Back to school

Xining and wildflowers from Xi Shan

This past week was the first week of school. Or the first half-week, as school didn’t actually start until Thursday. And two of my classes (the Senior 1’s) won’t start until next week, as they were busy last week taking examinations (I found this out after I had entered their classroom to begin class on Thursday). So it was a gentle introduction to teaching in China – which was much appreciated by me.

Before I came to Xining, I had been told that I would be teaching twenty classes of 50 students each, with each class meeting once a week for a single 45-minute period. But late last week, Mr. Wang inexplicably changed my teaching assignment. Now I’m teaching six classes (each of them meeting three times per week) in the “International Program,” which offers students with better English skills a more English-intensive track through the end of middle school (high school – in China, middle school goes until age 18). According to Mr. Wang, my students have been selected from among their peers to participate in the International Program because their English is comparatively better – and their other subjects are comparatively worse. The goal of the program is to send students abroad for college, or at least to a top-tier Chinese university.

I’m teaching four classes of Senior 2’s (about 10th grade, about age 16) and two classes of Senior 1’s (9th grade, mostly age 15). I was told the classes would each have fifty students, but so far the size varies pretty dramatically. My first class on Thursday (Senior 2 #12) had 36 students, which was great; class went smoothly the students seemed to stay with me the entire time. But my next class had 58 rambunctious students who seemed averse to any type of authority, and my third class had 64 students – which, though they were calmer than the class before, is a little much for an Oral English course where students are supposed to be practicing speaking and listening.

Before I taught my fourth and final class of the day, I met my fellow waijiao (foreign teacher) Kim in the hallway. Kim has spent two years teaching in China, and has gotten to know a few of the other teachers at Shida Fuzhong. We exchanged glances at each others’ schedules, and all was going well until I heard Kim say “uh oh…”

“What’s wrong?”

“You have senior 2 #13 and #14. I’ve heard those classes are crazy.”

“Where did you hear that?”

“Another teacher told me that she can’t control them. They’re supposed to be some of the craziest classes around.”

Senior 2 #14 was the class I labeled “rambunctious,” and (from my limited 45-minute experience with them) I definitely believed the hype. I thanked Kim, who wished me good luck for class #13 ahead. But class #13 (50 students) was not nearly as bad; they were curious and inquisitive-crazy rather than just crazy-crazy. I also met with the class on Friday, and they were even better behaved. Not to portray them as angels, but they are definitely an interesting group of kids. And diverse: there are a surprising number of Tibetan students in class, many of whom are from remote areas (Yushu, the grasslands near Qinghai Lake, and a couple of autonomous counties I haven’t even heard of yet). My students are also diverse geographically; I made them fill out a questionnaire, and I was surprised at how many of them were originally from eastern provinces such as Hubei and Anhui. How did they end up out in Qinghai? I have no idea – maybe it’s part of the government’s “Develop the West” campaign – but I’m looking forward to getting to know some (if not all) of my students over the course of the next few months.

Also on the questionnaire, I asked my students to find themselves an English name if they didn’t have one already. Chinese students of English have a reputation for coming up with some quality names, and – while many students picked more ‘conventional’ names such as Jessica and Tina – my students came up with some great ones. I have a student named Eminem, another named Watermelon Man, and a poor girl who (earnestly) named herself Philip. I also have a Snaki (?) and a Lolita (good thing this isn’t a literature class). And one student in class #13 named himself George Gordon Byron – which sounds like a cross between an English romantic poet, a marquis, and a New England lax-bro. Maybe he thought it sounded prestigious or important – I don’t know, but a great name nonetheless.

Xining coffee shop?

In other school-related news, I finally have a contract (yes!) and a weekly schedule, though I don’t know the school’s calendar (yearly schedule) yet. And this past week, I finally met Maria (the waiban at Shida and ViA’s China in-country representative) who is very nice and extremely capable. While I was meeting with Maria, I remembered that my contract should include three hours per week of Chinese tutoring – which I had forgotten when I went over the contract with Mr. Wang earlier that day. While in most situations in China this would have been left to let slide, Maria immediately called up Mr. Wang and made him add the clause to the contract. Maria and I also bonded over the great state of Pennsylvania (宾夕法尼亚 bīn xī fǎ ní yà):she had lived in the US for over two years, the majority of which was spent studying at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, PA. Apparently I’m the only foreigner she’s ever met in China who knew where Bloomsburg was – and not only that, but had actually been there before (Knoebel’s Grove, anyone?). It was great to meet Maria, and she’s going to be a great resource (and friend) this year.

And I’ve finally found out some of the details behind the giant concrete slab outside of my apartment block, which Mr. Wang initially described as a ‘playground’ for the students. Every morning around 8am, I am peacefully awakened by the students rhythmically yelling out “left, left, left right left” and counting out their steps as they do a series of warm-up exercises and military-esque drills. I watch them from my kitchen window as they do four laps of the concrete slab, then do a number of stretches and easy drills in formation to get warmed up for the day. While I hate the military flavor of the exercises, I think the group exercise/warm-up tradition in China has a number of good points: it wakes you up and gets you moving in the morning (none of my morning students have heavy eyelids, fall asleep in class, or complain about how early it is – unlike in America). It also ensures that the students have a certain level of fitness – something which I think would be beneficial (if politically impossible) in the United States. The military piece aside, in my mind this forced group exercise may not be such a bad idea.

Morning exercises

The other back story behind the concrete slab is that it was going to be a track, but – while the concrete surface has been laid down and has been sitting there for a few years – the track cannot be completed until the residents of a small apartment building at the track’s far corner move out of their homes, as the building ‘needs’ to be demolished for the track to be completed. This is classic China; at least the government isn’t forcing these people out. The little apartment block is ramshackle and seems to be tilting at least a few degrees to one side, but is full of life and energy; whenever I walk by, I see old ladies sitting outside and hear traditional Chinese opera blasting from radios inside the apartments.

Outside of class, I’ve been doing quite a bit more exploring. I spent a great afternoon with Sarah exploring the Tibetan and Hui (Chinese Muslim) market areas to the south of the train station. The Tibetan market was filled with shops selling animal pelts, warm clothes and boots, and full-sized statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. There were even a couple of streets with shops selling traditional Tibetan tents, which look a lot like yurts. When we came by, the week’s batch of tents had already been constructed, and beautiful designs were being spraypainted onto their exteriors.

Spraypainting tents in the Tibetan market


The Hui market, centered on the massive Dongguan Mosque, sold an amazing and bewildering variety of foods – many of which I hadn’t seen much of in China (dates! as if I needed something else to clear out my system). There were tons of bakeries and even a woman selling fresh halal jiaozi on the street; I bought half a jin and made them for dinner (delicious). The place was absolutely packed; it was Friday, the Muslim day of rest, and everyone seemed to be shopping for food.

One afternoon (before classes started), I went on a hike up Xi Shan (western mountain) which rises up behind Shida. After a few false starts (most of the lower section of the mountain is strangely walled off in a Botanic Garden and Wildlife Park), I made my way up to the Pearl Tower – which, in an astonishing feat of generous egotism, was given by the city of Shanghai to commemorate it’s own (more famous) Oriental Pearl Tower. The Xining tower has been surrounded by a strangely monumental (and thus empty) park, with massive flights of staircases rising steeply through landscaped terraced hillsides. At the base of the tower, I escaped the weirdness by stepping out of the park and down a little dirt trail which led me to a quiet, one-lane country road. I followed the wildflower-lined road all the way up to the highest mountain on the skyline above campus (the last minute or so was a steep scramble).

Pearl Tower

Xi Shan hills

nice views

at the top

On the prayer flag-bedecked summit, I came across a Tibetan man meditating while a younger woman (presumably his daughter) slowly circumambulated a small stupa.  I stood and looked out at Xining, and the chanting put me in a meditative state as well. I don’t know how long I was up there, but when I came back I realized that I was extremely thirsty – and had stupidly forgotten to refill my water bottle.

I followed the roads down the side of the mountain directly above my neighborhood. But I came to a number of dead ends: a barbed-wire fence with huge ferocious dogs barking hungrily behind, a couple of dead-end roads above steep drops. Finally I found a way down along a steep narrow staircase to a creepy cemetery and past the wildlife park to my neighborhood, where I stopped at the nearest store to guzzle cheap bottled water. Despite a nasty sunburn, a great afternoon out.

I’ve also had the time and opportunity to visit a couple of monasteries nearby. This past Tuesday, Devin, Sarah and I visited the Kumbum (塔尔寺), a famous Gelugpa sect monastery about 30km south of Xining. The monastery marks the birthplace of Tsongkhapa, essentially the founder of the Gelugpa order. The monastery was massive and beautiful; the chapels were filled with amazing artwork and the scenery – if not awe-inspiring – was peaceful, a nice respite from the ‘big city’ of Xining. But though it was a worthwhile visit, the atmosphere was definitely ruined by the massive number of Chinese tour groups that ran through the place. Every time I tried to take something in or relax for a moment, I was shaken back into the real world by the blaring sound of the tour leaders yelling into their microphones: “this is the Tsongkhapa Hall, where…” Not the most peaceful or spiritual experience, though there were quite a few Tibetan pilgrims (who I hope didn’t have to pay the entry fee – though I’m sure they did).

at the Kumbum, a brief moment of space between Chinese tour groups

The sign says "public toilet." And yes, it is up that massive flight of steps

Tuesday was also the first day that Devin started to feel sick, which was terrible timing on his part (the first week of school!). He barely had any voice for some of his classes, and was forced to use a microphone. While he took a much-needed rest day on Saturday, Kim and I decided to visit the Youning Si, another Gelugpa monastery located in Huzhu Tu Autonomous County (the Tu are a people of Mongolian descent) north of the nearby town of Ping’an. I had recently found out that there are now bus services to Youning Si (10:50 am daily!) so Kim and I went to the bus station and hopped on a minibus. When we pulled out of the bus station at 10:55 or so, there were only two other people on the bus.

“Is he really going to pull out with the bus this empty?” I asked Kim. But before she could answer, we turned around the corner and drove slowly along the street, the ticket collector leaning out of the open door of the bus and yelling to anyone who was interested that we were going to Ping’an and then up to Youning Si. We drove slowly along for a couple kilometers, slowly accumulating passengers until the bus was finally full. Then we drove to Ping’an, dropping people off in villages along the way.

By the time we got to Ping’an, it was past 12pm; it had taken us well over an hour to cover the 27km. In Ping’an, we spent a few minutes cruising around town to drop some people off, then sat at a random street corner until about 12:40 when we finally left (again, slowly picking up people along the way using the same method: open door, ticket-taker yelling out to the street until the bus was full) to go up the valley towards Youning Si. The valley was beautiful and lush, and contrasted starkly with the surrounding red-rock hills.  Covered by small barley and potato farms, the valley floor sloped steeply upwards towards higher and higher mountains. After dropping people off at their homes and villages (the bus was like a rural taxi), we turned off the “main” road onto an even smaller one-lane road (at least it was paved) which ran steeply uphill towards a gently sloping valley covered in huge open fields of barley and wheat. Above rose high, craggy mountains which towered over the gentle, pastoral landscape. We finally got to the monastery, which was located in a small village snugly nestled in a forested cleft in the mountains. When we got out of the bus, the first thing we noticed was the quiet. There were almost no sounds. At all. Which was an unfamiliar experience for both of us; though Xining isn’t the biggest city, it’s still a noisy place. The second thing we noticed were the stares. An online blog had said that only a few foreigners visit this monastery every year, and we were definitely the main attraction once we arrived. Monks riding by on motorcycles stared as they went by; people sitting by the side of the road stared and gave us toothy grins.

Youning Si village and monastery, located in a beautiful valley

Murals at Youning Si

recently technicolor

The monastery was an awesome place. The scenery was gorgeous, and the temples – many of which were perched Erie-mine-like (Alaska reference) halfway up a cliff – were beautiful. But my favorite part of Youning Si was simply the spiritual atmosphere, which made it (in my mind) a much more fulfilling experience than Kumbum. The many small temples were all inhabited by mantra-chanting monks who showed us around and asked us questions; one monk took the time to explain all of the statues and relics of his small domain before taking us to a meditation cave and peppering us with questions (in a difficult-to-understand dialect) about the United States. We hiked around, visiting the small temples perched on the mountainside and enjoying the views and the quiet. At one point, the monks at the main lower temple started blowing massive, discordant horns which echoed beautifully around the valley. We just stood, taking it all in.

A chapel on a cliff face

The monastery town

Bad picture of me, good picture of the valley

Eventually, we had to get back to Xining, so we walked down the valley for a few kilometers until we came to a China Telecom truck stuck in a small ditch. We helped the guys pull it out – and as a thank-you they gave us a ride all the way to Ping’an! We caught the next bus to Xining and I was at the beer garden eating 凉拌黄瓜 (cool cucumber salad) and drinking warm Huang He beers with Sarah, a partially-recovered Devin, and Brooke (who was in town for the night) before 7. All in all, a great day out; I’d like to go back in the fall, when the leaves are turning, and camp out so I can explore the area some more. It looks like there’s great hiking, as well as rumors of another monastery upvalley.

On the walk down from the monastery

Ahead is my first full week of teaching; things are about to get busy. I’m also hoping to travel around during weekends (Rebgong might be at the top of my list right now) so I’ll update whenever I can.

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3 Responses to Back to school

  1. Great blog, I enjoyed reading it. I love it when people enjoy this area I love so much. If you are the Jonas that knows Steve & Ligaya I am sure I’ll meet you soon.

  2. walt says:

    bloomsburg huh? Knoebel’s Grove? Xining. yes.

  3. Kailah says:

    I enjoyed reading all your descriptions about life and voyages, and seeing the pictures! I haven’t gone on any really extended trips here yet. But, soon.

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