The Laowai Monologues
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Wednesday, January 08, 2003
(Please feel free to leave your comments at the shoutout at the end of my entries.)
¡°But I did not cheat!¡± She said, sitting down on the tattered leather couch in the Foreign Language Department office. A few moments ago, my final exam had ended, and as my proctors carried my exams sheets into the office to present to me, one of them handed me one lone exam with this student¡¯s identification card, and her wrinkled and frayed crib sheet.
¡°Well, what the hell is this?¡± I asked, waving the crib sheet like it was a wilted flower.
The exam itself is 70 percent of the final course grade. In my western mind, I know that it¡¯s absurd to place such a great emphasis on an exam. However, if the truth were known, if she had possibly scored a 55, I would have passed her for the course. I looked at her, a small pretty poor girl, struggling to enter the rat race of life with nothing more than limited shrewdness and great audaciousness. In a small way, I admired her for still attempting to cheat, especially when the dean of the Foreign Language Department had informed my proctors that they were to be very strict and keenly observant, which all my students knew through the rapid transit of campus collective community lingo. Even greater, I admired her for coming alone to face me, not having her friends here to testify to her character or stand with her.
The room was empty now, except for the secretary filing papers at his desk. I stood up, and walked to the window, watching the coal smoke drifting over the city of Huaibei.
I had my own mianzi to save too, I thought.
Just yesterday, a Chinese teacher had remarked, ¡°Hank, these students don¡¯t fear you.¡± At the time, I just ignored him. My close friend, Yu, told me that this teacher didn¡¯t know what the hell he was saying and was merely saying it to impress other members of the faculty with his language prowess¡ªsimilar to English Corner.
¡°So I will fail your course?¡±
I had a deep feeling she was trying for houmen, where she can enter the backdoor and possibly persuade me to change my mind. Actually I had respected her for not bursting into tears. Sometimes, tears communicate hypocrisy.
¡°Then can I have my note sheet back?¡±
I knew why she wanted her crib sheet back, though she didn¡¯t know I knew. She feared that I would take the crib sheet to department leaders, and then she would receive a cited public notice on the bulletin board of the department that she had cheated, but I wasn¡¯t going to do that. I would give her failing mark on the grade sheet and leave it at that. It was the best I could do under the circumstances. I am not the only teacher that does this. Chinese teachers do this as well, because just like me they don¡¯t want this documented on the student¡¯s archives.
¡°Why? Because it¡¯s evidence?¡±
I knew what I was angry at. I was angry at an antiquated, image obsessed reality, a reality that I was a part of, for better or for worse, that define what I had to do. I didn¡¯t like it, but I didn¡¯t want to be a window dresser, nor did I want to be a pedantic, rod wielding Victorian school marm. Wasn¡¯t there something in the middle? And if there is, how can I find it when social, cultural, and most of all, educational dictations refuse to allow me to do otherwise?
¡°I love you. I love all my students. I love teaching here in China.¡±
I shouldn¡¯t have said that. This is a highly sensitive topic for me, and my personal feelings can sometimes come out, and when it does, it makes me out to be a self-righteous chauvinistic idiot.
¡°Look. Here¡¯s the deal. You take the failure. You will have another chance to take the exam later during your enrollment here. This is something all students can do. You will get a second chance, but for now, just live with it.¡±
I told the secretary I had to take some paperwork up to my office, and for him to watch my exams carefully so when I returned I could take them back to my apartment.
¡°Can I go to your apartment with you?¡±
Her lips were trembling. Here come the tears.
¡°Okay. Your image is good with me. I do not think you are a bad student. I just think you are a good student that made a mistake. Good people make mistakes everyday. You made one today. But you¡¯re still a good person and a good student to me. Okay?¡±
I departed for my office, leaving her in the hallway, deposited my paperwork, and then returned downstairs to gather my exams that were being guarded and watched by the secretary in the department office.
She was in there, desperately trying to persuade him to return her exam so I wouldn¡¯t have any record of her exam. He was adamantly refusing. Finally when she saw me, she turned around, quickly left the office, and disappeared. I gathered my bundle of exams, and walked out of the building.
The sun was shining brightly, despite the coal smoke; the peasant laborers were carrying solid three foot concrete slabs tied on their backs as yet another building on campus was being constructed. I wondered if one day those concrete slabs would all fall down on top of me. If they did, there would be one less self-loafing son of a bitch teaching here.
Tuesday, January 07, 2003
To gain admission to a public college or university in China, the student must make the minimal acceptable score on the yearly National College Entrance Exam, which is given during the last year of Upper Middle School (known as high school in the west) throughout China. Although Huaibei Coal Industry Teachers College is a higher education institution fully accredited under the Educational Ministry in the Central Government in Beijing, it is not a key university. A key university is reserved for only those universities and colleges who admit students who have made high scores on the yearly National College Entrance Exam, and also for those universities and colleges who have demonstrated exemplary progress in research. Usually, key universities and colleges have graduate programs. Sometimes, a student will have to take the exam more than once to make the minimal score for admission in any of the colleges or universities accredited under the Educational Ministry. If the student cannot accomplish this, then he or she can attend a private college or university here in China, which are not accredited under the State Education Council or the Educational Ministry. Within the past two years, the Educational Ministry, in an attempt to provide a more egalitarian opportunity for all students, has become less stringent about the exam scores, and this has led to increased enrollment in the smaller colleges and universities. In the Foreign Language Department where I teach one can easily see the noticeable effects of this with large classes, and the lower quality of some students. Competition is extremely fierce to gain admission at any college or university here in China. In other words, and many Chinese would agree with me on this point, it¡¯s difficult to gain admission, although slightly easier now, but relatively undemanding to graduate.
Exams mean only one thing here: cheating: rampant, unabated, unscrupulous, and sometimes, assisted. I work all semester long, preparing, lecturing, answering questions, as well as do everything humanly possible to make sure my students perform well on my exams. The last two weeks of the semester I will devote entirely to reviewing for the exam, even going so far as to point out pertinent knowledge that will most certainly appear on the exam. Yet, despite my arduous attempt, I am plague with cheating. You may wonder why I don¡¯t say, ¡°academic dishonesty.¡± I don¡¯t say ¡°academic dishonesty¡± because it¡¯s too nice and too formal a word to describe the complete lack of shame that students will have for cheating. They aren¡¯t ashamed. They feel no guilt. It¡¯s their image on the line. As one student wrote this past semester, ¡°We students want to accomplish what the teacher desires, but sometimes to do this we must not do things honestly, for if we did, we wouldn¡¯t be able to accomplish what he desires, and we wouldn¡¯t look like good students.¡±
This semester I made it a point every two weeks in the semester to stress that I respect a student who fails honestly rather than one who passes dishonestly. I even stressed that if I catch a student cheating I will have no mercy. Tomorrow, I give my American Literature exam and frankly, I am expecting the worst. Perhaps, I am overreacting, but I know from past experience I am not.
Spring semester 2001 I failed 31 students. Fifteen I caught in the act of cheating: using their notes, copy answers off other student¡¯s exams, and communicating verbally the answers to each other in Chinese. I was in a room filled with 110 students. Two Chinese English teachers served as proctors. One of them I caught giving answers to another student. At the end of the exam, nine students, crying like I had killed their parents, met me. The Dean of the Foreign Language Department approached me in front of these students inquiring about what had happened. ¡°I caught them cheating, plain and simple, ¡°I told him. I returned to my apartment; my phone was ringing constantly. The students who were caught cheating were determined to change my mind, but they used students who had passed the exams to testify to their good characters on the phone. It didn¡¯t work. Instead, they met with the Dean. He phoned and invited me to dinner. I knew what was up. We ate dinner, he tried to persuade me, and I stood unwavering in my decision. Inside myself, I faced the most infinitesimal part of what I am: that part of what I really was: am I a teacher? Or am I just some foreigner here to travel and rubber stamp grades and play the role of window dresser? A window dresser, as all experienced foreign teachers know, is sometimes what is expected of foreign teachers here. You¡¯re hired for image, to fulfill the requirements that all colleges and universities must have foreign teachers. If you¡¯re not serious about what you do as a teacher here, then you are a window dresser because you sure are not a teacher. Finally, at the end of that debacle, I maintained my stance and failed the 31 students. I was hated, despised, and resented. I was slandered, gossiped about relentlessly, and I was seen as a vicious man. That day was the worst day in my whole career of education. In the states, of course we have cheating, but I had never seen it as I have seen here on such a blatant, widespread scale.
To cheat on exams is basically easy. First, the students are provided these 12-inch by 16-inch answer sheets, and when you have 100 students are more to a room and the seating is limited, then it¡¯s quite easy and effortless to look at other students¡¯ answer sheets. Second, with so few proctors, and with so many students, then the chances of catching a student in the deliberate act of cheating is almost minimal, especially if the proctors are not taking their duties very seriously. Third, the students will rationalize that cheating is acceptable since they have other exams so they can¡¯t be prepared for your exam as much as possible. Fourth, the students know that the job market is very competitive and grades are highly value, and an employer will most likely not hire a student who doesn¡¯t make a high grade. All these factors weave inside those students who are counting on passing the exam dishonestly.
The proctors, and for that matter, Chinese teachers in general, take their responsibility of preserving the students¡¯mianzi, or face, seriously. It¡¯s unfortunate that they crave the students¡¯ approval so much that they will compromise their integrity to teach. However, sometimes the teacher¡¯s own need for the students¡¯ approval is an innate manifestation of his or her own fears. The teacher fears what the students will say about them. Public criticism tends to be highly feared by some Chinese, and this public criticism for some Chinese teachers includes the students¡¯ opinions and most of all, their relationship with the teacher, hence the incestuous relationship between teacher and student.
Also, even more serious, teachers take their responsibility of preserving the students¡¯ family¡¯s mianzi. They do not want to be the harbinger of bad will between parents and siblings, especially if that parent has friends in high places, and will not hesitate to contact a friend in a high place for a possible public criticism against that teacher and against that teacher¡¯s future in his danwei, or working unit.
Yet, despite these factors, most Chinese teachers here are conscientious, but it¡¯s very important to know which few are not because if they are proctoring your exam, you can expect little or no support when students take the upper hand and try to cheat because when that happens, you¡¯ll know the true meaning of collective determination.
The students themselves are products of a highly populated, highly competitive educational system, one that includes public posting of exam scores and unrelenting parental pressures to claw for the least break for an opportunity; the student¡¯s image can define his parents¡¯ image. I have tried repeatedly to get my students to become casual in the classroom with little results. They are overridden with great insecurity derived from the incredible pressures of the chain of mianzi, and frankly at such an emotional immature age, it becomes almost unfathomable to me. One day I remarked in frustration, ¡°Christ, you wouldn¡¯t know what a good time was, if it bit you on the ass! You¡¯re so damn concerned about what anyone thinks about you.¡± And in a culture where it¡¯s normal in any Chinese community for everyone to take an very close interest in what everyone else is doing, and there are strong social pressures to conform, how can this effect of being so highly competitive --beyond the normal expectations which I am accustomed to--be any different?
So, exactly where does that leave me as a foreign teacher? I am hated, loved, resented, praised, respected, feared, and despised by students and faculty for many reasons. What am I doing here? I am here to teach¡ªdespite it all.
Sunday, January 05, 2003
Outside my apartment is Huaibei's own lone mountain, Xiangshan, a large ugly vacant hill covered in rocks, a few family tombs and marred by repeated strip mining. At the bottom of Xiang Shan is a refuse dump, where herds of goats scavenge amid the cardboard and Styrofoam leftovers of instant noodles and other unidentifiable remains. A few tree saplings, which are usually planted every spring on its rocky dusty side by students during workweek, merely sit in the dry, nutrient-depleted sand before meeting their inevitable deaths at the hand of pollution and erosion. At the top of Xiangshan is a television tower which on certain nights, when lit, gives off an ominous green glow that, resembles the Eiffel Tower after Armageddon.
I am now finishing my second year of teaching here at Huaibei Coal Industry Teachers College in the city of Huaibei, Anhui Province, The People's Republic of China. I am forty-two years old, white with blond hair, American, 190 pounds, 5 foot 10 inches, and single. Here in Huaibei, I am the only foreign teacher. Isolation, solitude, and loneliness are very familiar to me. My apartment is well equipped by Chinese standards: I have a computer with internet access, telephone with caller ID, television, two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom with shower. I also employ a maid to cook for me five days a week. I usually teach American and British Literature as well as the occasional Western culture course. My hobbies tend to be solitary ones such as reading, listening to music, writing, and if my moods are not too dark or too debilitating, or even more frequent, if I am not too tired or too busy preparing my lessons, I study Chinese.
Located in the small city of Huaibei, in the very north of the Anhui Province, Huaibei Coal Industry Teachers College is a small college in comparison to most of China's universities and colleges. First established in 1974, the Ministry of Coal Mining originally controlled Huaibei Coal Industry Teachers College, but later, the college came under the control of the State Education Council and the Educational Ministry in the Central Government in Beijing.
Here at Huaibei Coal Industry Teachers College, the Foreign Language Department consists of approximately 20 teachers. Of these 20 teachers, two have master's degrees, and eighteen have bachelor's degrees. Almost all are from the Anhui Province, as well as being past graduates of this college. The primary language emphasis in the department is English. Since the Four Modernizations Reform Policy promoted by the late President Deng Xiao Ping in the early 1980s, English has been the second language taught throughout China's educational system, its primary schools, its lower and middle schools, as well as its colleges and universities. Chinese teachers generally teach courses that stress comprehension: reading and listening, phonetics, linguistics, and lexicology. Those with bachelor's degrees teach freshmen and sophomores, while those with graduate degrees teach junior and seniors. The English speaking and comprehension abilities of the Chinese teachers vary from poor to excellent. A few have receded into language fossilization, where the English they speak and know is the same English they learned while they were students, and they seem to have made no effort to improve their language beyond that point. But the majority are conscientious about their field and make every attempt to improve themselves in English, and in their teaching and knowledge of it. For various puzzling questions about English pronunciation, vocabulary, and cultural knowledge Chinese teachers and students occasionally consult me. Most Chinese teachers adhere to the Chinese teaching method, and students of course are accustomed to this method. The teacher speaks from a podium with very little or no student discussion. The teacher will occasionally call on a student to ask a question. At which time, the student will stand and attempt to answer the teacher's question. There are a few Chinese teachers, however, who are resorting to different teaching methods, methods that include an importance on students speaking English in class.
I do not use the Chinese teaching method, not because I refuse to, but because I am not Chinese, and have not been a part of the Chinese education system. Although the Foreign Language Department allows me complete freedom in dictating how my courses are conducted, they do assign the courses I do teach, which are literature and writing courses not language courses. My students vary in their language levels, their ability to speak, and in their comprehension and writing skills. Invariably, this makes my teaching a formidable task. I don't stand behind the podium. Instead, I walk around the classroom. If I call on a student, I don't require them to stand up. I do insist that they speak their ideas freely, and sometimes, they do. Chinese students generally refuse to ask questions during class, and if they don't understand something, they won't tell you. So, I usually allow them to ask me questions out of class or phone me.
Our Foreign Language Department has very up to date multi-media audiovisual equipment, and I use it because my classes this semester range from 70 students to as much as 110 students in one class. I place some of my notes on Microsoft Power Point, save them on a disc, and then insert them into the computer where they are brilliantly displayed on a wide screen in the multi-media room. I lecture from a microphone, but this doesn't prevent me from walking around the room. The courses I teach are British Literature I, which ranges from Beowulf to Robert Burns, and Twentieth Century Modern American Literature, which is a special topics course that the department approved for me to teach. My approach to teaching British Literature is a composite of background history, literary terms and ideas, and western cultural phenomena that Chinese learners might have difficulty in understanding. My approach to teaching Twentieth Century Modern American Literature is a composite of Marx's Historical Materialism, Adam Smith's Economic Principles, and Western ideals that arose from the rise and expansion of Capitalism as well as the social and aesthetic effects of Modernism, especially the historical events of the Twentieth Century, particularly World War I, upon the writers and works. To teach literature here requires that I embrace the huge difference between Chinese and Westerners, and that I clarify those ideas along the lines that shape western cultures. I encourage my students to make comparisons to China's development and struggle to be a modern nation, and the United States' past history. Also, I do have a little knowledge of Chinese literature, and this helps with students in making comparisons to their own literary heritage. If I can communicate this historical and literary knowledge to the student, then perhaps they can cross the cultural barrier of English, and perhaps understand the similarities as well as appreciate the differences.
My students mostly come from here in the Anhui Province, one of the poorer provinces, and the rest from as far away as the Autonomous Region of Mongolia, the very large cities of Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai, as well as remote provinces. Some come from the countryside, some from the crowded cities. Most have been learning English since lower middle school, and a few as early as primary school. The education system that has shaped them, and continues to shape them is exam-oriented. The final exam for a course here at this college composes 70 percent of the final course grade. All teachers in all the colleges and universities in the Anhui Province are required by the Anhui Provincial Educational Committee to have this high course percentage for the final exam, and I am no exception. Also, while in college, students must take the Nationwide Band 4 English Comprehension exam as sophomores and the Band 8 English Comprehension exam as seniors. These comprehensive Band exams are grueling and exhausting at worst and pedantic and trivial at best. They would be very difficult for most native English speakers to pass. During May I attended and spoke at a teaching symposium in the city of Xuzhou. I heard a Chinese English Teacher say it best, "Yes, our students can pass the Band 4 exams, but if you ask him or her what they did last weekend in English, they couldn't tell you in English.However, I do have many students who can easily converse in English; sadly, they usually are the very ones who failed the band exams!
Like American college students, this is their first time living away from home, but that is where any similarities end. They don't drive cars, they don't have fraternities or sororities, and they don't dare squabble over grades, unless it's a failing grade but even then, they have little or no recourse. There are no organized sports team or even a college marching band. Some students are so poor that they beg the college to allow them stay even if they don't have enough tuition money. This requires the college to seek other resources to possibly fund the poorest students. Sometimes, a student may have only two or three changes of clothes. The dorm rooms are Spartan to say the least. Some consist of concrete slab flooring with corrosive iron framed windows. The students sleep six to eight to a room with small bunks and are supplied with a metal basin. To obtain water, they must go outside, and get hot water from the campus boiler. Some of the hallways of the dorms are always damp from the leaky pipes that feed into the toilets. Any electrical wiring is fully exposed. In some rooms, a lone light bulb dangles from the center of the ceiling. No air-conditioning exists in any dorm room, and the dorm rooms have only a little heat when it is deemed cold enough for those in the administration to allow the dormitory buildings to have some, usually around February. If a student wants to take a shower, then he or she must go to the shower facilities in a separate building on campus and pay to take one. So, this means that most students only take a shower maybe once or twice a week, three times if they have the money. In the dorm rooms, all power is shut down at 11 PM, which means no fans, no lights, and no mosquito machines. Sometimes, my students will bring their flashlights to my classroom to recharge in the electrical outlets since the power is turned off at 11 PM and they need the flashlights to study in their dorm rooms. Each Monday, they listen to the National Anthem of the People's Republic of China, watch the Flag being raised, and salute it before classes start, but every morning, Monday through Friday at 6:30 they must do morning exercises, which they despise. Also, it's not uncommon to see students who have bad eyesight, although they may have glasses and sit close to the chalkboard. Every morning on my way to class I see students standing outside reading out loudly from their textbooks, trying to improve their pronunciation of English. Occasionally, female students will be suffering from menstrual cramps in my classroom. I reason they probably prefer to suffer in the classroom than in those dorm rooms.
The course load my students take easily exceeds what an American student takes. Students take from as little as 6 classes to as much as 12 classes. They have no choice. The college determines which courses the students take, and each class of students is treated in a collective manner when it's been determined. This is a collective society, and the college and universities are no exception to this collectivism. Once students graduate, they are expected to teach English at middle schools and a few at colleges for lower level courses. They must take political courses like Deng Xiao Ping Theory or Mao Ze Dong Thought. Every year each student must undergo a rigorous physical education exam, which consists of many strenuous events, including the 800-meter run for girls and the 1000-meter run for boys. This past spring I watched this exam. The students worked collectively to insure that they could all pass. For westerners, we might find this to be cheating, but when you see thirty-five students in one class struggling together, pulling each other up off the ground, and cheering each other on, you can't help but realize that something got lost in the great competition for individuality in the west.
It can easily be argued that the Chinese teacher-student relationship is an incestuous one. This dates back to the neo-Confucian philosophy, which was, and still is, so much a part of the Chinese culture where the teacher literally superseded the parental roles. Parents, teachers, administrators and government leaders all are part of a collective chain. Each part of this chain bears a certain amount of responsibility to the other part. Each part must not only preserve the mianzi (face) of their own role, but also respect the mianzi of other roles in the collective chain. Parents bear responsibility to the children, teachers bear responsibility to the parents, the administrators bear a responsibility to the teachers, and government leaders bear a responsibility to the administrators. However, as much as I try not to play into the incestuous role, I sometimes fall victim to it, perhaps because I am acutely aware of the hardships my students endure. Last semester, in my Selections from the American Novel course, where we examined various short stories and essays through the western cultural context, one of my students was keenly aware of my personal feelings about their hardships. Admittedly, I try not to be so forthcoming in my emotions in the classroom, but some students are intensely observant:
"In China, we regard suffering as character-building. For instance, we students are often encouraged to study bitterly. There was a famous scholar who suffered himself by sticking an awl in his calf when he fell asleep while studying at night. And this kind of self-made suffering wins our admiration and respect instead of puzzled feelings, which might be stirred in a foreigner. Our foreign teacher's heart is broken when he sees the hard life of Chinese students. But we have to accept it and live in this way instead of having such strong emotions. And most of us are taught from our childhood that it's useful for a man to go through some sufferings in his youth and some people believe that the more one suffers, the more successful he may become. This at least in part accounts for the relative more bearance of suffering on the part of most Chinese people than westerners."
Families are the backbone of Chinese society. For most Chinese students departing their families is a traumatic event. Once they are plunged into campus life, they attempt to replace their dependence they had on their parents by depending on their friends and on their teachers. Chinese students are very naive, highly susceptible to peer pressure, and most of all, concerned with their mianzi. They have never held a job. They know very little, except what they have been told in schools. In middle school, teachers have the responsibility of guiding students not only intellectually and politically, but also most importantly, morally. They assume almost a parental role in the later aspect, by being required by the middle school to monitor students' behavior in and out of classrooms, which also require long hours at the school. Also, in middle school, the students will receive military training, which means they have to drill and march. It seems the military training is the fiber that brings the whole collective mindset of students into cohesion--the cohesion of an obedient and subservient group. If that isn't enough, the heart of learning in the Chinese educational system is memorization. Students are required to memorize and write over 1000 Chinese characters and memorize quotations from Confucius and Mao Ze Dong's Poetry. Critical and creative thinking tends to be largely ignored. You find greatly here in Chinese society that dependence is a key feature throughout a Chinese life. Chinese, depending on which stage of life they are in, childhood, adolescence, or adulthood, rely in varying degrees emotionally and intellectually on their parents, their teachers, their leaders, and their working unit. Later in life, the parents will depend on their children. The whole idea of being alone is frightening to a Chinese. They equate independence with being alone as well as being different. Not to conform is seen as strange and can be met with strong disapproval from most Chinese--even if a Chinese is seen speaking English, and especially if he or she is conversing with a foreigner in English.
The most frustrating part about teaching as well as about living in China is this conformity. If I take my students as a collective entity, which is easy to do especially when I see how they all act, behave, and, at times, believe, then I get a sense of hopelessness about my teaching. They seem so ready to believe anything anyone tells them,especially gossip and rumor. And if they have been fed through the propaganda conduit, courtesy of their educational system, then you get a very real sense of sameness about them. Furthermore, they expect foreign teachers sometimes to adhere to their conformity. When the foreign teacher doesn't, then the student sometimes will get indignant, which usually means the student will immediately grasp the branch of Chinese nationalism as not only a defense, but also as means of an offense. The propaganda technique of "bait, hook, and reel them in" can easily turn a class against you within a short time. The student will throw out the bait of international news, ideas, entertainment, culture, ad infinitum, which can seem perfectly innocent of any political tainting to me, and the student will twist and distort it into foreign, usually American, aggression and oppression. Last semester, I actually had to circulate through my classes my passport, my Foreign Residence Permit, my Foreign Experts Certificate, my Georgia drivers license, my University staff I.D card from America, and my credit cards in order to possibly alleviate any fears. Finally after giving my evidence that I was not a foreign spy, I told my classes to look outside the classroom window. At which time I said, "Okay, this is Huaibei. It's in one of the poorest provinces. This city has nothing militarily sensitive. Hell, we don't even have an airport, and if we did, the airplanes couldn't find the airport because of all the pollution. We also don't have any tourist sites. Hell, even most Chinese don't want to come here. Now if I was a spy, what the hell would I spy on?"The class starting giggling, and I think most of them understood the absurdity of it all.
For all my students, I am the only foreigner they have ever really seen or known. My role of a teacher is much broader than the role expected of a teacher in America. As pretentious as it sounds, I represent the otherness, and for many, that is terribly frightening, occasionally amusing, and infinitely interesting. I am a very real contrast to everything they are accustomed to seeing and hearing and believing and behaving. And it is this very difference that I represent which I try to use to force them to think. Sometimes, I am successful;usually, I am not. Admittedly, two things hamper me: the political and social restrictions of their collective culture, and as much as it pains me to say, their education system. Academics are merely secondary to politics, and education levels are lower because of poor textbooks, a controlled media, poor teaching, and above all, corruption. I do have some excellent students who are very motivated to learn in spite of those debilitating factors. I have found that if these Chinese students are given the opportunity, and I can establish the seriousness of my teaching, then they do try beyond the mediocre and sometimes the outrageously unreasonable standards expected of them by their educational system. My cultural differences in teaching have led to many uncomfortable moments for my students. It is not my purpose to make my students uncomfortable; rather my purpose is to make the student learn, struggle, and open their minds to new ways of thinking and new ways of teaching. In a culture where conformity is such an integral part, where political and social insularity ensures that it stays so, I also represent an opportunity to see something outside the confines of their insular culture, and even the poorest student will try for that opportunity. Other than the propaganda danger of teaching, I have never ever seen a Chinese student demonstrate one iota of an intentional disrespectful attitude towards me in the classroom--never. It can be argued that this is perhaps part of the feudal remnants of a developing country. If it is, I think they need to keep it.
One day in a class discussion, after I had lectured on western individualism, a student boldly asked me, "Hank, are Chinese students really as smart as western students?"The classroom was silent, no giggles or laughter. I looked at this student from the poor town of Xiaoxian, just 30 minutes south of Huaibei. Several weeks before during a lecture on Environmental Control in the U.S., just one of the many topics I am sometimes asked to lecture for student organizational activities, this student had attempted to pull the standard propaganda "bait, hook, reel them in" ploy during the questioning part of my lecture. I had quickly remonstrated him the next day out in the hall just before class, and he had burst into tears and immediately apologized. I chose my words carefully this time because I didn't know if he was doing same thing again. Frankly, at times, I think some students aren't aware that they are doing this propaganda ploy, as eerie as it sounds.
Ah spoken like a true jackass trying to incur favor with the collective masses!
Looking back now, I was being too sanctimonious, and too condemning because of my own personal experiences. I wish I had taken a more objective approach, but I really believed, and still do, that this student was asking an honest question, and I felt compelled for whatever personal reasons to give him what I perceived to be an honest answer, albeit one that was subjective. Maybe it was another propaganda ploy, but I doubt it. Maybe I was the one doing the propaganda ploy, but I doubt that too. Maybe I was trying to justify my own reason for returning to China. Maybe I just wanted my students to learn even if that meant feeding on their sense of inferiority or mine.
During another class one day a student ask me what my definition of being successful was. I responded, "A successful person enjoys what he or she is doing most of the time, and shares his success with others. He not only shares his success but also shares himself. For with this struggle for success comes meaning and purpose, which is why I choose to teach. Many think money means success, to have those things that you don't have now but I don't think so. You will die. Every one of you. I will die. What did you do while you were alive? That's what you should ask yourselves, because if you don't ask yourselves that, then you might find you have nothing, no matter how many things you have."
I don't think I am a communist. That student probably responded in the only way he knew how: politically, and I think I responded in the only way I knew how: personally.
But it would be greatly unfair to say my students know how to only respond politically, for I know they do know how to respond personally, not just in the classroom but especially in their writing. Sometimes, I find I do serve as a great difference between social roles and social expectations, especially here in China:
Ah what a grandiose commentary!
Teaching as a foreign teacher requires that I face many obstacles. Yet these very same obstacles of Chinese culture offer a glimpse into the power of my own spirit. My only hope is that my students can see my sense of self, and something of themselves, and learn that we both have commonalities. At times, I wonder if I will lose my sense of self in the rigorous confinement of their culture. I have found myself growing a thick skin, a skin as scaly as any proverbial Chinese dragon. If this student knew this part of me, would she think this was also a part of my true self? As long as my own spirit leads to heartbreak and suffering, then I still have my sense of self. I always reminded of that, daily, both in and out of the classroom here in China.