Saturday, July 19, 2008

Intense or unrestrained excitement.

In a recent entry, I mentioned a soft-spoken female student whose T-shirt displayed the word 'orgasm' several times. I imagined she was using English for unbridled self-expression.

Wrong, said Leo, a former student of mine from Weihai in a comment on this blog. He pointed out that 'orgasm' can mean 'intense or unrestrained excitement.' That's the definition given on the electronic dictionaries. Probably that was the young lady's understanding of the word. He doubted she was aware of the sexual overtones. Studious Chinese young ladies are restrained about such things.

I dislike the electronic dictionaries English Language Learners carry because the definintions are very abbreviated. In China, most students have them. People become over-reliant on these devices and make all kinds of context mistakes. It's like using a thesaurus. I sometimes joke that students can improve their English by throwing these gadgets out the window.

Studying a foreign language is tricky, though, and we do like our crutches. Just now, when I was looking for a picture of this device, I started looking for one that gave English, pinyin (Romanized Chinese) and Chinese characters. Maybe I'll find one in my stocking this Christmas...


At age 48, I began my doctoral studies in literacy and linguistics. Not everyone on the UC faculty thought graduate studies could be effectively completed part-time. It was suggested I was occupying space better given to a student attending full time. People told me I'd never finish and that even if I did, I wouldn't get an academic job, and certainly never get tenure.

I came home to the news that the allegedly impossible had occurred. For weeks, I'd been checking out the Tennessee Board of Regents website, but nothing was posted there. Then today, Joe brought home our church newsletter which congratulated me and several other people on achieving this milestone. At first, I wouldn't believe the news was official. Academics learn to cross check everything and to document very precisely. It becomes a habit.

To university faculty, tenure is unbelievably important. Not that it changes your duties any, but it alters your possibilities. You have academic freedom. No longer does it matter whether people like you or not.

So jet lagged as I am, I dragged myself into the office seeking the official letter. There was none. Perhaps it had gone out late.
Suddenly, I thought of checking the ETSU website, where the announcement was listed under personnel news. It wasn't exactly buried, but you had to know where to look. It's been posted since July 8th; odd that I didn't look there 'til now. Weird I found out from my church's newsletter. As if God wanted to tell me first.

I'm too tired from jet lag and years of hard work to fully experience joy. It's a good time to listen to Handel's Hallelujah chorus. Here's a version I found on the web:

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Contexts of English

Earlier I said one rarely sees graffiti here, and it's generally true. But I saw a couple of examples this morning when we went for a walk. One was painted over --paint is one way to deal with grafitti. But a second occurrence was more puzzling. Opposite a university gate, a place of high visibility, was some work in colorful spray paint. It was done artistically, and probably by more than one person on more than one day. I thought it was a mural at first. Then, I noted that carefully embedded in its center was the English word SHIT. The artists would have known what it meant. But did they understand its connotation? Given the prudery of Chinese society, I wondered why no one removed it-- to evidence China's new openness, perhaps? Or was the anti-graffiti crew on vacation?
English is often displayed in curious ways here. The other day, a very polite young lady came to her Olympic training in a shirt with this statement:

What makes me special...?




I would be very surprised if that same student wore a shirt with that slogan in Chinese. English is viewed as different and exotic here, and using our language, the young people say things they cannot say in their own.


Graffiti is virtually absent from Chinese cities. I assume it is severely punished. I have seen only one instance of grafitti-- on a wall of the Tibetan monastery in Fragrant Hill park. Situated on a hill overlooking Beijing, the park contains many ancient monuments along with Chairman Mao's Villa. Among these, the monastery is the only building which has not been restored, and a piece of graffiti remains on one wall.

There is something very human about the wish to post what we write. Blogging is one such expression. Another is the monolith in the monastary courtyard, which gives the same message in four ancient languages of Asia. According to our guide, it welcomes all who seek God.

Preparing for Reentry

We leave for the States tomorrow. I don't know how much I'll blog when I get back-- in the past I have found there is less to blog about when I'm in the US, though I like to write about contacts with foreigners on campus in this blog which focuses on my contacts with China.
Though China is not noted for the freedom of its press, I have felt pretty free to write whatever I liked, if I did it tactfully. Being an outsider affords us a certain freedom. When I arrive home, things are different. I am not an outsider in the US, especially not at the university where I teach. I may write freely about my society and government, but about the inane bureacracy of my own institution, its silly committee meetings, its tempests in teapots, I have to be circumspect. And those are the things I like to write about, which is why I am often silent when in America.

I anticipate reentry, the inverted culture shock one experiences on re-encountering home. Things change in our absence, and we ourselves change through contact with a foreign language, people and culture. I will miss the contact with Chinese students in these very hopeful times. I will miss my friends. I will miss CHINESE, this elusive, difficult language which I am beginning to learn.

In a few minutes, we will have our final "field trip"-- a look at the Olympic stadium. There will be lunch with friends tomorrow, packing, and the surreptitious discarding of presents which will not fit in our luggage. There may be time for another entry or two before our departure.

Thanks for reading. Keep in touch.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

American cooking?

It was a hot day. After a morning of viewing monuments, our guide asked if we would like lunch. I was exhausted and overheated. "Do you ever serve cold food, here?" I asked. Chinese food is normally piping hot.

Cold food?

The Chinese don't eat it. They think it's bad for a person. Our guide suggested we eat American food. So we found an "American" restaurant where the food was excellent and featured such delights as vegetables wrapped in seaweed and pizza topped with seafood and corn. Not my idea of American cooking, but American Chinese restaurants must look strange to Chinese guests visiting us.

Finding Building 5 AKA 第五教学楼

On the phone, Zhan Fangmei told us her class would be held in Building 5. Anyone on campus could tell us where it was if we said it in Chinese; however, my Chinese is not always unreliable. Joe, who is studying, doesn't trust himself to speak yet.
Via the Internet, Fangmei sent me the Pinyin-- the Romanized version of the Chinese: di wu jiao xue lou. Problem is, I don't always get the tones right, so I may not be understood. So I also asked Fangmei to send me the characters so I could show the address to people on campus:


Had I been at home, I would simply have printed out the message, and anyone who read Chinese could have helped me. But I don't have a printer here. So I had to copy the address by hand. An artistic person would have no trouble. I, however, am not artistic. My Chinese instruction has stressed oral communication; but I know a bit about writing characters. There's a particular in which one must make the marks in order to get the right shape.

So... I copied. My Chinese writing is large, painful, and childlike. But it WAS understood, and we got where we needed to go.

Above: Joe in front of Building 5.

One World, One Dream

While visiting The North China University of Technology, I learned that my former student and colleague, Mrs. Zhan Fengmei, was helping to conduct oral English training for Olympic Volunteers. These volunteers-- hundreds of them-- are being taught how to utilize English in communication with foreigners.

Joe and I got involved. We attended Mrs. Zhan's class, organized role plays, and discussed American culture. It was heartening to talk with these idealistic young people who dream of a better China, a better world. Not all these students enjoy speaking English, but their enthusiasm for the Olympics carried a long way. We ourselves will be back in the States when the games open, but it was wonderful to make even a small contribution.

Practically speaking, English is functioning as the world's international language, though some would prefer Esperanto. Even so, I do not think English speakers like me are excused from learning the languages of others, and I continue to work away at Chinese.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Filial Piety

Filial piety-- the duty to care for one's elders-- is a very strong value in China. Confucius considered it one of the highest moral values. Support of aging parents is mandated by law here. There are no governmental programs to assist the elderly. The expectation that one must care for aging parents is drummed into young people's heads here from the time they are small.

At first, I imagined the young people here actually WANTED to build their lives around their aging parents. Perhaps it was a cultural difference, I reasoned; in contrast to America where our children want to lead their own lives. People will say things to an outsider they won't admit to other Chinese. Many of the young people I talk to find care of their elders burdensome-- especially so in one child families where there are no siblings to share the load. Some young people smolder with resentment over the expectation that they care for their aging parents. But in today's China, there is no way out.
Elderly Chinese do not have the option of working and are thus very dependent on their children. Men must retire at 55 and women at 50, though exceptions are made in some fields, and some aging people find opportunities to work. Once, when I taught at a Chinese university, an official questioned whether a person of such advanced age as myself could possibly handle the workload
Above: An aging subsistence farmer.

Here's a link to an excellent article on this subject Bo Howell posted on his blog.

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. ...