"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Enthusiastic Freshmen!

Semi-new pics in the post below.

This past week was marked by the beginning of classes for freshman. I now teach ten hours a week of Oral English to freshman (in addition to my four hours of word processing for sophomores…a full load is 14 hours).

These students are a joy. There are 29 students, all amazingly enthusiastic about being there and learning English. They have a lot of energy, which in turn energizes me and makes teaching them really easy. It’s been really rewarding to watch students improve and learn—even over a short time—and know that I’ve played a part in that. My teaching experience is really pretty limited, though I’ve long felt like a natural teacher. Having a setting in which to explore this “talent” and/or “desire” has been special.

Some recent memorable moments from class:

-Giving out names. English students here traditionally choose an English name to use for their current and future interaction with English speakers. I felt like a parent naming my children. I printed a list of the 100 most popular English names in the US from each decade back to the 70s, and students looked over the list and chose their name. A few of my favorites are Sophia, Ava, Grace, Fiona, and Devin (who changed his name from a name previously given to him, “Potato”…good change, I’d say).

-After exchanging with my students the names and pronunciation of our respective presidents, I offered a brief commentary on the value of people of differing values seeking understanding and common ground, something I suggested applies not only to Hu Jintao and Obama, but to them as students. Trying to seize those moments to preach peace, curiosity, and reconciliation when I can. :)

-Humor isn't always culturally transcendent. Or my students are adorably nerdy. Or both. I’ve quickly learned and accommodated accordingly to the fact that what makes students laugh is not my wit but my extravagance and silliness. The more animated I can be, the better rise I get out of people. A lot of humor does not translate across cultures (not to mention to students whose English is simple and undeveloped). With five minutes left before the end of class, I suggested two options to my students: leave early and began the next topic tomorrow, or stay an hour longer after class to work on new material. About half the class enthusiastically voted for an hour longer. With a puzzled look, I repeated the question several times to make sure they understood the options. They still preferred to stay longer. And they weren’t just sucking up; they said with genuineness that they love English and enjoy learning from me. I laughed, told them I was joking with them, and told them to go home. Heck…I didn’t want to stay another hour.

Some other various brief snapshots of life here:

-I have now jammed with the same group of musicians a couple times, both sessions in which they insisted on singing/playing “My Heart Will Go On” (Titanic), because it’s one of the few American songs they have memorized. Hmm. Trying not be imperialistic about my culture, values, etc….but I may have to “expand their territory” in regards to musical taste (apologies to Jabez).

-We really do have a unique place in the lives of students as foreign teachers. Some of the local teachers gave a confused laugh when I asked if they considered students their friends; the student-teacher separation is strong. But students trust their foreign teachers, knowing we will keep their words confidential (unlike local teachers, apparently); they also sense our warmth and kindness toward them, and a deep level of respect for them as peers. It’s a great gift we can offer them.

-We recently had a Luau party for the birthdays of Maria and Miriam (fellow U.S. teachers). It was a blast…we must have had about 50-70 students come—packed house! There was limbo, speeches, dancing…it really felt like a college party atmosphere…just with Fanta instead of alcohol.

I’ll stop there for now, as this post is getting lengthy, and save a fun story I have to tell for another post to come soon.

And one more thing: happy 27th birthday, my dearest Joann Renee.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Pics of some recent highlights

Our musical performance a couple weeks back.

Limbo at the Luau-themed birthday party for Mim and Maria.

Talking with Chairman Zhang (head of the university); I love the "meeting between world leaders" feel of this pic. :)
Some of my adorable sophomore students singing "Happy Birthday."

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Bottoms Up

Another good (and rainy) week, despite dealing with a bit of a cold. I guess it feels easier to stay inside and heal when the weather is so dreary.

The big welcome show for the freshman took place this week. All first-year students have been marching around campus in fatigues, fulfilling their government-ordained requirement to undergo military training as a means to…well…I’m still not exactly sure why they do it. My students can’t give me a clear answer, other than that it’s “what we do.” It might be a means of instilling discipline, order, group collaboration, etc.

Anyhow…the school put on a huge talent-show-style production for a football field full of students. The performances ranged from singing to belly dancing to break dancing, all which have been clearly rehearsed for weeks. And then there was us—the eight foreign teachers performed our song/sketch, a Chinese song we threw together in 1-2 weeks. Despite not knowing all the words and some technical glitches with my guitar and mic, we were a hit. The crowd loved our effort and the underlying story: me, the “nerdy guy,” tries to win the heart of Ann, the “pretty girl”…I ultimately failed as Ann remained indifferent to my advances, while the crowd of freshman booed her off stage for refusing my love. Good times.

Another highlight was a dinner party at which the administrators officially welcomed the foreign teachers. After a more formal meeting, in which I and several others gave brief speeches and received our “certificate of employment,” we drove 90 minutes to a lake (reminiscent of Lake Shasta), at which we were taken by boat to a resort containing several mansions and various indoor and outdoor amenities, all set on a gorgeous lake surrounded by rolling hills (also the setting of the “giant vase” pic below). We enjoyed what was the finest meal I’ve had since arriving in China. The school clearly appreciates their foreign teachers and treats them well!

The occasion also afforded me the chance to meet Dr. Zhang, the school president and party chairman (i.e., communist party…the government has representatives at each school as a means of connectedness and involvement). And, as much as I am drawn to the outcast and the ignored, I’ll confess I enjoyed schmoozing with the president—discussing American and Chinese culture and making future plans for a ping-pong “date.” Nothing wrong with making friends in high places with power, I suppose. :)

And Chinese people love to make toasts. Every university administrator at the party came around and toasted every other individual, filling up our shot-sized glasses with beer (or OJ for the women), saying “cheers” and “bottoms up.” Even the resort general manager brought out his own personal champagne bottle and did a round of toasts. I thought I nearly offended one of the administrators when I refused more beer and insisted on sipping the little amount I had left from the previous toast. He kept insisting I take more and eventually I put my hand over my glass and said no very sternly; he got the message, after Dr. Zhang basically told him to stop and go sit down. Then Dr. Zhang and I had a brief discussion about the Chinese drinking culture of rapid consumption as compared to the way I typically enjoy drinking...gradual, savoring, engaged in thoughful conversation. He initally thought I just didn't understand Chinese culture.

These are challenges for which I am grateful—getting past assumptions and misinterpretations to find understanding and even appreciation for other ways of “doing things.” I like beer...well, Portland-brewed beer...Chinese beer is only tolerable. But there are many nuances (that I won’t go into) to my fellow NMYM teachers' and my own perspective on drinking while in China. And I believe I thoughtfully weigh these things—considering my own “rules” and retaining my cultural/ethical/personal distinctiveness while also considering the opportunity for relational and cross-cultural connection in a given moment. But I think the heart of the issue is that I don’t like being pressured into things and was resistant to this particular man’s persistence. I’d also started to feel the alcohol (after endless shots) and didn’t want to risk turning into a giggly buffoon in front of the president. :)

But these are some of the challenges in intercultural relationships that intrigue me...discerning as an ambassador of the Kingdom what contextualizing my values in a given setting looks like…identifying the difference between what are man-made and culture-specific traditions/laws and what are truly Kingdom and culturally-transcendent ways of being…knowing when it is appropriate to make my own personal convictions and freedoms secondary to what will most benefit others and will most glorify G** in a particular setting. For example: does taking excessive beer shots enhance the fulfilling of my call here? Detract from it? Not affect it either way? Depend on the setting? These are the kinds of questions I feel responsible to continually consider while here.

Anyhow…been a fun week, with ever more connections being made. I’m definitely getting the “you’re so handsome” comments left and right, with students staring (and the bold ones taking pictures with me). It’s totally going to my head too, as I’ve become grossly self-absorbed. :) Actually, I’m having fun with it, trying to come up with ever new responses besides just, “thank you, that’s very kind.” (Such as “what about my personality?” or “my girlfriend in the U.S. thinks so too” or “gosh, in the U.S. people think I’m hideous!”)

Enough for now. Must finish prepping for my freshman classes, which begin this week. I’ve basically been working 1/3 time these past three weeks, and finally move to a full-time load tomorrow. Looking forward to some new faces!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Learning how to be light

Note the new pics in the post below.

China has begun to feel like home. Unlike previous nomadic travels, I’ve begun to develop roots. I’d attribute this first to the people and, secondly, to my own personal rhythm. There is a kindness and hospitality here that makes it easy to feel comfortable and cared for.

But I also think things are becoming familiar and regular, which creates a sense of home—the place I tend go for lunch, running regular stairs for exercise, seeing people I know, learning names, developing rapport with students, playing soccer with a regular group of guys on the weekends, my morning cup of Nescafe (which I’ve come to cherish). I feel a sense of community and belonging, with my apartmentmate, my fellow teachers, the locals, my students, even the city itself.

It’s been a good week. Trying to be attentive to cultural distinctives, norms, tendencies, ways of understanding the world. Some are thought-provoking; other just make me laugh. Every time I take a taxi I expect to hit someone. Pedestrians do NOT have the right of way, and the way drivers weave in and out of lanes and drive full speed at children on bicycles fully expectant that the children will move at the last minute (which they do)—it can be a bit nerve-wracking. But I have yet to see an accident. They may drive chaotically, but it’s organized chaos—they are excellent drivers with quick instincts.

And they honk their horns incessantly. But they do it as a warning, unlike in the US where we usually honk if we’re getting impatient, or trying to send a message to someone we feel wronged us. There seems to be little ill-will here among drivers.

And there’s phone calls. If I don’t answer my phone, I will be called repeatedly until I do. They seem to want to talk to me right then, and cannot wait. Plans are also made spontaneously, so I have to be ready to adjust my own plans if I want to be social, lest I become a recluse because I pass on last-minute opportunities.

One of the more intriguing tendencies among students that continues to come up is a lack of those “self-actualization questions”: “who am I, what’s the point of my life, how did we get here, what fulfills my soul?” As I discuss this with other teachers, I find this is heavily attributable to family obligation, and maybe some more traditional tendencies toward group conformity over individual preference, or the denying of individual passions. The students I have are 19-21 year-olds, but they seem sheltered, and tend to be a bit emotionally immature for their age.

I’m still learning about this, so some of my thoughts are speculative. But while I will continue to insist that in China I am the learner and the host people are the teachers, I think maybe this is one of the places I have something to offer. Despite some deficiencies in the individualist mindset I bring from the West, my affirmations of the process of self-discovery, of personal call/vocation, and of freedom of expression are messages I believe to be relevant to my students.

I’m certainly not here to stir up trouble, but I am intrigued by the opportunity to challenge my students with those soul-searching questions—not to encourage rebellion, detachment from family, or disregard for others, but to point them down the path of discovering more clearly their “deepest gladness” as Buechner describes it, who they were created to be, as well as the way G**, whether or not they understand him in the way I do, is at work in the world.

And realistically, I only have the time and energy to invest in a few. But I also believe I can be faithful to my own call even if I don’t see the fruit. If that means I invest in a few and my efforts ripple out to others, great. If it means I just show simple kindness and graciousness and joy to a few and the ripples out, wonderful.

I’ve been grateful for the space to reflect here. I’ve been grateful for continual new acquaintances and friends. I’ve been grateful for how my musicianship has been a point of connection between me and some musical students, regardless of language barriers. I’ve been grateful for regular Skyping with Joann, my girlfriend back home, to prevent either of us smitten kids from excessive melancholy.

I’m grateful that I’ve begun to master chopsticks. I’ve been grateful for the fellowship I’ve experienced with the other teachers, including a meeting the other night in which nine C****tians—4 Americans, 3 Cameroonians, and 2 Filipinos worshipped together and reflected upon what it means to convey in tangible ways to our students even a fraction of the love of the One who extravagantly loves us.

And I’m grateful for the peace I feel, knowing I’m right where I need to be, even if it meant wading through indecision, doubts, other “failed” pursuits, and various fears to get me here.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Snapshot of my week

Dinner with James (a teacher) and his family, including his adorable two-year old.

My computer students, hard at work.

Recruiting freshman students to the foreign language department at orientation weekend.

Soccer with the Saturday regulars.

The foreign teachers, working on our silly "dramatic performance" for the freshman welcome banquet next week. I've just had my heart broken.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Milk and candles are hard to find

Some notes from the past few days…

Class has begun…one class at least. 2/3 of my classes are Freshman Oral English, which does not begin until the freshmen begin school on the 22nd. So for now, I am teaching four hours of English keyboarding/computers.

Despite the challenge (and opportunity) of essentially creating my own curriculum, as this the first year they've had a foreigner teach computers, it has gone well. It is a smaller class (pic below…my freshman classes will likely have 30-50 students) which makes it easier to give personal attention to every student. And my students are wonderful, both intent on learning but also very lighthearted; honestly, I think my demeanor helps keep things light and fun.

It’s a learning process; they know English, but like any subject, there is a range in levels of competence. Sometimes I have to repeat myself a few times, trying different ways of phrasing what I’m saying. But I am having fun with it.

I’ve even gotten some encouraging feedback; Emily, one of my students and one of the better English speakers as the school, told me her classmates were talking about me outside of class, and commented that their early impressions of me were that I was very “understanding” and “gentle” as teacher. So…I guess I’m doing something right. :)

Oh, the thrill of language barriers. I went shopping by myself a couple days ago, and had a delightful time attempting to communicate what I was looking for. I’m finding that “charades” is not so effective here. Trying to act out milk and then candles, as well as explaining that the sheets I was returning from just an hour before were too small and I needed larger ones…all challenges. Good thing I’m a fairly patient person. And good thing I have a few Chinese friends who I can call and ask for translating help when I’m out and about.

Other than that, just spending time getting to know as many people as is feasible, through a number of means. There is so much opportunity here to make connections…so much potential for learning, and for influencing others’ lives in some small way.

Some other brief memorable moments from this past week:

-Getting an Americano from Starbucks on our visit to Wuhan a couple hours north. A nice break from Nescafe instant coffee.

-One of my students asking me in our in-class Q&A time, “How are you so white?” and “How do I make myself whiter?” One of the funniest comments I’ve heard since living here, for sure…but also a teachable moment for the class about self-acceptance and cultural conceptions of beauty.

-Playing soccer with some students & faculty. Yes…for those of you who’ve known me long enough to know this reference, it was indeed the return of “Sneaky Matthew” (not "Stinky Matthew"). I was, however, sidelined for about half of the game, after taking a ball right to the…yep. I’m better today.

-The numerous gradually developing friendships and opportunities to validate these new friends. This seems to be (and will continue to be) a recurring theme in my relationships here…affirming the worth of my students, encouraging self-confidence, offering compassion and support. Such opportunities continue to arise.

Off to freshman orientation…helping out at the Foreign Language Department’s booth. Going to take my guitar and sing some English songs…and schmooze, shake hands, kiss babies.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


One of my sophomore classes--English keyboarding/computers. They're wonderful. :)