One of the reasons I enjoy being in China so much is that I love Chinese food. If you've never been to China, but have been to a Chinese restaurant, you might also think, "I love Chinese food, too!" But you'd be wrong, because that ain't Chinese food, as they say. Having been on a "Chinese diet" for about two years now, I have a new perspective on food. I mean, how can you not when you've eaten pig head, pig ears, pig nose, pig liver, pig kidney, pig feet, and pig blood in addition to the more general "pork."
Also, there are no fortune cookies in China. It's a stupid gimmick and you've all been fooled, as I once was.
We found ourselves sitting in "Restaurant 97", one of dozens of tents serving food outside of Ta Prohm, one of the ancient temples of Angkor that is particularly well known for having been overtaken by the jungle. As usual in Cambodia, it was sweltering, 100-something for sure, and we had just collapsed into our seats after the 7 kilometer bike ride to ancient city Angkor Thom, and the dozen or so sweaty, unexpected kilometers it took to find Restaurant 97.
Our lunch was long and relaxing, but our anticipation of exploring the six-hundred year-old tree infested temple was repeatedly shattered by a young boy who kept approaching our table selling books and disturbing metal figurines with giant phalluses. I was more interested in his own story than the stories in the books he was selling (and even more so than his disfigured-figurines).
At the end of the day, our conversation with that boy left a deeper impression on me than did the crumbling Ta Prohm. I simply couldn't believe how well he was speaking English. He claimed to be thirteen years old, looked about nine, and could converse with us better than most Chinese college students. How did he pull this off?
I started reading a book called 三重门 over our one week break, and many of the Chinese fellows came up to me and commented how they had read that book while they were in middle school. Aside from feeling dejected yet again about my Chinese (I was struggling through the book), I was surprised that the fellows had had time to read it in middle school. I'm guessing that better-off city schools give students a bit more free time than they do in the countryside, but still, the life of a Chinese student is not easy.
One of the more discouraging aspects of teaching in rural China is the complete lack of non-academic outlets for students, hence my suprise. As I've described before, at Pengtun, students begin the day at 6:30 with morning exercises, have about 20 minutes for breakfast, and then have morning classes from 7:25 until 12:05. They begin afternoon classes at 1:20, and they spend the one hour and fifteen-minute break eating lunch (some at the school and some at home), hanging around, or throwing a basketball around. Afternoon classes end at 4:45, and then night self study period (read: classes) begins at 6:30. Students spend their break eating dinner (some at the school and some at home), hanging around, or throwing a basketball around. Night self study time ends at 8:30, and students who board at the school need to remain in their classrooms until 9:30, when the have half an hour to prepare for bed. Lights out at ten o'clock. Their days are full, and they have neither the time, resources, or inclination to pursue outside hobbies.
That's why the Integrated Drama and Literacy Project is such a big deal.