Blue Skies and Clean Air

April 17, 2016

This past Thursday, I was fortunate enough to visit a Chinese school and spend some time with middle and high schoolers.  It’s been a few years since I was last in front of Chinese students when I was teaching at Linyi Normal University, so I was excited to get back into an academic setting and see what was going on with the next generation in China.  It was a quick trip to Jinan where I was tasked with presenting our U.S. schools to these students and their parents for study abroad opportunities.  I was then given maybe an hour or so to “interview” 20 or so students, which only allowed for come cursory conversations about why they wanted to study in the U.S. and their favorite and least favorite subjects.

What was interesting about the whole exercise was the motivation of these students to sit down with a random American guy and answer my questions all with the intent of wanting to study in the U.S. next year.  I needed a system that guaranteed some consistency, so I asked all of the students why they wanted to study in the U.S. and quite a few replied that they were drawn to the “blue skies” and “clean air” of the U.S.   Others extolled the quality of the teachers and freedom to do what they want in school, such as extracurricular activities.  Yet others told me that they saw a year in the U.S. as a way to help guarantee the ability to study there for college.

While it’s hard to make sweeping generalizations about what’s going on across a certain generation in a country as large as China, the numbers behind my day in Jinan support the proposition that more and more Chinese parents see educational opportunities outside of China as more advantageous for their children than staying within the Chinese system.  In 2014, over 450,000 Chinese students studied abroad, up from about 115,000 a decade ago, and that number is sure to continue to grow.  Spending the day in what is really a tier three city, but only tier two because it’s the capital of Shandong province, these kids took time out of their busy day to wait in line to meet with me and other school representatives with the hopes of spending a year or more overseas.

The Chinese government is also aware of this growth in students seeking to opt out of the Chinese educational system and is worried about Western values infecting their students. There has been a subtle shift in certain major cities like Beijing and Shanghai to discourage international education options.  In Beijing, the government has allegedly stopped approving international programs and in Shanghai, the government mandated that some programs to slash their fees closer to the level of ordinary schools, which would make it harder for them to operate.  Motivating the government is the desire to ensure that students remain patriotic, but it’s also a short-sighted attempt that goes against the wishes of large swaths of China’s upwardly mobile middle and middle-upper class that sees these programs as the extra push to get their children into a university overseas and out from underneath the constricted Chinese educational system.  Prevent enough of these parents from being able to send their children to such programs and you have another segment of the population with a grievance against the government, which is not something that they want to happen.  It’s a bit of a catch-22.  Keep students from these international programs to presumably preserve the Party and system, but run the risk that their parents raise bloody hell from being denied the opportunity to send their kids to such programs.  It’s not clear that Beijing can win and as I’ve learned about China, if you block one path, people will simply find another way to achieve the same ends.  And in the meantime, as long as there are enough kids who yearn for blue skies and more extracurricular activities, Beijing is going to have trouble preventing it’s kids finding a way to find such things.

Winding Down in Linyi

June 28, 2012

As a follow up to my last post, which was rather heavy, I thought I would use my second-to-last night in Linyi to write about more upbeat things and share some pictures of the university and Linyi that were taken this afternoon on a jaunt down to People’s Square and Calligraphy Square (书法广场).

We just had our last dinner together, me and the other two professors.  Lu is leaving tomorrow afternoon for Beijing and then Lanzhou to see her family and reunite with her son before heading back to the States.  John is going to be around for another three-week session, so I will probably see him at some point before I take off.  I have to say that it was really nice having company these past three weeks, such a different experience than it was two years ago.  The company made the time go by much more quickly and made the experience less isolating than it was last time.  Notwithstanding the 9/11 comment, they were both really supportive and interesting to talk to about China, especially given that they both grew up and went to school here before leaving for the States to pursue other opportunities.

At dinner tonight we were talking about our students and the state of education in China.  As I may have already written, the English level of my students is so poor is because English language study is being de-emphasized by the university and simultaneously the standards have been lowered for my program over the last three years.  The reason for these changes is that the last party secretary at the school was kind of a risk-taker and aggressive in his approach to building ties with foreign universities, in no small part due to the fact that he was an academic.  The current party secretary is a career politician and very conservative in how he spends money and expands programs, all done to prevent rocking the boat with the higher-ups.  As I discovered when I was teaching in Guangzhou, there are two parallel administrative structures at all Chinese universities.  On one side is the typical university administration with the president at the top and on the other side is a party structure with the party secretary at the top.  At most universities there is usually some kind of tussle at the top for supremacy.  At the better known schools like Fudan, Tsinghua, and Beijing University, the president has a chance to trump the party secretary because these schools are China’s higher education beacons to the world.  At more regional schools like Linyi University, the party secretary usually calls the shots, which is clearly the case here.  The result of this power struggle is that the students lose because they have less opportunities available to them as their school leaders choose to play it safe.

Unfortunately these kids educations are compromised long before they get to college.  It’s apparently quite common for students in Chinese schools to enroll in weekend tutoring because they are not learning enough in school during the week.  The kicker is that these students enrolled in weekend classes that are taught by the same teachers who are not teaching them during the week and for the privilege to receive additional tutoring from their ineffective teachers, they pay upwards of 500 renminbi (approximately $70) per month, which is a lot of money for families already struggling to get by.  The extra kicker is that it is the bad teacher who suggests the student enroll in this side tutoring and if the parents do not enroll their kid, the teacher will make the student’s classroom life even worse.  On top of all of this, if a parents wants their child to sit in a better seat in school, they have to slip a “tip” to the teacher to make it happen.  This whole scheme is corruption at the most basic level affecting one of the most important parts of society – educating the next generation.  If this goes on in the classroom, imagine the corruption that takes place at every other level of society.

So as promised, here are some pictures of the university campus.

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View of main library from my classroom

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View across the Beng River (祊河) towards the new part of Linyi

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Linyi Public Library by People’s Square

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Belles Shopping Plaza, Linyi’s newest mall


Statue of Wang Xizhi (王羲之)
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New high-rises going up overlooking Calligraphy Square

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Arch at Calligraphy Square honoring Wang Xizhi (王羲之)

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 Now it’s almost time for bed and my last day of class, which means it’s time for the final exam.

Intelligent vs. Smart

June 19, 2012

I’m almost at the halfway mark of my time teaching in Linyi and like most things in life the older you get, the time here is flying by.  I’m thinking back to a week and a half ago when I was battling jet lag in Beijing and calling my parents every hour on the hour from 3am until 8am China time because they were the only ones who could soothe my jet lag-induced angst.  Now I find myself re-integrated into Linyi life and constantly surprised at how familiar the city feels to me after only being back for a week and a half.  It’s still an isolating existence in a lot of ways because even when I am around people, I find myself speaking in either halting Chinese or slow and booming English.  But I will say that being back has been good for my Chinese and I find that the lessons I have been taking in New York have actually helped with my pronunciation because I am getting less blank stares upon first speaking whereas it used to take three or four tries before anyone understood me.  Of course I need to think about my tones beforehand because if I just start speaking, it has the potential to end up as a disaster.

I have some downtime because my classes were re-arranged from morning to afternoon, without any real advance warning as is the norm in China.  My writing may be a bit disjointed because there are a few strands of thought that I want to address and I am not sure if they are all interrelated, but I am going to try my best to bring it all together.

A good friend of mine, myBITblog, who has been living in Hong Kong for the past few years and an ardent and valued supporter of my writing, commented on my post last week “Fill in the Bubble” that the American media could be construed as just as controlled and controlling as the media in China and that Americans rarely look beyond the box given them.  I tend to agree with my friend that many Americans do not care to look beyond their own backyards, but I think the choice to be parochial is different than being programmed to be parochial.  Many Americans may not choose to look beyond their own worlds, but they have the option to do so.  If I do not want to read only the conservative op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal or similarly liberal op-ed pages of the New York Times, I can go out and augment those views with a wide array of opinions across the spectrum.  We may have the opposite problem in America of too much choice to the point where we can pick a news source most closely aligned with our opinions and never venture too far beyond that, but I still argue that the breadth of choice is what is lacking for many people here in China.  That is not to say that there are not bloggers, authors, and others who operate at the fringe of public discourse who present alternative viewpoints, but most people either do not have access to these voices or worse, do not care to seek out these voices.  The New York Times this past weekend had an interesting article about how Chinese writers need to be more nimble to evade sensors, but I wonder how many people actually seek out these writers who are creatively dodging the paranoia of the government to express themselves.

I think back to my student Qi Zhichao who asked me about mercy killings, which required him to think beyond the given course materials.  At dinner with the other two professors from UNH we were talking about our students and state of university education in China.  We have been exposed to the same students during this summer session, so it was possible to canvass opinions on certain students that made an impact in our classes.  If you remember, I had a student two years ago, Karen, who met me at my car every morning, helped me with daily classroom tasks, and accompanied me to lunch.  She is graduating this year as one of the top students in her class and passed her civil service exam with flying colors, so she will be returning to her hometown of Jinan (also the capital of Shandong province where I am based) to work for the government.  Over dinner we all acknowledged that she was very smart, but I proffered that I did not think she was very intelligent.  The difference being that she can take a test like nobody’s business, but she did not think beyond what she was told to think about.  She did very well because she mastered all of the courses thrown her way and worked very hard, but she was not a thinker.  Now I am not saying that there is anything wrong with studying hard and getting good grades, but that does not make a person intelligent.  Perhaps it’s the bias of my liberal arts education, but there is more to be said for someone who thinks beyond what they are told and draws connections between topics to ultimately think for themselves.  Qi has displayed signs of going beyond just what he is told in class, but students like that are few and far between.  Smart does not always equal intelligent.  Perhaps there are more of them at the top schools like Beida and Tsinghua, but I think it’s a byproduct of an education geared to massive tests that determine the next step in your education that leaves little room for people to think outside of the box.  And it is for this reason that I think the media in China can get away with just following the party line without any real push back from the general population.  Sure there are magazines and other publications that offer alternative viewpoints, like Caixin, which occasionally publishes articles from economists whose ideas on the economy may be at odds with the government’s vision.  But the overall effect of the government’s near ultimate control over the media is that a population has been trained to not only care very little about thinking outside the box, but more importantly, not really having the choice to go outside if they so desire.

The education system is one of the main tools that the government has at its disposal to control future generations.  During the same conversation at dinner, we were talking about the poor oral English skills of our students and how they have very little opportunity to practice speaking English.  Apparently the university is looking to cut back on English instruction because they do not want to spend the money, but they have plenty of money to build a new stadium that would not be out of place at a Big Ten school and a golf course in the middle of campus.

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I also found out last night that the students in my class are part of a program where over the course of four years, they take all the classes that they would take at the University of New Haven in the Business program.  Most of the classes are offered in intensive bursts like my three-week U.S. Business Law class, but upon completion of all these courses, they are eligible to receive a B.A. from UNH in addition to the degree from Linyi University.  This arrangement is obviously very good for Linyi University because they can market this program to attract students from all over Shandong, as well as around the country with the lure of receiving a U.S. degree without having to go to the U.S.  The students in the program can also opt to go to UNH for their senior year, but for many students this decision is too expensive.  Now I think it’s a great program for these students, but if their English skills are not up to snuff, how much are they really learning during the course of their studies.  I am inclined to think that as part of this program, there should be a greater investment in teaching English to give the students the language skills to back up having received a B.A. from an American university and giving the graduates greater opportunities that come along with being truly bilingual.  My students complain all of the time that their English is not that good or worse, they barely say anything because they are embarrassed by their perceived poor English skills.  Linyi University should be investing in bringing more instructors to the school to teach the students oral English to solidly position their graduates for brighter futures, but instead the president of the university wants to cut back on this item in the budget and the result will be students whose English skills become even poorer.

Where am I going with all of this rambling?  There are definite problems in the Chinese education system (as there are in the American system), but I think what I am witnessing is a tension that plays itself out all across Chinese society – how to continue advancing as a society while maintaining control over that advancement.  The government has done an admirable job of growing the economy over the past 30 years and moving large numbers of people out of poverty.  However, as the government seeks to position China for the next 30 years, it’s trying to maintain it’s tight grip on people’s expression of ideas and thoughts while moving towards a knowledge-based economy.  Maybe they can do it, but there is something oxymoronic about building a knowledge-based economy when the knowledge is not freely developed and exchanged.

Fill in the Bubble

June 14, 2012

This year has been and will continue to be a big one for China.  It’s the year of Bo Xilai’s purging from the Party, a high-level purging not seen since the time of Tiananmen in 1989.  It’s also the year Chen Guangcheng, the blind lawyer fled to the U.S. to go to law school and nearly sparked a diplomatic meltdown in U.S. – China relations.  It’s also the year of the once-in-a-decade transfer of power at the top when Hu Jintao and Wei Jiabao step down to make way for new leaders.  Reading about all of these events in the States, you would think that the country was on edge and that the tension would be palpable upon arriving in the country.  Aside from a few more police than usual in Beijing, you would have no idea in cities like Linyi that the country has been “rocked'” by these events.  I don’t even know how much the people really care about Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng, both of whom have been mentioned in the Chinese press, albeit with a heavy pro-government slant.  What I feel and hear about are the more real concerns students have about finding jobs after graduation, being able to afford an apartment in which to raise a family, and why the streets are so crowded with traffic.  I am not saying that something is not afoot in China, but I think it’s going to be problems of the average person that will be one of the major catalysts for change in this country.

When I was in Beijing, I remarked on all of these foreign influences in the form of fashion and art that I saw around the city.  Come to Linyi and there are none of these influences.  What I find so remarkable is how the government so far has done an effective job of controlling the type of information that makes its way into the country.  Go into any bookstore or browse any newspaper stand and you will not find one foreign current events publication. If I wanted to buy a Financial Times or Economist, I would have to go into a bookstore in a foreign hotel or show my passport upon check-out at a store that actually sells such publications.  Chinese people cannot buy these publications lest they be influenced by the heretic ideas contained within.  It’s crazy because everything the people know about is carefully filtered by the central government, rendering a population somewhat neutered when it comes to thinking for themselves.  I encountered the effect of such neutering today in class when I asked my students to pretend they were judges trying to figure out if I intended to enter a contract.  I wanted them to tell me what factors they would look at to determine my intent.  They were scouring the copies of the Powerpoint they had for an answer and I told them that it was not in there.  It took ten minutes before one student told me he would want to see the actual contract.

This one student, Qi Zhichao (齐智超) is the one.  When I say “the one” I mean that whenever I have taught, there has been one student who reminds me of a character in a Kafka novel.  It is as if they are struggling against the limits of he world in which they live and feel a sense of alienation, though they may not necessarily describe it as such.  Figo, one of my students in Guangzhou to whom I gave a copy of Zhao Ziyang’s memoirs before I left, was the best example of such a lost soul.  He actually stumbled upon Kafka in the Zhongda library during one of the breaks.  Figo had questions and thoughts that were out of place with his peers and as a result he felt cut off from them because he recognized he thought about things differently.  I remember during one of my office hours where he railed against society’s preoccupation with the community over the individual.  Figo was definitely one of the ones.  Qi just finished his freshman year, grew up in Linyi, and stayed in Linyi for university.  Figo came from a village in Guangdong province to Guangzhou, one of the biggest and most open cities in the country to study at one of the best schools in the country.  Their circumstances are different, but there is something about Qi.  He is the one who answers most of my questions to the class, he asks questions about the material during breaks, and he stays after class to ask questions.  We were talking about the death penalty the other day and how some states have outlawed the practice.  During break he came up to ask me about euthanasia and whether it was murder.  Such a thought is very uncharacteristic for almost any student I have taught in China because he went above and beyond what we were discussing to connect the dots and bring in a concept that was nowhere to be found on the Powerpoints.  I’m not saying my other students are stupid, I am just saying that they are usually not very good at thinking for themselves.  While waiting for the driver to go back to the hotel after class, Qi came outside to chat with me.  He told me that he wanted to go Shanghai for college to get away from Linyi and experience life, but his gaokao (高考) score was not good enough.  The gaokao is the test at the end of high school that determines where you go to college.  It varies by province, but the test is 2.5-3 days long and covers seven or eight topics ranging from chemistry to history to English.  He seemed really sad about being stuck here and said he wants to leave Linyi after college, which is uncharacteristic for kids here.  I told him to keep working on his English and then he could go to Shanghai and find a job with a company that will value his language skills.  I also told him to keep thinking for himself because that skill combined with his language abilities will make him incredibly valuable to Western companies.  The conversation was cut short because the driver began honking his horn, but I sensed a curiosity that has been borne out by his classroom conduct.  Coincidentally or not zhichao (智超) means “to transcend knowledge”, which is definitely an appropriate name for this student.

For ever Qi there are thousands of students who live in a bubble.  China feels like a bubble most of the time.  If I did not have my internet connection and a VPN, I would be severely limited in what I knew about the outside world.   Most Chinese people are not searching the internet for the Financial Times or other Western publications if they are searching for news at all.  The government has really done an effective job at controlling what comes in to the country while simultaneously shaping what the people internalize and process when they are exposed to outside influences.  I think there used to be a belief that as more and more Chinese moved into the middle class and began traveling and studying abroad, they would return with ideas picked up on their travels.  So far that has not happened.  I have written a lot about this idea in this blog, but it’s not going to be change that is influenced by external forces.  The clamoring from change is going to come about as the social contract continues to fray, that is when the government is unable to continue giving the people increases in their standard of living in exchange for relative passivity.  The social contract will fray to such a point that people will want something different because what they have has ceased to work.  Will it be violent?  Not sure.  Will it be swift?  No.  It’s going to be a gradual process and if the Party is smart, it will try to evolve from within and open itself up to greater competition to help take the pressure off of it and its leaders.

On a lighter note, I was once again given thumbs up at the gym today by one of the trainers.  Except this time, I returned the thumbs because he was working out and I was curious as to how he’d take my gesture.  If you’re wondering, my thumbs were returned with even more thumbs.  At one point I was doing an exercise for my triceps and he came over to touch my triceps as I was working out.  He then proceeded to do the same exercise and stopped midway through because he said it was too hard.  Later on when I was stretching out, he came by to tell me that I taught him something new today and that he’d like to continue to learn from me.  I learned the words for bicep and tricep, ertouji (二头肌) and santouji (三头肌), which mean two-headed and three headed muscle, respectively.  Ah, Linyi continues to fascinate me.

Until tomorrow . . .

Surrounded

June 14, 2012

Living in a city like Linyi, I imagine it’s what most of China was like 20-30 years ago when the country was just beginning to really open up to foreigners.  As a foreigner here, I attract all sorts of curiosity.  Most of the attention comes in the form of random “hellos” or other types of greetings.  Whether it’s a “hello” from the old men in an SUV while  waiting on the side of the road for a cab or teenage girls asking “what can I do for you?” as they sashay out of the hotel in their short shorts and too much make-up, I am constantly being spoken to.  Not spoken with mind you, just spoken to as if I am some sort of curiosity whose only function is to smile and say “hello’ back.

My gym is a constant source of fascination.  If I go to work out later in the afternoon when people are starting to get off work, the small gym becomes quite crowded.  I was there lifting the other night and I tend to get lost in my workouts, so I do not always notice what is going on around me.  At one moment in my workout, I looked up and there was a group of seven guys standing around me and just watching as I was lifting weights.  I demurely put my head down and continued my workout, but upon completing my sets and putting my weights away, I had to turn around and inadvertently come face-to-face with them.  I was greeted with the requisite thumbs-up and “you are strong”.  One of the guys, who is a trainer at the gym just blurted out that I had “nice muscles”.  While flattering, none of these pleasantries did much to make me feel very comfortable, so I just plowed on with my workout.  As I was later stretching, another trainer named Sun Shuo (孙硕) came over to speak to me.  He spoke English and it was pretty good, so he would speak in English and I would respond in Chinese.  He told me I was very strong and looked “very good”.  At the end of our conversation, he told me that if I needed anything, he would be very happy to help me and held my hand for a tad too long as we shook goodbye.

This brings me to something that always vexes me in China.  Men are so much more tactile here, both with me and each other.  Unlike the guard in Beijing who was pretty clearly giving me a lingering stare, Sun’s lingering handshake and offer to help with anything was most likely a polite entreaty to a foreigner.  However, I noticed in class this morning that the guys who sit in the front row of my class are always touching each other and it’s not that playful fighting that good guy friends may do with one another.  Their hands on are on each others legs, they hold hands, they have their arms around each other.  Once again, it’s most likely nothing more than friendly behavior among friends who live in very close quarters for their four years of college, but for a brief moment when I am lecturing from the stage and look down to see one guy’s hand resting on another guy’s thigh, it gives me pause because that action is not something that you would see in an American classroom.

At the end of class, it’s always a gaggle of guys who gather around me to ask questions about class or life in America.  In yesterday’s class, we talked about identity theft and I told my students I had been a victim of such an act because Yale had been careless with my social security number and left it on a database that was searchable by Google.  Seven credit cards, an ID watch service, and a police report later, I finally nipped that problem in the bud.  But my students informed me that you cannot open a credit card online in China, only in person at a bank.  It’s a smart idea and has the double-edged effect of preventing someone from opening credit cards in your name, while also curbing the number of credit cards that one can open up.  The other extreme is the American system where with a few clicks online, I can have a new credit card with a $5000 credit limit.  My students also told me that college students are not allowed to have credit cards, which is definitely not the case on U.S. college campuses.

These guys always stay behind after class to talk, which is a great thing because it means that they are curious and want to talk.  I am all for encouraging them to practice their English, especially since it’s usually the girls who tend to speak English better, and thus are more confident in their skills.  It doesn’t matter whether I am in the classroom or at the gym, I seem to end up attracting a crowd, which is not the case in cities like Beijing, Shanghai, or even Guangzhou where foreigners are a dime a dozen or they just do not care about them.  In Linyi, it is still an oddity to see someone like me.  I realized that last night when I went to dinner with one of the other instructors.  We went to my favorite Sichuan (川菜) restaurant and she asked me if they knew me there.  They probably do, but at that moment I realized that they knew me, even if just for the fact that it’s rare to have someone like me running around Linyi.

Except when I am in my hotel room, it seems that no matter where I go in Linyi, I am surrounded.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but definitely something I am not used to experiencing.  Now it’s time to head to the gym.

For the past week, I have been following James Fallows’ blog discussion about the state of Chinese education, which was mainly prompted by an op-ed piece written by Randy Pollock, a former USC lecturer who taught MBA  students in China, and shares his thoughts on the limits of the Chinese education system.  Mr. Pollock’s main point is that Chinese students are the products of an education system that “rarely stressed or rewarded critical thinking or inventiveness”.  

As you all know from reading my blog, I have been teaching for the past year in Lingnan College, which is the business school at Sun Yat-sen University (中山大学) here in Guangzhou.  I find myself vigorously nodding my head in agreement with many of the observations and comments I have read on Mr. Fallows’ blog about the experiences of other teachers here in China.  However, with all of the talk about the shortcomings of the system, the stifling effects of preparing for the Gaokao (高考),  and students’ seeming awareness of the system’s shortcomings, I think it’s important to note some of the exceptions within the system (such as the comments by Benjamin, a foreign English teacher in China) and think more about why these exceptions exist and what can be done to capitalize on them.

I mainly teach undergraduate business students (with a smattering of graduate students studying economics) who wound up studying business because they received relatively high scores on the Gaokao that deemed them too intelligent to study something as silly or wasteful as anthropology or history.  Instead they get to study International Trade, Public Finance, Insurance, and Supply Chain Management, all extremely interesting and mind-bending disciplines.   Whenever I ask my students if they like what they study, I am greeted with groans and sighs about how boring their classes are.  One of my students from last semester spent the winter quarter studying at UCLA and took classes about social welfare and communication, which she found far more interesting than her business classes here at SYSU.  At lunch last week, I asked her what she wanted to do after she graduated next year and she said she wanted to continue studying overseas.  Naturally I asked if he wanted to pursue further study in business or economics and with an emphatic shake of her head said most certainly not.  The takeaway from these reactions and discussions is that the Chinese educational system predicated upon preparing for one life-altering exam and then using that exam to dictate the future career path of its students creates a system of highly dispirited students uninterested in learning for learning’s sake.  

As an American who has gone through all levels of the American educational system from public school to university to graduate school, I am the product of all its strengths and weaknesses.  From teaching students raised in a completely different educational culture emphasizing only one right answer, harmony in the classroom, a focus on authority (the teacher), and a lack of choice or control over one’s future, my own eyes have been opened to the good and bad things about my own education.  One of the most glaring differences is that from the moment we enter school in America, we are taught to question.  Whether at the end of a lesson or throughout a class, the teacher is always soliciting questions from students.  When I ask my students if they have any questions, most times I get blank stares and almost never get interrupted during class by a student with a question.  Yet when I meet my students for office hours or after class, they pepper me with questions or confess that there were ideas in a reading that they did not understand.  I then ask why they do not raise their hands and ask in front of the entire class and once again I either get a blank look as if that is most alien concept I could have ever presented or they tell me that they thought it would be rude to interrupt me, even though I constantly remind them that we are in an American classroom when I am teaching and I want them to interrupt me because their questions indicate they are interested or curious about what we are studying.  Still, even with this coaxing, I have yet to be interrupted by a student in the middle of my class.

In my classroom, I have two simple goals: one is to get my students to either think critically about things they already know or to take an interest in something that they may never have thought about and the second is to get them comfortable to question and critique both me and their fellow classmates on thoughts and ideas.  Both have been difficult tasks, but both have guided my teaching this past year.  The first goal has been easier to accomplish because I can choose the topics we will cover in a semester, such as the unit on American culture we just completed with Hua Hsu’s “The End of White America” as  the primary source material used to spark discussion.  At the end of the unit, I received emails from students telling me that they learned new things about American culture that they did not know and found it extremely interesting.  There was one way to push the boundaries of what my students think about.  

The second goal of getting students comfortable with expressing their opinions that might be at odds with their classmates is more difficult because it smacks up against Hu Jintao’s desire to build a “harmonious society” (和谐社会), which has been successfully and deeply ingrained into the psyche of my students.  Almost every conversation about any topic comes back around to the idea of harmony and the importance of maintaining a harmonious society.  We just had a debate whether the Chinese government should provide bilingual education to minority students and the side against this proposition claimed that bilingual education cut against the goal of a harmonious society.  We we talked about culture in China, harmony was presented as one of Chinese society’s values.  Those who have read previous posts of mine on harmony know my take on this idea; harmony is the new opiate of the masses.  Anyway, I digress.  To break on through this harmonious wall, I have planned debates and simulations to get my students to think critically about an issue, and more importantly, to learn how to successfully and passionately argue for something that they may not personally believe in, while also learning how to engage and constructively argue with their classmates.  Last semester I held peer editing sessions for certain writing assignments and my students were loathe to really say anything constructively critical about their classmates’ writing because that would not be harmonious.  This semester, we had a climate change simulation where one side was China and the other the US.  To let my students playing the US, I told them that they were acting and that the more convincing that they were as the US, the better their grade would be.  The reason I stressed the acting part of the simulation and their grade was to assuage any guilt they may feel for representing interests that might be construed as unpatriotic and anti-China.  This tactic seemed to work because my students surpassed my expectations as they represented the US in this simulation.

As a foreign teacher, most students seem to use my classroom as a safe space to test out their own ideas and to interact with a teacher in a way that they would not do with their Chinese professors.  The challenge as a foreign teacher is to design the opportunities to make this interaction possible and to challenge my students in a way that is engaging and of interest to them.  From all of the previous posts I read on Mr. Fallows’ blog, it seems that most Chinese students are so burnt out from a system that cares little about the development of individuality and critical thinking, that by the time they get to university, they just want to grasp the golden ring of a lucrative job or overseas study and be done with their Chinese education.   So perhaps a better way to re-frame this challenge is to figure out a way to re-ignite the spark in these university students that gets their creative juices flowing and inspires them to work to bring change to a system that is extremely entrenched and reluctant to change.

Culture Wars

April 29, 2009

For the past two weeks, I have been discussing an article called, “The End of White America” that was written by Hua Hsu and published in The Atlantic  from January/February 2009.   The gist of the article is about an America where in the next 20 or 30 years there will be no majority group, but rather everyone will be part of a minority and the implications of this phenomenon for the future of American culture.  It’s touches on all of the ideas associated with a post-racial, multicultural, multi-ethnic society.  

We split the article into three parts to make it more manageable for the students to digest and planned three lessons around the article.

In one lesson, I asked the students to think about culture and all of the components that go into culture.  Half the class was spent just listing all of the components on the board and talking about some differences between Chinese and American culture.  Aside from the usual culprits like food, language, clothing, music, religion, and art, the students also threw out some surprises like love, equality, rule of law, and the community vs. the individual.  However, some glaring omissions from this list included politics, race, gender, and sexual orientation.  In an American classroom, these things would be some of the first things to be offered up by the students.  We talked about some of the reasons for not including these items on the list and the general response was that Chinese people do not think about these ideas in the same way that Americans do.  Government and politics are considered very far away from the day-to-day life of most Chinese, so they do not discuss these issues.  Definitely makes it easier for a repressive regime to survive when the people feel it does not concern their daily lives.  As for race, gender, and  sexual orientation, these concepts also do not concern ordinary Chinese.  Gender does not manifest itself the same way as it does in America because there is a belief that the sexes are equal, whether it’s actually true or not, and thus does not define the culture the way it does in the U.S.  My long-standing hypothesis on sexual orientation just not entering people’s minds when looking at other people was confirmed in this discussion when one of my students said that Chinese people do not think about people being “homosexual”.  As for race, my students deny it even exists in China and they view it as a uniquely American problem.   Instead of categorizing people on the basis of their skin color, people make geographic distinctions in China, such as where you were born or where you live.

We spent the rest of the lessons talking about what makes some cultures stronger than others, how Chinese and American societies define their cultures, and America’s unique situation of being a country that will soon cease to have a dominant ethnic group.  Like the article does, I used hip-hop to demonstrate the idea of how something goes from being a part of a particular segment of society and enters the mainstream to ultimately become a global phenomenon.  We talked about Chinese hip-hop, which my students knew little about because most of it is underground like 隐藏, as discussed in this New York Times article from January 2009.  However, my students did know about Jay Chou (周杰伦) who is really a really popular Taiwanese pop singer who occasionally adds some rap to the end of his songs.  We talked a lot about the mainstream and my students informed me that the word “mainstream” is a negative word in China because it is associated with things that are boring or come from the government, so people prefer to be ‘anti-mainstream”.  Yet as they are telling me this fact, none of them can name any sort of underground bands that they have listened to recently.  

In Celia’s class, one of her students told her that Chinese people did not think about culture because it has been handed down to them by the government and there is no need to think about it.  This response was full and knowing capitulation, but was echoed by my students in their comments about how Chinese culture is not all that different and most people think and believe the same things. Imagine a classroom of American students all saying that they think the same way about American culture?

This morning we talked about how white people in America feel culturally bankrupt because they are lost in a country that is embracing multiculturalism.  At the end of the class, one of my students asked me how I would define my culture.  Without thinking, I started talking about being Jewish, educated, from the Northeast, American, and a gay man, thus my culture was created from many different communities that I considered myself a part of.  Right then and there I came out to my students, something I have wanted to do since day one, but refrained from doing because I thought it would undermine my authority in my classroom.  Boy was I wrong.  One student looked at me and asked what I meant by that last statement and I told her that I was “homosexual, not heterosexual” and the conversation moved on from there without any pause.  I wonder if they really understood what I said or if it was really no big deal to all of them.  I guess we shall see in the coming class sessions.  Regardless, it felt good to get it out there since that has been something I have wrestled with living here.  It’s hard spending time in a culture where people do not even guess that it’s a possibility and if you try telling them that you are gay, many times they have no idea what you are really talking about.  This situation in class may turn out to be the latter because they really do not get it and thus how could their American teacher actually be “a gay”.  Hopefully one of them understood it and it will go viral so they will all eventually know.

After spending a week and a half talking about American culture with my students, it all became worthwhile when after one of my students came up to me after class to ask me the definition of “white trash” and the website Stuff White People Like (stuffwhitepeoplelike.com) as both were used in the article.  She then told me that after reading this article she realized that American culture was really complex, more so than anything she has seen on television or in the movies. Not only did I learn a lot from my students, but knowing that I was able to get at least one student to think more deeply about something they had not thought about before means that this week I was a good teacher.