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.
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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

Host sister
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.

#不好意思

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.

Chinese Hiking at Emei Shan

Written~ two weeks ago

After hearing that hiking was most treasured hobby, my generous host fam set off this weekend to Emei Mountain, a sacred Buddhist mountain where the bodhisattva Pu Xian became enlightened.

With no time to prepare and thunderstorms in the forecast, I threw a raincoat, my Give n Gobble shirt, hiking pants, and my Merrells into my pack. Though grateful for a chance to get out of the city, my stomach simmered a slow anxiety about going on a strenuous hiking trip after one of the most exhausting weeks I’ve ever experienced.

Nevertheless on Friday night, I shuffled into a the back of a massive black Mercedes Benz and fought the urge to fall asleep as we tore past the Sichuan countryside under a blood orange sun and the melancholy melodies of Chinese pop ballads.

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The Chinese built the Great Wall, but they sure weren’t concerned about the breadth of the Emei mountain road. After a torturous trek we arrived at our hotel and I quickly realized this was not the hiking excursion I’d anticipated. I envisioned spare rooms tucked away into green hillsides, with plain vegetarian canteens located a small distance away in a nearby town. In essence, an Oregon hiking trip with some Buddhist flavor. I was really looking forward it.

My host parents, however, booked several rooms at Qi Li Ping, a massive and luxurious resort filled with various hotels: think a Neuschwanstein-inspired princess castle, a Panda forest hotel, and ours, a normal-inspired (???) hotel, all with access to the facility’s hot springs.

I’m pretty sure I woke the half the guests up when I saw my room–a massive loft, complete with a King-size bed and walls papered with brush paintings of the mountain. The bathroom was completely floored in marble and the centerpiece was a bath the size of a jacuzzi. #poshcorps

I slept better than I ever had in China and awoke to shovel a few bowls of congee into my mouth. My mom encouraged me to eat more because “today, we’re climbing the mountain.” We piled back into the Benz and to my amusement, went to a bus station that took us up to the mountain.

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We finally got to the “hiking” portion. Tourists occupied every inch of the wide, stone stair path. Well-fed Tibetan Macaques deigned to descend from their canopies to accept the attention, and food, of gawking city folk.  On our left, vendors beckoned us to purchase snacks, jackets, and rainbow plushie monkeys.

I pushed ahead, hoping to eventually escape the tourist laden area I entered, but to my surprise, it never let up. The entire way was filled with sellers who ensured your every discomfort along the path could be assuaged. For those who didn’t wish to walk up the path, you could even purchase a trip on a huagan, where two extraordinarily hardy old men would carry you up the mountain. Hiking indeed.

 

After maybe a 3/4 mile, we arrived at a cable car station. My host mother and sister asked me if I felt tired. Their legs had begun to waver and they were grateful to enter the cable car that delivered us to the peak. While waiting for the car, they admitted they didn’t like hiking. I felt bad they went so much out of their way so that we could share this hiking experience.

The peak of Emei Shan is known as the Jin Ding 金顶, the golden peak. Above a sea of clouds, the devout mix with the tourists to visit a giant golden statue of Pu Xian and his elephants. It’s spectacular and gaudy. We burned candles, incense, and 拜一拜’d, kowtowing in the temples and making wishes.

Afterwards, we ate a remarkably bad lunch of instant noodles, and for gluten-free and special me, a flavorless boiled cob of corn.  My host sister, Le Le remarked that the noodles were awful and her father replied to her that she should just be glad the noodles were not American instant noodles. He said Chinese noodles were highly sought after in American prisons and the American noodles are certainly worst tasting than these ones. I quickly agreed and we then headed back to the bus to take us to the station. After arriving back, we luxuriated in a giant feast and hot springs.

The whole affair on the mountain was a bizarre but uniquely Chinese experience. I laughed, thinking of my Merrells that I thankfully left in my bag, along with the rest of slovenly clothes I brought along with me to this glorious resort.

Though entirely not what I was expecting, I felt extremely relieved to be able to rest, take in the sights, and see what enjoyable tourism looks like for many Chinese. Thanks to a cushy hotel room and my family’s thoughtfulness, I feel refreshed and ready for one more slavish week of teaching. 加油,昭君!

Pandas and not-pandas

BEST DAY! On Sunday, the Peace Corps treated the China 23’s by visiting the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. The Peace Corps assured us that departing from the hotel by 7:00 AM would allow us to see the pandas at their most active, so my fellow trainees and I zombie-walked onto buses and spent 30 minutes in transit before arriving at the large square in front of the research center.

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PC trainees swamp the park

We made our way up blessedly empty paths under dense bamboo forests and were surprised to see large spaces full of Pandas. I had anticipated waiting in long lines to see pandas behind glass windows, but the experience was much more like what you’d experience at the Oregon Zoo. The densely forested park had pockets of spaces for the pandas to lounge around and play, encircled by paths for tourists to enjoy the bears.

The stars of the park seemed to be group of four young cubs, who spent the entire morning climbing and falling off trees and bamboo structures. The cubs wrestled each other off, the pairs ending up toppling upside down, short legs flailing in the air.

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While descending the tree, these two pandas ended up colliding and falling into the pivot
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Adoring fans enjoy the spectacle
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The top panda didn’t want to share and stood so the other one couldn’t get on the tree

I spent most of my time looking at the animals play and didn’t get the chance to read or visit most of the educational buildings. Though I did learn that Panda breeding is pretty complicated.

Female pandas are only in heat 72 hours each year, so the staff at the research center collect urine samples from the pandas and measure the hormones to determine when is a good time to introduce a couple. Pandas are very particular about their partners so the researchers give the females scent samples of the males to see whom they might be interested in. But pandas don’t always get along and captive pandas are less physically capable than their wild counterparts, so sometimes mating introductions go poorly and no pandas will be born from that couple that year.

My favorite part of the park wasn’t actually the pandas – it was the red pandas, who are still somehow called red pandas but aren’t related to pandas. While most of the adult real pandas were sedentary and were only inclined to move when their meals arrived, the furry, auburn red pandas ran about a dense forest, or navigated tangled networks of branches at the canopy.

The red pandas seemed extremely clever, and one of them clearly anticipated feeding time and stood up to make sure her meal was on its way.

Going to the center costs about 60¥ or $8.80, which is more than a day’s budget for a Peace Corps Trainee, so it felt luxurious to enjoy such a beautiful park. We only had 3 hours so I missed out on the swan lake, the tiny baby pandas, and the other red panda enclosure (it was closed). It is definitely worth visiting several times and if I get the chance to go again, I’d be stoked. The park spans over several km, and we ended up doing about 9 km of walking. When we entered our buses to return to our hotels, I promptly fell asleep.

 

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Fellow trainees rest; the red capped water bottles are the brand of water PCMO advises us to buy

 

Wenshu Monastery 文殊园

On Saturday, the PC fam went to Wenshu Monastery, one of the best preserved Buddhist temples in Chengdu. The place was mostly overrun by tourists so I didn’t end up taking many photos of the actual temple and courtyard. I was surprised there weren’t many vegetarian restaurants around the temple.