Sunday, October 29, 2006

A Good Day

I've tried not to bore you with simple lists of our day-to-day activities. So far I've selected some of the most exciting moments of the trip to post. This lengthier post will take you deeper into our mission and help explain where all our time went each day.

The day we hit the one-week mark in China, it was a Friday, and business was as usual. Our morning skit was hilarious. Evan selected Stephen and Katelyn to simulate midgets on stage. They stood with their hands in shoes on the table, and in "Whose Line?" style, Brad and Cat served as their arms. Evan narrated, forcing them to eat a peanut butter sandwich, brush their teeth and shave. Needless to say, their faces were covered in all kinds of substances before the skit ended. Most importantly, the kids laughed and our day started off right.

Classroom time focused on hobbies, and we were floundering a little bit because we couldn't think of enough questions to ask. Jon and I had been pretty effective at winging our presentations, but on this day, we were drawing blanks.

Each student had a canned answer to the question, "What is your hobby?" Some mentioned sports, others shopping or spending time with family. But if we asked "What else?" we'd get a stuttering response that amounted to nothing more than a restatement of the first answer. Rephrasing the questions and writing some alternate answers on the board, we gave them practice making complete sentences and saying things other than "play basketball" or "watch TV."

Teaching methods in China are different than in the US, with a lot of rote memorization and very little independent or critical thinking. The differences in education systems reflect conflicting ideologies in the two countries. Our individualism promotes free thought sometimes bordering on rebellion, while a hybrid Confucian/communist ideology in China focuses more on respecting authority and knowing one's place in the community.

The school day is structured differently as well. While I haven't been to an actual classroom when I wasn't teaching, I've heard that teachers in China generally don't try to use engaging activities to make boring concepts easier to swallow. It seems that fun is not used to promote learning. It is a separate phenomenon, something that happens outside of school as a relief from study.

This is possibly because teachers and parents feel that there's no time to waste. With so much competition, the pressure for Chinese kids to perform is immense, and it starts early. If they don't do well one examinations, then they won't be able to get into a good middle school, which might not prepare them well enough for the examinations leading into university, the key criterion observed by employers on applications. As far as I know, salary and starting position are linked to the college degree, even moreso than in America, where the capitalist system can be harnessed to make high-school dropouts rich.

In music class today, we did the "Hokey Pokey" and introduced "The Wheels on the Bus," a song that took the kids a while to learn. My guitar was put to use on the camp theme song, which I had to drag through because of the difficulty of the lyrics. Maybe by the end of camp they'd be able to say "English Summer Camp is a really cool place to be" five times fast.

During xiuxi time, we ate lunch at a Dai restaurant near the school on the way back into town. Either Linda, the camp organizer, really liked the food, or she was getting massive kickbacks from this place. We ate there two days in a row, and had similar food on other days.

Back at camp, we taught the kids ultimate frisbee, which they loved. They caught on much quicker than with kickball and wiffle ball, I guess because of ultimate's similarity to soccer. One team advances against another, trying to make it across a goal line. It's a mindless advance of the masses, the community working together, none of the individual effort and critical thinking stuff you find in baseball. Wow, even the favorite sports represent the predominate educational ideologies.

After school let out, the Georgia half of our team (12 people) went to our hosts' apartment (3 bedrooms) for dinner. We had no clue what to expect, but we hoped to avoid the cornmeal fritters, ground beef and grilled fish we'd had at Linda's place for lunch.

As soon as I walked in, I knew I'd hit the jackpot. For the first time on this trip, I smelled home. Our hosts had whipped up a spaghetti feast, and not a Chinese rendition made with fake sauce and ground chicken meat. This was American spaghetti with tomato sauce and parmesan cheese newly imported from Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan province. There was Coke (still carbonated!) to drink, real garlic bread and salad with ranch dressing also from Kunming.

After returning for seconds, I was in high spirits for the rest of the evening, which was spent getting to know our hosts better and learning more about the projects they're working on.

Web Developments

This semester I've enrolled in a digital media production class where I've learned some of the secrets to building websites. I'm still a beginner, but you can sample some of my work and see what you think. My home page is bursting with information about me, and it has some previews of my music as well as pictures from a lot of my trips, and if you really want it, my resume in both html and PDF formats.

The Chinese minorities site is a new project, and it focuses on people groups with whom I've had direct contact. I've only updated three of the people groups so far, but I'm thinking about doing all 56 minorities that are registered by the government, focusing on things not mentioned by other sites. Forays into my web designs will give you a much needed break from the China narrative. If you don't have Chinese characters enabled, the design suffers a bit. I think I'll improve it when I have some knowledge of photo-editing software.

Tell me what you think about the sites. The personal site has a feedback page, but you'll have to come here to bash (or praise) my minorities site. Here we go:



Thursday, October 26, 2006

A Ray of Light

After lunch one day, we had a few hours to explore the city before a meeting that evening. I took Casey, Evan, Katy and Brad by a few outdoors shops I had found last year. Brad and Casey both bought shirts for $8 US, and after they had gotten their fix, we had to decide our next course of action. Brad and Katy returned to the hotel, but the rest of us maximized our down time by exploring the city. I had spent less than 24 hours in JH last year, and this was my chance to get a feel for the city.

From the "Forest Explore Shop," Evan, Casey and I headed to the east side of the city, where a relatively new suspension bridge stretches over the Mekong river. The brown water flowed through the wide channel in a swift current, and the valley stretched into the horizon, lined on either side by green mountains peeking through the low-floating clouds. We could see where the city ended on the north and south sides and where it spilled over to the other side of the bridge. I wondered if this was still JH proper, or if this suburb of sorts had another name.

We stopped about halfway across and spent a little while admiring the scenery, joking about how sometime on this trip, we should go "brownwater rafting." Foot traffic on the bridge was heavy, mostly with dark-skinned, non-Han-looking (minority) people. It was almost dusk; the ones moving east must be returning home from a day's work. The one's moving west toward town might be going in to do some shopping or enjoy the vibrant nightlife.

We remembered our hosts mentioning an old Christian church standing strong on this side of the city. Looking from the north side of the bridge back toward town, we looked for any semblance of a steeple. A cross stuck up in between some buildings, and despite its crimson color, we knew it didn't signify the presence of a hospital. Darkness was beginning to descend on the town and pull the curtain on our beautiful scenery, so we decided to use our remaining 30 minutes to find a ray of light: the church.

Back on land, we ducked northward down a narrow street, guessing at where the church could be. The steeple was no longer visible, so the plain, computer-drawn map given to us was our only guide. We found an outdoor carnival where vendors had set up grills and were preparing to cook dinner. Evan found a game where for one yuan you could shoot plastic BBs at balloons taped to a wall.

After this quick diversion, we maneuvered around some condos toward the bank of river, hoping to use it as a point of reference. The looks we got from people indicated that we were off the beaten path for tourists. From the bank we got some great views of the bridge, which turns into a neon light show at dusk. Turning back toward town, we saw the same cross we had seen from the bridge, this time a lot closer but still inaccessible because of fences and buildings blocking our path.

With five minutes to spare before we needed to find a taxi, we saw an alcove with crosses on it and figured it must lead to the church. Under the alcove, down an alley and through a gate, we made it into the church's courtyard. Through a glassless window we saw a group of believers, mostly women, meeting in a one-room sanctuary. A single, uncovered lightbulb cast a bluish glow in the room, illuminating a scene that encouraged us greatly. The woman standing at front held a Bible in her hands and she seemed to be reading from it. We wanted to stay and listen, but we didn't want get the others worried.

We left unnoticed, thanking God that these dear brothers and sisters were here, paving the way for those that will pray later for them and their country, doing their best to shine a small ray of light into the darkness that has fallen on their city.

Meals 2-Dico's

Dico's is China's indigenous version of KFC, but it's definitely not as tasty as the Colonel's brand. The fast food chain has made it to at least three cities (I saw it JH, Kunming, and Urumqi) and will probably keep expanding.

The chicken there was piping hot, served in ample portions, but it had the Chinese aftertaste that pervades most western food in China. As Frank said, "You'll find that western food in China is like that--pretty good, but just not the same."

So don't expect Dico's to make your fried chicken like Big Ma did it back in the deep south. But if you go in with low expectations, you'll leave full and pleasantly surprised. The sundaes are almost as good as McDonald's, but again, they leave something to be desired, and for six kuai, you might as well take a trip to the Burmese place to eat some strawberry shaved ice. More on that in a later post.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Music Class

After morning classes, I headed across the courtyard to music class, sometimes venturing outside the school’s gate to buy some one-kuai waters vendors were selling across the street. There was no telling how many times in a given day we’d have to go through B-I-N-G-O, or how many times the wheels on the bus would go round and round. It could be taxing on the throat.

The higher-ups in our camp administration assumed that just because I had brought a guitar with me, I would be delighted to drone through an endless directory of camp songs. They were right in assuming that I would do it, but wanting to was a different story. For one, I’ve never been a “campy” type of person. I don’t consider myself smug or too cool for school or anything; I’ve just never really been that excitable, especially with music.

Most of my playing occurs within the confines of my own bedroom, with the wall and the ceiling fan as the only audience. Not that I’d be too nervous to play in front of children, but the smooth sound of the acoustic guitar tends to mellow me out, not hype me up. So you can guess just how delighted I was to hear that our arrangement of songs for the week came straight from the “unnecessarily giddy music” hall of fame.

Consider such hits as “BINGO,” “The Hokey Pokey,” “If You’re Happy and You Know It…,” and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” among others. The great thing was that these kids, who are almost all 14 years old or above, don’t know that the songs they’re singing are for preschoolers in the states. With the English levels they displayed, they didn’t need to go much higher.

It’s interesting to see how slow to develop these kids are, physically, emotionally, and socially. They could be living in downright iniquity for all I know, but they all seem so innocent, so clueless as to what’s going on in the world. The 15-year-olds looked and acted about like Michelle and Charlotte, members of our team who are both 13. Maybe their mature side was hidden behind the language barrier.

I had two choices when going to music class. Man up and do my job, or complain about anything from the humidity in the room to lack of sleep to the spicy noodle breakfast that didn’t settle right in my stomach. To whine or shrink back would be a waste of the money and the prayers people have spent to get me across the Pacific Ocean. Amid all the spiritual attacks, I would do what I came to do.

The kids fed off their teachers’ energy in class. If we didn’t set an example, the kids would never have branched out. By making fools of ourselves, we became vulnerable, and in doing so made it clear to these gun-shy teenagers that participating in ridiculous activities like the hokey pokey would not lower your social standing. By bending their routine and making learning fun, we left them with more of a handle on English and a better impression of American Christians.

My journal about that day:

“Being an active, energetic person is not my strong suit, but God’s been giving me strength to keep the pace fast. I’ve been having the same ol’ spiritual attacks from the enemy as I go off to camp each day: the sinking feelings about having to do work, the desire to sleep but an inability to do so, the discouragement about the relevance of our work. But small prayers have called the H.S. to my aid. Through his strength--and the smiles of the kids--I’ve been able to stop whining and be thankful…”

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

First Day of Camp

JH was still soggy from the permanent drizzle that had settled over the city the day we got off the plane. As we boarded the bus to head to school, everyone was a bit apprehensive about camp.

At least in my mind, the questions began to arise: How will we perform? Will we actually help the kids? Is all this work worth it? Will the support that we raised be spent wisely here? And most importantly, How will teaching English bring the Gospel of Jesus to these people?

Before I discuss these issues, let me elaborate a little about the structure of the camp, just in case anyone wants to borrow this format. As soon as we arrived, we would have a group assembly. Evan was in charge of coming up with a skit to capture the kids' attention during this early meeting. Various team members would carry out the skits, which usually had the kids rolling with laughter by the end.

Next, kids would follow their teachers to their classrooms, where we'd have 50 minutes of traditional class time, teachers in standing in front of the students lecturing, using games and activities to get them involved. When class time ended, the group of students was split in two, one group going to music class for an hour, the other group going to word games, which reinforced the lesson taught during class. After the hour had passed, students, who were grouped with regard to age and English level, would swap places.

At about noon, we'd head back to town for lunch, and then back to the hotel for mid-afternoon xiuxi before returning to the school at 2 p.m. Afternoons were literally all fun and games. The group would split again, with half of the students going to recreation and the others to arts and crafts. After 1 1/2 hours, we'd switch. These activities allowed the kids to let their creative and athletic energies flow, and we taught them a little bit of English as they went along.

During the morning assembly on Day 1, we did an American Idol simulation. Frank used my black guitar to impersonate Elvis, Joe sung a horrific version of a popular boyband song, and Charlotte "won" with an opera rendition of "Happy Birthday." After the assault on the ears was over, I joined my fellow teachers and met my class.

I couldn't have asked to be stuck with better teachers. Jon Sieg is amazing guy whose Chinese is on a level similar to mine. Combining our knowledge, we could translate pretty well. A goofy but caring guy, Jon taught with an uncanny energy that the kids could feel, and they had the most fun when he was in front of the class. Both having experience teaching English in China, we made a good tandem, each stepping in when we felt like the other was floundering.

Christy Saucier rounded out the group. The 16-year-old is mature for her age, and she looks like she's five years older than most of the students. When we played the "guess our age" game, the students wouldn't believe that she was either their age or a little older. She mostly relied on Jon and me to set the tone for the class, but she stepped in nicely when called upon.

Our first lesson with the kids was very simple. We practiced easy sentences like "Hello, my name is...," "Where do you live?" and "What do you have?" Contrary to what we expected, we had to adjust the curriculum to fit our class, which boasted a relatively high English level. I did hear a lot of canned responses, stuff they had memorized from dialogues and books. They had problems understanding questions pointed directly at them, and they were uncomfortable with questions that don't have automatic responses. Basically, they were running into the same problems I've been facing while trying to learn Chinese.

But we're here to help them get out of their comfort zones, something that's necessary when learning a language. If you never have the courage to practice, you'll rely on book knowledge and never improve your conversation skills. My poor conversational Chinese attests to that.

Thursday, October 12, 2006


Without knowing about the food, you can't possibly get an accurate portrayal of China. Food is inextricably linked to daily life and community, especially in rural areas. So, along with the devotions, I'll be giving you glimpses of some of our meals as well. What you see may shock or surprise you, but as I said in the post about the school, you'll be surprised what you can do outside of your fat-and-happy American context.

Today's Menu at a garden restauraunt included:

-Black chicken soup, complete with head and feet. We took a picture of the chicken as if he were lying in a bathtub surrounded by spices and his own severed limbs.

-Pineapple steamed rice, an amazing sweet supplement to the salty and spicy meal. Good to anybody's taste buds, American or Chinese. Prepared by coring a pineapple, scooping out the insides and mixing them with freshly steamed rice. The mix is then put back into the pineapple and covered with the pineapple's original top, allowing the flavor to really marinate.

There's countless other things to list, but these are some of the highlights from the feast. Almost every meal like this was served with some sort of bamboo chutes, spicy noodles or other delights.


God speaks on mission trips, so throughout these posts I'm going to intersperse some quotations from our devotions that may encourage you. Think of these as a glimpse into what God was doing in our hearts as we carried out his work. These may just be short quotations, or they may be full-blown articles depending on how relevant they are. So, here's the first one. It came from our first meeting with our hosts and addresses the subject of God's nature, which at all times is both just and loving:

"Every good thing that I have experience is because of God's goodness and every suffering I have not experienced is because of God's grace, and all the time I have on this earth is not because God is obligated to give it to me, but because of his patience."

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


The night before camp, our team headed to a middle school on the outskirts of the city to complete our first assignment--evalutating the children's English levels.

When I say "middle school," there are a few things I need to clarify. For starters, Chinese middle schools don't encompass the exact same age groups as the ones here. For example, some of the kids in our classes were 15 years old. If I'm not mistaken, these kids' American grade levels would be anywhere from seventh to tenth rather than the sixth through eighth.

Also, don't think of this middle school as one building with a few wings. As I mentioned in the last post, dorms, cafeterias, outhouses, dancehalls and instructional buildings are all spread out. It's like a miniature college campus where students from poorer families will be housed until they return to their fields and villages. Some of the more wealthy students found lodging in the city.

I'm not one who likes to sit through meetings. That's partly a bad thing, because it sometimes leaves me disorganized and out of sync with the way a certain operation is supposed to run. At other times, though, I feel like restlessness is a good thing, a way of never becoming so settled that I can't stir anything up or so idle that I can't get running again.

That said, the day before camp had been a dreary one, and although we'd had some rest time and a good lunch, the rain and the planning sessions had sapped most of our strength. But then we crossed the threshold into the auditorium where all the kids had assembled.

Seeing their smiling faces triggered an amazing response from our team. It felt like either pure adrenaline or the Holy Spirit, or a combination of the two. Whatever it was, God controlled it and used it to give us fuel for the rest of the evening.

With well over a hundred students, the task of evaluating each one's English level looked daunting. But with 24 people and a little organization, we were able to tackle it. Using ESL curriculum, we tested students on vocabulary, speaking and comprehension. We used pictures that forced them to distinguish between similar items and sentences. We also asked simple questions like, "What time is it?" and "What day is today?" If they got 6-9 right on the first part, they moved on to the second, which could have been easier or harder depending on which vocabulary had stuck in their heads.

Each teacher evaluated about six students, and instead of leaving the school exhausted, we felt refreshed and excited. Tomorrow--the first day of camp--couldn't come soon enough.