Monday, May 31, 2010

Profiles in Awesome: Jordan and Meredith

Again, I don't mean to minimize the individuality of these folks, but ohmigosh it's almost June! Time is flying.

Jordan is another treasured MOMI educator who I met when I first started working at the Museum. I'll admit I was initially intimidated by her style and coolness, but we became friends quickly and she's great to talk to about most anything, from film to education to celebrity gossip. I was also jazzed to find someone who appreciated blog culture the way I did, and who wrote an awesome blog herself. And lastly, she's always been extremely generous - helping me find jobs, inviting us over to her Brooklyn apartment for parties, "and so on" (as my Chinese students are fond of saying).

I didn't meet Meredith until later on in the year, since she was doing PhD work in California, but I had heard so many good things about her from the other MOMI staff that she was sort of the stuff of legend. Also the author of a terrific blog, Meredith is creative, artistic, smart, and really, really funny. Whenever I've hung out with her, she always makes me laugh, and then I try to cut down on my laughing, which never works and just sort of makes my laughter more shrill. Meredith also sent me my first snail-mail letter in China, which earns her a special place in my heart.

In addition to being a generally fantastic couple, Jordan and Meredith brought Sprout into my life, who (aside from Java, R.I.P.) is probably my favorite dog ever. I know she gets around town and has affection for anyone in her general proximity, but I'll ignore that fact and just hope I get to romp around Prospect Park with her (and her owners) this summer. Thanks for all the thoughtful commenting and online support, J & M. I've really appreciated it while I've been away.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

杭州 (Hangzhou)

After a few days in Shanghai, I hopped on a train and headed for Hangzhou, a city about an hour and a half away. I had heard lots about Hangzhou from Hannah, who had lived there for a semester, and from other friends. I also wanted to visit my friend Chandler and the other PiA-ers who live/work there.

Hangzhou was just as delightful as Shanghai, but smaller and more relaxed. It's famous for the enormous, beautiful West Lake, so Chandler and I spent a good deal of the afternoon walking around the lake and relaxing and talking on park benches.

We also walked around the old district and checked out the street food, which was refreshingly different from Dalian street food.

The bottom sign reads "Dong Po Rou," a famous Hangzhou dish, involving fatty pork belly

Thursday, May 27, 2010

上海 (Shanghai)

This week I took a break from cold, gray Dalian and headed down to Shanghai and Hangzhou for a mini-vacation. While I haven't submitted my grades, I'm pretty much done teaching and I wanted to take advantage of my dwindling time here. My main reason for going to Shanghai was pretty minor - I wanted to see the Propaganda Poster Art Center, which is a small gallery featuring original posters from the 1950's through the 1970's. There's something about Communist-era art and propaganda that I find really fascinating, so I was jazzed about this idea. What I didn't realize is that I would completely fall in love with Shanghai as a city. It's a really amazing mix of new and old, and it's full of narrow, leafy streets and 1920's architecture and alleyways and bizarre skyscrapers on the river.

I also stayed in a great neighborhood, which was the former Jewish ghetto. (Many Jews fled to Shanghai during World War II). The area is called the Hongkou district and it was full of busy streets, old architecture, markets, and friendly people, who complimented me on my awful Chinese.

(China in a nutshell: a woman cleans and slices eels in front of a local cell phone shop)

And of course, the Propaganda Poster Center did not disappoint. I was surprised how anti-American some early posters were, and how beautiful some of the later posters and woodcuts were. A few unique highlights:

Work together to smash Russian revisionism!

Carry out birth control for revolution!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Q: Rock Star or Student?

A: Student. (Wearing my sunglasses)

Sunday, May 16, 2010


On Sunday, a bunch of us went to the Dalian Zoo, which was a lot of fun. Zoos are fun in general, not only because of the animals, but it also gives you a chance to just walk around in the sun with your friends and talk. It was especially interesting in China because, as you can imagine, you can get dangerously close to some of the animals and, sadly, the conditions aren't always that humane.

And of course, the signs! I should have submitted these to the Sampling of Chinglish.

And our favorite:

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


A few thoughts/experiences from my little world of teaching. And yes, I'm exactly like Robin Williams's character in Dead Poets Society.

1. MAKE THEM DO MORE WORK! One of my big realizations as a teacher is that I do too much work and the students don't do enough. I'm not talking about preparing for class, because that's important, but rather creating environments where they are working and inventing. In ESL-speak, I should be the "scribe on the side" instead of the "sage on the stage." This is difficult for me, because in addition to enjoying hearing myself talk, I tend to get anxious when I'm not talking. It makes me feel like I'm not "teaching" enough, even though I was told that in an ideal speaking class, the students should be talking 80% of the time, and the teacher only 20%.

A beautiful example of this is a recent conversation I had. I wanted to improve my students' pronunciation, so I was planning a lesson centered around a traditional method: tongue twisters. I wanted to make it more interesting, so I asked Jessica for advice. She suggested, "Why don't you have them make up their own tongue twisters?"

Success! Instead of a dry, rote class where I introduce tongue twisters and they repeat after me, like zombie robots, I had a really fun, dynamic, student-centered class where they created the content. Most of them came up with funny and well-thought-out tongue twisters, and even a few weird/provocative ones. ("Nick thought a sick thought when he saw a hottie on the Theodore Shore")

On a related note, I'm forever halfway through Paulo Freire's "The Pedagogy of the Oppressed," but I feel like in a small way, this is an example of the liberationist education he's going for. The "banking method" of teaching involves the teacher having all the knowledge and depositing it in the students' brains like empty bank accounts. The point of "liberationist education" is to encourage students to have a role in creating their own realities. I have a long way to go, but I am always trying to be the type of teacher who can facilitate that process.

2. SCAVENGER HUNT! Because I am actually a glorified camp counselor, and the weather is finally getting nice, I created a scavenger hunt for my students. It involved answering some questions and riddles and finding objects. One of the riddles was the following: Bring me the object that solves this riddle: What Has A Neck But No Head?

About half the students got it right ("A Bottle") and a bunch more said "A Shirt" which is sort of right, and I said it was okay. Some wrote "Teapot" or "Vase" which was less correct. But my favorite group of all presented me with this object:

Yep, that's a duck neck. They went to the store and bought me a duck neck to solve the riddle. While not technically correct, I thought it was such a creative answer that I gave them a million points. Only in China!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The People Who Feed Me: Bowls of Rice

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am capable of eating the same thing over and over again, almost forever. Another delicious example of this is a local student cafeteria, 大服楼 (Da Fu Lou). I like it because it's cheap and you can eat your own individual portion, as opposed to the ubiquitous family-style.

Last semester, the Woman Who Fed Me was this awesome, friendly lady who I really bonded with. These semester, she's gone! I asked where she went, and I was told she moved to Taiyuan. I was pretty bummed, but the new woman is just as sweet.

She also knows my "usual," which is rice with vegetables and chicken. I don't know what the name of the actual dish is (Tae, do you know?) but it's very tasty and costs 8 kuai, which is about $1.25.

Delicious flat egg on top

All mixed in

This is the incorrect way to position one's chopsticks, because it's reminiscent of the incense sticks used to commemorate the dead, as seen below. Instead, just rest your chopsticks on the top of your bowl.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Wedding Madness

Warning: this is a LONG post with lots of photos.

So, this weekend was a holiday and while my lovely friends went to Shanxi Province to frolic, I went to Yantai for my friend Jean's cousin's wedding. It was really generous of her to invite me and I had a great time: my first Chinese wedding, and a whirlwind mix of family, friends, food, and Western/Eastern traditions.

Yantai is a city just south of Dalian, over the water. We took a six-hour boat ride early on Saturday morning. The boat was huge, and featured an endless amount of small, eight-person rooms with beds. There was also a deck, where people threw pieces of bread and sausage in the air for the seagulls to catch.

When we arrived in Yantai, it was warm and breezy and balmy and I immediately regretted only bringing my Dalian-weather wardrobe: sweater, jacket, skirt, boots. We were met by Jean's relative and then drove to the hotel to meet up with her gugu (father's sister) and gufu (father's sister's husband). Gufu and Gugu's daughter was the one getting married, but I forget her name, because Jean mostly referred to her as Jiejie (Older Sister). Gufu's mom owns a barbecue restaurant in Yantai, so we went there for a great meal with the family. Everyone spoke in Chinese and I tried to catch up, but it was hard. It was a very "off" weekend for me and Chinese.

The next morning, Jean and I woke up at 4 a.m. to go help the bride get ready for the wedding day. I'm not a fan of rising before 9 a.m., but the city was beautiful and empty that early in the morning.

We spent the morning helping prepare, but I'm using the term "we" loosely. I kept trying to help, and everyone kept telling me to sit down. I was trying to be polite by helping, and they were trying to be polite by refusing my help, and it just ended with me hovering awkwardly and moving things unnecessarily from one place to another.

Additionally, during downtime Gufu would entreat me to "perform" for everyone in the form of a song or dance. Everyone stared as I, sleep-deprived, tried to politely decline. Jean looked at me expectantly. "Just express yourself," she said. I didn't know how to explain that my singing voice would majorly bum everyone out. As for dancing, nobody wants to see me perform one quarter of a hip-hop routine I learned in a dance class sophomore year.

Jean and her cousin LeLe decorate the apartment

Gufu is given a fancy red tag identifying him as Father of the Bride

Fireworks are arranged in a heart shape

The musicians eat a quick breakfast of dumplings

Luckily, I was saved by the fact that the bride was ready (in the first of FIVE outfits she would change into over the course of the day) and it was time for the groom to arrive. In a Shandong Province tradition, he had to follow the ritual of arriving at her parents' house to pick her up. However, the bride is hidden in a room, and he is thwarted at each entrance, forced to answer riddles and pay money to advance. It's like a video game!

Jean asks the groom a riddle.

He attempts to get invited into the apartment. "Ba! Ma!"

Once in, he gives money to his parents-in-law, and serves them tea.

A lot more happened inside the apartment, but we missed it because our job was to wait outside, armed with flower confetti, for the precise moment the bride and groom left the building. I didn't mind - I was happy to have a task.

Jean and LeLe wait for the bride and groom


After leaving her parents' house, the next step was to go to their new apartment, across town. More fireworks were set off, and the crowd and musicians followed them.

The next location (seriously, it felt like a music video shoot) was the beautiful Yantai beach. Now, this wasn't a typical Chinese wedding: it was much more extravagant than most, according to Jean. Aside from the fact that Jiejie is their only daughter, they're also fairly wealthy (although their apartment was modest by Western standards), and they've had some family problems that might have inspired them to make this affair more special. That being said, the extravagance was all very...Chinese.

For example, to celebrate Jiejie's talent for piano, they set up a large, white piano on the beach for her to play. But in (modern) Chinese fashion, she wasn't actually going to play, but instead was going to fake it alongside a recording, while singing into the microphone. But the host started the music too early, and so she just sat there, frozen, until the groom led her offstage. It was weird. By the way, in this photo, she is wearing Outfit #2.

Even though I couldn't really understand the vows, which were set to loud, cheesy music, they seemed pretty heartfelt. At one point he mentions Er Ling Yi Er Nian (Year 2012), and says that even if the end of the world comes, he'll still be there for her, or something along those lines. Then, Wo Ai Ni (I love you). Strangers gathered, the wind blew, Jean cried tears of happiness.

After the ceremony, it was time for lunch! It was a delicious meal of seafood and it included some famous, expensive delicacies.

Featured: Sea Cucumber (black, spiky) a piece of chicken, and a spoonful of Shark Fin Soup

Jean's grandfather was a superb drinker. That man downed an impressive amount of wine and baijiu. A few relatives came over to talk and, again, I had to politely refuse to sing for everyone at the wedding.

The couple entered again, walked down the "runway," and addressed their parents. The bride was on Outfit #3.
And, after lunch, Outfit #4.

Then we went back to the hotel to take a shower and a nap. Weddings are exhausting! When six o'clock rolled around, it was time to meet up with the bride and groom, and all the cousins, for a low-key meal. It was just the "young people" (I don't know how to say that without sounding ancient) and it was really fun.

In Shandong Province tradition, the table has two "hosts" and the most important people sit next to the hosts. They put me next to the groom, solely because I was the American guest, and I felt awkward about it. But the awkwardness abated after many Tsingtao beers and toasts, and what I lacked in Chinese language skills, I made up for with my ability to open a beer bottle with wooden chopsticks. Thank you Chris Hildner!

After dinner, we stumbled back to the bride and groom's new place. Tradition dictated an evening of playing "tricks" on the bride and groom, or, rather, challenges. The final decision included: having the bride lay down on the couch with an egg in her mouth and making the groom roll the egg down her body using his chin, suspending an apple slice from a string and seeing who could bite it first, trying to pop a balloon between their bodies, and balancing chopsticks above their lip without laughing at the ridiculous face the other was making. I contributed the idea of blindfolding the groom and having a Marco Polo-style search for the bride, which went over well. Note: we are now on Outfit #5.

The next morning, we had a delicious breakfast of dumplings, which I could eat all day, every day, can't-stop-won't-stop. There were also some pig's ears, which I ate out of politeness, but were mostly tasteless. Around 8 a.m., we set out for Dalian. I was immensely grateful to have been invited to the wedding, and Jean's family was really welcoming, generous, and patient with my awful Chinese. All in all, it was a great holiday weekend. And I didn't have to sing!