Archive for the ‘TEFL’ Category

1. He’s black.

2. His half-brother lives in Shenzhen. (This was major news in the national press here)

3. He just won the presidential election in America.

4. He beat Hillary Clinton.

Almost no one at the school has heard of John McCain, but there are quite a few students here who are still bummed out about Hillary losing in the primaries.

5. This means Bush isn’t the president of America anymore.

Most people are too polite to say it directly, but the students I’ve talked to seem pretty excited about this.

The students here seem pretty pleased that Obama was elected. One student, who knew I had planned to vote for Obama, came up to me the day after the election with a big smile and yelled, “Obama won the game!”

But there was some confusion about the historical significance of the Obama victory. There is general agreement among the students that Obama is black, and that it’s pretty rare for a black man to be elected president of the United States. But they aren’t quite sure if this is the first time it has happened.

One student asked me if Obama was, in fact, the first black man to be elected president in America. I told him he was, but the student wasn’t quite convinced.

“What about Lincoln?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “Lincoln was white.”



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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 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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Yangzhou Tech

I’m here.

I am now a proud (and soon to be legal) resident of the People’s Republic of China. I just finished my first week of teaching at Yangzhou Polytechnic Institute, and I have successfully located a bank, a grocery store, and multiple pizza places. The search for the bar that is rumored to be fairly decent (apparently there’s only one) begins this weekend.

I’m still settling in and trying to come to terms with the fact that they actually have seasons here and that I seem to have caught the tail-end of winter (two weeks ago I was laying on a beach in Krabi), but it’s going as well as can be expected.

The fact that I showed up here with one pair of khakis, four long-sleeved shirts, and one fleece, means I have gotten to know the downtown shopping district rather well in the past week. It’s been a bit overwhelming after four months in Chaiyaphum, where the biggest shopping decision to be made was which floor of the Tesco should I start on? But I can tell you that KFC and Pizza Hut both taste better in China, the coffee is even worse than in Thailand (no small feat), and the only people who will admit to speaking any English here are elementary school kids who look like they go to private school.

The English in Yangzhou may actually be worse than it was in Chaiyaphum, but it could just be that people here aren’t quite as interested in where I’m going and where I come from. Either way, there’s been quite a bit of miming and pointing in the past week, and my Lonely Planet phrasebook gets plenty of use.

I’m not quite the celebrity I was in Chaiyaphum, where I couldn’t walk two blocks in any direction without someone yelling, “Where you go?”, but I definitely stick out in a crowd. Small children stare at me the way they might inspect a Panda bear at the zoo, and the only other white people I’ve come across so far are the other English teacher at our school and two guys having lunch at the Pizza Hut downtown.

It is definitely a different world here, from home and from Thailand. A few of the stranger things I’ve noticed in my first week-and-a-half in Yangzhou:

– The teachers live in dorm rooms on campus here. As a foreign teacher, I have a bedroom, living room and kitchen to myself, but the local teachers have roommates and shared kitchens. It’s two per room mostly, in dorm rooms not too much bigger than in an American college, but on the top floor of my building they have four teachers sharing each room!

– Public bus rides are an experience. It’s just 1 yuan no matter how far you go and the bus lines seem to go just about everywhere, but they will pack you in until the doors are blocked to the point that they can’t close. And even then, some drivers will drive with the doors open to let a few extra passengers stand in the doorway and hold on.

– Everything you’ve heard about comic English translations on products is probably true. My cooking oil advertises that it comes from corn “embryos” and the best coffee I’ve been able to find is called “Mr. Bond” and comes with the tagline, “I’m young, I’m coffee.”

– I’ll write a lot more about this as I get a better idea of what is actually true, but it’s hard to figure out what makes this a Communist country. It’s definitely a one-party state, and that party calls itself the Communist Party, but at least here in Yangzhou the economy appears to run more or less the way it did in Bethesda, Maryland. There are privately-owned businesses everywhere you look, many of them are housed in very tall, modern buildings, and there is advertising all over the place. I’ve spent much of the past week walking from one privately-owned shopping center or pedestrian mall to another, and the sign in front of the large construction site across the street from our school proclaims that the apartment building they are building there will be a “Wealth, Market Leader.”

Yangzhou is part of a designated ‘Special Economic Zone,’ which means it is an area where the government allows free-market capitalism. Presumably, the system is still Communism outside of these special zones, but if you take a look at the size of the ‘Special Economic Zones,’ which I believe are continuing to expand, it looks like it will only be a matter of time before this becomes a Special Economic Country.

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The next stop

I’m now a very small amount of paperwork away from completing my first semester as an English teacher, and I am happy to report that I have officially found a job in China.

It’s a one-year contract with a technical college in Yangzhou, which is a medium-sized city about an hour away from a big city called Nanjing and 3-4 hours from Shanghai. So for the next year, I’ll be teaching no more than 16 hours a week and making less than $800 a month, which I can apparently live comfortably on in China.

The city is supposed to be very beautiful, and it is a popular spot for Chinese tourists. It is famous for its bathhouses, pedicurists, and fried rice, and the Slender West Lake is the main attraction.

It’s a smallish city by Chinese standards, but it’s bigger than most cities in Thailand. It has all the essentials (bars, restaurants, shopping), but most people don’t speak English and I should continue to field regular questions about where I’m from, what my name is, and where I’m going.

Nearby Nanjing is a real city, with everything a person might want. But it sounds pretty authentically Chinese. My favorite example so far is this one: the trendy nightlife strip is called “1912,” to commemorate the year Sun Yat Sen toppled the Qing Dynasty.

I can’t wait to get there, but a month of backpacking through Thailand is not a bad way to pass the time. I’m leaving Chaiyaphum on Tuesday for an island in the South (still haven’t decided which one), then it’s on to Koh Tao, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Krabi, and Cambodia.

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