JISHOU, HUNAN — I should have expected it, being the only native English speaker on a large campus, but my first English Corner experience was impressive, to put it mildly.
Picture a group of about 40 or 50 (I was always lousy at estimating crowd sizes, even as a reporter) standing on a green waiting for my arrival. Then, picture these folks encircling me, three or four deep, asking questions about all sorts of things.
Like I said, impressive.
English Corner is an informal club gathering, where Chinese university students go to practice English. While I attended willingly, it’s actually part of my contract to participate in these kinds of things.
Some of those present were my students. (A lot of freshmen … good job, guys!) Many were not. I recognized a couple from the English-speaking contests I helped judge recently, but for the most part they were students (and a few non-students) I had never met.
They were all intensely curious about the US, the circumstances of my arrival, my views of China and the Chinese people, favorite sports and movies, Christmas, and whether I had seen any other parts of China and whether I like Chinese food.
From the kind of questions they had, I could tell that some students have formed their opinions of the US from (gods help us!) TV and movies. One girl asked me if it was normal for college students to wear pajamas to class, and for teachers to conduct class while sitting and eating! She also asked if teachers wear pajamas to class, too.
I hope I convinced her that picture was unrealistic. I know pajama bottoms were de rigeur for awhile among young women, but I’m not too sure full pajama regalia ever became popular, especially among guys … or teachers.
They were very curious about my perceptions of Chinese students. I explained that I find my students to be either very shy or very reluctant to speak in class, even when I invite questions. For an American teacher used to constant give-and-take between teacher and students (some of it actually planned!), the overly quiet classes are worrisome. I said in those circumstances I am unsure if my class has understood me and whether my lesson is failing.
Several explained that Chinese teachers, by and large, so all the talking in class, and expect students to sit and be quiet. Language classes are a notable exception, but students in those typically speak in unison. So I am confronting years of training to sit and be quiet. Some of this I already knew, but tonight I got a much clearer picture of what I’m up against.
As time passed, the crowd thinned. English Corner meets Sundays at 5:30, so some left for dinner and the freshmen left for class(!). By 7, I was talking to a group of about 10, who for the most part were older students or younger faculty.
With the smaller circle of participants, discussions veered toward American politics and culture. One engineering student named Seven was curious about my political party affiliation and what I thought about Barack Obama. He was fairly well informed about the racial bias against Obama in some parts of the US, so we talked about how widespread that feeling is among the population at large. (I hope the US voters corroborate my opinions. I’m expecting Obama not only to do well, but to win the race, regardless of the bigotry in some corners of the States.)
We talked about native Americans, sexism, family sizes, the independence of grown American children from their parents, comparative costs of living here and there, and probably a few other topics I’ve forgotten in the last three hours.
As the evening wound down, one man floored me briefly by asking if I wanted to go to church with him. It surprised me, because China is officially a secular state. There are officially sanctioned churches, but they are very low key, so I had no idea Jishou even had a church! Until this evening, the subject of religion had not come up in any conversation with anyone, and I have been reluctant to broach the subject in class. (There are many unofficial “house churches,” which are illegal, so the Chinese who attend these churches would be very nervous talking about religion.)
Seven (the engineering student) asked the churchgoer if he was Christian and why he was Christian. His reply was that he felt guilty and felt attending church would help him overcome his guilt. (No comment.)
I begged off going, saying I had not yet had dinner and was pretty hungry. To be honest, being away from the almost oppressive religiosity in the US — well, in Kentuckiana, actually — is actually refreshing. Your religion in the US now seems like something you need to wear on your sleeve, and non-observers are social pariahs. My own “religion” has always been more of the spiritual kind, which is what drew me to the Quakers some 30 years ago. Attending “normal” church services just isn’t my scene.
Even so, we exchanged phone numbers and I said I would still be interested in attending some other evening. Curiosity will probably induce me to go sometime.
ShaoDi (I hope I have her name spelled right), the organizer of English Corner, thanked me for my patience and willingness to sit on the grass for almost two hours, and gave me the bamboo wall hanging pictured above.
The night before, I was part of a smaller English corner, when I met Juliann and Stephanie, the Princeton-in-Asia fellows at Jishou Normal College, for dinner with two of their friends. One was Juliann’s friend, an English teacher in Beijing, and the other, a North Korean friend with an inexhaustible knowledge of American cinema. We met at one of Stephanie’s favorite places (“Spicy Grandma”), which serves hot pot meals.
Hot pot, known as Mongolian hot pot in some parts of the US and in China, is a large container of boiling broth into which you dip uncooked meat, mushrooms, tofu and veggies. The tables have a hole in the middle under which sits a burner. Our pot had one side with chicken broth and the other a peppery broth (this being Hunan, and all). You drop your food into the broth with your chopsticks, wait for it to be cooked, then fish it out. As the meal progresses, the broth acquires all the flavors of the cooked food and cooks down at the same time, intensifying the flavors.
There can be no better way to eat spinach, let me tell you.
Last night also marked my first solo journey here in a taxicab, since every other time I have been squired by a student. Juliann gave me the name of a suitable landmark near “Spicy Grandma” to tell the cabbie, and already I knew what to say for the return trip (“Jishou da xue,” Jishou University). Though next time, I think I will specify “new campus,” since he took me to the old campus first! No biggie. I still knew where I was.
Now I really have to read some student journals, so I’ll end this post right here.