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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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As they live and work within their placement communities, Teach For China Fellows gain the opportunity to share in local customs and traditions with their students, neighbors, and coworkers. What are these local traditions like? 2010-2011 Fellow Kristen Faiferlick describes a yearly winter tradition in her placement community of Fengqing 凤庆, which everyone enjoys but the pigs. 

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Unless you’re a pig in rural Yunnan.

Apparently, citizens in rural Yunnan have a tradition of killing a pig and hosting a giant feast for all their friends and neighbors some weekend in December to January. Two weekends ago, I was invited over to Fan Laoshi’s house (my coworker’s house) to enjoy the festival with them.

Pause. Initial reaction: automatic no. Was I not a vegetarian? There was no way I was going to enjoy a second of this party. But then I thought about it again… she was my coworker, and she had invited the whole English department to come. I ought to think of it as a cultural experience. After all, my refusal to come wasn’t going to save the pig from being served to all her friends. In the end, I decide to go, and Laura, Hu Zhengfeng and I all packed our bags and headed through the rain to Fan Laoshi’s home.

Stuffing the pig's intestines with blood and rice

Her home farther away than we realized. We had to wait for her friend to come pick us up, then we drove for a half an hour out of town. Luckily, when we got there, the pig had already been slaughtered. We were just in time to see them stuffing the intestines with blood and rice, though.

I surprised myself at how little I was revolted. I tried to think of it scientifically… things die, and sometimes they get eaten. I don’t think this sort of attitude could have carried me far enough to try some of the pig, but it made the general experience easier for me. Here’s a picture of the room full of dead pig, just so you can share a little of the experience with me:

We stayed for a few hours then headed back to school and to Lincang. I’m sure there will be many more pig-killing festivals in the weeks and year to come, and I’ll do my best to take my kids up on their invitations to come to their festivals. It may not be Thanksgiving or Christmas, but it’s still with family and friends. Well, “When in Rome…” 入乡随俗!

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Fellows frequently visit students’ home villages on the weekends. Monica Kim, a 2010-2012 Fellow, took the following pictures from a visit to the village of Xunfang, where several of her students live.  

Xunfang is a village approximately 10 minutes away by rickshaw or minibus. Xunfang is quite rural despite its proximity to Boshang. The local elementary school does not provide English education. I have two students from this area: Eric and Brian. Both are quite smart but rarely apply themselves. Both are also quick-tempered and have said quite a number of dirty things in the classroom. Brian will unfortunately drop out mid-second semester and end up working in the local hair salon in Boshang and then Lincang.

During this home visit we were invited to a birthday party of one of May’s students.

Walking to Xunfang

View of Boshang, a nearby larger town, from Xunfang

A "tragon" (tractor & wagon = tragon): extremely loud and slow vehicle used to transport various goods/people in rural China

Brian, one of my students who lives in Xunfang

We had dinner in one of our students' homes that night. Getting dinner in the kitchen

Eating a home-cooked birthday diner

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This past semester, Teach For China Fellow John Kuo’s students took him out to pick mushrooms in the woods surrounding his placement community of Yongbao:

If you come across these red mushrooms, don't eat them

One of my students found a bird's nest. That dog in the background is his

Sam's student excitedly told me that one of these tombs is his grandmother's

 

Freshly picked mushrooms for dinner!

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Check out this great story from Sam Waldo, about a typical Friday night with the local teachers in his placement community of Yongbao:

When John and I entered the room, we were given a hero’s welcome.  I was looking forward to hanging out with these local teachers who we see every day but rarely have as much as a simple conversation with, and I was pleased by the sincerely enthusiastic response to our having stopped by.  I was offered a seat and quickly incorporated into the game they were playing while simultaneously juggling three or four conversations with limited success, about everything from the weather in the US to the relative poverty of Yongbao.

The get together was held in the room of my upstairs neighbor, which, like all of the rooms in the courtyard where I live, is a converted elementary school classroom.  A single incandescent light bulb provided ample, warm light for the small space, and a teal hospital-style curtain separated the rear part of the room – a personal area set aside for the bed and for dressing – from the overcrowded front half.  The locus of everyone’s attention was a multi-purpose table which was approximately four feet square and stood not more than two feet off the ground.  The table’s four squat wooden legs were painted burnt orange, and a thick plastic table cloth sporting a checkered pattern and pictures of bell peppers, salt shakers, hamburgers and wine was nailed fast to the table’s surface.  The table wasn’t nearly large enough to accommodate the more than dozen of us seated around it, so everyone was constantly pushing up against one another while seated on the eclectic group of wooden, plastic, and metal stools that had been brought for the party.

The table was littered with paper cups and empty bottles of the local hard-liquor (a reserve of unopened bottles sat underneath the table and was replenished periodically from a case in the corner).  Music was playing at first, but with the sound of lightning the computer was shut down and unplugged to avoid damage from a surge.  There were only two women, Begin who I’ve mentioned before and another female teacher named Jiaomin, and there was a pointed lack of flirtation or sexual tension in the room (versus, say, an American party where creating that tension sometimes seems to be the entire goal).  The entire party – from front to finish – revolved around a single table and a single ceaseless game.  The night was focused on this one game that I still scarcely understand, and unfortunately the atmosphere was not too friendly to newcomers.

But I was hardly bored.  After dismissing the game as a source of entertainment, I basically let it play out as it would and spent my time observing the characters around me.  Most notable was our vice principal, Luo, a thin, cheerful man in his early forties with a constant grin on his high-cheekboned face who is popular with students and faculty alike.  He is very protective of John and me when we have banquets or large events involving alcohol, constantly asking to make sure that the minor amounts they’ve served to us haven’t pushed us beyond our limits.  Luo can be seen around campus in a western-style suit most days, and when we see him in his blue Peak track suit it usually means that he had a little too much fun the night before – we call this athletic wear his ‘hangover outfit’, and when we ask he will tell us with a big grin “I got too drunk last night!  Today my head hurts!”  This Friday night he was true to form – halfway through the night he began insisting on dealing and shuffling for everyone, and when it came to my turn he quite blatantly cheated for me (giving me the highest card in the deck and then telling everyone else to drink).

The night ended on a high note, also at odds with my preconceived notion of what makes a good party, as the host teacher brought in a communal bowl of chicken soup.  Not canned chicken-noodle, but extremely fresh chicken meat in a delicious broth that made me smile as it warmed my insides.  I tried to explain the novelty of this late-night party snack, but I don’t think I could really convey how impossible a notion it was for someone to go kill, prepare, and cook a chicken in the middle of the kind of social gathering that I was used to.  After the soup was gone, Principal Luo moved to leave, and before I knew it the party was over and I was leaving too, led down the stairs by Luo, a friendly arm across my shoulder.

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