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A Family Visit

Sometimes I forget that I haven’t lived in China my whole life. I know this sounds silly because, of course, I’ve only been in China since October, but having my grandparents and their two friends in Nanchang for a few days threw into sharp relief just how much I have assimilated to life here in that short time.

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For instance, I did not even consider that my visitors would be unable to use chopsticks effectively. Nor did I realize that I had become accustomed to the stark language barrier. People in China don’t speak English. They speak Chinese – they all learn Mandarin, but usually they speak the dialect of their own province or city. My students speak English because they are English and translation majors currently attending college. Occasionally there is a hotel manager with English skills, or a cashier at a Western brand store that can use a little English to help you, but mostly people speak Chinese and you have to do your best to communicate when you want or need something. For me, that means learning key words and phrases during my time here, but for my grandparents it meant using body language and hoping for the best (and then relying on me and my poor Chinese skills to translate… yeah, good luck with that).

Considering the rainy weather, the language barrier, and the sudden realization that I would be subjected to a multitude of questions that I didn’t have the answer to, we had quite a good time! We visited Tengwang Pavilion across the river, which I had not previously been to. It is one of the famous sites of Nanchang, and it’s large and beautiful! The only fun fact I knew before visiting is that the structure has been rebuilt several times, so I was able to learn a lot more that day. The site of Tengwang Pavilion includes the pavilion itself filled with artifacts and information, the gardens surrounding the many structures, and a superb view of the river (on a sunnier day). We also visited the Bayi Memorial museum during the weekend, which memorializes the Nanchang Uprising led by the Chinese Communist Party on August 1, 1927. I have now been there three times, but this time I had my trusty colleague present to provide additional information, and four extra Americans to offer their comments. I learn something new every time I go, so I expect to visit at least once more before I leave this city!

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In addition to learning a bit of Chinese history during our adventures, my grandparents learned more about Chinese people, especially those who live in a smaller (hah!) city like this one and who rarely see foreigners… they want lots of pictures! For the most part I’ve gotten used to strangers approaching me on the street asking for a selfie, but it was a new experience for my four companions. It was kind of nice to deflect the attention to other people for once. When they visited my classrooms the students attempted to be a bit more discreet, but there were still a handful that approached for photos at the end of class.

It was a great opportunity for my students and my four American companions to be able to meet each other. The students listened to four voices that differ from my own, and benefitted from it in many ways. Not only did they listen to these voices, but they asked questions about daily life in America and my grandparents’ hobbies. In return, my grandparents asked a few questions of their own about the students’ daily lives and activities here in China. We were able to generate some good discussions, and I was very proud of my students who spoke confidently and clearly in a new situation. We’re all hoping that my grandparents and their friends are enjoying the rest of their travels through China. Meanwhile, the students are improving daily!

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Semester 二 (2)

The Spring Festival vacation was long, long, long, but here we are at the start of a new semester at last! So I think it’s just the right time to discuss the beginning of the two semesters comparatively.

First semester was a whirlwind. That’s the only way to describe it. It took a whole lot of extra time to get my visa and work permit, so my arrival at Nanchang University was quite delayed (about 3-4 weeks into the semester). We showed up here on a Saturday and began teaching two days later with very little information and not nearly enough preparation. I had some general lesson plans drafted up ahead of time, but I honestly didn’t know what to expect from my students nor did I know what courses I would be teaching until that first day in Nanchang. The first week of classes was crucial, not only for getting to know my students and my way around campus, but also for assessing the level of oral English that I needed to gauge my lessons toward for the year. 

The truth is, the students in my classes have a range of oral English levels, which means that sometimes my classes are too challenging for some, while other times my classes are too easy for others. It’s been a real challenge for me to find and establish that middle ground - I’m still not entirely convinced that I have found it. On the plus side, this semester I know my students. I know their different personalities, and those more likely to speak up in class. I know that they like competitive activities, and I know that humor at my own expense is always appreciated. (I’m very willing to embarrass myself for the greater good!) Having that information in advance makes a huge difference between this semester and last.

In truth I was quite nervous to walk into my first day of classes today, mostly because I worried that I would forget my students names after working so hard to memorise all of them last semester. But I got in there and it felt like the most natural thing in the world. I saw all these wonderful, familiar faces filled with an eagerness to learn. It was an exciting day for everyone, in my opinion, because the classroom was full of chatter and movement and learning!

My advice to future teachers in China: Plan for anything. Plan for everything. Just think of your best ideas for activities, lessons, lectures, discussions, and all that jazz - and write them all down! That way once you assess your students you will be able to take those ideas and adjust them to the level(s) of your students without feeling like you are in complete disarray. And if you don’t know the specific courses you’ll be teaching ahead of time (like me!) prepare for it all! Reading, writing, oral english, public speaking, cultures of English speaking countries, debate, etc. You won’t always get information far in advance, so it’s important to be willing and able to adapt!

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(Busy in the city... 南昌 ... Nanchang ...)

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(Yummy dinner in Nanchang 南昌!)

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(The lake on campus - 没有人 ... no one ... )

 

春节 (Spring Festival)

The more I learn about Chinese New Year, the more interesting it becomes. First of all, only people who are not Chinese call it the Chinese New Year... here it’s called Spring Festival or 春节. It’s celebrated based on the lunar calendar, so this year Spring Festival will take place on February 16th. The upcoming year is The Year of the Dog, so this is my year! Any of you born between February 10, 1994 and January 30 1995: This is your year too! Additionally most people born in 2006, 1982, 1970, 1958, 1946…….. this is your year too! (The lunar New Year typically falls somewhere between January and February, so if you have a birthday in one of these two months, you should check other sources to accurately know what your zodiac sign is.

Back to those of us celebrating “our year”: don’t get too excited yet! When I first found out that I would be here in China as the lunar calendar unfolded into another Year of the Dog my reaction was: YIPPEE! I was so excited to be in China during MY year… I thought it was such good fortune that the two things would coincide! But alas, my knowledge of Chinese traditions was limited. Little did I know that your zodiac year is your year of bad luck! When I found this out I was immediately resistant. But then I thought back to 12 years ago (the last time my zodiac year came around) and realized it actually wasn’t a very good year! (It was 7th grade… we all know 7th grade is no fun!) So I was really sad… I don’t want bad luck while I’m in China! Nor do I want bad luck for the duration of the lunar year!

But, oh! My students and friends came to my rescue and told me a wonderfully helpful tradition! To ward off bad luck, you must simply wear something red all year until the next Spring Festival takes place. I thought, yeah, I can do that! I just need to buy lots of red clothes and make sure I wear them. I already have a red scarf anyway! Then, I got the best piece of advice I’ve received thus far. One of my friends said: just buy lots of red underwear, then you can always have something red on and not have to worry about it!

There is so much more to say about Spring Festival… traditional foods, activities, customs. But the truth is… every province in China is different, and every family celebrates a little differently too. So my goal is to collect as much information as I can from my students after they go home for the winter holiday and celebrate. Then I will be able to share more diverse information, rather than the tidbits that I know right now. One thing I will share is that a big tradition surrounding this festival is for older relatives to give their younger relatives 压岁钱 (red pocket money). This is a red envelope full of money to symbolize good luck and to ward off evil spirits. The specific traditions regarding red pocket money vary from province to province and between the north and the south of China (similar to how regional differences exist within the United States). However, the general idea remains the same.

Bearing all this in mind, the winter holiday is almost upon us. The students will go home soon, and the festivities will begin. So…. if you’re wondering what my plans are leading up to Spring Festival: Buy red underwear is the first thing on my list!

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*Edited and fact checked by Bella

First Semester Wrap-Up

In the interest of giving a lot of information in a short amount of time I want to share a few moments from my first semester in the style of superlatives. So without further ado…

Best Lesson: My best lesson this semester was the one I previously wrote about on this blog. My classes watched a scene from Harry Potter in silence and created their own ideas about what was happening with the characters. It went well in every single class and I believe the students genuinely enjoyed being creative with each other.

Worst Lesson: My worst lesson was during our formal and informal speech unit. I created a few different lessons to help differentiate between formal and informal vocabulary and expressions. There were some very successful lessons with mock job interviews and a game using “slang” words, but one lesson fell flat. We discussed how diary style writing influences informal speech, and how casual videos can show informal relationships. However, the lesson did not have enough substance, so I’ve put it on the blacklist for the future.

Funniest Moment: I can’t pull out one specific funny moment from my memory because the students all say humorous things quite often in my class. One of the most fun weeks though was when the students were learning raps for their pronunciation and intonation class and they came into my classroom mumbling the lyrics to “My Humps” by the Black Eyed Peas under their breath. I forced them all to tell me which raps they were learning and many were throwbacks to my middle school days, so we listened on QQmusic and I rapped right along with them.

Scariest Moment: The scariest moment is a toss-up between two memorable incidents. One: during our Harry Potter acting class two of the boys were such good actors that I was convinced they were actually going to fist fight each other. Fortunately, they played nicely. Two: in two of our classes a computer began smoking in the middle of class and scared the students half to death. We have since marked that computer as the computer of death and NO ONE is allowed to touch it EVER again! ~Fun times!

Most Memorable Class: Again, difficult to choose, but we have now acted for two class lessons and I think those are the most fun. We did our Harry Potter scene lesson, and we also did a class that focused on improvisation. Improvising in a second language is so difficult because it strains your mental capacity to remember vocabulary and sentence construction. Buuuuut… this is how spoken English is used – we don’t plan out everything we say on paper before we say it. So we did a class-wide improv game and the students were once again creative and successful!

Most Difficult Parts of Learning English: Everything. Just kidding – the students are actually quite good at memorizing vocabulary and using it in their writing. They also know a lot more English grammar than I do, which stinks because native English speakers tend not to use grammar appropriately when they speak. The pronunciation is also difficult because it’s so different from the pronunciation of Chinese. There are many sounds that exist in one language, but not the other and vice versa.

Most Interesting Discussion: We spent time one class discussing winters in our hometowns. This was just after a big storm in New Hampshire, so I decided to share my typical winter experience with my classes (Nanchang does not get any snow). It became interesting when I opened up the floor to all the students and had them share with each other about their own hometowns in winter. Many are from this province (Jiangxi) but there are also many from more northern or southern provinces that had cool things to share with their classmates.

Things I Learned: My biggest learning moment (in class) this semester was about the education system in China. We discussed high school, applying for college, and admittance. In China the Gaokao is the college entrance exam (similar to the SAT… except not… the Gaokao score can decide a student’s future entirely). Everyone takes the Gaokao and sends their scores to the universities of their choice, along with their requests for a major. You get 6 choices. Then, a while later you receive information telling you which school you will attend and which major you will be, almost solely based on your Gaokao score. This is very different from receiving several (hopefully) acceptance letters from colleges in the U.S. and choosing one along with your major. It was a big learning moment for me, and it helped me to understand my students even more.

Well, classes are over. Exams take place during the next two weeks. And then it’s time for the students to go home and relax and celebrate Spring Festival (or Chinese New Year) with their families. More on that later!

 

My Taobao Review

Taobao is the Amazon of China, except in the words of Kanye West: it’s better, faster, and stronger. Now, personally, I had a unique experience because I ordered a pair of sweatpants from Taobao that took several days to arrive. BUT typically packages are received in about 2 days. Ultra-fast! In my opinion, my problem occurred because I made a minor mistake... I placed my order the day after 12/12 or “Double 12” which is another major day for online discounts in China similar to “Double 11” back in November. I’ve been told, “Save everything you want into your shopping cart and then buy it all on one of those days so that you get the sale prices!” Unfortunately, I missed both my chances.

 

But Taobao is great! It only has one minor fallback for an English speaking American with little to no knowledge of the Chinese language: the APP is almost entirely in Chinese. Certainly I can search for items in English, but as I add them to my cart, purchase them, and track them during shipping I have to rely on my students and friends to guide me. (I got a message yesterday and I thought it said my package got to campus so I jumped up and basically ran to the pick-up station, but alas I was wrong. It still had a little ways to go to get sorted and delivered, but then it arrived late last night!)

 

 

My sweatpants are comfy, my legs are warm, and Taobao has my approval. (I’m trying to learn more Chinese too, so that maybe next time I won’t prematurely run for my package!)

 

 

My Student-Actors

Today one of my lessons went even better than I could have imagined! I was very hesitant at first because from my (minimal) experience here the students have a lot of difficulty being creative and imaginative. Many students prefer to ask a question, get the answer, and then memorize the answer. There is right and wrong without much opportunity for individual thought within the classroom. BUT TODAY we did an activity that involved watching a silent scene from a movie and then creating a dialogue to match the scene.

Last class we discussed body language, facial expressions, and how to use your voice to carry your meaning (all things that support the actual language of conversation - whether it is in English OR Chinese). For our purposes, of course, we were discussing the value of these tools in English. The scene we watched today was from Harry Potter (duh, I love Harry Potter) and it was rather emotional. Two characters are talking, then a third one joins them, and an argument ensues! It’s very clear that they are having an argument due to their body language and facial expressions (aka good acting). So the students grouped up, we watched the scene, and then I allowed them free reign to create a dialogue - or at least to create an idea of what was happening in the scene. It didn’t have to be TRUE as long as it realistically MATCHED the emotions, actions, etc.

We took some time. We discussed a few words along with their meanings and pronunciations as a class. I roamed the room listening to their ideas and guiding them toward speaking in English rather than the Chinese that they are so used to. AND THEN a few groups were chosen to share with the class. And boy, oh boy, was it AWESOME! They had us all laughing, and smiling, and one group even had a few of us feeling afraid - it seemed like the two boys in the group were actually going to start fighting. The first group decided the argument was about money - the third character in the scene was the next-door neighbor and he came over to ask for some money. The second group pretended that two of the characters were practicing their lines for a play and the third one didn’t believe them because it was so late at night! The third group decided that the two first characters were studying together and the character that entered the scene was a jealous boyfriend that didn’t believe they were “just studying”. DID I MENTION THAT THESE STUDENTS ACTED OUT THESE SCENES?

It was wonderful to watch and listen to. All of the groups seemed to enjoy hearing from one another because they all had different ideas about the scene. Most importantly, as the teacher, all of their ideas matched up with the body language that we saw. It was a great way to watch the students apply their knowledge rather than regurgitate what they learned last class onto a piece of paper in the form of a test or quiz. All in all, a great lesson and highly recommended to future TEFL teachers! (I actually got this idea from another TEFL teacher who had to DO this during her own high school French class.)

Written on November 29, 2017

Published later to see how this lesson fared in the other 3 classes - same results! Excellent lesson. Highly recommended!

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(This photo was taken by a student during our Thanksgiving lesson the previous week. #InTheClassroom)

 

Midterms are coming! Midterms are coming!

It’s midterm season here at Nanchang University. To those of you at home that statement probably seems like a quick jump from “new professor” to MIDTERMS! It is. My fellow Americans and I arrived during the fourth week of the semester, and therefore midterms have arrived very quickly. However, we can’t wait any longer or else we’ll be giving midterm exams back-to-back with finals and that’s just not fair to the students. So here we are.

 

At my university in America midterms meant, “Okay people, here come a few tests to take and papers to write. Make sure you study and write in advance because these are not things that you can cram for the night before!” (I assure you, they are things that you can cram for the night before.) In China midterms mean, “Keep studying! Don’t stop! Here comes an exam that is worth 30% of your grade, so memorize all of the information and spit it all back to me next Monday!” Now, in an English speaking class in China taught by a foreign teacher (me) midterms are somewhere in between my two examples.

 

My wonderful freshmen have been creating dialogues with a partner for the past week and will be presenting them to their classmates on Monday and Tuesday of this coming week. So they are still doing some memorizing, but they also have a chance to be creative in the process. We have been talking about the past and future tenses, pronunciation, and confidence so that is how they will be graded. GASP! “You mean, you aren’t grading the specifics of their grammar?” you ask, horrified at my less-than-expert teaching abilities! But let me ask you this: how often do you use proper grammar in every aspect of your conversations? Grammar is very important, but the students here have spent enough time memorizing grammar and vocabulary! My job is to help them produce their language on the spot. And on the spot? We all make mistakes.

 

It will certainly be an interesting week (I think some of my students secretly hate me) but I’m excited to see what they share! I’ve had a few previews in class and I am impressed with how hard the students are working to perfect their conversations. I am a bit less impressed when they use their phone dictionaries to search for complicated vocabulary that even I don’t know how to use, but all in all I have high expectations of success! That is, until it comes time to do all of the grading… and inputting the grades into the complex spread sheets on my computer… and planning for the second half of the semester…

 

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Though I’ve told you what midterms meant to me in America, and what midterms mean to students here in China, I have yet to tell you what midterms mean for a professor with 5 English conversation classes, one of which has 81 students in attendance. To me, midterms mean: stay up all night grading and don’t stop until you’re done!

 

With all that bearing down on me, I did what any sane person would do: I bought a bottle of wine to sip my way through all of the grading! Happy Midterms, everyone!

 

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11/11

Double 11 is this Saturday and it’s a big day according to my students. It’s the day to celebrate single people (I just heard the echoes of many laughs from my friends and family as they read this)! Due to November 11th being written as 11/11, people here in China think of those individual 1’s as single people. On this day the goal is to bring single people together to not feel so lonely. There are events happening all over the place on Saturday, and most importantly there are huge discounts for online shopping. APPs like “Tabao” (very popular here - similar to Amazon in the United States) are having major sales. That way if you’re single and feeling lonely, at least you can do some cheap online shopping! It’s comparable to what’s become known as “Cyber Monday” in America, but it’s done for a totally different reason. So if you’re single and lonely, come to China this weekend!

 

For me, this Saturday marks other significant things. First of all, it’s Veteran’s Day in the U.S. (A quick thank you to all the veterans back home!) Secondly, it marks one month of being in China! My way to celebrate: pizza! It’s become a living abroad tradition for me (this is only my second time living abroad, but back in London on the 1-month-aversary of being there I ate an American meal as well: Chipotle) so now it’s time for Pizza Hut! Don’t be mistaken: the food here is great! But having a small taste of home is relaxing and it’s a fun way to celebrate being away from that home. So of course, I will drag some American friends along with me to eat that cheesy goodness.

 

During this first month we have learned our own ways of living and teaching successfully here at Nanchang University. One piece of advice I will give future Teach in China participants is this: The difference between your first day in China and your first month in China is that after a month those difficult moments from the beginning seem very small and far away. The adjustment was hectic and frustrating and I swore in those first days that I would maybe never feel comfortable here, but then I pushed on and made friends and planned lessons and started remembering NOT to rinse my toothbrush with the sink water. I started to figure out how to get places on campus and cross the street without getting hit by a bus. I finally took a hot shower after about a week of cold, military style showers. (My colleagues all had hot water from the start, so don’t worry future teachers! This was just my bad luck.) I learned some Chinese words and I’ve even used them out in the real world (barely, but still). And this is only me! My colleagues have made great progress as well. So yes, we had a tough time jumping into everything at the beginning (it’s a lot!!), but here we are a month later feeling (mostly) confident about teaching, eating, and living in China! So Pizza Hut, here we come!

 

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(Lulu or 龚露, Collins from Texas, Nate from Maine, ME, and Nick from North Carolina after a great dinner out in the city and before watching the Nanchang light/fountain show!)

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(Photo of said fountain show...)

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(Hot Pot! Very delicious, but I still miss pizza.)

Holidays Abroad

We have had a busy two weeks in Nanchang. We taught many classes, we attended the opening ceremonies for the sports meetings that took place on Thursday and Friday (and therefore we had no classes), and we celebrated our first major American holiday from the other side of the world!

I have celebrated Halloween in 4 different countries, but I have to say this one was the most unique! As foreign teachers we were invited to two different Halloween parties on campus: the undergraduate party and the graduate school party (both hosted by their respective Oral English Associations). These parties consisted of costumed guests (we went forth with the motto “fake it ’til you make it” in our heads, so I decided that my Taylor Swift t-shirt counted as a costume), party games, candy, dance performances, singing performances, and a lot of new friends!

The three of us *new* foreign teachers all teach undergraduate students, so we knew a lot of people at that party. One of my students showed me a game where we competed to see if we could get a Pringle from our foreheads to our mouths without touching it with our hands or letting it fall to the ground. There was a balloon popping game as well (stomp on the balloons tied to someone else’s feet before they stomp on yours). The music was mostly English songs with a few Chinese songs mixed in. We also got to hear a performance of “Red” by Taylor Swift from one of the students who played guitar and sang beautifully. 

At the graduate school party we knew almost no one - until about 20 minutes into it… then we had so many new friends that it was difficult to keep track of them all! We heard a performance of “Lose Yourself” by Eminem (the student that did this rapped impressively!) We also saw a pumpkin carving competition and Nate participated in a dance game. It was all fantastic!

At one point, another foreign teacher not from the United States approached me to ask, “Is this what prom is like?” No… it wasn’t quite like prom. But it was absolutely as fun!

We left with ~20 new contacts each on QQ (one of the popular messaging/social media APPs here) and pockets full of little candies that we have yet to try. Of course, Halloween is almost over from where I am sitting, but for those in the United States it hasn’t even begun yet! So, without further ado, HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

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What do you mean "professor"?

It is very strange to be a college professor when less than two years ago I was a college student. I am now the expert on the subject of oral English (even though I say things like gonna, wanna, and occasionally: y'all). 

 

The students are very kind and eager to learn and it makes adjusting to this new place a whole lot easier. They have given me a lot of positive energy to work with, and they complete the tasks I give them without argument. They seem genuinely curious about America and how to speak the English language as an American would (so yes, sometimes I do say "gonna" in class). On the other hand, they are willing to help me as I cautiously approach the Chinese language. It is definitely a need-to-know item while in China, so they've helped me to pronounce a few words to get started. They laugh kindly when I butcher the pronunciation of Nanchang University. And they also give me great recommendations, such as the Milk Tea that I am currently trying (it's delicious by the way!)

IMG_4524It was not all butterflies and roses as I, along with my fellow co-workers, plowed through this first week of classes. We had difficulties when it came to getting classroom doors unlocked, using the technology (or lack thereof in some cases), and charging ahead without a curriculum by which to plan our lessons. Overall, I think we did very well, and I hope that our students feel that way too! Living on the other side of the world does not come without its challenges, but the experience itself may be enough to completely eclipse those small details. We have 9 months to find out!

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