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The bell rings as I finish telling my students their homework. “Have a good night!” I say to dismiss them. They file out quickly, except for a handful. As I pack up, I make small talk with those who are waiting for me.

After I’ve gathered up all my things, we turn off all the power in the classroom and step out into the dark and empty hall. We bolt the classroom with the padlock and then one student walks down to one end of the hall and another to the other end, both yelling “有人吗?” (“Anybody there?”) No responses, so they turn out the lights at the end of the hall. By the time the reach me it’s pitch black. Someone whips out a cell phone flashlight and we go through the metal door to the stairs. I lock the metal door behind me, and a student flips off the lights before we start down the stairs. Why there isn’t a light switch that works at the bottom of each flight, I don’t know! But it isn’t the only quirk about this building). A girl links arms with me to guide me down the dark steps.

Once we’re outside, it’s not as dark, but they continue to walk with me and chat with me most of the way home. Some go off to the dining hall (they haven’t had their dinner yet), others head to the library to study, but usually at least two of them “send me” all the way home. They practice their English and we talk about anything and everything, from the bright orange full moon we see, to hairstyles, to students joining the Party, and the Easter story I just had them act out in class.

It’s nice to have some company on the walk home in the dark, but what I’m really grateful for is to have 15 minutes of their day that’s usually wall-to-wall classes (they are double-majors) to simply get to know them better, to have fun, to laugh. Once we reach my apartment, it’s a short goodbye. “See you tomorrow night!” Two night classes a week = two times I get “sent home” by students each week! 🙂



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I feel like I’m swimming upstream as I walk across campus from the cafeteria, where I’ve just had an early dinner with a friend. Class has just let out in both teaching buildings and all the students are surging towards the one cafeteria that feeds this university’s twenty thousand students. It’s a good thing that I’m not carrying much because every few steps I wave to another student I know. Some don’t see me – the girls who refuse to wear their glasses in public and those so intent on reaching the cafeteria because they only have 15 minutes to eat before they go on to their next class.

By the time I reach the teaching building, the stream of students has tapered off, and I take my time up the 104 steps to the sixth floor. I get my things from my office and go into the classroom across the hall. The sun is setting, casting an orange light into the dusty, gray classroom. Brandon is head down, asleep on the desk. Angela is munching away on some sweet Chinese bread. Tony stands impatiently by the door. “What are you waiting for?” I ask. “My dinner, my classmate is bringing me some bread and water.” “Bread and water for dinner, it sounds like you’re in prison!” I guess he didn’t have enough time to get to the cafeteria after his class today.

In the afternoon, I’d taught an oral English lesson about food and had brought in some American snacks. Since only 5 teachers came, and one left early, there were some leftovers. I open a tin and offer the rest of the PB and J sandwich to the students in the classroom. “Delicious!” they all exclaim. Just as I offer the last piece, their classmates start to arrive for our 6 PM Intercultural Communication class.

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The tiny classroom is packed with students when I enter it around 1:25, 15 minutes before the bell rings. As I go about setting up for class, a few students who have looked up from their books and their naps stare quizzically and smilingly at the one of the six white-skinned teachers teaching at this university of over 20,000. I smile back, say hello, and tell them in Chinglish that’s they still have time to stay and study if they’d like.

These students in front of me have class back to back all day, and sometimes into the night. On weekends they go to private training schools to study for their graduate entrance exams. And instead of going to their dorms to nap after lunch like most their classmates, they’ve chosen to find an empty classroom to cram in some extra studying.

Inevitably, as soon as I say “you can stay, really!” one of them starts to pack up, and they all are gone within a minute. Maybe they think I’m being indirect, but I really wouldn’t mind if they staying there studying until just before the bell. Maybe next Tuesday they’ll stay longer.

At 1:37, my students arrive. My students are teachers. They are the student counselors, lecturers, and researchers. They have families, parents to take care of, children ages 1, 3, 16, 23. They will be absent on account of having to give their thesis defense, or because they have to go to apply for a visa to travel to the USA. They’re busy. I don’t expect them to come early, like most college students in China … I just hope that they’ll come!

At 1:45, it looks like we’ll have a turnout of 10 for today. Half the roster, that’s pretty good! I greet each one by name and begin class. In this advanced level class, I’m letting them dictate much of the discussion. Today’s topic – what’s the greatest risk you’ve ever taken? … and somehow we also get back around to talking about nuclear radiation and why everyone in China was rushing to buy salt a week or so ago.


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It’s all new students this semester and only about 70 students total. It’s quite a change from the previous semesters where I’d have over 150.

30 students are sophomores from all different majors who’ve selected English as their second major. I teach them twice a week – on Monday evenings for English Speaking & Listening and on Tuesday evenings for Intercultural Communication.

40 of my students are teachers in the basic and advanced levels of English Speaking and Listening, We’ll see how many are left in each at the end of the 10 weeks … many teachers who sign up for the course find they are too busy once the semester gets going. Right now, after four weeks of class, only about 6 are coming to each of the two sections. I also see them twice a week, sometimes more if they’re super-eager to learn English.

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"A Report of the Browns"

Way back in October, when the leaves were still on the trees and it wasn’t -6F outside, my parents came to visit. Their visit coincided with China’s national holiday, so most of the time I was on break and was able to tour around Beijing, Shanghai, and Harbin with them. (Check out my photos of Beijing and Shanghai, my photos of Harbin, and my mom’s photos here).

I only had one class while they were in Harbin visiting – a section of Newspaper Reading for Junior English majors and this section just happens to be 25 girls. I had them write up questions and interview my parents. Here’s some snippets of student reflections after interviewing:

V wrote:
“At the first sight of the special guests, I was amazed by the atmosphere around them. What an elegant lady and what a handsome and tall sir.”

D said:
“The two special guests are Sarah’s parents. They are both very kind Americans. And the most impressive thing was that the father was very, very tall. As soon as he came into the classroom everybody in the room just cried out: “Wow, how tall he his.”

C wrote:

“The special guests impress me very much. I like them very much. They are humorous. Father is well-read, he is reading Sun Zi. Mother likes gardening. She has a big flower garden and a vegetable garden. She also admires Obama. She said she surfs the Internet to see what he is doing everyday. That’s fantastic and interesting.”

S said:
“When I talked to them I found that they were very kind and friendly. I knew that they like China and think China has a long history. And 1.3 million Chinese people impressed them very much because they went to Shanghai fro the Expo and found that there were so many people.”

Some commented on the difference between American families and Chinese families, like D:
“American parents do not expect their children too much. They leave them more personal space and freedom. They would be happy if their children choose what they want.
“American children/kids are the same as Chinese children. For example, little Sarah played with the toys, such as mummy bear, father bear and the baby bear. That is the same game. It is called Guo Jiajia or Play house.”

And J:

“First, they are very friendly. They are very amiable parents, I think. Through this short interview, I find that your family is not like what I saw on the American movie. In the movie, they are very open. Whereas I think your family is traditional and it is not very different from Chinese.”

The students were really so thankful to have you visit their class, mom and dad!
P wrote:

“They are very kindly and warmly to answer any of our questions. They love their daughter very much. Their impression on China is very good, they both said China is very great country with a long history.”

T wrote:
“Their way of answering question is very unique, they didn’t avoid any question. They answered each question clearly and specifically. The stories they recalled about their daughter did in her childhood were very interesting.”

…Thankfully none of the stories were too embarrasing!

And one student, Y, wrote a book:
“As Sarah’s parents coming into the classroom we were shocked. “How tall Mr. Brown is!” Everyone murmured. After a brief introduction, the class began the “asking-answering” activity.
“From the interview – I knew that Sarah’s parents cares about Sarah very much. They will never push Sarah to do anything if she doesn’t want to. Also they showed their no-worry feelings for their daughter working in China because it is very safe here. As to whether they could accept a Chinese son-in-law, they say they would respect Sarah’s choice. (Haha. In a class of 25 girls… it’s not surprising that they’d ask about this!)
“It was very exciting to have foreign guests although sometimes we couldn’t express ourselves clearly and we didn’t know what exactly was appropriate. But we were thankful for having Sarah’s parents in our class. We liked them as much as we like Sarah.”

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