August 10, 2010 Hangzhou 4:45pm
Learning from Students
Random (or not so) People
Learning from Students
I guess its about time for another update. As I haven’t finished writing about a lot of old stories from last year, this will combine stories from my time in China, not necessarily in chronological order, but just ones that I found interesting.
As any teacher knows, I have lots of interesting experiences with students. Here are a few that stood out enough for me to remember them, although I’m sure there are others that I forgot.
In teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) to teenagers, one of the key issues is finding something to motivate them to use English. It’s a challenge to get teenagers of any culture motivated, but even much more so ones in a culture where they go to classes 7 days a week for 10 hours a day with 3 to 4 hours of homework every night, and if they’re lucky maybe a 2 week long summer holiday. So I figured that I would get them to roleplay a conversation between their parents or teachers where they could take out all of their frustration and they would get really excited to complain about how trying their lives are. To begin the class I started trying to elicit some things that made them angry. I spent an hour suggesting ideas and trying to pull anything out of them that I could, but there was no anger or emotion. Just passive acceptance of their fate. I asked them what they were angry about, and they said nothing. They agree that their lives are really rough, but they just accept that that’s the way it is and there’s nothing they can do but grin and bear it. I couldn’t get any anger out of them. I was quite astonished, but I guess this is a good example of cultural differences. If people’s lives are terrible in the West due to the ‘system’, what do we do? Get angry, complain, and go try to change the system, possibly through democracy. Here what do they do? Nothing. They can’t. They have no outlet or resources to enact change on a system they think is flawed. So they just bury emotion and accept it. It was sad, and I thought a great analogy to the culture in general. I then had my students write a paper on what they would want to change in their lives. Almost everyone of them mentioned they wanted to change the education system and that it was an endless wheel of tests and study, with no end result or net gain. Sure makes you wonder about the future here.
On a lighter note, younger students (6-10) can be much more fun and light hearted. I asked a low level student one day “How are you?”. He replied “I’m not good”. When I asked him why, he responded by saying “My Mom is a…” and then standing up turning around and pointing to his butt. I think I lost it laughing. Another low level student, while I was passing out a test, said “Teacher, my” and pointed at her chest “is” and she made a motion with her hand pounding her chest. I love the rare instances where I see intelligent children use the few words they know and lots of body language to communicate things they don’t know the words for. It’s also quite cute.
I had a 17 year old student who was headed to high school in the US, and he had lots of unorthodox ideas about China. He told me Chinese people drink too much, and that the air is much better now than a few years ago, when it was almost unbreathable. He said Americans and Japanese work hard very hard compared to Chinese and they have a mentality where they try to improve things and be creative, whereas Chinese just go to work and come home apathetic toward the status quo. He said they have no motivation, just as long as they have a decent salary to provide for their family, that’s all they want. A general lack of ambition. He though Americans were quite blunt, but he said when friend went to America he was shocked when they asked him for his ID to buy cigarettes and they told him he was too young (17). Apparently even if there is a law here, its not enforced at all. It’s the same with beer, there is no drinking age really, so even my 13-year-old students said they have drank beer.
When I taught adult students in Tianjin, often they would want to take me out to dinner after class. This provided not only free food, but a precious glimpse into Chinese culture. One student told me that the Chinese government tells people that Chinese are friendly but Americans are cold and unfriendly. When I asked him what he thought after having met an American, he said he thought Americans were very friendly. Then he asked me not to look down on Chinese people. This wasn’t because he thought I personally looked down on them, but because he was taught that Westerners look down on Chinese people, so he asked me not to. Somehow it came up and another student realized some of the problems of the one child policy – i.e. they wont be able to support their parents/grandparents. This is a similar thing to the Baby Boomer issue with Social Security in the States – just multiply by a few hundred million. Also, I took a poll of one class of adult students and most students thought the recent (~50 years old) new simplified characters were better than the older traditional ones that are still used in Hong Kong and Taiwan and that mainland China shouldn’t go back. They liked the older ones, but said they were more aesthetic than useful. Even the simplified take countless hours of mindless repetition to memorize how to write them, and its not infrequent for my Chinese friends to forget how to write a less commonly used character. My students are easily as much of an insight into Chinese thought and culture as my Chinese friends, sometimes more so. A valuable resource – the adage that the teacher learns more from the students than the student do from the teacher is certainly true in my case here.
Random (or not so) People
In the winter in Tianjin, the lake near our school freezes over so we went ice-skating on it. It was my first outdoor ice-skating experience. Oddly enough there was a decent size group playing a pickup hockey game so I went to join them. I happened (or intentionally) to be wearing a Texas A&M beanie (hat) and a man approached me and told me that his son went to A&M! He was some kind of engineering graduate student, but he recognized the logo on my hat. Small world huh? That was the closest that I came to meeting another Aggie in Tianjin. But in Hangzhou I did one better. On one of my extremely rare Sundays off, I went to the local International Fellowship. After the service a lady came up to me and said “I saw your ring, are you an Aggie?” So I went to lunch with her and her family, although they live almost 2 hours from me and I haven’t been able to keep in touch with them since. There really are Aggies everywhere!
Also, one of the teachers that arrived in Tianjin just as I was leaving was from Houston, somewhere near Bellaire area. I also met one of the summer teachers at another EF school in Tianjin that was from the States. Somehow we got to talking and turns out he and I were both at the A&M Sweet Sixteen basketball game in San Antonio. Really random.
On to some more recent news. Last weekend I did an open water swimming race with some Chinese friends I met at the pool. As soon as they realized that I actually knew how to swim well, they invited me to this race. I was very unsure what to expect, but it was actually quite legit with sponsorship by Red Bull, parachute and water skiing performers, and naturally in China, close to 1000 participants. There were two categories, a non-competitive and competitive race. The non-competitive participants had to wear an attached ‘floatie’ device to ensure safety. It looked exactly like the little bright orange blow up ‘floatie’s that little kids where to the pool who are too young to swim. I was quite thankful I wasn’t in that group. The competitive race was quite normal compared to the triathlons I have done – a triangle swim 1500 meters (1 mile) long. I didn’t realize until afterwards that they were giving away cash prizes (my friends neglected to inform me) and I just missed out on 1000 rmb by 3 places. I came in somewhere around 15th – I say somewhere because there was no chip timing system, clocks, watches, or even a dude with a stopwatch. I asked all my Chinese friends what their time was, and none of them knew. How did they know who won you ask? Well a guy just stood on the edge of the river and when the first guy came out of the water he handed him a paper that said 1st – and this process continued through 12 places. Then these papers were redeemed for a trophy and the cash prize. A bit dubious, but it worked without any major hitches as far as I could tell. I was quite out of shape, but judging by how far ahead the winners were – I could have won the thing if I was in as good of shape as my last triathlon. Anyway, the kicker was that I was the only foreigner (i.e. non-Chinese) out of several thousand racers and spectators, so as soon as I exited the water, a tv camera and microphone were shoved in my face along with rapidfire questions in Chinese. So I can now say I have done my first television interview in Chinese! I understood about 90%, and when I didn’t understand one question, he translated to English for me. I know what your’e thinking, where is a copy of this fabulous interview? I have no idea. I don’t have Chinese tv at my house, and I was working when it was airing anyway. Perhaps someday they will contact me and I’ll be sure to pass it along.
That’s all for now folks. More to come……sometime.