Real World: Lixian

Summer Project has come and gone! This is a two week event that every PCV must complete between the first and second year of service. This year, all volunteers from Gansu province were sent to small-town Lixian together, to teach primary, middle, and high school teachers Oral English.

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Gan’Zoo Crew 2017

Some 300 students (teachers) took part in this annual lovefest of learning and intercultural exchange. In other provinces, the volunteers were split between five sites, so each volunteer had a monstrous teaching load- we lucked out and all 17 of us were all thrown in one town.

More volunteers = more fun = less teaching = happy Teacher Cheng. The gansu volunteers all stayed on the same floor of the hotel we were at, and i felt like a college freshman again (that was 10 years ago!)  with some rooms designated for netflix, or nintendo, or just “drink wine and chill”. a few of us frequented the spa downstairs, despite the water in the hot tub never being filtered, and only drained every other day..

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guys hangin’ out in the sweltering heat

Lixian is a pretty laid back town, and you see a lot of the card playing/ chess/ mahjong in the streets that might no longer be common in larger cities. everything moves a little slower here, and you dont risk your life walking across the street in the same way you would in Lanzhou

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serving up a hot bowl of Re Mian Pi (warm noodle skins), the local specialty

We had a day to settle in and then classes began the next morning But, first things first…

Jess’s Birthday Bash!

I don’t think anyone dreams of celebrating their 30th birthday in Lixian of all places, but that exactly what happened to my Peace Corps BFF Jess! We got a nice cake (interesting choices included sponge bob cake, bra and panties cake, and a Barbie cake from Angel Bakery) and went to a beer garden near the dried creek that intermittently reeked of urine or worse. Despite the unusual aromas that wafted through the night, we had a great evening together.

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we ultimately picked a very normal cake with dragonfruit and kiwi

Jess said turning 30 in Lixian just puts everything into perspective – its really just another day in your life, and in the end, everyday is what you make of it – the world is full of surprises and you just learn to roll with it. Plus, ten or fifteen years from now when people ask what you did for your 30th, it’s way more meaningful to tell a story about Peace Corps than “I flew to Paris for a week”

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learning too much about one another through “never have i ever”…

My Lesson:

Each morning, around 9:30 AM – after an unnecessarily long, self-centered introduction in which I make the class guess where I’m from (China! Japan! Korea!), show a dozen photos from the many countries I visited (you just *have* to see Uzbekistan with your own eyes! The empanadas in Colombia were amazing!) – we packed our invisible suitcases and started on an imaginary tour of America.

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a typical elementary school classroom

I reused a good – but not great – lesson plan about Travel, a lesson I had taught in the previous semesters that barely lasted 90 minutes, let alone the THREE HOURS I needed to fill each morning. I’ve also become a master of talking really slowly without sounding condescending, a guru of walking up and down the two aisles that divide the classroom, repeating hard to pronounce words with a V (Vacation! Vacation! Vacation!) or stressing the difference between “Customs” and “Customer” that so many teachers struggle with.

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a culturally insensitive slide (by 2017 US university standards)

After the first few classes, it occurred to me the men in the class always said “NBA!” whenever I asked what they would see or do in the States, and seemed disappointed that I had nothing to say on the subject. I quickly revised the PowerPoint and pulled up a list of highest paid NBA players and grabbed their photos for the below slide:

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Curry isnt on the highest paid list, but his face is EVERYWHERE in lanzhou- he’s promoting VIVO cellphones so i had to add him

The guys in class knew all of the players by heart, so in this aspect they definitely recognized more about American culture than I did. Lixian Teachers: 1, Mr Cheng: 0.

Next, the teachers had to work in groups, select a country to visit, and list important information they needed to know before embarking on their imaginary trip. Some highlights, which warmed my icy heart:

  • The Emperor of Japan: Shinzo Abe
  • Population of the UK: 6,564 billion (translating numbers from Chinese to English is very, very difficult because of the different ways in which we categorize sets of 0s in large numbers)
  • Australian pop star: “Kyty Perry”
  • South Korea’s famous hobby: face-lifting
  • Interesting Fact about Russia: Vodka
  • Favorite food in North Korea: dog soup
  • Things to do in Thailand: ride elephants and ladyboys

Overall the teams did really well with this assignment, considering none of the teachers had ever left the country (or even province for some), and they had to rely on the limited access to media and Baidu to guide them through their travels.

 

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all the volunteers + one of our eight classes we taught. lots of smiling during these two weeks

Cui Feng Mountain

We were lucky to have an easily accessible mountain range Cui Feng Shan (翠峰山) just a few miles south of the town of Lixian, which I took full advantage of. I went on two separate days, as we had perfect blue skies for two weeks- and it would be a waste not to see some more green before I return to brown and dusty Lanzhou.

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all that green!

The view was phenomenal, probably the most beautiful mountains I have seen yet in China, and certainly the most beautiful in Gansu province.

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new friends!

On my first climb up, I ran into two other volunteers and some of our students. The students were so friendly and invited us to eat dinner with them, and we later visited their apartment in central Lixian.

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eating sichuan food with our students (teachers)

This was easily the highlight of my time here: it was unexpected that the students were so eager to treat us like old friends, and take us to meet all of their family, including their 94 year old grandmother with bound feet – a relic from pre-republic culture.

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home visit

We were so, so touched by their hospitality and warmth, for the green tea and watermelon, for the handshakes and smiling eyes.

Sally

Sally is one of my students from the first semester of classes I taught – way back in September 2016. She lives in Lixian country, and we were able to meet up for a few hours after I was done teaching one day.

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sally + friend

Good news! Sally, as with most of her classmates, will be heading to Hotan (FAR west China, near the border of China and Pakistan) in XinJiang to work as a volunteer Mandarin Chinese teacher for a semester, starting in late August!

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Hotan, on the far west edge of China

This was one of my proudest moments yet as a volunteerto see my students grow and transform into teachers in their own right. Sally remembers all the best games from class that will keep the kids moving when the class need a little boost. I am so happy for her and will be keeping in touch with all my former students as they take on their own mini- Peace Corps adventure!


 

Disclaimer: All opinions shared in this blog are the author’s own, and do not represent the views of any outside organization, including but not limited to the United States Government and the Peace Corps.

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