Tuesday, July 23, 2013

1 year in China

historic site, across street from campus,
Gele Mnt in background
I have lived in China for 1 year and 1 month.  At times, it felt like time passed so quickly, but most of the time, it felt like slow motion.  The pace of life is much slower, even in the mega-huge city of Chongqing, where everyone naps during almost 3 hour lunch breaks.  It’s common to see people sleeping at work, even at restaurants and stores.  I never adopted the nap habit, but my life has been less frantic: no tight schedules, no multitasking.  I feel like I have a different perspective on time now.

My main job was part-time since I taught only 3 days a week and I only had to prepare 3 lessons a week.  Most university teachers have a similar schedule.  They don’t have offices and they don’t hold office hours, but many conduct research.  It’s not clear they even meet with students.  I held office hours each week for my students and I met them for lunch, dinner, walking, shopping, or whatever.  They helped me understand China and I helped them understand the U.S.  

My secondary projects were flexible, like going to English corners.  I did things as I had time and motivation.  Basically, my policy was if the dean or teachers in my department asked me for help, I always said yes.  Other requests, from other departments or the community, I mostly said yes, like if graduate students from other universities asked me for help with a paper or a speech, I usually did.

I had time every day to relax, do the things I enjoy most, and try things I rarely do at home.  I spent time everyday exercising, reading, buying and preparing food, watching movies or TV shows, and trying something new.  I went to bed early, got up early.  For the first time in my adult life, I regularly got 7-8 hours of sleep each night.  I had so much peace and quiet that at times it felt like loneliness and isolation, but those moments passes quickly. 

At first, I was anxious to fill my time; I’ve always been a doer, a to-do list keeper, a goal setter.  I didn’t keep any list and it was OK!  I survived a year of no lists.

I survived a year of living with next to nothing. 

But, doing everything felt like it took more time and effort in China.  Every morning, I had to check if I had enough drinking water for the day.  Just getting around in such a massive, crowded city could be stressful, time consuming, and exhausting.

Now that one year is over, I am more grateful than ever for all that we have in the U.S.

What did I learn this past year?  Culture is everything.  The Chinese lifestyle is vastly different from our American lifestyle and they believe, just as we do, that their way is absolutely right.  What does such a conflict of culture mean for current and future US-China relations?

For my part, I feel that I made a miniscule dent in cultural barriers.  One year later, I have a better understanding of Chinese culture and I hope that my students and the community people I met have a better understanding of American culture.  In that way, my year in China has been 100% worthwhile.

Tomorrow, I fly home. 

part of hallway display with pictures and explanation on
 "The Experimental Center for Foreign Affairs,"
... not really sure what it's about, but I was a part of it

giving a presentation

Saturday, July 20, 2013

summer project

Every summer, the Peace Corps Volunteers in each region conduct a 2 week teacher training for local English teachers.  The Chongqing volunteers went to Ba'nan where we taught about 230 primary, middle, and high school teachers the communicative approach to teaching English.  

The PCVs worked in pairs, co-teaching one level.  Stephanie and I taught one of the two classes for primary school teacher.  To make the lesson planning easier, we divided up the topics and the 4 of us each planned several lessons so that both primary classes had the same curriculum.  Some of the topics we covered: student-centered classrooms, learning styles, differentiated instruction, teaching large, multilevel classes, content based classes, classroom management, graphic organizers, assessment, pronunciation, songs, games, communication activities, and much more.  It was an intense 2 weeks for us and for them. 

Most of the teachers in our class were willing to participate and try all these strange, hands-on, American activities, but I was surprised to find some very resistant teachers.   One problem was they were forced to attend, regardless if they actually spoke or taught English.    Someone took attendance and checked their notebooks for notes.  In all the classes, there were a few teachers who had substitutes periodically attend in their place...so weird.  

Another problem was the teachers didn't expect to actually participate.  In the Chinese education system, teachers focus on rote memorization, that's it.  In this system, the teacher presents and drills the students on information while the students receive and recite.  We were teaching and using collaboration and student-centered activities in all the lesson and it was clear that many, most?, just wanted to sit there.  Some even slept.  

Finally, the heat was terrible to the point of distraction.  The classrooms had air conditioners, but of course the students wanted the doors open. 

Overall, I think they were worthwhile weeks, even though I doubt the teachers will use much of what we taught them.  If nothing else, they have an idea about how American students are taught.  My impression is that Chinese teachers feel pressure to have students memorize from the textbooks and they feel that student activities will take time away from memorization.

The 2 weeks started and ended with much pomp and circumstance, including many predicable speeches given by dignitaries in a specific hierarchy. 

(I was taking pictures with my phone, so they are poor quality.)

PCV Jeff, representing the 12 Chongqing volunteers,
 gives an opening ceremony speech in
dignitaries at opening ceremony, everyone gives a speech
Step and I teaching the primary teachers 
teaching lots of songs, chants, games, and
 student- centered activities
readers theatre group, reading a short play
.... and some off-task teachers:
about 1/3 of the teachers in our class spoke no or little English
gallery walk activity 
closing ceremony performances,
each class does some song or dance, so
Stephanie and I did this Tibetan dance with a few teachers
in our class 
Step in front, me in back
closing ceremony speeches
closing ceremony performances,
PCVs Christine and Tim sing a duet 
banquet with a few teachers in our class, lots of toasting
to how wonderful it all was, now that the 2 weeks are over

Monday, July 8, 2013

rural Tibet

begging, at every stop,
this stop was outside a village
Five young, dirty, sick looking kids crowded around the bus door, arms out, hands up, scanning the inside for what we, the rich foreigners, might give them.  Close behind them were adults or older kids tying to sell jewelry, pictures with yaks, fossils, or anything else, with very persistent “Looky-looky.”  Right on the side of the road are their cold, messy, bleak, high elevation camps. 

Even if we stopped near a village for a “pit stop,” kids would come out of nowhere, begging.  I understand that begging is part of Buddhism, but his total poverty of the Tibetan people was unexpected and I felt overwhelmed and unprepared to deal with it.  Once, when both young and old came out of their nomad tents, walking some distance to our bus, I despondently turned to the guide, “But, we have nothing to give them!”  He rummaged around our garbage bin, pulling out empty water bottles, and handed them over, saying, “they can use these.”  A Chongqing girl in our group gave them candy. 

high elevation, nomadic herder camp
Meanwhile, everyone’s camera was clicking away documenting these very colorful people living an ancient, rough lifestyle.  I found this so upsetting.  It felt like taking pictures of them, their camp, their animals, their life was an invasion, almost like they were on display.  I wanted to just let them be, leave them alone. 

We didn’t discuss or debate whether to give handouts, it just happened.  For example, Steph impulsively gave all of her fruit to kids at one high pass, “…because they need it.”  When she asked the guide if the Chinese government provides any assistance, he simply said, “no.”  I felt conflicted, both wanting to help and not wanting to encourage begging, as heartbreaking as the poverty is.  Later, we learned that the government wants to eliminate the Tibetan nomadic life.  This would be an enormous loss to Tibetan culture.

Chinese culture continues to push across Tibet with rapid, insensitive “development.”  Currently, a cross-country train track in under construction, west from Lhasa.  The section to Shigatse will be completed within 2 years.  How will that train change Tibet?  Do the Tibetans welcome the change?  Are they included in shaping their future?

some farmers were grinding barley by the side of the road,
using a water driven grinding stone 
barley before grinding

our guide talks to one of the farmers,
he bought a bag of barley flour

solar cooker

lunch stop in a village

lots and lots of  unkept dogs wandering around,
 especially at monasteries 

making the Tibetan stable food, tsampa
yak butter + barley flour

add water

mix with hands (not spoon)
roll into balls, eat

Tashilhunpo Monastery (Shigatse)
seat of the Panchen Lama

monk, Tashilhunpo Monastery

pilgrams, Tashilhunpo Monastery

Tashilhunpo Monastery,
woman with a sleeping baby on her back

Tashilhunpo Monastery

Tashilhunpo Monastery

Tashilhunpo Monastery

Tashilhunpo Monastery,
the group in orange (right) are the "fire brigade,"
perhaps with other official duties?

Tashilhunpo Monastery

comfortable tour bus

 lucky to travel with nice people on our tour

thanks for the great trip

evening view of the Potala Palace, Lhasa
this square used to be a beautiful lake,
now sadly paved with an ironic Chinese liberation monument

storm clouds over Potala Palace

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Tibet road checkpoints

On our itinerary it said, “Day 4 Lhasa to Gyanta to Shigatse (330 km), Day 5 Shigatse to Everest Base Camp (350 km).”  I looked at those distances and assumed, wrongly, that each travel day would take maybe 5 or 6 hours.  The reality was those travel days took 12 hours each… on the road, but not always moving.  Our tour used a small bus driven by a really friendly and helpful (non English speaking) Tibetan driver, who somehow kept steady and focused on those long driving days. 

An amazing thing about traveling in Tibet is there’s not much traffic and each vehicle is tracked by police checkpoints.  It was our guide who jumped out with his backpack full of permits and dealt with each checkpoint.  We were mostly not allowed off the bus at these checkpoints and absolutely no photographs.  I don’t really know what was happening at the checkpoints.  My understanding is the checks work by a paper trail: at one checkpoint our guide was given a piece of paper with a time on it, sometimes a police officer would board the bus to count passengers.  At the next checkpoint, our guide would submit the paper.  The challenge with this method is to not arrive at the checkpoint early; that means drive slow or pullover and wait to make the checkpoint time.  A few miles before the checkpoint, it was common to see cars on the side of the road waiting.

We needed to arrive in Shigatse before 6:30 pm for a permit to continue on to EBC, but we were making slow progress between checkpoints and it looked like we might not make it on time.  Even though we did arrived before 6:30, it apparently was not enough time; we had to come back in the morning.  Knowing that we had a long drive, we got an early start, arriving a half an hour before the permit office opened, our guide went in and we waited and waited and waited for 2 hours.  No explanation given.

Back on the road, we eventually came to a serious military checkpoint that made our guide a little nervous, “Please! No photos.”  Here, we had to get off the bus, go into the building, and line up for a passport check.  One of the European guys on our trip wondered out loud, whispering, “Would this be a good time for my “Free Tibet” t-shirt?”  Izzy, needing a toilet, walked in the wrong direction and received a smiling military escort back to the bus.  They weren’t being stern or unfriendly, just very official.

To travel in Tibet, a guide is essential to manage permits and checkpoints, and right now, independent travel is not allowed.
Yamdrok-Tso Lake

a car in front of our bus hit a sheep in this village,
causing much yelling between the shepherd and driver,
but the driver paid 

villagers listening to the argument about the dead sheep 

drying yak dung on the wall,
burned in stoves

glaciers at a high pass

passes have many prayer flags

wide-open space,
stunning views

a few hardy plants

empty road and a plastic policeman

Pelkhor Chode Monastery, Gyantse
(Gyantse Kumbum building)

Izzy and Steph after a long day on the bus,
Chinese noodles for dinner in Shigatse

driving through a river, and then
a few days later when we came back,
there was a new bridge

lots of trash in places like passes

beautiful, hand painting inside a traditional Tibetan house,
we had lunch here

nomadic herder camp

people camp at the passes,
selling and begging,
...hard, hard, sad life

police checkpoint

a landslide came down the road,
most of the town was working on clearing it

first view of the Himalayans 

Everest base camp,
Steph inside a clean and cozy yurt
 we slept on the benches

early morning view of Everest,
getting up and seeing this magnificent mountain
that I will never climb was beyond exhilarating,
it made the long road trip worth it

 outside of our yurt,
and our bus


walk to Everest lookout point,
can also take a bus there

yaks live at ridiculously high elevations

view from the lookout

lots of Chinese tourist at the lookout point

last view of Everest from Rongphu Monastery