Ramadan: Beginnings

This year Ramadan, the Islamic holy month during which we abstain from eating, drinking, sexual relations, as well as negative habits from dawn until sunset, was from late May to late June. It was our first Ramadan in China, and the first Ramadan I, Cairene, was working. The last few years Ramadan either fell in my school vacation, or the students were already off, while we teachers sat around at school waiting for time to pass. Actually, I found it was not very difficult to fast all day and teach at the same time – instead it made it easier to get through the day!

The first week of Ramadan I was on my own, as Rora was still in Cairo. On the first day of Ramadan I spontaneously decided to visit the local mosque for iftar – the breaking of the fast – and evening prayer. Having left the house rather late, I rode my bike as fast as I could to get to the mosque on time. When I arrived, quite out of breath, I asked in my broken Chinese where to go to pray, and what time the prayer would start. A kind lady told me to follow her, and took me to the mosque’s dining hall, where on one side of a screen sat all the men, and on the other all the women. Many eyes were on me, as nobody expected to see a foreigner join them for dinner and prayers. The imam welcomed everyone in Chinese and gave a short speech which was followed by supplication in Arabic. We broke our fast that night with a local dish of of rice noodles, as well as some porridge. When it was time for prayer I followed the women to the prayer room.

While the men pray in the mosque proper, the women’s prayer room is in an adjoining building above the dining hall, rather small, and the imam’s recitation of the prayer is played through a speaker. The whole building is very new, and there is no air condition or fan in the women’s prayer room yet, which made the whole experience a bit uncomfortable, to be honest. I am not a fan of this separation of the sexes at all, and it is a global problem: many mosques around the world have no space for women to pray in, or if they do, they are often small and uncomfortable. During the time of the Prophet Mohamed men and women would pray in the same space – men on one side, women on the other…

In Egypt I’ve experienced that women line up for prayer as closely together as possible, which can often be inconvenient, when they try to take up each other’s space – elbows, ouch! In addition to that, many women recite the prayer in a rather loud whisper, which easily distracts one from one’s own prayer. In Hanzhong, on the other hand, the women spread out evenly through the room, and said their prayers in silent whispers.

There are different types of prayers, some of them are called fard, or obligatory, and others sunnah, voluntary. Whenever I went to the mosque in Egypt everyone prayed the obligatory prayer, of course, but only some people stayed for the voluntary prayer afterwards. That first night of Ramadan I was about to get up after the obligatory prayer, and take my things to leave the hot and stuffy room. I was, however, surrounded by women who performed the voluntary prayer – every single woman in the room performed it!

Through observation I learned that many of the voluntary acts of worship are performed like clockwork by the Chinese Muslims. They even have a signal, a bell for example, to begin and end supplication. Everyone stops in their tracks, lifts their hands, says a quiet supplication until the signal sounds again, and then continues with whatever they were doing.

After all the prayers were completed we returned to the dining hall for a proper dinner – that night we ate beef noodles, and whatever we had left from the rice noodles and porridge. One big difference that I noticed between China and other countries that night was that the leftovers, instead of being discarded, were all taken home by the attendees. People in many countries famously overindulge in Ramadan and serve too much food, celebrate excess rather than self-denial, and waste instead of save resources. The Chinese usually do this as well, which made it all the more surprising to me when I saw my fellow diners take out food containers or bags to put the leftovers in.

Before this post gets to long, I’ve decided to split our Ramadan in China into several posts, most likely three, that will focus on different aspects and adventures we had during this holy month. Instead of posting the next update in one week, I shall try to post the remaining parts in the next few days. Tomorrow is my last day of teaching before the summer vacation, which means I will finally have a lot of free time to write, read, and ride my bike.

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Settling: Leisure

Working only 20 hours per week, I have a lot of free time. You might wonder what I do with all that downtime, and what Chinese people usually do when they don’t have to work – many work long hours, often 12 hours per day, 6 days per week.

For one, I love reading and listening to audiobooks. Since coming to China two months and a half ago I have finished 18 books, and, by the time I publish this post, I might have finished another two. The audiobooks I’m currently listening to, with a few exceptions, are autobiographies, and the books I’m reading these days are either collections of short stories, novels, or non-fiction. The books relevant for this blog, i.e. China related, that I have read in the last few weeks are W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, On a Chinese Screen, and Yu Hua’s China in Ten Words. Betimes I will write reviews for them and publish them on this blog.

Chinese people like reading, too. Many of my colleagues read books in the office once they are done with lesson planning and grading. I, too, frequently read e-books on my  phone during breaks. There are bookshelves in each classroom and in the hallways, and many kids read when they find time to do it – some even read during class time… Bookshops are popular and often crowded, and while the foreign language sections are usually not well stocked, I still enjoy browsing them.

Another important part of Chinese people’s daily lives is physical exercise. At school most students use all the free time they can find to play some sport or other. My students have a 30 minute PE lesson every morning, as well as another one throughout the day. During their other breaks they can be seen in the hallways playing catch, hide and seek, shuttlecock, dancing, or inventing their own kind of games, or they are outside playing table tennis, basketball, badminton, football, rope skipping, or running. Many teachers join them in the activities, or play sports during their own breaks.

Whatever time of day one goes out into the streets of Hanzhong one can find people playing sports. In the mornings grandmas and grandpas can be seen in parks and squares practicing tai chi. Throughout the day people exert themselves at outdoor gyms or go for a run along the riverbank. In the evening aunties and some uncles can be found dancing in the squares and parks. Even at night people still play sports: the local bike club, for example, meets at 7:30 pm every day, and returns well after nightfall.

I frequently ride my bike around the countryside or explore parts of the city. Sometimes I only take short 10 km rides to the city center and back, at other times I ride up to 30 km through villages, rice fields, up and down hills, along the river or tributaries, on proper streets or dirt roads, through open spaces and forests. I love this way of exploring my surroundings, and now that I own a lightweight hammock, I’m always well equipped for comfortable breaks with a view, provided I find two trees that grow close enough together.

On weekends and particularly on national holidays, Chinese people will flock to the countryside to go hiking, see colorful flowers in bloom, climb a mountain, visit some historical sights, or have a barbecue far away from the city. In short, Chinese people love the outdoors! And given the fact that the countryside is simply gorgeous I can’t blame them. This, however, often leads to the scenic spots being crowded, the ways to and fro clogged with traffic, and the natural places full of litter.

Chinese people also love spending time with their children and grandchildren. Families are close-knit, and grandparents often live in the same home as parents and children. Not only do they spend time together at home, but also outdoors: when you see Chinese parents with their little child you can be sure that the grandparents are nearby.

Chinese elders seem to be very well integrated into social life, and wherever I go I see elderly people. This is a stark contrast to other countries where old people waste away in retirement homes, hidden from the public eye. Nearly every day I see groups of old folks playing cards, Chinese chess, or mahjong under some big tree on the pavement, in parks, or on squares. As I mentioned above, many older citizens engage in physical exercise on a daily basis, and are thus quite sprightly.

With my internet addiction I fit right into Chinese society. I spend many hours of my day online, both on my laptop and smartphone, usually surfing on Facebook, chatting with friends on WhatsApp or WeChat, watching movies or clips on Youtube, or reading the news. Chinese people LOVE the internet. They do a lot of online shopping, order food, taxis, or many services from their phones, pay on the go with their WeChat Wallet, play video games, share selfies, livestream their activities, blog, comment, and watch films. Of course Facebook and Youtube are blocked here – yet still accessible through VPN and proxy servers – but China has QQ and WeChat, Sina Weibo, Taobao, Baidu, Youku, and many other websites instead.

Last but not least is of course food. I, and the Chinese, love to eat. Which comes as no surprise, because Chinese food is just extremely delicious, and offers a lot of variety. In only a short time I’ve had a barbecue with my friends at least three times, hot pot at least once a fortnight, and random other food outings with others at least once a week. While food at restaurants is usually quite good, it’s even better to be invited at some family home. These Chinese aunties really know how to cook up some treats!

This account of leisure time activities is of course not exhaustive, as there are many other things that can be done here, and that I do here. I will surely write about others in the future, but for now this shall suffice.


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Settling: Job

I can’t believe I’ve been in Hanzhong for 60 days already. Time flies quickly indeed!

That’s 60 days of new adventures, new friends, new opportunities.

And 60 days without my husband, Rora.

15 more days, and he’ll be here, too.

What follows is the first of three parts on settling in, regarding my job. The next weeks I will focus on my city, Hanzhong, and leisure time activities respectively.

Job

I teach oral English in a private primary school and kindergarten to students aged 4-6 and 9-12. As my previous teaching experience was always with those over the age of 12, I wanted to work with that age group again. As the other foreign teacher arrived at the school before I did, however, he was able to choose the grades he wanted to teach, and I was assigned the others. Or, as our foreign affairs officer (FAO), Lou, put it: “This way you can gain experience in a new field.”

I must admit, I really enjoy teaching my grades 4, 5, and 6 now. The students are generally well behaved, and their Chinese English teachers help to maintain order and discipline – at least most of the time. In primary school I teach 23 classes, and see all of them once a week for 30-45 minutes, and in kindergarten I teach 8 classes, 4 each week, for 25 minutes each. I don’t particularly want to teach kindergarten students, and I have expressed my dismay to the school, but somebody has to do it. Don’t get me wrong, the kids are cute and funny, but it’s just not my thing – I don’t show that in class, though.

The average school day of primary school students at my school looks something like this: they get up at 6:50 am, have breakfast, then attend “morning class”, during which they do some reading practice or review, from 7:30 to 8 am.  Regular lessons begin at 8:10 am and end at 11:45 pm; during this time they have four lessons and ample breaks in between that are filled with snacks (usually some fruit and buns) and physical exercises. This is followed by a 2.5 hour lunch and nap break, and afternoon classes are between 2:35 pm and 5:45 pm – four lessons with breaks in between. The students then have a dinner break from 5:45 pm until 7:20 pm and “evening class” from 7:20 pm to 8:20 pm for grades 1-4, and to 8:55 pm for grades 5 and 6. Bedtime is, I believe, at 10 pm. They have class from Monday to Friday, as well as Sunday afternoon.

My school, reportedly the top school in the area, is also a boarding school. Most students sleep here, and only see their families on weekends, others live in nearby apartments with their parents, grandparents, and sibling. No, the singular form of sibling is not a spelling mistake. After the one-child-policy was amended to be a two-child-policy, many Chinese families have opted for a second child. Many of my students’ siblings, however, were born before the policy was changed; in other words, they have rich parents who could afford the penalties that had to be paid in order to be allowed to have a second child.

The kids have lessons in English, Math, Chinese, Science, Art, Music, Computer, PE, and an optional class (cooking, cross-stitching, rope-skipping, etc.). And they have my oral English class. There is no curriculum for this kind of class, and my school does not provide a course book or material, so it is up to me what we do in class. We play English games, sing songs, the kids have to practice pronunciation, sometimes we watch a short movie and discuss it, or they have to work on tasks in groups and present their results to the class. There is no homework or test in my class, which means there is less stress in my class, too.

Each primary school class consists of up to 45 students, and in kindergarten there are up to 25 children in one class. Add all the numbers and you will realize that I teach up to 1000 students each week. I assume there are over 5000 students enrolled in my school.

Please note that this is not representative of all primary schools in China. In most primary schools the schooldays are much shorter, and the workload lower. As a top school, however, my school has the aim of putting as many graduates into the best universities in China and abroad as possible. There even is a “wall of fame” along the high school building, giving information on previous students who managed to get into such prestigious universities as Beijing or Tsinghua University.

Speaking of the school: while the kindergarten and nursery are each housed in separate buildings outside the school campus, the primary, middle, and high school all share the same campus, albeit all have their own buildings. There are, furthermore, the following things on campus: a huge canteen with several floors where students and employees can have breakfast, lunch, and dinner; a fine-art/music building, the administration building, a large hall, the students’ and teachers’ dormitories and teachers’ apartments, a huge basketball court, a football field with racetrack, and lots and lots and lots of trees and other plants everywhere.

I work approximately 20 hours per week, and while I do have quite a full schedule, I do not have any required office hours. My lessons take place between 8am and 4pm, and I have a lot of free time every day, which I spend reading, writing, riding my bike, watching TV shows, and surfing online. Lesson planning is minimal, as I usually teach the same lesson in all my primary classes – I simply adjust them based on the class’s English level. In kindergarten I can use one lesson plan for two weeks. I love this job, as it makes me and my students happy, isn’t too stressful, and provides me with enough money and time to enjoy life. Summer and winter vacation add up to 3 or 4 months, and almost every month there is some national holiday or other, which means additional days off throughout the school year.

There are many critics of foreign oral English teachers. The most common argument is that the teachers are not qualified. While this is often unfortunately true, the Chinese government is making it more difficult for unqualified people to obtain a working permit. I can, with pride, say of myself to be fully qualified to be an English teacher in China: not only do I hold a degree in English from a British university, but, besides many years of teaching experience, also have a teaching diploma, and thus the necessary background in education.

Another reason oral English teachers are belittled by many is that they are an example of what is often called a “white monkey job”. Many Chinese companies will hire foreign staff, preferably white Westerners, and use their foreign faces as a means of advertisement to make their product more attractive to buyers – kind of like the exploitation of circus or beggars’ animals. They claim superiority of their services, and thus justify charging higher fees. It’s a win-win situation for both employers and employees: the company makes more money, and the employee gets a high salary and many benefits (free housing, free food, travel bonus) for a stress-free job, while his or her only merit might often be nothing more than the color of his or her skin, the passport he or she is holding, or the native language he or she might speak.

A 30-45 minute oral English class once a week – or 25 minutes in kindergarten – might not be very efficient for such large classes, but I believe that those students, who are interested in the language, can still benefit from even such little practice. White monkey job or not, I strive to do my best and try to make my classes fun for the students. And I have some hope that I can teach my kids at least a little bit of English.