Saturday, December 25, 2010

Our Christmas Tree - from Bleak to Beautiful

A few weeks ago I was sad about being away from family and friends on Christmas, so Brad brought home some holiday decorations (think they were made in China?) including our very first Christmas tree.
It was an uncertain beginning......and some things needed to be fixed.
But by Christmas Eve it was beautiful, and the perfect size for all the gifts that nestled underneath.
Reminds me of what Jesus does for us. Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Joys of Primary School

So, I have been outsourced (sort-of) by my employer to teach at a primary school once a week. I alternate first grade one week and then second grade the next. There are three classes per grade and I teach each class for about 40 minutes. There are about 40 first graders per class and 35-40 second graders. I guess the guy who was in my role last year did a poor job in controlling behavior because the principal of the school wasn’t keen on taking in an English teacher who only spoke English. That’s when I first learned I would be teaching the class WITHOUT a Chinese teacher in the room. I wasn’t too keen on the idea either.

The first couple weeks were hard. I was told to teach anything and then when I taught something it wasn’t right. For example, I taught letters to the second graders and after the class the regular Chinese-English teacher said that the students don’t learn the letters until grade 3. I was observed by lots of people in those first couple of weeks too. One man (who I had not seen before then nor since then) even mentioned that I needed to write more formally. What? What does that mean? Cheny, the girl who was married a month ago, was with me those first couple of weeks. These people who were constructively I’m sure, criticizing me only did so by talking to her. After Cheny told me what he had said, I asked her how to write more formally than I already did. She said after a pause and a laugh that she didn’t know. She thought I wrote very well and very neat. Who was that guy, anyway?” I thought, “Didn’t he know I was kind of a big deal?”

It’s fortunately gotten a lot better. After the third week I was told, “They like how you teach; they like your style.” That was encouraging. My “style” was / is to make sure the students all have pictures to use as manipulatives. Last year the guy would teach a new word by going around one-by-one to each student to listen to that student say the word. (What??? A first grader is a first grader. They still go crraaazzzyyyy if they’re not actively engaged, even in China.) So, depending on what lesson the students are doing (the Chinese-English teacher now informs me what to teach each class) I find pictures from the internet, etc., to go along with the lesson. I make 40 copies of all the pictures and then put them in Ziploc baggies for each student to easily access. In class I first teach the words and then let the students say the words and show me the pictures at the same time. I also, whenever I can, try to think of some kind of song to teach with the words in them. I have rocked out, The Wheels on the Bus with the 2nd graders, and Window– Door – Ceiling – Floor (to the tunes of Head, Shoulders, Knees, and

Toes) with the 1st graders, just to list a couple. I have also taught them a clap rhythm that I use in order to get them quiet. Shout out to Chanda on that one! Thanks also to GOD for helping me think of these things to do!

I did have one worst-case scenario. Most of the classroom teachers leave the room when I’m there. In fact, there is a 10-minute break between classes when students are allowed to freely leave the classroom, so sometimes it is up to me to settle them back down. That was hardest to do with the first graders. The last of my three 1st grade classes is my crrraaazzziiieeessstttt group. There are a few kids in there that need more help than the average student, I guess I could say. One would definitely be labeled, “special needs” in the U.S. Of course, they put these students all together with the one super young teacher. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is her first year. She leaves when I’m there, well she used to at least, and I don’t blame her. I’m sure she needs a break.

This one day the class was NUTS. Two boys whose desks were together (well, used to be together) kept hitting each other in one row and wouldn’t stop. The boy who obviously has some kind of ‘special need’ kept turning around and slapping the boy behind him. Now with this boy I usually give him extra attention. I stand by his desk, give him lots of eye contact, give him high-fives (the kids love that), make sure that he has the right answers, etc., etc. He usually is fine and even fun, but there was NOTHING I could do to make him act correctly on this day. He turned about and kept hitting, again…and…again… and then started making loud noises and laughing! There was another boy in the back who tried to sneak to a friend’s seat by ducking behind the kids in the last row, and on top of that there were little conversations going on everywhere. I kept trying to gather them together with my special clap, but the boy in front kept yelling out noises and turning around to hit the boy behind him. Seriously??? I finally moved his entire desk, which was the first one in a row closest to the wall, so that it was up against and facing the wall. I also moved his bag over to his new spot. He refused to move. He just stood where his seat originally was and wailed. At the TOP OF HIS LUNGS, in the front of the classroom mind you, he was crying. I just kept on teaching. Hahaha - it was a mess! After a few minutes of ignoring him and the students thinking I was crazy, or he was crazy, I really don’t know, I moved his chair back and he sat down. I collected the baggies of pictures early since they were misbehaving and we practiced words back and forth until it was time for me to go. There are windows at the very top of the wall that separates the classroom from the hallway. They’re always open. Why someone didn’t run into the room during that time, I will never know.

The Chinese-English teacher came to meet me at the end of the class to show me what to teach the following week and to have me sign a time chart. I told her about some of the scenarios that were going on and asked if maybe the classroom teacher could sit in with me the next time. I’ve had two 1st grade weeks since then. Both the Chinese-English teacher and the classroom teacher have stayed in the room and it has been a world of difference. And the students have really been able to learn and remember a lot being focused, which is the fun part too.

This brings me to today. I leave our dorm around 7:30 to walk to the front of campus and get a taxi. I usually am able to get one rather quickly, but today it took me 10 minutes. That was about 5 minutes too long, but I was still okay. My driver decided to go a different way than other drivers have gone, but I had to have faith that

things would be okay. That is not always an easy thing to do regarding taxi drivers. I was sure that God was in control and that this driver was going to take me on a quicker route since I was short on time. God must have told him,” I thought. Haha – not exactly. This road ended up being bumper-to-bumper, stop and go traffic. At one point my driver put down his window, turned off his ignition, and got out a cigarette. He offered one to me; I politely declined.

At first I was fine with being late. “I’m always on time,” I thought, “this happens sometimes.” But then the time got later, and later, and then I finally started freaking out a little. I didn’t have a cell phone – Brad and I haven’t gotten them yet. I was disappointed I couldn’t call anyone and let them know I was sorry, but on my way. Not like I know anyone’s phone number anyway, but if I did… I was also worried about the poor teacher who was stuck in her classroom with no idea what was going on. What if the kids were going crazy? And how would I explain what happened? None of them speak enough English to understand! … We got out of traffic, but then my driver had to pull over to the side of the road and stop someone on the sidewalk and ask for directions. REALLY???

By the time we finally got to the school, I was at least 20 minutes late for class. I walked towards the room, wondering what I was about to find, hearing a sound in the hall of children being crazy. I felt so badly for the teacher who probably didn’t know what to do with her students. I timidly opened the door and walked in. I found 40, 2nd graders all sitting down at their seats doing different things. N o t e a c h e r i n s i g h t. Seriously? That would surely spell out l – a – w – s – u – i – t in America. They were sitting and basically working. They all greeted me, “Hello teacher!!!” I started teaching like everything was as it was supposed to be. Aww, these kids are sooo good and soo cute! ...Then, a boy in the front turned around and threw something at another boy behind him. hahaha - and yet they’re still 7.

Tip to remember: Throwing paper is only fun if the possibility of getting in trouble for it exists.

December already???

12.1.10 – It’s already December! My great girl friends in Charlotte, Neely and Becky, threw Brad and me a goodbye party before we left for China. One thing they did was bought us a book, Living Abroad in China, and a really cool Tennessee football 2010 calendar, comprised of official game day program art from 1900-1970. They had people who came to the party sign both. I LOVED that then and still love it now. At the very end of the November page my friend Jillian wrote, “You’ve been gone 3 months, the leaves have fallen here, the nights are cool, gone are the days by the pool, you’re settling into your new home, you realize now there’s nothing to fear, time to enjoy your life’s callin.” L.O.V.E. that. God has blessed me with super friends.

Friday, November 12, 2010

11.9.10 - Qingdao Starbucks

My computer has had a lot of problems recently accessing the internet, including today. I am at Starbucks where I am pretty sure I should be able to get WIFI, but my computer is not able to pick it up. That’s actually one of the reasons why I’m here on my day off, so it’s extra frustrating. Sorry friends and family, I was going to try to Skype and update the blog, but no luck. Fortunately all is not lost, as most outings do lead to amusing adventures.

I got here right at 10:00AM. I haven’t had my usual Starbucks favorite of a skim vanilla latte (thanks sister Lindsey) since leaving so I was excited to finally enjoy one. I asked the girl at the counter if they had skim milk. She replied yes in a way that I felt silly for even asking. I ordered my grande vanilla latte with skim milk and the price came to 51 RMB. That my friends, was crrrazy. I glanced up at the board and noticed that a grande latte was 26 RMB (around $4) and then wondered how much the shot of vanilla cost me. She handed me the receipt and there were two charges, written in Chinese symbols of course, one for 20 and one for 30. I didn’t want to be so bold, but I asked her what they were for. She said the vanilla latte was 30 and the skim milk was 20. Wow, I thought, it’s a high price to be healthy in China. As I a grabbed my latte, found a table, and waited for my computer to turn on, I began thinking about my next blog. It was going to be about how impossible it is to find healthy things to eat here. As my mind kept rolling about what to say, and then I felt discouraged noticing that my computer couldn’t access the internet, the girl who took my order brought me my mug of warm skim milk.

Who knew that being a coffee drinker would be so confusing?! Erin, go’head and pour one out for a little calcium.

10.27.10 - Contact Sports

Everything in China has the potential to be a contact sport: getting onto a bus, bus rides, walking down a busy sidewalk, etc. Today grocery shopping was added to my list.

Today is my day off this week. We needed toilet paper. I had to go to the store. Imagine the mall on the day after Thanksgiving, or imagine Disney World on a day when the entrance tickets are selling for half-price. That’s what it was like at the R-T Mart this afternoon. I hated every minute of it.

I knew it was going to be bad when a maybe 75-80 year-old man pushed me aside, as he was behind me, just to grab a grocery cart. Mind you, there were many available grocery carts. I’m not so sure about his rush. Maybe he spotted a set of great, oiled wheels that he knew would be perfect for maneuvering around the crazy crowd.

The chaos continued. People continued to run into me. There was an old lady who stopped in front of me so I stopped as well. Too bad the lady behind me didn’t feel like slowing down, she rammed her cart into my behind to get me to move. I just turned and looked at her and tried to give her my teacher eyes I give to my first graders. No luck. She just pushed herself around me and the old lady both, though the old lady didn’t seem to be as annoyed as I was. I was blocked from aisles that I wanted to go down, and some worker got pushed into me and dropped a couple of her things into my hand-held basket. She got her things and we both squeezed through the aisle in opposite directions.

I won’t even go into standing in line to check out. Just know that Chinese people aren’t always as sweet and quiet as they seem in pictures.

At least I have my toilet paper. I went ahead and bought a value pack.

10.25.10 - Celebrity Status

Brad and I had the very special chance to attend a wedding on Saturday. The girl whose job it is to organize our weekly schedules and basically make sure our every last need is taken care of, was married. She was very kind to extend an invitation to us. We gladly accepted.

First of all let me say this: weddings in China are very similar, yet still very different from weddings in America – sort of like everything else. Cheny and her husband Gao were actually married at the beginning of February. They’ve already had pictures taken together and she’s already worn a white dress… in pictures… which she rented. This past Saturday was basically their wedding reception. For the reception she wore a beautiful standard white bridal gown first and then changed a little later into a more traditional red Chinese wedding dress. I’m not sure if this change always happens, but I’m going to guess so. Both of these dresses were purchased. Talking with other guests at our table we learned that wedding receptions are usually at noon and are a “sit-down dinner” style where people sit around round tables. (A placard by the door to the reception told us all which table was ours. It was quite easy to notice that Brad and I were assigned to table 10.) It takes approximately 2 hours for the party. In fact, the time on our invitation was 11:58 – 2:00 pm. How funny is that? Don’t be late! Oh, and the dress was “casual.” Many people came in jeans and one girl even came in those kind of J-Lo sweatpants with writing on her butt. Classy.

Last Thursday, two days before the wedding, Cheny emailed us with our schedule for this week and also to ask if one of us would speak at the ceremony (reception). Brad immediately put his finger on his nose indicating “not it” but I talked him into it anyway. Thank goodness! The next day on Friday Cheny emailed again asking for the speech so her selected interpreter could have a chance to look over it ahead of time. At least he had plenty of time to figure out what to say! Nonetheless, Brad’s speech was perfect. It was so nice and sweet, complimenting of Cheny’s personality and of his new relationship status with me. He ended by reading the common verses, “Love is patient; love is kind…” Cheny seemed to love it. He did a great job and I was so proud of him.

The wedding was at a hotel that was very close to the sea so after the wedding we walked along the water’s edge for a while. The city of Qingdao has built a 40 kilometer walkway along its border with the Yellow Sea. (On that note, how cool is it that I live by the YELLOW SEA?! After all this time I have taught about it and desperately tried to remember exactly where it was year after year to just APPEAR to be smarter than my students, and now I LIVE here! Go ahead, hand me that Asia map!) The walk goes past places of rock, beach, and stone wall. There were so many different things going on. Apparently, people spend their Saturdays doing different things! People were crabbing along the stone wall, playing different sports and playing with children at the beach, and (drum roll please) taking wedding and engagement pictures everywhere else! I have no idea how many brides we saw. This is not the first time that we have seen brides getting their picture taken on a Saturday. We saw them in the park in Hangzhou and have seen them in Qingdao, but obviously we had yet to hit the bridal jackpot. My parents talked about this when they described Qingdao to us, so it wasn’t weird to see them, but the engaged couples were a first. We didn’t see nearly as many engagement shoots, but in every one we did see, they were all matching, one couple even in matching red flannel plaid shirts and jeans. Maybe they were wishing they were going to the NC state fair? (that's for you, Jillian)

Back to being a celebrity…

Earlier last week a member of the English club here on campus stopped me on the road back up to our dorm and asked if I would come to their “English Corner” that weekend. Of course I said I would, and so Brad and I did on Saturday night. We got lost trying to find just what building it was in but finally made it about a half-hour or so late. We walked in this classroom through its back door and about, I don’t know, 75-100 Chinese students all turned around and started whispering excitedly to each other. A few people immediately came back to talk to us and I felt so badly for the guy upfront who was trying to sing his (I’m sure repeatedly practiced) English song. We were immediately given little Chinese traditional trinket gifts and then were asked if we would “talk about our culture, sing a song, play a game, or something...” I was afraid of that. We chose the first option. That guy finished, was clapped for, and the next guy stood up to come to the stage. This second guy talked for a bit and then sang I’m Yours, by Jason Mraz, a cappella. He did a really good job! Next was our turn. We talked a little about our wedding (since I’m Yours was almost our first dance) and about American football. The students literally were on the edge of their seats, leaning forward. We sat down for a bit, not wanting to steal the whole show, but then were asked again to stand for a time of Q&A. The students were shy, but did have questions. A very interesting comment/question came from a medical student. She wondered how close our high schools were to the show Gossip Girls. She understood that American high schools (because of shows like Gossip Girls which I actually have never seen) were very easy and kids could just party all of the time. She said that Chinese students have heard that many kids in America pass the ‘test’ to go to college, but then many students don’t make it through school because the classes are too difficult for them. Brad and I had heard the opposite about Chinese students, which is that it is very difficult to pass their college entrance exam after their 12th grade year, but once they get into college, it’s usually pretty easy to get through. We told them about this stereotype and asked them what they thought.

That was cool, but the celebrity status didn’t end there. After the club session officially ended, the club leaders wanted to take a big club picture with us. Unfortunately they made some of the members leave the picture because it was too hard to get everyone in. ..A.N.D. T.H.E.N… multiple people got out their cell phones and kept coming up asking for pictures. The photo sessions with different Chinese students may have taken 15 minutes or more. A.N.D. T.H.E.N… everybody wanted to stick around to chat. They had so many more questions and just wanted to talk about anything! A.N.D. T.H.E.N. Brad and I finally took it upon ourselves to leave about an hour later. Some people followed us out of the room to say goodbye.

The next day, thinking life was back to normal, I nonchalantly walked around Taidong for a little while in between my two tutoring classes. I took out my camera to take a picture of a guy selling boxed tea, and the girl he was talking to got so super excited. She asked me where I was from and when I said, “America,” she shrieked again and gave me a huge hug. What just happened?... She was so cute and her big smile actually made my day.

You would think that with those stories this type of thing happens all of the time here. It doesn’t. I guess I've had my 15 minutes... plus some. :)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Coffee - Such a Luxury

10.17.10 - It’s right at noon and I’m sitting in a fancy coffee restaurant where even the napkins cost money. Brad and I teach tutoring classes on Sunday in different places and I happen to have a long break (which includes a lunch-time) between my two, two-hour classes. I am tutoring in an area called Taidong (tie-dong). It’s a huge, crowded shopping area. There is one Walmart in Qingdao and last week I somehow got there on accident walking around after my first class, though this may have been a blessing in disguise. I am hoping to make it back to Walmart today after class to catch the bus home. The bus I usually catch to go home from the nearest stop (227) turns being a bus rider into a contact sport, commencing with the step up into the door. Don’t worry, I know how to use my shoulders! I’m hoping the bus I can ride home from Walmart (226), will be a bit more pleasant.

Okay, back to my location. This restaurant sits on the second story, looking over a busy street so the view right now is fantastic. There are two huge love-seat like couches for chairs on each side of the table so it is easy and quite comfy to get settled in and relax. Too bad you can only sit here if you order food for a minimum of 18RMB (just under $3 – expensive!). My first time here was a month ago on my first official tutoring day. I was so excited to relax, get some coffee, and spend time planning my 2nd lesson. But then I saw the menu… and realized that I could either get a small cup of coffee for about $4-5, or buy a “pot” of coffee for $8-9. Yes, dollars not RMB. Were they serious? It’s just beans and water! This girl is used to buying dinner on the street for less than $1, and now they wanted me to pay four TIMES that for a small cup of coffee? The cheapest selection was the “Italian Coffee” and for some reason it was only offered in pot form for about the same price as their other single cups of Joe. Fine with me, I thought. Just give me some coffee! When I received my order I was very confused for a second because my cup and pot seemed so small. Seriously, you were about to charge me 9 bucks for a pot of coffee THAT size? Seriously?? ...wait a minute….. It was soon after that moment that I realized I had in fact ordered espresso. Guess the joke was on me! Erin Butler, I know you’re so disappointed in me. I made sure to drink it all and am sure I probably had the jitters for the rest of the day.

Well, today I at least knew what I was getting into. I ordered my espresso and searched the menu for a semi-inexpensive and small meal. (The majority of the dishes they serve are huge dinner size portions.) I came across a picture that I found quite exciting, though I couldn’t figure out what it was called. Turns out that “Characteristics Muffin” means waffles! I was allowed to pick from about four different types of syrups, one including bean flavored. Gross. I chose honey. The honey came in this thimble-sized pitcher and it had a friend, a miniature pitcher filled with like…thick liquid sugar with the color and taste of Crispy Crème donut glaze. YUMMERS! Sorry, my picture doesn’t include the mini-pitchers. They were brought about 10 seconds too late and I had already begun to destroy the waffle, in all lady-like fashion of course.

Yesterday (Sat) Brad and I had lunch with one of his middle school students and her father. It was this student Shirley (her English name) who asked him in his first week of teaching, “Are you a Christian?” He was completely caught off guard as we had been told and understood that talking about religion was off limits. (The BYU folks even had to sign a contract that under NO circumstances would they talk about their religion AT ALL!) He replied affirmatively and asked her the same. She told him that she was a Christian as well. Brad gave her his email and her mom emailed him later that same night. Lunch was arranged after a couple of emails.

Shirley’s parents lived in Iowa for about 4-5 years and that is when they became Christians. Upon moving back to China, they wanted to join a solid community of believers. They visited the official Chinese government-run church but didn’t think it was for them. They decided to join a “house” church instead. I bet Brad and my facial expressions were pretty funny to look at when he mentioned that his house church had about 500 people! (Only about 300 people attend each week due to other obligations of work, etc.) I saw an evening news excerpt on Christianity in China last year so I had LOTS of questions! In some cities house churches are illegal and people are punished for going, but in Qingdao, especially because of its outside German influence in the early 1900s, things are not as strict. House churches get into big trouble, no matter what city they’re in, for bringing in foreign speakers or guests, though they are allowed to bring in a Chinese speaker. (That must be why foreigners here go to their own church. There is an International Fellowship that we could go to on Sundays at a hotel and in order to get in we have to show our passports. Other foreigners meet in small groups. ) He also gave us really amazing information about the demands of the Communist Party on children. At age 14 students have to join the Communist Junior League. If they don’t, their classroom teacher won’t be eligible to receive monetary bonuses. Also, if they join the league they receive a special pin that they then wear to school on special days. This makes students who are Christians feel very uncomfortable because they don’t want to join the league. I wanted to ask why exactly they don’t want to join the league, but didn’t.

How lucky were we to have had that conversation?! I really am appreciating the moments when I am able to catch glimpses of what China is truly all about.