Thursday, March 19, 2009

Smooth sailing so far

Things are pretty smooth here. It's shocking to me that we are now almost through the fourth week of the semester! Soon I'll have my first graded assignments, and I probably won't have time to blink before it's summer and I'm on top of the Great Wall.

There is an interesting aspect of the Chinese standard of living. You can live very comfortably on nothing, but there's a huge gap between this level and a yuppie-American lifestyle. Say, for example, I decided to buy a bicycle, or upgrade the furnishings in my apartment, or buy some electronics or new clothes. These things would cost the same or slightly more than they do in the States, and would quickly gobble up that inexhaustible paycheck. It's okay, though: I love my life without such things. At least for now, I'd much rather see some debts disappear and save some money.

Teaching is still fun and interesting. There's an incredible, massive, frightening gap between the best students and the worst -- WAY more so than in the States -- but many of my students are quite hard-working and good. Teaching Spoken English is especially fun, because it's basically a two-hour conversation every class. Sometimes I'll have a little lecture, but mainly I have the students practice English in small groups, and then we have class discussions.

Most of the kids seem to love the class, and they are very animated. They seem to act about 5 years younger than equivalent American students, which at its best means that the classroom bubbles with giggles and rapid-fire conversation. At its worst, it means that they are socially awkward, have a very hard time interacting with students they don't know very well (especially the opposite sex), and will frequently pretend they didn't hear or understand instructions they don't want to obey.

Chinese people have an amazing stolidness, that as far as I know it is unique to the Chinese. If a Chinese person does not want to move, you might as well try to budge an 80-foot statue of the Buddha. Sometimes I feel like I need a pair of spurs for class. It's absolutely maddening!

I'm still making lots of friends, and I get out more often here than I ever have elsewhere. Last night I went out for hot pot with a friend who is a researcher at the Fisheries University near where I walked on that snowy day last month. He's a very philosophical guy, and the conversation was interesting even through his halting English. I've learned a lot about Chinese culture from my friends here. There's no religion here to speak of, at least not in the American way, and there's a great love of freedom. For me, this is a perfect combination.

(Hot pot, by the way, is something I had heard of but never tried. It was a pot of boiling broth in the middle, divided down the middle into one half spicy and the other half mild. Various uncooked meats and vegetables came to the table, and we threw them into the broth. My favorite was lamb, sliced very thinly just like double-wide strips of bacon. There was also a kind of paste that looked like thick pancake batter, which we dropped in one spoonful at a time. It turned out to be fish of some kind, and was very tasty. I'm told the fish is a specialty of the restaurant, which is called Care For You. I still chuckle at Chinese naming.)

Dinner for two at a very nice, clean restaurant, including a 500 ml Tsingtao mega-beer for each of us, came to 106 rmb: about $16. Back home, you'd be lucky if that covered the beers! I probably sound like a broken record with this stuff, but I just can't get over the prices.

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