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.

Image

View of main library from my classroom

Image

Image

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

Image

Linyi Public Library by People’s Square

Image

Belles Shopping Plaza, Linyi’s newest mall


Statue of Wang Xizhi (王羲之)
Image

New high-rises going up overlooking Calligraphy Square

Image

Image

Arch at Calligraphy Square honoring Wang Xizhi (王羲之)

Image

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

Advertisements

I never thought that I would be writing about 9/11 nearly 11 years after it happened and while sitting in Linyi, but here I go.  It all started yesterday when Ms. Jiang, the woman from Linyi University who is responsible for the international programs, picked us up for a farewell dinner.  She took us on a scenic tour of the city along the river and then down some side streets that I had not been down, including one that went past one of the best schools in Linyi.  Like most Chinese cities, there were quite a few plots of land cleared of old buildings and waiting for new ones to take their place.  As we were driving down the street, one of the plots still had debris from the previous building that had been demolished, including a large portion of the front of what looked like a two or three story market.  From the back seat of the car, John (one of the other professors from UNH), remarked to me that I probably had not seen anything like that (meaning the demolished building) since September 11th.  As soon as I heard his comment, I had a visceral reaction.  I tensed up, turned around, and told him that I thought his comment was highly inappropriate and not something that I expected to hear out of his mouth.  What was most remarkable was that he did not apologize or even act as if he realized that his comment had affected me deeply.  He just continued prattling on about how there were so few new buildings in New York and even went so far as to ask me where I was for 9/11.

Yesterday’s incident instantly took me back to that time.  I was living in Hong Kong at the time, working as an investment banker at Salomon/Citigroup, and it was evening in HK when the events transpired back in New York on what was a most perfect late summer day.  Being 7000 miles from home when something unprecedented of that magnitude happens is indescribable, so I am not even going to try.  What I can do is tell you what happened in my office in Hong Kong because of course we were working past 8pm on a Tuesday night as investment bankers.  As word of the attacks spread, most of us were either on the phone trying to connect with loved ones back in the States or watching the events live on big projection screens in one of our conference rooms.  The Hong Kong office of Salomon had quite a few Chinese nationals working there and they were also watching the events unfold back in New York.  When the first tower fell, many of these Chinese bankers began clapping and cheering as if their national soccer team had won the World Cup, like what was happening was some spectator sport.  One of my American colleagues was so angry at the combination of the towers collapsing and the apparent glee of the Chinese bankers that he punched a wall.  I also remember feeling angry and intensely American at that moment, scared of what this moment meant for the future of my country and wholly cut off from my Chinese colleagues.

John’s comment yesterday immediately brought me back to that moment when my Chinese colleagues were clapping and cheering as the first tower fell and I felt alone.  In all my time back in China since that moment, even when U.S. – China relations were at low points, when I would be asked where I was from and I replied “America” or 美国 (Meiguo, meaning beautiful country), the reaction was always largely positive.  I am not one for the sacred or taboo, but to joke about an event like 9/11 feels like crossing some invisible line.  Perhaps I am overreacting, but I just think back to that day many years ago when there was a feeling of glee from my Chinese colleagues that America had received her comeuppance and I wonder if that feeling still persists among Chinese people.  Having lived abroad relatively long periods, I have learned that many people are able to separate their love of Americans and all things American from their distaste for the country’s leaders and policies, something especially apparent during the Bush years.  But how sincere is this separation and what is to prevent distaste for one from seeping into the other.  Whenever I travel and live abroad, I try to be the best ambassador for the States that I can be, taking a balanced view to America’s policies and avoiding any of the typical “Ugly American” behavior.  Yet sometimes I cannot avoid this feeling of intense patriotism and the need to defend my country from unwarranted attacks, which is not something that easily jives with my liberal and largely unpatriotic tendencies.  The fact that John, someone who made the choice to leave China to raise his family in the States with a job in American academia, a comfortable existence in suburban Connecticut, and a son at a top American college would choose to make such an insensitive comment just baffles me.

The comment also raises the larger issue that I touched on before about whether the professed love of America by the average Chinese person is genuine.  It also raises the question about soft power, which I think is one of America’s greatest tools in its foreign policy arsenal.  American brands and culture are everywhere around the world and have pervaded even the most remote corners of the planet.  We all have a story about being in the middle of nowhere and then stumbling upon something that reminds them at home, whether it’s a song, movie, or product.  Secretary of State Clinton has made repeated comments about the strength of American soft power and its importance in the overarching umbrella of American foreign policy, but those more hawkish on American foreign policy tend to pooh-pooh this part of our diplomatic efforts.  Living and visiting China, I think it’s folly to downplay the importance of soft power.  If it was not important, China would not be trying to do the same thing and harness its soft power to extend its influence around the world.  It’s why Xinhua, the Chinese government’s news agency, opened its North American headquarters in New York’s Times Square in 2011 and announced plans to launch a 24-hour global English-language news channel.  When our main rival is seeking to project its own soft power around the world, I think it’s a clear sign that this part of foreign policy should not be ignored.

All of the various exchanges that American institutions and companies have established with Chinese counterparts are part of extending the reach of soft power and provide tangible and meaningful interactions for many Chinese people who only know about Americans from what they see in movies and TV shows.  Will more soft power eliminate reactions like those from my Chinese colleagues all those years ago when the Twin Towers collapsed?  Perhaps not completely, but such power will go a long to building links between people and tapping into that universal human feeling of sympathy and understanding.  As for John’s comment, he’s a nice guy and has been very welcoming, so I am not taking it personally, but I must admit that I did look at him a little differently when we met to go to class this morning.  I think my change in how I view him is merely because I am just incredulous that someone could make a comment like that, especially to an American who he knows has strong ties to New York.

I’m back in Linyi after a three day weekend in Shanghai and determined to finish what I started over five hours ago over a coffee at a Wagas in Shanghai and then tried to finish in the airport, but to no avail when my flight actually left ten minutes early.

When I exited the airport in Linyi, there was a row of taxis just sitting there with the engines off and the drivers gathered in a circle talking.  Unlike taxis at airports in the States, these guys were just waiting to screw around with me.  I went to the first taxi in the queue and he offered to take me to my hotel for 80 renminbi.  I knew the trip to the airport last Thursday was only 45 renminbi, so there was no way I was going to pay nearly double for the same trip.  I went down the line and asked if they would use the meter and they said they would, but then would quote me an exorbitant price.  Frustration setting in, I found a cabbie who was honest and willing to take me to my hotel with a meter running.  The cost to get back?  30 renminbi.

I am beginning my final week of teaching tomorrow and it’s not even a full week because Thursday is going to be wrap-up/review and Friday I am giving my final.  Then it’s off to Hong Kong Saturday.  But that’s next weekend, so I am going to focus on sucking up as much of Linyi as possible in the remaining days.

Shanghai was great for a quick weekend getaway.  My time in the city felt so disconnected from the previous two weeks in Linyi and even different than the few days I spent in Beijing at the start of my trip.  Having already seen two of China’s “showcase” cities, I am going to end my time away in Hong Kong, arguably the third such “showcase” city.  What’s interesting is that two of the three have strong historical foreign influences (Shanghai and Hong Kong) and today remain meccas for expats looking to set up shop in Asia, so whenever I am in places like Shanghai or Hong Kong, I am always wondering how Chinese these cities really are.  Having not been back in Hong Kong for nearly two years, I am going to reserve judgment on that locale, but will most certainly weigh in once I am there.

Before I launch into my Shanghai thoughts, I must say I am amazed at how prevalent wifi is in China.  Two years ago Starbucks, hotels, and a few trendy cafes would have offered it.  But now it’s everywhere.  Hotels offer for free, most restaurants and cafes have networks set up, and even in the lobby of my hotel in Linyi, I can get free wifi.  One thing that’s interesting, but not surprising is the arbitrariness of having to register to use the network.  The government has made a big deal about stepping up its efforts to police the internet and monitor its users.  The previous incarnation of this overbearing policy was the crackdown on internet bars, which now seem like a quaint part of the not-so-distant past with the advent of smartphones and the ability to get online wherever and whenever you want.  In public places like airports, Starbucks, and hotels you either need to register with your mobile phone number (airports and Starbucks) or click through policies in a browser window and agree to abide by certain policies (hotels).  However, many cafes and restaurants dispense with identifying who is using their network, which is in violation of the law and makes it impossible to trace back users of those networks.  Just a little musing on the whimsical nature of law enforcement in China, much akin to how mobile phone providers are supposed to take a copy of your ID when buying a sim card, but yet someone like me can wind up with four sim cards and not once having had to show my idea to procure them.

With that said, I have a lot of thoughts running through my head about Shanghai, China, the future of this country, and being a rock star expat and not all of them will make down on this page because I am still processing. I made it clear the other day that I am more of a half-assed expat flying in and out of Chnia, but walking through Xintiandi earlier this afternoon with Amy, we stumbled upon a bunch of white guys screaming on stage as they played their instruments.
Image

These guys were screaming so loudly that it was impossible to tell if they were singing in Chinese or  English. They also were not very good, yet drew quite a large crowd. If these guys were playing in Sydney, London, or New York, they would have been a nuisance. But in Shanghai expats and locals were bopping along with little kids dancing and everyone enjoying the ruckus.  Shanghai has that feeling of a city where anything is possible. People leaving behind their lives back home to start over. I noticed this in Beijing, too, but Shanghai is a far more comfortable city to live in than even Beijing.  Beijing is more comfortable with being Chinese and could be seen as more provincial when compared to Shanghai, which is open to the world and can come across as seeking to be anything but Chinese. These white guys rocking out in Xintandi, the expats we saw out at the bars and clubs last night, the 外国人 (white guy in Chinese – waiguo ren) with the local girlfriend, or the European or American with a business idea, there are so many people who have converged on this city to try and make their dreams come true.  Such a convergence gives the city a surreal feel because the energy is really unlike anywhere else, even New York with its constant influx of people trying to make it there.

Shanghai feels like it is still on the expressway of development and in the four years since I was last here, new buildings and fads have popped up creating new wants and desires.  I’m sure in four more years, there will be more new buildings and fads, but is this change deeper than just new buildings?  I’m not sure.  The changes I saw this visit are for the most part on the surface, including this massive construction site just south of Nanjing Xi Lu being developed by the same people who did Sanlitun in Beijing.  Seeing a site like this one makes me wonder not only who is going to make use of this planned mix-use development, but what it all means for a city and country that seems to be preoccupied with the next best, brightest, and biggest thing.
 Image
Image
But the deeper question that hangs over all of this development is whether all of this development will be accompanied by something longer-lasting such as a change in mindset.
Last night’s dinner was a fairly international crowd. Five out of six were American, with some of Korean and Chinese/Taiwanese descent, as well as a native Korean and myself. All but two were or are lawyers and four currently live in Shanghai with Amy and myself coming from Tokyo and New York, respectively. With the scene set, I can now discuss one part of the conversation that stuck with me.  I was talking about my students and how they were struggling with the objective theory of contracts and the reasonable person standard that is so common in American law because it leaves room for case by case analysis.  Such analysis creates a gray area, as opposed to the black and white answers I find my students are more comfortable with.  One of my dining companions was talking about providing legal advice to his Chinese clients and how even when he raises the the possibility that something may not go as planned when drafting an agreement, his clients merely respond that it will get done the way they want it to get done because that is how it is going to get done.  There is no room for the possibility of contingencies and caveats, which require thinking hypothetically and creatively about a problem.  The other people at the table generally agreed with the assessment that in China it can be hard to get people to think about this gray area when posed with questions or problems.  It’s like when I ask my students a question and they start to give the wrong answer and I encourage them to explain the logic behind their answer, even if it’s wrong.  I can see that they do not want to continue down this path if they think the answer is wrong and quickly back down rather than try to make a case for their answer.  When I have given short answer questions on tests, my students ask what would be be the right answer and I tell them that there is no right answer.  I swear that you can see the wheels turning in their head as they try to comprehend this reply.  I then try to explain that their grade will depend on their reasoning, not if the answer is right or wrong.  It’s a mindf&$k for them and I know it does not register when I explain.  I am not saying that no one in China thinks this way because that would be an absolute statement and there is no such thing as an absolute when it comes to matters like this one.  However, I will say that such thinking is endemic to Chinese society because it is the way the education system is designed and perpetuated in the workplace, village, and other social settings.  Thinking outside of the box would be anathema to the government’s attempt to control the flow of information and the thoughts formed from such information. I think back to all of my encounters with students and the difficulty they tend to have with critical thinking. It’s what I also hear from U.S. law firms with whom I speak when they are recruiting in Asia – the holy grail when hiring Chinese lawyers is someone raised in China who received their law degree in the States, or even better their undergrad and law degrees in the States. The rationale is that such people are more able to seamlessly go back and forth between Chinese and western clients because they can easily switch their mindset.
Shanghai gives off the impression that it wants to be anything but Chinese with an outlook towards the rest of the world instead of inward towards the rest of China, but is this orientation enough to change what lies beneath – a way of thinking that does not readily tackle problems flexibly and critically?  There is certainly going to be some more unpacking of my action-packed weekend in Shanghai, but now I must get prepare for the week ahead and catch up on my sleep after staying out too late the previous night and dabbling in the city’s rock star expat scene.

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.

Image

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.

I just finished lunch with my student assistant and the three class monitors.  The university has been providing me with lunch in the faculty dining room after class whenever I want it, which is quite tasty.   I thought it would be nice to invite the three monitors and Karen to join me as a thank you for their help during the class.  It was a chance to also spend time with Bob, Singer, and Victor outside the classroom and learn a little more about them since it’s hard to get to know anything about my students when there are 113 of them and I only have two plus weeks to teach the course. 

Before lunch, Karen and I were sitting in my office talking about family and being gay in China.  To be fair, I met up with the Brazilian professor last night and while he has been quite coy about his own sexuality, he told me that he had a conversation with Karen a few months ago about gay people in China and her thoughts on the subject.  She had apparently told him that she thought that there were no gay people in China and that she knows for sure that there are no gay people in her hometown of Jinan.  But her dad, who is a civil servant in the local government, told her that he worked with a lesbian and was surprisingly in the know about the gay bars of Jinan.  Such a revelation forced Karen to revise her view on no gay people in Jinan, let alone China. 

So with this knowledge, we began talking about how chummy some of the boys in my class scene and I asked her why they were so touchy with each other.   She quickly asserted that they were not “gays” and that there were no gay people in Chine.  She then followed up with her opinion that being gay is a “sickness” and “disgusting”.  I just looked on bemused and let her continue speaking.  She reiterated that no gay people live in China because Chinese culture requires people to get married and have children.  I asked her how that was logical, especially if being gay was not a choice, but a part of who you are when you are born.  I also asked her how she could assert that no Chinese people are gay when she does not know all 1.4 billion Chinese people.  It was at that point that she recanted and said that maybe there were Chinese people in he big cities, but none at the university because all the boys talk about finding “beautiful girlfriends”.  We continued speaking about the tension in Chinese culture of pleasing ones parents and being true to oneself and how difficult that is and I told her it’s just as difficult to come out to ones parents in the States because more often than not it feels like a disappointment to them when you tell them that you are gay.  However, above all else, I told her that I believe parents in the States want their children to be happy and if coming out is part of them being happy, then so be it.   From there the conversation morphed into one about pleasing parents and not making them upset.  Karen, as an only child, is very obedient and while she recognizes her own desires, she has a deep-set desire to make her parents happy.  Then it came out in the form of two secrets why she is so willing to sacrifice herself for her parents, beyond the normal Chinese cultural limitations – first when she was ten, she was nearly crippled when she was hit by a car while on her mom’s bicycle and then a year ago, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor that required a two-week trip to Shanghai for surgery costing RMB3 million (approximately US$450,000) without any sort of insurance.  She has been fortunate enough to survive not one, but two nearly life-threatening incidents and it’s because of the love and support of her parents, which as children of parents, we should all recognize and be grateful for, but it’s created such a hold on her life that she is not willing to upset her parents by voicing any of her desires.  Of course all parent-child relationships are such private affairs that I would never weigh in on anyone else’s relationship with their parents, so it’s hard for me to say much more than “whoa” after hearing that story.

What is interesting to me after that discussion is that Karen showed no interest in why I was asking about gay people in China or what it was like to be gay in the U.S., or the more extreme conclusion that perhaps I was gay.  I didn’t expect her to ask me that, though Chinese students have asked me more invasive questions in the past.  But it was her lack of curiosity combined with such forceful and harsh opinions on the topic.  She said it multiple times that being gay is a sickness that some people have and that she thought it was disgusting and immoral, but with those strong opinions was no desire to engage me on my thoughts on the matter.   Just very curious to me.  It’s also not like I came out to her, which I would have done if prompted, but I am still the professor and she is my student and there are three classes left, so that line must be maintained.

Lunch itself was very pleasant and it was nice to talk to the guys in my class.  They asked me why I was interested in China and I told them it was something I never grew bored with because it was always changing.  I then asked them if they thought the changes taking place here were happening to quickly or if they were scared of all of the changes.  I received mixed answers.  With a mischievous grin on his face, Singer said it was fun and exciting.  Bob was more thoughtful and said it was scary and that he wished sometimes things would move a little more slowly, which elicited strange looks from his tablemates.  It was at that point that I had to meet the driver to head back to the hotel, but it was the tip of why may have been an interesting conversation and makes me think about what the next generation thinks about the changes taking place and whether they think Chinese culture is immutable.  Of course to a Chinese history student, it’s clear the culture is changing with the massive economic and social changes of the last 30 years, but the strong ties to family have remained in place more than such upheaval could have potentially left them.  Karen made a comment about Chinese culture changing, but it being very slow and she is perhaps more right than others may think.  As always, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens with the next generation and whether openness and tolerance will become a part of the Chinese cultural fabric as the country continues to open up to outside influences.