It was game time for me! Monday, May 28th, was here, and I was very excited and a bit nervous. Back in the spring when I announced to my colleagues at Harding that I would be visiting China once again, West Ling, Harding’s director of Chinese student services, asked me if I would be willing to speak at an educational conference at the Beijing Institute of Technology - Zhuhai campus? BITZH.
It’s called the Forum on Education Internationalization and Applied Talents Cultivation. It’s a conference with 10-12 other representatives of universities from around the world. The gathering would commence on May 28th. I was excited about accepting this challenge. I woke up, had breakfast, and headed to Zhuhai.
I left early, but I was travelling alone and thought I needed the extra time to negotiate my route through the city subway system, ticket purchase, and finding my way through security and boarding platform of China’s high speed railway system. I had plenty of time but it still took me a lot longer than I thought it would. The subway to the train station went just as it should have, but once I arrived at the train station I had to wait in line to buy my ticket to Zhuhai for just over an hour! The Guangzhou South Railway station was VERY crowded, or, just normal for a Monday in China. West had sent me a written message in Chinese on my phone for me to show the ticket agent requesting a ticket to Zhuhai. The ticket agent behind the window kept asking me questions for which I didn’t understand, and I just kept saying, “Wo bu zhidao,” (meaning, I don’t know). As I repeated my response I would again show the Chinese message written by West to the ticket agent. He finally waived his hands up and gave me a ticket. ¥60. Later, I thought he may have been asking me when I wanted to depart, and what seat I wanted? “Wo bu zhidao!” After receiving my ticket, I texted West and told him what time my train would arrive in Zhuhai.
I speak some Chinese, but it’s very limited. I have been taking Chinese language lessons for eight years, but I’m still not very conversational. People often ask me if I speak Chinese, to which I answer, “Yes, I’m not really very good, but I can really impress an American!” But now with ticket in hand, I headed to what I thought was the correct direction and gates. I waited in line and ended up in the wrong line… twice! Finally, after lots of talking, laughing, smiling, and hand gestures of “go that direction” I was headed to the correct boarding platform. Once I arrived I still had to sit for two hours for my train. I am so glad I didn’t wait until a normal time to depart the hotel. I needed every bit of that time, and I was very thankful for the opportunity to sit and wait. I was exhausted!
The train ride to Zhuhai was only about 45 minutes and as I walked down the platform escalator at the train station West Ling was there to picked me up. I knew Zhuhai was West Ling’s hometown. So he had a family car and was very familiar with the lay of the land and where we were going. He drove directly to the conference center meeting place, but China being as it is, had very heavy traffic, crowded roads, and it still took about an hour to get to where we were going.
Upon arriving at the conference center, West and I went inside the lobby and made our way to the welcome desk for this conference. Our conference was one of many at this location. The center itself was in a resort looking facility. It had several buildings, some of which held restaurants, (Western and Chinese), meeting rooms and, of course, hotel type rooms. As I looked around the topographic surroundings everything was well groomed and pristine.
Upon entering the lobby, we were immediately met by a very attractive and friendly representative of the conference. You Yuting (pronounced Yo-You-Ting) and West knew each other from previous business activities between our two universities, so they struck up a very friendly conversation. Soon, West turned and introduced me to Yuting. She had a bright smile and sparkling eyes! She extended her hand and welcomed me in English with a “nice to meet you” greeting in a very Chinese accent. When I said in Chinese, “Wǒ hěn gāoxìng rènshì nǐ,” (I am very happy to know you), her eyes lit up brighter and her smile got even bigger! You speak Chinese! “A little,” I said in Chinese… I asked her to tell me again what her full name was, “You Yuting, she replied. I repeated it back correctly and she said, “but my friends call me Yoyo.” Most Chinese adults under the age of 50 have an American nickname. Yoyo welcomed me again and then explained to West and I what the evening itinerary was, where our rooms were located, and that she had a welcoming gift for each of us. Yoyo handed me what I knew to be a Kung Fu Tea Set, consisting of some Chinese cups, a brewing pot, a serving pitcher and a wooden serving tray for the entire set. I was beautiful and I loved it. I love Chinese tea and Yoyo could not have selected a better welcome gift for me.
At dinner I got to meet many of the other participants of the conference. Other universities represented are from Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, France, Italy, China and the United States. And, of course, there were also many members of Sino American School Collaboration department of our hosting university, the Beijing Institute of Technology-Zhuhai. Yoyo, who was in charge of logistics and accommodations for this conference, went to great lengths to make sure we were all comfortable, well-fed and had everything that we would need for a pleasant visit for the next two days. I was ready for the traditional Chinese afternoon rest period, so I told West and Yo-Yo I would see them at dinner in the conference center. Yo-Yo informed us that the shuttle bus would be outside of our hotel room building in time to get us to dinner on time. Zzzzz…
After a shower, a nap, and a change of clothes I was ready for the evening meal and the impending meeting of the other international guests. The food was delicious and the evening was very comfortable. The other international participants spoke a variety of languages but English was either the first or second language of everybody. As I am prone to do, I worked hard to purposely speak to everybody in the room, especially the BITZH University staff and the other university professors. I even reached out and spoke to some of the wait staff. The entertainment was some traditional Chinese stringed instruments played by some of the University students and teachers. I loved the eclectic nature and the international gathering that was sitting with me at the table. I felt very fortunate to have been able to be a presenter at this conference.
The next day, Tuesday, as the Conference began, Mr. Kevin Zhen, the vice president of BITZH and our host for the event, gave a speech about what we were going to be doing for the next two days. This conference was all about finding ways to collaborate and work together to help international students all over the world be more successful. Among the featured speakers, the first to present was Amir. He was a very intellectual professor from Singapore but was teaching in Australia. His presentation was on “What One Belt One Road Globalization Means for Higher Education Institutions.”
At our short break I knew it was going to be my turn to speak soon so I pulled out my bow tie that I had in my Navy Blazer pocket, wrapped it around my collar, and commenced to tying it. After I started tying the knot, I noticed there a few people who had stopped what they were doing to watch me! I’m not sure many of those people in the room had ever tied a real bow tie or had even seen to done. It was fun to show them how this is done. Everybody thought my bow tie was cute!
Finally, it was my turn to present. I spoke about how my first hand observations show that our foreign students, particularly our Chinese students, that are more involved with our social life at Harding, do so much better academically. I quickly said this was subject to many other external factors. I also very clearly said that many students get over involved in social activities and DO NOT do well in school. Of course there has to be a delicate balance of academic discipline and social acceptance. I spoke of my personal relationship that I have with many of my Chinese students. I told my story of how I got the name Xie Yeye… (See blog entry #1). They also liked my story of “Wo Da Lao Po.” That’s a story for another day/blog post. The audience seemed to like my presentation, (at least they told me that after the presentation). We all loaded the tour bus and went to lunch.
After lunch, the conference got a little long… I felt sorry for my new friend Colin Jevons from Monash University of Sydney, Australia, because he had the task of speaking after lunch and supposedly keeping everybody awake. Fortunately, his talk was informative, enlightening and engaging. But, beforehand, I promised him that I would laugh and say something when he needed me to, all he had to do was look or point my way!
During the break… While all of the conference participants were drinking tea and coffee and cookies and generally smiling and laughing with each other, I noticed that there had been a group of students who were assigned to be volunteers and help with the logistics and service, even though there was very little to do. There were about 6-7 girls, maybe one guy, waiting for an assignment from the staff. They were all seated in a row in the back of the room. So I did what I do best. I went to the students, and introduced myself in Chinese, and generally tried to engage them in conversation. My Chinese was being stretched but they seemed anxious to help me say what I wanted to say. They in turn were anxious to speak English with me. Most of them were learning English but had little or no experience with actual First-Language-English speaking people. Before it was over I had my photo made with almost all of them, some taken by their friends, others were selfies! Plus, when I told them I had a WeChat – WOW, the oohs and the ahhs started as they all pulled out their phone and loaded up their QR readers!
While I was meetin’ and greetin’, workin’ the room, pressin’ the flesh, I noticed that Yoyo was watching me and smiling with every new student I met. When I finished I walked her way, she motioned as if she wanted to tell me something, she paused for just a second while she smiled and looked at me… she had that twinkle in her eye like she wanted to say something funny or sarcastic but couldn’t determine exactly what to say… then she just said. “You are quite popular among the students aren’t you?” “Well,” I said, “I guess I so, but I would rather meet these students than hang with all those old academics over there as I pointed to the front of the room.” She laughed and smiled even bigger, and said, “I see why your students love you so much. I want to be in your classroom some day!” I responded without trying to sound arrogant and said, “What you just saw is what I do best!” I’m not the best teacher, (ask any of my American students), but nobody loves their students more than I do!
That evening the group loaded the bus and traveled to a very unique restaurant. It was several private meeting rooms in buildings that wrapped around a small lake or pond. Zhuhai sets on the southern border of China on the South China Sea. Therefore, the fish and seafood offerings are one of the culinary cuisines that are best served in that area. This restaurant had wonderfully prepared white fish, shrimp, octopus and clams and of course a full array of locally grown fruits and vegetables. The food was good and there was plenty of “drinks” that the rest of the group imbibed rather heartily!
Wednesday was a day that may have been planned by the Zhuhai Chamber of Commerce more so than the university. It included a tour of a museum style facility that was two floors of displays and information about the making of the new city of Zhuhai. The city of Zhuhai was not a new city, but China will often redevelop some of their cities by moving the city center out a couple of miles and then completely rebuilding everything from industry to transportation, to housing and shopping! Every display was a spectacular array of electronic media production of video, audio and graphics. As I watched the presentations I was more impressed with the production than I was with the actual dissemination of the information the Chinese government wanted me to see and understand. I thought to myself, Yep, there is plenty of work in this culture for the many electronic media production majors we have back home.
The GREE manufacturing company display and museum was next on our agenda. The GREE company is the worlds-largest manufacturer of air conditioning systems. In China when you say “air conditioning” it means both heating and cooling systems. Most offices and private residences are heated and cooled by a single unit in each room of the home or commercial building. The display and working samples of their technologies were really amazing. After the tour most of the other were talking about the differences of technology in their home countries. Me? I wanted to talk to the tour guide and the students that were showing us around. This time instead of Yoyo watching me, she was leading me to many of the staff and others so that I could introduce myself and find out a little about these amazing people that God created on the other side of the world from me! I guess he had me figured out, when she said, “I thought you might be more interested in meeting more people here.” I asked, “Am I that easy to read?” I’m not sure she understood the euphemism for which I was coming from, but she smiled and said, come this way, as she led me to another introduction.
Next stop – lunch. If anyone of us left this conference hungry it was NOT the fault of BITZH! They fed us well and they fed us often! Today’s lunch was on a large boat. Well, it was on land, but built to look like a boat on water. The building was surrounded by water and it had a walkway bridge to cross to gain entrance to the restaurant. This really cool building was right on the water, on the west side of an inlet of the South China Sea. Zhuhai is located on the southeast corner of mainland China, just north of Macau and across the South China Sea from Hong Kong. Because of location and tourism, this was a very popular place fort great seafood!
After lunch and Chinese rest period we received a tour of the campus. Yoyo and BITZH had arranged for a couple of 8-10 passenger golf cart style vehicles to drive us around the campus while Yoyo told us about what was here and what was there. As we passed a particular apartment building occupied by faculty Yoyo mentioned that is where she and her husband lived. I asked her how long she had been married? “One month!” she replied. Wow, we all mused, you’re still on your honeymoon! Yoyo was 28 years old, married and had a good job at BITZH. Her husband lived in another city and only came home on the weekends until he found a job in Zhuhai. This living and work arrangement is not uncommon at all in China. I’ve done this a couple times in my almost 43 years of marriage and I do not like it at all. I told Yoyo how long I had been married. She seemed intrigued about how my life had played out after all of these years. She also seemed to be wondering what her life would be like with her husband in 43 years?
After the Chinese rest time (I love that everybody takes a nap in China), we gathered for dinner. As usual the cuisine was wide in variety and supply! Because I knew that many of my new international friends were going to putting down way too much Chinese alcohol, I wanted to sit with somebody that would not be doing so, and/or somebody that would not put me into an uncomfortable position of continuing to refuse the participation for which they wanted me to be involved. Yoyo and a group of women that were part of the event management, and one Chinese professor that teaches in the USA were all seated together and I asked if I could join them? It was such a pleasant evening of visiting and talking about the life we all lived. Some of these dishes were quite unknown to most of these native Chinese people. We were all fascinated by what was being offered even though most, if not all of us, had no idea what some of it was.
Yoyo kept challenging me to eat something before she told me what it was. I’m always up for a challenge like that. I can eat almost anything… at least once, especially if I don’t know what it is before I put it in my mouth! There was one dish that she didn’t know what it was either. One of the others in our group knew what the Chinese word was but not the English word… We looked it up… Yoyo told me what it was in Chineseand said she would not eat that! Then I challenged her! I didn’t know yet what it was but I said, I would eat some it if she would. We both agreed. We reached our chopsticks into the dish pulled out a few pieces and swallowed them. It was EARTH WORMS! (BTW - tasted like dirt...)
As we all finished up for the evening I knew that I would be leaving in the morning to head back to the airport, back to Beijing and back to the states. I was so ready. I said my goodbye’s to many. I especially wanted to give my thanks and appreciation for how she had made my experience so pleasant.
When I got back to my room I sent the following WeChat message to Yoyo:
Just another note to say thank you for being such a wonderful host, a professional in your work and a new good friend. I enjoyed getting to know you from the first minute I walked into the Lobby of the Resort until the last minute we hugged in the dining area. I hope we can meet again someday, either here, or in my hometown. Congratulations on your recent wedding. I think your husband is a lucky man. My wife and I will be praying for your success in your marriage and in your life! God bless you always!
Yoyo’s return message simply said… “Almost in tears!”
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Steve Shaner, also known as Xie Yeye, is a professional story teller that delights in traveling to meet new and old friends. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.