Wednesday, September 24, 2008

dragon cheesesteak

I would tell you that after ten days of Chinese submersion, I am not homesick, but my subconscious would tell you otherwise. The other night I dreamed I was in the underground supermarket here in Baoding, shopping for what, I'm not sure (probably for cucumber flavored Lays chips or tomato ketchup Bugles, both of which I have purchased). In the corner of the supermarket there was a Zero's Subs, a delicious toasted sub restaurant in Virginia. The Sub of the Month was called a "Dragon Cheesesteak," which is, I'm assuming, the Chinese version of the Philly Cheesesteak. Whatever it was, it looked delicious and if the dream had continued I probably would have ordered it. The dream was a little anticlimactic though, not as good as the dream I had a few nights ago when I took a trip to the Middle East with my friends, Hudson and David Sullivan (who don't know each other). The food has been amazing. Most of the IECS team's Chinese language knowledge involves eating food, boxing up food, or screaming for the waitress, "FU YEN!!" By the way, as I'm writing this I'm dipping Ritz crackers into Skippy peanut butter. I also ate KFC for lunch yesterday, and pizza for dinner. Okay, maybe I do miss America... but just a little.

I have now taught one full week of classes, and I really enjoy it. Sometimes the students' English speaking levels can be quite poor, making them difficult to communicate with, but it's still fun. They love to ask me about the NBA, the Beijing Olympics (sometimes even my thoughts on the slogan, "one world, one dream"), and they always ask me to sing a song; so far, all I've been able to come up with is "I got friends in low places," which isn't even a song I listen to very much and I only know the chorus, but they applaud it every time. I spend a lot of time enunciating carefully and writing words on the board they don't recognize. It has become a habit to do this, sometimes to a fault. I realized this the other day when I wrote the word, "diarrhea" on the board. Let me explain. All of my students are freshman and most of them do not have English names; so, much of my classtime so far has been spent on giving them English names. While the list of names goes around the classroom I usually give them an opportunity to ask me more questions. One of the students stood up and asked me, "Can you tell us an interesting story from your childhood?" I thought for a second, and only one popped in my head. I began to explain that this story was an "embarrassing" (which I wrote on the board) story. I told them that it happened when I was ten years old and was playing "baseball." I explained what the position of "catcher" is by acting out how a "pitcher" throws and how a catcher squats to catch the ball. I explained that my stomach began to hurt and that squatting is a poor position to be in when this happens. I then wrote the word, "diarrhea" on the board. Right then I realized that during all my years of Spanish class, my teachers and professors never told us how to say "poop," "feces," or "diarrhea." Why should I expect them to know these words in English? Yet I persisted. I also wrote "poop" on the board, and began to use motions. Blank stares. No one laughed. I started to laugh to myself, as I usually do when I'm enjoying an awkward situation. I quickly ended the story and asked if there were anymore questions. Next time I'll refrain from telling stories involving bodily functions.

Ryan and I are celebrities at the Hebei College of Finance. Students line up after class to have their pictures taken with us, and they love to have conversations with us. For example, they have a biweekly gathering where all the students can practice their English skills called "English Corner." Ryan and I attended this function for the first time last week upon request from the Dean of our English department.

"The students are very excited to meet you," Ms. Zhao told us, "They have been waiting for you." An understatement. Ryan and I arrived to a fleet of smiling, waving, and applauding students. We entered the library atrium and the students closed in. Hundreds of students fell silent. I turned to Ryan.

"I guess we need to say something to the crowd, maybe?" We turned to the masses.

"Hello, my name is Ryan," Ryan yelled out, enunciating carefully, "We are from A-mer-ica."

"And my name is Jon," I belted, "We are very excited to be your teachers this year. Please come and speak to us. We would like to talk to each of you." Maybe not the best choice of words, but it certainly was effective. The students then shuffled their feet to get within arms length of us and the questions began. Ryan then grabbed my arm, maybe thirty minutes later, at least that's what it felt like.

"Hey, it's 7:30. We should probably go," he told me. We had arrived at six. Yesterday we went to the English Corner again, but this time brought our two IECS friends, Emily and Amelia, because there are far more girls than boys. It was still overwhelming and we only stayed one hour this time, but it was still an effective time.

As Tim has already chronicled on his blog, life became extremely convenient as of last Saturday when the Baoding IECS team set out to buy bikes. While the rest of the team was content to buy "normal" bicycles (and rightly so), Tim and I decided to dip into the kitty a little and buy something nicer. Both of us had taken notice of all of the electric bikes being ridden all over the place, and we wanted a pair. You should read it on Tim's blog; he does a good job of telling the story. It involves some heckling, a little jealousy, and an abandoned apartment. Although, I did notice that it in Tim's version there's no mention of trading bikes every once in a while. I could have sworn that was part of the deal...

Thanks for thinking of me and the IECS team. We are making friends fast. A good example of this was a big dinner the other night with all five of us and some of our Chinese friends in a private room, which we had to spend 100 yuan to use; so, we were forced to over-order. There was a lot of food left when we were done; so, we decided to play a game in which the loser had to eat a dumpling. Afterward our bellies were stuffed, but we had big smiles on our faces. More times like this are to come. KTV tonight...

my bike.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

made in China voyage

Over the last two months, you might have been asking yourself this question: Did Jon leave his blog in Missouri? The answer is no. But I'll tell you what I did leave in Missouri : an incredibly comfortable pair of Eddie Bauer slippers, a cable that hooks my Macbook up to an HDTV, and most importantly, a 90-pill box of Lactaid. All remain tucked away in the Learfield corporate apartment in Jefferson City, waiting to surprise someone who enjoys all of my favorite past times; loitering in front of the TV while my body breaks down lactose. Don't worry, I replaced the Lactaid when I arrived in Virginia as soon as possible and I couldn't be more satisfied with the replacement; Kirkland Signature lactaid! I stopped in at Costco a few weeks ago and found the holy grail for the lactose intolerant; a 180-pill box of knock-off lactaid for $15; that's roughly 8 cents a lactose ingestion! Costco has done so much for me, I wish I could repay them. Maybe I'll donate some money...

Unfortunately, half of that box of Costco lactaid is now sitting in the Allison medicine cubpoard. The other half is with me here in Baoding, China, and I imagine it will be used just as much as its stateside counterpart.

"You need to buy milk over here, guys, to keep up with your dairy intake," Newt, our IECS Director, told us last night over a delicious Chinese meal.

"It's too late for me," I said, "you guys go on without me." Why Newt laughed at me when I said, "It's the worst thing that's ever happened to me," I'll never know.

The dairy is scarce over here, and generally unappealing. The milk is not kept cold at the supermarket, leading me to believe it's not actually milk, while the cartons of what looks like milk from afar are labeled "Yoghurt." I still swear it's really milk (it's so liquidy), but my Chinese friend, Gary, advised me that it is actually yogurt. However, I did find some imported Land O' Lakes cheese yesterday, and it was being kept cold, which is a good sign. It was over $6 (US) for a stick of sharp cheddar cheese, a price I will gladly pay when I begin to miss cheese.

I'm sharing an apartment with a gentleman named Ryan, a saucy Virginia Tech graduate and fellow IECS employee. Don't worry, he loves Virginia Tech just as much as the rest of you hokies out there. Ryan, Newt, and I were invited to be introduced in front of an English class at the Hebei College of Finance yesterday (the school where we will be teaching starting next week). I explained that I was excited to be a teacher and was a graduate of Old Dominion University. Ryan followed by carefully anunciated the fact that he graduated from Virginia Tech, home of the greatest American football team in the world, followed by applause (they like to do that).

I was also given the opportunity by Ms. Zhao, the Dean of the English Dept., to be introduced in front of one of my future classes, much to my surprise, as well as the students'. The freshman class of about 20 girls and 2 boys picked their heads up from their workbooks as I walked in (with Ryan), looking confused. I explained who I was and that I was from Ver-jin-eea and that I was excited about being their teacher next week. Silence. Their mouths gaping, as if they were all waiting for spoonfuls of cough syrup. This is consistent with several aspects of Chinese culture: students know their place in the class room; they sit quietly and wait for a lecture, pen at the ready, with no expectations of having to vocally participate; it's also not common to see white foreigners in Baoding, let alone have them as teachers; also, at the halfway point of each class, Chinese students expect to be fed a collective spoonful of cough syrup. Speaking of syrup, soda tastes much better here. As is the case in many countries, the soda in China is made with real cane sugar, as opposed to corn syrup in the US. Hooray for empty calories! But back to teaching, all of my classes are freshman Oral English classes, while Ryan's are all sophomore Writing classes. Each class is about two hours, and all of my classes are in the same classroom, which is quite convenient. The campus is brand new, with nice facilities; there's even a western coffee restaurant on campus (Ryan and I were served french fries there yesterday, even though we didn't order them).

Ryan and I aren't the only teachers on the IECS team in Baoding. There are three other teachers teaching at another school in the area, Hebei University; Tim, Amelia, and Emily. While the Hebei College of Finance has about 10,000 students, Hebei University has nearly 50,000. All three of them are wonderful people, and, like Ryan, are already becoming close friends, except for Tim; what a jerk. Just kidding. Tim has been a close friend since 9th grade, and I'm so blessed to have him here with me. Soon the ten minute walk in between our apartments will be cut down to 2 minutes after we both buy Autobikes.

Ryan and I's apartment is very adequate. We each have our own room and our own TVs, complete with ridiculous Chinese commercials; there's a kitchen with a stove, microwave, refrigerator, and toaster oven; there's a shower with hot water, and a western toilet. One lesson we learned the hard way is, you can't flush your toilet paper. Newt, Tim, Amelia, and Emily all wanted to come see our apartment for the first time yesterday. We brought them over and as we began the tour, our steps made splashing sounds, which wasn't there when we had left that morning. So, the tour mostly consisted mopping and sweeping up water which covered half of our apartment. It's all dry now, but we having gotten a chance to buy cleaning supplies; so, the floors are quite dirty, and we are definitely walking around in sandals until we remedy the problem.

The next few days will be spent doing several things: We all need to do some shopping to buy essentials, which will also help us get to know Baoding better. We all begin teaching next week, which will take a lot of preparation. Luckily, all my classes are once a weekers; so, one lesson plan a week should do just fine. I need to work on ways to get my students to loosen up. Hopefully, I can use Newt as a resource while he's still here; he's amazing at getting them to open up and be themselves. My mornings will also be spent getting up progressively earlier. Yesterday morning I woke up at 5am and this morning at 3:30am. At this rate who knows when I'll be waking up next week!

Thank you all for thinking about me and these things.


Also, my sister, Faith's kidney transplant went extremely well yesterday! Her new kidney, which was inside my mom just a few days ago, is successfully producing urine, which sounds gross, but is great news! Continue to be mindful of her and my mom as well.