Friday, May 22: Today, 13 of the 25 foreign teachers from our college, Sino-Canadian International College (SCIC), leave for a two-day retreat in Pingnan County, in eastern Guangxi. It isn’t a total “retreat” as we are required to teach two 40-minute classes at Pingnan High School, a school of over 4,000 students, on Friday afternoon. On Saturday, our plan is to visit the Guiping Xishan Scenic Area, a mountain that houses a Buddhist temple, Longhua Temple.
Originally, the plan was to take the fast train, which would have been a 1 1/4 hour trip. However, as we also had the Chinese staff along, more than doubling our number, the administration was unable to procure enough seats for all of us on the fast train. Thus it was decided two days before the retreat that we’d go by coach, and we were told in an email we should expect a 2 1/2 hour bus ride.
As soon as the bus gets underway on Friday morning, we’re told the trip will be 4 hours. We foreign teachers protest loudly, as many of us don’t like bus rides because of the inability to use the toilet when necessary! Luckily, the bus ride turns out to be not bad at all, as the scenery of the Chinese countryside is quite lovely, and the bus makes two bathroom/snack stops along the way.
I love traveling through the Chinese countryside, with its sprawling farmland and small towns. At this time of year, as it’s monsoon season, it’s very wet, and the fields are green with crops, especially rice. I am mesmerized by the scenes out the window. I find the countryside in China is the best thing about being here.
Once we drive into the town of Pingnan, we see the typical things we always see in Chinese towns: people wearing cropped pants and plastic shower slippers sitting on stools in open air shops, people in small groups playing games of mahjong or cards or checkers, big slabs of meat laid out on wooden plank tables, construction debris everywhere, mud and piles of dirt, stores selling tires, bicycles, motorbikes and tools, vegetable markets, people on motorbikes covered in colorful rain ponchos. Though the rain is intermittent on our ride, we can see the glistening of wet surfaces and mud puddles everywhere.
When we arrive at our hotel in Pingnan at around 1:00, we head straight to a banquet room, where we sit at a round table with a lazy Susan, where dishes circle the table for our eating pleasure. Of course, I can’t eat many of the meat dishes as they have the typical bones, fat, gristle, chicken heads, and fish heads. I do eat some vegetables, a decent soup, and some of the fish.
After lunch, we check into our hotel rooms and have a short time to get situated. I get my own private room with a bathtub, something that always makes me happy. We then meet in the lobby, where we board the bus to the high school.
As soon as we get off the bus, it starts raining, so we’re immediately escorted to a conference room where the administrators and Chinese English teachers from the high school sit on one side of the room, and the SCIC staff sits on the other side. Official welcome speeches are made by a Pingnan County official and the headmaster of the school, welcoming us and our participation in this “cultural exchange.” Luckily, two young Chinese graduate students in English are sitting at the head of the table and they translate everything. I have attended official meetings like this in Korea and in Oman where no one bothered to translate for the English speakers. On the other side, our Dean Qin makes a speech in Chinese, which the girls duly translate, and then one of our chief coordinators, Geoff, makes a short speech in English, which the translators then translate into Chinese. We are each then assigned to follow a Chinese English teacher to his/her classroom, where we’ll teach one 40-minute lesson.
The high school is laid out much like classrooms in the Korean public schools. The school has several stories and the walkways are on the outside of the classrooms overlooking a courtyard. We pass by the open windows of the classrooms where the students are sitting dutifully in their seats; they are watching us with great anticipation as we walk past on the walkway balcony. We’re told that the average class size is 73 students (!).
I’m led into class 9 where I’m introduced to the students. We were told we could do anything with the students, including having a simple conversation if we wanted. I have a 140-slide Power Point presentation about my family and home in Virginia; it also covers all my travels since I started teaching in Korea in 2010. I can go through it quite quickly, so it’s not quite as daunting as it sounds; my students at SCIC loved it when I showed it to them in September. However, when I put my USB into the computer, my version of Power Point is incompatible with the computer! Oh no! Now what will I do for 40 minutes? I tell the students something about myself and where I live and my family; I also tell them where I have taught before. Then I ask them if they have questions for me.
Chinese students are the most respectful and well-behaved students you will encounter anywhere. When they ask a question and you call on them, they stand up and formally ask their question. There is no chatting or mumbling from the other students; they are all silent as the student asks the question. I get questions such as: What is your favorite Chinese food? How long will you stay in China? What do you like most about China? What is your feeling about travel in China? I find it odd that they are so inward-focused and don’t ask anything about my life in America or any of my travels abroad. I ask them if any of them have ever traveled outside of China. No one raises their hand. Finally, some students point to one boy who stands and tells me he’s been to Guangzhou. Well… that’s not exactly outside of China!
There is a lull for a bit, and I decide I’ll try my other USB in the computer to see if by chance it’s just something about the first USB that makes my Power Point unworkable. When I open that USB, I find a slide-show I’d created for the Vienna Photographic Society about Oman. I’m able to open that, so I show that quickly in order to kill some time.
Then one girl stands and asks me if I will sing a song for them! Oh dear. I tell them I’m not a very good singer, although I enjoy singing. I hem and haw and for the life of me, the only songs I can think of are the songs I used to sing to my sons when they were little: The Barney theme song (“I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family!”), and the theme song from The Beverly Hillbillies!! I have some favorite songs I enjoy singing, but I need to have the music playing along to sing. Finally, I pull out my iPhone and find “If There’s Any Justice” by Lemar. I love to sing that song, so I play it on my iPhone and sing a few lines: “Yeah, Yeah!! I believe….If there’s any justice in the world, I would be your man, you would be my girl.” I accompany this by hand gestures pointing to myself and to the class. “Oh yeah. If I found you first, you know it’s true. He would be alone, I would be with you… and you’ve seen a thousand times, there’s not much justice in the world.”
Luckily, a little ditty plays over the loudspeakers signifying the end of that class, and I’m shuffled into class 10, but not before the teacher takes a picture of me with as many students as can squeeze into the frame!
When I go into Class 10, they’re all up and about because Karyn has just left and they’ve been taking pictures with her. Immediately many of the girls come up to me and ask me if I can have a hug. One girl tells me I remind her of her grandmother! Of course, I don’t yet have any grandchildren, although I’m certainly the age where I could have some. I really don’t like anyone to tell me I remind them of their grandmother!! Never mind, I give as many of them hugs as ask for them.
They are all so excited to have a foreigner in their midst! I’ve never seen such excitement bubbling over in young people; they can hardly contain their enthusiasm.
In the second class, I try my USB again in the computer, and I’m thrilled to find the Power Point opens! I’m able to show them my slide show. With nearly every slide, they exclaim simultaneously and loudly, “Wow!” The love the photos of my children, my house, Washington, Oman and Korea, and many of my travel pictures as well. After the slide show, they ask me questions, again similar questions to what the first class asked. Luckily they don’t ask me to sing; Karyn is a great singer and as she preceded me in this class, I would have paled horribly by comparison!
One of the students tells me I have such a nice voice. I’ve never heard that before!
At the end, the students crowd up to the front with their notebooks and ask me for my autograph! I must sign my name at least 30 times. One of them asks me if I’ll sign my name on the board so they can photograph it with their phone. When I finish signing all the autographs, they line up for hugs, boys and girls alike. This is really surprising to me as I’ve never experienced the Chinese as touchy-feely people.
The whole experience is an adrenaline rush and is quite moving. I can’t imagine being so excited at seeing foreigners, but honestly, these students have probably rarely seen or interacted with anyone from outside their culture before. Being from America, a country of immigrants, I see people from all cultures all the time, so it’s so commonplace for me. It’s hard to understand their total awe of us, but it is nice to feel like a celebrity for 80 minutes today!
After our classroom experience, two SCIC teachers pair up with two Chinese English teachers to talk about teaching styles. We speak with Daniel, who feels his lessons are often boring because he has to spend time teaching mainly grammar and vocabulary to an exam. He asks, “Shouldn’t the students be learning to communicate with each other? There is no time to do that because I’m so busy teaching the boring grammar lessons for the tests. I feel like my lessons are so boring; all the students do is write and write and write. There’s no time for speaking.”
On the bus ride home, some of us teachers share the kinds of questions asked by the students. I tell the story about my singing of “If There’s Any Justice in the World.” They don’t know the song so I sing them a few lines of it and they find it funny.
Back in the hotel, as we sit down to the banquet tables for dinner, I sit beside the two Chinese translators. One of them says I would enjoy KTV because I’m such a good singer. I ask them if they heard me singing in the classroom to the kids, and they say no; they heard me on the bus when I was singing to Matt and Reed. They say, “You are a really good singer.” I say, “Thank you very much, but I don’t think I’m a good singer at all. I LIKE to sing, but I’m no good at it.” They disagree strongly. They also tell me that I look like Kate Winslet from the movie Titanic. I say “Really?!!” I’m utterly astonished. “But she’s so young and beautiful!” Of course, that’s a BIG stretch and I figure, to them, all white people really must look alike. 🙂
After dinner, where many of us drink a lot of wine, I head up to my room where I promptly fall asleep. I hear later than many of the teachers were up until 1:00 at KTV. They’re not feeling so good in the morning.
Saturday, May 23: I wake up this morning to huge thunder claps and lightning and a torrential downpour outside my 12th floor window. My first thought is that our trip to Xishan Mountain will be called off. However, by the time I take a bath and get dressed, the storm has passed and it’s merely cloudy and drizzling lightly outside.
After eating breakfast, it’s raining steadily outdoors, but we check out of the hotel and load onto the bus. We head to Guiping, a county-level city about an hour from Pingnan.
Guiping Xishan Scenic Area is one kilometer west of Guiping City, near Nanning City, and its name originates from its position; it means the “West Hill of Guiping.” We hop off the bus and head to the entrance to the park, where we find this teapot. Apparently a spring flows through a cave here throughout the year; it has become a natural ingredient for world-famous Xishan Tea and Ruquan Wine.
Guiping Xishan is famous for its beautiful forest, strange rocks, sweet springs, and holy Buddhist temples. Since the Liang Period of the Southern Dynasties, it has enjoyed a history of 1,000 years, and is famous for its ancient Buddhist nunneries and temples that can be found everywhere.
Guiping Xishan Longhua Temple was built in the Song Dynasty, and repaired three times in the reigns of Emperor Kangxi, Emperor Qianlong, and Emperor Tongzhi. After another two repairs in 1974 and 1988, it is now a reinforced concrete structure. It was finally unveiled in 1990 after several repairs. Buddhist pilgrims actively worship here today. Longhua Temple, also known as Up Temple, has had more than four generations live here. It is currently the Guangxi Buddhist Association temple.
It backs against Flying Pavilion on Yao Rock, with Soul Stream on its left, Milk Spring on its right, and Blue Sky at its bottom. There are statues of the four guardians and the 18 disciples of Buddha in the temple. The statue of Sakyamuni Buddha sits in the main hall, “Sakyamuni Hall” house.
We climb the granite steps up the mountain to the halfway point, but we’re told we need to be ready to return to the bus by 11:50. It’s raining steadily and it’s very warm and humid, so we’re getting soaked both inside and out, from the rain and humidity and from our own sweat.
There are some beautiful carvings and structures at the temple, and we have quite a good time despite the rainy weather. I’m glad we came and didn’t let the rain scare us away.
Some of the group, including Dean Qin and most of the Chinese staff, stay at a little tea shop near a pavilion, while most of the Western teachers climb up to the halfway point.
Finally, we go into a nice hotel in Guiping, where we have another fancy Chinese lunch before we head back to Nanning.
It’s difficult to capture the countryside from inside a moving bus, but I take a few pictures of the rolling farmland out the bus window with my iPhone. They’re not good quality, but you can get the general idea of what we saw during our three-hour drive back to Nanning.
Overall, the retreat was a really positive experience and I’m so glad I went along!