OVER THE HUMP, HEADING DOWNHILL
In the past two weeks, my favorite class ended. My graduate students and I were very emotional upon learning about, what we perceived was a premature ending to the course. We were all in tears. It was embarrassing and lovely at the same time. For our last class, we had a party. The students decorated the classroom walls with balloons and Christmas like garlands. They brought fruit and I brought Nutella (I’m so addicted to the stuff) and baby croissants. They had a final project involving small groups that were entertaining and I was able to video. All students with smart phones made “WeChat” connections with me so that we may continue to keep in touch. In psychologist “Speak” it was a good termination process.
Since then, I have been asked to give a lecture to the Geography department, and to take on a 2 hour course working with another English language teacher that will go until we come home 7 weeks from now. Rich lectured to the Geography department last week about land use in the US. Fortunately my topic will be a bit on the “lite” side given that I am clueless about the field of study.
Tomorrow, I start working with GaoWa, a 35 year-old Chinese (Mongolian) English Teacher who earned her masters degree at Columbia Teacher’s College having studied on a Fulbright Scholarship. A smart-as-whip woman who has a nice blend of China/New York about her. We will be working with a small group of 10 instructors from the “History of Science” Departent, hoping to improve their functional English. As with the Biology and Geography departments, the Dean of History and Science recognizes that faculty are increasingly expected to research and publish on an international level. This also means attending conferences outside of China where English would be the dominant language. Gaowa is the heavy hitter focusing on English grammar. I get to be what has been described as “the special gift”, a native speaker who can help with conversational situations that might pop up at professional gatherings. Should be fun….. really.
Oh, and if you were wondering, yes I still continue to struggle with Western Civilization. I don’t know if Rich and I will return to IMNU, but I do know that I will NEVER teach this course again. I am doing such a poor job it is embarrassing.
Rich is the worker horse in this duo. His 18 hours of writing classes along with our 2.5 hour class with biology students and additional guest lecturing has him either in a classroom or in front of his computer editing papers. He says he is happy that the powers that be are keeping him busy. However, it is not all work. We do get to bike around the city, run (me), go out for little shopping excursions, have dinner with friends, watch videos on our computers and go to English Corner.
This past Saturday night we attended a birthday party for professor En, Dean of the biology department and father of Anier, the young woman who invited us to the Number 2 Senior Middle School’s Sport’s Meeting in October. With the exception of Rich and me and the Music Professor YingQun, all at the party are Mongolian. YingQun Laoshi (teacher) is Manchurian/Han. I have mentioned the Han/Mongolian identity in the past. As time goes by, what was almost translucent becomes opaque. It is not easy to identify one cultural group member from the other, but in a very short time it is made clear. It usually is someone who identifies as Mongolian who will say something. “We three are the only Mongolian students in this class.” “Please let us take you to this restaurant. It has real Mongolian food.” “Will you be learning Mongolian too? You should, it is a wonderful language.” “You must visit the grasslands to see how the Mongolians live.” “I speak three languages, Chinese, English and my native, Mongolian.”
I remember learning in a multi-cultural course at UMASS that minority groups with a healthy sense of self maintain: 1) their cultural language, 2) some control over their children’s education, and 3) customs handed down through generations. Though there are many people of Mongolian heritage in Hohhot who have never lived outside the city, they self identify as being of the Grasslands. This distinct cultural group walks a line of dual identity. It reminds me of francophone Canadians living in QuebecProvince.
Interestingly, Rich and I live in a building attached to foreign student housing. Most of these students are from the Republic of Mongolia. They speak Mongolian and possibly Russian or English. Chinese is a third language, at best. While passing each other in the stairwell, I tried to speak Chinese with one of these students early in the semester. He responded in a simplified English, “I don’t know Chinese, sorry.” Made me chuckle.
So what are some Mongolian cultural idiosyncrasies? Next time, I’ll tell you.
As promised ,the following are examples of Mongolian cultural mores and pride.
- Practically everyone in China is extremely proud of their food. The “Grassland People” love.
o Milk Tea: Hearty, warm salty drink. Some people add millet and/or Mongolian cheese to the drink. Rich loves this.
o Mutton: right off the bone, fat and all
o Beef: Though not as popular as mutton.
o Sweet cream: It is naturally sweet
o Cheese: very different from anything I recognize as cheese. Varies from chewy to hard wafer squares. Again there is a mild sweetness to the taste.
o Yogurt: plain with millet, molasses like sugar occasionally added. Both Rich and I love Mongolian Yogurt. Greek Yogurt, stand back. This stuff is very tasty.
o Mare’s milk drunk by itself, as milk tea and as a distilled liquor. It is so bizarre to watch men and women hand milking a horse. The process looks familiar, but the hind quarters and legs just look “wrong”. We have tried this delicacy once. At the risk of sounding narrow minded, I really don’t need to try it again.
o Baijiu and Pijiu: Alcohol. Mongolians define one who has a high tolerance for “drink” as a “strong man/woman”.
- The Mongolian people we know love their cultural language. I know I have said this before, but it really is auditorily beautiful. An interesting factoid: Mongolians within Inner Mongolia (China) have a different written language than those who live in the Republic of Mongolia. This is attributed to a past influence of the USSR. I don’t know if you will be able to see the picture attached to this letter, but if you can, this is the writing that is seen throughout Hohhot. I find it beautiful. What do you think? If you can’t see it, just go to Google or Bing Images and type in Mongolian writing.
Stores and roads signs, as well as bus and train announcements are bilingual (Mongolian/ Chinese).
- Mongolian people almost always sing at meals with friends. As I mentioned in my last email, Rich and I attended a birthday party for the Dean of the Biology Department. Not only did we get to eat the cake before the rest of the meal, (how reasonable is that?), we sang “to” each other throughout the evening. One person will stand and sing a traditional Grassland song. Though a solo of sorts, others in the group spontaneously join in. Why? Because everyone seems to know ALL the songs and this is a communal culture. Our Mongolian friends have wonderful rich voices. (With the magic of iphone, I was able to video the experience).
- One of the reasons, I think, this particular group of IMNU staff have embraced Rich and now me into their fold is because we have tried to honor their cherished customs. We readily eat Mongolian food. We are adept at giving long, complimentary and sincere toasts. We drink…. And, we are comfortable singing in front of others. Rich likes to match Mongolian folk songs with traditional American tunes. I tend to sing songs I know from the Maiden Vermont chorus. I have heard to phrase “When in Rome….” several times this semester. I think it is an apt saying. By doing our best to participate and honor the rituals of our friends has brought us closer.
As you might imagine, we like all our friends here in Hohhot. Because I can’t distinguish physical characteristics between the two cultures, I only attend to group identity when it is pointed out. But should I sound too rosy about this, both Rich and I have heard stereotyped comments about both Han and Mongolian. One group is described as lazy, drunk and not ambitious, while the other group is said to be stiff, emotionally repressed and lacking a fun attitude. As you know, there are kind, thoughtful, hardworking people everywhere. Likewise the opposite is true. This is the case in Hohhot.
BTW, I didn’t mention it before, but there is a part of the city where a cluster of Chinese Ethnic Muslim people (called Hui (hway) live. The architecture is distinct and the inhabitants dress more modestly. We occasionally bike through this part of town and find it somewhat exotic. Rich has a few Chinese Ethnic Muslim students in his class. He says that the Hui are the contemporary descendants of Arab merchants on the ancient “Silk Road”. Interesting….