Chinese Class Report

So sometime in September, when the teaching semester started, I also started studying Chinese full-time at Zhejiang University of Technology (ZUT). After talking with the administration, I was placed directly into the advanced class without having to take the placement test. Before classes started I was a little apprehensive about that decision, but I needn’t have been.

There are only four students in the advanced class. There’s a Korean guy, a Korean girl, a girl from Kyrgyzstan, and me. Everyone is in their twenties, and we all get along fine. All conversation between us, both inside and outside class, is in Chinese (with the exception of the two Koreans).

I have five classes: Intensive Reading, Reading and Writing, Conversation Topics, Survey of Chinese Society, and HSK Prep. I like my classes, and I think they’re just what I’m looking for: extensive and intensive reading practice, and extreme vocabulary acquisition. What’s a little disappointing about my classes is that, the HSK prep aside, all the classes pretty much follow the same format: (1) discuss new vocabulary, (2) read the text, (3) go over any difficult parts in the text, (4) answer the reading comprehension questions, (5) practice the vocabulary and grammar patterns highlighted by the book for that selection.

It’s a pretty typical way of examining a text, and I suppose there’s nothing glaringly wrong with it, but was it naive of me to expect four different classes to have four different class structures? The above pattern seems best fitted to Intensive Reading. So far there have only been two minor writing assignments for the Reading and Writing class. I really like my Conversation Topics teacher, but I was hoping she’d do activities to get us to talk more. Since we’re all advanced, we could really do some fun stuff. But we don’t. The teacher of Survey of Chinese Society is a learned guy with a Ph.D. in ancient Chinese lit. He’s gotten into some different material in the form of poetry and history of the Chinese writing system, but I wish he’d do it more.

The reason I’m so critical of my classes, of course, is that I’m also a teacher of a foreign language. I’ve taken theory courses on how to teach, I’ve been teaching for over five years, I’ve written a little guide on teaching English in China, and I’ve written a book on the topic which will soon be published (but no more details until it is!). So I have certain expectations of my Chinese counterparts. Unfortunately, those counterparts were products of the same educational system which begot the listless Chinese learners I’m faced with in my own classroom. It’s not that these teachers are not enthusiastic or good at what they do — it’s that their methods largely come from a system where the students are all passive note-copying machines.

So what do I do about it? Well, I’m still trying to figure out the best way to suggest some more communication-oriented classroom activities to my Conversation Topics teacher, but I will. I might just take some of my own Spoken English classroom activities and translate them into Chinese and let her take a look. I’m going to be bring in some materials for my Survey of Chinese Society teacher to discuss with us. He’s got a Ph.D. in ancient lit, so next week I’m going to ask him some questions about the Chinese in The Art of War (孙子兵法). He already said it’s OK. I’m going to be writing for my Reading and Writing class, whether or not it’s assigned. (How can she complain about having to correct one student’s compositions, only once a week?) I’m going to be trying hard to stay awake in my Intensive Reading class. One thing that I’ve learned is that even if you already know something that’s being explained, you can benefit a lot by listening carefully to the way it’s explained in Chinese. And, of course, I’m going to show these teachers with all my questions in class just what it means to have an active American in the classroom.

For clarification, I’d just like to note that I’m only studying Chinese formally for one semester, and I paid for it with my own hard-earned RMB, so I intend to get the most out of it. That explains my attitude. Also, what’s both encouraging and annoying is that even though I ask the most questions, it seems that everyone else is really eager to hear the answers as well. So I’m either asking the questions my classmates didn’t think to ask but nevertheless want to know the answers to, or I’m asking the questions that my classmates were too timid to ask. Either way, I feel confident that I’m not the “annoying student who asks too many questions.”

Finally, I’d like to say that I think I made the right decision to study at ZUT instead of the more prestigious Zhejiang University. The number one reason is convenience. I am a 20-minute (harrowing) bike ride away from ZUT, but about an hour away from Zhejiang University, either by bike or by bus. Furthermore, I like my teachers, I like my classmates, I like my class size, and I think these classes are accomplishing my goals of increasing my vocabulary, making me a better reader, and equipping me to kick ass on the HSK which is coming up in mid-December.

[Note: I'm still looking for a job in Shanghai. All leads are greatly appreciated.]

Happy Birthday Amy!

The Anti-Apple

Recently one of my students presented an interesting gift to me from her hometown, Jiaxing (¼ÎÐË). It’s a kind of “fruit” (?) called líng (Áâ) in Chinese. According to my New Age Chinese-English Dictionary, it’s called a “water caltrop” or a “ling” in English. In any case, when she kindly gave me this plant-like alien-spawn, I had no idea what the heck it was.

Below are some pictures I took of the ling.

Ling

The first thing you have to do is get the green outer skin off the ling. It seemed to me that the best way to do that would be breaking the ling in half, and then proceed to peel from the rupture. I promptly did so, which earned me a disapproving frown from my student. Oh well, it worked. (Apparently the Chinese way to start peeling is to bite into the bitter outer skin and begin at that point.)

Once you get the skin off, you’re left with this little white lump. It kind of looks like a piece of peeled apple. Then you pop it in your mouth and chew, and discover it has the exact texture and consistentcy of a crisp apple… but none of the sweetness. So instead of that tart appley flavor, you get an almost water chestnut-like eating experience. It’s rather odd.

Thanks go to my student for introducing me to a new weird food. (I suppose I should mention she’s the same student who once wrote extensively for the now defunct ZUCC Blog and now maintains her own blog.)

新的州长

最近我跟我的中国朋友谈论了施瓦辛格*当美国加州新州长的事情。她说(希望我没有搞乱她说的话):

我觉得很糟糕…… 我觉得美国真的是个什么都可以发生的地方。 如果在中国成龙也这样当了政治家你们会怎么想?

我觉得她说得好。但也许,也许施瓦辛格州长真的能够改善加州的情况。他毕竟已经当了州长,只能看他的表现。

* 哎哟,学外国人的“中文名字”真烦!

Craptacular Notes

The last performance that the ZUT foreign students will be involved in ended yesterday afternoon. One of the hostesses, Weika (I only know her by her Chinese name, 维卡) from Kyrzygstan, didn’t show. All her lines came right before mine, so they decided to just give them all to me. So not only did I have double the lines, but I no longer knew any of my cues. I did a pretty good job memorizing all my new lines quickly, but when we got onstage some of the other students started screwing up their lines and fudging them, which caused me to do the same. Overall, it came off OK, but the first performance was much more polished. Anyway, we all refused to do another performance, so that’s all behind us now.

After seeing them for the second time, I also remember which numbers were most impressive. One was a Mongolian dance. Really cool. The girl was amazingly limber, and did the whole dance with a stack of bowls on her head, which never fell. Then there was this group of three guys which did a dance number to a Michael Jackson medley. Now, I know that sounds lame, but they were really good! They had moves in perfect sync with every single grunt and squeal that Michael Jackson made. Good stuff. The last one was a dance which was supposedly inspired by a true love story set during the Communist Revolution. The Chinese name is 红色恋人 (“Red Lovers”). I’ll have to look more into that story. Anyway, their dance was really cool because the guy kept picking the girl up and flipping her around and stuff, and at one point the girl even held the guy up in the air! Nice.

Here’s an excerpt from an online chat session I had with a friend who teaches at another campus of ZUT (and didn’t realize I am a student at the same school on a different campus). It kinda relates to the whole craptacular thing:

She says: any fun plans for the weekend?

潘吉 says: yeah, like HOMEWORK and being in the 50th ANNIVERSARY CRAPTACULAR at my other school

She says: our school has a 50th anniversary too! i was not involved in the craptacular but i was a judge at the equally crappy english song competition last night

She says: two guesses for the two most popular songs that were sung?

潘吉 says: there are too many

潘吉 says: big, big world?

潘吉 says: yesterday once more?

She says: YES. and YES.

She says: damn. you are good.

潘吉 says: really? those are the two??

She says: yep!

潘吉 says: wow. Good thing I’ve been here over 3 years or I might not have gotten that!

Anyone living in China is all too familiar with the fact that the same 10 English songs are played over and over in China. Another one that I really hate is Hotel California. I didn’t like it before I came to China, and now I despise it from the depths of my being.

[Note: I'm still looking for a job in Shanghai. All leads are greatly appreciated.]

Craptaculars

Matt of the Nanjingren blog (one of the newest additions to the Sinosplice Network) came to Hangzhou this weekend with some of his classmates. Unfortunately I was only able to spend one meal with him because my schedule is rather full this weekend. It’s fuller than usual because I’ve been coerced into participating in Zhejiang University of Technology’s 50th Anniversary Craptacular.

Craptacular Hosts

I don’t pretend to invent the word “craptacular,” but I’ve noticed it’s already in common usage among foreigners in China for one simple reason: China loves the Craptacular. What do I mean by craptacular? Basically, it’s an onstage event containing a rather long lineup of acts, most of which fall into one of several categories. The defining features of the craptacular are:

Craptacular Song
  • Hosts. They always come in gleaming male-female pairs, overflowing with bubbly super-standard Mandarin and armed with smiles that make your eyes ache.
  • Songs. Solos, duos, or en masse. China loves live singing, be it in the classroom or onstage.
  • Dances. Minority dances, folk dances, solos, duos, it’s all here. Whoopee.
  • Comedy. Short skits and crosstalk (相声), a kind of Chinese two-person stand-up comedy. Comedy has a comparatively small role, song and dance hogging the spotlight.
  • Glitz. Everyone wears bright flashy costumes, the lighting is top-notch, and accompanying stage decorations are a big priority. Whenever possible, craptaculars are recorded on video.

Almost without exception, it’s mind-numbingly awful stuff from the foreigner’s perspective, even if he understands it.

Craptacular Skit

The most famous craptacular in China is the nationally televised Chinese New Year Party (春节联欢晚会). Pretty much every Chinese person I talk to agrees that it gets worse every year, ever reaching new depths of raw bore-power. Yet most Chinese households tune in faithfully every year. (This is one reason I’m not a big fan of Chinese New Year, but I won’t go into that now….) There are minor craptaculars going on all the time for various reasons (or no reason), and you can see them on TV in China all the time. If you have a masochistic streak (or if you just get unlucky as I did in ZhouShan) you can even go see them live. Sometimes universities — tools of the state patriotic entities that they are — put on their own craptaculars. Thus we have come back around to the topic of ZUT’s craptacular.

The students in the advanced Chinese class at ZUT that couldn’t come up with an air-tight excuse were forced to get involved in the foreign students’ event in the 50th Anniversary Craptacular. So, yeah, that means me. We have to put on nice clothes and get up on stage in front of a huge audience and speak Chinese into microphones. Some of us even have to try to be funny in Chinese doing skits onstage. Fortunately that’s not me. I’m just a host.

So I was not happy about this because it involves a big time commitment. Memorizing lines, rehearsing, and performing not once, but three times! So this weekend I’m pretty busy performing onstage for ZUT.

All that negative “craptacular” talk and whining aside, there were some good points about being in the performance:

Craptacular Crosstalk
  • I got to meet some of the other performers, some of whom are pretty cool people.
  • Some of the performances really are very good. In particular, I liked two of the songs and the crosstalk performance. Although the crosstalk comedy kind of wore on after a while, it was really easy to understand and quite entertaining.
  • There were so many hot girls involved. Now that’s entertainment!

Shanghai-bound

This decision has been a long time in the making, but I’ve finally committed to it. Come January, I will leave my beloved ZUCC and continue my life in Shanghai. I am still looking for a job.

This is a call to all my friends and readers! In China, the best jobs are always found through connections, so if anyone can help me out, I’d be eternally grateful.

My qualifications are basically over 5 years of teaching experience, understanding of linguistics, and high level Chinese language ability. I also have experience working within a Chinese bureaucracy, as I have worked as foreign teacher liaison (and partly as recruiter) for the past year. There’s more in my resume, which is online. I really hope to find something where I can use at least some Chinese on the job.

Thanks to the information on Wang Jianshuo’s site, I had an interview with Microsoft Global Technical Engineering Center on Tuesday, which went well. Unfortunately, they would need me to start in mid-December, and the ZUCC semester runs until January. So I couldn’t take that.

I’ll probably talk about the reasons for the move, etc., later, but for now I just wanted to get it out there. I need a job! Please e-mail me.

Overheard

You can tell by listening in on our conversations that we ZUCC teachers are fully dedicated to our ongoing intellectual development.

#1

“The word ‘bomb-ass’ definitely came after ‘the bomb.'” “No, I was using ‘bomb-ass’ way before ‘the bomb’ was ever used.” “What?! You’re crazy! ‘The bomb’ obviously came first!” “No way, dude. ‘Bomb-ass’ came first.”

#2

“But what do you do when the gypsies use the baby throwing trick?” “You just catch the baby and sell it later.” “But then they’ve got your wallet!” “But you can sell the baby.” “But who’s going to want a gypsy baby?” “You can always sell a baby.”

The above conversations are real. Names are withheld to protect the poor fools who produced these inane dialogue snippets.

Alaric is at it again

Alaric Radosh has made a big splash in the tiny world of blogging in Chinese as a foreign language. His Chinese language blog has earned him a lot of respect from Chinese people and foreigners alike. I haven’t really mentioned it here before because it’s in Chinese, and most of my readers don’t read much Chinese.

Alaric has recently started a Chinese Language Blog and Study Journal in English, which he calls a “a companion to my Chinese language blog, journal of thoughts and goals, portal of community with other online students of Chinese-as-a-second language.” The guy’s writing really good stuff. Gold. I found his latest entry on Becoming an Avid Reader in Chinese particularly relevant to my current situation in my Chinese studies. If you’re studying Chinese, read what Alaric has to say. You will benefit.

Too much DNA

I didn’t have my usual Intensive Reading Chinese class today. Yesterday in class someone from the administration came and passed out special letters of invitation to the “First China Zhejiang Academic Festival” (首届中国浙江学术节). We were told if we went our taxi fares would be reimbursed, and we’d get a free lunch. We all decided to go.

Last week I was walking near West Lake with Russell and we passed a huge lavish meeting hall-type building. We weren’t sure exactly what it was. It turned out to be the Provincial People’s Congress Hall (浙江省人民大会堂), and that’s where the “Academic Festival” was. Today I showed up 10 minutes late and was greeted on the steps of the building and given a ticket and a special pass to wear around my neck (it said “特邀代表证”). Then I was ushered to my seat along with a classmate who happened to show up at the same time.

A word about the Congress Hall. It is massive. Lavish. Lush. Evidently no ordinary four walls and a roof will do when it comes to determining the will of the people. It’s like that place was built just to make painfully apparent the point that the government is squandering the people’s money on displays of opulence. (That said, it was cool to be there for an official function once and to have a “specially invited representative” pass.)

I was seated on the ground floor of the “show room,” but there were balconies on the second and third level which could be accessed by escalator. There were massive video screens on either side of the stage, showing a zoomed-in view of the “important” people seated on stage. This was their day to shine, to blab on and on about boring crap. You know they’re bullshitting when you hear them mention the “Three Represents” over and over.

The “award ceremony” was kinda amusing. This troop of girls in red qipao was parading around with plaques, handing them to the appropriate recipients. At one point sashes were handed out to outstanding scientists, but there weren’t enough to go around, and one guy didn’t get one, on stage, in front of everyone. Some Chinese guy behind me was calling out loudly and repeatledy, “HA! They’re short one!” Tactful.

Next the main speaker launched into an intensely boring and long-winded talk on DNA. I really don’t get it. Why was he talking about DNA? The talk was too basic for anyone in the field of biology, but a little too in-depth for anyone not. The guy was going on and on about Watson, Crick, Franklin, and Pauling, and all the details of the discovery of DNA’s double helical structure. It would have been interesting to hear a 5-minute talk on the subject, as I was familiar with it (my major freshman year of college was microbiology — I once wanted to go into geneetic engineering) and it was kinda interesting to hear it in Chinese, but this guy went on for an hour and a half with his neverending PowerPoint presentation! People were nodding off left and right. I did my best to keep my own drowsiness from getting too obvious, but I think I failed.

The talk did provide lots of vocabulary. I got to hear words like “double helix” and “cytoplasm” and “chromosome” in Chinese. Word of the day: 蛋白质 – protein. As you might expect, the word came up again and again, and I just think it’s a funny word. “Protein” in Chinese, translated literally into English, is “egg white essence.” That’s kinda funny in itself, but I can’t help also associating it with 蛋黄南瓜, a Chinese dish made with pumpkin and egg yolk (“egg yolk” translated literally from Chinese is “egg yellow”).

What redeemed the entire ordeal was the meal afterward. It was in a nice restaurant, and it was really good. Crab, shrimp, mussels, chicken, duck, tofu, asparagus, lotus, dates, nuts, and other stuff I can’t remember — all really good. Also, the waitresses had this habit of refilling my wine glass pretty fast, so I was well on my way to very happy by noon! I had to teach class at 1:30. I was very cheerful in class.

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