Recently I have wondered if all of the questions posed to me by family and friends would be much better answered by making a list. Below are the most common questions that I have heard, I hope it will aid you in understanding my service here.
What is the most challenging aspect of life in China?
There are several challenges, as a teacher I would say I am most frustrated by student's apathy towards education. From an early age Chinese students are under a great amount of pressure to perform well. By the time they reach college, however, they seem to associate all areas of study with dry, monotonous preparations for major tests, and not with anything resembling their interests in life. Thus many of the students will choose not to expand their knowledge beyond the bare necessities.
This has been an unfortunate reality for me, as I along with many of my peer volunteers have tried to embrace a more active learning style. Though some students are eager to try something new, others find it is not of any immediate use to them and will choose not to participate.
2. How much of your time is spent preparing for and teaching classes?
Each week I have about 14 hours of class time. Plus prep time, which is about half of that. Also I have office hours (4 hours a week), when students can come chat with us outside of class, and several hours are devoted to the weekly school activities.
I spend the rest of my time studying Chinese and catching up on studies for grad school.
3. What is your relationship with other teachers and faculty?
Although Chris and I have a good relationship with the faculty, especially the office which handles our affairs, we do not often encounter other teachers. Many of them spend few hours at the university after teaching and/or are not willing to speak with us for fear that their English is not good enough. This is another frustration, as neither Chris nor I care in the slightest about their level of English.
4. What are the students like?
Students are exceptionally obedient and hardworking. Though many seem unenthusiastic about learning, they are nonetheless eager to succeed. According to custom, Chinese teachers are looked upon with great respect. For this reason, students have impressed me with their politeness.
5. Where do your students come from?
Most come from farmer or worker families around Sichuan. However, there are the occasional few who come from far eastern provinces such as Zhejiang, Hunan, Jiangxi, etc.
6. What kind of career choices do your students choose?
Many of my English major students will become teachers, though few have ambitions to do so. Several have expressed interest in office work or various business positions. Most also want to go abroad, despite the difficulties.
7. How does Yibin University rank against other schools in China?
The school is not well known nationally, but compared with other schools in Sichuan it is not so bad. Many of the students will tell you that they are there because they did poorly on their 高考Gao Kao (college entrance exam). I would have to say, though, that the school is developing quickly and is already nicer than many of the other universities I have seen outside Chengdu.
8. How does the school rate students?
As with all schools in China, the educational training (for English, anyway) is solely in preparation for the next test. My students will take two major national English examinations. If they fail the tests, they fail the school.
9. What does the average volunteer do with their free time?
Study Chinese, go bike-riding, read, hold student club meetings for movies, running, reading, etc., explore China, learn Tai-Qi, go out and meet Chinese friends and/or play mahjong.
10. Do you have Chinese friends? If so, do you hang out with them during your free time?
Yes and yes. My Chinese tutor and I are good friends, as well as some of the other teachers and local residents that I have met. On the weekends I will invite them to a movie or we will go out to dinner. Luckily my Chinese friends and I can speak comfortably in either English or Chinese so communication is easy. On occasion we will also go to KTV (karaoke, hugely popular in China), but I loathe singing and tend to avoid it.
11. What sort of cultural differences exist between you and your Chinese friends?
So many, but not as many as you might think. Depending on who you speak with the cultural differences can be large to insignificant. For example, my tutor is familiar with many western habits and humor and so is easier to speak with. However, when speaking with my students I often feel a disconnect, usually because many of them remind me of teenage girls obsessing over High School Musical.
Similarly, many Chinese have different ways of enjoying themselves. They tend to favor large dinner celebrations with great amounts of drinking, going out to do Tai Qi or playing mahjong. Also, as I have mentioned, most love KTV.
12. Do you often have the opportunity to travel?
We do not often have the opportunity for long-distance travel, except for the summer and winter holidays. During the year, however, there are many local sites I will visit around Yibin. Also, I try to visit other volunteer sites as often as I can.
13. What do you eat? Can you find western food?
There are many varieties of Chinese food here which I can eat. If I am with a group we will get shared dishes. At that time we will get such dishes as Kung Pao chicken (much different than its counterpart in the U.S.-spicy, not sweet), twice-cooked meat (a pork dish), fried egg and tomato, meat and potato, spicy tofu, fried cabbage or spinache and several others. If I am alone I will probably get fried rice with beef. Or jiao zi (a kind of dumpling), noodles, etc.
Surprisingly if you go downtown there is a KFC, but I don't go there unless I am really craving western food.
14. What are the biggest frustrations of life in China?
As any foreigner living in China knows, it is common to be stared at or taunted while walking down the street. Nearly everywhere you go a foreigner can expected to be called a "lao wai," or old foreigner. This can get real old real quick, and along with the sense that everyone is staring at you is probably the most frustrating thing to encounter. Many volunteers have complained of Chinese talking about them loudly and openly even while they are standing in clear view. The problem tends to arise from the belief that all foreigners do not speak even basic Chinese, which is rarely true of long term residents. Also, many Chinese in cities like Yibin have never seen a foreigner, so will on occassion walk right up to you and simply stare, creating a frustrating atmosphere. In the end, the more Chinese language you know the more likely you are to notice others talking about you. For this reason, I always carry my trusty iPod.
15. Are there traces of rural China in Yibin?
Yes. Even in a city as large as Yibin, there are still farmers on the streets. Usually they come to sell street food or goods on their own. I find them to be the most down to earth and interesting. The real weathered and dirty ones still walk around with a pipe in their mouth and some sort of banana stand behind them. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to communicate with them, owing to their extremely thick accent and rare knowledge of standard Mandarin.
When I try, however ,they are very nice.
16. Are you questioned about American policies?
Whether in class or on a bus I will occasionally be called upon to explain American policies. In the classroom I am forbidden to speak about politics, but outside I can usually answer questions without causing too much of a stir. The more objective your answers the better. If the students ask a specific question, try to stick to the point and not defend western value systems with idealogical arguments. The more objective your answer, the better.
Surprisingly, Chris and I can expect to be barraged with questions immediately following an event, including but not limited to the Giffords' shooting, Libyan air strikes or Obama's campaign strategy.
17. How many volunteers have left prematurely in your group?
Several have left due to health problems, family emergencies or frustrations. I do not know the exact number but I would assume it is roughly 15-17 of the original 90 or so.
18. How often does Peace Corps get involved with life at host site?
We are visited by our program manager, who oversees most of our site concerns, about once or twice during service. Also, we are visited by a medical officer to check on our health safety at site at least once. Other than that Peace Corps does not usually visit again unless there are special circumstances.
19. What can you tell me about Yibin? For example, is it famous for anything?
Yibin is well known for being the first city on the Yangtze river. Although the Yangtze technically flows farther west into Tibet, Yibin has historically been the last stop for ship traders.
If you have ever read the book Wild Swans you will know that the author, Jung Qiang, is from Yibin. She is also famous for several other books as well. The former primier of China, Li Peng, is also a former local of Yibin.
Close to Yibin is the largest area in China of bamboo forestry, called the bamboo sea. It is famous now throughout China and is the same bamboo site seen in the movie "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon."
Lastly, Yibin is quite famous throughout China for it's liquor company Wu Liang Ye.
20. What is the best part about living in China?
I have enjoyed living in China since college. The opportunity to improve my language abilities, expand cross-cultural understanding and discover new areas of the world continues to excite me.
I value all of the time I have spent in China thus far. In terms of service, Peace Corps China volunteers are fortunate to have a more strict and identifiable schedule, allowing us a more tangible pride in our work.