Thursday, October 25, 2012

English Corner for Dummies: An Ongoing Post

Week by week here in China I plan an English Corner for my freshman students. After my first English Corner (see my post "English Corner, Achtung"), I've made some refinements.

Only two classes participate each week, limiting the number to 90 students. This number is still unwieldy, but better than 270. I've been lucky that for the past two weeks other activities have been taking place at the same time--lectures and such--so that I've had only about 20 students for each English Corner.

As the weeks go by, I will update this post with the activities we do in English Corner. It is my hope that it can help other English teachers in China, and I also welcome comments and new ideas!

Week 1: English Wisdom

Students in groups of five are given a slip of paper on which is written an English saying, such as "It is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all."  The students first discern the meaning and then discuss how the saying applies to life. Do they agree? Disagree?  What are the pros and cons of heeding this saying? ...and so forth. This is an advanced activity, which turned out to be too difficult for my freshmen, but for advanced students it can be a great way to learn the nuances of the language.

Week 2: Homonyms and Homographs

Students learning English often confuse words that sound the same (or almost the same) but have different meanings, and sometimes different spellings. You can find many examples here:

Students in pairs are given cards with two or more such words on them. They discuss and come up with the definitions and then come back to the teacher and use each of them in a sentence. If you have more time or more advanced students, you can have them write a story or poem using the words.

Week 3: Halloween Culture

Chinese students, when they know about Halloween at all, find it fascinating. They're often not big fans of candy, at least here in Guizhou, where they usually prefer spicy to sweet, but the idea of dressing up in a costume sounds like great fun to them. There are a variety of activities you can do to introduce aspects of the Halloween tradition. All depends on student level, time, and resources.

-Show a short video in English on the history of Halloween. Make sure it's entertaining and has lots of costumes and clips from haunted houses.
-Supplement this English Corner with the showing of a horror film. Don't make it too scary or gory (Michael Meyer? Um, no). The students here are not used to this genre. A good choice would be a classic horror film, a horror spoof, or Michael Jackson's "Thriller."
-Show "It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown" and then carve pumpkins together. Admittedly, this introduces a made-up Halloween myth that Americans do not actually celebrate, but it's a fun cartoon and segues nicely into pumpkin carving. If you can't get pumpkins, find a place where it's okay to make a mess, or if you don't want to chance a student chopping off his or her finger, you can draw jack-o-lanterns on the chalk board or make them out of construction paper. This is a good activity for making a plan, and giving and receiving directions in English, if you can actually get the students to talk together in English while they're carving the pumpkin.
-If you have a lot of time and resources, have a costume party where each student tells the rest of the class in English why they chose their costume and what it means. This is a great vocabulary builder. If you cannot actually have costume party, the students can imagine what they would dress as.
-The idea of a Halloween Song is a bit of a misnomer, but it can be great practice for pronunciation and quick speaking. Perhaps Monster Mash, or Thriller. We used a song called "Bony Fingers, Bony Toes," which I had never heard before.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The China closet

Peace Corps is gay-friendly.

Peace Corps is realistic.

A plethora of gay men and women have served and continue to serve in the Peace Corps and in other U.S. government organizations. At the same time, effective service in a host country requires integration into said host country's culture. In rural and small-city China, there is no gay subculture to speak of, and, one must admit, the notion of such a subculture is a product of the West. (If Blogger had a footnote function, I would add one here about issues in terminology, e.g., "gay," "homosexual," "GLBTQ," etc.)

As a man who has been devoted to civil rights regardless of sexual orientation for some time, this sublimation of identity for the greater good has been a challenge. Even during pre-service training, I was quite critical of the lack of orientation-specific training and information. But, as training progressed, I realized the Corps has bigger fish to fry and that only so much can be addressed in two months of training--i.e., it's more important that you can speak Chinese and teach English as a foreign language than it is for you to feel comfortable as a gay person in China. Volunteers are wide-minded people; we can figure it out for ourselves. Indeed, we are expected to do so; this is integration.

Fast-forward through training, arrival at my college, questions about my marital status, sighs of consolation that I do not have a wife or children yet, to Friday, September 28, Zunyi #4 Middle School gate.

I have arrived for the wonderful weekly family meal with my teaching counterpart and his parents and extended family. I've been here before, but only with guidance, so I am not sure how to get to their home. As I wait for my counterpart to come and fetch me, I am approached by six or so Chinese students, most of whom are in military garb.

"Hello," they say.

"Ni hao," I say.

"Where are you from?" they ask.

"Wo shi Meiguo ren. Ni ne?" I answer.

"We are students at this school. Can you answer a few questions for our survey?" they say.

I take a look at the questions. They're all in Chinese, which I cannot yet read without a pinyin transliteration.

"How do you feel about the gay?", they ask.

"Mei guanxi," I say. "In America it's no problem. Most Americans think gay people should have the same rights as everyone else."

They are very excited. They ask my age. Someone takes a photo. I'm pretty sure another is recording our conversation on his smartphone. One of the students eagerly jots down my answers and information.

I'm getting a little paranoid. There is only one 38 year-old white dude in Zunyi, I'm fairly certain. Will my answers be reported to the authorities? Will I be asked to make account for them by the Chinese government? Unlikely, I know, but...

I avert further questions by asking my own. What do they think about "the gay"? They say they feel the same way. "The gay" should have the same rights as other people.

"Okay," I reply. I'm disappointed in myself for not being more forthright, but also pleased that I've been cautious as the Corps recommends.

And so, the China closet. Out and in. In and out.

A welcome phone call comes from my counter part. "Where are you? I'm waiting for you on Red Army Street." So, I can go. "Bye, bye; Zaijian," I say. "Thank you," they say. "See you at Red Army Street English Corner tonight?" they ask. "Maybe," I say, knowing that I've had enough such integration for one day. Some home cooking with a Chinese family will have to do.

English Corner, achtung!

Ah, English Corner, a place to gather with your EFL students and casually discuss a topic in English. It's so Renaissance man, so cerebral, so of the Western liberal arts tradition.

Or so I thought...

My first English Corner was a week ago now. My 270 freshmen and I were going to discuss together some English-language idioms. 

English Corner as I imagined it would be ( I attempted to insert drawings here, but to no avail. If you know how, send me a message!):

I introduce the topic with the help of my class monitors, the students are given an idiom to discuss, I mingle to check their comprehension and discuss how the idiom relates to similar Chinese sayings.

English Corner as it began:

Chaos. The class monitors were adamant that all of the students could not fit in the designated area and that we should move to the athletic field. Okay, I say. Let's move to the field for our discussion. The weather is pleasant, hen liang kuai. 

Shouting. The monitors give instructions to their classmates to move to the field. Five minutes later, each class is in military formation. They are now ready for me to impart my English-language wisdom. One monitor suggests that I stand on the landing at the front of the teaching building to address all of the students. I'm feeling a little like an autocrat in the mid twentieth century. This was the first time in China that I felt my patience really tested. Those of you who know me well know that my patience has deep reserves. I was literally on the verge of shouting or throwing up my hands and heading home. I passed the test (Lord of the Rings geeks, unite). 

Pause. I remember that these students have just finished two weeks of military training and that, even though extremely intelligent and responsible, the class monitors have never been responsible for leading such a large group of students, let alone shepherding a foreign American teacher through his first English Corner. 

English Corner, back to the plan:

I calmly went to each class, as is my wont, and handed out slips of paper on which were written idioms. And then, after having handed them all out, I went from class to class to discuss. 

The idioms were a little over their heads, I'll admit, and it was a stretch getting to every class during the allotted time, but I am thankful we were able to get back to the plan and engage in some un-regimented conversation. 

I'm a Foreign Expert, so says the People's Republic

The most critical, if usually pro forma, event of the Peace Corps China Volunteer in the first month of service is to make sure his or her visa is renewed. Otherwise, goodbye China, hello home-front.

Thanks to the able assistance of my college Waiban (foreign affairs) Director and my professor counterpart Fan Bo, all went smoothly.

I am now a "Foreign Expert," which it seems entitles me to certain rights while staying in country. In some ways I now have more privileges than a Chinese National, but I still can't go to Tibet without permission.

Voting from China is easy...if you're from Washington, DC

Last week I sent in my absentee ballot for the upcoming election.

If you're from Washington, DC--a bastion of voter rights, to be sure--the process is simple. Download the form online, fill it in, take a photo of the form and fax it back using online fax software such as PamFax. A few days later I received the ballot, completed it, and sent it back in the same fashion.

DC and its few electoral votes will go to Barack Obama, without question. The nation's capital city is also a city of Democrats, even if a few Republicans get to live there. The city is still a predominantly African-American metropolis, and these voters, along with the liberal-minded people of other ethnicities that tend to live there, almost always vote for the Democratic candidate.

Even if, then, my vote for president will not have much impact, I was eager to vote in our local elections. There are several referendums on the ballot aimed at cleaning up the city council. 2012 has been a year filled with revelations of corruption among certain members of the council.

One of the highlights of my 2012 in Washington was to serve on a federal Grand Jury. I can't share any details here, but let's just say I'm happy the work of the Jury has had an impact on the life of the city.

I also got to choose between Marion Barry and another candidate for my city Ward 8 representative. Yes, Marion Barry is still in office in Washington, DC.

So many Mooncakes

Mid-Autumn Festival (September 30th this year) has come and gone, but I still have a pile of mooncakes in my pantry.

These traditional treats are given as gifts in celebration of the lunar harvest:

They come filled with a variety of delicacies: red bean paste, fruit, ham. My favorite is filled with a combination of seeds. The most pricey, and my least favorite, come with a dried egg yolk in the center. And, of course, my Chinese friends here are eager to introduce me to their traditions. About 20 cakes later...

Since coming to China, I have lost about 30 lbs, which I sorely needed to do, but the mooncakes have reversed this waistline trend. A more calorie-filled concoction I'd be hard pressed to find.