Falling

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Fall is here, which means the weather is pretty similar to Portland, albeit with less actual rain and more mist. These past two days, sun interrupted the usual gloom so I spent my evenings at the park chasing down sunset, hoping to get some photos to remember when there was warmth and goodness in the world.

After office hours, I raced to my house and grabbed my pack, tossing my camera in and ensuring my memory card was inside. I then booked it down to the park and up the mountainside in 40 minutes. I was sweaty, out of breath, and had tripped while scaling the mountain (thankfully landing in a push up position instead of on my face), but it was worth it. The sun blazed pink and lit up the forest in a rainbow of colors. I couldn’t have arrived at a better time for sunset shots.

I whipped out my camera and flicked the on switch to no effect. I then realized, I forgot to pack a camera battery. 😭 So, I was unable to take any decent photos of the sunset. Here are a couple photos I’d taken the day before, when the sunset wasn’t as spectacular but the weather was still nice.

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Stone Dreams and Castles

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A couple weekends back, students told a city mate there was a /castle/ in our city called Yelang Valley (夜郎谷), so we determined to visit.

On a drizzly Saturday morning, we hopped on a bus to find this mysterious castle. Baidu Maps promised an hour and 45 minute journey. I thought this meant a long ride through unfamiliar territory but was shocked to recognize the route as the way to Huaxi’s University Town, where I teach writing each week.

Turns out, I’ve been riding past the forest where the castle is every single week for the last three months. 😑

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The stone structures and castle are the realization of a man named Song Peilun, an architect who was inspired by South Dakota’s Crazy Horse Memorial and wanted to build his own monument to the YeLang civilization that lived in the forested area 2,000 years ago.

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As we reached the entrance to YeLang, I pointed out a man walking toward us who looked like the most Chinese-looking dude I’ve ever seen. His long grey hair spilled down his shoulders, onto a linen Tang suit. He carried a plastic umbrella and greeted our awkward group of foreigners with a jovial “ni hao.”

We passed a stone arch and then saw a giant photo of the man who just greeted us, realizing the man who had just said hello was the architect of YeLang.

If there’s one thing that’s abundant in Guizhou, it’s rocks. Everything’s a mountain and a hill. So mountains and hills are what the YeLang castles and monuments are made of.

The complex is a sprawling monument of stone and terra-cotta faces, wooden houses, with a radioactively colored algae-laden river running through it.

Guiyang’s Finance and Economics University has popped up by it and so the ancient-looking valley is directly neighbored by a sports stadium and several dormitories. The juxtaposition is weird and my site-mates and I wondered what Song Peilun feels about the school colliding into his dream.

Like many places in modernizing China, YeLang is still under construction, and the sounds of moving earth and cranes occasionally broke the peaceful morning air. Beside the impressive stone structures and sculptures, were large piles of construction materials and rubbish. YeLang is really an amalgamation of styles, a remix of traditional and modern. It is both impressive and baffling. I still don’t know what I think about it.

I’m still here

Hey! I still live here. I’m no bueno at updating. Here’s what’s going on…

This morning, it’s 43˚F out and I’m sitting crisscross applesauce on my inchworm green couch, wearing three layers of pajamas, swaddled in a plaid polyester sheet. In a few hours, I’m treating, or perhaps torturing, myself to seeing Justice League with my site mate TJ. Watching DCU movies is like tearing off a bandaid. I know I’ll need to do it eventually, so I might as well get it over with.

Instructing five oral English courses and two writing courses occupy my days for the most part. I also hold six hours of office time each week and a few of my students have started regularly attending. My coworker Patricia also invites her sophomores, so we have a merry gang on most Mondays and Tuesdays.

My students and I trade movie and music suggestions. At our last meeting, the sophomores noted they really liked listening to “folk music” so I turned on Wallowa Lake Monster by Sufjan Stevens. They listened intently for the first twenty seconds and then surprisedly remarked, “what a long intro!” before appearing too bored to continue.

Tracy, one of the sophomores, then brought out her phone and started streaming a song I had heard many times before and understood to be a standard pop song. She and her fellow students enthused that the lyrics talk about life experiences in ways that feel relatable and meaningful to them. With my poor Chinese, I’m not clued into the fullness of the words and emotion. I guess it’s the same both ways. You only hear 50% of the music if you don’t get the words.

Many students share a lot of their lives with me. They’re required to live in the dorms, which have 6–8 people to a room. Their dorms don’t house showers, so to wash up, they have to leave their drafty dorms and visit a shower station. During the winter, you can understand how attractive this situation is and can imagine the odors that have started to emerge in the classroom 😂.

I visited some of my students at their dorms on Halloween and was happy to see them lounging in sweats and oversized sweaters, chatting and dancing in the hallways, faces slicked with face masks and lotions. My students are remarkably open and friendly, skills they must have picked up from a life of living amongst other people. Middle and high schoolers in China also tend to live together in dorms, and see their families on the weekends or only on holidays.

My school prioritizes admissions to ethnic minorities in China and some of my more outgoing students are Dong, BuYi, Zhuang, and Miao peoples. English might be their third or fourth language, as many can speak their tribe’s dialect or the Guiyang dialect in addition to standard Mandarin. It’s common for students to declare their ethnic affiliation and share a folk song in dialect.

Regardless of ethnic group, no Chinese national I’ve met seems to feel embarrassed about singing. While in America, insisting for someone to sing on the spot is akin to asking whether you can borrow their shoes, people just ask others to sing and 10 out of 10 times, they oblige.

Singing karaoke, or KTV, is a popular pastime. In my experiences thus far, this involves finding a place with blaring music overhead and a pronounced decorating scheme (black and white tiled floors, mirrored doors with padded buttoned backsides, a marbled galaxy of a table). You rent a private room that has faux leather couches and a flat screen TV. There are tambourines, two microphones, and maybe even a mic stand with a spotlight trained on it.

Zoe and Austin’s friend Sia invited us to a KTV session back in October. While in college, my buddies and I would head off to a noraebang for a couple hours, going for 4–6 hours is pretty standard here. After the first two hours, Zoe, Austin and my spirits and voices were exhausted, while the students were able to continue to belt out Hua Chen Yu. Chinese karaoke endurance is not to be underestimated.

We’re just five weeks away from the end of the semester, where we’ll have a training at PC HQ in Chengdu and then a nice long break. I’ve been sick for a week, so thinking about a time when I’ll be able to sleep until seven sounds pretty choice to me.

With love,
Conrad

Well, I’m here

I’ve finally arrived at my site, in Guiyang at Guizhou Ethnic Minorities University. I’m sitting on my inchworm-green couch, aggressively avoiding cleaning my bathroom and anything else that might be construed as productive. From here, I have an incredible view of my neighborhood, my future teaching building, and the gloriously green hills that surround the area.

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I poorly photoshopped two pictures together so you can see what the view from the patio is generally like. My patio is fenced in, but through the bars, it’s pretty amazing.

I’m extraordinarily happy to be here, and though we were not supposed to nurture hopes about our site placements, I was floored to receive Guizhou at the place I’ll be living for the next two years.

“Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?” was the question that concluded our three site placement interviews.

“I LIKE HIKING!” I’d shout from the other side of the table. So nervous that I’d be assigned to a site with limited access to natural settings, I championed my love of the outdoors with a persistent rehearsed speech that probably caused a few staff members’ eye balls to roll.

Well, now I’m here! And the staff kindly took my hobby to heart, as my university graces the top of a hill. My Fitbit estimates my flat is 27 flights of stairs from the main road. 💪

Guiyang, the provincial capital of Guizhou, is much different than Chengdu (our preservice training city). The weather here is pleasantly 凉快 (breezy) and it often rains here (like Portland!). I first visited two weeks before swearing in and the temperature difference was incredible, maybe 8˚F cooler than muggy Chengdu.

I live on the outskirts of Guiyang, across a massive wetland park, complete with lotus ponds and an endless sunflower field. A glassy green river wends through the center of the park and iridescent turquoise damselflies frenetically buzz around the red Canna flowers lining the banks. You can easily walk 6 miles in the park without realizing how far you’ve traveled, so heading to the south entrance in Huaxi (the neighboring city) has become a regular jaunt for me.

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Ten li Huaxi Wetland Park is always filled with couples and groups of traveling a’yis (middle to senior aged women)
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Cycling in the park is very popular and all around the entrance you can easily rent tandem, road, and mountain bikes to explore the miles of trails
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The lotus and sunflowers are no longer around, but the park has many other spectacular flowers
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Several bridges span over the wetland park
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The river, unlike many I’ve seen in China, is clear and on a sunny day, the green waters reflect the blue skies
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Like many things in China, the park is still under construction. After you cross this bridge, there really isn’t an easy way to continue on the other side! You have to jump across a three foot wide ditch and walk through a wood until you return to the paved pathway. Good luck doing that with a bike.
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GREEN VIBES ✌️

While the north entrance of the park is home to a Confucian center, the south entrance in Huaxi proper is lined with snack vendors and restaurants. I’ve become fond of the dried sweet potatoes and the spicy, but regrettably not as oily, potato chips sold near the park.  A little ways down from there are the grocery stores. The produce selections seem fewer than in Sichuan (I guess it’s because Guizhou is the land of 1,000 hills and there’s less arable flat land), but I think overall, the Guizhou cuisine is better tasting.

While Sichuan is all about numbingly spicy peppercorns and oil, Guizhou is enamored with sour/spicy food. The famous dishes are suāntāngyú 酸汤鱼, fish in sour soup, and doùmìhuo3guō 豆米火锅, bean hot pot (one of the best things to ever occupy my stomach).

This past week, I’ve eaten hot pot almost everyday. In my experience thus far, you pay for a portion of broth that contains either beans or meat, and then have an unlimited buffet of leafy greens and tofu skins to cook in the broth. If you’re lazy and don’t want to spend time washing and bleaching your vegetables, going to hot pot is a great way to get in all your daily servings of vegetables along with a week’s worth of sodium intake. ;0

It’s delicious and addicting…and I’ll probably go again today…

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Guiyang city center, on a rainy day; I think the mist is mostly vapor, not pollution. My city-mate, Dereck, lives just 10 minutes away from this park.  I visited him with my  🤘rockstar site mate, Zoe.

Teaching: Part II

I started teaching writing to digital art and design majors. A refined method of communication I never practiced before coming to China, I now teach and am supposed to be an expert on!

In our TEFL training, our session on teaching writing was limited to one day, but we were also given a jump drive full with advice. Given just two days’ notice that I’d be teaching writing, I reviewed all the teaching resources and painstakingly put together a semester plan, syllabus, and an introductory lesson plan. I felt excited to start and my sense of preparedness allowed me a good night’s rest before my teaching day.

On the day I taught, things couldn’t have gone worse. The digital arts majors are on the new campus in Huaxi University Town, an hour’s commute from the old campus. The school bus leaves 1 hour away from the start of classes, which means it’s unreliable and prone to lateness.

University town is probably the size of Sherwood, Oregon. It’s a massive entirely new city full of buildings from three or four other universities besides MinDa 民大 (my school). Like most new constructed developments in China, most of the buildings are still vacant. The amenities in the town are lacking and there’s only one regular bus line that services the new campus.

I had visited the campus to acquaint myself but my guide took me to the wrong building. On my first day of teaching, already late and finding that building locked, I started panicking. Awkwardly approaching a student, I slung together a sentence in Mandarin asking if he could take me to my classroom and trekked across the campus to my actual teaching building.

My lesson, planned for a 2 hour class period, was prepared for the wrong level, and I needed to squeeze the plan into a span of 70 minutes. I learned this as my students started exiting the classroom. I asked one student, “don’t we have 20 minutes remaining?” To which he replied, “we ended 20 minutes ago.”

I subsequently arrived to the second class late. After the train wreck of a lesson, I missed the school bus heading back to the old campus! A true disaster.

The second week I also arrived late (again!), but at least I knew where I was going. The lesson also fit within the time limits for the most part. Baby steps. I’ll be taking the 6:30 AM bus in the future to avoid being late for my 1:30 PM class.

Teaching is difficult. I’m struggling to learn 91 Chinese names and find a way I can communicate so that my students will understand. In week one, I thought teaching the paragraph as the building block of the essay would be a good place to start…By week two, I attempted to teach the sentence as the building block of the paragraph. So far, I’ve been met with a lot of scrunched up faces and a whole lot of silence. The three active students in the class will proffer questions in Chinese that I don’t fully comprehend. 😓

In our second lesson, I taught the idiom, “between a rock and a hard place,” and prefaced it with a quote from the best animated TV show of all time, Avatar, the Last Airbender:

“If I try, I fail. But if I don’t try, I’m never going to get it. I feel like I’m caught between a rock and a hard place.”

And that’s exactly how I feel about teaching. I’m not very good at it, and so far, when I try, it’s not successful. I’ve been failing for the last two weeks, and while the first week felt just slightly short of earth-shattering, the second week wasn’t as bad.  I was able to adjust the lesson to suit the levels a little better and use my poor Chinese to explain the activities.

Failing hard has been kind of liberating. I’ve already embarrassed myself in front of my students. They’ve heard my poor Chinese and sat through lessons that probably aren’t accessible to them. Now that I’m not anticipating the shame of messing up, I feel calmer, more level-headed, and able to adjust.

When I arrived here, my supervisors repeatedly warned me that my students would be reticent, nervous about making mistakes in front of the class. They told me my number one challenge would be getting my students to participate and challenge themselves. In essence, I need to help teach my students it’s okay to fail.

Well, I’m now a living example of it. Though these weeks have been humiliating, the only way to improve is to keep trying, planning, and working hard.

Qingcheng Mountain 青城山

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Walking through Qingcheng Mountain

Another late post; sorry, friends

As a last hurrah, my Chengdu host family took me on another excursion to UNESCO World Heritage Site and famed Daoist mountain, Qingcheng. It’s somewhat ironic I finally get to posting these. 都江堰 Dūjiāngyàn, just outside of Chengdu, has a spectacular gorge, much like the one currently experiencing an Armegeddon-level blaze in my homeland.

The dam, called Dujiangyan, defines Sichuan’s modernity and is largely responsible for allowing its agricultural prosperity and the relaxed culture that arose from its food stability.  Built in 256 BC (a long time ago) under the leadership of municipal governor Li Bing , the dam is a revolutionary marvel of hydraulic engineering.

The capital of Sichuan, Chengdu, occupies a plain between several mountains. In old times, torrential rain and floods plagued the region, destroying cities and crops. Li Bing was tasked with stabilizing the area to support military and civilian goals in the area, and discovered the flooding was caused by the silty build up once the waters arrived to the flat terrain. Sediment-laden mountain flows streamed into rivers, which then erupted over the plain.

To prevent flooding, Li Bing’s workers constructed a massive levee to part the rivers, redirecting some of the river to irrigate the land and the other half to drain the excess water to flow away from the populated plain. The dam is remarkable for several reasons: Instead of blocking the river and harming the wildlife in it, the Min river still freely flows, just in several tributaries. Secondly, to alter the course of the river, Li Bing had to channel the flow through the mountain. 

In a period where gunpowder was not invented yet, Li Bing bore a 66 foot wide path through the mountain. Alternating with scalding water and freezing water, the rocks slowly fractured and made way. The process took eight years, and during that time, Li Bing was isolated and prohibited from having any contact with his family. Makes me pretty glad Peace Corps service is only 27 months. Dujiangyan is still used today, a wonder that is extremely fascinating to me.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have the opportunity to visit the actual levee, but we did spend a lot of time around the mountains. Here are some photos.

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The front of the mountain is famed for its Daoist temples, but the backside of the mountain is famous for the waterfalls and its hiking opportunities.

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*artistique*
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Of course, as with all Chinese hiking, refreshments are readily available on the trail
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Playing in the river near the base of the back mountain
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Walking through a bamboo forest on the way to a temple, featuring host family and host cousins
One of the many waterfalls in the Qingcheng Gorge
One of the many waterfalls in the Qingcheng Gorge

Practicum: teaching bootcamp

I wrote this probably two months ago or more. So embarrassing.

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To help fledgling educators learn how to teach that good and authentic American English, hundreds of Chinese high school, university, and graduate students, and a few incredibly talented middle school students, volunteered their summer holiday to sit in Peace Corps trainee-taught classes for two hours a day.

If you know me, you’ll know that I believe mysteries to be one of the greatest delights and forms of entertainment in this plane of existence. Back at home, I honor Sunday as a holy day, religiously tuning in to the Public Broadcasting Service’s 9:00 PM “Masterpiece Mystery!” After years of enjoying mysteries, I thought I might be able to share this great art form with my practicum students by having them solve a murder mystery as their final assessment.

Marcus, my practicum partner, and I chose to teach high schoolers instead of undergrad and graduate students.Our TEFL trainers had consistently warned us that our students at final sites would have low English proficiencies and might not be able to string together a self-introductory sentence. We thought high schoolers might prove more receptive to playing a mystery game as their final assessment and also, since they had fewer years of English education, that they might be more similar in proficiency to students at our final sites.

Starting practicum (the two week model school) was nothing short of heart-attack inducing, but due to a lot of teamwork and the inherent awesomeness of my students, I made it through. Our class started out with 11 students, and every single one of them possessed amazing fluency. The challenge was not getting our students to participate, but in constantly revising lesson plans to stretch the knowledge of the students.

For most of our students, the time they spent with us was the only relaxing time they had during the day. Chinese high school students typically spend their “summer vacations” doing hours of homework, fitting in additional lessons and going to cram school (bu3xi2ban1, 补习班) in preparation for the national college entrance exam, the gao1kao3 高考. In the final week of the class, we ended up losing two students to study camps.

To an American, the study ethic of Chinese students is INCREDIBLE, but makes sense when you understand the impact that the gao1kao3 holds in Chinese society.

A student’s gao1kao3 scores not only determine the college they are allowed to attend, but also the major that the student is allowed to study. This may seem like a slightly more serious SAT, but you also must keep in mind that China’s student population numbers in the billions, the admission slots of top tier schools (一本大学) are few, and the students admitted into competitive majors such as management and economics, are even fewer.

The gao1kao3 is such a huge cultural phenomenon, that during the end of spring semester, roads near testing centers will shut down, taxi drivers will ferry students to test locations for free, and parents of high school seniors are given time off work so they can ensure their child makes it to the test. The test is delivered over several days and takes around 9 hours to complete.

Despite this looming pressure over Chinese high school students, our practicum students eagerly participated, injecting creativity and enthusiasm into every drill. Their relentless competitiveness in review activities and the fervor they showed in recounting the names of murder weapons (baseball bat! blunt objects! poison! SWORD! knife! gun!) inspired me to find challenges that would keep up their engagement and help them improve their English.

I spent hours “driving the night bus”  (开夜车: the Chinese equivalent of burning the midnight oil), writing lessons and often finalized the plan but one hour before I needed to start writing on the chalkboard. By the time the final assessment arrived, I was spent. In planning for practicum, I had originally found a few ESL mysteries online, but over the week, discovered these games were too simple for our students.

The night before the final assessment, I decided I had to find something difficult for them. Borrowing heavily from years of consuming Masterpiece Mystery!, Nancy Drew, and the myriad of novels recommended by my fellow mystery fan and former coworker, Lisa,  I hurriedly attempted to write a mystery that would challenge my students’ brilliant minds. Assembling a convoluted story of murder and intrigue for the students to role play took all night, and like clockwork, I finished just one hour away from class.

The day of the assessment was rewarding beyond belief, and I had little to do besides announce the time limits. Each student assumed the personality of a character who was present at a dinner party, where, OF COURSE, some rich guy died. Couldn’t avoid that cliché. 😉 The students hungrily conversed with the others to gather information. By the end of the two hour class period, they wouldn’t leave the building and raucously accused each other of murdering Mr. Theodore Allen.

The students’ final task was to create a two minute speech on how they deduced the murderer. After the game, Marcus and I allotted another two hour class period to help them on their speeches, but soon found that help was not necessary.

On the final day of class, our students blew us out of the water, presenting speeches that averaged out to around four minutes. Without much of our help, they expertly used consequential and sequential transition phrases and worked into their presentations a healthy scattering of some of the 60 vocabulary words we had studied.

I initially felt anxious at having written a mystery that lacked a clear answer. The students deserved a proper and logical puzzle! Yet, their rationales were extraordinarily detailed and some were so creative, I wished I had arrived at their ideas for the true solution of the mystery. By unintentionally keeping the clues somewhat open, the students were able to show off their genius and imagination. My mistake turned out to be a happy accident, but also caused me hours of anxiety that will ensure I spend a lot more hours figuring out how to teach once I’m at site.

After all the speeches had been delivered, I revealed the name of murderer and 1/3 of the students rejoiced, having their accusation validated. We finished the day with snacks, sodas, and some violin performances by Marcus and an impromptu one by our student Cindy, who sight read “Do you want to build a snowman?”

My students showed me graciousness and eagerness to learn. They were open in their feedback, which helped me realize being a good teacher is about facilitating activities that allow the students to explore, practice, and help them arrive at their own understandings. Designing that 80/20 is a struggle for me, but ultimately, there are few things as rewarding as sitting at the back of the class, watching your students apply and create with the skeletons of instruction you’ve given them.