Friday, October 30, 2009

In my younger and more vulnerable years

My students hate me, I'm sure of it. My old students love me. They always tell me how much they miss my class. Of course, they do; I would miss my class too. Last year all we did was play games to get the Freshman to open their mouths. Now I teach Juniors, who are effectively Seniors because they graduate in three years. I taught them the word, "Senioritis" because they all have it. They don't want homework (who does?), especially not from the push-over foreign devil. After I assigned the first chapter of The Great Gatsby all I heard was complaints. It's too hard, they kept saying. It is hard. Sometimes it takes me until the fourth or fifth class of teaching a passage to really get what Fitzgerald is saying. The guy is so beyond me that I'm apprehensive to even claim that. But I wanted to challenge them. I wanted to be real teacher and I wanted them to learn something, instead of just play games. So after every reading assignment, I give a short, harmless quiz to make sure they've read it. The results, so far, have varied: some classes did fairly well, while others failed miserably. While one bad apple does seem to spoil the whole batch, I think dedication spurs others on just as effectively. Those classes that do the work and get it seem to be led by certain ardent students. One girl named Sunny read more than I asked the class to, including the last chapter because she wanted to see what happens (ala my sister, Faith).

I should have seen it coming. In my experience, many of my students are shameless cheaters. Whenever I've given a test, patrolling is a necessity, as the students will obviously look at each other's papers or pull out their books. It's absurd. Yesterday I had two classes in the morning. The first class failed the chapter 3 quiz miserably. As I patrolled the aisles, I saw their shame as they sat still without a clue and I pitied them. It is a hard book, after all, I thought. So I gave them one of the answers, outright, and a hint to another. They still failed miserably, but at least not pathetically. The class that directly followed had inverse results: nearly every answer was perfect, and identical. As I patrolled that class, I saw all the correct answers quickly written, and it was like a sinister revelation, like the end of The Usual Suspects. If I was holding a coffee mug, it would have soundlessly tumbled to the ground. I could feel the electricity in the air as the storm clouds hovered over me; I was angry. It wasn't just the test they were cheating, they were cheating me. I felt like a fool for having compassion on the previous class, not just because they abused me. I helped them because I wanted them to like me. It was also surprising that they were so juvenile. Junior college students banding together to cheat as a class in such an obvious fashion. The boldness was astounding. As I normally do when I'm angry, I breathed deeply and spoke softly as I collected their papers.

"Wow," I said sarcastically as I leafed through them in front of the class, "you guys did much better this time. I guess I should be happy, right?"

The students were smilingly timidly; they don't really understand sarcasm, which only encouraged me to lay it on thicker.

"Hm, all the answers are right," I said as I turned to write a short list on the board, "This leaves two options. One, everyone did the homework. Yay! Two," I paused and turned around for effect, "the other class told you the answers."

They all booed and hissed. Of course they didn't cheat, they said. I reminded them that I was a student for sixteen years. "I know," I enunciated. I told them that I really didn't want to have to make different quizzes for every class, but I would if I had to. They didn't like that very much. It took me a minute to collect myself as I was reading through Gatsby, I fumbled over the words, still feeling pangs here and there. Do i just shrug it off? I thought as I read the book aloud, Is forgiveness the answer here? I still have trouble discerning my heart (as Ryan would say): was I only upset because of my insecurity as a teacher? Am I allowed to be angry with them? How does my forgiveness towards them effect how I take measures to keep them from cheating again? No matter the reality of how I was hurt, the fact remains that I took it personally. Certainly, I have learned a basic lesson in teaching (in China): don't trust students just because they giggle and swoon when you smile at them. They want to get by without doing the work just as much as I did in high school, even if they are college students.

The cheating aside, I have felt more comfortable teaching these past few weeks. Finally, this week the students seem excited about reading Gatsby. They want to see what happens when Gatsby and Daisy meet "accidentally" at Nick's for tea (my favorite chapter). I'll end with my favorite line from the book: Nick is hovering around Gatsby's elaborate library as Gatsby and Daisy sit together on the sofa, allowing reality to flirt with, but eventually fall short of, their dreams:

No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man stores up in his ghostly heart.


I have donned a mustache for almost two weeks now and the students have taken notice. General dissatisfaction is the response from my girl students. Chinese girls don't much like facial hair, especially on the upper lip. Except for one. Lily sent me this text message immediately after leaving my class this Monday:

Jon, I like your moustache, which make you more handsome and maturity.

Sweet victory.

Notice the pants. and the awkwardness.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

something there is that doesn't love a wall

I'm not sure what Robert Frost was talking about. The greater the wall the better, I always say. And it doesn't get any greater than The Great Wall itself. It was almost embarrassing telling people that I had lived near Beijing for 10 months and had still never been to the massive wall. But now the monkey is off my back and I'm a real man, according to Chinese culture. "不到长城非好汉" bu dao chang cheng fei hao han. “He who does not reach the Great Wall is not a true man.” My classes were all impressed when I spoke it to them, after I had unbuttoned my dress shirt to show the meaningful "I CLIMBED THE GREAT WALL" shirt I was donning underneath. The Great Wall is truly massive; it stretches nearly four thousand miles, and we only hiked on it for five hours. Some of our hike was devastatingly steep, like a ladder, but those inclines were mostly climbed the night of our arrival, either dimly lit by the setting sun or by our fluorescent headlamps. Our second day on the wall was generally easy, save for a few breaks in the Wall that we had to surmount. Oh, by the way, we slept on the Wall. That's right: on it. Our menu for the trip included: tuna sandwiches, homemade Chinese chex mix, Great Wall brand red wine, donuts (actually called 'donitas'), and a tiny Snickers bar (thanks, Kerry!).

That was the most eventful part of my National Day holiday, a weeklong break in classes to celebrate new China's 60th anniversary. There was an ornate parade and military exhibition on TV that I missed; I was wasting my time watching a Redskins game instead (Dan Snyder has made a cuckold me, of all of us). But I did see the replay. President Hu JinTao stood presidentially out of an open sunroof of a black car as it rolled past all of the formations of soldiers and workers and humungous missile launchers, shouting, "Hello, comrades! You work too hard!" The regiments shouted something back about it "being for the people" after Hu Jintao's exclamation.

Speaking of holidays, I've got another five day break in class coming up including this weekend. I'm off to Beijing this weekend to cheer Ryan on as he runs the Beijing Marathon; then it's back to school for a two day "Sports Day," during which I will cheer on more runners (I'm not ready for primetime yet).


As Tim chronicled on his blog, we got mopeds. We set out to buy full-blown motorcycles, but after learning the specifics of Chinese motor law, we down-graded and bought the next best thing. My bike will go 50 mph if I push it, which originally sounded like a con to me, but after driving in Chinese traffic for a month, it's definitely a plus. I'll just say that the traffic here is a little wilder than in the US and speed is the least of my concerns, another reason why you'll never see me riding without a helmet. The new experience of driving in China has taught me some new Chinese words, but just as in the states, I always have to learn the hard way; for example, the difference between the words, chi you and chai you: gasoline and diesel. Even after seeing my buddy, Cameron, make the mistake of filling his bike with diesel first-hand, I misunderstood the gasman at the gas station and successfully puttered out on my way home a week ago. It was in the exact spot Cameron's bike broke down. I admit, I let more than a few expletives fly behind my yellow-tinted face shield as I walked it home. Thankfully, I was only about a mile away from home. A couple days later one of my friends from Tim's school, Kevin, came over to help me fix my bike, syphoning out the diesel and adding some of his syphoned gas into my bike. It turned out to be a good excuse to hang with him. We found out that we have something in common: our futures our uncertain. He graduates this winter and will look for a job in the south. If this is my last year in China, I'll head back west to find a job, really far west.

Kevin's not the only student I might not see much of over this next year. My good friend Jack from last year is now in Beijing, toiling. Vince might go back to his hometown a couple hours to the north after this semester to find work. And who knows with Robert; we've already had a handful of goodbye dinners for him, but he always seems to come back to Baoding. The reality of my time here is unsettling; it truly is but a breath. And yet that breath is invigorating. Each moment is an opportunity to trust in the "future grace" of our Father. Thanks, John Piper!

But now for something completely different:

Look closer... that's right, those are cigarettes in the grabber machine. Life is beautiful, isn't it?

Friday, October 9, 2009

leave me a massage

Getting massaged in China is good for so many reasons. Chief among them, of course, is they give you really flowy pajamas to wear that hearken you back to Saturday mornings in front of the tube watching Eek the Cat and X-Men. Not to mention, it feels good to have someone use their fist as a billy club and nail you in your lower back, over and over, which, thankfully for me, does not hearken back to childhood days. It's nice to pay less than $10 for 2 hours of full body mincing. It's also nice to lay on your stomach while someone suctions cups of fire onto your back and it's even nicer when your masseuse comments on how white your butt is while she's doing it. The procedure, ba huo guan, is supposed to suck the cold out of your body, and the darker the circles left on your back, the worse your health is. After seeing my red circles, I was told my health was li hai (great), while Ryan's was bu tai hao (not too good). Ryan's masseuse also told him to not leave China.

"Don't leave," she said in Chinese, "You can find a wife here."

This isn't the first time a woman has told us that. Last year the woman who sweeps the area around the campus lake told us not to go anywhere. There are plenty of girls here, she told us. Our visit to the masseuse was also a nice gauge of our Chinese speaking abilities. I was able to actually carry a superficial conversation with my masseuse, whereas last year we relied solely on our Chinese friend in the room. She didn't like, however, when I told her she was being too rough in Chinese (and with a little Charades). Her smile faded into an instant frown. I was sure to tell her once she continued that it was very shu fu (comfortable). All the masseuses in the room were from our city, Baoding, except for mine. She grew up in Shanghai. I asked her how she ended up in Baoding, hoping she would say true love or something romantic.

"I ran out of money," she told me.

I guess Chinese yuan burns as hot in your pocket as dollars do.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

one goal to rule them all

It was the 2nd half of the semi-finals in the inter-department soccer tournament. It was 1-1 with little time left and several of us were bleeding. You could feel the simultaneous disbelief and hope among the English department players. My shin was bleeding after diving to cover up an errant ball in front of an empty net. It was only our 4th game together, marking my 4th game of goal keeper experience, ever. We were one of two teams to make it out of our 4 team division, by winning two of our first three games, the 2nd victory coming against the vaunted Finance department. Vince didn't care about anything after that.

"No one expected us to beat them!" he reminded me several times, "No one will remember the champion, but they will remember that the lowly English department defeated the Finance department."

In fact, Vince was so sure we'd lose to the Finance department that he told Ryan and me that he would become an X-tian if we did.

"So, this is like your baptism," Ryan told him at the end of the game. Vince smiled back.

Vince is the most passionate player I've ever seen. If a team could win on sheer emotion, we would just send Vince out there, 1 vs. 11. Every header is followed by a yell, and every on-coming defender is met with a battle cry and a road block. He might not be the most skillful player on the field, but he makes up for it with adrenaline and will. After I dove to save the errant ball in the 2nd half of the semi-finals, Vince screamed, "Yeah!" and picked me up off the ground. That moment was one of the reasons I had grown to love the goalkeeper position. I don't know how I had missed it my whole life. You mean, I get to be the last line of defense? I get to react to shots and use my hands? Put me in! During the first game I had let two goals go in, the first of which was obviously my fault. But I learned and I grew. The next two games I didn't allow any in. Of course, it helped that the fields and goals were smaller than normal size and I can reach my hands above the post. That aside, I felt capable, but I soon experienced the down-side of playing on an island: capability doesn't preclude culpability.

During the final minutes of the tied game, there was a foul just outside my goal box. It was a routine indirect kick. Three of our players lined up as a wall in front of the kicker, several other players marked men in the box, and I sank into my ready position. The only option for the kicker was over the wall and I was ready. The whistle blew, players scurried and jostled. The ball flew over the heads of our defensive wall. I got this, I thought. The ball sank like a slider and I put my hands in between my legs to block it and before the ball arrived I started to think about a counter-attack. I looked up to see where our attackers were so I could get them the... the ball! It hit my hands but didn't stop. It dribbled behind me like an out of gas marathon runner stumbling across the finish line. My teammates turned away. I closed my eyes. Vince. Oh no. And in a moment my luck had run out. The game ended and I apologized to my teammates. Vince later sent me a message to assuage my guilt:

"nice play today, you have saved us from hell many times. we can't stand here to play without you. we're proud of you. remember my friend. we're a team. we win as a team. we lose as a team. we still got one more game to play tomorrow. one more game to win."

The cliches meant more this time than they ever did. Unfortunately, we lost the consolation game. A 1-1 tie that ended in a shoot-out. Our players missed, their shots were perfect corner blasts and I froze like an oak tree in the face of each one. We got 4th place. That night the team met for dinner at the on-campus restaurant with cases of beer to consume. Luckily Ryan and I were able to avoid the binging because we already had other plans. We celebrated with them for about a half hour, made speeches, took pictures. All of the players were either my old students or my current students and most of them are poor students. It was a blessing to be able to have fun with them and show them I cared outside of class, so that when I shush them in class and tell them to do their homework they'll know I still like them.

Ryan and I agreed: it's a gift to be able to have something you love coincide with the Father's plans. I played 5 games in 8 days and loved every bit of it, and through our fun, students were cared for, love was shown, we became closer with Vince. Who knows whether he'll keep his word (I think he will), but I love that he felt the freedom to joke with us about our beliefs. This experience has given me the freedom to dream. I have passions and interests for a reason and it's up to me to dream about them and show up, asking for and expecting opportunities. The Father will do the rest.