Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What Makes a Great Leader?

This week we finally began our special classes. For the first week of the semester, we sat in on all the classes our Chinese classmates had, and as I said before, it was extremely boring. Beginning this week, however, we only sit in on some classes with our Chinese classmates and take our own classes with just the American students for the other periods. We have Martial Arts/Tai Chi (MATC), Chinese, Brush Painting, Calligraphy, Geography, Chinese History, and our own English seminar to satisfy the credit requirements of NPS. Monday we had MATC and Chinese, and today we had our English class and brush painting. 

MATC was really fun. Our teacher was extremely nice and very patient with us, because it took us awhile to learn how to do what she was teaching us. We learned some basic martial arts poses, like how to punch and block (although I doubt these kind of skills would come in handy in any real life fight). For tai chi, we just learned the basics as well, but we did them to traditional Chinese music that was so soothing I started falling asleep while standing. In our English class today we had a quiz on the first three chapters of our core textbook for the course. It's called CHINA: Empire and Civilization, and it's one of the driest textbooks I've ever had the misfortune of reading. It's the kind of book that once you've read a sentence, you forget it immediately. It's very useful when I'm having trouble falling asleep though (which causes problems when I read it during school here-not supposed to fall asleep! {I haven't, though I've come close on several occasions}). The quiz was fairly easy, just a standard answer 3/5 questions in paragraph form thing. The main problems was that I haven't written anything more than e-mails, journal entries, and blogposts in a month, so it took some adjusting to write school-quality work again.

Moving on, I shall now explain the title of this post. Today during English class, Ms Kamerik taught my class. From now on, she'll do this one block every Tuesday and Wednesday, and today was her first day. She gave us a powerpoint introducing herself (where she's from, where she teaches, that kind of thing). She then moved on to a powerpoint on Abe Lincoln titled "What Makes a Great Leader?", in honor of his 200th birthday. She described the basics of his life, and then when on to say that he's considered a great leader in America. She asked us to work in groups to think of qualities great leaders should possess. The class thought of all the usual ones such as honest, courageous, dynamic, that sort of thing. Then came two unusual ones. The first was sexy, which came with a collective laugh. Ms Kamerik thought it best to not write that one down, because, let's face it, that's not always a quality a great leader possesses :P. But then came an interesting one. Someone said autocratic. Ms Kamerik wrote it down, but said "let's come back to that one." The class found that to be a somewhat strange choice as well. I found it fascinating. In the US, if we ever do this kind of exercise, people come up with the obvious qualities, and not much else. If anyone ever proposed adding autocratic to the list, it would be laughed at as ridiculous, and tossed aside. Here, however, it's not cast aside so quickly. While it wasn't embraced by the class as an essential quality a great leader must possess, it wasn't branded as insane either. It definitely interested me as an aspect of Chinese culture much different from my own.

As a side note, Ms Kamerik also asked the class to list people they thought of as great leaders. The first person mentioned was, you guessed it, good old Mao Zedong. I've noticed so far that here most people are more concerned with studying or shopping to give much thought to Mao and what he did for/to China and how he affected the country.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Tiananmen Square

This afternoon, Becky, Rebecca, Carolyn and I went to Tiananmen Square. According to the guidebooks it's the biggest square in the world at 3,000 square meters. We walked around, taking pictures of all the buildings and things. There's a large tower (I think it's a monument to something) in the square, with several government buildings on the sides. They're all called The Peoples' something something. All around the square are guards dressed in long green coats. These guys are all over the city, but apparently here they carry guns (I don't know if that's particular with these guys or if it's true all around the city. Probably best not to test it :P). At the far end of the square is the iconic building with Mao's portrait hanging in the center. The left side says "Long live the People's Republic of China (zhong hua ren min gong he guo wan sui)". I'm not sure about the right side, but I'm sure you could look it up. This is where the gate was, because I think they tore it down to make way for this monument to Mao when he died. Tiananmen literally means "Gate of Heavenly Peace" (tian天-heaven, an安-peace, men-gate). It's the southern gateway to the Forbidden City.

First Week at Jingshan

This past week was our first week of school at Jingshan. While I definitely enjoyed meeting new people and seeing how school is conducted in China, this week was marked by my being extremely bored for five consecutive days. Now don't get me wrong, we were expecting this and were even warned by Wang laoshi to hang in there because this week wouldn't be very interesting, but it is always one thing to know something's going to happen and an entirely different thing to actually experience it.

Each day my class has seven classes, five before lunch and two after (that's for the middle school. all the other American kids besides Rebecca and I have eight classes, meaning that I get out one period earlier than them. YAY!!! :P). I say my class because in China, you stay with your classmates the entire day and the teachers move around. Every day we also have one, two, or even three classes that are double blocks. These are different from long blocks at South. While at South a long block is just one block that has 15 extra minutes, in China double blocks are two normal blocks back to back with a 5 minute break in between. This makes them much longer than long blocks, and if it isn't English class, much more boring. In China lunch is also much longer than it is in America, and we get about 1.5 hours to eat and chill in the middle of the day. This is great, but it comes at the cost of ending school later than in America, at around 3 or 3:30 rather than 2 or 2:30.

The classes I had this week were (in no particular order): Physics, English, Chemistry, Politics, Math, Chinese, and PE. In Physics I recognized an equation or two, mostly because they were doing circular motion which is what we were learning before I left. English is my favorite class because I can understand everything, but also because it is the one class where there's a good amount of student participation and group work. The normal Chinese style of teaching is teacher talks and talks and talks and student listens/spaces out. If it sounds boring, that's because it is. In English class, however, the teacher wants the students to practice their speaking skills, and the only way to do that is through group work and to have the students participate in the class. In Chemistry, I could vaguely follow what they were doing from my junior chemistry course, but mostly I didn't know what was going on. Politics I got none of. In Math I only understood one equation, and in Chinese again, nothing. PE was second best to English. We went out to the track area and played basketball or just walked around. It was nice to stretch my legs and do something physical.

After school each day I would get home at around 4:30 or 5. I take the subway home each day, and it's 8 stops. The annoying part of it is that I take one line for 7 stops, then transfer and go 1 stop. I walk home from the subway because there's a public bus that goes from my apartment to the subway, but not the other way. It's about a 10-15 minute walk, much closer than the T is to my house in Newton. When I get home I get on my computer and just spend time doing what I feel like. This is the most enjoyable aspect of my stay in Beijing. The only "homework" I have is for our English class with our two teacher chaperones, but that's it. Talk about slump. That's it for now, coming up next- our trip to Tiananmen Square!!!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Getting Lost in Snowy Beijing

It snowed today! When I walked out of my apartment this morning, there was a slim coating of white on all the cars. The snow was nothing like it is in Boston, it was just flurries. It was still exciting though. My host brother Jimmy told me Beijing gets 1cm of snow the entire winter, and this was about that. Luckily, the Jingshan kids were in America for that huge snowstorm in December, so they got to see what real snow looks like. 

School today was less exciting than it was yesterday. My first period was math, and again I didn't understand anythg the teacher said. I did recognize an equation he wrote on the board though. It was x^2+1=0, x=i. I do remember something from high school math!

The American students then went on a tour of the school while my class took a 1.5 hour long chemistry test. We walked with Ms Zheng and Wang laoshi (Wang laoshi came to America last semester-she worked at North). They took us to several places. We went to a relatively small computer lab where they use the internet to communicate with students and classes from around China and the world. She told us that sometimes a classroom in China won't have enough resources, so the Jingshan School will include them in their classes to give them the resources they need. It was very cool. We visited a biology hallway full of gourds on the ceiling and butterfly carcasses on the walls. We saw elementary schoolers learning how to write characters-they were so cute! We went to the swimming pool. It's olympic sized, so it's very very large. Wang laoshi said the swim test is to make it across four lengths of the pool anyway you can (doggy paddle allowed), so I'll obviously pass. We went to a gym area where there's a rock wall and badminton courts. It's where we'll have our martial arts class.

After the tour we returned to our classes. My class took an English test while I read a book (they had two tests in a row on the 2nd day of school-ouch!). After that was lunch, which wasn't very remarkable. We did meet another foreigner-a woman named Maggy (I think, I know it started with an M) who's from Maryland. She's been here since 2008 and she'll be here till July. I know she was here for last year's Newton group. She lives at school along with a few other people. It's nice to know we're not the only non-Chinese people at the school.

Next came physics, which was extremely boring. At this point in the day I'm sick of doing the things I have been doing to keep myself busy, and I just want to go home. The teacher talked and talked and talked to the class non-stop. I think even when I'm not paying attention, just having my brain hear Chinese makes me tired. For the last block of the day we had a "class meeting" with our homeroom teacher. He talked with the aid of a powerpoint. One of the slides had a picture of Michael Phelps posing with his 8 golds on the left side, and a picture of him smoking marijuana on the right side. Another slide had pictures of movie posters for the Shawshank Redemption. I have no idea what the teacher said about these pictures, or why he talked about them.

The way home was eventful. While I do know how to get back to my apartment on the subway, today I did something different. Instead of transferring from Line 5 (the line to school) to Line 10 (the line with my stop on it), I continued on Line 5 to the station my host brother said had buses to take me to my apartment. I got on one of the buses he told me about, and saw where it would take me. After 15 minutes, I realized I had no idea where I was. I got out and hailed a taxi (getting a taxi in Beijing is as easy as getting one in NYC). I told him Shaoyaoju, which is the area that I live in. Several times he said something in Chinese, I think he was asking me which way I wanted to go. All I said was "correct, correct". After awhile he turned the mirror to make eye contact with me and said "Ni shi meiguo ren (你是美国人)" or, you're an American. It wasn't a question. I smiled and said yes. He finally got me to my apartment, and after spending 20.40 yuan (almost $3) I was home. Normally it costs just 2 yuan to get home ($.30). Oh well. Next time I'll wait for Jimmy before I take a different route home.

Monday, February 16, 2009

First day of School

To start off, I'd like to correct myself. It seems I need to go back to US History, for Nixon didn't visit China in 1977, since he wasn't president anymore. He went in 1972. Sorry for that mixup, and thank you Wikipedia.

Today was the first day of school. I woke up at 6:10 to the sound of my cell phone alarm, shortly after which my host mom knocked on my door to make sure I was awake. I ate a small breakfast of dumplings (jiaozi, my favorite food here) and Nescafe instant coffee and I was on my way. My host mom drove me, Jimmy (my host brother), and another boy to school. We arrived at about 7:10, and I sat down in my desk behind a kid named Ricky, and close to Victor. We then went outside for an all-school assembly, and it was very cold. All the students stood in neat rows, with the American kids standing separately. After about 15 minutes, we were called up to the stage to introduce ourselves. Elias and Becky (the ones best with Chinese in our group) took the microphone and gave a short speech. Elias opened with "Nimen hao!" or Hello everyone! The entire school laughed. It was great. After Becky and Elias introduced all of us, Ms Kamerik presented our gift to the Jingshan School to Principal Fan. It was a pewter bowl full of well wishes from Newton kids written on colored index cards.

After that, we went back inside to our classrooms to begin class. Since it was the first day of school, all the teachers just gave introductions to the curriculum for the semester, like they do in America. Our class had Math first, and I didn't understand a single thing. I'm not so great at math to begin with, but when the teacher's talking in Chinese I get nothing. Next came gym. We went out to the freezing cold track and ran about six laps. Then the boys played basketball and the girls stood around. I shot hoops with Victor, Miles, and a kid named Chen. It was really fun, because we were all equally awful. English was next. It was hands down my favorite period of the day for the simple reason that I could understand everything that was going on. The teacher (Shirley, like Shirley Temple!-that's what she said :P) spoke with almost no accent. After that was two periods of Chinese, where I looked up words in my Chinese dictionary and read the textbook we're being quizzed on next week. After that was lunch. Us Newton kids ate in the teacher's cafeteria, where we eat slightly better food than the rest of the kids. Because here we get 1.5 hours for lunch, after we finished eating we went to the track area, where all the little kids were playing. It reminded me of elementary school recess. After lunch came Politics. This was the most boring class of the day, probably because the teacher literally talked to the class for the entire two periods. During the first class I heard "Meiguo" (America) a lot, and apparently he was discussing the differences between Chinese and American education. By the last period I had run out of things to do and almost fell asleep. Thankfully the school day was over though. 

I went home on the subway (which is sooo much more convenient and useful than the T), grateful that I didn't have any homework to do. Tomorrow we're getting a tour of the school, so at least I'll have something to do during one of the periods. Ms Kamerik told Rebecca and me that she's teaching English to our class twice a week, which is great because we'll get to help out. I'm really excited to interact with all the students in my class. 

Everyone was extremely welcoming to me today, which was great. When we played basketball they made sure that I had enough opportunities to shoot. In class, they would ask me if I understood what was happening. They asked me questions about America. In all, it was a wonderful first day, if not extremely boring. I'm really excited to get to know everyone over the semester, and I think it's going to be a fun experience.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Cultural Observations

The past few days here have been relatively low key. The weekend just ended, and for the past two days I just hung out with the Newton kids and hung out in my apartment. Like I said, pretty low key. The most exciting thing is that tomorrow's my first real day of school. When I say excited, I don't exactly mean excited. For the next week, all us exchange students are sitting in our classes with nothing to do. You see, the special classes that only our group has don't start till the second week of school, so this week we're just sitting in each of our classes with the Jingshan kids. It's going to be possibly one of the most boring weeks of my life. But at least I have a uniform (and I promise I'll post pictures of it soon).

What I wanted to write about in this post was some more things about China that I find interesting.

The first is another note about the driving. While before I said Chinese people can't drive, I think it's more appropriate to say that driving here requires real skill, and is almost an art form. Here, you have to have your eyes on the road 120% of the time, never wavering. Because everyone ignores traffic laws, you have to be constantly vigilant. Cars also have the right of way, not pedestrians. Cars and buses do not stop for pedestrians, pedestrians have to get out of the way. Drivers also do very crazy things you'd never see in America. For instance, one night I was taking a taxi home. The driver missed my exit, but instead of taking a different route like he would in America, he did this. He stopped in the middle of the street (we were on one of the Ring Roads, sort of like a highway in the city), backed up about 20 feet, and continued onto the proper exit. Surprisingly, at this point I'm used to this kind of thing, and it didn't scare me. By now I just laugh to myself and say "That's China."

President Nixon. This might seem like a strange thing to write about, but it's fascinating. In America, we all know how Nixon's remembered. We all know about Watergate and the debacle of his presidency. In America Nixon's seen as a criminal and a lier. Not so in China. In the late 1970s (I think 1977), Richard Nixon traveled to China. He was the first American president to travel to China since the Communist Revolution (I think maybe even the first period). While there he reestablished diplomatic ties, ties that were severed 30 years prior. In China today, everyone thinks of Nixon as a hero for establishing these ties. When they first asked me if I knew Nixon, I laughed and said he was a terrible president. They laughed and said they loved him. You may now be wondering if the same is true for former president Dubya. Not so. They hate him here as much as we do in America.

Dating. In America, many people start dating in middle school. In high school some people have serious relationships, and they may branch out even further in college. The point being that dating while young is not taboo in the US. In China, it's much different. Before college, dating (and frankly much interaction between the sexes at all) is frowned upon. Not to say that it doesn't happen, but much of that is in secret. When you're in middle or high school, you're supposed to study, not date. Once you're in college, however, if you're not dating someone you ought to be. I think many people actually marry the first person they publicly date. 

Cigarette smoking. Here's the one area where I'll say I think the US has it right and China wrong. I have seen so many people smoking in so many places here. It's disgusting. There are many more places where smoking is allowed in the US, for instance inside many private buildings. There are no smoking signs, but I've seen those be ignored. This isn't so much a cultural issue as it is a public health one. I'm scared that in 10 or 20 years, you'll see a huge epidemic of Chinese people getting lung cancer, emphysema, or any one of the other 1000 smoking related illnesses. It's the same with fast food. Sooner or later China's going to have a huge obesity problem on its hands (remember, China has 1.3 billion people. that's several US's put together).

Tomorrow's the first day of school, and I'll blog about how (bad) it was. I should go to bed now, have to wake up at 6:10 tomorrow morning (versus about 7 back home. OUCH!)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Beijing Jingshan Xuexiao

Today we got our first look inside the school. It's on Dengshikou Dajie, right near the subway stop Dengshikou, so it's very easy to get to. It's inconspicuously tucked into the side of the street, with a 24-hour McDonald's right next to it. If you didn't know where to look, you'd probably walk right past it.

My first impression of the building itself wasn't all that remarkable. Not to say it was ugly or anything, because it wasn't. It's just what you'd expect out of your average urban school, which is fine. When you walk into the school, there are several hallways surrounded by a courtyard or two. The view wasn't all that impressive today because of the rain (it was the first time it's rained since we got here, and it's only because the government shot chemicals into the atmosphere to stimulate precipitation-my guess is to relieve the severe drought in Northern China, but who knows).

We were led into a meeting room with our host siblings where we were greeted by Principal Fan and several other important school officials. He proceeded to welcome us to the school, telling us how glad he was that we are continuing the 30 year relationship between our schools/countries, how communication has changed so much with the internet and such, and to enjoy our stay. We then introduced ourselves, in Chinese, to him and the other officials. My "speech" went like this: My name is Make (my Chinese name, 马克), I like to eat, and I love Chinese people. It was all I could think to say in the heat of the moment. I got laughs on the eating comment.

After, he invited us to have lunch at a restaurant near the school. It was a five-star restaurant, and may I say the food was AMAZING. I felt so grateful to the school that they welcome us with open arms and then treat us so wonderfully. During lunch, Ms. Zheng (the chairwoman of the exchange on this side. I'm not sure if that's the correct pinyin for her name) talked to us about some basic rules during our stay, and told us which classes we would be in for the semester. I'm in an advanced 9th grade class, with advanced students. I think they're actually in the middle school because they start high school in 10th grade and they wear green uniforms (we/the high school wears blue ones). I'm going to be with one other Newton kid, Rebecca Lo.

Tomorrow we're going to register for classes, get our textbooks, and introduce ourselves to the school (at least I think. I'm never quite sure of what's going on in China if it isn't happening right now). I'm really excited to meet my classmates, but I do know two of them already. They're English names are Miles and Victor, and they're hosting Ms. Richard (no relation) and Hannah Sieber. I don't really know them that well yet, but I hope to soon. They're hosting this year and going on the exchange this fall, so I'm sure they'll want to practice their already amazing English and ask questions about America. I just hope I can practice my terrible Chinese with them. Other then that, it was a relatively mild day.

Uniforms-I know you all can't wait to see me in my uniform, but there's a little problem. The school didn't have the right sizes for me, Rebecca, or Elias Menninger (the two shortest and tallest of our group, respectively), so we have to wait 2-3 weeks for our uniforms to arrive. I did receive the bottom, but it's bright blue sweatpants, so I'm waiting for the whole package before I wear it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Spring Festival Trip

First off let me apologize for not posting for so long. The wireless router in my apartment broke a few days before we left for our trip, and on the trip I had internet access only three times in a week and a half.

Our trip was amazing in just about every way. We went to Hangzhou, Luoyang, Kaifeng, Zhengzhou, hiked on Huangshan, and went to Shanghai. There's a lot I'm forgetting, I'm sure, since we did so much in so little time.

The first three or so days were characterized by the entire group being freezing cold. We put on several layers of warm clothing, huddled together, even slept several people to a bed in Zhengzhou, but we never ceased being cold. We saw some cool stuff, for sure, like the Longmen Caves, the Shaolin Temple and such, but it was just very cold. Nevertheless, we had an amazing time. Our tour guide, Mr. Lee, was very nice and accommodating. He spoke nearly flawless English, and informed sufficiently us of the history of the relics we saw. 

The second part of the trip was significantly warmer. When we got off the plane in Hangzhou we were simply stoked for the warmth. When we got to our hotel things got even better. It was a significant improvement over the hotel in Zhengzhou. There was heat in the room, the beds were amazing, and best of all the shower was heaven. We had a good time. 

From there we went to Shanghai, which was probably the best part of the trip. Again, our guide spoke flawless English, even though he claimed to have started just in 2000. We went up the Oriental Pearl Tower to take amazing pictures of the city skyline, went to a silk factory, and much much more. There's so much I know we did and so much I know I'm forgetting. One thing I really noticed about Shanghai was how European it felt. It was one of the major hubs for foreign powers in China (and is now the financial capital with much foreign influence), and you can really feel it. Sometimes I would think I was in England or France, and I had to remind myself I was in China.

Overall, this trip was probably the best I have ever taken in my life. It was great to spend a week and a half with 8 of my best friends, and it was just an amazing experience altogether. Top that with the fact that I can't remember what school feels like. One of the purposes of this exchange is to give me a preview of what China and Beijing are like, and this trip gave me a sense of what the rest of China is like, if only a small fraction of it. I would love to go back to all the places we visited, maybe just not in February (I'm not sure you can even fathom how cold it was. I swear, no one heats buildings in Henan province. It's ridiculous). When I come back to China (and I know I will eventually), I'd love to visit places like Tibet and Hong Kong, where we couldn't go on this trip. And even if I visited the same places with a different group of people or just a friend or two, I know it would be a completely different experience. I guess one of the main things I realized on this trip is how much I love China and love being here. It reminds me of why I wanted to go on this exchange, and why I know it was a good decision to go.

I'll post a few pictures here, but really only a few. I took around 800 pictures the whole trip, which would probably make the server crash. If you want to see them all, you'll have to ask me, since I'm not going to upload them all on Facebook either. Tomorrow I'm going to Jingshan school for the first time, and I'll most likely get my uniform. As they say in China, Mingtian jian! (see you tomorrow, 明天见!)