A Travellerspoint blog

Oh my Lady Gaga

Why in the world is "Waka Waka" our theme song?

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A quick note on the title of this blog: that is a legitimate saying here. They use that instead of "Oh my God." I really couldn't make that up. We all think it's hilarious. As for the second part, it probably happened because we were told that we had to learn the dance from the "Waka Waka" video for the English camp (we still don't know the reasoning behind that). Anyways, the song stuck, and we tend to start singing it at random intervals throughout the day.

On to actual topics. We are no longer working at the English camp (due to a change in teaching schedules that we really know nothing about), but I must admit that I'm a little bit glad. This camp is really intense, and it makes us a bit nervous. Even our Chinese volunteers think it's weird. There are posters all over the school (even in bathroom stalls) with various motivational sayings, some of which are a bit over-the-top, and there are a bunch of enormous banners with pictures of the English teacher who runs the camp (apparently he's a very famous Chinese man) and quotes from him. One of them is about conquering English to make China stronger (one boy in our group thought it said that they should conquer the English). There are a lot, all of which are a little bit odd. We're not sure if it's just a cultural difference or if it really is over-the-top, but the fact that our volunteers are surprised tells me that it may be the latter. What makes me the most nervous is the military presence at the camp. There are honestly Chinese military personnel in full uniform escorting groups of students. It's a little bit weird. But the students are really nice. Most of us have had our hands shaken and pictures taken and been told that it's an honor to meet Americans.

Yesterday's cultural lesson was about Peking Opera. I have to admit that I don't like it very much, but it was still an interesting class. It started out with Joseph playing a waltz on the piano and Ben teaching a few of us how to waltz. It was fun. About an hour in, class was interrupted by Fernando pointing out the cicada that was sitting on one of the desks. Those bugs are everywhere here. You can hear them all around in the trees, but of course they quiet down when you walk too close. We've seen a bunch of their shells, but this was the first live one we saw. I'm terrified of bugs, so I ran to the opposite corner (even though it wasn't close to me). Joseph got me down to the front of the room, but then someone put the thing on his head (they had been posing with it for pictures) so I ran and hid in the corner next to the piano, where Ben was playing. So once I was trapped, they brought the dumb bug over and put it on the piano. I almost cried, I was so freaked out. I don't blame the bug, though. It was probably at least as upset as I was. Anyways, eventually someone put it outside and we continued with the lesson. I hate bugs.

If you recall, last week I wrote about an exam that Cynthia and a boy neither of us had met before gave me. Well, he picked me up from school yesterday and took me back to the restaurant, where my host family and his parents all met for dinner. This time I didn't really get an exam, but I did get some weird questions. For example, they wanted to know how I kept fit. I answered honestly that I didn't really. Then they wanted to know how I was so skinny, and how other people could be as skinny as I am. They asked if it was because I lived in America. Ironically, when I told Joseph about this conversation, he told me that his family had asked him why Americans were so fat. The best part was that they had gone to KFC for dinner. I had to spend five minutes finding "metabolism" in a dictionary to help me expalain why I'm so small. I'm not sure that it made a lot of sense. They said that they were very happy that I've been eating more. I hadn't realized that they were worried. After dinner, when we got home, my family gave me "dessert," which I expected to be cookies or a cake from the bakery (it's called "Happyness" in English, and it's wonderful, I highly recommend it for anyone who stops by China, I think it's a chain). I was wrong. It was soup, but the soup was sweet, at least, the broth was. There was a lot of sugar in it. It also had green beans and garlic, which had the texture of roasted garlic but was the most bitter thing I've ever eaten. I didn't like it much. Apparently it's Chinese traditional medicine that is supposed to help your skin, and a lot of Chinese families eat it as a summer dessert. I was surprised. Cynthia wanted to know about American desserts, and was surprised that I didn't consider soup a dessert. I told her about a lot of things that she recognized. I couldn't translate or explain marshamallows, though. I tried, and then told her that she had to taste them to understand. She laughed.

This morning's language class started out with working from our book (or rather, running through it). Class hasn't improved much, even though we have a teacher. The volunteers were so much better. The teacher doesn't really speak English and isn't quite clear on the fact that we don't speak Chinese. It's kind of painful. Then our head teacher came in and showed us a news story that they had of us. I think I've mentioned that we're celebrities here. It started out with a bit about our Chinese knot-tying class and then moved to interviews with Ben and Mikaela and their host families at their homes. It was pretty cool, and very funny for us to watch. After that we had a break, and then we watched Mulan. As I said, the class isn't great. But it's fun. I've started to look at this trip more as a cultural exchange than a linguistic one. I've accepted that I won't learn a lot of the language, but that there are a lot of other things that I can get out of it.

Zai jian for now!

Posted by MAx1992 21:33 Archived in China Tagged living_abroad Comments (2)

What is American culture?

With a bonus 14 hour bus ride!

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It has been quite a while since I've updated this, so I have to jump back a few days.

On Thursday, instead of having a cultural lesson, we went to the Bank of China and joined a conference room full of people to do a cultural presentation. There was a speaker there who spoke only Chinese, and his powerpoint was only Chinese, so I have absolutely no idea what he said, aside from a few name drops (Brown, Yale, Harvard, etc.) and the Changzhou No. 1 Middle and High School band played, all with traditional Chinese instruments. They were really good. They played some traditional Chinese music, and also played Do-Re-Mi, which was really fun. We sang along quietly. Our presentation included us singing the national anthem and performing the Pledge of Allegiance, then powerpoints on American pop culture and a few people's individual states. We also did the Cha-Cha Slide and the YMCA and tried to teach our audience. We've decided that if there are any more of those (which there may very well be) we need better dances. That, of course, sparked a debate about what American dancing is. The only one we could agree on was swing dancing, but I'm the only one who even knows how (and I'm not good). The discussion continues. We'll see what happens. We've all had to answer the question "What is American culture?" and interestingly, we've all come up with similar answers. American culture is made up of pieces of everyone's culture. Native Americans have the only true American culture, because the rest of us borrow from other cultures. It's interesting that everyone has commented on some variation of that.

Friday, we got up bright and early to be on a bus from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. (with a few breaks scattered through). We played cards on the one table and played other car games, like ten fingers and such. It was fun. Saturday and Sunday we were in Baoding (which is up near Beijing) for an AFS conference. There were students from all over China who are going on programs next year, our entire AFS group attended, and a dozen countries sent volunteers. Some of it was boring, but we got to see everyone again, meet some new people, learn some new words (Chloe, Mikaela, and I got called "spicy" by a Chinese boy, and when we asked what that meant he said it was like "dishy." I wish I could say that that was the weirdest part of the conversation.), and participate in a cultural activity. The Chinese and American students were divided into several groups (mine included Joseph, Julie Ann, Mikaela, Holli, and about twenty Chinese students) with volunteer leaders (ours were from Denmark). The leaders' job was to teach us something cultural from their country, so our leaders taught us "Mester Jacob" (also known as "Brother John") whwich we ended up singing in Danish, English, and Chinese. The Danish version and the English version are basically the same, just in different languages, but the Chinese version is about tigers. We're still working on what happened there. Other groups did other songs and dances. For example, the group lead by a man from Paraguay did the salsa. Ironically, Fernando was in that group. He's Dominican. The whole thing was a lot of fun. There was also a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. They only had a few cups of tea, so they only gave them to a few people in the audience. Holli and I both got some. It was delicious. Anyways, we headed home Sunday night, and spent the whole night on the bus. Needless to say, it was a long night.

Of course, Monday we didn't have class, so most of the American group met up around noon and went shopping. It was really exciting (and helpful) to practice our Chinese with real people and to be in a situation where it was truly sink or swim. We either communicated or we didn't get anything. It was so much fun! I finally started to feel like Chinese really is my third language, and not just a language I'm pretending to know. I actually clarified something in my third language! I used it! Mikaela worded her revelation the best: "I suddenly realized that I'm in China with thirteen of my best friends learning about the language and the culture." I agree. It's true. And it's wonderful. Anyways, I got two children's books. One is of little rhymes and the other has short, simple stories, but they both have characters with pinyin (the pronunciation of the characters in our alphabet), which is really helpful. One is for ages 0-4. I have to start somewhere! They're fun to work through. Yes, I did say work. We also met two women on the street who weren't Chinese. They were from South Africa, but they had been here for two years teaching English. They were very nice, and fun to talk to while we walked for a bit. When I got home, having used Chinese successfully, I was really excited to use it with my family. I walked into my apartment and my grandfather greeted me with the one English word he knows: "Hello." So without thinking, I replied "Hola!" Oops. I corrected myself to "Ni hao" quickly. Then he asked something that I didn't catch, and I said "Que?" instead of "shen me?" I guess I need to work on that. But it's good to know that Spanish is a default for me, too!

That's all for now, or at least, all that I can think of. Until next time!

Posted by MAx1992 21:30 Archived in China Tagged living_abroad Comments (4)

Our new jobs

And oh yeah, my English got corrected yesterday. By a Chinese person.

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So for the next few weeks, starting Monday evening, there will be an English class for Chinese speakers, and we've been asked to help out at it. Of course we all agreed. We're pretty excited. It should be interesting. We're really just there to correct the students' English. But I think it will be fun. Ben (from Pennsylvania) volunteered to be the leader of the "foreign volunteers" (a.k.a. our class). Apparently they want us to learn "Waka Waka" and the dance that Shakira does in the video, so his logic was that if he's in charge, he just has to be the MC and announce us, and won't have to participate. We told him that it meant that he had to be Shakira. But this won't happen for a few weeks, so we'll see what happens.

Christina (from Rhode Island) and I were discussing grammar during lunch. We've both been asked by Chinese students to look at their English tests and explain some things. I didn't find many mistakes (mostly because I just glanced through it at dinner) but she noticed a lot of mistakes. It was a multiple-choice test, and she said that when she looked at it, most questions had one of two problems. One, none of the answers were actually right, or two, all of the answers were right, but the teacher only considered one right. This sparked a long conversation about grammar and our biggest pet peeves. We're both know grammar pretty well. Her AP Lit class helped her a lot, she said, and of course, my grandmother is an English teacher, so I've learned over the years. Joseph thought that it was hysterical that we were casually chatting about grammar. I didn't think that that was as funny as the fact that we sometimes translate things into Spanish or French in order to teach each other Chinese. Chloe actually wants to practice her Spanish, so she asked me to talk to her in Spanish sometimes (we're going to do it on the bus, because we think that it might double the number of weird looks we get). I don't know why she asked me to do it and not Fernando (from Boston) who is Dominican and speaks fluent Spanish. I haven't talked with him in Spanish yet, so I don't know how I actually compare.

Speaking of English errors, I apparently committed a linguistic faux pas the other day. I have to confess, first, that most of our class went to Starbucks yesterday, and I went, too. (I'm sorry. I've been here for so long, it was nice to have something from home. And I got a really cool mug! It's my first slip, I promise.) We ordered in English because everyone there spoke English and we were in a hurry and didn't want to mess with ten Americans trying to order various iced drinks in Chinese, which for many of us is a third language. Of course, I got the same thing I usually do: a caramel frappuccino (it was so good). I pronounce caramel like "CAR-mel." I always have, and more than likely, I always will. When I ordered, the woman said, "CARE-uh-mel." I was really surprised and shrugged and said, "Yeah, CAR-mel, CARE-uh-mel, same thing." And, to my amazement, she said again, "CARE-uh-mel." So I just said, "Yes, I'd like a CARE-uh-mel frappuccino, please." We all thought that this was hysterical. Obviously, it wasn't a true error, but it's still a new favorite story!

I'll be back on Monday or Tuesday, whenever I get back to a computer, since we'll be in Baoding for a couple of days and it's a long trip (ten hours on a bus, plus stops for meals, which should be a blast), so we don't have class tomorrow or Monday.

再見!

Posted by MAx1992 21:37 Archived in China Tagged living_abroad Comments (3)

Why American ambassadors have such a hard time

And why this experience has taught me about my own country

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Since on this trip I thikn of myself as an American ambassador, I've been doing my best to be a good representative of my country. That's fair, right? Well, the other day Cynthia asked me if my mother was English. I asked her why, and she said that I was so polite and "elegant" that her mother wondered if my mother was English. Suddenly, I understand why it's hard to be a good representative. People assume that you were raised British.

Before I came here, I wondered how it would teach me more about America. I thought I was pretty well rounded. I've lived in California and Vermont and I've visited a lot of other states, I have a pretty good grasp of U.S. history, and I'm reading my We the People book. I thought I was pretty set. How much can things vary? Now I've spent about a week and a half with people from California, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Virginia, Rhode Island, Massachussetts, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Michigan, and other states, I've realized how little I truly know about American culture. Within the last couple of weeks, I've learned several new games, a few of which are my new favorites, and I know I'll bring them home with me. Then we played other games that everyone knows, like down by the banks, but even Chloe and I sang it differently, and we learned it in the same state. She was just in the south and I was in the north. I was really surprised. Obviously we all observe the same general cultural practices, but the small things vary a lot. I was surprised.

Also, an interesting cultural similarity, this time between Americans and Koreans. A bunch of us started playing hand slapping games (you know, the kind where you have to make the other person quit first) during a break in our Tai Chi class, and much to our surprise, the Koreans started playing their own hand slapping game. It's really complicated, and fairly intense, so I can't explain how it went, but I'll remember it. Anyways, we were all fascinated by this random (and painful) similarity. Our countries are totally different, and yet, we play the same type of game. How's that for a coincidence?

That's all I have for today. I know it's short. This weekend we're going to Baoding to meet up with the other AFS people, so maybe next week I'll have more.

Until tomorrow, zai jian!

(P.S.- We saw blue sky and sun today for the first time in weeks. Words cannot express my excitement!)

Posted by MAx1992 21:37 Archived in China Tagged living_abroad Comments (1)

Essentials for travel in China

And a run-down of my exam last night

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Last night, my host father took me and my host sister to dinner with some colleagues. It was interesting, because one of his colleagues had a son who was there as wel (he was my age) and they left the three of us in our own room. He was very nice, and really funny, and the three of us chatted for a while, but it quickly turned from a conversation to an examination.

First it was a Chinese test, which I was kind of prepared for, and I think I did alright. Then the boy (Lu) showed me his English test and asked me to explain some of the answers to him, and "it just is" was not the right answer. However, I was kind of anticipating something like that since some of the other AFS kids had warned me, so it was okay. What I was not expecting was Lu handing me a pen and paper and asking what I knew in math class. I didn't know what to write, so he narrowed it down and asked what was hardest. So I drew out a proof from geometry, since I didn't like geometry and it was difficult. Then my host sister took the pen and wrote out an equation and asked if I understood it. I did. Then Lu drew another. Then that evolved into physics and I told them I didn't know physics, but was better at biology, and they started listing types of RNA. So I explained that science wasn't really my forte and told them I was really good at Spanish. That didn't go anywhere, because neither of them spoke Spanish, and so they couldn't quiz me.

Then they showed me an English textbook, flipped it open to some song lyrics, and asked me to sing it. I didn't know the melody, but I read it out loud. Then they wanted to know what other songs I knew, and when I floundered, they asked if I knew Lady Gaga (who is rather infamous here) and someone named Ariel. When I said I didn't know Ariel, Lu started singing, "Hey, hey, you, you, I don't like your girlfriend," and I laughed and told him that it was Avril. So they wanted me to sing "Girlfriend" and I refused, since I can't sing, so they asked me to tell them a joke. I couldn't come up with one that made sense in both languages and cultures. They thought that was funny, so I asked them to tell me a Chinese joke and they had the same problem. Then they started quizzing me on cartoons and TV shows, from Sesame Street, to Spongebob, to Friends. Keep in mind, most of this was done through my little pocket dictionary. It was quite an experience, and it must have lasted for nearly four hours.

As for our classes yesterday, after our computer time, we learned Tai Chi. It's more confusing than it looks, but we discovered that if you make up a story to go with the movements, it is easier to remember. As a result, the class ended with fourteen American teenagers and ten Korean teenagers chanting Joseph's creation. It's about a garden gnome, and it's one of the funniest things I've ever heard, honestly. The Korean kids didn't understand "garden gnome" though (not that I'm surprised, I definitely wouldn't know that in my second or third language) so I explained that it's a kind of lawn decoration that some people have in America that looks kind of like a mini Santa Claus and is usually the subject of a lot of jokes. They thought that was as funny as the rest of the story.

After that, we all went shopping at Lu Qiao, which is a local mall with a lot of stands with extremely inexpensive everything that we really want to go back to. It was fun to practice bargaining. A few of us are going to go back with our host sisters soon :)

This brings me to a list that I've decided to make, which may continue through the duration of my stay, but I want to make a list of some things you definitely need in China.

1) Pocket packs of tissues. Public restrooms in China don't have toilet paper. The really, REALLY nice ones might, but don't assume that, because you will probably be in a lot of trouble if you do. Just bring the tissues.

2) A sense of humor. They WILL laugh at you. Not to be mean, but if you hold your chopsticks strangely, drop food, or say anything in Chinese (right or wrong) they think it's wonderful and laugh. Just be able to laugh along with them.

3) Recognition of the fact that some things are funny in every country, and some things just don't translate. For example, jokes don't make any sense at all, but a kid knowing something is going to happen and saying "3, 2, 1..." and then being off is always hilarious. Also funny in most languages: someone trying to explain the concept of cross-dressers to someone who speaks a different language.

4) The basic ability to use chopsticks. Even if it's just stabbing things. They appreciate the effort.

5) An umbrella. It rains a lot and the rain is drenching and, as I said, no one wears raincoats. Plus, if there's no stall door (again, public restrooms), it becomes a handy way to block it.

6) Basic common sense. Cross with the locals. Do as they do. If they refuse to eat or drink something, don't show off!

7) Bravery. And if you don't know what something is (or you think you know, but aren't sure) just don't ask. Take it. It might be really good, and knowing what it is might ruin it. Take the pig stomach soup, for example. I thought it was mushrooms, and I think I would have liked it. But since I asked what it was with the spoon halfway up to my mouth, it took away from the enjoyment.

That's all for today. We'll see what happens later.

Posted by MAx1992 21:34 Archived in China Tagged living_abroad Comments (3)

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