The New Normal

So I’ve been listening to Radiolab podcasts like it’s my job lately.  (If you’ve never heard Radiolab, immediately go here- and podcast archived episodes.  They will change your life.  A big thanks to Leah C for the recommendation!).  Yesterday I listened to one titled The New Normal, and I started to think about my new normal.  I’ve been here for long enough now for my hair to fully suffer the effects of my apartment’s hard water, to experiment with new buses, to discover the vinegar-rinse cure for my beleaguered hair, and to find the perfect short boots (I’ll try to come up with a picture later, but suffice it to say that they must have been made just for me by some angel of Shoe Love).
It’s amazing how much having a job contributes to my new sense of normalcy, this feeling that, if I don’t think about it too hard, I’ve always lived in China.  I have now memorized my erratic teaching schedule and about half of my students’ names, and using a squattie in a dress with tights doesn’t phase me at all.  One of the women who works in the canteen saves a bowl of my favorite eggplant dish for me when they serve it.  I know how to work the projectors in all 14 of my classrooms.  I like the outdoor hallways.  I exchange hellos and ni haos and peace signs with almost everyone on campus.  Things are good.
I’m especially proud of my easy transition into working life here as a person coming from an environment ruled by bells and calendars planned 2 years in advance.  During the first week of classes, 2 of my sections were shuffled around in my schedule to earlier times, and although no one really told me this was happening/had happened, it all worked out and I eventually found my students.  2 weeks ago, one of my senior classes was canceled- canceled, not rescheduled- with about 16 hours of notice, and that was fine too. 
This week, on the cusp of the Qing Ming holiday (for which we have Monday and Tuesday of next week off), the school had planned a “spring outing” for its students on Saturday.  This is an annual tradition: the school takes the students hiking somewhere for the whole day to enjoy the weather and to be outside together.  Though this isn’t a trip that foreign teachers are mandated to attend, if it rains we have to show up at school to teach our Monday classes.  Last week, they changed the spring outing to Friday.  Now, if it rains, we teach Monday’s classes on Friday, and no matter what, we’ll teach Friday morning’s classes on Saturday.  Just the morning sections though, because the Science Festival will take place on Saturday afternoon (see picture below for Science Festival flags; very colorful on campus these days).  Phew.  Even if you’re not/were never a teacher, as a student, can you imagine your school scheduling classes on a Saturday?  Or scheduling classes that are contingent on the weather?  Chinese people really know how to roll with it, man.  I’m taking some of that home with me.
I also didn’t bat an eye when 4 of my Senior 2s told me this week that they’d be heading home for a while to prepare for the S.A.T.  “Don’t worry, Nelson.  We’ll be back after the test.  In May.”  Huh.  All righty.  Good luck on the test, and I salute your studious diligence.  Students here are literally allowed to take up to a month off from all of their classes to study for the S.A.T.  It’s that important, and I understand: it’s the key to attending college in the US, and they must take the test in English because it’s not offered in Chinese.  All of their eager little eggs are in this one basket, and they really, really want a good score.  A great score.  The best score.
On a related note, I’m helping this Senior 1 boy, Brian (not Brain- he’s only a Junior 3), practice the essay section of the S.A.T.  He’s actually a native Korean, but moved to China at age 9, so he’s fluent in Korean, Chinese, and English.  He says English is his weakest language- hence the extra writing help- but he’s doing just fine.  A lot of my students are like this- proficient or more than proficient in English and yet exceedingly humble about their skills, to the point where they turn in an assignment and tell me, “Please don’t even read this, Nelson.  It’s terrible!  I need to fix it.  It is the most terrible thing I have written.”  And it’s always fine, and sometimes it’s great.  I read Brian’s essays for this week on Wednesday night, and we discussed my comments on Thursday during lunch.  He’d taken the advice I’d given him last week and actually implemented the new strategies in this round of essays- I don’t think I’ve ever seen such dramatic improvement in a student’s writing over such a short period of time before- so I heaped on the praise.  He deserved it.  And he turned it back onto me!
            “Nelson, this was all you.”
            “Brian, I just gave you some pointers.  You labored over this, and it’s wonderful.  This is all you.”
            “You are too kind.  But it is only good because of your help.”
And so on and so forth.  I had to force him to be quiet so I could have the last word and tell him what good work he’d done.  The parents I’ve met here (not of my students, just people who are parents in general) haven’t really given me the Tiger Mom/Dad impression, but I do think there might be a little Tiger Teaching going on.  This isn’t a commentary on what all American teachers or all Chinese teachers believe are the best educational practices; it’s just a really different experience to have to force your honest praise on a student instead of holding back your (tactful but) honest assessment of a student’s negative attitude or lack of motivation because of potential fall-out from said assessment.  Personally speaking, I know I could use a little more Tiger in my teaching.
I mentioned that Brian comes in during lunch.  We do have a glorious 80 minutes for lunch every day, but a lot of English teachers- in fact, 100% of the ones I know here- use at least part of their lunch on most days to hear students recite memorized passages of English (I think I’ve mentioned this before, too).  These recitations are meant to improve pronunciation, and the teachers at HFLS have told me that their students have markedly better pronunciation than other students in Hangzhou.  Some days, after I eat a slow lunch, I take a walk outside on the paths by the koi ponds, but some days I go back early to the office because I’ve started to receive drop-in visits from students during this time too.  So many this week, in fact, that Judy, another woman in our office, keeps commenting on how popular I am.  The truth is that 1) it’s probably due to my adorable new boots and shiny, vinegary tresses, and 2) a lot of the students who’ve been coming in aren’t mine- they’re on the school’s Parliamentary Debate team, and word got out that I teach Debate back home.
Possibly the cat was out of the bag when I attended their practice last week.  They were discussing the latest motion they’d debated: This House believes that censorship does more harm than good.  I was impressed by the coach’s ability to lead her students through what we can all acknowledge is a sensitive topic here and by the students’ ability to stay objective and academic and adult during this discussion.  I spoke with her afterwards and decided that it takes a strong and spirited and really, really smart teacher to advise Debate in China.  Which she is.  Although (and of course), she kept telling me that she is just a lowly amateur, but the woman took these kids to Qatar last year for Worlds, so her modesty, though sweet, is completely inapplicable.  But you can see why I was really flattered when she asked me to attend practice and later, for my input.
So I’m finding this niche at HFLS, and it feels good to be known for something other than Being Foreign.  The somewhat ironic thing is that as I start feeling like the campus is becoming as familiar to me as MHS, the students- who live here for 9 months out of every school year- know that in just 2 short years, it won’t be home anymore.  HFLS has many neighbors that are also educational institutions, and soon they’ll be swapping campuses with the smaller buildings of Zhejiang University next door.  Numbers are down at HFLS because of a new provincial law changing enrollment requirements: as of now, students from all over the province are welcome to attend if their test scores are good enough, but starting with this year’s Junior 1s, only students from the Hangzhou area are allowed to enroll.  There are 9 or 10 or even 11 classes of most grade levels, but only 4 of Junior 1.  It won’t take long for the population of the school to halve.  No one really talks about what this means for the teachers and it’s not my place to ask, but looking from our campus, with its ponds and paths and abundance of flowering trees, over to Zhejiang U’s, with its hard-packed dirt lawns and spiky red towers, can make even me feel a sad nostalgia.
Will this new place have loud speakers that play first Pachebel’s Canon and then something vaguely Spanish to remind the kids that it’s time for morning exercises, or the lilting track with birdsong in the background that accompanies the students’ eye exercises during passing time?  Will it have a school store so they can buy ice cream treats?  And what about the outdoor ping-pong tables?  Are those being moved to the new campus?  Because those Junior 1s sure love to play ping-pong during lunch.  The students are already living 6 to a room, 12 to a bathroom, and Zhejiang U’s land just seems too tight and too shallow to give them the breathing room they need.
The times.  They are a-changin’.
I’m going to sign off today with some images of springtime.  Some of them are from my neighborhood and some are from school.  I’m in the habit here of carrying my camera everywhere I go, so if I get lucky, I can capture something beautiful.  My experience here will soon be a memory for me, and it feels especially poignant to take pictures on campus because this HFLS will only be an idea for those future foreign teachers who will never teach here.  It makes me wonder why I don’t carry my camera around more often at home, when our Normals can change even before we know it’s happening.


  1. It kind of makes me laugh that part of your new normal is carrying around your camera because lord knows that is for sure my normal!

    I hope we get some of those flower blooms in MN…and I'm sure Riley's allergys are excited too so they can take over his body!


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