The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The Bad #3 and #4

3. The Library

Why not mention the school library here? When we were in Taiwan, I went to the university library there and thoroughly enjoyed it, though I didn’t think it was nearly as nice as most university libraries in the States. My mainland friends lost their minds. “They have SOFAS!” hissed one of my friends when I ran into him there. “We can just sit and read!” Sad, isn’t it? But the Nankai library was built along different lines, presumably with an eye towards getting people in and out. No dilly-dallying. More like a refugee processing center than a library. The area with the actual books has no chairs at all, and not really any tables, either.  I have seen a few students, in keeping with the “fine, don’t give me a chair, I’ll sit on my legs” spirit of Chinese defiance, sitting on their haunches and leaning up against a bookshelf. For the record, Chinese people can sit in that squat position for a LONG time. It blows me away. I’ve grown horribly cynical about many aspects of Chinese culture, but one thing that will always impress me is their ability to outlast annoyance or oppression. People yell, shake their fists, then shrug, pull out a bag of sunflower seeds and some playing cards, and make the best of their time. Or, in the case of a book warehouse with a library sign on the outside, pull a book off the shelf, squat down near the cold floor, and read for an hour. Amazing. Americans would have gone insane and shot someone.

There’s a computer lab you can use if you want (though half the computers were put out of commission by the virus feed-lot that is the Chinese network) but other than that, the only place in the entire complex where you can sit and read is the archive room, where they keep pre-1949 magazines. It’s an interesting place, really, and I’ve gone there several times to read articles by Lu Xun or Li Dazhao in their original format. I tried to read something else in there once, just to get away from my dorm room, and the librarian on duty asked me what I needed from the archives. I said I didn’t need anything and she said, a little uncomfortably, “Oh, I’m sorry. You’re only allowed in if you’re going to read archived material.” I looked around at the one other person in the room and wondered why that mattered, but them’s the rules. Too, the library closes at 5:30 every day, and from 11:30-2:00. So you can’t sit, and if you’re not quick about it you can’t get books, either. And don’t get me started on the organization system. I’ve seen the same writer’s works scattered across six different sections, and all of the titles were in the same genre. Presumably there’s a method involved, but I’ll be damned if I can figure it out.

4. Professors

This one falls within the “being kicked in the crotch” cultural paradigm. Yes, there are reasons for our professors’ complete lack of interest in anything we do. First of all, each one advises roughly 18 students, which is at least six times as many students as a professor in the U.S. would advise at a time. This has other reasons in turn, some involving the sheer volume of people in China and others involving the government’s concerted effort to have as many post-grad students as possible. Long story there. Second, the whole system is rigged to keep professors and students at a safe, cold distance. Professors lecture (interminably and without any clear focus in most cases), students listen. This is true across the board. I don’t think I’ve ever had an actual conversation with a professor, just lectures of different lengths. “Sir, why would Xu Zhimo have written about snow here?” “Because. . .” (twenty-minute answer/lecture). Professors go to conferences, write papers and books, host poetry readings, and talk with students only when absolutely necessary.

As with getting kicked in the crotch for a good reason, being a distant, distant priority to your professors is still annoying, regardless of why. I contacted several professors about writing recommendation letters for me, then contacted the universities. Emails were sent to the professors with information about how to submit recommendation letters online. Only one of the professors I contacted told me he’d received anything. The other two, one of whom is my advisor, said nothing until I called a week later to find out what was going on. Dr. Luo was peeved: “It’s in English! I can’t read English!” I had already told him this was going to be the case, and had also told him I would be happy to show him how the whole thing worked. He still freaked out. And when I got to his office later, he freaked out again, pointed at the E-mail and said, “It’s in English!” As opposed to what, Swahili or Finnish? Sigh.

To summarize: it’s exhausting to be a student in a system where no one ever follows up on what you’re doing.

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