First, and most importantly, this pen exists:
Something interesting and unexpected has happened to me recently: I’ve started to actually feel like a teacher. Instead of going out to experience new parts of China on our own, Dan and I have stuck in and around Jishou to carry out our teaching duties.
Class is proceeding more or less as usual despite some recent unrest over me being a bit of a hard-nose. On the unofficial side, though, these weeks have been a flurry of activity. Last Monday, we were invited by the administration to attend a local school’s English activity day.
It was in a grey twilight that we left campus Tuesday morning, but when I awoke in the car an hour later it was to golden fog drifting across the rolling, terraced hills of the countryside. Long-stemmed grass jumped and fell in the wind, making the tamed slopes seem wild-haired and alive. We drove through villages and past perfect stone walls, criss-crossing ancient and nonlinear irrigation systems, and arriving in time for the end of a third-grade recess.
We taught an example class for a group of sixty 3rd-8th graders, met with the faculty, then assembled with the entire student body for English activities. Then the administrators asked Dan and I to talk to the congregated masses about learning English.
I still remember when I failed my first assignment in school. I was in the fifth grade, and was to give a 3-minute presentation about sloths. I practiced and practiced, but when I got up in front of the class I was so nervous that I didn’t look up once during the whole speech. I don’t think I spoke much louder than a whisper, either.
Well look at me now. As long as I’m not singing, or dancing, or acting, and provided that my audience is not able to judge the quality of my speaking (content or style) and is made up entirely of elementary and middle school children, I’m okay in front of 900-odd people.
After our speech, we played English games with the kids and took pictures. My smile started twitching painfully after ten minutes or so, but that was alright.
We headed off to lunch with the teachers, and then home through the quaking grasses.
That same night we were invited to a county-wide English contest. The top ten teams from middle and elementary schools in the area each live-dubbed a scene from an English movie, then had a performance of their own design. These kids were talented and creative as hell, too. From a Someone Like You karaoke duet complete with interpretive dance, to clowns pontificating about the best way to learn English, these kids killed it. And that 7th grader had an uncanny impression of Will Smith, especially for a girl.
What most struck me, though, was the competition itself. It was held in the biggest theater that I have seen in Jishou, broadcast on province-wide state television. Classmates, parents, and relatives turned out to fill the place, and were ecstatic in their support. And the winners of the competition walked away with 3000RMB (~500USD), easily enough money to feed a family of three for a month. This event was a big, big deal.
Before I came to China, a friend of mine who had studied abroad in Shanghai noted the pure energy that he felt when walking around the streets. He’s right.
One of the first things that struck me when I arrived in Jishou was the rampant consumerism. Every street-front property is a retail outlet, and a Walmart-sized superstore is never far away. And it’s not just that it’s everywhere. It’s energetic, it’s enthusiastic–women yell over loudspeakers, stores spill out into the streets, malls have permanent stages set up outside their front doors.
Now I can start to see this energy expressed other ways, too, like this competition. When you first meet someone, they will sometimes say it outright as a way of establishing common ground:
“America is a super-country, yes? A number one country?”
Haltingly. “Well, maybe, if you mean…”
With small pride and smaller frustration. “I think maybe China will be that way soon.”
People here seem to feel it: this country is on the cusp of…something. The future is close. Uncertain, but close.