Grade 2’s, Saving Face, King-Kong Basketball

Since I’ve gotten back from South Asia, it’s been pretty normal here. My class schedule is still the same, my classes are still the same. The one thing is different is that I was able to plunge into the first day of this semester without nerves and fear, with full confidence in my lesson plans and ability to keep the classroom under control. Second grade still gives me a lot of trouble, but I’ve found that counting backwards from 3 in Chinese and saying I’ll deduct points really seems to work. The points don’t actually get taken off since they aren’t graded in oral English, but they don’t know that!
There was a kite flying day a few weeks into this semester, where all the kids brought kites to school and had races seeing who could get them the highest. It was pretty cool to see hundreds of students out on the sports field assembling and flying colorful dragon and fish kites. I had gone to teach one of my third grade classes, but they were running out of the classroom with kites in hand, so I told them I would go with them and they got all excited, and told me that their kites would most definitely be the highest. I went out for a bit and got some pretty good pictures of some of the kids, but this is my favorite:

Kite Day at Xinwen School

The weather is getting a lot warmer, so the teacher’s basketball team has started playing again. They invited me to go along with them to a little town whose name translates to ‘King-Kong’. We took one of the small stinky local buses out across the Liuyang river and went though a tunnel I had never seen before. On the other side we went through some really nice countryside, where the rice paddies were full of yellow flowering plants, terraced on the mountainsides, with tile-roofed houses scattered in between. The city was barely 30 kilometers away, but it took us over an hour to get there because the road was so bad. It was concrete slabs that looked like the Sichuan Earthquake had hit all over again, but this time in the Hunan countryside. Some bumps were so huge that everyone in the bus went flying up and we hit our heads on the roof. By the time we got to the school they were ready to start the game, so I sat down and watched for a bit and decided basketball isn’t such a bad sport to watch. It was kind of exciting and there was a big crowd of students yelling and cheering. There were some girls that came up to me and introduced themselves, but were really shy to talk English. Their old teacher was a teacher at Xinwen School now, so she kept prodding them to talk to me, and their English actually wasn’t too bad.
Jingang (the real name of KingKong) was a really tiny city/town. The streets where jam packed full of bicycles, trucks, cars and people with soot everywhere and little old grandmas washing that night’s cabbage on the dirty sidewalk. Almost how I remember China being in 1999! Almost every place in town was doing something related to fireworks, most making the paper tubes that the fireworks are stuffed into. It was almost as if each area made a different sized tube. We drove past piles and piles of them drying in the sun all over the town. After the basketball game, the hosting team usually treats the visiting team to some tasty food, so we all went to their cafeteria and had a feast that the cooks had prepared especially for us. After that we piled back onto the bus and after a big fight between the bus driver and some lady who got on the bus, we drove back home. It had been another one of those dinners with a thousand ‘cheers’ and ‘gan-beis’ (dry glass), so after a bit I couldn’t stand it anymore and ran up and desperately asked the driver to pull over, saying ‘Look guy, I’m a country girl, I can piss anywhere, you just gotta stop the bus a second!’ The rest of the people in the bus had gotten really quiet a ways back, and it was as if they were all waiting for someone to make the first move, because as soon as the bus stopped everyone ran off in different directions into the woods. By the time we got back I was hungry again so I got some food downtown then went home.
A week or so later I got a call from Cindy, one of the English teachers. She told me that the school was very upset that I had been late for so many classes this semester and that I had missed a lot of classes. I was really confused, because I hadn’t been late for a single class since I had bought an alarm clock the second day of school that semester. There had been another time where the schedule was changed and the foreign teachers had not been informed (we don’t receive the staff emails, and anything important gets to us the second before or an hour after its begun), but I had cleared that up with the head teacher of the class (or so I had thought). Cindy told me that the school wanted to doc her pay and Monica’s pay as well as the foreign teacher’s salary due to all this apparent lateness. I decided to call up Jackie, the guy who used to manage all the things to do with the foreign teachers, and ask him what was going on. I told him the exact date that I had been late (March 3rd, in fact) and asked him to notify me after he spoke with the head teachers of all these other classes I was late for. Then he skirted the issue and told me I am not allowed to put children outside the classroom when they misbehave, which I hadn’t done since September. He then told me he would like to see all my lesson plans from September to March. By this point I was pretty confused, and thinking something was up. Luckily I had every lesson plan for every class all the way back to the first day of school on my computer, so I put them on a USB key and asked him if I could have a meeting with him that Wednesday at 2pm.
Wednesday arrived and I was on my way over to Jackie’s office, when I saw all the English teachers in the school walking in the same direction. I asked them what was going on and they said that Jackie had called a meeting for 2pm. By this point I was really, really confused and was thinking I had done something horrible without knowing it. I decided to skitter into Jackie’s office 15 minutes before 2pm and say, ‘Hi! I’m here to talk!’. So I went in and sat down and gave him my USB key with all my lessons. I also apologized and told him I was sorry and that maybe I had caused someone to lose face without knowing it (that someone probably being him). I told him that in America we don’t really have the concept of ‘mian zi’ or ‘face’ and that I don’t understand it. The whole thing about ‘face’ in China is incredibly complicated and most foreigners don’t even begin to understand it, which is why some people in China think foreigners are rather brash, forward and uncultured. I figured if I explained my ignorance really humbly with a solemn look on my face, it might help a bit, especially if I said it in a way that acknowledged his higher up position in the school. He looked at my zillions of lesson plans pretty briefly and seemed to brighten up a bit and then we went into the meeting room.
It really was a meaningless meeting and I could tell a lot of the English teachers didn’t want to be there because they have very busy schedules, but nonetheless Jackie kept on about all kinds of things to do with me and Craig, some of which I’m glad I didn’t understand very well because I couldn’t have helped myself but to butt in.
Following his long speech was a criticism session in which Craig and I were told everything wrong that we had been doing. Lucky for me, Jackie had addressed most of it in his office with me privately. Craig got that bad end of it, basically Jackie telling him he was doing things all wrong and badly and that he didn’t prepare for his classes. If I hadn’t gone in to his office beforehand, I would have gotten the same thing in front of all the other English teachers.
This is what confuses me so much. I would have though criticizing people in front of a large group would cause someone to lose face, but in fact no one seemed bothered or uncomfortable by it. Also, none of the criticism was constructive. It was just ‘you are doing badly, don’t do this’, not ‘this might need improvement, lets talk about how that might happen’ or something along those lines.
Anyway, the meeting was adjourned and I had to run to my next class. I’m still not sure what that whole thing was about, and none of the topics were ever addressed again. Maybe I had caused Jackie to lose face somehow and by giving it back to him he just decided to forget all these things? I guess I’ll never know, but I sure don’t mind!!
Anyway, recently I’ve discovered that 2nd graders really like grammar drills (Repeat after me: I am, You are, He is, She is, It is…etc..). I would have thought it would bore them to death, but I decided to try it one day and they sat incredibly still for a record amount of time and all chanted in unison. Maybe they just like things they are familiar with? I’ve done it in bits for the past three weeks when they get really rowdy, and 2nd grade has almost been tolerable.
Today in 4th grade they were learning ‘dollar’ ‘pound’ and ‘yuan’, and I brought money from different countries in for them to see. Then we played vocabulary Bingo and the winning prize was a quarter. It was the first time I had ever done a game with prizes and so the entire class participated because they really, really wanted that quarter!
Oh! And I finally made a friend in good friend around here Chen Ming who, as it turns out, is moving to Beijing as well. I’ve been raking zillions of websites for info about Beijing, and looking at all the stuff that’s going on in the city, and looking for apartments I can’t even think about renting yet. I want to be in that giant land of sandstorms, hutongs, crowds and foreign grocery stores so badly! But hey….I might actually miss this tiny, backwards mountain town of Liuyang someday! 🙂