Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Back to School

Well, I'm two days into the new school term. I just started yet another job teaching for a company called EWAS (English with a Smile). They trained me back in April for another job I hold, but now I officially work for them too. That brings me to a total of three jobs, bringing me to a grand total of 29 working hours a week. Not so impressive, but please consider I have to spend half my day trapsing around the city on various forms of public transport.

This week I'm teaching at only one school, Richland. Next week my schedule will fill up a bit more as the new term starts at two other schools. The children at this school are quite adorable and don't seem to be of the pants-pooping variety. All the kids are pre-school aged and are already working quite hard. The first class I teach is of 5/6-year-olds and it is at 5:20 pm. The second class is of 3/4-year-olds and I teach them from 6:15-7pm. I feel sorry that they have to study (a foreign language as annoying as English, at that) so late. But that's life here. The competition is really fierce and even in grade school the kids go to school on weekends. I guess they just instated some sort of law saying grade school kids are not allowed to attend school on Sundays. It's sad they need a law for that.

In the classroom I do have an assistant/translator. She's Chinese and very sweet. Her name is Jennifer. Her English isn't brilliant, but she gets the job done, although I can almost translate everything on my own behalf these days. It's a little difficult having a conversation with her though. For example, I asked her how to say "can" (as in "soda can") in Chinese. I always forget how to say this word and therefore must always order bottles (a word I do know) of things when I rather just have a 12 oz. Life's little dilemmas. Anyways, this simple question turned into a 10 minute discussion in which Jennifer tried to figure out what I was asking.

Jennifer: "A can? I'm sorry, I don't understand."
me: "You know, a can. It's like a bottle, but smaller. Coca-cola comes in it."
Jennifer: "Can? You mean like 'I can speak English,' that can?"
me: "Um, no." (while thinking: If you can speak English, we really wouldn't be having this conversation now, would we?)
Jennifer: "I'm sorry. I do not know. Can? C-A-N?"

This kinda thing pretty much happens on a daily basis. I'm used to struggling to communicate and I really only have myself to blame. I live in China and beyond the basics, I cannot speak Chinese. And let's also put some blame on the complexity of the English language. Here is a language in which 2 words can be written the same but sound different (read, read. live, live). Can be written different, but sound the same (right, write). Can be written the same, sound the same, but have different meanings (can, can). It's all so overwhelming. I think I need to go rest now.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Chengde and random ramblings

left: temple in Chengde
right: Chengde street

I managed to erase my previous blog. I guess I really need to commit the Chinese characters for "delete" to memory.

This past weekend I took at trip up to Chengde, my former home here in China. I haven't been there in nearly 6 months and it's amazing how much has changed in that time period. The rate of change in this country is remarkable. There are high rises were there used to be a dusty soccer field. New businesses everywhere, but they have yet to open a McDonald's, all they have is a KFC.

Here's globalization at it's finest. The breakdown. . .pretty much every city has at least one KFC. I'm sure Beijing must have 50. McDonald's follows second in popularity, but just can't seem to overcome the colonel (strange, as the Chinese find finger-licking a disgusting habit). Next on the list is Pizza Hut. But you know if a city's really made it if it has a Starbucks. Beijing, of course, has plenty. There's one right across the street from my apartment building. You ask: Is it any cheaper in China? No, it is not. I don't know who these Chinese people are who can afford a $4 cup of coffee. If you consider the average wage a Chinese person makes, it probably equates to spending (what feels like) $30 on a cup of coffee.

But I've strayed from my original point. So back to it. . .Chengde. I guess I didn't really appreciate the place while I lived there. I didn't realize how fresh the air is and how uncrowded the streets are. The people seem friendly and I feel really important there. Any foreigner gets a little bit of a celebrity status when living in a small city like Chengde. There are so few foreigners there, some of the Chinese seem to view us as an exotic species of human. In Beijing I'm just another whitey. I don't get stared at. People don't scream "hello" as I walk by. The don't try to take pictures of me on the sly. I'm a nobody.

While I was in Chengde I got to see my good friend, Apple. Laugh if you want to, but considering some of the other English names people pick (Vegetable Bird, Green Lemon, Cobra-just to name a few), Apple isn't all that peculiar. The name has actually grew on me a bit. Anyways, I really feel bad for Apple. She's a super senior at the high school I used to work at. What do I mean by "super senior?" Well, for those of you who have never achieved super senior status, a super senior is anyone who has earned the title of senior for more that one consecutive academic year. Usually this occurs in college, but in China this phenomenon also occurs as early as high school. And it happens to a lot of really smart people, such as my friend.

The problem is that going to university in China comes down to three precious days at the end of your senior year of high school. These three days inspire fear in the hearts of almost all students and their parents. These three days are known as "The National Exam." How you do on this exam determines if and where you will go to University. If the desired results aren't achieved, then the student can choose to repeat his entire senior year over again and take the test again. This is what Apple has decided to do. So for the second year in a row she will spend nearly 14 hours a day, 6 days a week in a small classroom of 70 other students. Then, she'll get to go home and study for a few hours before going to sleep for 4 or 5 hours. Luckily, I was in Chengde on Sunday, the one day students have to rest. So I actually got to see Apple!

I also was able to see mama again. It was a lot more comfortable being in her home than her being in mine. I guess I'm just a crappy hostess. But anyone is more than welcome to come visit me. . .

Sunday, August 13, 2006


I just realized I had started a blog back in March. So I'm getting back to it. Partially for your entertainment, partially for my sanity. I must say getting this set up was a bit of a challenge as the entire website is in Chinese, but I perservered. I knew those three months studying Chinese would eventially pay off.

For those of you not up to speed with recent ongoings, I must first let you know that I am living in Beijing, China. I have a lot to say about the place, but I'll save that for a later time. In this lovely, humid, crowded, smoggy place I am living with my boyfriend, Zhao Ming. Yes, as if the name didn't give it away, he is Chinese. And yes, he is actually my fiance (but that word is just too pretentiously French sounding). I currently have two jobs. Job numero uno: teaching 4-year-olds English at a daycare. Very adorable, usually fun. Job numero dos: tutoring a Korean woman English. This job is quite interesting as I certainly don't speak Korean and this woman can't speak much English past "Hello, how are you?" This leaves us communicating in (broken) Chinese.

Now that you are filled it, I can get down to business. The real reason I'm writing this is to get out of my apartment. It's a nice enough place, but currently Ming's mother (mama) is staying with us. We are on Day 3 of her visit and she is leaving tomorrow. But tomorrow just doesn't seem like soon enough.

A part of me feels bad for saying this. I'm giving you the wrong impression. It's not that she isn't a wonderful person. She is a very nice lady. Truly. But having her here puts me face to face with my Americanishness or perhaps with her Chinesishness. I'm not sure, but I'm struggling with a few issues.

First, are all fruit she brought with her from Chengde (her and Ming's hometown, which is about 110 miles northeast of Beijing). She brought three boxes of fruit. The Chinese love to bring fruit when going to visit people, it's almost like a sickness. It's not like they give a few apples just to be polite. They practically bring carts full of the stuff. I mean, how much fruit can on person eat? And I have to try and eat it just to appease her. So today, after being stuffed full from eating lunch, I have to come home to eat apples, pears, grapes, and peaches. I just prefer American traditions. Chocolates, wine, flowers, even a liter of Pepsi would beat this.

The next thing that mystifies me is how I am expected to treat her like an old lady. Ming and I take turns helping her up stairs, holding her hand, and carrying her things. You might be thinking, "Oh, that's just being helpful. It's not because she's old." But you are wrong. Ming told me outright, "Mama is old." What??? She is only 52-years-old, and not only that, she is in good health. I can't imagine treating my 82-year-old grandmother this way, let alone someone my parent's age. But I guess that's just one of the many things that seperates Americans from the Chinese. We like our independence. Also, no one wants to be old in America. Not much good comes out of getting old. But the Chinese, they embrace it. They look up to the elderly, they help the elderly. If children address an old woman they don't know, they will call her "nainai" (grandmother). If a woman is slightly older than me it is wise to call her "jiejie" (older sister), but if she is younger I should call her "meimei" (little sister). This obsession with age and position is a little exhausting for me.

The final thing I will mention (all though I could keep going) was our trip to T.G.I.Fridays restaurant. Yes, they have two of them in Beijing. They are identical to the American version minus the customers and waitstaff who are, of course, predominently Chinese. Mama has never in her 52 years has eaten at an American style restaurant. I don't think she's ever even eaten an American meal, not even the ever-so-popular KFC. She didn't know the rules. Using a fork and knife was the first obstacle. She did pretty well though. Next came the Bahama Mama. I ordered her this fruity drink so she could try some juiced down American liquor. This sweet drink was to her liking though, as she dumped a packet of sugar into it. She also dipped her brocolli in ketchup. But who am I to judge? If she thought it tasted good, I wasn't going to stop her. This was all pretty cute, until the hacking and spitting started. It's no big thing to do this kind of thing in public, I even do it now and then. I think it's the air quality here or something (at least that's my excuse). Anyways, this would be fine anyplace else, but you really can't spit on the floor at T.G.I.Fridays. I told her to do it in a napkin, which the Chinese think is revolting.

Sometimes it's amazing to me that I've been her nearly a year and a half. I thought I'd changed. Accepted these little "cultural differences." I guess you can take the girl out of America, but you can't take America out of the girl.