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Monks on a bus and monkeys on the roof

Now I’ve got your attention. This had to be the title for this blog entry, especially after I saw the number of “likes” my monks on a bus photo got on Facebook. Here it is:

monks on a bus

Travelling to school

Anyway, how to sum up this crazy experience of a month teaching Buddhist monks in Bhiksu University, Sri Lanka? Was it what we had expected? Of course not! Things never are. On the plane over to Sri Lanka we again looked at each other wondering whether we were totally insane. How bad could it be, we thought? We had spoken via Skype to the Reverend Mediyawe Piyarathana, the English lecturer in charge of the program, and we had been interviewed by Paul Ellmes of http://www.giveafigvolunteering.com, who also lived there in the city, and seemed to be a nice, friendly chap.  Just for a month….. what could go wrong, we thought. Well one or two small inconveniences did occur. I hobbled home on crutches  with a sprained foot and a touch of gastroenteritis. Both of us were exhausted.. but to say that the month wasn’t the most fantastic experience would not  be doing it justice. Things are never straightforward when you fly halfway around the world. We certainly learnt as much from the monks as they did from us. But mostly not about meditation, Buddhist philosophy and so on, but more about how people are just people everywhere. The monks were all MA and PhD lecturers in Buddhist culture and philosophy, Sanskrit, comparative religions and other subjects. But they were above all lovely kind open-hearted people with whom we talked about anything and  everything in class.

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Our first colonial abode

The first few days after our arrival were the full moon festival or Poson. This meant that thousands of devotees, dressed in white, had flocked to the town to celebrate and visit the many holy places. Anuradhapura, a UNESCO heritage site,  is the old capital and a famous centre of Buddhist worship that houses the famous Boddhi Tree and many other important sites. Our Reverend took us to visit many of them, including  MahintaleRuwanwelisaya and Abhayagiri where we met the Chief Incumbent monk himself, and actually had tea at his house. He was a lovely laughing chap who had been to study in China so we exchanged a few Chinese words, which was all rather amusing. Anyone who entered the house bowed and kissed his feet, and we were directed to low stools while he sat on a higher chair. Apparently we were told by Paul that this monk is pretty much the second most important guy in the country after the President.

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Full moon celebrations at Mahintale

The Reverend took us to the holy sites to experience the tradition of dansale at the celebration. People had travelled from afar to cook meals and distribute them free to others. We saw huge lines of people waiting to receive meals, sweets and even free ice cream. The Rev took us in to eat something and (embarrassingly for us) passed in front of the whole line since he is a monk. It was useless to object. The monks are revered by all. This happened again in supermarket queues and elsewhere. Sometimes people would come up to him and hand him gifts in exchange for prayers and blessings.

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Family in dansale tent

One evening the Rev took us to visit a nunnery. The kids seemed quite well cared for and happy. The Reverend himself became a monk as his mother had to travel to work in Saudi Arabia and so she entrusted him to the monastery. He speaks to her frequently on the phone and doesn’t seem to have any problem with her decision. He loves his work helping people and is extremely devoted to the worshipers, and all the monks are very keen to help their devotees by giving them advice and hearing their problems. They help with all kinds of problems, and are always available to help in any way they can. The monks seem to have a far better life than many of the poor rural people and have a great education and live comfortably in their temples.

 

All in all, we were royally looked after during our whole stay. Everything was paid for by the University, including our board and lodging, and trips to Wilpattu Safari Park  and Sigiriya  Lion Rock (where I slipped and sprained my foot after managing to ascend and descend all the steps successfully) . The accommodation provided by the University was a little spartan: the initial place we were given looked amazing from the outside (a gorgeous old colonial building) but was somewhat run down inside, and had no hot water or functioning wifi. We therefore asked to move to a hotel but the inimitable Reverend Piyarathana who was responsible for us flatly refused and said he would find alternative accommodation. This proved to be the Vice Chancellor’s Lodge which was equally impressive from the outside, and actually did have hot water, good wifi and a/c. This is not to say that it was palatial, but it was okay. The original place came complete with a cook.So now we had no cook. “No problem “,said the Reverend. Every day he would send his chauffeur-driven car round to fetch us and transport us to Mango Mango, the local Indian restaurant where we could get good food just like in London!

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The Reverend’s driver Sisera enjoying his bettel

At night we heard jackals and dogs fighting outside, and monkeys jumping on the roof. There were loads of monkeys and wild dogs wandering around the campus. In fact I have never seen so many dogs in my life.Apparently because they are Buddhists, the inhabitants cannot get the dogs neutered, or do anything to deplete their numbers- many looked mangy and neglected- so sad. We also saw innumerable cows wandering around, mongoose and a snake .And one evening a tiny frog jumped out of the toilet!

Every day we went off to class either by tuk- tuk (called a three-wheeler in Sri Lanka) or on the school bus together with all the monks. Class was from 8 till 11.30am with a 30 minute tea break , and again in the afternoon from 13.00 till 16.30 with a similar break. In the break we got tea, bananas, and a host of other (mainly spicy) unidentifiable foods. We did find it amusing to see a load of saffron robed monks all sitting around munching on their bananas. In class we did much the same as in any oral class I have ever taught- debates, discussions, pair work etc, on any topic we wished. The monks were lively , highly knowledgeable and fun to work with. We had internet and projector in the classroom and as much photocopied material as we needed.

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Monks in class

After our 20 days teaching were up we were presented with a gold- plated award for our work, and the students got certificates for completing the course. Many students had come over to visit me while I was laid up  with the  sprained foot, and had presented me with gifts such as home made curd, sliced bread, marmite (!) , fruits and other goodies.  Our next door neighbour monk, also called Piyarathana (and hence christened by me Piyarathana number 2) came over and brought us many fruits, and on our last evening invited us into his place for a cooked meal, which he cooked personally.They were all incredibly kind and hospitable and I will miss them all.

We then had 3 days at the beach resort of Trincomalee on the north east coast,where we relaxed and took a sailing boat to see dolphins, and visited the historic site of Fort Frederick. This was a nice way to wind down our trip, and then finally we spent two nights in Colombo, where unfortunately we couldn’t see much due to my sprained foot, but we did see the Galle Fort promenade, which was enjoyable.

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Fishermen on beach at Trincomalee

So if this has piqued your appetite and you are interested in teaching in Sri Lanka please contact Paul Ellmes at http://giveafigvolunteering.com/ or the Revered Mediyawe Piyarathana at revpiyarathana@busl.ac.lk  or on Skype at piyarathana78. You too can have an unforgettable experience and do something worthwhile!

NOTE: Paul Ellmes says that in future all accommodation arrangements will be taken care of by his organization so I am sure all will run smoothly! So go ahead and message him on his webpage. You will have a fantastic time!

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View from the top of the Sigiriya Lion Rock Palace

 

 

 

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Our Exciting summer plan

If you had asked me a month ago what we have planned for this summer it would have gone something like this- hang out around our new place in Israel, go to the beach, hear some music,and maybe go away to some nice European destination for a few days.

Well part of that has not changed. WE are in fact going to Vienna for a week in May, and I have already booked tickets to a classical concert in period costume and a performance of the Vienna boys’ choir, and booked our cute little air b nb  accommodation (Anton Herzl’s apartment ). But then a little ad on the EFL teachers’ website   Dave’s ESL cafe caught my eye- teaching Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka for one month. Well, not being one to pass up an opportunity I popped them off my CV and sure enough a few days later I was having a Skype interview with a lovely man called Paul. Paul works for a Volunteer Not for Profit organization called  Give a Fig . They were looking for two teachers to teach at the only Buddhist University in the world the Bhiksu University of Sri Lanka . The job would be for 30 days but only the first 20 days are the teaching program. At the end of 20 days you are taken on a tour of the heritage sites and historical interest places on the island. Also, the students are not undergraduates, but are lecturers at the University. They lecture on many different topics including Buddhist philosophy.

From here on, things started to move pretty fast. We had another two talks to Paul on Skype and today we received a draft contract which we were asked to approve/ suggest any changes. We will now get the signature of the Vice Dean, after which we can book our tickets! The tickets will be reimbursed at the end of our stay. Plus, we get free accommodation and a cook, and driver! All this is rather exciting, not to mention overwhelming. Paul and the Reverend Mediyawe Piyaratana , head of the English program, assured us not to worry about a thing. They will make sure the accommodation is to our satisfaction, with portable a/c unit and they will fix the wifi.

 

By the way, the name of the place we will be based is  Anuradhapura, a UNESCO world heritage site.

WE have no clue how this is all going to turn out, and like when we went to China, we have no expectations, either positive or negative. But to say we aren’t excited – well, I ain’t gonna lie! Stand by for online visa and innoculations!

 

Buddhasravaka-Bhiksu-University-226_2 Continue reading

Back from Asia-Where is home?

The title of this entry was going to be “Why Hong Kong is Overrated” but circumstances have dictated a change in emphasis.. Bear with me.

After a few days in Chiang Rai,North Thailand,three amazing weeks in Laos,land of mystery,and quiet relaxation,and four days in cosmopolitan,pulsing Hong Kong here we are.back in Jerusalem. Laos has had its own blog pages,even though I could write on and on about it and post myriad pictures, I will restrain myself.

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Our street in Jerusalem- I did miss the blue sky

 

How to describe reverse culture shock? Better writers than me in other blogs have done this,but I feel obliged to give it a shot.Here goes…Where is my wonderful Chinese life? Where are all my diverse friends from all over the globe- Philippines,Taiwan,Canada,Australia? I left them all behind to return to my family. In China our life seemed to be a constant whirl of the new and exciting.We had  a great time in class with the students,and we had many friends outside the classroom all clamouring to be our friends. Whenever we stepped outside our apartment in the city of Xiamen,there was always something new to explore. Every street corner held a surprise,every face turned curiously to stare at the “laowei” (foreigners)  walking past. Of course family is very important. We miss them when we are away. We were thrilled to see our kids and our siblings and my dad. But when we are with them things can be difficult.We fall back into patterns and rituals that are long ingrained in our behaviour,and that we don’t always enjoy.I am sure many people can relate to this. Reverse culture shock means that what should have been alien and hard to deal with became the norm,and our old familiar life suddenly became strange to us. We peered at the deserted streets and became amazed that we could understand every conversation overheard on the bus and in the supermarket.  The confusion and reverse culture shock we are now going through is compounded by the fact that the Hamas decided to resume shelling the day before our return,and in fact as we were passing through passport control at Ben Gurion airport the officer at the booth told us that sirens had just sounded a few minutes earlier in the centre of the country.Needless to say this was pretty disconcerting ,and we started feeling like turning around and heading straight back to the plane!

So to get back briefly to the last weeks of our trip. We returned to Chiang Mai on our way back to Hong Kong for the return flight home. On our first visit to Chiang Mai the curfew had still been in place because of the military coup there.Restaurants had closed at 6pm and the streets had been deserted. I had considered avoiding Chiang Mai but fellow bloggers assured me it was safe to go there. And on the whole I am glad we did,as the crossing over from CM to Laos was a blast in itself. However when we returned 3 weeks later the tourists had started coming back to Chiang Mai.It was still not  as crowded as on our first trip to Thailand,but it felt a bit more lively and fun.We wandered through the streets of the Old City,saw the Night Market (no big deal after the one in Luang Prabang) and I did something a little unusual- I took a Thai Cooking class! This for me was the highlight of our return to Thailand,especially the Drunken Noodles which burst into flame when we added the Palm Sugar.

Drunken Noodles

Drunken Noodles

curry

My Massalman Curry

The cooking school was called “Siam Rice” and I was presented with a certificate and a book of recipes at the end. It was well worth the money and very enjoyable. There are lots of different cooking schools to choose from but I think they are much the same, both in price and what they offer. In any case,this is a fun thing to do, and you have something to take home with you to remind you of your visit.

On arrival in Hong Kong,where we picked up our huge suitcases at the wonderful Butterfly on Hollywood Hotel,we were again upgraded to a larger room,this time with a view! Hong Kong was almost unbearably hot and stifling,but we managed to have a pretty good time,walking around the Soho neighbourhood,and making a brief trip to Lantau Island where after an awesome ride on the 360 degrees Ngong cable car we saw the huge Giant Buddha. This was the part where I was going to lay out my theory that HK is overrated as a tourist destination,but I think I will leave that for another post,as I have been rattling on long enough and with the sirens going off here every few minutes I am really not in the mood..

My friend asked me where this blog is going now that we are not travelling.I said I have no idea.So let’s just wait and see,shall we?

View of the Big Buddha,Lantau Hong Kong

Big Buddha Lantau

Some reflections on Chinese students and EFL (for teachers,probably)

We are nearing the end of the first semester here in Xiamen and our 3rd semester in China so time for a bit of reflection.I have spent the last 2 weeks testing my students orally for their Final Exam,and I have a few observations. It seems that there is a great deal of difference between teaching English majors and Non English majors,but there are some things which seem to jump out at me as “weird” or “different” when I compare the Chinese universities to the Western ones. Firstly,the students here seem to have a lot less choice in their lives than our children do,and than we did as students. Most students here,when asked why they chose this university or why they chose their major reply that “My parents picked it” or “My Gao Kao (high school university entrance exam) score was too low to go to another place. They don’t seem to express any opinion about what to study or where to spend four years. Another thing that sticks out is that they mostly plan to return home to their “hometown” when they graduate to help their parents,or because getting a job there is easier than in another city.They often plan to follow a career choice chosen by their parents,again in many cases not something they are crazy about. I find this rather sad,looking back on my University l ife and how much I loved it.

Students,by and large, try to answer our questions with what they think we want to hear,and not their “real opinion” as far as we can fathom,and it is impossible to get them to be honest and really tell us what they think.And by the way there are some other rather confusing things. Frequently a student will refer to his “hometown” which is his ancestral family home,but not necessarily where his family now live,which can be thousands of miles away. And they will also refer to “my sister” or “my brother” when referring to a cousin,but it can also mean a true sibling. Many of them ,despite what we know about China,do have a sister or a brother,sometimes two!

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Students here seem to be perpetually busy doing pointless tasks for the university,and when they are free they just watch movies online,or sleep,or play computer games.They rarely go into the city which is only 30 minutes away as they seem to think it is too far or too crowded.They are lacking in ambition and independence,and on weekends go home to their families if they live near to Xiamen.There is very little of the typical University life we know in the UK- certainly no pubs,no parties,very little mingling of the sexes at all.In class the boys and girls sit separately as we did when we were very young in elementary school.They are pretty immature,look much younger than British or American students and have very little social life.Classes have a class monitor much as we did in high school,who has to do various things for the teachers. I asked some students about hobbies,or what they do in their free time and the predictable answers were “play computer games”,”sleep” “go to the library” and for some girls “go shopping”.

Of course the students are delightful people on the whole,very polite and respectful,curious about us and where we come from,why we are in China and what we think about it.They find it hard to imagine why we would have left a place which they consider to be alluring,magical,and highly desirable to come to China and they mostly have very little idea of travelling even as far as Shanghai,let alone abroad.IT all seems very unreal to them. I can’t help wondering,however what the future holds for them,and what China will look like when they reach adulthood…

More anon…

 

Return to China -Chapter Two

(warning : Long Catching-Up POST)

So after a break of a couple of months,in which we returned to Jerusalem to be with family and to attend to various bureaucratic things we are back in China.

The situation is a bit weird and I am not going into all the details but suffice it to say that we are now in a lovely seaside location, on the 17th floor of an 18 storey block,with a view of the mountains from the living room and the mountains and the sea from the bedroom. The apartment has all mod cons,except that the aircon is only in the bedrooms for the time being but Sunny,the lady in charge of our accommodations has said that there will be a unit in the living room “some time”.

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View from living room

The journey back here was amazing. We were booked on KLM via Amsterdam with a 6 hour layover in that splendid city. WE had intended to go sightseeing but after leaving Ben Gurion at 4am and Jerusalem at 1am we were just too tired to do anything but sleep and eat at Schipol. So then we boarded the continuing flight and suddenly the air hostess asked to see our passports and when we looked alarmed said”Don’t worry I just want to move you to better seats”- imagine our surprise and delight when she led us to Business class comfy seats that lie flat and asked us if we would like champagne and Belgian chocolates! We were also presented with a huge menu on which we were to indicate our choice of meals for dinner and breakfast! They then proceeded to shower us with little extras and gifts! The only explanation for this I can come up with is that I had mentioned on Twitter that Swissair were crap and had not responded to our complaints on our previous trip back home and we had therefore chosen KLM who also had the added advantage of being cheaper and flying directly to our destination.I think maybe KLM are hoping to enroll me as a spokesman for them on Twitter and were rewarding us for my positive tweets,but that’s just a guess.

Of course we arrived in China delighted and well fed and rested.

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The massive Living room

We were met at the airport by Sandra of the International Office who drove us straight to our aforementioned apartment.

It transpires that our neighbours are nearly all teachers at our university or a neighbouring one,both foreigners and Chinese. Next door we have Shannon from Texas and his wife Amber from Arkansas and their 3 small children, upstairs Jonathan from Texas and his wife Allie a Chinese American and their 2 kids,Jonathan S and Jessica also Americans and Alex from Montreal and the UK and his Chinese wife whom we have not met yet. On our floor is a guy called Bob from Scotland don’t know much about him yet. Shannon has now become known as “Wikishannon” because he is a mine of information and incredibly helpful .The first thing he did was present me with a list of bus numbers and where to take them around the area, useful bus stops down town and how to get set up with a water cooler. He then with the help of Jonathan J helped set up our broadband and wifi,since the Chinese guy from the company didn’t manage to do it.

WE were taken the next day together with a lot of other teachers,to the International hospital for our medical,and then to the bank to get set up there. They gave us sim cards for our phones and an ecard for travelling the buses,meals on campus and to use the library.

On Thursday we had our first faculty meeting which was pretty weird. WE were collected by minibus from the apartment and amazed to see about 40 foreign teachers in a huge boardroom. The first item was a long and boring talk by Kevin Lin about the structure of the university and 2 talks by veteran teachers here about their teaching styles. We then divided into two groups,those teaching EFL and those teaching other subjects. We went to a different building and met Dr. Narcisco Hayashi Domingo,the Philipinno head of the EFL department who told us to call him Matthew and who signs his emails Dr D -go figure. Most of his talk was flaunting his Phd and telling us that we have to use the books he distributed to teach. About 10 teachers will be teaching Sophomores so they started teaching on Monday, and the rest of us are all teaching Freshmen ,who only begin classes after the National Holiday,that is to say after October 7th! We are therefore on holiday now,which leaves us time to explore the city,find our way around the neighbourhood and buy stuff for the apartment.

Our neighbourhood is kind of a suburb, the city being about 3 million people and a BRT ride of 35 minutes away. The BRT is a wonder to behold. IT is a bus that runs on a raised roadway,running from 6am till 10pm and is easy and comfortable to use. Yesterday we took it to downtown and enjoyed looking out of the window and seeing the view.WE went to a shopping mall with Carrefour supermarket, a French chain and then from there we took another bus to a second huge but fancy mall where we found a shop selling imported goodies such as whole wheat pasta,curry sauce,cocoa powder,feta cheese and other rare things. The university also runs a “Shopping Bus” every Saturday morning which picks up the teachers and takes them to the Metro Supermarket downtown.

So far we are happy with our neighbourhood- one colleague described it as being in Brooklyn and the city is Manhattan.Anyway that’s really enough for this incredibly long post so I shall continue later.

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Yundang Park

Back in the Holyland- and the Laura Linkup

Well we are back in Israel for the summer after a rather weird journey back but first I want to pay my dues by writing up the wonderful linkup we did at the end of June between Danny’s Middle school kids and my friend Laura Shashua’s class of Middle school kids in Holon,Israel.It was Laura’s idea to do a joint lesson between the Chinese and Israeli students using Skype.So having discussed the content of such a class and preparing the kids for the meeting,the day arrived.It was logistically tricky due to the time difference and the original date was postponed because Laura’s class suddenly had their lesson cancelled,it finally took place in Danny’s last lesson ,before our trip to Chengdu.

Henry answers a question from Israel

We checked all the connections on the computer,had a dry run with no students and checked whether we could hear each other on the skype. The screens were not so clear,and the sound not so great but it was passable. WE had two Chinese English teachers with us, and there were twice as many Chinese students as Israelis. Never mind. When the bell rang we had two classes facing each other from across the globe. Laura had worked hard to prepare her kids,and they had a huge Israeli flag at the back of the room ,and the kids all had their names written on cards, in Hebrew and English.We quickly scrambled in Lin’an to find a Chinese flag and only found a small one,and made the kids name signs too.The plan was to have the kids ask each other questions about their lives,for the kids do demonstrate how to eat with chopsticks/knives and forks, and at the end to sing “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean” together.

Danny and the students

The main thing that was clear was how shy the Chinese were compared to the Israelis.The Chinese kids were very reticent but we finally got a kid who was happy to ask and answer questions. We had the Israeli kids greet their friends with “Ni Hao!” and the Chinese respond with “Shalom!” there was plenty of waving and smiling, the food eating demonstration was partially marred by technical problems but the final rendition of “My Bonnie ” was a roaring success,and all in all we think it went pretty well.

Hopefully we can try this again in future.

Lin’an students show how to eat with chopsticks

End of the Semester-Exams and Parties

As I wrote in the last post, we are busy with final exams,grading and preparing for the Spring Festival break( which is in the Winter,go figure!)

.My 6 Literature classes have a written exam that I have to mark , and my 2 Freshmen oral classes have been tested in a small interview,much like the Bagrut oral exam.Some of them told me it was the first time they have ever been tested orally in English and were very nervous. The English majors have been busily preparing for the exam,and seem (for the most part) to take it all pretty seriously.So tomorrow I will give an exam to around 120 students in a huge auditorium (freezing cold-no heating) and students take the exam with their gloves,coats and hats on! But of course, NO extra time, no LD dispensations (ignoring spelling mistakes,oral test or any of THAT stuff ,fellow EFL teachers!) And,also by the way,many students thanked me and gave me a big smile as they handed in their tests.

Then my loyal assistant Livia will help me put all the grades into the University computer system (in Chinese). After all the exams and parties are over,everyone will leave for the long Spring break,the students going home and the foreign teachers off traveling. We will be going to Xiamen,Hong Kong and then a brief visit back home to Israel,before we return for the second semester on February 13th.

Last night we were invited to Autumn’s house (the head of the English department) for a Christmas Party and farewell as she is off to study in Manchester,and she introduced us to Teresa, her replacement.

There were 7 foreign teachers and our respective student assistants there,and everyone brought potluck dishes to eat. We then exchanged gifts in something Ryan described as a :Yankee Swap” in which each person opens his present but if he doesn’t like it he can exchange it (once only ) with another guest. I was most satisfied with my electric foot warmer!

Then Autumn presented us with a little gift each and handed over “baton” to Teresa who promised to help us with all our problems in the coming semester

The Lovely Autumn

The Lovely Autumn

.It was a lovely evening and made me realize again what a great welcome we have received from everyone here,both staff and students.

Fran,one of my lovely students

Fran one of my lovely students

my footwarmer

My electric Footwarmer