assume nothing here

A photo from Shapingba district, just a few subway stops from where I live.
A photo from Shapingba district, just a few subway stops from where I live.

In the words of Barenaked Ladies, IT’S BEEN…one week. It feels like a month. I feel like I’ve been here for a very long time, but I still have a lot to learn and do for the first time.

I betta’ work!
I haven’t started teaching yet. I arrived on the 27th. October 1-7 is National Holiday (celebrates the founding of PRC), so I haven’t started teaching yet. Also, the freshmen I teach have 4 weeks of compulsory military training, so they haven’t started classes either.

I will be teaching Level 1 freshmen. They have had English in school, but they did not test into a high level of college English. Did you know that all college freshmen in China take English? Can you imagine if all American college freshmen had to take Chinese? (Seriously, though, monolinguists are going to get left behind. Teach your kids a world language.)

Interesting note about the students I observed: They know a lot about the world. They’re informed. One student referenced Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. There is a stereotype that China is isolated from the world in the way that North Korea is. It’s not true. I think it’s more that China is, like the United States, big enough that they don’t have to pay as much attention to the outside.

I have no idea what anything costs
Some things are so ridiculously cheap. 100RMB is about $15, just for reference. A can of Coke is 2.30-3.00RMB. A short cab ride is 10RMB. A bowl of soup at a hole-in-the-wall place is like 12RMB. But I wanted to buy nail polish today, and it was 210RMB! Bare nails it is. The more Chinese you can live, the cheaper you can live. I’m still getting used to learning what’s a normal price and what isn’t.

I am huge and weird-looking
The first day I was here, the program coordinators took us on an outing to a really old part of the city. We got stared at a lot there. One of the women is fairly tall with blonde hair and blue eyes, and people were calling out “Hi!” to her; one person asked her to pose for a photo. Later on, some teens came up to me and were saying, “Hello. Beautiful! Beautiful!” I’m like, yeah, I know, but nobody at home is stopping me on the street to tell me that.

For the most part, nobody gives me a second glance on campus. The students don’t care. Sometimes I’ll get looks from older people, especially women, if I wear something that shows my legs, which are pretty chunky by Chinese standards. Older guys will stare sometimes. I just smile, which doesn’t seem to do anything.

I know that China is much more homogenous than the US (although it’s 8% minority groups, so maybe not as homogenous as we normally assume). But I guess I thought there would be more diversity on campus. I was in Shapingba district today. I must have seen a few thousand people today, and I was the only white person. And believe me, I looked. Being a minority is a good experience, but it can’t be fun every day.

I am illiterate and a huge dumb-dumb
I studied Chinese in college, but it didn’t really take. I’m doing some self-study, but it’s slow going. I think learning Chinese isn’t so much difficult as time-consuming, so bird by bird. We will have free Chinese lessons after the holiday, and I think I might be able to get a tutor as well.

I had a volunteer help me last week with things like setting up internet, buying a phone, etc. But he’s busy and has his own life, so I’m mostly on my own. I can buy food at a supermarket–just grab stuff that looks not-too-weird and hand it to the cashier. Ordering at a place with counter service is a bit more complicated. Truthfully, I avoid it, although I have gathered the courage to look foolish and do it a few times. I just point and take what I get. So far, so good.

When people say things to me, I just smile and shrug. I can say hello and thank you. Thank you gets a lot of play. People mostly just keep talking in Chinese, even though I obviously don’t know what they’re saying. Not unlike what I do at home. But you can get pretty far with pointing and holding up fingers. And I’m damn lucky that I speak English.

Truly, everything I assume turns out to be not quite true. I still have a lot to learn about this place, even though I’ve made huge strides this week. It’s really, really difficult, but it gets easier every day.