We went to a primary school today and it was an awesome experience. I can't tell you how many times I signed my "autograph" - probably around 60 times. The school system seemed strange to me, but since I didn't attend a brick and mortar primary school I really can't compare it to America.

First we went to a regular third grade class and watched their activities. When we arrived they were practicing writing characters and very diligently ignored us for the most part. They all sat with their backpacks in their seat - we were told it helps with their posture. I realized today that my skill level in a lot of ways is not even that of a 3rd grader. We didn't know a lot of the characters they were writing. It was really strange to realize that. Some of the kids were using different books than others, and when I asked why that was, I was told that it depends on if they do work at home or not. I guess that means character writing homework is optional? Either way, it was interesting.

Earlier this week we had a lecture where they told us that in China they have a serious problem with the new generation of Chinese students not knowing how to write characters well, because after primary school they stop writing them. They use the pinyin (phonetic alphabet) to find the characters when they text or write essays but are required to do very little writing. The result is they can recognize characters, but they don't actually know how to write them. So guess what someone (presumably the government) came up with to encourage knowing how to write characters? Live soap opera television shows that are national competitions for character writing - sort of like a spelling bee. It is extremely popular in China and students study extremely hard to become a finalist in the show. We watched part of an episode, and I felt like I was watching American Idol with the way they made everything dramatic and showed the contestants and the lights and everything. Only in China is education important enough to the people that this show could be popular. In America, it could never work. No one wants to be the "dork" in America, but in China, it makes you popular.

So back to the school trip. I finally discovered what this gentle chiming I hear throughout the day is. It is there "bell" for class ending and starting. It is a much nicer sound than a bell at any school I've been at in America. The students get a break every hour (or more if the teacher allows) for about 10 minutes and then they start class again. When class starts they have to stand up and say "Laoshi Hao! 老师好", which means "Hello Teacher!" Then when class ends, they stand and say something else (but I couldn't understand it).

As soon as they went on their break, they went berserk. It was so strange because when the teacher calls them to attention they are perfect angels and they don't misbehave in class. But when they are free, I have never seen a group of children be SO loud and jump all over things and beg for attention like they all have too much sugar in their system. This was when they were getting our autographs.

After a few minutes the teacher called them back to their seats and they quickly obeyed. Then they started their poetry lesson. It was simple poetry and a lot of the characters I understood, though since it was poetry I couldn't really understand what it meant when they put it together. The really funny part about that was that the teacher would tell them all to read it out loud together. These children have vocal chords, and all 38 of them reading out loud together was so loud that a couple of my classmates covered their ears. Then, the teacher would ask for volunteers to individually read them. What was really neat, was that they would have to stand to read. In fact, any time a student was called on for anything or wanted to say anything, they had to stand up to say it. And no one spoke unless called upon (except for these two boys who were sitting in the very back that the whole time had another teacher standing over them trying to make them behave), and no one was called upon that didn't raise their hand.

After that class, they had another break, and the students began to beg for autographs again. We slowly tried to break away from that class and move towards a 4th grade class that was beginning to learning English. When we got to that class, they were all sitting in the room rubbing their faces. It took a second, but we realized that they were all rubbing the same part of their face, and there was a voice with soft background music faintly coming from a speaker counting to 8 and starting from 1 again. We asked a teacher what they were doing, and we were told they were massaging the muscles around their eyes to protect them. I don't really understand what that is about, but it is something I am interested in looking into.

When the counting stopped, it was announced to the children that we are Americans and that we speak some Chinese, and that they can ask us whatever they want. We were then told that we could ask whatever we want of the children. Then the riot began again. I was not successful in speaking Chinese very well with them. To be honest, I'm not sure it was so much my ability as it was the fact that it was SO loud and I was also trying to sign more autographs at the same time as answering their questions. The only thing I understood was that they wanted to know if American primary schools were similar. They wanted to know how much homework we had and what time we get out of school. That was all I really gathered. They complained that they got out at 5 every day and have an entire hour of homework.

One of the students gave me a sticker, and a group of them signed their Chinese names onto a scratch piece of paper to give me to remember them by. They also thought my nose was very strange. Apparently they asked a couple of my classmates about it too. Really, everyone in China thinks it is strange. I have not seen a single person in China with more than earings, and even those are few and far between. I get questioned about it a lot and people point at it and ask if it hurt and a couple people go so far as to poke it. I am a spectacle here.

After a while we took a group picture of the students. They got extremely excited and kept moving closer to the camera and trying to climb higher and higher to be the center of the picture. In fact, the students were extremely competitive even with getting our autographs before the other students in the class. I was having papers shoved in front of my face and I felt bad because I knew that I wasn't being fair as far as who had waited longest because they were shoving paper and pen into my hand.

Right before we left, the children sang us a song in English, of which I only understood one line "Once I was fat, and now I am thin". Oh, China. No wonder everyone seems to think they are fat if they aren't practically stick figures. With the way they think, I would be considered fat (and I'm not at all worrying that I am). After that song, they sang their ABC's and the Chinese National Anthem. We sang Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star with them in English while they sang the equivalent in Chinese, and then we sang our National Anthem for them. We sang it quite horribly though. It's a pretty difficult song to sing well with the changes in octaves. They gave us a nice round of applause though, so that was nice. It was also very cool that a couple of the students pulled out their flutes and played tunes with the songs without even needing sheet music.

On Thursday we went to Liaocheng's 40th Anniversary celebration which was a chorus competition. Every department at the university participated. They all dressed up in matching outfits and sang the Liaocheng University song, and one other song. This is going to sound awful of me, but it was awful. We were all sitting there wondering if off key is relative to your culture. Everyone was clapping and cheering and we all wanted to cover our ears because it hurt. It lasted for 3 hours, but we only had to stay for 1.

I am glad I went though. There were two parts that made it memorable and worth attending. The first was their cadet program students singing. That was pretty fabulous. I tried to imagine what it would be like if the Corps Of Cadets made them participate in something like that and I burst out laughing. I posted a video of their cadets and it is pretty great.

The second thing was that the teachers had a singing group, and two of our professors were in it! In fact, they were our two favorites whom I will miss very much - Han Laoshi and Gao Laoshi. I posted pictures, and in the picture where it is the left side of the stage Gao Laoshi is the man in the top row second from the left. The lighting was really bad so I couldn't get a good picture of more than his silhouette since we were so far back. Han Laoshi is in the picture from the perspective of the right side of the stage in the very front row second from the right.

This weekend I'm going to see the parents and parents-in-law of the professor who gave us the chemistry-like lecture on health. Tomorrow we are going to one set around 9:30 and are going to be back by noon. They are artists, so I'm really excited. On Sunday we are going to the other set and it is more of a day trip. We leave at 9:30 but don't get back until dinner. It is going to be really neat to get to go to a Chinese home, though.

That's all for now!