Wednesday, February 28, 2018

"Which Girl In Class Is Most Beautiful?"

After showing you around the Liangfeng campus on Monday, I began teaching my classes at Zhangjiagang Senior High School.

I'm now five classes in, and what a great experience so far!

The picture at the top is of my very first class. Well, three-quarters of it -- the classes are big, with about 50 kids in each, and the two rows of desks at the far right just didn't fit into the picture.

Of course, starting both a new job and a new career at the same time, I had a few opening day jitters. It's only natural, right?

But once class started, and I settled in a bit, it felt really good.

This first week is an "easy" week. Because I'm a brand-new teacher, they asked me to do a class introducing myself. Since so much of my past work involved interviewing people -- whether for radio shows, videos, or at R&R -- I decided to make that the focus of my introduction. After I showed them a couple videos of me talking to stars (including the Chipmunks, which they all got a kick out of), I turned the tables, handed them the microphone, and asked them to interview me.

A little bit of my past followed me to China!
It was fascinating to see what the classes would ask me. There are some of the basics that, through the first five classes, have been repeated over and over again:

"Do you like Chinese food?"
"Do you like China?"
"Are you single?"

There have been a few questions about my favorite things, a few questions about my hometown and family, and most of the classes have asked why I chose to come teach in China. A couple of the classes have asked me about American politics, which has been interesting. I noticed several students solemnly nodding their heads when I said our current president has made America a more dangerous place, especially for foreigners and immigrants. (Even though they're young and in a faraway land, they're aware of what's going on, and America's reputation is taking a beating.) When I saw that, I reinforced that Americans -- or any other nationality, for that matter -- should not be judged by their leaders. They seemed relieved when I told them that.

And then, there was the question that's become the title of this post:

"Which girl in class is most beautiful?"

I wasn't expecting that one. Though maybe I should have. Some of my colleagues at Liangfeng have talked about a few of the girls in their classes who are particularly vain.

Still, it threw me for a loop. It's one of those situations where you feel damned if you do, damned if you don't.

So I said, "It's not fair to ask me that question, because I don't know you yet. And beauty isn't just on the outside, it's also what's up here (pointing at my head) and in here (pointing at my heart) that make you beautiful."

As I said that, I noticed one girl in particular, off to my left, who broke into a wonderful smile.

Hopefully, I was able to turn a tricky question into a teachable moment, one that -- with any luck -- made some of the girls in class feel better about themselves.

Like the girl with the smile.

And, in that moment, I got my first real taste of how rewarding teaching can be.

Monday, February 26, 2018

A Look Around My Campus*

Ni hao from Zhangjiagang!

It's Monday afternoon here, which means I've been in China for almost exactly a week.

So far, so good! It's not like there haven't been any problems. I bought a bike last Thursday, only to get my first flat on Friday. I put the wrong key on my keychain and found myself locked out of my own room last night, having to pull a tricky little Spider-Man-like maneuver to get back in. One of my Chinese Jade bracelets slipped as I was taking it off, and it shattered on the hard floor. (Where am I going to find another Chinese Jade bracelet???)

Aside from minor issues like those, it's been great. A week away from my old life in America really does have me feeling revitalized. I'm finally starting to catch up on some of the sleep I'd been losing, and with a lot of bike riding built in to this new lifestyle, it seems like I'm feeling better every day.

Right now, I've got a little down time before I teach my first class, so I figured I'd show you where I live.

Liangfeng "Senior Middle School" has been around, as you can see, for a long, long time. It's regarded as the best school in town, and one of the best in the entire Jiangsu province. The campus is beautiful, filled with plenty of artwork and open areas. The building at the top of today's blog is where the International Program is housed. The administration and most of the classrooms are up on the fourth floor. I haven't been up to the fifth floor yet, but that's where the program has its Drama Club and Music Club. As things progress here, I can see myself getting involved with at least one, if not both, of those.

It all looks very empty in these photos, but that's not how it looks now. The students started to arrive back on campus over the weekend. A trickle on Saturday, a flood on Sunday. Coming back from dinner last night, we could see some of the kids playing flashlight games in their residences. It'll be fun to see what campus is like when it's at full speed, teeming with young energy.

 These are a couple of the kids' residence halls. I was told that about a third of the school's overall students live on campus, while many of the locals live at home and commute (like "normal" high school kids in America). It looks like the school does a good job of catering to the boarders. In addition to a huge dining hall serving lunch and dinner, there's even a convenience store on campus.

As with any American high school, athletics has a pretty big footprint on campus. The athletic building is huge! As you can see, the track/soccer field has a nice permanent stadium area.

And this building is what I now call home. It's three stories, but there are only residences on the second and third floors. There are twelve units, and I believe they're all home to people from the International Program, including all of the teachers and at least one administrator. It's hard to get a handle on it all, because until Saturday, there were only three of us in the whole place -- me, Bill, and Roni.

Over the weekend, though, everyone started to trickle in. Eric arrived from his holiday break back home in Cincinnati. Sophie got back from many adventures in and around Southeast Asia. I finally got to meet Ken, who was my liaison through the hiring process, after he came back from the Phillipines yesterday. And I briefly saw Elly as she was arriving back on campus. Frank is one of the administrators, and he lives next door to me. I have to siphon off his Wi-Fi for now, because the previous tenant of my room left without giving us the password. (That's OK, it's not like I'm going to look at anything yellow and get Frank into trouble!)

Now that you've seen the Liangfeng campus, I should probably explain the asterisk in the title.

I'm writing this from my office at Zhangjiagang High School. As it turns out, once all the scheduling was figured out, there wasn't an available class for me at Liangfeng this semester. So I'm teaching at a high school across town.

It's a different kind of a program, and instead of working with the same kids, day in and day out, I'll be seeing each group of kids just once a week. My fellow teachers say it's actually a pretty sweet gig, because I get to do one lesson plan a week instead of lesson plans for every single class. And, with each lesson plan I do, I get to hone and refine it over the course of each week, so I'll get a good sense of what works and what doesn't.

Although I was originally disappointed that I wouldn't be teaching on the Liangfeng campus, the more my fellow teachers told me about what I'd be doing here, the better it sounded. For a teaching newbie such as myself, I get to take baby steps into the world of education. I'll be hanging out in the shallow end for a bit, getting my sea legs under me before I venture out into the deep end next term.

It's one hour until my first class. Wish me luck!

Thursday, February 22, 2018

A Cold Reception From Zhangjiagang

No, I'm not talking about the people I've met, because they've been great.

It's the weather. The last time I experienced this kind of cold was probably in London over New Year's 2011. Highs in the low 40s. Lows in the 30s. Some rain, some drizzle. And I haven't seen the sun since I arrived. Still, it's all good. I'm finally here in China!

Let's backtrack a bit, shall we? After all, it's been a while since I've written. My attempted January departure date didn't work out. Even after scrambling to get all of the paperwork done on my side -- including a heroic effort by my father in Chicago to get my TEFL documents authenticated (thanks, Dad!) -- things stalled a bit on the China side. It became obvious we weren't going to get the work permit (and work visa) done before my flight date, so I pushed it back one more time, to February 18.

Fortunately, the third time was the charm, but not without a dramatic race to the finish. My school received the work permit from the Bureau of Education the night of Monday 2/12 (L.A. time), so I stayed up very late to work with my HR liaison, Sylvia, on preparing the visa application properly. Just a few hours after that, I was on my way to the Chinese consulate, because I knew I'd need to get it submitted ASAP. When I told them I needed rush service, I was very pleasantly surprised to find out they'd have it ready for me the next day, Wednesday 2/14.

When I went to pick up my visa, I discovered the reason why it was processed overnight: The consulate would be closed for the Chinese Lunar New Year on Thursday and Friday.

So I literally just beat the clock. Had the work permit been issued a day later, everything could have fallen through. Again.

Fortunately, that wasn't the case. And after a few days of frantically trying to pack up the house and getting it into storage -- a task which did not go as well as hoped (and was fraught with plenty of its own drama) -- as well as packing my bags, I was finally on a plane to China.

When we arrived in Shanghai, I must have looked like I was auditioning for a role on "The Walking Dead." Sleep had been hard to come by as my departure date approached. Good sleep had been even more of a rarity. And I wasn't able to rest much on the plane, because we hit quite a bit of turbulence on the way. So, as I passed through immigration and customs, I think I was running purely on adrenaline. (I don't ever want to see the picture the immigration officer took upon my entry.)

It's a good thing the school had sent a car and a fellow teacher, Bill, to pick me up at the airport. Between my utter exhaustion, the rain, and a heavy load of baggage, making my own way to Zhangjiagang would have been a nightmare.

Fortunately, the rain stopped, and traffic was mercifully light, so we made it to Zhangjiagang with no problems. Bill helped me get my luggage up to my temporary room (I have to wait for a departing teacher to vacate before I move in to my own, probably on Saturday), and we had some dinner.

Given my lack of sleep, coupled with the relief of finally getting here, I figured my first sleep in China would be a good one. Why did I think that? Of course it wouldn't be!

The New Year holiday celebrations continued on Tuesday with an event known as "dumpling and fireworks day." The Chinese eat dumplings and, yes, shoot off fireworks. All. Day. Long. I think it must have started sometime around 4am, and it just didn't stop. So I didn't sleep.

Of course, being "dumpling and fireworks day," we had to find dumplings, so Bill introduced me to one of the local malls -- very bright, very modern-looking, but (because of the holiday) not too busy. Over the New Year holiday, the Chinese traditionally travel back to their hometowns to be with their family. Since Zhangjiagang was a tiny little town that's been built up over the past 30 years, it isn't the hometown to all that many people. So, over the holiday, the majority of the people here are back home.

I went on a walking tour of the city with another teacher, Roni, and this is the "Walking Street" pedestrian mall in downtown Zhangjiagang. It's pretty much a ghost town right now, but as people trickle back into town over the next few days, it'll start bustling again.


Exploring downtown Zhangjiagang was great -- and highly amusing. There are plenty of businesses with oddly translated English names. I'm not sure how the beer's been naughty, Steven Tyler could probably explain the "Gentleman lady," and either Emmett Brown or The Doctor has set up shop here. "Cat & Coffee," interestingly, is just that... a coffee shop where cats roam freely, and you can pet them or play with them as you drink and socialize.

There's a lot of water in Zhangjiagang. There are a few large lakes and lagoons in the recreational areas, and several canals running through the town.

Roni and I also passed a temple along the way, and we were drawn in by the sound of people chanting in the parking lot. We weren't sure what kind of service they were having, or why it was in the parking lot instead of the temple itself, but it was interesting nonetheless.

Since we were already there, might as well get a look around the place, right?

And, of course, I have to include the obligatory "Chinese food in China" shot. This was today's lunch: A Shanxi-style pork "burger" and a spicy noodle dish. Both were very tasty... and filling enough that I never got hungry enough for dinner!

Tomorrow, I'm off to buy a bicycle, so I have some transportation around town. For now, I'll just go with a regular bike, though "e-bikes" (a.k.a. scooters) tend to dominate the bike lanes here. But I have my issues with those things. So we'll see if I ever make that transition...

Classes start on Monday, but I haven't been told my schedule (or what I'll be teaching) yet. I'm told I should find out on Friday. With precious little prep time, this really will be an adventure! Hopefully I will have made a dent in my sleep deficit by then, because I have a feeling I'll need my brain functioning at its peak level.

Wish me and my brain luck!