Friday, November 28, 2008

from Beijing with love

“I’d make out with Brad Pitt,” Ryan said as he picked up his pen. We had been sitting in our favorite coffee shop, the Blue Melody Coffee Bar, for about three hours. Tim and I had spent the previous hour communicating to the bartender and waitress by pictures on paper, while showing them pictures of our lives on our macbooks. This statement was the conclusion of a short conversation about how much we both loved Brad Pitt. Ryan, Tim, and I were lightly debating over which movie to watch tonight, and I had thrown in the possibility of the new Coen Brothers’ film, Burn After Reading. He had a grin on his face that told me he was kidding, but one can never tell with Ryan; I’ve found he’s full of surprises…

Ryan and I were asked to give lectures to all who wanted to attend, which meant that they would be chiefly attended by our students, as well as the rest of the English Department. Ms. Zhao, our boss, told us our lectures could be about whatever we wanted, as long as they were in English. While I strongly considered the history of video games, I settled on American Football. Two weeks ago I spoke to about 350 students about Football. I borrowed Ryan’s Virginia Tech jersey, explained the rules and the popularity of the NFL, and showed them pictures of the best team in the NFL; the Redskins. I also asked Ryan and Cameron (a friend and fellow teacher from California) to exhibit some of the rules and vocabulary I talked about. These included Cameron jumping offsides as I threw a yellow flag, and Ryan tackling Cameron… to the ground, much to Cameron’s dismay. I ended the lecture by showing some of the Redskins vs. Eagles game from this season. Last week was Ryan’s turn. He chose to lecture about the Wild West. It was amazing to see how little the students knew about both subjects. Everything we put on the screen and explained was new to them; the same could be said for me if I sat in on a lecture about obscure pieces of Chinese history. Ryan took advantage of his time up front, donning two six-shooters, a bandana, and a cowboy hat. See the video for the full effect.

These past couple weeks have been some of the busiest of my life, but, if asked, I probably couldn’t recall a quarter of what happened. It was just too fast. This past weekend our group traveled to Beijing to help some Chinese friends run an English Club, a place where Chinese students and friends and sing songs, play games, and learn about western culture, all with the purpose of improving English. It was Ryan, Tim, Amelia, Emily, Cameron, and I. We arrived just in time for English Club on Saturday afternoon. I helped by playing the guitar as we sang English songs, including a “new” song we introduced; Brown Eyed Girl. Before Club I told a girl the name of the new song we were going to sing.

"I can see her in my mind, and she is beautiful," she said.

After the music Tim explained the history of Thanksgiving, followed by a game of Charades. After Club we enjoyed a great Chinese meal with our Beijing friends. Later our energetic friend, Vicky, chaperoned us as we toured the business district. Beijing is a great place, complete with Coldstone (which we couldn't find), Papa John's, Subway, Starbucks, and a delightful hostel bar where the tenders don't really know how to make drinks correctly, but are open to correction. We also did some Christmas shopping in along a river, a part of town called Ho-Hi. If we were working, we probably would have whistled.

Thanksgiving was an interesting day. Our students took it upon themselves to bombard us with Happy Thanksgiving text messages. Emily counted over 40 on her phone. It was certainly a nice gesture, but somehow, many of them sent identical messages (a forwarding extravaganza, I assume). Amelia and Emily were gracious enough to cook the most American meal we could get our hands on; Mexican food. The chicken tacos were unbelievable, and most importantly, there was cheese. This weekend we travel to Lang Fang to celebrate Thanksgiving with the entire IECS teaching team. I'm looking forward to life slowing down a little next week. I'm also looking forward to going back to the underground supermarket; I've heard the workers are all now wearing Santa hats...

During each of my classes this past week, I asked my students to express what they are most thankful for. One bold young man named Kobe stood up and said with full confidence, "I'm thankful for the woman who will one day be my wife!" He wasn't done, "I'm also thankful to her parents for giving birth to such a beautiful girl."

Those are the days I live for.


Here's a view of the bus we take to school every day.

Friday, November 14, 2008

jonny on the spot

Let me tell you about my friend, Jack. I have three Chinese friends/students named Jack, but this particular Jack stands out from the rest, mostly because he's always there. Every time Ryan or I participate in a fun activity on campus, Jack somehow catches word about it and shows up. At first, I admit, I was a little apprehensive about his dedication to being around wherever we were, but now it is a joy to see him. Jack's English is fairly poor (and highly amusing at times), but it is improving. A good example of his English level occurred last week when Jack found out that Tim was really sick. Like the rest of Tim's Chinese friends, Jack was worried about Tim. Many of these friends took it upon themselves to visit him and tell him to "drink more hot water." Jack decided a text message was enough.

"Hi Tim. I'm Jack. I heard you were sinking..."

Jack's favorite pastime is to put Ryan and me on the spot. Most Chinese people love to see we foreigners perform, but Jack can't get enough of it. Two weeks ago, at the Karaoke Competition, Jack made sure Ryan, Tim, and I had front row seats. Looking back, this was probably to make it easier to force us onto the stage. He continually tried to get us to perform more. "Have a try," he said, with a smile on his face so big, his eyeballs disappeared. The epitome of his pushing came when he tried to convince Ryan to make a "nunchuck" performance on stage. Honestly, I can't remember how our conversation even came to this. Ryan, of course, has no idea how to use nunchucks and would have either made a fool of himself or knocked himself out. After Ryan refused, Jack tried harder.

"It doesn't matter! Have a try!"

While Ryan didn't make a nunchuck performance, we didn witness one, impromptu, that night. During the competition we went back-stage to congratulate some of our students. Somehow, one of the students we had just met the day before came and found us back-stage. Ryan had had a conversation with this student about kung fu and the student told Ryan that someday he would teach him for free. What ensued back-stage seemed surreal. He said hello to us and placed his duffel bag on a nearby table. He then tore off his winter coat to reveal a full kung fu outfit. He pulled a pair of metal nunchucks out of his bag and began his performance. It all happened so fast that all Ryan and I could do was look at each other. The performance was fast and furious. It ended up being a little too furious as the nunchucks accidentally connected with each other, shattering one of them in mid-air, spraying shrapnel in all directions. We covered our faces, and the student left, a little embarassed. "What just happened?" was all we could say...

Now, I've caught onto Jack's "have a try" game and try my best to turn the tables whenever I can. Tuesday of last week was "Single Day" in China, which is the opposite of Valentine's Day. From what my students have told me, this is a day for single friends to go out together and celebrate their collective loneliness. If you are not single on this day, it would be frowned upon for you and your significant other to be seen on the town. Basically, if you're "taken," stay home on Single Day. Our friends, Robert and Billy, play in a rock band together and decided to put on a small concert in one of the classrooms (the show included a performance from our nunchuck friend; this time no one or thing was hurt, emotionally or physically). As you might have guessed, they asked Ryan and me to perform as well. I brought my guitar and played a few songs (Iron & Wine, John Vanderslice, and, accompanied by Ryan, Wonderwall... again). Jack wasn't satisfied.

"No more?" he asked.

"You go, Jack," I said as I pushed him in the back, "Have a try!"

"No, no, no," he pleaded, waving his hands, "I can't play!"

"It doesn't matter! Have a try!"

He got my joke and LOLed. Later that night he walked Ryan and me out to our taxi, carrying my guitar for me along the way.

"Let me carry it, Jack," I said.

"No, I must thank you for coming," he said with another big smile.

And so our friendship has formed, based a continual plea for the other to perform. Of course, I already know the outcome: It will always be the Ryan and me.


Yesterday, Ryan ate lunch with two of our close friends, Vince and Ken. Seemingly out of the blue, Vince gave Ryan an idea on how to improve their class. He told Ryan he should start telling stories from The Book. Taken aback, Ryan began to answer both of their questions about The Book.

We don't know how this happened or where it's going. All we know is, The Boss never does anything the same way twice. And so we wait on Him...

Monday, November 3, 2008

great expectations

One week ago our good friend, Vince, walked up to me at English Corner (a time when Chinese students practice English) with a purpose in his eyes.

"Jon, I will be competing in the final round of the Karaoke Competition this Thursday," he said succinctly.

"No way! I'd love to come and watch, "I said with genuine excitement. What a great opportunity to support my good buddy, I thought. I should have seen the next part a mile away.

"You will also perform something," asked Vince, at least I think he meant it to come out in the form of a question, but he couldn't hide his intentions. He expected me to perform. Later he sounded flabbergasted that I would only perform one song.

"I'm afraid the students expect much more from you," he said.

It always happens this way, and the IECS team has begun to expect it. No matter what they say, the Chinese always expect more from us. For example, a week and a half ago we were all asked to attend a pumpkin carving event. I imagined several tables set up with pumpkins where everyone could carve at their own leisure. Of course not. We entered a class room packed with freshman students, each armed with a cell phone camera held upright in our direction. Of course, they want us to lead this and sing songs and answer questions and carve pumpkins in front of students, not for. Always perform. Always in the heat of the lime light. "Have a try," is a popular way for Chinese people to request our performance. At first, to be honest, this was quite an annoyance. No longer could we attend an event and enjoy it from the background. But now that we're used it, we have embraced it, and we just expect to be put on the spot. Now we just have fun with it.

When the Karaoke Competition rolled around this past Thursday, Ryan and I prepared to perform two songs; Ryan would perform "Man in the Mirror" by the king of pop and we would sing "Wonderwall" together (maybe the only crowd-pleasing song I know on the guitar). We were given front row seats at the Competition, an event with an attendance of well over 300. And of course, I was also randomly asked to stand up and say something in English about one of the performances. I said something about the girls being beautiful and they all cheered. Ryan's "Man in the Mirror" was a huge hit; despite his lack of knowledge of the song, he still hit the chorus spot on. And Tim accompanied Ryan and me for "Wonderwall." We gave the camera to our friend Jack, who not only took video of the performance, but continually snapped pictures during the video. Enjoy.

The next night, on Halloween, we hosted a movie night on our campus. While debating for about a week on what route to take with the movie choice (It was either Truman Show for its accessibility and good message or Poltergeist because the movie night took place on Halloween or Star Wars... because it's Star Wars), we settled on Poltergeist, and it was a huge hit. About 400 students packed out the stadium-seating classroom, and nearly every one of them screamed at every scary scene (and repeated the s*** word every time it came up in the movie). It was like watching a scary movie with 400 Mark Herritts, which is as close to heaven as I might get on Earth. It's great to see how much the students enjoy our presence on campus, and relationships are flourishing because of it.

Yesterday Vince invited Ryan and I to the park to join him and his friend, Lily. I expected a quiet afternoon in the sun, but when I arrived on campus to meet Vince, there were ten of my students waiting to join us (all girls but one). Of course, I thought to myself, why didn't I expect this? We welcomed the inclusion of my students and had a great afternoon. At one point we encountered a pseudo-toboggan ride on top of a hill, the track made out of Sesame Street arms. 5 yuan a pop? Thanks, I'll have one! Again, the students proved themselves to be as innocent as 12 year olds, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Be sure to be thinking about them, just as we have been.

Vince, Ryan and I were chatting by our bus stop the other day about life without hope. Vince says he's leading one. He said there's no light at the end of the tunnel. Somehow, as Vince tends to do, a few minutes later he switched conversation gears and got excited about what it means to give one's life away.

"We were created to help others," he said as he looked down at the pavement, in deep thought, "The more we give ourselves away, the more we will get."

I think he's getting somewhere, and I hope he gets there. Be thinking about him.