Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Helen's Wedding

Yesterday my teammates and I attended our first Chinese wedding (reception).  The actual ceremony occurs throughout the day at the homes of the bride and groom, capped off by an evening banquet, which is what we were invited to.  First, pop over to my teammates' blog HERE for some great photos.  We took most of our pictures on a shared camera, and you can find them there.

Now for the re-cap.  This is one of the few occasions on which I plan to treat this blog as an actual journal.  I want a record of the event for myself, so I'll write it just like I write a real journal entry and invite you along.  If you're looking for the short version, just go to my teammates' blog HERE.

The Ceremony (Ceremonies?)

Every Chinese city seems to have its own wedding traditions, which vary a bit from place to place.  The bride and groom go to get their license a few days in advance, so nothing legally binding happens on the actual wedding day.  Helen and Sean got their official marriage documents on May 27 (527) which is pronounced "wu er qi" in Chinese, which sort of sounds like "wo ai qi," which means "I love my wife."  How romantic!  And this gives you an idea of how much Chinese people like the symbolism of numbers, same-sounding words, and choosing special dates.  Our friend who accompanied us to the wedding said she's never heard of a couple picking their wedding based on the day (Monday, Tuesday, etc.); they just pick a lucky day according to the lunar calendar.

In Qufu, they like to start weddings early in the morning, around 3:00 or 4:00.  The bride gets up earlier to have her make-up and hair done, and she is in for a long day.  The groom comes to the bride's home, where she is waiting with her bridesmaid(s) and friends.  Many times they deny the groom entry until he has paid them lots of envelopes of small cash.  When he finally comes in, sometimes there are additional traditions.  (For example, I've heard that some bridesmaids will hide the bride's shoe and the groom has to find it before they can leave.)  I'm guessing there is some ceremony they do with the bride's parents, who are present only for this part of the wedding day.

Then they go together by car to the groom's family's home.  More traditions await them there, such as bowing to the groom's parents and seeing the groom's friends and relatives, who are gathered there.  I'm not so clear on what else happens; maybe a lunch?  In Helen's case, they went to the new apartment (financed largely by Sean's parents, which is the custom around here).  Sean had to carry her up five flights of stairs, and she had lost a few kilos before the wedding because she was worried about his endurance.  He made it.

I'm sure firecrackers are set off at some point.  We hear them all the time around here, even at 3 or 4 in the morning.

The Banquet

We got to the banquet, held at the Qufu International Hotel, around 6:00 pm.  Helen and her new husband stood outside greeting the guests as they came in.  We knew that Chinese wedding gifts are always money given in red envelopes, which we gave the couple as we went in.  Helen looked beautiful and very made-up.  Her dress was a free loaner from the photography company that did all their photos earlier this month.

The wedding planning company had provided a singer, who was doing some very loud crooning as we sat in the near-empty banquet room waiting for the rest of the guests to filter in.  We gazed at arches of fake flowers and a sentimental slideshow of the couple's cutesy wedding photoes.  The singer finished singing and a re-mix of the Super Mario Brothers theme song came on.  Hmm.

Eventually all the tables were filled.  We learned that the leaders of Sean and Helen's workplaces had their own VIP table on the second floor.  

The MC got on the mic and soon he was shouting and everyone was clapping for the groom's entrance.  After he paraded down the gold carpet, people got even more excited for the entrance of the bride.  Sean got a mic and a bouquet and walked to meet Helen while singing a song.  Then the traditional Western wedding march came on, and they walked down the carpet together.  They were both pretty emotional, and they both cried a bit during the next part.

At this point, there was a series of small happenings with the bride and groom on stage:
1)  They each spoke a few words to each other about their relationship and their love for each other.

2)  One leader from each of their workplaces came to give a short speech.  They bowed to their leaders.

3)  The groom's parents came up and Helen said some kind words to them.  They bowed to the groom's parents.  (I find it sad that the bride's parents and relatives don't even come to this banquet.  I've heard sometimes the bride is not supposed to see her family for several days or even a month after the wedding because it's bad luck, but I don't know if that's a Qufu custom.)  They also lit a unity candle with the groom's parents.

4)  The MC led them through a ring exchange.
5)  The couple filled all the wine glasses.
6)  The couple had a toast together.

Then Helen disappeared to change into a traditional red dress.  When she came back, she and Sean made the rounds, toasting each table.  Meanwhile, we were hard-pressed to get even a single bite of one dish before another would arrive.  By the end of the meal, we were stacking the dishes two high and they still kept coming.  Every table had two chickens, two ducks, and at least a dozen other dishes.

Apparently, after your table has been toasted, you are free to go.  So, two hours after the banquet began, people started streaming out (leaving tables stacked with food that had barely been touched).  Some of the guests started going around filling bags with the food to take home.  One lady, who already had put four whole chickens in her plastic bag, came over to our table to grab one more.

The newlyweds stood outside the door to say goodbye to the guests as we left, and that was our evening.  All in all, I enjoyed it more than I might have expected.  The food was good (not too odd, like some banquet food can be), and the event wasn't too long.  I learned a lot and had a totally new China experience.  It was also fun to see my friend as a bride, and I hope she will be very happy.  Hopefully we can hang out soon so I can get her impressions of the day and fill in the gaps about what actually happens in the home ceremonies.  Please be praying for Helen and Sean as they start their new marriage.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Helen's Getting Married!

Helen is getting married tomorrow!  She is a friend who is also a believer and teaches at our other campus.  I'm excited to go to her wedding reception (my first in China, hooray)!

My teammate and I stopped by her new apartment today to see where she'll be living and pick up our invitations and wedding candy.  (We were a little confused why it was so imperative that we have invitations and candy, but a student told us we might need the invitation to get in to the banquet.)  The apartment was filled with friends and relatives, and they had already decorated with the standard inflatable arch outside and lots of decorations inside the house.

Here's a teaser; more to come tomorrow!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

15 Sophomores, a Foreign Teacher, and Some Sandwiches

  • Me failing to check the schedule (thus expecting 8 students at 12:30 only to have 15 show up at 12)
  • Karen making a mayonnaise + jelly sandwich even with me standing there telling her it would be disgusting
  • Having a student ask me if the container of ranch dressing was ice cream
  • Sending the students out to a picnic table (with blankets to drape over the dirty benches) and coming downstairs to find them all set up on the volleyball court.

Friday, May 20, 2011

On Childbirth and Ignorance

Even after almost two years, I am sometimes astounded at the apparent naivete of my students. Here's a recent example. A student wrote in her journal that her sister-in-law was due to give birth to a baby on April 30. She was a bit worried for her sister-in-law, because she had heard (just this year, from one of her Chinese English teachers) that childbirth is difficult and painful, and also because the sister-in-law is over 30. In China, this is considered borderline "too old," and some ladies over 30 will go to special high-risk doctors for their pregnancy.

Anyway, April 30 came and went, and no one called my student to tell her that the baby was born, so she was even more worried. She  suspected something must have gone wrong and no one was telling her.  So she texted her brother in a panic, wondering what was going on.  Her brother assured her that nothing was wrong, and that the baby would probably be born soon. Then my student searched on the Internet and learned (for the first time, apparently), that babies can be born a couple weeks before or after their due dates. They are not always born on the due date. And this is OK.

My question: China is one of the most study-crazy countries in the world. But can an educational system which turns out students so completely clueless about these and many other basic facts of life really be called successful?

Thoughts on Closing Qufu

Sometime in the last year, probably nine or ten months ago, a group of leaders sat in a meeting in Beijing and made the final decision close Qufu.

"Yes, we've been at Qufu for twenty-five years," I imagine them saying, "but what about the new vision?"

Ah, the vision.  

The organization made a definitive decision about two years ago to change momentum and start moving most teaching teams to urban locations.  My town?  Not so urban.  There are probably around 100,000 people but it feels small and it is small for China.  I've heard students call it "backward," which it's not, really, but it's certainly not "urban."

So there the leaders sat (in my imagination), butting their heads up against the vision for perhaps the hundredth time.  And they came to the conclusion that this campus and this city simply cannot fit into the new vision, no matter how much anyone wants them to.  I trust that these leaders know what they are doing, so I don't plan to debate whether they should have closed Qufu, but I wonder... If they were on the ground here, living this life and loving these people... could they have?  

I couldn't.  

This week I've enjoyed some especially warm times with people here.  Yesterday we had a potluck with some of the brothers and sisters from the student group.  We don't know them that well, but our time was filled with stories and laughter, and they were genuinely sad to hear that we are all four leaving in less than two months.  Tonight I had some senior students over for dinner, along with one of their mothers who is visiting from southern China.  I've been friends with these girls for almost two years; I love the long, relaxed conversations we have around the dinner table.  Another senior stopped by to tell me she's going home for good in a few days and she will miss me.  

I'm reminded of what a special place I've been privileged to live in these last two years.

It may have been organizational decisions that rolled down the line to close Qufu, but we are the ones snipping the heartstrings.  We four, with our collective seven years total in Qufu, are the ones with the bittersweet task of packing up twenty-five years of life on this campus.  We are the ones who will box up the English lending library and send it off to another school.  We are the ones who will walk out of our classrooms knowing that the quality of teaching from the foreign teaching staff will take a big hit with our organization's exit.  We are the ones who will pack up apartments that have been painstakingly furnished with years of trips to IKEA, suitcases from home, and packages from America.  We are the ones who will walk away from literally hundreds of students clamoring for our attention, our time, our help with oral English, and (of course) pictures with our foreign faces.  We are the ones who will walk away from promising opportunities to offer hope and real friendship to hurting and empty students.

In spite of my melodramatics, this change isn't a tragedy, and it isn't even necessarily bad -- it's just life.  I believe that God can take care of this campus without us.  We have been blessed to be here, but we are not irreplaceable, and I think there are many wonderful things to come for our students, our department, and our city.  As for me, I am not just walking away from precious people; I am going to another campus where my students, colleagues, and neighbors will be equally precious.  

But it's still sad.  There's no other word for it.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Fun Free Talk: Picnic

I've never gone on a picnic with my students, so I scheduled a picnic free talk yesterday.  It was the PERFECT day to be outside.  An early morning rain had evaporated into a bright and breezy afternoon and the grass fairly glowed in the sunshine.

The students came by after their classes to prepare sandwiches in my apartment, and then we slung a few big blankets over our shoulders and went off to find a nice place in the overgrown lawn behind the all-purpose building.  

We got our share of stares from the crowds of students passing by on the walkways threading through our picnic paradise, and my picnic group enjoyed being the object of such envy and fascination.  I think (but can't be sure) they liked the sandwiches, and they quite handily devoured the bananas and cookies I put out.  I had a great time and am hoping for an equally lovely day when the sophomores' turn rolls around on Saturday.

Making sandwiches.  I kept having to swoop in and avert peanut butter disasters.  They were trying to put it with things like ham, lettuce, and chicken salad.

Jody said she was taking a picture of Conrad so we all got out of the way.  But apparently not out-of-the-way enough, and now it looks like Conrad is repulsive and my legs have no owner.

Later that evening, I got an e-mail from the girl in stripes:
Thank you for your picnic. I enjoyed it a lot.

On the road back to our classroom, Catherine, Lily and I talked about it, and we all liked it very much, but we felt sorry that we didn’t take the chips you prepared for us. We Chinese often feel shy when we receive some presents from others. And I hope this didn’t make you feel sad or angry. I am sorry.
It's funny sometimes the things students worry about that I never even notice.  Should I tell them the chips had been laying around my apartment for a few days and I just threw them in at the last minute because they seemed so picnic-y?  And should I mention I was secretly hoping no one would touch them so I could try out the cheese dip my aunt just sent me?

I just sacrificed a whole bag of Lays to that cheese dip and it was delicious. 

What are China's Hot Topics?

Abortion.  Gun control.  Government over-spending.  Increasing political partisanship.  Gay marriage.  The role of the military.  Unemployment.

These are all hot topics... in America.  And there are many more, because hey -- we're Americans!  We like a bit of controversy, whether we admit it or not, and arguing about politics is part of our national character.

Have you ever wondered what the hot topics are in other countries?  In China, sometimes it's hard to know what topics people disagree about because dissension, discontent, and public discussion of sensitive issues are NOT encouraged here.  However, to my surprise, students are allowed to debate extremely sensitive topics in a big debate competition my teammate recently coached some of our students in in Beijing.

Reading the propositions gives you an idea of some of the big and little issues facing China these days.  You can read the short summary (with pictures) HERE on Mallary's blog.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Fun Free Talk: Date Night

I'm always looking for fun ways for students to practice English and learn about Western culture.  Recently I tried a new idea for free talks: Date Night.  The students signed up in pairs (no boys in the class, so we assigned four of the girls to be boys).  I had the "guys" come to my apartment first so I could give them some instructions on how to treat a lady right.  They also got a few daisies to give to their dates when they picked them up.

Then, armed with their flowers and their knowledge about opening doors and paying for dinner and such, the "guys" set off to pick up their dates, who were patiently waiting in their dorm rooms.  Then, since Qufu is lacking quiet, clean restaurants where couples could while away an evening, they all came back to my place.

Once everyone arrived, I gave them some time to brainstorm a new identity.  These girls know each other really well, but I wanted them to have the first date experience of getting to know someone new.  We ended up with a math professor, an exchange student in Paris, and more.  The daters:

I gave them some time just to talk to their date, and I was amused at how quickly they burned through new topics.  By the end of twenty minutes, many of them had already planned international vacations together, and at least one of the couples had discussed children.  I caught a minute of the dinnertime conversation in the video below.  The best part is the end, where Lily (unprompted by me) decides to get her date's phone number.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

In Praise of Chinese Teachers

On Monday and Wednesday mornings, I study for a couple hours with a Chinese tutor who is a grad student in the Chinese department.  On Sunday afternoons, I have a guitar lesson with a guy who has his own shop close to the dorms.

I've been saving this post in my head for awhile so I can post pictures of my teachers, but since that hasn't happened yet, I'll just charge ahead and see about adding pictures later.  In the meantime, a mental picture:

My Chinese teacher has a slight build, a long black ponytail, and reading glasses.  She looks like she could be 14, but she is actually 24.  She is from the far west of China, almost on the Kazhak border, so she can tell me lots of interesting things about the Uighur minority people, Western China's famously good dried fruit, and the 3-day train ride it takes for her to get home.  Now she is hard at work on her master's thesis.  She used to talk too fast for me, but now I understand her.

My guitar teacher is a Qufu native and has the same family name as Confucius (Kong Zi), making him one of the many Qufu residents in the great philosopher's family line.  Like my Chinese teacher, he also has a slight build and, according to student reports, also used to have a long black ponytail.  (One could argue that he also looks like he could be a 14-year-old girl, because he's so young and small and his hair is so feminine.)  His hair has gotten progressively shorter since I met him a few months ago, but so far it hasn't gotten boy-short.  My students who know him think he is very handsome and cool.  Apparently he was in a band in Beijing for awhile before coming back to start his own guitar shop.  His mother sells sweet potatoes outside his store.  He doesn't speak English.

Over the last two years, I've had about half a dozen Chinese people teach or tutor me.  I've started to notice some things they have in common:  All have been about my age, all have scheduled lessons that are at least an hour and a half long, none seem to work from a detailed lesson plan, and all have mostly stuck to the program or book without introducing anything terribly exciting or earth-shattering.  And:

They they have all been unfailingly, uncritically, and untiringly patient.  Even when I'm watching the clock and feeling antsy, they never seem to be.  Some examples:  There are Chinese words I don't seem to remember no matter how many times I've been told, and my tutor doesn't seem any more frazzled on the 100th repetition than on the second.  When I did studied in Beijing over the winter holiday, that teacher would sit down with us at the table and not get up until the lesson finished four hours later.  Four hours!  (When I was a speech pathologist, I thought even hour-long individual sessions were a bit grueling.)

My guitar teacher once watched me do soundless strumming for like 30 minutes straight, and during that whole time I never even got it right.   He also has the additional joy of repeating or rephrasing half of what he says to me because I don't catch it the first time: 
Mr. Kong:  Something indistinguishable in Chinese.
Me:  "What?"
Mr. Kong (in Chinese):  "I said, class is over now."
Me:  "Oh." 
We probably have this dialogue at least every other week.

Another thing I like about my teachers:  They will tell me how it is.  American teachers can't go five minutes without saying "good job," but have a hard time saying "that's wrong."  Chinese teachers have no such qualms.  They will tell you directly, "Bu dui!" (not right!).  Direct quote from my guitar lesson: "That sounds bad right now."   I like the honest feedback and I like that they cut the fluff.  Then when I do get a "hen hao!" (very good!), it actually means something.

Even though I don't always think their methods are the most efficient, I have liked all my teachers and I owe them a ton of gratitude for being kind, patient, and honest in the week-in, week-out grind of a fairly tedious job.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Fun Free Talk: Dress-Up Dinner

Most of the foreign English teachers at my school offer periodic "free talks" where students can come to our apartments and practice their English.  Last year, I kept them pretty unstructured and ended up with lots of afternoons sitting around in a circle and me answering the same questions over and over: "Do you like Chinese food?"  "Can you use chopsticks?"  "How long will you stay in China?"

This year, tired of the same old free talks, I have offered "Fun Free Talks" instead.  These are activities that the students sign up for that usually have some fun culture activity along with a chance to speak English.

A couple weeks ago, I had a free talk for juniors called "Dress-up Dinner."  The girls were supposed to come in nice clothes, and then I provided cosmetics and hair supplies for them to get all gussied up.  When I first showed them all the stuff, they had no clue what to do with it.  Several of the girls had never worn make-up!  I am no expert (didn't even own mascara until I was 23 years old), but I got them started and they took it from there:

Meanwhile, the other half of the group helped me prepare meatballs, mashed potatoes, and apple pie for our fancy dinner:

Then we turned on some classical music, lit a bunch of candles, and we were ready:

A fun free talk indeed.