China Team Journal

Friday, June 28, 2013

First Week of Teaching English in Kunming

Thought for the day:
Use what talent you possess: the woods would be very silent if only the best songbirds were singing.                      
The end of the first week of teaching. The volunteers and their teacher/students are settled into their morning routines as witnessed by the stories of successes and semi-successes heard on our bus back to the hotel and at lunch.

Lunch was also an opportunity to discuss plans for our first free afternoon and our weekend activities. Several weekend activities were planned that will be reported in the weekend journal. For this afternoon, Dixie and Leon offer to lead a walk to some of the nearby Kunming attractions, with a promise to get back to the hotel in time for dinner at six.

Lester, Stella, Kitty and Esther us up on the offer which began with a ride on the 69 bus, westward to Zhengyi Road, which is a pedestrian street leading south through a mixture of old and modern buildings. On the left were stores with familiar western names such as Papa John’s. On the right were the remnants of old Kunming, including a partially restored 300 year old mansion. We hesitantly entered the courtyard and found several young people busy working on computers. One took us under her wing and led us around telling us (through Kitty acting as interpreter) that this building was the only one in the area not damaged by an earthquake and was being prepared as museum to illustrate part of the early history of Kunming. 

The walk continued south to a huge open market with stalls selling anything anyone could ever want or need:

  • living birds, turtles, snakes, scorpions, frogs, puppies, piglets, fish, rabbits, mice, and other creatures which might be used as pets, or eaten.
  • embroidered bags, hats, scarves, blouses, shoes, pants and all varieties of clothing.
  • tools and machines of every kind and description

But you get the idea. Since this particular walking group consisted of committed non-shoppers, we passed through this extensive market relatively quickly and came upon the four story “Bird and Flower” market which is famous for selling almost everything except birds and flowers. Here you will find larger and more expensive items like furniture, ceramics, clothing, etc. However, we were not tempted by wares in this building. We continued south (after a detour to the west toward the Provincial Museum to find a place to cross Dongfeng Road). We made a short stop at a Starbucks (known for their clean, western style bathrooms) and came to the Golden Horse and Jade Rooster Memorial Arches. Continuing south we finally reached the West Pagoda and walked to the East Pagoda past very realistic life-sized bronze statues commemorating the Tea and Horse Road of Yunnan. Then we hailed cabs back to the hotel for dinner. 

After dinner, Mary, Wendy, Lester and Stella went to “Dynamic Yunnan” a spectacular display of the dance and music of the minority peoples of Yunnan

Thursday, June 27, 2013

More Lessons; More Discoveries in Kunming

Thought for the day: It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.  -- Seneca

This saying may be appropriate for some people, but not for our Kunming Global Volunteers, who have dared to bring their culture and life experience to a group of people who are daring in their own way to gain knowledge of a foreign people who insist on saying "ih" instead of "ee" and provide fly swatters to whack on whiteboards.


Thursday began and ended with a gentle rain. We climbed the three, four, or five flights of stairs at the school to reach our classrooms, as usual. The teachers of elementary students that Kitty and I are encouraging to speak -- and to listen -- became talkative for the first time. We passed out menus and fake money and introduced the Restaurant Scenario to four groups of two or three "diners" and a "server" for each group; the pretend dining experience was a great success.

Jim and Mary's class enjoyed a game of Around the World, with a wide range of questions for the person who attempted to answer before each of her opponents could speak up.

The afternoon brought more questions, this time for Esther, whose talk on parenting programs sparked a lot of interest. Jim spoke about a different area of education, presenting a look at the demographics in American schools.

Leon, Dixie, and Nancy scouted out a route to the Bird and Flower Market, observing that more old buildings have been demolished since last year in the busy area that is becoming filled with new shops, including American chains whose names are all too familiar. But the birds and bunnies and bangles still abound in a warren of tiny stalls.

Thursday's meals brought sensory delights, as they have every day. Our bodies were well-fed with no difficulty at all, as we dared to try the continuing variety of unfamiliar foods at the porridge restaurant's buffet and the delicious dishes ordered by our steadfast Wang Baoli.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Good Kind of Busy

Thought for the day: Act as if what you do makes a difference.  It does.

Today was a jam-packed day.  All the teams taught their morning classes.  Mary and I continue to be impressed with the students’ eagerness to do a variety of activities.  Today we played vocabulary games, talked about the lectures that Leon and Lester gave, talked about what makes a good teacher, taught some idioms, and did some song preparation for this afternoon’s activities, among other things.  Today we also got to know a bit more about our students by having them introduce each other.

We came back to the hotel and had another delicious lunch together.  We were then able to rest a bit before heading back to campus for afternoon activities.  Since this year’s group is so large we divided the students in half.  Half the classes listened to Michael’s lecture on “What American Students Study When They Study China and Chinese”.  The other half did songs and dances under Dixie’s and Nancy’s very capable leadership.  After about an hour the students switched sessions. 

We got back to the hotel at 5:00.  Some of us prepped a bit for tomorrow’s classes before going out to dinner.  We went to a nearby restaurant where the specialty is a large fish that is turned inside-out to reveal a fluffy sweet-and-sour treat.  We also had many other dishes.  There was really a lot of food!

We also discussed where to go this weekend with a van that the school has graciously offered to furnish.  If it can be arranged several volunteers will go to Stone Village and Stone Forest on Saturday.  Temporary plans for Sunday are to go back to a hot springs park that some of us went to last year.  It will be a very relaxing way to spend the weekend after our first week of teaching.  It was a busy day.  But it was a good kind of busy!

Monday, June 24, 2013

A Day of Preparations

Thought for the day: “One who knows his destiny does not resent Heaven; one who knows himself does not resent others.” Xunzi

Yesterday morning Janet and I met for the first time the group with whom we will be working for the next two weeks. They are 22 teachers in junior and senior middle schools in Kunming and surrounds, but I think none come from so far way that they are staying here rather than going home at night. I must find out. Most are married; the one young woman who admitted to being single did so with some degree of embarrassment, I thought, and she did mention having a dog. Most are married with a child, though one woman said her family had five members: her husband, herself, a dog, and two fish. One young woman had lived in Cincinnati for six months on some sort of exchange program. She wants to return. Not surprisingly her English is pretty good, but somewhat rusty, I think. In the group is a math teacher who occasionally teaches English. She seems quite shy, which no doubt is due to insecurity. Another young woman, when introducing her partner, Daisy, ran to the front of the class and led us in cheers—“Daisy, Daisy, DAISY!” She speaks Chinese, English, and Thai.

And then there is Helen, whose family name is Yang. Yesterday she gave as one of her goals for our class “Love stories.” Today she told us that she is a little bit plump and a little bit beautiful, so her students call her Teacher Gui Fei. Yang Gui Fei was the beautiful consort of Tang emperor Xuanzong who so distracted him that he lost control of the empire. Now there is a love story. And after Lester finished his lecture this afternoon she asked him, “How did you meet your wife?” She can smell a love story from a mile away.

Finally, even though I know I am notoriously bad at judging the ages of Chinese, I was still very surprised when I learned one teacher had been teaching for 28 years and another for 31 years. Reflecting on them after class at first I felt quite presumptuous to be talking about teaching methods, demonstrating teaching methods, holding forth on teaching methods in the presence of these two who had clearly survived what are to me the difficult conditions of Chinese classrooms. But further reflection led me to a couple of ameliorating thoughts. First, we can have a conversation about teaching. Second, that conversation can go on in English. As long as I don’t pretend to know more than they, for surely I don’t, we’ll be okay. I remember Chaucer’s line about the clerk of Oxford: “And gladly would he teach, and gladly learn.” No doubt I will learn a lot from them.

Chaucer’s line led me further, led me to a possible answer to the questions, “Why do you people return to China to teach over and over again? And to the same city, over and over again? And pay for the privilege, over and over again?” Well, teaching is fun, sure enough—cheering for Daisy was a kick— but of course it’s also hard work. So perhaps it’s the other half of the line—“gladly learn”—that might prove fruitful. Do we learn from what we do here? When I say something really stupid in front of my grandchildren they respond with a mournfully derisive, “Oh, Bapa.” I can hear them now as I repeat, “Do we learn from what we do here?” “Oh, Bapa.” Stupid question.

So it’s not do we learn but what do we learn? There’s a Chinese word - guanxi - which means connection or relationship. It’s a very important word in Chinese culture, since relationships of all sorts are very important. For example, the Chinese system of kinship terms is much more elaborate than the English-language system. That is to say, familial relationships are spelled out in much finer detail. I suspect that what we learn here, or what we form here, are relationships—with fellow volunteers, with Global Volunteer staff, with the hotel staff, with the locality, with the country and its culture, and especially with our students. These relationships, I suggest, are what draw us back over and over again. Or, to put it in Teacher Gui Fei’s terms, it’s a love story between China and us.
- Michael

Sunday, June 23, 2013

China Volunteer Team Gets Organized

Thought for the day:  "If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it." Margaret Fuller.

Esther started us off with words of inspiration and a thorough recap of Sunday's orientation.

Our team of 12 has been paired up into 6 teaching teams, each containing a Kunming program veteran and a newby.  We all arrived at breakfast Monday morning, eager and maybe a little anxious about meeting our students.

After being whisked to the campus in the luxury of a roomy bus, we climbed the 4 flights of stairs to the large classroom where we were greeted by the Vice Dean of the Continuing Education program, introduced ourselves to the assembled students, grabbed our gear and headed out to our classrooms.  Two hours later...tired but heartened, we climbed back on to the bus.

During discussion over another delicious lunch, we all expressed pleasure at the skill level and enthusiasm of our students.  Baoli updated us on Tuesday's plans, particularly relating to the problem of choosing and scheduling the afternoon presentations.  We all headed off to prep for tomorrow's classes and to meet up later with Dixie to practice for Wednesday's singing and games.

In our afternoon practice session, Esther briefed us on several games we can have our students learn, and Dixie assured we lost all dignity and inhibitions by running us through a series of "active" games and folk dances. Who knew it was so hard to count and clap your hands at the same time?  At least we provided entertainment for the young waitress who watched us with bemused incredulity.

Dinner was again delicious, and included such delicious mysteries as Chinese toon (aka Chinese mahogany leaf), and it was followed by the resolution of the presentation scheduling issue:  Leon and Lester will discuss the pincer movement of immigration to the US across the Atlantic and the Pacific on 6/25; Michael will discuss US education on China twice on 6/26, alternating with the singing and dancing activity; Esther and Jim will cover US education topics on 6/27; and Mary and Wendy will give a combined presentation on Native Americans, followed by Nancy's discussing her family  history on 7/3.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

China Team #208 Begins Work in Kunming

"I am only one, but still I am one.  I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.  And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do."
                                                                        Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909)
                                                                        Author, Historian, Clergyman

Global Volunteers China Team #208 began its two-week program in Kunming at Saturday night’s dinner where, besides eating the first of many Chinese feasts to come, we played Global Volunteers’ “name game.”  On Sunday morning we all convened in the hotel’s 20th floor conference room for an orientation, ably presented by our country manager, Wang Baoli.

We began with introductions. Our team consists of a diverse group of 12 of largely Californians. 

Kitty is a retired college professor of English literature, linguistics and ESL.  She is originally from China and actually lived in Kunming as a toddler during the Sino-Japanese War. This is her first experience with Global Volunteers.

Michael and Janet are retired public school teachers who live in Oakland’s Chinatown.  Janet has switched her traveling allegiance from England to China. The two of them have taken some 18 trips to China.  This is their seventh Global Volunteers team in China.  They have also served in Vietnam.

Nancy is a fourth generation Californian.  Her careers have included cattle ranching, computer work and video production.  Music is now her avocation.  This is her fifth team in Kunming.

Nancy and Esther in the classroom on a previous service program.

Wendy is on her fifth Global Volunteers program, having served in other locations in China and in Vietnam.  She is an instructional designer of e-courses. 

Lester and Stella are also first-time Global Volunteers.  They only count partially as Californians because they split their time there with Maryland.  Lester, an engineer, immigrated to the US as a child from Hong Kong.  Stella was raised in Korea and became a nurse.  She worked in Bahrain and Saudia Arabia.  On a vacation in Europe, she re-connected with Lester and they eventually married.  Talk about a long-distance romance!

Now for those of us not from California:

Jim taught French, Spanish and ESL for 34 years in the Milwaukee Public Schools.  He now teaches new teachers best practices at the University of Wisconsin.  This is Jim’s fifth Global Volunteer program in Kunming.  He’s also served on Hainan Island and in Portugal.

Mary, a friend of Wendy’s, grew up in Texas, but spent 22 winters exiled to Albany, New York.  Now she’s retired and has returned to Austin, Texas.  She travels regularly to France and has served with Global Volunteers previously in Xian and Vietnam.

Leon and Dixie are New Yorkers, although Dixie has that California connection because she was raised there with her sister Nancy.  They served in Xian once and are returning to Kunming for the sixth time.  Leon is happy to help with mechanical things like computers and hotel windows.  We will all enjoy Dixie’s talent in music and dance.

Esther and her "teacher-students" on an earlier service program.

Now, who have I left out?  Oh!  Me, of course!  I’m Esther and I live in Minneapolis where I teach parent education.  This is my fourth time in Kunming and I served in Greece as well.

Our introductions having taken at least two to three times the allotted time, Baoli plowed ahead with an overview of the Global Volunteers’ China program, a review of Global Volunteers’ philosophy and the 12 essential services.  We set goals, a process that provided us more information about each other’s personalities. 

Wang Baoli, Country Manager

Baoli asked for help in several areas.  Leon and Esther will share duties as journal managers.  Stella, our experienced nurse, will handle health and safety.  We decided, rather than burdening one person with coordination of free time, that we would have a discussion over dinner where those who have been in Kunming before would share ideas for touring and activities.

After some explanation of Global Volunteers policies and health and safety measures, we arrived at the meat of the matter – the teaching project.  There will be approximately 90 teachers, four sections of elementary school teachers, one of middle school teachers, and one of kindergarten teachers.  Baoli assigned teaching pairs: Nancy and Kitty, Leon and Lester, Janet and Michael, Dixie and Stella, Mary and Jim, Wendy and Esther.

Our afternoon was our own.  Each teaching pair spent some time in preparation.  Several people took a stroll on the canal.  A teacher from Esther’s group last year happened to drive by and spot the group – a nice surprise and rather astonishing in a city of many million.

A delicious dinner was followed by more details of the days to come.  I am sure I can speak for all of us that we look forward to tomorrow when we will meet our students and begin our project in earnest.