Monday, November 25, 2013

Week Thirteen of Classes

It is now the beginning of the thirteenth week of classes. There are nineteen weeks in this semester and we are fast approaching the end. Most of my classes are on one day every alternating week. This means that I see one class of students once every two weeks. I have three that meet every week. One of these is on Tuesday and the other two are on Wednesday. The two Wednesday classes also meet every other Friday.

Confused yet? It takes a while to get used to the schedule. I’m still not sure that I’m used to it. I have a copy of the schedule that I carry with my books and I also have a photo of the schedule on my phone that I often reference as I’m walking into the building. All this hasn't stopped me from walking into the wrong room on occasion.

Most of my students are good. In each class there is a range of levels. There are those who visibly tremble if I look in their general direction and whom seem completely unable to utter a single word without ten minutes of help from their neighbors and look like they’re going to cry in the process. Out of fear that the poor child may have a heart attack I’ll generally leave this person alone. Then there are those who almost who have exceptional English. They understand about 80% of what I say and they are usually understandable when they speak. Most of every class is somewhere in between. I have noticed that more than half of my best students are girls. This doesn't really mean that girls are better. There are some boys whose English is exceptional and there are several girls who can barely utter a word. Two of my classes, the ones that meet on Wednesday and every other Friday, are all tourism majors. One of these classes is only girls. The other only has two boys. I have one class who are cookery majors. I thought this class would be the most fun but they’re all afraid of me. My other classes are mostly accounting majors.

On week fifteen and sixteen most of my classes will begin finals. Only three will begin them later. Most of the finals will be oral exams. Two will be paper tests. I spent this morning prepping today’s classes for what they should expect. Most of them seemed to understand. I also spent much of this weekend designing a practice tests for my two classes that will be taking a test on paper.

There is some confusion between the school and the foreign teachers about when we will be able to leave. All of us had made plans to leave the moment we turned in our grades for the finals. Each of us thought that we would have four or five weeks off for Spring Festival. I had tentatively planned to head to South East Asia. Following what I know others have done in the past my rough plan was to go first to Nan Ning by train for two days, just long enough to get a visa for Vietnam. There is a train from Nan Ning to a small boarder town where I can catch a bus to Hanoi. I had planned to spend a about week in Vietnam, a week in Thailand and then a week in Cambodia before reentering China and heading back to Wuhan. With four to five weeks off this is perfectly doable. 

During a meeting last Thursday the school informed us that they want us to all wait two weeks for the other teachers to finish their grading and then spend a few days doing data entry marrying up all the grades into the computer. I came to the meeting late because I had a class at the time that they started. By the time I got there I could tell that there were a couple of very visibly angry people. It didn't take me long to ascertain why. While I wasn't as vocal about it, I had to agree. Sitting on my hands for two week while waiting to do data entry doesn't sound near as good to me as sitting on the beach under a palm tree looking out at the crystal clear sea rolling in on the shores while beautiful dark-skinned Asian girls in bikinis serve me Tiger beer. But then, does anything really sound that good? Like most other things in life the reality probably isn't nearly as fantastic as what I imagine it to be but that isn't the point. The point is, I don’t want to sit in Wuhan for two weeks doing nothing and I certainly don’t want to do data entry.

In the end everything will probably work itself out. In the meantime I’m actually having fun with most of my classes. The days are starting to get a little cold, another reason I want to get out of Wuhan for a bit, but it isn't too bad yet. Very soon I’ll tell you a couple of things about dumplings and a little about tea.

Oh… and coffee…. A couple three things about coffee. I shan't forget the coffee. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Studying Chinese

Beginning in the first week of October I started taking Chinese lessons from a small company called Huawen. As best I can tell Huawen is two girls who each teach Chinese. One of the two girls speaks French and teaches Chinese only to French speaking people. The other speaks English and teaches only English speaking people. They do not appear to have any other employees. The school is run out of an apartment building relatively near the Huquan metro station about two stops from Guang Gu.

Huawen’s proximity to Guang Gu was their main selling point to me. They were close enough that I could get there in about an hour. I would have preferred something a bit closer but haven’t been able to find it.

At Huawen I've been working out of a textbook designed for the HSK level One. The HSK is China’s standardized Chinese proficiency test. It is broken up into six levels. Level 1 is based on the 150 most commonly used words and the 178 most common Characters. Each new level doubles the number of words until you reach 5000 words at level Six (which is only 2633 characters).

I've no intention of ever taking the HSK. But there are several experts out there who claim that word frequency lists are the best places to start when learning a new language and through the HSK China seems to have kind of agree with these people.

For about 3000 RMB I got a package of 40 classes. Would have been cheaper if I was able to take the classes with another person but the planets didn't align properly as none of her other students had the same schedule and I didn't know anyone else who wanted to take classes. Each class is two hours.

The classes started out covering stuff that I mostly already knew from Pimsluer and other courses that I've used. At the same time I've been learning the characters along with the words. It seems good but at the same time it doesn't. Some days I feel like I've learned a lot but most days I feel like I haven’t learned anything.

It doesn't help at all if you tell someone that you’re learning Chinese. If they don’t know that you’re taking classes they assume that you know nothing and they’ll tell you that you should learn Chinese. If you tell them that you are studying they’ll assume that you should know a lot more than you do and will rattle off a lot of Chinese that you can’t possibly understand. If you tell them then that you don’t understand they become confused because you said that you were learning. It’s very annoying. I no longer admit to studying. It’s much easier just to let them think I don’t know anything.

It hasn't been a complete waste of time though. I recognize more characters than I did before. A few days ago I Was sitting on the bus and a girl across from me was talking about clothes. I didn't understand most of what she was saying but I knew that it was about clothes. I understood when she mention two days of the week and then she said something about having a class. It’s all bits and pieces.

There are listening activities in the English textbooks in which a word is missing from each sentence in a passage. The students have to listen to an audio recording or to me reading if the equipment is broken and then they have to fill in the blanks according to what they hear. Imagine if it were the exercise was inverted; if for each sentence there was only one or two words there and the rest of the line was blank. That is what things are like for me here. I hear people speaking and I know a word in each sentence and the rest is unintelligible. I see words in a book or on a menu or a sign and there are many words there that I know but the whole meaning is obscured.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Hubei University of Economics: The Campus

Hubei University of Economics Library
In the middle of the school there is the library. The Library has a clock tower that is the second tallest structure on the campus. In front of the library there is a large circular area much like a public square. There is a map of the world here which, like most maps in China, places the People’s Republic in the middle of the map rather than at the far right of the map. If you’re paying attention while you’re looking at this map in front of the library and you’re aware of your geography you might notice that Japan is missing. Another foreigner pointed this out to me. I might not have noticed had he not said anything. I walked around for a bit taking photos today. While I was standing at the edge of the map and looking down on Asia a couple walked across world. The young man said something to his girlfriend. Most of it I didn't understand but I did catch the words “ri ben,” (Japan). The girl paused a moment looking down in the general area of where Japan should have been before continuing toward the library with her boyfriend. I heard them say “ri ben” again a second time as they walked away. Across the square from the library is the Student Union Building. In the early mornings you can find several circles of students here. In the middle of each circle there is a teacher wearing a microphone reading from a speech or an Article written in English. After every line the students will repeat after him.

Asia... Well, most of it.

Across the "river" from the Our Hotel
A man made river curls in circular fashion around the back side of the library. It twists and meanders a bit like all good rivers do and in the process it creates the appearance if not the reality of a couple of small islands. There is forest here. Weeping willows line the shore of the river. Pines and other trees cover the small hills. Stone or brick paths lead into these small forests. Some of the entrances to the forest areas have arches covered with vines but most of them don’t. Inside you’ll find the usual cement picnic tables scattered around along with a park bench or two. Each of these of course will be surrounded with litter just to remind you that you are in fact still in China. 

While walking through these woods may not lead to a Hawthorne-esque loss of Faith, the people you find there can be both myriad and dubious. Early mornings it is common to find lone individuals sitting in the park benches or at the tables reading to themselves aloud in other languages. Usually it is English. One morning I sat listening to a nearby student reading something which I am almost certain was German. I did not bother him to find out. By mid-afternoon and on into the early evenings you’ll find couples occupying the benches. Everyone lives in the dormitories. There are usually six people to a dorm room. The doors are locked and the lights go out at eleven. Privacy in the dormitories is non-existent so young couples will often seek a form of semi-privacy in the woods. As the evening grows darker they move out into the parking areas. In a way this can make the walk from the convenience store back to my hotel a bit awkward. On one such walk I passed a couple who were standing suspiciously close to each other in the shadows of the parking lot. I heard the girl say, “Wo lao shi,” (my teacher). Usually if a student recognizes me they will call my name. Understandably, she didn't and I was glad that she didn't.

Several bridges cross the river. Beyond the river and behind the library there are the teaching buildings. There is a wide street here. On either side of the street there are statues of famous people. Most of these statues are of economists. Milton Friedman, John Maynard Keynes and Karl Marx are all here by the river. Marx stands by the river and looks across the road at the school building that I teach in. All of my classes are in the same building.

There are four cafeterias on campus along with a few dozen dorms. I've eaten a few times at the one of the cafeterias but I usually prefer to walk across the street from the campus. There are also tennis and basketball courts, a soccer field, a track and an indoor swimming pool and gymnasium. The hotel I’m living in is between the Library and the main gate.

I haven’t actually seen the whole campus. There is a large portion that I've never had a reason or an opportunity to explore. Perhaps one day when I've nothing better to do I’ll pass through that area just to see what is there. A lot of people here have asked me why I left New Dynamic to come to this University. Many of my former co-workers including some of the people in the head office believe that I left because New Dynamic couldn't give me the pay raise that I asked for. This makes sense until you know that the University is paying me less than New Dynamic was. In the end it came down to trees.

When I explain this to a Chinese person they usually get this “far-away” expression on their face. It’s a look I see a lot here when people don’t understand something that has been said. Some of them of course do understand this right away but most of them don’t seem to get it. Zhuan Kou is a mess. It has been a mess for a long time. There is always construction. Much of this is because they’re building the subway but much of it also is because they feel the need to constantly build, destroy and rebuild. A few months ago they demolished the viaduct and now it’s a bigger mess than it had been previously.

There is construction here. New stuff is being built outside the campus. But it seems like there is less construction here than in the rest of the city. Months ago, after I’d interviewed here I’d walked around the campus a bit. Mr. Li doesn't know this but none of the things we’d talked about in the interview had any bearing on my decision. The decision had been made sitting on a park bench thirty minutes later. In front of me there was nothing but the woods. I just sat there looking at the trees. I was close enough to the water that I could hear it. I could also hear some people talking far away and sometimes laughing. There were no other sounds. There were no car horns or ringing bicycle bells. There were no passing buses rolling by pouring out exhaust fumes for everyone to choke on. There was only green and brown and a sliver of blue and there was silence. I remember Adam Stein, who taught my certification course, telling us that windows in a classroom where very important. I remember thinking then that this was a strange thing to care about but now I think I get it. Sometimes between classes or while the students are busy with some group work I've given them I’ll stand by the window and look out for a moment. From some of the windows I can see a small pond encircled with stones and cattails and covered with lily pads. Around this there are trees.

Once they do finally understand and they realize that I'm not joking some of the people here feel this whole thing about the trees and all is a bit silly. There is an Australian couple here who get it though. They came to this school from their old one because this university has a pool. 

I think trees are nice. 

But to each his own...