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Many Faces: Education in China

“There are quantities of human faces, but there are many more faces, for each person has several.”

Ranier Maria Rilke

I once substituted  as lecturer for a Classics course in a Chinese Ivy League school. The beloved Harvard educated Chinese professor could not teach that term because of medical issues.  I entered the classroom as an unknown entity. Students at the University were used to “Waijiao”  (Foreign Teachers or literally Outside Teachers) with little or no experience being put into their classrooms more for the color of their skin or country of origin than for the their knowledge of the subject to be taught. After a brief run through the ambitious syllabus foisted on me I asked the class if there were any questions. One young man in the back of the room angrily asked: “What qualifies you to teach at this institution?” His question neither offended nor surprised me.

I knew a little of the history of this class and their previous foreign faculty members: one, in his sixties, had recently been asked to resign as a result of relational improprieties and another, also in his sixties, was dating three different young women at once (uknown to the others)  while living with another on campus. Neither teacher had a degree in English nor much of a cultural grasp of China beyond a singular fondness for young Chinese girls. Sadly, this breed of foreign expert had been the norm at that school for many years.

I calmly explained that I had been at on time, before my travel to China, a “real teacher” with a real desire to see them come to love and understand literature as much as I had during my graduate education. I told them that my credentials, awards, and publishing credits more than qualified me for undergraduate lecturing. I stress that  during my program I was taught by mentors and visiting lecturers in my program who had won every award from the National Book award to the TS Elliot Prize to the Nobel, to…But academic window dressing would only have meaning if by the end of the term they had come, to paraphrase Rilke, to enjoy literature more and more, and became more and more grateful, and somehow better and simpler in vision, and deeper their faith in life, and happier and greater in the way they lived and were able to appreciate the power of the written word as it has influenced millions over the decades.

Richard, the young man above, was the class antagonist the entire term: He became my favorite student by way of his challenges and lust for knowledge and academic integrity in his learning. He will graduate from Columbia this year and he still intellectually wrestles with me when I post something questionable on Facebook or other social networks where we remain connected.

Most new teachers in China will not have such good luck. They will not have vocal students (another post will discuss why they are silent and it is not for lack of opinion or ability) who will educate them about how they are perceived nor will they be lucky enough to teach top students much more than oral English idioms in a class better suited for elementary aged pupils.

Know this:

  • You are a foreigner and many round eyes and white faces have preceded you. Some have done their job well, most have not.
  • It is your responsibility to acculturate, not theirs.
  • Learn your students Chinese names and something of their background.
  • Be patient with yourself and your students.*
  • Know that the students have already spoken, and likely written on school boards, about you. Ask them individually how to improve their learning experience. They will tell you though not always with the grace and tact you might like. Do not be surprised to be told, if you open yourself to feedback, that you are short, fat, old, wrinkled or speak too fast, slow, too much or too little to them.
  • Know that the Chinese staff knows little or nothing about you and may not bother to take much time to engage you: you are a transient in their life of endless meetings, regulations, low pay, long hours and mandated curriculum. They may think you less prepared culturally and academically than their Chinese colleagues.

The China Library Project

There are three exercises I use in almost every class to bring each student, and consequently China, into better focus:

  • I take time away from regular studies to have each student write their name in Chinese on the board and describe each element and character in the name. I ask them to include the historical meaning of the name, who gave it to them and why. Att the same time I ask them not to use an English name in my class in order that I might learn their real names and the identities behind each one. This term, Purple Heart, Handsome Horse, Ms Poetry and Beautiful Phoenix are a few of the student names I will never ever forget–where I might not remember the faces or stories of Chloe, Vince or Sophie. And the stories behind the names have been worth a thousand Chinese culture classes as I have learned about Feng Shui from those whose names were chosen for luck by a soothsayer or master, enjoyed tales about entire villages with a common middle or last names, and shared in the hopes and dreams of parents who chose Chinese name characters hoping their meaning would influence the futures of their children by association or divine intervention.
  • I interview each student in many classes and ask them simple questions about the wishes, lies and dreams in their educational lives. I have come to know real people, not numbers, faces or acquired names. And the fear that once separated us has often dissolved and been replaced by lasting respect and I have been able to honor and stretch their boundaries. And they become as uncomfortable with the term Waijiao as I do because, while always an outsider, I am on the periphery with love and appreciation and a sincere desire to see them succeed:  “I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other”
  • The first ten minutes of any class is devoted to school, local, regional and national news. This keeps me informed about things I would never otherwise know, helps with language acquisition, and tells me culturally what is important to them and why. Politics and religion are forbidden discussion topics, but  feelings about sports, war, earthquakes, and even movies or television star scandals will inform about China you in ways you never dreamed possible. Students learn that I am not the America they condemn because of the reader-baiting bias of a CNN or other media source and I re-discover that they are not the perpetrators of the rules and ideologies by which the west defines China.

 

Becoming a teacher in China is more than lessons in language if you have respect, and most of all, patience:”… there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being a [ teacher] means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!”

 

American Professor in China,China Blog,China Business Consultant,China Editorials,China Expat,Chinese Education,Confucius Slept Here,Cross Cultural Training,Education in China,Intercultural Issues,New Oriental,Personal Notes,Teaching in China

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New and Selected Poems: Mystery of Faith

I just watched the film Man on Fire again tonight. There are few films more disturbing about vengeance. And despite the success of its anti-hero, I see violence as a poor cathartic. I do not subscribe to the lynch mob calls for oblique justice like those hoping Roman Polanski will be extradited and forced to pay for his own alleged sins and those of a growing mob’s perpetrators of pain.  It seems to me that it is a bit late to revisit the morality of either Polanski, his accuser or the reportedly power abusing prosecutors and judges in his case.

My motto has become: “Writing well is the best revenge.”  Having to examine, catalogue and give order to horror in order to render it into art can effect great healing. But, I am sympathetic to those who scream our in the name of justice because where forgiveness of abuse is possible, the ability to forget is a myth.

Father Dan Maio, who was in charge of a Pueblo, Colorado youth program in the 1970’s was the epitome of evil: The proverbial wolf in priest’s clothing. Maio, the subject of the poem below, used the power entrusted to him as a priest to emotionally wound dozens of diocesan Catholic youngsters from decent homes and several mentally challenged inmates housed at the Colorado State Hospital. He used drugs, music, personal charm and manipulative psychological seminars and retreats to lure his victims. He was protected by church-bred reverence for his station and the misguided arrogance of accomplices like his assistant Father Jerry Varrone and his confessor Bishop Buswell. This was written both for catharsis and to give credence, and hopefully some measure of comfort, to the pain expressed by those he and others like him have hurt.

Mystery of Faith

There were many boys who knew the sound of black

patent leather coming down the hardwood hall

a floor above the nuns, like Mary Elizabeth,

existing on a belief in simple answers

but who would never feel

the drool, the musk

or late day stubble

on their cheeks

Maybe Sister came here once to answer the same questions:

How do you forget the making and breaking of a spirit?

How do you wash away the incense of aggression?

When does grown-up flesh release its hold

on small bones?

How do women stand it? I cannot forget even one turn of cold brass

or stillness rushing from the room, or prayers taking me

from my body, eyes fixed on the rectory’s stained ceiling.

I would be yanked back by the horrifying

rituals of the familiar: the thin vinegar

of communion wine on his breath,

the tiny cruciform medallion

raping against my chest,

vapors of toxic celibacy

everywhere

I’d try to hold my breath when he left,

and scrub the stiffening linen,

remove every corporeal trace

of the god who claimed

he was a delinquent’s

last and only chance

Sometimes I thought I knew more about being a woman

than did Sister Mary and I longed for her easy beliefs.

But, I never risked asking the questions

that can destroy such a faith

forever

When do we accept, like her, a God like the wind

who polices the night, rattles doorknobs and whispers

reassuringly to us past locked doors

that I can close my eyes again

to the dark?

American Poet in China,poems,Poetry,sexual abuse

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New and Selected Poems: The Expat’s Fiance

“Horror is partial, it keeps you going”

–Rita Dove

He’s proof that angels sweat

and make fat promises

in child-like English

She keeps twisting her oversized diamond

then minces toward the ladies room

on the highest of heels

tries to ignore the ghostly make-up

on the woman in the mirror

(dead to her father,

a disappointment to her mother)

and her weary looks of disdain

American Poet in China,American Professor in China,China Expat,China Expats,Heartsongs,Intercultural Issues

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New and Selected Poems “Silver Dollar Annie”

Thanks to Rick for finding this and passing it back to me. Rick, a friend now, was a student if mine many moons ago when I penned this poem. I had not seen this draft for 15 years before today.

I can’t tell you where or why I met Annie, but have never forgotten her or her stories….

SILVER DOLLAR ANNIE

The last time I saw her

was the day before her wedding

kneeling in her garden

packing unneeded soil

over already sturdy bases
She was beautiful in the shade:

snakeskin diamonds: cool shadows

cast by leaves above her

I shut my eyes

and the memories revolved:

I saw the dance hall’s mirrored ball,

the bachelor’s party

at the Saddleman’s Club

where nothing’s left to the imagination:

Annie’s body was more public than  most

she’d won local fame for dancing

with a silver dollar

men would place between her breasts

dollars she’d keep if they did not fall fell

and never did

The loud profranties

had to remind her of her father

the sorry bastard whose cock

rose at the rush of a shower

or the clink of a hanger

and Annie in search of a bedclothes

But, her nightgown always collapsed

poured into itself

until the dim light of broken promises

rose again on another tired day
How I came to know her after this

is less important than that night

she slow danced and hugged herself

into a dark trance

before almost letting go

of reticent tears

the clear wine of a new covenant

And the men too nearly wept

and suddenly, quietly returned home to their wives

She did not see me on either occasion:

This time because she was smiling at a thrush

preparing a nest in a boil of leaves

when the wind moved her hair

behind her ear, whispered

a long traveled promise

and dried her cheek with a kiss

she closed her eyes to accept

Uncategorized

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New and Selected Poems “The Strike”

The Strike

(work in progress: for CD)

At bat is the son of a pro

who looks as though he never leaves

the batter’s box without a hit

Cody is pitching his first inning:

a long shadow of an arm

opens its small hand

and sends a dark disc speeding

over the flat stretch toward home

“Strike One”

Only the next fastball breathes

in the agonizing heat

and fathers close their eyes

conferring with fragments of the future

in the only game that will somehow ever matter

“Strike Two”

There are three sounds you can hear

if you listen closely–It’s never

that  restrained at a Cubs game

It is the sound of a perfect fastball

released across the long barrier

of years from mound to plate

and the impossible difference

between the home run clap of a bat

and the sting and leather slap of an out

It’s the umpire waiting

on the one authoritative second

when he’ll shout as witness and judge

a life-changing verdict

American Poet in China

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Stone Pillow: New and Collected Poems: “Apertures”

I was just looking at Flickr photos that I snapped during a trip to Lanzhou in Gansu Province, China. It has been a couple of years since I took what was a life changing journey over the Yellow River and along the Silk Road. Gansu is the China I most love–sorry Guangzhou–with its dozens of ethnic groups. Despite its terrific poverty it is with rife with Confucian, Taoist and rich Buddhist temple bells and beautiful, delicate relics from Qing, Ming and Sui dynasties; and many of them can be found only a few meters from each other. And then there are the dozens of poems cradled in the giant Buddha’s arms and a countryside recites them in a different voice every spectacular season.

The pictures called to mind a poem I wrote a few years ago about how love for a person or place remains perfect, and  young even as we move through our inescapable developmental phases.

Apertures

I was just looking

through a photo album

one of those musty, three-tiered

prison blocks full of parents

slowly leaning away from each other

and children running at a standstill:

escaping more perfunctory poses.

There is one of you

just after I read you that poem

by another writer

about a woman

with your votive smile, inner nakedness

and a mid-afternoon firestorm in her hair

that he wished he had touched.

He told me once, his faced engraved

with regret, that he visits her often now,

though he didn’t attend the funeral.

When we first met

I heard

still hear your body

moving under your clothes:

the long felt silence of a temple bell.

Behind you, curtains were whispering

like nylons.

Why is it

that we capture ourselves

sometimes forever

in a flat semblance of the truth?

It is why

in pictures of me I am alone

standing outside my heart

with nothing for me to compare

until the day I’m holding you,

in a portrait with more

than a passion of intention,

and with a look as serious as a kiss.

American Professor in China,China Expat,Chinese Monks,Confucius Slept Here,Gansu,Heartsongs,Lanzhou,love,Personal Notes,Photos,Poetry,Stone Pillow,Travel in China,中国

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Stone Pillow: New and Selected Poems “Fishing for the Moon”

Poet Li Young-Lee has often spoken of certain works as “quarrels” with his father. Many of mine, like Fishing… fall into the same category. Studies have been done that imply that the post-death emotional impact of a family member’s passing is far greater for those who had a strained relationship with the deceased.

My father was, at various times in his life someone easy to quarrel with because we were nothing alike. It was a long time in coming that I really believed, and not as an apologetic attempt at self-delusion, he did as best he could with what nature and nurture had given him. Life was not easy: He spent his teen years in a Masonic sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis during the Great Depression before joining a traveling carnival where he worked as a roustabout before heading off to WWII in the infantry.

When he died ironically there was only one person, other than me and my mother, who viewed his body at the funeral home. Ironically, it was his fishing partner, a black man several years my father’s senior. The two of them would sit for hours without saying a word to each other. It is only now that I am awed by the quiet simplicity in both of them and I often lament being cursed with far too much formal education. How wonderful it would be to spend a day with my only ambition being to carry home a creel of fish to a faithful wife who valued food and survival skills far more than money or talk.

This poem was written while I was studying for my MFA. My daughter loved the early drafts as much as she loved my father.  She hated the deconstructed versions that academic critique groups foisted me, an insecure writer.  I have since tried to give it back some of its original emotional charge while not handing it over to sentimentality or subjective shorthand.

bk10

Fishing for the Moon
On the lake’s granite surface

The moon’s blind eye kept watch

As small stars, silver lights, fell.

Lures cast by my father that would raise

My sleepy head  and I would listen

For fish that would wound the calm,

Flare into the enormous night air,

and fight him reeling them toward shore.

One night, in my late teens,

An indecisive breeze touched us both:

I remember the familiar odor of age,

Cigar ashes rubbed into overalls,

And Lucky Tiger hair balm on a black

Forever military scalp.

At thirty-five or so, I tried to quit my ascensions

Away from tobacco farmer beginnings:

Theology, the military (but as an officer of course)

And accepted I was no match for the tattooed arms

And yielded to the strength of experience,

His eighth-grade smugness, and the once embarrassing

Southern vowels and long lines that could coax

Fishing tackle to scribble success across a lake.

I walked the reservoir’s circumference

The night he died and listened to icy respirations

Give in to winter. Drowning in his own fluid,

He sometimes smiled: a delirious toothless smile,

Like he had just landed a keeper.

I remember promising, no lying, in the nursing home

To him that I would take him fishing again.

But, he died before I knew how bad I would feel.

His eyes went white: turned inside, toward the water,

While his naked fingers would query the deep, dry pocket

Left from the injury: the Vietnam head wound.

It was a year after the seizures

That his arms fell limp at his sides

And the man who could not read anything

Except inland tides and solunar tables

Lay helpless in a hard bed.

They say it was pneumonia.

I say it was the lake claiming him

Where I returned his ashes: reticent,

Swirling near the bank they ebbed

Toward the center, where I cast

Lure after lure, fishing for the moon.

Personal Notes,Poetry,Stone Pillow,Uncategorized,Vietnam,War

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Stone Pillow: New and Selected Poems

The only Photograph of Her Affair


Her husband believes it’s a mistake

Yet wonders why she holds on

To what appears to be nothing

More than a tree, small bit of sky

And a tangle of shadows below.

She tells him an unconscious bump

Must have snapped the shutter

On what could be

morning or evening anywhere

Women are vigilant

and men so quickly distracted

She believes he’ll never know

That her lover is near

And she sits, back against a plum tree

With a flower print skirt

Tucked between white thighs,

Soft blonde threads glistening

With dew, and a delirious heat rising

from the tender grass below

There were tiny birds above

Deep in an anarchy of leaves

And limbs. And hungry mouths

Made small cries. The unmistakable

Sounds of dawn or dusk.

–Lonnie Hodge

American Poet in China,Poetry,Stone Pillow,Uncategorized

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Stone Pillow (New and Collected Poems): The Clearing

The Clearing

–for EB (’94)

I wanted to turn your grief

to dew that deer carry

every morning from the safety

of thicket beds into sunrise

I would have gathered your face close to mine

and looked long into the deep worry

stones of your dark, well worn endurance

I could have embraced you

the way the deer seem to take turns

stepping ahead, watching

and browsing with cautious confidence

just ahead of sunrise

American Poet in China,American Professor in China,Poetry,Stone Pillow,Uncategorized

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Stone Pillow: New and Collected Poems 1994-2009

When poetry gets under your skin,even the breaking of daily bread becomes a nuisance until you get to paper and pen or a computer keyboard. To keep from going completely mad, I have decided to publish, between the usual stammering blog epistles from China, 70 of those nagging poems: some soaked in long shadows, a few needing work and hanging out in shivering constellations ahead of me, and a several new transcriptions of old voices that were drowned out by fear, silenced by critique (academics, out of habit can deconstruct an ego right along with a good piece of writing)  or those that I poorly deciphered  and committed to paper because I was an inexperienced translator of my own heart….

When I have them all placed here on OMBW, I will order them into as cohesive a collection as the myriad experiences of my life these past few years will allow and then offer them to you as a PDF. But, first things first: I just have to get them down on virtual paper. I hope you don’t mind.

I will start with one that some of you may have read before:  It is a poem that I first wrote to explain how I feel about a profession that has nourished me for three decades and was inspired in part by a visit to the Appalachian Mountains with three writing teachers on a retreat where where I finally really understood the quote by Jacques Barzu:In teaching you cannot see the fruit of a day’s work.  It is invisible and remains so, maybe for twenty years.” He was talking about students and teachers…

Teaching

I want to be witches knees and elbows:
roots just barely visible enough above the ground
to stumble into a child’s imagination forever.

I want to be a breeze blowing through
a community of Aspen trees–barely forceful enough
to waken leaves, while not quieting the birds

I want to be the loneliness in the center of a Chinese Fiscus seed
dropped from some kid’s pocket at the Colorado Sand Dunes,
and everyone guessing how it is I came to be there.

American Poet in China,Poetry,Stone Pillow

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