I’d like to be able to tell you that the last, oh, almost month or so I’ve been held hostage by radical fundamentalists that prey on English teachers abroad, or that I’ve been traipsing around the globe in search of the meaning of life, but I cannot. No, the simple truth of the matter is I’m horrible at commitment.
I belong to about half a dozen forums ranging in topics from writing to natural sciences, and I’ve lost touch with all of them because I can’t seem to just adhere to a routine. I’m sure I could say that I’m just a serial non-joiner, but that’s not really true, either…I mean, I suppose it’s almost true. I like taking a look at the perks membership brings, but when anything more than a cursory glance every now and then is expected of me I get the shakes. I’ve even joined a few gyms over the years and then consequently rediscovered the great outdoors. I just got no follow-through.
Sometimes I wonder what it’d be like to have a pen pal, but then I realize that I’d probably end up writing the greeting letter and then fake my own death after a few weeks so I wouldn’t have to carry on the correspondence. My “pal” would feel obligated to return a heart-felt—handwritten—missive expressing his condolences to whatever fabricated family member’s name I scribbled in the preceding epistle’s signature line and I’d feel like a royal pain. All because I can’t commit.
Perhaps I am being a bit melodramatic? Never!
If you’ve established a routine of checking this blog each week over the course of the last month, hoping for some tell-tale sign that we are in fact alive, I’m sorry. If you’ve stumbled upon this blog in hopes of learning something new…goodluck!
When we last saw our heroes they were just settling into their new jobs as English teachers on the east coast of China in a city by a bay called Dalian…The city not the bay is called Dalian…Ok, I’m done referring to myself in the third person. Creeps me out.
It’s perplexingly odd how normal and commonplace living in a different country can become. Our schedule has solidified into something that is steady and even our daily habits are becoming truly habitual. Nope, pretty sure that wasn’t redundant. Even having to mop the bathroom floor following every shower isn’t as annoying as it was those first few weeks. We’ve managed to pin down a bus schedule that saves us from having to walk the mile and a half to and from work every day, which is nice since winter decidedly kicked fall in the back of the head and told him to get outta here this past week.
Anymore, our on-going battle seems to be with procuring food enough for our snacking proclivities and balancing that with mildly nutritious meals. There are a bunch of restaurants around to choose from, but when you’re attempting to cut back on the monthly expenses frugality is a must. We’ve stumbled upon a few cheap places that definitely offer authentic Chinese cuisine, but, honestly, there’s only so much you can do with rice before you’re just refusing to call it rice. I’m not too keen on sea food, and Noelle is beginning to draw lines in the sand with those mom and pop shops that all look and taste the same. Luckily, when our dedication to authenticity is running thin and the old taste buds want something familiar we have a local import store called Sunny’s. Although their prices are comparable to American stores Sunny’s is significantly more expensive than many other places around us, so we try to “tough” it out until we just don’t care about price anymore. We’re learning to branch out and try different things in other places, but one thing I won’t budge on is milk. Even though it’s from France, the 1% half gallon I pay 17 rmb for is so much better tasting than the tepid stuff they sell in boxes at the markets in town.
We’ve been taking Chinese lessons twice a week for a few weeks now, and every once in a while I can understand one word out of a hundred when some of our Eastern staff chat in Mandarin. Rumor has it that our pronunciation is actually pretty good, but I dunno about that. I’ve managed to pick up some polite phrases and even some bargaining skills, but I still doubt I’m ready to carry on a conversation with even a two year old. I’m loving everything involved with learning the language, but it’s a bit disconcerting when the students laugh uncontrollably when they hear you say even the simplest word in Chinese. I kid you not, to make a point I said the Chinese word for apple and the class burst into fits of riotous laughter. Apparently I said it right and had the tone correct. They just thought it was hilarious that their English teacher said a word in Chinese.
Our staff has been amazing this whole time. The other Western teachers and the Eastern teachers have been unconditionally helpful with everything from the mundane to the particular. Even ordering water is taken out of our hands. We just ask a staff member if she can call the water place and have a jug delivered and she does it right away. What’s more interesting is the fact that, for more than two months now, the water guy has never been a minute late. He says 9 am, by God it’s 8:58-8:59 exactly. Not a minute after. Pretty impressive actually, considering he has to carry the heavy jug up four flights of stairs to get it to us.
Sending money home is just one of the many other details of our emerging life we have needed assistance with. On his day off, the curriculum director—our immediate supervisor—went with us to the bank to set up our accounts and go through the process of getting money sent across the pond back to the good old U S of A. It was a two plus hour ordeal that he didn’t balk at or complain about. Like I said, the staff is great.
Getting into the swing of lesson planning here has taken some effort, though. Because it’s not a public school, our school is run much like a high-standards after school program, complete with a competitive curriculum based on a very good series of EFL books and many different courses. Each week I write eleven lesson plans for nine 90 minute classes. Noelle’s course load is about the same. The classes have up to six students in them that have been pre-tested to gauge their English levels. Our curriculum is supplemented with an EFL reading and phonics website that helps complement the weekly classes with added context and cultural elements. Meshing the two resources so that it seems fluid and natural has been a challenge as well. As a teacher, I feel that my growth is going to come in the form of making lesson plans that are more student-centered and geared toward activities that focus on kinesthetic and experiential learning. That may sound exactly the same as an American teacher’s growth opportunities—and to a large extent it is—but when it comes to EFL it’s all about those foundational skills, which are the ones most American HS teachers never have to worry about at their grade level. In a big way, I’m learning the skills needed to teach students the foundation of what they will need when they get to my actual area of concentration. When we get back to the states and begin teaching again I will hopefully have a better understanding of the smaller building blocks my students are bringing to the HS classroom. In that way I can direct lessons that stem from and build on what they’ve learned over the years more easily than I have in the past.
Beyond the classroom, the last month or so has had some ups and downs. A huge up was our Halloween party at the school and after. The whole staff set the school up with fun activities on the top floors and a haunted house and apple bobbing station in the basement. Yes, I was one of the people wearing a mask and scaring the children as they walked through the haunted house. THAT made my night. Demented, I know. Everyone had a blast and when it was all done the staff hung out for a bit and took a bunch of pictures. Then, still in our garb, the Western staff took two cabs to Five Color City.
In this region of China there is a serious drinking culture that doesn’t just include alcoholics and bums but white collar business men and professionals having meetings. It’s not uncommon for a business meeting in the afternoon to include several beers for each participant. It’s more than a social lubricant, too. It acts as a buffer for serious occasions and creates an atmosphere where everyone is open and “honest” with one another. Great way to do business, eh? Anyway, I digress. Five Color City is Kaifa Qu’s resident “area” for that cultural gem.
We all went out to FCC and it’s safe to say that most of us got some curious glances. The theme for the Western staff’s outfits was Willy Wonka. We had a Willy, Mike Teevee, Varuca Salt, Violet Beauregarde, Agustus Gloop, Charlie, Grandpa Joe, and even an Oompa Loompa. Noelle and I were late to the preparations since we got to Dalian so late, but we managed to find some matching candy-oriented shirts and some bright colors to deck ourselves out in. The consensus was that we were Ever-lasting Gobstoppers. It worked.
The night went late into the evening and the following morning was more like early afternoon. We had a recouping day at the apartment of two other staff members where we watched Halloween movies all day and ate pizza. Good times.
And then November showed up and along with it my month-long cold. Since November first I’ve basically been sick. Low energy, cough, sneezes, runny nose, headaches! Blah. Despite that inconvenience, I’ve managed to make it out to hike through the trails twice and I haven’t missed a day of work. This week we’re having a Thanksgiving dinner as a staff at a restaurant in town. I love that we’re doing something for the holiday, but by this time back home all the stores and even some of the streets are already decorated and ready for Christmas. Here there’s nothing but the chilled wind to remind you that the winter holidays are around the corner. Makes me a bit nostalgic for things I always thought I didn’t care for. Soon December will be here and Christmas and New Years will come and go. This time of the year is difficult for traveler’s abroad, but it’s that shared feeling of the winter blues that brings us closer. We make the holidays special ourselves by keeping up with some of our traditions from home and even by playing Christmas music throughout the apartments (Noelle is currently playing Trans Siberian Orchestra). Hopefully Skype works on Christmas, because I’m sure that there will be many people testing out the limits of the service.
I can’t really mope, though. We still count ourselves supremely lucky to be doing something so extreme. We wanted to go abroad and now we’re here. We wanted to get jobs right out of school and now we have them. We wanted to see the world and now we are. We wanted stories to tell and now we most definitely have some. Everyday we’re adjusting to life here more and more. Some days China kicks our faces into the dirt and other days we outsmart her enough to secure the Win. With the help of our curriculum director, I’ve begun writing again and even have someone to talk to about my passion, and Noelle has joined a gym that she feels comfortable with. We’re walking a tightrope, but I think there’s a net down there now…
One of my adult students sent me this flash video about China. If it works for those back in the states it’s worth a look. Pretty interesting and accurate.