Monday, February 2, 2009


On the way home from the grocery store just now, I decided that today was the day to writing a closing post for my "Year in China" blog... a task I have put off for the past seven months!

Scott and I moved to Alexandria, Virginia last month; he found a wonderful internship at the Charles Koch Foundation and I am now working part-time at Banana Republic while looking for a regular job. We have a great little apartment that's an easy bus and metro commute into D.C. The fact that we live in a mostly Mexican neighborhood doesn't phase either of us, because we're certainly used to being in the minority!

Although I am really enjoying my new life in Washington, D.C., I often find myself wondering how I will be able to create memories to top the ones from my year abroad. How does it get any better than...

spending a day swimming from beach to beach in Southern Thailand, through crystal clear water and rainbow coral reefs;

being serenaded with your favorite Chinese song by students in the middle of class;

riding the night train on vacation with your friends;

looking down at a breathtakingly spectacular tropical bay from the crest of a hill in the middle of a Thai jungle;

petting a panda bear eating bamboo in rural Sichuan province;

throwing a graduation party for fifteen sweet, excited Chinese college students;

having a spicy Sichuan meal and Qingdao beer with good friends;

attending a Chinese wedding with your father in Guangzhou;

singing "God Is A Girl," "Take Me To Your Heart," and "I Will Always Love You" in a private KTV room;

watching a National Day fireworks display from the top of the tallest building in Hong Kong;

being greeted by fifty seventeen-year-olds shouting "WE LOVE YOU!!!!" at the beginning of each class period;

finding a Western-style restaurant with the best spaghetti in Zhanjiang;

lying on a beautiful beach in Hong Kong;

spending three weeks traveling a foreign country with your boyfriend;

staying up all night stealing plants from your school's garden;

traveling five hours by bus just to get Papa John's pizza...

And so many more special times.

It's difficult to write something significant enough to sum up my truly life-changing year in Zhanjiang. Living there was both the most challenging and the most rewarding experience I have ever had. Sitting here by my computer in February 2009, I look back on June 2007- July 2008 with a smile... because how do I describe what it was like to teach English in Zhanjiang?

The most challenging months of my entire life began on September 1, 2007, the day Scott and I arrived in Zhanjiang. It seemed that the two of us were completely on our own, living in a country whose people viewed me as someone from outer space, and vice versa! Not only did I have to adjust to the local culture, but I also had to figure out how to teach 125 students to speak English while being given no usable textbook or curriculum. Imagine how I felt standing up in front of all those expectant young faces, trusting in my ability to help them "master English!"

I didn't realize it in those first few months, but it was my ability to overcome these overwhelmingly difficult initial problems that made my experience in Zhanjiang so memorable. I am proud of the quality with which I taught my students. Looking back, I feel that I was genuinely able to make a difference in their lives. I keep in touch with many of the students, who repeatedly express how much they miss me and what a wonderful time we had together.

On the culture side, I learned to appreciate most things Chinese and to laugh off the rest. Much of this laughing was done with the unique friends I made over the course of the year. We were certainly an eclectic group, hailing from the United States, Canda, China, Uzbekistan, Cameroon and Wales. Although Zhanjiang did not exactly offer a multitute of entertainment options, our group managed to have a pretty good time. Our roof parties, Saturday dinners at the Sichuan and Inner Mongolian restaurants, excursions to Wal-Mart, and holiday trips were always spontaneous and always a blast. The best part was that we could share experiences and laugh about the randomness of daily ZJ life.

I am so grateful to have had such an incredibly special experience... and one that really changed me. I know that I will have many more wonderful and exciting times in my life, but I will carry these memories and friendships with me always.


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Good-bye from Linda

Tonight in class, I received a stuffed animal along with a farewell letter from Linda, one of my favorite and cutest high school students:

Hello! This is for your little gift. I know you will leave for USA soon, I hope we are forever more friends because... "Friendship is forever a friend is forever." I would to a farewell upon parting containing fervent passion and fine blessing, exceeds all words form the bason of our heary. Parted though, we are, I hope friendship around us unites our hearts together. I am very sad. You will leave. I love you forever. Don't forget us please! :(


I love you forever!

Monday, June 16, 2008


My college students are an unusually open-minded and intelligent group of girls. They’re graduating at the end of the semester, and many of them will pursue jobs in customer relations with English-speakers doing business with Chinese export-import companies. After a year of adjusting to Chinese attitudes towards foreign visitors, who’d be better qualified than me to give a lecture on the “do’s and don’ts” of Western culture? I decided to teach the girls a few of the things I’ve observed in hopes that they’d put my advice to use in their upcoming careers. Here are the topics we talked about in class last week:

1. Every one of China’s billion people knows how to say “HELLO.” I’ve had “HELLO!” yelled at me so many times in China that I thought it was important to go over some different greetings. If you think about it, “Hello” is probably the least commonly used of the following:

• Hello- is not often used
• It’s good to see you vs. Nice to meet you.
• Good morning/ afternoon/ evening.
• How are you?
• How’s it going?
• How are things?
• How has your day been?
• What’s up?
• What are you up to?
• Hi, Hey (informal)

In post-lecture weeks, my students now greet me with, “JANET! HEL-… I mean, good morning.”

2. Chinese and Western views on privacy are very different. For me at least, respect for the individual is one of the most important elements of our culture. That’s one of the reasons that staring and pointing are discouraged by American parents from the beginning of childhood.

In small Chinese cities such as Zhanjiang, staring at foreigners is a big problem… especially if you happen to be a tall, fair girl like me. I’ve struggled with this element of life in China all year long; however, now at the end of the year I realize it’s more of a cultural difference than outright rudeness. Chinese are curious to see “the foreigner,” but mostly they don’t consider staring offensive. Zhanjiangers also point and gape at traffic accidents, pregnant women and even roadside construction.

Regardless of the reasons behind violations of privacy, I explained why these actions are considered very offensive to many visitors to China:
• Taking pictures
• Staring
• Pointing
• Gossip
• Shouting

3. To a Western visitor in China, it may seem that Chinese are ill-mannered and overly abrupt to one another. Restaurant customers readily snap their fingers and scream “FUWUYUAN!!! (service person)” across the restaurant to get the waitress’s attention.

Chinese language and customs don’t require the same niceties ours do. What’s rude to us is simply everyday conversation to them. Consider the following common Chinese phrases and their direct translations:

我要米饭. Qing gei mi fan: Please give me the rice.
请给我面条,谢谢. Qing gei wo mian tiao, xie xie. Please give me the noodles, thanks.
别吃太多菜! Bie chi tai duo cai! Don’t eat too much food.
过来. Guo lai. Come here.

Even with the addition of please and thank you, the Chinese is slightly more abrupt than would be considered polite to Western people. That politeness comes mostly from the use of suggestive modal verbs such as should, could and would, which have no direct equivalents in the Chinese language.

I would like some rice, please.
Could you pass the noodles, please?
You should not eat too much food!
Please come here.

4. Another element of life here I’ve found interesting are the constant and very personal comments made on my physical appearance. At least several times a day, a complete stranger tells me, “You are very beautiful!” Each and every class period, students compliment my hair, shoes, and outfit with gasps of delight and excited outbursts of joy.

It’s also common for Chinese to negatively comment on their friends’ appearances. I’ve many times had students and fellow teachers tell me matter-of-factly that I “have spots” on my face. People let their friends know if they’re “getting a little fat” and less attractive students freely admit they are “not so beautiful.”

Looking back on my life as an American, I realized that it’s extremely rare for us to use the word “beautiful” in reference to a person. Additionally, we would much more often compliment parts of a someone’s appearance rather than their overall physicality (“I like your skirt” over “You are so gorgeous!”).

I presented these examples to the students:

A Little Strange
You are very beautiful!
You are very slim!
You are very tall!
Your nose is very high.

More Acceptable
I like your skirt.
Your hair looks cute today.
You look pretty in that color.
I like your shirt!

5. Last but not least, we discussed the connotations of the word “foreigner.” Nine times out of ten, Chinese refer to people from other countries as “foreigners.” I explained that when heard often enough, this word can become offensive and slightly abrasive. It suggests an outsider, or person who does not belong, and thus can be a very isolating term!
• “I saw a foreigner today!”
• “I have never seen a foreigner.”
I asked the students to try using some different terms instead, such as:
• American/ British person/ Australian
• Person from another country
• Native English-speaker
• Visitor
• Non-Chinese
• Westerner

As an example, I compared the Hong Kong and Chinese customs documents. Hong Kong refers to foreigners as visitors, while the Chinese side calls its visitors aliens. The students joked, “Janet, you come from a UFO!” but actually this isn’t far from the way I often feel as an alien living in China!

At the end of the discussion, I made sure everyone understood I didn’t mean to criticize their culture or make them feel uncivilized. I just wanted to explain that people from other countries are just that… people from other countries. They are not here to perform or entertain, and often just want to exist as regular people. I requested that the students put themselves in that person’s shoes for a minute; that they stop and think before snapping a photo of an unsuspecting “foreigner.” I think the lecture was well-received and hope that it will be helpful as the students begin their careers in the world of English-speakers and international trade.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Roof Parties

The following notice was recently posted on each level of the Normal College foreign teachers' apartment building:

NOTICE: May 22, 2008

Recently, some neighbors near this building have made a lot of complaints about the noise of the parties held on the roof of this building. They complained that the noise even continued till deep night and it was very disturbing.

According to Chinese laws and campus regulations, it is illegal to make noise in residential areas before 11:30 PM and people can call police. Besides, the roof is not a safe place for parties or other activities. In order not to disturb other residents and in order to avoid complaints and safety problems,no parties or other activities should be held on the roof of this building from now on. The ladder will be taken away, too.

Thank you for your understanding.

Office of International Exchange & Cooperation(officially stamped)

Does this mean the end of Zhanjiang roof parties? One thing gives me hope: while school officials were busy figuring out how to carry a large bamboo ladder down five flights of narrow stairs, Jamie chucked it into his apartment. There it waits for one last rooftop blowout which will, unfortunately for neighbors near this building will most likely continue till deep night. However, we will at least partially follow the sign's directions and not make any noise before 11:30 pm!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Guilin and Yangshuo

It's hard to believe it, but in three weeks from today I'll be on my way home! This last month is certainly slipping by quickly, with the time being filled up by mostly nothing... lots of reading, some half-hearted flurries of job searching, and plenty of long lunches and dinners with friends I'll soon be leaving.

Last Sunday was Dragon Boat Festival, a traditional holiday which commemorates the death of the famous poet Qu Yuan around 278 B.C. Legend has it that at the conclusion of the Zhou Dynasty, Qu drowned himself in protest of the changing regime. When local villagers heard the news, they furiously rowed their fishing boats to save the poet. Although they were too late to help the living Qu, the kind people scattered sticky rice into the water to feed his soul. To protect the food from river dragons, they wrapped the rice in fine silk cloth.

Today, Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated with dragon boat races: competitions are held between several long, thin, elaborately decorated vessels rowed by about 15 people. Zongzi, a sticky rice dumpling wrapped in grape leaves, is the festival's traditional food.

In honor of the holiday, there were no classes on Monday, so my three travel companions (Scott, Lindsay and Jamie) and I decided to head north eight hours to Guilin and Yangshuo, two cities of legendary beauty in neighboring Guanxi Province. Guanxi Province's Li River is truly lovely, surrounded by mystical karst mountains and extremely lush greenery. This region is one of the cleanest in China, and a real effort has been made to maintain the natural beauty of the Li River. Classical poets such as Li Bai have long extolled Guanxi's fantastic landscapes:

He who travels in Guilin hills finds himself in a fairyland.
He who sails along the Li River finds himself boating in a sweet dream.

We rode the night train and arrived in Guilin early Friday morning… just in time to (accidentally) see the Olympic torch coming through! I’m not as much interested in the torch itself as I am in the Chinese reaction to the event. Huge crowds of frenzied Olympics fanatics sporting “I Love China” and “Beijing 2008” shirts lined the streets of Guilin, craning for a glimpse of the torch and snapping camera phone pictures. For once, the four of us were far from the center of attention!

Later that day, we explored Guilin a bit, ascending Solitary Beauty Peak for a fantastic view of the beautiful Li River and descending into Reed Flute Cave to wander through the surreal, Gothic-looking formations inside. I especially enjoyed just strolling along the greenish river and watching the dragon boats practicing for Sunday’s races.

Saturday we rode the bus about an hour outside Guilin to Yangshuo. Yangshuo is a favorite with backpackers for a number of reasons. For one thing, Xi Jie (West Street) boasts some of the best Western food in the country; for travelers like us who have been in China for too long, a Mexican burrito can taste amazingly good! Most importantly, Yanghuo offers lots of outdoor activities such as kayaking, biking and hiking... all excellent ways to explore the Li River independently. The town is out in the countryside, so travelers don’t have to deal with the same smog, honking horns, and crowds found in Guilin.

Despite rainy weather over the weekend, the four of us took full advantage of our two days in Yangshuo. We rode a bamboo motor boat down the river and also kayaked about four hours (in the pouring rain, but still fun), attended a music and lights show on the water, and bargained wholeheartedly for the many Chinese trinkets and souvenirs for sale in Yangshuo.

It was an excellent trip. I am certainly savoring these last few weeks of spur-of-the-moment vacations and 12-hour work weeks!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


Here I am in the study, getting ready for class tonight, when through my window faintly drifts a familiar tune:

Way down yonder on the Chattahoochie
It gets hotter than a hoochie coochie
We laid rubber on the Georgia asphalt
We got a little crazy but we never got caught.

Just one verse. I played the song last month in class as an example of country music, and somehow it made its way onto the school courtyard freetime playlist. It's just not exactly what I expected to hear on a Tuesday night in Mazhan, Zhanjiang... how funny!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Halle Halle Lujah

I have a new favorite song! This one has just popped up on the radio in the past several days and so far I've heard it three times in various taxis. As the song opens, a Chinese man sings peppily with a repetitive techno beat pumping in the background. The man has the type of singing voice that belongs on Lambchop or Barney; you can tell he has an giant grin on his face while he belts out the song. Anyway, then the best part comes... the chorus:

Halle Halle Lujah
Halle Halle Lujah
Halle Halle Lujah

Halle Halle Lujah
Halle Halle Lujah
Halle Halle Lujah

Halle Halle Lujah
Halle Halle Lujah
Halle Halle Lujah

The choice of English words in these songs is always very interesting (see above for example). Conversely, restaurants and bars often play different versions of familiar English tunes with the words removed. Saxophone renditions of Greensleeves are popular all year round in upscale restaurants; my door buzzer plays Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee. Considering China is an officially athiest nation, its people sure have an appreciation for Christian music!