My apologies for being offline the the past three weeks, but I was back in the States for Chinese New Year to see family and friends, as well as take care of some work over there and just returned to Asia this past Monday where I’ve been busy working and setting up my new home in Hong Kong.  So it’s fitting that I am sitting at my beloved Starbucks in the Garden City Mall in Shenzhen about an hour or so before I am due to move out of my room here and bring all of my worldly possessions to Hong Kong, meaning all four suitcases-worth.

Heading home for any extended period of time and then returning to China means that I have some room to process all that’s happened during the time I’ve been here, as well as answer questions from family and friends about what they might have seen or heard about China in the news.  The two topics dominating any conversations I had about China were either the stock market and economy or the continued crackdown on political and civil liberties, including the ongoing case of the missing Hong Kong booksellers.

Having some space from China, I still feel that this is a country heading in the wrong direction at the moment.  It’s not that it can’t or won’t turn itself around, but almost daily there is another news headline that makes me shake my head and wonder what’s really going on here.  The latest was President Xi’s visit to the country’s major news and media organizations in China explicitly telling them to act as a mouthpiece for the party.  This new policy is another attempt to exert greater control over another aspect of Chinese society that has the potential to create social instability.  However, like many previous moves, this one smacks of insecurity and coming at a time when there are questions around China’s ability to manage its economy, it’s clear this is another attempt to mask potential problems that may exist in the system.  If these problems somehow were brought to light, there is a real fear that people would not be happy and social unrest could erupt.  Definitely not a move of a leader in control of his country.

Beyond that, I have been thinking more about Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and other cities that see themselves as other in the context of Greater China.  Hong Kong is probably the most salient example of this trend in light of protests over the years against certain actions taken or policies put forth by the mainland.  The largest of recent memory being the Umbrella Revolution in the fall of 2014 triggered by Beijing shifting the goalposts on universal suffrage for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive.  The alleged kidnapping of the booksellers has only added accelerated this feeling of “other-ness” that seems to run deep among Hong Kongers.  However, more interesting and something that only really hit me this morning as I was being driven around Shenzhen in an area known as the Hi-Tech Park where some of Chinas biggest tech companies have their offices including Tencent, ZTE, and DJI. I saw all these twenty-something tech workers running to work and the scene could have just as easily been one from Silicon Valley.  Shenzhen is a city trying to build its future on technology and finance as it firmly sheds its industrial past.  More interesting is the fact that very few people in Shenzhen are actually from Shenzhen, so the city does not have to hew closely to a long-established culture.  Many people (mainly foreigners visiting or living here, including myself at times) bemoan the lack of a deep-rooted culture.  But my riding partner that morning who has lived here for quite some time even though she is not from here framed this lack of a deep-rooted culture in a positive way that I had not considered before.  She claimed that this lack of culture meant that the city was building something new from the ground up, which made Shenzhen much more open than any other Chinese city that is hemmed in by its past.  You can see it in all the new skyscrapers, shiny shopping malls, and tech companies pushing the Chinese innovation storyline.  But I had not thought about it in terms of what it means for a city and its outlook, as well as its place in the national narrative.  The conversation was sparked by my question about whether Shenzhen was different than other parts of China and upon receiving an emphatic “yes”, I followed up and was presented with this theory.  If Shenzhen can perhaps be added to the “other” category because of its short history, lack of a strong local culture, and welcoming people from all over China with easy access to Hong Kong, I wonder what this means for the future of the city and more importantly, China as perhaps other cities begin to see themselves as different than the rest of the country, which would be a rather backhanded way of unravelling the social cohesion that President Xi working so hard to maintain.  Something to be explored further in another post, but wanted to get it out there because it’s something I feel like I am going to be thinking about for quite some time.  But now I must finish packing and make my way back to Hong Kong.


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.


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.

I’ve been reading about the Uighur uprising and the subsequent Chinese government response with a certain amount of sadness and lack of surprise.  What I find interesting is the province’s top Party official has invoked the death penalty to punish anyone who is found guilty of perpetrating the violence.  The death penalty is a big black mark on China’s criminal justice system since the country kills more people each year than any other nation in the world and to invoke this cruel method of punishment against unknown targets is even more troublesome.

In my classes this semester we had discussions and debates about whether the death penalty should be abolished in China and most of my students said that the death penalty was necessary in China in order to promote a harmonious society and bolster economic growth.  I’m not sure about the latter point, but the emphasis on the nebulous concept of harmony that I have denigrated more times than I can count in this blog as a justification for the death penalty is in line with how most of my students stake out positions on controversial issues.  They start with a very general justification for a certain policy position, continue to speak in generalities, and then conclude without providing any concrete examples. For example, harmony as a justification for the death penalty.  Then some comments about it’s important for Chinese society to be harmonious.  Finally concluding that harmony should be maintained at all costs, including the possibility of erroneously killing some people when invoking the death penalty.  Errors such as these are a small price to pay when harmony is at stake.

What my students do not seem to get or articulate is that the Chinese government sometimes uses the death penalty at inappropriate times, such as this uprising in Xinjiang (新疆), when using such methods makes today’s Chinese government seem less associated with the economic juggernaut that China has become to much of the world and more akin to the China of the Cultural Revolution and all its attendant chaos and injustice.  However, my students do not view the government’s actions or policies through such a lens and are unwilling to criticize the government when they also depend on that same government for their jobs and livelihoods.

I understand the difficulty attached to criticizing your own government.  We as Americans seem to have made criticizing our government and its actions a national pasttime, which is also not always the most productive approach to building a successful civil society.  But at least such criticism keeps all the parties involved vigilant about trying to do better. Perhaps China will one day reach this point, but I’m not holding my breath that this day will arrive anytime soon.

I taught my last class of the year this past Wednesday and then our students threw a “surprise” farewell party for Celia and I that evening.  I put surprise in quotes because at least a dozen people had referenced this event in passing over the past week, so it really was not much of a surprise.

However, it was a very lovely and typical Chinese party long on good intentions and heart, but short on direction and discretion.  Our students put together a video farewell that consisted of all of our students jumping in front of the camera to say a few words about either Celia or myself and to say goodbye.  The video was very touching.  Then the party took a slight turn towards the bizarre.  Our students have this obsession with having us sing and dance, kind of like caged monkeys.  While Celia was giving her farewell speech, they cajoled her into singing 简单爱, a song by a popular Mando-pop singer named Jay Chou.  When it was my turn to speak, they tried to get me to sing or dance.  Singing or dancing seem to make them happy, but I politely declined.  They then asked me to flex my muscles, which I flat out refused to do.  It was an awkward situation, but I continued speaking.  After the speech, one of my students came up to me and she asked if she could feel my muscles, which was just wrong on so many levels and once again I politely declined her random request.

The rest of the party involved sitting in a circle and playing games like mafia.  At one point, one of our students suggested “truth and dare”, which we understood well enough to immediately shoot down.  Before leaving, the students presented us two binders that were really Chinese versions of slam books (remember those from elementary school where students would pass them around and write down their personal info, hopes, and dreams?) and these were filled with some heart-warming messages.

All in all, the party was a very sweet gesture on the part of our students and I left that evening feeling like I had actually made an impact on some of their lives.  Though there was no way that they were even going to get me to sing and dance for them, no matter how much they begged.

My first week of classes is underway and it’s been a week of meeting my new students (some of whom are students who were in my Constitution class last term) and introducing the new classes.  This semester Celia and I are teaching a current events seminar with an emphasis on persuasive rhetoric and a slightly reconfigured U.S. Government class exploring the U.S. Constitution, the structure of the U.S. government, and some hot-button Constitutional issues falling under the First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments.  The fear of oversight from the Party has crept into our lesson planning with moments of asking whether something may be too subversive while lesson planning.  As soon as we noticed this happening last week, we took a step back and shook our heads in amazement that our thoughts were being swayed by the Party and what they would want us to teach.  However, we have definitely decided to be more careful about how we couch certain concepts in case any of our students are spies for the Party.

All of my students are junior business students and the second semester of their junior year is when they are supposed to be looking for summer internships with companies that may or may not lead to full-time jobs upon graduating.   I’ve asked my students about their early job hunting and I am almost universally greeted with sighs and exclamations about how tough the job market is right now.  They are then quick to follow up with the comment that if it’s bad in China, it must be worse in America.  When my students answer, I can see the stress and tension underneath the surface about entering one of the toughest job markets in recent history.   A recent article from the New York Times underscores how much China’s economy has slowed down and how scared the government is of possible unrest as the consequence of being unable to deliver jobs to large segments of the population.  Many articles of this nature tend to focus on Guangzhou, where I live and the surrounding cities because this part of China was the original engine of the country’s impressive growth and has been the first to slow down since so many factories and companies are export-oriented. 

Like I tell my students I completely understand the challenge when they struggle with English because I similarly struggle to learn Chinese, I can also understand the stress and tension accompanying their job search.  When I took this fellowship last July, I figured it was a good time to take a risk and continue to explore my passion for modern China while teaching at a university, but there was no way I could have anticipated the complete fall-out that has ensnared the global economy.  Now as I begin to come back up from the plunge into the great unknown and begin searching for jobs to continue developing my career as an attorney, I have another point of commonality where I can empathize with my students – how to navigate this treacherous and sometimes scary economic downturn.

The Holidays in GZ

December 27, 2008

The Dancing Santa with Saxophone in 江南西

The Dancing Santa with Saxophone in 江南西

Thursday marked the end of my first semester here at SYSU.  In each of my last classes, I said goodbye to my students and thanked them for a great semester.  These were definitely the most relaxed classes of the semester because the final assignments had been handed in and there was no pressure to perform on the students’ parts.  With this more relaxed atmosphere, my students also decided to ask all of the personal questions that they had been dying to ask all semester:

“Are you married?”
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Oooh, your friend (who happens to be a girl) is coming to visit, is she going to become your girlfriend?”
“What are you going to do when you’re down teaching in China?”
“Why don’t pick one or two of the students in class to be your girlfriend?”
“When are you going to get married?”
“Is Celia (the other fellow I teach with) your girlfriend?”
“Do you like Chinese girls?”

My GZ Class

My GZ Class

It was open season for my students and most of the questions were answered honestly, but without revealing anything about my personal preferences.  It was nice to see my students let their guard down and all of my classes wanted end of the semester class pictures, as well as individual pictures with their English teacher.  I felt like I was surrounded by paparazzi with all the camera phones going off around me.

It was also Christmas on Thursday, which I discovered is treated as a second Valentine’s Day here in China.  Couples go out on dates, presents are exchanged, and not an ounce of religion or family comes into the day.  It makes sense since Chinese New Year (春节) is next month and that is the major family holiday in China, celebrating the coming of spring.  Of course there are Christmas decorations all over and I am sure they will be up for the next month unlike in the US where the decorations are gone as soon as the holiday is over, perhaps save for the tree at Rockerfeller Center.

Myself and the three other fellows had a Chrismukkah dinner Thursday night  Hanna and I brought the latkes and noodle kugel, while Alexa and Celia brought ratatouille and meatballs cooked in a lentil, carrot, and onion stew.  We then went to a Christmas Party thrown by some of the guys from Princeton in Asia who are here working in GZ.  Like many gatherings with a large number of Chinese people, upon walking in to the party we had to introduce ourselves in Chinese with twenty pairs of eyes on us as we did so.  All the while I was wondering why we couldn’t just walk into the party and naturally mingle.  Mind you, we also showed up nearly two hours late, so the party was well under way by the time we got there.

With the end of the semester comes grading, so let the grading begin.

Family Chrismukkah Dinner

Family Chrismukkah Dinner

Happy Holidays from GZ

Happy Holidays from GZ

Lost in Translation

November 1, 2008

Yesterday was Halloween, even here in China.  It was also my first full day as a 30-year old and I want to say thank you to all of my friends and family who called, sent emails, and posted on Facebook their birthday wishes.  It really meant a lot to me, especially being 8000 miles away from home. 
So back to Halloween, which we celebrated by planning and throwing a party for our students.  We were told by the International Program Office (IPO) that we should throw a Halloween party to give our students a taste of American culture and that is what we did.  We scoured the shops near the Haizhu Square metro station.  These shops contain every possible knick-knack you could imagine that you see for sale in stores in the States and are made in China.  There were stores selling all types of digital watches, necklaces, bootleg cosmetics, novelties, you name it.  Tucked in the middle of all of these stores were those selling Halloween supplies, including the wonderfully labeled “geak” kit, which sadly I decided not to buy.  Instead, I dressed up as a soccer player with my Chelsea uniform.  Alexa was a devil, Hanna was a witch, and Celia bought an excellent moustache and glasses combination wit a top hat.
Some students really took to the dressing up part of Halloween, but most came in their usual clothes.  Regardless, it was a lot of fun to see our students outside of the classroom.  Many of our students had a chorus competition that evening and we thought that they could not make the party, but Jack from the IPO coordinated with those students and had them bring Celia and I a cake for our birthday while singing happy birthday as they made their grand entrance.  The kids looked great and it was really terrific to see them, albeit for a short time before they took off for the competition.  We played some games including bobbing for apples, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah staple of Coke and Pepsi, and a game where everyone had to tie balloons around their ankles and try to pop the other persons to be the last person standing with a fully inflated balloon.  Suffice it to say that the kids had a good time and we felt like we at least gave them a small taste of American Halloween culture, unfortunately minus the trick-or-treating. 

This afternoon, Hanna and I embarked on a mini-adventure.  Actually, I roped Hanna into it because I did not want to do it alone.  I was invited to a “free hug” event by a guy named Gusta who attended the LGBT documentary screening last weekend.  He had asked Dr. Song for my email address and then emailed me out of the blue inviting me to this event he was organizing on Beijing Lu (北京路) this Saturday afternoon.  Beijing Lu is a giant pedestrian street with shops closed to all traffic and packed with people on the weekend.  These free hug campaigns were started by a guy in Australia and have been carried out all over the world, so this guy wanted to have one here in Guangzhou because he thought the people needed some random acts of kindness and he was hoping to get them to reject their apathy, both of which are lofty and noble goals.  Hanna and I show up and no one is there.  After about a half an hour, this guy and his friend with a camera show up.  His other friends are supposed to be coming.  Finally, his other friend shows up with some paper and markers to make signs advertising our free hugs.  At this point, I learned that 免费拥抱, mianfei yongbao, means “free hugs”.  Hanna and I are given our signs to hold high and like bees on honey, the crowd begins to take notice and flock our way.  At first some random people come up asking for hugs, but it quickly devolves into “let’s take pictures of the foreigners holding signs that say ‘free hugs'”.  At one point, I looked up and about 200 people had gathered around us with their cameras and phones, snapping away.  Some people actually came up to us and asked us to pose in pictures.  I began feeling like monkeys at the zoo who were being beckoned to sing and dance so the tourists could take pictures to show their friends and family back home.  At this point a guard, presumably from the Municipal Management Bureau, came over and told the guy that we were creating too much of a crowd and people could not walk through, so we would have to disband.  Hanna and I decided this was our exit and we politely said goodbye, but not before snapping some pictures of our own. 

As Hanna and I walked away, we remarked on how bizarre that whole experience was.  I definitely did not expect the people of Guangzhou to be so fascinated by two foreigners holding signs advertising free hugs that they would mob us and start taking pictures.  I thought that snapping pictures of foreigners went out of fashion a decade ago in big cities like Guangzhou, but apparently not.  I am also not sure if posing with the foreigners was what the founder of the “free hug” movement had in mind when he came up with the concept.  Perhaps in our own small way, we were spreading kindness and fighting apathy by getting all of these people to stop and take notice of something beyond themselves.  Perhaps our pictures put smiles on the faces of people who might not have otherwise had them.  Or we were just a spectacle and most humans love to take pictures of a good spectacle for posterity’s sake.  Regardless, here are some pictures from today’s event.  You be the judge.