An American in Chengdu


September 30, 2009
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Last night I went to an annual reception held by the Sichuan government in honor of foreign experts working in the Receptionprovince on the occasion of China’s National Day. China turns 60 tomorrow (October 1), and it’s a big deal. Flags have cropped up everywhere, you see 60th anniversary displays in store windows, there’s going to be a terrifying military parade in Tiannanmen Square, etc.

I didn’t get my actual paper invitation until just before the event, so I didn’t know that I could have worn “Lounge Wear or National Dress.” It would have been fun to show up dressed as a cowgirl. In theory, anyway. Instead I wore the dress Cecilia helped me pick out a few weeks ago.

The reception wasn’t exactly the gold mine of blog material I’d hoped for. There were speeches, which were translated into English, and as a former Asian Studies minor I should have been delighted to hear these examples of Chinese pomp and circumstance. But I found myself zoning out amidst talk about socialism with Chinese characteristics and the spirit of earthquake reconstruction. Then we stood and toasted, and then the live music began, and we were free to eat and chat.After an hour and a half someone thanked us for coming, and the reception came to an abrupt end.

I go days at a time without seeing another Westerner, so it was strange to spend an evening with my fellow foreign experts. Back on campus I had a drink with two Brits, Jacob and Elisa. Elisa is a longtime resident who peppered us with advice on everything from where to get fake (pirated) books in English to fake (vegetarian) chicken feet to where to get clothes made, and not to touch that cat because it will take your hand off.


Olde Chengdu

September 27, 2009
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Today was a rare sunny day in Chengdu, and I took the opportunity to ride my bike to the park. Actually I got a little lost and ended up at a different park than the one where I’d intended to go, but no matter. I sat at one of its four outdoor tea gardens with a bottomless cup of jasmine tea and read Cat’s Cradle.

I decided that I’d stop off in Chengdu’s main shopping strip on the way back and look for some black flats for a reception I’m going to on Tuesday (more on that in a future post). In the course of being slightly lost I stumbled on a pedestrian area of old-style buildings that had been reborn as sidewalk cafes, clubs, and shops for Chengdu’s young and hip. I parked the bike and walked around, taking pictures and drinking bubble tea and trying to decide what I thought of the place. The Starbucks would seem to be a bad sign, but… isn’t it a good sign, overall, that traditional buildings are trendy? I think so.

As I walked around the shopping area later, I thought about China as a tourist destination as compared to, say, Europe. Europe is a wonderful place to see history, and China has plenty to offer those seeking ancient artifacts, temples, ineffective defensive walls, etc. But the most interesting thing to experience in China is the present, in that split second before it becomes something completely different.

As for the shoes, as feared, the first two shop girls I asked said they had nothing in my gigantic size. I gave up, consoling myself with thoughts of my December trip home.

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Moon cakes

September 24, 2009

The Mid-Autumn Festival is coming up, and moon cakes are everywhere. The supermarkets have tables and tables of them in big, showy gift boxes. There are versions in humbler packaging, as well. The filling options range from strawberries to bacon. One student (not my student–it wasn’t bribery) even gave me a foam moon cake on a key chain. It smells like vanilla. I can neither confirm nor deny rumors that I mistook it for the real thing and tried to take a bite out of it.

Yesterday I went by the school’s international office and picked up my official holiday gift, one of those big showy boxes of moon cakes. I haven’t actually tried one yet, and am hoping they’re bacon-free. But with packaging this pretty, the taste almost seems beside the point.

The big day

September 22, 2009
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I taught my first lecture today—my first lecture ever, not just in China. I think I made it through without any

The classroom

The classroom

catastrophes, but I’d be interested in knowing the students’ feelings about that.

There are several major differences I’ve already noticed between the American and Chinese education systems. In China, for example, undergraduate and graduate education for doctors is combined into one eight-year program. My students are in their fourth year. I’m co-teaching Medical English, which has two sessions, one on Tuesday and one on Friday, each with about 50 students. So I’ll deliver the same lecture on Friday.

These future doctors have years of English under their belts, and of them told me that all of their classes are taught in a mixture of Chinese and English. One challenge for me is discerning what words and concepts are old hat for them, and which bear extra explanation. Which brings me to difference number two: Chinese students don’t ask questions. And its close corollary: they don’t volunteer answers. Sure, you can ask the class a question; I saw Samantha do this when I sat in on one of her lectures. The students will mumble the answer—or something—in a voice just loud enough for their immediate neighbors to hear. If you’re lucky, you’ll hear a person or two in the first couple of rows say the right answer, and you can say, “that’s right, it means surgical repair of the kidney.” Or whatever.

Perhaps the most significant difference, though, is that—at least at this school—students do very little work outside of class. Instead they go to class from the Spartan hour of 8:00 am until shortly after 5:00 pm, with a break for lunch, and then their time is their own. At the end of the semester they’re expected to study hard for a week or so before final exams.

The major advantage for teachers, of course, is that there’s no grading. Also, you can teach straight from the book, since the students probably haven’t reviewed it on their own. You can even use class time to have them read short passages before discussing them, because 90 minutes is an awfully long time to fill. But how to avoid boring the students (and myself) to death with endless recitations of facts, definitions, and pronunciations? Therein lies another challenge.

Today, after many definitions and pronunciations, and some calling on random students to answer questions about the text, since no one would volunteer, I had the students read the introduction to a review article on kidney regeneration. Then they had to work in groups to come up with one question (per group) about the passage to ask the rest of the class. This went reasonably smoothly, though there were some duplicate questions. Several people even volunteered to give answers. Then I came to the last group.

“Our question was already asked,” said the designated speaker, who’d been one of the most engaged students that day. “But here is one: What is this article about, and what is it not about?”

No one volunteered. I called on someone, but she said she didn’t know.

“Ok,” I said. “Who can tell me what it’s not about?” I thought this was a no-brainer, as the last two sentences of the introduction were something like “Since so much has already been written about chimeric kidney-regeneration methods, we won’t be discussing them here.” No one would admit to knowing that, either. I explained what the article was about and wasn’t about, and how we could tell from reading the introduction. Then I threw out a spontaneous question of my own.

“But this first paragraph isn’t telling us what the paper is going to be about, is it? Why include all of this about increasing rates of diabetes and higher demand for kidneys?”

I might as well have asked who wanted to demonstrate kidney transplantation on two of their classmates. It seemed I was telling them something completely novel when I finally revealed that the first paragraph was telling us why we should care about the topic of the paper. Why regenerate kidneys if there are plenty of healthy kidneys to go around?

It was an eye-opening interaction, though it’s possible that I’m reading too much in to it. What I think I saw when the light bulb went on in my head is that these students have never been asked to read anything critically or analytically; they’ve read purely for information. It was the second time in a week that I thought maybe I really could put my foreign expertise to use here. We’ll see. First I have to learn to talk more slowly when nervous.


September 19, 2009
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Here’s a story for those who’ve asked about my Chinese level. It’s a “conversation” I had with a bread vendor today.

I chose this body wash based mainly on its awesome Chinglish

I chose this body wash based mainly on its awesome Chinglish

Me: (pointing to a piece of bread) I want one.

Vendor: What kind? [lists filling options; the only word I understand is “chicken”]

Me: (moment of panicked silence) I don’t like meat.

Vendor: You don’t like meat? Then you want [something]?

Me: (nod)

Vendor: How many?

Me: One

Vendor: You want [something]?

Me: No

Vendor: (holds bread out to me on tongs so I can feel it) [something] a little?

Me: (realizing that “no” was apparently the wrong answer) Ok

Vendor: (puts bread in microwave) Your Chinese is really not bad! [something] Have you been to the North?

Me: (stunned silence)

Vendor: Have you been to the North?

Me: I’ve been. (can’t remember, on the fly, how to say “but only for five days”)

Did he really mistake me for someone who couldn’t understand the Sichuan dialect because I spoke a more northerly Mandarin? I guess I’ll never know.

In short, I have a long way to go.

Oh, and the bread turned out to be filled with scrambled eggs and some kind of chopped green vegetable. It was pretty awesome. I wished I’d bought two.

Staying healthy

September 17, 2009
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When I came in this morning, there was a thermometer on my desk. Office mate Samantha told me that all teachers are now required to take our temperatures each morning; in my case, I’m to report mine to a woman in the international office by 8:30 am.

It had already become clear to me that China is taking a much different approach to H1N1 prevention than the U.S. At my last job, at an American university, the only measures I noticed were signs (illustrated with cartoon pigs) in the bathrooms that encouraged us to wash our hands, and a family-sized bottle of hand sanitizer in the coffee room. On arrival in the Beijing airport, not only did I have to walk through a thermal sensor, but all the passport agents were wearing masks. Then there was the trip to the travel medicine clinic. Yet here at the medical school, there’s no soap in the bathrooms, much less hand sanitizer dispensers.

But at least in this case, I wasn’t being subjected to extra medical scrutiny as a foreigner. I popped the thermometer into my mouth. Half a minute later Samantha’s eyes widened as she glanced across the desk at me.

“I think you can put it here,” she said, gesturing to her armpit. Oh god. This was a used thermometer, wasn’t it? I hadn’t gotten an armpit-temperature since childhood, but it was definitely preferable… if only I’d known.

I came in at 36.1, which seemed a little cool to me. But maybe that’s just the nature of armpits.

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September 16, 2009
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I got my name badge today for work. It has my name in English (actually, “Ms. [first initial]. [last name]”), and underneath, in Chinese, “American teacher.” American is right there in my job title.

There must be some Westerners somewhere in China doing ordinary jobs that a Chinese person might do, but it seems that for the most part we’re employed as either English teachers or “foreign experts,” here to lend our foreign expertise to China’s great leap into the globalized future. I’d been puzzled as to what, exactly, my presence is supposed to add to the school. They went to a lot of trouble getting me here, with endless forms to fill out and take to the proper agencies to get the requisite red seals, which then had to be delivered to other agencies that dole out their own seals. My plane tickets to and from the States, which they’ll reimburse me for, will cost more than two months’ worth of my salary. Yet the only work I’ve done in the last two weeks was to prepare some lectures I’ll give to the Medical English class. The other teachers for the course are a veteran teacher at the college and a couple of doctors; I’ve never so much as taken an anatomy class.

But this week two students asked me for help with papers in English that they’re going to submit for publication. I also met with staff at the medical center’s periodical press, which publishes medical papers in Chinese with the abstracts and tables of contents translated into English. I’ll be working there for a day and a half of every week, and had supposed they’d mainly want me to edit. It turns out, though, that they’re also eager for me to give them suggestions on how to improve the journals. One of them is up for inclusion in the SCI, which I gather is a really big deal. Oh, and could I give a few training seminars for the staff on new trends in editing?

I don’t think it’s overly modest to suppose that no journal editor in the States would pay me to give advice on how to improve his or her medical journal. I don’t have an M.D. or a Ph.D., and I’ve never worked at a journal. I have a B.A. in biochemistry. Sure, I’ve edited papers before submission, but that was more along the lines of fine-tuning; I’ve never pretended to be an arbiter of the conventions of scientific publishing.

As I spent the afternoon flipping through recent copies of the journals, though, I started to feel more confident that I could bring something to the table. Seeing page after bilingual page that appeared never to have been touched by a native English speaker, I actually felt like a bit of a pioneer, a witness to a unique epoch in the global scientific enterprise. I can only think that very soon, scientists are going to come up with a better way of communicating with one another than to slap English titles and abstracts onto otherwise-untranslated Chinese articles.

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September 13, 2009
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When I visited China last year, I saw an astounding amount of construction. Chengdu magnifies the country-wide growth spurt with work on a new subway system and repair of buildings damaged in last May’s earthquake. It seems that half the buildings on campus are under construction, while Renmin Nanlu, which cuts the campus in half and is one of the city’s major arteries, is currently ripped up for subway installation.

Waiting to cross Renmin Nanlu
Waiting to cross Renmin Nanlu

Facts of life

September 13, 2009

Yesterday morning I met Cecilia* for a shopping and sightseeing excursion. She’s a student of English and quite fluent, Starbucksso I didn’t get much Chinese practice in. She took me to Chunxi Road, an area rife with malls full of tony shops with Western names.

I’d been eying the dresses I saw some women wearing around campus, and tried on a few at the first mall we went to. I liked them, but was horrified when I belatedly looked at the price tags: upwards of 800 yuan (about $120). It turned out that most were on sale for about 50% of the marked price, but still, if I were to spend a significant percentage of my salary on a single dress, it would have to be a very special dress. Cecilia asked me later what I spent most of my money on. It was a good question–where did all my money go when I lived in the States? Rent, restaurants, and traveling, I guessed. Cecilia said that single women in Chengdu thought nothing of spending 70% of their money on clothes.

“What about men? How much money do they normally spend on clothes?” I asked naively.

“They spend most of their money on their girlfriends,” she said.

In the end I did find a dress I liked–in size XL, of course–for 260 yuan. On the way out of the mall Cecilia asked how much I make (not an impolite question in China). When I told her, she said that her mother makes less than me and thinks nothing of spending 1300 yuan on a dress that she’ll only wear a few times. It really astounded me that middle-class Chinese women routinely shell out $200 for a dress, but why? Apparently I’d adopted the simplistic view that conspicuous overconsumption is a American problem, and that while we’re buying up their cheap goods, the thrifty Chinese are saving for retirement.

*I’ll be using English names for those who have them.

Making friends

September 11, 2009
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Today for lunch I went to the student cafeteria at the other side of campus. The food there isn’t great, but there are vegetarian choices and I can just point to what I want. I also thought it might be a chance to meet people, since foreigners are a bit of a novelty on this campus.

A girl at the next table talked to me a little, though conversation was made difficult by the noise level and by the fact that her English is poor and my Chinese is even worse. But before she left she suggested we eat dinner together, and wrote down her phone number for me. We met up at 6:00.

Junyu’s English is bad enough that I felt I could practice some Chinese without trying her patience too much, and we conversed a little awkwardly in both languages. She turned out to be a freshman in the school of overseas education with aspirations of studying in England in a few years. She’s from Sichuan, as are all the other Chinese students I’ve met so far. The Chinese like to stay close to home.

She mentioned that she was dreading showering that evening because she has to use a group shower, which she finds awkward. A little later, as we left, she told me she has four roommates. I wondered whether all the students have to live in such pornographic conditions, or only freshmen. And can one pay to live in a better dorm? I hope to infiltrate a dorm and find out the answers to these and other pressing questions. Don’t expect pictures of the group showers, though.

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    About me

    I've come to Sichuan in search of adventure, fluency in Chinese, and awesome vegetarian food. I have to concede that the baby pandas are very cute.


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