Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Part S - Teaching in China - Shanghai

It’s a sobering experience to have spent more than 4 hours flying across the vast and mostly empty interior of Australia with its approximately 23 million people clinging to a few pockets on the perimeter, only to spend the last few minutes of the 12 hour flight peering down at Shanghai with more than 24 million people in just the one city.

I don't know Shanghai well, but I enjoy visiting. Over the years, I’ve walked along a few streets, I’ve taken a few taxi rides, been on a couple of subway trips. Given the size and density of the city, that’s as insubstantial as someone making an assessment of Australia based on perfect Spring day in Sydney and concluding that no place could be finer!


One year, we stayed at a small hotel in the French Concession and enjoyed walking ... and walking, and walking. Wandering down alleys, peering between fence palings, oohing and aahing at statues. 
As a tourist, I find this area enticing. The generous tree lined streets provide welcome shade and a sense of coolness in the hot, humid summer heat, and while some areas are busy with crowds of people, others encourage you to pause and reflect on the rapidly changing country. 



Shanghai is a living city, with children heading off to school, university students and exchange students milling around with backpacks and take away coffee. Men of varying nationalities in suits, striding purposefully to offices. Others gliding along on bicycles, seemingly oblivious to the traffic, threading through cars and electric motor bikes with apparently no care in the world!

Chubby middle aged men stripped to the waist, some only wearing boxer shorts, sitting on upturned boxes, or with their singlets or t-shirts rolled up to below their armpits to allow their sweat to evaporate in any hint of breeze. Beautifully made up women, slender and haughtily confident of their superiority, clip along in sparkly stilettos and short, figure hugging outfits. 

Older people stroll to get the morning paper, some with small dogs with little booties. Washing hanging on poles jutting from windows in narrow, homey alleyways. 

In parks, in singles and groups, people exercising in the mornings - various kinds of dance, tai-chi, games similar to badminton - all part and parcel of a city so different, but somehow vaguely similar to Melbourne. Maybe it's something to do with the plane trees and the Chinese having been part of the Australian population since the early days. 

Here, as in Melbourne, you're just a face in the crowd, no different to millions of others. It's very different to teaching off the tourist track, where it's obvious many people haven't seen, let alone spoken with people from English speaking backgrounds before, where your every move is cause for curiosity and staring.
Hoardings and living green walls hide construction sites and the crowded relocatable housing for workers who've been attracted to work in the big city. Living conditions are as varied as in any large city, and dust covers the valiant efforts to dry washing on a line outside a hut. The amount of construction is incredible, cranes appear like a giant game of pick-up-sticks, scattered around the huge city. It's a riot of colour, movement and sound.

Shanghai is a city gripped by modernisation, and the pace of the change is breathtaking. On my first visit in 1978 it was like visiting a city with solid roots to the past. Those roots are still there in the lively alleys and the stately old buildings contrasting with the futuristic gravity-defying new ones. 


Not everything relating to the past has been discarded, but what demands attention is the iconic skyline and colourful nighttime lighting.

The Friendship stores are long gone, replaced by international flagship stores encouraging consumption and materialism, but of more interest to me are the people who've flocked from around the world to make this city home, bringing with them skills, interests and services for locals, expats and tourists alike.  
Not least is the availability of international foods, wines and good coffee! Leaf and Bean, Jamaica Blue, and a variety of independent cafes make a stopover in Shanghai after teaching in the country a real treat! 



My previous posts about Teaching in China were our ArrivalBanquets,  Culture and Comfort foods, DrivingExerciseFabulous Food,GamesHistoryIllnessFrom Jerilderie to JiangsuKenny (which is about toiletsLists and Communication MisunderstandingsNon-verbal communication followed by The Observations of an OnlookerPetsQuestions, Rest RoomsShanghai and the next will be .... Teaching Teachers ...!











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Saturday, August 15, 2015

Part R. Teaching in China. Rest Rooms.

Ah the joys of miscommunication!

It appears that the term rest room isn't a euphemism for the area where the toilets are housed, but was to be taken literally! At our school in Xuzhou, the rest room appeared to be a formal conference or Boardroom, and during the vacation period it had been set aside for staff to rest in after lunch.

However, we weren't aware of that on the first day, and, on being asked if we'd like to go to the rest room, made polite, non-committal noises and entered ...  I don't really know what we expected, but it certainly wasn't this!

Details of the large room were difficult to make out in the diffused light, and the gentle sounds of deep breathing (some might use the word snoring) greeted our chattering entrance. Stunned, we lapsed into awkward silence and looked at each other. Could this be true? Were the skeleton staff on duty really deep in a post luncheon kip?

Formal Boardroom chairs had been pulled together to make the semblance beds. Heads lolled in what appeared to be awkward, uncomfortable angles, on the backs or arms of the chairs, feet were draped over the adjoining chair. Clearly this wasn't a new idea, as all staff members were completely at ease and relaxed. Some had simply put their head down on the boardroom table and checked out for a while.
Not the Boardroom in question, but similar
except for the alert, focussed students!
We'd regularly enter the classrooms after lunch to find all lights had been turned off and our students sound asleep with their heads on the tables. Even they had the sense to have a complete break!

How civilised! An area specially set aside to have a snooze in the middle of the day! Australia could really learn from this! Less stress! Increased afternoon productivity! And so simple!

Unfortunately the opportunity for total relaxation wasn't for us. We rarely returned from lunch for long enough than to sit for more than a few moments before gathering our bags, books and photocopies and presenting the afternoon sessions. There were times in the afternoons when I thought longingly of the Rest Room and those gently snoring souls.

In contrast in 2015 in Gaoyou, we had lunch at the hotel we were staying at, and so were able to lie back in private and put our feet up in our hotel rooms on the pleasantly hard Chinese mattresses, (my back loves them!) and have a complete break after eating. It did wonders for my aching legs and I was able to give more energetic presentations in the afternoons!

On my list of things to learn however, is the ability to sleep anywhere. It'd be a very useful skill!
I haven't yet worked out the attraction of a window between the
bathroom and bedroom in some hotels.

My previous posts about Teaching in China were our ArrivalBanquets,  Culture and Comfort foods, DrivingExerciseFabulous Food,GamesHistoryIllnessFrom Jerilderie to JiangsuKenny (which is about toiletsLists and Communication MisunderstandingsNon-verbal communication followed by The Observations of an Onlooker, Pets, Questions, Rest Rooms and the next will be .... Shanghai ...!
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Friday, August 14, 2015

Part Q. Teaching in China. Questions.

The one question I've been most often asked on my return from teaching teachers in China is, "Would you do it again?"

I've often wished it was, "Did your students gain confidence in their spoken English?" That would be easy to answer with a confident - "Yes, all of them!"

But "Would you do it again?" is harder to answer. Partly, it's related to my undeniably Western upbringing and how my body copes with the change of food - it doesn't adapt quickly to the quantity of oil used in Chinese cooking. I'm constantly on the verge of diarrhoea and have a complaining gut. I have trouble sleeping, and find the sweltering heat and extreme humidity draining. Others suffer with painful heat rash. The lack of easy contact with home is challenging. "Yes ... maybe" is met with "So you didn't enjoy the experience", which simply isn't true. Questions aren't always easy to answer.
....

Once you've gained the confidence of adult students, and respect and trust has been fostered, questions beyond your expectations may surface.

Stereotypes absorbed from films make for interesting discussions: Is everyone really that wealthy? Do you all have large homes? We might rarely stop to think about the skewed version of the "typical" western family life, particularly as depicted in TV shows and movies glorifying "the American Dream". We know it's a facade, and the reality for the bulk of US citizens and the western world in general, is very different. Westerners aren't a homogenous group and while students might implicitly understand this, it's important to also note differences within and between cultures. We don't all live in huge beautifully furnished homes. Not everyone is wealthy, many people are afraid of overseas travel particularly to a communist country where the main language isn't English.

My Chinese students were stunned to hear that, before I left home, I'd heard comments like: "Be careful, you never know if you'll be safe overseas, especially in China."
"What do you mean you don't know the name of the town and hotel you'll be staying in before you arrive, isn't that dangerous?" "How will your family know where you are?"
"Isn't China a scary place?"

My Chinese teacher-students looked at me with wide eyed disbelief, then looked at each other with genuine shock tinged with hurt. How could anyone think they, as individuals, could present a danger to anyone! "We thought all Westerners would be comfortable travelling to China." "We're just the same as you except we speak a different language."

And one thing leads to another. More questions emerge, and as trust builds, so does the confidence to ask them.

One day, I had the sense that something was going on between a group of the women. There was a general shuffling of feet, and pointed looking at each other.

"Do you want to ask me a question?"

Nod, nod, nod.

Okay, why aren't they asking? Why do they look so embarrassed? They haven't been backwards in coming forward the past few days.

"Is it something you'd prefer the men not to be here for?"

Nod, nod, nod.

Oh my goodness. What on earth could it be? What to do? How do I handle this? Nothing like this was mentioned in the pre training sessions! I checked with our interpreter and she encouraged me to let the women ask whatever it was they wanted, so I asked them to write the questions down with the understanding that I'd do my best to answer as well as possible.

And what followed probably only came about due to my age, and reinforced that we're all in this together. We all face similar problems and often feel the need to share and know we're not alone:

  • How do I get on with my in-laws?
  • How do I teach manners to children?
  • How do I broach the topic of sex education with my child?
  • How early do I begin the discussion?
  • But they also were curious about our attitudes to abortion and single parenthood, about contraception, menopause, age and retirement.

At other times they asked questions specifically related to teaching:

  • How do you inspire students?
  • How do you help the student who is struggling - with school work, or with problems at home?
  • How do you make your classroom interesting when there are tight time frames in which to deliver necessary material?
  • How do you be a great role model?

And like so much in life, there's no single easy answer. Life is complex, answers will be different, depending on your country of origin, your age, experience and personal background.

More than anything I encouraged them to keep sharing between themselves, to find mutually supportive networks and to use this sharing experience as a great start.

As for "Would you go again?" I returned to Jiangsu in 2015 (to the city of Gaoyou) and found the experience just as rewarding the second time!

My previous posts about Teaching in China were our ArrivalBanquets,  Culture and Comfort foods, DrivingExerciseFabulous Food,GamesHistoryIllnessFrom Jerilderie to JiangsuKenny (which is about toiletsLists and Communication MisunderstandingsNon-verbal communication followed by The Observations of an Onlooker, Pets, Questions and the next will be .... Rest Rooms ...!




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Friday, March 20, 2015

How low can Aussie politics go?

That's a rhetorical question by the way. I'm guessing I already know the answer.

You don't need to know who these people are, or their positions in society to see that they're having a grand old time! The body language is full of bonhomie, humour, good will and smiling togetherness, perhaps responding to a mutually amusing joke. No signs of disagreement or dissent.

You certainly wouldn't entertain the possibility that a particularly offensive comment had just been made would you? There's nothing in the body language of any of the people to hint at anything other than something delightfully lighthearted and humourous. Shared with the people out of view, but being looked at. It's as if they're saying, 'This is funny isn't it, you're laughing with me!' Along with a jocular nudge in the ribs.

Here, however is footage of the shameful episode: PM Abbott likens Opposition Leader Shorten to Dr Goebbels and some further information (here).

How did it get to the stage that a comment likening the leader of the opposition to one of the most vile men and regimes in modern history, is treated as a joke, a source of humour, supported and encouraged by those members of parliament we're able to see?

Not only is the pm not sanctioned by the speaker, those who've rightly objected are evicted. I know parliament rarely seems to be a place of measured, insightful, mature or wise discussion, however imho, this piece of footage could be used to highlight so much that is unhealthy about Australian politics. Highly offensive comments and mock apologies, complete with smirking laughter. Anything can be said and laughed off, and it's all fine! It's a joke. No care, no responsibility.

In addition, not only is abbott not cautioned by the speaker, there's no encouragement for him to think before he speaks, no encouragement to contemplate the inappropriateness of the comment. No reminder to take responsibility for his words or actions. No expectation that he could, indeed should behave like an adult (as if there should ever be a need to be reminded when you hold the highest office in the land). In fact it's quite the opposite, we see that an objection results in the demand for the objector to leave.

Without some call to reflect, as a mature adult would, or to be responsible, there is precious little for the viewing public to respect. No wonder so many people have turned off, disillusioned, disgusted, distressed at how low our highly paid parliamentarians have stooped. Employed to represent us, with the hope that the country will be wisely governed and cared for, they are instead acting more like a feral year 9 class where students vie to outdo each other with raucous, irresponsible behaviour, and foul comments.


I'd love someone to assure me that the toxicity in parliament can't get any worse, but I'm not sure I'd believe them.


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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Part 3: Stay at home mum starts her own business

In Part 1, Stay-at-home mum Melissa, discussed her values and goals with a career counsellor. In Part 2, she began studying and discovered that she loved learning and the course she'd selected, but faced some unexpected obstacles including unemployment. In Part 3, Melissa has thought about her transferable skills and now puts it all together! 

Melissa begins her own business
“I used my research skills to find more about being a personal concierge and found iCALM which was really helpful. And so now I’m a personal concierge and my business is called Allow Me To Assist." www.allowmetoassist.com.au

Finding the right name
"It took weeks to get a business name I was happy with. I wanted the name to tell the story and wanted a logo that fitted. It had to be easy to read, appeal to older people and not be ambiguous. I’d never had thoughts of having my own business, but it’s the door that opened and I love what I do, even though it’s not what I’d planned."

The importance of trust
"One of the important things is to meet people and make genuine connections. I usually set up a personal meeting first and that’s my client’s opportunity to check me out and get a sense of my trustworthiness.

My clients need to feel ok with me, to see if I’ll fit in with what they need. People might need me to fill a gap when life has got overwhelming, they might ask me to do their banking, shopping, take their car for a service or feed the cat! They need to be able to trust me with their credit card or car, so building trust is a large part of what I do."

What I do
"I’m getting known now, and have some really good client testimonials which is great. Some of my regulars call me their fairy godmother, because I’ve helped out during family emergencies. 

Not everyone has access to extended family to call on when things get too much for them, and they need to be cloned to be in two places at once. I have your back, and can get you out of time related trouble.

I’ve got my weekly and fortnightly regulars; I take some elderly people out for mid week morning tea and specialty shopping, or even to medical appointments because their children are working in the city. Others call on me occasionally when something major is happening, like a 40th birthday party, when I help with the organising, invitations and decorations.

I also do packing support, debriefing, making coffees and supplying food when someone has just shifted. I’ve reminded businessmen that important family events are coming up, and am always very discreet! Tact, diplomacy, and confidentiality are important.

Some people are intimidated by doing things online – I’ve shopped and sold things on eBay, I’ve booked a cruise, and even sold a car. It’s extremely varied!”

What a journey! From a stay-at-home mum wondering what to do with her life, to studying, to running her own business, Melissa has been challenged, overcome unexpected obstacles and found a rewarding work-life balance which complements her personality and supports her personal and family values.  And for her to say “I couldn’t have done it without you, Sue” is a very humbling thought.

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Monday, December 22, 2014

Part 2: Stay-at-home mum returns to study as a mature aged student!

In part 1, Melissa spent time with her career counsellor.  After those meetings, she reflected quietly, and thought long and deeply about what we'd discussed as well as about which options best supported her values, her finances as well as the time she had available. She decided that further study, although challenging, would be right for her.

Melissa begins classes in Criminal Justice at TAFE!
"I was so, so scared that first day. I found where I had to go, took a seat and tried to be invisible. I felt so out of it and so different to everyone else that I felt sick; it was horrible. But we started with a meet and greet game which broke the ice. It was funny! In the afternoon the teacher got us  moving around which was good, because it broke up the little cliques that had started forming.

The students were chatty and inclusive, they were young, helpful and supportive. It was amazing!

I discovered that I was a thorough researcher and the other students really appreciated that, and enjoyed working in a group with me which was an unexpected surprise! They had things to teach me and I had things to teach them. It was fantastic and I loved it all!

At 42 I wasn’t one of them, but I was included.  I felt like a woman with a brain and not just a mum. I was so excited to be studying something I loved."

... and describes the experience of further study:
It was like someone had opened a door in the small, comfortable house I was very familiar with. But even though I knew the house very well, and had lived in it for many years, I’d never noticed a little door hidden in one of the walls.

I opened this door which had been hidden, and it was extraordinary! Beyond the door I found a mansion – a whole rich, amazing area with so many incredible rooms that I’d had no idea were there. It was wonderful, and it was welcoming me.”

Melissa isn’t the first person to describe this amazing sense of wonder and tearful joy when they realise that further education is something they can not only do, but embrace wholeheartedly. It opens a whole new world of possibilities and the joy is almost overwhelming. 

But back to her description:
“I felt important, valued and engaged. Our society needs to encourage all sorts of people to retrain and use their skills. I studied with a diverse group which made debates interesting - lots of passionate people argued and had to explain their point of view clearly.  They had their opinions challenged and changed by someone with a broader or different experience. It was great!”

"I had to learn to hold my tongue and not jump in with an opinion too quickly, I had to listen and try to work out where a different opinion comes from. As a parent my perspective was valued, and because I’d read widely I was able to enrich a lot of discussions. The young students were respectful which I hadn’t expected.”

and assignments …
“My first assignment was given that first day! I had to do a powerpoint presentation. I had no idea what to do or where to start. The bloke next to me knew all about them which terrified me. I went home and googled them – I watched a YouTube tutorial and worked out how to do one, then I had to learn about the topic and put the two things together!  I got a HD (high distinction) on that first assignment – it was like a wholesome drug and I wanted more HD’s! I loved putting it all together and seeing the result. IT WAS GREAT!!

I’d wanted to work in law enforcement, or in the courts with welfare agencies. I’d think of one thing and it’d open more doors. I’d love to have gone on and done criminology, but it was just too expensive.

I quickly realised there weren’t openings in the police force after the change of government and changes to funding. There were so many who’d lost their jobs or been redeployed that I didn’t have a chance.

Job hunting
After graduating, I spent the next 12 months applying for jobs and going for interviews. It’s hard when you don’t even get email acknowledgement after you’ve submitted a complex job application that’s taken hours to do. It’s soul destroying to apply for job after job and hear nothing at all, but after all that study, it was really nice to spend time with my family again!

I kept wondering what else I could do to get a job. I was getting desperate and began to wonder if I could possibly create a business myself using my new skills and my previous work experience.

I itemised my skills and thought long and hard about my transferable skills. I began looking at job trends in the US, and what new kinds of job markets were opening up there. I figured if it was early stage there it’d come in here pretty soon. I read about personal concierge which gave me a term that I could research further.

In Part 3, Melissa puts everything together and creates a small business from scratch.



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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Part 1. Stay at home mum wants to return to work, but doesn't know what to do.

From stay at home mum to business owner: Melissa Gemmell

It’s not every day you answer the phone to be greeted with “I’ve been wondering how to introduce myself. You won’t remember me, but …”

However, some clients are memorable and I hadn’t forgotten Melissa! When I saw her about four years ago, she was a vibrant, enthusiastic stay at home mum, keen to re-enter the workforce when her children entered primary school.

She followed on by saying: “Seeing you changed my life, and I’ve been meaning to phone and thank you.”

Well if that’s not an invitation for a lengthy follow up over coffee, I don’t know what is! 

Melissa clearly had a story to share, and her frustrations, challenges and ability to overcome obstacles with good humour, and then to look at her transferable skills creatively, is well worth retelling.

We’d planned to spend an hour together, but that extended into more than two!

The frustration of being a stay-at-home mum
Four years ago Melissa was full of energy and ideas, but completely lacking in direction.  She was frustrated with her inability to focus on something that would strengthen her skills, support her values as well as earn an income; so she’d called me for some career counselling, to work through her ideas and learn more about what motivated her.

Melissa had left school and had gone straight into a job without any formal training. She enjoyed a variety of administrative positions and changed employers with little conscious thought of career progression or what her options were.

She married and had two children 18 months apart, but found that the change of pace from a fun, hectic work and social life to being home alone with young boys lacked the challenge she craved. She loves her children dearly, but “kid world” though rewarding, wasn’t fulfilling on its own, and she dreamed of something to “break the monotony of being at home.”

“Parenting is such hard work, it’s relentless and exhausting. I was consumed by being a mum and ‘I’ disappeared. I wanted to find myself again and have friends and a social life.”


Many women who long to re-enter the workforce express similar sentiments to Melissa. They find their personal needs are put on the back-burner for such a long time that some forget who they are; they yearn to rediscover some balance where their needs are not only acknowledged, but fulfilled.

Melissa’s experience of career counselling.
“Sue gave me a deck of Values cards and working with them changed my life. I sorted them and then we discussed them. The process seemed simple, but it encouraged me to think deeply about what’s important to me in the long term. (There's more on this process here)

I know myself much better now after doing those cards. I’m far more self aware and that’s been really important in thinking about what career would support my values - even though it didn’t work out how I’d planned.

I’m now aware that part of me really loves the bubble of a group. I love bouncing ideas off others.  The Values cards were a guided way to improve my self awareness.  It’s brought it all into consiousness. It challenged my thinking and it started the lifting of the fog of parenting.

I sat with it all for along time. I couldn’t have forgotten or ignored what I’d learnt about myself – I’d changed and it was great!

One thing Sue asked me was “If you only had 5 mins to read the newspaper what would you read?” “I gravitate to human interest and crime, the background stories to victims.”

All of that got me thinking deeply. Jobs that seemed suitable for a mum (I wanted to be home for the boys after school) and a follow-on from what I’d done before I had kids, wouldn’t be satisfying now.


I’d have gone crazy with cashiering. It wasn’t intellectually stimulating – which is what I need! Career counselling helped me see and accept that I also need human contact and something fast paced. I now know and acknowledge who I am, and what I need.”

Choosing a course to study
I had an interest in criminal issues and found a course in Criminal Justice at the local TAFE. It sounded good!

I was so scared when I queued up with all the young people who had their parents nearby to pay their fees. I felt I didn’t know anything and wouldn’t fit in, it was so long since I’d studied at year 12!

How much would it cost? Would I be able to keep up? Would I be overloaded if I enrolled in full time study? It all seemed so intimidating and I didn’t want to set myself up to fail, so I chose to go part time.

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