Due to the aforementioned tea accident, I lost all my writings about my initial impressions. They were long and rambling – like most of my stories. Rather than try to recreate all of them here, I’m going to talk about getting to China, and a sort of summary of my first few days.
Day 1: The airplane ride/ My first sentence
The 14 hour flight from Detroit to Beijing went smoothly. I had a serene experience in the empty Detroit airport, complete with a violinist playing outside my gate. There were birds chirping (how do they survive in an airport?), and the jumping fountain was jumping. I am a little superstitious, and I get leery about appreciating my good luck, lest it be but a test of fate. The fact that the plane was basically empty and I had a whole row of seats to myself was also an unexpected boon. If you haven’t been on a long-legged trip, know this: empty seats next to you are a gift. A row to yourself? That’s the treasure chest. You can lay down, and I’m petite so I can almost lay flat. I kept my glee in check.
I didn’t know we were landing until we were about fifty feet off the ground – there was a brown haze which sat everywhere. In Beijing they confiscated my contact solution and my sewing scissors. There were small plastic tubs full of confiscated lighters – the cheeriest thing in the terminal.
On the flight to Chengdu, which was also basically empty, we hit turbulence, and the flight attendant announced this cherry of a sentence: “Ladies and gentlemen – please return to your seats. There is something wrong with the airplane. Do not use the lavatories.” This is not something to tell a nervous flyer. I almost ripped my armrest off. It occurs to me now that maybe she meant the something wrong involved the toilets. But the timing suggested otherwise.
On this same flight, I managed my first Chinese sentence:
“Would you like my cucumbers?” (Nĭn xiăng yào wŏ de huáng guā ma?)
My seat mate said no (bù). She followed up with a long sentence, to which I replied “Wŏ bú huì shuō Zhōng wén” (I don’t speak Chinese). She smiled and said “Wŏ bù huì shuō Yīng Yū” (I don’t speak English). The girl across the way helped translate for us – her name was Smile. That is, her chosen English name was Smile, because that’s what her Chinese name translates to. I think that is kind of cool.
I landed at night – Chengdu was lit up with neon. I met my contact, and he drove me to my hotel. It was a glittery affair, with mirrored walls and a strange full wall window between the bathroom and bedroom. Also a friendly collection of condoms on the nightstand – which makes the window no less odd. I was feeling overwhelmed.
Travel tip: Check mattresses before flopping. Mine was very hard, and I winded myself a little by flopping down upon it.
Days 2-3: Logistics
Overwhelmed feeling continues. My first meal in China is the equivalent of a Seven Eleven hotdog. I get my Chinese bank account – another group to photocopy my passport. I have no foothold in the language, and no understanding of the characters, and so I am nervous handing out my passport to everyone (and at this point it has been just about everyone except the hotdog lady). That’s dramatic of me – I can say some things in Chinese, and I recognize four or five characters. And I am a big fan of context clues – obviously the place that looks like a restaurant is a restaurant. Banks, however, are quite another thing. And it won’t be a simple matter of transferring my money back to my account in the States for my bills. It will be…complicated (as of now, day 12, no solution).
I meet my TA, a young man who is going to study in the States. His English name is Vega. He is going to help me with translating things for the students, since their level of English comprehension is low. This leads me to…
Day 4-5: Screening
I meet my students. Technically, I give them “interviews” on Thursday, and Friday we start class. The interview process is interesting – I ask them all the same basic questions. Their families, what music they listen to – it becomes clear they’re sharing answers, as even when I don’t ask they tell me they like Justin Bieber. And some stare at me, frightened, clearly unable to understand me. I haven’t taught pure beginners since my training to be a teacher, and even then it was not from the baseline of “zero.” Still, my impression beyond the nerves is that they all want to get better, which is a great starting point. The last question I ask each of them is if they will be in my class. I literally mean will my class time work for their schedules, but it takes on a different meaning in translation. Upon translation and a few questions in Chinese, several hide their faces in joy, or salute me like an anime character, or jump up and down. One girl cries “I love you!” They flee the office and tumble into their friends in excitement – I feel like I’m giving them a chance to be on American Idol.
Turns out there is a cap on the class of 25. Only 16 students applied to be a part of this program, but they weren’t told that. So they think I’m screening them – which future teachers will have to do, if the program takes off.
I also destroyed my computer.
Oddest thing I ate in week 1: Congealed pig’s blood. It looked a little like liver. If I had to compare the taste, I’d say it’s like marrow. Makes sense, since it is blood.
Favorite thing I ate in week 1: Lotus and rice. I love lotus paste, and they cook it with rice and serve it in a sort of corn-stalk boat – like a tomale.
Culture shock moment in week 1: Children pooping on the street. Split-bottomed pants.
Challenge: Retooling college level intermediate English course to beginner level English introductory course, focusing on useful English
Self-growth: Minimal. I’m being a chicken.