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Taekwondo

I left a room on the first floor of the academic building with a very prominent limp about an hour ago. I try not to favor my slightly better right foot too much, and what hobbling I must do, I try to do with style. The embarrassment is not too bad, however. My confidence is bolstered by the fact that at least two other guys who left the same room with me are limping as well.

I’m talking, of course, about Hua Shan High School’s elite Taekwondo Club. Eons ago, when I first introduced myself during my very first high school lesson, I decided for some reason to tell the thousand curious and inquisitive students that sometime in the past, back in the glory days, I did taekwondo. Little did I realize what a mistake this would be. Inevitably and innocently a student on week two skipped by my desk after class and gave me a note with a small map showing me where that evening’s taekwondo practice would be held. Due to an elusive Chinese concept called “face” that may or may not get fleshed out over the course of several posts on this blog, I went.

I’m standing on the tail end of week 16 of my first semester now, but it didn’t take me this long to realize that the students of this school spend the greater part of the time being “intense.” Structurally speaking, a developing country is packed to the brim with all sorts of pressures and tensions, economical, political, cultural, you name it. High school students are not exempt, and I see these pressures manifest themselves in my students’ lives as a strong desire to do everything with high intensity in order to meet the next standard to overcome, the next hurdle in a no-holds bar track race. Perhaps this intensity extends beyond the classroom. Or perhaps the intensity comes hand in hand with a stress that needs some sort of outlet. Either way, the students of the taekwondo club are, despite their lack of experience, are quite impassioned when they’re doing their kicks and punches.

Especially when they’re kicking or punching another person. Among the esoteric technical terms that have somehow wormed their way into my Mandarin-learning saga are the various words for “sparring,” such as 实战 (shi2zhan4) and打架 (da3jia4). My language learning radar quickly locked onto these words because they came with an automatic sense of apprehension; not only are the students quite aggressive in the ring, not only is their style (World Taekwondo Federation, also known by its unintentionally hilarious acronym WTF) very distinct from the style I did many ages ago (International Taekwondo Federation, or ITF), but also the concept of students physically wailing on their teacher, or visa versa, is rather intimidating and hard to place both for the club members and myself. I know the students must be thinking, “Do I hold back? On one hand, this guy is a teacher. And Confucius once said, ‘no-kicka you teacha.’ On the other hand, he’s only 22 and he claims to have did taekwondo in the past.” I have no such mental qualms. Six years of non-taekwondoship have taken their toll on me and I have to put in 110% just to barely keep up with these scrappy young whippersnappers.

As we fight, the intensity of student life lingers on among the sidelines. Our instructor, a soft spoken but simply powerful young master who inverts traditional hierarchies by being both a girl and a sophomore (which in China is the youngest grade in high school) in a physically challenging, traditionally male sport, placidly observes the English teacher getting his rear handed to him. When she grins at my silly kicks or my accidental, momentary victories, I see a small hole betraying a missing tooth that I know she lost recently. Where, I’m not sure yet. Intense. One of the referees is a student of mine, another quiet yet powerful player who is out of commission for a month thanks to an ankle injury he also received while sparring – he is one of two injured students I’m aware of. Despite having over a thousand students, I solidly know his name – during my mugshot project, I was checking off photographed students yet for some reason could not find his name on the class roster. When I asked him about it, he pointed to a name that was on the roster but different from the one he identified himself by, telling me that that was him. On the roster, his name was 果果, or “fruit fruit” (though it probably doesn’t sound as silly in Chinese as it does in English). I found, however, that he despised this name (calling it 难听, or “hard on the ears,” or more simply, “ugly”) and decided to go through a mountain of paperwork to change it to the much more regal 希哲, or “hoping for wisdom.” I must say I approve of the change, though it takes a certain amount of gusto to pull off a name change at 16 years old. Finally, as we fight, a large set of stickers on the blackboard betray the room’s original use as a classroom for the seniors, who have since moved to a new building.

____ days until the college entrance exam

Even during their taekwondo meets, the students cant’ avoid being reminded of the number one driving force of their lives until spring of next year: the college entrance exam. Basically this test is the SAT from hell, a single test which produces a set of numbers that will determine with resounding finality which college you will go to and what fields you are worthy of pursuing. The sign in the taekwondo room, which should be removed but probably will never be, says “______ days until the college entrance exam,” as if the students weren’t frantic enough about it already (and they are). Next semester, other incarnations of this sign in the senior building across the courtyard will begin their inevitable countdown: 60…59…58… even the 2008 Olympics will be forgotten by 17-18 year old students across the country.

But more on that later. Today, I got to see my name written on that very blackboard twice, 孟文宁 with a number scrawled next to it. One victory, and one narrow defeat – not too bad, I must say, for an old fogy like myself, especially since, curiously enough, I was the only fighter selected to fight twice in one day. This was especially uplifting after a crushing defeat two weeks ago, my first sparring match in what must be over six years. Perhaps my mojo is coming back.

I plan to limp around as long as the other two guys I fought with are limping… once they stop, its all about the face again.

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I have exactly 1065 students. They’re divided into about 20 classes, each with 52-54 students. Each class sees me once a week, and so I have the blessing of only having to prepare one lesson plan for week; after doing that, I proceed to teach the exact same lesson 20 times. On a side note, that means my Monday classes are perpetually cursed with having to endure relatively sloppy, rough-edged lessons, whereas my Friday classes get a pretty streamlined and smooth lesson since, by the time I’ve reached them, I’ve taught the same freaking lesson 16 times already. But I digress. While on the upside, having 20 different classes means I get plenty of free time outside of the classroom, since I only prepare one lesson a week, the downside is, I have a huge, huge number of students. That comes with its own set of problems. The point of this update is simply to share with friends, family, and readers, the enormity and diversity of my personal student body. And the best way to do that, of course, is with a picture!

So what’s the story? One of the problems that comes with having 1.065*10^3 students is remembering their names. I think, for someone of my memory abilities, this task is completely impossible. But by God, I’m going to address them by their names in the classroom, because I refuse to just haphazardly point and say “You,” or make up some anonymizing system of letters and numbers. So I devised a system. This system. About two weeks ago, the designated punishment for the losing team during a competition-based classroom activity was to “give me their mugshot.” At first, the mugshot system was simply an incentive not to lose, but eventually, I explained to them that I was taking these pictures so that I could eventually print out a sheet with all their faces and their names on them. Ta da! Once this is accomplished, I can glance at a person’s face, then glance at the magic sheet, and presto, I have their name. The classes are divided into 5 tables of 10 to 12 people, and I will arrange the picture sheet to correspond to the tables, so that when I want to talk to any given person, I can instantly narrow it down to 10-12 people, then, by their face, quickly locate their name. The hope is, of course, that eventually I’ll start using the sheet less and less, especially with the students who stand out – good or bad.

Of course, logistically speaking, taking 1065 pictures is a difficult task. I have to come home every day and spend about an hour cropping and labelling photos (which is a hastle, since my class rosters have all their names in Chinese characters, many of which I can’t recognize). At this point, two weeks into the photo taking, I’ve got about half of them: 441. And all 441 that I’ve taken so far are crammed into the collage above, vivid enough to demonstrate the diversity of my students, but blurred enough, I hope, to preserve a semblance of anonymity for them (they use the Internet, too!).

The title of this post isn’t meant to be any sort of commentary on the Chinese education system. That song is heavily laden with various levels of meaning, but I couldn’t resist using that as a title because, well, I literally made a wall, and each of my students are a brick in it. Another amusing point – for the first several days, by some wacky coincidence, all the teams that lost consisted entirely of girls. Therefore, for a period of a few days, my creepy-weirdo levels spiked to unprecedented heights, as I spent my weekday nights cropping and labeling hundreds of photos… of high school girls. As soon as I noticed this disturbing trend (I identified its cause – the girls sit in the front, and I kept on picking the front two tables for the first matches), I made it a point to rectify the situation by picking two tables with at least a few boys in them. Everything’s okay now, as you can see, the collage has a good 50/50 ratio going on.

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The figurative dust kicked up by my transition from the US to Xinjiang has settled, so to speak. I’ve already confided in a friend of mine that I really believe, after four weeks here, I can safely say I’ve settled in, made a “home” (though we’re all still is waiting for a beautiful Uyghur carpet), created a job routine, and forged connections with my students. This is a good thing.

However, as the figurative dust settled, the real dust rose. Weather.com describes the current weather, which started about two days ago, as “Widespread Dust.” I couldn’t describe it better myself. While I know from some of the veteran expats of Korla that there is a such thing as a “Dust Storm,” a phenomenon that is apparently forthcoming, this gentle cloud of dust that has blanketed the city is a new enough experience for me to be tickled. The violently howling wind and the BB-pellet swathes of high-speed sand are absent for the time being, but still, the dust is everywhere, just floating. If my mind were stubborn enough, I may be able to convince myself its really, really small snow. Anyways, what do we do when there are millions of tiny particles loitering in your breathing air? Bust out the ultra-sensitive, expensive photography equipment, of course!

The sand filters the sunlight unlike any other light-hampering weather I’ve encountered. I’m sure a physicist could explain this is scientific terms, but all I can say is that the way the light colors objects and the way the sky is tinted is “unnatural,” to me, in that my world has never been illuminated in this manner before. The sun, too, is different, a perfectly defined, perfectly white circle, dimmed enough so I can break the ancient elementary-school-science rule of never look directly at the sun. Unfortunately, the picture I took doesn’t capture the circle-ness of the sun too well, but you can see, everything is sort of… blah. Still, if we’re on the subject of weird weather, this situation still takes second place to the hellish apocalypse scenario given to us back at USC when I think every single tree in Southern California was on fire. At least here in Korla it’s not raining burning ash.

So, when the desert is roused from its sleep and is aggressively invading all openings, be they on inanimate objects or living things, what do the Chinese students do? They hold their high-intensity, all-student-body exercises in preparation for sports day, of course! So when I trotted outside to take a picture of the incoming dust cloud, I was blessed with the oppurtunity to take pictures of my students in action. Apparently, for Sports Day, the sophomores and juniors have been assigned grade-specific activities which they must partake in (flawlessly! This is China!) when the actual ceremony rolls around. Ergo, they are practicing every day. The sophomores get to do this awesome activity which I can only describe as “synchronized, simultaneous mass jump rope.”

The juniors, my students, get to do this stupid activity which I can only describe as “a three-legged race with a lot more legs” which looks silly even when they’re doing it right. When they mess up…well, it’s pretty funny.

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to the actual Sports Day when everything is polished to perfection… although I’m definitely going to miss the hilarity that ensues when one person in the human chain tumbles over. Just like dominoes, but I guess such an activity does impart a distinctly communist moral. More pictures from the sandy day and Sports Day Practice here.

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I’m in Xinjiang

When I last posted, well over a month ago, I was in Indiana, sort of glowing over the fact that my paperwork finally got through and that my upcoming stint in Xinjiang was no longer hanging by a thread. Now, I’ve been in Xinjiang for three weeks.

Needless to say, a lot has happened since I last posted, but I don’t want to make a long, meandering post describing the transition in excruciating detail that will ward off readers. I’ll keep it nice and succinct. Here goes.

My experience here so far has largely been a whirlwind. I hit the ground running. After a nice, disorienting flight from Los Angeles to Beijing followed by another from Beijing to the provincial capital followed by a much shorter one from the capital to my city of residence, I was immediately told I would teach the next day. As I’m being told this by my boss (Lisa, or, alternatively, MASTER LIU in Chinese – talk about different cultural systems of address), I’m sort of staring out the window of our car blinking profusely, trying to wink away a combination of bad jet lag and newbie awe. Go figure, Lisa wasn’t kidding. After sitting in on a class held by the other foreign teacher, I taught 4 classes the next day. Poor me. Jetlagged, I woke up at 6 in the morning that day – which in reality is 4 in the morning, because Xinjiang is on “Beijing Time” although the province is located a good two timezones west of Beijing. With nothing to do but wait, I braved the darkness and ran two miles at the track right outside my dorm. Unfortunately, my victory over jetlag means that I haven’t ran since then. D’oh!

Every other day or so I make forays into the city to buy stuff to make my cozy little corner of the world something worthy of the name “home.” I replaced my uncomfortable dining room chair with a plush rolly office chair that I paid a little over 20 American dollars for. I printed out some pictures, put them in frames, and hung them on the wall. I bought new sheets for my bed, and now am perkily ensconced in blue flowers every night when I go to sleep. Next on the list are a little table to do work on and a carpet. Thank God I’m on the Silk Road; I’m going to by an awesome Uyghur carpet. It’ll blow your mind. Stay tuned.

That’s it for now. I’m teaching and trying to settle in. My brain’s operating system is painfully being converted to Mandarin Chinese with a little Uyghur add-on here and there. I can sense it in the air – I’ll eventually start talking more and more to interesting people. And of course, I’ll let you guys know what happens when I can.

In the meantime, I’d love it if you could swing by my flickr account and take a looksie at the sporadic pictures I’ve been taking of my new situation. There should be a little flickr box on this blog’s sideboard that you can zap yourself through, otherwise, here’s a direct link. Once I become a fixture rather than a novelty here in Korla (despite being Asian looking, I still do get a lot of attention. Probably for speaking poor Chinese), I’ll start busting out the Canon and I’ll have some sweeter pictures heading your way.

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