China Team Journal

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Team 154 - Oct 9, 10

Tuesday 9 October, 2007 (Entry One)

It’s day two of our teaching experience, and already the five volunteers at the Biomedical Technical College are settling into a routine—or at least a semi-one. We’re picked up by Julia Dong, director of the Foreign Affairs Office at the college, and a driver precariously weaves through traffic for a 40-minute, sometimes scary drive to school. Clearly, driving in China is like playing a game of chicken, and our driver never winces.
The school, which opened in 2003, is a vocational one with 15 specialties such as nursing, health information, nutrition, Chinese herbs, counseling, even selling medical equipment. The 3,900 students at the college hope to get jobs in the field, and having good English skills will enhance their careers, the president told us when he greeted us on the first day.
That day’s students were freshmen, with English skills at the intermediate level. Their enthusiasm, however, was at the highest level. During a break, a charming and out-going girl pulled up a stool near where I was standing and said, “Let’s talk!” She didn’t want to miss a minute of this experience.
While we’ll have the same students again next Monday and Tuesday (and nursing students each Wednesday-Friday), today’s recruits were 14-16 year olds bused in from a secondary school. School children now start to learn English in the third grade, but these students missed on this earlier experience. For most, their English skills are poor and confidence in speaking it quite low. Initially, only a few students shyly but willingly responded to answering questions such as “what do you like to do.” A round of head-shoulders-knees- toes loosened them up, and by the end of the morning every student was responding actively to questions. One of the shyest asked me what I liked about China. The session ended with three vigorous rounds of Hokey Pokey. For most, if not all, of these students, this was the first time that they met an English-speaking person. And it was the first time for them—and even Swallow, an English teacher from the college—to do the Hokey Pokey.
For the shop-to-you-drop crowd and a change of pace, the Global Volunteers team went out on two disparate excursions: one to the Jade Factory, the other to Vanguard, a Costco-type store. At Vanguard, Baoli led our group through an array of fruits, vegetables, bread products, teas, rice, spices and more. A sample of a huge but odd-shaped grapefruit was delicious. There are many similarities to a U.S. grocery store, but two differences stand out: the turtle and frog in the fresh fish section.

Thought for the day: If Global Volunteers provide the water for students to swim in, then there’s no need for it to rain so much this week.

Jane Stein

Tuesday 9 October, 2007 (Entry Two)

We started the day being treated to journal readings by Gladys and Leon. What a nice custom to have every-morning centering reflections like these on what we are doing here. Yes, even though I have done this once before, getting into the GV grove takes some work, patience and letting go of my more customary feelings of self-importance. And fun and laughter: thanks Rich for another humor moment.

Although we are only on the early stage of our assignment, I watch with some awe the skillful, deft and loving touch of both Hu Di and Wang Baoli as they lead us forward, teach us, and with unfailingly good humor untangle here-and-there problems. Among others, I know reordering the work hours of several team members was much appreciated.

Yes, we are settling in. We’ve learned how to keep the elevator door from mashing us; our first loads of laundry have come back, and we’ve just about finalized our plans on how to keep warm without building heat.

But I think more importantly, we have the beginnings of new friends and a team—in fact with many small teams. We also have a growing sense that what we are starting to do with our various students really can make some sort of difference although the dimensions of that are probably still a little mysterious. And genuine fun and engagement with our students has mostly replaced an uncountable number of fears.

But that doesn’t mean that all is well on the front lines. Just ask the Muriel-(birthday-boy) Lee-and-Kurt team that yesterday started working with freshman university pre-law students. Yes, we were told that their English was rather poor and we would have a translator. Yes, we planned out what we thought were some simple discussion points of probable interest to them. But as it turned out, our translator translated very little of what we said. (We by the way asked her to use her judgment as to how much to translate.) And in any event our talks were way too lofty. The result was that the translator told us afterwards they understood very little of what we said!

Hey, with our Monday-developed confidence working with regular English-major university students we used the 10-minute break before our next pre-law class to regroup. We asked the same translator to essentially do simultaneous translation and we aimed our discussions even closer to the ground. This next class turned out to be we think a wonderful success with enthusiastic discussions with our students about how legally to deal with an auto accident; write a business contract; and settle child custody issues in a divorce among other things—in I should say both the U.S. and China! I guess we’ll leave for some other time all the wonderful aspects of the U.S. Constitution and other lofty things.

Since I have a feeling that Jane will share with you in more detail our visit to the grocery store, I will just say that I was very pleased with Pat’s and my purchase of four cookies for less than 3 Yuan. They’re all gone! Rumor has it that the jade shop helped reduce the net worth of some of our team.

Just before dinner we meet with a local travel agent and reviewed possible trips for the weekend. My digital will be charged.

And the highlight at dinner was a surprise birthday party for Lee who had a big smile on his face as Wu Di lit a fabulous birthday firecracker in celebration. I had a big smile on my face as I ate a large slice of his birthday cake.

My thought for the day is the hope that the spirit of humility will guide us all here in what we do.

Kurt Steele

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Well, we’ve completed Wednesday—our third day of classes!
By now we’ve settled in. We’re used to the rain—sort of. We’re used to the commute. For those of you who ride an hour each way, our commute is a 15-minute stroll through downtown Xi’an—a chance to watch yams being roasted over coal, bicycles being repaired, and taxis trying to run us down.

The three of us—Corrie, June and Pat—don our rain gear and set out for La La Shou Special Education School. The school is an amazing place. It was founded in 2002 by two remarkable women, who decided that their handicapped youngsters were not going to be served by anything available in Xi’an. They planned a program, gathered some other mothers, lined up a place, and began working with their students. Eventually they were trained as teachers and licensed by the government—but not funded. So with great perseverance they found donors—foundations, corporations and individual givers—and built their program.

They have moved three times in five years, and are now housed in two upper floors of a small commercial building, over a tea distributor. They have a staff of 35 teachers, plus numerous volunteers and parents, and serve more than 60 kids. The youngsters range in age from 3 to 17 and exhibit a wide variety of mentally handicapping conditions---autism, Downs’ syndrome and cerebral palsy among others. The children are divided into three programs, primarily by age.

My assignment is a 13 year old girl with cerebral palsy. Zhu Cao is one of the better students. She knows 200 Chinese characters as well as her numbers, can read and do math at a basic level, and even knows a little English. But life skills are a challenge for her—dressing, eating, bathing, or anything physical.

We spend most of the morning with her class of 6 children between 9 and 14, usually with 1 or 2 teachers. Among the kids are an autistic boy, one Downs child, a couple of nonverbal youngsters, a big and very friendly teenage boy, and my tiny little girl. The teachers are fabulous—we do reading, math, Chinese script, poetry, music and gym. Like many of the kids, I do best in gym class—I’m a whiz at marching, cheering with pompons and learning simple folk dance movements. I have more trouble with the reading and math, but I’m proud to report I can now count to 100 in Chinese!

After gym class, we watch a Winnie the Pooh cartoon and I teach the kids the English words for Winnie, Tigger and Piglet. Then it’s off to physical therapy, the most challenging part of our day. PT is very hard—Zhu Cao is expected to do 100 deep knee bends, 50 sit-ups and time on a bicycle. She doesn’t much like it—and I suspect she doesn’t much like me either. Who is this foreign stranger who keeps making her do these rotten things?

But I’m learning to give her space when she is a bit afraid of me, and I’m bonding with some of the other children. All in all it’s an amazing experience, and the morning goes by quickly. I’ve learned so much about the skill, patience and dedication of the parents and teachers, the determination and energy of the children and the courage of all involved in the school.

Then it’s off to lunch, followed by a trip to the wonderful Chinese history museum with Jane and Bob Stein. I’m ready for a quiz on Chinese dynasties over the Hot Pot dinner. But first—a nap!

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: From our orientation at the school,


Pat Steele

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Team 154 CHI0710A1 Oct, 6-8

October 6-7, 2007

By Saturday morning, 6 October the 10 or so’ early birds had arrived at this old Western Capital of China. We met for breakfast with Hu Di and Wang Baoli our team leaders and were given a modest advanced briefing of things to come---mainly a dinner with, we hoped, the full complement of Volunteers at 6:00 that evening.

And so dinner came and 28 of the total of 29 volunteers were there, many weary with long hours of travel coupled with up to 12 hours of jet lag. Yet, the camaraderie was sensed as people talked, relaxed, and asked questions about the soon to be future. Most were new to Global Volunteers and mild apprehension was apparent. But one of our leaders, Hu Di, put an end to such prattle by having each of us give a brief synopsis of who we are, and why we have come to Xi’an. The evening ended after all 30 bios were given and the tired masses retired for the night.

Sunday, October 7th brought us the long 12-1/2 hour day of orientation and final preparations. Hu Di spent the morning telling us the history of Global Volunteers’ 10+ years in China; reviewed the guiding philosophy as well as the operating in-country policies of Global Volunteers; and with the synergistic participation of all volunteers developed the 6 goals and the 23, yes 23 characteristics of an effective team.

At 3 p.m., after introductions, speeches, comments, entertainment, and a group photograph, the long awaited meeting of the teachers and the school assignments were at hand. Huddled in corners, fears were assuaged; smiles arose---this was going to work.

Thought for the Day

This thought is from part of an email I received from a former student, here in Xi’an.
I quote, “The autumn comes—so may you have a cool autumn—take care your health─living a warm cozy family life─eating fresh vegetables and food─taking some exercises─traveling some beautiful places─sleeping sweet sleep─that’s a happy life.”

By John Nordling

Monday 8 October, 2007

Our first real work day began at 7 AM with breakfast and a joke (which would not be appropriate to repeat in this family publication) by our resident stand-up comedian, Rich. John, our old China hand, then read his journal entry for Saturday and Sunday and thereby provided a model for the rest of us to aspire to. Precisely at 7:20
our Team Leader Hu Di (She who must be obeyed) gave us our orders for
the day which can be summarized as so forth and do everything I told you to do yesterday and make sure you don’t do anything I told you not to do.

Our team started leaving from the hotel for its six assignment locations at 8 AM. My group of six was assigned to the Xi’an University of Science and Technology. Upon our arrival at the University, we were ushered into a Board Room with a large rectangular table with just enough room for the six of us on one of the long sides. In the middle of the opposite side was the President of the school flanked (at a respectful distance) on one side by a Vice-President and on the other by an official whose title I did not catch. At one end was Alan, the English teacher we had met Sunday afternoon; at the other was Miao, another English teacher who said to call her Miao Miao. Alan and Miao Miao acted as interpreters.

The meeting began with the obligatory cup of tea and a welcome from the President who informed us that the University was divided into twelve colleges. Ours serves 3,500 students in thirteen specialties, mainly in various branches of electronics. After the meeting we were given a tour of several of the shops and laboratories. One shop contained standard metalworking lathes and other modern computer-controlled milling machines.

Finally, at around 10 AM, we got to meet our students and the fun began. I was assigned to a group of 11 students, nine boys and two girls, all about 17 years old and studying numerically-controlled machines. They were eager, bright and, after some encouragement, not at all shy. We each told our life stories and, in every case, something came up that was a take-off point for learning a new word or phrase or a chance to work on some fine point of pronunciation.
After a lot of laughter and what felt like the passage of only ten minutes, our hour and a half was up and it was time for us volunteers to go back to our hotel for lunch. I eagerly anticipate our next meeting tomorrow morning when we will have our next encounters with these marvelous students.

After lunch, a large group of volunteers walked to the Global Volunteer office with Hu Di and Bao Li. The office contains lots of teaching materials and books. I found it amazing that all the detailed planning and preparation for the extensive program in China could come out of such a small space with a staff of only two. Faced with about two empty hours with nothing scheduled, Dixie and I walked 15 minutes to a store called Vanguard, a three story megastore something like a Costco. We bought some batteries, (10 Duracell AA batteries for 23.80 Wan - about 32 each - very cheap), snacks and juice.

Back to work at 5 PM for a Chinese language lesson given by Hu Di. There are about 50,000 characters in Chinese, but we were assured that only the 1,500 most common characters are required to read a newspaper. It was also made clear that each character can have several meanings depending on context, and that each spoken word can be represented by several different characters, depending on meaning. With this encouraging overview, we began our serious study of the Chinese language. Hu Di showed us hand gestures that go with numbers, to use in bargaining when we shop in China. By the end of the hour I can say with full confidence that all who attended had mastered a portion of the Chinese language: we were fluent speakers of the Chinese words, Hello and Thank you. That leaves only 1,498 words to go, but we still have two weeks in which to do it.

Thought for the day:
The only way to avoid mistakes when speaking a language (your own or another) is to never speak.

Respectfully submitted,
Leon Ablon