Archive for the ‘Daily Life’ Category

Hannah Kerne (’12 Fellow, Saint Louis University) is currently a 1st year Fellow in Yunnan.  She reflects on her experiences engaging with her local community through food and music.

After spending the weekend in Dali to bring in 2013, I returned to LiuHe on New Year’s Day. I thought I could get some relaxation in before classes started up. Of course, we ran into government officials on the way back to our dorms. There was yet another pig killing that we could not escape. What is a pig killing exactly? At this time of year, everyone in LiuHe kills the pig that they have been fattening up and invite everyone they know to come eat that pig and drink copious amounts of 白酒 (rice wine). When I say eat pig, I actually mean eat pig fat. Pig fat, along with every other unusual (to Americans) part of the animal, is eaten. The actual meat is cured and eaten for months.  Eating the pig fat is how  you show respect to the family that has killed that pig. So, you often get asked “how many pieces of pig fat have you eaten?”

At this particular pig killing dinner, we were lucky enough to also eat beef–a rarity in my village. We can always buy pork at market day, but if we want other types of meat we have to buy our animal of choice, kill it, and cook it. With this being said, this pig killing (relative to the 15+ I have been to this month) was fantastic.

After the meal, I was asked by the local Baizu women to put on Bai minority clothing and dance with them. A mother of one of my students happily walked twenty minutes to her home to get her Bai clothing for me to wear. I felt so honored to have been able to wear that clothing. The baijiu was flowing, a bonfire was lit, and the dancing started. Local Bai men started playing Baizu music with instruments I have never seen or heard before. There were about 50 Bai women, men, and children (along with me and Johan ), dancing to traditional Baizu music around a bonfire.  It was fascinating to see them collectively take part in their customs. Lucky for me, I have been practicing two Baizu dances that local teachers taught me. This came in handy.

Hannah Kerne in Bai Mniority clothing

Up until this point, I had not felt I was part of the LiuHe community–I did not feel connected. This is not because I did not feel welcome; it was and is because the challenges that accompany language barriers and cultural differences. With this language barrier, there are fewer opportunities and methods to connect with people. By dancing and singing with the people of LiuHe , I felt the cultural exchange was on their terms–something they are clearly more comfortable with. This got me in touch with the soul of their culture. We did not have to say a thing to one another. I imagine we were all feeling a similar feeling–joy. Everyone kept asking the person next to them “你开心了吗?” (Are you happy?) Their energy, in addition to their response, said “yes”. By learning their dances, wearing their clothing, listening to their music, I say to them “I respect you, and I want to learn from you.” My efforts were well received to say the least.

This dinner was a classic case of “Surprise–don’t plan anything. You live in rural China” I often complain about this sort of thing, as these pig killings usually come at inopportune times (i.e. when I need to plan for classes, when I need to sleep, when I actually have class, when I have  拉肚子”aka the world’s worst stomach ache”). This one in particular was a well-needed reminder of the fact that these pig killings are my opportunity to connect with the community– 关系via 杀猪(connection via pig killing).


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This spring, Teach For China teamed up with the National Football League to introduce American Football to several of our placement schools in Yunnan. Three Fellows–Will Keleher (Fellow ’11, Georgetown University), Ben Cutrell (Fellow ’11, Gettysburg College), and Wang Yaoming 王耀明 (Fellow ‘11, Zhongshan University)– have been hosting weekly practices for their students. Read Will’s report below on how students have been flocking to the game–and how it’s given girls at his school a rare chance to build life skills through sports. 

The NFL flag football progtwram we’re implementing at our school has already

Fellows Will Keleher and Tim Worm talk their students through the basics

impacted many students and brought a lot of happy memories. The amount of interest among students, and within the community in general, for football caught us by surprise. We’ve played with elementary students, our own middle school students, and have even played catch with local teachers who were curious about the strange ball. The level of excitement and enthusiasm is incredibly gratifying. Even though we’ve limited participation in our regular football practices to members of Classes 73 and 76, the two 7th grade classes at Heqing Number Two Middle School taught by Teach For China Fellows, the number of participants still far exceeds our supply of equipment. It’s a good problem to have!

We hold practices on Tuesdays and Thursdays between students’ two periods of

Ben Cutrell shows videos of American football to his students to introduce them to the game

evening study hall, as well as a longer practice on Sunday after they get back from visiting their homes and before their Sunday evening class. The program is still very much in its early phase, so we continue to receive new interested students and catch them up on the basics as quickly as possible. At each practice we generally spend a few minutes tossing around the football and working on basic technique, after which we run a drill that’s more similar to a real game. So far, we’ve have the students run routes with quarterbacks and receivers, played games of “tag the flags,” and done possession drills with two teams, a football, and the flags.

My favorite part about the program is the opportunity that it’s giving girls to participate in a sport. At our school, as in other parts of rural China, girls have few opportunities to participate in sports. The male students at Heqing Number Two

Flag football has given girls at Heqing Number Two Middle School a rare opportunity to participate in sports, building self-confidence and teamwork skills

Middle School dominate the basketball courts and the ping pong tables. Though many of the girls at our school are interested in playing basketball, would love to learn to play soccer, and would excel at volleyball, they are prevented from joining their male peers because of persisting gender inequality at the school. On a few occasions I have helped kick male students off the basketball courts to give the girls a chance to play, and they greatly enjoyed the opportunity. Apart from missing out on this chance to enjoy themselves, female students also miss opportunities to build important life skills like teamwork and perseverance that would boost their chances to succeed both in and out of the classroom. Seeing the girls running around, vying with each other to catch a ball, and doing their best to throw it as far as they can has been incredibly exciting for me. I’m really looking forward to working with the girls more and giving them the chance to compete in five vs. five games.

Our school’s flag football program is only a few weeks old, but we’ve made remarkable progress so far. At the beginning, most students and teachers had no idea what a football was, and we still attracted groups of perplexed onlookers whenever we hold a practice. We’re still working on basic skills, and have transitioned into short scrimmages between teams of five. I’m genuinely excited to progress onto full games and start to build a real sense of competition. One of the other Teach For China fellows implementing the flag football program, Yaoming, is also located in Heqing, and we’re already planning on having inter-school games. In the coming weeks we plan to screen game footage for students so that they can see what they’re working towards, and I can’t wait to start hosting full games between the students!

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Fellows have a lot to learn about their students by visiting their homes and understanding their lives outside the classroom. Kristen Faiferlick (Fellow ’10, Middlebury College) and Laura Zulliger (Fellow ’10, Davidson College) recently spent a weekend visiting the homes of their students in a village near their school in Luodang 洛党. They learned, among other things, that “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Tortise and the Hare” are popular children’s stories in China, too!

With the semester almost halfway over, Laura and I decided it was time for us to go visit some of our students’

Kristen Faiferlick with some of her students in front of their old elementary school in the town of Tianxin

homes. We had enjoyed teaching them about American customs and habits, such as celebrating Halloween, and we were eager to learn more about their lives. So, last weekend, we walked with six of our students to their homes in Tianxin 田心 (“Field heart”), a village across the valley from Luodang. Tianxin is deceptively far from our school. From our dorm window, we can see the village spread across the mountain, but walking to the furthest home in Tianxin can take over an hour.

After Saturday morning class, Laura, our students, and I walked down the road and across the river that stretches around Luodang (which I learned is named Yinchun He 迎春河, “Welcome Spring River”). We stopped along the way at each student’s home, meeting their parents or grandparents. In many homes, one or both parents are working in other cities or provinces, so only a grandmother or grandfather is present to care for the children. Most of the students we visited were lucky to have at least one parent in their home. Troy, Sandy, and Meena also had adorable younger sisters!

I learned a lot about my students from seeing them interact with one another and with their families. I knew that Troy was quiet and gentle from talking with him in class and seeing him patiently work with some of our class’s most challenging students, but seeing him joke with his sister helped me understand how tender-hearted he really is. I was also struck by how sensitive he is in dealing with his family’s pets. In many cases in China, pets are hit or kicked, but Troy told me that they neither hit nor kick their dog or cat.

Once we reached June’s home in the heart of Tianxin, we sat in the morning sunlight and told fables that we learned

The village of Luodang, as viewed from Tianxin

when we were young. Apparently, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a Chinese story! Additionally, all of my students already knew “The Tortoise and the Hare,” even though I had been sure that it was an Aesop’s fable. It seems good stories travel fast! We had fun discussing what each of these tales can teach us about life.

At Sandy’s house, we ate a quick lunch of rice, fried eggs and soup, and then headed up the mountain to see Meena and Savannah’s house. We made a detour on the way up to see Savannah’s favorite spot: a tiny stream that pooled over smooth rocks. We spent some time splashing in the pools, then continued up the tiny trail to the upper level of Tianxin. Finally, we reached Savannah’s house. It wasn’t a typical home: for the next few months, Savannah will be living with all her furniture under a tarp, waiting until her new house is built. All of her extended family members still living in Fengqing had joined to help tear down the old house and build the new one. We had to step gingerly around piles of rubble and avoid falling pieces of roof as we approached her makeshift home. Although the family will be cold under their tarp, in a few months, they’ll have a brand new home to live in!

After seeing each of their homes and meeting their family, Laura and I headed back down the mountain. It’s always

Some of Kristen and Laura's students at home

satisfying to interact with students outside of class, and we could feel their pride as they showed us their village’s elementary school, their favorite swimming hole, and introduced us to their parents. I feel blessed to be teaching such wonderful children. Getting to know them better makes me more dedicated to our mission and want to work even harder to give them the brightest future I can!

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Teaching in rural schools gives Fellows the rare opportunity to participate in local customs as members in the community. In rural Fengqing County 凤庆县, Yunnan, a teacher at Luodang Middle School 洛党中学 who is of the Muslim Hui ethnic minority recently got married. When the wedding took place, Kristen Faiferlick (Fellow ’10, Middlebury College), Laura Zulliger (Fellow ’10, Davidson College), and Xu Qiuwen 徐秋雯 (Fellow ’10, Peking University) were all on hand to support their friend and colleague.  For Kristen, the occasion was “one of the most moving things I’ve experienced since coming to China”

This past week, Laura, Qiuwen and I had the pleasure and honor of attending our coworker and friend’s wedding in Yingpan, several hours from Luodang. The bride, Ma Ruxia, has been a close friend, mentor, and guide ever since the three of us arrived at Luodang over a year ago. Watching her take this momentous step in her life was perhaps one of the most moving things I’ve experienced since coming to China.

Fellows Kristen Faiferlick and Laura Zulliger with the bride

Ma Ruxia’s wedding took place over the course of a week. To celebrate a wedding, most Chinese couples usually host a giant dinner for their friends and family at a local restaurant, wherein everyone comes to eat, drink, and toast the bride and groom. To be frank, most foreigners are rather unimpressed with this sort of wedding ceremony, considering the fact that we’re accustomed to both eating and actually seeing the ceremony performed. Additionally, we tend to associate weddings with music and dancing, both of which are unfortunately absent in Chinese weddings.

However, Ma Ruxia and her husband are both Muslim, which meant that the dinner was slightly different from a typical Chinese wedding. First, nearly all the dinner guests were

The wedding feast

also Muslim, so the food served at the dinner was all halal. Second, the the dinner was served in the courtyard of Yingpan’s beautiful mosque, situated just next door to Ma Ruxia’s home. As the “dinner” stretched from afternoon until sunset, we all ate far too much! As the dinner slowly wrapped, up, the evening sun setting over the hill cast a warm glow over the children playing in the courtyard and sparkled against the star and crescent above the mosque. The children running and singing, the laughter of guests, and the cool breeze blowing through the trees reminded me how thankful I am to be in such a beautiful place sharing such a special day.
After the guests slowly meandered out of the mosque courtyard, Ma Ruxia invited us into

Yingpan's mosque

her home, where we spent the rest of the night chatting, cooing over her wedding photos, and playing ma jiang with our local teachers. It was a wonderful night, and I think I’ll look back on it for years as one of the best times I’ve had with the friends and teachers from Luodang Middle School.

The next morning, we all rose early for what was, to me, the most interesting and touching part of the wedding. Around 7:30, a group of elderly men entered the home to perform the religious ceremony that would bind Ma Ruxia and her soon-to-be husband, Zhang Lei, in eternal partnership. Usually, the room this ritual is performed in is closed to everyone but the religious leaders and the couple, but Ma Ruxia invited Laura and me in to film and take pictures. I felt incredibly blessed and lucky to be close enough to see and hear the entire ceremony.

The ceremony began with the leader explaining the significance of being Hui Zu (Muslim)

Flower petals, seeds, and money play an important part in a Hui minority wedding ceremony

in China. He explained the importance of being proud of their culture and heritage, and the importance of observing halal and raising their children to observe the same Muslim codes of behavior. He spoke about social and spiritual significance of marriage, and how the couple would be expected live their lives from that point onwards. As the end of the ceremony drew near, he sang a song in Arabic, which filled the tiny room with a deep, resonating energy. Finally, a second leader lifted a basket from the table, which was filled with flower petals, coins, and seeds. He tossed them lightly onto the head of the newly marriage couple, then sprinkled the items all over them to ensure they were covered in luck and prosperity. It is said that anyone who receives these coins will also find luck, so several other guests reached into the room to grab the fallen coins from the floor. After the couple was showered with luck and prosperity, they left the room for the most bittersweet part of the entire wedding.

In Chinese culture, a woman belongs to her family and serves her parents only as long as she lives under their roof. Although marriage ceremonies and attitudes have evolved into many different forms in recent years, Ma Ruxia was very much affected by the idea that she would be leaving her mother for a new one. As she prepared her things, the cars waited outside to bring Ma Ruxia to her new home and new mother. Suddenly, without warning, she burst into tears. They were brief, but told of the great internal battle she must have been experiencing internally. Marriage is a time for happiness, but it also represents the final step from adolescence into adulthood. Watching her as she left made me wonder about all the emotions she was feeling as she left home, and how she would feel in the weeks and months to come. She quickly recovered, smiled, and led the parade of guests down the road to the waiting cars, which would take the couple and their close friends to Genma, where another dinner party would be held, this time for Zhang Lei’s friends and family.

The entire ceremony was both emotionally stirring and mentally challenging for me. Unlike the marriage I may someday enter into, Ma Ruxia and Zhang Lei’s marriage was arranged by a matchmaker. As a member of one of China’s ethnic and religious minorities, Ma Ruxia had struggled to find a suitable boyfriend for years. She could only date other local Muslims, of which there are few in this area. A matchmaker arranged a meeting between her and Zhang Lei, and although it wasn’t love at first sight, they learned to appreciate and care for each other. Zhang Lei knows that he has found a precious gift in Ma Ruxia, and I trust that they will value and love each other.

For many Americans, December has always been a time for Christmas carols and tinsel on trees. This December, however, I feel blessed to have witnessed something even more important than Christmas: a lifelong union which will bring a close friend a lifetime of happiness.

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Emily Cole (Fellow ’10, Brown University) spent a memorable Thanksgiving visiting the home of home of her students in a remote mountain village in rural Yunnan. Her account, and accompanying pictures, provide an intimate look into daily life in this remote community. 

Leah (刑承月) is on the left, and Yang Wen Qing is on the right.  Both

Emily Cole's student, Xing Cheng Yue 刑承月, "Leah," on the left

were my 3rd grade students, and both are from the same mountain village.  Leah’s hometown is about a 2 hour hike into the mountains.  During the week, she lives with her grandmother, little brother, and little sister in a simple house in one of the smaller villages on the outskirts of town.  Her younger brother is in the first level of preschool at our elementary school, and her little sister will soon attend the school.  Though China has a one-child policy, citizens from the peasant class and ethnic minorities are allowed to have more than one child.  Most toddlers I’ve met here are very shy, but

Leah's younger sister

Leah’s little sister cuddled up to me the minute she met me and loved looking at the world through the viewfinder of my camera.

Last year, Leah struggled both socially and academically.  She had a an infected lesion on her head, forcing her to wear a hat because her hair had fallen out.  She has a really cute grin and an even cuter giggle, but last year, she was lacking in both.  This year, her injury has healed and she’s become more outgoing and less self-conscious.  While I was at her house this weekend, whenever she sat down to do her homework, she’d get up every ten minutes to feed the goats, take care of the cows, or run next door to play with Yang Wen Qing’s puppies. Corn harvesting and drying season is in full swing, so her parents were out working most of the day.  During the school day, she has teachers and classmates who can nag her to get her work done, but on the weekends and at home it is hard for her to focus.  This year, her English grades has improved, but her math and Chinese grades are still among the lowest in the class.

We didn’t have class on Friday, so I walked up the mountain with her and a gaggle of

Leah's home

girls who live in the same area.  I spent the night at her house in a room filled with pottery basins filled with water where they stored their fresh fruit.  The ceiling was a straw-filled tarp nailed to the ceiling, chock full of mice.  The next morning when I asked about the mice, Leah said “Oh, our house is full of mice!  They love to dance and fight in the ceiling at night!”  I couldn’t agree more, there was definitely a lot of dancing and fighting going on while I was trying to sleep.  The top floor of her house is an open attic where corn was laid out to dry.  All of the houses in the village were covered with piles of bright yellow corn drying in the sun.  The compound has a cement courtyard in the center.

Feeding the goats

One one side is the house, with a smoky, dimly like kitchen in a separate room that always has a small fire blazing.  On the other side are the cow, pig, goat, and chicken pens.  I slept to the sounds of her goats jingling their bells in their pen, the cows moo-ing throughout the night, pigs grunting, and roosters crowing at all hours of the night.




We woke up early the next morning and I went hiking around the mountain with the girls, watched Mickey Mouse cartoons in Chinese, ate persimmons with Leah's sister, found strange flowers and berries on the mountainside, and played with Yang Wen Qing's puppies. It was wonderful.

Time to trim the ol' bangs

Puppies and students, what could be a cuter combination?

The girls snacked on this while I politely refrained. The small fruits are more sour than War Heads, with the texture of an unripe peach. And then, to improve the flavor, they dip it into a mixture of hot pepper flakes, MSG, salt, and chicken bouillon powder. YUM! They said they like it because they are mountain girls, and mountain girls like sour things, obviously.

Leah stoking the fire in the morning. While I didn't have turkey for thanksgiving, Leah's mother was generous enough to kill a chicken which we had in a delicious sour soup for lunch.




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Alex Jones (Fellow ’10, Hamilton College), documents his experiences living and teaching at Maolan Middle School in Yunxian, Yunnan, by drawing. Here are some recent sketches of his of life in and out of the classroom:

Bicycling through fields outside Dali

Classroom Management: Alex uses an incentive system in his class to encourage good behavior among his students

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Caitlin Moss and the other Fellows at Manghuai Middle School 忙怀中学 in Lincang, Yunnan may have faced the “worst-case scenario” in their first week of teaching: a thunderstorm left their entire town without electricity for the first five days of class. As Caitlin relates below, however, the storm left them with “no power, but not powerless.” Read how she and her other team members supported one another to pull off a successful first week of classes “the old fashioned way:”

Power outages are in no way uncommon in rural China. In fact, they pretty much happen in Manghuai every single time it rains. But they don’t usually last for five days—the power is most often back on after a few hours, or one day at the longest. Evidently Manghuai had a special welcome in store for us—the rainstorm last Thursday night knocked out three power lines on the side of a mountain, meaning that the whole town was out of power.

During those five days, how did I (and the rest of my team) survive without power? My life was most certainly dictated by the rising and setting of the sun. I went to bed around 9pm, when the whole town grew pitch black. I got up early, around 6:30am or 7 most mornings depending on when I had class. I read using my book light (thanks, Mom) and had to carry my flashlight (thanks, Aunt Annie!) to go to class at night, to go the bathroom, and pretty much to go anywhere after 8pm. I made shadow puppets on the wall and talked about life with friends who visited for the weekend.

Manghuai’s ability to sustain itself through a power outage really impressed me. Of course, there were no cold drinks or ice cream in the entire town. But aside from that (relatively) small problem, Manghuai ran off of coal and generators for most other things, namely cooking food, which was by far my greatest concern. There are a handful of restaurants in my new town, and the majority of them stayed open through the outage. I was even able to get dumplings or rice noodles in the morning for breakfast every day.

Maybe even more impressive is that school started on time. Without access to class rosters on the computer, printed schedules to give each teacher, or many of the other essential first-day-of-school materials (the loudspeaker and bell didn’t even work!), Manghuai still managed to conduct a smooth start to the school year.

Although I had my moments of crisis when I thought I would die if I could not get on the Internet, I also shocked myself with an ability to just teach through the outage. This might not sound like such a big deal—sure, I could lesson plan on paper, and I still had a blackboard and flashcards, etc. to use with my students. But compared to the extremely comfortable conditions of Summer Institute, during which I printed out worksheets for my students almost every day at one of the two print shops across the street, and wrote extremely detailed lesson plans on my computer that I pored over for hours, having no power was pretty extreme. The lack of power meant that not only was I cut off from the lesson planning resources I had collected on my computer over the past two months at Summer Institute, but I also had no access to emotional support from home since there was no Internet.

At one point I shed some tears over my lost connection to the rest of civilization. And then, I sucked it up and moved on. For the first week, I was scheduled to teach lessons on classroom expectations, goals, and values—basically strategies to invest my students in their learning and begin to establish clear communication with them in a teacher-student relationship. If I had been teaching mostly English grammar and content, lesson planning would have been different since I could have referred to the textbook, supplementary practice books, and other materials that I bought. But all of my investment and management plans were on my computer. At one point, I resorted to taking pictures of word documents on my computer screen using my digital camera so that I could refer to them later. I copied many, many things out by hand. I modified the many plans that I had made for the first week and scrapped anything that I had planned to print. For a get-to-know-you survey that I wanted to print out, I ended up copying all 18 questions onto the blackboard for my students to answer. In short, I learned to do things the old fashioned way.

Although it definitely SUCKED at the time, in the long run, I think doing things the old fashioned way was a really valuable skill for me to practice as a teacher in the rural Chinese context. I have 53 students in my classroom, which means that printing things out all the time (especially since we don’t have consistent or free access to printers and copiers at school) is not a sustainable way of doing things. So much for my fun worksheets. But the ideas behind these worksheets, and what I am asking students to think about, remains intact, clip art or not. So I got through most of my investment and management strategies, even if it was in a way that I initially saw as less than ideal, and I even started teaching a bit of content (woohoo ABC’s!).

And as far as emotional resources go, I am definitely lucky to have three great teammates and some good friends who I could call on here. Before my phone battery ran out, that was my main lifeline to the rest of China. My teammates and I did a couple of anti-rain dances, sent up our prayers for power, and collaborated on first-week lessons in the meantime. And we read and talked and threatened the world that it better give us our power back or else. It was definitely nice to know that I wasn’t alone.

And finally, finally—our prayers were answered! We got power back on Monday night, but China had one last cruel joke to play on us: there was another rainstorm, and we lost power again for another hour or so after just having gotten it back. By this time, Karman, Shi Jingyi, Hu Zhenfeng and I were old hands—we huddled together in Karman’s room and played the Chinese version of Stratego to pass the time (let it be known that I am not very good at this game). The power came back on before we had finished the game, but we kept playing anyway.


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