Tag: culture


10

May 2003

A Madman's Diary

Lu Xun

Recently I was given a really cool birthday present: Selected Stories of Lu Xun. It’s got the Chinese on the left side and the English on the right. I tend to read in English first and then go back and study the Chinese later. Lu Xun (鲁迅) is simply the most famous modern author in China. Lu Xun’s writings predate Communism by a bit, and reflect the great turbulence China was experiencing in the early 1900’s.

Anyway, the first short story in the book is A Madman’s Diary. It’s really a fascinating little piece of literature. I’ll confess, I’ve been out of the literary analysis loop for some time, and my understanding of Chinese culture and history still has a ways to go, so I didn’t fully get the story right away. It’s frustrating to have one’s intellect blunted by disuse. Still, I knew there was a lot to it. I had a talk with my tutor about the story, though. He’s a big fan of Lu Xun. So I understand and appreciate it a lot better now. [ literary analysis ]

The story deals with cannibalism. The madman narrator believes that the people of his town are plotting to kill and eat him. What’s interesting is that the story refers to the fact that China has a long history of incidents of cannibalism. Under feudalism, when hard times hit, the peasants got hit hardest. Famines were common. And, as the saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures. One reference in the story I didn’t quite understand. It referred to the practice of “exchang[ing] sons to eat” (yi zi er shi — 易子而食). So I asked my tutor about it. I was completely shocked. In ancient China, when famine hit, there was a practice of two households exchanging a child, and then each household killing and eating that child. (You can’t eat your own child, right? That would be uncivilized.) It’s absolutely mind boggling to what extremes famine can drive human beings. My tutor told me there were also incidents of people being so hungry that they would eat mud and die from it.

It was just a little difficult to talk about this with my tutor. He answers my questions well (sometimes too well — and the guy talks fast with a really good vocabulary), and he’s committed to helping me learn more about Chinese culture. But the topic was cannibalism in Chinese history, and Chinese people have a tendency to be kind of sensitive about that which portrays China in a bad light.

I expressed total shock about the “exchange sons to eat” thing, and I think he was a little surprised. He told me he thought Western history contained incidents that are just as bad. I didn’t really doubt that, but I asked for an example. He thought for a few seconds and then brought up Roman gladiators. Not only were humans forced to battle beasts and each other in front of a live audience, but the audience actually got off on the carnage. Granted, that is pretty heinous. But the difference, I felt, was that in most cases of extreme human cruelty, the recipient is dehumanized in the eyes of the offender. It seems like that would be a little harder to do in an even exchange of children with a neighbor.

This conversation prompted me to do a bit of my own research. If cannibalism is a known part of Chinese history, I wondered just how well documented it is in English. I’m not very familiar with the scholarly resources of sinologists, so I just used Google. I found one page with information, but coming from a Japanese source it seems kind of suspect (notice that the information is even in a directory labeled “nanjing”). I also uncovered a plethora of other pages. I’m not going to list them here, because I can’t tell if those pages report the truth, or whether it’s simply some kind of sensationalist China-bashing. (If you want to see them, just do a Google search for “china cannibalism.”) I found one page debunking the claims of another page. Regardless, it’s all an information/misinformation mess, and I found very little referring to the historical incidents that I was looking for.


05

May 2003

Japan Invades Again

I periodically do Google News searches for stories related to both China and Japan, since I’m interested in both countries. This week something interesting turned up which has some bearing on my own life. The topic is not extemely captivating — and it’s not life-threatening like SARS — but it’s relevant to China’s future. Japan is invading again. I’m talking about convenience stores, people.

For some time, Japan and the USA have had a tradition of small, brightly lit, immaculate, 24-hour convenience stores. China does not. Instead, there are just lots of tiny family-run shops everywhere. Usually, the storefront is also the family’s home’s front porch. When no one is buying, they’re typically in there watching TV. The stores are not 24 hours, but they’re often open late because the store stays open as long as the family is awake. Buying from these places is a more personal experience; there’s no big corporation involved, and you can feel it. Lately, however, this seems to be changing.

In the USA (as well as in quite a few places all over the world) it seems that 7 Eleven and Circle K reign supreme, but it is not so in Hangzhou. (I don’t know enough to speak for all of China. I think that maybe these American chain stores have a foothold in China’s biggest cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong.) The convenience stores that have begun to appear are ones like “C-Store,” a chain of indeterminate origin. This store has opened shop right on Zhoushan Dong Lu, outside ZUCC, on the north side of Hangzhou. Another similar 24-hour convenience store is opening this week right down the road from C-Store. These convenience stores are great because they’re 24 hours, they’re very clean, and they offer imported products that can sometimes be hard to find. At the C-store just down the road from ZUCC, we can now buy Corona beer and Japanese onigiri (rice ball wrapped in seaweed) — two products that are still impossible to find even at a lot of the larger grocery stores in Hangzhou.

FamilyMartI spoke of another Japanese invasion. Anyone who has spent any time in Japan will know these two convenience store chain giants: FamilyMart and Lawson. LawsonI have bought from both stores in Japan many times. My Japanese homestay brother Shingo used to work at FamilyMart. Their reach in Japan is pervasive. Now both companies have set their sights on China. [Story: FamilyMart. Story: Lawson.]

It’s going to start soon. Judging by the Chinese consumer reactions I’ve seen so far, I predict a victory for Japan this time.


13

Apr 2003

English only, please — this is China

SPEAK BOY!

This is one of my favorite cartoons of all time… Multi-lingual, pro-individuals’ clean air rights, anti-animal abuse — all the while taking a jab at linguistic imperialism.

So what’s the China connection? Those who have not had the privilege of coming to China may expect me to decry some foreigners’ attitudes here. Far from it. Rather than foreigners in China expecting to be spoken to in English more than they are, it is the Chinese who expect to be spoken to in English more than they are.

Sure, there are plenty of people here that don’t speak English and have no interest in it, but many Chinese people — especially college-aged — are reluctant to talk to foreigners in any language but English. Your good-natured attempts at the language are returned with a laugh and English only. I don’t want to make it seem like there are no college-aged students that are willing to talk to foreigners in Chinese. That simply wouldn’t be true. But the proportion is heavily skewed in the opposite direction, or at least much more strongly than I had ever imagined before coming here.

As crazy as it sounds, it’s true. I’m not sure, but I think this is a unique set of circumstances in the world today. The Japanese are not like that. It may be partly because the poor Japanese have a bit of a linguistic inferiority complex, but the Japanese usually seem relieved to be able to speak Japanese with a foreigner instead of having to use English. In Thailand I sure couldn’t speak much Thai, but the people were so friendly that I had a ball with my mangled phrasebook command of the language. And there are a lot of Thai people that speak good English. In my experience, Mexicans don’t feel the need to always bring it back to English either… and they know when you’re American. I’ve never been there, but in Europe English seems to be an oft-resented obligatory linguistic routine. So what’s going on in China?

The answer seems to be that the Chinese people have an intense longing to come up in the world. The government — despite its severely flawed English education system — has recognized the importance of English in our increasingly globalized, capitalistic earthly existence, and has instilled a sense of urgency in the young to learn English. True, some are trying to get out of the country, but others just want to learn it. It is because of these very circumstances that I and many others are able to easily find work in China at a university level and live comfortably here.

And yet, the whole situation can be very frustrating. People who come all the way to China to learn Chinese do not appreciate being repeatedly forced to speak English. Yes, English is now the international language, but shouldn’t Mandarin be the default language here? Also, there is sort of a natural linguistic principle which dictates that when two speakers of different languages communicate, the mode of communication settled upon will be the language that both people speak best. This means that if a Frenchman and a Spaniard meet, and the Frenchman’s Spanish is not so hot, but neither is the Spaniard’s French, but both speak English decently, communication will be conducted in English. Natural, right? Similarly, if a Chinese and an American meet, and the Chinese person speaks pretty bad English but the American speaks decent Chinese, the conversation should proceed in Chinese. Why, then, in China, is this so often not the case? At times it amounts to linguistic bullying, and it becomes clear that communication is not really the desired end.

Again, let me stress that this is not always the case, but I’d like to list two of the ruder experiences I’ve had here, which are not isolated incidents, but rather categories of incidents which occasionally are repeated:

– I was speaking with a Chinese friend in Chinese in a public place. My friend didn’t speak English. A Chinese man I didn’t know approached me and engaged me in coversation in English. He refused to switch over to Chinese, even though my friend couldn’t follow the conversation. My friend and I had to leave to get away from the guy.

– I was speaking to two Chinese people who approached me in English. I spoke to them in English, and then added in some Chinese. One of the people got a strange expression on his face and told me he didn’t understand. The other was like, “what do you mean you don’t understand? He said that totally clearly.” The other became flustered because his friend didn’t catch onto his fake miscomprehension trick.

In all fairness, I should bring up the idea of the “psychological block” to communication in Asia. I have had this experience in both Japan and China. Sometimes you’ll speak to a person in near-perfect (if not perfect) Chinese or Japanese, and all you’ll get is a shaking of the head and a “I don’t speak English.” These people will not listen to you at all, because when they see a white face they become absolutely convinced in their minds that communication is impossible. Often it’s the old that suffer from these psychological blocks. In one case a nearby Chinese person, incredulous, told the guy that I was speaking to him in Chinese, but the man still refused to even listen to me. Incredible. That said, I’d like to say that the second example above is not one of those cases. It was a deliberate attempt to block communication in Chinese.

Don’t get me wrong… I’m willing to speak to Chinese people in English. I also understand that the average Chinese person gets very very few opportunities to practice “real English,” and I’m always happy to speak to my students in English. It can also be very refreshing to speak to a Chinese person in English when the person speaks good English. But I certainly resent being deprived of my right to speak Chinese in China.


05

Apr 2003

Another April Fools' Day

yurenjie

Another April Fools’ Day has come and gone…. Yes, April Fools’ Day is celebrated in China, but in a somewhat different way. In the USA, it seems like pranks are the most popular way of celebrating the holiday, but in China college students just seem to like to fool their classmates. Some of the more common tricks include:

  • Calling up a friend and confessing your love for him/her. A variation of this may be telling a friend that another mutual friend has a secret crush on them.
  • Calling up a friend by cell phone and telling him you have come to visit and are at the school gate, so the friend should come out and meet you immediately.

Notice that I didn’t mention the classic “loose salt shaker top trick” or “whoopee cushion.” It seems that plain old lies are the way to go here (although you can actually buy whoopee cushions here, for cheap!).

I didn’t really do anything for April Fools’ Day. I guess I’m getting old. I didn’t have class that day, so I slept in. I woke up to the sound of an SMS message arriving on my cell phone. It was from a student saying that his class couldn’t have class the next day because they had their “Spring Outing” (a Chinese college freshman tradition; chun you — 春游 — in Chinese). Well, having just woken up, I was in my usual morning state of dopiness. I had no idea what day it was. So I fell for that. Oh well.

Some news for China April 1st was the death of celebrity Leslie Cheung (Zhang Guorong — 张国荣). He was famous for playing gay roles in movies, such as Chen Kaige’s Farewell my Concubine and Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (Ray‘s favorite). Apparently he was gay in real life, too, and committed suicide over love problems. Sad. At first I thought it was a fake April Fools’ Day “news” story, but it’s real.

Does the world know that there are openly gay stars in China? If you have a class discussion on homosexuality here, these names will come up. I think the gay celebrities are mostly confined to Hong Kong, though. (I’m no authority on Chinese celebrities — I’m lucky if I can keep my Chinese friends’ names straight, much less the celebrities’!) It’s pretty clear, though, that for most of mainland China, being gay is still not OK.


31

Mar 2003

Outfit Streaks

I overheard a comment from a female student to a male student before class last week: “Hey, you finally changed clothes!” I didn’t want to laugh, but I was just totally cracking up inside. It was one of those “totally China” moments.

So what’s the deal? Put simply, Chinese people often wear the same outfit for several days in a row. At first I found it strange, but before long, I was adapting to this aspect of culture. Allow me to demonstrate pictorially:

clothinginchina

Clearly, this is not a cleanliness issue. Americans frequently wear an outfit for one day, then put it away, “clean,” ready to wear again some day in the undefined, not-overly-soon future. Why can’t we just keep wearing the same outift? Cultural programming. If we wear the same outfit for several days in a row, people might think that we don’t actually have a huge wardrobe. People might think we’re poor! Even if we were to have only 5 outfits, we would cycle them meticulously.

But in China you can wear the same thing for several days in a row, and it’s cool. No one will really look down on you for it (although they might comment if you overdo it).

I kinda like this, being free of a cultural chain that, until China, bound me without my knowledge….


10

Mar 2003

You gave your life…

> You gave your life to become the person you are right now.
Was it worth it?
–Richard Bach

Few quotes get me thinking these days like this one did. It’s easy to blow it off without pondering it, but I found it a very worthwhile rumination.

I found the quote in a blog called imo. Interestingly, two of the four quotes on that page are also on my quotes page. (Not the one above, though.) Good quotes.

Illusions: the Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

I became familiar with Richard Bach in high school. I found Jonathan Livingston Seagull rather forgettable, but I loved Illusions: the Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. Truly high-octane fuel for the imagination.

It’s often said nowadays that where creativity is concerned, China is a huge gaping void. What has China invented lately? Even books like Richard Bach’s seem to echo the philosophies of a China of lore — so distant, but certain as last night’s forgotten dream. Sure, joining the WTO is good times and fun for all, but in modern China, how can even the will of 1.3 billion parched minds revive creativity’s corpse?


18

Jan 2003

Shaq insults Chinese everywhere

It’s old news by now, but make sure you check out this story. Looks like Shaq’s feeling a little insecure… Gonna have to be sure to watch Yao Ming and Shaq square off this weekend when the Lakers meet the Rockets in Houston (Sat 9:30pm ET/Sat 8:30am China Time, ESPN).

As a follow-up to my last entry, I learned today that as a teacher, the three things you “can’t talk about in China” are religion, politics, and sex. I’ve already covered all three in class, at least once. Oops? (No, I’m not worried. That info is outdated.)

Oh, and yes, the rumors are true. The Sinosplice Weblog has gone Chinese. If you can’t read Chinese, you probably don’t care. If you can, you probably already know this, because you’re probably in China using Chinese Windows, and the old blog URL now redirects you to a new blog page in the language of your operating system. If you’re one of those rare individuals that can read Chinese but not in the 1.3 billion-strong club, you can still read the Chinese version. It’s not simply a translation (ugh, that would not be fun), it’s different material. So you have to learn Chinese if you want to know what’s in it. (Just the last little bit of motivation you needed, right? Ha!)


16

Jan 2003

Sex in the Classroom

sex

The class I teach here in China is Spoken English. I am here this term to improve the spoken English of close to 300 Chinese college students. How does one accomplish that? Well, by making them talk (harder than you think). There are many ways to do this, of course, but at least something done in class has to result in grades given out, which can be very limiting. My semester plan centers around discussions. I won’t bore you with all the details at this moment, but the last discussion we had in class this semester was about sex. It may be regular fare in Wilson’s classes, but it’s the first time I’ve done something like that. After all, this is China.

The results were extremely educational — all around — and a resounding success, if I do say so myself.

A crucial element in my classes is student involvement and initiative, and this concept extends to the discussions. While I pick the topics, the students lead the discussions and think of the discussion questions themselves. I generally just sow a few seeds to give them ideas, and they take it from there. This method can have great results.

So what happened when the topic of SEX was unleashed in the classroom? Reactions spanned the whole spectrum, ranging from the nervous fidgets of students who were clearly uncomfortable with the topic and kind of wished it would go away to the antics of students who embraced the topic with gusto and took it much further than I expected.

It all begins with the questions. Some students were clearly uncomfortable with the topic, so I told them they were free to interpret the topic how they wanted — they could talk about AIDS issues, sex education issues, or gay rights issues rather than getting down and dirty with it. One guy was so uncomfortable with the whole thing that he interpreted “sex” to mean “gender,” and all his questions were lame gender-related questions (and yes, I admit that there are good gender-related questions, but he didn’t come up with any). The squeamish were definitely in the minority, however, which made me feel that I wasn’t doing the wrong thing. I was further removed from any blame by the fact that the students were the ones that actually came up with all the questions. I merely guided and moderated.

Image created by John Pasden (c) 2003.  Sources: confucius.org, some Japanese bikini site.

Anyway, there were some interesting questions. The few discussion leaders who dared ask who in the group had had sex before got no replies. The message was clear: making it too personal was not OK. In the beginning, “do you think sex before marriage is OK?” was one of the more risque questions that got answers (and yes, some students — both male and female — were publicly answering in the affirmative to that question). One question I heard a boy pose intensely to several girls had me really laughing: “All people have sexual desire. Do you??” Based on his logic, the girls couldn’t answer no, and they didn’t disagree anyway, but they still didn’t want to admit it. The students taught me what Confucius had to say on this matter: “食色性也” (shi se xing ye) — “Sex is part of human nature.” Plenty of students got into how they would react if they learned that a friend was gay. Toward the end of the discussion hour, I was shocked to hear that one group had even ventured into the subject of bestiality! Yes, Chinese students discussing bestiality in English in my classroom. Gotta love this job. They did it on their own, I swear!

Perhaps what made the discussion such a success was bringing role play into it. I gave people roles, such as “the promiscuous American” and “Mao Zedong.” I encouraged them to be outrageous by giving hypothetical examples of my own. “I’m a promiscuous American, and I think young people should be having sex every day with multiple partners” got uproarious laughter, and, incredibly, it actually spawned more of the same. I told my students that lying in a discussion is fine as long as they’re doing it in English. Evidently that was enough to get them to them to open up.

Towards the end of class, each group of students seemed much more at ease with the topic, and they were giving straight answers if I questioned them. One group of students was discussing sex among college students. “You mean a lot of college students are having sex in China?” I asked, feigning bewilderment. “Of course!” my student responded. “It’s an open secret.” I love that line, because it beautifully captures a truth about Chinese society in all its paradoxical glory. I couldn’t have put it better myself. I was so impressed that my student had accomplished it, in English no less.

So I was pleased with how that class went. A week, later, though, I was giving oral quizzes on discussion vocabulary we had covered in class. One of them was the term “gay,” intended for the sex discussion. I guess maybe the students got a little too comfortable in class — one of my students, given the word “gay” to make a sentence, promptly replied with, “John and Wilson are gay.”

Hmmm… It seems to me there was a time when the teachings of Confucius were a little more teacher-friendly….


02

Jan 2003

Poll Mania

As most of my readers know, a while back I had an idea about polling my students. The results have been posted here over the last few months. I also made polls into a class activity that I did with my English major students. It ended up being a great class activity. I had the students come up with their own “mini-polls” which were conducted in class with their classmates. I stressed that their questions should be interesting. I’m posting some of the results here, verbatim.

Format:
Poll results will follow the question, in parentheses and color-coded. “Yes” answers will always be first in blue, followed by “no” answers in red.

> Do you want to lead a rich boring life or a poor happy life? (3, 19)

> Do you like Chinese food or Western food? (21, 1)

> Which president do you think is better, Clinton or Bush? (22, 1)

> Do you like Chairman Mao or Deng Xiaoping? (3, 19)

> Which do you think is more important parents or lover? (23, 0)

> Which food do you prefer, KFC or McDonalds? (18, 4)

> Do you like becoming a famous person or a common person? (9, 13)

> Do you like the life at our campus? (7, 16)

> Do you think Zhou Enlai is a handsome man? (24, 0)

> If you can choose, do you like to be a great person or a common one? (12, 10)

> Do you agree that the college students marry when they are in school? (8, 15)

> Do you satisfy with your present life? (10, 12)

> Money or Friendship – which will you choose? (9, 14)

> Do you wash your teeth with cold water? (20, 8)

> Do you want your kid is a boy or a girl? (13, 12)

> If you have chance to go abroad which country will you choose, America or England? (14, 10)

> If you fall in love with your girl friend’s boyfriend, will you get him as your own boyfriend from your girl friend when the two are no longer in love? (12, 12)

> You have a favourite job but your parents ask you change another one they like. If you don’t follow them, they will be very sad. Do you follow them? (9, 15)

> If you own lots of money, you will use it up all by yourself, or present a great amount to poor people? (13, 13)

> Do you like to be a successful man who is respected by many people and has a lot of money, but only can live for 30 years? (12, 13)

> Do you want to marry a black strong boxing man/woman? (4, 20)

> Do you think Zhou Jielun will be popular for another long time? (11, 14)

> If you can choose, do you want to grow up or go back to your childhood? (16, 8)

> If you are a man, and you get into the women’s toilet, you will say sorry to the women or run away at once? (14, 11)

> If you fall in love with a person, but he is an alien, and he asks you to go with him to go back his planet, which will you choose, stay on earth or go with him? (12, 12)

> If you can choose, who would you like to be, a rich stupid man or a poor smart man? (6, 16)

> Would you live in the forest with your lover like primitive man for one year? (16, 8)

> Do you think it’s necessary to kill all the mice? [explanation here] (6, 19)

> Which marriage do you like? To marry a foreigner or a Chinese? (6, 19)

> Do you want to live once again? (13, 12)

> How often do you wash your hair? (every day – 2; 2 days – 18; 2+ days – 4)

> If you’re very tired of the life in the world, but still you’re young, which will you choose: kill yourself or go to temple as a monk/nun? (10, 15)

> Would you accept one of your friends is a bisexual? (11, 14)

> Do you want to have a boy/girlfriend on the campus? (16, 6)

> Which person do you want to marry: the person who loves you very much, or the person who you love very much? (18, 5)

> If you have a new family member, you like he/she older than you or younger than you? (17, 9)


20

Dec 2002

Bicycle, Swim, Car Poll

Poll: Can you swim/ride a bike/drive a car?

Note: In most cases, those who claimed they could drive did not actually have a driver’s license.


17

Dec 2002

Race, Schmace

Race Not Reflected in Genes, Study Finds:

“There is wide agreement among anthropologists and human geneticists that, from a biological standpoint, human races do not exist,” Sergio Pena and colleagues at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerias in Brazil and the University of Porto in Portugal wrote in their report, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Yet races do exist as social constructs,” they said.

I remember learning in my Japanese anthropology class about how scientifically, race is nonexistent. Here’s the same idea again.

It’s funny–the United States is regarded by all sorts of countries (including Asian ones) as a country with race problems–and yet racism thrives here. It’s just very hush-hush. I remember reading something a Chinese person said, as quoted in the China Lonely Planet: “There is no racism in China because there are no black people in China.”

If you ask a Chinese student, probably over 90% will tell you that there is no racism in China. Yet if you force them to answer the question, there is definitely a sort of “heirarchy of acceptability” for marriage: Chinese first, then Korean, Japanese, Caucasian, African. Why? “No reason,” they say. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Chinese people say they don’t like black people even when though most of them have never even met one.

Japan has serious problems as well. Many Japanese people seem uncomfortable acknowledging that a lot of their genes are shared with the Ainu minority people and the Koreans. Scientists work hard to disprove these theories to maintain ridiculous concepts of “racial purity.”

Asians tend to keep their mouths shut when they have something disagreeable to say, and they don’t go burning crosses or anything like that. But make no mistake about it, no matter what they tell you. Racism is well established here.


11

Dec 2002

Japan on China

This article is great. Clearly, I have a special interest, my studies taking me deep into both Japanese and Chinese culture. But seriously, the Japanese are just so cute sometimes. All this and insight into their culture as well. You gotta love it. I’d love to see more articles like this. Thanks to Addicted to Life for finding this and sharing.

On a related note, a new poll shows that the Chinese still don’t like the Japanese. Big surprise. Sorry, the article is from the People’s Daily, so it doesn’t make for the best reading. (And they even included in the article one of my Chinglish pet peeves: the Chinese can’t use the word “so so” without adding “just” in front of it! Grrrr…)


05

Dec 2002

More Polls…

These two questions are pretty unscientific, I know. The students’ answers are very subjective. Before the questions, I made sure they understood what I meant by “care.” Still, interesting results. A trend is uncovered.

Poll: Do you care about Chinese politics?

Poll: Do you care about World News?

Obviously, the word “care” is crucial, because what does that mean? One can easily say one cares, but then that “caring” doesn’t actually manifest itself in any actions.

Also, this is not secret ballot. When students declare they don’t care, they do so publicly in front of the whole class as I count hands. There’s less of the “herd mentality” than you would think, however. You do get one or two people defying the rest of the class and voting how they really feel at times.


27

Nov 2002

Harvesting Stats

Living in China has its fair share of inconveniences. The ones that immediately come to mind are being on the opposite side of the globe from most of my friends and family, and a big long list of things I can’t eat here (oh, cheesecake! I miss you!). But there are some great benefits too. The benefits are so numerous and unexpected that you can live here for years without realizing them.

One of these benefits which I discovered early on in my first semester at ZUCC was the potential for gathering information. Sure, the teacher’s up there to teach the students, and then the teacher can learn from the students as well. But I mean something far more direct. You can gather information on Chinese society straight from your students and even make it part of classwork. My first semester I taught American Society and Culture, and one of the regular assignments I gave was a one-page written response to the latest chapter’s material. I encouraged students to make comparisons between Chinese society and what they learned in the book, or what they learned from me, or what they knew of American society already. At times I cursed myself for giving those assignments because it gave me a lot to read. But what I gained! Students would often write out what they wouldn’t say in class. I learned a lot about Chinese families, government, education, etc. from those papers. More than my students learned from me, I fear.

Anyway, despite the precious info I gleaned from those papers, they were a one-semester thing. It was just too much work to read them, and I had to read them all or some of the students would plagiarize like little fiends. And I wasn’t about to let them get away with that, less because of the dishonesty factor and more because I didn’t want them to ever think for a second that they could outsmart me.

Since then, I’ve picked up this and that from miscellaneous discussions and such in class. But it’s never been such pure information downloading as it was with the papers. Recently, though, something rekindled my lust for data. I think it began when I asked my class if they shared my excitement about a new generation of leadership in the Chinese Communist Party (they very much didn’t), and a little discussion on their feelings about politics ensued. Basically, they felt that they had no control over politics, so they didn’t care. But the idea of taking polls in class took shape in my mind.

So, lately I’ve been surveying my students on various topics. I’m carefully noting the data, and I’ll report the interesting results I find. I have close to 300 students. Sure, my students typically come from upper class Chinese families, because the tuition here is quite high for a Chinese college. But that doesn’t mean the data won’t yield trends that are interesting and telling. I’m loving this. I’ve got lots of good stuff on the way. So without further ado, the results of my first poll…

Poll: Cell Phones

Is that higher than you expected? Cell phones are definitely common on the streets in Hangzhou. They’re everywhere. The ::beep:: ::beep:: of the SMS message alert permeates every nook and cranny of town. Furthermore, while Hangzhou is the capital of Zhejiang Province–a quite wealthy province–keep in mind that this is still Hangzhou, not Hong Kong, not Shanghai, not Beijing (those three places have cheesecake!). Also, the fact that so many of the students bring their cell phones to the classroom is a serious factor for the teacher. There’s little more infuriating in class than a student ignoring you because his gaze is transfixed on the LCD screen of his cell phone. They think you won’t see them if they keep the phone below the surface of the desk. Makes you wanna grab the phone, chuck it out the window, and smack the student.

Anyway, the polls have begun. And may the data collecting proliferate among the foreign teachers here in China…


05

Nov 2002

Ghost Alien Love

In class this week, as a follow-up to last week’s Halloween activities, we had a discussion on Ghosts and Aliens. Last week I provided vocabulary such as ghost, alien, UFO, abduct, monster, egg a house, TP a yard, Flaming Bag of Dog Poo, etc. I also had to give some cultural background about simple things we take for granted. For example, when I asked the class where ghosts come from, most people answered “hell.” I had to explain to them that according to Western tradition, ghosts are the souls of dead people that have not yet gone on to heaven or hell. Angels are what come from heaven to earth, and devils and demons are what come from hell to earth. They seemed interested. They also liked the “trick-or-treating” at the end of class (sans costumes and door to knock on).

Anyway, this week we discussed Ghosts and Aliens. At the beginning of the semester I eased into the discussions with a practice discussion to allow them to practice the discussion techiques I had taught them, and to give them feedback on their technique before any grading began. The practice discussion topic was Internet Romance. The first real discussion was Age Difference in Love Relationships. One of the students commented that the discussions were all about love, and why couldn’t they discuss something else. So this week was their big chance to discuss “something else.” Here are some of the discussion questions that students prepared on the new topic:

Which would you choose as a lover: a ghost or an alien?

If you fell in love with someone and later found out that person was a ghost, what would you do?

If you fell in love with an alien and the alien wanted to take you back to its homeworld, would you go?

I rest my case. I think I’ve stumbled upon an axiom for teaching college-level English in China: Chinese college students love to talk about love. I think this axiom ranks right up there with “Germans love David Hasselhoff.” Those first two discussion topics are tried and true.

One more interesting thing I learned from the discussion is that most of my students don’t believe in ghosts (though some do). Most of them seem to think of it as superstitious, and lump believing in ghosts together with believing in religion. (And, given the topic Ghosts and Aliens, in their discussion preparation homework some students even included questions such as “do you believe in Buddhism?”) However, the matter of aliens is different. Not only do over half believe that aliens exist and visit Earth, but about 5% of my students even claim to have seen UFOs with their own eyes! Interesting stuff.


29

Oct 2002

Police, Schmolice

I don’t want to get stuck on the whole taxi thing, but I’ve got another little story. And it begins with me riding in a taxi. This time the driver was a woman.

Female taxi drivers are not so common. This driver, however, was top-notch. I mean that in the Chinese sense. When she takes you somewhere, she takes you in a hurry. That means not only serious speed, but also lots of passing and swerving — above all, not stopping. We saw three accidents on the way back to my school. Fortunately we weren’t involved in any.

We chatted on the way to East Zhou Shan Road. We passed a billboard which featured a woman who I thought was the famous Chinese Olympic diver Fu Mingxia. She thought it was too, at first, but then decided it wasn’t. We then started talking about the likelihood of Fu Mingxia participating in the next Olympics. My driver thought it pretty unlikely, since the pretty star is now married to a 50-something rich Hong Kong big shot. A child is probably in her near future, opined my driver. And after having a kid, your body will never be the same, she assured me. She went on to talk about her own 6-year-old son, and how he looooves to eat KFC.

We were close to the home stretch — the turn to East Zhou Shan Road was just ahead. Bearing down on us fast from the opposite direction was a big 4WD police vehicle. My driver made a bold turn directly into the path of the police car, forcing it to brake fast. It really was quite close. As we squeezed through the opening, I must have let out a gasp. Turning to me, she offered this explanation: “I’m trying to earn money here. They’re not doing anything — they can take their time.”

The police, of course, just continued on their way, not taking any more notice of the offending taxi than was required to avoid a collision. This is China.


25

Oct 2002

Taxi Tale Interpretation

Not long ago I got pissed off about a little episode involving a Chinese man and a taxi and I made a little entry about it.

I got one response on it from one John B. He’s a guy who taught in China for a short time, and I happened to get in contact with him through some really odd coincidences.

John B. suggested in his e-mail that “the ‘me first’ attitude comes from simple competition for resources. With 1.2 billion other folks to compete with to get everything, I guess you learn to take any opportunity you can get.”

That explanation makes sense, and I might accept it, were it not for my experiences in Japan. China may have the world’s largest population, but the population density of Japan is, for the most part, higher. I can’t quote any statistics on this, but I’ve lived extensively in both places now, and I can assure you that’s the case. So in Japan there should be higher competition for resources.

You might answer that China is poorer, whereas Japan is now a land of plenty (despite the current economic slump), which curbs the “me first” competitive drive in Japan. Recall, though, that after WWII Japan was a third world nation. China may be newer to modernity, but the pre-WWII generation is still around in Japan as well. Both societies have undergone monumental changes in the past 50 years, but China has come out of it seeming much less civil. Why?

My adult Chinese students at the English Department recently offered a compelling explanation. Since they are still young themselves, the students drew mainly upon anecdotes from their parents and grandparents to offer this explanation.

Before Communist China, China was at war. War with Japan, civil war, war with Western imperialism. It was chaos. Out of this chaos came Communist China. Early Communist China was actually Communist. It was communal. People cooperated. People shared. As the U.S. quaked in fear and rage at the global spread of Communism, Chinese people felt a national spirit of goodwill and just plain human goodness that surpassed anything that the nation had experienced in a long, long time. You might dismiss such warm fuzzy good feeling descriptions of early Communist China as propaganda, but I’ve heard a lot of stories. Regardless of certain realities (e.g. the failure of efforts such as the Great Leap Forward*), a lot of Chinese people felt really good. It was a golden time.

That era was followed by the Cultural Revolution*, of course. Cooperation, goodwill, and social progress were replaced by backstabbing, malice, and social disintegration as co-workers, friends, and even family members betrayed each other in the madness of the times. All sense of brotherhood was obliterated by the absolute necessity to look out for number one. One’s reputation, livelihood, or possibly even life depended on it.

The effects of the Cultural Revolution were profound. They linger. Furthermore, Capitalism has long since had its foot in the door, and the Party is looking the other way as the entire leg sexily slides its way in. I’m thinking Capitalist consumerism probably doesn’t help the situation either, right?

And so jerks steal my taxi in China.

They’re still not excused.

* This site on Chinese history, maintained by the Chaos Group at the University of Maryland, is cool because it contains the Chinese (traditional characters) for a lot of the important names and events mentioned.


16

Oct 2002

Tutor Update / River Story / Mr. Manners

A while back I listed a bunch of requirements for the tutor I was looking for. Well, with the help of someone in the Foreign Language Department, I have found him. He’s an awesome tutor. He’s critical. He tells me when my pronunciation is a little off, he tells me how it’s off, and he tells me how, phonologically, to correct it. He speaks to me all in Chinese. He speaks fast, and with good vocab. He’s well-read, and knows Chinese history well. He speaks standard Mandarin. He brings his own materials and demands that I learn this or that. It’s great to have a tutor with definite ideas of what I should be learning. He brings me 12 new chengyu (Chinese idioms) to study every class. He requires me to read from a standard Mandarin pronunciation class textbook, and criticizes my pronunciation, and then makes me read again, and again, and again… He also records his own readings onto my computer so that I can practice on my own for the next class.

After each two-hour session, I am exhausted. He’s a good teacher. I can feel the now unfamiliar soreness of progress once again.

Last Thursday I had my advanced English discussion class at the English Department. Those students are just great. Their English is so good, and the people just have such personality. I thought college students were great for those reasons, but these adult students take it to a whole new level.

Last week we did the “River Romance Story” (for lack of a better name), which I’ve already made famous at this school. It’s pretty famous already anyway, so I’m kind of afraid to use it, always expecting my students to be familiar with it already. But last Thursday none of my students were. Good.

Before I give an account of the discussion, I should tell the story. Here goes.

Long, long ago, in the time of kings and queens, there lived a Man and a Lady, deeply in love. It was true love. The Man was a high-ranking servant of the king, often sent off to new posts to solve problems. Where the Man went to work, the Lady followed. Then the Man was assigned to a faroff village that was only reachable by way of a treacherous river. On the river, a storm suddenly sprang up. The boat was run into rocks, and everyone thrown overboard. The Man was the only passenger that could swim, and he managed to save himself, all the while looking fervently for the Lady. He couldn’t find her. Not a single body turned up; all were lost in the swift current. After searching for days, grief-stricken, the Man was forced to accept the unimagniable. The Lady was gone. With heavy heart, he headed off to the village to fulfill his post.

As fate would have it, however, the Lady didn’t die. She was rescued by an inhabitant on the other side of the river and nursed back to health over a series of weeks from the brink of death. As soon as she could walk, she set about trying to get back to the Man. However, the river was uncrossable. There was no bridge. There was only one way of crossing: by way of the Boatman. He was the only one with enough skill to ferry people from one side to the other. He charged 10 gold pieces each way for his service.

By the time the Lady reached the Boatman, he had long since heard of her. When she asked his price, he told her 100 gold pieces. She had only 10. No matter how she begged and pleaded, he would not bring the price down or even let her pay after crossing and finding the Man. It was 100 or nothing.

The Lady soon met another man, however, named Sam. Sam was a landowner with a good deal off money, but he was a bit of a womanizer. The Lady was beautiful, and he took to her immediately. She made it clear that she wished only to return to her Man, though. Magnanimous man that he was, Sam said he could help her — on one condition. The Lady must sleep with Sam for a night.

The Lady was outraged at this request, and stormed off. She soon sank into despair, however, and quickly came to the conclusion that her life there, on the wrong side of the river was meaningless, and there was only one way out. She would sleep with Sam.

So the Lady slept with Sam. She received 100 gold pieces. She paid the Boatman and crossed the river. She made her way into the village and found the Man. They were reunited at last, and their joy was boundless. Yet, at the back of the woman’s heart gnawed the question: should I tell him? She decided to leave it be for the time being.

After arriving, the Lady met the Man’s new Friend, who also worked in the village. This Friend left the next day for the other side of the river to do business. His business was with Sam, and Sam liked to talk. He had a tendency to brag about his womanizing exploits, but he was known to always tell the truth. Sam told the Friend about his night with the Lady.

The Friend was now in a hard position. Should he tell the Man? He didn’t know all the circumstances of the incident in question, but he could be sure what Sam said was the truth. Finally, he decided that the Man should know the truth, and told him.

The Man was angered by this information, calling the Friend a liar. Still, doubt overtook him, and he brought the “outrageous rumor” up to the Lady. She immediately burst into tears, admitting it was the truth.

The Man was in total shock. Never had he felt so betrayed. He had vowed never to love again when he lost the Lady, but how could he forgive this? In the end, he couldn’t. He parted ways with the Lady.

They never saw each other again.

So that’s the story. The task is then to rank the people, 1-5, from “best” to “worst.” Then discuss. This always yields great discussion. I love it.

After discussing that, you can reveal what each person is supposed to symbolize: Lady – Love, Boatman – Business, Friend – Friendship, Sam – Sex, Man – Morality. Then we discuss whether the activity actually reveals our priorities in life.

Anyway, last Thursday my class got so into this discussion. It was incredible. They were funny, too — when I mentioned in the beginning how in love the Man and Lady were, one of my students said, “what’s the use?” Later, when they were guessing what each character symbolizes, this same girl said the Lady represents weakness! Funny stuff.

Anyway, we had a long discussion on morality. This example really brings out the differences and similarities between Western and Eastern morality. Eastern is much more relativistic. I taught them phrases from Western thought like, “the truth will set you free,” “the ends doesn’t justify the means,” and “ignorance is bliss.”

Chinese girls seem to love to say the Lady is the best (and even that she did nothing wrong), and the Man is the worst for not forgiving the Lady. Some of them also say the Boatman is worse than Sam, because the whole mess was started by him, even if he was ignorant of the drama he set in motion.

So I thought of all kinds of hypothetical situations to test their stances. Unsurprisingly, the girls became quite similar to the Man when I posed the situation of their husband sleeping with his female boss to get a promotion and provide better for his family (which was struggling to make ends meet and had no hope of properly educating the child).

What blew my mind, though, was two girls’ answer to this question: “Would you rather have a husband who was completely faithful to you and made you happy, or a husband who was not faithful, but you didn’t know about it, and so were still happy?” The answer? “Either one is fine, as long as I never find out he’s cheating.” Either one is fine! Incredible.

That class was a blast. I learned so much. It’s classes like that that remind me how much I’m still learning here, and how my life is totally on track.

This past week I also started a third teaching job. It’s for a large department store, only teaching three times, for two hours each time. It pays very well. My job is to provide training for some of the department store employees so that they can do a little job-related communication with foreigners when necessary. I was also asked to give a short lecture, in Chinese, on “how not to offend foreigners.” My first lecture in Chinese. Awesome. I was excited.

The lecture went pretty well. I held their interest with humor well, and they learned a lot. Here’s what they learned:

1. Foreigners value hygiene highly. Do not cough, yawn, or sneeze without covering appropriate orifices. Don’t spit. Don’t pick your nose or ear in public. Don’t scratch. Don’t fart. Don’t have a runny nose (or at least don’t blow a snot rocket!).

2. Be careful with questions. Don’t ask age or salary. Don’t assume people are American or any nationality.

3. Be careful in your actions. Don’t fidget. Don’t yell for any reason. Be patient. Smile. Never litter, anywhere.

4. When eating… Eat slowly, with small bites. There should be no noises coming from your mouth. Sit up straight, never hunch. Put one hand on your lap, with your napkin. Don’t spit out anything if it can be avoided.

5. When communicating… Maintain eye contact, but don’t stare. Don’t be too self-deprecatory. Don’t comment on physical appearance.

Some of these may seem unnecessary, but I personally made this list, and my reason for adding each item comes from my own real-life experiences with people in Chinese society….


01

Oct 2002

Taxi Incident

On Sunday Wilson and I made a little alcohol run to the Metro. The Metro is a big supermarket with lots of Western food and stuff. It’s one of the few places you can buy vodka in Hangzhou, and the prices are actually decent.

Anyway, we had to get our vodka and a few other goodies that are hard to find elsewhere (Hellmann’s mayonaise, French’s mustard, good bread, canned tuna…). But we were kind of in a hurry, because I was trying to get back to ZUCC to hear one of my students sing at a concert on campus. She has a really amazing voice.

The problem with the Metro is that it’s in the middle of nowhere, on the east edge of town. You have to take a taxi out there and back (unless you want to be on the bus for like an hour each way), and it’s not always easy finding a taxi back. (The other problem with the Metro is that the stingy bastards actually charge for plastic grocery bags! What’s up with that?! It’s not a normal Chinese practice.)

Anyway, we were holding our groceries, standing on the side of the road outside the inconveniently-located Metro, waiting for a cab.

5 minutes went by. A cab pulled up, and some guy further up the road from us flagged it down and got it. Was he there before us? Who knows. He got the cab.

5 more minutes went by. No cabs.

5 more minutes went by. Two guys in suits that looked to be in their thirties came from a sidestreet and stood a little further down the road from us.

5 more minutes went by. Another unoccupied cab finally appeared! Fortunately there was no one waiting further up the road to grab it this time. He approached our frantically waving figures. He kept rolling, coming to a stop by the two guys just past us, further down the road. One of the guys got in the front seat as quickly as he could.

I was pissed. I rushed over there, still holding my grocery bag in one hand and a Smirnoff Vodka bottle in the other. I got in front of the door so he couldn’t close it.

Get out,” I told him firmly, in Chinese. He stayed rooted to the seat, with the stubborn look of a kid who refuses to eat his brussel sprouts. “Get out!” I repeated, as he urged the driver to get moving. He wasn’t budging.

Meanwhile, Wilson was looking on, kind of stunned (hoping I wasn’t mad enough hit the guy with the vodka bottle, he told me later). The partner of the guy already in the cab, apparently made nervous by the tense situation, was making no move to get in the taxi.

My demand was falling on deaf ears, and the taxi finally took off, the door still open. I yelled something I probably shouldn’t have. It was English, but I’m sure he got it. The cab went about 100 meters down the road and stopped. The other guy went to go get in. Apparently angered by what I yelled, stubborn guy in the front seat pretended like he was going to get out and come fight me. I made the manly “bring it on!” gesture, and they promptly drove away.

It was all a ridiculous incident. I certainly wasn’t going to get in a fight over a taxi. It’s just too stupid. But underlying it all is an anger, not just at one guy in one particular incident, but at a whole society.

I’ve never been in a country like this, where people are so “me first!” crazy. There are no lines for buses, just a pushing hoarde. The other day in McDonalds, after I had already stood patiently in line for about 5 minutes, some woman suddenly pushed her way in from the side and placed her order right in front of me! I just stood there and let her. What am I going to do, change a society? It’s the same in banks and at ticket counters. I’ve been living with this every day for two years now.

But still, this incident was just too infuriating. I really believe that in the USA, there are few people who would quickly hop into the taxi instead of doing the civil thing and saying, “you were here first, you take it.” I think that in all the other countries I’ve been to — Japan, Mexico, Korea, Thailand — most people would do the same. What is it about this place that makes people so drivenly self-centered? Why does the concept of a “line” or of “waiting one’s turn” not seem to apply here?

I’ve heard people say China is not ready for democracy, and I think that idea has a lot of merit. China isn’t even ready for the concept of “wait your turn.”



Page 11 of 12« First...89101112