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Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Military training

YANGZHOU – Sometimes, it really pays to work for a technical college.

Take this morning, for example. If I had been a regular American citizen passing through Yangzhou on holiday, perhaps on my way to Slim West Lake or maybe a bit of shopping on Wenchang Road, I might have been a bit confused (and perhaps, terrified) as I watched a few thousand soldiers march down the street in front of Yangzhou University in full combat fatigues at 10:00 on a Saturday morning.

It wouldn’t have helped that the driver of the bus I was riding was screaming at a traffic cop, and threatening to run him over, as the soldiers marched past. Or that the drivers of all of the other cars on the road were honking their horns, cursing, and generally acting like their lives might be in danger if they didn’t get off the road in the next 12 seconds.

To anyone who didn’t know what was going on, it must have looked like the city was under martial law. Or perhaps we were going to war.

But, having worked at Yangzhou Tech for the past few months, I was aware of the fact that all of the colleges and universities in town are holding military training exercises for all of their incoming freshmen this month.

I was also aware of the fact that people in Yangzhou, especially cab drivers and bus drivers, are just about always screaming, cursing and honking their horns, and generally giving the impression that something terrible will happen if they don’t reach their destination in the next 10-15 seconds.

So my only thought, as a few thousand soldiers crossed the street in front of me, was, “That would make a really great picture for the blog.”

The list of strange and interesting things that have led to my not having to teach my English class for a while, continues to grow.

In Thailand, my class was regularly canceled for Buddhist holidays, and to celebrate important moments in the lives of the royal family (including the King’s 80th birthday and the death of the King’s sister, which led to a 15-day national mourning period that was subsequently extended to 100 days in some cities).

Here in Yangzhou, my faculty course was occasionally called off for rain, the faculty-wide singing competition, and to allow my students to attend Communist Party training sessions.

This month, all of my freshmen classes are canceled so my students can take part in a month of mandatory military training.

Every student at our school, and I believe this is done at just about every school in China, has to participate in military training for the first month of their freshman year. The training includes marching, learning some basic military chants and songs, and some basic combat maneuvers (at our school, this appears to be limited to hand-to-hand combat, and it’s very basic).

Mostly, it’s a whole lot of marching, standing at attention, and responding to basic military orders.

At our school, most of the new recruits are girls (like in the States, the girls outnumber the boys on college campuses here). And most of them (above) are very thin and very tiny. This, my Australian colleague tells me, means that a few students will faint from standing too long in the heat.

The training is not too strenuous, but it is quite long. Training begins around 6:00 a.m. and I’ve seen the students finishing up as late as 5:00 p.m. in the evening. According to a local friend, the training is led by members of the actual Chinese military.

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The street in this photo has been there for a thousand years, or so the locals tell me.

It used to be part of the city’s main commercial district, back when Yangzhou was one of the richest and most important cities in China. In those days, the salt merchants (who seem to be roughly equivalent to today’s oil tycoon) would come here to buy or trade or do whatever absurdly wealthy people might have done at the time.

Surprisingly little has changed over those thousand years. People still live on this street, and the city’s main commercial district is now just a few blocks away.

Of course, a few things have changed since the end of the Qing Dynasty. One block over from where this picture was taken, there is a giant electronics mall selling all of the newest computers, digital cameras, and assorted tech gadgets. There are so many gadgets for sale there that the place fills two four-story buildings, each plastered with giant advertisements for the various brand-name products you can find inside.

The ancient street has become something of a tourist attraction these days, particularly around the childhood home of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin, who grew up in a little Chinese-style townhouse on this street.

But it’s pretty amazing that there are still people living on a street that is somewhere around five times older than the entire history of the United States. And that in all of that time, the economic center of Yangzhou has shifted less than five blocks.

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The list, of course, is growing.

I’ve already mentioned that college professors sleep in bunk beds here, and that every now and then they might have to miss a class or two to “learn the knowledge of the Communist Party of China.”

But I haven’t told you about the singing.

Singing is a really big deal here. If you spend enough time with locals, sooner or later one of them is bound to ask if she can sing a song for you. She will probably expect you to sing something in return, at which point you will have to explain that singing songs to people you’ve just met is one of the many things that just wouldn’t happen in America.

Which brings me to last Wednesday’s faculty-wide singing contest. I found out about the contest when one of my colleagues explained why he was the only person to show up to my class on Tuesday. The 37 other teachers who were supposed to be working on their conversational English that day were getting ready for Wednesday’s performances.

So the next afternoon I went to the school auditorium to see what all the fuss was about. And for the next hour and a half, I watched faculty from each department in our school deliver spirited and well-rehearsed performances of Chinese nationalist songs.

Every group had costumes and at least some minor choreography, and every group was under the direction of a faculty conductor. One group even had props, in the form of miniature Chinese flags to be waved dramatically at the song’s climax (my resident interpreter explained that the song in question was about waving the “red flag,” meaning the flag of China).

One of my colleagues from the course I do for the faculty served as my interpreter for the event. She was in one of the first groups to perform, so she spent the rest of the contest telling me what each song was about. Invariably, the songs were about China and the pride one should feel about living there.

There was one exception to the nationalist theme, though my interpreter told me the song is very popular in China. It was “Edelweiss,” from The Sound of Music, translated into Chinese. According to my interpreter, “everyone in China knows this song.”

American films are very popular in China, actually. They have weekly showings of Hollywood movies at Yangzhou University, so the students and members of the community can practice their English, and all the movie theaters have current Hollywood films, either dubbed in Chinese or with Chinese subtitles.

The locals are genuinely surprised to learn that I have never heard of any of the Chinese movie stars and pop singers they ask me about, since they know so much about American stars. Just another example of how much more interest the rest of the world has in us, than we have in the rest of the world.

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I got a few colorful excuses in Thailand from students who missed my class.

The school-sponsored “Buddhism camp,” which included an overnight stay at a temple, was probably my favorite. It was definitely not the only time I heard that up to half of my class was “at the temple” for the day, or preparing a dance or song for one of Chaiyaphum’s many festivals (we were averaging at least two festivals a month while I was there).

But none of the excuses from the girls at Satrichaiyaphum High matched the one I received this afternoon. It’s a text message from one of the teachers in the English conversation course I’m doing for some of my colleagues here at Yangzhou Tech.

sorry mike, i will absent our class today because of learning the knowledge of the Communist Party of China, i am so sorry.

Oddly enough, we talked politics a bit in class today. My colleagues seemed interested in the American presidential election, though I had to explain the primary system to them and help them out a bit with the pronunciation of “Obama.”

They even laughed when I mentioned George W.’s approval rating. I guess some things are universal.

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