A Travellerspoint blog

On University Teaching (and Learning) in China

It’s graduation week here at Sun Yat-sen University. This campus looks a lot like my own university campus back home in Philadelphia during graduation time, with students clad in black graduation gowns milling around campus, many carrying bouquets of flowers and followed by misty-eyed parents and grandparents who keep stopping to snap pictures and take videos of their darling offspring. (And who can blame them for being so proud? I wept openly with pride throughout both of my children’s preschool graduations, and all they had to do to graduate was show up to class and not bite the other children.)


The graduation scenes are making me nostalgic. They signal the end of my time as a visiting scholar here in Guangzhou. I came to China at the invitation of a colleague. Prof. Zhang invited me here to collaborate on some research projects and to teach a two-week course on library and other information services for youth to a mixed class of undergraduate and master’s students in the School of Information Management. I asked if I would have a translator for the lectures, but Prof. Zhang assured me that the students all spoke English, English being a required subject for all Chinese students throughout middle school and high school.

I normally don’t use PowerPoint slides for class because I think they thwart student participation, and participatory learning is a main goal of my teaching. However, I knew from working with Chinese graduate students in the U.S. that Chinese students are accustomed to more formal lecturing, so before I left for China I spent many hours creating a series of detailed PowerPoint slides. I was told that there would be a total of six class sessions, each four hours long. I planned to spend half of the sessions lecturing on theories of child and adolescent development, and half on research into how children and teens interact with information and information technologies. These are topics I have taught for many years; it would be a snap to teach the course.

My class was held on East Campus, several miles from South Campus where my hotel is located. East Campus is much more modern than South Campus, with gleaming stone and glass buildings and lush flowering plants all over the campus grounds.



I walked into class the first day anxious to see my students. Judging from the looks of them, I guessed that about six were undergrads and about eight were master’s students. I stood at the front of the room and introduced myself. I asked the students to go around the room to introduce themselves to me, but they stared back at me mutely. I tried asking a couple of them their names, but they didn’t respond.

I started to get nervous. My teaching style leans heavily on conversations with students. If no one else was going to talk, it was going to be a long, painful four hours. And it was hot in the room. Really, really hot.

I had planned to pepper my lectures with short videos to break up the monotony—a video on the developmental value of play, one on the importance of dialogic reading, and so on. I walked over to the computer at the front of the class and clicked on the link to the first video. A warning message in Chinese appeared on the screen. I had forgotten that the Chinese government blocks Youtube. None of the videos I had selected were usable.

No student participation. No videos. I began to panic, making me feel even hotter.

I moved on to the first PowerPoint slide and explained that we would be studying child development over the next several class sessions, starting with babies and moving up to adolescents. I looked for signs of comprehension or interest in the students’ faces. Nothing. I noticed an undergrad in the front row pull out her phone and begin surfing Weibo (a popular Chinese social network). An undergrad near the back of the room slumped over the table in front of her and promptly fell fast asleep. Most of the other students were a bit more polite, but as I spoke they mostly just looked confused. A few gave up trying to understand me and began to type on their laptops, obviously doing homework for other classes.


Between my growing panic and the stifling heat, I began to sweat. I could feel drops of sweat welling up on my neck and rolling down my torso. It was not a pleasant feeling.

I kept lecturing, stopping every fifteen minutes or so to ask the students questions. No one other than the two graduate students assigned to act as my hosts responded – not so much as one word from the other students. In the U.S. when I’m in the classroom my students often talk so much that I have to stand in the front of the room and yell: “Hey, everybody! Quiet down and listen to me for a minute!” to make myself heard. I longed to be back in one of those noisy, rowdy classrooms.

Prof. Zhang had told me it would be fine to end class early. Half an hour in I began to wonder how early was “early.” During a bathroom break one of my grad student hosts told me that they usually stopped class after two hours and went to lunch. I jumped at the chance to shorten the four-hour class by half, and as soon as my watch indicated that two hours had passed, sent all the students off to lunch.


After eating in the school cafeteria, I bumped into one of the students from class in the hallway near my campus office. “Did you learn anything from class this morning?” I asked her hopefully.

Her brow wrinkled as she struggled to think of something to say. “I think you are a very humorous professor,” she finally said.

Two hours of class, and she learned nothing. Not one single thing. It was a disaster.

I asked my grad student hosts for advice. They said that the students probably had trouble understanding me because I spoke too quickly, and that Chinese students would be nervous about speaking English in front of me. And since the students weren’t planning on working with youth, they probably weren’t too interested in the topic.


The next day I tried again with my prepared lecture, trying to speak more slowly. The sleeping undergrad continued to sleep. The Weibo-ing undergrad continued to surf. The other students all looked bored or confused.

It was another long, miserable two hours. There were only two points at which anyone showed any interest. When I made an off-topic comment about digital copyright issues in the U.S., one of the master’s students asked a few related questions. And when I asked what kinds of movies, books, or music were popular with Chinese children, one of the master’s students perked up. “Kung Fu Panda!” she said with a big grin.

I realized that teaching college in China requires a fundamentally different approach than teaching college in the U.S. The content, the theoretical/practical balance, the speed of delivery, and the student engagement methods I had planned were all wrong.

I returned to my hotel room after class and spent the afternoon, the evening, and much of the night ripping apart and redoing all of the materials that I had prepared for the course. I eliminated two-thirds of the remaining content and focused on teaching just the introductory-level material. I decided to focus only half of the remaining course on youth-related issues (even though I was being paid to focus on that very topic) and the other half on issues more likely to be of interest to the students. I began drafting a set of mini-lectures, brief overviews of current issues in digital information management, information privacy, information security, digital preservation, and much more.


I designed the next day’s class to switch topics every half hour to keep the students interested and to enable coverage of multiple topics during the two-hour session, maximizing the chances that at least one topic would interest each student. I also changed my methods for encouraging student participation, weaving small-group discussion questions and ungraded collaborative quizzes into the classes every half hour or so to enable student-led discussion in Mandarin.

Understanding that popular culture was a hook for some of the students, I began the lecture the next day on adolescents’ use of mobile technologies with a series of screen shots of eight social networks/platforms/apps that are popular with U.S. teens: snapchat, kik, Tumblr, Vine, and more. I discussed the features of each one and explained how they differ. One of the master’s students asked if I was familiar with Zach King’s vines, and we spent a several minutes watching some of his best Vines, which I projected onto the screen in the front of the classroom.

Most of the students seemed interested. The Weibo student even shut down her phone to pay attention. As soon as I moved on from describing the sites – several of which are blocked by the Chinese government, so the students were especially curious about those – the Weibo student turned her phone back on and went back to online chatting with friends, but most of the other students remained interested (albeit quiet) until we stopped for a bathroom break.

Although I had adjusted the content and engagement activities, I still had a delivery problem: try as I might, I just couldn’t remember to speak slowly in class. After some in-class experimentation, I finally hit upon a physical solution. I needed to drink water throughout class to keep from overheating in the muggy subtropical heat. I started keeping my bottle of water on the lectern at the far right of the front of the classroom, but I spoke from the center front. Each time I needed to change a slide, I would walk half-way across the room to the lectern, hit the button for the next slide, and take a gulp of water. The walking, slide changing, and drinking forced me to stop talking for a couple of minutes between slides and gave the students extra time to process information that they were hearing in a foreign language.

I had moderate success with the remaining classes. Three of the master’s students started to contribute in class, making comments and asking questions, serving as translators for some of the other students whose English skills were less developed.

By the final class, most of the students looked interested for at least part of the lecture. I wouldn’t call that final class “good,” but it was definitely better than my first disastrous, sweaty attempt two weeks earlier.

After I ended the final lecture, I wished everyone goodbye and farewell. The students clapped politely. I began to pack up my backpack to head out the door. One of the more talkative master’s students rushed up to me, blushed, and handed me a plastic bag. Inside were two lovely hand-embroidered shoe inserts. She said that her sister-in-law had sewn them, and that she would like to offer them to me as a present. They are beautiful – delicate, evenly stitched pink flowers against a red and yellow background. They are far too beautiful to step on; I will frame them as art instead of putting them in my shoes. I am deeply touched by her gesture and by her gift. Perhaps she gives all of her professors beautiful, handmade gifts; I don’t know. But I choose to believe that some of my lessons somehow reached her – that I somehow made at least a tiny positive contribution to her life.


And that is all that I can hope for from my teaching, whether I’m on familiar ground teaching back in the U.S., or learning how to teach all over again, here in Southern China, 8,000 miles from home.


If you haven’t watched any of Zach King’s vines, you’ll want to. Click HERE to watch them on Youtube or HERE to watch them on Vine if your government blocks Youtube.

Posted by dagosto 16:51 Archived in China Comments (0)

On Window(less) Shopping in Guangzhou

A few days after I arrived here in Guangzhou, the university closed for the three-day national Dragon Boat Festival holiday. I had planned to wake up early and head to the Pearl River to watch the dragon boat races. Unfortunately, exhausted from the long trip to China and from my first day of lecturing at the university the day before, I slept through my alarm.

By more than five and a half hours.

Not only did I miss the dragon boat races, I missed breakfast, lunch, and a good part of the afternoon. I took a shower, dressed, and walked out the front door of the university hotel. The campus paths and lawns were packed with people who had come to the big city for the long holiday weekend. They posed next to statues and signs as their family members snapped pictures.

I walked toward the university’s South Gates to explore the area to the south of campus. It started to rain -- hard -- just a few minutes after I stepped outside, heavy, warm drops falling faster and faster. People started running for cover, huddling under awnings and in building doorways, but not me. I refused to let a little bit of subtropical rain (OK, a LOT of subtropical rain) stymie my plans, and I marched along through the rain under my little travel umbrella, water sloshing in and out of my shoes and splashing up onto my dress.

I exited the campus gates onto the wide city avenue that leads to one of the Guangzhou garment districts. Guangzhou is a major textiles producer, producing fabrics and clothing that is shipped and sold not just throughout China but throughout the world. I bought a few pastries at a bakery, and then walked deeper into the garment district, munching on almond rolls and dim sum buns filled with red bean paste.

The garment district reminded me a lot of Manhattan’s garment district, but this garment district covers a much larger area, while the individual shops – many no larger than a newsstand – tend to be much smaller. Few shops here sell finished clothing. Instead, they sell uncut lengths of patterned silks or cotton fabrics. Other shops sell additional items needed to make clothes – shops that sell only zippers, or only buttons, or just sequins, or just ribbons, or just lace. The little shops gape wide open to the street—the sliding metal front walls rolled up and open for business—often with the shop proprietor sitting on a chair or stool in the entryway, where the indoors and outdoors meld into one.



Music was pouring out of many of the little shops, a lot of traditional Chinese music and also a lot of North American and British pop hits re-recorded in Chinese. Songs by dramatic female singers were especially popular: Celine Dion in Chinese, Karen Carpenter in Chinese, Whitney Houston in Chinese.

The rain stopped. People thronged the sidewalks, most of them out for a walk on a holiday afternoon. Vehicles of all sizes clogged the city streets, rushing by, narrowly missing pedestrians, drivers yelling at each other to get out of the way, some drivers honking indiscriminately as they squeezed their vehicles through any available spaces in the congested streets.

It seems that stoplights here are more of a suggestion than a rule, with cars, bicycles, little three-wheeled mechanized trucks, and tiny motorized vehicles of all types running the stoplights almost as often as stopping for them. I was careful to cross with the lights at intersections with stoplights, but still I – and all the other pedestrians – had to dodge oncoming vehicles from all directions each time I crossed. It’s a miracle that more people here do not get run over.


I walked block after block, looking at all of the beautiful fabrics. I was hoping to buy my daughter, who has an eye for fine fabrics, a dress or a lace blouse, but all I could find were uncut bolts of fabric.

I didn’t buy anything. I am a half-way decent seamstress. I sewed most of the window curtains in my house and all of the shower curtains, tablecloths, and bed skirts, but I don’t trust my skills enough to cut into a bolt of delicate Chinese silk.

As the afternoon wore on, the heat index began to climb. I started to feel dizzy from the heat and humidity. I had to remove my glasses repeatedly to wipe the lenses with the hem of my dress to clear off accumulating moisture. I don’t do well in heat and have overheated many times before. On the first day that I lived in Texas, I walked several miles all over the University of Texas campus in the hot August afternoon sun and then passed out cold on the floor of the men’s bathroom in the chemistry building (I couldn’t find the women’s bathroom.). And the first time I visited a beach in Rio de Janeiro, I got a blistering sunburn in under an hour and a blinding headache from excessive exposure to the sun.

Still, a hot day in Guangzhou is like nothing I have ever experienced before. The heat is thicker and heavier here than anywhere else I have traveled. Even though I don’t see well with glasses, I haven’t attempted to wear my contacts here because my eyes are so swollen from the heat, humidity, and air pollution that I cannot open them fully. As I continued to walk around in the worsening afternoon heat, I really needed a cold drink.

Despite the oppressive heat and humidity, most of the liquids here are drunk either tepid or hot. All I could find to drink in the garment district was hot tea, so I turned around and walked back to the main avenue in front of the university. I stopped at a little storefront counter covered with large pictures of fruity drinks. I pointed to the one labeled “coconut.” It turned out to be bubble tea, tea with lumps of sticky tapioca lurking at the bottom of the cup. Bubble tea drinkers drink through a fat straw, wide enough to suck up the lumps along with the tea. I had tried bubble tea before in the U.S. and hated it. I positioned the straw in the top-half of the cup to avoid getting mouthfuls of the flavorless gelatinous globs. The coconut chai part of the drink was sweet and cold, though, and as long as I avoided the globs, it tasted pretty good.

I continued walking along the wide avenue until I came to the next commercial district. It appeared to be a bargain shopping area. Salespeople stood outside the open fronts of the shops, which were larger and more modern here, clapping and yelling at passers-by, trying to entice them to enter and buy. Some even shouted into portable microphones, no doubt touting their low, low prices.



A few greeted me with hopeful yells of “Hello! Hello!” but I walked along without buying anything. I did stop at a pharmacy in search of Band-Aids. From the outside it appeared to be a standard modern pharmacy, but once inside I realized that it was an herbal medicine shop, with shrink-wrapped packages of modern herbal remedies lining the shelves in the front of the store, and glass counters filled with dried mushrooms, dried roots, and other traditional Chinese medicines filling up the back half of the store.


I left the herbal medicine store and walked on until I came to a kind of little indoor mall, taking up the whole first floor of a large building. It was crammed full of little stalls where people sold random collections of clothes, pajamas, underwear, purses, shoes, costume jewelry, and makeup.


I walked around looking at the stalls. I also counted three different little shops that looked like manicure parlors, with young women and men wearing face masks, bent over seated clients, working on their fingers or toes.


I treated myself to a manicure, which actually proved to be kind of painful. I have never seen such vigorous nail filing before. Instead of filing just the outer edges of the nails, the manicurist also filed the whole wide, flat surface area of my nails down almost to the nerve endings below. Then she built up the weakened nails with a noxious-smelling -- possibly toxic -- compound labeled “builders gel.”

As I was getting my nails done, the young woman in the parlor seat next to me struck up a conversation, speaking cheerfully to me as her own nails were being vigorously filed. I smiled and nodded politely, having no idea what she was saying. Finally she said a word that I understood: “Wechat?” Wechat is the Chinese equivalent of Facebook, and virtually everyone I’ve met in China so far uses it. It has individual and group chat features, e-pay that is accepted in most Chinese businesses, photo and video sharing capabilities, and more.

I pulled out my phone and signed onto my Wechat account. The young woman pulled out her own phone, and we friended each other. Later that evening after I had returned to my hotel, she sent me several friendly messages, first her name and then a series of cheerful emojis. I wrote her a couple of short messages back introducing myself and telling her where I come from. A couple of days later she texted me again, this time with the cryptic message: "Hello, you useful to protect skin to taste?” My best guess is that she is the equivalent of a Chinese Avon saleslady and she’s hoping to sell me some skin products. I have yet to figure out how to answer her message.

After the (painful) manicure, I turned back in the direction of campus to begin the steamy walk home. I couldn’t help but laugh at much of the written English that I saw in the streets: the ATM’s marked “Cash Recycling Machines,” the teenage boy walking down the street with “SOCCER MOM” printed in large, bold letters on his t-shirt, the old ladies wearing shirts making statements about teenage female anatomy too obscene for me to repeat here.

Even though I spent the afternoon just wandering around the city streets, I think I came to know China a bit better that day, coming to understand that China is not just a land of contrasts, but a land of amalgamation as well: the use of English language words as decoration on Chinese clothes and buildings; the seamless mixture of the old China with the new, such as the old Daoist temple standing strong in the midst of the modern garment district, or the half-New Age medicine, half-old Chinese medicine pharmacy; the mixing of foreign cultures with Chinese culture, such as the North American pop music not merely borrowed but remade into something entirely new. All of these amalgamations combine to form modern China, a country that I am coming to love more and more with each passing day.


Posted by dagosto 04:47 Archived in China Comments (0)

On Eating (and Not Eating) in China

I love food, Asian cuisines in particular, and in the months before my trip here I was especially excited about eating in China. Most of the food in Guangzhou has been excellent so far, but I’m finding it rather challenging to order vegetarian food when I go out alone to eat in restaurants. It’s not just the language barrier that makes it tough but a cultural customs barrier as well.

The first night that I went out to dinner alone I stopped at corner restaurant in a large, sand-colored modern building with huge posters of food hanging down from the exterior.


I walked inside and went up the stairs to the second story where the enormous dining room was located. I would estimate that there were over 100 tables stretching out the length of half of a city block. Nearly all of the tables were filled with people busily eating—always a good sign. One of the side walls of the dining room was lined with over 50 labeled and numbered photographs of featured dishes, mostly seafood but also a few promising-looking vegetable plates.

I walked over to what looked to me like a hostess stand and stood waiting for a hostess to come seat me. Servers with large trays of food held high rushed back and forth in front of me, but no one seemed to notice me. I waited for a long time, and then tried walking to an empty table, sitting down, and waiting some more, but still no one paid me any attention. After about 15 more minutes I gave up in frustration and left to go to a different restaurant.

That was a few nights ago. Still hoping to eat there, I went back to the same restaurant at lunchtime today. This time I waited on the sidewalk out front until a woman holding a little girl by the hand walked up and entered building. I followed her inside the restaurant and up the stairs, hoping to see how she managed to get served. She walked over to the exact same place where I had stood near the hostess stand the previous night. Almost immediately the hostess appeared with a menu and led her and her daughter to an empty table.

I waited for the hostess to come back. She grabbed a menu, said something to me, and turned around and started striding rapidly toward the middle of the restaurant. I followed her. The place was again packed, but today, a national holiday, most of the people were eating dim sum, the traditional weekend and holiday lunch here in Guangzhou. People at several of the tables called out to the hostess as we passed by, presumably asking for service, but she waved them off with her arm and kept walking. She seated me at a large, round table and disappeared.

Soon a waitress came over and started talking to me. In response to my visible confusion, she pulled out her phone, typed a few Chinese characters, and hit a button. The English words “lunch or dim sum” appeared on the screen. I pointed to the word “lunch,” and she handed me an enormous laminated menu. I showed her my little slip of paper with “I am a vegetarian—no meat, no pork, no fowl, no fish or seafood” written on it in Chinese. She typed “barbecued eggplant” into her phone. Yuck. I shook my head and paged through the menu until I found a picture of a plate of green beans. She nodded, wrote something on her ticket pad, and rushed away.

She came back a short while later with a large serving plate of what looked and smelled like some kind white fish sautéed in brown garlic sauce, a few scattered green beans, and a couple of little pearl onions. She placed it on table before me, along with the check, and rushed away again before I could figure out a way to tell her that I don’t eat fish.

I pushed the fish pieces to one side of the platter and picked out the vegetables. They were delicious, but few. After eating them I was almost as hungry as before the food came. I crossed my chopsticks over the platter and pushed it to the other side of the table, hoping the waitress would see that I wasn’t eating and come over to my table to offer to bring me another dish.

Meanwhile, I noticed that the Buddha in the restaurant was doing much better than I was. He had been served a variety of fresh cut fruit and two plates of steamed dim sum buns, all of which looked better than the dish I had ordered. I fantasized about snatching an apple or two off of his altar.


I waited for over 20 minutes for the waitress, but she never came back. I finally gave up and took my check up to the cash register to pay.

Really hungry now, I walked back down the stairs, out onto the street, and down the block until I came to a self-service bakery, self-service being, I have learned, key to ensuring that I’ll end up with food that I can actually eat and enjoy. It was a modern bakery with fancy glassed-in bakery shelves and expensive wood paneling on the walls. About half of the items on the shelves were labeled in both English and Chinese. I was intrigued by the “Meat floss sandwiches,” the “Hemp potatoes,” and the large, football-shaped rolls ominously labeled: “Bomb,” but instead I paid for a large, flaky roll marked “Greamy filling,” which proved to be a delicious cream-filled croissant, and an unlabeled toasted almond bun.



I continued to stroll down the street, entering a financial district with huge, modern international bank buildings soaring up toward the sky. I noticed an elderly woman carrying an empty blue and red plastic woven shopping bag disappear into a narrow space between two granite bank buildings. Curious, I followed her into a narrow, twisting, cluttered little street.


It appeared to be a traditional food market street, jam-packed with tiny little businesses specializing in fruits or vegetables or cuts of meat (piled, unwrapped, on tables sitting outside in the afternoon sun) or ginger roots or teas or dried legumes or cheap dry goods, like plastic buckets and cloth shoes. Some of the sellers displayed their wares on shelves inside tiny, dark shops located in the ground floors of the narrow buildings lining the street; others stacked their goods up on folding tables standing on large pieces of cardboard set up in the empty spaces between buildings.




Unlike the bakery, with its English-language food labels intended to cater to tourists, and where the food was heavily influenced by European cuisines, this little shopping district was uniquely Chinese -- the hidden China where few foreign travelers venture. On the university campus and in the larger commercial districts where I had spent much of my off-campus time up to that point, I didn’t attract much attention; most people just ignored me as I walked by. But here in the narrow little street filled with tiny raw food shops and stalls, tucked into two- and three-story buildings that looked to be much older than the modern high-rises, people stared open-mouthed as I walked by, my backpack and camera (and face!) clearly marking me as a foreign tourist.

I passed a poultry market, a tiny shop filled with wooden crates of squawking chickens and cooing pigeons. The butcher stood out front at a table in the open air, slaughtering live birds with a large cleaver, plucking them clean, and placing them, whole or chopped into pieces, directly into shoppers’ plastic woven bags.

It seemed to me to be, if not the “real” China, more the China that was than the China that is. I didn’t buy any food, worried that the sanitary conditions would not agree with my pampered Western stomach, but I wandered along fascinated by the colors and smells of the market, feeling as if I had slipped back into a previous era, a time before China had become so heavily influenced by Western commercialism.

After walking the length of the little street, I turned back toward the wide main avenue and traced my way back to the fancy modern university campus that is my temporary home. It was a beautiful afternoon, and another engaging adventure, here in the fascinating land of contrasts that is modern China.


Posted by dagosto 08:54 Archived in China Comments (0)

On Lessons from a Foreign Traveler

Lesson #1: Cultural assumptions can leave you without much for lunch.

I’ve been in China for four days now. My university hosts have been taking me the around city each day, with campus tours, daytime walks, lavish dinners out, evening strolls along the Pearl River, and surprisingly tasty lunches in the school cafeteria. (The school food here definitely beats the Marriott catering of my undergraduate days.) Yesterday was the first day I ventured out of the hotel on my own. It was also the first day I managed not to sleep through the hotel’s breakfast buffet, which featured several interesting looking dim sum buns. I didn’t take any, assuming most of them were filled with meat. Instead I chose a bowl of thin noodles with vegetables and several slices of ripe watermelon. I then went back upstairs to my room to spend the morning working on my notes for my first lecture at the university the next day. It was only 8:30, so I figured I had plenty of time to finish my lecture before lunch.

At about 11:30 one of my graduate student hosts texted me to ask if I’d made my way over to the student cafeteria yet for lunch. “Not yet, but soon,” I typed back, and then got so caught up in work that I forgot all about lunch for a while.

I finally stopped working at about 12:40. I felt a rush of excitement as I walked out of the hotel alone. It somehow seems more real to be in a foreign country alone without a guide.

I bought some stamps at the campus post office and mailed a handful of postcards. It was 12:55 by the time I made it to the main student cafeteria. The day before, my student hosts Lynn and Apple had taken me there and bought me a prepaid cafeteria debit card to last the length of my visit. Inside the large, crowded cafeteria building were several food sales zones: bakery cases for dim sum buns, breads, cookies and cakes; a fruit juice and soda area; a long glassed-in cafeteria steam table with rice, noodles, soups, and main dishes, like meat with vegetables, grilled and fried fish, and thick stews.


Lynn and Apple led me over to the lines in front of a separate, smaller steam table where there was an array of vegetarian dishes for sale—sautéed greens, lumps of cooked pumpkin, cooked corn kernels, and more. I selected the garlic green beans, noodles with vegetables, and plain steamed rice.


We pushed our way through the crowds of hungry students rushing around gathering food and carried our metal army-style cafeteria trays down half a flight of stairs to the dining area, where literally hundreds of students sat at long tables wolfing down their lunches.

When I arrived at the cafeteria alone yesterday, the hungry student crowds from the day before had vanished. So had the food from the vegetarian steam table, which was cleared out and wiped clean, so I walked over to the main dish line looking for something vegetarian to eat. The long rows of Cantonese meat and seafood dishes from the day before were mostly gone; just a few lonely-looking little mounds of food were left. The only dish that looked vegetarian was a sad little pile of stir-fried carrots. I pointed to the leftover carrots and received a small bowlful in return.

As I was wondering where all the starving students from the day before had gone, the cafeteria suddenly went dark and the ceiling fans clicked off. I realized that lunch service must end at 1:00. I took my rice, carrots, and a plastic cup of chilled coconut milk down to the eating area and sat down to eat in the darkened hall. It had never even occurred to me to check the serving hours, assuming that, like the student cafeterias on U.S. college campuses, food service would run from early morning to late at night. Now I understood the pandemonium of the day before. With more than 82,000 students on four campuses, literally thousands of students were trying to eat and rush off to class in the slim 120-minute lunch window.

Lesson #2: A shared language doesn't always bring people together.

I was still hungry, so on the way back to my hotel room I stopped at a little campus coffee shop and bakery that also takes the university debit card. I bought an egg custard pastry and a bottle of cold water and sat down at one of about eight tables inside the bakery. I pulled my laptop out of my backpack and continued working on my lecture, which I had yet to finish.

After while I looked up to see a middle-aged Caucasian man in business a suit standing in front of me holding a cup of coffee. “May I share your table?” he asked in a strong British accent. Since all of the other tables in the shop were empty, I figured he had seen me, pegged me for a fellow English speaker, and wanted to chat. I hadn’t spoken to anyone all day, and I brightened at the prospect of conversation. It would be just like an Agatha Christie novel: two strangers far from home brought together by a common language.

Instead, after I invited him to sit he slammed his briefcase down onto the table, sat down next to me with a huff, finished off the whole cup of coffee in one huge gulp, picked his briefcase back up, and rushed away without another word. So much for friendly conversation.

Lesson #3: Just because you can fake your way through a conversation in another language doesn’t mean you should.

Luckily most of the Chinese people I’ve met so far have been friendlier than the grumpy British guy. I ventured out alone again the next night for dinner while it was still light out. This time I walked much further, across the campus grounds, out the campus gates, and into the crowded little alleyway where Lynn and Apple had taken me the first night I arrived.


I exited the alley and walked up and down a main street looking for a restaurant, but all I could find on the busy commercial avenue were banks, grocery stores, wine shops, tea shops, and hair salons. I walked to a smaller side street where I remembered seeing a restaurant that had caught my attention a few days ago, a little place called simply, according to the English words on the neon storefront sign: “Muslim Restaurant.” It was packed, so I figured the food must be good. The menu listed the food in English as well as Chinese. I ordered “Noodles with Peppers and Onions,” which turned out to be spaghetti with sautéed garlic and peppers and tasted more Italian to me than Chinese, but very good.


I traced my steps back through the streets toward campus. I had no trouble finding the half-hidden alleyway that led to the university gates, but once I stepped onto the university campus I realized how dark it had gotten outside. Although the city is lit up at night with neon signs and bright interior lights that pour out from the open-fronted businesses occupying the street levels of most buildings, the campus is very dark—almost pitch black in some of the less populated areas. I have lousy vision even in the daylight and could barely see the path at my feet as I wandered around campus looking for the university hotel. I finally gave up when I came upon a brightly-lit tennis court and walked up to a man who was watching the game. “Ni hao” (hello), I said and handed him a card printed with the sentence “Please take me to Wing Kwong Hall Hotel” in Chinese characters, which I had gotten when I checked into my hotel.

The man beamed at me, pointed in one direction, and then waved his arm around in all directions pointing and talking. He paused expectantly, apparently waiting for an answer to a question. I figured he had most likely either asked me if I understood his directions or if I understood his Chinese. Either way the answer was most definitely no, so I responded with one of about four Chinese words or phrases I know: “búshì” (“no”). He beamed, mistakenly thinking I spoke Chinese, and launched into a long, complicated story. He talked on and on, laughing and his own jokes and gesticulating wildly as he spoke. When his story finally ended, I said: “xièxie nǐ” (“thank you”), thereby having exhausted nearly my entire Chinese vocabulary, and marched off in the general direction he had been pointing.

It was the wrong way, of course.

I got even more lost. I walked along in the dark until I came to a street light. I waited for another student to happen by. I handed him my little card. He started speaking in Chinese and pointing all over, but this time when he stopped speaking and looked at me for signs of comprehension I said nothing, shaking my head silently and trying to look lost. He switched to English and led me back to the main road along campus, pointing the way to my hotel and reassuring me that campus was very dark at night making it easy to get lost. I finally made it back to my room, vowing to take Chinese lessons if I ever decide to return to this country.


Each day in China promises a new adventure. Tomorrow is the first day of the three-day Dragon Boat Festival, a major national holiday. I hope to watch the dragon boat races along the Pearl River, if I can just figure out when and where they’ll take place and manage not to get lost on my way there. Regardless, it will be another enjoyable adventure for sure.


Posted by dagosto 14:05 Archived in China Comments (0)

On My First Evening in China; Trust & the Confused Tourist

My first impression of Guangzhou, China, the city that is to be my home for the next two weeks is…NEON. I arrived at dusk on a hot, humid Sunday evening. Guangzhou is a huge, sprawling subtropical city, the third largest city in China. Population estimates vary radically--anywhere from about 12 million to over 40 million in the metropolitan area--but most estimates place the area population at well over 20 million. That makes it the biggest city I’ve ever been to, significantly bigger even than New York City, where I lived for a year and a half after college.

But back to the neon lights. Speeding in a cab from the airport north of the city into downtown, I looked out the cab windows at the nighttime city, fascinated by the blinking yellow, blue, pink, green, and red neon lights on most of the thousands of modern buildings and skyscrapers packed into the downtown area. Even the hospital and school buildings here flash and blink at night, competing for attention in the midst of the urban chaos and lighting up the night sky. As a manufacturing hub for the country, the neon signs make promises of cheap wholesale goods for sale, such as clothing and electronics, or they lure hungry bargain hunters with promises of the Cantonese region’s famous cuisine, or they simply scream out the name of the business or agency they adorn.


I was lucky to have two graduate students from the university pick me up at the airport. Lynn and Apple hailed the cab that took me to the university hotel, where the three of us dropped my luggage and walked back outside onto the campus. The Sun Yat-sen University campus, dimly lit by an occasional streetlight, was a stark contrast from the bright, lively city. Small groups of students walked along the quiet campus paths or rode by on manual or gasoline-powered bicycles. We could hear bullfrogs croaking and smell the subtropical flowers that fill the many campus gardens.

We walked across the dark campus and out the campus gates into a narrow, brightly lit alleyway filled with street vendors who cater to the university students, mostly food stands, but also vendors selling pencils, notebooks, slippers, and other little items.


We stopped at a fruit cart and purchased a plastic bowl of freshly cut pineapple, dragon fruit, yangmei fruit, plums, and mangoes sprinkled with shaved ginger. Next we stopped at a tiny China Mobile storefront, where a store employee outfitted my cell phone with a Chinese SIM card.

Ever the unabashed tourist, I snapped pictures as we headed up the street to a small restaurant, where my hosts ordered us a traditional Cantonese meal of omelets and pounded rice porridge, which we ate along with the fruit. The food was fantastic, and Lynn and Apple were generous and gracious hosts, patiently answering my countless questions about the food, the city, the university, and their studies. They bursts into fits of giggles when I tried to grip my slippery omelet with chopsticks, Lynn rushing up to the food counter to grab me a spoon. (Good thing they weren’t around later in my hotel room to watch me try to figure out how to turn off the floor lamp. That would have made them laugh even harder.) They walked me back to my hotel room, and I slept right through past breakfast time Monday morning.

meal.jpg room.jpg

Thank goodness Lynn and Apple were there last night to lead me around town and to translate for me. They even wrote me up a little survival sheet with useful questions in Chinese that I can show to strangers in the hope of an answer in discernible gestures: “Where is the nearest metro stop?” “Where is Sun Yat-sen University?” “Where is the campus cafeteria?” It’s a strange and vulnerable feeling being a foreigner in a land where I don’t know the language at all. It’s a feeling that’s not entirely unfamiliar to me, as I’ve traveled to many non-English-speaking countries in the past, but it still comes as a shock to realize how little of my surroundings I can comprehend. Even tasks as minor as counting out change or reading a street sign are nearly impossible, with little to rely on but the good nature of strangers (and graduate students).

The neon lights, the sweet-smelling campus, the perfectly ripened fruit, the simple supper—It was a perfect introduction to China, and a magical evening here in the Guangdong Province, 500 miles north of the South China Sea.

Posted by dagosto 07:35 Archived in China Comments (0)

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