Saturday, December 30, 2017

Chasing Santa - a really long Christmas Eve

It's currently Saturday evening and I have just finished packing my bags to go back to Beijing. I can't say I'm really looking forward to the return trip, but the time differences always make things interesting. This trip, I'm departing on the morning of New Year's Eve and flying west. As I fly west the time will get earlier and earlier until I cross the International Dateline at which point it will become 2018. There won't exactly be a countdown for the new year. Of course, this is sort of making up for my trip from Beijing to North Carolina.
I woke up on Christmas Eve morning and went to church. We had a good service and then went to the home of a couple of the church members who live very close to where we meet (in the German Center). We had an awesome church-wide Christmas party which included having pizza and snacks and singing Christmas songs. I left about 2:30 in the afternoon (the party was still going strong) and took the train (the subway to the airport express) to the airport. I flew to Detroit landing about 10 minutes BEFORE I left Beijing. (I called my grandmother from the Detroit airport. She mentioned that you can't be in two places at the same time and I replied, "Oh, yes you can. I was in Beijing on Sunday, December 24, 2017 at 5:40 pm and I was in Detroit on Sunday, December 24, 2017.")
My flight to Detroit was pretty good. After I checked into the airport, they told me that I could go over to the table that said Merry Christmas and get some Christmas items (It was actually kind of funny because the check-in was conducted mostly in Chinese and so he told me this in Chinese with Merry Christmas being in English because the table had an English banner which said Merry Christmas). I walked over to the table and saw that they had headbands with antlers, santas, and other possible items on them; slap bracelets; and buttons. I chose a really cute antler headband with a bow between the antlers. Then the woman was like, "Oh chose something else." I was surprised that I could have more than one item, but I chose a reindeer slap bracelet. Then she told me to get a button so I got a stocking button. The conversation with this woman started in English, but out of habit, a number of my replies were in Chinese and eventually the conversation turned to Chinese. I don't know if it was because of my Chinese speaking or being a foreigner or what, but next thing I know she's asking to take a picture of me.
When I boarded my flight, the flight attendants all had different Christmas headbands like what I had seen on the table (it was a Delta table and I was flying Delta after all), but none of them had one just like mine. They all reacted instantly to my headband, asking me where I got it and commenting that they hadn't seen one like that. There were additional comments as I deplaned as well. I was a little surprised to see that nobody in Detroit had any of these acutraments. I thought they were probably a Delta-wide thing, but apparently they were in a Delta in Beijing thing.
My flight to Greensboro was delayed a bit because of back-up on the de-icing which was the result of weather systems delaying other flights, but when we boarded the flight attendant was like, "We've got to get you all home before Santa arrives." I managed to land in Greensboro at about 11 pm and made it to Mom and Dad's house about 10 minutes before midnight. My Christmas Eve was 37 hours long and I definitely made the most of it. On Monday, I kept telling stories from the day before and my dad was like, "Your yesterday was a week long." It definitely felt like it. This Sunday however, I am essentially skipping.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A Trip to a Public Hospital in Beijing

If you've read my blog for a while, you know I have clearly been to a hospital in China before. For that matter, I have definitely been to the hospital in Beijing, (You can read about my adventure with gallstones here.) but I've never been to a public hospital (as a patient - I did observe an open heart surgery in a public hospital in Baotou years ago, but I digress). Last week one of my friends had a lot of problems with ringing in his ears, but his insurance only works in public hospitals. Therefore, on Saturday and Sunday I went with him to help him figure out the hospital (sort of the blind leading the blind) and to translate.
In China, especially in a city like Beijing, there are many different types of hospitals (and by the way there is no such thing in China as a doctor's office. You see doctors usually at the hospital, occasionally in a clinic). When I had issues I went to an international hospital (Beijing United Family) and an international clinic (Vista Clinic). I tried going to another international hospital before I went to Beijing United Family because my health insurance covered care at the other hospital (Oasis) 100%, but at Beijing United Family it only covered 80% of the costs. Unfortunately, the day I went was a public holiday and so everything was closed (including the emergency room), except pediatrics and OB/GYN. Since I don't qualify for pediatrics and it wasn't an OB/GYN problem (it was complications from Influenza A that I had picked up during my Christmas travels), I had to bite the bullet and go to the more expensive hospital. At the international hospitals and clinics it's just like being in a hospital in the US. They have the same standard of care, they same general procedures and often even the same brands of supplies (I don't just mean the big stuff like the medical equipment I mean even down to the little stuff like Kimberly Clark toilet paper dispensers). Of course, the biggest advantage is nearly everyone, from the doctors to the receptionists, speaks English. If they don't (or they can't understand you), they can quickly transfer you to someone who does (they may even be a native English speaker). These hospitals even employ many foreign doctors (although the ones I had were all Chinese). The downside is they come with a U.S.-size price tag. If you don't have health insurance that covers treatment at the International hospitals you probably can't afford to go there (and without insurance that they can bill, you will have to pay upfront for your treatment).
My friend didn't have insurance that covers private hospitals so that meant he needed to go to a public hospital. Now, there is quite a spectrum when it comes to public hospitals. I googled public hospitals with international wings and found one not too far away (this is a very relative term). My friend didn't have time to go on Saturday because of a party our friends were throwing so we tried to go to a nearby hospital (meaning in walking distance), but they didn't have an ENT. I thought he could handle going to the hospital himself, but he asked me to go with him on Sunday so I met him after church at the subway station nearest the hospital (Peking Union Medical College Hospital) . We followed the directions on Apple Maps (remember all Google products are blocked in China) and this led us to the main entrance. Unfortunately, the main entrance didn't include the international wing and it was closed. There were quite a few people gathered outside the hospital waiting and long electronic signs that appeared to be listing the specialties and which days they had available appointment times. From my reading online I knew they had an international wing that should be open at that time, but I couldn't find directions on how to get there. The hospital area was comprised of several buildings, but there was also construction going  on making it more difficult to find the International Medical Services (what they call their international wing). We wandered around and eventually found signs pointing to the emergency room and IMS (in the same location). We walked in the door and had no idea what to do or where to go. We just stood there looking around, puzzled. A guard walked up to us and asked if we needed to see a doctor and then told us to go to the nurse's station. I figured since this was the international wing the nurses would speak English so I instructed my friend to talk to them, but they started to panic and picked up the phone. I then told them it was okay, I would translate. After telling them he needed to see an ENT we were directed to the cashier where he had to pay 5 yuan to buy a card and 1000 yuan (about USD 150) to see the doctor. He could use his debit card to pay for the doctor, but had to buy the card with cash. We were then directed back to the nurses station where they gave him some paperwork and then directed us to an exam room (she tried to tell him in English, but mixed up her numbers leaving us very confused until I clarified in Chinese).
We got to the exam room and there was no one there and so we just waited outside the room (there were chairs just outside the door). The doctor walked up and greeted me (in English) and asked me if I had requested an ENT. I told him I hadn't my friend had. This was one of those really funny situations that happen a lot. My friend is Filipino so the doctor thought he was Chinese. Thus, he figured W was the translator and I was the patient rather than the other way around (this is probably also why the nurses didn't freak out until after he spoke English to them). I waited outside while he examined my friend. Then in order for my friend's insurance to reimburse the visit, he needed some form official diagnosis form. The doctor had to go an get an official paper and fill it out by hand. Meanwhile, my friend had to go back to the cashier to pay for the form (250 yuan or about USD 35) and his medication. Then he took the card he'd bought to the pharmacy where they used that to match him to the prescription. Finally, we went back to the exam room and got the form from the doctor. Definitely, a new experience for both of us.

Monday, December 11, 2017

You're an interpreter in disguise

A while back I heard about the Christmas Bazaar held each year at the Germany Embassy here in Beijing. I heard that it was really awesome and a not-to-be-missed event. Having lived in Germany I was even more interested because it was supposed to have all the typical German Christmas foods. Life got busy and I didn't think about it for a while. On Friday, December 1st I was looking online to see what activities were going to be happening that weekend and I came across the Germany Charity Bazaar (the actual name of the event). I looked into and saw that there were advanced ticket sales, but not online. They were only selling tickets at three locations around town none of which were anywhere close to me and considering the bazaar was the next day it wasn't going to be possible to get an advanced ticket (I never considered the fact it would be quite so early - it doesn't really feel like Christmas around here even now on the 12th). According to the event website tickets would be sold at the door depending on availability. They had to sessions one in the morning and one in the afternoon, beginning at 2 o'clock. I had plans for Friday night and live about 1.5 hours away from the German Embassy so I didn't figure I could make the morning session, but I thought, "If I show up right at 2, it should still be early enough to get a ticket." I shared the word with my coworkers and a few of them decided to join me. One had been the year before and she hadn't had an advanced ticket, so I wasn't too worried. I should have been.
I arrived at the Germany Embassy just moments before 2. My directions actually had me coming up the opposite side of the embassy from the bazaar entrance and so I came across a REALLY long line. I decided I didn't want to get into a line that I didn't know what it was, plus I saw people had tickets in their hands, so I kept walking. And walking and walking. Eventually I found the front of the line and sure enough it was a good thing I hadn't gotten into that first line. It was for people with advanced tickets. The line to buy tickets was on the other side. I found that line and there were some people speaking Chinese who had tickets in their hands. Thus, I told them in Chinese that they were in the wrong line. They thanked me and went to find the correct line. I then stood in line for a long time. After a while I started speaking to the people around me. The women in front of me were Chinese so I spoke to them mostly in Chinese. The couple behind me were a Canadian woman and her Chinese boyfriend. I spoke to them in English. My own friends arrived after I'd been waiting in line for about an hour and a half. They decided they didn't want to wait that long and decided to skip it, but I figured they were letting people in until 5. They would clear the line of ticket holders and then start selling tickets. Since many people had dropped out of the line, I thought I would make it. The couple behind me thought the same thing. We were wrong.
Around 4 pm (after I've waited in line, in the cold, for a little over two hours) a couple of people working the bazaar came out to inform us that there was zero chance of getting in. They had so many advanced ticket holders that they would not be selling any tickets. The gentleman behind me didn't really believe it. Meanwhile, another gentleman was clearly upset. He went up to them and in German explained how they had stood there for two hours and it wasn't right to turn them away. The staff told him (also in German) that they were sorry, but there was absolutely no possibility of getting in. He continued to disagree with them and they continued to be firm and tell him it wasn't happening. I very quietly translated this conversation to the couple behind me. The girl looked at me, "I think you're a secret translator. You speak Chinese AND German. Do you speak Arabic too?" (I would like to learn Arabic, but in case you're wondering, no I don't.)
While I was in line I also met a Chinese girl and a Hong Kong British citizen (meaning she was ancestrally from Hong Kong and has a Hong Kong residence card, but a British passport) who has literally lived all over the world (and is completely fluent in English, Cantonese and Mandarin) and her Chinese coworker (they were somehow friends with the gentleman behind me and had joined the couple in line). They invited me to go to another Christmas Bazaar that wasn't too far away so that the long trip wasn't a total waste. I decided to go and we took a DiDi (the Chinese equivalent to Uber) to the Hutongs and went to a Tapas bar that had a little Christmas Bazaar going on. I had a good time, but I didn't get the good German food I had been planning on (we were all quite hungry because we had eaten very little lunch in anticipation). Next year, I will make sure to buy an advanced ticket (and probably to make the morning session as well).

Monday, November 13, 2017

I'll admit it, I make mistakes.

We all make mistakes, this is a surprise to no one. We all make language mistakes. Again, this shouldn't be a surprise. One of my tenth graders has created a joke out of my asking Siri. I didn't realize at first just how often I ask Siri to spell a word. Now, anytime I wonder about the spelling of a word one of my students goes, "Hey Siri, how do you spell..."
When I was an exchange student in Germany (and thus learning German) I thought the word for tired (müde) was pronounced just like the word for brother (brüder). As you can probably guess from looking at these words, that simply isn't true. The thing is when you learn a foreign language, especially when you learn it from immersion rather than a classroom setting, you often don't hear the words/sounds quite right.
Other times you fall into the trap of false cognates. In German the word information is Information (although note, it is pronounced a little bit differently). Computer is Computer, and meter is meter (although German nouns do have gender and I realize I'm leaving that part out - on purpose). Additionally, you have words that are very similar like mother in German is Mutter and book is Buch.   But then there are the false cognates - words that look similar or even sound similar, but have rather different meanings. One of my favorite of these is the verb putzen. It sounds a lot like put, but the meaning isn't the least bit similar. One of my fellow exchange students, Laura, told us a story about her misuse of the word putzen. Because she thought it meant put she used it all the time. She would tell her host family she was going to putzen the letter in the mailbox. Now this story gets really funny when I tell you that putzen actually means to clean! After getting over her embarrassment, Laura was able to laugh at this and even shared the story with myself and some of her other foreign exchange student friends (by the way, I don't usually use real names, but I haven't seen Laura in over 20 years and if by some chance you're reading this and your that Laura, please contact me).
Like Laura, I have been forced to accept that fact that no matter how hard I try I will always make mistakes. Sometimes they are grammar mistakes (I make those in English too), sometimes they are mistakes in word choices (now that I think about it, I sometimes make those in English too) and sometimes they're mistakes in writing (I mean spelling, but since I'm about the speak about Chinese which doesn't have an alphabet I chose the word writing).
Here's a screen shot of me typing a Chinese character
here within this blog. If you click on the little drop down
menu on the right, more choices will appear. When you click
anywhere on a new row the numbers will be assigned to
the characters in that row. You select a character by
hitting the number associated with that character.
There are different ways to have the characters sort,
but I usually leave mine sorted by frequency.
As I've mentioned in my last post, I teach a seventh grade science class that didn't go well until I started teaching it bilingually. While this is useful for the students it results in a lot of mistakes because, well let's face it Chinese is a tough language! Today, I gave my students a quiz on organs of the human body. On this quiz, I had typed the Chinese name of the organ and the students had to write the English name. I can type Chinese a lot better than I can write because when I type, I type in pinyin (the romanization of Chinese characters used on the mainland) and pick the character from a list that pops up on my screen. Using this method I only have to be able to recognize the character to type it. One of the words on the quiz was 肾 which means kidneys. Unfortunately, I accidentally chose 神 which means God. Two of the students, knew what I meant (the pronunciation of these characters only varies in the tone) and simply corrected my character. The other students started laughing and putting their hands together and pretending they were praying. The teaching assistant went around the room, correcting their papers and it was all good.
The other day, my mistake was a little funnier. We were reviewing the English names of the organs and I was giving the students the Chinese name and having them
say the English name. Unfortunately instead of saying heart (心xin - first tone), I accidentally said sex ( 性 xing - fourth tone). Now in reality the word for sex, as in how the students took it is 性爱 (xing ai), what I said more like gender, but these are 7th grade boys. They laughed uproariously and that day I didn't have a TA in the room to help me (actually I often don't). Thankfully one of the kids said enough for me to figure out what I might have said. After class, I asked one of my Chinese coworkers some questions in relation to what I might have accidentally said and he turned all red, but didn't answer. Thankfully, my dictionary doesn't get nervous about telling me what words mean.
When I first started teaching this class I felt like it was the bane of my existence. After all, it's not only middle school (not my favorite grade to teach), but it's also life science (my least favorite science) and the kids don't really speak English. Nonetheless, the class has really grown on me. They are still middle schoolers, but they really get into the videos I show them and they bring a unique energy that is actually a lot of fun. Then there are the decidedly middle school actions. For example I introduced the concept of the larynx in class today and wrote the Chinese word on the board. The first character in the Chinese word for larynx ( pronounced yan) sounds the same as to smoke. One of the students got up and jokingly said I had the wrong character and changed it to the character to smoke - I guessed that was the character he wrote because I could recognize the part of the character that means fire (and then the TA confirmed it). A couple of times in class I have introduced the word esophagus (食管 -shi guan) which is pronounced almost the same as the second and third characters in embassy (大使馆 -da shi guan). The shi in esophagus is second tone while in embassy it's third tone (if you don't know anything about Chinese tones second tone is a rising tone and third tone is a falling then rising tone). When that one came up there was no TA in the room, so I was pretty happy that I recognized what the kid was conveying.
While, I do make a lot of mistakes I think it is good. You learn more from your mistakes than you do when you get things wrong. Thus, I'm learning a lot of Chinese (of course not only from my mistakes, but also from preparing for class). I'm also modeling for the students. I need these students to be willing to make mistakes, especially in their language learning. If they aren't willing to try they won't improve. Thus, since I keep making mistakes I keep modeling the fact that its okay to make mistakes and that you need to just keep on trying. And isn't that a lesson that extends well beyond language learning?

Friday, November 3, 2017

He laughed so hard his belly ached.

My school is set-up very much in a Chinese style. Even though we more or less follow an American curriculum, the students attend all of their classes together as a class, much like it is in an American elementary school, except that the different subjects are taught by different teachers. Also, the students stay in one classroom and the teachers come in to teach the students. Because our school is very small (less than 50 students spread out over grades 7-11 - no 12th grade because the students all of to our sister school in Virginia for 12th grade) there is only one class per grade and those grades can be as small as 4 students (8th grade). The largest grade is 10th grade (the start of high school in China). Our 10th grade class has 15 students which is our maximum for any grade.
I teach 10th grade chemistry and calculus I (we call it calculus I because its really the AP curriculum taught over 2 years) and also 7th grade life science.
One of the questions people commonly ask me is, "do you teach in English or in Chinese." Usually, the answer is in English. My 10th graders can more or less handle the English (that's not to say it isn't really difficult nor that I don't spend a lot of time helping them understand what things mean), but my 7th graders are an entirely different story! We started the school year with four 7th graders. Of these four one spoke pretty good English, one spoke decent English and two spoke no English. We then moved a student down from 8th grade because his English was sufficient to handle to 8th grade and we added a 6th grader who wants to attend our school, but joined a year early (we start at grade 7) to learn English before he needs the year to count (in other words he has been planning to repeat the 7th grade next year from the time he began). This makes trying to teach a 7th grade American curriculum very challenging. Most of the material we are learning is new for the students (meaning they've never learned it in Chinese either) and all but one of them really cannot learn the material from English. I have two assistants who take turns attending the class, but they tend to not know the science words in English (and often not in Chinese either) and so this makes life very interesting.
As a result, I end up teaching my 7th grade class bilingually (or at least to the best of my ability). I prepare vocabulary charts in which I give them the English word and the Chinese word (I check with a coworker to make sure I got the right word from the dictionary. He often has to do a Baidu search to confirm the word because it has been a long time since he's taken Biology). Sometimes I included the pronunciation of the Chinese word. This is for me because during class I have to use the Chinese words repeatedly and sometimes in the beginning I cannot remember the pronunciation. We then go through the material using videos, powerpoint, models and other visual aids. I often ask my questions in English and then repeat them in Chinese. If there is an important point that I cannot say in Chinese, I ask the TA to translate. One of the TAs will usually do so (she also gives me individual words if I need them), the other usually will not (I don't think he can). Some of the students will try to ask their questions in English. Some of them really don't have the ability to ask the question in English. The other day, I had a student who had a long question. He spoke on and on and on in Chinese for about two minutes before I stopped him. I said, "I can't follow all of that." He looked at the TA and replied, "but she can translate." I told him, "yes, but she can't remember so much to translate all of that. Start at the beginning and go slowly." He started at the beginning and I could understand the first sentence completely. Then he kept going and the TA started having trouble translating, but between the two of us I got the main idea. As we progress through a topic the students learn more and more of the English words and the class moves from almost entirely in Chinese to maybe 60-70% in English. Unfortunately, I don't think it ever gets beyond 70% English. This has resulted in my Chinese definitely improving, and sometimes with some of the strangest words (my Chinese vocabulary now includes the names of most organs in the body, cells, blood, mitosis, meiosis, the stages of those processes and even odd words like dialysis. Unfortunately, while I can describe the entire process of cell division in Chinese, I cannot tell you I'm sad or frustrated). One day recently, one of my students said (in English), "Miss Cannon your Chinese has upgraded."
One of the funniest moments occurred yesterday. The day before yesterday I had given the students a new vocabulary sheet. This one was on major organs in the body. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to include the stomach. Therefore, I wrote the word stomach (in English) on the board and told the students to add the word stomach in both English and Chinese to their sheet (I told them this in Chinese). One of my students then asked me, (in Chinese) "How do you write stomach?" I replied (in Chinese), "the English or Chinese word?" "The Chinese word." I just looked at him. Another student explained to him how to write the word. A third student then asked me, (in Chinese) "teacher, how do you write stomach in Chinese?" I looked at him (all of the students are male) and said, "You're asking me how to write stomach in Chinese? Me? I'm an American. You think I know how to write it?" (all of this was also said in Chinese). I then proceed to look up the character in my dictionary and showed it to him before I wrote the Chinese word for stomach on the board. A fourth student was laughing and laughing and laughing. Next thing I know he tells me (also in Chinese), "Ms. Cannon I laughed so hard my belly aches. The Chinese student needed the foreigner to tell him how to write a Chinese word!"

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Halloween Chinese style

A few of our students trick-or-treating. Some
of them really dressed up, but I didn't think
to take pictures.
The entrance to the school. Notice that the pumpkins are
quite large, are the traditional jack-o-lantern
shape and are orange (or at least mostly). None of
these are common things in China.

I'm sure it surprises no one to hear that Halloween is not a traditional Chinese holiday. Back when I lived in Inner Mongolia (2002-2005) basically no one in China had ever heard of Halloween. My first year in Baotou (the city I lived in in Inner Mongolia) I taught a really cool class that included afternoon culture activities. That year we had a big Halloween party where we not only carved jack-o-lanterns, but made our own piñata (I didn't have anywhere to hang it from though so I stood on a chair and held it while my blindfolded students swung at it with a plastic bat). One funny thing I remember is I instructed my students to all bring in a pumpkin, preferably orange (traditionally most pumpkins here are green) to carve jack-o-lanterns. That student came to class laughing because when he was shopping for pumpkins he was looking for the biggest one he could find (they are traditionally quite small) and the seller told him, "but the smaller pumpkins taste better." He told us he replied, "but I'm not going to eat the pumpkin, I'm going to play with it!"

Fast forward to 2017 and its an entirely different story. Two weeks ago I was shopping
Some of us dressed up more than others.
in a large chain store (as opposed to an import store) and they had a whole section of Halloween decorations, costumes and more. At my current school the students all live on campus as do all over the foreign teachers, except me. The students asked some of the teachers if they could do trick-or-treating at the teacher's apartments. The teachers agreed and we all went and bought candy (I teamed up with someone else and we each gave candy out from her apartment). Then in the evening the student council threw a Halloween party. This Halloween party included a haunted house (where I managed to scare the kids trying to scare me instead of the other way around), lots of face painting, fake blood, costumes and or course candy. A couple of the biggest surprises for me were the fact spiderwebs and the large jack-o-lantern size pumpkins (they weren't carved though). It sure was a very different story from 15 years ago when my students only knew what I taught them about Halloween. Enjoy a sampling of the photos from Halloween.

I don't know who procured the Scream masks, but
there were several of them. This is me with one of my 7th
grade students.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

I'm still shaking...

I teach at the Beijing campus of a US school (the US campuses are K-12, my school only has grades 7-11). All of our students are Chinese and they will complete their schooling at one of our US campuses before going to university somewhere in the west, most likely in the States. These parents are not only spending a lot of money, but they are also taking quite a risk. Let me explain.
Chinese education is all about tests. Students take a high school entrance exam to determine which high school they can go to. They are further arranged in classes according to their test scores (the students take all their classes together as a class). Every so often they take exams, the results of which are used to rearrange the classes once again putting those with the best results together and so forth. This grading of both schools and classes is important because the best schools are allotted the most resources and the best classes are given the best teachers. It's also really important because university admissions are based solely on the students' results on the college entrance examination. These exams require students to memorize massive amounts of knowledge (However, the Chinese education system is entirely focused on memorization and includes almost no higher order thinking skills). By choosing to attend an international school like mine, the students are not learning (memorizing) the information on the college entrance exam and are therefore precluding themselves from attending most Chinese universities. While the 7th, 8th and 9th graders could still leave our school and attend a Chinese high school, the situation is further confused by a system called the Hukou. Hukou is a family registration system which determines a number of things, including where you can go to school. If your Hukou is not in Beijing then you cannot attend a Beijing public school. Also, not only are the college entrance exams different in different provinces but if your hukou is in a province other than Beijing you are required to get a higher score to qualify for a Beijing university. Many of our students are from Beijing (i.e. their Hukao is in Beijing), but some of them have lived in Beijing for most of their lives, but because their Hukao is not in Beijing they either have to attend a private school or go back to the province of their Hukao (they also have to return to the city of their Hukao to renew their national ID cards, get a passport and my other things). A few of our students are even from entirely different provinces and only get to go home during breaks. Thus, these parents, and of course their children, are taking a great risk. If they do not do well they will have trouble getting into a good university (and in China, it's all about the ranking). Even if they get into a good university they need to be well prepared enough for the university and to be able to complete their education in English.
This takes us to this afternoon. Today after school we had a parents' meeting. The purpose of meetings like this is to educate the parents on what we do, introduce them to the foreign staff like myself and answer their questions. Because they are taking such a risk with their children's education the attendance rate at these meetings is very high. After a school-wide meeting where the administrators spoke to the parents, we had grade level meetings. There were 1-2 foreign teachers, 1-2 translators, and the class advisor in each grade level meeting (along with the parents of course). I was assigned the 10th grade because while I do teach 7th-grade general science, I mostly teach 10th grade. I teach 10th-grade chemistry and 10th-grade calculus. The other teacher who mostly teaches 10th grade had to be out all this week so I was the only foreign teacher (which also meant we had only 1 translator). The class advisor greeted the students and began to introduce me, but I told him I could introduce myself. I introduced myself in Chinese, as I had planned, and then gave some explanations of the chemistry and calculus courses. I gave the explanations in English, but when we got to chemistry some of the translation was incorrect. So I re-explained, in English. The translation was better, but it was still a little bit off so I explained in Chinese. At this point, you could tell the parents were impressed. When I had given my introduction in Chinese they were impressed, but this of course went well beyond introducing myself. After the introduction of the courses, I opened it up for questions. Some of the questions I understood and some of them I needed a translation. I answered the questions in English initially, but as the time went on I was answering more and more of the questions in Chinese. It sort of felt like an inquisition. I know the parents were curious, and I know they are very concerned with their children's futures, but man oh man some of the questions. I got questions about how do we teach chemistry without a laboratory (this is one of my biggest issues), will we learn the whole textbook, and how does this course compare to the Chinese national curriculum. The last question was challenging because I've never taught in a Chinese public school. It was also a question I had to answer carefully so as to not insult anyone. Remember the Chinese curriculum focuses on memorizing. From talking to my previous students I'm quite sure the Chinese curriculum requires students to memorize a lot of useless information and to doesn't work much on analyzing and other important skills, but I couldn't say that. I had to simply speak about the differences diplomatically and avoid any sort of judgments. Even though I could not address every question and topic without a translator, I'm quite sure the parents were very impressed (matter of fact one of my colleagues, who doesn't speak English by the way, told me they were really impressed). I, on the other hand, was so anxious I didn't even realize until I finished, how much I was shaking!

Monday, October 16, 2017

There's a moat around Beijing

This Wednesday marks the beginning of the 19th Party Plenum. Unless you are extremely familiar with China you're probably wondering, "what in the world is a Party Plenum?" I have spent years connected to China and was unfamiliar with the word, but not the idea behind it. Every five years the Communist Party has a big, secretive meeting where they decide who their leaders are going to be and unknown other things about China's future. When I lived in Baotou I would comment on how relaxed things were because Baotou was politically very far from Beijing (geographically it's not actually that far), but now I live IN Beijing. Events like the upcoming Plenum create for interesting situations.
It all started a few weeks ago. It was a regular evening and I am my colleagues were all in our respective homes watching Netflix and using other western media sites using our VPNs (as you are most likely aware China has the Golden Shield Project that most foreigners call the "Great Firewall." This prevents people in China from accessing about 70% of all outside websites including all Google products and western blog hosting platforms). All of the sudden most of our VPNs went out. We started chatting on WeChat and sharing which servers were still working. Prior to this, I had read an article that said China has to discover each of the VPN servers one-by-one and since it wouldn't be effective to cut the connection to a single server, they would wait until they had discovered a number of connections and then cut them all at the same time. This is, as was confirmed by our VPN provider, in fact, what they did. Our VPN provider worked hard and in about 24 hours or so had all of the servers reconnected.  According to articles I've read online, the government called for an extra layer of protection around Beijing which was deemed a fire moat. This so-called fire moat is a second firewall just around Beijing. This appears to have gone into effect last Friday. All of the sudden the servers went down. Based on messages from the VPN provider and my personal experience, it appears that China is currently constantly cutting connections and the VPN provider (I'm intentionally not stating which one I use) is restoring a few. They have informed users in China that they are working around the clock to maintain service and directed us to use one of only three servers.
Over the weekend, one of my colleagues sent us a message warning of long waits and complete screenings and pat downs to enter the subway. I only went into the main part of the city once (for church on Sunday) and didn't encounter any of this, but today's Beijinger (an English-language publication) showed pictures of security lines at subway stations taking up to 2 hours! Boy am I glad that I don't have to commute via public transportation!
Finally, today our administration sent us a WeChat message informing us that for the next several days (the actual number is unknown) any packages being sent from outside of Beijing will be stopped from entering the city. Thus, there really is a moat around Beijing.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

A walk on the wild side

The most famous site in China is the Great Wall of China. As someone who has lived in China for over four years (total, not consecutively), I have of course been to the Great Wall. The most commonly visited section of the Great Wall is Badaling. This area is accessible by train and super easy to get to but tends to be incredibly crowded. (My mom and I went there in late June or early July and managed to find a section of the wall that had almost no one on it). Another slightly more difficult to access, but still very common section of the Great Wall is Mutianyu. I've been there before (although not in almost 15 years) and also to a place I can't remember the name of (it's been over 15 years since I was there), but it's where the wall comes out of the sea. Now each of these places is really neat and I highly recommend them, but they are highly reconstructed. 
Our first view of the Great Wall as we approached the top of
Yesterday, two of my co-workers C and K, and I went on a hike to Huanghuacheng which is a mostly wild section of the Great Wall. It was awesome. Matter of fact it was so awesome that we are already planning to do another hike in just over two weeks.
We went with a company called Beijing Hikers and I must admit I was a little nervous about using a tour group because I'm not really into the whole tour, stick together thing, but it turned out to not really be a problem. The way Beijing Hikers is set-up you can do the trip at your own pace. They have a lead guide who puts out red flags and a tail who collects them. You can be anywhere in between and the tail won't pass the last person so that you can go at your own pace.
Definitely not the typical trail found in China.
I'm not positive, but I think part of that is a really old, worn
down part of the wall.
 We drove to a section of the Great Wall that was about 2 hours northeast of the center of Beijing (which is about an hour's drive northeast of where we live) where they then provided us with plenty of water bottles and hiking poles. I almost didn't take a hiking pole, but I'm so glad I did. The hike began with about a 40-minute uphill hike to the wall (if you don't know, the Great Wall is built on the ridges of the mountains). One of the things I liked about this part of the hike was the fact that it was a real hike. Every other time I have been hiking in China it was on well-manicured paths with hundreds of people. This was a hike through the woods where you are pushing back the foliage and feel like you're out on your own (but there are other people nearby and the tail who will help you if you have a problem). Then we arrive at the wall. It was so cool! We were on a part of the wall that was built in the 1500s and hasn't been refurbished. I didn't realize how wild, wild was. The wall at places wasn't distinguishable as a wall (from on top) because there were so many trees and grasses growing on it. When then hiked a few miles to another part of the wall that was re-done in 2004. It still wasn't as "modernized" as sections like Badaling and Mutianyu, but it was definitely easier to hike on. We watched the sunset from the peak  (or nearly, we left a little before the sun finished setting) and then hiked down to the Shuichangcheng (水长城) section (note 长城 Changcheng means Great Wall in Chinese) where we had a well-deserved and delicious feast. While the uphill parts were steep and difficult, I almost think the downhill parts were the hardest. It was a challenging hike (Beijing Hikers ranks their hikes on a scale of 1-5 with 5 being the hardest. This was a 3+. The distance was like a 2, but the hills were like a 4), but if you can physically do it, I would totally recommend it.

It was a gorgeous day, unfortunately, the day was smoggier
than most recent days. 

We hiked all of the wall (and more) that you can see in this
picture. It was definitely a lot of ups and downs.

There was a giant LED screen down in the valley. I saved you
the pictures, but we were taking pictures of it and trying to see
what they were watching (I could see it pretty well with my telephoto
lens, but I needed a tripod to hold it steady for the image to be clear). As
one of my friends pointed out, give us a screen anywhere and
that's what will hold our attention. Sad, but true.


At first I thought C and K were goofing off. Then I realized we
were all walking like this because it was so steep. 

Saturday, September 30, 2017

If you have to work on a Saturday...

Tomorrow, October 1st is National Day. This is when China celebrates the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Now, holidays in China are a little unusual, at least to an American like myself. The government dictates when the holidays are, and how long they are, but they also move the work days. By now you're probably confused so let me explain. For National Day the Chinese government gives the people three days but then moves the "weekend day" to create a five-day holiday. Usually, this means that people have to work two weekend days. These days might be both before the holiday or one before and one after (for example for National Day it's often the Saturday before and the Sunday after). This year the 1st is on a Sunday so the days off are the second, third and fourth. We should then have to make up the fifth and sixth, but there is another holiday that this year falls within this week. Mid-Autumn Festival (or sometimes known as Moon Festival) is Wednesday. Since the government gives the people one day for Mid-Autumn Festival only one day has to be made up and today was the day declared as the make-up day (each Winter the government releases a list of that year's holidays as well as make-up days).
If you have to work on a Saturday, today was about as good as it gets. School usually starts at 7:40 am. If I have a first period class (which I do on Tuesdays and Thursdays), I have to be there by 7:15/7:20. If I don't have a first period class, then I have to be there by 8:00 am. Today we had to meet in the parking lot at 8:50 am. We then took the whole school (which is only about 40 or so students) to a museum on the Japanese Aggression (the museum's word, not mine) in China. In case you didn't know Japan invaded China in the mid-1930s and weren't expelled until after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan and the subsequent ending of World War II. We left the museum around 11:15 and got back to school a little after noon. We were then dismissed for the holiday. Not a bad work day (especially considering I didn't have to do anything with the students at the museum we were free to explore on our own).
I'm sorry it's not very easy to read because it was at an angle. It is worth
making the effort to read though.

I've heard it say that history is what those who write the history books say it is. It was very interesting to see the history from a very different perspective than I usually see. One of my first observations was that nowhere in the museum did they ever call it World War II. The war within China was called, "The Chinese People's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression" and World War II was referred to as the "World Anti-Fascist War." Overall, I thought the coverage was much better balanced than I had expected, but there were a couple of interesting observations I made. At the beginning of the war, the Nationalist party (also known as the Kuomintang) were in charge of the Republic of China and the signs perpetually threw them under the bus blaming them for every advance the Japanese made (If you don't know anything about Chinese history, after the end of the last dynasty the Republic of China was founded with the Nationalist government in charge. After the Japanese were expelled from China a civil was ensued at eventually the communist party won and the Kuomintang or Nationalists fled to Taiwan where they call themselves the Republic of China, but the People's Republic of China calls them a province, albeit a rogue province). In the early parts of the war, the museum showed the Kuomintang (they never referred to them in this part of the museum as the Nationalist party) could do no right and the communist party was the great motivator and unifier. As the allies started to get involved the worked together with the Republic China's government (i.e. te Kuomintang), but the museum never calls them this as the tide changes and the Japanese are being defeated. In this part of the museum they almost always just say China. The communist party is never mentioned (because they weren't actually involved) and in one spot the Kuomintang is mentioned, but they are referred to as the Nationalist party (the only time in the entire museum the name Nationalist party is mentioned). This makes me wonder if there is a museum in Taiwan on this subject and if so, I think I'd love to see it to see the opposing viewpoint. I'm including a few pictures of some of the signs so that you can get a feel for the language.
I was pleasantly surprised by how well they covered the contributions of other countries, not just the Soviet Union, but also the Americans, Canadians, Australians, Britons and more. I also learned something I never knew before. Back in 1939, the Chinese took in Jewish refugees. I asked my boss about what happened to them (I want to research this more myself) and he told me that most of them moved to Israel after it was created (that makes sense), but a very small number actually stayed in China and have descendants who are Chinese citizens.

Note: the caption blames the Kuomintang.

I find the passport very interesting. It was clearly designed to be
for a man and wife, but this is for a woman and her
husband had his own passport, which was beside it on the wall.
The other thing I find interesting is if you can read German you can see
it's not even filled out correctly. Her birthdate is written beside
birthplace and her birthplace is beside birthdate (and I thought
it was bad that my first passport accidently said I was born in

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The NHL comes to Beijing

Arriving at the arena
China is an emerging market. There is more and more wealth in China and it is this wealth that not only provides my job but also opens up unique opportunities. This past week the NHL came to China for the first time (something the NBA has done quite a bit). The Vancouver Canucks and the Los Angeles Kings played a game in Shanghai on Thursday and another in Beijing on Saturday. I decided to go to the Beijing game and I'm glad I did.
Outside the venue, there was what I can describe only as a carnival. There were booths with different hockey-related games and plenty of displays for taking photos. I didn't know about any of this ahead of time and so I wasn't there with enough time to participate (although even if I had known, I doubt I would have cared).
Before the game
Inside the arena, there was a program with playing cards (both entirely in Chinese) and a rally towel on each seat. Of course, the towels weren't for one particular team since neither was truly the home team. The surprising thing for me though was the number of foreigners present. I expected a number would come back as early as the subway I realized there were a lot more than I expected. Matter of fact, there was a group of about 6 to my left and a group of about 8 in front of me, plus a lot more not far away as well as throughout the arena. Almost all the people around me were Canadian (although sitting directly beside was a woman from South Africa), but the surprising thing was how many people appeared to have traveled quite a distance to come to the game. Both groups of Canadians (who didn't know each other) had traveled from Hefei, which according to Siri is about 550 miles away as the crow flies. One thing I found highly amusing is that in a crowd of 12,479 (If I'm remembering the number correctly), I was within shouting distance of one of my co-workers.
Before the game, they demonstrated the rules in both Chinese
and English. 
One of the 3 groups of cheerleaders. Much of their
presentation was very different from "typical" Chinese

The game was an interesting mix of East meets West. First, because Chinese people are not very familiar with hockey, there was an explanation of the rules complete with demonstrations (and presented bilingually). The early demonstrations were done with some of the people taking care of the ice, while the latter ones were performed by the mascots.  Throughout the game, there were also explanations displayed (only in Chinese) on the jumbotron. While the NHL certainly brought a lot of people with them (even the Zamboni drivers were not Chinese), there were two or three groups of cheerleaders who performed in a style that was decidedly NOT Chinese, but then there was also a performance that was very traditional Chinese with a woman in a traditional minority dress (I missed the announcement which said which one) and traditional Chinese instruments. The coolest example though of East meets West was in the opening "ceremonies." The Chinese are really big on bombastic over-the-top displays and the opening definitely fell into that category. Among other things, a multimedia presentation was projected onto the ice that included not only pictures of some of the players, but also video and pictures of historic Beijing landmarks. My words cannot do justice so I'll let you enjoy a video of part of the spectacle. I do apologize though. I have a new camera and didn't know the details of how it works. I took stills during the filming of the video and this interrupts it a bit. Nonetheless, I think it is enjoyable and so I hope you enjoy not only the video but my pictures of the venue, presentation, and game. By the way, if you're curious the game was a nailbiter that the Kings won 4-3 in a shootout.
Projected on the ice.

The dragon was definitely not typical to an NHL game.

Here come the Kings.

Here come the Canucks.