I know I haven’t exactly done a good job of keeping this updated. I’ve been back in Rome for over a week now, and China is slowly fading from the forefront of my mind. My only excuse is that helping with New Man Orientation here at PNAC–which deserves a post in itself–has kept me busy. But the new men started their Italian classes yesterday, which has given this ‘old man’ a little extra time to get settled in and start marking things off the to-do list. So, as promised in a previous post, here’s a general outline of what life was like during my teaching apostolate in Jilin.
I spent three weeks teaching English at Jilin Medical College, in Jilin City. Obviously, it wasn’t a beginner English class; the students had to pass a proficiency test to be able to participate, so their English was pretty good already. We used op-ed pieces from the English version of the government-owned China Daily to build vocabulary and serve as a starting point for discussions.
The program was broken up into five 50-minute sessions. The first was a plenary session in the large lecture hall, in which one of the teachers (usually our supervisor, though occasionally one of the other teachers would take a turn) would present new vocabulary and read the day’s article aloud. Then we would break into small groups, which rotated every two days in order for the students to spend some time in class with each of the teachers. Once in small groups, we spent one session each on vocabulary/pronunciation, discussion of the article, dictation, and ‘free talk,’ with a two-hour break for lunch.
We were explicitly instructed by Public Security officials not to teach religion in class, which is reasonable enough given the nature of the program. However, some of the articles we used dealt with various ethical issues or topics such as marriage, so when discussing these my contributions were naturally informed by Catholic teaching. The students were clearly curious about the Faith, as was evident by their questions both during free talk and outside of class. For many of them, this was their first exposure to Christianity.
The teachers, fittingly, lived in the ‘teachers apartments,’ which were four-storied, Soviet style, brick-and-concrete buildings that once served as military housing. (The college used to be the Air Force Medical College.) The three NACers lived in one apartment, and our supervisor, Fr. Brian, lived next door. All the teachers, and usually a handful of students, had meals at our apartment, while Fr. Brian’s apartment was reserved for prayer.
With a few notable exceptions, our diet in Jilin was pretty simple: rice, dumplings, and various chicken/pork/tofu and vegetable combinations. Eating with chopsticks all the time took a little getting used to, but my years of occasionally eating American Chinese food prepared me well enough not to be openly ridiculed by the locals. (The same cannot be said for all the teachers.)
I tried to take advantage of the opportunities I was given to experience certain types of food that aren’t available in the West. I had jellyfish in Hong Kong, and dog in Jilin. I also had duck blood curd, though that wasn’t on purpose. Some of the other guys went out for fried scorpion in Beijing, but they didn’t recommend it, so I didn’t make a point of going out and finding some for myself. I did, however, try dried squid (which is sold as a snack food in China), prawn-flavored potato chips, and steak-flavored Cheetos–none of which, to my knowledge, are common in the States.
Some students took a few of us out one day for ‘hot pot,’ which is a very popular type of meal in the north of China. We gathered around a table, in the center of which a shallow pot of boiling water was situated on an electric stove. The waiter proceeded to bring in platters of raw meat and vegetables, which we then put in the boiling water for a few minutes to cook before eating directly from the pot. That may have been my favorite meal of the whole trip.
I took Chinese lessons for one hour each afternoon while in Jilin. I did not know any Chinese before this summer, so it was only a simple introduction. I’ve already forgotten most of what I learned, though now I have the resources to do some independent study. There’s a children’s cartoon I was encouraged to watch to help me learn the language, called Xi Yangyang (literally ‘Happy Sheep’–who says the Chinese government has no sense of humor!) I’d like to keep working on it; we’ll see if I can make it happen.