Sunday, July 26, 2009

Summer Project

To friends and family,

If you are interested in seeing a few low resolution pictures from my most recent trip to Kaifeng, Henan, the yellow river, the mountains above Shaolin Temple, the Taihang mountains, please send me an email. Since I am still travelling and am using internet bars, I am having trouble loading pictures to a web photo album.

Summer project is going well.

We have finished one week of teaching middle school English teachers. Our objective, requested by the Chinese organizers was to help improve their confidence in speaking English; however, we changed it a bit as we met our students and learned what our students wanted: teaching methods, pronunciation, and American culture.

I think the weakness of the summer project is the large number of unknowns: number of students, students' English level, and what they want to learn from us. We fly by the seat of our pants and cannot really prepare very well for it in advance.

We are a bit exhausted not used to teaching a 40-50 hour week compared to our university work week of 12-20 hours.

Tomorrow we start a new week with new teachers. These teachers will be primary school teachers. We are back to the world of unknowns. What is their English level? We have heard that many of the teachers are not college educated. What do the students want to learn? Their English level will determine whether or not we can meet their requests. It would be really hard to have discussions about teaching ideas and methods if we can't communicate.

Anyways, the unknowns will be known tomorrow and we have a 3 hour lunch break to throw something together as we learn more.

Friday, July 10, 2009


Today I am off on my month and a half vacation, so I don't know how often I will be able to blog.

First stop, Henan Province to a city called Kai Feng.
Second stop, Tianshui for a two week summer project.
Next stops, a bit up in the air at the moment, depending on funds.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Why give away a baby?

Why would a Taiwanese mother in the 1970's give up a daughter for adoption?

Lately, I have been asking my students why would my birthmother give up a daughter for adoption?

Growing up with an American culture I had my own theories and assumptions:
1. My birthmother was a teenage unmarried girl who could not take care of a baby.
2. My birthmother was a prostitute.
3. Abortion was illegal.

However, hearing my students' points of view has been very eye-opening.

Often families will try to have at least one boy. The reason some families are so big is because they have three girls while trying to a have a boy. It is not uncommon for these girls to be given to other families. Some of my female students talk about the distress they felt when they heard stories of their grandparents wanting their parents to give them away to another family because they couldn't afford a 2nd or 3rd mouth to feed plus try to have a boy. So maybe I was the first, second, or third daughter and the family wanted a boy.

My brother is also adopted. Why would a Taiwanese mother give up a precious baby boy for adoption?

My students said that maybe he was the third son and the family was too poor to take care of him.

Maybe his mother was a teenager. In China it is very taboo to be unmarried and pregnant. My students told me a story that happened a couple of years ago about a college girl who got pregnant and the leaders of the school wouldn't give her the college diploma.

According to my students answers, I think the three main reasons mothers give up babies in China are:

1. too poor to afford another mouth to feed
2. teenage pregnancy
3. want to have a boy

I am not American.

In my little city, I am known as the translator of the American who teaches at Longdong College.

How does that make me feel? How does not being American, not being the special foreigner make me feel? Do I feel the urge to SHOUT it out to the world that I AM AMERICAN! Stop having Chinese expectations about me. Stop expecting me to speak fluent Chinese. Stop expecting me to translate my friend's Chinese pronunciation. Stop laughing at my manly Chaco sandals that are not the dainty high heels that all the females wear. In the winter, stop wondering if I am a man or a woman.

The thing is I don't mind being the weird Chinese person who wears African clothes, manly clothes and hair. I don't mind being the old spinster who still hasn't gotten married. (Chinese women get married at 24. After that, they start getting too old to attract any males.) I don't mind being the Chinese person with excellent English.

I don't feel this strong urge to force people to acknowledge that I am American. I don't mind blending in.

I do mind though having restrictions put on me because I am female. "Travelling alone is too dangerous for females." This past school year, my travel has been restricted because I want to travel alone; however, I am kind of suspicious that it might be an indirect no. Maybe they don't want me to travel during the school year since for my summer plans of travelling to Vietnam alone, they had no problems with it. Indirect communication is sometimes difficult for us Americans to understand.

I don't mind superficially being known as a Chinese person; however, when it comes to more complicated inter-cultural issues, I am American. That is when I need understanding on the Chinese side that I am not Chinese but a foreigner.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

You are Chinese. No I'm not.

What is it like being Chinese American in China? Is it challenging? Is it frustrating? Does it make things easier?

Often as we sit outside under a big red umbrella drinking beer and milk tea, people ask, "Where are you from?"

I can never say I am American, and if the white American who I hang with all of the time points at me and says, "American," my American friend is corrected, "No. She is Chinese." We have both learned how to say the Chinese phrase, "American with Chinese heritage." That people will agree with.

I have gotten pretty good at explaining my adoption story in simple Chinese phrases.
I have two mothers.
One Chinese mother and one white American mother.
My Chinese mother didn't have any money.
She gave me to the American mother.

(Notice I do not use the phrase Taiwanese mother; although, once they know I am Chinese American they now want to know where my ancestors are from. I say Taiwan and that is no problem.)

Sometimes I am much more of a curiosity than my white American friend. Often I will be the center of attention while my white American friend sits there looking lonely nursing a beer as a flurry of Chinese is directed at me. Because of course since I am American with Chinese heritage I can speak Chinese. After they realize that my Chinese is a bit limited, they point at Caitlin and start asking questions about her and finally ask, "Can she understand Chinese?"

At restaurants I am always given the menu, but I do not study written Chinese. I push the menu towards Caitlin coz she studies written Chinese and can probably read at least 100 characters now. But then as soon as she opens her mouth to order, the waitress looks at me. I repeat the exact phrase that was just said and sometimes we get some food. Other times, we sit there repeating and repeating and repeating until eventually they figure it out. I bet they are wondering, what kind of Chinese is that Chinese person speaking? But actually they probably don't even think about it because China is full of so many dialects. Often people don't understand each other especially people from other regions.

In the Treehouse, an English resource center, I can often sit inconspicuously in the corner, while a non-major comes in and bombards Caitlin with a desire to speak English. That is sometimes nice getting a break from trying to understand limited broken English.

In Xian, a big tourist center, we often hope just my quiet muted presence will get us a reasonable price to start bargaining down rather than exuberant prices that have like a 300% markup. I always hope that my Chinese skin doesn't get me terribly ripped off and maybe I trust it a bit too much. I should rely more on bargaining skills which I still have not perfected even after years of living in Africa. But come on, how are we suppose to know what the good price is to even bargain for? The other day I wanted to buy a tank top. The first price given was $25. I think tank tops should be a $1, but clothes in China especially in some stores are super expensive. Wal-Mart is cheaper than Chinese clothing stores!

So what is it like being Chinese American in China?

It is interesting. I have different stories to tell than other Americans in China, and actually, now that I think about it me being the Chinese American sidekick might make it more frustrating for my sitemate. For me though, having Caitlin as a sidekick, makes things easier, hanging out with the white chick brings me face. Travelling alone this summer might be quite frustrating.

Party Planner: Pictures Included

One big difference between organizing parties in China and in America is the amount of time and types of activities one should plan. In America, you plan the menu of a dinner party and then let the guests drink wine and entertain themselves with conversations. In China parties and outings are filled with planned activities and they last for HOURS! I have been invited on 6 hour outings where you eat a meal, then play a couple of hours of Mahjong and then go on a long walk in the nearby park. I have been on 6 hour dinner parties where you first eat a banquet and then do a fun activity like karaoke.

So planning an appreciation party for our students who volunteered in the English resource center was a big challenge coz they are expecting to spend several hours playing games and eating. It is like planning a Chucky Cheese outing or a skating rink birthday party. Last semester we played white elephant, but it didn't last very long. That party was too short.

This semester because it is warm we planned an outdoor party and ate watermelon and cake at the back gate picnic tables. But what game? What form of entertainment?

We sent the students on a 40 minute photo scavenger hunt. It took the pressure off of us of having to entertain them for hours.

The students LOVED it!

Each team had a list that asked them to take pictures of

5 people jumping (the students thought this was SUPER fun trying to capture 10 feet off the ground)
5 shirtless boys (they tried to get the basketball players, but no one was willing to take off their shirts)
A boy with two earrings (because one earring was too small, they switched the small one with a big girly one)
2 people kissing (impossible)
A picture of chairman Mao
3 or more people riding a bike (the students staged this)
A child eating ice cream (The students made one little boy cry who didn't want his picture taken, but then found one girl who was very cooperative. The teams found the same girl. One team's picture had a non-eaten ice cream. The other team had a half-eaten ice cream.)
20 victory signs (Taught the students how to organize 20 people or 10 people if they were smart)
An old couple holding hands (This was challenging and taught the students persuasive skills. The older couple was extremely shy and said, “We have never done this before.”)
And a bunch more….

This was a super fun game for the students creating an activity that they can tell stories about to their roommates and classmates. It is hard living on a little campus where everyone knows everyone, where everyone is doing the same thing, where gossip has been repeated a million times. Stories become few.

Try a scavenger hunt if you are looking for a fun activity to share with your students.
Try a scavenger hunt if you just want an hour of chill time while waiting for your students to come back.
Try a scavenger hunt if you are trying to plan a Chinese party. Our party lasted 2 hours, a record for us.

If you want to see some pictures from one of the two teams, email me. In each photo is one of our students. One of the rules was to be in the picture with the found item.