Wednesday, May 30, 2012

They're off to America! What should I tell them?

Half a dozen students from my department will spend this summer working and traveling in America.

There is some company that organizes international students to work three months at a minimum wage job in America, followed by a few weeks of travel or relaxation.  The students pay the organization for arranging the jobs, finding them housing, and taking care of logistics, and then they pay their daily expenses from their earnings.  The students will set off in a few weeks to destinations ranging from Galveston to Connecticut to Gatlinburg, where they will do jobs including "ride operator" and "McDonalds team member."

This is a fantastic opportunity for them to practice their English and learn about Western culture first-hand.

Sara and I invited the students for a brunch and told them everything we could think of about culture shock, traveling (most of them have never even been on a plane!), and living in America.

Here are some topics we covered, in no particular order.  (Some were introduced by us; some were introduced by them.)
  • The stages of culture shock and how to deal with it
  • Neck pillows
  • How to find and use a cell phone
  • The use of debit vs credit vs cash
  • What to do when you don't understand someone's English
  • Laundry
  • Public transportation
  • Cost of domestic air tickets
  • Church in America
  • How to find good friends
  • Will you be able to adjust to the food?
  • How to find good sales
  • American table manners
  • Deodorant
  • Dandruff
  • Drugs
  • What to do if you encounter people who say negative things about China
  • Whether you should tell people you are Chinese
  • Racism
  • Baking
  • Shoes off vs. shoes on when visiting someone's home
  • Where to find cheap name-brand clothes in NYC
  • Precautions for avoiding compromising situations and unsavory characters
  • Wearing different clothes every day

I could go on.  We talked for three or four hours, and I got to say so many things I wish I could say to every Chinese.  For example..
  • "When you encounter a difference in another culture, don't immediately think it's good or bad.  Accept that there can be two acceptable ways of doing something."
  • "If you meet Americans who say negative things about China, don't take it personally.  Just be the best Chinese you can be, and maybe by your friendliness you can help change their opinion."
  • "Don't start every conversation with, 'I'm sorry.  My oral English is very poor.'"
  • "Don't be racist."  
  • "Don't run around saying things like, 'Black people are too violent.'"
  • "This is called deodorant.  Americans wear it every day.  You should too."
  • "Keep the bathroom dry when you use it.  Americans don't like water all over the counter and mirror."
  • "Keep the table clean.  American table manners don't allow you to put bones on the table or trash on the floor."
  • "If you make a mistake (in work or in friendships), try to admit it honestly and do your best to fix it.  Don't hide it for fear of losing face."
  • "Don't only talk to other Chinese.  Try to make American friends... That's why you're going, right?"
  • "Have a great time!"

I think every culture is at least a little ethnocentric, and I know I'm guilty of it too.  Han Chinese (the majority Chinese ethnic group) are no different, and I encounter ethnocentric attitudes here all the time.  I think it's nothing but a good thing that these students will be forced to be the foreigners for once and consider things from a new perspective.  (Of course, even in America I guarantee they will still refer to the Americans as "foreigners.")

Our students who are going seem eager to learn and very open-minded.  I hope they have a wonderful experience.

Post Edit:

For  the curious, this is how we organized our topics.  I started with a list of topics I thought would be relevant:
  • Culture shock (including the four stages of honeymoon, irritation/annoyance, acceptance, and assimilation)
  • Relationships and Friendships
  • Health and Hygiene
  • Communication
  • Travel and Fun
  • Food and Drink
  • Racism and Diversity
  • Potential Problems
I should also have added "money" -- they had a lot of questions about banking, what things cost, and how to pay for things.  Another helpful category would have been "gifts" -- what gifts Americans might appreciate from China (I told them snacks, chopsticks, fans, tea, local specialties and small bills/coins) and what gifts their Chinese friends might want them to bring back.

For each topic Sara and I had a few suggestions, warnings, or personal stories.  Then we opened it up for their questions.  Several of the students are freshmen and have never even taken a Western culture class, so there was lots to learn.  And of course, we gave them our e-mail addresses so we can help them with anything that comes up along the way.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Fool me Once, Fool me Twice

Today in my Chinese class I learned a new phrase:

(zai yi zai er bu zai san)

It means, "Once again, twice again, but not three times again!"

(Another similar phrase I learned was 事不过三 (shi bu guo san) -- "Anything up to three times" or "You only get two chances.")

We were talking about the concept of 忍 (ren), which means "tolerance" or "forbearance."  My teacher said that we should tolerate other people, but ren has a limit.  If someone keeps wronging you, you only have to give them so many chances.  "Once again, twice again, but not three times again!"

It reminded me of the story where Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive a brother who sins against him.  "Seven times?" he asks.  Jesus answers, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times." (Matthew 18:21-22)

When I tried explaining this to my teacher, I used the word ge ge (older brother) and she was like, "Well, of course you have to forgive your family unlimited times.  But for people outside your family, like strangers or enemies, then there is a limit."

So I told her Jesus didn't mean "older brother." He just meant anyone.

She thought for a minute and said, "Ah, this is how Western culture is different from Chinese culture."

But I told her it's not our culture.  It's not anyone's culture to tolerate or forgive without limit.  It's only through Jesus.

Friday, May 25, 2012

A Graduation Retrospective

Today is my 10-year high school graduversary.  If I could travel back in time and talk to the Alison of ten years ago, this is what I'd say:

"Stop crying about your bangs.  Yes, the graduation cap threatens to flatten that hairsprayed curl.  Probably it's for the best.  Go practice your speech."

"High school was good, but college is better.  But you won't enjoy it unless you learn to get involved and put yourself out there a little more."

"Don't go to Wartburg College.  Go to Iowa.  You'll save yourself the trouble of transferring later, and Wartburg is not the school for you."

"It is true that you may never see some of these people again.  It seems to be a rule of goodbyes, however, that if someone is important to you you'll keep in touch, and if you weren't close anyway it's not such a tragedy to say goodbye.  Also, someone's about to invent a thing called Facebook."

High school friends, still in touch

"You may think that your only ambition in life is to be a stay-at-home mom, but wouldn't it be good to have another plan in case you don't get married?"

"Your faith isn't your own yet.  Wait until your freshmen year of college when the skeptics weigh in and your doubts pile up.  The faith God restores to you will be stronger, but different."

"You've only been on a plane once, but before ten years have gone by, you'll have traveled to over a dozen countries and spent hundreds of hours on international flights.  You'll live in China for three years (whattttttt!).  Start practicing your chopsticks skills and prepare to eat some weird stuff."

"Try to remember everything you learned in your ninth grade grammar class.  One day you'll be an English teacher and wish you had a clue what you were talking about."

"Ten years goes by really fast.  Twenty-eight isn't that old.  2012 isn't that far away.  Get ready for an awesome decade."

*Appendix:  Some more gems from high school that are begging to be shared:

After a sleepover at Lisa's, I think.

Re-arranging the Bible classroom

Nerd Day during Homecoming.

Not Nerd Day, although you'd never know it by looking at my outfit.


Prom.  Actually, Baptist school prom: "Junior Senior Banquet."

Baptist school prom involves eating, not dancing, and scouring every department store in the area for a dress with straps and a back.

Senior trip to Colorado

Senior trip

Ah, high school.   Good memories, but everything that's followed has been better.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

My Afternoon on the Sand

The weather today was perfect so I cleared my afternoon and went to the beach.

It was packed with tourists and tourist groups, but I went to my team's usual spot about a mile down the bike trail and it was relatively quiet.

I just sat there and read, with the strong sun at my back and the cool ocean breeze in front.

Normally there would be nothing blog-worthy about me sitting down with a good book on a beautiful day, but I thought you might want to spy on some beach tourists with me.

I kept hearing periodic little squeals and looked up to see a row of girls standing hand-in-hand in the water, screeching when each tiny new wave hit their ankles.

Here they all cupped their hands and yelled out over the ocean in unison.

There were also plenty of tour groups roaming the beach in their matching tour hats, usually carrying a trowel and plastic pail for collecting stuff.  

This couple set up camp just a few meters away from me.  The girl buried her legs in sand, put her hat on her face, and laid there silently.  The boy used his trowel to dig a giant hole in the sand.  Then they both got up and left.


Monday, May 21, 2012

Double Happiness

Happy Thing #1:  On a whim I decided to invite a class over for a free talk plus food.  It was 4:30.  I had to work in our English library until 5:30.  In the two hours after I rushed out of the library, I unsuccessfully begged for tortillas at two chicken sandwich restaurants, got some groceries including something reasonably tortilla-ish, and prepared tacos for twenty. 

Actually the students helped a lot with the taco prep.

And I didn't feed them any cheese.

But still -- so happy it all got done and we had a fun time eating Western food in my packed apartment.

My assembly line, ready for students to arrive

They're here!

5 pounds of taco meat, lettuce, pico de gallo, ranch dressing and giant thin wrappers

I don't have enough plates so I made them eat with paper towels.  Not easy for your first taco experience.

Happy Thing #2:  Four girls insisted on staying behind and doing all my dishes -- even the dishes from yesterday... and the day before!  Haha.

This is the sort of evening that makes me love my students, love my life, love my teammates (who gave me two packages of taco seasoning), and love my clean counter.

Epilogue:  One of the girls who stayed to do dishes was a girl who had some cool questions she wanted to ask me.   She has been interested in the Word for awhile but I didn't really know it until recently, so Taco Night plus Dish-washing Extravaganza gave us a chance to talk more. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

5 easy ways to improve your communication with internationals

Have you ever experienced a mis-communication with a non-native English speaker?

At the University of Iowa, I lived in Hawkeye Court for three years among graduate students from many nations.  I celebrated Thanksgiving meals around multi-national, multi-cultural, multi-lingual tables.  In those years, I used to dread talking on the phone with international friends; we always seemed to get some part of our plans mixed up.

Then I moved to China, where I'm working on year three.  Have you ever tried explaining to an English learner exactly how you want their course homework to be typed?  Have you tried to accurately convey the subtleties of your desired haircut to a helpful interpreter?  Not easy.

Based on these experiences, I bring you five easy ways to improve your communication with internationals, especially when they are not totally fluent in English.

1)  Simplify your grammar.
Complicated:   "Excuse me, would you mind telling me how to get to the bank?"
Simple:  "Where is the bank?"

2)  Avoid or explain slang.
"If it seems like I'm running late, I'll just give you a ring."  vs.  "If I will be late, I'll call you."

3)  Repeat important points.
If I see a blank stare, I often repeat the same sentence again.  Then I'll repeat the idea yet again in a different way.  At the end of the conversation (or lesson), I will once again repeat my main points.

4)  Check your understanding (and theirs).
"Do you mean _______?"
"Do you remember what time I need to be picked up?"
"We will have our exam at 8:00 a.m in room 202 on Tuesday, right?  8:00 a.m. Tuesday, room 202."

5)  Learn their culture.
     In China, people often say "maybe" when they mean "no."  Or "yes."  Sometimes "no" means "yes" and sometimes "soon" means "never."  No matter how perfect their English, you will not understand one another until you learn each others' cultural rules of communication.
     Sometimes I will ask my students, "Is that a Chinese 'no' or an American 'no'?"  (In other words, are you really not thirsty, or are you just being polite but you really want something to drink?)

So there you have it -- four suggestions you can start implementing today, and a final suggestion that takes a little longer to learn.  Any others I've missed?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Strange Times in China

The news is always strange in China, but in the last month or so it's been weirder than normal.  I wonder how much my Stateside friends have heard about these recent events:

1)  A rising political star was unexpectedly sacked after the police chief of the city he governed made a mysterious run to the U.S. embassy in a nearby city.  A few weeks later it came out that out his wife is being investigated for the murder of a British businessman.  Also unbelievable is the fact that he apparently wire-tapped political rivals, including the president of China.

This is by far the strangest story that has come out during my three years in China, and every new development adds to the strangeness.  (Example: This guy's son apparently is notorious for throwing lavish parties at his university -- Harvard.  The son recently wrote an article in Harvard's school newspaper trying to defend himself from some of the criticism he's gotten for flaunting his family's wealth.)

To imagine how odd this all is, suppose the mayor of New York did something so far off normal that his police chief ran running to another country's embassy for assistance.  Imagine if a major politician's wife allegedly murdered someone in a business deal gone bad.  Imagine a member of a powerful American political family tried to get ahead in American politics by spying on President Obama's phone conversations. 

Someone needs to make a movie about this nonsense.  Here is a short summary by the Economist.

2)  I won't say anything about the second story except that it's extremely sensitive, equally unexpected, and occurred not far from me.  You can read about it here. ***Update here***

3)  This week China has been involved in an escalating sovereignty dispute with the Philippines over some islands in the South China Sea.  This incident has many Chinese calling for war with the Philippines, or at the very least criticizing the Philippines strenuously and at every opportunity.

Recently a student's first question for me at a free talk was what I thought about the Philippines trying to take China's territory.

I don't have a lot of patience for the strident nationalism that rears its head when China has some beef with another country.  This week, the jingoism has been further flamed by a viral video showing a British guy sexually assaulting a Chinese girl in Beijing and then getting beaten up by bystanders.

So that's the current state of affairs in China.  Strange revelations are being made about the inner workings of some of the politics, sensitive things are happening that are being well-reported in the outside media but which most people around here don't know about, and the present sentiment toward Asian rivals and idiot foreigners is none too warm.

If you are particularly interested in China news, you might enjoy the most recent Sinica podcasts, which deal with these and other current events:

Podcast: Interesting Times
Podcast: Stirring up the South China Sea

Friday, May 18, 2012

Classroom Weddings... Video!

I'm excited to share this with you!  I put together a short video with some highlights from our classroom weddings a couple weeks ago.

Most of the clips are from the first wedding, where the "bride" and "groom" really are dating.  They got to know each other this fall when they were assigned to the same cleaning group during sophomore labor week... how romantic.

Some highlights from that wedding:
  • The minister's sweatshirt says "Change One's Mind."
  • I didn't give very clear instructions to the flower girl and ring bearer, so they pop in at unexpected times.
  • Allen tried to get down on one knee during the ring exchange.
  • Shelley made her own veil by cutting up her mosquito net.
  • You'll see the students chanting for a kiss at the end, but I assure you, no kiss occurred!
You'll also see photos from the second two weddings.  In the second class, we have 39 girls and one boy, so the only male role played by a boy was the best man.  Dora's toilet paper dress also fell apart before the wedding even started.  Alas.  Make sure you take a close look at the cake so you can see how it's 75% frosting.

Enjoy the video!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A Perfect Weekend in Beijing

Well everyone, I went to Beijing and now you get to look at a whole lot of photos.  Let's get started!

It began and ended here, as most of my trips to Beijing do.

Day One:  Chilling with Sara and Abigail in Westerner paradise

Beijing has an area called SanLiTun ("The Village") which is near the embassies and a lot of other foreign-folk housing.  This is the place to go if you want Western shopping or food.  In our case, Sara wanted Starbucks and I wanted to go to the Bookworm Bookstore and the Apple store.

We met up with one of Sara's old students, who was the leader of one of our campus fellowships last year.  It was encouraging to hear how faithfully she has been following the Father in her new work and study this year.

Sunny at Sanlitun

Soup dumplings for lunch

Western food, English books, and great conversation at the Bookworm

Our neighborhood:  We stayed at a little hostel in an average Chinese neighborhood.  The hostel was in a hutong, a small alley lined with traditional Beijing style homes.  We enjoyed our fifteen minute walk through real Chinese life every time we went to the subway.

Hutong by our hostel

Looking into a courtyard home

Our hostel

Snack street in the our neighborhood

Our reward for making it to the subway station:  Awesome Chinglish.

Day Two:  Reunited and it feels so good

I have about twenty students from my first year of teaching who are now studying for their masters' degree in Beijing universities.  When I texted Pauline to let her know I'd be in town, she suggested we try to get a group together for a meal.

Then another student texted to invite me to go to an international fair at another campus.  Between the fair and the dinner, I ended up spending all day with these guys -- a real treat.

We saw a Confucius statue on campus and had to take a picture, since we met in the hometown of Confucius

Laughing and eating cherries...

...that Kevin picked from this tree

My girls went back to the Germany booth three times to get a look at this guy, who is apparently hen shuai (very handsome and cool).

The Belgian booth served up waffles and chocolate.  Nice.

The booths with the best food were mobbed, but these three prevailed and got some rice.

Catching up with Wendy and Daisy

We wanted a place to hang out, so we found an empty classroom.  I immediately felt like I was teaching them all over again.

Misbehaving for the camera

It was so fun to catch up with them.  Four of these students are from my first class ever.  They are all from my favorite grade of students, the juniors I taught when I first moved to Qufu.

Dorm visit

A dozen students came for the meal, from universities all around Beijing.  It was a reunion for them as well as for me.  I love this shot of Pauline with her giant menu.

Pretty excited about the fish

The whole group.  Most of them I hadn't seen in a year; some of them I probably won't see again.  It was a really great night.

Amanda bought a book for the students to write memories in.  When I thanked her for it, she wrote me, "When you miss us in America, you can look at the book from your dear students in China.  How sweet we are.  Haha. :)  Loving you, Amanda."

Pauline, my good friend who helped organize our get-together.

Ah, it was such a fun day, and the students I hung out with are all so sweet and easy-going that it didn't feel long at all.  I think there must just be something special about one's first students.  *Happy sigh.*

OK, let's hit Day Three:  Exploring Beijing with Luke

Sara's brother Luke flew into Beijing for his first visit to China, which was the main reason we went.  Most of these photos are from the Temple of Heaven, a place I'd always wanted to visit in Beijing but hadn't yet.

Me, Sara, and Luke at our hostel, ready to head out

Middle-aged dancing in the Temple of Heaven park

Sara and I soaking up the gorgeous greens

Tai Chi in the forest

Middle-aged feather hackey sack

The Temple of Heaven park has a huge exercise area

Middle-aged ball-and-paddle game

Trying to fit in

The Temple of Heaven, where emperors sacrificed animals to pray for a good harvest

Inside the temple

A Chinese park is never complete without an old man on a traditional instrument.  Imagine him in something other than a track suit and you can transport yourself back hundreds of years.

Middle aged ribbon lady and a tour group

Day Four:  A tour to the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall

We closed out our Beijing adventures in the only proper way -- with a visit to the Great Wall of China.  Our tour was long and annoying (kept stopping for mandatory overpriced shopping trips, which cut our time at the Great Wall), but the wall itself never fails to disappoint.

First, a reminder:  Please don't trample this luxurious grassland

At the Ming Tombs:  Tourists threw money where the emperor's coffin once sat

In the Ming Tombs

The Great Wall of China!  It was a foggy day at Mutianyu.

Do we look like invading Mongolians leaping over the wall?  (The correct answer here is yes.)

We stopped at Beijing's Wangfujing snack street after the tour

Luke did not love the crowds.

Wangfujing is a good place for eating crunchy creepers on sticks.

Last meal in Beijing:  Peking roast duck

Roll this baby up for a delightful culinary experience

After four days of fun, we took the night train back to Rizhao.  A few hours later I was back in the classroom.

Between the reunions, the new experiences, the old experiences, and the chance to get away to a city I love,  I'm going to call this trip what it was:  A Perfect Weekend in Beijing.