Saturday, June 6, 2020

Long Time, No See! (Part 1)

Ni hao!

So, apparently it's been almost exactly two years since I've posted. Sorry about that. Many things have been happening, for the most part, all good.

I finished my first contract as a teacher here and, when it came time to renew, I told my boss that if they were willing to commit to a longer-term contract, so was I. Fact is, I love this place. I love what I'm doing. Love working with these students, even if some of them can cause the occasional headache. Love the people I'm working with.

Once I committed to a longer-term contract, I committed to something else: making this my home.

After my first term in Zhangjiagang, I had already figured out that, even if I returned to America, I didn't want to return to the home I owned there. Didn't like the politics of the homeowner's association. Didn't like the proximity to the freeway, with its noise and pollution. So, during my first summer break back in America, I set about putting my house on the market. It sold almost immediately to a couple who saw it on the realtor preview day, and within $10,000 of the initial asking price. (Many kudos and thanks to my old friend and realtor Maty Novia, whose drive and vision were exceptional and invaluable in getting the house sold.)

Fast-forward half a year -- with my new contract signed, I started to entertain the idea of renting or buying a place off-campus, someplace that would give me more room than the school-provided housing. If I was going to stick around for a while, I wanted to live comfortably! After checking out more than a dozen places that met my price, space, and proximity to work requirements, I came across one that was perfect. (Maybe I'll talk about the process in another post. It really was a fascinating experience.)

So, two years later, I am now a full-fledged resident of Zhangjiagang and enjoying life here immensely.

I wish all of my friends were as happy for me as I am for myself, but that's a different story ... the story I want to address in Part 2.

Stay tuned.


Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Handshakes & Hugs: My Last Week At ZJGSHS


 It all went by so quickly. But time flies when you're having fun.

And it was a lot of fun.

But June's arrival meant that final exams were on their way for the students at Zhangjiagang Senior High School. It also meant the end of Oral English classes... and a week of emotional goodbyes.

I only saw the 10th graders in class once a week; the 11th graders, every other week. With 1200 different students passing through my classroom, I couldn't even begin to know all their names. Still, knowing it would be our last class together was really difficult.

This has been a life-changing experience, and these students have been a huge part of it. Every time I've looked at a student in class and I've seen that look in their eyes -- the one that says I'm reaching them. Every wave in the hallway, every little giggle, every "Hello teacher!" They all contributed to me feeling right at home there.


As the week went along, some of the students left little gifts. One gave me a beautiful little handmade turtle!

I wanted to leave them with something, too. Throughout the term, I've tried to work little life lessons into the classes, so I had a sheet containing several of my philosophies -- "Mr. Ax's Guide to Life" -- printed up for each of them.

I spent the first five minutes of each class telling them how much they'd meant to me and thanking them for helping turn this leap of faith into such an incredible life decision, and my plan to keep the dialogue between us going by setting up "English Corner" here in Zhangjiagang. It happens in other cities -- events where students get to mingle and talk with native English speakers to practice their conversational skills -- but it apparently hasn't been done in Zhangjiagang yet, and I want to change that.

(Yes, I was so touched by the gift that the turtle attended all of my final-week classes!)

I did have one final lesson for them, about music and how it can be used to practice their language skills. It had a fun starting point -- I asked them questions about the English alphabet (for example, "Which letter comes before R?") -- and I waited as they struggled to come up with the answers. Then I asked them to sing the "A-B-C" song, which they could do instantly. Amazing how all of the answers were there all along, locked in their musical memory, right? It was a great jumping-off point.

The grand finale was a lot of fun, too: They learned to sing The Beatles' "Can't Buy Me Love." It was a trip to hear all of these Chinese teenagers singing a Beatles tune. I loved it.

After having them pose for class pictures -- that's my final class above -- I gave them an encore.

During the very first class, the "ask me anything" class, every group asked me if I would sing. So I brought my ukulele to class, and the very last thing I did with them was play and sing "I'm Yours" by Jason Mraz. Some of the students knew it, and I heard them singing along.

I'm sure it didn't sound too great -- honestly, with all the emotion I was feeling, it was hard to keep my voice from cracking -- but it was heartfelt. Everybody either loved it or was very kind, because all of the classes applauded.

Class was over... I thanked them again, then sent them off with a "see you soon" rather than a "goodbye," because I hope it won't be the end. Between English Corner and WeChat, I hope the conversation will continue, because this group is very special to me. After all, they were my first students!

On their way out of the classroom, some of the students handed me little gifts, snacks, and notes. One class gave handshakes on the way out. Most of the Class 9 students wanted a hug. It was an awesome, emotional end to our classroom experience.

It felt a little strange leaving the classroom, knowing the term was over. I erased the heart, club, diamond, and spade from the chalkboard (that's how I would randomly choose students to speak in class, using a deck of playing cards).

I replaced them with a simple message.


Will any students look into the classroom and see the message this week as they pass by? I don't know. But I hope they do.

That last look at the classroom was a melancholy one. Every other time it had been empty, it would soon fill up again. But not this time...

I headed back to my office, got changed, and headed to the gym to play volleyball with the other teachers. But there was still one unexpected student interaction waiting for me.

Near the gym, there were four boys throwing shoes up into a tree. I asked what they were doing, and they showed me another shoe that had gotten stuck up on a branch. (No, I didn't ask how, haha!) They weren't having any luck knocking it down with their shoes, so I told them to get a basketball. One of them got a ball and threw it up into the tree -- no luck.

The rebound came to me. I flung the ball into the tree... and when it came down, so did the shoe.

One last act of kindness for the students... a fitting end to my time with them. (At least for this term.)

I don't know whether I'll have the opportunity to teach at ZJGSHS again. I'm assuming they'll want me at Liangfeng in the fall. But I have pitched out the idea of an elective Advanced English Writing class for a limited number of students at ZJGSHS. If they're interested, and my bosses give me the go-ahead, I might be back there (in a limited capacity) this fall. I hope it happens. They made my first term something special, and I would love to continue the relationship with the school and these awesome students.








 




Friday, April 20, 2018

Two Months In China: Random Reflections

It's the evening of April 19th here in Zhangjiagang, which means it's been exactly two months since I arrived here. And it's certainly been an eventful couple of months. (Obviously... you've been reading about a lot of it.)

Starting a new career in a new country is like mental yoga, stretching your brain in ways you didn't even know it could be stretched. And, though it might take a little getting used to, you quickly discover how good it is for you.


In many ways, life here is exactly like it is back in the United States. You work, you eat, you sleep, you find interesting things to do in your spare time.

Need stuff? There are plenty of grocery stores, and you can find convenience stores on virtually every block. There are shopping malls and retail streets. Hungry? There are plenty of restaurants... though the vast majority are Chinese food. Oh, and bakeries. There are bakeries galore here.

But it's the differences, of course, that make it fascinating.

If you don't like music, you won't like it here. Expect to hear plenty of it. Schools play music on their loudspeakers in between periods. In the early evening, there's music everywhere, as women set up "dance corners" in virtually every open public area. (There's an intersection a block from my apartment where three of the four corners are dance corners.) Even the street sweepers play music as they make their rounds around town.

Everybody goes outside. The city's sidewalks come alive at night, filled with people. Maybe they're walking to a restaurant. Maybe they're walking the dog. Maybe they're out for a stroll with the family. Maybe they're on their way to a park or a dance corner. But there are people walking everywhere -- many more walkers than drivers, which is a good thing.

I don't miss having a car. The drivers are unpredictable and crazy here. Even though it's a small town, and you'd think that everyone would know their way around, you still find people who suddenly remember (or discover) they need to turn left -- while they're in the right lane. That doesn't stop them, of course. I've seen plenty of them make that left turn from the right lane. They'll just stop in the right lane (in traffic) if they need to look up directions, pick someone up, or drop someone off... often with no warning. And way too many drivers make turns without surveying their surroundings. So, as a bicyclist or pedestrian, you need to be vigilantly observant at every intersection.

Speaking of bikes, since I put the computer on mine, I've racked up 394 miles. Not bad for two months. Of course, that did include one accident, but again, live and learn. But it's seriously the best way to get around town, and I feel like I'm seeing so much more of the city on a bike than I would in a car, or by taking the same bus line day in and day out.

So many of the people here are fantastic. It doesn't take much to get a wonderful smile from them. As a foreigner, I can usually do it with a simple "ni hao!" Being acknowledged by a foreigner is apparently a joyful thing here.







On a related note, I find that, living in a slower-paced town, it's easier to be kind to all sorts of creatures, human and otherwise. It took a while, but little by little, I gained the trust of the little stray dog who hangs out on the Zhangjiagang Senior High School campus. Now, not only does she let me pet her... if she sees me from a distance, she'll run to me! That, apparently, is not a common thing among dogs here in China. And a couple of the campus cats will now let me pet them, as well.


The clothes here are an endless source of entertainment. You're much more likely to see clothes with English words on them than Chinese words. The entertaining part, of course, is that so many of the words are misspelled, and/or the phrases are either grammatically horrible or completely nonsensical. And people here will wear music-oriented T-shirts without having a clue who the artists are -- that's about the only way I can explain the woman in the teachers' dining room today wearing a Ted Nugent T-shirt. I'm guessing she's never heard a song of his, and she certainly isn't aware of his atrocious politics. She probably just liked the way it looked.





Springtime is very beautiful here... very colorful. After my first month here was a brutally cold final month of winter, it's been great to see this color emerge.

On a personal level...

I was warned before I left to take some Western medicine with me -- specifically, Benadryl and Immodium. "It'll take a while for your system to adjust," I heard. In two months, I've needed neither. And the Chinese medicine I took for my aching throat last week, an herbal remedy, did a pretty good job.

The language factor can be difficult, but not insurmountable. Sometimes it almost becomes a game of charades. But usually, we get it figured out. Of course, it helps to have a smartphone, and to be able to show someone a word in a translating dictionary, if need be. Still, I want to learn the language. I need to make time for that.

I'm finding I'm not the least bit homesick. For now, at least, this is home. I miss people back in the States, but I often get to chat with them. (How awesome to be doing this in a time when the Internet, WeChat, and Facebook exist.) As far as Los Angeles and the U.S.A., I really can't say I miss them at this point. Even though I'm in a small apartment, I really don't miss my house, either. Maybe once I've been gone longer... but maybe not. Only time will tell. But even with the major language adjustment and the minor cultural adjustments, Zhangjiagang is already starting to feel like home.

Sure, life in a foreign country has its challenges, but life anywhere has its challenges. And having made it through the first two months, I feel like those challenges are becoming less and less difficult.

After two months, I'm happy to report that life is good here, and I certainly feel like I made a great life choice by coming here.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Just Another Suzhou Sunday (That's A Fun Day)

In the Chinese geographical hierarchy, Zhangjiagang is a county-level city belonging to its prefecture-level city, Suzhou. So, technically, I've been in Suzhou this whole time.

On Sunday, though, I made my first trip down to the city of Suzhou since I moved here. It's a gorgeous city, commonly called "the Venice of China" because of its vast network of canals

I had a brief experience -- a day excursion -- in Suzhou while on the cruise vacation last year, and it whetted my appetite for more. So when I was presented with the opportunity to join a group, Album Of Suzhou, that does cultural walks around the city, I couldn't pass it up!


"Walk Through Renmin Road" was the theme of the walk, the road itself being one of the city's most historic, offering plenty of sights and cultural landmarks.

First up was the Confucian Temple, a complex that's about a thousand years old.




The bottom photo is taken inside the temple's Dacheng Hall. As it was explained to us, the building is supported with 50 great pillars made from a type of wood that, at the time, was only made available to royalty. That's how highly regarded Confucius was here in Suzhou.

The painting of Confucius, as you can see, is enormous -- the largest in existence. As it towers above you, it's a magnificent sight.

To the left and right are the musical instruments of the day, and there are a few assorted artifacts on display, but the temple's largest collection, by far, is of stone tablets. They've got hundreds, if not thousands of them, on display throughout the entire complex. Many are right there in Dancheng Hall.

But the four most famous ones get a building all to themselves.

 
 
 
From top to bottom, they're known as Tianwen Tu, Dili Tu, Pingjiang Tu, and Diwangshaoyun Tu, representing ground, city, sky, and people.

These stones are seen as having great cultural significance to China; they were among the first batch of relics to be designated as National Key Cultural Relics in 1961. They're very large, and they're very impressive.






Since Confucius was a big fan of meditation, the temple is still seen by some as a sacred place to practice meditation, and we happened upon a few of those people in one of the courtyard areas.

Then, we were off to the library.




Hidden away behind the very modern facade of the Suzhou Library is a wonderfully scenic garden area, and we got a chance to take in the garden's tranquility, both visually and aurally. (It's part of a library, right? Of course it's going to be quiet!)

Then, after we made a quick stop at a small museum specializing in Chinese calligraphy, we took a short subway ride to our final destination: the Suzhou North Temple Pagoda.








After getting a look inside the pagoda, we made our way around the grounds, ending up at its Plum Garden.



 
 
 

All in all, it was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, with beautiful scenery and a group of very nice people.

Here I am, with the organizer of the walk, Patrick:


This time, I was fortunate enough to get a ride down to Suzhou with Patrick's friend, Eric. But, in researching the walk, I've also discovered that Suzhou is also a relatively short intercity bus ride away.

Now that I know about Album Of Suzhou's walks and know some really nice people down in Suzhou, I can foresee taking more trips down there in the not-too-distant future.  😀





Sunday, April 15, 2018

A Day Of Getting To Know Zhangjiagang




It was a long week, as I struggled mightily to get through the school week with only half a voice (more about that in another post). But it led up to an adventurous weekend, which is only half over!

On Saturday, the city of Zhangjiagang launched a new initiative to show itself to the world -- through the eyes of those who have come here from other parts of the world. With high-speed rail soon coming to Zhangjiagang, it appears the local government wants to start marketing itself as a viable tourist destination. And, of course, they're always looking for investment from foreign companies looking to build businesses here.

So, yesterday was the first of a six-part series -- two a year for the next three years -- of events designed to entertain and inform Zhangjiagang's expats. They want to show us its history, its beauty, its hospitality, and its activities. They're off to a good start.

The opening speeches were clearly written without regard to the weather forecast -- there were many mentions of the beautiful springtime and the warm breezes on a cool and occasionally drizzly day -- but the sentiment was there. The city's Vice Mayor welcomed us. A businessman who had migrated from Brazil to run an automotive plant here in Zhangjiagang talked about his experience, as did one of my fellow expat teachers.

All around, the message was clear, that Zhangjiagang is a clean, safe, friendly, welcoming city. (And in my first eight weeks here, I would certainly echo that sentiment.)


After the opening ceremony, our first stop was a cultural one -- the Zhangjiagang Museum.


Because we were on a tight schedule, we didn't get to see the entire museum, so we focused on a few main areas, showing the history of Zhangjiagang, the local ruins, and the Yangtze River's part in China's history.

Through photographs, we saw the transformation of Zhangjiagang from local farming village to modern city. And through exhibits like these, we got a glimpse into what everyday life was like for those earlier residents:








Then we took a look at some of the antiquities unearthed in the local Dongshan ruins:


After exploring the museum, it was time for lunch. To expose us to as many local delicacies as possible, they took us to the buffet at the Shazhou Hotel.


 
After we were welcomed -- they're big on welcoming you to places here! -- they invited us up to the front of the room for a lesson on how to prepare and fold dumplings. Our amateur offerings were cooked and served later. Even if they weren't quite as beautiful as the professionally folded dumplings, they were still delicious.


Then, we feasted!

There was roast duck, carved and prepared before our eyes. And there were three tables' worth of entrees available to us. Pretty much every kind of local food imaginable was represented -- rice, noodles, beef, pork, chicken, fish, squid, vegetable. Though I had to draw the line at trying the turtle dish they offered. (Turtles are my favorite animals. I could never eat one.)


 

At the teachers' table, there were a lot of happy, stuffed faces. And a few less ducks in the world. 😋


After lunch, we were off to Xiangshan Park, a beautiful area about seven miles west of the downtown area. If you look on the Zhangjiagang area on Google Maps, you'll probably see the park shown as Fragrant Mountain Scenic Area; it got its name because of the aromatic tea plants that grow there. (As a bonus, those tea plants were also said to have health-restoring powers.)


The centerpiece of the park is its tall temple, which towers over the land from its perch atop the highest point in Zhangjiagang. We'd be going up there soon, but first... a little Tai Chi!
We watched this group practice for a few minutes, then were invited to join in. I'd done some every morning on the cruise last summer, so I enjoyed getting the chance to do it again, if only for a few minutes. Though it was certainly more difficult to do it in jeans and a bulky hoodie. (Did I mention it was cool and drizzly?)

After getting a tour of the park's museum, with exhibits explained by some of the young students who'd been recruited as ambassadors for the program, we headed up to the temple.
 

After getting to see the temple, we headed down to the lake area for a little bit of fun and games. Well, actually, it turned out to be a competition -- a mini-Olympics of Zhangjiagang -- though they weren't exactly Olympic sports. There was caterpillar racing (teams of four, bouncing along on huge inflatable caterpillars), carrying ping pong balls with chopsticks, and trying to write (in Chinese) with a large pen worked by groups of eight.

Everyone had a good time, since there were a lot of laughs to be had as we tried each of the tasks, and prizes were awarded at the end.

To my surprise, I was named one of the third-place finishers, and I won a beautiful little tea set!

It was a great way to spend a Saturday, and I can't wait for the next one this autumn!

Now, time to get ready... I'm off to Suzhou for a walking tour this afternoon!