Friday, October 24, 2008

Settling In

We can hardly believe we have been here for almost two months. We are so busy and the experiences keep coming at us so fast we can barely take them in let alone record them in this blog. Nevertheless, we have settled in nicely and are comfortable in our circumstances.

In the previous blog we described the building in which we live, and there is a picture of what it looks like on the outside. The inside is equally Spartan, but we have gone to great efforts to fix things up even though we know we will have to leave them behind after our tour is over.

Our first effort was to fix up the kitchen. That meant buying some appliances we thought we needed to make life livable. Elva bought a few pots, dishes, a frying pan for the gas burner, and a microwave. We have since added a toaster and crock pot. But the purchase that really put our life in order was a new washing machine. It only does a small load. It fills from a cold-water tap under the kitchen sink (although you can add some warm water from the faucet) and drains into the kitchen floor. But it works great. We then hang the wet clothes on a line on the back porch if it’s warm enough outside or on a drying rack in the spare room when it’s not. Oh, we also had to buy an iron to press them with.

Basic furniture was already in the apartment—sofa, chairs, desks, and bed—but it was pretty bleak. True to our natures, we spent the money to decorate. (That was when we had money before the stock market tanked.) Beautiful Chinese wall hangings are now displayed in the living room and bedroom. We have also bought some original Chinese oil paintings (and have our eyes on more). A colorful bedspread spruced up the bedroom.

We had functional drapes in all the rooms, but they were not up to Elva’s standards. They were an ugly beige color, dirty, and older than Lao-Tzu. Moreover, the hems were uneven, which gave Elva nightmares. But a trip to the fabric market put this right. For a few hundred Chinese yuan she had new ones made. They were done in two days by young girls on treadle sewing machines who were working in an outdoor alley. They did a good job. Gold for the bedroom and red and gold for the living room. (It seems that red and gold are our colors these days.) And all the hems are the same length.

But the weather is turning cold. The leaves are dropping. Fall is here and winter is not far behind. I guess we’ll be back to the fabric market for winter coats soon.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


We would like to introduce you to our university, the Xi’an International Studies University—known locally as XISU (pronounced, Shee Sue). It is one of 20 or 30 universities, institutes, or colleges in Xi’an. In fact, Xi’an is known as a university town.

Elva in front of XISU's old campus gate

We live on what is known as the old campus. It is the site of the of the original university established in the 1950s, partly with the help of the Soviet Union. The architecture of the older buildings mimics that of Soviet-style construction during the Cold War, which is mostly concrete walls covered with plaster inside and out. There are newer buildings as well that are very modern in their outward appearance. The old campus houses faculty, some students, and features cafeterias, ball fields, and administration buildings, as well as our foreign teachers’ residence compound.

Our apartment, first floor, on the left

It is a ‘downtown” university on a busy street not far from the old city wall. Outside its front gates is one of the busiest commercial districts of the city where the traffic is crazy and the streets are alive with people, street vendors, shops and bus stops. But inside the campus is peace and tranquility, with tree-lined streets and students sitting and visiting on arbor-covered benches.

XISU's new campus

The real action is on the new campus about 20-plus kilometers out of town. This is where most of the students live and go to school. China has an increasing number of young people it has to educate, a population that has outstripped the facilities of most of the in-town campuses. The only solution has been to build new campuses on the outskirts of town in what used to be wheat and corn fields. XISU is one of a dozen or more of these. So while we live on the old campus, every morning we board a bus for a 30-minute ride to the new campus. Given the nature of traffic in China, this is an exhilarating and often death-defying event.

The Library

The architecture of the new campus is as modern as it gets although the construction technique of poured concrete appears to be the same. Its centerpiece is a soaring new library of glass, concrete, and shinning steel. There are long rows of dormitories on one side of a quad and two rows of multi-level classrooms and administration buildings on the other. A student cafeteria and ball fields are on the far end.

The usual schedule is to teach two classes of about 30-40 students in the morning, each class lasting for two hours. Then there is a 2-hour lunch/rest break followed by another 2-hour class in the afternoon. Each freshman class is divided up into 30- or 40-person groups at the beginning of the year, and those groups stay together as a class for all four years of their university life. Moreover, for the most part they stay in the same classroom all that time; the teachers are the ones that move about from room to room. The students even decorate their “homeroom” according to their own tastes. One has a giant mural of Yeo Ming, a national hero.

One of Steve's classes

Such are the physical aspects of XISU, the “bones.” In a future post we will describe the “heart” of XISU: the magic of the classroom and the spirit of those in it.