A Living Wage Chinese Style

The following is a letter I sent to Hawaii Senators Maizie Hirono and Brian Schatz:

Dear Senators:

I am a Big Island resident who use to live in China as an English teacher. Every time I hear people talk about universal coverage in THIS country I laugh because they always equate universal with socialism or communism.

Here’s what I had in China and why for the longest time I’d repeatedly return to that country. The first four years I worked as an ESL teacher I was paid 2000 yuan a month. That was enough for me to live on provided that I don’t travel too much. Then in 2000 my income increased to 6000 yuan. I’m now able to travel and spend more, pay for rent if I lived off campus, and get Chinese medical insurance. My last three years I was there I got 7000. In other words my income increased as the cost of living got higher and inflation. I was paid well enough that I didn’t need another job. I did all this on a single job. Why can’t that be done in this country? China does not have universal health coverage. It’s optional for employers. Those that do have it either pay it themselves or pay their teachers enough so that they can pay for their own insurance.

Why can’t we do that here in this country?

Regards,

Jada Rufo

 

A Funny Misunderstanding

Chinese have difficulty distinguishing the difference between “eh” as in “eh?” and “a” as in “apple”. They also have trouble in pronouncing it properly. This has lead to a funny misunderstanding.

 

I was working at the University of Silicon Lake in Kunshan, China. I got news from another American teacher that the school had hired two new teachers from the USA to teach English for two weeks in May. One teacher was a guy named Steve. The other was a woman named Ellen.

 

I lived in a duplex apartment. I had my own bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and washing machine. I even had my own entry door. The only thing I shared with my roommate was a living room.

 

The other side of the duplex was vacant. The previous teacher had already moved out and returned to the States. Ellen was to move into the vacant space.

 

I really wanted to meet this Ellen. I asked my boss when she and Steve were coming.

 

“I don’t know what time they are arriving,” he said. “I just know they are arriving on Wednesday. Be prepared to expect them.”

 

I waited. But I could not stay up because I had classes the next morning. At about 11 pm I went to bed and closed my bedroom door. But I lay awake in the dark expecting to hear a door open and voices in the living room.

 

I heard nothing.

 

When I awoke the next morning I expected to see evidence in the living room. I expected to see an odd pair of shoes, a suitcase, or the door to the vacant room closed.

 

I saw that nothing had been disturbed.

 

“Where’s Ellen?” I asked my boss over the phone. “Did she arrive last night?”

 

“Uh, Ellen is actually a man,” he sheepishly replied.

 

I hung up and had a good laugh.

 

Ellen is actually Alan.

Dangerous Women

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Woman: Ariana Grande

Weapon of choice: A music sheet

Mission: To bring joy and healing to the world.

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Woman: Malala Yousefzai

Weapon of choice: A book

Mission: To give girls an education and empower themselves.

imageWoman: Mother Teresa

Weapon of choice: A rosary

Mission: To heal the sick and help the poor.

imageWoman: Aung Sung Su Kyi

Weapon of choice: A ballot box

Mission: To bring political change in her country.

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Woman: Susan B. Anthony

Weapon of choice: A ballot

Mission: To give women the right to vote.

imageWoman: Rosa Parks

Weapon of choice: A bus

Mission: To expose injustice and inequality.

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Woman: Wilhemina Vautrin

Weapon of choice: A ceremonial college cap.

Mission: To save female refugees from Japanese soldiers.

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Woman: Hua Mulan

Weapon of choice: A sword

Mission: To break down gender barriers and stereotypes.

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Woman: Jada Rufo

Weapon of choice: A pen

Mission: To remind people of history and to learn from it.

Are you a dangerous woman?

What is your weapon of choice?

What is your mission?

What can you do to make the world a better place?

Totaled Again!

No one should ever have to celebrate a birthday in the emergency room. But that is exactly what I did this past May 16th on my 47th birthday. I was put there because a reckless driver slammed into my already “totaled” car. My car is now truly totaled.

I can’t give any details because my case is still under investigation. But I will say this. This is the second accident in less than six months for me. The first one was a rear end collision with a commercial truck (see Totaled). Ironically my first accident was in vicinity of another accident that happened the following day on May 17th, the day after my birthday. That accident took the lives of three people needlessly.

I use to live in China. I lived there for fourteen years. In all those years I was indirectly involved in just one accident.

One.

I was a passenger on a bus heading to Shanghai. I was sitting in the middle of the bus and was just anticipating my day when I heard a big WHAM in the back of the bus.

The driver pulled over to the side of the road and ordered all of his passengers off the bus. We waited on the side of the tree lined road for another bus to take us.

Exactly what made that WHAM? Two riders on a motorcycle collided with the bus. The driver and his female passenger were very lucky. They were not seriously hurt. The woman was clearly shaken and the man had a few cuts and bruises.

Their motorcycle however, was not so lucky. Half of it was pinned underneath the bus.

In this country I have encountered more reckless drivers than in China. I’ve seen drivers overtake six cars in one go in the presence of oncoming traffic. I’ve had cars pass me on the shoulder in front of a sign that says “no passing on shoulder”. I have also gotten stuck in a long line of cars due to a container blocking the road and I have seen motorcyclists weave in and out of cars – no helmets – into oncoming traffic. These are accidents just waiting to happen. I was told that the deadly May 17th crash was due to speed and a vehicle over taking other vehicles.

Someone was late to work.

In China I’ve had taxi drivers drive into oncoming traffic. I’ve encountered drivers on their phones. I’ve even ridden in cars where there are no seat belts.

Yet I’ve had no serious accidents other than the one I just mentioned.

Why? In a country where we’ve had a car culture since the turn of the 20th century why am I encountering more reckless drivers in my own country where we also have better safety standards? Drivers in China could be forgiven for driving recklessly because they haven’t had a car driving culture as long as the US. They drive their cars like they do with their bikes. They attempt to park their cars on sidewalks as if they were parking a bicycle.

China does have its share of car accidents. Before I left there was a story of a crash that involved school children. They were on a mian bao che or a mini bus on their way home from school. The bus was over crowded. People were even sitting on stools in the aisle thus blocking their escape route. The driver was also reported to be on medication thus his ability to drive the vehicle safely was compromised. As a result he accidentally drove the bus into a ravine killing everyone.

The Ministry of Education was looking into ways to make travel safer for children. They were looking into purchasing US style school buses equipped with seat belts and a stop sign.

But ultimately safety depends on the driver. As I was listening to the story I thought you can have all the safety gadgets in the world but ultimately it depends on the driver.

Safety ultimately relies on the driver.

Graduation season is upon us. With all the pomp and circumstance ceremonies comes the graduation parties where alcohol may be served. So here are some of my safety tips to keep people on the roads safe.

  1. If you are going to drink select a designated driver before partying.
  2. Leave home early for work. Plan ahead.
  3. No texting, talking, or using a portable device while driving.
  4. Buckle up. In Hawaii it’s the LAW!

I’ll add one more traffic accident story.

While traveling through Inner Mongolia my tour guide and I came across a burned out truck on the side of the road. Behind this truck was a sign that explained what had happened to that vehicle. This sign included very graphic pictures of the accident. The police had placed that truck in an effort to convince people to drive safely.

So I’m going to take a page out of the Chinese traffic police play book and post pictures of my now totaled car as a reminder to please drive with aloha.

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What I Learned Teaching at NIM

I read Suki Kim’s article with great interest. Her teaching experience in North Korea brought back memories of my first ESL experience in China. Her photos brought back memories of standing behind a lectern in front of a black board in a plaster white classroom. But it is her experience in teaching writing classes that I’d like to address because teaching students who have never been exposed to western ideas and who have not been taught to formulate their own ideas or opinions is another thing we have in common.

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After completing my first year of Chinese language I decided it was time for a life long dream to come true. It was time for me to live in a foreign country on my own terms.

I got a job teaching English at Nanjing Institute of Meteorology(NIM), now Nanjing University of Information Science Technology. One of my jobs was to teach English majors who already had jobs lined up to teach at various middle schools in Jiangsu. My first question I posed to my students was why they chose English as their major.

“We don’t get to choose,” one student said. “The school chooses.”

They failed to tell me which school did the choosing. But this did beg another question. As a former university student in Hawaii I got to choose my major. How is it that students have to study something they may not enjoy doing? I asked this of my colleague Kristen, a fellow American teacher.

“I had a graduate student who wanted to be a doctor and who loved kids,” she said. “He would have made an excellent pediatrician. But he got sent to serve as a meteorologist in Tibet.”

One student who clearly did not enjoy studying was a young man named George. He was one of those students who would be miserable at his future job. He was very shy. I had him in my oral and writing classes. He would sit in the back and keep to himself. He hardly said anything. When I asked him a question he would just stand there and look at his desk. He ended up repeating a year because he failed all of his classes.

I had another student named Carson who was also slated to be an English teacher but his true passion was law. He told me during one English Corner session that at the end of each day he would read law books.

“Carson,” I said, “you’re English is pretty good. You might study international law because a lot of foreigners want to do business in China. They need people like you.”

I have no idea what became of my students. I can only hope that they were able to survive and thrive in China’s changing economy. This was my first glimpse at planned economy.

Another thing the article reminded me of is the lack of critical thinking and creativity in China.

Like Kim I taught writing at NIM my second semester. I had twenty hours of classes a week. Half of those classes were writing classes and the other half were oral speaking classes. Some of my students had me twice a week, once for writing and once for speaking. In each group of students I had at the most sixty bodies in a room. I had anywhere from 100 to 200 journals to grade on any given week.

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I love writing. I love to teach creative writing. But this experience forever turned me off to teaching writing at least in China. I was reading sentences that had every writing error imaginable from punctuation to spelling mistakes to run-on sentences.

Then there is the use of Chinglish in their essays. I would get in-class writing assignments with sentences like I look look at toothbrush or my favorite hobby is listen to music. Imagine reading 200 essays full of run-ons and Chinglish expressions. I could not get beyond their grammar and spelling and the Chinglish. They were a huge barrier for me.

There is also the huge problem of plagiarism. In addition to giving them in-class writing prompts I also required them to keep weekly journals. They could write about whatever they wanted.

Bad idea.

I got such flowing and beautifully written essays about the NBA and wine etiquette. These essays looked as if they were written by a native English speaker. At first I ignored it but later I had my suspicions. I compared their in-class assignments with their journals and thought to myself how is it that this student wrote this crappy essay in class but in her journal she writes beautifully about wine?

Obviously there is a disconnect. But I could not prove it. They don’t give me any source because they are trying to pass this essay off as their own. The only way I could prove my point is it another student wrote the same wine essay verbatim.

Despite these setbacks my first year at NIM was one of my best experiences. I would sometimes surprise my students by visiting them in their dormitories. Many of them would tell be that I am their first foreigner they have ever met. They’d invite me to their dormitory parties where I learned how to make jiaozi(see Where’s the Cu article). My graduate students would invite me to have lunch with them after class. We’d drink beer and bai jiu until we’d get drunk even at 12 noon. They’d shower me with Christmas gifts and cards and one of them even invited me to their hometown of Xi’an to see the Terra Cotta Warriors.

I do miss that experience. Back in those days China was not as developed as it is now. Back then NIM was surrounded by farmland and it was an hour bus ride over the Yangtze River to Nanjing’s city center. I miss the almost god-like treatment given to foreign teachers like me. Nowadays there are a lot of English teachers that schools have become more demanding; they want blonde hair blue eyed westerners because they increase the school’s profits.

Still I am grateful that I’ve had the experience. After all, not too many Asian Americans like me have had the experience Ms. Kim and I have had; to teach English in our ancestral homeland.

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