Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Day in my Life

Dear America,

Some of you may be wondering about my studies at ACC, the ostensible reason for coming to China in the first place.

Instead of long explanations, let me highly recommend that you take a few minuts out of your day and watch the YouTube video made by last year's student. Things haven't changed much. I affirm it is very amusing, highly informative, and scarily accurate. Welcome to my life.

Part 1.

Part 2.


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Peak Behind the Curtain

Dear America,

Today I was walking along the street. I had walked down this street before, but the streets near my school are not many, so I walk the same streets every day. In past years and in other places I have waxed eloquent on the joys of Beijing, but in those times I lived in lively hutongs or large school campuses. The east campus of the Capital University of Business and Economics, however, is tiny, a small outpost of a much larger school designed for graduate students, and as the school's name may suggest, the district I am in is related to business and ecomics. As a result, there are large towers full of offices, and large towers full of apartments, and not much else.

It is telling that possibly the most exciting thing I see on my daily desolate walks to find a new restuarant in this wasteland of wealth is a small shop selling clothes and toys for kids. I have not yet gone into the store; I'd like to save it for a day when my need for something new is greater. For now, I peer into the window as I walk by and see all the miniature pastel-colored outfits and other childhood paraphernalia and see the young-looking (but then, in China everyone looks either 17 or 100) woman sitting in the doorway. "Is she married? Does she have a child herself? What does she think of the things she sells? Is she happy with he job, just sitting there every day, or does she have greater ambitions?" Again, I haven't asked. Someday maybe I will.

In other times, and other places, I have asked other people similar questions; last year alone I asked nearly 200 people many such questions. People fascinate me, and the ways in which culture, social standing, and education change people -- andother ways in which humans remains the same regardless of anything else -- is a subject which holds endless possible questions I wish to explore. You can travel across the world, and yet somehow ocne I've done that I find it more interesting to talk sit in the guardroom and talk with thegate guard than enter the palace.

Somes it is the small incidents that reveal large differences. On this street I saw a sign with a small cactus beneath it. The sign was advertising "Yellow-white [something] only 1 RMB" I thought maybe that the [something] was the cactus, which surprised me, as I had asked another flower shop (again, on this same street) how much a similar plant would cost, and I was told 25 PMB. Thinking I would definitely take the plant and liven up my room with a hardy bit of life (perhaps I could pretend that the cactus was my roommate, even giving him a genuine Chinese name and all), I caught the eye of the fellow behind the glass. When I asked what the signed referred to, he took me into the shop and showed me a yellow and white flower. Chinese has proven itself to be a tricky language, and so I have learend to keep an open mind about things, but sometimes stuff really is what it claims to be: a yellow and white flower really is yellow and white, or a chicken-heart shish kebab really does have a chicken heart on it.

I was distracted by the flower, however, by the activity on the futon-like piece of furniture inside the shop. Two people of opposite sex who had been napping in each other's arms somewhat quickly disentangled themselves and made themselves a little more presentable. Somewhat embarrassed by the episode and having found the answer to my quey I bid a swift farewell and retreated to the safety of my familiar street, where in my long walk back to the school I had time to mull over what had occurred, and what it symbolized.

It's hard to talk with Chinese people without their rapid pace of economic development cropping up (to get a two-for-one bonus, you can talk with Chinese people about how the 2008 olympics is related to China's economic development). Rpic econmic development, a phrase which rollls off the tongue well in Chinese, is the explanation of Chinese pride; it is the apology for polution, corruption and copyright infringement; it is the whispered sweet nothings of Chinese lovers.

This economic development brings with it many other things, such as globalization, international influence, insanely fast change in purchasing power and lifestyle standards, creating a sort of wild-west like undercurrent to life, especially for the young in the big cities. The Chinese have embraced their savior, and their savior had a golden gleam to it. Again, in Chinese, the phrases "looking to the future" and "looking to money" sound exactly the same, and for most Chinese, they are the same. Let the old and the poverty-stricken fall away.

One of the "olds" which falls away, however, is a governing sense of morality. Some of Chinese traditional morality is questionable, other parts of it are outright reprehensible, but some things, such as a generally conservative opinion towards sex, are worth retaining. As the man whose eagerness for a potential customer meant he brought me into his shop and disturbed the slumbering couple instead of simply brining a flower out to me reveals, modesty has been pushed aside, sometimes almost literally, to make way for that $0.17 flower.

Furthmore, my thoughts turned to the young couple. Quite possibly they are married, and yet equally possibly they are not married. Though exact figures escape me now, I recall reading a surprisingly high number of Chinese young folks sleep together before getting married, if they get married. Similar activity certainly occurred in the past in China, and yet never before has such a liberal attitude to sex been held by Chinese society. Readers may be interested to know that as recently as a few decades ago, under earlier incornations of Chinese communism, sexual behavior was restricted even more than any recent point in Chinese history, and possibly ever. Times have changed.

It is the feeling that times have changed, ushered in by Deng Xiaoping's "reforming and opening up" policy, and the subsequent sweeping influx of every type of foreign good (and foreign bad) which sparked this feeling of freedom. The sudden loss of Socialism as a guiding moral and ethical force -- which had by this point effectively eliminated religion as an effective moral agent -- left a moral vacuum for the Chinese people, with only the faint marks of past moral codes left. F illing this vacuum is economic success.

After all, economic success, from the Chinese perspective, is what westerners most enjoy. It is why we can have expensive goods; it is why we can tour through China; it is what makes up happy; and, after all, it's what we want too. So, the Chinese have embraced capitalism (and will probably soon embrace materialism, with the space constraints of a large population the only obstacle), jsut as before they embraced Socialism, and before that many others.

And that is why almost selling a 1 RMB flower is more important than allowing a sleeping couple their privacy.


Saturday, June 21, 2008

Farewell, O Language of My People!

Dear America,

As of 19 hours ago, I can no longer speak English.

As I last left you right before my departure from the Gongyi Orphanage, a llittle explanation is necessary in order to clarify how I ened up this way. But first, let me tell you about Xuzhou.

Leaving Gongyi was surprisingly hard, especially saying goodbye to all the kids who kept asking me when I was going to return: the best I could offer was "maybe next year." I myself was moved more than I had expected when leaving, and the 11 year old boys who insisted on pulling my wheeled suitcase all the way down the from the orophanage to the main road a ten minute walk away didn't help me remain cold and unfeeling in my departure.

Moved though I was at my departure from the orphanage, my wanderlust quickly broke free: I must confess that getting on the train, travelling to new cities, seeing new foods to try and places and people and many other interesting things sparked my excitement. It was good to be on the road again. Though travel is often exhausting, I have found that wanderlust, a beautiful word in its own right, evokes a yearing I have cultivated for many years; either through the hundreds of fantasy and science fiction books I read as a youth, or through the travels to (to me) exotic and strange places such as China, Europe, or my very liberal college; and yet in each place I find some part, which resonates with me -- I have come close to finding the perfect place on several occasions (a certain youth hostel in a Swiss mountain-side town, a Christian worldviews and leadership camp over the summer) , but there is always something more which is lacking, something which drives me to meet new people, to go to new places, and to try to understand this world I live in, and ultimately, myself.

Those who have watched movies by the Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai will understand what I mean: many of his characters express many of the same yearnings, yet their lives are almost always without any redeptive force: their search is cyclical and self-destructive -- and yet compelling to me, at least, for I understand some part of what they seek, or rather the need to seek. Those who are familiar with C.S. Lewis can also find an echo of what I mean (yet, unlike most echoes, Lewis's not only precede mine but also resound more clearly). Lewis, as quoted by my friend Anna Elwell, explains: "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world."

Ben and I arrived in Xuzhou after about four hours. The difference was stark. Xuzhou was cool, verdant, modern, and beautiful. It is a town nestled around a lake (originally natural, but then expanded) rings with lush mountains. I have seen more beauitful placed, but after coming from Gongyi, where the green plants are reduced to a rusty olive color at best by the pervasive dust which settles on them, Xuzhou partically seemed like paradise. Bob, the manager of the Xuzhou orphanage picked us up at the station and gave me a miniature tour of the city as we went to the orphanage, taking me through the city center, where every night there are is an automated show with fountains, music, and lights, and where hundreds of people (some old, some not so old) gather to dance, do aerobics, walk, talk, or just sit and enjoy the night. Surrounding the lake on almost all sides is a very nicely maintained park. The orphange itself was actually located on prime real estate: the local government had given them one of their own buildings, leased for $200 per month locked in for 50 years, a five-minute walk from the lake. There is a beautiful view, the school the kids go to is walking distance, and while they have less open grounds than the Gongyi orphanage, their building is bigger and the park is nearby. It is a grand set up.

The government is a big deal in China. While it can often be authoritative and directives sent out from Beijing must be followed, a stunted and mal-developed judicial system allows the local-level officials have an amazing levle of freedom to make life very difficult for people they don't like, or who refuse to bribe them. As a result, doing the exact same thing (opening an orphanage) can be a massive and continual headache in one place, as is the csae with Gongyi, or be realtively easy, as in Xuzhou. Examples of this are many, but let me just share one. In Gongyi the orphanage, though run by a Christian and almost entirely supported by Christian donors, is not allowed to engage in any sort of teaching of the Christian faith. Any such teaching would quickly result in the local government shutting down the orphanage and shipping all the orphans (all technically government property until they turn 18) to who-knows-where aweful government-run orphanage. In Xuzhou, by contrast, the government not only welcomed the orphange to come, but by and large lets them raise the kids however they want (it is still China, so complete freedom is out of the question). This difference allows the atmosphere (metaphorically) of Xuzhou to be a lot lighter than at Gongyi. There are certainly contributing factors to differences between the two orphanages (the types of kids they have, and so forth), but I am convinced that the freedom to practice Christianity plays a big part in Xuzhou's more energetic and optimistic atmosphere.

My time at Xuzhou was sadly very short: I was only there until Sunday night. In that time, however, I was able to meet up with Michele, who had already found out I was coming, and catch up with her a bunch. Sunday morning I had the thrill of eating an American breakfast! Ben, Bob, and I, after a series of misadventures, ended up frying eggs and pancakes for a very satisfying start of the day. Following braekfast, Ben and I went to a local park to see Xuzhou's miniature terracotta warriors (similar to the ones at Xi'an except from the Han dynasty, and only a quarter -life size -- still very neat!) and a few other interesting historical sites. There is a much-vaunted slide down a mountain, something along the lines of a bob-sled except no ice, which all the foriengers at Xuzhou praised highly, but as the weather turned to drizzle the slide trip got cancelled. In the afternoon Bob hosted his usual ex-pat fellowship/service, which included a message by him, some time of sharing, prayer requests, a few songs (with Michele doing honors on the keyboard), and all 22 orphans squeezing in to sing "This Is My Father's World" and "Lamb of God" in Chinese.

Following the service we all went out to dinner at MacDonald's (the first time I have eaten at an American fast food restaurant in China!) and continued to chat, which lead to some of us wandering around the down-town area, amusing ourselves by strolling through the games and arcades in an underground mall, and shopping for something with a pink cartoon cat (which, despite the ten thousand products we found, is NOT "Hello Kitty"). We met a crazy-looking fellow from New Jersey, but I help my tongue about what we think of that particular state. To finish off the evening we all flexed our muscles in front of a larger-than-life size statue of Popeye while the two Chinese girls we asked to take our picture pretended they didn't know how to take it so they, and the other 30 people watching us, could continue to laugh at us.

For one of the first times while in China, I didn't make any new friends on the train. I was very tired (it was a night train from Xuzhou to Beijing) and also experiencing the "sorrow" part of "Parting is such sweet sorrow". The Xuzhou people were amazingly nice; and I had ended up spending many many hours trading stories and discussing life goals and values with Ben, and yet to them I all had to say farewell. If I had not already purchased my ticket, I probably would have stand have stayed another day. Missing those folks, I didn't have much desire to begin the whole friendship-building process from scratch, and so simply slept the night away.

Monday morning I arrived in Beijing, and proceeded to spend the whole day visiting old Beijing friends. I went to my old Qian men haunts, with bittersweet results, yet more sweet than bitter. I visited the hotel I stayed at for several weeks, but my expectations were fulfilled, and none of the employees were the same. The shop-keeper across the alley remembered me, however, and gave me the phone number of the fellow who used to run the youth-hosel part of the hotel's operations, and is forever engrained in my memory because his voice sounds like a cartoon character, and he sort of looks like one too. Apparently he is working in another district of Beijing now. I visited the old internet cafe and found that it's still pretty cheap, still really smokey, and the service is still pretty bad. I asked for an hour of time, then when the computer shut off they tell me it's because I sat in the more expensive area; thanks for not telling me ahead of time! And then they refused to let me buy just an additional 15 minutes to round off the things I needed to do. I shake the dust from my feet.

I also went to the old restaurant I used to hang out at, with my maternal owner, her chef of a husband, and their two kids. I was shocked to find that their restaurant had been cut down to approximately a quarter of the original size, and none of them were there! It turns out the building most of their restaurant was in was going to be desmolished, so they had to move all operations into what had been their bedroom and 8-plus private dining room. Then they all had gone back to their home in Hebei to help their son prepare for his high-school entrance exam. If I understood the current workers right, they should be back sometime in July. I did bump into the woman's younger sister, however, who sells fruit in the same hutong, and told me some of these things. The other restuarant, which I know a little less well, still was in business, and I will go back there sometime.

I had made many friends who work at the Lao She Tea House, right nearby. I went there, but the people I knew were all out at the time; still, it is good to know at least some of them were still around. The Tea House itself had undergone serioous renovations and I almost didn't recognize the main entrace. I've only been gone for one year, and it seems every part of the Beijing I knew has changed. Even the ancient imperial palace had changed! The ominpresent scaffolding around the Forbidden City's north gate was now gone.

One thing that had not changed, however, was the two girls I knew who used to sell street-side barbequed skewers (and whose stand, along with the invitation of a crazy businessman to come and eat, set me down the path to knowing all of these Beijing friends), were still at the same Pharmacy. I spent an hour or so visiting with them at their pharmacy, during which time they reitereated their desire to learn English (something which I feel badly about, as I'd like to help them, but since yesterday I can no longer speak English...), and we caught up on life. From there I went to meet the civil lawyer I know (Li Bo, or Paul). He, his wife, and I all went out to dinner, and got to hear their big news: his wife is pregnant! They are really nice people, and I wish I could do more to reciprocate the stuff they have done for me. I made one small step in that direction by boying some Portuguese patries on my way to meet them, and rejoiced to see that Paul's wife ate one of them even before I left (sign that they weren't simply accepting them out of oliteness). It was a small but glorious success in my attempts at reciprocating Chinese hospitality.

The next day I had scheduled to meet up with my crazy businessman friend, who insisted that his english name be "Flower Huang" (this is especially cute, as "Huang" means "yellow"; also, he is a sunglass-toting, basketball clothes-wearing sort of fellow, and certainly not a hippie or the like). Spending time with him is always an adventure, somewhat akin, I would like to imagine, to riding a free-spirited horse. You'll definitely go interesting places and do fun things, but you're never quite in control, you can easily get lost, it's often uncomfortable, and sometimes you don't end up where'd you'd like.

For instance, Flower insists most times on linking arms as we walk, a tradition which is not all that unusual among same-sex friends in China, and yet one very foreign to westerners, and as those readers who are familiar with my relatively reserved view of personal space even in America will realize, this activity is quite out of character for me. In the heat of the summer day, it's also hot and sticky, the last time I want to be touching other poeple. Yet it's a cultural experience (even when at least two Chinese people asked if we were gay!)

Flower Huang and I were going to go to his hometown of Tianjin, an hour-plus train ride from Beijing, and in his mind spend a day there, then another day in his (real) hometown of Tanggu. Having experienced his grand plans before, I had the nerve to put my foot down and insist I had to return after just one night in Tianjin. We were supposed to meet in Beijing station at 11. Due to transportational difficulties, I didn't arrive until 12, at which point I found Flower (or rather, he found me) and he greeted me with scowls and punches, much to the bewhilderment of the Chinese people around us. Apparently he had gone to the loud-speaker announcer and had them send out an announcement to the entire Beijing Train Station that he was looking for an american named Guo Jiande! I felt a little guilty, but not too much, since this was Flower Huang, and I knew he'd forget about it in five minutes. I also had tried to call his phone earlier, but had not connected. As I found out later, he himself had arrived half an hour late, reducing the last residues of my guilt.

Many of my readers read my description of Flower Huang's antics last year, and so I will not repeat them here. Interested readers I refer to my old blog, . Needless to say, he has not changed. He is still extremely hospitable, ordering fifty to a hundred percent more food at meals than we could eat, in order to show me appropriate hospitality, and paying for everything from train tickets to bottles of water -- until his money runs out and I finally can start paying for things. He also happily accompanied me to the touristy part of Tianjin and helped me buy presents for family and friends back home, advising me on the sly how much thigns should erally cost, and then haggling vigorously with the dismayed store owners until a price that was advantageous to me was agreed upon. I normally would not have bought presents so soon in my time, but Flower Huang is a resource not to be wasted.

One of Flower's greatest flaws is a failure, or rather an unwillingness, to plan ahead. His method of buying train tickets, for instance, is to go to the train station and ask for the next available train (the nearly disasterous results of this particular habit I recorded last year), and then wait for it, however long it may take. This trait of his again manifested itself when night fell and thought began toturn towards a soft bed and a good night's sleep. I had assumed that Flower knoew of a good hotel to stay in (or at least any hotel to stay in), but I soon discovered that he had no clue: we wandered around for over an hour, passing by desolte staetches of partment buildings and parks, with nary a hotel in sight. Finally I suggested that we just take the bus back to the train station, as there were many hotels near there (and, I confess, in my heart of hearts I thought also that if there were no suitable hotels, I might still get a train back to Beijing, a city which I at least knew). Flower proclaimed me a genius, we got back to the trainstation, and then employed the service of a pedicab driver who had just settled down for the night in the back of his cab to take us a to a hotel. This is sort of China's respond to hotel busses: except instead of a bus it sis sort of like riding on a giant tricycle inside a metal dog house perched on the tricycle, with the whole contraption powered by a lawn mower engine on steroids. It's a thrilling experience. Another difference is that instead of workign for one hotel, this fellow gets paid a commission by whichever hotel he takes us to, and he presents us with a range of price options to pick from. We picked cheap.

The hotel was fascinating. It was abotu the sixe of my house's first floor, and was subdividided by almost walls (the top foot or so of each division was open) between each room. Each room had enough space for a double bed, a television, and a foot to the side of the bed. The beds in China are harder than American standards, but our bed, I'm fairly confident, was nothing more than a slab of plywood with a sheet on top of it. I was tired enough that I wasn't going to compain, I was just happy we had any place to stay (especially since they technically aren't allowed to host foreigners except in approved hotels, which this definitely wasn't), even if it meant that Flower and I had to share a bed.

The night was hardly pleasant: someone had fallen asleep with his TV volume up on full (at that point my base-level dislike for television shot up into the range of pure, unadulterated hatred, and as I lay with my head coverd by my bean-shell pillow, I enacted in my mind beautiful fantasies of going into his room with an axe and cleaving the TV set in two). Eventually Flower Huang showed his mettle and after much banging and shouting the TV was turned off. My night was not peaceful, however, as our door was about five feet from the main entrace to the building, allowing us to hear all the ambient noise and conversation of those at the front desk. Furthmore, I discovered, Flower Huang snores something fierce. It was a night which was nasty, brutish, and short.

EArly the next morning I woke up sore and feeling very dirty from a lackof shower or change of clothes. After the day of shopping even Flower Huang seemed to be losing his pep, and while he originally claimed I should leave at 5, this time gradually changed to 3, and once we arrived at the train station his sense of honor and responsibility had waned to the point that he didn't protest at all when I told him I really didn't need him to wait with me for two hours until my train arrived. He left, taking with him crazy times like I've had with no one else in China and my some-times broken ipod shuffle.

I don't really know why Flower Huang has taken a shine to me in particular, as I think that we are really somewhat different. I know that on my part, I enjoy being with different people as they bring otu a different part of myself. With the Christian ex-pats in China, I can talk about the necessity of Christianity, the value of orphanages, the craziness of China, the need to depend on God for eveything. With the civil lawer in Beijing I can enjyo high-ish class life, talk about jobs and politics and cultural differences between America and China. With foreign backpackers I can swap stories of adventures, places seen, plans for the future. With Flower Huang I can live a crazy and unpredictable life, eating in hole-in-the-wall restaurants, hagglings, and daring to accuse each other of being terrorists while we are walking around Tian'anmen square and its famous plainclothes agents. It's fun to move in and out of different spheres, and yet sometimes dizzying when done too quickly.

Since my return to Beijing I have been settling down at my school. The primary reason for my trip to China is to study the language for two months at a program called the Associated Colleges in China (ACC). It's widely acknowledged to be the best or at least among the very best language programs in China. It is known for its rigour and its language pledge. The rigour bit involves four hours of class every day, and an estimated 4-6 hours of home work every day. The classes range from the "large"class of 4-8 people to the "single" class of one hour with one-on-one with a professor. There are 60-120 new vocabulary words every day. It's pretty intense. The language pledge bit is the part where you swear that for the entire duration of the program, you will not speak any English at any time (some exceptions, such as dire medical emergency, apply; written updates back home also apply, which is why this is not in Chinese.) If you break the pledge, you get a warning, then a grade reduction, and then you get expelled -- and it's happened before.

Our langauge pledge began yesterday, after a terribly long three-hour meeting reviewing the program, its policies, and so forth. I must confess, it was really exciting to go from a room full of 60 American students, sign your English rights away, and then once you left that room, it was only Chinese. We all went off to get supplies at the grocery store, get lunch, and desperately begin memorizing everyone's Chinese name.

Between Wednesday and Saturday, before the pledge and life here really began, was mostly a relaxed time for me. I settled into my room and discovered that I didn't have a roommate (initially a littel disappointing, but I've quickly come to enjoy a double room to myself). I managed to lock myself out again, and am now considering simply never locking my door, and just locking my valuables in one of my drawers (but I worry about losing that key, or the cleaning girl locking my room after she leaves). I also tried to begin my usual trick of befriending the front desk fuwuyuan (a generic term for service people), but with surprisingly little headway; I suspect it may be because my beoing a foreigner is not as novel when you work at a foreign students' dorm). I took the placement tests and was shocked at how much written Chinese I had forgotten (shocked to the point of worrying a little that I might get placed into 3rd year Chinese instead of 4th year), and so spent the nexy few days practicing writing characters and taking breaks to explore the vicinity. Gradually other students arrived, and most of them have surprised me with their dedication to the program: one would hope to expect it, but I feared too many of them would be more interested in exploring the city than really buckling down and learning the language.

I was also surprised at the teachers here. The teacher-student ratio is approximately 1:1.5 here, which translates into a lot of teachers. They all seem extremely energetic, friendly, enthusaistic, and competent. It had been really fun meeting them and talking with them, and they seem genuininely interested and excited to be here teachign us. Once or twice it almost seemed cute how eager they were (if that's an appropriate way to describe one's professors, even if many of them look younger than I am).

All in all, I am greatly looking forward to my time at ACC. Classes begin tomorrow, and I have 80 vocab words to learn and some discussion points to prepare on the lesson. For now, however, I'm off to join a Korean student and whoever else may join us in going to church. As work will increase and newworthy items dwindle, I may reduce the frequency or at least the length of these updates. But we will see what hte future holds!

Chris (Guo Jiande)

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Long Update

Dear America,

I like to think of myself as technologically competent. I may be absent minded. I may leave my camera on a window sill, forget completely where I put it, scour the entire compound and my own luggage for two days before mentioning it to one of the house mothers who, after being dissuaded from organizing an immediate 40-person search for camera returns an hour later holding it triumphantly high with the story of the gatekeeper who took it, saw it was so beat up that it must be something the kids had discarded, and decided to keep it and see if anyone asked about it. I may go to a tiny shop to get some digital photos printed and then walk four blocks away before realizing I don’t have my camera card, walk back four blocks, only to be told they gave me my card – and a search of my backpack reveals it. I may accidentally lock my room key inside the room after the man who has the only other key has gone home, and only regain entry after an acrobatic young ninth-grader climbed through the two foot by two foot bathroom window eight feet up from the floor and unlocked the door from the inside. These things I have come to accept as part of my life, just like poor vision, ignorance of popular culture, and a weakness for gummy candies.

Despite my many failings, I do like to think of my technological prowess as something of which if I am not proud, I am at least not ashamed. Thus it is disheartening when in the past few days my camera has gone crazy, taking over-exposed photos, or photos with streaking lines through them. My mp3 player, won in a college library drawing (the only drawing I’ve ever won) and kept despite a tempting offer to exchange it for a chemistry textbook, inexplicably only plays about half of the songs on it without old-style CD or LP hitches. And, of course, there is my dead laptop. Most of these items I never use during the school year, where they sit happily in fine working order in a drawer, yet when summer and a trim to China rolls around, they conspire against me. Some might consider it a consolation that when I tried to get a camera SD-to-USB adapter so I can put my photos on a computer (never mind that my photos may look like a psychedelic merry-go-round, or that my computer can’t start), the HP outlet fellow got two such adapters and they both broke for him. It was not much comfort, however, as it resulted in along and fruitless walk to find another place which sold them. As the midafternoon sun beat down on my weary head, I reflected that renouncing the world, becoming a Daoist monk and sitting on a rock on a mountain humming sounded pretty nice. My biggest comfort at this point is that I have almost no technology left that can break. I have noticed recently, however, that my pen is running out of ink…

As I was mulling over my past update, it occurred to me that some of my gentle readers may not be familiar with my writing style. Typically my written work has been family tales, during which dry witticisms and wry observations are hard to take too wrong, even if misunderstood. As none of my family has tried to learn Chinese (and I used to think they were foolish!) they aren’t here and there is little write about them, except that I think I get the last laugh, since despite the heat here, it’s hotter in America now. No, most of my writing now is about other cultures and other people, and when one is not writing about one’s own kith and kin, the broadest allowable literary freedoms shrink somewhat, and it may have seemed to some of my readers that my descriptions of life here (my descriptions of the food comes to mind) are unduly harsh. Please let the reader understand that I have great respect for the people here, am very grateful for all they do, and do not in any way mean to convey (except through satire) a skewed and American-centric perspective on how life should be lived. I hope this assuages any concerns that may have crept into the minds of my readers.

My time here at the orphanage draws to a close. I leave tomorrow, after postponing my departure for several days at the request of various folks. From here I am going to visit the other orphanage run by the same organization. I originally had no such plans, as this orphanage is not at all on my way back to Beijing. It is sort of like going from Chicago to St. Louis on your way to New York. I found out, however, the most astonishing fact: I knew someone there! Last spring I lead a mission trip to Belize to help paint a school being built there; one of the girls, Michele, was a senior then. She graduated, and then went to teach English in China. She sent out an update a year or so later explaining that she had gotten involved with an orphanage, which I replied was coincidental, since I was also at the time planning on coming to an orphanage in China; neither of us mentioned the name, thinking the other would not be interested – but when Ben found a picture of her (whom he knew from visiting that orphanage) on my Facebook page, he told me about it. The coincidence is really too much, so I decided to join Ben on a trip down there this weekend and surprise her.. From there, I go to the capital, meet some local Beijing friends, and then buckle down to learn some serious Chinese.

Michelle (Ben’s wife, not my college friend) usually teaches English in the kindergarten for an hour and half. Sickness fell upon the Godard household, however, so I have ended up teaching her section most of this week. Teaching has been a typically hair-raising experience: one day I didn’t realize I needed to teach until a few minutes before hand. The next day I had more forewarning and prepared a solid list of activities to do during my time, when the Chinese teachers switched up my time, giving me the slot when the 3 year olds come (who don’t speak much at all, and don’t speak any English!) at the last minute. I am proud of the way I overcame that challenge, however, taking to heart an old ploy first encountered when I was on the other side of the table: M&Ms. Though this trick was first used on my by my then-hated French teacher, a witch-like woman who lived in a haunted house with her dark brood, I decided what had once been used for evil could now be used for good. By hiding the M&M’s in a box and shaking it tantalizingly, I got them all to sit down quietly (which is success enough for one day with these kids!), eager to find out what I had inside. I laid out the rules that they had to answer a question correctly in order to get one, and if they were noisy, or disobedient, they didn’t get any. It worked amazingly well (only one person melted down, and she recovered even before the activity was finished). Tailoring my questions to the individual level of each student was the only way to navigate the huge spectrum in age and ability.

My kindergarten successes reached a peak, pleasantly enough, today on my last day; from practice uppercase and lowercase letters, my students were able to move on to copying down short sentences and phrases with punctuation and spaces (e.g. “Here comes the dog!”). Then, in their free coloring time, they independently decided to practice tracing more letters, including one girl who began trying cursive! It was a good day. I may have it in me to be a kindergarten teacher after all.

My doubts about my kindergarten talents stem from the role I usually have at the kindergarten, which is door guard and damage control. The Chinese teachers are almost certainly well-trained and definitely well-meaning, but they switch on and off throughout the day, and the younger of them is not able to control the class. This, combined with what seem to me to be arbitrary and difficult requirements of the kids, make for a hard time to maintain order. As an example, every morning at 10:30 the children receive 220 ml of whole milk – if they are good. Up until that point, threats of milk penalties are employed to keep the kids in check. When the time comes, typically old sins are forgotten so long as current insurrection isn’t happening, but everyone must sit straight, with hands in the lap, not talking before their bag of milk is placed in front of them by today’s designated student. They then must wait in similar posture until each other student gets his or her milk (unless the milk is revoked), which may take an agonizingly long time, as one’s milk can be temporarily taken back again if the posture fails at any time (as it frequently does). If there happens to be one or more particularly truculent or antsy children at this time, their shouting and disobedience naturally draws others into the fray. I leave the readers to construct the rest of the scene.

Lining up against the wall before an activity, before going outside, and so on are all required, and while I recognize the necessity for some order in a classroom, and for the kids to learn how to listen to teachers (a necessary skill for the next 12 years of their life, if not more), the level of the regimentation seems silly. I end up thinking to myself, “What really is the point of the kindergarten?” Most of the activities really are just play, of a slightly more organized sort; so why does the day continuously involve crying or yelling youngsters, when after class is over they happily play for hours with only rare tears? And why dispense as much punishment for big crimes and small misdemeanors?

It’s been a long time since I was in kindergarten, and my memories of it are almost certainly all false plants drawn from the times when I accompanied my mother to pick up my younger brothers when they went. Many of the activities that we did, such as lining up and group work are the same, and yet I don’t remember too much crying or rampant disobedience. Furthermore, somehow our punishments, less frequent, must have been more effective, because I do not imagine for a minute Chinese kids are worse behaved than American ones. I think that it stems from a couple different sources. I here submit my suggestions for a good kindergarten:

Don’t sweat the small stuff. If the kids are almost all right, or all mostly right, then start with that. You can deal with the individual problems later when you have control of the situation.
Figure out what exactly you want to teach the kids. Then find a way to make this something they want to learn on their own, so its interesting and fun rather than a chore. Your job is now easy and fun rather than hard and painful. The point is that they learn, not how they learn.
Use positive reinforcement instead of punishment as much as possible. Motivate kids with the promise of rewards rather than the threats of punishment, because it will get better results while making them like you rather than hate you. This is important for #4.
Be absolutely firm when necessary. Children need to know that there are some lines not crossed (e.g. hitting the teacher or blatantly disobeying an order), or fearsome punishment ensues: and you’re not afraid to punish. Don’t go half-way, or make threats and then not carry them out, or you’ll get no respect. But see #3.and #1.
Have more than one teacher. Sometimes you need to deal with a student individually, and it’s nearly impossible to do effectively without someone else managing the rest of the class.

I’m sure that there are more that could be added or amended. I believe that establishing rules early and maintaining them consistently are also important, but having arrived in the thick of things, my own observations are not sufficient to say.

If any of you want to become kindergarten teachers, my best advice to you is to forget the colleges. Go into several classrooms; experience it; see the good and the bad; then find the absolutely best teacher learn everything he does and then do just that when you start… and then customize to your own style once you know how it works. When I taught this week I certainly stole the majority of my activities from Michelle. It works well.

Still, most of my time in the kindergarten has been damage control – telling students to listen to their teachers, not to put their feet on the table, preventing kids from slamming the doors or running out of the classroom, or occasionally taking the oldest boy (who has an attitude problem and would probably be best served by a half dozen solid paddles served daily until he stops being the most misbehaved in class, but I’m not in a position to do this) making him stand outside of the classroom so that the teacher can accomplish something with the others. It’s not the most thrilling of jobs, but I feel that if nothing else I am providing a productive service.

There’s not much more to say about the kindergarten. If I were to come back here after Ben and Michelle leave I would ask Nathan (the big boss) if I could teach kindergarten the whole morning. I think if I had the whole morning, and if I were here for more than two weeks, I could do a lot with them. Maybe it’s hubris, maybe it’s right. It would interesting to try. Unfortunately, it doesn’t pay well.

(One interesting side-note: I realized today that I could live here year-round at a cost of no more than $2,500 per year, living and eating at the orphanage. I’m not sure what it means, but it’s interesting.)

The afternoons here are long, hot, and quiet. I have taken advantage of the time in various ways, from napping to shopping to writing these updates to going for a second round at the kindergarten. (I sleep a scary amount: something like 9 hours per day when naps are included. I blame the heat without air conditioning.) I also have used the time practice writing Chinese characters for which the house mothers and students grant me greatly undeserved high praise for my industriousness; even when I tell them I used to know these words and learned them before, so should never have forgotten them, the Chinese are still unmoved. I have been reading through the New Testament, starting with Matthew and then skipping the rest of the gospels. Right now I’m in I Corinthians. It’s been very nice to read long passages at a time without feeling pressed to finish up and get on with my day’s work. I brought along my Sudoku book, and have done some and failed others, before passing it on to one of the kids here. It’s a quiet but thus far a satisfying diversion from my work.

According to one of the high school students, consensus among the kids is that I’m shy. This surprised me, since I thought I had been very outgoing (the previous paragraph notwithstanding), and had been attempting connect with the kids as much as possible. In fact, I had thought that shyness lay not with me, but with them! It may be that in my uncertainty about a new environment as well as how to best to interact without making massive blunders, I may have come off as a bit reserved. My natural instinct when landing in a new place is to clam up and watch to see what’s happening lest I put my foot in my mouth. This, combined with a lack of overtures from the kids themselves may have resulted in our mutual thoughts of shyness. (Ben and Michelle, for what it’s worth, solidly back my judgment that the older kids especially aren’t as interested in coming right up to you and talking.)

Shy or no, I have been able to connect more and more with the kids, having taught them nearly all the games I know: Set, Egyptian Rat Spit, finger jousting, and dueling (which, again somewhat coincidentally, I first learned on that trip to Belize). This last could be described as a manly-shooting-version of pattycake, which has the advantage of being quite fun and requires a little strategy. One college-age fellow here that I taught visited the other orphanage and taught all the kids there: and apparently they loved it. It will be amusing if teaching that game is my greatest legacy here.

My big splash here was this past Saturday’s fun and games. I decided, after hearing about all the amazing things another group had done here, that I just needed to get down and organize something. I chose my dozen-plus years of summer camp experience to draw from, and designed a competition of epic proportions, with relay races, three-legged races, egg-and-spoon races, basketball free throws, algebra completion and English sentence creation puzzles, and much more all a part of this great day’s events. I scoured the whole place to make my scavenger hunt list, and enlisted the helf of a half-dozen people to help cut down poled for the spin-your-head-on-the-bat contest, cut strips from an old hose, for the thee legged race. I was especially proud to have salvaged an old fire hose to use as my tug of war rope. It was an event to make any man proud.

I talked up the event to the kids, only giving the rare hint here or there what sort of event it would be, and encouraging them all to come. I knew that such a large undertaking would require on-the-fly adjustments, and so was well-prepared when I had to scratch the egg race because of a one-day egg famine in the city. I also realized that a number of other events would need to be scrapped because of time constraints, and the order of events had to be rearranged. There was also, of course, the problem of herding 30 or more kids into doing what I wanted, especially when my Chinese vocabulary does not include the words such as “dodgeball”; at more than one critical moments I almost lost the kids on more than one occasion: first the girls mutinied at the three-legged race; later the boys wanted to play basketball more than tug of war; finally they all wanted to watch a fascinating TV program more than the last event of the day. In each case Hazel, one of the high school students and my de facto translator/ co-organizer, and Ben were amazing helps in corralling the kids back to the events. We found ourselves in a breathtaking tie (which I didn’t engineer, but may have nudged a tiny bit) after the last event – which meant we needed a tie-breaker: a watermelon eating contest! I brought out the two quarters Ben had cut ten minutes before, and everyone watched and cheered as each team’s champion, without using their hands scarfed down their piece. We took the winning team to KFC (the height of class here in China, and the only one in the whole city) and I bought them each an ice cream cone, while the losing team got the remaining watermelon and a half. If I found out a way to post pictures, I will post some of the many that Ben took. It was a great day.

I just took a short break from this long epistle to give the kindergarteners the photos of them that I had printed, and arrived in time to find some actual discipline occurring, both in general and with the particular child I mentioned earlier. I may need to revise some of my earlier statements, or at least acknowledge that these teachers in the long term may not be as willing to lead as chaotic classroom as it seems.

As I look back on my time here, it is with mixed thoughts. My experience has definitely had fewer concrete results than I had expected and hoped for. Certainly I did not sail in and solve everyone’s problems, but then again, what is needed here is not short-term saviors, but long-term stability. Certainly for me the experience has been educational, the friendships forms real, and the generousity given to me by the kids, staff, and volunteers has all been more than I could expect. As I leave tomorrow, I want to do something really nice for nearly everyone here, either for helping me wash my clothes, or finding my camera, or getting a seat for me a the dining table, or giving my bowl a few extra dates or pieces of meat, or taking me shopping for necessities, or showing me the ropes. And while I do look forward to adventuring again, meeting new people and going wherever the trains take me, I do want to come back. Maybe next year.


Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Journey Continues

Dear America,

At my orphanage, the kindergarteners stay inside the compound the entire day and the primary and middle school students come home for meals and at night, but the high school and college students come home less frequently. Many of them, especially the high school students who are in Gongyi itself, come home on the weekends. As a result, I looked forward to my first weekend here;as a change from the kindergarten, which I felt only somewhat helpful in, I could hopefully build bridges (figuratively speaking) with the older kids. I did indeed get to spend time with some of them, as well as a college student, Hank, who was back to gather some information he needed to get his passport in the hopes of studying at an American seminary after he graduates. I've since had some good conversations with him and with Ben Godard (the American fellow who is here learning in order to start his own orphanage) about the Holy Spirit, and the necessity or efficacy of father's blessings.

The evening of the first full day I passed up an opportunity to go ot a pre-wedding banquet for one of the kindergarten teachers because I wasn't too sure if I, not having been invited, would be welcomed. Apparently the number of foreigners that you have at your wedding is directly linked to your prestige (one lucky employee ended up with an entire group of visiting foreigners all tagging along to his wedding, and his prestige leaped because of it), and having me along would only have made things better for her. I'll be keeping my eye out for another opportunity, however, as I've heard that the Chinese tend to spare no effort or expense in their weddings.

I did get another opportunity to got out when Justin, a fellow who had worked here for a summer a few years ago, came back with his girlfriend to visit for the weekend. On Sunday we foreigners and Hank wandered around the local Song Dynasty tombs and park (which to our delight had free admittance), which was actually one of the nicer historical sites. No one is allowed inside the actual tomb area, but rhere is a big hill built up to one side, so we climbed the hill and could see over the wall into the large, peaceful woods and grass on the inside, with a massive mound marking the place of the tombs. It was nice change from the crowded, dirty, and often commercialized other cultural sites I've visited. Afterwards we returned to the Godard's house for an informal worship service and message delivered on the old testament law as understood and applied in the new covenant. We finished the evening with Justin treating us all to Hot pot with the addition of Nathan, his two adopted kids, and the Godard children (who really were too tired, but couldn't be left at home). The dinner was a rich fare which made a pleasant change from the food I'd been eating at the orphanage.

In the week or so prior to coming to China, between wedding dinners, my mother's inspiration at having all her children at home, and various oother factors, I ended up eating like a (western) king at nearly every single meal. From champaigne and beef with mustard sauce, however I went to boiled wated and a bowl of sliced beans. It took most of the week to adjust to the different food: at home I eat almost everything except vegetables, while here my diet consists almost entire of vegetables. A bowl of cucumbers for breakfast, a bowl of seaweed and tomatoes for lunch, and a bowl of tofu and spinach for dinner, each meal with a mantou, the Chian plain white bun. Comforts such as jelly, butter and cheese were non-existent, while other staples of my life (eggs, meat, fruit) were scarce. This is not to say in any way that my eating has been poor, nor let my gentle readers assume that I am ungrateful for hte food provided for me. I simply seek to reavel the great contrast in my diet.

In recent days, I have gotten more used to this simple fare, and have come to accept it. When there truly is no other option, it becomes amazingly easy to accept what is presented; and as always when I go beyond my own home, I find that through immersing myself completely in the culture of my destination I learn more from it. While I would not choose to life my entire life eating bowls of vegetables with nary a cow in sight, I am enjoying it for this time. (Though honesty requires me to admit that one day when I went out shopping for some things with Ben, I purchased and consumed with great relish a bottle of orange juice -- 16% juice!)

In addition to adjusting to a new diet, it took me a few days to learn the vagarities of the dining system. Breakfast is available anywhere from before I wake up (sometime before 5:30 am) to about 7:15 am on most days. You might be able ot get it a little later if for some reason people didn't eat a lot. Lunch, however, is served promptly two minutes after teh kids arrvice back from school, and will be done with by 12:45 at the latest, a winded of half an hour. I unknowingly arrived at 12:30 one day to discovered the food all consumed, and was punished for it by a guilty conscience when I discovered that the reason the cook had told me to wait a little was because she was cooking me up a personal portion! Dinner is a little more relaxed, but again I have learned not to dawdle for many minutes after the bell buzzes.

I tend to eat slowly, even by American standards. My good meal is one with good company which, an hour after the last of the good food has been consumed, we all are still sitting around the table talking; and this is an ideal that I always strive for and occasionally acheive. I understand that at least in some circles and on some occasions, this is shared by Chinese people (with, perhaps, a bit more beer and hard liquer than I'd prefer). In other times and among other people, such as my current place and time, the greatest virtue of a meal is in volume of food consumed over time spent consuming it. As I make my half-hearted attempts to figure out what I'm eating, enjoy my food, and still eat quickly, I inevitable end up sitting alone at the end of each meal, finishing up my first bowl of gurel or what have you, while my campanions, having arrived after me, have eaten two and a half bowls, already washed their dishes and are gone. It is not something I particularly mind (I naturally would prefer if others shared my concept for a good meal) but does reveal fascinating cultural differences: they tell me, "Quickly finish your food!" and I ask, "Why?" And they say, "I don't know!" But the urgency still remains. Some say the food is the most important part of Chinese culture. It's a fascinating culture.


Coming soon: more thoughts on kindergarten, organizing a competition, and breaking new ground.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Settling into the Orphan Life

Dear America,

Having spent the past hour or so continuing to set up my blog, I'd like to take a few minutes to share with you my experiences. I have been doing the usual sly things like back-dating my posts so that they are time-stamped to the time I actually wrote them (at which point, in a pre-blog incarnation with a few more typos, they were updates to my parents confirming that I was still alive), and of course making a few customizations to the color scheme for the benefit of my gentle readers. To say "for the benefit of my readers" is entirely accurate, since I myself cannot actually read my blog. While China's censors allow me to uperate all aspects of the back-end of my blog (including a complete "preview" option), it stops short of letting me view the finished product. As such, I feel a little like a voice shouting out into the voice, never hearing quite how I sound. (Which is probably just as well, because I've been astonished at how tinny and nasal my voice sounds, those few times I've had the misfortune to be exposed to a recording of it; while I do not operate under the fantasy that my voice is a rich bass or a full baritone, the voice in my head -- so to speak -- sounds at least tolerable. The extent to which my speaking aloud must contribute to the world's sound polution is disheartening -- but I digress.)

It has now been a full week here at the orphanage, with time passing both quickly and slowly. While my two mission trips to Belize were thoroughly planned, rigorously scheduled, and fully explained (in some cases perhaps even over-explained), my time here has been almost the opposite. I was given an introduction to the half-dozen kids in theorphanage kinderdgarten the morning after I arrived, and after that left to fend for myself.

In the days following, I have discovered that it probably was a good thing that I had not planner some elaborate English-learning camp for the orphans who would eagerly hang on my every word, as at one point I had imagined the experience (in my defense, I was led on to this belief by a woman who had been involved here and was my contact most of my time back in the US), as most of the time the older kids are not in school they have homework to do. The amount of time they sit around idle waiting for some foreigner to swoop down and teach them things is, as you might imagine for any normal kid, actually rather small.

Barring grandiose plans, and also lacking any major flaw or project that I could tackle (like felling trees, painting schools, installing plumbing, etc.), I spent the first few days just getting the lay of the land on my own, as I was essentially abandoned to my own devices by Nathan, the head honcho here. In my quest for knowledge, an invaluable aid materialized in the form of Mr. and Mrs. Godard (mentioned already in the previous post). They have been great help in explaining not only the mundane aspects of life here (such as the Chinese people not wanting me to use the sink designated for the kids with hepatitis and what the schedule of meals is), but also much of the history of the people and place. They also have been very willing to help me out with any material needs I may have (such as helping me purchase a time piece) and to relay to me some of their own stories of adjustment. In short, they have been a remarkable assistance and great blessing in preventing my visit here from being excessively confusing and discourage, in many different ways.

My days gradually have fallen into a holding pattern designed to maximize interaction with the kids. I wake up between 5 and 5:45 am to breakfast before 6:10, when all the elementary and middle school kids leave on their bus. I then read my Bible, practice Chinese, or the one English book I brought (already finish, alas!) until 7, when the kindergarten kids get their breakfast, and begin their day at 7:30 with the two kindergarten teachers doing morning calisthenics with them (once I even got roped into it, complete with ridiculous hand gestures and twirls). At some point before the calisthenics begin the three Godard children and their mother arrive to join in the fray. From 8 until noon, I help out in the kindergarten (which itself warrants more treatment than I have time or spirit to describe in full here, though I think my many years as a seasoned babysitter of Korean Bible studies were time well spent in preparation!), after which I bail for lunch with the big kids, who have returned from school for their two and a hlaf hour lunch break and siesta. It's sometimes a good time to help those who have English homework with it, or chat with those who don't. After the kids pack up and go back to school sometime after 2 pm begins the long hot stretch of afternoon inactivity;; some days I catch up my e-mail and write updates (today, for instance), other days I nap. One day the chaos in the kindergarten was bad enough that I heard it down in my room with my doors closed, so I went back up to help for the afternoon too. When 6 (though recently the schools changed something, so now its 7 pm) rolls around, the bus comes back again, dinner is served and scarfed down, following by evening homework, sometimes basketball, and more conversations. An early bedtime between 8:30-9:30 ensures a healthy night of sleep, and the day begins again!

Coming soon: The weekend; orphanage gruel; character sketches; and more!