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Rain Flower Terrace

This Saturday, I went sight seeing with some new friends from Canada. Gladys and Jenny are Chinese-Canadian, here on an internship with our department from York University.

Yu Hua Tai is a park with a museum of beautiful stones, many of them swirly agate. In Chinese style, many of the stones have pictures in the way clouds can be pictures, and ancient stories to go along with these images. The rocks are so plentiful that they used the pretty, Easter-egg-esque stones to line the walk way

From Yu hua tia
From Yu hua tia

There was also a little tea field and a tea museum with equipment for making tea, but the desciptions were in characters.

From Yu hua tia

The Revolutionary Martyrs’ Memorial is also their, a stone statue dedicated to the Chinese students who were massacred by the Kumingtang.

From Yu hua tia

Lots of things to see, but to be completely honest, we spent a lot of time bargaining in the gift shop, where they sold pretty stones and jewelry made out of the stones. My favorite part of shopping, though, was listening to the girls speak in Chinese. I can understand so much better when foreigners speak Chinese, or younger students, but understanding older people is difficult. Foreigners pronounce their words slowly, stress tones, and provide inflection that helps me to make sense of new words. In contrast, middle-aged Chinese people speak quickly, without inflection, and slur their words, which makes it difficult for a beginner like me!

When I first became a career teacher, as opposed to teaching with nonprofits part-time, I was moving from a job as an organizer, where I connected with people through their interests and built friendships with students, to a position where I felt I had to clearly draw the lines – I am a teacher, not a friend. I connected with students through their work, and through their career and college aspirations, but not through knowing their families, their hobbies, their daily lives. Partly, this was because, as a new teacher in a community plagued with giving excuses, I felt I had to separate myself from the very real troubles of their lives – day care, court dates, medical issues, anger issues – in order to instill discipline so that learning could happen. Also, I wanted them to learn what it would be like in the world after high school, without loving, understanding, coddling teachers, counselors, parents. Even in their part-time jobs, they often sabatoged themselves, expecting their supervisors to extend the kind of understanding, leniency, and receptiveness to their personal problems that they experienced at home and in the school systems. And, finally, I separated myself from their personal lives because I didn’t believe I could manage both roles, as a counselor and as a teacher.

Which is not to say that I didn’t connect with them. When an issue arose, with day care or housing, we found the appropriate staff person who could assist them with resources. I started reading circles around books they chose and learn about their lives through the connections they talked about in their groups. To stop quieter, lonely students from skipping, I engineered work groups with students I thought would eventually be friends. The statistics survey projects gave me an insight into their interests. I spent time with them during lunch breaks working on their portfolios, letters and essays for college – but always, the connection was around their work and their academic goals.

This means, of course, that I knew less about them personally than other teachers, but I also thought it provided some fairness – no one was getting slack because their uncle had recently died, or because they’d had an abortion, or because they were battling substance abuse. And this, I thought, is the reality of life.

Now, in China, where drug abuse, teen pregnancy, homelessness is not a problem for my students, I feel left out when I don’t know as much about a student’s life as the other teachers. In addition, our structured mathematics curriculum doesn’t really provide time for writing personal essays or giving speeches that helps me to learn about them. Even in computer class, students can create power points about their hobbies, but the methods of doing algebra usually add little insight into someone’s past.

Here at the college, we focus on English language acquisition first and foremost – the other subjects are, in a way, a means to this end. English language scores are their ticket into an Australian or US university, not their math scores or business sense. So, whereas in Boston we were taught to honor their “L1”, or first language, here, we have strict rules – only English in class, no Chinese. To enforce this rule, many teachers have adopted a policy of assigning the entire class an essay when we hear Chinese, with the number of words increasing with each spotting. I hate giving out punishment, I’m the queen of threats, but today, I collected my first “Speak English” essay. I asked them to write about themselves (the word count reached 40 words), and this, I’m realizing, may be my ticket into learning more about these students, all without taking up class time. Quite a neat trick. Feel free to steal it, math teachers out there.

Reflections on Teaching Mathematics

When I first became a career teacher, as opposed to teaching with nonprofits part-time, I was moving from a job as an organizer, where I connected with people through their interests and built friendships with students, to a position where I felt I had to clearly draw the lines – I am a teacher, not a friend. I connected with students through their work, and through their career and college aspirations, but not through knowing their families, their hobbies, their daily lives. Partly, this was because, as a new teacher in a community plagued with giving excuses, I felt I had to separate myself from the very real troubles of their lives – day care, court dates, medical issues, anger issues – in order to instill discipline so that learning could happen. Also, I wanted them to learn what it would be like in the world after high school, without loving, understanding, coddling teachers, counselors, parents. Even in their part-time jobs, they often sabatoged themselves, expecting their supervisors to extend the kind of understanding, leniency, and receptiveness to their personal problems that they experienced at home and in the school systems. And, finally, I separated myself from their personal lives because I didn’t believe I could manage both roles, as a counselor and as a teacher.

Which is not to say that I didn’t connect with them. When an issue arose, with day care or housing, we found the appropriate staff person who could assist them with resources. I started reading circles around books they chose and learn about their lives through the connections they talked about in their groups. To stop quieter, lonely students from skipping, I engineered work groups with students I thought would eventually be friends. The statistics survey projects gave me an insight into their interests. I spent time with them during lunch breaks working on their portfolios, letters and essays for college – but always, the connection was around their work and their academic goals.

This means, of course, that I knew less about them personally than other teachers, but I also thought it provided some fairness – no one was getting slack because their uncle had recently died, or because they’d had an abortion, or because they were battling substance abuse. And this, I thought, is the reality of life.

Now, in China, where drug abuse, teen pregnancy, homelessness is not a problem for my students, I feel left out when I don’t know as much about a student’s life as the other teachers. In addition, our structured mathematics curriculum doesn’t really provide time for writing personal essays or giving speeches that helps me to learn about them. Even in computer class, students can create power points about their hobbies, but the methods of doing algebra usually add little insight into someone’s past.

Here at the college, we focus on English language acquisition first and foremost – the other subjects are, in a way, a means to this end. English language scores are their ticket into an Australian or US university, not their math scores or business sense. So, whereas in Boston we were taught to honor their “L1”, or first language, here, we have strict rules – only English in class, no Chinese. To enforce this rule, many teachers have adopted a policy of assigning the entire class an essay when we hear Chinese, with the number of words increasing with each spotting. I hate giving out punishment, I’m the queen of threats, but today, I collected my first “Speak English” essay. I asked them to write about themselves (the word count reached 40 words), and this, I’m realizing, may be my ticket into learning more about these students, all without taking up class time. Quite a neat trick. Feel free to steal it, math teachers out there.

Lost in Translation: Cruise

At the top of Jen and my list of things to see in China were the Three Gorges. The dam is complete, and the water is starting to back up – I wanted to see them before they were gone. There are dozens of different kinds of cruises down the Three Gorges, but we needed one that left on the days that fit into our tight itinerary and fit into my budget – while Jen’s trip, supplemented by frequent flyer miles, Hilton Honors points, and the strength of the US dollar, I’m earning a Chinese wage, which was reduced this month because of my unpaid week off for this trip.

We decided to go local – affordable, authentic, with boats running everyday.

“Cruise” however, in our sense of the word – a huge luxury boat, a hotel on the water, with spas, dinner buffets, shows – does not translate over directly into Chinese. Our boat, with tiny rooms, some with 4 to 8 people stuffed in bunk beds, spouting soot that streaked our arms, and a PA system waking passengers up at 5:30 in the morning, had more of a submarine feel. First, the staff messed up our reservation, putting us on a four day cruise instead of the three day cruise. Stops were early in the morning, so that luxury liners could have the better times to visit the excursions. Two of the three gorges we cruised through at night, unable to see them, though we spent valuable daylight hours at newly refurbished (ie built) “ancient” towns. But the scenery we did see was beautiful.

I felt kind of guilty, though I tried to warn Jen that it would be a no-frills operation, and had a hard time clearing my head enough to enjoy the scenery. This was something big, major, and I wanted to be in the moment to enjoy it.

From Sichuan-Chongqing-Three Gorges
From Sichuan-Chongqing-Three Gorges
From Sichuan-Chongqing-Three Gorges

Early in the morning, we docked at different towns for excursions – our boat docked early, 7 am or earlier, so that the luxury boats with Western tourists could have the better times, like 10 AM, when we finished leaving. The first stop was a “Ghost City” – Jen and I thought that meant it had been abandoned, but there were people selling souvenirs and we walked through a construction area (without hard hats) of a new temple – not exactly abanoned.

In the Ghost City, we went through a haunted house. The first part was like a middle school student’s project, with store mannequins dressed as scary torture victims. Remember the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Riverside, which became Six Flags? With the animatronic pirates? The last room had the same thing, but with different methods of torture, like a man being sawed in half. At the newly constructed temple, there were stone statues of monsters and vampires. We found out later that the place was about some old folk religion around Hell, death, a ghosts. Very bizzare.

My favorite part was getting off the big boat to take a smaller boat, and then a raft, down the Mini Three Gorges. There were goats and monkeys on the hills, and the sides of the cliffs were so steep, with thick jungle greenery in some places.

From Sichuan-Chongqing-Three Gorges
From Sichuan-Chongqing-Three Gorges

We docked in Yichang and took the “dam bus” to the Three Gorges Dam. I eavesdropped on an English tour – 75% of China’s energy comes from coal (ick), 20% hydro-electric, and while the dam was supposed to provide 10% of their energy needs, because energy consumption has grown so fast, it now only provides 1% of their energy needs. It seems like energy efficiency is the way to go here, since they’re going to keep becoming more prosperous and needing more energy.

From Sichuan-Chongqing-Three Gorges

Part of the dam tour included a memorial park that used materials used to build the dam as art structures. To build the dam, in the beginning, people, naked, pulled materials in with ropes across their back – the pictures looked like an illustration you would expect to see about Egyptian slaves building pyramids. (I wanted to post the famous photographs, but they’re censored in China and I can’t get an electronic copy.)

They have this one sculpture, sort of abstract, of these men pulling in materials, made out of the used materials for the dam.

From Sichuan-Chongqing-Three Gorges
From Sichuan-Chongqing-Three Gorges

The park also had sculptures of men and women at work building the dam – it felt very much like the Korean War Memorial in DC.

From Sichuan-Chongqing-Three Gorges
From Sichuan-Chongqing-Three Gorges

More Sichuan: Post Pandas

I’ve gotten comments that Jen’s emails are a little…detailed, so I’ve written just about the highlights of our adventure.

After visiting the Panda Sanctuary and seeing the temple in Chengdu, we took a bus to Le Shan to see the biggest Buddha in the world “Da Fo” (when Chinese people say it, it sounds like Dafur).

From Sichuan-Chongqing-Three Gorges

This Buddha was commissioned by a monk to stop the flooding from the river. All of the silt spilled into the river from carving the Buddha created a kind of barrier that reduced the flooding – so the Buddha worked!

We took a boat out to see it first. For a while, all you can see is the red cliffs, because he’s carved into the side, set back from the water’s edge. Then, as you approach, he appears from behind the cliff – a course of “Whoa!”‘s came from our boat.

From Sichuan-Chongqing-Three Gorges

The carving isn’t as intricate as other Buddha’s, like Luoyang, instead kind of simple, a little angular, smooth, but it gives it a kind of peaceful feeling because it’s so simple.

We also went up close to the Buddha, though we didn’t go down the side because we had to make our bus to Chongqing (Jen’s itinerary was ambitious), but we got up close to the head. His ear was taller than me!

From Sichuan-Chongqing-Three Gorges

After the Buddha, we took a mini bus to Chongqing. It was a four hour ride, but it was through some beautiful rural scenery – rice paddies, old farm houses, hills, and even a pottery kiln.

From Sichuan-Chongqing-Three Gorges

The next morning, we visited the Dazu Caves. There are three very important religious carving collections in China, including Dazu and Luoyang. Dazu town was beautiful by itself – clean air, blue sky with puffy white clouds, more rice paddies and farms, very relaxing compared to the dusty city bussle of Chongqing.

The Dazu carvings are smaller than Luoyang, but much more intricate. Some of the carvings date back to 11 AD, which is hard to believe because they are so well preserved, probably due to the overhang of the caves that keeps rain away.

From Sichuan-Chongqing-Three Gorges
From Sichuan-Chongqing-Three Gorges
From Sichuan-Chongqing-Three Gorges
From Sichuan-Chongqing-Three Gorges
From Sichuan-Chongqing-Three Gorges
From Sichuan-Chongqing-Three Gorges

(I took lots of pictures – you can click on them to see the whole album)

I wish we had been able to spend more time in the caves (Anyone who has gone to a museum with Matt and I knows that we take forever, reading every plaque, marveling over every detail – shopping with me is a very similar experience, which is why I usually prefer to shop alone.) But we had to get to our Three Gorges “cruise” before it left – more about this later.