateries that we have yet to try, even though we seem to frequent a new one for every meal. Each seems to have its own te se, or specialty. Some are big into noodle dishes, others for their selection of meat, and still more for gai fan, or covered rice, my personal favorite. Dishes are all served family style in the middle of the table. As soon as a dish is finished cooking, the wait staff brings it over to our table, where we promptly grab at bits and pieces of it with our chopsticks. It makes for a more interesting meal—instead of one dish, you effectively have 4 or 5, or more, depending on how many people you go out to eat with. Addressing the wait staff is very different than in the U.S. too—there is hardly any courtesy and shouting from across the room is the only way to summarily communicate. Of course, there is also no tip or tax—a great benefit to be sure—and often one person pays for the entire meal rather than everyone splitting the check. I prefer this method a whole lot more. Money seems to lose its intrinsic individual attachment and everything about going out for meals feels more relaxed. It’s presumed that eventually everything will even out—a comforting thought for someone who has spent most of his adult life guarding his money carefully and efficiently tallying debt.

One of the many fruit vendor stands in North Yard.

Aside from North Yard, the campus has a few other notable places of interest, including a post office, a few tracks for running, a swimming pool, and an underground supermarket. Almost all of the buildings have an aged quality to them—some in an antique, gilded sort-of elegance, and others simply because they are falling apart and covered in dirt. But there are exceptions. Most dazzling of all (and thus, also most physically out of place) is the library, one of the newest structures on campus. Apparently as a ploy to get more funding from the government, the school was instructed to construct a modern library, only to discover that they didn’t have nearly enough books and other resources to fill it. As legend has it, the school requested that every student donate all of his or her own personal books to the library, resulting in tens of copies of the same textbooks lining its shelves. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to check out the library, but conveniently, it is located almost adjacent to my house, and if my time at Oberlin and Cornell are any indication, I might find myself eventually spending a lot of time there after all.

The sleek, super-modern library on campus.

In short, adapting to life here has been great. Some days can drag on almost eternally, but on the whole, I have been finding a lot to keep myself busy, and my mind preoccupied on things other than homesickness. I am so thankful that I have already been exposed in some form to many of the customs and formalities here, so as to lessen the burden on my arrival. This is especially apparent when it comes to eating, as almost every gesture was branded into my skin at a young age like muscle memory. As opposed to Japan, people here seem more laid back—the equivalent to honorific keigo is unnecessary when addressing elders or superiors, and bowing and superlative thanking are often waved off completely. Furthermore, as a mixed race Chinese, there is a whole other level to my experience living here that I will certainly touch more on in later posts. Many of the eyes that greet me do not know my past. Some take my foreignness at face value. But others take the time to ponder. They wonder why my hair is black and my eyes are dark, and they start to form the same question in their minds: "why do you look like me?" When I answer them, our vast differences fall away, as though they were not bound so tightly to begin with. Curiosity quelled, they smile back at me—as if all of life could be made so simple.

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