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Temples, Museums, and Cornflakes

Xiamen, China

I just had a bowl of Cornflakes. Yeah...probably not the kind of opening statement that sucks you in to the rest of my blog entry. But...they were good. There is a bigger story. My host family has left to visit the "countryside". Which means that the tasty meals that I have grown accustomed to and like very much are no longer simply waiting for me on the kitchen table. So I actually had to go grocery shopping for the first time this evening. I went to Wal-Mart. Now before you decry my gravitation towards western shopping centers in the midst of my exotic surroundings, just know that the Wal-Mart is the closest grocery store to my home AND this is not YOUR neighborhood Wal-Mart. In all honesty I did not recognize at least half the foods in the store. It took me quite some time to navigate the strange sights and labels. About a half-hour in I found a lonely box of Cornflakes towards the back of the store. I also bought a piece of pizza since I was quite hungry after what became an hour long shopping binge that netted about five identifiable items. However, it wasn't until I was on my way back from the store that I noticed the pizza was bizarrely adorned with peas, corn, and some meat item that I wrongly thought to be sausage...not exactly what I was expecting. Anyway, back to the reason for my shopping--my host family has taken a week long trip back to the "countryside". They only moved out to Xiamen about five years ago following their father's business leads. The "countryside" is the "village" this family lived in prior to making the very common move to Xiamen. The population of Xiamen is booming--with many big businessmen moving their families to the business friendly metropolis. There are also, as I believed I mentioned in an earlier blog, literally hundreds of new, beautiful apartment buildings sprouting up around the island. My various hosts have said that most of these apartments are being purchased as "second homes" by people who live elsewhere or as investments. Many people who have lived in Xiamen for years are finding themselves priced out of their neighborhoods as real estate prices soar. I visited with a few young teachers from Xiamen Public School #6 the other day and they told me that buying an apartment around the school is becoming simply impossible. Most young teachers live on the school campus, at least for a few years, because the prices of actual homes are way too high.

I enjoyed more amazing Chinese hospitality this weekend. My first trip was to the Nanputuo, which is a temple nestled amongst some beautiful green hills adjacent to the University of Xiamen. This place is hundreds of years old and is both a tourist destination and a functioning Buddhist temple with many monks and faithful praying and worshiping. It was amazing to stand outside the main temple structure and listen to dozens of Buddhist monks as they sang/chanted the sacred texts. Many in Xiamen have told me that they themselves are Buddhists, which means something quite different than someone in America saying they are an evangelical Christian. My host family says that they attend the festivals and make occasional prayers, but the role of the religion in their daily lives is much different from the way our religion plays itself out...anyway, complicated subject. I'd be happy to share more of my limited insights to you if are interested at later time. After visiting the temple, we walked around the campus of the University of Xiamen, which is by many accounts, one of the best universities in Southern China. It really looked like any American campus--beautiful green grass, towering buildings, etc...very nice.

The next day, a different group of Xiamen Public School #6 individuals took me to the Jimei Educational Comlex/Village. This is a sprawling network of schools and houses that include the local junior school, middle school, university, navigational school, etc. The campus also contains the tomb of the founder of the Jimei Educational Complex, Tan Kah Kee along with a stunningly large museum dedicated to this man and his educational mission. Now you may be picturing a nice mid-sized building with a few rooms of personal mementos. But the museum itself is only slightly smaller than the convention center in Portland. As I stood gazing at the structure and then as I toured the museum, I was struck by the amount of reverence paid to a man who dedicated his life to education. His story is long and complex, but to put it briefly, he was instrumental in pushing China to modernize its economy and educational system in the face of "colonial domination" by European powers and later the Japanese. He played a significant role in the early years of the People's Republic of China and had, from what I could tell, the first official state funeral of the PRC in 1961. The visit certainly helped me to understand just how central education is to the Chinese belief in progress and advancement. China has spent over 100 years emerging from the shadow of "humiliation" by outside powers, and education is seen as the key to this national emergence. Again, there exists not only the family and community pressure on Chinese students to succeed, but the unspoken knowledge that educational success is expected from one's country.

Well, I start my last week of teaching here in Xiamen. My hosts are convinced that they are working me to death with the full three hours of daily teaching that I do. So, Friday will be my last teaching day. That next week appears to be reserved for seeing the sights of China. Should be fun.

permalink written by  mflamoe on July 19, 2009 from Xiamen, China
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Chinese Students

Xiamen, China

Hello everyone. It has been a couple of days since my recent posting, and I have some good excuses. First, as usual, I have been busy. When I get back to my place late in the evening, my first instinct is not to jump onto the internet. But the main reason is that I have been slightly under the weather. I went about two and a half-weeks eating nothing but the local, traditional Chinese food (including some things that I could not identify) and had no problems. Then a few days ago I go to Pizza Hut, a western steak-house, and McDonalds and voila...my stomach can't handle it...hmmm. Needless to say, it illness appears to have been mild.

I am now almost done with my first week of teaching the children of the teachers at Xiamen Public School #6. This is a much different experience than teaching the students OF #6. First off, as you can see from the pictures...no uniforms. Second, they seem to have more energy. Now you teachers out their may assume that "energy" is simply a euphemism for bad behavior. This is certainly not what I mean. I am teaching two classes: one of young kids (ages 9-approximately 13) and the other high school age kids. The young kids are just so excitable. While high school age kids (here and in the US) tend to be more docile and laid back, the younger kids laugh, fidget, jump, scream and just plain get excited about the goofiest things. These kids have very limited English skills. I spent the day today pointing to my nose, elbow, hair etc as they screamed out the words in English. I don't think they understand half of what I say in class. In fact, I swear there are a few young one's who literally have no idea what is going on...but they still seem to have a good time. So I call that a success.

This may only be of interest to fellow teachers, but one of the things that I have been blown away with here is just how similar these students are with students in the United States. Every class I have taught seems to have students who possess all of personality features of my students in the US--from the sullen kid in the back of the room, to the spazzy kid who wants to talk all of the time, to the earnest serious student who pays attention to every word you say as if their life depends on it. I don't mean to imply that I stereotype all students; rather, it is simply shocking how similar these kids are despite all of the cultural differences. I guess I expected to have to change my teaching more dramatically to match the unknown. There is certainly no doctoral dissertation in this statement, but...kids are kids. This experience has certainly convinced me of the fundamental similarity in all human beings. I know that such a statement seems bland, but it is one thing to know this fundamental sameness intellectually and quite another to understand it emotionally as I stare into the faces of kids who possess the same hopes, fears, dreams, and curiosity that I see everyday in the U.S.

I was able to sit down with two fellow Americans yesterday and have my first conversation with native English speakers in two weeks. These two gentlemen are teaching at a nearby vocational College, and their experience has been much different than mine. They are teaching English speaking skills to the English teachers at this school. Apparently many of their "students" are quite reluctant to speak English in front of them. This seems to be a common trait amongst English teachers here. Pretty much all students here learn English; it is a required foreign language. However, the curriculum focuses mostly on grammar, reading, and writing. The English classes all work to prepare students for the standardized tests. What this means is that there are many English teachers who barely speak English. Even several English teachers at #6, my school, say that they teach their English classes almost exclusively in Chinese. This, of course, is the problem with having a curriculum driven by standardized tests. While the teachers recognize the importance of speaking, there is not way to have a speaking component on the government mandated tests. And since their job is to get their kids to score well on these tests, the spoken language takes a back seat. Well, my host father just arrived home, which means that we are going to say some English and Chinese to each other very loudly in hopes of breaking the language barrier. More soon.

permalink written by  mflamoe on July 16, 2009 from Xiamen, China
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Pizza Hut

Xiamen, China

Just a quick entry today. During one of my classes this morning, my students and I were discussing our favorite foods. I happened to mention my fondness for pizza. Of course, given the presence of my very hospitable host in the classroom at the time, I ended up at Pizza Hut for lunch eating...well, pizza. Which I must admit was quite good after some days of tasty, but exotic fare. Ironically enough, this evening two college-age brothers, who together with their mom and dad are generously allowing me to stay in their home, and I found ourselves at a "western style" steakhouse for dinner. I have been to a few "western style" restaurants here in Xiamen and have found them to be only faintly western (today the western nod could be heard over the restaurant's loudspeakers which was blaring The Village People and George Michael). I have to briefly mention that I don't think that I have paid for one thing thing since I arrived here two and a half weeks ago. So if any of you are contemplating a visit like mine in the future...it is certainly a good way to save money.

This morning I started teaching the children of the teachers at Public School #6. I teach two classes that are broken up loosely by the English skills of the students. For the first time in my educational career I found myself in front of a bunch of nine-year-old kids. I must admit that it took me a good half-hour to figure out exactly how to deal with this. The kids are so young. You elementary school teachers wouldn't blink at this situation, but these kids were only slightly older than my oldest son. Though things were quite fun and the kids are so darn cute, I think that I am going to stick with high school kids.

Speaking of high school kids, if any of you Crusaders are reading this, you should note that I was given five official school uniforms from Xiamen Public School #6 today (including both winter and spring wear...I'm serious). I plan to submit these to our administration as they contemplate possible uniform options. You can probably tell from the picture that they may not be stylish, but the appear to be quite comfortable; think of a breezy polo with some pajama bottoms. Please forward any concerns you may have about this prospect to the Jesuit administration.

I hope you Portlanders have enjoyed the brief break you had from the heat. From the forecasts I see, it's going to get hot again over the next few days. Just to put things in perspective, days here in Xiamen are usually in the mid 90s with what feels to me like 110% humidity (I'm fully aware that this is not possible; don't comment on this; it is called hyperbole). I seem to have permanent sheen of sweat on my body.

More soon.

permalink written by  mflamoe on July 13, 2009 from Xiamen, China
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Weekend Tours!

Xiamen, China

Greetings everyone. I had yet another wonderful weekend filled with fantastic Chinese hospitality. I saw some very cool and interesting places and ate some...shall we say, exotic foods. Sand worms in a gelatinous mass are tastier than you would imagine. On Saturday I accompanied a teacher at Xiamen Public School #6 to the Haicang District of Xiamen. The Haicang District is one of six districts making up the Xiamen City proper. Until Saturday, I had yet to leave the island part of Xiamen (the island comprises two of the six districts). The Haicang District is the located on the mainland directly west of the island and is much different from the island part of the city. There are many manufacturing plants that have moved to the region and the population of the district has exploded following these jobs. We visited a little town called Xinyang which is surrounded my these big manufacturing plants (e.g. Kodak) and spartan new buildings to house the many workers. The area is quite a contrast. At times you feel you are driving through a modern business park but right off of the new streets you enter a maze of older streets dotted by traditional homes built over 150 years ago...if not earlier (my tour guides were a little unsure). Though I left the island of Xiamen with a family of three, by the time we arrived at our first stop, a very old and traditional house built, apparently, by an officer in the imperial navy a century and a half ago, our party had doubled--a number that then included the "mayor" of Xinyang and an elderly gentleman who served as the expert on the tour. The first house we toured was an incredible piece of history, with ornate carvings, huge wood doors, a beautiful courtyard, etc. But bizarrely, at least in my opinion, the decedents of the original family were still living in the home which had, despite its historical significance, become quite run down. When I piped up that any building with such historical significance would be restored and protected in the US, my guides simply mentioned that such structures are so common in China, that no one thinks to restore and protect all of them. And plus, 150 years old in a country with a history comprised of thousands of years, is nothing. Still, being the amateur history buff that I am, it was quite fascinating. I look forward to regaling you interested parties with further details later.

We also spent some time touring local temples. The first we went to was actually only completed a few years ago, but was modeled after traditional temples in the area. Its size, beauty, and grandeur was incredible, especially given that it was located off a simple dirt road, next to run-down houses and newly built factory worker houses. I am still trying to wrap my brain around China's traditional religion, but the temple was a mixture (though only probably a mixture in my own brain) of ancient Chinese religions and stories venerating ancestors of local families, common religious figures, and Buddhism. Many of you may have a better understanding on this syncretism, but it was quite confusing to me. The intricacy of the temples design and the elegance of the artwork is quite stunning, and I really did not have time to take it all in; obviously the pictures do not do it justice. We then visited a smattering of smaller temples that seemed so unusually placed amidst crumbling buildings and back alleys--a very strange sight.

The Haicang province is quite different from the island's modern urbane feel. It felt a little more like I expected of China with manufacturing plants (though not really industrial plants) surrounded blocks of new, but only functional, living accommodations for the workers. I apologize for not being able to better articulate my impressions, but as we drove around the winding alleyways, past bare concrete structures, and around amazing large corporate factories all filled with people with an existence so different from mine, I was filled with an overwhelming sense at the scale and complexity of humanity...I know that may not make sense, but there are just so many people living lives that I can't begin to understand...it is quite humbling to my sometimes arrogant take on how the world works.

Today (Sunday) I was accompanied by three teachers from #6 on a much different tour of the almost brand new Xiamen Horticulture Expo Garden--a sprawling "garden" dotting four different small islands to the North east of the island of Xiamen. This garden has different areas, each dedicated to represent traditional "gardens" and structures from different parts of China. My hosts were very thorough in explaining the geographical regions represented and explaining some of the stylistic differences represented by each. We climbed the highest structure in the entire park/garden and had a marvelous view of the surrounding areas...very beautiful.

On a gastronomical note, my adventurous diet is continuing. On Saturday, I had something that was translated for me as sandworms. These look exactly as you probably imagine (but maybe a little stringier) and were served in this small tub of jelly...lip smackin'! This evening I was served tiny sea snails that we pulled out of their shells with toothpicks. Sometimes I wonder what I am doing putting such things in my body, but my compatriots approach such dishes like they are french fries, so I figure, there must be nothing wrong with a little sandworm and snails.

I start my teaching of the teacher's children tomorrow, which should be interesting given the incredible range of English skills in the class, but I figure that simply listening to me, a native English speaker, speak a language they are trying to learn can't hurt...even if they have no idea what I am saying. I will let you know how it goes.

I am now approaching the halfway point of my time here in Xiamen, and I can officially say that I am past the culture shock. The dizzying disorientation of new sites, smells, sounds, and tastes (yep...almost all of the senses) is gone. So, perhaps now I can get down to some serious Mandarin learning and cultural observations. More soon.

permalink written by  mflamoe on July 12, 2009 from Xiamen, China
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You Fellow Aged-Ones Can Sympathize

Xiamen, China

This blog entry may be one many of you choose to skip. It is full not of cultural insights and observations; rather, it describes a blip in my schedule as I spent the day trying to practice my language skills. By the way as I write one of my hosts just brought in a Durian which is apparently a fruit of Southeastern Asia that is quite popular. I never have smelled something so foul. He claims that it tastes wonderfully sweet; but I can't get near enough to try it. Any experience with this malodorous seed-bearing plant?

I'm 39. It should be the prime of my intellectual life. Well maybe not "prime". Actually...now that I think about it, I think that I read somewhere that most brilliant minds produce their greatest works in their twenties and early thirties (and to be clear, I do not include myself in the category of brilliant minds). By the time the human body is on the downslope of thirty, those brain cells are starting to disappear.

So here is the connection my day today: one of my biggest frustrations during my time so far has been the language gap...chasm, canyon. I am certainly surrounded by a number of very proficient English speakers, but Xiamen is not Hong Kong, Beijing, or Shanghai where, I have heard, one has only slight problems functioning without a knowledge of Chinese. Xiamen is not teeming with obvious English speakers. Hence, I have been extremely motivated to get a basic grasp on the language. I have been spending some time each day on my language skills. However, I am no longer a young child with a sponge-like language-proned brain. I spent the day today trying to memorize the Pinyin pronunciation chart...something that looked easy, but proved mind numbingly byzantine...and practice some of my basic phrases. I am sure that many of you may have had the bizarre experience of spending hours studying something only to feel that very little actually stuck...well, that seemed like my day.

I taught for only a brief time this morning, so after class, I made my way to the air-conditioned comfort of the SM super mall (it is comfortably air-conditioned) just a few blocks from my home. I spent about nine hours at the SM working on basic vocabulary and that dreaded Pinyin chart. Mandarin (referred to simply as Chinese here;people stare blankly when I say Mandarin) is a fascinating language, but some of the sounds are quite difficult and my mind really doesn't have any bearings to grasp it right now. Though as a brief aside, I am proud of the fact that people say that I am pronouncing "xie xie" correctly (that is "thank you") with my tongue held back slightly, the edge take off the end of the "ay" sound and lips not in a full English "sh" state of protrusion...I've received some compliments--I have enjoy the small victories. When I learned my limited Spanish, I started by just attaching new words to the basic English structure; however Chinese has completely different word order and few grammatical similarities. I feel like my brain is simply flailing in some kind of tonal nightmare. I swear that there are several dozen words that are spelled "shi" in Pinyin and simply depend on tone and context for their meaning. Unfortunately, my personality doesn't allow me to simply throw up my hands and say, "I think I will just sail through the next three weeks on English". It is part of my personality disorder.

I have now finished my time teaching the English teachers at #6 and the senior one students. Xiamen Public School #6 all but shuts down this weekend as the students go on their summer break. On Monday, I will start teaching the children of the #6 teachers who have chosen to take advantage of my native English skills to get their kids some summer English practice. It should be quite different than the past two weeks; my sense is that there is a wide range of English skills held by my students to be. This weekend I am heading out on some Xiamen day trips, I will be sure to take pics and post the highlights on Sunday. Hope things are continuing to go well with all of you.


permalink written by  mflamoe on July 10, 2009 from Xiamen, China
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Xiamen, Wine, and Song

Xiamen, China

For those of you who are regular readers, you may, after reading this entry, begin to think that my time in China is just a pretense for me to enjoy the finer things of life...probably not far from the truth. Here is a snapshot: at 10PM last night I found myself in the backseat of a late-model Mercedes, careening through the beautifully neon-lit streets of Xiamen, while listening to the driver (my host father and the CEO of a sizable concrete corporation in China) sing "Happy Birthday" (the only English he knows...it was no one's birthday) at the top of his quite inebriated lungs. Yeah...probably not what YOU were doing last night at 10PM.

Last night I was wined (considerably) and dined (deliciously) at one of the swankiest dining establishments in Xiamen by the principal of Xiamen Public Schools #6. It was my first experience with the extravagant intersection of Chinese hospitality and protocol. The event was attended by the previously mentioned principal (sorry, passive voice you students of mine...see it sometimes works), one of the vice-principals, several English teachers, and my host family. After being ushered into a private room upstairs in the restraunt, I was seated right next to the principal, while my host father occupied the principal's other side. I was served personally by the principal (he put the food on my plate, poured me wine...again and again, and pampered my every need). Now given my language skills, I missed most of the conversation, but it basically centered around what appeared to be an endless series of toasts and counter-toasts. The presence of a Chinese coporate CEO in the person of my host father, introduced what is, apparently, a important element in parts of the Chinese corporate world...the significant consumption of alcohol. Many of you now that I am not a drinker; I don't enjoy alcohol that much, and I am certainly not a regular consumer, but the ability to drink and hold your drink well plays a part in the protocol (or so my teacher translators told me), so I felt compelled to prove my capabilities. Another very interesting niche of Chinese culture. The protocol hospitality that I enjoyed is certainly fascinating and quite different from American hospitality. While in America we would also certainly direct a high degree of hospitality towards the guest, the lavish attention to detail, from the seating arrangement to the food sequence, is quite different...and, I must say, quite enjoyable. I probably worked my way into a pickle by displaying some level of wine fortitude during the dinner. My host father (the concrete company CEO) now believes that I am some kind of American drinking god and has promised to take me out some evening in the not too distant future. Now his mastery of English is the inverse of his ability to consume alcohol--which is considerable (as the night wore on, it seemed that he came to the conclusion that my inability to understand Chinese could be overcome with an increase in the volume of his voice). So I now expect to find myself sometime in the next few days in some swanky Chinese nighclub attempting to knock back an endless series of drinks while a wildly gesticulating CEO attempts to beat the Chinese language into a my head with the simple force of volume. I'll let you know if that pans out.

Tomorrow I will teach my last class to the English teachers at Public School #6. I spent the day today attempting to explain our troubled system of public education and the various attempts at reform. As I may have mentioned in a previous entry (sorry, my mind is still a tad fuzzy), the Chinese are moving in the opposite direction as America. Their students are inundated with standardized tests; therefore, their entire curriculum is driven by getting their students to pass the these tests. Thus, for example, spoken English plays only a small role in their English classes since there is no oral component to the state-mandated tests. Several teachers have mentioned to me that they wish that there were more room in the curriculum to teach creative and critical thinking skills. They say that the government is now pushing that creativity and innovation play a more significant role in the general curriculum, but, since there is still so much pressure for the students to score well on the tests and since there is no test for creativity and innovation, such instruction does not happen. I say that the US and China are going in opposite directions because it is generally held that the US system does a decent job of teaching creativity and personal expression, sometimes to the detriment of basic skills and knowledge. Our public school system seems to be heading towards increasing our standardized testing to improve these basic skills. The Chinese system, by all reports here, does a great job of teaching basic skills and filling the kids up with general knowledge, but the Chinese public school system is trying to figure out how to introduce creativity into the curriculum because they see such skills as essential if they are to become, not just a growing industrial power, but a locus of new ideas and innovation.

One last thing--my last entry led to a few emails from some Jesuit students saying that they also experience a tremendous amount of family pressure to do well academically. This was in response to the listing of my Chinese colleague's description of the value of education in their society and the resulting pressure on students to succeed. I wholeheartedly agree that similar pressure exists at Jesuit. The pressure that these students feel corresponds very closely to what I see at Jesuit; the similarity is quite apparent. However, the idea that a student's educational success is a measure and reflection of the family appears to be more universal here than it is in the United States. Not that such sentiments don't exist in the U.S., but they are perhaps more deeply ingrained in the wider culture here. I am not an expert on Chinese and American culture, so I could be wrong. So please Jesuit students, I hear your stress. In fact, contrary to what I initially thought when I arrived here, I think Jesuit students spend just as much time, if not more, on their studies than their Chinese counterparts. It is true that the students at #6 start their day around 7AM and don't end class until around 6PM, but they have a two-and-a-half to three hour break in the middle of the day for lunch and rest. My fellow English teachers thought that our students had it easy when I first showed them our school schedule, but after I described the average day of a Jesuit student with school, co-curricular activities, and homework, some of them thought WE were crazy.

Until later.

permalink written by  mflamoe on July 8, 2009 from Xiamen, China
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The Cultural Values of China

Xiamen, China

OK...that title may or may not have grabbed your attention; it seems a tad bland and academic, but the topic did comprise a decent portion of my day. I will get to that in a second. In the picture to the right you see my senior one students working diligently on creating a "natural" conversation about two friends deciding which movie they would like to see. As you can see, such a conversation takes one's full concentration. But back to the title of my entry, my afternoon was spent discussing the differences in cultural values between the United States and China with the English teachers at #6 (for those of you who have missed previous posts, I spend an hour and a half a day discussing such topics in my clear, fluid English as embodied language practice and acting cultural ambassador) As a curious student of such cultural issues, I found the conversation quite intriguing. I outlined the familiar United States values of "freedom, self-reliance, hard-work..." , but then I was then able to sit and listen to my Chinese peers outline and explain what they saw as the dominant Chinese values. They were, in no particular order:

1. obligation/responsibility to one's family, community, country, and even ancestors
2. modesty in one's bearing or humility in one's being; the importance of recognizing one's need to learn from others, the important of "reflection" (yeah...very Ignatian) so as to not become to proud
3. respect for elders
4. education as more important than outward success (several agreed that educational success and advancement is far more important than one's economic or social status...then again, these are teachers)
5. the importance of one's spirit and sense of harmony over the need to be consumed by the desire for things

All good, interesting stuff. In fact, I could talk could go into depth on each of the above points as described by the teachers later for those of you who are interested. The thing that struck me most as an educator was listening to folks describe how a child's education is for many the "nucleus of the family" (their quote), and that a child's academic success is not a mere reflection of the student but rather the entire family. I, also as teacher, love the value of education, but I can't quite imagine the amount of stress that some of these students are under to succeed academically. The cultural primacy of education certainly must be a double-edged sword. (more below)

For those of you who stay abreast of the news, I was sorely tempted to ask my compatriots opinions of the events yesterday and today in Western China (demonstrations by and lethal crackdowns on the Uigyar minority)...but I chose to restrain myself. I'm still trying to get my bearings when it comes to what level of controversy is openly discussed. But along that line, the pictures above are quite interesting. As some of you geography nuts may know, Xiamen is city located adjacent to Taiwan; in fact, on the Eastern shore of Xiamen, you can see some of the westernmost islands of Taiwan. One of the pictures is of a giant sign that directly faces these Taiwanese islands. The sign was created to be visible from these Taiwanese islands (assuming the viewer has the aid of strong binoculars). Now some of you who know your Chinese characters may give a better take on what the sign says, but it was translated for me as "one country, two systems, China together/united". This is obviously a direct challenge to the latent but ever-present, simmering inclination on the part of the Taiwanese to publicly state their independence from China. I won't go into all of the politics here (though it is fascinating), but the stated looming political message to all clear-eyed Taiwanese is quite stark. Just to punctuate the point, there is a small, manned lookout just to the right of the sign, where the Chinese military maintains a lookout--apparently to serve as an advanced warning in case Taiwan decides to invade...hmmm. Apparently, though I could not verify this with my own eyes, the Taiwanese islet also has a similar sign that expresses clearly something to the effect of "China and Taiwan, two countries". Fascinating politics.

Well, I am off to find some scour the internet for Walt Whitman poems to present during tomorrow's English teachers class. I hope things are well with you and your kin back in land of amber fields of grain.

permalink written by  mflamoe on July 6, 2009 from Xiamen, China
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Should We Fear the Rise of China?

Xiamen, China

Hello Everyone. Thanks to those people who leave comments on my entries. It is nice to hear from folks. I have now been here officially for one week, and I have, this is no exaggeration, seen three white folks...all in one group of tourists on the island of Gulangyu. I must say that this is a bizarre experience. This is the definition of being in a minority. I have also gone five days without speaking to a native English speaker (aside from my wife via video chat...a wonderful technological breakthrough). It is a very strange experience to be surrounded by people but still be isolated. This dynamic may sound strange except to those people of you who have had such an experience of solitary travel. I have also not touched a fork for a full week...though my chopstick skills always evoke a chuckle from my host mother, who runs to the kitchen to get a spoon nearly every meal.

Today I taught United States History in 90 minutes to the English teachers here at Xiamen Public School #6. It really was fascinating; no, not my information, but our tour of history lead to a discussion of the rise of China and the fact that some Americans see China's economic and military growth as a threat (Ryne, if you are reading this you remember we had that debate in my International Studies course). My Chinese colleagues thought the fact that the United States could feel threatened by China was...well, humorous. They said they could not even conceive of why the United States should feel threatened. They said to a person that they view the United States as a friend from whom they need cooperation as they emerge from what they describe as a closed period in their history. The Chinese, they say, are desperate to learn from the United States and other countries; not to challenge them. What seemed to be percolating under the conversation was the implication that if either of the two countries should feel threatened it would be China; the United States has taken a much more aggressive policy with countries around the world than China has. They certainly seem to hold to the line that China's territorial issues lay only in its historical claims...that is, to its current borders, including Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Tibet. I must admit that my attempts to articulate and explain the perspective some may have in the U.S. of feeling threatened by China seemed quite ludicrous in such a context. For those who are interested, their was an op-ed by David Brooks in the New York Times on Friday (or Thursday--I'm not sure what day it was with the international dateline issue) where he discussed this issue of China's threat. It was interesting, though, that when we discussed Tibet, I could sense some level of reticence on the part of some to speak, but finally, one person said, "you know, the Dalai Lama is evil...he is not a good man". Very interesting. I don't know if my instruction on American literature, culture, and history is that helpful for them, but discussing such subjects while being completely immersed in another culture certainly refines my own understanding of our culture in ways that are hard to express...perhaps I will try later.

On a personal point, I successfully traveled to school this morning using public transportation--much to the worry of my hosts. I was given not one but two phones so that I could call out the cavalry if I got lost...I wonder if my hosts forget that I am a 39 year old man. Then again, I think that they fear for me given my Mandarin skills. I spent the morning with my senior one students working on the pronunciation of "r"...almost as difficult for them as some of the tongue tangling pronunciations for me in Mandarin.

I have included a few new photos today. One is the interior of my host "condo"; hopefully this will give you a sense that I am not exactly living amidst squalor. In fact I have the periodic sense that Marie Antoinette is going to appear sitting next to me...hmmm. My host family, as mentioned in my previous post, seems to be well off. I have asked my English speaking host what his father does; he says that he is a businessman but doesn't really seem to be able to explain more than that. His mother, my host mother (who is really about my age) offered one of their cars to me for my use while here. The have a new Mercedes, a Porsche Boxster, and a third car that I have yet to see (but I imagine that it is not a Yugo). The Mercedes, the only car that I have been in, has a small Chinese and Soviet (that's right, Soviet, not even Russian) flag on the dash in a very official looking configuration. I can't even guess what this means. These flags certainly make me quite curious about the father's job. I politely declined their offer of a car knowing both that I don't have an international license and that to drive here in Xiamen borders on lunacy. The streets are full of cars, bikes, mopeds, and pedestrians--all of whom seem to believe that they have the right of way in all situations. There appear to be very few obeyed traffic laws, and I do feel like I am putting my life at risk every time I get on a car or bus.

Tomorrow an Engish teacher at #6 is taking me on my second tour of the beautiful island of Gulangyu. It is a beautiful little island with tons of history that is very popular with the tourists--Chinese tourists apparently from the lack of non-Chinese tourists I saw their my first time around. I will try post some pics of the beautiful island tomorrow.

zai jian

permalink written by  mflamoe on July 3, 2009 from Xiamen, China
from the travel blog: Xiamen
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First Shot

Xiamen, China

Hello from China . This is my first post despite my presence in China for almost a week as I had very limited access to the Internet. I arrived last Friday the 26th, and I have had a shockingly busy time. The pictures to the left of of the lovely view from my hotel room in Xiamen. I arrived with two other Americans, and we were promptly deposited at a local hotel. The picture to the left is the view from my balcony. We quickly determined that we were being quarantined to ensure that none of use had the dreaded swine-flu. Luckily, as appears to be the case with many bureaucratic issues, quarantine didn't really mean quarantine. My hosts at Xiamen School #6 proceeded over the next few days to take me on tour after tour of the beautiful city of Xiamen...so if I had the swine-flu, I am sure that I passed it to everyone in Xiamen. My "quarantine" ended up only lasting a few days as an alum of #6 (who is on summer break from Michigan State...yeah, he said it was a tad too cold for him) invited me to live at his house. The other two Americans who are teaching in Xiamen have not been as lucky; they are still at the hotel as their school hosts (they are both teaching a different school than me) have wanted their quarantine to last the full seven days. I have now been living at this spectacular locale for four days. My new space is on the twelfth floor of a beautiful apartment building (I call it a condo) with gorgeous views and luxurious accommodations.

I started teaching "senior one" students (9th graders) at Xiamen on Monday (see the picture of the very well-behaved and well-dressed youngsters below). Luckily they seem to have gotten over their tendency to clap spontaneously and ask for my autograph whenever I am around them. Such unwarranted hero worship is quite unnerving. It seems that the reaction comes from the rarity of their exposure to Americans. They have had some native English speakers in the past, but apparently I am the first white American many of them have had as a teacher. I have also been teaching the English teachers at #6--all of whom are, obviously, Chinese. There are approximately 50 English teachers (all but three are women). I have been spending about an hour and a half each day talking about American culture, literature, history, etc. They have been sharing some very intriguing Chinese perspectives on these subjects which I will go into in greater detail on future posts.

I must admit I am suffering from both "foreign language fatigue" and "hospitality overload" (both terms I have coined). Mandarin is distressingly difficult to pronounce. I think I have finally mastered my tongue position when saying "yes". Hmmm. The fact that Mandarin is not a Latin or Germanic based language has hit home. My hosts at #6 are incredibly helpful and gracious, but I am experiencing the need to be a tad more independent. I plan to sneak out and take the bus from my "home" to the school tomorrow...which my hosts seem to think may indeed be an impossible task for me. Hopefully, a little more independence will make me feel more settled. We Americans like our independence.

There are many more things that I could write, but I have spent the last few hours creating a PowerPoint of American history (all of it) that I need to present to the English teachers tomorrow. I will try to write daily entries from now one. And hopefully they will not be written in a sweltering, Mandarin induced headache blur that I find myself in right now.

permalink written by  mflamoe on July 1, 2009 from Xiamen, China
from the travel blog: Xiamen
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