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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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Dear Mr. Bagel….

Below, find a few of dozens of letters of application sent to an Italian restaurant (Danny’s Bagel) here in Guangzhou. The names and schools have been altered so students won’t suffer any embarrassment. I should have started a collection a long time ago of the many others I have seen….

Typically only 1/10 will even show for an interview even after sending in a recommendation. Even with the dearth of good paying jobs with insurance and social security paid by an honest and caring employer like Danny. Most new graduates or senior students will think a restaurant job too menial and of little value for future appointments even with the tremendous skill set they can acquire while there. Some of the letters sent by no-shows for a full-time position. I am sure they went on to much better things, like CCTV announcer or QIDE (启德)/New Oriental (新东方)English language teacher:

Dear Danny,

Hello, happened to see your ad online. I am a college student at a prestigious college. I major in journalism and communication. Being with people could always excite me, I’ll find it fulfills life to be connected to society. So may I ask for a part-time in your Dannys BAgel at weekend?

If I were not admitted to your Bagel as a waitress then I would like to have meals there as a guest, haha.

Best Wishes,

XXXXXX

“Danny,

I am very grad to make friends with you. I hope we can talk about some chinese and wesern cuisine. So we can study each other.

XXXX

My name is XXXX, a student studying french in guangzhou. It’s a pleasure to have your email when searching the internet, don’t worry, i don’t have a scare attempt. I just want to make friend with some foreigners and to improve my english and french if its OK. i am looking forward to your reply.”

XXXX

“Sorry for late reply. I have just finished my first job…. I have a bachelors in Russian. I like English very much…. I am a good girl I think.

XXXXX

One wrote a rambling three-page personal statement emphasizing her “sunny and careful and patient heart” and wrapped up with “suggestions” for the Danny, a 14-year veteran of business in China–I am still working on what she meant to suggest:

” Some companies especially cafes don’t want to hire short time waiter or waitress, because it will waste the training or other resources. But except for college students , where are young girls with terrific oral English? In other words, as far as I am concerned, hiring the right person may save the training time even can shorten the cycle of profits by so many orders. I think maybe I am not the best, but I am good enough.”

XXXXX

so, I want to work in your restaurant on weekend. What is more, i am good at cooking chinese cuisine. Thanking you!” XXXX

This blog is packed with my deep love for Chinese students and my own long and hilarious struggle to assimilate and acculturate into their culture, while trying to abide by government imposed constraints….I am sure my letters would be much worse, but then I am not an Chinese major at a “pretigious school.”

The barriers erected by, or in front of, students provide the fodder for many a novice writer or newcomer to the Middle Kingdom. For those of us who have been here a bit, it is black humor meant to release a bit of reflexive aggression so it is not misdirected back to the students we are committed to serving….Neither I nor Danny ever make fun of the students, rather we marvel at their lack of preparedness for even a wait-staff position.

One of the many failings of virtually every College and University in China is their inability to give students a sense of direction or prepare them for the future. I wish I had one yuan for every senior who told me that he/she had no idea what they wanted to do upon graduation. I could retire if I had another Yuan for every student that desired to get a “good job at a good company”without knowing what they might like do once there.

Every year I write three versions of every graduate school recommendation letter to cover: the path they “think” they might like to take, the mandated route their parents demand–invariably business or finance at a “top 5o” brand name school–or some easier alternative study plan that will give them time to finally decide on one of the former….

Most of them know the rules of grammar–they can do calculus like we Americans do addition and subtraction–and they can read and speak with astonishing alacrity and competence. But their cultural, vocational and social education has not equipped them to enter an increasingly  western etiquette driven job market without self study or mentoring by a patient teacher. I am hoping that the industrialization of education in China soon includes a module in vocational preparation–even if there is an extra charge.

American Professor in China,Cantonese Schools,China Editorials,China Expat,China Expats,China Humor,Chinese Education,Chinglish,Cross Cultural Training,Education in China,Humor,Intercultural Issues,New Oriental,Teaching in China

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New and Selected Poems: “After Being Asked” and “Soundtrack”

When I passed through LAX customs yesterday I was asked the same question I suppose the immigration folks are trained to ask in cases like mine: “Why have you been in China so long?” Each time I have to resist the urge to render witty or acerbic comebacks–especially after 17 hours of travel next to some high-strung, dialect-limited Chinese emigrant from Guangxi on his first plane flight. But, I digress…

My answer must seem odd to those civil servants who used to hearing one-word responses like: “Business,” Visit,” Coming home,”  or “Job Hunting.” I reply, “fulfilling a promise. I am seeing someone through a long bout with cancer.”

Ms Yue has outlived many of her chemotherapy friends. If you knew her, you’d understand that her natural talent for befriending anyone, from the local trash collector to a head of security in her district, ensures that there are never strangers in her life. She had met them in the hospital annex next to where where she had her surgery performed. She is the last of the League of extraordinary Chinese as I came to call them. They learned from Yue how to embrace the life left to them with meditation, companionship, spiritual supplications and long conversation and rich laughter over inexpensive cups of Chinese tea.

SOUNDTRACK

I am still listening

When the agitated syncope

Of thready heartbeats

Stop to amass a clap of thunder

Over crashing surf

And you fight the waves of fear

With a hand forged sword

And exhausted share tales of battle

With those who subside on phone calls

And weekend visits from half-hearted

Familial warriors lightly anchored to love

And when your body betrays you

In the ravenous silence

And you think you are

One impossibly simple syllable

Short  of a symphony

Remember the lullabies of the past

Conduct them into the present

Lay awash in the fragile swells of hesitancy

Compose mysterious reconciliations

And keep faith in the God of the metronome

Your friends are lucky to have you

Disarmed and hardly replenished

By the convenient half-loves

To which even tender siblings retreat

You survive by teaching through example

How to keep faith in wellness

And the will of the tides

The gift or accident of nature

That gave you ears for

And a comradery with

The roiling, the murmurs, the sobs

And the wicked playfulness of the ocean

And the weather it dares to rebuke…

for W.L. and Ms Yue

Ms Yue has long hidden her illness from Chinese friends. They are not as open about discussing cancer or life threatening disease like westerners. So, when it became evident that she would have do something cosmetically reduce the impact of the uneven loss of her hair and the endless looks of strangers afraid to ask why…

AFTER BEING ASKED TO CUT HER HAIR

When you called, yesterday evening

or the night before, I made the long walk

to you through the thick heat of Southern China,

flanked by our prostitute of a River:

Beautiful after dark, but only when flattered

by the exploitative light of tourist boats

I hated China that night

I found it especially hard to breathe:

It is always damned humid

and it reeks of smoke and poverty

and in the dim daylight reveals

a blinded sun, Guangzhou’s grey cataract

of a sky that, when it can see, ignores the whore–

the river again–

whose name no one can speak

with any longing in their voice

The water was unlined that night:

a corpse without worry as I prepared

a place in my memory

for what I would destroy perhaps forever:

the hair: forty-five years

of silk, glistening with the kisses

of an adoring mother and vigilant father

times in a China no longer missed

by those who have come to this low-waisted city

to find work and forget the darkeness

in which their friends, awake with temptation

in the darkness of their ancestral homes

just grow into unadorned

albeit long, and painless seniority

You asked to me conceal the evidence

of the waning of the infinite. You told me to cut

because I am foreign, from the west,

and know how to use a razor

to shave away history:

the perfect blackness, the magnificent

mystery of the history of moonlights, fires,

and wind that has run fingers

through the remembered and forgotten

“Love is so short, forgetting so long”

when it is a name like yours,

that you clutch deep in your throat

As strong as you are

will always be, and as proudly high

as have always held your head,

the quarrel with your body,

said the doctor–a white coated immigrant

from the North like yourself and too polite

to tell you or your family–the quarrel

will not always look this well

I addressed my selfish sorrow

in suffocated sobs to the still water

that confirmed my questions with silence

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Futures: How to make a killing in Chinese seaweed..

I just met with several students from area colleges at my apartment. They are all volunteers at some level for various causes in China. They are an amazing group: smart, kind and honest, as my mother would have said, to a fault. They accept China on China’s terms and do their best to ethically orient themselves toward success in a society where the rules are not always as clear as we in the west would want them to be…

Today, one student innocently shared information about university sanctioned illegal video and audio downloads and another showed me study materials stolen from America’s Educational Testing Service (ETS) that were reprinted, and repackaged without identifying marks and then sold to him by New Oriental (NYSE: EDU) staff. Let me digress a bit before I explain more to you of what I learned during one of my most enlightening lessons on IP theft, Chinese Education and academic cheating….

ETS in China

Before I could become an instructor at the US Army’s Academy of Health Sciences, then one of the most modern teaching facilities in the US, I had to take a series of courses designed to make me a better educator. I was required to pass six graduate hours of training in lesson plan preparation, test item construction and item analysis. These courses were meant to insure that all classes taught by me would be measured against overt behavioral objectives. It’s intent was that students would be fairly graded and measurably educated. And for the record: there was still great creative latitude available to instructors about how to present a course, but the structure imposed on us guaranteed each student a fair chance at a good score. We also had teams of graphic artists, an enviable TV production station with closed circuit capability and virtually unlimited other resources to assist us and our personal classroom styles–one of the few positive benefits of the Vietnam draft was a wildly diverse and talented military whose skills the Army sometimes put to good use….

All of this was incredibly costly. I remember helping preparing the Army’s Behavioral Science Study Guide by authoring the Learning Theory and Behavior Modification chapters. It took thirty faculty members several months to create a comprehensive guide to social work/psychology theory and procedures that was used for years around the world as a promotions test preparation tool. I know the expense of creating quality tests and their power and validity when used correctly.

Tests are everything in China. Literally. The annual college boards here are similar to our GRE, SAT, ACT, GMAT, LSAT and numerous standardized tests. But, the main difference is: in China your future generally rests on your academic acumen as measured by one test taken on one day of your life– It is not unlike the last year’s Olympics in some ways. Socially and financially the waiting time between re-tests in China, easier in the US, can be devastating here: A single point can mean you that IF you get admitted to a Chinese “Ivy League” school,you might still be relegated to a less prestigious major that the administration will order you to study–and no, you cannot transfer easily to any other department. Can you imagine a student at Harvard being told they MUST take linguistics as a course of study?

So, many students head for cram schools to get a leg up on the competition. New Oriental, which went public 2 years ago for 100 million USD, was sued by ETS a few years ago, but continues to flaunt copyright laws in most of its centers. In 2001, Xu Xiaoping, vice-president of New Oriental, acknowledged their “mistake” in connection with the ETS copyright issue and went on to say said that his school had contacted ETS several times to buy the publishing rights for authorized GRE materials, but that they had been repeatedly rejected–Imagine that. Xu noted that New Oriental would have become the largest buyer of ETS materials in China if ETS had made authorized GRE materials available to them. So, since N.O. can’t get materials–on N.O’s terms–from ETS, they just steal them.

One student told me about professional test thieves who make a great deal of money by signing up for ETS and IELTS exams and either memorize questions (long a practice of law and insurance board schools in the US) or just replace paper tests with pre-fab fakes and then sell the originals to New Oriental’s publishing consorts. The books have no author, publisher or copyright listed, but they are sold by staff at N.O. schools. N.O. then packs 200-250 students in a cram class, hires cheap and marginally qualified teachers or $150 a month interns to preside over classes so they can pockets millions of RMB a week in profit. I am occasionally glancing at stolen test prep materials as I write. I have given it a lot of thought and ask myself: What student of any nationality, anxious to further a career, could resist getting actual exam questions and study hints for any U.S. or Commonwealth test for only $3.50 USD?

Students from middle class families live in dorms with enforced curfews and those that are lucky enough to have TV may have to share one with up to 150 classmates. Libraries are not current and most school intranets prevent access to thousands of western sites. For many students, even those in International Business, their only view of the west, prior to graduation, comes courtesy of a heavily censored CCTV or those shows and books filched from bit torrent locations. I blame part of China’s student suicide epidemic on the dearth of stimulation at many campuses and the singular dominance of exam dedicated teaching. Even during the most grueling courses at the Army’s Academy of Health Sciences we taught “toward” the test, but promoted social activities and encouraged “real life” interactions and learning beyond classroom walls.

Then, there is N.O., a multimillion dollar, “publicly held” corporation openly preying on the desperation of students hoping to break ranks and better themselves despite China’s lock-step educational boot camps and profiteering cadres. Test prep is a several billion dollar a year industry here and there is no excuse for N.O. not paying its dues to the overseas organizations that are investing huge amounts of money in research, development and ongoing statistical analysis to level the academic playing field for foreigners and native learners alike. Cram schools are cheating ETS and others of profits and displacing deserving students who have studied according to the rules.

Research has long borne out the fact that such a model of learning: a punitive and obsessive approach to winning at any cost, creates only aberrant behavior. When we unnaturally force youth to adopt our national or political aspirations we should count the loss of their ability to enjoy normal developmental stages, once known as childhood, as a death and one as as final and unnatural as the corporeal loss of a son or daughter.

I was leaving a lecture last year when I heard what I thought was a rehearsal for a drama contest: a native English speaking teacher, one of the retinue of a British educational group preparing students for study abroad, was shrieking at a student some 100 meters away. Through the dementia I heard the words, “Test”, “Late” and Stupid” several times; then a door slammed shut in a violent rebuke of all I have ever held dear in teaching.  A once reputable organization that recruited students for UK schools has lowered admission standards for high-paying International students and is a money making machine that pours cash from unprepared rich kids into British schools and leaves recruiters, students and weary teachers wealthier, albeit worse for the experience. And the teachers, worn frail by students feeling they are nothing more than a paycheck for schools/teachers keep a wheel of frustration turning.

Later in the same day one of my favorite students, a senior at one of China’s top schools, phoned me. After a long silence in which I am sure he was trying to properly conjugate his emotions he whispered that he had done poorly on his Graduate Record Exam and that everything he had trained for, all the lost days of adolescence spent in test preparation, had been incarcerated in a single test score. This is the same young man who told me about well-known teachers here in China who will sell a letter of recommendation and who showed me materials handed out by “tutors” at New Oriental the publicly held cram school that pays students to sign up for and then steal US and British standardized exams and republishes and sells the questions. Many of these “learners” are those being pushed by parents to spend graduate school abroad in, what is for the student, one of hell’s circles for the duration of a degree in a field they well may loathe.

The video below amused many, but now me and is a sad example of what teaching in the cram schools can devolve into when educational carpetbaggers from the US, UK and China prey on a one-child family’s aspirations by industrializing and monetizing their dreams:

Test-prep classes at the New Oriental School can drag on for a long, long time. To spice things up a bit, teachers were encouraged to do wake-up performances. Things started mildly enough—joke telling, maybe a rousing song—but now, we have this rather risqué dance routine, performed by a TOEFL teacher at one of New Oriental”s Beijing campuses.” (HT to Kaiser Kuo)

Yesterday, one of my students from the past, an ebullient, artistic and wonderfully complicated young woman, emailed me for a recommendation to college in America. She has been a dutiful student at a Chinese “Ivy League” school, in a major chosen for her by the administration, only to answer the callings of a typically demanding academic mother and father. There was an uncharacteristically uncombed sound to her words, clues I may not have been meant to follow, but I did anyway. One of the gentlest spirits I have ever know and really a favorite student leaped into an uncertain eternity last year because school authorities in Macau stifled her cries for help, so I am not about to let even the most obscure hints of trouble go unchallenged.

This year twice as many “sea turtles” or Chinese student/expat returnees will fold up their foreign aspirations and come back to China in search of work because plans in light of a the west’s scuttled economy. Those that wash ashore, having been socially or financially promoted to a degree abroad, are known to their peers as “sea weed.” And their paper-bound skills, might be mistaken as useful by businesses desperate for middle managers that can help them fight this financial tsunami with newly forged swords of knowledge.

Schools like Macau University of Science and Technology, degree mills, with 2+2 and 3+1 programs ( do 2 or 3 years in China/Macau and then finish in the US or UK) have arrangements with institutions like Seton Hall and Central and Eastern Michigan in the U.S. have nothing to lose save their reputations by pocketing the money ill-prepared students pay them for what should be an honorary, not earned diploma. Many 2+2 programs are reputable and provide students an incredible international experience, but Chinese students need to be guided by career counselors not paid by the schools. They should seek out those who charge operating fees that ensure the student gets in the best school-one that matches the student’s needs.

It is time for some real prep’ schools for authentic scholars who will benefit a world economy and not a few wealthy opportunists.

Addendum: The students mentioned above and others who came to me for guidance, which I gave freely, are now happily tudying abroad at schools they are happy about: Arizona, Columbia, Rutgers, University of Nebraska, CUHK, Carnegie Mellon, UCLA Berkeley and others….

Note: This is one of the reasons IELTS China was started. Read more about it here (in Chinese): IELTS GUANGZHOU

Asia,Beijing,China Business,China Economics,China Editorials,China Expat,China Expats,China Resources,Chinese Education,Education in China,Executive Training China,Expats,Guangzhou,Guangzhou China,Intercultural Issues,Macau,Macau University of Science and Technology,New Oriental,Teaching in China,UK,中国人口福利基金会,中文,澳门科技大学

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IELTS GUANGZHOU

One of the projects I have worked for over a year to develop is an IELTS training program in Guangzhou in conjunction with Broadlearn and Queensland in Australia. Using Cambridge and Queensland University content (fully licensed) I am delighted to be part of this project.
Franchise opportunities and teaching opportunities are available for qualified individuals.

Click on the banner to review our services or leave a note in the comments block (will not be made public)….
雅思培训

American Professor in China,Teaching in China

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You Must Go Home Again II

That I have withdrawn from the abuses of time means little or nothing. I am a place, a place where things come together, then fly apart. Look at the fields disappearing, look at the distant hills, look at the night, the velvety fragrant night, which has already come, though the sun continues to stand at my door.

Mark Strand

I have always thought suicide to be the ultimate act of violence: the explosion that results from a critical mass of shivers, splinters and agonizing open conflicts. And while psychologists assert that depression is anger turned inward, I view it as the long restrained blow in a battle won only by lashing out and retreating across waters into which enemies won’t ford. As I said in a post many months ago:

It is my guess that so many suicides on Chinese campuses are directly related to this sense of familial duty and the inability to express feelings of displeasure. I see student denial of feelings as type of socially/culturally mandated alexithymia that is pervasive in China. Alexithymia is a condition characterized by a disconnect between emotions and actions. Individuals who are alexithymic cannot accurately describe feelings they are having nor are they in touch with how the feelings are being manifested in other parts of their lives. Such disconnect breeds addiction, somatic disorders, difficulty in relationships, or violence.

I recently taught two seemingly disparate classes: one obliquely encouraged students to dialogue about their inner-most dreams and the other, coincidentally and disturbingly scheduled on the day of the tragic shootings in New York, had much in common: Students were asked to differentiate between the words job, vocation and calling and then apply them to issues in their own lives. I was deeply moved and, as is often the case, I exchanged my role as teacher for that of student. Those of us who have taught ESL for a number of years know well when to listen to the sounds that return to us from across the cultural divide. Chinese students are noted for their silence in the classroom Much of what they reluctantly express is meant to be superficial; hence, safe. But, occasionally, if you listen closely enough, you will hear the overflow of the heart become word. The sounds that I heard were not the usual echoes of my own voice and I paid attention.

It is suicide season here and it makes it all the harder to hear student voice fears and lamentations about the future. They expect that their jobs upon graduation, if they are lucky enough to win any in an economy hit harder than than the government lets on, may well be menial and unrewarding. They expressed an awareness that because they are students who will graduate from a provincial college rather than a country funded key university the likelihood that they would join the ranks of millions of the educated unemployed in now greater than ever in recent years. Many of them spoke of their vocational “choices” as inevitable: preparations foisted upon them by parents, poor entrance scores, or a lack of financial resources needed to pursue their true calling.

In my class of would-be businessmen and women there were actually singers, visual artists, humanitarian aid workers, writers, Olympic athletes and more….. My students spoke with passion about their dreams now being relegated to mere meditations on what could, or should, have been.

But when I asked them how they felt about giving up or belaying calls of the heart, I found that they had practiced for so long at giving an outward appearance of gratitude and acceptance that they could not see the dissonance. For them, to grouse about their lot in life, while spending their parents’ hard-earned money on tuition, would be to completely dishonor their families. Few Asian students would ever defy the wishes of their parents in such matters. Instead, it is easier to dissociate or suffer in silence than to profess displeasure at one’s lot in life. It is at once admirable and heartbreaking to see students inexorably tied to the dreams of others while abandoning their own.

I now know of ten student and Chinese teacher deaths in the last three years and all ended their lives by jumping from rooftops–an ending ripe for horrific metaphor.  Expats are far more creative in their self destruction as being an expat has its own set of invited and uninvited emotional contradictions: a feast of anxiety and mourning in he midst of the unfamiliar. I have watched expats lash out at their hosts for the very differences that compelled them to travel abroad. When our minds become cluttered with emotional matter we either reassemble and adapt, run toward more familiar surroundings, narcotize, lose our minds or lash out. Two of my friends have chosen, since since recently losing their businesses, to surrender to depression and deceit and I hope they come to some mental clearing where they can remove burdens of doubt, and rest and recover enough to negotiate a lasting truce with themselves…

In times of trouble I  stay up much too late to watch the box scores when Tiger Woods is playing, I watch endless hours of TV re-runs from the States, eat far too much toxic fast food, and worse…I have come close to wandering off the edge of the abyss, but have many good friends who know that sudden and prolonged silence from this outspoken teacher is a danger signal and I need to be called home if only via a message filled with a written or visual memory of the past…

My Chinese students are not always so lucky. Taught to wear discomfort fashionably they rarely give clues as to the depth of their despair or the strength of the opponents they are fighting. And even if they did, their polite contemporaries, also not eager to take on added responsibility, might ignore suffering in order to save their friend’s”face,” allowing them the illusion of strength.

It was a year ago last month that Chennie fought her last battle. She was an exceptional student who changed dozens of lives for the better. She was a favorite, she was gifted and not in retrospect: she earned the respect, love and admiration of students and classmates long before she died.  There was never a glister of sadness or anger in her eyes. I have stared for hours at the pictures that will keep her eternally young on Facebook and while I know some of the details preceding her death, I doubt I will ever arrive at an acceptable understanding of the hopelessness that drove her to take her own life.

I chose not to to give credence to the criticism of those who find my concern too saccharine or ignoble a task on which to to waste their conceit–like the administrators at Chennie’s school to whom she called out to in vain for help.

Chennie left me with a gift, of course, I wish I could return in person: I attend as best I can to those unable to sleep, I try to give voice to slight gestures of supplication I catch made in solitary anguish and I write in hopes you will do the same for the emotional or physical travelers in your life.

June 1988-March 2008

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You must go home again…

“Loneliness is and always has been the central and inevitable experience of every man.”

Thomas Wolfe


I generally solicit views on current events from my students during the first few minutes of a class. It allows them to decompress from submersion in previous courses, informs me about what is current in Chinese student circles and points up, by their unintended omissions, what news as been missed by them via censorship or time constraints. During “current events” this week we reviewed, the “Great Spoon Heist” on campus: It seems that 500 stainless steel spoons had vanished and now the students are forced to eat from utensils with holes drilled in their bellies–which is now kinda tough on the soup lovers I am guessing. And students also told me of the Sakura scandal at Wuhan University–nationally revered for its lush greenery and traditional architecture– in the north of China. Last week a mother and her daughter were run off of campus and vilified on the Internet for taking pictures while dressed in Japanese Kimonos in front of the famed Sakura trees. They were the on the receiving end of local wrath for ignorance regarding the history of the blossoms.

Sakura were first planted by the Imperial Japanese Army occupying the campus during the war years because they were homesick (Thankfully, instead of acts of rape, pillage and plunder they planted flowers and I am guessing did not wear Kimonos to do it…), but those particular Cherry Blossoms died some time later and the Japanese government, so I am told, sent more later as a gift and the remaining 60 or so trees now attract tens of thousands of visitors annually who admire their beauty–and manage to stay a sight more sober in the process than do the Japanese during their viewings in Japan…**

After current events I then told classes about my recent flight into Bangkok, where I was headed for medical treatment, during which time I noticed that the man in the seat next to me reading a Japanese newspaper. Since I am accosted 2-3 times a week for impromptu English practice– and end up feeling more like a parrot than a professor–I thought I’d mediate my 40-year old discomfort with flying and get in some language practice by chatting him up. He surprised me: quickly after he recovered from the shock of a white male on a flight to Thailand from China speaking Japanese he used my earnest attention to tell me of the woes of a Japanese expat living in China. He missed his family, still in Tokyo, had trouble making friends with Chinese nationals (imagine that) and told me how weary he had become of frequent trips to Thailand required by his position. He would never have shared his grief, for sake of losing face or not appearing strong, with a native Japanese, and seemed increasingly happy as he spoke. After his confessional experience he left the plane devoid of the sullen look he had carried on as baggage.

I recognized the look on his face: He was in the midst of haggling with what I have come to call Expats Syndrome. It is depression brought on via cultural disconnection. We all go through it at one time or another and it can steel our resolve or send us headlong into the cultural abyss. It is a a lack of grounding that finds us grasping for tethers–some healthy and some not.

Gestalt Therapist and Holocaust survivor Fritz Perls once observed several children on a beach each react differently to an incoming wave (glee, flight, terrified incapacitation…) and theorized that we are all genetically predisposed to react differently to stressors.  In addition to the excitement and challenge of living abroad, expatriate adventures can be a bit fugitive, solitary and hence stressful regardless of whether you are visiting a far shore to spiritually conquer, study, invade, visit or do business with the natives who reside there.  In recent weeks I have watched expats cope with waking up in a darkening economic environment by engaging in extramarital dalliances with alcohol or women, depression that has functionally paralyzed them or through fleeing homeward toward Europe Canada or America…. Conversely, One British friend in Hong Kong who recently has lost a substantial portion of his business to a partner company’s reorganization took the loss like a true entrepreneur and announced to me: “We have had a bit of a set-back.”  It was not British stoicism or stiff-upper-lip behavior, but rather a declaration of war by an emotionally well outfitted businessman who will certainly outlast any opponent.

Once outside of themselves again and the country they adopted or were sent to explore, many of my friends find themselves more disoriented than ever before. Being disconnected, even for a few months, from the indeterminate and comforting familiarity of the constellations of their youth or most recent native home can render the sights and sounds there unrecognizable. TV shows have gone off the air ( I have been gone so long I am still mourning the loss of Cheers and MASH), schools have closed, businesses have shuttered and friends moved on or passed away. As an aside: during my first trip back to America in three years recently passed by Ft. Ord, where I did military basic training, and saw that a school had replaced the wooden barracks and later learned that there was little left of the the 1/2 billion dollar Mississippi ammunition plant where I had served as XO in the late 70’s–it’s been in mothballs for more than a decade. It is hard to describe the waves of mortality that vibrate their way through every wrinkle and scar you have earned in the years since those times and harder to explain how foreign you can suddenly feel in your own country.

When I reached my hotel room in Thailand I discovered an article in the International Herald Tribune about foreigners who, because of the cost of overseas postings, had been called home early by cost conscious companies, and were wearied and disoriented upon their return even though their assignments had been short. The story was fundamentally a critique of businesses who do not prepare expats for re-entry….

Several years ago I visited Angel Fire New Mexico and the Disabled American Veterans Vietnam Memorial there. It is built on land considered sacred to Indians and the spot where a ceremonial march for Vietnam returnees was held and at its conclusion veterans were initiated into traditional tribal rituals normally reserved for Indian warriors returning from battle. “Native Americans” were wise enough to know that transitioning back to society required care, diligence and ceremonial reintroductions what for others might be seen as mundane. I think the huge number of homeless and jailed veterans is due in large part to our neglect of returnees and a misguided belief that they can safely reintegrate after experiencing months or years of traumatic events. The veterans who took part in that long march still talk of its healing virtues.

As more warriors return from battle, more economic refugees land on Chinese shores and more western sea turtles head back to their nesting grounds there will be problems. And while the Chinese use an idiom that admonishes us against the danger of having a foot in two boats, I argue that we must stay grounded in our home culture via news, music, movies, art, conversation, books, or blogs while slowly immersing ourselves in a new one. We all cannot be as strong as my friend in Hong Kong and while we well may be hard-wired as to how we’ll respond to stress, but we can mediate the magnitude of our reactions by keeping tethered somehow to home. I just came out of a numb sleep brought on by being ill and having little to grasp onto for comfort, but I am a very lucky veteran traveler who has amazing, loving, keen observers as friends. They threw a line into the abyss. I wish this kind of good fortune on others.

We must go home again, if only virtually, from time to time…

More in a part II

**related Cherry Blossom stories: CHINA SMACK (with hilarious comments by readers below the story) and the

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Hostage Situations: Culture, Charity, and Cures

A few years ago a Washington DC taxi driver, Timor Sekander, a survivor of the Afghan war  with Russia, saved my emotional life by sharing the pain of his losses–a father, and two brothers–with me,  a stranger, looking for answers en-route to the Vietnam Memorial. He turned off his meter and spent two mercurial days introducing me to dozens of grateful refugees who mediated their memories and healed their common wounds by helping each other survive everyday challenges through trade, fellowship and commerce in a country not yet sure how to appreciate their talents or accept their presence.

On Twitter yesterday I engaged in a conversation with a man in Mississippi who had publicly decried Obama’s recent executive order that will close Guantanamo Bay (Camp Delta) within a year while granting legal rights to those incarcerated like the Chinese Uyghur Muslims held there for years without formal charges or trial.  In 17 current cases, detainees were found innocent of any wrong doing and worse yet, some Uyghur prisoners arrived at Gitmo months after being kidnapped near Afghanistan by U.S. supported vigilantes who were paid bounties to round up suspected terrorists. I replied by applauding the executive order and let him know that I had read on, past the section granting constitutional rights, to the section with a clearly worded directive ordering trials and punishment for those the evidence suggests are truly terrorists.

This is not, and was not, a political argument for me.

gitmo-prisoners

My new “follower” on Twitter used the heavily charged word “terrorist” during out talk to describe the detainees still held at Guantanamo and said they did not deserve constitutional protection. He went on to say that the terrorists were being well cared for and nothing at Gitmo could be “construed as torture.” I contend (ed) that being separated from your family and locked in even in the cleanest of cages for four to eight years with recreational water-boarding occasionally on your schedule could hardly be construed as a tax payer funded vacation in Cuba….Terrorist is a word we have been conditioned to associate almost exclusively with the Arab world, so it is easy to imagine that where there is religious smoke  there is terrorist fire; conversely to entertain “torture” as a part of the American lexicon is to appear anti-patriotic,or treasonous at best….

Last week I was talking to Diaster Relief Shelters founder Roland Catellier about the trials inherent in fund-raising for homes and dormitories in Sichuan where millions are still without adequate protection. Those Chinese now living in temporary shelters may well be sharing cooking and toilet facilities with dozens of other families. It is a disaster-induced prison with many innocents serving indeterminate sentences for the crime of poverty.

Collecting funds to help survivors of disaster or trauma is the greatest challenge of any charity in China.  Many people view the Middle Kingdom and all its inhabitants as economic terrorists who are part of an industrial entity that has robbed them of jobs or shut the doors on their neighbor’s family business. And the huge and faceless numbers of those dead in China keep us and any Chinese who could help from looking too closely at the anguish partly made of indifference, or helplessness or fear of falling into some mournful abyss. It is hard for many to care amidst soaring unemployment that has now washed ashore in China and the beleaguered in Sichuan are hard to segregate from the 900 million others in poverty trying to live on less than $1.50 a day.

Sichuan Destruction

I feel ill today and spent the day, when not sleeping, in video and written excursions away from fever and body ache. There is no fun in dwelling in physical or societal misery and I spend more time in concocting solutions than I do recounting trials. So, today I read and  listened to teachers and practictioners of comfort and compassion. My favorite diversion today was a visit with the “happiest man in the world,” Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, author and photographer via his lecture on TED.Even the man whose extraordinary bliss has been scientifically documeted spoke about the fleet-footed nature of feelings. He acutely feels anguish and sorrow, but can skew his thoughts and actions toward solutions and reconciliation. His spiritual leader recently said that while he often diagreed with George Bush, but he loved him–and I believe him.

I know, as one who lives daily with the extreme and varying degrees of pain associated with an autoimmune disease, that it is through compassion or sharing that I can dissolve associated anger, irritations or suffering. Teaching and writing are my active meditations, my ways of showing compassion: In classes where I really give of myself I often vanquish colds, unlock painfully secured limbs or transform a mood from depression and despair into extreme contentment. And the receipt of good teaching and compassionate words that issue from sage friends like Des Walsh, Zach my monastic guide and Debra Xiangjun Hayes can have the same impact.

Ricard talked to the unseen dual nature of things like the depth of an ocean below a roiling, temperamental wave: There is more than meets the eye in all things. It brought me to thinking about how charity and compassion and even health are often hostages of  our narrow fields of vision–those accepted by us, even if foisted upon us, without compassionate investigation on our part.

The first thing a police negotiator does in a hostage crisis is to begin calling the victim in peril by their true name so that the perpetrator can hear and see that he is a life threat to a vital, breathing person, a sentient being and not just an object for ransom, or a means to an end. There is always hope that you can resonate with the good, the ocean below, in even the most violent of waters.

charity

Michael Berg at the Kaballah Center says in a recent article that we must make conscious decisions that bring us to a place where we are willing to experience the pain of taking on the burdens of others. I think before we can devote ourselves to the Sisyphus-like toil of charity in a place like Sichuan, as has Roland, we must acknowledge some emotional or human connection. we need to see the faces of those in distress, we need to hear their stories and politics will be forced to embrace new priorities. I will settle for even a few more of us taking time to divest ourselves of preconceptions so that we feel an imperative to engage, not war with, people making decisons, not to interfere with our well-being but to survive themselves just one more day. It s then we can follow Berg and feel, to paraphrase Camus, that to help someone you have been taught to revile or to offer money time or comfort to aid someone who may only have minutes to live is a struggle, but one toward the heights of selflessness and it is, by itself, enough to fill any man’s heart.

More in Part II

Addendum: Four good places to begin to appreciate China’s people: Blog of Dreams, Tom Carter, The Library Project, Derrick Chang’s Mask of China

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Whose Enemies Are They? Part II

I recently spent three days and two night with 85 native Chinese English Professors and school administrators. It was a pleasure trip that Expats in China who suffer from conversational anemia would have loved. This journey was rich in cultural and intellectual nutrients. Since most of the scholars there were educated in both China and the west, it made for great interactive subtleties, and an occasional journey into densely forested woods of dark humor…

At one point during our travels I was verbally recalling a story about four Chinese exchange students who, after 9 months of absence from their classes were reported missing and subsequently found dead in their Australian flat.  Without hesitation one professor wryly queried, “were they allowed to graduate?”

mao_leading_peasants

The professor who spoke is a bit of living history: his first job paid about 20RMB per day ($.15 cents then. By contrast an enlisted man in the US Army made $3.00 then) and his driving ambition was to save enough to be able to buy a bicycle. Bikes sold for 100 RMB at the time, but only if you had a voucher permitting you to to own one. And even with a voucher there was a bribe that often had to be paid locally that tacked an extra 100 RMB on to the final price. He was one of many intellectuals driven to the countryside during the cultural revolution in an attempt to teach them humility and put those like him more in touch with the proleteriat–the working class. He knows, as shown by his retort, that China has sadly followed the west into areas of industrialized education and that those with money or power need not study nor even attend class to attain a sheepskin in China or America.

Another professor then shared with me a game started in the 80’s in Wuhan (one of four directly controlled municipalities), but is reflective of the time in which he grew up, a time when “authority figures—teachers, landlords, monks and nuns, bosses, intellectuals, doctors, Party leaders—were ‘struggled against’ by gangs of teenage revolutionaries called Red Guards.” The card game, called Beat the Landlord–Dou Di Zhu– (literally fight the landlord) is now wildly popular on the Internet here and has some 20 million players on “QQ” (the most popular of messenger services here in China), allows two “bandits” to gang up on the “landlord” in order to allow one of them to divest himself of all cards and win. The social ramifications are now gone and the meaning all but lost on one of the younger teachers who was listening to music on his Mp4s and feigning interest as would American youth over talk of days of black and white TV or civil rights marches. He attained his diploma the old fashioned way: he earned it albeit with a bit less sacrifice. But, having heard such stories many times before he lacked interest in the topic.

cultural revolution

Also at the gathering were members of a few of the reviled groups labeled as such during the Cultural Revolution: The “Nine Black Categories”: Landlords, rich farmers, anti-revolutionaries, bad influences (the catch-all available in any culture), right-wingers, traitors, spies, capitalist roaders and lastly, intellectuals—scholars have been last, or next to last in Chinese caste hierarchies since the Yuan dynasty where they were only slightly better regarded (ninth) in that caste order where beggars were tenth. Present too were past members of the Hong Wei Bing (Red Guard) the more violent of whom persecuted scholars, committed acts of violence against landlords and others (even Deng Xio Ping), famous temples, shrines, and other heritage sites (4,922 out of 6,843 were destroyed). Now all of us, including two Gweilo (“ghost men”) were sharing rice at the same table…

On day two, one of the four “Waijiao” (literally outside teacher, but used to denote any foreign lecturer), having not heard the instructions (in Chinese)  early on in our adventure, boarded the wrong bus; hence, we were one person short in our count overall. Speaking in Chinese some of the teachers near me began grousing that it was, of course, a foreigner holding up what was to be called later a “long march” though an area cave. In fact what had happened was that a couple of other native “bad influences” were late due to having gone one Baijiu ( legal Chinese moonshine) over the line the night before. The Chinese teachers, accustomed, but resentful of the leeway given to foreign teachers, were unified in their belief that an outsider was the cause for delay.

I spent a lot of my trip directly and obliquely querying teachers and staff regarding their attitudes toward visiting teachers all of whom are accorded the title of “Foreign Expert” by the provincial education office even when only qualified to teach English by virtue of their country or skin color of birth–credentialed and talented Waijiao are hard to come by here.

Later when at a table with graduates of top schools domestically and abroad it came as no surprise to me that when introducing members of the group seated together a young lecturer referred only to his colleagues as “professors” and ignored giving titles to the two foreigners present; so, later that night during a karaoke break I did not even flinch when another junior faculty member angrily asked friends in Chinese, “Who invited the Waijiao?” They are weary of the unacculturated backpackers who pass though schools with far more in the way of critical opinions than useful skill sets to share….

After twelve years of post secondary education and three decades in the classroom, mostly overseas, I am secure in my scholarship, attempts at cultural sensitivity and pedagogical abilities. And while hurt and, yes miffed too, I try to understand the frustrations of the younger, poorly paid intelligentsia who react more negatively with more vigor as the west fails to recognize the monumental changes in China of the past 15  or so years thus putting these savvy scholars on the same cultural bus as some of their revolutionary predecessors or corrupt present day business and political leaders. The world media has most of the west still reveling in anything draconian while failing to give credence or applause to any positive steps toward becoming responsible global leaders and resentment runs high here.

The west is engaged in a newly branded western game of  Beat the Landlord as China begins to dominate certain world economic sectors. And our failure to engage them and recognize and encourage  accomplishments, a punishment model approach to change, is fueling a long held distrust of those on the far side of the wall. One academic told me that it will take time for the people of China to manifest a viable bill of rights, “perhaps more time” he told me, “than it has taken your country to deconstruct yours into a bill of rights and wrongs.”

It is a dangerous, knee-jerk nationalism that we foster in both east and west when we don’t acknowledge that most Chinese people still long, and are willing to struggle for, the present day equivalent of a revolutionary’s bicycle…

More in Part III

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The play’s the thing!

chinese drama

English majors studying for various degrees within the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies performed four dramas last night. This year the 11th annual contest, for the first time in its proud history, braved the use of contemporary plays, condensed into 23-minute masterpieces by the students, most of whom had no prior theatrical experience at any level. To add an extra challenge, they employed peers as dubbers who spoke every character’s lines in perfect synch’ with onstage cast counterparts. They built sets, designed and tailored costumes, researched and applied their own make-up, rehearsed the shows wherever they could find space for groups of 10-16 and did all of this while attending the usual Chinese course load of 30-35 hours of class. –all this just prior to final semester examinations.

Chinese Drama Night

The plays were all sober American classics: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Desire Under the Elms; Madame Butterfly; and the not literally sober, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf. The writers had done their homework and rendered the essence of each play accessible, understandable and moving and with a flair I have not seen to date in Chinese or American students–and I have had the honor to judge speech and drama contests at countless provincial and national competitions in Asia and the U.S.. And the brief, but creative, humor-filled curtain calls that lent laughter and reprieve to a heavy night were extraordinary (Brevity is the soul of wit). And the show was emceed by beautifully articulate and professionally poised undergraduates who did not seem a bit intimidated by the thousands of their peers and  the resident and visiting VIPs in attendance.

Madame Butterfly

Madame Butterfly

I left wanting to write an open letter to the leadership at China’s top companies to tell them that they are fishing in the wrong waters for talent–they usually interview at schools with prestigious names–and that they should drop more than one line in the provincial pond at 广外 “Guangwai” University. No other school, out of the dozens I have visited, has been as rife with risk-taking enthusiasm, project management skills and enviable language and cultural strength. This campus would be first on my list of places to catch self-starters who have the the traits I would seek  in an employee: motivation, hunger and the ability to putin to practice, and into in cultural context what they have, and will, learn.

This is not a post about me, but you have to know that I have some authority, albeit limited,  to pour out praise: I have a room full of trophies from my years as a debater and interpreter of drama in High School and in College on a Presidential debate scholarship; I have taught college dramatic literature classes;  I have written and produced two plays;  I have founded three theater companies two of which are still in production; I have acted on stage in in film in over thirty professional productions and have been a stage director for everything from dinner fare to modern opera with the San Antonio Symphony, once winning me a grant from the Texas Commission on the Arts and Humanities that allowed me to study and socialize for a month with  directors like Morton DeCosta (Broadway and film director of Music Man and Mame), Douglas Turner Ward (Director of the Negro Ensemble Company and Ceremonies in Dark Old Men), Joseph Chaiken (author of On Becoming an Actor and director of the Open Theater), Peter Weir (Dead Poets Society..)…

The students were infinite in faculty, noble, brave and wonderfully advanced in linguistic and dramatic skills considering their level of training. I am proud and humbled to have been a part of a great work that many, like me, will long remember….

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