China JournalWednesday, February 27 through Friday, March 1.
First the saga of the transportation, then the school.
Wednesday was my first day of school. We had traveled the path enough in the car that I was confident I could find it on my own. Whatıs more, I truly wanted to be independent so I wouldnıt have to hamper either them or me in our comings and goings. I had brought my school backpack that has both wheels for rolling and padded straps for wearing so I would be ready for independent travel. For the first day of school, I said I was going to walk. (They had been talking about getting me a bike from the beginning but no bike had materialized.) Fu Ling was really distressed at the thought of me walking; I was just as firm in my desire to walk. Finally she said ³tomorrow² (her daughter Zhang Jie who speaks little English was interpreting) and I agreed to that. So we climbed in the car with Jian Goa.
The next day, Thursday, I started downstairs when they went down and said I was walking. Fu Ling knew she was caught but was really distressing over it. Then she motioned to put the bag in the car so they would deliver it. I pulled out the handle to show how it rolled, smiled, waved, and started off. I wouldnıt have been surprised to be tailed, but I had not anticipated what else was going to happen. I happily walked briskly down the street and when, after going over one bridge and under another, I approached the corner where I would turn, there was Sun Zhi Hong on his cell phone, watching for me. I donıt know how they got him there that fast. We laughed and walked the half block to the school. (It had been a fifteen minute walk.) There parked in front was the car with Fu Ling outside laughing as I approached. We walked in the gate to many oohs and aahs. I had promised I would call Zhang Jie as soon as I arrived so I did that at the guard station. Immediately there were several other men in the conversation. Sun Zhi Hong took us over to the row of teachersı bikes and, with charades, looked at the differences to see which type I wanted. The one with the low womanıs harp had small size wheels and the one with the double but still low harp had large wheels (which is what I chose). We also decided on the handle bar shape. They borrowed the key for the large one, which happened to belong to the English teacher whose name I canıt pronounce, so I could try it. I did a turn around the courtyard for them with my usual bring-the-right-leg-through dismount, which convinced them I really did ride bikes. By noon the men had a beautiful blue bike down in the courtyard for me. Chalk one up for Jerry! The frame, which is the largest of the ones in the yard, is smaller than Iım used to so, even with the seat at the highest, I feel a bit as if my knees will hit my chin. Thatıs the style here. They all ride sitting very upright at a steady but not hurried pace. The English teacher whose name I canıt pronounce told me she was supposed to bike home with me to be sure I made it. She understood where I was coming from and I knew she had to do what the boss asked, so we mutually decided that would be a one-time escort. However tonight, when it was time to go home, Fu Lingıs husband just happened to be there and walked out with me to get my bike.
Today when I went to school, I took my bike in and parked it. Then I walked back out the gate to go to the ³supermarket² a block away to try to locate some school supplies. I waved goodbye to the guard and indicated where I was going, but she wasnıt there when I came back in. Apparently I had the school in a panic because they couldnıt find me. Fu Ling and the director called each other several times because they were sure I was lost. Iım extremely well looked after! If a person were paranoid heıd think it was the government keeping close tabs on him, but I know it is just people who feel responsible taking care of their precious grandma.
Now to the schoolBohan Tianjin Primary School is a private school that has grades one through six. There are 180 students, about 25 students per class (two sections in the fourth and fifth grades). Most reside in Tianjin but some are from as far away as Korea and Hong Kong. They arrive at school every Monday morning prepared to stay for the week and are picked up at 4:20 on Friday afternoons. If my question was understood correctly, the ones from out of town (or country) fly home every weekend. (Iıll ask that question again in another month.) They donıt wear a strict uniform, but they all have a school jacket in white and red and a red neck scarf.
The building is a three story building, attractive by the local standards, and fronts on a courtyard used for exercise time. The complex has a high fence around it and a guard station at the entry. It is concrete inside without floor covering which means in the winter it does not warm up. My coat never came off the first day. Since then Iıve added more layers of clothing. (The temperature today ranged from about 34 to 55.) The dormitory rooms on the third floor hold eight to 16 students in simple, double deck wooden beds. Each has a stuffed pad, an identical pale green comforter with an animal embroidered on it and folded just so, and a pillow with a red and white hand towel spread over it.
The bathrooms are down the hall...the boysı toilet at one end, the girlsı at the other, with separate washrooms. The bathroom on the second floor, which is where I share an office with the two English teachers and the music/art teacher, follows the same pattern, however there is only a single washroom. When you walk into the very roomy toilet room, you see on the far right two of the raised platform squat toilets. There are no doors on them and the barriers between come to around rib high. It took me a day to get used to the toileting arrangement. Thank goodness for my good camping training. I always was proud of my aim when I dug a hole in the woods! The Chinese, who used to call you over in the fields to contribute to their night soil, obviously have what is probably a healthier attitude than we have about bodily functions. The toilet is used by both staff and students, and you could have a faculty meeting in there as you take turns. Since there are often several students standing in front of each open toilet, you do your business and then step down to let someone else step up while you are arranging your clothes, usually carrying on a conversation the whole time. On Friday, we three English teachers ended up in there at the same time comparing all the different layers we were each wearing, and they learned that what I was pulling up under my slacks were called long stockings, not socks. You never know where a new vocabulary opportunity will arise. You walk across the hall to the washroom to wash your hands. This is an open room with one continuous ten-inch wide tile-lined sink running around the whole perimeter. Above the whole length are two pipes and sets of about eighteen faucets. The presence of the second pipe raises false hopes. There is no hot water. The water from even the far end runs along the tile until it reaches a drain opening. From there it drops, in the open, to another tile-lined trough below that is about six inches wide, and from there to another drain hole and into the netherworld. The floor is lined with rubber pads. In the dormitory floor there are about eighteen shower-heads above the eighteen pairs of faucets. Wide openand, Iım sure, very cold. Even in the home the invitation to a meal is stated as ³Wash your hands². True to form, before lunch is served, each class goes into the washroom to wash hands (no towels or dryers) and comes walking out informally in parallel lines shaking the water off.
Classes start for the students at 8:00 in the morning and end at 5:40. Morning classes are forty minutes long; afternoon ones last 30 minutes. There is a thirty minute exercise break at 10:00 in the morning and another in the afternoon. The lunch hour lasts for two hours because lunch itself is followed by an absolute quiet time/nap on their beds.
Each class has a room and stays in that room for all activities. The teachers move from room to room which ours donıt do until the older grades. Frankly I think it is a good idea because each subject is taught by someone for whom that is a specialty. Having visited several classes, I am very impressed with the teachers! There is a ten minute break between classes. I wasnıt prepared for how eager the students are to be the one or ones who help you carry your supplies to and from class.
Lunch hour is very interesting to watch. Even lunch occurs in the same classroom. After the hand washing ritual, several children from the class go down to the kitchen to help bring up supplies. Metal mugs are already in the room. The helper children and several adults arrive carrying the pile of compartmentalized trays, a dishpan full of rice, two pots with handles full of the two main dishes, a wash bucket full of soup, a plastic dishpan full of metal soup bowls and the thin metal Chinese style spoons. (Spoons are used in the first three grades; chopsticks come from fourth grade up.) The children come up one at a time and get their tray which the adults are serving and take it back to their seats. Then they go get a spoon and a bowl of soup which an adult is serving with a big ladle. None of this is done in a rigid manner, but it is all well organized and the children know their part. They are allowed to begin eating when they get their food. When everyone is served, the teacher says, ³You may eat, children², and they reply, ³Thank you for the food, teacher.² Meanwhile the teachers who donıt have a homeroom assignment take their bowls down to the kitchen and bring up their lunch to eat in the office. The two English teachers have bowls that they share between them just as in the home. Iım spoiled because they bring my vegetarian food separately. The food at school tends to be very heavy in salt, MSG and oil. (My Chinese-American seat mate in the San Francisco Super Shuttle warned me that Tianjin food was too heavy in grease.) Iım not sure how this trade off with all the vegetables will work in terms of an over all healthy diet. (Fortunately the food at home is much less salty and oily.)
At the beginning and end of each class is a routine I have still not quite mastered. There is a bell or a buzzer that supposedly rings but I havenıt pinpointed it exactly. At that signal the students, who during the break were all over the room and free to go to the toilet, sit up very straight in their chairs with their hands in back of them at attention. The teacher tells the students to stand up or has a student who does it. The teacher says, ³Good morning, class² to which the students respond in loud chorus, ³Good morning, teacher². Then the teacher indicates they may sit. Something similar happens at the end when the children say, ³Thank you, teacher². So far as I can tell, such group directions and responses are in Chinese with the exception of the greeting at the beginning and end of class.
One of the most startling parts of the routine is the gusto with which they do choral recitation and response. Iıve already mentioned the volume level of spoken Chinese. Multiply that by twenty-five enthusiastic young voices trying to make themselves heard and it is overwhelming. They are not shouting; it is just very loud, firm recitation. One of the first things I am trying to get across is the difference between ³Repeat² and ³Answer². They would, of course, always rather repeat. Eventually I may figure out a way to show that English is not spoken at that volume.
It has taken awhile to get the information about what they are learning or have learned in English. I still donıt really have a clear picture. The logic of the books they are using (government issue) escapes me. It isnıt the order of word presentation that I would have expectedbut I know nothing about primary school. So far all the classes have gone okay, some better than others, except the first grade class. It was a disaster. There was no Chinese teacher in the room with me, the kids are new to the school routine, it was a class of all boys and only two girls and they acted like it. From now on there will be a Chinese teacher there too. They canıt speak English, but if they pay attention they can figure out from hand motions what I want. The next day the second grade teacher was great, and we had a really good session there. Meanwhile my sister, who is an expert in primary school ESL, is starting to feed me ideas. Hopefully that will get me through. As I was working my way through that first grade bedlam in the first class, I kept thinking, ³Five months?² I think of all the materials I could have sent ahead if I had only known Iıd have the little guys. And, so far as I can tell, there are no ³school supply² stores here. Any ideas from you primary teachers out there are welcome!
In spite of the challenge of the little ones, Iım thoroughly enjoying the school. The two English teachers are so glad to have me, and weıve set up a good working relationship already. We eat lunch together clustered around one desk and continue on through the rest hour with an English session of just us. The director/headmaster, who is a jewel, is eager to learn English, so she is going to join the noon time sessions. I would rather have her at a different time than the English teachers since she is a beginner, but it will work because the English teachers have lots of gaps in vocabulary and pronunciation and they can help the director too. (The director commented that when she went to school they were being taught Russian. Eventually Iıll find out when the shiftover occurred.) Meanwhile the kids come bursting into the office between breaks because they all want to speak English with me, even though most donıt know where to go with the conversation after the first pre-planned question. The hallways echo with ³Hello, Miss Jerry² accompanied by many giggles and waves as I walk throughand thatıs a happy feeling.