For the two years of classes I must take for my masters program at ECNU, I have the same 11 classmates for almost every class. All of them are Chinese, and only one of them is male. My one male classmate distinguishes himself by far more than his gender, however, so I’d like to introduce him here. I’ll call him Pepe.
Like most of my classmates, Pepe is not from Shanghai. After finishing his undergraduate studies, he came directly to Shanghai to study applied linguistics. Faced with a difficult job market, more and more Chinese college grads are electing to go to graduate school before joining the rat race. In that respect he is not very special.
I first observed something about Pepe in our initial semester, when I had only one specialized linguistics class. I noticed that in a room full of students furiously scribbling the teacher’s every word–and I doing my darnedest to keep up–Pepe never wrote more than a few lines of notes down. And yet no one was more engaged than he, no one impressed the professor more with insightful comments than he, and no one got away with more good-natured irreverent remarks than he. There were times when the professor would make a statement in all seriousness, and Pepe would laugh at it out loud, all alone, earning him a dirty look from the professor. He obviously understood a lot that the other students didn’t.
I would later learn that one of Pepe’s favorite pastimes was combing through Hong Kong and Taiwanese news. He loves the idea of a government under the scrutiny of a Chinese free press. He’s a realist, so he dares not dream of the impossible, but he devours the outsiders’ analysis of the CCP’s power struggles, past and present. What interests Pepe most of all, however, is Taiwanese politics. It’s like politics in bizarro China, and it fascinates him.
I have also learned about Pepe’s struggles within the academic machine. He wants to do real scientific research, to make a creative contribution to the field of linguistics. But his advisor repeatedly swats down his aspirations because “that’s not the kind of thesis that gets approved in this department” or because of the limitations of his advisor’s expertise.
Pepe is the sort of student I always hoped for more of when I taught English to Chinese students, and he’s the sort of student China would benefit greatly from if it could only recognize the importance. I’m fortunate to have at least one classmate who thinks critically and shares my grievances with the system, discontent with the role of academic atomaton (although to be sure, this burden weighs far heavier on him than on me).
You will hear more about Pepe from me in the future.