Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Year One in Peace Corps China

Progress or Tradition

If I remember correctly my grandfather said something along the lines of (in a far more eloquent fashion), "It looks like Jack is only having fun in the Peace Corps. No work, all play." Pop, is right and I have given him good reason to think that, but there is much more to my service than climbing and traveling. This blog post is a response to my grandfather's statement.

Over the past year I have taught fourteen Oral English classes. 561 students. 10hrs. per week. Between thirteen and sixteen weeks per semester. Most of my teaching is centered around pronunciation, reading, speaking confidence, public speaking, and writing basics. For practical reasons, I use themes that revolve around the service sector such as travel and food industries. Last semester I had two lesson preps per week and this semester I have three. Most of the students at my school come from rural farming communities in Chongqing Province. Many of them vie to leave the province for the first time. In the past month there has been in influx of reports in western media (see: The Economist) that show the drastic division of wealth and benefits policy between rural and urban areas in China. In my classes you can tell by the second week who went to a high school in Chongqing proper and who went to a high school in a bordering county. Even though all of my students' English abilities sit at a very low level, there is a clear divide.

Ferguson and I at Ranhou Cat Cafe

One observation that I would like to make public is the unrecognized and unacknowledged brilliance of a handful of my students. I do not know if this is exactly true, but I have been told by Chinese people, unaffiliated with my college, that I teach at one of the lowest ranking colleges in China (although, I think they meant to say lowest ranking colleges in Chongqing Province). China's college selection system is based on one big test (Gaokao) that all senior high school students take annually. For many students in China, your score determines your potential to attain capital in the future. So, if you get a low score on your test you go to a school like mine, a vocational school, and if you get a very high score you will probably go to study in Beijing or Shanghai. But, from my point of view, making it into one of the best universities in China is not all that it is cracked up to be.

While I was studying abroad at Beijing University (China's Harvard, I think ranked #42 in the world), I met a freshman student who got a perfect on her Gaokao. At age 17 (she skipped a year), she was thrown into a ten year Ph.D program in biology. Coming from the poor yet coal rich Shananxi Province, her family was thrilled to see her off. Her great achievement means total social mobility and most likely an assurance of fortune, but as you can predict there are great costs. She knew every single step in the next ten years of her life. She knew exactly how hard her work was going to be and exactly how much energy she was going to need to exert. If you can imagine, she probably started studying at least nine hours a day by the age of 6 and was only going to stop studying at the age of 27. That is 21 years of hard studying.

Spring Flowers on Taibai Mountain. The mountain was named after one of China's most renowned ancient poets, Li Bai. One of his most famous poems is titled, Waking From Drunkenness on a Spring Day, oh, and, Drinking Alone by Moonlight.

I do not think she wanted a life of certainty and complacency, but she has a family to carry. It was not her choice to make.  My students have an entirely different situation. They laugh, smile, yell at each other, hit each other, joke around, flirt, and tease each other all of the time. They actually seem happy every second, unless we are in class (no AC) and the walk to class is like swimming through humidity and the heat is blazing (they never have AC). Digressing from my aside, for me, one of the most fascinating things about teaching at a low level college is discovering the brilliant students that have been marginalized by the Gaokao testing system.

A hand full of my students are super smart, but like many people all over the world, they are just really bad at testing and never received any type of handicap or help. So, some of them will end up at a third tier college and just be really bored. Even though a few of my former students dropped out after the first semester for financial reasons (it costs 1639USD per year to attend my college), or they have to take care of a sick grandparent, or one girl needs to 'find herself' and is traveling, they still seem happy when I talk to them. One great thing about being a teacher in the Peace Corps is that you are encouraged/supposed to have a friend/teacher-friend/student relationship with your students, versus a teacher-student, or professor-student, or authority-pupil relationship. It means getting involved in their lives, for example, many volunteers stay at their students homes during holidays or vacations. I will stay at a student's home this summer.

The new Multicultural Totem Pole Park in Wanzhou. All totem poles are hand chiseled

Even though teaching in the classroom is my primary objective as a Peace Corps China Volunteer and is something I work very hard at, I think most of my impact in my community happens outside of the classroom, in small bits. Outside of the classroom, my amazing site mate, Gabby, and I lead English Corner (like an English Club), run and modify a fully functioning English Library (that Gabby created all by herself!), tutor students for speech competitions, tutor students on an individual level, go to weekend events and lunches with faculty, cook big dinners with groups of students, talk with students (also on social media), go to student led events on campus (art shows, basketball tournaments, and singing and dance competitions), have Hiking Club, take students hiking, go bouldering with students, open relations with a local orphanage for visits, build a greenhouse on campus, and the list goes on and on. It is in all of these small things that there is impact that adds up. Earlier this semester one of my Tourism students opened up to me about her boy problems: "Teacher, a boy loves me, but I despise him. What to do?" One of my boys asked me, "Teacher, I want girlfriend. How to have him?" (face palm. . .). These small little day to day, moment to moment things are where I see my impact the most. Impact outside of my school's community much different and is a topic for a different day. 

As much as I love what I am doing here, all of the activities above add up quickly and take up a lot of time out of my day. Usually I wake up between 5:30 and 6:30am, and go to bed at around 1:00-2:00am. If I want to read, study Chinese (which I need to do a lot more of), write guitar songs, talk to friends, blog, watch a TV show, go biking, hiking, bouldering, climbing, weekend stints, or explore I have to sacrifice something, and sleep is usually the first to go. Like many Peace Corps sites, our work is not nine to five, we work 24 hours a day. So even though my work may be all fun, I am always working towards something. I believe many PVCs are in a similar situation. 

Some Random Activities:
Jiaozi (dumpling) Making Party with some Tourism Students. 

Sometimes I will take a student bouldering or to scout for boulders

To get up this wall the peasants use this rope to haul themselves up. These little ropes are all over certain sections of the mountains. The longest rope I had to pull myself up was probably 20ft. That specific rope system was intricate. Three ropes were used to distribute your body weight on different trees. 

Found a junk yard at the top of a mountain with a student while hiking

Gabby and I visiting my Wanzhou host family. Most of the information I know about Wanzhou comes from my host mother (Fan Laoshi). She is one of those people who is always talking and at about a mile a minute. Never a boring moment with her. That day I learned my host sister is amazing at the Guzheng (Chinese harp), and she is self taught. One of my most fond days with them. . . Fan Laoshi, told me on saturday to be ready to go to lunch at 11:00 the next day. At 9:30 thunderous rapping on my steel door, "Jack'r, come to have lunchy!" After driving through one of the factory districts in Wanzhou we made it to the restaurant. We are with more family members. All the men are smoking except my host father. He has a heart condition and the other men were making fun of him for it in jest. He always get poked at when he doesn't drink or smoke. The dishes are delivered. Every single bowl containing some assortment of vegetables and meat. All of the bowls filled with little crimson paddies. I eat a few and then ask Fan Laoshi what it is. She starts slapping her veins. 
Blood Restaurant. 

More Jiaozi making with students. 

Gabby and I at Wanzhou Square. Babawu or Chinese Square Dancing is a popular form of exercise and activity for old people in certain parts of China. They dance at night to avoid the heat. It is a nightly event. There are probably a hundred dance groups scattered throughout Wanzhou. They all dance together following one choreography. Young people get super embarrassed when we try to join the dancing.

One students asked me for individual tutoring. She was an 'Animal Feed' major, but she wanted to work at a hotel instead. Even though her English skills were pretty good, she needed a background in hotel English. She has since left our school. 

Hanging on a ceiling at Hiking Club

Another Jiaozi Party. Nam (left) is a city mate. It is really nice having other volunteers live so close. We come to each others events and help out, merge events so our students can make new friends, on occasion. 

Gabby and I were told by faculty that we should attend an Earth Day event at the basketball courts. It ended up being a basketball tournament. . . If you have been to China you will know that basketball is the most popular sport in China. Not ping pong or tennis. Basketball was the first western sport allowed in China in the late 70s. Many boys in China, rural and urban, know all of the NBA teams and stars. The boys also love WWE, but I think it is more of a high school thing. 

I wrote a song a played it at the English Corner Talent Show. They got a taste of math rock and loved it

Hiking with students 

At our school's English Speaking Competition, 6 of my 15 students that entered placed in the top 7 including 1st place (Gabby and I have both taught her). I am so proud of my students. 

Shirley and Carrie did over a month of English training with Gabby and I for a competition in CQ proper. We trained for four hours per week. Carrie has her bf totally whipped. They are so funny together. 

Hiking Club 

Went to a student's house for lunch one weekend. He lives in a mud house that his grandfather built 80 years ago. His grandfather said that he is now an unskilled worker and unemployable. He once built mud houses, for about 1.40USD (a long time ago before inflation and the rise of RMB) per day and now nobody wants mud houses anymore. His skills are now obsolete. Before listening to him, I didn't understand how one is or becomes unskilled, and becomes a part of the huge unskilled labor force in Chongqing. 

While scouting for Hiking Club I came across an excellent camp site. It even has a little fire pit made of stones. 

Traditional Chinese music is played in Peace Plaza in downtown Wanzhou

Hiking Club

With some Logistics students

Trying to put up a bouldering problem 

I hope I've have wiped the impression, given at my own negligence, that all I am doing in the Peace Corps is traveling and climbing. My site mate and I are doing a lot of serious and impactful work. Until three weeks ago, literally, every weekend was booked with activities and obligations. Working here does get really tough, but the reward, even though it may be hard to see, is very high. I really enjoy what I am doing in China.