Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Week Where I Could Have Killed Myself

It's finally springtime at ZSHS... beautiful blossoms!
Greetings From Zhangjiagang.

Yes, it's been a quiet week and a half on the blog. Physically, I've just been exhausted. That lingering illness certainly didn't help -- even after nearly three weeks, I don't think my throat is back to 100%.

But before things could get better, they took a sharp turn for the worse.

Tired after a long Thursday of teaching, I wanted nothing more than to pick up some dinner and get home. The pedestrians along Shazhou Road were particularly infuriating that evening, making bicyclists weave around them like some kind of demented video game. It was dark already, which didn't help matters.

After passing Huayangbang Road, the crowd thinned out a little bit, and I was able to pick up a little speed. But there were still plenty of people around, so I had to keep my right thumb on my bike's bell, ready to signal at any time.

That's when the sidewalk literally fell out from beneath me.

It wasn't my usual route home, and it was my first time at night. I completely forgot about the alley approach where the sidewalk dips down about a foot at approximately a 40-degree angle.

I was going just fast enough that my front wheel left the ground. And with my right hand in bell-ringing mode, it didn't have a firm enough grip on the handlebars. So, when my tire hit the ground, the jolt took the handlebars out of my hand.

The bike and I went flying out of control.

Next thing I knew, I was sprawled out on the sidewalk.

I was hurt, but how badly? I flashed back to my 1995 motorbike accident, when I felt alright... until I tried putting weight on my badly broken leg.

Tentatively, I started moving my limbs to see if they were fully functional. So far, so good. There was a little bit of blood on the inside of my right knee, and it was sore. I'd come down on my left side; my left hip, knee, and elbow were all in a lot of pain.

I gingerly picked myself up off the ground. Thankfully, there were no surprises. I could stand. I was stable. Nothing appeared to be broken.

Well, that's not entirely true. My second jade bracelet broke. My bead bracelet from the yoga resort in Costa Rica (a wonderful reminder of a wonderful trip) broke. My iPod's earbuds broke. And the plastic exterior of my tea infuser was cracked.

But I appeared to be OK.

I picked up the bike, got back on, and tried to ride away, but the chain had slipped off the gears. I fixed that, but the pedal mechanism was damaged. I managed to get home, but it would have to be repaired. (When I took it in, it turned out the pedal crank had been bent and needed to be replaced -- total cost to have the shop replace the crank and pedal: 95 RMB... about $15!)

Nine days later, my left hip still carries a deep black-and-blue bruise. There's still a quarter-sized scab near my left elbow where some skin had been torn away. And there's still enough soreness that I've been going through plenty of my ibuprofen supply. But otherwise, I'm fine.

And I know it could have been much worse.

So, having to fight through pain just to make it through each day, I haven't had the stamina to do a lot of blogging. And I've had so much to talk about...

For that week's lesson, as you can see, I decided to focus on storytelling.

"How many of you are storytellers?"

A lot of students shook their heads. Some said "no." Not a single person said "yes."

"Well, then each and every one of you is wrong!"

Most of the students at my school live on campus during the week, then spend weekends with their parents. (That appears to be the norm in this part of China.) So, when their parents pick them up from school, what's the normal first topic of conversation? "How was your week? Tell me about it." (Parents are so predictable.)

Of course, they would tell their parents about their week. And that makes them all storytellers, whether they realized it or not.

We talked about different kinds of storytelling -- written, spoken, and visual -- with examples of each. They really reacted when I showed them a screen shot from a video game. "Whaaaa!"

I explained to them the different kinds of stories -- fiction, nonfiction, different genres -- and the different ways of telling stories.

I gave them an example of storytelling that will become very important to them in the next couple of years -- the university application essay -- and told them why it's so vital that they become good storytellers.

And then I had a simple question for them:
There is no homework in my class, but that didn't stop me from issuing them an invitation;

If any of them felt like writing a story for me -- a story about themselves, a made-up story, whatever -- during the school term, I would happily read it, then give them advice and suggestions about how they could be better storytellers.

If every single kid takes me up on that, I realize I'll have more than a thousand stories to read and evaluate. And I'd be OK with that. But, in reality, I know I'll be lucky to get 20 or 30. Those will be the students, I believe, who are destined for very good things in life.

That, of course, is why I'm here. And, thankfully, still alive. 😊

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Teaching Week 3: Cool Places

Newbie... E-Newb... yep, some things are said backward in China!

I got a little behind on my blogging this past week, because I managed to get myself sick for the first time here. Don't know if I had a fever or not, because I don't have a thermometer here, but I had a pretty bad sore throat. Sick days at many Chinese schools are not to be taken lightly, so I soldiered on.

I wanted to find a way to get all of the kids in class to speak. Unfortunately, that's not an easy task when you've got 50 kids to a class. But I was determined!

Everyone dreams of going to certain places in the world, right? So I decided to make that the hook to get everyone involved.

Since I'm trying to toss in some life lessons along the way, I also introduced them to a cool person -- my friend Jan. (Those of you who know about the All Time Top Ten podcast might recall the ELO episode we did a few months ago.) She's got one of the coolest jobs of all the people I know, working at JPL in Pasadena, so she taped a little video greeting for my students. (When she said, "Bye!" it was fun to see how many of my kids said "bye" back!)

I told them about the mission she'd worked on, the Cassini mission to Saturn, and how important it was that every single calculation was correct before it was sent to the spacecraft, since it takes the signal nearly an hour and a half to reach it. Once you realize something's gone wrong, you're looking at 83-minute-old data and another 83 minutes until a correction will reach it... and who knows what bad things can happen in almost three hours? I might have exaggerated a little bit by making the spaceship explode in my PowerPoint (maybe not?), but it was definitely a cool visual that got the kids' attention as I talked about the importance of good planning and preparation.

Then, it was on to cool places! To inspire them, I put together a slide show of cool places I'd been, set to -- what else? -- "Cool Places" by Sparks f/Jane Wiedlin.

It was interesting to see which pictures drew the biggest reactions. The White House was a big one. A photo of the Golden Gate Bridge, taken from San Francisco Bay, got the boys' attention, since they knew the "view" from the Golden State Warriors' logo. They "ooooh"-ed the Hollywood sign and the Washington Monument, and there were a few gasps when they saw the live bear I encountered at Grand Teton National Park.

Then, after explaining that they could talk about a place they had either been to or would like to visit -- and talking about the tense and types of words they would use to describe each -- I went around the room to get their responses.

They were pretty fascinating. Going to high school in Deerfield, Illinois, I was always amazed that I had classmates who had never been to Chicago. Similarly, there were a number of kids in my classes who were looking forward to going to Shanghai, even though it's less than two hours away from here.

A lot of the responses were places in China, but some dreamed bigger. France was a popular destination (and "romantic" was the word most often used to describe it -- these Chinese are lovers!). Australia was mentioned a lot because of its beautiful scenery and animals. Japan was a big one -- students here are really into Japanese animation, Japanese food, and want to visit Mt. Fuji. Various places in the USA got mentions, like Hollywood, Washington D.C., and a couple of students who chose Chicago because it's where I'm from. And other European countries (England, Italy, Switzerland) got some mentions, too.

And there were even a few who said they'd like to go to other planets, which I thought was an awesome answer. 

(Of course, there were also the kids who said they were most interested in going home, because they were tired and needed to sleep.)

Overall, I was pleased with the answers I was getting. A lot of them were quite thoughtful, though some of the shy kids stuck to very basic responses.

The biggest problem I'm facing, though, is the class size. In a class of 50, it's difficult to keep them all engaged simultaneously. As much as I implore them to respect their classmates and be good listeners when others are speaking, there are always going to be kids who will talk to their neighbors in class. (I should know -- in some of my classes, I was one of those kids. Sorry, Mr. Elliot... I get it now, haha!)

So this week's lesson will include the "Shhhh" scene from "Austin Powers," along with an explanation that "shhhh" has become my least favorite word, so don't make me use it!

Outside the classroom... as today marks my 30th day here in China, my contract school has made an appointment for me to go apply for my Resident ID card. I've been waiting for this. I can't get a Chinese bank account without my ID number. Without the bank account, I can't get a Chinese mobile phone, and I can't use any of the pay apps (WeChat Pay or AliPay), so all of my transactions have been in cash, since none of my USA credit cards is accepted at stores here. (USA card acceptance is generally confined to tourist-heavy areas, and Zhangjiagang is definitely not one of those.)

Apparently, I can't even get mail or packages from the USA until I have my Resident ID number, so I've been looking forward to getting this done. Hopefully it won't take long to get it, after this afternoon's appointment.

Anyway, I'm heading to the bureau now. Wish me luck!

Saturday, March 17, 2018

An Open Note To Cheryl (And Any Other Woman Thinking About China)

I just saw a comment on an earlier post from a new reader named Cheryl. (First of all, thanks for finding the blog and reading!) I thought about responding directly to the comment, but since it was an old post, the information probably wouldn't have been seen by most, and it's worthwhile information.

Cheryl mentioned that she'd been a little apprehensive about coming to China as a woman on her own. To put it simply, Cheryl, you have nothing to worry about.

When she was showing me around town, my colleague Roni mentioned that, as a woman, she feels much, much safer walking the streets of Zhangjiagang than she does in America. She said that, if you feel like going jogging at night, you can do it without fear. She even took it to the extreme, saying you could walk down any alley here late at night without feeling threatened.

Crime is virtually nonexistent here. People are respectful of others and their property. As a foreigner, you may get some odd looks (we're definitely a novelty here, and the natives do enjoy looking at us, particularly when we look confused in stores or restaurants!), but you are also "protected." China is very concerned about its image in the international travel community, since there is so much tourism now, and crimes against foreigners are prosecuted much more harshly as a deterrent. So take that virtually nonexistent crime and break it down into a small fraction... that's your chance of becoming a crime victim in China. That's pretty amazing.

Unlike the United States, the Chinese government also takes the security of its schoolchildren very, very seriously. Every school here in town is gated, with limited, guard-protected access. So, as a teacher, you will also feel secure. (Especially if you're living on a school campus, as I am.)

If you're worried about feeling alone as a foreigner in China, you shouldn't be too concerned. Just like any other workplace, there are co-workers who will become friends. At the school where I'm living, I'm housed with a great group of English-speaking teachers. And at the school where I'm teaching, I've been playing volleyball with other faculty three or four times a week, and I've been made to feel very welcome.

Also, thanks to WeChat, most expats get connected through groups.

Even in Zhangjiagang, which is a smaller Chinese city, there are more than 150 expats, and most (if not all) of us are in a WeChat group. People ask each other for advice, plan get-togethers, and as I will soon be posting, meet up atrestaurants and bars around town that embrace and cater to the expat community. So there's no need to be concerned about social activities -- you will not be forced into a hermit's life!

Thanks for the comment, Cheryl... and maybe I'll see you here in China someday soon. 😊

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Teaching Week #2: "'Cause You're Too Shy, Shy..."

My second week of teaching was a lot different than my first week of teaching.

How could it not be?

The first week, I was told to do a class that introduced myself to the students. This week, I had some actual teaching to do.

Since I don't have any kind of syllabus to work with, I've got the ability to choose my own topics and the way I'd like to present them. And one of the things I'm intent on doing is teaching not just English, but also life lessons. Because my class is so different than their others -- the novelty of a foreign teacher, no exams, no homework -- I figure I have a pretty good chance of reaching them in ways their other teachers can't.

So, I called upon Lucky The Lobster for a little help.

"Lucky The Lobster" was a story I wrote for a reading comprehension exercise while I was getting certified as a foreign teacher at the International TEFL Academy. We didn't have to write our own stories, but this one popped into my head, so I did. It was surprisingly moving to me -- when I got to a pivotal part of the story, I even began sobbing.

It's the story of a scrawny little lobster who, confined to his little glass house, does not see the big picture. He sees friendly-looking creatures choosing his bigger lobster friends, "adopting" them into what Lucky thinks will surely be exciting new lives. Even though he's always surrounded by new lobsters, he's lonely and insecure, wondering why he's never good enough to be chosen.

Of course, he's living in a restaurant's lobster tank. At the end of the story, when the restaurant owner has grown too old to run the restaurant and is closing it down, he explains to Lucky that being smaller than the other lobsters made him special. After a while, when his customers didn't choose Lucky, he grew attached to him. He decided he could never let anybody eat Lucky.

At the end of the story, Lucky is in a new glass house -- an aquarium -- where he has all kinds of friends and a lot of visitors who come to say hello to "the lobster that lived." He finally realizes that he is, indeed, Lucky because he's alive and he's loved.

I think the story really speaks to the teenage experience. With all of the pressure and hard work that comes with being a high school student -- especially here in China, where the expectations on these kids are immense -- it's difficult for them to see the big picture. It's very easy for them to feel insecure and not very special.

It's certainly a feeling I understood, since my scrawny high school self was always one of the last two or three picked whenever we did sports in gym class, and when so many of my classmates were dating, it seemed like none of the girls was very interested in me.

And with social media now the norm, people of all ages are being bombarded with all of the happy, perfect images of the lives their friends and connections choose to present online. When everybody else's life seems 100% sunny, but you've got clouds and rain in your sky, it's easy to feel like your life doesn't measure up.

Of course, you're only seeing a small part of the picture, and the grass always seems greener on the other side of the fence. If you saw the whole picture, you'd understand that everybody else has clouds and rain in their lives, too.

Since it's an Oral English class, the idea is to get these kids speaking, so they all got copies of the story, and we read passages out loud in class. Of course, I was hoping for volunteers -- one of the class rules is "we are not shy" -- but everyone was too shy. So, for most of my classes, I had to bring out my deck of Fox playing cards (thanks, Liz Lopez... you have no idea how useful your gift has become!!!) and choose our readers that way.

The reactions are so interesting when the kids are randomly chosen. Every once in a while, you get one who looks happy to have been chosen -- somebody who probably wanted to read but was too embarrassed to raise a hand when nobody else was. But most of the time, they have the "why me?" look. And sometimes, the other students nervously chuckle, glad they weren't the one picked.

Some of the readers were great. (One of my Friday students read a passage with such panache, I'm convinced he's going to get into acting.) Others were very timid. Some were so quiet that I could barely hear them from five feet away. But that's what the class is about: getting that speaking experience so that they gain confidence over time.

And then there was my Thursday afternoon class. They were amazing! Once the "volunteering ice" had been broken by one student 🙋, there were volunteers for every single passage. (Even though they don't know the meaning of "peer pressure" -- it's a term I brought up in discussion about the hardships of being a teen, and they hadn't heard it -- I'm convinced it's very strong here.) The volunteers all read loudly and confidently, and they really looked like they were enjoying themselves.

I'm sure most teachers with multiple classes have one that is their most special, and Thursday afternoon's class is mine. Last week, when they had the opportunity to ask me anything, they asked one of the "standard" questions -- whether I liked Chinese food -- but followed up by asking if I liked a particular kind of snack. When I said I wasn't familiar with it, this is what happened:

Three different students brought me a gift, so that I could try this snack I'd never heard of.

Of course, they wanted me to try one right then and there. The chili pepper on the front had me a little nervous about what I'd gotten myself into, but I had nothing to worry about. These things are actually pretty great! They've got the flavor of a hot 'n' spicy BBQ flavor potato chip, but with a chewy texture.

But I've digressed. Anyway...

After reading "Lucky The Lobster," we had a few comprehension questions, and then we talked.

I let them know that, no matter what it might feel like right now, they are all special. I let them know that this is the time in their lives when they're most likely to discover their true talents, and that they should embrace them, nurture them, and grow them, because those talents are what make them special... and when they show these gifts to the world, they will be loved for that.

There were a lot of smiling, nodding heads in the class when I related Lucky's life to theirs, and especially when I implored them to find and feed those things that make them special and unique.

I've had quite a few students who have reached out to me on WeChat, too, and they were all very thankful for the positive message and encouragement. It's clear that this isn't the kind of thing they're used to hearing in school, and they were all so appreciative.

And getting to observe and read those reactions, like last week's smiling girl, was another example of how fulfilling this profession and this experience can be.

One final note (literally): 

Another teacher shared this with me... his students write diary entries for class, and one of his students apparently wrote one about me. After lunch, I will often exit to the east side of the cafeteria, where the campus cats hang out and, as I mentioned last week, there's one cat that lets me pet it. According to the teacher, the student spotted me as I was doing this and said I look young like a college student.

As a 51-year-old grandfather, I will gladly take that compliment. 😊

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

East Meets West, Vol. 1: Pizza Hut

When I'm traveling abroad, I have a strict "No US Brands" policy when it comes to eating in restaurants. But I'm no longer a tourist -- I'm living here now! So I've decided to occasionally try the Chinese versions of our American brands, compare and contrast the Eastern and Western versions, and share them with you.

With that in mind, I had my first Chinese Pizza Hut experience last night, at the restaurant in Zhangjiagang Shopping Park.

When I walked in, I expected to see the "to go" counter I've found at most U.S. Pizza Huts, but there was none. This Pizza Hut is strictly sit-down, and the decor is certainly a cut above most of the American ones I've seen. (The old location at Sepulveda and National was downright grungy!)

It's very clean and modern-looking. Inexplicably, though, it still had all kinds of Valentine's Day decorations scattered about. We did just have "Women's Day" here in China, so maybe that's some kind of cultural equivalent?

The menus -- and there were three of them: Regular, Afternoon Tea, and Specialty Combos -- all had a TGIFridays feel to them, with a lot of color and a lot of pictures.

At U.S. Pizza Huts, the drink selection is pretty limited. You've got the standard assortment of soft drinks, along with iced tea (sometimes flavored) and bottled water. Here, the beverage section of the menu was two pages. They had a huge assortment of cold drinks, hot drinks, hot and iced teas, and even alcohol (including the inevitable Tsingtao beer and an interesting looking blue margarita in a martini glass).

This is what I ordered:
It's a fruit tea loaded up with real fruit. There was a lot of watermelon, some orange slices, apple slices, several small limes, cherry tomatoes (!), and a lot of crunchy seeds (pomegranate?) to add some texture. It was a great blend of flavors... very, very tasty. And they give you a fork with it, so you can enjoy the fresh fruit cocktail that's left when the tea's all gone.

As for the food... well, obviously, they've got pizza. Most of the pizza varieties, though, appeared to be preset -- none of the "build-your-own" pizzas, where you choose the ingredients. (Granted, maybe I'm just not skilled enough at reading the Chinese menus. They do have a few English words here and there as dish titles, but almost everything is in Chinese.) And they don't have the "lovers line" of pizzas (meat lovers, cheese lovers, pepperoni lovers, etc.) we've got in the states, either. But there are some unusual options, like a "New Orleans" pizza.

They've got a much more extensive line of pastas than their American counterparts, and many more appetizer options -- two pages' worth.

Of course, I had to go for the pizza, since that's the obvious jumping-off point for a Pizza Hut comparison. 😃

Since they didn't have my go-to, sausage and pepperoni (I'm such a Chicagoan!), I decided to go all-out and get the most "East Meets West"-style pizza they had: Peking Duck Pizza.

The Chinese crust bore little resemblance to Pizza Hut's American crust, which has that kind of buttery-sweet taste to it. The Chinese dough was, for lack of a better word, neutral -- your standard pizza dough, without any kind of modifiers. Not bad, but not anything special. The rest of the pizza, though, was fantastic.

Obviously, there is the duck. (Hence the name, duh.) There were pieces of cucumber, green onions, and some peppers, including that very, very hot red pepper. Had I known it was so hot, I probably wouldn't have taken such a big bite of it! And, instead of a tomato-based sauce, it was served with a thick hoisin-style sauce.

This was my first time having duck on a pizza, so it tasted a little unusual initially, but it was very good, and I liked the sauce a lot.

Even without an appetizer, I found I could only eat half of the pizza, so I took home the rest in a box that reminds me of the ill-fated "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" movie, which took place in, of course, Pepperland. Ahhh, sweet Pepperland...

The total bill for the pizza and drink was 120rmb, approximately $18. So it's a bit on the expensive side, especially for China, where you can get a lot of great full-size dishes at restaurants for 15-20rmb. There's something about American brands, though, that commands a premium over here. (I walked through a department store yesterday and tried on a pair of Levi's that -- on sale -- were going for 999rmb, about $150! On Amazon, you can get the same pair for no more than $70.)

Overall, I was satisfied with the experience. The restaurant itself was much nicer, the drinks beat the American assortment by a mile, and the pizza quality was comparable -- what the crust lacked in personality, the toppings easily made up for.

However, I've been told this is about the best of a pretty lackluster bunch of pizza joints around town, so I'm really, really going to miss my Lou Malnati's pizzas.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Zhangjiagang At Night, Vol. 1

Since I joined the teachers' volleyball group, I've been riding home after dark. The other night, I stopped a few times along the way to take some pictures...

Friday, March 2, 2018

Fast Times At Zhangjiagang High

It's hard to believe my first week at Zhangjiagang Senior HS is almost over. Just one class to go. It's gone so quickly!

Since I showed you the Liangfeng campus, I should probably give you the tour of where I'm actually teaching.

It's a very beautiful campus, with all kinds of cool landscaping. This is the area between the main classroom building and the cafeteria. It's fun to watch the kids dash over that bridge when lunch period starts. None of them wants to get caught up in a long lunch line!

There are resident animals on campus! There's a fenced-in bunny patch, ducks that hang out by the pond, a scruffy little dog that always camps out near the cafeteria, looking for scraps, and a bunch of small cats. They're all pretty shy... the one you see here is the only one who's been daring enough to let me pet her.

This is the dining hall... and yes, it's so strange to get to eat in the teachers' dining room! When I was in school, it was that secret, off-limits room where the teachers probably talked about us students behind our backs. That might be happening here, too. But if they are, I can't understand it. Every other teacher is speaking Chinese.

I have been able to eat with a few teachers who speak some English, which has been nice. I became WeChat friends with one of them, and through that, I was invited to become part of the regular teachers' volleyball game. A large group of them get together every afternoon in the gym to play for a few hours. It's more friendly than competitive, and it's a lot of fun. Of course, it's also a great way to meet people here, too. The players have their own WeChat group (and WeChat translates English to Chinese and vice versa), so along with the games, we get some fun conversations going.

It was interesting, too, because for a while, we actually had an audience of students watching us! Maybe because Chinese teachers are seen as being fairly strict, the students enjoy seeing them let loose and be "real people" for a bit.

Like Liangfeng, this is a residential campus, with a number of students living here full-time. Some even live in the Hilton! (Have to admit, I laughed out loud when I saw that. But maybe the hotel company made a donation to the school to build the dorm.)

The academic buildings are joined together by walkways, though only the third-floor walkway is covered. it doesn't provide any protection from the cold, though. None of the classrooms do, actually. Apparently they don't believe in heating classrooms, so every single student is bundled up in parkas and other winter coats. And I've been asked many times, "Are you cold?" because I'm not wearing a coat. As it turns out, I still have plenty of Chicago blood left in me, even after three decades in L.A.

The kids find it amusing, though.

There is heat, however, in my office. Yes, the school is taking great care of me -- I have my very own private corner office, with a sofa (in case I want to indulge in the daily Chinese lunchtime nap ritual), desk, computer, kettle, and a fantastic view.

And I can't say enough about the reception I've gotten from the kids. They've been wonderful. Sure, it probably helps that mine is their easiest class, with no tests and no homework. And yes, as an American teaching in their school, I'm certainly a bit of a curiosity. But they've been awesome and receptive, and very welcoming. One of the classes' head teachers even told me over lunch that her students had been talking about how much they liked me, and that I was "very humorous."

I even got a paper heart from one of the students at the end of the period.

So far, the experience has been genuinely heartwarming and uplifting. This is already feeling like a great decision.

One more class to go, and then comes the weekend... along with some intense lesson planning for next week. Now that my introductory week is almost over, I have to come up with something compelling for next week's classes!