Life Goes On

Back in the saddle—in fact, we’re already on week three of school. Hopefully, time is just going to keep flying by this semester. So let’s do a little catch-up before too much more time passes: what have I been up to since Winter Vacay 2011, you ask?

1) IST. IST, or In-service Training (we PCVs use a lot of acronyms, just like we FSCers used to, etc) is a tradition of Peace Corps China and is a two-week training session during winter break each year. It’s mandatory for first-year PCVs and optional for the second-years, and it features long days of sessions in Mandarin, teaching, culture, and other things. One thing that gets in the way of our productivity, however, is that this is the first time many of us have seen each other since the summer, and actually the last time that all of our cohort will definitively be together. This, coupled with the fact that we were all staying in a hotel across the street from the main expat bar, meant that the looong days of training gave way to even longer nights of revelry, leading to a very tiring fortnight. Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan and site of PC China headquarters and of the training, is of similar size and scope to Chongqing, but it’s more cosmopolitan—more foreigners, a little less gritty and sprawling, more money, and a lot more Western amenities. So I bought shoes (pink ballet flats, if you must know) at H&M, I ate Swedish meatballs at Ikea (just like they are in East Palo Alto!), drank non-Chinese spirits at bars with non-Chinese names, and I went to McDonald’s more times than I’d care to mention.

But, IST wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops, and such is worth mentioning. On the first day, there was disturbing news: one of our cohort, one Cannon Stamm, died on vacation in Thailand, for reasons that are undisclosed (but suffice to say were not violent or environmental or anything). Although I didn’t know Cannon very well personally, he was a Chongqinger and was sitemate and close friend of a couple of my close friends. He is missed.

The two weeks of training also saw four medevacs out of country, ranging in seriousness, and two injury-related ER trips. Whew. But life goes on. Many of my cohort agreed that even though IST will be optional for us next year, it’s definitely worth attending.

2) Teaching. I was expecting to teach six of the same seven classes of Sophomore English Major Oral English that I had last term, along with a new course on British literature, but was surprised to get my schedule (at 10pm the night before the semester started, when else?) and find that I was initially scheduled for only three oral classes plus the literature, all grouped on Wednesday and Thursday. Five day weekends, with plenty of time to work on secondary projects (extracurricular activities that PC actually requires us to do, like starting clubs, doing other volunteering, etc)! Well, then the other shoe dropped and I found out that I, along with several other foreign teachers, had also been assigned several weekend classes of other lower-level students. Complain complain complain later, the squeaky wheel got the grease and I got my schedule drastically ameliorated, meaning that now, in addition to the aforementioned Wednesday and Thursday classes, I’m only also teaching two other 8-week-long classes of non-major oral English on Friday afternoon and evening.

Teaching literature is proving to be an interesting challenge, as is not surprising. Typically, in China, literature is taught without actually resorting to reading real, original texts. Most of my students’  literary education consists of some combination of 80-page long abridged Chinese editions of random classics, short excerpts (and I mean short) of other works that appear in anthologies, and summaries of the contexts of various hit-parade authors and works. So, for example, the students will read a blurb about the life and works of Shakespeare and memorize a few fast facts, read a scene from Hamlet and one from Romeo and Juliet, memorize the first few lines of “To be or not to be,” and call it a day. Shakespeare, check. This pains me.

So one of my goals, with teaching literature, was to do what I could to have them read books as they are actually meant to be read. If it takes me all semester to get through just a couple books with them, so be it. Because, in any case, even if I wanted to teach the whole of Brit lit in 17 weeks, how could I? So, I’m winging it and doing it my way. Going off-script is challenging, and it would be easier to just teach from the annoying (and bizarrely Marxist) anthology they gave me. Although I was an English (literature) major in college, I don’t have training on how to actually teach literature in the same way that I have training in TESOL from AU. It’s also challenging that, unlike with my other classes where I taught the same thing seven times in a week and had time to really get it perfect and feel good about my lessons, this is a one-shot deal each week. My literature class also contains about 65 juniors, as opposed to 32 sophomores in my other classes, so it’s harder to get a handle on what’s going on with everyone.

I have faith that I’ll settle into a routine, but for now I’m just trying this and that and will see what sticks. I’m hoping to get through two books, or possibly three, as the semester goes on. With each, I’ll focus on the book itself for a few weeks, but will work in other thematic material. So, for example, we’re starting with The Picture of Dorian Gray, but I also plan to bring in Victorian poetry, the gothic novel tradition, and aestheticism along the way. I also made the dubious call of asking my students to watch the 1997 film Wilde, which is helpful for the context of the author, but which features gay sex. So we’ll see how that goes over (picture 1950s America to get some sense of the general mood towards homosexuality here).

3) Et cetera. When I first got back to Beibei after Thailand but before IST, there was a lot of despair, which wasn’t helped by the fact that it was freezing (not sunny and beautiful) and I was alone (instead of with my besties, for the first time in a month). But after returning from IST to considerably better weather, a better overall schedule, and many exciting upcoming plans, things are much better. I’m planning to keep myself busy this semester with an intended women’s club of some sort, which I hope will be rewarding. And it’s nice to get back into the routine of hanging out with Beibei foreign teacher friends, going into the city to our favorite haunts on the weekends, and the like. (Exciting sidenote: a new bar in the city run by a couple expats now features a Tuesday trivia night. Team Beibei smashed the competition at our inaugural visit last night and may be returning somewhat regularly. Said game last night also featured two questions about kings and queens of England, and the expat host used the word “penultimate” twice and therefore rose about 300% in my esteem.) I’ve also got a lot of fun weekends planned for the next couple of months, visiting friends or the like, and very excitingly, it’s only three weeks till Ro touches down in Zhongguo (uh, China). We’re meeting in Hong Kong, and we’ve already got a tight schedule planned of visiting HK Disneyland, eating western food, and shopping. After that, it’ll only be two more months till the end of the semester, and the travels and visits that that will bring.

Although I hadn’t thought I would want to come home during my time in China—that it would be too weird and/or hard to then have to come back—after hearing about other people’s experiences during winter vacation and thinking about my own feelings, I have decided to come and visit during the time I have off between summer PC work and the start of the fall semester. I expect to be in California for a good part of August, and am already soooo excited to think about all the things I’m going to eat. Oh, and the family and friends I’m going to see. Right. That too. Anyway, mark your calendars, Meiguo, mashang Ma Lei hui lai….


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