In these few moments I have spare before a rehearsal for my slot in the Graduation party I felt in the mood to pen some random ramblings about life here in all its colour and diversity.
Mmmm. What won't I miss first. Definitely the dawn chorus of my neighbour's throat-clearing, or is it whole body clearing. It starts very deep down in the throat and culminates with an impressively loud and satisfying retching noise, and a good 'gob'. Lovely. Despite my students' assertion that it's impolite and that they don't do it, it's a practice that can be done anywhere, no equipment needed. Out of the bus window is a good one, into your own plastic bag 'spittoon', onto the pavement (woops, watch that slime trail)..... It can be done by young and old, peasant farmers and the well-heeled, students and teachers, it's pretty inclusive despite the admonishment of the government in its preparations for Beijing 2008. Definitely Room 101.
One thing I should maybe condemn but quite like, after all the Health and Safety regulations in the UK before you can even blow your nose , is the absolute disregard for safety on the roads and on building sites here. Motorbike helmets, if worn at all, are just hard hats, generally with strap undone, which would fall off well before your head crunched on the tarmac. The law is two to a bike, but hey, four fit, no problem. Baby at the front, dad driving, usually on his mobile or smoking, often both together, Mum and other kid at the back with the shopping. Great. And as for the rules of the road, easy, just pull out when you want to, don't bother with that mirror, signal, manoeuvre rubbish, just go, he'll try not to hit you. And don't forget to beep your horn as often as possible, and loudly. Someone in front of you, beep, overtaking on a blind bend, beep, pulling out, beep, or just because you feel like it, beep, beep. And , pedestrians, just cross that road when you can weave your way through the traffic, it won't stop but it's not aiming for you, you'll be OK. And if someone does cut you up or narrowly miss, don't shout, scream and swear at the driver, don't make rude gestures, it happens. Keep calm, don't lose face. And on the building sites the bamboo scaffolding they hang precariously off wouldn't quite reach UK Safety guidelines, but the buildings go up very quickly here, with hundreds of men, and women, working from dawn to dusk. Not sure how many lives are lost, but there are plenty more.
Mmmm, what else? Cultural differences are many and often so inexplicable to us it's hard to know why you've upset someone, they won't tell you. They do, contrary to common belief, show emotion. I've had tears in class on occasion. Maybe I'm just a nasty teacher. One girl got upset, I think, when they were doing pair work, a relatively new idea, and she was not talking to her partner, but reciting away to herself, as they do . It's the common way to learn all the stuff you need to re-gurgitate for exams. Anyway, I asked her why she was talking to herself. She sobbed....... Was it something I said? Other times I'm teaching something before I realise that, culturally, it has no relevance to their life experience. One recent topic was TV and I mentioned that a lot of kids in the UK have a TV in their bedrooms, was this a good idea? I was expecting, no, because they could watch unsuitable programmes, too much TV, stay up too late....... I universally got, no, because the TV would be too small and would damage their eye sight. No concept here of spoiled kids with big TV sets, in their big private bedrooms full of gadgets, music equipment, computers, just that they should be worried about their 'healthy'. Most of them have poor eyesight, many can't afford glasses and a lot of 'spectacle-swapping' goes on in the back row. Talking of health, many students play sports because 'sport is good for our healthy'. What happened to 'it's fun'? No, no, not enough to do a sport because it's fun, self-flagellation is required. As for learning is fun, I'm getting there, I think, but they, many of them, resort to the text-book-bible when left to their own devices. Gaining knowledgy is a serious business.
Eating out is great until, wham, bam, it's over. Everyone rushes off as soon as the meal is finished. None of this going out for a meal in the evening and lingering for an hour or two with a few drinks. You can drink as you eat, I'm inordinately fond of the fruit wine (wang mei jiu) but, after you've finished and raced to have the honour of paying the bill, skates on or you're crumpled in the rush to get out. You can't judge a Chinese restaurant from the outside either, some 'dives' serve great food but don't expect a chair. The norm is a very low stool, even 83 year old grannies manage perfectly well but my butt craves something more decadent, like a chair, sometimes. Money is coming to Wenshan big-time, with all the development comes wealth, but not for most of my students. Wenshan 'nouveau' is coming fast. Peter and I went for a meal the other day in a Wenshan restaurant with an English menu. Unheard of. Well, English in the loosest sense of the term, it wasn't clear what the dishes were ..... It offered 'sandwich pizzas', curries, something to do with 'meat bowel' and the ubiquitous Brit favourite, Jacob Creek win'. Must take a camera next time. The prices were pretty 'nouveau' too but the comfy armchairs were great. Our students are the ones with the 3 kuai meals, wearing the cheap 'Shabadi' outfits. The clientele here was up-market, in a Communist country .... smart, money in pocket and, God forbid, women openly smoking.
As for my students actually speaking English, some don't dare. The reason in many cases is shyness, but the real reason, I think, is that they're terrified to make mistakes, lose face, show themselves up .... My TV Class 2 is the best/worst example of this. Four years of face-saving, shyness and general blobbiness have left them unable to construct a sentence of more than three words. Oh well, they do come alive occasionally when we sing songs, safety in numbers I guess, and they are great cooks, generous people who have given me presents and seemed genuinely to like my lessons. I can maybe understand their fear of opening their mouths. In my battle to learn Chinese, I've enlisted student support on occasion and have mostly failed to get over the concept that I'm only here for a short time, so don't worry if I make mistakes, if you understand me, answer me so we can have a bit of a conversation. Weeeell, they tried, but they just couldn't resist the temptation of correcting my every mistake, getting me to repeat correctly hundreds of times until I was thoroughly knackered and disillusioned, vowing inwardly never to speak the wretched language again as I was so rubbish. When I asked them, though, if they'd understood me, they said, yes, of course. Grrrrrrr. My actual teacher has learned now what works with me and probably just cringes inwardly. So be it.
I could rattle on for hours, but I reckon that's enough for one session and I'm off to rehearse shortly ... real culture, I'm doing 'This is the way we brush our teeth' with a number of students, and Peter, for moral support. Perfect for a Graduation party! Then, if I don't bottle out, I'm going to say a few words in Chinese as my farewell address. Wish me luck.