Sunday, October 25, 2009

Move over, Yoplait

I would just like you to know that China has very yummy yogurt.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Escape from Slavery

We have recently been discussing slavery in the video class that I teach. The students watched "The Prince of Egypt," an animated film about Moses's life and the Hebrew exodus from slavery. We used this story to learn more about slavery in the American South, particularly abolitionist Harriet Tubman, called the Moses of her people. I loved Harriet Tubman when I was in elementary school. Every time Black History Month rolled around and we were assigned to learn about a black hero, you can bet that I was reading tales of Harriet Tubman and her courageous journeys leading slaves north to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Who doesn't love a good freedom story? Whether it's a handful of African Americans crossing the Mason Dixon line, the whole nation of Israel trekking through the sea on dry land, or a single person set free from sin by the grace of God, deliverance from bondage is a beautiful thing.

According to information from the International Justice Mission (, there are currently 27 million men, women, and children in slavery worldwide. This brings me to my point: I read that November 14-15 has been designated as a "weekend to end slavery." They are asking Americans to get involved by screening a short video about modern-day slavery, holding home gatherings to promote awareness, and raising the issue with our elected officials. I will not be participating here in China, but I thought some of you Stateside friends might be interested.

Here's the link:

Friday, October 23, 2009

Growing up Country

It's just past midnight and I finally finished grading my batch of descriptive papers for writing class tomorrow. I thought you might enjoy reading one of the student's descriptions of the village school she attended as a child. Quite a few of my students are from the countryside and worked very hard in schools like this to earn a chance at college.

"My First Classroom

In my kindergarten year, I entered my first classroom. It was old and ragged. The whole color was black: black blackboard, black roof, black floor, and black wall. The blackboard was dirty and rude... Under the blackboard was the podium. There were holes in it. I think when the teacher was walking on it, she had to be careful about her foot, or it would be dangerous. The roof was also broken. Study in the classroom was very difficult, especially on a rainy day -- students always got wet. We dared not touch the wall. In our minds, if we pushed it, it would collapse. On the wall there were windows without glass. So the students had to wear enough clothes (almost all their clothes) when studying in the winter. Then there were the desks and chairs. The were all disabled, without one or two legs, or with one or two legs that were shorter than the others... That was my first classroom. It collapsed in a heavy rain and there was a new building built on it, beautiful and bright."

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Pretty Pretty

Chinese fashion often follows the "pretty pretty" principle: pretty + pretty = more pretty. This means you can often see florals paired with plaids, busy paired with busy, and cute little accessories added to everything. Here's a prime example, spotted on my campus a few weeks ago.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Canadian Thanksgiving

On Saturday night, my teammates and I celebrated Thanksgiving with all the junior English majors. As you no doubt already know, Canada's Thanksgiving was on Monday, October 12. We want to have events for all of our students to celebrate the holidays, so we thought -- why not kick off the season early? It will keep things less hectic later if we go with Canadian Thanksgiving instead of American. Here's how it all went down:

My teammate Tarah and I both teach junior video class. They normally have their movie showing on Tuesday evenings, and since Saturday was Tuesday this week (and we didn't need to show a movie), it was the perfect opportunity to have an event for them with all of them in the same place. We had instructed them to bring an apple with them to class, but didn't give any other hints. Saturday evening arrived, and they were all anxiously waiting in their seats to see what we had up our sleeves.

My teammate Lisa began introducing the day, saying that we would be learning some facts about an important Western holiday: Thanksgiving. Just then, "Super T" (Tarah) burst through the door. Yes! We had a T-themed super-hero help us learn Thanksgiving trivia. You might think this would not be so popular with the college crowd, and you might be dead wrong. They LOVED it. I think Chinese like exaggerated costumes and slapstick humor.

After presenting some facts on the history and traditions of Thanksgiving, we changed our focus to the things we are thankful for. In small groups, our students brainstormed lists of things they were thankful for. The winning group had 113! Then Tarah led a skit loosely based on the parable of the talents, asking the students to consider the question: "What can we do with all the blessings we've been given?" They caught on quickly to the idea that the talents, resources, and gifts we have in our lives are for serving others, not for hoarding selfishly.

We asked them to think about people in their life who do something for them but not might ordinarily get thanked. They they were instructed to give their apple to that person and thank them. I'm looking forward to hearing some stories about who they gave them to and how it went.

Finally, the students each wrote one thing they were thankful for on a leaf and went back up to their classrooms to create a "Thanksgiving tree" on the back wall. The students had a great time, and hopefully the event helped them cultivate a spirit of gratefulness in addition to learning some stuff about Western holiday customs. Here are some quotes from their response cards:

"From the class, I have got a clearer idea on how to be thankful for people we love, and this class motivates me to take actions into sharing and gradituding for others!"
"Super T tonight is charmful!"
"I'll give my apple to my best friend who helps me a lot during the two years."
"I can give my apple to the lady who clean the building for us every day."
"We should have a thankful heart every day!"


Just a reminder: I can't see or publish any comments made on this blog. Why? Because blogspot (along with facebook, youtube, vimeo, twitter, wordpress, typepad, and tens of thousands of other websites) is blocked in China.

My dad just published a few comments in my stead, but I probably won't have him do that regularly. I haven't seen this blog at all in weeks. I update by sending an e-mail to a blogger address that I had previously set up. All that to say -- I'm not ignoring you! I just can't see or moderate comments anymore, and it doesn't seem like that will be changing anytime soon. E-mail still works, though, so feel free to drop me a line if something on my blog catches your eye.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Saturday is Tuesday

Tomorrow (Saturday) is Tuesday here at Qufu Normal University. Last Saturday was Thursday, and last Sunday was Monday. Next Saturday will be Wednesday.

Confused? Just remember China Rule #3: If you're not confused, you're not paying attention. We are having make-up classes for three weekends in a row due to the extended break we got when they sent all the students home early because of the swine flu.

So while the rest of you are kicking back, eating pancakes in your slippers, and enjoying some college football, I will be teaching freshmen how to talk about their daily schedules. :)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"You could write a book on each one of my thoughts." -Tupac Shakur

I gave my video students a fill-in-the-blank quiz about some background material for our latest movie, Freedom Writers. Two recurring topics in the movie are gang life and the Holocaust, so the students had to do some research on these. Imagine my surprise when I read their quizzes and learned this fun fact:

"In 1995, a rapper named ANNE FRANK was killed in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada."

Yes, thanks to my excellent teaching, there is at least one Chinese student who believes that the Holocaust diary-writer hiding in the attic was, in fact, a Thug 4 Life.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

China Survival Skill #1: Flexibility

Yesterday I taught a morning writing class and got back to my apartment at about 10:00. I was hoping to spend a bit of time cramming for my 10:30 Chinese lesson, but... Surprise! The school is installing new cupboards and counters in all of the foreign teachers' apartments. We also received a surprise installation of new furniture this past weekend, so I finally have a table and chairs. Hooray!

I went to work in the kitchen, emptying my cupboards of pots, pans, and dishes. I finished just in time, as the kitchen helpers arrived to remove my old cupboards. I had my Chinese lesson in the other room as the pounding and sawing continued in the kitchen.

After a 2-hour lesson, I was ready for a quick lunch (just PB&J, since my kitchen was in disarray). Then I sat down at my computer to do some much-needed lesson planning when... Surprise! A gaggle of freshmen showed up at my door. We had previously had a free talk on a Monday afternoon, so they must have assumed we would have Monday afternoon free talks until the end of time. I didn't want to turn them away, so we had an impromptu 2-hour free talk in my office, since my living room was filled with kitchen stuff and my kitchen filled with workers.

The freshmen left at 5, and the counters were finished soon after. I checked my phone: 2 messages. One was a girl asking me to come up with a theme for a composition contest, and another was a friend who wanted to meet for a meal tomorrow. Just then, a freshmen called me. It was her birthday, and could I please join her for dinner now?

Fortunately, it's completely acceptable in China to say, "Oh, I'm sorry. I have something else." For me, "something else" meant grabbing some cheap street food and coming back to my apartment to put the kitchen back in order. My hectic day ended with a quiet evening of lesson planning, and, thankfully, no more surprises.

Here is what I have decided: In America, flexibility is a nice quality, but not essential. Here, you must be flexible or China will eat you alive.

(Photos are of the NEW kitchen counters on the left side of the kitchen, and the NEW table and desk I received this weekend.)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Rest in Peace, Confucius

Chinese word of the day: 孔子 kong zi. Kong zi a name; he is the person we call Confucius.

This weekend one of my fellow teacher friends was visiting me, so we went to the San Kong (the three Confucius sites in Qufu). The temple and mansion were okay, but my favorite site was the graveyard. Confucius and several thousand of his descendants are buried in this ancient forest. It is still used as a cemetery - we even saw a couple fresh burial mounds. The Confucius graveyard is the least-manicured natural place I have visited in China. You can actually walk among the trees, feeling the leaves crunch beneath your feet as you wander past ancient, leaning tombstones. We happened upon a section with stone animals guarding graves, the grass growing up around them. We walked for a half hour at a time without seeing another person.

It was a peaceful, reflective atmosphere -- a wonderful place to spend a warm October day.

Travel Tales

This is the final entry on my trip home with my student during last week's holiday. Let me tell you a bit about getting to and from her city.

TO: I had a hard-seat ticket on the night train to Jiaozhou. There are four classes in Chinese trains: Soft sleeper (compartments of 4 beds), hard sleeper (compartments of 6 beds, stacked 3 high), soft seat (individual chair that can recline a bit), and hard seat (bench for 3 people). Getting tickets of any sort is difficult over the holidays, so I was happy to have a seat at all. If you can't get a seat, you can choose to stand in the crowded aisles of the hard seat car.

My 6 hour ride went smoothly, although I wouldn't have wanted it to be any longer. The seats are at straight 90 degree angles, so your head falls over and jolts you awake the second you nod off. I had prayed for someone to help me navigate my train ride, since the conductors speak too quickly for me to know when to get off the train. God provided by seating me next to a guy who was also going to Jiaozhou. He told me when to get off and helped me with my bag, and I was able to practice some Chinese with him. See above for a picture of a hard-seat car at 3 a.m. -- people sprawled everywhere, children sleeping on laps, and everyone just trying to find a position comfortable enough to doze in.

FROM: My student's father and uncle offered to get me a train ticket home. The night before I left, they announced that they had secured a ticket (no easy task over the holidays). So the next morning, we arrived at the train station and were hustled back to some guy's office in the back of the station. We sat on his couches for awhile shooting the breeze, with me wondering all the while who he was and why we were in his office. I thought maybe he was a friend or relative who had somehow helped get the ticket for me. Then it was time for my train to come, so my student's family and I all left the office and were ushered past the line to the platform to wait for the train. On the way out, I saw the answer: My student's uncle left a couple bottles of Chardonnay in the corner of the man's office.

My ticket was to Weifang, a city still several hours away from my home. I was told that I could "make up my ticket" (add money) once I got on the train so that I could stay on until my destination. So my student's uncle walked me onto the train and told me to sit in the dining car until a conductor came to make up my ticket. I sat down and was expecting the uncle to return and tell me what to do when the train started moving! Apparently he wasn't coming back. So there I was in the dining car, with no assigned seat, limited Chinese, and a ticket that only went half-way home.

I will spare you the details, but the next few hours involved me thinking I gave my ticket away to a thief (who turned out to be the man who helped me add money to the ticket), being told there was no room in the train so I could remain in the dining car, getting off at the wrong stop, getting chased down by a conductor and being told that I got off at the wrong stop, and finally arriving at my destination.

It was a confusing trip home, but in the end it turned out to be much more comfortable than the trip there. And now I have a story to tell. :)

Friday, October 9, 2009

Wedding Photos

When I was home with my student, I noticed an alarming phenomenon: All the most scenic spots were overrun with an unusual new creature. The members of this white, puffy species seemed intent on monopolizing the most picturesque locales of whatever park or promenade the found themselves in. I refer, of course, to brides.

On my first afternoon in Jiaozhou, we saw no fewer than 6 or 7 brides in the park. They were getting their wedding pictures taken, with grooms, friends, and photographer in tow. The next day, we saw more wedding photo sessions by the seaside in Qingdao.

Apparently, in China, the wedding photo session is similar to what couples do for engagement pictures in the states. They go out for an afternoon (not on the wedding day), find some beautiful scenery, and have a fun time taking creative pictures with different outfits and poses. All the brides we saw were in traditional Western-style bridal gowns, except one who was in a puffy red dress. The dresses are supplied by the photographer, and many of the brides I saw had on sneakers and pants under the borrowed dress.

When's the last time you ran into half a dozen brides romping through the park? It truly is a sight to behold.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

On Chinese Hospitality and Being an Honored Guest

It is a strange and humbling experience to be treated as an honored guest without having done anything to earn that honor. My student and her family bent over backwards to welcome me. At times, I found the attention overwhelming, overbearing, and a little irritating. For example, when we went to the seaside at Qingdao, all day long I was given things and expected to enjoy them: "Here, catch these sand crabs! Here, take this birdseed and join the children feeding the pigeons! Here, take some more! Here, we bought you this ice cream treat! Now it's lunchtime -- eat more food! Isn't Qingdao beautiful? Isn't it more beautiful than Qufu? Here, take these aquarium tickets and go enjoy yourself! Here, eat this mooncake! We're home now, and you must be hungry. Fortunately, you can have... More crab!" It seems funny now, but that day I was tired of having so many things forced on me without being asked what I wanted to do, what I wanted to eat, and where I wanted to go.

For the most part, though, I really appreciated their warm hospitality. Americans could learn a thing or two about hospitality from Eastern cultures. For us, having a guest is either a pleasant diversion or a minor inconvenience. For a Chinese person, having a guest is an honor, and they treat their guests as such. My student and her family took care of me and honored me in many ways: they arranged my travel to and from Qingdao, they heaped my bed with blankets and my plate with food, they asked me about my family and my culture, they practiced my name before I arrived so they could say it correctly, their faces lit up with I arrived, and they invited me to come back any time. How many American families welcome strangers like this, especially over the holidays?


There was a lot of food. Non-stop food! Favorite dish: A pork dish with sweet tomato sauce. Least favorite dish: Crab. It tasted really good, but I got so many, and they were so much work to eat, and I never quite cleaned them out to my family's satisfaction in spite of doing my best to slurp up all the guts and crack open every joint to get the little morsel of meat inside.

Mid-Autumn Festival

October 3 was Mid-Autumn Festival, a time to gather with family, look at the moon, and eat mooncakes. My student's father told me that even though I am far from home, I can look at the full moon on Mid-Autumn Day and know that my loved ones in America are looking at the same moon. (At least they would be, if it wasn't broad daylight back in Central Daylight Time!)

For the noon meal, we went to Grandpa's apartment and enjoyed a spread of food made by my student's mother: a centerpiece carp, clams, shrimp, crab, chicken, bean sprouts, and several other dishes. Grandpa didn't speak English and was very hard-of-hearing, but he was really happy to have me there and kept smiling and nodding his head at me.

My student wanted to go to KTV (karaoke), so we went and sang loud, off-key pop songs for a few hours with her friends. KTV is a hugely popular activity in Asia, and it's nice because you get your own room for just you and your friends -- no more public embarrassment! The English song selection was a little slim unless you like Backstreet Boys, Madonna, Britney Spears, or Celine Dion.

Then it was time to walk over to Grandma and Grandpa's apartment for another huge feast. Several of Angela's aunts, uncles, and cousins were there, which made for a warm, fun atmosphere. I was still STUFFED from lunch, but this did not prevent me from being served mountains of food. Being the guest, I was given the first and best from the table: the biggest crab, the juiciest worms, the roundest haws, the freshest shrimp, and the crispiest bugs. I managed to avoid the chicken feet, but everything else was fair game. One of the uncles proposed a toast every few minutes while we were eating, which was fun for the uncles because they were drinking the famous Qingdao beer, and fun for me because I actually knew what to say in Chinese -- "Gan bei!" ("Cheers!"). We toasted the holiday, the grandparents, my parents (why not?), and just about everything else.

Then the adults relaxed around the table while I went to play cards with my student and two cousins. At about 8:30, Angela's father announced they had found me a train ticket home for the next morning, so we had to go back so I could rest. Grandma gave me a huge bag of haws, pomegranates, and apples to eat in case I got hungry on the train, and off we went.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Chinese Home and Family: The Inside Scoop

My student is the only child of a fairly well-to-do family. Her parents are both accountants, with her mom working in the hospital and her father doing something related to education. They apparently had known each other through work, but their marriage was arranged by relatives. Her mom and dad were so good to me! They said that I could consider them my Chinese family, and they took great care of me when I was there. Her mom cooked great home-style meals and her father treated me to several different kinds of tea (and when I mentioned liking one of them, sent me home with a bag of my own).

My student, Angela, has several cousins nearby that she refers to as "brothers" and "sisters." However, she still acts like an only child and gets her way if she cajoles her parents enough. Independence and maturity seem to come a little bit later for some students in China, perhaps a byproduct of spending all of middle school and high school in study. Once when we were waiting for a half-hour at the train station, Angela quite contentedly amused herself with a stuffed animal the whole time, although she is 18. All that to say, I never felt like I was with a peer, and her childlike-ness was sometimes charming and sometimes irritating. Angela's English is fantastic for a freshman, and she did a great job helping me and translating for me. We had a good time together.

I'm not sure what the family's daily life is like when it's not the holiday, but here's my guess based on my few days there: Mom and Dad go to work and come home in the evening. Mom cooks up some supper. They eat in front of the TV, with Dad putting away a few beers. Then they clean up and go to bed. If Angela is around, she goes off to chat with her friends online.

I've included a few pictures of their apartment, which was very nice. (Side-note: People here usually live in apartments, not houses.) I even had a room to myself! The bathroom isn't pictured, but here are its three most important features: 1) A Western toilet. Hooray! I don't mind squatty potties, but I'd rather have Western. 2) Showerhead. No walls or curtains, though, so the whole bathroom gets wet and you just mop the floor when you're done. 3) Inspirational English sayings written in dry-erase marker on the walls by Angela: "I believe in myself," "The surest way to fail is not to try," and that sort of thing. She is one motivated English student.

Pride and Patriotism: National Day in a Chinese Home

I arrived at my student's house at 6:00 a.m. on October 1, the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. We spent much of the day watching TV: the military parade with its incredible precision and uniformity, the citizen's parade with its colorful floats and homages to the PRC's great leaders, and the vibrant evening celebration in Tiananmen Square.

Here are some quotes from my student while watching the festivities: "I'm so happy from the bottom of my heart!" "Today, I am so proud to be Chinese." "I'm so happy from the bottom of my heart!" (She said this one a lot.) Her parents, in quieter ways, also expressed similar pride and loyalty to their country. Patriotism runs deep here. My own feelings toward the celebration were a bit more mixed, but I couldn't help but admire China for pulling off an event of such magnitude.

In the afternoon, my student and her younger cousin took me to a few parks in Jiaozhou. It was a warm, sunny day and there were several bridal couples getting pictures taken in the park. We stopped to watch several brides getting carried around in little red huts on the shoulders of the guys. The guys would rock the hut and the brides would try not to fall out. I was laughing and enjoying the spectacle when a local news crew singled me out to say a few words on camera. Yes! Let's get the foreigner on TV! The cameraman instructed me to say tha ti hope China gets stronger and stronger and its people get happier and happier. (Not so much an interview as a repetition exercise.) I said, "Happy birthday, China!" and wished China all the best in the future. My student translated for me.

Later that evening, at a family dinner, we were eating shrimp and crab and watching the truly impressive celebration in Beijing. Angela's father was drinking the famous Qingdao beer, and we were toasting China and wishing each other happy National Day. At just the right time, we switched to the local news, and.... there we were, for a few awesome seconds! It was so fun to see ourselves on TV. Angela's dad was toasting everyone, she was standing up with her hand over hear heart, and everyone was laughing. It was a great way to end my first day in Jiaozhou.

A Visit Home

Chinese word of the day: 去 qu. Qu means "to go." This week, I qu le (went) home with Angela, one of my freshmen students. She lives in Jiaozhou, a small city just outside of Qingdao, which is a pretty city on the coast of my province. I spent 3 days with her and her parents, and I have much to share with you! In order not to bore the casual reader, I have divided my post into shorter segments:

1. National Day
2. Home and Family
3. Mid-Autumn Festival
4. Food
5. Honored Guest
6. Fun Stuff
7. Travel

You can read them all, or just read the ones that interest you. Enjoy!

(photo: Me and Angela in Qingdao)

Monday, October 5, 2009


I received an e-mail from a friend responding to my 60th anniversary post. He wrote that my positive words were a bit different than the angle he saw on the news, which tended to portray the government here as an "aggressive, power-hungry regime." This got me thinking about where I get my perspective on China. There are two sides to every coin, and every government has accomplishments for which it can rightly be proud, and injustices for which it ought to be ashamed. It can be difficult to find sources that give both sides of the China coin. Here are a few I have enjoyed:

ZGBriefs. This is a weekly e-mail that summarizes news about China from a variety of published sources. It takes about 10 minutes to read -- enough to help you have a reasonably intelligent conversation on current events in ZhongGuo (that is, China). Subscribe at

China Road by Rob Gifford. China Road is a road-trip book, written as the author travels Route 312 from Shanghai to Kazakhstan meeting truckers, students, Amway salesmen, family-planning enforcers, AIDS victims, and many others along the way. The idea of thanking Chinese for their cheap goods comes from a line in the book: "...James Kynge illustrates this point by standing outside a Wal-Mart in Rockford, Illinois and asking the shoppers of Middle America whether they feel like thanking the Chinese for all the cheap goods they can buy, and for the low interest rates they pay on their mortgages" (p. 287). Now I've just made the book seem dry, but it's not! It's great! I've read it twice, and can't recommend it highly enough. Buy it at, or borrow from your local library.

And finally, head over to for a series of excellent pictures from this week's 60th anniversary festivities:

Stay tuned for a series of posts on my holiday visit to my student's home.