Minutemen. Meatpuppets. Descendants. Angst.

another in my famous 'Chinese city surrounded by greenery' sequence, this time from 南山

This was my first full week teaching, and everything went really (almost surprisingly) well. Most of my classes are full of really great kids, most of whom seem relatively into this whole learning English thing. Each class definitely has a few (or more) wild or uninterested kids who can make it hard to teach to the rest of the class (they take up an inordinate amount of my attention and time), but generally they aren’t too bad (except for you, class 14!).

While I have (very) little teaching experience, I’ve spent a lot of time in the classroom over the past fifteen or sixteen years, and I’ve noticed several things about Chinese students in class that are different from their American 同学 (classmates) – or at least different than my educational experience:

-My students talk a lot more in class than most American students I’ve seen. They mumble, chatter, and whisper – sometimes about class topics, sometimes not – creating a background noise whose decibel level would be totally unacceptable in many US classrooms. Every day, I’ve found myself getting hoarse after 2-3 classes as I try to yell over the background noise. No matter what disciplinary action I take, the background noise stays pretty much the same – except when I break it up by having the class chorally recite words or passages.

-On the same subject, the kids are REALLY good at choral recitation/drilling. When I start a drill, they instantly stop talking, focus, and look at me/the blackboard. This is part of the Chinese educational system from a young age, and it seems to have been drilled into my students’ heads pretty thoroughly. Some of the background noise I was complaining about (above) is actually the students reading along with me as I read out loud, or repeating words or definitions to themselves.

-Students do not get embarrassed about getting caught using their cell phones in class. Good thing I can take away cell phones (temporarily) if I see them; embarrassment has been replaced by fear as students’ primary motivation to turn off their phones.

-Cheating. I had heard about this problem for years before I came to China, but I was still shocked to see how blatantly and shamelessly the students cheat on quizzes and homework assignments. I’ve adopted a strict cheating policy: if I catch students cheating in class (on a test/quiz), I make them come in during their own free time to redo the assignment (if you don’t show up you get a zero); if students turn in identical written assignments, both get a zero. But while giving my first dictation on Friday, I still caught four people cheating – and I’m sure others did in the split seconds where I turned my back while pacing around the classroom. As cheating seems to be OK in Chinese schools, I’m not sure how to guilt them into thinking about cheating as something morally wrong (rather than simply something for which they will be penalized if they get caught, something that is not a moral issue). Nettie (another foreign teacher here) has used a mantra in her classes to reinforce the issue for her kids: 作弊是腐败 – cheating is corruption. I might try this if things get bad later.

Most random joint venture I've ever seen.

But if my students in some ways seem less respectful of the teacher than their American counterparts, in other ways they give me far more respect than an American class. They are very conscientious of the appearance of any assignment they turn in to me. I collect homework at the beginning of class to ensure that the students aren’t doing the homework during class (which is a problem: they do homework for other classes in my class unless I catch them). One time while I was collecting homework, I noticed one of my best students scribbling as fas as he could. “I’ll take that,” I told him. “You were supposed to do it at home.”

“But I did do it at home, teacher,” he said, holding up a second sheet of paper. “But the one I did at home is too messy, so I’m copying it.” I looked at both sheets, and he was telling the truth. I decided to take the messy one, and made the point to the class that I’d rather have a messy assignment than a late or nonexistent one. But it was nice that this student made the extra effort to make the assignment more physically beautiful. I’ve noticed this for other students as well; they take the effort to make sure their assignments look good, and hand them to me with both hands (and a touch of pride) to show they are giving their best effort.

Students are also very responsive to me in ways that are different than American students. If I greet the class with a ‘good morning,’ the entire class will stand up and yell out “good morning Teacher” in unison, and will continue standing until I tell them to sit down. It’s actually pretty energizing to walk into a class tired and suddenly having sixty voices (respectully) blasting your mind awake. [An aside: I’ve decided to teach students an “American slang/idiom of the week” to replace the “word of the week” with which they are so familiar, and for my first one I taught them the “what’s up/nothin'” greeting that is so common in the US. Now, for several classes, I’ve replaced the “good morning/good morning Teacher!” with “what’s up?/nothin’! which has worked really well – and is pretty funny]. Students also stand up whenever I ask them to respond to something or whenever they ask a question; there is a certain formality which is foreign to US classrooms (and might be good for large, unruly middle to high school classes in the States). I’m looking forward to meeting more of my students and getting to know them as people rather than as faces far away at the back of the class.

To this end, I made the students fill out an introductory questionnaire after the first class (two weeks ago now!) and the answers ranged from profound to inadvertently entertaining:

Q: What do your parents do (what are their jobs)?

A: “Father is an engineer, mother is boss.”

Q: What is your favorite food? What is inside it, and why is it so good?

A: “Many things. But I love my noodle best, there are many vegetables in it.”

A: “My favorite food is Chafing Dish, or huo guo. I think it’s very delicious and cheap, so I like Chafing Dish.” [Subtext: “Hot Pot” was translated as “Chafing Dish” by the online translator that many used.]

Q: Why are you learning English?

A: “English is fun, we can improve our competencies.”

A: “I think English is very useful.  I’d love to talk with people who speaks English. I love kind people. Another reason is my father. He always encourage me to learn English. When I’m unhappy, he’s always besides me. I don’t want to let him down, that’s why I want to study English.”

The names that students chose themselves were equally entertaining:

Doggy, Lassies, McGrady, Muslim, Shally, Mixier, Rabbit, Johnny Scofield, Pluto, Crazy Wolf, Hill Gun, Saber, Forever, Daybreak, Adolf Jackson, George Gordon Byron, Woodgate, Zeratul, Chinese Tea, Landseer, Duwell Wakefield Shockley, Tacitus, Balance, Pliny

The most popular names were largely names that are in common use in the US: Lucy, Tony, Tina, Ann/Anna,  Lily. But another popular name is Rectina; I have no idea where this comes from and it’s hard not to crack up whenever I call it out. This I know: there is one class of vocab words (beginning with rect-) that I will never be teaching these students.

For another assignment, I asked students to describe the personality of a close friend or family member. These similiarly ranged from hilarious to profound:

“Wang Ke is very practical, he makes money even in classroom.”

“My Grandpa was the person that I really felt sorry about. He was a gentle and kind man. He was tolerant. He was never angry with his grandchildren. He as sociable. He was not talkative. He dead three years ago. I really miss him. When he was alive, I didn’t often visit him, I really regret.”

In short, my students are great (so far) and I’m really enjoying teaching – even more than I thought I would.

The best neon of any mosque I've ever seen...

Aside from teaching, I haven’t done all that much this week (I spent a lot of my free time making up class lists and creating a grading system on powerpoint – pain in the ass…). Devin has been recovering from a lung infection (I’m pretty sure it was a mild pneumonia exacerbated by the elevation and dry climate); we spent most of the day last Sunday in the Red Cross hospital getting everything checked out. So I’ve had a little more time to myself this week, which has been good; not that I don’t love hanging out with Devin and Sarah, but I’m also eager to meet (and hopefully befriend) some locals. One evening, I went to Xinning Guangchang to do some work and study Chinese. Instead, I met two very nice lower-school English teachers with whom I talked (me speaking mostly in Chinese, them speaking mostly in English) for well over two hours while watching the Tibetan square dancing/techno remix scene. Hopefully I’ll get to meet up with them sometime; I enjoyed hanging out and I’d like to start meeting more people (randomly or otherwise). I’ve been pretty busy, but I really have no excuse for not making many friends yet; if your Chinese is any better than rudimentary, China is the easiest country in the world in which to make friends. People will just come up to you and start talking. This week, I want to spend more time in public places by myself simply in order to meet more people.

Friday was the week’s big event: Teacher’s Day. We had an adjusted schedule, with classes starting early and ending by midday (I still had all of my classes). Two classes gave me gifts: some beautiful flowers and a Michael Jackson pencil holder. At 3:00pm, all of the teachers (and some handpicked students) gathered in the surprisingly beautiful and modern music hall (finally it was unlocked!) for what Mr. Wang, my waiban, called “the meeting.” The meeting turned out to be a long succession of speeches by anyone who was even slightly important in the school heirarchy. Many of the speeches were simply lists of statistics for last year’s gaokao, or college entry exam (“last year, we were 4th place in Xining for history, one place higher up than last year, but still two points below Huangchuan Middle School…the best students were…”). I also heard (from another foreign teacher here) that many of the speeches given at these occasions – even by the principal and other higher-ups – are copied off of the intenet. So much for my anti-cheating campaign.

Then we all went to a restaurant near the Huizu (Muslim) market for a massive banquet – which was delicious and surprisingly low-key, mostly because our table had four young children, and our bottle of baijiu was quickly (thankfully!) snatched up at the beginning of the meal by another table, leaving us only a nasty fruity wine which tasted like grape juice (it was 5% alcohol). Worse than Manischewitz – seriously. The place emptied out early, so I left and wandered around for a bit before meeting up with the 老外 crowd at Bill’s Bar to round out the evening.


And on to the weekend! On Saturday, I opened a Chinese bank account! Contrary to popular belief (rumors maliciously spread throughout my organization), it was extraordinarily easy to do, partially thanks to a very kind and patient bank teller. Now I won’t have to keep all of my money under my mattress. After finishing up at the bank, I met Sarah and Devin for a short trip to 北山寺, a temple on the northern outskirts of town (only about 15-20 minutes by bus from our homes). The temple was strangely located behind a massive industrial hardware market, but was a beautiful and peaceful spot (once you tuned out the sound of the traffic rushing by on the highway below). From the temple, the halls of which were surrounded by lush wildflower gardens, we climbed up a long stretch of vertiginous stairs (which turned out to be closed to tourists once we arrived at the top) to another set of temples sitting on the cliffs above – some of which are in caves. One temple had frighteningly vivid murals of Daoist hells and punishments – they’re too gruesome to write about, and I’m probably going to have nightmares for years to come. After checking everything out, we climbed up on the ridge above the cliffs, where there was a strange little pagoda and a guy blocking our way who demanded 2元 to pass. We passed – through an overgrown garden, along a dusty ridgeline road to a small summit with a disused but beautifully kept temple and families picnicking in the shade of low pines and aspens – and made our way back down a winding one-lane concrete road through a deep canyon, blocks of mudstone from the canyon walls lying fallen-down on the road, riverbed dry with cracked mud, city barely visible through the V at the canyon’s mouth – until we ended up back in the industrial hardware market where we began. All in all, a nice afternoon out.

Sarah at 北山寺

The signs were everywhere. We were trapped.

Devn about to slide all the way down. Terror, panic.

New Buddhas of the 20th Century

Scenes of Daoist hell. VERY graphic.

北山 and 西宁


I also tried to climb a high mountain south of 南山 (South Mountain) beyond the city’s eastern district. The mountain is topped with a tall pagoda and looks like it would be a pretty cool spot to hang out. Little did I know that this would turn into an unexpectedly roundabout adventure, one where I was constantly meeting adults yelling “过不去” (you can’t make it through, you can’t go through there) and constantly meeting kids yelling “过得去” (you can make it through) and showing me tiny, precarious paths with footsteps carved into sheer cliffs of mud and dust that usually (sometimes) got me where I wanted to go. I started at 南山路 and turned onto an alleyway (which a man told me was the street I was looking for) but quickly ended up in a strange open area surrounded by the city, part vacant lot and part barnyard (there were lots of farm animals). I asked a woman how to get to where I wanted to go – if I could cross a gully below her house to get there – but she said “过不去” and left it at that. But some kids overheard her, and showed me that I could, in fact, get by. “Her brain’s not too clear,” said the ringleader of the kids’ little gang. “You can get down here, and go up the other side.”

Definitely 过得去

The path was extremely steep and narrow, and while not truly exposed in the way to which I’m accustomed from climbing and working in Alaska, if I had slipped I would have fallen 25 feet down a steep hillside and landed in a shallow pool of trash and sewage. So I picked my way down carefully, the kids yelling encouragement from above. Halfway down, I met an old man who was slowly, methodically making his way up the path with help from his cane. Old people in China are amazing.

I said goodbye to the kids and made my way into 园山, the neighborhood that looked like it would give access to the mountain I wanted to climb. The whole area is fascinating; all of the neighborhoods on the hillside above 南山路 are Huizu and (if you ignore the apartment blocks in the valley below) look and feel like villages out in the country somewhere.  The lively streets are filled with small markets where old women, elbows and bargaining skills at the ready, peruse the shopfronts carrying bags loaded with fresh cabbages, bok choi, and scallions; blue and white-tiled mosques every couple of blocks, their minarets piercing the otherwise flat skyline; women peering (suspicion, curiosity?) out of half-closed doorways as I passed by; children, carrying (frighteningly real-looking) toy guns, following me up the steeply sloping streets shouting “hello!,” asking where I was going, what I was doing, where I was from, endless questions…I finally made it up to a ceremonial archway which turned out to be the entrance to the Hui cemetery. I could not climb the mountain from here, said the attendant, unless I could hop over a 10-foot wall. So I backtracked and tried another road, but that was similarly blocked. Finally, I went all the way back to 南山路 and climbed 南山 from another cool little village-neighborhood of old houses clinging to the mountainside (and several more 过不去/过得去 encounters). I wandered around on the plateau a bit before finding a way up to the mountain I wanted to climb (I think it’s called 南酉山,as the route up the mountain started from a small place called 南酉村), but by that time it was too late to start, so I caught a ride on a motorcycle (sorry Mom and Dad!) back down the hill to where I could catch a bus back home. I’m excited to go back and explore the area some more – especially on a day where it isn’t as hot as it was today (although I really shouldn’t complain, it was only 78 degrees…but the plateau sun is intense).

The mountain I was trying to climb...

So things are really going well. Two things that I’ve been slightly bummed about or trying hard to remedy: first, I’ve been realizing that despite how much I love Xining so far, I’m really more of a small-town/country person; the ‘big city’ really ain’t for me unless I have 得的s of nature to escape into. Xining is pretty good for that; the mountains and the countryside are only a bus ride (or sometimes even a walk) away. I originally wanted to be working in a smaller town, and I’m realizing – though I really do love Xining – that I still would prefer that type of post. However, I’ve been able to deal with this by going on lots of short blowing-off-steam hikes, runs, and trips into the countryside, so I don’t think it’ll be a big issue.

Secondly, I’ve sometimes (especially towards the beginning of this past week) a bit frustrated at my limited success so far in making local friends. I know it’s very early, but I’m really excited to meet more people – and while the city is very friendly, it’s still very much a city of strangers. I’ve started to feel better about this as I see students and people I’ve met around town, but I think I’m especially frustrated with my lack of friends at the school: I really don’t know anyone except for my fellow foreign teachers, Mr. Wang, and my students. It’s a bit isolating to live among all of the school’s teachers (literally in the same buildings), but not to know any of them. My few attempts at making friends (or even contacts) with other teachers have not really been successes, and as of right now I’m closer with the guy who runs the ground-floor 小卖部 (little shop) than any of the faculty.

But I think these are problems that will dissipate with time, and I’m not going to spent time thinking about how to fix them when I can just go on a hike or go to 新宁广场 to meet people. I’ll probably be doing a bit more of this kind of thing this week as I continue to get settled here in Xining.

View from 园山 neighborhood

That’s it for now, except for the following exciting news and upcoming events in my life:

-Barring the last-minute scheduling of any Saturday night banquets, I’ll be going to Rebgong next weekend!

-I’m finally going to the PSB to get my residence permit (after reminding Mr. Wang pretty much every day that I need to get my permit ASAP or I’ll have to go home).

-I’ve seen the signed contract! But I still don’t have a copy…

-We still don’t know when October break is, but I might be off for my birthday!

-My Dad is coming in November! I’ll have to remind him to buy toilet paper as soon as he gets off the plane. And he’ll have to be treated somewhat like a helpless baby: while Walter Louis Crimm is flexible, adaptable, and usually a great traveler, his extraordinary ineptitude in language learning will force me to be his nanny as he travels around.

Oh – and the title of this blog post (Minutemen. Meatpuppets. Descendants. Angst.). I got it from a vendor in the night market, who was selling handbags which had this endearing slogan printed upon them. Ten points if you can associate these words.

More details to come when they feel like coming. Happy Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur! 祝你犹太新年和 赎罪日快乐!

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5 Responses to Minutemen. Meatpuppets. Descendants. Angst.

  1. walt says:

    my skills lie just below the surface, or I am just lying.

  2. Susan Dannenberg says:

    I find your blog endlessly fascinating! You are doing something I would Never have had the nerve to do, in a country I know very little about. Your insights, photos, and stories are a real window into another world for me. Thanks for taking the time to do this.

  3. Dan Piser says:

    I just started reading your journal and it is great. It’s a terrific insight into your struggles and how you’re overcoming them. This view of a part of China from the inside is fascinating. I look forward to following your adventures. (And your dad’s English is surprisingly good for a southern’ boy.)

  4. Barbara Nordstrom-Loeb says:

    Jonas, reading your blog and seeing the gorgeous photos brings back fond memories (although I was never in Xining). But your wonderful descriptions of the multi layered chaos that seems to be China….crowds on space, garbage next to exquisite temples or paintings and of course the ever-present food is wonderfully reminiscent of the time I spent in China. What an amazing experience..I wish we could visit (or drop by in Estonia…if you are in the neighborhood, next spring). Meanwhile…happy exploring, wishing you adventures, new connections and friends and yummy food.

  5. Kat says:

    Great blog! I stumbled across it because of the title of your post – those are all punk bands. Incidentally, I found the bags in question – if you regret not buying one then, you can buy (a probably much more expensive) one online.

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