The First Five Months

I’m posting the emails I sent, with a few changes, for those who didn’t have the privilege of receiving them.

I arrived safe and sound in Xi’an. I did not begin teaching until after the October holiday, the Chinese call it National Day although it is celebrated for an entire week (my understanding is that the holiday commemorates communism). During the National Holiday, I accompanied other teachers, sponsored by the Foreign Teacher’s Office, to Hancheng.

Classes started at the university in early September, Xi’an International Studies University (XISU), but I am teaching conversational English to first-year students. First-years have compulsory military training prior to arriving on campus so September was relatively open for me to explore Xi’an and practice my Mandarin. 
When I did begin teaching, I taught 16 hours a week. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday from 8-12pm. I live on the old campus but teach at the new campus. The new campus is “out in the suburbs” and requires a 30-40 minute bus ride, depending on traffic. The old campus is situated in a district that is a short bus ride to the city center (this is where the Bell Tower, Hui Ming Jie (Muslim Street), and the Xi’an city wall is located). There are fellow teachers, many are either Mormons from Brigham Young University in Utah or Australians, that I have visited Vanguard, a supermarket near the apartments with or gone out to dinner with. There are English teachers from the States as well, several Japanese, an Arabic, a couple French and German, a Thai, a Hindu, and an Italian teacher. New teachers come and go every semester, as some teachers are only here for six months. 
Deanna and I’s private drum instructor from high school Mark and his wife put me in touch with a Chinese woman whom calls herself Daphney (it is quite common for Chinese students to choose English names). She is helping me get better acquainted with Xi’an as well as practice my Mandarin. Our first night out, we ate Korean BBQ. It was a new experience for me. Thankfully, the menu had pictures. This is something I still find quite challenging. There are a couple cafes near the apartment that have English on the menu and then several others that have pictures, but as I can’t speak Mandarin, it is hard to order food. Daphney has been invaluable in this respect. She is also great company as her English is quite good. As the months go by, I find myself still eating my same favorites when I go out, such as xi hong shi chao ji dan (tomato and egg), qie zi (eggplant…usually served in a fish sauce or with green brans & garlic), or gong bao ji ding (kung pao chicken). I also frequently indulge in jiaozi (dumplings) and Chinese style Western food at a cafe called the Village in addition to trying other Western offerings that Xi’an has to offer (so far I have tried Indian, Japanese, & Italian). 
In addition to dinner with Daphney and some of the foreign teachers, I have done a bit of adventuring on my own. I walk up and down the main road outside the campus called Chang’an Nan Lu. Running perpendicular to that road is Shi Da Lu: This is where the majority of the restaurants that I frequent are located. There are also some excellent DVD shops. Most DVDs will run you about 6-8 kuai (bucks), the equivalent of $1-1.50. Most items are inexpensive. The other day, two other foreign teachers and I went to a noodle house, where the noodles were hand cut, similar in size to fettucini noodles, and a small bowl, that i could barely finish, cost 4 kuai, about 50 cents. It is very easy to eat inexpensively once you get away from the main roads. This noodle house was down a street that was narrow, filled with many shops selling knock-off designer purses, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and convenience shops. There was an open market located off the street, where I was told I can purchase fish, vegetables, and fruit. I need to work on my Mandarin before I feel confident enough to bargain, especially in an area where it would be easy for foreigners to get taken advantage of. 

Recently, I visited an orphanage run by an American/Australian (not sure which one) called Starfish Foster Home. Basically, she rents out several apartments in which she houses 50 or so children. Most of them have disabilities such as cleft palettes or hare lips and are therefore unwanted by Chinese society. The children ranged from infants to 3 or 4 years of age. I went with several of the other foreign teachers to volunteer, basically getting the chance to interact with the children. I don’t know what it is about Asian babies but I find them to be absolutely adorable. I held several of the infants, helped a young girl (probably around 4) blow bubbles trying to explain to her when they ran out that there were “mei you” (no more). She wasn’t all too pleased about this and felt it was time for her to throw a temper tantrum. More bubbles appeared, courtesy of one of the Chinese nannies employed to help care for the children. It was nice to be around children who seemed to appreciate being doted with affection plus I have a weakness for Asian babies it seems. 

In addition to being a good samaritan, I have been discovering a lot of new and interesting places to dine. A group of us accompanied another foreign teacher to a Sichuan restaurant located near another university close to XISU. Surprisingly, the food wasn’t particularly spicy or perhaps the chef saw a big group of foreigners and decided to dumb down the spice. A group of eight of us enjoyed the delicious meal of various dishes, an egg and tomato dish, chicken and peanuts, some green vegetable seeped in garlic, fried mushrooms (this is one of my favorite dishes to order), and an extremely spicy meat dish (the broth consisted of red pepper and chili flakes…I don’t think there was anything else in there…and of course I found this dish to be mind-numbingly spicy while some of my counterparts said it wasn’t spicy enough!). All in all, our meal was 7 dishes plus a couple of drinks per person, no not the alcoholic kind but a drink called “bing fun,” it’s a local carbonated orange beverage much like Fanta but sweeter with a less corn syrupy flavor. We each paid 12 yuan for this meal…that’s $2!!

There is also a great Indian restaurant located near the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. It’s pretty authentic, it’s run by an Indian guy. The garlic nan and mango lassi are something you could kill people for. They have an extensive menu and although it isn’t as cheap as the Sichuan place (it’s been nicknamed Dan’s place after the teacher who found it), you can still eat for under 30 yuan a person. Also surprisingly, the food isn’t very spicy here either. I guess I haven’t really been enjoying authentic Indian cuisine after all. 

Chris and John, the two teachers I had exchanged emails with prior to my arrival, have introduced me to numerous places. A couple of nights ago, we went to a place they have nicknamed “Oliver’s Chicken Wings,” after a past teacher who literally use to haunt this place (he frequented it often as he lived next door). The place, if you haven’t guessed it, serves chicken wings and I mean tasty, meaty, flavorful chicken wings. These could quite possibly rival any chicken wings I have had in the States. We also noshed on mutton kebabs and enjoyed some fried noodles. The fried noodles left something to be desired but I was reassured that the place is hit or miss, one of the teachers said he had noodles there last week that were far superior. It’s a good place to eat when you are in dire need of some meat which means I’ll probably become a staple at this place as well. This area tends to favor outdoor seating, as the area is mainly residential and it’s a nice change of pace to sit outside and enjoy a meal. 

Last night, a group of us went to an Uighur (pronounced Weegar) place. It is across the main road from the campus in what is referred to as a village. There are many small villages, areas where the cost of living is cheap, in the city of Xi’an. The government is trying to eradicate them all because of the not-so-pleasant stigma that surrounds these places. They aren’t particularly clean, many are overcrowded, and stolen/pirated goods seem to originate from there. Unfortunately, where in China is the latter statement not true? Anyways, Uighur are a minority group in China that come from the autonomous region Xinjiang, it’s in Northwest China. They are Muslims of Turkish descent who speak Uighur but write in Arabic. They don’t speak Chinese for the most part. John told us he once was in Xinjiang and trying to get a taxi to a local market that would be of interest to foreigners. His cab driver didn’t speak any English or Chinese. John finally said the word bazaar and the cabbie understood; in Turkey a market is referred to as a bazaar. Just an interesting little side story. Although Muslim, Uighur food is more closely related to Turkish food than Halal food. They have nan that looks and tastes more like pizza crust. Their mutton kebabs were mouthwatering and the rice which could easily be scooped onto the nan had a delicious lamb flavor. 

My life is somewhat chaotic, but in a very Chinese way. There isn’t an easy way for me to convey this with words but there are constant last-minute invites to lunch and dinner, teaching schedule changes, shopping excursions, Chinese lessons, cleaning & laundry (two daunting tasks that never seem to end!), and finally lesson planning for both my university classes and private tutoring to earn some extra RMB. Unlike in the States, I am not always in constant motion but I never know when my phone will ring or a text message will arrive with an invitation to accompany a friend somewhere or a friend inquiring if I am up for another tutoring job. So this is perhaps what I mean by the “Chinese way.” As you will often hear foreigners mutter “This is China,” you really must go wherever the wind may take you and be flexible about the ebb and flow of daily life.

Okay, let me get to the juicy details of my job. For any teachers reading this blog, current or former, I have the upmost respect for you. Teaching is not only challenging, but rewarding and both exhausting. I teach Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays; 4 hours each day. I get up around 6am on the aforementioned days, catch the bus at 7:20, arrive at the new campus around 7:45. My first class begins at 8am and ends at 9:50, I then have a 20 minute break, and my second class begins at 10:10 and concludes at 12pm. I teach students in the Tourism department; they are English, Planning, MICE (students who will end up working at the Shanghai Expo, a yearly event that features tents of various countries around the world) and Management majors. Many hope to work as tour guides, translators or interpreters. After five weeks of classes, I am finally seeing progress! Not all the classes are on par with one another, some are much easier to handle and more willing to participate. They seem to have adjusted to my “teaching style,” if you can call it that. I essentially just act like myself. I speak in odd voices, make jokes, use my extensive knowledge of sarcasm in hopes of getting them to do what my boss informed me is my only job: TALK! It seems this would be an easy task, but for some of my classes, they are just ridiculously shy.
So what do I teach to my classes you might ask? Well, essentially when I put together my lesson plans, I include general topics that I deem would be both easy and invigorating conversations to my students. Each week, we go over 2-5 idioms and 5 vocabulary words. I also give them several sets of discussion questions which they must discuss in small groups. I also give them a chance each week to perform a short skit that pertains to the topic. My classes range in size from 25 – 43 students.
During our first class, I had the students give me feedback on what topics they found interesting and would like to discuss during the course of the year (I will have these students for two semesters). I received quite an interesting array of answers from vampires, American college life, love & marriage, American’s perceptions of China and its people, American popular culture etc. During this class, I also introduced myself and “forced” them to introduce themselves and their classmates much to their dismay. All they wanted was to hear me talk about my favorite singer, Lady Gaga (I purposely chose her as I knew my students would be familiar with her music…she’s quite popular at KTV here). Now, even five weeks later, my students still like to bring up “how much Miss Marissa loves Lady Gaga!” And yes, some of my students call me Miss Marissa, although I tell them time and time again, to call me by my first name. I even had a student or two call me by my last name. I immediately corrected them, informing them that in fact “Mrs. Kluger” is my mother.
In the second class, we discussed similarities/differences between American and Chinese schooling, mainly focusing on college life. This lesson worked well because they were very willing to participate and provided me with a lot of information about Chinese college life. Students here go to classes 6-8 hours a day, most of them, in addition to my Oral English class, sit through 13-15 classes a week. The majority of their classes are English classes taught by Chinese teachers. I am the only native English speaking teacher they have. For many of them, I am the first foreigner they have spoken with. This fact can be attested by their consistent attempts to photograph me while I am teaching. I take that opportunity to “borrow” their cellphone and wait until class is over to return it. I explained classroom rules the first day of classes and explained I would not tolerate cellphones. It’s almost impossible because the young Chinese are even more attached to their phones than American teens. Most of my students are 18-19, although there are a couple only a year younger than me. I always “dress to impress,” mostly to make myself appear older, in addition to reminding my students that I am “old.” They laugh. There are two kinds of laughs in Chinese culture: nervous laugh because they don’t understand the context of what I am saying or laughing because what I have said they find sincerely funny. It seems as the lessons progress, there is more of the former kind. I have digressed!
I would also moan and groan if I received homework on top of all those classes I had to attend. I have my classes keeping journals, as I feel that having to think in English will help improve their oral communication. Plus, even if I required that their only homework be to go home and practice speaking English, they would never do such a thing as most Chinese are very shy and embarrassed about their ability to speak English. “Oh, my English is so poor” is a common phrase I hear uttered in my class to which I reply the only way it will be rich is with practice. Being a Chinese student requires that you be able to memorize, then dictate what you have spent hours reciting. There is no such concept we call “free thinking.” This is what I find most troubling and difficult to defeat.
It’s an intercultural dilemma similar to when my students chose English names during the second week of classes. I had students who wanted names such as Storm, Dolphin, Garshin, Hise etc. Some even stranger than the ones I have listed but I cannot remember the absurdity right now. I printed off lists that I deemed acceptable and that would be well-received, easily pronounceable to foreigners. I still have some students with odd names but honestly I gave up on forcing upon my students names that they couldn’t remember (every week I have several students who forget their English names and because I have over 200 students I can’t remember everyone!): names such as Milky, Hestera, Harry (for a girl…I’m sure you can conclude why she was so adamant about keeping her name HINT: Harry Potter), I even have a boy named Tracy because his favorite NBA player’s name is Tracy (don’t ask me what player it is…I have no idea…my students are very disappointed by this because somehow they suspect every American has been bitten by the NBA bug when really it is the Chinese who seem more obsessed with the sport).
What else? I am proofing a textbook manuscript for some extra cash as well as a nice addition to my resume. I am also doing some private tutoring. There are many Chinese who want their children to “get ahead” and learn English. I tutor a 6 year old boy named Kirin and a 12 year old boy named John. Kirin takes quite a bit of energy but after about a month I see quite a bit of improvement in his spoken English. Six months later, I still tutor Kirin and have replaced John with a 14 year old girl named Jane. Jane is advanced, but requires an extensive amount of planning because she is intrigued with British culture. So therefore, to keep her and her mother happy, to keep the stream of money coming my way, I read up on British culture. Whoever said that famous proverb; this is not verbatim but I am sure you can all get the gist: “You never stop learning…” was really onto something. 
The last time you had heard from me, I was in the midst of editing a manuscript. I finished it several days before Christmas and a lavish dinner was scheduled for Christmas Eve. I was treated to famous Shaanxi cuisine. I dined among some pretty important people that evening. The Provost of XISU, who upon finding out my majors in college, said she could easily get me a job teaching in the School of Communications next year. I will continue to press her about this, as it would be an amazing opportunity to get back on track towards a career in journalism. I also dined with some well respected members of the provincial party, yes THAT party. The man in question was in charge of education at the provincial level. The lavish dinner was delicious with many toasts being made, in traditional Chinese fashion. You rise from your seat and walk around the table, making your toast and ensuring that if you are clinking glasses with someone whom is older and ranked higher, that you clink your glass lower than theirs. This is done out of respect, an intricate part of surviving in Chinese culture. Thankfully, it was only wine and not Baijiu (white wine, almost 50% alcohol). This is typical of Chinese business transactions. Dinner first, then services rendered. This occurred when I met both Kirin and John. Their families treated me to lavish dinner and lunch respectively. The latter at a hotpot restaurant (raw meat and veggies are placed in your own pot of flavored boiling water and then dipped in a sauce of your choice), and the former at a Shanghai style restaurant where I throughly enjoyed devouring crabs while Kirin, as little boys often do, decided the crab legs would be better put to use as “ninjas fighting to the death” (he said this to me in Chinese of course).

I decided, after a few constructive criticisms to split this post into its written and photo forms. Presently, the first week of classes of the second term are coming to an end. I’ll have more details about teaching in the next few days. I’ll be increasingly busier as it looks like I have finally found a Chinese language exchange student (I’ll be improving her English while she teaches me Chinese), in addition to taking on another private tutoring job. 

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