A Travellerspoint blog


A Farewell

Our daughter and friend have been here this past week, when we and they were wined and dined by many of our favorite students. It has also been time to say goodbye to them as we are leaving in a few days. A couple of nights ago we had a royal send off from our combined evening classes. We went out to dinner at a "frog restaurant." Actually Nanette and I had been there before with some other students, but it is a very typical Chinese place, full of noisy locals, sitting around large tables with lazy susan's, eating huge amounts of food. The frog itself is quite tasty, served in a large bowl with tofu, sichuan peppercorns and spicy noodles and vegetables. And yes, it does taste a little like chicken. Normally, we would only order a bowl of this and cabbage on a burner, another spicy and popular dish. This time however, there were 14 of us, and Andy, who can afford it, insisted on paying for everyone, but also continued to order dish after dish of vegetables, fish, pork, tofu, you name it. Impossible to eat it all, there was a lot left over. Also a very Chinese thing to do. We consumed huge quantities of the localpijou, or beer, though at half the strength of the US brew, it didn't really effect me. Everyone took lots of pictures, except us I should say, as my camera was stolen at the beach a few days before. It really was an incredible feast, and then we went to KTV, which is a kind of karoake bar. Actually it's not really a bar per se. Everyone gets a separate room for their own party, and then drinks more beer while they sing along to smaltzy Chinese pop music. They do have some English rock, but it is all copies of the original stuff, probably made by Phillipinos. They seem to love karoake over here, so this too was a very typical Chinese experience. We all had a great time, and Nanette and I managed to wow them all with our 60's free form dancing. Our daughter was somewhat embarrassed at her parents making fools of themselves.

Last night was another fun evening with a few of the day students whom we have befriended. This time we went to a Korean barbicue, and then to a western style bar by the ocean where we listened to copies of familiar rock songs sung live by young Phillipinos. They managed a pretty fair Bob Marley, complete with Jamaican accent, but couldn't quite pull off Tina Turner.

Only four students showed up to take the exam in Nanette's class. In my advanced history exam two students cheated and I had to remove their papers. The head teacher tried to get me to change their grades though in the end it makes no difference. Some things never change.

Despite this, I will miss the incredible generosity and friendliness of many students, particularly Happy and Marjorie, and all three of my evening students, and I know there are many others that Nanette will miss as well. Natasha and Paige left today for Shanghai where we will also go briefly in two days, before heading for Yunnan.

Posted by jonshapiro 14:30 Archived in China Tagged parties living_abroad Comments (1)

Once a Psychologist, Always a....

One of my evening students, Betty, age 32, is married with a 4 year old son, and lives with her in laws in a small apartment. She often misses class or is late, but has been quite open in her comments about China and family life. In other classes she has mentioned her dilemma with her son, who complains about the nursery school they send him to and often throws tantrums in the morning. She is uncertain whether to switch schools, because she is not sure how he would react or that the others are much different.

It turns out that it is much more complicated than I knew. She resents her in-laws, who, she says, do nothing to help out, and look down on her because she comes from a poorer family than her husband. When they got married, he was able to give her family a fairly large sum of money, but she was not able to reciprocate. This is a very important here, as people generally marry within their same socioeconomic background. Also her husband does little to help take care of their child, even though Betty works full time, as he does. He apparently takes his parents side whenever Betty complains. She desperately wants to get their own apartment, but they can't afford it now.

It appears that she is quite enmeshed with her son, who carries on and demands presents in order to go to school. She feels she is a bad mother because she loses patience with him, though at other times she just gives in. He is an only child like so many others, because of the one-child policy of the government. If they had more children, they would have to pay a large fine. She worries about her him, and feels that he is not very good when it comes time to playing with other children. She does her best to encourage this, but thinks the school, private and expensive, over emphasizes learning activities and neglects social skills. This way they can point to all the facts the children can recite and bolster their reputation. The teachers indicate that her son is not a problem with them, but she is concerned that he is too much of a loner. I suggested she go and observe when he doesn't know she is there, but the school apparently does not welcome such visits.

It is obvious that she feels quite isolated and somewhat depressed, whereas her friends all think she has it made. A car, a decent job, a husband who doesn't beat her, and an affordable place to live. This makes it difficult to complain, which is something that is rarely done in China anyway, except with one's closest relatives. I suggested she try and get her husband to get her son up in the morning and bring him to school. Since he feels he is better able to control him, she can use this as a reason to get him more involved. I said that perhaps , if her husband had more responsibility for their child, he might see that his parents do very little to help. Betty was, of course, thrilled with this suggestion, though it remains to be seen how her husband will respond. I also indicated that sometimes children pick up on the tension and unhappiness in the family and misbehave as a result. She seemed to understand this idea, and that it made sense to her.

She went on to mention that ten years ago, her younger brother and mother were severely injured, after they were physically attacked by the neighboring farmers because of some kind of disagreement. She was in college at the time, and spent more than a month going to the hospital everyday and taking care of them.

"Where was your father," I said.

"Well,"she indicated, "he is a simple country man, and usually daughters take care of these things."

She also told me that the police did nothing. I was incredulous.

"They never get involved with poor families. They only care about the rich."

So apparently nothing was done to investigate. Although her family members recovered, she worries about them. I got the feeling that they might have recovered physically, but not emotionally, and they are still very poor. She was the only child to go to college. I told her I thought she had a lot on her shoulders. I wrote this on the board, and after I explained what it meant, she nodded. She said that she finally felt that somebody understood her situation. In China, she said, nobody ever goes to see a psychologist because everyone will think they are crazy. I assured her that I didn't think that. The other and younger female student in the class was also very supportive, and I think it was helpful for Betty just to talk about her situation.

English lessons plus therapy, not to mention my own cultural education. An interesting evening.

I later heard from her that her husband was in fact, taking more responsibility with their son, and that things had eased up a bit at home.

Posted by jonshapiro 09:29 Archived in China Tagged living_abroad Comments (1)

A Hakka Excursion

Our most fervent admirerer is still Happy, who, as it turns out, is also quite a rebel. Before coming to WECL she ran away from home and went to live with a relative after dropping out of high school. Her Uncle, who has more money than the rest of the family, offered to pay her tuition, but she can't afford to live in the dorms and instead lives in a tiny room in a poor section of town about a mile away.

She was thrilled to be coming with us to visit some ancient round house villages, Hakka, in southern Fujien province. She has to cut class for a day, as our weekend starts on Friday. This is a big deal because Bob, the head teacher, will be angry if he find out that she is cutting class because of us. Of course, from our point of view, she will learn a lot more English from two days of conversation than in a class of 17 people.


The round houses in southwestern Fujien Province, were three or four hours by bus from Xiamen. The Hakka, or guest people, a nomadic group from north China, settled in this area as early as 1300. The most famous Hakka is none other then Deng Xiaoping.

The enormous houses are impressive structures, some 250-300 feet around, and are made of a combination of wood, sticky rice, brown sugar, soil and lime. They are said to be bullet proof and earthquake proof with walls more than 5 feet thick. More like forts then houses, the center is open, and the small rooms circle the outside with space for several hundred people on three different levels. The roof is made of slate shingles.

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At one point the US government thought they were missile silos, which is apparently what they look like from the air. We saw several that were 500 years old, but there are many different houses, some built as recently as the l960's, and some of them are square.


Mostly there are old people and very young children living here, a fraction of the numbers that were here just 10 or 20 years ago. As in the rural villages near Yangshuo, the young and able bodied have all left for the cities where they can make a living.


Happy, on the other hand, was not impressed with the houses after we were dropped off in the small, rural village surrounded by lush mountains. "They look just like the buildings where I live," she said. Her town is a poor rural area about 10 hours from Xiamen. "They all look the same," she said. I guess if it looks like home, it's nothing special.

Many of the houses are obviously in a state of disrepair and if the government doesn't step in, it is obvious that a number will collapse in the next several years. "The government doesn't care," Happy continued. "They just want to tear them down and put up new ones," and indeed, not far away and sometimes right next to these grand houses, there were relatively new, and to my eyes, exceeding ugly brick houses, covered with the ubiquitous stained white tile that you can see all over the "new China." We tried to point out to her that this was part of the culture of old China, and if all of the houses disappeared it would be a big loss. I'm not sure she bought it, being all of 15 years old, the past doesn't have a lot of meaning. Unfortunately she's probably right about the government. They don't seem to understand the concept of renovation, and unless they can figure out a way to turn it into a tourist attraction that will make money, they don't seem to care.Unesco is considering it as a World Heritage Site and this might make the government take notice. If this happens, the Chinese hordes will descend and pony up millions of yuan to view the "scenic sites," but by then the few remaining locals will no doubt be bought out, probably happily, and the houses left standing will be turned into museums.

After an hour or so at Gao Bei, we found some motorcyclists to drive us a few miles up the road to the local,fan dian, or restaurant, where we had a mediocre lunch. We then started to walk the 5K to Hu Keng, passing a number of other earth houses en route. Luckily after 20 minutes or so we were able to flag down a small minibus which took us to the ramshackle town of a few thousand people. We had our choice of two "three star" hotels, and after Happy negotiated a discount at one, we settled into our room. We noticed a couple of washcloths, but no towels and so we went down with Happy to ask for some. "They say there are towels in the room." "Oh," we said,'' we saw some tiny ones, but that's all." "That's what we use all over china," she said. "They don't have any bigger ones." "Ah," we said, knowingly, and to ourselves, just like the tiny plates and bowls that everyone uses even in the fancy restaurants.

We then hired a different minibus to take us up to a more remote village, further up in the hills. From where the driver dropped us off, we were able to hike a bit into the mountains, and we could look down onto the houses below and across the terraced rice fields into the valley.


" A waterfall," Sunny exclaimed. "I love waterfalls." We hiked along the narrow terraces, which reminded us of so many we saw in [Peru, until it started to rain and made the path muddy and slippery. A bit reluctantly, we turned back, and then wandered around the village, taking pictures of the old people and children still living there. One couple in particular seemed to get a kick out of posing for photos, but were quite disappointed when Happy had to explain to them that even though we could show them the picture, we could not give them a copy.


Hurrying back to our impatient driver, it started to rain heavily as he negotiated the deeply rutted and narrow road back to town.

We rested an hour or two and then, getting hungry, we donned raincoats and went out in search of a restaurant. Shockingly, the town seemed to have none. Was this really China? Everywhere else we had been had dozens of them. Finally, after wandering around forever in the rain, we discovered a one table place near the center of town. The food was awful, and Happy, got into a shouting match with the cook, after he heavily salted our food when we specifically said no salt. What really got him upset, was when Happy started shouting at him in English. "I'm a university graduate," he said, "don't talk to me this way." None of us believed that, and finally we had to usher Happy out of there. "I'm so angry," she said. "He put salt in food and he say did not."

Glad to get back to our room, the hotel clerk managed to find a deck of cards for us and we taught Happy how to play rummy. This seemed to take her mind off of the cook and a good time was had by all. The next morning it was still raining hard, disrupting our plans to walk to a few nearby villages. We went in search of breakfast which consisted of some fruit and crackers that managed to be both sweet and salty at the same time. Returning to our room, we played a few more rounds of rummy until it was time to leave. Surprisingly, it cost more to go back then it did on the way in. Maybe the bus company knew that people would pay more to leave once they saw the town had no place to eat. Not only that, the bus took a different route which took an extra hour and a half. So we had to pay more for a slower ride. But, as one of the other teachers said, when we got back, "You don't expect anything to be logical here, do you?" Of course, our progress was also slowed by a few landslides caused by the heavy rain. Despite the fact that it was a new road, the government had neglected to stabilize the hills along the sides of it.


Posted by jonshapiro 12:19 Archived in China Tagged buildings living_abroad Comments (2)

The Olympics and the Earthquake

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On Tuesday we all trooped down to the ring road by the beach to watch the Olympic Torch Relay. It was a mob scene and it was impossible to tell whether or not the torch runners actually went by. About all we could see were a couple of Samsung and Lenovo floats with pretty girls waving to us from on high. The crowd was unruly, pushing and shoving. The police, who were few in number, tried to control the thousands of people, but were unable to keep them away from the path where the runners were supposed to be. What kind of a police state is this anyway? We later heard that because of the crowd, the runners were put in a bus and never did actually run along the intended path. Everyone was screaming GO CHINA and waving Chinese flags of all sizes. People were everywhere, including in the small trees along the road, some of which couldn't bear the weight and lost big branches.

The summer games are a very big deal here in China. Most people see this as their world debut and are very concerned that it comes off flawlessly. They have been deeply embarassed about the Tibetan demonstrations which, almost universally, they feel are unwarranted.


The next day we read about the big earthquake in Chengdu which didn't effect us at all in Xiamen. At first it didn't seem that bad, because the city itself was largely spared the worst of the damage. After a few days, however, it looks as though more than 50,000 people lost their lives, including many Tibetans. The Chinese press has been open about the whole thing, in contrast to previous disasters, and the premier flew out there and has spent a lot of time appearing on TV comforting babies and old people. They are obviously trying to prove to the world that they know how to handle themselves when something like this happens. The government is probably more sensitive to pr issues after their heavily criticized response to the Tibet demonstrations and their less than optimal response to the winter blizzards.

Many of the students seem openly moved by the loss of life, even to the point of tears. This is in marked contrast to their usual non-emotional demeanors. They have taken up a collection at the school to donate to the victims. On the other hand, they didn't really react to the loss of life in Myanmar, and the recent cyclone there, Nargis. They are much more focused on events in their own country, but perhaps this is no different than in most countries.

As one of the more mature students put it, this has been a difficult year for China. They thought they were going to have a smooth coming out party, but it has not worked out that way.

As a postscript, we learned that many local school children died in sub-standard buildings which didn't conform to code. In the school buildings built for the kids of government officials, almost no one died. There were many demonstrations in the weeks following the earthquake when this became apparent. A few low level officials paid the ultimate price, but when the demonstrations did not abate, higher ups in the party intervened and they were quashed by the army.

Last night, we went out to a classical symphony concert with a few of the other teachers. The soloist was a violinist from Chendgu, who played a very moving encore dedicated to the victims of the Sichuan earthquake. It turns out that the piece was orginally written to commemorate the holocaust. On the bus ride home, we sat next to a member of the orchestra who told us this.

Posted by jonshapiro 03:06 Archived in China Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

More Thoughts on Teaching/Student Interactions

Well, it seems my rebellious ways have followed me to China. Yesterday, we heard from Happy, the youngest and one of the best level one students who I mentioned in a previous post, that several students have complained about me. Most of the complaints seem to be coming from the more advanced group. I have attempted to get them to think about world events ,and have strayed away from using the boring and biased 7th grade American textbook that we have been given. Instead, now that we are discussing the Middle East for example, I have discussed Islamic terrorism and tried to generate discussion about how governments should handle it. I have, needless to say, been critical of the US response, but any slight implication that the Chinese response has not been ideal in all parts of the world, does not go over too well. I have avoided discussing Tibet, since I know how they all feel, but did mention that there is a Muslim independence movement in western China, something they should know about, but apparently don't. I did not say that I agreed with this movement in any way, but even mentioning it was too much. One of the students left in a huff when I called on her to ask her opinion, and she went into one of the level one classes where she complained loudly that what I was doing had nothing to do with the book.

This prompted some students in that class to complain that I didn't use the book with them either,which is usually far too difficult for them to understand. Instead I made up my own oral dialogs for practice, but again, some of them want to stick to the script, relevant or not. Later that day, we were discussing manners in different countries and how people are expected to behave under various circumstances. One of the idioms in the book was "cutting in line." After explaining what it meant, I asked whether this was an acceptable thing to do in China, and said that it happened to me all the time, and Chinese people seem to think nothing of it. It seems as though it is okay to cut in line, but not to talk about it. A few students seem to think I was putting down China, because I mentioned it. This criticism I guess, caused them to loose face, despite the fact that it had nothing directly to do with them . Nobody said anything about this to me, but apparently there was talk among the students .

It has also become obvious that no matter what your grade is in the class, if you show up some of the time, perhaps even if you don't, you'll "graduate" and be put in the more advanced class the following semester. Why, because your name is on the class list. This makes the whole testing process meaningless, but does not prevent many students from trying to cheat on the exams. Cheating in fact, seems widely practiced in many places. One of the students in my history class, a pretty girl who acts like a bimbo and who happens to work in the office, clearly cheated and was known to have cheated in the past. I gave her a zero on the test and she has been pissed ever since, but in reality it makes absolutely no difference. Does the school administration care ? Absolutely not, even though we all supposedly agreed to a no cheating policy. Keeping the students happy is what counts.

So, having been duly warned, I will go back to using the book and give up on my creative ideas. I guess it was a mistake for the powers that be to assign a history class to me. Sticking to English only would have been less controversial.

My evening class, by contrast, continues to be a breath of fresh air. We can and do discuss just about everything including Chinese Nationalism and how people in China feel about outside criticism. They don't seem to care whether we stick to the book or not. On the other hand, these are older, more mature people, who are using their own money to attend class after working all day. They are all highly motivated to learn , unlike several of the day students. The school, ironically, cares less about them because they pay less money.

On rather different note, we took a long drive with two of our students. Baidu and our buddy Marjorie, also mentioned in an earlier post.


We went to a beach known as Dongshen Island. The beach itself was cleaner and nicer than the beaches around Xiamen, but hardly the deserted island I was hoping for. I guess in this part of China at least, deserted beaches are an impossibility. Just too many people.


Anyway, it was a nice day, with a great seafood dinner to top it off. A number of weeks ago Baidu invited us to her apartment and seemed interested in spending more time with us. Then we heard nothing from her and assumed she didn't really mean it. This past weekend she confessed she felt embarrassed because her English wasn't good enough. We assured her this was not the case and encouraged her not to worry about making mistakes. Anyway, she decided to go with us to the island ,and ever since then has been wanting to spend as much time with us as possible. She now seems totally excited about speaking to us. Quite gratifying considering how some of the other students have responded. She has some money, and is even talking about selling her apartment in Xiamen, worth almost as much as a NYC apartment, to come to the states and visit us. Baidu is older than some of the other students, 27, or so, and had been living with her Singaporian boyfriend up until recently. She is clearly more adventurous than many of the other students and doesn't hesitate to say critical things about the government.


Our own Chinese language skills are coming along, S L O W LY. Chinese sounds less strange after a few months, and I know perhaps 50 to 100 words which are frequently used. That is, I can pick them out when others use them. Of course, pronunciation is still an issue with all of the tones. Nanette and I can usually communicate what we want in a restaurant, though we still get the wrong dishes occasionally. Sometimes we ask them to combine different vegetables together, but usually the answer is mei yo, or have not, probably one of the most widely used words in Mandarin. It seems that even if they have the vegetables, combining things in certain ways is simply not done. It took us quite a while to figure this out until Marjorie finally told us that it's a yin-yang thing. Certain vegetables are yin and others yang and it won't do to put the two together. Apparently if it's not on the menu, which we of course can't read, you can't get it.


Posted by jonshapiro 04:15 Archived in China Comments (2)

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