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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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.

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.

Week one

It’s been a whirlwind of a week. We’ve had sessions for 8 days in a row, but I’ve still had some time to explore the city.

When we’re not learning TEFL, Chinese, PC policy, or ways to keep safe and healthy, we spend a lot of time eating out with members of our cohort.

Chengdu is one of the larger cities that Peace Corps works in, and we’re fortunate to be a block away from a vegan restaurant that has a couple dishes I can eat. I’d wager that 30% of our 72-large cohort eat mostly vegetarian or completely vegetarian and as soon as 12:15 hits, we’ve occupied every seat in the tiny restaurant. The cashier and cooks are exceedingly kind to us and have started to bring us a spicy pickled vegetable as a side with our meals.

Located near Sichuan University, our locale of Chengdu is quite cosmopolitan. There are sandwich restaurants, Malaysian, Thai, and Indian restaurants, a Walmart (沃尔玛 wo4er3ma3) complete with some Western imports like Hunt’s Tomato sauce and Barilla Spaghetti, and of course, hundreds of Chinese restaurants with local specialties like dandan noodles (担担面 dan4dan4mian4), numbingly spicy hot pot (麻辣火锅 ma2la4huo3guo1), spicy rabbit head, and more I can’t possibly describe here 等等什么的。

Here are a few new things I’m getting used to:

  • Drinking and buying bottled water (at Walmart, none the less. My environment-loving soul is dying a bit)
  • The time zone (15 hours ahead of the West Coast)
  • Not putting toilet paper in the toilet (I think have this one down)
  • Squatty potties (still trying to figure these ones out, tbh)
  • Being a pedestrian in a place with, shall we say, liberal and creative traffic patterns

We also live next to an extraordinary bamboo park, which has hundreds of species of bamboo there. I had no clue so many types existed! The greenery here reminds me a bit more of home and beside the weeping willows, the ponds are lined with Cannas and Bougainvillea!

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I should probably start exercising at the park in the mornings when the air quality is best. That’ll be the goal for next week. Tomorrow we visit the Panda Research Center so if I take any decent photos, they’ll be up in next week’s post.

San Francisco! 旧金山

I go on a hike in San Francisco

On June 14th, I arrived in San Francisco ( for staging, where I met my fellow 72 China trainees by playing dozens of ice breaker games, sharing identity maps, and spending a few hours reviewing the Peace Corps goals and expectations.

But before getting down to all that business, I had about five hours on my hands and decided to hike out to the Golden Gate Bridge. After scarfing down a quick lunch at Punjab, I filled up my water bottle with San Francisco’s surprising tasty tap water, pulled out my laminated map of the city, courtesy of my California Grandma Nancy, and headed off toward the bay!

The day was glorious–blue skies galore, a balmy 68F, punctuated with the cool ocean breeze. I found it funny to see wealthy ladies returning from yoga sporting Columbia down jackets over their leggings during such a beautifully warm day, and then remembered I’d probably soon be sporting linen and sweating profusely in the Chengdu heat, much to the curiosity and amusement of the 四川人.

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Walking toward the bay, I saw 70 year old grandmas steadily trek up and down the steep hills, Pride flags festoon multi-million dollar condos, and young XC students huff and puff their way along the sidewalks.

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Probably my dream house

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A cool looking shop that I unfortunately didn’t enter

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It took a good, long while, but I finally made it to the bridge. The Golden Gate was a lot smaller than I had imagined, though I didn’t get the chance to walk across it. After a few snaps and a cursory look at the visitor center, I rushed back to registration at the hotel by way of Van Ness and Eddy, passing through the Tenderloin. No longer did I share the road with tourists and yoga ladies. The sidewalks were filled with people  smoking, chatting, making various transactions, some which seemed pretty sketchy in nature. The disparate journeys out and in of the city were jarring and it felt weird to be situated in a place where Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf and Goodman’s were blocks away from people begging for an evening meal.

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I didn’t have much time to make the trek to the Bridge and had almost stopped and decided to return after being halfway along that dirt path that cuts through the grass and intersects with the tree

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#worthit

The remainder of evening was filled with official registration activities, 1,000 different ice breakers to meet my cohort, and the promise of a full day of basic training and more icebreakers the subsequent day.   

Trainings went off without a hitch. I fell into the group of people surnamed M–Z, and together, we read workbooks, performed skits, and burned the Peace Corps mission and Core expectations into our minds.

That evening, a new friend from Portland and I hiked out to catch the San Francisco sunset on the beach at the end of the Golden Gate Park. Walking an odd 8 miles out reminded me how lovely America’s public spaces and people can be.

The next day, we left for SFO by 8:00 for a 2:00 flight. We played cards and ate average airport fare until boarding, where I sat by the window and two Chinese and their Shiba Inu named Ariel, who somehow managed to make the entire 14 hour flight with no bathroom breaks while sitting under the seats beneath us. Pretty dope.