« February 2004 | Main | April 2004 »

March 28, 2004

The Pied Piper of Xue Tian Nan Yuan

As the weather warms, more Nantong ren (Nantong people) are outside, including in our neighborhood.

Our apartment development is called Xue Tian Nan Yuan, which more or less means Study Field South Garden. Today, I got my first haircut in China. (Actually, my first since I've moved here. Jim Kaplan will be happy to tell a funny story at my expense about my previous one.) I think I got ripped off, because the hair stylist told me the price was 10 yuan on my way in, but the boss collected 20 on my way out. When I complained, she said something I didn't understand, so I just went on my way. The haircut was good, but I'll probably try another barbershop next time. In China, as increasingly in the U.S., all barber shops appear to be unisex.

On my short walk home (this and half a dozen other barber shops are within a 5-minute walk from our apartment), a mother (Cheng Meijun) and her teenage son (Feng Jui) struck up a conversation with me. Then, a woman (Zhou Meirong) who runs a little cigarette, newspaper, and drink shop out of a garage in the building across from ours joined in, along with her daughter (Jing Wen) and niece (Zhou Chenxi). Jing Wen is 14, and Zhou Chenxi is about 10. Both parents hoped I would help their children study English.

Feng Jun's English is already a little better than my Chinese. He and his mother invited me to their apartment for a visit, and she insisted on cooking me an excellent vegetarian lunch. We chatted a little, and I played a game of xiangxi with the boy. (Close, but he won.) Incredibly, as a middle school student, he leaves for school at 7:00 am and returns home at 8:00 pm. I agreed to spend some time with him every Sunday afternoon.

Next, I returned to the outdoor bench in front of Zhou Meirong's little shop and spent the next hour and a half chatting with her, her daughter and niece, and several other relatives and friends who dropped by. Near the end, her nephew (Zhou Yuan) came home. Zhou Yuan, who has an American name -- Kevin -- speaks excellent English and is a second-year student at a college near Terry's. He accompanied the girls for a visit to my apartment, because I could see that the older one was a little nervous. I agreed to spend a little time on Sundays with Jing Wen and Zhou Chenxi. Eventually, I will try to merge them into a single "class" with Fen Jun. Although we don't have exactly common interests, I learn from speaking in Chinese with these youngsters. (The girls speak very little English.) Also, it gives me an opportunity to get better acquainted with their parents.

Life in Nantong is fun. It is really a great experience to be making local friends and improving my Chinese at the same time.

Posted by now at 07:33 AM

March 14, 2004

Making New Friends

Terry and I lived a relatively quiet, private lifestyle in the United States, and that has not changed in China.

We are spending more time together, because Terry is working only about half time, because (I have to admit) she is doing most of the housework, and because I am not studying 3 hours every evening. We had several friends in China before we came, but none in Nantong. These include a couple of Americans living in China as well as Chinese people I have gotten to know well over the years through business and school. These friends live in Shanghai, Nanjing, Beijing, Wuhan, and Zhengzhou. So far, we have gone only to Shanghai and Nanjing; the other cities require long trips from Nantong. For me at least, this situation is similar to living in the U.S., where most of my closest friends live elsewhere than Kansas City and I see them only occasionally. Our family, of course, is more distant now. We look forward to seeing them all this summer, and Paul and his girlfriend are planning a visit to China.

In Nantong, we are gradually making friends. Some are casual, like Xu Jianpeng, whose wife owns a hardware store that I found between my office and our apartment. He is helping her for a couple of months, while he waits to return to sea as a merchant seaman. In his spare time on the ship, he studies English and is glad to have someone to practice with. I first meant him when I bought a new adjustable shower head, so that we could use the shower in our apartment, even with its low water pressure. Now, whenever I need anything, if he doesn’t have it, he tells me to “come back tomorrow, and I’ll have it for you.” Since I usually walk home (the 5:30 bus is overcrowded with school children), I often just stop to chat, in both English and Chinese. Terry and I are also casually friendly with the three young people who work for me in Nantong. I take them to lunch every Monday, and we had them all over to our apartment for dinner one evening. They jokingly complain that I have three Chinese teachers while they have only one English teacher. In reality, though, we have to speak English most of the time at work, or our pace would slow to a crawl.

Terry has met several other American expatriates. She started by getting to know Antonia, a young British woman and one of the other foreign English teachers at Terry’s college. Antonia provided several other introductions, including to a woman from Indiana whose husband has a job similar to mine. (Well, not entirely similar. They live in a two-story apartment with a maid and have two drivers assigned to them full time.) Their names are Angie and Bernie, and we had dinner with them one night last week at a Japanese restaurant. Terry and I also met a friendly guy named Willie Hsung on our last bus trip to Shanghai. Willie is an American who emigrated from Taiwan in the 1970s and is on a high-tech consulting assignment in Nantong. We had lunch together this past week and learned that we are both vegetarians. Willie also is living an upscale lifestyle; he drives a car (I should say dangerous, as well as upscale).

I made my two best new friends riding the bus to and from work. Gwen (Tao Hong) at work jokingly calls them my girlfriends and warns me that Terry will be jealous. Zhou Mengying is a petite, bubbly 13-year-old who was the first of what are now many school children to approach me with a cautious “hello.” When we catch the same bus, she insists that I get on first, so I won’t be left behind by the pushing crowd. Her spoken English is limited to a few words, so we mostly talk in Chinese. One day I gave her my business card, and a day or two later she shocked my colleagues by coming to my office after 5:00 for a walk together to the bus stop. Although she was obviously nervous and brought a friend along for moral support, I was impressed by the courage she displayed. It turns out that Mengying lives with her grandparents in the building next to ours. (This situation seems to be somewhat common, with parents living, and working long hours, away from the central city.) That same day, she came to our apartment, this time with her young cousin and still a little nervous. I was worried about what her family might think, so I asked whether I could meet one of her parents over the weekend. That Saturday, she brought her father and a bilingual fomer teacher for a visit. Now, Terry and I have Mengying over for dinner every Tuesday evening. After dinner, she and I study English and Chinese until we are tired of it. As the weather gets nicer and the days get longer, I am sure we can find some outdoor recreation, too. In the meantime, we still meet and chat several mornings per week at the bus stop. In fact, I often hear the clop-clop of little feet running to catch up with me as I walk several hundred meters to the bus stop. A photo of Mengying and me studying will go up on our Photo Gallery this week.

My other new “girlfriend” is Chen Xiaoqin, a dentist. I first met Chen Yisheng (Dr. Chen) at the bus stop on my way home. She lives in the same neighborhood as Mengying and I and, like Mengying’s school, her hospital is downtown and close to my office. She is my age and studied English for several years in middle school, before the Cultural Revolution. With little opportunity to practice, though, she has forgotten most of what she learned. So, as with Mengying, most of our conversation is in Chinese. Actually, this situation is a great motivator for me, but my progress is slower than I wish were the case. (For the past two months, I have been overwhelmed by some startup problems at work, which now seem to be under control. This weekend, I revised a journal article for publication. Also, I have used what spare time I had to type my theoretical vocabulary of almost 1500 characters from various sources into a single spreadsheet Now, I have no excuse not to study 1-2 hours each evening.) Last week, I invited Chen Yisheng to lunch, with Gwen coming along to interpret so we could exchange more information and Terry coming so that my motives would not be suspect. Alas, Terry had a last minute “kai hui” (meeting), so I brought a photo and a note of apology from her. Chen Yisheng is going to invite us to her apartment for dinner one evening and give Terry (and me) some pointers on Chinese cooking. One interesting thing we discovered during our lunch conversation is that she was probably the doctor who administered my EKG test when I had my medical exam in Nantong last February. (Though trained as a dentist, she was the heart doctor at the foreigners' clinic at that time.)

In sum, no need for anyone reading this weblog to worry that we are isolated and lonely (although we do miss YOU, of course). -- Norty

Posted by now at 03:40 AM

March 11, 2004

Teaching in China and our trip to Nanjing

Hi, everyone! Norty and I are still doing fine, although we'll be very glad when spring is really here.

The weather is warming up now – we’re in a pattern of a few increasingly warm days, then one very warm day, then a cold front with rain and much cooler temperatures, and then it starts over. But each time the very warm day is warmer than the one before. A good sign!

I am now fully engaged in teaching at the Nantong Institute of Technology. I have 6 student classes (3 freshman classes and 3 sophomore classes) and 2 classes for teachers outside the English department. Two of my student classes are what they call "key" classes. The students in these classes are those who scored very high on their entrance exams in English. These classes are great fun. The students love me, and I really enjoy teaching them because these kids are very motivated and they work hard. I have had so many students ask to transfer into these key classes that I now have a waiting list! On the other hand, I have a couple of classes that students were transferring out of as fast as they could at the beginning. These classes mostly have students in the more vocational programs, like textile design. I'm sure the kids are smart and creative, but there were a lot of them who just weren’t very interested in learning English. I think having the less-motivated students drop has improved the classes a great deal. The biggest problem I have is that the classes are just huge - 50-60 students each! It’s really hard to get to know more than a handful of kids in each class, especially because I find Chinese names very hard to remember.

My teachers' classes are much smaller – they started out with about 20 teachers in each - but there was so much variation in the teachers' English skills that it was hard to plan lessons at first. However, there are been some shakeout in those classes, too, and now I’m down to 12 teachers in each class. Oddly enough, the teachers who stayed are the ones with the best AND the worst English – it’s the ones with average skills who dropped out! This has given me the chance to use the ones with the best English to help teach the others, which is working like a charm, and a great time is being had by all!

The students in my key classes have invited me to give a lecture to the English Union (sort of an English honor society) this coming Monday night. They told me there would be about 300 students in attendance, and they want me to talk for an hour on the differences between the US and China! I’m really looking forward to doing this, but it’s going to be a lot of work this weekend to prepare. Fortunately, they have an LCD projector, so I can show PowerPoint slides.

We're really having a great time here. I think the secret to living in such a different culture is just to relax and take things as they come.
We're doing a fair amount of traveling. We’ve been to Nanjing once and to Shanghai three times. We’re planning to take a cruise on the Yangtze River during the May holiday, either starting or ending in Wuhan where our friend Jonathan lives.

Our trip to Nanjing was fascinating. The weirdest thing was discovering that there’s a Wal-Mart there! Aside from the fact that nearly everyone in the store was Chinese, it looked pretty much like a Wal-Mart anywhere: the same greeters at the door, the same announcements of special offers (in English and Chinese), and the same familiar, tacky ambience. But it did give us a chance to buy some Western-style bread, which we have really missed. The Chinese do like bread, but they like it really white and soft and sweet – like Wonder Bread with extra sugar. Yuck! The second day we were there, we went sightseeing. We had planned to go to the memorial to the victims of the Japanese massacre, but it was pouring rain, so we went to the museum instead. The museum was terrific, with fascinating exhibits on the making of silk brocade, silk embroidery, jade carving, the history of Chinese porcelain and lacquer ware, and a whole bunch of other things. Your mouth would just drop open if you could see the unbelievably intricate woodcarving they do here! At the entrance to the museum, there is a huge (maybe 8 feet in diameter) round wooden thing that is completely covered on both sides with scenes from the life and times of some emperor or other. The human figures are about an inch high, so that should give you some idea of how much carving was involved. If you look closely, you can even see the expressions on the faces. It's really extraordinary!
We miss you all. Love, Terry

Posted by now at 06:35 PM