Not much really happened this week. In fact, the week was remarkably uneventful, which in some ways is a good sign – it shows that I’m somewhat sort of barely almost starting to if not ‘get used’ to life in Xining, then at least see it as close to normal.
My discipline problems have thankfully abated, thanks to a few simple new class policies and having people like Mr. Wang occasionally sit in on my classes – which helps immeasurably. When I have an observer from the school watching my class, the students are quiet, respectful, and sometimes even attentive! I can actually get through 45 minutes worth of material in (shocker) 45 minutes. And the students sometimes stay better-behaved for a few classes afterward. The effects of these ‘observers’ on my students’ behavior, as well as several other events I will describe below, are really driving home to me my utter lack of importance at the school other than being a whitefaced 老外 whose simple presence can allow the school, as a suddenly prestigious and international institution (as testified by my existence on campus), to charge more for tuition. And I am increasingly aware not only of mine (and my classes’) lack of importance, but also that this lack of importance is universally known – students, teachers, administrators, and even the random old people wandering around the school know about it – and sometimes bluntly acknowledged. For example:
Today, my Senior 2 class 14 was missing quite a few students. I was going to pass around an attendance sheet so I could try to ‘finalize’ the roster before the midterm as I seem to gain and lose students every week (what a vain hope), but I decided it wasn’t worthwhile due to the number of missing students. I asked another student where they were.
“复印,” she said. “They went to the copy shop to make copies.”
The copy shop is a ten-minute walk away, so I figured they might be gone for the entire period. “We have class right now,” I said. “Class is not optional. Who gave them permission to go make copies?”
“The head teacher said they could go during this period,” my student said.
I wasn’t quite sure what to say. The missing group included several of the class’ best students. The head teacher (along with almost all other teachers in the school) is my superior, and in China it’s bad form to argue with or demand something directly from your superior.
“This is class,” I said. “If your teacher needs copies made, she should go during her free time – which is what I do – or she should send students during her class.”
I continued with the class, but the exchange bothered me. Is my class really so dispensable as that? So disposable that other teachers can give my students permission to skip it for making photocopies? I’ve had students come in late with excuses such as “I was getting my hair cut in the teachers office,” which indicates that teachers care more about their students’ haircuts than about my class. This is obviously frustrating, as I feel like I put a lot of effort into my classes and want my students to care. But everything seems to be against my students caring, including the grading system.
I learned about the way our classes’ grades are handled from Nettie this week. Nettie, who is in her third year here at 师大附中, told me that the grades from the classes we teach （听力, literally Listening Comprehension but more like Oral English in reality) are not put on students’ report cards. Ever. Not just the midterm grades, but also the final grades. Nettie said that Mr. Wang had tried to console her previously by saying that the teachers mentioned the 听力 grades in the one-on-one parent-teacher conferences, but she’s pretty sure that was a white lie. Or maybe an off-white lie, a beige lie. Make that a gray lie. Cobalt.
As you can tell from the rapidly shifting color spectrum above, this infuriates me. The students are in no way accountable for anything they do (or don’t do) in class. I can punish or reward them during the semester, but in the end it won’t matter one bit: on the report card, it’s as if my class didn’t exist. And aside from accountability, there is no concrete incentive for my students to do any work for or pay any attention during my class. I hate equating motivation with grades, but in many situations it’s unfortunately true – and even when it isn’t, grades are often a powerful incentive to work for a class. The only motivation the students have for my class is their own interest in English – and whatever motivation I can give them in class. This I try to do every day, but it can be hard, especially in the classes where the balance of students tries their hardest not to care, and sometimes even says as much to my face.
Apart from the school power dynamics, the other issues at school have mostly revolved around my unanswered requests to Mr. Wang. Here they are, in relative order of priority.
1. When is my midterm? I know it’s this week, but it’s almost Wednesday and the it’s not fair to the kids not to tell them when it is. And while you’re at it, you asked me to send you my midterm by Sunday, which I did (I sent it Friday, actually), and said that you’d print it out for me. When I called you yesterday morning, you said the midterm was OK and good to go. When I talked to you today, you asked me if I had sent you the midterm yet. After I looked surprised and said “I sent it on Friday.” Then you told me you hadn’t checked your email. Can you check your email and let me know if the exam is ‘acceptable’? Can I trust you to print it out correctly? I have five versions of each test so the students don’t cheat, and I’ve given you instructions for how to do it, but I don’t think you were listening.
2. When is winter vacation? Everyone else in VIA knows; it’s only me left in the dust.
3. You told me throughout the semester that 师大附中 had no pianos I could use. Three days ago, I learned from the 师大 music department (who is sick of having me come over every few days begging for a piano room) that 师大附中 has at least 20 piano rooms. I confronted you, and you confessed that the school had plenty of pianos. I asked for a key to the rooms. Can I get one please?
4. Kitchen table. This has been a minor fight since the beginning of the semester. Please?
5. When mail comes, I want it immediately. Not just packages. Letters, too. Some things (e.g. ABSENTEE BALLOT) are time-sensitive.
This is a preliminary list; more items to come.
That’s almost it for the past week. Over the weekend, I wandered around the city a lot and went to a bunch of markets where I met some of the most friendly and inquisitive people imaginable (e.g. the guy who sold me bread told me, next time I came back, to “come behind the store into our house, and we’ll bake you bread and you can eat lunch and play with us.” Ridiculous generosity.) I took an extremely long, hilly (mountainous), and adventurous run in the 西山 area, which has become my favorite place to run despite its verticality. During the run (which included at least 2,500 feet of elevation gain, see here – and the distance doesn’t include numerous detours and times getting lost) I got chased by a frighteningly large dog, frightened (or amused) numerous peasants, and ran through places as varied as construction sites, fields of barley, barren mountainsides, tree farms, small villages, markets, cemeteries, concrete factories, a garbage dump, and along the backside of a building whose gates and walls were plastered with warnings about the ‘radioactive materials inside, stay away.’ Needless to say, it was quite an experience (and actually a beautiful run), but when I got back I was quite dehydrated – and, in several hours, faced a mini-banquet with the infamously hard-drinking visiting Norwegians. At least they didn’t bring Aquavit.
And lastly, Sarah and Devin held a fun Halloween party on Saturday, complete with pumpkin carving and delicious fall-flavored curry soup. I made apple pie in a toaster oven to go along with the soup, and it actually turned out surprisingly OK. I’m hosting my first dinner party tomorrow night, and all will be cooked on the temperamental hotplate, so we’ll see how it goes.
My dad is coming into 上海 on Saturday and, due to mild language dyslexia on his part (sorry Dad), I’m getting ready to be his nurse for the trip. Regardless, it’ll be fun. He’s already gotten a little taste of China before leaving the states; he is in 上海 for a conference, and has commented to me several times on the event’s lack of organization. “But of course,” I said, “you’re coming to China. What were you expecting?” And by a strange twist of fate, Devin’s dad will be here at the same time, accompanied by his girlfriend. Whatever happens, it’s sure to be a fun time.
On a random note, I’ve received a request from a family friend in the US (who is a Cordon-Bleu trained chef) to write about the food here in Xining. I’ll write more about it in the future, but I’m petrified of food photography, so I won’t be including any pictures of food unless the dish is standing upright and is at least four feet tall, just like a Northeast Philly hairdo. And maybe I’ll ask her to send some cheese to China (hard to find!) as a bribe…
As I write, I’m hoping that all goes well in the US midterm elections. I’m frightened of what’s going on right now in the country, and frightened that inane and clueless candidates such as Christine o’Donnell (“where in the Constitution is the separation of Church and State?”) can be considered serious contenders for seats in the US senate. I still haven’t received my absentee ballot due to the vagaries of the international mail service (or maybe it’s just been sitting in Mr. Wang’s office for a couple of weeks), but I’m hoping as I read the results tomorrow that things will not go as badly as I fear. And lastly, thank god for Jon Stewart and co. He has several staunch fans in Xining, and is helping to convince me that not everyone in the US has go ass-over-tea-party batshit crazy.