Monday, April 13, 2009


Last week we gave final exams to our seven week classes. I can't decide if my students are getting worse or if I'm getting better, but I'm catching more cheaters than ever before. It seems there are always those ready and willing to take on the challenge of my "no cheating or fail my class" spiel. Before any exam begins, I run over the basics, "If you speak a word during the exam, I will fail you; if your head turns in your neighbor's direction, I will fail you; if you look at your cell phone, I will fail you..." Inevitably, there are those who refuse to heed my warning and embark on a dark path of connivery and deceit. This semester I caught one guy with a cheat sheet, one guy who had written the vocabulary words on his desk and then tried to convince me he didn't look at them during the exam, and two guys cheating off of each other. Despite these dark splotches on an otherwise wonderful exam time (I LOVE finals), I did have a few success stories. Before any exam begins, I can always pick out the ones who are likely to cheat, and I pay extra close attention to them - not to catch them, but to put enough pressure on them so that they will elect not to cheat. It seldom works, but the few times it does are well worth the extra effort. I consider it one of the noblest works to pursue during finals - preventing would-be, lazy students from becoming cheaters. Sometimes I remove the temptation from a wandering eye by asking the student to move to a spot completely devoid of his fellow classmates. Sometimes I simply stand close to the would-be cheaters. I've saved many a student from himself this way. There are also those few times when I decide grace and mercy must replace justice and allow myself to overlook a quick interchange between two students. It's on these occasions I have been known to let the students leave with this final thought, "Remember this as the day you were lucky." Ah, finals...they bring out the best in us and the worst.

So with finals classes! This week we begin classes to replace the ones we just completed. The first day of class is my least favorite. They are impossible to plan for. In any given class, we might have thirty students or we might have sixty. They might have already had a foreign teacher and, therefore, and English name, or I might be their first. Their English level might be as good as an English major's or they might not understand a word I say. There's absolutely no telling what to expect so we've all had to become pretty good at spontaneously adapting to class dynamics. Even still, the first day of class usually entails the students asking me lots of questions about myself and America, and the more I talk about myself, the more disinterested in the topic I become.

Jessica and I have been meeting about four times a week - when it's not raining, or when we're not sick, and when the stars are aligned just right - to do a little exercising. Twice a week we meet for a short jog, and the other two times we meet to hike the mountain. Last week we mixed it up a bit and decided to play badminton instead of go hiking. In order to play badminton, you must get past the Badminton Nazi. He's this little old man with bushy eyebrows and a scary disposition. He sleeps in the gym when he's not running foreigners away. As teachers at this school, we are entitled to make use of the badminton courts free of charge. Badminton Nazi knows this and will comply if, and only if, we bring him our teachers' cards, proving to him we are, in fact, teachers at this school. Granted, in the past, we have brought foreigners from other schools to play with us, but it really shouldn't be that big of a deal. Anyway, we have since been trained to bring our teachers' cards with us every time we want to play. I have been a teacher at Qi Yuan for two and a half years and have played badminton more times than I can count and still Badminton Nazi insists I show him my teacher's card every time I come. Not only must I show it, but he actually compares the photo to my face to ensure that I am who I say I am. Two and a half years! I could probably draw an accurate sketch of this man's face, but he still can't recognize me!

Easter Day was rather pleasant - well, the day wasn't so much as we were hit by some torrential downpours - but the activities were great. Meeting, Easter dinner, naps, movie, more rest. Megan and Kat scrounged up some lamb, which turned out deliciously. In honor of my dad, I made hot cross buns -somewhat of a tradition with my family. We also had some bacon wrapped green beans, deviled eggs, and some incredible strawberry walnut salad Kat came up with.

The different departments in our school are beginning a volleyball competition this week. The English department has been practicing for a few weeks. I go out and play with them when I can, but I seldom have time. Abraham, the guy in charge of giving us foreigners our classes, has insisted Barry and I join them this week for the competition. Barry has played a lot more with them than I have, and he plans to join them, but I have class during the evening two nights this week so I wouldn't be able to go to the matches. After explaining this to Abraham, he told me to simply reschedule my classes. "The competition is first priority." So he says. I'm pretty sure I may be damaging my relationship with Abraham by refusing to reschedule my classes, but class is my first priority when it comes to this school.

Last year we asked our Father to bring us a harvest of male leadership to Shiyan, and he delivered. Currently, I'm studying with four boys who are incredible individuals. Keep them in your prayers. We also are wanting to continue petitioning our Father for good replacements. At least three of us teachers will be leaving after this semester, opening up three spots for those wanting to serve here. We're hopeful for good, solid replacements whose focus is what it needs to be. We could really use some help in bringing this request before our Father.

Well, I have a couple days free coming up. My students have given me time off since they're preparing for a big exam this Saturday. They're pretty stressed out about it so we rescheduled our Friday classes and canceled our evening discussion groups to give them more time to prepare. I'm not sure yet what I'll do, but with the weather being absolutely gorgeous, I'm thinking either hiking or swimming are in the forecast.

Monday, April 06, 2009


A clever foreigner living in China once said, "Spare the spa, spoil the soul." We found out recently from our sisters in Xiangfan that there are hot springs outside their city, and since the boys in Shiyan held a guys' retreat this weekend, we could think of no better time than this to check them out. Jess, Meg, Kat and I joined the two Xiangfan ladies - Carie and Brittany - for a weekend of pampering. It's a good idea to avoid high expectations of activities that seem prone to disappointing, and relaxing in sanitary pools of hot water with rumors of tea soaks and pools of tiny fish which eat the dead skin off your body seemed just such an activity. We left Xiangfan early Saturday morning having already started off on the wrong foot - McDonald's, our one consolation for leaving at seven in the morning and our one guilty pleasure, was both without pancakes and without apology. We settled for something other than pancakes, which is a travesty from my point of view, and got on our tourist bus to head out for the hot springs. Three hours and a horrible lunch later, we descended upon an oasis of beauty. The spa was large, the workers were helpful, the whole system was organized and made practical sense, and the hot springs - once we were dressed and ready - were plentiful, diverse, and perfect. We had just under four hours to wander about, dipping in warm pools of various fragrances, minerals and natural materials that are, no doubt, good for your health. We even found the pool of tiny fish, hungry for what we're hungry to be rid of - dry skin. That was an interesting experience. The six of us plopped down in the middle of this cool pool, and dozens of tiny fish surrounded us, nipping at our toes, our legs, our arms - anything submerged under the water. I was extremely uncomfortable at times and amused at times and appreciative after it was all over. I'm pretty sure I'll never have a reason to do that again, but I'm happy for the experience.

We got back to Shiyan Sunday evening. The guys' retreat was "awesome." That's the word from the foreigners and from my seekers who attended. "Awesome" minus a small potato incident which already seems to have been written down in Shiyan folklore. Turns out, cooking potatoes over a campfire isn't the easiest thing to do. Luckily, Happy Guys is always a viable backup plan to any cooking endeavor gone awry.

Our Finer Things Club finished the final book we had preselected before coming to Shiyan this year - The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. Tonight over a couple of homemade vegetable and Mediterranean pizzas, we discussed this book and with a sense of satisfaction, recounted our feelings about all the books we've read this semester - One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jesus for President by Shaine Claiborne and Chris Haw, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyesky and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Although we've finished the books we set out to read, we aren't finished with Finer Things just yet. We are now all attempting to subdue our "white whale" - that one elusive book which always seems to get away from us. For me, this book is A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. I've tried to read it three times but find myself returning it to its dusty spot on the book shelf before I'm three chapters in. Now, with the eyes of my literary sisters upon me, I feel a certain momentum that I'm sure will sustain me as I read this book whose author, as Kat loves to point out, "was paid by the word!"

The weather is warming up. People are shedding layers of clothes and subsequently losing half their body size. Students are becoming emboldened to ask for class outside, and we're becoming lax enough to comply. April is a great month to be in Shiyan.