Friday, February 27, 2009

Educating the Masses

I have been working the past three weeks substitute teaching English to primary school kids. It’s been a lot of fun. The classes have a Chinese English teacher four days a week and a native speaker for one . I used music a lot. They liked the songs and I tried to make it an educational as well as fun event. All those years of watching “Sesame Street” finally paid off.
Schools here are structured very differently. First of all, the days are a lot longer. The classes start around 7:30. Lunch is 11:30 to about 2:30 when the kids go home for lunch and a nap. Then back at it until around 6 or 6:30. Homework until 10:30 or 11:00 is normal.
Elementary classes keep the same room, but have a different teacher for each subject. Everything is test based, so the kids who test better are put into the same class, which can have fewer students. The bad testers end up in the same place, too only with a lot more of each other. I have a couple of fifth grade classes back to back, one is the “smart” one, the other is the crowded one. The “smart” kids know more English and learn more quickly. The others take more time, but I find that they are well behaved and give it as much effort as the others.
If I were so inclined, I could smack the bad kids. I don’t, but it’s nice to know that if a 50 kid class wanted to try to lynch me I could defend myself without having to worry about getting a lawyer.
Between each class the kids have 10 minutes to spazz out which they do in good form, but generally they settle down pretty quickly when the bell rings. Somebody probably had to do some whumping along the way to get them quiet in such good form.
Anyway, I there are some “smart” kid classes with about 30 kids, and a first grade class with 56 kids. The big class is in a smaller school that only has one class per grade. Oh noes! Smart kids and dummies together! Those classes work just fine.
When you are dealing with a class that large, it’s a bit like herding cats, but I’m loud, and a song usually gets their attentions. There is my assistant, also who has a lovely drill sergeant way about her.
The education system here manages to produce a more literate society than ours. I doubt they graduate kids who can’t read. They also excel in math and sciences. On the downside, it seems they pile a lot of make work on the kids, so they have little time to be kids. A Chinese friend of mine and I had a long talk about the education system here. He felt that where they are weakest is in encouraging creativity and thinking outside the box. I see a lack of time for pursuing outside activities, or even a chance to work on an academic area that they may wish to focus on more.
On the plus side they come out with a great work ethic and discipline. And teens have absolutely no time to really get in trouble, or pregnant.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Zombie New Year Party

Yali got the call from an old high school classmate that there was a party at a friend’s house in the county. Big wahoo festival and feast. Off we went in a mini bus with a bunch of classmates, their kids, and a stranger or two. The traffic was deadly slow. Everyone was off to some village for the same thing. All along the road, there were people lined up hawking cases of soda, fruit and snacks. Can’t show up empty handed!
Fortunately the village is not very far out of town, so we didn’t have to crawl along too long. We parked on the highway and hoofed it in, hauling our sodas, and other contributions. Soon the concrete turned to dirt and the streets were only wide enough to accommodate a cart or motorcycle. No signs, just a maze of dirt and old brick buildings. Somebody knew more or less where we were going, and after a couple of false turns, we got there.
It’s a nice home with a walled yard and covered patio. Outside the gate is an offering table of some sort with a cooked chicken, some bowls of rice and some cups of rice wine. Cooking is going on, and there are already lots of dishes on the table. We have some tea, and get to know the people there. Immediately someone sets up a Mahjongg table and they get to gambling. This is a huge pastime here. It is an obsession for many, and for some a serious addiction. Large amounts of money can be won and lost. So, four people were playing with a few watching.
We visited with some folks, and played with the kids. More and more food kept appearing from inside the kitchen. As the tables filled, my stomach started growling. More guests arrived, relatives and friends. Nice people and their friends. Somewhere along the way the single guys show up. I think we are talking the redneck cousins, because they have lots of beer and explosive devices. They showed up about the same time lunch was announced. Amazing how that is. We dug in. Squid, fried duck, pork, chicken, clams, fish, shrimp, beef, sausage, veggies of all sorts, glass noodles, soups. The Mahjongg people pulled themselves away from the game long enough to taste a few items then they were back at it. The rednecks started pouring beer and toasting.
While we were gorging ourselves, the pops and explosions in the distance were getting more frequent. We could also here some drumming, cymbals, and geese being slaughtered. We went to go see. Go right, turn at the first left, turn right at the horse, and down the dirt track to the noise.
After watching all the fun stuff and being deafened by drumming and explosions, we returned to find the rednecks in fine form, pounding beer and deafening themselves with explosives. The Mahjongg people haven’t left the table. The parade eventually comes by our “street” and they are blessed by cash offerings to the kids on the poles and strings of firecrackers from the rednecks. The Mahjongg players keep playing.
After about 45 minutes or so, the parade eventually disappears down the alley/street to be showered with gifts and explosives elsewhere. We burn some special paper for good luck and prosperity. It is very smoky at this point from all the fires and fireworks. My ears haven’t rung this much since that Rush concert in 1976. People are saying their goodbyes, and the rednecks are trying to get us to go off with them to get some drugs and hookers. We politely refuse and find ourselves standing around with our group, waiting for the Mahjongg players who are still at the table. They finally notice that all the people they came with are ready to go, and tell us to go, they will get a taxi later. They may still be there today.
It’s a reverse procedure going home. At one point during the bus ride home, I am watching a lady selling balloons who keeps passing us on foot. The only time we get ahead is when she stops to make a sale. We eventually get home, grumpy and tired, but not very hungry.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Zombie New Year

New years has been over almost two weeks, but someone forgot to tell the people in the outlying villages. They have some sort of an end of new year celebration that is a lot cooler that the city folks have. We were invited to a party in a village that’s not far from Zhanjiang. It was one of many events in the rural parts of this world. I have to say that they did it in far greater style than in the city.
These are pix of the festivities. They got ready and wound up in the town square, such as it is. It was in the 80’s and a little dusty and very noisy. Lots of drums, explosive ordinance, and trumpets that got my Scottish blood up, since they sounded like bagpipes, or geese getting sucked into a jet engine.
Kids were made up and dressed up and propped up on rolling floats. There was a large contingent of lancer/pole bearers. Gods of every sort, other than Jesus, were paraded. They got to a rolling start in the big open area with a dragon and lions dancing while the kids sweltered in their makeup and silks. They stoically endured while enjoying the honor of sitting on a pole. Once the whole thing got rolling they went around all the narrow streets including the one we were partying on.
We had quite the feast at the friend’s house which I will relate tomorrow.
Click the pix for a bigger image. Excuse the video quality since my camera is a bit dated, but manages to not break so I keep using it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Up in Smoke

Now that the big Michael Phelps "scandal" has blown over, I have to add my 2 yuan's worth. Since the guy was just here just a few months ago, he could have just said he was enjoying the Chinese pastime of smoking tobacco out of a Chinese water pipe. Lots of guys enjoy these gadgets here, from the nice little security dude at our apartment building to taxi drivers. I do have to admit to a double take when I saw a taxi guy pull one out of his trunk and take a quick hit.
I actually think that Phelps, as an athlete, should have been embarrassed about endorsing such diabetes inducing crap as Pop Tarts and Fruit Loops. He is much better off with the shame of Kellogg behind him. I bet there is a Chinese tobacco company that's been trying to contact him.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

No Nanny State Here

The Oregon State Legislature has a bill, that if passed will make it illegal for people to smoke in a car if there is a child under 16 in the vehicle. The local paper had an interesting comment about it:
Now I think that people who smoke in a closed space with children present are idiots and the poor kids who had the misfortune to have to endure such adults should be pitied, but do the police need another excuse to pull you over? Also, it could be argued that a stressed out mother, craving nicotine, with a screaming toddler in the mandatory car seat, could be a greater menace to the kid's health than the second hand smoke.
Here most of the men smoke and almost none of the women. In fact, in the four months or so that I have spent here, I have counted seven women smoking! The men smoke everywhere. Restaurants, cars, airports, stores, even hospital rooms. It actually isn't as bad as you might think, you just run into some smoke every once in a while.
Cars have the right of way. If you want to cross a street, the act is a lot like the old video game "Frogger". Big streets have lights and cross walks, that are mostly safe. I have yet to see a car seat. Seat belt use? Maybe. You see more of stuff like the family on the motorcycle. Dad might have a helmet on. Or not. And yacking into his cell phone that's cradled on his shoulder. I saw a guy text messaging while on his motorcycle the other day.
The do gooders that try to control our daily sins should take a trip to less fortunate countries. There is fertile ground here for their meddling.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Trip to Guilin

When Brian and I cam to China last spring we went on a trip to Guilin, home of the cool limestone Karst mountains you see in all the Chinese watercolors. Chinese tours are grueling jam packed affairs with the guide talking too loud through a loudspeaker, but still fun. We first saw a lovely river park, probably a thousand years old with a limestone cave that had Buddha statues carved into the walls. Also a rice winery where the wine is fermented in caves and a tasting room. I had some of this stuff at a wedding, but it was cheap rotgut. The good stuff is quite tasty so I will probably get some to bring home. Just when we hoped we would be going back to the hotel about 5 o'clock we were taken to a gem museum with a huge shopping area. New China capitalism at work. We window shopped. Can we go hotel now? Maybe restaurant. No, time to go to a tea tasting. Some local food items, too. When the tidbits were passed around to sample, they ended up stopped with Tody where he laid into them like it was dinner. We were led through a maze of stuff for sale on the way to the bus. Hotel at 7:30. We are starving! Yummy spicy duck, eggpant, fish, beer. Yali and Tody are not used to spicy food so they suffer through.

7:30 the next day off to the river cruise. It is raining on and off and the mist hangs on the mountains. Just like the paintings! There are about a hundred boats at the dock each holding about 200 people. We pile in, sitting in the big cabin at tables with comfy chairs. We have made pals with some young people and are sitting with them. There is an incredibly loud guy telling us all about the mountains we will see and he will sell you photos of yourself on the boat, shut up, Asshole! We pull out into the river in a long convoy and we go uptop to escape the loud guy and enjoy the scenery. It truly becomes breathtaking and you can enjoy the beauty and create your own solitude imagining this place 200 years ago. There are showers off and on throughout the cruise, driving most below so you can enjoy it even more. The food served is good, especially the little fried crabs that you eat whole. Yali is the first to succomb to bad tummy this day. We land at a nice small town (only about 100,000 people), and walk up through a fun market place. Then into the bus and off to the limestone caverns. Another breathtaking tour. Big caverns with huge limestone waterfall formations and stalagtites.

We're not done yet! There is a quiet ride in local river rafts, a tour of a cheesy native village, and a stop at a national park to see a giant 1500 year old banyan tree. All throughout there are wonderful karst mountains and scenic farmland. All of the farms look like prize winning Rodale gardens, only they go on forever. Everything is done by hand, the biggest machinery I saw was a big rototiller. Buffalo are used a lot for pulling plows and carts.

Back to town by 7:30. Got a better hotel and no more tours! Tomorrow is Kunming, Yunnan province. We take the sleeper train. Tried an internet cafe, but it was like dial up on quaaludes and after waiting ten minutes for it to open the new mail page on my hotmail I said screw it.

Teaching Engrish

I’ve spent the last two days as a substitute English teacher in a couple of grade schools. The company I’m working for contracts with the schools and the contract they have with this school district is to be in the English class one day a week.
Grade schools here have the kids in one classroom, but have a different teacher for each subject, like our high schools. The advantage is that you have a teacher that is very knowledgeable in the subject. The disadvantage is that there isn’t a teacher who knows each student well.
The class sizes are HUGE, 40 to 50 students in each. I have an assistant who I have nicknamed The Hammer. She maintains order and helps translate. Since I didn’t get any kind of lesson plan and I’m only doing this gig for a couple of weeks I took my guitar and taught the little buggers some songs. I drew pictures and wrote the lyrics on a good old fashioned blackboard. The older kids got “I know an old lady who swallowed a spider”, the younger ones got “This old man” and the first graders got “Head, shoulder, knees and toes”. They learned some words, had fun and now I’m listening to Radiohead trying to get these songs out of my head.
Something that I thought was interesting is that between each class the kids get 10 minutes to run amok. Since they have such hellish schedules, this is a good thing.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

School's in

Now that school is back in session, the kids are experiencing the great life crushing burden of education in an overachieving country. School starts at 7:30. They get a couple of hours off at mid day for lunch and a nap, then back for more until almost 6:00, then homework until about 10:30. Also homework on the weekends. This is the case for all ages. Then there are kids like a little girl I tutor whose parents have them studying music, sports, and in this 8 year old's case, extra English at 8:30 pm Saturday night.
Class sizes are about 40 kids. The teachers can smack 'em around. High school kids get a mandatory week of military training each year to give them disciprine.
They don't teach Chairman Mao's little red book any more, and they haven't for a lot of years. He is more of a figurehead hero.
We got to watch a show put on by a local Shaolin school. These are live in martial arts academies that are very hard core. Unfortunately, I didn't have my camera, but we saw a great show by a bunch of teens doing different demonstrations of sword and spear dancing. Drunken master. And a great bunch of those cool dancing lions, with them doing great acrobatics on tower platforms.
Our schools are so much easier. It seems to me that the kids here have an overall better level of education than ours, but I think it could be done with less severity. We could use a little of the discipline they have.
Our colleges and universities, however are much better. Every bright student dreams of studying in Europe or the US.