Letters from China (Getting Settled 2007)

I arrived in China about a week before the job started because I wanted time to get settled into my apartment and do things like find the grocery store. Barring a summer camp gig 2 years previous, this was my first real job abroad and although I didn’t pack quite as many unnecessary things in my luggage, I was still far from being the veteran hit the ground running traveler that I am today. After discovering my LiveJournal account was blocked by the Great Firewall of China, my friends help me set up a message board where I could write home with the harrowing tales of my life in China. The footnotes are a recent addition for the republication.


Aug 29, 2007 at 11:40am

I braved the streets. Well, the alleys anyway. I thought I was going to be on my own, but I ran into the only other teacher who’s arrived. He’s totally American, but is of Taiwanese descent, so he gets treated pretty bad here. Everyone expects him to speak Chinese fluently, and he can’t. But we wandered down to the local supermarket, which is situated in a “walk street” where no cars are allowed, nestled among the shops and vendors, including the Famous California Noodle King. Don’t ask, cause I have no idea.

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I found a vendor selling some kind of melon¹ on a stick which turned out to taste like cantaloupe while looking nothing like it. So I had a tasty fresh fruit breakfast. (for about 13 cents)

The supermarket is 3 stories tall, but the third story was a separate store, a bit more like a department store, with shoes and clothes and stuff.

I picked up a variety of goods, some trash bags and cleaning stuff, some dried and frozen food, some really fascinating chocolate (Dove orange and hazelnut), but as of yet no Icy Mint Sprite²… tho I have not given up hope. This fantastic trip cost about 10$.

I’m sure I’ll be going back soonish, as I figure out what I need, but its not far away, about 2 blocks, and its a good excuse to get out. I got to see the other teacher’s schedule (tho I haven’t gotten mine yet) and it looks like we really do have fairly light loads. I’ll let you all know when I have a schedule what it is.

TTFN

¹It’s the Asian Melon. No really, that’s it’s name. They have it in Korea, too.

²Icy Mint Sprite was a beverage I discovered on my first visit to China in 2005 that tasted like non-alcoholic mojitos. I have never found it again.

Aug 29, 2007 at 8:11pm

We went into actual Beijing today. I live in a subcity (like a suburb, but more urban) called Yanjiao (pronounced yen-jaow). We took the bus to the main terminal, a 5 kuai trip (less than 1$)¹ and about 30-40 minutes. Then we took the subway a little further. The subway is actually fairly nice, and it goes both in a line through and a circle around the heart of Beijing. (A 3 kuai trip, less than 50c). We came out under a shopping mall, and when we went out onto the street it was apparently a main shopping drag, and full of shops for everything. I took some notes on how to get there, and I should be able to get back on my own. Even if I don’t want to go back to the same shopping center, there is a stop for Tienanmen, that might be nice to explore, and of course, once downtown, I can also take taxis around if I really need to. I won’t get paid till mid September, so I probably won’t do much shopping beyond basic needs till then, but its still nice to know how to get around.

The only other teacher here yet is rather nice, but totally out of place. I mentioned before that he’s Chinese descent, but American raised. He’s also an I.T. guy and apparently doesn’t really like exploring. He said he’s going to look at this year like a year in prison, and use it to keep a perspective on how great life in America really is. I find this a little depressing, since I look at this whole thing as a great adventure, but it does really put some perspective on this for me to know that so few ppl really want adventure.

Still, he’s a sci-fi geek and a Joss Whedon fan, and he wants to work for the feds too², so at least we have stuff to talk about. I hope some of the other teachers will want to explore more, since I prefer to explore in company… not that I won’t go off on my own if there’s none available, but its nice not to have to.

Finding ppl online at all hours has also been really nice. It means I have a little piece of home whenever I need it, and it makes me feel like i’m not so far away. I hope you all won’t get tired of talking, IMing, posting etc.

loves, Me

¹The Chinese currency is the Renminbi (RMB), also called the Yuan, and colloquially called “kuai”. At the time I was living there, 1USD was about 7.5RMB (kuai). 

²I had this strange notion that I would take my degree in International Studies and work for the US government to uphold democracy, international security, and diplomatic relations. Still, dodged a bullet there, eh?

Aug 30, 2007 at 12:54pm

I met my TA this morning, who had the dubious task of explaining my schedule and responsibilites to me. At least she spoke pretty good English.

The schedule is bizarre all by itself. To start, it is a 20 week semester. Simple enough. The 5th week is a holiday week. OK. All the class times AFTER the holiday move half an hour earlier….uh huh. SOME of my classes don’t start until after the holiday; some end on the 15, 17 or 19th weeks. I have a paper schedule, but I’m thinking of redoing it all so I can understand it.

Monday I’m teaching 2 classes until after the holiday, then 3. one from 1005-1150, another from 230-415 and the third, although written from 430-615 is presumably from 4-545 since that will not start until after the holiday, when the other classes change to 925-1120 and 2-345…I think.

Tuesday its just 2 classes back to back in the morning, from 8am-1150, with the same loverly time shift.

Wed is only one class from 230-415

Thurs theres one at 8 and another at 430, 2 hrs each

Fri just one at 8am

Now, the fun starts:

I have 5 CLASSES, and only 3 COURSES

Course 1 has classes a, b, and c, each of which meet only once a week, and while they will all have different students, they all use the same book and lesson plan.

Courses 2 and 3 have only one class but they meet 2x a week.

There’s also the late starting class, but I’m not sure what that is yet, since I’ve been told they’ll explain it later.

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Then there is the PAPERWORK:

For each class meeting I have an attendance sheet, which the class monitor will write each students name in Chinese and English according to a numerical assignment, and I will track attendance and homework (a combined 30% of the grade I might add)

There is also the course schedule which has a sort of overview of the entire semester’s lesson plan for each class, meaning I have to fill out 5, and they need 4 copies of each.

Then there are the “preface to the lesson” forms which must be filled out for every single class meeting and stapled to my lesson notes.

There are also forms for the final assessment (70% of the grade) but my TA took mercy on me and said we could go over them later in the semester.

I’ll be getting some electric copies of these forms which I shall endeavor to transmit to you all so you can share my pain.

Oh!, and I have to give a lecture in the 9th week, 2 hrs, and i’m thinking of giving it on RPing and the Sci-fi fantasy community, since I can’t think of anything else I can talk about for 2 hrs without getting in trouble here.

Note: I am so jealous of past me’s schedule…12-15 hours a week of teaching time? To put it in perspective, in KSA I taught 27.5 hours of class a week, in Japan I taught 35 hours of class a week, and in Korea I teach 22 hours of class a week. In case you’re curious, never take a job with more than 25, aim for less than 20.

Aug 31, 2007 at 8:01pm

By request, I shall talk about all the interesting food I have experienced so far.

My first meal here was Tuesday’s lunch in the restaurant adjoining the hotel here on campus, where we were taken by the coordinator. It was a buffet and I could not begin to name the dishes, but they were all tasty. My favorite appeared to be eggplant and some kind of root vegetable (I won’t swear to potato). I think I could have eaten a mountain of it.

The next day I went to the store and got the melon onna stick spoken about in earlier posts. From the store, food-wise, I got some chocolate (of course) but of an unusual flavor: orange and hazelnut, which turned out to be bits of candied orange and bits of hazelnuts in Dove milk chocolate (its the most popular chocolate brand here, and comes in MANY more flavors than Dove makes in America). I bought some black rice crackers that I became fond of the last time I was here. They are light and crispy with a little bit of sugar frosting on top. I also got some oatmeal, because, as boring as it is, its good for upset tummies. I experimented a little by picking out a bag from the frozen food section. It had a picture of (raw) meat on skewers on the front, as well as of cows in a meadow, though I’m reasonably sure from the characters that its actually sheep, I keep meaning to look it up but haven’t¹. (more on this later, as I didn’t actually eat it on Wed). I discovered that there was a fresh soy product center in the store and bought some marinated tofu and fresh soy milk, which tastes nothing like the soy milk in the states, but it nonetheless tasty. The marinated tofu was ok, but a little bland, marinated tofu usually has more taste. And lastly I bought some apples, which were reminiscent of fuji or braeburns, crisp, fresh and lightly sweet.

Thursday I went back to the store in quest of more supplies (not wanting to carry too much all at once, I’m taking my time), but found that the store was not yet open, so I partook of some rice dumplings from a nearby vendor. These are sticky rice squished around a filling of some kind and wrapped in bamboo leaves then boiled or steamed. Not knowing the difference between the two types she offered, I got one of each (at a kuai a pop). One was definitely filled with red bean paste, a kind of sweet mush of a distinctive yet mild flavor, and the other I could not identify… it was fruit of some kind, reminiscent of dates², but very strong in flavor with an almost caramelized (almost burnt sugar) aftertaste. I think it would have been better if there were less of it, but I found it too strong.

For lunch I decided to cook up some of those mystery meats, and it turned out they were cooked and spiced and only needed heating up. Once warm, they revealed a mostly tender meat with a few bits of stringiness, but in small chunks so not unpleasant, very moist and spiced predominantly with garlic and cumin (again lending credence to the sheep theory as cumin and mutton are a common combination). They were quite surprisingly tasty.

Later in the evening, past the midday HOT, I returned to the store, got more chocolate (surprise) and experimented more. I found a packet of cookie/cake things with English ingredients which revealed it to be made of mung bean and pea flours with floral essences and a bit of sugar. They are very dry, but not crispy, they’re soft, almost powdery, and go very well with tea (hot or iced) and I’d bet coffee as well. I found some rice cookies with chocolate filling, and I am a bit underwhelmed. They are crispy, but a little oily and the chocolate is barely tasteable. I will not be buying those again. I broke down and got some Nescafe, at least until I get back into Beijing downtown to a Starbucks for some ground coffee and a machine of some kind. I will not discuss Nescafe.

I got some more mystery meat skewers (same kind as before, its good to have something at home I know I can eat³), some fried tofu puffs which were nice, but need a sauce of some kind, which I will look for next time. I also got a coffee cola (not Coke Black but something else) but I haven’t opened it yet, so I don’t know how it tastes. And finally, fantastic peaches (omg). The fruit here is so fresh and so good. They were that perfect peach texture, not too hard, but not mushy, lightly sweet with a thin skin that was only lightly tart and not at all bitter. Juicy enough to make you slurp, but not so juicy you need a napkin. Perfect.

On the way out, I stopped to buy a roasted chicken from another street vendor and I think he teased me about not going to KFC next door, but I couldn’t really tell… regardless, the chicken was fantastic! A light sweet and spicy sauce had been used in the roasting and coated the chicken with its baked on goodness. It was a little small by American standards, but soooo much better and not injected or anything, just chicken. The meat, even the white, was quite moist and tender, and lead me to think I will risk more KFC jokes to get more†.

Today (Friday) I quested out to a restaurant on my own for dinner. (Currently all my ventures have told me that I have forgotten a lot about Chinese language, and really need practice, so I’ve been reticent to dine alone). Not being cognizant enough to try to decipher the menu, I ordered xi hong shi chao ji dan (that egg and tomato dish‡). It was a little saltier in the egg than I would have liked, and used green onions instead of cilantro, changing rather seriously the overall taste of the dish. I don’t know as of yet if this is regional or merely restaurant specific, but I’m sure i’ll find out eventually. There was easily 2 servings on my plate (no rice) and the meal was still less than 1$….ah I love the economy of food here.

So I think that’s it on food for now, hope you food fans enjoyed the descriptions, I’m sure there will be more to follow.

¹ I studied Mandarin Chinese in university for two years and a bit, but hadn’t had any classes during my final year, so I was a bit rusty.

² These are jujubes, also known as Asian dates, or Chinese dates. Hence the date flavor.

³ I was gluten and dairy free when I moved to China and didn’t discover my ability to tolerate the wheat and milk there for several months.

† The best chicken, the Chicken of Tasty. It is still spoken about with awe and reverence. I went there once a week at least the entire time I lived there, and it became a point of pride for the owner that the American girl liked his food better than KFC.

‡ Probably still my favorite Chinese food. It’s made of eggs and tomatoes stir-fried in garlic, ginger, cilantro and probably some soy sauce. I ate it as often as possible and miss it like crazy.

Sep 10, 2007 at 6:12pm

Sorry I haven’t posted in a while, I’ve been sick, as many of you know. I think (knock on wood) its getting better.

In any case, my first week of school was ok. My students are reasonably bright, but pretty shy. The textbooks are fairly easy to use. The schedule is not to stressful, as most days I only have one class and never more than 2 in a a day¹.

The three classes I’m teaching are:

1) a basic Sophomore required English conversation class, we start out by discussing vocabulary and new concepts and move into listening and speaking exercises. I think they’re having fun.

2) a Junior level advanced conversation class, that I’m still trying to wrap my brain around how to teach because the book is strangely organized. Last week I tried to teach blind, having not gotten the book in advance and borrowing one of the student’s books to teach from. I hope it gets better.

3) a reading comprehension class, which was a little tough last week because I don’t think the students really prepared, but I told them they had to read ahead and look up new words on their own if they didn’t know them in order to be prepared to discuss the readings in class. We’ll see.

As for the rest of my life last week, well, sickness ate a lot of it. I’ve been a couch potato. Watched “Heroes” and started “Lost”, omg what a messed up island… there’s a pretty reliable source of cheap but bad dvds around here.

I met more of the other teachers.

70b kevin and a guard

Kevin (right) is from Wisconsin. He arrived last Sat. with no Chinese money or language skills, and not even an ATM card to get Chinese money. Poor guy. So I bought him dinner, and we’ve been hanging out, usually having at least one meal a day together, cause its nice to have company, and he has at least a passing chance of knowing what he’s about to eat if I order. He’s a bit of a frat boy type, beer, pizza, ultimate Frisbee, but he was never in a frat, and was also a drama nerd occasionally. He’s super excited to be here and he’s pretty good company.

Adam (not pictured) is also from Wisconsin, tho they didn’t know each other. He’s an anime geek and brought like 400 dvds with him, cause he’s afraid he won’t be able to get anime here… or at least not in English. He talks more than anyone I’ve ever met (including me), even I had trouble getting a word in edgeways. He says he studied Chinese, but I’ve never heard him speak it, he either points to what he wants on the menu or lets me order. He’s also a really picky eater, but I guess that’s his loss. He seems like he means well tho, I mean, he’s not an asshole, he just lacks some social polish, but hey, we all know how gamer/anime geeks can be about that. I’m hoping some of its nervousness about being here and meeting new ppl and will wear off soon.

Erwin (not pictured) came out of his hole to have diner with us yesterday and was actually smiling. (this was the guy who was all depressed about being here, and said he was comparing this year to a year in prison, so yay for smiling). I think maybe his initial yicks are wearing off.

Not much excitement, mostly resting, teaching and going to dinner with the other teachers. I hope that my cold will be gone soon, I really want to go exploring more, and I just don’t have the energy for it right now.

We’re going into Beijing on Wed. I have to get a medical exam, and I’m going to try to open a bank account², but I won’t have time to explore, cause I’ve got class Wed afternoon. I suppose that the upside is that if I’m late that day it won’t be my fault since the department scheduled the Dr. appt. Oh, and don’t panic, its a routine exam required by the gov’t to make sure i’m not going to infect the country. I’m not THAT sick…

my love and hugs, k

¹ So. Jealous.

² I never did open a bank account in China. It turned out to be nearly impossible for a foreigner to do so, since we had to undergo a waiting period and keep the equivalent of 500 USD in the account at all times. That was nearly a whole month’s salary, and I sent half my salary back to the US every month to pay bills, so I could never save enough to open the account.


It’s almost painful for me to leave these letters minimally edited (some punctuation and spelling got fixed). I know I was writing causally to friends but it’s not unlike reading high school poetry… really? I wrote that? I took a lot of pictures in the early days, but didn’t actually post them until later. Sorry for the wall of text.

Reflections? I really miss university teaching, and am glad I’ve decided to go back to that next school year! I miss having English speaking co-workers. EPIK teachers in Korea are fairly isolated. We can make friends and attend group events outside of work, but it’s hit or miss if we have anyone in the same neighborhood, and we’ll never have someone at the same school. I miss real Chinese food so much. The Korean idea of Chinese food is limited to sweet and sour pork and a noodle dish I’ve actually only encountered in Korea called Jajangmyeon (they insist it is Chinese food). Taiwan is seriously looking good for the next country.

 

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Why I’m Not An English Babysitter

I am dedicated to tolerance, understanding and bringing good things to the internet, so I don’t normally bring my soapbox with me to this blog. There are plenty of issues around the world that make me seethe to myself or to my friends over a few beers, but generally I don’t think I’m going to change the world with a blog post, so that’s where it stops. However, since becoming a person who identifies as a teacher, I’ve come to notice this really insidious problem.

Disclaimer: This is in no way disrespecting the babysitters, kindergarten teachers, au pairs and other caregivers/educators of the young. YOU GUYS ARE AWESOME.  This is a rant about something that I perceive as a problem in our global education and childcare ideals. 


In my whole life I’ve never wanted kids. Never. I hear this is a really controversial topic right now, like all over Twitter, because people like to trash women who don’t use their ovaries as being selfish or not fulfilling their life’s purpose. Well, &$*#! ’em. We have 7 billion people on earth, we really don’t need the product of my ovaries to survive as a species.

       

It’s not that I hate children. My sister has two, and I love them to bitty pieces. I lived with some friends and their new baby for over a year and I really enjoyed watching her grow. When my friends bring their kids to events I might have an epic pillow fight or a crazy treasure hunt. People tell me all the time how good I am with kids. Still doesn’t make me want one of my own, and it doesn’t mean I want to spend my whole day with them. Mine or someone else’s.

I’m a teacher, so I want to help others. I enjoy working with young people to help them reach their dreams. For me, part of what makes this so rewarding is that the students have dreams to pursue, and another part is that they can share their lives and culture with me too. It’s almost impossible for me to do this with small kids (under 8 is the traditional definition of early childhood, by the way). I’m not really sure how much of that is me and how much is them, but it doesn’t really matter since I’m not burning to start a pre-school career. What matters is that asking, “what color is it?” twenty times in a row and getting super excited over every answer is not as fulfilling a lesson for me as it is for the 4 year olds (or this woman).

Am I doing it wrong? Probably, I’m not trained in early childhood education!

I have done some reading about childhood neurological development so while I am no expert I do know that it takes quite some time for the brain to fully develop. There’s a good chance it’s not done till the mid-20s, and it’s certainly not done at 4-5. I’ve also met some people who have gone to school for early childhood education, like MAs and PhDs school. One of my biggest pet peeves about my own education is when people assume that because they read a book or watched a documentary or took an intro level class in undergrad that they know as much (or more) about my field than I do. Or even worse, that if I can’t compress my years of intense study and research into a 15 minute conversation that just proves I’m a) elitist, or b) wrong.

Because of this, I don’t presume that a little bit of on the job training makes me remotely qualified to teach early childhood education. I’m pretty sure if we could learn it in a few hours people wouldn’t be getting MAs and PhDs in it. Oh, and lets not forget all the non-education related parts of dealing with children including behavior, communication, discipline and health (I’m not really up for cleaning up snot or any other bodily fluid). And yet, schools and parents seem to think that they can throw their kids in with any old native English speaker and *poof* education will happen!

Job after job that advertises for “teachers” but actually wants English babysitters are flooding career websites. And you know what, there’s nothing wrong with wanting your teeny toddler exposed to a second language early on. Lots of clever folks with degrees and research studies think that’s a great way to help them become bilingual. But I promise you, a couple hours a week of singing ABC and counting to 10 is NOT creating a bilingual genius in your kid. These “schools” are scamming parents and teachers alike and it’s got to stop.

First of all: teachers, early childhood educators, babysitters, and au pair/nannies are all different things. Teachers study techniques for classroom management, lesson planning, student evaluation, etc. that are based in a classroom environment of 20-30 students studying a subject with specific learning goals. Those techniques don’t work under a certain age.

Enter early childhood educators. These folks are working on specific learning goals in a less than full classroom structure combining regular play activities and learning goals. There’s all kinds of literature about learning through play, what kind of cognitive development to expect from the different ages (hint: it changes a lot more between a 2 and 4 year old than it does between a 12 and 14 year old), whether or not to favor constructivist or experiential learning, and how insanely important this stage of learning/ development is for a child’s success in life. It pretty much looks nothing like teaching the 8+ crowd.

Babysitters are short term childcare. You want to go to a movie tonight, call the sitter and they can make sure your kids get fed, brush their teeth and go to bed on time. Nannies/au pair are full time childcare, they may live with you or just be around every day for a few hours between school and bedtime, and while they might help older kids with homework from time to time, their main function is the overall well-being of the kids: to feed, bathe, discipline and entertain, not to teach them.

Is there overlap in these jobs? Of course. But that Venn diagram is four distinct circles with slivers of overlap, not one mushy blob. We are all doing ourselves and the children a huge disservice by seeing these positions as interchangeable. I guess, given the total lack of respect that both educators and childcare professionals get in the US that I shouldn’t be surprised by this trend elsewhere, but I can’t help it, I’m mad about it.

I’ll say this again: I’m not raising teachers above childcare professionals. I think they are both challenging, rewarding and important occupations. But I also think that they are totally different. Let’s look at some metaphors.

Airplanes

Essential to modern society. Someone needs to design the airplane, someone needs to build the airplane and someone needs to fly the airplane. There’s plenty of overlap in these jobs because they all have to know a bunch more about airplanes than you or me, but if you really think about this, you’ll realize how ridiculous it is to put an engineer in the cockpit solely on the basis that he designs planes, therefore he should know how to fly one.

But, Kaine, kids aren’t airplanes. No, they’re much more complicated, they just happen to be easier to make (and maybe slightly less expensive).

Healthcare

The healthcare system is pretty important to the functioning of society. If you go into a hospital, you expect that your examination and diagnosis will be done by a doctor. They’re kind of jerks most of the time, brusque and in a hurry, but they’re stuffed full of training and experience. Then a nurse, much nicer and with more time for you will come by and help us make sense of the diagnosis, treatments etc. A pharmacist will help you manage your medications, dosage and interactions. You may need a caregiver who can assist with administering those meds and keeping you clean and fed while you are too sick to do it all yourself. Caregivers may visit your home or you may live in a care facility that is not a hospital. All these positions are valuable, and all require years of medical training and they all deal with sick people, but in very different contexts. Part of it is training and part of it is temperament. Caregivers shouldn’t be making medical diagnoses due to lack of training, and while cardiac surgeons might know how to be in-home caregivers, they’d probably suck at it because they don’t want to be there, they want to be in the OR.

I could go on and on. I see this in IT all the time. People think that if you can do one thing with technology you should be able to do everything with technology. So they end up compressing incredibly different jobs further and further down in an attempt to pay the smallest number of people the least amount of money for the most work. And I can almost understand that attitude when it comes to your website, but your children?


Parents,

There’s no doubt that having more money means you can provide your kid more opportunities, but you still have to make smart decisions about where to spend it. So stop enabling scamming “English Schools” by throwing money at them to have teachers with no early childhood education training babysit your (under 8) kids in English and call it “learning”. Decide what you want and make sure that’s what you’re buying. Do you really want your kid to learn a second language? Then get enrolled in a school that has trained early childhood educators or hire an au pair who will help your kid learn naturally by constant daily interaction. Just want your kid out of your hair for a couple hours a day? Hire a babysitter or a daycare service. The only reason to send your kids to a school without properly trained teachers is to brag about it at book club. Stop.

Schools,

Advertise for the skills you really need. If you want to be an early childhood education school, then hire ECE trained/certified teachers. Don’t put up an ad for teachers and then describe the job as singing and dancing with 2-5 year olds all day. If you’d just be honest about what you want your staff to do, you’ll find qualified staff. I know folks who love working with kids but would never think to apply for your job because they don’t identify as “teachers”. I’ve met more than a few au pairs, many of whom see it as a great way to travel. They don’t want to “teach” either. And as a teacher, I don’t want to babysit. The only reason to call a babysitter a “teacher” is so you can pretend your daycare is a school. Stop.

Educators and Childcare professionals,

You are probably the most important group to take a stand here. All the jobs I’ve talked about are important, but different. Sure, there’s a lot of overlap, but there’s no reason for you to do work that you a) aren’t trained to do or b) didn’t sign up for.  Parents and employers try turn you into something you are not, and you let them. Stop.

Be proud of the role you have chosen in raising the next generation. You trained for it, you’re good at it and you enjoy it. (cause God knows we don’t do it for the money) Help yourself and the kids in your care out by reminding everyone you aren’t an interchangeable cog but a specific part of the growth and development of a future adult.