What do you get when you have an expert teaching professional (Chinese translation for an English teacher), a bevy of military cadres, and a group of Kazakhs eating beshbarmak all together? Naturally, it would have to be the University of Petroleum, which, oddly enough, focuses largely on the extraction and transferal of petroleum.
According to the International Office, the expert teaching professional would be me, which seems to be an unabashed exaggeration. I have had some teaching experience, but far from that of a professional teacher. A few years back, I taught at a summer school in Dongguan to high school students who seemed much more interested in playing basketball than hearing an American clumsily attempt to improve their English. After my first brush with teaching, I assumed that would be a pleasant memory of the past. Surprisingly enough, a year later I found myself back in China in the seaside city of Qingdao. While I had several opportunities to visit magnificent sites such as the Great Wall and Confucius’ hometown, I also taught some 5-year-olds and elementary children too. Transitioning from high school kids to 5-year-olds was a drastic step. Once you have tripled the energy and halved the comprehension, you are now in the realm of children. Personally, I preferred the enthusiasm of the children to the listlessness of high school kids. Yes, I had had some minimal teaching experience, but had I become an expert teaching professional? I think I could answer that simply – clearly not. Whatever the case, I was both surprised and honored to be asked to teach at Petroleum University last spring, despite my limited experience.
As far as military cadres at a university, you would probably be startled to see such a sight in America. But in China, some things are quite different. From what I’ve heard, all freshmen must participate in military drills for the first few weeks of school. A distinct advantage would be the exemption from classes; however a certain disadvantage would be the daily military exercises. I’m not sure exactly who directs the drills or creates the schedule, but it seems fairly taxing. At times, the freshmen will be standing in line and doing about-faces for their instructor for several hours. At other times, they must run several laps around the track in their fatigues and perform the obligatory push-ups at the end. The army and push-ups are kind of like peanut butter and jelly. The both complement each other and together form the perfect combination. Sometimes, before the sun has fully risen, I will hear them yelling in unison (Ee, er, san, si!) and watch several groups marching along the pathway below my apartment. I have a feeling that after the freshmen have finished their last military routine, the university collectively breathes a sigh of relief. I wouldn’t say I have a special aversion to military discipline, but when it serves as my alarm clock in the morning, I am not too delighted to hear them marching beneath my window.
At this university, there are more than 300 students from different countries. Some from Europe, others from Africa, and some from Central Asia too. This past week my Kazakh friend asked me to eat dinner with him and his friends, which I was honored to do. Their dish was called beshbarmak, an assortment of horse-meat, thick white noodles, potatoes, and onions. Even better, this dish, which is translated as “five fingers,” is quite literally finger food. Everyone sits around a table and grabs the food closest to them. It may be a little messy, but it is an enjoyable way to eat dinner. I’ll have to convince my mom to try it back home, for the cultural experience of course. After the hearty Kazakh meal, I learned some more about the culture of Kazakhstan. Most houses have an outer courtyard where the men sip tea and talk among themselves while their wives serve them. Many Kazakhs spoon little grains into their cups to give a unique, wheaty flavor to the tea. And of all meats, it seems that horse meat is the most preferred one for meals in Kazakhstan. Most of my Kazakh friends are quite talented linguistically with some of them able to speak Kazakh, Russian, English, and Chinese. Needless to say, I feel ashamed to admit that even though I have studied 5 languages, I cannot speak any fluently. If I can master Chinese, I think I will be satisfied.
As you may have guessed, I was in China and am back again. Construction still goes on with its feverish pace. The freshmen once again begin their introductory military training. And the expert teaching professional begins his first semester at the university. So begins the fall of 2012.