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Cross-posted at The Daily Kos and rescued! That’s two diary rescues in a row.

JISHOU, HUNAN, CHINA — Last time I wrote a diary for Teacher’s Lounge, I introduced myself and my experiences of teaching English in China for this past year. This time, I’d like to introduce you to my freshmen and give you some sense of their lives here.

We have just come back from an eight-day break for the National Holiday and Mid-Autumn Festival. The freshmen have started their classes, which means we faculty suddenly have many more classes to teach. My own courseload just doubled, in fact.

Chinese universities reverse the order in which students arrive at school, compared to the US norm. Here, the returning students arrive first, and begin classes right away. Then, two weeks later the freshmen arrive. Their orientation is generally brief and utilitarian — there’s none of those open houses and parties that are a major part of American Freshmen Orientation Weeks. All freshmen are also required to have military training; in Jishou University’s case, they had 10 days’ training between arrival and the National Holiday.

JiDa’s 4,000 freshmen arrived on a dreary, rainy weekend, beginning with the first trains at 6 am Saturday. Volunteers from the sophomores and juniors awoke at 4 am to be ready to meet the first arrivals, as they — some with parents in tow — staggered off the university buses shuttling between campus and downtown. The volunteers helped the freshmen find their dormitories and the dining halls, pay their school fees, pick up their military training uniforms (green camos), and find the local supermarkets. The last students arrived around midnight Sunday. Military training started promptly at 6 am Monday.

Last year and the year before, training was longer and included target practice with rifles. This year, the training was curtailed to include only physical exercises, marching and drill formation, partly to reduce the possibility of H1N1 infection. (About 20 of our returning students, out of 11,000, were diagnosed with H1N1 in September. All were quickly quarantined, and have recovered, thank you.)

An older student gives freshmen some advice.

When I first observed last year’s military training (which lasted nearly four weeks, in blistering heat), I was somewhat discomfited. As a child of the Cold War, I recalled the propaganda we heard back then about China and the USSR forcing military training on their youth, to prepare for an invasion of the USA and Europe. Needless to say, such invasions never occurred, and in any event, the freshmen do not receive combat training; it’s more readiness training, just in case China is invaded.

While I am student of World War II history, one major blind spot in my education (and self-education) was the Japanese occupation of China from 1937 to 1945. That occupation, marked by sheer inhuman cruelty and relentless aerial bombing, left an indelible mark on the Chinese psyche. I can’t help but wonder that the requirement that college students receive even a modicum of military drilling is in large part due to the bitter memories of occupation.

Drill practice

Taking a break

As I mentioned before, many of our students here are literally fresh off the farm. Many have never left their home villages. Ever. So, at the age of 18 or 19 or 20, they are for the first time miles and miles from home, from their parents, and from their high school buddies. For many, Jishou — a compact city of 300,000 — is the biggest (or only) city they have ever visited. They are scared shitless, very homesick and achingly inexperienced, but at the same time, full of hope and optimism.

My colleagues are likewise full of spirit. Recently, we all had fun in the office passing around some old photos brought in by Prof. Wang, who asked us to pick her out from college photos taken 27 years ago. Her Chinese co-workers were grabbing the photo albums from each other’s hands like a group of teenagers, wanting to see Wang laoshi in her younger days. We also admired photos she had of two local superstars: the artist/sculptor/poet/author/piccolo trumpet player Huang Yongyu and the singer Song Zuying, who with Placido Domingo helped close the 2008 Olympics (below).
Placido Domingo and Song Zuying

Huang was also involved in the Olympics, painting the symbolic multicolored tree to represent “One World, One Dream.” That award-winning painting now hangs in the Huang Yongyu Museum here at Jishou U.

Aside from this faculty frivolity, we are giving the freshmen a crash course in English pronunciation, so if you walked into our office between classes, you could see a half-dozen Chinese professors dutifully practicing their own pronunciation of those annoyingly difficult English consonants, like “th” and “zh” as in “measure.”

My first classes with the freshmen went well. For the majority, I and my British colleague, David, are the first foreigners, not to mention first foreign teachers, they have ever met. I could basically just show up and read a comic book, and they’d be impressed. One of my oral English classes applauded when I entered the classroom. The other, following one girl’s lead, sang a Chinese pop song for me. I had to pose for cell-phone photos at the end of one class with a number of the students. (After a year in country, I suspect my face is now spread liberally all over QQ, China’s equivalent to AOL and Facebook.)

As enthusiastic as they are, most of these students are terribly shy when it comes to speaking English. I will spend the next several weeks coaxing, cajoling and complimenting these students to get them to open up even a little.

As I recorded in my own blog last fall, my students have an inspiring and seemingly infinite supply of optimism and dedication to hard work. For some, this outward show of confidence and high spirits is a thin veneer over some very fragile souls. (Some of these freshmen are little more than children in many ways.) Sometimes their fragility peeks out from behind their masks, often very poignantly.

Rather than relate my possibly biased impressions of my students, I thought it would be interesting to have them “talk” directly to my readers. So, I asked my 60 English composition students to write self-introductions for me, advising them that I might share some of their remarks with a foreign audience. While very shy when speaking, as writers they are sincere and insightful. I hope you enjoy reading some of their work. I’ve grouped these excerpts by subject matter.

About coming to college

Sweet, a girl from Yueyang, Hunan, who loves Westlife and Allen Iverson:
I think everybody here is friendly, so I should never be nervous in my future university life. I met my foreign teacher today. In my eyes, he is easygoing and friendly. I think he will help me gain more confidence in my future life. I really thank him. I hope I can learn more meaningful things from my teachers and classmates in the future.

Peter, a boy from the Hunan countryside:
I’m 19 years old, however, my mother still thinks of me as a little kid. Compared with some classmates who are coming from Fujian or Guangdong, my home is not so far away as I thought, but I always feel homesick. After all, it’s the first time that I’m so far away from home. In fact, I don’t have much knowledge about my homeland, because I come from a little village and the study tasks weren’t too much.

Beryl, from Guangdong province:
My dream of entering university has come true. To my surprise, the life in college is so different from that in high school. Gradually, I will adjust myself to the big family. I am so glad I am here. For my dream, I will try my best.

Alice, talking about her parents’ hopes for her:

They just want me to become a useful girl and live a happy life. I so love them and even now I’m missing them very much.

Eagle, a boy from Shaoyang, a small Hunan town:
I’m somewhat shy for I lived there for so many years, and seldom went out. But now, I’m here, standing behind another starting line. As a person who wants to travel around the world, I really want to make you my friends.

About their goals in life:

Linda, from Changsha, the provincial capital:
I always feel shy, and when I talk with boys, I will be nervous. So I hope the boys can make friends with me. … In my heart, I love English very much. I hope I can speak English very well, but sometimes I haven’t the courage to speak and read loudly.

Tina, from Hengyang in southern Hunan:
Many friends of mine said, the first time they saw me, they all thought, “Oh, she must be a shy girl.” But after some days, they all found I’m active and humorous, because I want everyone to be happy. I often play jokes. … I like English very much. I promised that I would learn it well. So I’ll work hard in the future! I hope that one day I can communicate with foreigners fluently. And maybe someday I’ll go abroad to live or study and make a lot of friends there!

Penny, from Xinhua, Hunan:
I often think about my future, my life and my friends. I hope I could go abroad one day. I like France. I like its beautiful scenery, but I also like Shanghai — that is a great city. After graduation, I want to continue my study in Shanghai. In my opinion, I am beautiful. I would like to make friends and enjoy making them happy. I think friends are the most important part of my life. This is me, a simple girl.

Shelley, from the countryside of Hunan:
I want to be a country teacher in my county. I very much admire the teachers who died in the Wenchuan (Sichuan) earthquake (in 2008). To be a teacher like them is also my dream. I have many dreams. Some of them are difficult to reach, like to be a singer, to be a superstar and so on. Do you think it’s very funny? I think so.

Starr, also from Hunan:
I have three dreams. One is to be an English teacher. The second is that one day I will have a chance to travel around the world and make many foreign friends. The last is to gain enough money and try my best to help the poor people.

Lisa, who wants to make a lot of money:

In this way, I can help my parents live a better life. That is the point! My parents spent so much for me. I must give them a happy and comfortable life in their old age. So that’s my biggest goal.

Shining, from Yuanling, Hunan:
I had many dreams when I was a child. I wanted to be a policewoman, a doctor and so on. When I had grown up, I found I was too short to be a policewoman. To be a doctor? It’s impossible. I can’t stand the smell of the drugs. I’m even afraid of doing operations. It’s too terrible for me. So now my dream is learning English well, that someday I can go abroad. I’ll try my best. I believe if you think you can, you can. Nothing is impossible in the world. Just believe in yourself.

About their hometowns

Gloria, who today took second prize in an English speaking contest:
Hello, everyone! I’m Gloria. My hometown is Yiyang. It’s a city in the middle of Hunan province. Although it’s not a modern city with a powerful economy, it’s really suitable for us to live there. The air is clear, the sky is blue and the rivers are clean. Especially , the people in my hometown are friendly and optimistic. Most of them live a leisurely life without much pressure. I think this style of life is what we indeed need, because this society becomes more and more competitive and we all bear too much pressure to move on. …

Jackie, who wants foreign friends:
My hometown is Longshan. It’s a small county, but it is very beautiful. It has a lot of mountains and rivers. It’s not very developed, but it has its own culture. People there are kind-hearted. When some people come to visit Longshan, the [people there] will be very happy and enthusiastic to them.

Blanca, whose parents are village teachers:
My hometown is called Yongshun. I think it’s a beautiful place. There are a lot of trees. There is a river called MengDongHe — we also call it “Mother River.” In a natural park, Bu Er Men, every day you can see many old people go there, because it has a hot spring that is good for our health. The air is clean and fresh, so many people can live a long time.

William, who is from Guangdong, speaks Cantonese as a native language, not Mandarin (putonghua):
Guangdong is famous for its advanced economy and many people from other provinces or countries come to Guangdong for work. As a result, GD is becoming a multicultural place step by step, but you can still see many ancient buildings and traditional customs … I like reading, ping pong, drawing and music. I don’t care what style the music is if it can move me deeply. When having a break, I like to plan my future and think of everything. Almost everything can interest me. I’m just a funny boy.

How Long (really, that’s his name), from Yongding, Fujian province:

Though my hometown is not very big, our economy is developing quickly, Almost every family has a new house and a car. The transportation is more convenient than before. What we eat and drink have improved greatly, and have become much more healthy.

Jenny, whose father is a prof in our college and who took first prize in the English speaking contest:

I have lived in Jishou for 19 years. It’s a small city in the northwest of Hunan Province. There are two major peoples living here — one is the Miao people, the other is the Tujia people. And I belong to the Tujia people. We have our own customs that lots of people from various places are curious about. If you are interested in my hometown, I’m glad to be your guide.

Fenty, from Shenzhen:
As we all know, Shenzhen is a young city. Thirty years ago, Shenzhen was just a small village. There were no tall buildings, no wide roads, no trains, no airports, no museum, no schools, no park, and so on. At that time, people were living by fishing. However, in 1979, the leader named Deng Xiao Ping made a decision to support five cities, including Shenzhen, with an active (redevelopment) policy. Today, Shenzhen has become a big modern city with a big population. Shenzhen is a city of great chances; everyone can create his own life here. Nothing is impossible here.

And some general philosophies we can all live by

Gina, a quiet and homesick girl from Hengyang:
My life topic is happiness. I think happiness is good for us. Because of happiness, you can make friends with many people and study well. Life is always beautiful to a happy person, after all.

Joanna, from Loudi:
I lived in the countryside all my life, and I haven’t a rich family. But I live happily, because my parents love me very much. From now on, I will study hard. I hope that I can succeed one day.

Ritin, from Hunan’s countryside:
I like to smile. In my heart, a smile can solve any problems. I also like quiet, because staying alone I can think about many things. My motto is, “Perseverance is the mother of success.”

So, these are my Chinese students. In the weeks to come, their youthful enthusiasm and naivete will be tempered by failures and setbacks, and by the stark realities of living life on their own. Judging from my experience with their older colleagues, their respect for hard work and education will not change that much over time. If we are worried now about China becoming a superpower, think about what it will be like in 20 years, when these students start making an impact on their nation’s society and economy. Talk about a slumbering giant waking up.

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