Monday, February 23, 2009

back in the saddle

What is this... anxiety? I thought as my book was beginning to collect dust sitting on my lap. It was 9:10 am, Monday morning; I had to leave in five minutes to catch the bus and make it to school on time, and I had just been sitting in front of the Holy Book for about fifteen minutes without making it past one verse. Why couldn't I concentrate? Sure, this was the first day of the new semester, but all of my classes and students were the same, and I had gotten a pretty good handle on what I was doing. But, there I was, listless. Or maybe it was poised. My stomach churned and bubbled, and I remembered I was saving myself for a delicious Jian Bing on the street outside school (see picture). I rushed out. The Jian Bing tasted just as I remembered as I devoured it in the hallway; 9:55, right on time. I walked in through the back door of the class room to put my coat on the shelf. Many of the silent students took notice of the bustling in the back and turned to see who it was. They tapped each other and smiled and waved. Forget about too-cool-for-school American college students; they were happy to see me, and in China if you're happy to see someone, by god, you smile and wave. It felt good. I walked up the aisle very proud of my position, and my new deep blue sweater vest. I was looking and playing the part enough that I even fooled myself; a college professor. I then proceeded to do what most college professors do to open class; I pulled up a chair, stood on it, and led a game of Simon Says. Granted, the game is great practice for anyone learning a second language, but the irony remains. After the game, I asked the students to sit down, as did I.

"Are we thinking in English again?" I asked, fearing they had forgotten how to speak it over the holiday.

They nodded, which meant no. Usually, after a game, I had begun my classes with a famous quote. This time I though I'd do something a little different to help them jog their English memories.

"I'm going to write a short sentence on the board, and I want you to tell me what you think, okay?"

"Okay," they said sporadically.

Humans... are... animals. I turned around; not much of a reaction.

"Do you think this is true?" I asked. Most of them nodded. "Everyone thinks this is true?" They nodded again. I wrote another sentence: I... am... an... animal. I had them all yell it with me like animals.

"Is this true?" I asked again. This time not so many nods. Most of them had a problem admitting that they were animals, but had no problem saying that the human race belongs in the animal category. Eventually they realized the logical fallacy of this position, and either had to accept both or neither. My intent wasn't to convince them they weren't animals. It was more to get to the bottom of the differences between humans and animals. This was the conversation I wanted to have. And it was a good one, no matter if the class had poor English skills or whether it was one of my Undergraduate classes (only two of my eight classes will be getting an undergrad degree; the rest have to settle on a three-year degree that, unfortunately, doesn't mean nearly as much). The differences we found were vast; using tools, inventing/creating, studying, wearing clothes, making music, etc. I eventually steered the conversation toward our quote for the day: "Art is the signature of man" (GK Chesterton). After the chasm we dug between animals and humans, it was hard for anyone to say that humans were merely advanced animals. A couple of the classes even got to the point of talking about the soul. It was one of my favorite exercises in any class so far. I felt like a teacher. I half expected them to stand on their desks at the end of class and begin reciting "O' Captain, my Captain." I guess I need to undermine the administration in some way before I can get them to do that.

Today I tried something similar in two classes with the famous phrase; 'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all... with varying results. No one seems to have any opinions about it so far. I ended up just giving the entire quote (from the Tennyson poem) and moving on. It's always hard to repeat a great experience; the danger of sequels... take the Star Wars prequels for example. George Lucas thought if he threw in some lightsaber-wielding Jedi, some backwards sentences from Yoda, and Natalie Portman, he could recreate the Star Wars magic. Have I already become George Lucas? Do I want so badly to feel like a real teacher again that I'll settle for the mediocre, the trite? Is it really all just about me? Have I forgotten my Han Solo?

Reconnecting with friends at school has been invigorating. It's amazing to watch as I'm blessed with new opportunities to be with them, and know them better. Whether it's eating lunch with them in their dorm, letting them use my hot water, or throwing snowballs at them, it's great to be back.


I replaced my rock slab (bed) for a new fouton. It has a dark forest design; so, I named it Fangorn.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

roamin holiday

China is a dynamic country, and I have only caught a glimpse of it. After braving the cold North for several months, our team decided to use our winter holiday as a bit of an escape. Three weeks ago we met with the rest of the IECS team in Beijing and flew to the South, to Shenzhen, Guangdong for the first official IECS Conference. There is a saying in China: you don't know you're poor until you go to Shenzhen. And I can tell you from experience that this isn't exclusive to the Chinese; I felt poor. The amount of money wasn't the only thing that made Shenzhen feel Western; it was mainly that everyone called me "partner" at the local saloon. Alright, not that kind of western; we're too far east for that. There were malls with movie theatres, traffic laws that people actually followed, Papa John's, blue skies, coffee shops, and amusement parks. And a beach, which is where we spent the first half of our week, at a sea-side hotel on a gorgeous bay, complete with a McDonald's and KFC situated at the foot of our hotel (for the squeamish foreigner). It was here between these two fast food staples that we filmed a video for our friends in Virginia. Each one of us had about a minute of air time (just enough time to feel self-conscious about ourselves). I just received word last week that all of our fellow leaders at Rockbridge saw the video and were excited to see us. Hopefully, the palm trees in the background weren't too misleading...

Our time at the beach in Shenzhen was a much needed respite; it was a time of meeting together, gleaning wisdom, reading on the beach, playing Majong... It was hard to leave. But the second half of our time in Shenzhen was just as invigorating. We moved to a hotel in the city, where we were able to tap into some western luxuries, like 7-11, Starbucks, and H&M (I bought a hoodie). Throughout the week our team was led to consider a goal-driven lifestyle, one where we plan our time around loving others and achieving our dreams. We were given tools to accomplish this, and it's something our team in Baoding is excited about starting in the coming semester. The "Ghost" was moving all week, encouraging each of us and spurring us on toward love and good deeds. I needed it.

And that was only Part 1 of our journey. From Shenzhen the five of us traveled even further south to the beaches of Sanya, Hainan, the southernmost point in China. Our good friend (and Majong Master) from Baoding, Cameron, joined us in Sanya. And it was glorious. It felt strange sitting in my self-made sand-chair, reading Orson Scott Card and Chesterton, with the faint crash of the tide creeping up in front of me. It felt so far from the China I've gotten to know (and love, mind you), so close to home. Thankfully, every time I'd think I was back in Virginia Beach, a naked Chinese toddler would scamper by to remind me where I was. It was also great to have a literal taste of home, a wonderful restaurant called Rainbow Cafe. As much as I absolutely love the food in China, I had no idea how much I missed American food until I picked up that ten-page menu; burgers, chimichangas, salads, pasta... And it tasted like the pictures. I definitely gained a couple pounds, just at Rainbow. Our hostel was also all we could ask for; we were lucky enough to get a room for all six of us, and we were blessed enough to not get on each other's nerves... too much. We stayed in Sanya for a week, and I don't think it will be my last time. Next time you're considering Hawaii for a vacation, think again...

Part 3 was shorter than the rest, and the most western, if you can imagine. Hong Kong isn't China. Whatever geological category you thought they both belonged to needs to be reorganized. For example, we thought we had missed the Super Bowl as it was happening during our flight in the morning to Hong Kong, but after only a little effort, we found a sports bar that was replaying it that night. American Football playing on a television in China... mind-blowing. And there was no smoking. NO SMOKING... in a bar... in China. It was then that we realized Hong Kong was not China. By the way, what a game! I was on my feet in that sports bar on more than one occasion. I'd also like to take this time to congratulate the Arizona Cardinals and Kurt Warner; what a game you played, Kurt; 377 yards? against Pittsburgh?? Sure, you threw a costly interception that turned into what some might call the greatest play in Super Bowl history at your expense, but you used to be a grocer. All in perspective, friend. If it were up to me, Kurt, you'd be in the Hall when you decide to hang up your spurs, which hopefully won't be anytime soon. Also, Kurt, remember when we met in Missouri last year? I was the squirly kid in the tie and sport coat filming one of your interviews? No? Nothing? Yeah, me neither...

Our few days in the "Fragrant Harbor" were spent renewing our Visas (our real reason for being there), getting lost for an hour (I was the one lost and it was scary), purchasing a Hong Kong style Majong set, traveling to the top of Victoria Peak where we caught a glimpse of the entire skyline, enjoying the ubiquitous wi-fi, taking pictures of the tall buildings for Greg, eating Italian food, etc. It was great.

But here I am, home again in Baoding, sitting at my favorite coffee shop, as, across the table, Ryan ponders a Yeats poem pressed against his chest, and as Tim informs himself, and us, on global issues via a rare issue of the Economist. Ryan and I begin teaching on Monday, the 16th, and we both have confessed that while we are excited about getting back into the grind, we feel a little unprepared. We hope to use this next week wisely in preparation; please be thinking about that. Soon I'll be reunited with many students I care about. I hope to be more purposeful in those relationships this semester, in hopes that they will more resemble my friendships with my team. I also hope to study the language here more ardently this semester, which is hard to do when all the people I spend time with are either American or want nothing more than to practice their English. I think it will be a useful tool and I love learning it.
But now I've got to go; the girls are making chili for dinner... mmm... cheddar cheese on top...

Here's some media:

The six of us on Victoria Peak in Hong Kong.

You mean we didn't miss the Super Bowl?!

The longest continuous escalator in the world. It was pretty long.

Click it and find the "Virginia Hotel."