Life has been a whirlwind as of late. While getting to know Shenzhen has been wonderful, many of us had been feeling a little stir-crazy. Our passports had been held for nearly a month by various police departments throughout the city as they processed our residence visas. Without them, traveling is nearly impossible. The only viable option is via train, which we still have to present a copy of our passport too, but there aren’t many hotspots you can hit China via train that will get you there quickly enough to actually enjoy a weekend getaway. However, a week and a half ago, the visas had finally finished processing, especially good news considering that last week was a government holiday, meaning it was time to travel.
I spent from last Tuesday to yesterday in Gwangju, South Korea, visiting my college friend Kelsey Minnig. Kelsey had been teaching English in Korea since February so considering that the two of us were finally on the same continent, it seemed necessary that we would have to meet up at some point. Why not sooner rather than later?
There were a couple of things noteworthy about this trip
- It’s really nice solidifying solid travel skills. Getting to Gwangju was a bit of a procedure. From my subway station, I rode to the end of the line to the Shenzhen/Hong Kong Border. (Hong Kong is right next to Shenzhen. Believe you me I cannot wait until I get a solid trip into that city. I’ll definitely be there for HK Pride. Dress code is hot red. Not red, hot red.) After passing through two different immigration stations (One to exit Shenzhen, one to enter Hong Kong) and exchanging some Renminbi for Hong Kong Dollars, I had to ride the metro down one stop, purchase a ticket for the bus, and rode that for an hour before finally getting to the airport. After landing in Incheon Intl. Airport, and another currency exchange to the Korean Won, I had to purchase a bus ticket from the airport to head to Gwangju, a four hour bus ride that essentially traverses the entire country from north to south. Quite a convoluted process so I’ll let Missy Elliott describe the process for getting back to Shenzhen: “PUT THAT THANG DOWN, FLIP IT, AND REVERSE IT.” Thanks, Missy, that was fun, let’s do it again some time. It was a bit of a process, considering Chinese holidays mean much more foot traffic in travel and transportation venues, and definitely wore me down a bit (The trip back ended up being fourteen hours of travel. I’m already up to three “most necessary shower ever” and I’ve only been in Asia for two months.) but the fact of the matter is I accomplished it. Across a continent/one-and-a-half countries on one day, two separate times in one week. Hard not to be proud.
- It’s nice to get out of your element every now and then. If I would recommend an Asian language to learn how to read, it would be Korean. It has an alphabet to comprise each individual letter. If you know the alphabet, you can read almost anything. It’s really cool. However, said alphabet is not in my memory banks so for the first time in ages, I was thrown into a country where I had little to no idea about what was going on around me. Even in China, where I can’t read or understand every character, I can at least ask basic questions to figure things out or look up words in my dictionary. I essentially pantomimed my way to survival whenever Kelsey wasn’t around, but being out of your element is fun. Blindly throwing yourself into experiences really impacts just how different each country is, despite their apparent proximity. It’s also nice to try to piece together what’s going around and get a sense of the culture purely through observation and insinuation.
- Korean food is delicious. I feel like an unfaithful spouse. I love Chinese food, I really do, but a break is necessary every so often. There’s only so much oily pork I can consume before I through my hands up and yell “OVER IT.” (I’ve never actually done this. I’m not that blunt. Also, no cojones.) Part of this problem stems from that I eat more than half of my meals in Shenzhen at my school cafeteria because it’s free. China is cheap, but so am I. Most of the options in the cafeteria are pretty good, bordering on delicious, but a lot of them have the same flavor profile: meats braised in a (sometimes overwhelmingly) salty gravy/sauce, or vegetables stir-fried with buckets of sesame oil. Variety is the spice of life, so it was a nice change of pace. It was wonderful having real, succulent beef again, as opposed to the scrap parts of the cow. (Pork is the most common because it’s the easiest to sustain in China. Beef’s a little more of a luxury so it tends to be wonderfully tender and pricier, or a little sketchier quality for an economical price.) Gochujang, a Korean hot pepper paste that adorns many dishes, hits all the right notes of the flavor Big Four: salty, sweet, sour, spicy. Also, so many vegetables. So. Many. Vegetables. China obviously has those too but see above, filed under “sesame oil, buckets.” Plus, there are the banchan, the free Korean side dishes that come with every meal, which transforms a satisfying meal into a food coma inducing feast without any extra charge. Totally wonderful. (Also, and sorry I’m not sorry about this, Korean food regulated my GI tract and got it back into normal functioning like no other. I haven’t felt that in such a long time. I’ll miss you, Korea poops.)
- Nature. My trip included a lot of hikes in mountains, and trips to various beaches and state parks. Shenzhen is cool, and I’m definitely a city-dweller at heart, but it was wonderful to just go out and smell the fresh air and just bask in the glory of the world. Easily the coolest place was a stone beach in the southern island of Namhae. Featuring a skyline of tree-covered, mountainous islands, we relaxed on the tops of jutting cliffs as the waves crashed over them. We were only supposed to spend an hour there, but we convinced our tour guide to give us an extra hour in order to really soak in the zen.
It really was a wonderful week, and relaxing is nice, but it’s back to business here in Shenzhen. But today was weird. My eighth grade classes have been relatively easily so far, really well-behaved and attentive. I was actually starting to warm up to teach some Junior level classes here because I could talk about some more in depth topics such as beauty and dating than more general topics like animals, sports, and food. (I say warm up to the idea because Junior level in China is equivalent to middle school in America. Let’s be honest, would you want to teach your thirteen-year-old self? No? Didn’t think so.)
Today was the first time I taught my third eighth grade lesson, the second of two music lessons (as my kids are on different schedules due to holidays/typhoon days) with my Tuesday students. My first lesson comprised of talking about different genres of music and playing music videos to demonstrate the differences between each one. The kids seemed to be really interested in it, and they loved the music videos. (Probably should have screened them a little more pre-showing them in class though. Beyoncé’s ‘Halo’ video is way more sexual than I remembered. Oops, sorry kids, but at least they know the facts of life as well now, save their parents some awkward conversations down the line.) Today started out similarly, but with different types of musical acts, e.g., bands, solo acts, boy/girl groups. Again, interested. Music videos are good. Students are happy, teacher is happy.
The second half of the lesson has had me on edge all day though. I played them jingle bells and than showed them the lyrics on the board. (Does anyone actually know the verses other than the ‘Dashing through the snow/In a one horse open sleigh’ part? Because I certainly didn’t.) I asked them if they noticed anything about the how the words sounded, and then tried explaining rhymes to them via the lyrics, making each pair of rhyming words their own color. I had originally planned on ending the lesson by having the students group up and write a four line poem to demonstrate rhymes, but my first class panicked. They cried to me that it would be too hard and that they couldn’t do it. I was taken aback, because this was really unlike them. I tried to come up with an easier game on the spot, but the bell rang so class ended.
No problem, I’ll just come up with one for my second class. I decided to have the class divide into teams, have one student from each team go to the board. I would say a word, which would be their cue to write a word that rhymes with it the fastest. Fastest team gets a point, team with the most points wins. However, the rhyming portion for them was like pulling teeth.
“What rhymes with ‘sleigh?'”
“No, what rhymes with ‘sleigh?'”
It was rough. So I decided to have them all list as many words on the board together that rhymed with one word. By the end of four words, they really seemed to be getting it so I had hope. I tried to play the game with them and demonstrated the rules to them via pantomime. Slowly but surely, they gave me the nods of “approval” while smiling, divided up into teams, and approached the board. I gave them the first word, “go,” and expected them to start. They froze. I stood at the back of the room and waited a few seconds before asking. After a while, one girl (the smartest in the class by far) turned back to face me and stated as best she could: “Teacher, we no understand. Never understand.”
Woof. Right in the feels.
I had been warned that my Junior students would be at a lower level than my primary school students. The primary school is considered more esteemed than the middle school (Confusing since they are both at the same establishment, but China will forever be weird like that.) so the younger kids are more gifted than the old ones. Today, that fact was made far too apparent. Based off of how my first class panicked at the idea of writing four lines and how the other class balked at the idea of trying to list words that rhyme with “cat,” I highly doubt any of my Junior kids have actually understood what I’m saying. I’m not going to lie, it’s really rough. I want to talk to these kids and really try to help them, but my own pride decided to just plan things out the way I wanted to rather than really making sure the kids understood. They’re clearly not at the level I initially imagined them at and some retooling is in order.
However, this isn’t a deal breaker, not by a long shot. They might not be as good as I imagined, but that’s not any reason to feel frustrated and shake my head wondering why things are the way they are. They’re clearly interested in more mature topics, but don’t know how to understand or express these things. If I really want to engage them, I’ll just have to find a way to express these more intricate subject topics with more basic grammar. It will be a challenge, and probably take a couple of weeks to properly plan out and implement, but I’m not one to shy away from a little bit of difficulty. So even though today might not have been the best, it’s nice to know that these kids are teaching me something too.