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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Tomb Sweeping Festival

The past few weeks have been a bit strange—schedule-wise. Two weeks ago the preschool education students returned to their homes to observe teachers in local preschools, while the teachers in the preschool department observed other teachers at different universities around Sichuan.
The weekend my students went home I went for a short visit to Yibin. There were 3 new foreigners at Leo’s university. Two were young guys from Canada and England and were a part of a teaching abroad program, called Latitudes. Latitudes is a program within the British Commonwealth nations. They will be in Yibin for this semester teaching in various capacities. The third was a foreign exchange student from South Carolina studying martial arts? I was a bit confused with her business in Yibin. She returned home this week. Anyways it was fun to meet them, and more of Leo and Chris’ Chinese friends, one of whom had the English name Tony Potter. He is the only Chinese person I know that gave himself an English last name. Most just have English first names. He chose it because he is a big Harry Potter fan, which I think, is pretty cool. Another student and her friend invited us to have dinner at her mom’s who cooked us a very delicious meal. Very kind people. And another friend of Leo’s is from Tibet, a tourism major with great English, and he gave me a beautiful bracelet from Tibet before I returned to Jiangyou. It was a great weekend and I was sad to leave, but I teach one class in the English department and they are having a midterm. I am sure they were also sad to see me return. I didn’t think their midterm was very difficult. Most students did very well. They were divided into groups of three and given five minutes to read. Then, they had to discuss the article together for five minutes to express and support their opinions. I let them choose the article topic they wanted to read since it is easier to discuss something you find interesting. The choices were: the differences between Chinese and American parenting, the conflict in Libya (which none chose), eating insects as a way to combat world hunger, equality for women in sports, a champion chess player, child labor, and modern pirates (which students also didn’t choose).
I was hoping a week off teaching would give me some time to relax, but instead a pipe in my bathroom decided to leak. The process of it getting fixed took all week and all of my patience. But luckily I was leaving on Saturday to spend the weekend with my host family for the Tomb Sweeping Festival.
The Tomb Sweeping Festival, which is Qing Ming Jie in Chinese (the direct translation actually being Clear and Bright) is a day for people to go outside and enjoy the springtime. It is also the day that families visit the graves of their ancestors and to clean it, lay flowers and food (like fruits and cakes) and burn incense and fake money (traditionally viewed as being used by the deceased in the afterlife).
My host family isn’t traditional, so we didn’t do any of this, and instead just relaxed. As always traveling was an interesting experience. My friend Sharon, who was visiting her parents in Chengdu the same weekend, and I decided to take the same train. At the station we ran into two students who were taking the train but a half hour after us. We boarded the train, and after sitting on the train in the Jiangyou station for one hour I receive a call from the students asking if we had left yet. After I confirmed her assumption that we hadn’t left yet she told me that there was a blockage on the track and if we were interested in joining them to be reimbursed and take the bus. Um…yeah. Luckily these students were with me when we arrived in Chengdu and they could explain my location to my host parents who were picking me up, as they don’t speak English, and well my Chinese isn’t the greatest. Later when I was trying to return to Jiangyou my host parents were helping me buy the tickets. My host mom admitted that she’d never bought a ticket before and didn’t quite know what to do, but that her husband’s friend was helping us. Well the next day they drive me to the station maybe 20 minutes before my train is leaving and I still don’t have my ticket, but then this guy walks up to the car and hands my host dad the ticket and he gives him some money. It all felt similar to a scalping deal to me, but with train tickets. Then when I get into the station after the security check I see the guards ushering everyone into a line. I get in line wondering what was going on. When I get closer I see that everyone is handing their IDs to the person at the counter. I quickly recall that Peace Corps sent us all an email telling us that the Chengdu rail station is now checking IDs and that we need to carry our passports if we are traveling by train. I panic because I didn’t bring my passport with me from Jiangyou! When I was getting closer to the counter I started checking my surroundings and praying for my brain to work harder. A man two in front of me fumbles over his bag and I make like I am assisting and just hide behind him and his luggage and speed walk directly onto my train which had already started boarding. I didn’t look back and as far as I know no one looked up. Whew! But major mental note for next time!
But between the train rides, or one train ride and one bus ride, was a fun time with my host parents. I made them banana bread in Jiangyou and they were so impressed that my host mom decided she wanted me to teach her. So, the next day I go with them to buy a toaster oven and ingredients and together we made apple bread. It turned out surprisingly well considering they didn’t have any measuring tools and I just had to guess. I wrote down the recipes for banana, apple, and strawberry bread (the last I haven’t tried myself but it shouldn’t be very difficult) and I said that the next time I visited that I would teach them to make cookies.
That weekend they also treated me to Beijing roast duck which is really good, but also quite expensive. It is sliced roast duck dipped in a tangy sauce and rolled in a thin pancake with sliced cucumbers and onions. Being with them during the weekend re-inspired me to study Chinese. I enjoy speaking with them in Chinese because they are patient, understanding and they try hard to understand my Chinese even though my pronunciation is poor. Frequently I feel discouraged from speaking Chinese because many don’t understand when I speak, or think it’s funny when I try. So it was nice to be with people who are so encouraging.
I returned to Jiangyou and taught for two days. Next week the English majors are doing their observations in schools and their teachers are visiting other universities in Sichuan Province.
On a different note the last two English Corners went pretty well. I led the first and I had the students play hot potato. If the ball stopped on them they had two choices. They could answer a question that I asked or they might ask anyone in the group one question. The questions and answers were interesting. I asked one student if she could have any job in the world what would she want to do. Her answer was to open a milk tea stand, something that exists in almost every corner in China. Then one student wanted my opinion on the war in Libya. My answer was quite general. I just said that I think war isn’t good because it causes many innocent people to die but that if the citizens of the country seek our help, then we must help.
After this we played a game in which I placed a sticky note on every student’s back and they had to guess what it was based on what others said about it. The stickers included a person’s name, an object, or a place. They had lots of fun with this game.
The next week Janice and I led. First we played charades. Janice and I were surprised to see how culturally variant this game can be. For example one paper said washing clothes. In America we would mime putting the clothes in the wash, adding detergent, turning it on and then maybe putting it in a dryer and folding it later, but instead I mimed doing it by hand which is more common with the students and many poorer families in China.
Then we played that game where we tell a story as a group with one person starting it and the next continuing it until someone decides to end it. This took a lot of prep and explaining, but once they understood they did a great job with it. The biggest obstacle was that they were so concerned with their sentence that sometimes they did not listen very carefully to the sentence preceding theirs as a result their sentence didn’t make sense.
This week Janice, Mark and I had dinner together one night and we had an epiphany of sorts. We were discussing something that I can’t remember now and Mark makes the comment, “well it’s a free country.” A phrase we’ve all said many times, especially as children. After saying it, though, Mark stops. Janice and I look at him curiously, and he says, “Oh, I guess it isn’t a free country.” Imagine that.
The best thing about this week, though, was the weekend’s weather. The sun came out. Both Saturday and Sunday I sat outside and read. It was amazing. I didn’t have a coat on and my body absorbed vitamin D. A genuine miracle! I just hope this wonderful lasts.

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