Dispatches from China: Teaching Einstein and Spiderman a little English - Tucson Local Media: Import

Dispatches from China: Teaching Einstein and Spiderman a little English

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Posted: Tuesday, July 11, 2006 11:00 pm

Editor's Note: Oro Valley Government and Community Relations Administrator Bob Kovitz is in China teaching during the month of July and has agreed to write a weekly column about his experiences. This is the first in a series.

WUHAN, China - Perhaps it was a mistake to allow my students to select famous people for their English names. As a result, I now have a class with the likes of Meg Ryan, Thomas Edison, Michael Jordan, Fabio Somebody (an Italian soccer player), and Forrest Gump.

If they ever got together in real life, it would be one heckuva cocktail party.

My wife Susan and I are here in Wuhan, China, as part of the non-profit, non-sectarian Teach for Friendship program that's based out of Tucson. We are part of a group of about 50 teachers who are in Wuhan for nearly a month to provide instruction in "American" spoken English to eager college sophomores, most of whom are majoring in the hard sciences like computer engineering, physics and information technology.

The kids are extraordinarily eager to learn slang and American usage. Today, one teacher had to correct a student who claimed he had seen the movie "Gone With the Window." On some level, the name makes sense.

As a benchmark of the internationalization of communication, another student told Susan that her American English accent was perfect - just like she heard when she listened to NPR.

The campus of Huazhong University of Science and Technology makes the University of Arizona look like an elementary school. There are more than 80,000 students here and the campus goes on and on - spread over miles of flatland and hills.

Around the campus there are beautiful lakes, fountains and tree-shaded walkways. Without the shade trees, the heat would be unbearable. The temperature averages around 95 degrees with humidity to match. Wuhan is known as one of the three "furnaces" of China in the summer. Certainly, someone must have left the broiler on because we're completely braised on a daily basis.

Many EXPLORER readers have visited China, so there's no need for me to describe Beijing or Xi'an (the location of the buried terra cotta warriors) in any detail. However, if anyone ever hears me complain about the traffic on Oracle Road, he should remind me of Xi'an, a city of 6 million but whose central core is surrounded by a city wall. As a result, left turns are forbidden and traffic signals are non-existent. Therefore, everyone kind of drives where they want, when they want.

Our hotel in Xi'an was located near the train station, an area that attracts itinerant travelers. Besides the cheap electronic appliance and clothing shops around the hotel, we seemed to encounter a great number of "barber shops." Well, they had chairs, but seemed to be lacking customers in need of a hair trim. However, there did seem to be a great number of girls sitting around in each shop. We found out later that their forte was not in cosmetology.

In Beijing, we splurged on a 90-minute "foot massage." At the massage business, we were led up a dim stairway to a second-floor corridor bathed in soft red lighting. As we walked down the hallway, we could hear the rapid slapping of skin from adjacent rooms.

There were five of us who were placed in one long room, each of us on a reclining chair covered in a fresh sheet. We were asked to remove our shoes and our assigned girls brought in giant half-barrels of steaming hot tea. Before I could take a sip, they slammed our feet into the hot water and then proceeded to scrub our toes with their bare hands and nails. Although we remain clothed throughout the entire treatment, I can safely report that by the end of the 90 minutes, my therapist had touched me in places that my urologist has never seen. I think we're engaged, but I'm not sure.

By the time we reached Wuhan and the campus hotel that will be home for the next three weeks, our heads were filled with extraordinary experiences, including smells that I'm certain have been outlawed by the Oro Valley Town Code.

Now it's time for us to prepare our lessons for tomorrow - for Albert Einstein, Peter Parker ("Spiderman" for the uninformed), Julia Roberts, and Sir Isacc Newton. We are being watched over by a giant white statue of Mao that stands at the campus entrance. He is saluting us, although his left arm is disproportionately larger and longer than his right arm. I wonder if there's a message in that?

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