Saturday, January 31, 2009

Life stinks...literally!

你们好!

Not everyday of the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer is glamorous, or even exciting. Some days just plain stink!

The water gets turned off now and then in my small development - pipes need to be unearthed, repaired or replaced by a small team of workers - but it usually never lasts longer than a few hours. Yesterday, I saw a man doing some welding on the main water pipe just outside my apartment and thought nothing of it. This morning, I found a toilet bowl full (to the brim) of what looked (and smelled) like 2-month old beef stew. I will spare you any more similes; I have been thinking of them all day.

I walked to the foreign students guest house and told the attendant that I needed some help and that my toilet was broken, having never learned the word(s) "clogged" or "overflowing with who knows' partially-digested Spring Festival Chinese sausages" (see previous blog entry). This was at 9am.

Four hours later, 2 men arrived with a special electric tubing machine and I apologized repeatedly, first because it was Spring Festival, and most importantly, I pitied them for having to open the bathroom door I sealed off for the last few hours (to ferment...yuck!). They stuck the metal tubing in the toilet - bare hands; they neglected to use the latex kitchen gloves I bought - and then the really gross part: they turned the machine on and like a blender full of liquid without the lid properly fastened, proceeded to spray "liquid Chinese sausages" all over themselves and the bathroom. I opened all the windows (to survive).

At one point, I thought they had finished. But nothing had changed. They left. To where? They didn't tell me. Hours pass. My bathroom is a mess. I send a nasty text message to my Waiban director, complaining that I have no where to relieve myself (not even close to the level of nastiness coming from the bathroom). 10 minutes later, the team plus 2 women arrive and do it all over again, plus this time concluding with a successful bypass (and manys laughs). I sure hope they all live in a place with a shower, because if I were them (and I am not the stereotypical American germ-o-phobe) I would bathe in bleach. Speaking of, I bleached my entire bathroom for an hour after they (quickly) left (without an explanation as to why this happened), leaving me their homemade crap-flavored milkshake (on the walls).


That was my day. It stunk!

I love and miss you all,

Phil
蓝麦飞

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Chinese Sausage...It's what's for dinner?

你们好!


Two nights ago, I met up with PCV Patrick (you remember Patrick - aka "Captain Ahab" - from my Sanya adventure) in Beibei, who returned to Chongqing from his site in Guizhou Province to spend his first Spring Festival with his host family, only to leave 3 days later to start a long stretch of traveling with my sitemate, Kristen. I was raiding Kristen fridge for food that would spoil while she was gone and Patrick said his host family inundated him with gifts, one being homemade Chinese sausage (中国腊肠 Zhōngguó làcháng). He wouldn't be back to his site for several weeks so I said, "What the heck!" and inherited this traditional Spring Festival treat. I wrote about jiao zi (饺子) being the traditional Spring Festival food, but I would consider Chinese sausage, based solely on how many I saw hanging outside apartment windows, the close runner-up. I even captured some of these homemade "delicacies" in this SWU video, where you can see some drying in the chilly Chongqing breeze. I haven't decided how I will prepare these dangeling treats, but I will keep you posted (suggestions?)

It's been a sleepy last few days. I have been planning my upcoming semester - it doesn't start until the first week of March - and gathering materials for my teaching portfolio when I (inevitably) have to find a teaching job in the States. I have been running every night and studying Chinese whenever I can, hopefully improving my reading and spoken grammar skills. I have a long way to go, but any practice is good practice. I hope to meet up with Patrick and Kristen in a week or so for a short trip to Guilin (桂林), one of China's most revered scenic spots. On a high note, the sun is out and the sky is (believe it-or-not) BLUE in Beibei. It will be a great run this evening, hopefully with a few stars to get my eyes and imagination busy.

My apologies to my Peace Corps vegetarian readers for this meaty entry - I feel your pain! (wink!)

I love and miss you all,

Phil
蓝麦飞

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

More signs...

你们好!

China is about to go through some interesting changes in the coming year, and with tensions high after thousands of factory closings do to a possible (inevitable!) Chinese recession (let's not forget the Communist Party of China holds legitimacy only because the economy has been growing for the last 30 years - take away the money and bye-bye goes Mr. Mao's fraternity, so says the 800 million Chinese farmers...bringing this piece of Truth into the spotlight), I like to explore the changes happening in Beibei, my Peace Corps site. For the last year, bulldozers and trucks full of earth have been going in and out of a certain area adjacent to Southwest University's "snack street (小吃街 xiǎochījie). There has been a 7-feet-high concrete wall blocking this area from the street and sidewalk, and every so often a long sign with 5-feet-high, loud Chinese characters is glued to this wall stretching for about 100 meters. I have seen this message on the bus for the last 2 months of so, so I thought it would interesting to translate this "proclamation" as I continue to study Hanzi (Chinese characters) and maybe find a little enlightenment in what needs to be said with such gusto!全力实施城市危旧 (quánlì shíshī chéngshì wēi jiù)
房改造,不断 ( fáng gǎizào, bùduan)
改善人民群众 ( gǎishàn rénmínqúnzhòng)
居住环境 (jūzhù huánjìng)打造中国西 (dǎzào Zhōngguó xī)
部一流生态 ( bù yīliú shēngtai)
宜居城市 ( yí jū chéngshì).
天生街道党工委, 办事处 (tiānshēngjiedào dǎng gōngwěi, bànshìchu)

Translation:

"Full implementation is being carried out to renovate unsafe homes, we are continually working to improve the masses' housing conditions and build [Beibei] into the most suitable place to live in Western China. ~ TianSheng Road Communist Party Building Committee"

This, again, is just one simple example of the many (too many!) reminders the CCP government spoon feeds the masses. Block the bad from being printed, but post in HUGE characters have wonderful we are! No government deserves world credibility when it blocks its people from expressing themselves and denies resources for "the other side of the story." A booming economy (not for much longer) alone is not the golden ticket into Wonka's World Respect Factory - you must give your people real power and enable individual voice. Anything else is a society of drones and followers. My students suffer, and some don't even know it.

I love and miss you all,

Phil
蓝麦飞

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A glimpse into Chinese Lunar New Year

你们好!

It sounded like a war zone last night in Beibei, and sitemate Kristen and I didn't do much to silence the sound and fury. I recorded the evening in two short videos, full of lights, smoke, and pure unbridled danger. Note: Count how many times I say "very nice!" This video blogging (vloging) really makes a person laugh at him or herself - I still don't think I am as scared of fireworks as these videos portray. 哈哈!haha! Or maybe the Chinese, since they invented fireworks (gunpowder), are fearless.
Part 1:



Part 2:


Happy Chinese New (牛) year!

I love and miss you all,

Phil
蓝麦飞

Saturday, January 24, 2009

My second and last Chinese New Year as a PCV

你们好!

Tonight is the CCTV Chinese Lunar New Year Gala, a television event that is watched by upwards of 700 million people...that's more than twice the US population. I won't be watching because 1) I don't have a working television and 2) Even if I understood everything that was being said, it ultimately is just a big talent show "with Chinese characteristics." Not my cup of tea. That knife is dull.

I am spending this Lunar New Year, in comparison to last year's Spring Festival-on-the-move, here in Beibei, studying a little Chinese, reading, journaling, running (which I just returned home from; hats and gloves required), and preparing for my life after Peace Corps, all while huddled close to my electric heater wearing several layers of clothing, hats and gloves required.

Sitemate Kristen, who leaves Beibei for her first Spring Festival-on-the-move tomorrow, and I love to eat out (or maybe we just hate to cook) but right now, its almost impossible to find any restaurant that's open. Luckily, my Waiban dropped off a gift yesterday that is coming in handy when the belly growls:

These are dumplings (饺子 jiǎozi) and are "one of the quintessential foods eaten during the Spring Festival." As you can see from the image, I couldn't wait to open the package until after took a picture - they are that good (or maybe I was that hungry)! A little boiling water and 10 minutes = lunch or dinner when China decides to have a holiday and won't feed you. And how can they not be good? Yes, that's a chef Jackie Chan thumbs-up!

Fireworks have been poppin' outside all day and I expect more tonight...maybe I will even light off a few myself (wink)

Happy Chinese Lunar New Year, world!

I love and miss you all,

Phil

蓝麦飞

Friday, January 23, 2009

Those signs around campus...

你们好!

All over Southwest University's campus, glaring poster boards display large messages and quotations for the student passersby. I have walked by these posters for 19 months and haven't given them a second look until today. I figured I should randomly pick one, snap a picture (below) and translate, character-by-character. Let's take a look:


改革开放是决定当代中国命运的关键抉择,是发展中国特色社会主义,实现中华民族伟大复兴的必由之路 (gǎigékāifàng shì juédìng dāngdàizhōngguó mìngyùn de guānjiàn juézé, shì fāzhǎnzhōngguó tèsèshèhuìzhǔyì, shíxiàn zhōnghuámínzú wěidà fùxīng de bìyóuzhīlù)

What the heck does this say?

It took me about 30 minutes of plugging each individual character into my electronic dictionary, resulting in a mess of words and ideas that needed to "Englishified." I thought it would take me hours to make sense of it...until I did two simple things. First, I was having a problem transferring the 4th-last character into my dictionary, which is 必 bì, but, at least to me, doesn't at all like the character in the picture. I text messaged a few students, giving them the characters before and after this "bì" character hoping them could fill in the blank. To my surprise, they all knew it, and one even sent me the entire quotation from his memory. This got me thinkin'. So, I copy and pasted the Chinese characters into Google and found this article, entitled "Reform & opening up is vital to the destiny of China." Surprised once again, I found the exact text within the Chinese translation at the bottom of the article. To quote this (extremely boring, plagiarized, Chinese Communist Party-line) article, the sign above can be translated as:

"The decision to begin reform and opening up is vital to the destiny of contemporary China, that reform and opening up are the only way of developing socialism with Chinese characteristics and rejuvenating the Chinese nation."

An important note is this specific sign can be found directly across from the School of Political Science at Southwest University, which is a major I find as pointless to study in China as studying astronomy in perpetually cloudy Chongqing. There is very little debate in the controlled Chinese political science classroom, or any Chinese classroom for that matter, except mine and other PCVs' of course.

Propaganda? Yes. Where in the Western World are there college campuses lined with signs telling students how to think and which political ideology to support? I would like to see how long a sign like this would last on an American college campus - even if it promoted absolute DEMOCRACY - before someone sprayed-painted it with satire.

This sign is nothing unique or creative. It can be found over and over again in newspapers and on websites in China. The simple fact that students (of mine) have memorized it sets off the Propaganda Alarm. And it's sad that students aren't encouraged to think for themselves at the university level. It's my students who will be given the power to make real changes in China, yet they are significantly deterred from reaching their full potential as individual, free-thinkers. To back up this idea, I was happy to find a New York Times article this morning that proves that not every Chinese young person is a Communist drone. Hip-hop, arguably the most creative form of music (maybe just behind jazz), is exploding in urban cities around China and these free-thinkers are the ones who speak their minds:

"'Hip-hop is free, like rock 'n' roll — we can talk about our lives, what we're thinking about, what we feel,' said Wang Liang, 25, a popular hip-hop D.J. in China who is known as Wordy. 'The Chinese education system doesn't encourage you to express your own character. They feed you stale rules developed from books passed down over thousands of years. There's not much opportunity for personal expression or thought; difference is discouraged.'"

As one who knows first-hand, I can affirm that Wang Liang aka Wordy is right. By not promoting individualism in their university classrooms, the Communist-run education system neglects to acknowledge that maybe the brightest young people might not be in their classrooms, memorizing, memorizing, memorizing, but on the microphone and graffiting walls with messages of Truth, unlike the picture above.

I love and miss you all,

Phil

蓝麦飞

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A day in downtown Chongqing

你们好!

Yesterday, sitemate Kristen, two other Volunteers (Lisa and Kristina from BiJie, Guizhou Province) and I traveled down to Chongqing for a day of sightseeing and lunch. I documented our adventures in a short 10-minute video. Enjoy! Link to video.



Note: Chinese pirated DVDs are illegal, and rumored to be produced and distributed by the Chinese military. Really?! That would be quite the scoop!

All are welcome in Chongqing...

I love and miss you all,

Phil
蓝麦飞

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama's Speech in China and FU

你们好!

Obama's inauguration went off with only a few minor glitches, but ultimately his speech was impressive. I watched it at my sitemate Kristen's apartment with a few other PCVs through the extremely disappointing CNN/Facebook live feed, which must had crack addicts with ADHD running its cameras (there was a 10-minute shot of the cameraman's feet as the Obama family was walking in). We agreed to put off watching the speech due to the slow Chinese Internet so it wouldn't lose its effect. The next morning, the world published Obama's picture and speech on its front pages. Here are two papers I bought in Chongqing:




The paper on the left reads "奥巴马: 接手美国 àobāmǎ jiēshǒuMěiguó" or "Obama: Takes Over America." But as much as it seems that China accepts Obama as a legitimate leader (I would argue that the American President is just as important to the Chinese as their own leaders, due to the dependency China has on America to its junk), the Communist Party and their media-monopoly (CCTV) took the speech and cut it, censoring it as not to inspire ordinary Chinese that Obama would be a better leader with better ideas than them. Need proof? Watch this:

From Danwei.org:

CCTV-News aired Barack Obama's inaugural address live until he spoke about how "earlier generations faced down fascism and communism," at which point the anchor scrambled to ask an analyst about US economic problems.



According to Anita Chang of Associated Press, the Chinese also didn't care for the bit about silencing dissent:
At one point, Obama said earlier generations "faced down communism and fascism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions." He later addressed "those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent — know that you are on the wrong side of history."

The Chinese translation of the speech, credited to the Web site of the official China Daily newspaper, was missing the word "communism" in the first sentence. The paragraph with the sentence on dissent had been removed entirely.


A few students have e-mailed me about the inauguration and I always make sure to send them the Youtube link to the REAL speech, with just a subtle reminder that their government has censored the version shown on Chinese television, and then encouraging them to think about why certain sections have been cut out. Personal Note: I was never more proud of Obama's speechwriters for including "those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent — know that you are on the wrong side of history," especially since The Tiananmen Square Massacre's 20th anniversary is this June - an event my students either have never heard of or acknowledge is 100% taboo in public conversation. New York Times article.

But I love Jimmy Kimmel's reporting on the speech censorship the best: click!

On an unrelated note, the mass migration of Chinese to their hometowns for Spring Festival has begun! I bought my "福 fú" sign and hung it outside my door:


What's interesting is the first picture is the character for "fortune" but most Chinese hang it upside-down on their doors. "Why post it upside down? In Chinese language, the character "upside down" is pronounced exactly the same as the character 'arrive'. So this is a homophone rhetoric to mean 'Fortune arrives'." Interesting!

Wishin' you a whole lotta FU!

Seek the Truth!

I love and miss you all,

Phil

蓝麦飞

Monday, January 19, 2009

A Farewell Letter to President George W. Bush

你们好!

In about 12 hours, America swears in its 44th President, Barack H. Obama. I plan to watch the inauguration with a few other PCVs here in Chongqing at 12:30am Beijing Time via CNN.com. It's bound to be a moment millions of Americans will remember and tell their children and grandchildren about far into the future.

However, as President Obama is welcomed, President G.W. Bush becomes "former-President Bush II". I have been thinking about Bush's exodus for some time and thought I should write him a farewell letter, explaining to him who exactly he is to me. As you will learn, the words and feelings that poured out of me in the last few hours weren't what I initially expected. This is the last blog post on Runnin' the Great Wall as George W. Bush as my President, and as a Peace Corps Volunteer, my boss. Thanks for reading, and if you know how to contact the soon-to-be former President, please forward this on to him. I think he will appreciate it. Thanks for reading.


Dear President George W. Bush:

In the next 24 hours, you will move out of that big ivory house in Washington D.C. and leave the key to your office desk's top drawer behind for a new President. The newspapers from where I live say many millions, maybe even billions of people are overjoyed by your exodus. I am sorry to say I am one of them. But before you go, I think you should know who I am.

I was born in the summer of 1982. You were elected President a few months after my eighteenth birthday -- no thanks to me. I voted for the other guy in my high school gymnasium. He, not you, was my first vote. I am not completely sure why I didn't vote for you – something about that other guy being connected to the President that came before you. Then, the country's economy was growing and people around the world thought, for the most part, America was a good place and had good people. Plus, that President played the saxophone. This was when I was eighteen years old.

The following autumn, I became a university student and began, better late than never, my "coming of age." As an English education major, I only had to take one math class, which I choose for my first semester, Tuesday mornings. I walked out of class on Tuesday, Sept 11th, 2001, hungry and tired of numbers. Those were my last moments in a Pre-9/11 world.

Affected by that morning's events, I took a liking to politics and our American Constitution. I developed opinions fostered by close examinations. As two mammoth holes lay empty in Manhattan, you made an announcement that America would militarily invade Iraq and bring to people of an evil dictatorship freedom and democracy. I marched through the streets of New York City with hundreds of thousands of others, protesting your ambiguous plan. It was my first protest. It felt right. I was angry.

The war started anyways. I cut class on November 4th, 2004, to stand on an Erie, Pennsylvania, street corner in the pouring rain with a sign encouraging drivers-by to vote for that other guy. I didn't want to eat or talk to anyone in the week that followed your election victory. I graduated from university, then again from graduate school, and, with only a year left in your Presidential contract, joined the United States Peace Corps and was sent to China to help the world's people, educate them about my real home, and bring back knowledge of the world to America after 2 years of being far away from her. At this moment, I have lived in China for almost 19 months.

"China and America are more similar than different." This is the right thing to say; this is the line of lines that fosters peace and friendship. It is the Peace Corps anthem. Sometimes it is the truth, but the more I submerge myself in the great pool of Communist-run society, I start to think that maybe the differences, which are naturally more visible and easier to notice, should be promoted just as much as the similarities. Why? Because of a pair of flying shoes.



I am sorry to say, sir, I smiled when an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at you a few weeks ago, but not a smile of contempt for you or because I advocate violence of any kind. I smiled because I have always fantasized about making a scene in your presence, refusing to shake your hand, giving you a cold stare, or screaming in your face about how you've only made the word "America" sound ugly around the world. Then, as I reveled in those flying shoes like some sort of beautiful 4th of July firework finale, I remembered where you were when you so gracefully ducked: Iraq. There aren't too many Middle Eastern leaders I wouldn't mind throwing my shoes at, but would I? Not a chance. It would be a death wish. Yet this man did not die, and is actually being praised by his fellow countrymen as a hero and a symbol of change. And then I remember where I am: China. I know millions (millions!) of Chinese wish they could throw their shoes at their own government oppressors, but can't because they know it will mean the end of not only their lives, but the end of opportunity for everyone they hold dear. I see it in my students' eyes – they want to yell out but know if they do fight back it will most certainly lead to further oppression. They are confused and powerless, but inspiringly optimistic. I hope someday they will know the empowering feeling felt when their voices are no longer silenced by those who have the real ability to change their country for the better. Who knew a flying pair of shoes, paired with my students' cravings for individual empowerment (whether they recognize it or not), will be the thing I will positively associate with you for the rest of my life?

Sociologists claim captives can fall in love with their captor(s) as their time together passes, and though I am not proud to say this, I find myself feeling nostalgic for you, even before you depart. You must know that you are all I have ever truly known. My entire life as an empowered democratic citizen has been during the Bush administration. In the simplest terms, you were my first love – being that hate is a form of love, and vice versa – and as you buy property and dough-si-dough back down to Texas, I am confusingly sad to see you go.

I've learned so much from you. I've learned to see through the fog, to ask questions, to hunt and fight for the Truth. I learned to take chances and debate and form a personal identity that is identifiable to others who choose not be empowered democratic citizens. You have ripped me away from potential friends, but brought me closer to those who care the most about America – those who dare to question its every move.

But don't you worry. That next guy - you know, the guy who is getting all this attention – isn't getting a free pass from all worldly 26 year-olds like me. His 4 years will not be paved in gold and garnished with exotic truffles. Here in China, I have learned the importance of the fact that I do not work for the American government, the American government works for me. Yes, he received my vote, but until he practices what he preaches, he hasn't earned it yet. I wish him the best of luck. He will need it, like he will need people like me to support him as we grow in courage, experience, and wisdom.

I will still be here in China when this new guy moves into your old house, and frankly, if I had not been able to look at America through a Chinese lens as a Peace Corps Volunteer, my parting words to you might have been radically different than what I am about to say. So, without further ado, as the last few hours tick away from your time in Washington, Mr. President George W. Bush, from the bottom of my heart, "Thank you."

An empowered American,

United States Peace Corps Volunteer
美中友好志愿者
Chongqing, China
January 20, 2008

Again, thanks for reading. I welcome any and all comments here on the blog or to my e-mail (philiprazem@gmail.com).


I love and miss you all,


Phil
蓝麦飞

A Lazy Week in Sanya 三亚

你们好!
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This blog entry is dedicated to one of my most loyal readers, Patti S-, mother of Patrick "Captain Ahab" S-.
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Scene I:
Four Peace Corps Volunteers, tan skin, bundled in layers in a freezing apartment, eating banana pancakes with coconut jam. They have just returned to Chongqing (40 degrees) from Sanya (75 degrees), China's southern-most city and beach getaway in Hainan Province.
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The Players:
Lisa (Illinois) - Codename: "土豆炒饭tǔdòu chǎofàn" (Potato Fried Rice). Lisa is dark and mysterious, as most former English Literature graduate students are. She is the master of subtle "backhanded insights" and can be found staring at the South China Sea on cold nights examining every possible way a person cold kill him/herself using the ebb and flow of the ocean tide. She is a barrel of laughs!
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Patrick (South Carolina) - Codename: "Captain Ahab" (see also "Ahab the Arab"). Patrick's hobbies include whaling, denying his love for whaling, belittling Canada, praising Guiyang (贵阳; capital of Guizhou 贵州 Province), and scaring waitresses with his unhealthy love of dog meat Hot Pot (狗肉火锅 gǒuròu huǒguō). He says "ya'll" a lot. Do not call him "Pat." His mother is awesome...and possible mythical (see dedication).
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Kristen (Hawaii) - Codename: "Brown-Eye Girl." Kristen, being from Hawaii, had to be sedated by local authorities in order to be removed from Sanya's beaches and transplanted back into miserably-cold Chongqing. She refuses to wash her hair, which still has sand in it. Her dancing style is both superior and unique, described as "a lot of upper-body motion juxtaposed with motionless legs." She scolds herself for talking in her sleep...while she is asleep.
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Phil (New York) - Codename: "The Sizzlin' Fajita." Phil is the most intelligent member of this gang, and without a doubt, the best-looking. He likes to dig holes in the sand and steals Ice-T from posh night clubs. If anyone in Sanya could land a plane in the Hudson River without any injuries on board, it most surely would not be "The Sizzlin' Fajita." He can eat a bread & butter sandwich in 1 second flat.
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We arrived in Sanya last Sunday and checked into Sanya Blue International Youth Hostel - one of the best youth hostels I've stayed at in the world. Just a 5-minute walk to the beach, each of our days in Sanya had a nearly identical itinerary:
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8am - Phil and Patrick suit up and run for 45 minutes on the beach. Girls sleep.
9am - Breakfast: Eggs, Toast, Peanut Butter and Coconut Jam
9:30-12:30pm - Sun-bathing, swimming, and reading on the beach
12:30 - 2pm - Lunch and afternoon siesta (休息 xiūxi)
2 -5pm - See "9:30 - 12:30pm"
6pm - dinner (Western Food 西餐 xīcān)
8pm - ??? - downtown Sanya or hanging out with fellow travelers at the hostel, which ranged from fellow American English teachers to Finnish folk singers to Russian jugglers asking for advice on "seduction English" to woo the hostel's female Chinese staff.
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As for that, everyday was a relaxing getaway from the Chongqing chill and moreover, the grind of teaching (and in my place, the endless internal and inconclusive battle for understanding my present and future role as an American volunteer teacher in Communist China.
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One of the most interesting aspects of our experience was all the Chinese vendors and fruit sellers greeted (rather, yelled to get our attention) us first in Russian and then in English. Sanya is a huge tourist destination for wealthy Russians needing to escape the even-more-miserable-than-Chongqing Russian winters. They feed the Sanya economy by buying the expensive (but deliciously diverse) seafood, loading up on silk and warm-weather produce, and "investing" in Sanya's "erotic-entertainment" industry (very cheap!).
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Overall, it was a great (lazy) week. I avoided getting sunburn (晒伤 shài shāng), read an entire book (Vonnegut's immortal Cat's Cradle), ate delicious food, and talked with people from almost every corner of the world. Most memorable, however, had to be the laughs we PCVs (later to be joined by two foreign teachers from SWU, Keegan and Andrew) had together, telling stories from college, talking about our futures, past loves lost, and all that is strange and mysterious about this country known as China. Lisa, Patrick, and Kristen as PC China "14's" which means they have another 18 months in China, as opposed to my 6-7, so I tried to give advice to them, telling them what i did that worked (this blog is one of my greatest projects, partly inspiring Patrick to start his own...coming soon!) and of course, my inevitable shortcomings.
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Picture TAG: SanyainJanuary
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Final Scene:The setting sun, kites flying, warm sand, good friends.
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I love and miss you all,
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Phil
蓝麦飞

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Return from IST and Killer Pandas

你们好!
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Peace Corps IST in Chengdu was nice, both with the discussions and ideas it inspired and the all the faces I rarely see. There were a few notable sessions: Matt (you will remember Matt from a year ago, pushing buses up snowy mountains with me, his wife, and a few other PCVs) gave a great 45-minute rundown of the last 60 years of Chinese history, carefully showing each of China's "existential crises" ('77, '89, '09) and where economics (he was a US Government economist before joining Peace Corps) and politics collide. Alison and I gave our talk on "Integrating Sensitive Issues into the Chinese University Classroom" which went well and sparked some interesting debate (PPT available for anyone curious - philiprazem@gmail.com) and the biggie - "Why Peace Corps China?" - with Country Director Bonnie, sitemate Kristen, and I was a popular hit for many. I took so many notes after this session, based on so many different prospectives of the engulfing question "Why the heck are we here?" that it would be impossible to relate them back to you now. However, I did present the question/idea that Peace Corps might want to think about removing itself from the Chinese countrysides and think about integrating into the even larger metropolitan cities; are we humanitarians or "soft diplomats"? A large percentage of PCVs in China and around the world would argue we are the first, but this is CHINA, and the latter might not be that wrong of a description/direction to head.
More soon, but I wanted to share with you a story that I think (oh so poetically) describes the "Harmonious Society of China." Click!

Gu Gu is not your typical soft and cuddly giant panda. For the third time, he's tasted the flesh of an unwitting intruder in his pen at the Beijing Zoo.His most recent victim was 28-year-old Zhang Jiao, who told CNN he fell into the panda pen Wednesday while trying to catch a small toy thrown by his young son. "My son and I were playing with a panda doll, throwing it to each other, when I dropped with the toy" into the pen, Zhang said. That's when Gu Gu went on the attack.

and my favorite line...

"I always thought they were cute and just ate bamboo," Zhang said.


I love and miss you all,

Phil
蓝麦飞

Saturday, January 3, 2009

A simple, multi-part introduction...

你们好!
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In the next 24 hours, sitemate Kristen and I will head to Chengdu, join the rest of the 100 or so PCVs in China, and participate in my 2nd Peace Corps IST (in-service training) conference. I will be presenting in two different sessions: "Integrating Sensitive Issues into the Chinese University Classroom" and "Why Peace Corps China?" Both are very important to me and are routinely discussed on this very blog. I have created a PPT about the first issue; if anyone is interested, please shoot me an e-mail (philiprazem@gmail.com).
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Since my grades are submitted and my free time as grown before a few Winter Holiday trips begin, I decided to experiment with my video camera (摄像机shèxiàngji). The success of my "Merry Christmas" video (189 views is a success to me!) inspired me to create "A simple, multi-part introduction" to Southwest University and my life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in China. Before you take a look (below), please remember that this is just an informal sliver of my life. I can promise many more videos about the different parts of my time in China - coming soon! Here is the link to all my Youtube videos, or you can watch them back-to-back below! Part 5 has an unfortunate, anti-climatic ending, mentioned below...

Part 1:


Part 2:


Part 3:


Part 4:


Part 5: (I wanted to show the final scene at night - complete with superfluous Spring Festival lighting decorations - but learned the lights don't get turned back on until the end of January, so I inserted some photos I took last year around this time)


I love and miss you all,
.
Phil
蓝麦飞

Friday, January 2, 2009

"The Democratic Classroom"

你们好!
.
Peace Corps China volunteers produce a small, bi-semester publication called The Rice Paper, asking volunteers to submit articles based on their personal experiences and discoveries. I submitted an article a few months ago - "Politics as usual" (link on the ride side of this page) - and so I thought I should submit another (below). Dustin, famed PCCV blogger, is the editor, which is a job I commend him for since he has to deal with the strong arm of censorship; the line we were told by the PC was everything has to be written as if it was being printed in a "1950's American newspaper." This makes me wanna vomit. I wouldn't be allowed to sit next to Barack Obama on a public bus in the 1950's. So, dreading the content is not appropriate, I am thankful for this blog, which has published much, much worse things about China and the Communist-run education system. Enjoy my thoughts and superfluous metaphors!

Granting our Students the Privilege of a Democratic Classroom

Call me Zeus. Whether you, PCV, can relate or not, I am a god when I yell "Good Morning" to my Chinese university students. I stride into my classroom after a tempest of hello's, daily welcomes like those after checking in to a Hawaiian hotel sans lays, and student conversations end abruptly when I quickly step onto my throne, a 10-inch stab of raised concrete in front of their bolted-down desks. They are quiet when I am talking and sometimes quieter when it's their time to talk. I navigate their eyes and swirl their pencils like an omnipotent being swirling planets and galaxies with perfect alignment. Sometimes I feel that if I suddenly left, walked out of the classroom, disappeared, even for the briefest of moments, they would fret and inevitably implode. Throughout the span of human existence, there is no greater feeling felt than that of being needed. I feel needed in my classroom. As a teacher, it is lovely and troubling.

During my undergraduate degree, I took a semester-long course on classroom management. At first, "Classroom Management" seems like an exalted term for preventing students from killing each other (and you!) and lubricating the ebb and flow of productive participation. At a recent Hot Pot dinner with a few Chinese graduate students majoring in education, I was asked about the major differences between a Chinese and American classroom. "Classroom Management," I told them. "In China, I am a figure of authority and must be listened to, like a parent or a politician. Students in China are, more or less, easy to handle." One student animatedly disagreed with me and said many Chinese students are "very naughty." Thinking back to my time as a summer school teacher in Brooklyn, I told this student that she should download "Dangerous Minds" for her next movie night.

My life as a university teacher in China, despite being busy and feeling occasionally overworked, is good, and the average American English teacher teaching in China shouldn't have too many complaints. Everyday I walk into a classroom full of smiles, and when I peer through the peepholes of other teacher's classroom doors, the scene is similar to my classroom: diligent note-taking, quiet conformity, and harmonious (ugh!) nodding heads. What more could I ask for? This classroom is a serene, peaceful snow globe without the smallest trance of wind. Such a scene, day after day, has got be thinking about my American classrooms – chaos deep-fried in a bubbling bat of expressive emotion – and I feel surprisingly nostalgic. I think this snow globe needs a shake!

As an educator, I believe some of the most important skills students should acquire at a young age, indiscriminate of which country students live and learn, are those of creativity and critical-thinking. I also believe there is only one way to progress these skills; the teacher must create a "democratic classroom," which is, to quote Jonathan Zimmerman in The New York Times, an environment where "students would be required to formulate their own views rather than imbibing the ideas of somebody else." I almost never use this term – "democratic classroom"– when students ask me about my teaching philosophy because, well, China is not a democracy, and to promote "democratic" anything might not win me any teaching awards from the Chinese Educational Ministry. However, just because I don't say it, doesn't mean it is impossible to create and facilitate in a Chinese classroom. In fact, the students - and I realize this is quite a hyperbolic simile - are like children taking their first taste of chocolate. There is just as much confusion as there is excitement. "What do you mean we have a choice?"

On the other hand, one can't just give someone democracy - Bush learned this the hard way. We need to give students the option of empowerment. We need to help them creatively create, and then criticize, but be respectful of others' criticism. Most importantly, we need to "unbolt" them from their desk prison cells and focus their culture, literature and language learning not on a text book, but ourselves and our personal experiences. The production of intelligent, world citizenry should be our highest priority, regardless of your students' language-level.

We are not gods, the classroom Chairmen, lecturers, or even teachers. We are facilitators. As foreign teachers, important ones too! We shouldn't take complete comfort in our compliant students and amenable classroom environment. My favorite quote about education comes from Yeats: "Education is not the filling of a pale, but the lighting of a fire." Democracy, as we learned this past year, is quite the inferno, and it gets people's hearts pumping. Remember: A snow globe is much prettier when there's snow falling.

1/1/09

I love and miss you all,

Phil

蓝麦飞