This is China: Thoughts from a Newcomer

My friend Tumi recently wrote this letter reflecting on his first few months living and teaching in China. I thought it was entertaining and captured the sentiment of many foreigners who have recently arrived in China. Please enjoy this guest post, and if you feel like it, leave him a comment.

Dear Friends,

The water heater stopped working the other day, and this happened on what I recall to be a rather normal Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon—it might have been evening, I forget. In any case, it happened. It just happened. On that particular day, I was getting ready for a casual dumpling (jaozi) dinner with a few friends of mine, and thought that a quick hot shower would help emancipate my body from the grossness that had set up tiny colonies around my neck and armpit regions. Believe me, I needed this shower. It was not until I was humming the second verse of “Billy Jean” that I realized that something was wrong, something was TERRIBLY wrong. With washcloth in hand and soap already in place for a tenacious struggle, I marched across the cold tile towards the kitchen, where the heater was, and in there examined the device briefly for any vital signs of mechanical life. To my great disappointment, there were none. “The manual,” I exclaimed. “Yes!” Why did I not think about this earlier? Unfortunately, this epiphanic moment was shortly followed by the sobering reality of a poor character-recognition record (I only know 1 – 6 really, and maybe the character for pork-dumplings, but that’s it). Standing there stupefied and helpless; I suddenly remembered that the heater was the spark-ignition type that needed batteries to initiate the gas-burning process— “perhaps that’s where the problem lies,” I reasoned. So, without wasting any time, I rummaged around the house for a pair of 1.5Vs, but found nothing. For some unknown reason, this latter discovery sufficed to leave me defeated. It was at that very moment, as I watched my body transform into an ashy prune that I was reminded of a phrase that I had heard from a Belgian friend of mine upon my arrival in Kunming: “This is China,” he had said.

The phrase “This is China” has become a familiar line among foreigners living in Kunming. It has occurred to me that these words carry more weight and meaning than maybe “This is the US” or even “This is Botswana,” for that matter. Unbeknownst to me was the utility of these words in dealing with some of the daily frustrations of living in China. Teaching at the university has admittedly been a testing experience, but there too I find solace in those three words. I am slowly adjusting to the realization that things here are just…different, that’s all— Sometimes things just happen and that’s all there is to it.

So, it so happens that I work at Yunnan’s “other” campus in Chenggong. The commute is about an hour long so I usually use that time to refine my lesson plan and to prepare myself mentally for class. The bus ride is often times boring and uneventful, and it is very easy to slip into an irritable mood when contemplating the classroom’s unpredictable forecast.

I teach both English reading and oral English classes at a freshman and sophomore level, twice a week respectively. These classes are divided into two 40 minute sessions with a 10 minute break in between. All classrooms are furnished with a blackboard, a desktop computer with a projector, and a teaching podium. The desks are rigidly organized into rows separated by aisles that partition the class into three sections. This classroom configuration, however, makes it hard to move around, and equally as hard to facilitate effective, interactive activities.

In addition, the classroom culture here continues to present itself as one of the greater challenges. The most trying thing about teaching has been the lack of participation in the classroom by students. When I ask a question, no student answers until he or she is called upon, and literally forced to give a response. I am aware that this phenomenon may be informed by social and cultural precedents, although I suspect that an element of shyness or fear of ridicule might be at play. In any case, we as foreign teachers are faced with the monumental task of improving the communicative skills of people whose lack of confidence in English speaking situations hinders us from gaining knowledge of where they are academically— it does not help that 60 or so students are enrolled in oral English classes. I understand that teaching is in and of itself a challenge, but when the environment is plagued with inconsistencies, the process is likewise affected. As Foreign teachers in China, we are faced with the common problem of implementing effective classroom management strategies that are conducive to constructive learning, using the little resources that we have at our disposal.

Though bombarded with these unyielding problems, my immunity to apathy and pessimism continues to impress me. Without doubt, there is a plethora of criticizable things about China— in fact, I sometimes think that there are as many points of improvement as there are people. For example, walking around some areas in Kunming, one is confronted by the unconcealed rawness of people’s social behavior: children urinating or taking ‘number twos’ on the sidewalks, people coughing up phlegm and spitting it carelessly by some unfortunate person’s foot, or older folks elbowing and shoving off children while scrambling for a space on the bus. When I witness such things I catch myself thinking “Wow, this would never happen in America.” But, I forget that life here in China has changed for many people, and both young and old are caught in the never-ending struggle of reconfiguring their lives to adapt to and accommodate burgeoning lifestyles.

Nevertheless, I love China. I love China for many reasons, some of which I cannot readily articulate even to myself. There is just something about this country, something curiously attractive about living here and the different ways that people adjust to living here. There are some things that I may never understand, but for now my comfort is found in this simple expression: This is China.

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One thought on “This is China: Thoughts from a Newcomer

  1. Nicely written – captures a lot of the feelings I have dealt with and continue to deal with…Those tricky water heaters are the bane of my existence too!

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