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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