Take our Cookies. . .Please

Back to blogging again. For a while, anyway. I used to have grand ambitions for the things I wrote, but time has taught me to temper my ambitions a little bit. Last fall, for example, I decided to start swimming again. A fine thing to do, to be sure, but not when you start off by swimming two or three times as much as you should. I was nearly catatonic most afternoons afterward. So I’m just going to write something in this blog from time to time and we’ll just hope nobody has to drag me out of the pool, figuratively-speaking.

First off: a story.

Iida, my Finnish friend and classmate, recently got in trouble for “stealing” cookies. Apparently, she was at one of the dining halls on campus that had a buffet, and when she and her friends had finished eating, she went up to get a few more cookies (four, to be exact), put them in a napkin, and sat back down. When they had finished talking and were getting ready to leave, Iida stuffed the cookies into her bag and immediately an employee walked up and informed her, rather stiffly, that she wasn’t allowed to take away any food from the buffet in a container or napkin or anything else. If she wanted to leave the dining hall with food, it had to be physically in her hand. Iida apologized, saying she hadn’t ever heard that policy before, and the employee asked for her student ID. Mystified as to what in the world was going on, Iida handed over her ID. Several minutes later, the zealous dining hall employee returned with the ID and informed her that she had been written up, and if there were any more infractions she would be. . .I forget, exactly, but penalized in some way.

I have a few thoughts about that. First of all, I think a golden opportunity was missed. The United States is one of the fattest countries on the planet, if not the fattest. I recently returned from Christmas break in Texas, and one of my abiding memories of that time was when, because time was short and Marie and I wanted to spend it with my grandmother, I got us a quick lunch at Whataburger. I ordered three standard meals (or What-a-meals, I suppose, though I’m not as clear on my Texas fast-food lexicology as I used to be), paid, and then waited a few seconds. The lady behind the register then put three, well, containers on the counter. I say “containers” because if I say “cups” you’ll likely think of a reasonably-sized receptacle for a human being consuming a beverage. A coffee cup, perhaps, or one of those blue plastic cups that seems to always be on formica tables in diners or grandparents’ houses. A cup. But what was on the counter at Whataburger looked like something you’d use in an old-fashioned fire brigade. Big enough that I didn’t feel entirely secure holding it with one hand. It was ridiculous. I tend to think if you’re going to start stocking cups in the gallon or quart range, you might as well just install a trough or stock-tank filled with soda and have done with it. Hand out life-preservers. The thing was, I saw people going back for SECONDS with those cups. And, not to make it too obvious where I’m going with this, most of them were extremely obese. (The people, not the cups, though I wouldn’t have a problem with anyone characterizing the cups as obese, too.) As in, uncomfortably so. It made me sad. Why do I bring this up in connection with Iida’s cookie theft? If any country in the world needs to have sugar and fast food stolen from it, it’s ours. So why not use our buffets for exactly that? If a student from a country that ISN’T among the pantheon of most obese places on earth wants an extra cookie, or for that matter an extra BOX of cookies, well then maybe that will drive some of our serial cookie-eaters to the fruit tray.

Another thought: people in Eugene are oddly constituted. By and large the average Eugene-ians are so nice they make Andy Griffith look like Pol Pot. To give you some idea, I just got back from our apartment complex’s laundry room, and a maintenance employee was emptying the quarter trays for the washing machines. I had just put my clothes in when he reached my machines. He said, “Here, let me start those for you,” then proceeded to remove 6 quarters from each tray, replace the trays, and start the washing machines for me. For free. That’s so nice it’s almost weird. People are like that all over town. UNLESS. . .you cross a line of some sort. Then that Andy Griffith-Pol Pot figuration gets reversed. Cyclists are the worst. I and one or two of our incoming cohort have on occasion accidentally biked the wrong way on a one-way street, or on the side of a one-way street where cyclists apparently weren’t supposed to go (not that there are any signs for that kind of thing). Other cyclists didn’t call out helpful reminders. No. They practically shrieked at us. You’d have thought we were biking around with bandoliers filled with severed chipmunk heads or something. I once had a motorist stop, honk several times, and give me the evil eye. . .when I was fifty meters from the road. I had been waiting to cross, gotten tired, and turned to go a different way when, some distance away, I got the honk. For what? I’m still not sure. Did I hold him up? If he slowed down to let me cross, he must have done it some distance away, because I didn’t see him. In any case, if you’re so tightly-wound that a few seconds’ pause in your driving schedule or a minor infraction of cycling etiquette or a few cookies taken away from a buffet is enough to send you into a psychotic rage (or into overzealous application of a minor dining-hall rule to a foreign student who didn’t know the rule existed), the future’s bleak. You’ll either be the first one eaten during the apocalypse, or the leader of the motorcycle cannibals, but either way you’re in for a rough ride.

 

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Interlude 2: The Chinese Dream, Whatever That Is

I just saw a propaganda poster on campus that said the following (in translation): “The Chinese dream, the student dream.  Let the students in the Architecture Department strive morning and night to achieve their dream!”

This is, of course, an affirmation of Premier Xi Jinping’s much-touted “Chinese dream,” which no one can articulate, but everyone can believe, thus making it either the most or least effective piece of political propaganda in recent times. Previous slogans for China, such as the Three Represents and the Harmonious Society, were clear enough. The former advocated focusing on three specific elements in society, and the latter was at least clear for those in a subordinate position, it being simply a fancy of way of saying, “Stay in your place and don’t rock the boat.” The “Chinese Dream,” though, is a different kettle of fish. By not in any way articulating what it is, the government has ensured that at least on paper it can’t fail. What would you accuse them of? Not achieving the dream? But they never said what the dream was. It’s a whole lot like the War on Terror, which as comedian David Cross once pointed out made about as much sense, semantically, as declaring a war on frustration or a war on sadness. How would you know if you’d won? There’s no more terror anywhere in the world? All the terrorists are gone? There are no concrete standards by which we might judge the success of the war, so that guarantees we can neither criticize nor rejoice. In essence the Chinese slogan does the same: by pronouncing the existence of a dream, but never defining what it is, you’re essentially telling people to define it however they want. Are you a student? Strive to graduate and get a job! Are you a worker? Strive to get a decent salary! Or let’s just go ahead and rock this thing: if you want a llama, buy that sucker! If you want to play bass for Mastodon, give ‘em a call! We’ll even help you find the phone number! What’s that? Penguin farm? Affirmative! Amateur machine-gunner! Here’s the address of an ammo dump! Or, alternately, just go for what you think you can get. For most people it might even be as simple as a restatement of the American dream, which after decades of materialism can be boiled down to having a comfortable place to live, a few kids, and watch daytime reality TV until your eyeballs shrivel. So the national vision is purely subjective.

It’s also a little sad. After teaching in China for roughly 8 years, I can say for sure that the vast majority of my students have had individual initiative and creativity so beaten out of them by their education system that they are almost incapable of dreaming of anything but an end to their studies and a stable job. And here’s why I say the Chinese Dream could be either the greatest success or greatest failure in political propaganda, because if you defer the terms of the dream to the individual members of your society, and if the members of your society all just want to have a decent home and a decent job, but you can’t provide that, then you’ve failed doubly. First, you’ve failed in enabling your people to think creatively enough to dream at all, and second you’ve failed to provide the means of achieving the only dream you’ve enabled them to have.

In execution it reminds me of what my professors at Nankai used to tell us in class. At the beginning of all our first-year courses as graduate students, each professor would lecture us on the importance of thinking for ourselves, but would then never engage us on any level, staying up at the podium, or behind a desk, and either reading from a book or lecturing us at length on some other topic. But if you want people to think, you can’t just tell them “1-2-3 THINK!”, any more than you can say, “1-2-3 ACHIEVE YOUR DREAM!” All you’ll get will be a bunch of people with the same slogan, but no new thoughts. (Which you could argue is what most governments want anyway.)

But there’s no denying it’s still a brilliant political gamble. Right now what you have is tons of people all taken up with a single word, “dream,” which is, let’s face it, one of the most potent words in any language. And if it’s successful, you’ll have tens of millions of people all repeating it in incredible excitement, without worrying about anything changing, just as you have tens of millions of Americans chanting “freedom!” without questioning either the meaning or application of the term. If it fails, it will fail more spectacularly than any other political maneuver because by making it purely subjective it also guarantees that the individual becomes the ultimate arbiter, and thereby the ultimate judge of whether it succeeds or not.

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Weird Guy With Bell, or: You Need Some Distance

You know what’s hard? Trying to summarize your experiences in a place you’ve lived for 10 years. It’s just about impossible. So I’m taking a quick break in my proposed Good, Bad, Whatever cycle to offer up some random observations from my last few weeks in China.

This morning I was walking to the market to get some vegetables for lunch, and an old man passed me on his bicycle, dinging his bell every few feet. I don’t know why he was dinging his bell, but it was a little annoying. Any repetitive sound is, even if there’s a reason for it, and in this case there wasn’t, at least not that I could see. I asked myself, a little obviously, “Why is he doing that?” That’s interesting. I know it doesn’t sound interesting, but it is. Here’s why. When you move to a foreign country, for the first year or so it’s difficult not to think in “we” and “they” terms, as in: “Why do they do things like that?” You’re curious, and whenever you see someone doing something odd or conspicuous, you start analyzing the culture a little bit, wondering how this particular individual represents the whole. It isn’t until you’ve lived in that country for some time that you stop doing that and start wondering simply why that one person is doing something odd or conspicuous. So instead of asking, in response to seeing an old man mindlessly dinging his bicycle bell like a Faulknerian half-wit, why Chinese society contains loud and annoying people, you simply ask, “Why is that old man mindlessly dinging his bicycle bell like a Faulknerian half-wit?”

This is also interesting because, paradoxically, this same lessening of the distance between “we” and “them” that comes from long-term residence in a place is also what makes it hard to live there. Weird, isn’t it? But true. It works like this: at first, all local people are curiosities, so when they do things that clash with everything you’d call civilized, you arch your eyebrows and ask yourself why they’d be doing what they’re doing. You assume things are a result of foreign or strange behavior, and that functions as a kind of excuse. But after you’ve lived in a place long enough to see individual people instead of “the Chinese,” individually annoying behavior becomes far more annoying because it no longer has the convenient “foreign” excuse. For example, the horribly obnoxious rich-guy-motorist is an almost ubiquitous presence on the streets, and by now I’ve learned that EVERYONE hates him. He knows the rules, knows the law, but can buy his way out of trouble, so doesn’t fear darting through traffic and blowing through stoplights. And I know the score because I’ve lived here a long time. And even more importantly, I know HE knows the score, but doesn’t care. In this case, ignorance really is bliss. The less distance you between you and “them” (whoever “they” are in your situation), the harder it is to just shrug when, say, at 4 in the morning funeral mourners are setting off enough fireworks to qualify our district as a war zone.

 

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The Good, the Bad, and the Survival Tips (Part 4)

The Good:

Lao Bai Xing

For those who don’t speak Chinese, lao bai xing is translated “old 100 names,” and basically means “everyday people.” Put more clearly it refers to anyone who doesn’t have enough money or prestige to get ahead. People who work and probably won’t rise above their jobs. And when I say I’m going to miss them, I should clarify, because I don’t personally think you can say you miss an entire class of people. There’s a temptation on the part of foreigners, if they’ve learned the language well enough to talk, but haven’t lived in China more than a year or two, to approach lao bai xing with a “noble savage” mentality. You know, the kind of perspective that causes someone to sigh in a world-weary, sage-like way and say things like, “Yes, they’re poor, but their hearts are rich,” or “It is only those without who truly understand generosity and kindness.” In the final calculation, statements like that are dehumanizing, reducing an entire group to a single sweeping generalization. If you’ve lived in China long enough, you realize that although there are some truly wonderful, sensitive, compassionate people among the everyday folk in China, there are also some lazy, bigoted, hateful members, too. Not for nothing did Lu Xun worry that China would descend into violent, bloody upheaval if left to the poorest classes.

Mostly what I’ll miss is the feeling of having gotten to know a culture, and by that I don’t mean I KNOW Chinese culture. That’s like saying you KNOW a person, only multiplied by millions. Impossible. But there’s still an indescribable, unspoken rhythm to life in China that I’ve become familiar with. It’s not a collection of generalized principles, but neither is it some sort of collective spirit. I don’t know quite what it is. But to give you an idea how this works, I’ve gotten much better at making everyday Chinese people laugh, and not because of my mistakes in Chinese (though of course I still make those). I’ve simply gotten to know how life works here, and know what references or cultural comments will get to people. And just as timing is all-important in English, so it is in Chinese, too. In a lot of ways, that’s probably the easiest way to explain having “gotten to know” lao bai xing. There’s a manner of speaking and gesturing, of emphasizing certain words over others, of knowing exactly when to snort and scoff at how insane a different region’s accent is, that you can’t study in a book. I’m not Chinese, and never will be, but I’ve spent enough time with Chinese people that I can feel comfortable among them. You can’t possibly put into words how it feels to have grown so deeply into a culture.

But mostly what I’ll miss is the feeling of instant camaraderie you can have at times with everyday people here. It’s a curious dynamic, really. There are plenty of everyday people who will treat you like crap because you’re a foreigner, but quite often that depends on the situation. If, for example, you’re supposed to get on a long-distance bus, but the driver’s being an idiot and making everyone wait so he can cram the bus full of illegal (but profitable) extra fares, you can gripe along with everyone else. Ditto with the epic lines at places like the notary public or a train station during the holiday. At the hospital once, I actually had a woman tell me how I could cut to the front of the line she was currently standing in. She saw that I had an edge of some kind, and figured I should know how to exploit it, even thought it would mean her waiting longer. One of the fascinating things about everyday people in China is that as soon as there’s a hideously long line, or terrible weather, or a great inconvenience of some kind, everyone’s equal. And few people endure things better than the Chinese. More on that later.

The Bad:

The education system

Several of my Chinese friends are hoping to emigrate to the U.S. in the as-soon-as-possible future, and the major reason they’ve all given is the education system. I’ve been a teacher in China for almost 7 years, and a master’s degree student for three, so I’ve seen both sides of the podium, so to speak, and I can tell you with complete assurance that I can’t wait to not be a part of it any more. I was riding up in the elevator with one of my fellow teachers the other day, and we were talking about how tired we both were, and he said to me, “It’s really tiring teaching students who don’t want to learn.” That sounds like a slam on the students, but it’s only somewhat their fault. Having been a master’s degree student, I can also say that it’s tiring studying with teachers who don’t want to teach. The vast majority of the lectures I heard at Nankai felt like improvisations, the professors having spent no time preparing anything cogent, preferring instead to just riff on a subject of their interest. For over 2 hours. One of our professors typically just gave us breakdowns of any of a number of articles he’d written. Scott and I used to call the class “Dr. Li’s Greatest Hits.” One of my classes was with a nationwide authority on the author Zhou Zuoren, and as there were only five people in the class I figured it would be a great chance to break the lecture format and have a proper seminar. That actually did happen, but only once. Due to a problem with one of the classrooms, we met in the prof’s office. The conversation was an odd thing: stuttering and barely-guided, as though our professor had never had to lead anything like it before, which in fact he probably hadn’t. He was clearly enjoying himself, though, and when I talked to him during our break he told me he preferred discussion-based classes. When I asked him why we didn’t have more of them, he sighed and said, “We have to give lectures because that’s how the university determines we’re fulfilling our teaching duties.” Given that, and given the fact that it’s that way more or less throughout the education system, is it any surprise that most students in an English class with WAY too many people don’t pay attention?

Ultimately the tragedy in the Chinese education system is that it’s broken, and everyone knows it’s broken, but no one can do anything about it. My professors at Nankai all knew it was absurd to have to “advise” 18 students, but refusing to do so would mean losing their jobs because the government set arbitrarily-high graduating student quotas over a decade ago. So they focused all their attention on the three or four last-year doctoral candidates because those were the ones who would keep their reputation. The Chinese teachers in my current department know that a language class with 30 people, conducted every other week for an hour and a half, is ludicrous, but jobs are hard to come by, so they shrug and focus on doing what they’re told, which in most cases involves an incredibly boring book and a language lab, the proper utilization of which could be done just as effectively by a computer program. The system can seem very cold sometimes as a result, but really what you’re seeing is a lot of people who are so discouraged by the way things are that they’ve created as much distance as possible between them and other people. The teacher who loves to teach, but who can’t do it well because he or she has hundreds of students and useless material, eventually just stops trying to do anything much, because the pain of going to work and failing every day is just too much. And students don’t take any personal initiative, because experience has taught them their teachers aren’t interested in personal initiative. Personal initiative doesn’t fit within the government-dictated standards. Consider this question I was asked by a Chinese teacher about the possibility of a louder, more robust class: “But how do you keep them under control?” How, indeed? The answer to that question is: sometimes you can’t. And bear in mind that teacher wasn’t saying she wanted to be able to control what the students were thinking. This wasn’t someone hoping to inculcate the masses with a passion for class warfare. Really what she wanted was a way to do what she truly wanted–inspire and help her students–while also doing what the university wanted–produce students who meet the agreed-upon statistical quotas. And of course you can’t have both. So in the meantime the vast majority of everyone involved just clock in and clock out.

The Survival Tip:

Get it right away

If you see something you like, buy it then and don’t wait. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve seen something I wanted to buy, or seen a restaurant I wanted to take people to, only to come back a week or sometimes even just a few days later to find it either closed or razed to the ground. In one dramatic case, the place disappeared overnight. That’s how fast things can change here. So if you see a good bargain or exactly the painting you want, GET IT THEN.

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The Good, the Bad, and the Survival Tips (Part 3)

The Good:

People dressing however they want

When you think about it, on a fundamental, really-who-cares level, what’s the point of clothes? To cover your body and protect it from the elements? Yep. To display color and individuality? Less important, since we’re not peacocks, but fine. To show our affiliation with a designer brand name? Not so much. My late grandfather refused his entire life to wear anything with a brand logo on it. “Why should I pay a company to advertise for them?” was how he put it. I thought that was hopelessly square at one point in my life, and now it looks positively revolutionary. Anyway, that’s all to say that when you get right down to it, the Chinese understand clothes better than westerners. I say this because the vast majority of people here just. . .dress. And many times they dress with an idea in mind that no stylish, or even quasi-stylish, westerner would ever dream of having. Is it still according to a socially-accepted sense of “style?” Yes, but what I’m saying is, that socially-accepted sense of “style” includes some truly remarkable things. Pyjamas in the supermarket, complete with fluffy bedroom slippers (yes, I’ve seen this)? Go for it! Long underwear for the morning jog? Sure! Hilarious Chinglish shirts? Definitely! (Much more on this wonderful, if unintentional, blessing later) Really: in China, anything goes. Especially if you’re old. And I personally believe to the bottom of my soul that if you’ve survived to old age in a place like China, which has seen three or more violent revolutions in one century, as well as decades of famine, oppression, and upheaval, then you’ve earned the right to wear ANYTHING YOU WANT. Leisure suit, chain mail, druid’s cloak, whatever. And really, when you think about it, why shouldn’t we all feel the same way?

The Bad:

Negotiating three different national bureaucracies

Ho.Ly.Cow. Go ahead and think of the worst day you ever had at any of the bureacratic institutions of your choice. Go ahead. The DMV, perhaps? The notary public? Now multiply that by three, and you’ll get my last few months. One of the profound truths I’ve taken away from the process of getting married to a French national, and then getting her a visa to America, is that no single country has the worst bureaucracy. I have wondered at times if there’s some kind of handbook or clinic all governments must have in which is explained the most effective way to inconvenience, confuse, or outright piss off the average person. The arbitrariness, or seeming arbitrariness anyway, is almost awe-inspiring. What with all the weird things my wife had to produce for her immigrant visa application, I would not have been at all surprised if the actual visa interview had included some kind of physical challenge, where an applicant strolled up to the window and the interviewing officer slid across a nondescript cardboard box, and said, “Yes, Mr. Wu, you can have this visa. . .if you eat this goliath beetle,” then whipped the top off and dared Mr. Wu to contemplate just how much he wanted to go to the U.S.  And for all I know, they’ve done that before. I’m just saying, it wouldn’t surprise me. Since sometime in October, we’ve had to get legal documents translated from French into Chinese, from Chinese into English, from English into French, and from English into Chinese. I’ve also spent many wonderful hours in the local notary public office, Marie has had to do some cannonball runs to Beijing for medical exams and nonsensical paperwork, and we’ve had to deal with countless people who seemed to have no clue either what to do, or how to tell us what to do. The cherry on top was when we finally got to Guangzhou, proceeded to our super-crappy budget hotel in the Russian import-export district, and I realized, purely by the grace of God, that the address I’d Google-searched for the Consulate, the one on our official appointment letter, was not the right address. Yep, there are two consulate addresses, and the powers-that-be didn’t figure that was important information. The actual interview address is only available if you click on the TINY “contact us” link at the top of the web-page, then scan through and find the address. We weren’t the only people in line who had gone to the wrong address first.

So let’s be fair, as I get ready to leave China. Yes, I’ve gone into paroxysms of rage over the utter insanity of the official bureaucratic apparatus in China, but the U.S. is just as arbitrary, and although I don’t have time to get into the French, they have their brand of insanity which is every bit as maddening. It’s a titanic blessing to have all of our paperwork finished. You have no idea. Unless you’re applying for citizenship or something yourself, in which case, you have my sympathies.

The Survival Tip:

Don’t rely on your contract

If you really want to succeed in China, be it at a university, a law firm, a corporation, or wherever, start sucking up and complimenting people early because contracts in China are completely flexible, but only for the people at the top. I’ve appealed many times to universities in China on the grounds that something wasn’t written in my contract, and was told something along the lines of, “Oh, but when it says 14 hours per week, that means an average over the whole year.” If you’ve taken the boss of the financial department out for drinks many times, and given gifts of tea and other things to other higher-ups, you’re golden; if you haven’t, then those in charge will interpret your contract in whatever way most benefits them, if in fact they don’t ignore it entirely. So sign that contract. . .but don’t count on it.

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The Good, the Bad, and the Survival Tips (Part 2)

The Good: Random Exercises

I was going to simply write, under the heading of things that I’ll miss, “Random encounters,” but really, if you live in China longer than about an hour, “random encounters” will make up 95% of your time. Far easier to just break down the highlights. So. . .we pretty much have to begin with the chain bullwhip phenomenon. Some time ago I wrote about the chain bullwhip guy. For those of you who didn’t read that particular post, this was a guy who showed up at the little concrete park (another story in itself) under an overpass with a long chain bullwhip, which he proceeded to crack by way of. . .exercise? I’m still not sure. It could be a particularly eccentric attempt to diversify the nation’s military capabilities, for all I know, and it’s hard to argue with the intimidation factor of thousands of Chinese soldiers waving chain bullwhips. I can’t see how it could be simply for exercise, since there aren’t a lot of positive health benefits involved in a form of exercise which constantly yanks your shoulder hard against its anchoring tendons. A workout regimen like that wouldn’t produce the upper body of Brad Pitt so much as that of Gumby. In any case, I used to think that one bullwhip guy was the only one, but in subsequent months I’ve realized that the chain bullwhip thing is a whole movement. I now hear people all over the city just cracking away. It’s weird and wonderful. Why wonderful? Because life with random weirdness is infinitely better than life where everything you expect to happen, does.

Alongside the chain bullwhip movement, we also have the “slam your spinal column against a tree” movement, which is exactly what it sounds like: people who stand about a foot away from the trunk of a large tree, and bounce themselves back and forth against it. No, I don’t know why. There’s also the “shout random things in public while walking” thing, which is, again, exactly what it sounds like. I think this particular one is supposed to vent negative energy or something. There’s some truth to it, too, if you’ve ever experienced the catharsis of a good shout. And I could write a book about all the weirdness that occurs in weight rooms and gyms here. The guys with pooched-out stomachs who’ve been bench pressing with their backs bent into a “U” shape for years, or the other guys who do pull-ups by whipsawing their bodies back and forth so hard you swear they’re going to fire their ankle joints into a nearby wall, or the guys who do pull-ups and chain a bunch of weights around their waists. I mean, the list just goes on and on. In the interest of (relative) brevity, I’ll stop here, but few things over the years have consistently lifted my spirits like the utter randomness in the exercise regimen.

The Bad: Random English conversations

I know this will probably make me sound like a gink, and you should know that when I first got to China, I LOVED talking with anyone who wanted to speak English. But after many years, you get a little tired of being approached by random strangers who want to practice their English. Somehow, as though there’s a malevolent but minor deity out there whose only job is to pick the worst possible times for this kind of thing, such English requests always come when you don’t want them. Like when I’ve just settled outside on a sunny day with a good book, for example, or when I’m totally exhausted from a long day in Beijing and have to stand all the way back to Tianjin (this was before the 30-minute bullet train, when standing all the way to Tianjin wasn’t a joke). Few things in those situations are worse to hear than, “Excuse me! Where are you from?”

One story takes the cake, though. My first summer in Tianjin, a bunch of us were planning a big 4th of July bash. I had to teach that morning, and my good friend Steve Chee texted me sometime around 9 to let me know he was feeling pretty sick. I got two more text messages over the course of the morning as he let me know he was feeling a lot worse. He asked if I could bring him some ibuprofen or something. I said I would, and then there was a gap of about an hour. When he texted me again, he said he was losing feeling in his hands and feet. Not good. I immediately went over there, and Steve was rolling around, moaning, and couldn’t use his hands to text anyone. I called a Chinese friend, as well as two of Steve’s family friends, and we took him to the hospital. We attempted to explain his condition to the people on call, then went to get an MRI because…that’s about the only thing they could recommend.

Now first of all, you should know there was a line for the MRI that was about ten people long. That was definitely the first time I’d ever seen a line for something like that. I was used to seeing lines at, the grocery store or a particularly popular restaurant. That there were ten people lined up for a medical procedure should tell you a lot about how things are here. Anyway, at this point Steve was in a wheelchair, and was still moaning. He broke off moaning just long enough to say to me, “Help me stand up a little; maybe it will help.” I hauled him to his feet, but I had to hold him up because he didn’t have enough feeling in his extremities to stand on his own.

And it was at that point, with my arms around Steve’s torso, and his moans of discomfort and fear sounding in my ears, that a little old man walked up to me, smiled, and asked, “Where are you from?”

I just stared at him in disbelief. It was like Steve wasn’t even there, or that my new conversation partner had so many conversations with people in dire medical distress that it didn’t phase him any more. Or maybe his state of boredom after being in a hospital all day had reached a point where he simply didn’t care what else was going on, so long as he got the chance to DO something. Steve and I might have been getting mauled by a lynx and Comrade Whatsisname would probably still have smiled and tried to chat with us. I said, “I’m from America.”

He asked, still with the same big smile on his face, “You are an English teacher?”

It was the standard entry-level English conversation I’d had with hundreds (really: hundreds) of other people, and this time I was having it with a friend sagging in my arms. Unbelievable. I stopped talking and just focused on keeping Steve from falling to the ground like a pile of old laundry.

In case you’re wondering, after spending an entire day doing tests in about four different departments in the hospital, I managed to get the phone number for a Swiss doctor who was a friend of some friends of mine, and when I called him and told him what was going on with Steve, the doctor just said, “Stop what you’re doing right now. He’s hyperventilating.” It turns out that if you hyperventilate, or if your acid levels are unbalanced (both of which were possible given that Steve had been throwing up the night before), you can lose feeling in your extremities for a while. We got Steve a paper bag to breathe into, and after a while he was much better (though still sick from the night before). More on the hospitals in China later. Yikes.

The Survival Tip:

If you like it, don’t question it – A caveat here: this only applies if you’re not that concerned with what you put in your body. Are the lamb kebabs in the alleyway grill-stands really lamb? Probably not. Do they taste good? Generally yes, especially when you have a cold beer. So don’t ask what they are, unless you’re prepared to avoid EVERYTHING, because the vast majority of affordable food in China is either super low-quality meat, or a smorgasboard of critters they’ve run through a meat grinder. Seriously, you don’t want to know. Or if you do, I hope you either like cooking for yourself or make a lot of money, because you’ll either be doing all your meals at home or going to high-end restaurants. If you plan to do anything more “native,” then set aside your need to know and just enjoy it. You might be surprised how good grilled cat tastes.

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Beginning of the End: The Good, the Bad, and the Survival Tips

You know, I really did have grand ideas for this blog this semester, but time defeated me. I even started writing a few intriguing, penetrating cultural studies, but then other things popped up. Like a trip south to Guangzhou for my wife’s visa interview, numerous  errands related to that, and, well, you get the idea. And the truth is, I just don’t have time to write what I want. So let’s streamline this process. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what I’ll miss and won’t miss from China. In the past I posted regular lists under the heading “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” and that worked well enough, so I thought I’d just go ahead and rely on that format. This time, though, I’m putting a twist in it. Instead of “Ugly,” we’ll have “Your Friendly Survival Tip.” Why? First, because there are only so many different riffs a person can compose on pollution and hideous architecture before the whole aesthetic concept of “ugly” starts to seem pointless. Second, I see things all the time that a newbie in China really should know if he/she is to survive. So. . .here we go.

The Good (What I’ll Miss)

#1:  The food – Many, many moons ago I was in Shandong province, and I taught for a semester with a much older American man who had been in China for a LONG time. Someone asked him once, just before he left, what he would miss about China. He just said, “food.” I thought at the time that was awfully superficial, and maybe even insensitive, China being so rich with culture and history. Why would you not say something about the country’s glorious heritage, or the wonderfully relational way people act towards each other?!  The thing is, what you learn after years in a country rich with culture and history is that on a daily basis you never see the culture or history. Even when it’s there. There are certainly still ancient buildings, traditional tea houses, Peking opera theaters, and the like, and those are enchanting for a while, but eventually they stop being enchanting and become part of the landscape. And the virtues you begin by attributing to the local people at large you realize are actually diffused pretty widely across the society, and that the country is in fact filled with individuals who are as unlike as they are alike. Which is how it should be, of course. One of the things I’m happiest about is that I lived in China long enough to know how foolish it is to say “the Chinese” with reference to just about anything. People might have cultural traits in common, but never to the same degree across the board, and never with the same implications. What’s deceptively profound about saying you’ll miss the food is that a statement like that is precisely what a Chinese person would say if he or she lived overseas for a while. When’s the last time you met an ex-pat who said, “What I miss is my country’s glorious history and heritage” or “I miss the warm camaraderie of the farmers in my country”? You know what you will hear? “I sure wish I had a plate of dumplings right now” or “I would kill a baby penguin for a change to have a bowl of my mom’s noodles tonight.” Maybe not a baby penguin, exactly, but you understand the sentiment. So when I say I’m really going to miss the food here, I want you to understand that not as a superficial statement, but as a declaration that, just like a long-term resident of any country, it’s the little things that make you look back.

The Bad (What I Won’t Miss)

#1 The Pollution – There really is no way to properly express how polluted China is. I’ve bought several air-filter masks over the course of the last year, and within a week even the best of them–the kind with breathing valves and aluminum clips to seal over the nose–turn a nasty gray color. The air here beats everything into submission. White shoes become dark gray, buildings look like they’re several decades old even though they were built last year, and when you wash your hands, the water always turns gray or some other drab color. In fact, if you were to describe how this part of China looks and feels, “drab” wouldn’t be a bad word. I’ll never forget a trip I took once from Tianjin to Beijing when I was listening to an album by the spooky electronic duo The Knife. I had listened to it a few times and was intrigued, but it was awfully bleak music, so it was hard to identify with. But then I stuck it on when I was taking the train through the countryside during winter, and all of a sudden the music made sense. Hebei and the countryside around Tianjin and Beijing really does look like it’s recently been bombed, and in the winter it’s the closest thing to a post-apocalyptic landscape that you’re likely to see before the actual event. It’s horrific. It looks the way frigid Swedish electro sounds. And it goes on forever. Scott and I used to make long-ish distance bike trips (50+ km.) outside of Tianjin, and every time we went it got a little worse. The last time we set out, we rode along what used to be the Grand Canal centuries ago, and which a few years earlier had featured some halfway decent clusters of trees (not really forests so much as planned orchards). This time, though, the entire stretch of trees had been clear-cut, leaving a miles-long beige strip of dirt running from the inter-city expressway to. . .well, coneivably another province. We didn’t bike far enough to find out. And in case you’re wondering, the recent “airpocalypse” you probably read about (or experienced) was every bit as bad as it sounded. I’ve never experienced anything like it. Everyone I knew had headaches or sore throats, even if they only went outside for a few minutes. Unreal.

The truly remarkable thing is why I’ve tolerated it for so long. I can remember commenting wryly in the past, with my circle of friends, about how polluted it was. We never acted horrified or concerned. We mostly just laughed about it, with the unspoken caveat that we couldn’t wait to horrify people at home with our stories. It really wasn’t until this last year that saying, “Yep, it sure is polluted today!” became a statement of concern. I don’t know why it took me so long. I mean really, how ridiculous is it to say, “Yep, it sure is polluted today!” with a grin? That’s just like saying, “Yep, there sure is a lot of strychnine in the water supply today!” or “Yep, there sure is a lot of salmonella in this hamburger!” I have no idea why I used to be like that. It’s always been bad, although I think in recent years it’s gotten worse.

People have had enough, too. Any Chinese people with money are trying to get their kids into schools overseas, and one big reason is because of the pollution. Nobody wants their kids growing up in a place whose air feels like it’s been piped in from a coal refinery, especially when anyone with an ounce of common sense knows it’s not going to get any better. Don’t believe the green-technology hype. If 90% of your nation’s waterways are so polluted they’re completely unusable, it really doesn’t matter what kind of technology you develop. Re-building nature isn’t nearly as effective as people like to think, and it also generally doesn’t happen. After all, there’s just no money in rebuilding nature. Not in the short-term, anyway. Shutting factories down and redoing them with a view towards a healthy, life-giving environment would take many years, and no politician on the planet is willing to risk having the national economy slow to a halt just for something silly like sustainable existence. (That includes American politicians, too, by the way; let’s be fair.) But there’s significant tension in China over this fact. I’ve been in China off and on since 2001, and I can tell you right now that people are a lot less optimistic than they used to be. The dominant attitude is beginning to be: “When do we get to reap some of the benefits of all this development?” Real-estate prices are still sky-high, food prices rise precipitately every year, and there still are no reliable health care options for most people. Economic figures are only convincing for so long, and then a person looks outside and says, “That’s great that we have such robust economic growth, but I’m still breathing poison and it’s getting worse, not better. I really don’t think it’s worth it.” It’s not for me, but then that’s why it’s good I’m leaving now, not later.

Your Friendly Survival Tip #1: Ask Multiple People for Directions

I remembered this when we were asking for directions in Guangzhou. I asked a police officer, who assured me the street I was looking for was on the other side of the city. I asked another person in a magazine store who assured me it was just a few hundred yards away. Marie and I walked a few hundred yards, asked someone else, and that person had no idea. We finally bought a map, had someone in a convenience store point out the place we needed to go, had another person write down the exact name in Chinese, got in a cab, and finally got there. Remember, people, that about 90% of Chinese people will tell you where to go even if they have no idea what they’re talking about, because saying “I don’t know” in China can look bad. Always, always, ALWAYS ask at least three people, no matter how sure they seem.

 

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You Only Think You Hate Waiting

Again: something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while. Recently I’ve had to go to one of the local notary publics to get some documents translated and notarized. It was quite an experience, and I would say if you want to understand anything about China or Chinese people, you pretty much have to have spent several hours sitting in a tiny government office waiting to get something done. Or if you want to broaden your net, make sure you wait several hours anywhere. The grocery store will do, too, and if you don’t think it’s possible to wait several hours in a grocery store, you’ve never had to buy groceries the week before the Spring Festival. I had to, and I experienced something I would have previously said was impossible: a traffic jam inside a store. Not with cars, obviously, but with shopping carts. I eventually had to abandon my cart and get a hand-basket, because there was literally no way you could get through the store with a cart. It was gridlock. That kind of thing is educational. I’ll explain why, with a quick trip to the notary.

Quick being, of course, the absolute opposite of what it was. The office itself was really nothing more than a glorified shed. There was a series of service windows, and separated from them by not even two meters was a row of chairs where you could wait. The entire building (such as it was) was probably 10 meters long altogether. People, that’s SMALL. And when you think about this same place being crammed full of people, you’ll get some idea of what it might have been like to wait there. I had brought along a good book, knowing ahead of time that I’d probably be there all afternoon. China teaches you to be pessimistic that way. Assume something’s going to take all day, plan appropriately, and you’ll always be good to go. Most of the other people there, however, didn’t bring anything. And everyone was involved in what seemed to be the most complex business known to humanity. When I got there, an older man and what appeared to be his son were at window three, and when I got up to finally get to my business two hours later, they were still there. I have no idea what they were doing. Registering land rights for a plantation on Mars, I guess. Most other people were at the window for a good twenty or thirty minutes at the very least. Those not at the window were clustered around one harried employee whose job was to explain to each customer what paperwork they needed and what they needed to do with the paperwork.

A sidebar here. In the pantheon of all-time worst jobs, this guy has to rank somewhere in the top ten. Imagine working in an office where no customer has a clue what to do, every affair is life-alteringly important, and no one knows how to wait in line. It would be like working as the postmaster general for the Mongolian Horde. Only with less patient customers. God bless him, this particular public servant did his job about as well as you could ever hope: he had seemingly infinite stores of patience, and spun from one customer to another every few seconds, each time with a different piece of information, and only raised his voice when the din required it. I have no idea why they didn’t have another four or five people stationed outside in the courtyard working with other customers so as to lessen the load, but then there are approximately eight million other things I don’t understand about organization in China, so whatever.

And what of the customers themselves? During my first year in China, in Shandong province, I used to think Chinese people didn’t mind waiting in huge lines because every time I was in a huge line people just stood (for the most part; this wouldn’t be during national holiday time) patiently and calmly. Nobody yelled, nobody snapped at anyone else, nobody fidgeted or seemed to be the slightest bit impatient. Wouldn’t you think that was patience? I did. But here’s what I’ve learned: Chinese people LOATHE long waits in lines. They hate waiting with the burning heat of a thousand suns. They hate waiting more than you’ll ever hate waiting, even if you visit the DMV every day for  the foreseeable future. You can’t imagine it unless, as I said before, you’ve spent an entire afternoon just waiting to do something like notarize a document. At some point in my second hour in the notary public office, it occurred to me that although I was definitely tired of waiting, I only had to wait like this once in a while. I grew up in countries where you generally just don’t wait very long. (A “crowded” American mall deserves the qualifying quotation marks around the adjective. An American mall is to a Chinese train station what the Gobi Desert is to downtown Hong Kong. People in China wait longer in lines for cheap cabbage at the grocery store than Americans do at the most crowded mall in the country.) If you’re Chinese, you grew up waiting. At grocery stores, at the post office, at restaurants, outside your classroom, everywhere. I mean every. . .where. Waiting in an overcrowded country is just a necessary evil.

And again, don’t kid yourself into thinking people get used to it, or at least not in the sense that they no longer mind it. If someone smacks you in the face with a fresh mackerel every morning, after a while you’ll adapt such that it doesn’t catch you off guard, and in that sense you’ll have gotten used to it, but you’d have to be off your nut to enjoy getting smacked in the face with a fresh mackerel every morning. Chinese people react violently or at least impatiently in crowded places only when there’s a lot at stake. So, for example, if you try to buy a bus ticket to a different province during the Spring Festival, get ready to throw some elbows, because people don’t have a lot of time off during the year, and if you lose 12 hours because you weren’t able to get a ticket in time, that’s too much. Otherwise people will mostly just mutter under their breath or vent their feelings to a friend nearby. There’s nothing else you can do, and in China that’s the guiding principle: react only in such a way that you’ll benefit from the reaction. If you freak out in a post office, it’s because the employees are sitting around not doing anything (which happens pretty frequently) and if you don’t go nuts, no one will do their jobs. If you complain to an official, it’s because your business is so important that you can’t wait any longer. Nobody rebels on principle in China. Nobody would ever say, “It’s extremely unprofessional to have only one person helping us with our business. I’m going to complain to the manager.” Nope. You cut in line or elbow someone or yell at a cop because that’s literally the only option left to you.

I have to give a shout-out to the people at the notary public, too. They were thorough and professional and even, dare I say it, pleasant. I got my stuff down and I was out the door a mere three hours after I got there, but then the wait really wasn’t their fault. It was largely due to the guy buying land on Mars or whatever, and even then, if you’re Chinese and you finally get your turn at the window, you don’t give a crap WHO else is waiting; you waited a billion years, and you’re going to take care of every single jot and tittle on your contract. Period. I can appreciate that.

 

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Spring Festival Reflection 1: Goin’ to the Country

A disclaimer: I meant to post this several weeks ago, so my apologies if it’s now a bit dated. Also, I keep promising I’ll post pictures, and I will, but I need to go someplace to scan them first. So for now: text only.

Ah, the Spring Festival, that wonderful time each year in China when you can expect to have the best dumplings you’ve ever eaten, and also to be woken up at 4:00 in the morning by fireworks that are only not battlefield munitions because of a semantic technicality. This is a good place to start, because if you want to gauge your attitude to China, and also take the pulse of the nation generally, look no further than this one festival. I was talking with a friend a few nights ago who’s been in China for not quite a year, and he told me, “I really do think the Spring Festival is the most fun holiday I’ve ever experienced, and that includes Christmas.” That’s one approach. Then there’s me. It isn’t that I hate the Spring Festival; it’s just that after a certain amount of time the massive fireworks and crazy traffic really aren’t funny or interesting any more. But here’s the interesting thing: that particular attitude isn’t too far off from the Chinese mindset itself. I’ll illustrate how this is so with two Spring Festival memories, one in 2003, my first full year in China and the other 2012, last year, which I figured was going to be my last in China but which ended up being the penultimate. So let’s dive right in.

The first was in Shandong province, in a little village near the coastal city of Penglai. When I say “little” village, by the way, I don’t mean “relatively little,” as when the Chinese chuckle about my having lived in tiny little Taian, a city whose official population is up around a million, because “big” in this case is a city like Shanghai or Beijing that has upwards of 12 million people. No, this was a village of around 100 people, all of whom were either related or at least intimate with someone in the Zhang clan. This guaranteed that my presence there was so far into the realm of the bizarre that most of the villagers weren’t even startled by my presence. All except my friend John’s aunt, whose house we visited the day after the official advent of the Spring Festival. She hadn’t been told I was coming by, and when John and I  walked through the door she smiled and nodded familiarly to John without at first noticing me, then turned to face me and started like a frightened horse. Her eyes shot open and her jaw dropped. I just smiled and said “Happy new year” like I belonged there and walked right past her. I have other vivid memories of my time there. We had dumplings many, many times, which I have no problem with. Homemade dumplings are hard to beat. John’s parents also bought several large bottles of Pepsi because they’d never met a foreigner before and had no idea what I’d want to drink. All they knew was what they’d seen on TV shows and in movies and in those cases Americans always drank booze or soda. I smiled and drank every glass they gave me, even at breakfast. Even at that early date I’d learned how important it is to enthusiastically accept hospitality in China. That was a crucial lesson to carry with me when we ate leftovers for breakfast. In the Chinese countryside you eat what you’ve cooked until it’s gone, and that means if you have a clam-bake for lunch (which we did one day) and don’t finish it that day, you have it for breakfast (yep, I had clams for breakfast; I don’t even like clams for dinner, and for breakfast it’s about like eating a shoe-sole. . .with a glass of Pepsi). Don’t let that fool you into thinking the food was bad, incidentally. People in the Chinese countryside REALLY know how to cook.

I also remember not taking a shower for 10 days because it was cold on a level you can’t imagine. Outside it was probably in the 20’s (fahrenheit, which puts it below zero for all of my metric-system readers), which is not exactly frigid, but as this was the Shandong countryside, there was no central heating, or any other kind of heating for that matter, inside the house. It was warmer than outside, but it wasn’t WARM. There wasn’t a bathroom, either. For that, you had to go to a little wooden shack with a single unshielded lightbulb dangling from the ceiling and a hole dug into the ground. As for a shower, that came down to a choice: do you take a basin of hot water out into the courtyard and rapidly scrub yourself down before you freeze to death, or do you just keep your many layers of clothes and hope they stifle the stench? I chose the latter. And that was a wonderfully comic choice because when I left John’s village I spent a few nights at a nice hotel in Beijing, and walking into the lobby carrying my military kit bag (that my dad had bought me at Fort Leavenworth before they moved) and looking and smelling like a boxcar hobo was funny on every level.

This visit was also why I started learning Chinese. No one in John’s family treated me like a visiting foreigner. When the family gathered on the kang (a large bed heated by the kitchen cookfire through a duct in the wall) to play cards because it was the only warm place in the house, I played right along with them, even though I didn’t understand the rules of the game. Uncles clapped me on the shoulders and enthused loudly about one thing or another without caring in the slightest that I had no idea what they were talking about. John’s parents joked with me and even played jokes on me (“The bus is coming!” “It is?!?!? Oh, no! I’ll run and get my things!” “No, actually it isn’t.”) as though I had been a member of the family for years. And yet. . .I couldn’t say more than about ten phrases to any of them. I had already decided by that point that I wanted to stay in China beyond that year, and as I sat with John’s family in their very simple country house, I came to the conclusion that being unable to talk with people so warm and outgoing was unacceptable.

I remember something else, too: joy. In the countryside, at least in the Shandong countryside near Penglai, though I expect it’s similar in most rural areas, the chance to link up with family is rare, and likely the only time during the year when you’ll be able to see certain people in your family. That kinship is extremely important because life is hard. Even fairly well-off farmers are dependant on the weather and the whims of the urban markets, and things can go south quickly. Keeping up with family isn’t a convenient, check-the-box-every-few-years reunion after which you can assure yourself that if someone dies soon, at least you saw them before it happened; it’s insurance and retirement fund and social stability, all rolled into one. If your aunts, uncles, and cousins still come by to say hello during the most important holiday of the year, then regardless of what convulses the central government or the local party apparatus, you’ll survive. So when you set off firecrackers, eat dumplings, and walk the dirt roads to visit the rest of the clan, you’re not just celebrating simply for the visceral enjoyment good food and loud noises provides, but also for the sake of still having family, still having a place to live, and still being able to look forward to spring, which is coming in two months or so.

And trust me, if you live in a village with no inside heating, spring is a big, big deal.

 

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Why I Like Chinese Students

Today was the first day of class for the new semester, and after introducing myself and the class (The latter took about five minutes because a speaking and listening class with no textbook and no required exam is a self-contained phenomenon; if you know what speaking and listening are, then you know what to do in class. Expanding on that would be like expanding on a class whose title is “Walking Laps Around the University Track.”), I let the students ask questions. You never know what you’re going to get when you do that in China. The majority of Chinese students are petrified on their first day of English class because although they’ve studied English for years already, they’ve spent about five total minutes actually SPEAKING English (none of their teachers stress conversation; there are lots of reasons for that). Today’s class actually did ask me some questions. Good questions, as it happens. I made a comment early on that in the beginning I had a hard time teaching Chinese students because no one talked or reacted to me in any way, so I had no idea if they understood anything I was saying. I then said that after ten years of experience, I really do enjoy teaching Chinese students.  A student popped right up out of her seat and asked, “Why?”

My immanent departure from China has reminded me of a few things, one of which is that I really do like Chinese students. For that matter, I really do like ordinary everyday Chinese people, too. What has frustrated me to no end over the past several years has not been my classmates at Nankai, or the students in my class, but rather a system which is so top-heavy and overcrowded that few if any of my students and classmates have had the opportunity to demonstrate how gifted they are. Almost all of them get crammed into whatever opening they can find. But that doesn’t answer the question of why I like Chinese students.

So let’s flip the microscope around. There’s a certain sense of entitlement with American students in college, as though higher education was one of those things that just happened, like gravity or the seasons or crappy music on the radio. This is partly because America has so many institutions of higher learning and so few students who apply to go there. I say that from a comparative standpoint, as in China it’s the exact opposite problem. American univerisities require a fairly extensive dossier of everything from exam scores to class grades to teacher recommendations, while in China everything comes down to a single exam. In the first case the institution is trying to make an educated decision between a few thousand candidates, while in the latter the choice would be impossible if it required so much information because it’s between tens of thousands of candidates. The exam system, whose specific content is new but whose position at the center of Chinese society is about as old as China itself, is intended to streamline the process. That’s a labored way of saying that your entire life, as a Chinese student, is determined by a single exam. If you get a high score, you enter a top university, get a great major, and likely end up with a great job. If you get a low score, or don’t pass, you go to a lower-tier university and end up in a factory or a restaurant after you graduate. Still, though, regardless of the practical considerations after graduation, students who get into a university in China have a sense of excitement and relief that no American student can possibly understand. This is not due to the guarantee of a great future so much as the knowledge that for the next four years life will be more free, more interesting, more active and stimulating, than anything that will follow.

That might sound odd considering these same students still end up taking about double the course load an average American college student would, but again, comparison is everything. The average American student is entering college after what was likely a pretty relaxed, active high school experience, and probably finds the academic workload at the higher level very difficult. The average Chinese student is coming off of a final year of high school in which the work load alone (something on the order of 70-80 hours of study per week, with no breaks) is a major reason for the predominance of eyeglasses. Students are under such stress, and have to work so hard, that they start to lose their eyesight. Compared to that, college life is a dream come true. You live with your friends, you get to run around campus and play basketball during your free time, and unless you do something monumentally stupid you’re guaranteed to graduate.

How does that help answer the question I was asked earlier? To begin with, there’s this fact: here, I’m needed. That sounds a little ego-centric, but every teacher and artist likes to know that his or services add something to people’s lives, and regardless of what kind of semester I’ve had professionally in China, my students have always been vocal about enjoying what I’ve done with them in class. That has nothing to do, incidentally, with whether or not I’m intelligent or more qualified than a Chinese teacher.  Think about it for a second. There are foreigners all over the education system in America, and almost limitless options for recreation and academic pursuits; in China, most students have never had a foreign teacher before, and don’t have nearly as many options. That means when I do an exercise in class that has them out of their seats running around the room, or creating a story in a small group, or merely preparing a discussion, they’ve never done anything like it. Any good educator or artist has a touch of the missionary about them, so introducing someone to something they’ve never seen or done before is fulfilling in a very different and more fundamental way than, say, a well-prepared and executed lecture in their home country.

This isn’t self-serving, either. The goals of education tend to be either too abstract or too practical in America. A class is set up for a purpose no one rightly understands, or merely to help someone find a job. Oftentimes teachers themselves are only aware on a theoretical level what the point of education is, but in an environment like a language class in China, where students come from an entirely different tradition, you’re brought back to something so fundamental it gets passed over in every pedagogical seminar: the need for wonder. I myself am a student of literature, and I maintain that if you read Hamlet or Anna Karenina or Watership Down with no sense of wonder at the feats of creativity and insight accomplished in those works, you’ve missed the point completely. I first became aware of this in Shandong province, where at my university I was given a reading class and made it my personal mission to introduce students to the sheer joy of reading. This led to moments I’ll remember for the rest of my life, like when one student read a novel all the way through in English, the first time she’d ever done that, or when another student was a ball of excitement becaused he’d gotten lost in The Count of Monte Cristo. None of them had ever had the chance to just read. Not read for an exam or read because a teacher told them to, but just. . .read.

I have come to see that sense of childlike (yes, childlike; not childish, but childlike) wonder as not an optional extra, but as key to any good class, and it’s changed how I teach and study. If you’re a teacher, and you’ve lost the ability to rediscover what you’re teaching, either through your students or on your own, then either your pedagogy or your subject is wrongly-chosen. And I owe Chinese students a huge debt here, because in opening doors for them to read and think in my class I rediscovered just how wonderful education could be. Talking about Hamlet with students in Shandong who had never understood a word of Shakespeare in their Chinese classes made me excited about Shakespeare in ways I never was in the past. Poring over Emily Dickinson in preparation for students who had no frame of reference for her poetry made me approach her in a way I never would have before.

So why do I like Chinese students? Put simply, their need for wonder, and their willingness to discover it if you’ll guide them towards it, has infused that same need for wonder into my own studies. If I’m a successful student at the University of Oregon, it will be largely because Chinese students have taught me how to teach.

 

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