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.

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