Cars In China

When we first arrived in China, most of the roads were relatively empty, with buses making up most of the traffic. Yes, there were a few cars on the road, but they were owned by companies, not private individuals, because at that time (1993) we were told that it was illegal for a private individual to own a car. It appears that several years later, when more and more Chinese were able to afford a car, the law was changed so that cars could be privately owned. And the floodgates were opened.

When we first moved to Beijing (2001) it took about 30-45 minutes to take a taxi from the west side of Beijing between 3rd and 4th ring road to the northeast side of Beijing between the 3rd  and 4th ring road. Three years later, the traffic had become so congested that the same route regularly took 90 minutes or more.

In an attempt to limit the number of cars added to an already overworked transportation infrastructure, the Beijing government holds a lottery each month for people who want to purchase a license for a car (you’re supposed to buy a license before you can buy a car). According to this past Monday’s online issue of the Washington Post World, for the month of March, 970,000 people entered the lottery – for the 20,282 plates available for that month.

This statistic tells us at least two things: 1) there were almost a million people in March who wanted to get a license for a car; 2) more than 20,000 cars are added to Beijing traffic each month!


We invited several of our Uyghur friends over for an Easter party, complete with egg dyeing and an Easter egg hunt – in our living room. 🙂

Whenever you get a group of Uyghurs together, it’s not a complete party unless there’s music and dancing. Our party was complete. 🙂

Below are the links to two of the songs that we played and sang at our party. As you will see, it was an interesting mixture of Uyghur and American culture. And they sure had fun using their cell phone cameras to videotape each other!

Ap AkhCountry Roads

Uyghur Noruz Party (or, “Is he a Uyghur or a foreigner?”

Today I attended a Noruz party with several of our Uyghur friends. Noruz is the Uyghur New Year, and it always takes place on the first day of spring. Yes, I know, today is April 1, and the first day of spring this year was March 20. However, this is Xi’an, not Xinjiang, and most of the Uyghurs who live here are students, far away from their home in Xinjiang. So they organize their New Year celebration whenever they can.

This particular Noruz party was held at Jiaotong University across town. When I first heard about the party, I just wanted to go see what it was like. But once some of my Uyghur friends knew that I wanted to go, they wanted me to not only come watch but also play my dutar for the party, and they wouldn’t take no for an answer! As if I tried very hard to say no. 🙂

I had attended several events like this while we lived in Kashgar, so I thought I had a pretty good idea of what it was going to be like. Nope, wrong assumption! The biggest difference that I found was that me and one of my Uyghur friends were the only two people who were wearing a doppa, a decorative Uyghur skullcap. That was a big surprise to me, since just about everyone who attended a party in Kashgar wore a doppa.

Another difference was that I, one of the very few foreigners attending the party in the midst of a sea of Uyghurs, was the only one who played a traditional Uyghur musical instrument. Oh, there were lots of songs performed, but all of the other songs were sung with an accompaniment track (think karioke), no live instruments. Maybe the circle of friends that I had in Kashgar were more musical than most, but I don’t think so.

Since we arrived several hours early, we decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather and practice outside on the grass. It wasn’t too long before we attracted a small crowd of Chinese students who wanted to listen to the Uyghur music. It was interesting in an amusing kind of way to overhear some of their comments, “Are they all Uyghurs?” “I don’t know.” “I think maybe the old one (referring to me) is a foreigner.” “No, I don’t think so.” The same thing happened when we went to a small restaurant on campus for dinner. Most people just assumed that I was a Uyghur.

It’s hard to describe what I was feeling during the whole day today. For pretty much the whole time that we’ve lived in China, one of the most difficult things to bear, day in and day out, is the fact that I’m always seen as the different one, the foreigner. Most days it’s not a big deal, I can make a joke about it with kids who point at me and say, “Lao wai!” (old outsider, meaning foreigner). I sometimes point right back and say with a smile, “Xiao nei!” (little insider). But sometimes it gets to you, and you just yearn to fit in.

Today, I felt like I almost fit in with my Uyghur friends. Almost.

Saturday Is Monday, And Sunday Is Tuesday (or, “The Chinese education system’s crazy calendar”)

The Chinese educational system is…interesting, to say the least, when it comes to scheduling holidays. Wednesday of next week is the traditional Chinese holiday called “Qing Ming Jie” or Tomb Sweeping Festival, when Chinese people go to the tombs of their ancestors, tidy up the area around the tomb, and pay their respects to their ancestors.

The government has decided to give students a 3-day holiday – Monday through Wednesday – to celebrate this important traditional holiday. However, for some reason unbeknownst to every foreigner that I’ve talked to – and many Chinese as well! – the government has also decreed that the Saturday and Sunday before the holiday, classes will be held to “make up” for two of the days of the holiday.

That’s when it gets really interesting. Not only has the government decided that two of the days of the holiday need to be made up (not sure why they call it a 3-day holiday if two of the days are made up), but on Saturday students will attend classes that are normally held on Monday, and on Sunday students will attend classes that are normally held on Tuesday. So here’s what this coming week will look like: Saturday is Monday; Sunday is Tuesday; Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are holidays; Thursday is Thursday; and Friday is Friday. Whew! At least Friday is still Friday!

He’s All Grown Up!

Today in my Uyghur language lesson my tutor was teaching me how to say the body parts of animals that humans don’t have, like hooves (tuyakh), horns (munguz), etc. When he taught me how to say wings (khanat), he also told me about a Uyghur saying:

“Khanat-khuyrukhi yitilip khaptu.”

Directly translated into English, this sentence is:

“His wings and feathers have grown.”

Uyghurs use this sentence to refer to a young man who has just reached manhood and is ready to leave home, just as a young bird is ready to leave the nest once its wings and tail feathers are grown.

I wouldn’t push the analogy too far, though. Unlike some birds, I don’t think many Uyghur parents would actually push their son out into the street, just because he’s become a man!

Choka Tal Festival (or, “I love you, so stand still so I can hit you!”)

Tonight I went with a Uyghur friend to a restaurant on the other side of Xi’an that was supposed to have good Uyghur food. The food turned out to be okay, but the company was great.

As we discussed many different topics, he told me about a traditional Uyghur holiday called Choka Tal Festival. This festival takes place around the time when the willow trees put out its new growth in long slender switches, called “tal” in Uyghur. Apparently, the way the Uyghur boys celebrate this festival is that each boy breaks off one of these long switches, goes to find the girl he likes, and proceeds to whip her with the switch!

Obviously, since the switch is new and tender, it doesn’t hurt at all. After all, it’s supposedly intended to be a way for the boy to show the girl that he likes her. My friend told me that he distinctly remembers the first time that he did this, when he was in junior high. After he expressed his admiration to the girl he liked, she went out, found a bigger switch, and proceeded to beat him with it! He said, “The first time I tried, and I failed miserably!” 🙂

Hmm…maybe he should have woven the switch into a circle and given it to her as a wreath to put on her head instead of beating her with it. But then, you never know. Maybe she was just returning the admiration!

Language Study – Too Much, Too Fast!

GPA language study update:

Today I again witnessed the value of following Greg’s method because at one point in the lesson the nurturer wasn’t following it. One of the main activities is the introduction of a new set of vocabulary words. The nurturer is supposed to introduce two new words and teach them to the GPs. When the two initial words are learned, the nurturer adds one more new word, and so on, continuing to add one new word as the GPs learn each one in combination with the other new words.

The nurturer had been so impressed with the ability of the GPs to quickly learn new words (they have been doing amazingly well!) that she decided to begin with three and then add two new words at a time. As a result, the GPs found themselves suddenly struggling to remember the previous words that they had learned, much less learn the new words solidly. But the nurturer had it so fixed in her mind that the GPs were doing well, that she missed the fact that they were suddenly not responding correctly and making many mistakes. I found it necessary to talk with the nurturer during the break and point out that the GPs were suddenly making many more mistakes than usual, and to encourage her to follow the method, even though the GPs seemed to be doing so well.

Yep, there’s a method to Greg’s madness…er, rather, there’s a reason for his method, and it behooves us to follow the method!

Who, Us?? Illegal Aliens??!!

Due to a number of reasons that I won’t go into on this blog, several of us foreign teachers needed to renew our visas very shortly after the second semester began. What should have been a relatively straightforward process – wasn’t.

So unless the school gets the necessary paperwork to us in time tomorrow, it appears that we might become illegal aliens when our current visa runs out. Hmm…I wonder how being an illegal alien in China compares to being an illegal alien in the U.S.?

No, Mike, don’t go there!

[March 9 update: At the eleventh hour, we were able to submit all of the required paperwork. Whew! I guess we won’t become “guests” of a different kind of the Chinese government after all!]

Are You A Student, Or A Growing Participant?

I’m responsible for planning the language lessons for three girls who have come to Xi’an to study Chinese for one semester. I’ve been a fan of Greg Thomson’s Growing Participant Approach for several years now, ever since I attended one of his seminars in how to become a language coach, and I thought this would be a great opportunity to put it into practice.

The basic concept of his approach is that when you want to learn a new language, you shouldn’t think of it as just another academic subject like math, history, or science that you would take in school. Rather, you should think of it as experiencing a new culture, or as Greg says, “Don’t learn the language! Rather, relearn the world, as it is known and shared by the people whose language you are learning.”

This has major ramifications for not only how instruction and learning take place, but also the assumptions that we attach to the words we use, like “teacher” and “student.” Since our goal is to learn how to participate in a new culture, and the word “student” has certain assumptions attached to it, this approach uses the term “growing participant” as a more fitting term that describes who we are as we learn about the new culture, as well as to help avoid the assumptions attached to the word “student.”  Likewise, the word “teacher” carries with it definite assumptions, assumptions that might not be conducive in helping a person participate in a new culture. The responsibility of the person who introduces a new culture to a GP (growing participant) is much more than just presenting lessons and correcting homework; they need to understand that the GPs will begin with about the same communication ability as a newborn, at least in the new culture. Therefore, they will need to have the attitude of a nurturer, helping the GPs along in their ability to comprehend the new culture, encouraging them and correcting them when necessary. So rather than calling this person a teacher, this approach uses the word “nurturer.”

After presenting the basis of this approach to more than 20 Chinese grad students who wanted a chance to be the “nurturer” and then interviewing them all, I settled on three of them that seemed to grasp the concept best. Then the real work began – modifying the sample sessions in Greg’s materials so that it would be tailored to the Chinese language. Then the sessions – and the excitement – began!

One of the distinctives of Greg’s approach is that for the first three weeks the GPs do not speak during the sessions. Listening and comprehension are developed via a variety of activities, while the other three language skills of speaking, reading and writing are not introduced at all. The theory of this approach is that you are able to learn a LOT more of the new culture and language if you are only responsible to comprehend what you hear rather than also being responsible to reproduce.

From the very first session, the accuracy of this approach was evident. By the end of the first 3-hour session (actually, three 50-minute sessions with 10-minute breaks between) the girls were able to accurately comprehend over 60 words!

Then the reality of how fast they were able to learn when they only needed to focus on listening became very obvious at the end of this first session when they were taught how to say a couple of “survival sentences” that would equip them to be able to go shopping. For this first session it was just the numbers 1-10 and the sentence “How much does this cost?” When they switched from the listening exercises to trying to speak, their progress – which up until that point had been in overdrive – dramatically slowed to an agonizing crawl, with them struggling to accurately reproduce the most basic sounds in Chinese.

Yep, that was definite proof in the value of the Growing Participant Approach!