Monday, September 20, 2010

Magical Reno Nevada

Magical Reno...I use the word magical because Reno has the ability to transform itself from one thing to another, and just when you think you have it pegged, it changes again. Always enticing you to explore more of "The Biggest Little City in the World". We started off our production trip to Reno thinking bowling, lots of arcades and fun family activities and maybe a few outdoor experiences. But it ended up as much more than that...a true something-for-everyone, loads of fun family destination!

Day 1: We started off Reno just how we thought we would. We hit the arcade, played some laser tag, then went to Coconut Bowl and did some glow bowling and glow in the dark miniature golf followed by some go kart racing and indoor rock climbing at Rock Sport. Enough family fun in our first three hours to last a whole vacation. The kids, of course, LOVED it! And we all enjoyed some great family fun time. But I was left wondering what Reno was like on the outside? Were arcades all there was to this family vacation? Day 2 would answer that question.

Day 2: We began the day with an early morning at The Great Reno Balloon Race (Reno's event calendar is filled with fun family-friendly events: Reno Events ) where we got to go up on a tethered hot-air balloon. The views over Reno were amazing. I never realized how green it is along the Truckee River and the tall, rugged mountains that form lake Tahoe are incredible! After the balloon, we headed to a couple of cool Reno museums: Wilbur D. May Center and The National Automobile Museum, where the kids were revved up to dress up in period costumes and pretend to drive a Model T. But the river was calling us, so in the afternoon, we rented a bike and a boat with Sierra Adventures. After riding bikes down the Truckee River Path to Reno Whitewater Park, we boarded a raft and learned to ride the waves...forward paddle! Paddling through an urban setting was surreal, with tall buildings and urban parks lining the shores...a really unique experience. The small rapids in Reno Whitewater Park provided the perfect combination of adrenaline pumping excitement and safety-conscious fun. If you are looking for a more natural setting, the Upper Truckee cuts through the Sierra Nevada and provides more challenging rapids and beautiful scenery.

Day 3: Northern Nevada is famous for its wild mustangs, but this morning we decided to befriend a couple of their tamer cousins with a horseback ride with Verdi Trails West. The horses were super friendly...Nathan even commented "These are the best trained horses I've ever ridden." The boys had fun trying to pass each other and we all enjoyed the scenery through the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. After lunch, we headed to Virginia City for a different type of race...camel races. After exploring Virginia City's Old West history at the old school house, a cowboy gun show, riding the V & T Railroad (where we actually got to sit in the engine) and then joining the town parade, we headed down to the race track to watch camels and ostriches. Jockeyed by a brave group of volunteer jockeys, the camels speed around a dirt track. Kids get in on the action herding chickens and emu around the track. Nathan and Seamus loved petting the camels, and they even got to ride them during an intermission, but they're not quite ready for racing them yet. It's amazing how fast those camels get's a wonder any of the riders can hold on!

Our days were packed with fun outdoor activities, but what about the evenings? There's plenty for families then too. One afternoon, we set sail on Lake Tahoe for a two hour tour of the crystal clear waters and pine-tree lined shores of America's second deepest lake. The scenery is amazing...there's a reason they say "Keep Tahoe Blue". The blue waters fade into the distant shore where blue-green pine trees stand guard in front of purple-blue mountains. Another evening, the magic came alive under the Big Circus Circus Reno. The kids had a ball playing carnival games and everyone enjoyed the circus acts like Chinese acrobats and JR's Best Friends, a dog show. The kids even got to participate in the dog show and JR turned a little dog into Seamus! Magic and pets...I don't know a better combo for kids!

Day 4: Just as I thought I'd gotten a read on what Reno is like, it changed on me again. On our last day, we visited Animal Ark, an animal rescue zoo. The animals at the zoo range from local birds and mammals like mountain lions and black bears to exotic species like tigers. The park has a conservation focus and taught us lots about all the different animals and their environments.

We felt the magic of Reno in so many ways, Old West shoot outs in Virginia City, outdoor fun along the Truckee River and horseback riding through the foothills, plus the magic of stage and lights at Circus Circus and the glittering waters of Lake Tahoe. For more information or to feel the family magic in Reno, visit Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Lessons Gleaned from Student Mugshots

Last week was our first week of class.  And like I did with my first crop of students last year, the first day saw me playing host to a Q&A session from my students.  First, I had them give a self-introduction, then helped them choose an English name. Afterward, I made them pose with said names for a photo to allow me to connect their new names with their faces more easily.  Then came the panel discussion where the topic felt more than a bit self-serving.  More often than not, the questions were not particularly beguiling—most revolved around my perceived differences between America and China, whether I liked the taste of Chinese food, some general details about my academic and personal background, where I've been in China and abroad, whether I've adjusted to life at the university, and if I'm able to eat with chopsticks. 

But every now and then, your students will surprise you.  If nothing else, their questions, in conjunction with their mugshots, gave me more insight into their collective psyche.  I don't consider myself much of a portrait photographer, but these are a sampling of some of the most interesting.

This month I am temporarily teaching two additional classes as a substitute for the final foreign teacher who is expected to arrive in Taigu sometime in October.  Their English level is on the whole not as good as that of my regular students, but the Office was desperate, and I'm getting paid a hefty bonus to do it.  Both classes were previously Gerald's, some of whom I knew only in the context of dance parties and social gatherings last year.  They seemed to remember me just as well.

What never fails to go unasked in each of my classes is the classic, “do you have a girlfriend?” question, to which I respond with, “it's a secret,” to mild irritation and fits of laughter.  However, with my first class I made the mistake of saying that I would tell them later.  Virginia, one of the feistiest and most free-thinking students in the class, asked me again before I dismissed class, “so, are you or are you not available?”  I had to tell her the truth.

What amazed me was how differently each student reacted to my impromptu photo shoot.  Since this was the first criterion with which I could use to judge them, I figured that most students would want to make a good impression.  But where some smiled brightly and struck a pose, just as many were shy, gawky, or merely devoid of life.  To put it simply, some treated it like a birthday still, others, like they had waited for six hours at the DMV, and still more, like they were posing for their middle school yearbook photo.

A lesson on name choosing: Candy is not a stripper name.  Neither is Cherry, Angel, Lotus, Snow, or Sky.  Spring is a boy's name.  As are Breath, Caitlin, and Dandelion.  Obama is a mild-mannered sophomore who sits in the back of the class and doodles on his homework.  Salt, Water, Rock, and Sea, are no longer strictly elements of the natural world.  Never underestimate the power of a student's imagination.

What struck me most about Monet was not the way he looked or carried himself, and certainly not his English level (which was nearly non-existent), but the style that he seemed to exude.  It was no surprise then to discover that he was an art major, the first of any student I've taught.  He studied drawing and painting as an undergrad and wanted a name to suit his personality.  And thus Monet was born.

“This woman in the picture, is that your—”
“Yes, that's my mother.”
(Collective intake of breath.)
“But she looks Chinese.”
“She is Chinese.”
(Collective gasp.)
“And that old man hugging you in the other picture—”
“He's my father.”
“So you're—”
“Half-Chinese and half-American.”
(Excited whispers and applause.)
“Oh.” (Beat.) “Your mother is very pretty.”

One student refused to have his picture taken in conjunction with his name, sighting the generally unsavory connection between a picture of a student holding a name placard and the mugshots of hardened criminals from American movies he had seen.  At his request, I allowed him to take his picture without it.

Never let your approval for the name “Apple” be overstated.  Then you might have three or four of her neighboring classmates all vying for the names of other fruits, with one of them sorely mouthing in Chinese that she had wanted to be Apple all along before some girl stole it from under her.  “Peach,” evidently, is not pleasing to the ear.  But “Grape” is.  Go figure.

One student asked me, “if there were only two girls left in the world—a Chinese girl and a Japanese girl—which one would you choose?”  It was supposed to play on the negative opinion our students generally hold of their neighbors to the east, but I was too smart to bite.  Both, I thought to myself.  After all, I have to repopulate the Earth.


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