April 2010

This Saturday people all across China will be celebrating Labour Day, known in China as Láodòng jié.  Labour Day, popularly known as Labour Day, is one of the few secular holidays celebrated in countries all over the world, and has its roots in the labor union movement.  On May 1st of every year common workers and unions gather in the streets to participate in demonstrations, marches, and performances, though of all places in the world the United States is the one nation where you’re least likely to come across this sort of celebration.

My last visit to China was in 2007, and at that time May Day was actually a week long celebration in which most government and common laborers had off from work.  The only other holiday in which this occurs in China is the Chinese New Year.  So by all accounts the PRC seemed to take May Day pretty seriously.  The extent to which Mao Zedong glorified the common worker as well as accordingly demonizing the intelligencia is astounding, and so in a country where Mao is considered perhaps the greatest national hero, it makes perfect sense that Labor Day, or this case Labor Week, would be one of the most important holidays.

But despite the fact that China remains a communist nation, it sure as hell doesn’t seem like one.  Capitalism runs rampant in the streets, and China’s economic success in the past 30 years is due in most part to the opening up policy brought on by Deng Xioaping in the late 1970’s.  China’s economy has since then become much more a kin to that of other capitalist nations.  Indeed, the only thing I’ve noticed about China’s government that would qualify it as a truly communist nation is that there’s no such thing as private land ownership.  Though the Chinese people might pretend to value the common worker above the intelligencia, there remains a massive economic gap between the rich and the poor, and it’s getting wider.

As China’s economy becomes more and more like that of a capitalist nation, the social culture of China follows in suit.  Starting in 2008, the Labor Day holiday was reduced to a single day off from work (although two other one day holidays were resurrected at the same time).  It’s a perfect example of China’s increasing likeness to other capitalist nations.

I find it fascinating to watch these contradictions unfold in China.  While they struggle to push themselves into the future, to develop a competitive economy and establish themselves as a world leader, they still have one foot placed firmly in the past.  While Deng Xiaoping is the individual mostly responsible for China’s astounding economic growth, Mao Zedong is the one whose preserved body is on display in the middle of Tiananmen Square.  But if Mao were alive today, what would he have to say about the decreased significance of the May Day holiday?

Readers beware…we have Monday off from class so I will be heading to my friend Tony’s house to spend the May Day holiday with him and his family, and I will not be bringing my computer, which means you all will have to wait until next week for a new post.  But honestly, I’ve been spoiling you all by holding my promise to post something every day.  So deal with it for Christ’s sake.


Open air food markets are about as common, if not more so, than regular grocery stores in Liaocheng.  The vendors are usually local farmers and fisherman that truck their products into the city every day.  Though not as sanitary as the food you would buy in a grocery store, it’s always much fresher and most likely more nutritious.  Cheaper too.  Shopping at a grocery store in China is somewhat of a status symbol.

I took this photo at a demolition site in Liaocheng, and afterwards one of the workers there asked me why I wasn’t out taking pictures of Dong Chang Lake or the flower fields just south of the city.  I tried to explain that pictures of derelict scapes and scenes were more interesting to me because they conveyed the other-worldliness of this place better than any bucolic scene could.  He thought I was crazy.

Karaoke is a national obsession in China, where they call it KTV.  Every city has its fair share of KTV joints, usually brightly lit in popping neon lights that could probably be seen from space.  I haven’t had a chance to go into one of these places yet, but it’s one of my goals before leaving China.

It’s common for older gentlemen of leisure to have a song bird that they bring with them to the park to mingle with the other caged birds.  They just drape a cover over the cage, hook them to their bicycles, and head off to the park.

The primary objective for writing this blog is to provide a glimpse into the life of a student studying abroad in China, as well as to provide an incentive for students thinking about studying abroad to give China a try.  But while China has its fare share of foreign students, a more popular choice for many foreigners who want to live in China is teaching English, so I figured it would be a good idea to cover a few items about teaching English as an alternative to studying.

What’s in it for them?

  • Second only to Mandarin, English is the most widely spoken language in the world, and due to the wide reaching influence of the British Empire from the 18th century as well as that of America since World War II it has become the lingua franca, meaning that it’s the most commonly used language between two people who don’t share a mother tongue.  Visit any hostel around the world and find you’ll a good example of this.  I played a round of pool in hostel in Beijing with a Chinese guy, a Belgian, and a Russian, and we were all conversing in English.
  • China understands the importance of learning English and thus requires all students to study the language as part of their regular curriculum.  In addition, there are a countless private schools that only teach English and nothing else.  These schools can range in age group from 8 to 80, though most students tend to be from the younger age bracket.
  • Though all Chinese school children must study English, it’s actually quite rare for their teacher to be an actual native speaker, especially as you drift farther away from some of the more popular foreigner destinations in China.  I visited an English school outside the city a few weekends ago and one the teachers there asked if I would like to have dinner with her and her family sometime so that she could practice her oral English.  This was an English teacher who had never had the opportunity to speak with another foreigner.  That’s just how desperate they are for native English speakers.

What’s in it for me?

  • While the salary might be considered rather low by Western standards, by Chinese standards its pretty substantial, often times in the vicinity of 3,000 to 5,000 RMB a month, more than enough to live comfortably, dare I say luxuriously.
  • In addition to a high salary most teaching jobs come with free rent and sometimes even free Chinese lessons.  All in all it’s quite the hookup, and a great way to get some cross cultural exposure as well as fill a chunk of otherwise unused time.  Can’t find a job in the states?  Taking a year off from college and don’t know what to do with yourself?  Recently retired and feeling a little restless? China’s always hiring, no matter what your interests are.
  • The generosity of Chinese people is astounding.  I’ve been living here for almost three months and there is hardly a day when I’m not offered some sort of opportunity to go out and spend time with my Chinese friends.  From taking me out to dinner, to showing me around the city, to helping me practice my Mandarin, Chinese people are here to help in any way they can.

How do I go about it?

  • Teaching English in China is a lot easier than you would think.  All that’s required is a basic knowledge of the English language and a certification for teaching English as a second language.
  • There are literally hundreds of organizations, both China and U.S. based, that bring English teachers to China.  These programs tend to take care of all the leg work for you, i.e. finding a job, getting the certification, organizing and paying for air fare and so on.
  • While going through one of these organizations tends to be the easier route, anyone who’s taught English in China for any length of time will tell you that it often times comes with a certain amount of caveats.  They might take into account where you would like to teach, but most likely they will end up placing you wherever you’re needed, and usually these programs deal solely with universities and private schools.
  • Most ESL veterans will tell you that a much better way of going about teaching in China is to take care of the certification and airfare yourself and then go about finding a job once you get to China.  While this might seem like somewhat of a risk, you’re far more likely to end up in a place where you actually want to be.  Some of the English teachers I’ve met in Liaocheng are sincerely unhappy about being placed in such a small city, and had it been up to them they would be teaching somewhere else.
  • Certifications for teaching include TEFL, TESOL, ESL, and a bunch of other annograms that pretty much mean all the same thing.  Most teaching jobs in China will accept any of them, and usually the only difference is how long the certification lasts for.  These certifications can be taken online or in person at any reputable community college.
  • If I had to give the perfect advice about teaching in China, it would be to arrive here a month or so before the semester begins, spend some time traveling around the country, find out where you want to live, and then go about finding a job in that village/city/province.

What’s the Catch?

  • The same set of cultural difficulties apply for teaching English in China as they do for studying in China.  It’s a culture that’s about as far away from our own as you can get, and the road will be fraught with strangeness, discomforts, and adversity.  It will be up to you to rise to the occasion.
  • This may not have occurred to you, but English is damn hard language to learn, especially for Eastern nationalities.  How do you explain articles to someone who has never heard of them?  Also, if you’re teaching little kids, they’re probably more excited to be in your presence than they are to learn anything, and so if you’re a strictly goal oriented person teaching English in China might not be the best choice.
  • For the most part public institutions such as colleges tend to keep their noses out of the classroom, but teaching certain materials that may or may not cast a negative light on authority, communism, or a plethora of other taboo subjects in China is generally frowned upon, so watch your back.

Spring has sprung here in Liaocheng and from everything I’ve heard it won’t last long before its sweltering hot.  I’ve never been a big fan of hot weather, but in all honesty it’s nice to get away from the cold weather that’s been haunting Liaocheng ever since I arrived (For a while there I was sleeping under my zero degree sleeping bag as well as a big comforter.)  If you have any more questions about teaching English in China please feel free to ask.  Until next time, mingtian jian! (See you tomorrow, or see you later.)

A lot of the older gentleman in China, especially in the lower class, wear minor variations on the same outfit, dark slacks, a dark jacket, slip on shoes, and the so-called “Mao hat,” made famous by the late communist leader.  A lot of times you’ll also see them wearing these huge thick rimmed glasses, pedaling their tricycles around the city with a huge load of salvaged junk, a cigarette dangling out of the corner of their mouth.  They have this indescribable swagger, that perhaps is a result of living in a culture where elders are given much more respect and reverence than they are in the West.  I sometimes wish that I could just transform into an old Chinese guy that works at a junkyard, like the group of guys pictured here.  As my friend Serena from New Zealand says, “They’re dudes and they don’t even know it.”

Now that my Mandarin skills are developing I’ve been spending a lot more time out and about conversing with locals, and thus far I’ve found the best method for doing so is to bring a good sense of humor to the table.  Chinese people tend to think of foreigners in their country as pretty silly creatures to begin with, so it’s not all that hard to make them laugh, but often times it can lead to a better, more fulfilling encounter.  It eases the tension sometimes felt when meeting a foreigner for the first time, as well as sends a message of affability, so I always try and keep the mood light when I’m talking with locals.

It might look like I know what's going on, but I don't.

People always ask me where I’m from, and though for the most part Chinese people are friendly to Americans, especially young people, it can sometimes bring up some uncomfortable issues.  Chinese people have no issue talking about money, and so when they find out I’m American they usually say something along the lines of, “America is very rich compared to China,” or they ask me something like, “How much money do your parents make?”  While this doesn’t make them uncomfortable in the least, sometimes it makes me squirm a little, especially when I’m talking a person who very poor.  So instead I’ve started telling them that I’m a “Hua xing ren,” a martian.  This is always good for a couple of laughs and some interesting banter.

“You’re from Mars?  What are you doing in China?”

“I just came here today to buy some shoes and then I’m going back to Mars tomorrow. I don’t care much for Earth.  It’s far too cold.”

Sometimes when they ask me where I’m from I tell them and then ask them where they’re from.

“I’m from China of course!”

“Oh really?  I could’ve sworn you were from France!”

By the end of our encounter the boss, the guy on the right, was drooling and stumbling all over the place.

Another question I’m commonly asked is how much alcohol I can drink.  Drinking is somewhere along the lines of a competitive sport in China, and as legend has it Americans are the New York Yankees of drinking.  So when they ask me how many bottles of beer I can drink in one sitting, I usually tell them something outrageous, like forty bottles in one hour.  The funny thing is that at first they usuallybelieve me, as they have no basis to judge my answer against.  They also usually believe me when I tell them I’m close friends with Kobe Bryant and Lebron James, and that I Shaq invited me to his birthday party but I couldn’t make it.  Sometimes I admit I’m lying, and sometimes  don’t, but all in all it always makes for a pretty interesting conversation.

Yesterday I went out for a bike ride and stopped at a gravel yard to take some pictures when I was suddenly surrounded by a gang of middle-aged Chinese men, all blabbering at me at once.  I ended up spending hours with these guys, drinking baiju with the boss, arm wrestling, and even getting the chance to drive one of their tractors.

This thing was actually surprisingly easy to drive.

In the meantime they tried and failed to my ride my bike—apparently I have very long legs—asked me about American women’s breasts, and carried on like a bunch of eighth graders on permanent recess.  They even forced baiju down the throat of their boss when he couldn’t keep up with me. It was all around jovial experience, one I will remember for the rest of my life.

When you’re living in and amongst a culture as foreign to your own as China is to mine, you spend a lot of time trying to take in the whole landscape.  It’s good to remember that sometimes focusing in on a small part of that landscape can be just as interesting and perhaps at times even more beautiful.  Here are a handful of closeup photos I’ve collected to help myself remember this simple yet rewarding fact.

I went to a town called Guan Xian with William this past weekend where he teaches a class of elementary students every so often.  After his class, we went with the family of the woman who runs the school to a local pear garden, a famous tourist attraction in China this time of year because all the trees were blooming.  The place was jam packed, and off the beaten path of many foreigners, so as a result William and I were hounded everywhere we went.  We must have taken over fifty pictures with random groups of Chinese people who were dieing to show off to their friends that they had bumped into a foreigner.  A lot of people wanted to practice their English with us as well, and after a while it got to be pretty annoying.  It felt like we were more of an attraction than the flowers, which is what the people came to see in the first place.

Just before we left, this woman came up to us and thrust her little daughter into our faces.  The little girl said, with just about perfect English, “Hello, nice to meet you,” at which point everyone in our group went into a frenzy of gasps and applause.  The little girl said it again and again, “Hello, nice to meet you.  Hello, nice to meet you.”  She was probably one of the sweetest little girls I have ever met.

Next Page »