Star Anise, Congee and the Hidden Teacher

Today is Thursday and I’ll be back in the States in a week. That’s a good thing and a bad thing. Good thing because I miss my family very much and a bad thing because I’m going to miss the host family and the kids at school very much too.

Yesterday was almost uneventful at school.  It took me a while to find out why the kids  were so very quiet and reserved in the beginning.  It was as if I had become a fearsome authority figure overnight. Perhaps I was wearing some culturally frightening new piece of clothing?   Everybody sat straight in their seats and the usual din of repetition was more…military.    After about 15-20 minutes into the lesson I slid between the desks to the back of the room – just to keep everybody on their toes.  Noticed a new girl sitting way in the back.  Looked older than the rest.  Aha! It was their usual teacher, small but mighty.  She was not repeating after me, but she was watching every movement like a cat in a room of 47 mice. She left the classroom  in the last few minutes and the student’s relief was noticeable.

I arrived at the school early yesterday to find two black cars with tinted windows parked way down the muddy lane were cars usually don’t go.   Didn’t think much of it.  When I came into the courtyard, there were 4 or 5 relatively well dressed younger people (mid-20′s to mid-30′s) speaking with Director Wang.   One of the men came right up to me and asked in passable English, “Are you the foreign volunteer?”.  I said I was.  “I am a volunteer too”, he said.  “The children tell me they like you very much.”  I thanked him and asked if he would be working as a volunteer at the school too.  He said that he would not, but that the had wanted to meet me.  There was no further explanation.   By this time, my class was starting (the nice quiet one mentioned above) and I went in.  One of the other guys in the black car group took pictures of me in ‘friendly interaction’ with the kids though the  windows.  Then they were gone.    I found out today that these were people from the local Communist Party headquarters and that yesterday, they had promised to send volunteers to help at the school as well.   That’s a good thing.  The school has been there for a few years, I hear, and it is good that more local help is on it’s way.

Today, Director Wang as well as two grad students from the University of International Studies (am not sure if that is the official English title) took me to lunch.  Tomorrow is the last time I will see Director Wang as he is going home to Henan Province for the Qing Ming Festival next week.  Qing Ming is known in English as Grave Sweeping Day, which sounds pretty somber, but it’s not.  Think ‘Memorial Day’.  If I understood correctly, there was a death in Director Wang’s family in the not-too-distant past and he wanted to go home.   The lunch was down the street from the school, in the second floor of a newer brick building and was, if not ‘world class’, clean and nicely appointed.  We sat in a separee around  a table that was made for at least 10.  The menu came to me.  Great.  This is Chinese etiquette.  The guest gets to choose.  I pleaded ignorance.  I was told, “no problem – just look at the pictures”.  Well, the pictures all looked like Chinese food I had never seen before and unfortunately, the menu was not graced with pictures of happy chickens, cows and pigs like menus are in Kansas City so that you know what you are hopefully getting.  I can read enough Chinese for sure, but names of many dishes totally belie what they really are.  Example:  You order the “Garden Chicken” and you know what you will get?  For those of you who guessed bullfrog, you are correct.   So after much humble pleading on my part, Director Wang ordered…..and did he ever order.  Only question asked was, “can you eat spicy food?”   I definitely can.   In all, we had 8 dishes: tofu noodles (cold), chicken that looked curried, but was just really yellow, chicken with hot green peppers, a whole carp, chicken with potatoes and peppers in a red sauce over noodles, thinly sliced cold beef tongue, long, and dark dried mushrooms with peppers.  No rice, of course.  It was all exceedingly delicious.  Really.  So far, I feel just fine.  Well, except for a little headache.  We also enjoyed a (large) bottle of rather warm beer with the salty, spicy food.  It tasted good too,  even warm. After lots of food and several toasts, it was time to go and teach the class…oh boy… and a half hours of class….oh boy again.  I am sure that none of the kids noticed my beer breath.  The odor of the school room takes care of that.  But they did tell me that I looked tired and hot.  They were correct. I was really tired and already these small rooms bursting with bodies are very, very warm.  As I mentioned before, I have no clue how this must be in the hot Beijing summers.

My host family - particularly the grandmother of Ms Jin – has been feeding me as if I were a starved stray cat….which I am not…I’m actually trying to get my weight down a bit.  But nothing doing.  Every meal is prepared from scratch and nothing goes to waste ever.  I have not eaten one thing here that would not go into the ‘scrumptious’ category.  Mornings it’s flat sesame breads, steamed Chinese buns, tofu and mushroom soups, fermented red tofu (my absolute favorite), congee….the list goes on and on.  I have eaten nothing here that I have ever seen on a menu in a Chinese restaurant in the US.   I love wolfberry tea.  What is wolfberry?  Who the heck knows?!  They look like red raisins and you can put them in soup or make tea out of them and they are tart and yummy (and have medicinal value in Chinese-Medicine-World which I don’t really understand).  The Jin’s next door neighbor brought me two big boxes of them and I may have to smuggle them back home.  She also brought a huge bag of dried beef from Inner Mongolia I said I liked…I definitely can’t take that home.   Last night we had crepes which we rolled up with Boston lettuce, scrambled eggs, plum sauce, hot sauce and scallions. Delicious!!  Who would have guessed it?   Noticed this morning that the buttons on my shirt are sort of  ‘pulling’.

I will end here as the sizzling sound of frying something-or-other and the fragrance of a star anise are wafting in from the kitchen, calling me to my evening meal.

Pennies, Street Kids and Blood Pressure Medicine

I was looking forward to an ‘easier’ day on Tuesday as I knew that would have the older class, the same one that I had on Saturday. Monday’s experience with the younger kids had left me a bit frazzled, just by virtue of loudness, their number and my tendency for claustrophobia. So I waltz into class yesterday (a bit late as no cab driver in Beijing seems to be able to find this place on the first try) with a smile on my  face and an actual lesson plan in my backpack.  Well, as Gomer Pyle said, “Surprise, surprise, surprise”….the room was filled to the gills just like on Monday.  Turns out that only about half the kids come on Saturday.  I wondered why 5 boys were standing against the wall outside of the class room yesterday…the room was full, no more chairs and they stuck their heads through the windows to ‘attend class’.

Wednesday's eager faces

My lesson plan had originally revolved around the ability to address individual students with questions.  I’d like them to stop repeating for just a moment and answer a question in a full sentence (Do you like candy?  “Yes, I like candy“).  This doesn’t work in setting where you can’t even see all the kids.  So we went back to reading the text out loud.   I noticed this morning that the sound waves are starting to make the skin peel off my face.

At break time, I was again showered with attention, particularly by the younger kids.  I was given candy, which I dutifully ate, little gifts (ballons, beat up little plastic toys, pieces of cloth (?)).  I was given a little bag of flavored ice.  Very interesting.  It was salty, but not too bad…I only prayed that it was not made with the local water.  Then I was given a ‘fizzy candy’ (yes, I’m sure they all knew what they were doing) which caused me to start foaming at the mouth.  Needless to say, even the kids who are not too sure what I’m all about thought this was hilarious and I got points for being a good sport.

One little boy has become my constant companion, protector, confidont (although most of the time I have no clue what he is talking about) and attache.  He asks me over and over, ‘How many countries have you visited?’, ‘Do you like China?’, ‘Will you come back tomorrow?’.   In the courtyard are recess time, he often holds my hand and fends other kids off.  I ask him not to chase the others away, but he has obviously claimed me.  Yesterday, he asked if I had been to Korea – to which I said I had not.  He said that he speaks Korean.  I understand a few words in Korean and I can confirm that he does speak Korean.  I asked if he was from Korea and he stopped talking.  I’m guessing his family are North Korean refugees who have been here for a while.

After almost two hours of  marathon ‘repeat-after-me’ boredom, I decided to try 15 minutes of individual interaction.  I had a bunch of American pennies in my  bag, so I would ask the question in the text:  How much is the candy?   and hoped against hope to get the answer we had been repeating over and over and over: The candy is one penny.    I squeezed down the aisle and would look individual students in the eyes and ask  HOW MUCH IS THE CANDY. The vast majority had no clue what to say.  The few who did, got a penny.  I said that these were just small souvenirs and that they could keep them.  They were thrilled to see the pennies.  Here is what surprised me, though:  Every last penny came back to me at the end of class.  Every penny.  I told them in Chinese that this wasn’t the idea and that these were just small prizes to keep for those who responded correctly.  No deal.  They all said the same thing:  “Laoshi, I can’t take this”.  I’m not exactly sure what to make of that, but I think they appreciated the offer.  They are awfully good kids who don’t have very much at all.

After school, my little shadow and three other boys (one of whom I had sent to the Director that day for being disruptive) all followed me down the dusty dirty road to the main highway.  They asked questions, most of which I didn’t understand, offered to buy me food from street vendors (remember, these kids are about 10yrs old) and cleared my way of any scruffy dogs or other kids on bikes.   There was obviously big juju here walking down the street with the old foreigner.   We got to the main road and I was suddenly reminded that these really are tough street kids.  Two of them ran out onto the 3 lanes of traffic coming at them at about 50km an hour.  If you have been to China, you know that cars really don’t stop for pedestrians.  They might slow down to get around them….they might.  The kids were stepping in front of oncoming taxis (all them with passengers already) trying to get one to stop for me.  It’s good that I had remembered my blood pressure medicine that morning.  I nearly flipped out.  I pleaded for them to get out of the traffic which they eventually did.  I politely told them that, since there were no cabs coming I would walk alone to the next major intersection and catch a cab there and that I would see them tomorrow.  They bought it and left.  Whew!

I will leave you with this harrowing story in the hope that my next blog will be of a more demure and culturally interesting nature.  This afternoon I am working with the oldest kids in the school – just one hour. What can happen in an hour?

Chinese Painting Class

Last weekend Lotus hosted a traditional Chinese painting class for students. There aren’t too many students here during the winter, so we beefed up our numbers by inviting some Lotus volunteers from Beijing Normal University. Our guest blogger, Doug, was there as well. Some of the Lotus staff were working overtime this weekend preparing for the summer programs, so they took turns joining us when they needed a break.

I’m a programmer, so I don’t know much about art. I do know that this was a lot easier than our calligraphy lesson in December. I also thought it was curious that we sometimes mixed the paint, which I think was oil-based, with water (on the brush) in order to get a water-colour-like effect when painting. We painted everything, fruit, a Lotus flower, the famous panda, and an opera mask.

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My Ears are Still Ringing

Yesterday, Monday, I had my first hour with the younger kids at the Migrant School. I have stood up in front of a lot of people before and have delivered messages long and short and have always been rather collected. Yesterday, I nearly fell apart. I walked into the room…no….I squeezed into the room and counted: 67 kids in a room that would be approved for 20 in other places. The kids were actually sitting on each other. I noticed a couple of the more ‘narrow’ kids were sharing one stool. The desks were so far forward that there was not really much room for me to turn around.

Of course, due to the sheer density of the crowd there was a lot of jostling and complaining going on.  It was almost impossible to control the back quarter of the room as there was no way to get back there (unless you are under 5′ and weigh less that 70lbs).    As I mentioned before, the method of teaching the kids are used to is simply repeating after the teacher….anything the teacher says.  It’s kind of like listening to your echo through giant rock concert loudspeakers.   So even if I switched over to Chinese to say “turn the page”, they repeated in Chinese….TURN THE PAGE….I don’t think they were kidding.

The sheer thrill of having a foreigner stand up in front and pay attention to them seems to be incentive enough for them to want to work (well, for about 90% of them…no class is without it’s goldbrickers).  After an hour of high decibel repetition (there was just no way to ask individual questions in that forum), they all filed out of the room, each one thanking me and saying that I should come back (even the goldbrickers).   About 8 stayed behind and brought out short hand brooms with which they swept the massive amounts of garbage on the floor into a big pile, lined up the desks and put the stools on top.  My kids back in America would have a fit if they had to clean up after their classmates.

Today I took a walk to the cleaners to have my clothing washed and my shirts washed and pressed (one of the things that isn’t cheap in China – actually costs more there than in Kansas City) and went by the bank.  The grandmother in my host family is now preparing handmade noodles, stewed pork belly (no, it’s really good), what looks like wild asparagus and something else that smells really peppery….we’ll see.   At 12:45 I’ll catch a car back out to the school.

Thanks for reading.