December 31, 2006

As many of you perhaps have heard or read, phone and Internet service here in China has been disrupted since December 26th by the Taiwanese earthquake which damaged undersea fiber-optic cables connecting Hong Kong, Taiwan and China with North America and Japan. Hong Kong’s Office of the Telecommunications Authority said Sunday that 80% of the voice and data capacity between the US and Asia are gone and that the cables wouldn’t be fully repaired until the end of January and only then “if the environment and the weather permits it.” So far, conditions have not been very accommodating and I have not been able to update my web blog.  Access to the Internet remains extremely slow and for most of the times I receive email correspondence only very sporadic or not at all.  So, if I haven’t replied to any messages you send then most likely your email is floating around somewhere in cyber space. And to add to the misery we have not seen any sunshine for weeks, only gray, foggy, gloomy overcast weather; they even closed for a few days the local airport traffic this week.

Sharon joined us this Sunday for church as for once she did not have any Sunday class scheduled, which, by the way, is very common here. Of all the months I have attended this church today’s female pastor was the most dynamic and powerful speaker. God must have known that Sharon was coming along as the message left a deep impact on her.  The service started with the congregational reading of Psalm 118 followed by the sermon combining Matthew 2:2 with Genesis 3:9 focusing on the issues of dependency on God versus self seeking autonomy. The songs were “O Come, All Ye Faithful”,Glory to God”, andJoy to the World!”The Lord Is Come” andSing It Without A Shout”. After church we hung around as usually answering questions surrounded by a mob of people staring at me like if I am a rare animal with white fur (hair).  Sometimes it can make you feel as if you are in the Beijing Zoo.  It was annoying at first but I am anesthetized to it now. If you smile and say Ni Hao (Hello) the people will break into a big, friendly, most toothless, smile.

A few Sunday’s ago as I attempted to leave the church I was cornered by two older Chinese men who had a younger, mentally ill man with them. Through James, my interpreter, I was asked if I would be willing to pray for this young man to dispel the demons who had befallen him. Being somewhat hesitant with the mob of people around us I was told that the two older men believe that God would honor the prayer of an older, wise man like me, and heal their comrade. Feeling led to do so I prayed over this lad and now it seems that the word has spread as every week people are coming up to ask if I could also pray for this and that.  I am thinking of coloring my hair black just to avoid drawing people’s attention to me!  Not really, as I enjoy making people happy.  Which reminds me of the Chinese fable I read to the class the other day called “How to Make Everybody Happy “ which epitomizes the approach I have learned to take here in China?  In the story, an old man is walking with his son. As they walk through the village, the old man waves to everyone he sees. His son asks him why he waves to everyone, and the old man explains:

“Well, when I wave to someone and he knows me, he is pleased and he continues his journey with a happier heart. But when I wave to someone and he doesn’t know me, he is surprised and he says to himself, ‘Who is that man? Why did he wave to me?’ And he has something to think about during the rest of his journey, and that makes his journey seem shorter. In this way, I make everyone happy.”

I have found that the Chinese people I have begun to get to know, the people in this church, the clerks at the supermarket, the staff at the library, the Foreign Affairs office staff, and my students, are very pleased when I wave and say “Ni Hao” (Hello) as I ride or walk around campus.  And to those I wave and “Ni Hao” whom I don’t know, they seem pleased and smile.  I hope it helps make their journey happier.  It certainly has enrich and made my journey a very happy one.

As my classes wind down this week with the final exam being over I want to give some credit to all my students who have made my stay here such a pleasant one.  Except for cheating on tests the students are incredibly polite, well-mannered and disciplined.  Because of the cultural background which puts others first before yourself, the students will go to great lengths to make the teachers feel welcome.  If I mention that I was trying to find something in town at a store, it is not unusual for some students to show up at my apartment with whatever it was I was looking for.  That same spirit, though, results in things such as a student missing class, not because they were sick but because their roommate was sick and they had to stay in the room to take care of them.  Or helping their friend while taking a test (by signaling them secretly during the speech exam when the 3 minutes were up) because they feel responsible for the scholastic success of their best friend.  In the West, this latter activity is commonly referred to as cheating, here the difference I think lies in intent.

A University freshman here will have had about 8 years of English Studies.  But at the elementary and middle school levels, they have had Chinese teachers who “speak” English but not native speaking English.  And most of the English lessons are written, not oral conversations.  So when they arrive at the college, few have had actual contact with native English speakers.  Nor have they had much chance to practice their oral skills.  And up until recently, most of the college foreign English teachers here were from Great Britain, Australia or the Philippines.  Thus the students and the Chinese English teachers alike have beautiful written skills and an impressive vocabulary but need a lot of work on conversation.  Many have beautiful British accents and speak formal English.  Students raise their hands and stand up to ask a question and will begin by saying, “May I ask a question”, “I apologize for interrupting your class, but I must ask a question”, “Perhaps you would be kind enough to tell me …”,”If it is too inconvenient for you to take the time now, perhaps I can make an appointment to see you later”.  Imagine hearing that from an American student!

At first, the students were having a slight problem understanding me.  I was their first experience with an American/Swiss accent.  While I teached a couple of American History and Culture classes, the bulk of my teaching was oral conversation and listening, with the exception of my Adult Class which was primarily a class in Western Business.   The difference in accents between American and their Chinese/British can have hilarious results.  We were reading a story the other day with the whole class reading it aloud.  We came to a sentence:  “The old man smiled.”  I heard them say it as “The old man smelled.”  I stopped, laughed, and asked them to read it again.  They did.  Same result.  So I said,”The old man may have smelled, but in the story he smiled!”  They then all bursted out laughing and giggling.

I admire these students immensely. The English language is a much harder language to learn than oral Chinese.  In Chinese, for instance, there are no different verb forms and few verb tenses.  They have no idea what conjugating verbs means until they study English – and then they have to learn all of these verb tenses, and how to conjugate verbs, and irregular verbs, etc. One which they have the most difficult time with is “He/She”.  Over and over they call females a “He” no matter how many times you correct them.  It seems to be deeply ingrained in their minds.  Despite some of these shortcomings, the oral skill levels most of my students have achieved is nothing less than remarkable.  But then they are the brightest of the bright.  Very few get the opportunity to attend college and admission to a University is almost purely a function of how they score on a nationwide entrance selection examination.

Having not seen my favorite TV program since I left home which is the late night David Letterman Show I decided to make up my own Top Ten List which every western xenophobe needs to know about should he decide to visit China sometime in the future?

10.  Traffic laws do not exist.

9.   “The Hole” – the ubiquitous Chinese “septic” toilet system

8.    If it grows it can be prepared and eaten – usually with amazingly superb results.

7.    Traffic lights do exist – but offer neither protection nor guidance – they’re optional.

6.     Chinglish – the English translation of western words translated to Chinese and then back again.

5.     If you need it, we will sell it. If you really need it now, “Mei You” (No have) (pronounced May Yoh).

4.     Spitting is de rigueur – in the street, at the table, in the market, in the classroom, … anywhere.

3.     Total strangers unfailingly ask you immediately upon meeting you: “How old are you?”; “How much money do you make?” and “Are you/why you aren’t married?” “None of your business” is not considered an appropriate response.

2.     Westerners provide a great source of amusement to the Chinese. Especially the height and our noses. You will be stared at no matter where you go or what you do.

1.     When you are so tired of being stared at and “Hellooo’d” at, along will come a really kind person whose gentle smile and warm heart will ease you back into reality and the good part of life in China.

Well, this should wrap it up for this week as I need to think about packing my suitcase, taking down the computer, and getting myself back on the road to the enchanted cities of Urumqi and Shanghai before enjoying a few weeks of family time back at home in America.

Great souls have wills; feeble ones have only wishes. Chinese Proverb

Huitoujian, (See you soon)

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