Short Stories: October

a collection of some of my other favorite moments from this past month, many of which took place in the classroom:

Vegetarians

I’m doing a lesson on types of meat that we can cook, and for fun ask the kids to draw some interpretation of the animal it comes from. Jenny and William think they are brilliant, and to avoid coming up, say they are vegetarians and don’t eat meat. I force them to come up anyway and talk about their favorite vegetables and draw something for me. See below:

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Balanced Diet Pagoda

I grew up with a food pyramid, which has now become a USDA MyPlate, to help guide me into healthy eating habits (something about eating lots of veggies and fruits, lean protein, and whole wheat). One of my students put something together called “A Balanced Diet Pagoda” that will eventually lead its followers to morbid obesity. The foundation is made entirely of sugar, and water is at the top, consumed sparingly

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Braids:

I went to Chongqing for a weekend and missed my Sunday morning flight back to Lanzhou (because [NAME REDACTED] told me to get to the airport only one hour before my flight, and I stupidly listened to his/ her advice). I caught another flight that landed Monday noon, which meant I had to rush from the airport to Lanzhou downtown, then head to my 2:30 PM class to teach (with bad airplane hair). I prepared some sort of a lesson plan on the plane but I knew it was thin and ran out of things to do a bit early.

In Class 3 I noticed Susan and Fay were not paying attention AT ALL, and were busy playing with each other’s hair. As punishment (and as a way to fill 25 minutes of class) I decided it was my turn to braid their hair. I assured the girls I am good at this, as I’ve braided my older sister’s hair before, when I was a kid 20 years ago. The class crowded around as Teacher Cheng pulled three uneven bundles of hair into a disheveled braid on the left side of Fay’s head. I then proceeded to do the same to Susan. None of the girls have braided their hair in class since.

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Gossip:

Bobby: Jack and Vivan are dating
Me: Class 2 Vivian or Class 3 Vivian?
Bobby: Class 2 Vivian
Me: What!!??! Jack and Class 2 Vivian are dating??!??
Bobby: so? I like her. she’s smart, and not a bimbo
Me: I think he can do better
Bobby: OH WHO? LIKE DAICY?!?

I’m a bit embarrassed but this is a real conversation that took place between myself, a 27 year old, and Bobby, a 31 year old PCV about our sophomores. Should we feel bad we are gossiping about (and intensely interested in) the personal lives of students who are a decade younger than us?

Watermelon

For Halloween I really needed to carve a pumpkin. The kids all knew that Americans carve pumpkins and put candles inside to make some spooky décor for the night. Problem is, pumpkins in China (at least the ones that I could find) were all small and flat, not ideal for carving. I decided to carve a watermelon instead… and I think the results were nothing short of fantastic!! Teacher Cheng is so resourceful! This story will make it into my Yale application for sure, when addressing how i overcame an insurmountable challenge.

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Pizza Hut

Not much of a story, but I splurged 100 RMB (roughly 2 days’ living stipend) on a Halloween themed carbonara pizza and drink at Pizza Hut. I haven’t had mozzarella cheese in a really long time and it was freakin’ delicious. The black crust is made from squid ink – so crazy!

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Mean Girls

I showed all three of my classes Mean Girls this month, as a treat for being good (they weren’t that good, I really just wanted to watch Mean Girls, and give them a taste of American high school life) Later I ask my kids about their experiences growing up in Gansu

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pre-rehab lindsay and the plastics

Me: so were you girls like this too in high school, and maybe even today in college? Figuring out who is popular, and only hanging out with the pretty girls and hot guys?

Maria: yes, in elementary school. But then we stopped caring after that. What about you?

Me: WHAT?!? I still spend every day of my life trying to be more popular and better looking than everyone else

Maria: this is why you are single

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Learning about American Families through Civil Rights, Brangelina, and Pictionary

Mr. Cheng is the most progressive teacher his students will ever encounter at their three year, Tier 7 College. I’m super proud to say students have yet to open their outdated and dreadfully boring British textbooks for Oral English.

I keep it real and challenge my students to see and understand America as a wonderful but imperfect, living, breathing, and evolving country. For example, I talked about the American Dream, the whole “two cars in every garage” mandate, and showed them photos of happy families living in the suburbs, in the post-war boom era

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Living the American Dream

I immediately followed these slides with a discussion of how Black Americans in the 1950s were refused mortgages in the suburbs, and forced into inner-city neighborhoods with limited access to healthcare and quality education, perpetuating a cycle of poverty. (I don’t recall learning about redlining/ housing discrimination in high school or college, so my Tier 7 students in Lanzhou now know more about systemic and institutionalized racism than I [a #1 ranked STEM high school attendee and NYU Stern alum] did when I was their age)

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a march for equal housing

I show them photos of Brad and Angelina, and their six kids, to make a point that biological and adopted kids create a loving family together. And unfortunately, I also use Brangelina as an example for how 40% of marriages in America will ultimately end in divorce, and therefore single parent families are neither unusual nor shunned in American society. (I tell them all to sign prenups when they get married, but under Chinese law men will probably keep almost everything)

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short lived marital bliss for the jolie-pitts

Inevitably, I drag Jennifer Aniston and her beautiful hair into the discussion to introduce the idea that women can live fulfilling lives without a husband or children. (OK, maybe I’m not THAT progressive, if the only reason I bring up Jen is because she got a divorce)

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My former coworker Holly, who was born and raised in Beijing said to me “thanks for bringing the concept (female empowerment) to young Chinese girls, who have been educated to please men as their life mission!”

I told the story of a married couple Mildred and Richard Loving who were sent to jail because she was black and he was white, and how their interracial marriage was legal in some states but not in others, until their victorious 1967 Supreme Court ruling changed America for the better.

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Mildred and Richard- thank you for your courage

The whole idea of a family being legal in one state but not others was also a reality for gay couples in America up until last year, so I discussed LGBT equality at length. There was some uncomfortable giggling (and a really loud *GASP* from Betty) in the classroom, but when I positioned gay marriage as an issue about treating other people (ie. friends, future coworkers, and their freakin’ English teacher, maybe?!?) with respect and kindness, the students were receptive to marriage equality. (In Class 3 Tina nodded approvingly, Maria gave the thumbs up, and Jack said “that’s so cool!”- I love Class 3!)

My final slide was full of photos of my friends in their happy multi-cultural, non hetero-normative relationships. I felt a *little* guilty because half of these couples have since split and moved on with their lives, but I just spent an hour harping on interracial/ gay marriage and I didn’t want to disappoint my students.

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“Randy and Tom are both doctors! you should try to become doctors after graduating. and if that’s not possible, try your best to marry one”

In full transparency: Jane (Korean) and Patrick (Irish) never “officially” dated, and the baby they are holding belongs to another friend. Hassan (Pakistani) and Michelle (Chinese) broke up two years ago (“I can’t NOT eat on Ramadan!”), and everyone knows Monique is not a real lesbian and only lives with Ana because her Master’s Degree in Drama Therapy has yet to land her a job with which she can afford to pay rent on her own. But these are just minor details; what’s really important is love in America transcends gender, race, and religious affiliation!!

Now the fun stuff: reviewing the Family Tree (from a prior week’s lesson) and Family-related ideas through Pictionary! I split my class into two teams (“Team K.O.” and “Dream Team”) and the result was lots of screaming and shouting; pure chaos in the classroom.

Some highlights:

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Lucy from Team K.O. sees this depiction and is typing furiously into her phone, translating words from Chinese into English: she timidly says “Anti-miscegenation laws” Whaatt?? I don’t even know what that means. That’s totally cheating, and I tell her to think of phrases we used in class. Finally someone screams “INTERRACIAL MARRIAGE!

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Someone on Win’s team screams “FAMILY!” Win looked at me triumphantly. I told Win she didn’t Win, and instructed her to re-read the words on the index card. She thought for a second, then wiped “dad” off the blackboard with her sleeve. “SINGLE PARENT FAMILY!!” correcto!

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Julie looked at her card, started drawing a stick figure, then erased it and went in with a killer definition. AMAZING. SO PROUD OF MY GIRLS. “INDEPENDENT WOMAN!!!

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This was a tough one, neither team got it. Correct answer: adoption

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A second attempt at adoption, someone screamed out “Double Income No Kids!” (cell phone research answer, since I didn’t talk about D.I.N.K. in class)

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DIVORCE!”

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“GAY MARRIAGE!”

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“GRANDSON!” (so cute!)

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I didn’t like where this picture was going (we never talked about inbreeding in class), but miraculously, someone screamed out the correct answer after several tries, “NIECE!” Whew!

fending off baijiu at a rural(ish) wedding

My good friend Monica, her boyfriend Fox, and I are in a car headed to Yuzhong. Monica’s friend is getting married in “the countryside” so she thought it would be cool for me to tag along. I’m wearing a hoodie, jeans, and sneakers because I was definitely over-dressed at my last wedding and don’t want to look out of place. We drive for an hour and get out in what looks like it could have been “the countryside” ten years ago, but is now turning into more urban sprawl

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farmland is slowly being eaten by developers for real estate

Fox and I are disappointed there are no pigs or chickens running around. We head into the bride’s large family home, to the courtyard, where the wedding will take place. We drop off a red envelope at the front and are offered cigarettes.

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the guest list, which i probably was not on, and complimentary cigarettes

A red carpet is rolled out and lanterns are placed along the aisle. At the other end of the courtyard, there is a table covered in red cloth with dates, peanuts, longyan, and walnuts- the foods represent good health, long life, and fertility for a male child. There are two seats on each side of the table for the bride and groom’s parents. There is also a bottle of baiju liquor.. more on this later!!!!!!

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dates, peanuts, longyan, and walnuts. oh and hard liquor!

The bride and groom walk down the aisle; he’s in a suit and tie, shes wearing a red and gold laced dress. The guests are loud and the emcee is making all sorts of slightly vulgar jokes. Monica points out to me that it looks like a McDonalds wedding “Its like the McDonalds logo! I’ll never get married at McDonalds”

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a mcdonalds themed wedding
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monica, fox, and i watch the wedding from the second floor of the courtyard house

Tables are brought out into the courtyard and the guests take a seat to have lunch. As with the previous wedding I went to, there were only enough seats for half the guests, so we have to wait for the next round of dining.

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We go outside and see a lot of the men squatting, smoking as they wait to eat.

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fox and i squat as well

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We walk into a bedroom where the bridge and groom might spend their first night- it was decorated all super cute, with gold and red balloons

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going through the couple’s photo book

The chef is making something amazing outside, with an enormous five layer steamer

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frying up prawn, and steaming other goodies near the dirt parking lot outside

Finally its our turn to eat. we grab seats and the appetizers come out. The baijiu guy is walking around with his shot glasses. Two shots per guest. Fox assures me he will take four shots for the both of us, because I HATE baijiu. A minute into eating Fox gets a call on his phone; something super urgent has come up for work, and he has to leave. it’s a really serious problem so Monica also leaves, and tells me to hitch a ride back to Lanzhou with another friend of hers who is at the table.

Baijiu guy is coming around, dangerously close to me… I cross my hands frantically to show I wont be drinking. Biajiu guy says something along the lines of “in china, true men drink baijiu at weddings, its embarrassing not to drink” luckily I’ve spent the past decade crafting my own idea of what it means to be a man, and the words “drinking baijiu with some drunk dude at a wedding in china” do not make it into this definition. I continue to ignore him

The woman next to me tells Baijiu guy im American and I don’t speak Chinese.

Baijiu guy looks disappointed for a second, then his eyes light up “CHEEEEERS!!!!!

oh fuck! Where did he learn that? He knows English!

I frown and shake my head, to make a point that I wont drink. “no! no! no! no! no!”

Baijiu guy brings the shot glasses closer to my face. “CHEEEEEEEERS!!!!

Me: “不! 不! 不! 不! 不! Bu! Bu! Bu! Bu! Bu!”

Baijiu guy, now with shot glasses two inches from my nose: “CHEEEEEEEERS!!!!

Im about to SMACK him, but he finally relents and moves on to harass the next guest.

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baijiu guy already hit this table hard! drunk and happy guests

Crises averted; the rest of the lunch is rather uneventful and I head back to the city with Monica’s friend.

“CRAZY ENGLISH CLUB”

Several weeks ago on my way back from the men’s room during break, I was AMBUSHED in the hallway by one of my sophomore students, Amy. She is a sweet but super shy student and never speaks during class, but handed me a piece of paper, folded into a small square. In very neat handwriting she wrote something along the lines of “my english is poor… but I want to invite you to a party to welcome the freshman, at the end of September.” I couldn’t say No at this point, and I figured it was a one-time event, so I told her I would love to attend and we would follow up through text on QQ.

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my students dont use their real names or photos on QQ so i never know who is messaging me, but i eventually figured out this was amy

We confirmed it was on Wednesday, and although I was quite tired from a two hour English Corner the night before, I told her I would make it. So on Wednesday night, at 7 PM I biked back to school and went to the designated room.

The room was full of at least 80 freshman students, with many bodies running around and hands busy hanging up balloons and party streamers on the walls. I look on the chalkboard and see the words “CRAZY ENGLISH CLUB!” – what the hell, another English club?! WHY!??! But before I had a chance to say anything, the Dean of the English Department walks in with a big smile, wearing his evening tracksuit. I stand up and shake his hand and the two of us are ushered to take a seat in the front of the class, and are poured cups of pepsi and orange soda.

The students spend an uncomfortably long time fussing over the decorations of the room, and finally the club president begins his powerpoint for Crazy English Club. It is entirely in Chinese. He talks (in Chinese) about the vision of the club and runs through slides for the dozen or so club leaders and their various responsibilities. At this point I begin to suspect Crazy English Club was concocted out of a need for students to pad their resumes with leadership roles (I know this because I was once a college student too, and a club of this nature only requires three or four ‘leaders’ at most… and THERE’S ALREADY AN ENGLISH CORNER EVERY TUESDAY NIGHT!)

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crazy english club/ “freshman welcome party”

After each club leader stands up and bows to loud applause, it is finally Amy’s turn to speak. She gets up and talks about the two C’s to learning English: CONFIDENCE and COURAGE. This statement likely makes Amy one of the biggest hypocrites in Lanzhou and maybe even the entire province of Gansu, since she has barely uttered a word of English in my class after five weeks of teaching, and the few words she has whispered (when I directly ask her for an opinion) are always “I don’t know…”

A few slides later, the presentation is finished. I smile and tell Amy the slides were beautiful and look great. Amy laughs nervously and says that they are just okay. Dean Jiang whispers in my ear and explains that her response was very Chinese; she’s trying to sound humble and talk down on any compliments she gets for her work. I didn’t say it, but I wanted to tell him that my words for her were very American; always telling people they are the best, the brightest, that their work is amazing and incredible when in reality the individuals could be completely forgettable and their work mediocre.

A couple minutes later, Crazy English Club turns into Marginally Talented Talent Show. A couple guys come up and sing off key Chinese karaoke songs. A female student does a dance to a K-pop song, the chorus lyrics are “sexy, sexy, sexy, sexy, sexy” She caresses her body, flips her hair, and gets low to the floor, doing her dance interpretation of sexy, sexy, sexy, sexy. I try to focus my attention on the blackboard or else I would burst out laughing, and I didn’t dare look at the Dean to see his face. But I can tell he is getting annoyed that an hour and a half into Crazy English Club, no one has spoken English yet. He speaks angrily to some of the (many) student leaders about the situation, about wasting money on decorations, and the talent show is cut short.

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KTV time! no english songs were sung, unfortunately

Dean Jiang voluntells me to help revamp the club into something that is actually oral English related. We quickly take a group photo with the swarm of club leaders and I head out, still in disbelief over how the entire night played out at “Freshman Welcome Party”

When I arrive home I get a very Chinese style text message from poor Amy:

Thank you very much and sorry that you waste a lot of time

I sent her a very American style text in response

Don’t worry about it!! Thank you SO MUCH for inviting me!!! I had a lot of fun!!!!!