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.

The Real China?

December 1, 2015

“Where is the real China?”

Since I’ve been here, I’ve been asked variations on this question from the American teachers at our school for which this stint in Shenzhen is their first time in China.  I struggle to come up with a good answer because I am not sure I actually know the answer.  Depending on the day and my mood, I recommend checking out Beijing for a good contrast between the old and new China with a bunch of government formality thrown in for good measure.  Or maybe I extol the history in Xian with its terra cotta warriors and ancient city walls still standing.  Or even Yangshuo (阳朔) for its beautiful scenery and Yongding (永定) with its tulou (土楼).

Maybe Shenzhen is actually the best representation of the real China. 30 or so years ago it was nothing more than a 50,000 person market town through which the Guangzhou – Hong Kong through-train passed.  Now it’s a metropolis of over 15 million people, depending on how many of the surrounding towns you include in that count, and home to an endless supply of high-end malls, one of China’s two stock exchanges, and extreme wealth on display throughout the city.   This dramatic transformation, which at this point has been noted by anyone who has spent time here or in any number of China’s other Tier One and Tier Two cities, is almost a given when speaking about China. However, the teachers for whom Shenzhen represents their introduction to China, something rings hollow about the city and the experience.  It’s not that it’s not pleasant or convenient, but it almost feels too easy and not what they expected of China.  But I have to wonder what they expected China to be if not a temple of consumerism and capitalism with very little in the way of apparent angst about the country’s problems and where it’s going.

Just an aside to note that I must give props to my dad for bringing to my attention Andrew Jacobs’ “Notes on the China I’m Leaving Behind“, which was published in this past Sunday’s New York Times.  In short, it’s his take on where China is at after spending almost eight years on the ground.  It means more to me that my dad brought it to my attention because I’d like to think that it’s my being here on the ground that caused him to stop and read it whereas if I wasn’t here, there might have been the chance that he would have skipped over Jacobs’ piece.   Thanks, dad.

Jacobs notes this disconnect between the shiny veneer of consumerism and deeper problems that lurk beneath this surface.  He writes, “[T]he Communist Party, largely through fear and intimidation, seems to have trained much of the population to channel their energies into the pursuit of consumerism.”  This sentence gets to the heart of what is so strange about China, especially to Americans who are so used to the constant bombardment of negative news that makes it hard to enjoy Black Friday or Cyber Monday.  Most Chinese people seem rather oblivious to the problems around them, including a slowing economy, rapidly degrading environment, disadvantageous demographics, and the detention of anyone who dare challenge the regime.

Shenzhen is even more of a conundrum because it should embody the idea that the further one is from Beijing, the less reverence they have for the government and its policies.  That actually may be true to an extent in Shenzhen, which is richer and freer than most other parts of China, but the vacuum that exists from seemingly not caring about social and political matters is what makes the city feel so strange.  Its proximity to Hong Kong and relatively porous border only heightens the strangeness. Shenzheners cross quite regularly between the two cities, but it’s mainly to shop in Hong Kong because of its better selection of Western good and lower prices.  Yet, Shenzheners bring little else back with them except bags and suitcases full of purchases.

To an American like myself who goes back and forth quite frequently and have been doing so for over a decade, I still marvel at the feeling of how different Hong Kong is from the moment I step off a plane, train, or boat. I don’t know for certain, but would guess that most Chinese people crossing the border just see the city as a giant shopping mall.

Foreign Policy is running a special series on education and the relationship between the U.S. and China.  Zara Zhang, a Chinese student at Harvard, writes about her experience there and acting as a bridge between the U.S. and China.  Her experience at Harvard is a fascinating read, especially as someone who has taught top university students in China.  Among her many observations, one stood out for me at the end of her piece, “If China will one day become a more democratic and open society, it will probably be a result of the effort of this large group of culturally hybrid individuals whose heads are now used to Western thinking — but whose hearts are unchangeably Chinese.”

I have thought about this point a lot and I think it’s what any Western country that hosts a large number of Chinese students at its high schools and universities thinks, too – that by welcoming Chinese students into the halls of Western education, they’ll be imbued with ideas of freedom and democracy and bring those ideas back home to clamor for change.  The question that is not answered is whether those ideas will be subsumed upon returning home once those same students start working and realize that the current system is better set up to reward those with degrees from top universities.   Another way of thinking about it is this – will coming home and joining the existing system prevent these idealistic students from carrying out the reforms they may have been so excited to see through when sitting in a classroom in New Haven, Melbourne, or Oxford?  I don’t know the answer, but I would like to see where the Zara Zhang’s of China are in ten years’ time.

Jacobs’ point that the government has so successfully turned people’s frustrations and desires for change into a force for consumerism could mean that even successive generations with more exposure to people and ideas from outside China might not be enough to correct the social and political problems that China faces if it’s to make that jump from purely an economic juggernaut to a true global power.  For those who wonder if Chinese people actually care about these social and political problems, Jacobs makes it clear that there are people who are disgruntled, but they’re powerless against the huge tide of people who would rather shop than think about what ails their country, especially since there are a lot fewer restrictions on spending money than doing other things.

And for those looking for the real China, if you’re in a city like Shenzhen, you’re probably experiencing it every day.  Just walk to any one of the many malls on a Saturday afternoon and wander around taking in the people milling about and there you have it.  Happy shopping.


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.


View of main library from my classroom



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


Linyi Public Library by People’s Square


Belles Shopping Plaza, Linyi’s newest mall

Statue of Wang Xizhi (王羲之)

New high-rises going up overlooking Calligraphy Square



Arch at Calligraphy Square honoring Wang Xizhi (王羲之)


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

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.

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.
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.

Today is the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre that took place on June 4, 1989 and you would have no clue that such an event ever took place from spending a day here on campus in GZ.  There are no commemorative events that I have heard of, the closest one being the annual march in Victoria Park in Hong Kong.  Even my students, who are normally quite cheeky with me, did not make any mention of the day.  Usually they like to goad me with comments about Taiwan and Tibet, but they were silent in all three of my classes today.  I doubt they even know much about the event given that most of them were only one or two years old at the time it happened, but I would have expected one of them to come across something on the Internet and perhaps ask me about it to see my thoughts on the subject.

The Enormity of Tiananmen Square, April 2009

The Enormity of Tiananmen Square, April 2009

There are less than two weeks left in the semester and about three weeks before I permanently return to the States.  It’s really hard to believe that my one-year fellowship and relationship with this fascinating country is quickly drawing to a close.  I’ll still be keeping my eyes and ears open while I am here, but it also means that my posts will be tinged with some of that inevitable sentimentality that comes with the end of an amazing experience.

It seems that with the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen looming, all sorts of news outlets took it upon themselves to amp up the China coverage.  Two of the more interesting pieces are the Economist’s Banyan column from this week’s issue, “The party goes on” and Nicholas D. Kristof’s op-ed piece in today’s New York Times “Bullets Over Beijing”.

In the Economist, the main argument being made is that the Party is stronger today than it has ever been and that hopes for political reform are almost nonexistent since there is no force willing or able to take on the Party’s stranglehold on power.  Kristof’s op-ed makes a similar point and reiterates the familiar line that as long as Party delivers economic growth and all its attendant consumerism, it will remain in power.  However, he makes an interesting comparison between China today and Taiwan and South Korea in the 1980s with their sizable educated middle classes at that time, which were precursors for the democratic changes that swept across those countries.  It’s unclear if he believes that China is truly on the same path as those two nations.  Without going into the specifics of why those two countries are very different than China, suffice it to say that the Chinese government has been far more effective at sedating its citizens and giving them amazing economic growth than those two aforementioned countries.

After spending a year teaching at a university filled with thousands of bright students, I have been amazed at how much their spirits and curiosity have been dampened by an education system that leaves them uninterested in all things political, able to spout received wisdom at the drop of a hat on all sorts of issues of national importance, and scared to challenge or question things as they are.  The exceptions I have blogged about are just that – exceptions.  There is no critical mass of students with such ideas and the students with those ideas would never dare share them with other students for fear of either being ostracized, or worse being turned in for having thoughts against the Party.  

On the anniversary of this sad and tragic event, I tend to err on the side of the Economist and look on as the Chinese government consolidates its hold on power without acknowledging its own past mistakes or tragedies.

I decided to go with a play on a 60s rock song for the title of this post.  And now on to the post.

So it  seemed a little too good to be true. I had a few weeks where I was able to blog from China without logging into my VPN, but today I was unable to connect without the aid of my trusty Yale VPN.

At least once a month someone asks me why I decided to take a year out from practicing law in New York to come to China to teach at a university.   My answer usually require explaining my long interest in China stemming  from college and extending through law school, but somehow getting subsumed by the realities of studying and building my career as an attorney.  I took this chance from Yale-China to come back here as part of a respected and well-structured program to learn about modern China by living and working here.  Being on the ground is superior to any classroom instruction I have ever had about China because I get to meet and talk to the people who are going to be a part of the next generation of leaders in this country.   I have been able to begin figuring out how China can fit into my longer-term plans as an attorney, which is easier done on the ground versus 8000 miles away.

I sometimes have very real encounters with people that bring my lofty reasons for coming here into sharp relief and jolt me into realizing how important my role here is for some of my students.  Last Thursday I met with one of my students  in response to an email  he had sent me last month.  Because of the content of the email, I decided it was better to meet in person instead of leaving a paper trail.  For those who don’t want to or have the time to click on the link to read his email, the email raised a lot of questions about the limits to freedom in China, the sycophancy of the general population, and the repressive nature of the government.  When I received his email last month, I almost started crying because my initial reaction was that this kid needed to figure out a way to get out of China because there would not be any opportunities to do anything with his ideas anytime soon.

We met and talked for over an hour and a half about his thoughts about the government, the education system, and the inability to express his ideas on freedom and human rights.  One note about this student.  His English is quite good, even th0ugh he is extremely self-deprecating about it.  But when he’s searching for the right word in English, he appears almost spastic as he is trying to get his words out to express his complex thoughts.  It’s endearing and something all of the other fellows here who have taught him have also noticed.  When we did satirical presentations in class, he was the student who brought in little stuffed grass mud horses to use for one segment of the presentation.  So as I write about our conversation, try to picture this student in your head.  

As we were talking, many ideas came out.  Some of the more salient points of our discussion include his decision over the winter holiday to read a book by a professor at the university about individual freedoms and the writings of Kafka and Kundera.  He said this book changed his view about individual rights and he wished there was some way to give the individual more power, but the government does not care about the individual and only seeks to promote harmony.  He expressed extreme disdain and contempt for the government’s promotion of harmony and community because he felt that it completely ignored the individual.  We also talked about the education system and he felt that the system brainwashed students into thinking that there was no other way to do anything.  I had heard this sentiment from other students in the past, but in tandem with all of the other thoughts he was processing, it created a very powerful realization for him.   He told me about how the government tries to get students involved in party-related activities at a very young age when they cannot question the efficacy of such activities because they are highly dependent on their parents and the school system exerts tremendous control over them and their futures.  He also shared his thoughts about some of his professors who tell the students not to criticize or question the government because it will only hurt their futures.  He could not understand why more people do not share his ideas, but he also said he could not really talk about them with anyone else because he did not know if they would be well received by his classmates.    

As I listened to his ideas, I was at a loss for words in terms of advice to give him.  My hands were kind of tied because I had to be somewhat careful about what I said lest someone else find out about what ideas I might be putting into my students’ heads and the reality was that there was little I could tell him that would change the situation.  Throughout the conversation I could see him chafing against a system that does not tolerate individual expression and works to leave most people believing that the government is too far away to be concerned about its activities (something borne out by my students when we talk about the role politics plays in culture and how most Chinese people do not talk about politics because they feel that the government does not concern their daily lives), so the government can do its work unimpeded.

Towards the end of the conversation, he told me that it is his dream to emigrate to the United States and I told him that such a goal should be something he keeps in mind throughout his 20s as he embarks on building his life post-college.  He said one of his professors told him that because of the financial crisis, the government will not make any significant political reforms in the next five to eight years.  The reason for this is apparently that if the government can steer the country through the financial crisis, it will be able to use this feat as justification for the continuation of the status quo.  After talking about so many different topics, we parted ways with the understanding that we would meet again in a few weeks after he had the chance to process everything that we discussed.

Walking out of that conversation, I understood a little more about how important it was for that student to have someone to talk to about these things who would not rebuke or reprimand him, but just listen and encourage him to let his mind work through these things.  But I also felt helpless because I felt like there was very little I could do to change his reality aside from listening to him.

The Gay is Okay

March 31, 2009

Yesterday in my U.S. Government class we were discussing political parties and the executive branch.  We had our students take a quiz that determines their political leanings according to their agreement with 25 statements.  For our students, the concepts of liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican mean absolutely nothing to them and we were trying to give them some context for the U.S political system when they read the news.

To give them some additional context, we talked about the traditional platforms of both parties and then had the students line up to form a human spectrum on various issues depending on whether their views adhered more closely to Democrats or Republicans.  Then we asked the students why they agreed or disagreed with the particular part of the platform.

Gay rights, specifically gay marriage caused the greatest controversy.  Asking our students their views on taxes, the economic stimulus, abortion, foreign policy, or even immigration and it was next to impossible to elicit any real opinion.  But when gay rights came up, the class burst into a cacophony of sounds.  Two of our students stood on the Republican side of the room and declared that gay marriage was “weird” and that marriage should be between a man and a woman, while supporting equal rights in other areas.  They sounded eerily like some of the Republicans in the States, though I wonder how “weird” would go over as justification for denying the same rights to gay people as offered to everyone else.

On the other side of the room were the seven other students who were quite vocal about equal rights for all.  As one of our students, aptly named unintentionally Witty put it, “the gay is okay” and to discriminate is wrong.  At that point, I wanted to shout out that it is okay and then put that slogan on a shirt and wear it around school.  Perhaps it would make some of the students hiding in the closet feel better about themselves.  We have one student in our class who we suspect is questioning his sexuality and at one point in yesterday’s class, he spoke up and declared that being gay is “normal” and there is nothing weird about it.

This debate went on for about 15 minutes and it was the most animated I had seen my students all semester.  Who knew that gay rights would be the issue to get them wound up?  The debate ended when even those siding with the Republican views admitted that society may change, which was a hopeful conclusion to the discussion.

PS – In continuing with the trend of our students testing us, at the end of class Jimmy asked us what Americans thought about Tibet and how our time in China may have changed our opinions on Tibet.  We made it clear that we could not speak for all Americans, even though our students seem to think we are the mouthpiece of America and offered some vague and nebulous answer.

This past week in our U.S. government class, we were talking about checks and balances and separation of powers between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the U.S. government.  To get the students in the right mindset, I provided them with a scenario where I was the one who made, executed, and interpreted the laws.  Then I asked them what type of leader I would be and what type of problems would arise under such a system.  Referring to what type of leader I would be, one of our students, who I have nicknamed Militant Mark because of his penchant for referring to the use of military force in  any discussion we have about power, yells out “Hu Jintao.”  I was certainly taken aback by his comparison between my pretend tyrant status and the current president of China.  I stumbled for a second and made some general comment about certain leaders attempting to aggregate all the powers under his or her control. Did Militant Mark really believe in his comparison or was he just throwing it out there to test my reaction?  Three days later I still do not have an answer to that question. 

Often our students will bring up one of the forbidden Ts (Tiananmen, Tibet, and Taiwan) to gauge our reaction. Sometimes they will just yell out “Dalai Lama” and other times it will be a fully-formed question such as, “How do you feel about U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan,” both of which prompt either an awkward pause on my part or a patent denial of any knowledge about those topics.  I don’t doubt that my students want to engage in a discussion about these topicsa, but I question how meaningful they want the discussion to be because I feel like they know I am probably going to be on the opposite side of their propaganda-fueled opinion on the issue and it’s going to be pointless to talk about it since neither side will be willing to grant any concessions.  

However, sometimes there are signs that a student is trying to express something that he or she knows is not generally acceptable and the student becomes unsure about how far to press the issue.  I know some students who are grappling with questions of freedom and democracy or the unfair repression of the Tibetan people, but there is no forum for them to express themselves and many times they lack the complete vocabulary to clearly express these thoughts.

But more often than not, the students try to test us with comments that they know are provocative and intense curiosity to see how we handle them.  I once pretended to not know who the Dalai Lama was to avoid having a conversation about him and Tibet, especially because the Dalai Lama is reviled by most Chinese as a violent devil (which is kind of funny if you really think about the Dalai Lama) and this image is perpetuated in the Chinese media.  The challenge for me is to figure out how to pick out those students who are not merely trying to test me, but are genuinely interested in these issues and perhaps want to explore and discuss them on a more critical level.

On a side note, Yale-China runs an exchange program between Yale University and Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK)  students called the YUNA (Yale University – New Asia) Exchange.  Every year there is a different theme.  CUHK students come to Yale for two weeks during Chinese New Year and the Yale students come to Hong Kong for two weeks during their spring break in March.  As part of the trip to HK, the Yale students come up to GZ for a night.  Last night, the YUNA kids were in town, led by Dr. Peter Man from CUHK (who is an institution himself and just an incredibly nice and genuine individual).  We planned a dinner and then the students met with our students for nearly two hours.  It was a lot of fun to meet the students and hear about Yale and their thoughts on Hong Kong and China.  What’s crazy about spending the night with Dr. Man and the students is that I did this same exchange ten years ago almost to the day (yeah, that dates me) when I was at Yale, led by Dr. Man with the same trip to GZ.  I’m just amazed at how quickly time passes, but yet how such an experience still remains such a vivid memory for me.  

Now I am off to Anhui province for the weekend for a Yale-China conference, which will be a new part of China for me and a chance to catch up with all of the other fellows.  Until next week.