Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Odds and Odds

It's one of my last days in China. Tonight, I spent time walking around campus at dusk, one of my favorite things to do. Here's a few of the landscapes that I walked through:

The lotus flowers are blossoming and I found this most perfect one:

I mostly like walking around at night because the older generation emerges at dusk and wows me with tai chi, stretching their legs against trees, belting opera, and dancing. I've said it before and I'll say it again: older folks are epic here.

Here's a really bad video from tonight of a huge gaggle of Chinese women dancercizing their way around the school track, and getting in everyone's way. It's fantastic.

On a related note, several days ago when I was climbing the school mountain (yep, there's a school mountain!) because I'm an old person, I ran into a lot of other old people and finally caught some solo opera-singing on video. Please note the stretching as well:

It was a good day for reminiscing. In addition to my tranquil walk at dusk, I also spent the earlier part of my day wandering around the exploded shopping mall that is Wuhan. I naturally came across a statue of a gigantic, buxom woman fashioned to look like a cross between a tomato and a flamenco dancer, from what I can tell. It was strange and uncomfortable and I liked it.

This was on my way to the Buddhist temple restaurant to meet my friend Dingding and gorge myself for the last time on a variety of delicious tofu dishes.

I finished classes several weeks ago and have been spending my time grading and then traveling to Beijing for my last presentation. It feels great to be done! Now all I have to do is pack and some other boring stuff. Here's the last day for my American culture class; students are looking at each others' final poster projects:

Here's us all together:

I thought this class was generally unimpressed with me so I was naturally surprised when they ended up making me a home-made video and notebook telling me how much they loved me on the last day. Just goes to show: I know nothing.

I'll miss all of my students. They have made my time in China a total delight.

But, I'm really excited to get home and see all of you. My roommates are excited too. Here they are, hamming it up:

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Humans of HUST: Michael

Meet Michael.

I meet Michael at the west playground on a hot, sunny day. We make ourselves at home, sitting down on the artificial grass in the middle of the track. Kids play around us as their grandparents look on.

Michael will always be one of the first students that I ‘noticed’ at HUST. The first few weeks of teaching in the fall were a blur. I looked out over a sea of emotionless faces. I didn’t know names or personalities, which is terribly disconcerting as a teacher. Then, I got to know Michael, due to his adorable personality.

I’ve been lucky to have him as a student for the entire year. Michael messages me questions about English over wechat, like “what does this word really mean?” Once he messaged me about the pragmatics of the word “hunk,” and whether we use this more than ‘handsome.’ So, he’s curious, bright, and seemingly always joyful.

Michael’s full name is Zhang Rui Hao. ‘Zhang’ is his surname. ‘Rui’ means luck and ‘Hao’ to be confident, generous, and successful. The English name ‘Michael’ was given by a teacher long ago; although he couldn’t pronounce it at first, he has grown to love it, especially because he shares it with people such as Michael Jackson.

Michael is from ZhengZhou, the capital of Henan province. “Henan province used to be the center of China for many, many, many years in ancient years. Many ancient capitals were in Henan province. Dufu is a famous poet is from my hometown. The specific location is Gongyi. I’m really proud of my hometown; it is one of the first 10 counties that is awarded with high quality of life, the town I came from is awarded of one of the top 10 towns in China.”

Michael is a junior student and although he currently is a Translation & Interpretation major, he started out in college as an electromagnetic field major, which I assume has something to do with time travel. Michael loves translation/interpretation and is happy to have found it. He explains, “ I like the translation process, it is really good. I don’t know the reason. Both English-Chinese, Chinese-English. Some words are really interesting.” About adapting to college, Michael feels like he successfully has. “I enjoy the slow pace of life; you can see that everyone here is really enjoying their life on campus (at the playground). I can control my life by myself; right now, I can chase my dream. It’s really free, I can do what I want.” Not all my students are as well-adjusted, so I am happy to hear this.

I ask Michael a bit more about his major, because I am fascinated by it. For some reason, the students studying T&I seem so different than all my other students. They seem more confident and in love with the world. He tells me, “The most interesting part is the mistakes that we make. Sometimes we will have difficulty understanding some sentences, and that will cause a lot of interesting things.” About his classmates, he tells me that, “I feel they are the most dynamic people I have ever met; one of my classmates said that, if you couldn’t have found where our classroom is, you can guess due to the noise. Some people are really interesting in our class and that will cheer all of us up.” This is absolutely true. This particular class of students is far and beyond my favorite bunch. They are loud, funny, and interesting. Here’s a picture of them all:

Although HUST wasn’t Michael’s top choice, he is still glad to be here. Hilariously, Michael ended up choosing HUST due to their cafeteria food. “The reason I chose HUST, because someone told me the school is filled with delicious food, so I came here. It is true. I’m fond of the dishes in Yiyuan canteen; I like most of the dishes.” This is indeed an important factor in choosing a school in China, since students are not allowed to cook in their dorm rooms. I probe more into what he usually eats. He thinks and then says, “Oil bread stick: i tried that recently and I’m fond of it.” There’s not always an appealing English translation available for Chinese food, so we’re going with it. Michael also likes HUST because of the decent living conditions for students. I’m a little surprised with this. He explains, “We have 4 people in one room; that’s a good condition. Other schools have 6 or 8 students in one room. There’s air conditioning at HUST. I have a bathroom and I have hot water. We even have a vending machine, with beverage, food.” I ask him what it’s like to have roommates. “My roommates are really nice but a bit noisy sometime. One likes reading books and he really reads loudly- that kind of reading. Another one is fond of games; the last one has a really restrictive schedule. I want to be strict but as long as I don’t have classes, I will sleep in.” A loud reader!

I know that Michael is really interested in language but I ask him about his other interests and hobbies. “I love to walk around cities and I will find a lot of interesting people and their habits. When we were in Nanchang, we woke up really early to see what their life is like; in one square, I found a lot of old people playing swords, and after they finished it, they are dancing after that. I find that really interesting. I like to see how their life is like. I like traveling but I like to go to the mountains; the green makes me comfortable. There’s a scenic spot near my home. I have a lot of interest in netizens; they are humorous. Talking with them, sharing interesting thing with them.” I tell Michael that I’d never heard the word ‘netizen’ before coming to China; I hear it all the time here! Especially in student essays. Well, I guess I’m interested in netizens too.

Here is Michael around the mountains that he loves:

Michael has a clear picture of what he wants to do in the future. “Interpreter; I know some interpreters, they are not only doing an interpreting job, they also have another job. I want to be an interpreter; it is a free job, so I want to be strict about myself, but I often fail to do so. Interpreters need to be strict about their clients, because some are really nonsense. One interpreter said that sometime a client will simply come to me and say, ‘can you do an interpreting job tomorrow morning’ and no information was provided about the job. They will think that it is just a simple job, like I say something, and you can translate. We need to be very strict with ourselves. My teacher says that we won’t do the job related to our fields; we don’t know anything about the medical, aerospace, mostly we will do that kind of job, so before the interpreting we need to do massive research. The reason why that interpreter can do a great job is that he or she did a lot researches before about the person giving the lecture and the professional knowledge about that field. So we need to be really strict with ourselves.” I can see what he means. It seems like going into interpreting requires a lot of motivation and detective work. It really isn’t just about popping up onto a stage and improvising.

Michael is literally always happy so I smile when I ask him, ‘What makes you happy?’ He answers, “Like everything. Everything that fails to make me unhappy makes me happy. My friends make me very happy. Some videos. Mostly it’s because of my friends, they are really nice and humorous. I will argue a lot with one of my friends and the process of argument is really interesting.” It isn’t surprising then when he tells me that the thing he loves most about himself is that he can “always find a way to make myself and others happy.”

Michael’s most treasured aspect of China is this: “we are willing to adapt other things from other cultures and other people. We have 55 minorities and during the long history, we didn’t have so much fighting with each other, because we have this sort of characteristic. We learn from others. You can see from modern China that that still works. We are really willing to learn from others.”

Something that he finds frustrating is the divisive arguments between netizens on certain issues. He believes in civil discourse and valuing intentions and is annoyed to see people picking fights over small issues online. He draws the apt comparison to American politics and I can’t help but agree with him. About this polarization he says, “really, really, I don’t like that, they can come together in a more friendly way.” Michael exemplifies this ‘friendly way’ with his very existence and behavior towards others. Frankly, I am honored to have been his teacher.

On an ending note, he wishes to tell all of you: “I know that there are some stereotypes that we all have, but only when we talk to someone from the different country, can we break the stereotypes. Wish you all happiness in the future.”

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Humans of HUST: Eileen

Eileen is a quiet and serious freshman student who is in my narrative writing class. She is quite a skilled writer. We meet in front of the school library because she has a library volunteering shift to go to after our interview. The sky is gray, because it is Wuhan. We both ponder the sky; both of us come from blue-sky lands.

Eileen is from Shandong province, from a city called Weihai. She describes it in an idyllic way; “It is very beautiful and is near the sea and there are many beautiful beaches and there are many travelers every year, and it is fit for just spending your own time. The life pace there is very slow. It is very quiet and beautiful and clean. There is always blue sky because it is near the sea, the climate is very enjoyable.” She pauses to look at the sky. “The climate is hard in Wuhan.”

I get to see another side of Eileen today, which is the whole point of this project anyway. Eileen has a great English name. I ask her why she chose it and she tells me that she found it on the internet and loved the pronunciation, especially the letter ‘E.’ I am surprised to find that I’m the first person to ask her if she knows the song, “Come on Eileen?” She doesn’t, yet seems delighted to look it up later. Eileen’s Chinese name is ‘Zhang Yuan Lu.’ ‘Yuan’ was given to her by her grandfather and means the new century; she was born in the year 2000. ‘Lu’ means ‘Jade,’ which is just a beautiful stone.

As a freshman, Eileen has experienced a lot of challenges adapting to life at HUST. She mentions the military training; every freshman spends their first 3 weeks in college marching and training outside in the sun all day. As she describes it, “ From the beginning of my life in university, it’s very hard for me, especially the military training. It’s hot. The sunshine is so annoying and so tiring. All day we are outside, from 7am until 9pm; only 2 hours for sleeping and eating and 1 hour for dinner.” After 21 grueling days, the students are off to classes. Eileen reminds me that I was the very first university teacher that she ever had; her first class of the week. She thinks back to how much she struggled to come up with a simple English word when we talked after class; it’s amazing how much her English and confidence has improved since then. Another challenge she has experienced is a common one: getting off her cell phone. Many students are addicted to their phones and spend too much time shopping on Taobao or playing games. Eileen notes that she has problems controlling herself but she wants to work on the issue.

Eileen has already made some close friends at HUST. She describes several to me, explaining how comfortable she feels around each. There’s one girl especially who she is close with: “I also have a friend in another major, Ms. Wang, she is very interesting person, I’m comfortable talking to her. Our habits are very similar and we both like traveling and we both like eating and we both like studying together. But it’s sad that she has a boyfriend now, oh, I was abandoned. Her boyfriend is not very happy for my existence. He thinks that she is more likely to stand together with me than him. So, I tried my best to disturb her less.”

Eileen is a double major in International Business and English, similar to Scarlett and Sherry, who I interviewed earlier. She shares the same struggles of a teeming full schedule and not enough sleep. I ask Eileen why she chose her majors. She tells me that she was initially interested in news and journalism, but because of her score on the Gaokao, she went into international business instead. She was told by older friends that university wasn’t actually relaxing, but Eileen didn’t believe them. Now, she reflects: “I thought it would be ok before I really came to school and had the classes, but after being here, I found that I don’t have my own time. I have 4 or 5 classes in one day...I think it’s just that you don’t have any time to play, and you even don’t have enough time to review.” In my eyes, Eileen is one of the most serious and dedicated students in my class, but she tells me that she feels inferior to most of her classmates: “I admire the students in my class who get higher marks; I think there’s a need to admire that; they keep a balance between the studying and the learning, and they can use their time more effectively. I always want to talk to them and learn about their methods. Maybe I am a little inferior. I don’t have some hobbies like playing the piano or dancing or singing; after I’ve come to the university, I’ve found that many people around me have their own hobbies, like painting, dancing, and so on. And, I don’t have their talent.”

Unsurprisingly, Eileen is actually a very impressive student and interesting person, despite her feelings of being less. She studied incredibly hard in high school and was always in the top 3 ranked students. Due to her hard work she got into HUST, which is a top-ranked school. She explains that the level or ranking for your undergraduate college is actually more important than where you go for graduate studies, since as a senior high school student, you are competing with all the other seniors in China. The competition dwindles with graduate studies and it’s no longer a huge deal if your school is highly ranked or not. I ask Eileen what she thinks about HUST and she reflects; “Before I came to HUST, I looked at some picture of HUST, and I liked the trees very much, and I think it’s beautiful. When I came here, I’m a little disappointed because the buildings are so old. Shabby. I’m a little disappointed but I think the teachers, students here are very very good, excellent. I think the total environment is very good for me.”

Eileen has very specific plans for her future: she wants to work at Huawei in an overseas position. She’s especially interested in this because she could have the opportunity to travel, which she loves to do. She thinks that before she does this, she will try to study economics in Shanghai for graduate school. She notes that her dream is a big one and that she owes it to her father, who loves Huawei. There are two things that really light up Eileen’s eyes: traveling, and her family. We find a quiet place to sit by a lotus pond near the library and she takes out her phone to show me pictures from her recent trip to Nanjing with friends. Her family is what we spend the majority of our time talking about.

A lot of things makes Eileen happy; she admits that she actually is happy quite easily, for a variety of reasons. When she IS sad, she takes care of this easily by calling her parents. As she explains, “It’s easy because whenever I’m not happy, I like to call my parents and just to communicate with them about my sadness, and after the communication, I feel better.” Eileen may be unique because she tells me that most of her friends here are surprised that she communicates with her parents so often. Eileen describes her relationship with her parents; “I am very close with my parents. Thanks to the education of my mom . She educated me very well I think. I appreciate her very much. I have a very happy family. Whenever I think of my parents, I feel happy, I’m the luckiest one in the world.” At this point, Eileen starts to tear up, but continues to tell me about her parents, and especially her mother: “When I was very young, my mother always educated me that you should study hard, but that I don’t care about the results, I just want you to do your best. When you think you have done your best, that’s okay, no matter the prize you have won. No matter how high or low grades you make, I don’t care. I just want you to do your best.”

Eileen describes her mom as incredibly clever, despite not having gone past junior high. “I think that my mother has more wisdom than I do. She knows about life wisdom.” Eileen describes through her tears how her mother used to walk the 1km with her to school every morning, and pick her up every afternoon after school to walk her back home. They spent the time talking about Eileen’s day at school. She also mentions her father; “My dad is a little bit busy, so when I was young, I don’t appreciate him the same as my mom, but then I found that my father is also very very good, I think why I’m so lucky for having them to be my parents? When it comes to talking about my family, I always cry like a baby.”

When I ask Eileen what she loves about herself, she says, “I think I’m a little not confident about myself. When I was very young, my grandpa said that between all the siblings, he thinks that I’m not as clever. He thinks that my intelligence is not as high as my brother’s or other sister’s. He said that everyone’s future doesn’t depend only on my intelligence. He thinks that my mother does a good job in educating me. He really appreciates her. He always said that I have very, very, good parents. I have the best grades of all my siblings. My parents said that you are not the most clever but you are lucky because you have your parents. Many teachers in my school said to me that you have a wonderful mother. My grandpa says that if I didn't’ have my mom, I would not be like how I am today. She’s very important for me.”

Despite her humble nature, Eileen really is an amazing and well-rounded student, who not only pays attention in my class (!) but also spends time volunteering around campus, traveling with friends, and participating in extracurriculars such as the debate team. Eileen also really enjoys listening to music and keep track of the international news.

Here is a recent picture of Eileen on an outing with her debate team:

Eileen’s favorite things about Chinese culture is the beautiful ink paintings done by Chinese artists. She explains; “I think it is very meaningful; it looks like simple but when you look at it closely for a long time, you can experience that it is very very meaningful. I think it is excellent.” About China, she wants Americans to know that, “It’s a good place to travel and also the economy of China is growing and it is a better place to work. I love China very much and I’m proud of being Chinese because my father loves China very much too; he always thinks that all Chinese need to make a contribution to the growth of China. I want to tell your American friends that if you have time, please go to China how it is like today, not just from your imagination. Because I think just like me, if I want to learn about America, I’ll search it on the internet, and not all the information on the internet is correct, and we should experience it by ourselves. More and more american people should go to China to see what is China like today, not just imagine.”

She ends our interview by talking about the vast differences between the various parts of China, especially when looking at the different dialects and the different snacks. Eileen laughs as she tells me how spicy the snacks are in Wuhan and how she often doesn’t even know how to eat them correctly. In regards to the dialects, she notes that, “ In Southern China, the dialect is so different from the normal language used in all of China. We can’t understand the dialects. Northern China doesn’t have separate dialects, so you can understand each other. Im Southern China, wow, what are you saying? As a person from Northern China, I can only understand the Putonghua (standard Mandarin). At school, we all speak Putonghua, but when I go outside HUST, to the bus or supermarket, and there are many older people and they couldn’t speak the standard, so they just use their dialects. So, every time, I need to thank for a long time, what are you saying? I can’t understand you. Speaking English to me is better than you speak dialect.”

Thanks Eileen!