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Thursday, October 28, 2010

"You must be from New Zealand."

I've know for a while that my accent was "in the middle" somewhere. A lot of native Southerners say that they don't hear an accent (meaning it's standard American), but when I travel in the US outside the South, people say OH YEAH you do have a Southern accent. This is probably familiar to a lot of people who have moved to a different area than they grew up in or whose accent has changed.

I admit to trying to "soften" my accent when I was in college because it just sounded too redneck to me. However, I have never wanted to get rid of it, just to have a more attractive version of it...more genteel. I don't want to have a boring, standard American accent, and I am proud of my Southern heritage.

But the comments I have received here in Beijing are bizarre to me. Many of my students have said that I don't sound American. If I ask them what I sound like, they usually say British, or say I sound like another teacher here--who is from England. This puzzles me, so I've asked them what in particular makes them say that. They usually can't say. A couple of times, students have said something like, "You just don't act like an American."

Well. What does that mean? I think of the old "All in the Family" show, where Archie made the outre comment that all British men act "queer". Is that what they really meant? I tend to discount the students' comments since I don't think they are particularly good at detecting English-language accents anyway.

However, a couple of teachers who are from Australia told me they thought at first I was from Australia or New Zealand. And today, in training, a guy from England upon meeting me said confidently, "You're either from Australia or New Zealand--can't quite place it." When I told him America - North Carolina, he said, "Well, I guess we expect the way we hear Americans sound in movies."

The one thing that I know that stands out about the way I speak is my Pennsylvania long "o". It's kind of "e-yo-oo" sound. I learned about this when I took a diction class in college. (This was the same time I learned there was a difference in pronunciation between "pin" and "pen", and "want" and "won't'.) My professor went to my church and was aware that in elementary school I was taught by nuns from Pennsylvania, so he concluded that's where I must have gotten it. When I hear that sound, it does sound British to me, and I mentioned that to the English guy today, and he said "Maybe that's it."

Any light friends or family could shed on this mystery would be much appreciated.

BTW it will be interesting to hear, when I return to the States, whether people think I speak any differently. When I first started teaching, I was told repeatedly that I speak too fast for students to understand, so I've really worked on slowing down my speech, also on enunciating my words more clearly. I rarely get a complaint anymore, so I guess I'm succeeding.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

National amnesia; students open up

In 2 of the 3 types of classes we have, I am very fortunate to be able to hear students talk about some intimate things on a variety of subjects. It's a real window onto the culture that I think not many people get.

For instance, in a recent Face2Face (just the teacher and 4 students), we read an excerpt from a woman who talks about the idyllic 50s in England, and compares it unfavorably to today. She says they had bigger houses, lived in the country, played outside, had gardens, ate healthier food and ate together as a family--all in contrast to today.

I ask them if they think things are better today in China than they were in the 50's and 60's. I'm very interested to hear what they have to say because to me there is no doubt at all that it's much better today. But I'd heard and seen what I saw as evidence that there was a national amnesia about those days. They are not taught in school that millions of people died from starvation and violence due to the ruinous policies of Chairman Mao, and it certainly isn't covered in the media. I've had conversations with local teachers, who are well-educated, who seemed to be completely ignorant of this time and, what's more, didn't care.

I had this same class several times in the last week, so it was interesting to see the dynamic in each class. The first couple of classes, everyone said things were better back then, but they were quoting from the story, saying that food was healthier, etc. This speaks to the way they are trained in school to tell you what you want to hear rather than give their real opinion.

But don't these people hear stories from their parents and grandparents? Or do people from those generations simply not want to talk about it?

Finally, yesterday in my final F2F on this subject, a teenage girl spoke with passion about how it's much better now because people in her family died because they didn't have enough to eat and that they're still trying to recover from that time. A couple of others chimed in, acting as if they were letting me in on a secret.

So is this something everyone knows, but is reluctant to speak about to foreigners? Or do they not want to be seen as criticizing Chairman Mao? Or is it something else?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

No heat, no air

I was told before I ever came to China that they didn't turn the heat on in apartments until November 15th, no matter what the weather was like. So I prepared myself for the possibility of a few nights without heat if it gets cold before then.

But I wasn't prepared for the flip side of that. A little over a week ago, the air conditioning stopped working in my apartment. I was having trouble sleeping because the temperature was as high as 83 degrees F.

When I had Building Maintenance come look at it, they seemed to be saying nothing was wrong, and I guessed what the answer was. I called a student to translate and he confirmed the bad news: Between Oct 1 and Nov 15 there is no heat or air conditioning, no matter what the weather. I have one tiny openable window, which doesn't do much good when there's no wind. So I was stuck with 83 degree F temperatures for several nights. It's cooled off some recently, but it could get hot again between now and November 15th.

The pleasures of life in a Communist country!

Friday, October 8, 2010


One of the types of classes that we teach is called Face2Face, where we meet in a small room with just 4 students, to give them more personal attention. This is where I really get to know the students and learn a lot about their thoughts because we encourage them to practice their English by giving their opinions on different subjects.

A couple of days ago, as sometimes happens, there was only one person in my F2F. His self-chosen name was Neo. He was extremely shy and nervous, so I thought he might be autistic. If it hadn't been just him and me, I wouldn't have been able to spent the time with him that I did. I discovered that if you gave him enough time, he could answer most questions and that he didn't hesitate to say he didn't understand.

At the end, he asked where I was from. I said North Carolina and asked if he'd heard of it. He said yes and I said most people know it from Michael Jordan or Bank of America. He said, "Do you know South Carolina?" I said, yes, I was born there. He said, "First Confederate state." I couldn't believe my ears. Most of my students seem to know next to nothing about non-Chinese history.

Then he said he liked Abraham Lincoln and started quoting verbatim and IN PERFECTLY ACCENTED AMERICAN ENGLISH (which had had not done when he was using his own words)-- The Gettysburg Address! I was amazed. He said he liked to read history and that he "likes American freedoms".

The Chinese people are fascinating. I hope to write more about them soon.