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Month: December 2017

Palms Don’t Lose Their Fronds

Palms Don’t Lose Their Fronds

I was told that the weather in Nanjing would be like the weather in Boston. The weather in Nanjing is not like the weather in Boston. It doesn’t snow here. As I know from my first two winters in Massachusetts, it tends to snow in Boston. One year, someone made popcorn during a snow storm so bad the governor had already declared a state of emergency. Did you know that you still need to evacuate during a snow storm?

Anyway, it very rarely snows here in Nanjing, making to boots, gloves, hats and coats that I lugged here moot. However, since I am susceptible to chills I have been seizing the opportunity to wear a large, down coat in 40 degree weather. Don’t you dare judge me.

But I have met with some confusion as a result of the weather here. In San Francisco, if I look out and it is sunny, no matter the time of year it will never be below about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. In Boston, if there is snow on the ground in January, I know the high will likely be about 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Nanjing is confusing to me. There is no snow but it is in the thirties and forties and windy. This feels wrong, as if something is missing. I keep expecting snow to arrive but it likely won’t. I like the dry cold better, but it makes me feel like a wimp for being so cold. The presence of snow seems to better justify my down coat and my weather-centric complaints.

Adding to the difficulties which I am facing is a cultural difference. In the US, if asked the weather, people will usually respond with the high. In China, people usually respond with the low and of course they use Celsius. It reframes the day when you expect it be negative four (instead of 30-something Fahrenheit), but I have found that if I dress for the low, instead of the high, I am usually more properly attired. On that vein, I had to put away my Birkenstocks in October.

There are bright spots, many. Nanjing has many palms and other plants which, I am happy to note, have remained bright green deep into December. I went strolling in a nearby park one day this week and noticed that in many places, the scene could have been summer. Plants were shades of deep green and dappled with sunlight; the sky was clear. Because it was in the forties, I brought a coat and was comfortable walking outside.

At the park, 清凉山公园, I wandered for about an hour on a sunny winter’s day. It was quiet and almost emptied of people. The last time I was here was a gorgeous fall morning and the park was abuzz with leaf-peepers. The park’s name translates to something like “clear, cool mountain” and it lived up to its reputation. The paths were quiet and I could wander listening only to the sound of the trees and some far-away car horns. Pollution jokes aside, I felt like I could breathe better, more deeply.

One thing that I have noticed in myself is an increasing yearning to be outside, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. As I have written before, Nanjing is larger than any other city that I have lived in and I am living right in the center. My campus is a green oasis, but once you leave you are immediately in the center of a large city with bikes and scooters and motorcycles and cars blowing by you. And even in the green spaces on campus, you are always surrounded by other people. I don’t mind this, but I am starting to realize, after being spoiled by the Bay Area’s green spaces and by Wellesley, that I cherish quiet and emptiness. I don’t need it all of the time, but I need it sometimes.

Braving Spicy Food

Braving Spicy Food

In Nanjing, when ordering food, I am often warned with a worried look that the dish is spicy. Or I am asked how spicy I want the food to be. This is a delicate question because the sliding spice scale is relative. I usually say medium because I like spicy food but I also like having functioning taste buds. Some food in China, especially food from Sichuan or Yunnan, can be unbearably spicy if you order wrong. But if you say no to spice, the food is much less tasty.

When I answer that I want medium spice, people usually look worried for me. Every time I say “我喜欢辣” which means, ‘I like spice,’ I get a pang of fear: will this be the dish that sends me over the edge? I am walking a tightrope and know that eventually I will plunge into a spicy abyss.

This Friday, it happened. I went out with a friend for lunch. We headed to a street food place near the campus that serves a Nanjing delicacy, duck blood soup (Nanjing people love duck and almost every Nanjing specialty includes the bird). The soup includes broth, noodles, tofu, parsley(?), and duck blood in a hardened form that looked like a dark wedge of tofu. I tasted the dish first and discerned no spice, though the noodles were boiling hot.

In casual restaurants, there is always a small pot with a spoon, filled with pepper oil (literally peppers ground up in oil). This pepper oil varies in strength so I am usually cautious. Yesterday however, I was overconfident and put a large spoonful in my soup. It soon became clear that this was a mistake. The combination of pepper oil and boiling-hot soup overcame me: I lost the ability to speak and began crying from the spice.

My lunch companion looked sorry for me and mildly confused. These restaurants don’t usually provide water, nor did I have any carbs to soothe the pain. I rode the storm out and continued to carefully eat my soup in very small slurps. Just another day on the spice tightrope that is Chinese cuisine.

Learning to Lecture

Learning to Lecture

The past few weeks I have been shifting the format of one of my classes, Mythology and Folk Literature, to better balance lecture and student-driven activity. I received feedback from a supervisor that the students wanted more context and background about the folklore that we are reading.

Given that last week we celebrated American Thanksgiving, we are focusing on Native American folk literature this unit. We began with trickster tales and are now moving to study creation myths. I broadened the selection of stories to include some trickster tales from West Africa with similar characteristics.

Lecturing more has been a challenge on multiple fronts. I myself don’t have as much academic background on these myths as I do on the Greek myths, for example. So, I’ve been pawing through JSTOR and Google Books to find the materials I need. Once I read the books and articles, I have to figure out how to teach it to my students: what to tell them and how. Given that academic articles are not known for their accessibility, this often involves translating the work into a more digestible format. Then I try to find or creat activities relating to the new information. Given that the class is right after lunch, I cannot—nor do I want to—lecture the entire 80 minutes. Everyone would fall asleep. My lecturing style is not “exciting” enough to keep 40 tired college students awake and my jokes could kindly be described as lame.

Then comes delivering the lecture, which I find to be the most difficult part. I do not enjoy speaking at length with people staring at me. At times, I struggle to find ways to decode academic English for my English-learner students. I am not always sure that my point gets across the first time, and usually have to return to the main ideas of the lecture during the next class. Bizarrely, I am still fighting a feeling that I am being conceited/self-centered when I spent part of the class lecturing. I guess some part of me is still battling imposter syndrome.

However, I am improving on both fronts, I hope. I really enjoy doing the research for each class and figuring out how to structure my lecture. I am so grateful for the opportunity to keep learning and hope to continue eliciting participation and analysis from my students during my lecture.

I now feel more like I can stop for breath and to look around during my lectures. Last class, for example, we were learning about trickster theories (why the stories exist, what purpose they serve). It is dense material. I read the room: my students did not understand and looked at me with fear in their eyes. So, I stopped the tirade about marginality and had them confer with their neighbors. They were able to clarify and form questions; when we came back together as a group, they could better articulate their concerns. This felt a like victory, but I’m still going to make them review next class!!

New experience of the week: The students of the English Department host a Thanksgiving party and talent show. My roommate and I performed a dance to a mash-up *NSYNC and the Jonas Brothers. Obviously, it was a huge hit.