Saturday, September 23, 2006

Please look after this bear.

When I want to go off campus, I hail a cab and hand the driver a note in Chinese, telling my destination. I get the graduate assistants to write these out for me. It's a good system, but I feel really stupid, handing people notes I can't read. I think of Paddington Bear, a little brown teddy who was found in Paddington station with a note attached, "Please look after this bear."
I like to be in control, and in this place it is impossible. Minor shopping trips for items like staples or a dustpan are challenges. I have to rely on observation and prayer. Don't think I could manage here without faith. I have to depend on someone. I have a different attitude toward statements and symbols of faith. Even familiar hymns that I've heard a hundred times make me weepy. I happened upon this Lord of the Dance site the other day, and I started to bawl.

Below: A small market in the campus shopping area. None of its staff speak English

What's fair?

Americans can be objects of derision. We don't speak Chinese, or if we do, we speak it poorly. We are very easy to cheat, for we do not bargain.
In certain settings-- small stores and fabric shops-- bargaining is expected. But Americans usually don't. So when they see us coming, Chinese merchants know they're going to make a huge profit. I, however, have figured out how to bargain. I use a calculator. I get them to enter an initial price. I reduce it by 50%; the merchant makes a counter offer, and we eventually wind up somewhere in the middle. I usually get them to knock 25% or so off the initial price.
Other day, I went shopping with my colleague's sister. People keep offering to take me shopping. They seem to think I'm helpless. The sister seemed not to be bargaining. I began to feel she was representing the merchants' interests more than mine. So, using the calculator technique, I bargained. Everyone seemed surprised. And the merchants reduced the prices. But they seemed furious. I guess they'd counted on making out like bandits.
I learned to bargain from my Austrian Jewish grandmother. And I've always thought it's proper to do where it's the custom. On the other hand, these people seemed poor. Undoubtedly, they needed the money much more I. Mostly, I bargained to show I wasn't an idiot. Because of the lopsided exchange rate, there is little an American cannot afford here?. Was I wrong to bargain?
Above: A market in downtown Weihai

Friday, September 22, 2006

Last evening, I was visited by the two the younger teachers from Tennessee. They were concerned with Internet access, especially email sites and a few others such as blogspot. Because it's only certain sites that are a problem, they thought the problem might be more than heavy traffic They asked me what I thought could be done. I told them what I thought: nothing. If "information control" is actually occurring, which it may be, no one is going to admit it. Raising question would make things worse, and our hosts might feel we were unappreciative and had bad manners if we did. We represent our universities. Our Chinese hosts are simply doing things the way they do things, and in their own way, they are extremely gracious. We are not in America.
My young colleagues were profoundly discouraged. Truth is, I get discouraged to. This blog is one of my lifelines to America.
But now, from the other side of the world, there's a solution. My good friend Dennis Cope has offered to manage the blog. I'm sending him material; he is doing the postings. Bless you, Dennis.

Above: Dennis, his wife Marie, and of course their all-important dog, Maddy.

How it begins

Chinese students are very diffident and shy. They're hard to engage in dialogue. And of course, my idea of teaching isn't listening to myself. I wondered how the students get to be this way.

Yesterday, I observed a third grade classroom. Sixty kids, crammed into a smallish classroom, like little sardines. The teacher wrote new characters on the board, showed them flashcards, asked questions, had them chant in unison, and read aloud separately. She even used Powerpoint. And she held their attention. It was very impressive. Meanwhile, the kids sat up straight on tiny stools. They all faced the teacher attentively. When called on, they sprang to their feet; otherwise they sat almost motionless. No one brushed against a classmate. No one asked to use the restroom. It seemed odd that third graders would sit that still for over an hour, especially when they were that close together.

Later the colleague who had brought me to the school explained what was going on. From age four on, children are taught how to conduct themselves in a classroom, and this includes "training" in how to sit in a classroom. Their hands and feet may only be placed in certain positions The teacher gives hand signals when she wants them to take out books, put them away, or begin writing. Those who resist are isolated, shamed, and severely scolded. The parents support the teachers. It seems rather military, but the kids get a lot of routine work done.

The child in the picture above is about to start school

Thanks to the generosity of my friend Dennis Cope, we have pictures once more on this blog.

I do

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Whose Responsibility?

At a Chinese university, all students work hard. The system does not tolerate slacking off. From elementary school on, students have been in class 8 hours a day and doing 5 or 6 hours of homework. The Chinese are a nation of "Nerds."

When I saw how hard everyone worked, I inquired if people were kicked out if they did not study. I was told this was rare. If someone fails a class-- also rare-- they repeat it. Nearly everyone enrolled in university completes the program. Dropping out is rared.

In China, teachers are very respected-- by students, parents, and everyone else. The title, "Lao-she"-- teacher-- is one of deep respect. I knew this, but even if I hadn't, I'd have known from how students say it.

A powerful work ethic surrounds academic culture here. I saw this last summer when I taught middle school and did teacher training. When students don't learn, whether in elementary school, middle school, or university, the Chinese do NOT begin by blaming teachers. They say students should study harder. Everyone-- public officials, administrators, parents, students themselves-- believes that learning takes effort, and that students, to be successful, must work hard. While the middle schools teachers are pressured to prepare students for exams, it is understood that the students' own efforts are paramount. Discipline problems, as they exist in our schools do not occur here, though middle school students will sometimes act out by throwing paper on the floor or leaving their shirts tucked out.

In this academic environment, students absorb a great deal of information. However, they are not especially creative, nor are they good critical thinkers. It is a struggle to get them to engage in dialogue.

As we reform our schools, I would not like to see us copy the Chinese system exactly. Nevertheless... we have a great deal to learn from the Chinese.


Last summer in Nanjing, I posted to this blog with few problems. Almost always, I could send pictures. Here, I attempt to post daily but do not always get through. In part, the problem is infrastructure. The server is not designed for a campus community of 16,000 faculty and students. But there are differences between the settings. Its strong central government notwithstanding, Chin is not monolithic. A provincial university is more tightly monitored than a small language school in a major city.

When I don't post, it's because I can't.


In my oral communications classes, I teach graduate students and upperclassmen from all over the university. The course is required for all non-English majors. At the first class, I had them stand up, say who they were, where they were from, and what they were majoring in. Most are studying subjects with which we are familiar-- mathematics, marine biology, and computer science. But several students are in programs not offered at ETSU: Marxist education and information control, for example.

Teaching Here

My friend and colleague, Dr. Leslie Perry, suggested I do an entry about teaching here. I will do several. I am teaching advanced writing to 120 English majors who are preparing to write the thesis, which is required of all students. In addition, I am teaching oral communication to 130 graduate students drawn from all parts of the university. Yes, you added right. I have 250 students. Fortunately, the oral communication course does not involve any paperwork.

The students have learned their English out of a book. They are overdependent on Chinese English pocket dictionaries. Here's how their work is apt to sound:

I found milk pouch in which happy fat cow drowning with smiling baby cow, the print wholesome and beautiful, pictures show product for all seeing if not literate. Also nutriments across package.

It's hard to know where to start. I'm discussing general problems like run-ons and encouraging people to come to my office. To help them recognize what a run-on sentence is, I've had them write the most ridiculous run-on sentences they could produce. At first, they had trouble believing I wanted them to do this-- having been raised in an authoritarian society, they're used to observing rules, not breaking them But after awhile, they began to enjoy the activity, and I'm pretty sure they now understand what a run-on is.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Freshman Military Training

In the early Fall, all the university student in China are required to undergo full-time military training. So too are beginning students in what they call "upper middle school," an institution students attend in their mid-teens.

Annual military training for students was instituted shortly after what the Chinese call the Tiananmen Square "incident." I think it's supposed to instill patriotism. It involves everyone's putting on camouflage and marching for ten hours each day in the hot sun, while waving the Chinese army flag. Periodically, the kids are allowed to rest and sing military songs. At such times, they appear to be having fun-- as if they're at scout camp. But at other times, they look really tired and complain of exhaustion. The military training dominates the campus. It's difficult to ignore 3,000 Freshman who are drilling with officers from the army.

No one stopped me from using my camera, and I took some great pictures, which I'd love to show you. But I still can't post pictures, and this blog spot goes down periodically. The computers belonging to all foreign teachers were "down" yesterday, although those of the office personnel worked fine. We're all apt to get slightly paranoid when things like this happen.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Pictures on the blog

For several days, it's been difficult to get on the blog site, and I have not been able to post pictures. It's probably because of increased traffic on the Internet. However, in this climate, you cannot rule out other reasons. It's like living in the Twilight Zone.

It is extremely frustrating. I began this blog in part so I could send pictures back to the States without clogging anyone's mailbox. Sharing pictures is part of sharing the experience. Being limited in this way makes me feel much isolated. I am aware that a fair number of people read this blog and look at the photos. I appreciate your interest.

I will continue posting text. Let's hope the other problems-- whatever their origin-- clear up quickly.

What does tomorrow mean? It is 5:30 pm here, but at home it’s 5:00 in the morning. I leave Weihai tomorrow and make a stop in Beijing. ...