Tuesday, March 18, 2014

How It Played Out

How am I supposed to do that? I have my hand-picked 4 and they’re proving themselves to be as good as I thought they would be, but Bruce and Daisy are showing themselves well. Jack is no great shakes but Dorwyn is a powerhouse. Worse: I’ve bonded with these kids. I can see the hope in their eyes. I know how hard they’ve worked. Every one of them, with the possible exception of Jack deserves a shot!


Sam has left after agreeing we need to add Speech and Debate to our curriculum as an elective, and promising to help me talk with Dean Lisa about it. The kids roll in. Sam had already sent them the same message he sent me about having to cut the team, but they asked me for confirmation. I decided we would stage a debate and evaluate each competitor’s performance. From that we would pare our team down to the required number.   


The topic was: “Should schools provide enrichment programs”. Each contestant debated their assigned position. Brianna was the hands-down winner: she came in at exactly 7 minutes, as required by the World University Debate Challenge format. She had a great intro, brought up 10 points of information and backed each one up. Celine fell way short of the 7 minute mark and was not as well prepared, bringing up only 7 points of information. I was surprised by her showing. Last practice we had she blew us all away.

Dorwyn took tops at enthusiasm and clarity. Daisy had the best body language. Elliott is just a clown; cannot fail to amuse, all while being succinct. Bruce, arguing from the athletic platform took points for his views. Stark positing pure rationale, per his personality. Even Jack bounded up eagerly and, for the first 2 minutes, spoke effectively. All in all, besides Brianna, everyone fell short of the mark.

Again: how am I supposed to make this decision?

The critique round did not help. I asked each team mate who they thought the best candidate was. Of course, each candidate wanted to go. Elliott unselfishly stated his partner, Stark, did a better job. Celine gave props to Brianna. Brianna voted for Dorwyn. I was back to square one, trying to decide which of these passionate, desirous, hard working kids would represent our school.

I sat there, nonplussed, phone in my hand. I had asked Sam if someone else would come today to evaluate the kids’ performance and make their recommendation. I feared I could not be objective, having found in each one a quality that would enhance our standings. Besides, my heart was in the matter and I found it hard to separate heart from mind to make a rational decision.

Nope, all on me. This is a very busy time at our school, with Canadians visiting and exams pending. No one else was available. I wanted to send Sam a message begging for help but did not know what the write.  

In the end, I made the most rational decision I could: send the sophomore team. This might be their last chance to compete. The freshmen still had another year that they would be eligible for such opportunities. And then, Celine blew us all away.

She said she was not proud of her performance. She ran short, time-wise, and did not prepare her arguments well. She kept getting lost in her notes. In her opinion, Dorwyn deserved to go. And than she burst into tears, burying her face in Elliott’s shoulder.

I have seldom been faced with such gallantry. While I agree with her that her performance today was not stellar, there are greater issues involved. She and Brianna have worked together, and have known each other for 2 years. Would Bri and Dorwyn have that same dynamic? And then, if Dorwyn gets to go, why not Daisy, or Bruce? They were also good. Besides, I know what Celine is capable of. We all do. Bri and I traded places and I cradled the weeping girl.

I have no idea what stuff Dorwyn is made of but if it ever gets bottled, nobility will be an easily achieved commodity. She turned down Celine’s offer. In my arms, stillness. Celine had stopped crying and, while she still had her face buried she was listening.

Celine really wanted to go. She relished the challenge. She couldn’t wait for competition. But she felt that Dorwyn would be a better contender: less resistant to stress, more enthusiastic and more able to succeed.

And Dorwyn! She was overcome by Celine’s concession and barely containing her joy! How she managed to decline this chance handed to her was a mystery. I didn’t catch all of her reasoning because I told them they could discuss it in Chinese, but I caught enough to know that, whether she competes or not, Dorwyn is a winner. 

As a coach, this was my moment to shine. After making sure Celine had all the cuddling and comforting she needed, I told my team that winning is not our primary objective. Learning is. While we did learn quite a bit these last 2 weeks, and those who will debate this weekend will learn even more, the most important lesson we needed to learn was today. Celine and Dorwyn’s selflessness is a lesson for us all.

After a quiet moment of reflection, Elliott chimes in: “I’m sad. We’ve all become friends and now it is over. We’re all going to chase our pursuits and lose touch with one another.” The others nodded, morose. Imagine my joy at inviting them over for a celebration dinner next week: how their faces lit up!!!

Smiles and relieved chatter all around. Phone numbers exchanged, promises of staying in contact. Light hearted ribbing. Dorwyn asking Brianna for pointers. Daisy showed everyone the picture of she and I in our night class, last year. Of course, I took a lovely picture of our group.

Bruce announced he had to go coach his basketball team. That broke up the meeting. Everyone pitched in to help clean up despite my exhortations to leave things be. And then, they all clatter out the door.

With a team like that, coaching is really just a formality.  

The Debate Team

From the moment I was tapped to coach the debate team I knew exactly who I wanted: Brianna, Celine, Elliott and Stark.

Our school has the nasty habit of blindsiding students into bringing glory and renown to our alma mater. In part our administrators are blameless, at least this time. The notice did not come until 3 weeks before competition. On the other hand, other institutes have Speech and Debate built into their curriculum, so they have students ready whenever competition comes up. We do not offer that elective.

To my knowledge, this is the fifth time University of Puget Sound has challenged Chinese universities to a Worlds debate, but the first time we were invited to compete. If this were regarding the yearly speech competition, my feathers would be ruffled. Every year I’ve been here we’ve selected a participant or two, based solely on teachers’ perception of that student’s ability to speak English. With virtually no coaching and very little preparation time, these orators were expected to sweep the competition. How could they, with the little we gave them?

For the past couple of speech contests I have been called on to help groom the kids. Tony and Evan did not exactly blow the competition away but did decently, for first time entrants with minimal training. Apparently, my little bit of coaching did help. Both came away with honorable mentions, whereas in the years before, our school never even received citation. They were still heartbroken at not having done better, flagellating themselves in spite of everyone’s sincere praise at the efforts.

And so it came, when we received invitation to participate in this debate debacle, I was immediately appointed as team leader. First, I had to be a team former. We had no team. That is where Bri, Celine, Elliott and Stark come in. when I asked if they would represent our school at the meet their answer was a definitive, resounding ‘YES’.

You might remember Celine from my visit to Wu Dang Shan (see ‘Start of Wu Dang Shan’ entry, posted September 2013). Stark is a quiet boy, a ‘behind the scenes’ type of guy: resourceful, determined, and above all else, inquisitive. He likes to present topics for our class discussions, and is the one who introduced me to a movie download website I now use regularly. Elliott is an affable young man who speaks English with a flawless British accent. I have no idea where he got it from. Brianna is a Minnie Mouse of a girl, a genuine sweetheart I liken to a volcano. She is so meek and demure on the outside with a fiery stab of intelligence and an incomparable joie de vivre. She would understand that last bit: she decided to teach herself French last year and is now good enough to hold conversation in that tongue. She is the one that gifted me Dog and Cat, my short-lived turtle pets.

I had the privilege of teaching them last year, and now have them in class this year. This year, my Friday mornings are always joyful. Not just because of those 4; the whole class is a pleasure, and they’re mine to enjoy until June. Hopefully the time won’t fly by so fast.

Unfortunately, these 2 weeks have flown by. Coaching is coaching… not that I know that much about it. The contestants will learn debating minutia mostly in the training session sponsored by the host university, the day before competition. My special challenge in coaching these Chinese students into a typically western activity, such as debating or speech giving is body language and speaking tone.

Usually the Chinese outward expression remains stoic, letting words carry all the weight of the message. I contend that, in order to deliver a persuasive argument, tone, voice modulation and body movement all play a vital role. Another crucial factor is that each student must know him/herself well enough to effectively use those non-verbal communication tools. For these past 2 weeks we have drilled on how to walk, talk and move to match each personality. That means I have to know them well, so that I can point out personality details they might not be aware of.

All teachers with English classes were asked to recruit potential candidates. One week into our 2 week preparation window, our team doubles. Instead of training 4 kids, there are now 8. The new additions are all freshmen, and show a lot of potential. Daisy and Bruce look like they are boyfriend and girlfriend, deeply in love. We were all surprised that they had only just met on the way to my house. They make a great team… for the debate. Perhaps also as life partners. Wouldn’t it be crazy if that is how things turn out?

Dorwyn and Jack were the last additions, only having the benefit of 2 training sessions. Nonetheless, Dorwyn impressed all of us. She radiates joy and you can hear her smile in her voice. She is not an English major but speaks better English than some of my students. Her enthusiasm is boundless. I felt terrible that her partner, Jack wouldn’t say a word. He volunteered to compete, hoping it would break him out of his shyness, but with only one week till competition and him not having said very much, I worried that our effusive Dorwyn would suffer from his seeming inability.

I believe the most important duty a coach has is to foster a sense of team spirit. With this team, that was not a problem at all. No one held themselves rigidly onto their assigned partner and everyone supported everyone, even Jack – although everyone worried about his ability to carry his share. Of course I had drinks and a few snacks for them; practice lasted 3 hours each day. They would pour each other drinks, make sure everyone had something to nibble on and, if one liked a particular snack, the others made sure he/she got the lion’s share. In short, they bonded. I fell in love with them.


The whole crew is at the house. Stark informs me his grandmother just died 2 days before, but he was OK to compete. He would only need to leave training early that day. Elliott expresses concern for the next day’s session; he might not be able to come. Dorwyn blew us all away. Bruce discovered ginger ale (bought at Metro). He shared the can with Daisy. Bri is nervous and Celine does her best to cheer her on. Today’s exercise is to find one word to describe yourself and build your speech introduction around that word. Jack still won’t talk. That days’ training ended in a Q&A session.


I receive a message that, contrary to the invitation, each school could only send 2 teams. Originally the summons allowed as many teams as each school wants to send. After our mad scramble to draft our 4 latecomers, and them working so hard, all for the promise of at least a certificate of participation and a measure of honor, we had to cut our team in half. No, scratch that: I had to cut our team in half.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

What’s New?

Its taken me a while to pound this one out. Usually I write the ‘what’s new?’ entry about a week after my return from the states. That gives me time to ride a few buses, check out the town, roam the aisles of Metro to see what they’ve got in stock these days…

This time it was almost literally ‘get off the plane and get in the classroom’. I got off the plane on Sunday and was teaching at 8AM on Monday. No grace period, no buffer, no time to unpack or get over jet lag. That was a great class.

No it wasn’t! It was the class that demanded I throw them a party! (See My Pet Foreigner entry, posted July 2013). However, refreshingly, they are on time, attentive, courteous and bent to the task. It is because they’re scared. Their career defining exam, TM4 is coming up. If they don’t pass, they’re doomed to a life of menial labor.

My schedule is very easy: 1 class on Monday and 2 on Friday. The rest of my week is mine. Or, was mine until our school was invited to a debate competition, to be held the weekend of March 14. Now my life consists of teaching a piddling 3 classes and coaching the formerly non-existent debate team.

I get frustrated when I think of these competitions. Other schools have speech/debate classes year-round. Those students are groomed for competition, are taught everything from proper attire to effective body language. Their English skills are stellar. Our school knee-jerks: “Oh, there’s a competition! Let’s send these students, they’re pretty good!” with no idea how much pressure this puts on the kids, who really want to succeed. How can they, when we don’t give them the tools?

I do my best to coach them in the short time – 2 weeks – that we have. My opening speech to them is that they should not approach this event with the anticipation of winning. They should go for the experience, and to have a nice entry on their resume. I’m not saying that our kids are idiots, second rate or incapable, but I’ve seen Evan and Tony, crushed for having worked so hard only to come in dead last because they only have 2 weeks of preparation while other contestants actually study the subject all year.

Just got word that another team will join the training this Sunday… 5 days before competition!!! Wish them luck. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

What else is new?

Erica is stuttering. How did this child develop a stutter in the 5 weeks I was gone? Apparently she has a new teacher who is rather rigid, and sometimes downright harsh. She claims Erica does not conform and seldom obeys class rules. I believe her stutter is a result of anxiety.

My little buddy is also using chopsticks to feed herself. Before I left she ate with a spoon, or someone would feed her. Sometimes she used her hands to feed herself. I asked Sam and Penny who started her on the chopsticks. They told me she just picked them up one day and started eating. Go, Erica!

Metro keeps adding to their list of foreign goodies. I almost fell over with excitement when I saw honey barbeque flavored twists. When I got to the register with my treasure – 1 bag, the cashier declared they were not in the system and put them in the basket with unwanted item, to be returned to the shelf. Whadda’ ya mean, ‘unwanted’??? I wanted them very badly!

I’m beginning to think they were a mirage. I’ve been to both Metro stores since that day. Neither of them carry that treat.

Here’s another novelty: I’m finding it easier to navigate the city via subway, at least from a time perspective. Before my Chinese was actually good enough that I could read and remember station names, I relied on visual clues to know when to get off the bus. I no longer need those clues. Not only do I remember the names of the stops but I have the city, or at least my favorite haunts gridded out in my head. I can plan routes that involve minimal traffic jams. Usually I cannot get a seat on the subway, but with no traffic, I don’t mind standing for the few minutes it takes to get where I’m going. 

Traffic is still a problem. Nothing new there, unless you want to count the rapidly growing driving culture. More than ever, people want their own car. That doesn’t explain why the subway is so crowded.

Here is something that is new: my toilet seat. When I first came back, Wuhan’s temperatures were still very low. The mercury in my apartment hovered around 43 degrees Fahrenheit. Nevertheless a body must be clean so, taking advantage of my heat lamps, installed just last year, I merrily stepped under the spray, making the best use of my 54 liters of hot water. As usual, after showering, I propped my foot on the closed toilet lid… gotta dry between the toes, right? One loud CRACK!!! And the toilet lid shattered, plunging my foot into the bowl’s icy water.

Fortunately I had cleaned my toilet the day before. Even better: I had enough hot water left to re-wash. Best of all, I was able to buy a new toilet seat at… WALMART!!!    

The last and probably biggest news is that the search is on in earnest for a replacement for Victor. Until now the school had contracted with a headhunter. That is how I was hired. Apparently, deep faith in my contacts stateside has swayed the school to allow me a personal search for our new teacher. All hubris aside, that makes sense. The new teacher will be my colleague, and also will most likely fall under my wing. I will have the pleasure of indoctrinating our new teacher, not just around campus but also around town. Furthermore, there is a good chance that our new teacher will take up residence next door. Whereas Victor only used his digs as a crash pad between classes, I might actually have a next door neighbor! I’m very excited.

That is what is new this time, arriving back to my home after my too short stay with my loved ones. Bittersweet. But I gotta admit that being so far away for so long makes those reunions that much sweeter.

I just tell myself that so I don’t hurt so bad, being far away. 

Hoodies, Gangs and Knives

It all started during Fashion Week. Not the official one held in fashion capitals such as Paris and Milan, but the one I conducted during class last week, which roughly coincided with the official Fashion Week.

Every semester I ask my students what they would like to talk about. Being young, and for the most part female, the topic of fashion ranks high on their list of favorite subjects to discuss. Until this semester I offered up fashion tidbits at the start of class, something to the effect of: ‘wearing high heels over a long period of time can damage your bones, spine, tendons and muscles’, and a ‘clean face is a beautiful face’. Because this is a topic of ongoing fascination I decided to compile what I could about the various aspects of fashion and style into a presentation, leaving plenty of time for discussion of whatever grabs their attention.    

This semester I have the privilege of teaching only sophomores, which means I only have 3 classes and I’ve worked with each of those groups last academic year. Some I’m happy to work with and some I could have lived without ever having to address again (See My Pet Foreigner entry, posted July 2013).

What would these kids want to know about fashion? As young (mostly) women, I presumed they would like a mish-mash of information, ranging from hair and makeup to clothing and jewelry. Of course, fashion/style in the America would be a major point of interest, so I did my best to incorporate a comparison between Chinese and American fashion trends.

On the Western front I portrayed corsets as particularly barbaric because they taper a woman’s ribcage to conform to the ‘hourglass figure’ standard of beauty. Nowadays corsets are generally not worn however, beauty pageant contestants sometimes wear one. YOUNG pageant contestants: 8, 9, 10 years old. Point of interest, and something that piqued my students’ curiosity: the guitar and other string instruments are actually modeled after the ideal woman’s form.

Equally tortuous was the Chinese mania for small feet, called ‘lotus blossoms’, causing infant girls indescribable pain because their foot bones were broken and rebroken, and those poor little appendages were then wrapped in wet linen, which shrinks while drying. The smaller the foot the more dainty and desirable the woman. While my girls sneered at the west’s inhuman pursuit of beauty, they quickly stopped their chortling when confronted with their own culture’s callous practice. Some even confided their great-grandmother has bound feet and that even today she must bind her feet tightly or live with the agony of screaming bones. That is to say: they live in agony all the time; it is worse with their feet unbound. Of course, said grandmothers cannot walk without a cane… if they can walk at all.

To teach new vocabulary regarding clothing, I raided my own wardrobe. How else to demonstrate the difference between a button down shirt (men) and a blouse (women)? They loved learning that, in the old days men dressed themselves while women had a maid to dress them. Thus the buttons on women’s clothing are on the left and men’s clothing are on the right… presumably because everybody was right-handed in those days. I could even illustrate that difference with the (men’s) slacks I brought, versus the jeans I was wearing.

Modern day Chinese wear western-style clothing: jeans, sweats, tee-shirts and the like. They did not know the names of various types of clothes, nor could they make a distinction between a sweat shirt and a sweater. One poor soul, unaware that a skirt starts at the waist averred that she likes to wear skirts and nothing else. After this lesson, she knew that dresses were what she likes to wear. A fine, but critical distinction.

And then, there was the hoodie.

Often I incorporate current event items in my lessons, or make a lesson out of them altogether. While presenting the hoodie I told them that such garments are preferred by hip-hop dancers and, by proxy, gangstas. Dancers prefer them for when they do head spins and gangstas adopted them… for whatever reason. Much was made in the media of Trayvon Martin wearing a hoodie; in fact, because of that incident the humble hoodie surged in popularity. George Zimmerman believed Trayvon was a gangsta because of the hoodie, and is now news/tabloid fodder and there are still groups who seek justice for Trayvon. All of this I relayed to my class.

That got their attention! I decided this week’s lesson will segue nicely into a talk about American history: the Kennedy assassination, the Civil Rights movement, and then into the hip-hop culture and the gang scene, as much as I know about it. After that, off we go into Freedom Writers movie, the impactful story of Ellen Gruwell and her students in room 203. That’s 4 weeks of lessons, all wrapped up! I love it when I can plan my schedule like that.

I’m always anxious if I am not prepared for lessons, or even if I don’t know my material very well. You’d think it would be a simple matter of recycling curriculum from one semester to the next, but I don’t seem to want to make things easy for myself. Besides that, some lessons taught in the past are no longer relevant to the crowd I teach today. For the next few weeks, I do not need to plague myself with worry: I have 4 weeks worth of lessons ready. That is a good thing, because I’ve been tapped to coach our debate team for competition in 2 weeks! More on that later…    

Little did I know that while I was downloading pictures of rappers and dancers, and gloating over my well planned lessons, ten people from an extremist group were entering the main railway station in Kunming, armed with knives and machetes. They hacked up twenty-nine victims and injured one hundred thirty more before police put a stop to them, killing 2 in the process. This type of terrorism has as yet been unseen and is unthinkable in modern day China.

Now there are ripples of fear. Might such a group strike in Beijing? Xi’an? Wuhan? What should we be on the lookout for? How can we protect and/or defend ourselves?

Collective unrest grows as rampant, conspicuous consumerism overtakes this formerly impoverished, fatalistic people. It is not just a matter of wealth gap and capitalism but of social mores in decline. The group that targeted those passengers in that railway station was from one of China’s 55 ethnic minorities. The Uyghurs, previously limiting themselves to yearly, relatively tame riots in their own province are now striking out against the Han majority. They do not, and never did want secondary businesses or a stake in the tourist trade. They want their segment of land returned to them with full rights and privileges. They want indigenous people in government and locals to staff police and fire brigade units. They even balk at school children being taught in Putonghua – the common language, and their dialect being taught as a secondary language. To their reckoning, in their province the Han are a minority and should be accorded minority status.

Yes, discrimination is prevalent in China. Not so much against foreigners, who are decided outsiders, but between the ethnic minorities and the Han.     

Sam is getting wrinkles. Not only does his beautiful Penny work all hours and walk home alone, but she has been tapped as a part of the emergency relief crew. Because she works in a military hospital and because she specializes in infectious disease care, she might be sent to Kunming to enlarge their nurses’ roster. The poor guy is having a hard time letting her out of his sight, let alone sending her to a place of recent terrorist activity.

I have another lesson to add to my roster: self defense. I too fear for Penny, but also for all of my students. Granted they travel in pairs or groups but they are young, inexperienced and absolutely unaware of how to protect or defend themselves. Sally, a genuine sweetheart, believed those men who told her they had lost their train ticket and could not return home. Could she spare them some money? She had none on her and could not leave her current position, so she handed them her bank card and told them her pin. They assured her they’d only take 150Yuan, and would be right back. Of course, they cleaned her out and she never saw them again.

That is how unprepared these kids are for the real world. I’m not their parent, I know, or even the adult responsible for them. However, I feel I have a responsibility to them.

Life isn’t all peaches and cream. Not everyone in China comes from a small village and/or a good family, and there are certainly scammers and bruisers out there. Foreign teachers aren’t all about having fun and making students laugh. At least this one isn’t. These next few lessons just might save their life.

Now I’m anxious.