Peace Corps China Country Director and my supervisor at the Official Swearing-in Ceremony in late August, when I became a Peace Corps Volunteer for the second time. The Swearing-in Ceremony was attended by 83 about-to-become volunteers, supervisors from our sites, and Chinese dignitaries. At the age of 62 I made my public dance debut with two volunteers who both had extensive dance backgrounds. Check yet another item off my list of things I feel uncomfortable doing. If you're interested, you can see a small video on YouTube which (fortunately) was taken from a distance. I start on the far right, in a light blue shirt. The volunteers who sung had exquisite voices and some had experience in opera and a Capella -- a real sampling of the diversity of American volunteers that exist in the Peace Corps -- age, gender, race, ethnic background, etc. Here's the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jqk_-TmEnpQ
10 weeks of Intense Pre-Service Training (PST) training went really fast for me. I loved it. What a challenge. There wasn't a dull moment. It consisted of 3-4 hours of Chinese language studies with 5 fantastic teachers who rotated each week so we could experience slightly different pronunciation as well as teaching styles. However, our teachers met regularly so there was continuity in our studies. While my Chinese is definitely nothing to brag about (having been categorized as a high novice), I am proud that in 10 weeks, I didn't have a single low energy day during language classes. It wasn't easy and neither is the Chinese language. Balancing out the language training was technical training in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) and cultural training, both of which were immensely helpful in preparing us for teaching, getting acclimated to living here and getting integrated into the culture. During PST I fell in love with hand-washing my clothing. Doing this every day seems to make it easier to clean the clothes and there's less wear and tear. The Chinese feel that because of the parts of the body that socks and undergarments come in contact with, these items should not be washed with other articles of clothing for hygienic reasons, and should be hand washed.
I'm not the only RPCV (Returned Peace Corp Volunteer) in the China 20 batch of volunteers. While I had served in the Philippines, the other RPCVs had served in Burkina Faso, the Ukraine, and in Cameroon. There's been some buzz about the four of us possibly giving a talk at our IST (In Service Training) in January, about the challenges and experiences of our previous service. Volunteers come in with different expectations about their service, and our giving a talk may provide a different perspective.
Gansu, the province where the university I've been assigned to is located, is in western China. The capital is Lanzhou, a smaller city by China standards with only 3,500,000 inhabitants. It is a bustling city. Yet, Gansu is one of the poorest provinces in China. The history goes back over 2,000 years and the city is on the famed Silk Road. This is my home for the next 2 years. With our winter recess coming up at the beginning of the year, I hope to do some exploring.
I'm teaching at a university which specializes in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), and has about 6,000 students. As I've been settling in, it's been important to build relationships at the school and in the community. This is part of the reason I'm here as a volunteer -- as a cultural exchange. I've been doing language exchanges with counterparts. We go on walks to supermarkets or department stores. I've just started an exchange where the head of the Foreign Language Department, (who is also a doctor) and I go over concepts of TCM in English. The 1st goal of Peace Corps is to help upgrade skills of host nationals in the country we serve in. As a volunteer, I'm not just helping the students, I'm also helping staff. The 3rd goal of Peace Corps is to help improve the understanding of Americans about the cultures volunteers serve in. I'll be learning about Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) which I'll share with Americans. The Chinese people I've met have been friendly and gracious. One thing I'm starting to work on is the Chinese custom of arguing about who pays a restaurant bill. I've had years of practice with this and my colleagues have been warned that I expect to become skillful at this as my Chinese improves. I'm really looking forward to this. :-)
My assignment is to teach Oral English (speaking and listening). Students are first year graduate students and there are over 200 spread out in 4 classes that each meet twice a week for 2 hours each session. Class size ranges from about 30 to over 60. It's a challenge and one of my main goals in the first semester was to create a friendly non-threatening classroom environment where students would feel comfortable making mistakes as they work on their English. It's taking time, but I'm a student also, making mistakes as I get acclimated. One student posted a social media note that she's regained her love of English that she had when in middle school. She says that she makes mistakes, but "so what?" She knows she can be understood. The second goal of Peace Corps is to help the people of the host countries we serve in better understand American culture. A recent class focused on the theme of expressing appreciation in English. The content was built around the American holiday of Thanksgiving. Students asked how appreciation is expressed verbally in the U.S. My initial impression is that it's difficult for Chinese to express emotions and feelings through words. Actions are more important e.g. showing respect for elders, parents, teachers, etc. The Confucianist roots of these traditions in Chinese culture are deep. After one of the classes, I ran into a student on the campus who gave me a gift card for a local bakery. It was a Thanksgiving gift. Five of the men in the class invited me to lunch. I hope next term to get to know groups of students by having more lunches with them. I realize that for first year graduate students, learning English is probably not high on their priority list -- the class is required. Considering this, with only a few weeks to go, I've been very pleased that attendance has continued to be high in all the classes. One can't be disappointed when 57 or 58 students out of 65 show up for class.
One of the things one has to adapt to in China is last minute invitations. It was not really last minute, though, when I was invited, with a 2 day notice, to give a presentation to 10 English teachers. Two days is a lot of lead time. The presentation was How to Use PowerPoint Effectively in the Classroom. Although the presentation was given in English, I put together some screen captures of the Chinese PowerPoint ribbon and menu system. The demonstration made use of the Chinese PowerPoint and the teachers were shown how to use various features, as well as slide composition and content. A few days after the presentation, the English Department gave me a beautiful boxed tea set. As a volunteer, I can't accept any money. The department felt that since the presentation involved work beyond my normal teaching hours, something had to be done to express appreciation. I accepted the tea graciously (which no doubt will give a chuckle to acquaintances of many years). I am, though, trying to educate those around me that Peace Corps volunteers are expected to go beyond just the contracted teaching hours, be it through workshops, office hours to see students, getting involved in student English clubs or other potential projects.
Disclaimer: The opinions, views and comments expressed in this email do not reflect those of the US Government, the People's Republic of China, Peace Corps or any persons who have been or are affiliated with Peace Corps.