Hello again from Yangzhou
It is Tuesday, September 12, 2000 and today is a very important day in China. It is the Mid-Autumn Festival on which most Chinese get together with their families and eat moon cakes. I am invited to the house of Principal Shi. I feel quite honored, as this is a very private holiday for families. The other night, she invited me to yet another 30-course banquet with her family! Pretty soon, I won't have to ride my bike anymore; they will just roll me through the streets of Yangzhou (after all of the food I have eaten)! I think it was the 9th banquet in the 14 days I have been in Yangzhou. Earlier that evening, I was in a teahouse and after dinner (and the obligatory karaoke) we were back at the teahouse, so my kidneys have been getting a lot of exercise too!
I have 11 classes spread out from Mon - Friday...some are in the mornings and some are in the afternoon. The most I have on one day are three on Thursdays. My helper, Steven Lee, told me that he thinks I am working too hard and he may ask the principal to cut the number of my classes! I won't hold my breath. My classes are going well and the students are so excited to meet me. I have had a lot of visitors to my class, including a group of cute young Chinese language teachers who want to learn some English. Lots of my English colleagues come too and sometimes there are about 10 teachers who show up with their chairs to sit in the back! (There are no extra chairs in the average Chinese classroom. The students sit on small benches. So when I see a troupe of teachers carrying chairs in the hall, and heading in my direction, I know I will have some visitors!)
I make the teachers stand up and answer questions just like the students. Anarchy...I love it! Some of the students have followed my lead and will ask the teachers questions, in English of course! We had a great game where they asked me my age and I went around the room asking them "How old do you think I am???" I made them answer with a complete sentence and I did a lot of overacting when they guessed too old or too young. They love to see me jumping around the room like a crazy American. Today one of the older teachers said he wanted to come to my class, But please do not make me speak! I said fine. I think he is worried about the students losing respect for teachers. He told me that the students must stand up to greet the teacher when he/she enters the room and must stand at the end of the lesson to show their respect! I was not doing this and he told me I should start. I am always learning here.
Yesterday, I gave the students American names from some lists I had culled from the Internet. One was the Top 100 Names of 1999. The other was a list of soap opera and television character names! I then explained that American first names do not necessarily have a meaning but are chosen for sentimental or aesthetic reasons. (In contrast to Chinese names which all have some meaning.) I gave the students lists and told them to look them over and choose a name. I told them to ask me how to pronounce the name to see if they liked it. I also told them if they did not find a name on their list, to get up and check another students list.
Now, Chinese students NEVER get out of their seats, except when they have a break between classes. That is the only time they can go to the bathroom! You will never have a Chinese student raise his hand to answer a question only to say Can I go to the bathroom? At first, the students were quite hesitant to get out of their seats and I had to help one up before the other students got the idea. After that they had a great time and pretty soon were all over the classroom! A young woman who is a first year English teacher said that the students were very active and she thought it was good to see them so engaged. I explained that this was an American style of teaching. Instead of sitting in the back like the other teachers, she sat next to a student and was eager to answer in front of the students. The students also had to go to the front to fill out a name card. After picking names, we went around the room and the students introduced themselves with their new names. I told them interesting things about their names, connections to popular American culture and the like. I explained that; "Iris" is a flower; "Leo" is short for Leonardo, the star of Titanic; "Madeline" is a famous character from children's literature and my nieces name, and Hillary is President Clintons wife. When one student got up and said; My name is Monica I had to think twice and then said, "That is a very beautiful name!" (I didn't want to go there!)
The students asked me if I liked the Peking Opera and I told them I fell asleep when I saw it in Beijing. They all laughed, because most teenagers do not like this sort of old fashioned stuff! They want the Backstreet Boys.
The classes have 50 - 60 students and each period lasts for 45 minutes. I see each class once per week. I am teaching Senior I and II classes, (10th and 11th grade). The Senior IIIs are too important to entrust to me! Actually they are drilling holes in their brains to try to pour as much English and other subjects in as possible before the all important entrance exam for university at the end of the year. The teachers (and the school) are judged by how successful their students are. My middle school, Xinhua, is the number 3 school in Yangzhou based on the exam scores. Yangzhou Middle School and the Affiliated Middle School, the other two places Westport teachers have worked, are #1 and #2. But we are trying harder!
Just now it is about 7:25 AM and I can hear music from the high school (not mine, the one that Toby Watson worked at) next door as the students do their morning exercises. All 2000+ students get out and stretch and move in a synchronized fashion to the music. Much like some sort of mass ballet. It is really amazing.
Last night I rode my bicycle to school at 7 PM. (At a later date I will write all about the singular experience of cycling in China!) I was not going to some sort of Back to School Night. The Chinese High School students stay in school every day until 9 PM! The 10th and 11th graders get to go home "early" at 8:30 PM. I went to give a talk to a group of Senior III (12th grade) students. I had been asked by their teacher to Give them a speech! during their self-study period in the evening. During self-study, the students do homework in their seats. No talking or fooling around. Not knowing what to talk about, I found an interesting article about Jesse Owens, the Olympic hero of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. I did not read it but instead pulled out the important facts and told them about this American hero. They are all interested in the Olympics and he won 4 gold medals at the Nazi (1936) Olympics so I think it was interesting to them. I ended the discussion by saying that this story is interesting because it frustrated Hitler and his dream of white supremacy and that it proves that all races are created equal! After that they had many interesting questions for me. These Senior III students seem to be quite smart and deep. One bright girl asked me to discuss the problem of Chinese people working in sweatshops in New York, so I did! Another boy asked me to discuss, in light of the recent meeting between Clinton and the Chinese president, the current political situation between America and China! I said that since it was 8:30 PM if we started talking about this we would not get finished until the morning! Everyone laughed and I was glad to get rid of that hot potato!
One of our politics teachers is a free-lance reporter for the local Yangzhou newspaper. He did a story on my first day of teaching and now I am famous here... It is entitled..."A Dream comes true in Yangzhou...A Foreigner in Yangzhou" You can read about it on my web site...
I met the reporter/teacher the first day and we have become fast friends, despite the fact that the only English he knows is "Thank you, very much." He sounds just like Elvis when he says it, and he is a very good singer. Maybe I will try to get him to sing, "Love me Tender" in Chinese. Who knows...maybe Elvis Lives in China. The other night I sang "Edelweiss" and "New York, New York. I also sang that famous Chinese ballad, "Moom River" in a karaoke club a few days ago.
I visited a disco a few days ago. They were playing lots of American, European and Taiwanese techno and disco music with a loud heavy beat. During a break, an MC came out in matching gold lame jacket and trousers and did a stand-up routine. He then supervised a drinking competition, which had the unlucky contestants trying to chug bottles of Corona beer. Most of the young Chinese in the disco were drinking Budweisers and Absolut vodka while they called their friends on their cell phones or checked their beepers. After some beautiful dancers did a well rehearsed number to the song, Careless Whisper, it was time to dance and hundreds of Chinese men and women packed a square-shaped dance floor with lights in it. The floor was flexible and actually bounced when they danced on it. It was quite a scene. You would not dream you were in a communist country.
On Saturday morning, someone called me at about 10:40 am and said this is "Mr. Yen". He told me he was meeting me for lunch at our school. I thought hard and said to myself, who do I know that speaks English and is named Mr. Yen? Was I really meeting someone for lunch today? I knew I was meeting some of the teachers to watch a performance at the Friendship Hall at 2pm and I was meeting the reporter for dinner (and more tea) at 6pm. I said, "Do you mean, "Xinhua Middle School (my school!)???" There was flurry of Chinese on the other end and he repeated again that I should meet him at "Our school" I repeated..."Xinhua Middle School???" I could hear another furious Chinese discussion on the other end and he said, "Our school." Well, I decided I had better go, so I said, "When shall we meet." He answered, "10:45." I looked at my watch and it was now "10:41" and knowing that the school is at least a 10-minute bike ride, I said, "I will be late, but I will meet you." He said, "Okay" and hung up.
I was really thinking hard, who could this be, had I really forgotten a date...so many people are always asking me to go here and there and sometimes there are misunderstandings about the time and place. Anyway, I quickly changed my clothes and gathered my things and ran out the door. I ran right into Principal Yen, one of my neighbors, who was standing outside my door. He said "Hello" and started down the stairs. As I followed him, it dawned on me; he was the one who had called me. I had thought he couldn't speak any English so I didn't even think of him on the telephone. He was taking me to meet some of the teachers at school to have a lunch for Teacher's Day!
Teachers Day in China is a very big deal. I received presents from a few of my classes. One class gave me a dancing Coca-Cola bottle that plays Its a Small World. Many parents take their childrens teachers out for banquets. Thankfully, I was spared yet another banquet!
On Saturday afternoon teachers and administrators from all over Yangzhou came together in Friendship Hall, a huge auditorium, to receive teaching awards and to perform. The staffs of about 20 High Schools from our city performed wonderful songs. Many were patriotic songs from the Chinese Revolution. Each school had spent many hours practicing and had as many as 100 teachers on the stage. They all wore matching outfits and each school had their own style. I had gone to one of the rehearsals to watch the teachers from my school practicing last week. They started at 5 PM with hot buns and tea and then practiced singing until 8 PM. And they did this more than a few times over the past two weeks! The music teacher was a stern taskmaster and was cutting them no slack. I found myself wondering, why so serious about a little song. After watching the professional performances at Friendship Hall, I understood that this performance is a matter of extreme pride for the school and anything less than perfect would not cut it. I am happy to say that Xinhuas performance was the best of the lot, but then I am biased!
Yesterday, I ate lunch in the school canteen with some of my students. The food was very simple but good; white rice, liver stew with potatoes and dry salted Tofu, a Yangzhou specialty! After lunch, (the students are free to go home from 11:30 AM until 2:30 PM each day) two of my students, Victoria (like the Spice Girl!) and Helena came to visit me at my apartment. I showed them my Yangzhou Internet pages and then we had a chat via the Internet with a friend of mine in New York City. He was up late since it was 1 PM here and 1 AM in New York. We exchanged electronic pictures and had a great time talking about China and New York. The girls are used to using the Internet and say that they often chat with friends across China. I said do you know these people? They said that they had only met them via this electronic medium. It is indeed a small world after all.
Okay that is all for now.
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