October 1-7 is National Week in China, a week-long vacation commemorating the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949 and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Schools at all levels are closed, so our classes at China West Normal University were suspended. Although roads and tourists destinations are crowded during this week, we used three of the open days in our schedule for field trips.
China SSTers are spending their first night in the towns that will be their homes for the next five weeks. They will be teaching English in three secondary schools, living with host families in each place. All three schools are hosting SSTers for the first time, so all sides are negotiating relationships and expectations anew. Given our encounters today, it is clear that all the schools are eager to have the Goshen folks teaching oral English. Having native English speakers in the classrooms is uncommon for schools in these places where foreigners are rare.
On two recent afternoons the SSTers learned and shared music and dance with Professor Wang Xiao and her students from the College of Music. Ms. Wang introduced Chinese musical notation and explained the history of two popular folk songs, “Kangding Qingge” (Love Song of Kangding) and “Mo Li Hua” (Jasmine Flower), and taught them to the SSTers. Ms. Wang had arranged for some of her students and another music faculty member to perform traditional works for us, and then she invited Goshen students to sing and play in return.
Deng Xiaoping, China’s principal leader from 1978 to 1992, famously described his country’s distinctive economic blend of free-wheeling market forces and centralized controls as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Since then, people within China and those who visit have often tried to articulate the “Chinese characteristics” that mark various aspects of life here. During the study portion of SST – the first six weeks of the term – we’re been experiencing Chinese academic life and its distinctive characteristics. We’ve been learning on two levels: the material that teachers present to us directly and, indirectly, something of what it’s like to be a university student in this part of the world and how education functions here.
On Sunday, September 21 we visited a traditional farm in the countryside. We rode the number 6 bus out of the city and then walked for about half an hour, up into a small valley that is home to four small farms. The farm we visited has been the home of the Duan family since 1950. It is a small, diversified farm with traditional crops of rice, corn, and canola. In addition, there are small plots of vegetables, yams, melons, and peanuts, as well as many fruit trees and walnut trees. Altogether, the Duan family grows nearly 30 different varieties…
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On September 17 and 18 we had calligraphy instruction with Liu Qingyang, Dean of the College of Fine Arts and a master calligrapher. Professor Liu introduced us to the major styles and schools of calligraphy, and gave us some examples to practice. He believes that practicing calligraphy is a way to experience Chinese culture and not merely hear about or observe culture, and he told us that he sees the arts as important cultural bridges in our world. Along with some of his graduate students, he gave us pointers on holding the brush in the proper way, how to apply…
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We spent the weekend of September 13 and 14 in Langzhong, a smaller city that lies north of Nanchong, further up the Jailing River Valley about an hour and half by bus. Most of the city is of modern construction, like Nanchong. However, the traditional heart of Langzhong preserves houses and streets of the eras of the Ming (1368-1643) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. It is considered one of the four best-preserved old cities in all of China and draws many Chinese tourists, as well as foreign visitors. Given all the construction, demolition, and rebuilding that marks the contemporary Chinese urban…
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For two afternoons this week (September 11 and 12) we practiced tai chi, a traditional physical exercise rooted in the martial arts tradition and dedicated to disciplined movement and breathing. Who knew that moving slowly could be so much work! The physical education instructor who taught us introduced one element of a routine at a time, and then had us put all the parts together into a movement that was supposed to be smoothly flowing and – ideally – go along with the cadence of traditional music. Sometimes we practiced as a group and at other times he worked with…
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As we shared first impressions, some of us wondered how long it will take for us to adjust to our new surroundings. Would hard beds ever feel comfortable? What about the high humidity? How difficult will communication be across the language barrier that sometimes looms so large? At the same time, some of us noticed that we were already adjusting, in small ways, to a “new normal.”
Tuesday afternoon, September 2 we arrived by bus to Nanchong, our SST home for the next six weeks. We were welcomed to China West Normal University New Campus by the university’s Foreign Affairs Office staff. We received a brief walking tour of the campus and then waited to meet our host families.