Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Letters from China

Owing to an excellent idea from Kevin, I have (as has Janet) recently begun writing letters to students in one of my classes. This particular class has the lowest English level among my classes and I have had some trouble getting them to speak. Since the students are generally able to write better than the can speak (having few opportunities to practice speaking), I had the whole class write me letters one day.

I took a box from the U.S. Post Office - thanks Mom and Dad for sending a package - in to class as our "mailbox." After the students finished, they put the letters in our mailbox. By the next class, I had a number of replies ready to deliver in the mail. I told them if they had mail to deliver to me in the future, to bring it to class and place it in the mailbox. I am hoping to spark a letter writing campaign here. This will give the students the chance to tell me things they may have trouble communicating orally, but most importantly, to get them practicing English outside of class. Most students said they never do!

The letters have mostly made for good reads so far. I plan on sharing some of the more entertaining lines that I get from students.

  • We are love you teach us because a good teacher is better than thousands of book.
  • First, I want to tell you our class is very like you, because you look very funny.
  • I know you are very hard and difficult to teach us. But, at the same time we are studying hard. So I will forgive us and like us as other class.
  • When I talked with you, my brain will become “stop,” look like the people saw the green light when through the road.
  • When I met you first time in our classroom I felt very surprise but at the same time I felt nervous too. Its too good to be true because you are a only one foreign teacher whose had taught me!
  • I am very happy that are become our new English teacher. You are very warm when we have English. I can’t understand what you say, I fell so boring. But I am still interested in English.
  • Did you enjoy there [China]? If bound to be strange at first. Never mind. You’ll be all right in a week or two.
  • I am very lazy so I don’t like to doing something (responding to my question - what do you like to do?).
  • You hope married in China? Chinese girl is very beautiful, isn’t it?
Those are a few highlights from my first round of letters. I have had a few letters start to trickle in after my initial replies and will share more in the future.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Sounds of English

While I have moved slightly past the "Ching Chang Chong" stage of listening to Chinese and can on occasion pick out a word or two, it is still mostly a bunch of sounds with no meaning to me. It doesn't help being in the south since outside of school or government work, most people speak in Cantonese. Sometimes, I find it very interesting that the steady stream of noise I hear has meaning to the people around me.

This raised a very interesting question the other day, something I have never previously thought about. What does English sound like? When I am talking to Janet during the day, the language sounds a certain way to me, I understand her clearly and can quickly and easily reply. To those who surround us and don't speak English, what sounds do they hear? What does our babel sound like in their ears?

When I hear Spanish, Italian or French, I may not understand the words, but the languages have a distinct sound to me. Even here in China, Mandarin and Cantonese have two different sounds and can (generally) be distinguished between.

It all brings me back to the question, what does our language sound like to those who don't understand?

I guess I will never really know since whenever I hear someone speaking English, the words have meaning to me. It is something interesting to consider.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Western Dinners with Foreign Friends

Friday night has officially been designated "Western dinner night." This plan was made by Janet after we took Kevin to the Western Coffeehouse, probably the closest thing to a real western restaurant in all of Zhanjiang. The menu is in English and the food is pretty good. The atmosphere is relaxed, unlike many of the places where we often eat. There is even a piano for entertainment.

The plan is to invite some of our different foreign friends to dinner at the restaurant each Friday night so we can relax and speak English without having to simplify our speech and strain to understand the other persons response. Eating the western food is also a plus! We hope that this way we can introduce some of the people we have met to other foreigners in the city, a way to bring together the foreign community here in Zhanjiang.

For our inaugural dinner, this past Friday, we had members from three different countries. Janet, Kevin and I were there representing the United States. From Cameroon, we had Irene, and from Wales (UK), Jamie. Irene is in her second year of teaching here. Unlike the rest of us, she divides her time teaching between a number of different schools and is leased out through a foreign teacher agency. Jamie is the newest addition to the Zhanjiang foreign teachers and he teaches piano at the Normal College. He previously taught English in the Ukraine and Russia for a few years.

It was good to be able to share observations on our experiences in China as well as classroom insights and stories. After dinner, Jamie took over the piano duties for a while. He quickly attracted a crowd of the Chinese servers who gathered around to watch. Having a special talent, Jamie is already "one-up" on the rest of us. Leaving the restaurant at around 9:30, the consensus decision was that it was too early to call it a night so we moved to a little bar near the Trust-Mart building (a central place to our lives in China). We joined the other eight to ten Chinese patrons inside, there is not much in the way of night life here in Zhanjiang.

Overall, the first western dinner night proved to be a great success and we are looking forward to future Friday gatherings and hoping that some of our other foreign friends will be able to join as well.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

He said / She said

One of the mistakes that I have noticed Chinese people making when speaking English is the misuse of the pronouns he and she. It is very common for a student to be talking to me or the class about a friend who is generally a she (since almost all of my students are female) and accidentally refer to her as he.

Even some of the most experienced speakers of English as a second language such as our director, Madison, and our Chinese tutor, Ruth, will occasionally make this mistake.

My guess to the reason for all of this pronoun confusion is that in spoken Mandarin, he, she and it are pronounced, respectively as: ta, ta and ta (all in the first tone). Though the written characters are different (他,她,它), when listening, it can be very difficult for someone learning the language to tell whether someone is in fact referring to a he, she or an it without the proper context.

Since the distinction for the use of the pronoun in spoken Mandarin is made from the context surrounding the "ta," I think that perhaps it is hard for the students to remember that in spoken English you must use the correct pronoun or else confusion results.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

On Dollars and Degrees

I've seen from various websites that anywhere between one-third to one-half of the world's population lives on about $2 per day.

I am currently living on about $18 a day. This is quite enough to afford me the semi-luxurious lifestyle of taking taxis and more or less eating every meal out.

Since I don't have to pay for housing, most of my dollars go towards the next most important expense, food. As I mentioned, I eat almost all meals out. Aside from not knowing what half of the items in our grocery store are, my kitchen is also lacking in equipment. I have one "hot plate" that cooks at various degrees of hotness and is more likely to burn a dish than cook it evenly. There is no microwave, no oven, no toaster - just the hot plate.

While I live quite comfortably on my daily $18, it is interesting to break it down and think of. Likely, most full-time workers in the United States make more in one hour of work than my daily salary. Many others in China make less. The students especially are surprised that I can afford to eat out daily and usually treat myself to Pizza Hut once a week.

I have heard that Tallahassee has been enjoying some cooler "fall" weather lately. We too have had a slight, but noticeable drop in the thermometer. In the mornings and evenings, the temperature has been in the low 70s before warming back up during the day. It has been very pleasant and I am looking forward to it cooling down further.

While the temperature has been a little colder, I did say it was a noticeable difference. In my morning classes the students have been a bit more bundled, wearing long sleeves and light jackets. They have also been trying to discreetly close the windows when I am not keeping a watchful eye.

Janet asked a class recently to talk about the winter in Zhanjiang. They explained that it gets very cold, despite the fact that the recorded low for all of last year was 51 degrees Fahrenheit. Perhaps we should start stockpiling food and firewood to brace for the upcoming winter?

Monday, October 15, 2007

A Saturday Outing

As you may have read from Janet's blog, this past Saturday we visited HuGuangYan and Donghai Island with some friends from Zhanjiang.

HuGuangYan is a maar lake, that is a crater lake created by a volcano. Supposedly, this is the second largest lake of this type in the world and is a UNESCO recognized World Geopark. It is the most famous site around Zhanjiang. With that said, it is actually not much to look at. While it may have been at the top of a volcano at one time, the lake now more or less looks like any other you would see. Maybe similar to Lake Jackson, except with water.

In addition to walking around the lake, there are many other fun activities to do: drinking milk fresh from a coconut, traversing a series of rope bridges, shooting a tennis ball cannon and brushing up on your archery.

After the park, we traveled to nearby Donghai island, which is the fourth largest island in China. Our guide, English name Steven (a friend of our Chinese tutor), told us this. He informed us that the largest island in China was Hainan, the second largest in China is Taiwan province and Donghai was the fourth largest (don't remember the third).

The beach was nice. The wind was blowing in decent sized waves, which apparently meant that you were not allowed in the water, despite having purchased a mandatory insurance policy as a part of the park admission. Many Chinese do not know how to swim, but we do and wanted to enjoy the ocean. After two attempts at going out and having some Chinese people angrily "whistle" us back to shore, we gave up. I am of the mind that if I purchase an insurance policy, I should have then have the right to take the risks that I am insured against. The Chinese did not agree.

During the trip, we met and spoke with Jaime, the newest addition to the Zhanjiang foreign teacher family. He is originally from Wales, then taught for a few years in the Ukraine and Russia. Jaime, unlike most of us who teach English, is here as a piano teacher for some of the Chinese fine art majors at the Normal College.

Overall it was a nice outing, though it was a little bittersweet as we struck off two things from the all too short "stuff to do around Zhanjiang" list in one day.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Back in the Mainland

After spending the "Golden Week" Vacation in Hong Kong, yesterday was time to return to my main reason for being in China, teaching in Zhanjiang.

Unfortunately, the first few days in Hong Kong were quite windy and rainy due to a typhoon out in the nearby waters of the South China Sea. Janet and I ended up spending most of our time indoors, but were able to catch a very cool exhibit at the Hong Kong Art Museum, where they are hosting a special collection of ancient artifacts from the British Museum. For the second half of the week, the weather cleared up and we were able to enjoy the outdoors a bit more, including a trip to the beach (a few trips for Janet).

Aside from partaking in the different options for food in Hong Kong, I also particularly enjoyed the anonymity. Being able to blend into a crowd can be a blessing after being in China for a while.

It was a refreshing vacation and I am now ready to tackle teaching again. I brought back a few bags of marshmallows for the students to try as well as a suitcase full of canned goods and other foods for me!

PS - For anyone who hasn't yet checked - Since I can access webshots in Hong Kong (still being blocked on the mainland), I uploaded some new pictures of my life here in Zhanjiang. A link to the site can be found on the right hand side of the page under my links.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Featured Photo of the Day

Just a quick update to proudly announce that I was featured on the website for the featured travel photo of the day!

If you check - - within the next 14-16 hours or so, you'll see a large photo of the Leshan Giant Buddha taken by yours truly!

On a side note, I have also uploaded a large number of photos from Zhanjiang that may not be quite as scenic, but might be of interest as they give a bit of a photographic insight to the lives of Janet and myself in China.

Monday, October 01, 2007

National Day

Today, October 1, China celebrates its National Day. On this date in 1949, the People's Republic of China was officially formed by the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. Janet and I have a week of vacation in honor of the occasion.

Tonight there will be fireworks to celebrate the Chinese National Day in Victoria Harbor. We are planning to head downtown to try and find a restaurant that serves burritos and margaritas and then will go to the waterfront to catch the 9:15 fireworks show.

Now that Hong Kong is once again a part of China, they too observe the celebration of Chinese National Day, despite the fact that they were under British rule for the first 48 years of the party. Additionally, a number of people living in Hong Kong came here from the mainland to escape from the CCP and they likely do not feel a great deal of excitement on the occasion. One Hong Kong resident told me that the government has been running a number of programs over the past few years to help instill "patriotism" to the Hong Kong citizens. I don't think these programs have met with much success.

While Hong Kong shares the language and ethnic background with some of those on the mainland, their histories have been very different. During the time that Hong Kong was under British control, mainland China was controlled by the last of the Ming Emperors, Sun Yat-Sen, and Chiang Kai-Shek and the Nationalist Party before coming under the control of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949. Contrasting that with the relative stable condition of Hong Kong, it makes it easy to see why they may not feel much shared history with the current Chinese government (other than the past 10 years now that they have been returned by the British).

Back in the mainland however, my students and the fellow teachers seemed quite excited about the National Day. They were all looking forward to a week with no school and the chance to travel home to visit with family and friends. Before we left school, a wall had been painted by the students in honor of the 58th anniversary of the People's Republic of China and celebrating their accomplishments. Much has been accomplished in China, particularly since Deng Xiaopeng's Opening and Economic Reforms and it will be interesting to see what continues to happen in China in the future.

In the meantime though, I'm going to enjoy a week of relaxation, western-style food and relative obscurity in Hong Kong.