Thursday, November 29, 2007

We arrived in Xi’an on a very very rainy day in late August 2007. This was an inauspicious start to an otherwise pleasant beginning. The rain lasted for one week and we began wondering if it ever stopped raining in this city of VERY poor drainage! Many wet feet and soggy groceries later, the sun finally came out and, to our great relief, exposed an industrial city that nonetheless had many charming nooks and crannies.

Our plan is to remain in Xi’an through June 2008. While we are here, Linda is teaching English at Xian International Studies University in the International Relations program – the same place I, Yoni, am teaching. This is a first – for us both to work in the same department!

We are in Xi’an as a result of a Fulbright scholarship that is intended to enable me (Yoni) to conduct research into China’s epidemic response capabilities at the sub-provincial level, while also teaching a couple of courses in international relations and working with the department to strengthen its program.

Our two sons – Tal (11) and Noam (7) are enrolled in the local international school where all instruction is, thankfully, in English (odd, since most of the students seem to be S. Korean – the result: lots of weird sentence structures can be heard in the hallways). They are taken to, and returned from school by a private driver (wonderful guy, though speaks no English) since the school’s own bus doesn’t come near our home (on campus of the university where we teach). The boys begin their day at 7:45 when they get in the car. School starts at 8:30 and runs to 3:30. Their school is housed in a larger school for Chinese kids – THEY seem to spend most of their day in school. Indeed, we have learned that the average Chinese kid starts school at 7:30 and doesn’t get home until 5-6 PM only to then do homework (daily) until 10:00 or so. THEN, on Saturdays, many attend cram schools to ensure they keep their grades up. The goal is to ensure they eventually get into a good middle school and then high school and finally, university (for each level the children must take a brutal national exam).

I guess it is therefore no surprise that, by the time students are accepted to university, they have pretty much had it with studying and prefer to “coast”. We have encountered many students like this. Another factor is probably the fact that students are not free to choose their majors. Indeed, their major is decided based on their university entry exams. If they score high enough, they can choose among a variety of programs. Otherwise, they are slotted in to whichever program they qualify to attend. So, guess what percentage of students in the international studies program actually wished to be in the international studies program???? About 5-10 percent! The rest began international studies students because they were given no real choice.

All of us our busily working on our Chinese – the boys study daily at school, while Linda has private lessons and I make do with a weekly language exchange and a very good electronic dictionary. It has been a real source of satisfaction to observe how all of us are steadily improving. Another source of satisfaction is that, as Linda’s Chinese improves, it becomes less necessary for me to do all the food ordering at restaurants!

Indeed, we eat out at least once a day – the food in Shaanxi province (where Xi’an is located) is famous in China as being among the best – and we can tell. Lots of delicious things to eat and even the boys have yet to complain. Also, it has proved much cheaper to eat out than to buy food at the supermarkets (invariably we purchase western food) and cook at home. Not to mention the somewhat primitive cooking facilities!

We can feed our family a very nice, multi-course meal with drinks for about $6-8 – so why bother eating at home?? Of course, we observe with some trepidation as the US dollar continues to disintegrate against other currencies. I am being paid in US and am concerned that the Chinese government may finally capitulate to rising pressure from the international community on the over-valuation of their currency. If they allow the Chinese Renminbi to “float” I suspect our purchasing power will decline by 40% or so.

In other words – pray that the Chinese government can withstand the pressure for at least 8 more months!!!