An American Abroad

Archives for January 2014

Happy Spring Vegetable!

It’s the start of Spring Festival here in China, a week-long holiday period that celebrates the lunar new year. It seems like Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s all rolled into one.

The streets of Yuxi were very busy this morning at 7:30 and were absolutely jammed this evening at 8:30. There are long lines of people at the checkout counters of grocery stores and other retail outlets. Fruitsellers have stacked boxes of produce so high along the sidewalks that the effect is like walking through a canyon. Firecrackers go off at random times and places. Everyone seems to be in a good mood as they make preparations to spend time with family and friends. Millions of people are traveling; this is the largest annual migration of homo sapiens on the planet.

I taught my students at Shane English Yuxi how to say “Happy Spring Festival!” today. Some of the younger ones got confused and wished me “Happy Spring Hospital” and “Happy Spring Vegetable.” I kind of liked that. My last class let out at 5:40 and I now have an eleven day vacation before me

Unfortunately, I’ll miss the Chinese celebration of the holiday. Bangladesh beckons. So Happy Spring Vegetable, one and all!

The Concept for Bangladesh

Most of my colleagues are heading off to Vietnam for our upcoming Spring Festival break. To my knowledge, no one has asked them why that’s their destination. Vietnam is chic, reportedly beautiful, and possessed of Buddhist cool. I’d like to go there someday.

But not now. Instead, I will be traveling to Bangladesh.

The reactions I have gotten to these plans range from perplexity to dismissiveness.

Some of my Chinese friends have scarcely heard of the country, despite the fact that it’s only about 100 miles away from the People’s Republic. “I think it is a mysterious place,” said one of my local friends with uncertainty in her voice. I have had to show a number of them where Bangladesh is on the map.

Some of my American friends have nothing good to say about the place. “Dickens-like poverty with brown people and water-borne diseases; one of the places I thank god I wasn’t born.” Another confused Bangladesh with Pakistan and then, after I pointed out the error, wrote “Pakistan? Bangladesh? Meh. Starving populations, corrupt governments and miserable earthquakes. What’s the diff?”

It’s clear that the eighth most populous country in the world has an image problem.

And I can understand why. I’ve read and enjoyed Rabindranath Tagore’s novel The Home and the World, but other than that, what little I’ve ever heard about Bangladesh has been overwhelmingly negative. I can understand my friends’ impressions.

But I can’t believe that there is nothing wonderful, fascinating, or entrancing about the eighth most populous country in the world. I’ve decided to go looking for that other Bangladesh, the one that (I hope) exists outside of the disaster headlines.

Part of my inspiration for the trip came from reading Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea. Mortenson is the founder of the Central Asian Institute, a charity that has established over 50 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He relates a comment made by one of his early financial backers, Jean Hoerni: “Americans care about Buddhists, not Muslims. This guy’s not going to get any help. I’m going to have to make this happen.” Bangladesh is an officially Islamic country where 90% of the people are Muslims. I wonder if part of the reason Vietnam is chic and Bangladesh is not has to do with Americans’ religious and cultural preferences, rather than with the character of the people or the lay of the land.

There’s a painful, dangerous truth here. In the last fifteen years, the US has bombed, invaded, or otherwise intervened militarily or covertly in many other Muslim nations, including Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Syria. I’m not making any claims here about the propriety of any of those actions; I’m simply observing that from the perspective of the ordinary people who live in those places, America is the country that bombs them.

I’m not going to Bangladesh to work for peace, but I do believe that travel can be (although it isn’t always) a conduit for international understanding. I’m going to see what is to be seen, to talk to people, and get a sense of the country. It will be my first trip to a Muslim nation. And I’m very much looking forward to it.

I will fly direct to Dhaka from Kunming. From the airport, I will go directly to the docks and board The Rocket, a paddlewheel ferry built in the 1920s that still plies the rivers and tributaries of the Ganges Delta. I will sail overnight to Barisal and spend a day there exploring. Then I head back to Dhaka on The Rocket. Dhaka will be my base for the next five days. I am definitely planning a day trip to Sonargaon, the old capital, where decaying Raj-era buildings are said to be picturesquely moldering away. I’ve picked out a few other sights to see in Dhaka, but to a large extent I will let my feet take me where they will.

If my students won the lottery . . .

Last week’s diary assignment for my twelve-year-olds at Shane English Yuxi was to write an essay about what they would do if they won the lottery. There were some sweet, some savage, and some surprising responses.

From Kevin:

If I won the lottery, I will have a lot of money, so it’s hard to say what I want to do. Maybe I will help people who need help. I will give most of money to my parents. I think they gave me life, so they deserve it.

From [name redacted, a female student]:

First, I’d buy a big mansion because my mother loves mansions. Next, I’d buy a forest, because my father wants to be an explorer. . . . Finally, I would go to Japan and kill the Japanese president.”

From Ruby:

I think this is a difficult question because usually the lotteries I’ve won were ¥1 or ¥10. In my view, ¥10 isn’t small. So my plan is ¥3 is to buy some crisps, cookies, and milk; ¥4 can buy some magazines; ¥1 can buy a pen; and another ¥2 I will save in a box. Then I can buy cookies again!

From Ewan:

I would buy a mansion, a good robot, and a big bed. On Sunday, my robot would become me and go to Shane English School so I can continue to sleep.

From Nancy:

If I won the lottery, first I’d buy a big mansion. Next I’d travel to Europe to see the Arc de Triomphe, The Eiffel Tower, and Big Ben. After that, I’d write a novel. Next I’d send mother and father to a tropical island so they can swim every day. Then last, I’d give away the rest of my money.

From Windays:

First, I’d buy a mansion and an Aston Martin. Then I’d get a nanny to cook dinner and do my homework. They I’d buy a computer. I’d play computer games every day. Then I’d drive around the world. My life would be very different.

Cursed Without Knowing It?

I had a strange intercultural exchange recently with one of my Shane English Yuxi students and his father.

At the end of every class, we do an “exit drill,” which means that the students line up and have to ask or answer something before leaving the classroom. In my class of twelve-year-olds, we were getting ready for the end-of-term test. One of the items on the oral exam is “Ask the teacher a question.” So to prepare them, the exit drill for my class was to ask me a question. I told them they could ask me ANY question they wanted.

Michael, my strongest student, asked me “What would you do if your girlfriend died?” I was a little taken aback since

a) I don’t have a girlfriend; and
b) it was a slightly morbid question.

“I’d cry,” I said. I thought nothing of this Q&A after that.

Later that afternoon, I was very surprised when Michael and his father came to see me. The father speaks English, had overheard our exchange at the exit drill, and was very upset with his son. He made Michael apologize several times. He explained to me that in China, such a question is like a curse–sort of like “may your girlfriend die!”

Michael also gave me a written apology which read:

Dear Jim,
I’m sorry I said “What would you do if your girlfriend die” to you this morning. Now I know it’s a curse sentence. So, from now on, I’ll never say the curse sentence to anyone because I want to be a good student.
Your student,

The father is a real good guy, and I think he was a little perplexed about why I wasn’t upset with his son. From the note, though, it seems that Michael didn’t know this was a “curse sentence.” And it certainly went over my head.

The Week in Teaching

From my youngest students to my oldest, this has been a good week at Shane English Yuxi. Below is a photo (taken on a TA’s mobile phone) of some of my kindergarteners. This class began about three months ago and it was rough at the beginning; there was at least one child crying every week. But now that we’ve all gotten to know each other, they are probably my most beloved kids.
At the other end of the age spectrum, my 12 year olds continue to amaze me with their insight and abilities. This was what one of my students wrote in response to an assignment to write an essay using the target language “you should”:

Students these days often have a lot of worries. Sometimes, they have problems with their schoolwork and sometimes with their friends. What can they do about this? Problems and worries are normal in life. I think talking to someone will help a lot. Unless we talk to someone, we’ll certainly feel worse. If you talk to your parents, they will really understand. It’s best not to run away from problems. If you have a problem, you should talk to someone. Just like putting a plaster on a cut.