Archive for March, 2010


March 30, 2010 1 comment

“I’ve been receiving a lot of calls from parents saying, ‘My student has never had the chance to talk to a foreigner BEFORE,'” our boss said during the first meeting of the quarter.

A murmur circled the room, mostly centering on, ‘sounds like a personal problem.’ When parents call the boss and complain though, it isn’t really a personal problem anymore. We learned, gobsmacked, that we were to conduct a ten minute conversation with every single student on campus before the end of the quarter. Divided between 11 people, that leaves about 350 for me, which translates to about seven hours a week asking the same questions to students at varying levels of English…over…and over…and over.

What is your major? Where is your hometown? What do you like to do on the weekends?
I feel like I’m in new student orientation all over again.

Most of us ask these sorts of questions, but at least one of the other TAs has been using it as a vent for his bitterness.

So are there places in China where people don’t push each other in line for the bus? What’s the thing you hate the most about China? Why do you think there is so much government corruption? I hated that city. There were too many Chinese tourists and they were too loud. No, I don’t like China at all.

It has also turned me into the office receptionist as my desk is the closest to the door, receiving upwards of twenty students per day saying, “I come for the oral assessment! My teacher says!”, then staring at me, breathing with open mouths and vacant eyes when I ask which TA they have an appointment with. A chorus of shouted questions interrupts our work about every 5 minutes from 10am until 5pm.

Despite these shaky beginnings, sometimes my conversations are extremely interesting, dynamic, or informative. For example, one student sat down and drew me a diagram explaining the roots of Chinese philosophy and religion, a wheel with characters circling it, detailing different levels of darkness and light. Another time I discussed social safety nets with a social service major for nearly forty minutes when the student scheduled after her missed his appointment.

Then there are days like today.

Two girls came in together and took their seat at a square table in our office. I told them the rules–that only one person could go at a time. Ryan said that Marian could go before her, because she had a class. “I know, I know, Ryan is a boys name–I think I will change it later.”

“Marian, what kind of interests do you have?”

To one of my easiest and most understandable questions, I got what each of us has come to dread and react to with visceral disgust: the blank stare.

She paused for about two minutes and said, “I go…with my best friend.”

I had no idea what that meant. I tried it from another angle. “What do you like to do?”

She whispered something in Chinese across the table to Ryan. I put a hand up in between them. “You have to do it yourself,” I said.

She looked at me, smiled, and said, “SHE is my best friend!”

“Ok…” I said. By now I knew what grade she was going to get, but I tried to drag it out anyway to avoid more calls from parents. I suspect that Ryan is the type who will do anything for her friend, including homework, most likely. “Where do you like to go?” I attempted again.

“We go Jinding park,” she said. Jinding is a district a 15 minute bus ride from school. It’s not a park, it’s a street market where people grill different types of meat, vegetables, dumplings, all smothered in garlic and peppers.

“What do you do there?”

Pause, accompanied by a small moan of panic, then an epiphany–“We eat the delicious food!”

“Like…” 10 minutes, huh?


“….What kind of meat?”

“…..mmmmmmmm……uuummmmm….PIG MEAT!”

I was done. I told her I was going to let her go on to class, but first I asked her if she had any questions for me, as I do with all of my students. The question they ask is usually a variation of “where are you from?” unless the student has questions about applying for graduate school, about which I can’t offer too much advice anyway. I wasn’t expecting her to have one after that debacle.

But she said, “YES!” And after giggling, for the first time looked straight at me and said, “why you no smile?”

Suffice it to say my answer was not the truth.


Glee a la Guangdong

March 28, 2010 1 comment

There’s something that, in these past few months, has put a little zing into my busy week at UIC. It sprouted from the weekly pop club meetings, and the fact that twenty minutes wrangling twenty five non-singers isn’t going to produce even a two minute song, much less an entire performance’s worth.

Not that I need the spotlight. I just was told all these rumors about 30 percent of Chinese people having perfect pitch, due to the tonal linguistic-nurture. Thank you NPR, for raising my expectations. Although I guess if I thought harder about it, I would’ve figured out that 30 percent only seems like a lot…


Our eight-member Glee Club performance took even me by surprise at the International Culture and Language Conference dinner back in December, prompting one of the drunken conference goers to stall our final number in enthusiasm.

“THIS! This is what we need more of here at UIC!” She’d shouted, standing, brandishing a plastic cup of Portuguese wine. My students held their pose for the final piece, trying not to laugh, hands behind their back, heads lowered. I’d already started sounding Rob’s first falsetto note on the upper e-string.

For some reason even when they practice now, whenever they get into that pose, the giggling begins.

Apparently later that night, the conference goer had picked up several paper lanterns from the table and done a Salome-style dance for the English Department. I missed it, because I’d taken the group to Sichuan food. On the white board from which Meg’s already erased the Star War’s cast list, it’s named as the number one funniest moment of our UIC experience.

This semester, after the first meeting of the lunchtime pop club, as I signed the last of the attendance sheets and the students rushed to their afternoon classes, I saw my contingent leaning on the first two rows of desks, agendas open in front of them. “Hey! Hey! Hey! When does practice start?” they shouted at me.

These students spent their high school years going to class from 8am until 8pm, and this is their first exposure to extracurricular activities, the first time they’ve been away from their families, and the first time they’ve been permitted to date. The girls still carry purses that are giant zip-up teddy bears, holding hands with their best friends. For most of them, these will be the only four years of self-discovery separated in any small way from extreme filial responsibility.

The ones who seem to be so passionate of this group, though, remind me of my friends from my high school, complete with relationship angst, ambiguity and fragile friendships: the best-girlfriends who appear at every rehearsal and run up to hug me in the hallway, who are obsessed with musical theater and join as many clubs as they can stay awake for; the boys on the rugby team who have great voices and hoot at me whenever they see me from across the campus; he serial dater with flashy yellow shoes who, though cocky, put out his blue cigarette without a word a second after I told him they would make him lose his high notes.

“What do you guys want to sing?” I’d asked.

“LADY GAGA!” The three tallest boys in the group shouted, and immediately launched into a warbling rendition of “Bad Romance”– “RAH-RAH-AH-AAAAAH!” They shouted, hopping in a circle around me. I cringed. But this isn’t my college experience—so I gave them what they wanted, printing out lyric sheets and having them sing along with the recording.

To my relief, halfway through the song they collapsed on the writing center desks crying, “It’s too long! We cannot do it!”

We have a new portfolio and two new members, due to the apparent loss one of the girls who had formerly been dating the boy with the yellow shoes. She’d told me that she couldn’t come anymore because…she didn’t know how to say it… “Too awkward?” I’d said, then explained in my simple English what that means. She nodded and apologized. I sighed. I’d recruited a new boy and girl. She’s going to be hard to replace. But I remember how high school felt too.

We’re sticking with the old songs and adding some Jason Mraz, Corinne Bailey Rae, Queen, more Mika by popular demand and (we’re totally cornball but I swear it was their idea) some Journey. Yeah, you know why.

Ni hao. ¿Que tal?

March 22, 2010 5 comments

When the first day of the new semester arrived, I was leaning against my desk talking to Nathalie, another former UCSB grad and lecturer at UIC. We may’ve been talking about International Women’s Day, or maybe the fact that we wished we could afford new jeans, but what really matters in this story is that my boss stalked into the room and said, “Can anyone here teach a Spanish class?”

No, I don’t speak Spanish,” was Nathalie’s answer, and clearly the one that my boss expected. She half turned to go as I said, “I can.”

Really!” She said. I bit back a laugh. One day we assigned Star Wars characters to everyone in the department based on their mannerisms and personality. I won’t say who, but she was assigned a long-eared CGI character from Episode 1, and it couldn’t be more fitting. I also didn’t laugh, though, but I smelled money.

After she strode out, bubbling about her ability to return to the General Education department with good news, the new smell in the room was terror.

It was ill-founded though. Teaching three hours of Spanish 1 to Chinese students doesn’t require the anxiety attacks that I offer it. My go-to teacher from Barcelona, dressed in Indian duds purchased in her husband’s homeland, manages that ironic and unsmiling European good humor that took me a about a year in Scandinavia to understand. She tells me in deadpan that we should make “I will Survive” our anthem for the quarter, and calls me “guapa”.  Her manner, though not the unfamiliar accent with which she speaks Spanish, puts me at ease.

Apparently, the Chinese woman who taught Spanish One alerted the University that she wouldn’t be returning the day she was supposed to report to work. Both of the other Spanish teachers have taken one class each (as HR only feels like paying me for three hours), and as of yet we still don’t have a course outline. The Spaniard is too busy dealing with the fact that the Chinese visa office issued her three month old baby a single-entry tourist visa.

When I’m not pouring over articles and vocabulary lists in China, I’m continuing to learn Chinese with Wendy. We might twice a week in a cafe called “Town Number One” that serves lattes and a spaghetti dish that reminds me of Chef Boyardee, where smooth jazz guitar plays covers of hits by Paul Simon and Elton John. I’m averaging an understanding of about five characters per roadside sign at this point.

For the first several weeks of the semester, Beijing Normal University, whose campus is flush with ours, was having it’s month long military training of first-years. Every day the same poorly written military march blasted across the sports fields and echoed through campus for eight hours straight per day. I swore I’d never forget the tune, but now when I try to recall it, all I can think of is the Robot Chicken Theme. As I walked to the bus stop from Town Number One I was surrounded by boys and girls in baggy green camo.

If there’s one thing more unsettling than being surrounded by hoards of people who are all the same race (not yours), all speaking a language you barely understand, its dressing them all alike.

Andy, Roey and I were walking from the bus stop to work singing along to the march and, I think, discussing the execution of a possible marching piano band when my other boss called my cell phone. I hurried ahead to his office, where I was told that I and the other girl who was considering getting certified in Teaching English as a Foreign Language would be covering four of one of the professor’s English classes for the next six weeks. Money, yes. Overwhelm-age, also yes. Satisfaction, so far, also also yes.

Each of the English classes are named after different countries or cities in the Western world. My first English class of the week is called “Denmark.” If I were the sort to believe in fate, or that there’s something cosmic about coincidence, I’d take this as a sign that I’m doing the right thing right now.

Categories: Uncategorized

First backpacking trip lessons

March 1, 2010 1 comment

We’re back in Zhuhai with Chinese New Year resolutions.  Brian wants to quit smoking and lose 20 pounds.  I’m vowing to scoot around the firewall and update this account more often–and improve my Chinese!  I do have resolutions of another kind, though, to be used at another time.  I wouldn’t have any resolutions to make, however, without first looking back on the past few weeks.  There are things that I did on the Thailand/Malaysia trip that I would hesitate to do again, though many things that were wonderful and perfectly right.

A.  Right thing: spending enough time in one place to be able to experience in it.  Wrong thing: spending too much time in said place.

There was no reason to stay in Bangkok for four days.  Day four was just spent in overwhelmed hiding from the city, in air conditioning and eating food that I’d already eaten before.  I was happy to be in Kuala Lumpur for several days, because it gave me the opportunity to visit with my friends, but had it not been the end of the trip, and had I not been on the last ringets of my paycheck, I really would’ve liked to visit the tea plantations or something outside the cities for a day or two.  Cities help with reconnecting to civilization, but too much civilization can give you heat stroke.  The money dilemma, however, leads me to my next lesson:

B.  The street is the best place for food.  The convenience store is the best place for booze.

If I had stuck to that rule, I would definitely have made it to the highlands.  There are, of course, meals that are special or reserved for special occasions, but after a while everything becomes a special occasion…last night in a city, first night in a city, a birthday, a first visit to a waterfall…With the exception of Nop’s specially caught squid in Khao Lak, the best food I had on the trip was Pad Thai and Char Kuay Teow–both from food stalls.  The wine coolers and domestic beers aren’t usually better, but they are within budget and definitely do the trick.

C.  Set goals.

This may be something meant more for my own personality, but unless I’m prepared for an activity, unless I’ve done all the research previously and know how to go about it, I’m perfectly happy in a hammock with a book for the entire trip.  I read four of them over the course of this trip: Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, A Land on Fire by James Fahn and The Beach by Alex Garland.  While part of me is proud of that fact, the other part of me isn’t so proud.  Trips such as these, especially when only on the road for a few weeks, are about exploration and discovery of new cultures.  I resisted the “to do list” method to traveling because I have had some to-do list making travel companions in the past who were not very flexible in their approach and really knew how to kill a good time.  However, while most of my reading was done on a train platform, some of it was done when I could’ve been out at an Islamic Art Museum or a park, or exploring architecture, or meeting new people, or something else that I could’ve learned about if one of those books I’d read was a Lonely Planet or Rough Guide.  Which leads me to my last point:

D.  Never travel without a guide!

Lonely Planet took me to some of the most fun times I’ve ever had in Hong Kong, as well as in Florence, Pisa, Siena, Rome and Vienna.  Without it, Brian and I were mapless, uncharted wanderers in much-charted territory going “what do you wanna do?”  “I don’t know, what do you wanna do?”  We always ended up doing something, but with a guide and a plan, we could have done a lot more, a lot more cheaply, and with a lot more efficiency.

There were plenty of small lessons to be learned as well: Clean and Clear oil absorbing sheets are the bomb in the tropics, as is showering as many times as possible, as is washing things in your sink on the first day you reach a location rather than the night before you leave.  Those are practical things I’m sure anyone besides I, the sometimes overly big-picture oriented person, would most certainly have thought of before buying a plane ticket.  Also, I learned that places like Surat Thani are a necessary evil, as are things like waiting until 3am for a train while your travel companion sings “The green grass grows all around all around…” over and over again.  Shiver.

Anyway, thanks for reading so faithfully for the past few month, and special shout-outs to Usha and Anu for hosting me in Kuala Lumpur!  I had a wonderful time and you were great hosts!

The next few weeks of work should be pretty interesting, and I’ve resolved to try to help you all get more insight into Chinese culture as I do myself.  So stay tuned!