Chinese word of the day: 朋友
(peng2 you) friend
有朋自远方来，不亦乐乎 (You3 peng2 zi4 yuan3 fang1 lai2, bu4 yi4 le4 hu1) is one of the Analects of Confucius: Is it not a joy to have friends come from afar.
It felt like no sooner had we put Mary on a plane for America than Guo Wei came to visit.
I met Guo Wei (pronounced alarmingly close to “go way”) during my first posting to the Shandong Electric Power International School in Tai’an. I immediately developed a quiet crush on her. Of course she was far too young at the time to be have any romantic interest in an old dude and hopefully I was mature enough to not make my feelings too obvious. That would have been truly creepy. But we hung out together and went roller skating and bowling and I tried to avoid looking like a love sick teenager. Then Ruth arrived in China and any (okay, most) thoughts of Chinese women were laid to rest.
Guo Wei became our mutual friend, and accompanied us on our first winter vacation to Hainan Island and then for the cruise down the Yangtze River to the Three Gorges Dam, an adventure of a lifetime.
Guo Wei on Hainan Island, 2005.
Sanya has all the usual tourist thrills, so we sent Guo Wei up on this para-sail behind a speed boat. We also had a day of scuba, though it was not what Ruth and I expected. The big poster at the entrance was very deceptive. It made it look like two independent divers were exploring a reef together. That’s not the way it worked. Customers were given ten minutes of instruction, no fins and no BCD (Buoyancy Compensation Device). Instead we were afflicted with our own person controller, a big Chinese guy who powered us around to see the few remaining bits of reef that hadn’t been thoroughly trashed. Ruth and I both have open water certification. We called it “scuba dragging”. But Guo Wei had never been under water before and she was thrilled.
And then we had the Three Gorges cruise culminating in what we affectionately called the “Tour of the Damned” and the “Bus Ride from Heck”. A story for another time.
After returning to Tai’An we went with Guo Wei to visit Qufu, home of the Kong family of which Confucius is the most famous member. Then Guo Wei’s family invited us to visit her home town, a tiny village that, minus the satellite dishes and wide screen TV’s, could have been back three centuries. That visit is one of the cherished memories of my time in China.
Knowing that her family were farmers, and that their money was very hard earned, we told Guo Wei to make sure her family didn’t spend any money entertaining us. You might as well try to stop the tide. Her mother and father laid on an amazing Chinese feast, including dog, a very expensive meat purchased specially for the visitors, cicadas picked from their own apple orchard, and several other tasty dishes some of which I could not identify.
This was only a small part of the feast Guo Wei’s mother put on for us. She kept popping out of the kitchen with yet another tasty dish, and since there was so much food it wasn’t obvious that we’d eaten any of it. “Eat. Eat.” she said, like she was playing the Jewish mother in an America sitcom, as if we hadn’t been eating at all.
Guo Wei’s father offered a piece of dog meat to the family dog. There was no mistaking the response. The dog curled back her lips and spat the meat out on the floor, then backed away from it. Apparently dogs are not cannibals. We, on the other hand, felt socially obligated to savour the expensive treat.
I asked about the cicadas and, after being told they came from the family apple orchard, expressed interest in seeing how they are collected. That lead to a cicada hunt the next evening. Since cicadas are bugs, and have wings, I was expecting some kind of drama in catching them. Perhaps we would need nets and have to chase them. But no, they were clinging to the trunks of the apple trees and collecting them was more like picking blackberries. My problem was that the trees had been grown and shaped for Chinese apple pickers, and I was on my hands and knees to get close to their trunks.
There was more to that visit. I played Chinese chess with Guo Wei’s father, which is a nice way to relate when you lack language. We met her sister and brother, and heard their stories. We were treated like visiting royalty, and the phrase that kept coming to my mind was “salt of the earth, these people.”
Guo Wei came to visit us once when we were working in Weihai, but we hadn’t seen her since moving to Wuxi almost seven years ago. I wasn’t sure what to expect. But the minute I saw her it was like no time at all had passed. The best of old friends are like that. Guo Wei is more mature, more sure of herself, but still the same sparkling personality and beautiful person.Ruth and Panda went with me to the Wuxi airport to see Guo Wei off to Shenzhao where she is working. I’m still feeling sad at seeing her go, and knowing that it could be a very long time before I see her again. If ever.
There are people in China I’m really going to miss when we return to Canada at the end of June.
Advice to the Incoming Teachers
I get requests from prospective teachers, asking me about our experience here. These are two of my latest responses, with the questions.
I’ve finally crawled out from under, and except for trying to update my website today I have some time and can answer some questions.
> What stuff should I make sure I bring? What stuff isn’t all that important?
I honestly can’t think of anything you should bring that you can’t find here. I always bring some of my favourite comfort foods, like a dozen tins of canned salmon and some stone wheat crackers. But really, this is a modern city and everything you need can be found here cheaper than you could buy it in America.
> Do you have any ideas like, “I wish I had brought ____________” when I came?
We wished we had brought weather stripping for doors and windows. But Ruth brought some several summers ago, so we’re fine now. Really can’t think of anything else you might want.
> I understand there is a winter there….how cold does it get?
The winters are quite mild, with only a week of snow, but it is a damp cold so it goes to the bones and most of the classrooms are not heated. You don’t need to prepare for a winter in North Dakota, but you will want good insulated footwear. We bought electric pads for our feet for use under our desks, because the floors in our apartment are like ice. But again, anything you find you need is readily available, from clothing to space heaters, and cheaper than you’ll find it back home.
>What is the ‘dress code’ for teaching at the university?
Dress code? Hah. Casual seems to be fine. Extremely casual has been seen on occasion. We had one extremely overweight teacher here, recently departed (as in went home, not died) who walked around in sweat pants and a t-shirt that didn’t cover his amazing belly.* I heard nobody complain. Most of the teachers here dress casual, but conservative and tidy.
*Lest anybody think I am scorning this fellow or saying cruel things about him, please understand that I would be happy in a culture with far less body shaming than we have and I wouldn’t care if people went about their lives naked, no matter what their body looks like. I mention this particular former teacher only as an example of our, thankfully, lax dress code. Truth is, I thought his belly was rather magnificent.
>Anything else you can think of that a new teacher should know?
Yes. You have to do preparation once the course starts, of course, but don’t do too much ahead of the first class. I spent two weeks prepping for a course I was told I would teach, but at the staff meeting the day before the course started I was told I was teaching something completely different. Don’t worry. You can deal with what will seem like a crazy lack of organization and planning. The secret is to relax, do your best, and go with the flow. This is not a very demanding job. You can probably skate by with minimal work, though we really try to give the students something of value. It’s that darn Protestant work ethic.
> I appreciate reading your blog of your experiences….and thank you for any
> additional advice you may have.
My pleasure. If you have any additional questions, please don’t hesitate to ask them.
> My best to you in the next adventure!
Thanks, and the same to you. I hope you enjoy your time here. We certainly have.
And this in answer to another prospective teacher:
> For example, what would you say is the best aspect of your job? And the
> worst? Compared to other universities (or even other types of schools and
> age groups) in China, how does working at JUNAC compare? I have heard many
> horror stories about terrible working conditions in China, yet others that
> are wonderful.
The best aspect of my job is the low stress level. We are not micromanaged. We get quite a bit of paid time off. Universities pay less than private schools, and we could make a lot more money at other institutions, but we’d have to work a lot more hours every week and we’d probably be dealing with less upscale students. You can’t beat Jiangnan University compared to other schools. It’s in the top fifty of the top one hundred universities in China, a beautiful campus, comfortable living conditions, the usual mod cons provided – Internet access, furnished apartment, washing machine – far from luxurious by western standards, but clean and quite acceptable. We like the administration. They have always treated us with respect and consideration, despite the fact that pampered foreigners can be a demanding bunch. I don’t think you will find any horror story here.
> How is living in Wuxi or JUNAC? Do you feel isolated, or are you connected? >Similarly, I don’t necessarily need a huge expat community (far too many ESL
> teachers overseas are amazingly immature boars), but it would be nice to
> experience some of the western creature comforts at least occasionally.
Wuxi has the second highest per capita income of any city in China. It’s very modern. There are at least a half dozen Starbucks, all doing land office business. The town has much improved since we came here. They’ve poured a ton of money into the infrastructure, parks, tourist attractions, museums. It’s clean to the point that it sparkles. By the time you get here the subway should be running. That means you can be at the train station in fifteen minutes, and into Shanghai in an hour and a half if you time it right. The fast trains are incredible.
We feel quite connected. We can be in Shanghai or Nanjing for breakfast and home again for dinner. There’s a fair sized ex-pat community here, and a couple of western restaurants that are like being in America or Australia. Cost of living is very low, and we can eat well at the smaller Chinese restaurants without stretching our salary at all. If you want to hang out in a western bar every night and eat western food, your salary might not cover your lifestyle. But I find I can easily bank every second paycheck and leave it untouched until we go on vacation or home for the summer.
> If you have any other thoughts or comments for me, please do tell me.
We had one teacher here who did not enjoy the experience, which made me feel bad because I gave the place a glowing review. But he was simply unwilling to go with the flow and cut the administration any slack. For example, he asked for a library card (I’ve never had one and don’t ever go near the library, since so much is available on line.) Because the library is under a different administration, and somebody there was paranoid about foreigners not returning books or something, it was politically difficult to get the library card to happen. Finally he threw a tantrum in the administration office. One of the managers made a phone call to somebody, using up his precious guanxi (relationship) and possibly causing himself some future obligations. So the teacher got his library card. Was he happy? No. “It just took a five minute phone call to get my card. Why did it take three weeks of complaining to get it.” You see the problem. Despite winning a popularity contest with the students, or so he claimed, that teacher was not invited back.
The Chinese have ways of doing things that are a bit foreign to us. Here in China we have learned, for example, never go to our boss with a problem. We would go to somebody who has the ear of our boss and ask for a suggestion about what we should do to solve the problem. That way the boss is not put on the spot. Everything gets handled through an intermediate, and depends on guanxi.
The New Course: EAP 3003
This week, Ruth and I started teaching English for Academic Purposes 3003. The new course promises to be a lot more work than the last one, with much more marking. I’m going to try to end my China teaching career with some quality diligence. This morning I gave one of my classes the pre-test at the beginning of the text book. It took me most of a forty-five minute period to write this test myself, and I only scored 94/100. It’s a hundred question on general grammar that I haven’t studied since Grade three elementary school and, frankly, knowing the number of verb tenses in English has never been very important to me. I was quite surprised when they turned in marks ranging from the low sixties to eighty-one. They may not be able to talk, but they do seem to know quite a bit about English grammar.
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