09 August 2015

How I Ruined my Summer Vacation

In my previous blog post I ranted and complained about one very long, very stressful 36-hour superday flying back home from Beijing, China. It was a genuine rant. I meant every word. However, I don't wish to give anyone the idea that the whole trip was so angst-filled and absurd. It wasn't. The four weeks I lived large and sorta worked in Beijing was an experience that I cannot adequately describe--yet I shall try my best.

Once upon a time I was invited by a university in Beijing to teach a course for four weeks in July. I had mixed feelings about the opportunity. First, I would be teaching--and if you know a teacher then you know the summer vacation is quite sacred; there is to be no teaching during that time. But it seemed it would not inconvenience me too much. I thought it would be four days a week, a couple hours per day, like we do at my university here. I planned accordingly with regard to my flight schedule and my visa. By the time I was flying there, I had learned that I would only be teaching the course three hours a day on Monday and Wednesday mornings.

So I desperately wondered what I would do with a four-day weekend. I had visited Beijing twice before so I had already done the tourist thing with the major sites like the Forbidden City (aka Imperial Palace [aka Palace Museum]), the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, and so on. I had visited the new sights, too, all the "weird" modern architecture in the central business district. I had hit the well-known shopping avenues, as well. So I decided there must be some smaller sites to see. I could make it work. I refused to let myself be bored. (More on that later.)

View from my hotel window on first morning; sun trying to shine through pollution haze.
The buildings are dormitories of the university, across the street from hotel.
The university put me up in a decent hotel across the boulevard from the campus. I only had a 10 minute walk between my room on the fourth floor of the hotel near the west gate of the campus and the first-floor classroom in the building at the far southeast corner of the campus. As a "typical" Chinese hotel (that is, not intended for Western guests), it was clean and comfortable. I really had no complaints although other guests were often a problem and there were a few "minor" incidences with the housekeeping staff. (More on that later.)

Usually it was a pleasant walk to school, trying to get there a little before the 8 am start. It was not so hot or humid at that early hour. I dressed professionally but without coat and tie yet the 10 minute walk in the often oppressive humidity, locked in under a lid of brown haze, produced a flood of perspiration which began about the time I arrived in the air conditioned classroom and continued for much of the next hour. Luck of the genes. 

In four weeks, I failed to scientifically explain the phenomena. The cold of the a/c unit in the classroom caused a reaction to my overly heated skin and with so many pores opening condensation resulted. Any meteorologists here? I tried different shirts; some breathed and some did not. Same result: an unsightly mess for much of the class period. Fortunately, my students did not seem to mind. I should mention that I employed proper hygiene every day so, while perhaps unsightly, I was not unpleasant to be beside.

The Bird's Nest at the start of my visit.
The course was business writing. While a seemingly innocuous set of lessons in the obvious, I slanted the course (in my proposal to the university) to teaching the way American business likes writing to be done. I covered the usual business documents, American style and grammar issues, and things to consider when writing for business such as biased language and cross-cultural considerations. The cross-cultural lesson is designed to acquaint American students with the other ways people around the world think, see, and argue differently than Americans do. For my Chinese students, I flipped it over so they were learning how Americans typically think, see, and argue. 

The Bird's Nest an hour later when the haze left.
Did I mention that all classes at the university were taught in English? Except, well, the foreign language courses. That was my first concern: how well did the students understand English? I found most of my 58 students (only 6 were boys) to be quite proficient, especially in their writing. I began each lesson slowly, enunciating my words, choosing more basic vocabulary to help them ease into an English environment after a weekend "back in China." I had my five years of teaching English in Japan to help me with how I conducted the course. After the class ended each day, a few students always gathered to chat with me or ask questions. I also was given an assistant who made copies of handouts, collected papers, and served as a go-between for the students. He was quite helpful. I felt spoiled there.

Me at Lama Temple. No alpacas!
This blog post is only intended as an overview of my month in Beijing. I'll expand and complain further--or explain, as the case may be--various aspects and events in coming blog posts. Yet, I will leave you with two thoughts today: I spent many strangely hypnotic sessions alone in my hotel room, intrusive housekeepers be damned, writing on my newest novel. The new book had nothing whatsoever to do with China. I started it in April and did not want to set it aside for a month. I brought materials with me that were part of my research as well as stimulation for writing a story which is set in Greenland. As it was, I wrote about 50,000 words just while I was in Beijing. (More on that later.)

Inside is the big Buddha carved from a single huge tree trunk.
I also shall continue the theme of a reverse vacation by showing you pictures from my last week in Beijing--just before I boarded my flight and had that awful experience I previously wrote about. 

On the Monday of the last week, I presented the final lesson and collected final projects. On the Tuesday, I went out sightseeing and souvenir shopping. On Wednesday was the final exam. After that Wednesday class, I again went out sightseeing. I went to the 2008 Olympic facilities which were only under construction during my previous visit in December 2007. I then visited the famous Lama Temple, home to a really huge Buddha carved from a single huge tree trunk (no photography allowed). So I saw the modern and the ancient, the new and the old in the same day. I also got some ice cream.

Next time: More on that later.

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