Monday, May 25, 2009

Village School

Right now, we have a group visiting Mengzi and Honghe University from Clearwater College in Florida. There are about 15 college students and 4 adult sponsers. On Thursday last week, Brian organized a trip for the group to a small village about an hour outside of Mengzi. This village is very poor and extremely remote (our drivers had no idea where it was and were not too please about having to drive down a narry, bumpy dirt path to get to the village.) The village has about 25 families in it, I was told. In the village is a small primary school that one of Brian's former students attended. The school is literally a one-room-schoolhouse that is about as primitive as you can get. There are about 25 - 30 students of all different ages who study in this little school. Most of the students belong to the Miao minority. These students had never seen this many Westerners before. Their faces and the conditions of their school just melt your heart. I think it was a one-of-a-kind, memorable experience--for both the Americans and the village students.

The Clearwater team helped buy notebooks, pens, soccer balls, and blackboards to give to the students and for the school to use. Here some of the boys on the team are carrying the blackboards up the path to the school.

The students stand outside their school, singing and clapping to welcome us.

Our group could barely fit into their little classroom. Brian gave a little introduction and then we all sang a few songs for the kids and did an impromptu English lesson.

This girl, who I named Lucy since it sounded like her Chinese name, opened up to me a little bit although she was still pretty shy. I would have guessed her to be about 7 or 8 years old, but she told me she was 12. When I asked her how old I was she guess I was 16, so I guess we were both having trouble gauging each other's ages! :)

The girls wore their traditional Miao dresses which are brightly colored with many layers and lots of elaborate beading.

One good thing about kids is that even if you don't speak the same language, throwing and kicking balls are universally fun and doesn't require much communication.

Me with some of the boys

The kids wave goodbye to us as we leave.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Big Block of Cheese Day

So if you asked the average Chinese person . . . "Got Milk?" . . . the answer would be "mei you!" (don't have) . . . you're not going to see some Chinese person walking around with a milk mustache. Chinese people are not huge dairy consumers. For six years, I've lamented a lack of acceptable milk. I can put Chinese shelf-milk in coffee or on a bowl of corn flakes, but I still don't like to drink it straight. Cheese is another scarce commodity. When I lived in Yichang, we had to go to the bigger city of Wuhan to get cheese, which was a four-hour bus ride away. Now, Kunming has become our cheese provider (our "Wisconsin" so-to-speak), still about a 4 hour drive from Mengzi. Last week, Brian was in Kunming and did some shopping for us. Usually we buy blocks of Land-o-Lakes cheese from a large grocery store with import items. One block of cheddar is usually 35 yuan (about $5). This time though, Victoria found a place to buy cheese in bulk. We got this massive block of cheddar for about half of what it would have cost to buy that much Land-O-Lakes cheese. Don't worry, I'm not eating all of that myself. Katie, Dave and I are splitting that one block three ways. Katie and I had a rather fun time chopping up the cheese into smaller pieces to freeze. This cheese will definitely see me through until next month when I come home. I can't wait to just stand in awe in the cheese aisle of Meijer when I get home!

*for any one else who watched the West Wing, do you remember the episode called "Big Block of Cheese Day" where Leo invites all those bizarre interest groups and organizations who never get heard to come to the White House? Always loved that episode, especially when I watched it in China! :)

Saturday, May 16, 2009


I know many of you in the States have been getting a lot of rain lately; so have we here in Mengzi! Generally, our rain comes in short showers, but the the last three days have been one long downpour (although some blue sky might pop out just long enough to trick you into thinking it was clearing up). This morning it poured, but then the afternoon finally looked a little better. Katie and I decided to go to the orphanage to play with the kids since we figured they'd be sick of being cooped up. But when we got to the orphanage, the entrance was blocked by a huge lake! There was no way to get in unless you wanted to wade in water up to your knees. One of the workers, who we know pretty well, heard we were outside and came to talk to us; she was having to wear galoshes up to her knees (I love that word!). She told us that some sort of rescue squad was helping them pump out the water (notice how hard they're working in the photo) and that hopefully by tomorrow it would be ok. I guess they moved some of the elderly peolple to another location in town and the kids were being kept on the second floor. I was sad not to see my kiddos, but we're going to try to go back tomorrow or Monday. I'm going to pray the orphanage can move to a new, better (and higher) facility soon!

Street outside the orphanage.
Pomegranate fields backed up with water.

(blog is still "harmonized," but proxy server worked well enough to let me upload the photos)

Harmonized Blog

I just discovered today that blogspot blogs have been blocked by the Great Firewall of China . . .

The big political campaign/buzzword in China during Hu Jin Tao's administration has been the promotion of a "harmonious society." I hear and see that phrase everywhere in China--on the news, on billboards and banners, in my students speeches. I hear that phrase so much it makes me cringe (or roll my eyes, depending on the context). Now when things get censored on the Internet, Chinese netizens say the webpage has been "harmonized." Youtube has been harmonized for several weeks now, the BBC is always harmonized, and I guess blogs are the next harmonizing stop for the Chinese censors. The reason--a rather sensitive anniversary coming up on the 4th of next month. I can't even begin to express how frustrating I feel when I become a direct "victim" of Chinese Big Brother!! Anyways, I can still sort-of access my blog if I use a proxy server; however, it's so slow that it's almost not worth it. So blog posts from me might be few and far between in the coming weeks. Or maybe blogspot will be accessible again tomorrow, who knows.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Mark Twain on Spelling

This doesn't really have anything to do with China, but since I'm still reeling from all those writing assignments I've been grading, a funny look at the English language was a nice diversion. I came across this tongue-in-cheek idea from Mark Twain while looking online for some ideas for my writing class. I've always liked Mark Twain quotes--he was amazingly humorous and witty. Spelling was always my worst subject, and still today I freely admit I'm a bad speller (spell check only making my problem worse). If his idea had been put into practice, maybe I'd be a better speller today.

A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling
by Mark Twain

For example, in Year 1 that useless letter "c" would be dropped to be replased either by "k" or "s", and likewise "x" would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which "c" would be retained would be the "ch" formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform "w" spelling, so that "which" and "one" would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish "y" replasing it with "i" and Iear 4 might fiks the "g/j" anomali wonse and for all. Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez "c", "y" and "x" -- bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez -- tu riplais "ch", "sh", and "th" rispektivli. Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Bless Their Hearts

I've spent a lot of time grading the past few weeks. I gave all my students written mid-term exams and my freshmen students had oral exams. The big project though has been grading nearly 70 portfolios from my writing class. It's slow going because there are lots of mistakes (that might be an understatement). These students just really need help with their writing, so I want to make sure I thoroughly correct all of their papers so that they learn from their mistakes.

Anyways . . . I know it's probably in violation of some kind of Teachers' Code to laugh at or take pleasure in students' mistakes, but I either need to get a little bit of enjoyment out of this endless task or else I'll go completely nuts. So I thought I'd blog a few of the funnier things my students came up with. Bless their hearts . . . they're trying, but sometimes it just comes out funny.

In a cover letter . . . "I would like to introduce myself as a qualified applicant for the poison you are offering."

On a resume, one girl said she had a lot of "piratical" experience. I was unaware I had a former pirate in my class.

In an essay about making smoking in schools illegal . . . "Smoking should not be allowed in schools because the students ate teenagers."

In a cover letter . . . "I'm a bachelor." (He was trying to say he is pursuing a bachelor's degree. I'm sure the student has no idea that his sentence had a totally different meaning.)

On my freshman exam one question was "How can you finish a telephone conversation in English?" (Chinese people tend to be quite abrupt on the phone which is acceptable in Chinese but not so much in English) Here are a few of the answer I got--
"I'd like you to go."
"I'm glad to talk about you."
"This is all the information, thanks for listening."

On the same exam I had a section where the students had to fill in the blanks with the correct vocabulary words from their dialogues. When they chose a wrong word, it was rather humorous.
"What kind of institute do you want on your salad?"
"What kind of stink do you want on your salad?"
"Please fill out this stink form first."

I still have quite a few (more than I want to admit or think about) portfolios left to grade, so if other entertaining student quotes come up, I'll update this list.

Friday, May 1, 2009


Long ago, in ancient China (so I'm told), there was a man who had a weapons shop, probably located on Weapons Street, where he sold such useful things as knives, swords, spears, shields, helmets, soft drinks, Wrigley's gum, and packaged chicken's feet. This weapons seller claimed that his spears were the sharpest spears in the world and that his spears could pierce through any armor. I'm sure he even offered a discount to the local warlord if he bought his spears in bulk--cheap-ah, cheap-ah for you friend-ah! At the same time, this black smith/weaponeer/arms dealer (what do you call a person who makes/sells weapons? Dad, help me out!) also claimed that his shield was the best in all of China . . . no! . . . in all of the world! . . . and that absolutely nothing could pierce his shield. But wait there's more! . . . if you buy one impenetrable shield and one ultra-sharp spear within the next 30 seconds, you'll receive not one, but two!, retro Roman-style broom-top helmets absolutely free (doubles as a Dustbuster during peacetime)!!! So, after listening to this arms seller's sales pitch one-too-many times, some clever customer asked the man what would happen if he used the able-to-pierce-anything spear against the impenetrable shield. The shop seller realized he was in a bit of a conundrum. If he said his spear was strong enough to pierce the shield, he would be admitting that his shield was not-so-impenetrable. If he said that the shield could stand up to a stab from the spear, then obviously he was admitting that the spear wasn't quite as sharp as he was advertising. I guess false advertising has had a long history here in China . . .

And so today, the Chinese word "contradiction" is made up of two characters. The first one is 矛 (máo) which is the word for "spear." And the second character 盾 (dùn) which is the word for shield.

矛盾 máodùn has to be one of the most useful words I've learned in Chinese in a while, and it definitely wins the prize for Best Etymology. Obviously, I embellished the story a little, but that is (according to my Chinese teacher) the basic idea of how the word came about. Do we have any words like that in English that have come about because of some kind of historical story/fable? I can't think of any.

The entire country of China is one giant living, breathing contradiction. On a national scale, China is the most curious blend of despotic, Communistic politics and Western, capitalistic economics. Chinese toddlers are bundled up in layers and layers of clothing until they look like little walking marshmallows with heads; yet they have split-bottom pants on, leaving their little rear-ends exposed to the cold. Chinese people will push and shove to get on a bus without a second-thought for the people around them who they just elbowed; yet they'll welcome any guest into their home and put Westerners to shame with their hospitality and generosity. In China it's considered rude and dirty to touch food with your hands; however, it's common to see people picking their noses (maybe that's why they don't touch their food!). At 5 feet 5 inches, I feel like a giant compared to most of my Chinese friends; yet China can produce a 7 and a half foot NBA center. I've always thought I could write a book about China entitled "Contradictions" (or maybe a grad school paper in the future?) Now that I know the interesting history behind the word in Chinese, I'm even more interested in the topic.