Public Diplomacy is Easier Than You Think

In early spring (aka “the last dregs of winter that just won’t go away”) I met a few other foreigners from a couple different African countries who were studying at a nearby university. And since these people are undeniably awesome, they agreed to come talk to my students, who had never before even seen a foreigner from outside the USA, let alone spoken with one.

I spent a couple weeks teaching a pretty basic human geography lesson to my classes to get them geared up and thinking about the people who live around the world, instead of just a location on a map (which, if you’re a teacher and interested, I can definitely send you the materials). We looked at pictures of food and art and toys, listened to music, and watched videos of traditional dances. It was great fun!

When I told the students that some foreigners would be coming, they got very excited. When I told them that some Africans were coming, some of the students flat out did not believe me. A memorable couple of students even tried to call me on my supposed bs:

“Teacher, there are no Africans here [nearby].”

“Will they fly here from Africa to see our school?”

“Do you mean French people?”

 

Despite their disbelief, four lovely (and very accommodating) women and men from Africa did come to school that Sunday. They spoke panel-discussion-style at English Club, and answered questions from a packed room of wide-eyed kids. 

IMG_0003 (4)When English Club time was up (and the room became way too packed) we moved outside.

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While I had prepared the students for the visit by giving them enough information to ask intelligent, insightful questions–of which there were many–there were also a few well-meaning but hilariously not thought through questions. Like this tidbit of a conversation between one of the foreign visitors and a high school student :

Student:    “How did you get to China?”

Foreigner: “I flew.”

Student:    “Oh. Are there airports in your country?”

I take it as evidence that they can at least hold a conversation and improvise without checking a dictionary. Small victories they may be, but victories all the same.

And students weren’t the only ones to show up!

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A few of the grandparents living on campus wandered by to take in the extremely unusual sight of more than two foreigners in town at the same time. And, of course, all the kids just had to see if Africans can play ping-pong as well as the Chinese. It’s an issue of national pride, ya know?

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After a couple hours, however, the students had to head back to class for their evening review and homework sessions. We took one last picture before they had to go.

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And that, my dears, is how you change a young person’s worldview in a single afternoon. Just show them that a small town doesn’t necessarily mean a small world, and that to some “cool, awesome foreigners”, they–the young, poor, or shy Chinese school students–are the cool, awesome foreigners.

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Snow at School!

When I got back to my apartment, I found it beautiful and covered in white.

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The only downside of the snow was my heating unit freezing into one large block of ice. But don’t worry, the handyman came to fix it!

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He literally sat outside my bedroom window on the ledge and poured pots of boiling water into the unit, which I ferried to him from the kitchen. I don’t think he actually knew anything about ac/heating units, but just figured “hey, if it’s frozen, defrost it!”

After a while his wife came over with a hairdryer that we hooked up to my extension cord, since the water wasn’t working fast enough and it was starting to snow again.

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My heater made sporadic, terrible noises for the rest of the year, but at least it worked!

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Spring Festivalers (Beijing Edition)

After Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Kunming, and Seoul, I finished off my break in Beijing. This also happened to be when Spring Festival actually occurred. So we went to a temple fair.

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Red is a lucky color in China; if it’s your zodiac year (the same zodiac animal as the year you were born) you’re supposed to wear lots of red clothes and accessories. During Spring Festival it seems like whole chunks of the city get painted red.

IMG_0020 (4)I thought the temple fair was going to be some really traditional festival with Chinese music and dancing. It turned out to be pretty much like any game section of a state fair or amusement park: games and prizes, live music, toys to buy, and way too many types of food on sticks.

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It was a bit too crowded for my taste, so we didn’t end up staying long.

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Later we went to a shopping mall for dinner and happened across a Dragon and Lion dance team, which was pretty neat.

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At some point I also took a wander through some old hutongs (traditional neighborhoods) and found a market. There were fish.

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So…Happy Chinese New Year (6 months ago)!

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Seoul (insert witty pun here)

After Conference I went to Seoul to visit my cousin, who’s also teaching English. It was my first time in South Korea, and it was pretty awesome despite the cold weather.

In not-necessarily-this order, we:

ate Korean Pizza (mine was squid ink crust with salad on top),

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visited the Palace Museum (where it snowed!!!),

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ate bibimbap (my very first!)

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and Korean barbeque,

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went to a Hanok Village,

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and ate some tasty Korean dessert made of shaved ice and nut powder and I don’t know what else. Maybe red beans.

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Conference in Kunming

I somehow forgot to take pictures of the actual conference part of Conference in Kunming, but there were lots of seagulls, so you can stare at those for a while.

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And a little boy feeding the birds. (As if he had a choice. Do people here not know how vicious and devious gulls are? Have they never seen a flock going after someone with a cup of french fries?! …oh, yeah, I guess not.)

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Hong Kong (was a crazy long time ago)

Wow. Hong Kong was so long ago that I actually have to look through my pictures to remember everything I did. So this post will not have a lot of text–just pictures to get this thing updated already.

Ok. Let’s go.

Victoria Peak!

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Day and Night. (We were up there for a while. Tip: ask how long the walking paths are before you start walking.)

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Next up: A beautiful park!

I don’t know it’s name, but it’s next to / behind the big mosque and it contains an aviary.

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Yup. An Aviary.

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Then we found the comic book characters. Which were, to be fair, on the Avenue of Comic Stars. Which was tucked in awkwardly behind the aviary. I guess they had extra room?

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And lastly, a night market.

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Buh-bye Hong Kong!

(Well, at this point, it’s more like “see you soon when I come to get a new visa.”)

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Winter Break: First Stop, Guangzhou

After New Year’s Eve we got a magical phone call informing us that our break had started two days ago, and that we had a month to go not teach in various places. First stop in the not-teaching not-road-trip was Guangzhou, two hours by high speed rail south.

First on the itinerary was visiting a friend in the city. Her apartment is in one of the coolest places–I think–in the area. In order to get to it you have to wind your way through some narrow alleyways…

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once you get there, the view is magnificent. Cityscape on one side:

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and traditional hutong on the other side:

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Gorgeous, right?

We walked down by the river and over to a nearby park.

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It was–can I use the word “gorgeous” again? Because wow, it really was. And of course, like most Chinese parks (and plazas by rivers, and unused space under bridges) it had exercise equipment.

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While we strolled…

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I noticed a, frankly, ridiculous number of wedding photos going on.

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I’m still not sure if they were real weddings or just for a wedding magazine or photography studio.

Whatever. Not important. What is important is appreciating these beautiful pictures. Look at them.

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Later we went to a market street for dinner. There were fun statues to play with!

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And lots of pretty lights!

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The next morning I woke up early to share some traditional southern breakfast foods with a couple new friends. Below we have an assortment of porridges, a sweet pudding-like thing, and sticky rice balls filled with crushed peanuts. As my students would say, “very tasty!”

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I ate with a Chinese girl and two girls from England. IF ANYONE KNOWS THIS ENGLISH GIRL PLEASE TELL ME! I lost her phone number when my phone was stolen!

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The next day we went to a fabulous dim sum restaurant.

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It was a pretty classy place, too.

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It was situated on the edge of a large lake,

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and after lunch we took a stroll.

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That night (or was it the next night?) we walked down by the river again to see the lights.

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And for our last activity in Guangzhou, we found this weird place:

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It’s a shopping mall. With creepy superhero and super villain statues.

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New Year’s Eve…was a while ago.

For New Year’s Eve the two of us foreign teachers went to Hengyang, just a short train ride away. We didn’t know what to expect, but were banking on the fact that a city–any city–would have more going on than a small town. And lo and behold, we were right!

We arrived early in the day, and spent some time checking out the street food, including all the usuals (kabobs, flatbread) and a few unusuals, like pan fried chicken and this weird number:

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A thin layer of sticky rice surrounding a ball of whipped cream. I did eventually find a piece of cake in the middle. An itty, bitty, teeny, tiny cube of cake.

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It was glorious.

I also got my favorite sweet; fresh strawberries dipped in a hardened sugar syrup.

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Then we wandered down to the river. At first it seemed like there was nothing much going on,

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though we did find a local substitute for the New York New Year’s ball:

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Then, all of a sudden, we noticed something!

20131231_193308A paper lantern!

We decided to investigate…and found a plethora of fun explosives to play with, from sparklers to fire crackers and roman candles, and even real (big) fireworks.

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But don’t worry, we started small.

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This man is trying to teach me the proper way to light a sparkler.

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We got creative!

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And tried out some bigger ones!

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Eventually, we decided to try our hand at one of the paper lanterns. And just so you’re aware, these things are not the little red ones you hang around your room. They’re BIG!

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And they’re kind of hard to actually get up in the air.

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Taking pictures of the lantern while I was holding it out of it’s own flame was a bit difficult…

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But it did eventually fly…and then drop…and then sit for a while…

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Aaaaand finally rise to join the other lanterns in the sky.

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We watched other people set off for a while (read: “oooh pretty ‘splosions!”).

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And found a candle display that someone had obviously spent a lot of time on.

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It’s 13 <3 14 in a heart, and “Happy New Year” in Chinese characters off to the side.

And then we discovered that we standing directly underneath the prime fireworks zone. And boy is it hard to take pictures with your fingers in your ears.

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On the other hand, I don’t think I’ll ever get the chance to stand under fireworks so low they could take out the fourth floor of a building ever again. Definitely worth it.

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Happy Belated New Year!

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Aaaand She’s Back!

Hi again! I realize I’ve been absent for quite some time now, but no worries! I’ll have the next few posts up shortly. They’ll have photographic evidence of my New Years’ celebrations in Hengyang, and my travels in Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Kunming, Seoul, and Beijing.

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When Real Life is a Bad Joke

Ok, I know this great joke: So the atheists told the Jew and the Muslim to organize an English Christmas show at a Chinese school…

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But really. It was a talent show. The lovely student in the center in the above picture was going to just sing a song like most of the other students who got through auditions. (Two. Freakin. Weeks. of auditions.) But at some point he decided that his voice wasn’t really that good, so he changed his plan. Instead, he decided to lip sync to an English song while dressed as Santa Claus, and then get down off the stage and pass out candy to the kids. It was honestly one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a while. And when he got down off the stage, it really didn’t matter how well he could sing, because the gleeful, shouting students completely drowned him out.

These students, for example:

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The girl on the left was one of the performers, and the girl on the right was the hostess.

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Me with our lovely hostess, who also happens to be one of my students.

I sat over on the side of the stage by the soundboard, which you can see here.

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I got saddled with running the music for the performances since the sound guy didn’t know what song went with what act. This also meant I got to keep an eye on our “assistant” who was running the powerpoint announcing each act. And, since I was sitting there, I also got to reassure the host and hostess and remind them how to pronounce difficult names.

Since I was stuck over on the side, I gave my camera to a helpful, responsible student to take pictures of the show. Well. Um. I got pictures of a few act at least… The student took so many pictures of the audience and the first four acts that my camera ran out of battery. Oops.

But at least I have some pictures of the first few. Here’s Santa’s first installment, when he unexpectedly opened the show. (In other news, I wish these kids would tell us before they decide to change the show.)

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This student (below) was sitting in one of the extra chairs along the wall, which we had to put in when we ran out of auditorium seats. Which we wouldn’t have run out of if the students hadn’t made counterfeit tickets. Which we tried to avoid by using green paper.  But even though they’re not allowed off campus, and don’t have regular access to a computer or printer, they managed.

IMG_0027 (2)Some more of our performers. Little showstoppers, here.

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And here’s the audience. Well, two thirds of it, at least. You can see the end of the judges table at the front. There were eighteen acts, and we gave out two first-place prizes, three second-place prizes, four third-place prizes, and prizes for best actor and best actress. Of course, we didn’t know about that last one until we were in the middle of the awards ceremony, and all the first- second- and third-place winners had gotten their gift bags full of goodies. So we improvised, and took the best actor and actress out to dinner. Off campus. It was very exciting for them.

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I missed some of the awards, however, because I was busy sprinting across campus to get the bouquet we’d left in the English Library by accident.

Here’s what happened: After all the students performed, My co-teacher and I each sang a song as well. I went first. When I was done, my co-teacher rushed over to me and reminded me that we’d left the bouquet. I was supposed to be running the sound, but she had to sing, so I got to run. As I sprinted down the hallway, down four flights of stairs, across campus, and through an administrative building, I continued to exchange pleasantries with students who were apparently unable to see the massive, crazy, rushing panic I was in. Then I got to run back through a building, across campus, up four flights of stairs, down a hallway, and then walk back into the show as if I’d just stepped out for a moment. When I returned, I found that our assistant, who had auditioned for but not gotten into the show, had decided to highjack the event. Right after my co-teacher sang, before the host and hostess could start the awards ceremony, our assistant had grabbed a microphone, jumped up on stage and said to the audience “now I will sing you a song.” And she did. *sigh*

The rest of the show went relatively smoothly, and five hours after we’d arrived for the hour and a half show, we stumbled blearily back to our apartment, ate a frozen pizza, and collapsed into bed.

Merry Christmas.

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