April in Pictures

April brought more nice weather and many more activities. At the beginning of the month, the new bike sharing service that is spreading through China made its debut on the campus. Each bike features a lock and a QR code.  The bikes can be rented by the hour or paying a monthly fee, and when one is done using it, the bike can be left anywhere–and I do mean anywhere, even if it is some random place in the middle of the sidewalk or on the side of a busy street.

I had bag of chocolate chips from the US and used them to bake some wonderful cookies, and at the same time made banana oat muffins and lemon bars. I brought them all in for students to taste while I explained the process of how to bake cookies. Sweet homemade treats go over well here, and I’m glad to continue sharing with them about the goodies we make in America.

The nice spring weather has meant more activities outside, such as my continued participation in ultimate frisbee with a group for another college and exploring the city on my bike. There is a nice park downtown to enjoy, however in China, having a designated bike trail doesn’t necessarily mean I have that to myself. Sometimes the electric motorbikes ride in the same path. To keep the e-bikes out, apparently someone decided it would be a good idea to block the path, which also blocks the path for bicycles. I gave up and rode along the busy road for awhile because I was tired of dismounting my bike every 200 meters.

A group of international students from various countries visitied the campus and there were several big events. No one told myself or the other foreign teachers living here about this, except for one of my students who was gonig to be absent as she had volunteer duties all day. It turned out that 14 other students in her class also were volunteering for this event. I found out when the bell rang and only half of my students were present. Surprise! That’s life here.

Finally, I was asked to give a presentation about education in the USA to several other teachers from the English department. This event will soon have its own post, as it involved some collaboarative work between myself and two elementary level educators I know in the US. Stay tuned for that story.

 

Sports Meet

Not unlike other colleges throughout China, my college held a Sports Meet this past month. Colleges and Universities here do not have organized team sports to the degree which the United States does. In fact, this 2-day event reminded me how deeply embedded sports is into my own culture from a very early age all the way through adulthood. This meet, akin to a school track and field day, was a competition within the school rather than against other schools.

I would have loved to have participated in some actual sports, but the teachers here, at least at my college, did events such as tug-of-war. We all marched into the track, and then the teachers left for the basketball courts for their events. This was, however, at the same time as the students continued with the opening ceremony. So I was presented with a dilemma: Stand around and watch teachers compete in 3-legged races and maybe be involved in a tug-of-war, or watch the students perform in their opening ceremony.

I chose to watch the students, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Several departments gave performances, and the Foreign Language Department was one of them. Many of my freshmen students donned chearleader-like outfits bearing their mid-drift and danced around to a pop song waving pom-poms. More of my freshmen students participated in a coordinated calisthenics drill on the field together with students from other departments. There were several more performances, including Kung Fu.

Just being on the track with a crowd took me back to my days in high school running in track and cross country. My students were flabbergasted that I competed in 400, 800, and 1600 meters, as well as 5km races. That just doesn’t happen here. High school students in China are hyper-focused on studying and preparing for the college entrance examination, that they don’t have time for such regular sports, not to mention that females aren’t presented with the same opportunities as males in sporting.

The meet lasted two days, but I only attended the first day. I am hoping to coordinate some of my students together to learn about sports, but that hasn’t happened yet.

This opening ceremony took place on a Thursday, so all classes were cancelled for this event. As is typical here, they will be made up at the end of the semester, although we won’t know exactly which day until some day closer to the end of the semester.

When Writing Gets Creative, a Reflection on the Peace Corps Write On! Competition

Aliens. Robots. Environmental destruction. Pollution loving aliens. Secret agents. Witches. Killer friends. Dystopian futures. Birds engulfed in shadow. These are a few topics students at my college wrote about during the creative writing competition last month. I was honored to host Write On!, an international creative writing competition facilitated by Peace Corps Volunteers around the world. Much of the instruction for Chinese college English majors focuses on memorizing long lists of vocabulary and knowledge of grammar to score high on standardized tests, so this offers them an alternative way to use and improve their English skills.

The rules are simple: students are shown two writing prompts (different at each grade level) and given one hour to respond to one of them without the use of any aid such as cell phone or dictionary. Their entries are judged based on creativity and overall structure rather than on grammar and spelling. As a host I chose 10 entries from each grade level (in my case, University freshmen, sophomore, and junior), and those entries were judged at provincial and national level against other students from other Peace Corps sites. Those national winners were then judged at an international level from other Peace Corps sites across the globe.

Over 170 students from my college came and tapped into their creativity. I was thrilled—and a bit overwhelmed—at such a great turnout especially because many were not my students. Even more thrilling, one student was selected as the National and International winner for 3rd year university (junior) level.

The stacks of entries for the writing competition.

I first met Celina when I told her she was the Write On! National Winner for juniors (we hadn’t yet learned the result of the international judging). I only teach speaking and listening for freshmen and sophomores, so it came as a surprise when 31 juniors attended the competition.

We sat down for a chat in the space known as the “Bookend,” an ongoing project started some years ago by a previous Volunteer. The room features stacks of books in English and Chinese, and ranges from fiction and classics to dictionaries and textbooks all available for checkout. The Bookend also functions as a daily English Corner. As I talked with Celina, a group of 20 students were already engrossed in practicing pronunciation through tongue twisters.

With Celina (陈林), a junior and winner in the Write On competition at the National and International level.

Celina said she hadn’t participated in Write On! last year, but was eager to this year after she heard about it. When she began her study in Mianyang, she wasn’t too interested in English. That changed over time, in part, to having a previous Peace Corps Volunteer as a teacher whom Celina still fondly remembers.

When I asked Celina about the thought process for her essay, she said she had considered a happy ending, but it wouldn’t have been interesting enough. When I read Celina’s essay, I was struck by the unique approach (She chose to write from this prompt: Every morning, a bird lands on your window and pecks at the glass. It is your alarm clock. One morning, it doesn’t appear. Instead, there is a note. What does it say? What happens next?). To me, her story is mysterious and haunting. Part of what drew me in to select her essay for the university 3rd year top 10 was the ending without a clear resolution, marked by two words: “Save me!”

Celina was quite surprised and humbled by the honor to be a national and international winner. Her face lit up with a bright smile as she softly spoke about her experience and future ambition.  She told me she is seriously considering earning a graduate degree. She wants to pursue a career translation, and in fact, had perused the Bookend shelves for a translation textbook before our talk.

We parted ways after taking a photo together; she still seemed a little surprised. She wants to participate again next year, and I told her I would be happy to host another competition. Until then, she will be studying and preparing for the TEM-8, another big examination for English majors.

Celina gave her permission for her essay to be published online, and you can read it here on the Write On Competition page.


 

 

February and March in Pictures

The second half of March was more pleasant–the rains returned after a long winter absence which fostered new green growth and flowers. I had some time to get out and ride my bike a few times to enjoy the springtime. At school, the semester continued on. We foreign teachers introduced our English Corner students to the game of Monopoly, which went over really well. One student, who at first didn’t know if she would enjoy the game, said, “Wow, I like it!” after immediately receiving rent after buying a property. There was time to enjoy dinner out with students, as well as inviting students to my apartment to cook some spare ribs. I’m not yet proficient in cooking Sichuan food, but I expanded my baking repertoire by trying out some banana oat mini muffins.

Also pictured here are photos of the Anshun Bridge from a brief visit to Chengdu from February.


December in Pictures

December, yes, that’s right. It’s time to catch up after the semester break and traveling around (posts about that coming soon). It is now February 2017 and the spring semester has begun. Let’s first go back for a quick summary of the end of 2016.

In December I had the opportunity to go to a temple here in Mianyang with a group of students. It’s called the Holy Water temple, a buddhist temple adorned with many colorful statues. During the month I also had several opportunities to eat out with students, and of course we had our final exams. Mianyang is often covered by gray hazy days, clouds, and generally lacks sunlight in the winter. I would argue it feels like there is less light than Seattle in the winter. There was one morning, however, where I actually saw blue sky (see photos below for side-by-side comparison).

 


Sharing A Christmas Eve Tradition

Growing up, my house was filled with the smell of baking cookies during the month of December. The Christmas of my childhood has the smell and taste of spritz cookies imprinted in my memory. For several weeks leading up to Christmas, my mom would bake batches of several different kinds of cookies. She stored the ones that didn’t get immediately eaten and would not fit in the freezer outside to chill.

One of the dearest family traditions was heading across town to grandma and grandpa’s house on Christmas Eve for cookies and cheeseball. My family, aunt and uncle, cousins, and grandma and grandpa would eat and open presents—and every year, without fail, the gift from the grandparents was a wad of cash, wrapped inside an old check box. This tradition felt as meaningful, if not more, than the other traditional festivities on Christmas Day.

As an adult, I’m no stranger to living abroad and being away for the holidays. This Christmas in China was the 5th time (in 4 different countries) in my life I’ve been out of the country to celebrate, and each time I have had a unique experience. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I am present to teach English and live out cultural exchange. So it felt natural to invite some students over on Christmas Eve for cookies and gifts.

Like my mom, I spent several weeks ahead of time baking (small) batches of cookies. Unlike my mom and grandma, however, I had limited access to supplies here in southwestern China and ran into quirks using a heavier sugar and my small toaster oven.

But oh, did those cookies taste good anyway.

In all, we ate out fill of cookies, snacks, fresh baked pumpkin scones (my new tradition), chili (made by another foreign teacher), and hot cocoa. I orchestrated a white elephant gift exchange and introduced the students to the concept of a party where people just chill out.

My grandparents have both since passed away, and I’m out in the world far from family–yet the tradition still lives on. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to share tradition, home, and hospitality with this wonderful group of students.

 

November in Pictures


November was a full month of fun experiences. I was invited to tea by another teacher and learned about Chinese tea culture. We drank fermented black and green tea from the Fujian province and a tea from the Yunnan province aged 15 years. I discovered the college Biology Department brews its own beer. Yes, beer–and better than any of the mass-produced stuff I can find in the shops.

In other activities, I attended an evening English Corner to talk with students about interview skills and a little bit about Thanksgiving. On Thanksgiving Day I taught 2 classes and then gathered with students to make 饺子 (Jiao zi), which are dumplings stuffed with meat and vegetables, then boiled and eaten with a spicy soy sauce. I also celebrated Thanksgiving with other Peace Corps Volunteers and the next day had a potluck with some other foreign teachers in Mianyang.

Postcards From My Students

A few weeks ago I had my sophomore students create a postcard (or use a real one or photo). The assignment started by asking them to think of something that represented themselves. In class they wrote and shared about it, then I asked them to create a postcard for the following week. One-by-one they presented and described the postcard and why it was important to them.

I heard the most fascinating things. Students talked about Paris, beaches, and space travel. They talked about their hometowns and famous sites in China. One told a wonderful story about raising a cow and how it was important in her life. Another student drew a kite and wrote a poem about being like a kite. One brought in a real postcard of Seattle.

Although they have studied many years of English, generally their speaking skills are lacking. This was good practice using a topic they have interest in. So much emphasis has already been placed on testing and filling in correct boxes, that I choose to emphasize enabling fluency, correct use of what they know, and unlearning mistakes they’ve been taught.

October in Pictures

October was a busy month as I further settled into life in Mianyang and my teaching schedule. An event of note was held to welcome the freshmen on the 21st. Each department of the university has one, complete with dancing, music, emcees, games, and flashy lights. Many of my students were involved in planning, performing, and the behind-the-scenes work. When students had first mentioned to me about this event, I thought it was just an activity for the English Corner, but as I’m learning, performances, competitions, and events are often big productions. Without knowing how these things usually go, I told my students I’d give a short speech. Well, I did, and it felt a little out of place to all the performances of the night, but my words were nevertheless meaningful. Then to my surprise, during an actual English Corner activity about Halloween the following week, the Dean of the Foreign Languages Department kicked off the night by name-dropping me in his speech and paraphrasing to them what I had said before.

Earlier in the month I attended an “international” food festival that mostly comprised of Chinese street food. The students I went with were also disappointed, but we went out for a good lunch.

I also starting using my toaster oven more often and made rolls, banana bread, apple oat crisp, cookies, and pumpkin scones.

The Dubbing Competition and Just Rolling with It

So sometimes life in China as a university English teacher is a bit odd. We have to navigate a different culture, a different university system, and the sometimes awkward use of our own native language. My students seem well aware that spoken English in this country is often not correct, as they make jokes about Chinglish.

As Peace Corps Volunteers we’re prepped in our training about how things go here, culturally. Accept invitations, we’re told; first impressions are important, so make yourself known; and just “go with it.” Thursday evening was one of those time when all three applied.

A few weeks ago students excitedly invited me to a “Dubbing Competition.” Even after asking for clarification, I still didn’t know what that meant other than it had something to do with movies…and dubbing?. But one thing was certain: Myself, my Peace Corps sitemate, and another new foreign teacher were expected to attend and be judges in the competition.

Although I was told in advance, on Wednesday I received a decorated hand-made card–probably made by students on behalf of the Foreign Languages Department–inviting me to a “Dudding Competition.” Just roll with it.

On Thursday afternoon, 6 students were absent from my class, excused because they were preparing for the event. Just roll with it.

On Thursday evening, finally the event. There were about 10 other judges, and we gave scores on each performance. It was only living through the event that I realized they really meant “lip syncing” instead of dubbing. After the group gave a short intro-performance, they lip synced to a short movie clip. The clip was projected onto screens and both the language they were speaking and a Chinese translation was given.

Since this is the Foreign Languages Department, there were performances in English, German, Japanese, and French. Since I can speak German, I was fine with that, but even though I don’t know the others, I was nevertheless judging their pronunciation and performance. Yeah, just roll with it…

The best part of the night was seeing a group of my students perform the scene with the sloths in the DMV from Zootopia. That scene is something we all relate to and find funny. The whole room was laughing. And in that moment, it made all the oddity and dealing with the unexpected worth it.