Five CSU graduate students went to central China this summer to teach English as a second language at Xi’an Jiaotong University. For four weeks, they taught six hours a day five days a week. Their primary duty was teaching language skills to Chinese college students, including reading, writing and verbal communication in English. The program flyer describes the school and its location this way:
Xi’an Jiaotong University (XJTU), one of the country’s oldest higher education institutions, is a national key university under the direct jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education. Currently, XJTU has 26 schools offering undergraduate and postgraduate programs in science, engineering, medicine, economics, management, art, law and education, with an enrollment of about 30,000 full-time students, including over 14,697 masters and doctoral candidates.
Xi’an is located in the central China. As a city with over 3000 years of history, Xi’an is proud of its historic sites and relics including the Terracotta Warriors of the Qin Emperor, one of the eight wonders of the world, the City Wall, the Bell Tower and the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.
In the weeks before they went, we’ll profiled some of these students on the blog as part of our Student Success Stories series, and a few of them agreed to send us updates and pictures while they are there. One of these students is Kristen Mullen, MA English: Literature, graduating Spring 2016. She wrote an essay about her experience and took some great pictures we’d like to share with you here.
How Traveling to China Taught Me How to Stop Being a Control Freak
by Kristen Mullen
When I got word that I would be traveling to Xi’an, China to teach English for the summer, I was preparing to write my final essays and figuring out where I was going to live when my lease ended in July. Where were all of my belongings going to go for the summer? How can I pull off making the claim that Chaucer wrote early science fiction? I had very little time to learn Mandarin and the lesson plans I received as a XJTU summer instructor had a very minimalist feel. Each class had a general theme (sports, campus life, art, etc.), but coming up with three hours worth of content was up to me and my teaching team. Joni Hayward, Jenna Franklin, and I were building lessons with no background on our students’ English abilities or classroom capabilities. Joni and I booked our flights to Xi’an together; however, in the last minute of confirming our flights something went wrong and we ended up on a different flights from Shanghai to Xi’an. For the next month when I wasn’t reading, writing, or doing research, I was playing on the Pleco Chinese Dictionary app on my phone attempting to hear and repeat words in Chinese and imagining an airport full of signs with foreign characters. The audible pronunciations on the app were so fast and said so softly that I had to listen to each about ten times before I could catch on to the first few syllables. This lead to me leaving the States with only “nǐ hǎo”(hello), “yùshì”(bathroom), and “zǔzhòu”(damn).
In what we now call “The Checked Bag Limbo”, Joni and I spent fifteen hours sleeping/watching Netflix in Seattle International Airport’s baggage claim after a trip to claim my checked bag left us unable to reenter the airport. We were stuck on the outskirts with no extra money to waste on a pricy airport hotel. We became floor people, laying on top of our possessions so that they would not be stolen while we slept. I listened to a payphone ring out in the night, debating for a half hour whether I should answer it. When I got up in the cold morning air and left my makeshift bed, it stopped its ringing.
Our thirteen hour flight to Shanghai went by with naps, movies, and in-flight meals, which was an experience that gave off the feeling our luck was turning around, a feeling of imagined control over our travel. With Joni’s flight to Xi’an at 7:00p.m and mine at 9:00p.m, we parted ways in Shanghai and hoped for the best. My terminal was in the basement of the airport and I got my first taste of being in an overcrowded area with hundreds of people who don’t speak the same language as me. A shuttle took us out to the plane, but when we reached the area where the plane should have been, there was nothing there. They shuttled us back to the airport and herded us to a small square space between the ticket counter and the terminal. The other passengers spilled over into restricted areas arguing loudly and demanding answers from the airport employees. I found a teacher from Colorado and another from Australia, so we stood together in the corner trying to catch a bilingual passenger who might know what was happening. A woman from Germany explained to us that our flight was either cancelled or delayed because of bad weather, in which case the airline is not responsible and we would have to make due. Temperatures and noise levels reached absurd levels as three hours passed without answers. My calling cards and my bank card didn’t work in the airport machines, leaving me with no way to contact my family or exchange money to yuan for food and drinks. Unable to sleep, my new friend Tahlia got out her coloring book and despite our exhaustion we filled in and shaded garden scenes with her fifty Crayola colored pencils. This quickly attracted the children around us and once their parents saw that we were friendly they allowed them to join in on our coloring, a welcomed break from futile attempts to collect and calm all the hot, tired, hungry babies. The infernal situation transcended language barriers as we all laughed together at the absurdity of our shared situation. Our flight eventually came and after two hours of sitting on the plane, we headed off to Xi’an for our last three hour flight.
We arrived at 5:00a.m, eight hours later than planned and three hours before our first meeting on the Xi’an Jiaotong University campus. On our way to the hotel I lay my head against the window of our bus and watched the sun rise above the solid grey skyscrapers, hoping Joni and my other fellow teachers had made it safe. After a long overdue shower and a short nap I found Joni in our meeting and learned that she too had been stuck in the airport two floors above me for quite a while before a shuttle took her and the other passengers to a nearby hotel, the kind of hotel that had pictures of naked woman and phone numbers stapled to the door. Despite an earlier initial flight time, she’d arrived to the hotel later than I had. After our warm welcome to XJTU, we all went back to the hotel that afternoon with full bellies and slept through till morning.
To eat, I learned to point to my desired dish, smile, and then say “xièxie”(thank you). The canteen staff got used to my bad pronunciations and miming then once I got to know my students, they would join me for lunch and order their favorite foods for me to try. Within the first few weeks, we all picked up on useful life lessons such as never navigate around the city without someone who spoke Chinese and always grab a pack of tissues before we left the house. I learned to say yes to things even when I felt like saying no. Going out of my comfort zone often lead to the most unforgettable experiences.
For example, after a long day of teaching and still wrestling with the fourteen hour time change, I wanted to climb into my bed but reluctantly I accompanied a group of teachers to campus knowing only that I was headed to “a show” that night. The show ended up being a rock concert led by one of Kathleen Hamel’s female students emblazoned in black platform heels and a Gwen Stefani-esque voice. We danced and joined in on a mosh pit while she growled to Nirvana, Foo Fighters, and Led Zeppelin, and some Chinese punk songs.
Another time an urge to escape the city resulted in Kathleen, my student Emily Wang, another teacher, and I taking a two hour train ride and multiple taxis out to Mount Huashan for a sunrise hike. We arrived at 10:00 p.m and were welcomed with a massive storm that soaked our clothes and shoes, making us seriously rethink our climb. We decided to wait it out in a small restaurant near the base and at 11:00p.m the lightening stopped and we began our ascent to the top of the four peaks of Huashan, the biggest physical challenge of my life. We ignored the gossip about the clouds causing low visibility and after more than seven thousand steps and five hours of hiking and climbing, we watched the sunrise together. The moisture of the clouds ended up giving the sky a tie-dye hue of orange, pink, and purple and the rain had cleared away the smog. We laughed together and drank victory beers as our cable car descended the mountain and oxygen filled our lungs again.
As someone who is reluctant to eat a well-marbled U.S.A steak, I learned to embrace street meat without hesitation, even the pink one (I gained roughly ten pounds from this new bravery and large amounts of green tea desserts). I worked in a classroom with a computer from the Li Xiannian Era, where the air conditioning and the projector only worked about two days out of the week. I learned to haggle for lower prices in the markets and I survived an incident where a mistranslation lead to a masseuse asking me for “three legs” and possessing little to no vocabulary to work my way through the conversation. I had no cellphone in Xi’an, so meeting up with friends was reliant on keeping our word and showing up on time. We watched beautiful women dance in the park at night and elderly people do Tai Chi in the mornings. We watched Chinese MTV daily and loudly sang songs at karaoke, something I would never do back in the States.
In the five weeks I spent in Xi’an, I rarely had any idea what the next hour had in store for me and relied all too often on the kindness of strangers. My incredibly talented students taught me as much about Chinese culture we could squeeze in to our time together and I left with new friends and ideas on how to run my classroom for the upcoming school year at CSU. Joni, Kathleen, Jenna, Kevin Ngo, and I headed back toward Fort Collins together without any extreme hangups and I found myself standing in line for coffee in Seattle quite bored with the fact that I could understand the thousands of conversations going on around me and a little disappointed that we didn’t get one more chance to flail wildly together like uncaged míng qín.