YONGSHUN, HUNAN — This part is less about the teaching, and more about the whole experience of the training gig.
First of all, getting there was a job in itself. This part of China is mountainous, a lot like the Appalachian region in the USA, so straight line distances on maps mean nothing. For example, I had passed through Yongshun 永顺 back in February, when I visited Jackie Li in Longshan, which is even further back in the hill country. On a map, Longshan 龙山 is only about 150-200 km away from Jishou; the trip took seven hours.
Yongshun, fortunately, is not at the end of a major road construction project. Even so, it took two hours to get there on twisty roads that rival New York City streets for potholes per linear meter.
Aside from topography, and the attendant isolation, there is not much else in common between Appalachia and this part of China. For one thing, Yongshun County has a population of almost 500,000; the city has about 70,000. That’s a pretty big “small town.” The city, like Jishou, is a big grubby, but also showing signs of steady improvement. In other words, it’s not Podunk, but you can see it from there.
After we arrived, we settled into our hotel (about a 2-star in my book, but the closest to the school where we’d be teaching) and then had dinner with, not the teachers, but the local and prefectural mucky-mucks who were all men ranging age from 30 to 50. Baijiu (Chinese “wine”) is a necessary part of such gatherings. Michael and I did our part to represent America in the Baijiu Drinking Cup, earning some respect from the local pros.
The next day, there was an opening ceremony. Chinese seem really big on such formalities, which give mucky-mucks a chance to look important and pontificate to a captive audience, while cameras click and roll to record the event. Both Michael and I were called on to contribute our own comments, which were much briefer.The venue for the workshop was Number 1 Middle School in Yongshun (Yi Zhong 一中, more briefly), a ginormous school with 4,000 students in grades 7-12. About half those students live at the school, since daily commuting is out of the question. Yi Zhong is one of the best middle schools in Xiangxi, with a brand new gym, a stadium that rivals those at some small American colleges, Internet access, and multimedia rooms.
After the opening festivities, I gave my main presentation, and we broke for lunch. Again, and for the last time, we had dinner with the mucky-mucks while the teachers ate in another dining room. We discovered later that the leaders expected Michael and I to eat apart from the teachers for the whole week, even after the leaders left. This idea we both quickly corrected before dinnertime.
After lunch, we all went to a local nature park, Bu Er Men 不二门. That particular day was the birthday of the bodhisattva Guan Yin 觀音. So the park was mobbed with worshipers who left burnt incense sticks and food containers all over the park. Our hosts were somewhat embarrassed at the mess.
The rest of the week was not as noteworthy. We taught our classes, talked to the teachers, made friends, visited a KTV, took lots of photos. After dinner one evening, a group of us went for a walk around town. Jennifer, one of the Yi Zhong teachers, asked me if I would be willing to meet some of her students for dinner. I agreed, as did Michael later on.
So, about 16 middle school students, two teachers and two Americans had a nice dinner away from the hotel, complete with beer. Yes, Americans, that’s right, beer.
Chinese men may overdo it on the baijiu on business occasions, but generally the Chinese attitude about drinking is much more sensible than in the USA.Here, it is perfectly acceptable for 16-year-olds to drink beer at the dinner table or KTV, even while accompanied by their teachers. In the US, both those teachers would be out of work in no time flat, and facing criminal charges besides. We had a perfectly good time with the students. No one got drunk (hard to do on weak Chinese beer, anyway), and if anything, some lost their shyness about speaking English.
[I am not sure, however, that encouraging drinking during language class has a lot of merit.]
The next morning, we adults took more photos, had a closing ceremony with fewer speeches, and ate our last lunch together, with the usual ceremonial baijiu. I got home around 4 pm, collapsed on the bed and slept for 6 hours. The next day (Saturday), I would prepare for my real vacation to begin: a four-week China-USA junket.