One evening in June, actually in an Irish pub in Bavaria, I was offered a short-time teaching job in Beijing, China! Starting only 6 weeks later, I could teach at University of International Business and Economics (UIBE) for their 2013 summer school. At Wikipedia, that university is said to represent no less than the “Oriental Harvard” and “the Switzerland of Chinese universities”. So, no question: I had to go! In rapid speed, with a 2-week-trip to the Northcape in between, I prepared a 18-hour-lecture on the “Sociology of Family in Europe”, hopped on that airplane, and arrived in Beijing, humid and hot with 37 degrees.
At the airport, I was picked up by my teaching assistant and his cousin, both holding one sign each: One read “Dr. Christine”, and the other “Geserick”. That made me smile, and it would be “sweet” like so many experiences which I had with that assistant and the other 40 students. They were all so interested, attentive, disciplined and waived me goodbye when leaving the class room. However, teaching was both physically and mentally challenging, as I had to give 6 hours of lectures for 3 consecutive days. It was hot, I was on West-East-jetlag, and participation in class was rather non-existent. I basically talked for 6 hours each day.
It is one thing to hear that China has been opening up to “the West”. The other thing is to experience that curiosity first hand, while being there. It is in the attentive eyes of the students when I start my sentence with the words: “In Europe today ….” And it is in the encounters with Chinese tourists when they carefully tip on my shoulder and say a friendly “hello”. They want to have a little chat with me, the Western girl. The chat usually starts with a “where are you from?”, then leads into the question “can I take picture with you?”. We take that picture, and for a goodbye, they shake my hand, followed by the typical Asian goodbye-waive. They smile. And so do I.
Actually, their picture-taking of me encouraged me to ask the Chinese just the same. At first, I took “pictures-in-return”, meaning I portrayed just everybody who had photographed me. But this project got out of hand, because it was so many, and the scenes somewhat too ordinary. So I ventured to ask others, those whom I really wanted a picture of. Here, due to lack of Chinese skills, “asking” meant that I presented the Nikon, gestured that I would like to take a photo, tried to smile an irresistible smile, and put a question mark at the end. I did not ask many people, but whenever I did, it worked. Note so self: I should have asked more people! (All pictures here.)
Some Beijing scenes felt especially “surreal”, while at the same time I indulged in that feeling of being so foreign there. For instance, I remember a rainy lunch break when I walked on campus, under a pink plastic umbrella which I had been given to protect me from acid rain. Almost fainting from jetlag, I was munching on some pretzels, only realizing that their taste was actually seaweed. In lack of hot espresso, this meal was accompanied by sweet iced latte in a can. Strange coffee culture!
Other things that surprised me were:
– How rough people can become be when in anger. Angry couples talk to each other in obvious disgust, accompanied by sounds that I have never heard before.
– And then again: How tender people are with each other. Young lovers would hold each other close when on the metro. Parents would give their little ones very tender care in public places. Everybody was physically very close.
– That it seems OK bring your own beverages to eating places, e.g. beer from a kiosk kind of store or even sit inside Starbucks to eat food from KFC, not ordering anything from Starbucks!
– How steep the Great Wall is!
– That a little kiosk suddenly sells beer from the Domhof brewery from Speyer (near my hometown)!
– That I found a “vibrating condom” on my hotel’s night table. For sale.
– That Mao is still referred to as “the chairman”.
– That the rain there is really acid rain. It caused me a sore throat and red eyes.
– How men lift up their shirt in hot weather to have their belly breathe.
– How bad the smog is! It made the air blue in the evenings. And the local Seven Eleven sold breathing masks, three different kinds.
Yes, the trip was a challenge, but it was so worth it! I felt so even more, when I received the most lovely thank you-notes from my students. These are my favorite lines:
– “I have spent a short but unforgettable summer school with you, which is full of learning pointy about family and social security. You’ve really gave us a window to see Europe family and social security, which inspired more curiosity from my heart.”
– “… You impressed me very much and I think I will never forget you as my first foreigner teacher!”
– “Again, thanks for everything you did during the summer school. I will always remember the happy time we spent together.”
– “I felt great passion and gratitude and I really appreciate your teaching attitude. ^_^”
– “Those 3 days must be a treasure in my life.”
… yes, same with me!