China Adventure, part 4

In China…

Every day we would walk down two flights of stairs for breakfast. Breakfast was always tasty. The menu for all of our meals was adapted by the cook as she discovered what we ate and what we were leaving on our plates or in the pans.

Breakfast always had a bread of some kind. I can’t even begin to describe the varieties we enjoyed. One roll was sort of like a cinnamon roll only it wasn’t cinnamon rolled up inside. Some bread was long, like a breadstick, but completely different and another was fat and round.

Fried was the method of choice for preparing just about everything. (Huge drums of cooking oil out behind the kitchen). Bread was fried along with everything else. We also had peanuts and hard boiled eggs. The eggs came by request and Dr. Wong encouraged us everyday to eat more eggs so they would keep boiling them. If you’ve ever seen “Cool Hand Luke” with Paul Newman you have a picture of what some of our breakfast times were like.

After breakfast we all grabbed a bottle or two of water and headed off to the building our classes met in. On the way out and the way in to the building we walked by a dorm room for men who appeared to be workers. ‘Appeared to be’ because they were almost always in, almost always smoking and almost always crowded around a tiny T.V. which either was their job or they did something that only took a few minutes every day. On the opposite side of the door as we went in and out was a squatty potty bathroom. Door always open. Flushing optional. The other door at this intersection went in to the student’s cafeteria. Bigger portions than where we ate upstairs and
cheaper. But sometimes bigger is NOT better. As we came in and out every day we were either sent out or greeted by a mixture scents from hot cooking oil, guy’s dorm room, and open squatty-potty room. ‘Air freshener’ is not a value held by everyone in the world.

Our first day of class was great. We all learned as we went along. Each class was made up of young and old students, from teens to University students to University teachers. We had about 35 in each of the 5 groups. The groups were named for N.Am cities: L.A., New York, Philadelphia,
Vancouver and Toronto. Philadelphia lost the draw and had the one classroom a long walk from the rest of us. We would pass any number of empty classrooms between the main block and where Philadelphia ended up and it was never clear why Phillie was so far away. They became a sort of ‘ghetto’ group with their own unique personality.

Each class had a mix of students who were pretty good at English and some who didn’t have a clue. They helped each other out and translated for us when we couldn’t explain our English word very well. The well-off students had pocket translators. We would say something and spell it on the board. They would quickly type it into their translator and it would give them the Mandarin definition. Pretty slick deals. The other essential gear that nearly all the students carried: a cell phone. Most were good about turning them off but one girl in my class was pretty dependent on the cell phone. As she got to know us and became more involved it rang less or she left it at home.

Every morning was a rotation of teachers covering a number of topics. The purpose of the topics was to teach common English words or expressions associated with the topics. I taught ‘Humor’ the first 5 days and ‘Media’ the last 5 days. In everything we taught we did our best to use the topic
as a means to talk about our day to day lives which the students were much more interested in than they were our lesson. They enjoyed hearing us talk about family, our faith and anything pop culture.

I learned the first day that ‘Humor’ is a relative term and that I needed to simplify to reach my class. I learned that the Chinese enjoy ‘April Fool’s Day’ but not Jerry Lewis and that they LOVE to laugh. And laughter sounds the same in any language. I also learned something when I asked them to tell a joke in English. One girl bravely raised her hand and spoke up. She finished a rather long joke and was met with silence. I gave her a pity laugh while I tried to figure out what the joke was about. I thought I understood English but I had no idea what she had just said. She raised both her hands up, shook her head and said, “o.k., o.k…” and proceeded to retell the joke in Mandarin. At the end, the class roared with laughter. Roared. I still don’t know what it was about…

I used the humor talk to speak about how God created laughter (no matter what Presbyterians says…) and sent Jesus so we would have joy and have something to laugh about. We had some great sharing in English about joy.

I also learned not to lean against the bright white walls of the building. I’m not sure but the walls seemed to be covered with chalk rather than paint. You could tell the teachers who had absent-mindedly leaned against a wall during class. We all caught on after a few days of ‘white back’.

The rooms were HOT. No air-conditioning in the classrooms. AC was for wimps. What we did have were ceiling fans that apparently came off of airplanes. When you cranked those babies up to 11 you created your own breeze that kept it cool and windy.

One other note on the classrooms: In China the teacher stands at the front and teaches from an elevated platform. Teaching is a lecture and NOT a dialogue. On the first day of classes we cleared out the desks (think church pews with a place to write) and stepped down off the platform to the level of the students. Simple as it sounds, being on the same level, sitting in a circle and having dialogue instead of lecture broke down walls and took us very quickly into conversations with our students where our hearts could rub off on each other.

Lunch time meant a long walk back to the dorm and our cafeteria. Often we would invite students to join us and carry on conversations from the morning or start new ones. Lunch was always fun. We would get another bottle of water and then stand in line and try to figure out what was
waiting for us. Anything from the plant world was called “vegetable”. Meat was, well, just about anything else. No part was wasted of any animal. We had barbeque pork, we had duck, we had some tiny pieces of ‘beef like’ meat with peppers, it was all good. The meat was almost all of the ‘chainsaw chicken’ variety. Allen, one of the team, called it that first. It’s very descriptive. Imagine your Thanksgiving turkey. Now instead of dad carving it up all nice and sliced, imagine he takes out the little home-size chainsaw and starts carving that baby up, bones and all. Quick and nothing gets wasted. That’s pretty much the chicken, duck and pork meat dishes. It was also regularly deep fried just for fun. I never did catch the Mandarin for ‘cholesterol’.

After lunch we went back to the classrooms and did an afternoon session with our own group. We saw the same group everyday but had different discussion/teaching topics. We got to know each other. We became friends. We talked about customs, sports, English, you name it. We acted out marriage ceremonies from the west and they acted out ceremonies in English from the east. I had a marriage proposal during one afternoon from my friend Sky. He was a university student (studying windmill power generation) and I pretended to be the girl he wanted to marry. It was fun. (I think I still own a herd of goats west of Shantou as a result.)

‘Sky’ was the English name he chose for himself. Most of the students had English names they had chosen for themselves. There didn’t seem to be any criteria for this, you just decided one day what your English name was or someone ‘gave’ you one and that was that. We had ‘Sky’ and Lucy and Peter and Ann, there was Andy and Carol, and there was Lee and ‘Horse’. One girl was “Jow-jow” and I kept calling her “Jo-Jo” thinking she just couldn’t say it, I was wrong. I was embarrassed. There was one young guy named “Passerby”. Eventually we learned how he got that name. When he was younger he was playing in the park near a lake. He was messing around and fell into the lake and could not swim or get himself out. One man who came along thought he was just messing around and walked on by. Finally another man stopped, a passerby, and got in and helped him out. From that he took the English name, “Passerby”.

The country was beautiful but the students were even more beautiful and getting to know them, hearing their stories, sharing a pan of rice together, that’s what made the trip extraordinary.


About brianmpei

Stumbling towards what comes next.
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7 Responses to China Adventure, part 4

  1. I travelled to Vancouver for a couple months back in 2005. While I was staying in the city, I found cheap accommodations at a place called Dunsmuir International Village. It was an old Salivation Army building converted into a student housing building. People from all over the world lived in this building, I was one of three people from the East Coast of Canada, and we were blended in with dozens from Korea, Europe, Mexico, China…you name it. Some spoke very good English while others communicated with smiles and frowns, but we all managed to read each other well.

    Our “kitchen” was an old cafeteria with long picnic table type benches. The commercial kitchen is where we cooked our meals. At least a couple times each week many of us would all cook up big meals and just spend time together. We even once convinced the night desk clerk, Dave, to allow us to bring in some booze so we could have a birthday party for one of our friends from Korea, I think.

    I learned so much and made so many friends from cultures I never even met before this experience. One girl, Sue from Korea, was always interested in learning what some of our slang words meant. We went on a trip to Whistler one day I got her to start using the word “sketchy.”

  2. Shelley says:

    wow, it’s cool to hear the story again from someone else’s perspective. There’s so much I forgot about. You remember a lot! you know, i can’t even remember what I taught (grammar?). I remember that EVERYTHING was fried in coconut oil except breakfast. Poor team Philli…they did become the group everyone wanted to be though in the end though and they obviously had the best dance moves. I thought they were “Group 6” though…you may have missed one somewhere. Hard to believe that was 6 years ago.

  3. brianmpei says:

    Andrew: I think cross-cultural experiences are essential!

    Shelley: I don’t ‘remember’, I kept a journal! I recount though, I think you’re right.

  4. Shelley says:

    hmmm…the difference between you and I lies in your previous statement. I also kept a journal but mine has nothing in it that might resemble “details” … no no no. however, it does contain a lot of information about how I FELT and then again about how I felt about the feelings I was having…and then how i felt about the feelings that came with what I was thinking about…and so on. i’m such a loser.

  5. Melissa says:

    Hey Brian. I love reading your blog. I love the way you describe things. Even that entry about the recipe, I felt like i was reading a chapter in a novel .I get so into the entries. Have you ever thought about writing a book.

  6. brianmpei says:

    Shelley: I’m German, you’re Acadian. That’s pretty much the difference.

    Melissa: thanks, it feels good to be read! and I think this is my book.

  7. Hey Brian, off topic here…but I think I forgot to roll up my coffee cup rim. I’m not expecting you to root into the compost or anything, but if you are curious to see if it is the big prize, go for it. If the prize is of any value then I donate it to the church, if it’s a coffee or a donut, enjoy!

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