The First Week of Class

True to my word, I have made an update in a reasonable amount of time given the detail I choose to write in. I feel that I should warn before you start reading that some of this post is R-rated. There is profanity and reference to morally compromising sexual behavior. This is fair warning; if you think you may be offended, then don’t read further. Really, I don’t think any of it is that bad, or I wouldn’t have put it on here. I have to confess that I have edited some events thus far for my readership, but I’m very excited about adding in the profane this time. I think the entertainment value will compensate for potential offensiveness.

After a full week, I’m feeling pretty good about my Chinese class. At times, I felt so lost that I had no choice but to laugh at myself, but all-in-all, I feel like it was a very productive week. Despite my fluctuations in studying discipline over the course of the week, I have made some substantial gains. I have added several words and phrases into my functional vocabulary, which I feel like is the most important part to me. My listening ability is really weak. I have not figured out how to effectively identify initial sounds, final sounds, and tones. Considering that these are all the parts of listening, I’m not in a very good state there. If I keep up at this rate, I’ll be able to talk to people and have no clue what they’re saying back. I’m confident that it’ll come with time. Its a hard thing to practice on your own time though.

The most exciting part of the class has been riding around on the bus and being able to identify some characters out in the city. For some, I can identify them, know what sound they are, and maybe know what they mean in the context; for others, I see them I know that I should know them because we’ve been over them in class. The written language has already lost its completely foreign look. We had a reading class on Friday that broke down the characters into their components. When you approach the characters as combinations of those components, the whole written language becomes far less intimidating. You can look at a twenty stroke character and identify all the components. Sure, it’ll take a long time to write and master those strokes, but you feel like you can manage it. The book is very annoying at times because it only provides the steps to writing the some of the new characters you get with a lesson; the rest you have to figure out on your own by looking at the character and applying the rules for the order of the strokes. Nevertheless, learning characters still has the feeling of a pleasant surprise, and I hope I can keep that perspective on learning them. I think it will keep that side of the language from becoming too frustrating. Mark was telling me that the amount of class time the program gives you after one year should be sufficient to take the test to be able to attend a Chinese university, the HSK 6. The prospect of having my Chinese ability quantified that concretely is exciting and will give an ultimate goal to work towards.

I only had one class to teach this week. It was on Thursday morning. After being in a Chinese class for three days and staring at the teacher blankly for a good portion of that time, I was able to identify that look and sentiment in my students. I needed to make my class a bit more simple. I decided on what I’m doing for a mid-term and final for the class. Since basketball is their core interest in American culture, the mid-term will be a basketball game. I’m going to spend a couple sessions extensively going over basketball vocabulary, and in a couple weeks, we’re going to have an English-only basketball game. For the final, students will get into pairs and prepare a dialogue about anything we have talked about over the course of class. Their dialogue will be one minute long. After that, I will jump into their conversation for another minute, and they must successfully respond to what I have to say. I think I’ll be a good examination of their abilities to form good English phrases, pronounce them, and know vocabulary around one subject well enough to have a conversation about it.

For rest of the first session, we did an exercise on introductions. I figured it would be a good way to learn everyone’s names and assign English names. English names are absolutely essential for me because like I said, my listening skills aren’t that great. Someone will say their Chinese name to me; I’ll try to repeat it; laugher ensues. Then they say it again slowly, and I do better with it. I made them say things to each other like “Hello, my name is… Nice to meet you. Where are you from? What do you do?” Then we talked about other things you could talk about when you meet someone. I guess it was a lesson in small talk, and I don’t know if I’m the best person to administer such a lesson. I went around the class and listened to them talk to each other, then I made each person introduce themselves to me in an effort to learn each student’s name. If they didn’t have an English name, I gave them one. Only one person was dissatisfied with his name. I tried to use the same method as I used with the students with whom I went to dinner; I listened to their Chinese name and picked names with the same consonant sounds. I gave a guy the name Bo. Everyone started laughing, and he looked displeased and asked for a new name. I asked what was wrong with the name Bo and asked if it was a curse word. No one answered. I changed his name to Kit which was quite the random name to pull out. During the break, I asked some students what Bo means in Chinese. They said it means cat. I didn’t think that it was that bad of a name, but I could concede that Cat is not as cool of a name as Crystal or Robot.

For the second session of class, I talked about American profanity and racial slurs. I justified teaching them about it by saying that they were an important part of American culture. If you can use profanity with someone you know or vice versa, then it is a sign of comfort in a relationship to speak freely. If someone is using profanity or racial slurs around people they don’t know, that is a really good sign that it is a bad situation, and you should probably get away. Despite my rationalizations, I taught the lesson because I thought it would be fun, and I knew they would be interested and wanted to know. I know that when I’m learning a language one of the first things I want to know is how to curse. Let me assure you, the lesson was most certainly fun. If you ever get the opportunity to have twenty-five Chinese people practice their pronunciation of “God damn it,” take advantage of it. My favorite part of the class was when I created a dialogue to help understand the proper way to use the term “bullshit.” I created a basketball scenario to put the use of the word into a context they could relate to. One side of the class said, “That’s a foul!” The other side responded, “That’s not a foul; that’s bullshit!”

In regard to teaching about racial slurs, I think it turned out to be a really good part of the lesson. I told them that these were things that are unacceptable to say regardless of the context. A bit of a history lesson is necessary to explain the racial slurs and the racial tensions associated with them, and I think that lesson is essential to understanding the current state of race relations in America. If anything in my lesson accomplished the goals of teaching about American culture of in a way that could be beneficial to my students, I think it would be this part of the lesson. Some of the students looked a little uncomfortable at the end of class, so I surveyed whether they thought the lesson had an acceptable subject. They all said yes, but it wouldn’t be the first time that they have withheld information from me if they really felt otherwise.

My Chinese class is divided into four fifty minute sessions separated by ten minute breaks. During the last session on Friday, class got a little rowdy. A Russian girl named Katie started passing notes to the Canadian guy in our class named Jack. She was on the other side of the room from him, so every time a note was passed it was a big production. Everyone got involved. I was sitting beside Jack, so I got to read the notes. She was writing to him, “I want to go out with you tonight.” and “I want to go dancing with you.” Amused by the sophomoric behavior, I suggested to Jack that he send back a note that provided boxes that she could check yes or no in to find out if she liked him. Everyone stopped paying attention; they were spent after an intense week. I wasn’t like the teacher could discipline us either. She would have just said things in Chinese to us that we couldn’t understand, and we would just look back at her with vacant faces. For example, one of the Russian guys in class forgot to bring a pencil. The teacher starts talking to him and hands him a pen. Jack is in the back cracking up. He has been teaching in China for a couple years, so he knows oral Chinese. I asked him what she was saying to him, and he told me that she said, “Coming to class without a pencil? Why did your parents send you here? Does your mother know you don’t have a pencil?” The Russian guy was not embarrassed in the least because he didn’t have a clue what was being said.

After class, Mark, Sven, and I had lunch with this guy named John. He is an older guy from the Mid-West, and he is going on his third year here. Hearing him speak to waitress was extremely encouraging. Don’t tell my mother this, but it made me want to spend more than a year here to achieve that level of oral fluency. Afterwards, I had plans to go swimming with the same group of students with whom I’ve been eating and two other students, Allen and Jackie. Sven and Mark decided to join. It was a funny scene. The students all had matching swim suits and caps because they had the same swimming class. They looked like a swim team, but could barely swim. They had been swimming for years, but no one had ever taught them anything. This was juxtaposed against Mark and Sven, who are stronger swimmers than myself. When the three of us were tired and leaving, the students stayed to swim. But they weren’t really swimming at this point; they were just sitting on the side of the pool. Mark said it was a good example of Chinese dedication.

Mark invited me to come to dinner with some guys from his class. It was a Russian guy’s birthday, and I accepted the invitation. When I was walking to the bus stop to meet everyone at HIT, I walked past all the street vendors that are set up on the weekends. I was walking along, and I heard someone say America in Chinese. Knowing that I probably spurred the mention of the word, I looked up to where I heard the word coming from, and there is this man about fifteen feet to my left in his 40s or 50s staring strait at me. He is looking pretty pissed (possibly in the British sense of the word as well). He just keeps speaking in a loud angry tone while unwaveringly staring at me. I just keep walking. I look down at my shirt. I am wearing a shirt that has a stars-and-stripes recycling symbol on it and says, “America Recycles Everyday.” I promptly zip up my jacket. It was a warm night. There was no reason to bring my jacket in the first place. No one had been anything but extremely nice and excited to me when they found out I was an American.

I arrived at HIT a couple minutes early because it is hard to gauge how long it will take to cross town in the buses. Mark and I met up with the Russians outside of the international student dorm there. It was a guy named Vanya’s 19th birthday celebration. Somehow, we immediately get talking about basketball. Maybe because I’m tall and American, people assume I play basketball. I’m glad I do because I’m not sure if I could really relate to anyone otherwise. We agreed to play together sometime. In our group there were five Russians, one girl from Hong Kong named Joy, one guy from Barcelona named John, Mark, and myself. I got put in a cab with Vanya, Joy, and John. We had a nice discussion about politics. It started when I made mention to the law the prohibits the sale of alcohol on Sundays in Georgia. I’ve made mention to that law a couple times since I’ve been here to get a rise out of people. It sparked a good discussion of American politics. Having become interested in Spanish politics last summer when they legalized same-sex marriage, I asked John what he thought of Zapatero, Spain’s current president. John had some criticisms of the current Spanish government from a Cataluyian perspective. He is in favor of independence for Catalan, but he started talking about how independence would hurt trade for Catalan by inhibiting trade with the rest of Spain. Vanya jumped in with an analogy about how the fall of the USSR hurt trade in Russia because resources, production, and assembly for products are now in different parts of Russia and former Soviet states. He says it has reduced Russia to an energy dealer. Our cab arrived first, and when we got out, I really appreciated that I was one of four people standing on the sidewalk from completely different corners of the world. Harbin is a very international city, and I appreciate the opportunity it has provided to speak with people from every continent.

Harbin has also made me extremely jealous of the language education systems of other countries, especially those in Europe. For example, Sven learned German, French, and English before he graduated high school. He spent seven months in Russia, so he can chat with the Russians in their tongue. He has also been in the language program here in China for a semester, so he is the wise sage that has experience learning the language and can offer advice to Mark and I when we voice our frustrations. Mark can speak Dutch, German, English, and French, and now he’s making the effort to learn Chinese. I feel ashamed when I think about my Spanish speaking ability in relation to their English.

The restaurant we went to was very good but also strange. It was incredibly nice. We all walked past a doorman wearing a grey, three-piece suit while we were dressed in jeans and t-shirts. All guests had there own private room, but it was unnecessary at that point. We were sitting down to eat after eight, and the Chinese usually start eating dinner no later than five thirty. The restaurant was called Around the World, and our room was the Russian themed room. The entire room was made from wood. There was a fireplace with a matryoshka (those dolls that stack up inside each other) on it; the Russians informed us that they are only for tourists. There was no music, and the room was eerily quiet. Each seat at the table was set with twelve plates and twenty-six pieces of silverware. Vanya took the head of the table, the Russians lined his left side, and the group of “others” flanked his right. Most conversation stayed on its own side of the table with Vanya pivoting between the two. Beer came, and the language barriers loosened.

Vanya told us a story of one of his first nights in Harbin. A group of his friends went out to dinner, and we looking to go out afterwards. They start looking up the word for disco in the dictionary, when they stumble upon the word for striptease. Inspired by their discovery, they decide to take that course of action. They get in a cab and ask the driver to take them to a striptease. The driver asks them if they are looking for expensive or cheap. After hearing the price range on expensive, they determined that they are in the cheap market. The taxi takes them to this hotel. It is ninety yuan to get in the door. They pay and go in. They are taken to back a room with a bar, and all these women are lined up and the bar. At this point, Vanya struggles a bit with his English; he says, “These women are…” I fill in for him, “Prostitutes.” The story continues. Their Chinese is not that great and the people in the hotel begin telling the Russians prices for their services. It is two hundred for a room for three hours. It is three hundred for a striptease. It is one hundred for sex. Mark chimes in, “Three hundred for a striptease, and one hundred for sex. Do they fuck with their clothes on?” Vanya says that they decide its getting late; the dorms are locked at midnight; they don’t want to pay the money, so they just go home.

The group of Russian we ate with are from Moscow. They were telling us about the differences between themselves and the eastern Russians that are here. They feel like they can’t understand the other Russian here. They said that all the eastern Russians care about is going to clubs and fighting. They come back the next day and brag about how they fought. We also had a long discussion about vodka, and the Russian traditions surrounding it. The food was excellent, and Vanya picked up the tab. I figured each meal was about fifty yuan, and in dollars, that is nothing (a little over 6) for the type of meal we ate. Given the exchange rate is four rubles to one yuan, it was a particularly generous gesture. Vanya said that it was his birthday, so he picked up the bill. Mark and I protested that that is the opposite of how it is supposed to go. He wouldn’t hear us out.

Given that it is one of the only place in the city the foreigners go to, we all went to Blues after dinner. After a long week of work and class, everyone was in extremely high spirits. The group of young Aussies was there, and given our relatively new relationship, I was flattered by the warmth of their greeting. The mood definitely rubbed of on me, so much so that I actually made my way to the dance floor for a decent part of the evening. That is a very good indicator of the sort of state I was in. Really, I the reason I danced was because Oren was there and he was dancing. He was wantonly flailing himself about having a great time. It was absolutely hilarious. When people aren’t taking themselves seriously, I really enjoy dancing. I ended up wearing someone’s tie around my head on my head. I think it was discovered on the floor and bounced around a couple people until it ended up finding a home as my headband. It was the first time I really enjoyed myself there.

Tomorrow, I’m heading across the river to Sun Island. It is supposed to be a very pretty place, and I have been carrying my camera around a bit more. Tomorrow, there should be a picture update. Also, if your interested in a different take on some of the same places and events, Mark gave me the link to his blog. I read it, and I found it in many ways confirming of my experience. The URL is http://kruuemel.waarbenjij.nu. The URL is in Dutch, but he writes in English. Be sure to send me an e-mail.

  • Jared Pogue

    Wow, hearing about all this makes me feel like my life is nothing. But, I love hearing about your epic journey and more importantly, I love how you articulate said journey! Oh and I also enjoy hearing about over 20 chinamen swear as part of a class. Man, that must of been an amazingly fun class. Take care and I can’t wait to hear more!