Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Whiteout, Gym, Christmas day

Do you use whiteout?

Students as they take their short stories written exam do not use white out.  Instead they use pieces of tape to pull off the words from the paper.

Exercise Buffet

Since I have a free membership to the gym, every night is like visiting an exercise buffet.  There are so many classes I can pick from.  So far I have tried spinning, yoga, and a step class.  Other nights they offer combat, kick boxing, belly dancing, and jazz dance.  It is really cool to be able to pick and choose which class to take each evening.
I was never able to afford yoga in America.  I've been enjoying stretching parts of my body that I didn't even know existed.  I am only a novice so I am wondering what do you think are the benefits of yoga?
I really dislike running on treadmills.  I feel like I am in a futuristic movie where the environment has been destroyed and now humankind lives indoors with their machines.

Christmas Day

When it comes to China, I have become cynical.  On Christmas day my sitemate suggested we go roller skating on the rooftop of a downtown building.  It had snowed the day before and there was still a good layer of snow and ice all around.  I was like there is no way that the roller skating rink will clear away the snow.  It is China.  I was wrong and realized, "Wow, Jennifer you are so cynical."  We went roller skating.


In the evening, students didn't want us to feel lonely on Christmas day so they offered to make dumplings.  I declined going to the festivities preferring a few precious moments to be alone.  The week before Christmas had been rough because of the many student interviews, classes, exams, and Tree House.  I needed some me time.

Friday, December 24, 2010

White Christmas

I woke up to a winter wonderland.

Then spent 8 hours grading singing performances and interviews.

Then hosted a 1.5 hr Tree House Christmas party

making snowflakes for the tree,

playing balloon games,

and singing Christmas carols.

Now I need some me time.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

December Tidbits

Right now I am buried under grading and will be for the next two weeks.  Today I spent 6 hours with students, 4 hours of 20 minute interviews.  Then for 2 hours I listened to students nervously holding hands, sing a prepared song that they learned during the semester then sing an impromptu song that they also learned during the semester that was chosen by lottery.  The impromptu song was one way I could make sure students would come to class and learn the songs.  For this class with unofficial grades, there was only the final singing performance, a quick 2 hours giving out 50 grades.
Why?  Why did I make my non-graded English Short Stories class of 140 students so serious?  The students had to write seven, 3-5 paragraph essays, keep a notebook, then take either a written final or a final that was an interview.  Over the semester I graded two essays per student and now am grading their finals.  WHY? 
I am a volunteer teacher who dictates how much work I will do.  I could have made the class an easy class without too much grading since it was a course without an official grade.  In high school, my favorite teacher was an English teacher who gave a ton of homework, who challenged me, made me work and think.  I somehow subconsciously wanted to be like her this semester with a hope that the students would take the class seriously, would learn, and would grow as thinkers. 
Also, I am genuinely curious about what goes on in my students' heads.  What did they learn in my class and what are their opinions?  Because the class size was so large making classroom discussions a challenge, one way to learn about their ideas was to have them write down their thoughts and to have interviews. 
I wonder if they will be pissed about all the work they did this semester once they learn that a grade won't be going on their official transcripts.
Students' Essays
Today a student visited the Tree House and talked about essays.  She said, "Our Chinese teachers during high school told us NOT to repeat our ideas, but then our foreign teachers told us to repeat our opinion, our thesis statement over and over again throughout the essay."  Then she said, "Jennifer on my friend's essay you wrote that you couldn't understand her ideas, but when we read it we understood the essay perfectly."
Why can't I understand students' essays?  I have this problem with a lot of their essays.
  • Is it because of their English level?
  • Is it because I think differently than Chinese students?
  • Is it because Chinese writers and American writers have a different writing style?
  • Is it because Chinese students have been trained to have harmonious ideas that the majority believe, ideas that are thought by the masses such that they are good at reading each others minds thus understanding the implied meanings in their essays; whereas, I need more direct explanations?
During the interviews, a lot of the students talked about freedom and how one of the cultural differences between some of the Chinese and western stories is that the American stories valued freedom. 
I asked them, "What does freedom mean to you?" 
"It means that you can do whatever you want to do."
I then asked, "Don't you think you have freedom?"
"No.  I have to obey my parents and follow the school rules.  I can't do whatever I want to do but have pressure to do other things."
I then asked, "But don't you have a choice to obey your parents, to follow rules, to do whatever you want to do or to submit to the pressure?"
They just looked at me and we moved onto the next interview question.
Between Interviews,
I've been reading Ha Jin's In the Pond.  My Seattle roommate had this book in her personal library.  I remember reading it and not liking it at all, but after living in China for three years I have a new perspective while reading it. 
Shao Bin is a worker in a factory who is trying to expose corrupt leaders.
When hearing what Shao Bin did, the leaders think, "Who would imagine a toad could grow wings and soar into the sky!"
"The two leaders talked about how to handle Bin this time; both of them agreed that they should remain calm and do nothing to provoke him at the moment.  In their hearts, they were frightened.  This mad dog Shao Bin was simply unpredictable.  He was too bold and too imaginative and would do anything he took a fancy to.  Unlike those puny intellectuals- the college graduates in the plant- whose faces would turn pale and sweaty and who would correct their faults the moment the leaders criticized them, this pseudo-scholar wasn't afraid of anybody.  What could you do if a man feared nothing?" -excerpt from Ha Jin's In the Pond
What are you proud of?
In the Tree House a student asked a group of us, "What about your country makes you proud?"
One student said, "I am proud that in China we respect our family members and take care of our family."
Another student said, "I am proud that in China family is very important."
Another student said, "I am proud that in China we have made so much progress over the last century leading to our ability to send rockets into space."
Then an American said, "I am proud that in America, we are trying to deal with diversity."
Then I said, "I am proud that in America, I can be whomever I want to be."
Christmas Banquet
Tonight the school invited us to a Christmas banquet and gave us flowers, a calendar, and a framed shadow puppet.  The food reminded me of Chinese American food, sweeter than what I usually eat here in Gansu.  On the elevator, I read that the specialty of the restaurant was Cantonese food.  Ah.. that explained it.  Most American Chinese food is from southern China.
I took my first step class ever.  It is umm...  hmm... Well at least I sweat for a bit.  Also, when running on a treadmill, it is not a good idea to hit the big red button. 
The only thing that I hate about being addicted to a gym is the pile of laundry.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Chinese Roller Skating Rink

Today was a warm day so I walked downtown to the roller skating rink.  I climbed to the fifth floor and voila, a skating rink on the roof, the floor, smaller than a full length basketball court made up of large flat smooth stone tiles.  For $0.50 I could skate for an hour.  The four wheel skates were exactly like the ones I wore when I was in elementary school.  The clientele about 20 people watching and 10 people skating were exactly like the ones who hung out at the local skating rink in America, school age kids. 
It was a nostalgic skate except for the Chinese flavor.  The girls skated in one direction, counter-clockwise and the boys skated backwards in the other direction, clockwise.  It was annoying trying to avoid skaters skating backwards coming at me at full speed, skaters who were just standing around in the rink, and skaters who would hold hands 5 people deep trying to whip each other around.  It has been a long time since I've skated, so my maneuvering and stopping skills were not the strongest.  Having to weave in and out of oncoming and stopped traffic was scary.  Plus avoiding cigarette butts was also a nuisance.  All in all though, I sweated, got a somewhat good workout, and enjoyed myself.  Too bad they didn't play the hokey pokey.

Friday, December 17, 2010


When can a person claim that they know and understand a culture?
When can a person say, "Yep I have integrated and now am Chinese"?
As a child growing up as a Chinese American in a white family, I barely studied Chinese culture and history.  I remember as a kid reading Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze River, a gift from my aunt and remember reading The Good Earth in high school.  I remember watching the movie too and being a bit shocked by the black and white film with white actors playing Chinese people.
In high school, I did my term paper on Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.  Then I went to a historically black university and read a lot of African American literature, scouring the library floors trying to understand diversity.  In my search, to understand the other, the other who didn't belong to white America, I was in a round about way searching for me.  Who was I as an other, an Asian other?  During my search, I wrote essays about the Chinese cultural revolution, Chinese stereotypes and international adoption.
One summer I did an undergraduate science internship at the University of California in Santa Barbara.  Their library had a room just for multi-cultural books, all the books for the various ethnic groups separated into sections.  I piled books high beside my bed, a sleeping bag on the floor in an unfurnished house.  I read and read.  The books I read about Asian people tended to be set either during ancient days or during the 1800's to the early 1900's, immigration stories or some of the more contemporary authors like Amy Tan, Ha Jin or Maxine Hong Kingston.
During film festivals or when picking out films, I would focus on Chinese movies like Farewell my Concubine, Joy Luck Club, Raise the Red Lantern, Eat Drink Man Woman, Xiu, Xiu: the Sent Down Girl, Wong Kar-wai films then I'd read the book if there was one.  I learned to fear Chinese movies that would have me sobbing by the end. 
I studied China trying to understand Chinese culture, trying to understand who my ancestors were.   Did all of that reading connect me with my ancestors?  Did all of that reading and watching movies prepare me for a life in China? Did all that reading make me more Chinese?
In the past 33 years, I have lived in Taiwan and China for a total of 10 years, 7 of those as a baby and a beginning teenager.  I've spent 3 years in China as a volunteering working adult teaching at a university.
Have I integrated?
Do I understand Chinese culture?
I have become accustomed to the habits of China.  I barely notice the differences anymore.  Many things just seem normal:
  • women wearing hospital face masks in all colors and prints trying to protect their faces from the cold
  • middle aged women wearing high heel boots, black thick tights and booty shorts
  • avoiding poop and vomit on the sidewalk
  • indirect communication using the middle man
  • at a banquet with 10 people having 10 of them coming to your chair personally to drink with you and then standing up yourself and going to each of the people filling their glass and giving a kind worded cheer to each and every one of them
  • yelling at the waiters to come to your table to fill the teacups or to give you the bill
  • spitting bones and all directly onto the table
  • being a Chinese person who sometimes seems to be a little out of place
  • speaking Chinese
  • people getting married after only knowing the person for a few months
  • people choosing responsibility over their dreams
  • not having schedules because no one knows anything; there is always someone higher up who knows the information which slowly trickles down through many levels making it super hard to schedule anything
I can often predict and rationalize the whys behind behavior.  For example, when a tragedy happens on campus the leaders won't directly confront the issue but instead will just ignore it and hope it will blow over letting the students spread false information, rumors, and gossip about it.  Why?  Loss of face is a terrible thing.  Admitting something that will cause you to look bad is a terrible thing.  Ignore it and hopefully it will pass quickly resulting in harmony without any dire consequences of losing your career.
I don't get shocked with people's ideas or actions but can understand their reasoning.  Many students say that they will never be able to marry their college boyfriends or girlfriends.  Why?  In order to find a job, everyone has to go back to their hometowns, a place where they have connections and where the government will help them find a job.  To marry a person who is not from your hometown runs a HUGE risk of not being able to find a job, thus not being able to support your family, thus being a bad son or daughter. 
The thing is just because I can navigate through the culture, just because things seem normal, just because I can speak Chinese to meet my needs, to make small talk, and to find out information, just because I know the whys behind the no's, the maybe's, the yes's, and if it would be convenient, doesn't mean that I am integrated, doesn't mean that I understand China, doesn't mean that I am Chinese. 
Even though I have learned more about China by living here compared to reading thousands of pages and watching hours of movies, how Chinese am I?
I can act the act and talk the talk and walk the walk, but does that make me Chinese?
In fact, it just shows me how much of an American I am and how much of a great actress I am.  Maybe though being a great actress, maybe acting culturally Chinese without thinking, maybe having Chinese mannerisms, instinctual habits, maybe all of that is a sign that I have integrated and am Chinese.  Maybe if on the surface I am Chinese, have got all the cultural mannerisms down, maybe it means that I have integrated. 
Yet, my way of thinking, reacting to certain situations, answering questions, writing essays, expressing my ideas are all very American.  When asked to interpret the Chinese saying, "Men are like mountains and women are like water,"  I would explain it quite differently than my students.  They say men are strong and support the family.  Women are soft and easily hurt.  I would say men are inflexible and need water to flourish.  Women are flexible yet so powerful and strong that they can wear down mountains and are the sustainers of life.  When asked if the story "The New England Nun" had a happy ending or a sad ending, my students said that it was a sad ending because the woman didn't get married and lived the rest of her life like a nun.  I said it was a happy ending because the woman was independent and choose her own happiness instead of getting married.  My thoughts are very different than my students.  I may be able to walk the walk, and talk the talk but I sure can't think the thoughts.
I am currently reading a book of short interviews with Asian Americans.  The Chinese people in the book who are first and second generation Chinese Americans have a very different viewpoint of themselves than Chinese Americans who have been in America for many generations.  The first and second generation Chinese Americans still hold strongly to Chinese culture and Chinese ideas about marriage, family, education, success, and taking care of the elderly.  The later generations seem to have abandoned Chinese cultural ideas and are trying to figure out how to be accepted in the diversity of America as an American.     
I feel that I am probably 50% integrated into my community.  I can interpret indirect communication.  I know who to talk to in order to get things that I want or need like if I don't want to teach a certain subject, I know the man who is in charge of that.  I can speak survival Chinese and can make friends using Chinese.  If I was a 100% Chinese Gansu woman though, I'd be stressed that I wasn't married and would be asking anyone and everyone to set me up on dates.  I'd be homesick and worried that I was being a bad daughter because I wasn't making money to support my parents nor was I taking care of them.  I'd be wanting to have children.  I'd think women were weaker than men and have to do too much housework.  I'd think and rationalize like Chinese people opting for social harmony rather than independent selfishness.
In summary, I am integrated into my community because I feel like I belong.  I try my best to be polite and not to be culturally inappropriate.  I speak Chinese and am a respected teacher at the university.  I have Chinese mannerisms; however, I do not think like my Chinese students.  Often I hold my tongue, not wanting to voice my opinions that are opposite of my students especially about sensitive topics. (Look at the Chinadaily's hot news articles to see what kinds of comments pop up about sensitive topics.)  I often censor myself because this is a country where viewpoints should align with the government.  For non-sensitive topics I do state my opinion, but I want the students to think for themselves and come up with their own answers according to their culture.  So have I intergrated even though I don't think like a Chinese mind?  Am I Chinese?  How Chinese am I?  Instead of answering the questions, here I shall end my thinking for the day with the ever so popular ending sentences of my students' essays, "In a word, let's just be happy every day and live in harmony.  Come on!"


The weather has turned into freezing temperatures; however, there has been no precipitation.  Why then as I take the 15 minute walk to the downtown gym does it seem like my city is trying to make an ice skating rink out of the sidewalks, street corners, and round abouts?  The cars have to slow down at the intersections as they cross the slippery stuff.  People trying to cross the street dangerously step in front of moving cars as the wheels hit the slick ice.  I am like "What are you doing?  Don't you know that cars have a difficult time stopping while on ice?"  I wait patiently to cross but still feel the annoyance of having to walk carefully across large slabs of ice that have to have been man made.
While in spinning class, as I was off the saddle climbing hills with an intense beat, my right pedal went flying off the bike along with my foot since it was securely fastened with toe straps.  I had to use all my strength to stop the fly wheel with my left quad as well as pull my flying foot back towards me so as not to kick the woman beside me.  Whew, scary.  Maybe gyms with low quality equipment are not the safest places? 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Freezing Temperatures

Just to let you know how cold it is, the flat is chilly even though we have central heating.  I sit in my sleeping bag wearing a hat and fingerless gloves. 
It takes forever to leave the house because I have to start layering up.  The more clothes I put on the slower it takes to put them on as I bulk up unable to bend my arms anymore.  I am wearing two pairs of long underwear under my outer layer and am thinking I need to wear another pair of pants.
When I eat out, it takes forever to sit down because I have to start taking off clothes so I can bend my arms to eat.
I should probably wear fewer clothes so I can start acclimating to freezing temperatures since I am going to Harbin this winter where the temperatures are -20 degrees Celsius below freezing. 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Waiting for Marriage

The theme of the last two stories was about a Chinese woman and an American woman who waited 14-45 years for their fiances.  Due to historical events, in the story "The Woman who Waited 45 Years," the Chinese woman waited for her true love and wasn't able to marry him after finding him because he had heard that she had died and had married another woman.  Set in the late 1800's, in the story "The New England Nun," while waiting for her fiance to return, the American woman became accustomed to her peaceful life of solitude doing the things she loved to do and decided not to marry, afraid that her life would change drastically in an unhappy way if she did get married.  Since she was loyal she would have kept her marriage promise to the man, but learned that he was in love with another woman; therefore, she was able to get out of the promise she had made to marry him.

I asked the students, "If the American woman had been Chinese in the late 1800's would the ending of the story "The New England Nun" have been the same?"

I expected a straightforward answer.  No it would not have been the same.  The Chinese woman would have decided to sacrifice her peaceful happy solitary life to get married.  Instead the students' detailed answers surprised me:

1.  The Chinese woman would choose marriage because if she had refused the younger fiance, she would have been forced to marry anyways probably an old man; therefore, the younger man was the safer choice even if she wanted to live alone.

2.  Since her fiance was in love with another woman, he would have kept his promise to his fiancee who had waited 14 years for him.  In addition he would have married the other woman.  Since Chinese men in the 1800's could have two wives, the three people could leave peacefully together, the two who were in love and the woman who wanted her peaceful life could just live separately from them but still married as the first wife.

3.  The woman who refused marriage would have died.  What?  Died?  If the woman didn't marry the man, society would assume that she was a bad woman because the man didn't marry her.  Society would assume that she had cheated on him or had done something scandalous.  The judgment and criticism of society would have driven her to death.

Learning the students' ideas made me realize how little I really know about China and its history.  I felt like I understood China, but have realized that I only know China in a big broad stereotypical way as a foreigner living in this culture for 2.5 years.  The subtleties? The more I live in this country, the more I realize how little I know about it.  On the surface, I see the China that doesn't want to lose face, but underneath is a huge hidden underworld of unspoken secrets and ideas.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Spinning in Darkness

Tonight at the gym during the spinning session, instead of feeling like I was bored living the ins and outs of my day to day habits, I felt like I was in a movie, working out and taking a class after work.  It was a wakeup call to the monotonous daily rhythm I have gotten into, a rhythm of feeling like I've experienced all that Chinese culture, my Chinese city and university can offer me.  

Spinning felt so surreal like an out of body experience, like I had been transported to a strange combination of the gym and dance club from the TV show Queer as Folk.  The trainer turned out the lights leaving only a green glow in the blackened room with a few atmosphere lights still pulsing.  The room turned into a dance club, strobe lights and upbeat techno music blaring, but instead of dancing, ten of us stood up and biked for an hour with the trainer using a microphone headset to yell at us.  It was super fun.  I was grinning the whole time!  

I think having a gym membership, taking fitness classes, and playing sports are some of the things I live for.  If I can earn enough money and have the free time to do physical activity, I think I will be happy in America.

After lifting weights, I made an incredible discovery.  Looking out the sixth floor window of the women's locker room, I saw that on top of a four story building there was a skating rink with about 10 people braving the freezing temperatures to roller skate.  Wow.  Cool.

Sidenote:  I've never exercised at night.  I am an early morning runner and gym goer.  Last night though after yoga, I was unable to sleep.  I felt like I had just drank a gallon of coffee and felt buzzed, energized, ready to do something instead crashing into bed.  I stayed up till 2 am.  I hope tonight's spinning class has the opposite effect and puts me to sleep.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Free Membership

In graduate school, I went to the gym every morning to lift weights.  Then if I didn't have rugby practice, in the evenings, I would often be at the gym wearing nerdy white shoes playing squash.  Then I joined Peace Corps and it has been five years since I have been able to go to a gym.

In Africa, I tried to use buckets of water, bricks, and other things to create a homemade weight room, but it just never really interested me like going to a gym.  When I first arrived in my Chinese city, I tried to find a gym.  I found one place where all the weights were shoved into a corner with cobwebs.  Then as the city grew, as more fast food chicken restaurants, coffee shops, and pizza joints opened, yoga classes and gyms also started popping up; however, they were expensive, about 1/3rd of my living allowance per month.  I couldn't afford to go to the gym.

Guess what!
Today I got a free membership to a new gym in town.  
It is awesome!  
I am ecstatic!  

There are tons of free weights and machines.  They also have evening classes that I can attend for free:  yoga, spinning, kickboxing, belly dancing, step aerobics, core training, and jazz dance.  I am so excited.  Today I went to the gym twice, once for weight lifting and the second time for a yoga class.  In the weight room, I felt super macho as many of the puny guys were lifting half of what I used to be able to lift back in Seattle.  In the yoga class, I felt huge, a chest of muscle, compared to the tiny narrow wasted, flat, skinny armed women.  I don't care though!  I am SOOOO happy to have received a free gym membership.

Thursday, December 09, 2010


So... I've been busy.

Last week the Science Club recycled paper.  

Then over the weekend I went to Xian to visit some of my Chinese friends who are studying at different universities.  One is a visiting scholar doing research on positive emotions.  She is staying in a super nice private dorm room with a private bath, a flat screen TV, and free Internet.  Another is a post graduate student studying translation.  She also has a nice dorm room with three other roommates.  They sleep on top bunks and under the bunk is their closet, desk, and bookshelf.  Plus they have a private squat toilet too.  It was nice to get to see different universities compared to the one I am teaching at.  

I heard about some Americans studying Chinese at a university in Xian.  They complained that the teacher didn't like it when they tried to answer the questions on their own.  The teacher would say, "Copy it out of the book, exactly the way it is written in the book."  They also were unhappy that a student from Korea held the book in her lap during an exam and received a grade of 98 while the non-cheaters only got a 92.

Then this week Peace Corps made its annual visit to check on the new volunteer.

Then I've been busy with work.  I had to type out 6 final exams and grade 30 essays.  The end of the semester is approaching and there is a lot of preparation and grading to be done.  I have about 360 finals I need to schedule and grade, about 250 written exams and 110 interviews.

Next semester I will be teaching Freshmen Oral English and Sophomore Writing.  Then I guess I will be back in the USA again.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

World AIDS Day

Today in front of the basketball courts, a student organization sponsored the signing of big posters, a poster display about AIDS/HIV and the handing out of red ribbons.  The Tree House held a scavenger hunt quiz.  A VSO volunteer working at a nearby middle school provided the idea and quiz that she too was using at her school.